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Give and Ye Shall Receive

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 the shows.

Synopsis: Adam is blessed with an unexpected gift as he strives to surprise Ben on his birthday.

Rating: G

This story follows Smitten.

 

 

My little brother, Joe, looked at me with wide eyes and exclaimed, "He’s a beaut!"

Hoss and I grinned. Joe considered himself to be quite a horse expert lately. But he was right, the buckskin in the town corral was one of the best horses we had seen in Eagle Station. He was the rich, golden tan of aged deer hide; and as he moved his head his black mane glinted blue like a raven’s wing. I judged him to be just a little over 15 hands. A large enough horse for Pa.

While two of us brothers stood with our right boots propped on the lowest corral rail, the youngest one sat on the top rail and swung his feet - unaware of my hand near his back.

"How much ya figure they want for ‘im?" Hoss asked.

"Bet you can talk ‘em down," Joe predicted. Hoss’ horse trading skills were becoming the stuff of legend on the Ponderosa.

Hoss squinted up at Joe and then asked me, "Ya think?"

I shrugged. "It’s worth a try."

"How much’ve we got?" Joe asked.

I had about thirty dollars saved up and another twenty dollars I’d made on a cattle sale. Hoss had twenty-five dollars. Joe probably had plenty of money from his chicken and egg business - considering that he was selling live chickens for a dollar each - but getting him to part with a nickel wasn’t worth the trouble.

Hoss slapped a gloved hand against the corral post. "I’ll see what I can do." With that he trudged toward Shelby’s saloon to haggle with the two cowboys who had brought the buckskin in from the Eagle Ranch.

"Pa’s sure gonna be surprised," Joe enthused. "I bet he ain’t ever gotten anything like this for his birthday."

"Hasn’t," I corrected.

Joe made a disgusted face but humored me. "I bet he hasn’t ever gotten anything like this for his birthday."

I smiled. "I imagine he’ll be surprised."

"He’s gonna have the best birthday ever." Joe swung his legs over the corral fence and jumped to the ground beside me. "I got him that book about a pirate, and now he’ll have a horse, and I bet Hop Sing’ll cook up something real special if we get that stove in time."

Ah, yes. The cookstove.

From the beginning of our work on the addition of a kitchen to our house, we had referred to the much-anticipated cast iron cookstove as "Hop Sing’s stove." I had hoped to locate one of the newer box stoves but had to settle for a step stove. We had had a step stove in the kitchen in New Orleans and one of my most unpleasant memories is of having to black the thing with wax so it wouldn’t rust. Given the dampness of the air in New Orleans, I had done a lot of stove waxing. I planned to see to it that Joe got that particular chore this time around.

The step stove I had ordered for Hop Sing was black iron with knobs on the areas that we had to open to either add wood or pull pans out of the oven. It was called a step stove because when a person looked at it from the oven door side, it had three levels. The oven box was on the right-hand side and was the tallest section. To its left were the flat cook tops that were maybe a foot or more lower than the oven. And then to the left of the cook top was the final, lowest step that looked more than anything like a shallow shelf.

The main reason I was pleased by the prospect of owning a cookstove had nothing to do with food and everything to do with firewood. The stove needed less fuel than the fireplace. I mentioned that fact to Pa as I dreamed of less time at the chopping block. He reminded me that it was only in late spring and summer that we didn’t require fires in the fireplaces to keep the house warm. He tried to look sympathetic to my plight but his smiling eyes gave him away.

None of us wanted that cookstove in the kitchen as much as Hop Sing did. On rare occasions he had complained about cooking in the fireplace but most of the time he had accomplished the deed without any disparaging remarks. From the moment I had ordered the stove, though, he had found fault with every aspect of fireplace cooking. The spider, the three-legged stand on which we heated the kettle, was suddenly too easy to tip. The metal arm that swung into the fireplace so he could hang cooking pots was either too long or too short depending on his mood. When I had showed him the plan for the kitchen, with its two windows, it was astounding how quickly the house had become too dark for him to work. Perhaps I shouldn’t say none of us wanted that cookstove as much as Hop Sing did. Long before all was done, we Cartwrights had developed a habit of praying for the arrival of the contraption, and the promise of peace, with a feverish intensity.

Maybe it had been delivered to the trading post.

"Let’s check with Eli," I suggested. It was an indication of how much that cookstove was on our minds that I didn’t even have to tell Joe why we were checking whether the freight wagon had arrived at the trading post.

During the entire time I spoke with Eli, and was told that Eli didn’t expect to receive the stove until Thursday, Joe kept glancing nervously at the front door. When we were back on the street, walking toward the corral, Joe said with no small amount of relief, "Sure am glad."

"Sure am glad what?" I asked.

"Sure am glad that Beth girl didn’t show up or something."

I laughed softly, wondering how she could "or something." But why had Joe been glad that she hadn’t been at the trading post? He’d never met Beth Parker.

"Why are you glad she didn’t show up - or something?" I grabbed the back of his shirt to yank him backward as two men raced down the street on their horses.

" ‘Cause you go all dumb around ‘er," was his blunt answer. He tugged free of my grasp and raised his arms to shift his suspenders back onto his shoulders.

"If you would adjust those they wouldn’t give you so much trouble," I advised. "And how do you know what I do when I’m around Beth Parker?"

Joe has perfected giving a person a look that silently relays the fact that he is tolerating them out of the "Christian kindness" in his heart.

"Golly, Adam," he sighed. "It’s plan as the nose on your face."

"I can’t see the nose on my face," I reminded.

I was rewarded with a roll of his hazel eyes. "I’ll tell ya how ya act after ya’ve been around her: how about the other night when you slept on the table?"

He would pick that as an example. I had no idea why I had made my bed there instead of in the bunkroom.

"And Hoss said that ya’d think we’d never been taught manners the way you acted when ya met Beth’s family." Joe grimaced. "Ya even slurped your coffee."

This from the youngster who packs his cheeks with food before he decides to chew anything.

Joe was unrelenting in his assessment of my unusual behavior. He waved his left hand back toward the trading post. "And then Pa said ya turned right around and walked into the side of the building after ya saw her on the street." He shook his head. "That doesn’t sound smart to me."

It didn’t sound exceptionally intelligent to me, either.

"Are you sure I did those things?"

"Hoss and Pa don’t lie, Adam. And I saw ya sleeping on the dining table with my own two eyes."

The knowledge that I could behave in an immature manner did not sit well with me. "And I do this kind of thing when I’m around Beth?"

"Yep," Joe answered. "Ya think he’s a stallion?" he asked about the buckskin.

"I imagine he’s a gelding."

Joe did exactly what I had thought he would do – he compared incomparables. "Nobody’s gonna make a steer outta Webster!"

I assured him that no one would try and wondered if he had any idea how Little Webster’s sweet temperament would change when the calf grew up untouched, so to speak.

"Hey, Joe!"

We turned toward the greeting as we stepped to the wooden sidewalk. Joe’s pal, Wendell, walked to us, his red hair almost glowing in the strong sunlight. He was holding a little, pink pig. "Guess what I’ve got," he said as if we weren’t standing by the side of the main street looking at him.

"What?" Joe asked.

I blinked at my brother. Had he just asked -

"A pig."

"I know that," Joe said in the same tone of voice Pa often uses when he says those words. "I mean, where’d ya get it?"

"He’s Sarah’s son."

Sarah, I should explain, is one of Wendell’s family’s pigs.

Then Wendell said the words I was hoping I wouldn’t hear.

"Wanna hold ‘im?"

And Joe said exactly what I had feared. "Sure!" The moment that little animal was in my brother’s arms, I knew what his next thought would be. "Can I take ‘im home, Adam?"

