Enigma on the Ponderosa (by wx4rmk)

Summary: Mysterious things are happening on the Ponderosa and Little Joe is on a mission to figure them out by any means possible. Written for the 2022 Camp In The Pines.

Rating: K / Word Count: 4897

A/N: I’ve marked this story as a cross-over, but it isn’t exactly a true cross-over. It’s more of a blending of both universes (western and wizarding world), if that makes sense. As such…this is a very alternate universe story and no hard feelings if that’s not something you want to read. I hope you’ll give the story a try anyway.

Enigma on the Ponderosa

Chapter 1- Laws of Nature

You would think living out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by these magnificent Ponderosa pines, that life would always be peaceful and uneventful. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There always seemed to be some sort of dilemma or situation we were dealing with out here. Sure, my older brothers dubbed me ‘Little Joe, a living tornado’ as I constantly found myself in some predicament or another. But this time it wasn’t about me, at least not entirely.

Being restricted to the ranch due to my last scrape gave me plenty of time to observe the comings and goings around the house. Odd things were happening around here. No, not the normal ‘odd’ things that seem to happen every other day. These were things I couldn’t explain or wrap my head around. I wasn’t the brightest in school, but I knew logically how things were supposed to happen and these things weren’t logically correct. You would think I would have learned my lesson about butting my way into issues that weren’t my concern a long time ago, but this is just the type of adventure I enjoyed most: a real mystery. And I was bound to solve it.

*****

One Friday, I was left at home while the rest of my family headed out to get the cattle ready to move to a different pasture. I was left with strict instructions that Hop Sing was in charge and I was to mind him. I gave Pa one of my sincerest replies, promising to obey.

I’ve had twelve years to develop the perfect expression to get my Pa to believe me. Despite this, he still felt it necessary to give me one last look that carried more meaning than words alone and then left to join my brothers. Hop Sing mumbled that he was going to be working in the kitchen most of the day and not to bother him. That left me to continue an essay that was a helpful contribution from Adam as part of my last escapade. I only had a couple of paragraphs done so far and I figured if I could get a good chunk of it done today, maybe, just maybe, I might be let off restriction early.

All was going smoothly and for once I was actually focused on writing this dumb essay. However, my concentration was interrupted by a panicked shout from the kitchen.

“Little Joe! Bring water!”

Naturally, instead of just following the order, I had to first see what was going on that would cause Hop Sing to make this sort of request. As I rounded the wall that separated the dining room from the kitchen, I witnessed a small…no scratch that…a large fire inside the oven with flames shooting out in all directions.

Hop Sing was moving around the cramped kitchen desperately trying to put out the fire but to no avail. He’s not normally one to catch our food on fire when cooking so I stood planted in place trying to figure out what had happened for what I thought was only a few seconds. In all reality, Hop Sing’s anxious shout at me to get moving again indicated it was probably closer to a few minutes.

After one more glance at the raging fire, I hurriedly grabbed an empty bucket near the back door and then went to gather the needed water. Upon returning, I was nearly blindsided by Hop Sing as he carried a towel fully engulfed in flames causing me to almost drop the now full bucket of water on the floor.

It was then that I noticed that not only was the towel on fire, but also most of Hop Sing’s right arm. Usually, it’s Hop Sing taking care of us when we’re hurt, not the other way around. Even so, I was fully ready to grab the salve and ride for the doctor as soon as he returned.

However, when he returned to the kitchen, there wasn’t any evidence of a burn, not even a red spot. I might only be twelve years old, but I’ve been in my fair share of encounters with campfires or even a tiny match. I positively knew if you touched that flame, it hurt. And if you touched it long enough, it made your skin look like a tomato with blisters. How then was Hop Sing able to escape this incident without being injured?

