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Cutting to the Chase

By Texas2002

 

Thank you to Mr. Dortort who created the Cartwrights and the Ponderosa and shared them. And thank you to Ms. Sullivan who gave them new life. This story is purely for entertainment and is not intended to infringe on their rights or the rights of anyone else involved in these marvelous shows.

Rating: G

 

I was inclined to stay in bed yesterday morning. There aren’t many mornings when that happens - mainly because the only time someone in this house sleeps late is when he doesn’t feel well. Since I’m not particularly fond of being ill, and I have three sons to set an example for, I threw back my warm covers and sat up. The mattress lured me to return to it. I considered obliging. But there’s always work to do and it won’t get done if I sit around.

I shaved and dressed. While I was pulling on my boots the bed tried to capture me again. I wasn’t fighting it off with all my strength – was even thinking about surrendering.

And then an entirely different decision was made for me.

"Smoke!" Joe shouted in the living room. "Put it down!"

Why my youngest son is always up at the crack of dawn I will never know. I suppose I ought to be grateful he ever sleeps. We had nightly battles about bedtime for his first five years. He was a half-pint handful back then. Now he’s a handful who wants to be as big as his brothers.

The youngster asks me to check his height every day. I’ve tried to persuade him we should measure once a month so he can see some progress but he’s convinced he’ll grow a couple of inches in his sleep one night. I couldn’t understand where that idea came from until Adam made an offhand remark about telling Joe the only time he grew was in his sleep. Adam should know better. When he was Joe’s age he took things as literally as his little brother does now. Sometimes I still catch him at it – and I remember a slender, dark-haired youngster with deep blue eyes looking up at me in hopeless confusion.

Did I want to know what Joe was yelling about or not?

"Goldangit, Joe!" Hoss’ voice was muffled so I knew he was still in his bunk bed.

"Stuff a boot in it!" Adam added.

"A boot won’t fit!" Joe retaliated.

"I can make it fit!" Adam threatened.

"The rabbit ain’t big enough."

I winced at Joe’s poor grammar. After I buckled my belt, my sleepy brain finally registered what he had said. The rabbit? Just once can’t my morning start off quietly with a soothing cup of coffee and some silence? I keep hoping. All the saints know I keep hoping. I opened my bedroom door.

"Watch out, Pa! He’s coming your way!"

I jerked backwards and a rabbit hopped past my legs and scuttled under my bed. Joe had a hold on Smoke’s collar and encouraged the dog out the front door. When my son turned to face me, he gave me the smile that generally indicates he wants something.

"Can we keep him?" he asked hopefully.

"I doubt Smoke would leave, son."

"No, Pa. Not Smoke. I mean I wanna keep Smoke, too - but can I keep the rabbit?"

Joe’s question would make a lot more sense after I swallowed some coffee. Hop Sing looked distressed about Joe’s latest request when I nodded "good morning" to him. I headed to the coffeepot like metal to a magnet.

"Pa-a-a." Joe followed me with his arms spread. "Ain’t ya gonna say ‘yes’ so I can keep Jimmy?"

Jimmy? He’d already named the thing? I closed my eyes. He’s getting as bad as Hoss when it comes to being attached to animals. We were standing closer to the bunkroom and the fact that his older brothers could hear every word elicited another round of belligerence from the bunkroom.

"Pa, can’t you do somethin’?" Hoss demanded.

"Would everyone get quiet?" Adam yelled. After a pause he begged, "Please?"

"Jimmy needs a fam’ly, Pa."

I looked down at Joe. He was serious. This kind of thing is my punishment for a couple years of less than perfect behavior before I met Elizabeth. That is the only explanation. But didn’t I do enough penance when Adam and Hoss were Joe’s age? Surely I didn’t sin that much at fifteen and sixteen. There’s a limited amount of trouble a boy can get into at that age. Except for my friend Angus. But then he’s the exception to anything you can think of.

Hoss had given up on sleep. He walked toward the coffeepot, his shirttail hanging out of his pants and his blond hair going every way and then some. "Dang it, Joe. Just once can’t you holler outside?"

Joe peered up at Hoss. "Pa’s gonna let us keep Jimmy!"

I held up my left hand. "Wait a –"

"Who’s Jimmy?" Hoss frowned.

"He’s a what." Joe’s face beamed with excitement. "He’s a rabbit."

I cringed.

Hoss was suddenly wide-awake. "A rabbit! Where’re we gonna keep him?"

I finally had a chance to join the conversation. "You aren’t."

"Aw, Pa. What’s a little rabbit gonna hurt?" Now Hoss was begging.

At least it wasn’t wolves this time. "Rabbits are not pets. They should not be caged."

Hoss snapped his fingers and directed his attention to Joe. "That’s it. We can put Jimmy in Smoke’s old pen."

Would they quit calling the rabbit by name?

"Boys, you are not keeping Jim - the rabbit."

"We’ll take care of him, Pa," Joe promised. "You won’t even know he’s here."

That would be the day.

I shook my head. "No."

"Please?"

"No."

"Please?"

When did I lose control of my sons?

"No, Joseph."

"Puhleez?"

Hoss gave me a look of pure disgust. "Forget it, Little Joe. Pa ain’t gonna let us keep ‘im."

He had given up much too quickly. Hoss had a plan. "Let’s go catch ‘im and I’ll take ‘im where Smoke can’t find ‘im."

I saw it. One of those brother-looks passed between the two. Adam and Hoss had developed the unreadable communication as little scamps and quickly made it into a Cartwright son tradition. All I knew was Hoss’ and Joe’s idea did not bode well for me.

"Yeah, I guess you’re right," Joe agreed. "I’ll catch him. He’s real scared."

Now I was sure there was a plan - Joe had given in too quickly.

I turned around for more coffee. Adam, who had emerged from the bunkroom barefoot but dressed, raised the coffeepot and poured more of the lifesaving brew into my mug. After filling his own cup he remarked, "They’re up to something, you know."

"Any idea what it is?"

He shook his sleepy head. "And I don’t want to know."

I didn’t either. But I was sure I would find out eventually - after some kind of disaster.

"Mind if I don’t talk until I finish my second cup?" Adam asked.

I told him I would be grateful for the quiet. We sat on the settee, stretched our legs, and sighed.

 

One expression I’ve always been able to decipher on my sons’ faces is guilt. And the word may as well have been branded across Hoss’ and Joe’s foreheads when I walked into the barn after finishing my morning chores. Not particularly in the mood for one of their drawn-out explanations - which would skirt the truth just enough that they wouldn’t be lying - I nodded to them.

"Early chores done?"

"Yes, Pa." They stood like soldiers with their hands behind their backs. Hoss seemed more relaxed than Joe. But not by much.

"Do you plan to join us for breakfast?"

"Yes, Pa. I’m starving," Joe answered.

Hoss’ smile made him look like a youngster. "Me, too. Let’s go."

They quickly walked past me. A little too quickly. I turned on my boot-heels in time to see them exchange that brother-look again. Please Lord, stay on my side.

