Mary Cody signed loudly and snapped up the milk bucket. She caught herself before storming out of the stall, and gave the gentle cow a kindly pat on the rump."I know itís not your fault," she said sweetly, and the cow, as if she had understood, made a soft moo-like rumble.
Though she tried to shed her frustration before walking back into her home it clung tightly and she sat the empty pail down with a clunk on the kitchen counter.
"Well young man. Thatís two days without milk." She said pointedly to her corn-silk haired son. Will didnít reply, but kept to buttering biscuits. Though he missed the creamy warm milk at breakfast, he couldnít help smiling.
"Donít you dare smile, Will! Itís not funny," snapped his sister Julia before tweaking his ear. She had three years on her younger brother, and had taken it upon herself to inflict lighter forms of corporal punishment on "the weasel" as she referred to him.
"Mother, I think that once Bess starts giving again, that Will should have to forego his share for as many days as we miss milk now."
The smile disappeared from the boys face as swiftly as if it had been erased from a school slate.
"No, one asked you, Julia."
Mary sighed and turned from where she was slicing fatback. "Enough, both of you. Will already got his punishment, Julia, itís none of your concern." As soon as the woman turned back to her task, Will stuck out a defiant tongue at his tormentor.
With a loud huff his sister turned sharply and swished off toward the younger childrenís rooms, where baby Charles was protesting his confinement to the cradle.
"Itís only two days. Sheís never gone longer than that," Will said sweetly to his mother.
"Lord knows youíve given her enough chances to prove otherwise." She didnít dare turn around to face him; she simply couldnít keep the grin from her lips. Mary adored her second son, and his antics helped to enliven her somewhat monotonous days. He was a handful of harmless trouble, and she felt something akin to admiration for his ability to pull a prank or create some kind of clever stunt. This last feat was no different, and though it frightened 7-year-old Eliza enough to keep her from venturing into the cowís stall for the past two days, it hardly mattered, since the cow refused to give milk anyway.
She slipped several thin slices of the fatback into the hot cast-iron skillet and she hoped the sizzle covered up her choked giggle.
"Thatís disgusting!" Helen groused as they dragged themselves up the embankment of the creek.
"Aw, come on. Donít get all girly on me. Youíll be no fun anymore, like Julia."
This jibe hit itís mark perfectly and Helenís thin, freckled features twisted into a tight pout. "Not me, Iím not gonna get girly!""Well, then, come admire these beauties."
His 5-year old sisterís hand reached automatically to one of her braids as it always did when she was stressed. But she bravely approached her gap-toothed, grinning brother who held out a fist-full of writhing water snakes toward her.
"Ainít that great? Iíve never seen that before. They were in a mating tangle. Got a mess of em here."
"Yuck, Will. They stink!
"Do not. Here, Iíll let you hold one. Wait, now hold on you thing." His voice fell to a mumble as he tried to extract one of the snakes from his grip without losing any of the other half dozen in his hand.
"Ow" the boy protested as a needle-sharp tooth embedded itself in the web between his thumb and forefinger.
"Ohh, youíre bit, Will. Iím gonna get Momma!" Eliza dropped her braid and shook both hands frantically in front of her.
"No, now, you hush up. Didnít hurt a bit, his head was just stuck down there too tight and he was trying to pull it up. Itís so small, itís not bleeding or nothing." Helen squinted at her brother with suspicion. "Whatícha gonna do with Ďem?"
"Iíll show ya." He replied with feigned mystery and headed toward the barn.
The main door gave its usual groan as the two pushed it open, Will with only one hand. The sweet, musty smell of manure and warm straw wafted toward them. Bessí stall was empty during they day, when she was let out to enjoy the warm days and what greenage she could find around the property. Upon entering the small stall, Will turned with all seriousness toward his tag-along.
