Summary: A perfect day for a party!
Word Count: 4760
“Where are you?” Ben Cartwright asked, but his son’s words had drawn Ben toward the wagon. He shifted his younger son Hoss onto his hip as he walked.
“In here, Pa,” Adam replied poking his head out from the canvas cover.
Something in Adam’s tone caught Ben’s suspicion. “Doing what?” Ben had arrived at the rear of the wagon and now stood face to face with his seven-year-old son.
“Just looking.” Adam’s eyes were avoiding his father’s.
“At what are you looking, Adam?”
“At the Bible. You never said not to look in the Bible, Pa,” Adam asserted his defense.
“No, I would never forbid you the Lord’s word, son, but exactly what were you searching for?”
Adam chewed his lower lip. It was not the Lord’s word that he had been searching, and Pa knew that many of those words were still unreadable for the boy.
“Ummm, Pa, you wrote in the Bible the day Hoss was born.”
“I recorded your brother’s birth, yes, just as I recorded yours, but what. . . “
Uncharacteristically Adam interrupted, “I was checking the date, Pa. Pa, tomorrow, well, tomorrow’s gonna be Hoss’ birthday. His first birthday, Pa.”
Ben drew in a deep breath. “So it will.” His gaze settled on the bowed head of his baby son whose attention was focused on a cold biscuit Ben had given him to gnaw until dinner was prepared. Unconsciously Ben patted the child’s back, and Hoss lifted his head, displaying a wide grin around the remains of the biscuit.
Adam’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Maybe we could do something special.”
Ben heard the yearning in the young voice. “Something special. He’s only had one birthday that was special, and I wasn’t the one who made it so. Oh, Inger!” He felt the familiar slice of grief’s knife and the even deeper cut of guilt. He had allowed grief for Adam’s mother to keep him from marking the boy’s natal day with celebration, for Elizabeth had died before her son was twenty-four hours old, and only his second wife’s gentle insistence had allowed Adam to learn the joy of a birthday when he turned six. Now the boy was once again without a mother.
“What had you thought to do, son?”
Adam drew in a deep breath and willed himself to ask the impossible. “Welllll, I thought, you know, just maybe we could, well, that we could not, umm, not move on, that we could give Hoss a play day.” The words had built in momentum until the final thought was propelled out in sweeping rush.
“So you think we should just stay here and play for a day?”
Adam tugged his left ear and tried hard to interpret his father’s tone. “With Hoss, Pa, and maybe make something special to eat.”
“We haven’t the means for a birthday cake, child.” The cake Inger had made for Adam had been four layers high.
“I know. Hoss, well, he don’t expect no cake, but maybe we could think of something sweet. He likes sweet things, Pa.”
“There’s very little your brother dislikes in the way of food,” Ben said his tone neutral.
“It’s a nice spot here, Pa.”
It was a nice spot with grass, trees, and babbling little creek. Ben sighed. A man was meant to learn from his mistakes. The boy was asking for only one day, and Adam asked for so little. Ben decided that both his sons deserved for the morrow to be a special day. “We’ll rest the oxen and take a play day then.” He chucked Hoss’ little chin as Adam’s whoop of joy rang in his ear. “Will you like that, little man?”
“ ‘Ike, Pa,” Hoss managed to agree, spattering mashed biscuit on his father’s shirt. Ben smiled and reached his long arm out to snag his elder son by the waist. Swinging Adam to the ground, Ben ordered him off to collect kindling.
Adam darted away but stopped after a dozen steps. Looking back at Ben, he said softly, “Thanks, Pa.”
Ben shook his head as he watched Adam start his search. “Not out of sight, son,” he reminded the boy and then turned to his own evening chores.
Before being put down to sleep, Adam tried diligently to teach his little brother to hold up one finger and answer the question, “How old are you?” While Adam kept Hoss’ attention, Ben took a survey of their food stores, considering how Hoss’ birthday meal might be made special.
“Pa, Pa, ask him, Pa. Ask Hoss how old he is!” Adam gestured for his father to join him and his brother.
