The boy watched the delighted antics of his family sullenly. He did not see what was so wonderful about watching a baby fall on its backside over and over, but that seemed to be about all that was going on, and the rest of the family seemed to think it charming. Pa crouched before the fireplace on his haunches, arms held out and a silly smile on his face as he talked in that awful sing-song voice everybody seemed to resort to whenever they talked to Little Joe. He was saying, "Come on, come on, baby. You can do it. Walk to Papa," and he had been saying the same thing for the last half-hour with no special success. Mama and Adam were taking turns lifting the child up by his plump little arms and coaxing him forward. Little Joe would take one or two steps forward, then plunk, back he'd go onto his rump again. The baby seemed about as interested in walking into his father's arms as his next-oldest brother was in watching it happen.
"He ain't gonna do it, Pa," Hoss finally said, his voice reflecting his grouchy mood. "Can't we do something else now?"
Ben looked up at the blonde youngster sitting on the stair landing; his bored face propped on his fist, in surprise. "He's almost got it, son. Don't you want to be here to watch Joe take his first unassisted steps?"
Hoss stuck his lower lip out. "No. He gets into enough mischief just crawlin' around on all fours. I ain't so keen to have him wandering around after me on his own two feet."
Ben glared at him. "Now, what kind of a remark is that? You know perfectly well that Little Joe only tags after you because he wants to be with you. He adores you."
Hoss shrugged. He did not care how much Joe 'adored' him, he did not need a shadow. "I still don't want to wait until he makes up his mind to start walkin', Pa. We could be here all week and he still might not do it. I thought you said you and me was gonna go look at the new calves today."
"If you don't watch that insolent tone, youngster, you won't be looking at anything but the walls of your room for the rest of the day," Ben told him.
"Yes, sir," Hoss said sulkily. Pa gave him one last warning look, then turned back to his previous task. It was clear that Joe had lost interest in the game though, for he refused the next attempt by Adam to stand him up, merely hanging there by his arms until the family got the message. The baby yawned and smiled as he held his arms out to Papa, and Ben smiled back at him and came to lift him into his arms to take him upstairs for his nap. Hoss moved out of the way and watched them all the way up the stairs, his blue eyes dark with resentment. Of course, Pa had forgotten all about him, even to punish him, just because Little Joe wanted something. Hoss stomped down the stairs and headed outside, mumbling something about going to play with the new litter of pups.
Adam exchanged a knowing look with Marie. She nodded and he ran out the door after his little brother, hoping to talk him round. Neither of them had missed the fact that Hoss had not adapted quite as well to being a big brother as everyone had expected him to, but the problem seemed to be getting worse lately instead of better. A year ago, he had been the most excited child in the whole territory as he counted the days until Mama would give him the little brother or sister he had been promised, and at first everything had gone well. Hoss had been fascinated by the red squirming little creature in the bassinet, proudly telling anyone who would listen that he had a baby brother of his very own. He had happily assisted his stepmother with the baby, and had fetched and carried for her whenever she needed anything. He had even given the baby the nickname, which looked as though it would prove to be a lifelong moniker, 'Little' Joe. Shortly thereafter, though, the newness had worn off, and with it clearly went Hoss' enjoyment of the situation. Lately, the boy had been impossible. It seemed as if the very sight of Little Joe would deflate his happy mood and bring a scowl to his chubby face, and no one knew how to fix the problem.
Hoss sat on the floor of the barn in a pile of fresh hay, holding a squirming little puppy and glaring balefully at his one of his little brother's toys. It was a ragged old stuffed rabbit; his until Little Joe had seen and wanted it. Hoss had pretended not to care when Adam had suggested that he allow Joe to have it since he never played with it anymore, and had handed it over. Secretly, though, he had wanted to cry. Floppy was his! A bedtime companion every night of his young life until he had put it aside a few months earlier. He loved that toy, but as usual that didn't matter to anybody. They all loved Joe better now. So, Hoss had handed Floppy over to his delightedly gurgling baby brother, who had promptly begun chewing on one of the poor rabbit's ears. The little varmint chewed on everything he could get into his mouth any more, and now he had just left poor Floppy in the dust. Forgotten, just as everyone had forgot his brother. Hoss shifted the pup to his other hand and pulled the toy into his lap. It was a little dusty but none the worse for wear, except for the floppy ear that had inspired its name. The ear was ragged and mangled from teething. "He's worse than one of you fellas," Hoss told the puppy. The puppy stared at him as if very interested in what he had to say, and Hoss began telling it all about what a pain the baby was.
Nothing had been the same since Joe was born. First had come the unwelcome sounds of wailing every night as the infant had cried for feeding, changing or the company of another person. Then had come the realization that Mama was too busy to spend her time in the kitchen making all the wonderful yummy treats that used to be waiting for him every afternoon. Then, Hoss had grown steadily more resentful as his entire family began lavishing all their extra attention on the baby instead of him. Pa barely seemed to notice him anymore when he came home from working in the evening. He answered every statement Hoss made as he grabbed his father's hand and tried to tell him about his day, with, "That's nice, son," then hurried over to ask what new thing the baby had done today. Adam also seemed caught up in the charm of his baby brother, happily cuddling him and bouncing him on his knees to make Little Joe giggle, even singing him lullabies as he sat in the rocker and held Joe in his arms. "Those lullabies used to be for me", Hoss told the puppy resentfully. Worst of all, though, was Mama. Ever since Pa had brought Marie home to be his new mama when he was four, Hoss had loved being her little boy. Adam was too big for the lap cuddling and bedtime stories that she would give him and he had regarded those as his own special things. Now, her lap was always occupied with that squirming little nuisance and bedtime stories tended to get interrupted entirely too often by a noisy, demanding infant. "It just ain't fair, puppy," he sighed.
Unbeknownst to Hoss, he had had an audience for his entire monologue of woes. Adam silently slipped away without giving away his presence. Now was not the time to talk to Hoss. First, he had to sort out what to tell him.
"You're joking," Ben said incredulously.
Adam had reluctantly decided that his parents should know about what Hoss had said in the barn, but he had waited until the boy was sent to bed for the night and his snores became audible. "Please, Pa, don't tell him I said anything to you. I don't want him to think I'm squealing on him." At thirteen, the boy was still convinced of the dire wrong of squealing on a pal, especially if that pal was your own brother. "He's really upset about this. I guess because we've all been paying so much attention to Joe, Hoss thinks we don't love him anymore."
