Summary: It should have been a routine cattle drive. But what with Hop Sing announcing it was doomed from the start, and then the arrival of an Englishman and his eccentric horse, the cattle drive was to be anything but.
Word Count: 7750
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, setting, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.
“My dear sirs, what a pleasure it is to make your acquaintance. Fenimore St. John Ware’s the name. Please, call me Fenimore. I’m here on an excursion, enjoying this spectacular country of yours.”
He had been spotted from a mile away: a single figure alone in the wide-open grassland, bending over a piece of head-height apparatus. As they approached, they could see the object was an easel and that the stranger was dressed in a knee-length smock smeared with all shades of color. He would glance up periodically to scrutinize the gently rolling landscape before him before leaning over his canvas to dash a dab of pigment here or smudge his thumb in the paint there. So intent was he on the task at hand, it was only when the chuckwagon’s rattling and clattering penetrated his concentration did he look up and beam widely at them.
The driver of the chuckwagon, a somewhat bad-tempered Chinaman, gathered up the reins of his team to bring them to a stop and frowned down at the elaborately titled gentleman. “You need move, not safe, lot of cattle come this way. Need move now.”
The smile had not left Fenimore’s face. “Cattle? Here?” He gazed around the peaceful landscape where the only sound was a soft wind rustling through the knee-high grass. “Whatever do you mean?”
“What Hop Sing means…” A man of imposing size seated next to the Chinaman sat forward so Fenimore could see him. “What my polite, good-natured pal here is sayin” – his nostrils flared as he threw a sideways look at the Chinaman – “is that there’s a cattle drive headin’ this way, and you’re smack plumb in its path.”
“Oh! I hadn’t realized. But I should introduce myself formally. My name is Fenimore St. John Ware.” He held out his hand. The Chinaman, Hop Sing, muttered something in his own tongue and kept his grip on the reins. Fenimore withdrew his arm haltingly but at the sight of Hop Sing’s companion holding out his hand to him, he moved around in front of the four horses, keeping a wide berth, and took the man’s proffered hand in a firm grasp.
“Jolly good to meet you,” said Fenimore.
“I’m Hoss Cartwright, sir. Sorry to not come down and introduce myself as I should; my foot’s all banged up and it’s like scalin’ the heights of Mount Davidson to be gettin’ up and down.” He pointed at an unbooted foot wrapped in a heavy bandage. There was another muttering of Chinese and Hoss glared at the man next to him. “Don’t you be cussin’ at me, Hop Sing, it was you who done run over my foot with this here wagon in the first place. I ain’t saying another word to you until you admitted what you done and said sorry for it.”
His brow smoothed as he turned back to Fenimore who had been following the exchange of words. “Judgin’ by your voice, sir, you ain’t from around here.”
“You’re very astute, young man, very astute. I’ve come all the way from Cambridgeshire in England just to see your magnificent country.” He gestured around him. “Look at this land, sir, we have nothing like this back home. The light, the colors—oh goodness—it’s simply perfect for an amateur artist like myself. It really is marvelous.”
One of Hoss’s eyebrows rose. “Marvelous it may be, Mister, um, Mister…”
Fenimore dug deep into his jacket pocket to pull out a small, battered card and handed it to Hoss. It looked even smaller as Hoss held it in his large fingers and read the words out loud. “Fenimore Saint John—”
“Sinjun, it’s pronounced Sinjun. I know, yet another of the foibles of the English language. But please, call me Fenimore.”
“Well, um, Fenimore, you cain’t be here because in a coupla hours my pa and brothers are gonna be leadin’ about three thousand head of cattle right along this trail here.”
Fenimore’s ever-present smile drooped slightly. “I see. Yes, that is rather a large number of animals. I don’t suppose I can just step aside to let them pass?”
Hoss gently shook his head, a smile forming on his lips. “Cattle have a habit of wanderin’ wherever they dang well pleased, they ain’t ones for walkin’ in a straight line. No, sir. You need to get your bits and pieces together and be on your way.” Hoss suddenly frowned. “Wait a minute. Where’s your horse?”
The tips of Fenimore’s fingers began to drum together. “Ah, you see, there’s the rub. Bertie’s, uh, run off.” He smiled an embarrassed smile. “He’ll come back, he always does, it’s just, at the present time, I appear to be up the creek without a paddle, so to speak.”
Hoss twisted to look at the irritable Hop Sing who merely harrumphed and turned to face forward. A glance back at the exuberant gentleman next to the wagon revealed a face full of hope and expectation. He sighed. “Get your things.”
And so it was Fenimore St. John Ware found himself balanced precariously on the edge of a seat which only comfortably fit two, next to an irascible Chinaman and a somewhat large cowboy with a bandaged foot; his gear stowed in the back of the chuckwagon. His destination was unknown, but Fenimore was an adventurer, and for reasons unknown he trusted the big friendly cowboy. His grin became as wide as the firmament.
