Adam’s Day Off
Joe Cartwright came down the stairs in a rush. He was
pink in the face and just a little breathless. His hair was dishevelled and he
carried his boots in his hand. He was trying desperately to make up for lost
time. As usual he had slept in, and he
was entertaining visions of his father’s fury at his tardiness. Today was the
one day he didn’t want to get extra chores foisted on him. He had arranged to
meet Toby Richardson and Bobby Aitkens in town, and he wanted to be on his way
To Joe’s surprise, the only person sitting at the breakfast table was his brother Hoss. The table was laid with its customary red chequered cloth, and the places were set. As yet, there was no sign of any food.
Joe heaved a sigh of relief and sat down on the bottom step to put on his boots. It was only then that he noticed that the toe of his sock had worn so thin that he could see his toenail through the weave. He could see already that is was going to be one of those days. He pulled a face. He wasn’t about to make himself later than he was already by going to put on another pair. He pulled the boots on with the hope that his toe wouldn’t poke all the way through before evening. He hurried to the table, delighted to be able to slide into his seat without his Pa realizing that he was late down.
Hoss lifted his face to look at him and Joe could see at once that there was something wrong. Joe raised both eyebrows towards his hairline. “What’s up.”
“Heck Joe, you know dang well what’s up.”
Hoss rolled his
pale eyes expressively. “Sure you do. You know Hop sing took off for
on Wednesday and we ain’t got no idea when he might be comin’ back. Or even if he’s plannin’ ta come back at all.”
“Oh, yeah. That’s right.” Joe sighed and his face took on a morose look that almost matched his brother’s. The row the Chinese cook had had with their father four days ago had been truly monumental. It was a job to say for certain who had won, because while Ben Cartwright could certainly shout the louder, once Hop Sing started jabbering away in Chinese, no one, least of all Ben, could understand what he was saying. They had gone at one another, each at the top of his voice and in his own language, until the Cartwright boys, fearful of being drawn in, had managed to sneak away. When they had returned, Hop Sing had gone ‘on a trip’ and there was no supper.
Since then, the four men of the Cartwright household had come to find out just how much they had relied on Ben’s long-time retainer, cook and general factotum. When they got up in the morning the fire was out in the hearth and the house was cold; at night, when they came home, no lamps were lit and it was dark. And there was no hot food!
Joe looked at Hoss across the table. “So, what’s happening?”
Hoss heaved another sigh, the latest of quite a number. “Them two’s out there in the kitchen tryin’ ta cook up breakfast. Lord knows how much longer it’s gonna take ‘em. A man could sit here and plumb starve ta death.”
Gloomily Joe remembered the turn-and-turn-about list that their father had instigated; the list that drafted two of them into the kitchen every day so that food got put on the table. It was a system that did not work well.
Today it was the turn of Ben and his eldest son Adam. They were two men that did not share a kitchen happily together. Ben liked basic, down to earth cooking with the food on the plate still recognizable as the ham, eggs and potatoes it had started out as. Adam, while he produced fine bacon and beans out on the trail, tended to be more adventurous once he got a wooden spoon in his hand. Probably it was a refinement he had learned at that fancy school he had gone to, back east. He liked to add a bit of this and a bit of that, tarting the food up with herbs and spices until a man couldn’t tell for sure what it was he was eating.
Even as he thought about it, Joe could hear voices being raised in the kitchen. He raised his eyes heavenwards, and Hoss looked even more miserable than before. At the rate they were going it would be a wonder if they got any breakfast at all.
The argument was long and loud. Ben won, mainly because he could yell louder than Adam. Between the two of them, they had managed to burn the biscuits, and the coffee had brewed for so long that no one except Adam could drink it. Breakfast, what was of it, was late, and cold. The men ate in near silence.
As soon as the meal was done, Joe slipped away from the table and tried to make his escape. He did not get very far – not even halfway to the door.
“Joseph!” Ben’s voice was only raised half way to a bellow, having shouted himself hoarse at Adam earlier. It was still enough to stop Joe dead in his tracks. “You know our agreement.”
Joe turned, a pained look on his face. “Aw, Pa..!”
“Adam and I cooked this meal,” With a wave of the hand, Ben indicated the scattered remains on the table. “That means it’s up to you and Hoss to clear it away.”
