Summary: On a cold winter’s night, with help from a bottle of Bear Paw Johnson’s white lighting, what could the Cartwright boys ever find to talk about while their pa was sleeping soundly on the only bed in a ratty old line shack?
This story was written in collaboration by The Tahoe Ladies, Helen, and BeckyS. WC: 7425 Rated: R
Adam slammed his fist against the rotting post once again. The icicles hanging from the porch roof dropped like miniature lightning bolts into the snow at his boot toes. He glared down at the holes they poked, wishing he could stuff Joe into one of them. With a tug to his coat collar, he shivered then rubbed his gloveless hands together.
“You know, you hit that one more time and this whole durn cabin is liable to come down around our ears,” Hoss warned as he came up behind him.
“It would serve him right! You and I both know what happened! Joe conned Pa into staying an extra day or two in Sacramento. A poker game. Or a horse race. Or…or…it doesn’t matter to that boy! Nothing but his own pleasure and of course Pa can’t ever seem to tell him ‘no’ and make it stick!”
“Settle down Adam, we don’t know nothin’ of the sort,” Hoss tried appeasing his older brother, coming to the rescue of his absent younger brother and father. “For all we know this same storm caught them the same way it did us.”
“Hoss, when are you going to stop making excuses for him? We both know the reason they are late getting here is about this tall,” and Adam raised his hand to just above his shoulder height. “Meet us at the line camp on Summit Ridge and we’ll go hunting,” Adam seemed to quote. “It may have been Pa’s handwriting on that note but it was Joe behind it. Does that not surprise you? The only thing that boy ever hunts successfully wears a skirt. And that is just what has made them late!” Adam continued and each and every time he referenced Joe, he would strike the post.
Finally, Hoss had heard enough. Or he was afraid that the post would collapse under Adam’s onslaught and bury them in snow. Either way, when he reached over and pinned Adam’s fist to the post, both the pounding and the tirade stopped.
“Adam, you’re ramblin’ now. This snow ain’t that bad, just a couple of inches is all. And they ain’t that late. Pa’s note said they would be here yesterday afternoon or this morning at the latest. It’s barely noon now.” Hoss scanned the mountain slope as he spoke, hoping for a glimpse of two horsemen coming through the tall snow-tipped pines.
“Well, just in case you missed something, Hoss, that was our packhorse that ran off yesterday. Remember that little incident?” Adam turned his displeasure on the massive chest behind him.
Hoss groaned. He had just stepped into the bushes for a moment. How was he to know that a growl from that mountain lion would spook the horses? Besides, wasn’t it Adam’s job to hold the lead if Hoss was busy? But it didn’t matter none. The packhorse and all their food supplies headed back down to the house at a right smart clip. They hadn’t been worried then. After all, Pa and Joe would be headed up the other side of the mountain to meet them and they would have food with them. And there were always emergency supplies in the line shack.
But in that regard, they had been mistaken. The only thing left in the line shack larder was a bottle of whiskey kept there for medicinal purposes. Dinner last night for the two men had consisted of jerky from their saddlebags and coffee. Both were gone now. That morning, Hoss had dropped down the opposite side of the draw and visited with Bear Paw Johnson, an old trapper who lived there in the high reaches and made a scant living trapping obnoxious game like mountain lions and wolves. He also made a few coins with his still. Bear Paw’s white lightning was powerful stuff and had to be diluted to be drunk. When Hoss had told Bear Paw about their predicament, Bear Paw had insisted that Hoss take a jug of the stuff to wash down the possum meat he also gave him. Hoss had taken a good long look at the dead ‘possum and wisely tossed out the gamey meat on the way back to the line shack. The white lightning he kept.
Now as he considered his older brother’s attitude he thought that perhaps a sip or two would mellow Adam out enough so that when Joe and Pa did appear, the cabin would still be standing.
Hoss was about to turn and go back into the cabin, his arms now full of the firewood he had gone out to get, when they both heard the shout. There, riding up through the snowpack, was their father and brother. Hoss ducked inside and dropped the load of wood and hurried behind Adam to greet them.
“What? Afraid we got lost?” Ben was saying to Adam as Hoss joined them. His father quickly slapped Adam’s back and briefly grabbed Hoss’ hand in greeting.
Joe swung down off Cochise and pounded Hoss on the back. “Hey brothers! Hope you got something good cooking up there in that old shack. I’m hungry enough to even eat your cooking, Adam!”
