Sometimes ‘ya gotta eat a little crow

M. J. Roper
November 2002
Revised January 2003

The autumn sun warmed his face as he lay dozing comfortably in the lush grass near the stream.  A smile graced his face as he felt the warm breath tease his neck and his arm being softly rubbed.  Returning from his slumber,  he still lay there peacefully enjoying the moment.  Two beautiful brown eyes framed by long, luscious lashes were looking at him inquisitively.  The man yawned widely as he tried to awaken and focus.  

“AAAAHHHHHH.  EEEEWWWWWW. “   Hoss jumped up just as a large stream of something wet and, well, somewhat slimy, reached his face from the shiny black nose above.  The moist substance ran across his lips and seemed to reach all the way down to his tonsils.   Startled, the calf jumped back behind its mama, who was nibbling happily at the man’s lunch, as the large man repeatedly spit and wiped at his face.  Hoss glanced menacingly at the little hereford, whose brown eyes peered out at him.  Finishing her snack the cow ambled off, and after watching the man draw from the canteen and spit a few more times the calf decided the show was over and ran to catch up with his own lunch.

Hoss sighed as he leaned over and snatched his hat from the ground and walked over to his horse, who was grazing contentedly a few feet away.  “You could’ve woke me up yourself!  I think you found that funny, huh?”  Chubb kept grazing as Hoss mounted up.  “Come on, boy, lunch is over” as they rode off across the pasture, already far behind his tight schedule because of his nap.  It had been a long, hard morning and he had only intended to rest for a few minutes.  How was he going to make up the three hours he napped?  Even worse, how would he explain to Pa why he was so far behind…

Joe twisted his mouth sideways and scratched his head.  The prank he pulled on the hand had worked, but now he had a real problem – how to get that darn rattler back OUT of the outhouse, before the rest of the hands came back to the bunkhouse.  And before pa came back.  THAT wouldn’t be pretty.  

The youngest Cartwright had been furious to be reminded that he was the youngest – especially in front of the other hands.  Dang it, he wasn’t a child – he was almost seventeen.   Silently, he had vowed revenge.

 Luckily he didn’t have long to wait before his subject was ready for his daily constitutional.  John has casually walked to the small building, dime novel tucked under his arm, undoing his fly as he entered.  For about ten seconds there was dead silence. Joe watched from around the corner of the bunkhouse as the outhouse door suddenly flew open.

“AAAAHHHaaahhAAHHHHaaaaHHHH”  Out came John, pants around his knees, book soaring through the air, and dust flying as he quickly shuffled forward.  Stopping a few yards away, he was breathing heavily as he looked around to see if anyone was watching.  Satisfied there were no witnesses he reached down to pull up his pants, muttering unintelligibly.  He’d find a tree somewhere that would be less crowded.  

The snake had been pretty easy to scoop into the bucket when he was coiled up in the open.  Joe had set the bucket in the corner, knowing it couldn’t escape, and the rattle would do all the work for him.  He figured he could go back and pick up the bucket before anyone else showed up – even if John saw it he’d surely be too embarrassed to tell.  What he didn’t figure on was John turning the bucket upside down on his way out.   Now the reptile was coiled up in the corner of the building with no inclination of leaving, and Joe couldn’t get the stick maneuvered around to get him back into the bucket.  Joe stood outside the outhouse thinking.  Maybe a shovel?

He ran back to the barn where he had left the shovel propped earlier, but now it was gone.  Running back to the outhouse, he glanced cautiously around in case anyone had come back while he was gone.  Well, he could shoot the snake, but then he’d still have to leave him for a while until the snake actually stopped moving, and besides if anyone was near they’d hear the gunshot and come see what was going on.  

His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of horses approaching.  Eyes widening, he ran around behind the buildings and tried to sneak back to the barn.  Arriving safely, he breathed a sigh of relief.  Well, if anyone else went into the outhouse maybe they’d just think the snake had wandered in on its own – that did happen.  Then he groaned as he remembered the bucket….

Adam had troubles of his own.  The heavily loaded wagon was stuck.  Sighing heavily, once again he pulled on the limb propped in the wheel spokes, hoping this time it would give the back wheel enough leverage to force the wagon forward, hopefully without breaking a spoke. He’d already tried everything else he could think of to move the vehicle, and was covered from head to toe in mud for his troubles.  