Ben's troubled expression deepened as he sat back in his chair, pressing his index knuckle against his lips as he pondered his middle child's misconception. "I don't understand how he could think that," he said finally. "I've invited him to participate whenever the rest of us have spent time doing things with Little Joe. Just this morning, I asked if he'd like to help with the walking. He can't say I don't give him any individual time either. We went and checked the herd together, just as I'd promised."
"What did you talk about?" Marie asked, leaning forward and putting her knitting aside, her face suddenly very serious.
Looking a little surprised, Ben said, "I don't know. The herd, the day, and I believe I asked him to help me build that new playpen we've been talking about. You know how Hoss has been begging to learn to work with wood every time he sees me fixing a wheel."
"So, in other words, you promised him something he's been asking for months to do with you, but only now that it applies to making something for Joe," she said, nodding as if he had just proved a point for her. "What did he say?"
Catching her drift, Ben nodded as well. "He seemed real pleased at first, asked if I'd help him build a raft to take out on the lake. I said it was too dangerous, and that he was too young to go out on the lake by himself. Then, I proposed that he help me build the playpen. He smarted off, I scolded him, and he was mad at me for the rest of the day." He finished with a gusty sigh, wishing he had known what was going on earlier. Maybe he could have talked to Hoss about his feelings before things got out of hand. "What are we going to do, my love?"
"I don't know. Maybe if you took Hoss on an outing somewhere? Talked to him about all of this?" she asked uncertainly.
Both of them were surprised when Adam said, "I don't think that would help, Pa."
"Why not?" Ben asked him, willing to consider all opinions before making his decision.
Adam shifted on the hearth where he was sitting, looking a bit uncomfortable. "Pa, do you remember how jealous I got when Hoss was first born and Inger was spending all of her time looking after him?"
Ben nodded, smiling just a little at the memory of the sulking little six-year-old child who had grown into this earnest looking boy in front of him. "I remember."
"Well, what I was jealous of wasn't exactly Hoss, but I thought it was. It was the fact that you had both belonged to me before, but then he'd come and taken all your time away from me." Adam bit his lip, gathering his thoughts as he tried to put them into words. "I think that's what's wrong with Hoss. When I was having that trouble, you took me aside and told me you still loved me, and that was nice and all, but I wanted him to go away. It wasn't until after Inger got killed that I really started to care about him, and it was the same when you came here, Marie. I resented you because Hoss and Pa both loved you and I though you were taking them away from me. It wasn't until I got sick that time and you were the only one here to look after me, and I spent a lot of time with you that I got to love you too."
"I think I understand," Marie said slowly. "You believe that Hoss sees Joseph as nothing more than a distraction that is taking us away from him. Little Joe loves him, but that isn't enough. Hoss has to learn to care for Joe as well. Is that right?"
Adam nodded vigorously, making his thick brush of bangs flop down across his eyes. He raked it back into place impatiently. "You heard what he said this morning about Joe following him around, right?" They both indicated that they had. "Well, maybe that's it. Invent some reason for Hoss to look after Little Joe for a while."
"They're both far too young to be left alone together," Ben objected, but Marie placed a hand on his arm to silence him and nodded for Adam to continue.
"You don't have to really leave," he said, leaning forward to clasp his hands together earnestly above his knees. "Make it seem like a responsibility, that you have important stuff to do and you need Hoss to spend awhile looking after Joe. I could go out with Pa during the day, and I think Hoss would like knowing that you trust him, I did when I was his age, and you know Little Joe won't fuss about being left with Hoss."
Ben chuckled, partly because of the way Adam had so casually slipped in that part about going to work with his father. He had been begging to be allowed to do more 'man's work' around the ranch. It seemed that Hoss was perhaps not the only one who was feeling a bit starved for parental attention. Still, he merely answered, "That's for sure. That child absolutely worships Hoss. I just wish your little brother could see that for himself."
"Perhaps he will, if Adam's idea works out," Marie said with a smile. "I think I can arrange to have a pressing need to complete some tasks I've been putting off around the house, and perhaps I can manage to find time to do some baking as well. That would sweeten his temper for certain. Yes, Adam, I think your idea is a very sound one. What do you think, Ben?"
He nodded as well. "I believe Little Joe has just gained himself a baby-sitter."
“Oh, dear.” Marie sighed theatrically, looking around the family area and shaking her head.
Hoss looked up from where he sat building a wood block stable in the corner of the room. He was preparing to put the half dozen carved wooden horses Pa had bought him for his last birthday inside. Mama had given him some bits of yellow yarn to put on the floor of the stable as hay, and Hoss had been blissfully absorbed in building a home for his toys for the last hour and a half. “What’s wrong, Ma?”
Marie put a hand on her hip, and swept the other dramatically through the room. “Just look at this place! Such a mess, and I haven’t had a moment to fix it up, what with looking after the baby all the time.”
Hoss perked up a bit at her words. Could it be that Mama was growing tired of spending so much time with Little Joe? “I could help ya,” he offered uncertainly. He did not like cleaning, not even picking up his room, but if it meant having his stepmother all to himself, then he would do it gladly.
“That would be very nice,” she accepted, mentally calculating how much time it would take to clean the room before Joe woke up from his nap. “Let us see how much we can do, all right?”
Hoss jumped up, knocking his stable over in the process. For a moment, he looked upset, but then decided it didn’t really matter. He swept the blocks into his toy chest, located in the corner behind Pa’s desk, then carefully put the horses in their padded case so that nothing would happen to them, and added them to the chest as well. He and Marie spent a happy hour together, chatting about all the very important things Hoss had been doing, from feeding the stock with Adam to finding Floppy on the floor of the barn. He felt enormously pleased when Marie suggested he take the bunny back into his own room for safekeeping. She knew Joe was not likely miss the toy and, like Adam, she felt bad for letting Hoss give it up in the first place. They worked quickly as they talked, straightening, dusting, sweeping the floors and polishing the furniture until the wood fairly shone. Hoss surveyed the finished room proudly. “We done good, huh, Ma?”
“Did good, dear,” she corrected him. Hoss nodded vigorously. She smiled and stroked his soft blonde hair as he hugged her around the waist. “You’ve been a great help. Would you like to do something else for Mama?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said enthusiastically.
