Summary: The new teacher spells trouble for young Adam and Hoss.
Rating: PG (Violence) Words: 5,150
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RIGHT AND WRONG
The new teacher did not understand him and, in a matter of weeks, had made his life utterly miserable. He always tried his best and really wanted to do well but learning did not come as easily to him as it did to his older brother and he hated it when people compared him to Adam and found that he fell short somehow.
It had taken him a long time to get to grip with his numbers when it came to adding up and, when he could not visualise the meaning of the figures on paper, Adam had patiently taken him out to count Hop Sing’s chickens and the pine trees.
Then, when they had moved on to taking away, Adam had been chopping wood as a distraught six year old had held out a page of sums, his words barely distinguishable in the midst of breathy sobs. “I can’t do it, Adam. I can’t work out the answers.”
Sighing, Adam had smiled and lay out on the ground the small logs of firewood that he had already chopped. “See, Hoss. Let’s work it out with these; pretend we’re taking them to put on the fire.”
Half an hour later, Ben had rounded the side of the house ready to chastise Adam for taking so long with the chores but stopped in his tracks and watched the boys, his heart warm with pride, as Adam tutored his younger brother in the finer points of subtraction. Unnoticed by them, he retreated.
The maths had been easier then – until the new teacher had arrived and had introduced a whole range of different and more complicated concepts and Hoss, try as he might, could not keep up with the pace of study. He seemed to be in trouble more often lately for work not completed or marred with frenetic crossings out. He was kept in during breaks to finish his lessons but was distracted by the fun experienced by others in the sunshine and freedom beyond the classroom. His concentration wandered and he landed up in even more trouble.
Adam could not help in the lessons themselves because, being six years older, he was seated with the bigger students nearer the back of the room and his anger grew as the days passed and his little brother continued to struggle. He had wanted to tell their father but Hoss had begged him not to, believing that the situation would somehow miraculously improve.
It had not, and this particular afternoon things reached a head. Long multiplication had been the undoing of Hoss and the teacher, totally unsympathetic to the fearful blue eyes welling with tears, had ridiculed him in front of everyone. The stunned silence that followed was interrupted by the gentle snickering of the brave few and the shuddering sobs of the unhappy boy.
Adam leaped to his feet as his fury erupted. He marched to the front of the class where the teacher loomed over the tormented child and positioned himself as a human barrier between the two. His lanky, twelve year old frame was no match for the burly physique of the mature man but he stood his ground.
“You don’t talk to my brother like that! He’s done his best and all you do is make fun of him and tell him he’s stupid. What kind of teacher d’you think you are? He’s finding something hard and you aren’t doing a thing about helping him. All you’re doing is frightening him so he can’t do anything right.”
His tirade had continued and the teacher’s demeanour had changed from initial amazement to a dark menace. In front of everyone, Miles Johnson, newly arrived in town and full of the grandiose notion of bringing a higher level of book learning to the backward children of these poorly educated settlers, seized the cane from its place on his desk.
“Bend over, boy,” he had roared but Adam made no sound as the punishment progressed. He had gritted his teeth and was on the verge of thinking that the torture was never going to come to an end when Johnson stopped to relieve his aching arm.
“Let that be a lesson to you all,” he warned, looking at the children in turn and gaining a perverse satisfaction as both boys and girls appeared to shrink beneath his gaze, all horrified at the vicious beating they had just witnessed. “You will show me respect,” he hissed.
He had then dismissed them for the afternoon but, as the children silently filed past the group of three at the front of the class, Adam had gingerly straightened up. Taking a deep breath, he had held his head high as his clear voice carried across the room.
“My Pa always tells us that a man has to earn respect; he can’t demand it.” The boy’s eyes narrowed, his expression and attitude a portent of the man he would become. “And you’ll never have mine.” His words were soft but deadly serious.
The brothers made their way slowly home in silence, Hoss riding his pony and Adam walking stiffly alongside, leading his own mount and incapable of sitting in the saddle because of the pain.