Joe looked from one to the other of his brothers, but there was no help forthcoming from either of them. Hoss was resigned, a picture of dejection as he thought about spending the next half hour up to his elbows in soapy hot water. In Adam’s bright eyes Joe thought he saw, just for a moment, a glimmer of…triumph? Surely not. In any event, the look was gone before Joe could even be certain that it was there at all. Joe trudged back to the table, and with a sigh of resignation, started gathering up the dishes.
“And when you’ve done that,” Ben rumbled on in a tone that approached normality but still brooked no argument. “There’s that horse still out in the corral waiting to be broken. I want that seen to before you go anywhere today.”
Joe rattled the dishes back onto the table and stared at him in horror. “But Pa, I’m meeting Bob and Toby at mid-day! In the Silver Dollar!”
“No buts!” Ben was adamant. Your brothers are taking that string of remounts to the army post on Monday. I want that hammer headed mustang to go with them. Having a horse like that about the place isn’t good for our reputation.”
Joe licked his lips, thinking fast. “How about I do it tomorrow?” He realized at once that he should have known better than to suggest it.
“Tomorrow is Sunday!” Ben looked mortally affronted. A God-fearing man, he had brought his boys up never to work on a Sunday – unless it was absolutely necessary.
Joe subsided. He knew when he was beaten. It would
probably be quicker to break in the horse than to argue the point any longer
with his father. He collected up the last of the dishes. “C’mon Hoss.” As he
started for the kitchen he caught sight his other brother, sitting back in his
chair with his habitual extra cup up coffee. That look of amused speculation
was back on
Joe scowled at him. Adam always had liked his coffee really strong. Joe was in a mean mood and it was a mean thought, but it did occur to him that Adam just might have brewed it that way today on purpose.
Adam caught the black look Joe threw at him and bounced it right back with a bright smile.
It took a whole lot longer to get the dishes clean and the kitchen straightened up than Joe and Hoss had bargained for. Ben and Adam, working together, were not the tidiest of cooks. They had used just about every pot, pan, and skillet there was to be had, and left them piled high beside the sink waiting for someone else to wash them. To add insult to injury, neither one of them had thought to put a pot of water onto the stove to heat, and washing greasy plates in cold water was nobody’s fun.
So it was all of an hour later that Joe Cartwright leaned against the corral fence with his forearms on the top rail and his chin on his hands. He gazed at the spotted horse with an air of resignation - and the horse stared right back at him.
It was not a beautiful horse. He was short in the barrel and not too long in the legs. He had immense hindquarters and a large head, which made him look unbalanced and awkward. He was the last horse of the bunch; the only one that remained unbroken. Joe figured that if he could get the job done before he still might make it into town for a couple of hours drinking with his friends. Then came the weekend treat he was really looking forward to – the one he had been saving up for - a whole night spent in Miss Lucy’s famous pleasure house with the lady of his choice. For the first time that day, Joe’s face broke into a smile.
Joe supposed he better get to it. He sighed. Having spent all week breaking horses, he just wasn’t feeling like working on another one this morning. He put a foot up on the corral rail and hopped over.
The spotted horse took off at a gallop, racing round the corral at top speed and kicking up his heels. Joe remembered why it was that this particular animal had been left behind in the holding corral. Several men, including Joe himself and his brother Adam, had already tried to break him, without any noticeable effect. The horse with the spotted coat was ornery, stubborn and cantankerous. Joe had a feeling that he was also just too damned bright for any one of them. Even more so, it was becoming one of ‘those’ mornings.
Joe walked into the barn through the open door. The sunlight, spilling in behind him, cast his shadow long on the floor before him. Dust motes danced in the warming air. They tickled Joe’s nose and made him sneeze. It was altogether too nice a day to be working. He was already starting to sweat.
He picked up the saddle and the bridle from where he’d left them lying the day before. Something tickled on the side of his neck. Joe wiped at it with his sleeve. Whatever-it-was stabbed him under the jaw line. Joe yelped. He dropped the saddle and swatted at his neck. A big black horsefly with a large sting in its tail fell to the floor, buzzing angrily. Joe swore and stamped on it, squashing it flat. It made him feel better, but already he could feel the venom burning.