"Joe - " I started but Wendell interrupted and said he didn’t see why not. Ezekiel was old enough to be away from Sarah.

Joe asked how much Wendell wanted for Ezekiel. They engaged in intense negotiations. It was time to call something to Joe’s attention.

"Pa isn’t about to let you keep a pig," I announced.

The boys looked at me as if I’d fallen from the sky. "Whaddyamean?" Wendell demanded.

I put my hands on my hips. "Joe has two horses, a dog, a cow, a calf, and chickens." Lots of chickens.

Wendell tilted his head, his green eyes questioning. "So?"

"So," I replied, "we run a ranch, not a farm."

Joe smiled at me and raised hopeful eyes to my face. "I bet you could - "

"I am not talking to Pa about you keeping a pig."

"Aw, Adam."

"Aw, nothing, brother. Give the pig back to Wendell, please."

Joe stuck out his lower lip and prepared to be obstinate.

"Now," I warned.

He twisted his mouth to one side so that I would know he was aggravated with me but he did as I had asked.

"I’ll – uh – see ya later, Joe," Wendell said. I knew that somewhere in that sentence, and in the way they smiled at each other, there was a secret message and I was pretty sure it involved Ezekiel the Pig.

Fortunately, Joe tends to flit from one thing to another. His attention was diverted when Hoss met us with as big a grin on his face as his mouth could safely manage. "I took a good look at him. He’s ours."

"How much?" Joe asked.

"Seventy dollars."

I thought it was a good price for Pa’s present considering what we’d been getting for mustangs that weren’t near the quality of horse as the buckskin.

"Seventy dollars!" Joe exclaimed. "That’s more than twenty dollars each!"

My little brother’s math skills had improved greatly since he’d gone into business for himself.

"You know what I’m thinkin’?" Hoss asked. "I’m thinkin’ we can get more for our horses."

"Think we can get seventy dollars?" Joe was wide-eyed with the possibilities.

"Well - " Hoss hedged. He looked at me and bragged, "I talked ‘em into us paying some cash and then givin’ ‘em a couple of our broke horses."

Hoss was definitely a horse trader.

Joe went back to his previous thought. "We each gotta pay twenty dollars?"

"We’ll settle it later," I said. Hoss knew as well as I did that Joe’s twenty dollars would never cross our palms. We strolled back to the corral.

Joe dismissed the subject of money without a blink. "When are we gonna give him to Pa?" He climbed two of the three corral fence rails. Hoss and I instinctively closed ranks on either side of him.

"When do you think we’re gonna give ‘im to Pa?" Hoss chided.

"On his birthday," I said in my best no-nonsense voice.

"Well," Joe twisted to look over his shoulder at Hoss and then twisted to look over his other shoulder at me. "What’ll we do with him ‘til then?"

I assumed he meant the horse and not Pa.

Hoss stated the obvious. "We keep ‘im somewhere Pa won’t see ‘im."

Joe, who has tried in vain to hide many a secret from Pa, asked, "Where the molly is that?"

Good question. I was not inclined to stable the buckskin at the town livery. And if I was determined to give the horse to Pa on his birthday that meant I had to keep the surprise somewhere within an easy ride from the house. Margaret Green’s place was a possible hideout. But Angus McNally’s ranch was closer.

I put my hands on either side of Joe’s waist and coaxed him back to the ground. Then I said that I would ride to Angus’ place and ask him if we could keep the horse there until Friday morning.

Hoss gave me his "are you sure?" frown. He is not one to hold grudges but he is slow to forget what he considers an injustice, especially when it involves family. And he was especially slow to forget that Angus had knocked me unconscious when Pa and I had taken him the news about Molly running away. Hoss followed me as I walked to Beauty and told me he didn’t think I ought to ride to the McNally house by myself.

"I’ll be fine," I told him as I adjusted Beauty’s saddle.

Hoss put his hands on his hips and got that bull-headed look of his. "I’m going with ya."

I looked over Beauty’s back at him. "Hoss, I will be fine." Maybe if I repeated it enough the message would get through.

My brother was not convinced. "What makes ya think you can trust ‘im?" he demanded.

There was only one answer to that. "What makes you think I can’t?"

Hoss’ cheeks flushed. "Dang it, Adam, don’t go playin’ Pa with me."

I hadn’t been aware that I was.

He walked around Beauty to stand at my right side. "He hurt ya once and he can do it again."

I replied that Mr. McNally wouldn’t do that.

"How do you know?" Hoss shouted. He waved his left hand in the air and Beauty shied. "He could kill ya next time!"

I turned away from him, patting Beauty to reassure her while I also tried to settle my brother. "There won’t be a next time, Hoss."

"How do you know?" My brother continued to shout, heedless of the fact that we were in a public place. "How do you know there won’t be a next time? You sure didn’t know there would be a first time!"

I held my hands palm out toward him, signaling him to calm down. He did, but only a little. He looked at me from the sides of his eyes, his lips thin and set. Joe stood nearby, pretending he wasn’t watching us.

"Mr. McNally gave me his word," I explained.

"And I guess that makes everything all right," Hoss said sarcastically.

There is no reasoning with a Cartwright when he’s upset. "I’ll be fine," I repeated. I put my left foot in the stirrup.

As I swung into the saddle, Hoss said, "Sure. You just go right ahead. And when he kills you I’m gonna tell you that I told you so." Hoss gave me a satisfied nod and looked smugger than I’d seen in a long time.

Joe blinked rapidly and frowned. "Hoss that doesn’t - "

"When he kills me you’re going to tell me that you told me so," I said. I leaned my arms on the saddle horn and laughed. I shouldn’t have.

Hoss was really rankled then. When I opened my eyes he asked. "What’s so funny?"

I swiped at my face with the back of my glove and was surprised to find I’d been laughing so hard that there were tears on my cheeks.

Joe tried to take part in the conversation again. "Hoss you - "

"I asked you what’s so all-fired funny, Adam."

"How are you going to tell me anything when I’m dead?" I asked.

"I probably ain’t," Hoss shot back at me. " ‘Cause I sure cain’t tell you anything while you’re living."

Our eyes met. Hoss didn’t want to see the humor in what he’d said. I chuckled. He twisted his lips. I wiped the smile off my face. He rolled his eyes. I coughed and tried to get serious. He looked at me and shook his head. I felt myself losing control. He sighed deeply. I laughed again. He gave me a begrudging smile.

"Would ya just be careful?" he asked in defeat.

"I’ll be careful if you will."

He tilted his head to the left. "What’s that mean?"

The saddle creaked as I leaned sideways so I could be closer to him. "Remember? You’re the one who drew the short straw last night. You have to tell Hop Sing if the cookstove doesn’t arrive by Thursday."

"Aw, dang it," Hoss muttered.

Joe giggled at our brother’s predicament. I tipped my hat and directed Beauty toward the trail that lead to the McNally place.

 

 

I had only seen Angus once since he had hit me. After Pa and I had had a talk about forgiveness, I had told Angus that I did not hold anything against him. Deep inside, though, I knew that I had done nothing to deserve the back of his hand and that he had had no right to hit me. I had uttered empty words about letting the past be the past.

Because I had avoided Angus, I was wary when, on Friday, he and I had been in the trading post at the same time. I had planned to walk past him after a curt nod of recognition, but he had asked to speak to me. I had been tempted to snap at him that we had nothing to discuss. But Ma and Pa taught me better, so I had followed Mr. McNally outside and to the side of the building. I had waited for him to speak.

When his eyes had settled on my face, what he had said surprised me. He had accepted responsibility for what he had done. He had not tried to excuse his action by blaming it on the fact that he had been angry and he had not been thinking clearly. Mr. McNally had even thanked me for having told him earlier that I didn’t hold his actions against him.