"Now, you gotta promise that this will be our secret, or Iíll never let you be in on one of my surprises ever again."After a thoughtful pause, she replied in a near-whisper, "What if Mama and Daddy ask me. Iím not supposed to keep secrets."
"Theyíre not gonna ask you, theyíll know itís me, but you canít tell before, or else it wonít work." Will felt that warm glow which always let him know he was winning. It almost wasnít fair, he thought sometimes, that he should be able to persuade almost anyone into almost anything. But, then again, he really liked it.
"I donít wanna get in trouble."
"Ah, shoot, youíre not gonna get in trouble, Helen. Just me." A smile busted on to the little girlís face and she nodded merrily. This was totally satisfactory.
"Alright then, spit and promise." Helen worked her jaws and lips furiously for several seconds to produce an adequate amount of spit and then ejected it from her mouth.
"That was pathetic. Remind me to teach you to spit better than that. You got some hanging off your chin." He sighed "Go get that wooden bucket for me." Helen dashed to the corner of the barn, and returned to find Will kneeling in front of the shallow feeding trough attached to the wall of the stall.
"Weíre gonna put the snakes under the bucket, ok? So you hold the bucket over my hand until I say so, and weíll catch the snakes under it."
"Yes." She said seriously. Helen had never been asked to participate in one of her brotherís pranks before, and wasnít about to mess it up. The efforts to keep all of the snakes under the bucket as Will tried to remove his hand will all useless. They were simply too small and moved too fast. One actually did manage to escape and Will had to cajole and berate his sister into having the courage to nab it when it folded itself up behind the over-turned milk stool; unable as he was to do it with only one free hand.
"Good girl," he said, praising her with a kiss on the forehead as she brought the snake too him.
"It wasnít hard; It didnít even bite me." She replied, the surprise apparent in her voice.
"Nah. Now, weíre gonna have to figure out something different though."
"Why donít we put Ďem in the bucket, instead of putting the bucket on top of Ďem." Helen suggested.
"That wouldnít work. We need. . . . Wait, actually. Helen, youíre wonderful. Youíre gonna be a great helper. I should have got you to help me lots before." Will said, with great animation. "Here now, go get that piece of hide thatís been out behind the tack shed.
"Thatís yucky, Will. I donít wanna touch that."
"Now, come on, are you gonna be my good helper or not?" Reluctantly, she left the barn, and her brother chuckled. Yeah, he had her wrapped around his finger.
Once he had the old piece of cow skin, everything else was easy. Will stuck his hand in the bucket, and Helen covered it with the hide and held it firmly to the edges. The boy snuck his hand out and pressed the rough hide down as he did so. This done, the two schemers had a very satisfactory bucket of snakes. It was a delicate operation to then turn the bucket over, holding the hide tight to the rim, set it in the manger, and slide the hide out from under it.
"Almost done. Go fetch a rock, Helen. Weíll put it on top here, and itíll keep it down." While the snakes could do little under the bucket, they did have some push, and Will wondered if one might squirm up high enough to tip the bucket and liberate them all.
Once the rock was securely placed on the bottom of the bucket, and some extra hay was placed artistically around it, the plot was set and the blond smiled the smile of the deeply contented.
"That there, is a work of art." He said. "Elizaíll pick up that bucket when she comes to feed Bess tonight" she informed him.
"Shhhh, just savor the moment." He replied softly, as if being in the presence of the booby trap was a religious experience. Helen peeked at her brother, wondering if that snakebite made him a little funny.
That evening, when Eliza made her way into the stall with Bess, Will and Helen had already taken their places in the hayloft. Without a though, Eliza slipped the loop of twine from the cowís neck, took the rock from the bucket, and went to lift it out of the trough.
Now, Eliza wasnít scared of snakes, not typically. . .not one at a time. But thereís something all together horrifying about watching a dozen garter snakes explode from under a under a bucket, youíve just picked up.
