The Roar of the Dragon (by GinnyF)

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Summary: An earthquake strikes while Ben is visiting an old friend.

Rated: K+ (5,815 words)

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author.  The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise.  No copyright infringement is intended.

The Roar of the Dragon

  

“ Mornin,’ fellas.”   Closing his eyes as he yawned,  Hoss Cartwright didn’t notice the annoyed look that passed between  his brothers.

 

Joe pitched the last forkful of  straw into his horse’s stall.  “ About time you decided to join us.”

 

“Seems to me that’s usually what me and Adam are sayin’ to you, Little Brother.” Hoss retorted.

 

“You two stop jawing so we can finish up out here and get in to breakfast before Hop Sing threatens to throw it out.”  Turning to Hoss to hand him the pitchfork he was finished using, Adam noticed his brother’s bloodshot eyes  “You feeling alright, Hoss?”

 

Hoss shook his head and stifled another yawn.  “No, no, I’m  fine.  Just couldn’t sleep much last night.  I kept wakin’ up feelin’ that something was wrong.  I even got up to check around the house a couple of times.  I thought you fellas might hear me, but you both were snorin’ away.

 

“I wonder if Hop Sing might be feelin’ puny this morning, though.  I didn’t smell any breakfast cookin’.”

 

 

“Hop Sing, if you aren’t feeling well we can rustle up our own breakfast.”  Hoss looked worried as the cook shuffled out of the kitchen with the coffee pot and a basket of sliced bread.

 

“I’ll go fetch Dr. Chan,” Joe offered, starting to rise from his chair at the table.

 

Hop Sing objected, “Not sick.  Cook breakfast.  Just not sleep good last night.”

“See what your prowlin’ around the house last night did.” Joe complained.

“You kept Hop Sing awake.”

“I’m mighty sorry, Hop Sing.  I don’t know what was wrong with me last night.  It’s past time for spring fever.”  Hoss  looked sheepishly at the cook.

“Mister Hoss no keep Hop Sing awake.  Hop Sing not able to sleep for couple night.  “

He looked speculatively at Hoss as he poured coffee.  Leaving  the pot,  he returned to the kitchen.  As he turned the sausage in the frying pan  the queasy feeling that had gripped his stomach all night intensified.  His thoughts strayed to his youth in China, and another time he had similar feelings.  He  looked at the log walls that surrounded him, and shuddered involuntarily.  He remembered the day the earth roared and his village and those for miles around were destroyed.

Adam picked himself up, brushed the dirt off his pants, and  limped to the corral fence.  He didn’t even want to guess how many times he’d thrown that morning.

“Gettin’ old, brother?”  Joe teased as he jumped from his perch on the top rail.

“Right now, I feel like I’m about ninety.”  Adam rubbed his throbbing hip and wondered how big a bruise was forming there.  “All right, sonny boy.  You just show us old men what a young whippersnapper can do.”  Adam grinned and doffed his hat towards the  chocolate  brown mare that was not being shy about showing her displeasure over the proceedings.  Adam joined Hoss, leaning against the corral railings.   “Either these are the most stubborn horses I’ve ever had the misfortune to come across, or Joe’s right, I’m getting old.”

Hoss gestured with his head at their own  mounts hitched nearby.  “Must be somethin’ in the air.  Sport and Cochise have both been shufflin’ around, pullin’ on their reins like they’re tryin’ to get loose.   Even old Chubby’s  been actin’ out of sorts..  Maybe we should call it quits for today?  ”

“Something in the air?  You’ve been listening to too many of Squaw Charlie’s tales.”  Adam scoffed.  “I told Pa we’d have a good start on getting this bunch broke by the time he got home from Lone Pine..”

“Imagine old Ira gettin’ himself one of those mail order brides.  Pa, was mighty disappointed that he had to wait a year after their wedding  to meet her.”  Hoss frowned.  “Say, I hope Pa don’t get any ideas!”

Adam laughed and shook his head.  “Pa doesn’t need to resort to that.  He’s got all he can handle keeping the Virginia City widows and old maids at bay.”

“I don’t mean for himself.  He might think it’s a good idea for us!”

“Don’t panic, brother.  I don’t think Pa’s that desperate to marry us off.  Yet.”  Adam  nudged Hoss.   “Joe’s ready.”