And then he had apologized.

I’ve never decided what I’m supposed to say when someone tells me they’re sorry. I can’t say it’s all right because if they did something they needed to apologize for then obviously their behavior wasn’t the best. I can’t tell them not to worry about it because they must have been worrying or they wouldn’t be apologizing. I had stood there silently while Angus had waited for a response. I had tried to recall what Pa usually said to me when I offered him an apology. I knew one thing for sure: Pa always forgives.

As it turned out, I hadn’t needed to say anything because that was when Mr. McNally had told me what really bothered him - he missed our friendship.

Pa says that when our friends disappoint us we don’t abandon them. The less obvious message in that belief is that we had best not abandon our friends when they disappoint us because, given enough time, we are bound to disappoint our friends. It is a simple belief. And as with just about every simple belief I’ve encountered in life, it is not always easy to practice.

I had stood there beside the trading post, looking at my father’s best friend. He had apologized to me - one man to another. In my mind, I could hear Pa telling me that I had a decision to make: I could nurse the hurt like a sulking child or I could take a man-sized step to mend a friendship. It would have been easy to nurse the hurt. That’s how I had known it was the wrong thing to do. That’s when I had told Mr. McNally that I wanted to try to be friends again. And that’s when Mr. McNally and I had shaken hands.

I have trouble recalling what happened after that. At dinner that night, Pa had said that he thought Beth Parker was a pretty girl. I had asked him when he had seen her and he had said that I had made him aware of her right after Angus and I had shaken hands. I hadn’t remembered seeing her in town, but Pa’s contention had been convincing.

Maybe Joe was right. Maybe I didn’t behave intelligently when I was around Beth.

When I brought Beauty to a halt near the McNally house, Angus straightened from leaning over the back of his wagon where several sacks were stacked. "Well, lad, what brings ya my way?"

Time to put the past behind us. Time to put action behind my words. Time to show Angus I was the man he believed me to be.

"Hello, Mr. McNally." I dismounted. There was no sign of Aidan and Sean. Maybe Angus thought the job would go faster without them. When I’d been their age, Pa had had all the time in the world for me to learn how to do a chore correctly. "You need help."

He really didn’t. Angus is as big as Hoss, and could have hefted those sacks one on each shoulder. But he wiped his brow with his shirt sleeve and accepted my offer. "I’d be glad fer it, indeed." He threw one of the sacks to his shoulder and said, "I noticed ya doin’ the same thing in town the other day."

I lifted a sack and as I followed him into the barn I told him I didn’t understand what he meant.

He tossed the sack to the ground near a tack box and indicated that I should do the same with the sack on my shoulder. "Yer calling me Mr. McNally again," he explained.

I paused mid-way in my apology and laughed.

Angus’ smile appeared in the thick of his full, red beard. "What would ya be laughin’ at, lad?"

I lowered my head. "Normally a person apologizes for being too familiar instead of for being respectful."

"Aye," he agreed good-naturedly, "but there’s not much normal about Angus McNally."

We laughed together and returned to the wagon for more sacks. After our third, and final, trip from the wagon to the barn, I told Angus about the buckskin and asked if he would be willing to care for the horse until Friday morning.

"It’s a grand chance to surprise Benjamin," he said with a nod. He pulled off his gloves, dusted them against his pants legs the way Pa does, and walked toward the tack box. I was surprised that the box had a lock on it. I couldn’t think of anything that was locked around our place. But then, we don’t have Sean and Aidan prowling where they shouldn’t. I was even more surprised when Angus pulled a slender piece of metal from his boot and inserted it into the lock. The next thing I knew, the lock was open. Angus reached inside the wooden box, lifted a bottle of whisky, and extended it my way in silent offering.

I shook my head and told him "no thanks." Then I motioned to the tool in his hand. "May I see that?"

He grinned and tossed it to me. " ‘Tis a handy thing."

The piece of metal was maybe five or six inches long. One end was blunt and angled on the sides, the other end was serrated. About half of one side was also serrated, and the other side had odd looking, various-sized niches in it.

"Pa had something like this a long time ago," I said as I studied it.

Angus sat on top of the storage chest and stretched his legs. "I warrant ‘e still has it."

I shook my head slowly. "I don’t think so."

"I do," Angus said. He took a sip of whisky. "Have ya any idea what ‘tis, lad?"

All I knew was that Pa had picked a boarding house door lock with it when he and I had visited Natchez.

Angus held out his right hand while he lowered his left hand to put down the whisky bottle. I returned the object of my curiosity to him. "Well, I’ll tell ya." He chuckled. "Benjamin came up with the idea."

I stood at his side, put my hands in the front pockets of my pants, and looked down at the metal strip that rested in the palm of his hand. "Is it a tool?"

"Would it be a tool, ya ask?" Angus leaned back and indulged in a hearty laugh. "Aye, it’s several of ‘em." He turned the metal over. "Care ta hear about it?"

I sat beside him on the chest and nodded. I would finally have the answer that Pa had never given me in Natchez.

"Well –" Angus said. "Back when we were seafarin’, we’d lay in at Boston. And when we would be in Boston we would stay at a fine boardin’ house owned by a sweet woman name of Mrs. Browne. She took good care of us, she did. Fed us baked beans and brown bread and plenty of chowder. She sorta took ta being our mum, ya know. But the woman had an aggravatin’ habit of expecting us home at what she called ‘a decent hour.’ Now ‘er idea of a good hour to be a-bed and our idea of a good hour to be a-bed was a coupla hours diff’rent." He grinned at me.

"She’d lock us out fer the night. Which was no hardship. Benjamin and me’d just adjourn our meeting ta the pub, ya know. But we got a bit tired of sleeping on benches and such. So Benjamin came up with the idea of prying open the door lock. Thing was it couldn’t be Mrs. Browne would know what we’d done, ya see."

Pa sleeping in pubs on benches? Pa staying up late? I leaned my arms on my knees. "And?" I prompted Angus to continue.

"Well, lad, yer father’s always been an enterprising sort. He got this ‘ere slip a metal and he worked it so’s it would open the door lock. ‘Twas a grand invention, this thing. And one thing led ta the next. So he devised this cutting edge here ‘cause it worked dandy freeing corks and such from bottles. ‘Twas also handy for cutting yer smaller ropes on the ships. And lancin’ blisters and such. And then - " Angus paused to look at me. He took a sip of whisky.

"Yes?" I asked.

"Then we get this idea that we might fashion the thing so’s it would work sorta like a skeleton key."

I raised my eyebrows and nodded eagerly. I wanted to know more than anything why Pa and Angus had needed a skeleton key but I didn’t dare interrupt Angus’ verbal memoirs.

"We figured it out while we were at sea, we did. And when we put in there in It’ly I think it was, well when we put in ta port we thought ta try out this skeleton key of ours. And it worked." He said the last sentence with wonder. "We went about opening all manner of things. ‘Course we neither one spoke the local language, ya know, which led to an embarrassing moment when we unlocked the back door to - " Angus looked to the barn roof as he sought the words. "Ah, there’s nothin’ ta call it but a sportin’ house," he admitted.

I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. "You broke in to a sporting house!" I exclaimed.

"Aye." Angus looked like a kid caught in the middle of mischief. "And we were not yet fifteen at the time. We got a huge amount of education in the blink of an eye, I tell ya. Then we turned and ran like scared rabbits, we did." He shook his head. "This tool here led us to no small number of adventures." Angus smiled. "And 'tis still a handy thing ta have around. I don’t doubt Benjamin has his about somewhere."