"Would you get your baby brother up, then look after him for a bit while I go in the kitchen and mix up a batch of cookie dough?" She smiled as she watched the obvious struggle in his face.
Hoss debated hard on the proposal. On the one hand, he had really enjoyed spending time alone with Mama and did not want to wake Little Joe up and spoil it. On the other, he had never been asked to look after the baby by himself before and felt very proud at being asked. In the end, though, it was the promise of fresh-baked cookies that sent him over the edge into saying, "Yes, Ma, I'll look after him."
"I'll check on you periodically," she promised. "I'm trusting you with a big responsibility now, darling. Looking after a baby isn't like looking after a puppy. Joe isn't very big or very strong yet, and you'll have to be extra careful not to hurt him."
Though Hoss was only seven years old, and had never met another child his own age, numerous people had told him that he was big and strong for his age. In fact, he was just about equivalent to a child two or three years older than he was. Likewise, Joe was rather small for eleven and a half months, though he had come to be as plump and rosy as any baby ever born in that time. Hoss thought he seemed pretty well padded against injury, but decided to be very careful, just in case. "I will, Ma."
"Do you think you can lift him out of his crib by yourself?" she asked, looking him over a little bit doubtfully.
"I can do it," he said confidently. "I've done it before, when Pa was there. He showed me how to hold onto Joe so he don't slip out of my hands. Don't worry, Ma. I'm a big boy now. I can do whatever needs doin'."
He put his hands on his hips and puffed his little barrel of a chest out boldly as he made this statement, looking so much like his father for a moment that Marie nearly choked trying to suppress a laugh. "All right, my little man. You go on, then."
Hoss departed in a great rush, then came down again equally as fast, a look of thorough disgust on his round face. "Ma, do I gotta change his diaper? He's all wet and it soaked clean through his outside clothes too. How come babies can sleep through that?" As if in answer to the question, an unhappy wail suddenly filled the air.
"Apparently, they can't," Marie chuckled. "Come along, dear. I'll help you get him changed and into some dry clothes."
Realizing that he was going back on his assurance to her moments before that he could take care of his baby brother's needs, and that if Marie started getting involved with Joe, then she might forget all about the promised baking, Hoss jumped to stop her. Suddenly, even the disgusting thought of changing dirty diapers held no fear for him. "No, never mind, Mama," he said quickly. "I guess I can get it done. Only, what do I do with them nasty wet things once I get the dry ones on him?"
Remembering that it had been quite some time since Hoss had been willing to go anywhere near the baby's room, particularly during changing times, Marie smiled and held out her hand. "I'll show you. Tell you what, why don't I show you what to do this time, and kind of supervise, then you can try it by yourself next time."
"You still gonna have time to make cookies if you do that?" he asked worriedly.
Marie's mouth twitched hard. She had suspected that was her stepson's real motivation in his willingness to help, and now she had proof. "Plenty of time. Now, let's get up there before your poor brother cries himself into a fit."
Hoss nodded and held her hand as they walked up the stairs to the nursery. Marie moved to the changing table, lifting a stack of clean cloth diapers to show Hoss where they were kept. "I'll get out all of his things, while you get Joe out of his crib, all right?"
"Okay," Hoss said dubiously. Suddenly, this job seemed a lot bigger than it had when he had agreed to it. He reached down into Joe's crib and gingerly lifted the baby out, holding him carefully at arms' length, his face wrinkling into a grimace of distaste at the sight of the wetness seeped all the way through the front of Little Joe's clothes. "You know, for a little fella you sure do hold a lot of water," he muttered. He was surprised when Joe immediately stopped howling at the sound of his voice. With a final sob and a hiccup, the baby lifted his big green eyes to Hoss' face and smiled at him. Hoss smiled back before he realized what he was doing. "Here he is, Ma."
Marie lay Joe down on the changing table, making sure Hoss was watching as she unfastened the row of small buttons she had sewn down the side and up the inner legs of the baby's jumper. Unfastened, it came off in a single piece and Marie dropped the soiled garment into one of two large buckets next to the table. "This is for the dirty clothes. The other is for the diapers." Hoss watched closely as she removed the pins from the wet diaper and put it in the second bucket. Joe wiggled and cooed happily as his mother dipped a cloth in water and sponged him off, dried and powdered him, and showed Hoss how to fold and apply a fresh diaper. "There, you see? Nothing to it!"
"Well, it looks pretty easy," he admitted, nose wrinkling, "but suppose he does more than just wet himself."
"Same thing," she told him, grinning at his disgusted expression. "Just make extra sure you clean him up real well. Then, just put the cleaning rag in with the dirty diapers, put on a clean one and some fresh clothes, and that's all there is to it."
"Until the next time," he muttered. Wanting to be helpful, and catching the warning look she shot him over his disrespectful tone, Hoss hurried over to the dresser where Joe's clothes were stored and picked out a cheerful red plaid shirt and a pair of tiny overalls. Looking through the drawer full of colorful clothes that his mother had made from old shirts and pants worn by the rest of the family, Hoss figured his little brother must be about the best-dressed baby in the whole world. This particular red shirt had been his own until he had ripped an unmendable tear down the front while playing. Hand-me-downs were one thing he did not mind giving up to Joe. He'd worn plenty of Adam's cast-offs, so it was only fair.
Dressing Joe proved to be something of an ordeal as the baby kicked and squirmed and giggled throughout, evidently finding Hoss' tentative touch to be ticklish. Finally, though, he was all ready and Hoss breathed a sigh of relief. Marie reached over and hugged him, "You did a fine job, Hoss. Now, let's take Joseph downstairs and you can play with him while I get those cookies started."
"Yes, ma'am!" Hoss shouted. He grabbed Joe off the table and flung him up against his shoulder like a very small sack of flour, only remembering his promise to be careful when his brother howled in his ear, very put out at being thus manhandled. Hoss pulled back to look into his face. Joe looked kind of upset, but he seemed to be unharmed. Hoss smiled sheepishly at his stepmother. "Sorry, Ma. I'll be more careful."
Marie checked her son over quickly, then decided that there had been no real harm done, and nodded. "You remember what I said about that," she warned, hoping this had been as good an idea as it had initially seemed. She finished changing the baby's damp bed linen and grabbed his little stuffed bear to take downstairs with them. She ushered Hoss down with a hand on his shoulders, nodding as he very carefully carried Joe in his arms, silently vowing to keep a hawk eye on the boys as she mixed and baked the cookies.
