The General Store was unusually quiet that morning, and Will gave his full attention to his only three customers, a beautiful woman and her two young stepsons.
"Hoss, please don’t touch
anything," Marie Cartwright scolded mildly. The boy quickly shoved both
hands in his pocket, trying to avoid temptation and his stepmother hid
an amused smile. He quickly made his way over to his older brother, who
was reading the titles on some books that lined a shelf. Her smile broadened
at she stared proudly at their backs. Hoss, at a little over seven
years, was just a few inches shorter than his twelve-year-old brother and quite a bit broader. He stood right up against the older boy, and she wondered if it was for comfort or to draw on his strength. Without looking up, Adam instinctively put his arm around his little brother. He brushed his wavy black hair out of his eyes and pointed to a book, obviously explaining something
about it to Hoss.
"Adam!" she called. The boy turned his slender frame around to face her, his arm never leaving Hoss’s shoulders. "We’re done here. Time to meet your father at the grain store."
Heaving a deep sigh, Adam cast a longing look back at the books. "Just a few more minutes?" he begged.
Marie knew they were already late meeting her husband but she also knew how much Adam loved reading and was hard pressed to deny him. Their relationship had been a bit rocky, to put it mildly, when she first arrived from New Orleans several years ago as the new Mrs. Ben Cartwright. But time and the birth of her son, Joseph, had eased the tension, giving way to a developing friendship and an unstated love. She only wished they could afford to buy him some new books, he was so eager to learn. But money was tight as the Cartwright herd had not been spared the harsh winter. How could she say no?
"Okay, just a few more minutes, understand?" Both boys bobbed their heads. "I hope your baby brother isn’t giving your Pa too much trouble." All three faces broke out into big smiles. Two-year-old Little Joe Cartwright was a handful, everyone knew that, and they were all sure that Ben would be very happy to turn him over to his mother. "Hmmm," Marie continued, an impish look on her face, "maybe I’ll take my time walking to meet them. Might have to stop and chat with a few people on the way." She winked at the boys and turned to leave. "And Hoss, remember, no touching anything!"
Adam mentally counted to ten, then said to Hoss, "She gone?" Hoss peered out the window.
"Yeah, she’s already ‘cross the road."
Will looked at both of them suspiciously, forehead wrinkled. "What’s goin’ on, boys?" He had known the Cartwrights for years and although fond of both boys, knew they had a penchant for finding trouble.
"It’s Ma’s birthday soon!" explained Hoss excitedly, running over to the counter. In the process, he tipped over a display of cracker tins Will had just finished setting up. Adam was right behind his brother, expertly catching the falling merchandise.
"Hoss!" Adam’s voice was stern.
"Sorry." Hoss had tears in his crystal blue eyes. "I didn’t mean ta knock them things down, it just sorta happened."
"No harm done," Will said quickly. "Maybe you boys oughta be getting’ off to your Pa now…"
Adam ignored his suggestion. "Mr. Cass, we need somethin’ special for Marie’s birthday. I saw her lookin’ at that stuff right there." Adam pointed behind the counter to a small cut glass bottle filled with amber liquid.
Will laughed outright. "Adam, that there’s special perfume imported all the way from Paris. I don’t think you have enough money to pay for that!" Their faces fell. He reached down and pulled out a plain metal vial. "Now this here is a lot cheaper and…"
Adam silently read the label "Toilette Water." He wrinkled his nose.
"But we want that," Adam pointed to the first fancy bottle.
"It’s way too expensive…" Will was starting to lose patience with the boys.
"How much?" Adam was starting to lose patience with the shopkeeper.
"It’s eight dollars. You boys got eight dollars?" They were silent. "I didn’t think so." Another customer entered the store. "This here stuff," he held up the other, " is only seventy-five cents."
Adam shook his head stubbornly. He wanted the expensive perfume. Of course he had nowhere near that amount of money, but he had seen the look of delight on Marie’s face when she closed her eyes and sniffed the first bottle. In his mind, nothing else would do.
"Now it’s time for you boys to go. I got payin’ customers to take care of."
"Wait. Listen, could you hold that stuff for us, I mean just till we get the money?" Adam asked, his voice a shade desperate.
"Please?" Hoss echoed, his eyes round, pleading.
"Will? Could you help me over here?" called the woman who had just entered the store. She sounded annoyed.
Distracted, Will looked from the boys to his customer and said without thinking, "Sure. Sure. Now just get outta here, willya?" He looked down at Hoss, "And don’t knock anything else over!"
The boys left the store without any more mishaps. Hoss wanted to say something, but the frown on Adam’s face made him hesitate. Hoss knew when his brother got that ‘thinkin’ look’ on his face, it was downright dangerous to interrupt him. Adam stopped and sat down on a barrel outside the store, lost in thought. Hoss shifted from one foot to the other. Finally, he couldn’t wait any longer.
Startled from his reverie, the older boy looked up and rolled his eyes at Hoss’s squirming. He sighed a deep, big brother sigh and took his hand, leading him to the alley. Adam knew he should really take the boy a little further behind some trees, but judging by the look on Hoss’s face, he was afraid that would take too long.
"Geeze, didn’t ya just go?" Adam asked in a disgusted tone.
"Well I gotta go again. It ain’t my fault I gotta pee!" Hoss pulled a face as he looked to make sure no one was around.
"Just hurry up," commanded Adam, suddenly wishing he himself hadn’t had so much milk to drink at breakfast.
"Maybe I better go too – it’s a long ride home," he offered lamely and joined his brother up against the building.
"Hey Adam, how we gonna get eight dollars for that…that stuff they make from pears?" Hoss asked innocently.
"Pears?" Adam stared at him, totally confused.
"Ya know, that stuff we’re gonna get for Mama’s birthday," he explained.
"The perfume? It ain’t made from pears." Suddenly it dawned on him what his brother meant. "It’s from Paris, ya know, Paris, France."
Adam could see Hoss didn’t understand, so he tried to explain. "They make that smelly stuff girls like all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, in Europe, way far away. That’s why…"
"Hey, you kids get the hell outta here!" yelled a man peering in from the street. He had been reading a newspaper, which he folded under his arm when he saw what the boys were doing.
Hoss froze and gulped.
"Aw, mind your own business, Mister. We ain’t hurtin’ nuthin. We’re almost done!" Adam yelled back, embarrassed that an adult had caught him. He quickly fastened his pants, then turned to help Hoss with his. He began to take Hoss’s hand, then thought better of it. "Wipe your hand on your shirt, willya?" Adam tried to push Hoss toward the main street, but his brother was rooted to the ground, his eyes wide with fear as the man made his way toward them.
"C’mon!" Adam tugged at the child’s arm, but to no avail. And big as Hoss was, there was no budging him. Placing himself between the approaching man and his brother, Adam planted his feet firmly and stood his ground. "Listen, Mister, we didn’t do nuthin’."
"The hell you didn’t! Now I told you two to git and don’t come ‘round here no more. Damn kids, no better than animals!" With that, the man turned and walked in the opposite direction, still muttering to himself.
