Summary: A year following the marriage of Abigail Jones and Hank Myers, the services of Cupid and Cupid Unlimited are called into action once again when the Myers’ marriage hits a rocky patch. And once more, Adam finds himself an unwilling participant—or should that be victim—in Hoss and Joe’s uproarious schemes.
Word Count: 9000
Ben Cartwright’s fork was midway to his lips, a juicy piece of bloody beefsteak quivering as his hand rose unhurriedly to his mouth. He eyed the succulent morsel, his saliva glands watering with anticipation at the prospect of enjoying a dinner of Hop Sing’s famous and, it could be said, acclaimed roast beef. He had scarcely closed his eyes, readying himself for an eruption of flavour on his tongue, when a resounding crash—so loud it could have raised the dead from their eternal rest—echoed through the ranch house.
“Jumping Jehoshaphat! What in tarnation!”
He frowned as he watched his two youngest sons—Adam being due back from Placerville any time now—curl into themselves at their father’s exclamation. Joe’s concentration became focused on chasing a small collection of peas around the rim of his plate. Hoss, meanwhile, was peering into his glass of water, the interior of the vessel suddenly of great interest to him.
Ben lowered his hand to the table—the steak forgotten—and narrowed his eyes with suspicion. His gaze settled on Joe who had almost captured that last elusive pea; it was proving a troublesome quarry.
Ben’s voice was sharp. “Joseph!”
Joe jerked in his seat. The peas rolled off his fork and back onto the plate. Meek eyes were raised to his father and a timid smile pulled one side of his mouth up.
“Ah, Pa, we were gonna tell you—”
Joe was interrupted by the sound of splintering wood and smashing china reverberating through the room; the windows rattled softly in their panes.
Ben rose halfway out of his chair, an angry glare fixed in the direction of the ruckus emanating from the adjoining bunkhouse. His eyebrows sank low over his eyes as he pulled his gaze back to his sons, scrutinizing them as they sheepishly toyed with the food on their plates, unable to meet their father’s piercing stare. With clenched fists positioned on the table, Ben angled himself over his boys. His face was dark but his voice was soft. And when his voice was soft, it was often deadly.
“Would one of you boys care to tell me…just what…is going on in the bunkhouse?”
Hoss placed his fork carefully on his plate.
“Well, ya see it was like this…” He paused and pulled his mouth high up beneath his scrunched-up nose.
“It was like what?”
Ben spat the last word out with such vehemence that both his sons cringed slightly in their seats.
“It’s Hank, Pa.”
Ben surveyed his youngest son.
For a brief moment Ben didn’t know to whom they were referring. But then another bang was heard, followed by loud, angry voices, and Ben knew exactly who they were talking about. He moved out from behind the table and marched into the centre of the room, halting abruptly at the sound of another deafening commotion. Once the dust had settled, Ben turned sharply to face Hoss and Joe, his hand outstretched behind him as he pointed towards the source of the upheaval.
“You’ve got Hank Myers in the bunkhouse!” Ben roared.
“Do you remember how much damage he did the last time he was here? He’s still paying it off from his weekly wages!”
Hoss and Joe rose quickly from the table and, adopting a flanking movement, they approached their Pa from both sides. Joe gently placed a soothing hand on his father’s shoulder.
“He had no place else to go.”
“What do you mean he had no place else to go? What about his home, his wife?”
“Dadburnit, Pa, Abigail’s gone kicked ‘im out.”
“Kicked him out! But they’ve only been married a year!”
Joe and Hoss exchanged a quick nod and together they manoeuvred their father towards the sofa. Hoss quickly poured his father a drink of their finest brandy and after handing it over, watched as their father threw it down his throat in one fluid motion. Joe sat on the table in front of him, nodding his head in exaggerated desolation.
“He’s real cut up about it.” explained Joe. “Said that he and Abigail had a huge bust-up over something and she threw him out on his ear. She even hurled his guitar after him and you know how she loves to hear him sing.”
With a stiff shot of brandy warming Ben’s belly, his earlier fit of vexation had cooled. The sounds of destruction in the bunkhouse had dissipated and at the realization all was now quiet, Ben’s temper was once more reined in. His brows, however, were still drawn together.
“So how long are you proposing he stay in my bunkhouse—or what’s left of it?”
After flicking a hasty glance at Joe, Hoss lowered himself slowly to the sofa next to his father. He gulped before he opened his mouth to speak.
“Well, sir, we sorta told ‘im he could stay as long as he needed, until he’d sorted things out with Abigail.”
Ben straightened his neck, the edges of his lips turning downwards as he contemplated Hoss’s words.
“Well, it shouldn’t be too long then. They just need to sit down and talk over whatever—”
“Well, see, Pa, the thing is, Hank’s tried talking to her but she won’t listen.” Joe paused and looked over at his older brother. “So, we, that is, me and Hoss, we reckon seeing as how we got ‘em together the first time, we should, uh, well…” Joe’s voice trailed off as his father’s mouth fell open.
“You two boys appear to have very short memories. Don’t you recollect the last time you got involved in Hank Myers’ romantic affairs? Adam almost ended up married to Abigail Jones!”
“What’s that about me and Abigail Jones?”
The three men turned to see the door slam behind a dark and dusty Adam. He had entered the ranch house as Ben was reminding Hoss and Joe of the last time Cupid and Cupid Unlimited had caused havoc in the lives of its unfortunate clientele.
“Ah, Adam, a voice of sanity at last.”
Adam noticed his two brothers exchange a brief look of irritation.
