"What... are you talking about?"
Andy laughed at the stricken expression on his brother's face. "Ducks, Slim," he said, as if the problem had been his delivery, not the words themselves. "We're supposed to make a hundred, so let's get started."
"A hundred? Andy, have you gone crazy? I-"
"It's for the orphans, Slim!" he said. His eyes grew wide, and he put on that face that had swindled Slim into allowing four different dogs, a hedgehog, and at one point, a baby snake, to take residence in his house over the years. "If it weren't for you, Slim," Andy said softly, "I'd be in a place like that, all alone with nobody to care about me at Easter."
Slim sighed, and Andy fixed him with a bright smile, knowing he'd won. "Thanks, Slim!" There was a powerful hug, almost knocking the air out of him, then the sound of running feet as Andy went to get the materials.
That was how, four hours later, Slim, Jesse and Andy sat in the center of a mess of cotton stuffing, little, odd patches of colored linens, notoriously sneaky spools of thread that liked to get lost at inconvenient times, and multi-colored pin cushions (two of which had been borrowed from Widow Alice, who thought what they were doing was SO SWEET and SO ADORABLE).
"OW!" Jess hissed and sucked his index finger. He raised a pair of fiery blue eyes at Andy. "These orphans damn well better appreciate what my fingers are going through!" he snapped, pointing the offended finger at the boy.
"Even if they don't, I do," Andy said cheerily, fixing Jess with those bright, shiny eyes for a split second, before bending his head over his own task. He was in charge of cutting out the little duck halves, and the separate duck legs, and duck bills, and making little sets out of them for the others to sew.
Slim sighed, and picked up the yellow duck's foot from where it had fluttered to the floor for the third time. The simple little "L" of cloth taunted him, and he took great pleasure in piercing it with the needle. This time, he managed to make it stick to the body and stay there, but it was a little off to the side - more than it should have been. Two hours ago, Slim would have undone the stitch and fixed the leg. Right then, he figured this duck was just special, and he could swim alright with his leg off-kilter as he could with his leg in the right place. Once the leg was fully attached, Slim put the little plush doll into his "done" basket, which filled up pathetically slowly. His only consolation was that Jess' basket seemed to be even more barren than his own.
"I could use some duck right now," Jess muttered. "Some duck stew!"
Slim and Andy laughed. "I know how you feel," Slim said. "I'm hungry!"
He prepared to drop the stuffed duck, but Andy hopped to his feet. "I'll handle dinner," he said. "I'm finished!"
"What??" the two men roared.
Andy made a final, dramatic snip of his scissors on a blue-ish cloth and grinned. "I even made extras in case you mess one up." He hopped up brightly, a wellspring of energy, and bounded to the kitchen to get the stove lit.
Slim looked at Jess, just as the other man turned his eyes toward him. They were flabbergasted for a second, and then Slim smiled. Jess snickered, and the two of them were howling with laughter. There were tears in the corners of Slim's eyes before he got himself together. The two worked diligently, gathering the little kits Andy had made for them, and stitching them together according to his patient instructions. By the time dinner was put on the table, Slim had made about ten more ducks, and Jess had made six. They dropped their fluffy, pastel fowl into their respective baskets, and sat down to dinner without cleaning anything else up first (a little piece of sacrilege, if his mother had been alive).
Slim smiled and nodded through Andy's excited talk. He asked how things were going, and Jess gave a characteristically sarcastic answer, softened by the warm smile and the swift hair-ruffle he gave to Andy the next second. Slim agreed with Jess a hounded percent, though. He felt about as tired out as he would have if he'd been chasing down stray calves all day. Andy breezed over their concerns with his usual cheerfulness, and talked about how great it would be when he walked into school with the biggest bag of plush toys - bigger than all the other kids' bags.
"Hang on there, it's not a competition, is it?" Slim asked. "It's all about the orphans, right?"
Andy ducked his head, and looked very much like he'd revealed more than he wanted to. Slim had just been joking before, but the look on Andy's face was as good as a confession. Slim gave him a look, and he spoke up. "Well... the one who brings the most toys gets a cupcake party," he admitted sheepishly.
Slim frowned, and Jess made an indignant sound. "You... you got me pokin' my fingers all evening for cupcakes!" he snapped.
Andy looked up guiltily. "It is for the orphans, too, Jess. It's mostly for them!"
"But a hundred ducks! How many stuffed ducks do you expect the other kids to bring in?"
Andy shrugged, blushing hotly. "I... I don't know, Jess, I..."
Jess crossed his arms tightly across his chest, and scowled. Andy's eyes began to gleam, and he looked down into his nearly empty plate. "I think you should have told us the whole story, Andy," Slim said sternly. "Don't you?"
Andy nodded slowly, not raising his eyes from his plate. He sighed shakily, and Slim saw tears begin to roll down his cheeks. Slim sighed. He didn't usually let tears sway him when Andy was in trouble, but this wasn't such a bad thing. It wasn't exactly a complete lie, and toys for orphans were a good thing after all.
Slim touched Andy's shoulder. "All right, don't get too upset," he said. "We'll make as many of the darn things as we can."
Andy looked up, a hesitant, hopeful smile on his face. He glanced at Jess, who was still glowering, and the smile faded. "I'm sorry, Jess," he said. "I..."
His lip quivered, and Jess' scowl broke in an instant. "Oh, come on, tiger, you know I'll help," he said. "But you're doing the washing for the next two weeks. My fingers won't be up to it."
Andy's smile was back, full blown, and he hopped up from the table and threw his arms around Jess. "Thanks!" he cried. He turned his brilliant smile back to Slim, and Slim came over and mussed his hair.
