Summary: Necessity is the mother of invention.
Word Count: 3078
“Pa. We got troubles.”
“Oh? What is it now Hoss?”
“We ain’t got no water. That snow we got last night iced up the surface of the well. It’s frozen solid.”
“I was afraid of that,” Ben grimaced.
He and his sons Adam and Little Joe huddled around the breakfast table. Hoss had been nominated to tend the stock that morning. They all figured he was the most insulated. The trio shivered as they ate the porridge their father had prepared for them. Hop Sing was away and it was his turn. Besides, porridge was Ben’s best dish. Adam and Joe had blankets draped over their shoulders as they spooned the warm mush into their frigid bodies.
“I cain’t remember a January as cold as this,” Hoss complained as he stamped his feet at the front door. He quickly discarded his heavy coat and the scarf that held his hat on. He rushed toward the fireplace to warm himself. He laboriously yanked off his boots and stuck his feet as close to the flames as he could without actually setting them ablaze.
The news of the water predicament was a sobering one. Especially for Joe who would inevitably be lowered into the cavern by his brothers so he could chip away at the surface. It was the only thing they could do. The men had the luxury of an indoor pump, but the livestock’s supply came for the well in the courtyard. Winter or not, the animals needed to be cared for no matter what the weather. Joe groaned at the prospect. “I guess I’ll have to go down there… again,” he sneered at Adam.
“Well, we could lower Hoss down, but he’d have to stay there ’til spring,” The elder brother mocked.
“Ha… ha,” Hoss scoffed from across the room.
“But, I always have to do it. Why me? Why do I always have to go down there?”
“Because, you’re LITTLE Joe,” Adam poked.
“And you’re ARROGANT Adam,” Joe sniffed with ire. He had a love hate relationship with his moniker. On occasion he’d use it to his advantage, but most of the time it was a curse.
“Boys… boys.” Ben attempted to stop the insults before they escalated. “It’s too cold to put up with childish bickering. The horses have to have water and we’ll have to get it the way we always do in circumstances like this. Sorry Joe, you know there’s just no other way.”
“Well, we could use one of the horses to lower Adam. He never has to do any of the hard chores around here. They always land on me or Hoss.”
“I beg your pardon,” Adam jested with a pointed spoon. “I’ve put in over a decade of work on this ranch before you were even a consideration. I’ve done more HARD work around here than you will in your entire life time.”
“Now, that’s enough,” Ben insisted. “After we’ve eaten, you’re going to have to do it Joe. No arguments.”
“Yes sir,” Joe replied submissively after Adam’s reprimand and his father’s requisition.
The elder brother grinned wickedly. He relished in the thought of Joe’s discomfort. It brought him a certain amount of devious joy. The fact that his father usually sided with him was an added bonus.
“Yeah. Simmer down you two,” Hoss griped as he took his place at the table. “Pa’s right. I’m sick of your squabbling all the time. You sound like two old biddies fightin’ over a new hat.”
“Old biddies?” Joe and Adam chided in unison.
“Yeah, it’s like livin’ in the hen house – bawk, bawk, baaaawk.”
“Now, now. I know we’ve all been cooped up in here for over a week. All of us have cabin fever. We’re bound to get on each other’s nerves.” Ben’s parental voice was low and smooth. “But, there’s nothing we can do about it, so let’s just eat our breakfasts in peace shall we. Let’s all try and get along like adults.”
“Enyhow,” Hoss continued despite his father’s appeal. “I got a better idea then sending Joe down there to break through.”
“Oh? And that would be…?” Adam said with doubt in his brother’s creativity.
“We kin just toss some rocks down there to smash the ice. It’s only an inch or two from the snow buildin’ up.”
“Nay. That won’t work.” Adam dismissed with blatant conceit.
“How come?” Joe asked, thinking anything would be better than his impending assignment.
“Well, the rocks’ll just build up down there and we won’t be able to access the water. The bucket’ll just get caught.”
“We kin clear ’em out in the spring, Adam.”