“Your brothers, in their infinite wisdom, have given Hank Myers a bed in the bunkhouse. Seems Abigail has removed him from the marital home.”
Adam straightened up from where he had been loosening his holster tie, baring his teeth in a grimace.
“Hank Myers? I’m surprised the bunkhouse is still standing.”
He walked over to the settee and rested his hands on the cushioned back, leaning over to where his family was gathered.
“So why’d she kick him out?”
Hoss stretched his arms out behind him on the table. “He wouldn’t say.” He looked up at Adam. “But now you’re back from Placerville—how’d it go, by the way?”
Adam grunted a dismissive reply and straightened up. “Now I’m back…what?”
Joe rose and walked around to stand next to Adam, placing a friendly hand on his older brother’s shoulder.
“Well, see, Adam, me and Hoss have an idea which we think will get Hank and Abigail back together.”
Adam swivelled away from his brother and lifted his hands up in the air. “Oh no, little brother, don’t you be getting any ideas. I’ve still not recovered from the last time you roped me into one of your schemes.”
He headed towards the dining table and sat at his usual place, his back to his father and brothers.
“Just this one last time.”
Joe took a hesitant seat at the table.
“It involves the history of Virginia City and I know how you like that sorta thing.”
Adam paused as he unfolded his napkin. “The history of—” He shook his head and glared at his brother. “No!”
There was silence in the room. Hoss and Ben watched the face-off from where they were still seated; Joe carefully run his finger around the rim of a glass whilst Adam piled slowly congealing food onto his plate.
“Think of the bunkhouse, Adam.”
Adam’s head dropped to his chest.
Adam kept the reins loose as his horse and buggy walked the last mile along the gently ascending road that led to the cemetery at Gold Hill. Since he’d collected his companion from her mother’s home, it was clear to Adam that Abigail was unable to keep herself from looking at him. From the moment he had handed her up into the buggy, she had been casting surreptitious glances in his direction. Adam had tried his best to keep his look fixed firmly on the road, but it was difficult to ignore the stares. If he accidentally met her eye, she had quickly glanced away, surveying the scenery with new-found interest, or hiding her coy smiles in her lace hanky. It had made for an uncomfortable journey for Adam, and he had spent most of it mentally cursing his younger brothers and thinking up suitable—and elaborate—retribution.
As the cemetery came into view, Abigail swiveled in her seat to angle herself towards him; one of her knees came to rest against his but she didn’t appear to notice despite Adam’s attempt to gently shift along the seat.
“Adam, it’s so good of you to bring me up here. The children in the school will be so grateful.”
“Well, Mrs Myers—”
“Abigail, please.” Her smile faded and her voice hardened. “My marriage to that…oaf…is over.”
“Abigail, uh, Miss Abigail, of course. Well, when I was told you’d taken a temporary position at the school because of…well, um, because of…” Adam looked down at his hands in discomfort before taking a deep breath and continuing. “Well, when I learned you were teaching the children about the residents of our town, I said to myself, what better way to assist than to bring you up to the cemetery where so many of our more colorful townspeople are buried.”
Abigail laid a gloved hand on Adam’s arm and leaned in towards him. “And it was a wonderful idea, Adam.” Her narrow face was inches away from his. Adam coughed lightly and quickly jumped off the now stationary buggy. He moved around to Abigail’s side and put out his hand to help her. She delicately placed her hand in his but lingered as she stepped down.
“But one thing I don’t understand is why we had to come so late in the evening. It’s almost dark.”
That’s a very good question and one my conniving younger brother has the answer to.
“I’ve been busy on the ranch all day and, besides, there are less people around now so we can study the graves without being disturbed. I’ve got a lantern so we’ll be able to read the inscriptions.”
“You think of everything, Adam,” simpered Abigail as she leaned over him, staring adoringly into his face.
Adam took a deep breath, and with a modest half-smile he helped her to the ground.
The silence of the cemetery was almost deafening in its profundity. There was no wind at all on the lonely hill that had become the last resting place of Virginia City’s inhabitants. Ever since that first cry of ‘Bonanza!’ only a few years before, and the influx of thousands of miners, seemingly overnight, the town had spread up the slopes of Mount Davidson until every square inch of land appeared to be covered in a dwelling place, a saloon, a store, or a mine. But the building stopped at the foot of Gold Hill. It was as though the town’s residents didn’t want to share their nocturnal hours with those who rested in eternal sleep. And there were rumors; local tittle-tattle told of strange colored lights late at night, and noises emanating from the cemetery where no living person resided.
As Adam steered Abigail towards the nearest monument, he attempted a couple of sly looks over his shoulder, peering around the graves as though watching for something. Abigail noticed one of these not-so-furtive glances.
“Are you expecting someone, Adam?”
Adam’s face spun around to face Abigail’s.
“Oh, no, no, no, no, no, I was just trying to find the grave of, uh, oh there it is, the grave of, uh, uh…” Adam held his lantern up over the grave to read the wording. “Uh, Lucius Clegg, that’s right. Now Lucius Clegg was born in England in 1822 and was one of the first prospectors to really strike it rich in our fair town.”
As Adam’s deep mellifluous tones rang out across the cemetery, three men sat crouched behind the railings of one of the larger tombs on the edge of the site, two of them desperately trying to keep the third quiet and still.
“You never told me you’d roped your brother Adam into this,” hissed Hank angrily. Joe and Hoss had him pinned against the cold metal of the enclosure as he struggled in their grip.
“Simmer down, Hank, Abigail’ll hear ya,” whispered Joe. “And who else could we ask? He knows the history and Abigail likes him. She wouldn’t have come up here with just anyone.”
