Hi all! This is my first publicly posted fanfic. I should probably confess that I've taken liberties with the series timeline in certain ways, which diehard fans of the show will no doubt notice immediately (don't say I didn't warn you). Forgive my audacity (and the occasional anachronism), but it was convenient for me to do so, and so I did it. Please don't sue me!
I do not, in any way, profit from this tale, and all creative rights to the Bonanza characters belong to their original creator(s).
"In the night of death, hope sees a star, and listening love can hear the rustle of a wing."
~ Robert Ingersoll
Grim-faced while exiting the barn, Benjamin Cartwright was startled to find one of his closest friends and neighbors waiting for him on his front porch. He re-threaded his brown leather belt quickly as he crossed the yard, a smile of welcome creasing his face despite the strain of fatherhood he'd been under the last few minutes.
"Tom Hackett!" Ben exclaimed as he stepped onto the large, shaded porch and pumped his friend's outstretched hand. "I haven't seen you since before you left for San Antonio in the spring. Been back long?"
"Just a few days."
"Find anything worthwhile at those auctions?"
Tom smiled proudly. "Two prized bulls and a whole string of Quarter horses to rival even yours, Ben. You'll have to come out soon and take a gander."
"You can bet I will," Ben said. "If the stock you picked up is that good, I might just have to schedule my own trip to Mexico real soon. Anyway, what brings you out to the Ponderosa today?"
Tom removed his hat briefly to wipe the sweat from his brow. "Oh, just chasing strays with two of my boys. Seems our cattle got a hankering to fraternize with yours again, and we finally tracked 'em up in your north pasture."
Ben snorted at the orneriness of cattle in general then looked around curiously. "Well, where are the boys?"
"Gone on ahead. I sent Glenn and Reuben home with those dumb cows of ours, but I figured I'd swing by and say howdy for a spell. Been meanin' to since we haven't sat and jawed for a while."
"Too true, too true. I'm real glad you did." Ben noted that Tom had two tall glasses of lemonade and a pitcher filled with more of the same on the table before him, so he gestured to them. "I see Hop Sing's already set us up so what say we toast."
"To those wayward beeves in your herd without which I wouldn't be smiling at all right now."
Tom laughed. "I reckon I'll drink to that."
After the men had clinked glasses then sat down to wet their whistles, silence descended on the duo for a bit. The day was beyond scorching, the air near to stifling with nary a breeze blowing in any direction, so it was almost too hot to talk. August days such as these were meant to be spent swimming in Lake Tahoe, not tanning wayward sons, but that's exactly what Ben had been doing a moment ago, Tom was sure. The sounds of a strap in action are pretty hard to mistake.
Tom looked to Ben, noting the thoughtful frown that crossed his face every time he glanced toward the barn, and wondered if the heat had been a contributing factor to the fracas. Lord knows, Tom himself had done his fair share of whipping fretful young'uns when the intense Nevada sun grew too strong to bear. Being almost fifteen years older than his neighbor, those kind of parenting days were blessedly over for him, thank God, but they clearly weren't over yet for Ben Cartwright.
Knowing well how deeply in need of a friend the man must be right about now, Tom set down his glass.
"Sure is blistering today, ain't it, Ben?"
"Hmm? Oh yes."
"Yep, some day somebody oughta invent some kinda whatsis so's I can know exactly how hot it is this time of year, instead of trying to fry an egg on my horse."
Ben grunted in the affirmative but said nothing else. Tom waited a bit to see if he'd comment further, then nudged him more directly into opening up since it was clear he wouldn't do so on his own.
"Had a hard time with one of your boys a few minutes ago?"
Ben was silent a moment longer but then gave a curt nod, absently fingering the belt buckle at his waist. "Yes. Adam."
"You reckon it'll help to talk it out with a fellow pa?"
"No." Ben said shortly, but as Tom gave him his space and simply went back to sipping his drink, the head of the Ponderosa found he did have a need to get his thoughts off his chest. "I'm sorry, Tom, I don't mean to be so prickly, but I just don't know what's gotten into Adam lately. I know this last year has been hard with Marie's death… her-her passing … but I don't hold with my boys fighting for no reason and Adam knows this."
"Who'd he pick a fight with this time?"
"Hoss," Ben scowled. "And he just wouldn't quit no matter how many times I warned him. He actually punched his brother three times before I could separate the two of them, so I …" Ben voice trailed off as he set his jaw again and glanced over at his friend. "Well, you raised three boys of your own, Tom. I don't suppose you need the details of what had to be done considering you probably heard us in the barn when you rode up."
"Hoss hurt any?"
Ben sighed gustily. "No, thank heavens, but that's hardly the point, is it? He didn't do anything to deserve an attack like that, and neither one of us understands what's gotten into his brother lately. I had to tell him it was just the heat making Adam so testy—"
"But you don't believe that's true."
Ben shook his head. "No, and it's getting harder and harder for me to figure out what is true. It's almost like I can't reach him anymore. That oldest boy of mine, he's…" As one of the barn doors opened at last and 16-year-old Adam Cartwright began to cross the yard, Ben grew silent. He waited for his slow-walking son to reach the porch, then called him over when it became evident the boy was planning to just limp on past without acknowledging they had company. "Son, come here and say hello to our guest."
Obviously mindful of the sting in his britches, a red-eyed Adam shuffled closer. He clearly didn't want to be forced to speak to anyone from the pugnacious set to his face, but he did so anyway at his father's command. He nodded stiffly to his father's friend. "Afternoon, Mr. Hackett."
