Bunnies, Bulls, and Brothers

Written with love as a Christmas present for Sue: a Hoss fan, my sister, and my best friend.

So on the day it all started I was sleepin' real peaceful-like when somethin' loud woke me up. Now you ask anyone who knows me, and they'll tell ya that I don't wake too easy. My pa says I could sleep through a hurricane, but I don't know 'bout that, seein' as how, long as I can remember, I've lived here on the Ponderosa and ain't never experienced no hurricane. But you know Pa. He used to be a seaman, and knows about that kind of stuff.

Oh, wait. I don't guess you know my pa, after all, seeing as how we just met. So I reckon I ought to tell you a little bit about us, or you're likely to be a little confused when I'm explainin' the way things happened.

My pa, Ben Cartwright's his name, he's awful old, and looks it, too. I think he's in his forties or near about that, and his hair's pretty dang near all white. 'Course at that age, I reckon anybody's would be. Pa used t'have black hair, like my brother Adam, and he's still got dark eyebrows to prove it. You gotta watch out for them eyebrows, too, 'cause they'll tell you what kind of day it's gonna be. Just like a barometer. If they're smoothed out, it's clear sailin', but if they're all scrunched up over his eyes, well sir, you best be skedaddling right quick, cause there's a bad storm a-comin'.

My ma, her name's Marie, and she's awful nice and awful purty. I don't look nothin' like her, though, on account of she ain't my real ma. She's got green eyes, and she ain't real tall. I got blond hair and blue eyes, and I'm taller than anyone I know who's my age. In fact, I'm almost as tall as Adam is, even though he's years older'n me. Adam says I look like my ma looked, though I don't know myself, seein' as how I weren't a year old when she died, and I can't remember her. Adam does though. I reckon he was about six or seven when she died, and he sure loved her right enough. Always gets a smile on his face and his eyes kinda light up when he talks about her, and if you knew my brother Adam, you'd know that's awful rare for him. It ain't like he ain't sociable, but he likes books more'n he likes people. So his reaction to talkin' 'bout her is always kinda fun to watch. But he won't talk none about how she died. I know it was Injuns what done it, and Pa told me once that Adam had seen it happen. Guess I did, too, but like I said, I weren't even a year old then, and I can't remember. Anyway, it was a real bad thing. Traumatizin' Pa calls it, and if you ask Adam about it, he turns all cold towards ya, and won't talk. Then he has nightmares, and is all out-of-sorts. So I've learnt not to ask.

You might wonder why there's such a big age difference 'tween me and Adam. Most folks, once they start having kids, they just have 'em pretty regular, one right after another. But there's five or six years between us. I forget how many, actually, but it's a lot. Well, there's a good reason for that, too. My ma, who I don't remember, her name was Inger, by the way, weren't Adam's ma. His ma lived in Boston, and her pa was my pa's captain when he was a seaman. Or somethin' like that. Anyway Pa married Elizabeth, that was her name, and she died birthin' Adam. I think Adam feels kinda guilty 'bout that, though I ain't never heard him say so. But Pa always gets sorta sad on Adam's birthday, and Adam gets out-of-sorts then, too. Now don't go thinkin' Adam's cranky all the time, 'cause he ain't. He just has a powerful big brain, and he thinks too much. Makes him moody sometimes, though he ain't that way with me, normally. Usually it's with Pa, and the two of them can have some fights like you ain't never seen. Ma says it's 'cause they're so much alike, but she told me not to tell either of them she said that, 'cause neither of 'em wants to know how much alike they are.

Guess that's about it. Oh, except for Little Joe. That's my younger brother and he's three-and-a-half, and got brown, curly hair. If'n you want to see a young'un that's into mischief, well, you just come to our place any day of the week and take a look at him. He was born on October 31st, which is All Hallow's Eve, you know, and Adam says that's why Little Joe got the devil in him. I think he's joshin', but it ain't always easy to tell 'bout Adam. What I do know is that if there's somethin' gone wrong 'round the place, you look in the middle and you'll find Little Joe at the bottom of it. Ain't never met nobody could attract trouble like him. But he's mighty sweet, so's you can't stay mad at him, not fer long, anyways.

So that's us, and there's Hop Sing. I guess you could say he's our cook, but he's more'n that. He helps Ma run the house, which is a big job, 'specially with Little Joe underfoot, and really he's a member of the family. If he went away, I don't know what we'd do. He's always threatenin' to go back to China—that's where he's from, and I reckon it's a long ways away, in case you never heard of it. He's been here since before Little Joe was born, and I'd miss him somethin' powerful. He's usually in a good mood, but if'n Adam or me walks in the house without cleanin' the mud off our boots, that's a sure way to end that good mood and start a bad 'un. He starts yellin' in these words I can't understand. Adam calls it Cantonese, but I don't think he understands it neither. We just know when Hop Sing starts yellin' it's best to find yourself somethin' to do out in the barn where he can't find ya.

We all live here on the Ponderosa, which is our ranch. We got a powerful lot of cows, and some horses, and some chickens, but Pa won't stand for no sheep to set foot on the place. Pa can't stand a sheep. I like 'em though. They're all fuzzy and cuddly, but don't tell Pa I feel like that. That's a sure way to get them eyebrows of his all lowered, and I don't want that, let me tell you!

Anyhow, now you know about us, I guess you wanted to hear about that time I done got nearly kilt by a bull, all on account of my bunny, Bunky. Well, I say it's on account of Bunky, but that ain't right, actually. That's what Adam says, but that's only 'cause he don't want to admit it were all his fault, so he blames it on a poor, innocent animal.

Bunky's my pet rabbit. He's mighty cute too, with soft brown fur, and a cute little wiggly nose. I found him when he was just a young'un, and he didn't seem to have no ma. Well, you know how little ones are. They need a ma somethin' powerful or they'll just up and croak. So I decided I could be his ma, and I brought him home. Everyone's used to me bringin' home animals what's hurt or orphaned, so they didn't think nothin' 'bout it. Adam rolled his eyes—he does that a lot; Ma says it's on account of his being fifteen—but he helped me make up a bed for the bunny in an old crate, even so. We filled it with old rags and the bunny—I named him Bunky, by the way, did I mention that? Anyway, he just moved right in. I kept him in my room, 'cause he needed fed all 'round the clock, and you can't feed an animal 'round the clock when it's in the barn.