Evidently it had rained pretty heavily through here earlier, and the sections of road that were sheltered from the suns rays were still a muddy mess.  He had been able to maneuver his way around most of the problem areas, and luckily he had a shovel in the bed, as he had to spend the better part of an hour trying to fill in one area of the road that had eroded away.  But while he was watching the right side of the road to keep from getting stuck in a gully there, he had missed the mudhole on the left, only noticing it when the wagon jerked to a stop.

“Some shortcut, huh, Adam Cartwright.  Just HAD to try to save time.  You knew Pa was just spouting, but you had to go try to prove your own point.”  Adam pushed forward again, groaning loudly.  “Okay, so we shouldn’t have been goofing off when he got there yesterday.   I knew better.  Had to let Joe drag me into it.  Now here I am stuck, and if I don’t get out of here and get home to help get that paperwork caught up Pa’s mood is not going to improve.  So what am I going to do about it?”  He sighed animatedly as he took another long look at the wagon.  “What am I going to do about it?”

He looked up at the skies that were growing dark above him again, and about the time he felt the first small drop of rain on his arm he heard the deafening clap of thunder that shook the ground beneath him and permeated the air surrounding him.   The horses felt the electricity in the air and nervously began to pull away from the sensation.  Suddenly he heard something snap at the front of the wagon.   Now he really had problems . . .

Ben stood at the top of the hill scowling as he pondered his own dilemma.  He wasn’t sure where Buck was at the moment, but he was sure that unless the situation changed he couldn’t get to him, or to the rifle he had stupidly left in the scabbard on the horse. The grizzly that was munching away on the string of fish he had caught may not be paying him any attention at the moment, but those few fish wouldn’t hold his attention forever.

A few minutes earlier he had been smugly thinking he would get away with taking this little break – how would the family ever know?  He had been in a bad mood yesterday when he caught the three of them goofing off in the barn, with their chores still unfinished, and knowing he had a stack of paperwork awaiting him.  Still in a bad mood this morning, he had gone into a lengthy discussion on responsibility and doing things efficiently and the proper time for recreation, and, and, and….  His sons had sat silently, knowing that it was best just to let him keep talking and agree.  He had even lectured Hop Sing on the wastefulness of preparing too much food.  The Chinaman had just glared at him and turned and gone back to the kitchen. At that moment he had a bad feeling that Hop Sing would not so easily forget this lecture.   Now here he was, supposed to be going straight home to work on that still overdue paperwork, but stuck on this knoll until that blasted bear finished his lunch.

 Ben  had been lazing on the bank, successfully casting and recasting his line for over an hour as his string of fish kept growing, not even considering how he would explain the string of fish to Hop Sing.  He’d cross that bridge when he got to it. Buck was grazing off to his left, also enjoying the respite.  The sky overhead only held a few gray clouds, which was lucky, he thought, as there was a line of storms a few miles off that looked pretty ominous.  But they were no threat to him and he was enjoying the beautiful early summer day.   

He had just pulled out the biggest fish yet, holding it up to admire it when he saw the flash of dark fur coming toward him from behind, and heard the thunder of the paws of the rapidly approaching beast as they beat the ground between him and Buck.  Hurriedly he dropped the fish and ran off in the other direction.  The bear didn’t really care about the man at the moment, or about the horse, who was beating a hasty retreat in the opposite direction.  All he saw was the easy meal waiting for him on the bank.  Ben groaned, hoping his horse hadn’t ran all the way home.  These boots weren’t designed for a lot of walking.  How was he going to explain this to his sons….

Hop Sing coughed and tried to fan the smoke out the open door of the kitchen.  He knew that the morning had gone too smoothly. A nice ride out to pick some berries to put up and fresh pies, a few short stops to collect some early greens,  a successful hour of fishing, and just enjoying the beautiful day.  The house was quiet when he arrived back.  No Cartwrights traipsing through his kitchen, or waiting to be served, or yelling and fighting.  Just peace and quiet.   He could take his time this afternoon preparing supper.  He walked into the kitchen with his bags and buckets, singing a little ditty to himself.

At first he was unaware of the two piercing eyes staring at him from atop the cupboard.  He proceeded on with his work, and soon the greens were cooking, pies and bread baking, and he was busily washing and sorting the rest of the berries.  The raven eyes watched every move, the small head cocking from one side of its body to the other.  Hop Sing sang softly as he bustled about the kitchen, relishing the rare moments of quiet in the house.  