“What’s Pa gonna say?” Hoss whispered eventually, anticipating that their father was going to be none too pleased at their behaviour in school and, with the way Adam was moving as a result of his beating, there was no way he could conceal it from their vigilant parent for long.
Adam stopped and laid his hand reassuringly on Hoss’ arm. “I’m going to tell Pa what happened, and everything else that’s gone on with you and that man since he arrived. I should have told him earlier – guess that’s the only thing he’s not going to be happy about. But don’t you worry, Hoss. You have done nothing wrong, and neither have I. If anything, it’s that Johnson that’s in the wrong. He shouldn’t have treated you the way he did.”
“And he shouldna beat you the way he did,” Hoss said defensively.
“Pa’s all for punishment that’s deserved but I reckon he’s going to question the toughness of this one,” Adam agreed, wincing as he resumed the long walk home.
“Adam,” Hoss began again, spurring his pony to catch up with his brother.
“Pa won’t be cross,” Adam stressed a second time.
“I know; you said. I ain’t finished those sums though. Will you help me?” His bottom lip quivered as he feared that Adam would refuse him. After all, the last time Adam had stepped in to help, he had earned himself such a severe thrashing that he probably was not going to be able to sit at the dinner table.
“Of course I will, as soon as we’ve got our chores done and,” he paused, “as soon as we’ve told Pa what happened.”
Hoss was satisfied. He turned adoring eyes on his older brother. “I can always understand things better when you explain it to me, Adam. I wish you was my new teacher all the time.”
Warmed by his younger brother’s faith in him, Adam tried to ignore the agony of his tanned behind and quickened his step, only too aware that, by having to walk, he was making the pair of them late for their evening chores.
The boys were, in fact, much later than they realised and Ben was erring on the side of anger rather than worry – at least for now. The likelihood was that they were messing about with friends rather than coming straight home; either that, or one of them had done something wrong at school and had been kept behind so that the other one remained for them to travel together. He frowned, finding it a little hard to believe. Adam was a keen scholar and apt to become easily frustrated if there was an excess of tomfoolery by his peers but he was not without the occasional misdemeanour, the details of which eventually reached Ben’s ears. Hoss was only six years old but he was easily led and, for a moment, Ben wondered if his middle son might be the miscreant who had been detained but any further speculation was abandoned when he heard the sound of approaching horses’ hooves.
His relief as the boys came into view was quickly replaced by anger and he propped the axe he was holding against the barn wall and stood, hands on hips and thinking about how he had been chopping wood, Adam’s designated task. Before either of them had a chance to explain, he gave vent to his temper.
“And just what time do you call this? There are creatures that are depending upon you to feed and water them.” This was directed at Hoss who knew his father meant the orphaned calf in the barn and the chickens out the back of the house. It was one complaint too many and the child’s blue eyes filled with tears yet again, adding to the misery of the day. It was totally unfair!
“But, Pa …” Adam began.
“Enough!” Ben roared. “Eric may not be old enough to have many chores yet but I do expect him to be on hand to do the ones that have been assigned to him.” He glared at the two boys and Hoss hung his head in shame. It seemed that he could not do anything right at all for anyone and it was all on account of him that Adam was getting into more and more trouble. Pa hadn’t finished yet.
“Get to work, Eric,” Ben ordered and watched the child lead his pony into the barn before turning his attention to his firstborn. “As for you, young man, I expect you to set your brother a good example; not lead him astray. You were needed home here straight after school. As it is, I’ve had to start chopping wood for you – a job you could have done this morning had you got up on time instead of oversleeping. And why was that, I wonder? Could it be you were finishing that book you were reading last night?
“The wood pile was low yesterday and with Hop Sing needing to heat water for the washing this morning, he soon ran out. I’ve had to stop what I was doing to chop some so that he had enough to be able to put a hot meal on the table tonight for the rest of the family.” Ben stopped for breath and studied his son’s face, half expecting a disrespectful outburst.
At twelve, Adam was beginning to assert himself over different issues and Ben was finding it an uncomfortable battle of wills on occasions. Yes, he still maintained the ultimate discipline but he saw in Adam a stubborn streak that was disarmingly familiar. Now, though, was not going to be one of those occasions and it was something of a surprise.
