"I didn't do nuthin' to your dumb ol' horses," Andy insisted hotly.
Jake Michaels felt his anger rise to an uncontrollable level as he stood facing his nephew. The boy had the most uncanny ability to push Jake to the edge of reason. He didn't know why, and truth be told, he didn't really care. He just knew that from the time this child had started talking, he'd been impudent, defiant and disrespectful to anyone older than he was. Jake couldn't count the number of times he'd warned his sister she'd regret her and Clayton's casual attitude towards discipline, but Katie had either ignored him or blown up at him.
Now, staring at this 10 year old hellion, his face unrepentant, his hair hanging in his face, Jake knew it was time he stepped in. Katie would probably be angry with him for a time, but in the end she'd thank him. Jake was certain of that. Andy had gone too far this time. Jake's face grew hard with his resolve.
"I know it was you," Jake informed the boy harshly. "Lyin' 'bout it's no use. I saw you with the shears."
Andy rolled his eyes and blew out impatiently, two acts Jake would have slapped his own son for right there. "An' I keep tellin' you," the child repeated loudly, as if Jake were deaf and he only had to say it loud enough for him to understand. "I found the shears and was puttin' 'em away before the little kids found 'em and hurt themselves."
Jake shook his head and snorted in disbelief. That was the weakest excuse he could imagine. Did this kid think he was actually going to believe it? He narrowed his eyes to slits and reached out a beefy hand to grab Andy by the back of his neck.
"You're comin' with me, boy," he stated firmly.
But Andy still fought. He dug in his heels and reached up to push at Jake's arm.
"I didn't do nuthin'!" he exclaimed defiantly.
"I've had it to here with your lies," Jake declared, his voice shaking with fury. Before he fully realized what he was doing, he slapped the contrary child forcefully across the face.
For a long moment there was only a stunned silence. Jake didn't know who was the most shocked, himself or his nephew. No matter how much Andy had aggravated Jake in the past, he had never actually hit the boy. Now, as he stood there, watching Andy stubbornly fight back the tears that welled up in his eyes, as he saw the print of his hand on the fair cheek, Jake felt the tiniest twinge of regret. This wasn't his son, after all. How many times had his mother warned him it wasn't his place to interfere? He opened his mouth, searching for the words to mutter an apology, but Andy found his voice first.
"You... you big hosepail!" His green eyes flashed with defiance as he stood up straighter and swiped the heel of his hand at an errant tear. "I'm glad your stupid horses got their manes cut. I wish I had been the one who did it!"
Of course it was the reaction of a child -- to lash out without thinking -- but it squelched whatever remorse Jake had been kindling. Wasn't this just what he'd warned his sister about? This streak of contention had to be driven out. Katie would never do it -- she had a blind eye toward her first born and had never seen the need. And her husband -- well, Jake had little use for his easy going brother-in-law. He held to those new-fangled ideas of raising a child. To Jake there would only be one way to discipline -- the right way -- his way.
He reached out toward Andy once more, taking satisfaction at the slight flinch his movement caused. So the boy was afraid of him. That was good. That was how it should be. Children needed to respect their elders.
He dug his thick fingers into Andy's shoulder and propelled the boy ahead of him into the barn. This time there was no fight, and Jake was sure he heard the slight sound of a suppressed sniffle. He nodded to himself. This was more like it. Perhaps he was finally getting through. But the whole lesson had to be learned.
He pushed Andy down on a hay bale. "Sit!" he commanded and was slightly surprised when he was obeyed. He moved over and retrieved the tools he'd gathered earlier, then returned to where Andy sat watching him with wide eyes.
"I take no pleasure in this, boy," Jake told him. "But you have to suffer the consequences of your actions." He turned on the clippers, testing the level of the blade.
"But... but, Uncle Jake... I tried to tell ya..."
"No more backtalk," Jake ordered sternly, as he placed a hand on top of his nephew's head. "This is for your own good."
He started the clippers into Andy's thick head of hair, grabbing tighter to the boy's head when he instinctively tried to move away. Then, all at once, Andy seemed to give up. His shoulders heaved once with a swallowed sob, then they slumped in resignation. Jake allowed himself a smile of satisfaction as he ran the clippers through the long, straw-colored hair. This would be a lesson well-learned.
