The Other Brother
Summary: This is a what if story. What if Clay had come to the Ponderosa early enough to learn the lifestyle of the Cartwrights, instead of becoming a wanderer and gambler.
I'm really excited today. Ya know it ain't everyday that a kid get's a new brother, but that's exactly what he is to me. Well we've known about him for a while now, but today Pa's making it official. Today, he becomes a Cartwright. I was told a long time ago, when I was just a little kid that my mother had had a baby the first time she was married, but that he had died. I always felt a little sad about that. See I have two big brothers, and I don't know what I'd do with out them. I mean, shoot who'd I play pranks on if they wasn't around. Anyways, we just found out that Clay, that's my brother’s name, was still alive. That he'd been stolen from Mama. That's really sad, cause they never got to know each other. But now that Pa has found out, Clay’s gonna live here with us. It's kinda confusin’, so I guess I need to start at the beginnin’. I got time, Pa and Clay won't be back for awhile, and it was a real rocky road that got us here. You see, it all started two months ago…
Pushing the swinging doors open; he entered and walked up to the bar. It had been a long hard ride and to say he was tired would truly be an understatement. Remembering the conversation that had brought him to the area, he wondered not for the first time, if this was the right decision. No, he couldn't second-guess himself now, he was already here, and he had to know the truth. "Barkeep, give me a beer."
The stocky man behind the bar walked to the end where the young man stood and gave him an appraising stare. "Kid, you don't look old enough to drink, so run along." Sam said, as he turned to leave.
Slipping his hand down to rest on the butt of his Colt pistol, the young man smiled at Sam, and quietly said, "I didn't ask what you thought. I told ya to give me a beer, and I don't like to ask twice."
Wanting to avoid any confrontation, the owner shrugged his shoulders and went to get the beer. Clay looked around the saloon wondering if any of the men there were from the family he was in search of. He had just recently found out the truth behind his childhood, and had ridden from New Orleans to seek out the mother he was told died giving him life. His grandmother had confessed the truth to him on her deathbed, saying that she had hated his mother, Marie. When her son Jean had left, she took him and told Marie the child had died.
Now at the age of sixteen, Clay was hoping to finally find his mother, and the family that should have been his. He had been told that she had remarried, after Jean's death, to a man named Ben Cartwright. Upon finding out they lived in the Nevada Territory, he sat out to find the mother he never knew. But now he was unsure of his feelings, not knowing whether to believe what his grandmother had told him. Or was the truth simply that his own mother hadn't wanted him. Had she left him behind to be with this man, and to help raise his sons, as if he meant nothing to her?
Pouring the beer, Sam handed it to the young man, and started wiping down the bar. Clay knew that he needed information and the best place for that was the saloon. Looking up at Sam he quietly said. "Hey, sorry about that. Guess I'm kinda grouchy, been on the trail for awhile now."
"Awe don't worry about it kid, just don't make me regret givin’ it to ya."
With a quick smile, Clay continued. "You wouldn't happen to know of a family around these parts that goes by Cartwright would ya?"
"Everybody around here knows Ben and the boys. Ben owns the biggest spread in the territory."
"Know where I might find them?"
"Well, depends on which one ya lookin’ for. Hoss is over to Carson on business, Ben and Adam should be comin’ in any time now to do some hirin’, and Little Joe is at school. Or well, that's were he's supposed to be." Sam chuckled.
"I thought there was only two boys." Clay said casually.
"No, Ben has three boys. Say, why so many questions?" Sam asked.
"Oh, I just heard they might be hirin’, is all."
"Well, you can ask them yourself. There's Ben and Adam right there." Sam said, nodding his head toward the door.
Clay turned and watched as the two men entered and took a seat at one of the tables. Taking another sip, he watched as Adam called out for a couple of beers and pulled out a book and handed it to his father. 'So Ben, will you except me in your life, as one of your sons? Or will you turn me away?' Mind made up on what he was going to do, Clay walked over and addressed them.
"I hear your hirin’."
"That's right, are you looking for a job?" Ben asked. Looking up at the youth, smiling, he added. "You look a little young to be out on your own."
"Gotta work to eat."
"Where's your family, kid?" Adam asked, he guessed the boys’ age to be around sixteen or so, and wondered if the boy was a runaway.
"Only family I know is dead. That's why I need a job."
"How old are you, son?" Ben asked.
"Nineteen. Names, Clay Stafford." he lied extending his hand to the man, who he'd been told was in fact his stepfather.
Taking the proffered hand, Ben shook it. "Son, the first thing you need to learn is not to lie to a possible employer. Now let's try this again. How old are you and have you done much ranching?"
Taking a deep breath, he looked straight into Ben's eyes. "I was just afraid ya wouldn't even consider me if I told ya I was sixteen. I have worked on a couple of ranches since I been driftin’. I'm a fast learner."
Nodding his head, Ben took the pen and wrote the boy’s name in the book. "Alright, we'll give you a go and see how it works. Be ready to ride in say a half-hour. My youngest son is to meet us here, and then we'll head to the ranch… And Clay, no more lies, understand?"
"Alright." Clay said as he turned to leave.
Adam watched the boy as he leaned against the bar and wondered at just who the kid was. He had a feeling that there was more to the story than he'd let on. He looked familiar, but why, he wasn't sure. He had seen the desperate look in the boy’s eyes, and wondered on the cause of such deep concerns to a boy that young. "Wonder what his story is, Pa?"
"Who?" Ben asked, as he penciled in the last cowboy that agreed to sign on.
"The kid… Stafford."
"What makes you think there's more to it. Seems like a nice enough boy." Ben said, as he looked over to where the boy stood, finishing his beer. "Don't like to see a kid that age, drinking though."
"Speaking of kids." Adam smirked, as he watched his youngest brother come bouncing through the swinging doors. "Here comes the Prince of Mischief."
"Ah… but ya have that wrong, older brother. It's the Prince of the Ponderosa." Little Joe proclaimed.
Ben smiled as Little Joe pulled out a chair and sat down. "Have a good day, son?"
"Pretty rough, Pa. Nothin’ that a cold beer wouldn't solve." Joe smiled, hoping to convince his father.
"Nice try, little buddy." Adam said as he took a sip.
"Ya know, older brother. I wasn't talkin’ to you, so mind ya own business." Joe growled.
Sensing the impending battle, Ben sternly said, "Joseph, you watch your tone young man, or you can wait outside for us, and no you can't have a beer."
"Joseph, not another word."
Sam chuckled at the scene before him, catching Clay's attention. "What's so funny?"
"That young'un there can really try his Pa. Boy's in to big a hurry to grow up."
"How old is he?" Clay asked of the boy. No he told himself. 'Not a boy, he's my brother. He'd have to be.'
"Just turned fourteen, few month ago. Thinks he's grown though."
"That's old enough for a beer or two." Clay decided. "And big brother here will see to it he has it, too.'