But where? I wondered.

After giving me a congenial slap on the right thigh, Angus stood and sealed the whisky bottle. "I thank ya fer yer assistance with the supplies there," he said as he motioned to the pile of sacks.

I stood and extended my right hand. "Thank you for the story, Angus."

He shook my hand and then wagged his left index finger in my face. "If ya go telling yer father what I’ve said ‘ere there’ll be no more stories fer ya."

"I won’t tell him." But I couldn’t wait to tell Hoss and Joe.

 

 

That night I was the center of attention in the bunkroom. I sat on my bed and faced Joe and Hoss as they sat on Joe’s bed. We decided to blow out the candle so Pa wouldn’t see any light under the door into the living area and he would assume we were asleep. Then we leaned toward one another and I told them everything that Angus had told me.

"Pa picked the lock!" Joe yelped at one point. Hoss slapped his hand over Joe’s big mouth and we held our breath, waiting for any sound of Hop Sing or Pa. When none came, and we were about to die for want of air, we relaxed and breathed again.

Mine was the only voice until Joe whispered, "What’s a sporting house?"

Oh glory. Now I had to hope that the words didn’t come out in some future Joe-Pa conversation.

"It’s," Hoss answered softly. "Well - it’s like how them women entertain them men at Jack’s."

"Oh," Joe said in a small voice.

I resumed the account of Pa’s escapades until I’d told my brothers everything I could remember. We paused more than once to snicker or laugh into the pillows. Finally, my story was finished.

Hoss stood from Joe’s bed.

"Hey, Hoss?" Joe whispered. "I’ll do your late chores if you’ll do my early chores on Pa’s birthday."

Hoss turned around and I could imagine the frown he directed Joe’s way. "Why would I wanna do that?"

"Please, Hoss? I gotta do something for Pa’s birthday before breakfast."

I’d almost forgotten that I, too, needed to do something for Pa’s birthday before breakfast on Friday. I moaned as I realized how few hours of sleep lay ahead of me Thursday night.

"Please, Hoss?" Joe begged. "I’ll never ask ya for anything ever again."

Hoss snorted his disbelief. "All right. But you see to it that you do my chores right."

"I will! You’ll see!"

"Sssh!" Hoss and I ordered.

"I will. You’ll see," Joe whispered.

 

 

Tuesday morning, after chores, Pa asked me, in a tone of voice he usually reserves for prayer, to see if the freight wagon had possibly arrived a few days earlier than expected. I considered it a waste of time but the day was pretty and it was my turn to work on the ledger books. I would do anything to avoid being inside during daylight hours so I hitched up the team and drove toward Eagle Station. I had every intention of doing as Pa had asked. But halfway to town, the wagon team and I crested a hill and in the valley I saw Beth Parker on foot, leading her roan horse near the road from town.

I drove up beside her and, in the interest of being polite, jumped down. "Is something wrong?" I walked backwards beside her so I could lead the team.

She gave me a quick smile. "Wrong?"

I motioned behind her at her horse, which was not limping or showing any other sign of distress. "You’re walking."

Beth turned away from me for a moment to bite off something she had started to say. She took a deep breath and looked straight ahead as she strolled through the grass. "Yes, I am walking."

"But - " I looked at the roan again. "Why?"

She waved her hand around. "It’s a beautiful day."

"Yes, it is," I replied. "Why are you walking?"

"I am walking because it’s a beautiful day."

If she planned to walk every time the weather was nice she was going to wear out a lot of shoes during the late spring and early summer.

"Don’t you ever walk?" she asked in surprise.

I had done all the walking I cared for when we’d traveled from Missouri to Eagle Station. "Not if I can ride a horse."

Beth was moving at a fast pace. Walking backwards the way I was, and leading the team, I was tiring quickly.

She glanced my way inquiringly. "How old are they?"

"Who?" I asked as we strolled.

"Your horses."

How did I know? I hazarded a guess. "Eight or so."

"What are their names?"

That I knew. "Molly and Jezz."

"What interesting names. How did you choose them?"

Glory when would she quit questioning me? "That’s what their names were when we bought them."

"They look like they have good bloodlines."

I nodded.

"Do you ever race horses?"

Who had ever heard of racing draft horses. "Jezz and Molly?"

Beth’s dark eyes sparkled. "Saddle horses."

I nodded my head. "Every chance I get."

"I love to race Dorothy."

"Who’s Dorothy?" I looked around but didn’t see anyone else.

Beth laughed so hard she had to sit in the grass. She pulled up her knees, crossed her arms on them, and lowered her head.

I waited for her to stop laughing. I thought she never would.

When she finally looked up at me, and wiped her eyes, she said, "You are the funniest person I have ever met."

I can’t say I aspire to being remembered as the funniest person someone has ever known. I would appreciate it if my knack for math and language and drawing and reading came to mind. I also wouldn’t mind if people noticed the articles I was writing for one of the St. Louis papers.

Beth showed no sign of standing up. So I sat beside her, theorizing that she was tired of walking.

"Dorothy is my horse," she explained. Then she said, "I was looking for the lake," as if we had been discussing her reason for walking. I mean other than the reason that it was a nice day.

"The lake."

"I heard there’s a beautiful lake somewhere around here."

She probably wasn’t talking about our lake. It is pretty but Pa says it isn’t a lake, it’s a large pond. She must be talking about the big lake. "There’s a big lake," I offered.

"Do you know where it is?"

I concentrated. Yeah, I knew where it was. "It’s toward the mountains."

"Is it far?"

I didn’t think so. "No."

She stood quickly. "Will you show me?"

I tensed. "Show you what?"

Beth put her hands on her hips. "The lake."

"The big lake?"

"The one toward the mountains," she said.

"Oh." I stood slowly. "It isn’t a short ride but isn’t a long one."

"Well since you’re so sure of how long it takes and where it is why don’t we go there?"

"I’m not walking," I declared.

Beth sounded as if she’d strangled. Then she got a serious expression on her face. "I wouldn’t ask such a thing of you."

I was glad we understood each other. "Fine."

She tied her horse to the back of the wagon. "Fine indeed."

When I finally halted the team in one of the meadows that slopes down to the jewel-like blue water of the lake, Beth said she thought it was a pretty place. I asked her if she wanted to walk down to the shore. She didn’t. We sat quietly for a full five minutes. Then she thanked me for driving her to the lake and she said that she thought it was time we headed home.

For the briefest of moments I was startled that she thought we lived together. But she held up her hand and said that when the trail split she would unhitch her horse and head for her home. That sounded like a good idea because I wasn’t at all sure how Pa would react if I brought Beth home to live with us. No, actually, I was very sure how Pa would react.

When the time came for us to part, Beth asked if I planned to attend the dance in town the next week. I told her I was looking forward to it. She waited around as if she expected me to say something else. When I didn’t, she untied the roan from the back of the wagon.

I waved to Beth and watched her ride down the left trail. It seemed logical to me that the Ponderosa was along the right trail. But Molly and Jezz didn’t agree. They thought we should take an even sharper right turn and follow a narrow road that led through a stand of pine trees. I had to admit that the area looked vaguely familiar so I gave them permission to walk in that direction.

Joe would have been proud of me, I decided. I hadn’t behaved nearly as foolishly as I apparently had previously around Beth. For one thing, I hadn’t walked into anything like a wall. And I had taken great pains to be mannerly. My thoughts drifted as I drove across the meadow in front of the house and I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast. I also remembered that Pa had sent me to town to check about the cookstove. I glanced at the sun. It was too late to turn around now.

