Word Count: 3000
Ben and Adam were carefully studying the chess board. They had been playing for over an hour and were now at an impasse; each would have to strategically plan his next move so it wouldn’t be his last.
“What were you saying about the punishment fitting the crime?” asked Ben.
In the upstairs hallway, Joe and Hoss listened to the conversation; the two teens were hoping Adam could convince Pa that they had truly meant well from the very start. Widow Jenkins told them she’d pay them 50 cents apiece to help her with some chores that needed doing, and they had offered to do the work at no charge; however, she’d insisted that they be paid for chopping down the cottonwood tree, cutting firewood and digging the new privy hole.
The tree had been struck by lightning several months ago and had been dying a slow death. There had been no way Joe and Hoss could have known that it had partially rotted before they began sawing through the trunk. A good breeze had been blowing all morning, which gave them the energy to work so hard for the widow; one good gust, though, had resulted in the tree toppling before they had completed the saw cuts to make it fall away from the house. Fortunately, the tree only took a few shingles off the roof of the house on its journey to the ground; unfortunately, it flattened the henhouse, and a few hens.
After spending an hour rounding up the surviving hens and putting them in the barn, Joe and Hoss had busied themselves with chopping the non-rotten portions of the tree into firewood. After making a large pitcher of lemonade, Widow Jenkins had come to sit on the porch and smoke her pipe while they worked. Joe and Hoss had heard a faint buzzing noise when they tossed the first few logs onto the woodpile; the buzzing quickly grew louder when a few logs fell from the pile and Hoss bent to retrieve them. Feeling a sharp jab, he yelled, “Don’t pinch me, Joe!”
“I didn’t touch you!” Joe yelled back, adding a shove.
Standing, the widow walked toward the two young men with her pipe in one hand and a glass of lemonade in the other; she was going to give them a lecture about engaging in fisticuffs when they should be working. A sharp pain in her leg made her stop and look around, but she didn’t see anything. Next thing she knew, Hoss and Joe were running for the side of the house, screaming and frantically waving their arms. “Fool boys,” she thought. A few of the bumblebees, attracted by the sugary glass of lemonade, headed straight for Widow Jenkins. She absently swatted at what she thought was a horsefly and was startled by the resulting stinging sensation. Realizing that she was the focus of several bees’ attention, she took off running for the side of the house; unfortunately, she still held the glass of lemonade in her hand. The three of them – Joe, Hoss, and Widow Jenkins – frantically ran a couple of circles around the house while being pursued by the angry bees. Luckily, the widow had tossed the glass from her hand at some point during that first lap, so they were chased by fewer bees during that second trip around the house.
Exhausted, the three gathered near the henhouse to assess their injuries. The widow knew of at least 10 stings on her own body and could see 15 on Hoss’ arms and face, and eight on Joe’s. Those boys sure would be a sight in a few hours!
Panting for breath, Widow Jenkins said, “We’ll give them bees a little while to calm down, and then I’ll get some tobaccy to put on them stings.”
Joe just grimaced; Pa had put tobacco on wasp stings before, and it burned worse than the actual sting. “Yes’m,” answered Hoss.
Both Hoss and Joe were hoping word of their deeds at the widow’s home wouldn’t get back to Pa too quickly. However, he’d been in the barn when they returned home, and when he saw their swollen faces, they had no choice but to tell him the entire sad story. The anger on his face was branded into their memories as they headed for the house and their rooms. Pa had told them to go upstairs and stay there while he thought up a suitable punishment for what had happened.
Adam was coming out of the kitchen when his brothers entered the house; he also couldn’t help but notice their swollen faces. When he asked what had happened, Hoss mumbled an account of the day’s events. Adam’s eyebrow arched up at his brother’s telling of Widow Jenkins smearing tobacco juice onto their faces; both young men had refused to drop their pants so the widow could treat their posteriors. The ride home had been a long one, not just because of the pain from the stings.
With a reassuring wink, Adam told his brothers to go on upstairs – he’d talk to Pa on their behalf. After all, they couldn’t be held responsible for everything that had happened. When it came to the henhouse, though, that would definitely take quite a bit of convincing, since the widow earned money from selling the eggs her hens laid.
Supper had been a somber affair with very little talking, other than requests to pass the bread or salt. Joe’s cheek was so swollen he was having a difficult time chewing, and the size of Hoss’ upper lip was making it hard for him to get his food off his fork. Adam tried to keep his eyes on his plate but couldn’t help glancing through his lashes at his brothers and father. Sitting at the head of the table, Pa chewed his food with a stony expression on his face. Surely he knew that his sons hadn’t intended for any of the day’s events to happen, thought Adam.
Following supper, Hoss and Joe retreated back upstairs while Ben sat down in his favorite leather chair and tried to prepare his pipe. The thought of wet tobacco being placed on stings dampened his urge to smoke, though, and he put the pipe back on the bowl.