Downstairs, Hoss pulled the red blanket off the stair railing and set it down on the floor before the fireplace, then got his blocks and horses out once again. Joe was sitting in front of his father's favorite red chair, watching his brother and busily gnawing on the paw of the poor stuffed animal in his grasp. He kept making a peculiar whimpering sound as he tried to shove the paw deeper into his mouth. Hoss looked up, annoyed at the ongoing racket and intending to scold the baby into silence. One look at his little brother's face stopped him. Little Joe's face was scrunched and his eyes swam with tears, and for the first time, Hoss realized that the noises had an edge of pain in them. "What's the matter, Joe?" he asked, scooting over closer. Joe dropped the bear and replaced it with a fist, his tears flowing faster now that he had somebody's attention. "Lemme see."
Hoss was a little surprised when the baby did not protest having his mouth pried open. He was known to scream down the walls when most people tried that. Hoss took a good look inside and winced in sympathy. It looked like two more teeth were starting to make an appearance and the gum line around the tiny points of white was red and puffy looking. "That must really hurt, huh?" Joe nodded, cramming the fist back into his mouth the moment he was released. "Wonder where that teething ring Adam made for you is," Hoss mumbled, looking around the floor. He did not recall seeing it upstairs. Maybe Mama knew.
Marie hurried out into the main room, dusting her floury hands off on her apron as soon as Hoss' voice called her name. "Is anything wrong," she asked anxiously.
Hoss nodded. "I can't find Joe's teether, Ma, and he really needs it bad. He looks like he's hurtin' something awful." While Hoss would not admit to any liking for his younger brother, he hated seeing any creature in pain. "Do you know where it is?"
"No, I don't," she said, realizing worriedly that she had not seen the ring in quite some time. She also knelt down to look into the baby's mouth. He resisted having his mouth opened a second time, but she managed to get a quick peek, enough to see that Hoss was absolutely right. "I have some herb medicine your father's Paiute friends gave him. It did a good job numbing his mouth last time."
Hoss made a face. "He's gonna put up an awful fuss, Ma. He don’t like it because it tastes so bad, and I don't blame him."
"Neither do I," she admitted with a smile. She had used the medicine on a toothache of her own once. It did the job, but after one taste she had not been sure it was worth it. Besides, the herbs were mixed with alcohol and she disliked the idea of applying even a touch of that to her baby's painful gums. "I don't see that we have any choice, though."
An idea struck Hoss with visible force and he scrambled back up to his feet, shouting, "I know! Wait right there a second." He pelted out the door and round the back of the barn to his father's shed. Pa kept all kinds of bits and pieces of leather in there, for making and repairing horse tack. Hoss rummaged through the scrap box, sure he had seen the perfect thing in there. With a hoot of triumph, he found what he was looking for and dashed back into the house. "Let him chew on this, Ma!"
Marie picked up the object in Hoss' hand. It was a thick piece of softened calf leather, obviously left over from the piece Ben had used to make her a pair of slippers this past Christmas. It was about a foot long and two inches wide, much too big to worry about Joe swallowing it, and small enough for him to hold in his hands. It was nice and soft, and would provide comfort to his aching gums, but strong enough that there was no possible way for him to chew through it. Ben had undoubtedly been saving the scrap to use as a saddlebag strap or some such, but now it would serve a much more useful purpose. "This is perfect, darling!"
Poor Little Joe was crying in earnest now, but he grabbed onto the piece of leather curiously when Hoss dangled it in front of his face. Like everything else lately, the strap went straight into his mouth, and soon the child was happily gumming away on it, tears forgotten as the chew toy did its work. Hoss grinned at Marie and she hugged him tightly. "It worked, Ma."
"That was a wonderful idea, Hoss," she praised. They sat playing with Joe for a few minutes, Hoss for once not minding that he had to share the attention, when suddenly Marie gasped and scrambled to her feet, exclaiming, "The cookies!"
It was only then that Hoss realized that he could smell something burning. The cookies were ruined! He stared down at his small sibling, jaw jutting out. "This is your fault. If you hadn't distracted everybody, Ma wouldn't have burned the cookies." Joe took no notice of him, perfectly happy with his new toy, and Hoss scowled at him.
Marie reentered the room, looking a trifle embarrassed. "Well, the first pan is unsalvageable, I'm afraid. They're all burnt up, but I put in another batch and I'll be sure and keep an eye on this one!" She laughed and winked at him as she added, "Don't tell your Pa I ruined the cookies or I'll never hear the end of it."
Hoss grinned as she put a finger to her lips, her eyes twinkling. Maybe things weren't as bad as he'd feared.
“Marie? We’re home!” Adam hollered as he walked in the front door ahead of his father.
Ben sighed and shook his head. He and his wife were always on Adam about his extremely loud way of entering the house, but there seemed to be nothing they could do about it. It was something he would have to grow out of, they supposed, but an extra warning wouldn’t hurt. “Adam, don’t shout.”
“Sorry, sir,” Adam said, offering an apologetic shrug. Marie came around the corner from the kitchen, smiling as both her husband and stepson kissed her on the cheek in greeting. “Hi, Marie! Pa and I rounded up a half dozen wild horses today, and I roped one of them all on my own. She’s a beauty too, all red with a black mane and tail and a white blaze. You shoulda seen it! I tried about a dozen times to get my lasso around her head, but she’s real smart and she kept ducking away at the last second, but I finally got her and Pa says once she’s gentled, he’ll let me have a hand in breaking her to ride.”
The boy finally stopped for breath and Marie placed both hands gently on his face, eyes shining in response to the light in her oldest stepson’s eyes. It was rare that he got excited to the point of babbling about anything, but the thrill of catching and taming a wild horse was something she could easily understand. She felt the same fire in her own blood when mounted atop a spirited animal. “You must point her out to me tomorrow," she suggested. "I’m sure she is the most beautiful horse in the entire herd, and I want to hear all about her tonight.”
Adam beamed. He felt his day had been the most wonderful he had ever spent and was happy that Marie was interested in hearing about it. Suddenly, as he stared into her smiling face, he realized that she was looking rather worn out and remembered the reason he had been allowed to go out with his father in the first place. He looked around the room, expecting to see his younger brothers, but neither was present. “Where are Hoss and Little Joe? Did the plan work?”