The ever-thoughtful Hoss bent over to pick up the newspaper the man had dropped. "Hey, mister, ya dropped yer…"
"Shut up!" Adam barked, afraid the man would come back and take them to Pa. "Gimme that." Adam took the paper from Hoss and shoved him toward the street. Glancing at the newspaper, Adam stopped dead in his tracks. "Hoss! Hoss! This is it, look!"
He thrust the paper under Hoss’s nose, forgetting that the boy couldn’t read more than a couple of words. Hoss smiled, not knowing what he was smiling about, but just happy his brother wasn’t mad anymore.
"What’s it say?"
"It says there’s gonna be a contest…" Adam’s voice rose excitedly.
"What kinda contest? A pie-eatin’ contest?" Hoss was hopeful.
"No, it’s for new ideas – the newspaper’s runnin’ it. And the winner gets a money prize! Twenty dollars for the best idea!" Adam scanned the advertisement for details, as Hoss jumped up and down.
"Money prize! We can git that pear stuff now!"
Adam furrowed his eyebrows and shook his head, but didn’t bother to correct Hoss. "It says here that the idea has to be somethin’ helpful to the family, somethin’ that makes life easier." Adam carefully ripped out the ad and shoved it in his pants pocket. His mind was already flooded with different plans as he guided his brother toward their waiting family.
"Uh Adam, what idea are we gonna use in the contest?" Hoss asked, somewhat puzzled.
"Shhhh! We’ll talk about it later. Now whatever ya do, ya gotta promise ya won’t say nuthin’ to Pa or Marie! Promise?" Adam was worried; he knew Hoss couldn’t keep a secret to save his life.
Hoss made a cross over his heart. "Cross my heart and hope to die, stick a needle in my eye." Adam nodded, knowing that was the best he could hope for. He groaned when Hoss asked, "What about Little Joe? Can I tell him?"
"NO! Absolutely not. He’s just learnin’ to talk and is always repeatin’ everything, so just keep your mouth shut about it, understand?" As they walked, the wheels in Adam’s head were turning. He was sure he could come up with something to win this contest and get twenty whole dollars. They’d be rich, even after they bought that fancy perfume. Why, he and Hoss would even have money left over for themselves – maybe Adam could buy that big science book Mr. Cass had displayed in his store! And Hoss could get a whole lot of candy, and they’d get Joe some too. Maybe a new pipe for Pa, and something for Hop Sing, of course…
"Adam!" shouted Ben Cartwright, hands on his hips. "Just where were you two? We’ve been standing here waiting."
So deep in thought over how he was going to spend his prize money, Adam was caught totally off guard by his father’s question. He looked up at him, mouth open. Hoss stared at his big brother and wanting to help, said the first thing that popped into his head. "I hadda pee, Pa."
"Oh," Ben said, quieter this time; there was no arguing with that. He never took his gaze from his eldest, though, whose face was coloring. Marie, sitting in the wagon and holding Little Joe, covered her mouth discreetly with her hand, trying not to giggle.
Adam found his voice. "Uh, yeah Pa. I had to take a piss too." He quickly looked up at his stepmother, realizing his poor word choice. She tried to look stern. "Sorry, ma’am," he whispered, eyes cast downward.
At that moment, two-year-old
Joseph gave a huge grin, revealing two deep dimples. "Take ‘iss, A’am take
‘iss. ‘iss. ‘iss. ‘iss." Over and over, Little Joe chanted the new word
he’d just learned as Ben shot Adam a withering look and climbed into the
wagon. The ride home was silent except for Little Joe, who kept busy practicing
his new word, much to Adam’s dismay.
After dinner that night, the Cartwrights sat in the great room, gathered around the roaring fireplace. Hoss was on the floor entertaining Joe, making animal noises as he moved some wooden animals about the hearth rug. Arms linked, Ben and Marie shared the settee, smoke curling up from Ben’s pipe. Adam glanced at his father over the book he couldn’t concentrate on. Pa didn’t seem mad at him anymore and he wondered if he would let him look at one of his sailing books he kept behind his desk.
"Did you want to say something, son?" Pa asked him, aware of his Adam’s eyes on him.
"Uh, yeah." Adam cleared his throat. "Do you think I could look at one of your books, the one about the sailing ships?"
Ben smiled widely at his interest. Adam’s thirst for knowledge never ceased to amaze him and he was proud of son’s natural intelligence. Ben got up and went right to the book. He sat back down and motioned Adam to sit next to him. This time it was Adam’s turn to give a wide smile as he sidled up close to his father. Ben took full advantage of his closeness and placed an arm around his eldest, pulling him near, both of them savoring the moment. Ben looked down at the raven head studying the book so carefully and couldn’t resist running his calloused hand over the wavy hair.
"Pa, show me which one was like the one you and Grandpa were on," Adam’s voice was enthusiastic as he looked up at his father, worship in his eyes.
Marie looked at her husband and Adam, and marveled at how much they resembled each other, both physically and in temperament. For a moment she felt she caught a glimpse into their solitary life on the wagon train, with just the two of them relying on each other for companionship. It was so rare that Adam let down his guard that she was almost taken aback by his open expression. She could see the deep pleasure both father and son were experiencing now, and quietly scooped up Little Joe and motioned for Hoss to follow her up the stairs. They left the two oldest Cartwright men alone.
Enthralled by the book, Adam took in every detail, asking many questions. He was particularly interested in the sails and how they worked, and Ben patiently explained as best he could. Before they knew it, the fire was low and the clock struck nine. Ben looked surprised, disappointed that the spell would be broken.
"Well young man, I think it’s long past your bedtime." He smiled at the boy, who was rubbing his eyes and trying to stifle a yawn.
"But Pa, we’re not finished yet," he complained, snuggling closer. It wasn’t often he got his Pa all to himself, and although most times he felt too old for hugs and such, he didn’t want to let go just yet. It felt too good. Ben pulled him closer and planted a light kiss on the top of Adam’s head. He must really be sleepy to let me do that, Ben thought.
"All right, maybe just
till we finish this chapter." Ben didn’t even finish reading the next page
when he felt Adam’s head sag heavily against his chest, sound asleep, still
grasping the book in his hands. He lifted his son easily, thinking that
Adam needed to put some more meat on his bones, and carried him up the
stairs. Gently, he laid him in bed and undressed him, shaking his head
at how young he looked. Sometimes it was hard for Ben to remember that
Adam was still a boy. He promised himself that they would have more times
like this, just the two of them. Blowing out the lantern, Ben quietly placed
the book on his nightstand beside the picture of Adam’s mother, Elizabeth.
The book belonged to Adam now.
After their chores were done the next day, Adam slowly made his way to the back of the house, with Hoss close on his heels.
"Where ya goin’?" Hoss asked.
"Shhhhh!" Adam placed his finger over his pursed lips. "I’m goin’ to get somethin’ from the laundry." He whispered his explanation, hoping that would satisfy Hoss, but of course, it didn’t.
Hoss wrinkled his nose and scratched his head at Adam’s answer. "Why?"