Oh, I know… maybe it was his clothing. It probably protected his harm from burning. No, that couldn’t be it. If he was exposed to the fire as long as he was to go from the oven across the kitchen and out the back door, the fire would have burned through the cloth sleeve. Plus, now that I think about it, Hop Sing had his sleeves rolled up as if he was trying to keep them from catching on fire in the first place. Everything about this situation was strange and was calling for me to do my own experimenting.

*****

After supper that evening, we all were lounging in the Great Room. Pa was busy reading the latest edition of the Territorial Enterprise while Adam and Hoss set up the chessboard in preparation for an intense battle of the brains. That left me to get lost in my previous predicament.

Despite being early summer, we continued to light a small fire in the fireplace, especially at night when it could still get chilly. I stared over to the fireplace getting lost in the thoughts and questions that continued to swim around inside my head. How was Hop Sing not burned from touching the fire? Isn’t all fire hot? Maybe, though, there might be some fire that you can touch, cooler fire perhaps. Is that even naturally possible? I figured there was only one way I was going to find out.

I glanced over to Pa and then over to my brothers. After I was confident they were all busy, I slid from my seat and casually made my way over to the hearth. Sitting down, I let out a relieved breath that I made it this far without anyone noticing.

I took one more quick glance at my family and then turned towards the fire gradually reaching my hand out.

“Joseph!” I nearly jumped a mile in the air. Pa should know better than to startle a person so close to the fire. “You know you’re not supposed to touch the fire. What do you think you’re doing, young man?”

I quickly pulled my hand back and stumbled to think up an acceptable reply. I must have taken too long as Pa firmly ordered me up to my room to wait for him to have a necessary talk with me.

Fantastic. Just how I wanted to end my day.

*****

Ten minutes later, I was sitting on my bed waiting for my impending doom when I heard a knock at my door. As it swung open, I expected to see my Pa, but instead, my brother Adam strode through the open doorway.

“Where’s Pa?”

“I noticed you haven’t been acting yourself recently and told him I’d try to figure out what’s going on with you first.”

“Oh.”

Oh. Honestly, that’s the only response I could come up with at the time. Sure, older brother means well, but he’s liable to give me an earful then still send Pa up for another lecture and my well-deserved comeuppance that only he knows how to dish out.

“Care to tell me what’s going on? You have more common sense than to try to touch fire.”

My brain did a mental tug-of-war on whether I should stick to the basic facts or tell him how strange things were happening and I was on a mission to figure them out. The safe option was the basic facts. I wouldn’t be lying and yet I could continue my investigation without the meddling of my brother.

“Well, you know about the fire this afternoon in the kitchen?” I waited for a nod from Adam before continuing. “I was curious about how Hop Sing didn’t get burned in the fire. I didn’t know if some fire was safe to touch while others weren’t. I mean, I remember you and Hoss and Pa all told me that fire is harmful, but I just had to find out for myself after what happened. Does that even make sense?”

Silence reigned in the room for what seemed like an hour to me. Finally, Adam answered. “I think it does. I know when I have a problem, I like to test out the hypothesis and see for myself if something is true or not. Just like me, you had a theory and wanted to see if it was true. So yes, I can comprehend and relate to what you were trying to do downstairs.”

I smile formed across my face, but one look at Adam showed that while he understood, he didn’t actually approve of the way I went about my idea downstairs. I quickly wiped the smile off my face and became solemn to make sure he knew how sorry I was.

“I really am sorry. I know I didn’t go about it the right way, but I’m glad you understand. So, is there?”

Adam scrunched his eyebrows together, seemingly discombobulated by my rapid change in the conversation. “Is there what?”

“The fire. Is there a fire that people can touch, like a cold type of fire?”

“Oh. Not really. Fire can be cooler or hotter depending on how much fuel you provide it, but there isn’t fire that’s cool enough to touch. All fire is unpredictable and dangerous, as I’m sure you already understand.”

“Yeah. So how come Hop Sing didn’t get burned?”

Adam scratched his head. “I’m not quite sure. The laws of nature say he should have. Maybe he wet his arms before he grabbed the burning towel.”

