A Near-Perfect Day (by Puchi Ann)

Summary:   Part one of a Trilogy, All in a Day’s Work, recounts a single day in the life of the three Cartwright brothers.  Pa has divvied up the chores according to his “usual fair method,” and Joe is exceedingly happy with his assignment.  Please read the stories in this trilogy in order.
Category:  Bonanza
Genre:  Western
Rated:  PG
Word Count:  6300


Little Joe Cartwright draped his lean torso along the top rail of the fence he’d just repaired and smiled with satisfaction into the amber light of the setting sun.  It was time to leave.  Supper would be waiting on him by the time he returned as it was, but he wasn’t yet ready to quit this quiet pastoral scene.  A few more minutes wouldn’t matter, surely, wouldn’t give Pa cause for either worry or anger.  Maybe he even had time for a final cup of coffee, if the dying coals had kept it warm enough.

He pushed back from the fence, and as the fading light bathed his sleek and shirtless body in a golden glow, he moved toward the small campfire he’d built at noon and kept on low burn throughout the afternoon.  He lifted the coffee pot and poured out what remained.  Not quite a cup and not quite hot, but warm enough to ward off the slight chill of the evening breeze caressing his sweat-glazed chest.  He carried the coffee back to the fence to savor, for just a little longer, the blush of the sun on the evergreen slopes to the west.

It had been a near-perfect day, from start to finish.  Such days were rare, and he wanted a few more minutes to reflect on just how well this one had gone and savor the satisfaction. . . .

*****

That morning Joe woke in his own time.  No yelling in his ear, no splash of cold water on his face, just a long, lean stretch and a leisurely, languid yawn.  Perfect, just the way he liked to wake.  He pulled back the covers and swung his feet over the side of the bed, surprised to see, when he opened his eyes, how faint was the light filtering through the billowing curtains.  Early, then.  Wouldn’t Pa be proud!

Morning ablutions complete, he descended the stairs with a bounce in his step and zest for life sparkling in his eyes.  “Morning, Pa, brothers,” he called cheerily as he took his place at the table.

“Looks like someone woke up on the right side of the bed for a change.”  Hoss winked at his older brother.

Adam lowered his coffee cup long enough to say, “I’m just impressed that he’s up . . . and on time for a change.”  He brought the cup back to his lips and took a long, lingering sip while keeping his eyes fixed on Joe.

“Ha, ha,” Joe said dutifully.  He stabbed his fork into the pile of flapjacks on the platter and snared two.  “Like I said, ‘Morning, Pa.’” He noticeably omitted the other two men at the table this time.

Ben chuckled.  “Good morning, Joseph, and I must say I am gratified to see you up early and apparently ready for a day’s work.”

“You bet, Pa,” Joe assured him.  “Just let me get a solid breakfast tucked in”—he patted his tummy—“and I’ll be ready to go.”

Across the table Hoss grinned broadly.  “That’s the virtue of gettin’ up early, Shortshanks—you do get a full breakfast, instead of your big brothers’ leavin’s.”

Ben cleared his throat loudly.  “I’m glad to hear you’re ready for a day’s work, Joseph, and that you are touting the virtues of rising early to start your day, too, Hoss.”  He fixed his eldest with a discerning smile.  “And I just know that Adam will set his younger brothers a fine example by demonstrating his willingness to put in a good, hard day, for boys”—his gaze took in all three this time—“we have exactly three little items needing attention today.”

Adam slowly wiped his mouth with his napkin and set it to one side.  “Why is it I feel that these ‘little items’ will be—how shall I put this?—unsavory?”

“Well, one of them is, I admit,” Ben acknowledged with a chuckle.  “The other two aren’t too tough, but, boys, someone has got to go up and clear out that blocked stream near Cutler’s Ridge.  It’s narrowed down to a trickle, and our cattle in the lower pasture need that water, so . . .”

“Sounds like a job that calls for engineering skill,” Joe observed quickly with a significant glance at Adam.

“Or a strong back,” Adam fired back, aiming his volley at Hoss.