"Afternoon, young man."
Adam turned to his father. "May I be excused … sir?"
From the insolent curl to Adam's lip, the "sir" was obviously a deliberate after-thought, a fact which didn't go unnoticed by Ben. He glared at his son, his dark eyes warning the boy quite plainly not to push him further. "Yes, you may be excused," he said sternly, "but to bed, is that understood? You go up upstairs, you get into your nightshirt, and you put yourself to bed."
Adam flushed scarlet. He wasn't a child! How dare Pa treat him like one by banishing him to his room at one o'clock in the afternoon? And in front of other people, no less?
"Did you hear me, young man?"
"Yeah, I heard you! How long?"
"Watch your tone when speaking to me, and you will stay there until I give you permission to get up and come out, that's how long. Now go."
To that, Adam kicked the table and was all set to kick it again when Ben shot to his feet.
"ADAM! Apologize to Mr. Hackett right now!"
"What for? I didn't do anything to him!"
Ben's jaw pulsed. He came around the table, snatched his son by the arm, then gave him a shake.
"Do we need to have another necessary talk, boy?"
For the longest time, no one knew just what Adam would reply – including Adam himself. Would he say 'no' and apologize as he should? Or would he say 'yes' and cut off his nose to spite his face?
In his chair, Tom Hackett waited with slightly bated breath while he observed father and son. Their brows were lowered identically, their bottom lips both stubbornly set, and at this very moment, it would be obvious to even the most casual observer that these two were closely related. Tom truly wondered which one would be the first to cave, although for Adam's sake, he hoped it would be him.
"Sorry, Mr. Hackett." Adam presently muttered in his direction before glaring back at his father. "Sorry, sir."
Ben's immediate response was to deliver an almighty spank that lifted Adam straight off the ground. "It's about time you apologized. Now excuse yourself and get in the house, young man. Now."
With both hands fisted at his sides, the need to rub almost more than he could control, Adam wisely did as he was told and shuffled inside. On any other day, the slam of the heavy front door might have been an accident, but given the fit of hormonal temper they'd just witnessed, both men knew Adam had done it willfully to punctuate his current feelings towards his father. As Ben stalked stiffly back to his chair and snatched up his lemonade, Tom stretched out his legs and whistled.
"Ben my friend, I'm afraid your Adam…"
"What?" Ben snapped. "What about him?"
"We-ell," Tom drawled after a moment. "He's just exactly like my John was at age 16, that's all. Between hay and grass, he is. Grown up in some ways long afore his time, but still just a button in so many others." Tom took another sip from his glass then looked over at Ben and winked. "I know how you're suffering, Ben. I surely do."
Ben seemed to deflate as his shoulders slumped against the chair backing. "Please tell me this phase he's going through will pass very soon."
"Why?" Tom chuckled. "Don't think you can handle it much longer?"
"Oh, I can handle it just fine," Ben assured him with a frown. "But I'm not looking forward to replacing my belts every two months."
"You think tanning his hide is the answer?"
"Well, it is, isn't it?" Ben swatted impatiently at a cluster fly. "Adam's just a boy. He may not like to think of himself as one anymore now that he can shave a few times a week, but all the same, that's exactly what he is. I won't shatter his illusions by taking him out to the barn any more than I have to, but I'm his father. If he deserves to eat standing up, it's my job to make sure he does exactly that."
"I reckon it makes him hard to live with though afterwards, don't it? If he's like my John, he must go around moping for days, won't let you near him, that sort of thing."
Reluctantly, Ben nodded, and Tom nodded too as he refilled his glass.
"Well, it ain't nothing that can't be fixed, Ben. With a little help from one of the old codgers in town, I learned a long time ago what was bothering my John and how to handle his moods, and you will too."
"An old codger, huh?" Ben wasn't convinced but he asked anyway to be polite. "Which one?"
"Simeon Hank." As Ben's eyebrows shot straight up in disbelief, Tom gave him a look to show he wasn't kidding. "That's right. Virginia City's loudest drunk. To look at Simeon most days, you wouldn't think the man would know enough to stand up straight much less preach a fine sermon about raising young'uns, but he does. Had nine kids, if you can believe it. Lost his wife when his youngest was still a babe, so then he went on raising all their boys and girls by himself until he lost every one of 'em in a single year to disease. I know 'cause he told me about it and Roy Coffee confirmed it."
Shocked into silence for well over a minute, Ben's hand trembled as he finally reached for his glass. "I have to say, Tom … I couldn't stand to live if I lost all three of my boys in one fell swoop. They're all I have left now that their mothers have passed – this and the Ponderosa – and that wouldn't be enough to live for without my sons to help me build on it."
Tom nodded his agreement. "I feel the same, Ben. But Simeon pulled himself together somehow. Don't ask me how, 'cause I surely can't figure it for the life of me, but he did. Moved out here and started fresh with his second wife until one of them Indian attacks in '36 stole her from him too. Most folks in town just look on him now as the town drunk and a mean one, but he's a good man when he's sober. Helped me out with understanding my boys more than once, especially John."
If anyone but the man at his side had made such a confession, Ben wouldn't have believed it at all. As it was, he still almost didn't, but determination and a desire to straighten out his own oldest son drove him to open his mind. He swirled the ice in his glass thoughtfully for a moment then glanced over at his friend.