"This is creepy, Addie." Murphy gazed around the empty loft, his hazel eyes dark with worry. "Andy knew Grandma was baking pies today. It's like he just disappeared."
"I know, Murph, I know."
Addison stared helplessly around the barn. This was where Andy was going to meet them when they got back to the ranch. He and Murphy had gotten dragged into town by their mothers on a spur of the moment trip for new boots. Andy had opted to stay behind and wait for Grandma Michaels' blackberry pies to come out of the oven. Addie wished he'd been able to stay home too. He didn't really like to be around Murphy's mom very much. She was too crabby, and she smoked all the time.
"He wouldn't've gone up to the hideout without us, would he?"
Addie shook his head. "Nah, he woulda waited for us. 'Sides, it's too close to dinner to go up there."
"But he's not anywhere else," Murphy persisted. "Maybe something happened to him."
The clang of the triangle calling everyone to dinner startled them, making both boys jump, but Addie suddenly relaxed and laughed.
"He's prob'ly just been hidin', trying to see how hard we'd look for 'im. But he'll show up for dinner."
Murphy smiled, his older cousin's logic taking the worry from his face. "Sure, he will. He'd never miss dinner."
Taking heart at that, the boys climbed down from the loft and raced out of the barn toward the house. Though Murphy was younger, he was faster and got to the door first.
"Beatcha!" he crowed as they tumbled into the kitchen.
"Murphy, please keep it down," Margo Michaels pleaded with a hand to her forehead. To Addison it seemed everything gave his aunt a headache.
"Sorry, Mom," Murphy whispered contritely.
Margo walked out of the kitchen carrying a platter of fried chicken to the dining room. She didn't acknowledge her son's apology.
"Okay, boys, you get washed up now." The warmth in their grandmother's tone was so different from Murphy's mother's that it was like night from day. Addison couldn't help but smile brightly at the older woman.
"Sure, Grandma. We'll be fast."
He pushed Murphy ahead of him and they marched off to the bathroom to wash the dirt and smell of the barn off their hands. By the time they were done and entered the crowded dining room, everyone else was already there and seated... everyone but Andy. Addison exchanged a frown with Murphy as they both sat with their own families.
"Where's Andy, boys?" Aunt Katie questioned with a smile. "Did you lose him somewhere?"
Addison's frown deepened as he shook his head. "We haven't seen him since we got home. Murph and me were searchin' everywhere."
Addison didn't like the look that came over Aunt Katie's face, chasing away her pleasant smile. "But if he's not with you two, where..."
"Aw, don't go gettin' in a tizzy," came Uncle Jake's gruff advice. He sat at the head of the table helping himself to the mashed potatoes. "He's probably just off sulkin' somewhere is all. He ain't lost."
Addison watched Aunt Katie's expression once more change, this time from worry to suspicion. She fixed her older brother with an accusing glare.
"Now why would Andy have any reason to be sulking?" she asked hotly. "He was perfectly happy at lunch time."
If Jake noticed the accusation in his sister's tone, he chose to ignore it. He calmly passed the bowl of potatoes and reached for the chicken before he answered. "He and I had a few words earlier," he stated evenly.
"Jake..." Grandma Michaels began, but he cut her off.
"Leave it be, Ma," he told her curtly. "He needed to be taught a lesson and I was the one to do it." His heavy brows drew together in disapproval. "Since nobody else around here ever does."
"Now wait a minute, Jake." Clayton Travis rose from his seat. "You've got no right..."
"What did you do, Jake?" Katie's icy tone stopped her husband in mid-sentence.
Addison's blue eyes grew wide as he watched his uncle actually squirm under his younger sister's questioning. When he answered, there was a definite edge of defensiveness to his words.
"What the hell was I supposed to do?" he demanded. "He cut the manes and tails off my horses. Was I supposed to let that go?"
"What did you do, Jake?" Katie repeated more forcefully.
Jake shrugged and resumed helping himself to chicken. "I taught him a lesson. He cut my horses manes, so I cut off that mane of his. No boy should have hair that long anyway."
There was a moment of heavy silence and then, abruptly, chaos erupted as all the adults began talking and shouting at once.
Addison caught Murphy's eye across the table and made a slight gesture with his head. Then he slipped from his seat. Amid all the confusion, no one paid him any attention. They met up with each other in the kitchen.