A lantern atop the chuck box cast its light over the queue of cowboys waiting patiently for Hop Sing to dish out servings of beans and sourdough bread. The newcomer, already known simply as the Englishman on account of his long-convoluted name being too long and convoluted to pronounce, was sitting by the fire with a stub of charcoal scribbling in a leather-bound sketchbook.
“I always saw myself as a landscapist,” he was saying to Ben Cartwright, the trail boss, “but I find myself utterly intrigued by your manner of dress, and your moody Chinese fellow is utterly captivating and that marvelous contraption,” he pointed to the chuckwagon, “well, I think I may become more of a painter of human life in this wild west of yours.” His hand moved rapidly across the paper.
Big Ben Cartwright, grey of hair and yet with a sparkle in his eyes that spoke of a youthfulness of spirit, took a sip of his coffee and surveyed the firelit countenances of his men. “All the world is here, under these stars,” he said. “You could do worse than to paint old Jack there, or the Rainbird twins, Thomas and John.” The three oldest men looked up from their plates at mention of their names and nodded in acknowledgement. “There is a lifetime of experience in every line and wrinkle on their faces.”
Fenimore paused. “You have an artist’s soul, sir,” he said, “you see more than just the façade.”
A tirade of Chinese sounded, and the men raised their heads to see Hop Sing grabbing back empty plates from some of the youngsters. Ben’s eyes twinkled. “You may want to avoid Hop Sing though. He’s been in a sour mood since we left home. Something about leaving on the fourth day of the fourth month being unlucky. It doesn’t help that we gave him four horses and two of them are black. Far too many bad omens in Hop Sing’s eyes.” Ben chuckled. “And then he ran over Hoss’s foot on our first night out.” Ben looked over his shoulder at the cook to be met with a scowl and more slammed crockery. “Yep, best avoid Hop Sing.”
Hoss was lying on his back with his head resting on an upturned saddle, his injured foot nudging the fire. With his hands folded over his belly and his face hidden beneath a hat, he was a vision of restful slumber. Fenimore found a fresh sheet in his sketchbook and began to draw with gusto.
“Your son mentioned he had brothers, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Please, call me Ben, and yes, that would be Adam and Joseph. Can you hear the singing? That’s Adam and Joe singing to the cows.”
Fenimore looked up and faced the direction of the herd. Over the chorus of cicadas and the baying of the cattle, two voices were harmonizing together in a slow ballad. “Yes, I can hear them, and what fine voices they have too.”
“That’s my boys.” Ben could not keep the pride from his voice.
Fenimore frowned. “But sir, did you say they were singing…to the cows?”
Ben smiled. “It keeps them calm at night. The last thing we want is a stampede.” He leant forward and poked at the fire with a stick. “They have favorite songs, you know?”
“No, the cows. They particularly like Bury Me Not on The Lone Prairie. It sends them to sleep.”
Ben’s face was so straight that Fenimore couldn’t tell if he was being serious or not. He opened his mouth to ask, but then one of the night guards called out that a rider-less horse was approaching. Ben began to rise, but Fenimore arrested his movement with a hand on his shoulder. He called out to the night guard. “Is it a brown horse with white socks, and a look of wanderlust in his eyes?”
Every man in the camp stopped to wait for the reply. A long moment passed but then the guard called back. “Uh, yeah, brown with white socks. Not sure about wanderlust, more like a squint.”
Fenimore grinned. “That’ll be Bertie. I told your boy, Hoss, he’d be back.” He returned to his sketchbook; his attention now fixed on the chuckwagon. “He always comes back,” he muttered.
Ben shook his head in amusement and lit his pipe for his last smoke of the day.
Fenimore woke the next morning to the smell of woodsmoke and bacon, and a firm hand shaking his shoulder. A black-haired cowboy was crouched by his side. Fenimore yawned and with eyes barely open gazed around him. The sun wasn’t even a burning red scar on the horizon, yet the camp was a stir with men saddling their horses; some were consuming bacon and coffee; others were only partly dressed following a splash at a nearby creek. One young man stood with his arms wide, his torso bare and glistening in the firelight, as he stretched in the cool air. Fenimore pulled his blanket up to his neck. “A bit cold, wouldn’t you say?” His waker twisted to see what Fenimore was looking at. ‘That’s my brother, Little Joe. He’d sleep to sundown if he could, but a cold splash of water tends to wake him.” He held out his hand. “I’m Adam Cartwright. You met my pa and my brother, Hoss, yesterday. It’s time to get up, we’ll be on the move soon.”
Fenimore threw back his blanket and lumbered to his feet. “Do you think, if it’s not too much of an imposition, that I may stay with you for a few days longer? You are all such wonderful subjects for my artistic endeavors. I feel so marvelously inspired.”
Adam nodded towards his father who had hauled his saddle off the ground and was turning in the direction of the remuda. “You’ll have to ask the trail boss.”
