The Art of Parenting  

Lesson Three: Understanding the Role of Play in Your Child's Life    
As Interpreted by

The Tahoe Ladies  

            With a groan that started somewhere around his big toe that worked its way upwards, Ben Cartwright awoke. For a few moments, he lay contemplating the ceiling of his bedroom. With the room still mainly in darkness, the reflection of the flames from his fireplace seemed like eerie beings dancing there. Again he groaned and rolled over, not in the least bit desirous of leaving his warm bed that winter morning. There would always be that temperature shock, that jolt, that would force the last vestiges of sleep from him and propel him into the day. In the dead of winter, it was always the worst. And this morning would be no different. So, braving that worst, he threw back the covers and put his feet on the floor.

            Ben was just finishing his morning ritual of shaving when he heard the noise begin across the hall from his room. It was the same every morning and the sameness gave the father in him comfort. It was the thunk-thunk of feet hitting the floor followed by the sound of a bureau opening and closing. Following that was the quick snapping sound that he related to a pair of jeans being flipped open. That segued into a series of small sounds: another drawer opening and closing, the little splash of water and the quick slapping of a razor against a strop a time or two. Finally, there would be the creak Ben knew came from sitting in the oaken captain's chair and with two quick stomps on the floor, Ben knew that Adam was awake, dressed, shaved and ready to start the day.

            "Morning, Pa," Adam greeted as both Ben and he left their rooms at the same time.

            "Good morning, son," Ben also greeted. "Cold, though, isn't it?"

            "Sure is. But no snow, yet."

            "Yet," repeated Ben quickly. An old familiar ache in his joints told him that the same might not be true much longer. "Whose turn is it?"

            Adam rolled his eyes up just once and heaved a discontented sounding sigh. "I guess it's mine."

            Ben just smiled and patted Adam's shoulder once, proceeding on down the hall while Adam stayed at one closed bedroom door. Some people were just hard to get out of bed on a cold morning. Then there were others who were just plain hard to get out of bed. In the case of the Cartwright family, that last onerous position was held by Joseph. And everyone else in the family dreaded having to roust the young man. When Ben did it, especially in winter, removing the blankets was sufficient. Hoss would either bellow at him or pour water over his head. Adam, ever efficient, would simply walk into the room, grab a hold of whatever body part he could, drag his brother out on to the floor and walk out of the room, leaving the door open behind him. Joe could manage the rest on his own.

            Once downstairs, Ben quickly moved to the huge fieldstone fireplace. He tossed a few more logs onto the ever-present fire and used the poker to prod the flames a little higher. Overhead, he heard a loud thump as though something heavy had hit the floor right above him. Ben just raised an eyebrow in that direction.  Two out of three,  he thought with a faint smile,  but where is Hoss? He should be up and -

            The blast of cold air behind him told Ben just where his middle son was at. The door slammed closed as Ben turned toward the sound.

            "I tell ya, Pa, it is cold out there! Never saw the likes of it being this cold so early," the big bear of a man grumbled, shrugging out of his heavy coat and slapping thick mittens on the credenza. A wisp of straw fell from his coat, telling Ben that Hoss had been in the barn. That didn't surprise Ben in the least since also in the barn was one of their prized mares, ready to foal at any time. It had been at Hoss' insistence that she be brought in off the range and stabled. Early winter foals often didn't survive the wrath of a high Sierra's winter and Hoss was determined that would not happen in this case. With great care, Hoss had cared for her and just like this morning, often up before the rest of the family so he could check on her.

            "Still nothing?" Ben asked and Hoss, now aiming for the dining room table just mumbled something that Ben took for a negative. Like his son, he headed for the table himself, but aimed more for the coffee Hop Sing was just setting out. He didn't even turn to acknowledge the soft clatter of bootheels coming down the stairs behind him.

