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SNOW JOB

By Virginia City Gal

Rating: G

All disclaimers apply

Acknowledgments: Thanks to Texas 2002 who is as generous with her time to beta read and edit as she is with her imagination in the wonderful stories she writes. She loaned me the characters of Smoke, the dog and Abigail and John Adams, the cats, for this story and also wrote one memorable scene involving the animals.

Historical background: The word "blizzard" was not used in meteorological terms to describe serious winter storms until the 1870’s. Its original meaning was a military term; a barrage of bullets that was so intense it filled the air. Therefore, the storm described in this story is never referred to as a blizzard, even though it meets the standards and then some!

 

Part I

Adam Cartwright leaned hard against the barn door to open it. "That west wind is getting stronger."

Ben leaned with him and they left the barn together, fastening the door behind them while the cold wind off the snow-capped Sierras whipped at their coats and tugged at their hats.

"It sure is." Ben turned up his coat collar and looked west to the mountains. The early morning sun and blue sky only served to make the heavy, purple clouds piling up behind the mountains look more ominous. They crossed the brown grass of the yard with long strides and stepped into the house, closing the door quickly against the cold.

Ben stood before the open hearth, chafing his hands and stamping his feet to get the warmth back into them and turned to the pair seated at the table. "I think we’re due for a storm." Hoss and Little Joe looked up from their breakfast. "Snow before nightfall."

"Snow?" Hoss asked skeptically.

"Snow!!" Little Joe exclaimed delightedly, causing Smoke to perk his ears.

"Snow," stated Pa, with his mariner’s sense of a change in the weather.

"But it’s only mid-October," Hoss objected. "It’s too early for snow."

"There’s a skim of ice on the horse trough and the wind is really picking up. It’s cold enough for snow." Adam had warmed enough to remove his overcoat and accept a cup of hot coffee from Hop Sing.

"I’ll believe it when I see it," scoffed Hoss.

"You’ll do more than that, son. We have a lot to do to prepare for a bad storm."

"How bad can it be this time of year?"

"It was snow early in the season that stranded the Donner Party in the Sierras," Adam reminded him. From the corner of his eye he saw Pa stiffen. "Sorry."

Pa waved a dismissive hand at him and sat at the table as Hop Sing put a plate of smoked ham and eggs in front of him. "Thanks, Hop Sing. I really worked up an appetite this morning."

"Must bring supplies into house from smokehouse and storage shed if snow coming."

Hop Sing began to plan what he would need to feed them all for a day or two.

"This is crazy! Even if we do get a snowstorm, how bad can it be? It’s October!"

"Son, we’re in the Sierras. The calendar and the weather don’t necessarily know each other all that well. We will brace for a serious storm. If it doesn’t materialize, I would rather be wrong than unprepared."

"Mrmrr"

"Thank you, Abby. I’m glad you agree." Ben nodded to Abigail Adams sitting at his feet. Her whiskers twitched and she blinked once before returning to her after-breakfast grooming. Ben turned straight-faced to Hoss and raised his eyebrows and shoulders as if to say the cat was on his side. Hoss rolled his eyes while Little Joe giggled.

Adam shook his head at Pa and sat down to breakfast. "What did you have in mind?"

"Enjoy your breakfast first. Be sure to have plenty of hot coffee. Going to be a busy day." Ben chewed his ham and eggs contentedly and watched his sons exchange looks of dismay at the prospect of extra chores in the biting cold.

 

"Little Joe, you’re not dressed warmly enough."

Joe looked up at Pa with his most put-upon expression. "Pa, I can’t even breathe with all these clothes on! My arms are stickin’ straight out!" Joe stomped around with an exaggerated wide-legged gait with his arms held away from his sides to illustrate his point.

Ben got in his way and squatted on his heels to meet Joe’s eye level. "It’s no good, son. I want to see another pair of socks, another pair of pants, another sweater, a muffler around your neck covering your nose and mouth," here Ben pointed a gloved forefinger for emphasis, "AND a wool scarf tied under your chin to cover your ears and hold your hat on. You’d better put on an extra pair of gloves, too."

"Pa! How’m I gonna be able to – ", Joe recognized the look on Pa’s face and stopped protesting in mid-sentence. He shuffled off to the bunkroom to add more layers without further dispute. Pa rubbed his hand over his mouth to hide the smile as he stood.

"Are ya tryin’ to get him to stay here without orderin’ him?" Hoss asked with a twinkle.

"No. I am trying to ensure he will not disrupt our work by telling us he’s too cold to stay out any longer."

"You think you have it under control?" Adam wiped the smile from his face but could not remove it from his eyes.

"Where your little brother is concerned, I never assume I have control. I simply try to stay ahead of him."

Joe emerged a few minutes later, dragging his feet and looking as if he were being punished – until they stepped onto the porch and the wind hit him, blowing him back two full steps.

"Come on, Joe. Lean into it. If you can’t go straight into the wind under your own power, try zigzagging." Joe snapped his head up to see if Pa was making fun of him, but he couldn’t get a good look at Pa’s face with all the clothes they were wearing. So, he put his head down and leaned against the wind. He found he was making headway.

Adam and Hoss had the wagon hitched and the horses saddled. Ben gave his orders crisply and they set out. Joe and Hoss were to head over to the Greene ranch with the wagon to borrow one of the large horse-drawn sleds Margaret owned. Ben reasoned there might be a need to transport feed to the cattle if the oncoming snow was deep and covered the ground for a while. Ben and Adam were going to check the herd, then come back to the ranch to secure the buildings and make other last-minute preparations.

"Make the trip to the Greene’s and back as quickly as you can."

"Sure, Pa. But I still say it won’t be that big a storm." Hoss gathered up the reins and released the wagon’s brake.

"I want you to take this seriously, Hoss. It’s no joke to be caught outdoors in bad weather conditions."

"I know, Pa. I’ll make it a fast trip."

"See that you do. Keep an eye on the sky and pay attention to any changes in the wind. I want you back well before the storm hits."

Hoss slapped the reins and the horses moved off. Adam and Ben mounted up and headed in the opposite direction.

 

Hoss and Little Joe reached the Greene ranch in midmorning. Tess was in the barn and greeted them warmly.

"Hi, Hoss! Hey, Little Joe! What brings you this way today?"

"Hey, Tess. Pa sent us to ask if we could borrow one of the big sleds. He thinks this storm comin’ up is gonna be a bad one."

"Ma thinks so, too. She has the vaqueros doing all kinds of things to get ready. I think it’s a lot of work for nothing. I’ve never seen a bad storm this early."

"Me neither." Hoss and Tess laughed together. Little Joe stood to one side and kept his thoughts to himself. He had been in a scoffing mood until the wind hit him on his own front porch. Then he remembered that Pa was rarely wrong in such matters. This was one time where he thought he would go with Pa’s thinking.

"Come on up to the house and have something hot to drink. You must be chilled to the bone after that long ride."

"Thanks, don’t mind if I do. C’mon, Joe. Don’t just stand there."

"I think we should be gettin’ the sled and headin’ for home, like Pa said."

"We have to ask Mrs. Greene, don’t we?"

"Yeah."

"And she’s in the house, ain’t she?"

"Yeah"

"So we’re goin’ in the house to ask her."

"Yeah, well, OK, but we won’t take too long, right?"

"What’s the matter with ya, Joe? Pa got ya spooked?" Hoss and Tess laughed and turned up their collars to head for the house. Joe trudged along behind.

 

Ben and Adam returned to the ranch house at noontime. After a quick meal, they each went about their tasks. Adam chopped extra firewood and stacked it deep next to both fireplaces. Ben took lengths of rope and ran them from the porch to the barn and from the bunkroom door to the outhouse. He also ran a line from the front door to the woodpile and to the well.

"Do you think we’ll need the ropes?" Adam paused with a load of firewood in his arms. He had to shout to make himself heard above the wind.

"It will be too late to rig them if we get white-out conditions and one of us is out of the house."

Adam looked at Pa and then at the ropes, but made no further comment as he carried the wood into the house.

Ben needed to make his eldest son understand his sense of urgency. When Adam reappeared Ben stepped to the shelter of the porch to speak to him.

"I’ve been in enough gales at sea to know the change in the air before a big blow. I felt that kind of change this morning. Look at the sky now."

Adam, who had not stopped chopping and carrying firewood for the past hour, took the time to look west. Although the day was still bright, high clouds obscured the sun and the wind was colder. The mountains were no longer clearly outlined on the horizon. It looked as if a translucent curtain had been drawn across them, setting the stage for a drama of unknown proportions. The dark heavy clouds were moving steadily toward the east and the Ponderosa. He tugged his hat lower and nodded his understanding to Pa.

"That’s snow between us and the mountains. It will start here within the hour. When you finish with the firewood, come help me secure the doors and windows. We don’t want the wind to take any of them if we can help it."

Both pairs of eyes went to the road leading up to the ranch house. It was time for Hoss and Little Joe to be back, but the road was empty.

 

"Thanks for dinner, Mrs. Greene. It was real good!"