Darn. I thought I would make my investigation easier by Adam just telling me what happened, but my logical older brother doesn’t even think it’s possible, making the entire event even odder. Right away I knew his suggestion wasn’t true as Hop Sing was calling for water. If he had enough water to wet his arms, he should have been able to put out the fire. I guess I’m going to have to increase my detective skills.

Adam stood and began to leave, but a dreaded thought returned to my mind when I remembered why I was in my room in the first place.

“Wait.” Adam paused as he reached my bedroom door, turning around to face me. “Are you sending Pa up for my necessary talk now?”

A smirk grew across Adam’s face. “I’ll let you off easy this time only because I can relate to what you were trying to do. I’ll smooth things over with him and tell him I took care of it this time.” His smirk morphed into a generous smile.

Well, geez. Sometimes Adam was a pure pain in my side, but at other times, like right now, I sure was glad to have him as my brother.

I returned his smile with one of my own as he turned to leave me to my thoughts about my mission and detective work once again. Time to implement stage two.

Chapter 2- More Questions Than Answers

Over the next few weeks, I took a more careful, retrospective approach to my detective work. I know what you’re thinking; this isn’t normally how I operate such plans. But considering phase one didn’t go how I wanted it to, I figured I should shake things up a bit. Plus, I’ve seen Adam often approach his problems this way. By sitting, thinking, and observing, he always seemed to get his issues solved. What works for him, should work for me as well.

The only problem I had now was that all those really odd things seemed to come to an abrupt halt. I was getting frustrated and was just about to give up when I got my next lead.

Once again the rest of my family was away from the house leaving me alone with Hop Sing. Funny, or should I say lucky, how my brothers and Pa always seem to disappear at times like this, yet they’re the first to scold me when I get buried up to my head in some scheme. Maybe if they’d stick around the ranch a bit more, I wouldn’t get myself into so much trouble. That’s my thinking anyway…and the reason why I don’t blame myself one bit for all the trouble I find myself in.

Anyways, I was sitting on the settee braiding a new lead rope for Cochise when I heard Hop Sing mumbling in the kitchen. No, this wasn’t the shouting like before with the fire, it was basically incomprehensible words. Normally this wouldn’t be such an odd occurrence. Hop Sing is Chinese and while he knows enough English to get his point across, he sometimes reverts back to his native tongue. To be honest, I don’t even know if he knows he does it as it often happens when he’s upset or stressed. Over the years, though, I’ve picked up a few Cantonese phrases and words.

However this time, I couldn’t recognize any of the words coming from the kitchen. They didn’t sound like Chinese at all. I also knew a little French from when my Mama was still alive. Still, these didn’t sound like that language either.

I put my half-finished project to the side and walked into the dining room so I could listen easier. A few more unintelligible words came out of Hop Sing’s mouth before I heard the side door rattle open and then close with a soft click. I peered around the corner to the kitchen and out the small window. Hop Sing had made his way to the garden and was preparing to do some weeding and more than likely pick some vegetables for our dinner.

I tiptoed into the tiny kitchen to snoop around for any evidence of what had happened only moments before. I probably didn’t have to be so stealthy; no one was around to catch me. It just seemed like the proper action for a detective in training.

I made it over to where Hop Sing had left a mixing bowl on the counter with several jars pulled out. Most of them appeared to be normal. You know sage, pepper, salt, cinnamon. The normal spices and herbs. But something caught my eye.

There was one cupboard that Hop Sing normally kept locked and we were told never to open that particular cupboard, but today it was open. I always assumed it was some dangerous spice that he had to make sure none of us overly wild boys would stumble upon. But spices are supposed to go in food, right? If it was dangerous, we probably wouldn’t be able to eat it. Thinking back to my original thoughts about what lay behind that cupboard door now seemed implausible. Hey! Look at me acing this investigation!

