Summary: Short prequel and contemporary vignettes of the boys growing up and living on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
Word Count: 4300
Ben Cartwright walked from his house after returning home from a long day of working in the pastures building fences to protect his first herd of cattle from wandering off. “Adam, where’s Hoss? You were supposed to be watching him.”
“I was also supposed to muck out the stable, fix the corral gate, and chop firewood too.”
“Watch your tone, boy!”
Still resentful of his father’s demands and his accusation that Hoss missing was his fault, Adam was careful about what he said next. “I did my best to do all of the work you gave me and keep an eye on Hoss but he slipped away when I was chopping firewood. He said he was hungry so I thought he went into the kitchen.”
“He’s missing now and it’s getting late. His jacket is still here by the woodpile so he could be very cold very soon. Grab a lantern and some matches, and start looking. I’ll get some of the men to start looking too.”
“All right, Pa, I’ll take the back of the house and work my way toward the lake. If he’s wandered off, it’s probably in that direction.”
“I don’t know how you think that you know that, but you do that. We’ll cover the other directions. Light that lantern as soon as the sun dips below the mountains.”
Once Ben headed to the bunkhouse, Adam put on his jacket and took Hoss’ jacket too. Then he stopped in the kitchen to get a few items from Hop Sing before he grabbed a lantern and headed directly to the lake without searching behind the house at all. He was fairly certain he knew where he would find Hoss. The two of them had found a natural rock shelter at the lake on the previous Sunday afternoon. When they were there exploring it, Hoss had said that it was a great hideout. Adam assumed he might have gone there and knew too that he should have listened more as Hoss talked that afternoon. Hoss had heard their father talking to Marie who was nursing their new little brother who had been born only a week earlier. Hoss had been upset about what he heard and Adam had not taken the time to explain it well because he was angry with his father. He planned to rectify that situation as soon as he found Hoss. As he got near the spot where he expected to find his brother, he heard some scuffling sounds. When he got there, there was no sign of Hoss. He began talking to himself but loud enough for anyone in the vicinity to hear.
“Now I thought Hoss might be here. He did say this was a great place for a hideout. I wonder why he’s hiding out though. Is it because he’s upset about what Pa said or is it because Hop Sing said there were three biscuits missing? Hmm, three biscuits wouldn’t keep Hoss filled for very long. That’s only one meal and not very filling. He’s probably getting hungry already because I bet he ate those biscuits right away. It’s too bad. I have this big chunk of ham for him, and I can’t find him to give it to him.”
There were more scuffling noises and Hoss emerged from his hiding spot. “Adam, I’m hungry. You know, it’s real dark in there. I shoulda brung a lantern or some candles.”
Bundling his little brother in his jacket, Adam handed him the chunk of ham and asked him to sit on a big boulder next to him. He set the lantern on the ground in front of them and wrapped an arm around Hoss’ shoulders. “Hoss, when Pa told Marie that he was going to do a better job with our little brother, he didn’t mean that there was anything wrong with us.”
“But he gets mad at us. He yells at us. He yells at you a lot. He never yells at the baby.”
“Babies are perfect. They never do anything wrong. Fathers and mothers look at a baby like it’s a present. It’s just what they wanted. Now you and I have grown up some and sometimes we do things the way we like to do them. That can make fathers and mothers very unhappy, but that doesn’t mean they don’t love us.” Adam smiled as he thought about what he had said because it was something he needed to remember as well.
“So Pa still loves me even if he’s got that perfect baby now?”
“Oh, I’m sure that baby won’t be perfect for long. He’ll grow up and get into mischief just like you do.”
Hoss giggled. “Maybe he’ll get in even more mischief, and then Pa will think that he did a pretty good job with me.”
“He did do a very good job with you. We didn’t have a home for a while, and sometimes we didn’t have enough to eat, but Pa did his best. He only wants to do better for the baby.” Hoss nodded. “You ready to go home now and face the music?”
Adam stopped and rubbed the back of his neck. He didn’t want to have to say this next part, but he was always honest with Hoss and didn’t want to be evasive. “It’s a way of saying that Pa is going to be unhappy with you, and you know what that means.”
Hoss bunched up his shoulders and shivered. “He’s gonna yell at me and maybe take me out for a talk?”
“Listen, shiver a little just like you did there and act cold and hungry. That should help. He’s worried because you’re missing and he’ll be happy you’re found. I’ll do what I can to help.”
“Thanks, Adam. Hey, ifn I even have to run away again, you’ll know where to find me, right?”
“Right. Next time, take your jacket, and save a biscuit for me, please.”
“If you promise to bring the ham, I will.”
Smiling, Adam nodded. Hoss smiled back. They had a pact. Adam lit the lantern, and side-by-side, the two brothers began the walk home hearing their father’s booming voice in the distance calling for his two missing sons. They knew he would soon see the lantern bobbing in the dark and hear Adam’s call.
