Summary: What’s the Fourth of July without fireworks?
Word Count: 3,609
Hoss sat on the porch, a pile of whittled wood shavings growing around his feet, an empty plate on the table bearing the evidence of sandwiches consumed. He waited for the arrival of his Yiphee Trading Company delivery. He’d planned an intimate fireworks display to welcome the new banker, Leonard Howson and his wife, Margaret, to Virginia City. The Howsons were from Philadelphia, the home of the nation’s birth, so Hoss figured they were used to sophisticated, big-city Fourth of July celebrations. Virginia City had canceled its own celebration because of the war back East so Hoss had ordered one crate of fireworks to entertain their guests. However, he had received a letter three days prior, informing him the delay in delivery was due to a lack of inventory but since inventory was re-stocked his order would be shipped from San Francisco at great haste.
The sound of wagon wheels caught his ear and Hoss folded his jackknife as he stood. So eager was his anticipation that he didn’t hear footsteps.
“You promised a spectacular fireworks show,” said Joe, crossing his arms over his chest. “The Howsons will be here around sundown.”
“Have faith, little brother,” said Hoss as he straightened his vest.
The Yiphee Trading Company covered wagon rolled into view and the driver pulled the team up in front of the house. The driver jumped down, clipboard in hand. He flipped the papers, pulled the one he wanted, and clipped it to the top of the stack.
“Cartwright?” the driver asked.
“That’s me,” said Hoss. He took the proffered clipboard from the driver and signed his name with a flourish.
Hoss accompanied the driver to the back of the wagon and had to stop himself from helping the smaller man climb in. Hoss couldn’t see the packages well in the dim interior of the covered wagon, but he was sure his had to be one of the largest. To his surprise the driver emerged with a crate about half the size of a Wells Fargo cash box. The crate seemed far too small to hold what Hoss thought was ten dollars’ worth of pyrotechnics.
The form said the driver was to open the crate for the customer, so the man removed a crowbar from the back of the wagon and obliged. He dug around in the straw within and removed a small, padlocked metal strongbox, which he presented to Hoss before tossing the crowbar back from whence it came.
“This is it?” Hoss asked as he turned the box this way and that.
The driver slapped the clipboard with the back of his hand. “That’s what the paper says.” He tossed the clipboard onto the seat and climbed up to join it. With a flick of the reins he got the team in motion to make his next delivery.
With a loud, “Whoa,” the driver stopped the team at the corner of the barn. He looked back as Hoss trotted up with the box.
“You got the key?” Hoss asked. He held up the box as proof a key was required to open the padlock.
The driver checked the sheet of paper Hoss had signed then snapped his fingers as his memory was jogged. He reached into his coat pocket then proffered a dainty brass key that was swallowed in Hoss’s beefy hand.
The driver didn’t linger in case of further questions.
Hoss looked from the small key to the lock then shrugged. He headed for the porch, the dismantled crate forgotten, passing by his younger brother who was leaning against one of the posts. Setting the box on the table, Hoss admired the craftsmanship but was befuddled how fireworks could fit in it.
He held the butt end of the key between the tips of his index finger and thumb, his other three fingers straight up so there’d be room to fit the business end of the key into the lock. The key connected with the side of the lock and Hoss lost his grip, dropping the tiny thing. It hit the table with a delicate “plink” then bounced to the porch. Joe unsuccessfully stifled a giggle. Hoss frowned at Joe then bent over to retrieve the key. He almost had a hold of it before it slipped through a crack between the boards. His gasp merged with Joe’s laugh.
“Dadburnit! Get over here and help me, Joe!”
“Whaddya want me to do?” he asked through laughter.
“Your fingers are smaller than mine. Fish around down in there for the key.”
Joe held up his hand. “They aren’t that dainty.”
Hoss scowled and grumbled as he set off for the barn. Joe settled onto a chair for the next phase of the afternoon’s entertainment.
Hoss returned with a prybar and set about removing the boards.
Drawn by the squeak of nails ripped from wood, Ben poked his head out of the window behind his desk. “Why are you taking apart a perfectly good porch?”
Joe picked up the strongbox then pointed at the gap where Hoss had removed three of the boards. “Hoss dropped the key. Down there.”
Ben cocked an eyebrow. “Why don’t you just break the lock?”
Hoss had gotten down on his knees and was sweeping his index finger through the dirt in hopes of connecting with the key. “Ha!” he said as he lifted the key out of the hole he’d created.
Joe’s attention was diverted by Adam’s arrival—a lame man leading a lame horse. His oldest brother’s face was sunburned, and his normally black clothes were nearly brown; the horse was streaked with mud and favored a foreleg as he limped alongside the man.