"You’re welcome, anytime, Hoss. You too, Little Joe." Margaret Greene smiled at the boys as they prepared to step back out into the cold, windy afternoon. "Tell Ben I’m pleased to loan him the sled. I hope he doesn’t need to use it."

"Yes, ma’am. It was real nice of ya to have your hands load it up for me – us." Joe looked sideways and up at Hoss without moving his head and did not comment. He couldn’t wait to leave. He knew they were getting a later start back than Pa would like. He was also unhappy about having been helped to dress. He had to shed most of his layers to sit and have dinner. The reassembly was a lot of work and he could have done without the whole process. Now Hoss was making speeches to Mrs. Greene and Little Joe knew it was meant to impress Tess. He sighed deeply.

"Guess we should be goin’. Pa’ll be waitin’ on us."

"You be careful now. Don’t get caught in the storm." Margaret stepped to the door.

"Ya ready, little brother?"

"Am I ready?" Little Joe prepared a string of remarks about how ready he was, then remembered where he was and that he needed to be on his best behavior. He decided to save his comments for the ride home. "Yes, Hoss. I’m all ready." This time, Tess giggled.

Margaret opened the big front door, waved goodbye and quickly closed it against the cold. Hoss and Little Joe made their way to the wagon where the large wooden platform sled with double runners was loaded up. They climbed up to the wagon seat, threw a blanket over their legs, and started for home. The sun was dimming and there was no relief from the strong west wind, but there was no snow yet.

 

Ben and Adam had checked the barn thoroughly, putting out plenty of water and feed for the horses and putting down lots of fresh hay. They had secured the doors and the hayloft door and then propped long boards against them to prevent the wind from swinging a door open.

Ben was now checking for drafts and adding caulk to the doors and windows. He was determined the house would be as windproof as possible through what he knew would be a bitter cold night and possibly another day. Adam had hung storm shutters on the north and west windows. Hop Sing had brought food stores in and was concocting a hearty stew and baking fresh bread for supper.

The snow began in mid-afternoon – icy pellets driven horizontally by the wind. It rattled against the windows and began to accumulate on the ground that had been blown cold all day by the winter gale.

Adam came through the door and shook the snow from his coat and hat. "Whew! It’s really coming down out there!"

Ben nodded and kept using his knife to force caulking material into miniscule cracks and crannies.

Adam responded to the silence. "They’ll be here soon, Pa. Don’t worry. If they run into trouble with the wagon, they can ride the horses home. They’ll be OK." He threw a look at Hop Sing, who shrugged and shook his head in reply.

Ben nodded and pressed his lips into a straight line.

"I can saddle Beauty and ride to meet them," Adam offered.

"No. That is the one thing you will not do. I will not have all three of my sons out in this weather." Privately, Ben was chiding himself for having divvied up the chores as he had. He should have taken the wagon and gone to Margaret’s. He would have been back hours ago and would still have had time to make preparations here. What had seemed simplest and safest this morning had turned into the terrible worry of having his youngest children out in a storm with darkness closing in. It was taking all his self-control to keep from flinging himself onto his horse and galloping off in search of them. In another half-hour, with the light fading rapidly, he would do just that.

"Tell me what would be the most help to you." Adam was worried, too, and trying not to show it. "Why don’t I hang a couple of lanterns on the porch? It will make the house easier to see if it gets dark before they get back."

This time Ben put his arm around Adam’s shoulder. There was no point in taking out his anxiety on the most responsible person in the family. "Thank you, son. That’s a good idea."

At the fireplace, Hop Sing smiled to himself and stirred the stew.

 

Hoss and Little Joe weren’t quite halfway home when they saw the snow line coming toward them. It hit them with a blast of ice and wind. Suddenly the landscape was hard to see and the trail quickly became two muddy tracks, then two muddy lines, then snow began to fill it in.

Hoss couldn’t believe how fast it happened. "Sure is snowin’," he said, mostly to hear the sound of his own voice.

"Yeah. Just like Pa said it would," was Little Joe’s merciless reply. "Hurry up. Let’s get home!"

"I have to slow down, Little Joe. This is gettin’ slippery."

"Slow down!?! Ya’ve been slowin’ down all day!"

"Hey, now. That’s no way to talk!"

"It’s the truth and ya know it!" Little Joe was spitting mad. "Pa was right and ya thought he was crazy! Ya took your sweet time with Tess. Ya stayed to dinner when we shoulda turned right around! And now, here we are, stuck way out here and it’s snowin’ and gettin’ dark and it’s COLD!"

"We’ll get home OK, Little Joe. It’ll just take us a little longer is all." Hoss was suitably chastised by Joe’s tirade and imagined Pa would have something even fancier to say. Maybe if they looked real pathetic when they did get home, Pa would go easier on him. He had never seen a storm come up so quick and so hard. He took the blanket that was over their legs and wrapped Joe in it, then had Joe get down in the wagon bed to get out of the worst of the wind. He jumped down from the wagon and took the bridle of the leeward horse, using the big animal as a shield from the wind. It was getting too hard to see the trail from the wagon seat and he definitely didn’t want to lose his way today.

 

The wind howled and heavy, blowing snow swirled madly around the house and outbuildings. The front porch lanterns swung almost 180 degrees. It was hard to see the barn. Ben’s pacing took him from the front window to the new fireplace and back again as the last light faded from the sky. Adam sat on the settee with elbows on knees and watched him, absently rubbing Smoke’s ears.

Suddenly, Smoke barked and ran to the door, raised himself on his hind legs and scratched the door, all the while whining and wagging his tail furiously. Ben and Adam were at the door instantly. Ben flung it open just as a large snow-clad figure with a smaller, snowy bundle in its arms stepped onto the porch.

"Pa! Adam! I sure am glad to see ya! Boy, those lanterns were the best sight I ever saw comin’ across the meadow! Here, take Joe. I gotta stable the horses!" Hoss handed Joe to Pa, turned on his heel and ran toward the barn.

"I’ll give you a hand!" Adam threw on his outdoor gear in a flash and maneuvered around Pa before Pa could utter a syllable. Hoss threw Adam a look of pure gratitude as they made their way across the yard.

Ben, preempted by events, quickly ducked into the house as the snowy and blanketed Joe began to struggle. "Put me down! I ain’t no baby!"

Ben set Joe on the floor and threw off the snow-crusted blanket. It landed on Smoke, who said "Yike" and ran a few steps before stopping to shake himself vigorously.

"I’m suffocatin’, I’m so hot!" Little Joe began to throw off gloves, hat, scarves, sweaters and started on one pair of trousers before Ben got a grip on him and slowed him down.

"Little Joe, are you all right?" Ben was sitting on his heels in front of Joe for the second time that day, his hands on Joe’s waist, looking into his son’s eyes for the slightest sign of injury or illness from the exposure to the storm.

"Course I’m all right! I was wrapped up like-like-like a piņata or somethin’!" Joe was all wide-eyed indignation.

Ben sat down hard and leaned back against the wall, exhaling a breath he had been holding for hours. He drew his knees up, crossed his arms over them and put his head down.

Joe frowned and looked at Hop Sing. Hop Sing jerked his chin in Ben’s direction and gave a slight wave of his hand. Joe raised his eyebrows questioningly, then nodded and put his hand on his father’s shoulder.

"Are ya all right, Pa?"

"Yes, Joe," Pa said without looking up.

"Are ya sure, ‘cause ya didn’t tell me not to say ‘ain’t’ like ya usually do."

Ben’s laugh went from a chuckle to a full belly laugh in no time flat. He grabbed Joe in his arms and tickled him until Joe hollered "Uncle!" Then he hugged Joe for a long time, while Smoke danced around and licked both their faces.

"Don’t be mad at Hoss, Pa. He didn’t mean to do anything wrong."

What was this? Joe was interceding for Hoss? If anyone ever deserved a piece of Pa’s mind, it was Hoss after this escapade. Pa looked at Joe with a bemused expression on his face.

"He was slow gettin’ started back from the Greenes’, but when the storm got bad he was real careful. He made sure I was warm and he led the horses most of the way home. He must be awful cold, walkin’ all that way in the snow." Joe snuggled closer to Pa and gave him his best "how can you refuse me anything" look.

Ben was squinting and shaking his head, trying not to smile when Hoss and Adam charged through the door, shaking snow off themselves and showering Smoke once again. Smoke retreated to the fire and resolved to keep a safe distance if his people were covered in white stuff.

Adam took a quick look at Pa’s face and saw to his relief that Hoss was going to live through this night after all.

Hoss, who didn’t dare look at Pa yet, moved quickly to the fireplace and stood facing it, holding his hands out to the warmth of the fire. Pa got to his feet and took the chair near the fireplace, leaned back in it, stretched his long legs out in front of him, crossed them at the ankle, left over right, and gazed steadily at Hoss’s profile, his head cocked to his right. Hoss cut his eyes toward Pa, but said nothing, shifting his weight from foot to foot, rubbing his hands briskly, blowing on them to warm them. Pa steepled his fingers and cocked his head to his left. Finally, unable to stand the silence another second, Hoss blurted out, "Sure is snowin!" He rolled his eyes, asking himself if that was the best he could do.

