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Off Balance

By Texas2002

 

This story follows "Not Quite New Neighbors."

 

If you knew anything about Pa’s ways, and Hoss Cartwright figured he’d learned a fair amount in 17 years, you followed his lead at the breakfast table. This morning Pa wasn’t saying a word. Truth was he acted mad about something but none of them had crossed him lately so Hoss was at a loss about why the table was so quiet. All the same, he followed Adam’s example and ate quietly and maybe a little faster than normal just so he could get out of the house.

Things didn’t get much better when he went outside. First of all, a saw and hammer he was using to build the new tool shed broke. Pa wasn’t around when the saw gave way but he was when the hammerhead went flying because it dern near hit him in the chest. The aggravated look Pa gave Hoss caused him to stammer, "Sorry, Pa," and he immediately retreated to the other side of the shed.

That was when it started raining lightly and the footing, especially around the tool shed, got slippery fast. Pa was carrying an armful of boards for Adam to measure when Joe came flying past, chasing Smoke, and set Pa off balance. Pa skidded in the mud and fell with the boards landing smack across his lower legs.

Pa spoke then: mostly to Little Joe, mostly calling him "Joseph", and Hoss listened in open-mouthed surprise as Little Joe’s temper shot back at Pa’s. By the time everything was said, Pa had come close to spanking Little Joe and told him to go think things over in his room.

"It’s Smoke’s fault," Little Joe muttered as he skulked past Hoss.

"I wouldn’t tell Pa that if I was you," Hoss warned.

"Joseph, in your room now!" Pa ordered in that voice that wasn’t to be trifled with. Little Joe’s eyes got big as biscuits as he hurried to obey.

The morning didn’t get any better. Abigail jumped up on the sawhorse and spilled the container of nails so Pa and Hoss had to retrieve those out of the mud. Hoss still wasn’t clear about what had happened in the house but Hop Sing came out the front door chattering in Chinese and threw burned food as far as he could. When the wind picked up as the rain increased, the barn door blew outwards into the wheelbarrow Hoss had forgotten about and left outside. Adam had made sure that wheelbarrow would never fall apart again – so much so that when the barn door hit it the impact left a three foot hole in the door.

Pa had looked from Adam to Hoss with his hands on his hips and his mouth so straight you could have drawn it with a ruler. "I am not going to ask who left the wheelbarrow sitting there. But I expect you to repair that barn door. Do I make myself clear?"

It would’ve been hard to judge who said "yes, sir" the fastest.

And then the worst thing of all happened.

Hoss was backing up the wagon, being extra careful because it was heavily loaded and nothing about the morning was going right, when somehow he managed to hit the end of the water trough with the left rear wheel. The whole end of the trough broke out and the water ran downhill to where Pa and Adam were digging. Hoss’ hitting the water trough didn’t do much for the wagon wheel and it did even less for Pa’s already short fuse.

"What in Zeus are you doing?" he demanded as he closed on Hoss like thunder, lightning and hail all rolled into one.

Hoss got down from the wagon and looked back at the wrecked wheel. This was really bad. They weren’t gonna be able to fix this one on the ranch.

Pa jerked off his gloves. "That wheel’s not talking to you, Eric."

Eric? Hoss gulped and slid his eyes to Pa.

Pa waved his right hand toward the trough. "Well?"

Hoss wasn’t used to being yelled at like this. What did Pa want? It wasn’t like he’d done it on purpose. "I was backing up the wagon –"

"I can SEE that. Why did you hit the water trough?"

Hoss stuck his hands in his front pockets, aware Adam’s eyes were on him. That only made things worse: Adam never did stupid stuff. Hoss knew Pa would be even more upset if he didn’t answer, but he couldn’t think of a single thing to say.

Pa’s voice got dangerously deep. "Do I need to take my belt to you to get your attention, young man?"

Pa’s belt? Wasn’t he too big for that even if Pa didn’t think he was too old? The thought of losing hide to Pa flooded Hoss with embarrassment first, then anger and finally a whole lot of confusion.

"No sir, Pa. You – you don’t need to do that."

"Then what the devil happened?"

Hoss shifted uncomfortably. His voice came out louder than he intended when he said, "I don’t rightly know, Pa."

Pa’s lower jaw ground to the left and Hoss braced, watching for Pa’s hands to reach down to his belt buckle. "You don’t rightly know," he repeated.

"No, sir."

"Could that be because you weren’t paying attention?"

Now that wasn’t fair. He’d been as careful as he knew how.

"Well?" Pa’s voice rose.

"I was being as careful as I could, Pa."

"Your careful obviously wasn’t good enough, was it?" Pa nearly spit the words out. He whirled toward Adam and said, "See what you can do with this mess." Then he turned on his heel and as soon as he headed toward the barn the temperature dropped ten degrees.

Pa always turned toward Adam. Why should this time be any different?

"I think you’d better get this wheel into town," Adam said, almost like he was apologizing for something. "I’ll take care of the trough."

 

The bad morning had beaten the stuffin’ out of him but he just about lost all hope when he got to Eagle Station in the afternoon and found out how much it would cost to repair one wagon wheel – seemed like you ought to be able to buy a whole new wagon for that price. Since he didn’t have that kind of money on hand he would have to dip in to what he’d set aside.

But that wasn’t the worst part. The worst part was gonna be telling Pa the wheel wouldn’t be ready for three days.

He sure hated to face Pa’s temper again.

Hoss walked along the sidewalk, wide shoulders slumped, head hanging, and wished this whole day had never happened.

"Now what could be so serious at yer age?" Mr. McNally slapped Hoss on the back and grinned widely. "Ya look like a man headed to the gallows, lad."

"It’s been one of those days, Mr. McNally."

"Ah, well then come join me at Shelby’s for a bit a cheerin’ up."

Hoss glanced toward the buggy team. "I need to be getting’ on home, Mr. McNally."

"We’ll make it a quick visit, then. Don’t want ya in trouble with yer pa, believe me." He swung his arm around Hoss’ shoulders as he often did with Pa, treating him like a man instead of some stupid kid, and they walked side by side into Shelby’s saloon.

"Afternoon, Angus. Ya missed the poker game," Shelby greeted from behind the bar.

"On purpose, lass." Mr. McNally led the way to the bar. "The usual for me. And the lad here needs somethin’ ta pick ‘im up."