The silence that followed was deafening.
“We don’t have anything cooking. Our pack horse got away from us,” Adam said evenly, his jaw jutting out as he enunciated each and every word clearly.
Ben looked from son to son to son. A glance to the sky overhead and he knew there was not enough daylight left to make it home.
“This is not good, boys,” he said, his brows flattening ominously. “We didn’t bring anything with us. You were supposed to…well, never mind now. Hoss, get down to Bear Paw’s-”
“I did. He give me half of what he had. A really ripe ‘possum and a jug of his..his..special chill chaser. I couldn’t even stand the smell of the possum so I tossed it out on the way back. I thought maybe we’d do a little hunting this afternoon. After all, that’s what we came up here for.” Hoss explained.
“All right then, you three get going. I’m going up to the cabin to warm up. And boys,” Ben paused, sighing deeply, “Get something edible.”
With the coming of the early darkness, the three brothers had returned to the cabin. Hoss had managed to shoot a rabbit and that was it. The deepening darkness was only exceeded by the deepening of the resentment between the three. By the time they were stabling their horses in the little lean-to, they were barely speaking to one another.
“This is it?” Ben roared when Hoss laid the rabbit on the table. “I send three grown men out hunting and this poor specimen is all they come back with? I want you to tell me something. How is this poor scrawny scrap of meat going to feed the four of us?”
Adam muttered something under his breath as he hung up his coat at the doorway. The glance he shot Joe plainly communicated who he intended to hear it. It backfired.
“What was that, Adam?” Ben demanded and saw Adam flinch.
The eldest Cartwright son straightened his shoulders and his jaw muscles tightened. “I just was thinking out loud about what a dumb idea was this was. But then what can we expect when it comes from the sole member of the family who thinks about fun all the time?” He pointedly looked in Joe’s direction when he finished.
“For your information, it was Pa’s idea,” Joe shot back tersely.
For half an instant Adam panicked. “But you put him up to it, I know you did!”
“ENOUGH!” Ben roared so loud that the timbers overhead shook, dumping little bits of God-knew-what onto the table. “Hoss, skin this poor thing out. If your two brothers continue butting heads tonight, I’ll have to resort to treating them like the children they have become and they will go to bed without any supper!”
Hoss had a hard time not smiling. Watching as Joe and Adam settled into opposite corners of the small cabin, he went to work on the rabbit. It was like they had been sent to opposite corners for misbehaving and it was all he could do to not gloat.
In the end, the tough stringy meat had not been improved upon by their father’s overcooking of it. There was about a mouthful each, even gnawing the bones clean. Hoss had pulled out the jug that Bear Paw had given him and poured a little of the clear liquid into his cup. As it spread its warmth through his belly, it helped to take the edge off his hunger. He smiled and, nudging Adam, offered him the cup behind their father’s back.
Adam rolled his eyes at the strong smell of it. Hoss ducked his head as though telling him to go ahead and have some so Adam tipped up the cup and took a tentative swallow. It burned and made his eyes water as it slid down his throat, scalding as it went. If they had been alone, Adam would have gasped aloud when it hit his stomach. As it was, he merely coughed behind an upturned hand and gave the cup back to Hoss.
Joe caught the cup making its surreptitious journey and arched an eyebrow in Hoss’ direction, asking in silence what was going on.
In silent reply, Hoss shook his head warningly and looked pointedly at their father who was stoking up the fire at the time.
“Well, so much for dinner,” Ben groused, clearly put out by not only the scant meal but also the cold that seemed to be leaking into the cabin. All day he had been cold and now it looked like a long, cold night ahead of them. “I suggest you boys turn in. Tomorrow morning early, we are heading back to the house. We’ll do some hunting on the way down. But we get up early tomorrow, understood?”
The chorus of “yes sir’s” he got sounded weak and uncertain but Ben let it go. At least the cold would keep Joe’s hot temper in line, maybe. And if Adam would just let things be…well, Ben decided to turn in, taking the only bed in the cabin. He rolled into his blankets, faced the wall and closed his eyes, sure sleep would follow quickly. It didn’t.