"Not for Ben, he don't allow it. He's raised those boys to be respectful, with a good set of morals. Don't stop the boy from trying though. Why, I seen his Pa and brothers drag him out of here one night a couple of weeks ago, by the scruff of his neck. Kid didn't ride to easy for a few days on account of it. And in my opinion you ain't old enough either. Wouldn't be surprised if Ben don't put his foot down about it either."
"Yeah, well your opinion don't matter, nor does his."
"Sam, can I get a sarsaparilla?" Joe asked as he leaned on the bar next to Clay.
"Drinkin’ light today, Little Joe?" Sam asked, smiling at the look on the boy’s face.
"Yeah, well, gotta keep Pa happy." Joe answered.
Clay looked at the boy, his brother and figured that the boy must look like his mother, their mother. "I take it you’re one of the Cartwrights." Clay stated.
Little Joe looked around and smiled. "Yeah, Joe Cartwright, but most folks around these here parts call me Little Joe."
"Clay Stafford. I just signed on with ya Pa." Clay said, extending his hand.
Taking it, Joe smiled. "Hey, that's great. Maybe we'll get to work together sometimes.
"Maybe. Be kinda nice to work with someone closer to my age. All I seen ya Pa hiring is old guys."
"I have the same problem. Be nice not to get called kid all day. You ridin’ out with us?"
"Yep, gotta go and get my horse over at the livery." Clay said turning to leave.
"Want some help?" Joe asked. He didn't know what it was, but he liked this fella.
"Sure, come on."
"Let me tell my Pa, be right there."
Clay walked out onto the boardwalk in front of the saloon and waited. The idea of a brother appealed to him more each time he thought of it. He hadn't known of this new addition to his life, but he could say it was a welcome one. His plans had changed slightly, for he originally planned to meet his mother, set things straight, and then move on. But now, he wasn't so sure. As he looked at Joe, he knew he had to get to know the boy. They both deserved that much.
"Joseph, I want you to take one of the men and go to the south pasture and check the waterhole, and the fence. Make sure it's ready for the herd. We need to move them next week." Ben said, as they all sat at the breakfast table.
"Yes sir… Pa?"
"Can I take whoever I want?"
"I guess so. Who do you have in mind?"
"Thought I'd take Clay with me. He hasn't seen much of the ranch yet." Joe said, taking a bite of his ham.
"I guess that's alright."
"Pa, do you think he's the right one to send with Little Joe? Maybe we ought to send one of the older hands instead, just to be sure." Adam commented ignoring the looks he was getting from his baby brother.
Ben caught the look on his son's face and quickly said. "Now Adam, I'm sure we can trust Little Joe to get the job done. Can't we Joseph?"
"Sure ya can Pa. I aint' a kid, that needs a babysitter. Clay and I can handle it just fine. Can I be excused?" Joe asked.
"MAY I be excused, and yes you may." Ben said, and waited for the expected slam of the door before addressing his eldest. "Son, care to tell me what that was about?"
"Oh, nothing really. Just seems like a big job to send a couple of kids on, and you know that Little Joe would rather play than work." Adam stated.
"Joseph knows what is expected of him, and what will happen if he doesn't do what he's told. We have to trust him to do some things now, or he'll not be ready to work full time on the ranch in a couple of years."
"I know, but I just got a feeling were in for some trouble. Those two are closer in age, so who knows what they'll get up to. I just worry about the influence Clay will have on Little Joe. The boy is already hinting around for a beer, and would have already had one, if we hadn't just stopped by the saloon the other night. And you know that Clay seemed awfully comfortable in the saloon, more comfortable than a boy that age should."
"I thought about that already, but the way I'm thinking is this. As busy as Clay will be here, he won't have time to go to town, so maybe it will do him some good to hang around with Joseph. I know the boy gets into his share of trouble, but it's usually harmless stunts. This might be the chance Clay needs to change his life. To be the boy he is. Time will tell, son."
Little Joe knocked on the door of the bunkhouse and waited until the foreman answered. "Hey Charlie, is Clay still here?"
"Sure is son… Clay, Little Joe needs ya." the foreman called.
Clay walked to the door and smiled. "Hey Little Joe, what's up?"
"You're riding with me today, so come on."
"That was fast work." Clay said as he leaned against the door. "I mean getting us paired up already."
"Nothing to it, I know the boss." Joe giggled.
Laughing, Clay grabbed his hat and headed off to the barn with Little Joe. Charlie stood watching as the boys rode out of the yard. Turning he saw Adam leaning against the ranch house. Walking over to join his young boss, he noticed the concerned look on his face. "Hey there Adam. How are you this mornin', son?"
"Good, and you, Charlie?"
"Good, good. That's quite a pair there," he said nodding the direction of the boys.
"What do you mean?" Adam questioned.
"Oh nothing bad, just mischief in the works. You can't put two kids together and not get some kinda pranks or something out of it."
"Yes, well, you just don't let it get to far out of hand. Little Joe gets out of line, come to me or Pa."
"Adam, when have I ever needed to come to your Pa with a problem concerning that scamp. I can handle him." Charlie proudly said.
Patting the older man on the back, Adam smiled. "I know you can. You never had any trouble dealing with any of us."
Charlie's smile faded as he turned to watch the retreating backs of the two young men. "I can't put my finger on it, but somethin’ is botherin’ that boy."
"Which boy?" Adam asked.
"Clay. I mean he's a likable kid and all, but it's like he's wary or don't trust anyone. Like he's mad at the world."
The few words from the foreman had only increased Adam's desire to find out all he could on the young man, for he too had seen what Charlie had mentioned. "Just keep your eyes open to it. Let me know, will ya?"
"Sure thang Adam."
The sun peeked out from behind the fluffy white clouds that speckled the bright blue sky, as the two boys made their way to the southern pastureland. The ride was a long one, through some of the most beautiful country Clay had ever seen. The pine trees, Ponderosa pines someone had said, shot up so tall that they appeared to never end. The aroma of the pine needle, mixed with all the fragrances of the wildflower, sifted through his mind. Heaven he wondered? If heaven was anything like this, it was truly spectacular. If not, he mused, you wouldn't get much closer. Clay watched as a rabbit ran across the meadow in front of them, scurrying off in the brush nearby. Glancing out of the corner of his eye, he looked at the boy that rode beside him. Studying the fine features, the big green eyes, and the curly chestnut hair, he wondered even more what his mother looked like.
"Big spread ya Pa's got here." Clay commented as the boys rode along.
"There ain't no place on earth even comes close to the Ponderosa." Joe proudly said.
"You lived here all your life?"
"Yep, born right here. Guess ya could say this place is in my blood... What about you? Where ya from?"
Looking over at his little brother, Clay wondered at the reaction he would receive at his answer. "New Orleans."
"Really?" Joe asked, "My mother was from New Orleans. I have always wanted to go there."
