A Problem with Engineering

 

The sun was glittering over the horizon. Although it was rather early in the morning, Adam and Hoss Cartwright were busily studying their assembled equipment. Both Adam and Hoss had been up for awhile. It was Saturday and they had the luxury of a little more bedtime than the rest of the week. This particular day both had given up that little bit of time to do something far more intriguing.

"Hoss, you sure you got everything?"

"Huh, sure I did, Adam. I ain't dumb yah know," he whispered, hurt that Adam would think he could not follow simple tasks.

It was not that Adam didn't trust Hoss, it was just that when Adam Cartwright got an idea in his head, he was like a man possessed; he was on a mission and few things, if anything on this earth, could distract him with two exceptions. And they had not made an appearance yet.

"Okay, ok pipe down," he warned in a hushed voice.

Adam had a small board propped up on two logs; it was covered with drawings, sketches, figures and mathematical equations all held down with small rocks carefully wiped dry. The edges of the papers fluttered now and again in the early morning breeze. Adam's mind hummed with calculations.

"Are the chores done, I mean enough?"

"Yep."

"Good! We can catch up on them later."

"Adam?"

"Huh," Adam answered distractedly as he shuffled the papers around and peered again at the book in front of him.

"Why are we doin' this again?" Hoss wasn't stupid. He was a very bright boy, it was just that sometimes Adam's mind was so confusing to him as he rattled things off.

"Sigh".... Adam stopped and shook his head; he was wasting valuable time re-explaining things.

"It is a very important engineering test."

"Oooh yeah, I git ya," Hoss smiled hoping to appear to his brother as if he did understand this thing that Adam had described. His pictures and what was in that book sure didn't seem to have much to do with them fellas that drove trains. Hoss scratched his head then leaned in and looked at the pictures Adam had made. He had to admit his big brother sure could draw real good pictures when he set his mind to it. In fact Adam could do most anything he set his mind to, in Hoss's opinion.

Adam turned to look back at the house; the sun was now over the horizon enough to throw a blaze of color across the front yard and was starting up the porch towards the front door. There was a diamond like shaft of brilliant light as it ran over the snow; the sky was beginning to come alive. There were tinges of vibrant rose and gold colors reflecting off the snow and highlighting the deep green of the Ponderosa pine trees, weathered buildings, and the rich brown of the ranch house.

"Uh..oh, better get inside for breakfast before Pa comes looking for us." Adam quickly scooped up the papers and book. Hurrying to the barn he deposited them safely behind some grain sacks, then dusting himself off, he pulled his brother towards the house.

Just as they entered the front door, their father Ben Cartwright, was coming down the stairs. He looked up surprised.

"Well! Good morning boys," he called, one brow raised. It was just a little odd to see them obviously up for sometime, on a Saturday, unless there was a real good reason and as far as he knew, none existed. They had been off from school for three days already. This new and rather heavy snow, although not unusual for late January, was a bit of a surprise. Ben chalked their early rising to just that.

"How's the snow?" he commented as they took their seats.

"Cold," Adam answered grinning rather quickly, then looking down at his plate.

"I see...." Ben narrowed his eyes just a little, and then turned to his second son, "And how did you find the snow?" he asked.

Hoss squirmed just a little; Adam wanted to shoot him a hot glare but he dared not, well aware his father would, no doubt, see it.

"Gulp, uhh snowy Pa," he announced brightly, his big blue eyes and chubby face all innocence.

"Snowy," his father repeated nodding, but said nothing more.

There was a brief lull and just as Adam was about to say anything to get the attention going in another direction, the distraction he needed came stomping down the stairs in the form of his youngest brother Little Joe.

Little Joe's hair was all disheveled, shirttail half tucked in, one boot on, and his adorable face was drawn into a fierce pout.

"Hey!" he stated loudly as he reached the landing, dropping his one boot and folding his arms across his little chest.

"Your sposed to get me up, when it snows!" he demanded, his big hazel green eyes challenging his family. At five years old Joseph Cartwright was a sight when you riled him and got him in a temper.

"Joseph." his father stated quietly. "Come down here please, and do not shout at me," the words were calm and low; the underlying tone belied the real message.

"Yes sir, " the child answered never taking his eyes off his father while picking up the other boot, the wind taken effectively out of his sail by those few well chosen and spoken words from the one person who could defuse the boy with simply a look. Joe clumped down the rest of the way coming to the table with his eyes down cast.

"Come here, Joseph," his father directed.

Joe looked up, taking a quick peek at his big brothers trying to gage the mood of his older siblings. He got a slightly smug nod from Adam. Hoss, who was less likely to want to see him in trouble, grinned his big, soft grin. Joe switched his eyes to his father's face, hoping to catch a hint as to the man's intentions. Very slowly and carefully Joe made his way to stand in front of his father's chair.

Ben closed his eyes for the briefest moment, and then shaking his head, he let out a long-suffering sigh. He had a full day on his schedule and did not want to start it off badly. The heavy snow in itself was enough to set him back, much less any confrontations with this most delightful and unpredictable of his sons.

"Joe, you must pay more attention," he began as he quietly started to redo the hastily miss buttoned shirt, and tuck it in to his son's pants. Proper manners and proper dress were among some of Ben Cartwright's strictest rules, right behind honesty and obedience. The latter two being of uppermost importance; disrespect and insolence brought his wrath raining down with dire consequences on any of the three who might be foolish enough to disregard these rules.

Ben attempted to smooth the mass of soft brown curls, but they had a mind of their own and sprang back into disarray as fast as he smoothed them out.

"Hop-"

But before he could finish the request Hop Sing, their ever-present housekeeper and real master of the house, came from the kitchen; gently he led the little boy into the kitchen to make him presentable for breakfast.

Ben glanced up at his two remaining sons; both were watching him wondering how Joe got away with some of the things he did, but neither was willing to chance upsetting their father over this, not today any way.

In a few minutes Hop Sing re-appeared from the kitchen, leading a much more presentable if displeased little boy.

"That's much better," Ben smiled.

"Sit down Little Joe; I have a great many things to work on today. I want to speak to all of you. Adam tensed but tried not to show it. "Here it comes," he glumly thought.

"What kinda things, Pa?" Hoss asked curiously,

"I have contracts to go over; I have to see what trouble this new snow has caused with the stock, and I have a very important meeting at the bank, just to mention a few."

"Sounds like you're gonna be tied up most of the day," Adam spoke but never looked up. He was putting honey on a warm roll Hop Sing had just brought to the table. Adam was doing his best to sound interested, but not overly. Lest he pique his father's curiosity, he had to play this right; if he seemed bothered he might just find himself in hot water.

Ben regarded him for a brief minute. He knew all too well this eldest son of his. When Adam chose his words and actions carefully, there was something amiss. He could ill afford a problem now.

"Yes," he answered slowly, "That is exactly what I am getting to, therefore you three will see too it that I am not disturbed. Adam, you will keep your brothers occupied this morning, and if by chance you can't find things to keep you all amused and quiet, I am certain I can come up with a few."

Adam's head shot up. He almost choked, his eyes wide.

"Shut your mouth please, I do not care to see what you are eating," Ben stated. Adam's bottom jaw had fallen open. He was in the middle of chewing his roll. He wasn't aware he had even done it. He swallowed loudly.

"Yes sir, sorry sir," he was stunned. How? How could his father do this to him? Now what was he going to do? Hoss was no problem, but Joe. Joe would get in the way for sure; he had the most uncanny ability to wreak havoc with any plan on which Adam was working. Adam slumped slightly in his chair.

"Something the matter, Adam?" his father asked, those piercing brown eyes going over every inch of his son.

No, sir" he muttered, disheartened.

"What was that? I didn't catch your answer?"

There it was again, that low calm tone. Now what was he going to do? He sat up straight, looking his father in the eye, well almost, clearing his throat he answered again. "No, nothing's wrong sir. I. I... just kinda hoped you might need me, you know, with the figures," he finished weakly.

"Adam, I thank you, but I have been doing these figures for quite a while now." He paused....."But if I should need you, I will let you know" he teased gently.

Adam felt his face grow red. He hated it when Ben put him in his place like this, and only he knew that's what Ben was doing. Adam nodded.

"Now get on with your breakfast, the three of you, before Hop Sing comes back and sees we haven't touched all this food he made."