“It’s a long, sad story,” said Adam as he wearily looped the reins around the hitching rail. He pressed his fists into his lower back, releasing a long-held groan as the vertebrae popped like firecrackers.
Hoss pocketed the key and stepped off the porch to check over the horse. He gently ran his hands down the animal’s leg and lifted the hoof. He shoved back when the horse leaned against him and snorted in content.
Ben withdrew from the window and rushed outside. Neither his son nor the horse was bleeding, but he couldn’t help taking his son’s head in his hands to look for a wound.
“I’m fine, Pa,” Adam said as he grumpily swatted his father’s hands away. “My hip and back are sore but it’s nothing a hot soak can’t fix.”
Ben grudgingly accepted his eldest’s dismissal but still looked him over for signs of serious injury.
“Slipped going down the riverbank,” said Adam. “I got clear before Sport hit the ground. Thought we’d both just hurt our pride.” He gingerly ran his fingertips across his forehead. “Lost my hat in the river.”
“Nothin’ seems broken,” said Hoss as he set the horse’s hoof down. A chunk of mud fell to the ground when Hoss patted the animal’s shoulder. Hoss wiped his hand against his thigh, remembering the key in his pocket.
“I’ll rub liniment into his leg then wrap it,” Adam said. As he unwound the reins from the hitching post, he took in the missing porch boards and said, “You two outgrew playing under the porch years ago. Tell Hop Sing to draw me a bath.” Both man and beast limped to the barn.
Joe wagged his head as he mocked his brother with a feigned English accent. “Be a good chap and . . ..”
Ben raised a finger and shot his youngest a warning look. “That could have happened to any of us.” Satisfied with Joe’s contrite expression, Ben headed for the kitchen to inform Hop Sing hot water was required. “You two fix the porch,” he added, over his shoulder. Ben entered the kitchen through the porch-side door and raised voices soon carried through the closed door. The discussion ended with the sound of clanking metal.
Distraction over, Joe traced the scrollwork on the box and eagerly awaited the big reveal.
Hoss drew forth the key then closed his fist around it. He reached toward Joe and said, “Here, you open it.”
Joe cupped his right palm and accepted the key. Plucking it up with his left hand, he inserted the key into the lock first try and both men exchanged excited smiles at the click of the lock’s tumbler. Hoss lifted the lid expecting packets of firecrackers or other pyrotechnical items. Instead, the box contained three brown glass jars nestled into a velvet pillow, all stoppered with corks, the neck of each one encircled with a red ribbon. A different Chinese character was painted on each jar.
“You sure you ordered fireworks?” Joe asked as he lifted a jar from the box.
Hoss scratched behind his ear and said, “Maybe I’m s’posed to make my own?” He poked around inside the box as best he could for any clue indicating what the jars contained.
“Where’s the liniment?” Adam hollered from the barn.
Hoss muttered under his breath and left the opened box with Joe. As Hoss stepped through the barn’s doorway he said, “It’s on the shelf where it always is.”
Adam pointed. Hoss frowned.
“Little Joe must’ve used it last,” said Hoss. “You know he can’t put anything back where it belongs.”
Both men looked among the tack and in a couple of boxes without success.
Adam groaned as he reached out for a stall post for support as he stood. “You should’ve ordered a case of liniment instead of fireworks.”
“You’re more’n a might testy,” said Hoss.
“I need a bath, my horse needs a bath.”
“Found it!” said Hoss in triumph. The bottle was mostly buried under a pile of burlap sacks. “Maybe you need a rubdown,” he added in jest.
“Respect your elders,” said Adam through a yawn.
The currycomb was where it was supposed to be so Adam started cleaning up Sport while Hoss set about doctoring the animal’s leg. The scent of camphor filled the barn and the other horses snorted at the scent, perhaps remembering their past treatments.
“Why don’t you go on and get that bath and I’ll finish up,” said Hoss.
Adam’s jaw cracked as he yawned, and he simply nodded his head in agreement. He set the currycomb back on its shelf but picked up the toolbox. “So you don’t forget,” he said he carried the tools with him on the way back to the house.
“What was in the crate?” Adam asked as he set the toolbox down by the porch.
Joe shut the box at the sound of his oldest brother’s voice.
Adam asked again and jerked his head in the direction of the evidence.
“Just a box,” said Joe with the shrug of one shoulder. “Besides, it’s Hoss’s, bought and paid for.”
“In that case I think it’s Pa’s.”
Joe made a face but had no retort.