Adam, Joe and Hop Sing seated themselves at the table to watch. Smoke settled at Joe’s feet. The cats gazed attentively, seeming to understand. They glanced at Pa, then paid more attention to Hoss, occasionally licking their lips.

Pa continued to sit motionless, expressionless and silent. If he had had a tail it would have flicked ever so slightly. Hoss ran his hand around his neck under his collar and turned to face his father.

"Dang it, Pa! I know ya told me to make it a quick trip. I just didn’t think a storm could come up that bad that fast. One minute the sky was clouded over but ya could see for miles and the next minute everything was blocked out and the air was full of snow so’s ya couldn’t see ten feet in front of ya!"

"Really?" said Pa. Adam winced. The cats blinked. Smoke thumped his tail.

"Yessir! Just like that!" Hoss made a pitiful attempt to snap his fingers, which were still too cold to get the job done.

Pa didn’t move a muscle. He continued to gaze at Hoss, his face unreadable.

"See, we had to go to the house to ask Mrs. Greene for the loan of the sled and then she asked us to dinner and, well, it wouldn’t have been polite to say no, ‘specially since we were askin’ a favor and all, and, well, time just got away from us is all... We left right after dinner was over…."

"We?" was all Pa said.

"Aw, Pa, I didn’t mean to disobey ya. I didn’t think it would get so bad so fast. I should have paid more attention to what you were sayin’ about how it would blow up into a storm all of a sudden."

"And?"

Hoss wrinkled up his face in confusion. The cats crouched down and watched intently. Smoke whined.

"Sir?"

"Isn’t there something else that goes with that excuse?" Pa uncrossed and recrossed his legs, right over left.

"Uh…"

"Something to indicate that you knew how worried I was?"

"Um…"

"Something to make me believe that you appreciate the serious position into which you put yourself and your brother, not to mention the horses and wagon?"

"Well…"

"Something to give me hope you have learned from this experience?"

Hoss’s shoulders sagged, his head dropped and all bravado went out of him. "I’m sorry, Pa. Truly I am. I would never do nothin’ to hurt Little Joe or the horses or make you worry. I just didn’t think. Truth is, I was plenty scared out there."

Ben rose in one smooth motion and put his arm around Hoss’s shoulders. "I know you’re sorry, son. I want you to learn from this. There are always consequences to your actions and decisions. Thankfully, the consequences today were not painful. Now get warmed up. Supper will be ready soon."

"That’s it? You’re not gonna tan my hide?"

"Not tonight."

"Tomorrow?"

"Son, if you want me to, I can arrange…."

"No, no, that’s not what I meant. I mean, thank you, Pa, for understandin’…" Hoss took a deep breath, got out of his outer garments and joined his family at the dinner table.

Abigail and John Adams curled up on the hearth. Smoke settled under Joe’s chair. Soon the room was filled with the sound of cutlery against plates, and steady conversation while the storm battered the small island that was the ranch house.

Part II

"Delicious stew, Hop Sing. Thank you." Ben raised his coffee cup in Hop Sing’s direction as he spoke. The boys nodded their contented agreement.

"Glad you like. Have hot apple pie for dessert."

Hoss rubbed his hands together briskly in anticipation of the treat. "Oh, man! Hot apple pie! Got any cheese to go with it, Hop Sing?"

Hop Sing smiled and nodded as they all helped to clear the table.

Soon everyone was settled near the fire. Ben and Joe started a game of checkers, Hoss played with Abigail and John, and Adam opened his book to the marked place. Pa asked him to read aloud to pass the evening. He was rereading Washington Irving’s "The Sketch Book", and chose one of his favorite short stories, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow". He took a sip of coffee and began the tale of the schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, the townsman Brom Bones, Katrina Van Tassel and the infamous Headless Horseman.

While the Cartwrights enjoyed the evening, the wind roared and howled, the windows rattled and the storm continued to blow madly around the ranch house. The warm light from its windows did not even carry to the barn. As one or another of the family went to a window to look outside, their gaze was met by impenetrable swirls of snow.

Eventually the cats tired of playing and curled up on each other on the hearth, Abigail’s head on John’s abdomen, John’s on Abigail’s like a figure eight, both with their paws over their noses. As Adam was reading the mysterious climax of the story, that being the unexplained disappearance of Ichabod Crane, Ben and Joe finished their final game of the night. Joe won two and lost eight, due more to his fascination with Adam’s story than to any skill on Ben’s part. Adam finished reading at about the same time and put the book on the mantle. Everyone stretched and yawned and made ready to retire for the night.

"Stoke the fires to keep them burning through the night. We’ll want the heat. Clear the hearths so sparks can’t do any serious damage."

Hoss and Adam made to do their father’s bidding.

"What happened to Ichabod Crane? It can’t just end like that!" Joe protested.

"No one in the town ever saw him again, brother." Adam smiled at Joe’s confusion.

"He didn’t just disappear! That doesn’t happen. Did the rider really throw his head at him?"

"It’s a story. Why is it so hard to believe he went away because he was embarrassed?"

"What about the black horse and the goblin and the bridge near the church and the head flyin’ at him and knockin’ ‘im off his own horse?"

"He was too ashamed to show his face in town again, Joe. That’s all. The rest is made up out of the things that make folks afraid. That’s the point."

"I say the Headless Horseman got ‘im."

Ben was enjoying the exchange immensely, very pleased that Joe’s imagination had been sparked by a good piece of literature. Maybe there was hope that he would turn to a book now and then.

Joe headed for his bunk and started to undress. Soon he was shivering in his long johns. He threw a quilt around himself and went looking for Pa to see if he could wangle a spot in Pa’s bed. He found Pa putting away the last of the checkers, pipe fixings and coffee cups.

"Sure is cold in the bunkroom! I can see my breath, even! Watch!" Joe turned toward the dark bunkroom and blew a plume of breath into the cold air. He then shivered as convincingly as he could and turned to ask, "Do ya think I’ll be warm enough?"

Pa took a deep breath, kept a straight face and said, "The wonderful thing about down-filled quilts and furs is that they hold the heat of your body in."

Joe looked doubtful, running his eyes up to Pa’s face and cocking his head.

"Really. You actually become your own source of heat. You’ll be snug in no time."

"It’s awful cold, Pa."

"I could heat a stone and put that in your bed to help warm it up if you like. Smoke will join you, won’t you boy?" Smoke whined and thumped his tail at the sound of his name.

"But what about the storm?"

"What about it?"

"It could get worse."

"Worse than what?"

"Worse than it is now! What if it blows in the window and I get covered in snow?"

Ben bent at the waist, the better to meet Joe’s eyes.

"Joe."

"Yes, sir?"

"Go to bed."

"Yes, sir." Joe knew when he was beaten. He trudged to his bunk and bundled in. Pa followed at his heels with a hearthstone, an extra fur throw and a warm hug. He tucked Joe in, rubbed his back, kissed his forehead and said "Good night."

"Night, Pa," Joe replied from the depths of his cocoon. Adam and Hoss were coming into the room as Pa was leaving. "Leave the door wide open to get as much heat from the fireplaces as you can. Get a good night’s sleep. We’ll have a fair amount of clearing to do in the morning."

"I’m ready to turn in and sleep like a log." Hoss stretched mightily and yawned.

"See you in the morning, Pa." Adam smiled at the way the day was winding down.

Ben returned his smile and crossed the dimly lit living room to his own bedroom. He paused at the windows that looked out over the corral and meadow, neither of which was visible. He couldn’t see more than a foot beyond the edge of the porch. Shaking his head at the ferocity of the storm, he undressed, pulled the covers over his head and fell into a deep, relaxed sleep.

 

Little Joe’s bloodcurdling screams, much louder than the screeching of the wind, filled the night. Ben was on his feet and running before he was fully awake. Hoss and Adam both bumped their heads from sitting bolt upright in bed. Hoss nearly fell from the top bunk. Joe continued to scream. Hop Sing came at a run and tripped over Smoke, causing him to fall sprawling onto Joe’s bunk. Joe’s screams went up an octave and he flailed the air with his fists.

Ben helped Hop Sing to his feet and gathered Joe, still screaming in his sleep, into his arms.

"Joe, wake up! You’re having a bad dream! Wake up!" He shook Joe gently.

"Gotta run, gotta get away! He’s after me! He’s after me! AAAAhhhhhhhhh!"

"JOE! WAKE UP! Nothing’s after you! You’re safe!"

Joe’s eyes popped wide open.

"PA! He’s after me! He’s gonna get me!"

"Who’s after you?"

"HIM! It’s HIM! He’s for real!"

"Who? Calm down, Joe."

"The Headless Horseman. Didn’tcha hear ‘im? He was yellin’ and his horse was yellin’ and I was runnin’ but I couldn’t get AWAY!" Joe’s breath was coming in short gasps.

