Summary: What is so hard about picking up the mail?
Rated: G (3,500 words)
The Whole Story
With the utmost discretion, Adam Cartwright glanced up through veiled lashes to observe the silver-haired man sitting across the low table from him. He could tell that his father’s attention was clearly drawn to the front door and not the reading material in his lap. The general atmosphere of the large room was tense, and with each passing minute his father puffed more and more frequently upon his pipe, quite reminiscent of a train engine’s smokestack as it chugged along the rail. The air of the main room was now a dull gray in color due to all the tobacco smoke. Emitting a small cough, Adam turned a page in his book. He was gratified to hear a startled grunt and the pipe being placed upon the table.
Adam’s left eyebrow raised slowly, as he briefly shifted his view from the page in his book to the front door, when he heard the latch being drawn open. Purposefully, he returned his attention to the poetry in his hands when his very tardy baby brother made his appearance.
Joseph, Adam knew his father would use Joe’s formal name.
“Joseph.” Ben addressed his child without looking up. He’d spent the better part of the evening waiting and worrying about his youngest son.
“Hi Pa!” His voice cracked then raised an octave in nervousness finding his father waiting up for him, Little Joe Cartwright tried to sound as chipper as possible but failed miserably.
Adam noted the timbre of his brother’s tone, and wondered if Joe and puberty would ever part ways. He turned another page of his book, hoping to not draw his father’s attention.
Nice of you to come home. Anticipating his father’s next statement, Adam pretended to concentrate on the words written upon the open page.
“Nice of you to come home.” Pointedly, Ben Cartwright kept his eyes lowered. He remained seated with one leg crossed over the other with an open book across his lap.
Adam was not disappointed, seems that some things never change.
Do you have any idea what time it is? Adam awaited his father’s next pronouncement.
“Do you have any idea what time it is?” Finally Ben looked up from his book with his dark ebony eyes and black brows drawn close together in anger.
“Uh, no Pa. Hiccup!” Little Joe grimaced and flinched, he knew his goose was cooked.
Adam bit his lip over his brother’s small slip and fought to maintain a neutral expression. He wondered why his brother was never prepared for the question his father was destined to ask. At least Joe could check his pocket watch before entering the house, or the Grandfather clock.
“How many times have…”
One hundred and ninety-three, Adam’s mind drifted to the count he’d been keeping regarding his brother’s tendency to get into some type of trouble when running a simple errand into town. His kid brother was drawn to that saloon like a fly to honey.
“Just last week, I seem to recall that we had this same little discussion about side trips to the saloon…” The heated diatribe continued between father and youngest son.
One hundred and ninety-four, Adam noted that he missed one while in San Francisco bidding on the timber contract. By the time Joe is my age, if he lives that long, he will have heard this lecture… Adam looked up to the numbers upon his imaginary blackboard, drop the zero…
“Adam,” Ben addressed his oldest son, when he noticed by a small pleading glance from his youngest, that Adam was still in the room.
Carry the two… Adam continued his mental calculations totally oblivious to his father’s voice.
Ben stared in disbelief at his eldest noticing the faraway look in Adam’s eyes. Give that boy a book and his mind literally wanders away. One of these days, his mind is going to wander too far and never find its way home! Ben harrumphed, “Adam!”
Drawn back to the present, Adam’s eyes darted from his father to his littlest brother then back to his father. He was a little chagrined by his father’s penetrating stare and his brother’s anxious one.
“Yes, Pa.” Knowing his father was waiting for some type of reply and hoping that he hadn’t been asked a question.
“Isn’t it about time that you went to bed?” Ben knew how each one of his sons resented being reprimanded in front of the others. Especially Little Joe when Adam was present.
“Huh, oh yes. Night.” Adam knew he’d just been summarily dismissed. Using his finger as a bookmark, Adam made his way to his bedroom and left his errant drunken baby brother to their very irate father.
“Nice of you to join us, Joseph.” The ominous foreboding tone rumbled across the dining room table. Without looking up from his breakfast, Ben greeted his youngest son.
Joe winced and put his left hand to his head. He rubbed gently at his temple, hoping to keep the throbbing object from falling off his shoulders.
Adam took a sip of coffee to hide his bemused grin after sneaking a small peek at his little brother. With ruffled hair and disheveled appearance, his baby brother definitely looked the worse for wear. One thing was for certain about Little Joe, he could either bring out the best in their father, or the worst, and Adam determined that today it was definitely the latter.
