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Heading for the Hills

By Texas2002

 

(This takes place about three weeks after "Up In Smoke". They’ve replaced the outhouse Little Joe so handily burned down and are putting the finishing touches on the smokehouse.)

 

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 fun and is not intended to infringe on their rights or the rights of anyone else involved in these marvelous shows.

 

 

Adam Cartwright took a nail from his mouth and drove it into the wood with three slamming blows from his hammer.

If Little Joe didn’t haul his lazy hide from where he was sitting in the shade pretty soon Adam was going to put his thoughts into words – and they were going to be as hot as he was.

Adam slammed another nail into place. This last bit of work wouldn’t take more than half the afternoon if Little Joe would just put his back into it.

"Joseph?"

The 12-year-old shot to his feet, dusting his hands on the sides of his pants.

Adam didn’t have to look behind him. Even if he hadn’t known Pa’s voice like his own, who else could get Joe to snap to like that?

Little Joe straightened his new, larger hat and looked up.

"Is this how you’ve been helping your brother with the smokehouse?"

His back to Pa, Adam’s eyes met Little Joe’s. "I told him to rest a minute, Pa."

Pa wasn’t fooled that easily. The silence was so uncomfortable that Adam started hammering again.

"You told him to rest a minute," Pa repeated.

Adam paused to reach for more nails and found the tin empty.

He wasn’t going to repeat the lie – he wasn’t sure he could. "I figure we’ll be finished by dinner time." Adam’s eyebrows rose as he held out the tin to Little Joe.

After a worried glance in Pa’s direction, Little Joe hitched up his right suspender and took the tin from Adam’s hand.

With nothing more to do until Little Joe returned with nails, Adam turned toward Pa, hoping he looked casual as he pulled off his hat and wiped his right arm across his forehead.

"Now that we have a smokehouse we ought to put some meat in it," he said.

Adam raised his eyes and found Pa studying him with mild amusement. "The way you were slamming that hammer I expected to find your brother hanging off a meat hook." He took long, easy strides to the new outbuilding. "You’ve done another good job, son." Then he looked toward the sky. "How does a hunting trip sound? Mr. Petersen said they’re seeing a lot of turkeys and deer over near the Ridgetop area."

Turkey. Venison. Heck, he’d even settle for rabbit. A man could only eat so many squirrels no matter how many herbs Hop Sing tried to disguise the meat with.

"Huntin’ trip, Pa?" Little Joe returned with more nails. "Can I go?"

Pa studied Adam’s exacting workmanship, wondering if his oldest son had inherited some shipbuilding tendencies. While he did so, Little Joe impatiently danced from one foot to the other. When he could take it no longer, he prompted, "Pa, can I?"

Pa continued to admire Adam’s handiwork. "I thought we might all go."

Little Joe’s eyes rounded and his mouth dropped open.

Pa pointed his gloved left hand Little Joe’s way. "The first time you shirk your fair share of the load, you and I will be riding home."

"Come on, Adam," Little Joe ordered with a tug at his oldest brother’s wrist. "We can finish this up before dinner if you just put your back in it."

+++

If he ever wanted his sons to move quickly, Ben decided, he would just say the words "hunting trip". They arranged for the Grant boys to help Hop Sing while they were gone, packed provisions and even had the horses ready before he was fully dressed the next morning.

Standing at the shaving mirror he could hear Little Joe sigh every two seconds as he leaned back on the windowsill.

"How come you’re shaving just to go hunting?" his youngest son asked, aggravation apparent. "Are you gonna shave while we’re out there?"

Ben rinsed his razor. "Yes."

"We’re only gonna be gone two days, Pa."

Ben ignored the boy. If he didn’t quit talking and concentrate on shaving even good-natured Hoss would be in to see what was taking so long.

"When I have a beard I’m just gonna let it grow," Joe declared.

"Girls don’t like beards," Adam replied as he leaned in the doorway.

"Who cares about girls?"

In the mirror Ben watched Adam’s right brow go up. "You will by the time you can shave."

"Not me," Joe argued, "I’m never gonna be dumb about girls like Hoss and you."

Adam made the mistake of smirking. From the sides of his eyes, Ben saw a small hand grab his lathered shaving brush. Luckily Adam saw it, too, and he ducked as the thing went airborne. The shaving brush hit the doorframe and splattered lather all the way to the floor.

His oldest son heaved Little Joe off his feet, holding him upside down, and carried him outside.

"Pa!" the youngest yelled. "Pa, help! He’s gonna kill me!"

Ben doubted that - although he had every reason to believe Little Joe was about to get his head dunked.

He was buttoning his shirt when Hoss entered the room, his brow wrinkled. "How come Adam’s bobbing Little Joe’s head in and out of the horse trough like an apple?"

"Is it still attached?"

Hoss leaned forward from the waist, not understanding. "Sir?"