Adam groaned, lay down and put a pillow over his head. Hoss swung his legs back into his bunk and pulled the covers up as high as they would go. Hop Sing shook his head and padded – no, actually - stomped back to his bed. Ben was left holding Joe and trying to get his own heart back to its normal rhythm.

"Joe, it was a story. The part about the Headless Horseman is meant to show how silly people can be about rumors and gossip and unexplained events. There is nothing real about it."

"But, I SAW him! He was real big an’ dressed all in black. His horse has a red mouth, almost like fire, like a dragon, an’ his HEAD – IT COMES OFF! HE THREW IT AT ME." Joe began to cry in earnest, deep frightened sobs.

Ben knew when to take a hard line and when to yield to the inevitable. He bundled Joe in the quilt and carried him back to his bedroom with a muttered "Go back to sleep" to his other sons. Hoss was already snoring. Adam sighed and muttered something back.

Ben spent the next half-hour comforting and reassuring Joe until finally the sobs ended and Joe’s eyes began to close. Ben allowed himself to relax back into sleep when suddenly Joe stiffened again.

"What is it, son?"

"Ichabod Crane! What if he’s a ghost? What if HE comes after me? What if he’s got the horseman’s head with him?"

"Joe."

"Yes, Pa?"

"I will not allow anything to happen to you. You are as safe as you can be."

"But, Pa…"

"Close your eyes, Joe. I’ll rub your back until you fall asleep."

"What if..?"

"No more talk. Just sleep."

Ben reflected again on the power of literature from a slightly different perspective as he gently rubbed Little Joe’s back and shoulders until the boy fell sound asleep. Outside the storm continued to batter the ranch house and buildings.

 

Ben awakened to the smell of brewing coffee and the gray/white light of the storm. He stepped to the window and was amazed to see the snow still falling at a heavy rate. The wind came from every quarter and made the snow turn in the air and pile up against everything above ground level. There were no features of the landscape visible. He could make out only the corral fence and the bulky form of the barn.

When he stepped into the great room, Hop Sing greeted him and poured him a cup of coffee. Smoke scratched at the door to be let out. Ben opened and closed it quickly, needing some strength to push against the wind. No sooner had he turned back to the room than the cats appeared at his feet. He let them out. Adam appeared from the bunkroom looking sleepy. He threw his father a small wave and accepted his coffee from Hop Sing.

"Good-" Smoke’s frantic barking and scratching interrupted Ben’s greeting. He opened and closed the door again. Smoke shook extensively to rid himself of the snow and made a beeline for the warmth of the fire. "- morning, son. Did you sleep well?"

"Other than being lifted right off the mattress by Joe’s screaming, I slept fine."

"I should have realized that would happen."

"It’s a funny story, not a scary one."

"Not at his age. Too much imagination and not enough experience to see that it’s about people and their attitudes."

Meows and scratches signaled the final opening and closing of the door as the cats ran back into the house.

"Is that everyone? May I leave the door now?" Ben asked the animals. They all looked at him attentively and acknowledged his comment with a whisker or a tail. "Thank you." Ben joined Adam at the table.

Hoss appeared next, rubbing his eyes and yawning. Finally Little Joe emerged. All eyes followed him as he crossed the room and took his place at the breakfast table.

"What?"

"How are you this morning, son?"

"Fine. Why is everyone lookin’ at me?"

"Did you get a good night’s sleep?" Adam wanted to know.

"Well, ya, sure." Little Joe bobbed his head.

"No more bad dreams?" Hoss asked.

"Nope."

"You feel rested? Refreshed?" Hop Sing wanted to know.

"Sure. Why?"

"We’re just looking out fer ya, little brother. Ya had a rough night. Umm, apple butter! I just love apple butter. Thanks, Hop Sing."

"That was a for real dream! That Headless Horseman was after me. When he threw his head it hit me hard! I felt it! I couldn’t even move!"

"That was Hop Sing tripping on Smoke. He fell right on top of you." Adam had to bite his tongue to keep a straight face. Hop Sing walked away, muttering to himself in Chinese.

Ben saw the whole morning deteriorating before his eyes. He cleared his throat, looked each of his boys in the eye and started to eat his breakfast. They got the message and dropped the subject.

"After we eat, we need to tend to the stock and replenish the wood. This storm doesn’t seem to be letting up."

"It sure is somethin’ all right. Never saw the like of it."

"That’s not what ya were sayin’ to Tess yesterday at the Greene place. Ya thought it was all a lot of fuss for nothin’ and so did she." Little Joe nodded once to punctuate this pronouncement. Hoss’s face reddened at that and he shot back with "Mind yer own self, Little Joe." Adam commented to Hoss, "You put Pa and me through a lot of worry yesterday."

"I didn’t mean to, and I apologized to Pa."

"That doesn’t excuse your thoughtlessness." Adam was in his best older brother mode this morning.

"I told ya we shoulda left earlier." Joe chimed in.

"Shut up, Little Joe."

"You shouldn’t say that to him."

"Yeah, you shouldn’t say that to me."

"ENOUGH!! NOT ANOTHER WORD FROM ANY OF YOU! What’s gotten into you this morning?" Three faces turned to their father with quick replies forming. "NEVER MIND! DON’T ANSWER THAT!" Ben waved his fork in their general direction. "Just be quiet, eat your breakfast and let me eat mine in peace."

When the meal was over and the table cleared, Ben, Hoss and Adam began to dress for the outdoors. Little Joe started to pull on his outdoor things, but Ben stopped him. "Not today, son. You stay in and help Hop Sing."

"Aw, Pa. I can do my chores same as always. I want to see what the storm is like"

"No, Joe. There are whiteout conditions out there. If you got caught in one of them you could wander in the storm and not find your way back to the house or the barn. It’s not safe. Not today."

"What’s white out condishuns? You mean it’s white out side? That’s the snow!"

Ben threw a look at Joe to see if he was being conned. Joe looked back at him, wide-eyed, his face a question mark. Ben sighed and plunged into the explanation, knowing it was a stall tactic.

"Think about a very dark cloudy night, no moon, no stars."

"OK."

"What can you see?"

"Nothin’"

"I mean, how far can you see?"

"Like I said, nothin’. It’s dark. There’s nothin’ to see."

"OK. Now imagine the same inability to see, except it’s daylight and the snow is so thick it’s blinding you and the wind is blowing very strongly."

"So it is the snow."

"Well, yes."

Joe flapped his arms in exasperation and his bangs bounced. "That’s what I said!"

Adam turned away as fast as he could, but he couldn’t keep his back from shaking with laughter. Hoss threw Pa a "Why did you bother?" look and settled his hat firmly on his head. Together they headed for the door. Smoke jumped up to join them, but tucked his tail, whined and retreated to the hearth as soon as the door opened and he looked out.

Outside on the porch, the steps were buried beneath a mantle of snow that was already two feet deep and getting deeper. The wind was sculpting the snow into drifts that looked like ocean waves. Where a building or a fence rose in the wind’s path, the snow was piled high on the windward side and the leeward side was hollowed out and shallow by comparison. The roofs had a heavy snow load as did the trees and fences.

As the Cartwrights took their first steps into the storm Ben reminded his boys to keep to the ropes to move around the property. "Don’t try to cross open ground. The wind and snow can disorient you so badly you could get lost between the house and the barn."

"Aw, Pa, that don’t seem likely." Hoss scoffed.

Ben gave him a look that made him tug his hat low, swallow hard and mutter, "Yes, sir!" as he grabbed the rope that led to the barn.

Ben and Adam exchanged a look that said, "Didn’t he learn anything yesterday?" and separated, Adam to the woodpile and Ben to the well. With each step they sank up to their knees in deep powder snow with a thin-crusted surface that shattered as they stepped on it. The snow squeaked under their boots. It took a lot of energy to get around and movement was slow and plodding. When water and wood had been restocked in the house, and additional wood had been put on the porch for easy access, Ben and Adam headed for the barn to help Hoss.

The blowing drifting snow had nearly filled Hoss’s footprints. Adam and Ben followed them, using the rope for both support and guidance to the barn. Together they made quick work of the barn chores and put extra feed and water out for the milk cow and the horses. Adam braved the dreaded chicken coop to make sure the inhabitants had plenty of feed and water and to gather the eggs.

The whiteout hit as they were crossing the yard to return to the house. Joe and Hop Sing were watching from the window when Pa, Hoss and Adam suddenly disappeared in the storm, as did everything beyond the porch posts.

"Where are they?!"

"Not to worry. They are there. Father was leading. He will see to safety of brothers."

"We should go out and get ‘em!"

"No, Little Joe. Three strong men can take care of selves. No place for young boy. Must do as father said."

The squall took Ben by surprise even though he had warned of it. The force of the wind almost knocked him off his feet. The ice crystals stung his face. It was hard to hang onto the rope and make forward progress. He knew Adam was next behind him by a step or two and then Hoss. He stopped and Adam nearly walked into him. Leaning toward Adam’s face and shouting to be heard, he said "Let’s wait for Hoss and keep close together!"