As with all good detectives, curiosity got the better of me and I peeked inside the open door. Technically, I wasn’t breaking any rules. The cupboard was already open. What I found was not what I expected at all. The first jar I saw was frog legs. It was unusual but I’ve read about rich people eating such a delicacy before, so it didn’t set off any alarm bells inside my head.

As I scanned to the right, there were jars of bat spleens, crushed bugs, eel and pufferfish eyes, and vials of various feathers from birds I’ve never heard of before. As I began to examine the second row of mysterious ingredients I nearly knocked over a bottle of ground unicorn horn. I was one hundred percent positive unicorns weren’t real so those alarm bells were definitely going off now. Why in the world would Hop Sing have ingredients such as these? Surely, he wouldn’t put crushed beetles in our food and I’d never heard of anyone, even those fancy Europeans, eating eel.

Bingo! There on the counter was one of Hop Sing’s cookbooks. I pulled it closer, hoping it would answer all my questions. I was just about to flip through the pages when I heard some shuffling of gravel outside. I glanced behind me out the window again to only realize Hop Sing wasn’t in the garden anymore. I closed the book quickly, shoving it under my shirt, and started to make my escape out of the small room.

It’s amazing how small a place can be, yet it seems to take forever to get out of the room. Sure enough, that was exactly how it felt to me as I didn’t get out of the room in time.

“What little boy doing in kitchen?”

I stopped short at Hop Sing’s question and slowly turned around, praying he wouldn’t notice the cookbook under my shirt.

Adam had once told me he could tell when I’m lying because I wouldn’t make eye contact with him, so I made a deliberate point to look the little Chinese man in the eyes before responding.

“Just checking to see what’s for dinner.”

I saw him eye the open cupboard and I held my breath. He must not have seen anything out of place or noticed the missing cookbook as he only nodded before closing the short distance between the two of us.

“You best stay out of Hop Sing’s kitchen.”

I quickly nodded my head and turned to leave, relieved he didn’t notice the missing book. One swat from Hop Sing’s wooden spoon propelled me out of the room as I eagerly headed for the stairs and the safety of my room to get a better look at that cookbook. As of right now, I had more questions than answers and hopefully that book contained the key to my investigation.

Chapter 3- Completing The Puzzle

I closed my bedroom door gently behind me eager to start looking through the cookbook I now threw down on my bed. It was times like this that I wished my door had a lock on it, but Pa had vehemently vetoed that idea last year when I asked him. Instead, I moved my desk chair in front of my door as I’ve done every time in the past when I wanted a bit of privacy. It might not keep someone out, but it would give me a five to ten second heads up to banish any evidence I might have lying around.

Satisfied with the chair placement, I returned to my bed to start digging through the old book. It clearly had lots of use over the years as the binding was fraying and the pages were worn and tattered around the edges. One corner even looked like it had caught on fire at one point as there was a giant burn mark. Luckily, it wasn’t in the middle of the page where it might have ruined some of the writing inside.

The title on the blue cover was badly faded and I couldn’t even read the title. However, the fancy geometrical pattern lining the borders of the cover was just barely visible. As I cracked open the old book and flipped to the title page, I read the title: Magical Drafts and Potions. I didn’t linger on the cover page long, wanting to get to the meat and bones of what was contained inside the book.

As I turned through the first few pages, I discovered it wasn’t a cookbook at all, at least not a normal cookbook. It still contained recipes, but these recipes weren’t for familiar foods like stew, fried chicken, or apple pie. I stopped on one page with the words ‘Wideye Potion’ scrolled in fancy handwriting at the top. Underneath it read “a potion used to prevent the drinker from falling asleep or to awaken someone from concussion”.

My eyes scanned further down the page to find the recipe used to make this concoction. Add six snake fangs and then 4 measures of standard ingredient. Then add six billywig stings to a cauldron.