Fenimore stepped around the fire and, in his haste, tripped over a pile of cooking pots. He backed away with a tirade of angry Chinese sounding in his ears. Ben had stopped on hearing the clamor so Fenimore was able to put forward his request. Ben was hesitant. “It’s not usual to take passengers along on a cattle drive. The men can be superstitious, they see anything out of the ordinary as an omen.”
“I promise, sir, I’ll stay out of the way of the herd. It’s more the camp life and the commissary that interest me. And I can pay for food and Bertie’s upkeep. I’m a man of independent means, you see. My time and income is my own.”
Adam passed them with his saddle slung over his shoulder. “Ah, why not, Pa. It’ll make a change from the usual campfire conversation about cows, Little Joe’s love life and the condition of Hoss’s big toe.” He walked on with a grin dimpling his face.
Ben narrowed his eyes at Adam with a shake of his head as he turned his attention back to Fenimore.
“This is a working venture, not a pleasant jaunt from Virginia City to—”
“I can help your cook. He appears to be a rather busy fellow.” Fenimore’s eyes were wide with hope.
“Now, that I would not recommend.” He looked at the man shining with optimism before him, and sighed. “Oh alright.” He raised a finger. “But stay out of Hop Sing’s way, and no bothering the men when they’re working.”
Fenimore clapped his hands together. “Oh, thank you, sir, thank you. I promise I’ll be as quiet as a church mouse, I’ll be no trouble, no trouble at all.”
And as Ben watched him gather his items together, he sent a quick prayer upwards that there would be no more unexpected events on this, already eventful, cattle drive.
There was no room on the chuckwagon, not with Hoss seated beside a cantankerous Hop Sing. So Fenimore took his place in the saddle on the adventure-hungry Bertie and rode beside the wagon. Hop Sing’s face wore a permanent frown, his eyes dark with a barely repressed irritability. Hoss chose to ignore him and chatted instead to his new friend who had been firing questions at him all morning.
“So, my dear Hoss, if you weren’t indisposed at the current time, would you be trailing the way on your trusty steed?”
“Huh? Oh, no, that’s Adam’s job. He’s one of the point men along with Sawyer Biggs—he’s our foreman, works real good with Adam. No, sir, I’d be ridin’ about a third of the way down, ridin’ swing. My little brother Joe rides flank so he’s behind me. We keep the contrary critters from wanderin’ off. But because of my foot…” There was a grumble from Hop Sing. “Because of my foot,” he snapped the word, giving Hop Sign a hard look, “Joe’s up in swing, one of the drag riders has moved up to flank, and I guess we’ll stay that way until I can ride again.”
There was a stream of Chinese, and Hoss shifted to face the Chinaman. “Believe me, I don’t wanna be here anymore than you want me here. But this whole thing could be a whole lot sweeter if you jus’ darn apologized.”
“Not Hop Sing fault. You think with stomach. I say I pull ‘way, you stand next to wagon and try grab last sourdough. Your fault you put foot in front of wheel.”
“I was hungry! I’d only had two breakfasts that mornin’. How was I gonna last till dinner?”
Hop Sing poked Hoss’s stomach. “You plenty spare. You no starve.”
Hoss batted the finger away. “Hey, stop that.”
“Gentleman, gentleman.” Fenimore urged his horse ahead so he could be seen by both men. “From what I’ve been told Mr. Hop Sing here is almost family to you. Surely you shouldn’t be fighting and can be friends again.”
Hoss and Hop Sing exchanged a look, turned to Fenimore, and together said, “No!” At which, Mr. St John Ware let his horse fall back, concluding it would make for a more pleasant journey if he put a little distance between himself and the warring duo.
On Fenimore’s second night in the camp, Bertie escaped again.
Fenimore was positioned in his favorite spot, where the light was brightest from the campfire, his eyes scanning the chuckwagon for a new section to sketch, when Joe sat down beside him and asked to see his drawings. Fenimore handed over his sketchbook and watched Joe leaf through the pages.
“I can’t say I know anything about art, but these are good,” said Joe. He turned a page. “That’s Hop Sing stirring a pot of stew, and, hey, who knew a drawing of a wagon’s wheel could be, well, something you’d wanna look at.” He moved through a few more pages. “Hey, that’s me!” He angled the page towards the fire. “Hey, Pa, look.”
Ben looked over Joe’s shoulder at the pencil drawing Fenimore had made of Joe, depicting him as he had seen him the previous morning: his torso bare, arms out to the sides, mouth open in a yawn, with his hair tousled from sleep. Ben nodded his head appreciatively. “I’d recognize that belly anywhere,” he said, patting Joe on the shoulder. “It’s good work, sir, you have a talent.”
Fenimore managed to hide his face, shake his head and blush all at the same time. “Just scribbles, my good sir, mere scribbles.”
There was a shout from the perimeter. “The Englishman’s horse has slipped his rope and run off.”