Breakfast was especially good - but then I’m partial to any breakfast that includes Hop Sing’s biscuits covered with plenty of honey.

Hop Sing leaned down by Joe’s right ear. "Not many eggs."

"Yeah," Joe answered. He stabbed his fork into a slice of ham. "The chickens are kinda lazy."

Lazy?

"We’ll probably have more tomorrow."

Chickens or eggs?

Hop Sing looked at Joe from the corners of his eyes. "Hope so. Chickens have been lazy too long."

Joe spared a quick glance at me and then, to cover up, asked me to pass the honey. I tried to understand any possible connection between low egg production and a newly arrived rabbit. There wasn’t one. Joe was into two mischiefs. That was about average.

Hoss loaded up his fork with eggs. "Say, Pa?"

Just once I would like to respond, "Pa." The joke wouldn’t be wasted on Adam but Hoss would be confused. And a confused Hoss leads to an even more confused conversation. So instead I answered, "Yes?"

"Adam and me figure those cattle need to be checked."

I had visions of cows painted with big checkmarks but I kept from smiling. "And?"

Adam spoke. "We’ll ride out after breakfast if you don’t mind." His face was guileless. "I thought we’d look at that bottomland, too."

"I wanna go," Joe said.

"No!" His brothers spoke as one.

Hoss propped his elbows on the table and wagged his fork at his little brother. "We don’t need you causing trouble."

Joe dropped his knife and his eyes narrowed as leaned toward Hoss. "I don’t cause trouble. It just sorta finds me sometimes."

Adam‘s right brow arched. "Sometimes? Little Brother, it stalks you like a hungry mountain lion."

I looked down at my coffee to hide my grin.

"Yeah?" Joe challenged and his chin jutted. "Well you’re afraid of some little ole chickens."

What did that have to do with anything?

"What does that have to do with anything?" Adam closed his right hand around the honey jar. "And I’m not afraid of them. I just don’t like them."

Hoss chortled. "You like ‘em pretty good when they’re on your plate."

"Long as he doesn’t have to kill ‘em," Joe added.

Adam put down the honey jar and leaned his elbows on the tabletop. Marie and I gave up trying to keep them from putting their elbows on the table years ago - at least they keep it under control when we have company. "And when’s the last time you killed something for a meal? You can’t even take the hook out of a fish."

Joe wasn’t to be outdone. He’d had to defend himself since he’d learned to talk. "They’re slimy."

"No, they aren’t." Hoss snatched two more biscuits from the pile on the serving plate. "They’re wet and kind of –" he stared into space for a moment. "Kind of scaly."

"Scaly." Adam laughed and shook his head as he returned his attention to his breakfast.

Hoss held a biscuit near his mouth and frowned at his brother. "You got a better word?"

Adam shrugged. "No."

"So quit laughin’," Hoss ordered.

Adam’s brows rose at the directive but he wisely chose to drop the subject. Instead he returned to the original conversation and faced me again. "Is it all right, Pa?"

"What d’ya mean is it all right to quit laughin’?" Hoss asked.

Adam and I rolled our eyes. "He was asking if the two of you can ride out to check the cattle and the bottomland," I explained.

"Oh."

I turned to Adam. "Yes."

He smiled in that easy way of his. "Thanks, Pa."

"Yeah, thanks Pa," Hoss seconded.

"I still wanna go," Joe muttered.

Adam shook his head. "No."

"Pa? Can he say that?"

"I believe he just did."

Joe twisted his lips. "Someday I’m gonna be bigger than all of ya."

Adam and Hoss grinned at each other but had the good sense not to say anything.

As soon as they gathered their gear, Adam and Hoss told me they’d be back before lunch and walked out the door. Joe stood beside me as we put our plates on top of the stack to be washed. "Am I really trouble, Pa?" he asked sadly.

I tousled his hair. "Not all the time, no."

"Paaaa," he wailed.

I squatted and chucked his chin. "Your brothers want to be together. The same way you and I do sometimes."

He lowered his shoulders and made a play for sympathy. "But they don’t ever let me go anywhere with them."

"You know that’s not true. Your brothers are very good to you, Joseph."

He kept pushing. The imp looked down and scuffed his left boot back and forth. "Not when you aren’t around."

"They are especially kind to you when I’m not around."

Joe raised his head. "How do you know?" he challenged.

"Because fathers know everything," I bluffed.

He frowned as he considered my pronouncement. "Adam’s done a buncha things you don’t know about. So’s Hoss."

I tapped his nose. "Just because I don’t do anything doesn’t mean I don’t know about it."

He paled and went as rigid as a tree trunk. "Are you teasin’ me, Pa?"

"There are a lot of times I don’t do anything." Otherwise I’d be stooped and bald.

Like his oldest brother, he needed proof. "Name one."

I looked to the side as I considered his request. "How about the time you were poking at the logs in the fireplace when you shouldn’t have been and one rolled onto the floor and nearly sent the rug up in blazes?"

His eyebrows shot toward his hair. "Nobody saw that."

I put my hands on my knees and slowly stood. "I told you: fathers know everything."

Joe pulled at my shirt. "Who told ya?"

I smiled and he stepped back.

To my disbelief he asked, "Do you know about when I tried roping the chickens?"

Saints above! No wonder the Ponderosa poultry production had dropped. I put on my all-knowing face and nodded.

"I – uh – need to go take care of some things." He reached for his lightweight jacket because there was a chill in the spring air.

I wanted to follow him at a safe distance and see what wrongs he would right. But every boy deserves to keep some secrets. "Don’t go far."

Joe turned at the door and whistled to Smoke. "I won’t, Pa."

Stars above how I love to pretend I’m omniscient. Heaven how I wish I were.

 

The ledger books required my attention later in the morning so I sat down at the table, making use of the light from the window in front of me, and began work. Even though I had my head down, I caught movement from the tops of my eyes and looked up. Adam? He was back earlier than I’d expected. Wait a minute. He was hunched over and looking around like a spy crossing enemy lines. I put down my pencil and walked around the end of the table to watch. My most mature son scampered to the tool shed. He grabbed two shovels and then sneaked back to his horse. After he’d secured the shovels he swung into the saddle with all the abandon of youth, turned Beauty, and kicked her into such a full gallop that his hat nearly flew off.

There had to be a logical explanation if Adam was involved. Maybe something was wrong with one of the sluice gates by the grazing land. But why the furtiveness? Maybe they had found a dead animal and wanted to bury it before Joe discovered it. What else could they need shovels for? To re-dig a hole for a fence post. What else? The snowmelt had started weeks before. Maybe some deadwood had drifted down and was hampering the water flow. I would ask them when they returned. Speculating wouldn’t finish my work in the ledger books.

Another movement caught my eye. Joe? I had lost track of what he was doing and he looked like that was exactly what he was counting on. He peeked around the barn door and slowly stepped out. A barefoot man winding his way through a cactus patch would have moved faster. I crossed my arms and leaned against the wall. Hop Sing strolled between the house and barn, singing in Chinese and oblivious to the boy warily watching him. He continued his song as he opened the backdoor and walked to his worktable.