“Sorry, Pa,” Adam met his look but there was no defiance in his expression, rather an unexpected passivity. Ben could not know that his son was concentrating more on his aching body and wondering how he was going to get through his tasks rather than raise an objection. “It won’t happen again. I’ll see to the horses and then get started on my other chores.”
Ben nodded and was about to add another rejoinder when a thought struck him. “Adam, why were you walking? Did your mount throw a shoe?”
Adam cast a sideways glance at the barn doorway where Hoss had reappeared, clinging to the lintel as if for support as he watched the exchange between his father and brother.
“No, sir. He’s fine,” Adam reassured him.
“Then why were you walking?” Ben repeated. It was little wonder that they were so late, but then he recalled that it was only Adam who had been on foot. Heaven only knew how late they would have been if Hoss had been on foot too.
There it was again, that look between the two boys; they were hiding something. They both knew better than to tell him a downright lie, not that either of them was capable of doing it. Adam might bend or twist a tale if his logical mind saw fit but he was not wickedly devious. Behind the boy’s dark eyes, Ben knew the quick mind was working. Time for another tack then.
“Why was your brother walking?” Ben fired at Hoss, catching the child off guard. As he made to look at his older sibling for direction, Ben was ready for that one too. “Look at me when I’m talking to you, Hoss, and answer me when I ask you a question.”
The child wavered under intense scrutiny. “He was walking because he couldn’t ride.”
Ben sighed for he knew the answer was perfectly reasonable to Hoss but he need a little more information than that and so he tried again, his voice much softer this time. “But why couldn’t he ride?”
The child’s answer was mumbled at the ground but Ben thought he had caught the gist. “And why couldn’t he sit?” he persisted, although he had a good idea as to the cause.
“It’s all my fault,” Hoss burst out, and crumpled into body-shaking sobs. Adam was immediately at his side, rubbing his back comfortingly and repeating over and over again that Hoss was not the one responsible. Ben was totally bemused but all semblance of his previous disapproval had waned. In his heart, he knew that there had had to be good reason for the boys’ tardiness and he berated himself for dismissing the idea out of hand. Something had definitely happened at school and young Hoss was beside himself with sorrow as a result.
He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and knelt before the distraught child, wiping his eyes and urging him to blow his nose into the cotton square. “There now, son. Whatever it was, it wasn’t your fault. Your big brother’s told you and I believe him, so dry your eyes and head on into the house and see your Ma. She and your baby brother have been waiting to see you all day. Why don’t you go on in and tell them all about your day while Adam and I have us a little talk.” Ben had meant to sound reassuring but at the mention of ‘a little talk’ – a family euphemism for punishment in the barn meted out by their father – Hoss let out an almighty wail and grabbed at Ben’s arm.
“No, you can’t. You mustn’t hit Adam. That Mr Johnson’s gone and done enough of that. You can’t hit him anymore!”
At that, Ben shot a glance at Adam and noted the fractional nod of admission. He turned his attention back to Hoss and attempted an encouraging smile.
“I’m not going to hit Adam. He’s just going to tell me why Mr Johnson did it, that’s all.”
Hoss was not so easily placated. “He hit Adam because of me. I tol’ you it was all my fault.” The loud weeping began again until Adam intervened.
“Do as Pa says, Hoss. It’ll be all right. I’m gonna tell Pa everything, just as we agreed on the way home. It’s gonna be fine. You go an’ see Ma an’ Joe, but you’d better stop that hollering or else you’ll frighten the little fella,” Adam advised.
Not for the first time, Ben watched the interaction between the two and marvelled at the responsible, mature head on the shoulders of his oldest boy. Hoss sniffed loudly, blinked owlishly at his big brother, nodded and wandered off in the direction of the house.
Ben strolled into the barn and Adam followed, but he declined his father’s invitation to sit on a barrel while they talked.
“Sorry, son. I forgot.” There was an awkward pause. “Why don’t you tell me all that’s happened to get your brother so worked up and give Mr Johnson occasion to punish you?”