“Yeah, she likes him a little bit too much.” Hank attempted to pull away from the brothers’ grip, his face twisting over the ornate tomb to where he could see his wife and Adam brushing away some debris from a grave inscription. Hoss pulled him back behind the fencing.
“Dadburnit, Hank, they’ll see yer if ya do that.” Hoss’s forehead was furrowed as his eyebrows pulled low over his eyes. “Now, what’s that yer saying about her an’ Adam?”
Hank sat back against the railing, his shoulders slumping as the fight left him.
“It’s all his fault.”
When Hank didn’t elaborate further, Hoss and Joe shared a perplexed look. Hoss looked back at the defeated man. “All whose fault?”
Hank looked up at Hoss. “Adam’s. I just couldn’t take it no more. It’s Adam this, Adam that. Look at how nice Adam looks, always so smart and nicely turned out. Adam and his college education. Look how well Adam sits on his horse. Adam is such a nice lookin’ fella.” He stopped to catch his breath. “I tell yer, I couldn’t take being compared to your perfect brother for one minute longer and I told ‘er, well why didn’t ya marry him instead? And she said she would have done if it hadn’t a been for my singing to ‘er. Then we had an almighty row and she threw me out.”
Hoss and Joe joined Hank slumped against the metal.
“Damn it, Hank, why didn’t you tell us,” Joe’s whisper was fierce. “We could have done this in a whole different way.”
Joe’s declaration met with blank stares. “You don’t think he always looks that slickered up do ya? After he’s been on the trail for a few days he tends to stink worse than a skunk’s armpit.”
“Ah, Joe, we all do.”
Joe glared at Hoss. “We’re not talking about us; we’re talking about brother Adam. Hank, I ain’t lying when I say he stinks. And his clothes are all covered in dust, mud, and worse. And his hair, well, it ain’t always as oily smooth as it is right now, I tell ya.” Joe put a hand up to each side of his head, and pursed his lips. “It’s right out to here. And as for his beard—”
“Abigail hates beards.”
Joe prodded Hank in the chest. “There you go; our brother has to shave at least three times a day to keep his whiskers under control. When he ain’t had a shave for a few days, it’s like living with Grizzly Adams.”
“Abigail wouldn’t like that.”
“Exactly! We could have hidden his shaving gear, kept him away from the washtub and dirtied him up and had them accidentally meet in town. She wouldn’t have given him another look. The beard would have been over his cheeks, down his throat, all over. Heck, the smell of the beard would have driven her away. She’d never have looked at him in the same way again.”
Hank stretched his head up to take another look at his rival. Adam and Abigail were bathed in the light of the lantern. Even from his restricted view, Hank could see a dimple at work in one side of Adam’s face; he could see the cleft in his chin—which according to Abigail was so very attractive to women—and his smooth hair immaculately presented with a tiny loose strand tickling the top of his forehead. Hank sat back.
“I never knew.”
Joe looked around as though checking no one else was in listening distance and leaned in conspiratorially to Hank. He tapped the side of his nose. “It’s just between us.”
Hoss shook his head slowly from side to side, and rolled his eyes as he listened to his little brother’s yarn. “Look, are we gonna do this, or are we jest gonna sit here jabberin’ on all night?”
Joe slapped a hand against Hank’s shoulder. “Right, you know what to do. When Adam leaves Abigail by herself, me an’ Hoss will make some noises to frighten her a bit. And when she’s all scared up somethin’ silly, you’ll ride by on your horse like a knight in shining armor and save her from the ghosts and ghouls. You got that?”
Hank nodded and assured of the success of his plan, Joe craned his neck to see where his older brother was.
All of a sudden Adam’s lantern flickered out and Abigail’s voice raised several octaves in alarm. In response could be heard snippets of Adam’s soothing, placating tones echoing brokenly across the cemetery. “Don’t worry, Miss Abigail…low on oil…some in the buggy.” Adam’s voice faded into the near distance.
“There’s our cue, let’s go.” Joe slapped Hank on the back and pushed him off in the direction of where their horses were tied. He and Hoss moved towards the now isolated woman who kept up a litany of pitiful pleas for Adam to return as quickly as he could. As they approached her, crouching behind the tombs as they went, they began to make scuffling sounds with their feet.
“A-Adam?” Abigail’s voice became small. “I can h-hear strange noises.”
Adam called out to her. “That’ll be the gophers. There are a few burrows up here and they tend to come out at night.”
“Oh, oh, if you think it’s only harmless…little…animals.”
Without warning, an eerie cry sounded across the tombs. It was a sound from the very depths of desolation; a long undulating wail of such woe that all who heard it felt as though a hand had gripped their heart and squeezed.
And that is precisely what happened to Abigail Myers. As the initial sound faded away, the siren call bounced off the distant hills, a cacophony of wailing that only sounded more unsettling as it faded into the void. If the men could have seen Abigail’s face they would have noticed how her face had blanched as the blood retreated from her skin in a desperate attempt to fortify her inner organs against the onslaught of terror that assaulted her. The whites of her eyes shone in the darkness and her mouth opened and shut as she desperately attempted to form words.
If only poor Abigail could have seen the young man crouched behind a nearby tomb, howling passionately at the moon. Even his brother, Hoss, had rushed to clasp his hands over his ears as Joe had let rip with every fiber of his being poured into that one petrifying howl.
