Summary: WHN for Return to Honor. Will Cartwright adjusts to life on the Ponderosa.
Rating: K+ Word Count=5568
Written for Round 3 of the Ponderosa Poker Tournament. My words were: round up, soap making, scissors, chopping wood, and branding.
Disclaimer: I don’t own Bonanza or the Cartwrights. No copyright infringement is intended against Jack Turley’s script. No money was made from this story. Original plot and characters are property of the author.
Reviews from the Old Library are on the last page.
A Place to Call Home
Hoss gave his full attention to the chicken wing he was gnawing on, unaware of the four pairs of eyes scrutinizing each bite. Pulling off the last piece of meat with his thumb and forefinger, he dropped the bones into the mound of detritus on his plate and reached forth to pluck a drumstick from the platter.
“We should give up the cattle business and go into chicken ranching,” Joe said. He leaned with one arm on the table, a forkful of mashed potatoes held poised between his plate and mouth.
“I got to keep up my energy,” said Hoss.
“For what? Eating apples?” Joe asked.
Hoss shoved a morsel to one cheek and said, “It just so happens that I do most of the heavy lifting around here, so I got to keep up my strength.”
Adam hid his smirk behind his coffee cup. “I’ve yet to see you round up steers on foot then carry them one by one to the branding pit.”
“I’ll remember that next time you need someone to hold up a wagon so you can do the hard work of dabbing on grease,” said Hoss.
Ben leaned his elbows on the table and clasped his hands before his mouth. His eyes sparkled in amusement.
Will chuckled yet he envied the easy banter flowing between his cousins. He’d arrived on the Ponderosa two months ago and was adjusting both to ranch life and taking orders from his uncle.
“Will, you better learn to eat up, and often, if you’re going to stay on,” said Adam, adding a wink.
Hoss dropped the stripped leg bone onto his plate and said, “All this talk is whetting my appetite.”
Hop Sing emerged from the kitchen to clear the empty plates. He scowled as he took in the proportion of bones in front of Hoss as compared to the other Cartwrights.
Hoss wiped his greasy fingers on a napkin and asked, “You got a few more pieces squirreled away in the kitchen?” His eyes sparkled with hope.
The cook crossed his arms and said, “No more cook chicken. No egg if all chicken go in belly.”
“Come on, Hop Sing,” Hoss pleaded in a wheedling tone.
Hop Sing said, “No egg, no flapjack.”
Hoss shrugged a shoulder and said, “We can do without flapjacks for a few days.”
Joe raised his eyebrows and blew out his cheeks. He knew his biggest brother would get flapjacks on the sly at the International House if Hop Sing didn’t fix them.
Hop Sing smugly looked at the largest Cartwright and said, “You eat all chicken and no egg, no more cake.” He punctuated his statement with a nod.
“No cake?” Hoss asked in quiet disbelief.
Hop Sing shook his head and gathered up the plates.
Hoss smiled and asked, “How about a big ol’ juicy pork roast for supper?”
“Those chickens are still squawking and you’re interested in supper?” asked Adam, an eyebrow cocked in disbelief.
Hop Sing muttered a few words and his expression suggested murder with a meat cleaver at the next opportunity.
Knowing they were skirting the edge of the cook’s temper and a threat to return to China, Ben said, “Now Hop Sing, pork roast and sweet potatoes will be just fine for supper. Won’t it, boys?”
A chorus of agreement and head nodding soothed the cook’s ruffled feathers.
Hop Sing said, “I cook pork roast. No cake.” He retreated to the kitchen muttering in Chinese about the middle Cartwright son’s appetite.
With the spectacle over, Ben said to Hoss, “If you’re still able to move, I need you to ride into town for a few supplies.”
“I’ll go,” offered Joe, springing to his feet.
Pointing, Ben said, “You can stay here and patch up that hole in the loft.”
“But, Pa,” Joe began.
Ben shook his head. “You’ve put it off long enough.” From the corner of his eye, he caught his eldest son’s attempt to cover a mocking smile. “Adam will be happy to help, won’t you, son?”
Adam was on the verge of lodging a protest when he noted the look in his father’s eye that indicated no argument would be brooked. He tossed his napkin onto the table and said, “Looks like we’ll be passing this afternoon in the loft.”
“What about me?” asked Will.
