The day the Cartwright family had been dreading had finally come; the morning that Little Joe wished would never arrive.

The carefree innocent days of summer playing, fishing and hunting were gone, replaced by a looming sense of foreboding that saturated the Ponderosa like a wet blanket.  A storm was brewing in the Cartwright household, one that had been hatching steadily over the last few weeks of summer and was now about rear it’s ugly head. Ben, Adam and Hoss had all feared this day for their own reasons, but none more so than Little Joe.

The air was crisp and Little Joe’s new blue tailored jacket provided a breaker from the early morning chill. A slight, but comforting wind blew a soft brown curl out of the little boy’s stoic face. Not far from the freshly painted barn, Joe stood his ground amongst none other than the rest of the Cartwright clan.

Glancing from his left, then right, Little Joe saw three stunned faces and three pair of eyes staring, slightly menacingly at him. Had it been any other day than this, he might have thought twice about his actions, especially those of recent. But not today; today wasn’t just any other day. It was the first day of school.

Joe stood; arms akimbo, next to his pony, Roman, who whinnied, snorted and then stomped the ground, in apparent mock appearance to his master. Adam watched Joe with disdain, who didn’t even blanch at the sight of his angry older brothers and father staring him down like they were being challenged to a duel. Not two minutes earlier, to everyone’s surprise, in a display of outright displeasure, Joe had hastily removed the new stained leather saddle and matching bridle from Roman and dropped the heavy tack unceremoniously at his feet.

Roman was unquestionably surprised at his sudden nakedness. Immediately, he reared his head back and pinned his soft brown and white spotted ears, exhibiting distaste in the imbroglio. Roman had been a gift from Adam this month past. He had hoped that it would dampen the continuously sour mood of his baby brother as well as provide him a pony he could mount himself. However, as camouflaged as his littlest brother wanted to appear, it was obvious to Adam that Joe took to the beautiful spotted Shetland pony at first sight. Adam was even pleased to hear Joe announce the very same day that he named the pony Roman, after the people in the ancient city Adam told him countless stories about.

However, none of this mattered to Joe at the moment. Giving himself room for fight or flight, Joe pushed his pony’s flanks as hard as he could with crossed elbows. Roman gratefully stepped away, his hooves scratching the ground surface loudly in the quiet stillness between father, brothers and son.

Finally, after a minute that dragged on for eternity, Little Joe could take no more silence. He stomped the ground with one tan, new boot, stirring up a cloud of dust around his pant legs. Roman, in his own game of copycat, imitated his master’s actions.

"I ain’t goin’!" Little Joe’s yells cracked through the crisp air like a whip. He’d made his argument before and saw no reason for it to change on this very day. "Hoss ain’t goin’ neither, are you Hoss?" demanded Joe as he looked, green eyes narrowed at his middle brother. In spite of his size, Joe did his best to put the fear of God in his much larger older brother. What he received from Hoss was a smirk hidden behind one meaty hand and an unguarded snort from Adam. Pa, however, wasn’t quite as amused.

Ben Cartwright had had about enough of this. At first, it was amusing to see his little ruffian in such a display of temper. Everyone had been caught off guard when Joe began his animated protestation. Admittedly, the shock of seeing his youngest son pull his little saddle off his pony looked as comical as it sounded. On more than one occasion, Ben and his oldest sons had enjoyed a good-humored joke about Joseph and his uncontrollable temper. The little rascal and his disposition always gave them "ammunition" as Adam called it, to tease the pretentious, yet sensitive little boy. After six years, Ben had learned to laugh off the less significant of Joseph’s many transgressions instead of continuously punishing him.

But now he was pushing it. At Joseph’s last remark, Ben raised his dark eyebrows to Joe, then to Hoss, who stood with his own eyes wide, hands up in surrender. Ben knew that his peace-loving son didn’t have anything to do with his six-year-old brother’s present temper tantrum.

Little Joe began to lose confidence when he saw his father’s eyebrows rise high on his forehead, causing four wrinkles to show clearly. Flinching inwardly, Little Joe knew undoubtedly that this was a sign his Pa’s patience had been put to the test. This action alone would stop Adam and Hoss in their tracks. Joe had a point and he was going to get it across if it caused his Pa to yell loud enough to cause an avalanche, which Little Joe didn’t hesitate to think, would and very well could happen. He had to make his feelings clear. No words would convince his Pa to let him stay home.

With a mixture of desperation, frustration and rebellion, Little Joe picked one bantam, dusty boot off the ground, brought it behind him and proceeded to kick his saddle as hard as his little legs could muster. Unfortunately, the anger preceded the action, as the padded leather only scooted two inches from the spot it had landed. Not exactly the affect Joe was going for. The next few seconds were a haze as he heard the unstiffled guffaws from his brothers and what Joe thought sounded like the hiss of a snake from Pa. This tore it with Ben.

He bellowed in his usual chorus, "Joseph Francis Cartwright! I’ve already let this tantrum of yours go on too long. Now I’ve had enough." Placing his large hands on his waist, Ben began his ominous stride toward the now wilting boy.

Little Joe stepped sideways, nearly falling over his saddle in the process. Frantic now, he little tyke gave it one last try. "Papa! I’m not going! You can’t make-" Before he could finish his sentence, Ben was on his son, grabbing firmly a hold of his small arm. He was snatched up instantly, which was good, because if his Pa hadn’t caught his arm, he would have ended up heels over shoulder blades across his saddle.

Pulling Joseph in the direction of the house, he shouted, "Not another word, Joseph!" his voice boomed through the air, startling Adam, Hoss and Little Joe. Judging from the loud squawks, flapping wings and flying feathers, Ben’s thunderous voice had also startled the chickens in the nearby coop. Ben called sternly to his middle son, "Hoss, I suggest you get on your horse and get to school before you’re late."

"Yes sir." Hoss made no argument with his Pa. Before he could say another word, the young man was on his horse and out of the yard. He strode off quickly, arms flapping up and down on his ribs with the rhythm of his galloping, overtaxed charge.

Eyes darting from the coop to his Pa, Adam leaned on the hitching post and watched the debacle as his Pa dragged his wriggling and struggling little brother to a chair on the front porch.

Ben was aware of his oldest son staring and barked a little too loudly, "Adam, saddle Roman again and replace his bridle."
Adam jumped at his words, suddenly reminding himself of a scared chicken in the coop. He groaned, "Yes sir." Seventeen-year-old Adam was not immune to the wrath of his father and answered as quickly as his brother Hoss.

Joe couldn’t believe what a predicament he’d gotten himself into. After Adam had helped him saddle Roman, Little Joe was overcome with feelings he wasn’t quite sure of. His stomach felt as if he’d be sick at any moment and his hands and knees were shaky. Tears stung the back of his eyes, threatening to spill. Confused as to why he felt like crying, Little Joe reacted with the emotion that masked fear and hurt. Anger. Before he knew what he was doing, he’d uncinched the harness from the underbelly of Roman, grabbed the horn and dragged the saddle to the ground.

When the flash of anger had subsided and Little Joe looked down to see what he’d done, he felt relieved. He’d solved his problem. Of course, the mind of a six-year-old doesn’t think logically enough to see how simple that it would be to just re-saddle his horse and send him off to school. The knot that had been in his belly for the past month returned and tightened again, causing Joe to groan at the sudden twinge.