Slowly the rest of the meal turned more towards the regular type of family gathering. Joe pestered about how he was going to be bossed around by Adam. Ben assured him Adam would not be too hard on him. Adam grimaced. Hard on him? He felt like strangling him, and it wasn't even past breakfast yet! Hoss watched silently; he hated these spats between Joe and Adam. He always felt the need to protect Joe, yet he adored and worshiped Adam.

"Yeah, Little Joe, ole' Adam will find lots of fun stuff, huh Adam?"

"Sure," Adam conceded.

"See, I tole ya."

"What stuff? Huh? Adam. Huh? Tell me!"

"Well, ya see…" but Hoss never got the rest of it out. He felt the kick under the table and it took all he had not to let on. After all, he was just eleven, but to look at him you would swear he was much older; it was just his gentle child like face that gave his youth away.

"Don't pester so much," Adam snapped, annoyed.

Joe's lip quivered, his big hazel green eyes filled up.

"And don't pull that either."

Joe's quiver changed into a pout.

"There you go Adam, now look. Ya got him riled," Hoss whispered as he rubbed his shin.

Ben had been ignoring the conversation as best he could, trying to make a mental list of priorities as he ate, but this had gotten through.

"All right!! Enough!!" He suddenly barked, standing up.

"You three get dressed and go outside.....NOW!" Not waiting to see what else he had to say, the three boys scrambled from their seats, grabbed their jackets, hats and mittens and practically fell over one another getting out.

Once outside the glory of the new day, spread over the boys. Adam pulled his little brother close; he buttoned his coat for him, gently brushing his hair aside pulling on his woolen cap for him, then made sure his mittens were on all the way.

"I-I'm ssorry Adam," Little Joe mumbled, sniffling. He loved the snow and the outside, but he had not wanted to be thrown out.

"Yeah, well, I guess we all are at fault; c'mon, we have some more barn chores to do." He took Joe by the hand and headed to the barn, trying desperately to figure out what he was going to do now. Hoss followed silently. When Adam got like this, almost anything could happen.

It was quite a while until they finished what they had to do. Adam was running out of things to keep Joe occupied while at the same time trying to find a way back to his project.

"Why don't you jist let him help us," Hoss implored finally, feeling just as trapped. Although he loved his little brother beyond the depth of life, he also wanted to be part of Adam's plan, feeling very grown up that Adam had confided in him and asked his help.

"Hoss, are you crazy?" Adam spat, furtively glancing to be sure Joe was slightly out of earshot but not far enough away that he was out of sight.

"Well what we gonna do then, jist ferget it? I didn't get up befer Hop Sing's chickens fer nuthin', ya know." Hoss kicked at the snow.

"I'm thinkin'. I'm thinkin'."

"Well don't think too long," Hoss warned, "Here he comes now."

"Adam. When are ya gonna do fun stuff, I wanna make a snow man..."

"The snow is not heavy enough for that," Adam pointed out, at the same time thinking, but it's just heavy enough for what I need.

"NuhhHuhh" Joe protested. "Look!" He had gathered a fairly big snowball in his hands; he tossed it at Adam who was preoccupied and never looked at him.

Spooot!!!! The snowball hit its unintended mark.

"Oooops."

"Ughh. Why you……."

"Adam, it was a askident, honest," Joe paled, his voice squeaked.

Adam's deep hazel eyes burned dark. He stood menacingly over his little brother, snow dripping from his face. He scowled, so very much like their Pa; Joe did a double take.

"What's that look supposed to mean?" Adam snarled.

Y-y-you looook like Pa," Joe sputtered, shying back.

"Haw-haahaahah! Dadgumit, Adam," Hoss laughed. "He's right; you sure do!"

"Maybe I should act like him!" Adam glowered.

Joe gulped and put his hands behind him.

"I didn't m-mean it. It…It…It jist…happened." Joe shrugged, his eyes pleading.

Adam wiped his face with his jacket sleeve. The sun's rays felt warm even through the cold as it touched his face with a golden caress. Adam realized he was over reacting, but he had so much still to do, plus he still hadn't found a way to do it.

Opening his eyes he saw Joe fearfully watching him, and Hoss hopefully watching him.

A light winter gust swirled the crystal snowflakes from the ground and surrounding trees tickling their faces; Adam finally smiled.

"Oh, forget it," he threw up his hands.

Joe grinned back very relieved.

There was just no way around it. Adam had to let Joe be at least a small part of his plan if he had even a glimmer of hope of getting done. So it was with great reservation he gave in and forged ahead. It took at least two hours for him to get everything lined up; with utmost caution he set about every detail.

Ben Cartwright worked in relative peace. Hop Sing brought him fresh coffee. He was amazed at how quiet it was outside. Occasionally he could distinguish a voice but not the words; there were a few unfamiliar sounds he would check out when he left for town, but as long as there was no arguing or screaming he left well enough alone. He had to concentrate.

"Okay, Hoss, drag the saw horse over here."

"Ooooouff, can't you help? This snow is deep."

"So shovel a path, for heaven sakes; stop whining. Ya sound like Joe!" Adam complained.

"I don whiiine," Joe shot back from his perch.

Adam glanced up. "You just stay put and butt out!" he pointed his pencil at his little brother who sat on a stack of hay bales covered by a canvas tarp. The bales were on a big sled waiting to be taken out to the cattle when needed.

"Oooh, all right! Geeez, yer crabby all of a sudden." Joe snorted, tired of his job as look out; he had no idea what he was looking for. There was not a soul in sight and Pa was inside.

"How come I gotta watch? Ain't nothin' to see."

"Isn't anything to see," Adam automatically corrected. "Look, are you going to keep interrupting me? Because if you are, I will find something very horrible to make you do!" Adam had no idea what that could be but it sounded good and it sure put a stop to Joe's complaining. However he miscalculated its effect on Joe's mood. Adam was so involved with his equations that he did not see Joe begin to stew and pout, nor did he see how Joe had folded his arms and glared at him. What ever it was Adam was making, Joe had decided he was going to do his best to slow it down.

"Catapults were used by the Vikings and Knights in war." Adam was explaining to Hoss with great gestures and exaggeration of movement; his eyes sparkled, completely captured by his own imagination. He went on about how they could hurl great amounts of boulders or any number of things from a great distance to crash through a castle wall or over the top, thus making it possible for the invaders to gain access quickly. He was showing Hoss the print of how the things would arc high in the air when released. Of course he did not have the real parts and pieces, but this would do for starters.

The this he was referring to was the saw horse with a wide plank borrowed from the floor of the barn loft. Set up like a sea-saw, rather ingeniously, he thought, one end had a small wooden box nailed to it for holding the snow. Adam's plan was to add measured amounts of snow then have Hoss drop the sack of carefully collected and meticulously calculated odds and ends some of which were old horseshoes, on the other end, thus creating a force just enough to hurl the snow out of the box. Adam would then measure how far each mass would go. He had aimed it carefully away from any potentially dangerous spot so the snow would fly harmlessly. Hopefully the sound would be no more than a thud, not even enough noise to disturb the stock, if indeed, the snow even went that far.

Adam went back to his drawings and book. Mr. Knight, the new teacher, had delved into this time period more than the last teacher had, as it was one of his personal favorites. Lancelot Knight never suspected his enthusiasm to pique one of his student's penchant for engineering devices.

The test was nearly ready to be conducted. Joe was, by now, in a full fit of frustration. Adam and Hoss had practically ignored him for the last half-hour and he was seeing red. To make matters worse, he was getting cold sitting up there on the frozen canvas tarp.

When he climbed down to get a better look at the plans, Adam had crossly shooed him away saying he was way too young and little to know about this, which was a mistake on Adam's part. Momentarily forgetting that he should never, never, tell Little Joe he was too little for anything, and with his back to Joe, he did not see the little boy kick in frustration at the board, nor did either of them realize the angle changed. As Joe sullenly climbed back onto the hay, he felt a slight shift. One of the bales, which was sitting at an odd angle under the tarp, tipped further. A sly smile crept over Joe's cherubic little face; he'd fix Adam.

The sun was full up to almost noon. Ben Cartwright called to Hop Sing that he would be leaving in a few minutes. Gathering his leather folder, scarf, hat and gloves, he opened the front door while looking back to give Hop Sing a few last instructions. There was a funny noise.