Adam rolled his eyes, " ‘Cos I’m getting’ somethin’ for that contest. Now you just wait here outside the door, and if ya see Hop Sing comin’, give a whistle." With that, Adam snuck into the wash house.
Hoss waiting patiently, taking his job seriously. If Hop Sing showed up, he’d just give a little whistle, he thought. Maybe I’d better practice just in case. So the boy put his lips together and gave a sharp clear whistle that Adam would be sure to be proud of.
Meanwhile, Adam quickly made his way around the baskets of laundry Hop Sing had piled up. He reached a hand into one basket and pulled his hand back in distaste – ugh! That one had Little Joe’s dirty diapers in it! Adam wiped his hand hard on the back of his pants several times. He learned his lesson, and first peeked in the next basket, hoping to spot….What was that noise? Adam heard Hoss whistle and scrambled out of the room, tripping over a basket in his haste. He picked himself up and rushed outside to Hoss.
"What? Where’s Hop Sing?" He panted.
"Huh?" Hoss smiled at his big brother. "Oh, he ain’t here. I was just practicin’, ya know, ta make sure ya’d hear me."
Adam bit his lower lip to keep his temper. Patiently, he placed both hands on Hoss’s shoulders, "Look, don’t whistle again unless somebody is comin’, understand?" Hoss nodded and Adam tousled his fair hair. "Good. Now I’m goin’ back in but I’ll be right back." And off he went.
This time, he found a basket of clean laundry and began to root through it. Hmmm, a sheet was way too big for what he had in mind, and Pa’s neckerchief was way too small. He dug down deeper, never noticing the dirty handprints he was leaving on everything he touched. Finally he came across one of Marie’s scarves. "This’ll do fine!" he said aloud, and scampered back to Hoss. "C’mon!"
He and Hoss ran to the back of the barn. Adam moved some bales of hay he had stacked, revealing an old wooden wagon with uneven, rickety wheels.
Hoss’s eyes lit up. He started to climb on it, but Adam put his hand out to stop him. "No, you’re too big for that now." He reached under a nearby blanket and pulled out a dowel and Pa’s book on sailing ships. He tried to explain to Hoss, "I used to put ya in this when you were a baby. I took ya everywhere with me." Hoss nodded eagerly, as if he remembered. "But now, see this?" Adam held open the book to a page filled with pictures of storm tossed vessels. "See this here white thing? That’s called a sail, and when the wind blows, it pushes the sail and makes the ship go faster."
"Are we gonna sail in the wagon?"
"No," Adam answered scornfully. "We’re gonna put a sail on this wagon, so when we hafta cart things, the wind will fill the sail and it won’t be so hard to pull! That’ll be real handy!"
"Sure will," Hoss agreed. "And that there sail’ll look real purty too." He looked at the blue and white flowered scarf Adam was measuring up against the dowel.
They heard their baby brother crying, and looked up at each other. Adam closed his eyes and said, "Oh no. I don’t wanna get stuck watchin’ him." But Joe’s cries stopped as they heard Marie’s footsteps approaching, and both boys quickly restacked the hay to cover the wagon.
"Oh, there you are!" Marie was happy to see them, and so was the baby. He stretched out his chubby arms toward his big brothers and Marie gladly put him down and watched him run to them. She had been chasing after him all morning and needed a break – she couldn’t understand why she was so tired but her little son was not. "I need you two to look after your brother a while."
"Aw, can’t Hop Sing watch him?" Adam whined.
"No, Hop Sing is in a bad temper – he’s in the wash house screaming in Chinese – something about the laundry, I’m not sure what. But I am sure he doesn’t need Little Joe in there ‘helping’ him." Joe made his way over to the boys and plopped down in Adam’s lap, picking up bits of hay and tossing them toward Hoss. Adam absentmindedly picked up a bunch of straw and handed it to the child, and rubbed his cheek on his baby brother’s soft curls. "How long do we hafta watch him?"
"Just for a little while, it’s almost his nap time. Take him for a walk or something, that’ll tire him out."
After his stepmother left, Hoss turned to Adam, "Now how we gonna sail the wagon?"
"Forget it now. We’ll hafta wait till he’s asleep." While they were talking, Little Joe wandered out of sight, behind the bales of hay.
"Joe?" Adam called. "Joe, come on out now." No answer. Forgetting he was too old for a tantrum, Adam stamped his foot. "C’mon out now Joe, I’m not foolin’." With that they heard a giggle, and discovered him sitting in the wagon, gleefully clapping his hands.
"Oh great." Adam kicked a nearby rake, sending it crashing into the wall.
Hoss knelt beside Joe. "Adam, since Joe knows ‘bout the wagon anyways, let’s try that sail thing. He won’t be no trouble."
Adam stared at his brother for a moment, then shrugged. "Might as well."
So they pulled Joe in the old cart a small distance from the house, out of any adult’s view, and Hoss played with Little Joe on a patch of grass while Adam assembled his sailing wagon. When he was done, he wet his index finger and held it to the air, judging wind direction. He placed the wagon at the top of a slight hill, then turned to get his brothers to watch.
"Hey Hoss, wanna see if it works?" he called out and Hoss grabbed Joe’s hand and pulled him to the top of the incline.
"Ain’t ya gonna put somethin’ in it to see if it’ll carry stuff and sail?" Hoss asked, and Adam was impressed that Hoss had remembered his earlier words. They set off to find some stones and branches, taking only a few minutes. But that’s all the time Little Joe Cartwright needed to climb into the wagon. Holding on to the sides, he rocked his small body back and forth till the wagon moved. At that precise moment, a fair gust of wind blew and Adam and Hoss turned to see just how well Adam’s ‘idea" worked.
"JOE!" they both screamed, dropping what they were carrying. They took off after the wagon, but the wind was blowing and the wagon was picking up downhill speed. Marie could hear the distant screams and ran toward the noise. Ben, who was also nearby, came running as well. They stood at the bottom of the hill and looked up, shielding their eyes from the sun. At first they couldn’t make out what was going on. Then into their view came an unusual sight – a blue and white scarf billowing in the breeze. It was attached to a wobbly wooden wagon, and in that wagon they could see a brown curly head. It took a few moments for Ben and Marie to realize exactly who those curls belonged to, and when they did, they took off running.
Adam surged past Hoss, running at full speed. He could hear his baby brother laughing – at least he wasn’t scared! So intent on stopping the wagon, Adam never noticed his father running up the hill. His side was aching and his breath was ragged, but finally Adam was within a few feet of his invention. He hurled himself down, stretched his arms out and grabbed hold of the back of the wagon, pulling it to an abrupt halt. Ben then reached them and scooped up his youngest son, who began to howl.
"No stop!" He pushed at Ben’s chest, trying to break his hold. "Wanna go fasser! Wanna go fasser!" Marie and Hoss reached the trio, both of them out of breath, and she grabbed the child from Ben’s arms.
"Nooooooooooo!" He screamed and reached to Adam. "A’am, go fasser! Joe wanna go fasser!"