Adam nodded and yelled, "OK." They both turned their backs to the wind and held tight to the rope. When Hoss failed to arrive within a minute or so, they looked at each other.

Ben leaned to Adam’s ear once again. "You go on into the house. I’ll see what’s keeping Hoss."

Adam shook his head emphatically. "No, sir. It’s better if we stick together. Bad enough that one of us is separated."

"All right. Let’s backtrack along the rope to the barn. He was right behind you, wasn’t he?" Adam nodded. They turned, keeping to the rope. Ben put his other hand on Adam’s shoulder and they fought their way toward the barn. When they reached it without seeing any sign of Hoss, Ben’s heart was racing. Where was he?

"Maybe he went back into the barn," Adam shouted.

Ben nodded and motioned that they should open the barn door again. They stepped quickly inside and shut the door, relieved to be sheltered. Sure enough, there sat Hoss on a hay bale, looking properly chastened.

"I didn’t think you’d come back."

"You thought we would just keep going to the house in conditions like that without knowing where you were?" Ben demanded his voice increasing in volume with each word.

"I slipped and fell and lost my hold on the rope when the wind blew up like that. By the time I got to my feet I couldn’t see the rope or the house. I wasn’t sure I was seeing the barn, but I could sorta feel it, the way the wind was blowin’ around it. So I felt my way to the barn and came inside. I figured to wait here until the storm thinned out a little and I could see the rope again." This being an enormous speech for Hoss, he paused to catch his breath and added, "You sure were right about the rope, Pa."

Ben nodded and blew out his breath in a frosty plume, keeping his eyes on Hoss. "You did the right thing coming in here. I guess we can all wait a little while." He parked himself on a bale, leaned against the wall and stretched his legs. Adam paced to keep warm. Hoss stayed put and squirmed a little. Ben waited patiently.

"I didn’t mean to worry ya, Pa. Truth is, I wasn’t payin’ attention to where the rope was. I was near it, but I wasn’t holdin’ it."

"I know."

"How didja know?"

"Because you weren’t two or three steps behind Adam. It didn’t take much figuring on my part."

Adam stopped pacing and stared at Hoss. "I’m in this cold barn instead of the warm house because you still don’t get it?"

"Lay off, Adam."

"I don’t think I will lay off, brother. You need to learn some respect and humility!"

"I don’t need you to tell me when to - "

"I think you do need me to - "

"STOP THE BICKERING!"

In the ensuing silence, Ben got up and walked around the barn. His sons watched as he grabbed an empty grain sack, a lightweight fishing pole and some lengths of harness leather. When he had these assembled, he checked outside. The whiteout squall was passing and he thought it safe to return to the house. He threw a glance at his sulking boys and motioned them out of the barn with a snap of his head. He closed the barn door and joined them at the rope. Adam started off.

"Stop."

"Pa, it’s snowing and cold. I just want to get to the house. Can’t it wait?"

"No, it can’t. Shake hands with your brother. Now."

"What?"

"You heard me."

"Why am I doing this?"

"Because it’s cold and snowing and I want to get to the house, too."

"Pa -"

"Your brother owned up to his mistake and apologized, almost without prompting. No need to rub salt in a wound. Shake hands and forget it."

Hoss who had been standing very still with his hand dutifully on the rope and his eyes on the ground raised his glance to meet his brother’s. He offered his other hand. "I’m sorry, Adam."

Adam’s shoulders sagged as he acquiesced to his father’s bidding. "It’s OK, Hoss. I’m glad you were safe."

"You lead, Adam. Hoss, keep one hand on the rope and the other on Adam’s shoulder." Ben put his hand on Hoss’s shoulder and together they made their way through the deep snow and wind to the safety of the house.

Little Joe and Smoke both pounced on them as soon as they opened the door. Smoke had forgotten about the snow in his excitement and got showered by all three men. He shook and barked and danced back while Joe peppered them with questions.

"What happened out there?"

"It was a snow squall, son." Ben moved quickly to the fireplace, shivering.

"I could see ya and then I couldn’t. Where did ya go?" Joe was relentless.

"We went back into the barn until it passed," said Adam, to deflect one for Pa’s sake. He, too, was at the hearth, chafing his hands and blowing into them to try to generate some warmth.

"Was that white out condishuns, Pa? It sure looked white out there!"

"Joe, it’s about your ability to see – yes, Joe, that was whiteout conditions." Ben turned his back to the fire and tried to rub some feeling into his arms and thighs.

"Is the snow real deep?"

Ben and Adam looked at Hoss, who fielded this one. "Ya, the snow’s about two feet deep. It would be almost up to your hips, little brother." Hoss was at the opposite hearth, warming his hands and looking over the possibilities for a snack.

"Is Paint OK?" Joe stood in the middle of the room and fired his questions like an artillery barrage.

"Paint is fine, son. Fresh straw and hay and plenty of feed and water."

"Will it be over soon?"

"Hard to say. It doesn’t seem to be lessening at all yet." Pa was back on point.

"When can I go out?"

"When it’s over."

"But ya don’t know when that will be?"

"No."

"Today?"

"I doubt it."

"Tomorrow?"

"Maybe." Ben faced the fire again, feeling like meat on a spit, but loving the heat as it seeped back into his tired body.

"Are ya cold?"

"Yes!" Three voices answered in unison.

"Hop Sing made cocoa. He said he was puttin’ somethin’ in yours, Pa, to kick it up a little. What does that mean?"

Ben raised his eyebrows and threw a look at Hop Sing who crossed the room with a steaming mug of hot chocolate for Ben. Ben took a cautious sip and felt the burning warmth of the rum-laced drink chase away the chills. He saluted Hop Sing with the raised mug. "It means, Little Joe, that there are spirits in the cocoa. It’s wonderful, Hop Sing. Just what I needed. Why don’t you make the same for Hoss and Adam? Go a little lighter on the rum."

Adam and Hoss looked at Pa with their jaws dropping. Pa shrugged. "I’m only offering it once. It will warm you up. It’s not as though you have to make any important decisions today. If necessary, you can sleep it off without any loss of productivity, too. Enjoy my hospitality while you can."

Hoss continued to stare in disbelief and sipped very cautiously at his cocoa. It warmed him from the inside out almost immediately. Adam laughed and dropped into a chair by the fire, savoring his. Grinning, he gave his father the same raised mug salute Ben had offered to Hop Sing. Ben chuckled and settled into the other chair.

"Can I have a taste?" Joe wheedled. Ben let him take a sip and watched as Joe’s throat closed and he began to cough from the heat of the rum.

"What is that stuff? That’s awful!" Ben thumped Joe on the back until he caught his breath.

"That’s why you will be satisfied with a mug of plain hot cocoa. You have a lot of years to go before you’ll be up to this."

For the second time in as many days, Joe thought Pa was absolutely right.

 

Part III

Adam read by the fire. Joe and Hoss played checkers quietly at the table while Hop Sing prepared the midday meal. Ben got the grain sack and fishing pole and returned to his fireside chair.

He tested the flexibility of the green wood to see how far he could bend it before it reached the breaking point. Seeing that he could get the wood to curve without breaking, he pulled his jackknife from his pocket and cut two fairly short equal lengths from the pole. Using rawhide strips to lash them together at each end of the length, he then pulled them apart like a bow and put small lengths of wood at the inside of the lashed ends to hold the spread of the curve. He now had a roughly oval outline of bent green wood. He also had the complete attention of everyone in the room.

"I give up," said Adam. "What are you doing?"

"I’m trying to make a snowshoe," replied Pa as if it was the most ordinary thing to do.

"How can ya make a shoe out of snow?" Little Joe demanded. "Ya can’t wear snow!"

"It’s not made of snow, Joe. It’s for walking on snow."

"We always use our boots!"

"There are places in the world where it snows so much and the snow gets so deep it’s impossible to walk through it. People in those places have learned from the animals how to walk on top of it."

"On top of it? How can ya walk on top of it?"

"By making your footprint so big your weight is distributed over a bigger area. That way, you might sink a little into the snow, but not all the way down."

"Huh," Little Joe snorted.

"It’s true, Little Joe. I’ve read about snowshoes. There’s something called skis, too. Inger used to talk about them, didn’t she?"

"My ma knew about ‘em?" Hoss asked.

"Adam’s right. She told wonderful stories about winter in Sweden, about the people gliding over the snow on skis or walking over it on snowshoes."

"If it’s such a good idea, how come we don’t have ‘em?" challenged Little Joe.

"We’ve never needed equipment for a serious amount of snow. What’s piled up outside right now is more than the Carson Valley sees in a whole winter season. When did you ever see it snow here more than a few inches? The biggest storms sometimes bring a foot of snow. We’re always able to walk around, ride the horses, get to the places we need to go without much trouble."

"What about this storm, Pa? It is unusual, isn’t it?" Adam wondered.

"I imagine we will not see the like of it for years, if ever again. It’s out of season and very strong."

"Are we gonna lose the herd?" Hoss always worried about the animals first.