"Care to share his advice?"
Tom cleared his throat and fixed his gaze on Ben. "All right. I'm gonna ask you the same questions Simeon asked me: how long has Adam been a problem?"
"Well, he's not a problem exactly. I don't consider my son a problem—"
"You know what I mean. How long has he been pushing his limits like this and defying you?"
"Since…" Ben wrinkled his forehead for a moment. "Since last fall or thereabouts."
"Right around the time you buried Marie?"
"About a month after, I guess, but I'm sure that's just a coincidence."
Tom wasn't so sure. "And have you spoiled him since then from time to time?" he asked next.
"Yup, spoiled him, like you been doing with Little Joe."
"I don't spoil Little Joe!"
The founder of the Ponderosa opened his mouth to re-emphasize that he did not, in fact, treat his boys any different from each other, save, of course, for what their ages required … but innate fairness wouldn't allow him to utter such a lie. God help him, he had been spoiling Little Joe since the death of Marie: cuddling him more often to compensate for what his mother could no longer give him, forgiving him most of his tantrums, and buying him candy in town every time he asked. Ben hadn't consciously meant to indulge the boy so blatantly, but the results were ultimately the same if even his friends and neighbors had noticed.
As Tom stared at him pointedly, patiently waiting for him to acknowledge the truth, Ben felt himself flushing from more than just the day's heat as he glared uncomfortably at his lap. "No, I guess I don't spoil Adam much."
"Could be time to start," Tom said seriously. "Don't make it obvious, mind you, or you'll have Hoss acting up next, but Marie was Adam's ma, same as Joe, and in point of fact he knew her longer, even if he didn't cotton to her right away."
"Let me finish, Ben. Now Simeon didn't think it was a coincidence that my John was behaving the way he was ever since his own ma died, and he was right. It wasn't a coincidence and it probably isn't with your Adam either. This makes, what, the third mother Adam's lost? A boy as intense as your oldest boy, why, that's gotta make him powerful angry – especially since he ain't one to cry and caterwaul over his loss like most young'uns."
"I said I ain't finished, Ben. Now take my John, he wasn't one to bawl and bellow either when my Cynthia died. He just got madder 'n madder and acted out worse 'n worse 'til nary a week was going by when I wasn't bending him over. God's truth, I don't reckon me and my boy would be speaking at all today if Simeon Hank hadn't sobered up enough to take me aside in town all those years ago. He made me see that John that was just grievin' differently than his brothers and sisters."
Ben shook his head. "You're wrong, Tom. It's been almost a year since Marie left us, and I know Adam. He was never close to her like Hoss or Little Joe. He accepted her as a member of our family eventually, and he liked her well enough the last few years, but I'm sure he never once thought of himself as her son. He can't possibly be grieving her passing as long or as strongly as you say he is."
Tom stared at Ben intently for a moment, then shook his own head and sat back. "I hope you're right," he said evenly. "But if you're wrong, and I'm right, a little sympathy and some one-on-one attention on days like today … well … they can go a fur piece, Ben, believe me."
Ben watched him drain his glass, his skepticism plain. "And it worked with John? Just like that?"
"Not just like that, but it did work. You've seen me and the boy all over town together, haven't you?"
Ben had indeed, and he had to admit a closer father-and-son pairing he'd never known. He'd often admired it, if truth be told, secretly vowing to himself that he, too, would have such a bond with his own firstborn when Adam was grown. Of course, the way things were deteriorating between them, that might never be likely. Perhaps it was time to start entertaining other notions to try and repair their relationship … like this one from Tom.
Could Tom be right?
Was Adam really still grieving for Marie?
Watching Ben as he began to mull over the advice he'd been given, Tom Hackett was pretty sure he already knew the answer to those questions. He stood up from his chair and decided to take his leave, knowing that his friend had a considerable amount of thinking to do, which was best done without an audience.
"Well, I better go catch up to my boys and give 'em a hand. See you in church on Sunday?"
Ben stirred long enough to see him off, then sunk back into his chair on the porch, forcing himself to remember Marie's horse-riding accident and everything that followed, including those first hellish months of deep mourning.
They were not his best moments as a father.
For a time, he'd been too consumed by his own grief to perceive the full extent of the heartache being suffered by his sons, and only slowly had he forced himself to climb from that deep pit of despair to tend to his younger sons. Adam had been instrumental then, running the ranch almost like a seasoned professional with the help of their foreman, Will Reagan; and then both he and Hop Sing had been indispensable as they'd tended to Hoss and Little Joe.
How Adam had managed it all, being as young as he was, Ben honestly had no idea. He hadn't asked, not then, not even afterwards. The fifteen-year-old had been so self-contained, and Ben so totally preoccupied with simply getting out of bed every day that he'd just naturally chosen the path of least resistance. He'd assumed that Adam didn't need him like Hoss and Little Joe; he'd assumed the boy was working through his feelings just fine on his own. After all, Adam hadn't loved Marie like the rest of the Cartwrights. He wasn't breaking down in tears like Little Joe any time Marie's name was mentioned, and he wasn't losing his appetite like Hoss. He was perfectly fine as far as Ben could see.
…except he wasn't, according to Tom Hackett, and obviously, the man was right.