Both men turned their attention to the far corner of the corral where  their brother was trying to slip into the saddle that Adam had just been tossed out of.  The horse pranced and tossed her head,  nearly knocking the two men who held onto her off their feet.  The black gelding that he was trying to transfer from was being skittish and wanting to keep his distance from the agitated mare. One minute Joe was on the gelding and the next,   was on the ground surrounded by milling hooves and roiling dust.

Hoss and Adam sprinted to Joe, shouting his name in unison..  In the seconds it took them to get there, he’d been pulled to safety.  He sat propped up by his rescuer,  coughing and wheezing, trying to catch his breath.

“Just take it easy.”  Hoss knelt and gingerly ran his hands over Joe, and grinned. “Seems like you’re all in one piece, little brother.”

Joe had got his breath back and was looking around groggily.  “Geeze!” What happened? Ow!”

He squirmed as Adam’s fingers touched a scrape on the side of his face.             “You had a problem finding the back of that ornery little mare.”  Adam grasped Joe under his arms and helped him to his feet.  “Let’s get you up to the house.”

“See I told you something was gonna happen.”  Hoss insisted.

********

Ben Cartwright waved away the dessert plate being offered by his hostess.  “Just coffee, please, Anne.  I’m stuffed.  That dinner was delicious.”

“Better take a piece of cake, Ben.”  Ira Stone chuckled.  “Anne made that apple cake especially for you.  She’s going to be miffed if you don’t eat it.”

Ira’s wife blushed at his teasing. “Ira!”  In her eighth month of pregnancy, she moved around the small table, moving awkwardly.  “I’m glad you enjoyed the meal.  I’m not the cook that I’ve heard  Hop Sing is.”

“You are a wonderful cook.”  Ben  patted his stomach.  “I’m only declining on the cake for now.  If I may, I’ll have a piece later after the meal settles.

Anne smiled fondly at her husband’s  old friend.  “Of course you may.  You just make yourself at home.  You two men go have your coffee and pipes on the porch while I clean up.”

The two men settled themselves into  rocking chairs on the Stone’s rickety front porch.  “I’m happy to see your hardware store thriving,” Ben said.

Ira nodded as he filled his pipe.  “A growing town needs hardware.”  He sighed contentedly. “I’ll tell you, Ben.  It was worth waiting till I was over forty to find someone like Anne.  I hope to be able to build her a new house next summer.  This place was all right for a bachelor, but not for a family.  I want Ann to have a front parlor and a big kitchen and a dining room with a crystal chandler over a big table. Not just one room that’s kitchen, dining room, and parlor .   And plenty of  bedrooms for her family back east to come visit.    And a big front porch, a veranda, as she calls it.  Do you think Adam would do the plans?”

“I’m sure he would”, Ben nodded.  “Why don’t you write him about it, and I’ll deliver the letter personally.”  Ben lifted his cup of brandy laced coffee in a toast.  “To Mr. and Mrs. Ira Stone and the little one on the way.”

Anne came to the door,   “Ira, have you seen Daisy?” she asked anxiously.  “ I put some scraps in her pan and the ones I gave her this morning are still there.  Usually, the little glutton gobbles them down.”

“Now that you mention it, I haven’t seen her all day.”  Ira looked around puzzled.  “Usually, when I sit on the porch in the evening she’s right here with me waiting for her supper.  Daisy is Anne’s new pup”, he explained to Ben. “Excuse me. I better go look for her and put Anne’s mind at ease.  You know how women are.”

Ben stood also.  “Especially, when they’re in the family way.  I’ll go with you.”

After an hour of searching,  the two men returned to the house, reluctant to face Ira’s wife with the news that the little hound was nowhere to be found.  They were met at the back door by a crying Anne. “I found Daisy, but I think something is dreadfully wrong with her.  She’s under the back porch cowering and whimpering.  She won’t come out.  She even growled at me.  Oh, Ira, do you think she’s rabid?”

“It’s not the time of year for rabies.  Usually, you see it in late summer.” Ben tried to reassure her.

“I don’t think it’s rabies, either.”  Ira put an arm around his wife.    “I’ll put her food and water pans right beside the porch.  We’ll see how she is in the morning.”  He shook his head.  “Honey, it’s getting dark.  That’s all we can do for tonight.  I’m sure she’ll be better in the morning.”

