Summary: My 50th story! The Cartwright family must rebuild their lives after a devastating fire.
Rated: K+ WC 12, 700
As By Fire
If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer the loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
I Corinthians 3:15
He would remember the color of the sun, the morning after the fire. The day went ahead with sunrise just like nothing indecent had happened. Red like a spent rose, veiled by smoke, the rising sun was beautiful in its own right, and he spent some time watching it. His oldest son worried and offered him a cup of coffee, but he refused it, explaining that some moments had to be experienced for what they were. And this was one of them.
Before heading back inside, he had to check one more time, just in case his mind was playing tricks on him. But nothing had changed: the smoke shrouded over charred mountain ridges, with soot still falling like dirty snow.
When he turned back, Adam was leaning against the threshold, still holding out the coffee cup.
“We’re still here,” Adam said. “That’s something, Pa.”
Ben gazed wearily at his oldest son and took the cup, knowing the other two were hurt and asleep inside the house. In time, they would all be expecting him to explain what they were going to do next. Lord help him, Ben had no idea. How could he be a father to these boys when he could hardly find the strength to walk inside? He raised his cup and took a sip of the coffee. It tasted bitter like ashes.
It had all turned to ashes, his land, his lifelong dreams. The Ponderosa. But he drank it down.
Adam hung his coat on the hook by the door, as he entered the little room with the low-pitched roof. It still seemed strange that he had needed a winter coat in the middle of the summer. Even though it was devilishly hot in the glaring sun, inside the mine, it was as cold as a sealed tomb. Even before he lit the oil lamp, he could see well enough by moonlight, after so many hours in the complete darkness of the mine. Although the spare room consisted of a bed, a desk and chair, a bureau and a washbasin, he’d taken to calling it “home.” Adam set his ledger carefully down on the desk and resisted falling into bed. He longed for sleep, but he still had work to do. It was the last life he’d dreamed for himself – long, dark days and nights as a mining engineer.
It was actually an exhilarating time to be an engineer at the Comstock. Just last year, Phillip Diedeshiemer had invented a new method of shoring up a mineshaft that had literally opened unimaginable advances in mining safety. It was called square-set timbering, and costs for lumber had dramatically increased, as neighboring mines quickly adopted the system. Diedeshiemer was a genius. Even a year after he’d first met the young man, Adam still marveled at the brilliance of his innovation. But Diedeshiemer was only one young man, and other engineers were needed to carry out his vision. It was the silver lining in a sad story. Adam was in need of a job, and the Silver Stake was in need of a lead engineer. It was a far cry from the dignified and grand buildings and bridges he’d envisioned himself designing while studying architecture in Boston. Yet, this kind of architecture was raw and exciting in a way that he’d never imagined. The mine was dynamic and ever changing; it was a part of his job to keep up with it. If a single span needed to be shored up, Adam didn’t have time to look for the elegant solution. He only had time to make it safe. And saving lives was far more satisfying than an elegant design.
During the time he’d been working at the Silver Stake, Adam had come to know the excavation site like it was a second home. It wasn’t easy to leave the sunshine in order to be swallowed up by the darkness of the shaft. Yet, walking into that mine was a lot safer since he’d come to work there. Adam had been working on a system where as the ore was removed, it was immediately replaced with a timber lattice. The system had greatly increased safety for the miners and productivity for the mine shareholders, because much more of the ore could be removed at a time. Ironically, the Cartwright family had originally been a direct beneficiary of the square set timber bracing because the system depended on a constant supply of lumber. They had staked everything on a lucrative deal with the mines, when the fire burned the vast majority of their trees.
So, Adam’s life had certainly changed. For the first time, Adam woke up every morning knowing that he would be able to put his analytical and creative abilities to use every hour of the day. He wasn’t stuck behind a desk either. The work was hard and relatively dangerous, but he found himself enjoying it more than he would have believed possible. Yet, Adam kept it to himself. Pa had suffered enough. Having his oldest son benefit from the Ponderosa’s near destruction would simply be unacceptable.
It had been a long, strange season for the Cartwright family. The fire couldn’t have come at a worse time. It had been early summer after an arid spring, and the first lightning strikes hit bone-dry timber in the highlands. They saw the smoke the next morning, but it was a long way off, and there wasn’t anything they could do about it. Fire was part of life in the mountains, and it didn’t look too bad at first. They thought the storm would put an end to it, but the thunderclouds produced only sporadic rain. Then the winds began…
The smoke devoured the sun. Fire raged through the pines; the devastation was a roar, the dry trees exploding as the flames passed through. Even as lightning split the sky, the thunder trembled in comparison. There was no arguing with God when it came to fire. It was what it was. Even so, every available hand was rounded up to ride up to the perimeter and assess the situation. But as soon as they were within a mile of the fire line, it was clear to every last one of them that this was beyond their control. An act of God. That’s what old Harvey said, and Adam would never forget the look on his father’s face as he stared into that sprawling inferno. The other men rode off, but the Cartwrights remained. They could feel the intense heat on their faces, even though the fire was a good mile a way. Sparks and cinders were falling around them like rain. The horses were agitated, wild eyed and pulling at the bit. They knew it was time to flee.
Quietly, Hoss said, “It’s gonna be close to the mill at Handleman Ridge.”
“I know it,” Ben said, fighting to control his mount.
Joe was in tears, although it was hard to tell through the heat and soot and flying ash. Tears and sweat looked about the same.
“We could try,” he said. “We could dig a firebreak, keep it on the other side of the mill…”
“It’s too late, little brother,” Hoss said. “It’d be on us before we ever got started.”
“Well, we’ve got to do something!” Joe shouted. For all the world, he looked like he was going to start a fight, but it was hard to brawl with a fire. “We can’t just let the Ponderosa burn to the ground and not do a damn thing to stop it!”
“What do you think, Pa?”
As soon as Adam asked the question, he knew he shouldn’t have. For the first time that day, Adam actually saw his father. Stock-still in his saddle, grey-faced with ash, Ben looked old. Lord Almighty, Ben Cartwright looked old in a way that Adam had never seen before. For years, Adam had fought for his own voice in running the Ponderosa, but there was nothing Adam wanted more at that moment than his pa to tell him what to do like he was a little kid. But Ben didn’t say a word. He just stared at the hellish mountain as if mesmerized. The sky was dusk, as if the sun had already surrendered. The heat was becoming more and more intense, the hills alive with animals fleeing from the conflagration. They could almost taste it. The heat blazed against their faces in the rising wind.
Joe shouted, “What should we do, Pa?”
Hoss shot a desperate look over at Adam. Only God could stop a forest fire. They needed to get out of there. Adam had the sudden feeling that his father would be silent forever, standing mute in the path of that fire until it consumed him. Even if they survived this, they were sure to be devoured by its aftermath. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time; Adam was well aware of the implications. Their finances had never been tighter, thanks to a gamble on the timber contract with the mines. The mines needed lumber, and the Cartwrights had that lumber in abundance. And now it was turning to ash, raining over them. They were breathing in hundreds of years of fine old growth forest, gone on a Sunday afternoon.