“Or somebody who can slip in and out of tight places slick as a whistle.”  With his head Hoss pointed across the table at Little Joe.

Ben slammed his palm to the table.  “Enough!”  As the room fell silent, he stared at each son in turn.  “Before you start bickering over that little assignment, perhaps you should at least hear what the others are.”

Flicking a glance at first one brother and then the other, Adam cautiously stroked his chin.  “Sounds reasonable.”

Ben turned sharply toward Hoss.

“Real reasonable,” the big man said, head bobbing, wide smile looking forced.

Ben slowly swung toward Little Joe, who merely nodded as he nibbled his lower lip.

“Very well,” Ben said.  “Now that I have your attention, I hope you won’t interrupt until you’ve heard both of the other tasks for the day.”  He paused a moment, heard gratifying silence and continued.  “As you yourself pointed out, Adam, the storm last week did considerable damage to the south fence line.  Not enough for cattle to stray, but if neglected . . . well, we’re not going to neglect it.”

Each of the boys looked as though he would like to put in a bid for that job, but none dared open his mouth when Ben again fixed them with a stern glare.  “Finally,” he said, “there was also some damage to the barn roof in that storm.  By far the easiest of the chores, I realize, and comes with the benefit of being at home for a hot dinner prepared by our esteemed cook.”

The three Cartwright brothers hazarded a look at each other, and each confirmed exactly what he’d thought.  Not one of them wanted that “easiest” chore of working under Pa’s eagle eye all day.  It might be preferable to clearing tangled branches, mucky leaves and other debris out a blocked stream, but if so, the margin was a slim one.

Little Joe was the first to speak.  “I don’t know, Pa.  That barn roof needs to be just right, to protect our stock, and you never know when you might hit a problem that only a real architect could handle.”

“Now, just a minute!” Adam snapped with an accusatory finger at the chin Joe was jutting at him. “You are perfectly capable of nailing shingles to a roof, my lazy little brother.”

“Lazy?  No, I’m willing to do my share, even take on one of the harder chores.”  Little Joe spread his hands, palms up, to convey his innocence.  “All I’m sayin’, older brother, is that Pa ought to match these jobs up with the best man for each.  Now, anyone can mend a fence, and since I’m the youngest and least experienced—”

“First time I’ve ever heard you admit that!”  Adam arched a scornful eyebrow at Joe.

“That’s for dadgum sure, you cocky little”—Hoss stopped mid-sentence and sent Little Joe a seemingly benign smile.  “You got a point, though, ‘bout bein’ the youngest and smallest.”

“I didn’t say smallest!”  Seething, Joe almost came out of his chair.

“That’s all right, punkin,” Hoss cooed, patting the air as if it were Little Joe’s curly head and deliberately drawing the old baby name out of storage to complete the picture.  “I just wouldn’t feel right lettin’ a little feller like you heft those heavy fence rails.”

“And I wouldn’t feel right about letting either of you take on a job that requires real . . . real . . .” It rarely happened, but Adam suddenly felt at loss for words.  Unfortunately, his baby brother had pegged the task of mending fence exactly right: it didn’t require “real” anything; it required no great amount of either skill or strength; it could be done by any one of them.  So, for that matter, could either of the other chores Pa had listed.

“I must say, I am disappointed in the three of you,” Ben said, shaking his head.  “I had hoped we might sort this out logically and equitably, but rather than listen to more of this haggling, we’ll decide who does what by the usual fair method.”

Adam and Little Joe looked at each other, and a slow smile began to curl on each of their faces.  Hoss gulped and looked a little worried.  He hadn’t figured out why yet, but he always seemed to come up the big loser when Pa resorted to his “usual fair method” of deciding things.

Ben yelled for Hop Sing to bring him the match box. Hoss hurried to place himself next to the doorway, so he could get first choice of match.  While both of them had their attention on the entry to the kitchen, Adam and Joe, exchanging a wink, dabbled their fingers in their water glasses and then hid the evidence by tucking their hands beneath their folded arms.  Each young man selected his match with care.  It would never do to choose one even fractionally shorter than the next man’s!  Adam and Little Joe slid wet fingers up and down their individual matches, liberally dampening the wooden sticks, and reassumed their nonchalant stance while Pa went through his time-honored routine of explaining this reliable means of sorting out unwanted chores.  Hoss just listened, miserable, and nodded.

