Frogs, Books, and Sticky Things (by Krystyna)

Summary: Joe Cartwright, incorrigible, uncontainable, hoarder of worms and frogs and all of age 5 goes in search of a book for his big brother Adam … and lots of horrible things happen as a consequence!
Category:  Bonanza
Genre: Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  11,000


“Yes, young man, and what can I get for you?”

“A book, please.”

“A book? What kind of book?”

“Er … um .. a good book.”

“The good book?”

“No, M’am, we’ve already got that one. Just a good book would do, is all.”

Stalemate. She looked down at him and frowned, and he looked up at her and pouted. He blinked hazel green eyes. She noticed freckles splattered over a golden tanned skin.

“Well, we have romances and drama. Or there’s comedy. What about poems?”

“Poems is good.” he nodded and a curl of dark hair drifted upon his brow.

“You like poems?” she smiled and breathed a sigh of relief.

“No, M’am.”

“Oh!”

“My brother does though. It’s for him.”

“Oh I see. A birthday present is it?”

“No, M’am,” he stuck his hand in his dungerees pocket and began to struggle with
its contents, “I kin pay for it.”

“So, is it an early Christmas present?” she smiled and took several books from a shelf which she put on the counter.

“No, M’am. It’s a thank you for being you present.” he frowned, “The counters too high, M’am, I can’t see ’em”

She frowned, and cleared her throat. A chair was found and he clambered up.

“So what did he do that makes him deserve a present?”

“Who?”

“Your brother?” she sighed, impatient now to get rid of him.

“Oh, nuthin’ much.” he picked up a book and looked at the cover, and flicked
through the pages.
“Do you like that one?”

“I dunno,” he shrugged and picked up another which he flicked through, a frown furrowing the freckled smoothly tanned skin of his brow.

“So, you’re buying the book to thank your brother for nothing. That’s going to be a nice surprise for him.”

“Wal,” he shrugged nonchalently, and put the contents of his pockets on the counter, “This one looks like the one I want. It’s got the same pictures in it as the other one.”

“What other one?”

“The one I burned by accident when I threw it in the fire. I was throwin’ it at my brother Hoss but he ducked. Adam ain’t noticed it’s missin’ yet, so I thought I’d buy him a new book. This one looks the same.”

“Arn’t you sure?”

“Nope, I can’t read yet.”

He sighed and put his finger on a coin, pushed aside a fluffy piece of candy that had been hidden in the recesses of his pockets for some days, stuffed a dead frog back into his other pocket (it had been alive when he put it in his pocket and couldn’t think for the life of him how come it was dead) and found another coin,

“Is that enough?”

Rather hesitantly she picked the coins up, they were sticky. She put them back down again.

“That’s fine, that’s fine,” she said and pushed the book at him, “You don’t want it wrapped, do you?”

“No, M’am.” he frowned, “Thanks, M’am.”

“Thank you, Mr …”

“Cartwright. The name’s Cartwright. Joe. My friends call me Little Joe ‘cos I’m short.” he jumped down from the chair. “If it ain’t the right one I’ll be back.”

He waved, a charming beguiling smile drifted over his lips and lit up his eyes. She smiled. Waved to him as he left the store. With a sigh she looked down at the sticky coins.

“Hi, Mr Fawcett.”

Harold Fawcett glanced down, and then over his shoulder, as the voice floated towards him. He was in time to see a little boy ambling along the sidewalk. The back view of Little Joe Cartwright seldom varied, a checkered shirt one sleeve up and one sleeve down, his dungeree straps with a definite ‘off the shoulder’ look, the pants showing clear evidence of having trailed through puddles, streams, or whatever mud and dirt Joe had come across during his progress through the day. As usual the pockets were bulging, clear evidence that ‘some things nasty therein lurk.’ Mr Fawcett never enquired about the contents of Joe’s pockets since the time he came into the bank and off loaded onto the counter. Apart from a rather clean marble there were several worms, some squished, some wriggling, the stub of an old pencil, some string, much knotted, something that looked like the head of a dead mouse but turned out to be a long forgotten piece of candy, and a twig. He didn’t dare ask Joe about the twig …

“Howdy, Joe. Had a good day?”

The little boy turned and looked thoughtfully at the banker, then nodded,

“I guess so, Mr Fawcett. So far anyhows.”

“Is your Pa in town?”

“Yes, sir, he is. He’s talking to Mr Stevenson about getting out of going to the picnic with Mrs Widder Hawkins because Mrs Widder Hawkins upsets my Pa something awful.”

“Oh, does she indeed.” Mr Fawcett smiled, everyone knew that Mrs Hawkins had set her bonnet on the eligible widower, “And how does she manage to do that?”

“I dunno,” the little boy raised his shoulders and the straps slipped down further, “He jest sure goes red in the face when her name is mentioned. Hoss said you could see steam coming out of his ears, but when I looked, I ain’t seen none yet and I sure mentioned Widder Hawkins a whole heap of times to see if he would of …”

He turned away, and sauntered along to Mr Stevensons house. It was here that Ben had left the wagon. He clambered up onto the wagon seat and hugged the book close to his chest. A thoughtful look drifted over his face as he considered that having the book was one thing, getting it back on the shelf was quite another. There was Pa, Hop Sing, Hoss as well as Adam to avoid. He glanced warily around him as he heard his name being called, and nearly swallowed his tonsils when he saw his brother Adam striding down the sidewalk towards him. With nowhere to hide the book he hastily slipped it into the wagon where it settled comfortably behind a sack of flour.

“Hi Adam. Wotcher doin’ here?” he blinked innocently at his brother who studied the boy’s face carefully. Joe heaved a sigh and gave an even wider smile. “I’m waitin’ on Pa.” He said in answer to the unspoken question that was on his brother’s face.

“So you are …” Adam replied thoughtfully, his eyes just slightly narrowed. “And have you been waiting for long?”

“Seems like forever,” replied the stalwart soldier as though the thought of leaving his post was quite beyond his capabilities.

“You’ve not even been in the candy store yet?” Adam smiled, a little more relaxed now.

“No, I tol’ yer, I ain’t bin no place yet.”

“Then come along, I’ll treat you to some candy.” and Adam picked the boy up under the armpits and swung him down onto the sidewalk, “I suppose you saw Miss Harris in the store.”

“Yeah – I mean – no, not yet, not today.”

Adam paused in mid stride and glanced downwards, Joe stared straight ahead as though if the wagon had collapsed and the horse along with it he had not noticed. Adam cleared his throat, pursed his lips and frowned,

“So you did see Miss Harris today already?”

“Only from a distance.” Joe shrugged and fluttered his eyelashes.

