Summary: A WHN for Season 4’s “The Hayburner.” When last we saw our intrepid heroes, Adam was in measured and methodical solitary pursuit of Hoss, whilst Joe and Ben made a wager on the outcome . . . with security, of course.
Word Count: 3,100
In due course, life returned to normal after the “security” incident . . . an altogether distasteful experience wherein brother Hoss bet against the thoroughbred racehorse the two of us owned and had entered in the Virginia City’s Annual Sweepstakes, certain he was a shoe-in. Ennis Milford’s little black horse, ridden by Joe, won instead. The kid, who couldn’t rub two nickels together the day after pay day, walked away with $500 for training and riding the animal, plus 100% ownership of the thoroughbred, and my new rifle.
While Hoss and Joe’s relationship remained on equal and warm harmonious footing as always, the temperature between myself and my brothers cooled a bit, but perhaps I was the only person to notice it. Not that we don’t care for each other, of course. One can’t be a Cartwright Son and not have an abiding love of family. No. Certainly not. On one level I was pleased that my youngest brother had put into practice all those lessons about saving money, but another part of me—a very large part I have to admit—was disturbed Joe had learnt the lesson quite so well. If I am honest with myself, which I most generally am, what stuck in my craw was that I had been so easily duped.
Every time I saw my new rifle in Joe’s scabbard, my mood grew darker until one day Pa pulled me aside.
“Adam this has to stop.”
I knew full well what he meant but played the innocent. “Whatever do you mean?”
“You know exactly what I mean, young man.”
“It’s been a long time since I was a young man, Pa.”
“You’re acting like one now, pouting because you got hoodwinked by your brother.”
“Joe won a fair race and his strategy was impeccable. Kudos to him.”
“And Hoss played the odds and won a bet.”
“Against our horse! … and I do not pout.”
Pa nearly choked while lighting his pipe. All he said was, “Jeremy Walker.”
“Jeremy? Oh, him.”
“Yes him. You sulked for a fortnight when you lost your prized blue agate marble in a fair chess match because he outplayed you.
“I was ten.”
“You didn’t lose because of your age. He skunked you because you underestimated him.”
“Of course I underestimated him. He was five! We found out later his mother paraded her child prodigy around to all the camps placing bets on the side.”
“And you learned a hard lesson … to do your research. Know your opponent.”
“I thought I knew my brothers.” I muttered under my breath. Pa raised his eyebrow but had the decency to not comment.
“What are you going to do about it?”
“Adam, I know you. You are not going to let this go. That’s what you’ve been stewing about … how to get even.”
I pursed my lips, drew in a full breath and held it. Until I couldn’t. “Bah,” I spit out, dismissing Pa with a wave of my hand. Trouble was, he was right. I wanted to get even in the worst way. It wasn’t the rifle or the money. It was—okay I admit it—damn fool pride. I’d been outsmarted and out maneuvered by my brothers.
“Admit it,” Pa said.
“All right. I’ve been looking for an opportunity to recoup my losses. But I do not pout!”
“If you say so, son.”
All things come to those who wait.
Last winter’s record snowpack high in the Sierras was matched by a hotter than normal spring and summer. The rapid snow melt flooded rivers and streams and swelled the creeks that fed Washoe Lake. Given the high winds prevalent in the area during late summer, the Virginia City merchants combined resources to offer the first annual Washoe Regatta with a $1,000 purse to the winner in each of two categories.
Joe could talk of nothing else at dinner after the Territorial Enterprise printed the announcement.
“Come on,” he urged Hoss. “We can use our old fishing boat out in the shed, plug up the holes and give it a new coat of paint. It’ll be fun!”
“I dunno. I ain’t much on sailin’. Sorry, Pa.”
“No offense taken.”
“Who said anything about sailing? We can row!”
“It says right here,” Joe picked up the paper and read out loud. “Participants may either sail or row a boat no longer than 12 feet in length. One person to a boat. The number of participants will determine how many heats are held. The winner of the final heat in each category will receive $1,000.”