Ben walked over to the blanket where the boys were sitting and went down on his heels. “Well now, Hoss, tell pa. How old are you?”
Hoss beamed and held up one sticky finger separate from the rest. “Un,” he intoned solemnly.
Ben chuckled softly and swept his baby into a hug. “Good boy! That’s Pa’s smart little man!” He stood with Hoss in his arms and gazed down at his elder son.
“He learned real quick, now didn’t he, Pa?” Adam glowed with pride in his brother’s achievement.
Ben reached out and ruffled Adam’s curls. “Well, he did have an excellent teacher.”
Adam’s chest puffed out at his father’s praise.
“Now, the two of you best get to sleep.” Ben saw Adam’s lower lip slip into a slight pout. Instead of a reprimand, he winked broadly and stated in a conspiratorial tone, “The sooner to sleep, the sooner to wake, so tomorrow will come all the faster.”
Adam’s lip returned to its normal position. “Right, Pa.”
A half-hour later both boys were snoring softly. Ben listened to the sound as he stared into the fire and remembered both the women he loved.
Ben walked softly around the camp the next morning, trying to allow his sons the luxury of a sleep-in. He had just taken the remaining ration of dried apples and placed them in warm water to soak. If he cooked the apples with a little cinnamon and honey and sweetened some dough with sugar, he thought he might be able to make something that would pass for a cobbler with the boys.
“Morning, Pa.” Ben turned to see Adam slip from the pallet beneath the wagon where he and Hoss had been sleeping.
“Good morning, son.” Ben put his finger to his lips. “Let’s let your brother sleep until you’re dressed and I have breakfast finished.”
Adam’s voice dropped to a whisper, “Okay, Pa. I’ll hurry.”
“No need to hurry. The animals have been seen to.” Ben kept an eye on his elder son and an ear on his baby while he finished preparing breakfast.
When Adam was washed and dressed, he returned to his father’s side. “I don’t have morning chores, Pa?”
Ben shook his head gently, “It’s a special play day, remember?”
Before Adam could respond, a plaintive cry drifted out on the morning air. “Paaa.”
“Your brother’s awake,” Ben announced.
“I’ll see to him, Pa,” Adam volunteered.
“Even his diaper?”
Adam wrinkled his nose but nodded his head.
“Fine then. I’ll pour the water into the basin.”
Ben listened as Adam greeted his brother.
“Happy Birthday, Hoss.”
“Aaum! Hoss held out his arms, and Adam swept him up.
“How old are you, Hoss?” Adam asked eagerly.
Hoss rubbed his fists into his eyes and then remembered last night’s game. He stuck out a finger on each fist and smiled. “Unnn!”
“Good boy!” Adam declared and gave his brother a squeeze and a smacking-loud kiss.
Ben listened to Adam’s chatter, interrupted occasionally by the high-note of Hoss’ single-syllable declarations, and smiled contentedly. He finished the breakfast preparations and called to Adam, who carried Hoss over to his father. Ben studied the slim dark-haired boy with the strapping one-year-old in his arms.
Adam saw the fact that Hoss was clad only in his diaper register on their father’s face. “Hoss didn’t want his gown, Pa. It’s warm, and there ain’t no other folks around.”
Ben considered the chances that his son would grow up to be a half-naked savage if allowed to go about barely clothed one day of the year and relented. “Fine then. You two sit down for breakfast.”
Adam sat down on the blanket provided and plopped Hoss beside him. Ben handed Adam a plate, set one on the blanket in front of Hoss, and took a seat beside his sons.
“Preserves! Golly, Pa.” Adam picked up the warm biscuit with its small dollop of blackberry jam. “I didn’t know we had some left.”
“A pa has to keep a few secrets for special days. Go on and eat it,” Ben replied while helping Hoss to reach his biscuit.
Adam took a careful bite, chewed, and swallowed. “That’s good!” he declared. “Go on, Hoss!” Adam urged as he guided his brother’s hand to his mouth.
Hoss took a large bite, and his eyes widened. After mashing the biscuit to pulp, he uttered, “Ooood,” before swallowing and trying to push the entire remains of the biscuit into his mouth.