Then Adam suddenly thought of the herd – that precious herd of cattle ready to be driven to market. Only last week they’d driven the herd to higher ground to fatten up on what was left of the spring pastureland. By Adam’s calculations, that pastureland was minutes away from the fire’s path. The herd was all but lost. Those poor creatures… There was no way to drive them out in time, no way at all.
“Pa, what should we do?” Joe was desperate for his pa to answer, but Ben was silent. Then Adam knew why his pa wasn’t saying anything. For the first time in his thirty years of life, Adam realized that his father had no idea what was going to happen next. If the Cartwright family had any future, it was time to act and get out, right now!
Adam grabbed his father’s reins and motioned at Hoss to take a hold of Joe’s. No taking any chances that Joe would charge up the hillside and take on the fire alone. The air was crackling. They could hardly see. They were out of time. Everything was lost. Everything. But they still had their lives, and they were together.
“Come on, pa, we have to get out of here,” Adam shouted. “Joe, you’ve got to let it go! We can’t fight it. It’s already too late. We’re going home. Hoss, watch Joe! Don’t let him get away from you!”
And, together, they escaped the apocalypse like the devil was at their backs. And the fire lapped at their heels as they fled…
The fire burned for days. At great risk to their own lives, they managed to save the ranch house, the barns, and the outbuildings. By the time their battle with the inferno was over, Hoss had suffered serious burns on his arm that reached up to his shoulder, but he never talked about it. Joe had run into a burning corral to save the horses and as a result, he suffered from coughing spells that lasted for week and weeks.
Yet, so much of their world was gone. Even months later, Adam reeled from the totality of it. All those recently built lumber mills were burned to the ground. The prize herd of cattle was lost. The fire had burned so hot that they never found any bones. Only ashes. More than that, miles and miles of the finest timber on God’s good earth – utterly and irretrievably gone. The Cartwrights were ruined, even if no one had the grit to come out and say it. And what was slowly becoming apparent to all of them was that they no longer had the means to rebuild any of it. Adam would readily take the blame if it would have done any good, but nobody could have seen this happening. However, he knew that his pa was also shouldering his share of guilt for the Cartwright’s downfall.
Ben and Adam were usually very conservative when it came to finances. However, for the past month, they had been counting a potential windfall in the form of several impressive timber contracts with the Comstock mines. The contracts gave the Ponderosa the exclusive rights for supplying lumber for the square set timbering of several silver mines. Providing enough lumber for the square-set timbering was a huge undertaking, but the profits would have been enormous. It took a great deal of additional manpower and invested capital to allow them to fulfill the contract, but Adam and Ben had weighed their decision for many late nights. It had been a gamble, and they had lost. The fire not only destroyed most of their prime timber, but also their four lumber mills, including the two they’d just had built for the job. The Cartwright family suddenly found themselves in huge debt, with few options for paying off their creditors.
Almost immediately, they started looking for ways to liquidate their assets. One by one, they sold off their investments. To begin with, they sold their shares in the silver mines. Over the years, Ben had purchased several tracts of land in California, and they had little trouble selling those off as well. Ben even found himself selling off his more valuable possessions, including several pieces of furniture that Marie had selected after they married. They sold off as much equipment as they could spare, as well as a fine remuda of horses. By the time their accounts were settled, they still owned the Ponderosa, even though the land still smoldered. Those glorious pines were now tortured silhouettes of their former beauty. The mountains were charred, black, and desolate.
But the land was all the Cartwrights had left, and they were determined to keep it, any way they could. They were loathe to sell off a single acre. As Adam continuously reminded his father, they had one other asset left to them that still had incalculable worth – family. And there was one thing the Cartwright family knew how to do very well – they knew how to work. So that’s what they did. As soon as they were able, they went to work, clearing out burnt debris and assessing the damage to what was left of the Ponderosa.
At first, it was mostly Ben and Adam who were responsible for the early hard decisions. Hoss’s burns kept him on laudanum for the first few weeks, so he didn’t participate much in many of the early decisions that had to be made. Yet, Hoss dreamed of spring and regeneration.
In between bouts of fever-drenched sleep, Hoss would wake up and tell them, “It’s gonna come back. Just wait and see. It ain’t dead. I can see it growing. Just wait until the snow melts.”
They tried to humor him, but it was hard to see it. They were a long way away from winter, let alone spring. Joe also fought to recover. He couldn’t catch his breath for days. Every time he tried to do more than sift ashes out of the hay, he would double over coughing. He tried to hide it from the rest of them, leaving the house when it got bad, as if his absence would keep them from worrying. Ben worried plenty over his younger two sons, and Adam was almost glad for it. Worrying gave his father else something to do, besides standing in the yard and staring at the ruined mountains.
By the time Joe and Hoss recovered enough to be of much help, it was already mid summer. Ben had worked himself to the bone, trying to tend to the small sections of usable land that hadn’t burned. They counted on those remaining pastures to provide enough alfalfa to keep their remaining livestock alive through the winter. They were pretty much on their own. All the ranch hands had all left the Ponderosa for jobs elsewhere. Out of loyalty, their old foreman, Charlie, stayed as long as he could, but there was no money left for wages. The Cartwrights wished him well as he went on their way. Hop Sing remained of course, but he had long since stopped being an employee.
It became all consuming in those early days – the question of how they were going to restore the land without the means to do it. From the beginning, it was clear that they needed money to rebuild the Ponderosa. Their sources of income were gone, so it was obvious they had to find other ways to replenish their coffers. Of the four Cartwrights, Adam was the obvious choice to make a living outside the ranch.
“Look at it this way – all that education’s finally going to amount to something,” he tried teasing his father, but Ben rarely smiled in those days.
The engineering job at the Silver Stake wasn’t the obvious choice, but he took the job without consulting his father. Ben was so preoccupied, it was easier to tell him the decision was already made. In this, Adam had followed his little brother’s credo that it was easier to ask for forgiveness than permission. He knew it was a shock to his pa, but it couldn’t be helped. Since he couldn’t travel home every night from the Comstock, Adam moved into the miner’s quarters that first week. As an engineer, he received his own room rather having to sleep in the bunkhouse with the other miners, and he spent long hours by candlelight sketching out his plans. At first, plans centered on his plans to rebuild the Ponderosa. Adam kept a journal detailing what they would need to do to recover. Yet, little by little, his work at the mines began to creep into his planning. As the weeks passed by, Adam spent less time thinking about returning the Ponderosa to solvency and more in trying to find a safer and more economical way to shore up the tunnels.
It was like meandering into a different life.