“I dunno. Maybe.”
I cleared my throat. “It says only one person in a boat.”
“You enter, Little Joe,” Hoss said. “I’ll help you fix it up.”
“Nah, it wouldn’t be any fun without you.”
“Why don’t you both enter?” I said.
“Ah, that wouldn’t be fair, Adam. I’m stronger than he is. I’d beat him.”
“So brother shouldn’t race against brother, is that what you’re saying?” Unfortunately, Joe’s reaction to Hoss’s challenge obliterated my subtle dig.
“Hey, wait a minute. I could win easy!”
“How do you figure, short shanks?”
“Because I don’t eat half a cow at every meal, that’s why. My boat will be lighter.”
“Your boat? We only have one.”
“I could build you another,” I offered.
“You’d do that, Adam?” Joe asked.
“Be happy to.”
“You’d have to make sure each boat weighs the same,” Pa said. “Otherwise it wouldn’t be fair, would it?” He looked pointedly at me.
“Of course. Skill alone will determine who wins.” There wasn’t much skill in rowing a boat on a flat, shallow lake; muscle yes, but not skill. Now sailing–maneuvering a boat against the wind–that would have been a real test.
I wound up building two identical boats because the old one was rotten through. Although the extra work set me back on other chores, I was proud of the final effort. Predictably, Hoss picked blue paint; Joe selected green. I used the same amount on each. We took the boats to the freight yard in Carson City and had them each weighed. When the scale registered nearly two pounds more for Hoss’s boat than Joe’s, he protested.
“What are ya doin’ to me, Adam? You takin’ sides here?”
“No! I wouldn’t do that.” Then I remembered I had widened and reinforced the seat and used significantly more wooden nails on Hoss’s boat. I remedied the matter by adding ballast to Joe’s boat until the weight was equal.
We got an early start on race day. Hop Sing packed half a dozen picnic baskets and layered stacks of blankets in the wagon to protect the boats. We all started out with our jackets on because it was still nippy in the morning up on the mountain. By the time we reached Bowers Mansion, on the west of the lake, we were comfortable in shirtsleeves and vests. I caught a glimpse of Eilley Bowers but she was busy overseeing the feeding of the race contestants so I shouted over heads that I would catch up with her later. Hoss drooled over the feast being served but took only a chicken leg and a piece of sourdough bread with jam, as if skimping on lunch would give him an edge in the race.
After my brothers were finished eating, I helped them launch their boats into the water. An enterprising youth of about eight years volunteered to guard them for two bits each.
“Guard them against what?” I asked.
“Blaggards and thieves!”
“Aye. And what are you then?”
“I’m a pirate!” said the sandy-haired boy with freckles.
“One of the notorious Washoe pirates no doubt. Keep a sharp eye then, mate.” I paid the boy because neither of my brothers had any coin claiming they hadn’t wanted to add any extra weight to their personage.
“I suppose you’re not wearing socks or long johns either.” Joe averted his eyes and Hoss blushed. “Oh, brother.” I shook my head and climbed aboard the wagon to move it to the south end of the lake where the finish line would be.
“Aren’t you going to wish us luck?” Joe shouted as I pulled away.
I raised my hand in the air and drove on.
I thought the lawns of the mansion were crowded, but the south lakeshore looked like a carnival. Merchants from Virginia City and a few from Carson had erected tents to shelter their goods from the sun. There were games for children and adults alike, all variety of food, several makeshift saloons, and of course a betting area with blackboards listing the contestants in the various heats and the odds.
Because the winds wouldn’t come up until later in the afternoon, the rowboat races were first. Pa went to the Regatta’s official tent and paid the registration fee for my brothers. There would be three heats, six in each heat; the first two to cross the finish line in each heat would race in the final.
As I stood watching the blackboards, Pa asked who I was going to bet on.