They walked on and entered the store room, where Miss Harris greeted them both with a smile. She widened her eyes at Joe and mouthed something at him, and Joe frowned, then realised she was mouthing ‘Haveyougivenittohimyet?’ but because it all came as one long word he had to concentrate, something he didn’t do very often. He shook his head fiercely again and stood gravely by his brother’s side looking as wide eyed and innocent as could be. Adam let him choose his favourite candy, which Miss Harris put into a bag and handed over to him with a rather obvious wink.

Adam paid the money, smiled, tipped his hat politely, and walked out of the store with Joe trailing behind him,

“Miss Harris certainly seems smitten by you, Joseph.” he observed to his little brother, who nodded thoughtfully, “Mmm,” Adam pursed his lips again, in that suspicious manner that always worried Joe. It meant that his brother WAS concentrating, something Adam did far too much in Joe’s opinion.

“I jest membered sum fin, Adam.” and he ducked into the store where Miss Harris was dusting down the counter, “Miss?”

“Oh hello, Joe. Does he know yet?”

“No, not yet.” Joe smiled and gazed up at the young lady. “Thanks for not saying anything.”

“My pleasure.” she dimpled a smile at him.

“I – I brung you a present.” he declared and placed something on the counter, “‘Bye, Miss.”

(I shall forebear from mentioning what he had placed on the counter, it came from his other pocket and it jumped…)

*****

Ben drove Joe home. Together they sat on the wagon seat and discussed the events of the day. Ben didn’t tell Joe that Widow Hawkins was still going to be his picnic partner and Joe didn’t tell Ben about the book. Adam had decided to stay in town awhile as he said he had ‘some things to attend to’.

Hoss came out of the stable and called Joe over to go and see the new colt. All thought of the book that was languishing in the back of the wagon slipped from his mind. Hop Sing and Ben unloaded the wagon between them. The book plopped down upon the bare and dusty boards of the wagon, forgotten and neglected. The next day Hop Sing took the wagon into town with a load of dirty washing in baskets which slid up and down in the
wagon and scuffed the cover of the book. The same happened on the return journey.

It was only when he was taking the baskets from the wagon that he did notice the book and placed it on top of the laundry as he carried it all into the house, sadly though, the book slipped off and landed on the porch floor.

It rained during the night and in the morning Joe played mud pies and mud balls. This is an excellent game for those of an excitable nature. Rather like snowballs but with glorious mud. The wetter and slimier the better. Joe was a good shot with these mud balls and having successfully landed several on Hoss, Hop Sing and several of the hands was finally hauled indoors by his father. Adam and Ben were busy doing sensible things like the accounts. Hop Sing then dragged Joe into the room where the bath tub was contained and here Joe found himself dunked in the tub.

The book had also received a mud ball and languished sadly wet and muddy, looking nothing like the pristine new book it had been when Joe had purchased it.

Hoss found it and picked it up. He wiped the cover down his vest, and then wiped it over again with his sleeve. The effect was a rather mud streaked pattern not totally unfetching and resembling some people’s wall paper of the day. He took it into the kitchen and asked Hop Sing to dry it out over the stove. It was only when Hop Sing smelt something burning that he realised he had ‘over dried’ it. Rather guiltily he ran into the big room with it in his hands.

It so happened that Adam glanced up at that moment and saw Hop Sing with the book. He stood up,

“Hop Sing? What have you got there?”

“Ah-” gasped the cook, his eyes darted all around the room and he quickly hid the book behind his back, “Ah – er – what you say?”

“I said, what have you got there?”

Having secured the book behind his back by means of his apron strings Hop Sing displayed both hands, waggled them about for good measure, in fact, and smiled innocently,

“See? No thing here in hands.”

Adam shook his head, and walked silently towards Hop Sing with a look on his face that made Hop Sing nervous, he giggled and flapped his arms about some more. Adam stood right in front of him, placed one hand on his shoulder and deftly turned him around so that the book was exposed in all its sad glory.

“My book!” Adam hissed between clenched teeth as he plucked it free from the apron strings, “What- have- you- done- with- it?” each word came out like the pop-pop-pop of a gun, very staccato and cold.

“I – I just dry it over stove – book got wet in rain.” Hop Sing explained and smiled feebly up at the irate young man.

“The rain?”

“Yes – the rain.” Hop Sing nodded and darted into the kitchen for safety.

Adam humphed, then he turned over the pages of the book, frowned and shook his head. Had he been less preoccupied he would have undoubtedly done more than humph, however, with a sigh he replaced it in the bookshelf and returned to his work.

Joe remembered the book in the middle of the night and spent an anxious hour wondering where it had got to; Hoss woke up in the early hours of the morning realising he had not collected the book from Hop Sing which meant he just had to get up and wander down to the kitchen where he made himself a beef sandwich, ate a slice of apple pie and drank a glass of butter milk; Adam fell asleep wondering why his book of poetry had got lost in the yard and Ben had nightmares about Widow Hawkins.

Then they forgot about it.

*****

Joe was happy. He had been inspired by his brother Adam reading him the story of David and Goliath the previous evening to polish up on his slingshot or in other words his catapult expertise. Running around the yard and yelling like a banshee, picking up pebbles and firing them against the stable wall. Cheering loudly as each one hit the mark with a ping or a clunk depending on the size of the pebble and what it hit.

It struck him eventually that the stable was not really a good target as it was far too big and there was no possibility of him ever missing the target. He cast his eyes around the yard for another at which to aim, at which point Hoss ambled out of the stable with a frown on his face.

“Hoss …” “Joe …”

As they had both spoken at the same time each paused for the other to continue. Hoss managed by a squeak!

“Joe, you danged well spooked that little colt with all that danged bangin’ and thumpin’.”

“No, I didn’t anyhow.” Joe responded immediately, “Pa would tan your hide, Hoss Cartwright, if he heard you danging like that. You know he said so too.”

“No,he didn’t.”

“He did too.”

“Anyhows, jest stop that clanging about, you hear? What’re you doin’ of anyhows?”

“Playin’”

“Yeah, I figgured since you ain’t doin’ no chores. What game you playin’ at that’s what I mean?”

“David and Goliath.”

Hoss frowned. He had fallen asleep half way through Adam’s reading of the bible story the previous evening. Not that Adam’s reading wasn’t exciting enough, it always was very dramatic with lots of arm waving and eyes rolling Adam could convey a lot in a few facial expressions alone. Hoss was a hard working diligent boy and at the end of the day, no two ways about it, but he was just plain tuckered out.

“Hoss, I got me an idea.”

Hoss narrowed his eyes and scrutinised his brother thoughtfully. He had already had plenty of experience from Joe’s ideas and could see that this one was, in Joe’s view, going to be a real ‘belter’.