He heard the rustle and clink that told him his sons were settling in on the floor before the fire, their saddles propped up as pillows. But the more he listened, he heard that curious clinking noise. When he had heard it for the third time, he opened his eyes in time to see the shadow on the wall as Hoss poured something into a cup Adam was holding out. He turned his head and caught the vision for true. Well, he thought, he would let them finish the whiskey they had found then they would go to sleep, their hunger abated for the time being. He tugged at his blankets and closed his eyes again. But we finished the bottle of whiskey at supper! What have they got? Oh no, not Bear Paw’s…Ben let his thought die. If his sons were drinking that white lightning Bear Paw was famous for, tomorrow would be punishment enough.
For about fifteen minutes, the boys were obviously hitting it pretty hard if the amount of clinking was any indication. Ben would catch just the barest chuckle, then the shh’s would follow until finally all three of his sons were laughing. They were trying to do it quietly but Ben would have likened that to pushing water uphill. But he kept his face to the wall, letting them think that he was sleeping.
“Boy, I tell you if we were home right now, I would tuck into some of Hop Sing’s cookin’ like there was no tomorrow,” Hoss softly admitted. “What about you Adam?”
“I’d be in bed. Nice and warm. Ahh,” and with Adam’s sigh he could envision his waiting bed and wiggled his shoulders into the crease of his saddle.
“Not me, I’d be in Virginia City! After all this is Friday night and pay day to boot!” Joe said, clearly forgetting that he was supposed to be talking in hushed tones.
“And we all know that by tomorrow morning, you would be broke! I swear, Joseph, I don’t think there is a vice you have left untested over the years.” Hoss laughed.
“Shhhh!” Adam and Joe both hissed at the same time and then looking at one another, fell into an unexplainable fit of giggles.
“Yes, you have tried all the forbidden fruits, haven’t you?” Adam chuckled warmly.
“What about that, Joe?” Hoss pointed toward his brother with his full cup in his hand. “You always been the ladies’ man of the family. When was your first time?”
“Doin’ what?” Joe asked, getting Adam to tip the jug in his direction. “Oh you mean, with a girl? Havin’…making…?” Joe was having a little difficulty getting his thoughts organized for some reason.
“I know,” Adam cut in before he could answer. “It was that trip to San Francisco when you were 17 and I took you to that cat house, right?”
Joe shook his head mutely, a little smile playing at his lips as he remembered that time. How Adam had instructed the Madame to take him and see to it that his young brother was educated in the bedroom arts, and how surprised his ‘instructor’ had been when it became obvious that her young customer was no stranger in that area. “I let you think that was the first time, ’cause I knew how much it meant to you,” he told Adam apologetically when his brother gave him a shocked stare. “You know, all that stuff about how it was the duty and privilege of the older brother to expand the horizons of the younger.”
Hoss let go a hearty laugh as he watched his brothers, Joe looking almost comically pleading and Adam gaping like a landed fish. They both looked at him, their fingers across their lips for him to be quieter, and he explained. “I always had a feeling that’s how it was. I bet you’d had your horizons expanded at least a year before that.”
By now, Ben was wide-awake and staring at the wall in front of him. He almost rolled over and said something but then decided against it and stayed still and quiet, listening as his youngest dug a deeper hole for himself.
Joe blushed, a little embarrassed to admit. “I was fifteen, actually.”
“Fifteen!” Adam shouted. It earned him shushings from Hoss and Joe but Ben nearly said the same thing. “Were you even out of school yet?”
The blush, whether from the effects of the spirits or the thoughts, deepened and the young man cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Um, well, no. Not quite.”
Adam’s brow furrowed. “What do you mean, not quite?”
“Well, you remember that big party they always used to throw on the last day of school every year?” The others nodded, Hoss leaning forward with an intrigued expression while Adam rocked back and hid his face in his hand. “Uh, I, sort of… Well, let’s just say that’s the most I learned all year in that schoolhouse.”
Adam’s hand slid down his face until it rested on his chin. “You mean to tell me you snuck some girl into the schoolhouse, and you two…?” He just couldn’t finish the sentence. His almost whispering voice suddenly grew into an indignant bark as he added, “With a couple hundred people gathered right outside at the picnic?!!”
“I bet it was that little Sally Winters,” Hoss guessed, snapping his fingers. “She always was a little forward, and she used to follow you around like a love-sick puppy. I still remember that dance you two went to together. You couldn’t keep your hands off each other until I walked up and threatened to throw a bucket of ice water over you both.”
