Summary: Part 3 of a Trilogy. Please read in order. Hoss faces a day that only he could be strong enough to endure.
Word Count: 4600
Hoss flung open the door to the washroom with such force that it hit the wall with a resounding bang. “Get out,” he growled at the relaxed figure in the tub.
Adam took one look at the glowering giant covered in muck and decided it would be imprudent to argue either his status as older brother or the privilege of prior possession. He climbed out of the tub with alacrity, wrapped a towel around his naked, dripping body and fled for the safety beyond the door. As he passed his brother, a whiff of something unsavory only accelerated his flight.
Hoss felt a twinge of conscience, but ruthlessly stifled it. Maybe he had cut his big brother’s bath short, but after the day he’d had, there was no way Adam had more need of that tub than he did. . . .
He’d instinctively known what kind of day lay ahead when Pa first mentioned the blocked stream near Cutler’s Ridge. Clearing out debris always was a miserable job: it meant, at best, wading cold water in bare feet to spare your boots, and depending on what was blocking the flow of water, it could get worse—a lot worse. A fellow just never knew what he was getting into ‘til he was in it, and then it was too late to get out. All three Cartwright brothers knew it, and none of them trusted his luck if he drew that assignment.
Luck. That was the sticking point. Hoss knew it as soon as Pa said they’d decide who got the nasty chore by the usual fair method. Luck was what he needed to keep his match burning longer than either of his brothers’, but Hoss couldn’t remember a single time his luck had held in previous contests. No, he always, so to speak, drew a pair of deuces to Adam’s royal flush or Joe’s full house. Not once had he beaten either of his brothers in that blame match race, and he just plain couldn’t figure out why. “Dadgum ornery critters gotta be cheatin’,” he grumbled as he saddled his big black, but he immediately chided himself for the suspicious thought. Wasn’t any way they could cheat, was there? How could any man control how long a match burned? No way he knew of, so it must be a matter of pure luck. And his was just plain bad—every single time.
His mood wasn’t improved when he led Chubby out of the barn and saw his brothers gabbing away at each other, all smiles. Easy for them to smile. Joe didn’t have nothin’ ahead of him but fixin’ a fence, and Adam wasn’t much worse off. He’d have to put up with Pa supervisin’ him on the roof job, but he’d get a hot plate of Hop Sing’s good cooking, come noon, to smooth any feathers Pa happened to ruffle.
When he went into the kitchen to pick up his own lunch, for a minute Hoss thought that he, too, might be eating a piping hot meal. Pa’d promised to have Hop Sing pack an extra fine one for him, and when Hoss saw the cook ladling stew into a tin pail, his lips smacked in anticipation.
Hop Sing turned at the sound and shook his head. “Not enough for you. This Little Joe lunch.” He pointed to a large package wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine, which was lying on the kitchen worktable. “That for you, Mr. Hoss.” He smiled broadly. “No worry. Plenty roast beef. No cheese. Hop Sing remember.”
Heaving a sigh, Hoss snatched the package from the table and strode outside, banging the kitchen door behind him. Dadbern that Little Joe, he muttered as he stuffed his lunch packet into his saddlebag. The lucky little cuss not only got the best job of the day, but the best lunch, too! Distractedly neglecting to fasten the flap of the saddlebag, he stalked off to find a spade.
Joe tried to wish him a good day as he was tying the spade to his saddle, but since Hoss was still feeling disgruntled by the disparity in their days, he barely acknowledged his younger brother. He’d no sooner split from Joe, though, than he regretted the surly way he’d cut the boy off. Wasn’t Joe’s fault he was doomed to such a hard day. Wasn’t even his fault he got the better lunch. From the size of that pail, it wouldn’t hold enough stew to satisfy any appetite but Joe’s. Hop Sing wasn’t playing favorites, just doling out the vittles where they’d get the best use.