Bunky grew up right well, and after a couple months, danged if he couldn't just hop right out of that crate all on his own. He'd head for the door most times, then hop right down the stairs and explore the house. Ma didn't say nothin' at first, 'til she found Little Joe playing where Bunky had puddled, and I hadn't got 'round to cleanin' it up. Then she said plenty, let me tell you! Pa said Bunky had to sleep in the barn after that, and I tried it, honest I did, but that little bunny just didn't like it out there with them big horses stinkin' up the place. So I just decided that Bunky could learn to go outside when he needed to, like big animals, and that's just what happened. So Bunky moved back in, and everythin' was goin' just fine. But that was when Bunky discovered what fun it was to eat stuff he weren't s'posed to be eatin'.

He started with just some little stuff, then moved on to table legs, and chair legs. I noticed Pa weren't too all-fired pleased when he saw little Bunky gnawin' on the furniture, but little one's cuttin' their teeth just gotta chew on somethin', don't they? So me and Adam, we knotted up some old rags and Bunky liked them just fine. That is, 'til he found that new outfit Ma had just made for Little Joe. Now Bunky's not a bad boy, you understand, but all little ones like to explore, just like Little Joe does, so it's only natural when he found that outfit that he'd want to get up close and take a good look at it. And maybe just take a nibble or two. I reckon that would have been okay, only he took a likin' to the thing, and just went and ate it up. First I knew about it, Ma had shrieked, and I ran in the house to find out what was wrong with her. And there was Bunky just happy as all get-out, with some of the last bits of the baby's clothes stuck to his whiskers. Well, it was right funny to look at, but if you think I laughed, you'd be wrong. I knew better'n that. Ma don't get mad often, so when she does, you best pay attention.

"Hoss!" she yelled. Hoss, that's my name, by the way. And it ain't Horse, neither, with an "R." It's just Hoss.

"Hoss!" she yelled. "Just look what that rabbit did this time!"

And she held up the last bits of that cute little outfit that she'd finished makin' only the day before.

"I'm sorry, Ma," I told her. And I was, too. But, like I said, it was kinda funny, and I was tryin' not to laugh at the same time. Well, Ma, she's pretty sharp, and she could see I was tryin' not to laugh. Which only made her madder.

"This is not funny, young man!" she declared, though she was dead wrong. It was, too, funny.

"I know it ain't, Ma," I told her. "I'm awful sorry." I expect that would have been the end of it, 'cause like I say, Ma ain't got much of a temper, but just then Pa and Adam walked in the front door. I hadn't realized it was near dinnertime, and they'd been out on the range all day. Now, if you knew my pa, you'd know that the last thing he wants to hear after he's been workin' hard all day is one of his kids apologizin' for somethin'. He wants us to act right, so's there shouldn't be no need for apologies. But it happened, and Pa heard it. And boy, if them eyebrow whiskers didn't just draw down to half-mast as quick as a wink.

"Hoss, what have you done?" Pa snapped, in his very best you're-gonna-get-it tone.

Well, Ma tried to save me then, seein' the mood Pa was in, and she told him it weren't nothin', but Pa saw right through that, and looked at the mess of rags she was holdin' and the bits of shred stuck to Bunky's whiskers and figured it out fast enough. Adam was grinnin' like all get-out, which I didn't think was any too polite. He don't like it when I laugh when he's in trouble, lemme tell ya.

"Did that rabbit eat something else, young man?" Pa asked me then. And, of course, I had to own up to it, seein' as how the evidence was right there in front of him.

"Well," I told him, "I guess Bunky done thought that new outfit was just right for just him, 'stead of Little Joe, and he took it."

"That is IT! I've spoken to you before about that rabbit's behavior. We simply cannot live peaceably with that thing under this roof. So out it goes!"

"But Pa...!" I was saying, when Ma cut me off.

"It's all right Ben," she told him. "I can make another outfit."

"You have too much to do already, Marie, without the boys and that rabbit making more work for you."

"Well, it can't be helped, now. Go wash up, and sit down. We're having steak for dinner with peas and new potatoes. Your favorite."

Ma knows Pa pretty well, and saw that he was awful hungry after a long day workin' on the range, and was trying to draw his attention away from Bunky and toward somethin' else. It worked, too, for a bit, but when we'd all sat down at the table to eat, darned if Bunky didn't come hoppin' over to see what there was to eat. Lots of times Little Joe feeds Bunky his vegetables under the table when Ma and Pa ain't lookin' so Bunky's learnt to come 'round at dinnertime. That weren't such a good plan, though, on account of what had happened, and when Pa saw the bunny, he went all dark again like a thundercloud.

"Hoss," he said, lookin' directly at me. "I want you to understand just one thing. If that rabbit chews up anything else in this house, he's banned for life. And even your mother won't be able to save him next time." And Pa meant it; you could just see it in his eyes. So I tried to be agreeable.

"Yessir," I said. "I understand that, Pa." And I gave him my very best smile. That's a trick I learned from Adam.

And that were pretty much that. So now you know the background, and we can start with the story.

So like I was sayin', the morning that it all started, I was sleepin' real peaceful-like when a loud noise woke me up. I wasn't quite sure what it was, but I knew it was early morning, 'cause the light that was comin' in through the window had that pink shade you see at dawn. At first I couldn't figure out what had woken me up, but then I heard it again.

"Hoss Cartwright! You get in here right now!"