            With Adam and Hoss at the table, Ben proceeded to begin breakfast. Thick slices of ham nudged fluffy scrambled eggs for a place on all their plates. The butter dripped from the hot biscuits if not held in place by a helping of jam. The steam rose from the coffee, making little ghosts before dissipating. That morning at the table, there was little talk to fill the air. There was just the general clink of silverware meeting china and rattle of cup against saucer.

            "We need to take feed out to herds this morning," Ben finally pronounced, shoving his empty plate aside and picking up his coffee cup again. "Hoss, you handle that. Adam, I want you to ride into town with Hop Sing. Get all the supplies you can think of. I am sure Hop Sing has a list some where."

            The two brothers just eyeballed each other, sure that the other had gotten the plum assignment. Then the absence of the third, not only missing from the table but also in their father's work detail, occurred to them both.

            "What about Joe?" Adam shot for nonchalance and wasn't sure he had hit the target.

            "With the weather about to turn on us, I think your brother can see to the woodpile this morning. I'll see about giving him a hand."

            Adam hid his smile in his coffee cup while Hoss looked away. Although they would not say so to their father's face, some times his help wasn't help at all. This morning, as perhaps a gift from the fickle gods of family, Joe had unwittingly drawn the short straw. And he wasn't even present to complain about it.

            "JOSEPH!" Ben's voice, commanding to begin with, rattled the rafters.


            Adam and Hop Sing weren't even all the way into town when the first flakes of snow began drifting down. Both looked to the sky out of habit and both grimaced. Adam slapped the reins over the team's broad rumps and hurried them along. Hop Sing hunkered a little further into his coat, glad that Adam was on the side the breeze was coming from so that it sheltered him a tiny bit. In his mind, Hop Sing went over his list of needed items. Today, there would be no pleasantries spent with his countrymen as Adam loaded the wagon. No, today, because of the pressing weather condition, he would cut short his list and help load the wagon as well. It would be just what he thought they would need. No need to make the wagon any heavier than necessary if they had to maneuver through snow on the road. One thing he would add to his list though: more long underwear. And maybe for himself, some ginger tea to soothe away the tension of being snowed in. No, with a second thought, Hop Sing decided to load the wagon with everything he could imagine.


            Hoss too looked to the leaden sky when the first flakes began to spiral down. There in the shelter of meadow a mile from the house, the cattle restlessly mingled. Hoss continued to pitch hay from the bed of the wagon, creating mounds that the herd of his father's favorite Herefords would wade into with abandon. He checked the blocks of salt in their curious wooden boxes. With a smile, he saw again the faint and dainty hoof prints of deer there at one box.  Good, he thought,  you little fellas just keep right on comin' here. Come about January, you should be just about right for dinner. At that box, Hoss laid out an extra block of salt. The wind picked up and blew a few flakes into his face that Hoss wiped away then returned to his primary chore. In the long troughs off to one side, he scooped a grain mix from the two barrels in the wagon. It was a curious mix that Adam had read about and they were trying with this one particular herd for that winter. The scoop held corn, barley and a light dusting of molasses. Hoss thought it smelled terribly sweet to be cow feed but the cows seemed to like it. As soon as Hoss had started dumping it into the wooden troughs, the cattle had made a beeline for it, lining up along the length, seeming to wait for him to put more there.

            "That's it," he told them and shrugged a little deeper into his jacket. "I'll be back in a day or two with some more." He glanced again at the darkening sky, up through the now barrage of flakes. "That is if the snow don't get too deep." He pulled up the collar of his coat around his neck, tugged his hat down to meet it in the back and picked up the reins. "Come on, boys! It's too cold out here. Let's go home."


            If there was one thing good to say about chopping wood in the winter, Joe Cartwright didn't know what it was. The axe arced over his head before slamming into the dry log on the chopping block. The log upended there didn't split like it was suppose to and with an angry yank, Joe tried to pull the head free. It stayed buried so Joe just picked up the mass and slammed it, log and axe together, into the chopping block.  Although the axe went on in another few inches, the log still hung together. Taking a furtive glance around for his father, Joe considered his next move. If his father saw him doing it, it would surely earn him an earful. But his father was busy taking an armload of split wood into the house. Joe hefted the log-axe combination again and this time, brought it down across the block on just the shaft of the axe handle. The log obediently dropped away. When it hit the frozen ground, it fell into two pieces. Joe shook his head and set another log up to be split.