The ride up to the stream should have been pleasant on a sunny day like this one, but a guilty conscience kept Hoss’s face down-turned. As attuned to Nature as he normally was, on this day he perceived none of the beauty around him. The jack rabbit jumping through the lush meadow grass, the fragrant scent of pine, the chatter of chipmunks—all went unheeded today, lost in remorse for his earlier attitude toward both his brothers. “Had no right to blame them for my bad luck,” he muttered. “I’m a low-down snake in the grass.”
Unfortunately for Hoss, there really was a low-down snake crawling through that meadow grass. He was as blind to it as he was to Nature’s beauty, but Chubby was not. The dark, slithering shape spooked the horse, even though the snake was not a dangerous one. Chubby reared up on his hind legs and then when he came down, he kicked out both back legs just before taking flight, leaving the snake, a brown paper package and a prone Hoss all scattered somewhere behind in the grass.
Slowly, Hoss pulled to his feet and winced as he put weight on his right leg. “Dagnabit!” he bellowed as he slammed his tall hat against his thigh. Rubbing the aching hip on which he’d landed, he limped after the horse. “Get back here, Chubby!” When Chubby just kept going, Hoss threatened dire retribution at the feedbag, never realizing that he was unwittingly leaving behind his own feedbag, the unfastened flap of the saddlebag having given his lunch free exit during Chubby’s cavorting.
The horse wasn’t hard to track for a man as gifted in that art as Hoss, but the pursuit robbed his time and gave nothing in return but sore feet as he trudged after the horse in boots never meant for walking. “No oats for you tonight,” he muttered when he finally caught up and grabbed hold of the big black’s reins. Chubby gazed languidly back at his master, as if to say he knew an idle threat when he heard one. Hoss was too soft-hearted to ever let an animal go hungry, and every man and beast on the Ponderosa knew it.
Drawn into those luminous eyes, Hoss’s crooked, gap-toothed smile emerged for the first time that morning. “Aw, well, doggone it, it ain’t your fault, is it, fella? But you oughta know a little ole whipsnake ain’t gonna hurt you none. You’d think it was a Basin rattler, the way you took off.” He patted the horse’s sweating flank. “It’s okay, Chub; ever’thing’s gonna be all right now.”
He noticed that the spade had shaken loose during Chubby’s wild gallop, so he pulled it up and tied the rope snug around it. “Wouldn’t do to lose this, would it? Bound to need it for the job we got ahead.” Glancing just past the spade, he suddenly saw the loose flap on the saddlebag and gulped down the big lump that gurgled up his throat. Cautiously, as if a Basin rattler might lie inside, he inched his hand into the bag and felt around. Nothing. Not so much as a crumb. Withdrawing his hand, he eyed the black again with disfavor. “Didn’t know you had it in you to be so ornery,” he muttered. “Too much stable time with that consarned Cochise and that snooty Sport, that’s what’s done it!”
He checked the cinch—loose, naturally—and swung up into the saddle. The packet of food had to lie somewhere in Chubby’s wake, so turning the horse around, he began backtracking. “I ain’t tacklin’ a sorry job like that mucked-up stream on an empty stomach,” he offered the horse as excuse for the wasted time.
Having no idea at what point his lunch had escaped the saddlebag, he went slowly and kept his eyes peeled for a glimpse of brown paper amidst the blades of grass. He saw nothing ‘til he’d almost made it back to the spot where he and Chubby had parted company, and what he saw then sent an involuntary groan rumbling up his craw. Quickly he clapped a hand over his mouth. His lunch was there, all right—what was left of it—and if he wanted it back, he’d have to keep mighty quiet, walk mighty soft. The paper had been torn open, and the syrupy filling of his fried apple pie was dribbling down the chin of a black creature with white spots on its head and irregular stripes down its back and sides.