"No, I don’t think so. The cattle will make it through. We’ll help them by taking them some feed when we can get to them. Once the storm passes, the snow will be gone in a day or two."

This was too much for Little Joe who got up from the table, walked to his father and put his hands on Pa’s knees, leaning close.

"Pa, how can ya say that? When the snow comes it lasts all winter! This is a lotta snow!"

"When the snow comes in season it lasts. This snow is out of season. It’s mid-October, as Hoss was saying yesterday. It’s not supposed to snow in October, and it’s not supposed to snow this hard any time. This storm is an aberration. Its effects won’t last."

"Ab-ab-abrashun?" Little Joe tried to get his tongue around the new word.

"When fall down, scrape knee, that is abrasion," said Hop Sing.

"A-ber-ra-tion. It means something unusual, out of the ordinary." Pa was smiling at this conversation.

"Like the Headless Horseman?"

"That’s more of an apparition," offered Adam, his eyes dancing.

Little Joe thought they were all pulling his leg and when Hoss wanted to know if he was going to play checkers or jaw all day, he went back to the table.

"Have you made snowshoes before?" Adam wanted to know. "I don’t remember us ever having them."

"No, but I’ve seen them. They come in all shapes and sizes. I suppose it depends on the local conditions and materials available. I just thought I’d give it a try." Ben began to make a webbing of rawhide as he weaved it back and forth across the wooden frame. By the time he finished one snowshoe it was time for dinner.

 

The midday meal had been eaten and cleared. Everyone, including the animals, had taken a look outdoors to see if there was any letup in the storm. There wasn’t. Time slowed to a crawl for the inhabitants of the house. Everyone felt the effects of prolonged inactivity. Even sane, steady, sober men can go a bit haywire cooped up in a house for more than twenty-four hours.

Ben finished the second snowshoe in short order and wished he had either taken his time with it or brought in enough material for five pair. He decided to smoke a pipe and read from his treasured volume of Shakespeare. He opened the volume to "The Tempest", having flipped a mental coin whether it would be that play or "The Winter’s Tale." The way things were going, he figured he might have time for both.

"Whatcha readin’, Pa?" Little Joe looked over Pa’s shoulder. Trying again to spark the boy’s imagination with a good story, Pa began to outline the plot.

"It’s a play about a magical storm and an enchanted island. It has a sorcerer named Prospero and a sprite named Ariel and…"

"Uh-huh," said Little Joe and wandered off to play with the cats.

"I’d be happy to read it to everyone…"Ben offered.

"I’m good here, Pa," said Hoss quickly.

"Long story. Save voice." Hop Sing chimed in before Hoss had finished. Ben exchanged a shrug with Adam and settled into his reading.

Joe decided to see what would happen if he made his hands flutter like birds above the cats. Abigail Adams laid on her back on the floor and batted at his hands with her paws while John watched alertly. The more Joe fluttered, the harder Abby batted. Joe giggled and kept at it, staying out of harm’s way by lifting his hands away strategically. John watched every move. Joe made his mistake when he kept his hands low as he turned to say "Look at this, Pa! – OW! OW! That HURTS!"

Ben looked and saw each cat using its front paws to hold Joe’s arms in a death grip. Their pearly-white, needle-sharp teeth were embedded in the fleshy part of his palms – not too deeply, these were determined cats, not mean ones – ears flat, eyes wide, while their back paws thumped at his arms in rapid fire.

"HELP! HELP! They’re EATIN’ me," Joe screamed and tried to fling the cats off. This was a mistake, because cats don’t like to be flung and therefore dug in deeper.

"What’re ya doin’ to my cats?!" Hoss demanded as he pried John’s jaws open gently and removed her from Joe’s left arm. "They’re delicate! Ya could hurt ‘em real easy!" he went on as he disentangled Abigail from Joe’s right arm.

Joe was outraged. "HURT THEM!? Did ya see what they were doin’ to me? They ATTACKED me!!"

"They did not. You were fussin’ with ‘em and they gotcha back, that’s all."

"That’s ALL?! I’m bleedin’!!!" Joe held up reddened, chewed and slightly punctured hands.

"No worse than prick of pin. Drop or two of blood. Wash hands with soap and water and all will be well." Hop Sing tried to smooth things over, but Joe was fighting mad.

"They better stay away from me, is all I can say!"

Hoss leaned over and jerked his thumb at his chest. "You threatenin’ my cats?"

Joe stuck out his chin and curled his recently damaged fists. "I’m givin’ em fair warnin’. I’ve got Smoke, after all."

"Oh yeah? Well, where was your big, brave dog just a minute ago? Huh?"

Smoke, who had lifted his head at the sound of his name, went back to dozing by the fire

"He got took by surprise is all. He won’t let it happen again!"

"Oh yeah?" Hoss took a step closer to Joe

"Yeah!" Joe took a step closer to Hoss.

Adam, whose head was swiveling from the ruckus to Pa, was waiting for Pa to end the altercation with a bellowed order. Even Joe and Hoss were looking at Pa from the corners of their eyes as they escalated their improbable brawl. When he didn’t interfere, they settled for breathing hard at each other and retreating, stiff-backed to opposite sides of the room. Hoss made soothing noises to the cats, who were calmly grooming themselves. Joe sat next to Smoke and encouraged him to seek revenge.

Pa, who had seen the cats make their move, shook his head and returned to his book. He noticed Adam’s quizzical expression, shrugged and said, "Joe couldn’t hurt Hoss even if he took a swing. Hoss won’t swing on Joe for years yet." Adam started to smile. "Joe asked for it by teasing the cats. He was far more startled than hurt." Adam was grinning now. "I could have gotten up, separated them, given them a lecture…"

"…but instead you let them blow off steam and got a few minutes of pure entertainment in the process." Adam finished for him, laughing.

Pa said, "Exactly", pleased that Adam was enjoying it with him, appreciating that Adam saw the difference between this silliness and the unpleasant words in the barn that morning. Pa went back to Shakespeare’s magic spells.

Adam, who had been reading for his amusement since the night before, could not face another printed word. He got up, poured a cup of coffee, walked to the window, walked to the other window, peered over Hop Sing’s shoulder to see what he was doing (he was mending a shirt) and wandered into the bunkroom. It was too cold in there, so he got his guitar and brought it back to the living room.

It would have been a good idea except Adam was fidgety. Instead of playing familiar melodies, he experimented with different chord combinations, changed rhythms often, started a familiar tune then dropped it to explore new fingering or a different strum. Oblivious to the effect he was having on the others, he continued to stop and start.

Unable to stand it, Ben thrust himself from his chair, closed his book with a slap, strode across the room to get coffee, and considered whether the barn might be preferable to the house this afternoon.

He turned to Little Joe and said, "How about a game of checkers, son?"

"OK, Pa!" Joe couldn’t believe his luck. Usually he had to do the asking.

"Set up the board."

Joe set up quickly and they settled into the game. Hoss came over to watch. Adam continued to explore guitar variations.

"Enjoyin’ the concert, Pa?" Hoss asked under his breath.

"Leave it alone, son. Adam loves his guitar and he doesn’t have another place to play this afternoon."

"It ain’t exactly playin’," Little Joe suggested.

"It isn’t exactly playing," Ben corrected automatically.

"Right!" said Little Joe.

"Your move, son."

"How are we gonna get feed to the cattle, Pa?" Hoss worried. "Are we gonna use the sled?"

"That’s right. We’ll load it up with hay bales and drag it out to the herd, once we find them."

"What do ya mean, find ‘em?"

"They’ll have drifted with the storm, looking for low-lying places out of the wind. They’ll be spread out over half the territory. King me, Little Joe."

Joe obediently put a second checker on Pa’s at his side of the board. Hoss frowned. He hadn’t seen the move that had gotten Pa there, but decided he had missed it. Little Joe won the first game and they began a second.

Hoss got up to pour coffee for himself and came back to watch. The game was fairly even, each player having almost the same number of captured pieces and an equal position on the board. A few moves later it happened again. Pa said "King me," and there was his checker all the way to Joe’s side of the board, but Hoss had missed the play. Little Joe won this game easily.

"Gotcha again, Pa!" he crowed. "Wanna go another?"

"Set them up!" Pa agreed heartily. This time Hoss concentrated on the play, watching all the early moves. A gleeful Joe triple-jumped, clapped and started to remove the captured pieces. Pa helped him by picking up one of them and moving his hand to Joe’s pile. Three moves later, Hoss spotted it when Pa put the checker he had palmed on a square in Joe’s end row and said, "King me".

Hoss caught Pa’s eye and stared hard at him. Pa raised his eyebrows, wiggled them up and down twice and smiled a smile of pure devilment. Hoss was astonished. He squinted at Pa, as if that would bring understanding. Pa just grinned back. Hoss got up and walked over to Adam, bent and said something in Adam’s ear. Adam frowned at Hoss and shook his head. Hoss bent and said something else. Adam’s eyes opened wide. He stopped playing his guitar and the two of them strolled casually back to the table to observe the game. Adam sat next to Joe and Hoss sat next to Adam.