"Is Little Joe’s head still attached to his body?"

"Yes sir."

"Then there’s nothing to worry about." Ben leaned out the window. "Joseph, you have something to clean up in here!" He tried not to laugh at the pitiful, drowned sight of his youngest as Adam put him on his feet.

"Aw, Pa," the youngster wailed. "By the time I change clothes and get that done it’ll be noon."

"If it is we’re leaving without you."

Joe shot to the porch and dashed into the house.

"Did you know he could move that fast?" Hoss asked in astonishment.

"I’ve seen him do it a time or two," Pa replied dryly.

+++

Hoss loved this camping site. Since it, like most things on the ranch, didn’t have a name he called it Heaven’s Meadow for the narrow strip of green grass that grew between the clear lake and the rock shelter area where they made camp.

No one had to be told what to do. Adam and Pa tended the horses and provisions while Hoss started the campfire and Joe toted the water.

‘Course, being Joe, he used the chore as an excuse to get wet from the waist down and to "accidentally" douse the back of Hoss’ shirt.

"Dang it, Little Joe," Hoss howled as he pulled his shirttail from his pants. He stood up, tugged his shirt over his head.

Jaw set, he picked up Little Joe and threw him over his shoulder like a sack of feed.

"Hey!" his younger brother squealed. "What’re you doing?"

"You’ll find out." Hoss waded into the water. Here in the shallows it was kind of warm but he bet back there in that deeper part it was cold.

"Put me down!" Small fists beat to no avail on Hoss’ back.

"What’d you say?" Hoss asked, his sky blue eyes full of mischief.

"Put me down!!" Little Joe demanded.

"Careful what you ask for." Hoss swung him once for momentum and then Little Joe was airborne, screaming, with arms and legs flailing before he hit the water like a cannonball – and sank like one, too.

Hoss watched.

And waited.

No bubbles.

No little brother.

Dagnabit. Pa would have his hide if he hurt Little Joe. He paused only to pull off his boots and throw them back to shore then ran to the deep water.

He was nearly waist deep in the lake when something hit him behind the knees. He went completely under but bobbed back up to find Little Joe an arm’s length away – treading water, laughing and spitting.

A line formed between Hoss’ brows.

"Hoss…Hoss, I was just funning ya." Little Joe looked around him for escape.

"Funning huh?" Hoss pushed up his sleeves and grinned. But it wasn’t the kind of grin Little Joe liked to see. "I’ll show you funning."

Little Joe’s scream of protest gurgled as Hoss’ large hand dunked him and held him under.

"Hoss!" Pa called from the shoreline. "Remember he needs air, son."

"He’s pretty good at holding his breath."

"Let him up, Hoss!" The good nature in Pa’s voice was replaced by a tone Hoss knew better than to tangle with. He grabbed Joe’s shirt collar and pulled him up then turned to face the shoreline. "He started it, Pa."

Pa’s head went back. "Don’t do it, Joseph."

"Well he started it, Pa."

"I don’t care who started it, it stops now," Pa warned.

Hoss was determined to have justice. "Dang it, Pa, he poured water all down my shirt."

"It was an accident."

"Sure!"

"Hoss," Pa’s voice thickened.

"I tripped!"

"Tripped on level ground," Hoss scoffed.

Little Joe made a face at his brother and turned toward Pa. "Then he nearly killed me."

Hoss’ hands went to his hips. "I did not. I put him over my shoulder, Pa."

"You threw me so hard it practically broke my ribs!"

"Joseph," Pa’s voice was getting more and more hoarse, which meant he was getting more and more dangerous.

Hoss glared down at Little Joe. "Well if your ribs were so hurt how did you have the air to holler the way you did?"

"And then – and then he heaved me into that water and for all he knew I could’ve drowned."

"Aw, Pa!" Hoss wailed. "You ain’t believing this, are ya?"

Hoss wondered why Adam grinned and looked down. It didn’t seem there was anything to smile about when Pa got upset – especially on a hunting trip, when they usually had fun.

"All right," Pa muttered. "I guess it’s up to me to put a stop to this."

Hoss and Little Joe watched in astonishment as he pulled off his belt.

Hoss held up his right hand, palm toward the shore. "No, sir, Pa, you don’t need to do that." Why was Adam still looking down and grinning? There for sure wasn’t anything funny about Pa pulling off his belt even if Hoss was 17.

"Pa," Little Joe grabbed Hoss’ right hand, "see, we’re shaking on it right now. Ain’t we Hoss?"

Hoss looked down at his little brother’s worried eyes. "Yeah, Pa, we ain’t ever been better buddies, have we little brother?"

"Never," Little Joe agreed.

"Heads up!" Adam raised his chin as he called from shore.

Hoss obeyed just in time to find Pa a foot away, the dreaded belt nowhere in sight. Pa wrestled him under with the strength of a bear.