“You oughta come along to town,” offered Hoss.
Will looked to Ben for permission.
“You go on,” said Ben. It’ll do you good to get off the ranch. You boys just be sure to bring back the mail.”
“I won’t let him forget,” said Will with a wink to his uncle.
Will slouched beside Hoss on the wagon’s bench seat and took note of the severe lack of scenery—rocks, cactus, and mesquite. Amazing this land supports cattle let alone people.
Hoss kept up a steady chatter about the Ponderosa and Virginia City. Will grew bored hearing about Joe’s cleverness with the ladies and Adam’s plans for timber and mining operations.
“What about you, Hoss?” Will asked.
“You’ve told me about Adam and Little Joe but hardly a word about yourself.” Will pushed the soles of his boots against the floorboard and leaned his elbows against the back of the seat. Looking over at his cousin, he said, “Tell me about you.”
A flush crawled up Hoss’ face and disappeared under the brim of his hat. “Aw, there isn’t much to me. I’m not as good at business as Adam or as popular with gals as Joe.”
“Forget about those things,” said Will as he waved a hand in dismissal. “Tell me what you like, what you’re best at.”
Hoss pursed his lips and thought on it for a few minutes. “Well, I’m a fairly good judge of critters and people and I can track ‘most near anything. I may not have book learnin’ like Adam and Joe, but I know when the weather’s about to change from the way the wind smells.”
“I’d say those are useful skills. A man can’t learn everything in a classroom.”
“I suppose not,” said Hoss. He took a breath and tilted his head, “It sure would be nice to have a gal look at me all dewy eyed or to add up a column of numbers in the shake of a lamb’s tail.”
A few minutes of silence passed.
“What about your Pa?” asked Will. “You haven’t said much about him.”
Hoss shrugged. “I suppose he’s a lot like yours.”
“I doubt that,” said Will. “My father spent his life chasing dreams. Yours built his.”
“Well, Pa chased his for a lot of years before building the Ponderosa.”
“He knew what he wanted, though. And he wanted it for himself as much as you and Adam and Joe.”
Hoss flicked the reins to encourage the team to keep their pace. “Maybe your Pa’s dream was harder to find,” said Hoss.
“Maybe so,” agreed Will, falling silent.
Hoss and Will picked up the mail and headed over to the Bucket of Blood for a cold beer while waiting on the supplies to be loaded.
Callie, a girl with one green eye and one brown eye, shuffled a deck of cards and smiled at the newcomers. A miner had bestowed the nickname upon her because she’d of an unsuccessful attempt to dye her brown hair red with henna, leaving dark patches among the bright red. She liked Hoss, he was friendly enough, but he didn’t fritter his money away on drinks and cards as Little Joe did. The tall man with him walked like a panther on the prowl and looked to be a man who wasn’t a stranger to trouble. The trim mustache suggested he was very particular in regard to his appearance; she wondered if he was particular when it came to saloon girls.
She sauntered up to the bar, walking in a manner that made the skirt of her dress swish from side-to-side. Hoss smiled a friendly greeting but she noticed the other man looked at her as if he were seeing her unclothed. She nervously adjusted the neckline of her dress before placing her hand against Hoss’ arm.
“Who’s your friend?”
Hoss gulped a swig of beer and said, “This here’s my cousin, Will.”
“Your cousin?” She took a closer look at him. The strong jaw and chin were shared by Adam and Hoss; his eyes bordered on green, like Little Joe’s. He was tall, almost as tall as Hoss, but lithe. “Welcome to the Bucket of Blood. Let’s have us a drink.”
She picked up a bottle and two glasses and made her way over to a table. Will started after her but a man’s voice stopped him mid-stride.
“Last thing Virginia City needs is another high-and-mighty Cartwright,” said a dirt-covered miner.
“No one’s looking for trouble, Fred,” said Hoss. “Come on back here, Will.”
“I am old enough to make my own decisions,” said Will. He didn’t take his eyes off the miner.
“Listen to your nursemaid,” spat the miner.
Callie poured whiskey into a glass and said, “Let’s just all be friends. How about it, Fred?”
“Since when did your tastes rise so high?” the miner asked the girl. He crossed the room and backhanded her. “You too good for men who work underground?”
Hoss tried to hold Will back but his cousin jerked away.