Adam pointed at the porch and said, “You better get busy before the Howsons get here. It won’t do for them to fall through the porch of their largest ranching account.”
Hop Sing poked his head out of the bathhouse door. “Bath ready. You no make mess. Hop Sing cook, cook, cook. No time for more clean.”
Adam started unbuttoning his shirt and jerked his head in the direction of the toolbox. “I saved you a trip to the barn.” With that he headed for his bath.
Hoss wiped his hands against his trousers as he returned to the porch. Joe was holding one of the jars and tracing the hand-drawn character.
“Maybe Hop Sing could tell us what these jars are,” said Hoss.
Curiosity demanding satisfaction, Joe got out his jackknife and started prying the cork from the jar. The smell of jasmine wafted into the air.
“Smells like somethin’ a gal would wear,” said Hoss. He wrinkled his nose and leaned back as the smell strengthened.
Joe snapped his fingers. “That’s where I saw this.” He pointed at the Chinese character. “Last time I was in San Francisco, Hop Sing’s cousin took me to the Chinese part of town.” He tapped the jar and said, “This smell was coming from a building and this was painted over the doorway. I asked what the place was and Hop Sing’s cousin didn’t want to tell me so I pestered it out of him. He said it was a place for ladies who weren’t ladies to take baths.”
Hoss looked like a kid still trying to work an arithmetic problem. “That don’t make no sense, Joe.”
“He meant . . . you know . . . .” Joe nudged Hoss and leered in an exaggerated manner.
Hoss turned as red as Adam’s sunburned face.
“What you’ve got here are bath salts,” said Joe.
Hoss laughed an embarrassed laugh. “That ain’t possible, Joe. This must have been meant fer someone else.”
“You don’t read Chinese. Did Hop Sing place the order for you?”
Hoss’s eyebrows drew together as he scratched an itch at the back of his neck. “Daggummit, Joe! I know I ordered fireworks!”
Ben came outside and scowled at his sons. “I don’t hear nailing. Get to work.”
“Yes, sir,” said Joe.
“Yes, sir,” Ben mumbled under his breath as he returned inside.
Hoss fetched the toolbox and set it on the table. He tried handing Joe the hammer, but his younger brother just crossed his arms and jammed his hands into his armpits.
“Dadburned key,” Hoss grumbled as he got down on hands and knees to repair the porch.
Joe sat down while his brother set and nailed the boards. He removed the jar with what looked to be a vine on it and a sly smile crossed the youngest Cartwright’s face.
“Older brother sure would smell pretty tonight if we put some of this in his bath.”
Hoss missed the nail and smacked his thumb. He yelped and shook his hand. “I already got enough problems between this here porch and folks expectin’ fireworks.”
Both men stopped what they were doing at a distant clap of thunder. Joe scanned the sky, noting the few puffy clouds. “It’ll miss us.”
“I wouldn’t have to tell the Howsons why there ain’t no fireworks if it rained,” Hoss muttered.
“We don’t get that lucky, brother,” said Joe. He held the bottle close and said, “You’ve got the porch taken care of, so I’ll go on in. You know how long it takes me to get my hair just right for company.”
Hoss grunted and returned to hammering the boards back in place.
Joe stopped at the bathhouse door with his hand resting on the knob. He risked a glance to see if Hoss was watching.
Cracking open the door, Joe peeked in to make sure Adam was in the bathtub before sliding through the doorway as silently as he could. He practically tip-toed over to the copper tub and had to repress a gleeful laugh at the sight of his oldest brother sound asleep in the water, head slumped forward and to the side, his fingers linked together so his hands rested on his belly. The scrub brush was in the holster Adam had rigged up beside the bathtub so no one would have to get out of their warm bath if the brush was on the floor beyond fingertip reach.
Joe squatted and pried the cork out of the bottle, dumping a generous portion of the jar’s jasmine-scented contents into the water. He drew the scrub brush from the holster and slowly stirred the water near Adam’s feet to gently mix in the crystals. Joe froze at Adam’s deep intake of breath, but Joe needn’t have worried as Adam exhaled through pursed lips and remained asleep.
Pleased with himself, Joe set the brush on the floor and replaced the jar’s cork. He stealthily made his way out of the bathhouse, the jar held tightly to his body so no one would see it, and into the kitchen, where a grumbling Hop Sing told him to get out.
“Is the porch fixed?” Ben asked Joe.
“I didn’t see you there,” Joe said, practically in a squeak.