So that was it! Well Hoss knew how this game was played. Pa and he used to wrestle every evening when he was a kid. He came out of the water, laughing and wiping the hair from his eyes and took Pa down with a hit to the middle.

"Gee, Hoss," Little Joe said in wonder. "Think you shoulda done that?"

"Look out!" Hoss shouted but it was too late. Pa came to the surface like a monster, grabbed Little Joe around the waist and pulled him under.

On shore, Adam shook his head. Those three were going to be a while and he was getting hungry. If they were to eat anytime soon it was up to him to dress the rabbits.

Beyond the yelling and splashing in the creek, he could hear the sounds he had learned to love as a boy – bird songs and the rush of wind in the trees. He’d never heard as interesting a sound as the wind in the pines. Sometimes on a rainy day it was almost like a lonesome sigh.

A crack in the brush ahead of him brought his head up. If it was something he could have shot and taken home to that empty smokehouse he was going to kick himself – the rifle was on the other side of camp.

Another sound. This time it was closer. Adam eased toward the rifle, knees bent so he didn’t rise to his full height and spook whatever it was. He already had enough problem with the wind at his back, carrying his scent to his prey.

To his right, the horses stamped and shied, tugging at the rope line.

Adam reached for the rifle with his right hand, eyes straight ahead. He stood quickly, aimed for the dark bulk, and fired.

Click.

He looked at the weapon in disbelief and opened it.

The darn thing wasn’t loaded!

Not loaded! Pa had given him one of the worst tannings of his life when he’d forgotten to reload after firing a shot when he was about Joe’s age.

Aggravated because he’d missed a chance at something to take back to the empty smokehouse, he squatted and picked up the skinning knife - intent on preparing the rabbits again. He didn’t notice the sounds had stopped at the pond until something cold splashed over his head and took his breath. In the next instant Hoss’ laughter gave him away.

Adam stood slowly, careful to place the skinning knife where it couldn’t hurt anyone.

"Sure wish I’d seen your face." His soaked, blonde haired brother chuckled.

Adam ran his right hand through his wet hair, combing it off his forehead, while he made quick note of how clear the campsite was around them. "You’re looking at it now," he answered calmly.

"Yeah," Hoss shrugged at his brother’s unreadable expression, "but now it ain’t no fun."

Adam had two things in his favor: the slope of the land and the element of surprise. He barreled into Hoss and felled him like a rifle ball knocking down a squirrel.

Ben watched his two sons a moment as he pulled off his wet shirt by the campfire. His instincts that no harm would be done were confirmed when he heard a mutter, then a laugh and then another challenge.

Little Joe barely paid attention as Pa helped him pull his wet shirt over his head. "They’re fighting, Pa."

Ben grinned. "What makes you think that?"

Little Joe’s left hand shot out to point. "What’s it look like?"

"They’ll stop when they’re tired. You and I need to finish these rabbits Adam started."

That splashing around in the cold water had addled Pa’s brains for sure. Anybody in their right mind could tell Hoss and Adam were fighting. Everybody knew how Adam’s temper could flare like gunpowder and how Pa disapproved of the boys arguing among themselves.

Had Pa forgotten the time the two of them tangled back in New Orleans? They’d gotten into it so bad they had blood coming from their noses and lips. Pa had yelled at them but they acted like they couldn’t even hear him. He’d started to throw water from a pitcher on them – the way he did cats when they fought at night and kept him from going to sleep – but Ma wasn’t about to let him ruin one of those expensive foreign rugs. When Pa had grabbed a hold of each of them by their shirt collars, Little Joe had spread his fingers over his eyes – sure Pa was going to smack their heads together and brain them.

He’d been so busy watching Pa he’d forgotten about Ma. He never made that mistake again.

While Pa held them by their shirts, she came up with a slat from the plantation shutters Pa was repairing and swatted Adam’s pants’ seat so hard he yelped. When she was through with Hoss he had tears in his eyes.

Little Joe didn’t know when he’d seen Pa so surprised but Pa didn’t say anything to Ma, just told Adam and Hoss to stand in the corner. When Ma left the room, Pa settled Little Joe in his lap, asked Adam and Hoss to come stand at his knees, and he talked to them about what it meant to be brothers: how they had to take care of each other and trust each other and that brothers were lucky because they had a way of communicating that was really special.

Joe looked up from the pan where he was frying the rabbit meat as Adam and Hoss collapsed on their backs, laughing like he hadn’t heard them do in a long, long time.

Amazed, he looked up at Pa – and Pa winked at him.

Life was sure peculiar.

+++

It didn’t take Little Joe long to figure out that his idea of fishing and Hoss’ idea of fishing were two entirely different things.

His idea of fishing involved using a pole with some line and a hook. Hoss’ idea of fishing involved a nice shady spot on the green grass, his saddle nearby to prop himself against, and his hat to cover his eyes.