Hoss glanced up from his plate of ham and eggs, looking first to his father’s angry downcast face, then briefly toward his older brother’s devilish smirk before finally stopping at his little brother. Joe looked positively green, and Hoss suspected he knew the cause. He fervently wished that Joe would quit disrupting this house at mealtimes. First last night, when he didn’t appear for dinner, causing his father to begin a tirade over irresponsible children. Then now this morning, when that ‘irresponsible child’ showed up for breakfast obviously very hung over.
“Adam.” Ben barked with eyes still entirely focused upon cutting his ham with a fervor.
Caught unaware, Adam almost spilled his coffee at the sudden announcement of his name. He turned his attention to his father and waited patiently for the silver-haired patriarch to continue.
“You’ll need to ride into town today. Seems young Joseph forgot to check the mail while he was in Virginia City yesterday.” Noting his son’s long curls, Ben took note that the mail wasn’t the only thing his son had forgotten to take care of.
With a bemused pout, Adam nodded in acknowledgement of his father’s instruction. He knew his father had been anxiously awaiting the outcome of the bid proposal that Adam had placed in San Francisco almost two weeks prior. Grateful for the reprieve of not having to work along side a hung over Little Joe or an incensed father, Adam eagerly rose from the table. Not stopping to look back at the pleading eyes of his younger brother Hoss, Adam grabbed his hat and gun belt and headed for the barn.
With his right leg lazily hooked over the saddle horn, Adam’s body slowly swayed back and forth in concert with his horse’s gait. He glanced up to note the white soft pillow-like clouds languidly traveling across the expanse of warm blue sky, while pondering the passage of poetry from the book in his hand. Though the journey had proved most unfruitful in the way of mail, he at least came across a peddler with this wonderful small volume of poetry, by one of Adam’s favorite authors.
Instead of taking the well traveled main road back to the Ponderosa, Adam treated himself to the longer more wondrous path. Though this route was more treacherous as it winded its way through the rocky terrain, it was one that Adam sometimes preferred when he wanted time to be alone, and today was definitely one in which Adam was in no hurry to get home.
After reading the next verse, Adam gazed upwards to the horizon and watched as one large fluffy cloud disappeared behind the snow capped mountain. With his mind not focused on the task at hand, he was caught off guard when Sport mis-stepped and stumbled. Unseated Adam tumbled backward out of the saddle.
Adam rolled over, stretched then grunted. It felt like he’d been sleeping on hard ground. Opening his eyes, he realized that in fact, that was where he had been sleeping. Smacking his dry lips, he futilely attempted to rid his mouth of the distasteful grit he found there. He glanced about to find the small book of poetry by his right hand, and his faithful mount munching on some grass nearby under a large shade tree.
With a groan, Adam retrieved his book then gradually rose to his feet. Alerted to a dull throbbing in his skull, he placed a cautious hand to the back of his head where he found a small-encrusted egg-sized lump. He thanked the stars that the injury wasn’t too severe and had already stopped bleeding. Taking careful measured steps, Adam made his way over to where his horse lazily grazed. After mounting his steed, Adam took note of the placement of the sun and realized he was destined for one of his father’s infamous lectures.
Cautiously, Adam approached the massive wooden door to the ranch house. He paused momentarily with his hand upon the latch, What am I afraid of? Afterall, I’m a grown man! Adam snorted, but took a deep breath anyway before entering the large house. He stopped to remove his gun belt and hat, before he strode across the floor and took his customary seat at the table across from his father, with his brothers to either side. Adam just knew what would be coming next.
“Adam, nice of you to come home.” Without looking up from his breakfast, Ben Cartwright sternly addressed his firstborn in a monotone voice.
Humorously, Adam nodded his head in satisfaction; he hadn’t been disappointed. His father had said exactly what he’d expected.
“Do you have any idea what time it is?” Ben inquired buttering a slice of toast, still pointedly avoiding glancing at his son.
Adam mentally berated himself for not checking the clock as he entered the house. He’d known this question was forthcoming and decided that any answer was better than ‘No‘, so Adam relayed the first thing that popped into his mind.
“After dawn.” Adam drawled sarcastically, then regretted his loose tongue when he found his father’s very annoyed glare staring back at him.