"I haven't met your mother yet. She away or something?" Clay asked. He wasn't prepared for the information he was about to get.
"No....Mama died when I was four. It's just me, Pa and my brothers, now." Joe stated softly. He looked over at the pale face of his new friend and asked. "You alright?"
"What?....yeah...Just thinking. My mama died ten years ago too." the boy said sadly. This was not what he had expected to find. This could change everything. But he could still stay for awhile and get to know his brother. 'I'll have to tell him soon, now that I don't have to worry about someone wanting me to stay.'
"Oh...how old were you?"
"You ain't but sixteen? What are ya doing on your own?" Joe asked. He knew the boy wasn't very old, but figured he had to be at least eighteen to be alone.
"Hey, I'll be seventeen in five months." Clay snapped.
"Whoa, friend. I wasn't puttin ya down or nothin'. Just shocked me was all."
"I'm sorry Joe. It's just that everyone I run into gives me a hard time about it."
"Hey I know what ya mean, don't worry about it" Joe said, then changed the subject back to what they had been talking about. "Bet you have a bunch of memories of your Mama. I can't remember much about mine. Pa, Adam and Hoss tell me stories about her though."
"Actually I don't, see I was taken from her when I was born. I've never met her. Never knew my father either."
"That's awful. I can't even imagine what it'd be like not to have been raised here. I don't know what I'd do without my Pa and brothers."
'I hope ya have room for one more brother, kid. "Yeah, well enough of that. Tell me about your family."
Seeing the hurt his friend was trying to conceal, Joe agreed. "Sure, what cha wanna know?"
"Tell me about your Pa. He seems kinda...loud."
Giggling, Joe shook his head. "Oh, he can be loud alright. I know that better than anyone, except maybe older brother Adam. But I'm catching up with him pretty quick. Pa used to be a sailor, so that's why he talks loud."
"Seems to me he keeps you on a short leash." Clay stated. He'd beed used to his freedom and doing as he pleased since he was old enough to venture out. It bothered him to see his little brother held back. He could sense his free spirit, and angered at someone trying to harness it.
"Not really. But he does have rules he expects me to live by, and I do....most of the time."
"What's he do if ya step outta line?" Clay asked. He wondering how he would have been treated had his life been different. If someone had cared enough to simply say 'no' to him once and awhile.
"Usually just extra chores and restrictions."
"Yeah, you're pretty safe if ya don't break his three main rules; deceit, disrespect, and dishonesty. Any or all of these earns ya a trip to the barn." Joe said, wincing a little at the memory of just a few weeks ago.
"Ya gotta be kiddin' me. Ain't no way in hell I'd allow that."
"Ya mean ya never got a tannin'?" Joe asked, shocked.
"Nope, never. My grandmother didn't hold me back. I did as I damn well pleased."
"Well, it sure ain't my favorite thing, but I understand why Pa does it, and it's my own fault if it happens."
"What do ya mean?" Clay questioned. He couldn't believe the boy would defend his father. Why didn't the boy fight for his freedom?
"Well, he only does it if I mess up really bad. He loves me and wants me to grow up right." Joe said as they reached the work site.
The day had been a long one, each of the men completing his said task. Hoss had arrived back home, the cattle contract signed. As the three older men sat down for supper, Ben had begun to wonder on the whereabouts of his youngest. The boy knew what time supper was served and how he felt about being on time. It was just respectful to others.
"Wonder where your young brother is?" Ben questioned.
"Yeah, I'd a thought he'd done been here by now." Hoss added, taking the plate of sliced beef from his father."
The sound of the door opening and closing caught all their attention. Little Joe hung his hat on the peg behind the door and took off his gun belt. Walking to the table he smiled at the others, his smile disappearing with the look on this fathers face. "H-hi everyone. Sorry I'm late."
"Joseph, would you kindly tell us why you're late?" Ben asked, his eyes not leaving the boys face.
"Well... it's like this Pa. You know how you sent me and Clay to the south pasture?" Joe started, taking the platter from Adam, who couldn't wait to hear this latest tale.
"Yes, go on."
"Well, we got out there and the waterhole looked fine, nothing in it or anything, so we started checking the fence. It was in an awful shape, so we fixed it." Joe smiled. For once he had a good excuse, for the fence had had several bad breaks in it and took the boys longer than anyone thought to repair it.
"You mean to say that you have been working all this time?" Ben asked.
"Yes Pa. Must have been those storms last week. Really did a number on it. Found six breaks. We were so close to getting done, that I thought it would be better to stay a little longer and finish. That way we wouldn't waste time riding all the way out there and back tomorrow to finish."
Ben smiled at his youngest son, feeling a little guilty about the thoughts he'd had just moments earlier. "That was wise thinking, son. I knew I picked the right young man for the job. I'm proud of you."
Smiling a smile that would melt an iceberg in the Arctic, Joe sat a little taller, "Thanks Pa."
Adam and Hoss exchanged knowing grins; for once again the little scamp had amazed them. "So, how did Clay do today? Didn't work him too hard did you, little brother?" Adam asked.
"No, he did really good. Jumped right in and did the work, without compliant. You know, I really like him. It's nice having someone around closer to my age for a change." Joe stated.
"I was kind of worried about his being so young, but sounds like he's doing alright." Ben said.
"There is just something about that kid, though." Adam said.
"Why ya gotta find something wrong with anyone I consider a friend?" Joe asked, his temper starting to flare.
"Little buddy, that's not what I meant. He reminds me of someone, but I can't for the life of me remember who." Adam explained.
"Oh... sorry Adam... guess I'm a little tired."
"It's alright, don't worry about it pal." Adam smiled.
"You know, now that you mention it, he does remind me of someone. But like you, I'm at a loss on who it is." Ben added.
"Hey Pa. Me and Clay have a lot in common. He's from New Orleans, and his Mama died ten years ago, too."
"Guess that means he was raised by his father, like you." Ben said, stating what he felt was the obvious, not to mention just one more thing the boys had in common.
"No, he never knew his father. He does know he's dead, but he never met him. His grandmother raised him, up to a couple of months ago, when she died. I felt bad when he told me. See he started asking about all of us. I think he misses having a family. Must be awful."
"Yes, I'm sure it is. Well that explains why he's alone, and I still think he's too young to be." Ben said.
"Maybe I need to get a look at the boy, sounds like he's really stirred it up around here. Who is he?"
"He's a sixteen year old boy that's out on his own. He needed a job, so I took a chance on him. His name is Clay Stafford." Ben replied, and noticed that Hoss had stopped eating. "What's wrong son?"
"Did ya say Clay Stafford?"
"A little fella, brown hair about the color of Little Joe's. Rides a roan?"
"Yes, what's this about son?"
"Well, I seen the kid the first day I was in Carson. He was in the saloon, playing poker. Well the boy was beatin' the pants off a few miners, and it got nasty when one of them accused him of cheating."
"What do you mean, nasty?" Ben asked.