Adam believed his family would be all right without him. They were strong, and the money he sent home helped them start bringing the ranch around again. Some of his assurance was shaken when he found out that Little Joe had left home to take a job with the Overland Company as a driver. He was stunned by the fact that Joe was actually gone, and Hoss dryly assured him that it had been no different for the rest of them. Apparently, Joe hadn’t been all that anxious to hear Adam’s opinion on the matter, because he hadn’t even stopped at the Silver Stake on his way out of town to say goodbye. At most, the youngest Cartwright would only be able to come home the third Sunday out of every month if his route passed through Virginia City. The Overland paid for most of Joe’s expenses, so he simply sent the check home in its entirety, only taking what little money he needed for his basic needs. It broke Ben’s heart all over again to have the house so empty, but for once Adam agreed with his little brother. They needed the money even more than they needed the help around the ranch. Adam only wished that Joe had hired himself out to one of the big spreads outside Sacramento. Working as a drover was a whole lot less dangerous than driving a stage. Adam could only begin to imagine what his reckless little brother would be like holding the reins of a spirited team while getting paid to go fast.
But Joe was a man at eighteen, even if he was a very young and occasionally foolish man. The Cartwrights had no choice really but to let him go. They had already let go of more than they’d ever imagined. The Cartwright family was growing apart, and Adam didn’t know if things would ever be the same…
“Cartwright! There’s been a collapse in the north section!”
Adam snapped out of his reverie and back into the small rough-hewn room that he now called home. Tom Jeffers, his apprentice, had swung open the door without even knocking and stood before him with wild eyes. A collapse in that section of tunnel meant one thing -lives potentially lost. They hadn’t yet shored up that section of the shaft, and Adam had been warning them for days that it wasn’t stable. Calm despite his alarm, Adam pushed back from his desk, snuffed out the lantern, and almost left his coat behind in his haste. But the mines were cold, day or night, so he bundled up and closed the door behind him.
“Thank God you were here,” Jeffers was prattling on. “I don’t know what would happen if I couldn’t find you.”
Thank God, Adam echoed silently, as he realized that he was indeed thankful to be there – to be of service. Yet, he filed that away with everything else that he wouldn’t say out loud, and he hurried after Jeffers into the moonlit dark. Adam could hear alarm bells and wailing in the distance.
The stage was swinging around the corner, and Joe was glad he didn’t have any passengers for this run. He felt like he could fly. Sweet Lord, it was a glory of a day!
The trickiest turn on the downgrade was coming up, and Joe could feel the anticipation of it in his body. The rougher the road, the more skill it took to handle the team. He pulled back on the reins, but only a little, just enough to keep the stage from tipping over the steep bank. The spirited four-horse team took the turn with speed that might have gotten him fired from a passenger stage, had there been anyone along to complain, but Joe was alone on this run. His coach was hobbled with bundles of mail and other packages, with even more mailbags strapped to the roof. It made the stage’s balance that much more precarious, but Joe knew what he was doing. Or so he kept telling himself and his pa in his letters home. What with all the trouble with the bandits and Indians, there weren’t many drivers willing to take on the more dangerous routes, so the mail had been getting backed up for weeks. As for Joe, he didn’t have a fear in the world. There wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle. Except for his pa the next time he went home to visit…
Good thing Pa’s too busy to worry, Joe thought cheerfully. The thought died down as soon as it arose, and Joe reprimanded himself for feeling grateful for that his father was overworked and preoccupied. As atonement, he pulled on the reins and slowed the team’s pace. Just a little.
Though he kept a whip on the seat next to him, Joe never used it. He didn’t have to. Much to the amusement of the other drivers who considered their whips their most prized possessions, Joe explained that the horses knew what he wanted, so he had no need for it. If he wanted to go fast, he made sure the team wanted it too. He truly believed that the horses had faith in him. Although he changed horses at each station, every new team responded the same way. Joe was the youngest and fastest driver in the Company. Everyone swore he was a natural.
“You’re born for this life, kid.”
That’s what Whiskey Jack, an old-timer, told him just last week. Joe barely hid his grin at the compliment, but he felt it was true. Even without the paycheck he sent home every month, he wasn’t sure if he’d ever be able to give it up. He couldn’t tell his family. They would never understand, and he felt disloyal even thinking about it. But Joe reasoned to himself that his family needed the money. They’d lost so much, and he wanted desperately to make it up to them.
Taking the job with the Overland had originally been about the money. Despite his assurances to his pa, being a stagecoach driver was a dangerous job, and the Company was having trouble trying to recruit drivers for the hazardous runs. That’s why the pay was so high. The lure of those kind of wages were irresistible. Somehow, Joe knew he would be good at the job. He would work there long enough to help his family have enough money to rebuild what they had lost. Once he’d started, however, something unexpected begun to happen. Little by little, he had fallen in love. With the Ponderosa in ruins, it was the worst sort of betrayal. But what a thrilling affair it had been for eighteen-year-old Joe Cartwright…
The road ahead was smooth and straight, and Joe settled back against the slatted seat. It was a good road. He could sleep if he wanted. The team knew the way. Yet, he wasn’t tired even though he’d been driving most of the night. Another dozen miles ahead and the road would turn rough and unwieldy, and his chance for some shut-eye would be gone. Pa had sternly warned him about sleeping while driving the stage. Joe didn’t have the heart to tell his pa that all the drivers did it; it was the only way to complete a run on schedule and get paid. Besides, it was too dangerous to pull over and sleep. The area was crawling with bandits and renegade Paiutes, and he couldn’t afford to get himself killed. Lord knew that they depended on his wages. In this at least, he’d been completely faithful. Every cent that he didn’t need for his own most basic needs went home to his father. He’d never steered clear of so many saloon girls and poker games in his short but reckless life, but the other drivers kept him well supplied with as much rotgut as he could handle. Even though he’d always worked hard on the Ponderosa, Joe finally felt like he was earning his keep.
It hadn’t exactly been easy to convince his pa that taking the job was a good idea. Ben hated his youngest son working for the Overland. His father argued that being a driver was the worst kind of job he could have chosen – the most dangerous at least – and that he should sign on with a nearby ranch instead. Joe already had his argument prepared, and it was a sound one. The Overland paid better than any ranch would be willing to pay a higher hand. Every dollar mattered. Ironically, Joe was actually earning more than his oldest brother. He couldn’t resist getting that in – so much for the value of a higher education…
The fact that he knew he was right didn’t make it any easier to convince his father.
“I said, ‘no,’ and that’s final!” Ben had roared. “You still wake up at night coughing! How in tarnation are you going to handle driving a stage?”
“Pa, you’re not being reasonable,” Joe insisted. “I’m fine now. I’m hardly coughing at all during the day. Look, it’s time I pull my weight around here, and this is something I can do. We need to set aside more money if we’re ever going to start over again. Adam’s doing his share, and you didn’t try to stop him. How is this any different? I don’t see why I can’t – “
Outraged, Ben interrupted, “Adam working as an engineer is a lot different than you driving a stage for the Overland! There are bandits crawling over every road on the Overland route. I don’t think you could made a more foolhardy choice than this one, boy.”
“Fumbling around in a rotted old mine ain’t exactly what I’d call safe,” Joe grumbled, and he meant it.
Joe hated that Adam had chosen to go to work in a God-forsaken mine. Just thinking of it suffocated him inside – reminded him of how he’d almost died breathing in all that smoke. He didn’t know how Adam could stand it. Joe would surely have died from such a job – he couldn’t imagine living a life where he couldn’t feel the sun on his face. Yet, surprisingly, Adam seemed at peace with the job and the life he’d made for himself. Yet, the last time Joe had seen his brother, he’d almost seemed happier than before the fire.