A coyote’s howl echoed off the surrounding hills, followed by another, and another.  “Those darn coyotes sound awful close tonight.”  Ira shrugged.  “Maybe that’s what’s spooking Daisy.  They sound close enough  that she might have caught a whiff of those critters.  Let’s have some of that good cake and another cup of coffee before we turn in.  She’ll be all right, Annie.  All this worrying over that pup isn’t good for a woman in your condition.  You set yourself down and I’ll get the cake and coffee.”

******** 

Hop Sing lay in bed staring into the darkness.  He had done the unthinkable, left dishes soaking in the sink and turned in early.    Little Joe, Mister Adam, and Mister Hoss had retreated upstairs right after supper.  He had heard Mister Hoss  rambling restlessly, but the house was now quiet.

He shivered and pulled his blanket closer around him as  a coyote howled nearby, followed by another and then another.  The owl that lived in the tree outside the kitchen wing added it’s voice.   The unease that had plagued him all day turned to a vague dread  and the night shadows in his room seemed to shift   Being a good Baptist, he was ordinarily not a superstitious man, but his mind wandered to  the old folk  tales of dragons in the earth.  His grandfather had told him how the shaking of the earth was caused by the dragons fighting among themselves.

Sleep brought no relief.  He found himself back in his village in China, watching his village his village being smashed and burned by raging dragons.  The dream was so real that he could feel his bed shaking.

The crash  as the mirror on the wall fell, brought him upright in bed.  He looked around, wide awake now, as the items on his dresser danced in the moonlight  He stumbled from his bed, and made his way dizzily across the quivering floor to the doorway. A storm was brewing.  The Wandererrocked and pitched and groaned as the sea became violent and hailstones fell from the sky and tumbled, clattering, about the deck.  While Ben often dreamed about being on his old ship, this dream was unusually vivid.   He woke and looked around, sleepily, at the unfamiliar room.  The light from the full moon streamed through the window on the wall opposite his bed.  He thought that he was still dreaming when he saw the lace curtains were swinging back and forth, and that the clattering  noise was caused by the jiggling of the china washbowl and pitcher on the washstand in the corner.    He realized it wasn’t the Wanderer rocking and groaning, it was the Stone’s house.

An intense jolt pitched Ben out of the narrow bed.  He lay shocked on the heaving wood floor until Anne Stone’s screams spurred him into action.  He scrambled to his feet,  only to be thrown back down as another tremor struck. Chunks of plaster  fell around him as cracks snaked through the ceiling and  rough-hewn walls.  Ben rolled under the bed just as the small house started to break apart around him.

********

“There’s some cracks in the foundation, besides the ones in the chimney.  I don’t  think they’re anything major, but we should get them patched up right away.”  Adam emerged from the root cellar under the kitchen .   He joined his brothers in surveying the shambles.  Broken dishes, shattered picture frames, and assorted debris littered the floors.

“Don’t forget the broken banister where Hoss went through it trying to come down the stairs.”  Joe added, grinning at the aforementioned brother.

Hoss rubbed his aching shoulder and scowled.  “It ain’t easy going down a staircase that won’t stand still.”

“You’re right about that.”  Adam looked dubiously at the stairs, as if they couldn’t quite be trusted.   “ The stock’s probably scattered over half the territory.    You two get the hands moving.  Then check the bunkhouse and barn for damage.  I didn’t see anything obvious when we turned the horses out to the corral, but give it a good going over.  I’ll get the flue pipe for Hop Sing’s stove put back together.  Where is he, anyway?”

“He’s out lookin’ for his chickens.  He wants to round ‘em up before the coyotes have a chicken feast.”  As he reached for his hat,. Hoss couldn’t resist an I-told-you-so to his skeptical brothers. “I told you fellas that there was something in the air”.

As if on cue, the chandelier over the dining room table tinkled as a slight aftershock hit.

“More like something in the ground!”  Joe retorted as he scurried out the door.

********

The stillness, the silence, those were  the first things  Ben  was aware of.  That and it was full daylight.   He was lying on his stomach, pinned under a pile of something.  Pain shot through his forehead as he .turned his head to look  around.  Bed springs?  What the blazes happened?  He breathed deeply to try to clear his mind and take stock of the situation.  His ribs ached with the effort, but the deep breathing helped him to think.  .  “A dream.”  He was dreaming of being on the Wanderer during a fierce storm.    He had woken to realize that it was the floor of the Stones’ house that  was heaving and rolling, not the deck of the ship. “ An earthquake? “  That had to be it.   He had been in an earthquake years ago in Nicaragua.   Not one like this one, though.  “Ira?  Anne”?  His thoughts reeled as he remembered that the last thing he heard was Anne screaming.  He pushed on the debris lying on top of him, and something shifted, slightly.  He pushed harder, and pain seared through his ribs and head and he passed out.