"Is pretty day outside," he remarked.

"Um hum."

"Perhaps you go outside instead of dream of it from window."

I turned and gave him a grin. "I’m watching Joseph."

"Ahh." He lifted the top of the worktable and pulled out a knife. "If we watch him as much as he need we not do anything else."

I chuckled at his wise observation. When I looked out the window my son was nowhere in sight. I obviously wasn’t keeping any of them busy enough if they had time to indulge in skullduggery. I returned to the ledgers, glad that next month was Adam’s turn to work with them.

"Three chickens missing," Hop Sing announced.

I moved to the chair at the end of the table so I wouldn’t have my back to him. "Missing?"

"Gone."

Well that sure explained fewer eggs. "Do you think something’s getting to them?"

"No sign of struggle," he replied.

Exactly how could a chicken struggle? Come to think of it, they could be aggressive. Adam’s childhood encounter with some vicious ones had made a lasting impression on him.

"Besides," Hop Sing continued, "Smoke not bark and he good guard."

"Yes, he is." I tapped the pencil against my left hand. So however those chickens had left home hadn’t worried Smoke. Why did I get the feeling Joe was involved? "Any idea how long the chickens have been missing?" I asked.

"Just notice today. Not many eggs for maybe – " he leaned his head back "- six, seven days."

The puzzle pieces were there. I just couldn’t fit them together. Well, puzzling wouldn’t finish my work, either.

I had put the ledger books away, deciding to finish the month’s entries later, and was slicing bread for lunch when my three sons entered the house together. Oh, good - now they all had guilt branded on their foreheads. Adam gave me a hesitant smile as he pulled off his gloves. He pushed them into his jacket pockets and then removed his jacket and hat.

"How’s the bottomland?" I asked.

He looked sideways at Hoss. "Uh – fine, Pa."

They’d no more been to the bottomland than I had. Adam is the worst liar God ever put on this earth.

I shifted my eyes to Hoss. He put his coat on a chair and hung his hat off the chair back. "And the cattle?"

He looked sideways at Adam. "Uh – they’re fine, too, Pa."

They hadn’t checked the cattle, either.

"Hey, Pa!" Joe walked to me, his face flushed with excitement. "Smoke scared a whole buncha quail. Sure wish I’d had a rifle to shoot some of ‘em."

Hoss snorted and made his way to the washbowl.

"I could, too!" Joe stormed over to Hoss.

"Whatever you say, little buddy."

My eyes drifted to the dried mud on the floor. Who had tracked that in? Joe’s boots weren’t any dirtier than usual. Ah – Adam’s and Hoss’ looked like they’d wiped them in the green grass. They’d forgotten about the part between the heel and the sole – and they’d obviously forgotten about the boot scrape beside the porch. How much had they had on them to begin with if the stirrups hadn’t removed that? How muddy were the stirrups?

"Stop fussing. Time to eat," Hop Sing directed his order to Hoss and Joe.

Joe tried to get past me but I shook my head and nodded toward the washbowl. He sighed and obeyed. Adam and he jostled good-naturedly and splashed each other before drying their hands and joining us at the table. Guilt didn’t diminish anyone’s appetite or the usual chatter and teasing.

 

My sons know not to lie. That doesn’t keep them from not telling all the truth, though. As far as they’re concerned lying and not telling all the truth are two entirely different things. We’ve discussed their viewpoint several times. Usually they turn the conversation from one subject to another until I’ve lost all track of what I intended to say.

The reason I mention this is because the boys are so different it confounds me that they agree on this one point. When they tell a lie they know not to balk about punishment. But the strangest thing happens when I catch them not telling me the whole truth - they don’t bat an eyelash. Oh, they shift around, look at each other from the sides of their eyes, duck their heads, and say "uh" a lot. But they don’t give me that "I’m dead" look. And they honestly don’t think they’ve done anything wrong.

Re-directing a boy who doesn’t believe that he’s lied is difficult. He will fume and maintain he didn’t do anything wrong and tell me I don’t understand. He’s right about that. I will explain to him that the two behaviors are the same thing. And he will tell me no they aren’t and I just don’t understand. So we’ll have a standoff until he gives me no choice but to be stern. Then, depending on his age, he will either break into sobs because I don’t understand; shake his head and resign himself to the fact that I will never understand; or tell me he means no disrespect and try to help me understand that I don’t understand.

I knew if I asked Adam, Hoss, and Joe about their activities that morning I would get a triple dose of not telling the whole truth. That is why I decided to let nature take its course. It seems to me that by now they would realize when I don’t ask questions it doesn’t mean I don’t know they’re up to something. But they’re usually proud of themselves for slipping one past Pa. Remember, though, pride cometh before the fall.

Or, as Joseph - in his infinite wisdom - pointed out to me, summer cometh before the fall.

 

Because I knew Adam and Hoss hadn’t checked the cattle or the bottomland - and since none of my sons were in sight after lunch - I saddled up and rode out to do the chore. I was not amused by their lack of attention to their obligations and planned to share my feelings with them before dinner.

The day was bright with sunshine, cool with a northerly breeze, and bursting with the promise of spring. The green grass was about six inches tall. When I looked closely I could see the nubs that would turn into fragrant blossoms on the flowering shrubs. And the air was filled with the distinctive musky scent of damp soil and the almost metallic smell of melting snow.

I entertained the thought that perhaps, since they hadn’t been near the cattle or the bottomland in the morning, I would find Adam and Hoss hard at work. There is always hope. But sons are predictably unpredictable. They were nowhere in sight. That fact, added to the concern that I didn’t know where they were, could equal only one answer: mischief. After all, watching his two older brothers had enhanced Joseph’s natural inclination toward the behavior. I can usually, eventually, get a handle on Joe’s misadventures. But Hoss can be as slippery as the wet rocks by the lake. And Adam - well, half the time Adam can look at me with his eyes sparkling and out-wait me. Finally his conscience gets the better of him though and he comes to me for absolution.

The cattle were fine. I needed to caution Adam to keep a closer eye on the heifers because they tend to wander off to calve. The bottomland was anything but fine - it was covered in two feet of melt water. Which meant the sluice was clogged. And Adam had the shovels.

I rode downstream and located the problem. Everything from small rocks to broken pine boughs had made a dam four feet across and who knew how deep. I thought about sending the boys out there before breakfast the next day - but I wasn’t sure the sluice gate could hold that long. I reminded myself I’d been in colder water during my sailing days. Some of those high seas had chilled me as if they had been ice and I had faced them with all the bravado of youth. Standing up to my knees in melt water more than twenty years later was neither invigorating nor challenging. It was bone-numbing cold. My boiling temper was all that stood between frostbite and me.

 

Whatever mischief my sons were up to was no longer amusing. It grew less amusing when I rode into the yard. There wasn’t a sound. Oh, there were the usual noises from the horses. And a pretend fight between Abigail and John Adams in the barn. The gentle clucking of the surviving chickens. But there were no shouts from the boys, no conspiratorial laughs, no giggles that hinted of jokes they wouldn’t tell around me. Not a sound. Part of the explanation wasn’t in the corral - Adam and Hoss had ridden out. But Paint was there. So where was Joe?