“Well, I don’t like Adam working at the Silver Stake either,” Ben grumbled. “It’s not safe, and I wish he’d had taken the job that Grant Peters offered him instead.”
Joe rolled his eyes at that, although he was careful not to let his pa or Hoss see. Adam had told him all about Grant Peter’s offer to do bookkeeping at the bank. Couldn’t blame him one bit for turning it down. Joe knew one thing about his big brother – although he got addled in the head over books sometimes, Adam would never want to be stuck in a job that involved no more risk than getting ink on his trousers. That would definitely be worse than being swallowed by a mine. Numbers and books and airless rooms, hour after hour, day after day. What would be the fun in that?
Fun. Joe felt guilty just thinking the word. What right did he have to be thinking about having fun when his pa looked older and more exhausted each and every day? The back of his hands were sun-baked and cracked, his face worn with worry. Pa was sacrificing so much to bring the land back to life again. They’d been facing huge expenses even before most of the Ponderosa burned down. Joe hadn’t known about any of their debts or investments before the fire. Pa and Adam had always taken care of that. Joe had never worried about money as long as he got his paycheck in time for the next big poker game in town. He had been such a kid back then…
“You are not going to work for the Overland, and that’s final.” Ben started for the door like the conversation was over, but Joe knew something his pa didn’t. A lot of things had changed since the fire.
Joe forged ahead. “Pa, the sooner we can set aside some money, the sooner we’ll be able to hire out and get more help. There’s land on the other side of the Truckee that didn’t burn. We need to rebuild that mill if we’re ever going to – “
“There are other ways to rebuild what we’ve lost without you leaving -” Ben said, but Hoss cut in unexpectedly.
“Maybe he’s right, Pa,” Hoss said. Joe grinned at his big brother for the unexpected support, but Hoss wasn’t smiling. “The Overland pays a whole lot more than Little Joe would make at another ranch, and busting broncs ain’t exactly safe neither.”
Ben could have been punched in the gut for the look on his face at Hoss’s words. Joe almost gave in at that. Causing his pa more pain was almost more than he could stand. Joe had always thought his pa was as strong as granite. He’d come to understand that even solid rock could be worn down. Every report they’d gotten back – more pasture land ruined, more prime timber burned to the ground, all their lumber operations gone, their lost livestock, the cattle – every piece of bad news had made Ben Cartwright look so much older than he was. Upon learning that the fire was also claiming his sons- this was too much to take.
Ben shook his head, and for a moment Joe thought his pa was saying no. It would have been what he’d have expected. But things had changed. This time, his pa was giving in.
“I’m going out to feed the horses,” Ben said gruffly, and reached for his hat from the rack by the door. It was a surrender of sorts, and they all knew it. Walking away was just as much a sign of his consent than if he’d actually said yes.
But Joe couldn’t help himself – he followed his pa to the door. Had there ever been a time when he didn’t want his pa’s approval? Even though Ben had been so preoccupied since the fire, he still seemed to know this. Ben turned and placed his hands on either side of his boy’s face.
Drawing near, he said, “You do this if you need to. But listen to me, Joseph, and I want you to listen good. You will drive that stage like it’s loaded down with eggs and china. If I hear word of anything to the contrary, you will be coming home with me, even if I have to tie you to the saddle. I don’t care if the Ponderosa stays burned to the ground. I don’t want to hear of you taking any unnecessary risks. No runs through Indian territory either. Do you understand me, boy?”
“Yes sir,” Joe replied, unsuccessfully trying to stop himself from smiling between his pa’s hands.
Ben let go of Joe’s face but let his hand linger on the back of his neck, for just a moment longer. Then he turned and shut the door behind him, leaving Joe to wonder at his unexpected victory. It was unsettling, in a way that made his heart beat hard to a tune he’d never heard before. Joe was about to thank his big brother for lending him support, but Hoss was frowning out the window at those blackened mountain ridges again. Joe came alongside, and together they solemnly surveyed what was left of their land. It was like mourning a death, Joe reckoned. Didn’t matter how long it had been, that grief was still raw and shocking. Almost absent-mindedly, Hoss was rubbing at his arm where he’d been burned so badly in the fire. Just yesterday, he’d told Little Joe that it was itching something fierce. Joe could still feel the smoke in his own damaged lungs. He wondered if they’d ever be whole again…
Joe touched his brother’s shoulder lightly in thanks and started for the stairs, when Hoss came from behind him and took a hard hold of his arm.
“Little Joe,” Hoss said. “Pa’s right. You’re takin’ an awful chance in this…”
This time Joe couldn’t hide his grin. “But this is what I’m supposed to do, Hoss, I just know it.”
Hoss glared. “I don’t wanna hear talk like that, Little Joe. What would it do to Pa to see you lookin’ happy about going off like this? Adam’s already gone. Pa knows good and well that every time Adam goes into that there mine, there’s a dang good chance he ain’t never comin’ out of it. Do you think he can stand worrin’ about you too?”
“I don’t know,” Joe said, quietly. Then, he had to ask, “Will Pa be all right, Hoss? He’s just so…”
“Sad.” Hoss knew the right word, and Joe nodded. “I reckon we’re all sad, but -“
“The Ponderosa’s his life,” Joe said.
“Ain’t his whole life.” Hoss gave his little brother a shove toward the stairs. “Go on and get, but I’m warnin’ you, Little Joe. Don’t you even think of doing nothing that’s gonna worry Pa, or I’m gonna come after you myself.”
“I’ll be careful, Hoss.” Joe could hardly keep his feet still. “I’ll even be home for Thanksgiving. I promise.”
Even as he turned his back on his brother, Joe took the stairs two at a time. He wondered how fast he could drive a team without breaking his promise.
Joe didn’t have much longer to go, and for once he was glad. He’d been coughing up trail dust all afternoon. Even though he’d never tell his pa, his breathing still wasn’t back to normal. It was like his lungs were wrapped in wool, and he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to take a deep breath again. It didn’t help that his lips were so dry, and yet he’d hardly spared a moment to sip from the canteen on the seat next to him. He hadn’t remembered to eat all day, and yet the last thing he wanted to do was to slow his pace to dig around for his knapsack.
Soon, he’d be reaching the most dangerous part of his route, and the last thing he wanted to do was drive through the gorge during nightfall. The entire ravine was crawling with bandits from here to Dry Bluff. Hidden underneath his hundreds of pounds of U.S. mail, Joe was also carrying a sizeable sum from the central bank of Sacramento. He could live without food or water for a while, but he couldn’t live without his six-shooter holstered low on his hip. Unconsciously, he patted it affectionately. He’d been keeping a good pace, not wearing out the horses too early on his route. Even if a pack of bandits were hiding in the brush at the end of the canyon, he’d be able to outrun them, and if that didn’t work, he could always shoot them down.
