Summary: It’s a short story about a peaceful Sunday afternoon in town with the whole family. Or wasn’t it so peaceful? Prequel: around 1846
This enlarged version of the story is translated in real English by Sklamb.
Rated: K+ WC 3550
A story written by Sibylle and translated in English by Sklamb. Thank you so much!
The Church Picnic
Little Joe crouched low to the ground before darting from one clump of bushes to another twenty yards away. Once there, he squatted down to scrutinize the earth around him. Yes! He’d found footprints, clearly many footprints. Some of them surely had to be from his older brother Hoss. The small child picked out one that was pointing away from all the picnic activities spread across the big meadow. He was sure this had to be Hoss’s print–his older brother wasn’t anywhere in sight, and this trail led away. Hoss was surely in danger; he’d been gone for such a long time!
The four-year-old boy reached up to his hair and satisfied himself that the big feather he’d found earlier was still stuck firmly among his curls. Little Eagle would track down Hoss and rescue him! He looked cautiously around, aware he had to sneak like a real Indian. There was another patch of scrub in the right direction only another ten yards away. Little Eagle ducked low and scampered to his new hiding place, carrying a strong stick in his left hand like a hunting spear.
Hoss was sitting on one of the swings at the playground outside the schoolhouse. A girl with her bright red braids pinned up in jaunty loops sat on the other. Amelia is a prankster but it’s fun to be with her, the boy thought as he swung slowly back and forth, chewing on a donut.
They had met at the bowlful of donuts. “You like these too?” Hoss had asked, smiling. “Widow Hawkins always makes the best things, doesn’t she?”
She had nodded before showing Hoss what was hidden behind her back–a big, long-handled spoon that had come to the picnic with a bowl of potato salad. Almost at once she tucked it out of sight again. “You keep lookout, Hoss!” she’d commanded and he’d dutifully watched for hostile eyes while the girl ran the spoon through the holes in the donuts. Once she had a dozen stacked up on that handle she had hissed, “OK, Hoss, run!”
And they had run.
After a few detours they had reached the playground, giggling and gasping for breath. Now they swayed gently on the almost motionless swings, eating their spoils with gusto.
“Hey, Hoss,” Amelia broke the silence. “You know something sweeter than donuts?”
“Honey?” the ten-year-old guessed.
“No,” she said thoughfully, “even sweeter than honey.”
“My brother said this was sweeter than honey or candy–even sugar.”
She had left her swing and was standing in front of him now. The boy wasn’t sure what she planned, but–just in case–tightened his hands on the chains of his own swing in a strong grip. He watched in wonder as she leaned forward to suddenly plant her lips on his.
“Are you crazy?” the big fair-haired boy sputtered in complete astonishment. “Why–what–you kissed me!”
Amelia backed away quickly. “Hoss, it…it was only an experiment. You see, I was eavesdropping on my big brother and his girl one night, and he said kisses were sweeter than sugar. And then he kissed her and they both got excited and she agreed it was the sweetest thing she’d ever tasted. But it didn’t work! Maybe you have to lick your lips afterwards?” The girl tried it, and frowned. “It does taste sweet, but…I think the sweetness only comes from the donuts,” she said doubtfully. “What do you think, Hoss?”
The boy only stared at her.
“Hoss, are you mad at me? Please don’t be…I knew no grownup would tell me about that kissing stuff, and I just had to find out. I didn’t mean to upset you,” she begged the frowning boy. “Can we please still go fishing next Sunday after church the way we planned?”
Hoss couldn’t stay angry. Slowly a smile grew on his face. “But no more ‘speriments! Or at least ask me beforehand!”
The girl smiled back at him in relief. “I thought we could maybe try smoking,” she suggested mischievously.
“Done that already.” Hoss said with a superior air. “And I can assure you, even if you don’t get caught, it tastes nasty–and it ain’t worth a tanning, fer sure!”
“Well, maybe all these adult things aren’t what they’re cracked up to be.”
“Yeah, that’s right. What about going back for some more sweets?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t think I can eat anything sweet right now. I feel so … so terrible full.” she answered hesitantly putting a hand on her stomach.
“I feel kinda sick, too. Could be six donuts–no, nine, I already et three–are just a mite too many.”