“Now, I assume that no one wants to clear the stream,” Ben said, “so the first man to drop his match draws that lovely assignment.  For reasons I can’t begin to fathom, repairing the roof appears to be equally unpopular, so the second man out will do that, and the last man standing with match in hand will spend the day mending fence, for some odd reason the popular choice of the day.  Fair enough?”

“Completely equitable,” Adam replied with confidence.

“Yeah,” Hoss grunted, a faint ray of hope flickering in his clear blue eyes.  As Alexander Pope had said, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast,” even in a breast as oft disappointed as that of Hoss Cartwright.

“Fair enough,” Little Joe said, his tone expressing neither confidence nor fear.  Adam had a tendency to come out on top in these little contests, for reasons Joe hadn’t completely figured out.  Steadiness of hand, maybe, that coolness under pressure that stood his big brother stead in so many tough situations.  This time, though, winning wasn’t nearly as important as not losing.  So long as he beat Hoss, he could avoid the worst chore, and if he had to put up with Pa as supervisor for a whole day, at least he could console himself that it might have been worse.

Ben struck a match and touched its flame to the three matches his sons held together.  “May the best man win,” he decreed with judicial impartiality.

Each match caught fire; each man watched carefully, prayerfully and, in Hoss’s case, with growing alarm, for his match was burning more quickly than either of his brothers’.  Closer and closer to his fingertips danced the flame, and beads of sweat appeared on his wrinkled brow.  Finally, he could bear the heat no longer, and the match fell to the floor and fizzled out.  “Dadgum it!” Hoss sputtered and popped his fingers into his mouth.

Adam’s and Joe’s flames did a slow waltz down their match sticks.  Adam made eye contact with his youngest brother, again favoring him with that maddening smile of cool confidence.  Joe took a deep breath and looked away.  He wasn’t going to be defeated by his own emotions, not this time!  Refusing to look at Adam or even Adam’s match, he kept his gaze fixed on his own.  He heard a grunt and gradually a smile came to his lips as he looked up to see his oldest brother sucking on singed fingertips.  “Looks like the best man won,” he taunted glibly.

“The youngest and most inexperienced,” Adam reminded him.

“All right now,” Ben laughed, clapping both of them on the shoulder.  “You’ve got your assignments, boys, so let’s get on with it.  Joe, Hoss, you’ll need to get a lunch from Hop Sing.”  With a sympathetic smile he moved to console the big loser of the contest.  “I’ll tell him to make it an extra good one, son,” he soothed.

Face still glum, Hoss thanked his father, though he didn’t think the food that could make him feel better about this day had ever been created by any cook.

Adam and Joe quickly made themselves scarce, each heading outside to gather supplies for his individual task.  “Feel kinda bad about the way Pa’s ‘usual fair method’ turns out for poor ole Hoss every time,” Joe admitted as they walked across the yard together.

“Bad enough to take his place clearing out that stream?” Adam asked with a knowing smile.

“No.”  Joe had the good grace to look chagrined, though still unrepentant.

Adam chuckled in response.  “Me, either.”  He circled Joe’s shoulders in conspiratorial camaraderie.  “I’ll help you hitch the buckboard.”

“You’re just puttin’ off that trip up to the roof,” Joe accused with a mocking grin.

Adam arched an eyebrow.  “Wouldn’t you?”

Joe sniggered.  “‘Til Pa went to bed if I could!”

Together they worked to hitch the team to the buckboard, and still wanting to put off his own chore, Adam helped Joe load replacement rails into the back.  He sighed after sliding the last one into the wagon.  “No putting off the inevitable, I suppose.”  He reached out to shake Joe’s hand.  “Have a good day, kid.  You won, fair and square—at least against me.”

Joe returned the handshake warmly.  “Thanks, big brother.  You have a good day, too—well, try to, anyway.”