Joe thrust the sketchbook into Fenimore’s grasp at the same time as Adam flicked his coffee into the fire and grabbed his hat. Both men rose to their feet. Fenimore held up his hands. “Gentleman, gentleman, please don’t trouble yourselves. Bertie loves to explore, he’s a born peregrinator. But he knows the hand that feeds him. He’ll be back. Sit, sit, good sirs.” And waving his hands, Fenimore exhorted his companions to resume their seats, and the evening continued with no further disturbances.
The following afternoon saw the chuckwagon forging ahead of the herd, seeking out the night’s camp site that Ben had located on a foray earlier in the day. Hoss and Hop Sing continued to snipe at each other so Fenimore made a diversion to a nearby rise where he could view the vast herd following in the distance.
In truth, all Fenimore could see was a cloud of dust with tiny riders on the perimeter that, at this distance, reminded him of the painted cavalry figures he played with as a child. A flash of reflecting sun drew his attention to a small figure in red with a black hat. Ah, that would be Mister Adam, he thought, and for a few moments he watched as Adam maneuvered a sprightly chestnut gelding towards the cattle. He watched as the leaders shied away and changed course ever so slightly. A job well done, concluded Fenimore. It was frightfully thrilling to watch. But he couldn’t stay there for too long, so regretfully he turned Bertie around and loped forward to catch up with the chuckwagon. He could hear the two men arguing before he’d even got there.
“Why you fuss, foot not broke?”
“I’m fussin’ because what with you refusin’ to darn apologize and all, I reckon you done it on purpose, jus’ ta prove ta everyone you was right with your omens and bad luck this and bad luck that.”
Fenimore didn’t hear a reply. But he caught sight of Hop Sing’s face as he drew level with the wagon. Hop Sing was clearly doing everything within his power to stop from exploding but he couldn’t hold it in. “Hop Sing know cattle drive important. You think I mean run over foot?” There was a stream of Chinese. “When cattle drive over, Hop Sing pack bag, go home to China.”
“Now, Hop Sing…”
“Hop Sing say nothing.” The Chinaman turned to face forward, the conversation was over.
Fenimore drew closer to the wagon. Hoss looked contrite, and at the same time, angry. “My dear Hoss, how is your foot this morning?” he asked, in an effort to lower the tension.
Hoss looked down at the heavy bandage around his foot. “Well, Mister…er…Fenimore, it feels a whole lot better. The swellin’s gone down and it don’t hurt near as bad.”
Fenimore looked from Hop Sing to Hoss. “May I suggest we swap places and you take Bertie here.” The horse had been back in the camp that morning. “See how you get on. I can take your place next to Mr. Hop Sing.”
Hoss looked down at Bertie. “I’m not sure he’d be able to take my weight.”
“I can assure you he’s stronger than he looks. After all, he is used to carrying all my painting equipment as well as myself.”
Hoss looked at the animal that chose just then to nod its head vigorously and look Hoss straight in the eye. “Well, why not. At least this way I can see whether I can ride, and at the same time get away from ol’ grumpy pants here. Stop the wagon, Hop Sing, I’m gettin’ off.”
The horses came to a halt and Hoss climbed down. He limped to the side of the wagon to retrieve his remaining boot and, leaning against the rear wheel, unwrapped his bandage, wiggled his toes, and pulled his boot on. Trying his weight, he stamped up and down a few times, then grinned.
“Hey, it don’t feel too bad.”
He marched over to Fenimore who had dismounted and was waiting by Bertie’s head. Hoss took the reins and heaved himself up. The animal sidestepped and flung its head around to nudge Hoss’s leg, but then settled. Hoss urged him forward, then reined him to one side, and then to the other, and then turned him around to trot back to the wagon.
“My foot feels fine, and Bertie here handles well. Thanks Mister… uh, Fenimore, sir.” Hoss leaned down to stroke the horse’s neck. “You up for being a cuttin’ horse, Bertie?” He touched the rein to the animal’s neck, turning him to face the direction of the herd, but then looked back.
“You sure about this, Mr. Fenimore?” He nodded at Hop Sing. “When he’s like this, he’s one to be avoided at all costs.”
But Fenimore shook his head and seconds later Hoss was gone, riding at speed back along the trail towards the approaching cloud of dust. Fenimore climbed into the wagon seat. “So, my good man, tell me about China, I hear the Great Wall is well worth a visit.”
The drive relaxed into a settled routine. The men would rise while the moon was still bright, and the air was fresh from the cloudless night. Fenimore had learned early on that the best place to sleep was as far away as possible from Hoss. The man had a snore akin to a herd of buffalo charging across the plains. Upon waking, Hoss could never understand why the nearest man to him woke up in a grump, throwing disgruntled looks in his direction, while he had slept like an innocent.
After a breakfast of bacon, sourdough and coffee, Fenimore would assist Hop Sing with packing up the chuckwagon whilst the cowboys whooped aloud, threw themselves into their saddles and circled the camp several times in a display of exuberant enthusiasm; kicking up the dust before riding en masse to their positions by the herd.
