Summary: When three pies go missing at the Ponderosa, everyone’s suspicions naturally turn to a particular Cartwright, but who actually ate all the pies?
Word Count: 2400
The food that evening had been delicious, as usual, but none of the Cartwrights had fully enjoyed the meal. The Cantonese rumblings from the next room were loud enough and angry enough to take the edge off even Hoss’ appetite, and, so far, neither Ben nor Adam had found the manly valor, nor thirteen-year-old Joe, the adolescent audacity to ask what the problem was. Such inquiries historically had led to threats of a return to China with little enlightenment ensuing. So, they ate in near silence with darting glances thrown kitchen-ward between bites.
When a still-grumbling Hop Sing came in to clear the table, Hoss heroically pasted a hopeful smile on his face and asked, “What’s for dessert?”
Hop Sing glowered at him, spewed another volley of irate Chinese and finally concluded with a single phrase in his distinctive English. “You know alleady!”
Smile evaporating, Hoss stared back in blank innocence. “Huh?”
“You know,” Hop Sing repeated, accusative eyes circling the table to take in all the Cartwrights.
“Why you starin’ at me?” Little Joe demanded. “I don’t know nothin’.”
“You know; all know,” the volatile cook insisted.
“I don’t!” the boy declared, followed by a nervous nibble of his lower lip and a furtive glance across the table.
“Nor do I,” Adam stated calmly.
“Me, neither,” Hoss protested.
“That makes it unanimous,” Ben gruffly announced. Then he turned to the Chinaman. “Now, is it asking too much to be told what you’ve prepared for dessert tonight?”
“Pie — blueberry pie — three!” Hop Sing sputtered.
“Hot diggity!” Hoss cried, rubbing his hands together and smacking his lips. “My favorite!”
“Everything’s your favorite,” Adam observed dryly.
“Pretty much,” Hoss agreed genially. “Well, bring ‘em on, Hop Sing. Two for me, since I appreciate ‘em, and one for the rest of these ingrates to share.”
Before his brothers could protest either his characterization of them or the uneven distribution of dessert, Hop Sing snorted, “You appreciate too much alleady — three pie too much.”
Adam steepled his fingers. “Am I to understand, Hop Sing, that tonight’s dessert — all three pies of it — has gone missing?”
Hop Sing’s chin bobbed in furious affirmation. “All gone — even pans!”
Little Joe glared across the table at the self-proclaimed appreciator of all pies in general and blueberry in particular. “Three? All by yourself? Why, you selfish excuse for a…”
“I never!” Hoss declared, slamming his hand on the tabletop. “I ain’t had a bite.”
“This would appear to warrant investigation,” Adam said.
The Chinese cook scowled at the unfamiliar English words. “What that?” he demanded.
“Ask questions; find truth,” Adam explained simply.
The almond eyes narrowed to slivers. “Know truth.”
Adam shook his head. “Guess, not know.” When he saw the slivers slowly broaden in concession, he quickly asked, “When did you last see these allegedly pilfered pies, Hop Sing?”
Hop Sing wasn’t sure he understood what “allegedly” or “pilfered” meant, but he answered readily, “When take pie from oven. Put on ledge outside window, for cool, like always.”
“That was the last you saw of them?” Adam probed.
Hop Sing frowned in thought for a moment. “No. Saw when go root cellar for carrot, potato. Busy cooking after.”
“All right,” Adam said. “When did you discover they were missing?”
“Right after serve stew,” Hop Sing grunted. “Ready cut pie, but pie gone.”
Adam thoughtfully stroked his chin. “A fairly narrow window of opportunity.”
“Which should exonerate me, at least,” Ben stated bluntly. “I barely returned from Carson City before that stew was dished up.”
For a moment, Hop Sing looked reluctant to release anyone from suspicion, but he finally nodded. “Not Mr. Ben.” His glare at the Cartwright sons, however, intensified. “Three pies — three boys,” he growled.
Hoss and Little Joe erupted with declarations of innocence, but Adam signaled them to be quiet. Then he loftily asked the cook, “Are you seriously suggesting a conspiracy to burgle your blueberries? That implies planning, and by the same logic that exonerates our honorable father, I scarcely had the time, since I came in from work only half an hour before Pa arrived.”
“Meaning me and Hoss hatched it?” Little Joe asked hotly.
“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Adam observed with a sardonic smile. “Mischief and Mayhem Incorporated.”