When I closed the front door behind me, and glanced at the mantel clock to confirm that it was mid-afternoon, Hop Sing looked at my soaked pants with startled eyes. "What happen to you?"

I fought to keep my tone civil. After all, Hop Sing hadn’t caused my problems. "A sluice gate was blocked." I hung up my coat and hat and sat down by the fireplace to pull off my boots. If there is anything in this world worse than cold, wet boots I have no idea what it is. Unless it’s cold, wet pants sticking to your skin. "Did Joseph tell you where he was going?" I tugged off my right boot and placed it near the hearth.

Hop Sing continued to chop vegetables. "Ah! He go to town with Barbara."

Joseph and Barbara together? Without an adult? This was not good.

"When did they leave?"

He studied the clock. "Two hours?"

I placed my left boot on the hearth. "Any idea when they plan to be back?"

He nodded. "Barbara say they return for dinner."

Dinner? The thought of what those two could get into in that amount of time was overwhelming and best not dwelt upon. Hopefully, Joseph’s guardian angel was ready for extra duty.

After I changed into dry clothes, Hop Sing and I sat at the table for cups of hot tea and I tried not to worry about my other two sons. But some things are instinctive. "Did Adam and Hoss say anything to you?" I shook my head at Hop Sing as he offered a slice of apple pie.

He chewed a bite of pie. "They say they do chores. Then I hear them ride away."

Maybe they’d taken another trail to check the heifers and that was why I hadn’t seen them. Maybe Adam planned to help Hoss with the horses. Maybe they weren’t doing either chore. Maybe I was better off not knowing. Maybe I needed to talk to them about leaving word with Hop Sing or me. Maybe they hadn’t mentioned where they were going on purpose. Well, there was no maybe about what that meant. They were about to step over the line.

I stirred some honey into my tea. Given that Hoss was eating like nothing I’d ever seen before I asked, "Did they take any food with them?"

"Hoss take sliced meat and bread." He took another bite from his slice of pie. "Never run out of cheese," he observed.

"Why’s that?"

He chuckled. "Because it is safe from Hoss."

Hop Sing always knows how to make me smile.

Hoss has never been picky about food a day in his life. He even eats liver – the thought of which makes me shudder. But for some strange, unfathomable reason he will not even smell cheese. It’s not like he had a bad experience with it somewhere along the way. He’s never tasted it and, if he has his way, he never will. "It just don’t look right," is his considered opinion.

Joseph’s refusal food is crawfish. When he was younger and Marie finally persuaded him to take a small bite he gagged so badly I had to whack him on the back to get him breathing again. He said they were slimy, tasted nasty, and they made his eyes hurt. His eyes hurt? Sometimes it isn’t worth arguing with him.

The strangest food dislike in the family is Adam’s - carrots. Marie covered them with sauces, smashed them into an unrecognizable pulp, and grated them into loaf cakes. Adam refused every time. He will methodically remove all the carrots before he will even sample stew. And I have long since quit trying to stop Hoss and Joe from bursting into laughter when their older brother wrinkles his nose at the vegetable.

"What was Barbara wearing?" I asked slowly.

Hop Sing frowned at me. "Green dress."

Thank heavens for that. If she’d been wearing those pants of hers the possibilities for what Joseph and she were up to would have been staggering.

"Any more chickens missing?"

"One."

Another one! If this kept up we would be chicken-less. More importantly, since I liked Hop Sing’s baked goods, we would be egg-less.

He sipped from his cup of tea. "Still no sign of struggle." His expression was unreadable but I had the distinct impression he was smiling without curving his lips.

After warming up, and finally finding my old pair of boots under Joe’s bed, I returned outside. There is always more work.

Probably an hour after I had stepped outside, after I had noticed some loose lashing on the corral fence and repaired it, Adam and Hoss rode up. They each had a shovel and their boots were covered with mud again.

After they dismounted, I gave them the sternest look I could muster. Hoss squinted and looked down. Adam’s lips formed an "o" but the sound never came out. "So the bottom land was fine?" I was so angry I couldn’t raise my voice. "Would you like to tell me what you two were doing when you should have been checking the cattle and the bottomland?"

Not a word.

"Well?"

They slid each other a brother-look. If either one of them said it was a "long story" I was going to have his hide.

Adam was silently elected the spokesman. He looked at me from the tops of his eyes with his head slightly bowed. "We - uh - didn’t check the cattle or the - "

"I know that, Adam. And you didn’t check the sluice gates."

Hoss’ head jerked up. "We didn’t say we were gonna check the sluice gates, Pa."

Adam’s eyes slammed shut and he hunched his shoulders.

I leaned from the waist toward my middle son. "If you had checked the bottomland you would have checked the sluice gates because the bottomland had two feet of water on it!"

"Was - " Hoss gulped. "Was a gate broken?"

"It had a four-foot-wide dam across it."

"Oh." He rubbed his gloved hands on his knees.

"I’m waiting for an answer," I reminded.

Hoss shifted uncomfortably. "We weren’t doing anything wrong, Pa."

"Then you won’t mind telling me what you were doing with those shovels, will you?"

Adam startled like a puppet whose strings have been pulled taut from above. He glanced back at his saddle.

I stepped toward him. "Well?"

He took a step backwards. "We were - uh - digging with them."

"Digging with them?"

"Yes, Pa."

"And what were you digging."

"A hole, Pa."

I rubbed my face with my right hand. Why was it some things about him hadn’t changed since he was six years old? "Adam, I do not have the patience for this."

Hoss came to his brother’s rescue. "We had to check something, Pa."

"Check something."

"Yes, Pa."

"What did you have to check?"

Hoss nudged Adam with his right elbow and Adam took over. "There was a mound of dirt and we wanted to be sure nothing of ours was buried."

"What could have been buried?"

"Stock."

I pulled back in dismay. "How big was this mound?"

Adam and Hoss looked at each other and nodded. "Big."

"Well? Was it some of our stock?"

Hoss shook his head. "No, Pa."

"So? What was under the mound?"

Adam sighed. "Nothing."

"And that took you all morning?"

Hoss frowned as if I didn’t understand. "It was a big mound, Pa."

Turn away from them. Rub your neck to stop the tightening muscles.

"We’ll check those cattle first thing tomorrow," Adam assured.

"You need to keep a closer eye on those heifers."

"I will."

They were smart. They didn’t speak and I didn’t hear them move. They were counting on the fact that I would calm down. I continued to face the meadow and rub my neck. "I do not appreciate the way you are neglecting chores. And you will have more chores to do if I don’t see an immediate improvement. Do I make myself clear?"

"Yes, Pa."

"Yessir."

I walked to the porch and as I opened the front door I heard Hoss lament, "Aw, Adam, I ain’t ever seen him that disappointed in us."

The twosome avoided me the rest of the afternoon. Hoss peeked inside the house at one point, saw me sitting at the table with the ledgers in front of me, and pulled the door so quietly I wasn’t sure it closed.