Ben was neither amused nor impressed by his eldest’s insolence this early in the morning, especially after spending the majority of the night waiting and worrying about his return. His neck had a definite crick in it from falling asleep in his armchair by the fire, and he was in no mood for smart-mouthed retorts by Adam.
“Sorry.” Recognizing his father’s angry disposition and knowing he would have no patience for his petulance, Adam quickly and quietly apologized for his bad manners.
“Would you care to explain where you were all night?” Ben intoned with dark eyes boring a hole through his oldest son.
Adam fought to hold his caustic wit and his tongue while a myriad of responses such as ‘No, not really‘, ‘Obviously not here‘ and ‘On the road‘ ran through his mind. He rubbed at the irritating bump on the back of his head, trying to free some of his hair that was stuck in the dried blood, while he desperately tried to come up with a suitable explanation.
Ben continued to study his oldest son while waiting for his answer. He knew all of his sons’ nervous habits. In Little Joe’s case, the youth would fidget while his voice raised an octave as he stammered and stuttered, or made small squeaking noises. Hoss on the other hand, had a tendency to pale while his eyebrows disappeared into his hairline and he took deep gulping swallows. His oldest was the hardest to read if you didn’t know him well, but Ben knew his child. Adam would turn back into the shy quiet and reserved child from his boyhood, who couldn’t make eye contact, and would sometimes smooth the hair on the back of his head before unconsciously tugging at one earlobe. Though Adam’s hand was raised to his head and his eyes studied the design on his plate, he wasn’t yet tugging at his ear.
Picking subconsciously at the scab covering the lump, Adam’s mind furiously regarded then discarded possible replies to his father’s question. He knew his father was waiting, and Adam was too embarrassed to admit that he’d fallen from his horse and spent the night sleeping in the road.
Hoss looked up from his plate and over to Adam. He was tired of all the turmoil from the last couple of days that kept interrupting meal times. He sincerely hoped that this issue would soon be resolved, because if he had to endure another disruptive meal, he’d surely waste away from hunger. Studying his older brother, Hoss watched as Adam struggled for a suitable answer. It wasn’t often that Adam was at a loss for words.
“Hey Adam, where’d ya sleep last night? The road?” Brushing some dirt from Adam’s shoulder, Hoss was surprised to see his meticulously groomed older brother’s black shirt covered in trail dust this early in the morning.
“For your information, that’s exactly where I spent the night!” Firing back in surprise by Hoss’s statement and action, Adam glared at his large brother and cursed his perceptiveness. His hand traveled down from the back of his head to his left earlobe after his outburst.
Adam felt his blood begin to boil when he heard a bemused “Woo Hoo” followed by a high pitched silly giggle from one brother and loud guffaws from the other. He wasn’t certain who he was angrier with, his younger brothers or his mounting frustration resulting from the embarrassment. Adam did not like to be embarrassed.
Ben watched Adam’s movements carefully while still waiting for his answer. He got his answer when he spotted Adam tugging on his ear. He was surprised to hear Adam’s confession to sleeping on the road. Realizing that Adam had been rubbing at something on the back of his head, Ben set his anger aside and quickly rose to his feet to approach his son.
“Look Pa, it’s nothing. Sport stumbled and I fell, it’s as simple as that.” Seeing his father’s rapid approach, Adam decided to spill the beans and confess, he hoped to discourage any further investigation into his humiliation. His hasty explanation only encouraged his younger brothers’ merriment at his expense. If looks could kill, Adam would’ve become an only child. Adam’s anger was suddenly abated when he felt a hand grab his chin turning his head to one side.
Ben grabbed his son’s jaw, then tilted Adam’s head toward the light and gently examined it. He found a small lump covered in dried blood, and immediately began to direct his other sons.
“Hoss, get a basin of warm water, some dry cloths and the liniment. Joseph, be quiet.”
Adam was grateful for the latter command, but not the former. None too gracefully, Adam tried to disengage his head from his father’s tight grasp, while swatting away his curious youngest brother’s intruding finger.
“It’s nothing Pa.” Adam realized his plea was a lost cause when he heard his father grunt in response.
Moments later, Adam absently noted that Hoss had returned with the requested items and flinched. His father had the gentlest hands when cradling an infant, or comforting the hurts and fears of a small-frightened young boy. But give the man a bottle of liniment and those same hands became instruments of sheer torture.