I shook my head as if this was some sort of dream and I could wake myself up. I turned a few more pages and landed on a swelling solution used to make things grow in size. Pufferfish eyes, dried nettles, and bat spleens were all used in this recipe.

I closed the book rather forcefully. I had seen enough and I needed answers. I might be putting my backside at risk for more swats from Hop Sing, but clearly I needed to confront him, considering it’s his book after all. The time for explanations had come.

*****

I made my way down the staircase, the book firmly clenched in my left hand. I always thought of myself as brave. You need a whole lot of it to get into some of the trouble I find myself in. But as I reached the landing and descended the last few steps to the great room, all the bravery I had, flew out the window.

Quietly, I made my way through the dining room and into the entryway to the kitchen. Hop Sing was busy preparing what smelled like roast beef and vegetables for dinner and didn’t notice my presence until he turned around.

“What little boy want?”

Now, normally I’m not as bold as to just give myself up to a misdeed. I knew, though, that if I had any chance to solve this mystery, I had to fess up.

“Well, ahh, earlier I took this from your kitchen, but it doesn’t make any sense. The ingredients here aren’t things we should be eating. What exactly is this all about?” I held up the book so he could see what I was referencing.

His eyes met mine and his expression turned firm. He took a few steps toward me, tugging the book out of my hand. Then he reached out and grabbed my arm. I braced myself for a few swats for stealing his book, but to my surprise, he led me to the little table in his kitchen.

“Sit.”

Hop Sing did likewise and placed the book in the center of the table.

“What Hop Sing is going to tell you, you must keep secret. If anyone finds out, I could be sent back to China, jailed, or even killed.”

His gaze met mine, and I could tell he was serious. I didn’t have the best track record for keeping secrets, but I couldn’t imagine life without him. I knew from experience that he was taking a big risk in telling me his secrets. After all, letting the cat out of the bag is a whole lot easier than putting it back in and I vowed to keep this one secret even if it’s the last thing I do.

I nodded my head, but Hop Sing just sat there. I thought he maybe didn’t see my head nod when he suddenly spoke up.

“Hop Sing is a wizard.”

I didn’t know what answer I was expecting, but this was definitely not it. I had heard of witches and wizards in those old-time fairy tales Adam used to read to me, but I thought they were just made-up characters.

I just stared blankly back at Hop Sing unsure of what to say. Thankfully, he noticed my confusion and continued to explain.

“Hop Sing can make things happen and do things others can’t. This book is book of potions that I can make. They help with doing things and cure ailments, much like medicine. I have to mix odd ingredients together and brew them in a big pot called a cauldron. Then I can bottle them to use later.”

So far this all seemed to make sense. Unknown to him, I had seen the inside of that book and everything he just told me was in there.

“Do you ever give us these medi-, I mean potions?”

“Sometimes. Mostly when very sick. I have several bottles of healing potion in cupboard.”

“Oh, so do you only make potions?”

“No. I can also make things happen or get tasks done. It’s called magic. When I say special words and something happens, it’s called a spell. Depending on outcome they can either be just ordinary spell to make things happen, a charm, jinx which is just annoying charm, hex, or curse.  Curses are most dangerous types of magic and we try to never do them.”

I just sat there trying to absorb all the information he was telling me. One question nagging at the back of my brain was how he knew this stuff. I know doctors and such have to go to college to learn how to make medicines and cure people so it would only make sense that Hop Sing would have to have some training in how to make potions and do spells correctly.

“Umm… so how did you know you are a wizard and where did you learn how to do all this?”

“When Hop Sing was a little lad, he was recruited to attend a special school in Japan called Mahoutokoro. I was only about seven years old then and had to fly there each day on petrel which is type of seabird. When I got older, I boarded at school, much like older brother did when attending college. It was beautiful school, made of white jade and located on top of the volcanic island Minami Iwo Jima.