Ordinarily, Hoss would have given the spotted skunk a wide berth. Skunks were nocturnal, and there was always a chance that one moving about in the daytime was rabid. This one wasn’t acting anything but hungry, though, and since he was, too, Hoss ignored what he knew about animals and set about retrieving his lunch. The only explanation he could offer later was that his string of foul luck that morning had made him take leave of his senses.
Slowly he dismounted and began inching his way forward. The contented churring stopped, and the skunk stamped his forepaws in warning.
“Easy, little fella,” Hoss said softly. “I don’t mean you no harm, and I ain’t gonna ask for that pie back. You’re welcome to it, but them sandwiches is mine, and I aim to have ‘em.” He crept another half-step forward.
The skunk stiffened and began to strut around.
Hoss patted the air. “No, no, easy now, easy.” Heedless of the skunk’s warning dance, he edged closer, his hand stretching forward through the grass. Just a few more inches and he’d be able to snatch the sandwiches and beat a fast retreat.
Suddenly, the skunk stood on its front paws and waved its bushy white-tipped tail in the air, pointing it at the intruder.
“No!” Hoss cried as the pungent musk assaulted his nostrils. He backpedaled fast, but not fast enough. The fumes stung his eyes, and the scent permeated his shirt and pants, probably clear through to his underwear. And without a doubt it had saturated the sandwiches lying between him and the spotted thief. “Dadbern it!” Hoss growled, stalking toward his horse. “Looks like I’m gonna be workin’ on an empty stomach after all.”
The black backed away from the potent aroma, but Hoss lunged forward to grab the reins. “Oh, no, you don’t—not this time!”
Chubby snorted his protest as the fragrant load landed on his back, but he responded to Hoss’s firm hand on the reins and moved where the big man directed him—to the nearest waterway.
Hoss’s first thought was to plunge into cold, rushing water and scrub himself raw, but the stream, when he reached it, wasn’t exactly rushing. It had, in fact, narrowed to a trickle, just like Pa’d said that morning. “Doggone it, I’m gonna have to find where it’s blocked and do the job before I can get a decent bath,” Hoss rumbled. He kept riding upstream ‘til he spotted the source of the problem. Leaning his head back, he gazed imploringly at the heavens. “Couldn’t it have just been dead leaves or somethin’? You know how I hate this kind of thing.”
What Hoss Cartwright hated was having to displace one of God’s creatures for the benefit of others. That, however, was the choice facing him as he climbed down from his horse and tied the reins to the branch of an alder growing beside the stream. What had blocked the flow down from Cutler’s Ridge was no random act of Nature, but the deliberate work of an industrious beaver. Hoss sighed. Either he tore down that beaver’s carefully constructed home or he let the Ponderosa’s cattle go thirsty. For a minute he considered just moving the cows, but he knew it wouldn’t work. They needed every acre of good pastureland they had; besides, there were other critters who depended on that water, too, and still other plant and animal life being destroyed by the pond spreading behind the dam. Like it or not, Mr. Beaver and his family were just gonna have to move.
Hoss sat on the creek bank and took off his boots and socks. But for his encounter with the skunk, he would then have simply rolled up his pants legs and gone in. Since he figured to take a bath and wash his duds as soon as this job was done, however, he stripped down to his underwear before stepping into the mud downstream from the dam. Even the lightweight cotton garments smelled pretty ripe, but not wanting the wind to whip across his bare backside, he decided to put up with that much stench. Maybe the sweat he’d work up would dilute it—or change it some, at least.
Spade in hand, Hoss plodded toward the beaver dam, wincing as the mix of cold mud and decomposing leaves and grass squished through his toes. First he thrust the blade into the mud, so the tool would stand upright while he tore down what he could with his bare hands. He worked slowly, making his way down the interwoven layers, using the spade when he had to dislodge some stubborn stick or clump of debris. He’d gotten about halfway down when he felt something swish past his bare foot. Before he had time to react, sharp teeth fastened into the side of his left foot. With a reverberating yowl Hoss stumbled back and plopped on his backside in the mud. He rolled to his side, got up on his knees and scrambled for the bank.