"Do tell." Shelby bent to look under the counter top. "Well I may just have the thang for ya, Hoss. Bought it off some Mexican peddler a while back." She straightened back up holding a bottle of almost black liquid. "Said it comes from a root. Some kind of tonic but it ain’t liquor. Everybody who’s had it says they feel better." She poured from the bottle into a glass. "Tastes kinda like a boot sole with manure on it so you’ll wanna hold yer nose when ya swalla."

Mr. McNally accepted his whisky bottle and glass and led the way to the table he had shared with the Cartwrights when Pa and he had been reunited.

Hoss did as Shelby had instructed, pinching his nose as he swallowed the terrible-looking stuff. It wasn’t as bad as he’d expected. But it wasn’t good either. He shivered and made a face and Mr. McNally laughed.

"So what brings ya ta town, lad?" he asked after a drink.

Hoss told him he’d had better mornings and the usually jovial Mr. McNally nodded that he understood. He shared some funny stories with Hoss and those yarns, along with the dark stuff Shelby had given him, helped Hoss to feel a little better. He was sorry when he looked down at his glass and found it almost empty – he was having a lot of fun with Mr. McNally and not really looking forward to starting for home.

As if reading his thoughts, Mr. McNally reached over and poured some of his whisky into Hoss’ glass, giving him a wink.

Hoss knew this wasn’t right. Pa said he wasn’t old enough for liquor and Pa felt strongly about obeying rules – unless of course you thought the rule was an unjust one and then you ought to work to change it. Lately though it seemed all Pa’s rules were meant to keep Hoss from having fun. Anyhow Pa always stressed how important it was to accept another person’s hospitality. This was hospitality, wasn’t it? He’d work on changing Pa’s rules later.

Hoss took a gulp of the new liquid in his glass and nearly lost his breath. It warmed his stomach, closed his throat and sent fire out his nose.

"Ya might want to start by sippin’," Mr. McNally suggested. "Yer pa and I’ve had a lot a years ta get used to it."

Hoss nodded, wiping his eyes, and wondered which one of the liquids had triggered the ringing in his ears.

The combination of the drink, Mr. McNally’s company and the dark interior of the saloon caused Hoss to completely lose track of time. When he did finally become aware of it he judged he would barely be home before dinner.

"Mr. McNally, I don’t mean to be rude, sir, but if I don’t skedaddle Pa’ll have my hide," he explained as they both stood from the table.

"Can’t have that, lad. It was good ta see ya. Tell Ben hello from me."

If Hoss had his way he wasn’t gonna say anything to Pa unless he had to but he answered, "Yessir. And thank you."

Hoss walked outside and shook his head to clear the fuzziness between his ears. It hadn’t rained here like it had at the ranch and the late afternoon heat and dust made his eyes hurt. He started down the sidewalk and paused for a moment in the shade of an overhang.

It looked like Jack’s place was a lot busier than Shelby’s. Hoss’d had a talk with Adam after they’d quit workin’ in town and Adam had confirmed it wasn’t just liquor that men wanted when they walked through those doors. Jack called it "companionship" but Hoss couldn’t understand how a fella could use a girl that way. Seemed to him that Jack’s contracts weren’t right whether they were legal or not. But there were all kinds of things he didn’t understand.

Hoss started walking again and pulled up short.

Where was the buggy?

Walking a little faster, looking around as he went, trying not to bump into too many people, his heartbeat quickened. He checked at the livery in case someone had moved it. It wasn’t there. He wandered into the part of town where Pa didn’t like to see them. It wasn’t there. He decided then and there that if the buggy was gone he just wasn’t ever going home, pure and simple.

He was standing in front of the mercantile and wondering what to do when he saw the buggy – and a fella about to steal it. Hoss ran toward the hitching rail by the saloon and pulled the man away from the buggy.

"Hey," he said as his left hand gripped the man’s suit shoulder.

"I beg your pardon?"

"I don’t care what you beg, mister. ‘Round here we don’t take kindly to folks who steal horses and buggies."

The man made a move with his right hand and Hoss reacted instinctively by pushing him to the dusty street where they began to wrestle and land occasional punches.

In the back of his head Hoss thought he heard someone yell "Fight! Fight!" and then there was the loud crack of a gunshot in the air.

Hoss fell off the man and looked up in surprise.

"What the sam hill do you think you are doing, Hoss?" Shelby demanded as she lowered the pistol beside her right leg.

He watched in confusion as a smiling Mr. McNally helped the other man to his feet.

"He’s stealing our buggy," Hoss explained, sitting in the dirt with his knees bent.

"Is that a fact? Well if you’ll open yer sorry little eyes a bit wider you’ll see this buggy has a set of grays pullin’ it. Yer black team is over there where it’s been all afternoon." Shelby waited for Hoss to get to his feet and then looked at the man in the fancy suit. "Mr. Dalmer, this here critter without a brain is Hoss Cartwright."

To Hoss’ surprise the man extended his right hand.

"I’m powerful sorry, Mr. Dalmer, sir," Hoss said as they shook hands. "I sure hope I didn’t hurt you. I should’ve – aw, Mr. Dalmer, it’s just been one of those days."

The man replaced his fine hat. "No need for any further apology, young man. Nothing was damaged."

Hoss nodded and, feeling like a complete fool with everyone looking at his back, walked to the correct buggy. Dang but he knew better than that. That fella had silver hair, he was probably even older than Pa. And he was for sure a lot scrawnier. Hoss never should have laid a hand on him and he wouldn’t have if he’d just used his head like Adam would have.

It was no wonder Pa liked Adam better. He thought things through, he did what Pa asked without messing everything up, and he was just smarter all around. About all Hoss was good for was his muscles. They could replace him with a good draft horse.

Truth was they’d be better off if Hoss just went off somewhere. Maybe if he did that for a while he could prove he was good at something. He could leastways show Pa he could take care of himself and he wasn’t some kid who still needed a whippin’ for not paying attention.

Once he paid for the wagon wheel that’s what he’d do. He’d take the rest of his savings and head off. They wouldn’t care anyhow. Pa’s life would be easier. Joe’d always been closer to Adam than he was to Hoss so neither one of them would miss him.

Maybe there were folks like Mr. McNally who would understand he was grown now and treat him that way. Maybe he could start his own place and raise horses like he’d always wanted to. And Tess – well she’d understand. They could slip off together and get married and have a family where he could really belong.