Not that Hoss’ nap bothered Joe. He’d been thinking on it a couple of minutes and it seemed to him that if he put a longer line on his fishing pole he could throw it out in that deeper part of the lake and have a better chance of catching some lunch. It would sure be fun to see the look on Adam and Pa’s faces when they came back in from hunting if he was cooking up fish and warming that rice Hop Sing sent along.

His tongue at the edge of his lips, Joe carefully tied the fishing line to the top end of the pole the way Adam had shown him a long time ago when he’d been a little kid. Walking backwards, he fed out the line from the bundle in his hand until he figured he had a good length and then he looked around for a knife. He’d lost his own about the time he’d burned down the outhouse and he still hadn’t built up the nerve to tell Pa. Generally what Pa didn’t know didn’t hurt Joe.

He’d seen Adam with a knife yesterday. What had he done with it? Joe rummaged through the camp and shook his head in disbelief at how much noise he could make and still not wake Hoss.

There was no knife anywhere. Joe paced back to the shore, wondering if there were any really sharp rocks. By the water where they got worn smooth? Not a chance.

He really didn’t like the next idea when it burst into his thoughts. Pa’s razor. Using anything that belonged to Pa without permission ran counter to even Joe’s mischievous nature.

But Pa wasn’t here. He’d never know, right?

Joe hurried to Pa’s camping gear and carefully located the razor. He felt one huge spasm in his stomach as he held the shaving instrument in his hand. How many times had he watched Pa work this on his leather strop and been warned it was dangerously sharp? It wasn’t a toy or even a knife.

But if it was sharp it would cut his fishing line in nothing flat. He’d do it real quick and Pa would be none the wiser.

Joe ran back to the fishing line where it was stretched on the shore. He doubled the line, pulled the razor through and it sliced the stuff like it was a spider web.

Wow! Pa wasn’t kidding this thing was sharp.

Eyes drifting to a stand of nearby bushes, Joe wondered just how sharp this razor was. He picked a switch about the size of Hoss’ pointer finger, pulled it down slightly and cut at it with the razor. He had to saw just a little but the razor cut a clean, smooth edge.

This was better than a knife any day!

Joe looked up from his new-found wonder. Gosh something smelled awful. He gingerly poked at the brush, wondering if something had died and started rotting. Following his nose, he wandered into the trees a bit but then lost the stinking smell. Just as well, it was enough to make a man lose his breakfast.

Or lunch.

Lunch! Oh gee! Adam and Pa could be back anytime now.

He needed to put back the razor before Pa returned.

But there was something on the blade. Sap from the bush? Joe started to rub at it with his thumb but recalled how it had sliced through the switch. He had no desire to find out how quickly the razor could go through his skin.

Maybe it would wash off.

Joe quickly made his way back to the lake and waded into the shallow water. He sat on his heels and dipped the knife. Nothing happened. Desperate now, he looked around. There was a small strip of sand. Pa had shown them how to scour something with sand and then rinse it in clear water.

He made easy work of it. Using a glove to protect his hand, being very careful to rinse all the sand off and drying the razor on his shirttail.

By the time Adam and Pa rode up with a couple of quail, Joe was studiously fishing and convinced Pa would never be the wiser about the razor.

But Adam and Pa were not having a good day.

"Well where is it?" Pa asked Adam with no small amount of exasperation.

Hoss looked down, hiding a grin. Poor old Adam. He was so used to doing everything right that he couldn’t believe he’d misplaced the second knife.

Adam slapped at his pockets as if the thing would be there, which it wouldn’t, and looked around the camp in dismay. "I cleaned it after dinner last night, Pa."

"I know that son. What did you do with it then?"

Adam’s deep blue eyes swung suspiciously to Joe and the youngster threw up his arms. "Why does everyone always think it’s me?"

His oldest brother’s lips twisted to one side. "Because it usually is."

Joe’s chin jutted. "I don’t know nothin’ about your dumb old skinning knife. What’d ya need it for anyhow? Those are birds."

"The second one wasn’t a skinning knife. You can use it for more than one thing," Pa explained, hands on his hips as his eyes roved the campsite.

"Like gutting little brothers," Adam said under his breath.

"It ain’t me!" Little Joe yelled.

Pa’s eyes settled on him with an unspoken warning only a fool wouldn’t understand.

Joe was no fool. Hurt feelings or not, he backed down.

Pa threw his gloved hands into the air. He strode toward his gear. "I will never understand how you boys managed to lose two knives this quickly." He yanked at the canvas roll, rummaged around and came out with his razor.

Adam licked his lip. "Let me look a little longer."

But Pa wasn’t having any of it. He handed the razor to Adam. "I am tired," he said in that deliberate way of his. "I am hungry. And I am beginning to be aggravated. Sound like a good mix to you?"