Marie's death had been the beginning of Adam's descent into recklessness and insolence, that much was fact. Once Ben had pulled himself together, it hadn't been long at all before Adam had begun to sass him more than usual and disobey clear orders, getting into mischief at home, at school, in church, and virtually everywhere else he set foot. If Ben were to count the number of times since last December that he'd had to scold him, or restrict him to his room, or even to drop his britches and redden his backside … well … frankly, he just didn't want to try and count that high.
How could Ben have missed the signs? They seemed so obvious now that Tom had spelled it out, so why hadn't he seen it before on his own? In fact, what kind of friends did he have that they hadn't taken him aside and told him sooner?
Ben stopped his internal rant then and blushed. It wasn't fair to fault anyone but himself, because there had been hints and outright criticisms dropped in his lap from time to time : from Reverend Marks, Hop Sing, the schoolteacher in town, and even Sheriff Roy Coffee. Ben had closed his mind to all of their concerns, though, hadn't wanted to admit to not knowing his own son. Most likely, he wouldn't have listened to Tom Hackett today either except the timing was good. He'd been too drained from punishing Adam yet again to run from an uncomfortable conversation, and of all the nosy but well-meaning neighbors who had accosted him of late, Tom surely did know what he was talking about. He was a widower just like Ben, and he'd already raised several sons of his own, one of whom did indeed match Adam in temperament. If anyone could be trusted to talk from solid and relevant experience it was Tom.
For several minutes, Ben stared off toward the trees and tried to derive comfort from that thought. It had taken an outsider to help Tom understand John, just as it had taken Tom to help Ben understand Adam. Maybe there was no shame in that. Maybe he didn't have to be so discomfited by the realization that he had been a bad father. Yes, he had seen only what he wanted to see these last nine months, and yes, he had essentially succored one son over another, but Tom Hackett had done the same more or less, and his family had recovered just fine. Surely the Cartwrights would fare as well…?
Ben desperately hoped so. Now that he was scrutinizing his memory for clues to Adam's decline, a wealth of evidence was springing to mind, much of it proof that Adam had indeed loved Marie in his own private way. Still … had he cried for her yet, even once, in all the time since she'd been gone?
Ben honestly didn't know, and as the intense summer heat continued to bake the yard and Hop Sing could be heard inside shooing both Hoss and Little Joe out of the cookie jar, Ben stayed where he was and considered his independent eldest son. He had intended to ride out and check on the men to see how they were getting on with the last of the haying, and after that, he'd been planning to tackle the small mountain of correspondence on his desk, but suddenly, neither of those tasks seemed important. Only Adam was important. After months of neglect, Ben had to find a way to reach him and to help him with his grief before it was too late. He just had to.
He closed his eyes and bowed his head, praying to the Almighty for guidance.
By the time Ben came back to himself, the ice in his lemonade glass had melted and the shadows in the front yard were far removed from where they had been. Startled at the evidence of how long he'd been in quiet contemplation, Ben wondered absently just how much of a cordial goodbye he could have given his long-time friend, since he didn't really remember much of Tom's departure. He reached for his abandoned lemonade and brought it to his lips, but a quick sip of the tepid liquid was all it took for him to set it down with a grimace and return his thoughts to Adam.
Ben Cartwright didn't need anything to drink. What he needed was to stop brooding and take action. He couldn't change the past, or the way he'd been treating his oldest son up until this moment, but he could definitely alter the future and he was going to starting right now.
With purposeful strides, Ben headed inside then crossed the Great Room, taking the stairs two at a time in his haste to reach his firstborn. On the landing, he thumped both newels as though to punctuate some secret sentence, and then he strode down the hallway at the same determined pace until he reached Adam's room. The door was closed as he expected it to be, but Ben didn't let that stop him. He squared his shoulders and turned the knob without hesitation … then stopped abruptly, taking in the peaceful scene before him.
His mule-headed and sulky teenaged son – the very one who'd protested so rudely being put to bed in punishment as being childishly beneath him – was fast asleep on top of his quilts. Half-curled on his stomach with the forefinger on his left hand hooked over his nose, Adam didn't stir at the intrusion. He continued breathing steadily right where he lay, his left knee bent at right angles, his white cotton nightshirt bunched above his waist. With his striped cheeks plainly visible and his right arm draped behind him, it wasn't hard to deduce that Adam had fallen asleep in the course of rubbing the welts from his bottom, no doubt grumbling internally all the while about the unfairness of life with his pa.
Watching him from the doorway for several minutes, Ben's shoulders loosened. Without being conscious of it, his jaw relaxed and his fists unbunched themselves, his dark brown eyes softening with love for this rebellious and maddening, but always precious, oldest son. Adam looked so young like his, so very unguarded. He might be pigheaded and petulant to a fault sometimes, but right now, he looked exactly like a boy who needed to be spoiled by his father.
Ben walked over to him. He took care to ease his large frame carefully onto the bed to minimize jarring, and then he settled down by the headboard. He craned his neck a little to see Adam's face but there was no need. The boy didn't wake. With Adam's head now by his hip, Ben lay a hand on the dark, wavy hair of his firstborn son. The boy would soon be in need of trip to the town barber, but for now his hair called out to Ben, who stroked it gently, stopping now and then to finger the silken curls. He knew he needed to treasure this moment. He stroked Adam's hair for a while longer then gradually moved his hand to the teenager's back, automatically rubbing circles in it as he used to years ago when it was just the two of them heading West, and Adam was a small boy dropping off to sleep by the fire of their covered wagon.
