Summary: I have been fascinated by the characters of Cora and Enos Milford, the affectionate, bickering couple in “The Hayburner”. Clearly they are old friends of the Cartwrights, have great affection for them and knew Adam, Hoss and Joe as boys. I wondered how the Milfords and the Cartwrights might have first met and came up with this story, “It all Started with a Haircut” .
Rating: K (6,835 words)
It All Started with a Haircut
Spring was finally in the air. The long, snowy winter had turned into mud season, with a promise of warm days ahead. Adam Cartwright had successfully convinced his father that he and his brother should retire their red flannel long johns for the season. The little boy had an unbeatably logical argument that the coldest weather was definitely past and that the two Cartwright boys had outgrown their winter underwear. “We can hardly run without it choking us, Pa,” Adam explained. He was the self-appointed spokesman for his younger brother.
“I suppose you’re right on both counts, son,” Ben Cartwright reluctantly agreed as he helped his younger son get dressed. “Just make sure both of you keep your coats buttoned and put those blankets in the back of the wagon with the rest of the gear. It still gets pretty cold after dark; I don’t want you boys two freezing your rear ends on the ride back home tonight.”
With the wagon loaded, Ben Cartwright and his two small sons made their way to the recently built settlement to do some trading. In exchange for his stack of furs, Cartwright had intentions of replenishing his diminished stock of flour, sugar, corn meal and fat back, purchasing a keg of nails to finish building his barn, and replacing a broken axe head. He also planned to buy a new pair of boots himself and a few necessary garments for his growing boys.
Ben really wanted to purchase more things but knew he shouldn’t. His own father had always taught him there was a world of difference between “wants” and “needs”. If you took care of the “needs” and work hard enough, the “wants” would come in due time. His older boy, Adam, understood that very well. Eric, the baby, would learn that as he got older. If there was any cash left over, Ben would be quite surprised. Whatever else they wanted would just have to wait, as he certainly didn’t want to run up more debts than necessary.
That early spring day, things worked out far better than Ben had dared to imagine. First, Ben got a better price for his furs than he had anticipated. Then one of men in the trading post gave him a lead on someone looking to make a deal for timber. He had plenty of tall pines on his land and there were more than enough available men for the hiring to cut the timber if he could work out a contract. Then, with his easy-going baby son riding on his father’s shoulders and his inquisitive first born, Adam, trailing a step behind him, Ben headed towards the small mercantile for the rest of his purchases.
There was so much to see that young Adam didn’t know what to look at first. All around him people were busy. There were more folks around than he had seen all at one time since before the winter, before he and Pa and Hoss moved into their cabin near the lake. The loud metallic clang of the blacksmith’s hammer echoed off the rocky hillside and made Adam’s ears ring and the baby grab on to Pa’s jacket. Nearby, a huge barrel-chested man and a skinny blond boy on a two man saw were cutting a log in half. Adam wondered if, in this instance, the tool should be called a “boy and man saw” rather than a “two man saw”. A stout woman opened up her front door and purposefully heaved a bucket of dirty water over the porch rail. It hit the street with a splash, adding to the rutted mess made by the melting snow. Three Indians rode down the muddy street on spotted ponies. A farm wagon rattled past, and a boy and girl about Adam’s age waved at him from the back. Adam was so busy looking around that he almost tripped and fell into a puddle in the road.
“Stay close, and pay better attention, son,” Ben cautioned, putting a steadying hand on the boy’s shoulder. “There’s a lot of coming and going here.”
“Yes, sir,” Adam nodded. Pa was right. You always had to stay on your toes and keep your eyes open. You never knew what treasures or dangers lay round the bend.
The family picked their way across the muddy street headed towards the half-built mercantile to make some purchases. As they passed the assay office and a noisy saloon, a lanky, scraggly, man rushed up to him.
“Ben Cartwright!” the man shouted in a loud voice. He threw his arms around Ben and hugged him close, almost knocking Hoss from his father’s grasp. Pa set Hoss down on the ground and shook hands with his friend.