Ben Cartwright stepped out into dazzling beautiful sunlight when he was suddenly knocked flat on his back, arms and legs sprawled out, his hat, scarf, gloves, and good leather folder sailing into the air. Momentarily stunned, Ben found himself half in and half out of the front door where he had landed from a great, unseen force. A huge mass of snow covered most of his face and chest.


Joe had kicked the hay bail free. It fell with just enough force landing precisely on the spot needed to drive the up end of the sea-saw down, successfully, yet disastrously, launching Adam's snow mass. It flew in somewhat of an arc, as the board pivoted from the line set by Adam, hitting Ben full force in the face and chest.

What followed could be likened to the deathly quiet that falls over the earth just prior to the eruption of a volcano of cataclysmic magnitude. The front yard of the Ponderosa took on that feeling; even the wildlife was silent. Nothing dared move or so much as breath…..then.….just as surely…..it came.....

Adam, Hoss and Joe froze in horror as Ben slowly sat up shaking his head.

Pushing the snow from his chest, Hop Sing fussed around him babbling wildly half in his native tongue half in English. Ben squinted into the glare of sunlight at three dark figures outlined against the trees at the far end of the yard.

The deathly quiet was shattered by a roar that rattled the very panes in the windows; it caused more snow to slide off the roof of the house and land with great plops all around.

The three figures he saw each simultaneously had visions of their young lives passing before them. The other thing Ben Cartwright saw as he struggled to his feet was what appeared to be some kind of sea-saw with a box on one side, which contained the remnants of the snow pile aimed at the house. Beside the crooked device lay a broken hay bale quite obviously dislodged by the child sitting way up on the top of the sled.

I'm dead, my life, as I know it is over! Adam Cartwright closed his eyes as he heard his father's voice. He cringed, visibly pale. He swallowed loudly.

When the house stopped shuddering and the echo died away, a few ranch hands wandered out to see what all the fuss was about; taking one look they wisely went back into the bunkhouse.

Joe moved ever so carefully off the stack of hay bales; it had never occurred to any of the three Ben would come out and see him up there. Mistake #1. Joe sidled up next to Adam, placing his hand carefully in that of his older brother. He chanced a peek at Adam's face; it did not offer much in the way of comfort. Hoss was torn; he was furious at Joe, but he was also mad at Adam for getting him in this mess. So Hoss as gentle as he was, almost lost his temper and took a swing at Adam, catching himself at the very last instant. Adam was thinking of the last time his father looked at him like that, he wished his catapult was really workable. He would love to be hurled up and out of reach of the man at the edge of the porch.

" ADAM!!!".....ERIC!!!.....JOSEPH!!!.....INSIDE!!!......NOW!!!!!!!

Adam without thinking, kicked at the snow in front of him. Hoss marched forward, a great scowl on his face. Half way to the house he turned to his brothers. "See I tole ya, not to aim at the house." Mistake # 2. Hoss was not sure what possessed him to say that; it surprised him as much as it did everyone else. He blushed and stood looking down. Slowly Adam dragged his feet and his little brother toward the house.

Ben was pointing inside, his face an unreadable mask, except for the red mark on his cheek where the icy snow had hit him. The door closed after them, as if it was the door to a dungeon sealing their doom. Once inside they pulled off their hats, and mittens. Respectfully, none of the three had the courage to meet Ben's eyes. Ben was shaking with rage, but his face remained unreadable. This alone terrified them more than anything else. Finally, with supreme effort for control, Ben managed to get out …… "By all that is holy,!! What in the name of God were you doing, Boy!!"

Ben was right in front of Adam, towering over him, his coat now hanging open, the wet spots on his shirt making strange ripples as his chest heaved in an attempt to keep in control.

" It-it was, um, an engineering project."

Adam stole a glimpse up, "Not good," he thought, hanging his head.

"A what?"

"Injun-ear-in ear in, Pa."

"Joseph, I will get to you; for now do not offer any advice," he did not look at the child; his eyes were fixed on Adam and Adam alone. Ben's eyes burned into Adam like flaming arrows.

"Look at me!"

Adam tried to, but the red spot on his father's cheek quite irrationally looked funny. (Oh my God I think I'm going to laugh.... please God... don't let me laugh...) The corners of Adam's mouth twitched, he prayed harder.

"Did you hear me, Young man?"

Adam nodded unable to look or speak; his stomach was doing all kinds of somersaults.

"Just what kind of engineering project?"

The words did not match the tone, in which they were spoken.

"A project from my history lesson……..."

"Aaaaah. Yes….lessons….there are many..……ways to learn lessons."

This did not bode well for the boys as each conjured up a vision of what Ben meant by these words; none of them came up with a pleasant vision. Joe put his hands behind him spreading them as wide as he could. Hoss's shoulders sagged. With his head held low, he was making little circles with the toe of his boot in the puddle of snow melting off them.

Ben realized the time was getting away from him; he could not afford to let his anger tie him up any longer. This would be continued tonight.

.

"I have to go to town. I am already late. Thanks to the three of you, I not only have to hurry, but I also have to go back upstairs and get redressed.... No one move a muscle until I get back, and I don't want to hear so much as a peep from any of you!!"

The great room was silent but for the ticking of the grandfather clock and an occasional shuddering sigh, escaping from the very worried littlest boy. If Adam were not so worried or angry himself, he would have reached over and given Joe a reassuring pat on the shoulder, or maybe even a quick hug.

Ben came back down, now terribly aware of a throbbing in his shoulder, a sharp pain in the middle of his back, not to mention his face. Arriving at the bottom step he glared once again at his sons with his most withering glare, pausing on each one individually just long enough to make him very uncomfortable.

"Adam."

At the sound of his name spoken in that dead calm, Adam jumped.

"Yes sir," he played with his ear.

"Since you obviously feel the need to move snow around, I think it would be a good idea if you shoveled the entire yard, and all around the barn. And see to it you DISMANTLE that contraption!"

Adam looked up shocked.

"The the whole yard?" he stuttered still not believing he heard right.

"Precisely!"

An involuntary groan escaped the boy.

"You have an objection?"

"No sir," he whispered miserably. (The whole yard? Is he crazy? Why that snow is-is-I'm done. It's over. Maybe I will have heart failure.....What am I saying!) The expressions fleeting across the handsome young face were not lost on his father.

"Eric."

Hoss swallowed. That name meant only one thing. Trouble!

"Yes sir, pa." The total look of defeat on the young boy's face, the big blue eyes looking to him for forgiveness, shook Ben's determination. "You, young man, will clean out all the fireplaces and the wood stove, and then you will straighten out the tack room. Understood?"

Hoss nodded.

"Yes sir, pa, I unnerstan," he wiped his sleeve across his eyes.

"There is wood to be chopped also." Again, Hoss nodded.

Ben now turned his attention to the youngest of his son's who was trembling; his hands still protectively spread behind him.

"Joseph. Look at me!" The boy looked up slowly, eyes brimming, his lip quivering; Ben let out a long breath as if the decision he was about to make was too terrible to be true.

"You, young man," he pointed to the boy, then up stairs, "will spend the entire day in your room. No one here will have time to watch you and you can not be trusted to behave with out watching, even with watching!"

"But pa, Hop Sing ca……."

"Are you answering me back?"

Adam and Hoss were drawn out of their own misery at this; Adam raised his brow, his dark eyes wide. Hoss shook his head.

"Nooo, pa. Honest!"

Joe shook his head. His eyes were now like saucers. His face was pale. He needed help here and fast. Adam and Hoss just stared at him.

Ben Cartwright nodded and turned to the front door.

"And I want this mess cleaned up!"

Hop Sing had been hovering near by, worried for his boys, but things could be worse. He shook his head, "Sometimes boy's velly bad," he mused to himself.

"Oh, and just for your information..... We will continue this little DISCUSSION...tonight!" and dropping that in their laps he left.

Out side Ben bellowed for Jake, but when he looked up Jake was standing there with Buck; he handed Ben the reins.

"Here ya go, Boss."

"Uhh...thank you." Ben muttered, embarrassed as he took them. Jake just nodded and ambled back towards the bunkhouse. For another moment Ben stood tapping his gloves against his leg, frustration still running high in his mind. At last he shook his head, took a quick glance back at the front door and the snow scattered around it.