Knowing that Pa would wonder why I had been gone so long, I tried to decide what I would tell him. The saddle horses were in the corral but there was no one around. I parked the wagon, tended the team, and quickly walked toward the woodpile to chop kindling. I had the ax in my hand when Pa said, "Adam?"

Oh glory. I licked my lower lip and turned to face him.

He didn’t sound particularly angry when he asked, "What took you so long?"

"Uh - " I had to think. "I took a different trail."

Pa’s lips twitched as if he was ready to smile but he didn’t. "What about the cookstove?"

Uh oh. I slid my eyes to one side. "It - uh - wasn’t there." Which was the truth. The stove had not been anywhere I had been that day.

"Wasn’t there," Pa said.

I looked into his eyes and said with all the sincerity I could muster, "No, Pa."

He studied me. Whenever Pa studies me it’s because he’s reading me. And Pa is quite accomplished at reading me. He took a deep breath and said, "When did Eli think the cookstove would be here?"

Uh oh. That question was harder to dance around. "Uh - it’ll probably be on Thursday’s freight wagon." I did not say that Eli had told me that.

Pa nodded slowly. "Thursday."

"Yes, Pa." I had the disturbing feeling that I was tying a rope around my neck.

"I see."

He had been standing in front of me but when he said, "I see" he turned sideways so I had a view of the back of the house. A wagon was parked in the clearing behind the house - and the cookstove was on the wagon.

Pa crossed his arms at his chest and raised his right eyebrow.

"I didn’t lie, Pa," I was quick to explain. When his left eyebrow went up, I added, "I just wasn’t telling you all of the truth." He didn’t say anything so I finally admitted that I had bumped into Beth Parker. Not literally, of course. Figuratively.

Pa put his left hand over his eyes. "Beth." He made her name sound like a dreadful disease.

"Yes, Pa."

"How are you feeling?"

What an odd question. "Fine."

Pa slid his hand away from his face and took a deep breath. "Son, I don’t mean to be critical but when you’re around Beth - "

"Joe already told me that I go ‘all dumb.’"

Pa’s eyes widened and he fought not to smile. "Well, I wouldn’t have put it that way," he said in a conciliatory tone of voice. He suggested that I put down the ax and then he rested his hand on my left shoulder and guided me toward the back of the house. "Do you think you could devise a way that we can move this stove to the kitchen without needing a block and tackle? The confounded thing weighs as much as a small horse," he muttered.

In all my plans and calculations and revisions for adding the kitchen, I hadn’t taken the stove’s weight into account. I told Pa I was sure I could think of something. I fervently hoped I could or I would never hear the end of it from Hop Sing.

We were at the dinner table that evening - the cookstove was spending the night on the wagon - when I asked how the thing had arrived at the Ponderosa.

Hoss waved his fork. "I borrowed a wagon and team from Mr. Orowitz." He refilled his glass with water from the pottery pitcher.

Pa chuckled. Joe snickered. Hop Sing smiled.

"Why were you in town?"

Hoss’ twinkling eyes were full of trouble for me. " ‘Cause somebody’d gone missing."

I scowled at him. He wrinkled his nose and laughed.

"How did you get the stove home?" I asked.

My brother leaned across the table toward me. "On the wagon."

I glanced at Pa. He looked from the tops of his eyes and shook his head.

"I know you brought the stove here on the wagon," I said. "How did you get the stove onto the wagon?"

Hoss’ eyebrows rose. "Oh!" He looked down at his peas. "We moved it."

Sometimes I am convinced that Hoss muddles through a conversation on purpose. I was dead sure of it this time but there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. "How," I persisted, "did you move it?"

He lowered his fork. "We pushed it on the ramp." Hoss immediately asked Joe to pass the bread, please, so he could avoid looking at me.

I was not about to admit defeat. "Who pushed it onto the ramp?"

"Let’s see. It was me, Big Dan, and this real nice fella who was just passing by and offered to help."

What Hoss was telling me was that it had taken two very strong men, aided by an unknown Samaritan, to move the leviathan hunk of iron. Could Hoss, Pa, and I accomplish the same deed?

Had I promised Pa I would come up with a way to move the stove or had I just said I would try?

"I got a plan," Joe piped up and then quickly chewed the food he had stored in his cheek.

Sure he did. Joe can always come up with some complicated, convoluted, totally impractical plan. I decided to humor the little guy. "What?"

"Move it on skids." He piled a mountain of butter on his piece of bread and grinned up at me. "We’ll have it in the kitchen in no time."

Every one of Joe’s schemes can be accomplished in ‘no time.’

Pa leaned back and rested his right elbow on the chair arm. "That’s an interesting idea, Joseph."

My little brother smiled and made a stab at being humble. "Aw, it ain’t nothing."

"It isn’t anything," I corrected.

Joe took offense. He gestured with his knife toward the head of the table. "It is, too. Pa said it’s a good idea," he maintained.

I was not about to get into an argument with Joe. Trying to get answers from Hoss was tiring enough.

Pa lifted his cup of tea and asked Joe to tell us about his idea.

Joe was more than willing to obey. "We use some of them pieces of lumber. Lay ‘em along the floor. We slide that stove offa the wagon and onto them skids. Then we hitch Molly and Jezz to the stove and they can pull it right to here - "

Pa balked. "We will not have horses in this house, Joseph."

Joe rolled his eyes. He put down his knife and fork and braced his hands against the table edge. Then he spoke slowly, and in short sentences, as if doing so would help Pa understand his plan. "Molly and Jezz are in front of the house. We hitch the ropes to them. We run the ropes through here. We run the ropes out the back door. We tie the ropes to the cookstove. They pull the stove on the skids to here. We unhitch Molly and Jezz. We take ‘em over by the other side of the kitchen. Run the ropes through the kitchen window. Hitch the ropes to the horses." He raised his arms in triumph. "And Molly and Jezz pull that ole stove right into the kitchen."

I was not believing this. I nearly choked when Hoss said, "We probably oughta soap down them skids. Make the stove move easier."

"You can’t be serious!" I yelped.

Joe leaned back in his chair and raised his chin. "You got a better idea?"

Well, no, but that wasn’t the point. I tried in vain to explain to Hoss and Joe my opinion that the farther an animal is from the object it is pulling the more difficult the pull is.

Joe came right back at me. "Uh uh. When we were on the trail, them lead oxes didn’t have any trouble pullin’ those wagons."

I closed my eyes for a moment. "That is because there were several yokes of oxen all pulling together, Joe. There is no way that two horses can pull that stove into the house using long ropes." If nothing else the ropes would snap.

My little brother put his hands on the chair arms and swiveled toward me. His eyes sparkled. "Wanna bet?"

I ground my jaw. I spit on my palm, Joe spit on his, and we shook hands. Half a second later we turned toward Pa and said, "Not a real bet, Pa. Just a bet bet."

To my eternal mortification, when we tried Joe’s plan the next day it actually worked. Watching that stove slide along those soaped skids was an absolute marvel. Watching Hop Sing walk around the stove with delight all over his face was an absolute relief.

 

 

The day after Joe’s victory, Pa and I fit the stove pipe to the vent and made sure the stove dampers worked. Hoss and Joe returned the borrowed wagon and team to Mr. Orowitz. Then came one of the most historic events in the annals of the Ponderosa. Hop Sing used the new water pump by the new sink, filled a kettle with water, heated it on the new cookstove, and the three of us toasted one another with mugs of hot tea while we tried to ignore the odor of a hot, new cookstove. Life was as sweet as it had ever been.

When the offensive smell of hot new wax and hotter new iron was too much to bear, Pa, Hop Sing, and I wandered from the kitchen to the living area to enjoy our cups of tea. We were standing by the fireplace when Hoss and Joe returned carrying a cake for Pa. Well, Hoss carried the cake and Joe carried the latest edition of the Alta California.