Now that ain't the way I like to be spoken too first thing in the mornin' especially by my brother Adam. He's got lots of faults, but that's one of his worst. He yells too much. See, we have rooms next door to one another, and I could hear him yellin' right through the wall. Of course, I knew what it was. He wanted me to get up and help with the barn chores. Not that I wasn't s'posed to help, mind you. But if there's a choice between staying in bed or mucking out the barn, I'm liable to choose the bed. I'm a big believer in gettin' lots to eat, and lots to sleep. But my brother Adam's a little different. He gets up regular as clockwork every morning to do his chores, no matter how late he stayed up the night before reading one of his stupid books. The good thing about Adam, though, is that he gets tired of callin' and is likely to just go ahead and do your chores for you if you ignore him long enough. So I rolled over and tried to go back to sleep. Not that I had that much luck, with Adam's voice callin' me through the wall. I couldn't figger out why he didn't just shut up and go do them himself, but he seemed to be in a rare form that mornin' so I did the sensible thing and pulled the covers up over my head to block out the noise. Not that it helped. Adam's got a loud voice when he wants to have. And he sure wanted to that mornin'.

Well, of course, his hollerin' went and woke Little Joe, and there were the two of 'em playin' this duet in my head when I was tryin' to sleep. Some people just got no consideration for others. So I pulled the pillow over my head, too, and was just dropping back off when lo and behold, the pillow went flyin' off my head all by itself, and then the covers followed it. Couldn't imagine what was goin' on 'til I rolled over on my back and saw my brother Adam standing by my bed lookin' mad as all get-out and waving some papers at me. You think you know mad when you see it? You ain't seen nothin' 'til you've seen Adam in one of his tempers. When he really gets goin' he's got this glarin' eye that'll drop you at fifty paces. I once seen him just glare a bull into gettin' back in the corral after it got out, and that bull was a lot bigger and braver than I am, 'specially first thing in the mornin'. So I tried to be nice to him. Not that it worked.

"Good mornin', Adam," I told him. Did he do the polite thing and wish me a good mornin' back? Nope. He just starts waving them papers and yellin'.

"Just look what your rabbit did this time," he yelled, his face almost purple. "You just look!"

Well, I looked, all right, and for the life of me I couldn't see what the big deal was. The papers were a little nibbled, but it weren't like you couldn't read 'em. So I just sat up and rubbed my eyes.

"What'cha yellin' like that first thing in the mornin' fer? Ma and Pa's gonna be right sore, 'specially since you went and woke up Little Joe. You're lucky they're still asleep."

"Well, they're not gonna be for long," Adam shot back. "'Cause I'm fixin' to tell them what that stupid animal did this time. And you know what Pa said last time that half-witted furball ate something."

Well, now, I didn't see the need for tellin' Ma and Pa just 'cause Bunky took a couple nibbles out of some papers, and I can't say I appreciated him callin' my bunny a half-witted furball, neither. But when Adam's mad you don't wanna point things like that out to him, so I just jumped up and started apologizin' instead, hopin' to head him off tellin' Pa about them papers.

"Hey, Adam. I'm sorry about your papers. Honest I am. Bunky didn't mean nothin' by it. He just likes to chew on things sometimes. Please don't tell on him. He don't like sleepin' in the barn!"

"Well, he won't have to worry about it," Adam answered. "'Cause I'm gonna find that no-good animal and make rabbit soup out of him!"

Now, I don't know if you've ever had anyone threaten to make dinner out of your new pet, but it ain't real pleasin', take it from me. I yelped and ran in front of Adam, blocking the door so's he couldn't get out of my room.

"Adam! What's a few papers? Bunky didn't really do nothin', did he?"

"These aren't just a few papers, Hoss!" Adam yelled, showing his teeth like a loco wolf. "It's what's left of my new book Grandfather just sent me for my birthday!"

Well, right then and there, I knew I was in the soup up to my neck. If there's one thing Adam prizes, it's his books. I think if someone broke in the house and tried to steal one, he'd head them off by tryin' to get the man to take one of us family members, instead. I knew that, of course, but I made a bad mistake anyway with what I said next.

"Adam, I'm awful sorry about your book, but it ain't like you don't have lots of 'em."

Adam just turned that glarin' eye of his on me. "Wouldn't matter if I had a thousand," he told me. "This one's special. Pa's gonna be furious when he finds out that rabbit ate it. Believe me, he will be, 'cause I'll see to it that he is!"

Well, it was pretty clear to me then that Adam had every intention of tellin' Pa all about it, but I hoped I could stop him.

"I only got one Bunky!" I wailed at him. Not that he cared.

"You ain't even gonna even have one by the time this day is over," Adam told me grimly. "And I'm gonna have me a new rabbit pelt to use for target practice."

Well, that kind of talk just ain't neighborly, and I was determined that Adam weren't gonna make no pelt out of my bunny. That was for sure. So I turned around and ran down the stairs at top speed, shoutin' for my bunny.

"B-U-U-U-U-N-N-K-Y!" I yelled.

Now, Adam's kinda puny on account he'd rather read than eat, but I gotta admit that he's quick on his feet. Faster'n you can say "steam engine" he was chuggin' down the stairs right behind me, and yellin', too.

"Get out here, Rabbit!" he yelled.

Well, we were both determined we were gonna find Bunky first, and we ran around the great room, through the dining room, into the kitchen and back out again, takin' proper care to loop 'round Hop Sing, and arrived back in the great room again, both of us yellin' our heads off. It was then we heard it.

"BOYS!" It sounded like the voice of doom. And it was too. It was Pa, yellin' at the top of his lungs.

That stopped us, I can tell you. We looked up and there was Pa standin' at the top of the stairs in his red robe and slippers and lookin' madder 'n a hornet. Matter of fact, the color of his face matched his robe right nice.

"What do you two think you're doing?" he bellowed at us. "You should be out in the barn doing your chores, and instead, you're running races through the house and apparently attempting to discover which of you has the best career options as a hog-caller! You've woken your mother and brother; I hope you're happy! Now what do you have to say for yourselves?"

"Pa!" me and Adam yelled in unison, if that's the word I'm lookin' for.

"One at a time," Pa roared back. "Adam," he asked. "Did I hear you yelling at your brother this morning? Did you start this nonsense?"

Then Adam went and did exactly what I still say he oughtn't to'a done. It just weren't playin' fair. He went and held up the nibbled pages he was still holdin' in his hand.

"He ate my book!" he announced to Pa, shrilly. "Look at it! He ate it!"