Adam closed his eyes.

"I’ll tend the horses," Pa said. And with that he stormed from the camp.

"Gee, Adam," Little Joe said before he thought. "Looks like Pa’s having all kinds of fun on this hunting trip."

Hoss shot to his feet and put his hands against Adam’s chest as his older brother stepped toward Joe. "Don’t do nothin’ we’ll all regret, Adam. Tell you what. You go take a swim and Joe and me’ll get supper going. Doesn’t that sound good? The water’s nice and cool and clear. Knock some of that hunting dust off of you." Hoss turned and gave Joe as close to a glare as he could muster.

Adam shook Hoss off and wordlessly stomped past Joe.

Joe’s left arm felt like someone had put it in a vise and he looked up in surprise at Hoss. "Don’t you talk to him like that, you understand me?"

"I was just teasing him."

But there was nothing slow about Hoss. Sometimes he could read Joe’s mind before Joe was aware of the thought. "You weren’t teasing. You were digging under his skin. He’s always looked out for you and cared for you. You show him some respect or he’s just liable to make you regret it."

Joe tried to pull from Hoss’ grip but it didn’t work. Even though he recognized the truth in Hoss’ words, he wasn’t about to admit it. "Adam lays a hand on me and Pa’ll lay into him."

Hoss leaned down until his face was too close for comfort. "If Adam ever lays a hand on you it’s gonna be for a darn good reason and I can guarantee you Pa’ll lay into you."

After giving Joe a full minute to think about what he’d said, Hoss released his little brother’s arm. "Now, let’s take care of these birds before Pa gets back and wants to know what we’ve been doing."

That was enough motivation for Little Joe. He went to the lake for water, cautiously avoiding Adam, and returned to ready the campfire for cooking. In the meantime, Hoss worked on the quail.

"Dang, Pa," Hoss laughed as Pa returned to camp. "I hope your razor’s just dull cause otherwise we’ve got some tough birds here."

His back to his brother and Pa, Little Joe paused in stirring the rice.

"Dull?" Pa asked. "I just stropped it."

"Maybe your strop’s worn out," Hoss offered good-naturedly.

"Hardly. Though I’ve been tempted to wear it out a time or two."

Joe cringed, finding no humor in Pa’s remark. But Hoss laughed with a heartiness that indicated he found the idea of Pa using a razor strop on anyone pretty impossible. Or maybe it was just that he was too old to get tannings anymore that made him so sure.

"How’s it going, son?" Pa’s hand rested on Little Joe’s shoulder before he reached for the coffee pot.

"Uh, fine Pa."

"Did you catch those fish?"

"Yes, sir. Hoss was doing other stuff."

Pa smiled knowingly. "I’m sure." He filled another camping cup with coffee and held it up as Adam approached the fire, dripping from his swim in the lake.

Adam nodded a ‘thank you’ and accepted the cup. He squatted by the fire and looked at Pa from the tops of his eyes. "I’m sorry, Pa."

Pa gave a quick shake of his head. "We were neither one at our best. Let’s call it a draw."

Adam smiled and looked into the trees. "I can’t figure it out, Pa. Mr. Petersen saw game all through these mountains. So did the Chamberlain twins. And all we’re coming across is birds and fish and squirrels." He gave a puzzled shake of his hair and droplets of water splashed on Little Joe. "I’ve seen more deer around Hop Sing’s garden then I have up here."

Little Joe grinned and sat on the ground. "Maybe the animals smell Hoss," he said over his shoulder.

"And maybe they hear Little Joe," Hoss shot back.

Ben smiled at his boys and blew on his coffee.

+++

"Pa?"

Joe’s voice drifted to Ben that night across the gently burning campfire.

"Yes, son?"

"How’d you learn all that about the stars?"

"It’s one of the ways you navigate a ship, son. The other way is by the sun."

"What if you can’t see the sun or the stars?"

Ben chuckled. "Then it gets harder."

"Is it really that big, Pa?" Hoss asked from Joe’s left side. "Folks say you can get on that ocean and there’s nothing but water."

"There’s nothing but water and you can see the curve of the earth."

His two younger sons found this astonishing. By the firelight he saw his oldest son smile, close his book, and lay on top of his bedroll.

"Remember when we were on that beach in Louisiana and it was nothing but water there?" Joe asked.

"You’re thinking of Mississippi," Adam said. "Louisiana’s nothing but swamps."

"Is not!"

"It’s mostly swamps," Hoss agreed. Then his voice brightened and Ben knew it was going to be a while before they settled. "Remember those stories we used to hear about the swamps?"

"What stories?" Little Joe asked excitedly.

"I don’t know, Little Joe," Adam said, purposely hedging. "They were pretty scary."

"I ain’t afraid of nothing," the boy bragged and Ben was glad it was dark so they couldn’t see him fighting a laugh.

