Word Count: 4400
“I had a good reason to leave,” Adam Cartwright said dramatically staring into the looking glass in front of him. His expression then softened and a tear glistened in his eye. “I wonder if they’ll welcome me home.”
“Don’t hold your breath, big brother,”seventeen-year-old Little Joe Cartwright giggled as he leaned against the frame of his oldest sibling’s bedroom door. “Ya know, Pa’s gonna skin you alive when he finds out you’re using his best Sunday go-to-meeting hat for this little masquerade.”
The twenty-nine-year-old gulped slightly but recovered, getting back into character. “What are you doing here, boy?” he growled at his baby brother as he took off the hat and placed it on the table in front of him.
“We’re getting ready to go, that’s all. Gee, you got awfully gray all of a sudden,” Joe moseyed uninvited over to where Adam sat. “What in the world happened to you?’
“Whitewash, son. Brushed in to give the illusion of age and wisdom,” Adam explained impatiently trying to untangle the strands of hair making up his sideburns.
“Well, I don’t know about wisdom part,” Joe touched his big brother’s hair which had been not only whitened but stiffened by the preparation. “But the age part seems to fit. What’s this strange little thing here? You’re not going all ‘girly’ too are you?” he pulled at the black cord holding a white scallop shell that was tied around Adam’s neck.
Adam cleared his throat and turned to glare at his youngest brother. “It’s a memento from a long lost love from the South Seas. My character ‘Jonas Hubble’ drifted far and wide for years until he found his way back home,” he turned back to the mirror and began to dab a little of the whitewash on his black eyebrows with a thin stiff paintbrush. “Then, by the end of the play, history repeats itself and his own son does the same thing he did.”
“Ah, huh,” Joe was half listening, preferring to examine more of the preparations that Adam was using to transform himself into ‘Jonas.’ He picked up a jar of light brown junk, unscrewed it and smelled it. He grimaced slightly wrinkling up his nose. “Just how come you’re in this… this….”
“The Wayward Son,” Adam supplied frowning at Joe’s reflection in the mirror.
“Yeah, this play, anyway, Adam? Joe screwed the lid back on the jar and placed it again on the table. “You ain’t no actor.”
“I’m doing it as a favor to a certain young lady who wrote it.”
“Ida Sue Murtaugh,” Joe smirked.
“She needed someone since her father was called out of town unexpectedly so… well, how could I refuse a damsel in distress?” Adam’s eyes twinkled mischievously.
“Especially one with a figure like Ida Sue’s,” Joe grinned broadly. He then went back to examining Adam once more. “Where’d you get this straggly looking caterpillar, anyway?”
Adam grinned. “Cochise was kind enough to let me borrow some of his mane.”
“Looks better on him,” Joe observed giggling and lightly touched the gray/white clump of hair that Adam had secured to his upper lip. In the process, he accidentally dislodged it.
“Damn you, Little Joe,” Adam cursed snatching his moustache back from his baby brother. “It took me almost half an hour to get that thing on straight.”
“Looking older doesn’t necessarily mean you can swear in this house, young man,” Ben Cartwright’s booming baritone voice boomed from the threshold.
“Sorry, Pa,” Adam was concentrating on gluing the clump of Cochise’s mane under his nose once more and then moved on to the beard he had likewise fashioned. “Sonny here’s just annoying me, that’s all.”
“That’s what little brothers are for, ain’t they?” Joe smiled innocently at his father and his brother Hoss who both now were inside Adam’s room.
“That’s right,” Hoss agreed as he too began to closely examine his older brother’s make-up job.
“Son, did you use this on your hair?” Ben who was also inspecting Adam picked up the small bucket that was sitting on the table to Adam’s right.
“Sure, Pa. Don’t worry. It’ll wash right out. It’s just slack lime and water…er…isn’t it?” Adam asked as he noticed a look of alarm on his father’s face.
Ben cleared his throat and frowned. “And some glue.”
“Isn’t this what I mixed up for Joe to use on the inside of the barn?” Adam turned around to view his father’s face firsthand instead of reflected in the mirror.
“No,” Ben shook his head handing Adam the container. “It’s the whitewash that I mixed up for the outside of the smokehouse. I used what was left of what you made. It took me half an hour to get the stuff off my hands so I’m afraid you might be stuck –no pun intended – for a few days with that hair.”