"Of all the stupid...lame brained... I declare...that son of mine..... Sometimes I just………. fool kid.. Why, I have half a mind..." Ben continued his silent tirade...finally he just growled, mounted Buck and headed off to town. "And when I get my hands on that new supposedly great young teacher….." Ben fumed for the better part of another hour as he rode.

*********************

As the front door shut decisively behind his father, each boy relaxed just a bit. They stared at one another; Hoss swallowed.

"Aaadaam. What kind a discussion ya think pa meant?" Hoss's hands were in his front pockets.

"What are you talking about?" Adam grumbled. He did not have time for this conversation; he had a whole yard to shovel.

"Wwwell- ya know," Hoss stuttered, "Th-the talkin' kind? Or-or…..." He shuffled his feet nervously. Adam looked at him for the first time, rolling his eyes.


"Are you kidding???"

"Aah.. Uh.. Oh, I was fraid a that....the other kind...."

Adam's eyebrows rose to a peak; he squared his shoulders. Although not really sure of himself, he would not let on that he was even slightly worried about this coming discussion.... or more likely, a lecture. The deep disappointment in those all-knowing eyes....that did worry him...after all he was not a little kid.

.

"If you two will excuse me, I have something to do and I suggest both of you do the same, and do it right now!"

Little Joe slowly headed for the stairs; he just knew what his share of this coming discussion was going to be like, more action than words. He took the first step, half-turning he said in a little voice, "Guess I can't help with the injun...."

But before he could get the rest of the words out, "OHH, I DARE SAY YOU HAVE BEEN MORE THAN A BIG HELP ALREADY!!!!" And with that Adam stormed out the front door, slamming it meaningfully behind him.

"S-s see ya later, maybe, Hoss," Joe sorrowfully and softly called as he headed up to spend this wonderful, bright, crisp, winter day alone, to ponder his fate on the return of his father.

"Yeah. See ya later, little brother." Hoss could not help but feel badly for his baby brother. Joe just sometimes got a bee in his bonnet, and then things happened. He knew Joe would worry and fret all day over the morning's events, especially with nothing to distract him.

"Poor little guy," he mused, then it dawned on him…."What am I sayin? Poor ME! It was him that got us all in this mess; dadgum little hot head, jist couldn't stay out of the way, had to make trouble, didn't ya." Hoss stuck out his lower lip, his big blue eyes now full of self-pity and resentment towards his baby brother's actions.

Outside, Adam bent to his task, muttering furiously with every shovel full of snow he heaved over his shoulder. "I'm…..gonna….kill….him...so…help…me.....I'm….gonna strangle… him....." scoop... splot...scoop...splot.…scoop….splot. In no time at all he had worked himself into a fair sweat; it trickled down his back under his shirt. It ran into his eyes, making them burn; his arms began to ache. The snow was heavier then he realized. Adam stood up and looked at how far he had gotten and was totally dismayed at how little progress he had really made. He had expanded most of his energy and concentration on evil ways to repay his baby brother.

"Oh, for the love of life... would you look at that...." he complained to the still clear air "I have been breaking my ass for…" But the minute he heard that word float up on the air he shut his mouth, ducked in his head and waited. No one appeared. However, still, he belittled himself for such a stupid slip. This would not be a very good day to be caught using profanity, not a good day at all.

Ben had ridden more than half the way to Virginia City in a fair state of anger, but the longer he rode, his anger slowly seeped out on this stunningly beautiful day. He noticed the sun sparkled everywhere on everything as if millions of diamonds had been scattered carelessly over the land while the trees were covered with thick cotton of heavy snow. He knew he needed to check out his cattle but Jake would handle that for today. Buck snorted bobbing his head, glad to feel his rider relax a little. Their breath made great puffs in the cold air. It had been slow going in the deep snow but it was much easier now.

Spring would not be too far away, just a matter of months...months, yet it seemed like days, when he remembered the loss of his wife Marie... a chill came over him. He reached down and patted Buck on the shoulder. Drawing in a deep breath, he forced himself to think of his day's activities and not let his sorrow overwhelm him. It was not what he had figured but the scrape and bruise on his cheek pulled his attention to today. Carefully he felt the spot; sure enough, it was getting just a little puffy, not quite enough to shut his eye, but definitely enough to refresh his memory.

.

"So help me Hanna.. When I get my hands on those sons of mine they will rue this day for a very long time," he promised out loud. His fist balled up, he shook it at the air... then a gust of air swooped down on him blowing some loose snow effectively down his collar, instantly cooling him off. Stopping his horse, Ben dismounted and scooped up a handful of snow. Reaching into his pocket he drew out a handkerchief. Filling it with the snow, he remounted Buck, and holding the ice pack to his face, he resumed his trip. The ice pack did the trick; he began to feel better.

********************************

Adam had been at his task for at least two hours. Hop Sing watched with concern from the kitchen as Adam had refused to stop and eat. It was well into afternoon and he showed no signs of slowing down or stopping. With the exception of a drink of water now and then, he doggedly went about the job.

Hop Sing decided he had more than a few choice words he intended to give his boss on his return. Ben had instructed him to go ahead and feed the boys if it looked like he was going to be very late. Hop Sing hated to see the boys so upset; he knew they needed to know they could get back into their father's good graces.

Hoss diligently worked at his task making painstakingly sure he did not spill so much as one bit of ash as he cleaned. Hoss, however, did take Hop Sing's offer of lunch. He was sure Pa would not want him to go hungry.

Upstairs, little Joe had taken a few bites of stew, but he was not hungry either. Joe was hard to get to eat at the best of times, and today was, to say the least, not one of his better days. He now lay asleep across his bed, with his thumb in his mouth and a storybook about horses open in front of him. He was curled up into a little ball. As Hop Sing went to retrieve the tray, he saw it was virtually untouched, shook his head, and silently added a few more things he had to say to Ben upon his return.

**************************

Ben's day progressed yet again in less than pleasant ways.

First he had to listen to his dear friend Roy Coffee chuckle about his face, even if he had only heard a simplified version.

"Ha ..Ha.. Yessiree, Ben, that boy Adam of yourn sure is a bugger fer things what's got movin parts," he slapped his knee as he sat at his desk.

"Very funny Roy..." Ben muttered, "But now Higgins at the Bank is tied up with another client and I have to wait around for at least another hour. I can't afford to waste all this time; I have to get back to the ranch," he snorted in frustration.

"Yep, I 'spect you will... no tellin' what them boys will have concocted by tonight," he teased.

Ben ,who had been looking out the door, spun on his heels. His eyes blazed. He reached for a handful of air and unable to speak for a moment he just shook. At last he hoarsely hissed, "Those...boy's....of ....mine....had better not.... even....think...of.. doing ...anything....remotely...resembling ...today's fiasco. Or so help me.....none of them will SIT!... for a year!" He finished with one of his famous Ben Cartwright roars..

The jail windows rattled as he brought his fist down with crushing force onto the desk, then he gasped as the shock and pain radiated all the way up his arm. Ben stood up slowly, staring at the opposite wall, jaw clenched holding his injured hand with his other after shaking it furiously.

Sheriff Coffee just watched, a twinkle in his eye. (Yep sure wouldn't wann a be them boys of hissen when he gets home.) He shook his head; standing up he came around to take Ben by the arm.

"Now then, no need to get so riled up. Lemme buy ya a cup o' coffee at Mizz Willow's." he coaxed soothingly. Ben, who was not really ready to give in, grudgingly agreed while still mumbling under his breath all kinds of horrid and dire threats, all of which the good sheriff knew he had no intention of carrying out. Ever. For the one true thing next to the fact that the sun would rise every day, was the fact that Ben Cartwright 's love for his sons was the most powerful love he had ever seen. The merest hint that one might even accidentally harm a single hair on one of the boys' heads, brought a wrath down like none other in the world. No, there was no chance of anything happening to the Cartwright boys that would need the assistance of a sheriff, lots of soft pillows perhaps, but no sheriff.

Smiling warmly at Ben, they made their way to the little cafe run by Mrs. Willow. It was small and not at all fancy, but sweet Mrs. Willow served the very best pie and coffee in the territory. The aroma of fresh warm pie tickled Ben's nose; he realized he was hungry. His mouth watered, as they took their seats. Gertrude Willow herself came out to serve them.