He was eighteen, he was on his own for the first time in his life, and nobody in these parts cared that he was Little Joe Cartwright of the Ponderosa. It was all about what he believed, not about who he was, and Joe sincerely believed everything was going to be just fine. Even though he was breathing in dust and grit with his ruined lungs, it felt a lot like freedom.
Every inch of his body ached and had been aching since he’d hauled himself out of bed that morning. Ben had manure caked onto his boots and dirt worn into the cracks on his hands, as he’d been fussing over the potatoes in Hop Sing’s sprawling kitchen garden all day. At first, he tried to stand up too quickly, but the sharp pinch in his back made him take it real slow. He wasn’t willing to call it a day, while the sun was still out. Hop Sing would be back soon, and together, they would hoe and weed and cajole the garden into producing enough of a harvest to see his family through the harsh months ahead. It was strange how little time he’d spent thinking about how much time Hop Sing spent working in the garden before the fire. They’d always hired a couple boys from the outlying ranches to help with the harvest, and Ben had always been far too busy running the Ponderosa to pay much attention to such domestic matters. Of course, now there was no money to pay for hired help, and they could no longer afford to supplement their provisions with supplies from town. Ben, Hoss, and Hop Sing had all agreed that filling the larders for the winter had to be the family’s first priority. The soil was still rich; it would yield a good harvest.
He hadn’t expected it to take so long. Hoss needed help with the fencing, but it seemed like there was never enough time for everything that needed to be done. Hoss wouldn’t complain. Somehow, he would manage to complete enough work for four men, never asking for any thanks. Thinking of Hoss made Ben turn to the potatoes with renewed determination. He couldn’t remember the last time that his middle boy had asked for a second helping. A plate full of potatoes was the least Ben could give him.
It wasn’t only Hoss. All his sons had taken so much on. It was humbling to know that they were now providing. Even though it was the natural way of things, he was very used to doing for himself. Ben had not taken the tragedy well. Although it shamed him to admit it, there were mornings he woke up and wasn’t sure where he would find the strength to make it through the day. It was true he’d come west with nothing but a strong back and two young sons. From that, he had created an empire. The Ponderosa was now in ruins, but it cried out to him to restore it to its former glory. He knew that the fire should have resurrected his pioneer spirit. He should be rallying to rebuild and not letting anything or anyone stand in his way. But the truth was that Ben was tired. He was tired, and he felt old. Ben just didn’t have the same determination to start over again that he’d had when he was young. He lost his wealth and his prominence. With Adam and Joe gone, he felt like he was losing his family. What he would give to have them all around his table again…
He was so grateful for his sons. They had handled this disaster with grace and fortitude, something that Ben couldn’t always say about himself. Despite everything else, he was proud that they had found their way. Adam was apparently content with his work; anyone could see that, and though Ben hated his son had chosen such a perilous job, he could see the satisfaction on his son’s face when he showed off his plans over the dinner table. Joseph was another story. He sent a letter with every paycheck, but he’d been gone for two months – the longest stretch Ben had ever gone without seeing his boy. His route was supposed to have brought him through Virginia City in September, but the Overland had needed him to take the Placerville route instead. Joe had written that it was because the Company said he “was the best man for the job,” but Ben suspected it was because they couldn’t find anyone else foolish enough to drive that stage through Bandit’s Gorge.
Ben looked up at the sky. Clouds were mulling over the blackened mountains. With the trees and undergrowth gone, they’d be at risk for mudslides, come the first rain. So it had come to this – no man who loved the land ever begrudged the rain. The fire had changed all that. It made him look at life’s storms with trepidation instead of gratitude and wonder. There had been a time when he’d looked forward to a challenge. Could it be that he had simply gotten used to an easier life?
He heard the sound of footsteps, and he turned, expecting to see Hop Sing coming back from the house. Instead, Sheriff Coffee was treading carefully across the field, over the upturned ground, heading in Ben’s direction. He held a piece of folded paper in his hand. Ben’s stomach churned, as he got a good look at Roy’s expression. It wasn’t the first time he’d seen that look, and it never accompanied good news. The sheriff was a real friend, one of the few who had stood by him through the thick and the thin. Yet, Ben would have gladly ordered him off his land, in order to keep from having to hear what his friend had to say.
“Ben, this telegram came from the Overland -” Roy started, but Ben couldn’t let him go any further. He reached for the dispatch himself, and the sheriff couldn’t look him in the eye.
As unfolded it, Ben finally began to understand. Despite all that had happened, he had always been a wealthy man. He had never suffered loss as if by fire. He read: Regret to inform you. Stop. Your son has been…
Oh Joseph, you promised to be careful. What will I tell your brothers?
“Thank you, Roy,” was all he said.
Hoss groaned as he tried bracing the fence section with his back while setting the post in its hole, but he just couldn’t do it on his own. The last days of autumn were fading fast. If he didn’t take care of the fencing, they wouldn’t be able to protect what was left of their sorry herd for the coming winter. It had been a blessing that the fire hadn’t burned this one poor pasture. The bunch grass wasn’t the best source of hay, but it was all they had to offer the few mommas and their calves who’d survived the fire. Still holding up the fence, Hoss stooped and reached for his canteen. For this time of the year, it was an awfully hot day, and he had been working alone for most of it. Pa said he would come and help as soon as he was finished in the garden with Hop Sing. They’d all been tending to that sizeable garden all summer and fall and had to finish the canning before winter. Adam always brought provisions when he came home from town, but the prices in Virginia City were so high… it was better to depend on the garden than whatever the mercenaries at the mercantile were liable to charge them. It had been a real blessing that they’d saved the garden before it burned. They would have a mighty hungry winter without it.
The thought of Adam coming home on Sunday lifted his spirits like little else. Hoss usually tried not to think about his brothers when he was working, lest loneliness devour him whole. Hoss was not a complicated man, but he’d been so alone since the fire. Even though he knew his brothers were doing what they had to, he couldn’t push away the feeling that they should have stayed home where they belonged. Hoss didn’t know if he could do this on his own. It wasn’t just the work; it was Pa. Watching Pa was like watching the seasons end. A man shouldn’t have to shoulder that kind of sadness alone.
Hoss hoped he’d have time to go to the lake before supper. It set his heart at ease to end the day in a place untouched by the fire, and he could use the time to do some fishing. Hop Sing would be grateful for anything he brought home. They usually saved the chickens for Sundays when Adam came home. A fresh caught trout was a veritable feast at the Ponderosa these days. Hoss couldn’t even remember the last time they’d sat down to a fine roast. Usually, at this time of year, he’d have been setting out on a weeklong hunting trip with his brothers. They’d have been bringing home enough game to last until spring. No time for hunting trips this year. His brothers weren’t coming home, and Hoss was too dang busy to do anything but the work before him.