"C'mon, Murph," Addison whispered. "If he's mad at Uncle Jake, then you know where he'll be."
The younger boy nodded silently, his face hard to read, and Addison suddenly remembered how much it bothered his cousin when grown ups fought. The voices from the dining room were still loud and angry. Addison put a comforting hand on Murphy's shoulder.
"They'll get it all outta their systems before we get back," he said, then grinned. "Aunt Katie blows over pretty fast."
Murphy merely nodded silently. The boys headed for the door, but didn't quite make it. Somehow Grandma Michaels had gotten there ahead of them.
She stood there, blocking their way, as she regarded them quizzically for a moment. Then she gave them an understanding smile and stepped aside.
"Go bring him home," was all she said.
Addison nodded. "We will, Grandma." He opened the back door.
Murphy hesitated before following him outside. Addison saw him dart one more glance back at the dining room, then turned his eyes on their grandmother.
She gave him a fierce hug. "It'll pass, boy. Never you fear."
Murphy gave her a quick, grateful smile, then joined his cousin. Addison didn't say anything as they walked out to the barn to saddle their ponies. But after a few minutes, Murphy paused in his work.
"Sometimes I think Grandma can read minds," he announced.
Addison laughed. "You just now figured that out?"
Both boys giggled as they mounted up and headed out across the pasture toward the hills.
They made the trip up the mountain in record time. Concern for their cousin, as well as the hour of the day sped them along. Neither boy had any desire to be on the trail after dark. As it was, Addison knew they weren't going to have much time to convince an upset and enraged Andy to come home with them.
Up front, Murphy stopped his horse and studied the thick brush for a moment.
"Here it is," he announced and moved off the main trail.
Addison smiled to himself. In their eagerness to keep their hideout secret, they'd never marked the turnout into the more overgrown hillside. By themselves, Andy and Addie always had to search for some time before they found it. Murphy, however, never had that problem. He always knew exactly where to go. Andy had jokingly called him a bloodhound and the nickname had seemed to stick, at least between the three of them. It had also stirred in himself a deep seated desire to acquire a nickname of his own, to replace the hated Addison. So far, though, nothing had seemed right.
The rough trail grew suddenly steep and the boys stopped and left their horses tied to a small sapling pine. They scrambled up the rest of the way on foot, pausing only when they reached the entrance to the old mine shaft. A few rotted boards were the only thing barring the way in.
Addison went first, with Murphy on his heels. They hadn't brought a flashlight, but there was enough light coming from the interior of their cave to allow them to find their way without any problem. They hurried down the short passageway and turned off to the side as they reached the arched entrance to the small, natural cave.
He stopped, without going all the way in and felt Murphy bump into his back as he came to a sudden stop.
"Shhh," Addison whispered, holding up his hand in a signal for Murphy to be quiet and listen.
They could hear the muffled sound of sniffling near the rear of the cave. Addison was unsure how to proceed. If Andy was crying, he wanted to allow his cousin some space and dignity. But, on the other hand, their time was limited. He glanced at Murphy, who looked just as uncertain. Addison let out a long breath and took a step forward.
"Andy?" he called softly. "Andy, it's us... me and Murph. Okay if we come in?"
There was no answer for a long moment, then a slightly quavering, yeah, gave them permission to proceed.
They walked over to the side of a long table cluttered with models and pieces of his old erector set. Underneath it was a lump of blankets that had to be Andy. Addison bent down to take a closer look and saw the boots sticking out from one end.
"Do ya wanna talk?" he asked, trying to sound normal.
"No!" came an emphatic answer.
"Okay," Addison agreed. He was nothing, if not amiable.
He sat down and scooted under the table next to the pile of blankets that was his cousin, and motioned for Murphy to take the other side. When the younger boy had done so, Addison leaned his head against the cave wall and sat in silence for a while. Then he impulsively grabbed hold of the blanket covering what had to be Andy's head.
"Can we see what he did?" The question was casual, he didn't want to push. He just wanted Andy to feel welcome to talk if he wanted.
There was another big sniffle, then the blankets moved slightly, letting the other boys see the results of Jake's handiwork.
Addison couldn't keep back a groan of dismay and he heard Murphy's softly whispered, "Oh my gosh!"