"Well," Adam said slowly. "All right. Let me see if I can remember one."

Of course he could. And as he told it, Ben winced wondering how many nightmares the story would give Little Joe. He had an active enough imagination on his own. Add to that Adam’s talent for making a story come alive and it was probably leading to bad dreams for Joe and sleepless nights for Ben. Unless he made Adam stay up with his youngest brother - that would be justice.

The story Adam remembered was a particularly grizzly one. New Orleans was full of all kinds of tales but this one was about half-dead people who were doomed to wander in the swamps while their bodies rotted off their bones.

"Stop!" Joe hissed after a few minutes and Adam obeyed. "I smell ‘em."

"Smell who?" Adam’s voice betrayed no concern.

"Those people in the swamp."

Ben smiled and Adam chuckled. "Joe, you couldn’t possibly smell them. First of all, Louisiana is too far away and second of all they aren’t real. It’s just a -"

"Hey," Hoss said softly. "I smell ‘em, too."

Ben rolled his eyes. He had no desire to hear Little Joe wake up screaming in the night out here. "All right. That’s enough."

"No, Pa," Hoss almost whispered. "I sure ‘nuff smell them."

"You can’t," Adam argued, hoping for reason to triumph. But Hoss and Little Joe were convinced they had a whiff of the dead.

Ben sat up and put another piece of wood on the fire and his sons blinked in the light. "It stops now," he ordered.

But when he woke the next morning, Little Joe was at his left side and Hoss was at his right.

+++

"Dog gone it, Pa, I ain’t never seen nothin’ like it," Hoss muttered. He was one unhappy camper later that morning.

"Seems like we could leastways find somethin’." His head went down sheepishly. "We can’t go back with nothing for that smokehouse Hop Sing’ll never let us hear the end of it."

Adam looked from the tops of his dark blue eyes and put down his metal breakfast plate. "Maybe we should split up today."

Ben put on his best "Pa" face, hoping to hide his enthusiasm for the idea. "I don’t know, son -"

"We could cover twice as much territory." Adam made his proposal softly, with great diplomacy, not eager to argue with Pa unnecessarily.

Hoss’ face was as bright as the sunshine. "Yeah, Pa. Bet we could get something for the smokehouse for sure that way."

"Well…" Ben considered his sons over his coffee cup. "You’d need to watch out for Little Joe."

Adam blinked and swallowed at the same time. He looked like his breakfast had just soured. "Little Joe."

"I can take care of myself." The freckle-faced youngster was incensed by any suggestion otherwise.

Ben tilted his head slightly, meeting Adam’s gaze. "I thought you could go along the creek and I’d take the ridge."

"Little Joe," Adam repeated slowly.

Ben bit the inside of his cheek to keep from laughing. "I’m sure he’d rather be with his big brothers than with me, son."

Adam turned his head slightly but looked at Pa from the sides of his eyes.

"I can take care of myself!" The subject of the discussion was on his feet, balled fists at his waistline.

Adam made his decision. "Sure, Pa," he said as he stood. "We’ll take Little Joe and stay by the creek. We’ll meet you at the lightning struck pine midday."

Ben nodded. "I’ll take care of the campfire and the cleanup."

"I can, ya know," Little Joe said to Hoss’ back as they walked toward the horses.

"Yeah, but somehow your taking care of yourself always comes down to us rescuin’ ya," Hoss observed.

+++

He thought he would never get rid of those boys! And now he had to move fast if he was going to get ahead of them. Ben pushed his horse, familiar with the narrow trail in the pines. From a place where the trees had burned last year, and the new growth wasn’t tall yet, he stood up in the saddle stirrups and spotted his sons far behind him along the creek.

Good. Memories of this were going to keep him chuckling all fall.

He put his mount into a gallop that would have warranted a reprimand if any of his sons had done the same in such terrain and finally pulled up when he judged he was close to his destination. After leading his horse to the opposite side of the ridge so he wouldn’t nicker to the boys’ horses when they showed up, Ben carried his precious cargo down the slope.

He had worked on this for weeks, ever since the first time he’d said something to Adam about being so light on his feet he could sneak up on a wild turkey. Every hunter knew how wily those big birds could be. Sometimes it seemed they sensed movement a mile away.

Ben glanced around before he left the tree line, and then walked down to the thicket just this side of the creek. It was the perfect spot. There was the thicket, then the creek, and a bluff on the other side. Sitting on his heels, he untied the sack he’d made sure to keep hidden from the boys.