Just feet away at the buggy, Adam had sharply twisted towards the noise, frowning as Joe’s howl had reverberated across the cemetery and surrounding hills. He heard a tiny whimper, a breathless ‘A-A-Adam’ and cursed himself for letting Joe talk him into this ridiculous scheme. Why he had agreed to frighten the living daylights out of the poor woman for the sake of the ranch’s precious bunkhouse, goodness only knew! Muttering a string of inventive and somewhat evocative curses under his breath, Adam grabbed a match and lit the wick on the lantern which had, miraculously, become full of oil again. Hurriedly lowering the chimney back over the now bright lantern, he raised it in the air and swung it around to head back to the terrified woman.
But then, just as Adam had taken a couple of steps towards Abigail, a menacing shape loomed across the shadow a few paces beyond the reaches of the lantern’s light. Adam’s lamp made the darkness that bordered it look all the more dense, and it was into this blackness that the shadowy, man-shaped figure lurched. Its arms were outstretched and it was emitting—if it was at all possible—an even more ghastly sound than even Joe was able to produce. Like a large, lumbering beast the figure stumbled across the tombs, a black shade disturbed from its endless sleep.
Adam took a step back, fumbling for his weapon with his free hand. The sound from the creature turned his blood cold and it was a shaky arm that held the lamp higher to project more light. He could see Abigail standing with her back to him, holding her hands out in front of her, frozen in the periphery of the gloom. The figure, swathed in a mire of Cimmerian shade, groped towards her, and as its hands reached out, Adam watched as Abigail’s back went rigid, her hands fluttered to the side of her face and she let out a hair-raising scream. The figure continued past her, moving at speed into the closing murkiness of the night, disappearing down the track towards the town, still wailing and muttering as it went.
Joe and Hoss had observed the creature from where they were crouched on their knees behind a tomb, and had swiftly drawn weapons as it drew close to their position. But as it trampled past, their gun hands had thudded to the ground as they stared at the figure in surprise. Gripping the top of the grave marker, they watched as it had run shrieking from the cemetery, and as Abigail had let out a scream that could have curdled milk. Exchanging a glance, they collapsed onto their butts and rested their backs against the cold stone, stupefied expressions painted on both their faces.
“Ah, Joe?” Hoss looked straight ahead as he sought to make sense of what he’d seen. “Did you see what I just seen?”
He looked over at his brother who could only nod in a distracted way.
Hoss blinked. “Why did Hank run screamin’ outta here like he was runnin’ from the devil ‘imself?”
Joe looked at Hoss. “Didn’t you hear what he was saying as he ran past?”
Hoss shook his head.
“When he wasn’t screamin’, he was burblin’. He kept saying, over and over, gopher, gopher, gopher.” Joe kept his gaze fixed on Hoss, waiting for the penny to drop.
Hoss’s face was screwed up in concentration. But then his face cleared, his eyes grew wide and his mouth formed a round o-shape as understanding hit him.
“Gophers? Dadburnit, Joe, Hank’s terrified of gophers. He saw one once out in the north pasture and hightailed it out so fast that watchin’ his arms and legs pounding up ’n’ down was like watchin’ the wheels on a steam train pumpin’. He’d gone half a mile before I got my foot in Chubb’s stirrup.”
Joe holstered his gun and hit his knee in frustration. “Darn it, Hoss, I’d forgotten this place is crawling with gophers; especially at night. And now we’ve lost Hank, frightened Abigail half to death and Adam–” Joe stopped. He looked sharply at Hoss who was staring back at him. Together they found themselves mouthing the same word in unison. “Adam.” They scrambled to their knees and peered slowly over the tomb. There, in a pool of lantern light, was their older brother. In his arms he was cradling a prostrate Abigail, who, overcome by the terror of the beast barreling towards her out of the darkness, had fainted clean away.
Hoss and Joe watched as Adam gently tapped her cheek to rouse her from her stupor. She blinked a few times and then as the face above her came into focus, her hand rose to her heart and she smiled a slow, open-mouthed smile as she gazed adoring at Adam. Her voice carried clearly through the night.
“Adam, oh Adam, my savior, my rescuer, my Sir Galahad. You, you, you are my Perseus, I am your Andromeda. You’ve saved me from a demon of the night…”
As she continued to stare dotingly at him, Adam looked up and gazed into the distance, his eyes somehow drawn in the direction of his two younger brothers.
Hoss and Joe sank down behind the tomb. Once more they looked at each other and with a sigh, breathed that fateful name again. “Adam.”
A legend was formed that night. In years to come, when the old timers would gather on the stoop of their favorite watering hole and speak of the good ol’ days, they would reminisce about the night a wild-eyed cowhand had hurtled through the gas-lit streets of Virginia City. His knees lifted high off the ground between each pounding step, and his arms pumped furiously at his sides. One witness described his expression as that of a man who had woken to find Cochise, Black Hawk and Geronimo in full battle regalia bearing down on him. If only they had known the only thing that had nearly terrified this man into an early grave was a small furry rodent-like creature which had done nothing more than run over his feet! The man had ran so fast he even managed to overtake the Reverend Boxley in his ancient buggy; he was returning to town at a sedate pace after visiting one of his parishioners in an outlying district. His placid old mare had reared its head, her ears twisting in alarm, as the running man flew past, leaving nothing but a trail of dust behind him.
Hoss and Joe eventually caught up with Hank in the Bucket of Blood. Hot, dusty and sweaty, Hank had put away at least half a bottle of whiskey by the time they discovered him standing at the bar, rigidly throwing back shot after shot of the establishment’s finest rot-gut. Prizing him away from the saloon had been difficult enough, but the journey back to the Ponderosa proved to be interminable. With Hoss on one side of Hank and Joe on the other, they had kept him upright as he gradually started to drift sideways off his mount. Eventually they tied him to his horse and poor Hank had an uncomfortable journey back to his bunkhouse bed.