Andy's hair was gone. The shaggy, straw-colored mop that had always been a part of his cousin as long as Addison could remember, was gone. Instead, only the barest layer of fuzz could been seen, shorter than any crew cut. Unsure of what to say, he simply reached out and took hold of Andy's shoulder.
After a long moment, Andy sat all the way up and let the blanket drop from his head to settle around his shoulders. He didn't meet either boy's eyes, just kept his gaze focused on his lap. The shoulder under Addie's hand was trembling slightly.
"I hate 'im," Andy spat out hoarsely. "I hate 'im so bad." He dragged an arm across his nose.
"I think your mom does too," Murphy informed him gravely. "She was sure yelling at him when we left."
Andy finally looked up. "Really?"
Addison nodded and then chuckled lightly. "I wouldn't be surprised if she tied him down and cut his hair off."
"Maybe she'll slip and cut his head off." Andy gave a shaky laugh, then grew sober again. "I guess you came to get me to come home."
"Yeah, you know you hafta," Addie answered reasonably. "The rest of the family's worried about ya."
"Grandma sent us," Murphy added, appealing to their shared devotion to their grandmother.
Andy perked up at that and a smile flitted across his face. "Grandma would," he murmured, then turned his tear-filled hazel eyes up to meet Addison's. "I don't wanna see him," he stated flatly. "I won't see him."
"You won't have to," Addison promised. He stood up. "We need to go though. It's gettin' late."
Murphy got to his feet as well and, a moment later, Andy freed himself completely of his cocoon of blankets and joined them. He rubbed at his head uneasily.
"I just can't get used to it," he told them. "It just feels so... so... I dunno," he trailed off, unsure of his own feelings.
Addison impulsively brushed at the stubble. "Aw, it'll grow back," he assured his cousin. "By next summer, nobody'll ever know the difference."
Andy's eyes, dry now, took on a hard look. "I'll know," he answered evenly, and Addison knew this was one wrong Uncle Jake would never be forgiven of.
Katherine Michaels stood outside the kitchen, staring thoughtfully at the setting sun. The porch seemed so quiet, so calm -- especially when compared to the storm that had been raging inside the house. Things were still now, but not the tranquility of peace, rather the lull before the next battle. The boys would be home soon, even now she could see the distant figures of three riders making their way across the far pasture. When they arrived, the war would begin anew.
She wondered why, and not for the first time. Why was it her oldest son just had to stir up trouble. Was his life so terrible that he had to make everyone else miserable? He'd had struggles in his life, but they all had. He had a wonderful wife and two lovely children -- he had this ranch. What was it he'd wanted out of life that he felt eluded him? Was it envy of his brothers and sisters? Did he really feel they all had it better than he did?
She heard the kitchen door open and she glanced behind to see Katie come outside and sit in the swing. Her daughter looked weary.
"Is that the boys coming?"
Katherine nodded and then turned. "Are you still set on going?"
Katie brushed her honey blond hair out of her eyes. "I'm sorry, Ma, but right now I'm so mad I could spit. I just think it'd be better if we went home... not spoil the reunion for everybody else."
"It's already spoiled," Katherine observed dryly.
Katie's head shot up and her eyes sparked. "Ma, I..."
Katherine held up her hand to forestall any angry words. "I didn't say it was your fault, Katie. I know how Jake can be."
Katie made a rude noise, but didn't say anything else.
"He's your brother, Katie, and..."
"And Andy's my son. For some reason, Jake can't seem to remember that." Katie paused and got up to stand beside her mother. "I don't want to fight with you. Please, Ma, just let us go before anything else gets said and things can't be mended."
Katherine shot her daughter a questioning glance. "Clayton?"
Katie nodded. "One of the things I love about Clay is how hard it is to push him." She laughed a little. "Maybe because I get pushed so easy, who knows." She shook her head. "But right now he's about ready to take Jake apart one piece at a time, and I can't really blame him."
"I don't blame him either."
Katie put an arm around her mother and gave her a quick squeeze. They stood in silence and both watched as the boys rode up to the barn. It took a moment for them to get the ponies taken care of, then all three trudged up toward the house.