Adam closed his eyes and shook his head.  “I’ll try, but it will be an effort.”

“Don’t I know it!  Well, gotta go.”  Joe jumped up into the seat of the wagon and started to drive off.

“Little Joe!  Little Joe!” a lilting voice called urgently.  “You come back here, get dinnah!”

“Oh, yeah, don’t want to forget that!”  Joe bounded to earth as quickly as he’d gone up and raced toward the cook.  “Hey, what’s this?” he asked when Hop Sing handed him a dinner pail, in addition to a small, paper-wrapped package.  He’d been expecting sandwiches for his noon meal, maybe with a fried pie for dessert if he was lucky.

“Stew from last night,” the cook explained.  “Only little bit left.  Not enough for Mr. Hoss, so you take.  You have plenty wood for fire, yes?”

Joe thought of the broken fence rails he was going to replace.  “Plenty,” he agreed, “and thanks, Hop Sing.  Wasn’t expecting a hot lunch.”  Inspiration lighted his hazel eyes.  “Hey, you got an extra coffee pot around?  The one we use on cattle drives, maybe?”

“Humph!” Hop Sing snorted.  “Give boy extra good meal; now he want coffee, too.  All-a time make mo’ work for Hop Sing.”  He scurried back inside, jabbering in rapid-fire Cantonese.  Though he acted irked, he was secretly pleased to make up a packet of coffee and a smaller one of sugar for Number Three Son; it was a sign to him of how much the hot meal and he himself were appreciated.  Everything gathered, he hurried back outside with coffee pot and packets.

Joe took them and rewarded the cook with a big grin.  He tucked his treasures into the back of the wagon, between rails, and once again climbed into the seat.  Hoss was just mounting Chubby after tying a small spade to his saddle, in the likely case that he would need to dig out some reluctant root or bothersome branch.  Joe lifted a hand in farewell.  “Hey, have”—the look on Hoss’s face cut him short.  “Good luck,” he finished weakly.

“Yeah,” Hoss growled, not because he was upset with Joe, but because he already figured he would need good luck and probably find it in short supply.

For a moment his older brother’s misery dampened Joe’s good mood.  Then, as he considered how very well this day was starting off, his smile returned.  You win some, you lose some, he thought as he lifted the reins and headed out of the yard.  Today, he was the big winner, and he intended to relish every moment of his victory.

Having been with Adam when the storm damage was surveyed, he knew exactly where he wanted to start, and his happy frame of mind continued as he drove to the south boundary fence.  The day was beautiful: bright, sunny, a few fluffy white clouds drifting overhead in fanciful shapes, foothills dressed in skirts of emerald pine rising to the west and beyond them the snow-capped peaks of the higher ranges.  This is the kind of day best spent dangling a line in a fast-running creek, Joe mused dreamily, or maybe just lying back in the grass with your feet bare and your britches rolled up above your knees.  No time for that kind of thing today, of course.  His brothers frequently labeled him lazy, and he had to admit there were times the label fit, but he didn’t really mind work.  Work was what a man did, and this was an easy job in a setting he could gaze at all day and still feel there was more beauty to soak in.  Having the day off would have been better, of course—always was—but today it felt good to work under a warm sun with a mild breeze blowing across the back of his neck.

The first break in the fence was a small one, quickly and easily mended.  As he set the final rail in place, a yellow butterfly fluttered to rest on the next post down as if to set its stamp of approval on a job well done.  He pushed his hat back and watched for a few seconds until the colorful insect flitted over the fence onto the neighbor’s land.  Then, after stretching his arms back, Joe tossed the damaged rails into the back of the wagon and headed west along the fence line.

He came to the next storm-torn section, but as he pulled up beside it, he heard the plaintive bawl of a calf, echoed by the deeper lowing of an older animal.  The two tones flowed back and forth in an ongoing cacophony that hinted at creatures in crisis.  He couldn’t see anything, for directly to the west the land swelled briefly before dipping down into the next dale.  Joe trotted up the low rise and, topping it, saw a cow nudging the fence with her nose and a calf on the other side.  “What you doin’ over there, little fella?” he asked after running down the hill.  He stepped up to the cow and patted the flank with a pine tree burned into its hide.  “He yours, mama?  Well, don’t fret none; we’ll get him back where he belongs.”