Fenimore and Hop Sing became fast friends. Having ignored Hoss’s warning to avoid the cranky cook at all costs, the Englishman had won Hop Sing over with his limitless questions about Hop Sing’s culinary prowess and the great sights of China. Bertie was consigned to the remuda so Fenimore could sit with Hop Sing, and the two men would chat away for hours on end. By supper time of the second day, Fenimore already had a personal invitation to visit Hop Sing’s kin in China: he was to visit a particular province and go to a certain town, then travel twenty miles upriver, find the village at the end of the gorge, and there he would be feted and celebrated by Hop Sing’s numerous cousins, aunts and uncles. Hop Sing would be sure to write to them and let them know to expect him…at some stage in the next ten to fifteen years.
Hoss and Hop Sing had progressed from verbal spars to giving each other the silent treatment. Their only communication became a series of grunts. After Hoss had queued for his food and received a dollop of feed on his plate, he’d grunt and move away. And as Hop Sing collected the crockery for cleaning, he’d point at the pewter dish by Hoss’s feet and grunt. Until Hoss received the apology he felt was his due, there would be no peace between them.
And every night Bertie would go walkabout. It became such a regular occurrence, no one even announced it anymore. Joe joked Bertie must have found himself a wild mare and was riding off in the night for a secret tryst. But then there came a day when, come morning, Bertie was in the exact same spot he’d been tied the night before. The affair was over, snickered Joe, his lady friend had left him. But after the men had broken their fast and were saddling up their mounts, Bertie was nowhere to be found.
“He always knows where he wants to be, does Bertie,” chuckled Fenimore.
That same afternoon as the chuckwagon ambled across an increasingly rock-strewn and cinder dry land, Fenimore’s eyes grew heavy as the steady motion of the wagon dulled his senses and he slipped into a dozy head-rolling snooze. But then an abrupt commotion invaded his stupor and his head rocked up. Hop Sing pulled the team to a stop and peered around the side of the wagon. Fenimore mirrored his actions and his eyes widened at the sight that greeted him.
A huge cloud of billowing white dust filled the entire sky, growing larger and denser before his very eyes. Was it one of the famed dust storms he had read about on his voyage over, or a tornado? He’d read about those too. But then, cresting the ridge the chuckwagon had not long traversed, an ever-moving wall of longhorn cattle thundered into view. This was not the ambling herd Fenimore had grown accustomed to, but an angry, rippling, expanding sea of cattle. The chuckwagon began to vibrate, the pots and pans secured within the canvas jingling and jangling as thousands of hooves pounded over the earth.
He spun around in his seat at the same time as Hop Sing. No words needed to be said. Hop Sing slapped the reins across his team’s back and with a cry of ‘yaaah!’ he urged them into a full gallop. The horses flew. Hop Sing was on the edge of his seat, smacking the reins up and down to make them run as fast as their legs could carry them. Fenimore hung on to the wagon’s bow behind him, one moment looking straight ahead and then behind to the herd that was fast approaching. How was it possible that cows could move at such speed? They were gaining on the wagon!
Riders were streaming up the sides of the herd like ghostly mounted specters, their clothes and horses covered in white dust.
“Turn the herd,” a booming voice cried out. “Turn those critters around!”
The cowboys were charging their horses towards the cattle in a desperate bid to change the herd’s direction. They shouted, waved their hats in the air, slapped them against thighs, fired their weapons, anything to look threatening, to spook the stampeding animals away from them. And then, a movement. The lead beast shifted course, his immediate fellows followed, and then the whole herd began to gradually turn, shying away from the shouting men.
Fenimore cheered but as soon as he did so, the grin faded from his face as he realized the danger had not passed. The herd may no longer be chasing the wagon, but the beasts on the outer edge were in danger of hitting the rear. He twisted back to Hop Sigh. ‘Faster! You must go faster!”
Hop Sing shouted at his tiring team and slapped the reins down furiously.
The angle between the wagon and the herd was closing, shrinking. The cattle were so close, Fenimore could see the whites of their panicked eyes through the dust.
But then a rider burst out of the dust cloud, galloping at speed along the edge of the herd. Leaning halfway out of the saddle, he was shouting for all he was worth, his free hand waving a black silver-studied hat around his head. It was Adam, riding frantically to reach the gap in time.
He was too late. They hit. The nearest animals crashed into the back of the wagon sending it careering off course.
But then Adam was there, charging between the handful of dazed cows that had collided with the now swerving wagon and the vast herd, his battle cry of “ya, ya!” resounding through the air.
Hop Sing chanced a swift look behind him. The wagon was veering from one side to the other, but all he could see was a flood of cows bearing down on them like an enormous wave. He slapped the team’s reins fiercely yet again, and it was though the horses jumped, gaining one last iota of momentum from their so, so weary legs.