“Easy, Mister., just lie still and let us pull you out.”  Ben didn’t recognize the deep, gravely voice, but it was a welcome sound, nonetheless. He gritted his teeth as strong arms pulled him from the wreckage of the bedroom and placed him on litter, that what had been until this morning,  someone’s front  door.  He was carried to  the town square, where the survivors, injured and uninjured, alike were congregating, and gently laid on a blanket spread on the ground.  “There’s no building left standing to take the injured to”.  one of his rescuers, a tall, spare man, dressed only in long johns and boots, explained grimly.  “ Right now, anybody that can walk is looking for survivors and taking care of the injured.  Someone will get to you, directly.  We can’t find the doc,” He  looked around, as if expecting the doctor to suddenly appear.  Someone shouted and beckoned, and the man hurried off.

“No buildings left standing?  Looking for survivors? I’ve got to look for Ira and Ann!”   Ben struggled to his feet and clasped his arms around his chest as he tentatively looked down at himself.  His nightshirt was torn and dirty and his legs and feet were scraped, scratched, and bruised..  His head was pounding  and  his chest felt as if it was being squeezed in a vice.  He put a hand to his head and felt the stiffness of dry blood.

He had not seen such devastation since the war with Mexico. The town looked as though an army had targeted every building with cannon fire.  The wooden buildings were now piles of splintered wood, with here and part of a building left standing.  The buildings built from adobe seemed to have faired worse;  most were crumbled piles of dirt. Roof tiles, shingles, and glass was lying everywhere..  Rows of injured were laid around him on blankets, tarps, coats, anything that could be found.  Some were groaning or crying, some unconscious, and some just looking around them unbelieving.  He took a deep breath and after picking up the blanket he had been lying on, started slowly down the rows looking for his friends.             He had only gone a few feet when he had to admit to himself that he had to rest for awhile.   He sunk down on what was left of a stone wall and buried his face in his hands.  He didn’t know how long he sat there  when he felt an odd sensation on his bare calf.  He looked down  to find a small dog busily licking his leg.  It took him a minute to recognize Anne’s pup, Daisy.

“Ben!  Ben!”  He looked over at the man who  excitedly called his name.  Ira Stone.  Like Ben, he was clad only in a nightshirt and clutching a blanket around himself.  Unlike Ben, and most of the people around them, he appeared unscathed.

Ira clasped his friend’s shoulder.  “Thank God!  I was dreading what I thought I would have to tell your boys”.

Ben was overcome with a wave of dizziness and let Ira support him for a minute till it passed.  “Yes.  Thank God.  You’re unhurt?   I was looking for you and Anne, but had to sit down for a minute. Where’s Anne?  Is she all right? “

“She’s got a broken arm and a dislocated shoulder. The main part of our house is sturdier than the two tacked-on bedrooms.  It’s still standing.  I left her there with our neighbor, Mrs. Hanson.   Here, let me help you.  I’ll get to the house and take a look at your head.  I’m afraid I’m all you have right now to patch you up.  They found the doc’s body in the rubble of his clinic, along with two patients he was tending.  Matt Lewis went to Independence  for help.  They have two doctors, and we’re hoping that they can spare one of them to send here.”  Ira shook his head.  “No, I’m not hurt.  It was one of those crazy twists of fortune.  I wasn’t in the house when the earthquake hit”  He had to smile in spite of the circumstances.  “I had to make a trip out back, and was there when it hit.

“I started  digging where our bedroom was. After I got Anne out, I couldn’t tell how bad she was hurt.  I had to get help, then I couldn’t leave her right away, to go back and look for you.”  Ira studied his slipper shod feet. “I went back to look for you as soon as I could.   I could see that someone had gotten to you.  I was looking for you.  You were married.  If it was your wife or one of your sons buried under that rubble, injured and in need of  help.”

“I understand, Ira, and would have done the same.  Anyone would.”  Ben teetered and winced as Ira helped him to stand.