In an instant, Joseph was trying to pry his papa’s fingers from around his arm as he was being dragged to a ladder-backed chair on the planked front porch. He found himself stuck between two strong legs and staring directly into the fuming face of Ben Cartwright. With Joe’s arms trapped in Ben’s large hands and wiggling body secure, Ben began his reproach.

"Joseph." He began slowly, growling his words, "I thought we had already discussed this, did we not?" He was rewarded with a silent nod from Little Joe. "Then what is the meaning of this tantrum?" Ben gave Joe a slight shake.

Eyes watering, Joe didn’t know how to answer him. He hadn’t thought about doing what he did this morning, it just happened. "I don’t know…" Joe half-heartedly shrugged.

Ben ignored his son’s futile attempts at an answer. "Now, didn’t we discuss countless times about the importance of you going to school?" He stared Joe in the eyes. His son said nothing. "Answer me, Joseph." Ben’s voice was gaining volume again.

"Yes, sir. We did." His eyes, always so full of expression, showed fear, regret and sadness as tears billowed down his dusty cheeks. His pa was hurting his arms; he had them grasped firmly at the elbows, bending his forearms towards his face. "You’re hurting me, papa." Joe managed to whisper.

Ben immediately loosened his grip and lightly grabbed Joe’s shoulders. "Joseph. I don’t want to have to spank you, but I will if you don’t quit this attitude. I know you don’t want to go to school, Joseph, you have made that perfectly clear. But the fact of the matter is you have no choice. You will go because I say so. Do I make myself clear to you?"

Little Joe stared down at his feet. He didn’t want to admit defeat. Hesitating too long for Ben’s approval, Joe found himself turned around and halfway bent over his father’s left knee. A hard wallop stung his backside before he could answer.

Ben held him there. "Do I make myself clear to you, Joseph?" He held his hand out, ready to strike again if needed.

Shocked, Little Joe blurted out, "Yes sir! Yes! I’m sorry, sir. I’m sorry. Please don’t spank me, I promise I’ll go to school, Papa, promise I will." Speaking through tears, Joe pushed himself off his father’s knee and into his open arms.

After hugging his son, Ben pulled Joe from his grasp and held him there. "Now, now, Joseph. Don’t cry." He wiped a tear from Joe’s cheek. "You’re going to love school. And you have your big brother there to protect you. So, please, Joseph, stop this nonsense. You’re already going to be late on the first day. You don’t want
Miss Jones mad at you on your very first day of school, do you?" Ben stood and began to walk Joe to his saddled horse.

Joe obediently, but hesitantly walked toward Roman where Adam was leaning across his new saddle. "Hey, little buddy. You’re going to have the best looking pony and the smartest saddle of all the other kids." He bent down, grabbing Joe about the waist. "C’mon. Let’s go." Adam placed Joe softly in the saddle, retrieved his own horse and gracefully mounted.

"Pa, I’ll have him there safely, then I’ll see about those errands in town. I’ll be back here by lunch for the meeting. See you later." Adam was relieved to see his father’s mood changed as he smiled and nodded to his eldest son.

Ben ruffled Little Joe’s hair and gave him a kiss on the forehead. "You be good today, young man. Hoss will bring you home this afternoon and I don’t want to hear you’ve been in trouble."

"Yes sir." Little Joe did his best to smile, but sadness seeped through the cracks of his exterior. Ben saw through the smile that he had seen often since the death of his mother, Marie. Little Joe always tried to be strong and brave and smile for his papa, but Ben could always look straight to the little boy’s heart. It was his eyes; he had the most expressive eyes that told the true story of his heart, no matter how hard Little Joe tried to mask it. He gave one last pat to Joseph’s back and kissed his forehead again.

"I know, son. I know." Ben smiled warmly at his son as he nodded for Adam to lead the way to town.

As Joe and Adam rode off, Ben waved a silent good-bye and allowed a single tear to stream down his cheek before he wiped his face and strode quickly to his desk. He tried hard to concentrate on his books, contracts, biddings and all the formidable work of the Ponderosa; but he couldn’t. He kept seeing the sadness in his son’s green eyes as tears billowed down his little cherubic face.

As much as he tried, concentrating wasn’t working, so Ben retreated by pulling out the gold picture frame of his last love, Marie. He stared lovingly into the eyes of his late wife. He had just looked into the matching jade eyes of his baby son. Marie’s eyes were smiling and sparkling much like they were when she’d watch from the front door as her husband and sons played together in the yard or when she’d been forced to interfere while her husband and youngest son challenged each other to a battle of wills.

"Marie, our baby is growing up." He caressed her smooth porcelain cheek and touched an unmoving curl of the sepia toned photograph. "He’s so much like you. Of course, you know that already, don’t you? I know you watched that little boy in a fit of temper this morning." He smiled, envisioning his wife standing right behind Joe, arms also akimbo, chin jutting forward and shoulders thrown back. He was so much like his mother.

Ben laughed to himself. "Thank you, Marie," Placing his frame gently next to the others, Ben turned back to the paperwork on his desk, "for that temper and that little boy."

Adam stared down at his little brother, as he rode in silence. Little Joe’s eyes were filled with thoughts of his first day of school and Adam watched as the expressions in the shiny green pools changed as his thoughts moved from good to bad. He felt sorry for Joe. He knew what it was like to be thrown into a new way of life. When he was Joe’s age he was traveling to unknown places and meeting unknown people while hungry most of the time and caring for an infant. He knew what it was like to not trust what lie ahead. He thought he could help Little Joe with his mixed feelings.

"You know, Little Joe," Adam began thoughtfully, "I know exactly what you’re feeling." He was rewarded with a surprised look from his little brother.

"Really, Adam?" Curiosity was sparked.

"Sure. When I was your age, there wasn’t a school for me since Pa and I traveled and most of the areas we stayed were inhabited with Indians. But, I can remember the dread in my stomach when we started out for another farm, another town…" Adam removed his hat and replaced it catawampus on his head. "Pa was always moving us to look for work."

Joe didn’t quite understand. "Adam what was dead in your stomach and what does that have to do with me not wanting to go to school?"

Adam laughed. "That’s dread not dead, little buddy. And that’s the little knot in your stomach you feel when you’re scared. I can figure that feeling in your stomach must be like the feeling that I used to get when we would leave behind a farm or ranch we stayed on. See, we’d stay somewhere for a while, but sooner or later we’d have to move on to find our home. So, when Pa decided it was time to leave, it was hard, because we’d gotten used to the cowhands, the ranchers, and well, the foreman’s wives were awfully nice to Hoss and me." Joe was still staring mouth agape, at Adam. This made Adam chuckle again.

"Let me ask you a question, Joe. Why is it you don’t want to go to school?"
Joe answered quickly. "Adam, I just don’t want to leave Pa. And what if I don’t like Miss Jones, or the kids don’t like me? I want to stay home with Pa, Adam. It just ain’t fair-"
"Isn’t fair," Adam corrected.
Joe didn’t falter. "See, you get it. You get to be with him all day and now I don’t." Again, Joe’s eyes began to fill with tears. "Why can’t I? I don’t want to be with dumb ol’ Miss Jones!"

Watch it Little Joe, don’t be disrespectful." Adam pointed a finger at him. "I don’t ever want to hear you say that again, understand? Else we’re going to have a talk with Pa about your attitude."

Sighing, Joe resigned himself to being in trouble again. "Sorry, Adam. I didn’t mean it. Honest." The schoolhouse was within sight now and Adam pulled his horse to a stop, prompting Little Joe to do the same.