On a warm summer day, Adam Cartwright had some rare free time and rode to the lake with a book. He lounged there reading on the shores of Lake Tahoe until the warm sun made him lay back and watch the clouds slowly float across the sky. He imagined that they clouds were various things including dragons, warriors, knights, and animals of the forest. As he stood to leave, he saw rocks in the lake that reminded him of the stories his father had told of whales. They had the same graceful shapes and even some cracks that resembled mouths. He wondered at what tall tale he could tell to entertain his brothers. The opportunity came almost a year later when he had nearly forgotten all about those large boulders.
“Adam, I won’t go swimming in the lake without asking again ever. I promise. Please don’t tell Pa.” Little Joe tried his best puppy dog look although it usually failed with Adam even if it usually worked with their father.
“What about you, Hoss? Are you ready to make that promise too?”
“Ifn you don’t tell Pa, Adam, I’ll promise anything.”
Unable to find his brothers after school on an unusually hot day, Adam had correctly guessed that they had gone to the lake to swim. Their father had expressly forbidden them to do that without an adult or Adam present, but the two boys persisted in violating that rule. On previous excursions, the evidence of wet hair had been explained away by the hot weather and sweating or claims of dunking their heads in the horse trough because they were so hot, but Adam had seen through the lies. He was angry that they had disobeyed and lied about it, but he was even more scared. The reason for the rule was that two boys had drowned in the lake in the past year. Parents didn’t want their young sons swimming there unsupervised. There was no promise that was going to keep Hoss and Little Joe from sneaking off to swim in that lake. Adam came up with a different plan because he finally had a chance to use that story about those large boulders with the cracks that looked like smiles.
“Good. I’m glad you’re finally smart enough to stay away from that lake and those white whales.”
Smiling at first that Adam wasn’t going to tell their father, Hoss and Little Joe suddenly wondered what he was talking about. Almost in unison, they had to ask. “What white whales?”
After having turned as if to go back home, Adam stopped and turned slowly. “Well, don’t you know? That’s why those two boys drowned. Those white whales like to drown boys. You need somebody there who’s tall enough to see them coming. They won’t usually come near you when there’s a tall person nearby.”
Hoss was immediately dismissive. He was already eleven years old and figured he would have heard about white whales if there were any. “Aw, dadburnit, Adam, there ain’t no such thing as white whales.”
Joe had just turned six and was full of bravado. “Yeah, Adam, like Hoss says, there ain’t no white whales.”
Standing with his arms crossed, Adam got that look that says more than anything that he had a memory that they must have lost. “Don’t you remember the story Pa told us about harpooning the white whale and how it almost rammed the ship?”
Hoss remembered the story once Adam mentioned it. “Oh, yeah. But that was out on the ocean, Adam, not in the lake.”
“I swear, there are white whales in the lake! There are mermaids too.”
“What?” Again, both younger brothers were amazed at the information.
“Yes, the mermaids are there to help us too. If they weren’t there, no one could ever swim in the lake. If the white whales get too wicked, the mermaids turn them to stone.”
Hoss’ mouth formed a big O and Little Joe’s eyes got very big. By the time they got back to the house, Hoss wondered if this was another of Adam’s tall tales. He told them tall tales very often and made up great stories with wonderful heroes and terrible villains.
“Adam, you’re joshing us, ain’t ya? I mean, why didn’t anybody tell us if there was really white whales in the lake?”
“Hoss, they didn’t want to scare the younger children, but I figured that you and Joe were brave enough to handle the information. I don’t agree with them keeping it from everyone especially the boys who have to get ready to be defenders of the community around here.”
“So, there really are white whales in the lake?”
“Yes, Hoss. I swear, there are white whales in the lake!” Adam went to the desk and got a sheet of paper. He began to draw and handed the paper to Hoss. “Here’s a map to one spot where you can find the stone white whales. You’ll see then that I’m telling the truth. Tomorrow, follow the map and see for yourselves.”
Not so sure of anything any more, Hoss took the map and looked it over. He asked Adam to put a few more landmarks on it. Then he carefully folded it and put it in his pocket. After school the next day, Little Joe was anxious for their adventure.
“And if Adam was lying, we can go swimming again. If he was telling the truth, I say we sell the map to the other boys. This could be a real good deal for us, Hoss.”
“You shur got some good ideas, Little Joe.”
A half hour later, the two boys stood in shock on the shore of Lake Tahoe. Before them were the stone white whales Adam had told them would be there. They backed away from the water and looked as far out as they could see wondering if any white whales were there. They climbed up the hillside and stood on a rocky outcropping and there far out in the lake, it appeared that there was a white whale under the water. They scrambled down the rocks and raced for home. They didn’t do any unsupervised swimming for the next year.