What a fine looking turkey – even if he did say so himself. He’d worked on it for the past three weeks, every evening in his room and sometimes during the day when he could think up enough chores to keep the boys away from the house. At those times, Hop Sing had enjoyed helping. First they’d stitched tea-dipped muslin in the shape of a turkey’s head, neck and body. They’d stuffed it with everything from straw to weeds to cotton. After that had come the tedious work of finding enough chicken and bird feathers to cover the neck and then one day Hop Sing presented him with a sack of turkey feathers. He only smiled when Ben asked where they had come from. So he’d spent hours poking the feathers into the muslin body. Then he’d needed Hop Sing’s help again to stitch red cloth under the face, near the neck, to resemble a wattle. By the time they were finished, and the turkey was completed, both had agreed that at least from a distance it was a pretty good decoy.

They had taken to calling it Tom.

Ben pushed two metal pieces into Tom’s belly for legs and drove those into the dirt with his boot heel, then brushed the high grass with his hands so it didn’t look broken.

Back-stepping he tipped his hat to his cohort in mischief and then climbed uphill to his observation spot, hidden in the shade of the pines, to wait.

And wait.

And wait.

Where the devil were those boys?

If it were just Hoss and Joe he could understand – they could forget faster than a forgiven sinner. Not Adam. From the time he’d been old enough to go to school, except for a spell when he was about 12 or so, he’d always been diligent.

Maybe they’d shot something, though the only rifle reports he’d heard had been the ones the day Adam and he were out hunting. Maybe….

The jingle of saddle tack reached his anxious ears and Ben leaned forward, forearms resting on his knees.

Down below, a couple of yards this side of the creek, Adam rode alone. Why alone? They must have found something farther back and Adam had left his brothers to take care of it while he scouted ahead. He’d rather they stayed together until they were older and more experienced. He’d told them so enough times he’d thought surely it had sunk in.

Ben glanced quickly toward Tom and then back at his oldest son, riding easily on a direct collision course. He wiped his lower face with his gloved hand and then grinned widely when he realized there was no one to see him.

Adam was as slow and methodical in scouting as he was about everything else. Just when Ben was about to shout at him that there was a turkey ahead, Adam pulled up his horse. He leaned forward in the saddle, peering at Tom over the high grass, and then slowly stood in the stirrups.

That a boy, Ben silently cheered. Go on.

Sitting back down, Adam reached for his rifle.

Oh, no. Don’t do that, son. That’ll ruin all the fun.

Then, as if a new thought occurred to him, Adam reset the rifle. He eased from the saddle so quietly that Ben didn’t even hear the leather creak and he tied his horse to the edge of the thicket line. He deliberated on something a minute, looked in all directions, then left his hat and rifle on the horse and took a step forward.

Adam was a wonder to watch. He moved through the high grass the way Ben had seen house cats stalk prey – take a step, freeze, take another step, freeze. Where had he learned that? Had he slipped out of the house in New Orleans more times than Ben realized?

With infinite patience Adam closed in on Tom, his slender body barely rippling the grass.

Closer.

Closer.

He was almost within striking distance.

BLAM!

Adam fell to the ground and Tom disintegrated into tiny, floating bits of cloth and stuffing.

"Dang, Little Joe, you done blew that turkey to…"

"Stop shooting!!" Adam screamed.

"Adam?" Hoss stood up in the thicket with a wide-eyed Little Joe beside him.

His heart beating again, Ben’s temper launched and he stormed down the slope. "How many times have I told you not to shoot until you know what you are shooting at?!" Even his relief at seeing his oldest son struggle to his feet unbloodied but covered with stuffing could not stop his rage. "How many times have I told you not to split up? To be sure you know where every other hunter is before you shoot anything?!" By the time he reached them he was ready to have their hides. "Well?!!!"

His only answer was the top of three heads as they looked down.

"I have never been so disappointed in you!"

Wait a minute.

What was going on here? Their heads were down but Adam’s shoulders were shaking. And Hoss had his left hand over his mouth. Little Joe’s hands were jammed so hard in his front pants pockets they threatened to tear the lining.

Lowering his voice he directed them to look at him.

Adam was first to obey, looking from the tops of his eyes while his lips betrayed a smile Ben knew well.

Little Joe followed; chin up, looking from the bottoms of his eyes and down his nose as if he were seven feet tall. The dimples in his cheeks were as deep as ever.

What was going on here?

"I cain’t do it, Pa," Hoss shook his downcast head.

Ben frowned. "Would you care to explain why?"

"I’ll start laughing, Pa," came the husky confession.

"Laughing?" Ben repeated. Now he was completely puzzled.

"Yes, sir. If you just could have seen your face when you came tearing out of those trees, hollering at us like all get-out…"

Frowning, Ben looked to his oldest son. "Would you please explain to me what is so funny?"

Adam licked his top lip and gave a slight jerk of his head toward the two wire legs – all that remained of the once-proud Tom. "We knew, Pa."

"Knew."

"About the turkey," Little Joe said. "We were coming down the creek when we saw you putting it in the ground." Confession made, his face went a little wary.

Hoss finally looked up, wiping at eyes that had been tearing with laughter. "I guess you could say the joke’s on you."