Joe scowled, shifting in his bedroll as he brought his arms up to cross them over his chest. “It wasn’t me who couldn’t keep my hands off the other at that dance, it was her! I had to sit through an hour-long lecture from Pa on proper behavior with young ladies after that and I never even did anything wrong.”
Ben recalled that lecture clearly.
“Well, obviously the lecture didn’t take if you compromised her in the schoolhouse less than a month later,” Adam huffed.
A disgusted sigh answered him. “For your information it wasn’t Sally I made love to, and if you’re going to act that way I’m not telling you who it was.”
“Aw, come on, Joe,” Hoss objected. “Adam don’t mean nothin’. What happened?”
After a long look at both his brothers, Joe relaxed again. “We’d been flirting a little for most of the year. I was kinda shocked at first. Thought I must be reading her wrong, but she was always finding reasons to lean over me or touch my hand, and I’d catch her looking at me during class when we were supposed to be studying. It didn’t help that I had a huge crush on her anyway, but I knew Pa would kill me if he ever caught me making a move on the teacher.”
For a moment, Adam looked horrified. Miss Jones? Joe and… Then he breathed a sigh of relief, remembering that Abigail had given up the school a year before Joe got out. The position had been taken over by pretty young Miss Morris, a girl barely out of school herself. Joe had indeed been amusingly smitten over her. “I remember finding a couple of love notes you’d written to her when I was checking over your homework,” he said. “I never thought you’d have given them to her, though, and I certainly never thought she would take advantage of the situation if you did.”
Over next to the wall, it was all Ben could do to not roll over and make himself clearly known. He couldn’t believe what he was hearing! Joe and that Miss Morris! A part of him was horrified but then he stopped and reminded himself that Joseph was a man now and the time for disciplining him for something on this magnitude was long past. He swallowed hard and continued listening in silence.
“She didn’t take advantage. I used to find excuses to stay after class, told her I needed extra help with my math or whatever, and we got to be friends. She was eighteen and all alone. Lonely, I guess.” Joe paused, sighing softly. “Our first kiss was accidental. She was sitting next to me, showing me how to work a problem. We turned toward each other at the same time. Guess I shouldn’t have, but I kissed her and she started kissing back. I think we both wanted more right from the start, but nothing else happened until the school year was officially over and I wasn’t her student anymore. I went into the school with her at the picnic, told Pa I was helping her square everything away for the summer, but then things just happened. We blocked the door for privacy and then she…”
“Educated you,” Adam finished. He shook his head, but his smile was back. Trust Joe to turn a schoolboy fantasy into the real thing.
“Uh, huh,” he agreed with a shy smile. “She accepted a school in a different district the next year and I started working the Ponderosa full time. I never saw her again.”
“Maybe that’s best,” Hoss said softly, his expression slightly dreamy. “Nothing to spoil the memory that way.”
All three remained silent for awhile, then for no reason their eyes met and they all began to laugh.
Ben heard the clinking of the jug on the tin cups as they settled down again. He wondered just how much they had of the stuff but shoved that thought aside when he heard Adam’s rich baritone, slightly slurred.
“Okay Hoss, how about your first experience with the ladies? And don’t try to tell me you haven’t done the deed, so to speak, ’cause I know you have.”
“I don’t wanna discuss it.”
“I’ll make you a deal,” Adam was saying, “You tell us about yours and I’ll tell you ’bout mine.”
Hoss shook his head just once. “Nope, a gentleman don’t talk about such things.”
Joe giggled. “Well then, you’re fine, Hoss, ’cause we ain’t gentlemen. We’re brothers.”
Ben heard Hoss take a deep breath and he could imagine the reluctance Hoss was having. But then again, Ben wanted to hear this, so sure he had been that his middle son was still an innocent where his brothers were not.
“Well, it ain’t like yours, Joe. It was different, is all I’m gonna say. Gimmee another cupful of that stuff, Adam.”
“Not until you confess, big fella. Come on. Out with it!”
The silence stretched out for several moments before Hoss began. “You remember that summer I was nineteen and Pa sent me over to the Widow Lewis’? Over to Grass Valley? I went to help her harvest her wheat. Well…”
“You mean to tell me you found a girl over there?” Joe asked, his voice full of wonder. As far as he knew, there was a certain lack of young women in Grass Valley.