"All right," he said after a moment. "Andy, you clear the plates, then come back and give us a hand. If we're gonna make a hundred of these things, you're gonna have to help with the sewing, too."
"Okay, Slim!" Andy started stacking dishes, and Slim looked toward Jess. He was looking with open affection at Andy, and Slim smiled.
"Come on, Jess," Slim said. "Let's get started."
Jess went back to his place, carefully nestling himself back among his sprawling duck stuffing and pastel duck-shaped cloths. This time, Slim watched how Jess approached his assembly, and offered a few pointers on getting everything together more easily. Jess seemed to appreciate the help, and when his next duck came together a little faster, he smiled up at Slim, face almost as bright as Andy's might have been.
"Race you to see who can do more in an hour?" Jess asked.
Slim laughed. "I teach you one trick, and you're ready to race? Alright then, you're on. Andy, gather up these toys from the baskets, so we can have a clean slate."
Andy happily obliged, then set to work threading his own needle, while Slim and Jess gathered more "kits", and stuffing to themselves. Slim looked at the clock. Eight minutes after eight. "Ten after?" he said. Jess nodded, and at exactly ten minutes after eight, they got started.
The race was fun, but resulted in more pricked fingers and crooked-legged ducks than Slim would have liked. He didn't want the kids to think they didn't care. Still, he'd ended up with seventeen finished ducks, while Jess had made fifteen. Jess seemed put out at first, but when Slim reminded him that he'd made more than twice as many ducks as he'd made before dinner, he perked up quite a bit.
They continued to work, talking quietly to each other now and then, as their baskets gradually filled with colorful plush dolls. The third time Slim noticed Andy nodding his head over his duck, after having stitched the same spot more than twice, he put a stop to it, and told Andy to get himself to bed. Andy protested (sleepily), but Slim insisted that he needed to get his rest so he could be alert at school. Slim tucked his brother in, and came back to the living room.
"What a mess," he said quietly.
Jess looked up at Slim, then around at the madness on the floor. "No argument there," he answered. "But we'll get it sorted out tomorrow."
Slim shrugged, and got settled in again. He smiled warmly at Jess, watching him painstakingly thread a needle with a new line of thread, his tongue poking out of his mouth in his concentration. "Thanks for this, Jess."
Jess looked at him, surprised. "What do you mean?"
Slim waved his hand, encompassing the piles of stuffing and half-made ducks. "Helping with all this. It means a lot to Andy."
Jess smiled. "Sure it does," he said. "But you don't have thank me for it, no more than I'm thanking you." Slim looked thoughtfully at him, and Jess explained without being asked. "He's my... well, he's like a brother to me, too," he said. "Couldn't rightly be expected to do anything else, could I?"
Slim grinned, and with an uncharacteristic burst of affection, he tackled Jess, knocking him back into his cloud of stuffing, and kissed him hard. Jess laughed, and looked up at Slim with amused and questioning eyes. "I love you," Slim said simply.
Jess blushed a deep red, the smile still on his face. Then he turned his eyes away shyly, and shoved at Slim. "Get off, you're heavy as a horse," he said. "'Sides, we got work to do."
Slim chuckled, and defiantly stole another kiss, before sitting up, and helping Jess back to a sitting position. Then, he gathered all the fluff, and the various piles of cut duck halves, and put them all together. He sat beside Jess, so close their legs were touching, and went back to work. Jess leaned slightly against Slim, and they talked quietly to one another for a while as they sewed. As the hours wore on, and as their baskets piled higher with little plush birds, they stopped speaking and just sat quietly in each other's company, rhythmically churning out toys for the good of humanity (and the coveted cupcake party for their beloved brother-son).
By morning, all the cotton wadding, and scraps of paper had been cleared away, and there were two large canvas bags stuffed to overflowing with squishy, Easter-colored birds. The bleary-eyed charity workers put on bright smiles for Andy when he came yawning into the living room. He stopped short at the sight of the two bags, and stared at them in amazement.
"How... how may did you make?" he asked.
"A hundred and twenty-one," Jess said proudly.
Slim smiled. "Found we had enough extra scraps to scratch out a few more."
Andy's smile could have lit the whole state of Wyoming. He jumped into the air with a triumphant cry, then vaulted for his brother and squeezed him tight. "Thanks, Slim!" Then there was another hug and thanks for Jess, before he ran to the bags and peered inside. "Wow," he whispered. He laughed, and clapped his hands excitedly. Then there was the flurry to get dressed and have breakfast, before Slim and Jess helped strap the toys onto Andy's saddle, and saw him on his way toward town.
Slim put a hand around Jess' shoulder as they turned back toward the house. "Sure hope the kids like 'em," Jess said.
"Me, too." Slim gave Jess a quick kiss, despite the fact that they were out in the open. "C'mon, let's get a change of clothes. We'll never live it down if we have to tell Mose we stayed up all night making dolls."
Jess snorted, and trotted quickly into the house, pulling off his shirt before he'd even gotten inside. They made it through the long day, though by late afternoon, both men were having a hard time keeping their eyes open. But when Andy came trotting home, and jumped down off his mare with the energy of a twister, calling out to them that he'd brought biggest bags of toys the orphanage had ever seen, it all seemed worthwhile.
It was definitely worthwhile for Slim, when he heard the surprised cry later that day, and saw Andy come running out of his room, grinning and holding the large stuffed duck (in his favorite colors) that Jess had slipped onto his pillow after he'd gone to school. And listening to Andy chatter away a mile a minute the next week, while he and Jess devoured Mrs. Prescott's delicious chocolate-frosted cupcakes, made Slim feel warm all over.