"I know, little buddy. And I also know that this is scary for you. You’re going to miss Pa just like all the other kids your age will be missing their pa’s, too. But, before long, you’ll be itching to go every day. You’ll have friends and learn new things. Why, you already know your letters and can write your own name!" Adam dismounted and approached Joe who was openly crying now.

"Joe, baby, c’mon. Think how proud you’ll make Pa when you come home today, from your very first day of school. And you know he’ll be chomping at the bit to see you. Be happy, Joe. Be a good boy for Pa." As Adam rubbed Joe’s back and wiped his tears he looked at how small the boy seemed. However petite his frame was, however, Adam knew his little brother’s spirit was strong like his mother’s.

Sniffling, Joe agreed, "Okay, Adam. I’ll go, but I ain’t promisin’ that I’ll like it!"

Adam led Joe’s horse to the others. "Deal. Now, Hoss is there for you. And remember, he’ll be taking you home."

"Okay, Adam." Joe said impatiently.

"One more thing, little brother. You’d better be good." With that, Adam hugged and kissed the top of Joe’s head. He gave him a slight swat to the seat of his pants to send him along. Some other kids were running into the school, also late on the very first day. Joe walked to the front doors, stopping only once to turn and look to Adam. He then disappeared behind the large oak double doors of the little white schoolhouse.

Adam sighed deeply as his little brother disappeared behind the doors. One huge dilemma down, and before he knew it, there would be another for the little boy to face. If this was how Joe reacted to the first day of school, how was he going to take the news of his big brother leaving for four years? The time for him to leave may not be for a while, but the thought of having to deal with that made him want to… well… Adam picked up his foot and deftly kicked the hitching post. The old wood frame jiggled loosely within its encasements in the dry dirt and startled every horse attached to the framework. Adam screamed silently as he grabbed his bruised foot and pulled the reins of the closest startled horse in an effort to calm the animal and steady his footing. Hopping on one foot, Adam bit his lip not to swear out loud and ruefully thought about repeating his little brothers actions.

As the morning etched on, the Cartwrights went about their business. Adam was at the general store, purchasing some supplies for Hop Sing and his Pa, being sure to pick up candy surprises for Little Joe and Hoss. Ben was finally able to concentrate on the books, and managed to sort out payroll for the hands. Hop Sing was busy preparing a light lunch for Adam and Ben, all the while cooking up something wonderful for dinner to please the littlest Cartwrights. Hoss kept a dutiful, but disproving eye on his little brother the entire morning, even though his friends demanded much attention of him during morning break. The brief recess was spent sharing details on everyone’s summer trips and adventures. Little Joe, well, was being Little Joe.

He sat solidly on his bench with the other boys his age, not looking at anyone but his teacher. He listened to what she said and obeyed, but yet again showed his obvious dissatisfaction by keeping his arms crossed and lower lip out the entire morning. During Meet and Greet, Little Joe stood next to his brother and frowned at the little girls trying to get his attention. Students came forward to introduce themselves to Miss Jones except for Joseph. Hoss tried unsuccessfully to pull his little brother off the bench and respectfully shake hands with his teacher, but he refused.

Miss Jones was quite aware of the pouting six-year-old in front of her and it was wearing on her nerves to say the least. She finally decided she needed to make peace with the little one and walked over to him and gracefully kneeled, which was a trick in her constricting dress of blue gingham and lace and modest, but fashionable heeled black lace-up boots. Little Joe stared in amazement at the woman in front of him. Was she smiling at him?

Her hair was swept off her neck in a conservative, loose bun that allowed renegade strands of wavy chestnut hair to swim down her neckline and float around her face as she walked. Her smile was pretty, Joe thought. In his youthful angst, Joe said, "You are pretty like my mama was. ‘Cept her eyes were green an’ yours are brown. She died ya’ know. Pa says she’s in heaven. Watchin’ me."

Miss Jones was taken aback at the warm confession of the little boy who sat still as petrified wood just a few seconds ago. Her breath escaped before her words and she choked on air. "My, Joseph, that is very kind of you to say, but I think your mother was much prettier than I. And, yes, I believe your mother is smiling down on you right now, proud of her handsome little boy. And you know what? I bet she wants you enjoy school. What do you think?" Abigail was grasping at straws, but she hoped that she could get Little Joe to feel more comfortable. Joe gave her one of his best grins.
Yes ma’am." Abigail smiled inwardly. She’d won him over. And vise versa.

The rest of the afternoon went quickly for Little Joe as he finally began making friends with the other little boys his age. Hoss and he conversed at lunch and when they were allowed to play. They played kick the can and tag after they wolfed down their extravagant lunches Hop Sing had prepared.
However, back at the ranch, things were not quite as peachy. Adam had arrived late for lunch. So late, in fact, he missed it altogether.

"Pa, I’m sorry, I just got…hung up is all." Adam shrugged his shoulders much the same way his littlest brother did that morning.

Ben was a little more than agitated as he had wanted to go over some contracts that he’d asked Adam to handle while they ate their lunch of roast beef sandwiches, sliced apples and fresh lemonade. "Would you mind telling me what you just got hung up about?" He mocked Adam’s sheepish reply.
Adam thought seriously for a moment. Should he tell his father that he got hung up because the object of his affection, Miss Leslie Sue Parker sashayed into the general store just as he was purchasing lemon drops for Little Joe?
"Howdy, Adam." The words dripped like honey out of her sweet red lips. Nobody could throw Adam quite like Sweet Leslie Sue Parker. Her pristine lavender dress was complete with lace, ribbons, and bows, gathered perfectly here, cut just a little too low there and hugged perfectly there. Adam was speechless as she removed her matching silk bonnet. Her honey colored hair hung in ringlets about her face, which was heart-shaped, blue-eyed, button nosed and flushed with perfect color on her cheeks.

Before he knew what he was doing, Adam was at the International House leaning over the table kissing the pouty lips of Leslie Sue while others watched, some in admiration, some in disgust, others in jealousy. None of that mattered to Adam, however, as long as he was with Leslie Sue. He knew how many guys in Virginia City would pay to be in the very same spot he was right now. Life couldn’t get any better, he thought. The prettiest girl in town was willingly kissing him right in front of everyone. She hardly even pulled her lips away to eat the lunch Adam insisted on buying for her. Adam was in teen-age bliss.

It wasn’t until he looked outside the lace-curtained windows of the International House that Adam realized the errs of his way. While kissing Leslie Sue, he had glanced over her bare shoulder and seen his little brothers playing in the schoolhouse yard. Hoss was picking up Little Joe and swinging him around, causing an eruption of giggles and carefree laughter from the smaller children.

This sight alone shouldn’t have caused the blood to drain from his face and his breath to disappear from his chest. No, it was something different altogether. He’d missed lunch. Pulling his mouth from Leslie Sue’s caused a slight popping sound that made Adam flush with embarrassment. He looked to the large grandfather clock that stood in the dining room of the restaurant and muttered, "Damn!" just a little too loud.

Shocked, Leslie Sue rose from her wooden chair. "Adam!" The loud scratching sound of the chair as it scraped across the wood floor caught the attention of the other diners. Adam flushed hotly again as everyone stopped their various tasks and started intently at them once again, forks half-way to their open mouths. Not a single person averted their eyes from the couple.