“Oh, no,” Adam turned back to stare at himself in the mirror.
“Look at the bright side,” Hoss laughed at his suddenly sickly looking older brother. “At least your hair won’t fall out.”
“Amen, brother,” Joe giggled and slapped Adam on the back.
“But I’m supposed to take Ida Sue to dinner after the performance,” Adam moaned sadly shaking his head. “How can I take her when I look like her Pa? She’s expecting the dashing and romantic Adam. No one can be dashing and romantic looking like this!” he dramatically motioned to his reflection in the mirror.
“That’s for sure,” Joe shook his head sadly, crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the footboard of Adam’s bed.
What? You could have knocked Ben over with a feather. “You know, boys,” he sat down on the corner of Adam’s bed. “Just because there’s snow on the roof, doesn’t mean there’s no fire in the stove.”
The boys suddenly realized ‘what’ or, should we say, ‘who’ they had been discussing inadvertently.
“Oh, we mean no disrespect, Pa. It’s just that…um…” Adam for probably one of the few times in his life fumbled for the right words, given the touchy situation.
“We’re talking about a young lady, Pa,” Joe tried to complete whatever Adam was trying to say. “We know lots of older ladies your age are after you…”
“What do you mean your age, young man?” Ben stood up, looming forebodingly over his youngest. “You make me sound like Methuselah is my contemporary.”
“Ah, Pa, don’t get your feathers all ruffled,” Hoss laughed patting his father sympathetically on the back. “You know what we mean.”
“No, what do you mean?” Ben spun around to look at Hoss.
Hoss sighed. “Ah, come on, Pa. It’s only that…”
“So no young lady would be interested in someone my age, huh?” Ben raised his eyebrows and looked from one son to another.
“Well, Pa, you said it. We didn’t,” Adam had gone back to looking in the mirror at his whitewashed hair and wondering what in the world he was going to do about dinner with Ida Sue.
“Hmmm,” Ben continued to study his boys. “You three willing to make a bet on that?”
“Come on, Pa, you’re not serious?” Joe giggled.
“But if you’re afraid your aged father will show you up, well…,” Ben knew he would hit a nerve with this.
“What’s the bet?” Adam turned around in his seat once more.
“I bet I can get a young lady of your age to agree to be my dinner companion before you can get a young lady to have dinner with you,” Ben gave them a superior look. “And since Adam has a handicap with his…er…hair situation, I’ll bet him I can get two young ladies to have dinner with me before he can get one young lady to accept his invitation.”
“How much?” Joe looked suspiciously at their father.
“Oh, let’s make it interesting,” Ben folded his arms over his chest. “Shall we say one week’s pay?”
This stopped the boys in their tracks. One week’s pay?
“Of course,” Ben smiled to himself. “I understand if you don’t want to risk that much…”
The Cartwright boys looked at each other. They knew from years of experience that their father was goading them into making the wager but they couldn’t resist. After all, this was a matter of pride.
“It’s a bet,” Joe put his hand out to shake Pa’s as did Adam and a reluctant Hoss.
“Good,” Ben rubbed his hands together. “Now if you gentleman will excuse me,” he picked up his Sunday-go-to-meeting hat from the table in front of Adam and winked at him, “I’m going to finish getting ready.”
“Aren’t you ready now?” Joe called after their hurriedly departing father. After all, Ben already had put on a tie.
Ben turned back and smirked at his three sons, a twinkle in his dark brown eyes. “Are you?” Then he laughed, turned and disappeared into his room.
“Probably not,” Joe muttered while Adam and Hoss wondered whether their bet was such a good idea after all.
“Well, don’t that beat all?” Hoss sighed as he and his brothers pressed their noses against the large windowpane of the International House to look into the dining room at one particular table of diners. “How do ya suppose he managed that?”
The “he” Hoss was referring to was none other than the trio’s “aged” father who had “managed” to have as his dinner companions three of the most desirable young ladies in all of Virginia City. At least that’s what Ben’s three sons thought. Curvaceous blonde playwright and Adam’s latest conquest Ida Mae Murtaugh, the luscious redhead Roberta Pitts who Joe was sparking, and the buxom blonde Betty Jo Johnson who had caught Hoss’ eye could not take their eyes off the eldest Cartwright who had finished getting himself “ready” for the evening by changing into his good dark gray suit and his silver brocade vest. His best black tie and a splash of bay rum were the finishing touches Ben added before he hopped into the carriage that Little Joe had just finished rigging up –“See you later, son!” — and drove out of the yard toward town.