Joe lithely bounded over the fence.  Frightened, the little calf backed away on gangly legs.  “Hey, come back here,” the young man laughed and gave chase.  The calf trotted away, but not far.  Joe snared him with his bare hands and pointed the calf toward his mother.  “Hungry, little fellow?  Yeah, bet you are.  No tellin’ how long you been over here visitin’ the neighbors.  Well, breakfast’s waitin’, right over there, so we got to get the two of you back together again.”  The mother cow mooed her complete agreement, or so it seemed to Little Joe.

Deciding that the quickest way to accomplish that goal was to remove the top rail of the fence and lift the calf over, Joe set to work.  He was well aware that he was proposing to remove an unbranded animal from a neighbor’s property, but the Reynolds were good folks, not the kind to squabble over a stray maverick.  Besides, it was obvious who this little fellow’s mama was.  “He run off like this much?” Joe asked the cow across from him as he pulled the rail from the mortise in the fence post.  “You oughta tell my pa all about your troubles, ma’am, ‘cause he can surely sympathize.  Had himself a little tyke once that trotted off pretty regular—or so he tells me.”

He had a sudden picture of Mrs. Cow coming to call on Mr. Cartwright and the two of them sitting in those padded oxblood leather chairs and exchanging the woes of parenting as they shared a neighborly cup of tea.  The image set him laughing so hard he bent double, but he got hold of himself quickly.  It might seem funny to him, but the hungry calf and the cow with the bloated udder weren’t joining in.  Sliding the rail the opposite direction, he removed it from the mortise on the next post, lifted it and set it down carefully.  Then he picked up the calf and, cradling it in his arms, stepped over the remaining rails and set it down again.

“Okay, buddy, go to mama,” he instructed with a pat on the animal’s rear.  He smiled as the calf made a beeline for the dinner spout and started sucking noisily.  “You’re welcome,” he chuckled, brushing from his shirt the dirt that had been clinging to the calf’s hide, and went to work putting the fence rail back in place.  “Just my luck, I got to mend a fence that wasn’t broke,” he snickered.  “Somehow, though, I don’t think my brothers are gonna sympathize with my troubles.”  He grinned, not much sympathizing with them himself.  Wonder how poor ole Hoss is making out.  Adam, he figured, could hold his own, even against Pa, but there was just no way Hoss’s day could turn out anything but miserable.

Job done, he propped his elbows on the rail behind him and watched the reunion for a couple of minutes.  Then it was time to get back to work.  He tipped his hat.  “Got to be goin’, folks,” he said.  “You be sure and drop by the house, Mrs. Cow, for that chat with Pa.  Might be surprised how much you got in common.”  Cackling in chorus with a blue jay perched on a limb to his left, Joe retraced his steps to the wagon.

He took a good look at the broken section of the fence and shook his head.  Just about enough open space for a determined little calf to wedge through and get himself trapped over on the Reynolds’ ranch, but not big enough for mama to chase through and fetch him.  “Well, best see that don’t happen again,” Joe said decisively and set to work removing cracked rails and replacing them with solid ones.

By the time he’d finished, the sun was well on its way toward its zenith, and Joe was beginning to work up a sweat.  Thanks to the calf, his shirt was pretty dirty already, so he slipped it off and tossed it in the back with the damaged rails he was taking to the house to be used as firewood.  He mounted the buckboard and drove west, giving a wave to Mrs. Cow and her son as he passed.  When he reached the section of the fence where the storm had done the greatest damage, he drove along the line, stopping every few feet to take out the rails he estimated he would need.

Preparatory work finished, he drove to about the middle of the area in need of repair and parked the wagon.  A good place to set up his makeshift camp and build a fire to heat Hop Sing’s stew.  He took the wood from the wagon and laid it ready for that purpose, but since it was still about an hour too early to eat, he walked down to where the damage began, his supple muscles moving in a swinging stride that was poetry in motion, much like the smooth movement of a thoroughbred racehorse around a track.