"The man went for his gun and the kid had him on the floor before he could clear leather. Fastest draw I seen in awhile. Fair fight though. The boy warned him. The kid asked him if a hand of card was worth the last breath he'd take. Sheriff still seen fit to make him leave town, guess more for his own good than anything else." Hoss concluded, looking over at his little brother to see his reaction.
"Well, ya can't fault him if it was a fair fight. Clay hasn't had the kind of life we have. He told me he'd had no one pulling the reigns in on him. He could do whatever he wanted." Little Joe said, as he looked around the table.
"Was he cheating, Hoss?" Adam asked, hoping the answer was no, he'd kind of taken a liking to the little fella. But yet on the other hand, he hoped the boys cavalier attitude wouldn't rub off on his little brother.
"Don't know, fer sure, but didn't look like it to me. I think the man was just mad at loosin' to a kid."
"Well, a sixteen year old boy doesn't have any business playing poker and drinking anyhow, and that young man would do good to watch his step with me." Ben declared.
"Ah, come on Pa. It ain't like you can tell the boy were he can go." Hoss said.
"That is a matter of opinion. I may not be his father, but I am his boss, and he will do as he is told. In fact I think I'll talk to Roy about him tomorrow. I'm not sure I should have hired a boy that young." Ben adamantly stated to all three of his sons. The boys all exchanged looks with one another, knowing that he meant every word of what he was saying, and that Clay had better heed the advice.
Clay walked up to the door of the ranch house and knocked lightly. He was worried as to why Ben had wanted to see him. As far as he knew he hadn't done anything to create a problem and had done the work asked of him. He felt confident no one had figured out his secret.
Adam answered the door and smiled at the boy that stood holding his hat in his hands. "Clay, come on in. Pa's in the study."
Clay looked around at the massive living room and angered at the thoughts, that this could have been his home. That he could have grown up here, if it wasn't for his grandmother’s deceit. He could see himself sitting in the living area with his brothers, and Ben, and for awhile, his mother. Glancing up the stairs, he could picture the lonely little boy he had been, racing up the stairs behind two older brothers, followed by one younger. His mind pictured bedtime stories, piggyback rides, and family mealtimes. Shaking off ghosts of the past, he followed Adam over to the desk where Ben sat and stood silently.
Ben looked up and caught the fleeting glimpse of what he believed to be anger, or was it sorrow in the boys eyes. "Clay. Please sit down." he said and waited for the young man to comply. "I wanted to talk with you about a couple of things that have come to my attention. First, I wanted to tell you that I have heard nothing but good reports on the job you're doing, and I wanted to thank you for it."
"Well, it's nice of you to say so, but I have the feeling that ain't the reason you sent for me. So if ya don't mind getting to the point, I have work to do." Clay commented, not taking his eyes off the man.
Standing, Ben walked around the desk and leaned against the edge. It was unusual for him to tolerate the hint of insolence in a young boy’s voice. He was trying to keep from treating the boy as if he were Joseph, for the boy was just another ranch hand, but a young one. And one that needed to learn a few manners. "Son, I would appreciate it if you would watch the tone of voice you address me with. Not only am I your boss, but I am also your elder."
"I didn't mean any disrespect." Clay said, the memories of his and Little Joe's conversation running through his head, "But, I would prefer to be treated as any of the other men that work here, and not how you would treat Little Joe."
"Clay, I know you have it rough right now. You shouldn't be out on your own yet, but you've been forced into it. I know you are doing the same job as the others, but you are only sixteen. That makes you a boy, not a man. Which brings me to the other topic I wanted to speak to you about. That is what happened in Carson."
Clay's head shot up and he looked at his boss. Standing in front of the impressive man, he now knew how it would have felt to grow up under his guiding influence. "Ya heard about that, huh? Look it was a fair fight. I didn't have a choice. He'd a killed me if I hadn't shot first."
"We know that. My other son, Hoss was there and saw what happened. The problem I have with it is simple. You have no business in a saloon, drinking and gambling. You just aren't old enough." Ben said calmly, seeing the anger rising in the boy’s eyes.
"Mr. Cartwright, I don't see where you have the right to tell me what I can and can't do when I'm not at work. You only own me when I'm on the job. I grew up in the gaming salons of New Orleans. I made my money playing cards, and that miner wasn't the first man to taste lead I sent their way. I'm more than able to take care of myself. No one runs my life but me."
"First of all young man, I don't own any of my hands, I employ them....I talked to Sheriff Coffee about this situation, because I wasn't sure whether or not I should even employ a boy your age. The way the law reads is simple, since you're underage, and have no family, I'm required to send you to the orphanage until you turn eighteen." Ben said, and watched as the boy checked the room for a quick exit if needed. 'That's just what Little Joe does when he's in trouble. Poor boys scared half to death. All his big words don't change the fear I see in his eyes. Well, it's settled then.' "But, we do have another option. That is if you're willing."
Clay looked from Ben to Adam, then back to Ben. "What's the other option, cause there ain't no way in hell I'm gonna go to a home."
Frowning at the boy’s choice of language, Ben continued. "I can agree to be your guardian until your twenty one, and you can continue to work here. I would like to see you stay, but it will be with some conditions."
"Conditions? What conditions?"
"One, you would move in here with us. Two, you will stay out of the saloons, unless accompanied by Adam Hoss or myself. And even then, there will be no gambling. Three, you will adhere to all the household rules that Little Joe lives by, and you would only work evenings and during weekend chores, because you will be attending school this year with Little Joe."
Standing up and facing Ben, defiance burning in his hazel eyes, Clay calmly said, "And if I refuse? I could just leave you know? I don't have to do anything, any of you say. There is nothing holding me here."
"I wouldn't even try it, kid. You won't get far." Adam said as he stood behind the boy, feeling he would bolt and run given half the chance. He shared his father’s feelings for the boy, and wanted to help him. There was too much of a chance the boy would become just another fast gun, dying at an early age.
"Clay, it's your choice. We want you to stay. You're a good worker, and a good friend to Little Joe, and I know that you can grow into a fine man someday. But you still need guidance in your life. We want to help you son, let us."
'I don't want to do this, but I don't want to leave Little Joe. I just found my brother and I can't loose him. Play along Stafford, you can pull this off, if ya try. Put all those skills ya picked up back home to work here. I'll bide my time and maybe I can get Joe to leave with me soon.'
"I ain't your son, and don't forget that....Don't sound as if I have much of a choice in the matter, so I'll play your little game, for now." Clay stated coldly and started to walk away.
"Hold on just a minute, young man." Ben said in a low tone. He was determined to teach the boy respect for his elders if nothing else. "You will asked to be excused."
Whirling around, he stared for a moment, confused. "What?" he asked. No one had ever brought him to task for such trivial things before, actually not for any reason. Was this man for real?
"In this house, the boys asked to be excused before leaving. It's respectful, and required."