“Not a girl, Joe, a woman. I was so far from home and she was lonely too, Miz Lewis was,” and as he spoke, his brothers could hear the loneliness in his voice. “There were wheat fields as far as I could see and it seemed to me that we were a thousand miles from any where and any one. I guess I got lonely. Some where along the way, I got the feeling that she wanted something more than friendship but I didn’t know then what it was. Then she came to me one evening. I’ll never forget that evening. We sat and talked, having coffee and some cookies. There was a difference in her laughter and as I watched her I guess it finally come to me what was happening to us. Then she reached over and touched me on the arm. I still remember her little ol hands. They were so soft and warm. Funny, when we looked at one another, she looked a whole lot younger and I felt a whole lot older, just looking at her.”
There he paused and looked into the fire burning at his feet. Over his head, Adam and Joe just looked at the other. They had no idea that Hoss had even thought about a woman that way, much less had experienced one. Adam picked up the jug and drank from it, then offered it again to Hoss as a way of saying he was sorry for making light of him. But Hoss brushed it away and with his eyes still riveted to the fire, he went on, his voice soft in the cabin’s darkness. “She talked about the lightning and how she loved storms and how being with a man was like that for her when it was good. Well that night, there must have been plenty of fire in the sky. She come to me, there in the barn loft that night, all her clothes and stuff off to one side and at first she just laid there beside me. I didn’t know what to do and I told her that I’d never…you know. She curled up on me — shucks even then I was a big fella and she was so little, so dainty–then she whispered, ‘That’s okay.’ And durn if it weren’t too! All summer long, it was more than okay. I don’t think there’s ever been another time in my life I enjoyed myself so much.”
“Do you ever think about her?” Joe asked, his voice subdued in the dark.
“Yep. I think about her and that summer lots of times. I can’t look at the moonlight in the heat of summer without thinking of her. And every time I pass a wheat field dancing with the wind, I hear her telling me that everything is gonna be okay. And sometimes, when the wind gets to singing high in the trees and a storm comes up, I can feel her in my arms again, wanting me the same way I wanted her.”
In the dark, Hoss blindly reached for the jug, which Adam pressed into his hand.
“I went back to Grass Valley ’bout a year ago. I wanted to see her again but all I found was the barn. It was falling in, empty and deserted. The house was gone but that was okay because every time I thought about her, it was in the barn that I saw her. I can still see her clear as a bell. Standing there without a shred of clothes covering her, but she weren’t bashful ner shy ’bout bein’ that way. Like that first night when we was finished, she stood looking out the hayloft door, way high, and looking at the storm out over the wheat fields, the wind blowing back through her long brown hair.”
“She was gone, wasn’t she?” Adam asked, his voice barely above a whisper.
Hoss took a long pull on the jug. “Yep. But maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be for a young fella. The first woman you have is like no other you’ll ever have in your life and she should stay just like she was that first time. Never grow old and gray. Never get a wrinkle and never be any way other than how he first had her.”
A part of Ben wanted to roll over and tell Hoss how proud he was of him for voicing just those sentiments. But the other part of him won out that night and he stayed silent. Waiting and listening for his eldest son’s story, he wondered how he could have raised so totally different sons on the same set of values.
For a while, the only sounds that came to Ben’s hearing was that of some sons drinking heavily. The sound of cups clinking against the jug had stopped. Apparently it didn’t allow them to consume Bear Paw’s brew fast enough. That or they were getting drunk enough that hanging onto a cup was getting difficult!
But then it started, that rumble he had half feared all afternoon and evening.
“You know, don’t you, Hoss, that this evening is courtesy of our baby brother. Like I said before, he does this little tap dance around Pa to get his way and we, that’s you and I, wind up paying the piper. Like your bed tonight? If he hadn’t come up with this scheme and been late, we would be home right now.” Adam began the ageless tirade, keeping his voice low even though his words slurred just enough that they only half ran into one another.
Hoss sighed. Adam could generally hold his liquor extremely well, but there was a point in his drinking when he seemed to go out of his way to start an argument, just for the fun of it. Of course, he was like that most of the time, but when the liquor reached a certain level, it was time to hang back and watch out. Then you either had to wait until he worked through it, or get him to lower the level of the bottle a bit more. Hoss hefted the jug again, wondering if there was enough left, then reluctantly handed it to his oldest brother. It might be the only way to keep any peace tonight.
“I still can’t believe what Pa lets you get away with,” Adam whispered furiously as he accepted the jug. “You know, if you hadn’t wanted to spend time with some gal in Sacramento, we’d all be home right now, with a good meal in our stomachs and a soft bed under our butts instead of this cold, hard floor.” Uh oh, Hoss thought, that was a bad sign when Adam started repeating himself. He cringed.