I no more finished the paperwork than Barbara sashayed into the house, her freckled face full of goodwill. Her bright eyes were twinkling more than usual. What had Joe and she been up to?

"Now, Ben, don’t give me that look," she scolded. She walked toward the fireplace and held out her hands to warm them. "You know I wouldn’t let Joseph do anything you wouldn’t allow."

No, I didn’t.

"He wants to talk to you after dinner."

I frowned. "About what?"

Before she could answer, Joe barreled into the house yelling, "Pa! There’s a rattler!"

Barbara responded first. "A rattler?"

"Yes, ma’am, a rattlesnake."

"Where?" she asked.

I doubted it was even a snake, much less a rattlesnake. The weather was too cool. More than likely it was a stick Joe’s imagination had seen move in the lowering daylight.

"Pa." Hoss leaned in the open front door. "We got a rattlesnake out here between Adam and the house."

"A rattlesnake?" I repeated.

Joe swung his arms into the air. "I told ya!"

I didn’t bother to grab my coat but I did wrap a hand around the shotgun, pass extra ammunition to Hoss, and then head for the door. "Stay here," I told Barbara and Joe so - of course - they were right behind me as I ran to the end of the porch.

The snake was stretched across the cleared area where we drive the wagon and I wondered where it was headed for warmth. About ten feet away, near the barn and standing in mid-stride was Adam. I gave him a nod to stand still. Adam understood - it was not the first encounter with a viper for either one of us. The rattler was one of the biggest I had seen in a long time.

The sky was darkening and I needed to get closer. I had one thing going for me: the snake was stretched out and not coiled to strike - if you call that something going for you.

I slowly stepped off the end of the porch and nearly fired the shotgun by mistake when Little Joe touched my arm. "Don’t you want the rifle, Pa?"

"That could ricochet. This’ll scatter and not hit Adam. Now get back."

I steadied the shotgun, aimed, squeezed the trigger – but nothing happened. "Who in blazes didn’t reload this?!" I yelled and immediately regretted my raised voice as the snake slithered closer to Adam. I passed the shotgun back to Hoss without moving my eyes. "NOW." The weapon was soon returned to my hand and this time when I pulled the trigger the shotgun fired and the sound reverberated between the house and barn.

When the haze thinned, the snake was gone and Adam had vaulted to the corral fence.

"Where is it?" I called to him.

"I don’t know."

"It went over there," Joe said and when I looked at him he was pointing to the high grass of the meadow. "And I think ya hit it, Pa."

Of course I’d hit it. That was the problem. Now I had an angry, wounded rattlesnake that any minute was going to coil and –

I looked up from reloading the shotgun as I heard the unmistakable locust-like sound of the rattles. Without looking around, forgetting whom I was talking to, I ordered, "Don’t move." I stepped forward slowly and, when I heard Smoke scratching at the door from inside the house, I snapped at Joe to be sure his dog couldn’t get out.

All the time twilight closed in.

"Barb!" I yelled. "Light a porch lantern and get over here!"

She was beside me in an instant.

The rattles got faster.

"Tuck your skirt between your ankles," I said softly.

"He’ll spring before he tries to go up my leg, Ben. Where is he?"

"He sounds like he’s in there." I motioned with the shotgun. "I need more light. Get as close as you can."

"To the snake?" she asked incredulously.

I sighed. "To me. I need all the light you can give me."

If I hadn’t been so intent on killing the snake I would have spared a thought for Barbara. But as it was, I had my eyes where I saw something that resembled a coil of rope. Barbara stood on tiptoes, smack against my side, as I fired the shotgun.

"We got him!" I laughed when the rattles stopped. I looked down at Barbara. She was as stunned as someone who has been kicked in the head by a mule.

"What?" she yelled after a moment.

"We got him!" I shouted.

Panic filled her blue eyes. "I can’t hear you!" she screamed. "Whistling! All I hear is whistling!"

I glanced down at the shotgun and belatedly realized she had been immediately below my shoulder. My ears were ringing a bit but I doubted she had ever been close to a weapon like the shotgun before.

"It’ll get better," I assured.

"What?" she yelled.

I slowed my speech and mouthed each word. "It – will – get - better."

"Butter? Does it help?"

In spite of myself I laughed and was promptly rewarded with a painful slap across the hip.

"Wow, Pa, that was great!" Little Joe exclaimed as he ran to us, followed closely by Hoss, Hop Sing, and finally Adam.

I motioned to the ground. "Hoss, get a shovel, please. Cut off the head and bury it so no one gets hurt by the fangs."

"What about the rest of it?" Little Joe asked, kicking at the dead snake.

Adam sat on his heels. "This thing has to be six feet long."

"Maybe we could skin it and make a hat band - or a belt." Hoss’ eyes widened in excitement as he spoke to Joe.

"Meat good, too," Hop Sing said, nodding.

"No, it isn’t." Adam shook his head as he stood. "Pa and I tried to eat it once."

Hop Sing folded his arms and said in a disdainful tone, "Taste of meat depend on cook."

"Can I have the skin, Pa?" Joe asked.

"After Hoss cuts off the head you can take it to the porch and skin it there."

"You make hat band?" Hop Sing inquired.

Little Joe grinned. "Naw, I’m just gonna hang it on my bunk."

"Wait!" Barbara threw her arms in the air when she saw Hoss bend to pick up the snake. He jumped in alarm at being yelled at.

"What are you doing?" she shouted.

"We’re gonna skin it and Joe’s gonna hang it on his bunk."

She frowned and I closed my eyes and prayed for patience.

"Skin it!" I shouted at her. "And Joe’ll hang it on his bunk!"

"You can’t take that to the bank," she protested.

The boys exploded in laughter.

"Don’t skin it or eat the meat," Barbara yelled at me. "There can be venom in the tissue."

Adam’s eyes shot to mine. "That’s why it tasted so bad, Pa."

"You gave a snake a bath?" Barbara frowned.

Hoss and Little Joe were helpless. Tears rolled down their cheeks and Little Joe sat in the grass, giggling and holding his sides. Adam held his sides, too, but for a different reason. He was slowly turning green at the thought that we might have eaten meat poisoned with venom.

I rolled my eyes and walked away.

Grumbling was a popular pastime as we walked to the table for dinner.

"It still ain’t fair that I couldn’t have the skin. I was gonna show it ta Wendell," Joe lamented. He sat down, put his elbows on the table, and cupped his chin in his hands.

Hoss had his own complaint. "Sure wish I coulda hauled that thing to the pond. The turtles would’ve had a real nice dinner."

"It’s getting better but I’m still hearing a whistle," Barbara said as if someone had asked about her hearing. She shook her head and rubbed at her ears.

Adam eased into the chair to my right and, if possible, looked greener.

After the blessing, Hop Sing remarked that he had been told rattlesnake tasted like chicken.

My eldest son took one look at the platter of chicken, glanced at Hop Sing, and quickly excused himself to run outside.

"Whadda ya figure’s wrong with him?" Hoss studied his retreating brother’s back.

"There ain’t no carrots," Joe observed.