Will rushed the miner, grabbed him by the shoulder to turn him around, and loosed a fist against the man’s jaw.
“Gimme another beer, Sam,” said Hoss. If Will was anything like Joe, the fight would be over in a few minutes, one of the men knocked out cold.
The two men traded punches as Callie screamed at them to stop.
Will delivered an uppercut that sent the burlier man backwards into a table, splintering it. The miner wiped at the blood trickling down his chin and rushed at his opponent head down, like a ram in rut. Another table collapsed, and the men wrestled for advantage on the dirty floor.
The miner, pinned beneath Will, struggled until his hand was on the butt of his adversary’s pistol. Will shifted his weight to roll away and keep his gun away from Fred’s hand.
A silver blade glinted in the dim light. A bright flash was followed by an echoing gunshot. Smoke curled from the pistol barrel.
Callie screamed as Fred collapsed in a heap. She ran to him, cradling his head in her lap.
“You’re my girl, aren’t you?” Fred asked, his voice faltering.
“Yes,” she said, nodding and stroking his cheek.
The saloon doors banged open as Roy Coffee entered with the business end of a rifle leading the way.
“It was self-defense, Roy,” said Sam. “Fred drew a knife.”
“That what happened?” the sheriff asked Hoss, not taking his eyes off Will.
Roy walked over to Callie and squatted beside Fred. The only wound he could identify on the collapsed man was a graze above the temple.
“He’ll be all right,” Roy assured Callie with a gentle squeeze to her shoulder. “He’ll need some looking after.”
She smiled weakly at the sheriff and said, “I’ll tend to him.”
Roy stood and walked over to the bar. Fixing Will with a steely gaze, he said, “You’re mighty lucky Fred will just be parting his hair differently.”
“It was a warning shot,” said Will, his thumbs tucked into his gun belt.
“Make sure you don’t fire any more of those,” advised Roy. “Hoss, get your cousin on home before he causes more trouble.”
“We’re leaving,” said Hoss. He lifted his mug and drained it in one long drag.
I may be a Cartwright but I’m not the right kind of Cartwright, thought Will.
Hoss and Will returned to the mercantile for the wagon and set off for the Ponderosa. Neither man spoke.
Will was sure the trip back to the Ponderosa was taking twice as long as the ride to town. He tried to sit up straight, but a pain in his side caused discomfort. He shifted on the wagon seat and took a couple of deep breaths. The result was a hurt that brought on a groan. He slouched down on the bench, arms crossed protectively over his belly.
Hoss glanced over and assumed Will was sleeping as his cousin swayed with the wagon in a near-hypnotic rhythm.
“We’ll stop up ahead to give the team a . . . .”
Will fell from the bench and hit the ground with a dull thud. Hoss pulled hard on the reins to stop the team then jumped down. He knelt on one knee and looked his cousin over. Seeing nothing, he opened Will’s coat and frowned at the scarlet blood staining the dark gray shirt.
He lightly slapped at Will’s face and was rewarded with a low moan. “Looks like you got a battle scar.” He gently propped Will against one of the wheels and grabbed for the canteen. Carefully, he poured a trickle of water between Will’s slightly parted lips then dabbed lukewarm water on Will’s face.
Will moaned and slowly opened his eyes, much to his regret. “What happened?” he softly asked.
“You’re bleeding, Cousin. Anything you care to tell me?”
“Guess that knife found its mark.”
“I’m gonna get you back to town and the Doc’s. Can you stand?”
“I . . . think . . . so.”
Hoss tried to be gentle but Will passed out. He got his cousin into the back of the wagon, settled on bags of flour, and then tried to arrange the tarp to shield him from the sun.
“I sure hope that pork roast doesn’t dry out,” muttered Hoss as he clucked the team into action.
Will woke to rocking. Have I been shanghaied? He raised his wet palm to his face and blanched at the red smear. He tried to sit up but hissed in pain through clenched teeth.
The wagon came to a lurching halt and Will squinted in the light when the tarp was pulled back.
“You just stay still,” said Hoss. “It’s a few more miles to Virginia City.”
“I’ll last. You just drive on.”
They reached the doctor’s and Hoss smiled in relief as Dr. Martin’s buggy was parked outside. “You wait right here,” he said to Will.
Where exactly does he think I’m gonna go?
“Lemme get him out of here,” said Hoss when he returned with the doctor.