“Tim Shanahan is looking good.”
“You aren’t going to bet on your brothers? I see Joe is in the first heat; Hoss in the third.”
“Mmm. I suppose, if I must.”
“You must,” Pa stated flatly.
Wagers made; we went out to the finish line. The report of a gun carried across the water and the first heat was off. The wind was calm and the water flat; only the wake of the other rowers would offer any resistance. Joe got a good start and had the advantage of the smooth water in front of the bow. He easily pulled one, then two boat lengths ahead and was starting to coast when Charlie Owens made his move.
Pa and I shouted encouragement though I doubt Joe heard us with the screaming going on from all the spectators. There would be a lot of people with laryngitis tomorrow.
Whether he heard us or not, we saw him put his whole body into each stroke, lying almost flat each time he pulled the oars to his chest. Slowly he regained the lead and finished first. He and Charlie would advance together. They were slapping each other on the back when I saw blood on Charlie’s shirt . . . Joe’s hands were bleeding. Before I could get to him, Hop Sing appeared with wet cloths, salve and bandages. Pa gave him a canteen and I started massaging his shoulders. I had an odd sense this was a prize fight rather than a regatta.
Martin Grogan and Miles Herman advanced from the second heat. Hoss and Jason Ferber made the cut in the third heat.
While the race officials towed the six finalists and their boats back to the starting line, Pa and I went to the tent where men were clamoring to place their bets. Miles was the favorite; Joe was somewhere in the middle; Hoss was the long shot;
Pa and I exchanged doleful looks. “Let’s get a beer,” I said.
The aroma of beef on the spit, fried chicken, and a dozen other mouth-watering smells wafted on the breeze as we fought our way through the center of the crowd. Hawkers were everywhere. Children running up and down. Dogs barking.
“This is worse than the circus,” I said.
“Weather this year has been hard on folks. They’re eager to blow off some steam.”
I elbowed my way into a saloon tent and came back with two mugs of beer. “Let’s sit on those rocks by the water and enjoy the breeze.” As soon as we settled, I said, “Here’s to Hoss and Joe, champions to the end, no matter the odds.”
“Glad to hear you say it, Adam.”
“Were you afraid I would really get even?”
“I had hoped not, but I didn’t know for sure.”
“Who do you think would have won? No, don’t answer that,” I said. “Answer this: what would you be willing to put up to back a bet?”
“For security, you mean?” Pa laughed.
“My hand-tooled leather saddle.”
I whistled appreciatively.
“What about you?” Pa asked.
“My new pair of boots.”
The report of a gun sounded the start of the final race. We drained our mugs and returned them to the saloon, then headed back toward the finish line. The wind was increasing. About halfway there, a strong gust blew Pa’s hat off. I chased it and he held it down with one hand after pulling it low over his forehead.
“Use your neckerchief to tie it down,” I shouted.
Without warning a series of explosions rocked the air and people started screaming and running every which way. Another forceful gust had kicked up the fire in the barbecue pit, sending embers flying. One of them landed on the Regatta’s main tent which burst into flames and consumed boxes of fireworks meant for the night’s finale.
“How strong do you think the wind is,” I shouted at Pa.
“Steady at thirty knots, I’d say. The last gust was twice that.”
“We’d better get to the finish line.” My words were lost, so I took Pa’s elbow and pointed. He nodded and we bowed our heads to walk into the wind. Several times we were pushed backwards.
When we reached the shore’s edge, we scanned the water. The wind had wreaked havoc with the boats. I spotted Hoss’s bright blue boat, but I couldn’t find Joe’s green one as it blended too easily with the lake’s turbid water. I borrowed a pair of binoculars and handed them to Pa on demand.
“Over there,” he shouted. “He’s capsized!”