Picking up the saddle up again, he went back into the corral. The horse was eyeing him from the far side. The animal knew what Joe was about, that was for sure. He nodded his big ugly head up and down and pawed at the ground, first with one forefoot, and then with the other. He watched Joe cross the corral towards him with wary intelligence in his dark eyes.
Oddly enough, the horse didn’t make any fuss at all when Joe offered the bit to his mouth, accepting it meekly into the gap in his teeth and then chewing on it, champing it up and down in his jaws while Joe adjusted the straps around his big head. Joe began to think this would be easier than he had imagined. He reached for the saddlecloth and put it up on the horse’s back, straightening out the creases with a stroke of his hand. The horse turned his head to watch him. Joe bent down to pick up the saddle. The horse reached out with tombstone teeth and nipped him in the fleshy part of his butt.
Joe yelled and backed off, both hands clutched to the offended part. The horse shook himself like a wet dog, shedding the saddlecloth, and cantered off, buck jumping as he went, the reins flying from the bridle.
Joe rubbed his backside. The stout twill of his pants had prevented the horse’s teeth drawing blood, but he figured he was going to have one hell of a bruise, right where a man sat down. He put a hand to his neck. The horsefly sting was already swelling, and it was starting to hurt like hell. Joe ground his teeth together, picked up saddle and saddlecloth, and started after the horse.
Adam stepped onto the front porch of the house and stretched himself, one limb at a time. He looked around, a smile of pleasure on his face. It was a beautiful day in early summer. The sun was bright and warm and there was just enough breeze blowing along the valley to stop it being oppressively hot. Hop Sing’s chickens and a couple of long-necked geese were scratching about in the yard. The milk-cows were standing under the shade trees chewing, and the horses they had prepared and made ready for the army were in the large corral, already fed and watered for the day.
Adam drew in a deep breath of air, fresh and clean, filling his fine chest. All seemed to be at peace with the world. He strolled over to the horse barn and went inside. It was cool and fragrant with the smell of horses and of fresh hay. Adam went over to his favourite saddle horse and spoke softly to him. The chestnut nuzzled him, and Adam found him a treat in his pocket. The horse snuffled it out of his hand.
Putting his saddle onto the horse’s back, he led him out into the yard. A good long ride in the fresh air was just what he felt he needed: a ride without the need to go somewhere, to do something, or to see someone. A ride just for the sheer joy of feeling the fresh wind blowing in his face and the warm sun on his back, the bulk of the horse comfortable between his legs and the steady rhythm of the animal’s paces. The chestnut was as eager as he was, prancing and dancing as he stepped up into the saddle, churning up some dust with his hooves. Adam had only to touch his heels to the animal’s flanks and they were away.
The gelding reached out in an easy, ground covering gallop, racing out of the yard and down the road, past the corral where Joe was still wrestling with that jug-headed mustang and out across the range.
Adam rode to the lake. It was his favourite place. Every time he went there it presented him with a different aspect of its incredible beauty. Today, the surface of the water was a sparkling silver blue. Ripples danced across the surface as vagrant winds blew down from the hillsides. The hills themselves, wearing cloaks of majestic Ponderosa pine about their shoulders, were a rich deep green, and the wind carried the scent of pine resin.
Dismounting, Adam walked for a while along the rocky shore, leading the horse on a long rein and soaking the magnificence into his soul. The water, cold and clear, lapped almost to his feet. He skimmed a few flat stones out across the surface. Then he found a grassy patch up by the trees and sat, watching the come and go of the wildlife. There were ducks and geese of all sorts out on the water, and after he had been there for a while, very quiet, a mule deer and her little one, came out of the trees and went down to the water to drink. Adam’s horse, disinclined to wander, cropped at the grass, and after a while Adam, lulled by the peace and the warmth, lay back and put his arm under his head and dozed in the sun. Beneath his hat, pulled well forward to keep the sun out of his eyes, his face wore an unaccountable smile.
The big house was solidly built with doubly thick, pine-log walls. It was warm in winter when the blizzards blew and the snowdrifts piled high. In summer, when it was hot outside, the house was pleasantly cool. It was also very quiet. The only sound to break the silence on that Saturday was the regular, solid tick of Marie Cartwright’s French, long case clock.