“HA, HA, HA”  Hop Sing jumped back, looking around for the source of the gravely laugh.  “Haw, Haw, Haw”.  Turning quickly toward the sound he was met by a fury of sleek, black feathers, two dark eyes peering directly into his as they passed inches over his head, the beating of wings against air breezing past his forehead.  

“AAAAAAAHHHHHHH”  Hop Sing ran into the dining room, then reopened the door just enough to peer back into the kitchen.  

The crow cocked its head from its perch on the kitchen chair.  “Caw, Caw, Caw”  Hop Sing narrowed his eyes menacingly, then shut the door, turning his back against it as if to prevent the creature from opening it on him.  How would he get that bird out of there?  He searched for a weapon, anything to urge that menace out of his kitchen.  He ran around to the front door and towards the barn.  Looking around wildly he spotted a shovel and grabbing it ran back towards the kitchen.  Opening the door just slightly he peered in, missing the beak and dark eyes pointed straight down at him from the sill above the door.   Cautiously he entered the kitchen.  Where did that black bandit go?

“Caw, caw”  Hop Sing ducked as wings brushed the top of his head, and he ran straight through to the dining room, not realizing the bird was following him through the door, and only saw him as he perched on the grandfather clock, wings folding back against his body in defiance.  Hop Sings eyes grew wide as he and the crow eyed each other, each trying to decide what the other would do next.  The crow truly seemed to be enjoying this game.  Hop Sing went after the huge bird, swinging wildly with the shovel.  He didn’t really want to hit the bird, for he would be harder to deal with injured.  He only wanted the winged intruder to leave, forgetting that he had cut off any route of escape.

 “Caw, caw, caw”  The bird flapped over to the horns that hung above the fireplace, perching on the very center, cocking his head sideways, beak open,  to stare laughingly at the Chinaman.   A long string of harshly shouted Chinese was aimed towards the bird.  Suddenly Hop Sing stopped his tirade and sniffed the air.  His eyes widened and a now anxious salvo of words spewed forth as he turned and ran towards the black smoke coming from the kitchen . . .

Hoss was the first to arrive home that evening.  Entering the house he was surprised that no one else was back yet.  He was starving, and surprised not to be greeted by the usual smell of Hop Sing’s good cooking. There was a suspicious odor hanging  something like when you first doused a campfire.  Squinching up his nose and sniffing the air he called, “Hey, Hop Sing, how long ‘til supper.  I’m starvin’”  

Hop Sing stuck his head through the kitchen door, waved a large butcher knife in Hoss’ direction, and spouted off several unintelligible words before retreating back to the kitchen.  Hoss shrugged and headed upstairs to clean up.  A few minutes later he was back in the great room, cleaner and more tired, just as Joe came walking through the front door.

 “About time you got in here, little brother.  Surely it didn’t take you this long to do those few little chores Pa gave you.”  Hoss stopped as he looked at his younger brother, who walked with a definite limp and his left eye shining from a large purple bruise,  clothes  ripped in several places.  Hoss narrowed his eyes, taking in the sight.  “What happened to you?”

Joe started past him up the stairs “Numfin”  

Hoss grabbed his arm “What did you say?”

 Joe looked him in the face and Hoss could see his jaw was also swollen on the right side.  “Numfin”.  Joe jerked his arm back and stormed upstairs to get cleaned up before his father got home.

Hoss shrugged and walked downstairs, plopping down and sinking back in the red leather chair.  Determined not to fall asleep, he was slapping himself across the face when Ben walked through the door.  Ben glanced twice at his middle son’s actions before deciding it wasn’t worth pursuing.  Hoss sat up, noticing the rip in his father’s lower pants leg and a decided limp in his gait.   “Hey, Pa.  You alright? What happened to you?”

 Ben’s face flushed slightly at the question and he fumbled with his gunbelt before nervously answering “Nothing”.