That wagon wheel’d be ready in three days. He’d pay for it, take it back to Pa and fix the wagon, and then he’d leave.

First, though, he had to face Pa again.

 

"Oh I don’t believe this!" Pa slammed the record book closed when Hoss entered the house, dusty from his fight and sporting the beginning of a bruised eye.

Adam and Little Joe looked up quietly from their game of checkers and exchanged speculative looks. Hoss knew they were wondering what could have riled him into a fight.

"It ain’t what it looks like, Pa," Hoss said nervously, hat in hand as he approached his father sitting at the end of the table. "It was a mistake."

"A mistake," Pa replied. "Well that explains everything."

Hoss knew he didn’t mean that any more than -

Little Joe’s left hand flew up in aggravation. "How come when Adam gets in a fight it’s a mis-understanding and when Hoss gets in a fight it’s a mis-take but when I get in a fight I get a spanking?"

Pa gave him a look that discouraged any further comments.

"I was coming outta Shelby’s saloon and -" Hoss held his right hand up, palm toward Pa. "It ain’t like that either, Pa."

Pa motioned to the chair in front of him. "Sit down now."

Hoss hurried to obey, still holding his hat and gloves.

Pa’s eyes swept over all three of them. "I will not have my sons brawling every time they go to town."

Dog gone it. Pa was fussing at them, too, and they hadn’t been fighting. Well, not lately leastways.

"But, Pa," Hoss started up again, "it wasn’t a brawl. We just kind of rolled around in the street a little."

Hoss looked at his older brother and wondered how he would explain this mistake to Pa. Somehow he could do it and not make Pa even madder.

"And it WAS a mistake -" Hoss began.

"What were you doing in Shelby’s?"

"Sir?"

Pa did not repeat himself so Hoss answered.

"I was there with Mr. McNally. He told Shelby – Miss Sterrett – that I needed something to pick me up cause I was having a bad day."

Pa scooted his chair back. "Something to pick you up."

"Yessir," Hoss met Pa’s eyes squarely. Maybe Pa would like to hear about this new stuff Shelby was selling. It might take his mind off how aggravated he was. "She said it was some kind of cure-all. She bought it from a Mexican peddler. It’s made from a root and she said every body that drinks it feels better. And it ain’t liquor, Pa. She told me that."

"And where did the whisky come in?" Pa asked.

Hoss’ mouth dropped as if someone had broken his jaw. "How’d you know about that?" When Pa didn’t answer he shifted in the chair. "When my glass was getting’ kinda empty Mr. McNally put a little in it."

"We’ve talked about drinking, Eric."

It was the second time in a day Pa had called him Eric. Things just weren’t going right.

"But you’re always telling us to accept folks’ hospitality and that whisky was Mr. McNally’s hospitality." Hoss leaned his elbows on the table and wondered why Pa was rubbing his right hand over his eyes. "And anyways, Pa, it doesn’t make sense," he pleaded. He motioned across the table to his older brother. "I’ve been bigger than Adam since I was ten."

"Eleven," Adam corrected.

"And what does size have to do with it?" Pa questioned.

"Well it ought to."

"Why?"

"Cause I’m bigger and I can hold it better than Adam."

"And that should make it all right for you to drink no matter what I say?"

Hoss shrugged and looked down. "I don’t know. I ain’t thought it through real good yet."

Pa stood very slowly and frowned down at Hoss. "I suggest you think it through a good deal more before you tell me what I say doesn’t make sense, young man."

The room was way too quiet.

Pa leaned the palms of his hands on the table. "So you were coming out of Shelby’s saloon when this mistake of yours happened."

Hoss continued to look down. What was the use? Just get it out and over with. His voice went monotone. "I came out of the saloon and I couldn’t find the buggy at first. And then I saw this fella stealing our buggy. We got into it on the street and then Shelby – Miss Sterrett – broke us up. Then she said that this buggy had gray horses and our buggy was just on down the street."

"Right where you had left it."

"Yessir."

"And do you think there is any connection between your confusion over which buggy belonged to us and the drink you had at Shelby’s?"

Hoss looked up in shock. "Pa, I ain’t drunk, I promise ya."

Pa gave up – at least for the present. He sat down again and stretched his long legs. "What about the wheel?"

Hoss pulled up his shoulders and bit his lip. He couldn’t handle anymore of Pa’s temper today. "I’m paying for it, Pa."

"I know you are. Where is it?"

"I gotta go back for it in a coupla days."

"I’ll go back for it. I think you could profit from a few weeks on the ranch."

A few weeks on the ranch? That meant he couldn’t leave the way he had planned. Hoss started to argue and then thought better of it. "Pa?"

He looked up from twirling the pencil on top of the record book.

"You won’t say nothin’ about this to Mr. McNally, will ya? He didn’t make me drink it."

"No I don’t intend to say anything to Angus."

"Everyone ready for dinner?" Hop Sing asked, smiling as he approached the table.

For the life of him Hoss could barely eat and he excused himself from the table as soon as it wouldn’t bring on more attention from Pa. Out in the barn he pet Abigail and John Adams and forced himself not to think. When he was sure everyone was asleep he slipped into the bunkroom.

Adam’s soft voice reached him in the dark as he undressed.

"He was just having a bad day, Hoss."

Still embarrassed by the fact that Adam had heard Pa threaten to use his belt on him, Hoss was in no mood to talk. He didn’t respond and neither of them said another word.

 

The next day after lunch, Little Joe raced up to Pa as if his pants were on fire and announced, "Adam said to tell ya we’ve done our chores and we’re going over to the McNallys."

Hoss worriedly looked up from the saw he was repairing. If Adam and Little Joe went off that would leave him alone with Pa.

"Actually," Adam corrected as he walked up behind Joe and smiled at Pa, "I told him to ask if you had any more chores for us or if it was all right to go to the McNallys."

Pa pulled on his work gloves. "I think Hoss and I can handle things for a while."

Little Joe made ready to run to the horses but Adam caught him by the shoulders and gently turned him to face Pa.

"Thank you," Adam said and Hoss watched a slight squeeze of his oldest brother’s hands on Joe’s shoulders. Adam used to do the same thing with him when they were little kids.

Little Joe leaned his head backwards to look at Adam and then got the message. "Oh, yeah - thanks, Pa."