Joe was stunned by Ben’s felonious action. He never expected such behavior from his own father! His brothers maybe, but not from his own father! “Damn!” He chanced a curse word since Ben was probably half way to Virginia City by now. He then dashed into the house to inform Adam and Hoss in no uncertain terms that their Pa was “up to no good” and they had to really “pull out all the stops” to win this one.
At the time, Adam laughed and tried to reassure his agitated youngest brother that there was nothing to worry about and that they certainly could afford to give Ben a head start. After all, the girls they had been seeing surely would consent to dine with them — “Who else would they go with?”
Hoss was not as confident but finally agreed with Adam that “Ida Sue, Roberta and Betty Jo would not let them down.” While Adam gathered up a change of clothes and some of Hop Sing’s lye soap for his hair, Hoss helped Joe saddle their horses. Within fifteen minutes, they too were on their way to town to “win the extra week’s pay.”
Things did not go exactly how the boys thought they would with the girls, however. Oh, Adam’s belief that he would easily win the wager with his Pa was not shaken in the least when he was unsuccessful in cornering Ida Sue back stage before “The Wandering Son” began. She was just too busy with costumes, props and all the details of the performance to even listen to him, he told himself. Of course, every time he approached her to confirm their plans for later that evening, she scolded him and shooed him away or skedaddled out of his reach. She was just so very involved in keeping the performance on track that his efforts fell on deaf ears. Over and over, he dismissed his failure at securing her acceptance of his dinner invitation as just “a minor bump in the road” on his way to winning the wager.
As always, Adam had a fool-proof back-up plan — he thought anyway — so he wasn’t worried a bit. For the final curtain call, he already had arranged for Hoss and Joe to jump to their feet and loudly clamor “Author! Author!” at the top of their lungs. When this was happening, he was going to pull Ida Sue out onto the stage from the left wing where she usually watched to acknowledge her triumph as an author, kiss her dainty hand and bow low doffing his hat to her in tribute to her talent. Then he was not going to let go of her until she promised to be his dinner companion. Nothing could go wrong and he would have that extra pay in his pocket by the end of the evening. But alas and alack, this was not to be the case for when his brothers started hooting and hollering, “Author! Author!” Ida Sue was not in her usual spot applauding madly for his performance as Jonas Hubble as she had done in previous rehearsals. In fact, she was no where to be found.
“Where is she?” Adam had mouthed to old Saul, the curtain puller, prop man and sound effects maker, who shrugged and then pointed to the opposite side of the stage.
Turning 180 degrees, Adam was astonished to find the lovely Miss Murtaugh entering from stage right on Ben’s arm, a big smile on her lovely face and a huge bouquet of blush pink roses cradled in her left arm. His father, not he, was the one who lightly kissed her right hand and graciously presented her to the applause of the crowd. Then just as quickly as she appeared, she disappeared still clinging to his father. Adam never saw her again until Hoss spotted her and the others through the window of the hotel dining room.
Hoss and Joe had the same kind of luck with Betty Jo and Roberta as Adam had with Ida Sue. At the end of the first act, the two youngest Cartwrights politely excused themselves to bring the ladies back something to drink and so that they could plot their own “winning” strategy. Their plan was to ask them both about dinner at the same time so neither one could decline their invitation as soon as they got back inside. When they returned with the punch, lo and behold they found their father sitting with Miss Pitts and Miss Johnson on either side of him. Both young ladies were holding a similar blush pink rose — it seems that their father had secured a few in addition to the ones he was to give to Ida Sue — in one hand and one of their father’s hands with the other.
“I smell a rat,” Joe remarked to Hoss as he glared at the back of the trio’s heads.
“Yeah, and I never thought it would be our own Pa,” Hoss grumbled, following his little brother down the aisle.
When Joe and Hoss tried to inquire as to why he was sitting where he was when there were any number of seats that he could occupy, Ben said that “he really enjoyed the view from where he was,” but he would leave if he were intruding because he “had no intention of doing that.” He then squeezed the girls’ hands gently and gave them each a sad little puppy dog smile that his youngest thought he had exclusive rights to. Well, after that, Roberta and Betty Jo would not hear of him leaving. They even went as far as telling the boys that “They should be ashamed of themselves for saying such a thing to their father” and that “If he moved to another seat, they would too!” Defeated, Hoss and Joe acquiesced to the seating arrangement.