The cattle began to swerve away from the obstacle that was now beating a hasty retreat, and away from the rider tormenting them with shouts and waving arms. They kept turning, and before long, the whole herd had circled back on itself.
And only then, when the herd had stopped its pursuit, and he’d put some distance between them, did Hop Sing pull the wagon to a halt at the top of a low-lying ridge. And he breathed for the first time in an age.
Fenimore dragged his eyes away from the cattle, turning in his seat to face out over the exhausted horses. His hand still clung to the wagon bow behind him as he looked at his companion. Hop Sing was slumped in his seat, panting to get his breath back. Fenimore let out a loud exhalation of relief. And as Hop Sing lifted his tired head, Fenimore held out his arm to shake the Chinaman’s hand.
“Bravo, my dear fellow, bravo,” he said, as he took Hop Sing’s hand in a firm grip.
They took a moment to sit and let the dust settle around them before climbing to the ground. Hop Sing walked forward to check the horses as Fenimore circled the wagon to see what damage had been inflicted when the cows hit. A rear wheel was hanging at an angle and the wagon had slanted heavily to one side. Hop Sing came to see for himself and dropped to one knee next to the damaged wheel. “Horses alright, cannot say same for wagon.”
Two riders approached, driving their mounts up the gentle slant of the ridge. It was Ben and Hoss.
Fenimore looked behind them to see the vast herd of cows milling in a huge circle, the trail hands keeping them close together. “Magnificent,” he murmured.
Hoss threw himself from his horse, his eyes on one person only. “Hop Sing!”
Hop Sing rose to his feet, his face wary. “Wheel need fixing.”
Hoss grasped him by the shoulders. “I don’t care about the wheel. I can repair that. But you’re alright? You ain’t hurt none? When I saw them critters hit the wagon, I thought…” His voice trailed off.
Hop Sing’s face softened. “Hop Sing no hurt. But you limping again.”
Hoss looked down at his boot. “Aw, I reckon my foot’s sore after all that hard ridin’ jus’ then. It still ain’t fully fixed.”
“I give you special tea, help heal foot.”
Hoss’s cheeks bunched. “Thanks, Hop Sing. And I’ll have your wagon fixed up, good as new.”
Fenimore and Ben had listened to the conversation and exchanged a grin; they both knew the quarrel was over as quickly as it had begun.
They walked to where the ridge started its downward slope and observed the gradually slowing herd. Ben frowned and shook his head. “What on earth started them off? One moment they were calm, the next, they were stampeding as though the devil himself was on their heels.”
Adam rode up the slope and pulled his mount to a stop. “It’s all under control, Pa. Those dogies aren’t going anywhere now.”
Fenimore took a step forward. “Mr. Adam, I’m almost speechless with admiration. The way you put yourself between the cows and us. You were truly splendid. Such bravery.” He held his hand out, and the two men shook hands.
But then Fenimore’s attention was distracted by the sight of Joe in the distance riding the circuit of the herd. He was leading an unsaddled horse—Fenimore instantly recognized Bertie—and heading in their direction. Fenimore watched with a growing sense of apprehension as Joe grew nearer and came to a halt in front of him.
Fenimore’s heart sank. “Oh, my goodness. It wasn’t…tell me it wasn’t…”
Joe handed down the lariat used to rope the animal. “I’m afraid so. He came out of nowhere as we were riding through that narrow draw back there. I was riding drag with Elmer to make sure the last of the cows were through, and then Bertie came barreling down the draw, spooked the tail. That caused jitters in the ones in front. Next we knew panic had spread through the whole herd.”
Ben sighed and looked up at Adam. “How many did we lose?”
Adam straightened in the saddle. “A handful. A couple of the slower ones at the back, some calves.”
Ben’s sigh grew heavier. “We’ll be eating well for the next few days.”
Fenimore’s customary smile had been replaced with a look of despair. “My dear sirs, this was all my fault.”
“Yes, it was.” Ben’s tone was firm, but his expression showed no anger, only resignation.
Fenimore met his gaze and nodded miserably. “If I’d only kept a better eye on Bertie.” He looked down at his feet. “You’ve been such marvelous hosts, and this is how I repay you. Someone could have been badly injured, worse.” He threw a quick glance at Hop Sing. “And I’ve damaged your wagon. Please, I should pay…” He began to rummage in his pockets.
“Fenimore.” Two firm hands locked onto his arms. Fenimore looked up to see Ben gazing down at him, his eyebrows high, his mouth curved in a gentle smile. “I don’t want your money. Your horse caused a stampede, not you.” He glanced over at Bertie. “This animal has a mind of his own. We’ll make sure he can’t escape tonight, we’ll hobble him—”
“There’s no point, Mr. Cartwright. I’ve tried everything, he always gets away.” Fenimore moved to Bertie’s head and ran a hand down his neck. “There’s nothing for it. I’ll have to leave.”