Unable to breathe for a moment, she made up for it with a huge gasping suck of air and releasing it in an "AAAAAAAAYYYYYYYYIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIGGggghhhhhhhh!" that Will knew could be heard for miles.
Bess, the normally placid cow bellowed and jogged back and out of the stall and barn.Eliza threw the bucket into the air and began a frantic dance, her feet flashing and jumping in a blur-her body jerking from a fit of flailing arms and legs. Her dance was punctuated by terrified shreeks as she hopped her way out of the stall. Helen gazed at the scene with open-mouthed surprise, while Will clasped both hands over his mouth to hold in the waterfall of cackling amusement.They two scheamers just a glimpse of Elizaís sheet-white face and grotesquely widened eyes before she ran, still screaming, from the barn.
Good to his promise, Helen was spared all punishment in the prank, based upon the fact that Will didnít breathe a word of her involvement. And though he did have to spend an unpleasant time behind the woodshed with his father a passed a good part of the evening trying to calm the cow enough to bring her back into the barn, he decided it was well worth it.
The success of the snake escapade heightened the need he just felt in his bones to make mischief. It was a lazy summer day and without school to occupy him, Will had more time to think of harmless pranks.
"Itís natural," he told himself, "Iíve been good for two days now, and Iím a boy. We make trouble." This was all the rationalization it took for young William Cody to hatch another plan.
He spied his sister Julia heading for the outhouse. Being afraid of bugs, critters and darkness, she only went out to the small building when absolutely necessary and never stayed a minute longer than she had to. Seeing Julia follow the little path to the outhouse filled Will with a gleeful inspiration. He had the perfect idea, and Julia was his perfect victim. She and Eliza were the only two of his siblings on whom he could pull such a luscious stunt. Fourteen year old Sam was sickly and the others were too young; Will knew playing tricks on them would plain mean. But Julia, with her high and mighy airs was the perfect target.
As soon as Julia closed the door behind her, Will managed to roll a big block of oak in front of the door. He did this so quietly that Julia heard nothing. Will silently ran and hid behind a tree a few yards away in case someone came to look for him. In a few minutes he saw the outhouse door being rattled. Eventually the whole building shook from Julia's determination to vacate it. Will was also shaking with silent laughter.
"Let me out!" she shrieked. ""William Cody, I knew your behind this!!"
Will was rolling on the ground trying desperately not to laugh out loud. Finally he pulled himself together, sprinted toward the building and rolled away the log, and ran as fast as he could into the barn. Fortunately he made it there before Julia realized the door could now open.
"I'll get you for this Will!!" shouted Julia. Hot tears of frustration and anger ran down her cheeks. "I'm tellin' Ma!" And she ran inside to do just that, although, deep down, she knew it probably wouldn't do any good. Ma seemed to have a soft spot for Will and his jokes.
Will whistled to himself as he entered the farmhouse about ten minutes later. He had rolled around in the straw to make it appear that he had been innocently doing his chores. Fortunately only his mother was in the kitchen. Julia had been comforted and sent to wash her face.
"William, that was not a nice thing to do to your sister."
"How did you know it was me?" Will was amazed that his ma seemed to know everything.
"Because, William Frederick Cody, ninety-nine of this mischief that happens in this house is somehow your doing. Also, I knew where all the other children were. Simple process of elimination, young man."
Will sighed and sliced himself a piece of his mother's good fresh bread. Gosh his ma was smart. At least she didn't seem too mad at him.
"I'm making pie for dessert tonight, and if you can keep out of trouble for the rest of the day, you may have a slice." Mary knew her son's fondness for pie just might keep things calm for the afternoon.
"What kind of pie?" asked Will eagerly. If it were rhubarb, he could get away with another prank and not care about missing a slice. But if it were-
"Apple," Mary replied. "I believe that is your favorite."
Well, there's no doubt about it, Will thought to himself I'll just have to be extra good for the rest of the day.
"Now out of my kitchen, young man," shooed Mary. "Or we won't have any supper tonight."