Hoss swallowed. No sense in thinking of such things. No sense at all. He would ride to the lake, and he would feel better. At least the water was cool and clean. After the fire, black ash lapped against the shore at the cove. How Hoss had hated those days. The air had been so thick with ash and soot, it hurt to breathe it in. The burns on his arm ached just thinking about it. It wasn’t like they ever stopped hurting. Doc Martin had told him that with burns that deep, it was unlikely they would ever go away completely. Told him it was a fool thing charging into a blazing fire with only buckets of water and a wet blanket over his face for protection. And yet that was how he and Joe had managed to save the ranch house, and for that, Hoss would gladly go through the pain all over again.
He’d have spared Joe. The last time Joe was at home, Hoss had heard him coughing late into the night. He’d heard his little brother’s door creak open and the soft footsteps heading downstairs and outside. Joe didn’t want to wake anyone up, but Pa heard it too. Hoss could hear the bedsprings of his father’s bed creak and then could hear the pacing across the wide-planked floor. Neither man would sleep until Joe’s cough settled down and he was back in his own bed. Those had been long nights. It was a lot quieter now that Joe was gone. Hoss wondered if Joe was still coughing all alone.
Hoss sighed and gently eased the piece of fence back to the ground. It was no use. He needed another body to hold the dadburned thing, so he could set it in place. Adam was supposed to be home tomorrow on Sunday, and he would be able to help then. The work was never-ending, but Hoss would never turn his back to it. His life had always been defined by the land and his father and brothers. The day he gave up on any of them would be the day they laid him in his grave, but the way he’d been working, that day might come sooner than later. Hoss smiled ruefully at that thought. It had been a difficult season, but he’d survived all right. The Ponderosa still belonged to the Cartwrights, and he and his pa were making it through, even if day to day.
Day to day. Even though he’d made it a habit to not think further than the day ahead, Hoss let his thoughts drift forward to Thanksgiving. Both his brothers had promised to be home that day. It had been two months since they’d all been together under the same roof. It was going to be a different feast this year, but that wouldn’t matter if they were together again. Lordy, how he missed his brothers! And yet, he felt unaccountably angry with them for leaving him. His pa kept telling him that it was only temporary, but Hoss wasn’t so sure. There was nothing temporary about the trees burned to the ground, but even he knew that new seedlings would be sprouting at the base come spring. He’d even seen moss growing on a charred stump, still smoldering. Life came back in the most unlikely places. And yet, Hoss wasn’t at all sure his family would come back the same way. He couldn’t stop thinking of the last good time he’d spent with Adam.
Adam had been able to stay the night, which was a real blessing, because Hoss needed his brother’s help with the branding. Five new calves had been born since the fire, which would have meant little back in the days when a full herd meant a thousand head of cattle. Nowadays, five new calves encompassed their hopes and dreams. Hoss had always said that God worked best with small numbers, and the days after the fire had proved just that.
It was a hot day in the corral. He’d noticed that everything felt hotter than usual without the ever-present canopy of trees to cool things down. Even though nothing had burned nearby, the heat was persistent. Hoss was holding down the scrawny calf, while Adam walked over with the iron. Hoss had tried to teach Hop Sing how to do it, but their cook never managed to heat the iron just right. A properly heated iron was the color of ashes. Too hot and the calf’s hair would catch fire, marring the brand. Adam knew what he was doing. More importantly, he knew what Hoss was doing. They could anticipate each other’s actions without a word. Until he was gone, Hoss had never realized before how much he depended on his older brother working beside him.
Carefully, Adam lifted the iron, leaving a brand the color of saddle leather. It would bring that little calf home for the rest of its life. Hoss let himself think of the hundreds of poor animals that had died in the foothills that day. There wasn’t anything the Ponderosa brand could do to save them.
“Nice work, Adam,” Hoss said and smiled at his brother. Adam returned it, but as he turned away, Hoss came to believe there was something his brother wasn’t telling him. Something that he really ought to know. “Everything all right, Adam?”
Surprised, Adam glanced up. “Fine, everything’s fine. We had a cave-in last week, but I think it’s shored up now. No one was hurt, thank God.”
“I reckon that is a blessing,” Hoss said carefully. It wasn’t what he’d been asking, but it seemed like Adam never stopped thinking about the Silver Stock. “I heard tell that eight miners died on the Comstock last month. I reckon that wouldn’t have happened if you’d been working there. We’re real proud of you, brother.”
It was more than he’d said all day, but it was the right thing to say. Hoss could see Adam’s face begin to relax, even as he launched into a discussion about bracing and shoring that meant nothing to Hoss. But his brother meant something to him, and so he listened. But it made him feel sad and lonely inside to hear Adam going on and on. There had been a day, not so long ago, when all Adam’s plans revolved around the Ponderosa. Hoss knew he should be happy for his brother. And proud. He was proud and always would be, but Hoss was no fool. He saw the look in his big brother’s eyes and knew that he and his pa had lost more than they’d thought.
Adam noticed the way Hoss was staring, and right away, he tamped his enthusiasm down.
“Any news from Joe?” Adam asked, lifting the branding iron again.
Before answering, Hoss aimed a harder look at his brother. Adam could change the subject all he wanted, but it didn’t change a thing. Hoss saw what he saw. Adam was happy with his life, and that happiness didn’t have much to do with the Ponderosa. Hoss could spend his whole life rebuilding the Ponderosa, and he would consider it a life well lived. His brothers were sending money, but Hoss wondered if they were ever coming home again.
Hoss was so busy thinking that he hardly noticed his pa riding in. Dadburnit, he thought to himself. He’d lost valuable work hours just pining away after nothing.
Gathering himself back together, Hoss forced a smile on his face and said, “I sure am glad to see you, Pa. This ol’ fence is just about as ornery as Little Joe. I ain’t never seen a pile of wood with a mind of its own before…”
Just as Hoss said his little brother’s name, he caught a look on his father’s face that stopped him in the middle of his complaint.
“Little Joe?” Hoss asked, not really wanting to know.
Ben’s eyes were red-rimmed and dry. He cleared his throat. “Roy rode in from town. A wire came in this morning.”
“Is he alive?” Hoss had no idea where he’d found the gumption to ask that question straight-out like that.
“He’s been shot. The wire said it’s very serious, but he’s holding his own. He was attacked by bandits outside Dry Bluff.” Ben seemed to shudder as he took a deep breath. “Hoss, I’ve never felt so out of control in my life.”
Hoss felt so empty, but he nodded like he understood. “It’s gonna be all right, Pa. We’ll pack up tonight. If we get started right away, we can ride out first thing in the morning.”
Ben shook his head. “We can’t all go, Hoss. There’s too much, it’s just too much. I’m going to ride out myself. I want you to stay and ride to Virginia City to tell Adam – “
“I’m going too, Pa. So’s Adam. You know that you ain’t going alone.”
“Son. Things have changed.”
“Ain’t nothing changed.” As soon as Hoss said it, he felt less empty, and he stood straight with his words. “We’re still the same family as we always was. Don’t matter none if we have a cent to our name. Ain’t nothin’ more important than getting to Little Joe. You know that, Pa.”
“It’s a long way to go. It doesn’t make sense that we all go.”
There was something about the defeat in his pa’s voice that cut Hoss to the quick. “Don’t need to make sense. He’s my little brother, and I’m coming with you.”