For very little he could have run them all up the nearest tree. Except for the fact that he had to admit it was a pretty good sense of humor that could turn a man’s own joke on him.

He felt his lips twitch and then he made a quick grab for Little Joe, who wasn’t expecting it.

"No, Pa!" he yelled, a hand atop his hat. "No!" He laughed and twisted as Ben tickled his ribs. "Help!" he called out to his brothers.

For the briefest of moments Hoss and Adam exchanged shrugs that communicated volumes. Then they dove in, playfully trying to tear their brother from Pa’s arms – or to tear their brother apart; it didn’t much matter.

+++

"Not even a rabbit to bring back." Hoss muttered as they rode easily up the slope toward the house in the early evening light. "Brand new smokehouse and it’ll sit empty."

"Well, son, that’s just how things go sometimes." Ben felt more philosophical than he probably should. He, too, was tired of their usual culinary fare. But the camping had been a welcome diversion. There was plenty of time to head back, with one boy at a time, for some serious hunting.

Hoss’ nose went up like a wolf’s to the scent. "Um, now that smells good."

Joe, too, sat straight in the saddle. "Gee, Pa, what do you figure that is?"

Ben swung from the saddle and handed the reins to Hoss. "Not sure. You boys tend the horses and then come straight in. It smells like Hop Sing has dinner just about ready."

Pulling off his gloves and then removing his hat, he quickly crossed the porch and stepped into the welcoming home.

"Ah, you return just in time," Hop Sing said, smiling from the cooking fireplace.

Ben made his way toward him. "Something smells good."

Hop Sing gave a gentle, acknowledging nod of his head. "Venison steaks with special herbs."

"Venison!" Ben became aware his mouth was hanging open. "Where did you get venison?"

The young man shrugged nonchalantly. "Smokehouse."

"Yes, but, where did you get it before that?"

"From deer."

Ben counted to ten. Sometimes this one could be as exasperating as his sons and Ben had a sneaking suspicion he enjoyed doing it. "And where did you get the deer?" he asked with exaggerated patience.

"Garden."

"Hop Sing." Ben put his hands on the top rail of the wooden settee to keep from clinching them at his side. "Deer don’t grow in gardens."

"No, but they eat. Hop Sing tell them he tired of working hard and them eating everything. They not listen. So Hop Sing go out early in morning and shoot them."

"Them? How many are in the smokehouse?"

"Two. Would have had three but only had two rifles."

Ben turned on his boot heels as Hop Sing crossed the room. "You – you got each of those deer with one shot?"

Hop Sing looked over his shoulder as he carried a dish of potatoes to the table. "Why? You can not do?"

"Well, yes, but I learned how to hunt a long time ago with…" Ben shook his head. This was beside the point. "Where did you learn to hunt like that?"

The young man only smiled, his dark eyes twinkling. "Don’t always eat vegetables."

Their conversation fell by the wayside as Adam, Hoss and Little Joe came into the house, all talking at once and assuring Hop Sing they were starved.

Ben guessed they supposed Hop Sing had traded for the venison steaks, or maybe they didn’t want to question their good fortune too much, because they asked no questions beyond "Could you pass the potatoes, please?" and "Are there anymore peas?"

"What you bring back from hunting trip?" Hop Sing finally asked.

The three boys studiously avoided the question, leaving Ben to stammer an explanation that they’d only been able to hunt enough to feed themselves each day. "I don’t think there were many animals up where we were," he finished.

"Probably because of bear," Hop Sing stated.

Hoss paused with his fork at his mouth. "Bear?"

"Um," Hop Sing nodded. "Man named Harrison stop by. He kill two bear day before today in that country people call Ridgetop – you know, pretty lake not far from it."

All the Cartwright eyes met.

"Yeah," Adam said slowly, remembering the rifle shots Pa and he had heard, "we know the place."

Hop Sing sliced into his meat. "Man say very dangerous bears. Him say people hunting there ignore all sign - like how bad bear smell - and do very dangerous things like keep food close by. Him say despite all hunting, these people not have anything to show. You see these people?"

Hoss frowned and looked down. "Far as I know we was the only ones up at Ridge…" He stopped suddenly with a pained expression and frowned at Adam who sat across the table.

"This is excellent venison, Hop Sing," Adam said quickly. "Where’s it from?"

Oh no, Ben thought. Not again. But to his surprise, Hop Sing gave Adam a straight answer.

"I shoot. Both of them. They together now in smokehouse."

The boys stared in amazement.

"Y-you shot it?" Little Joe asked.

He sat straight, trying not to gloat. "Hop Sing man of many talents."

Ben touched his napkin to the edges of his lips and pushed his chair back from the table. "Hop Sing," he said, "how would you like to go on a hunting trip?"

His friend smiled. "Would be most honored."

"I believe," Ben corrected, "the honor would be mine."

+++