Always the charmer, Will slid off his chair, kissed his mother on the cheek and even kissed his baby brother who was sleeping contentedly in a basket.
William might have been able to stay out of trouble for the rest of the day if it hadnít been for Albert Hodge. Albert, like Will, had a fondness for mischief like but unlike his blonde friend, did not have the charm or humor to redeem himself. Sometimes Albertís pranks bordered on mean-spirited; something Will would not tolerate.
Mary and Isaac werenít too thrilled with Albert as a playmate for the middle son, but he was the only other ten-year-old boy around the area. Willís brother Sam often didnít have much strength and Charles was only a baby of one, so in spite of not caring too much for Albert, Willís parents let the boys play together.
For a while Will and Albert amused themselves by climbing trees and trying to catch tadpoles in the pond. Albert soon grew bored of these activities and engaged Will in a game of "dare".
"I dare you to climb to the top of that tree," taunted Albert, pointing to a pepper tree that must have been a good 25 feet.
William was hesitant. He did not want to climb that high, but didnít want Albert thinking he was "chicken" either. Eventually his pride won out and he shimmied up the tree, then hurried right back down.
"Alright, I did it. Satisfied?" asked Will as he brushed some dirt off his hands. He was a little wary whenever Albert started a game."My pa has some scrap wood. Maybe we could build something," he suggested hopefully.
"Nah," Albert dismissed him. "Thatís kid stuff. Hey, look at that pie over there!"
Will turned around to see that his ma had put her pie in the windowsill to cool.
"Thatís my maís pie," Will said proudly. He knew his ma had a reputation as a fine cook.
"Letís get it!" exclaimed Albert, his mouth beginning to water.
Will decided to stand up to his friend then, "We canít. Sheís saviní it for supper. Ma said I could have a piece if I was good."
"I dare you to get it," challenged Albert, knowing that the word "dare" had special power over Will.
"I canít!" Will argued back.
All it took was one word for Will to betray his conscience and better judgment. He swiped the gently steaming pie from the windowsill with lightening speed and the two boys ran behind the tool shed with their loot
"Now, you gotta put it back." puffed Will.
"Youíre jokiní, boy. Weíre gonna eat it! And I bet that I can eat moreín you."
"Bet not!" Will protested. But seeing quickly where this was going, added, "but I donít really think we should--"
"Five! I dare ya to eat five pieces, if you think you can do it, then. And Iíll eat some, too" pushed Albert
The very idea of eating the pie at all worried young will--but five pieces! William loved his motherís apple pie but remembered the time he had eaten three pieces and paid the price with a terrible belly ache.
Albert noticed the reluctance on Willís face, "If you donít eat five pieces then I wonít be your friend any more."
That settled it. He could not afford to lose the only friend he had, so Will hunkered down and carved out five little slices with his folding knife and began to eat one with his hands. Albert imposed what little self-control he had and picked at the remaining section of the pie. Later, when the sun was waging a losing battle to cling to the sky, Albert sucked the cooled pie juice from his fingers and thoughtfully regarded Will. He was chewing very methodically, staring directly down at what must have been a fascinating spot of ground by his leg. Will swallowed very carefully, and dropped a sticky hand to his lap. Suddenly, Albert felt himself doing battle with what guilt he was capable of and decided that it would be much better to leave before Mary Cody found them. With the energy afforded him by two pieces of apple pie, Albert set off for home.
"That boy!" Mary said through gritted teeth when she went to the windowsill. There was no doubt in her mind who the little thief was. It was not often she actually got angry at Will, but this was one of those times. He had outright gone and disobeyed her. Playing harmless pranks on his sisters was one thing, but stealing the family dessert was quite another! Hoisting Charles on her hip, she marched out to where she had last seen the two boys. She was fully prepared to give the two a tongue-lashing like theyíd never imagined when she came upon a scene she was quite unprepared for. Albert was clearly gone, and Will sat slumped against the wall of the tool shed, his face etched with abject misery. The final lonesome remnants of the pie were in the pie tin next to him. Will, looked up to her with plaintive blue eyes, and the fire in her mouth died immediately.