They were really leaving. This wasn’t good at all. Hoss eased out of the barn and began diligently sawing the wood Adam had measured for the tool shed. He had only been working a minute when Pa came around the corner.

"I’ll take over," he said.

Hoss stepped aside and Pa wrapped his right hand around the saw handle, bracing himself with his left boot.

Eager to put some distance between them, Hoss went to the opposite side of the tool shed and looked it over.

And then much to Hoss’ horror Pa spoke through the skeleton of the unfinished shed.

"Something on your mind?" he asked.

Hoss looked over his shoulder. "No sir."

"Not thinking of a thing?"

Was that teasing in Pa’s voice? Had he forgotten all the stupid things Hoss had done yesterday? That wasn’t possible - was it?

The truth was Hoss was thinking all kinds of things, many of which he wasn’t about to share with Pa. He decided on the easy answer. "I was kind of wondering what Hop Sing’s cooking for supper."

"You’re living from meal to meal lately," Pa observed. He lowered the board to the ground and put a new one on the sawhorse.

"Figure there’s something wrong with me?" Hoss asked worriedly.

Pa shook his head ‘no’. "Adam did the same thing when he was your age. He’d finish lunch and be ready for supper."

Hoss glanced away quickly. He knew Pa was going to make him talk things out. He wasn’t sure he could bear it. How could he possibly express all these mixed up feelings? Adam was the one who was good with words. Hoss always felt all nervous and clumsy when he tried to talk about serious stuff like feelings and new ideas. What if he accidentally shared too much? That’s why he’d been purposely working wherever Pa and Adam weren’t all morning. But now it was just Pa and him.

He picked up the board Pa had cut, held it in place and began to hammer. Leastways, Pa wouldn’t try to talk over Hoss’ hammering and his sawing.

Much to Hoss’ dismay, Pa did just that. "Did you mean what you said yesterday?"

Hoss paused in hammering. Uh oh. Here it was. No sense in beating around the bush. "About being able to drink cause I’m bigger than Adam?"

Pa continued to saw. "Um hum."

"I meant it, Pa," Hoss said with determination. Then to take the edge off his tone, and hopefully keep Pa from getting upset, he added, "But there’s a whole buncha things that don’t make sense to me."

"Tell me another one."

Hoss recalled idly looking at Jack’s place yesterday.

Pa dropped a board to the ground and picked up another one.

"Ya know how Tess voted at the council while Mrs. Greene was gone?"

"Um hum."

"And Mrs. Greene votes on the town council?"

"Yes."

"Why do you figure women can’t just plain vote like men can?"

Pa startled and buckled the saw blade, stopping suddenly. "You mean for political offices?"

Hoss finished nailing the board in place and walked to Pa to pick up the next one. "They’re as smart as men, ain’t they?"

"Well - yes."

"And what gets voted on has as much to do with them as anybody else."

"Son, I don’t think most men are anywhere near ready for women to have a say in government."

Hoss leaned toward him. "But that’s just it, Pa. Why do us men have the right to say that women cain’t do stuff? You’re always telling us to be respectful to women. There ain’t a whole lot respectful about keeping a grown woman from doing what she wants to do –" his thoughts quickly went to the women at Jack’s – "or making her do somethin’ she don’t want to do and sayin’ the law’s on your side." Hoss picked up the board and returned to the tool shed to nail it in place.

As he swung the hammer back, though, his hand froze. He couldn’t remember when he ‘d talked so much and he didn’t think he’d ever talked about this kinda thing. Especially not with Pa. How did Pa pull that stuff out of him?

Hoss glanced Pa’s way and saw him take a deep breath and run his hand through his hair like he was confused over something or trying to figure out how to come at something. Maybe Adam had marked the board wrong. Naw, Adam never made mistakes.

The rattle of a buggy approaching out front caught their attention. Hoss paused from his work. Eager for any diversion, he laid down the hammer and followed Pa between the barn and the house.

He got a feeling like a cold rock in the bottom of his stomach when he saw the two gray horses. Hoss stood behind Pa for protection, much as he had when he was small.

The man in the fancy hat and nice suit set the brake and nodded to Pa. "Good afternoon, Mr. Cartwright. I’m Morehead Dalmer." He smiled at Hoss. "It’s good to see you again, young man."

Pa turned toward Hoss with a puzzled look on his face.

"Mr. Dalmer here is the fella I had the mistake with," Hoss explained shyly.

The slender man stepped down from his buggy, holding out his gloved hand toward Pa. "I also happen to be Angus McNally’s brother-in-law."

Oh no! He’d tussled with one of Mr. McNally’s relatives? This wasn’t gonna lead anywhere good.

Pa shook the man’s hand, but Hoss could tell he was still puzzled. "It’s good to meet you, Mr. Dalmer. Come inside for a cup of coffee?" He raised his eyebrows as he looked over his shoulder. "You too, Hoss."

Hoss would have rather gone anywhere. Pa was probably gonna chew him out now in front of Mr. Dalmer for fighting.

Inside the house, Pa introduced Mr. McNally’s brother-in-law to Hop Sing and then they sat on the settee and the chairs, drinking coffee that chased the early autumn chill.

Mr. Dalmer’s first words to Pa relieved Hoss tremendously.

"I’ve come to speak to you because Angus told me you are a town council member," he explained. "Some investors are considering opening another bank here in a year or two and I would appreciate hearing what you think will happen to this area." He smiled and motioned Hoss’ way. "I decided any man who reared as honest a son as that one was worth talking to."

Hoss’ cheeks warmed and it had nothing to do with the coffee.

Pa didn’t answer right away. He crossed his legs and considered what Mr. Dalmer had told him. "I can see the time when we’ll need another bank but right now what we have is a lot of immigrants coming through on the trail and of course the men headed for the gold fields. Some of those people build towns but the majority move on. I assume you’ve already looked over what’s here. Hopefully we’ll have a doctor someday, maybe even a larger source for feed and supplies. The best thing that could happen would be if the town grew, maybe even became a territorial capital. That’s more what I see you building your bank on."

"What about places like Jack Wolf’s?" Mr. Dalmer watched Pa closely. "And the gambling establishments?"

"I suppose places like that will always exist but I don’t consider them an asset to the community," Pa said bluntly.

"And ranches like yours?"