“Hoss, don’t you know that it may be too late? The wire said that he -“
“We ain’t too late. You know Little Joe, Pa. He’d never give up that easy.”
There was a rebuke in his voice, and he knew his pa felt it. To soften his words, Hoss came alongside and rested one hand on the gelding’s neck and the other on his father’s leg. Ben seemed to gather himself together, underneath his son’s strong hand. He looked down at Hoss, not quite so broken and gave his son a sad but resolved smile.
“Let’s go home and pack then. The axle to the buckboard’s still broken, but we’ll be faster on horseback anyways. We can rent a rig in Dry Bluff if we need it to get home.” Ben stopped short and almost looked sheepish. Renting a buckboard took money, something they certainly didn’t have. “Maybe Adam can get an advance on his wages. I’m sure he’ll give us what he has, if we see him before heading out.”
Hoss had his foot in the stirrup, but something in his pa’s voice stopped him short.
“Pa, Adam’s gonna come with us. He wouldn’t let us go on without him.”
“Adam has responsibility here,” Ben said. “You know that.”
“Yes, sir, I do know that,” Hoss said. “But I know something more important than that, and Adam knows it too. He’s got family. And Little Joe needs all of us, Pa.”
“That he does, son.”
Ben flicked the reins, and quietly, soberly they rode in the failing sunlight, back to their home and down a long, unknown road.
Joe was trying to decide if it was worth it to reach for the glass of water. It took some deciding. His dry throat was reminding him of the time he almost died in the desert, but he was trying his hardest not to think about dying. In fact, he was trying his hardest not to die. He’d staved it off so far, but things just always work out the way you wanted. Joe decided that a sip of water wasn’t worth the pain in his lower belly where the bandit’s bullet had lodged for a full day, before the Overland Company’s sorry excuse for a doctor was sober enough to carve it out. He was bleeding and he was so sick and tired of his own damn body, he was about ready to set it aside and start over again with a new one.
He rolled away from the window and looked at the door at the source of the sweet voice that cut right through his pain. Lily stood there, a pretty enough nurse if ever there was one, and he tried to smile for her, as she went about tidying the room. Little Joe far preferred her to the balding, sweaty-nosed doctor who swore every time he looked at the wound. Somehow, Joe didn’t find that encouraging. But she held the cup to his lips, and he drank the cool water gratefully.
“Better now,” he said with the most charming smile he could muster. His brothers would tease him something fierce, and he had to admit that it was predictable. Little Joe Cartwright might be at death’s door, but at least he’d found a pretty little thing to see him on the way out.
He’d been expecting to die, but surprisingly, he felt a little bit better each day. Even the doctor was impressed by the fact he was still alive. After all, he’d been half dead when he somehow managed to drive into the station, propped up by a couple bags of mail soaked through with his blood. The bullet from the bandit’s pistolero came in an inch away from his gut. It hurt when he breathed, when he moved, when he prayed. It hurt when he dreamed.
Since he’d been shot, he’d been dreaming about what his life had been like before the fire. In his dreams, the Ponderosa was green again, the tree-ridged mountains rising high to the sky. He was riding Cochise again, and the pinto’s gait was as sweet as a pretty girl’s smile. It was true that Joe had loved driving that stage. It had been an adventure, and there was nothing like an open road to stir a young man’s blood. But his dreams always took him home again.
“Your family will be here any time,” Lily said quietly, and he groaned in anger and surprise at her words. “They wired a few days ago that they were on their way.”
Very specifically, he had told his pretty nurse not to wire his family. The way Joe saw it, either he was going to live or he was going to die. If he lived, he would find his own way home once he was well enough to sit a horse. There was no reason to bother his family about it – they had enough to worry about, and besides, he’d promised to keep out of trouble. If he were going to die, then it would probably happen before they got there anyway. The Overland Company would take the responsibility for shipping his body back to Virginia City, and it wouldn’t cost his pa a thing, because he’d been shot on company time. The whole thing had made a lot of sense to him in the middle of a very bad fever, and Joe had explained it all to Lily, but apparently she hadn’t paid him much mind.
“I told you not to wire my family,” he complained, feeling very put out, even as she rolled him onto his good side to prod and poke under the bandages.
“Yes you did tell me,” she said. “You told me all about your family, and that’s exactly why I wired them.”
“Then you weren’t listening to me,” he griped. Lord, whatever she was doing hurt bad! “I didn’t want them to come because they’ve had enough trouble already. We lost everything, you know.”
“Not everything,” she chided, shaking her head, like he’d said the most foolish thing she could even imagine. She’d already heard all about the fire. “You lost things – things that can be replaced.”
He tried to explain. “I can’t let my family go through this. It’s too much.”
“Your family might be stronger than you think,” she said mildly, shaking her head as she closed the door behind her.
Damn, Joe thought, he should have kissed her. It was easy to forgive her; his unpredictable spiking fever kept him from holding a grudge. He tried thinking about what she had said. Lily was right, of course, but she was also wrong. The land was not a just a thing that could be replaced. It was part of his blood.
Unlike his brothers, Joe had never had to live on anyone’s land but his own. Closing his eyes, he could smell the pines and crumble the soil between his fingers. He could tell her about the forests they’d lost that that might not grow back in his lifetime. About weaving on horseback through mile after mile of close-knit pines and watching the morning fog linger in the dappled sunlight. About gazing at the green-ridged mountains from his favorite rock in the middle of the lake – a sight so beautiful it wedged itself in his soul. About growing up knowing his whole world all belonged to his father, and he could do anything. He would have told her about a family that didn’t know how to give up and didn’t know how to let go. But love made up for most of it, and mercy took care of the rest …
His fever was kicking up, and he had to fight to stay awake. There’d been something laced in that water, and he could feel the pain dulling already. But, Joe didn’t want to go to sleep, if it might last forever. So he dug his fingers into his palm to remind himself of pain, and he stared out the window at the dust-strewn street. It would be winter soon. He wondered what it would be like to drive that four-horse team through drifts of snow. He was eighteen years old, and freedom had never tasted better than it had driving that stage down the open road at a breakneck speed. He felt torn between the pull of dreams. What would he do with his life, assuming he had any life left? Even at his young age, he knew that nothing was for sure, when his entire world had changed in a single day?
But then from the window, he saw them. His family was riding down the center of the dusty street, shoulder to shoulder. Pa and Hoss and even Adam. Joe should have been surprised, but he wasn’t. Instead, he all but cried at the sight of them. They looked a whole lot worse for the wear from what had to be a terrible trip, but they probably looked better than he did. Ridiculously, he tried tapping on the glass to get their attention, but of course they didn’t notice. He watched them wander up and down the street, squinting at doors and window signs, while little whirls of dust spun around them. He had to smile. They were heading in the wrong direction. Yet, Joe settled into the scratchy blankets and allowed himself to close his eyes. It was a small town. They would find him. Some things never changed.