Little Joe bolted to his feet and all but lunged at his older brother as he shouted denials. When Hoss also lumbered up from his chair to tower over Adam, Ben thundered like a patriarch of old, “Sit down, both of you!”
With a sulky pout Little Joe plopped down in his chair, and although that expression almost never graced Hoss’ placid face, he also displayed it as he took his seat, muttering, “Weren’t me.”
“What’s that?” Ben demanded. “Don’t mumble, boy.”
“Doggone it, Pa!” Hoss fumed. “Food goes missin’, ever’one looks at me, and I ain’t no pie thief! I might-a had a mite more chance to filch ‘em than you or Adam, but” — his face stiffened as a sudden thought made him stare across the table — “but I ain’t the one had the best chance nor the longest one. Like you and Adam, I been working away from home most of the day, but little brother there, he’s been home since school let out… right about the time them pies likely got put on that ledge.”
Silence dropped over the room like a shroud, and slowly every eye in the room turned skeptically on Hoss. No one could fault his logic, but the notion that the person with the smallest appetite on the Ponderosa had single-handedly disposed of three whole pies and then eaten a full supper on top of that was so patently ridiculous that no one, not even the irate Chinese cook, could take it seriously. No one, apparently, except the young Cartwright so accused.
Little Joe managed to keep his seat in deference to Pa’s bellowed edict of moments before, but he stabbed an angry index finger at his middle brother. “You’re accusin’ me? That’s rich! After what I done for…” he clamped his mouth shut as he felt the iron fingers of his father’s hand clamp around his left wrist.
“Just what is the meaning of this, young man?” Ben asked tersely.
Little Joe’s complexion turned seasick green, and unintelligible gurgles bubbled up his throat as all eyes focused on his index finger.
“Aha!” Hoss cried, pointing. “There’s your proof!”
“No!” anger helped Little Joe to spew out. Finally finding his tongue, he sputtered, “It’s not what it looks like.”
“Oh, I would hope not,” Adam chuckled, “because that finger has a distinct blueberry tint to it.”
“Is-a not funny,” the Chinaman growled. Then, shaking his head reproachfully, he said, “Hop Sing not think this of you, Little Joe.”
“I… didn’t… do… it.” Each word staggered out as slowly and significantly as if it were its own sentence.
“There is some evidence to the contrary, son,” Ben said, nodding toward the condemning hand as he released it.
With eyes eloquently pleading for belief, Little Joe turned to his father. “I know,” he admitted, “but I didn’t take them pies, and I didn’t eat them pies…more than a taste.”
“Aha!” Hoss cried again.
“Will you hush?” Little Joe yelled, scowling across the table. “Last time I try to help you!”
“Me!” Hoss shouted. “Don’t drag me into this, you miserable, lyin’ little…”
“Enough!” Ben bellowed. And everyone cringed, Hoss worst of all. Even though everyone at the table knew from experience that Little Joe was well capable of bending the truth, they also well knew that to accuse a brother of lying was almost as high a crime before the tribunal of Judge Ben Cartwright. When the room was silent, Ben said, “Now, Joseph, I am going to give you one chance to explain yourself, and I strongly recommend that you tell the truth…the whole truth… and nothing but the truth.”
As soberly as if he were facing a real court, Little Joe raised his incriminating left hand. “I swear.” At his father’s nod he continued, “I didn’t take the pies, and I didn’t eat the pies. When I went back to the outhouse, though, I did see a pan on the ground — empty… well, almost empty. Someone…” — he aimed a cutting glance at Hoss — “had eaten the whole thing, except for some fruit syrup stickin’ to the sides.” He held up his blue-stained index finger and slowly circled it in the air. “I run my finger all around the pan and licked off what was left, but that’s all the pie I had.” His gaze at Hoss narrowed. “I only saw the one pan, though; I never dreamed that someone had et up three whole pies.”
“I ain’t even had a finger-lickin’,” Hoss insisted, raising his clean hands to prove his point.
“Where other pans?” Hop Sing demanded.
Little Joe spread and lifted his open palms. “I don’t know; I never saw ‘em.”
“Where pan you see?” the cook persisted.
“Behind the outhouse,” Little Joe answered. Then, seeing the stupefied looks everyone at the table was giving him, he explained quickly, “I figured Hoss had took the pie and done a mighty poor job of hiding the evidence, so — so I thought I’d cover for him, wash up the pan and sneak it back in later.”