Ben reached out to correct the problem. “A bit at time, little man,” Ben instructed.
“I told you today was gonna be special, Hoss, didn’t I?” Adam did not seem the least bit disappointed at his brother’s failure to answer but slowly ate his biscuits, savoring each bite.
“What are we going to do first, Pa?” Adam inquired when he had swallowed the last of his milk.
Ben reached out and rubbed the milk moustache from his son’s upper lip. He was very glad that he had managed to purchase a cow with the money he had saved working in the fort throughout the past winter. “Well, having considered your brother’s favorite playtimes, there’s a little place near the creek that’s mostly mud.”
“You mean that we could get in the mud and play without worrying about getting covered in it?” Adam squirmed with excitement at the very idea.
“You would have to shuck a few clothes to join your brother, but, yes, that is what I meant.”
“Hoss would love that, Pa!” Adam had already begun unbuttoning his shirt. Ten minutes later, Ben had his sons settled in a slight depression about twenty feet from the creek. One bucket of added water turned the area into a perfect mud pit.
“See to it that your brother doesn’t sallow any more mud than is absolutely unavoidable.” Ben admonished gently with a smile remaining on his face.
“I’ll keep it out of his mouth, Pa, promise.” The seven-year-old, clad only in his cotton drawers, was already churning the mud with his hands.
“Adam, I’m going to search around a bit to see if there’s anything growing about to add to our dinner. I’ll be within sight and within call.” Ben caught Adam’s chin in his hand to be sure he had the child’s full attention. “You and Hoss are not to leave this spot. You are not to go beyond the edge of the mud. Do you understand your boundaries?” Ben had taught Adam what boundaries were before he turned four.
Ben started to reinforce his instructions but swallowed his usual reference to the consequences of disobeying. Instead he ruffled Adam’s hair. “Watch your brother closely then, and call out if there is any problem.” He leaned down and planted a kiss on Hoss’ head. “Be good for your brother, Hoss.”
Hoss’ attention shifted from the mud he was squishing in both hands only long enough to utter, “Oood.”
Ben kept his ears attuned to the chatter and squeals of his sons as he searched the creek bank for tender greens and watercress. He found both as well as a small handful of mushrooms. Placing his finds in a bag, he set out several fishing lines hoping to have fresh fish to feed his sons for supper. Then he returned to his boys.
Ben walked up behind Adam and stared down at the mud-covered pair. A pair of depressions that could only be referred to as mud angels help to explain the solid coat of mud that encrusted both his children.
Adam whirled around on his seat at the sound of his name. Some of the mud on his hands flew off and splattered across his father’s shirt.
“Pa!” Then Adam’s eyes settled on the mud dotting his pa’s chest. His eyes grew wider. “Pa, I. . .”
“Paaa!” Hoss’ squealed and raised his arms to his father signaling that he wanted to be lifted.
Ben gave a mental shrug and reached over Adam to swing Hoss out of the mud and into his arms. The resulting hug transferred a liberal amount of mud from the baby to Ben. Adam relaxed as he saw a smile broaden on his father’s face.
“Pa’s gonna play too!” Adam tugged as his father’s pants. “Mud war, Pa? I’ll take you both on.”
A gleam came into Ben’s eyes as he reached down and scooped up a handful of mud. The better part of the next hour was spent in a pitched battle between the lithe seven-year-old and his baby-encumbered father. The squeals and cries that accompanied it rang out in three distinct octaves. The battle ended with all three Cartwrights lying flat on their backs staring up at the sky.
“Hoss liked that, Pa,” Adam declared between pants.
Ben smiled. “I do believe he did, but now the three of us need cleaning up.”
“It will all come off if we go swimming in the creek,” Adam suggested.
“The water’s too cold.”
“Not for me, Pa.”
“For you, your brother, and even for me.” Ben’s voice had grown a shade more forceful.
“We’ve got to get clean, and swimming. . .”
“We’ll use the big tub.”
They bathed beside the creek using several pots of boiling water to turn the bath pleasantly warm. Ben even took time to show Adam how to soap his hands and blow huge bubbles through the ring of his thumb and finger and to paint a bubble beard on Hoss.