"Why hello Ben...so nice to see you. How are those wonderful adorable boys of yours. haven't seen little Hoss in a few weeks." Hoss, when he had any spare change, always made Gertrude's a favorite stop, and she spoiled him shamelessly.

"And you won't see him for a looong time!" Ben was thinking. Wonderful???? Adorable??? Baah! What was everyone's aggravating interest in his sons today anyway? They were the things he was trying unsuccessfully to keep out of his mind.

"They're just fine." It came out harsher then he intended; her wounded look made him feel bad. "I'm sorry Gertrude...It's just that I have had a rather difficult day."

"Oh my, that's all right just as long as nothing has happened to any of the boys," she smiled cheerfully.

"Nooo. Not yet!" he thought.

"Well, what can I get for you two handsome men?"

Ben and Roy chuckled. They were both very fond of Gertrude Willow. She was a plucky, brave little lady. Her husband and children died on their way out west from fever. Yet she never complained, or seemed to have a bitter bone in her body. Gertrude was often known to feed out-of-work miners, or let their children run simple errands in exchange for pie or food.

"Gertrude, you got any of that blackberry preserve pie? And don't you go telling Hop Sing, but that blackberry pie of yours is the best thing this side of heaven," Ben teased. She blushed deeply.

.

"Oh, go on," she laughed.

"Ben's right, ya know, Gerty. I reckon I'll have the same."

"Coming right up."

Ben and Roy chatted amiably while they waited for their pie and coffee touching on the weather and the upcoming Cattlemen's Association meeting at which Ben had been asked to give a speech. It wasn't until after they finished and were heading back towards the bank, when Ben remembered his plan to have a few words with that new teacher.

"Roy, will you excuse me? I just remembered I haven't formally met the new teacher yet, and now with school closed, I think it would be a good time." The tone of Ben's voice and the edge, coupled with the gleam in his eye, told the sheriff more than he needed to know.

"Sure, Ben, no problem. Oh, and Ben.."

"Yes, Roy?"

"Well, it's jest that we ain't got no one to replace him. Not right now!"

Ben hauled himself up to his full height and let his exasperation show. "Roy, that's ridiculous. For heavens sakes, man! What do you think I am going to do?"

"Jest so's ya unnerstan," he answered and Roy Coffee left as quickly as was prudent for a man of his stature.

Ben rolled his eyes to heaven. Letting out a pent up breath with a whoosh, he strode towards Mrs. Grey's boarding house where the new teacher resided. Ben found that the teacher was not there. He was at the school working on some papers and his plan for the next week's lessons when the children returned.

Lancelot Taylor was young, thin and very enthusiastic, a little too enthusiastic, perhaps. He was at his desk, merrily humming as he went over the lesson plans. At the sound of the schoolroom door opening with more force than usual, he jumped and looked up. He found a very formidable man standing in front of his desk with feet spread slightly apart, very dark intimidating eyes under equally dark brows, a full head of hair touched with silver gray. There was no mistake; this was the man he had heard so much about, the father of his most delightful and eager student whom he had also heard about before he took this job.

"Mr. Cartwright, I presume?"

Lancelot came around the desk grabbed Ben's hand, pumped vigorously, and grinned rather foolishly.

"Sir! It is a great pleasure to meet the father of such a wonderful (there it was again...Ben bit his lip.), wonderful student so very quick and bright. He is.....is very intelligent. But I guess I do not have to tell you how bright he is, you being his father and all."

The young man was fairly gushing. Ben, instead of relishing the praise he found heaped on him, felt his temper begin to burn hotly once again. He held up his hand to quell the flood.

"Mr. Taylor, please. I do appreciate your kind words, but we have to talk!"

When Ben finally left the schoolhouse he left behind a very bewildered young teacher. The only thing Lancelot could think to say as Ben turned to leave was, "B b but your son...Adam...will,.….I'm sure, make a wonderful engineer........someday. Good-by. Nice to have met you, sir," he finished slightly befuddled, closing the door slowly on the retreating man.

Ben jammed his hat on and muttered as he marched down the street heading for the bank.

"Hurrumph!!!! My son Adam, indeed!" he said aloud. "Oh, he might make a wonderful engineer........if he lives that long!!!"

 

So intent on his ranting, Ben almost ran over little Mrs. White just coming out of the mercantile. Alberta White had been around this area longer than any one Ben could remember. Even before he and the boys arrived, she and her husband had started a trading post. Mr. White passed away twenty years ago leaving her a widow. Now almost seventy, bent and feeble, she lived on the outskirts of town with her maid, Stella. Alberta was loved by all the town folk, and was well respected.

"Why, Benjamin Cartwright!" she beamed. She always called him Benjamin. She said it fit him much better than Ben.

Alberta had been one of the first to welcome Marie and make her feel comfortable. She was also one of the most caring and understanding people after his loss. Mrs. Alberta White, with all her stature in town, remained warm and genuine. She took his arm and gently halted his forward progress.

"Why you look positively ferocious. Why such a scowl on such a handsome face?"

She peered up at the big man from under her winter bonnet, her dark blue woolen cape pulled around her fragile frame. She leaned slightly on her walking cane. Ben could not help but give a little laugh; she never failed to make him smile.

"Why Alberta. What on earth are you doing out and about?"

Ben covered her tiny hand with his large one, bending to place a little peck on her wrinkled face. Her now cloudy green eyes sparkled just a little.

"You always were the charmer," she teased. Now late afternoon, the air was becoming increasingly damp, more snow was on the way, no doubt.

.

"Alberta?" Ben looked around for Stella. "Where is Stella? It is too far for you to be walking in this weather and it is getting late!"

"Oh hush. For lands sakes, boy. I am not that old," she scolded. Ben found himself blushing at the term "boy", knowing just a tad how Adam felt now and then. (Adam...... again)

"Speaking of companions, where are my favorite young scholar, rancher and gadabout?"

When Ben did not answer right away she squinted at him sternly. "Well, I am waiting?"

"Huh?" Ben had been thinking and not paying attention to her.

"Those delightful, handsome, wonderful children of yours, you do remember them, do you not?"

"Ooooh yeess. I most definitely remember my, what did you call them?" he just realized what she had called them.

"Benjamin, shame on you..….your wonderful, handsome, delightful sons," she waited for him to respond, patting his hand that held her arm.

"Uh, they they they're fine, Alberta, just fine."

"Humm. I haven't seen them in awhile. Is Adam still thinking about collage?"

Ben was not aware she knew his son's most fervent wish.

"How about Hoss? I'll bet he's growing again! What kind of critters has he brought home lately?"

"And my little chatterbox, still full of life, I suppose? And up to his ears in mischief I'll bet?" Just then a cold shiver ran over her little shoulders.

.

"Alberta...you need to get inside."

"Bah!"

"You are about the most stubborn woman I have ever met!" he worried.

"Well, Benjamin, I did not get to be seventy years old being meek and mousy, now did I?"

"No," he laughed again softly; a small sad smile spread over is face.

"Seriously Alberta, let me help you home...Please!"

But before he could push the issue, a sleigh drew up to the boardwalk and Stella jumped out in a panic.

"Miss Alberta, I am sooo Sorry. This old Barney here, he just gave me fits about coming out again. I am ever so sorry," she looked fearfully at Ben. He understood her concern.

"It's ok Stella, we weren't out here long," he assured her helping Alberta down and into her sleigh placing the thick, heavy buffalo hide over her lap.

"Is there anything you left in the store I can get for you?" he offered.

"No, Benjamin, I made arrangements for Tommy Heart to bring them out to us on Monday." She reached up and touched his face where his scrape was.

"Oh," he blushed again.

,

"It's it's nothing. Just a little engineering problem, but it will be solved by tonight, I can guarantee you." Then he winked at her.

"Better get home Stella, looks like we may be in for some more snow. You take care of yourself, Alberta." He tipped his hat.

She nodded her head in return. As the sleigh pulled away, she called, "Tell those wonderful, handsome delightful boys hello for me!"

He waved and smiled broadly. Under his breath he muttered, wonderful, delightful, bright.

After Alberta and Stella had gone into the fading daylight, Ben took out his watch.

***********************

"Lord!" He all but ran to the bank.

Mr. Higgins was pacing back and forth rather disturbed.

"Well it's about time, Mr. Cartwright. I do have other things to do you know? Tardiness is not good business practice. If you are always late for a meeting, one might suspect you might also be late with loan payments." he sniffed with an air of disdain.