They both giggled, suddenly comfortable with each other again.
“Hoss, what time is it?”
“Don’t know, but the sun’s really low,” said the boy after a look at the horizon. “Do your parents know where you are, Amelia?”
She shook her head.
They exchanged a worried glance.
“It’s good we don’t like sweets any more because our parents won’t be offering us any if they’re looking for us” she said ironically.
Hoss was more hopeful. “Maybe they didn’t miss us yet.”
Without wasting any more time on discussion, both children broke into a sprint.
Adam headed back from the center of town towards the big meadow. How long had he been gone? Less than two hours, he guessed in relief. Virginia City looked almost empty with so many of its respectable citizens still at the church picnic. Maybe it would be better if he didn’t walk directly down the main street, where he might bump into a friend of the family coming home. That wouldn’t be good…not if his father found out that he’d been in town–or why. Pa wouldn’t understand. The sixteen-year-old felt a pang of guilt but straightened his back as he turned down a small alley.
He’d had to show those Bonner brothers he wasn’t a goodie-goodie, or a Papa’s boy. He’d met them behind the livery stable to play poker after church more than a few times already without his father finding out, but this time was different, because of the picnic. The moment he’d said so, though, the Bonners had teased him for being too much his father’s obedient son to be willing to gamble like a man. No, he’d had no other way to save his honor. Jingling the coins in his pants pocket, he reflected complacently that he’d shown them who the man was. The Bonner brothers were much worse poker players than they reckoned themselves. Eight dollars and fifty cents…that was almost three times his regular allowance! But it was certainly time to be back, and he picked up his pace a little.
“Well, ain’t this nice? A good-looking boy all dressed for church, right in the middle of my street!” A muscular young miner in ragged clothes stood blocking Adam’s way, breathing alcohol into his face.
“Come on, let me through,” Adam said, trying not to beg or to sound like he was in too much of a hurry. Being caught sneaking back into the picnic would be shameful enough; he didn’t want to make bad worse by getting into a fight as well.
“Why should I?” the other man sneered. “I don’t like your tone, boy. If you want to walk down my street, ask me nicely! Or do you think good manners are just for other people?”
Two more men, both somewhat older than Adam, closed in around them. One of them laughed nastily, “Oh, look–ain’t that the lucky boy who won so much at the Bonner’s poker game? Ben Cartwright’s son?” Adam vaguely remembered him from the handful of men hanging around the livery stable to watch the game.
“Mighty unfair for the richest boy in town to be so lucky too,” the other newcomer chimed in.
“Sure is,” the first one agreed. “I think it’s only fair and proper we do something about that. Hand over the money, boy, and we’ll give it to the poor. I’m Robin Hood’s nephew, don’t you know?”
“Let me by!” Adam tried to push his way past the drunken man in front of him, but a punch from behind took his breath away. A few more blows and a kick to the back of his knees dropped him to the muddy street. Someone took a chokehold on his collar and pulled his left arm painfully upwards.
“Look, boy, you don’t have to make this so hard on yourself. Just give us the money and you can go,” the miner–no longer looking particularly drunken at all–said with mock concern.
His heavy studded boots were almost in Adam’s face. There was nothing to be gained by resisting, so Adam fumbled in his pocket with his free hand and pulled out a handful of coins. He even resisted the temptation to throw them in the dust instead of holding them out to his tormentors.
“That’s better! Now stand up and turn your pockets inside out. That way we can be sure you’re not holding out on us.”
Adam got slowly to his feet, gritting his teeth, and pulled his right pocket out to prove it was now empty. He showed them the folded handkerchief from his left pocket before turning that one inside out as well.
“What an obedient boy,” the one from the poker crowd–hadn’t one of the Bonners even called him a friend?–jeered. “Get on, now, and go tell your rich pappy all about the nasty men who stole your nice poker winnings.” He snickered at his own joke and the other two joined in the laughter.