“And, what’ll we do til then, huh? Drag it up from the lake? No thanks. That’s what we used to do before we dug the well. Remember, Pa?”
“How could I forget.”
“No. I have a better idea.”
“Of course you do.” Joe snorted, as his brother was famous for his brilliance.
“What? Set the well on fire?” Ben said crossly. “I don’t think that’s wise, Adam.”
“No, no. We line one of the buckets with rocks and set the fire inside it. The heat from the rocks should be warm enough to melt what ice has built up. It’s like Hoss said. It can’t be too thick. Probably not more than an inch or two.” Adam waved his spoon dismissively as if the whole thing was simple.
“Why didn’t you think of that three years ago when I almost got frost bite,” Joe sniped. “It took me three days to get warm after you two dropped me down there.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Joe,” Adam joshed. “I was just trying to make a man out of you.”
“I’m man enough thank you.”
Again, Adam curled a wily grin at his brother’s expense.
The Ponderosa was in the grips of a deep freeze. The temperature had plummeted so far below zero it couldn’t be registered. But, beyond the chilling degree itself was a wind that raged down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and swirled relentless in the valleys. Even the oldest timers could not recall a winter this harsh. The air was so dry and crisp, you could almost here it snap as you passed through it. Breath was frozen when inhaled, sticking nostrils together. No work could be done in weather like this. It was simply too dangerous.
And then there was the snow – feet upon feet of the white stuff. It was like no one had ever experienced before. At first it was fun and the brother’s actually played like schoolboys. They slide down a near by hill on makeshift sleds, fought a battle with snowballs and enjoyed riding their horses through forest paths that were so beautiful and quiet, they thought heaven might just be around the next bend. The snow truly brought out the child in all of them. But, now it was becoming a burden with no end in sight. Each day they’d have to clear paths from the house the barn, the bunkhouse and the well. What was entertaining the week before was now a nuisance.
It took the rest of the morning for the four Cartwrights to retrieve the precious water they needed. Adam’s scheme worked perfectly. His plans always did. His track record was still in tack. He’d help to design and construct mills, mining systems, houses and roads. The man was renaissance through and through. The hot rock idea was an unsophisticated initiative – lowly compared to Adam’s other accomplishments.
After their bone-chilling chore, and yet another round of shoveling, they seemed to have finally caught up – for the moment.
“Come on boys,” Ben urged. “Let’s get inside and warm up.”
His sons needed no further coaxing and plodded into the house without so much as a confirmation.
“Go stoke up that fire would you, Adam?”
“Sure thing, Pa. As soon as I can move my fingers again. I think they’re frozen.”
“Well, it wasn’t easy but it was sure better than having to go into the well myself,” Joe announced as he shed his layers of clothing.
“I’m going to make a cover for the top,” Adam stated, “so we won’t have to worry about the snow again.”
“Good idea, son.”
“I sure am hungry,” Hoss confessed. “I could eat a side of beef right about now.”
“Right about now?” Joe chuckled. “You can eat a side of beef just about anytime.”
“I could do at that, Little Joe.”
“Speaking of lunch,” Ben interrupted his son’s musings, “it’s your turn, Joe.”
“Ah Pa. Do I have to? I hate cookin’.”
“You know the rule while Hop Sing is away. It’s your turn. Hoss will prepare supper.”
“That’s right, Joe. And I’ve got something real special planned. You ain’t never ate nothin’ like this before.”
“Can’t wait,” Adam quipped as he threw another massive log on the fire.
“You’ll see, Adam. It’s my own invention. I thought it up all myself.”
“That’s encouraging?” Adam sighed.
Joe served a rather lackluster lunch consisting of left-over bacon between two stale pieces of bread. It was a substandard effort that drew unappreciative leers from Ben and Adam. Hoss didn’t seem to mind. He had thirds.
They spent the rest of the day inside, just like they had for weeks now. They truly were housebound and had to amuse themselves. Luckily, they’d stocked up on supplies before Hop Sing left to visit his cousin in San Francisco. They were self-sufficient – for now.