Hoss lowered the cake to the dining table. "Mrs. Orowitz made a cake for ya, Pa," he announced.

"That was very kind of her. I hope you thanked her."

Joe smacked the newspaper into my hand and answered Pa. "We thanked her, Pa. And I thanked ‘er for making my cake, too."

Pa nodded in approval.

"Well - " Hoss said. "Ya see - well - "

Joe gave an exasperated sigh and finished Hoss’ sentence. "The thing is that Mrs. Orowitz didn’t bake a cake for me."

"But Barbara brought - " Pa looked around, his eyes wild as he feared the worst. "Did Ruth know who did make the cake?"

Hoss and Joe nodded.

"Tell me it wasn’t Barb," Pa pleaded.

"But that’d be a lie, Pa," Hoss scolded.

Hop Sing was beside himself. "Barbara make cake for Joe?"

My little brother nodded once.

"But no one get ill," Hop Sing protested.

Pa reached behind him for a chair and slowly sat down. "Barb knows how to cook."

We couldn’t believe what Pa had said.

"Pa," I protested, "how could she bake a cake? She can’t even make good coffee." I mean, how difficult is it to make good coffee? "Mrs. Orowitz is pulling a joke on us."

Hoss disagreed. "Adam, Mrs. Orowitz ain’t much of a kidder."

He had a point.

"There has to be a logical explanation," I said.

Joe held his hands palm up and shrugged. "Barbara cooked it. It’s simple as that."

Pa rubbed his forehead with his left hand. "Nothing in life is simple, Joseph."

"Ya think," Hoss ventured, "ya think that Shelby baked it?"

Hop Sing waved his hands above his head. "Can not be. No one die."

Pa was stunned. "Barbara can cook," he whispered. Then he snapped his fingers. "I know what happened with the cake. It was an accident that it was good," he said enthusiastically.

Now that was a logical explanation.

 

 

Early Friday morning, long before my brain was ready for the exercise, I walked as quietly as possible from the bunkroom, across the front yard, and into the barn to saddle Beauty. At first I didn’t believe what I saw, but the already-lighted lantern did not play tricks on my eyes; Joe was saddling Paint.

"What are you doing?" I asked.

Joe spared me a glance but he didn’t stop his work. "It ain’t nothing bad, Adam. Don’t worry."

Don’t worry? A twelve year old awake and ready to ride nearly two hours before dawn was not something to worry about?

"Listen," Joe said and turned to face me. "I gotta do this. It’s for Pa’s birthday."

I put my hands on my hips. "You have Pa’s present. Remember that book? And besides, the horse is from all of us."

Joe gave me that mischievous grin that is so much like Ma’s - the one that Pa has trouble not giving in to. "Please, Adam? It’s nothing bad. Honest."

If anything happened to Joe, and if Pa found out I had not stopped my little brother, I would have to grow a new layer of skin when Pa finished with me. "Just be careful, please?"

"I will," Joe assured. "See ya." He led Paint from the barn, then walked quietly across the meadow and down to the trail toward town. It was disturbing how easily he had sneaked away from the house.

The air was chilly and damp enough to make my ride to Angus’ place uncomfortable. I expected to tie a lead to the buckskin, turn around, and head for home. But when I rode up to the McNally corral gate, Angus was admiring Pa’s birthday present and he had the horse tied and waiting for me.

"Mornin’," Angus greeted with far too much cheer for the time of day.

I dismounted and rubbed at my eyes. "You sure?" I asked.

He laughed and looked up at the star-filled sky. "Has to be mornin’ somewhere, lad." Angus reached down to a hay bale, lifted a metal cup, and held it toward me.

"I don’t think so, thank you," I said.

"Use yer nose, Adam. It’s coffee."

The brew was, as Pa says, strong enough to grow hair on the palm of your hand. It was wonderful.

"How can you smile at this time of day?" I asked.

Angus leaned his back against the corral post. "I’ve always liked the early mornin’. Now, Benjamin, there’s a lad who didn’t care fer mornin’."

Was he talking about the same man who takes such demented delight in hassling me about my aversion to pre-dawn hours?

"Benjamin was worthless on board if ‘twasn’t daylight," Angus remembered. "Sleeping on watch is a powerful bad thing ta do and many the time I’d have to rouse him from his slumber while he was on deck. It came ta an end when Cap’n Stoddard caught Benjamin dreamin’ away when he should’ve had his eyes wide open."

I gave a quick nod. Hearing about Pa neglecting his responsibilities was as sweet a treat as iced cream.

"On any other man’s ship, Benjamin would’ve been in a bad way. But Cap’n Stoddard was fond of Benjamin so he gave yer father another go at provin’ he could do what he was told. The thing was, ya see, The Cap’n told Benjamin that the next time he was caught sleeping such as that then The Cap’n would have him over a barrel"

I lowered my coffee cup. "Over a barrel?"

Angus shook his head. "You’ve not heard of it?"

"No," I admitted.

"Well," Angus said more to himself than me. He sipped his coffee and then continued to educate me. "On shipboard when ya go over a barrel it means you’re bent over a gun barrel - a gun like a cannon."

This did not sound good.

"And then yer flogged."

An unexpected anger burned through me. "My grandfather did that to Pa?"

Angus held up his left hand. "No, lad. First of all, The Cap’n wouldn’t have done the floggin’. But no, The Cap’n did not have Benjamin whipped though by all rights he could’ve. What he did though was put the fear of retribution in Benjamin. I never knew yer father to be anything but wide awake on deck after The Cap’n dressed him down that morning."

I drank the last of the coffee in my cup and placed it on the hay bale. My grandfather’s lecture must have been something to hear. "Was he bad-tempered?"

"Yer grandfather is it yer askin’ about?"

"Yes."

Angus shook his head. "I’d not call him mean, Adam. Sailing is a hard life and every man has to pull his weight, ya know. Times happen when if a man slacks then the whole ship can suffer fer it. No, The Cap’n wasn’t a mean man but he was a stern one. He praised ya when ya deserved it and he could make yer life miserable when ya deserved it." He winked at me. "I tell ya this much, he could grab yer tongue and turn ya inside out." Angus laughed deeply. "Never saw the likes of it."

I have.

He pushed away from the corral post and slapped me on the shoulder. "My ramblings aren’t getting that horse there any closer to the Ponderosa."

I thanked Angus again for keeping the buckskin and then mounted Beauty. Angus handed me the lead line.

" ‘Tis a fine thing you boys are doin’, Adam. Benjamin’ll treasure this horse."

I nodded and turned Beauty toward home. For the better part of the ride, I mulled over the fact that at one time Pa, too, had disliked early hours. He had also been less than responsible. The newfound knowledge would do me no good, though. A sure-fire way to stir Pa’s temper is to say, "Well, when you were my age - "

Even though I couldn’t use the information Angus had given me, except to regale my brothers with another story, it guided me toward a better understanding of the young man that Pa had been. I had a feeling that Angus had an endless supply of "Benjamin" tales and I would enjoy every one of them.

Odd how things happen. I had extended the hand of friendship to Angus and now I was being blessed tenfold through the memories of a man I could have easily turned my back on. Interesting that I had offered a gift and received a greater one in return. Interesting how my mind wanders in the early morning.

 

 

The only way to be sure that Pa stayed in the house, and didn’t find our surprise before we were ready, was for Hoss and me to tell Pa that we would do his early chores for his birthday. After I settled the horse in one of the stalls, I set about sharing Pa’s chores with Hoss. When it came to Joe’s chores I said that I would take care of Buttercup. Hoss could face the chickens. I milked Buttercup and then released her and her adopted son Webster into the back pasture. Little Webster was growing so quickly that we wouldn’t be able to call him Little Joe’s Little Webster much longer.