Adam jumped from his seat. "Leslie Sue, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to use that language. I mean, it wasn’t directed at you. I’m late. I have to go home." Leslie Sue’s face was unconvinced. Adam added briskly, "My Pa’s going to kill me." He saw the contempt in Leslie Sue’s eyes fade to be replaced with a look of understanding. A small smile crept across her lovely lips as she said, "Oh. Why didn’t you just say so?" She leaned over and favored Adam with a sweet kiss that lingered just a little too long.

She pulled away first. "You in trouble?" She smiled coyly. Adam sighed heavily. "Should have been home an hour ago, Leslie Sue. You sure know how to make a man lose all track of time."
Adam decided to throw caution to the wind. "I ran into a girl, Pa. Leslie Sue Parker. She asked me to take her to lunch and I just couldn’t refuse. I lost all track of time, Pa. Honest. I’m sorry I forgot about being home by noon."

Adam waited for a reaction from Ben. All he got was, "I wondered why your face looked all red and bruised. Were you kissing her?"

"Yes sir." Honesty seemed to be working toward his advantage.


Uh-oh, Adam thought. The International House was a place the Cartwrights frequented and everyone there knew Ben. He figured sooner of later he would hear the details of their kissing from someone’s prudish wife at a town meeting, at the saloon by the town drunk, or worse yet, at church.

"Uh, at the International House, Pa." Adam flinched at his own answer. He backed away a precautionary step.

"What? You were kissing Leslie Sue Parker in front of God and everyone at the International House in broad daylight?" Ben nearly screamed.

‘Damn,’ Adam thought, honesty was working. He muttered another curse under his breath. Bad idea.

"Adam Cartwright, did I just hear you swear under my roof? What has gotten into you, young man? Kissing some filly in a respectable place, missing what was going to be an important business meeting between you and me, and now you’re swearing! In my house, nonetheless!" Ben’s face was turning purple from yelling.
Ben had always prided Adam on his premature maturity and ability to be reliable, even-tempered and level headed. At this moment, all designs on being mature and even-tempered went out the window for Adam.

"Pa! Leslie Sue is not a filly! She’s a respectable young lady who just happens to like me as much as I like her!"

"Don’t you dare fly off at me like that! I’m your father and you have no right to raise your voice under my roof. Only I am allowed to yell here!" Ben’s face was turning shades of crimson. "Upstairs! Now!" was all Ben managed to yell.

Adam hesitated. "What? Are you sending me to my room like a child? What am I? Little Joe?"

Ben was beginning to lose all the temper he was restraining. "Young man, I suggest you get upstairs now or you will regret that I had to haul you to your bedroom. Do you understand?"

"Yes sir." A physical threat of any kind did it for Adam. Unlike Little Joe, who usually prompted their father to carry out the threats, Adam had learned many years ago that his Pa spoke the truth when he used the phrase ‘you will regret’.

Adam half-ran up the first landing on the stairs when he stopped. "Pa," he called weakly. Ben stared, eyes furrowed in confusion at why his son would disobey him.
Yes, Adam?" Ben used his most intimidating voice.

Adam reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a brown paper bag that had been twisted closed at the top. Gingerly, Adam unfurled the wrapper and reached into the bag, as if trying not to spook a horse or alarm a bear. He removed a yellow sugary lemon drop and plopped one into his mouth. He gave his father a dubious smile. "I got candy for the boys. Want some?"

For the third time that day, Ben’s patience had been tried to the very end from one of his sons. "NO!" His voice reverberated off the exposed timber ceilings and stone walls. At this, Ben was rewarded with dozens of tiny yellow, sugarcoated candies that impaled his face, scattered to the floor and imbedded themselves into his furniture. Both father and son stood in silence for a moment before Ben heard Adam let out his breath.

"Uh-oh. Sorry, Pa, you ah… er… kina’ startled me." He gave a nervous laugh. Ben reached a renegade lemon drop that landed in his front shirt pocket and swiped a granule of sugar from the corner of his eye. The quiet equanimity coming from his father was not a good sign. It was the calm before the storm.


"Yes sir." This time, Adam didn’t stop to make any amends.

After an hour or so of peace and quiet, Ben heard the familiar sound of hoof beats entering the yard. Smiling, he raised himself from his large oak desk and moved to greet his sons at the door. He had been anxiously awaiting Little Joe and Hoss’ arrival. He’d missed his baby being home to keep him occupied all afternoon.
Once again, Ben had received more than he had bargained for, which was his two youngest sons riding excitedly into the yard to stutter through the excitement of the first day of school. Riding along side Hoss and Little Joe sat a very pristine Miss Jones, riding sidesaddle on her horse. His sons looked nervous and agitated, as did Miss Jones.

"Why Miss Jones, what brings you out to the Ponderosa this afternoon?" Ben crossed his fingers, hoping it was a social visit that brought here there.

Little Joe dismounted Roman quickly, catching his foot in the stirrup. With a thump, he landed at Ben’s feet, but didn’t let it disturb his proclamation. "It’s all Hoss’ fault, Pa!"

Hoss angrily answered back, "It weren’t my fault. If you hadn’t bet them boys… Pa! I’m gonna clobber him!"

Miss Jones didn’t even try to reply, she just quietly dismounted and moved her horse to the rail while the boys argued with each other.

"Stop it! Now!" Ben ordered over their feuding voices, dragging Little Joe to his feet. "I don’t want to hear another word out of either of you. Go take care of your horses while I talk to Miss Jones." He pointed stern-faced toward the barn. Both boys ran without another word.

"Hello, Mr. Cartwright." Miss Jones sweetly called to Ben. "I’m sorry about the interruption on your afternoon, I just thought it’d be best if I escorted Hoss and Little Joe home today." Abby smiled at Ben’s perplexed expression. "Perhaps I should explain."

Ben led her to the front door and guided her inside. "Indeed, Miss Jones. Forgive me for being rude. Would you care to sit down and have a cup of coffee?"

"Thank you, yes. And call me Abby, please."

"My pleasure, Abby." He turned his body toward the kitchen, standing close to Abby. " Hop Sing! HOP SING!" Abby nearly fell off her chair from the resounding echo of Ben’s yell. In a heartbeat, Ben had gone from pleasant to quite vociferous.

"Always yell, yell, yell. Hop Sing right here. Hear you in China. Not deaf. What want Mr. Cartlight?"

Ben lowered his voice an octave or two. "Coffee and cookies for Abby and me, please." The little Chinese cook retreated to the kitchen without another word.

"Abby, please forgive me for being so abrupt, but what did my sons do now?"

"Well Mr. Cartwright-"Ben." Abby continued, "Well, Ben, it was a tough day for the little ones, especially Little Joe. I’m not excusing his actions, but I think you need to know he made progress today. It started out rough for him, but before the day was over he’d made friends with the other boys. Even the older ones." Hop Sing interrupted silently as he sat a shiny silver tray with blue china coffee cups and saucers and warm ginger snap cookies down on the table next to the fireplace. He padded away quickly to the kitchen.

Ben’s eyebrows formed a V. "The older ones?" He hadn’t missed the emphasis Abby had placed on her last statement.

"Yes. Which is why I’ve come out here this afternoon. It seems after lunch Little Joe made a bet with some of the older boys that they couldn’t whip his big brother. I didn’t know this of course, but after I let the children out a little early this afternoon I heard quite a ruckus coming from the front yard of the schoolhouse. It was Hoss and some of the other boys, some older than he was, some younger, mostly older, though. Little Joe was standing aside cheering Hoss on as he beat up a few of my students, Ben. Some were quite bloody before I managed to stop the fighting."