Several voices spoke at once. “You don’t have to go.” “Hey, it was jus’ a lil’ ol’ stampede”. “Hop Sing have more to tell ‘bout China.”
Fenimore raised his hands. “Gentleman, please. I don’t think you can know what your kind entreaties mean to me. You’ve been the best friends a lonesome wanderer could have ever met. But perhaps this was a message from a wiser and higher place; that it’s time I found myself a new landscape to paint.”
Ben took a step forward, “But we’re so near the end of the drive, another two days and we’ll be at the railhead.”
Bertie suddenly began to nod his head and sidestep. Fenimore had to hang on tight to the rope to keep him in check. By the time he had settled down, the animal was facing towards a distant rocky mountain range.
Fenimore smiled. “It looks like Bertie has made my decision for me. I go west, my friends.”
He held out his hand to Ben. “I will miss you all.”
Bertie’s tack was retrieved from where it had been stored in the chuckwagon and the accident-causing animal was saddled up. Then, it was time for Fenimore to say his goodbyes.
“I’ll be sure to visit China one day,” he told Hop Sing, “And look up all those relatives of yours.”
Turning to Hoss. “Look after that foot of yours.” He chuckled. “You may have a spare, but it takes two to get about.”
He reached up to shake Joe’s hand with a grin, no words needed to be exchanged.
Adam put a finger to the brim of his hat which Fenimore reciprocated.
Then, with another shake of Ben’s hand, he mounted up and as he turned to wave, Bertie was already moving forward, heading west, towards a new adventure.
Hop Sing sighed. “Mister Fen’more gone. I told you cattle drive unlucky.”
Adam slammed the front door behind him with his foot. “I’ve got the mail, Pa,” he called as he strode into the room. Ben looked up from his desk as Adam rounded the corner. “And we’ve got a parcel. It’s addressed to all of us.”
Ben stood, taking the large flat package Adam was holding out to him.
“Does it say who it’s from?”
“There’s a return address on the back. It’s from a Mr. F. St. John Ware, Clayford-cum-Craydon, England.” One of Adam’s eyebrows rose to meet his hairline as his lips pursed in amusement.
“Fenimore!” Ben moved out from behind his desk. “Where are those brothers of yours?” He raised his head and roared, “Hoss! Joseph!” He turned to Adam. “Go get Hop Sing.”
Joe ran down the stairs, his shirt halfway out his pants. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
The front door banged open and Hoss took a step inside, his weapon drawn, and his expression alarmed. At the sight of his pa standing in the room with a parcel in his hands and a smile on his face, he lowered his weapon. “Dadburnit, Pa, they probably heard you down in Bottomland.”
Joe tucked his shirt in. “What’s all the commotion?”
“We’ve had a parcel sent to us.”
Hop Sing followed Adam into the room. “Why you yell?”
Ben threw him a look and then turned back to Joe. “It’s from Fenimore St. John Ware.”
Joe’s face lit up with a grin. “Hey, the Englishman. What is it?”
Ben’s brows slowly rose as he held up the flat object and stared at his youngest. “Well, I’m guessing it’s a painting.”
Joe looked sheepishly at his brothers as Ben tore into the packaging. A sheet of parchment fluttered to the floor as more wrapping was revealed within. Ben handed the parcel to Adam and picked up the letter.
“My dear friends,” he read out loud, “As a small token of my sincere appreciation for your splendid hospitality, and by way of apology for the mishap Bertie and myself caused, I have great pleasure in presenting you with this little scribbling I composed on my return to England. I trust you will recognise one or two of the characters I have illustrated.
“I did, so very much, enjoy the time I spent in your company. If you should ever find yourselves in England, I would hope you would call on me at my home in Clayford-cum-Craydon. It would be an honour to wine and dine you, and have you make use of one of my thoroughbreds to explore my humble estate. Of course, you will have to wait until after my sojourn in China. By the time you read this letter, I expect I will have arrived in Hong Kong where I have been invited to take tea with the Governor.
“Regretfully, I had to part company with Bertie. I didn’t think it would be fair to subject him to a two-month voyage around the Horn and across the Atlantic, so I sold him to an Irish fellow in San Francisco who was aiming to go prospecting. If anyone can find gold, Bertie can.
“I remain, dear sirs,
“Fenimore St. John Ware, Esq.
“Clayford Castle, England.”
Joe leaned over his father’s arm to look at the letter. “Clayford Castle! He lives in a castle?”
Adam ignored him. “Open it up, Pa.” And he handed the parcel back to Ben.
The paper was soon ripped into and discarded on the floor as they all moved behind Ben to gaze in wonder at the painting he held at arm’s length before him.
Hoss broke the silence. “Well, I’ll be. And he called himself an amateur artist!”
They were looking at a perfect rendering of their chuckwagon at night. A roaring fire illuminated a scene of several cowboys in assorted poses and undertaking various activities.