We didn’t want Pa to know that Joe hadn’t done his chores so Hoss and I sneaked into the house through the back door. We hugged the wall near the open door to Pa’s room. He was looking in the mirror as he shaved. We had to time our moves just right so we could slip past his doorway when he looked down to rinse his razor. That way he wouldn’t catch any movement from the sides of his eyes. Hop Sing gave us a puzzled look when we carried the milk and eggs to the kitchen but Hoss told him it was all part of a surprise for Pa’s birthday. Hop Sing smiled and nodded his head that he understood.

When we found out, half an hour later, that breakfast would be a little late because the biscuits were still in the oven, Hoss and I decided to give Pa his present.

"We-ll, boys," Pa half-laughed and half-spoke the words. He looked down at the headstall Hoss had handed him - the headstall he usually used on any horse he rode - and turned it over and over in confusion.

"Oh!" Hoss said in sudden understanding. "That ain’t the surprise, Pa. That goes with the surprise."

I opened the front door for Pa. He strolled across the threshold, looking at me from the sides of his eyes.

"All right," he said slowly as we walked along the porch.

"It’s in the barn," I explained.

Pa not only spoke slowly, he walked slowly. I wondered if he thought we were pulling a joke on him. When we entered the barn, and Pa saw the buckskin, he went from slow to stop.

Hoss stepped up to Pa’s left side. "Do ya like him?"

Pa walked to the stall and stroked the horse’s muzzle. "What is there not to like?" Pa turned and smiled at us. "Thank you Hoss, Adam."

We saw complete surprise on Pa’s face. Well, complete and happy surprise.

Hoss leaned over the front of the stall and patted the horse’s neck. "He’s strong, Pa. And smart."

"I’m sure he is," Pa replied. "What’s his name?"

"He’s your horse, Pa. You’re the one to name him," Hoss said.

Pa twisted his lips to one side as he thought. He leaned to the left and then to the right. "No stockings," he said. He looked back at the horse’s head. "No blaze. He’s a gorgeous buckskin, boys." Then he smiled. "That’s what I’ll call him."

"Pa, Buckskin ain’t a proper name for a horse."

Pa shook his head. "Not Buckskin, son. Buck."

"Buck," I repeated. "I like that."

"Me, too," Hoss agreed.

Pa gave Hoss an amused look. "I’m glad to hear it." He addressed the horse, "Well, Buck, welcome to the Ponderosa." As he stroked Buck’s neck, Pa idly asked, "Where’s Joe?"

Hoss is much better at not telling all the truth than I am. Behind Pa’s back, I raised my eyebrows at my talented younger brother.

"Uh - well ya see, Pa," Hoss said. "He - uh - well, he had something to do before breakfast." Hoss gave me a wide-eyed look. He hadn’t said that Joe didn’t do his chores. He had just said that Joe had something to do before breakfast. Which was the truth.

Pa kept his attention on Buck. "Where is he?"

"Joe?" I asked.

"He seems to be the only one not here at the moment," Pa replied dryly.

"Uh," Hoss said. "He didn’t exactly tell us where he was going."

That caused Pa to turn around and look at us. "He didn’t exactly tell you. Did he tell you anything?"

"Sure, Pa," I hurried to answer so Joe wouldn’t get in trouble.

"Exactly what did he tell you?"

"Uh - like Hoss said, Joe told us he had something to do before breakfast."

"But not what."

"Uh - no, Pa."

"Or where."

I shook my head.

Hoss came to my rescue. "We think it’s a surprise," he said cheerfully.

Glory was it ever!

The three of us turned as we heard a horse walking through the yard. By the time we stepped from the barn, Joe had tied Paint to the corral.

"Hey, Pa!" he said. "I got a surprise for you."

Hoss and I exchanged glances. What was our little brother up to now?

That was when I noticed the fabric pouch that Joe had tied to his saddle. It was the same tote that he had carried Smoke around in before Smoke got almost big enough to wear a saddle. Joe reached into the pouch, had a little trouble getting a hold of something, and then lifted it out for all to see.

It was a pig. A little, pink pig. A little pig named Ezekiel. But it was still a pig.

Pa was struck wordless. He watched in wonder as Joe cradled the small creature in his arms and walked straight to us.

Joe held out the pig, grinned for all he was worth, and said, "Happy Birthday, Pa."

I recognized Joe’s plan. He wanted the pig. He had to figure out how to keep the pig and not have Pa make him give it back. So Joe gave the pig to Pa, knowing how Pa always says that we should never refuse a gift given from the heart. And boy, was Joe’s heart in this one.

"Well, son," Pa said as he found his voice and Joe put the pig in his hands. "I don’t know what to say."

I was sure that was true.

Hoss and I grinned behind Pa’s back.

Joe was so proud of himself that he threatened to bust his suspenders. "He’s names Ezekiel," Joe announced.

"Ezekiel," Pa said. He tried to make the best of the situation. "Well, Joe, Ezekiel is - "

Joe leaned near Pa. "He’d rather be called Zeke, Pa," he instructed softly.

Pa slid his tongue across his teeth. "Zeke looks like a very nice pig."

Joe’s eyes rounded. "He’s real smart."

Pa cradled the gift and was rewarded with a satisfied little grunt. "What does Zeke - do, exactly?"

"Well, he doesn’t know any tricks yet, Pa. He’s still a baby," Joe answered.

"What will he do when he’s a big pig?" Pa asked and frowned at me when I chuckled at the unintentional rhyme. I tried to look contrite.

"Wendell says pigs kill snakes, Pa. And pigs eat bugs and - "

"They’re real tasty with breakfast," I cracked.

Pa frowned at me again as Joe screamed, "Nobody’s gonna eat Zeke!"

"We don’t intend to eat Zeke," Pa assured.

I couldn’t resist. "Pigs don’t eat cats, do they?"

Hoss put his hands on his hips. "No, they don’t eat cats." Doubt clouded his eyes. "I don’t think."

Pa gave me another frown as he said to Hoss, "I’m sure they don’t eat cats, son."

I looked down at my boots before Pa could see my smile.

"He’s real friendly, too, Pa," Joe said as he continued his presentation. "And you know what? They ain’t dirty like people think. They like to be clean. When they’re all muddy they’re just letting it dry so they can get clean - just like horses do."

No, I thought, horses roll in mud as a way to get back at me for bathing them.

"And guess what, Pa," Joe said.

"What?"

"Wendell says that pigs like to play with dogs and they like to sleep with dogs and - "

"Ain’t no way," Hoss declared. "No pig is gonna sleep in our room. It’s already crowded with Smoke in there."

Joe’s shoulders lowered and he peered up at Hoss. "But you don’t want Zeke to be lonely, Hoss. He’ll cry all night."

I could hear the cracking as Hoss’ heart began to melt. "Well, maybe he can sleep in the barn," he suggested.

"Hoss," Joe wailed. "He’s a baby."

Hoss wasn’t defeated yet. "So’s Cochise and he sleeps in the barn."

Joe was ready for him. "But Cochise is with his ma at night. Zeke won’t have anyone."

Hoss was horrified. "Are you saying you think a pig - "

"Zeke," Pa kindly corrected.

"Are you saying you think that Zeke oughta sleep in the bunkroom?"

Pa spoke so sweetly that honey could have dripped from his lips. "Well, it only seems fair, son. Smoke does. And we wouldn’t want Zeke to think that we love Smoke more than we love him, would we?" He wasn’t serious, of course. There was no way Pa would let a pig sleep in the house.