He limped upstream, to the deeper water beyond the beaver’s lodge, and sat there for a minute, injured foot crossed on the opposite knee as he assessed the damage. He couldn’t blame the dadgum beaver and didn’t worry that the critter’s behavior signaled rabies. Nope, nothing odd about a body defending his home; he’d’ve fought, too, if someone had been tearing down the Ponderosa, log by log, but dagnabit it, it hurt, and he still had the job to do. Hoss ripped off the sleeve of his undershirt, dipped it in the water and cleaned out the wound as best he could; then he wrapped his foot in the soggy cotton and limped back to the dam. At least, having the injury on the opposite side from his sore hip evened out his gait a mite, he acknowledged with a grimace.
Keeping a close eye out for the beaver, he worked straight down the middle of the dam this time, so he could start draining that pond sooner. Twice he had to shoo the beaver away, and when the critter still persisted, the third time Hoss gave his rump a swat with the backside of the spade. The beaver’s flat tail slapped the water in outrage, but he got the message and vacated the premises. The water from the pond had begun to pour through the opening Hoss had cleared, anyway, so there wasn’t much left to fight for. “Sorry, little fella,” Hoss whispered as he watched the animal swim away. “Just weren’t no way I could let you stay.”
Sympathy for the dispossessed creature and the growling of his stomach colored Hoss’s mood as he finished the job, but finally, the stream was flowing freely again. He cleaned the spade and dried it with the rest of his undershirt. Then, bare-chested, he knelt on the bank and set about scrubbing his outer clothes in the running water. They’d need soap and a good boiling before they were really clean again, but he wanted to get some of the stink out of them before he put them back on.
Laundering accomplished, at least to the extent he could do it here, Hoss spread his shirt and pants on the grass to dry, stripped off his underpants and tossed them aside. Unlike the top half, the under-drawers might be salvageable, but for now all he cared about was getting cleaned up and heading for home. He scrubbed a bit first, though he doubted it would do much good without soap; then, having done what he could, he stretched his whole, tired, aching body in the bed of the stream and let the rippling water wash over him. He closed his eyes, and the warmth of the late afternoon sunshine beating on his face soothed him into a somnolent stupor. It had been a hard day, but thankfully, his troubles were almost over.
“Why, Hoss Cartwright, I never knew you was one to lay down on the job.”
Hoss’s eyelids flew open. He recognized that voice and the towering figure that went with it. As his gaze traveled up the denim britches, past the plaid shirt and settled on the blonde-fringed face peering down at him, he frantically burrowed into the mud beneath his buttocks and spread his palms protectively across his chest. Hopeless attempt. His hands might be broad, but his chest was broader still; most of it was gonna show, no matter how he tried to cover it. And this was no way to meet a lady. “Miss Bessie Sue,” he croaked. “Wha—what you doin’ up this way?”
“Just cuttin’ across to the Townsend place,” the girl said. “What you doin’ up here, Hoss? Mighty strange spot for a swim. Ain’t hardly deep enough.”
“I ain’t swimmin’,” Hoss snorted. “I’m just cleanin’ up after tearin’ down a beaver dam.”
Bessie Sue’s nose wrinkled as she caught a whiff of musk. “Must’ve worked up a powerful sweat, Hoss, ‘cause you’re a touch on the ripe side. Not that the scent of a workin’ man bothers me none.” Then a grin spread ear to ear as she spotted his shirt and pants spread on the grass. “You mean you’re—why, Hoss Cartwright,” she said with a naughty twinkle in her eye, “are you in the altogether?”
“Ma’am!” Hoss tried, futilely, to sink further into the stream bed.
Bessie Sue hooted at his predicament. “Ain’t this a fine howdy-doo!”
“Ma’am, please turn your head,” Hoss pleaded.