Adam paused long enough to gather his thoughts and launched into a full explanation, beginning with Johnson’s arrival and his immediate animosity towards the big, blond haired child who was slower than the others when it came to his numbers. Even as he spoke, Adam could detect a darkening of his father’s features as the unfairness and unhelpfulness directed towards his middle boy was divulged. Once started, Adam held nothing back, even repeating verbatim what he had said to the teacher before leaving the school building.
“I guess it was disrespectful,” he admitted, trying to gauge his father’s reaction. He had been so sure that his father would understand but now his conviction wavered and he searched the coal black eyes for some reassurance.
Ben inhaled deeply. “It was,” and he saw Adam falter, “but it was deserved.” A hint of a smile played about the boy’s mouth, relieving his seriousness. “How about we delay chores until after dinner and I’ll give you a hand,” Ben offered.
The smile widened. “I’d like that a lot, Pa. Thanks.”
“Then we’ d best get cleaned up or we’ll have Hop Sing after us.” He ushered his son ahead of him in the direction of the well and watched the way the boy moved stiffly with an awkward lean to the right. They washed up together, discussing the more pleasant aspects of the day but when they entered the house, Ben guided Adam to his room, issuing instructions as he went to Hop Sing for water, cloths and liniment.
Ben hid a smile at the obvious embarrassment Adam felt at dropping his pants. Oh the trials of burgeoning adolescence! He was about to pass the lighthearted comment, “It’s not as if I haven’t seen it before, son,” but he bit back the words when he saw the angry welts, some of them bleeding where the skin had broken. Ben was blinded by cold fury at the damage inflicted on his son’s slender frame. No wonder the boy had been unable to sit on anything; it was amazing that he had been able to walk home at all. He struggled to keep his voice level and calm.
“How many times did he hit you, son?”
Adam shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Adam.” The warning note was heavy in Ben’s voice as he suspected that the boy might be holding back further details.
“I don’t, Pa,” Adam went on hurriedly. “I can’t remember; honest.” He hesitated and, when he spoke again, it was little more than a whisper. “It was hurting too much but I wasn’t going to let him see that and get any satisfaction.”
A knock at the door heralded the arrival of Hop Sing with what Ben had requested and more. He nodded and retreated, leaving Ben to study the tray he had left behind. A gentle aroma of herbs arose from a basin of warm water, beside which lay plenty of soft cloths and a jar of the housekeeper’s ointment to stave off infection and bring some relief. Ben patted the bed and Adam stretched out on his front, the simple movement eliciting another wince. The boy was definitely struggling.
As gently as he could, Ben bathed the wounded skin and applied the ointment but long before he had finished, Adam had twisted part of the patchwork coverlet into a creased handful, trying to smother his moans as hot tears of hurt dampened the pillow.
“There, all done now,” Ben said. He pulled off his son’s boots and socks and slid off the pants from around his ankles before lightly rearranging the shirttail. “I think you ought to rest up a while. Do you want me to go get your dinner?”
Adam shook his head, not trusting himself to speak and certainly not wanting any food. Ben laid a hand on the raven hair in understanding and felt another disconsolate shudder run through the slim form. Dinner could wait; sometimes there were more important things that came along and fewer were higher in the order than soothing a distressed child. Sitting on the bed, Ben made himself comfortable and eased the boy’s head and shoulders onto his lap, preparing himself for the slightest resistance and secretly pleased when none came. For once relinquishing the fierce independence he had already fostered, Adam was quite content to lie across his father’s lap and feel one hand resting lightly on his back, the other stroking his hair as he waited for the burning and throbbing in his body to abate.
There they remained for what seemed like an age, Ben cherishing every moment of this closeness with his eldest son and regretting the circumstances that brought it about. Gentle sniffles continued as the boy lay, back to his father, crying out his pain and humiliation and Ben grimaced at the warm, damp patch on his leg that was the legacy of his son’s tears.
“I’m very proud of you, Adam,” Ben said, eventually breaking the silence. He felt the boy’s shoulders tense beneath his hand. “I’m proud of the way you look out for your brother, both your brothers. It got you into a whole heap of trouble this time but you did what you thought was right and I support you in that. I’m just sorry you’re hurting so much as a result.”