“Easy, Pa.” Adam squirmed in his chair, and again tried to pull his head away from his father’s restricting grasp and the sharp sting of the liniment.
“Hold still.” Ben commanded, dabbing at the scrape on the backside of Adam’s head.
Ben shook his head in wonder. This son had suffered broken bones, deep cuts and even gunshot wounds and could patiently endure the examination, splinting and stitching of those injuries without complaint. But a small cut or scrape that only required simple cleaning and disinfecting with liniment and the boy just couldn’t sit still. Satisfied with his handiwork, Ben handed the items back to Hoss to return to the kitchen.
Sensing his father was finished with his abuse, Adam added another item to his growing list of complaints, not only did his head itch and throb, but now it also had a burning sting. Reaching up, he felt a sharp slap to his hand.
“Leave it alone!” Ben barked while swatting Adam’s hand away. “So, do you want to tell me what happened?”
Exasperated with his father, Adam raised his hand to pinch the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. Closing his eyes, Adam took a deep calming breath before replying to his father’s inquiry. “I already told you, Sport stumbled and I fell. End of story.”
Ben snorted in dissatisfaction, head injury or not, he wasn’t impressed by Adam’s tone. Deciding he needed privacy to get Adam to talk, he turned his focus to his other sons. “Don’t you have some work to do?”
Hoss took this as his cue and was grateful to be dismissed, even if it meant foregoing the rest of his breakfast. He hated when his father was cross with any of them and doubted that he’d be able to eat anyway. As he departed the dining room, he patted his older brother’s shoulder for reassurance.
Little Joe harrumphed when he heard his father’s proclamation. It wasn’t often that his oldest brother got into trouble with their father, but when he did, Joe took delight in seeing Adam get his just desserts. He picked up his pace in departing the room, when he found his father’s dark glare now directed at him. He joined Hoss at the sideboard at the door to put on his gun belt and hat.
“So, did you remember the mail?” Ben directed his question back at his eldest while still glaring at his youngest.
“Yes, I remembered the mail.” Adam hated being treated like a dumb child.
“Well, where is it?” Ben was getting quite tired of the game of twenty questions.
“Placerville.” Adam drolly replied, if his father was going to continue to drill him with questions, he would continue to give simple answers.
“Placerville!” Ben yelled in disbelief, he was certain that the fates were conspiring against him.
“Yes, Placerville.” Adam was sure his father had heard him, but decided to confirm his father’s reiteration of his previous statement.
“What is it doing in Placerville?” Thrusting his hands deep into his front pockets, Ben stalked away from his son in bitter frustration. He’d been waiting on word of the timber contract and was growing more impatient everyday, something his sons weren’t helping to alleviate.
I don’t know, sitting around? Adam had to refrain from responding with the first thing that popped into his mind. Instead he decided to reply with something that was a little more helpful, hoping his father would stop the persistent cross-examination. “Seems the stagecoach broke down and as soon as it’s fixed…” Adam shrugged, hinting at the answer to the next question.
As he reached the sideboard by the door, Ben Cartwright glanced down to the two gun belts sitting atop the polished wood chest. Sitting beside Adam’s black holster was a small volume of poetry. Picking up the small book, Ben absently brushed the dirt from its cover. In doing so, he was struck by a sudden inspiration. Holding the book aloft, he returned to the dining room to confront his eldest child.
“Adam? Where did you get this?” Ben didn’t begrudge his son’s love of books, but he had a sneaking suspicion there was more to Adam’s innocent tale of falling from his horse.
“In Virginia City.” Adam glanced away, as he raised his hand to the back of his head, then thought better of the idea, before tugging on his left earlobe.
Ben Cartwright recognized his son’s tell tale reaction. He now knew how his expert horseman of a son had fallen from his horse and was not happy.
“Adam, how many times have I told you about paying attention when you’re riding your horse.” Ben spoke to his son in a tone that bespoke of a father scolding a recalcitrant child.
Sixty-seven, Adam again found himself biting his tongue to keep from replying, as he added a tick mark to his mental count. He favored his father with a very deadpan look while waiting for the inevitable directive.
Seeing no answer forthcoming from his first born in response, Ben shook his head then waved the small book of poetry in the air by Adam’s face before speaking.
“No more reading and riding!”