“Ben?”   Ira reached to steady his friend and prevented him from hitting the ground as he lost consciousness.  He spied his neighbor, Stan Hanson, running toward him.  “Stan!  Can you help me get him to my house?”

Hanson  stopped in front of Ira and Ben, breathing hard.  “I’ll get your friend back there.”  He gasped between breaths.  “You best go a’runnin’.  Your missus needs you.  She’s in a bad way.”

******** 

Hoss stretched and yawned as he rose from the supper table.  “I don’t know about you fella’s, but I’m turnin’ in.  I sure hope there’s no more of that dadburn shakin’ tonight..  What do you think, Adam?”

“I don’t know anything about earthquakes, but I would guess that since we haven’t had anymore tremors, it’s all over with.”

“I sure hope so.” Joe added.  “Some of the hands said they’re sleeping outside tonight.  Maybe we should , just in case.”

Hoss lightly patted Joe’s back.  “You sleep where you want to, little brother.  I’m gonna take the chance of sleepin’ in my soft bed.”

“I’ll take that chance, too.”  Adam stood to follow Hoss upstairs, but both men stopped at the sound of  the brass door knocker.

“Well, seems like no one is turning in just yet.”  Adam said as he went to the door.  “Roy.  Come on in.  what brings you out here this late in the evening?  How did Virginia City fare in that earthquake? “

“Evenin’, boys.”  Sheriff Coffey stood on the porch looking uneasy.  “Virginia City didn’t fare to bad.”

The brothers stood aside to allow the sheriff to enter, and looked at him expectantly, as they all stood in the entry way.  It hadn’t escaped their notice that Roy had not answered the first question.

“What’s on your mind, Roy?”  Adam asked.  “You didn’t  ride out here this late to talk about the earthquake and Virginia City.”

“Ben went to Lone Pine?”  Sheriff Coffey asked?

“Yeah,”  Hoss answered.  “He won’t be back till next week sometime.  What did you want to see him about?”

Roy absently stroked his bristly grey mustache.  “No, it’s you boys I came to talk to.”

“What can we do for you, Roy?”  Adam asked..

“I just got word that earthquake hit Lone Pine hard.  All of the buildings are damaged; the ones left standin’, that is.  Lots of folks hurt .  I reckoned you would want to know right away so you could leave at first light.”  Roy twisted his hat in his hands before putting it on.  “I have to get back to Virginia City.  The saloons are doin’ a booming business tonight.  I don’t want to leave Clem there by himself too long.  Goodnight, boys.  I’ll see myself out”

**********

“How much further do you think it is to Lone Pine?”  Joe asked anxiously.  The brothers were packing up their camp and preparing for their seventh day on the trail.

Hoss scratched his head and shrugged.  “We ought’a be almost there, but the way the trail’s torn up, I don’t know how long it’s gonna take.  I figure we used up a couple days clearin’ rock slides and downed trees, not to mention the time lost findin’ a way around what we couldn’t move.  And the closer we get to Lone Pine, the worse things are lookin.”

Adam gave his cinch a final tug and had to sidestep quickly to move his foot away from Sport’s stamping hoof.  “Easy, boy.  What’s got your temper up?  Easy, now.”

Adam spoke softly to the chestnut gelding as he swung into the saddle.  The horse tossed his mane and snorted, but calmed down as his rider stroked his neck and murmmered to him.

Cochise, too, snorted and pranced, when mounted.  His actions seemed to frighten the placid little mare that Joe was leading.  Hoss took the lead rope from his brother.

“The horses are acting up like they did the day before that earthquake.  Do you think we might be going to have another one?”  Joe asked.  He was nervously biting his lower lip.

Adam  frowned.  “It’s possible.  I’ve heard that there can be  smaller tremors for days or even weeks after a large earthquake.”

Hoss looked apprehensively at the boulders looming around them.  “ Let’s get movin’.  The sooner I get to open country, the better I’ll feel”.

They set off single-file on the narrow trail. The mounts’ nervousness increased the further they picked their way along the rock-strewn and cracked trail.   Even the normally placid packhorse twitched her ears as she plodded along behind Hoss..

“There’s the valley floor, dead ahead.  We’re almost to Lone Pine.”   Adam reined his horse to a halt and leaned forward in the saddle.  .  “We’ll rest the horses there. ”  He grinned at Hoss.  “It’s good and open.”