Noticing his father’s pensiveness and remembering his promise to speak to him, Adam tried to think of a way to broach the subject without Pa becoming defensive. He finally began setting up the chessboard. “How about a game, Pa?”
“What?” Ben asked, his thoughts interrupted.
“How about a game of chess? Maybe it’ll take your mind off things.”
“Hmph,” Ben snorted as he got up and went over to the small table where the board was kept.
The two men didn’t speak as pieces were removed from the board. Finally down to their kings and defenders, Adam was trying to figure out how to check his father’s next move.
“Widow Jenkins doesn’t have any family to do chores for her, and she keeps to herself so much,” observed Adam. “You should be proud that she thinks highly of you and that she asked Hoss and Joe for help. Besides, any punishment should fit the crime that was committed.”
“What was that?” Ben asked, his concentration on the game disturbed. “What were you saying about the punishment fitting the crime?”
“Did I use the word punishment? That’s too harsh a word; maybe discipline is more appropriate. Besides, there was no crime to speak of.”
“What manner of discipline would be best for this situation?” Ben inquired.
Adam carefully ran his forefinger against the stubble above his upper lip while he supported his chin with his thumb. His elbow rested on the table so he could support his weight better as he casually leaned from the leather chair. Discarding the thought of moving his bishop, he said, “Actually, penance might be a far better word than discipline or punishment.”
Inhaling deeply, Ben pulled his shoulders back to stretch a bit. He had the feeling that Adam was distracting him so he’d make a move and leave his king undefended. After all, this conversation about crime and punishment had only begun fifteen minutes ago. “Whether it’s punishment, discipline, or penance, a lesson must be learned, don’t you agree?”
Adam exhaled and raised an eyebrow slightly. Moving his knight was not as good an idea as he’d thought. Far more was at stake with this game than just losing at chess. Joe and Hoss had honestly meant well when they had offered to do a few odd jobs for Widow Jenkins. Was it their fault that a gust of wind made the tree they were chopping down fall onto the henhouse? Or that those bumblebees had built a nest in the woodpile near the front porch? “You’ve always told us that we should help those in need. They were merely following one of the lessons they’ve been taught.”
Ben felt his lips tighten as he briefly clenched his teeth. It was one thing to help a neighbor in need; it was another to nearly kill that neighbor with kindness. Widow Jenkins had been stung at least 10 times by those bees.
“Well, for starters, they could rebuild Widow Jenkins’ henhouse,” suggested Adam. “Fortunately, they were able to find most of the hens and put them in the barn.”
“That’s certainly fair. Maybe they can build one that the foxes and badgers won’t get into as easily. But I’ll not allow them to accept one cent from Widow Jenkins. They caused this mess, and she shouldn’t have to pay them for it. “
“They can’t be blamed for everything,” Adam pointed out. “After all, the wind knocked the tree down. If that hadn’t happened, the tree would have fallen where it should have.”
Pursing his lips, Ben squinted at the board. What was Adam’s point? The henhouse was in smithereens and the widow would have a hard time collecting eggs from scattered chickens in the barn. She needed the income those eggs provided so she didn’t have to purchase goods on credit.
“We could buy her eggs. I’m sure Hop Sing would be glad to have some extras on hand,” added Adam.
With a snort, Ben replied, “The widow would see that as charity. Your brothers caused her to lose income and then I pay for eggs? She would never agree to that.”
Removing his finger from his bishop again, Adam said, “Hoss and Joe could rebuild the henhouse tomorrow and then gather the eggs for her every morning for a month afterward. She could take what she didn’t need into town to sell. Does that sound fair?”
A gleam came into Ben’s eye as he secretly hoped Adam would move his knight; that would leave a hole in his king’s defense. “Hmm … that sounds fair.” He scowled as Adam reached for his queen instead of the knight. “Those two can also repair the roof while they’re out there tomorrow. We’ve got plenty of lumber here for them to haul for the henhouse and some shingles in the barn for the widow’s roof.”
Upstairs, Hoss and Joe exchanged a glance and quietly let out their breath. Adam had come through for them after all.
Finally deciding to make a move, Adam reached for his knight. After moving the chess piece, he quickly glanced at his father and noticed the slight smile on his lips.
“Check!” Ben announced happily as he moved his bishop.
Adam moved his queen, knowing that his father would win the game with the next move. “I think my brothers will be punished enough when the story about the bumblebees gets out and the widow embellishes it with each telling.”
Ben couldn’t help but smile at the thought of his younger sons being teased by friends and neighbors for fearing some little old bees. “Checkmate.” He then stood and stretched his arms. In the back of his mind, he was sure Adam had let him win, but he couldn’t prove it. “I’d better go upstairs and let those boys know that they’d better get some rest. I have a feeling it’s going to be a long, uneventful day out at Widow Jenkins’ place tomorrow.”
Thanks to all who have offered so much encouragement.