Hoss Cartwright was not having a good day. First, there was the annual spring cleanup of the stable and his Pa did that darn match contest again. Dadburnit, but his brothers always managed to keep their matches burning longer. He couldn’t see how they could do that every time but at least it was a fair contest even if he lost every time. So he spent the morning thoroughly cleaning and scrubbing out the stalls and finding maggots and all sorts of disgusting things hanging around in crevices and crannies.
Then when Hoss wanted to have lunch and banish all those foul memories of the morning, Bessie decided to have her calf and it was a breach so he had spent hours with her helping her and then her little one. He was filthy and needed to clean up. Just as he walked down those stairs all clean and ready for a late lunch, Joe came busting into the washroom.
“Hoss, you got to ride to town and get the doctor.”
“Now why do I have to do that?”
“Adam’s hurt. We were out riding in the pasture moving those cattle that Pa wanted moved and we saw that bull that Pa says is gonna make us a lot richer except he was stuck right up to his belly in mud. Adam lassoed his horns slick as can be but we couldn’t pull him out. He had me use the horses to pull and he waded into that mud to push. We got that bull out but he up and kicked Adam right in the leg. It looks awful. Pa says it’s busted.”
“Why don’t you go?”
Joe had been exasperated to say the least seeing as how he was all covered in mud and blood, so Hoss had finally asked him if he was hurt. He responded that he wasn’t but of the two of them Hoss was in much better condition to ride for a couple of hours. “Besides you know Pa won’t let me ride to town alone yet. He says I have to be sixteen before I can even think about doing that. He says there are too many dangers in town.”
“Is Adam up in his room?”
“Not yet. Pa and some hands are bringing him home. They had to go get the wagon from the men building that new fence line and Adam howled when they moved him so they’re taking it slow enough not to hurt him any more. I’m supposed to make sure that Hop Sing is ready for them. I’m supposed to get cleaned up and make sure that everything is ready to clean up Adam when they get him here. They’ll all have to clean up too, so maybe you ought to get going, don’t you think?”
So Hoss had hurriedly saddled Chubb and ridden for town and the doctor. When Hoss finally got back with Doctor Martin, it was late afternoon and he was starving. He had missed lunch after working hard all morning. He went into the kitchen to grab something to eat. Hop Sing was there and said that he thought that Adam was going to be fine. He told Hoss to go take care of Doctor Martin’s carriage horse because after setting Adam’s leg, the doctor would be staying to eat with them. By the time that Hoss returned to the kitchen, Hop Sing was leaving with a tray containing a bowl of delicious smelling stew and some warm bread. Hoss looked in the stew pot and it was empty. Then he spied the table where Hop Sing had cut a pie into five perfect pieces and placed them on plates. Hoss thought if he ate one or two, Hop Sing would know it was him. So he decided the only thing to do was to eat all five. Hop Sing would never suspect him then. He would just assume that a number of people had come in there and eaten those pieces. Hurriedly Hoss gobbled down all five pieces. Boy howdy he thought that was some great pie.
Then Hoss hurried outside to put Chubb in the stable. He got Buck and Sport groomed and fed and watered and took care of the team from the wagon too. He decided to be very helpful and put the tools away that were still in the wagon bed. Then he brushed the dried mud from the wagon bed and wiped the boards clean. He hung the harness in the stable and wiped down all the tack. He took his time now because his appetite was temporarily assuaged by that pie. Finishing up, he sauntered in to the house and over to the dining table expecting to find dinner about to be served. Instead, he saw an angry Hop Sing standing at the kitchen door and staring at the men around the table: his Pa, Joe, and Doctor Martin. He was holding a tray with five empty dessert plates on it and was asking about the pie in that cute little angry way of his.
“Who eat all pie? You eat all pie?”
Everyone at the table was saying no that they couldn’t have because all of them had been with Adam. Then all eyes turned to Hoss who just simply said ‘What pie?’ before all heck broke loose starting with the dirtiest look he had ever gotten from Hop Sing in his life. Who knew a blueberry pie blue tongue would stay that way so long?
Later Hoss berated himself for the question he asked out loud. “What can I do about it now? It’s all done.”
That’s how he found himself down by the shores of Lake Tahoe searching out blueberry patches that the bears hadn’t cleaned out yet and watching carefully to make sure there weren’t any bears coming in for a snack before the day was done. He had been told by Hop Sing that he needed two full pails of blueberries and not to come home until both pails were full. It was getting rather dark and hard to see, but Hoss wasn’t ready to face the angry cook unless he had those pails full. He kept looking until he was sure he had enough and then was extra careful on the way home to make sure he didn’t spill any. When he delivered them to the kitchen, he didn’t even get a thank you. He walked out into the great room to find his father heading up the stairs with a plain biscuit and preserves.