During the remainder of the play, Ben, Roberta and Betty Jo whispered and giggled to each other, leaving both Hoss and Joe feeling like a fifth wheel. In fact, when either one of them tried to join in the conversation, they were shushed or outright ignored. It was when Ben left to present his floral tribute to Ida Sue that Joe and Hoss finally found an opening to discuss dinner. They were shocked, however, when the girls told them that they “had made other plans.”
“Other plans?” Hoss looked at them both in disbelief.
“How could you have other plans?” Joe demanded a little too sharply.
“What do you mean by that?” quick tempered Roberta snapped at the youngest Cartwright, offended by the question. “Don’t you think anyone else would ask us to dinner?”
“Now, Bertie. Joe didn’t mean it that way,” Hoss tried to calm Miss Pitts down by smiling sweetly at her.
“He most certainly did, Hoss Cartwright!” Roberta would not be mollified. “Well, for your information, we’re having dinner with a very handsome gentleman who very politely asked us while you were out getting that awful punch for us and whatever else you two were doing! Imagine leaving two pretty young girls unescorted like we were common saloon girls!”
Before either of the Cartwrights could respond, Miss Pitts pulled Miss Johnson to her feet. “Come on, Betty Jo. Let’s go!” The two young ladies then indignantly stomped off leaving two very disheartened young men with distressed looks on their faces watch their next week’s pay disappear along with the young ladies.
Whatever Ben said just then made the girls laugh, all of them blushing and looking appropriately demure but at the same time hanging on his every word. He stood, raised his champagne glass and made a toast probably to all of their “endearing young charms” or something like that, Adam, Hoss and Joe were sure. Then he clinked glasses with each one in turn receiving adoring smiles that any young man half Ben’s age — like his three sons — would have loved to be on the receiving end of.
“You know what’s worse than losing a week’s pay,” Adam readjusted his hat forward so he could scratch his scalp which was irritated from the lye soap and old Saul’s vigorous scrubbing of his hair. It was still wet but at least it wasn’t white overall as it had been for the play.
“What?” Joe sank down on the boardwalk dejectedly.
“Admitting we were wrong,” Adam leaned against the post watching somewhat jealously as Ida Sue patted his father’s hand briefly.
“Amen,” Hoss groaned continuing to stare at the four people seated at the table that was set for six.
“How are they doing?” Ben who was seated with his back to the big front window asked the three young ladies who were sitting on the opposite side of the table from him. Ida Sue’s bouquet of pink roses was now sitting in a vase to her right and Roberta and Betty Jo had placed the rose given to them by Ben beside their napkins.
“I think this is killing Adam,” Ida Sue giggled, glancing at the oldest Cartwright son through the window. She then smiled back at Ben who had just finished refilling her glass, her blue eyes twinkling. “But he deserves it. He’s been absolutely impossible since he agreed to be in my play. Please understand, Mr. Cartwright. I’m grateful that he played Papa’s part but he acts like he owns me now!”
“So do Hoss and Joe,” Roberta agreed picking up her rose and taking a deep whiff. “They take us for granted, that’s for sure. Of all the nerve — thinking that no one else would ask us out! We really appreciate you helping us out in this way, Mr. Cartwright.”
“How could I not come to the rescue of three such lovely ladies in distress?” Ben smiled in his most charming way. “And I did get the privilege of spending some time with three of the prettiest ladies in town, you know.” Not to mention a free week’s work out of the boys in the bargain, he smiled to himself this time and took a sip of champagne. “But, I do feel sorry for them so, with your ladies’ kind permission…?”
Hoss salivated as he watched as a big juicy steak that barely fit on the plate was carried past the window. “How about us just going inside and finding a table in a dark corner?”
“So we could keep a closer eye on Pa?” Adam quipped tearing his gaze away from Ida Sue toward his middle brother.
Before Hoss could answer, Joe who was now on his feet crouching in front of Adam did. “That’s right.”
“He stole the carriage, didn’t he?” Joe reminded him all the while glaring at Roberta who was now smelling her rose and seemed to be openly flirting with the eldest Cartwright. “And for all we know he stole those blasted flowers too!”