Abby could tell Ben was furious. He hadn’t touched his coffee and she’d resorted to apprehensively nibbling on gingersnaps while squeezing her coffee cup with her palm. He began mumbling before Abby could tell what he was saying.

"Those boys… I’m going to teach them a lesson… They ought to know better…"

Abby figured what Ben was thinking and felt sorry for the boys immediately. "Ben, try not to be too hard on them. Little Joe was just being mischievous when he’d started making bets. He only charged one dollar a fight…"

"ONE dollar a fight!" Ben exploded, startling Abby, causing her to drop her cookie in her coffee. She nervously tried to fish it out while Ben stuttered over this news but gave up and set her cup on the table. She sighed.

"That’s why I’m here, Mr. C- Ben. The boys older than Hoss weren’t too happy about losing money to a six and twelve-year-old. I thought you should know before any parents came to you. Or any angry boys try to retaliate." Abby stood, brushing sugar off her dress. She spied a yellow lemon drop in the chair she was sitting in and placed it on the coffee table next to her cookie sodden coffee. Shame these boys don’t have a mother, she thought.

Finally gaining composure, Ben took Abby’s hand and kissed it. "Thank you so much for making the trip here this afternoon. Shall I have Adam take you home in the buckboard?" Abby smiled, thinking about Ben’s oldest driving her home. She was about to say yes when she’d remembered hearing some little girls giggling about

Adam kissing Leslie Sue Parker at the International House that afternoon. "No, thank you, Ben. It’s a beautiful afternoon and I wish to make the trip on my own. And Ben, don’t be too hard on them. Little Joe was just making friends so fast. The other children took to him so quickly. He’s a loveable boy, as is Hoss."

Ben watched as she strode out the door and mounted her horse, straddling it this time. "Thank you, Miss Jones."

Just as Ben shut the front door he realized the unnatural quietness of the room. Hoss and Little Joe hadn’t come in from bedding down their horses. Ben angrily strode to the barn, hoping that they had started their chores in an effort to lessen their punishments. What he heard when he reached the barn door demolished any hopes that they were attempting to procure his good side.

"It’s your fault."

"Is not. You didn’t have to fight."

"Pa’s gonna be mad."
At you. You’re the one that knocked out Jeremy Jenkins’ front tooth."

"Dadburnit, Little Joe, where did you learn to make bets anyhow? You’re just a kid."

"Which is precisely what I want to know." Ben’s voice interrupted. There was hay scattered about the barn, where, judging from their clothes, they’d wrestled in. Their horses were in their stalls, but not yet unbridled. There was a bruise forming on Hoss’ cheek, either from the scrap with Joe or the schoolyard fight.

"Pa!" Both Hoss and Little Joe jumped like soldiers. Hoss shook the hay off him and Little Joe instinctively put his hands behind his back.

"Don’t Pa me! You two have a lot of explaining to do! What do you two boys have to say for yourselves?" Ben hovered precariously over his two youngest children.
It was Hoss’ fault!" Little Joe nudged Hoss with his elbow. Hoss elbowed him back. They stopped just as they noticed their father’s hand move quickly to his belt buckle.

"Keep it up boys. We’re in the right place for me to have to use this. And I will if you two don’t straighten up right now."

Again, Little Joe placed his hands behind his back as if it would ward off any attack his father gave his backside.

Hoss spoke up. "Aw, Pa. It were both our faults. I kinda tol’ Little Joe in secret and all that I could whip all the other boys at school. I didn’t know he was goin’ to go and bet them boys I could! Well, then, Pa, when they called me out- I ain’t no chicken, Pa. I didn’t even know Little Joe knew what a bet was!"

"You an’ Adam taught me!" Little Joe looked imploringly at Hoss, then Pa.

Hoss was losing composure at this point. "Now Little Joe, you know that ain’t true. Adam and me would never teach a little boy like you how to make bets. Pa, you have to believe me, we wouldn’t ever do that."

Ben looked at the honest eyes of his middle son and addressed his youngest. "Joseph, I would like to know why you believe Hoss and Adam taught you this kind of behavior is acceptable. Please explain. And you know how I feel about lying, boy."

Little Joe still had his hands planted firmly behind his back, shoulders squared, chin down. "Well, Pa. They didn’t exactly teach me." Hoss stood beside Little Joe, crumbling his hat brim while waiting for an explanation that wouldn’t incriminate he and Adam.

Ben was growing more frustrated with his youngest. "Continue, Joseph."

"Well, they didn’t exactly know they were teachin’ me, Pa. I kinda’ learned by accident. It’s funny, actually. They was bettin’ each other with that poker game, Pa. I watched them play and learned poker and how to bet!"

Ben’s eyes were raging as he stared at his middle son once again. Hoss started at the sheer anger in Ben’s face. "Pa, now let me explain. He’s tellin’ the truth, Pa, but

Adam and I were alone and Little Joe was supposed to be in bed. We didn’t know he was watchin’ us."

"I see. But, Hoss didn’t we," he pointed at himself, "me," then at Hoss, "you," then toward the house, "and Adam have an agreement that YOU DON’T GAMBLE OR PLAY POKER?"

Hoss put his chin to his chest and turned his hat around and around in his hands. "Yes, sir, we did. Err, that is, we do, Pa. We do have an agreement. I guess Adam and I sort of disobeyed you, Pa. We was just havin’ us some fun. I’m awful sorry."

Ben snapped his fingers at Little Joe. "Hand over the money, Joseph."

"The money, Pa?" His voice squeaked, a tell tale sign Little Joe was either lying or hiding something.

"Don’t play coy with me young man. Hand over the money you accrued this afternoon. Now, Joseph."

"Oh! That money. Sure Pa." Little Joe dug into the front pocket of his pants and produced a small wad of crumpled bills. "Here it is, Pa. Six dollars!" Little Joe beamed at the fortune in his hand. Ben snatched the stipend from his son’s hand, depleting the youngster’s pride in his cash earnings.

Ben remained silent for a moment, then suddenly grabbed Hoss and Little Joe by their upper arms and strode out of the barn toward the house. The youngest Cartwrights shared nonplus reactions as they practically allowed Ben to drag them across the yard.

They ended up being helpfully but not gently seated side by side on the settee in the living room. They looked sheepishly at their father pacing the floor.
Finally, he stopped. "Not a word. Don’t move off this settee, either one of you, or it’s your hide." He strode back out the front door and slammed it behind him. Ben took a deep breath and counted to ten twice on the front porch before he returned to find his two sons sitting motionless where he put them.

"At least sometimes you can obey me." He muttered rhetorically. "Adam! Adam, come down here!" He yelled.

A door creaked open slowly upstairs. From the bottom of the stairs, Ben watched a head of black hair pop out of the door. "Yes, Pa?" He asked cautiously.

"Adam Cartwright, I said ‘get down here!’ Now, before I get angry!" At the last sentence, Little Joe and Hoss stared at each other in dismay. Little Joe whispered to Hoss, "You mean he ain’t angry yet?"

Behind his back, Ben heard whispering, which agitated him further. He silenced his young sons with one look as Adam descended the staircase slowly.
It was evident that Adam had been sleeping. His usually combed hair was in a disheveled mess and his customarily immaculate clothes were wrinkled and twisted about his body.

