Summary: Joe and Hoss spot something floating in a pond, and the implications are devastating
Rated: K+ WC 2500
The Hat in the Water
A strong gust of wind blew through the pine trees and almost lifted Joe Cartwright’s hat right off of his head. Joe managed to catch the hat and hold it on until the wind died down. Then he drew his green jacket more closely around him and turned to look back to where his brother Hoss was riding behind him.
“Let’s get a move on, big brother,” he said. “We don’t want to keep Adam waiting. And the sooner we meet up with him the sooner we can head home. It’ll be so good to flop down in front of a nice warm fire. It’s way too early in the season for it to be getting this chilly.”
“You got that right, sure enough,” Hoss answered. “With the fall startin’ out this cold I just hope it don’t mean a long hard winter comin’ on.”
“Amen to that!,” Joe replied, and the two of them continued on their way at a faster clip.
Hoss and Joe had spent much of the day checking the line shacks in the area to see what supplies needed to be stocked before bad weather set in. Their older brother Adam had been marking trees to be cut for the last phase of their current lumber contract, which he was anxious to see completed while the weather held. They
were to meet by a pond which was known to the Cartwrights as Little Lake Elizabeth in honor of Ben’s first wife. Ben had wanted her name to be associated with some appropriate spot on the Ponderosa in consideration of the way she had encouraged him to pursue his dream of coming west, and he felt she would have loved the intimate seclusion of this particular spot.
Joe and Hoss wound their way through the woods following the course of a rapidly flowing stream until they came within sight of the spot where it broadened out, forming the pond. As they neared their destination Joe spied the tall sorrel horse, in full tack, standing a little away from the water’s edge and quietly grazing on the grasses there.
“Sport’s here already, so Adam must be pretty close by,” he ventured. Joe put his hand to his mouth. “Adam! Hey, Adam!,” he shouted. There was no reply.
“Well, like you say, he can’t be too far off,” Hoss put in. “We might just as well sit down over there and wait for him.” He gestured toward a spot close to the water where a couple of old dead trees had fallen. Their trunks would make a good place to rest themselves. Joe readily agreed and the two of them dismounted.
As they walked toward the spot Joe suddenly stopped. His right hand reached out to grab Hoss’ arm while his left hand pointed toward the water. “Look, Hoss! Look there!” There was alarm in his voice and in his eyes. As Hoss’ gaze followed the gesture and he spied what had caught his brother’s eye, his own face took on an expression of dismay. There, floating on the water some distance from the shore, was a black hat with silver studs decorating the band.
For just a moment Hoss and Joe stood there staring, absorbing the implications of what they were seeing.
Finally Hoss spoke in a hesitant voice.”Joe, do ya think…?”
“I don’t know, Hoss!,” Joe shot back a little too sharply. “Come on. Let’s check it out!” He hurried forward with Hoss right next to him.
As they neared the water’s edge they felt the ground beneath their feet becoming quite muddy and slick. Joe found himself beginning to slide, and he reached out to grasp his brother’s arm to keep from falling. Hoss grabbed him to steady him.
“Careful there, little brother,” he said, “you don’t wanna…” Hoss didn’t finish the sentence. His eyes were focused on a spot a few yards ahead of them at the very edge of the pond. Joe turned his gaze toward the same spot…and felt something catch in his throat.
The mud showed definite marks of someone’s boots sliding and scrambling…and the marks appeared to go all the way into the water itself.
“Oh no,” Joe whispered in an unsteady voice. “It looks like…”
“Like Adam was walkin’ there, started slidin’ and couldn’t stop himself,” Hoss continued for him in a low voice.
Something seemed to click inside Joe, galvanizing him into action. “Come on, Hoss! We’ve gotta find him! Maybe it’s not too late!” Shedding his jacket hurriedly he proceded to do a flat dive into the water. Hoss followed right after him.
The coldness of the water shocked them and they immediately bobbed to the surface, gasping for air. Intent on their grave task they wasted no time plunging back beneath the surface. Joe managed to open his eyes under the water, but he spied no trace of the familiar figure he hoped desperately to see. He stayed under for as long as he was able, then came up again for air.
As he was treading water he was thinking back to that morning after breakfast and the last words he had exchanged with Adam before they all rode out to their day’s work. Adam had made some casual comment regarding the list of things to be checked for at each line shack and, as too often happened, Joe heard it as a criticism of him, a questioning of whether he was up to the responsibility.
“I know what we have to check for… all right?!,” he had snapped.
Adam had just looked at him for a few seconds, then, declining the bait, had simply said “Sure, Joe,” and turned away to mount his horse.
It hurt Joe to think that the words of that uncomfortable exchange might be the last ones he would ever say to his brother…or hear from him. Adam could be irritatingly bossy, to be sure, but somehow the idea of him not being there was…unimaginable. Joe was suddenly and poignantly aware of just how much he relied on his oldest brother. Somehow, with Adam around, you just knew things were going to come out all right in the end . Projecting that aura of reassurance was something Adam must have learned from their pa. They couldn’t lose him this way. They just couldn’t.
Hoss’ head broke the surface and, after catching his breath, he began to glance around seeking Joe. Their eyes met, each of them asking the same unspoken question, the answer to which was all too obvious. Neither of them had met with any luck. Joe made a motion with his hand indicating going under again. Hoss nodded in reply and they each took in a big gulp of air and sank once more beneath the surface.
A number of times they submerged…they lost track of exactly how many times…and each time they both came back up without finding anything. Finally, exhausted, discouraged and very, very cold they both latched onto a long, thick branch that had broken off of a tree and now extended from the bank well out into the water. They looked at each other, each praying to find some sign of hope in the other’s eyes but finding none.