All eyes focused on Adam, who was covered in dirt, his face and hands scraped and bloody from the rocky ground. He gulped as he saw the anger in his parents’ eyes.
When Ben found his voice, it was low and deadly. "What the hell were you thinking? He’s just a baby! He could have been killed!" Marie hugged the wailing baby tighter, shuddering at her husband’s words. "Is that why you wanted to see that book last night? To…to make this?" He gestured to the makeshift sail, flapping in the breeze. "And I thought it was because you were interested in…" Ben couldn’t continue. He was afraid he would say something in anger that he would regret later.
"But Pa…" Adam started to explain, but Ben held up his hand.
"Don’t say a word." His fists were clenched as he continued, "Go clean yourself up. Then I want you to take the axe and destroy this…this contraption. I don’t ever want to see it again. Do you understand me?"
"Yes sir." Adam stared at his feet.
"We will continue this
conversation tonight." Ben took Marie’s elbow and guided her back to the
house. Joe quieted down finally, tears streaking his grubby face. He lay
his head on his mother’s shoulder and gave a sad wave to his brothers.
Adam chopped his invention to bits, his anger at the unfairness of it all rising with each swing. He knew it was unreasonable to blame Little Joe, but he did anyway. Now Marie was mad at him for putting Joe in danger and ruining her scarf. Hop Sing found out who dirtied the laundry and he was mad too. But the worst was having Pa mad at him, not just because of the wagon, but because he thought Adam hadn’t been interested in the sailing book. And that wasn’t at all true! Tears of frustration fell and he wiped them angrily on his sleeve. He hadn’t bothered to clean his cuts and scrapes yet – maybe they’ll all get infected and I’ll die, he thought with a twelve-year old’s logic. Then they’d be sorry. That would teach them.
He laid on his bed, missing supper, waiting for Pa. In his hands were his sketch pad and a pencil. His door squeaked open, and in walked Hoss, his only friend.
"What’s that yer drawin’?" Hoss sat on the bed, looking at the drawing. It showed Ben and Marie working alongside one another in a garden. In the picture, Adam held a hoe and Hoss was pouring water from a bucket. Adam had drawn Little Joe sitting in the dirt, digging with his hands. He had even penciled in Hop Sing, who was holding a tray with cups on it. All had smiling faces.
"Can I keep that?" Hoss asked. He loved his brother’s drawings. Adam handed it to him.
"I brung you a roll." He pulled a somewhat smashed roll from his pocket, but Adam had no appetite and shook his head no. Hoss shrugged and shoved it into his mouth. He noticed Adam’s pants were ripped and bloody about six inches above his knee and pointed to it, still chewing.
"Yeah, I saw it. Don’t think Marie’ll wanna mend it for me. Can you sneak one of her needles and some black thread for me? I’ll sew it myself." Hoss nodded and left, returning quickly with the requested items. Adam slid his pants off and pushed the needle in and out, his haphazard stitches roughly pulling the fabric together. He looked down at his thigh, must have caught it on a sharp rock or maybe even a nail from the wagon, he wasn’t sure which. No matter, he thought as he pulled his pants back on quickly, hearing Pa’s footsteps.
Ben knocked softly, then entered. Not surprised to find his middle son there, he motioned for him to leave, and Hoss was very happy to obey. Adam stood, waiting.
"Boy," Pa began, and Adam knew he was in trouble. When Ben wasn’t angry, he’d use the term ‘son’, but if he said ‘boy’, for sure there was a spanking coming. "I am extremely disappointed in you. You risked the life of your baby brother for one of your stupid ideas, and I won’t stand for that."
Adam opened his mouth to
defend himself, then snapped it shut. He knew he’d be punished no matter
what, best just to get it over with. So his Pa thought his ideas were stupid?
He’d show him. He’d show them all by winning that contest. Ben’s voice
droned on and Adam let his mind wander, until his father motioned for him
to take down his trousers. Adam’s palms began to get sweaty and his stomach
did a flip-flop, but he bent over his father’s knees and took his punishment
without a whimper.
Adam was up long before dawn the next day getting his chores done, anxious to get back in Ben’s good graces. He slipped back into the house unnoticed as his family ate breakfast. Uncertain what to do, he quietly made his way to the stairs.
"Adam, aren’t you going to have breakfast? Hop Sing made ham and eggs!" Marie called. Adam noticed she was smiling and knew she’d forgiven him. He nodded and sat on the edge of his chair, his backside still sore. He didn’t dare look up at Pa.
Marie sent Ben a look across the table, urging him to say something, anything, to Adam. Ben harrumphed and she frowned, eyes flashing.
"So Adam, did you get started on that firewood yet?" As soon as he uttered the words, Ben wished he could take them back. It sounded like he was reminding his son of his punishment. Adam’s face dropped and he pushed his plate away. He was about to stand when they heard a familiar voice from above, "Mama!"
Never looking up, Adam scraped his chair on the boards. "I’ll get him up and dressed."
Adam spent the rest of the day as far from his father as his chores would allow, all the while thinking of ways to prove that his ideas weren’t stupid. That night at dinner, Ben and Marie tried to draw Adam into conversation, but he was lost deep in thought. Ben figured he was still sulking, so he gave up. Pouring some brandy into his glass, Ben swirled it around and held it to his nose.
"Nothing like the aroma of a good brandy," he commented before taking a long sip.
Marie teased him, "I didn’t think it was the smell that you were interested in." They both laughed. Hoss and Adam stared at each other, sharing the same thought - adults, sometimes they were so strange.
Ben pulled out his pipe and took several long draws before it finally caught. Little Joe’s eyes followed the trail of smoke, reaching his arms up to catch it.
As Adam lay in bed that night, sleep eluded him. His mind drifted back to the dinner conversation, and a new idea began forming in his mind. If he could just work out a few details, then maybe his Pa would be proud of him and his ideas! This time he wouldn’t tell Hoss and there was no way Little Joe could ruin it – oh yeah, this would work just fine and probably win him the prize money too! He wiped the grin off his face as he heard his father opening the door to check on him, just as he did every night. Adam lay motionless as his father pulled the covers up, tucking them in. Adam felt a light kiss on his forehead and thought that maybe his Pa wasn’t as mad at him as he thought he was.
Ben stared down at the
sleeping form, a small smile tugging at his lips. He really wasn’t angry
with Adam anymore, especially since Joseph escaped unscathed. In fact,
once Ben had calmed down and had time to think about the whole episode,
it struck him as downright amusing. Not that he’d ever let his sons know
that. At least he knew Adam had been paying attention when
Ben explained about the workings of a sailing ship. And Ben was proud that his son could rig up such a crude sail that obviously worked well. He bent over and kissed the smooth forehead lightly, careful not to disturb him, wondering what new scheme his eldest son was dreaming up.