Pa’s brows rose. "Well, we’re at the mercy of cattle markets, military contracts, diseases, herd reproduction numbers, and lumber buyers among other things. And then there’s the weather. At its best, ranching is a gamble."

Mr. Dalmer nodded slowly. "But you’re as much a gambler as Angus, aren’t you?"

Pa grinned. "I’m a better gambler than Angus and he’ll be the first to tell you that."

Mr. Dalmer looked toward the window and thought quietly for a few minutes. "When we open our bank we would like to have you on the Board of Directors."

Surprise washed across Pa’s face and Hoss wondered what kind of board that was.

"Your name continues to come up as I speak to people around here," Mr. Dalmer explained. "And I’m sure you will continue to make the acquaintance of the ones who come to build a town. We could profit from your judgment, your name would lend credibility to our establishment and we could make it worth your while."

"You mean a Director’s Fee?" Pa asked.

Where had Pa learned words like director’s fee and what did they mean?

"Or we can offer you a subscription or partial partnership. We’ll cross that bridge when the time comes. Are you interested?"

"Tell me again why you’re asking me to do this," Pa said.

"Because by the time we open the bank we will need to depend on the judgment and reputation of men like you."

"How about women?" Hoss asked and immediately wondered if Pa was going to talk to him later for interrupting. Ma used to get on to them something fierce for it.

Mr. Dalmer leaned back in his chair and gave Hoss a long study. "What about women, young man?"

He glanced quickly at Pa and, seeing no silent signal to keep quiet, continued. "Are you askin’ Mrs. Greene to be part of this here bank you’re talkin’ about?"

"You do understand your father and I are speaking in confidence?"

Hoss looked to Pa again and Pa said, "What we’re talking about doesn’t go any further."

Hoss nodded. "Yes, sir, I understand that. So what about women?"

Pa cleared his throat. "Margaret Greene owns the largest ranch in the area. She is also on the town council."

Mr. Dalmer shook his head. "I’m not sure how my shareholders would feel about a woman on the board."

"Well," Pa said smoothly as he repeated Mr. Dalmer’s earlier words, "we’ll cross that bridge when the time comes."

After they finished their coffee the men stood and Hoss hastened to his feet to follow them back outside. He shook hands with Mr. Dalmer again and positioned himself alongside Pa as they watched the buggy drive away.

"Hoss -" Pa started.

"I know, Pa: I shouldn’t’ve jumped in that way."

Pa slapped his shoulder. "It was a question that needed to be asked."

Hoss looked down at Pa in astonishment. "Honest, Pa, you ain’t mad?"

Pa smiled. "Have you ever had to ask me if I’m angry when I AM angry?"

Hoss smiled in spite of the uncertainty he’d been feeling around Pa lately. "No, sir, I guess not."

They walked beside each other back to the tool shed work site. "Something else," Pa said as he picked up the saw.

Hoss looked at him, waiting.

"Don’t ever quit asking questions that need to be asked."

Hoss wasn’t totally sure he understood what Pa meant but he nodded all the same and picked up the hammer and nails. "What’s that fee Mr. Dalmer was talking about?"

"Money they would pay me to help make decisions for the bank."

"Where’d you learn about that?"

Pa positioned a board for sawing. "I ran two businesses and helped your mother run hers. You either learn about banks or you don’t have a business."

"Two?" Hoss frowned. He knew about the one in New Orleans but where had the other one been?

As usual, Pa read his mind. "I was partners with Captain Stoddard, Adam’s grandfather."

"What’d you do there?"

"Sold provisions and supplies to ships."

Hoss stepped back to be sure the board he had nailed was straight. "Do you miss it?"

"Running a shop?"

"The sea." Hoss walked to the sawhorse and Pa looked up at him.

He gave a slight shake of his head. "I was never as happy at sea as I am here on the Ponderosa."

Hoss looked around and took a deep breath. "So it’s okay to want to stay?"

Pa’s forehead wrinkled.

Hoss shrugged. "You wandered around and seems like sometimes Adam gets the need to travel so bad he can hardly hold it in. I just want to stay here. Is there something wrong with me?"

Pa looked down so quickly Hoss thought he had dropped something. When he spoke, his voice was thick. "There isn’t a thing wrong with that."

Hoss smiled and picked up the board but Pa’s gloved hand went over his and he looked into Pa’s face again.

"I think we’ve put in more than a day’s work," Pa said. "How about a ride to the lake?"

He didn’t have to ask twice.

 

Hoss stretched on his back in the dry grass at their favorite fishing spot and plopped his hat over his face to shade it. They had ridden their horses to the canoe and then paddled here to the cove to spend the afternoon. Off to his left Pa was leaning his back against the overturned canoe as he read from his latest book. And somewhere in front of them were their fishing poles. Not that either one of them really cared about fishing.

Whatever he did, he didn’t want to spoil this afternoon. Seemed they didn’t have many times like this anymore.

"Sure is a pretty day," he said.

Pa’s voice reached him and it sounded amused. "How would you know?"

"I feel the air."

Pa didn’t say anything. What if he was getting ready to bring up the drinking? Quick, say something.

"Ain’t you ever noticed the way the air feels on your skin?" Hoss asked.

"Yes. Particularly when I was your age and I felt a lot of salt on my skin."

Good, he’d gotten Pa to talking about something else.

"Why’s that?"

"The sea."

"There’s salt in the sea?" he asked and Pa chuckled.

Pa laughing was even better. Maybe he could keep Pa this way the rest of the afternoon until they got back to the house.

"Well I don’t know, Pa," Hoss said about the salt in the sea. "I ain’t never been there."

"Don’t you remember how salty the gulf water was?"

"That was sea water?"

"Yes."

"I remember the way that foggy stuff got on the windows. And the way your skin shriveled if you stayed in that water too long. But that swamp water – that wasn’t salt, was it?" Hoss asked.

"That was fresh - well, sort of."

"Know what I remember most about New Orleans?" Hoss sat up and propped his hat on his blond hair.

"The food?" Pa teased.

"Laying in bed at night and hearing them alligators roar in the swamp."

Pa gave him a surprised look but didn’t say anything.

"And then Adam told me they came up to the house at night."

"He what?" Pa frowned.

Hoss didn’t realize how his eyes held worry all these years later. "He told me not to go outside at night cause the alligators came into the neighborhood and they ate folks."

"We never had alligators in our neighborhood."