Ben, seated in one of the red leather chairs, had changed into his suit and was passing the time with a book until his guests’ arrival. He cocked an eyebrow and gestured at his youngest son with his pipe. “The Howsons will be arriving in about an hour. You know how long it takes you to pomade your hair.”
Joe flashed a grin and hastily ascended the stairs.
Out on the porch, Hoss finished up and tossed the hammer into the toolbox. Not wanting to leave his strongbox unattended, and in view of a devious younger brother, he decided to take it with him to the barn. He reached for it and knocked it off the table, watching it fall as if it were as slow as molasses. The box hit the porch and one of the bottles was ejected from its resting place, landing in the dirt. Hoss retrieved it with a sigh of relief, a smile spreading across his face. His joy was short-lived at the sight of a single jar within the box.
“Dadburned Little Joe,” he groused. “Joe, you best not have done what I think you done.” He settled the jar with its mate then replaced the padlock to ensure his little brother wouldn’t sneakily try to replace the missing jar and claim he was innocent.
He checked on Sport while he was in the barn. The stringent odor of liniment stung Hoss’s eyes as he bent over to check the bandages wound around the horse’s lower leg. Satisfied with his doctoring, Hoss gave the animal a friendly pat and the horse nickered in response.
A bolt of lightning streaked across the sky when Hoss exited the barn, so he hurried to the house, the box tucked firmly under his arm. The clap of thunder rolled across the land but wasn’t loud enough to cover Adam’s shouts from the bathhouse. Hoss scurried into the house and almost collided with his father at the corner of the settee.
“What’s wrong with Adam?” Ben asked.
Hoss landed a pat against his father’s belly and shook his head. “I gotta clean up and change clothes, Pa.”
“Not so fast,” said Ben, restraining his largest son with a hand to the arm.
Adam entered the big room from the kitchen, leaving wet footprints on the Turkish rug underneath the dining table. He tightly gripped a towel wrapped around his waist. Hop Sing followed in his wake, brandishing a wooden spoon, yelling in Chinese.
Water puddled at Adam’s feet. His sunburned face was even redder, and his glare alone could have set the Ponderosa’s timber stands ablaze.
Ben stepped toward his eldest in hopes of defusing whatever was going on.
Hoss flinched, knowing his brother would think up some kind of revenge.
Hop Sing finished his rant, concluding with, “Go back China!” as he retreated to the kitchen.
Ben covered his nose with his hand but quickly withdrew it so his son wouldn’t think he was hiding his laughter. “What in tarnation have you done?” he finally asked.
“I didn’t do anything,” Adam sputtered. “I was taking a bath and now I smell like a . . . a . . . French whore.”
High-pitched laughter rained down from the second floor and was louder than the clap of thunder that rattled the dishes on the shelf against the wall leading to the kitchen.
It was one thing to ignore Adam; Joe knew better than to ignore his father when his father used his full name, especially in anger.
Joe descended the stairs slowly, hoping to delay an explanation. He stood behind the blue chair, draping his arms over it as if he would be forgotten if he remained mostly hidden.
Hoss squeezed the box nestled under his arm against his body and he gripped the edges of his vest as if they would provide him some measure of safety against Adam’s wrath.
Everyone froze at a knock against the front door.
Fear spread across Adam’s face. “Don’t open it!” He held tightly to his towel and limped for the staircase, wet feet slipping on the floor.
Ben moved to answer the door.
Hop Sing trotted out of the kitchen and practically shoved Ben aside. His hand met the door latch as Adam slipped on the stairs and fell on his side on the landing, losing his grip on the towel. The cook opened the door wide, admitting Leonard and Margaret Howson into the big room. Adam got to his knees and used the stairs for leverage to regain his feet, his back to the big room. His towel had slipped and was lower on one side than the other. Margaret gasped and her husband simply raised his hand to block his wife’s view. Adam gathered his dignity, and his grip on the towel, as best he could and limped for the sanctuary of his room.
“I . . . uh . . . I’m sorry we’re early but I . . . we . . . wanted to beat the storm,” said Leonard, blushing a deep red from his shirt collar to his hairline.
Margaret removed her husband’s hand and she craned her neck to see around Hoss. She hoped for another glimpse of the man on the staircase. “If that was any indication of the western scenery, I believe I’ll like it very much out here.”
Written for the 2020 Ponderosa Paddlewheel Poker Tournament. The game was Five Card Draw and the words and/or phrases I was dealt were:
Fourth of July
Other Stories by this Author
- The Sweet Smell of Success (by Patina)
- Jubilee (by Patina)
- Terror Stalks the Night (by Patina)
- Ennui (by Patina)
- Remembering Childhoods (by Patina)