"Ferrets?" Barbara asked. "You have ferrets?"

"No, ma’am." Hoss filled his plate. "Carrots."

"I thought Adam didn’t like carrots."

"No, ma’am, he doesn’t."

"What’s a ferret?" Joe offered Barbara the meat platter.

"It’s an orange vegetable. It grows in the ground and - surely you’ve seen a carrot."

Joe wrinkled up his face and raised his voice. "I said ferret!" He studiously avoided my frown at his lack of table manners.

"Oh." Barbara stirred her coffee. "A garret. I didn’t know you were interested in architecture, Joe."

My son lowered his head and his voice. "Pa? What’s she talking about?"

"A garret is like an attic."

"Oh." He ran his fork through his rice. "Well, what is it? A ferret, I mean."

"A ferret is an animal, son. Like a weasel."

Barbara sat straight and grinned. "That’s a wonderful idea. A whistling contest."

"Pa," Hoss moaned. "We gotta do something about her."

Adam returned, quietly closing the front door behind him. He walked to Hop Sing’s worktable, took down one of the cloth sacks on the wall, and cut a slab of cheese. When Adam sat beside Hoss - and his younger brother saw the golden yellow mass in Adam’s hand - he grabbed his plate, stood, and told Joe to change places with him.

Barbara watched them as they each walked around the end of the table. When Hoss sat down beside her she asked, "Is this a game?"

"It’s desperation," I quipped.

She sliced into her portion of chicken. "That’s an odd name for a game."

"Maybe we shouldn’t talk for a while," Hoss suggested softly.

"Might be good idea," Hop Sing agreed.

Barbara frowned at them. "You’ll have to speak up. I can’t understand you."

"We know," Hoss muttered.

 

Barbara was engaged in a heated chess match with Adam, while an engrossed Hoss - and a knowing Hop Sing - watched, when Joe walked over and stood in front of my knees as I sat on the settee reading.

He didn’t say a word. Just stood waiting for me to look up. His behavior indicated something serious was afoot.

"Yes?" I closed my book and set it beside me.

His usually impish face was set with determination and his eyes searched me for any clues as to my mood. When he placed his hands on my knees, in the same way that Adam and Hoss had as youngsters, I smiled at him and his features relaxed.

"Pa, I need ta talk to ya."

"All right."

He glanced around and lowered his voice. "Someplace private."

Private, hum? I stood and suggested the barn - that elicited an adamant shake of his head. "Not there."

I tried not to grin too much. "How about my room?" I motioned with my left hand and Joe preceded me. He stood by my bed and waited for me to sit down. I patted beside me on the mattress and he sighed in gratitude. "Well?" I turned to face him.

He rubbed the palms of his hands on his knees. It’s a Cartwright son gesture of nervousness. "Pa?"

"Yes?"

"Well - see - " He made eye contact, took a breath, and blurted it out in one sentence. "It’s like this, Pa, I wanna start a business, if you’ll let me, I mean."

I looked at him from the bottoms of my eyes. "What kind of business?"

"Well - see - I was figurin’ that we have all those chickens and we always have a bunch of eggs."

I suspected I was about to find out why the chickens were disappearing at an alarming rate - with no sign of struggle.

"And?" I coaxed.

"Well - see - I was thinkin’ how there’s folks in town who don’t have chickens or eggs and - well - "

So that was it. That was why the chickens were disappearing with no sign of struggle. "How long have you been selling them?"

He straightened in much the same way Adam had when I had mentioned the shovels. Then he stood up and looked at me with his mouth open. "How’d - " Joe squinted. "I thought you were just talkin’ big when you said you know everything."

I didn’t want to destroy his image of me so I didn’t respond.

Once again, he put his hands on my knees. "Are ya mad, Pa?"

Why on earth do Hoss and he ask me that? They never ask when I am angry with them. Adam never asks - period.

"I’d like to hear the whole story."

"Ya mean ya don’t know?"

"I would like to hear it from you, please."

"Oh." He drew a series of circles on my right knee with his left index finger. "Well - see - I wanted some money - "

"For?"

Joe licked his lower lip. "Promise ya won’t tell?" After I nodded he continued. "For Adam’s and Hoss’ birthdays."

"Those are months away, son."

"Well - but it’s gonna take me a while."

I finger-combed his hair from his forehead. "Go on."

"I want to be in business with ya," he announced. "Partners."

Sometimes it is so hard not to smile. "Partners."

"Yes, Pa. See, you bought the chickens but I’ll sell ‘em and some of the eggs and I’ll split the money with you."

I chuckled. "Joseph, you don’t have to split it with me."

He blinked in surprise. "I don’t?"

"No."

"Oh." He considered my answer. His eyes sparkled with a new thought. "Then I’ll have lots of money."

I crossed my arms at my chest. "How are you making this a profitable venture?"

"Ya mean how am I makin’ money?"

I nodded.

"Barbara’s helpin’."

I should have known.

"She’s been meeting me down at the road and pickin’ ‘em up and takin’ ‘em to town and folks are goin’ by her place to buy ‘em."

The boarding house owner was thrilled with that, no doubt.

"I’m disappointed that you didn’t ask my permission before you started this business of yours, Joseph. You know better."

He jammed his hands in his back pockets and bowed his head. "Are ya gonna make me stop?"

"I want to hear why you didn’t ask permission."

Joe shifted from one foot to the other and shrugged.

"We’ve had talks before about not asking permission, haven’t we?"

"Pa - " His tone was beseeching. "I didn’t not ask permission. Not really."

First there was not telling the whole truth. Now there was not really not asking permission? This son was going to make me old before my time.

I lifted his chin with my left hand. "You either ask permission or you don’t, Joseph. There is no middle ground. Did you ask permission?"

"No, Pa."

"And what are the consequences for - "

"It was gonna be a surprise, Pa," he rushed to explain.

"Nevertheless - "

He frowned and turned away from me. "I knew I shouldna listened ta Barbara."

What?

The youngster threw his arms into the air and stomped to the window. "That’s what I get for listenin’ to a grownup. Now nothin’s gonna work. Nothin’."

Stomping away was a new behavior from him and I didn’t care for it. "Turn around, please, and walk over here."

He turned around. But he didn’t walk to me. "It was gonna be a surprise," he repeated. Did I detect something close to heartache in his voice? "And now it’s all ruint."

"Ruined."

He backed up. "How’d you know that?"

"I was correcting your speech, son. What is ruined?"

This time his arms went out in the most dramatic sweep I had witnessed from any of my progeny. "The whole thing," he declared.

"And what is the whole thing?"

He walked to me. "Ya don’t know?"

"I want to hear it from you."

Joe’s eyes, so like Marie’s, filled with tears. "It’s a surprise, Pa."

"What kind of surprise?"

"For you," his voice broke and he swiped at his nose with the back of his right hand.

For me?

"Aw, what’s the use?" Joe sat down beside me. "I can’t never do anything anyhow."

"You can’t ever do anything."

"I know." He was morose.

I put my right arm around his shoulders and he leaned into my side. "Tell me about it."

"I want to get you something for your birthday."