Adam read – placing his socking feet up on the hearth of the fireplace. Occasionally he’d glance over at his brother’s as they cheated each other at checkers. Ben studied the ranch’s financial books for the fourth time in four days. Boredom had definitely taken hold of all of them.
After checking on the horses and helping Adam prepare a cover for the well, they returned to the house as dusk blanketed the Ponderosa. The setting sun turned the snow from a cream white to a warm mauve.
“Well, I’m gonna go start supper,” Hoss announced. “And you are going to love it!”
“Hoss?” Ben said casually.
“What is it exactly that you’re planning to serve us this evening?” He sounded somewhat fearful.
“It’s a surprise, Pa.”
“Oh boy! A surprise!” Adam mocked as once again he found himself in front of the fireplace. “I love surprises! Don’t you, Joe!”
“I sure do! Absolutely, older brother.” Joe continued Adam’s tease. “I just live for surprises.”
“You just wait and see big shortys. You ain’t never had nothin’ like this.”
Ben, Adam and Joe eyed each other suspiciously as they watched Hoss purposefully head for the kitchen.
“I don’t know about you two,” Adam quipped. “But, I’m a little scared.”
“I must say I’m a bit leery myself, son.”
“I guess it can’t be any worse than our lunch.” Adam gave his little brother a side ways glance.
“Like I told you before, I can’t cook. I hate cooking,” Joe defended.
“Okay, okay Little Joe,” Ben chuckled. “I’ll let you off the hook until Hop Sing gets back.”
“Sure. Your brother’s and I will take your turn. Won’t we, Adam.”
“I suppose,” he resigned. “I don’t think I can bear another tired bacon sandwich.”
“You know, Pa?” Adam said as his attention shifted from the book he was engrossed in to the aroma that wafted into the great room. He raised his nose in the air like a hound that had just caught the scent of a rabbit. “I hate to say this but…”
“Something smells awfully good.”
“It sure does,” Joe agreed. He’d been braiding leather for his new bridle. “I think I’m gonna go in the kitchen and see what Hoss is up to.”
“I don’t think you should interrupt him, Joe,” Adam advised. “WHATEVER he’s concocting seems to be working… so far. You don’t want to distract the chef.”
“I’m going to check anyway.”
Adam shrugged and Ben simply ignored his youngest boy’s curiosity. He was busy fixing his desk drawer that had been sticking for months. There were a lot of minor chores around the house that were finally being tended to – the mending of a loose chair leg, the cleaning of rifles and the sewing of the odd button onto well wore shirts. Anything to pass the time.
Joe gently placed his tack on the coffee table and made his way into the kitchen. With flaring nostrils, he seemed to be led into the kitchen by his sense of smell alone. As he entered the small room, he found Hoss bent over the stove. He had a wooden spoon in one hand and the bowl of salt in the other. He wore a slightly soiled apron around his midriff and seemed quite pleased with his efforts thus far.
“Oh, hey Joe.”
“What smells so good?”
“Like I told you. It’s something I just thought up. It doesn’t just smell good, though, it’s gonna taste good too.”
“Yeah, but what is it?”
“It’s kinda a way to use up all these cuts of beef that Adam and Pa don’t like to use. They always just take the best bits and leave the rest for Hop Sing to make stew or soup with. But, it’s good meat Joe. No reason not to eat it. It just needs a little extra attention is all.”
“Ah huh.” Joe sounded cautious.
“Besides, if this snow and cold keeps up, we’re not going to be able to get to town for supplies. We’d have to eat it enyhow.”
“Hoss, we’ve got an entire herd of cattle we can eat.”
“Yeah, but I hate to waste all the meat we already got. Don’t seem right somehow, just letting it rot.”
“Nothin’s going to rot in this weather.”
“True enough, but I just had to try this idea I had. You know me, Joe. Always thinkin’ about food.”
“Ah huh,” Joe repeated skeptically as he approached the grill. Hoss stepped back to allow Joe to view his masterpiece.