Two days after the wagon
incident, Adam climbed up on the hearth and discreetly took some pipe tobacco
from the pouch Ben kept high on the mantle. That was the easy part. Glancing
around the room, he reached into the cabinet where various bottles of brandy
and wine were stored. Adam quickly poured some of Pa’s best brandy into
a tin cup, spilling a bit on his hand in the
process. After hiding the cup, he licked his hand dry, wrinkling his face in distaste. How could Pa drink this stuff? He wiped his tongue on his sleeve, trying to get the taste off. But all the men drank, and, well, he was practically a man himself. Maybe it was better if you didn’t let it sit in your mouth too long. Curious, he brought the mouth of the bottle to his lips.
"ADAM!" yelled Ben, at his son’s side in a few quick strides. Adam almost dropped the bottle, but managed to somehow hold on to it. "What do you think you’re doing?" He asked his startled son, who stared at his father, blinking rapidly.
"I…uh…I was thirsty?" His reply came out as a question and he could feel himself starting to tremble.
Ben shook his head and grabbed the bottle from his hands. "Boys," he muttered, putting the bottle back. Adam prayed his father wouldn’t notice how much was gone from the bottle, and for once, it seemed his prayers would be answered.
"Now go outside and play. And don’t let me catch you sneaking a drink again." He looked down at Adam’s pale face and added, "If you want to taste it, you may have a sip of mine at the dinner table. Is that clear?"
Adam could not find his voice, so he just nodded his head vigorously, amazed at his father’s calm reaction.
Marie and Hoss were in the yard tossing a ball to Little Joe, who spent most of his time running then falling on the ball. Adam shook his head and wondered if he had ever played like that.
"Adam!" called Hoss. "Come play!"
Not for the first time, Adam felt there were too many people living on the Ponderosa. He had to think of a place that Hoss wouldn’t follow him to. He looked around. The outhouse, perfect.
"I’ll be right there. Just gotta go take a…" he stopped mid sentence as Marie widened her eyes. "I mean, I’ll just be right back." He ran before they could respond.
Crouching down, Adam placed the cup of brandy on the floor. Then, reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the tobacco and mixed it with the brandy, just enough to moisten it. He brought the mixture to his nose – not too bad, he thought. He was mighty pleased with himself, inventing a new kind of tobacco that smelled like brandy – now his Pa wouldn’t have to drink that vile stuff!
Adam barely touched his dinner he was so excited. He couldn’t wait to see the look on Pa’s face, no, the look on his whole family’s faces when Pa lit up his pipe and the sweet smell of brandy would fill the air.
Little Joe was being particularly ornery that evening, refusing to eat, throwing his potatoes across the table at his brothers. Didn’t bother Hoss – never did. He just picked up what his baby brother threw and popped it into his mouth. When a potato landed in the middle of Adam’s gravy, shooting droplets onto his shirt, Adam just laughed. Ben raised his eyebrows at Marie, who shrugged, both not knowing what to make of Adam’s unusually good mood.
"I think we’ve all had enough," Ben finally said, signaling an end to the meal and an end to Joe’s antics.
"Want me to get your pipe, Pa?" Adam asked helpfully, further arousing his father’s suspicions.
"In a minute, son. First," he held out his glass of brandy to his eldest to taste, "here you go. I think you’re old enough to have a sip."
"Ben," Marie protested, choosing her words unwisely, "he’s a just little boy. He hardly touched his dinner, his stomach is empty."
Adam stood up, his pride
hurt. "I am not a little boy." And with those words, he finished off what
was left in the glass, more than a huge mouthful, and forced himself to
swallow. The liquid burned his throat and his eyes watered, but he willed
himself not to cough. Ben’s eyes teared a bit also, trying not to laugh.
He knew Adam would be humiliated if he did. Marie shot her husband
an "I told you so" look. Hoss stared at him, mouth wide open, admiration for his older brother growing by leaps and bounds. Even Little Joe was silent, staring at his big brother’s very red face.
The baby broke the silence. "A’am silwy."
Ben cleared his throat, swallowing a chuckle. "Now you may go get me my pipe." He winked at Adam, and the boy couldn’t have been happier. He ran to his Pa’s desk, almost overshooting it. With his back to his family, he gently picked up the pipe, as he had poured a little extra brandy in it right before dinner, making the mixture a trifle watery. He ran back to his father.
"Look, Pa, I even filled it for ya!"
"Well, thank you, son." He must have taken that lecture and spanking to heart, Ben thought as he struck his match. Adam watched breathlessly. Ben put the match to the tobacco and POOF, the flame shot up about ten inches high, charring the edges of Ben’s silver hair. Thinking fast, Ben threw the pipe into the fireplace while the rest of his family stood, dumbfounded.
"Oh my lord!" screamed Marie, as she rushed to her husband, who was busy swatting his head to prevent further burning. Adam edged behind Hoss, who was holding Little Joe back from the scene.
"WHAT THE…" Ben’s face
was beet red, his mussed hair black and uneven at the edges. Even the tip
of his nose was burned just a bit. All eyes turned to Adam, who suddenly
felt sick to his stomach. His father grabbed both of the boy’s arms and
began to shake him. "WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU THINKING? WAS THIS SOME KIND
OF JOKE…" The rest of his words were lost on Adam. Between the shaking
and the brandy and the guilt over what had just happened, he couldn’t help
himself. He wanted to put his hands over his mouth, but his father had
such a grip on him that he couldn’t raise his arms. He tried biting his
lip to force his mouth closed, but it was no use. His mouth opened and
he proceeded to empty the contents of his stomach all over his enraged
"You’re not going to wear that to bed, are you?" asked Marie sweetly, pointing to her husband’s hat. He was quite a sight, dressed in his striped nightshirt and hat. It took all of her willpower not to laugh out loud.
Ben let out his breath between clenched teeth as he tossed the hat to a nearby chair. "What has gotten into that boy lately? First he almost kills Joseph and himself, and then he practically sets me on fire!" Ben sat on the edge of the bed, his head in his hands. "Not to mention getting sick all over me. I can’t remember the last time that happened – maybe Hoss or the baby did it once or twice, but never Adam!"
Marie reached out and gently massaged the tension from his shoulders. "Well, I’m sure he feels awful about the whole thing." She was glad Ben’s back was to her, because she found it impossible to suppress her grin. "He was pretty sick, you know. I told you not to let him have that brandy." She couldn’t resist rubbing it in.
"He’s practically grown…" Ben started to defend himself.
"Oh for goodness sake, Ben, he’s twelve years old, a child. He’s not some ranch hand who needs a drink after a hard day’s work."
Ben saw the truth of her
words and felt some of his anger melt away. "I know. I know. I just wish
there was a school out here, something to occupy his mind a bit more. But
in the meantime, I think some extra chores will keep him from pulling any
more crazy stunts!" With that, Ben laid on his side, pulling the blankets
up to his chin, trying to forget about the evening’s events.
Adam woke the next morning, still not feeling too well. His head throbbed but he didn’t mention it to Marie when she came to check on him.
"Feeling better?" She sat on the edge of his bed, holding a tray containing dry toast and tea. His complexion was still pasty and there were dark circles under his eyes.
"I guess," he said softly, staring at his hands. "Is…is Pa still mad?"