“See, I bin thinkin’ that I need a proper target for my bein’ David. Seein’ as how you jest keep growin’ and growin’ so, you could be Goliath.”

“Yeah?” Hoss looked doubtful, and ran his fingers through his blond hair, “Cain’t I be David?”

“Dang it – I mean – gracious no, Hoss, you’re already too big, bigger’n me. Goliath was HUGE!”

“Yeah, and he also ended up dead. I may not have heard the whole story last night but Adam’s read it to me often enough. Sure, Joe, go ahead and practise but you ain’t gonna practise on me. No, dang it.”

“HOSS!”

“Dang it, dang it.” Hoss yelled as he ran towards the door of the house. “Yipes – you little brat!” he clapped his hands to his rear as a stone pinged neatly against his retreating figure, “Dang it, Joe -”

“Hoss!” Ben stood glowering down at Hoss who paused abruptly before his father with his face reddening, “What have I said to you about language?”

“Sorry, Pa.”

“So you should be.” Ben looked over at Joe who stood in the yard his hands behind his back and a wide eyed innocent look upon his face. Ben’s own face softened and he beckoned to his youngest with a smile, “Come on, son, time for something to eat.”

“Yes, Pa.” Joe replied with the tones of an angel.

He turned his nose up at the clenched fist Hoss waved at him as he walked serenely past his brother to follow Pa inside the house. Pa’s little angel, that was Joe Cartwright!
Adam turned at the sound of their entrance. He was standing in front of the book case with a what Joe would call a question mark on his face.

“Anything wrong?” Ben asked as he passed his son on the way to the table.

“I was just thinking, Pa. There’s something wrong here that I can’t quite put my finger on.”

“Try a whole hand,” guffawed Hoss.

“Yes, I think I shall,” Adam replied and reached out for a book.

Joe’s eyes widened as he watched Adam pull a book from the shelf. His face paled and then flooded with colour. He actually felt sweat popping out on his face and dewing his upper lip.

“Are you alright, son?” Ben asked Joe as he watched the child’s writhing in his chair, “Do you want to use the out house before we eat? Best do so now -”

“Yes, yes, I guess so…” Joe squeaked and flung himself out of the chair and out of the house.

With a hurried excuse me Hoss followed. By the time he had reached the door Adam had THE book in his hands and the question mark had definitely deepened.

For a little while the two boys were jammed in the door of the out house, and finally succeeded in ‘popping’ inside together with Hoss being the one to land on his back on the floor.

“Dang it.” he cried in a hoarse whisper while Joe pushed shut the door.

“Hoss, did you see what he was doing?” Joe whispered, leaning against the door just in case elder brother decided to crash his way through.

“‘Course I saw what he was doin’, why’d you think I followed you in here.” Hoss rubbed his head having collided with one of the joists supporting the wall of the out house, “Joe, I thought you were going to buy a new book when you went into town the other day?”

“I did too.” the younger child insisted.

“Wal, that thar book looks mighty old to me. Older than the one you threw into the fire.”

“It wouldn’t have gone into the fire if’n you hadn’t dodged outa the way.”

“Look, I gave you my savings to pay for that book. Where is it?”

“I did buy it, Hoss, honestly,” Joe answered, his bottom lip trembling at seeing Hoss so angry, “I didn’t even spend no money on candy nor nuthin’”

“Hang on,” Hoss rubbed his head again, not because it ached but because he was getting a mental image of a little boy returning home with a bag of candy the day he was supposed to return with a new book for Adam. It was much like Aladdin rubbing the side of the lamp and expecting a genie to pop out, Hoss rubbed his head and anticipated inspiration.

“You came back home with a whole bag of candy. You didn’t give me my money back and you didn’t have any book, and you didn’t give me no candy neither.” Hoss’ face reddened, “So, explain that away if you can, Joseph F Cartwright.”

Joe gulped. When Hoss mentioned F like that it meant trouble.

“Adam bought me it.”

“Adam huh? And you had the book right there, did ya?”

“Yeah, I did, Hoss.” Joe frowned struggling to remember what had happened that day.
Life had been so full of adventures and excitement since then that he found it hard to remember one day’s events from the next, he struggled, “I gave Miss Harris my best frog. It was the best jumper I’d ever had, Hoss. Mitch said even his best one never jumped as good as that one did.”

“I ain’t interested in no frogs.”

“I did get the book and Miss Harris didn’t give me no money back, so I couldn’t give you any money, Hoss. Then Adam came and took me back into the shop and bought me candy.”

“Yeah, and the book?” Hoss demanded.

Joe’s lip trembled

“I can’t remember.” he whispered.

*****

A book that one has possessed for some years has a familiar feel to it. It rests in one’s hand and feels comfortable and ‘at home’. Sometimes it would just naturally open up at the exact favourite spot one wished for it to open. This book did no such thing. It rested in Adam’s hand like a lump of putty. He looked at it, shook his head and remembered Hop Sing saying it had got caught in the rain so he had dried it over the stove. It looked like it had been used as a ball kicked about in the yard. He opened it tentatively and several pages fell out. The paper was swollen, as evidence of it’s being soaked through and over dried. He heaved in a long quavering breath.

“What’s wrong?” Ben said quietly although secretly he was already dreading what was about to happen, knowing his sons only too well.

“This-is-not-my-book!” Adam hissed through clenched teeth in that staccato manner that indicated suppressed fury.

“Well, I don’t know who else it would belong to,” Ben took it from Adam’s hand, and frowned, “It looks rather like it’s been in the wars.” he observed.

“I – I can just guess who is behind this!”

“Adam – don’t do anything rash.”

“I ain’t. I’m going to think very carefully about everything I’m about to do. Flaying alive, beating him to death, or drowning him in the water trough are about to get my most serious consideration.” Adam growled as he turned and stalked across the room, threw open the door and yelled “JOSEPH CARTWRIGHT – YOU HAD BETTER HAVE A GOOD EXPLANATION FOR THIS!!”

Once outside on the porch Adam glanced down at the book. He closed his eyes and rubbed his brow as he contemplated the ill use the book had suffered. With a sigh he opened his eyes and was about to step onwards to the out house when he realised Hop Sing was standing in front of him looking rather nervously at the book. Both men glanced at the other, both men remembered the day Hop Sing had ‘over cooked’ the book. Hop Sing gulped nervously and pointed to it just as two more pages fluttered free from the spine and landed on the porch floor by their feet.

“Hoss bring book in from rain. Much rain damage book.”

“You can say that again!” Adam growled as another page parted company with the rest of the pages.