Scrubbed and dressed in clean clothes, Adam stood before his father and asked, “What now, Pa?”
“Wellll,” Ben drew out the word as he rubbed his chin, “I was thinking maybe some boat races.”
“Boat races?” Adam’s brow furrowed, and then his eyes lit up. “In the creek!” His father had taught him when he was quite small to make toy boats of twigs and leaves, and Adam began immediately to assemble the needed materials.
Adam made his own boat while Ben assembled one for himself and another for Hoss. Going slightly downstream, he placed a long, heavy branch so that it reached about two-thirds of the way across the creek. He returned to his sons, and then they walked further upstream. They set the tiny boats in the water, and the race began. Adam ran along the bank shouting encouragement to the Wanderer. Hoss shrieked in glee from his pa’s shoulders as Ben jogged behind his son. Adam shouted and jumped in the air when his boat was the first to bump against the branch barricade.
“I won! I won!”
Ben’s voice stopped his boy from entering the water. “I’ll get them, son.”
The next two hours slid by as the boats made repeated trips down the creek with victories divided amongst all three owners.
“One more time, Pa?”
Ben shook his head. “No, Adam, it’s past time for lunch.”
“But just. . .”
“Hoss is hungry, Adam.” Ben softened his stern look with a smile. “For that matter, so am I.”
“Guess I am too, Pa. I just. . . we was having such a good time.”
“That we were,” Ben agreed lifting Hoss onto his hip and settling his other hand on Adam’s head to lead him back toward the wagon.
Ben had baked the johnnycake that morning and reserved enough milk for both boys. That and a bit of hard cheese made a simple but tasty lunch for the three of them.
“I don’t think Hoss much cares for cheese, Pa, but I do,” Adam asserted looking at the cheese still on brother’s plate.
“Finish his for him then. He’s had enough johnnycake for someone twice his size,” Ben instructed as he wet a cloth and wiped the baby’s face and hands.
Adam snatched the cheese and chewed it slowly. Swallowing, he inquired, “What now, Pa?”
“Your brother needs a nap.”
“I’m too big, Pa,” Adam avowed quickly. He had given up regular naps by the age of four.
“A quiet time for the two of us and a nap for your brother.” Ben settled back against a tree and settled Hoss on his lap. Then he patted the blanket beside him. Adam stretched out with his head against his father’s leg.
“There’s a horse looking down at us, Pa,” Adam stated after a minute of staring up at the sky.
“So there is, and there’s a castle behind him.” Ben observed after studying the clouds. It was an old game that he and Adam played often.
“I suppose he lives there with his master.”
“A noble knight, no doubt.”
“He has to fight the dragon. See, Pa, over there. He’s coming.”
“So he is.”
“Tell me about it, please.”
Ben wove a story for his son, and by the time it ended, both boys’ breaths were deep and even with sleep. Ben decided he could afford an indulgence of his own and closed his eyes.
“Adam?” Ben had come awake instantly as he sensed his son’s movement. “Settle back, son, a bit longer.”
“Adam.” Ben’s tone was firm but not severe.
“I gotta go, Pa.” The words were delivered with a recognizable whine.
Ben opened his eyes fully and pointed to a nearby tree. “There then. No farther.”
Ben shifted, and Hoss wakened as well whimpering slightly. Ben sighed and kissed the wispy hair on the baby’s head.
Adam returned and stood behind Ben as he changed Hoss’ diaper. “Have you got something planned for now, Pa?”
“I thought we should make your brother his birthday present.”
“A present, Pa?”
“What kind of present?”
Ben sent an exaggerated glance toward Hoss and leaned over to whisper in Adam’s ear. A minute later, the seven-year-old scurried off and began collecting various bits and pieces and bringing them to Ben. Ben allowed Hoss to play with the makings as he carefully fashioned a toy horse from bits of wood and some left-over yarn of Inger’s that had remained at the bottom of a wooden chest. Adam helped with the smoothing of the edges and the surfaces, so that no splinters could possibly prick his brother’s little fingers. Ben and Adam chatted as they worked and laughed at silly memories and jokes. Finally they presented Hoss with a toy horse the baby recognized immediately.