“Hays Newkirk!” Ben exclaimed with a smile. “You old son of gun! I haven’t seen you since… since… ”
“Are these your boys?” Hays asked with a warm grin. He patted Hoss on his head and asked, “Is this your son?
Adam always wondered why grownups asked that question. Whose children would his Pa be toting around with if they weren’t his sons? Pa surely wouldn’t hire a two year old to work his ranch. The next thing the adult would say is something about how big he and Hoss had grown. He was eight years old and his brother was almost two. Did folks think that boys got smaller instead of bigger as they got older? How ridiculous!
“Cain’t believe this one is so big! Remember me?” Hays said pointing at Adam. “And don’t that baby look jest like Inger?”
Adam knew better than to interrupt Pa or to ask how this man knew them or say aloud what was in his head. If he did, his Pa would certainly punish him for having a smart mouth and being disrespectful of his elders. The boy just tipped his hat and rolled his eyes at Hoss. The baby laughed so hard at Adam’s antics that he almost fell down. Hoss grabbed on to Pa’s muddy pants leg so he wouldn’t fall down. That made Adam start to laugh also. Soon, the two brothers were playing hide and seek around Pa’s legs. Caught up in their game, Adam lost track of the long-winded conversation his Pa was having with the other man.
Suddenly, Adam sensed the friendly conversation between Pa and this Hays fellow had changed and was becoming a disagreement. The men were raising their voices and Pa was protesting, “Oh no, Hays. I couldn’t do that!”
What couldn’t Pa do? What was going on? Adam pulled up short and let the baby catch up to him. Then Adam put his arm around his brother, held on to him and cautiously watched what was going on between Pa and the stranger.
“I insist, Ben,” Hays said reaching into his pocket.
Adam swallowed hard and protectively pulled Hoss even closer. What was going on? Was the man going for a knife? Did he have a pistol?
”Don’t be a fool!” Ben shook his head and took a half step away from his boys. Adam pulled Hoss back a bit, just in case.
Hays reached into his dusty brown coat and pulled out a draw string pouch. “I got good money for that horse. If Inger hadn’t helped her get borned, I would have lost the both mare and the colt too. Now that colt is a fine horse and I sold her for twenty dollars and insist that half is yours. I insist, Ben. Take the money or my missus will have my head if she hears I saw you and didn’t give you a fair share. For Inger’s boys.” He counted out the shiny silver dollars and pushed the heavy coins into Ben’s hand. “Ten dollars for Inger’s boys.”
“For Inger’s boys,” Ben finally agreed.
“The baby sure has her blue eyes, Ben,” Hays said. “And Adam always made her mighty proud.”
Adam stared at the man. He looked vaguely familiar. The boy realized it was someone who had been in the wagon train with them. Mr. Newkirk. He and his wife had a little girl baby just before Hoss was born. They had been in Ash Hollow when Mama had been killed and Mrs. Newkirk had helped care for Hoss.
”Always,” Ben said softly. His lips curled in a soft smile at the memory of his second wife, Hoss’ mother, and how she made Adam her own. Time had washed away the sharp pain of grief like the spring rains had melted the deep snow drifts. “And Adam makes me proud too. You should see how hard he works around the new place. I couldn’t have managed without Adam by my side. And he can read and do ciphering too.”
“Then use the money on that new place you are building for those fine sons of yours, Ben. Inger’s boys. That is what she would have wanted.”
The barber had a bath house in the rear of his establishment. Like most of the newly-built buildings in the settlement, it was hastily constructed from green wood and unpeeled logs that still held the smell of the forest. The place was crowded with noisy men waiting for haircuts or baths or just loitering about socializing. In one corner, a bearded man strummed a guitar while his partner, a bald headed man, played along on a harmonica.
After winding up with far more cash than he ever expected, Ben felt pretty extravagant. He spent a bit of money for a nice slice of soap and two tubs of hot water, one for his two young sons and one for himself. Two tubs of hot water was truly a lavish treat. He scrubbed each boy well and then he rinsed each of them in turn by pouring water over their heads with a tin cup. Then, despite their protests, he scrubbed them again.