In the meantime, Adam had driven a worshiping Abigail back to her mother’s home. She had clung to his arm, despite Adam’s gently delivered remonstrations that she was obstructing his ability to direct the buggy’s mount safely down the hill into town. His protests fell on deaf ears. She merely hung on to him all the more, gazing across at him as he kept his head stiffly facing the way they were going. By the time he had handed her over to her mother’s care and jumped swiftly back into the buggy to make his getaway, he had had more than enough of her coquettish comportment and simpering smiles.
His poor horse was subject to angrily toned snarls as Adam headed in the direction of home, all the while rehearsing out loud exactly what he was going to say to his two—little—brothers when he got his hands on them. Fortunately for Hoss and Joe, Adam arrived home first. He grunted a greeting at his father and, discovering his brothers’ absence, went straight to his room; the slam of the door reverberating around the house. Ben was left wondering what on earth had happened that evening to leave his oldest son in such a foul temper and retiring to his room at this early hour.
He was soon enlightened when Hoss and Joe walked dejectedly into the ranch house two hours later, dusty and weary after their prolonged trip back with a suffering Hank. Ben had to stifle a guffaw at the description of Hank running for his life from a tiny gopher.
“It ain’t funny, Pa,” whined Joe. “Turns out Abigail threw Hank out because he wasn’t living up to her estimations. And now she’s all wrapped up over Adam again.”
Ben rose from where he’d been seated in his red leather chair with a cup of coffee raised to his lips, and this time he couldn’t keep a chortle repressed any further.
“Sons, I wouldn’t want to be in your place when you run into Adam tomorrow.” He chuckled again as he turned and headed towards the kitchen. “Just, uh, make sure I’m here when it happens.”
Ben was to be disappointed. Before dawn the following day, Adam had put together a week’s provisions, saddled up his horse and informed his bewildered father that he felt he should go and check on the lumber camps they were operating up in the high country. Ben had raised an eyebrow, saying Adam knew full well the camps had very capable foremen running them, and he couldn’t run away from Abigail and Hank Myers for the rest of his life. To which Adam had retorted he wasn’t running away and it was good for the workmen to have an unexpected visit from the boss every now and then. He then proclaimed he would be back in a week, turned on his heel and walked to his waiting mount, leaving Ben raising his eyes to heaven in exasperation.
Cupid and Cupid Unlimited were not idle in Adam’s absence, however. After enduring a couple more evenings listening to Hank take his frustrations out on what little remained of the furniture in the bunk house—“I guess we should be lucky it’s only the furnishings he has an issue with, and not the men,” declared Ben—Joe and Hoss were sitting out on the porch relishing a rare moment of silence. Hank and the rest of the men were otherwise occupied, eating their evening meal. The sun was setting over the western mountains, washing the peaks in a fiery blood-red glow.
“What is that Pa sometimes says, Hoss? Something about red sky at night, sailors’ delight. With a sky like that, it must mean tomorrow is gonna be a fine day.”
Hoss sat back in his chair, his hands behind his head, and put his feet up on the chair opposite. “Uh-huh, just the sort o’ day when ya wanna be fishin’ down at Leopard’s Pond, or setting a hammock up between them two trees over yonder and spend it snoozin’ the day away.”
Both men were bathed in a pink glow from the sunset. They sat, they admired the scene, and they relaxed. Hoss’s eyes were growing heavy, and the prospect of an after dinner nap was looking very inviting, when he was jolted out of his reverie by Joe jumping to his feet and clicking his fingers. Hoss looked on in trepidation as Joe slowly turned to face him, the whites of his eyes bright and his nostrils flaring as he breathed in heavily through his nose.
“Oh, no, Little Joe, I know that look.” Hoss sat forward, reaching for the empty coffee cup he’d placed on the ground by his chair. “Don’t even think about getting me involved in any more of yer fancy plans.” He rose to his feet and headed back towards the house.
“No, wait, Hoss, it’s brilliant. It can’t fail. And you don’t have to do a thing. Listen…” And with an arm hooked across his brother’s back, he walked with Hoss into the ranch house, relating the latest plan for reuniting Hank and Abigail.
The door crashed behind him.
“Joe! How many times have I told you not to slam that door?” Ben shouted from behind his desk. Joe moved into his view. At the sight of his son’s dejected expression, Ben sat back in his chair and threw down his pencil. His eyebrows rose and he couldn’t keep the cynicism out of his voice. “What’s happened now?”
“Hank. Of course.”
Joe threw his father a shamefaced look. “Well it’s such a lovely day and I thought what better than to get Hank and Abigail together somewhere romantic so they can sit and talk. And, no rescues this time, Pa, no serenading, or romantic gestures, just somewhere pretty where they can be alone and…talk.” He stopped to catch his breath.
“And?” Ben lowered his head, his eyebrows crawling halfway up his forehead.
“Well, I sent a note to Abigail and told her Adam wanted to meet her up at Leopard’s Pond—”
“Joe, you know that place has a reputation for…well, it’s got a reputation.”
“I know, Pa” Joe paused, a dreamy look coming over his face “It’s where I used to take Lynette Jones when we were courting.” Joe smiled. “And Martha Ann Rutledge, Lydia Clarke, Sarah—”
“Joe, I don’t mean to interrupt your reminiscences, but could you please return to what happened at Leopard’s Pond with Abigail Myers, someone who has not had the pleasure of your courtship.”