“It seems to be going well, so far,” she told him. “They spent the morning playing together by the fireplace while I made cookies.”
“Did Hoss leave us any?” Ben interrupted with a grin. His son’s fondness for sweets was legendary.
Marie grinned back. “I saved you a few. The baking took up most of the early part of the day. Everything was going well until Little Joe threw a tantrum because Hoss wouldn’t let him play with any of his toys. I walked in just in time to see Joe snatch one of Hoss' wooden horses out of his hand and hit him with it. I finally swatted them both and had them sit in separate corners for a while."
"How long?" Adam asked, feeling a little sorry for both the boys and Marie. He had not expected anything like that to happen when he had suggested the baby-sitting chore for Hoss.
She smiled ruefully. "Not long. They both looked so sad that I caved in after about ten minutes and sent them out to make mud pies in the front yard.”
“Uh, oh,” Adam said, sensing that there was more.
Marie nodded, her face exasperated. “That seemed to work out better until Hoss decided to see if he could make Joe into a mud monster.”
Ben burst into a surprised laugh. “A what?”
Marie chuckled as well. It was funny, now that the incident was past. “I guess he was still mad at Little Joe for getting him in trouble with me. Joe was already pretty well covered in mud, so Hoss started adding more until there was hardly a trace of the poor child left showing. When I went outside to call them in a little while ago, our little artist proudly showed off his creation and Little Joe just smiled and held his arms out to me, not a bit disturbed by any of it.”
“Did you pick him up?” Adam asked with a grin.
She laughed. “I didn’t have much choice. I certainly wasn’t going to let him crawl around the house on his own in that state! I sent Hoss straight in to wash while I cleaned Joe up as well as I could outside. Hoss is upstairs giving him a proper bath now.”
“He made the mess, so you figured he might as well clean it up,” Ben surmised, nodding his approval as he walked toward the stairs and looked up, unable to stop grinning at the mental image of his sons’ covered head to toe in mud.
“Exactly,” Marie agreed. “Speaking of cleaning up, supper will be ready in about an hour, so why don’t my two dusty trail-hands get themselves washed up as well?”
Ben kissed her again, on the mouth this time. “Yes, my love.”
Adam made a face when he saw Pa circle Marie’s waist with his hands and whisper something in her ear. He had long since gotten over any animosity he had felt toward his stepmother, but that didn’t mean he liked watching the two of them act all lovey-dovey. It was embarrassing! “I’m gonna go see Hoss and Joe for a minute,” he called behind him, as he bolted up the stairs. He wanted to tell Hoss all about his day out with Pa.
At the top of the stairs, Adam paused, his face breaking into a big grin as he listened to the sounds of splashing, his baby brother’s unmistakable gurgling laughter, and Hoss’ wail of, “Hey! You’re getting’ me all wet. Quit it! Joe!” Adam’s grin got bigger at that last exclamation. Only Hoss could turn their little brother’s name into a three-syllable word.
Opening the door to Joe’s room, Adam laughed. The round metal washtub had been set atop a protective layer of towels next to the changing table. Inside of it were a soapy, smiling Little Joe and a few rapidly diminishing inches of water. The baby was slapping his hands down hard onto the surface of the water, showing off a pretty good aim to judge by the amount of water dripping from Hoss. The older boy was not amused, grimly taking hold of Little Joe’s arm to hold him still as he tried again to rub some soap into his still-muddy hair. Joe shrieked piercingly and both of his brothers flinched. “Hoss, be careful,” Adam warned, coming all the way into the room. He took off his hat and laid it atop the table as he knelt next to Hoss. “You can’t grab him that tight, you’re gonna hurt him.”
“Well, dadburnit, he won’t quit squirmin’ around!” Hoss cried indignantly.
“Shhh!” Adam hissed sharply, glancing back to make sure his father had not followed him up and overheard. He frowned sternly at Hoss. “You know Pa’ll whip you if he catches you cussing.”
“Aw, dadburnit ain’t really cussing,” Hoss retorted, but very quietly just in case he was wrong. He had not heard very much swearing before, just an occasional word from one of the men that sounded like it might be. That particular word was used often by his favorite hand, Tom, and Hoss had always wanted to say it out loud. Maybe Adam was right, though. He did not want to risk getting a whipping from Pa if he could help it. “I won’t do it anymore, but Little Joe won’t hold still so I can finish giving him his bath. Don’t see why I gotta clean him up anyway.”
“Cause you’re the one that got mud all over him,” Adam shot back. Hoss stuck his tongue out and Adam returned the gesture. Then he remembered why he had wanted to see Hoss and his face lit up with animation again. “Hey, Hoss, you should’ve been there today! I roped a big ol’ wild mare all by myself and brought her in.”
“Really?” Hoss asked excitedly. In his mind, Adam was already a bold and wonderful hero for going out wrangling with their father, but this news only strengthened his viewpoint. “What was it like? How’d you get the drop on her?”
Adam stood up and began reliving the incident play by play for his eager audience, throwing in a few frills and dressings to beef up his own daring and prowess as a cowboy. He pantomimed throwing the lasso around the horse’s neck, then whooped and made as if to wave his hat through the air. The gesture alone wasn’t enough and he turned around to grab his hat off the table, but it wasn’t there. Startled, he looked down and began to laugh. “Hey, Hoss, I think we forgot somebody!”
Hoss had jumped up as he had listened to Adam’s thrilling tale, and indeed he had forgotten all about Little Joe. The baby had taken advantage of his brothers’ distraction, using the leg of the table to pull himself up to a standing position, so that he could reach Adam’s hat. The chin string had been dangling temptingly over his head, just barely out of reach. Now, as his two brothers stood grinning and watching him, he looked over his shoulder at Adam, wearing nothing but the hat and a big smile.
Adam dropped to his knees beside the washtub and pulled the hat off Little Joe's head. "Give me back my hat, you little rascal," he laughed. Joe sat back down in the water with a plop. He picked up the soap Hoss had been trying so unsuccessfully to use on him, and offered it to Adam with a charming smile. Adam grinned at Hoss, who stood watching with a disbelieving scowl, and obliged his baby brother by gently washing his hair. Little Joe was docile as a lamb while Adam rinsed him off and pulled him out of the tub, setting him down upon his lap within the protection of a fluffy towel. He cooed and babbled at Adam the entire time his big brother was rubbing him dry, and Adam noted a great deal of gesturing toward Hoss. "What do you know, Hoss. I think Little Joe is trying to tell me about spending the day with you!"