Shaking his head, and sighing, Clay looked up at Ben and asked, "Can I be excused....MR. Cartwright?"
"Yes you may, and the next time you ask, do it with a little less cheek."
Ben and Adam watched as Clay left, "Well, that went well." Adam commented.
"Yes, well, it's for his own good." Ben replied.
"I agree, but I don't think it's going to be an easy task. That kid has a lot of anger in him."
"What that boy needs is a good thrashing."
Joe watched as Clay left the house and followed him to the barn. He could tell his friend was upset, to say the least. He wondered what his father and Adam had said to the boy to cause such a reaction. He hoped he wasn't leaving. Little Joe was drawn to the boy, why he didn't know, but he felt a closeness to him. Like the one he felt with Hoss and Adam. Entering the barn he walked over and leaned against the stall Clay was working in. "Wanna talk about it?"
"Did you have anything to do with all this?" Clay snapped, immediately sorry for his actions.
"With all what?" Joe asked, continuing. "I don't have a clue what went on in there, but I'd like to."
"Sorry Joe, didn't mean to snap at ya." Clay said, putting the pitchfork down. He leaned on the stall next to his little brother. "You know what ya Pa's done gone and done? He talked to the sheriff and found out he can't keep me on, so I had a choice of goin' to a home for two years, or let ya Pa be my legal guardian for five."
"So, what's so bad about that? I thought you liked it here." Joe said, personally liking the idea of his friend staying there.
"I do like it here. I like the work, and I like having you as a friend. What I don't like is the conditions that came attached with this offer." Clay complained.
"Conditions? What conditions?" Joe asked, reminding Clay that he had just spoken those same words only moments ago, and wondered at the similarities between them. He wondered if Joe had noticed any.
Clay outlined the conversation that occurred between himself and Ben, as Little Joe listened intensely to every word. Finished, he looked over at his little brother, to see how he felt about the new arrangements. "So, ya see why I'm pissed off?"
Joe shook his head and laughed, totally confusing Clay. "Just what's so damn funny?"
"You were just asking me the other day about my Pa, and it looks like you're gonna find out first hand, so to speak. Oh, and I'd watch the language ya use too. Pa ain't one for puttin' up with swearing." Joe said smirking. It was amusing to him that now he wasn't the only one with all the restrictions. Seeing the young man’s discomfort, Joe walked back over and punched him on the arm. "Hey, just follow the rules the best ya can and ya won't have nothin' to worry about. Come to think of it, I keep tellin' myself the same thing. You'd think I'd listen."
Seeing the comical face the boy made as he thought through his own logic, Clay couldn't help but laugh. "Yeah, I guess. But he don't have to know everything we do."
"Let me give you a piece of advice, pal." Joe said leaning over as if sharing a secret. "Nothing gets past Pa, and if he just happens to be lookin' the other way for awhile, older brother Adam catches it, and will deal with it as Pa would."
"Tell me something, Little Joe. If that's true and you know it, then why do ya keep gettin' in trouble?"
"Hell, a kid's gotta have a little fun. I just try to keep it leaning toward the extra chores and restrictions, cause it ain't no fun riding back and forth to school with a sore backside." Joe grinned.
"Say, Little Joe, how would you feel about a trip to town? Maybe grab a couple beers and play a little poker?" Clay suggested. It had been a week now that he'd been cooped up on the ranch and he was feeling the need to break free, and to be quite honest, to rebel a little against his new found restrictions.
"Clay, you just said that Pa told ya to stay outta there, AND not to gamble. You can't be serious?"
"Hell yes, I'm serious. I don't like being told what to do. I wanna beer and I aim to get one."
"Man, you really are askin' for it. That's breaking at least one of Pa's main rules. Let's see, what's he call that... oh yeah." Joe said, snapping his fingers. "Blatant disobedience. That a sure trip out here with Pa."
"Maybe for you, he's your Pa, not mine."
"I don't think that's gonna matter. If Pa says you follow my rules, then that also means he'll deal with you the same as me. Just ask older brother, he got put on my rules for a week one time. Thought he was too old to have a talk with Pa's belt, too. Well, he found out he was wrong."
"Look kid, if ya scared of ya Pa, then just stay here." Clay replied, leading his horse past Little Joe. He wanted his little brother to go more than anything, and knew the boy loved a challenge and wouldn't back down from a dare.
"HEY, I ain't a kid!" Joe growled.
"Then don't act like one." Clay commented, placing his arm around Joe's shoulders, "Look, your Pa knows ya leaving right? So just go with me instead of fishing. Let me buy your first beer."
"Too late for that," Joe said staring at the ground. Looking up he smiled, "Ok, you’re on, but only one beer and we have to be back in time for supper, or Pa'll find out."
"Let's go then."
"Hoss, would you go and tell Clay his room is ready. I want to have him moved in before supper. Oh and check and see if your little brother has come back." Ben requested of his son.
"Sure thang Pa." Hoss said leaving.
"I hope this works out. I hate to think of the kid in an orphanage." Adam said closing his book. "I think you're going to have a fight on your hands, though."
"Oh, I'm sure I will. He puts up a pretty good front, but I'm sure he realizes this is for the best. It really tore at my heart to see the look in his eyes at the mention of going to the home."
"Have you considered how your going to handle it the first time he bucks up against you?" Adam asked his father.
"Are you saying I don't know how to handle a sixteen year old boy?" Ben asked, raising an eyebrow.
Pulling at his ear, Adam thought back to when he was sixteen. "No sir, I only remember too well how you deal with sixteen year old boys. But he's not your son, Pa."
"No, but I am his guardian, so that puts me in the same position as a parent. I will just have to deal with whatever comes up."
"Pa?" Hoss called as he entered the house. "Did you send Clay somewhere today?"
"No, he was told to get his things ready. And he was also told that he was to get permission to leave just as Little Joe does." Ben said, his anger rising.
"Pa, maybe he just went riding. This was a shock to him. I'm sure the kid is confused right now." Adam said, hoping to allay his father’s anger.
"Yeah Pa, or maybe he went with Little Joe, fishing." Hoss added.
"Or maybe he went to town for a beer, or to play poker, just because he was told he couldn't." Ben said.
The three men turned as the door opened, and watched as the two boys came inside, Joe giggling at something Clay had said. Over his shoulder, Clay carried his saddlebags, containing his things.
"Hi ya Pa." Little Joe said. He had enjoyed the two beers he'd drank and was feeling pretty good. He had watched Clay win over two hundred dollars playing poker and picked up a few pointers for the next time he and his friends played.
"Did you have a good time fishing, son?" Ben asked, knowing full well that the boy hadn't been anywhere near the lake. This was obvious to Ben, since the boy didn't have any fish, nor was his hair wet. Little Joe was known to finish each summer fishing trip with a swim.
"No sir, um..I didn't go fishing. Clay and I went for a ride instead." Joe said hoping his father would drop the subject.