At that moment, Little Joe triple jumped and started to lift three of Pa’s pieces, including a king, off the board. He was dazzled by his own success and threw a look of triumph at his brothers as Pa helped Joe clear the pieces again. Adam saw immediately that the number of pieces captured was not the number of pieces added to Joe’s pile. Adam was perplexed. Pa was completely Joe’s superior at checkers. Why in the world was he cheating? Little Joe was oblivious because he never concentrated on the board. Adam decided to even the odds.

"You’ve got a good move here, Little Joe." Adam pointed to a square that would block one of Pa’s men for several moves, unless Pa decided to sacrifice the piece. Adam cocked his head in Pa’s direction and gave him a look that was a challenge to a duel. Pa gave an imperceptible nod and the battle was joined.

It was much harder for Pa to palm and drop pieces where he wanted them on the board with Adam watching intently and coaching Little Joe. It required all his skill at leger-de-main, but he managed to do it a time or two. Hoss saw it, but Adam didn’t. The third time he tried, Adam caught him.

"That checker doesn’t belong there."

"Which checker?" Pa and Joe asked in unison.

"The one Pa just asked you to "king". It wasn’t there a minute ago. It was nowhere near there."

"Sure it was," said Little Joe.

"No, it wasn’t," insisted Adam. "How many checkers in your captured pile, Joe?"

Little Joe shrugged. "I dunno."

"I think you’re one short."

Hoss had to put in his two cents. "I seen it, too. Pa’s been plunkin’ checkers down to be kinged all afternoon."

"No, he hasn’t!"

"Yes, he has!" Hoss and Adam said together.

"Yer sayin’ he’s cheatin’! If he was cheatin’, why ain’t he winnin’?"

"That’s a good question, son." Ben said with a smile.

"I can’t believe you’re sitting there denying that you cheated!" Adam was getting hot.

"I don’t think I’ve commented one way or the other." Pa continued to smile, clearly enjoying himself.

"What’s the point of cheatin’ if you can’t fix it so’s to win?" Little Joe continued his train of thought.

"He’s a better player’n you, little brother. It’s not fair for him to cheat ya."

"He’s taking advantage of you, Little Joe."

"I WON all the games!"

"’Cause Pa let ya win," said Hoss and instantly regretted it.

"Did not!" Little Joe was insulted.

"Did too!" insisted Hoss.

"Take that back!"

"Will not!"

"Joe, Hoss, take it easy." Adam tried to make them calm down.

"Mind your own business, Adam!"

"STOP!!" Hop Sing’s bellow brought complete silence to the room. All four Cartwright faces turned to him.

"Silly, stupid argument! Noise, noise, noise all day! No peace! Cannot hear self think! Hoss, you mind own business!" Hoss’s mouth dropped open. "Little Joe, first you torture cats, then you torture me!" Little Joe leaned forward on his hands to argue, but changed his mind. "Adam, you make ears hurt with noise from guitar!"

"Noise - !" Adam sputtered.

"And YOU!" Hop Sing squinted and sighted down his raised arm and pointed finger as if it was the barrel of a gun. His target was Ben Cartwright. "You are worst of all. Let Little Joe tease cats! Let Hoss and Joe fight! Let Adam be noisy with guitar! Cheat at checkers!!! No wonder household is out of control!"

Adam, Hoss and Little Joe stood immobilized with shock at this outburst. Ben hung his head, then looked at Hop Sing from the tops of his eyes in startling resemblance to his youngest son. "I apologize, Hop Sing. I’m going to go sit and read quietly until you call us to supper. I suggest everyone else find something quiet to do as well. Let’s have some consideration for Hop Sing."

With mutters and grumbles the boys dropped their argument. Adam and Little Joe started another game. Hoss went to the window and gazed at the storm.

As they set up the checkerboard, Adam was deep in thought. He didn’t know why they had quarreled over Little Joe’s having won five games of checkers from Pa, except that Pa had created an excessive number of illegitimate kings. Adam looked at Pa sitting in his chair by the fire, puffing on his pipe, reading his Shakespeare with a small smile still on his face.

Hoss moved from the window to the other fireside chair. "Pa?"

"Ummhmm?"

"What just happened?"

"What do you mean?"

"Ya’d never cheat Little Joe. Y’ad never cheat any of us. Why’d ya do that?"

"Do what?"

"Why’d you keep takin’ Joe’s pieces and makin’ him king ya?"

"I had a good reason."

"I figgered ya did, but I can’t figger out what it is." Hoss wrinkled his brow with the effort to decipher Pa’s thinking on this.

Pa kept reading his book.

"Well?"

Pa looked up.

"What was the reason?"

Pa took his pipe out of his mouth and looked Hoss straight in the eye.

"Can you keep this to yourself?" he said.

"Course, Pa." Hoss leaned in closer, pleased to be taken into Pa’s confidence.

With a glint in his eye that belied the seriousness of his tone Pa said, "I did it to make Adam drop that guitar before I killed him."

 

Part IV

Everyone turned in early, hoping that would bring an end to the storm and the confinement to the house. The night was passing peacefully when Smoke roused from a dream about chasing the bouncing things Little Joe called "rabbits" and twitched his ears. The sky wasn’t light enough for any of his family to be awake yet. But he’d heard something in the house.

He jumped down from Pa’s chair and padded across the wood floor. Smoke highly approved of this new development of leaving the bedroom doors open to the warmth of the living room because now he could roam at will – especially since he’d proven to Pa he could be trusted not to leave puddles.

There it was again. That funny noise. What was it? He stopped just outside the bedroom and worked his ears. They led him to one of the stacks of firewood and John Adams.

What was that crazy cat doing now? She had her backside up in the air, her front end down low, and she was digging her claws in and out of the firewood with a "thwahk" sound.

Hmmm – Smoke had seen both Abigail and John Adams do that on the pine trees. Maybe that was their secret. Maybe that was why they could get up in the trees and he couldn’t.

He tried to imitate John Adams – tail in the air, down in front, paws on the wood and claws into it. Only his claws wouldn’t go into the wood and make that "thwahk" sound like John Adams’. All his did was pull the wood off.

Smoke sat on his haunches. Why was that? Why could John Adams stick her claws in the wood and Smoke couldn’t?

Pretty soon, Abigail came along and started doing the same thing, but on a different piece of wood. Watch and imitate as he might, Smoke couldn’t do it.

Cats had all the fun.

Well, maybe not all of it. He could pull the wood apart and that proved to be kind of entertaining. Some pieces had a rough skin and he peeled that and shook it like when Little Joe and he played tug of war. Other pieces he broke off and they cracked and made more pieces.

Lost as he was in the fun of what he was doing he never expected to hear Pa’s voice boom, "Smoke!!"

Yipes!

He broke into a run for Little Joe and safety. The problem was that when he got to the room Little Joe, Adam and Hoss were all sitting up with their eyes wide open like someone had just discharged a rifle.

Smoke went low, intending to hide under Little Joe’s bunk but only his front part went under. That was happening more and more lately. He couldn’t get under things like he used to – but by the same token he didn’t have any more trouble getting up on the front porch.

Despite his aggravation with the mess Smoke had made in the living room, Ben smiled at the ridiculous sight before him: Smoke had his head buried under Little Joe’s bunk and his butt in the air.

"What is he doing?"

"He thinks you can’t see him," Little Joe explained sleepily.

"Um hum," Pa said. "Not only can I see you, Smoke, I can get a hold of you."

Oh no. Smoke tried to wedge farther under the bunk but nothing happened. Instead he felt Pa’s hands around his middle and then he was way up high where he didn’t like to be and Pa was looking him in the eyes.

"You are coming with me," Pa said.

Adam and Hoss collapsed back into their bunks but Little Joe scrambled after Pa.

Aw gee! There were wood chips all over the living room floor. What had Smoke been thinking?

Pa turned Smoke with his back to Pa’s chest so he could see the floor. "This is bad, Smoke. Bad."

Smoke knew that word. He clipped his ears back and ducked his head. When Pa put him on his feet he immediately laid down and put his head between his legs and whimpered.

"And whose responsibility is this?" Pa asked.

"Mine," Little Joe answered.

"So who will be cleaning it up?"

"Me."

"Do it before Hop Sing sees it."

Still in his long underwear with a nightshirt over it, Little Joe made his way to the corner where Hop Sing kept a corn broom.

Smoke saw Little Joe waving the broom around and thought it might be something fun to chase but as he started toward it Pa said, "Oh, no you don’t. You’re going out for a while."

And the next thing he knew he was on the front porch. Adam moaned and pulled his pillow over his head as Smoke broke into his ear-piercing bark. "One of these mornings I’m gonna kill that dog and drop him in the well."

"Aw, Adam, you wouldn’t do nuthin’ like that," Hoss said from above him.

"You’re right. I’d just shoot him plain and simple."

"Have I ever told you how mean you are before you have your coffee?"

"Have I ever told you I don’t care?"

Pa returned to the bunkroom door. "Are you two planning to sleep all day?"