Marie gently took Adam’s chin into her hand, forcing him to look at her. Her eyes twinkling, she answered, "Well, he isn’t mad exactly. He knows you didn’t do it on purpose. You didn’t, did you?"
Adam swallowed hard. "No…yeah…I mean I did it, but I thought it would, ya know, smell good, ‘cos Pa likes the smell of brandy and all. I never thought it would…it would…" he couldn’t finish his sentence, closing his eyes and reliving the scene over again. He scrunched up his nose, almost smelling the acrid stench of burning hair again. His stomach churned and he was afraid he’d be sick once more. He pushed the tray away.
"The problem with you, young man, is that you don’t think things through. You never think about the consequences." To his surprise, Marie chuckled, "And one of the consequences of your latest…uh…good deed is that your Pa will be wearing his hat a lot more for a while."
Adam rolled his eyes and sunk lower under the sheets, the throbbing getting worse. "I can’t believe I puked all over him." His voice held such despair that Marie’s heart went out to him.
"It was an accident, sweetheart. You couldn’t help it. Now, are you feeling well enough to get dressed? Your father left quite a list of chores for you."
Adam really didn’t feel
that well, but pushed back the blankets and swung his legs over the side
of the bed anyway. Best to get started right away, or else there’d be hell
"Adam, what are we gonna
do about Mama’s birthday present?" Hoss asked Adam as the older boy paused
to wipe the sweat from his forehead. He had been raking hay from the wagon
into a wheelbarrow, then carting it into the barn for the better part of
the afternoon. His head hurt and his back was aching now as well. He scratched
at his leg where the thread from his own repair
stitches were chafing against his skin. Even that was hurting.
"We got a few more days before the contest. I’ll think of somethin’, don’t worry." He tried to sound confident, but truth was, his heart wasn’t really in it any more. He was tired and disgusted and that cheap vial of "Toilette Water" was looking mighty fine right about now.
"I know ya will, Adam. Yer the smartest person I know!" Hoss stated, his trust in his older brother absolute.
Adam sighed. He couldn’t let Hoss down; he’d had to come up with something. But what?
Claiming he was too tired
to eat dinner that evening, Adam went straight to his room to rest. I’ll
never drink brandy again, he promised himself as he rubbed his temples.
He couldn’t understand why he felt so nauseous since he hadn’t eaten anything
to speak of since yesterday at lunch. The coolness of his pillow felt good
on his head and before too long, he slipped into a light
Adam was aware of his baby brother calling him, and he struggled to climb out of his slumber.
"A’am! Pay wit Joe!"
Prying his eyelids open, Adam looked around his room, disoriented for a moment. He shook his head slightly, sending him a reminder that his headache wasn’t gone, and rose slowly. Barefoot, he padded into the hallway across to Little Joe’s room, where the little boy was jumping on his bed, his expression delighted.
"A’am! Pay wit me!" His smile was wide and sincere, and Adam grinned back, unable as usual to resist him. He sat down and gathered him into a hug, making the little boy squeal. "A’am! Pay ball!"
"Not in the house, Joe. I’m in enough hot water as it is," explained Adam.
Little Joe cocked his head to the side, picking up on just a few of his brother’s words. "Wadder? Joe no want wadder!"
Adam laughed. "Don’t worry, no bath for you tonight. No water."
"Pay ball!" The baby demanded, his voice rising.
"Not in the house, Pa’ll get mad." He wanted to add ‘at me, not at you,’ but knew it was a waste of words. Being the oldest was such a burden sometimes, Adam reflected. It was up to him to watch his brothers, be the responsible one, do most of the chores, teach Hoss his lessons, and now think of ideas for the contest! Adam sighed, suddenly bone weary again.
In the meantime, Little
Joe hopped off the bed and was laying on the floor, most of his little
body under his bed. What’s he up to, Adam wondered. He wanted to lay down
next to him and find out, but it was just too much effort. He rubbed at
his thigh again – gotta remember to ask Marie to fix his pants. That thread
he used was making his leg itch now. He must have pulled the
stitches too taut, because that pant leg seemed tighter than the other one.
Not paying attention to his brother, Adam was surprised when a ball of blue yarn hit him square on the side of his head.
"Hey!" He looked down to see Little Joe’s devilish expression. Adam pretended to be stern, "Did you throw that at me?"
The little boy nodded, knowing full well his big brother wasn’t angry. He scrambled back onto the bed and grabbed the ball, tossing it clear across the room this time.
"A’am, catch ball!" He commanded.
"Oh no, I ain’t playin’ that game. You gotta learn to throw right before I play catch with you." Adam’s actions belied his words, as he got up and fetched the ball. He threw it high into the air and caught it behind his back, sending Little Joe into a spasm of giggles.
"Me do!" He shouted.
"Shhhh!" Adam quickly handed him the ball, which Joe promptly threw across the room again.
"Cut it out! I told you I ain’t chasin’ that stupid…" Adam stopped mid sentence. A thought just came to him. He jumped off the bed, wincing with pain as he landed, and picked up the ball of yarn, examining it closely.
"Gimme!" Joe demanded, hands extended.
"Just wait a minute. I’m gonna fix the ball for ya," Adam explained, trying to find the end of the yarn. Joe came over and fairly stuck his head in his big brother’s face, trying to see what he was doing to his toy.
"Watch out!" Adam gently pushed the child away, but Joe was back in no time.
Adam ignored him and held him off with his left arm while he worked with his right. There, he found the end. He expertly tied some knots around the ball, leaving a length of about three feet of yarn loose. At the end of the loose string, he tied a loop, just big enough for Little Joe’s hand to squeeze in.
"Here!" Adam held out the loop and slipped it over the tiny hand. "Joe, now throw the ball," Adam directed and for once, Joe was happy to oblige. He threw it with all his might and it landed only about three feet away.
"Now look, pull it back from here," Adam pointed to the string, and Joe did as was told. Adam’s face, a bit flushed by this time, was beaming. "See? It’s kinda like when Hoss and me go fishin’. You’re pullin’ in the fish…I mean, the ball."
Joe jumped up and down on his bed. "Joe fishin’ wit A’am." Joe then plopped down in Adam’s lap, landing right on the sore spot on his thigh.
"OW!" Adam hissed, sucking in his breath. That hurt way more than it should have. He pushed Little Joe off his lap onto the bed, tousling his curls to let him know he wasn’t mad. Adam yawned loud, and his brother laughed. Adam shivered, sure was cold in this room. He looked at Little Joe’s perfect profile, so intent in his new ‘fishin’ game, that Adam had to smile.
"Watch me, A’am. Watch!"
"Okay, squirt. I’m just gonna lay down and watch, okay?" Adam lay on his side and pulled a blanket tight around himself, drifting off to sleep despite Joe’s chattering.
A little while later, Marie
entered the room, finding her stepson sound asleep and her own son contentedly
unraveling some blue yarn that was mysteriously tied at one end to his
wrist. Marie shrugged. As long as it kept Little Joe quiet, she wasn’t
all that concerned about the yarn. Little Joe looked up her, eyes serious.
