The sunlight pouring into the boys' bedroom shot through Adam's eyes and stabbed his throbbing brain. He groaned and pulled the sheet up over his face.
"We need a curtain," he moaned.
Hoss, who was already up and pulling on his trousers, glared at him. "We need separate rooms so you don't wake us up in the middle of the night with your pukin'," he retorted.
"You don't have to worry about me doing that again," Adam said. He sat up and dropped his head into his hands. "Uhhhhhhh. I've never felt so awful in my life." His throat burned from all the stomach acid it had accommodated last night, and Adam's entire midsection ached from repeated heaving. His head felt like it was twice its normal size, and the scent of frying bacon wafting in from the kitchen made his stomach roll. Adam bit his lip and breathed deeply, warding off the nausea. Hoss looked over at his pale, sweaty brother and shook his head.
"You really done it this time, Adam," the eight-year-old observed.
"Yeah, I sure have," Adam agreed. "Tell Ma and Pa I won't be out for breakfast, ok?" He closed his eyes and lay back down.
"They ain't gonna like that," Hoss muttered as he left the room.
Hoss was right. No more than thirty seconds later, Ben burst into the room. Little Joe, who had just woken up, beamed at him.
"Pa!" the little boy crowed, pleased to pieces to see his father.
The stern expression Ben had entered the room with melted, and he crossed the room to pick up his youngest son. Joe giggled and buried his face in the crook of Ben's shoulder. Ben smiled and cuddled the toddler for a moment before turning to Adam.
"Get up, Adam," he said, the gruffness returning to his voice.
"Pa, if it's all the same to you, I'd just as soon skip breakfast," Adam replied.
Ben raised an eyebrow and set Little Joe down. He whispered something in the boy's ear, and Joe laughed and scampered out of the room. Ben strode to Adam's bedside.
"I don't care if you eat anything, but you will come out to the dining room and sit with the family, young man."
Knowing this was a battle he would not win, Adam flung off his sheet and rose shakily to his feet. The room spun, and Adam clutched the headboard of his bed until it slowed to a stop. Taking a deep breath, he placed one foot in front of the other and gingerly made his way to the door.
He stopped and turned to his father.
"Put some clothes on first."
Adam glanced down and shot crimson as he realized he was still stark naked. While his father's eyes danced with newfound amusement, Adam shuffled to his chest of drawers and pulled out shorts, socks, trousers, and a shirt. Too dizzy to stand any longer, he dropped onto the edge of his bed to sit down while he pulled on his clothes. Dressed at last, he made his slow way toward the bedroom door. Ben laid a hand gently on his shoulder as Adam trudged down the hallway, his head down.
He could feel everyone's eyes on him as he sank into his seat at the breakfast table, and he knew what he had to do next. He raised his head and caught each family member's gaze in turn.
"I'm really sorry for all the trouble I caused last night," he mumbled. "It won't happen again."
"Thank you, Adam," Ben answered for the family. "Now eat up. We're heading out to the Marquettes' right after breakfast."
The only thing Adam wanted to do less than eat up was to ride an hour or more out to the Silver Dollar Ranch to speak with Ross's father. As it turned out, he was spared from both. Marie laid a hand on Ben's arm just as he was about to place a heaping scoop of scrambled eggs on Adam's plate. She shook her head at her husband and slipped Adam a single slice of toast with butter instead.
"Let's see how this settles first," she said with a smile at Adam. Then she turned to Ben. "No point wasting food if he can't keep it down yet."
Ben nodded at her logic and filled Adam's coffee cup.
As Adam sat nibbling unenthusiastically on his toast and sipping his coffee, the family heard a knock at the door. The toast and coffee spun in Adam's stomach as he realized who was most likely waiting on the other side. Ben gave Adam a hard look and rose to answer it. Sure enough, Mr. Marquette stepped into the house.
"Morning, Jasper," Ben said, shaking his hand.
"Mornin', Ben," Mr. Marquette replied. "Long night?"
"Not as long as yours, from what I've heard. Would you like some coffee?"
Adam knew he shouldn't interrupt, but concern for his best friend overpowered his manners. He sprang from his seat and dashed over to Mr. Marquette. The sudden motion made him dizzy again, and he had to clutch his father's arm for a moment until he was sure he was steady.
"Mr. Marquette, is Ross ok?" he asked.
The thin man sighed. "Yeah, he's all right, Adam. Been pukin' his guts out all night, but Doc says that ankle's just sprained. It'll heal fine, but he won't be any good for the cattle drive in a couple weeks."
"That's what I was afraid of," Ben grumbled. "But Adam and I have already talked about this, Jasper, and I'm going to hire you an extra hand for your drive. The money's gonna come out of Adam's share from our drive."
"You don't have to do that, Ben."
"Yes, I do. You're a good neighbor and a better friend. I'll not have Adam's… indiscretion costing you."
"No, Ben, you don't understand. Ross told me the whole story. Said Adam didn't want to drink the whiskey they found, but Ross shamed him into it. This was my boy's fault, and the money for the extra hand will come out of his share, not Adam's."
Ben turned to Adam. "Son, is this true?"
Adam hated to betray his best friend, but he knew things would go easier on both of them if he told the whole truth. "He may have teased me a little," he mumbled. "But, Pa, those wings were my idea. He wouldn't have known about da Vinci if not for me."
Ben studied his son for a moment and then turned to Mr. Marquette.
"Jasper, how much did the doctor's visit cost you?"
"Ten dollars seein' as how he had to ride all the way in from Carson City in the middle of the night."
Ben nodded. "Adam, since Ross wouldn't have taken that flying leap without your assistance, you'll pay Mr. Marquette ten dollars out of your cattle drive money, you understand?"