“I -”

“Oh per-lease” Adam hissed and strode onwards to the outhouse, although the mention of Hoss in the matter now clouded over the anger he felt for Joe. How, he wondered, was Hoss involved in all this? Hoss of all people knew how much books meant to him. Joe was a pest at times but Hoss was so steady and reliable. By the time he was half way to the outhouse he was feeling less inclined to tear Joe limb from limb and more inclined to reason with the boy first.

He paused at the sound of a buggy and horse coming into the yard. A shrill cry of a greeting floated across to him and he froze to the spot. Just for a moment he had a vague idea of how a fish feels when that hook grabs at its jaw. The buggy rocked to a standstill.

“Adam? Oh, Adam?” the shrill voice of a woman jarred against his ear. He clutched his tattered book close to his chest and swallowed. His mouth went dry and he glanced over at the house, “Adam, ducky, come and give us a hand, will you?”

He closed his eyes briefly as though offering up a prayer and then forced a smile to his lips as he approached the buggy. Widow Hawkins put out both arms and seized hold of his shoulders with all the tenacity of a barnacle on a ships keel.

“Oh thank you, ducks. I can always get myself into these things but get into a right two and eight finding a way out of them.” and as he swung her down and placed her feet carefully upon the ground, she released her hold on him and smiled, before pinching him (rather painfully to be honest) on the cheek, “Oh those dimples. Now, what a sight to see, me ducks, I bet they send many a young gel’s heart beating faster than is healthy for ’em.”

“Er – yes – I mean – good morning, Mrs Hawkins. It’s – it’s unusual to see you here on the Ponderosa. Is everything alright?”

“Oh yes, yes, everything is just fine except that I really needed to see Benny.”

“Ben – Benny?” Adam gasped, so startled that the hold on his book loosened and several more pages escaped the confines of the tattered cover.

“Yes, ducks, Benny. Your father. Are you alright, Adam. I never realised before that you had trouble with stammering.”

“Pa – I mean – yes – Pa is indoors, Mrs Hawkins. We – we – we -”

“It’s alright, dear, don’t say anymore, I understand. I had a cousin who stammered something awful until she fell into a lake and nearly drowned. I supposed she must have realised that if she wasted time stammering that would be the end of her so she just yelled her head off. Never stammered once after that. So, indoors is he? Right-o, I’ll just pop along and have a quick word.” she bustled her way to the porch, paused and turned to observe the tall young man, waved her mittened hand at him, and crossed the porch.

For a moment Adam was torn as to where exactly he should go next. The desire to sort Joe and Hoss out about the book had diminished slightly in his desire to see his father’s reaction when Widow Hawkins confronted him in the house.

*****

“What’s happening?” Hoss whispered to his sibling who had his eye pressed up against a hole in the wall. This useful hole had been whittled into the wall by Hoss some time ago when he realised that some people spent an inordinate amount of time in the place when they should have been out doing their chores. It was quite easy to ‘fill in’ the hole by inserting a knot of wood in it after he had checked to see what was going on and scaring the living daylights out of whoever was in there by stuffing some poor creature through it to drop upon the unsuspecting lingerer, or a good holler at the top of his lungs to break the peace and harmony of the moment.

“Nothin’”

“I thought you said you saw Adam leaving the house?”

“He did, he was, but he’s stopped now because Widder Hawkins is here and gone in to see Pa.”

“Widder Hawkins?” Hoss breathed.

“Yeah, and she called him Benny.”

“She called Pa Benny? Move over, let me see.”

“Ain’t nuthin’ to see, she’s gone in.”

They looked at one another, their eyes widened. Both had the same thought at the same time and blowing caution to the winds they pushed open the door and almost ran out.
Two paces forward was as far as they went as a heavy hand grabbed each by the collar and a voice hissed “GOTCHER!”

Both boys wriggled as much as possible as Adam’s grip on them tightened. Hoss made the unfortunate mistake of kicking out in an attempt to get Adam’s shin, while Joe squealed in a good imitation of a rabbit caught in a trap.

“Lemme go. Lemme go.” Hoss yelled, grabbing wildly at Adam’s hands and cracking a blow on Joe’s nose as a result.

“I didn’t do it. I didn’t do it.” Joe yelled and began to howl as the pain inflicted upon his nose by Hoss became an unavoidable reality.

Tears spouted from his eyes, he stopped wriggling, writhing and generally corkscrewing himself inside out to get away from his brother and concentrated on a barnstorming performance of pain. He howled, went limp and rubbed his eyes. His mouth opened to emit more yowls, and his face went red, and all the while tears streamed down his face and plopped onto the front of his dungerees. Hoss stopped wriggling and trying to fight Adam off,

“I’m sorry, Joe, I’m sorry,” he cried, reaching out to give his little brother a hug of consolation.

“It’s alright, Joe,” Adam said, releasing his hold and kneeling down in front of Joe to check out the damage, “Here, let me see where you’re hurt.” and he gently prised Joe’s hands away from his face.

A trickle of blood from Joe’s little freckled snub nose gave evidence to the fact that he had indeed caught the full force of Hoss’ fist so that Hoss began again to apologise most profusely while Adam drew the little boy into his arms and held him close, wincing a little as the yells were now shrilly penetrating down his ear.

“It’s alright, Joe. Let’s go inside and see if Hop Sing has anything to make it better for you.”

“It – it – hurts,” sobbed the wounded one, rubbing his face so that blood and tears were smeared all over his cheeks, “It – hurts”

Hoss gently rubbed his brother’s back and looked at Adam with soulful eyes, and Adam picked Joe up in his arms and began to walk carefully over to the house, all the while Joe blubbed and slobbered and yelled as though some vengeful Paiute had come down from the hills and scalped him.

“Now then, we’ll see if Hop Sing has …”

“I wanna doughnut with sugar,” sobbed Joe, his tears now soaking through Adam’s collar.

“Sure, you can have a doughnut,” Hoss cried, dancing around his brothers going from one side of one then to the other.

“And a cookie” Joe hic-coughed and rubbed his eyes some more.

It was then that the door of the house opened and Ben appeared on the porch.

“WHAT IN THUNDER IS GOING ON HERE?” he cried in a stentorian voice that to Adam’s ear had a distinct lack of anger in it. There was, so Adam thought, a definite touch of relief in his father’s voice and he was about to answer his father when Ben hurried over and snatched the child from Adam’s arms, “Here, let me take him. Now, Joe, don’t take on so. Pa’s here…” and holding Joe in his arms Ben disappeared into the house.

Adam paused, glanced at the buggy and waiting horse, pursed his lips and turned to say something to Hoss, but his brother had taken advantage of the situation and disappeared. Adam pursed his lips, narrowed his eyes, heaved a sigh, then he nodded slowly,

“Well, well, never mind. There’s always another day.” he murmured and turned away from the house towards the stables,

“Coo-eee, Adam.”