By the time the sun stood directly overhead, he hadn’t managed to work his way back to the midpoint where his camp was established.  Pushing his hat back, he swept damp curls off his forehead and stood, elbow propped on a post, as he tried to decide whether to stop now or work a little longer and take a late dinner.  Slowly he became aware of an approaching rider, and his smile was warm with welcome when he recognized the dun mare belonging to his neighbor.  He lifted a hand in greeting, and the girl galloped over.  Joe climbed over the fence to meet her.  “Hey, Laurie.  Your pa got you out ridin’ line now?”

The girl’s light laugh sounded like the tinkling of a glass bell to Joe.  “Looks like somebody needs to, and it sure can’t be Pa, with him down in his back.”

Joe held the horse’s reins as Laurie dismounted.  “Hadn’t heard he was, but tell him not to worry about the fence—this one, anyway.  I’ve got it well in hand.”

Laurie smiled admiringly at him.  “I can see that.  It’s our boundary, too, though; we should, at least, share in the cost.”

Joe shrugged.  “What cost?  We cut these rails ourselves, a little chore Pa likes to dole out when he thinks we’ll get into mischief if we ain’t kept busy.”

“You must have been full of mischief lately,” Laurie teased, indicating the long line of rails Joe had laid out.

“You know me, always into something.  I can personally vouch for the quality of almost every single one of those rails.”  He burst out laughing, and Laurie joined in, violet eyes sparkling with mirth.  “What you doin’ out this way, Laurie?” Joe asked as the gushing laughter trickled down to a rivulet.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, twirling a long strand of dark brown hair that tumbled about her shoulders.  “Pa said I needed a day off after tending him for more than a week, so I packed up a lunch and just rode out, no special destination in mind.”

Joe took her hand.  “I’m glad you meandered this way, then.”  His eyes brightened.  “Hey, you said you brought a lunch.  Have you eaten yet?”

“No,” she said slowly, “but I don’t have much, Joe—just a roast beef sandwich and some sugar cookies.  I can’t imagine half of that will make a dent in a working man’s appetite, but you’re welcome to share it.”

Joe looked at her fondly.  Sweet and generous—that was how he always thought of Laurie Reynolds—always the first to notice other folks’ needs and take quiet action to meet them.  His grin widened as he began to swing her hand.  “I’ll take you up on that offer,” he said, “and I promise neither of us will go hungry.  Hop Sing sent the leftovers of yesterday’s supper stew in a pail for me.  He said there wasn’t much, but since he tends to judge portion size by Hoss’s standards, it’s probably more than enough for the two of us.  And I’ve got two fried apple pies to put with those cookies—and coffee.”

“That sounds wonderful,” Laurie said enthusiastically, “especially the coffee.”

“Let’s get on back to my camp then,” Joe suggested.  “I’ve got the wood laid, so I’ll fire it up, and while the food heats and the coffee brews, we’ll have ourselves a fine chat.  Been too long since we did.”

Laurie nodded.  “Let me get my contribution.”

“You bet; I love sugar cookies.”  Joe followed her over to the horse and once she’d removed her lunch from the saddle bags, took it from her.  “Not quite like carrying your books home from school,” he said as she tied her horse’s reins to the top fence rail, “but it reminds me of that.”

Laurie glanced away demurely.  “That didn’t happen much.”

“No, not near enough,” Joe replied.  He wasn’t sure why, either, except Laurie had never had the flashy kind of looks he’d been drawn to as a youngster taking his first sips of love’s sweet nectar.  She’d always been a pretty little thing, but kind of mousy, never drawing attention to herself.  Now that he thought of it, though, Laurie was always the first to offer a caring smile when he’d landed in trouble.  He took her hand, and as they walked along the fence line after stepping through one of the broken spots, they gossiped sociably about friends and family until they reached the wagon.

“I’ll get the fire going,” he said.  “You want to get the food and such out of the wagon?”

“Happy to,” Laurie said, “and do let me make the coffee.”