 Hoss watched worriedly as his father walked stiffly across the room, then up the stairs.  Still fighting the urge to nap in the comfort of the chair, Hoss arose and walked over to the hearth, just as Joe walked back downstairs and fell back into the corner of the settee, feet on the table.  He looked gruffly at the hearth, but refused to look at his older brother, who was quizzically studying his beaten face.  Hoss shrugged.  Pa would get it out of him soon enough.  Besides, if Pa was busy questioning Joe at dinner, then maybe no one would ask him about his day, and he wouldn’t have to explain why he hadn’t gotten as far along as he had intended to today.  

Hoss and Joe sat silent in their own thoughts for several minutes before Ben hobbled back down the stairs.  He stopped at the bottom and looked around, giving Hoss a look that prevented any further questions.  Looking over at Joe he espied the black eye that refused to meet his.  “Well, Joseph, whose fist did you walk into, today? And, get your feet off the table!”

Joe quickly dropped his feet to the floor and turned his head slowly up to meet his fathers gaze. “I’sa lawng stowwy, Pahhw.”  

Ben walked over and grabbed his son’s chin and pulled it up, ignoring Joe’s grimace of pain as he latched on.  “Well, I guess I’ll just have to wait until the swelling goes down to get the full story, or is someone else going to come knocking on the door to tell me their side?”  Joe shook his head quickly.  Ben grunted, then looked around the room. “Where’s Adam?  He should have been back hours ago.  And why isn’t supper on the table?  HOP SING”  Ben bellowed towards the kitchen.  

Hop Sing angrily stuck his head out of the kitchen door, shouting another tirade in Chinese, but finishing up with “Sit, I bring supper.”, and abruptly disappearing back into the kitchen.  

The three men strode quietly towards their seats in the dining room, just as a very dismal and wet Adam walked through the door.  Ben stopped just long enough to give his eldest a querying glance, before proceeding to the dining room, deciding he didn’t really want to hear the story just yet.  Adam stomped upstairs to change into dry clothes and clean up, leaving a trail of muddy bootprints, and moreover not caring that he did..  

The other three still sat solemnly at the table when he returned a few minutes later and sat down, looking at the empty table, then at his family.  He stopped for a moment when he saw Joe’s face, but from the looks on their faces, and his own foul mood, he decided not to comment.

Ben looked over at Adam again when he emitted a slight cough and several sniffles, before yelling “HOP SING, ARE YOU GOING TO FEED US TONIGHT, OR NOT”.  

Hop Sing came out with two plates, already filled, and set one down in front of Hoss and another in front of Joe, before returning to the kitchen.  Adam gave another watery sniff and took his handkerchief out of his back pocket.  Joe picked at the odd looking section of meat pie that took up half the plate, before moving a small forkful to his mouth, but found he couldn’t open his jaw enough to even get the fork in.  He held the fork in midair momentarily before setting it back on the plate.

Hop Sing came back and slammed the other two plates in front of Ben and Adam.  He looked at Ben and stated “Made pie ‘specially for you.”  before retreating yet again into the kitchen, which earned his back an angry glare from the patriarch.  Hoss happily took a large bite of the meat pie, just as a large series of wet sneezes snuck up on Adam.  Hoss looked at his brother, who was busily wiping at his reddened nose, trying to catch the next sneeze.  Hoss screwed his mouth downwards and pushed his plate away.  

Ben had continued to glare the direction of the retreating back of the Chinaman for several minutes before looking at his own plate. On it was the same thing as the other plates – a large helping of meat pie and a large slab of fried fish.  Ben groaned and laid his napkin over his plate.

Adam looked at his family oddly, wondering what had happened to their appetites, as he dug his fork into the meat pie.  Kind of an odd meal, but he was too hungry to question.  He took a bite of the slab of bread on his plate, noticing it seemed to be the leftover from yesterday, and a little stale.  Lifting his fork to his mouth, he noticed something odd in the pie.  Pulling out the foreign object he quickly decided maybe he wasn’t really that hungry, either.  

Ben took another look around the table, he took in a deep breath and exhaled slowly.   “Let’s just not even mention this day, ever again.”, then he stood and looked intently at each one of his sons in turn before walking towards the stairs.

Hop Sing heard the men as they left the table, and he walked back in to the dining room just in time to see the four backs disappearing silently upstairs.  The plates sat untouched on the table.  Hop Sing chattered at the air.  Why did he bother?  Smugly he grabbed up the plates, pausing for just a moment to pick up a small black feather resting beside one plate, then swung around and walked off toward the kitchen, singing a little ditty and smiling..

The End