He turned back and observed Clemintine Hawkins approaching him from the house with a concerned look on her face. She was a strange woman, oddly fascinating. Rather, Adam thought to himself as he watched her approach, like an overlarge black tarantula spider. He sighed, as her extremely mobile features with their heavy layer of make up began to contort itself into expressions of pity, confusion and sorrow,

“Oh Adam, your poor father -” she cried clasping her hands to her bosom which despite being overly bedecked with lace trimmings, ribbons and other furbelows was ample, “I thought he was going to die just now.”

“Oh don’t worry about it, Ma’am, Pa’s used to Joe’s little displays.” Adam replied, bending down to retrieve one of the pages of his book which had wafted over against his boot.

“Oh I’m sure he is, duckie,” Clementine agreed, nodding profusely, “It was just that when I went into the house there was Benny quietly drinking a nice cuppa coffee and he suddenly had this fit.”

“Fit? Did you say he had a fit?”

“He went an orful colour,” she brought her arms up to her face in a grand gesture and then flopped them down again, narrowly missing clunking Adam on the head with her purse “then he started choking. Lawks, he went purple. I had to run over and give him a good thump on the back to help him get his breath back.”

“Perhaps it was the surprise of seeing you there, Ma’am?” Adam suggested with a touch of sarcasm in his words.

Clementine’s eyes widened and she blushed; her fingers seized hold of Adam’s arm and a look of pure joy swept across her face,

“Do you think so, Adam? Oh, I always knew he was fond of me but …” she heaved a sigh, and placed one hand upon where her heart might have been and no doubt was, “Oh, dear Benjamin.”

“Then what happened, after you’d thumped him?” Adam asked, shaking her hand off as politely as it was possible to do so without appearing too rude.

“He asked me what I had come for and I was about to tell him when we heard the ruckus out here. He kind of reared up, like this -” and once again she threw her arms up in the air, ” and muttered something like Thank God, but I can’t be sure about that, it was probably more like – ” she paused, frowned, “Anyway, then he was hurrying to the door. And so I never got to tell him why I had come here.” she looked around her again and looked rather dejected, “It’s a lovely place you have here, ducks.”

“Yes, we think so.”

“Yes, well, I suppose I had better go. I’ve an appointment in town that I can’t afford to miss. Will you tell Benny – Benjamin – that I had come to tell him that I can’t be his partner at the picnic. Another gentleman -” she fluttered her eyelashes and looked coyly at Adam from under them, “You understand, don’t you, dearie?”

“You mean you don’t want my Pa to be your partner? You’ve found someone else?”
Adam cried in disbelief.

“That’s right. I know how your Pa feels for me so thought I should be the one to tell ‘im, after all, I’ve been crossed in love myself and wouldn’t want Benny to suffer because of finding out from anyone else. You will explain to him, won’t you, dear?” she glanced at the little fob watch that was barely visible among all the lace and trimmings of her blouse, “Oh lawks, is that the time? I must get a shift on. Be gentle with him, won’t you, dear? He has a tender heart you know?”

Adam scratched his chin thoughtfully and nodded slowly as though he could barely understand what she was saying. He led her to her buggy and very courteously assisted her onto her seat and watched as she carefully manouvred the vehicle out of the yard.
For a few minutes he stood in the yard just staring at the dust as it settled back onto the ground. He raised his eyebrows, contorted his face into varying expressions that boded no good for someone, and turned towards the house. He picked up pages of his book as he went along, all the while humming a little tune beneath his breath, then he pushed open the door of the house and stepped inside. His father turned dark eyes towards him,

“Has she gone?”

“She has, Pa.” Adam nodded slowly, then sighed and crossed the room to stand by his father’s side. He looked into the anxious face, put a gentle hand on his father’s shoulder and sighed, then he lowered his head, “Pa?”

“Yes?”

“She’s – she’s madly in love with you, Pa. Absolutely smitten.” he shook his head sorrowfully and glanced up at his father with sad eyes, “I’m sorry, Pa, but this is one battle you’re going to have to face on your own.” he patted his father consolingly on the shoulder and walked towards the kitchen. “And now – ” he muttered as he raised the hand that held the remnants of his book that had pages bristling at all angles from it, “let me get my hands on them!”

Little Joe had given up on the performance of a lifetime. This was mainly due to the fact that he was in genuine pain and no matter how gently Hop Sing applied cold water compresses to the little nose the little boy was still experiencing the sharp stabbing pains of his injury. Bruising was also beginning to become more obvious as the area around his eyes began to puff out and discolour. Hop Sing had wedged some lint padding up the child’s nostrils to stop the bleeding and it seemed that a whole pile of sugar doughnuts were never going to be enough to stop Joe’s sobs.

Hoss stood beside Hop Sing holding a bowl of water and looking in dismay at his little brother, his own eyes filling with tears and the constant refrain of “I’m sorry, Joe, honest to goodness, I’m sorry.”

Adam strode into the kitchen and flung down the book on the table and opened his mouth but nothing came out. All his anger over the book shrivelled to nothing when he saw his brothers in such distress, and Hop Sing flung him a rather venomous glance from his sloe black eyes.

“Boy very much hurt. Nose maybe broken.” Hop Sing snapped.

Adam looked from one to the other of them and heaved a mighty sigh. Since he had found his poor book in such a lamentable condition he had exploded into a rage which he had found almost enjoyable. He had actually been looking forward to burning the hide off the two boys with the heat of his most sarcastic and barbed remarks but now all his heat vanished, dashed by the cold water of reality. Little Joe was suffering and when Joe really suffered Adam Cartwright was mere putty in the child’s hands (and don’t for a minute think that Joe Cartwright didn’t know that!)

“Still hurts, huh?” he walked over to stand on the other side of Hop Sing and placed his hands on his knees to lean down and peer into Joe’s face.

Promptly on time two massive tears welled up in Joe’s eyes and spilled over. The child pointed to the sight of the two pieces of padding sticking out of his nostril, his mouth drooped and the two tears coursed their path past his lips to drip from his chin.

“Oh Joe,” Adam sighed, and put one hand on the boy’s curly hair and looked sympathetically into the boy’s face “Poor Joe.”

“I sure didn’t mean to do it, honest,” Hoss cried, “I was jest tryin’ to git away from you, Adam.”

“Yes, I realise that but -” Adam ran his tongue across his teeth and then pursed his lips again,”Poor old Joe.”

“I’m real sorry about your book, Adam.” Hoss continued despite the frantic appeal in his little brother’s eyes.

“My book?” Adam murmured, straightening up and looking down at Hoss (not that he had to look down far as Hoss was tall for his age).

“Yeah, the one you’re so mad about.”