"It isn’t dawn yet," Adam protested.

"We’re all awake so we may as well get up," Pa said as if it were logical.

"Tell ya what," Hoss said when Pa had walked to the living room. "What’s say we drop him in the well?"

"I heard that," Pa called back and in spite of the early hour Adam laughed.

"Do any of you realize how I heard that?" Pa queried.

"What do you mean?" Adam scratched his ribs and stretched.

"Give it a minute." Pa answered.

"What’s he talkin’ about?" Hoss mumbled sleepily.

"HEY!" Little Joe shouted from the living room. "LOOK! Look out the window!"

Adam and Hoss scraped the frost off the corner of the bunkroom window.

"Wow!" said Adam.

"Whoooeee!" said Hoss.

There was a thin sliver of moon and the morning stars were visible in the lightening sky. The storm had passed while they slept and had left in its place a deep blue sculpted world that was turning pink in the dawn. All the branches of all the trees were laden with snow. The fenceposts were topped with conical white snow hats. The side of the barn that had taken the force of the storm was plastered in glistening snow. There were sparkles and shots of refracted light coming from the snow-covered ground. It was a magical sight and they all paused for several minutes to drink in the wonder of it.

It was Ben who broke the silence, saying softly, "We’ll be out in it soon enough. Let’s get dressed and have some breakfast."

His sons smiled and nodded.

 

 

Little Joe started to put on his multiple layers of clothes.

"Relax, son. You might want an extra pair of trousers, but I think that’s all you’ll need."

"How come?"

"It’s warm out. It feels like October this morning." Ben smiled.

As soon as they stepped onto the porch, his sons saw that Pa was right. There was no wind, not even a breeze. The birds were chirping frantically as they searched for food that was now buried beneath the snow. The sky was an intense blue, cloudless and brilliant. The light reflecting off the snow made them squint as they gazed at the land and buildings. The ocean of snow stretched unbroken, even by animal tracks, for miles. It was only near the house where Smoke had forayed away from the porch that any disturbance to the surface was seen.

The wind had blown waves into the snow that remained frozen in place instead of passing on and reforming as they did at sea. Here and there a trick of land and wind had created a fantastic formation of snow that looked as if it should collapse but remained, a frozen movement of the wind.

"Let’s see to the animals." Ben broke the spell and brought them back to more immediate concerns.

"Who gets to try the snowshoes first?" asked Little Joe.

"I guess you do!" laughed Ben as he strapped the contraptions to Little Joe’s boots.

Sure enough, when Joe awkwardly stepped off the porch, he went onto the snow, not into it. He learned to keep his feet apart, and to swing his legs wide as he walked and was doing quite well when he fell for the first time. Try as he might, he could not push himself up. His hands and arms kept disappearing into the depth of the snow.

"Get your feet under you, son. Use the snowshoes to help you stand." Finally Little Joe struggled to a standing position and took off again. After a while he was comfortable moving around.

Chores were finished in record time. All the barn animals were fed and watered, all the stalls cleaned, the chicken coop tended, the woodpile resupplied, the water brought in. The snow was melting and settling as the sun climbed higher.

"We might be able to take the horses out this afternoon at the rate this is melting. For sure, we'll be able to go out tomorrow."

"This sure is different than yesterday. The snow was so fine and powdery it sifted right through your fingers. Look at it now." Hoss closed his fist on a handful of snow, then opened it and there was snow formed to the inside shape of his closed fist.

"Yes," said Pa. "It’s perfect." He scooped up some snow and began pressing it and working it between his hands.

"Perfect for what?" Hoss wanted to know.

"Perfect for this!"

Pa fired the first snowball at Hoss, hitting him on the shoulder. Hoss yelped and returned fire, getting Pa on the hip as he turned away from the projectile. Adam pelted Hoss first, then Pa, as they both got him in their sights. Little Joe, not to be outdone, hurled snowballs at all three of them and got return fire immediately.

They quickly took up defensive positions: Little Joe at the corner of the porch near the woodpile, Pa at the far side of the house near the well, Adam at the far corner of the barn, Hoss at the near corner. The stretch of yard between the house and the barn was no man’s land – or no dog’s land as Smoke discovered when he tried to cross it to get to the porch and got a blizzard of snowballs fired at him. He ran for his life and barked frantically at the door. When Hop Sing opened it for him – thud, thud, thud, thud – four snowballs outlined him in the doorframe. Everyone had been wise enough not to actually hit him. Hop Sing began shouting in Chinese and slammed the door.

The epic snowball fight continued unabated for most of an hour, with positions changing as one Cartwright tried to gain advantage over another. Hoss had circled the barn to get the drop on Adam. Adam moved to a tree for cover. Little Joe circled the house and managed to put snow down Pa’s neck while Adam and Hoss kept Pa pinned down. Pa turned to grab Little Joe and roll him in snow. That was the break Adam and Hoss needed. They quickly closed in, firing constantly, until they had their father in a defensive crouch, shielding himself from snowballs on all sides.

Laughing and ducking, Pa yelled "OK, OK, I’ve had enough!"

"Ya gotta say "Uncle"!" yelled Hoss, flinging handfuls of snow at Pa as he moved ever closer.

"Never!" said Pa.

"There’s a lot of snow here, Pa!" Adam kept the snowballs going at a furious rate. "We can keep this up for a long time!"

"Little Joe! Help me!" hollered Pa.

"Nope! We’re gonna getcha!" Little Joe, who had managed to roll far enough away from Pa to be out of reach, kept firing snowballs of his own.

Slowly but surely the circle was closed. Shouting and laughing, all three sons piled onto Pa and rubbed snow in his hair and face. They stuffed snow down his neck and down his pants. Meanwhile he did as much similar damage to them as he could. Howling and laughing, shouting and yelling, they kept at him until he was completely pinned and at their mercy.

Out of breath and gasping, Adam tried pleading. "Say "Uncle", Pa. Please?" He laughed and collapsed on Pa’s chest.

Hoss, also completely winded, threw himself across Pa’s legs. "Yeah," he puffed. "Ya gotta say "Uncle", now. Ya gotta."

Little Joe was working on Pa’s head, rubbing snow in his face and stuffing it into his shirt, but at a slowing rate. "C’mon, Pa. Say "Uncle"."

"No," laughed Pa, out of breath and as winded as his sons. "You all say it!"

They all shouted with laughter at that, but one by one they nodded their heads and said, "OK", "I give up" and finally, from Hoss, with a groan, "Uncle."

They all flopped on their backs in the snow and caught their breath, still giggling and laughing, feebly flinging snow at each other.

"Let’s build a snowman!" Little Joe was up first, bright-eyed and ready for more action.

"Good idea," said Pa. "Come on, you two. Lend a hand. It’ll be done in no time." Hoss and Adam groaned theatrically, but secretly were delighted to prolong the fun. They built four snowmen, all appropriately sized to represent the four of them.

"We’d better bring some food out for Hoss’s," teased Little Joe. Hoss grabbed him and turned him upside down as if to put him headfirst into a snowbank. At that moment, Hop Sing appeared on the porch with mugs of cocoa and a pitcher of syrup.

"Thank you, Hop Sing! We needed this!" Ben said with a laugh.

"You like syrup on snow?" Heads nodded eagerly as handfuls of snow were brought up to be anointed with syrup.

"This tastes great! Just like candy!" Little Joe enthused. "Why don’t we spread some on the ground and just eat it when we want?"

"Because you might eat the yellow snow by mistake!" laughed Pa. "You do remember about the yellow snow, don’t you, Joe?"

"Course I do, Pa." Actually Joe was glad Pa had reminded him, because he had noticed some around the house this morning and had been tempted to check it out.

Hoss had wandered to the side of the house, taking in the beauty of the landscape once again. Pa noticed him standing under the eaves.

"That’s a bad place to stand, son. With the warm sun, the snow is apt to slide off the roofs anytime now."

"What d’ya mean, Pa?"

"As it warms up, the snow melts from underneath as well as on top because of the heat from the house. Eventually, the snow will let go and slip off the roof fast and fall to the ground. Except today, it will be a big load of snow when it goes. I don’t think you want to be under it."

"Aw, Pa," Hoss scoffed. "I don’t think that’s likely to happen." The slight noise Ben had heard a moment before became a rushing whoosh as the snow on the south eaves let go and fell on Hoss. He managed to remain standing, but was buried up to his armpits in wet snow, his hat mashed down on his head.

Pa and Adam shook their heads and Little Joe doubled up with laughter. Hop Sing sighed and went into the house.

"Yer not gonna leave me here, are ya, Pa?" Hoss had a feeling Pa would like to do just that.

Pa sighed and shook his head as he walked up to Hoss and looked him in the eye. "Son, I want you to know that I know this is a stage you’re going through. I only hope it doesn’t finish you off before it ends."

"What d’ya mean, Pa?" Hoss wore a puzzled frown.

Pa, Adam and Little Joe rolled their eyes and began to dig.

"No, really, Pa. What d’ya mean?"

The End