Hoss became more interested as he realized that Adam might be right. Certainly Joe seemed happy enough when Hoss tentatively reached out and took him, towel and all, into his own arms. "Well, what do you know about that?"
Together, the two boys got their brother diapered and dressed in his nightgown, and Adam carefully combed out all the snarls in Joe's fine silky hair. From birth, he had had a swirly lock of hair at the very front of his head, but the rest, what there was of it, had been kind of straight. It had just recently gotten long and thick enough to show the promise of becoming curly all over, and while it looked very cute, it was also a lot harder to comb without pulling. "I guess that's good enough," he said at last. "I've got to go wash up for supper. Wait for me a minute and I'll help you clean this up."
"Okay," Hoss agreed readily. He had not been looking forward to cleaning up the water Little Joe had slopped around, by himself. There was a rocking chair by the window and Hoss struggled up into it, lugging Joe up into his lap with a grunt of effort. Little Joe often sat in one of his parents' or Adam's lap this way, but this was a first for Hoss and Joe seemed to notice this, for he stared interestedly into his brother's face and babbled something that sounded sort of like a question. Hoss was surprised to find that he rather liked holding the baby. There was trust in those big eyes of his and something else that Hoss could not quite put a name to. "Want me to tell you a story?" he asked uncertainly.
Though not talking yet, Little Joe could recognize many words by this time and 'story' was one of his favorites. He nodded energetically and immediately nestled closer to lay his head down onto Hoss' shoulder, placing a thumb into his mouth as he waited. Hoss wrapped his arms around the little body, telling himself it was so Joe would not tumble out of the chair. "Once upon a time, there was three bears. A big Papa bear, a medium-sized Mama bear, and a little baby bear," he began. This was one of his own favorite stories, and he knew it by heart.
When Adam returned and heard what was going on inside the room, he peered around the open door to get a look. With a grin, he stole away without giving away his presence and went to get his father and Marie. The two of them looked inside to see what Adam found so interesting and tender smiles instantly filled both of their faces. Hoss was animatedly telling his brother what had happened when the bears found Goldilocks in baby bear's bed, and Little Joe was sitting straight up in his lap, face filled with awe, his green eyes huge and riveted to his brother's face.
"Then that girl screamed and jumped up, and ran out of that old house faster than anything, and the bears never saw her again. Then they lived happily ever after." Hoss finished with a sharp nod and Joe laughed and clapped his hands. Hoss grinned, then looked up in surprise when the rest of his family applauded as well. "How long you all been there? Am I late for supper?"
Marie laughed, easing the worried look that had sprung to Hoss' face with his question. "No, Adam just thought your Papa and I might like to hear the story as well," she told him. She went to take Joe out of his lap, and was interested to see a slightly disappointed look fill Hoss' eyes. "You've been a very good baby-sitter today, my darling. Why don't the rest of you clean up in here while I give Little Joe his dinner, then come downstairs? I've got a very good beef stew waiting for all you hungry men, when you're finished."
Marie and Joe retreated out of the room. Ben and Adam had exchanged a sour look as they heard themselves elected to help with the clean-up, even though Adam had already offered to do so anyway. Hoss, on the other hand, was delighted by both offers and it was hard not pick up on his jolly mood as he chattered away about his day, and the room was soon neat and tidy again. Ben scooped Hoss up into his arms and gave him a hug, then set him down with a light swat to his backside as he said, "Let's go see about getting some of that stew, boys. I, for one, am starving to death!"
"Me too!" Hoss agreed eagerly. He grabbed an equally willing Adam by the arm and all but hauled him bodily out of the room and down the stairs in his haste to reach the dinner table.
Ben watched them go, looking around the room with a wide grin as he thought about how well Adam's idea seemed to be working. Chuckling again over the thought of his little mud monsters, Ben picked up the washtub and blew out the lamp as he headed down to get his own share of Marie's wonderful supper.
the next three weeks, the Cartwright family detected a decided warming trend in
Hoss’ attitude toward Little Joe. He
still experienced fits of jealousy from time to time, but his parents and older
brother made a point of including him more and making sure he did his share of
looking after the baby. Ben knew
they were on the right track when Hoss changed his mind and volunteered to help
him build the new playpen. It was
to be a gift from both of them for the baby’s first birthday.
“What color are we going to paint it, Pa?” Hoss squinted critically at the nearly finished pen. He had taken a very proprietary interest in it once it had begun to take recognizable shape, and now he was determined that it had to be absolutely perfect.
Ben smiled as he finished sanding down the last of the wooden spokes that would serve as the playpen’s walls, and fitted it into place. Hoss held it steady while his father hammered the spoke in tighter and together they added the top frame and fitted it carefully across the row of dowels. “I’m not sure paint would be a very good idea, son. You know how your brother likes to gnaw on everything. If the paint should begin to flake, it mightn’t be good for him. I think it would be better to stain the wood. That would look better and it’ll last for years to come.”
“Years?” Hoss looked alarmed. “You and Ma ain’t gonna go get more babies, are you, Pa?” Hoss had figured out that human babies grew inside of their mothers’ tummies, just as animal babies did, but as yet it had not occurred to him to ask how they got in there in the first place. He figured maybe you just went and picked one up someplace, like when Pa went to pick up supplies.
Eyes twinkling, Ben said, “Well, perhaps we will one of these days, but not for a while. It would be nice to have this playpen on hand in case we ever do, though. Or we might just save it until one of you boys is grown up and starting your own family.”
“Oh,” Hoss said, his tone relieved. “Can I help you stain the wood, Pa?”
“Sure, you can. Let’s go get some out of the shed.” Hand in hand, the two craftsmen went to find the needed supplies.
"Wow, you two are doing a good job on that," Adam commented an hour later as he finished the studies his father had set for him and came out to see what the others were doing. "It looks as good as a professional furniture maker could have done."
They had decided to take the playpen out into the yard and set it on a cloth to stain it, as Ben knew that Hoss tended to get congested if he was around the oily substance in close quarters. Besides, he had figured it would dry faster in the sun. It was a very pleasant day, but the heat was making him glad they were almost done with the chore as he smiled at Adam and wiped his sleeve across his sweating brow. "Not quite, son, but I agree that it's come out pretty well. You finished with your homework?"