“I’ll lead Sally now that Cooch has settled down.”  Just as Joe took the pack horse’s lead rope from Hoss, the ground shuddered beneath the horses’ hooves.

Pebbles, followed by small rocks rolled down the slope onto the trail, further startling the animals.”Head for level ground!”  Adam shouted to his brothers as Sport broke into a gallop.

As their horses pounded toward the valley floor, the rock fall grew into a rockslide, roaring down the side of the mountain.  Hoss looked back where Joe, with the packhorse, was bringing up the rear.  The loaded down mare was having difficulty keeping up with the longer legged pinto.  “Joe!  Turn loose of the lead rope!”

Joe let go and Cochise, free of the pull of the slower horse,  lunged forward with a burst of speed.  A few short yards behind them, the leading edge of the rockslide swept across the trail, catching the terrified mare in its path, her scream unheard under the thunder of the rocks.

On the valley floor, the  men and horses huddled behind a protective buttress till the thunder stopped and the dust settled.   The terrified scream of the packhorse still reverberated in their ears.

********

Hearing of  the devastation  did not adequately prepare the Cartwright brothers for what they saw when they rode wearily into Lone Pine  They rode silently, taking in the piles of adobe and  the splintered wood that a week ago had been homes and businesses. In one corner of the town square was a mound, that they would later find out was a mass grave.   Most of the people they encountered were bandaged, bruised, or limped..  Some wore expressions of bewilderment.  However, the citizens of the town were resolutely clearing away rubble and rebuilding. The sound of wood being sawed and nails being driven filled the air.

The men dismounted in front of a torn canvas tent that sported a wooden sign proclaiming “Sheriff’”,  and approached a middle-aged man sitting at a makeshift desk in front of the tent.  His face was bruised and his left arm was in a blue calico sling. He grudgingly looked up from paperwork he was struggling with ..  “I’m Sheriff Baker.  If you fella’s are lookin’ for kin or friends,  the injured been taken to wherever enough of a buildin’s been left standin’ to give ‘em some shelter.”  He started to rise awkwardly from his armless straight-back chair.  “I’ll take you around.”

“That might not  be necessary, Sheriff.”   Adam replied.  “Can you point us in the direction of Ira Stone’s place?”

Sheriff Baker pointed to a grove of  trees.  “Over yonder, behind those aspen.  You friends of Ira’s?”

“Our father is.”  Adam answered.  “He’s been visiting with the Stones.”

“Your pa would be the white-haired fella?”

“You know him?  Is he all right?”  Joe blurted out.

The sheriff nodded.  “I know who he is, and that he’s alive, but hurt some.   My missus was just up there.  The ladies that are able to are makin’ the rounds takin’ care of the injured.  They’ve been helpin’ Ira with the baby, too.”

“Baby?  We didn’t know old Ira had a young’un.”  Hoss said, surprised.

“Born right after the earthquake.  Poor little tyke’s ma didn’t make it.”  Sheriff Baker said.  “It’s a shame.  Miz Stone was just banged up some, but she didn’t make it through the birthin’.  Miz Hanson, their neighbor lady, did all she could.  She was more shook about not bein’ able to do more for poor, young Miz Stone.  Well, I’ll get back to my paperwork and let you fellas get on your way.  I can see you’re chompin’ at the bit to see your pa.  Be careful ridin’ up to Ira’s.  There’s a lot of loose rocks and there’s a good size crack across the trail.”

Ben sat on the rickety front porch, rocking Ira’s daughter, absently humming a lullaby.  His thoughts drifted back in time to other babies, and his own losses.  He didn’t speak of them to Ira.  He knew that hearing of others tragedies did not lessen the pain of one’s own, and there were tragedies aplenty in Lone Pine and the surrounding area this past week.  He lent his presence to his friend, and made himself as useful as he could, while his injuries healed.

The baby awoke with a wail as Daisy, the beagle pup, careened around the side of the cabin yapping shrilly.  He couldn’t bring himself to yell at the young dog.  She missed her mistress, and became excited over every sound, thinking she was returning home.  While bouncing the infant and shushing her, Ben’s eyes followed the beagle as she ran toward the leading into the Stones’ yard.  Three riders came into sight as they rounded the ash grove.  Ben stood and smiled happily as he recognized the horsemen.

“Pa!  Hey, Pa!” Hoss waved his hat excitedly.