"And just where did you and Clay ride to?" Ben questioned, taking a puff on his pipe.
"What was the name of that cliff we went to?" Clay asked his brother, trying to assist him in the partial truth.
"Eagle's Nest." Joe quickly said, "Pa, is Clay's room ready?"
"Yes." Ben answered and waited until both boys were at the bottom of the stairs. "Boys, I'm going to say this one time and one time only. You will not leave this ranch yard without first telling one of us where you’re going. Little Joe, you said you were going fishing. Clay, you didn't ask to leave. What would have happened if we'd needed to find you for some reason? What would you have done if you'd been hurt? We wouldn't have known where to look for you. Consider this your only warning, because the next time will be settled quite differently, understand Joe?"
"Yes sir. I'm sorry Pa, guess I just didn't think." Joe said, thankful he'd gotten off as easily as he had.
"Excuse me young man? I don't believe that sounded very respectful."
"Yes sir." the boy said through clenched teeth.
"Fine, both of you get cleaned up, supper is in fifteen minutes.
Morning came early to Clay. He lay awake until late thinking over all that had happened in the short time that he'd come to know this family, his family. No he thought, his brother yes, but the others wouldn't want him around when they found out who he was. What he couldn't understand was why Ben went to all this trouble for him. Was it a control issue for the man? Maybe, but he had watched the man with his sons, and how he reacted to them. He saw the love and affection in his eyes when he looked at them. Could he have loved him the same? As a son? Could he now feel that way for him?
"Clay. Come on young'un. Time to get up. Danged if ya ain't near as hard to wake up as Little Joe." Hoss said shaking the young mans shoulder.
"What?... Whadda ya want, Hoss?" Clay slurred.
"Time to get up. Can't have ya late for school on the first day."
Groaning, Clay pulled the covers over his head, "Go away."
Smiling, Hoss jerked the covers off the boy. "Rise and shine. Don't make me have to toss ya in the horse trough to wake ya up."
"FINE! I'm up." Clay said propping up on his elbows. "You really enjoy this don't ya?"
"Yep." Hoss proclaimed, closing the door he added, "Breakfast in ten."
School wasn't as bad as Clay had remembered it being back in New Orleans. But back there he didn't have his little brother to entertain him and boy could that kid pull some good ones. He watched as Little Joe carefully untied the ribbons attached to the end of the pigtails of the little girl in front of him. Wondering what he had in mind, he continued observing as Joe carefully slipped one of the pigtails through the slat in the back of the chair and tied them together. The boy was slick; he'd hand him that, for he did it looking the teacher straight in the eye. This was when he decided that he and Joe had inherited that trait from their mother. It was essential for his life, just to survive. Here it was a skill used by a boy to play pranks. No one knew anything was going on, that is until afternoon break. A round of laughter filled the small room when the child stood and found herself tethered to her seat.
"Joseph Cartwright!" yelled Miss Jones, for she had no doubt who the culprit was.
"Yes ma'am?" Joe responded innocently, though there was no way to hide the fact he was the one that committed the offense.
"Don't act innocent with me, young man. You untie Mary's hair this instant and this had better be last bit of mischief out of you today or you'll be carrying a note home to your father. Do I make myself clear?"
"Yes ma'am. Very clear." Joe said as he untie the pigtails and handed Mary back her ribbons, with a big grin.
Clay watched as the girl, he figured to be around Little Joe's age, smiled back at him with a blush highlighting her cheeks. 'Couple more years and he'll be fightin' em off with a stick.'
The rest of the afternoon passed by quietly, until just before the class was dismissed. Little Joe had almost made it, when he got caught daydreaming. Now, the daydreaming wouldn't have been so bad, but he'd already been called up on it twice that day. That and the pigtail incident were enough for Miss Jones to follow through with her threat.
"Man, I almost made it. Pa ain't gonna be happy about this." Little Joe said, frowning at the thought of what his father would say or worse, do when presented with the note he held in his hand.
"What are ya so worried about?" Clay asked as they mounted to ride home. "It's just a note."
"No, you don't understand. This ain't the first one. Pa told me what would happen if I brought another one home this month."
"You mean?" Clay asked, assured he was right with the nod he received. "So, get rid of it."
"What?" Joe said pulling Cochise to a stop.
"Look kid, it's simple. She didn't ask for him to sign it did she?"
"Well, no, but…"
"So just get rid of it. No one will ever know."
"I don't know, Clay. I mean if he did find out…"
"He won't. Let me have it."
Joe slowly handed the note to his new friend and watched as he tore it to pieces. 'Oh no... I hope you're right cause if Pa finds out that’s disrespect and deceit. No way out of a talk then.'
The week passed by with the boy’s secret remaining between them. After deciding he'd gotten away with his deception, Joe felt a little more at ease. The following days found he and Clay involved in several pranks and a heap of trouble. Three times, Miss Jones had sent notes home with the boys, never to receive any word from Ben in return. After Friday, she decided she would talk with Ben or Adam after church on Sunday.
Her opportunity came follow the dismissal of the services two days later. Abigail watched as Adam headed for his horse. Hoss, Joe and Clay had already left for the afternoon. "ADAM!!" she called.
Adam looked around and spotted Abigail coming toward him and cringed. Tipping his hat, he greeted her. "Miss Jones, lovely day isn't it?"
"Yes it is. I was wondering if I could talk to you for a minute? It's about Joseph and Clay."
Sighing and shaking his head, he agreed. "Of course. What have those two been up to now?"
"I was concerned about their behavior lately. And when neither you or your father came to see me after the notes, I couldn't..."
Adam cut her off, "Notes? What are you talking about? We haven't seen any notes."
"I've sent home four notes with Joseph and three with Clay. They range from misbehaving to pranks to not doing their homework. I should have known you didn't know."
"Well, I know now, and you can rest assured those two will be dealt with. Good day ma'am."
Little Joe and Clay spent the day at the lake where Marie had been laid to rest. Little Joe often visited his Mama when he was worried about something or in trouble, so today it just seemed like the right place to be. He was feeling guilty about deceiving his father and needed to be there. "Hope ya don't mind me draggin' ya up here?" he said to Clay.
"Not at all. I never been to visit my Mama's grave." he replied. He only wished he could tell the boy how important it was to him to be there.
"Clay? Do you feel bad about not takin' the notes to Pa?"
"No, and don't tell me you do. Come on kid, ya got away with it, so let it go."
"I know, but I just don't like to know I did something that would disappoint Pa."
Looking at the boy in front of him, it amazed Clay at the depth of feelings Joe had for his family. Again he thought of how it should have been that way for him. "So, tell him. Go on, spill ya guts and see what it gets ya. But you make damn sure ya don't include me in it. What I do is nobody’s business."
Little Joe looked shocked at his friend. Smiling, he replied, "Hey, I didn't say I was stupid either. I just meant, why don't we stop it now."