Hoss stood in the middle of the room and listened to the quiet. Joe was still out someplace, fooling with that spotted mustang, and his Pa and his brother Adam had both ridden out, heading in different directions. Hoss was all on his own. He screwed up his face and put a big hand over his belly, just above where his belt buckled up. There was a hollow, empty feeling in there. Hoss figured it was all down to the fact that a man hadn’t had a decent square meal in the best part of a week.
Not a connoisseur when it came to food, Hoss just liked plenty of it, and often. He didn’t much care if it was his Pa who cooked, or his brother Adam with his fancier ideas, just so long as someone did it and the food appeared on his plate at regular intervals. Hoss drew the line at his little brother’s culinary efforts. Joe could even burn beans!
Right now, Hoss was about as hungry as he could be, and he had finally made up his mind to do something about it. Even as he thought about it his stomach made a deep, rumbling sound of agreement. Hoss was certain that Hop Sing wouldn’t have up and left without leaving something in the larder. A determined look on his face, he headed for the kitchen to see what he could find.
There was nothing immediately in evidence, but rummaging around in the back of the cupboard, Hoss found a ham bone that still had some meat on it, and a dish with half a plum pie. He carried them out and set them on the table, together with the cold biscuits left over from breakfast and a jar of pickle preserve. He sniffed suspiciously at the ham bone, not knowing how old it might be. It smelled just fine. Hoss got himself a plate and a knife and sat himself down to an impromptu lunch.
Joe Cartwright finally gave up on the horse. He had at last gotten the saddle onto the animal’s back, but when he reached under for the cinch, the mustang had stood squarely on his foot. As he hopped around trying to ease the pain, the horse brought his big head ‘round and up and head-butted him solidly in the face. Joe reeled. Somehow he had avoided a broken nose, but his lip immediately started to swell and one side of his face was numb. He was still stunned and staggering when the horse had swung his solid skull up between the younger Cartwright’s legs. Joe sat down on his butt in the dirt of the corral and clutched himself. The pain made his eyes water.
It was about then that he decided to give up and go home for a little lay down. It was not the way he had planned to spend Saturday, but then, just at the moment there wouldn’t be much point in going to Miss Lucy’s anyway.
Maurice Carver had been a friend of Ben Cartwright’s
for a good many years, ever since the long hard winter of ‘fifty-six when they
had worked side by side for weeks on end, digging cattle out of snow drifts
without even bothering to check who’s brand they wore. Both men hailed from the
same part of the
Carver was several years older than Ben and, as a widower with no surviving children, he had given up ranching, selling his land to Ben and retiring, so he said, to life in a rocking chair in the sun. And, in fact, that’s right where Ben found him, sitting up on the porch of the house, rocking back and forth and smoking his pipe. He was as pleased as could be to see Ben ride into the yard and step down from the saddle. He came down off the porch, holding out his hand in welcome.
“Ben! Ben Cartwright! It’s so good to see you! Come on into the house and set awhile!”
Ben laughed, shaking his hand. “I think I’ll just sit here in the sun with you, Maurice. It’s a real’ nice afternoon.”
“It is that, Ben.” Carver settled back into his rocker, “But I sure as heck reckon it’ll rain before sundown.”
He waved his pipe step in the direction of the western hills. There were rain clouds gathering up there, and both men knew from long experience that as the sun set and the ground cooled, those clouds would come down into the valley, and the rain would start to fall. Ben made a mental note to set out for home in good time. He hadn’t brought a coat with him and he didn’t fancy a soaking.
Carver suddenly sat up straight as he remembered something. “Say, Ben, how would you like to taste my latest brew?”
Ben hesitated. Maurice Carver’s home brewed beer was legendary this side of the Sierras. It came in varying flavours, depending on what Maurice could find to throw in the pot; it was always potent. Ben wondered if he should, and by the time he had wondered, Maurice had returned with a large jug and a couple of glasses. It was too late to refuse gracefully. Maurice poured beer into the glasses. It was light brown, and cloudy, and had a thin, white head. The two men toasted each other and drank.
The beer, having been kept in the cool cellar under the house, was cold, and it was very strong. Ben smacked his lips in appreciation. It was good beer. Maurice Carver beamed and filled up the glasses.