Adam held his head high and sauntered down the alley as casually as he could manage, not looking behind him. Inside, his blood was boiling. Those three hadn’t even been gunslingers, just a bunch of bullies who had caught him in a bad place–and they knew very well he could tell his father nothing about the whole incident. But he hadn’t needed his Pa to get a little of his own back, Adam thought with grim satisfaction. He dug his left hand into his pocket again and fingered the five-dollar bill he’d quickly tucked inside the layers of his handkerchief. For a moment he felt downright proud of himself, until the realization of how much might have gone wrong struck him full force. He could already hear his father’s familiar lecture about putting himself into unnecessary danger so clearly that he felt absolutely no need to be given it again in reality. Almost breaking into a run as he regained the main street, he prayed his pa hadn’t missed him yet.
Ben stalked around the meadow. Oh, those boys! Why weren’t they still here? Why hadn’t they listened to him? He had told all three of them not to leave. And now? Nobody in sight!
Adam was old enough to follow a simple order like looking after his little brothers, wasn’t he? But now all three of them were gone. Incredible! Where could his sons be? Maybe Little Joe had needed to go behind the bushes and his older brothers had gone with him, Ben speculated a little desperately. No, he’d been waiting more than half an hour; surely they would have been back by now.
He continued pacing up and down. The day had started so well; perfect weather and perfect harmony, not only within his family, but throughout the whole church congregation. After the worship service, the boys had entertained themselves and Ben had been able to relax with Marie on a blanket under a big chestnut tree slightly away from the other picnickers. The two of them had spent a fine couple of hours chatting, teasing and even kissing like youngsters in first love.
Then Marie had gone off to visit a friend. The boys had still seemed to be having fun–Adam talking with girls, Hoss apparently glued to the buffet, and Little Joe screaming in delight after he’d hit the pile of cans with the ball and they had all tumbled down. He himself had run into Sheriff Coffee and Doc Martin, and the three friends had walked around together for a while, discussing politics and other masculine subjects. But time had passed and now the sun was low–lower than he had realized while he’d been involved in such an interesting debate–and the family had to leave if they wanted to reach their home before dark. It was surely over three hours since Marie had left; she ought to be back at any moment. Ben surveyed the meadow again and decided he’d better hitch up the team without waiting for any help. Grumbling to himself, he made his way back to the place where the horses were grazing.
“Adam, where have you been?” Ben confronted his eldest, who was already with their wagon.
“Oh, Pa. Howdy. Uh…I…I had to run a little errand in town. I’m sorry I was late getting back.”
“What kind of errand? And for whom? And why did it take so long?”
“For myself, Pa. I was delayed on my way back by…friends.” Adam’s voice died away by the last words and he watched his father cautiously from downcast eyes.
Ben frowned at his eldest son. “Adam, I’m very disappointed in your behaviour! You shouldn’t have gone off in the first place, let alone take so much time coming back. But now we have to hurry and hitch up the team; your mother will be here any moment. Where are Hoss and Little Joe?”
“Hoss and Joe, Pa?”
“Yes, your brothers–you do remember them?” Ben retorted sarcastically.
“They aren’t here, sir?”
“No, they aren’t, and I remember very well putting you in charge of them!”
“But, Pa, I told Hoss to look after Joe for a while. He’s quite old enough to take care of Joe, and he promised me not to leave.”
“Oh, he did? And now they’re both gone! I had thought I could rely on at least one of you three, but evidently I was wrong! How can you be so irresponsible–but first we have to find them!”
Oh, when he could get a hold of Hoss, Adam thought crossly, as he searched behind some bushes. Apparently he had managed to clean himself up enough at the horse trough in front of the Silver Dollar to keep his father from being overly suspicious, and he had avoided an outright lie by a hair, but now his little brother had let him down. First had an ominous sound!
Hoss, squeezing his awkward way between a pair of bushes, spun around at the sound of his father’s voice. He and Amelia had separated fairly quickly, she heading straight for where she had left her parents, he taking a less direct route back to the picnic so that it would be a little less obvious he was coming from the town. If he could only have rejoined the other boys, no one need have known he’d even left…but Pa must have already started looking for him. Bad luck!
“Where have you been, young man?” The question didn’t sound very friendly.
“I was at the playground, sir. Just for a short time, Pa. We wanted to swing a little.”
“Didn’t I say you should stay in the meadow? And Adam told you so too?”
“Yes, sir, I’m sorry.” Hoss said ruefully.
“We will talk about that later. Right now we have to hurry, before your mother gets here. And where is Joe?”