He could sympathize with the food angle, but he wasn’t all that put out by the floor. At least he had plenty of room to stretch out. Then again, Adam wasn’t as well padded, though if Joe didn’t complain, Hoss didn’t figure Adam should.
Adam tilted the jug for a quick sip. A good sign, Hoss thought but then Adam actually shook his finger at Joe. “He’d never have let me or Hoss do half the things you do.” Bad sign.
Joe remained quiet for some reason. Good sign. Then he reached over and liberated the jug of Bear Paw’s finest from Adam. Bad sign, Hoss thought. Joe and Adam drunk at the same time? Bad sign, a very bad sign.
Hoss finally had to speak up. “Older brother, let me set you straight on somethin’ right now. Joe wouldn’t get away with half the things he does if you hadn’t o’ worn poor ol’ Pa down to a nubbin first.”
Joe’s eyebrows flew up. “What?” Although he was at a complete loss as to what was happening, he went on the attack gleefully.
Adam’s eyebrows drew together.” What?” he scowled at the defection of his longtime backup. Bad sign, the two of them sayin’ the same thing.
Hoss idly twirled his finger around the edge of a knothole in a floorboard. “Say, like that time when you was fifteen an’ got lost in San Francisco?”
Joe sat up straight and stared at Adam, who seemed to be slowly turning a most interesting shade of pink. Or was that the fire? But with the killer instincts found only in youngest brothers, he pounced. “You wanna explain that one, big brother?”
To Joe’s intense fascination, Adam’s face went from pink to red. A real bad sign.
“Uh, not really.” He turned to Hoss and mouthed silently, “Now look what you’ve done! He’s too young!”
Hoss didn’t bother to whisper, though he kept his voice low enough not to wake their father. “No, he ain’t. An’ if you weren’t too young to do it at fifteen, he’s sure be old enough to hear about it at twenty-one.”
“Do what, Adam?” Joe asked innocently. Much too innocently.
Adam handed him the jug along with a dark glare, which he then transferred to Hoss. “You never heard the whole story, so you can’t make that judgment,” he pronounced with a definite air of “so there!” even if his words did slip a little.
Now Hoss’ eyebrows went up. “You mean there was more? You had a rip-roarin’ fight with Pa ‘cause he wouldn’t let you go out on your own in the biggest, wildest town on this end of the country, so you climbed out the window of the hotel, got down under the false floor of the saloon down the street to sweep up some gold dust, spent some of it to see a show with wild dancin’ gals—” Forget about keeping track of good signs and bad signs now. It’s either all down hill or all up hill.
“It was supposed to be a play!” Adam interrupted, but Hoss ignored him. He was on a roll and Adam knew it. All he could think was there had to be a way out of this.
“An’ you used the rest of it to win four hundred dollars gambling down at the Barbary Coast, then you escaped from Shanghai Sam by runnin’ a stage with a strongbox full of letters from the East into the ocean, an’ only got away from the lynch mob by hiding in some store room whose owner had the sheriff lock you up in jail the next morning, an’ he sent a message to Pa so after wanderin’ around town all night lookin’ for you, he had to come and bail you out, but he couldn’t even give you the tanning you know you deserved because you was so bruised up an’ worn out that Mama wouldn’t let him!” He finally paused for breath and leaned forward, nailing Adam in place with his glare. “An’ you got the guts to sit there and say that you an’ me never got away with anything, and not only that, but that there was more what happened that night but you won’t tell us ‘bout it because Joe’s too young?”
Joe’s eyes were wide open, but Adam’s were squeezed shut as if in pain. Hoss tapped on the jug. “Give it back to ‘im. I think he’s gonna need it.”
Adam let out a feeble, “But—”
Hoss shook his head. “There ain’t no ‘buts’ about it, older brother – you’re just gonna have to come clean ‘bout the whole thing.”
Joe took a healthy swallow of the white lightning and, wheezing with its aftereffects, laughed as he passed the jug back to Adam. “The only thing that’s missing in that story is a gal.” He laid down on one side, one hand propping up his head, elbow on the floor.
Adam buried a groan in the mouth of the jug, and his brothers immediately perked up, as best they could.
“Out with it, older brother,” Hoss advised. “We told you some of our secrets, now it’s your turn.”