            Swish! Crack! Thunk! And another too fat log split, showing its yellow insides to the world.

            Swish! Crack! Thunk! And Joe thought once again that he should have been the one to go into town with Hop Sing.

            Swish! Crack! Thunk!  Joe stopped to boot aside the pieces beside the block. Where was Pa? He had been out here earlier, full of corrections. It wasn't like Joe hadn't grown up with this particular chore that he didn't know the proper way to chop wood.

            Swish! Crack! Thunk! A few more and Joe would take a break. Loading his arms full, he would head into the kitchen. There he knew he could take a break and no one would be the wiser. He nearly cackled aloud as he thought of his deviousness.

            Swish! Crack! Thunk! Swish! Crack! Thunk!

            "Wood box in the kitchen is nearly full, son." It wasn't his father's voice that made Joe look up quickly. It was the words he said. If he thought he wouldn't have been heard, Joe would have groaned out loud. And long, too. "Better pick up the pace some. We want to make sure there is enough up on the porch too." Then his father disappeared with another armload of wood.

            Joe braced the axehead on the ground as he leaned over to set up his next victim. That was when he saw it, laying mutely on the chopping block. When had it gotten there, Joe had no idea but he studied it closely. Joe blinked several times, thinking he was hopefully just seeing things. It didn't disappear. He scowled at it but it stayed put, not afraid of him in the least. When Joe whispered, "no, please?" it seemed not to hear and simply remained where and how it was: the first white, fat, heavy flake of a winter snow storm.

            Swish! Crack! Thunk!



            By mid-afternoon, just by looking out the window behind his dining room chair, Ben couldn't tell that it wasn't night. Thankfully, everyone had gotten home before the blizzard had set in with a vengeance. With the wind picking up the frozen crystals and swirling them about, he and Joe had managed to get a line run from the corner of the house out to the barn. The horses in the barn had been blanketed against the increasing cold. When Hoss had pulled in his big team of Belgians, Ben had left the barn and gone into the house to put on a pot of coffee. It had just begun to perk when the kitchen door burst open and a snow-shrouded Hop Sing had entered, carrying the first of many parcels.

That wagon had been quickly unloaded and that team cared for as well. Now, with his sons at ease before the hearth and Hop Sing making dinner in the kitchen, Ben allowed himself to relax as well.

            "First storm of the winter and it looks like a bad one, boys," he spoke to no one in particular. Adam didn't look up from his book as he sat in his blue chair across from Ben. Hoss just sniffed once before he moved a checker on the board between he and Joe. And Joe just grinned evilly at his brother.

            "Think we got things together just in time!" Ben tried again to elicit a response. Joe chortled but it had more to do with the three jumps his red checker made over Hoss' black ones. Adam turned a page and continued reading while Hoss scowled darkly at his baby brother.

            "But with the summer having lasted so long, guess we were hoping that old man winter would simply pass us by this year," he tried again. The only sound he heard was the wind brushing branches against the side of the house and the pop of pine pitch in the fireplace. Ben silently drummed his fingers against the arm of his chair.

            Looking from one son to another, Ben came to one conclusion: it was going to be a long winter.



            For the next two days, the blizzard outside reigned supreme. Inside, it was an eerie silence that held court. Ben didn't know whether to be thankful or not that the boys weren't arguing with one another. Or complaining about having to tend the yard stock in such conditions. At least if they had, there would have been constant noise in the house! As it was, Ben didn't think Adam had said a dozen words, he was so engrossed in his book. Hoss had taken up his knife and was whittling something but he too seemed too intent on for mere words. Joe had retreated to his room and was determined apparently to sleep out the storm. Ben had sauntered into the kitchen at one point, hoping to take up a conversation with Hop Sing but had not found the cook there.