Well, Pa just stared at Adam for a minute like he'd started talking in another language like Hop Sing. Then he rubbed his head.

"I don't know what happened to your book," he told Adam. "But I'm sure Hoss didn't eat it. He knows if he's that hungry he can go to the kitchen and get a snack."

'Course, I saw straight away that Pa had gone and got hold of the wrong end of the stick, which was mighty funny, you gotta admit. But Adam don't got no sense of humor when it comes to them books.

"It was that stupid rabbit, Pa! He got into my room after I left to do chores, and he ate my book! My new book of poetry, Pa!"

Now I ask you honestly. Who in their right mind would miss a book of poetry? Adam's always readin' that stuff, and he'll quote it at you if you ain't quick enough on your feet, and you let him corner you. Makes my ears ring, and it surprised me that Bunky didn't have a powerful bout of colic after eating it. Well, between you and me, I don't think Pa's all that fond of Adam's poetry, neither. In any case, he don't let himself get cornered too often when Adam's in one of his poetry-recitin' moods. Usually thinks up a chore Adam ain't done yet, and sends him after it. But even though he don't take to all them silly words, Pa's fair enough to know they mean a powerful lot to Adam. And he knows anything from Adam's grandpa is special, 'cause it's his only link to his ma. So when he realized what happened, Pa got this look of horror on his face, and he turned to me.

"Hoss?" he asked.

"He didn't mean it, Pa," I assured him. "Bunky's just a little thing. He's still learnin' right from wrong."

"Hoss!" Pa barked at me. "Where's that rabbit?"

"I dunno, Pa," I told him. "He's probably hidin' from Adam!" I took a moment to glare at Adam, but I guess I need some practice, 'cause it didn't take like his do. He just glared back.

"Ought to be," he said. "But I doubt he is. Stupid rabbit probably ain't got sense enough. Likely off chewin' on somethin' else. Pa," he added, "what about my book?"

'Course there weren't nothin' could be done for it. Anybody could see that. Pa sure could.

"I'm sorry about your book, Adam, but whining isn't going to bring it back." Then he turned to me. "Hoss, I'm getting dressed, and when I get back, I expect you to have found that rabbit, and put him somewhere secure where he can't get out. I'll deal with the animal later."

"Pa, what'cha gonna do with Bunky?" I wailed at him.

He didn't seem too sympathetic, though. He just gave me a hard look. "You just find that animal, you hear? Adam, did you finish the barn chores?"

Adam shot me a mean look. "Yeah. Did Hoss', too, so he could sleep in. Last time I'm doin' that!"

"All right," Pa told him. "Then set the table for breakfast. Hoss," he added, "get dressed and FIND THAT RABBIT!"

Pa turned around and disappeared, headin' back to his bedroom.

I turned to Adam. "You didn't have to say nothin'," I told him reproachfully.

"I'm not done sayin' half the things I'm gonna say," Adam told me. Then, danged if he didn't whack me one upside the head as he passed me by on the way to the kitchen.

So I headed up the stairs to my bedroom, and my feet were fallin' heavy on them steps, too, 'cause I was mighty upset. And I guess it wouldn't hurt none if I admit that my feelings toward Adam weren't any too brotherly, neither. I mean to say, was it really Bunky's fault Adam went and left his book where he could get at it? It ain't in Bunky's nature to not go investigate when he finds something new to look at, and it seems to me Adam ought not to leave temptation in his way. And for him to rat out to Pa. Well, like I said, nothin' would'a brought back that book, so what's the point of tellin' the whole mess?

But then I entered my bedroom, and danged if I didn't see Bunky's cute little nose just a-wigglin' at me from under the bed. All that runnin' round the house me and Adam was doin' and there was Bunky hidin' out right where we'd started!

"Bunky!" I called out in delight, makin' sure to close the door so's he couldn't get out, and nobody else could come in. Bunky hopped right on over to me, and I picked him up. Then I realized he must have heard everthin' ol' Adam had said earlier 'bout turnin' him into a pelt, and I figgered he was right worried. Couldn't have that.

"Don't you worry none, Bunky," I told him. "Adam didn't mean to scare you, and he ain't gonna hurt you none, neither. He loves you just as much as I do." And I was hopin' good and hard that bunnies can't tell when people are lyin' to 'em!

I decided then and there that I was gonna hafta hide Bunky a while, either 'til Adam and Pa had cooled down, or 'til I figgered out a scheme to get Bunky back in their good graces. Only problem was, I ain't real good at workin' out schemes. That's always Adam's department. He's good at stuff like that 'cause he's just naturally sneaky. I ain't.

So, I couldn't think of nothin' better'n just shoving Bunky in his crate, and stickin' the crate in the wardrobe. I left the door open a bit, so he could have some air, and I hoped he'd stay put. I knew he wouldn't though. Soon as I turned my back, he'd be right back out of his crate, right out of the wardrobe, and roamin' the house. What I really needed was something to cover the top of the crate, but I didn't have no boards or nothin'. So in a sudden flash of brains, I ran next door to Adam's room and got a book from his stash. He's got bunches, so I knew that he wouldn't miss just one of 'em. Besides the one I took was big and heavy without no decent pictures in it, just these weird diagram-like drawings, so I figgered nobody, not even Adam, would read it willingly.

So it just took me a jiffy to put the book partly over the top of the crate, and I looked down to see Bunky starin' up at me with his cute little beady eyes.

"You be good, now, Bunky," I told him. "And don't go nowhere."

I shucked my nightshirt and changed into my clothes, though I gotta admit I'd rather have climbed back in bed. Then I thought how it was near breakfast time and that cheered me up right quick.

I said good-bye to Bunky, closed the door to my bedroom, and went downstairs. Adam was already sitting at the table, and he didn't say nothin' to me, just threw me a dirty look, and went back to readin' the nibbled, left-over pages of his book. There was a sudden clatter on the stairs, and lookin' over, there was Ma and Pa, followed by Little Joe, who was hoppin' down the stairs on one foot. I asked him once why he was always doin' that, and he told me he hopped down the stairs to keep in practice. That's Little Joe for ya.