"Uh, huh," the boy said as he took a large bite out of the red apple in his hand. "Marie offered to check it over for me so I could come out and play awhile, while the sun is still shining. I was hoping you'd be finished, so Hoss could go for a ride with me."
Hoss perked up and fixed pleading blue eyes on his father's face. "Can I go, Pa?"
"I thought you wanted to get this finished today," Ben reminded him. "It has to be done and dry by Monday, so Joe can have it in time for his birthday."
Disappointed, Hoss picked up his paintbrush from where he had dropped it on the cloth and dejectedly began stroking wood stain up and down the mostly bare dowels on his own side of the playpen again. "I forgot."
Judging that Hoss would likely finish just in time for his little brother's second birthday if he did not start moving any faster than he was now, Adam raised questioning brows to his father and grabbed a second brush to help Hoss when he received an affirmative nod. Hoss was happier now that Adam had decided to help too, and he proudly pointed out all the fine details of his collaborative effort with Pa. Adam nodded and acted properly impressed, and soon enough Hoss had forgotten all about being unhappy about not going riding. With three people working, the playpen was finished in no time and set aside to dry.
"You think Little Joe will like it, Pa?" Hoss asked eagerly.
Ben ruffled his blonde hair with a smile. "I'm sure he'll be very happy with it. Don't be surprised if he doesn’t show too much interest, though. He's only a year old." He laughed suddenly, reliving a memory of Hoss at the same age. "It may even be that he'll be more interested in the playing with the wrapping paper than in any of the gifts."
"Yeah, little kids are like that," the boy observed sagely, never noticing the amusement his comment provided for the other two as their eyes met over his head.
"Ben!" Marie's excited shout from within the house grabbed everyone's attention. "Ben, come in here, quick!"
Alarmed, Ben and both of his sons ran across the yard and through the front door as fast as they could. A few paces in, Hoss and Adam collided with their father's back and leg when he stopped moving with no warning. Grabbing onto him to steady themselves, they peered around his body and then looked at each other, first a gape then a grin spreading across their faces in tandem.
After weeks of patient coaxing by every member of the family with no real results, Little Joe had decided to start walking on his own at a time when there was no one else in the room. He had pushed himself upright and waddled all the way across the floor to the credenza then seemed to run out of ideas where to go. He hung on to the heavy piece of furniture and looked back toward his toys lying on the red blanket before the fireplace. The thumb of his right hand was in his mouth, and his brow had crinkled into a puzzled frown, making it appear that he was not quite sure how he had gotten from one end of the room to the other.
"I couldn't believe it," Marie said, her giddy laughter ringing through the room. "I left him playing with his little stuffed bear while I went to turn the roast, and when I came back he was walking towards the front door!"
Ben laughed joyfully and picked up his baby son to look in his eyes. "So, you were headed for the door, were you? You've figured out how to walk, so you thought you'd take a little trip somewhere?" Little Joe giggled and patted his papa on the face, screaming in delight when Ben pretended to try and bite his fingers. He started wiggling after just a moment and Ben carefully set him back down on the floor. "You want to try again?"
Adam, Marie and Ben all laughed and exclaimed when the child took a few more steps, then stopped, plunking backward onto his bottom and looking curiously at them all. They urged him to try again, and before long Little Joe once again grabbed onto the nearest object at hand, a chair, and pulled himself up to his feet.
Hoss was excited at first. Little Joe was gaining more confidence with each try at walking and seemed to be fascinated by his own newly discovered talent. Every few minutes, he would get up and totter around the room, encouraged by his thrilled family. Soon enough, though, Hoss grew tired of watching the same thing over and over, especially when over an hour had gone by and his family showed no sign of doing anything else with this fine Saturday, except watch the baby. It looked as though Adam had forgotten all about taking a ride, and now it was getting too close to dark outside. Pa would never let them go now, even if Adam was still interested. Hoss looked wistfully at his father. Pa had promised to play a game with him before supper, but now he was totally engrossed in what was going on with Little Joe, and Hoss knew that, too, had been forgotten.
Going over to sit on his favorite perch, the stair landing, he dropped his chin into his hands and heaved a small sigh. He had mostly gotten over his resentment of Little Joe during these last few weeks. Joe had a surprising amount of personality for a baby, and he was even kind of fun to be around, but it still hurt when everyone dropped everything they were doing to fawn over him like this. Hoss was proud of his brother for walking, it was a big accomplishment, but did everyone have to act like they'd never seen anything as marvelous in the world? No one had even noticed that he wasn't over there by the desk with everyone else. As the minutes crept by, he began feeling very sorry for himself, and the resentment toward Joe built.
Unbeknownst to Hoss, somebody had noticed his absence in the festivities. Deep in thought, he never saw Little Joe approach him until Marie's soft exclamation of rapture caught his attention and Hoss lifted his gaze from his boots and found Joe standing at the bottom of the stairs with a serious face and both arms held straight out to him.
"Aw, go 'way," Hoss mumbled. He deliberately turned away a bit and ignored his little brother, expecting him to give up and leave, but Joe refused to budge. He could be astonishingly stubborn when it suited him and it was clear to everyone watching that Little Joe had drawn the line.
Ben began to speak, intending to order Hoss to behave himself, but Marie's hand on his arm stopped him. He shook his head slowly. He did not like any of his sons sulking or showing rude behavior, but decided to abide by his wife's wishes and wait to see what they boys would do on their own.
Joe waited patiently for Hoss to acknowledge his request to be picked up, but when it did not happen, he dropped to his hands and knees and crawled up. He had mastered crawling up the steps quite some time ago, so this presented no difficulty for him and soon Joe had reached the landing where his brother sat. Hoss scowled and turned back the other way. Little Joe accepted the shoulder that had turned toward him and levered himself up again to stand, using his uncooperative brother as a handhold. Irritated with his persistence, Hoss shrugged him off, hard.
Little Joe gave a frightened squeak as he lost his precarious balance and tumbled backward toward the open steps. Everyone surged forward with gasps of horror, each feeling as if time had suddenly slowed down as they realized they were not close enough and would be too late to catch him. Hoss was close enough, however, and faster than thought, his heart acted to move his body forward. He shot a hand out, and snatched Little Joe toward him and safely into his lap in a single motion. Time resumed its normal pace as the gasps quickly turned to sighs of relief.