Adam put his horse up in the barn and walked back to the house with a long, easy stride. It was now mid-afternoon, and the wind, blowing off the hills, was growing colder. The sky was clouding over from the west and there was a smell of rain in the air. Inside, the big room was filled with afternoon gloom. Adam took off his gun belt and hung his hat on the peg by the door.
There was a fire already laid in the grate, just waiting for a flame. Adam leaned over it and struck a long match against the side of his boot. The logs flared quickly and Adam felt the heat on his face. Smiling a secret smile, he went to the bookcase and selected one of his favourite titles. He carried it back to the fireside and settled into the most comfortable chair: the red leather armchair. With a roaring blaze in the hearth, he put his feet up on the table in a manner his father would not have liked.
Outside, the clouds had lowered and it was beginning to rain. The rising wind was lashing the scrub pine and raindrops rattled against the window. Inside it was warm and dry. Opening the book, Adam was still smiling as he started to read.
Maurice Carver’s beer was strong all right. Ben hadn’t realized just how strong until he got up. There was a buzzing inside his head, and he was certainly feeling a little the worse for wear.
It was later than he had intended. He and Carver had sat, drinking beer and chewing over old times until the light started to fade. The rain clouds had, as anticipated, drifted down from the hills and a fine drizzle had already begun. Ben shook hands with Carver and walked, just a little unsteadily, to his horse. As he swung into the saddle, lifting his hand in farewell, it started to rain in earnest.
Fortunately, the buckskin gelding knew his own way home. Ben was not really in any condition to steer. It took an hour to get to get to the river crossing, and by then it was raining hard. The river was still running freely after the spring downpours in the mountains, and the horse splashed through knee deep. He had almost made the other side, with Ben swaying in the saddle, when he slipped in the mud. The gelding struggled gamely for his balance. Ben wobbled. The horse floundered, and Ben fell off into the river.
The water was not that deep, nor was the current flowing that fast, but it was icy cold. Ben got a good dousing. He emerged stone cold sober and soaking wet. The buckskin looked at him, shied and ran for home.
By the time he limped into his own front yard, Ben Cartwright was cold, wet, footsore and suffering the pounding after-effects of Maurice Carver’s beer inside his head.
Adam Cartwright stood in front of the hearth with his back to the fire, warming his hands and his butt on the roaring flames. He looked round at his suffering family. Not a sadistic man by nature, he couldn’t help a certain inward feeling of glee.
There was Hoss, his hands clasped to his big belly, rocking back and forth. He had a bad case of the gripes, no doubt from something he’d filched out of the larder that hadn’t been as fresh as it should be. Now he was paying the price, and would soon have to make several more prolonged visits to the outhouse to dispose, one way or another, of his ill-gotten gains.
On the other side of the fire, Adam’s Pa sat with his feet soaking in a bowl of hot mustard water. Ben had changed into a night-shirt and a warm gown, but he was still shivering and had already sneezed several times. He hadn’t been able to face the hot whisky toddy that Adam had mixed up for him.
The one that Adam felt sorriest for was Joe. He had really come off worse in the encounter with the horse. He had a black eye and a swollen lip and a huge swelling on the side of his neck that was an angry red colour. He was also limping on a painfully bruised foot and was hurting - well - in a place that suggested he wouldn’t be visiting with the ladies at Miss Lucy’s for a while.
Gazing ‘round at the general level of discomfort, Adam couldn’t resist a self-satisfied smirk. Hoss saw the expression.
“Heck, Adam, what-all ‘you smilin’ at? Ain’t we got enough o’ the miseries without you grinnin’ at us all a-time?”
Ben, who had been nursing his sore head in his hands, looked up at his eldest son with sudden insight and a suspicious scowl. “Just what is going on here Adam? There’s Joe, Hoss and me. We’ve been stung, poisoned, jumped on by horses and thrown in the river. And you stand there chuckling. Just what have you been up to.”
Adam’s grin had grown into a full-blown smile. He looked round at the bruised, battered and flushed faces. “It was nothing, really,” he said.
Ben glared “What was nothing? What have you done?”
“Well,” Adam shrugged, “It was just a simple thing. All I did was have a word with the lady who wields the blue pencil. She spoke to Jenny, and Jenny agreed to give me the day off. I’ve been taking it easy, and you guys have been taking all the knocks!”
Potters Bar 2000