"Morning, Ma!" I called out. "Morning, Little Joe!" Then I glanced over at Pa. He was glarin' at me. I scrunched down in my chair to make myself smaller, but it didn't help. He could still see me. "Morning, Pa," I said, tryin' to keep my voice as little as possible.

I didn't know whether Pa had told Ma what had happened, but she didn't say nothin' 'bout it. She just smiled at me, and kissed the top of my head, and said "good morning" back. Then she helped little Joe up in his chair, and greeted Adam.

"Good morning, Adam," she said, real pleasant-like.

"Nothin' good about it so far," Adam shot back.

She looked surprised and Pa looked mad.

"That's no way to speak to your mother, Adam," he reprimanded. Which raised my spirits even more. Nothin' like seein' Adam get told off to make a bad day better.

To be fair, Adam did look sorry 'bout the way he talked to Ma, and he apologized.

"Sorry, Marie," he said. "Good morning. How did you sleep?"

Ma smiled. "Very well, until your little brother started squalling. I can't imagine what set him off."

Adam gave me a nasty look. "Maybe somebody destroyed something important to him. That always sets me off." And he rattled the papers, real deliberate-like.

Ma sat down. "Put those papers away now, Adam. No reading at the table."

Adam rattled the pages even louder as he took them over to the sideboard. Then he laid them down right in my line of vision. And don't go thinkin' that were no accident, neither. If there's one thing Adam likes to do, it's drive a point home. Then he sat back down, and we got to the good stuff. Eatin'.

But if you think that the meal was good, you'd be wrong. Of course the food was awful tasty. It always is on account of Hop Sing bein' the best dang cook in Nevada Territory. But the company and topic of conversation made it a mighty uncomfortable meal.

It started when Pa looked at me and asked if I'd found Bunky yet. Well, one thing Adam's taught me in my life is that you don't necessarily have to say everything that comes to mind. Leavin' things out is sometimes a good plan. Adam told me once that it's the better part of valor, but I don't know what he meant by that. At any rate, I took a page out of Adam's book that mornin'. I looked around the room before I answered him.

"Don't see Bunky," Pa," I told him.

Well, that sort of thing seems to work with Adam. He can get people believin' just what he wants them to without actually lyin'. But it don't seem to work so well with me. Maybe I ain't got enough practice, or maybe there's some trick to it I ain't learnt yet, but Pa always sees right through me when I try it.

"Did you find that rabbit, Hoss?" he asked again, and this time them eyes of his just went blazin' right through me.

I mentioned to ya before 'bout how Adam gets when he's mad, but I don't think I mentioned 'bout Pa. See, there's a good reason why Adam can glare like he can. He comes by it real natural-like. Gets it from Pa.

I looked down at my breakfast and started shovelin' food into my mouth like there was no tomorrow. 'Cause when Pa looks at you like that, it's easy to believe there ain't gonna be no tomorrow.

I tried saying somethin', but it came out all garbled and Ma asked me not to talk with my mouth full. So I determined right then and there I was gonna keep my mouth full all through breakfast, so's I could get away with not talkin'.

Pa waited patiently, not sayin' nothin', but I knew that it would all come down pretty quick-like, once he felt like gettin' down to brass tacks. But before he did, Ma asked him why he was interested in my bunny.

Then Pa told her the whole story. Not that he didn't have a right to, you understand. But it just seemed to me like that's not the sort of story to be tellin' at breakfast. Almost makes a fella lose his appetite. Almost.

So of course, Ma got all upset. She likes books like Adam does, and is the only one in the house that don't mind bein' poetryed at. She knows lots of quotes, too, and sometimes the two of them just sit and talk and talk about books and words. Makes my ears hurt. And when she found out it was that new book Adam got for his birthday, well, she just turned kinda pale-like and stared at me with her eyes real big. Like I said, I got a real fine ma, and it hurts somethin' fierce when I let her down. So I just kept my eyes on my plate, and kept shovelin' the food in.

"Can the book be saved?" I heard her askin'.

Adam musta pointed at the pages on the sideboard then, 'cause I heard her say in this hollow voice, "Oh, no."

Then Adam had to go and open his mouth. "I hate that rabbit," he said. "It's ghastly."

Well, I gotta admit I took offense at that, and food in my mouth or not, I just had to say somethin'.

"He ain't ghostly!" I told him, and I was right hot, too. "He's just as live as you are!"

Adam looked at me and snorted, real derisive. "Ghastly, Hoss. Not ghostly. But he's gonna be ghostly, 'cause he's gonna be a dead rabbit soon as I catch him. I'm gonna wring his neck and eat him for supper!"

I already mentioned to you before how it's not fun hearin' about someone threatenin' to off your pet, and I didn't like it this time any more than I did last time. And I let him know it, too, and I didn't mince any words.

"You just keep your hands off'n him, Adam Cartwright. Or I'll belt you one!"

"You just try it!" he shot back.

Now Cartwrights ain't givin' to backin' down from a fight, so I just jumped out of my chair and threw myself at him. It was mighty good aim, too, if I do say so myself. Landed right on him. 'Course with me bein' a good-sized feller, I have a lot of weight to throw around, and when I hit him, he just went flyin' back. The chair toppled over, and us with it. We landed on the floor, and went rollin' round, each of us throwin' punches whenever we could. I'm bigger and stronger than him, but he's older, and, I gotta admit, knows more'n me. At one point I had him pinned to the ground, but he just twisted 'round and I went flyin' up and over his head, landin' on my back, lettin' out an "oof" as I set down.

Adam was on top of me on no time, and we were just gettin' down to tradin' some really good whacks when Adam just up and got off me. Givin' up on a fight ain't his way, so I knew somethin' was goin' on, and I looked up and danged if there weren't Adam hangin' in mid-air, with Pa holding him by the collar. Pa's face was all red, and he was shakin' Adam 'til his teeth started chatterin'. Then he dropped Adam back onto the floor, and stood there lookin' down at us with his eyebrows so far down over his eyes that you could barely see 'em. And that sight stopped both of us cold. 'Cause no matter how upset we might get, we're always more scared of Pa than we are mad at each other.