Inevitably – and all too soon for Ben – Adam awoke. Coming to gradually at first, lulled as he was into complacence by the comforting paternal touch he'd been missing for quite awhile now, the youth started suddenly and pulled away from his father once he realized where he was, how he was dressed, and who was with him. Disappointed but not surprised, Ben left his hand where it had fallen and watched his son scooch to the far side of the bed while he yanked his nightshirt down with a scowl. As the poor teenager flushed with the acute embarrassment of exposure, Ben smiled down at him, trying to put him at ease.
"How's my boy? Sleep well?"
Adam thrust out his lower lip as far as it would go. "I'm practically a man, Pa. I'm not a boy and I hate it when you call me that."
"Well, maybe you're not a little boy in the strictest sense of the word," Ben agreed. "But no matter how old you get, as your father, I will always see you as one." Adam glared harder at that but said nothing, so Ben reached out and cupped his chin, sobering. "Listen to me, son. When I call you my boy, I'm not trying to insult you. I'm just trying to tell you how much I love you and how much I think you'd benefit from remaining one for just a short while longer."
Adam's eyes flashed. "But I'm 16 now, Pa! I do a man's work every single day on this ranch and I'll be off to college in less than a year. I'm not a baby like Joe—"
"I know that," Ben interrupted him quietly. "But you're still very young and you have many years yet to take on the full responsibilities of adulthood. You don't enjoy being a boy as much as you ought and you need to while you still can. You'll regret it someday if you don't."
"That's easy for you to say. You're not still a kid who has to worry about getting the skin whipped off his hide when he does something wrong."
Adam's pout was so ferocious as he grumbled his complaint that Ben had to struggle to keep a straight face. "No, son, I don't suppose I have to worry about a thing like that anymore. But, you wouldn't have to either if you'd just obey the house rules." As Adam dropped his head with an even deeper scowl, Ben tilted his chin back up so they could look each other in the eye. "Now, we need to talk about what happened between you and Hoss this morning because it's not like you to pick on your brother with your fists."
Adam pulled away from him and glared at his coverlet. "I don't wanna talk about it, Pa."
"I know something must be bothering you," Ben coaxed as gently as he could. "Is it something that maybe doesn't have to do with Hoss at all? Maybe it's about someone else? Someone who's no longer with us? You can tell me, son. I promise I—"
"No. I don't wanna talk about it."
Ben was tempted to keep pushing but past experience already told him what he'd get if he did that, and it was nothing. Adam was not the kind of child to cave if only he was needled long enough. Quite the opposite, he dug in his heels and became that much more obstinate until no amount of cajoling would get him to share his troubles. If Ben wanted to get Adam to admit the root of his poor attitude and misbehavior, he was going to have to take it very slowly and exhibit a tremendous amount of patience over many, many days. Today was clearly not the day for such a confession.
Sighing inwardly while pulling his mule-headed son towards him, Ben forced Adam to lay back down where he'd been before he'd awoken. "Come here."
"I'm not tired."
"Just hush and lie still."
"And I don't wanna talk either."
"We aren't going to talk, now hush."
For over ten minutes, the muscles in Adam's back were rigid beneath Ben's hand, but eventually, almost imperceptibly, they began to unwind. Ben noticed but deliberately chose not to remark on it, allowing his son ample time to make the first move at his own preferred pace. He wondered what Adam was thinking and what the first words out of his mouth were likely to be, and in the end, it took him another ten minutes to find out.
"Is Mr. Hackett still around?"
"No, he left some time ago."
Adam began to fidget. "I, uh, didn't mind you like I should have when he was here."
"No, you certainly didn't."
"You mad at me?"
"Mad? No. Not anymore."
"But you're disappointed, right?"
"Am I gonna get another tanning for the way I acted in front of him?"
Ben had no intention of doing that, but he paused anyway in the circles he was rubbing on Adam's back. "Shouldn't you?"
The 16-year-old stiffened anew as he muttered in the affirmative. "Yessir … I guess so … but please don't. I'm sorry I was rude, Pa. Honest, I am."
Ben dipped his head to take a look at Adam's blushing face and saw that was true. "Well. I can see that you are, so there's no need for me to take you back to the barn this one time. But, Adam Stoddard Cartwright, if you ever again act up that way in front of a neighbor and a guest—"
"I won't, Pa. I promise."
"All right … well … just see that you don't, young man."
Adam relaxed again and shifted closer to him, one hand shyly stealing out to rest against his thigh. "Thanks, Papa."
Ben tried to keep his expression stern but it was impossible. He honestly couldn't remember the last time Adam had called him 'Papa', but he knew what it signified, and as a warm smile creased his face, he silently blessed Tom Hackett for stopping by that afternoon.
"You're welcome, son. You're very, very welcome."
Ever observant, Adam recognized many changes in his father as the summer drew to a close, autumn came and went, and then Old Man Winter made his frigid presence known. He noticed that Pa's temper was still quick to flare whenever his eldest son misbehaved or spoke out of turn, but strangely, he was much slower to punish. Questioning the why behind Adam's wrongdoings was taking precedence over issuing immediate or painful consequences, and these interviews were probing, lengthy affairs that invariably frustrated both father and son. Why was Pa suddenly so interested in his son's motives? Adam didn't, and he didn't wish to discuss it, and he really wished his father would stop asking. He especially wished that Pa would stop mentioning Marie's name during these interrogations. She was gone – dead – so what purpose could it possibly serve to keep bringing her up?