“I’d rather examine him just where he is,” said Paul. Hoss untied the tarp to allow the doctor to examine Will. Climbing into the wagon bed, Paul gave Will a reassuring smile. “My patients aren’t allowed to have relapses,” he said, pulling up Will’s coat and untucking the shirt. Shortly after Will had arrived on the Ponderosa, the doctor had had to remove the stitches another doctor had sewn to close a bullet wound.
“Especially if they’re Cartwrights?” asked Will through gritted teeth.
“Especially,” agreed Paul. He reached into his bag and pulled out a long needle and a length of cat gut. “You want a drink, for medicinal purposes?”
Will shook his head.
Knotting the last stitch, Paul pulled scissors from his bag to cut the remainder of the cat gut and he dropped it and the needle into his bag. Satisfied with his handiwork, he said to Hoss, “Tell your Pa to make sure Will stays in bed for a day or two. No busting broncs or riding roughshod through the countryside. I’ll take out the stitches in a week.”
“Riding into town isn’t doing much,” said Will through a grimace.
“It’s not the ride but the entertainment when you get here,” said Paul with a stern look.
“I’ll make sure he doesn’t do anything he shouldn’t,” said Hoss.
“How? You gonna sit on me?” asked Will, an eyebrow raised in doubt.
“If I’ve got to.”
One side of Will’s mouth curled into a smile and he looked at the doctor. “I promise to be a good boy and stay in bed.”
“I suppose I’m mighty persuasive when I set my mind to it,” Hoss said with a wink.
“You are that, Cousin,” agreed Will.
After binding his patient’s abdomen with a fresh bandage, Paul retrieved a couple of wool blankets to keep Will warm on the journey home as sunset was fast approaching.
Since the tarp was no longer needed for shade, Hoss fixed it to serve an extra blanket.
“You boys be careful,” said the doctor with a goodbye wave.
“We will,” answered Hoss as he tipped his hat. He clucked and flicked the reins, setting the team into motion.
After an hour of travel, a bobbing light appeared in the distance. “Looks like Pa’s got Adam and Joe out searching for us,” Hoss said over his shoulder.
“How can you be sure?”
“I know Pa,” said Hoss. “If one of us is late getting back from town, he broods like a mother hen. I can’t count how many times I’ve had to saddle up and go looking for Adam or Joe because Pa thought the worst.” Hoss guffawed and said, “There was this one time Pa sent us out ‘cause Little Joe was late getting back with the mail. Turned out he’d gotten a load of buckshot when a gal’s father mistook him for a fox intent on getting in the henhouse.”
Despite the pain, Will laughed so hard tears flowed from eyes. He held his side, pressing against the bandaged wound, imagining the sight from the vivid picture Hoss painted in telling the story.
“What have you done to Will?” asked Joe as he pulled alongside the wagon.
Will burst into a fresh peal of laughter, imagining Joe draped over Hoss’ saddle because he couldn’t sit a horse.
“Is he drunk?” asked Joe in disbelief.
Hoss tried to hide his laughter behind a snort but wasn’t successful. “Nah, we ain’t drunk. We just had to make a little visit to the doctor.”
“That explains everything,” said Adam with a raised eyebrow.
Hoss wiped the tears flowing from his eyes and said, “I was telling Will about that time Joe was shot in the middle of the . . . Ponderosa.”
Adam snickered, bit his lower lip, and looked away. He tried to think of Dickens’ poor orphaned Oliver Twist, begging for another serving of gruel. Adam put a hand over his face and let out a sound that, to a generous ear, may have been interpreted as a sneeze.
Joe glared at his brothers and cousin. “It wasn’t that funny,” he grumbled.
“I sure am sorry for makin’ you the . . . butt of the joke,” Hoss said as he nearly fell from the bench seat. Adam and Will were laughing so loud they drowned out the coyotes.
“Stop, Cousin,” pleaded Will between gasps for air.
“If we don’t get home soon Pa’s likely to come looking for us and he won’t be happy about it if he thinks you spent too much time on supplies and not enough on the mail,” warned Joe.
“Don’t sound so self-righteous,” Adam said as he wiped the corner of an eye.
“All I’m saying is . . . .”
“We know what you’re saying,” said Hoss. He looked over his shoulder and said in a loud whisper, “That little incident still stings.”