Smiling back, Clay nodded, "Sure kid, anything ya want."
Hoss sat braiding a lariat as Adam sat attempting to read a new book he had purchased earlier in the week. Sighing, he closed it, realizing he wasn't getting anything from it. Hoss glanced over at his older brother and smiled. "So, ya ready to talk about it?"
"About what?" Adam asked.
"Whatever it is that's got ya back up." Hoss replied as he continued the tedious work.
"How do you always know?"
"Well older brother, it's kinda hard ta miss when ya ain't turned a page in nearly a half hour."
Standing and walking over to the mantle, Adam leaned against it and sighed. "I ran into Miss Jones after church."
Laughing, Hoss put down his work and looked at Adam, "What did she want, a proposal?"
"Not this time. No, she wanted to ask me why it was that Pa or I hadn't been in to see her about baby brother and Clay."
"Oh lordy, what did they do?"
"What haven't they done would be a better question. She has sent home several notes that Pa hasn't received."
"What? Why would short shanks not give it to Pa? I mean, sure he'd been in trouble, but he's never done nothin' like this."
"My guess would be, the kid was influenced by Clay. I told Pa that something was going to happen with those two being as close as they are."
"Ya gonna tell Pa?"
"He has to be told. There's no way to keep it from him. I figured I'd talk to the boys and see if I can get them to tell him. It'd be better for them." Adam said.
"Yeah, guess ya right. He'll more than likely tan 'em, but maybe that way he won't be as rough on 'em." Hoss agreed.
Hearing the horses entering the yard, Adam turned to Hoss and shook his head. "Might as well get this over with."
"I'll go with ya." Hoss said as he followed Adam out the door.
Walking inside the barn, Adam spotted the boys standing inside their horse's stalls. He watched as they groomed them and joked back and forth with one another. Sighing he walked further inside. "Boys, come out here. I need to talk to both of you."
Little Joe and Clay traded looks, before joining Adam and Hoss. "H-hey Adam....What's wrong?" Joe asked, as he stood in front of his brother.
Adam noticed the guilty look on his baby brother’s face. Turning his attention to the other boy that stood by Joe's side he saw the defiance. "I had a talk with Miss Jones today. Can you guess what she had to tell me?"
"Um..what did she...ah..tell ya?" Joe asked, though he knew the answer to his question.
"Oh, I think you know the answer to that Joseph. Why don't you or Clay tell us?"
"Ok, have it that way. Instead, tell me this. How many notes did you..ah..forget to give to Pa, Joseph?"
Hanging his head, the boy whispered, "Four."
"Clay?" Adam inquired.
"Three, if it's anything to ya." he replied, crossing his arms over his chest.
"How could you possibly think we wouldn't find out?"
"Adam? Ya gonna tell Pa?" Joe asked. He hoped he could convince Adam to deal with it instead of telling their father. He knew what his brother would do, but he was more concerned with the disappointment he would see if his father’s eyes.
"I think it would be better if you told him. He's going to have to know. Miss Jones plans on talking with him as it is. Buddy, their isn't any other way." Nodding his head, Joe agreed to tell his father.
"I think the best thing would be for the two of you to go and wait on the settee for Pa to get home. Shouldn't be long now." Adam stated.
"Whadda ya mean, the two of us?" Clay asked.
"Both of you did wrong, so both of you will wait on Pa to get here. And then the two of you will tell him the truth." Adam continued.
"I ain't gotta explain myself to no one."
"Look kid, I'm not going to tell you again. Now you can go in on your own, or I can take you. Which will it be?"
Anger filled the hazel eyes that stared back at Adam and he read the signal of the punch the boy attempted. Dodging the right hook, he caught the boy off balance, swinging him over his shoulder. "Hoss, will you escort baby brother to the house?"
"Put me the hell down!" Clay yelled, as Adam walked out of the barn toward the house.
Swatting the boy’s backside hard, he remarked. "Stop that wiggling, and no more of that language. That is unless you want a few more of those." Passing by the hands that had gathered in the yard watching, he commented with a smile, "Gentlemen."
"Didn't take long, did it." Hank laughed.
"Nope, and I sure wish Pa'd come on home."
Ben rode into the yard about an hour after the confrontation and dismounted. Seeing Hank coming his way he waited on the man. "Evening Hank. Where is everyone? It's like a ghost town around here."
"Oh Adam and Hoss are up to the house guarding the prisoners." he smirked.
"What did Joseph do this time?" Ben asked wearily.
"Not just Little Joe, Clay was in on it too. Ain't sure what they did, but Adam was fired up enough he toted Clay in over his shoulder. Swatted the kid once too."
"Hank, if you don't mind tending Buck, I'll get on in there and see what's going on."
"Not at all, Ben. Go on."
Ben entered the house and took in the sight of the four boys that sat in the great room. Hanging up his hat and laying his gun belt on the cabinet, he walked over and sank into his red chair. "Alright, out with it. What's going on?"
Little Joe looked over at his father, then dropped his head. "Pa..um..Miss Jones sent a note home to ya and I didn't give it to ya." Hearing Adam clear his throat, he added, "Actually she sent home...ah...four notes."
"FOUR!! Joseph, what were you thinking? Never mind it's obvious you weren't thinking. Where are they?"
"I..ah..tore 'em up."
"Tore them up? Joseph..." Sighing, he turned his attention to Clay. "And what did you have to do with this, young man?"
"Pa, Clay here also had three noted sent home by Miss Jones."
"Did you tear yours up too?" Ben asked.
"I'm very disappointed in both of you. I don't understand it. Why would you feel the need to do this? Why did you feel you couldn't come to me with the notes?"
"Sorry Pa. I just didn't want to get in trouble. After the first one, I just kept on."
"Alright." Ben started, nodding his head. "Both of you are restricted to the ranch for the next month, the first two week to the yard only. There will be a lot of extra chores for the two of you. You will be apologizing to Miss Jones in the morning when I escort the two of you to school. Now Clay, you may not be aware of this, but Joseph knows only too well that I consider what you did as deceitful and disrespectful. Both of these offences are grounds for a tanning, so I want the two of you upstairs and in your rooms. I'll be up later to take care of this. Now go."
Jumping to his feet, Clay turned to face Ben. "I ain't goin' anywhere!" he yelled, continuing, "Other than to get my things and get out of here."
"You aren't going anywhere young man! You will go to your room and wait on me to come up there. And when I do, you had better have changed that attitude of yours."
Taking the steps two at a time, Clay bolted from the room. Little Joe watched as he disappeared around the corner. "Pa, try not to be too hard on him. He don't know how to take this. No one has ever treated him this way."
"I don't plan on being any harder on him than I am on you young man. I believe I told you to go to your room."
"Yes sir." Joe said, hanging his head and walking toward the stairs. He'd only made it to the first landing when he was pushed out of the way by Clay. His saddlebags thrown over his shoulder, he headed for the door.