“Oh, yeah,” Joe chuckled.  “You’d better; mine’s nothing to brag about.”  Soon he had the fire going and the stew and coffee placed where they could heat.  Glancing down, he realized for the first time that he was shirtless, not exactly the appropriate attire for dining with a young lady.  “Uh, Laurie,” he stammered awkwardly.  “I know it ain’t proper, showin’ myself like this, but—uh—if you saw how filthy my shirt was—”

“Joe, you look fine.”  Her gaze lingered on his well sculpted, sun-bronzed chest.  “You look”—long eyelashes lowered to veil her eyes—“fine . . . really.”

“You look . . . finer.”  Finishing in a whisper, Joe bent to touch his lips lightly to hers.

Laurie blushed, adding rosy color to her cheeks.  “Well,” she murmured, eyes on the horizon, mostly to keep them off those mesmerizing muscles, “where shall we dine, good sir?  I had intended to have my sandwich on a fallen log somewhere among the trees, so I didn’t bring a picnic blanket.”

“Ah, but I’ve spread an entire carpet of green velour for you, my lady.”  Joe swept his hand to indicate the wide pasture behind them.

 “What could be more luxurious?”  Laurie laughed.  “And wouldn’t Miss Jones be proud of you for using a two-dollar word like that!  Shall we sit upon it, then, and share that sandwich while we wait for the stew?”

“Sounds good.”  Joe drew his pocketknife from his pocket and held its blade in the flames of the fire.  “Not sure what I did with it last,” he chuckled, “but I think we’ll both feel better about me cuttin’ that sandwich with it if it makes a trip through the fire.”

“You’re so thoughtful, Joe.”

“Me?”  Joe looked genuinely surprised.  “That’s one of the words that always comes to mind when I think about you.”

“I think it fits you very well,” Laurie said softly.  “Always kind and considerate, that’s the boy I remember from school, and the man is no different.”

Joe pulled the knife from the fire and sliced the sandwich in two.  “You’re different, though,” he said as he handed her half.  “From when we were in school, I mean.”  He helped her sit on the grassy carpet and then eased down beside her.  “You always seemed so shy back then.”

“I was shy.”  Again she lowered her eyelids.  “I’m still shy.”

“Don’t seem that way today,” Joe commented.  “Seem like you’re at ease, talkin’ freely, like it came natural.”  He took a bite of his sandwich.

Laurie smiled.  “Maybe you’re just easy to talk to.”

Swallowing, Joe shook his head.  “No, it’s you.  You have changed—like a butterfly comin’ out of its cocoon.”

“A simile!  Oh, Miss Jones would be proud,” she teased.  Then she smiled.  “I suppose I have come out of my cocoon a bit, Joe.  I’ve been helping out at the orphanage from time to time, and working with the children, being accepted by them, has given me confidence to speak out more with others.  I’ve found that when I work at putting the other person at ease, I feel more at ease myself.”

“I never had much problem that way,” Joe admitted.

“Maybe because you always worked at putting the other person at ease.  At least, that’s the boy I remember.”  Ducking her head again, Laurie took a nibble from one corner of her sandwich.

“You’re gonna make me blush,” Joe chuckled, “shy kid that I am.”  He bounced up.  “Hey, that stew ought to be hot by now.  I’ll fetch it and the coffee pot.  Sorry there’s only one spoon and one cup.”

“We can share.”

Joe trotted over to the fire, thinking as he ran how nice the notion of sharing things with Laurie sounded.  Not just a spoon and a cup or even a pleasant afternoon, but maybe more.  Talking and laughing together, they shared the meal, polishing off stew, sandwich, fried pie and cookies to the last crumb.

“I should go,” Laurie said, standing and brushing grass from her skirt.  “You have a lot of fence left to mend.”

“Yeah, I do,” Joe replied reluctantly, “but you’ve sure given me a refreshing break from it, Laurie.  Thanks.”

She curtsied formally.  “And thank you, sir, for a wonderful afternoon.”

He walked her back to her horse and helped her mount.  “Laurie,” he said as he handed her the reins, “tell your pa I’ll ride his fence line and check for damage first chance I get.  He don’t need to be worryin’ ‘bout that when he’s laid up.  You tell him that’s what neighbors are for.”