“Oh yes, the book. So, what did happen to it? The truth now or -” he looked from one to the other of them and saw the disconsolate look that passed between them, “You are both involved in this little escapade I take it? I mean, I don’t want to be unfair to Hoss if he’s totally innocent and it’s all your fault, Joe.”

Joe allowed a little whimper to pass his lips, and his head lolled from right to left as though he were drunk. Hop Sing shook his head and glared at Adam. He brought a plate laden with sugar doughnuts to the table

“Boy have treat now,” he said softly, wheedlingly.

Joe swallowed a huge lump in his throat caused by the onrush of saliva that had happened as soon as he saw the goodies. Hoss licked his lips in anticipation and put out a hand to grab one, but Hop Sing pushed his hand away, and shook his head,

“Injured soldier have first,” Hop Sing declared and held the plate before Joe who summoned all his strength for the performance of his life, he gave another whimper and pushed the plate away, a sob (a real one this time) broke into loud bawls. It took more courage to resist grabbing one of the doughnuts than it had to suffer the pain in his nose!

Adam sighed. Hoss looked at Joe and then Adam and then the doughnuts and ventured to put out a hand to take one. Adam grabbed at his wrist,

“After you tell me what happened to my book.” he hissed.

So the story of the first book that had languished in the flames several weeks earlier was disclosed. Hoss looked at Joe who rubbed his eyes and blinked up at his eldest brother with tear spiked lashes.

“I’m sorry, Adam.” Joe whispered and put out his arms, “Really sorry.” and his arms encircled Adam’s neck and held him close.

Adam put his arms around Joe and held him against his own body, feeling the heat of the child’s skin against his shirt. He patted the child on the back and stroked his curls away from a hot and sticky brow, then he removed Joe’s arms from their embrace and stood a little apart from him,

“So you burned the first book in the fire. Now tell me what happened to this one?”

“I gave him my allowance and he bought it from Miss Harris.” Hoss grumbled, “And he didn’t bring any money back either. He came back with a bag of candy though.”

“Adam brought it.” Joe whispered, his eyes now wandering to the table where the plate of doughnuts were tempting him, he swallowed again, “The candy… and I gave Miss Harris my best frog. Mitzi. She was a real great jumper you know.” he allowed his voice to tremble, it was his master stroke, he had been practising it since he had uttered his first word and noticed the effect it had had on the family.

“So you got a new book for me?” Adam looked from one to the other, his eyebrows raised in surprise, “I’m impressed.” and he smiled.

“I put it in the wagon when you came ‘cos I didn’t want you to see it.” Joe muttered, “Then I don’t know what happened to it.”

“Ah,” Hop Sing waved his hand in the air like some goody goody school boy waiting to be asked the question to which he alone had the answer, which, in this case was quite true (that he had the answer not that he was a goody goody schoolboy). “Hop Sing find book in wagon, but somehow book fall from laundry basket and get wet in rain. Hoss find and Hop Sing dry out over stove. Dry out too much maybe.”

“Maybe is right,” Adam said dourly, and he nodded slowly and once again looked from one to the other of them.

“Sorry, Adam, I didn’t mean for the book to get spoiled.” Hoss said putting the bowl of water onto the table now as his arms were aching and Hop Sing had appeared to have forgotten it.

“That’s alright, Hoss. I’m just glad to see that you both realised how important books were, in that you made some attempt to replace the first one. Just make sure that next time you want to throw something at your brother you don’t use a book.”

All three onlookers nodded gravely. Joe wiped an invisible tear from his eyes and Hoss gave Adam a wavering smile while Hop Sing bobbed a bow just to make sure he was doing the right thing.

Adam nodded and then without another word left the room. I hesitate to mention how quickly the doughnuts were consumed as I wouldn’t want anyone to think our little boys really were either 1. starved or 2. just plain greedy.

Back in the main room Ben was still standing in front of the fire, gravely looking down at the logs and listening to the rumbling of his belly and the grumbling of his thoughts.

“Adam?”

His eldest son froze and turned an innocent large eyed face to his father,

“Yes, Pa?”

“Perhaps you could just tell me exactly what Widow Hawkins said to you before she left here.” he growled and seeing the smile on his son’s face falter he raised a dark eyebrow,”If you don’t mind, that is?”

Adam tugged at his ear lobe and then assumed his Sunday at Church pose which was to stand with legs slightly apart, his hands clasped together in front of him, and his shoulders straight. He took in a long breath and looked straight into his father’s eyes,

“I thought you would have been more concerned about how Joe is getting on? Hoss gave him quite a whop on the nose you know. I actually think it’s broken.”

“Hop Sing’s dealing very well with the situation with Joe, Adam. It’s just that wretched woman …”

“Tchah, I know, Pa.” Adam sympathised and shook his head, maintaining his position.

“She’s only been in town six months and already she’s pin holed me down to partner her at those other socials, I’ll be ….er … I’ll be blasted if I’ll go on this picnic with her. I told Stevenson to organise for someone else to take her and he downright refused to do anything of the kind. He actually intimated that most of the men in town are terrified of her. Can you believe that?” Ben looked at his son as though the statement he had just made was laughable, but Adam didn’t say a word and so he sighed and nodded, “I know. I know. The fact of the matter is that every single man of our age group IS terrified of
her, and that’s a fact.”

Adam nodded. He put on a most sympathetic expression of concern for all single men in the world and sighed. His father sighed as well and kicked a log back into place with more force that necessary. It was obvious that lack of food and Clementine’s arrival had really become the main concerns in his life at that moment. He glanced over at Adam who was just about to relax and run,

“So? What did she say?”

“Who?” Adam’s eyes widened as though in surprise at the question.

Just at that moment Hop Sing bustled into the room, glanced from one to the other of them and shook his head before saying loudly

“Dinner all dried up but have to eat anyway no waste … you eat.” and he put down a plate laden with beef steaks with a rich onion gravy that sent it’s delicious aroma wafting across the room.

Ben nodded, gave his son a stern look and began to walk towards the table. Hop Sing now reappeared with a large bowl filled with mashed creamy potatoes, he looked at Ben and then at Adam, behind him trailed Hoss and Joe. Both boys looked rather pale and extremely sticky. Joe was certainly looking the worse for wear as beneath both eyes had become very puffy and rather bruised in appearance. The padding had been removed from his nostrils but sticking his fingers up each of them to inspect what ever was going on up there wasn’t exactly helping.

Adam was in the act of turning to walk towards the table when there was a sharp rap on the door, he did a quick spin around and walked to the door and opened it sharply, raised his eye brows in surprise and stepped back into the room, gesturing for their guest to step inside.

“Stevenson … what brings you here?” Ben cried. He got up from the chair and moved away from the table, “Come on in. Do you want to join us for something to eat? Sit down, man, you look just about exhausted.”