"Yes, well, I am sorry. It is just that today has not been a very good one for me," Ben began.

"The bank is not concerned with your private affairs, only on your reliability." He looked down his nose at Ben who felt that anger begin to bubble up inside him again.

"It will not happen in the future. Now, can we get down to business? I am sure we both have other places we need to be by later tonight."

"Very well." Mr. Higgins led Ben into his office. About forty-five minutes later when Ben emerged, he was not a happy man but he had managed to convince the bank manager to extend his loan for one month.

Standing outside the bank, Ben sighed. There was no doubt he was not getting home for dinner tonight, or even getting home at a decent hour. Looking both ways, he decided to see if Henry Morgan was still in town. He had planed to meet with Henry about the Cattlemen's Association. Luck was with him on this point at least; he met Henry just outside the International House.

"Ben... Ben... am I glad to see you. I had just about given up hope on you!"

"Henry, thank you for waiting," The men shook hands warmly.

"Say Ben, have you eaten yet?"

"No, Henry. As a matter of fact I haven't."

"Oh, that's good, but I am surprised you aren't on your way back home to have supper with your boys."

Ben Cartwright's feelings for his sons were well know by all.

"You know, Ben," Henry was saying as he led the way into the dining room and steered Ben to a table as he continued talking, "You may or may not know, but my nephew, Rodney, has come to stay with us for awhile. I can't tell you what an impression your young Adam has had on him. Rodney is rather shy and bookish, but he really has taken a shine to Adam. Why just the other day........" Henry halted; baffled by the expression on his friend's face.

"Henry, if you don't mind I really do not wish to discuss the many attributes of my eldest son, right now."

At a complete loss, Henry mumbled, "Oh, ok.......of course."

Ben shook his head. Would this day ever end. He rubbed the back of his neck noticing how it was steadily getting stiffer.

"Ben? Is something wrong?"

"No, no. I'm just a bit tired, I guess. I'm sorry, Henry. Forgive me. Tell your nephew I appreciate his praise of Adam."

"Okay I will," Henry, now back on track, smiled.

The waitress came and took their order, and the conversation began in earnest about the new association and what it would mean to some of the smaller ranches as far as representation and fairness. Half way through the meal Henry noticed Ben's face and the puffy red spot under his eye.

"What happened to you Ben? Not a fight at the Bucket of Blood I hope!" Ben laughed his hearty booming laugh. "I should be so lucky. No it was just what you might call a problem with engineering!"

Henry blinked, rather confused, "If you say so, Ben."

Wilber and Cornelius Goodway, owners of a small, rather unprofitable ranch and of somewhat shady character, were sitting just a few tables away. They always had an ear out when Ben Cartwright was around.

"Did ya hear that, Wilber?" Corny whispered pulling his brother close so as not to let anyone else hear what he had to say.

"That Ben Cartwright's got sumpin up his sleeve."

"Like what?" Wilber asked not as bright or quick as Cornelius.

"Dunno, but if Ben Cartwright got a part in it...."

Both brothers leaned in a little closer. Ben became aware of the pair leaning in his direction.

"Excuse me, gentlemen, is there something you wanted?" Caught off guard, they both flushed angry at being found out.

"Y-you think yer so smart, Cartwright. You can't fool us!" And throwing money on the table, they hurried out leaving a very bemused Ben Cartwright and Henry Morgan chuckling behind them.

"I declare," Henry said, "I don't know which of those two I feel sorry for the most."

Ben was just finishing his last cup of coffee. Their discussion over, he was relaxing a bit before he started on his long, cold ride home.

"Well Ben, it was a pleasure to have dined with you. But we both have to get on home."

"Yes, that we do. However I am not looking forward to the ride. I had no intention of being this late. I'm sure Buck will not be pleased either." Standing, he pulled on his jacket and began to button it up. Reaching into his pocket he went to pay for his share of dinner.

"No, no way Ben. This one is on me; after all I have to do something to thank you for the way Adam had inspired Rodney!"

"What?...Never mind I don't think I want to know." He held up his hand as if to deflect further comment. Placing his hat firmly on his head, he shook hands with Henry and sighed tiredly. "I know, I know."

"From what Rodney tells me, Adam would make a wonderful engineer. He........"

"Good Night! Henry!"

With that Ben left, and Henry shrugged, "Hope your face feels better before the meeting."
he called as an afterthought.

Ben set his jaw and headed in the direction of the livery stable where he had left his horse. "If one more person tells me about that wonderful engineering son of mine, I.........." Ben had reached the livery stable and found old Zeke half-dozing next to a stack of hay bales.

"Zeke. Zeke!"

"Huhh -haa. Oh it's you Ben, didn't 'spect ya was comin back tonite."

Ben pulled his collar up close, hunching his shoulders to the dampness in the air.

"I know it's late; I apologize."

"Nah 'sokay, " Zeke yawned as he got up to get Ben's horse. "Here tell you got some fancy kinda doins' out ta yer place."

"Who told you that silly nonsense?"

"Goodway boys wuz by afore, all abuzz bout some project you wuz hidin'." Zeke stopped to scratch his side as he saddled Buck, yawing loudly again.

"Oh, for the Love of Pete!" Ben snatched the reins, and hastily handing Zeke a few dollars, he mounted and made his way as quickly as possible out of town.

"I don't believe it!" He fumed as he urged Buck into a faster clip; it was getting cloudy and the stars were disappearing one by one as he rode. Midway through his ride, little flakes began to appear on his gloves and jacket, Ben pulled in his head, shoving his hat further down.

"Why not!" he grumbled. His face began to sting, particularly the red spot. His back, shoulders and neck got increasingly tighter, until the only thing he could think of was a hot bath and a glass of warm brandy. But not until....! The little spits of snow became tiny ice pellets; Ben could feel the temperature drop as he rode. The sleety icy pellets did little to improve Ben's disposition. The going became more treacherous; he had to slow down. His coat was beginning to ice up on him, he could feel his legs getting wet, and he had not worn a slicker because of the beautiful sunny day. "Beautiful day," he dismally grumbled. Buck was picking his way very carefully; this was going to take a long time. Ben was deep in his thoughts hunched against the weather with his head tucked as far into his scarf and hat as he could get, his collar pulled way up. As he came away from the city and into the more rugged terrain leading to his home, the fierce winter squall, as they so often do, blew itself out.

When Ben approached his ranch, he sat up straight and sensed rather than saw he was almost home. As the clouds blew away, an almost full moon peeked out. Upon reaching the front yard he became aware of something. He halted Buck, slowly looking around in every direction. At first Ben was not quite sure what it was; then it became crystal clear.... Empty.

The entire yard was clear; no piles of snow, no narrow paths, well away from the house and barn were huge mounds of shoveled snow. Ben whistled a low, admiring whistle.

**********************

All afternoon and well into the darkness Adam had shoveled until his back screamed; his hands so cramped he almost could not open them.

"Oh yeah! You're a real wiz at engineering, aren't you Adam Cartwright," he had ranted at himself as he shoveled.

"Well, at least Pa can't say I didn't do this right. What I wouldn't give for a hot bath right now! God I hope those brothers of mine held up their end of this; I just don't think I have the energy to face one more complication." He went back to shoveling.

"But before that, I'm gonna hang that little brother of mine by his ears from the rafters!" Scowling, he bent deeper into his task; it was getting late and he feared his father would come home to find him still out here and think he had not followed orders.

Hoss finally finished chopping what he hoped would be enough wood to satisfy his father. Hoss was sweating. It was already dark. Hoss had watched the slow progress of his older brother all afternoon. As it got increasingly later he was beginning to worry. Hoss shot a glance over his shoulder at the figure barely visible in the growing dark; he could tell where Adam was more by the steady scrape, splat, rather than actual visual contact. Pushing open the door to the kitchen, he trudged in with his last armload of wood, this one for Hop Sing's cook stove. The room swirled with enticing aromas and warmth.

"Wwhooeeee," he sighed as he deposited his armload in the box. "Hop Sing, I sure hope you made lots of supper; I'm nigh on starved!"

Hop Sing stopped his stirring to eye the big young boy. He loved to feed this huge young man, but now and again, he made a good show at being put upon by Hoss's appetite.