"Stop that this instant! Hoss, go outside and chop some wood! Adam, ride out to the east range and fix that fence I told you about!"

We both started complainin' at the same time.

"Pa! I just spent a whole week fixing fences, and—"

"Pa! I ain't finished eatin' my breakfast, and—"

But Pa didn't let us finish. He just held his hands up and talked right over us. "I don't want to hear it. Both of you, just go. The civilized members of this family are going to continue eating, and the two of you are going to stay outside until you discover an ability to behave yourselves properly. Now go!"

We got to our feet, and I'd be lyin' if I said we didn't take to sendin' each other some nasty looks as we headed out the door.

Once we got outside and Pa couldn't hear us, we really started lightin' into one another 'cause we both figgered that what had happened was the other person's fault. I was the one that was right, though. It were Adam's fault. If he'd just stop and care about somethin' besides them dumb ol' books once in a while, he'd'a seen that Bunky's just as cute as a button, and never done nothin' bad on purpose. But you can't ever ask Adam to see things from a normal person's point of view. Just ain't gonna happen.

"This is all your fault," I told him, makin' sure to get in the first word.

"Is not."

"Is too."

"Is not."

"Is too."

"You're the one brought home that good-for-nothing fleabag, not me."

"He ain't got fleas!" I said, rightly insulted on Bunky's behalf.

"Good-for-nothing fleabag," Adam said again, real triumphant.

"And he ain't good-for-nothin'!"

Without warning Adam agreed with me on this. "You're right," he said. "He ain't good-for-nothing."

Now I expect you figgered out by now that Adam ain't the type to make you comfortable when he suddenly up and shifts direction, agreein' with somethin' he's been opposed to. So I was all tensed-up waitin' for his next words, and he sure 'nuff didn't let me down, neither.

"He's good for supper."

He laughed then, 'cause sometimes he just ain't got a decent person's sense of what's right and proper.

"Dang you, Adam!" I said then. "I'm gonna knock you into next week!"

And I hurled myself at him again.

He readied himself, and we were at it again. And it was a real rippin' good fight, too. We rolled and punched, and punched and rolled and at one point I could even feel Adam's hot breath blowin' right down my back.

Only it turned out it weren't Adam at all. We'd rolled ourselves right over to the edge of the corral where Pa had put that dang ol' hot-blooded bull he'd just bought off'n a feller in Texas. Scairt me, too, when I realized he was near, 'cause Bully had already charged ever' hand we had on the place. And still Pa hadn't managed to get him branded 'cause nobody was willin' to work with him. So Bully just stayed in the corral waitin' 'til someone got up the courage to face him. Me and Adam were forbidden to go near the corral, too, so long as he was pent up in it, but here we'd gone and rolled right up against it.

So I lay there on my back, starin' up at this longhorn that was snortin', and tryin' to shove his head through the corral bars so's he could skewer me.

"Careful, Hoss," I heard Adam say. 'Course I couldn't'a moved if I'd wanted, so it was kinda a dang fool thing to say.

Then Adam grabbed me 'round the middle, and pulled me far away from the corral so's I wouldn't get hurt.

"You okay?" he asked anxiously, checkin' me over. "Did he getcha?"

"Nah. Just breathed on me is all."

Once Adam had convinced himself that I was okay, he helped me up.

"You sure you're okay?" he asked again.

"Sure I'm sure," I told him. "Let's get on with it."

"You ready?" Adam asked politely.

I nodded, and we were at it again, fists flyin'. I remember getting him a good one in the left eye just before he landed me a juicy one right in the breadbasket.

We were both bent over, gaspin' and tryin' to recover from the exchange when we heard the front door open and a commotion on the front porch along with a bunch of them weird words Hop Sing's always usin' when his fur is flyin'. We looked up and saw Hop Sing leavin' the porch headed toward the barn.

He saw us, and stopped dead.

"Hop Sing work hard. Hop Sing take care of house. Hop Sing no like jokes! Hop Sing no like foolishment. Hop Sing leave, go back to China!"

That stopped us cold, lemme tell ya. Hop Sing threatens that every week or so, of course, but ever' time he does it scares the pants off'n all of us. 'Specially me. Pa's always warnin' me and Adam that if Hop Sing leaves because of us, it'll be our job to do the cookin'. And you ain't tasted true slop 'til you tasted Adam's cookin'. I'd just waste away if I had to survive more'n an hour or two on it.

"What's the matter, Hop Sing?" Adam managed to ask, gaspin' for air.

Hop Sing gestured towards me. "You ask Number-Two Son! He make joke. Not funny. Hop Sing go!" Then he made a string of awful-soundin' words in that funny language of his.

Me and Adam looked at each other, all confused. Neither of us had been yankin' Hop Sing around. We'd been too busy beatin' each other up to even make up any good jokes to play on him.

"What'd I do, Hop Sing?" I asked anxiously. I was in enough hot water with Pa. I didn't want him gettin' mad at me for somethin' I didn't do, or did only by accident.

Too late, though. Just then the door flew open and Pa's head popped out.

"Hoss Cartwright!" He was yellin' like a banshee.

"What's the matter, Pa?" Adam asked, steppin' in front of me so's Pa wouldn't see me.

But Pa wasn't havin' none of it. "I'm talking to your brother. Hoss! Get over here, right now!"

I stepped around Adam, and we looked at each other, real worried, and we trudged slowly over to the door. I knew Hop Sing was walkin' right behind me,too, even though you can't never hear Hop Sing take a step. He just sort of glides.

Then Pa stepped out on the porch. In one hand he was holdin' Bunky. In the other, he held the remains of what used to be that book I'd put over Bunky's crate. Well, of course, I seen in a jiffy what had happened. Bunky'd found out after eatin' that poetry that he had a natural bent for the written word, and decided to try out a little more of it. So he'd managed to pull the book into the crate and nibble up some of it, as well. Well, quite a bit of it, really. At least I'd taken the precaution of choosin' a book nobody cared nothin' 'bout. I congratulated myself on that. At least that's what I thought 'til I took a look at Adam's face.