I felt my eyebrows rise. "My birthday?"

He nodded and swiped at his nose again.

Could he sound this sincere and still pull one over on me? Or was he actually thinking of someone besides himself?

"You’re not gonna make me tell what I wanna get ya, are ya?"

I snuggled him closer. "No, I’m not going to make you tell me."

"It would’ve been a good surprise."

"Would have?"

He eased away from my side. "Well - I mean - now you won’t let me keep my business and - "

When had he misunderstood me? "I never said that, Joseph."

Joe shot to his feet with renewed hope. "Ya didn’t?"

I shook my head.

"Then I can do it, Pa?"

I pointed at him. "The next time you don’t ask permission - "

He nodded so vigorously his hair fell back onto his forehead. "I know, Pa. There’s con-sequences."

There should have been con-sequences this time - but his enthusiasm for his new enterprise, and his intentions, dampened any conviction on my part to punish him.

"You know, every good business has a plan," I pointed out. "So I think you ought to keep at least six egg-laying chickens, don’t you?"

Joe considered my proposal and said, in a deeper voice than usual, "Sure, Pa."

"How many eggs do you think we need each day for the Ponderosa?"

His hands went to his waist and he tilted his head. "I guess I oughta ask Hop Sing?"

"All right. Now, if you’ll be selling chickens you need to set up a plan to hatch more chicks, don’t you?"

"This is kinda complicated," Joe observed.

I nodded. "Business usually is. Do you understand the reason for more chicks?"

He shrugged and indicated the answer was obvious. "More chickens to sell."

I smiled. "I think you’ll be a fine businessman, Joseph."

"Golly, Pa! Thanks!" Joe charged into me for a hug. Then, just as abruptly, he threw open the bedroom door and ran to Barbara. "It’s okay, just like ya said!"

I leaned on the doorframe and, when Joe’s back was to her, my cousin winked at me.

 

Now for Jimmy. Remember him? He was never far from my thoughts. I had been watching for any sign of him. Smoke’s old pen was still in the barn and the dog wasn’t sniffing any particular area suspiciously. As far as I could determine no lumber was missing. I wanted to believe Hoss and Joe had returned the rabbit to his original habitat. But I’ve been a father for twenty-one years.

Remember the disaster I predicted?

Late afternoon was closing in on us the next day. Hoss had driven five unbroken mustangs into the corral and they were as wide-eyed as nervous schoolboys in front of the class. "Easy" and "That’s good" drifted to me repeatedly as Hoss tried to settle them. I had accompanied Barb to town and I eased from my horse – ready to rest my legs and linger over a cup of fresh-brewed coffee. Joseph was standing on the bottom rung of the corral, taunting Hoss about what a good horse trainer he was while Abigail and John Adams sat balanced on the opera seat - the top rail. Between the house and the barn, Adam was taking care of the never-ending chore of chopping wood while Hop Sing picked early vegetables from the spring garden. The domestic scene of a family working together as a team reflected an unusual calm.

Life is never tranquil around the Ponderosa until everyone is sound asleep - and then Hoss’ snoring rattles the windows.

I unfastened the saddle and was just about to lift it off the horse’s back when Smoke’s excited barks came roaring, with him, from the backside of the barn. He dashed between Adam’s legs. My son flew in one direction and the ax sailed in another. Thank heavens - because the ax landed blade-side-down into the ground with a distinctive "thwock." Adam landed on the ground, too, on his backside with his arms stretched out to keep him from rolling onto his back. He yelled something at Smoke that I couldn’t hear over Smoke’s baying. But I could read my eldest son’s lips. That was enough.

As Smoke raced toward the corral, and ducked under the bottom rail, I squinted at the gray blur in front of him. Yep, it was a rabbit.

"Gosh darn! Look at Smoke run!" Hoss exclaimed. A second later he foresaw the future but it was too late to react. The wild horses hadn’t needed much to spook them. Smoke was enough and then some. One of them rose to its hind legs, another crashed into the fence, a third one knocked down the fence where the second one had splintered it - and five mustangs bolted for freedom. "Dagnabit, Smoke!" Hoss threw his hat to the ground.

"Hoss!" Joe screamed. "It’s Jimmy!"

Hoss’ face was as red as a radish. "What?"

Joe jumped from the bottom rung and ran, yelling over his shoulder. "It’s Jimmy! Smoke! Smoke stop!"

How could Joseph distinguish one rabbit from another? And did he really expect a hunting dog to stop the chase on his say-so?

"Jimmy!" Hoss exclaimed. He jumped over the broken corral fence and sprinted after Joe and Jim - the rabbit. "Smoke!"

For some reason known only to Jim - the rabbit, he cut back toward the barn. Hoss slipped and his arms fluttered in the air as he fell to the meadow grass.

I should have seen it coming. I really should have seen it coming.

Jimmy dashed under my horse, Abigail and John Adams jumped to my horse’s neck, and he crow-hopped sideways. My horse - not Jimmy. I was treated to the full force of the horse’s rump against my right side and I tumbled to the ground with my saddle, Abigail, and John Adams on top of me - just in time for Smoke to trample on top of my saddle and scatter the cats. If I’d had any breath left I probably would have sworn a blue streak.

I heard Adam scream and I had visions of him clutching the ax as he went after Jimmy. When I rolled to my side, though, he was holding his stomach and writhing on the ground – Smoke had stomped on him, too. Joe cut an arc around me but he ran straight for Adam – who rolled onto his stomach and threw his hands behind his neck. Joe made a flying leap across his brother’s back and continued to scream at Smoke to cease and desist – though not in those words.

"Stupid dog!" Hoss yelled as he ran past me. Adam had rolled onto his back and he shrieked like - well, like a cornered rabbit when Hoss barreled toward him.

Hoss is amazingly fast on his feet but he is not particularly light on his feet. He started to jump over his older brother as his younger brother had but his boots slipped again and he fell onto Adam like a boulder - eliciting a response from Adam not unlike a man pinned under a boulder. Hoss struggled to stand. Adam - whose temper is notorious - shot to his feet, curved his back, and took Hoss down by grabbing him at the ankles.

I heaved my saddle aside, stood, and tried to calm my horse. He was pulling against the hitched reins and was just a bit on edge. Adam and Hoss rolled from the woodshed toward the porch as they shouted and grunted.

Hop Sing straightened from his work at the garden with more wrinkles on his usually smooth forehead than I have ever seen. And Jimmy turned and sailed past Adam and Hoss with Smoke on his puffy white tail. Joe was lagging behind a little but his arms were rotating and he was still shouting.

I knew what was going to happen the minute I saw Jimmy cut to the right. He streaked toward the garden, Smoke followed, Joe screamed, Hop Sing toppled into the garden as rabbit and dog knocked his legs out from under him, and Joe demolished what remained of the garden in his hot pursuit.

Not for the first time I was glad I could not understand Hop Sing’s heated Chinese tirade.

Holding my right side, I stalked to my brawling sons. "Adam! Hoss!"

Hoss pinned Adam’s shoulders to the ground as he regained his footing. "I said I was sorry!"