“You haven’t had a decent tub bath since last fall. You have a full winter’s grime to scour off. When I was at sea, there was nothing better than a good hot bath when we came into port.”
“Couldn’t you take a bath in the ocean, Pa,” Adam asked. “If you were on a ship at sea, you were surrounded by water.”
“We could and we did, but that was salt water, not nice fresh water like this. Fresh water was really precious and saved for drinking. Soap doesn’t lather very well in salt water. Close your eyes,” Ben said, pouring another cup of water over Adam’s soapy hair.
While his freshly scrubbed little boys played in the still warm water, Ben undressed, climbed in the other tub and scrubbed himself, rinsed and scrubbed himself again. He would have loved to soak a bit longer in the hot water but there was really no time for that.
“See, boys, it’s not only you two who could use a double dose of soap. Your Pa is getting spick and span too.” He dunked himself under the surface of the tub twice until the soap was out of his hair.
Hoss didn’t say a word but took the tin cup he was playing with and took a sip of bath water.
“No! Don’t drink that, brother!” Adam warned his baby brother, snatching the cup from the baby. “This isn’t a pot of soup you are sitting in.”
”No?” Hoss spit the mouthful of soapy water back into the tub and wiped his mouth with his chubby hand. Then he smiled and eyed the bar of soap.
”Hoss! That’s soap, not cheese!” Ben warned. He reached across from his tub and snatched the soap from the baby.
“I guess it’s getting on towards lunch time, Pa,” Adam laughed.
“I suppose it is,” Ben agreed.
Then, realizing the water was getting cold, Adam started climbing out of the slipper copper tub. “We are spick and span too, Pa.”
Ben made sure the boys were all dried and dressed in the fresh new clothes he had just purchased at the mercantile. With the water that remained, Adam and Ben washed out their dirty clothes, wrung them out and bundled up the damp things up as best they could. Ben took his wet shirt and spread it out. Then he placed the bundle of wet clothes in the middle and tied the shirt sleeves around it. “We’ll hang up these things to dry when we get back to the wagon.” Ben scooped up the baby in one hand and the bundle in the other and then led Adam into the adjacent room.
“I can do it, Pa,” Adam offered.
“Do you think you can manage? Don’t let anything fall in the mud now that all those clothes are clean.” Ben took his gun belt from where he had hung it high on a peg out of reach of the boys and buckled it around his waist.
“Yes, sir. I know how to do it,” Adam insisted.
”Do you know how to get to the wagon and come directly back here?” Ben said.
”The wagon is by the livery. Down the street about half way, just past the mercantile and the saloon, and behind the house with the big porch.”
Ben set his son’s hat on his head. “Come directly back here and don’t go nosing around. And leave Hoss here with me. You will come and go faster alone. And fetch that parcel of food from the wagon so we can eat lunch when I am finished here. I sure don’t want the baby gnawing on the fire wood or the door frame.”
”Me neither.” Adam took the bundle and said, “I’ll be quick as a flash, Pa. Faster. And I won’t drop anything either.”
Ben sat down on the rough wooden bench near the door to wait his turn for a haircut along with two other men. Hoss yawned and climbed on his father’s lap. The little one was growing tired and was completely content to lean back against his father’s chest and wait for his brother to return.
Adam left and started off trotting down the street carrying the heavy bundle of wet laundry with both hands. By the time he was half way to the wagon, he realized the wet wash was far heavier than he thought. It was much harder to carry the unwieldy bundle running fast. He slowed his pace. His arms ached and grew heavy but there was no clean dry spot to put his burden down so he could catch his breath. Adam tried to balance the heavy load so he could carry it high above the muddy road and not drag anything. This wasn’t as simple a chore as Adam had thought.
He took a deep breath and shifted the wet bundle in his arms. His coat was getting wet from the laundry. As he continued on towards the Cartwright’s wagon, his nose tickled, then itched and started to run. He longed to wipe it with the handkerchief in his back pocket but the best he could do was rub his nose in the collar of his nice clean, new shirt. Adam hated to do that and hoped Pa wouldn’t notice.