Hoss fumed a minute and then looked down at Joe. "He better know his manners is all I got to say."

Pa’s chest shook with silent laughter and he looked down, pretending to be interested in Zeke.

"Aw, Hoss," Joe answered. "Zeke won’t be any trouble."

"Yes, Hoss," Pa agreed. "Zeke won’t be any trouble at all." He decided to ignore Hoss’ rolling blue eyes. "Thank you, Joseph. Zeke is a very - unique gift."

Joe’s face was beaming.

Pa handed Zeke to Joe and suggested we go inside for breakfast.

Hop Sing nearly dropped the pan of biscuits when Joe walked into the house carrying the pig. I stayed back by the door ready for a quick escape if open warfare ensued.

"No," Hop Sing said with an adamant shake of his head.

Joe moaned. "Aw, Hop Sing, Zeke’s not gonna bother anything. He’s just a baby."

Hop Sing’s dark eyes roved to Pa’s face. "Zeke?"

"One of my birthday presents," Pa replied. "He’s very smart," he added.

"Don’t care if he go to college. No pig in Ponderosa house."

Hoss’ face was pink as he tried not to laugh.

Smoke saved the day when he padded into the living room from the bunkroom and headed straight to Joe. The dog stood on his back legs, rested his front paws on Joe’s shoulders, and sniffed Zeke. When the baby pig squealed I thought he was going to die of apoplexy. But Joe construed the sound to mean something else entirely.

"He likes Smoke!" Joe exclaimed. And before any of us could stop him, my brother bent down and put Zeke on the floor.

I was sure that Smoke would rip the baby porker apart. But Smoke sniffed Zeke, Zeke raised his head and gave Smoke another little squeal, and the two of them walked toward the front door - and me. Zeke’s little pink ears bounced as he ran to keep pace with Smoke’s long strides. I held open the door and watched Smoke and his new pig pal stroll out to the porch.

"Golly, Pa," Joe said. "Now Smoke’s got a little brother."

Yep, now Smoke had a swine sibling. He was happy as a hog. There was some joke in there about smoked ham but I couldn’t get to it. I laughed to myself all the way to the table.

We had finished breakfast, all of which tasted even better cooked on a stove, and were sitting back enjoying our tea when Joe tried to snap his fingers.

"I nearly forgot," he said to Pa. "Don’t go anywhere." Joe pushed back his chair and ran to the bunkroom.

"Where does he think I would go?" Pa asked no one in particular.

"Maybe hog heaven," I quipped.

Pa sighted along his right index finger at me. "Don’t start it, Adam."

I decided to make Hoss my companion in crime. I widened my eyes and raised my eyebrows as I spoke to my brother. "Guess what."

Hoss obliged me with a, "What?"

"Pa is the patriarch of porcine pets on the Ponderosa."

Pa’s voice deepened and he stretched my name. "A-dam."

"He done what?" Hoss was confused. I hadn’t counted on that. I hate it when Hoss is confused because then he confuses everyone and everything and the whole day is one big -

"Happy birthday!"

Joe stood at the side of Pa’s chair and thrust a flat, brown-paper-wrapped parcel at Pa. It was tied up with a piece of twine. I leaned closer to take a look at the knot. I’d never seen one like it.

Hoss was interested in it, too. "What kinda knot is that, Pa?" he asked. After all, Pa had taught us every knot he knew - except for the one he had used to tie our journal together.

Pa’s forehead wrinkled. He held the parcel at eye level and studied the knot from one side and then the other.

"He doesn’t know." Joe had his hands behind his back and he twisted back and forth on his boot heels, extremely proud of himself.

"Aw," Hoss scoffed and waved a dismissive hand at our little brother, "Pa knows every knot in the world."

Hop Sing was curious by this time. He stood from his chair and walked to Pa’s other side. After scrutinizing the twine, he straightened and shook his head. "Most unusual knot," he proclaimed.

Pa’s eyes slid to Joe as he said, "Yes, it is. May I ask where you learned this knot, Joseph?"

My brother nodded. "My book."

"Your book," Pa said.

"The knot book that Mr. and Mrs. McNally gave me."

Pa had held that present back for a few days after Joe’s birthday. I had told him when he had given the book to Joe that no good would come of it. I smirked at Pa as he pondered his gift. He raised his eyebrows at me. If he was trying to intimidate me, it wasn’t working. I love being right.

I reached for my tea mug as Pa said, "Well, there’s only one way to deal with this knot."

From the sides of my eyes I saw him reach down. His right hand came up from his boot holding a slender metal tool. Pa slid the serrated edge under the twine, moved it slightly, and the string fell to the floor like ice sliding off the roof.

"What’s that?" Joe gaped at the piece of metal in Pa’s hand, obviously not connecting what he was seeing with what I had told him about. Hoss made the connection, though. He looked at me with startled eyes.

"Oh," Pa said in that slow, calculating way that always puts my neck hairs on end, "I think you know what it is." His eyes met mine but I couldn’t read what he was thinking. My neck hairs always stand on end when I can’t decide what Pa is thinking.

Hoss gulped.

"Golly!" Joe exclaimed. "That’s the thing you used to get into the sporting house, ain’t it!"

I died. I was still sitting there, still holding my cup of tea, still breathing and blinking, and my heart was still beating. But I was dead.

"Adam told us all about it, Pa. How ya got in the boarding house and how you cut sores open with it." Joe made a face that reflected revulsion.

I returned my cup to the tabletop and wondered if Pa had ever used that tool to peel anyone’s hide. How did he know about what I had told Hoss and Joe? I had kept my voice down. Pa hadn’t been in the living room and there was no way even Pa could hear us from his bedroom when we whispered in the bunkroom.

Unless - he hadn’t been in his bedroom.

I tried to sneak a look at him but his eyes were right on me and his face was unreadable. "Assumptions have led many a man to ruin, son," he advised.

Rubbing my forehead, I asked him where he had been.

He pulled the paper away from Joe’s gift. "I couldn’t sleep so I sat on the porch for a while."

Hoss leaned back in his chair. "You can hear us whispering when you’re out there on the porch?"

Pa nodded. "Yes - I can."

Hoss swallowed hard and his face paled as he thought about all the whispered secrets we had shared at night in the bunkroom. "Oh, lordy," he moaned.

"How often - " I had to clear my throat. "How often do you find it hard to sleep?" I croaked.

Pa leaned his head back and considered my question. "Oh, no more than once or twice a week. It’s nothing to worry about."

"Oh yes it is," Hoss mouthed the words to me.

I decided that in the future when we had a secret to share we would wait until we went fishing.

"Why, Joseph!" Pa said with delight in his voice. "How did you know this is my favorite book?"

Joe tossed his head. "I guessed."

"Well, it’s a fine guess, son." Pa flipped through the pages and then he looked at Joe with humor-filled eyes. "Did you know this book has a pirate in it?"

Joe acted surprised. "Are ya sure, Pa?"

Pa nodded. "Yes." He closed the book and scooted his chair back so Joe could sit in his lap. "You chose some very nice gifts when you decided to give me Zeke and this book about a pirate."

"I did, Pa?" Our little brother basked in Pa’s praise.

"Um hum," Pa answered. "The best gifts to give are the ones you would like to receive."

Joe turned on me, his eyes snapping with anger. "You told Pa that!"

I held up my hands in surrender. "Pa told me that."

"When?" Joe demanded.

Pa smiled at me as we shared the memory.

I could see it all again. Pa pretending to be surprised and pretending it had been exactly what he had wanted. One of the many reasons that I love him is because he accepted a very special gift from me. "When I was little," I told Joe, "I gave Pa a puppy named Thaddeus."

 

 

The end