“Any trace at all?” Joe finally said.
“Not a thing.” Hoss shook his head sadly. “Joe, I hate to say it, heck I hate to even think it, but if Adam’s been under the water all this time…and we don’t even know how long he might’ve been there before we came by…I’m afraid there won’t be a dang thing we can do for him, even if we was to find him.”
Hearing Hoss say it only confirmed what Joe had been thinking himself. He found himself almost ready to burst into tears. Suddenly the image of their father came into his mind and a new thought came with it, adding to his distress.
“Oh God, Hoss. How are we ever going to break this to Pa?”
“Break what to Pa?,” another voice cut in.
At the sound of that voice Joe felt his heart leap with something more than just the effect of being suddenly startled. He and Hoss both abruptly turned their heads toward the source of the sound and their eyes grew wide with joyous disbelief.
Adam stood there on the bank of the pond, bare headed, his arms crossed over his chest, looking down at his brothers with an expression in which curiosity and amusement were mixed in equal measure. His boots and the lower part of his pants appeared soaked and heavily spattered with mud.
“Adam!,” Joe exclaimed when he found his voice. “You didn’t fall into the pond!”
“Obviously,” Adam responded. “But why would you think that I…?” The answer suddenly occurred to him. “Of course…my hat.”
“Yeah, the hat…and the boot marks in the mud right there.” Joe was still clinging to the tree branch, and his relief at seeing his brother was beginning to be tempered by the thought of all the anxiety and effort that he and Hoss had undergone…for nothing. “What happened? It sure looked like you must have slid right into the water.”
“Well, it started when a gust of wind blew the hat right off my head and it landed out there.” Adam gestured with his arm toward a spot a little away from the shoreline. “I found a long, thin branch and tried to use that to retrieve it.” He indicated his pants. “And as you can see I got myself pretty dirtied up doing it. That’s how I left those marks in the mud.”
Joe could believe the part about the wind blowing his brother’s hat off easily enough, remembering how the same thing had nearly happened to him.
“But where’d you get yourself off to? And why didn’t you answer when Joe called?” Hoss finally overcame his own astonishment at the sight of his brother enough to take up the questioning.
“The reason I had so much trouble was because the branch I was using wasn’t quite long enough, so I went to find a longer one.” Adam sounded just slightly exasperated at having to explain something that seemed so obvious to him.
“And then?,” Joe prodded. There was clearly more to it.
“Then I spotted a rather large bear snooping around, and I’ve spent the last…well I’m not sure exactly how long, but it’s a considerable amount of time…trying to stay as still and quiet as possible to avoid being detected by him. Fortunately, the wind was in my favor and the bear never picked up my scent. I did hear Joe call once, but I couldn’t take the chance of responding. It took an awfully long time for that bear to get tired and wander off. At that point I decided to just forget about the branch and head straight back here,” Adam explained. He came down closer to the water and placed his foot on the end of the thick tree limb that rested on the bank.
“So the two of you spied the hat, jumped to the natural conclusion and plunged into the freezing water to try to rescue me,” Adam continued. “That’s really quite touching, I must say. It’s nice to know that my younger brothers have enough regard for me to be willing to do that. By the way, did either of you by any chance actually happen to retrieve the hat?”
The slightly condescending tone that Adam was taking ruffled Joe’s spirits some. He looked over at Hoss and saw that he seemed to feel the same way about it. Their eyes met and it was clear that the same mischievous thought was beginning to form in both of their minds.
“No, Adam, I’m right sorry, but we didn’t,” Hoss replied.
“It seems to have disappeared,” Adam said, shielding his eyes with his hand and gazing out over the rippling water. “Well, I suppose it couldn’t be helped. It was probably ruined anyway. It won’t be hard to get a new one. For right now, I think you two had better get out of that icy water before you both catch pneumonia. Here, let me help you.” He took several careful steps out onto the tree limb and, when he was close enough, leaned over to offer a hand to Hoss.
“Why, thank you, older brother. That’s right kind of you,” Hoss said.
Adam never noticed the sly grin on Hoss’ face or the matching one on Joe’s. Hoss reached up to grasp Adam’s hand, but instead of trying to climb up out of the water he suddenly yanked Adam forward, pulling him right off the tree branch!
Adam fell forward into the water with a great splash. He came up sputtering with the sound of his brothers’ laughter ringing in his ears.
“Why, you two scamps!,” he exclaimed, a dangerous gleam coming into his eyes. “I ought to…” He lunged forward in Joe’s direction and attempted to dunk his younger brother’s head under the water.
And with that the fight was on! The three Cartwright brothers were dunking each other, splashing each other, chasing each other, shoving each other, ganging up on each other in various combinations, swallowing a great amount of water in the process and, all in all, having a riotous good time.
And then they heard the voice, like that of some Olympian god.
“WHAT THE DEVIL IS GOING ON HERE?!,” the voice thundered.
The three brothers immediately stopped their activity and all looked toward the bank where the imposing figure of their father stood, scowling down at them.
“Pa, what are you doing here?,” Joe piped up in a small voice. The cold of the water, unnoticed in the midst of the commotion, was beginning to get to him again.
“I knew you three planned to meet here to ride home together and I thought that for once it might be nice to join you and ride with you. Is there anything so strange about that?,” Ben replied in a stern tone.
“No, course not, Pa,” Hoss spoke up. “In fact it’s a real nice….” His voice trailed off under his father’s glare.
Adam remained coolly silent.
Ben Cartwright looked down at the three sodden, bedraggled figures standing in the water before him and was left shaking his head. “My three grown sons, behaving like children once again,” he muttered to himself. And this time it isn’t even springtime!”