As he rounded the side of the house with the big porch and headed down the hill to the livery, he could see their wagon not more than a hundred yards away. He picked up his pace. Suddenly he heard a woman call to him.
“Boy! Boy! You dropped something!” A slender lady wearing a blue gingham bonnet was calling to Adam. She walked closer to him and held up a small sock, Hoss’ sock. “You dropped this. Is it yours?”
“Yes Ma’am,” Adam stopped. He hugged the damp bundle against his chest and awkwardly reached out his had to take the sock from the lady. “It’s my baby brother’s sock. Thank you, Ma’am.”
“Your baby brother’s? Oh, I should have realized it was too small for a big boy like you.” The woman gave Adam a warm smile. “That is sizeable bundle of laundry you are carrying. Your mother must appreciate your help with her chores.”
”I’m helping my Pa.”
“We don’t have a mother. She died before we got out here,” Adam explained, trying to tuck the wayward sock back into the bundle.
“Oh! Now that’s a terrible shame. Here, let me help you.” She took the sock from Adam’s hand and tucked it securely into the bundle. “Where are you headed? Is it far?”
“Oh no, Ma’am. I’m almost there. That’s our wagon, right over there.” Afraid to let go of the cumbersome bundle, the boy pointed by lifting his chin.
“That’s not far for a strong young fellow like you. I’m heading that way to my wagon too. My husband bought some provisions and disappeared before he toted everything inside for me. I need the flour for my pie crust. New folks are coming to settle every day. Do you live here?” the lady asked as they walked down the muddy road towards the livery.
“Not here in town. My Pa made a claim on some land near the lake last fall. We’re building a ranch,” Adam explained proudly. “I’m his right-hand man.”
“My name is Mrs. Milford,” the woman said as she helped Adam hoist the bundle into the wagon. He clambered up into the wagon and found the parcel of food Pa had packed that morning before they set out from their cabin.
“Thanks for your help, Mrs. Milford. I’m Adam Cartwright.” The boy smiled and tipped his hat just as his Pa had taught him.
“My husband and I live in that boarding house over there.” Cora Milford pointed to the house with the porch that Adam had used as his landmark for locating the wagon. “I’m the cook and Mr. Milford is helping the owner finish the upper floor. There will be six more rooms to rent when it is done.”
“That sounds like a fine place to live, Mrs. Milford,” Adam said as they walked back up the hill to what was becoming the main street.
”We don’t want to stay there forever, just until we save more money. We are hoping to have our own ranch too.”
“There’s a lot of fine land around here. You can ask my Pa. He’ll tell you just what to do. My Pa knows everything,” Adam said proudly. “Me and Pa will help you find a place. You can meet him when we come back to get the wagon.”
“Thanks for your offer, Adam. My husband should be back soon. He went off after breakfast and should have been back long ago.” Cora sincerely hoped that Enos hadn’t stopped in the saloon or fallen in with bad company as he occasionally did.
“I best be on my way, Ma’am. Pa told me to come directly back after I put the bundle into the wagon,” Adam hesitated. Even though Pa had told him to come directly back, he felt he should offer to help this lady tote her provisions inside the boarding house. Pa always told him to be a gentleman and help ladies with heavy things. “Do you need a hand unloading your wagon, Ma’am?”
”No thank you. Mr. Milford will tend to that when he returns.” Cora extended her hand to the boy just as if he was an adult. “Thank you for the offer. It was nice meeting you, Adam Cartwright. Tell your Pa that the boarding house serves fine meals if he is looking for a decent place while you are staying in town. We have red flannel hash today for lunch.”
“Red flannel hash? Like from long johns?” The boy wrinkled his nose in disdain. He was mighty glad he had the parcel of food from home.
“Goodness gracious, can you beat that!” Mrs. Milford laughed and shook her head. “Oh no, Adam. Not from old long johns! I made hash from yesterday’s corned beef and chopped up potatoes and onions. It’s all fried up nice and crisp on the outside and juicy and soft inside. It’s very tasty. I have two kinds of pie and apple sauce too.”