As Christmas Eve and then Christmas Day foisted themselves upon the Cartwright family, Adam was even more loath to remember her than ever. He didn't want to decorate their tree with the ornaments a beaming Marie had brought with her from New Orleans or listen to Little Joe beg Pa to sing Cantique de Noël the way his ma used to. The last thing Adam needed was to watch two fat tears roll down his baby brother's cheeks the moment Ben confessed he didn't know how to sing O Holy Night in French.
Adam, of course, wasn't alone in his misery, and for the entire Cartwright clan, that second holiday season without Marie was as difficult as the previous year. Each family member thought of her constantly and missed her dreadfully, spurring thoughts of the other wives and mothers who had lived, loved, and died much too soon. Ben made an effort to be cheerful and festive for the sake of his boys, but his motives were strained and transparent, and in the end, they just didn't work.
Barely had the turkey been abandoned than a snow quall shook the ranch house and proceeded to blanket the entire Nevada territory, inches upon inches that thickened by the minute and showed no signs of dwindling. Unhappy to start with, cabin fever set in quickly for the Cartwright boys, whose pent up energy, despondency over the holiday, and anger at the unfairness of life had no outlets. With nowhere to turn, they turned on each other, and though Ben tried to exercise patience and understanding, he, too, was only human and had his limits.
And so it was one howling winter day that Adam's acerbic tongue pushed him over the edge. Fed up with the boy's temper and grumbling complaints, and tired of having talks with him that went absolutely nowhere, Ben was on the verge of banishing him up to his room for a spell when the ongoing argument between his oldest and youngest sons suddenly took a very cruel turn.
"I said go away, Little Joe! Quit pestering me! I don't wanna read your stupid book!"
"Aw, please, Adam? Pleeeeease? You add voices 'n stuff better'n anyone and I like the way you read to me. I—"
Little Joe looked down at his book with a quivering chin then looked back at his scowling older brother. His green eyes began to fill. "But I can't read it by myself and this is the last storybook Ma gave me for Christm—"
"Well, too bad! And quit crying, you little crybaby! Your ma's dead and she ain't coming back so get used to it!"
That was it for Ben. Just as Tom Hackett had suggested, he'd been spoiling Adam in small ways for months now by forgiving him certain misbehaviors and holding off on removing his belt for just about every major infraction, but this … this, he absolutely could not overlook. As Adam's callous retort drove 5-year-old Little Joe to burst into anguished tears, Ben got up from behind his massive desk in the alcove. He stalked over to his firstborn on the settee, snatched him by the hand, then marched him straight upstairs for a very necessary talk, leaving Hoss alone to comfort a crying Little Joe.
By Ben's side, Adam dug in his heels. He knew what was coming and he resisted it with all his might to the point that it was actually a tussle getting him up the stairs and down the hall into his bedroom. There, things were no better. For the first time in his life, he repelled Ben physically as the man pulled him over to his desk to bend him over, and he would not lower his britches himself under any circumstances.
Ben had no choice but to take over. With one arm he held Adam from behind while the other arm worked to unbutton his son's trousers, the long woolen drawers Adam was wearing underneath summarily removed next as the drawstring was pulled and the material fell to join its companion.
Still, Adam would not yield. He bucked against his father and kicked like a three-year-old as he was lifted off the floor and carried to the bed, howling all the while that he didn't deserve a whipping and he wasn't going to take one.
Ben wholeheartedly agreed. The way Adam was behaving, he didn't deserve a belt-whipping at all; he wasn't mature enough for that. What he deserved was a spanking: a tucking across his father's lap like Hoss and Little Joe sometimes earned, and then an over the knee, bare-bottomed series of slaps to the roundest, most suitable part of his anatomy.
"NO! NO, PA! DON'T! DON'T!"
Ben did. He would come to regret this moment deeply within minutes, but for now, he was driven, his resolve never wavering. Hooking his right leg over Adam's, he held the teenager tightly in place, determined to keep his boy right where he belonged across his knee until the full measure of his tanning had been dispensed. Over and over, he raised his right arm and brought it down smartly, smacking the pale, fleshy mounds of his son to a deep and memorable pink. He did not lecture as he spanked. He let the palm of his right hand to do all the lecturing for him.
Thrashing helplessly below, Adam refused to break. He arched his back and wrangled to free himself from beginning to end, his hips twisting left and right continuously while his bare bottom was painfully spanked. His hands, too, flailed back to cover that which Ben had stripped, and he dug the tips of his boots into the floorboards again and again, searching for leverage, a toehold, anything at all that would help him to rise and escape the humiliation of what was happening to his person.
When at last it was finally over, Adam couldn't regain his dignity fast enough. He jumped to his feet and yanked up his clothes the second Ben loosened his hold, and then with both hands clapped to the throbbing seat of his pants, he charged from the room past his father. He would have escaped straight outside if the weather had permitted it, but Mother Nature wasn't cooperating. He ran for the stairs leading to the attic.
Up there, away from prying eyes and the hard, unyielding lap of Benjamin Cartwright, Adam vented his misery. The attic was unheated, the cold surrounding him trying to chatter his teeth and chill his insides, but Adam refused to turn tail or allow it to defeat him. He crouched in the farthest, most lonesome corner he could find, then hugged his knees to his chest while he sobbed out of sight of his family. He hated Joe for getting him into trouble and he hated Ben especially for taking him over his knee and spanking him like a child.