Stevenson mopped his brow with a red and white polka dot handkerchief but declined Ben’s offer of food, although he did ask for some coffee. Hop Sing was despatched to the kitchen immediately to accommodate their guest.

“Ben, something has got to be done. That wretched woman …” Stevenson cried as he collapsed into the high backed blue chair by the hearth.

“Widow Hawkins do you mean?” Adam exclaimed and turned to look at his father who had uttered an involuntary groan.

Stevenson was now mopping around his neck and looked as though he had just escaped a hanging – his own.

“I know. I just passed her on the way back to town. She nearly drove me off the track. The woman’s mad you know? Shouldn’t be allowed to take a buggy out on her own. Did you know she wears false eyelashes? Two layers plastered down with that black muck they call mascara. My sister told me. No wonder she’s lethal in charge of a buggy she can’t see past her own nose.” he took the cup and saucer from Ben and heaved in a sigh, “Thanks, Ben, this is good coffee.” he observed.

“So why did you come here, Stevenson?” Ben asked, settling into his leather chair having poured himself and Adam some coffee which made Adam feel even more uncomfortable as he felt more inclined towards joining the boys and digging into the onion gravy and mashed potatoes than listening in on this conversation.

“Remember you came and asked me to change the arrangement for the picnic? You didn’t want to partner Widow Hawkins?”

“I remember. I also recall you telling me that I had no chance of changing the arrangement.” Ben said with a note of hope in his voice. He kept his eyes downcast and concentrated on sipping his coffee in case Stevenson misinterpreted his thoughts.

“Oh.” Adam clamped his mouth shut, the ‘oh’ having popped out by mistake as he realised he made have made a rather large gaffe earlier on.

“Oh?” Ben said sharply, “Did you say, ‘Oh’, young man?”

“I – yes, sir – I was just listening and thinking, that’s all. Sorry to have interrupted. Could I be excused, Pa?”

“No,” Ben snapped, “You stay right where you are, I still want to have words with you.”

“Well, I talked it over with Clarissa, my sister, and she said she would have a word with the Widow Hawkins about finding another beau…”

“BEAU? I ain’t and never will be Clementine Hawkins BEAU!” Ben exclaimed, spilling coffee into his saucer in the exuberance of his protests.

“I’m sorry, the word just slipped out.” Stevenson cried and swallowed his coffee as quickly as he could upon the realisation that this conversation was becoming rather volatile. “Well, Clarissa had a word with Widow Hawkins and the lady has agreed to forfeit your company for the picnic.”

Ben slumped back in his chair, raised his eyebrows and sighed with relief. A smile graced his handsome features and he glanced over at Adam who was staring glumly into his coffee cup. Joe and Hoss had stopped chomping at the food on the table at their father’s earlier verbal explosion and were listening in on the conversation avidly.

“Was she alright about it?” Adam asked tentatively as an idea began to worm its way into his head.

“Oh – well – no, as a matter of fact. She seems to have formed a great attachment to you, Ben.” this latter comment by Stevenson brought an enormous measure of relief to Adam who could see his path cleared of all obstacles. He gulped down his coffee with total peace of mind.

“I know, Adam just told me before you came that she – she seems smitten.” and Ben shook his head, not that he didn’t think it possible for any woman to be smitten by him, because he had, after all, married three smitten ladies, and may have had ambitions to marry more, but one did prefer to have agreeable women smitten by oneself rather than – well – the Clementine Hawkins kind of woman.

“She did?” Stevenson now turned to look at Adam who had the grace to blush to his hairline and nearly choke on the last of his coffee, “Did she?” he asked.

“Well, er -”

“Did she, or did she not tell you that she was smitten by me, Adam?” Ben raised his eyebrows and clamped his mouth into a firm straight line.

“Look, she – well – er -”

“Does the boy have a stammer or something, Ben?” Stevenson put down his cup and turned to observe Adam more closely, “Are you ill, boy?”

“No, sir.” Adam replied as his saw his smooth path now becoming littered by all kinds of debris in the way. He realised that he was going to have to manouvre his way carefully around the obstacles in order to avoid any unpleasantness later on with his father, “The fact is -” he put down the coffee cup and looked up to the ceiling, then clasped his hands in front of him, “Well, you see…”

“Go on,” Stevenson prompted.

“Mrs Hawkins said that she had found someone else to take her to the picnic.”

“Is that what she said?” Ben frowned, “I thought you told me that she told you how she was smitten by me?”

“That’s what Mr Stevenson just said too, Pa.” Adam said very promptly, “You see, she said one thing -”

“Yes?” both men said.

Joe giggled at this point and Hoss burped, and said a very audible ‘Excuse me’. Adam seemed to lose his train of thought but was seeing how much he could salvage from the conversation.

“You see, sometimes people say one thing but really mean another.” Adam said all in a rush and then ended on a gulp.

Stevenson nodded,

“True, very true. I’m sorry, Ben, but your boys quite right. Widow Hawkins has got another escort, but she is very distressed by the fact that you won’t be the one taking her to the picnic. She is, as your boy just said, smitten.”

Joe and Hoss both giggled now. The thought of old Widow Hawkins being smitten by their Pa was just too funny for words. Joe laughed so much he nearly fell off his chair.

“Well,” Ben shrugged, the relief at not being the widow’s escort had lightened his load and made the world a whole lot better to live in; any thought for the widow and her plight didn’t enter his mind, “who is her escort? Poor chap, he has my sympathies.” and he rubbed his hands together in glee.

Stevenson stood up, picked up his hat and shook his head,

“Thank you, Ben. I’ll remember that fact -” he said as he began to walk to the door.

“You mean …?”

“Yes. I’m the widow’s escort. She wouldn’t settle for anyone else although to be honest I was sixth on the list of men she gave Clarissa to be acceptable for her consideration. The other five all ready had their arrangements.”

“Oh, really? Who were they?” Ben smiled, thinking how it was always good to know who had been the competition.

“Oh, Roy Coffee, Paul Martin, Jed Fellowes, Matthew Kearney and the banker, Mr
Weems.”

“Great Scott!” Ben muttered and could only smile at the thought that each one of them must have been as relieved as himself upon avoiding Clementine’s attention for the picnic afternoon.

It was at this point that Joe did fall off his chair.

*****

“Oh, well, if you wanted me to find a first edition, Mr Cartwright,” she shook her head, “Books are so hard to come by, you understand. It’s not like this is back East where I could just place an order by cable. I -”

“It’s alright, Miss Harris. I wasn’t complaining about the book,” he smiled at her, then cleared his throat when he noticed that she was blushing and had lowered her eyes and was acting all coy. It really annoyed him when sensible girls acted this way when he was talking about serious things to them, he waited for her to look up at him and look ‘sensible’ again. “It’s just that seeing this edition made me appreciate the first book all the more. Anyway,” he put his hand to his pocket and brought out some money which he placed on the counter, “That should cover it, I think.”