“Oh! “ Adam sighed with relief. “My baby brother just loves sweet stuff like pie and apple sauce. It sounds mighty fine.”
“It is. Tell your Pa.”
“I sure will,” Adam nodded and shook her hand politely. Maybe Pa would consider eating lunch at the boarding house and saving the parcel of food for supper when they got home. “I’ll be sure to do that, Ma’am. Two kinds of pie sounds mighty good.” Then he ran back up the hill to the muddy main street. At the corner, Adam stopped and waved to his new friend, Mrs. Milford. Then, with his unbuttoned coat flapping in the spring breeze, the boy ran back to the barber shop.
When Adam returned, his father was still seated on a bench with Hoss waiting his turn for the barber.
“I’m back, Pa,” Adam said as he slid onto the bench. He set the food parcel down next to his brother. “A nice lady told me that the boarding house has fine meals if’n we was interested. Pie and all sorts of good things. She and her husband are looking for land and I said you knew all the good places.”
”Pie and all sorts of good things? That sounds mighty tempting,” Ben raised his eyebrows at Adam’s open coat but chose not to mention it. The boy had enough sense to know if he was warm or cold.
Adam smiled hopefully and hoped to encourage his father to have lunch at the boarding house. “Two kinds of pie, Pa. And hash from beef, not long johns.
Ben didn’t quite follow what the mention of long johns was all about but he was tempted by a meal that he didn’t cook. His clever son had spent his entire life traveling and had a knack for meeting folks and gathering useful information wherever he went.
“Doesn’t that sound real good, Hoss?” Adam smiled at his brother. “Maybe they have blueberry pie.”
“Uh huh.” Hoss nodded, not quite sure what he was agreeing to but if his big brother said it, he would gladly agree.
“See, Pa. Hoss would like that for lunch. He probably never saw two kinds of pie at one meal in all his born days, Pa. Can’t let him miss that, can we?”
“I suppose we can’t deny my younger son that valuable educational experience,” Ben said with mock seriousness.
The place was getting more crowded with prospectors and cattlemen waiting to get shaves and haircuts or just pass the time of day. The barber had set up a wooden ladder-backed chair near a small window in the rear of the room. A small table held his barbering tools and a basin and pitcher. His stropping belt for sharpening his straight razor was hanging off a black iron hook.
In the far corner of the room, an elegantly dressed man with a fine green suit and a tall beaver hat was playing some sort of card game on top of a nail keg. A few noisy men had gathered around him. The man had three playing cards spread out on the top of the keg. He kept shuffling them about, flipping them up and down and side to side. They were betting to see if they could figure out which of the three cards was the queen of hearts. That didn’t look too complicated to Adam. All you had to do was keep your eye on one card. Even Hoss could do that.
Sometimes one of the men guessed right and won the bet. Other times he guessed wrong but the other men urged each other to keep on betting. After each hand, they passed around a bottle one of the men kept under his worn tweed coat.
“Go again, Murray,” one of the players urged the dealer.
“Now who can find the queen?” Murray said, moving the three cards back and forth in an easy rhythm.
Adam started to walk over to the rowdy group just as the barber called, “Next!”
Ben stood up, blocking the inquisitive boy’s path. “Stay clear of those fellows, Adam,” he warned. “Sit right here on the bench and keep track of your little brother.”
Even though the boy really wanted to watch the game, Adam knew better than to argue with his father, especially in front of other men. He reluctantly took his father’s place on the bench next to his brother. Someone had thrown the bench together from a poorly trimmed log that was split lengthwise. It had four mismatched scraps of wood for the wobbly legs. If the user didn’t plant himself quite right on the first try, the entire thing tipped over or collapsed. That bench was like everything else in that lopsided, hastily thrown together settlement.