Joe’s face flinched as though he’d tasted a sour gooseberry. “Oh, Pa!” He cricked his neck to rid himself of the thought.
“Anyway, Abigail came out to meet who she thought would be Adam, but as Adam’s up in the high country, it wasn’t Adam waiting for her but Hank.” He slapped back in his chair. “Everything was going swimmingly. She didn’t send him away, she agreed to talk. They ended up sitting on the edge of the pond with their feet in the water. She looked really happy.”
Ben interrupted. “How do you know all this?”
Joe grinned. “Me and Hoss were watchin’ from the trees nearby.”
Ben shook his head. “Of course you were. Go on.”
“Well, like I said everything was going really well. They were talkin’ and laughin’ and seemed to be getting along just fine. But then…” Joe paused and sighed.
Joe rose quickly to his feet and started to pace to and fro in front of the desk. “Then she suddenly started crying out that something was nibblin’ her toes and we saw her look down and she was sayin’ it’s all slimy, Hank. Hank, there’s tadpoles nibblin’ at my feet, get them away, get them off me. And then she stood up right there and then in the water and sunk up to knees in the pond.”
Ben carefully shifted his weight so he could rest an elbow on the chair rest. His knuckles came to rest in front of his lips from which he was struggling hard to stop a splutter from escaping. Joe didn’t appear to notice his father’s amusement at his tale of woe.
“And she kept screaming out about tadpoles and how they were all over her legs and feet. But the worst of it was Hank managed to stand on the bank and leant over to pull her out. But just as he got her hands in his, he sorta lost his grip and,” Joe sat back down and looked at his feet, “she slipped and fell in.” Joe suddenly became aware of his father shaking in the chair. He shot quickly to his feet again. “Aw, Pa, it ain’t funny. She’s blaming Hank for ruining her new dress, and says she’s got tadpole bites all over her and she never wants to see him again for as long as she lives.”
Ben could hold it in no longer and an almighty laugh escaped him. “Oh, Joe, I’m sorry, but you have to admit, Abigail and water simply do not mix.” He continued to chuckle as he headed out from behind the desk. Halfway across the room he stopped and turned to see Joe still standing in front of the desk with his hands on his hips and his head lowered. “But do you know what amuses me the most?” Joe looked up at his father’s gleeful face and waited. “Tadpoles…don’t…bite.” And with a loud guffaw, he left the room.
It was Saturday. Adam had been gone for several days, and it was that time of the week when the Ponderosa ranch hands headed into town for some much deserved relaxation—which involved whiskey, poker and women, of course. Joe and Hoss had, for the time being, put aside their attempts to get Hank and Abigail back together, much to the on-going detriment of the bunkhouse fittings. As they rode into town in their best bib and tucker, Hoss spied Adam’s horse tied up outside the Bucket of Blood.
“Looks like older brother has finally plucked up the nerve to show his face in town agin.” Hoss pointed out Adam’s chestnut gelding waiting patiently at the hitching post.
Joe nodded towards the other side of the street. “He’s taking a mighty risk.” There, on the boardwalk, looking in the window of Rose Ladies Apparel was Abigail.
“Hey Joe, if this is the first time Adam’s been down from the range in a week, he probably won’t be smellin’ too sweet. And knowin’ him, he’ll be as stubbly as Tom Stilton’s grandma out at the Lazy Pine Ranch. And as ornery too.” He looked behind him at the group of hands following. “And Hank’s all spruced up.” He turned back to stare at the saloon. “I think I gots me an idea.”
The saloon was stuffed full of Saturday afternoon revelers. Hoss had to elbow his way through the crowd to reach Adam who was standing at the bar, guzzling down a long cool drink of beer. It was as Hoss had predicted. A five-day growth of beard covered his chin and upper lip. He was dressed in his work gear which, after a week of wear, was grimy to say the least. Hoss slapped him hard on the back making Adam jolt forward slightly and spill his drink.
“Coooeeee, brother, you sure do smell like the back end of a raccoon.”
Adam merely eyed him severely and up-ended the glass to lap up the last drop. He raised a finger at the barkeep and was soon supplied with a fresh drink. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to finish my beer in peace before I go home and have a very long soak in the tub.”
“Ah sure, sure, Adam. There’s just one thing you gotta do before you go.”
“And what might that be?”
“Well, it’s a little hard to explain, but, ah heck, you’ll thank me for this later.”
And with that, Hoss placed his large hands on Adam’s arms and physically manhandled him into position in front of a rowdy group of cowhands who were pressed together in the center of the room. The men had been in the saloon for a while by that time, and could easily be described as more than three sheets to the wind. As they sloppily raised their beer glasses to drink, the alcohol spilled over the edges, covering the already soaked floor. Looking at his brother’s surprised expression Hoss mumbled a quick “Sorry, Adam” and pushed him as hard as he could into the group.
Adam hit the carousers like a wooden ball hitting a formation of skittles. As Adam toppled, so, one by one, did the rest of the group. He found himself lying face up on top of several men who were a jumbled tangle of arms and legs. But not for long. No sooner had he come to his senses, realizing with discomfort he was now covered with beer, and had turned an angry glare in the direction of his younger brother, than he was shoved off the mound of men by the disgruntled cowhand beneath him. He rolled onto the floor but soon found himself hauled to his feet, spun around and then, it was as though time slowed. A giant fist appeared to come out of nowhere and although Adam could see its approach, there was nowhere to go, no time to move. The fist connected with his chin and before he knew it he was barreling into a ranch-hand who took exception to the body that had slammed into him. Adam found a hand on his shoulder twisting him around and another punch sent him spinning over a poker table to land in a stunned heap on the floor.