“Little Joe, Pa? Ain’t he here?” The boy looked up at his father with wide blue eyes. “I told him not to leave. Honest, Pa, I told him! He was right over there.” And Hoss pointed to a now-heavily shaded area under the trees where, hours before, the children’s games had been set up.
Marie came back from town in a good mood. Oh, what a wonderful afternoon she had had–first the tryst with her beloved Ben and then the long visit with her friend. They had giggled and gossiped like carefree school girls, and they’d not only drunk coffee, but also a tiny glass each of special liqueur. Or perhaps two or three tiny glasses…yes, Marie was in a good mood, a very good mood indeed.
“Hallo Ben, Hoss, Adam…are you waiting? I hope I’m not late, mon chou-chou.”
“Oh, Marie …”
Both the boys–and Ben himself–looked anxious. Suddenly very sober, she asked, “What’s wrong? Where is mon petit Joseph?”
“Joe’s gone! We’ve been searching and calling for him almost an hour now!”
“What? How could that be?”
“I had some things to discuss with Sheriff Coffee and Doc Martin, so just this once I asked my eldest son to look after his brothers. Now see what came of it!”
“Just this once? I have looked after my brothers ever since I can remember! Why shouldn’t Hoss take a little responsibility for Joe once in a while? When I was his age I’d been looking after him for years!” Adam defended himself heatedly.
“Pa, he didn´t want to stay with me, honestly, he just wanted to play. I tried. And later I was only…” Hoss, nearly in tears, let his voice trail away.
“I can only say I’m very disappointed in both of you, very disappointed!”
“Don’t you push this onto the boys, Ben. You’re the one who promised me you’d watch Little Joe, but your friends were obviously more important to you than your own son!” Marie declared furiously.
“And you? Why couldn’t you take him with you for this cup of coffee with your friend? You are his mother, after all!” Ben shouted back.
“That’s unbelievable. You agreed to look after him and now you dare to blame me?” snorted Marie. With that she turned and ran down towards the area where the children had been playing their games.
Hoss and Adam glanced with embarrassment at their father, but Ben stormed off in the other direction without a word.
“At least they won’t be blaming us any more for a while,” Adam told Hoss with a wry smile as both boys began searching again.
By the time Marie finally returned to the place where she and Ben had been so happy together at noon, all her romantic feelings were long gone. But there was the picnic basket, which no one had bothered to pack away…and as Marie got closer, she saw a small lump wrapped in their abandoned blanket.
“Joseph!” she cried out, and ran to pick the boy up. “Where have you been? We were so worried about you!”
Hearing her, Adam, Ben and Hoss raced from the far corners of the meadow to where she was cradling Joe, who had a giant goose feather tucked into his brown curls.
“Joe, why did you leave?” asked Hoss sternly.
“You were gone, Adam was gone, even Pa and Ma! But than Little Eagle picked up your trail. I was gonna rescue you, Hoss, so’s we could track down the others and save them too. Only I lost the track and then I ran around a lot and found our blanket and then I was tired and I thought, you’ll be able to save yourselves without me.” Joe yawned and gave his family a sleepy smile.
“You shouldn’t have left the meadow, Joe! You promised me not to,” scolded Hoss.
“What about you, Hoss! You’re a fine one to talk!” Adam snapped indignantly.
“And you, Adam, what sort of example did you set?” retorted Ben, glaring at both his guilty-looking older sons.
“Ah, Ben.” Marie put a gentle hand on her husband’s shoulder, prompting him to turn back to her. “Joe’s safe,” she smiled, then dropped her voice almost to a whisper as she went on, “Let us be grateful for that.” Almost teasingly, she added, “I suspect we should admit we were all a little less than perfect today. And yet–” she paused to tickle her son’s nose with the goose feather until he giggled up at her– “we were not punished as we might have been, so we shouldn’t punish each other. Suppose we agree this has been a…special day for all of us. A day of exception. And let it be forgotten, hm?”
“Do you think…,” Ben arched a skeptical eyebrow and surveyed his wife and sons until he could no longer suppress first a smile, then an outright chuckle.
With the tension broken, all the family climbed onto their wagon and drove home, singing and joking with each other. But at some point during that evening’s journey, each of them thought back on the day that had passed, and was thankful to know its details would remain only a private affair.
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.
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