            The storm finally broke and with it gone, the world outside became a white and glistening paradise. The wind died down. The cold settled over that paradise. Reluctantly, Ben sent Hoss and Joe out to feed the cattle. It was too dangerous to let one man alone go. If something should happen - well, it was just the smart thing to do. He and Adam spent the morning removing the branches he had heard scrapping the side of the house. A part of Ben didn't want to, thinking that as he did so, he was taking away the only source of sound he had heard regularly over the last few days.

            "That's the last one, Pa," Adam said as he pulled the offending branch away.

            Ben stood still, waiting and listening. He had caught just the barest snip of sound and turned towards it. Then he realized it was the jingle of harness as Hoss and Joe pulled back into the yard. Adam headed over to help his brothers unhitch the team and put away the big sled they had used.

            What was it that made Ben do it? Was it the sight of three backs to him? Was it the fact that there had been no laughter, no argument, no sound whatsoever above the necessary out of his sons for the last few days? Or maybe it was just something older and rarer coming back to the silver-haired Ponderosa patriarch. Whatever the cause, Ben reached down and, getting a good handful of snow, packed it into a ball. It wasn't hard to miss the broad back of Hoss.

            When he felt the frozen missile hit him between the shoulder blades, Hoss turned, looking for its source with a confused "huh?" It was just in time to see a second one catch Joe's head and knock his hat off.

            Wild-eyed and sure that he was personally under attack, Joe dived for cover. Unfortunately for Adam, it was behind him and did nothing to save him when Adam caught a snowball shattering across his shoulder. And Adam, turning to seek out the hurler, slipped in the snow. He fell, taking Joe with him.

            Over at the corner of the house, Ben chuckled. Quickly, he pressed his attack. Snowball after snowball pelted his sons and he would have continued if the sight hadn't had him laughing so hard. For the first few minutes, his sons were obviously confused but they were fast catching hold of the idea of what was happening. Ben ducked back just as Adam managed to lob one in his general direction.

            "That's Pa throwin' them, Adam!" he heard Hoss bellow and, just so the big man would know he was right, Ben plastered him with another one.

            "So?" came Adam's retort but it was a snowball from Joe that finally caught Ben full in the chest.

            For the length of time it took the snow to drop from his coat front, there was dead silence in the yard. As majestically as he was able, Ben wiped down his chest then skewered his sons with a dark look. No one else moved a muscle. He resettled his hat on his head and drew in a deep breath that pushed his chest up and out to its fullest proportion. From the few feet he was away from them, he watched as his sons traded wary looks with one another. He arched a heavy dark brow at them. Then hurled himself into their midst, rolling them into the snow with him.

            It became a mad tangle of arms and legs, knees and elbows. Ben was sure that they must have looked like some strange snow-covered creature wallowing in the yard. But he didn't care what they may have looked like, there was a sound he sought. There were grunts and more than one soft curse word that he heard but he continued pressing his attack, grabbing snow and son and putting them together. At one point, he wasn't sure but what he hadn't slapped himself with a handful but he kept on.

            With a shove, Ben managed to lever himself off of Hoss' back and to his feet. He half-stood, leaning over and balancing on his hands on his knees, his chest heaving from the exertion. From out of the pile, Joe managed to wiggle free and found himself on his knees before his father's eyes. Joe smiled and like his father, fought for his breath. Ben scooped up a handful of snow and narrowed his eyes, showing Joe who was his next victim.

            "Wait a minute!" Joe panted out. "Whose side are you on?"

            "I didn't think we had chosen sides," Ben informed him and took a step forward.

            With that came the recognition that it was basically every man for himself. Joe, still on his knees in the deep snow, smiled broadly in the face of what was sure to be a scrubbing of snow. "That's right," he taunted and with both hands flung snow into his father's face.

            Now Hoss later claimed that he hadn't seen what happened. Or that he was merely reacting to seeing his father be bested. Either way the outcome was the same. Joe was mashed into the snow with his biggest brother laying on top of him. Hoss certainly hoped that his father would realize in that split second that he had a formidable ally.