Ben gave Adam a glare. "I see, son, that you’ve been in your room contemplating for hours your many errors of the day." His voice dripped with angry sarcasm.

Adam swallowed heavily. "Yes, Pa. Er, no Pa. I fell asleep while contemplating my errs, sir." Trembling hands untwisted his shirt from his waist, straightened his vest and his sweaty palms successfully matted down his tufted hair. "I’m sorry, sir." He added quickly for good measure.

Ben gestured with a wave of his hand for Adam to place himself next to his two younger siblings on the worn checkered sofa and he did so quickly and quietly. Placing his enormous hands on his hips, Ben stood directly in front of his sons. His eyebrows were high, eyes, wide, nostrils flaring and his jaw was jutting forward slightly. All three boys knew they were in for a long night. He was mad. Madder than they’d ever seen him.

Ben began a lecture in clipped tones, trying with all his might not to scream at his sons like he wanted to. "You three have been trying my patience since first light this morning. Joseph, your behavior today was appalling at home as well as at school. I think you know what I mean." At this, Little Joe put his chin on his chest.

Ben continued, "Hoss, to agree to what your six-year-old brother puts you up to is beyond irresponsible. You’re supposed to be the older brother here. There is no excuse for your schoolyard fighting or picking up nasty habits from your brothers. Which brings your big brother Adam into the picture." Hoss’ eyes began to well up with tears and Adam sat stunned, not knowing what this had to do with him kissing Leslie Sue Parker in the International House in broad daylight in front of God and everyone.

"Adam? Are you paying attention to me, boy?"

Adam jolted. "Yes, sir. Sorry."

Ben espied the fearful faces of his sons and entertained the thought of letting them off the hook, but that thought faded quickly as he thought of all the chaos his three sons had put him through today.

"Well, Adam, your behavior today has been less than appropriate as well. First, you display a lewd act in front of my peers in broad daylight in town, then miss a lunch meeting, swear in my house, now I learn that you’re involved with teaching Hoss how to gamble and play poker!" Ben’s arms were flailing upward, causing all three sons to lean back considerably with each wave that neared their heads.

Adam winced again. ‘How could this day get any worse?’ "Pa, yes, I did teach Hoss to play poker. We were bored, Pa and I wanted to teach Hoss so I could practice for when you let me go into town alone at nights."

Ben seethed. "I see. And did you know that your baby brother was watching and learning right along side of Hoss? You apparently taught Hoss so well, Joseph became very well oriented with betting!" For the time being, Ben purposely avoided the subject of letting his son go into town alone. That was a subject he’d handle alone and in private with his oldest son, who, on a general basis, would be able to handle the responsibility of entering town without escort.

"But Pa! I didn’t know he was watching! I wouldn’t have ever let Little Joe play poker or watch us. He was supposed to be sleeping. Honest, Pa. I would never teach Little Joe such things." Adam’s mouth began to feel as if he’d swallowed cotton. They were all in for it. With every fiber of his soul, Adam knew they’d all come to the end of their Pa’s very long rope.

"Well," said Ben as he carefully placed a dusty boot on the coffee table, a gesture he did not encourage his sons to do. "It seems all three of my sons managed to disobey me today. Isn’t that right?"  The three sons in question sat in stunned silence.

Ben asked again, this time much louder, "I said, isn’t that right, boys?"

"Yes, sir!" they chorused.

Ben gazed deftly at his sons, deciding what to do next. His emotions were disordered; the boys were looking at him wide-eyed and obviously worried at their father’s reactions to their transgressions. Little Joe’s eyes were the size of saucers and he sat ramrod straight on the settee. Hoss kept turning his hat around in his hands over and over and the fluid pattern distracted and hypnotized Ben for what seemed like minutes. Finally breaking his eyes from the rotating hat, he noticed the pallid look of his oldest son. His usually smug face was wracked with worry about being disciplined.

His sons were so perplexed, however, that a slight amusement crept across their father’s face, clearly confusing his boys even more. Realizing that he must put his foot down and instill the castigation his boys needed, Ben wiped away any trace of amusement and replaced the expression with a calm, but austere face. After all, the offenses his sons committed today, however slightly humorous, were serious discipline issues he needed to address with all three of his children. His temper moderately cooled for the time being, Ben looked to the kitchen where he smelled the pleasant aroma of Hop Sing’s cooking. The scents alone lifted weights from his shoulders like steam rising from a freshly cooked platter.

"Well, sons, let’s have an agreeable dinner and we’ll discuss each of your infractions privately after we have a full stomach."

As if on cue, Hop Sing entered the semi-formal dining area where the Cartwrights feasted together as regularly as possible.

"Hop Sing cook food, you boys eat. Growing boys need supper. Come sit down or I throw away!" The little cook barked his usual song, emphasizing the ‘throw away’ part, knowing it would definitely have the results he wanted. The four Cartwright men sat in their respective seats at the table, each mulling over how their pa would ‘handle’ them after supper.

Adam sat staring at his plate, thinking about Leslie Sue Parker and mildly contemplating his mistakes of the day. He weighed his infractions against those of his little brothers and concluded that their behavior was worse than his. Just as he thought he would be spared the brunt of Pa’s anger, he remembered that pesky little brother of his, spying on him and Hoss playing poker when he was supposed to be in bed. Before he knew what he was doing, he spouted out at Little Joe, "Just how is it, you little brat, that you can manage get ME into trouble when you disobey Pa by spying on Hoss and me?"

"ADAM!" Ben didn’t even give Little Joe a chance to respond. "Stop this nonsense at once! I told you I wanted a peaceful dinner and I meant it. I’ve had enough temper tantrums for one day." Ben’s chocolate eyes narrowed on his oldest son. "I suggest you tone down, boy, you’re not doing yourself any favors."

Adam jumped from his seat at the table and his eyes, the color of murky water, flashed with anger and defiance. "I won’t tone down, Pa! I’m sick of that little boy always getting his way around here! If he can get away with throwing temper tantrums and breaking rules, then why can’t I? At least try to be less transparent in your favoritism, Pa!" The words exited his mouth before Adam could stop and even he could apperceive the puerile angst in his voice. Adam knew he’d just dug his own grave and judging from the utter stillness that followed his pretense, his Pa did, too. Angered, Ben knew he had to remain silent before gaining composure to speak.
After he’d ingested the hasty words his oldest son spoke, Ben gathered his napkin from his lap and precisely dabbed at the corners of his mouth before placing it over his unfinished meal.

Little Joe watched the interaction between his oldest brother and father with amusement. He’d managed to get his brother into trouble again! A small giggle escaped
Little Joe’s lips and infectious as it was, he giggled louder and harder, causing Hoss to join in. Little Joe’s giggles increased when he was rewarded with a curled lip and sneer from Adam.

Their festivities were cut off abruptly when two meaty fists blasted the table. Every dish, cup saucer, knife and fork flew from their positions and landed in a loud clank back to the table in disarray. "ENOUGH! ENOUGH!" Ben stood from his position at the head of the table.

Three sets of wide eyes watched their father work to tone his fury. Surprisingly, he was quiet when he spoke his next words. "Eric, Joseph, upstairs now. Do it quickly and quietly, please." Like burglars, Hoss and Little Joe tiptoed up the stairs to the sanctuary of their rooms.
Adam, I’d like to continue this discussion in the barn." Adam blanched visibly and swallowed hard.