Adam’s pupils had turned his eyes black with rage. "You aren’t yet but you will be!"

I never have known how wise it is to step between two battling brothers. But so far they only take deep breaths, wipe at their lips or other damaged facial areas, and scowl at each other. They don’t challenge me. They learned better than that a long time ago.

"I didn’t go to fall on you." Hoss leaned toward Adam. "If I’d meant to I would’ve cracked your ribs."

Adam jerked against my hold. "What makes you think you haven’t?"

Hoss squinted. "You couldn’t holler the way you are."

"I am not - " Adam pursed his lips and lowered his voice, never one to like the thought of losing control. "I am not shouting."

Hoss gave him a firm nod. "Ya ain’t now."

"Pa!" Joe’s summon to attention caused all three of us to turn. "Look out!"

We jumped, as one, to the porch. Jimmy and Smoke tore past us again.

By then Joe was on his last gasp. He leaned against the porch post and bowed his head.

I scowled from Hoss to Joe and back to Hoss. "So that was Jimmy." Hoss hunched his shoulders. "And how do you know it was Jimmy?"

"Aw, Pa." My middle son shook his head as Smoke’s barking faded in the distance. "It was a big mistake."

I blinked. "It wasn’t Jimmy?"

"Yessir. It was Jimmy all right."

"What was the mistake then?"

I caught Adam sliding a brother-look at Hoss. Was Adam in on this, too?

"Joe and me sorta - we kinda - "

"They built a pen for Jimmy," Adam finished Hoss’ sentence. "Out of branches and twigs."

"And you know this because?"

My eldest son gave me a sheepish smile. "I designed it?"

Oh this was too much! A custom-designed rabbit pen!

"We - uh - " Adam took a deep breath. "We fed him greens from the garden. And carrots."

As if on cue, Adam and Hoss shoved their hands in their front pockets. Joseph opted for his back pockets.

"Greens from garden!" Hop Sing exclaimed as he joined us. "Greens for people. Not for rabbit." He muttered something else in Chinese and stormed to the front door. I had never known Hop Sing to storm since I’d met him.

I leveled a look on one son after the other. "Well, gentlemen, you have certainly outdone yourselves this time!" All three flinched and bowed their head.

"Hoss, you will repair the corral fence."

"Yes, sir."

"Adam, you will re-stack that firewood."

"Yes, Pa."

"And Joseph - "

"I know, Pa," he squeaked. "I’ll help Hop Sing with the garden."

"No, young man, you will tend that garden by yourself."

"Yes, Pa."

"And you can decide among yourselves who will tend my horse and store my saddle. "

Three voices spoke as one. "Yes, Pa."

I slapped my gloves against my right leg and, following Hop Sing’s lead, stormed into the house.

The only words spoken at the dinner table were grace, "please," and "thank you." Adam alternated between easing his behind off his chair and holding his side. Hoss rolled his left wrist every few minutes and closed his eyes. Joseph never looked up from his plate. And Hop Sing glowered at the three of them. I had never known Hop Sing to glower since I’d met him.

After the meal I carried my cup of coffee outside and leaned on the porch post opposite the front door. Inside the house Smoke was dreaming by the fireside with Abigail and John Adams nestled on top of him. Our saddle horses had settled and were content in their stalls, the chickens had tucked themselves in, and since there was no wind even the ever-whispering pine trees were silent. The air was still but cold as spring nights often are. A rich black sky held stars as white as new-fallen snow.

Footsteps rounded the side of the house, approaching from the back, and I braced myself for an intrusion. Probably the boys were looking for me so they could apologize for harboring Jim - the rabbit.

I quickly determined that the two sons who walked to the end of the porch, and sat down, had no idea I was leaning against a post just a few feet away.

"What I still cain’t figure," Hoss said softly, "is what them gold coins were doing laying there smack in the middle of nowhere."

Gold coins?

"So whaddaya wanna do with the ones we found?" Hoss asked. "Ya ain’t gonna tell Pa, are ya? He’ll make us find the owner."

Adam sighed deeply. "The minute we say something about finding gold coins half the territory will claim them."

Hoss’ voice filled with enthusiasm. "Ya mean we’re gonna keep them?"

"We’re partners. We’ll split the money." The voice of wisdom.

"What’re ya gonna buy with yours?"

Adam didn’t hesitate. "Books. You?"

"I’m gonna buy that saddle blanket over at the livery." A pause. "Say, Adam?"

"Adam."

"What?"

"Never mind. Go on."

"Do you figure Pa’s gonna wonder where we got the money to buy those things?"

"I imagine so, yes."

"What’ll we tell him?"

"Enough."

"Enough of what?" Hoss asked.

"Enough of the truth that we won’t be lying."

"But not the whole truth."

"Are you crazy?" Adam exclaimed and then lowered his voice. "If we tell him the whole truth - "

"Yeah, I know."

I walked on the balls of my feet to the bench and stood looking at their backs by the light of the moon. They could have been ten and six again. Sitting on the back steps of the house, pitching pebbles into the courtyard as they talked softly.

"Glory," Adam said. "I was sure treasure was buried under that mound."

I stepped back against the settee and melted into a sitting position.

Treasure? Mound? Oh, saints above!

You can take the boys out of New Orleans but you can’t ever get all of New Orleans out of the boys. From the time we had arrived in that city they had heard tales of pirates and buried treasure - and with the imaginations only youngsters can conjure they had been sure they would find enough gold to make them rich beyond their wildest dreams. Which would have been pretty darn rich.

"What was that noise by the bench?" Hoss asked.

"I’m afraid I know," Adam answered.

"Treasure?" I said. "Treasure!"

They stood and dusted off the seats of their pants. Then they ambled over to stand in front of me.

"Well it could’ve been, Pa," Hoss assured. "We found a dozen gold coins."

Sometimes I feel old. Very old. "Gold coins."

"Yessir."

"What kind of gold coins?"

"The kind like folks spend."

"Where?"

"In town mostly."

"Where did you find the coins?"

"Uphill from the sluice."

"And you thought pirates had buried treasure on the Ponderosa?" I did not believe this.

Adam put his hands at his waist and shook his head. "Everybody knows there aren’t any pirates around here."

"Who did you think buried the treasure?"

"There wasn’t any treasure," Adam pointed out.

"But when you thought there was treasure - who did you think had buried it?"

Hoss leaned toward me. "That’s just it, Pa. We didn’t know. We were trying to find out. We thought maybe there’d be something in the treasure that would tell us."

"Treasure," I repeated. "Jumping Jehoshaphat when are you two going to grow up!"

They didn’t bow their heads, or shuffle their feet, or jam their hands into their front pockets. They burst into laughter.

"Gee, Pa." Hoss gasped. "You think we’d really be digging for treasure?"

I’d been had - pure and simple. I grinned at their accomplishment. When they quit laughing and coughed themselves back to decorum I tilted my head. "So what were you digging with those shovels?"

Lord help me, I watched them slide each other the brother-look.

"Uh - " Adam shifted from one boot to the other. "It’s a long story."

 

The end