"Shhhhh. A’am sweepin’." She gathered the baby into her arms
to carry him downstairs to kiss his father good night.
Before leaving, she shook
Adam’s arm. "Adam, wake up. Adam!" She shook him a little harder this time,
and he opened his eyes slowly. Marie smiled down at him. "Why don’t you
go get ready for bed – in your own room." He nodded, rubbing the sleep
from his eyes. "And thank you for entertaining this little monster!" She
tickled Little Joe and Adam could hear him laughing all
the way down the stairs.
Adam sat up, wrapping the blanket around him – he was so cold his teeth were chattering. The room was spinning. He tried to smile at the pile of tangled yarn Joe had left behind – so much for his latest invention - but it hurt his head too much. He put his feet on the floor, but for some reason, his right leg gave out from under him. Grabbing at the small table next to the bed for support, he overturned it as he crashed to the floor in a heap.
Ben took the steps three at a time and burst into the room, with Marie, Hoss and Joe close behind. Dropping to his knees beside Adam, Ben gently supported the back of his head, which was now trickling blood.
"P…Pa, I don’t f…feel so good," Adam whispered. Ben touched Adam’s forehead, not surprised to feel the heat emanating from his clammy skin. Two bright spots on his cheeks attested to his fever.
"Let’s get you into your own bed, young man," Ben said. The boy drew in a pained breath as his father put his arm under his knees, carefully lifting him. Ben looked at him, puzzled.
"Pa?" Adam’s eyes were glazed and his voice sounded funny to his own ears. "I…I ain’t ever gonna drink brandy again."
Ben smiled down at him, shaking his head at his son’s innocence. Marie shooed Hoss and Joe out of Adam’s room. The boy’s eyes were closed and he was breathing fast. Ben spoke as if to reassure Marie, when in reality it was he who needed reassurance. "He always ran high temperatures, even as a baby. Not that he was sick much." His voice trailed off, remembering the few times Adam had taken sick on the trail, with no money for a doctor. Now that they could afford a doctor, there was none to speak of within fifty miles or so, just one who visited the mines occasionally. Ben silently cursed the remoteness of the land he loved so much.
"Can you tell me what hurts, sweetheart?" asked Marie, running a cool damp rag over his hair.
"Uh, my head hurts," he answered softly.
Ben felt the egg sized lump on the back of his head where he’d made contact with the floor. "Well that doesn’t surprise me – hope you didn’t crack the floorboards." He joked, trying to elicit a smile, but none came.
"No, I mean it hurt before that, a coupla days I think. Pa, can I have some water please?"
Ben held a cup to his lips, his forehead creased with worry. "Now just a few sips. Don’t want you throwing up again."
Marie peeled her stepson’s sweaty shirt off, while Ben loosened Adam’s pants and began pulling them off as well. He had trouble with the right pant leg, almost as if it was too small for Adam’s leg.
Adam moaned and Ben stopped immediately. He felt the boy’s thigh through the material – it was rock hard and bulging. Swallowing hard, Ben managed to slide the pants off very slowly, very carefully. Adam had obviously cut himself a few days ago. The sight of the wound was red and raw, the muscles beneath it swollen. Ben touched the angry site lightly and Adam cried out in pain.
"Sh, it’s all right darling," Marie soothed, stroking his cheek lovingly. Ben’s finger traced the thin red line that reached up Adam’s leg, stretching over his bony hips almost to his navel. A feeling of dread overcame Ben as he gazed at Adam, knowing what he had to do. The adults’ eyes locked in alarm.
"Marie, go tell Hop Sing to boil some water. Get some clean cloths," Ben instructed. She sprang up to do his bidding, but he caught her arm before she could reach the door. He lowered his voice. "Bring a needle and some thread too. And tell him I’ll need a small knife – make sure it’s the sharpest one he’s got." Marie couldn’t contain the look of horror that crossed her face, nor the tears that filled her eyes.
"Pa, I’m thirsty," Adam’s voice brought Ben back to his side. He allowed him a few more sips, then knelt by his head, stroking his son’s hair away from his face. Despite the high fever, the boy was lucid and Ben knew he had to tell him what he was about to do.
Clearing his throat, Ben began, "Adam, you cut your…"
"I know. I…I tried sewin’ it so Marie wouldn’t…she was already mad at me…I didn’t know Joe was in the wagon, honest Pa."
"It’s okay, son. We know you’d never hurt your brothers. But you cut your leg and…"
Adam interrupted him again. "I…I tried to think of somethin’ and everything turned out wrong. And now," he hesitated, trying to catch his breath. His heart was pounding in his ears and his tongue felt thick and fuzzy, but he had to make his Pa understand.
"Sh, now Adam, it’s all right. Everything will be all right," Ben tried to calm him, but Adam placed his hand on his father’s arm. He had to make him understand, but for some reason, his words were coming out all jumbled.
"Pa, the contest, I gotta
think of somethin’…or else Marie…I can’t get…Hoss is countin’ on me…I did
really like your book…didn’t mean to have stupid ideas...the yarn and…and…and
the fire…and…" He was close to panting now and Ben was afraid he’d drive
his fever up even higher. Ben couldn’t understand what he was trying to
say and feared some delirium was
setting in. He placed his finger on Adam’s dry lips to silence him.
"Adam, you must keep quiet now and listen to me." Ben slid his hand to his son’s chest and could feel his heart racing. "Son, do you remember when your old pony had that abscess on his leg? What was his name again?" He tried to get Adam to focus.
"B…Brownie," Adam whispered, his eyes heavy.
"That’s right, Brownie. And remember I had to lance his leg to get the infection out?"
Marie and Hop Sing entered the room at that moment. Marie could not keep the concern from her eyes as she sat at the head of the bed, her hand caressing Adam’s hair. Hop Sing placed the requested items on Adam’s nightstand, then nodded to Ben.
"Mr. Cartwright, everything ready." With those words, he pulled the blankets back and placed some clean towels beneath and around the injured leg. Adam turned his head slightly and pried open his eyes, trying to see what Hop Sing was talking about. The only object that caught his eye was the shiny metal of a knife. His eyes widened and he stared at his father.
"Pa?" Adam’s voice was panicky.
Ben’s tone was soothing as he tried to ease his son’s fears. "Adam, you’re old enough to know what is going on. You cut yourself and the cut got infected. You have blood poisoning…"
Adam stopped listening, remembering his wish about dying. He couldn’t recall his exact thoughts, but knew it was something about him dying to make his parents sorry.
"No, Pa. I didn’t mean it." He had to make his Pa understand, make Marie understand that he changed his mind, he didn’t want to die. "Pa, I don’t wanna die. Please, I’ll…I’ll wash it out good and…" His words baffled and upset the adults
Tears streamed down Marie’s face as she threw her arms around the child. "Oh Adam, don’t talk this way, please. You are not going to die. Ben?" She raised her eyes to her husband for comfort, but he could not meet her gaze. "Ben?" she repeated, more forcefully.