"Adam said we did."

"If I’d known he had you scared like that I would have put him across my knees."

He didn’t want to hear any talk about spankings.

"It was a long time ago, Pa." Hoss made light of it. "Anyhow, I got even. I’m bigger than him now."

Dang, why had he said that? He was gonna be real lucky if Pa let that one go.

"About this being bigger -"

Hoss hunched his shoulders. Here it came. Pa was gonna lecture him big time for drinking that whisky with Mr. McNally and for breaking Pa’s rule. He wouldn’t take his belt to Hoss out here, would he?

"I was big for my age, too, Hoss. And I drank when I was your age."

Hoss lowered his shoulders and looked at Pa speculatively. Hoss wasn’t dumb enough to think that just because Pa had done something that meant he could. There was only one way to be sure he didn’t say the wrong thing and that was to be quiet.

Pa looked straight at him. "I didn’t tend to make my best decisions at times like that. And whether you’re willing to admit it or not, your confusion over the buggies yesterday was because of that whisky."

"I didn’t have that much, Pa. Not like what you and Mr. McNally drank."

Pa pulled up his left knee and held his book open. "Did you happen to notice that we ate while we were at Shelby’s that day?"

Hoss nodded that he had.

"Did you have anything to eat when you had Angus’ whisky?"

"No, sir."

"If you ever drink like that again eat something. It helps slow down the effect of the whisky. And if you’re ever any more confused than you were yesterday ask Shelby to let you sleep it off in her back room."

"Pa, I wasn’t drunk, I promise!"

Pa closed his eyes momentarily and Hoss recognized the signal: he quieted down. "And another thing," Pa continued. "If you’re old enough to drink whisky then I don’t want you doing it behind my back. You know where I keep it. I want you to ask my permission first so I can tell you if there’s any more work to be done."

Hoss picked up his fishing pole. He wasn’t sure he could do that. Pa generally had his reasons for making rules. There was probably something he wasn’t telling Hoss about why he didn’t want him drinking until he was Adam’s age.

"You’d rather I didn’t though, wouldn’t you?" Hoss asked after he’d determined a fish had gotten his bait.

"I’m asking you to think it through very carefully."

Yep, he’d rather Hoss didn’t.

"And I want to hear your reasoning before you do. Something better than the fact that you’re bigger than Adam. That’s the way a child thinks, Hoss, and you’re not a child."

The words didn’t hurt. In fact, in some strange kind of way they made him feel better. Pa was telling him when he thought like a grown up then Pa could treat him like one. He could do that. He’d make Pa so proud of him.

After a while, he figured it was safe to ask a question. "Pa?"

"Um?" Pa continued to look down at his book. That was okay with Hoss because most times it was easier to talk when ya weren’t looking at each other. And anybody who thought just because Pa wasn’t looking at ya it meant he wasn’t paying attention was in for a big surprise.

Hoss broke off a piece of grass. "Would you really have done it?"

Pa still wasn’t looking up. "Done what?"

"Well, it’s just you hardly ever tanned me when I was a kid and –" Hoss stopped, wishing he hadn’t brought it up.

"I spanked you twice and tanned you twice."

Hoss blinked and his eyes widened. Pa had kept count? He looked right at Pa and was amazed when Pa smiled at him.

"Most of the time all you needed was a stern look. I wish I thought Little Joe was going to be as easy these next few years as you were. I can already tell he has a streak in him." Pa shook his head. "I wouldn’t change any of you but sometimes I’d appreciate just a little of your tractability in Joe."

His what?

The man looked up and chuckled when he saw Hoss’ face. "Tractability, Hoss. Your easy way. You have always been able to make me smile and you never made my life any harder." He returned to his book.

Really? Pa didn’t think Hoss made his life harder? Hoss didn’t want to bring it up but he had to if he was gonna settle things with Pa. "I did yesterday."

Pa kept reading. "That was mostly me letting my temper get the best of me. I was worrying over a lot of things - didn’t get much sleep the night before." He shook his head and, again to Hoss’ surprise, laughed softly. "I still don’t know how in Zeus you managed to back that wagon into the water trough without taking down half the corral. That was a real piece of work you pulled off there."

Pa was laughing about it? How could that be?

Pa sat up with his knees bent outwards, like an Indian, and shook his head. "Sometime I’ll have to tell you about how John and I knocked down the front porch when we were kids."

"Tell me now."

"I’ll tell all three of you tonight."

It occurred to Hoss that Pa still hadn’t answered his question and he wondered if there was a reason for it. But, as usual, Pa knew what he was thinking.

"I let my temper get the better of me," he said. "And, no, I wouldn’t have taken my belt to you."

"You sure sounded like you would, Pa."

"I have some rules for myself, too, Hoss. One of them is that I won’t punish any of you boys when I’m angry. Sometimes it takes more control than I think I have but that’s the only adult way to handle it. Any other way would be abusing my strength." His eyebrows rose. "I’ll never punish any of you for an accident - we all have them."

Hoss kept his eyes down, enjoying this new feeling of talking about grown up things with Pa. "Why doesn’t me being bigger work?"

Pa’s voice held humor. "Because you’re bigger than me, too, and there are a lot of things I do that you are not about to."

Hoss slowly slid his downcast eyes Pa’s way. "You gonna stop me?" he challenged with a wide grin on his face.

Pa laughed and lunged at him.

For the first time since before Ma had died, they wrestled. They grunted, yelled and rolled around in the tall dry grass until they were covered in seed and broken stems. Hoss got to his knees and almost flipped Pa but Pa’s strength always did take him by surprise and he was the one who got flipped. They struggled to their feet and leaned into each other, warring like two bears until they almost fell on the upturned canoe.

"Truce!" Pa gasped as he lay spread-eagled in the grass.

"I whupped ya!" Hoss laughed in delight, standing over Pa with his hands on his hips.

"I let you win."

"Sure." Hoss tossed his head back and laughed.

He helped Pa stand and then Pa put an arm around Hoss’ shoulders. "Do you think we’ve scared all the fish away or is there still a chance we can catch something for dinner?"

 

They probably would have caught something for dinner if Pa had behaved himself. But somehow when the two of them got together one or the other had a bad time controlling himself. That afternoon was no different. And it was Pa’s turn.

It started with the worms.