“And now you think he’s stealing your girl, then? Adam looked at his baby brother incredulously.
“Well, she doesn’t look like she’s missing me all that much, that’s for darn sure,” Joe fumed.
“So let me get this straight,” Adam draped his arm around his baby brother’s shoulders and pulled him to an upright position. “You’re just a little jealous of Pa too?”
“Too?” Joe looked up into Adam’s face in surprise.
Adam sighed and nodded.
“Let’s face it, brothers,” Hoss folded his arms over his chest and looked his brothers. “Our Pa is one good looking guy and obviously he hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to the ladies, no matter what age they are.”
“How true, son, how true,” Ben Cartwright’s wide grin was clearly visible thanks to the light from the full moon as he appeared from around the corner of the International House. “Of course, I would have said devastatingly handsome but “one good looking guy” is fine too. What are you three doing out here, anyway? What about dinner? Where are your young and lovely dining companions?” he looked around knowing full well that his three sons were alone.
“Well, Pa,” Adam cleared his throat and smirked at their father, “We guess they’re with you at the moment.”
“Hmmm,” Ben clasped his hands behind his back and moved in a circle around his three sons. “That’s too bad, isn’t it? Lost your best girls and a week’s pay all to a better man both at the same time.” Ben tried not to laugh but he did anyway.
“That’s about the size of it, Pa,” Hoss sighed and kicked at the edge of a loose floorboard with the toe of his right boot.
“There’s no doubt you are the better man, Pa,” Adam agreed and Joe nodded his head to make it unanimous.
Ben smiled broadly at them. “I’m glad you realize that now. Like I said, “Just because there’s snow on the roof, doesn’t mean there’s no fire in the stove.””
“Pa, from what we’ve seen this evening, I’d say you got a dad-blamed forest fire blazing inside of you!” Hoss howled clapping Ben on the back.
“That’s for sure,” Joe giggled shaking his head.
“Well, boys,” Ben put his arm around Hoss’ middle and turned him in the direction of the International House’s entrance, “Since I know you haven’t had anything to eat, I think that the ladies will let you join them,” he motioned for his oldest and youngest son to start moving in the same way also. “Of course, that is, if you tell them that you learned your lesson and promise that you won’t take them for granted any more?”
“Join them?” Adam looked back suspiciously at his parent who was now quickly herding all three of them inside. “What about you?”
“Yeah, Pa,” Hoss glanced sideways at Ben. “Ain’t you eating with us?”
“Oh, don’t worry about me,” Ben said as they crossed the threshold of the dining room. “I have plans of my own,” he indicated with his head a secluded little table for two where the very pretty Miss Susan Burke, Virginia City’s new schoolmarm, waited. A bundle of bright red roses tied with a bright blue ribbon that matched Susan’s eyes lay on the table beside her and at her elbow was a sterling silver bucket holding an opened bottle of champagne. She smiled at the four Cartwright men and raised her glass acknowledging them.
“Now, like I said, the ladies have agreed to give you all another chance,” Ben told them giving the girls a wave.
Roberta and Betty Jo both waved back to him and Ida Sue even blew him a kiss.
“Just behave yourselves or you’ll have me to answer to,” Ben warned sternly shaking his finger under each of their noses. “In the meanwhile, don’t wait up for me,” he winked, adjusted his silver brocade vest, smoothed his hair and turned to join Miss Burke.
“Yes, sir,” the Cartwright boys nodded watching Ben slide into the chair beside Susan, take her hand in his, and plant a soft kiss on it. Susan looked back at him adoringly. They then turned to face the music with the girls but were shocked to notice that Betty Jo, Roberta and Ida Sue also were looking adoringly at their father.
“Yes, sir,” Hoss chuckled, straightened his tie, and started toward the girls. “There’s a whole forest fire inside there.”
“I just hope that my fire’s half as hot when I’m his age,” Joe giggled and followed Hoss.
“Oh,” Adam chanced one more glance at their father and the school teacher. “I wouldn’t worry about that, kid. We are our father’s sons,” he patted Joe on the back, “And snow or no snow, the fire will be there no matter what.”
In the end, six kids and fifteen grandchildren between the three of them proved Adam’s assessment that night to be absolutely correct.