"Clay, where ya goin?" Joe called to him.
"Away from here."
Blocking the boys exit, Ben placed his hands on his hips, preparing himself for the tantrum he saw coming. "Just what do you think you're doing?"
"I would think that would be obvious. I'm leaving!"
Placing his hands on the boy’s shoulders, he was relieved to see he didn't shrug them off. "You aren't going anywhere. I am responsible for you, and it's my place to see to it that you are taken care of, son." Ben said in a softer tone.
"Son? When are you going to understand that I ain't your son. I ain't nothing to you or anyone else here! No one but Little Joe.." Clay finished his in almost a whisper.
"What do you mean by that, Clay?" Joe asked. He had come to stand beside his father, hoping to convince his friend not to run off.
The time was now. He could wait no longer to let the truth come out. All he could hope for was to be allowed the chance to get to know his little brother. Taking a deep breath, he turned to face Joe. "I'm...I'm your brother Little Joe."
"What?" Joe questioned.
"I think you had better explain this son." Ben said, steering the boy to the settee.
"You're Marie and Jean's son, arent' you?" Adam asked. He had finally realized who the boy reminded him of. The kid was a cross between his little brother and Jean.
Nodding his head, he looked at Ben. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to cause any trouble here. I just wanted to meet my mother. When I got here, and found out she had died I started to leave." Looking over at Little Joe, he continued, "But I couldn't. I had to get to know my brother. I'll leave now, Mr. Cartwright, but I would like to be able to write Little Joe."
"You ain't gonna go nowhere." Joe stated, smiling.
"I have to. This is your home, not mine. Besides, I've caused you enough trouble."
"Clay, why don't you tell us what happened. Marie was told you had died at birth." Ben said, looking at the boy in front of him. He had no doubt the boy was telling the truth. He could see both his wife and Jean in the child. And truth be known, he couldn't understand how he missed it from the start.
"So, I guess that's about it. Grandmother finally told me the truth just before she died." Clay finished.
"Well young man, that's quiet a story." Ben said standing and leaning against the mantle. "Marie would have given anything to see all four of her sons together. This is where you should have grown up. Right here on the Ponderosa."
"You mean, you'd have let me live here?" Clay asked.
"Of course you would have lived here. Marie showed no difference between any of her boys. She treated Adam and Hoss as if she had given birth to them. I would have treated you no different then, nor will I now. This is your home, son."
"I don't know…"
"What's there to know? We all want you to stay." Joe said, looking into his brother’s eyes.
"Short shanks is right, buddy. This is where you belong." Hoss added.
"What about you, Adam? I haven't really given you an easy go of it." Clay asked, throwing him a sheepish grin, as he thought of the way he had entered the house only hours ago.
"Oh..I think I can handle one more little mischief maker in my life."
"Then it's settled. You're staying." Ben concluded, putting an end to the discussion.
"You all come. Eat supper beflore food all dly up. I go back to China." Hop Sing called from the dinning room.
Pushing back from the table after a pleasant meal and upbeat conversation, Ben looked around at the four young men that sat there. Remembering the earlier conflict, he sighed. There was still a problem to be dealt with. "Little Joe, Clay, if you've finished with your dinner, I want both of you upstairs and ready for bed. We still a matter to clear up."
The smiles fading from their faces both boys nodded and asked to be excused.
Upon hearing the sound of both doors closing, Adam turned to his father. "Pa.."
"No Adam. I know what you're going to say, but I can't let this slide by."
"Pa, can't ya let this be a warnin' instead?" Hoss requested.
Ben looked at the expectant faces of his two eldest sons, and could see the hope that lay there. He knew they had both wanted the boys punished for deceiving him, when he arrived. But the admission of the concealed information, and what Clay's life had been like had softened their hearts. Always hoping to attempt to smooth things over for their little brother, they both knew that Ben wouldn't punish one and not the other. "Alright, I'll make this a warning. But this is the only one they'll get. Clay maybe hard to handle until he sees I mean what I say. I expect the both of you to help keep an eye on them."
"Yes sir," they both replied, smiling.
Little Joe stood out of respect when Ben entered his room a short time later. He wished not for the first time that he'd been able to keep on his heavy pants. He knew what was coming when he was told to prepare for bed. Dropping his head, he softly said. "I'm sorry Pa. I didn't mean to disappoint you."
"Sit down Joseph." Ben said, as he sat on the side of the boy’s bed. "I want you to understand that I will not abide by this kind of behavior. It will not happen again."
"No sir. I promise."
Squeezing the boy’s shoulders, he could see how hard he was trying to keep from crying. Smiling, he pulled him into a hug. "I'm letting it go with the restrictions, the extra chores and the apology this time. But you understand me young man. One more little stunt like this and you will end up over my knee."
"Yes sir. I'll try really hard, Pa." Joe said hugging his father tight.
"Good, now, into bed," he said, as he pulled the covers back. Turning to crawl beneath the sheets, Joe was shocked as his father grabbed his arm and delivered two hard swats to his bottom. "That's just to remind you that I can and will warm that seat of yours."
Rubbing his stinging bottom, Joe smiled at Ben. "Believe me Pa, I know you can."
Clay listened as the door opened to his room. He saw out of the corner of his eye, Ben entering. This was an unusual feeling for the boy. He'd never had anyone threaten to punish him for anything, and wasn't sure how to react.
"Clay, you will stand, when I enter this room under these circumstances." Ben said, as he looked at the boy.
Standing up and facing his stepfather, he dropped his head. "Yes sir. I'm sorry for all the trouble, sir."
Directing the boys chin up to look into the hazel eyes, he smiled. "I forgive you, but I want you to understand that I will not put up with this kind of behavior. You see son, you now have a responsibility that you haven't had before."
"You have a little brother to look after. And believe me when I say that one needs a lot of looking after. I want you to be a positive influence in his life, not lead him into the wrong decisions. Now don't get me wrong. I know you'll make mistakes, and that's all right. We'll get through them, as a family. But I want you to know that I won't hesitated to warm your backside if it's called for."
Swallowing hard, Clay looked at Ben and nodded. "Yes sir. I'll try my best."
"I know you will. Now, I have decided that I will let the two of you off with only a warning this time, along with the restrictions, chores and apology. But only this time."
"Thank you sir." Clay said breathing a sigh of relief.
"Clay, you don't have to call me sir all the time. You can call me Ben, or...Pa if you like."
Seeing the tears threatening, Ben pulled the boy into a hug. "What is it son?"
"I've never called anyone Pa. Are you sure you don't mind?"
"Not at all son...not at all." Ben smiled. "Now into bed with you."
Pulling back the covers, Ben stopped and took hold of the boy’s arm. "Just so you know I mean what I say.." he said, as he swatted Clay twice on his bottom.
Looking shocked, Clay rubbed his bottom. "I-I believe ya, Pa. I believe ya."
The End (April 2005)