"Oh ma, Iím so sick. I didnít mean to, ma, I didnít want toÖ"
With a bitter half-smile, Mary knelt and reached out to him when the boyís face was seized in a prophetic grimace. Will lunged to his hands and feet and hurtled himself toward the tall weeds that grew near the shed. Mary held her hand gently on the back of her sonís neck as he heaved violently into the dying vegetation-suffering the vengeance of the pie.
"Was he punkiní lots, Ma?" asked May.
Will shot a cool glance at the three-year old hovering near the head of his bed."Hush now, May. Be a good sister and fetch some water for Momma, please." Mary instructed. When May left, Will poured out his story to his Ma. If Mary was amused by any of it, she didnít show it in her expression.
Are you gonna punish me, ma?" asked Will pathetically."Iím sore tempted, young man. I wonít tell your Pa because I think a lesson on your stomach is just as important as a lesson on your backside." Mary said fairly. "But I want you to think twice before playing with Albert from now on; heíll not be welcome at this house anymore, and youíre grounded from dessert for the rest of the month." She put her hand on his head and looked directly into his eyes, as if reading them for comprehension.
Will nodded very slightly, and closed his eyes. "All in all, that really doesnít seem so bad." he thought. As it was, his stomach gave a drunken lurch at the very thought of dessert.
"Iíve got a surprise for you boys tonight. Youíve been doing such a fine job, you deserve something special." Said Emma was a bright smile, as she stood up from the table. She took something from the cupboard behind her and turned back with a flourish, "Who wants apple pie?"
Emma couldnít have hoped for a better reception.
"Oh, Emma, that looks so good!" said Lou.
"Donít mind if I do, Emma." Added Jimmy, reaching for the knife.
"Cut Ďem straight, Jimmy. No cheating." Ike signed, thrusting his hands near to the pie, where Jimmy couldnít miss what he was saying.
"Alright, alright. Here, Cody, you take the first piece. Iíd fear for my fingers makiní you wait." He said, scooting a pie-heavy plate in Codyís direction.
"Might as well put two slices on Cody's plate," Buck teased. Surely heíd be asking for a second helping anyway, maybe even a third.
Cody was torn. He didnít want to hurt Emmaís feelings, but a plate of muck from the horse stalls couldnít have been less appetizing.
"Looks good, Emma," he said a little too loudly. Inwardly he was groaning, unsure of what to do. Cody wished Emma would let the dog inside the bunkhouse so he could slip his pie to her, but Emma had decreed that all animals remain outdoors.
In minutes, the riders were so intent on their treat they didnít bother to notice that Codyís desert lay unmolested on his plate. With a super-human effort, he picked up the fork and moved it slowly forward. For a moment, Cody watched Kid from the corner of his eye as the curly-headed rider worked a large chunk of the pie around in his mouth, in unmistakable ecstasy. On the other side of the table, Buck was working a hunk of the outer crust through the amber-colored apple goo oozing from his slice.
Cody tried to swallow the stubborn bitter taste working its way up from the pit of his stomach and let his fork clatter to the table.
"It looks wonderful Emma, really." He said sincerely, turning to Emma who was chewing contentedly on her own slice of pie. " But, I, uh, I need to, uh, go out and check. . uh." But this was all they heard from him as Cody had already reached the door, and was rushing outside into the pie-free air.
"Lord, is that boy sick?" asked Emma quickly, rising from her place.
"Ah, donít worry Emma, maybe apple pie just doesnít agree with him" interjected Jimmy.
"I canít imagine why not. Everyone loves my apple pie." She replied. The remaining riders nodded their heads and expressed their unanimous approval.