“He likes it, Pa,” declared Adam with equal delight in his voice.
“You show him how to play with it while I check the fishing lines. Then I’ll get supper started.” Ben rose and set off toward the creek. He checked the lines and found two trout and a fat bass.
“We shall have a fine supper! Thank you, Lord!” Ben turned and walked back toward the wagon. As he approached, he saw that the blanket which should have held his boys was empty. He started to run, calling Adam’s name. Stopping at the edge of the empty blanket, he scanned the area and swallowed the fear that clogged his throat so that he could call out again. Before a syllable left his mouth, a sound came to his ears.
“Boo!” It was echoed by a smaller, higher version. “Boooo.”
Ben spun on his heel as relief waved in and out of his body, followed by anger.
“Adam!” Ben watched the glee fall from his sons’ faces. As Adam’s face paled, Ben drew in a deep breath. “They were playing. Lord God, thank you; they were only playing.” The anger flowed out as quickly as it had come in, and suddenly Ben felt only an overwhelming desire to touch his sons, to hold them. He reached out and scooped up his boys, one in each arm. Adam buried his face in his father’s shoulder, and Ben felt the cloth of his shirt becoming damp.
“Now, now,” Ben began to murmur as he lowered himself and his sons to the ground, for he had found his legs unexpectedly weak. Setting Hoss on the ground beside him, Ben turned his attention to the child trembling against his right shoulder. “Now, now, Adam, no need to cry.”
Adam mumbled a sobbing “I ruint it” into his father’s chest.
Ben rubbed his son’s back. “Nothing need be ruined, child.”
“I made you mad and spoiled Hoss’ birthday.” The words were slurred with tears, but Ben managed to understand them.
“I’m not mad, not mad at all.” Ben pried Adam’s face gently from his chest, so that the boy might see the truth of the words in his eyes. “Pa knows his boys were just playing.”
Adam hiccupped and managed to swallow his next sob. “Ya do?”
“I do.” Ben rubbed his thumb across Adam’s cheek pushing away the tears. “You scared me, son, thinking my boys were gone, but I know that you were playing, and I am not mad.”
“You’re not.” It was much more an acknowledgement of the fact than a question.
“No, but it is a game that we will not play again. I’m too old to bear it.”
Hoss had been observing his brother’s tears, comprehending only Adam’s sadness. Then it came to the little one the reason for many of the smiles he had seen recently on his brother’s face. He tugged at the hem of Adam’s pants until Adam turned and looked down. Thrusting a fist with a single finger projecting outward into the air, Hoss shouted forcefully, “Unn!” and he grinned widely. Answering grins sprang onto the face of both his brother and father. Hoss crowed with delight as he felt an emotion that he would learn years later was called pride.
Ben settled the boys on the blanket with pats and cuddles. He instructed Adam to play with Hoss while he saw to supper. Adam started with patty cake and then acted out some convoluted story where he growled and pranced and made mock attacks that ended with a squealing and giggling Hoss. Ben enjoyed the noise as he prepared dinner. It was reassuring, though he did glance twice as often at his sons as on most evenings. Ben joined his boys in play while the food cooked, swinging them in circles and flying them through the air. He also became several beasts including a dragon, a bear, and a horse. He left them laughing from a tickling when he went to settle the stock. Then he called for them to wash for supper as he filled three plates.
Ben placed bits of fish on Hoss’ plate that he had carefully searched for bones. Adam had already learned the careful way to eat fish and dug into his trout with relish. The greens and mushrooms made tasty additions to the meal. Most days travel left too little time to search for fresh-grown food.
Adam patted his own belly and then that of his brother. “We’re mighty full, Pa!”
“I hope not too full for Hoss’ birthday sweet.”
“Sweet? But Pa we had jam this morning.”
Ben went to the fire and lifted a small iron pot with a heavy lid from the edge of the ashes. He carried it to the blanket and lifted the lid. Adam drew in a large sniff.
“Ummmm! That smells good. Real good!”