When Miles Johnson arrived to open up the school early the next morning, he discovered that he was not the first there. Young Eric Cartwright was already playing on the school swing whilst a tall man, dark hair generously flecked with grey, stood watching him and smiling. As Johnson approached, the smile faded and coal black eyes narrowed with a steely determination as they saw the schoolmaster.
“Good morning, Mr Johnson. I’d like to have a word with you if I may.”
“As long as it’s quick. I do have things to prepare for my students as I’m sure you will appreciate, Mr…. Er?
“Cartwright, Ben Cartwright; you have my boys, Eric and Adam, here in school,” he indicated with a nod to where Hoss had stopped playing and stood watching his father and the schoolteacher. “Maybe we can talk inside.” Ben did not want Hoss to overhear what he was going to say.
Johnson merely frowned, led the way up the steps of the small school building, unlocked the door and led Ben into the room that served the growing community as its place of education. Nothing was said until the door had been closed on the child playing outside in the yard.
“Well, Mr Cartwright,” Johnson frowned, “I’m glad you stopped by. I was wanting to see you to raise certain concerns I have regarding your sons.”
“Well you have your say, and then I’ll raise the concerns I have regarding you.”
Johnson was taken aback. “I beg your pardon?”
“You heard me, Mr. Johnson. Say your piece.”
Momentarily flustered by the big rancher’s apparent antagonism, Johnson did not know how to begin, but then he took a deep breath and began his grievances.
“Eric is lazy, lacking in effort, won’t learn his work and then turns on the tears too readily to solicit sympathy. I’ve seen that ruse too many times, Mr. Cartwright, and it won’t work with me.” Even as he spoke, Johnson failed to notice the warning signs as Ben’s eyes flashed with the intensity of his fury. “As for your eldest …well, there’s a boy at the crossroads of being a ‘wrong ’un.” He emphasised his colloquial description, a smirk playing on his features as if he deemed himself clever at adopting local expressions. Instead, his remark was patronising, serving only to fuel the tension between himself and the man before him. “He’s sullen, rude, argumentative, aggressive and an all-out trouble-maker.” Tirade over, Johnson paused and watched as the parent absorbed his words.
“And you have reached this conclusion because Adam stood up to you?” The voice was calm and dangerously quiet.
“You’ve decided this about my son because he stood up to you and your bullying tactics directed at his younger brother.”
“Bullying tactics? I would hardly describe my teaching methods as bullying tactics!”
“Wouldn’t you? I’d say that’s exactly what they are, Mr. Johnson. You’ve been in this school less than a month an yet you’ve formed an opinion of my sons that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“Parents do tend to be blind to the faults of their children,” Johnson dared to interrupt.
Ben took a step forward and Johnson shrank back, intimidated by the sheer presence of the big rancher.
“I’m not blinded, Mr. Johnson. I know my boys aren’t perfect, never claimed they were, and I know they get into scrapes. It’s only natural and I wouldn’t have it any other way but Eric is only six …”
“Only six, but I thought …”Johnson seemed to squeak, his discomfort and unfinished comment betraying the fact that he had not carefully read the meticulous records left by his predecessor.
“Well you thought wrong, if you bothered to think at all. He’s big for his age and folks tend to expect more of him than is right. I don’t expect him to be a scholar, he’s not like his brother, and he does have trouble with his numbers but that’s why you’re here, to help him, except you don’t. You scare the life out of him. He’s a gentle soul for all his size, and he’s frightened. He has enough to put up with from the other children trying to goad him into a scrap or teasing him about his build without you humiliating him some more in front of them.” Ben was in full flow.
“Right or wrong, Adam will always step in to defend him, that I can promise you, and you have definitely underestimated him. He’s bright, needs constant challenge and wants to learn. He can be moody because he’s a deep thinker, and serious with it. You now nothing of his background, Mr. Johnson; I don’t expect you to but I’ll fill you in all the same.