Adam heaved a sigh, and Hoss realized with relief they’d reached the next plateau in the journey of one of Adam’s drunks: his storytelling phase. “Well, as it happens, this tale fits right in. You see, the storekeeper was a girl. A woman.” He took another sip, and a secret smile crinkled one corner of his mouth. “A woman with a soft, round bottom—” his free hand described an arc in the air at about waist height, “long, thick hair—” his fingers twined in the imaginary strands as Joe leaned forward, then he lifted his hands higher “—two of the softest, largest, round—”
Joe’s elbow slipped on the floor, and he fell to the ground with a thump. Adam merely glanced at him with one raised eyebrow and went back to his musings. “She wanted to put this ointment on the bruises on my face and arms and back. It smelled like the pine trees – her hair smelled like wild roses. She’d helped me drag upstairs to her room and I pretty much collapsed on the bed – I’d wrenched my leg coming off that stage – and when she bent over me her loose hair dragged over my bare shoulders . . .”
He lifted the jug and swung it through the air. Hoss quickly moved back out of the way. “It was the color of whiskey. She rolled me over onto my stomach so she could work on my back. I was pretty scraped up, so it took a long time for her to finish rubbing the ointment in . . . her hands were so gentle, but they pushed me down onto the bed, shifting me back and forth a bit, and by then my imagination was starting to run a little wild . . . along with the rest of me. She was no innocent, even if I was. She turned me back over, and as soon as she got one good look at me, she got this sweet, kind of hungry smile on her face. I looked her right in the eyes – I still remember that bottomless, ocean blue – and told her my leg was really bothering me.”
He laughed, then, a deep, satisfied chuckle, and stretched back to lie on the saddle. “She asked me which one and said the ointment could only help the two I walked with. I didn’t understand what she meant, but I knew what she was asking. All I could choke out was, ‘C’mere.’ And after she unhooked her dress, she did. Her skin had crinkle marks from her corset and I remember being fascinated by them, running my fingers up and down that soft skin, those little nubs, wondering if they hurt. She shivered, so I asked her, but she whispered, ‘No,’ and unbuttoned my pants. I needed some help getting them off – really, I did, but maybe not as much as she gave – and she moved on top of me.”
He took a long pull on the jug. “We had the lamp down low, so I could see her face. It was the first time I realized when a woman is the most beautiful. But she showed me about touch, too, and how the lightest can do the most. She was a fine teacher. I can still remember her little tap-tap-taps at the base of my spine—” He sat up with a jerk. “Damn,” he said with a half-laugh. “I don’t think I better go on from here.” He pulled himself back together with effort. “End of it all was, just before she opened the next morning, she locked me in the storeroom for the sheriff to come collect so no one would guess what we’d been up to. But all in all, probably the best introduction to making love a man could have.”
“Did you ever see her again?” Joe asked breathlessly. He was half-glad, but also half-disappointed his brother had stopped.
“Now and again. She’s moved up in the world – runs a young ladies’ academy on California Street.”
Hoss’ jaw dropped. “You mean Miz Chantreau?”
Joe shook his head in disbelief. “I heard she never sees anyone. Says she gave her heart away when she was young”
“Don’t believe everything you hear. It’s a convenient excuse so that she doesn’t get… bothered.”
“I also heard she says she never found anyone to match up to that young man.”
Adam merely smiled. A secret, immensely pleased, and very male smile.
“Hey, Adam,” Hoss interjected, his brow furrowed in thought. “Ain’t that academy one o’ your business investments?”
“Mmmhmmm,” he answered. “Also very convenient.”
Ben, almost lulled into sleep by Adam’s rich voice telling the story, came abruptly awake as he realized what he’d just heard. Wide-eyed, he laid there and listened to see what else his eldest was ‘invested’ in.
Joe was staring thoughtfully at his brother. “Fifteen, huh? And you were mad at me?”
“That’s different,” Adam tried to explain. “I’m the oldest . . . an’ you’re the youngest.”
Joe sat back and regarded him seriously. “How’s that make it different?”
Adam rubbed at his forehead. “’Cause . . . I’m older.”
Joe hid a smile behind his hand. Adam sure had been doing some heavy drinking tonight, if that was the best he could do. “You weren’t older than me then. We were both fifteen.” He felt a curious satisfaction over that. Somehow it made things . . . equal.