A fresh round of guffaws rang into the night air. Joe wheeled Cochise and set off for the Ponderosa, flinging dust and clods of dirt in his wake.
Will, finally able to breathe, asked, “You weren’t too rough on him, were you?”
“Nah,” said Hoss.
“Joe will forget it by the time he gets home,” said Adam as he reined Sport to trot beside the wagon.
Ben was reading by the fireplace when the strains of Early One Morning carried in from the yard. He frowned, tossed the book on the table, and stormed over to the door. The sharp rebuke caught in his throat when he saw Will supported between Adam and Hoss.
“Joe didn’t tell you?” asked Adam.
Ben shook his head as Hoss handed him the mail.
“We had to make a stop at the doctor’s,” said Will. “I’m okay, Uncle. It’d take more than a butter knife to kill me.”
Hoss and Ben assisted Will inside while Adam drove the wagon to the barn to unhitch the horses.
In the dim lantern light, Adam saw Joe in Cochise’s stall, brushing the horse down with a rag. From the set of his brother’s shoulders, Adam knew Joe was spoiling for a fight, verbal or physical.
“We didn’t mean anything back there,” said Adam.
Joe continued grooming his horse.
Adam unsaddled Sport, picked up a curry comb, and let the silence stretch.
“Why did Will stay?” Joe finally asked. “He’s nothing but trouble.”
Adam raised an eyebrow and stifled a chuckle. His youngest brother was calling the kettle black as far as some citizens of Virginia City were concerned.
“He’s a Cartwright, Joe. He may not have been born to the Ponderosa but he’s a Cartwright just as much as you or I.”
“That’s not enough,” said Joe hanging the rag on a nail. “He doesn’t know anything about ranching and I don’t think he wants to learn. He lied about dying to get Pa to save his bacon. Who knows what trouble he’ll bring to our doorstep.” Joe stepped out of the stall and stood with his hands on his hips.
Adam stopped currying his horse and leaned against the animal. He looked at Joe and asked, “What do you want him to do? Bust a few broncs? Ride drag on the next drive?”
Joe looked at the floor and didn’t answer.
Adam returned to grooming Sport and said over his shoulder, “Maybe we can start Will on simple chores like soap making or chopping wood. Let him work his way up to the livestock.” Adam set the curry comb back in its place and stroked Sport’s nose before exiting the stall. “Just give him a chance.”
Joe looked up and nodded, a thin smile on his face.
Adam encircled his brother’s shoulders with an arm and the two men walked back to the house.
Instead of spending the next few days in bed resting, Will was put to work peeling vegetables, plucking chickens, and holding down a chair. At the end of the week, he rode into town with his uncle and cousins—they were to collect the payroll, settle the account at the mercantile, and check on the title to a piece of land to be acquired while he was to visit the doctor under his uncle’s watchful eye and stay out of trouble.
Paul Martin removed the stitches and noted his patient’s flesh was healing well.
Ben stood nearby, hat in hand. “How’s Fred?” he asked.
“Ornerier than ever,” said Paul. “But he’s smart enough to stay out of fights.”
Standing back to admire the neat, red line on his patient’s belly, Paul said, “I figure you’ve got to earn your keep. But, horse breaking is still off the table. Holding a branding iron won’t cause too much exertion.”
“So you’re saying I’m too delicate to do any of the real work,” said Will as he buttoned up his shirt.
Paul looked over to Ben then back to Will. “Not at all. Just don’t overdo things.”
“He’ll work all right,” said Ben, his stern gaze fixed on his nephew’s face.
After saying goodbye, the two Cartwrights strolled over to the Bucket of Blood to await Adam, Hoss, and Joe. They picked up beers at the bar then selected a table.
Ben leaned back in his chair and studied his nephew over the rim of his mug. He knew Will was restless, ready for action, and life on the Ponderosa was likely slower than what he was accustomed to.
Will set his glass down and tapped his fingers on the table as he looked around. “You know, Uncle, maybe I’m not cut out for this kind of life after all. Maybe I’m too much like my pa—restless and searching for the next big thing.”
Ben leaned forward, elbows on the table, and held his mug between his hands. “No Cartwright ever quit anything, not even your father. Sure he might have lost interest in his latest venture or wanted to see someplace new, but he kept looking for that one place he could set down roots. You’re no different. Will, you’re a Cartwright. You can’t change that. Stay on the Ponderosa. Give it a chance.”