She counted the money out carefully and then gave him a few dimes back in change before smiling up at him,

“There is something else you owe me,” she said with her eyes twinkling.

“Oh, which is?”

“One frog!” and at the look of incredulity upon his face she burst out laughing as she remembered the sticky little fellow who had had to stand on a stool to reach the counter to purchase the last book, leaving a frog as his gift for her.

Adam smiled and raised his eyebrows. It was amazing the way girls acted at times!

It wasn’t just girls who acted oddly at times. Older ladies could be just as ‘peculiar’ as Ben discovered as he strolled out of the hardware store. He was walking towards Buck when he heard the dreaded ‘Coo-eeee’ from somewhere in the near vicinity. He froze and slowly turned to find himself being hotly pursued by Widow Hawkins who was waving a lace trimmed parasol above her head in an attempt to draw his attention to her.

As he stepped out of Miss Harris’ store Adam paused to watch his father. It was so obvious that his father was uncomfortable and ill at ease that the youngster felt like laughing out aloud. As it was he walked several paces closer to observe.

“Well, Mrs Hawkins – Clementine – how are you?” Ben swept off his hat and in the sunlight with the sun shining upon his greying hair and broad shoulders he looked every inch a most handsome and distinguished gentleman.

“Oh Benjamin, how lovely to see you here today.” Widow Hawkins bestowed upon the hapless man the most wide and generous of smiles, her eyes twinkled somewhere behind the two layers of false lashes, “I was so sorry to have left you so abruptly yesterday but I had such a lovely conversation with your eldest boy. How is Little Joseph?”

“Joe? Oh, he’s fine, thank you for asking, that was very kind of you.” Ben smiled, gulped, and glanced over his shoulder for help.

“Oh, dear Benjamin, you know, I can be very kind at times,” and she glanced up at his face with a look that intimated something that made Ben shiver, not from pleasure either, and when she laid her hand upon his, very gently and smiled up at him, he actually stepped back a few paces.

“I’m sure you can be, Mrs Hawkins.”

“Now, how many times must I tell you to call me Clementine. Or Clemmie. My ‘Arry always called me Clemmie. He said it reminded him of his pet dog when he was back home in England. Of course, I buried them together, you know. Well, they were inseperable really, and there wasn’t anything I could do about the animal, poor thing, once a 500 lb weight falls on you there’s not much hope, is there? Not for a little dog like that one. I don’t think my ‘Arry ever got over the upset that caused.”

Ben winced, felt confused. His shirt felt tight and he could sense his head spinning. He was about to make his excuses when Doctor Paul Martin approached them. It must have been Paul’s intention to discuss something with Ben, but when he saw Clementine he did a bit of a two step, much like that done during some kind of dance, and a reverse turn.

“Are you riding back home now, then, Benjamin?” Clementine asked and when Ben nodded and slipped on his hat, she smiled and gave him a very bold wink, “Well then, in that case, I’ll be seeing you.”

She disappeared in a flurry of lace and pink ribbon, and Ben froze to the spot at the sound of her ‘Cooo-ee’ as some other unfortunate was about to find himself having a genteel little chat with the good widow. With a sigh Ben hurried to where he had left Buck and vaulted as quickly as he could into the saddle.

*****

It was an uncomfortable feeling. He’d had it many times before and by paying attention to it had stayed alive. He turned in the saddle and glanced uneasily back along the trail he had come. Even though there was peace with Winnemucca’s people one could never take it entirely for granted. The occasional renegade did make an unwelcome appearance and cause some unheaval for awhile. He cleared his throat nervously, lowered his hat to shield his eyes a little more and continued on his journey.

He couldn’t shake the feeling off however, and a few moments later he paused again, lowered his head a little and concentrated hard. Yes, he could hear it now. The soft sound of someone keeping pace with him. He smiled slowly. Now there was silence. His shadow had stopped and was obviously waiting for him to continue.

He urged his horse onwards, a little faster knowing that just ahead there was a turning into some rocks that would afford him some convenient cover. As soon as it appeared he turned his horse into it and dodged behind the boulders, withdrew his gun and waited.

His shadow followed and eventually appeared, travelling slowly and obviously unsure just where to proceed now. He glanced to the track , looked down and saw the obvious sign of a recent horseman and stopped.

“Alright, Pa, I know you’re there. Why not come on out now and stop playing around.”

Ben sighed, slipped his gun back into his holster and steered Buck down to join his son, he leaned casually on the pommel of his saddle and raised his eyebrows,

“So it was you following me, huh? I thought for an awful moment that it was Widow Hawkins.”

“What’s the harm?” his son replied with a good natured shrug of the shoulders, “She’s not going to eat you.”

“No,” Ben sighed, “No, I can think of several others things she has planned for me though.”

“Well, she hasn’t actually mentioned wedding rings and such yet,” Adam grinned, “I think you’re on safe ground, Pa. She didn’t seem to notice you had slipped away, she was too busy chasing after Dr Martin for that …” his grin broadened into a wide smile as he remembered the anguished look on the good Doctor’s face once Clementine had caught up with him, “If we ride home slowly enough, it may be possible for her to catch us up and join us for supper.” and he laughed.

Ben looked at him in dismay

“I don’t see anything to laugh about,” he grumbled although he permitted a brief smile to flit across his face as his son continued to laugh. Adam stretched out a hand to clasp his father’s arm in a gesture of good natured and shared affection, all the while enjoying the moment when he could laugh at his father’s discomfiture.

“One of these days,” Adam finally managed to gasp, “that poor woman is going to be a match for you.”

“More likely be the death of me.” Ben said with a shake of the head, a brief smile and a sigh. “Poor Clemmie,” he looked at Adam who smiled back at him with his dark eyes twinkling with good humour, “Poor Clemmie.” then with a further sigh he put spurs to his horse, “Let’s get home, son.”

Clementine Hawkins closed the door to her house and unfastened her bonnet. She fluffed up her greying curls as she stepped into the room that resembled the inside of a circus tent and turned to face the big poster of her late lamented husband.

“You’ll never guess what, ‘Arry,” she murmured, clasping her mittened hands together against her ample bosom, “But I think I’ve found someone I could love, someone just like you. ‘Andsome, strong and lovely.” she sighed and fluttered her eyelashes coyly at the memory of the handsome rancher as he had stood in the sunlight before her, “Oh ‘Arry, you’d like ‘im ever so much.”

***The End***

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