Hoss was thinking about something else, though. “Pa didn’t tell Mama ‘bout that part,” he marveled.
“You mean you eavesdropped on them? Pa and Mama?” Joe was finding out all kinds of things about his brothers tonight.
“O’ course,” Hoss answered reasonably. “How else was I gonna find anything out?”
“Pa didn’t know. Hoss is just pulling your leg, Joe,” Adam took another swig, and then grinned. “ so Pa still doesn’t know. And I wouldn’t put it past him to try to give me that long-overdue tanning if he did.”
Ben nearly laughed aloud when Adam said that. Apparently his sons had completely forgotten that he was not five feet from them. And it was obvious to him that he wasn’t going to get any sleep that night so Ben finally did what he had wanted to do for the last hour or more. He rolled over and spoke up.
“Would you three settle down and get to sleep?”
A skunk walking through couldn’t have gotten their attention any faster. Ben could see the whites of Joe’s eyes and Adam was half-falling over his saddle, trying to put the jug of white lightning out of sight. Hoss, who had just tossed another stick of firewood on the fire went deathly pale.
“Are we…keepin’ you awake, Pa?” Adam asked tentatively, his stomach flopping around like a fish out of water. “Didn’t mean,” and he paused to let the roiling settle but it wouldn’t, “to wake you.”
“You didn’t wake me. I’ve been awake all evening.”
As the full meaning of his words sank in, he watched as his sons went through a whole regiment of emotions. First came panic, then disbelief then a touch of shame crossed over Hoss’ face but only his. Joe and Adam traded guilty looks. Adam tried to slide down and hide behind his upturned saddle. Hoss figured with his eyes squinted shut really tight, maybe he wouldn’t be seen. And Joe? Well, trust his youngest to be either the boldest or the drunkest, Ben wasn’t sure just which it was when Joe piped up.
“Does this mean you’re gonna tell us about your first experience with a woman?”
The room went deathly still, except for Joseph’s almost quiet hiccup. Adam rolled over onto his stomach and peeked over the edge of the saddle, ready to duck if Pa chose that moment to let loose the hounds of Hell upon his sons. Hoss just looked over his shoulder but he couldn’t get Pa to stay in focus for very long.
“No,” Ben said slowly, “but I am going to tell the three of you this and I hope you take it to heart. What you three have been discussing this evening is not something to be taken lightly. Having an intimate relationship with a woman is not something to be made light of. Now I don’t have my head stuck in the sand so deep that I don’t know that at least two of you have played fast and loose with the ladies. Granted I truly didn’t think you had started so early! But that’s in the past. If I didn’t do anything about it then, I certainly don’t have the right to do it now.”
All three of his sons were beginning to feel extremely uncomfortable and it showed.
Ben pressed on. “I’ve heard each one of you use the term ‘making love’. You only make love to one woman. She had better be your wife because of what those words mean and say. Love, not a casual roll, with payment made for services rendered. That isn’t love and you know it. The woman who shares your bed needs to be sharing your life as well and that means commitment. Not just for a night,” and he looked pointedly at Adam, “or a season.” Ben ground his stare into Hoss long enough that his biggest son turned to face him finally and he hung his head.
“So, to answer your question, Joseph, although I shouldn’t, the first woman I made love to was Elizabeth, my wife. But I also made love to Inger and to Marie and each and every time I did, I made sure I gave them the proper respect they were due because they were more than my wives. They were my loves. And they still are. Now. It is late and tomorrow we have a hard day in front of us. I suggest you three go to sleep.”
The good nights he heard mumbled from his sons were contrite and Ben watched them as they scooted down in their saddles. Within moments, Hoss’ snores began rumbling and Joe flopped from one side over to the other in an attempt to get further away from them. Adam pulled his blanket a little higher up and his hat a little further down.
Well that went over better than I thought it would, Ben thought. He turned to lay on his back and felt the first twinge of conscience. Okay, you all know about it now anyway. I was not about to say a word to them about her. Cut me some slack, Liz. I was all of sixteen. And Inger, you know loneliness bothers me. I had been at sea for four months! Marie, stop laughing at me! She was important to me…then. I still remember her, you know, that pretty little signorina with the midnight hair and green eyes in Florence that afternoon.
Other Stories by this Author
- Almost (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- Believe (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- Physics 101 (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- Leaves (by the Tahoe Ladies)
- If (by the Tahoe Ladies)