Adam couldn’t quite recall ever being in a barbering shop before, though he knew he must have been when he was younger. In the sweet golden sunshine days, when Inger was still there, she had always trimmed Pa’s hair. She cut Adam’s hair too and told him that he was a fine looking boy and that he was going look just like his Pa when he was a man. That pleased him every time he thought of it. Now that she was alive only in their hearts, Pa trimmed Adam’s hair and once or twice Pa even neatened up Hoss’ wispy yellow baby hair so he didn’t look like a girl. Usually one of the hands or a neighbor cut Pa’s hair. Once or twice, when there was no grown up around, Pa even trimmed his own hair while looking in his shaving mirror. Adam offered to help out, but his father turned him down, saying he would manage and didn’t want to worry about being scalped or losing an ear.
His baby brother had almost dozed off with his head on Adam’s shoulder. Adam really would have loved to get a closer to the card game or to take a better look at how the barber worked but Pa had warned him to stay put on the bench with Hoss.
The shiny silver scissors flickered in the light coming in through the small window as the barber snipped Pa’s winter long hair. Adam sat on the bench, transfixed by the barber’s quick hands. Adam imagined that perhaps someday he could make his hands go as fast with a sharp scissor as the barber and Pa would let him cut his hair. He would be careful not to snip off Pa’s ears or do a bad job.
He stared at the flash of the straight razor sliding through foamy soap suds on his father’s face. The shaggy Pa he and his baby brother had grown accustomed to over their first winter in the cabin was quickly transformed to the smooth cheeked, neatly combed, sweet smelling father he had been months earlier. It had been so long ago, that Adam couldn’t quite recall how Pa had once looked. Trying to get a better look at his father, Adam leaned forward. He had forgotten that the bench was so wobbly and it almost tipped over. In an attempt to prevent the bench from falling over, Adam jumped to his feet.
The dozing baby got jostled and dislocated in the process. Poor little Hoss was shaken awake in an unfamiliar, noisy place. Not recognizing the unfamiliar man wearing unfamiliar clothes a few feet away, he started to wail for Pa. Adam tried is best to hush his brother and explain that the man in the barber seat was their Pa but Hoss just cried louder. Pa had to step up from the chair and pick up his younger son. He set Hoss on his lap and talked to him in a soothing tone while the barber finished off his hair cut.
Next!” the barber called as Ben Cartwright stood up. Ben set Hoss on the floor and brushed hairs off his new shirt.
Adam leaped to his feet and stepped forward. He assumed that he would get a store-bought haircut just like his father.
”Not this time, son,” Ben shook his head and paid the barber. “No store-bought haircut for you.”
”Don’t need no shave neither, boy,” the fancy man at the card game sneered. He tossed out another set of three cards and challenged the players to find the ace as he shuffled them back and forth. “No shave for the little shaver!” Everyone turn around and look at the kid. “Anyone see any whiskers there?”
“The spring breeze coming down the mountains blew them whiskers off!” added the man who had the bottle in his coat.
“No whiskers!” The card players all laughed at Murray’s joke and turned to watch Adam’s face turn red. “No whiskers, sonny!”
The player with the bottle urged it on the man next to him, “Have a slug before Murray starts the next round. It’ll give you good luck.”
The boy was mortified. He felt everyone’s eyes on him as he stood in the middle of the barber shop. Adam felt his face burn at the men’s laughter. He wished he could run and hide his face in his father’s shirt but he was too old to do that.
His father glared at the man in the green suit and in a deep, even voice said, “Adam, gather up our things and let’s be out of here. “
“Maybe the little one has whiskers?” the man teased. He turned to the man at his right who had the biggest pile of coins in front of him. “Enos, pick him up and check!”
The man he had called Enos laughed and reached over to pat Hoss on his head.
Adam put his hand on the man’s arm and held fast “Don’t you touch my baby brother, Mister!” Adam tried to make his voice sound like his Pa’s.
Enos smiled a friendly smile and withdrew his hand. “Sorry, boy. No harm intended. We was just playing around. You take good care of your brother and be sure to listen to your Pa,” he added in a cheerful voice.
“Yes, sir,” Adam smiled nervously.
“Are you sure you are all right, sonny? I’m really sorry. We don’t mean you no harm. No harm at all. I might just have a peppermint or two in here.” The man called Enos reached into the pocket of his plaid jacket and came up with two peppermints in a folded scrap of paper and handed them to Adam. He would have to take the risk of Cora smelling whiskey on his breath.