“Here we were isolated from the rest of world and were able to learn how to use and control magic safely. Besides the core subjects like potions and charms, we also had special subjects. Some of those included care of magical creatures where we learned about animals such as unicorns and arithmancy which is much like your arithmetic. After seven years, I was trained enough to use my magic in world.”

“You went to school in Japan? Wasn’t there a school in China?”

“There was one called Fenghuang, located at top of mountain near Beijing. However, it was more recent school and not as well known. Across world, there are nearly dozen wizarding schools to teach and train young witches and wizards, including at least one in America.”

Who would have thought there were that many wizards that they need over ten schools across the world to train all of them. For all I know, I could be friends with one or two without even knowing it!

There was still one more thing that Hop Sing needed to explain to me though. One thing that would absolutely solve this case of mysterious things on the Ponderosa.

“Wait, if you know how to do all these spells and stuff, shouldn’t you have been able to put out that fire the other day by yourself, with magic?”

“Very clever little boy. You are correct in your thinking. Most wizards and witches can easily do wandless spells, but when I was training, I was never able to really accomplish the skill. I can do them sometimes, but I’m completely useless in high tense or stressful situations. For these, I must use wand.”

“Wand?”

“It’s special object used to help witches and wizards do spells, much like rifle helps you, or pistol helps your Pa when you’re working around the ranch. Similar to gun, it is extremely dangerous if it falls into wrong hands or given to someone who knows not how to use it. Therefore, I keep it locked up most of time away from growing and curious boys.”

“Oh… so because your wand was locked up and the fire was a stressful event, you were unable to put it out, correct?”

“Yes. Does little boy have any other questions?”

I thought long and hard. He gave me a plethora of facts and information in just under a half-hour and I was trying to digest it all. All this explained how Hop Sing always seems to have the right medicine to make us better and how he never seems to get tired. Most importantly, it definitely explained the odd things happening over the past few months.

“I don’t think so.”

“Remember this is our little secret, so come to me if you have more questions. You cannot tell anyone, not even your family.”

I nodded my head in agreement. It was exciting to know something the rest of my family didn’t know, especially my bossy older brother Adam. I knew I couldn’t tell him, but I would have loved to just rub it in his face that I knew something he didn’t for once.

Over the next several days and months, everything became hunky-dory on the Ponderosa once again. As time went on, I had many more questions about the whole wizarding world and Hop Sing was gracious and patient enough to answer each and every one. He might have even let me help with brewing a potion once or twice. That’s a story for another day, though.

Most importantly, I never broke my promise to Hop Sing, not even long after he passed away. This will be one secret I will carry with me to my grave.

The End.

*****

A/N: Fishing words used: hunky-dory and discombobulated

Cowboy Wisdom phrases used: Lettin’ the cat outa the bag is a whole lot easier than puttin’ it back in.

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Author: wx4rmk

12 thoughts on “Enigma on the Ponderosa (by wx4rmk)

  1. Oh, I loved this one! I always like stories with a lot of Hop Sing in them; he’s such a character in a lot of ways. I’m glad he chose to tell Joe his secrets and that Joe respected his wishes and never revealed things to anyone. Joe and Hop Sing always had a special bond!

    1. Thanks for reading and leaving your thoughts! I agree…Joe and Hop Sing had quite the bond that no one in the house seemed to have. I’m glad you enjoyed the story even if it was a bit unorthodox.

  2. Perhaps an AU story but it sure does explain a few things we’ve wondered about our dear Hop Sing. I especially enjoyed this story from the POV of the master ‘detective in training’. The twists kept me and Little Joe guessing, and the ending was perfect. Well done on your Camp story.

    1. Exactly! A bit unconventional of a story, but I thought it fit in well with Hop Sing’s characteristics. Glad I kept you guessing until the end.

  3. Very cute. Loved that “detective in training” line … as we all know how THAT will play out! LOL!

  4. Love the mystery and the role Hop Sing played as well as detective Little Joe. Would love to say more but can’t give away anything especially the delightful surprises near the end. Well done crossover story.

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