Something had gotten the worms on both their lines and they sat on either side of the bucket to re-bait their hooks. Pa was holding one of the squirmy things when he flicked it with his thumb toward Hoss.

"They’re kind of slippery," Pa muttered after it landed on Hoss’ neck.

"Yep." Hoss dropped it back in the bucket without looking up. He was not going to encourage Pa in some sort of ‘worm war’.

Pa reached for another worm and flicked it, too. It slapped against Hoss’ cheek.

"Where’d you dig these worms?" Pa tried to sound innocent but it didn’t work.

"Maybe they’re related to them Mexican jumping beans Carlos told us about," Hoss offered as he dropped the second worm back into the bucket.

Pa picked up two worms and flicked those Hoss’ way. One hit his nose and the other hit his throat.

"My lord, they’re breeding in mid-air," Pa said.

"Um hum." Hoss calmly dropped those two in the bucket. He could wait Pa out on this one. Besides, he had a plan that would put this worm problem to rest. They sure as heck weren’t gonna catch any fish with ‘em the way they were going.

Finally, Hoss’ plan showed promise. Pa’s hat was casting too much shade on his hook and he couldn’t see it very well so he momentarily laid his hat aside. It was the break Hoss had been waiting for. Hoss lifted the bucket and dumped the entire thing on top of Pa. All the worms, and the smelly soil they were in, rested on the top of Pa’s hair and cascaded down his face and the back of his neck.

Pa jumped to his feet, grabbing the squirming things as they started down his shirt. He bent at the waist to try to shake them, and the damp soil, from his hair. Uh oh. He wasn’t laughing. Had Hoss gone too far?

"I – well you– and –" Hoss began to stammer when Pa straightened up. Then he saw that unmistakable sparkle in Pa’s eyes. "Don’t do anything I’m gonna regret, Pa." He dropped his fishing pole and held his arms out in protection.

Pa picked up a handful of the smelly worm dirt and hurled it Hoss’ way. There was no protection out here in the open and Pa had a strong enough arm to make that dirt hurt like tarnation when it hit. Hoss ran for the trees and Pa took out after him.

Hoss looked down and was filled with what Adam called inspiration. The pinecones! He lobbed one at Pa and brought him up short.

"So that’s how you want it!" Pa shouted and grabbed an armful. "Remember, you started this!"

The worm war turned into the pinecone war – and it hurt a whole lot more. If Ma had been around she would have been scolding them and saying that they could put an eye out. But they weren’t aiming that high. Matter of fact she would have been shocked at how low they were aiming.

Just as Pa was coming at him with one of the more devilish looks Hoss had ever seen on the man’s face, a realization popped at him from nowhere.

"It was you," he said and Pa stopped in his tracks.

"Wh-at?" his laughter broke the word in two.

Hoss pointed with his left index finger. "It was you. Whenever things got riled up, whenever we was horsing around or snickering about something, it was you Ma would get on to first. She’d say ‘Benjamin, behave yourself.’ And you’d just kinda hold out your arms like you didn’t know what she was talkin’ about and then wink at me when she wasn’t lookin’. That’s why you didn’t spank me much cause most of the time you was in on it, too."

Pa’s smile dimpled his cheeks and he put his strong left hand behind Hoss’ neck. He motioned toward the fishing spot. "We need to head home, son."

 

As they had before, they pulled off their boots and tossed them in the canoe, then launched into the water.

"I want to talk to you about something," Pa said as he eased his paddle into the clear water. He was in the front of the canoe so he had to speak over his shoulder.

He sounded pretty serious and Hoss worried that the afternoon was going to be ruined.

Pa snugged his hat brim down against the sun. "You know I’ve put Adam in charge of keeping the records for us on the cattle."

"Yes, Pa."

"Well, I’ve noticed how good you are at gentling the horses and I’d like to put you in charge of them."

In charge, what did that mean? "I don’t understand, Pa."

"I want you to gentle them, breed them, decide which ones are the best brood mares, make the decisions on whether to geld the males and keep them or sell them. I’m giving you the register book so you can write down who they’re by and out of, keep track of the youngsters’ growth and any problems that crop up, that kind of thing."

Hoss felt his breath shorten. "All by myself?"

Pa shook his head and laughed. "No, son, we’re all partners, remember? When you need our help, you tell us. You work out training schedules with Adam and Joe and tell me when you need me."

Pa was putting him in charge of horses? "Like a foreman?"

"How about more like the manager of horse operations?" Pa said. Then he added, "If you don’t put your back into some rowing we’re never going to get home."

Hoss looked down at the water and decided it was deep enough now to get even with Pa for the worm war and the pinecone war. He quit paddling and faked a queasy look on his face.

Pa looked over his shoulder. "Something wrong?" He kicked aside the boots they had pulled off and placed in the bottom of the canoe so they would stay dry.

"I don’t know," Hoss answered. "I just feel kind of like the world and me ain’t connected."

"Put your head between your knees."

Hoss obeyed.

"Any better?" Pa asked.

Hoss didn’t answer and since his hat hid his face Pa very carefully crouched in the canoe. "Hoss? Are you alright?"

A moment later Hoss’ strong hands were on Pa’s knees and he sent the man splashing into the lake, back first.

"Meet ya at the horses!" Hoss laughed and dipped his paddle into the water.

Pa grabbed the flat piece of wood and yanked it from his son’s hands, much to Hoss’ astonishment. "I’m going to lay this across your backside."

"Now, Pa, that ain’t funny."

Pa tossed the paddle back into the canoe and slowly, carefully hauled himself back in. "Do you realize how dangerous it is to toss a man like that? You could turn over the canoe."

Hoss lowered his eyes just as Pa had known he would. With a skill acquired in youth and never forgotten, he heaved Hoss out and kept the canoe afloat.

"Dang it, Pa!!" Hoss spluttered when he came to the surface. "You said that was dangerous!"

"It is when you don’t know what you’re doing."

"Aren’t ya gonna give me a hand?" Hoss wiped his hair from his eyes.

"Climb in the way I did."

Dadburnit! He’d backed the darn wagon into the horse trough. How did Pa possibly expect him to be agile enough to get into the canoe? "I’ll tip the canoe."

"Suit yourself. Meet you at the horses." Pa started paddling.

"Pa, I’m telling you I can’t get in that canoe like you did. I’m too big. I’ll tip it for sure." Hoss’ sky blue eyes held concern.