Ben placed his two rough hands on either side of Adam’s face. The boy’s eyes were wide with fear and truth was, Ben wasn’t sure he could allay those fears. "Son, you’re not going to die." Ben sent up a silent prayer that he was telling the truth. "I am going to have to lance it, and I’m not going to lie, it’s going to hurt. So I what I need for you to do is stay as still as possible, okay?" Adam nodded weakly, his hands gripping his father’s arm. Ben reached for the piece of leather Hop Sing had placed on the table. "Now, I’m going to put this in your mouth, and I want you to bite down on it as hard as you want." He took Adam’s hands and placed them in Marie’s, who tried to smile down at him.
Before taking the knife, Ben brushed the tears from his own eyes. He steeled himself from looking at the look of terror on his eldest son’s face. Hop Sing, holding down the child’s legs, nodded to his boss, encouraging him to do what they all knew he had to do.
As metal pierced flesh,
Adam forgot to bite down and screamed out pitifully, until the white-hot
pain forced him into unconsciousness.
For two days, Adam did not awaken from his fevered sleep. Ben spent the entire time at his bedside, spelled only occasionally by Marie. The child’s form was so still and white against the sheets that several times Ben placed his hand on his chest to feel the unsteady rhythm of his heartbeat. Finally Adam’s eyes fluttered open momentarily, then just as suddenly, closed again.
"Adam, son, can you hear me?" Ben whispered urgently. Brushing the palm of his hand on the clammy forehead, Ben thought it wasn’t quite as hot as earlier. "Adam!"
Without opening his eyes, Adam spoke. His voice was hoarse and low as he murmured, "Pa, did…did we win?"
Ben’s face crumpled in relief and exhaustion upon hearing Adam speak, even though his words seemingly made no sense. Ben kissed his sweaty cheek and answered, "Yes, son, you won. We all did."
Adam’s recovery was slow but steady, and each day he grew a little stronger and slept a little less. Marie and Hop Sing nursed him during the day, but as soon as Ben came in from a long day of work, he invariably made his way up the stairs and into Adam’s room. The family gathered in his bedroom after dinner each night, and even Little Joe, young as he was, seemed to understand he needed to behave and keep quiet while his big brother recuperated.
About a week later, Adam, although still weak and unable to put any weight on his right leg, was allowed to be carried downstairs for the first time. Ben wrapped him in a warm blanket and lifted him gingerly. Adam lay his head against his father’s shoulder, surprised at how weak he still felt.
"You’re sure you’re up to this?" Ben concerned brown eyes bore into Adam’s hazel eyes, still a bit droopy.
"Yes sir, I mean it’s Marie’s birthday and all. I just..I just…" His lips pulled down into a frown and Ben smiled down at him.
"I don’t have nuthin’ for her, and I…I let Hoss down. Joe, too." Adam’s voice was as forlorn as his expression, and Ben squeezed him.
"I think I’m carrying the best gift she could get, right here." And with those words, he brought his son down the stairs. He placed him on the settee, propping him up with pillows and elevating his leg. Hoss promptly sat next to his brother, getting as close as he could. Not wanting to be left out, Little Joe came running over, fairly hurling himself into Adam’s arms. Fortunately, Ben caught his baby son and placed him on Hoss’s lap, but Little Joe reached out and threw his arms around Adam’s neck.
"I wuv you A’am!" he stated.
"Yeah, me too!" Hoss added.
Adam blushed all the way to his hairline and averted his eyes. Never comfortable with open displays or declarations of affection, Adam hid his face in Little Joe’s curls.
"I love you too," he said it so softly that he almost hoped no one heard, but they all did. Marie winked at Ben and made her way to her eldest stepson, giving him a hug and a kiss. Although secretly pleased, Adam wished he could melt into the furniture so no one could see him.
"H…happy birthday, Marie," he said. "I’m sorry I don’t have a gift for ya."
"Oh Adam, you’re going to be fine, that’s the only gift I need," she exclaimed joyfully.
Hoss hopped off his seat, his face bright and his smile broad. He looked, Adam thought, like the proverbial cat that swallowed the canary. Hoss stared at Ben, who nodded his head at him. Taking off into the alcove where Ben’s desk was, Hoss returned with several bundles wrapped in brown paper.
"Me! Me!" Joe screamed.
"No, it’s Mama’s birthday and she gets her present first," Hoss told him firmly. He handed her a small box and she sat on the table in front of the fire and tugged at the string. Joe was at her side immediately. She lifted the lid, and slowly pulled out the beautiful cut glass bottle of French perfume from Will Cass’s store. Adam’s eyes bulged in amazement.
"Oh, it’s the perfume I wanted. But it’s so expensive." She turned to Ben, "You shouldn’t have, Ben."
He just shook his head. "I’m ashamed to say I didn’t buy it. They did." He gestured to their sons.
Before anyone could say anything else, Hoss shouted, "Adam entered a contest and won it and we got a money prize and bought ya that there smelly stuff from pears and got lots of stuff fer everybody!" He gulped for air. Ben and Marie laughed – that was the longest speech Hoss had ever made.
Adam looked as though he was having trouble taking it all in. "But I didn’t enter the contest. Nuthin’ worked – all my ideas were stupid."
Ben took Hoss’s place next to Adam. "Well son, Hoss explained to me about the contest and your…uh…helpful ideas. None of which were stupid, by the way. They just needed a little more work. Anyway, we went down and spoke to Mr. Rodgers at the newspaper, and Hoss gave him this." Ben handed Adam a newspaper, and on the last page was printed the picture he had drawn of his family working in the garden. "You see, he liked the old fashioned idea of a family working together, enjoying each other and helping each other out as best they could. And your picture here shows that." Adam looked at him, eyebrows raised, still incredulous.
"Ya won, Adam!" Hoss yelled. "Ya won twenty whole dollars!"
"And," Ben added, "the picture you drew got printed up in the newspaper, right there for everyone to see." He pointed at it proudly, and Adam’s smile almost blinded him.
"Yum, candy!" Little Joe had found the package filled with different candies, and his mouth was covered in chocolate. Everyone laughed at his angelic, if not dirty, face.
Hoss wasn’t finished telling the story yet. "And we got a new pipe fer Pa…"
"Which I’ll be filling with tobacco myself, thank you," Ben declared, and Adam’s face reddened.
Ignoring the interruption, Hoss continued, "And we got some kinda spices for Hop Sing, and candy fer me and Joe, and this here book is fer you!" He added with a flourish, plopping a heavy package onto his big brother’s lap. Adam winced slightly but tore into the wrappings, revealing the science book he had had his eye on.
Unable to wait, he began to leaf through the pages. He held the book up for his father, "Pa, look!" He pointed to a chapter on wind and weather and Ben ruffled his hair, grinning.
Hop Sing entered with a cake adorned with lit candles. They all sang "Happy Birthday" to Marie, and she hesitated before blowing out the flickering flames.
"Make ‘ish, Mama," commanded Joe.
"I don’t need to wish for
anything, darling. I have everything I want right here."
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