He sat back briefly, shaking his head to clear away the disorientation clouding his mind. After a few shakes, his eyes were once more facing in the same direction but the thunder in his head seemed to be getting louder. He lifted his head to take in the scene before him and realized it wasn’t a roaring in his head he could hear but the deafening clamor of a bar full of men setting about each other. Bodies flew across tables as cowhands and miners found their relaxation in a full-on bar-room brawl. Glass littered the floor which was sticky from spilt beer. Pockets of men slugged it out; as one opponent was knocked out, the victor would stumble across the floor in search of a new challenger. Sam, the barkeep, had taken refuge on the floor behind his bar. From Adam’s position he could see the look of resignation on the man’s face as yet another fracas demolished the interior of his saloon.
Adam stayed in his spot, his back against the wall, his head still whirling from the two unforgiving punches which had left him reeling. All of a sudden he became aware of Hoss on the other side of the bat-wing doors gesticulating wildly at him, while at the same time taking a step back and peering twitchily down the sidewalk. Hoss! It was Hoss who had started this free-for-all. It was time to teach his little brother a lesson. Adam pulled himself to his feet and sweeping a knocked over table out of his path, made a beeline to where his brother was grinning wildly at him.
He wasn’t alone in his progression to the entrance, though. As he marched towards Hoss, he became caught up in a tussle involving four combatants. Adam found himself in the middle of the small knot of cowpokes as they moved as one towards the doors. He noticed Hoss’s eyes widen in surprise as Adam was bundled towards him and then move backwards as the group was propelled through the saloon doors, down the porch steps and into the street outside.
He’d lost sight of Hoss but by this time Adam no longer cared who he let his irritation out on. Grabbing the man nearest to him, a stocky fellow with a horseshoe moustache, he laid a fist into the man’s chin. He dropped like a felled Ponderosa pine. Adam whirled around and seeing two pugilists taking a momentary pause from throwing punches, he let out a roar, lowered his head and ran at them both. Throwing an outstretched arm around each man’s waist he tackled them to the dusty ground. Adam staggered quickly to his feet and reached over to grab one of the men by the collar. He hauled him to his feet, only to throw another punch and knock him down again. He found himself tackled from behind by a little fella who launched himself onto Adam’s back. Adam twisted, franticly trying to free himself of the dead weight on his shoulders. But it was no good; the small man hung on with one hand and with the other landed ineffectual punches on Adam’s chest. His load was almost lightened when another one of the rabble-rousers tried to pull the man away from Adam’s back; but the little fella was like a gecko and stuck to Adam for so long that Adam was dragged down with him. The three brawlers landed in an untidy heap of kicking legs and wind-milling arms. The two remaining men took one look at each other, shrugged and with a jubilant cry threw themselves into the melee. Together the jumble of bodies rolled in a ball across the street.
By this time, a crowd had gathered to watch the rough and ready rumpus. The onetime rowdies from the Bucket of Blood stood side by side, elbows resting on former opponents’ shoulders, and, now united, they cheered the tiring group of skirmishers on. An enterprising opportunist set up office on an upturned barrel and started taking odds as to who would be left standing at the end of the affray. Adam was backed particularly favorably. A few ladies tried to drag their husbands away from this unsightly display, but to no avail; the relentless pummeling and clobbering proved too much of a worthy afternoon’s entertainment to miss. Even deputy Clem stood on the side-lines, whooping it up with the best of them, relieved beyond doubt that his boss, one Sheriff Roy Coffee, was out of town this fine day. It was beyond doubt that Roy would have waded in to break up the fight by now.
The small group of battlers was growing considerably weary. The smallest of the group, the little man who had thrown himself so eagerly across Adam’s shoulders, lay sprawled on his back, his chest heaving up and down in exhaustion, forgotten by his fellows. Next to him, two more had given up and sat back to back, their heads drooping from fatigue. Only Adam and his mustachioed opponent remained. They stood braced against the other, gripping the opposite’s collar, with heads so close they were almost touching. One by one each man took turns to lean carefully back, raise a tired fist and land as decent a wallop as he was able. Before his opponent dropped, he would be grabbed as he swayed backward, and steadied on feet staggering to stay upright. They would then start all over again. Each slow punch received a massive cheer from the crowd.
Adam was positioning his opponent to receive a blow, when a screech split the air, and a woman’s voice broke through the noise and commotion made by the crowd.
The owner of the strident cry had elbowed her way through to the front of the throng, where she stood with a grinning Little Joe at her side.
“Adam Cartwright, I cannot believe my eyes. Wrestling in the street like a common…hoodlum.”
“Not wrestling, Miss Abigail,” interjected Joe, “boxing.”
Abigail Jones’ face swung around to look at the young man who had escorted her down the street in such a gentlemanly manner, and gave him a glazed look as though she hadn’t heard a word he had said. Her gaze fell back upon Adam.
“I mean, just look at you!”
Adam stood, or more precisely, swayed, in front of her, his opponent still held upright in his hands. He let go, took a wobbly step back and let the man fall comatose at his feet. Adam’s hand gingerly rose to his face when he became aware the vision in one of his eyes seemed rather lacking; he winced as he gently probed the swollen tissues around his eye. The taste of blood in his mouth encouraged his tongue to carry out a bout of exploratory probing around his teeth. They all seemed to be in place, but he did discover a cut lip which stung as his ran his tongue across it. Doing everything in his power to stay upright he slowly lowered his head and surveyed the rips and tears in his clothes and the dirt smeared into his skin. He lifted his head, a chuckle escaping him. But his attempt at a grin turned into a grimace when his smile stretched his torn lip.