"It’s about time you learned how to keep that from happening."

Minutes later Hoss sat in the canoe and shook his head. "Well, I’ll be. Where’d you learn how to get in a canoe like that?"

Pa laughed. "John kept tossing me out." He grinned at Hoss. "He was bigger than me."

 

A quarter or an hour later Hoss stepped from the canoe and helped drag it to shore. "I sure hope Hop Sing made something good cause we’re pretty sorry fishermen."

Pa nodded. "We’re a lot better at hunting than fishing."

"You are, Pa, not me." They sat down to pull on their boots. "But I can drive a nail faster and straighter than you or Adam either one." What had he said? He sure hoped Pa didn’t take offense at it. But, come to think of it, it was true.

"Is that so?"

"I’m better with any tool than you are."

Pa laughed at Hoss’ bravado. "Well I accept that challenge, young man."

Hoss’ forehead wrinkled suddenly. "I didn’t mean no challenge."

"Getting scared are you?"

"Aw, Pa, you ain’t scary." Had he really said that? He hadn’t felt that way yesterday morning when Pa’d been as dangerous as a charging bull.

Pa turned from readying his horse for the ride home and leaned his elbow on the saddle. "I’m glad to hear that."

Hoss held his horse’s reins. "Sometimes though –" He looked down and dug his toe at the soil, the way Joe often did. "I sure wish I could be like Adam."

"I’m glad you’re not."

Hoss looked up so quickly his horse shied. "Sir?"

"That would mean I wouldn’t have a son like you." Pa leaned his head to the right slightly. "I like all my sons just the way they are."

Hoss blushed with the compliment and put his foot in the left stirrup. "We better skedaddle. If we’re late for dinner Hop Sing’s liable to have our hides."

Pa swung into the saddle and turned his horse alongside Hoss’. He reached across the space between them and jammed his son’s hat down over his eyes. "Race ya!"

Hoss pulled his hat back where it belonged and then dug in, yelling at the top of his lungs as he tried to catch up with Pa.

 

That evening at dinner Little Joe was full of stories about what he had done at the McNally’s. Hoss had a pretty good idea Joe’d also done some things he wasn’t talking about. There was the usual good-natured teasing and then all eyes seemed to go to Hoss at the same time as if they expected him to contribute something. It had been good to be with Pa today but he wanted to keep it special for himself. So he said a little about Mr. Dalmer’s visit and then the conversation went other ways again and Adam and Little Joe even got into some horsing around.

It wasn’t until he’d finished drying the dishes for Hop Sing that Hoss pulled up one of the chairs by the fireplace and spoke to Pa, who was reading a paper. "You said you’d tell us that story," he reminded.

Pa looked up and for a moment his eyes showed he didn’t know what Hoss was talking about. But then they sparked and Hoss could tell right off this was gonna be a good one.

"What story?" Joe sat up from where he’d been sprawled on the rug in front of the fireplace, pointing his index finger at the ceiling like he was doing target practice with a pistol.

Even Adam pulled his eyes away from staring at the fireplace and Hop Sing sat down at his work table, sipping a cup of tea.

"Do you really want to hear it?" Pa teased.

Hoss quickly explained to Adam and Joe, "Pa and his brother tore up a front porch once."

"Seems to me once would do it," Adam observed dryly.

"How’d ya do that?" Little Joe asked excitedly.

"Well," Pa drawled, "it’s a long story." Recognizing the joke, Hoss laughed. He was surprised it took Adam and Little Joe a while to realize Pa was teasing them about what they always said to him.

Pa folded the newspaper and crossed his right ankle to his left knee. Then he stretched his left arm along the back of the settee.

"I was about Little Joe’s age," he said. "And I was interested in horses and carriages." He shot Joe a look. "I wanted to drive more than anything."

Adam and Hoss grinned knowingly.

"One day our father had a visitor and he had the best looking carriage I’d ever seen. He had traveled a long distance and our mother persuaded his driver to come into the house for some refreshment." Pa paused. "That was all John and I needed. We got out the back of the house without being seen and then we went to look over this stranger’s carriage. It was parked toward the side of the house where the horses could water and be in the shade. That thing was incredibly big and pretty. So we climbed up in it and pretended to be important men being driven around to meet the President and go to the races and watch our clipper ships come in."

"Then what happened?" Little Joe prompted.

Pa’s brows went up. "What makes you think anything happened?"

"Hoss said you tore up a front porch."

"Oh! Is that the story you want to hear?"

Hoss and Adam both laughed this time and Little Joe threw Pa a look of frustration.

"Anyhow," Pa continued, "I got the bright idea that I would pretend to drive for John."

"Uh oh," Adam and Hoss said together.

"I hauled myself up top and at first I pretended with the best of them. Then I got the idea that I could really drive those horses. I was going to walk them a little bit," Pa said. "I released the brake –"

Adam scooted down in his chair.

"I called to them quietly. And then John picked up the whip and cracked it as loud as a gunshot."

"Oh, Pa, " Hoss said, shaking his head.

"I was no match for that pair even if they were tired. They bolted right through the wooden fence and knocked most of it into the plant bed. Then they cut sharp on the drive and the buggy broke loose. So it, John and I went careening into the east side of the porch. We plowed down the supports, crushed chairs, destroyed planters, knocked out the railing and wound up on the far side of the porch with the porch roof fallen on top of the buggy."

"What happened to the horses?" Joe asked worriedly.

Pa waved his right hand dismissively. "Someone caught them a couple of blocks down."

"What happened to YOU?" Adam asked, his hand partly over his mouth.

Pa shifted slightly on the settee. "We almost made it."

Hoss leaned forward. "What d’ya mean almost?"

"Our father and his friend had stepped outside to enjoy their pipes. We ran smack into them. My father took each of us by the collar and hauled us to the shed."

Little Joe was as still as Hoss had ever seen him. "Did ya get in trouble?"

Pa chuckled. "Now what do you think?"

Little Joe frowned. "I can’t do it, Pa."

"Can’t do what?"

"I can’t figure how you were ever a kid."

"It’s been a long time," Pa replied.

Not as long as you think, Hoss thought as he fought a smile.

"Well, that proves one thing," Adam said. He looked straight at Hoss and his deep blue eyes gentled. "Bad drivers tend to run in the family."

Hoss was the first one to laugh.

 

The end