As they neared, Addie and Murphy hung back, letting Andy approach his mother. He did so in silence, not saying a word as she stepped off the porch to meet him. He stood facing her, then she reached up and slipped his hat off his head, letting it hang down his back.
Katherine bit her lip to keep from saying anything at the sight of her grandson's bare head. She watched as Katie reached a hand to brush the little remaining hair, then had to hold in tears as mother took son into a tight embrace.
"I'm so sorry, honey," Katie murmured. "I'm so sorry."
Katherine came down to meet them. She laid a hand on Andy's shoulder. "I'm sorry, too, child. This should never have happened."
Andy looked up from his mother's arms. "I didn't do it, Grandma," he whispered. "I didn't do what he said I did."
"We know," Katie soothed. "We know."
"Jake knows, too," Katherine added.
"He does?" Andy appeared unconvinced. "He wouldn't believe me before."
"Well, he didn't exactly ask around before he jumped to conclusions," Katie commented wryly. "When he told us what happened, it come out that Jeffers did it."
"Jeffers?" Addison popped up from where he and Murphy had stood silently watching. He raised his eyebrows questioningly. "Uncle Jake didn't cut his hair, too, did he?"
Katherine gave him a reproving glance and he grinned sheepishly at her. "No, he didn't. Evidently Jeffers was playing barber shop and the horses were his customers."
Addison and Murphy both giggled at that, though each boy tried to stifle it with their hands. Katherine was glad for the break in the tension.
"Well, I suppose you three are hungry? You missed dinner." She didn't feel the need to mention that everyone had missed dinner, and they'd just finished giving the little ones peanut butter sandwiches.
"We sure are," Addison and Murphy both chorused enthusiastically, but Andy hung back.
"What's wrong, honey?" Katie inquired with some concern.
Andy glanced suspiciously at the house. "I don't wanna go in there... not with him."
Katherine nudged her daughter to get her attention and then gestured to the bunkhouse. Katie nodded her agreement.
"You three go get washed up a bit and we'll bring your dinner out to you, how 'bout that?"
Katie placed a quick kiss on the top of her son's head, then the boys headed for the bunkhouse. It wasn't lost on her that he pulled his hat up as they left. She shook her head. This wasn't a hurt a few sandwiches and a night away from Jake was going to heal. She felt her mother take her hand.
"Give it some time, dear. He's a strong boy. You watch. Soon as that hair of his starts coming in, he'll be his old self again."
Katie sighed. "I hope so, Ma, I sure do hope so."
The morning sun had already taken the chill off the morning. Breakfast had been a rather quiet affair, with Jake conspicuously absent. Now the Travis' car was packed up and ready to head down the hill to Santa Fe.
While the adults went about their goodbyes, Andy, Addison and Murphy were still in the barn, reluctant to end what should have been a long summer together.
"I sure wish you didn't have to go home," Murphy said for about the tenth time.
"Yeah, it's not gonna be half as much fun without you," Addison told him, then added, "but I guess it's good you won't have to be around you-know-who for a while."
Andy smiled. Without his hair to hold it, his hat hung down over his eyes and he was constantly pushing it up. "Hey, it's not like I'm a million miles away. Mom says you guys can come and stay at our house for some of the time."
"That'll be great," Addison exclaimed. At least at your house we can go swimming."
Murphy's face had grown dark. "I don't know if my mom'll let me go."
Andy looked. "Why not?'
Murphy shrugged uncomfortably. The other two both knew sometimes his mother was hard to figure out. "I dunno," the younger boy murmured. "I heard her talkin' to dad and she thinks your mom... well... they just started arguing about everything."
Andy scowled. "You mean your mom agrees with Uncle Jake?"
Murphy looked miserable and Addison elbowed Andy discreetly. When Andy glanced up at him, he shook his head. There was no sense making their cousin suffer for his mother's strange thinking.
"Don't worry," Addison assured Murphy. "Grandma'll make sure you get to come."
Murphy raised hopeful eyes. "You sure?"
"Course we are," Andy chimed in, glad when Murphy smiled in response.
"And there's always next summer," Addison reasoned.
"That's a long time off," Murphy stated, still hard pressed to find the good in their situation.
"It sure is," Addie agreed happily, "but that just means a lot of stuff can happen in the meantime. Who knows, maybe next summer will be the best one yet."