“Your brother smelled that pie earlier but we said he couldn’t have any until we were sure he wouldn’t throw up his dinner. Now I have to go tell him there’s no pie and he has to settle for a biscuit. Perhaps you would like to go explain to him that you ate an entire pie and that none of us got even a taste of it?”
“Nah, that’s all right, Pa. I think I’ll go clean up and then maybe I’ll head on up to bed myself.” Hoss was very hungry but he had no idea how he was going to get any food. He hadn’t been sent to bed without his supper for many years, but in effect, it was happening again. That darn blueberry pie had been good, but not good enough for all that he had suffered for it. Then he thought about Adam and how he had a broken leg and didn’t get to have a piece of pie.
“Dadburnit, this must be how Joe feels when he does those fool things and then knows he shouldn’t a never a done it. It’s a bad feeling. I ain’t never gonna do nothing like that ever again.”
Sitting at the game table in the great room on the Ponderosa, Hoss could not remember a more frustrating game of checkers in his life. He was trying so hard to lose this game, but Little Joe as usual was cheating and trying just as hard to lose. Ben sat in his red chair reading the Territorial Enterprise, but Hoss knew he was really watching their game more than anything because without a talented writer in town, there never was anything remotely interesting or funny in that newspaper. Watching his father doing his best not to laugh and barely suppressing a smile, Hoss knew he had to be laughing at his two sons in a marathon checkers game that both were doing their very best to lose. Hoss had purposefully put his pieces in jeopardy time after time and Joe had ignored them only to put his pieces in even more jeopardy. At one point, Hoss had lined up his checkers perfectly for sixteen-year-old Little Joe to jump them all. He had even expressed his ‘sorrow’ at seeing the foolish plays he had made.
“Dadburnit, Little Joe. Look at what I done did. I’m real sorry not to have given you a real challenge tonight, but dagnabit, that’s just how it is.”
Then Little Joe had sneezed and reflexively jerked his arm back knocking a bowl off the table behind him. Hoss had gotten up to quickly right things, but by the time he got back, Little Joe had not only recovered completely from his attack of sneezing, but the board no longer looked the same.
“Dadburnit, Little Joe, you moved the pieces.”
“Now, Hoss, would I do something like that?”
“Dadburnit, you know you would.”
“I don’t see what the problem is. If I moved the pieces, then why would you be all set up to jump three of my pieces? I guess that sneezing rattled my brain and made me make a dumb move like that.”
Stymied because he could not reveal the truth, Hoss jumped Joe’s three pieces because he had to do it and then glared at him. In his life, he had never worked so hard playing checkers. The match continued like that for another half hour, and Hoss slowly gained the upper hand by putting his pieces in places where Little Joe had to jump them as his only moves. As the pieces on the board diminished, Ben put the paper and all pretense of reading it down as he leaned forward to watch the end of the game. Hoss had been forced to make Little Joe king three of his pieces. Little Joe thought that his strategy was working and never realized that Hoss was maneuvering his pieces into a perfect setup for Little Joe to jump the three he had so recently kinged. Hoss at that point could gracefully concede the game because it would be impossible to win with his one remaining piece, and everyone in the room knew it. Little Joe’s hand hovered over the board. He couldn’t cheat and he was being forced to win. Both of those things bothered him immensely. Finally he did it.
“Well, that’s it, little brother. You win. I cain’t possibly do anything with just one piece against yours. I must bow to your superior ability. You’re the one gets to take on our older brother.”
“Well, you coulda tried harder to win.”
“Little Joe, you know how hard I try to win at checkers, but you cheat.”
“I do not cheat.”
“Well, just be sure you don’t cheat ole Adam there. Remember, he said he would take on the winner for a best of three match.”
Little Joe almost groaned. Adam had been seeing a new girl. Her family was Italian, and insisted on lots and lots of garlic in the food. Adam had told them that the only way to enjoy kissing her was to eat a lot of garlic himself. Unfortunately, he had really developed a taste for it. Even from his perch on the blue chair a dozen feet away, Little Joe could catch a whiff of garlic now and then. He looked up at Hoss’ grin and wanted to strangle him. Instead he wondered if he should ask Hoss how to lose quickly because he was so good at it. It wouldn’t matter though. Two games of that garlic breath, and he wouldn’t be thinking straight anyway. He sighed deeply as Adam stood and moved toward him and Hoss just as quickly moved away but not before giving Little Joe a huge victory grin. Little Joe vowed then and there that he was going to get even one way or another. He was definitely going to get even although he wasn’t at all sure how he was going to do it. At that moment though, he could think of only one thing that would save his sense of smell and prevent a wave of nausea from assaulting him for the next hour.
“Hey, Adam, it’s such a nice day. How about if we take the board and go play down by the lake? The breeze off the lake ought to make for a real pleasant place to play some checkers, don’t you think?”