“Id were juss a lil bi’ o’ fun, Ms Abigay.” Adam half-smirked at his inability to speak correctly with a lip growing larger by the minute.
“A little bit of fun!” Abigail took a step forward. “You should be ashamed of yourself, Adam Cartwright, making a public spectacle of yourself.” She looked around at the assembled crowd. “You should all be ashamed, encouraging them to behave at their basest level.”
The crowd hushed, but only momentarily. There was a sudden hubbub at the rear of the crowd as men were bodily pushed aside and Hank Myers broke through the ranks, followed by Hoss. Abigail’s eyes alighted on him, taking in his Saturday-best clothes, his polished shoes and brushed-down jacket. His spit-slickered hair had lost its slick, however, and he sported a rapidly blackening shiner over his left eye. He stood before Abigail, shuffling from one foot to the other, his hands fixed behind his back, looking sheepishly at the ground. He opened his mouth to speak, but was interrupted by his wife.
“Why, Hank Myers, what are you doing here all dandied up? And what on earth has happened to your eye?” Her face darkened. “Have you been fighting, like these…these…ignoble oafs!”
Hank looked affronted. “Now, Abigail, I ain’t been fightin’. I can explain—”
“You know what I think about rough-housing. I thought you had changed, put all that behind you.”
Hank’s shuffling continued. “Now, Abigail, if you’d just listen to—”
“You promised me, you said you’d never hit anyone again. I recall your exact words, you said, ‘Abigail, I will never clench my fist and use it against another man, for as long as I live.’ Those were your words, Hank Myers. And now you stand there with your face like—”
“Dang it, Abigail, I got punched in the eye by Hop Ling down in the Chinese district.” Hank sighed heavily and pulled one of his hands out from behind his back. In it he held a sorry-looking bouquet of spoiled flowers. The stems were crushed and bent out of shape; sundry flower heads were damaged or missing entirely.
“I just been and gathered a bouquet of flowers for you from that meadow on the outskirts o’ town. It had all your favorites: dogbane, larkspur. I had a right pretty musk thistle in the middle. And that there’s what’s left of the crimson columbine.”
Abigail’s face had softened, her mouth fallen open slightly in surprise. The crowd had grown silent as they listened to Hank’s tale. Adam was barely staying upright as he swayed gently on his feet, his arms hanging loosely from drooping shoulders.
Hank looked down at the pitiful bouquet. “And then Little Joe told me their cook’s daddy grows roses on the trellis outside his house. And I thought a rose would finish off the bouquet right proper. But Hop Ling caught me snapping off a real beauty, and, well, I guess he still held it against Joe for when he did it a while back when tryin’ to impress that Lotta Crabtree woman. Hop Ling grabbed the bunch of flowers outta my hand, threw ‘em to the ground and stamped on them. I mean he really flattened them into the ground. And then he punched me in the face. But I remembered the promise I made you, Abigail, I remembered, and I didn’t hit him back. I jist eyeballed him a bit and lit outta there.”
Hank lifted his eyes to meet Abigail’s. “I lost the bouquet,” he pulled his other hand out from behind his back, “but I still got the rose.” In his hand was a beautiful pink blossom in full perfect bloom, with petal after petal curling intricately around the other. He held it out towards his wife, tentatively, his eyes never leaving hers and a slow shy smile toying around the corners of his mouth.
Abigail took a step forward to take the proffered peace offering from her husband.
“Oh, Hank,” she quavered, “I’ve been so foolish, blinded by…” she looked at Adam, the bruised and battered man she had once held in such high esteem, and her eyes narrowed, “by false idolatry.” Abigail’s voice hardened a little. “How could I have been so oblivious to…” she looked Adam up and down, “the beast within.”
Hank held out his arm. “Come on, my little chickadee, let’s go home.”
Gazing at Hank adoringly and clutching the rose to her chest, Abigail took his arm, and together they left the scene of Adam’s disgrace.
As the crowd dispersed, Hoss and Joe moved to either side of their older brother and watched Hank and Abigail walk arm-in-arm up the street.
“And as before, do we get any thanks,” muttered Joe. He crinkled his nose and looked over at his brothers. Adam’s knees suddenly buckled, and Joe and Hoss grabbed him quickly to keep him upright.
Hoss hooked a hand under Adam’s armpit. “Woah, woah there, older brother. I think ya mighta overdone it a bit with the fightin’.”
Adam turned to look at him. Even with one eye partially closed, he could still give his brother a dry look. But then his face relaxed and he snorted as he attempted to smile again.
“Ya know, I aven’t ad tha muz fun in ages,” he winced again as pain coursed through his mouth and jaw, and then the rest of his face. He nudged Hoss in the ribs with his elbow. “I need a dring, an you owe me.”
“I owe you? Why, I—”
“For services ren’ered ‘sisting Coopid an’ Coopid Unlim’ted.”
“Now, Adam, I think it’s more a case of you owe me; you did say you ain’t had as much fun in a long time.”
Joe watched as Hoss helped Adam turn and limp towards the saloon, their good natured argument continuing over who owed whom a beer. He turned to follow them, a relaxed and relieved grin on his face. In the distance he could see Hank assisting Abigail into a buggy. All in all it had been a good day’s work, and what better way to end it than with a very welcome beer. With a shake of his head and a smile, he turned on his heel and followed his brothers into the saloon.