Most of all, though, he hated himself.
He knew now why he'd been acting up lately. He'd known it the moment he'd barked at Little Joe. Unbidden, an image of Marie floated before him, and he hugged his knees tighter, needing something strong to cling to.
Why was he always left alone?
Something big must be wrong with him personally for his mothers to keep dying around him, for every single maternal figure he welcomed into his heart to keep abandoning him when he needed them most. That his father and brothers were victims of loss as well just wasn't the same to Adam. He alone must be responsible for these many untimely deaths. He just knew it.
What had he done?
Adam didn't know. And so he cried.
In the attic for almost an hour, Adam's eyes were bloodshot when he finally emerged and crept back down the stairs. He hurried to his room to prevent anyone from spotting him, expecting his father to have long since returned downstairs to see to Little Joe, but he was wrong. There, inside his sanctuary and sitting on his bed, sat his pa. Sympathy and regret were evident now in the coffee-colored eyes of the man who was raising him, and suddenly, this too was just too much for Adam to withstand.
"Oh Pa! I m-miss-I miss—"
As Ben half stood and his arms opened wide, Adam couldn't finish. With his vision blurring anew and his chin trembling almost as badly as before, he stumbled towards the bed and collapsed by his father. He felt himself lifted into a strong lap and rocked like an infant, but he didn't protest. He clung to Ben tightly and tapped into the wellspring of his pain one more time, unaware that above him, his father's face was also growing wet with tears.
"It's all right," he heard Ben murmur. "It's all right, son. I've got you."
How long Adam wept and at what point he cried himself to sleep he didn't know, but the sky outside his window was pitch dark when he opened his eyes and he was once again lying flat in bed.
Pa had obviously left him.
That thought hurt more than Adam would ever have dared admit aloud, but he refused to call out to his father as he might have only three or four years ago. Instead, he lay still and listened to the fire that was crackling in the hearth on the other side of his room, remembering how Marie used to tuck him in every night and bank those same flames so he'd remain warm until morning. Wishing with all his might that he could go back in time to before last fall, when it wasn't too late yet to tell her what a real fine ma she was making, Adam turned towards the fire to watch the flames; as he did so, he came face to face with his father's hip.
So Pa hadn't left him after all.
Snuggling closer, the lump in Adam's throat dissolved as he felt a familiar weight come down on his head, stroking the curls off his forehead. It occurred to him that once again his father was treating him like a child, but here in the near-darkness of his bedroom, with no little brothers around to gape, Adam's couldn't bring himself to mind. He lay where he was and thought about how good it felt, how it felt like he was Pa's favorite for once, instead of Little Joe.
Abruptly, Adam considered that thought deeper.
Was Joe really Pa's favorite? Maybe he wasn't and never had been. Maybe it only seemed like he was since he was small and needy and he was the only son still young enough to welcome open displays of affection. Adam certainly didn't. Most days he was too busy trying to prove he wasn't a kid anymore for that kind of mush. He pushed his pa away each and every time the man came near enough to try.
As this epiphany took hold, the firstborn son of Benjamin Cartwright lifted his head and looked up at his father. What he saw there confirmed what he'd been thinking, for it was exactly the same look Ben bestowed on his youngest boy most days.
For a moment, Adam was overcome. He lay his head back down quickly and tried to still the sudden pounding in his heart, thrilled at the realization that he was treasured just as much as Joe. The thrill of this knowledge was soon supplanted by guilt, though, guilt at being such a difficult son, always testing and questioning and ultimately driving Pa to remove his belt. Adam would change after today, he vowed, but for now he probably needed to apologize.
Blushing fiercely and biting his lip, he slowly raised his head.
Ben couldn't possibly know exactly how much Adam was sorry for, but somehow, he still did. "It's all right, son. I forgive you everything and I hope you can forgive me too."
"Forgive you? What for?"
Ben cupped his chin gently. "For tanning you today when I should have been listening instead."
Adam lowered his eyes and shrugged. "It's okay. I was real mean to Little Joe. I shouldn't've said what I did about … about … his m-ma."
As Adam's voice seemed to catch and his whole body began to tremble, Ben smoothed the hair from his forehead.
"Marie was your ma too, son."
Adam shook his head vehemently.
"Yes, she was, and she loved you just as much as she loved Hoss and Little Joe. She didn't mean to leave you—"
"No, Pa. Don't say it."
"I know it's hard, boy, but we need to get it out. We need—"
"I don't wanna talk about her, Pa! Please don't m-make me!"
As Adam broke down again, Ben stopped pushing. He shut his mouth, hugged his son to him, and held him in silent support, realizing the wound was still too raw to permit any kind of in-depth conversations about Marie. Grief was not something to be surmounted, Ben well knew. Instead, one had to learn to live with it, day after day, in one's own time. Adam was only now just starting down that road with the loss of his last stepmother, and trying to hurry him through the process merely for the convenience of his father would clearly help no one. Ben was just going to have to be more patient.
He waited until Adam's tears had abated once more, and his boy was fully calm and quiet, then clapped him once on the back, striving for normality. "I'm starved. What say we go downstairs and get ourselves some of Hop Sing's leftover stew? Sound good to you?"
Adam nodded fast – he certainly was hungry – so he scrubbed the wetness from his face self-consciously then followed Ben downstairs.