“He’s had to grow up before other children his age. He never knew his mother, she died the day he was born. We left Boston when he was still a child in my arms and joined a wagon train headed west. I reckon he’s seen more danger and death in his short life than you ever will, Mr. Johnson. He’s known hardship, hunger, flood, wildfires, disease and a whole heap more. He saw his step-mother cut down in front of him by an Indian arrow when he was seven years old and he vowed then to always protect his younger brother, and he’s done just that ever since. He’s devoted to both his brothers and fiercely loyal when that loyalty’s won. You get my boy on side, Mr Johnson,” and here Ben gave a little reassuring smile, although had the teacher known him better, he would have realised that it did not reach his eyes, “and he’ll give you no trouble. No trouble at all.”
Johnson made the mistake of relaxing. Before he knew it, the smile had gone and Ben’s face loomed close.
“I’m normally a reasonable man, Mr. Johnson, but I tell you this. You lay one finger on either of my boys the way you did to Adam yesterday and you’ll regret it.”
“Are you threatening me?” Johnson stammered.
“Oh yes, don’t you ever doubt it. I admit I give my boys a hiding when they deserve it but I have never,” and his next words were punctuated by repeated stabbing at Johnson’s chest with a forefinger, “never beaten either of them so badly that I’ve bruised them, drawn blood or left welts that are still visible the next day. Needless to say, because of your treatment of him, Adam won’t be in school today, not until he can sit down properly. Send work for him with Eric; I’ll help him and make sure that he does his lessons at home,” and with that, Ben turned to leave but just as he reached the door, he paused and turned.
“By the way, Mr. Johnson, I’ve heard what you say about folks around here and you’ve got that wrong too. We’re not all without an education. Rest assured I can read and write only too well. I spent years at sea and worked in business in Boston, and I reckon my spread would not be expanding the way it is if I couldn’t sort out the legalities or get my books to balance,” and he was gone with a slamming of the door.
Pale and sweating at this unpleasant encounter, Johnson sank into a chair, dragged a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his brow. When he had recovered his composure enough for his hands to stop shaking, anger replaced his fear.
Just who did Ben Cartwright think he was, coming in here, his schoolroom, and intimidating him? Well it was clear to see why that arrogant brat of his was so unruly and disrespectful. So Cartwright thought he had the upper hand, did he? He’d soon learn otherwise. Miles Johnson was not one to cower in the face of threats; he would complain to the school board that he was not going to put up with that kind of behaviour and treatment from the parents of pupils. No, sir. He was the professional, good at his job – no, better than good – excellent, ad this uncivilised place should be grateful that he had decide to bring his knowledge and skills to its people. He demanded respect and appreciation. These terrible children would be brought under control, starting with the Cartwright boys, particularly the eldest one.
He had deserved yesterday’s strict punishment and Johnson had no remorse. He’d do it again and again, despite what the father had said. He would do whatever it took to get the boy to toe the line. ‘Deep thinker, bright and needing a challenge’ indeed. What the boy needed was good, firm discipline and Johnson was the man to hand it out. The boy was wild and no wonder if the father’s words were to be believed. He’d seen violence and, in turn, adopted it as his own twisted moral code. In the man’s mind, as each second passed, Adam’s list of transgressions lengthened.
Miles Johnson was a man to bear grudges, a man with a long memory. If Cartwright thought he could storm in here, throw his weight around and put him under pressure, then he had seriously underestimated the new school teacher.
As far as Miles Johnson was concerned, Ben Cartwright had just met his match, and he and his boys had made themselves a new adversary.
5 thoughts on “Right and Wrong (by VRON)”
Thanks for a very good story, so far. I do hope there will be a follow up to finish it. I’ll be sure to look out for it.
An unfortunate situation that probably happened more times than we would care to believe. I do hope there is a second part to wrap up the plot to this story.
Great story but feel it was left unfinished. I like VRON’s short story…some of which take you back to the television episodes.
A well written story and it was good to see Ben being portrayed as the kind, caring father he was
And Adam was such a good boy, looking out for his younger brother
Little Joe forever
This was a good story. I wonder if there should be more to this story. It seems a little unfinished. thanks