Then it hit me, just like a Ponderosa pine fallin' smack on my head. For some dumb reason Adam liked that book. And I can tell you I didn't waste no time takin' a few steps away from him. He's got long arms, a quick swing, and a hard fist, and don't mind usin' any of em.

I figgered the best way to deal with the whole thing was to be airy and breezy like Adam is when he gets caught in it.

"So you found Bunky, Pa. Way t'go! Wherever was he hidin'?"

I ain't never figgered out why things that work so well when Adam does 'em just fall flat when I try em. Pa glared at me.

"I didn't find your rabbit, Hoss. Hop Sing did. From what I've been able to gather from our late housekeeper, he was putting some clean clothes away in your wardrobe when this...thing," he paused and held out Bunky like he had somethin' contagious, "flew out and landed in his arms. Fouling the clothes in the process, I might add. It seems that this animal had somehow placed a book inside his crate, I can only assume intending to read it to pass the time on long evenings, and decided to move his home into the wardrobe. Isn't that amazing, Hoss? Quite an extraordinary rabbit, wouldn't you say?

"And now it appears this house no longer has a cook, and Adam is out two books in one day. That's quite a record you've set today, young man."

Well, Adam had managed to hold his tongue all durin' this speech, but I think it was primarily 'cause he was too shocked to say nothin'. 'Cause right then he came to life, and had more than enough words to say to suit me.

"My book!" He was shriekin'. " My architectural book that I used all my Christmas and birthday money to buy!" And even though his voice has gotten a lot deeper the last year or two, it was mighty shrill then. So I knew I was in for it.

"My book!" he said again, an' his eyes was like to pop right out of his skull. Then he turned to me. His face was all pale and he had sweat on his forehead. I backed away right quick, 'cause I ain't never seen Adam madder'n he was right then. "My books, Hoss! Why do you have to feed your rabbit my books? And if absolutely must do it for some bizarre reason, why must you feed him my favorite books? Why Hoss? Have you got a vendetta against me? Against good literature?"

Now I don't know what a vendetta is, but I figgered out pretty quick it weren't nothin' good. So I took to soothin' him.

"I ain't got no vendetta, Adam," I assured him. "Honest I ain't."

"Then why, Hoss? Explain it. Please explain it. 'Cause I admit I just don't understand." He looked at me real pleadin'-like, and I didn't know what to say.

Well, sometimes I got a habit of sayin' the absolute worst thing in the world, 'specially when I'm nervous, and I was more nervous with Adam lookin' at me like that then a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin' chairs. So I up and put my foot straight in it.

"But Adam. It's only a book."

It was a bad move. I see that now.

Adam shrieked and ran at Pa, who was so startled by Adam's quick movement that he dropped Bunky and the book both. But Adam scooped that book up lickety-split, and holdin it over his head like a battle-ax, he started out after Bunky.

"I'll get you, you book-eatin' hairball," he screeched, chasin' after Bunky like a lunatic. "Get back here!"

Well, I knew Adam was awful mad, and was only too likely to hurt my Bunky if he got a chance. So I took out runnin' after Adam.

So Adam chased Bunky, and I chased Adam. And darn if Bunky didn't make a beeline for the worst possible spot on the ranch. The corral with Bully standin' smack in the middle of it.

And in he ran.

Adam knew we weren't allowed near that corral, so for a second I thought Bunky had made hisself a wise move hidin' in the one spot Adam couldn't get him.

But, like always, I done forgot how single-minded Adam gets when he's mad. And if he remembered Pa's warnin' not to go near the corral, he done ignored it completely, 'cause quick as a wink he'd climbed over the fence and was runnin' after Bunky, still holdin' the remains of that book over his head like a meat cleaver.

Well, I seen that Bunky had gotten scairt of that bull, and had tried to turn 'round, but there was Adam runnin' at him from the opposite direction. So, not knowin' where to go, he just froze.

Adam was closin' in, and before I knew what I was doin' I was in that corral right along with Bully, Bunky, and Adam.

Like I mentioned before, Bully's got a temper to match Adam's and he didn't care much for having his home disturbed. I think the only reason he hadn't moved so far is 'cause he was so surprised to have Adam comin' runnin' into the corral all sudden-like. Either that, or he could see Adam was hoppin' mad, and didn't want to chance Adam turnin his mad on him, 'stead of Bunky. That could've been it, now I think about it. If so, that's a mighty smart bull.

But when I came runnin' in too, well, he just immediately got over his little bout of paralysis. Snortin' and pawin' at the ground like somethin' out of a nightmare, he suddenly rushed right at me.

Now you'd think gettin' gored by a bull the size of a small mountain would be right painful, but I'm here to tell you it don't hurt a bit.

There was just this moment of shock when he was comin' at me, loomin' bigger'n life, then this weird icy sensation in my belly, and I was flyin' through the air. It was awful strange, 'cause everythin' was movin' real slow, and there weren't no noise at all.

Then I landed on the ground, and that's when everything started hurtin. Hurtin' bad. The bull had kept movin' after he got me, and now he was watchin' me from across the corral, snortin' and lowerin' his head again. He started pawin' the ground, and I knew he was about to start towards me again. Adam's voice was the last thing I remember.

"H-O-S-S! N-O-O-O-O-O-O-O!"

Then everythin' went away.

xxxxxxxx

For a while things seemed real strange. Sometimes I'd open my eyes and Pa or Ma'd be there. Usually they'd stick a spoon in my mouth with this foul-tastin' liquid in it, and I'd go back to sleep.

But after a bunch of times of wakin' up and goin' back to sleep, I surfaced again, and there were Ma and Pa standin' beside my bed. I felt somebody next to me, and looked over, and there was Little Joe, kneelin' on the bed starin' at me through them big, green eyes of his.

"Hossy!" Little Joe said happily. "Hossy wake!"

I tried my voice and after a couple false starts it worked just fine.

"Hi," I said.

Ma put her hand on my forehead, and smiled at me. She looked like she was cryin' but she was smilin' too, which didn't make no sense.