That wasn't what Ben saw at all. What he saw was a target too good to miss. Adam had regained his feet and was leaning against the feed sled, laughing at the fact that all he could see of Joe was one foot and it was thrashing wildly. When the snowball went to pieces on his chest, Adam's attention was drawn to an older and more formidable foe: his father. But Ben had turned his attention to Hoss and was trying to shove snow into the big man's collar. Hoss reared up enough that Adam was able to grab a hold of Joe's foot and drag him backwards, scooping more snow up and under the younger man's coat as he went, arms flailing. Once again, Adam found himself a target of his father's aim, this time a powdery smack to his rear end.

And so the sides were chosen. Not by age, nor by stature, nor by cunning. It was simple geography: Adam and Joe trying to use the minimal cover of the feed sled and Ben and Hoss, the frozen water trough. 

"You keep them busy," Ben told Hoss, handing him another winter missile, "I'm going around to the side."

Ben skirted the edge of the trough and managed to make it to the porch before Joe caught him broadside with a snowball. Deciding that deception was called for, Ben let himself fall into the snowpile there and remain absolutely still. Immediately all the fun went out of the three sons. Joe, closest to his father and the culprit, was on his feet and kneeling anxiously over him. Shouting "Pa?" Joe wiped at the snow covering his father's face. "I'm sorry Pa," was all he got before Ben got a good grip on Joe's coat and pushed him into the snow bank.

In the momentary lull that had formed, both Hoss and Adam had come from behind their battlements, afraid that their father had been hurt. When it became apparent that it wasn't the case, they were both caught out. They eyed one another, feinting now as though to obtain the necessary ingredient for a snowball, weaving and bobbing their man-size frames as they had as children long ago. Adam smiled and gestured with one hand for Hoss to go ahead and make a grab for it. Hoss knew if he did, Adam would be all over him, showing no mercy.

Sitting in the snow bank by the porch and catching his breath, Ben watched his older sons. When he saw Hoss' gapped tooth grin, Ben reached down and fetched up a handful of Joseph, pointing his youngest's attention to the two now circling adversaries in the trampled snowy yard. "This should be good," Ben stage-whispered, and leaned against Joe in front of him to watch.

"Did you hear that?" Adam asked Hoss, his arms open wide now as they did their strange dance.

"I sure did. What do you want to do about it? Entertain them or-?" answered Hoss, letting his eyebrows dance conspiratorially in the direction of the porch.

Since Joe was sitting in front of his father, he, of course, took most of the hits but unfortunately for Ben, he had chosen the wrong size son to try and hide behind. Again the snow balls, some packed tight enough to hold their shape, others merely handfuls of winter's delight, sailed back and forth across the yard. When a mere handful of snow wasn't good enough, a flying tackle followed by a roll in the white powder would suffice and more than once, Ben found himself on the receiving end.

That was about when the pistol shot split the air. Chest heaving from the cold air and the exercise, all four men turned in the direction of the sound. It had come from just passed the kitchen door. His face pushed out and eyes flashing angrily, Hop Sing gestured into the air once again with the revolver.

"Suppa leady now," he exclaimed and for emphasis stomped one foot into the snow. "You no eat, Hop Sing thlow out!" and slipping in the cold snow just a little, the cook turned to go back into the kitchen.

Looking around at his sons, Ben realized that they were all covered in snow. Gloves and mittens, hats and mufflers littered the yard. Sometime during the fray, Joe had shed his coat, which Hoss was just handing back to him and Adam was sitting on the side of the trough to dump snow out of one boot.

"I guess we need to go in and eat," was Ben's suggestion.

It was then, behind him, that he heard what he had longed for since the beginning of that first winter storm: the happy babble of voices that belonged to his sons, laughing, teasing and joking. He smiled at it. And almost didn't mind a bit when a snowball hit the door right by his head. Almost, but that's another lesson.


End of Lesson Three


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