“Thanks, mister.” Adam decided the man really didn’t mean any harm and was probably a decent sort. After all, the man apologized sincerely and told him to listen to his Pa and gave him some candy. A bad man wouldn’t do all that.
With nearly everyone eyes turned to the interaction between Enos and the young Cartwright brothers, the man in the green suit hastily took his opportunity to turn the card game to his advantage. That was his intention. The more distracted the players were, the easier it was for Murray Striker to make money from his victims. With one smooth motion, Murray slid the red queen into his wide shirt cuff, scooped up a substantial portion of Enos’ winnings and tucked it into his vest pocket. “Now gents! Which one is the queen of hearts! Bet you can’t find her!” the green suited man exclaimed.
Ben Cartwright stepped closer. “Really? You bet I can’t find the queen? How much, friend?”
The dealer was taken aback. He exchanged nervous looks with his partner, Dell, the shabby man who passed around the whiskey bottle. No one in the crowd knew they were in cahoots. It was Dell’s job as the shill to herd the lambs to the slaughter. He primed the pump by pouring rotgut down their throats and demonstrating how easily he could win. Of course, they never would win because the queen had been disappeared by Murray Striker before the stupid sodbusters could start guessing.
Murray and Dell had heard this Cartwright fellow warning his boy to steer clear of the card game. They both had assumed he was some sort of pious, holier than thou bible-thumper who shunned gambling, dancing, whiskey and pretty women. Now that the broad-shouldered young man was clean and freshly shaved and barbered, he didn’t seem like the rest of these frontier bumpkins with pockets to be picked. Despite the fact he was toting two kids with him, one hardly a baby, the man had an air of authority about him.
“How much, friend?” Ben Cartwright repeated. There was a smile on his face but a bit more of an edge to his deep voice.
“How much?” the man in the green suit and fine beaver hat repeated. His words stuck in his throat like the unplucked pin feathers on a piece of roasted chicken.
Ben reached into his pocket and pulled out the remaining silver dollars that Hays Newkirk had given him earlier that day. “I have nine dollars that says I can find the queen.”
“Nine dollars, you say?” The dealer raised his eyebrow. His apprehension about this Cartwright was quickly eliminated by his greed.
“Nine dollars in silver right here in my hand.” Ben jingled the coins. “I bet you that I can find the queen. I bet you the nine dollars right here and the money in my pocket against the money you have in your vest pocket.”
“Nine dollars?” Dell’s beady eyes lit up. “Nine dollars in silver?”
“And all the money in my pocket,” Ben added. “Against the money in your pocket.”
“Well, I don’t have any money in my vest pocket,” the dealer lied. “Not one red cent.”
“Really? Not one red cent? You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?” Ben Cartwright narrowed his eyes and stared at the dealer. Murray swallowed hard. “I could have sworn you had some cash in that right hand vest pocket.”
Murray Striker shook his head. “No sir, not a penny.”
Dell nervously eyed the door but the place was too crowded to make his way outside without calling attention to himself. He would have to shove aside the husky guy in the plaid coat, the guitar player and two Cartwright kids to make it out the door. No way could he do that without being seen.
Ben Cartwright smiled. “Then, in that case, you certainly have nothing to lose if you have nothing in your pocket?”
“Sounds like a good bet for you, Murray!” the barber urged. He had quit shaving his customer’s to squeeze in and watch the game. The abandoned customer sat in the chair with half his face shaved and the other half still covered with lather.
”If there ain’t nothing in your pocket, there ain’t nothing to lose,” agreed Enos Milford. He looked down at the suddenly diminished stack of money he had in front of him. Had he bet all his winnings and lost and then forgotten about it? Cora would be mighty peeved if he did. She hated when he drank so early in the day and hated when he gambled but he was sure he could parlay his poke into a pile of cash for their ranch.
The dealer swallowed hard and smiled weakly. He was trapped. His blood shot blue eyes met the eyes of his confederate. They both knew they had better let this Cartwright have a go at it and let him win or they would be exposed as crooks. The least that would be happened would be that they were chased out of town. It was more likely they would be shot, seeing as most of the men they had cheated were fired up and drunk and carrying guns. It was best to let this fellow win.