"Darling, we're so glad you're okay."

Then Pa took my hand. "How are you feeling, Son"

I considered that for a moment. "Hungry," I said.

That made Ma and Pa laugh, and cry at the same time. Don't know why, but grown-ups are always weird. You just kinda hafta take 'em that way.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Don't you remember?" Pa asked me back.

I tried, but it was real confusin' and I couldn't make heads nor tails of it. Mostly I remembered my bunny.

That made me realize suddenly that he wasn't there, and I started to sit up to see if I could see him. Then I felt pain all through me, and I hadn't expected it. I cried out, and Ma immediately pushed me back against the pillows.

"Don't move, Sweetheart," she told me. "Must be a good boy and lie still."

I wanted to be good for Ma, of course, but I was worried.

"Where's Bunky?" I asked. I couldn't remember why I was so worried about him, but I was.

"He's fine, Son," Pa told me. "He's in Adam's room."

At the mention of Adam I suddenly realized that he weren't there, neither. But Adam was always there when I was sick or hurt. No matter how hard Pa or Ma scolded, he always stayed right by my side. Same as I did with him. We're brothers and that means more'n anythin' in the world. But he wasn't there.

I tried to remember what had happened, and it all came floodin' back. Bunky. Adam. Bully. And Adam wasn't here.

I started sobbin' then. I admit it. Even though I'm nine and way too old to cry. I was blubberin'.

"Bully got him! He's dead! Adam's dead!"

Pa and Ma looked shocked, and I know they were tryin' to talk to me, but I wouldn't listen. I just kept cryin' and yellin' over and over that Adam was dead. Pretty soon Little Joe was cryin' too, and Pa scooped him up in his arms, while Ma shook me a little and kept talkin' to me.

Finally I quieted down long enough to hear what she was tellin' me.

"Hoss! Adam's fine. He's fine! Calm down, he's okay!"

I shut up then, not sure whether she was tellin' me the truth or just tryin' to keep me quiet. I looked from her to Pa and back again.

"Adam's okay? Honest?"

"Of course he is. He's fine. What on earth made you think he was hurt?"

I didn't wanna admit it at first, but I finally did.

"He ain't here. He's always here when I'm sick, and now he ain't here."

I looked up at Pa anxiously.

"Adam hates me 'cause I ruint his books, don't he? I didn't mean to, honest , Pa. I don't want Adam to hate me!"

Pa smiled, and sat down on the bed beside me, settlin' Little Joe on his lap.

"'Course he doesn't hate you, Hoss. He's been with you every minute since you were hurt. I tried chasing him out, but he wouldn't go. Only when it was clear you were coming around did he leave."

That didn't make no sense. If he was there all the time I was asleep, why did he leave when I started to wake up?

"Adam doesn't hate you, Sweetheart," Ma told me. "He's ashamed. He feels like what happened is all his fault, and figured you'd probably never want to see him again. The doctor warned us to keep you calm, so he left when you started to wake up so you wouldn't see him and get upset."

"What did happen? I remember Bully comin' at me, but that's it."

Ma looked at Pa, and he smiled and reached for my hand.

"Well, after you got gored by the bull, it started at you again. But Adam threw the remains of that book he was holding. Fortunately you'd chosen a heavy one to give to Bunky, because when it hit him in the nose, that bull just stopped dead in its tracks. Then Adam pulled you out of the corral and got you to safety. He saved your life."

I laid there thinkin' 'bout that.

Finally Ma smiled at me and took my hand. "Would you like to see Adam, Sweetheart?"

I nodded so hard the room started spinnin' and Pa laughed. Ma left the room and a minute later she came back. Then I saw Adam peekin' 'round the corner. He was mighty scairt-lookin', but it sure was good ta see him.

Pa got up from the bed, and he and Ma, and Little Joe left, closin' the door behind them.

Adam stood near the door shufflin' his feet and lookin' at the floor. Ever' so often he'd look up at me, but when he'd see me lookin' back, he'd look right back down at the floor.

"Hey Adam," I said finally.

"Hey Hoss," he muttered, starin' purposefully at the floor. He started tracing a pattern on the floorboards with his toe.

We were both silent for a while.

"So how ya feelin'?" he asked finally, starin' at the ceiling this time.

"Okay," I told him.

"Good. That's good," he commented, like we was talkin' 'bout the weather.

He was quiet a minute longer. Then, lookin out the window for all he was worth, he said, "Doc said it was a close call, but you'll be up and around in no time."

"That right?" I said.

I know it ain't nice, but it was kinda funny to see Adam lookin' so uncomfortable. He always seems to know what he's s'posed to be doin', so It was nice to see him feelin' all off-kilter, like I do all the time.

We were both silent for a moment, and then Adam turned around real sudden and looked at me real fierce.

"I'm sorry 'bout everything, Hoss. I didn't mean it. Not any of it. I just didn't think. I almost got you killed 'cause I'm so hot-headed and stubborn."

I grinned at him them, and he smiled back, kind of uncertain-like.

"I'm real sorry 'bout your books, Adam. I just never thought how you feel towards them like I feel towards Bunky."

Adam grinned, for real this time, and his dimples showed. "I never thought how you feel towards Bunky like I feel towards my books."

We both laughed then, and he came over and sat on the bed beside me.

"That's some shiner you got there, Adam," I told him.

He winked at me. "Glad you like it. You gave it to me. I'm gonna think twice about fighting you again. You're stronger than me."

We laughed again, and he looked down at the coverlet.

"Hoss...when I thought you were gonna die, I realized what life would be like without you."

He looked up at me then, and danged if he didn't have tears in his eyes. Good ol' Adam. He looked away again.

"Life would be awful dull without you, Hoss. Fact is, I don't think life would be worth livin' at all if you weren't around."

He glanced over at me real quick and I grinned at him. He punched me on the arm, and I started to laugh. Then he started to laugh, and we both laughed and laughed 'til we couldn't hardly breathe no more. Then he laid down beside me and we both went off to sleep.

And that's the story of how it all happened. I'll see you around.