Hoss gulped hard, trying to get his heart down out of his throat as he realized how close he had come to hurting, or worse, this baby brother whom he suddenly knew that he loved just as much as the rest of the family did. He hugged Little Joe tightly and started to cry. "I'm sorry, Joe. I didn't mean to push ya. You ain't hurt, are you? I didn't mean it!"
Little Joe wrapped his arms around Hoss' neck, completely oblivious to his close call as he found himself exactly where he had wanted to be. He was perfectly happy until he decided that he was being held a bit too tightly and let go a shriek of protest that made his brother pull back hastily and ask, "You okay?" Joe gurgled and smiled, showing off his bottom front teeth. Hoss grinned at him and looked over at his parents and Adam. "He ain't hurt at all!"
Ben grimly picked Little Joe up and moved him away from the stairs, handing him to Marie, who clutched her baby tightly against her chest, stroking her hand over his head and body to reassure herself that he was uninjured. The disappointed look in his father's face, coupled with the grim but sympathetic shake of the head from Adam, deflated Hoss' celebratory mood in an instant, bringing his tears back to the surface again as he hung his head in shame. "Eric, I am very disappointed in your behavior just now," Ben said slowly. "I think we had better go outside and have a little talk."
"But Pa, I didn't mean to push him," Hoss tried, cringing at the use of his given name. That, coupled with rest of the words, did not bode well for him.
"Outside," Ben repeated softly.
With a gulp, Hoss jumped up and ran down the stairs and outside, knees shaking as he waited just beyond the front porch for his father. It took a moment, but finally Pa appeared and sat down on the edge of the porch, taking Hoss over his knee to administer two firm swats to his backside. Hoss stood, automatically placing his hands across the seat of his pants when it was over. It had hurt, but he was surprised that it was over so quickly. "I'm sorry, Pa," he whispered.
Ben sighed. "I know that, Hoss. I also know that you didn't mean to push your brother, that it was an accident. I didn't punish you for that, though it was dangerously careless. I spanked you because I want you to think about this day and that sullen attitude you've had lately every time one of us pays extra attention to Little Joe. I know it hasn't been easy for you, and we've all made an effort to mend the problem, but you have to meet us halfway. Little Joe is part of the family, just as you are, and he's just as entitled to his share of our attention as you are. You had no call to behave the way you did toward him today. Joseph only wanted to be close to you."
"I know," Hoss said quietly, plopping down to sit next to his father when Ben held out an arm to him. His eyes drifted to the playpen, drying at the other end of the porch; the gift he had been so proud to have a part in making, and he sniffled, dragging an arm across his runny nose. "I don't mean to be jealous of him, Pa. I guess I just miss the way things used to be, before he was born."
"I guess I can understand that," Ben said gently. "It's not easy to give up your place as the baby of the family, but you have a different, very important place now."
Hoss looked into his father's face. "I do?"
"Of course you do. Don't you remember before Joe was born, when you asked me what it was like to be a big brother?"
The boy nodded slowly. "You said I'd get to teach him things, and that I'd have to look out for him and love him, no matter what."
Ben smiled, brushing blonde bangs out of his son's eyes. "That's right. Little Joe is a lot smaller than you are, Hoss, and somehow I have a feeling that he always will be. You're going to grow up to be a big, strong man I feel sure, and you might as well start learning now to control your strength and your temper, or it could lead you into trouble."
"Like today?" Hoss asked meekly. He clutched his father's sleeve, imploring him with his eyes to understand. "I didn't mean to push him, Pa. I barely moved! If anything had happened to Little Joe because of me, I woulda just died!"
Ben hugged him a little tighter within the circle of his arm. "Hush, boy, it's all right. I know you didn't mean it. That's what I'm talking about, though. He'll grow and get stronger, but for right now, Joe is just a baby and he needs a lot of looking after. He's going to need a big brother that'll watch out for him, and keep him safe. You had Adam to do that for you, and now you have to do it for Little Joe."
"I will, Pa," Hoss said, his body straightening unconsciously as he made his words a solemn vow to both himself and his father. "I'll be the best big brother he ever had."
Smiling, Ben brushed away the last of his son's tears and tousled his hair. "I believe you will, and believe it or not, you may even find that you'll want to be his friend some day."
Hoss was not so sure about that. Somehow, it was difficult to imagine, but he was willing to wait and find out. "Thanks for not being too mad at me, Pa. I really am sorry 'bout what happened."
"I know you are. Now, let's go back inside and see if supper is getting close, all right?"
Though that sounded like a good idea, Hoss was reluctant to go back inside. "You think Mama and Adam are going to be mad at me?"
Ben shook his head. He stood and gave his son a hand up, as well, before draping an arm around the boy's shoulders. "I don't expect they will, if you say you're sorry. They know you weren't trying to hurt your brother."
A little doubtfully, Hoss allowed himself to be led back inside. He made his apologies and reiterated his promise to look after Little Joe as a big brother should, and both his brother and stepmother readily forgave him. Hoss spotted his baby brother sitting on the floor in front of the couch, engaged in chewing on his leather teething strap. He looked at Adam, feeling a bit uncertain about approaching Little Joe. Adam understood without his having to say a word. He went over to Joe and lifted him up onto the sofa, he and Hoss each taking one end of the seat, so that the baby sat between the two of them. Little Joe stopped chewing but he never let go of the strap as he sagged back against Adam's side and stared up at Hoss, his chin wet with drool as he offered him a smile.
"Think you and me could start over and be friends, little brother?" Hoss asked him, leaning closer and using a bit of Joe's shirt to dry his chin off.
It was doubtful that Little Joe had the ability to understand the question, but somehow he seemed to catch the spirit of it. He looked up at Adam, then back at Hoss and tilted his head back, closing his eyes and puckering his small mouth for a kiss. Adam and Hoss exchanged a surprised look. Usually that was something Joe only did for his mama and once in a great while for Pa. He disliked being kissed by anyone else, yet here he was. "I guess that means, yes," Adam said with a laugh.
Not sure what else to do, Hoss gave him a little peck and Joe giggled. Hoss and Adam laughed too.
"See, Hoss?" Adam said with a grin. "This big brother stuff isn't all bad."
Hoss shrugged one shoulder and smiled. He had already figured that out for himself.
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