This time, Ben didn’t see any amusement in the situation. In fact, for the first time that day, he decided his rope wasn’t only at an end; it was frayed. He’d tried to be patient. He’d tried to understand. But enough was enough. After taking three slow, deep breaths he grabbed Adam’s arm firmly and hauled him out the door.

"Pa." Adam pleaded. It was all he could manage to say. His father ignored his supplication and planted his feet near a hay bale in front of his son. Ben deposited his hands at his hips, much like he had while handling Joseph early that morning.

"Son, I think we should discuss some things before I give you the tanning you so richly deserve. You’re an intelligent young man, I’m sure you know since we’re continuing this discussion in the barn instead of enjoying a nice meal, that I’ve been very disappointed in you today. You are usually my right hand man around here Adam and today, you’ve behaved as if you are Little Joe’s age."

Ben held up his thumb and forefinger, holding them nary an inch apart. "Never in my life have I ever struck any of my sons in anger, but tonight I came this close to slapping you right at the dinner table, Adam. I have not raised you to speak to me, or anyone in that manner and I’m appalled that you did. I don’t care what the situation is, or how old you are; next time you speak to me in that fashion I’ll tan the skin off your hide. Understand?"

Adam swallowed. "Yes, sir."

"Now," Ben moved his large hands from his hips and hooked his thumbs to his belt buckle. "We have other infractions to handle, don’t we?"

Adam looked beseechingly at his father’s stern face and then the thick leather of his belt. "Pa, I know I acted horribly today. But a tanning? You haven’t resorted to that in a while. I’ll be eighteen soon. Aren’t I a little too old for spankings, Pa?"

Ben merely unbuckled his belt and pulled it from the loops of his tan pants. "No, Adam. You’ve proved to me today that you are still a child in many ways. You will be punished as Hoss and Little Joe do when they are disobedient, or when they fly off at their father, young man. In one day, you’ve managed to disgrace the family name, get your brother Hoss into more trouble by teaching him to play poker and then you talk back to me, twice in one day! And, Adam, I don’t think you’ll be practicing your poker hand in town any time soon son. You’re restricted to the ranch. There’ll be no seeing Leslie Sue for a month. And I suggest that you watch what comes out of that smart mouth of yours, son or your month will be spent standing up. Shall we get this over with?" Ben took a step away from the bale and pointed to it.

Adam walked slowly to the bale and bent over it, a flush of embarrassment rising in his cheeks. He knew deep down that he deserved this. He’d pushed his father too much today. But his feelings of accepting his comeuppance ended as the first of many licks landed hard across his backside. In a matter of seconds, Adam remembered just what his father meant when he said, ‘you will regret.’ And he most assuredly did.
After Adam’s tanning was over, Ben replaced his belt and addressed his son. "Adam. I’ve got your brothers do deal with. You may stay in the barn until you have composed yourself." Ben waited until he got a fast nod from his crying son and retreated to the house.

Before this day, it’d been months since he’d resorted to spanking any of his sons. Strangely enough, it had been Hoss, his least pretentious son that he’d punished last. Prior to that day, Hoss had asked his father if he could spend an afternoon fishing with his new friend Pete Lauger. Ben had responded with a stern ‘no’. He didn’t like Pete Lauger’s defiant, disrespectful attitude and wasn’t fond of his son hanging around him. Eventually, Pete’s cajoling worked and he convinced Hoss that he deserved a break from Saturday chores. So, when the day came, Hoss skipped his chores and escaped to the lake, notifying no one. Later that afternoon, Ben returned early from checking the north fences with Adam and was shocked to find Hoss missing and his chores undone. Realizing where his son might be, Ben sent Adam to the lake to search for his wayward middle boy. When Adam returned with the confirmation, Ben waited patiently for his son to return home to face the consequences. Hours after he’d left, Hoss walked into the yard with a string of fish and a smile on his face, unsuspecting of the amount of trouble he’d be in.
Hoss panicked when he saw the anger on his Pa’s face and clumsily dropped his line of fish on the ground. Instead of confessing immediately when asked of his whereabouts, he’d uncouthly stammered and lied about Hop Sing wanting to cook a fish dinner. Ben knew the truth behind his escape to the lake and made a mental note to have a more serious talk with Hoss about Pete Lauger. Ben had planned on restricting Hoss to the ranch for a month as punishment, but as soon as the fabrication departed his son’s lips, Ben stripped off his belt and sent Hoss to his room. And now, here he was again, ascending the wooden staircase, hand gliding over the polished wood, mentally preparing himself for the handling of his second of three sons.

Without knocking, Ben entered his middle son’s room. "Hoss." His eyes landed on the back of a blond head staring out the bedroom window.

Hoss turned and glanced worriedly at his Pa. He had obviously been crying. "I’m sorry, Pa. Really, I am."

It was hard for Ben to stay firm with his blue-eyed, good-natured son. Nonetheless, there was a lesson here and Ben felt strongly about the edification.

"Son, I’m going to tell you the same thing I told Adam. I’m very disappointed in your actions this afternoon. You should have known better than to listen to your little brother’s antics. Hoss, you have to remember that you are the older brother and just as Adam takes care of you in my absence, it is your duty in the same situation to take care of Joseph. That includes when you’re at school. You and Joseph both know fighting is against the rules, as well as gambling. Tomorrow I’m riding to school with you and Joseph so I can personally watch you return those boys’ money and apologize to them and Miss Jones and any parents who wish escort their children to school in the morning. You will also be paying with your allowance any doctor bills any of the children may have needed. I seem to remember Miss Jones telling me you knocked out a boy’s tooth! I have not raised a bully, son and I don’t ever want to hear the townspeople referring to you as such."
Walking to Hoss’ bed, Ben reiterated, "Hoss, I will not tolerate you fighting at school or betting or playing poker. I’m sorry son. I didn’t like doing it the last time and I certainly won’t enjoy it again." For the second time that evening, Ben removed his belt.

Come here, son."
Hoss obediently approached his bed and bent over it, again wishing he were still small enough to be put over his father’s knee like his little brother.

Shutting the bedroom door, Ben glanced across the hall at his baby son’s room. He knew that it was torture for the young boy to be waiting so long for his punishment and he was most likely listening dreadfully to the yelps coming from his big brother’s room.

Ben squared his shoulders, preparing mentally and physically for the battle with his youngest and braced himself for whatever Joseph would throw at him. Noiselessly, he opened the thick pine door to Little Joe’s room and glanced to the few places his son might be. Upon first glimpse, Joe was nowhere to be seen. He wasn’t on his bed, or under it, nor was he cowering in any corners. Finally, his eyes landed on his target. What he saw before him was Little Joe’s small backside, one leg keeping balance on the floor and the other already stuck out of his window along with his head, upper shoulders and arms. Ben seethed. ‘He was trying to escape!’ Little Joe had decided to take fate into his own hands. Unfortunately for him, he picked the wrong night to do it.

"JOSEPH FRANCIS CARTWRIGHT!" The words were all too familiar, but undoubtedly pertinent to the situation. The overused phrase reverberated across the bedroom wall and echoed to the bedroom window where the little scamp was perched. Startled by the yell, Little Joe nearly fell headfirst out his second story window and had it not been for the steadfast hands of his father wrapping around his midsection, he probably would have.

"What in heaven’s name do you think you’re doing, son?" Ben set Little Joe on the floor none too gently and his grip didn’t loosen as he kneeled face to face with his son.  Eyes wide, Little Joe answered by turning his head away from his father.