As they crossed the Great Room however, Adam came to a standstill. There, on the large coffee table before the red-striped settee, was the children's book Marie had given to Little Joe for Christmas the previous year. Adam read the cover, Peter Parley's Short Stories for Long Nights, then re-read it a second time with shame: he remembered how cruelly he'd brushed his baby brother aside that afternoon, when all the little boy really wanted was to feel closer to the mother they both deeply missed.
As Ben continued on past the dining room into the kitchen, then returned moments later with bowls, spoons and the tureen of stew Hop Sing had left for them in the warmer, Adam lingered by the coffee table. He hadn't thought about his tanning for almost an hour, but now, as he looked down at Joe's book, he was reminded of the faint, lingering ache in his backside as well as the reason for it.
Ben glanced over at him. "What are you doing over there, son? I thought you were hungry? Come get your supper."
"Pa, would you mind starting without me? I, uh, gotta do something first."
Ben paused in setting the table and arched an eyebrow. "Oh? And what's that?"
Blushing hard, Adam bent to retrieve the book then presented it, unable to meet his father's eyes. "I sort of need to see Little Joe for a bit."
Ben took in the book and the remorse clearly etched on his firstborn's face, then tipped his head toward the stairs with a forgiving smile. "Go on then. Knowing your brother, I'd have to wake him up in a few minutes anyway, or Hop Sing would have to wash his sheets and the rest of his bedding first thing tomorrow morning."
Adam muttered a thanks then turned tail. He took the stairs two at a time up to the second floor, passing his own room and then Hoss's before stopping at Little Joe's. There, he paused briefly to get his flaming face under control. He hated being in the wrong, but he hated even more not doing what he could to put things back to right. He took a breath then turned the knob.
As expected, Little Joe was asleep, his restless form kicked free of all bedsheets and coverlets, his arms and legs flung wide over the mattress. The banked fire on the opposite wall provided warmth but no light, so Adam set down the book, lit the lamp on the dresser, then turned up the wick, illuminating the cherubic child before him. Gently, Adam shook the small shoulder.
"Little Joe? Little Joe, wake up. It's Big Brother come to read you your story."
Making faces and stretching by turns, the 5-year-old slowly opened his eyes. Suddenly, he clapped a hand over his groin and squirmed his bottom into the mattress.
"A-Adam? Where's Pa? It's night-time and I gotta go real bad!"
Adam recognized that panicky look and lifted his brother speedily off the mattress. From years of practice helping his parents with the baby of the family, he snatched the chamber pot from under the bed and positioned it perfectly while he helped Joe to hold his nightshirt high out of the way. As the hot stream hit the bowl immediately then continued seemingly without end, Adam shook his head. No matter how many times he saw this, he was still amazed that so short a boy could hold so much urine.
The moment the last drips had dropped, Little Joe watched his big brother cover the pot and push it back out of sight. He was sleepy, but as he was lifted once again into bed, he forgot sleep and grew anxious. There had been something he'd been wanting to ask Adam ever since their pa had disappeared upstairs with him hours before, and like his pee, Joe couldn't hold it back any longer. Hoss had already reassured him somewhat, but he needed to hear his oldest brother say it too.
"Am I really a crybaby?"
Adam stopped tucking him in and shook his head. "No, you're not, Joe, and I was wrong to say it. Don't you believe it, okay? It's not true."
Joe stared up at him intently, needing very much to believe. "Honest?"
"Honest." Adam crossed his heart. "And I'm real sorry I ever said you were."
Joe considered that a moment, feeling much better about himself. "I'm sorry too," he added seriously.
"Oh yeah? What for?"
"'Cause I bugged you about reading Ma's Christmas book to me. I didn't mean to."
Adam shot him a tiny grin and winked. "It's okay, Little Joe. I forgive you. I know you didn't mean to be a pest."
"Did Pa spank you awful hard for making me cry?"
The green eyes of Joseph Francis Cartwright were so troubled that Adam's grin could only widen.
"Yeah, Little Brother, I got it good, but don't feel bad. I deserved it. I was real mean to you when I had no call to be, and you know how Pa doesn't like us being mean to each other."
"'Cause Cartwrights gotta stick together?"
Joe snuggled up in silence then as his big brother got comfortable beside him. He was glad that Adam was going to stay with him awhile, and he threw a skinny arm as far across the lanky teenager as he could reach to try and keep him there. As his eyelids began to droop in earnest, a flash of familiar binding in the lamplight roused him briefly. It was a book – the very book he'd been wanting to hear Adam recite all day – and he grinned sleepily as he watched his older brother flip the cover.
"Adam, you gonna read Peter Parley to me now?"
"I sure am. Ready?"
"Uh huh. And add all your voices 'n stuff, 'kay?"
Standing quietly in the doorway, Ben listened to his firstborn's tenor lilting and falling as he read the main story while inventing the extra dialog that so pleased his baby brother. It was heartwarming both to see and to hear, and indeed, as Ben continued to eavesdrop, his heart grew full. So many times since Marie's death, he had worried about Adam and even despaired, on occasion, over the boy's deteriorating relationships with his family. So many times, he had prayed to God for help then looked to the heavens for hope.
Now, however, he knew that his fears had been premature. Despite the heartache Adam was going through at the moment, in time, he was going to be just fine. He was going to reconcile himself to the loss of Marie, and unless Ben missed his guess, that little sprite by his side was going to help him along the way. They were Cartwrights after all, not just half brothers, and in the end, Cartwrights always stick together.
The boys had said so.