Will drained his beer and motioned for Sam to bring two more glasses to the table.
“I don’t think Joe wants me around,” Will said with a snort. “Maybe he thinks I’m trying to horn in on his inheritance.”
Anger glimmered in Ben’s eyes. “That’s not true. I think, deep down, you know that but you just have to convince yourself that staying is the right choice for you. And for us.”
Hoss and Joe strode through the door and Joe crossed to the table while Hoss picked up the beer.
Joe flopped into a chair and pushed his hat back. “Why so serious?” he asked.
The saloon doors pushed open and Fred walked inside. He scanned the room as his eyes adjusted to the dim light.
Will’s shoulders tensed and he dropped a hand to his thigh in case the miner wanted to settle the score.
“Back for another whippin’, Cartwright?”
“I don’t recall you winnin’ the last round,” said Hoss over the mug poised under his lips.
“How about a beer?” asked Will, hoisting his own glass as a peace offering.
Sam pulled the stout mallet from its resting place and laid it on the bar with a thunk as a warning.
Fred removed the woolen cap from his head to reveal a bald patch. He pointed to it and said, “I owe you a scalping.”
Will stood and unbuckled his gun belt. He rolled up his sleeves and said, “I’m ready to dance when you are.”
Ben hissed his nephew’s name but that didn’t stop Will from crossing the room.
Hoss leaned his chair back on two legs and sipped his beer.
Will stood in front of the miner, his thumbs hitched in his belt loops. “If there’s trouble, it’s your doing.”
Fred balled up his fist and launched it at Will’s face. The collision knocked Will against the bar.
Joe pushed back from the table and took off his gun belt. He walked over to the miner and circled the man. “You better get a new barber.”
Fred swung at Joe but the younger man ducked then drove a fist into his opponent’s midsection. Joe taunted Fred by weaving out of range yet landing a few blows.
“Get over there and stop this,” Ben said to Hoss.
Hoss shook his head. “Will and Joe got to work things out.”
Fred landed a blow to Joe’s chin and Joe fell on a table. The newly repaired piece of furniture crashed to the floor.
Will launched himself at Fred and got a few punches in before a fist smashed under his eye. To Will, the lighting in the saloon grew dimmer as he fell to the floor.
Joe leaped onto Fred’s back and wrapped an arm around the miner’s throat. Fred tried to swing the smaller man off without success so he pried Joe’s hands off and held him at arm’s length.
“Fight’s just about over,” said Hoss before he finished off his beer.
Fred landed three jabs in a row and Joe fell to the floor unconscious. The miner picked up his wool cap and nodded to Sam before leaving the saloon.
Hoss pushed back from the table and asked, “You ready to head home, Pa?”
Ben only nodded and picked up the gun belts. Hoss hauled his brother and cousin to their feet and tightly held onto the backs of their collars as he escorted them outside.
“I’ll send you a bill,” Sam said to Ben.
Ben merely tipped his hat.
Hoss dunked both Cartwrights into the water trough to speed their return to awareness.
Joe sputtered so Hoss let his brother be. Will shoved at his cousin until Hoss decided he could stand on his own two feet.
Will felt the lump under his swollen eye and looked at Joe. “You’re gonna have a shiner.”
“You’re one to talk,” said Joe as he slapped Will’s arm with the palm of his hand.
“Where’s Adam?” Ben asked, ready to retreat to the Ponderosa.
Hoss looked up the street and a smile lit up his face. “Over there, with Laura.”
The rest of the Cartwrights followed Hoss’ pointing finger. Adam was assisting recently widowed Laura Dayton into a buggy.
“Hey, you don’t suppose he’ll invite her over for Sunday dinner, do you?” asked Hoss.
Hoss licked his lips and said, “I bet Hop Sing’ll cook up a mess of chicken for her.”
Will could only see out of one eye but he watched Laura take up the reins and start down the street.
Adam strode over and looked his cousin and brother up and down. “Looks like I’m late to the party.”
“Let’s get on home,” said Ben as he handed the gun belts to their proper owners.
“So, have you decided to stay?” Adam asked Will.
Will watched Laura until she turned the corner and disappeared from view. “Sure, at least until Sunday.”