Ben was familiar with this tactic. "I asked you a question, Joseph."

The little boy managed to look into his father’s deep brown eyes, but averted his eyes slightly before answering. "I was going outside, Pa."

"Through your window, Joseph? And what for, may I ask?" Ben contained his fury.

"To… To go see Roman, Pa." Little Joe gave his father a guilty smile.

"Joseph. Do not lie to me. I know as well as you do that you were not climbing out your bedroom window to see Roman. Were you trying to escape your punishment?"

Little Joe knew he’d been caught. "Yes, Pa. I didn’t want you to spank me."

Ben hauled Little Joe over to his bed and sat down, placing him between his legs like he had early that same morning of this hellish day. "Well, son, do you think that running off will prevent you from getting that spanking?"

Tears were forming in the little boy’s eyes and his loosened curls fell limply onto his forehead, making the impish boy look like a toddler once again. Even at six, Little Joe understood how he was supposed to answer. He also knew that he would undoubtedly get that spanking he’d tried diligently to avoid.

"I’m sorry, Papa. I wasn’t thinking, I guess. I thought you’d forget, maybe iffen you couldn’t find me."

Ben nodded. "Yes that’s what I thought. Do you know why I was coming in here to spank you, son?"

"Yes, Papa." His voice was barely above a whisper. Ben raised his eyebrows, signaling to Little Joe that he expected further explanation. "I was bad this morning, ‘cause I didn’t want to go to school and then I broke your rules and got into a fight and made bets. I laughed at my big brother when he gotted into trouble." Little Joe looked at Ben with his angelic face and gave his most infectious smile.

Ben didn’t waver. "This isn’t a smiling matter son. You have been a serious discipline problem today. I’ve already informed Hoss that you and he will be returning all the money to the other boys and you will be paying with your allowance any medical bills they have. Can you understand that?"

After getting a nod, Ben continued. "You will also be apologizing to the other children and Miss Jones. As well as any parents who wish to accompany their children to the schoolyard tomorrow. You also seem to forget that I had to pull you out of your bedroom window not five minutes ago to keep you from either running off or falling to your death. Joseph that is a long fall and I don’t want to catch you in or on the other side of that window ever again. That incident alone would have earned you a spanking, as well as the lying, but today I suppose we’re just going to have to add it to the file."

On that note, Ben released his son from between his legs and in one swift movement placed him across his lap and began a spanking that Little Joe wouldn’t soon forget.

Of course, because of his age, Little Joe cried harder than his brothers did, making Ben feel slightly guilty. He stayed with Little Joe for a few minutes, laying him down on the bed and rubbing his back with the flat of his hand; the same stinging palm that he’d just spanked his son with. Removing his hand from his son’s small back, Ben looked at his palm and saw redness and felt the soreness of it. Frowning ruefully, he thought, imagine what his backside feels like? He shook his head and closed his fist, not wanting to regret the lessons he’d intended to teach his sons. Since Ben had been on the receiving end of spankings as a child, he knew how his children felt. But now, as an adult, he understood more than ever why his father tanned him and just how difficult it was for him to do. Ben hoped he was half the man his father was and irrefutably tried to teach his sons to be responsible, upstanding people.

He looked down again at Little Joe. It had been a long day for the little boy and he was fast asleep, tears dried half way down his face. Rubbing away tear tracks with his thumb, Ben wondered if his staying next to Joseph was more for the little boys’ benefit or his own. Smiling, he leaned forward to kiss Joe’s cool cheeks and forehead.

Ben whispered into Little Joe’s ear. "Good night, son. I love you." He gently ruffled his son’s curls, thankful that he could start tomorrow anew with his young sons.
He closed the door behind his back and remained there for a moment, back pressed to the door. For the umpteenth time that day, he sighed a deep ungovernable sigh, feeling neither a sense of contentment or explicit unrest. He’d never before spanked all three of his sons in one day and was surprised at how the emotion of it taxed him. At the same time, Ben felt strongly about accepting the repercussions for your actions, even if it meant feeling the after affects of it for a while.

Walking toward his room, Ben felt his stomach grumble and contemplated asking Hop Sing to reheat tonight’s dinner, but before he walked down the stairs, he’d remembered that neither of his sons had eaten dinner either. He slapped the newel post lightly and walked slowly back to his bedroom and turned the squeaky marble doorknob. Hearing a slight cough from an indiscernible direction, the over-cautious father stopped dead in his tracks and pivoted, marching to a bedroom. He knew his sons were fine, but Ben furtively used any excuse he could to check on his sons nearly every night.

He put his ear to Adam’s door and cracked it open slightly, hearing the sound of Adam’s deep breathing. Entering silently, Ben looked at the sleeping figure of his oldest son. He leaned forward to better look at him. Adam was on his stomach; his clothes still on and he was lying on top of the bedclothes. He pulled a blanket off of Adam’s grandfather’s fisherman trunk and draped it over him, tucking the soft cover under his shoulders and legs.

"Good night, son. I love you." Ben closed the door quietly, suddenly remembering that Adam must have retreated to his room while he was with Joseph.

The next room he went to was Hoss’. Ben smiled as he listened to his son’s snoring from the hallway. Entering, he softly approached his son’s bed. Like his other two sons, Hoss was sleeping on his stomach, his nightshirt twisted about his legs and bedclothes in a heap on the floor. Ben chuckled cautiously as he with one finger, closed Hoss’ slightly agape mouth. The gesture only halted Hoss’ snoring for an instant and soon the clamorous ring of it drowned out any sound Ben’s boots made upon the hard wood floor. For the third time that night, Ben whispered to his son as he straightened the sheets and blankets around beefy shoulders, "Good night, son. I love you."
He never was quite sure why he went to bed hungry that night. The growling and slight pains of hunger kept him from falling asleep immediately like he’d wished to. Once he did, however, Ben fell into a deep and contented sleep. The next morning, Ben was wakened to the sounds of his stomach growling and the friendly banter of his sons talking downstairs. He smiled as he hurriedly dressed to join his sons for breakfast.

Thankfully, each of his sons had accepted their misdeeds from the day before and respectfully asked for their father’s forgiveness. Ben gave it willingly and announced that the slate had been wiped clean. He received smiles and hugs from Hoss and Little Joe while Adam chose to formally shake his Pa’s hand. Outside looking in, you’d never know about the day of hell each family member experienced the day before.

As they approached the breakfast table, Hop Sing entered the dining room with three large, soft pillows, placed them in Adam, Hoss and Joe’s seats and plumped them vigorously. Ben stifled a laugh as he watched each of his sons’ gingerly hunker down and fought the urge chuckle as they squirmed uncomfortably all through their harried breakfast. Every morsel of anger Ben had felt the day before was now washed away and replaced with the warmth, admiration and unguarded paternal companionship that he and his sons normally shared. He knew that he’d have to discipline his sons again in the future; Joseph would invariably find ways to push his father over the edge. Ben smiled and surveyed his sons half-shoveling their eggs into their mouths. Closing his eyes, Ben prayed that a day like yesterday would never happen again. He looked toward the heavens and internally asked, "Dear God, if my sons ever again decide to test me in the way they did yesterday, please, please let each of them do it on a DIFFERENT day!"

This story is dedicated to Lorrie, whose help, kind words and encouragement pulled me through. This wouldn’t be finished if it weren’t for her. And also thanks to Lori for helping me edit.

The End