Hoss sniffed the air in imitation of his brother and then crowed, “Oooood!”
“Wipe the plates clean, son,” Ben instructed. Then as Adam presented each plate to him, Ben placed a scoop of his apple cobbler upon it.
“It’s a bit hot especially for your brother. Can you keep him from it for a few minutes?”
Adam clamped both his arms around Hoss’ middle and pulled the baby against him. Hoss leaned out, reaching toward the plates. “Yeah, Pa. For a few minutes.”
Ben strode quickly to the creak and back. In his hand was a small bucket he had kept cooling in the water. Taking his seat on the blanket, he tipped cream he had skimmed from that morning’s milk over the cobbler on each plate. The metal plates had drawn the heat from the cooked fruit, and the cold cream lowered the temperature to tolerable warmth. Ben started to hand Adam his plate, but Adam did not take it from him.
“We have to sing first. Mama and you sang before I had my cake,” Adam declared determined that things would be done in accordance with tradition.
“That we did.” Ben’s deep voice led Adam’s soft soprano in a heartfelt rendition of “He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” that ended with hearty declarations of “Happy birthday, Hoss!”
Feeling that every bit of cobbler was too precious to waste, Adam decided to assist Hoss in guiding the sweet into his mouth and not onto his face. The baby’s pleasure at the treat would have been visible to even a blind man. Ben allowed not only Hoss but Adam the pleasure of literally licking the plate clean. Afterwards, the three Cartwrights sat quietly watching the sun’s last rays paint the sky. Then Ben added wood to the fire against the chill of the night. As the flames danced, Ben undressed Hoss and pulled on his nightshirt. Adam changed into his own nightclothes and then went to sit on the blanket once again.
“Can we name the stars, Pa?” An ex-seaman, Ben had started teaching Adam the constellations as soon as the boy could talk.
Ben brought Hoss to the blanket as he replied, “Surely.” Pointing to Ursa Major, he asked, “What is that?”
Hoss drifted to sleep in Ben’s lap as father and son named constellations and counted stars.
After a while, Ben said softly, “Time for bed, Adam.”
Adam opened his mouth to protest but instead said softly, “I’m sorry we scared ya, Pa.”
Ben reached out and cupped his hand behind Adam’s head. “You’re forgiven, son. Adam, do you know the reason I was so scared and angry?”
Ben’s hand came around to gently hold Adam’s chin. “I love you and your brother more than you can understand, Adam. Even thinking I might not have you with me, why, that’s something I can’t bear.”
“I won’t never hide from you again, Pa,” Adam promised and reached up to wrap his arms around his father’s neck.
Ben patted his son’s bottom. “Good lad. Now, to bed with you.”
“Yes. Pa.” Adam jumped up and went to the pallet beneath the wagon. Ben followed and tucked both his sons into the blankets. He listened to Adam’s prayers and then kissed both his son’s foreheads.
“Hoss really liked his birthday alot.”
“You’re sure about that, are you?” Ben asked with a teasing tone in his voice.
“He told me, Pa.”
“He did, did he? He said, ‘Adam I enjoyed my birthday’?” Ben’s voice was still teasing.
“Well, no.” There was definite indignation in Adam’s voice. “But he’s my brother, Pa; we don’t need all the words.”
Ben was quite aware that his sons did not need all the words to communicate and replied quite seriously. “I know, son; I think he enjoyed himself very much.”
After a silent moment, Adam ventured, “Pa, do ya think, well, next year can we. . .”
“Have another play day?” Ben finished for him. “I’ve decided that birthdays will be play days from now on.”
Ben could hear the smile in Adam’s declaration, “Hoss, will like that.”
“Not just Hoss’ birthday, Adam, but yours too.”
Adam wiggled in delight. “Maybe in our own place. Do you think maybe in our own place next year?”
“The Lord willing, child, in our own place.”
He waited beside the pallet until Adam’s even breathing and light snore assured him both sons were sleeping. Then Ben Cartwright went quietly about settling the campsite for the night. Lying down on the pallet next to his sons, he said his own prayers including a thank you to the two angels who had given him his sons.