Placed neatly on the rack were twelve rounded patties. They were all uniform in size and thickness. They sizzled noisily as Hoss prepared to flip each one carefully.
“Hey Hoss!” Joe said brightly. “Those look pretty good. How did you make ’em?” Uncharacteristically, he sounded enthused and honestly intrigued.
“Well, like I said, I took some of the left over pieces and put them through the meat grinder. I found a couple onions in the root cellar, so I chopped ’em up and fried ’em. I mixed it up in the meat. Then I put in some of Hop Sing’s spices that he sent to China for. Then I added some of that stale bread and a couple eggs to make it all stick together.”
“Ah huh.” Joe still didn’t sound convinced.
“Then I mashed it all up,” Hoss continued despite being interrupted, “and formed ’em into patties to fit in the buns I baked.”
“You baked buns?” Joe said with astonishment.
“Where’d you learn to bake buns?”
“Well, Hop Sing taught me to make them donuts I like so much so I just did the same thing without the hole and the sugar on top.”
“Hmmm.” Little Joe nodded his approval. “So, you ah, you eat the patties with potatoes and maybe some peas and the buns are for slopping up the grease?”
“No Joe.” Hoss sounded condescending. “You put the patty in the bun. You eat it with your hands. Like that measly sandwich you served us for lunch today. And for yesterday’s breakfast, I might add.”
“Oh,” Joe jeered.
“Could you set the table for me?” Hoss sounded matronly. “And, grab some of Hop Sing’s relishes and pickles.”
“Pickles? With beef?”
“Well, I’ll set the table, but I won’t be eating pickles with my beef thank you. That just goes against my principles.”
“Whatever you want Joe. When you’re done,” Hoss instructed seriously, “call Pa and Adam to the table. These should be done in a few minutes.”
“Aye, aye, Captain.”
Joe placed everything on the dinner table that Hoss asked him to. Within the half hour, Ben, Adam and Little Joe sat at their places in anticipation. Hoss entered the dining room with a platter that was stacked with his new invention. He placed the tray squarely on the table for his family to behold.
“What the heck are those?” Adam asked with a scrunched face.
“Well, they’re dinner, Adam.”
“What is it?”
“I’m going to call it… ground beef patties on a bun.”
“Looks more like cow patties on a bun.”
“Come, come now Adam? Where is your sense of adventure,” Ben lectured. “Hoss has put a lot of effort into this lovely meal. You can at least give it a try, can’t you?”
“I suppose.” Adam didn’t sound so sure.
“Well, I’m going to try it. They sure do look good.”
Each Cartwright in turn took one of the sandwiches. They placed it in the middle of their plates. They all watched Hoss as he prepared his with several slices of sweet pickle. He then pressed down on the whole thing so he could fit it into his mouth. Ben, Adam and Joe did the same as if they were pupils. They took a bite.
“Wow! This is great, Hoss!” Joe proclaimed with his mouth still stuffed.
“Not bad. Not bad at all,” Ben praised.
“Thank you. Thank you,” Hoss said, reveling in his family’s adoration.
“Isn’t it amazing?” Ben offered as he added another pickle to his entrée.
“What’s that, Pa?”
“Well, I was just thinking how this cabin fever has brought out so much creativity in my boys. First Adam with the heated rocks and now Hoss with this delicious, ah… what did you call it again?”
“Beef patties on a bun, Pa.”
“Yes, yes. Beef patties on a bun.”
“You can make this anytime Hoss,” Joe encouraged.
“It’s very good Hoss,” Adam said, finally giving his approval.
“Tomorrow, I’m gonna make somethin’ to go with it.”
“Oh yeah. What?” Joe probed.
“I’m gonna cut up some potatoes and fry ’em in a pan til they’re nice and crisp. They should go great with this. Don’t you think?”
“Yeah. It sounds fine Hoss, but…”
“But what, Adam?”
“Well, as good as this is, it’ll never catch on.”