“Didn’t hear you say ‘no’ so I assume it’s a bet,” Ben Cartwright said, stepping closer. He turned over the card on the left and held it up for all to see. “That’s not the queen!”
“No sir,” the barber called from across the room. “Looks like a four of hearts to me.” He came a bit closer to watch the rest of the action.
“And that’s not the queen,” Ben said, turning over the card on the right and holding it up so all the men could see that it was a three of clubs. He pointed to the middle card. “So I assume this card here is the queen.”
Before Ben could turn over the card, a six of diamonds, and expose the truth that Murray had swiped the queen and secreted it in his cuff, Murray caved in. He quickly announced, “That’s right, cowboy! It’s the queen right there in the middle and you would have won all the money, if I had any.”
“Like I said, I’ll take all the money you have in your empty vest pocket.” Ben reached over and grabbed Murray’s lapels with one hand and pulled the gun from his holster with the other. He pointed the gun at Murray’s stained brocade vest. “All of it. I think it belongs to that gentleman over there with the plaid jacket. Perhaps the barber would do us a favor and reach into your vest pocket and check for the contents.”
The barber stepped forward and did just as Ben Cartwright had requested. ”Well, can you beat that!” he exclaimed holding up a double handful of cash.
“I recognize that five dollar bill! It all belongs to Enos!” the guitar player shouted pointing at a tattered, ink stained bill with a missing corner.
“No sir. More likely it belongs to Cora,” corrected the barber.
Enos Milford stepped forward and scooped up the cash. Adam’s eyes widened at the sight of the coins and bills being stuffed into the man’s coat pocket just where the peppermints had been only a moment before.
“Do you and your partner have horses?” Ben said, still holding fast onto Murray Striker’s coat.
“My partner?” Murray stammered.
Dell answered quickly. He had no desire to be strung up. “Yes sir, we do. Tied right outside.”
“Then make sure we see you riding out of town on the backs of those horses by the time I count to ten,” Ben ordered in a threatening tone. The barber flung open the door to the street.
”Yes sir!” Murray immediately agreed. He was thankful to have the chance to quit this place with his hide intact and his neck not stretched into a lynching noose. There were plenty of other settlements down the trail springing up like green grass after the spring rain.
As Ben and Enos Milford pushed the card sharks towards the door, the group of angry men blocking the door split down the middle just like the Red Sea parting.
“Now get moving,” Ben ordered. “One….two… three…” He and Milford shoved their captives out the open door. Murray and Dell stumbled and fell face first into the muddy road.
The two hucksters lay sprawled there for a long moment. Fearing for their lives, the two muddy card sharks sprung to their feet and ran towards their horses. The two rode out of the settlement before the crowd changed their minds and turned this into a hanging party.
“How can I thank you, Mister…. Mister?” Enos Milford fished for the name of the clever young man who managed to save his money from the gamblers. “I’m Enos Milford.”
“Cartwright, Ben Cartwright, “Ben smiled warmly as he shook hands with Milford.
“How can I thank you?” Enos repeated.
Ben shrugged modestly and glanced over to check on his boys. “No thanks necessary.”
“My wife is the cook over at the boarding house down the street. The place with the big front. You and the boys come have dinner with me. On the house. It’s the least I can do,” Enos urged. “I’m sure you and your boys are mighty hungry by now and Cora is a mighty fine cook.”
“Pa, me and Hoss are mighty hungry,” Adam agreed. “And we love red flannel hash and two kinds of pie.”
“Then it’s a deal!” Enos said scooping up the Cartwright baby and leading his new friends down the street. He paused for a moment and said “How did you know what Cora was making for dinner, son?”
“My Pa said that I’m wise beyond my years,” Adam explained as he fell into step beside Mr. Milford.
“Well indeed you are!” Milford laughed. ”Indeed you are!”
Revised May 2015
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Ben Cartwright, Hoss Cartwright, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright