A Heart of Stone
Ben Cartwright came home late.
He was hot and sweaty, exasperated, and just about at the end of his tether. It had been one long hard day. A mine had opened recently, close enough to the settlement and offering ridiculously high wages, and it had drawn even some of his seasoned hands away. They were men used to the wide open spaces who would hate being in the dark and underground, but at the prices the Corabelle was paying, even a few short abortive weeks would be enough to set a man up for the winter.
The few short weeks he needed them desperately for the autumn cattle drive.
The rancher scowled as he removed his gloves and tossed them on the credenza. He had Adam and Hoss, of course. They were his good right hands. So far he had not allowed Joseph to go. The thirteen-year-old was on the cusp of being a man, but he was excitable and unpredictable and that was the one thing he did not need when it came to driving several thousand cattle to a fort in another territory. This army contract would see them through the winter.
It had to go off without a hitch.
As Ben turned to enter the great room, ready for his chair and a glass of brandy, he realized he wasn't alone. Someone shifted and rose from the blue chair to the right of the hearth. It wasn't Adam as he suspected but Hoss, who came his way.
"Welcome home, Pa," his son said.
"Thank you. What are you doing up? It's late. I would have thought you'd be in bed by now."
"I gotta admit I thought about it," his big teenage son said. "I got a lot to do tomorrow. So does Adam. But we wanted to talk to you…."
"When Little Joe wasn't around," came a voice from near the dining table.
Ben looked from Hoss to Adam, who was emerging from the shadows. Both of them. Up late and wanting to talk about their little brother. This must be serious.
The older man sighed.
He was too tired for 'serious'.
Ben moved to his chair and dropped into it. "What has Joseph done now?"
"Pa. It ain't that," Hoss said as he took a place on the settee across from him. "Little Joe ain't done nothin' wrong."
"Yet," Adam added as he handed him a brandy. Apparently that was what his oldest had been doing by the table - getting him a drink. "I thought you might need it," he added with a grin.
The older man took a sip. "So what is it your brother hasn't done - but might do?"
"Pa, Little Joe, he's…. Well, he's just a kid, but he's…." Hoss started.
"He's getting to be a big kid," Adam finished for him and then added with a wry grin, "It's hard to believe, but in a few years Joe will be a man."
It was hard to believe. Joseph had been four when his mother died. It seemed like yesterday.
"And is there a problem with your little brother becoming a man…in a few years?"
Hoss and Adam were looking at each other.
"What aren't you telling me?" he demanded.
"Now, Pa, keep your temper," twenty-five year old Adam said and then winced as if he shouldn't have. "Sorry, sir, I meant any disrespect. It's just that, well, it's hard to explain."
"Mistah Hoss and Mistah Adam need to stop beating bush. Tell father number three son in love!"
Ben didn't know which startled him most - Hop Sing popping up out of nowhere or what his Chinese housekeeper had said. He looked at his boys and then turned to the Asian man.
"Little Joe is in love?" As Hop Sing nodded, he turned back to his sons. "The boy's only thirteen. He doesn't know what love is! No doubt it's just a crush."
"Oh, it's a crush all right," Adam sighed.
Hoss' head bobbed up and down. "Yes, sir. That's what it is."
There was something they weren't telling him.
"You both had crushes at that age. Why is this any different?"
Adam ran a hand over his chin. "Have you noticed, Pa, how lately Little Joe hasn't been fighting you about going to school?"
The abrupt change of subject had his head reeling. "What does that have to do with…this?"
"You know Miss Jones is away?"
Of course, he knew. As a member of the school board he had approved her leave.
"Have you seen her replacement?"
Actually, he hadn't. He'd been away when Mrs. Drummond arrived in town and hadn't had time to make her acquaintance yet.
"No, I haven't," Ben admitted. "But I've heard very good reports of her. Is she giving your brother trouble over this crush of his?" Perhaps Joseph had been acting up in school, or maybe even skipped it to be with this girl, whoever she was.
Could it be that Mrs. Drummond was even more old-school than Miss Jones?
But no, that made no sense. As Adam said, Little Joe hadn't fought going to school. In fact, the boy had been eager to leave the house in the mornings and often late to return. Come to think of it, he'd taken extra time with his ablutions and worn his best suit today.
"Pa," his eldest said, confirming his suspicions, "Mrs. Drummond is Little Joe's crush."
The rancher adjusted his purchase on his chair. "Yes, well, we've all had crushes on our teachers at one time or another. The fact that the woman is married…."
He looked at Adam.
"Well, at least not anymore. I checked. She was widowed last year. It's why she sought a position out West."
"…her age then…."
"Missy Drummond very young," Hop Sing chimed in as he placed a tray with coffee and cake on the table before them. "See her leaving mercantile. She very young…very pretty."
He looked at Hoss.
His son shrugged as he reached for a piece of cake. "She's in her twenties, Pa."
"From what I hear, she's in her early twenties," Adam corrected.
Ben tried to recall if Mrs. Drummond had given her age on her application.
"She came highly recommended and is considered well qualified." He paused. "Has she behaved improperly toward your brother?"
"Oh, heck no, Pa. We ain't sayin' that," Hoss said, his mouth half-full. He swallowed before continuing. "It's just that, well, like we said, Little Joe's gettin' older and you know how it is when you ain't a man, but you ain't a boy anymore. You get certain…." He glanced at Adam. "…feelin's."
Adam wrinkled his nose. "Urges, you might say."
"Has your brother behaved improperly toward Mrs. Drummond then? Is that what you're telling me?"
"Not as I know," Adam said. "But Mrs. Carrington told me - "
"Mrs. Carrington? Cora's mother? How would she know?"
"She's been helping out at the schoolhouse with the smaller children. Hop Sing and I ran into her at the general store. She mentioned that Little Joe had been coming to school early and leaving late. She said he had been very helpful, but that she was concerned he was becoming too attached to Mrs. Drummond." Adam reached into his pocket and drew out a note. "She gave me this to give to you. It's from Joe's teacher."
Ben looked at his son as he took the note. "And just when were you going to get around to telling me about this?"
Adam looked sheepish. "I knew you were tired, Pa. I didn't want you…going off half-cocked. Remember, Joe hasn't done anything wrong."
The older man stared at the note. Then he looked up the stairs toward his youngest's room.