She leaned down to kiss his cheek.  “See?  Thoughtful, considerate, Joe Cartwright—synonyms.”

Joe laughed.  “Miss Jones sure ought to be proud of great little grammar students like us.”  He paused, and though it was almost an alien emotion to him, he felt suddenly shy, bashful, awkward.  “Laurie, you think, maybe, I could come calling sometime?”

“Oh, Joe, I . . . yes, please . . . I’d like that very much.”  She dared to touch his bare shoulder and felt a shiver run up her arm.  “Come by the house after you check Pa’s fence line.  I’ll have sugar cookies baked and waiting.”

“You do know how to tempt a man.”  He took a step back, so her horse had room to move, and smiled up at her tenderly.  “Tomorrow, if I can.  Bye, Laurie.”

“Bye, Joe.”  She turned and cantered away south, and Joe went back to work, keeping at it steadily throughout the afternoon.  He’d taken a longer noon hour than planned and needed to make up for lost—though not really lost—time, especially if he wanted to spend tomorrow at the Reynolds’ place.

*****

. . . Joe drained the final cup of coffee, made sure the fire was well out and gathered the tools and utensils that he hadn’t yet loaded.  The air was growing slightly chilly, so he slipped his shirt back on just before climbing up to the wagon seat.  He turned the buckboard around and headed for home as a burnt orange sun set behind him.

By the time he pulled into the yard at the Ponderosa, full darkness had descended.  With complete predictability Pa came out to meet him.  “Hey, Pa.  Sorry I’m late,” he called to forestall any forthcoming lecture.

“I wasn’t worried—yet,” his father said with a welcoming smile.

“Hop Sing threatened to go back to China yet?” Joe snickered.

Ben echoed the laughter.  “Not yet.  In fact, Hoss still isn’t out of the tub, so it isn’t just you he’s holding supper for.”

“Hoss had a bad day, huh?” Joe asked, face filled with commiseration.

Wincing, Ben closed his eyes.  “Don’t even ask; you’ll live longer.”

“Long, hot bath’ll help,” Joe assured his father.  He grinned.  “Better wait ‘til after supper for mine, I think, but I will wash up and change my shirt.”

“Sure.”  Ben circled his son’s slim shoulders.  “Nice to see one of my sons, at least, come home in a good mood.  Your day went all right?”

“Went great!” Joe said with enthusiasm.  “Almost perfect.”

Ben chuckled.  “Only almost?”

Joe put on a playful pout for effect.  “Well, I did have to work.”

Ben squeezed him close as they moved toward the front door.  “I guess that would take a slight edge off perfection.”

Joe flashed his dazzling smile.  “Just a slight edge, though.  Yeah, it was a near-perfect day.”  A dreamy look came across his face; then he turned quickly toward his father.  “Hey, Pa, Laurie Reynolds rode by.  Told me her pa’s laid up with back trouble, so I said I’d check his fence line for storm damage.  Okay if I do that tomorrow?”

Ben looked proud.  “Sure.  I’d appreciate it if you would.  That’s what neighbors are for.”

“Just what I said,” Joe told him.  “Laurie’s turned out mighty pretty, don’t you think, Pa?”

Ben stopped and cocked his head as he appraised the moon-eyed expression on his son’s face.  “Yes, I’ve always thought Laurie Reynolds was a lovely young lady with inner beauty, as well as a fair face.”

Joe beamed.  “I think so, too, Pa . . . and, Pa . . . I think I’m in love.”

Ben resisted the temptation to ask, “Again?” and simply smiled as he steered Joe toward the front door.  Maybe . . . just maybe . . . this love would be more than a fleeting whim.  Laurie Reynolds.  Sweet girl.  He could see her gracing the table here.  And if he did gain a new daughter . . . and ultimately, grandchildren . . . why, that would push this day all the way over the edge to radiant perfection.

***The End***

Author’s Note:  Ben’s “usual fair method” for assigning unwanted chores is adapted from “The Auld Sod” by Charles Lang.

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