"Yes, sir." Adam was disappointed to lose so much, but ten dollars was better than the fifty he'd expected to lose if he'd had to pay for a hand for the Marquettes' cattle drive. He'd have to put off buying that guitar, but if he picked up some extra chores, he might still be able to buy the instrument by Christmas.
"And starting tomorrow, once you finish your chores here, you'll ride out to the Marquettes' every day to do Ross's chores until he's back on his feet."
"Good. Now apologize to Mr. Marquette and then go sit down before you fall down."
Adam did. Back in his seat, he leaned forward and rested his head on the table. Ben led Mr. Marquette over to the table, pulled up an extra chair for him, and poured him a cup of coffee. Mr. Marquette nodded enthusiastically when Marie offered him some bacon and eggs; since Adam hadn't eaten anything but half a slice of toast, there was plenty of food to share.
Ben leaned back in his seat and stirred milk into his third cup of coffee. "I have to ask, Jasper," he said. "Why the hayloft?"
Mr. Marquette barked a laugh. "Ben, I'm so sorry. Sheriff gave it to me for helping him catch that horse thief back in the spring. Cora doesn't like me having liquor in the house, so I tucked it up there, thinkin' I'd give it to my brother. But you know how busy ranchin' gets in the spring and summer, and I completely forgot I had it."
Ben threw back his head and laughed. Adam was relieved to hear his father's good humor returning; he just wished Ben wasn't so loud about it. His head still on the table, Adam clapped his hands over his ears.
"Well, next time you have a bottle of fine whiskey you don't know what to do with, you just let me know," Ben said. "I'll help you take care of it." He glanced over at his hungover fourteen-year-old. "In moderation," he added. He jabbed his index finger into Adam's ribs to make him sit up.
When Mr. Marquette left and the boys had at last been excused from the table, Adam pulled on his boots. He knew Ben wouldn't let him off the hook for his chores, so better to get them over with. Horse manure didn't usually bother him, but as soon as he stepped into the barn to muck out the stalls and put down fresh hay, his stomach contracted, and he retched into the filthy straw at Beauty's feet. The mare glared at him.
"Sorry, girl," Adam gasped, patting her flank.
It took him twice as long as usual to clean out the stalls because he had to keep sitting down to stop his head spinning. When at long last he finished and staggered back to the house, Marie met him on the porch with a glass of water.
"Everything hurts, Ma," he moaned as he dropped into a rocking chair. "Sorry," he added quickly. He knew he had no right to complain. Squinting against the blinding sunlight, he looked up at the hitching post and saw his father's tall black stallion was no longer there. "Where's Pa?"
"Oh, he rode out with some hands to do a last round up of the cattle in the high country."
Horror rose like a hard lump in Adam's throat. "Oh no! I was supposed to go with him! He's gonna be so angry with me…" He dropped his face into his hands.
Marie smiled and laid a hand on Adam's shoulder. "Your father thought that, given your current state, you might be more of a burden than a help today," she said. Adam shuddered and fought back tears; he just couldn't quit messing things up. Marie gave his shoulder a little squeeze. "He suggested that perhaps you'd be better off spending the day in bed but asked me to remind you that if this ever happens again he will – what were his words? – skin you alive and leave your sorry carcass for the buzzards, I believe he said."
Adam smiled. Ben had forgiven him. He handed his empty water glass to Marie, thanked her, and plodded to his bedroom where he stayed upright just long enough to pull off his boots before pitching over onto his bed and falling asleep.
Adam slept until nearly suppertime when he awoke to the reassuring pressure of his father's wide hand rubbing his back. He rolled over and blinked his eyes open.
"How you feeling, son?" Ben asked, giving Adam a little smile.
Adam took a brief inventory and discovered that while all of his joints still ached from dehydration, his head had stopped pounding, and the thought of supper didn't repulse him. "Better, Pa. Thanks for lettin' me sleep today. I know I didn't deserve it."
"No, you didn't," Ben agreed. "But we wouldn't have been any further ahead if I'd dragged you along today. Besides, Hoss was thrilled when I asked him to come along."
Adam let out a small chuckle. Hoss was desperate to start getting involved in the business of the Ponderosa, and he took every opportunity to let everyone know it.
"I won't do this ever again, Pa, I swear."
Ben laid his hand on Adam's forehead and stroked the boy's brow with his thumb. It was a comforting gesture he'd done all of Adam's life, and Adam nearly fell right back to sleep. "I know you won't, son. You've certainly learned your lesson. I just hope you understand what a good friend you have in Ross. He didn't have to own up like he did."
"I know it. I'm gonna thank him tomorrow when I go over to do his chores. Maybe I'll take him a couple of my books to give him something to do while he's laid up."
Ben grinned. "That's a good idea. Now how about a little supper? Hop Sing made some chicken soup that should settle all right in an upset stomach."
Adam smiled and followed his father to the dining room.
The chicken soup did settle well, and by the time the family settled in the living room after supper, Adam was feeling much more like himself. After Hoss and Little Joe went to bed, however, Ben reached for his brandy bottle and poured himself his usual nightcap. Adam pulled his shirt collar over his face to block the cloying odor and found himself fighting down nausea again.
"I think I'm gonna go to bed, too," he announced. "Got a big day tomorrow what with Ross's chores and all." He bid the briefest of goodnights to his parents and tore off down the hall to his bedroom. Safe from the scent of Ben's brandy, Adam took several deep cleansing breaths and got undressed. Hop Sing was still soaking his soiled nightshirts, so Adam climbed under his sheet in just his undershorts. As he nuzzled into his pillow, the image of Ross leaping from the hayloft door drifted through his mind, and he had to stuff his fist in his mouth to keep from laughing out loud and waking his brothers.
"Boy are we stupid," he snickered as he closed his eyes and sleep overtook him.