“Why… thanks, little brother,” Hoss said, every trace of irritation fading from his face. “That was right nice of you…even if you was wrong about me.”
Little Joe shrugged. “You done it for me, plenty times.” Seeing his father’s eyebrow arching up, he tapered off in a quick decision to quit while he was behind.
Adam cleared his throat. “May I suggest that we adjourn to the ‘scene of the crime’?”
“What good that do?” Hop Sing grunted.
Adam copied his youngest brother’s shrug. “Maybe none, but we might, at least, find the missing pans.”
“Need find,” the cook decreed, so they all rose from the table and traipsed outside after Adam.
They halted outside the kitchen window. “Now, is this where you last saw the pies?” Adam asked Hop Sing, who confirmed it with a stiff nod.
Hoss stooped to examine the ground. “Traces of blueberry here in the dust.” He pointed toward the corner of the house as he stood. “Leads off that way.”
“All right,” Adam said. “Follow them if you can. Now, if you would be so kind, Little Joe, show us where you found the pie pan. That should narrow the search area for Hoss.”
“Right over here,” Little Joe said, trotting to the side of the house. The others followed him, Hoss slowly, so that he could carefully watch for signs of blueberry syrup mingled with the dirt.
“Anything?” Adam asked when his brother had joined the rest of the family.
“Yeah, some,” Hoss said, “but trail basically leads here.” He began walking in ever-enlarging circles before finally shaking his head. “Pretty much ends here, too.”
“Worth a try,” Ben said, laying a consoling hand on his middle son’s shoulder. “Little Joe, you’d better get that pan you hid earlier and return it to Hop Sing.”
“Yes, sir,” Little Joe said. He scampered behind the outhouse while the others waited. “Hey! Give that back!” they heard him yell, and they all rushed to the back side of the outhouse. There they saw the youngest Cartwright waging a tug-of-war with a nanny goat, who had the rim of the missing pie pan clamped in strong, possessive teeth.
Spouting a stream of unintelligible Cantonese, Hop Sing darted forward to grab the pie pan, while Ben dashed over to snatch his youngest son about the waist. Both pulled with all their might. Ben hollered, “Let go!” but neither boy nor cook nor goat did, each undoubtedly assuming that the instruction was intended for someone else. With head cocked in concentration, Adam studied the pandemonium, while Hoss bent double, grabbing both knees, and loudly guffawed.
Hoss recovered first. “No, no,” he said as his hands circled Hop Sing’s waist and easily lifted him out of the fray. “That ain’t the way.” At the same time, Little Joe released his hold on the pie pan and landed on top of his father, who toppled into the dust the instant the boy’s resistance relaxed. By the time Adam had helped both of them to their feet and brushed off the seat of Ben’s britches, Hoss had one arm about the goat’s neck and was whispering soothing words into her ear while he gently pried the pie tin from her mouth.
Finally, Hoss held it out to Hop Sing. “There’s your pan,” he said triumphantly, while the goat bleated in gape-mouthed frustration.
“And there’s your pie thief.” Adam pointed to the blue-stained tongue of the nanny goat.
“Pans and all?” Little Joe asked, wide-eyed. He’d heard, of course, that a goat would eat anything, but would scarcely have given the notion credence before today.
Adam chuckled. “I imagine they’re around somewhere, but, at least, we got one back for you, Hop Sing.”
The cook looked anything but pleased as he continued to rant, pointing out the toothy dents in his baking tin. “Hop Sing fixee nanny goat stew for next supper,” he snorted, lapsing into English to deliver his conclusion.
Grinning, Hoss shook his head. “Don’t reckon you better do that, Hop Sing,” he advised. “That’s Miss Amy’s goat, and she’ll likely put you in a stew if’n you harm one hair…”
“On Nanny’s chinny chin chin,” Adam finished with a wry smile.
“Well, mystery solved, at any rate,” Ben said. “Hoss, you’d better get that goat back to Miss Amy. Adam, you and Joe scout around, see if you can find those other pans somewhere in the bushes.” Seeing Hop Sing about to object, he quickly added, “And if they can’t find them or they’re not in good condition, I’ll buy you a new set next time we’re in town.”
“Better go town soon, if want pie,” Hop Sing grunted, although the thought of shiny new pans was already spreading a look of satisfaction across his face.
The Cartwright boys fanned out to fulfill their various commissions, brotherly unity and good humor restored, despite that night’s lack of dessert.