After tying their horses to the hitching rail, the brothers gathered around their father, exclaiming at the healing bruises on his face and the bandage around his forehead.

Frightened by the commotion, the baby in Ben’s arms wailed.  “Now look what you’ve done!  You’ve wakened the baby!” Ben grumbled.  “I’m fine, boys.” He reassured his sons, his voice softening.  “Ira didn’t get a scratch, but he lost his wife.  She wasn’t badly hurt, but didn’t make it through the birth of this little one..”

Ira stepped through the tilted doorframe in answer to his daughter’s cries.  “Supper’s ready, Ben.  I’ll take Ivy, now.”

He wasn’t surprised to see his visitors.  “Howdy, boys.  I knew you’d be here looking for your pa as soon as you could.   Turn your horses into the corral, and come on in.  You’re just in time for supper.  Ben can vouch for me not being much of a cook, and it’s just beans and burned biscuits, but your welcome.”

The three young men rose from where they were crouched by their father’s chair to greet Ira.  “The sheriff told us about your wife.”  Adam took the lead.  “We’re sorry to hear that.

“She’s a might pretty baby.” Joe added.

The praise for his daughter brought a smile to Ira’s face.  “Mighty loud, too.”  He reached for the infant.  “Here name’s Ivy.  Ivy Mae.  Annie wanted to name her for our mothers.”  He swallowed and abruptly turned back into the cabin.

Ben watched Ira, then nodded his head.“We’ll leave Ira alone with the baby for a bit.  He’ll pull himself together by the time you get cleaned up.

“Did you feel that earthquake at home?  How did the Ponderosa weather it?  How difficult was the trip here?”

********            

“Thank you, Ben, for the loan, and your friendship.  Especially, your friendship”. Ira’s shoulders were slumped and he shook his head as he spoke. I’ve never borrowed money from a friend, and I hate it that I’ve had to do it now   I should be able to pay it back quickly.”  He looked around  at the partially rebuilt town, and smiled ruefully.  “One thing the folks in Lone Pine are going to need plenty of, and that’s hardware.”

Ben smiled at the baby gurgling happily in his arms while she played with his finger “ At one time, I was stiff-necked about making my own way.  I’ve learned over the years that it doesn’t make you less of a man to accept some help from your friends,  I know you’ll pay me back when you can.  But, this young lady comes first.”

Ira nodded.  “With having to rebuild the store, I might not ever be able to build her the big house that I promised Annie, but I can provide something better than that cabin.  I promised her mother, that.”

The two men were setting on a bench outside the repaired  Overland Stage station in Lone Pine, waiting for the  stage coach for Virginia City.

“Here comes the stage.”  Adam straightened from where he was lounging against the wall of the stage station.   He grinned at Ira.  “ I think you’re going to have to pry your daughter out of my father’s arms. “

Ben turned the baby over to her father, laughing.   “I’ll miss her, but I’ve done my share of baby-raising.”  He winked at Ira.  “It’s past time for others in my family to start raising some babies.”

“Ahem!”  Adam cleared his throat and pointedly ignored his father’s remark.

The two Cartwrights bid Ira Stone goodbye and climbed into the crowded coach.  Ben settled in beside Adam, grumbling about over-protective sons who insisted that their father, who got along for many years without them,  needed a nursemaid to accompany him home.  Adam sighed and stretched out his long legs as best he could, pulling his hat down over his face.  It was going to be a long trip.  Not as long as the ride there, he reflected, when his brothers and he didn’t know what they would encounter.

Ira held his baby daughter against his shoulder and watched the stage depart., shielding  Ivy from the kicked-up dust with his hat   After it was out of site he started in the direction of his hardware store.  “Well, Ivy, if you’re going to learn the hardware business, we might as well get started.  We have a lot of work to do.”

Ivy sneezed from the dust and sucking loudly on her thumb, snuggled comfortably against her father’s broad chest.  Father and daughter began the first of many days together in Stone’s Hardware Store.

Under their feet, the earth quivered unnoticeable  as the dragon twitched in its sleep.

THE END

GF 6/11/06

Author’s note:  I’ve taken time-line and geographical liberties with the OwensValley earthquake of 1872.  The epicenter was at Lone Pine, Ca.  Scientists believe it was as strong or even stronger than the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.  Lone Pine was almost entirely destroyed.  There is a monument there, today, dedicated to those who died and were buried in a mass grave.

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