“Joe swims like a fish and the water is shallow. Don’t worry, he’ll make it to shore.” I sounded more optimistic than I felt. True, the water was only 12 feet deep in the center, but there were lots of shrubs and branches under the surface that a foot or a body could get caught in. Pa saw through my bravado. He thrust the binoculars at my chest and started running along the shoreline to get closer to where he last saw the green hull.
Buffeted by the winds, I held my ground. I’d long ago lost my hat and did my best to shield my eyes against the sun and dust and still see what was happening. Another boat had capsized; one made it to the eastern shore; two others had crashed into each other and were moving in tandem wherever the wind took them—locked in mortal combat like two stags. Five boats accounted for. Where was the sixth?
Someone tugged my sleeve. I looked down to see my little pirate friend with his arm extended and knelt down to follow where his finger pointed. There was Hoss’s broad back headed east instead of south, but then he turned toward the center of the lake. Every time the gusts pushed him eastward, he did a course correction toward the finish line in a zig zag manner.
Soon, everyone was cheering Hoss on. Hearing the commotion, Pa came back to find me.
“Joseph?” he asked with tears in his eyes.
“We’ll find him, Pa. Joe’s here in the crowd somewhere.”
Only he wasn’t.
Hoss’s boat crossed the line and ran aground right in front of us. Rising up out of the water from the stern of the boat was Joe, who was immediately embraced by Pa. Thinking Hoss was too exhausted to get up, I went to help him out of the boat.
“I can’t move.”
“What’s wrong, son, do you need a doctor?”
“No. Nothin’ like that, Pa. Just don’t want to come outta the boat right now.”
“Why not? You won, you big lug! Go up and collect your prize!” Joe encouraged.
“Why ever not?” Pa was getting a little testy.
“I split my pants,” Hoss mumbled, his words lost in the wind.
Hoss shouted, ‘I split my pants!’” just as the wind calmed a bit.
There was a moment of silence and then the crowd burst out laughing.
Hop Sing approached. “I bring blanket from wagon.”
“It had better be a BIG blanket,” Joe laughed.
“Hoss Cartwright is disqualified,” Judge Pedersen declared from the reviewing stand.
“He reached the finish line first,” Joe argued.
“You pushed him!”
“The wind pushed him. I only told him which oar to pull to stay on course.”
“Only one person to a boat. He’s disqualified!”
True to his nature, Joe argued the semantics. “The rules say only one person in a boat. Hoss was the only person in the boat. And he was the only one to cross the finish line. He wins.”
The crowd sided with Joe. They booed the Judge off the platform and ostracized him the rest of the day and some time thereafter.
The race organizers consulted the racing book, overturned the ruling, and awarded Hoss his prize money. He surprised everyone when he split it with the other five finalists.
“Only fair thing to do,” he said. “That ol’ Zephyr could’ve capsized any one of us. And Adam, here’s half a what I won betting against our horse.”
“You don’t need to do that, Hoss,” I said.
“Sure, I do. It wasn’t right of me to bet against our horse. Sorry.”
“You’re forgiven, Hoss. What about you, Joe? You willing to give my rifle back?”
“Heck, no. I won that race fair and square, just like Hoss won this one.”
“I just got one thing to say.”
“Yes, Hoss?” Pa said.
“I’m starvin’! Let’s eat!”
Pa and I stood in the doorway of Hoss’s bedroom. The man’s giant bed held not only himself but also Joe, splayed across the foot of the bed, arm thrown protectively over Hoss’s leg.
“Why are you smiling?” I asked.
“We all won today.”
“Hoss crossed the finish line with Joe’s guidance. Joe won his argument with the judge, thus ensuring Hoss got his prize money. Hoss shared his prize with others, including you.”
“And what did you win?”
“Me? I won the security of knowing no matter what, my sons are there for each other. Always. It’s the best prize ever.”
Written for the 2019 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament
The suits were: Location of story (clubs); object desired or coveted (diamonds); person to be avoided (hearts); calamity (spades)
The words dealt were:
Hand-tooled leather saddle