Bending over to grasp both her knees, she guffawed. “Well, I’ll try not to look, but a gal don’t get a chance like this every day.” She stood up and set her gaze on the alder to which Chubby was still tied. “I been expectin’ to hear from you, Hoss.”
“About the dance Saturday night,” she explained. “You ain’t been by to ask me yet. Leastwise, Pa ain’t mentioned it.”
Hoss gulped. “Uh, no, ma’am, I ain’t been by.”
Bessie Sue turned her head toward him, though she was discreet enough to keep her eyes above his chin. “Yet,” she finished for him. “That’s what you meant, ain’t it, Hoss? You ain’t been by yet?”
Bessie Sue folded her muscular arms across her solid chest. “You was aimin’ to ask me, right?”
Hoss flushed crimson. The truth was he’d been trying to work up the courage to ask petite Margie Owens to the dance. Not wanting to hurt her feelings, though, he couldn’t bring himself to say that to Bessie Sue.
She sensed his hesitation. “You already asked someone else?” she demanded.
“Well, no, ma’am, I ain’t exactly asked no one,” Hoss admitted.
Her chin dipped decisively. “Then you’ll be takin’ me.”
Hoss’s nostrils flared. He didn’t have any objection to taking Bessie Sue to a dance. He’d squired her around some, off and on, and he wouldn’t mind doing it again sometime. This time, though, he had his sights fixed on sweet little Margie, and he didn’t much fancy a girl telling him who he was taking, instead of him asking her. Still, he couldn’t bring himself to be rude to any girl, much less one he liked as much as Bessie Sue Hightower. “Well—I, uh—I hadn’t exactly decided if’n I was goin’ a’tall,” he stammered.
Planting her hands on her hips, Bessie Sue stared down, her eyes slipping below chin-level this time. “Oh, you’re goin’,” she announced, “and you’re takin’ me. Least you can do after compromisin’ me.”
Hoss sat up with an abrupt splash and almost came up out of the water before he caught himself. “Compromise!” he squealed. “I ain’t done no such thing!”
“You been sportin’ around in front of me in the altogether, ain’t you?” Bessie Sue retorted.
“Sportin’ around!” Hoss protested with a high-pitched squeak. “I ain’t doin’ nothin’ but takin’ a bath.”
“In broad daylight in a mighty public tub,” she snorted. “If my pa was to hear about such goin’s on, I reckon he’d be reachin’ for his shotgun.” She leaned forward and gave him a butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-her-mouth smile. “Now, what time did you say you’d be pickin’ me up?”
Hoss’s face wrinkled up in mute melancholy. “About 6:30?”
“I’ll be ready.” Bessie Sue gathered up the reins of her horse. “If I was you, I’d get out of that tub soon, Hoss, else you’ll turn into a prune, and I don’t relish cuddlin’ up to no prune.”
“Yes’m,” Hoss mumbled miserably. He kept a wary eye on the statuesque woman as she rode away, and as soon as she’d passed the crest of Cutler’s Ridge, he sprang from the water, scuttled up the bank and hustled into his almost-dry clothes. Hastily untying Chubby’s reins, he moved to the horse’s side and prepared to mount and gallop for home.
Evidently, though, enough skunk perfume remained to keep the big black skittish, for Chubby snuffled once and then sidestepped, his rump colliding powerfully with Hoss’s shoulder. For one hopeful moment Hoss teetered on the edge before toppling back into the stream. He sank beneath the water, but surfaced almost immediately, spewing mud from his mouth and swiping decayed grass from his hair. With a scowl he charged out of the water, grabbed the reins, swung aboard the horse and raced for the safety of home before more bad luck could chase his tail. The day couldn’t end soon enough.
. . . Someone rapped on the door to the washroom. “Wait your turn!” Hoss bellowed.
The door opened slowly.
Hoss gripped both sides of the tub and rose up, glowering. “I said . . . oh, hi, Pa.” He settled quickly back down in the water. “Didn’t know it was you.”