It had been the most difficult Thanksgiving Ben could remember, but he couldn’t remember ever appreciating one more. Sometimes, it took a trial to remind a stubborn man of what he had to be thankful for. The fire was not a trial – not even close. The last few weeks had been a revelation, but he thanked the Lord for seeing them through. Ben lifted his glass that contained the last wine he would drink for a long time. Their storeroom was practically empty, but today they’d eaten their fill. For the first time in a long time, Ben was satisfied.
His table was full again. Adam had promised to come home for Thanksgiving dinner, and he’d kept that promise. Hoss was noticeably unhappy that Adam had also brought his work home with him. It hadn’t taken much to convince Adam to head out on the road to bring home his wounded brother. It was another thing entirely to convince him to leave a job that had somehow become a passion.
Adam was a young man in love. It was what Ben had always wanted for his son, yet he had never imagined that it would take the near destruction of the Ponderosa for Adam to find his calling. Even while eating his Thanksgiving dinner, his son had been tallying how much scaffolding it would take to shore up a section of tunnel before any ore could be extracted. Adam had been explaining the problem all afternoon, but all Ben really understood was that it was complicated. He was proud of his son. The whole town was proud. Just the past week, a cave-in took place in a section of the mine that Adam had just reinforced. In the past, such a disaster would have led to orphaned children and young women widowed long before their time. This time, Jeb Turner broke his arm tripping over his pick, but that was the extent of the mishaps. Adam got the credit for the fact that the scaffolding held, and he deserved it. Ben missed his son, but he had to admit that sometimes some good came from tragedy. And good could even come from a higher education! As Joseph had glibly put it – who would have thought a hero could have come out of Boston?
Joe was sitting in his familiar chair, but he was tiring fast. Although his youngest son had been home for a few weeks, he’d only recently been able to make it downstairs. It was a start to a painful beginning, but Ben knew to take his blessings wherever he could find them. Already, Joseph was anxious to be up and about again. Ben knew his son was worrying about the money, as well as the fact that he didn’t believe the Overland Company could stay in business without him. Ben had to smile at his son’s adamancy, but he had to admit that at least some of that was true. Although they never discussed it, the family finances had taken a hit without Joe’s contribution. He hadn’t given up the idea going back to driving for the Overland, but Ben could hardly think about that now. They’d almost lost him. The gunshot wound had been a grievous one. Before he got the wire that Joe had been shot, Ben had truly believed that the fire was the most devastating thing that could happen to him. He’d believed that he had lost everything. How blessed he was to find out that he was so wrong. Not all men got that kind of second chance.
“Pass the potatoes, Short Shanks,” Hoss said from the other side of the table. It was one thing that hadn’t changed. The Cartwrights still had more potatoes than Hoss could eat. It was a modest abundance, even if chicken and trout had replaced the turkey this year. Hoss had tried his best, but nobody really had the time to hunt for a turkey. Ben felt personally responsible for those potatoes on the table, and the thought made him smile, despite the ache in his back.
Hoss had been working so hard. It was his trial in this life – trying to restore their life to what it was before the fire. Everywhere around them, Ben could see the fruits of Hoss’s labors. The small herd grazing in the protected pasture. The foal that had survived a harrowing birth. The miles of fencing that Hoss had rebuilt. The hay piled and baled by the side of the barn. Thankless work that shored up their future. Yes, they owed a great deal to Hoss.
His life had changed, but Ben was coming to terms with that. It was true that some things were missing. Furniture for one thing. In the first weeks after the fire, while trying to take pay off their creditors, Ben had sold off several pieces of furniture, including the inlaid dressing table and walnut bureau that Marie had ordered all the way from France. For months he had believed he’d betrayed her by selling the things that she had loved. However, sitting next to her son, who was healthy enough to pass the potatoes, was enough to reassure him that Marie would have been just fine with his selling the furniture. Her treasure had nothing to do with dovetailed wood.
Joe could have died. Even after the three of them found him, he almost did die from infection and fever. They had a devil of a time getting him home, but Joe had insisted that if they’d been foolish enough to come all that way to get him, they might as well take him home. Said he didn’t want to die lying under scratchy blankets and some other such nonsense, but Adam had agreed, and they’d taken him home like he wanted. It had been a long ride home with the rented buckboard. Adam had deposited a full month’s paycheck at the livery, ensuring that that they would return it. Even though it had been a terrible ride home, nothing would ever be worse than the ride to that God-forsaken town, not knowing if he would make it in time to see his son alive again. Hoss had been right about one thing; Adam hadn’t needed any convincing to come along. He didn’t even bother telling the owner of the Silver Stock that he was leaving.
“My job will be here when I get back,” Adam had said.
Ah, the bravado of the young, Ben thought to himself. He’d been that young once and every bit that sure of himself. As a young man, Ben had believed that all his stories were entitled to happy endings. That’s why he had come out west in the first place. Lord, how close they’d come to losing everything. For so long after the fire, Ben had been a state of shock. Knowing they were practically starting over again was more upsetting than he cared to admit. He had always said that his wealth and position meant nothing compared to his sons. Well, that was true, but it had surely taken a lot to remind him of that.
“Pa, I think I’m going to be all right to go back next month,” Joe was telling him, ignoring the fact that Hoss was scowling across the table. “I can handle a team; it’s just like lying in bed, only I’d be sitting up. I don’t think there’d be any problem with it.”
Joe had always been an optimist. Ben realized Joseph would be doing well if he could make it across the room by himself. Yet, there was something so confident in his young son’s face, Ben felt his heart lift as well.
So he said, “Maybe after the New Year, son.”
“But Pa, he can’t think about going back! He ain’t even close to ready -” Hoss started up with a protest, and even Adam looked up from his plans.
As if he could read his father’s mind, Adam lifted an eyebrow at his little brother, worn out from just eating dinner, and asked, “Don’t you think that’s a bit optimistic?”
Ben laughed. It was the first time he’d been accused of optimism in a long time. It had also been a long time since he had laughed out loud, but it was Thanksgiving. He was more than due.
Nothing had changed. Their lives were still changed irrevocably. Ben could look out the window and see for himself that the land that was still charred beyond restoration. On a windy day, he could still smell the smoke in the air. But also from where he was sitting, even in the early dusk, he could see the snow sifting over the ground, cloaking it all, if only for a season. And for all that and more, he was thankful.
Hoss had started a fire in the old stone fireplace, and Adam was helping Joe across the room to sit beside it. The kindling was sparking and crackling. Yet, this time, they didn’t flinch at the sound of fire, because they were warm and together inside. Outside, the snow was silently falling.
Author’s Note – I started writing this story in early summer 2007, before the Lake Tahoe fire and the Southern California fires. As someone with family who came very, very close to losing a home to wildfire last month, this story is dedicated to those who did lose everything and are still carrying on.
This is my 50th story. Something I never imagined possible. Thank you to everyone who has encouraged me on this unlikely journey with the Cartwrights. I honestly couldn’t have written a second story without such wonderful encouragement and feedback.
Other Stories by this Author
- Trouble (by DBird)
- The Return Series – 5 – New Orleans Moonlight (by DBird)
- Before Christmas (by DBird)
- Heat (by DBird)
- Compass (by dbird)