“Hey, that’s me,” said Joe, pointing at a slender figure about to take a bite from a fork suspended in front of his open mouth, a plate of food balanced in his other hand.
“And that’s gotta be me,” said Hoss pointing to a large figure lying asleep with his hat lowered over his face and hands folded across his belly.
But taking pride of place in the foreground and filling a quarter of the painting was Hop Sing. He was pouring coffee into the cup of a figure seated with his back to the artist, and yet looking straight out of the painting at the viewer.
Joe started to move his head up and down and from side to side as he viewed the painting. “Hop Sing’s eyes follow you around,” he said, scratching his head. “It’s spooky.”
Adam looked from the painted Hop Sing to the real Hop Sing and back. “He’s caught you exactly right. That’s the look you get when everyone’s quiet because they’re enjoying your food.”
Ben nodded. “Adam’s right. You appear, let’s see, content.”
Hop Sing stared at the painting. “Is that what Hop Sing really look like? It different from face in mirror.”
Adam grinned. “That’s you, alright. I guess how others see us isn’t the same as how we see ourselves.”
Joe took the picture from his father and, extending his arms, held it up high. “So, where’re we gonna put it? I say we take that one down,” he nodded towards the dark oil painting on the wall by the door, “and put this up instead. Never did like that one. This is far nicer.”
Ben’s brow darkened. “That painting, young man, used to belong to your great-great-grandfather. It’s a family heirloom.”
Joe’s top lip curled slightly as he looked at it.
Hoss moved away from the huddle of men. “But, Pa, where can it go?” He pointed at the staircase in the corner of the room. “The wall along the stairs is filled with, uh, more family heirlooms, then there’s the gun cabinet, the hearth, a window, that ol’ painting of the flowers Joe’s ma brought with ‘er.” He had been pointing at each place in turn but then turned back to Ben. “There ain’t any more walls to put it on.”
“I got an idea,” said Joe, his curls bouncing as he twisted to face his pa. “We put it in one of the bedrooms. And seeing as how I’m right there, see,” he nudged his shoulder towards the painting, “in the middle of the picture, the most important place…” He turned to Adam. “Didn’t you once say nothing is accidental in a painting; that everything is there to lead the eye to the most, um, meaningful part.” Joe thrust the painting at Hoss who had no choice but to hold it against his chest. “Well I reckon the angles on the chuckwagon, just there, and that bit of Hop Sing’s arm, see, they lead to me. In the middle. The center of the painting.”
He thrust his chin up and puffed up his cheeks.
“I can’t believe you actually remembered something I told you about art,” said Adam.
“Well, what about my room?” said Hoss. “I was the one who found ol’ Fenimore in the desert. And he drew me first, didn’t he?”
“You cain’t even see your face! Look!” Joe’s eyes were growing larger and whiter as he argued.
“Boys, boys,” said Ben holding his palms up. He took a breath. “What about you?” he said to Adam. “Don’t you have a claim on the painting?”
“Heck, Pa, I’m not even in it, unless it’s that figure there.” He leaned in, squinting at a small dark smudge in the distance, recognizable only by the silver-studded hat. “Hang it where you like.” And he walked away to his chair, picked up a book and pretended to read.
Ben shook his head lightly and turned back to Hoss and Joe who had started arguing again over whose room Fenimore’s picture should be placed in.
When Hoss released a hand from where it was holding the frame—to poke Joe in the shoulder—and let the painting swing in the other, Ben moved forward to grab it.
“Grown men, arguing like children,” he thundered. “This was a gift, sent to as a token of friendship, not to make us fall out amongst ourselves.”
Hoss and Joe hung their heads. Ben held up the painting and took a long look at it as his sons exchanged rueful looks. “There’s only one place this painting is going to go.” He looked at each of his boys in turn. “And that is wherever…Hop Sing…chooses to put it.”
He held the painting out to the very surprised cook who took it with careful hands.
“In my view, this painting was only ever meant for one person, the person who, despite being a total opposite in language, upbringing, culture, didn’t let any of that matter. He allowed Fenimore to penetrate that stubborn, and sometimes contrary, exterior and let him be his friend. Plus,” and Ben smiled, “he taught Fenimore everything there is to know about China and Chinese cuisine, whether he wanted to know or not.”
Adam rose slowly to his feet and joined his brothers and pa as they watched Hop Sing stare with wonder at the painting.
“Tis great honor to receive such a gift,” he said with glistening eyes. He bowed towards Ben and his boys, and began to move slowly towards the kitchen, never taking his eyes from the painting. But as he reached the kitchen, he paused and looked back.
“Perhaps, not always unlucky to go on cattle drive on fourth day of fourth month,” he said, and as the Cartwrights laughed, he looked back at the painting and was gone.
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:
Joker (free pass)
Other Stories by this Author
- Wagon Tracks (by Sierra Girl)
- The Man Who Lost His Heart (by Sierra Girl)
- The Friendship Game (by Sierra Girl)