In mock anger he retorted, "Hop Sing cook! Young Hoss work!"

Hoss sank into one of the chairs, face in his hands wistfully envisioning supper. Hop Sing grunted poking his big wooden spoon at the boy.

"No suppah till you clean up. All dirty. No feed dirty boys. I go get lil Joe."

"Naw, Hop Sing, I'll go get 'im. I hate to say it, but it was way too quiet all day today."

Hop Sing just grunted again and nodded. Hoss stretched, then headed to the washroom.

"Yuck!" Hoss exclaimed when he saw just how messy he was. "Bet ole' Adam's gonna wanna make me take a bath." Hoss superficially cleaned his face and hands pushing his hair into what he hoped passed for a reasonable resemblance of neatness, tucked in his shirt and went upstairs to get his baby brother.

Hoss pushed Joe's door open without knocking. Joe was on his bed. a small rag horse wrapped in his arms, his hair all messed up. Hoss was sure he had been crying. Hoss's big blue eyes misted over; his heart went out to his little brother. No matter how horrid Joe could be, he just could not stay mad at him.

"Hey, big shorty," he called softly as he reached out and brushed Joe's hair from his face. "Time to wake up."

At his touch Joe, who usually was the worst to wake up, blinked open his eyes, and sat up.

"Supper's ready. You hungry?"

Joe blinked a few more times then his eyes got very wide. A funny look crept over his little face. He licked his lips nervously glancing past Hoss into the hall.

"P-P-Pa's h-home?" he whispered looking up at Hoss then again fearfully at the open door.

"Naw. Maybe he's gonna be late." His big face split into a grin reading Joe's thoughts.

"Maybe reeeaaaal late?"

Joe took a few minutes to digest this news, "Really?"

"Really." Hoss offered him his hand; Joe slid slowly off the bed.

"B-b-but what if……?"

"Now Joe, I jist done tole ya, don't go frettin' on me."

Joe's big hazel green eyes shone; his lip quivered. Hoss mussed his hair. Joe pushed his hand away, then turned to the window. He was still able to hear the faint sounds of a shovel. But when he went over to look out, he saw nothing.

"Adam's still shovlin'?" he said quietly turning back to look at Hoss, then looked down.

"Sigh, yeah, Little Joe, he is."

"I been watchin' him, fer, fer a long time." Joe fidgeted uncomfortably.

"Me too." Both brothers felt a pang of guilt.

"Come on Joe, let's go get him and make him stop fer supper. Hop Sing said he dint have no lunch."

Joe nodded slowly as they went out and down the stairs. Hop Sing was at the front door. He was just shutting it. Shaking his head, he began to mutter in Chinese, then headed for his kitchen. Hoss took Joe and began to get him dressed, pulling on Joe's mittens for him, Hoss called out, "Hop Sing, you get that supper ready. Me an Joe's gonna go get Adam." pulling on his own things, he led Joe out onto the porch. It took a few minutes to adjust to the dark, but Hoss was able to detect a dark figure against the stark white of the snow. Determined, he and Joe marched over to Adam.

"Adam!"

"What?"

"It's time fer supper."

"I'm not hungry."

"Ooooh yes you are!"

Adam paused, shovel over his shoulder, he turned to look at his brother. He was surprised to see Little Joe. Sizing both of them up, he silently went back to shoveling.

"Adam! C'mon, quit bein' so dern stubborn!"

"Look, you had your chore, I have mine!!" came the black response.

"Yeah, I did but I jist finished mine an…"

"Well, I haven't!" Adam's sarcastic reply hung on the cold air.

"I'm real sorry, Big Brother, but Ooooh yes you have!!"

Before Adam had a chance to react, he was astonished to find his shovel effectively removed from his hands as he was physically propelled towards the house. By the time they got to the front door, Adam was forced to relent and admit just how tired, sore and hungry he really was.

"Okay. Okay, I give up! Thanks fellas."

"What are little brothers for?"

Hoss opened the door with one hand and at the same time gently pushed Adam inside with the other. Joe eagerly pulled off Adam's mittens then attempted to brush off all the snow clinging to his brother's pants.

Hop Sing appeared, a great smile on his little round face. "Aahh velly good! Messa Adam, you go wash up. Hop Sing get suppah on table.

"Okay, okay!" Holding up his arms he laughed softly, his dark hazel eyes bright with amusement and thanks.

While Adam was washing up, Hop Sing told Hoss and Joe their father would not be home in time for supper.

"How come Pa isn't here yet?" Adam asked as he took his seat.

"Umm, seems he's gonna be late!" Hoss grinned.

"Oh really? How late?" Adam asked spreading his napkin on his lap.

"With any luck, reeeaaaaal late!" Hoss quipped as he began to fill his plate with mashed potatoes. Adam's one brow shot up. He cocked his head slightly.

"Don't go getting your hopes up," Hoss advised, helping himself to roast beef.

"Well, never hurts to hope."

"Hurt? Yeah, this thing is gonna hurt before it's over all right," Adam thought.

Joe looked from one to the other but never said a word. Adam shook his head then dug into his supper, positively ravenous. All three ate in silence, none of them wishing to bring up the subject of their father's return and what was still to come.

After supper they sat at the table for a few minutes longer. Adam moved his shoulders to get the kinks out. He let out a long breath. Now that he was full and warm, he did not relish going out to do the night chores, or to finish the chore he had been at all day. Adam mused as he marveled at the amount of snow in the area surrounding his house and barn, he just never noticed how big an area it was. Adam sat with his hands folded together elbows resting on the table deep in thought. Hoss sat back satisfied. He had eaten enough. Joe fiddled with his napkin, not looking at either of his brothers. Hoss suddenly yawned loudly startling both Adam and Joe.

"Don't do that!" Adam snapped.

"Do what?"

"Startle me like that." Adam got up stiffly and stretched. Joe glared at Hoss.

"Yeah, me t-too!" he pouted. Both his brothers looked at him, then began to laugh. Soon all three were laughing.

"Well, much as I hate to say it, we three still have work to do."

"Okay, Adam, yer right as usual." Hoss headed for the door.

"Uhh, I wasn't so right this morning." Adam stated in a low voice.

"Awww, you don't know that. It might a worked if….."

Joe gave them his best lopsided grin and shrugged his shoulders innocently.

"Oh never mind," Adam herded them out the door.

"Tell yah what, Big brother, jest this one time, me 'n Big Shorty here will do the barn chores and you can get back to that special task your doin' such a good job on." Hoss winked.

"Your generosity is overwhelming."

"No. siree. Nope. I'm only five!" Joe declared emphatically.

"Naw, Joe, that ain't what Adam meant!"

Joe looked at Adam, unsure. "Oh," he grimaced, rubbing his face with his mitten.

"Well are you two gonna go do barn chores or stand there till ya freeze solid and make me shovel you up and toss you on that pile over there?"

"And what if I am? Think you can toss me that far?"

"Nahh. Shovel's not wide enough. But him, on the other hand," and Adam crept menacingly towards his little brother, a fierce evil, grin on his face, shovel poised as if to scoop him up at any minute.

"Nooooo Adam! Hoss! Help me! Help meeeee!" He giggled as he ran circles around Adam. When they finally gave up, all three were breathing hard, their breath making great white misty clouds in the air.

"Go on, get," Adam panted, "Before you know who gets here!"

Hoss nodding, still chuckling, led Joe off to do the night chores. Adam went back to his shoveling, however his heart was in a much lighter mood than it had been just an hour ago. In the barn Hoss and Joe went about the chores. Joe really did his very best to help and not get in the way. He especially loved to help with the horses.

"Someday I'm gonna get a horse, right Hoss?" he stated as he struggled with the rake.

"Well I donno 'bout a horse, but soon you will be riding old Star over there, all by your self."

Joe looked over at the little pony squinting, then to his brothers' horses, sighing. Joe was so busy thinking, he did not see Hoss backing up. There was an icy patch where water had spilled earlier and Hoss slipped, toppling into Joe. They both ended up in the pile of steaming, wet, dirty hay.

Adam dropped his shovel and headed for the barn at a dead run when he heard the loud yelp.

"AAAHHHH, ohhh! Dadgumit!" Hoss sat up as Adam skidded to a stop inches from falling onto the two of them.

"Nice going!" he shook his head, folding his arms across his chest sniffing the air.