Ben walked into the room and lifted the steaming pail he held in his right hand. “I’m not laying claim to the tub, son. Just thought the water could use some freshening up.”
Hoss gave his father a sheepish look and nodded. “Yeah, Adam done soaked up ‘most all the hot water.”
Ben chuckled softly. “Yes, he was in here long enough to do just that. That’s why I came.” He slowly poured in the hot water. “Say when.”
“Keep it comin’,” Hoss said.
When he’d poured in the entire pail, Ben set it down, moved to the head of the tub and began to knead the tense muscles in his middle son’s massive shoulders. “Tough day, son?” he asked quietly.
Beginning to relax beneath his father’s ministering fingertips, Hoss sighed. “I ain’t seen a tougher day in a month of Sundays—no, make that a full year of Sundays.”
“I’m sorry,” Ben said as he continued his massage. “Want to talk about it?”
Hoss moaned. “Pa, I’m afeared if I start in, I’ll either bite your head plumb off or sit here and blubber salt water into the tub ‘til an ocean critter would feel right at home in it.”
Ben’s hand moved up to sympathetically clasp his son’s neck. “I knew you’d draw the raw end of the deal today—well, whoever drew that chore would—but I can promise you a better day tomorrow.”
Hoss scowled with complete lack of conviction. “Don’t think you can, Pa. Some way, I always lose out when we burn matches to divvy up the chores.”
With a parting compassionate stroke of Hoss’s back, Ben moved to the side of the tub, resting his hand on the rim. “Yeah, you do seem to end up with more than your share of the unwanted assignments.”
“You don’t reckon . . .” Hoss couldn’t finish the unworthy suggestion. Not that his brothers wouldn’t cheat—Joe would, for dadgum sure, and he wouldn’t put it above Adam, either—but he still didn’t see any way they could.
Ben raised an inquiring eyebrow, but Hoss shook his head, reluctant to put his unsubstantiated suspicions into words. “Just plain unlucky, I guess. Don’t see as how that’s ever gonna change.”
“It’s gonna change tomorrow,” Ben promised, “‘cause you’re gonna get first pick of any job you want. I think you’ve earned the privilege.”
A spark of hope flickered in Hoss’s alpine blue eyes. “I get to pick? No match burnin’? No luck involved?”
“No luck involved,” Ben vowed. “You just take your pick—and, incidentally, one of those chores involves a trip to town.”
A genuine smile lit Hoss’s face like a lamp was burning inside. “Thanks, Pa.”
“Sure, son. Fair is fair.” Ben moved toward the door, pausing as he reached it. “Take all the time you need in here, Hoss. Joseph isn’t even home yet, and if he does come in wanting a bath, he can wait his turn.” He laughed lightly as he reached for the door handle. “That is who you were yelling at when I came in, wasn’t it?”
Hoss didn’t get a chance to answer, for his father left before he could. Not that there was any need: Pa had him pegged right, like he so often did. Hoss sank back in the tub, planning to take Pa’s advice and have a good, long soak. The hot water felt good, downright soothing, and it went a long way toward washing his troubles away, along with the dirt and pungent scent of skunk.
It had been a rough day, no doubt about that, but it was ending better than it had started. In fact, the worst he had to show for it was a sore foot and a date with the wrong gal. Hoss grinned. Aw, shucks, since when was Bessie Sue the wrong gal for him? They got along good together, and she’d probably hold up better through a night of steady dancing than that little Margie Owens, anyway. Maybe he was better off.
Hoss picked up the bar of homemade lye soap and began to scrub with vigor. Maybe he was one unlucky cuss; maybe he wasn’t, but what did it matter? When a fellow had a pa good enough to even things out—to make ‘em fair, even when they wasn’t—what need did he have for luck? Love would beat out luck, every time, and when it came to that, he had a full house.