"Ppheww, I smell the need for two baths tonight." He held his nose and shut his eyes.

"Well don't just stand there; help me up."

Adam gave him his hand and hauled Hoss to his feet. Joe got to his feet and put his cap back on, hay sticking out every which way.

"Hey little haystack, are you ok?"

"Y- yeah, b- but do I gotta get a bath?"

"You tell me?" Adam squatted down next to Joe to fix his hair and cap. Joe leaned his nose close sniffing the odorous wet spot on his sleeve. It made his face scrunch up; he rolled his eyes and groaned.

"That bad, huh?"

"Ah-huh."

"I better go tell Hop Sing. He isn't gonna be real thrilled about this, let's just hope he won't get too excited." Adam left the barn and headed across the yard, picking up a handful of snow he tasted it. "Maybe I can get Hop Sing to make snow ice cream? Ah, on second thought, tomorrow might just be better."

Just as Adam had predicted, Hop Sing was not thrilled about the need for two baths this late at night. He made it known in no uncertain terms. Adam returned to his shoveling.

Hoss and Joe hurried through the rest of their chores becoming increasingly awe of the condition of their clothes. All three boys finished at the same time. Adam led the way to the back door. "Better go in this way," he whispered in a conspiratorial voice.

Half an hour later found the three boys in the washroom, Joe in one tub, Hoss in the other. Adam was in the process of trying to wash the muck out of Joe's curly hair, thinking all the while how very inviting the hot soapy water looked, even with the specks of hay floating around.

"Adam?"

"Yes?"

"Umm, are we gonna get to do more injun-ear-in?"

"Nooo, Little Buddy, I don't think we will be doing anything like that for a long time."

"How come?"

"Let's just say that particular subject is best forgotten for a while."

"Okay, but I dint never get to see what injun-ear-in does."

"Aahh, ahem! Joe?"

Joe looked up at Adam, whose head was cocked, his one brow raised in that way of his.

Joe nodded. Adam got Joe dried and into his nightshirt and robe. He made several unsuccessful attempts to brush the thick, unruly curls into place.

"It's no use. Pa's right. You need a hair cut."

"Nuh uuh."

"Hoss, you all done?"

"Yeah," Hoss disgustedly bemoaned, trying to get his hair to do what he wanted.

As the boys came into the great room, they were greeted by a smiling Hop Sing and a tray of warm sugar cookies and mugs of hot chocolate.

"Good boys all clean up. Hop Sing make cookie and chocolate. You go sit by fire. Get warm. Messa Adam, you no take bath?"

"In a little while Hop Sing, honest."

Hop Sing eyed him for a minute. Adam was the last one to refuse a bath, but he let it go this time. He got no argument as the three boys scooted to the settee and chair. Hoss had downed three cookies before Adam even sat down.

"Adam, will you read to me?" Joe asked softly, as he rubbed his eyes. Adam got up, went upstairs, and returned with a book, the one his new teacher had given him.

"Ok, but just for a little bit. We all need a good night's sleep." (....and I sorely need a hot bath, Adam thought.)

As Adam sat in the big red chair, Joe climbed up into his lap; Hoss sprawled on the settee, a pillow under his head resting on one arm, big blue eyes shinning as he contentedly munched on cookies and sipped hot chocolate. As he listened, Adam's strong voice lulled him to sleep.

Adam managed to snatch two or three cookies before he settled down to read. Getting comfortable in the chair, he took a long sip of the sweet chocolate, setting the mug on the stone hearth so he could reach it as he read. Adam encircled Joe with his arms pulling him close. Joe leaned into Adams chest one hand holding his chocolate, the other resting on Adams arm, his fingers patting gently without him realizing he was doing it. As Adam read, Joe's eyes grew heavy. He let the mug slide free. It tumbled on to the floor with a light clunk. No one noticed. Little Joe yawned, put his thumb in his mouth and drifted off to sleep. Once or twice Adam shook his head to clear his eyes. They felt grainy. He blinked; fighting a yawn himself, he continued read. It was just a few pages later that Adam's chin slowly sank, until it was resting on the top of Joe's mop of curls. His arms relaxed and the book slid down on to Joe's lap. All three boys were sound asleep.

Hop Sing padded in. He removed the mugs noting that one had tumbled to the floor, a tiny pool of chocolate at its rim. Smiling, he gathered up the plate and remaining two mugs, sighing at the fact, Adam, as usual, never got to finish his. Carefully adding a few more small logs to the fire, Hop Sing turned down all but one oil lamp so that the room was lit mostly by the warm yellow and gold flames as the new wood caught fire and began to burn eagerly. With one more satisfied backwards glance he went to finish his kitchen work for the night.

*************************

A short time later Ben arrived in the yard. Dismounting, he continued to look all around, then lead Buck into the barn. Ben halted to light the lantern. As the light flared up, he had to admit he was impressed as he began to bed Buck down for the night. The tension between his shoulders began to relax; the knot in his back started to slip away. He was surprised to find his neck felt better, and as it did, the anger slowly drained out of him.Stopping to blow out the lantern, Ben quietly shut the barn door. Heading for the front door, all his attention now focused on seeing his three handsome, wonderful, delightful, intelligent - oh, what was the other?.....sons.

Making almost no noise, Ben slipped into the house. The great room was almost completely dark. The only light there was came from one oil lamp on the table and the flickering fire as it danced across the faces of his sleeping children.

Hop Sing padded from the kitchen when he heard Ben come in. As he came around the corner of the dining room, he found Ben just watching from the sideboard where he had taken off his gun belt and coat. Ready to launch into his list of objections, he saw the warm tender smile begin to build on Ben's face. In the dark Hop Sing caught a glimpse of the shimmer that began in those dark brown eyes.

Both stood in silent agreement for a few more moments.

Hop Sing nodded, now content all was as it should be.

"You cold, wet; I get coffee. You go sit by boys. Get warm by fire." he whispered in his no-nonsense tone.

At first Ben did not move preferring to let his eyes drink just a little longer. Quietly he stepped into the circle of firelight to get a closer look.

Hoss, on the settee, had telltale crumbs around the corners of his mouth; his one arm hung over the edge still clutching his half eaten cookie. It was all Ben could do to keep from bursting out laughing, his sides shaking with the effort.

Ben turned and let his gaze fall on the pair in his big, red, leather chair. Adam had fallen asleep with his long legs crossed at the ankles like always, dark lashes long and thick spread like fringe on an exotic lady's shawl. His chin was resting on the unruly, overabundant mop of curls.

Deep in slumber, Joe had a ring of chocolate around his mouth, which held his left thumb. Joe's other hand rested on Adam's sleeve.

As Ben studied each face intently, the fire hissed and crackled. Ever so carefully he slipped the open book out of Adam's hands, turning it over as he closed it. The Adventures of Sir Lancelot..... a deep groan almost escaped him and broke the spell woven by the warm fire and peacefully sleeping children.

"I should have guessed that one," he whispered barely audibly.

Backing up very slowly he eased himself down into Adam's blue chair across from his sons. Hop Sing materialized from the dark to hand him a steaming cup of coffee and disappeared just as quickly. As he continued to watch his boys, one more thing struck him as odd in this day of odd and frustrating events. Of the three boys in front of him, only Adam looked woefully in need of a bath, whereas Joe and Hoss were both obviously, squeaky-clean. No, on second thought, every thing was exactly right. Adam had, as always, seen to his brothers' first, leaving his own comfort until last. Ben again fought a laugh at the sight of Adam's hair, doing what it wanted to do instead of what he had tried to get it to do. "Rather appropriate," popped into Ben's mind.

"I suppose today could have been worse?" he mused further.

"I could have three eager and promising young Injun-ears."

"Now that, would present a very real problem with engineering!"

Taking a long sip of the hot coffee, he let it slide down his throat and warm him from the inside. Ben sank deeper into the chair; his smile going even deeper over his handsome face. With his head resting against the back of the chair, he gave himself over to silent laughter until the tears of love and pride, no longer containable, spilled in rivulets down his cheeks.

THE END

 

Epilogue:

When fall finally arrived that year, it found young Adam Cartwright embarking on one of the most important segments of his life. He was heading east to go to college back in Boston. When he returned a few years later, it as with confidence and a degree in architecture. He had also studied engineering. However, the use of catapults for snow removal was never proven to be effective.


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