The Most Beautiful Poem (by HazelMom)

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Summary: The family is in tatters, one brother promising to kill another, while another drinks his way to…  What happened and can the family been redeemed?  Rating:  T  (30,620 words)

Author’s note: This is a long story and I put a lot of heart into it. There are some different time frames. I hope you have no trouble following it.

I would like to dedicate this story to an old high school friend of mine who understands how Hoss is feeling a great deal better than I do.

 

                                                             The Most Beautiful Poem

Hoss concentrated on his breathing. It wasn’t working for him regular like. It was either coming in short bursts or it seemed to disappear altogether until he caught himself, and focused on breathing again.

 

The grief was so deep and heavy in his gut that it was a struggle to even stand up. Someone from the hotel kept bringing him water and tea, but he had no interest in bringing anything to his lips. At various points, Adam was sitting across from him. It was only then that energy came to the big man. A rage would rise in him like a tornado, and he would struggle to brace himself against it. The only way he knew how to deal with it was to pretend Adam wasn’t there. For days now, he ignored him even when he was sitting mere inches away.

 

For his part, Adam seemed to know that talking to Hoss only inflamed him, and so the two brothers sat like statues day after day until the final accounting had been done. Hoss flinched when a harbor captain came in and handed him the ruined calfskin satchel. It contained both his dreams and his nightmares. He sat with the valise in his lap for most of the day, holding it close, but never trying to open it.

 

Late that afternoon, Adam handed him a bowl of stew, and then sat across from him. Hoss toyed with it for a while, but ate very little. He seemed intent on biting back something he wanted to say. After an hour of wrestling with himself, he looked at his brother with tears in his eyes.

 

“Adam, I ain’t ever been known for my meanness, and I’ll tell you honestly that I’ve been trying to swallow this feeling ever since it came over me.”

 

Adam closed his eyes and waited.

 

“But if I don’t say what I’m feeling, it’s going to suffocate me. It feels like it will steal the very breath from my body.

 

Adam didn’t move.

 

“I love you, Adam. You ain’t never tried to hurt me. Even now, I know that you thought you were doing best. And you are my big brother, and I ain’t never had a day in my life where I wasn’t proud of that fact, but I gotta’ tell you that…if I spend anymore time around you, I’m likely to kill you.”

 

Adam flinched. “I wouldn’t stop you.”

 

Hoss’ mouth started to quiver, and he wrestled with himself, but finally he let out a deep breath and said, “The only way I’ll survive this is if I don’t ever have to see your face again for as long as you and I walk this earth.”

 

Adam nodded. “The Ponderosa is yours, Hoss. It was always yours and Joe’s. I…was never more than a visitor. The truth of that is what caused this whole mess.”

 

Hoss nodded, tears rolling down his big face, and he slowly got up and walked away, clutching the wilted valise. Adam turned to stone and stayed that way until he was sure his brother had left the hotel for the last time.

 

**********

 

Adam rubbed his forehead and looked out the window. Virginia City was bustling, and it wasn’t hard to notice that there were new faces every time he came to town. It used to be that the new person got a lot of attention with people crossing the street just to shake hands, and get a good look at the stranger. Now, it was so common that people just nodded friendly-like and kept walking.

 

Seated across from him was the newest visitor to Virginia City. She sat as straight as a two by four, perched on the end of her chair. She didn’t move a muscle while waiting for him to speak.

 

Adam sighed deeply and said, “Your credentials, Miss Lottie, are admirable, but I do not think this is the right position for you.”

 

She frowned. “I’ve grown, Mr. Adam. I’m not that same little girl who caused trouble for Hoss all those years ago. I didn’t even come to see Hoss. I just came ‘cause this is the only teaching job left in the territory.”

 

“Miss Lottie, this is not about Hoss. It’s been four years since all that happened. Things have changed. Walter moved to Montana a couple of years back. Most people wouldn’t even remember it. That is not my concern at all.”

 

“I don’t have that much experience, but I’m a hard worker. I like kids. My composition and writing are quite strong. Admittedly, I could be a stronger math teacher, but I never stop learning.”

 

Adam put up a hand. “You are an exemplary candidate and, normally, this would be no problem, but the situation is not what you think it is. If I hired you, you’d be the second teacher in town. Mr. Snick has been here for three years already. We are hiring a second teacher to work with a particularly tough group of students, you see.”

 

“Yes, you told me earlier that I would mostly be working with boys in their teen years. I am excited for that.”

 

“Miss Lottie, these boys were kicked out of Mr. Snick’s classroom. They’re incorrigible.”

 

She cocked her head. “But I’m not worried. I’ll work with ‘em hard, turn them around.”

 

“You don’t know these boys. We almost lost Mr. Snick over their shenanigans.”

 

“Are you worried that I’ll give up? I won’t do that. I promise. I want this job more than anything. I’ll work hard. I won’t bother Hoss. If you want, I’ll pretend I don’t even know him. I’ll go to church. Won’t ever walk into a saloon. You won’t ever regret giving me this job.”

 

Adam looked at her sternly. “These boys lie and cheat and steal. On any given day, Sheriff Coffee is talking about throwing them in a cell and throwing away the key. That is no sort of set up for a young female teacher. I’m afraid it’s just not… appropriate to put you in a situation like that.”

 

She blinked hard and looked away. “I’ve been looking for a teaching job for six months. If you don’t give me a chance, I’m going to have to go back to washing dishes again. I really thought enough time had passed…”

 

“Miss Lottie, I’d be pleased to have you as a neighbor. This has nothing to do with any past mistakes. I just can’t in good conscience put you in a schoolroom in front of those hooligans. It’d be like me asking you to break horses or something. It’s just not proper.”

 

She nodded, her eyes focused on her lap. He knew she was struggling with tears. “Miss Lottie, let me walk you back to the hotel.”

 

She shook her head. “I ain’t staying there.”

 

Adam noted the worn fabric of her dress and he cussed silently. “Well, Miss Lottie, maybe I forgot to mention that the Virginia City school board always puts up applicants at the hotel while they’re in town.”

 

“I don’t remember anything like that in the ad,” she said, blinking wet eyes at him.

 

“Well, I’m the president of the school board. If anyone would know, it’d be me.”

 

**********

 

“Hop Sing, you better be making a lot of grub, I’m as hungry as a grizzly bear on the first day of spring!” The voice blasted in from the front porch.

 

“You tell him to keep his pants on!” Hop Sing said to Little Joe, as he ran back into the kitchen.

 

Joe smiled at Adam sitting in Pa’s red leather chair. “I guess he’s in rare form today. Probably comes from avoiding ranch work all day.”

 

Adam grunted, but kept his eyes on his book. Joe rolled his eyes. Adam had been like this ever since he’d come in from Virginia City.

 

Hoss stomped in and dropped his hat on the sideboard. “I’m as hungry as…”

 

Joe put up a hand. “Yeah, we know. Glad to see ya’.” Joe turned and cupped his mouth. “Hey Pa! The thief is home!”

 

Hoss frowned. “I ain’t no thief. Where do you get off calling me a thief?”

 

Ben Cartwright appeared at the top of the stairs, his furrowed brows pointed straight at Hoss. “Where have you been with a wagonload of my lumber?!”

 

Hoss swallowed. “Pa, I can explain.”

 

“We haven’t seen hide nor hair of you since you took off riding fence, and that was 12 hours ago, and then I come home and a wagonload of lumber is missing!”

 

Adam slid a bookmark in place and closed his book. Pa didn’t get riled at Hoss that often.

 

Hoss sat down looking everything like he was 12 years old. “Can I explain?”

 

Ben dropped in a chair and folded his arms. “I suspect that I’ve heard this story before.”

 

“I don’t think so, Pa. This here story is brand new.”

 

“We’ll see about that,” he growled.

 

“Well, I was riding fence over to the east, and got near the Simpson place, and you know how old Virgil has been hitting the sauce lately, and I figured on checking out his wife and young’uns. And I get there, and there’s little Sally coughing up a lung. She ain’t no bigger than a tadpole, you know. The missus tells me that all the young’uns are sick because there’s a big hole in the roof and they all got soaked after that big rainstorm the other night. And you know what!? I found that no good Virgil just snoring under a tree just as easy as you please while a big hole is sitting up there on his roof.”

 

Joe shook his head. “We have heard this story before.”

 

“No, you ain’t, Joe. I never had this particular set of circumstances before. I went over and shook ol’ Virgil, and I’ll tell ya’, he weren’t happy to see me. And I told him we’re setting to fix that roof. And he tells me he ain’t got no money for supplies, and so I told him that I knew exactly where to get my hands on some supplies and…“

 

Ben sighed. “I know the rest. You came back to the ranch and took that lumber over to Virgil’s and started work on his roof. You figured that none of us were getting rained on, so naturally we didn’t need that lumber like the Simpson’s.”

 

Hoss beamed. “Pa, it’s like you can read my mind.”

 

Ben winced. “I’ve had practice. So how much work did you get done?”

 

“Well, uh, ain’t much left to do, but it ain’t a two man job so I was thinking that maybe I could borrow a few hands in the morning, and we could go over there and finish it up.”

 

“What about Virgil?”

 

Hoss darkened. “I told him that I better find him as sober as a preacher when I get back or he and I are going to do a little dancing.”

 

“And you think you could join us for a little work on this ranch sometime tomorrow afternoon?”

 

“I’ll work extra late.”

 

Ben sighed. “You’re going to have to cut me some new lumber, you know.”

 

“I figured I could get started right after dinner. I ain’t had nothing on my stomach since breakfast.”

 

“Alright.” Ben softened as he so often did when it came to Hoss.

 

Adam sat up. “Wait a minute! He wanders off, takes lumber we spent two days cutting, and all you say is ‘alright’.”

 

“What do you want me to say?”

 

Adam turned his attention to Hoss. “You really think you did the Simpson’s any favors? You think Virgil’s going to stop drinking just because you threatened him? He isn’t going to learn a thing from this.”

 

“I was just being a neighbor, Adam.”

 

“No Hoss, you were thinking about yourself. That’s what you were doing. You couldn’t stand to see that family suffering, and you just had to get involved so you would feel better.”

 

Joe frowned. “What’s wrong with that?”

 

“Sometimes, the smarter thing is to be strong and let people make their own mistakes. If that family got wet enough, Mrs. Simpson could sure enough take those children to her sister’s house. Then maybe Virgil would learn his lesson.”

 

Hoss looked confused. “That would’ve been tough on all of them, especially the missus. She’s got her pride.”

 

“Hoss, they take advantage of you. It happens all the time. I swear, they can see you coming from a mile away.”

 

Hoss narrowed his eyes at his brother. “What are you trying to say?”

 

“Nothing. I don’t know.” Adam didn’t meet his eyes.

 

Joe jumped in. “You’re trying to say that he’s dumb. That’s what you’re trying to say.”

 

“Joe! I’m sure your brother was not trying to say that. I think he was just saying…“

 

Hoss jumped in. “Pa, you don’t need to explain nothing for Adam. I know what he was trying to say.”

 

Adam looked at him sharply.

 

“You’re not saying I’m dumb. I know you better than that plus you and I done had that conversation too many times already. It took me a minute, but I can see you’re in a mood.”

 

Adam sighed deeply. “Thanks, Middle Brother. I was too hard on you, but mostly it’s about not feeling good about a decision I had to make today.”

 

“What’s on your mind, son?”

 

All of the Cartwrights settled in to their chairs and waited.

 

“It’s the school again. I should’ve never let them elect me school board president. It’s a nightmare. I swear, Pa, the education in this town was more progressive when I was a boy.”

 

Ben nodded. “You’re still having trouble getting a teacher for the new schoolroom.”

 

“It’s outrageous. We have kids running around like regular street urchins. Snick won’t take them all. If he was worth a damn, he probably could; Snick is little more than a dandy. And we’re so desperate that we treat him like the King of Siam. I’ve given him two raises in the last year just so he won’t leave town.”

 

“Have you had any applicants?”

 

Adam worried his bottom lip. “I had one today. I guess that’s what put me in such a mood.”

 

“So tell us what happened already,” demanded Joe.

 

Hoss threw Joe a look. Teaching little brother patience was a full time job lately.

 

Adam looked at the ceiling and sighed. “Alright, I’ll tell you. Teacher was a woman, and I didn’t think she could handle the classroom. Most of those Snick expelled were boys. It promises to be a pretty tough classroom.”

 

Ben nodded. “Understandable.”

 

Hoss cocked his head. “I reckon she must’ve really wanted it; otherwise, you wouldn’t be feeling so low.”

 

He narrowed his eyes at Hoss. “Plus, she’s an old friend of yours.”

 

Hoss pondered that for a moment. “Who would that be?”

 

“Miss Lottie Hawkins.”

 

Joe let out a whistle and Ben shook his head.

 

Hoss grew a big smile. “Well, I’ll be. I didn’t know Miss Lottie was a teacher. My goodness. How long has it been?”

 

Adam smiled at him. “That would be your reaction. Of course, you wouldn’t focus on what she did to our friendship with Walter or the fact that she almost got you killed.”

 

“Ah, she wasn’t nothing, an 18 year old girl. She was scared. She didn’t know what was going to happen. Hope you’re not forgetting what she did to make it right.”

 

Ben nodded. “She was young, and you can’t blame her for seeing what a catch Hoss is. I thought she was really a smart little thing.”

 

“Now, she wants to be a teacher.”

 

“It’s been four years, Adam. She ain’t no 18 year old anymore.”

 

Adam looked at Hoss. “I thought you’d be a little squeamish. I mean, she almost treed you or don’t you remember her many declarations of love for you.”

 

“That was a long time ago. She’s grown up now. She ain’t thinking about me no more.”

 

“Yeah, that’s what she says.”

 

“Adam, did you turn her down because she couldn’t do the job or because you thought she might cause trouble for me again?”

 

“It’s going to be a tough classroom.”

 

“Yeah, but you ain’t got any other takers.”

 

“I know.”

 

Ben leaned forward. “Hoss has a good point, Adam.”

 

“It wouldn’t bother you, Hoss?”

 

“Not a bit. In fact, I’ll go into town with you to welcome her aboard.”

 

“No!” Hoss’ family shouted at him in unison.

 

**********

 

“We ain’t seen you in a month of Sundays, Hoss.”

 

Hoss drained his mug of beer and slammed it down on the counter. “I know, Sam. Pa’s been keeping me busy out on the range.”

 

Sam drew him another. “Folks around here are saying you’re hiding out from the new schoolmarm.”

 

Hoss glared at him. “Nonsense!”

 

“Well, that’s what I said.”

 

“Ain’t hiding from nobody. You ever see me hide from someone?”

 

Sam pushed another toward him. “Never did, Hoss.”

 

“Folks is talking crazy.”

 

“Just what I said.”

 

Hoss nodded and picked up his beer. Then he frowned, looked up and down the empty bar, and then leaned closer to Sam. “Jus’ between you and me, Sam, how is she doing?”

 

Sam nodded. “Well, she’s hanging in. You know some of those rascals ain’t used to civilized company. You’ve seen some of their families. They sure do keep her on her toes. I heard tell they locked her in the broom closet last week. But, whatever is going on, she’s keeps going back.”

 

Hoss shook his head. “Shameful!”

 

“Heard tell that there’s going to be a school board meeting this week. They’re going to evaluate her progress.”

 

Hoss frowned. “She ain’t hardly had a chance to prove herself.”

 

“Bob Watkins said they gotta’ think about how it’s going to look if those ruffians go too far. I mean, who’s going to take a job where the last schoolteacher was locked up by the children and such. Reflects on the town, you know.”

 

Hoss’ face darkened. He emptied his beer and then marched out of the Bucket of Blood without so much as a ‘see you later’. He strode all the way down the street to the schoolhouse. Things were quiet, but Hoss folded his arms and settled into wait.

 

About 30 minutes later, there was a shout, and a pretty red haired woman ran out the door. She bent over and shook her hair wildly. Hoss trotted over. “What have they done, Miss Lottie?”

 

She looked up in surprise, her thick hair wild about her face. “Ross Smalls threw a handful of worms in my hair!”

 

“Turn around, Miss Lottie. I’ll check.”

 

Obediently, she turned around and let him search her hair. He picked out two pink earthworms and threw them into the yard. She giggled nervously. “It sure is good to see you, Hoss.”

 

He smiled. “Same here. I hear you been teaching the devil’s spawn.”

 

She shrugged. “They’re not so bad. Nobody’s ever asked them to behave before, and it’s taking a little time for it to catch on.”

 

“Well, I aim to go in there and set them straight.”

 

She grabbed his arm. “No! You can’t do that! It’ll ruin everything, Hoss.”

 

He stopped and looked at her.

 

“Hoss, they’re not so bad. They’re better this week than they were last week. And last week, they were better than the week before. If townsfolk see you go in that classroom, they’ll think I can’t handle it. They’ll take my job.”

 

“One of those rascals put worms in your hair.”

 

She shrugged. “They aren’t shutting me up in the closet anymore. Plus, I did three uninterrupted lessons today. That’s a record. We’re getting there, Hoss.”

 

“Miss Hawkins?”

 

They looked up and saw nine faces looking out at them from the front door. The tallest boy spoke, “We’re sorry, Miss Hawkins. We done told Ross that them worms was an aborted plan, but he don’t listen. We’re aiming to beat him silly right after school for you.”

 

Lottie pulled and twisted her hair until she could secure it with a comb. “Nobody is going to beat Ross.”

 

Eyes widened. One girl spoke, “Are you going to give him to Mr. Cartwright there? My daddy says Mr. Hoss could kill a dozen men if he was riled enough. Poor Ross don’t deserve no workout by Mr. Hoss. He don’t deserve to die over a few worms.”

 

Hoss coughed like he was choking, and then he let go a belly laugh that sounded like a roar. Soon, he was doubled over in laughter. The children looked on, terrified until Lottie broke in. “Shame on you, children. Mr. Hoss doesn’t beat children. Have you ever seen him beat young’uns?”

 

The children shook their heads solemnly.

 

Finally Hoss calmed. He wiped tears from his eyes, and then he stood tall and pointed a finger. “I ain’t goin’ to beat no one, but I oughta’. You scoundrels listen up. When I was a young’un, if I’da put worms in my teacher’s hair, my Pa would’ve whupped me from sunup to sundown. You’re acting like a gang of heathens in there doing misdeeds on your teacher. I ain’t never heard of such doings.”

 

Heads bowed and a chorus of responses sounded, “Sorry, Mr. Hoss”, “Sorry, Miss Hawkins”, “Didn’t mean no harm.”

 

“Well, you better start acting like you can be good students. That’s all I can say. Miss Hawkins’ job depends on it.”

 

Lottie blushed. “Aw, Hoss, they don’t have to worry about all that. Now get back to your seats, children. I’ll be right there.”

 

The students disappeared, and Lottie turned to Hoss. “It was sure nice to see you, Hoss.”

 

He looked at his feet. “It’s good to see you too, Miss Lottie.”

 

She smiled one last time, and then walked back into her schoolhouse.

 

Hoss kicked the dirt around a bit before turning to leave. He almost immediately ran into Clem Foster, Roy’s able deputy.

 

“Hey Hoss!”

 

Hoss nodded. “What are you doing over this side of town, Clem? They keep the saloons down the other way.”

 

Clem pushed his hat back. “Heard some squallering from this direction and thought I’d check on the new teacher.”

 

Hoss shrugged. “Ain’t nothing to know. Everything’s peaceful.”

 

“Thought maybe I’d just wait for her.” Clem sat down on a porch.

 

Hoss frowned and sat down next to him. “I done told you it’s quiet.”

 

“She’s got nice red hair, don’t you think?”

 

“I ain’t thought about her hair,” Hoss mumbled.

 

“The two of you is just friends, right?”

 

Hoss’ burrowed furrowed. “You ain’t been listening to idle talk, have ya’?

 

“No, no, not a bit. But it’s good that you’re here ‘cause I just want to be clear that you haven’t staked a claim or nothing.”

 

“On Miss Lottie? Well, no I haven’t, and I’m surprised you asked, knowing her history like you do.”

 

“Now don’t get testy, Hoss. I was just wondering. Figured it would be the right thing to run it by you before I asked her to the dance.”

 

“Why would you…you’re courting Callie Saunders.”

 

Clem shrugged. “Well, we had a little falling out. Seems she likes spending too much time chatting up Ike Walters over at the mercantile.”

 

Hoss pondered this for a moment. “You sure you ain’t just trying to make Miss Callie jealous? Hate to see Miss Lottie used for frog bait.”

 

“Nope. Callie can have ol’ fancy Ike and his clean shirts. I reckon I like redheaded girls with pretty smiles.”

 

Hoss sighed deeply. “It don’t sit right, Dadburnit.”

 

“Why? You’re not courting her, right? Why do you care? Maybe, I ain’t fancy enough for the Cartwright cast-offs.”

 

“Now, look here, Clem. She ain’t no cast-off. She’s an old friend, and I just don’t want to see her get caught up in nothing. I ain’t got no problem with her dating you just as long as you got her best interests at heart.”

 

“Glad to hear it ‘cause I think I’m going to ask her after the school board meeting tomorrow night.”

 

“Why wait?”

 

“I just want to make sure she’s staying in town, is all.”

 

**********

 

Adam took a long draw from the whiskey. Even after many days and many bottles, the liquid felt like fire sliding down his throat. He slammed it back on the table the way a man does when he wants the bartender to notice that he’s dry. Only Adam wasn’t sitting at the bar. He was at a rickety table on the cobblestones outside of a bar, and he was looking out over San Francisco Bay. Around him, the wharf was alive with the activity of men and ships and cargo.

 

There was always a cool breeze coming off the bay, and with it came the smell of salt water, rotting wood, and fish. It climbed into his hair and in his clothes; through his nostrils and down into his belly. Adam tried to shower the smell away, but it refused to dissipate on those nights he chose to wander back to the hotel in center of the city.

 

He swallowed, and leaned back his head to bellow for service when he noticed the bottle sitting on the table. He had no clear memory of buying it. Hours and days had become blurry, disjointed ventures, and if he’d allowed himself the time to get sober he would’ve been alarmed at the time that had passed.

 

He reached for the bottle, and tipped it unsteadily over his glass. Then a hand was on top of his, and someone was firmly, but gently, taking the bottle away from him. He looked up and squinted at the familiar visage of his youngest brother. “How in God’s name did you find me?”

 

“I’ve been in this town three days looking for you, Brother.” Joe found a wooden stool and dragged it over to Adam’s table.

 

Adam stared down at his empty tumbler. “It was a wasted trip.”

 

“You look like the town drunk.”

 

“Well, San Francisco is a city, so technically, I’m the…“

 

Joe slammed the table. “Knock it off! I don’t want to hear it. Get your stuff. I’m taking you home.”

 

Adam gritted his teeth. “I can’t ever go back there.”

 

Joe wiped the lip of the bottle and took a swig. “I never thought I would ever see my brother, the great Adam Cartwright, hiding from anything.”

 

Adam closed his eyes. “I’m not hiding. You know what I did.”

 

“Sure. You carefully orchestrated this whole tragedy.”

 

“I was thinking about my own life, Joe. I was only thinking about what I was missing.”

 

Joe sighed and stared out at the water for a while. Then he turned back to his brother. “You’re right. It was about you and what you wanted, but you did it out of love, Brother. You did it because you thought it was best. Nobody blames you for that.”

 

“He says he’ll likely kill me if he ever sees me again. You should’ve heard how he said it.”

 

Joe could feel his patience slipping away. “Look at me, Adam! You didn’t do anything wrong. What happened…happened. There is no villain here.”

 

“You really believe that?”

 

“Yeah, I do.”

 

“Pa?”

 

Joe laughed. “You really think Pa would give up on one of us?”

 

“What does Hoss say?”

 

Joe took another long swig off the bottle. “He never came home. You telegraphed us two months ago that he was coming, but he never made it. Pa is sick with worry over both of you.”

 

Adam straightened up. “Hoss likes to be by himself when he’s grieving. We’ve been through this before.”

 

“I know. Usually, we can understand that about him, but this time was…so different.”

 

Adam stood up slowly, holding the back of his chair for balance. “I have to stay away. I’m reminder of what happened.”

 

Joe shook his head. “If you weren’t so mad at yourself, you’d see how wrongheaded that is.”

 

“You’re really worried, aren’t you?”

 

Joe stared out at the sea. “Nothing has ever hit him like this before. He’s so lost. I worry… I worry he won’t ever find his way home again.”

 

Adam braced himself against the saloon. “I can help you find him, but that’s all. When we find out he’s okay, I’m leaving.”

 

Joe looked away.

 

Adam let go of the wall, but his balance was shot, and he fell back against it. “You’re going to have to get me back to the hotel. I’m going to need food and a hot bath. I can probably travel in a few hours.”

 

“Not likely. It’s going to take us at least 12 hours to drain all that snake juice out of you. I’ll get us booked on a stage in the morning.”

 

Adam lurched out into the street, but Joe was there. He slung his brother’s arm over his shoulder and steered him away from the Barbary Coast.

 

**********

 

“I just think you should ride over there and check on her, is all.” Hoss said to Little Joe before shoveling half a sweet potato into his mouth. “She may be fixin’ to break up with you again.”

 

Joe stabbed his fork in Hoss’ direction. “For the last time, Brother. I am not going over to her house.”

 

Ben looked up from his pork roast. “What are the two of you jabbering about?”

 

“It ain’t nothing, Pa.” Hoss reached for another hunk of pork.

 

“Nothing!” Joe shook his head. “This big ol’ heifer wants me to go over to Lacey Daniels tonight to see if she still wants to go to the dance with me.”

 

Hoss prodded a knife at him. “She done broke up with you before the last two dances.”

 

“But if I don’t see her, she won’t have a chance to break up with me before this one. I got it all figured out.”

 

“She takes advantage of you.”

 

“What?! No, she don’t. It’s just a little game we play.”

 

“She’ll make a fool out of you.”

 

Joe leaned across the table. “You better watch it or I’ll let them in on what you’re really after.”

 

Ben blinked and looked at Hoss. “Do you think we might all get back to this lovely supper Hop Sing made for us?”

 

“Glad to, Pa.” Hoss reached for the green beans.

 

For a moment, silence reigned and then Hoss leaned over to Adam. “Who are you taking to the dance?”

 

Joe threw back his head and laughed. “Careful, Adam, he’s sizing you up.”

 

Hoss threw him a look. “You must want me to come over there, pick you up, and throw you through that new plate glass window!?”

 

“Enough!”

 

“Sorry, Pa.”

 

Adam cocked his head. “Now you’ve got me curious. What are you up to, Hoss?”

 

“How come you don’t have a rule against schoolmarms going to dances? It seems wrongheaded to just let schoolmarms run around at night,” declared Hoss.

 

Adam narrowed his eyes at Hoss. “Where is your twisted mind taking you, Middle Brother?”

 

Hoss squirmed. “Since you don’t got a rule on keeping schoolmarms corralled… I mean, I got an idea. You know, it being Miss Lottie’s first town dance and all, I thought it’d be first rate if Joe would take her. She needs a proper date, but Joe here won’t cooperate.”

 

“You’re worried that she has no date for the dance?”

 

“As her boss, Adam, you could take her!” Hoss beamed.

 

“Don’t fall for it,” Joe chortled. “She’s got a date. That’s the problem. Clem Foster’s sweet on her and Hoss don’t like it.”

 

Hoss got up and towered over Joe. “Pa, I plan on buying you a new plate glass window in the morning.”

 

“Sit down!” Ben ordered.

 

Hoss sat down reluctantly, a permanent scowl pointed in Little Joe’s direction.

 

Ben frowned. “Why do you care about Clem taking her to the dance? I always thought you liked Clem.”

 

“I ain’t got no problem with Clem.” Hoss looked down at his plate.

 

“Then why are you bothered that’s she going to the dance with him?”

 

“It ain’t right.”

 

“I don’t understand.”

 

“It just ain’t right.”

 

“But there must be a reason.”

 

Joe rolled his eyes. “Pa, don’t bother. He rode me in circles all afternoon with his “it ain’t right” logic. I haven’t got one straight answer out of him.”

 

“Why don’t you ask her out yourself?”

 

Hoss turned to Adam. “She don’t want me. She’s grown up. She ain’t having those silly girl dreams anymore. Saw her just yesterday. She’s wearing her hair up; she’s a regular lady.”

 

“I thought you were going to stay out of her way.”

 

“Just ran into her.”

 

“Where?”

 

“At the schoolhouse.”

 

Adam shook his head. “Fancy finding her there. Must’ve been quite the surprise.”

 

Hop Sing came in with a berry pie. “Dessert time! There’s enough here for Mr. Hoss to have half of pie.”

 

Adam threw his napkin on his plate. “Sorry Hop Sing, I have to get to town for a school board meeting.”

 

Hoss stared at the pie for a moment. Then he got up too. “Hop Sing, you think you could hide a few pieces for me? I gotta’ go too.”

 

Adam looked at him sharply. “Why?”

 

“I’m going to that meeting with you.”

 

“You got a kid in school I don’t know about?”

 

Hoss bristled. “It’s a public meeting. I’m a citizen. Ain’t I got a right?”

 

“Hoss, I’m telling you now that you’re not going.”

 

Joe was on his feet. “That ain’t fair, Adam. He’s got a right.”

 

“I just want to make sure she gets a fair shake.”

 

Hands on his hip, Adam bellowed. “And you don’t think I’m capable of making sure of that?!”

 

Ben turned to Hop Sing. “You better put that pie away. I reckon we’re all going to town tonight.”

 

**********

 

Adam sat up on the podium banging away with the judge’s gavel. Lottie Hawkins sat next to him, her hands folded primly in her lap. Once she looked up, and smiled in Hoss’ direction.

 

Ike Walters stood up. “I’m just sayin’ that those ruffians need a stronger hand than what this here female teacher brings.”

 

Glen Hurley joined him. “I gotta’ agree with Ike here. If these young’uns get out more out of hand, we ain’t ever goin’ to find a teacher for this school.”

 

“They ain’t so bad,” Hoss growled from his seat.

 

Ike turned. “Ain’t so bad!? You remember when you and I were in school, and Little Joe had that bad year?”

 

Joe slid down in his chair and Hoss frowned at Ike. “Ain’t no need to bring that up.”

 

Ben turned to Joe. “Which year was that?”

 

Joe shrugged.

 

“Aw come on, Hoss. Don’t tell me you still ain’t told your Pa yet about the year you had to ride herd on Little Joe full time. Teacher didn’t even teach you nothing that year. Just passed you on through. Your only job was to make sure that lil’ rascal Joe didn’t drive that schoolmarm crazy with his wild pranks. I reckon it was right after that last Ma of yours died.”

 

Hoss stood up. “We ain’t here talkin’ no old history, Ike. You keep those ol’ tales to yourself.”

 

Ben folded his arms and furrowed his brow deeply.

 

“You don’t have a kid in this school, Hoss. You don’t need to stick your nose in this.”

 

Adam banged the gavel again. “That’s enough! I mean it, Hoss. You sit down right now. You too, Ike. You don’t have a child in this school either. We need to hear from some folks who have students in this school.”

 

Sadie from the Bucket of Blood stood up. “I got my two boys in that school and I say that she stays. They actually like going to school. I don’t got to force them or anything. And yesterday, I caught ‘em doing homework.”

 

Ralph Oberg stood up. “Mine are doing much better. My girl, Betsy, is reciting poetry.” He pulled her up by the arm. “Recite something, girl.”

 

A skinny girl with stringy hair glared at her Pa, but stood up and opened her mouth. “Nature is the purest truth I’ve ever known. The sun shines, the winds howl, and the water runs through my fingers clear and sharp…”

 

Hoss smiled as the girl recited for a full five minutes. He wrinkled his nose at old Ike when the storekeeper looked in his direction. At the end of the poem, she sat and there was silence.

 

Adam stood up. “I have everything I need to make this decision. As school board president, I have decided that Miss Lottie Hawkins will be given a one year contract with the Virginia City school district.”

 

Cheers and cries of frustration filled the air, but Adam ignored them all. He reached over and shook hands with Lottie. Hoss got up, smiling broadly, and clapping with all his might.

 

Ben turned to his youngest son. “On the way home, you can tell me all about the year Hoss didn’t get any schooling.”

 

Joe winced, but reluctantly got up and followed him out the door.

 

It took a few minutes for the meeting hall to clear. Lottie had quite a crowd of folks shaking her hand and wishing her well. Some of the other school board members had Adam engaged in a discussion at the door. When Lottie’s last well-wisher passed her, she saw Hoss sitting alone in a chair, smiling up at her.

 

She came to the edge of the stage, and he was there, offering her a hand down. “Thanks for coming, Hoss. Your support means so much to me.”

 

He shrugged. “It weren’t nothing.”

 

“You’ve been so kind, welcoming me back even though we had a bad history.”

 

“I don’t remember nothing bad about it. It was a tough situation, but we both got through it.”

 

“I’m so glad we can finally be friends. I don’t want you to worry about anything. I’ve let go of all of those…silly feelings.”

 

Hoss swallowed. “I’m happy to hear it.”

 

“Are you going to the dance this Friday night?”

 

“Uh…yes, I believe so.”

 

She leaned toward him. “Can you believe that handsome deputy, Clem, asked me to go? I’m sitting in the clouds.”

 

Hoss looked at his feet. “He done asked you already.”

 

“I bet you can hardly fend off all the ladies who want to go with you.”

 

His face colored. “Well…you’d be surprised.”

 

“Honestly, I couldn’t believe you weren’t married when I came back. I can’t believe nobody’s snatched the best catch in Nevada territory.”

 

He shuffled his feet. “You’re funning with me now.”

 

She blinked. “I am not, Hoss. You’re still the kindest, most gentle man I know. Everyone likes you. I’m real proud to have you as a friend.”

 

Adam came up to the two of them. “Miss Lottie, tell me about that poem Betsy Oberg was reciting.”

 

She blushed. “Well, Mr. Adam, it was really nothing. Just a little something I wrote.”

 

Adam’s eyes widened. “I was really quite impressed. Do you have others?”

 

She nodded.

 

“Can I see them?”

 

She cleared her throat. “They’re really very rudimentary.”

 

“I would still love to see them.” Adam put a hand on her back and gently led her away. Hoss rubbed his nose, irritated at the big, odd feeling filling his gut.

 

**********

 

Joe stood on the porch of the way station. The stage had gotten in an hour ago. It was a quiet little spot; only brush and dirt as far as the eye could see. Most of the passengers were inside waiting for the stationmaster to finish making beans. They were stopping for the night, and he was relieved. Adam had spent most of the ride with his head hanging out the window. His dignity was so important to him, but there he was, nursing the mother of all hangovers in front of a coach full of people. He wouldn’t look at any of them. Joe did his best to keep up friendly chatter, but he could feel his brother’s humiliation, and gave a silent prayer of thanks when the stage finally stopped.

 

Adam had taken a walk, and it was getting late. Joe wished he’d stayed closer so that he could keep a better eye on him. He spotted the driver and nodded at him. “Hey Hank! You seen my brother, Adam?”

 

“He’s over there behind the shed.”

 

Joe stepped off the porch and trotted over. Curiosity overcame him, and so he didn’t signal his arrival. Instead, he peered behind the back of the shed and he found Adam sitting there, looking out at the sunset, a flask of whiskey in his hand.

 

Joe hit the side of the shed. “Come on, Adam! I can’t believe you’re drinking again.”

 

Adam closed his eyes and turned away.

 

“You ain’t going to get better if you don’t stop boozin’.”

 

Without looking at Joe, Adam reached over and handed him the flask. Joe took it and sat down beside him. “I don’t understand this. I don’t understand you.”

 

Adam rubbed his forehead and sighed. “I’m sick, Joe. I don’t think I’ll make it back home without that flask. I can’t seem function without it. It’s a bad idea letting Pa see me like this.”

 

“Ah, you don’t need this. You’re…you’re sad, is all. Those guilty feelings are eating you up.”

 

“It’s not that simple, Joe. I killed the most sweet and innocent thing that ever walked the earth. I killed both of them, really. It’s only Hoss that’s still breathing, but he’s dead inside. I’ve seen his eyes. Joe, I can’t stand living with myself. Going home, looking for him, facing Pa; you don’t seem to understand what you’re asking of me.”

 

Joe swallowed hard. “I ain’t going to be understanding with you, Adam. If I was understanding, I don’t think I’d ever see you alive again.”

 

For a long time, the two of them sat silently. Then sun set leaving a blaze of color on its horizon. Dusk came and Joe slowly took the flask and handed it back to Adam. Adam winced and pulled it to him. “Thanks,” he said in a husky whisper.

 

Joe got up and went for a plate of beans. He brought one back for Adam, and stayed with him until he’d eaten every bit of it.

 

**********

 

Hoss didn’t have a date for the dance, but that didn’t make him a wallflower. Hoss was the natural life of any party. Girls loved to dance with him, and guys didn’t feel threatened when their girls wandered off in search of Hoss. He did the best he could, twirling and leading girls across the dance floor, but his heart was elsewhere.

 

Lottie Hawkins came in on Clem’s arm, wearing a fetching lavender shawl. For a while, the two of them sat in a corner and engaged in small talk. Joe came in with beautiful Lacey Daniels, but she broke up with him after the first dance, and so he went outside and joined a very select group of men who had been spurned. Between them, they were emptying a whiskey bottle.

 

Adam and Pa stayed with the men over by the punch. Ben found that he got more business done at a dance than he did spending a full day in Virginia City.

 

Miss Callie Saunders was dancing with Ike Walters, and not having a good time. Everyone could see that, as Ike lead her around the room, she kept her eyes on Clem Foster. If everyone were watching Clem, they’d notice that he seemed to look up every time she and Ike danced in his direction.

 

Hoss went outside and grabbed Little Joe before he got too pickled. He pointed him in the direction of a lonely Bessie Williams, and Joe was off, like a dog after a bone. Soon the two of them were dancing around the room to the immense chagrin of Lacey Daniels.

 

Adam watched Hoss separate two girls who were squawking over who got to dance next with him. He smiled. Hoss was a magnet of sorts. He brought good energy and everyone wanted a piece of it, but he provided no challenge with his sweetness, and so girls never stayed interested.

 

Adam noticed that Miss Lottie and Clem had run out of small talk. She looked down into her lap awkwardly while Clem looked like he was seconds away from getting up and taking Ike Walton’s head off.

 

Adam was a smooth customer and all the women knew it, so when he strode across the room, female eyes turned. He could sweep a girl off her feet and leave her as dumb as a bowl of jelly at the end of the night. Most girls saw his charm as a curse, but secretly wished for the night when he’d sweep in and steal their good sense as well.

 

This time, he walked past all of them, and stopped in front of Miss Lottie. “I haven’t seen you dance all night.”

 

She smiled. “Uh, Clem here isn’t in the dancing mood.”

 

Adam turned to Clem. “You mind if I steal her for a bit.”

 

Clem didn’t even look at Adam. Ike had just dipped Callie in a very familiar way, and he was seeing red. “You go right ahead, Adam.”

 

Adam reached out his hand, and soon the two of them were gliding across the floor.

 

Lottie smiled at him. “You are a lady-killer, aren’t you, Mr. Adam.”

 

He sighed. “I do have a reputation.”

 

“So, is this good publicity? School board president dancing with the new teacher.”

 

“Naw. It’s just that Hoss was right. Clem isn’t doing anything but staring at Miss Callie.”

 

“I don’t mind.”

 

“Are you sure? Girls don’t usually like to be ignored.”

 

“Well, some girls didn’t come with the man they really wanted.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“I’m no gossip, Mr. Adam.”

 

“Well, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I really came over because Clem is acting the fool.”

 

She giggled. “No worries. I don’t have a crush on my boss.”

 

He stopped her in the middle of the floor. “You still have feelings for Hoss?”

 

“I wouldn’t do that to him. I wouldn’t hurt your family again.”

 

Adam cleared his throat. “Well, you see, we aren’t worried about that anymore. I mean, we’re really not worried about that.”

 

She cocked her face at him in confusion.

 

Adam closed his eyes and tried again. “I mean, you’re a woman now. That’s all in the past. You can feel anything you want for… whomever you want…even Hoss. Do you still have feelings…?”

 

She looked down. “Hoss has so many girls. Look at him. He hasn’t had a rest all night.”

 

“I see.” Dancers were starting to bump into them, and so Adam gathered her up and started waltzing her around the room. “It isn’t all that it seems, Miss Lottie.”

 

“How do you mean?”

 

Adam considered his answer. “There aren’t many women who appreciate what a treasure my brother really is.”

 

Her eyes widened. “Why ever not?”

 

Adam smiled at her warmly. “I’ll never understand it myself.”

 

**********

 

Hoss stepped out into the street and grabbed the whiskey bottle from the group of spurned men, and drank from it like he was a man five days in the desert. The group groaned, but Hoss dug in his pocket and flipped out a gold piece. One of the men grabbed it and ran toward the saloon.

 

Hoss winced as the fiery liquid filled his insides. He shook his head, and remembered her laughing in Adam’s arms. Then he took what was left in the bottle and emptied it down his gut. The group hooted at his drinking prowess. One of them declared that he’d drunk a whole third of the bottle in one gulp. He got pats on the back and the fellers gave him both sympathetic and admiring looks.

 

Joe was taking a break when he saw his brother empty that bottle. Hoss was a beer drinker. He didn’t touch whiskey unless he was really looking to poison himself and it usually was not a pretty sight. Joe looked back into the dance and saw Adam gliding the dance floor with Lottie Hawkins. He pushed his way through couples dancing until he found Adam and Lottie. He grabbed Adam by the arm and hissed, “Hoss is drowning himself over this.”

 

Startled, Adam pulled Lottie over to an empty chair and followed Joe. They got outside just in time to see Hoss up end the new bottle of whiskey. The boys were cheering him on. Adam ran into their midst and grabbed the bottle away from Hoss. Hoss lunged for him, but Adam threw the bottle to Little Joe who grabbed it and handed it to one of the men. “Hurry up! Take it and get out of here. We’ll handle the grizzly.”

 

Hoss tried to grab Adam, but he missed and ended up falling on his butt in the middle of the street. He pointed a finger at Adam who hovered nearby. “I saw you. I saw what you did! You no good, dirty, girl thief!”

 

“Now, simmer down, Hoss. I didn’t steal anything. If I recall, you thought it was a good idea that I escort her.”

 

“That was a dumb idea!”

 

“Clearly.” Adam backed up as Hoss struggled to get to his feet.

 

The commotion drew attention, and the porch of the hall was filled with onlookers. Ben pushed his way through them. “What’s going on here!?”

 

Joe scratched his head. “It’s a bit complicated, Pa.”

 

Hoss got to his feet and pointed unsteadily at his brother. “He’s a girl thief, Pa. He’s the lowest girl stealing scoundrel that ever lived.”

 

Adam noticed half the town watching and shook his head. “Let’s get him out of here.”

 

Joe and Ben joined Adam and they circled Hoss. “I ain’t going anywhere with the girl thief!”

 

“Okay, okay, son. Let’s not have a scene. Just tell me what you do want.”

 

“I want more snake juice, Pa. I just want to forget that my brother is a girl stealer.”

 

“Okay. Take my arm, and you and I will walk down to the Bucket and have us a drink.”

 

Hoss swayed a bit, but accepted his Pa’s arm, and let Ben lead him down the street. Adam picked up his hat and dusted it off. Lottie Hawkins was staring, wide eyed, from the porch. He wanted to talk to her and explain that Hoss was only having a bad night, but Joe pushed him in the direction of the saloon.

 

Ben was a man of his word. He let his son drink more whiskey and then he urged his other sons to join them. Slowly, soothingly, he explained that Adam could never steal a girl from his brother. Within half an hour, a boozy, contrite Hoss was draped around his older brother’s neck, begging his forgiveness. Adam patted him on the back, and assured him all was right again. Pa hired a wagon to take him home.

 

**********

 

Adam waited for her to come out of church. She saw him and scurried over. “Is Hoss alright?”

 

“He’s just fine. Didn’t feel like coming into church. I’m afraid his pride is a little wounded. He’s also worried about what a certain schoolteacher must thinking about him right now.”

 

“I don’t think anything. I can’t quite figure out what happened.”

 

Adam sidestepped this. “How was the rest of your date?”

 

She shrugged. “Clem found Callie, and the two of them left together. After Hoss… I just went home.”

 

“You still care about my brother?”

 

She looked at him for a long moment. Then she slowly nodded.

 

Adam smiled. “Sure is a fine day for a picnic. How would you like to come out to the Ponderosa and join us for a lovely afternoon by the lake?”

 

“You sure Hoss is feeling up to it?”

 

“Not at all, but I think you’re just the medicine for him.”

 

**********

 

 

Adam brought her home, and settled her onto the porch. He bellowed for Hop Sing, and disappeared into the house. Joe came out of the house soon after, grinned madly at her, and ran into the barn. Ben came out and smiled at her. “What a lovely surprise!”

 

He sat down next to her and the two chatted about the beautiful spring weather. There was a momentary interruption as Joe pushed an irritated Hoss out of the barn. He looked at Lottie, and his eyes got wide. He tried to get back into the barn, but Joe blocked his entry. Joe then turned his giant of a brother around and pointed at the house. Hoss grinned weakly at Lottie and waved. Joe pushed him again. When he got to the stairs, he stopped and smiled again, but Joe grabbed his arm and dragged him into the house. The door slammed. Her eyes widened as yelling and stomping ensued from within. A stream of curses in a foreign tongue followed. Ben gave her a thin smile and did his best to distract her with small talk.

 

Twenty minutes later, Adam opened the door and appeared with a large basket and a blanket. More foreign curses floated out behind him and he shut the door. He nodded at her. “I’m just going to ready the team.”

 

A few minutes later, Joe brought a reluctant Hoss back outside. His wispy hair had been parted and oiled. Somehow, Joe had stuffed him into one of Ben’s old formal jackets, and he smelled to high heaven like a field of lilacs. Ben wrinkled his nose and got up. “You sure look nice, Hoss. Doesn’t he look nice, Miss Lottie?”

 

She sneezed. “He smells nice too.”

 

She sneezed again. “Maybe a little too nice.”

 

Joe frowned, sniffed his brother, winced, and then pushed him back through the door. By the time Adam pulled the team out, Joe was back with a much less flowery Hoss. The basket was put in the back, and Lottie was hoisted onto the seat. Hoss was then manhandled by his family until he was sitting alongside her. She looked down, “Aren’t you all coming along?”

 

Adam blinked. “We can’t, Miss Lottie. Uh, there’s a runaway herd of horses that we gotta’ corral.”

 

Hoss frowned at them. “I ain’t heard nothing about this.”

 

Before another word was said, Joe slapped the rump on the nearest horse and sent the startled team off, jerking the wagon out of the yard.

 

**********

 

Ben was shocked the first time he saw his oldest son. He and Little Joe got off the stage, and Adam looked like he’d lost maybe 20 lbs. His face was pale, and his hands were clammy and cold when he took Pa’s hand. He said almost nothing while Joe took charge of the conversation. He loaded Adam onto the wagon, and turned down Ben’s offer of supper at the hotel.

 

On the way home, Adam sat silently in the back while Joe updated Pa on some of what he knew and then learned that Pa hadn’t heard anything from Hoss.

 

At the ranch, Adam stopped at the porch and stared at the house like he’d never seen it before until Joe whispered something in his ear and steered him toward the door.

 

Supper conversation was unnaturally stilted. The fact that Hoss was gone, and Adam was present largely as a ghost was left unaddressed. Ben didn’t know where to start with the questions.

 

Ben got up to get a brandy after dinner. He offered one to his sons, but Joe said no for both of them. Adam quickly excused himself and went up to bed.

 

Joe got up, sat in the red chair and stared at the fire while Ben waited. Finally, he turned to his father. “He’s as bad as Hoss must be. I ain’t ever seen him like this…not even close. He’s not the same Adam.”

 

“There’s something you’re not telling me. He looks sick.”

 

“I know, Pa. Let’s give him a couple of days.”

 

“I should know what’s wrong.”

 

Joe shook his head. “Not if it can be helped.”

 

**********

 

Ben got his answers at 3 a.m. that morning. A crash sounded downstairs. Joe got to the stairs before him and flew down them. Adam sat at the dining room table, his fist dripping blood onto the lace cloth. Ben’s brandy set sat on the table next to him. The large crystal sifter lay in pieces on the floor.

 

Adam looked up at his father, eyes red and watery. “I’m a common drunk, Pa.”

 

Joe grabbed a towel from the kitchen, and got a hold of Adam’s bloody fist. “Pa, get a lantern. Please.”

 

A stunned Ben blinked his eyes, and brought his lantern over to Joe. Joe shined it on Adam’s hand, and meticulously picked shards of glass out of his skin.

 

“I’m going to get my things and go. It’s the best for everyone,” Adam drawled slowly. “I won’t stay in Virginia City. I won’t bring my disgrace down on you.”

 

Joe stopped his work. “Just shut up. Right now, I don’t want to hear a single word out of you.”

 

Adam found his Pa’s face. “I can’t live with myself. I used to be so strong and focused, and now all I feel is rage and self loathing and it’s eating me alive. I won’t stay. I won’t infect you with it.”

 

Ben took his son’s face in his hands. “You can survive this! I know about survival! I am the king of survival! You can’t tell me you hurt worse than I ever have!”

 

Adam looked away. “You never killed people you loved.”

 

Ben got close to Adam’s face and hissed, “And you haven’t either!”

 

Joe wrapped Adam’s hand in the towel. “I’m thinking back to ol’ Shorty. I’m remembering how we helped him survive the bottle.”

 

“Adam’s not that bad, Joe!”

 

Joe looked at his father. “He’s drowning, Pa. I’m telling you this as sure as I’m standing here. We got no time for soft thoughts or sentiments. He’s drowning and there’s only one way to save him.

 

Adam looked at Joe feverishly. “Do it, Joe. Don’t let anyone talk you of it. You’re just mean enough to save my life. Pa can’t do it. He can’t do it like you can.”

 

Joe nodded. “The west bunkhouse is empty, right?”

 

Ben nodded.

 

Joe threw Adam’s arm over his shoulder and pulled him to his feet. Then the two brothers faced Ben. “I’m locking him out there and he stays. You can’t visit him or talk to him. I take him meals, but that’s it. No one else has access. He’s going to howl, beg, scream, and threaten, but you will not respond. Do you understand?”

 

Ben just stared at them.

 

Joe stomped his foot. “Tell me you understand, Pa!”

 

Ben swallowed hard and slowly nodded.

 

Joe walked Adam to the door and turned. “You’re not going to see him again until he’s well. Prepare yourself for that.”

 

Ben Cartwright stood like a statue while Joe pulled Adam out to the bunkhouse and locked him in tight.

 

**********

 

Hoss looked through the basket, and smiled at Lottie. “You wouldn’t believe what they got for us here. We got fried chicken, chocolate cake, green beans, and some bread and butter pickles.”

 

Lottie sat on the blanket, her knees drawn up to her chin, smiling out at the lake. “It sounds wonderful.”

 

Hoss set everything out and grabbed a chicken leg. “Dig in.”

 

Lottie sighed deeply and reached for the chocolate cake. “Today, I only eat cake.” Then she giggled. “What a decadent thing for me to say!”

 

Hoss frowned. “Is decadent a bad thing or a good thing?”

 

“Both, I guess. For today, it’s wonderful.”

 

Hoss put the leg down. Surprisingly, it had little flavor. Plus, his gut was already full with the most astounding sensation.

 

“Don’t you want to know what I did all those years I was gone?”

 

He nodded eagerly. “Tell me all about it.”

 

“It started out rough. The only work I found was cooking in a mining camp. But I got through and the lady running the lunch table let me stay free. I saved every penny I earned. One day, I had enough money for a stage to Denver so I left. In Denver, I got a job cleaning at a lady’s finishing school. One of the ladies took a liking to me, and she let me borrow her books. I’d clean all day, and then at night, I would read about the most extraordinary worlds. After a year, the kind lady hired me as an assistant in her classroom. It was the most wonderful thing in the world.”

 

Hoss sat, mesmerized; the food on the blanket totally forgotten. “Then what, Miss Lottie?”

 

“She had me sit for teacher’s examination and I passed. Couldn’t find a job though, so I still worked as an assistant, but she introduced me to people and soon I had quite a little social life. In fact, I even had a fiancée.”

 

Hoss sat up stiffly. “What happened to him?”

 

“He was a nice feller. He worked in a feed store. Very upstanding, law-abiding man. Churchgoer. Didn’t spend too much time in the saloons.”

 

“Was he killed?”

 

No, nothing like that! We just disappointed each other, is all.”

 

“How is that possible?”

 

“I may not be a girl anymore, but I’m still a dreamer. He wanted someone more practical, serious-minded.”

 

“How did he disappoint you?”

 

She sighed deeply. “I couldn’t find the poetry in his heart.”

 

“Excuse me, Miss Lottie?”

 

“When someone is beautiful, I see poetry. Words and thoughts race through my head and that person becomes a poem to me. I tried so hard, but I couldn’t ever find a poem in him.”

 

Hoss scratched the back of his head. “That sounds powerful hard to do. Maybe you didn’t give it enough time.”

 

“No, I gave it time. Believe me.”

 

“It probably don’t work so easy on fellers.”

 

“That’s not it. It worked powerful well on you.”

 

Hoss cocked his head. “You found poems in me?”

 

She nodded. “A million of them.”

 

“I do declare. I ain’t never heard anything quite like it. Ever found poems in other folks?”

 

“I’ve written many poems about my mother and about the teacher who helped me in Denver.”

 

He narrowed his eyes. “How about Clem? You got any Clem poems?”

 

She shook her head. “Not a one.”

 

“I reckon that could change.”

 

“Not likely.” She turned her attention back to the smooth water.

 

Hoss studied her profile for a while. He was captivated by her pert nose, and the freckles that dotted her cheeks. “Um, Lottie, I was wondering when you last wrote a poem about me.”

 

“Five minutes ago.” The wind pushed red curls into her face.

 

Hoss swallowed. “You can’t still have that old crush, can you?”

 

“I was a silly girl, Hoss, but I was never dumb.”

 

“Lottie?”

 

She turned and looked at him. “I wasn’t wrong to be in love with you all those years ago. It just wasn’t the right time, and I wasn’t the right age, but it was the right feeling.”

 

Hoss tried to clear his throat, but couldn’t lose a peculiar husk that had taken hold. “What was that poem you just wrote about me?”

 

She took a breath. “Sturdy like an oak, strong. A warrior rooted to the ground, shading those he protects, loves…uh, I don’t have the rest of it organized.”

 

Hoss looked stunned.

 

“This isn’t an old crush. I’m done with that. I came back, in part, to prove that I was more mature, ready to be a responsible adult, but I saw you, and you were still everything you’d always been. I liked how you talked to my students so stern but yet gentle…how you defended me in the school board meeting. I like watching you be a friend to everyone around you. I even enjoyed watching you dance with those other girls. There’s just something about you that’s very special. When I see you in a room, you’re the most beautiful person there to me.”

 

Suddenly, he was aware that he was thirsty enough to drink the lake dry. “I…I, uh, don’t know what to say.”

 

She brushed a lock away from her face. “I can’t be something I’m not. I’ll always be this way. I can’t hide how I feel. I guess I’m sort of like a poem myself.”

 

She waited a moment, but Hoss only stared at her. She said, “I won’t embarrass you. I’ll move on. I just can’t hide what I feel. I’m not built for it.”

 

Hoss reached over and touched her face. “A feller like me is only supposed to dream about moments like this.”

 

She sighed in relief. “You like me too.”

 

He leaned over, and kissed her lightly on the mouth. “You’re the most beautiful poem I’ve ever known.”

 

**********

 

Adam was still groggy when he came down the stairs. He stuffed his shirt in haphazardly as he approached the table. He’d come in late the night before from Carson City.

 

Little Joe looked up and nodded. “Howdy, stranger.”

 

Adam grunted. Morning chatter was not one of his skills. He scooped some ham and eggs onto his plate, and started work on a mouthful of eggs. Suddenly, the front door opened and before he could react, Hoss appeared with a big smile on his face. He slapped Adam hard on the back. Eggs sprayed across the table, and Adam struggled not to choke on what remained in his mouth.

 

Joe giggled and Hoss sat down, oblivious to the destruction he’d wrought. He started shoveling ham slices onto his plate. “Great day, ain’t it?”

 

Adam winced.

 

Joe shook his head. “You’re like a big, friendly tornado, Big Brother.”

 

“Thanks, Little Joe.” Hoss dragged four eggs on top of his ham.

 

“Where’s the blackberry jam?” Adam had given up on his eggs.

 

“I’ll get it.” Hoss popped up and disappeared into the kitchen. He brought a pot and put it in front of Adam. Then he sat down, and shoveled food in like the first coyote to a carcass.

 

Five minutes later, Hoss was up again. “See ya, Brothers!” Then the front door slammed behind him.

 

Adam turned to Joe. “What was that?”

 

Joe sighed loudly. “He’s like that all the time now. It’s insufferable. I think about strangling him sometimes, but Pa would disapprove.”

 

Adam arched an eyebrow. “You think?”

 

Hop Sing came in. “Where Mr. Hoss?”

 

“He left, Hop Sing.”

 

“When he coming back?”

 

Joe threw his hands up in the air. Hop Sing scowled and ran back into the kitchen.

 

“What’s with Hop Sing?”

 

“He’s crazy for Hoss.”

 

“Huh?” Adam looked up.

 

“He says Hoss is in love. Says it’s powerful good luck. Yesterday, he made Hoss sit at the table and touch every single sheet of his writing paper. He wants to send Hoss luck home to his family. He probably just wants him to touch the laundry he’s taking into town or something. Who knows?”

 

“Hoss is in love, isn’t he?”

 

Joe wrinkled his nose. “Disgustingly so.”

 

“You don’t think it’s a good thing?”

 

Me?”

 

“You don’t sound enthusiastic.”

 

Little Joe bit his bottom lip, but it couldn’t contain the smile spreading across his face. “Oh, Adam, she’s perfect for him. It’s best thing that’s ever happened.”

 

Adam smiled. “Tell me.”

 

Joe leaned forward. “You should see the way she looks at him. She thinks he’s the best thing since horses. And she’s just like him too. It’s wild. Yesterday, she was over for the day, and the two of them sat with a brand new baby foal the whole afternoon. She sat in the hay, skirts and everything, just petting that foal and she couldn’t have been happier. He brings her home on Sundays, and then goes to visit her two evenings a week. Hell, he’d go more if Pa would stand for it. Last week, He went to visit her, and the two of them spent the whole evening tending to sick Mrs. Lewis and her children. It was her idea, not his. She’s like a tiny, girl Hoss.”

 

“What does Pa think?”

 

Joe pointed his fork at Adam. “He loves her. He’s so happy he can hardly see straight. You know how long he’s waited for Hoss to find a good woman who adores him.”

 

“You think it’ll last?”

 

“I hope so. Nobody deserves this like Hoss does.”

 

“You think they’re too much alike?”

 

Joe shrugged. “They’re both sweet, sensitive people. They don’t carry one mean thought between them. Maybe it would be better if she were more practical. I don’t know. I don’t care. They’re happy. I reckon I’d do just about anything to help keep ‘em that way.”

 

“I wish I’d known all this.” Adam looked pensive.

 

Joe shook his head. “It’s not going to impact her teaching. The kids are doing great.”

 

“It’s something else.”

 

“Tell me.”

 

Adam shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”

 

**********

 

Ben Cartwright sat in a chair across from his oldest friend, Roy Coffee, nursing Roy’s signature brew. “He locked him in there a week ago, Roy. I’m not allowed to go home until Joe sends for me. I can hardly stand it.”

 

Roy shook his head. “I never heard of such a thing.”

 

“The first day was quiet. I didn’t hear a thing. The second day, Adam started pounding on the wall. I couldn’t stand it. Broke the door in. Adam just stood there with bloody hands, and yelled at me to get out. Joe showed up and banished me from my own ranch. I’ve been on the range the last five days. Tried to go back this morning, but Joseph sent me away again. I can’t begin to understand what has happened to my family.”

 

“The idea of Adam drinking like that; I can’t get a picture of it in my head.”

 

“He’s been in terrible pain over Hoss, Roy. He feels like he destroyed his brother’s life.”

 

“It ain’t his fault, Ben.”

 

Ben snorted. “You’re telling me this. I raised sensitive men, Roy. Maybe it was a mistake. All I know is that one’s trying to kill himself, one has run away from his family, and the youngest one appears to have staged a palace coup.”

 

“Yeah. Little Joe locking Adam up and then kicking you off your own ranch; wonders never cease.”

 

Ben let a smile tug at his mouth. “Joseph the usurper; I can hardly believe it. I’m completely proud of him though. He’s my beacon of hope right now.”

 

Roy nodded. “You know, Ben, I never told you how sorry I am about your loss. It wasn’t just Hoss’ loss; all of you lost her. She turned out to be quite special to you, didn’t she?”

 

He sighed. “Yes, she was. She meant a lot to all of us. She was a very special girl. And my sweet, oversized son was finally getting the happiness he so richly deserved. Seeing them together made me very happy.”

 

Roy took a sip of his brew. “I don’t understand why this always seems to happen to the people who deserve it the least.”

 

***********

 

Ben got the word two days later that he could come home. He was feeling hope on this day because his sons had summoned him, and because he had received a very important letter.

 

The corral in the yard had twenty new horses in it, and he would’ve stopped to really admire them if not for the lone figure sitting on the porch. He resisted the urge to show too much excitement. Instead, he walked up to his eldest son and took the chair next to his. “You look good, Adam.”

 

Adam snorted. “I look like a lot of things right now, but good isn’t one of them.”

 

Ben bristled unexpectedly. “You look good to me.”

 

Adam sighed. “Sorry, Pa, you’re right. It’s better than it was.”

 

“You stayed in that bunkhouse almost ten days.”

 

Adam looked at him, and for the first time, Ben could see the dark circles under his eyes, and the almost translucent skin of a man who hasn’t seen sun in weeks. There was almost something almost ethereal about him. “Joe saved my life, Pa.”

 

“I’m sorry I didn’t realize how bad it was.”

 

“You should have seen Hoss’ face that moment he knew she was never coming back. We can argue all night and all day about whether or not I am responsible for what happened, but I saw my brother’s spirit die that day. I can’t seem to let go of that.”

 

“Yet, you’re here. You didn’t give up.”

 

For a moment, Ben saw Adam’s characteristic smile tug at the edges of his mouth. “I was taking you and Joe down with me. You didn’t deserve the pain of losing two of your sons and your first daughter. I had to stay focused on that. I may have destroyed Hoss’ spirit, but I guess I realized I had the power to extinguish yours as well. It was enough. You raised me to think about more than myself. I needed time in that bunkhouse to remember that.”

 

Ben couldn’t keep the emotion out of his voice. “Thank you, son.”

 

Adam raised a hand so his father could see the shaking still present in his muscles. “Look at this, Pa. What have I become?”

 

Ben reached over and covered the shaking hand gently with his. “Do you remember my dark hours?”

 

Adam thought for a moment. “After Inger died and Marie; yes, I remember those times.”

 

“I drank. I raged. I left you boys to fend for yourselves on many a night.”

 

Adam looked down. “We always understood.”

 

Ben squeezed his hand tightly. “And you forgave.”

 

“I guess I’m used to being in control. I can’t seem to let go.”

 

“Yes, and much of that is because I denied you your childhood. You never were given the time to make mistakes and learn from them.”

 

“Pa, you did the best you could.”

 

“And you did too. There are no guarantees in life. You never tried to hurt your brother.”

 

“Well, we all know about the road to hell and what it’s paved with.”

 

“Adam, what can I do to help you?”

 

Adam’s voice sounded strangled. “Forgive me, Pa.”

 

Ben leaned forward. “I think you’re asking the wrong person. I’m not angry at you.”

 

“Hoss?”

 

Ben shook his head. “You need to forgive yourself.”

 

Adam looked confused.

 

Ben pulled out the letter from his coat. “I have a letter I want to share with you.”

 

“Hoss?”

 

Yes, it’s Hoss.”

 

“My hands are still shaky, Pa. Can you read it to me?”

 

Pa smoothed out the paper that was already worn from his own hands.

 

“Dear Pa,

 

A man who leaves his family for three months and doesn’t let them where he is… well, he is not much of a man. Doing this to you is a sinful thing. I know you are hurting too.

 

I am lost. My heart is gone. All I got is a big hole in my chest full of hurt and anger. I am not fit for civilized folks. If I came home, I would hurt you all. I told my brother I never wanted to see him again. That is the kind of man I am now.

 

Bring Adam home. Tend to him. I know he hurts too. I do not know if my feelings can ever mend, but I know he deserves better than how I treated him.

 

I cannot say yet that I am coming home. Do not come to find me. Let me be. I need to be alone. I know you want to talk to me, but I am not ready. I will write again so you don’t worry too much about me.

 

Hoss”

 

Adam gripped his father’s wrist. “Go get him, Pa! Find him. I’m well now. I can leave.”

 

Ben turned to him and frowned. “You’re not going anywhere.”

 

“He needs you.”

 

“He’s not ready.”

 

“Pa…”

 

Ben put a hand up. “No! If this was a letter from Joe, I’d saddle up and go, but not for Hoss.”

 

“Why?”

 

“I know Joe. His heart is always a week ahead of his head. What he writes today is not how he’ll be feeling tomorrow. Hoss is different. He needs me to trust him. He’ll tell us when he’s ready.”

 

**********

 

The water floated around his calves, but for her, it swallowed her legs almost up to her knees. It amazed him how his legs were all muscles, cuts, and bruises carved into his skin from hard, rough work while hers had such delicate, smooth curves; not a scratch on them. He had his arm securely around her waist. It was impossible for him to be near her and not touch her. He liked that she was small and delicate. It made her all the more precious to him.

 

She squinted at him in the noonday sun. “You’re sure you’re ready?”

 

He snorted. “Honey, I would’ve married you the first week. That’s my big problem. I move too fast. I guess I’ve had some bad experiences with women because of that.”

 

“We have all kinds of time.”

 

“I know, Lottie, but you and I both know that this was meant to be. I don’t see the sense in going through the motions. I just want to be with you.”

 

“Are you ready for a lifetime with a silly girl?”

 

He chuckled. “It sounds good to me.”

 

“Not many people find what we have.”

 

He squeezed her to him. “I know. I promise to treasure you every day of your life.”

 

She rested her head on his chest and sighed deeply. “Let’s go tell your Pa we’re getting hitched.”

 

**********

 

The wedding started out a simple affair. Neither Lottie nor Hoss was much interested in fancy trappings or ceremony. However, Hoss’ lifelong impact on Virginia City’s citizens had been deep. So many people seemed to consider Hoss a member of their family that it didn’t matter what the Cartwrights had planned. People didn’t wait for invitations, and they invited family members from out of town as well.

 

Finally, Roy had to go out to the Ponderosa, and explain that the ranch wasn’t going to be big enough. Ben acquiesced and the reception and dance was moved to the main streets of Virginia City.

 

Ben waited for trouble. His middle son had always suffered such terrible disappointments with love. All of them waited for the moment when Lottie Hawkins would prove herself unworthy of Hoss’ heart, but it never came. Lottie Hawkins was as devoted to Hoss Cartwright as he was to her.

 

The wedding itself was a blur. Hoss repeated what he was asked to repeat. He gave her a beautiful ruby ring, and then he kissed her. The rest was chaos. He got slapped on the back, his hand shook, and kissed by so many people he lost track of who was coming at him at any given time.

 

Joe was so excited that you would have thought he was the one with a new wife. He spent the whole evening dancing with every girl he could find and buying drinks for all the men. At the end of the evening, Adam had to throw him over his horse and tie him on.

 

Adam was less effusive, but every bit as happy. Late in the evening, he found his guitar and began playing and singing to his brother’s happiness. He drew quite a crowd; one because he was mighty talented and two because townspeople knew this was probably the only time they’d ever see such a spectacle.

 

Late in the evening, Ben sat on the mercantile porch next to Roy, and watched women gather up their boozy husbands and groups of young girls drift back to their parents’ homes. Groups of cowboys resisted this shift, and Roy knew he still had hours of drinking men carousing the streets. Years of experience had taught him to gather up firearms before they got too rowdy. They could still make a lot of trouble, but at least stray gunshots wouldn’t punctuate the night.

 

“It was a good one, wasn’t it, Ben?”

 

Ben grinned. “I reckon it was the best ever. Didn’t she look fine?”

 

“She was beautiful.”

 

“I try so hard to hold onto these moments. I want to find ways to replay them for the rest of my life.”

 

Roy shook his head. “I wish I knew how to do that.”

 

They sat back in a companionable silence for a time. Then Roy elbowed him and pointed at Hoss who’d sent a group of his friends back to the bar for another bottle. Hoss waited until they were in the bar. Then he grabbed Lottie, and took off in the direction of the International House. One of the men spotted him and shouted to his friends. Hoss literally slung her under one arm and started running for it.

 

Roy and Ben jumped up and ran out into the street. Roy put his hands up as he slowed the cowboys. “Alright, boys, let him go. The bride deserves to have a wedding night where the groom can still remember her name. Go on now. Leave ‘em be.”

 

Ben put his hands on his hips. “Anyone who makes it into the Bucket of Blood in the next thirty seconds drinks for the next hour on me!”

 

Hoss was immediately forgotten as cowboys stumbled over themselves to get inside the saloon. Ben looked at Roy. “I wouldn’t have made a half bad sheriff.”

 

Roy smiled. “Yeah, because the solution to this problem clearly is to get them drunker.”

 

**********

 

Lottie’s eye blinked open again. She hadn’t slept more than two hours at a stretch the whole night. As Mrs. Cartwright, she was going to have to get accustomed to a couple minor things. One was that her husband snored like a congested locomotive in need of repair. The other was that he was a very active sleeper. One minute, he was hugging her tightly, the next he pushing her off the bed. Nighttimes were going to take some getting used to it.

 

Consummating the marriage was a different story. She felt very safe with him, and two of them talked to each other through every step. The nervousness she had accumulated in anticipation of this moment quickly dissipated. Their lovemaking had been careful and gentle, and was on balance a great deal more pleasant than what she’d been told to expect.

 

The sun shone bright through the lace curtains, and Lottie wondered what time it was. Finding out required more work than she was willing to manage, and so she pulled the covers up and snuggled in closer to her husband.

 

In a deep gravelly voice, she heard, “Good morning, honey.”

 

She smiled and turned to him. “Good morning, husband.”

 

“Sleep good?”

 

She avoided the question by leaning over and kissing him lightly on the cheek.

 

He rubbed at his face. “What time do you reckon it is?”

 

She sat up. “It can’t be too late in the day. Sun isn’t that high in the sky.”

 

He squinted at the window. “I thought we got a room on the west side of the hotel.”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

Hoss jumped up and leaned his head out the window. “By God, Lottie, that sun ain’t rising; it’s setting. We done slept through the whole day.”

 

Lottie scrambled out of bed. “Your father expected us for lunch.”

 

He threw back his head and laughed. “I’m sure they managed without us. But you better get dressed or folks’ll think we’re up to something in here.”

 

**********

 

The carriage rolled into the Ponderosa yard right at suppertime. Little Joe heard them coming in and ran outside full of good cheer. “Howdy Brother, we missed you at lunch. Hey Lottie!”

 

Hoss frowned. “Ain’t no need to bring that up.”

 

“Ooooh! You’re a little grouchy on an empty stomach.”

 

Ben and Adam came out onto the porch and Joe called to them, “The lovebirds have finally arrived.”

 

Hoss pointed a finger at him. “You keep talking like that, and I’m going to throw you up in the air so high you ain’t going to hit ground until the first frost comes.”

 

“Alright boys, you seem to be forgetting that we have a new member of the family now who may not appreciate your antics.” Ben stepped forward, and helped Lottie down from the carriage.

 

“I’ll put the horses up for you.” Joe grabbed the reins.

 

“Ain’t no need. We’re going back to the International House for the night. Promised Lottie a honeymoon, and I aim to give it to her.”

 

“Aw, Hoss, we can stay here.” Lottie shook the dust from her skirts.

 

“No way. I promised you a honeymoon.”

 

Hoss grabbed the reins from Joe. “Come on! You can help me go water ‘em. I’d leave ya’ here but you can’t seem to keep a civil tongue.”

 

They disappeared into the barn, and Adam turned to Lottie. “What, pray tell, has gotten into your groom?”

 

Lottie blushed. “I could use some help here.”

 

Ben and Adam led her into the house. She took off her shawl, and found her way to the couch. “I don’t know how to say this.”

 

Ben sat across from her. “We’re family now. You can say anything.”

 

She looked down at her hands. “Hoss is something of a self-conscious bridegroom.”

 

Adam arched an eyebrow. “I don’t understand.”

 

She cleared her throat. “He, uh, thinks that people know what we’ve been up to. He thinks men are leering at me.”

 

A smile tugged at Adam’s mouth but he bit his lip.

 

“He must’ve offered to fatten five or six lips when fellers did nothing more than wave at us. Buster Collins winked and Hoss blackened his eye. Sheriff Coffee had to step in before Hoss tackled a group of hands just off a cattle drive. Poor things were just whistling because they hadn’t seen a female in a month.”

 

“Sounds like Brother Hoss.”

 

“I was hoping that you would help me convince him that we don’t need to go back to town tonight. I think he needs a few days to get used to being married.”

 

Adam turned to his father. “Well, Pa, this sounds like it’s right up your alley.”

 

“I’m sure you think so.” Ben growled. Then he went over and patted her on the shoulder. “Don’t you worry. Lottie dear. We’ll set him straight.”

 

Adam let out a small chuckle and Ben frowned at him. “Well, don’t just stand there! You better get out there before Hoss starts throwing Little Joe around the yard.”

 

**********

 

Hoss sat on the creaky steps of the mercantile, eating a plate of beans the owner scared up. He’d been eating irregular for days, but he couldn’t seem to remember mealtimes in the same way he had before he lost her. He was thinner now; his clothes were past due for a good washing.

 

He’d lost track of time, and the only way he could determine the time of the year was to take note of the planting, and the lush green in the trees. An easier way would have been to ask someone, but he was conversing as little as possible with folks. He was a stranger in these parts, and so people were naturally curious. There were very few questions he could answer without feeling like someone had punched him in the gut.

 

A bare leg swung next to his and he startled. There was a young girl sitting next to him on the porch and he hadn’t sensed her approach. He got up to walk away when she spoke. “Howdy, I’m Emmaline. What’s your name?”

 

He frowned at her. “You ought not to sneak up on a strange man. It ain’t proper.”

 

She cocked her head. “Ain’t my fault you don’t pay attention to what’s going on around you.”

 

He grunted and headed off.

 

“I asked you your name, Mister. You don’t give me a name, and I gotta’ figure you’re hiding from something, maybe got your face on a poster. My pappy’s the sheriff here. I’ll just call him over.”

 

He closed his eyes for a moment. Then turned to her. “Name is Hoss Cartwright. You satisfied?”

 

“What you doing in these parts?”

 

“Drifting. Just drifting and looking at the scenery.”

 

“That ain’t much to occupy a man.”

 

“Well, I’m doing just fine.”

 

Her eyes found the ruined valise he carried on the back of the horse. “What you got there?”

 

Hoss winced but said nothing.

 

She looked at him oddly and then gestured. “Come here. I want to show you something.”

 

He looked away for a moment, but then he ambled over. She pointed down the street. A wagon had pulled up to a big white house, and two men were carrying off a lady. Two little boys were standing in the wagon bed hollering for their mother. Hoss looked at Emmaline. “What’s going on?”

 

“That’s Betsy Hawthorne and her two boys. She’s been holding down the farm while her husband, Ernest, went over Utah way to work in a silver mine. They barely survived the winter. Ernest lost his crops last year in the drought. So Ernest is shoveling silver, and poor Betsy has to do the planting. Her old mule kicked her in the leg and broke it. My pappy found her crawling back to the farm this morning.”

 

“That’s real tough luck.”

 

“I reckon they’re going to lose the farm to the bank without a crop. Ernest ain’t going to be making much money as a miner; he has no stake. And the way Betsy’s leg is all swolled up, I wouldn’t be half surprised if she lost it. And those little boys ain’t more than 2 and 3 years old”

 

Hoss narrowed his eyes on the scene. “One of them boys is about to fall off the wagon.” Instincts kicked in, and before he could think about it, he started running down the street. One of the little ones was climbing over the side of the buckboard. It was looking to be a five foot drop. The little boy thought better of his actions at the moment both of his legs were over the side, and he was clinging desperately to the side. Hoss got there just in time to catch him as he fell. Hoss slung him over his shoulder, and reached in for the other little rascal who was contemplating a jump off the other side. He took the two squirming toddlers up to the porch of the house and sat down with them. They immediately squirreled away from him, and started playing in the dirt.

 

“I worried they were going to fall out of the wagon, but I reckon I was too wrapped in Betsy and that bad leg.”

 

Hoss turned and saw the sheriff in the doorway. “Yeah, I pulled them off just in time.”

 

The sheriff nodded at him. “Much obliged, Mr…”

 

“Name’s Cartwright. I’m just riding through.”

 

“Strangers don’t always get involved with local troubles. We’re grateful you stopped.”

 

“Your little girl, Emmaline, told me all about it.”

 

The sheriff stared at him for a moment. Then he walked over and sat next to Hoss. “You spoke to Emmaline?”

 

“She was over to the mercantile. Very friendly child. I reckon you don’t want her talking to no strange fellers, but she don’t mean no harm.”

 

“What did she say to you?”

 

Hoss shrugged. “She told me about the Hawthorne’s troubles. Said they’re going to lose everything without a crop.”

 

Sheriff looked down at his hands. “I wonder why she told you all that.”

 

Hoss shrugged again, an odd feeling building in his gut.

 

The sheriff frowned. “I been worried about this. They need someone to watch over their things, feed their stock, and I ain’t got the time. Everyone else has their own troubles. Ain’t nobody to step up. How long you in town?”

 

“Just passing through.”

 

“Got no particular place you’re headed?”

 

Hoss winced. This was the sort of prying that could get too close to his pain. “I reckon not.”

 

“Why don’t you go out and stay at the Hawthorne place?”

 

Hoss shifted. “I ain’t trying to involved in nothing. Just drifting, is all.”

 

“Nobody’s out there. Just you and that damn killer mule. It’d give you a roof. You could feed the chickens. Just sort of watch over things until I get a hold of Ernest.”

 

Hoss looked away.

 

The sheriff stroked his mustache for a moment. “It’s your choice, cowboy, but it wouldn’t hurt you none to slow down for a couple of days and it would make a big difference to this family.”

 

“You’re an odd feller, Sheriff. It ain’t common practice to send strangers out to watch over people’s stuff.”

 

The sheriff looked over into the distance. “I reckon that if Emmaline likes you, then you’re okay.”

 

“So you consult with young girls on these matters, Sheriff?”

 

Sheriff kept staring into the distance. Hoss saw a sadness in his eyes that he could relate to very well. Finally, the sheriff turned to him. “I trust Emmaline in all things.”

 

**********

 

Hoss looked around the yard of the small farmhouse. There were hens, but they weren’t penned, and he figured they were laying eggs all over the place. The house was small but clean, and he found flour and sugar in the larder. He wandered out to the field and found it half tilled. The plow was still stuck in the ground, but the mule had chewed through his harness and was grazing in a meadow beyond. Hoss looked over the damaged harness. He pulled some rope off the plow, took his knife, and did some splicing. Within a few minutes, he’d repaired the harness, albeit temporarily.

 

The mule eyed him warily when he approached. Hoss kept his knees bent and his arms spread. “Hi there, you little devil. I been hearing about your misdeeds. Bet you think that it was clever to back kick a woman. I’m here to tell you that wasn’t nothing but a coward’s way. Trying to get out of a little bit of work. That field ain’t big enough to cause you even a bit of trouble. You could finish that up in a couple of days. Never seen such a lazy creature. Easy. Easy.”

 

Hoss pulled the harness over the mule’s face, ignoring the braying and the teeth the animal bared at him. “I’d like to see you bite me, you ol’ fool. I’d bite you back is what I’d do. I dare you to kick me too. I’m itching to show you who’s in charge around here.”

 

He pulled and the mule followed reluctantly. Within minutes, he had the mule back on the plow. The two of them plowed furrows until past sundown.

 

**********

 

The pounding of his heart was endlessly fascinating to her, and she loved these moments in the dark when she would lay her head on his hairy chest and concentrate on the sound of his powerful heart.

 

He shifted a bit. “Mrs. Cartwright, if you’re done verifying my good health, I got an order for you.”

 

Startled, she lifted her head and looked into his face.

 

He smiled. “I reckon that a husband gets to give an order now and again, and I been mulling on this.”

 

“I’m all ears, husband.”

 

“No more wearing those dadburned nightgowns to bed. I order you to come to bed from now on without a stitch on you. I’m done wrestling with all that material trying to get at you. It’s like wrangling calves at branding time.”

 

“Not a chance, honey.”

 

“I wasn’t asking,” He growled.

 

She kissed him softly. “Sorry, I gotta’ turn you down on that. I aim to stay a respectable woman. Plus, that wrestling is good exercise.”

 

“I was told that husbands were to be obeyed.”

 

She shook her head. “You were misled.”

 

He put his thick arms around her. “I didn’t know I’d married me a willful woman.”

 

She kissed him again.

 

“Say Lottie?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“I sure would like us to have some young’un’s.”

 

She leaned into him. “Me too.”

 

“It’s been two months since we married.”

 

“That’s not a lot of time. I guess my body’s not ready yet.”

 

“Your belly feels round to me.”

 

She laughed. “That’s just Hop Sing’s good cooking. Wait ‘til Adam finishes our house and I have to cook for you. We’ll both lose weight.”

 

“You sure it ain’t a baby?”

 

“A woman looks for more signs than just a bigger belly. Those signs aren’t there yet.”

 

He nuzzled her neck. “You happy, Lottie?”

 

“Yes,” she said and reached for him again.

 

“I reckon we’re happier than most folks. Married folks, I mean.”

 

“I guess you and I are very lucky, Hoss.”

 

He sighed deeply and squeezed her tightly. “I ain’t ever forgettin’ that.”

 

**********

 

His family was sitting in the living room when he came home from a few days on the trail. Pa, Adam, and Little Joe were on chairs listening to Lottie. There was an air of something, but Hoss couldn’t quite catch it. He stomped his feet, “I got trail dust all the way down my throat and into my belly. Give me a couple of minutes and I’ll join you.”

 

Hoss ran upstairs, pulling his shirt out of his pants as he went. Five minutes later, he appeared again in clean clothes, his hair wet and face pink from scrubbing. Lottie got up and rushed him. She hugged him tightly. He frowned. “Everything okay?”

 

Lottie pulled away. “Yeah. I guess so. Adam says they got a replacement teacher coming in for me. I’ll be on the ranch full time soon.”

 

He patted her back. “Don’t fuss about it, Lottie. We can have those rascals out to the ranch here whenever you want.”

 

“We could have a big picnic as soon as the thaw comes.”

 

Adam stood up. “I got a letter today…concerning Lottie.”

 

Hoss let her lead him over to the sofa. “What are you talking about, Adam?”

 

Adam shifted his feet, displaying none of his usual confidence. “Well, I better start at the beginning…when Lottie first arrived.”

 

“I should tell him about it.” Lottie held his arm protectively.

 

“Lottie, you didn’t even know about it until today.”

 

“Well, tell me about it already!” Hoss’ impatience was getting the best of him.

 

“It was that first month after the school board meeting. I read some of Lottie’s poems. I was very impressed. I asked her if I could show them to a friend, but I didn’t tell her that friend was in New York City. I sent it before the two of you were even courting. I guess I forgot about it.”

 

Hoss waited.

 

“My friend works for the company who publishes Walt Whitman. He says that Lottie’s poems have that same sort of raw honesty. He wants to publish her.”

 

Hoss stood up. “A book?”

 

Adam nodded. Hoss grabbed Lottie’s hand, pulled her to her feet and hugged her. “Did you hear that, honey? Ain’t that amazing?”

 

He looked over her shoulder. “And you were all sittin’ here like you were mournin’ or something. You had me scared, Brother.”

 

Joe shifted in his seat. “It’s a bit more complicated than that, Hoss.”

 

He frowned at Adam. “Okay. Spit it out then.”

 

Adam sighed. “She needs to go to New York, Hoss.”

 

“Why? There’s a publishing house in San Francisco.”

 

“The poetry editors are in New York.”

 

Hoss let go of Lottie. “She’ll send everything by mail.”

 

Adam closed his eyes. “It would take years to finish a book that way. She needs to go for a few months and work with an editor. Then she comes back and life goes back to normal.”

 

Hoss looked at Lottie. “What do you think about all this?”

 

She shook her head. “I couldn’t leave you like that. I don’t want to do it.”

 

Hoss glared at Adam. “I reckon that settles that. We’ll think about it again when some of them poem editors move west.”

 

Adam kicked the fireplace. “It doesn’t work like that, Hoss! An opportunity like this…it’s a miracle. Don’t you get it!? He’s going to introduce her to Whitman, the man who wrote Leaves of Grass. Can you imagine?”

 

“I know who Whitman is.”

 

Adam pointed a finger at Lottie. “She’s going to spend the rest of her life wondering what might have been.”

 

“She ain’t! She’s happy here; she’s happy with me.”

 

Ben got up. “That’s enough out of both of you! You’re talking like Lottie isn’t even in the room!”

 

Lottie nodded at him. “Thanks, Pa. I appreciate it.” She turned to Adam. “I’m mighty grateful to you, Adam. I never thought my scribblings were worth much. The idea of meeting Mr. Whitman is…well, I guess my feet aren’t going to hit the ground again for quite a while. But I am happy here, and I don’t want to leave Hoss right now. In a couple of years maybe…”

 

Adam walked up to her and took her hands. “Your chance is now. Two years from now, you’ll have children underfoot. Think of it. You could be more than just a rancher’s wife. You could be a famous author.”

 

“What’s wrong with being a rancher’s wife?” Hoss growled.

 

Adam turned to him. “You wouldn’t understand, Hoss. The Ponderosa has always been enough for you. Your dreams don’t extend beyond its borders. You don’t seem to realize that most people dream about a chance to do something really big.”

 

“What does that mean?”

 

“Who are your heroes, Hoss?”

 

Hoss swept his arm. “I reckon they’re all in this room.”

 

“Exactly! You don’t know what it’s like to want something more than what’s right in front of you. You don’t know what its like to be happy here, but dreaming of what your life would be if you had an opportunity to design buildings, to create the face of a city. You don’t know what it’s like to yearn for something so deep in your gut…” Adam shook his head as if trying to focus himself. “If she wrote a book, there’s a chance that people would still know who she is 100 hundred years from now.”

 

“Why would anyone want people to think about them 100 years later? It don’t make no sense. Folks in the future ought to have enough to do without picking apart the past.”

 

Adam shook his head. “You’ll never understand, Hoss, and I pray that Lottie’s generous enough to accept that about you.”

 

“Enough!” Ben glared at both of them. “Neither of you make a lick of sense. I know what it is like to dream. How do you think I went from a ship’s mate to the owner of the biggest ranch in Nevada territory? I also know how to love what’s in front of me. That’s why I’ll never leave this ranch.”

 

“I won’t feel bad for telling the truth.” Adam turned to stare at the fire.

 

Ben pointed. “Your truth, Adam. That’s your truth. Hoss has his. The two of you can’t seem to understand that one truth isn’t better than another.”

 

Joe nodded. “I reckon I’m like you, Pa. I can see reaching for beyond, but I still have nothing but love for where I am now. I don’t think either of you two make much sense by not seeing both sides.”

 

Adam threw up his hands. “I’m going to bed.”

 

Ben looked at Joe. “It is getting late.”

 

All three men headed upstairs. Hoss sat down next to Lottie and stared at the fire. She leaned on his shoulder. “I don’t need to go anywhere, Hoss.”

 

He looked down. “But what if Adam’s right? What if you…resent me in later years?”

 

“I wouldn’t do that.”

 

“Let’s imagine life ten years from now. You been tied to the same ol’ Hoss that whole time. Who knows how many young’un’s we’ll have by then? Who knows what hardships are coming to us? Maybe you’ll be dreaming about those fancy places like New York and writing and such. Maybe, you’ll wish that your stubborn ol’ husband had given you a chance for something more.”

 

“I don’t want to leave you.”

 

“It’s six months, Lottie. We got years and years together. I’ll even go with you. Can’t let you miss an opportunity to meet Walt Whitman, can I?”

 

“You’d be like a fish out of water.”

 

He turned and smiled at her. “I’m a pretty big fish. I reckon I can hold my breath for a measly six months.”

 

**********

 

Joe rode up to him quietly. Adam nodded, but returned to staring out the horizon. There was something about dusk in late spring when the land was so lush against the colors of the setting sun. Joe quieted Cochise beneath him and waited.

 

Adam finally turned back to him. “She would have been pregnant by now. Pa would be dreaming about his first grandchild.”

 

Joe shook his head. “Don’t go down this road. I’d hate to have to lock you up again.”

 

Adam snorted and looked away. “Don’t worry, Joe. That particular chapter in my life is over.”

 

Joe nodded. “You’re thinking of leaving us?”

 

Adam turned to him sharply. “What’s got you thinking that?”

 

Joe shrugged. “That night all those months ago when we talked about Lottie going to New York; it just felt like some of that was about your dreams too.”

 

“I suppose it was.”

 

“You still itching to move on? Particularly in view of what’s gone on these last four months? You’re doing better. We haven’t heard anything from Hoss. Maybe you thinking about moving on.”

 

“I haven’t felt any of that. I’m not sure if I even have those dreams of being an architect anymore. I just want…to have what should be here right now. And, unfortunately, that’s just not possible.”

 

“Adam, this hasn’t been rough for just you and Hoss.”

 

Adam looked startled. “Do I forget that?”

 

Joe squinted at the setting sun. “Pa, in particular, wonders if he shouldn’t have encouraged her to go to New York.”

 

“He couldn’t have known.”

 

“Neither could you. We all have to live with regrets at one point or another. If we’re strong, we can keep them from plaguing the rest of our days. Pa says that.”

 

“Doesn’t make me very strong, does it?”

 

Joe shrugged, his attention still on the horizon. “You never held their lives in your hands. It’s time you remember that. You just ain’t got that much power.”

 

Adam chuckled. “More tough love from my little brother.”

 

Joe turned to him with worried eyes. “Adam, I’m hanging on by a thread. I seem to be the only one with the strength to hold this family together. Do you know what that feels like? I can’t remember the last time I strung four hours of sleep together in any given night. This family, what we’ve done, who we are, what we feel for one another…I won’t let that go.”

 

Adam nodded. “I’m glad you’re telling me this. I need to know this.”

 

They sat on their horses side by side as the sun melted into the horizon.

 

Adam turned to his brother again. “Pa says we’re not to go after him. Says he’s not ready. I think you know Hoss better than any of us. What do you say?”

 

Joe kept his eyes on the horizon. “I’ve been thinking about it. Pa knows where to send his mail. I’ve been thinking on it real hard these days.”

 

“Do it, Joe!” he said with an energy that surprised both of them.

 

Joe looked at him. “Let’s talk to Pa at dinner.”

 

“Good.”

 

“Ready to head to the ranch?”

 

Adam hesitated. “I got something I gotta’ do before I go home. It should only take me an hour or so. Make sure you leave some of that turkey Hop Sing is roasting.”

 

It was a stale joke and it was greeted with silence. There was always enough to feed everyone these days.

 

**********

 

It was two hours before Adam showed for dinner. He greeted them with what could only be described as a grimace, and he slid so slowly into his seat that both Pa and Joe put down their silverware and watched.

 

Ben frowned. “Sport throw you?”

 

Adam shook his head. “Horse wouldn’t dare.”

 

Joe gestured. “Well, what’s got you navigating that chair like it’s a rattlesnake?”

 

Adam finally settled in and sighed deeply. “It’s nothing. I…was…I stopped at a neighbor’s to help out with…a horse. Filly kicked me in the gut.”

 

Ben looked at Joe. “We oughta’ get Doc Martin out here.”

 

“No!” Adam took a breath. “It’s just a bruise. Nothing more. We don’t need to bother the Doc.”

 

“Well, let me look at it.” Ben got up.

 

Adam shook his head. “Sit down, Pa. I’m a grown man. I got a bruise in my side from a filly. I should’ve known better. Now, let’s just stop fussing like a bunch of old ladies. I’m fine. And I’m hungry.”

 

Ben sat down slowly. “We’ve both seen what’s happened to men who’ve bled internally after a kick. I hope you’re remembering that.”

 

Adam nodded. Then he turned to Joe. “You bring it up yet?”

 

“Pa thinks it’s a good idea, but he doesn’t want me to rush. I think I’ll leave in a few days. I need to finish a couple of projects first.”

 

Adam frowned. “Why wait? It’s been long enough.”

 

Ben noticed that Adam aborted an attempt to reach for the bread. He slid it closer to him. “We have to respect Hoss’ wishes. I think, and Joe agrees, that we just need to wait a few days so that Hoss doesn’t feel we’re trying to rescue him.”

 

“I’ll take all of Joe’s projects.”

 

“Fine. Good. In a couple of days when you don’t look quite so stove up, Joe will ride after him.”

 

“I’m not stove up!”

 

His family stared at him. Adam closed his eyes for a moment to settle himself. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to sound so impatient. I just…miss him. I want him back here.”

 

“We all do, son. Joe will go in a couple of days. Okay?”

 

Adam nodded. He looked down at the turkey and potatoes he’d put on his plate and realized that his aching gut had no business taking on food, but all eyes were on him so he picked up a fork and stabbed at the smallest piece of turkey on the plate.

 

**********

 

Ben looked up as Adam entered Roy Coffee’s office. Roy took that opportunity to jump two of Ben’s checkers. Adam smiled. “How many times have you beaten him today, Roy?”

 

Sheriff looked up. “It don’t mean much. Clearly, the man is distracted.”

 

“Did you buy tickets for Hoss and Lottie?”

 

Ben shook his head. “We got problems.”

 

Adam sat down. “Is it the Sioux uprising out East?”

 

“Everything east of Denver is closed down until the army gets it under control.”

 

“Pa, they have to be there by May.”

 

Roy shook his head. “It’ll take the army most of the summer to clear out those renegades. I don’t reckon the Denver office’ll open again until fall.”

 

“What about stages going South?”

 

Roy chuckled. “I wouldn’t. It’ll tack on an extra month each way. Plus, Reconstruction has left a lot of Southerners desperate. Lots of robberies and hijackings. It ain’t good.”

 

Adam looked at his father. “They could take a ship out of San Francisco. In fact, I know someone who’s leaving for East Coast at the end of the month. They’ll travel more quickly by ship.”

 

Ben shook his head. “We can’t put Hoss on a ship.”

 

“He get seasick?” Roy asked.

 

“You should’ve seen him, Roy; we took the ship from New Orleans to San Francisco. He was the greenest little boy you’ve ever seen. Couldn’t hold anything down for almost two weeks.”

 

“Pa, that was years ago.”

 

Ben got up. “Adam, you forget that I’m an old sea dog. You either have sea legs or you don’t. Hoss has no sea legs. Try to picture that how that new marriage will look after two months of Lottie cramped in a small cabin with a sick, cranky Hoss. We’ll be lucky if she doesn’t run screaming from him at the first port they reach.”

 

“I’d hate for Lottie to miss this.”

 

“Adam, there will be other opportunities.”

 

“Not like this, Pa.” He turned and headed out the door.

 

“Where are you headed?”

 

“I’ve got to send some telegrams.”

 

**********

 

Adam sat in front of them, one hand clutching several messages. There was a hearty fire crackling at his back. “I know a way to make this work. I think sailing is your best option. However, I know Hoss is not much for open water.”

 

Hoss stirred next to Lottie. “I don’t know about all that.”

 

“Swimming in a pond isn’t the same thing as spending two months on the high seas. I’d hate for Lottie to find out the truth of it 300 miles out into the Pacific.” Ben said.

 

Hoss put his arm around her. “She ain’t going nowhere without me.”

 

“I have a compromise. Curtis Conway is sailing out of San Francisco next week for New York. He’s an executive with Western railroad. We negotiated with him last year. Pa, you were impressed with him. Do you remember?”

 

Ben nodded.

 

“I checked to see if we could book passage for Lottie on the same ship. I thought…“

 

Hoss stood up. “Hold on there! I don’t care how respectable this fella’ is, it ain’t proper for my wife to travel with some strange man.”

 

Adam cleared his throat. “Hoss, if you’ll let me finish, please. Passage is all booked for this trip, but Conway is taking his wife and eldest daughter on the trip. His daughter is in a cabin without a companion. He would be honored to have Lottie in her cabin.” Adam thrust a telegram at Lottie. “He writes that his daughter would love to have some female company in her cabin.”

 

Hoss intercepted it before Lottie could take a look. “I don’t care. She’s not traveling by herself.”

 

Undaunted, Adam held out another telegram. “This is from the publishing house in New York. A representative will meet you at the docks. You will have an escort your entire time in New York. You will be staying at the home of a poetess named Amy Malcolm. She has a husband and five children. I’m sure she will have all sorts of advice for you on the subject of being both an author and a wife.”

 

Lottie stood up and slipped her arm through Hoss’. “As always, Adam, you’ve found a solution to the hardest problem. My husband and I will have to take all of this under consideration.”

 

Hoss relaxed with her words. He nodded. “Adam, I’m ashamed that I can’t be more grateful for all your work. It’s a real big decision. We’ll think on it some.”

 

**********

 

Within a week, the crop was planted. Within two weeks, repairs had been made to most of the buildings. One evening at dusk, Hoss sat on the porch and contemplated a pigpen. There was a space alongside the barn that had clearly been a pen years earlier, and a notion hit him that he could split a few trees, and remake that structure. The hen house was repaired, and he’d found 12 hens running wild around the farm. Now that they were corralled, there’d be eggs. He figured a week’s worth of eggs would buy him 2 or 3 piglets. A month’s worth of eggs would buy a milking cow.

 

Improving the farm, growing it and bringing it to life was very attractive to him. None of it was his, but it didn’t matter. It would mean something to someone. It wasn’t just what he was building; it was the fact that he was doing something more than drifting from place to place. Hoss found comfort in good, hard labor. The idea that some men sat at desks all day and called it work never made any sense to him. It was in building, fixing, and doing that he felt at his best.

 

The bushes on the side of the cabin sounded, and Hoss reached for his gun. A barefoot Emmaline came skipping around the corner with a sack slung over her shoulder.

 

Hoss dropped the gun and closed his eyes.

 

“Howdy, Mr. Hoss, how’s it going?”

 

He glared at her. “You ought not to sneak up on a man. I had my gun drawn, dadburnit!”

 

She swung her bag in front of him. “I got a surprise for you.”

 

“What are you doing here anyway? It’s going to be dark soon. You can’t tell me that your pa lets you gallivant about the countryside by yourself. You ain’t more than a bitty slip of a girl.”

 

“Oh, don’t fuss so much. Papa always knows where to find me. Don’t you wanna’ see what I got for you?”

 

“I can’t believe your Papa lets you run around like this.”

 

She rolled her eyes. “Guess I can’t wait for you to ask what’s in this here bag.” She emptied two dead rabbits at his feet.

 

He picked them up. They were good size critters, and his mouth was already watering at the stew he’d make of them. “Where did you get these, Emmaline?”

 

“My Papa shot ‘em this morning. Asked me to bring ‘em over for you.”

 

“That was right neighborly of him. I hope there’s something on your dinner table tonight.”

 

She grinned a mouthful of crooked teeth. “We got plenty, Mr. Hoss.”

 

Hoss shook his head. “Why would your Pa think to do this?”

 

She shrugged. “You’re doing a good thing, Mr. Hoss. You’re saving a farm for a family you don’t even know. Papa wants you to know he appreciates it.”

 

Hoss’ face colored as he searched for his skinnin’ knife. “I ain’t doing anything good. Just needed a quiet place for a piece. I ain’t thinking about anyone else.”

 

Emmaline nodded solemnly. “Sometimes a person is so deep in their pain that they can’t see what they do for others. I reckon you’re in that place right now.”

 

Hoss narrowed his eyes at her. “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

 

She sighed and sat down next to him. Her arms were thin and freckled, sticking out of a worn blue frock. “I understand. Most people don’t think girls know anything.”

 

He cleared his throat. “I wasn’t trying to say that.”

 

She watched for a moment while he quickly skinned the two rabbits, cut them into pieces and dropped them into a stewing pot with a bunch of greens and some parsnips. “Did I tell you, Mr. Hoss, that I got a new teacher?”

 

He hesitated for a moment. “I reckon you didn’t, but I ain’t trying to have any sort…“

 

She grabbed his arm. “She’s the best, Mr. Hoss. She’s pretty and smart and she reads poetry to us.”

 

Hoss winced at her touch. Emmaline was hitting him too close to what he’d lost. “Ain’t you ought to be running along?”

 

Emmaline held on tightly. “She teaches a lot about reading and writing, and she also teaches us about love.”

 

He abruptly shrugged her off. “Teacher ain’t got no business straying away from the 3 R’s.”

 

Emmaline backed away. “Teacher says that some folks love so deep that it goes right to their soul. Losing that person can be like tearing a hole in someone’s soul.”

 

Hoss looked away from her. “Why are you telling me this, girl?”

 

She worried her lip for a moment before responding. “I reckon you’re someone who might have a rip in his soul. It shows on your face. I guess I’m just feeling sorry for you is all.”

 

Hoss stood still, his body shaking. He had to remember that she was a small child who couldn’t know what she was saying. Finally, he turned to her. “I can’t talk about this with you, Emmaline. A man has his secrets.”

 

She nodded. “Too much, too soon. I’m going to go now, but I’m coming back, Mr. Hoss. You and I are going to be good friends.”

 

“You ain’t going no where alone, Emmaline. Give me a moment to set this pot and I’ll walk you home.” He turned and she was gone. He ran behind the cabin and through the surrounding trees, but she was nowhere.

 

**********

 

The next night she brought a blackberry pie. Hoss had never been so hungry for anything in his whole life. It reminded him of home and Hop Sing and sitting around a table with people he loved. He offered her a piece, but she shook her head.

 

“Emmaline, I was pretty hard on you last night. I’m real sorry about that. It’s just that…you seem to talk about things that hit me real deep.”

 

She sat on the porch and pulled her knobby knees up to her chin. “My teacher says we ought to do something when we see someone suffering.”

 

He shifted. “Don’t get confused, Emmaline. I ain’t nothing but mean inside.”

 

“My teacher says it’s possible to heal a soul like yours.”

 

“Now don’t get started with that again. I’m grateful for the pie, but that don’t mean I want to hear a bunch of nonsense out of a girl the size of a new calf.”

 

Emmaline scrunched up her face. “I reckon I’m going too fast, pushing too hard. I reckon I still got some growing to do.”

 

He relaxed and nodded at her. “That’s okay now, Emma. We all make mistakes. I reckon it ain’t all bad to have a teacher who tells you about life. It’s just that it’s hard to know how it really is for folks unless you walk in their shoes a bit. You and I won’t ever be able to do that. I’m a man, and you’re a girl.”

 

“I think I’ll just sit here and listen. Maybe, I can learn a little about the troubles of a big man.”

 

He shook his head. It seemed impossible to dislodge the child. He leaned his head against the back of the porch and looked up at the sky. Softly, she asked him only one question, and it cut him some, but he found it was better if he keeps his eyes on the stars. Eventually, he formed words, “Yes, Emma, she was very pretty. Her hair was as bright as fire, and when she smiled…I had to remember to keep breathing sometimes…She was a teacher too. She was a wonderful teacher. Everybody loved her…it was easy. She was so filled with good and kind feelings…And she loved me. I could see it every time I looked into her eyes. You can’t imagine what that feels like. Maybe you’ll have it one day, but I ain’t wishing it for ya’. It’s powerful stuff, and life makes us no promises. It can grab something special like that and crush it in an instant…There’s this English feller named Shakespeare who said that it was better to have loved and lost…Well, I can guarantee you, Emma, that Shakespeare never felt nothing this strong…”

 

**********

 

One hundred miles, his brother, Adam, sat up against the headboard of his bed, in the dark, carefully shepherding every breath he took. The pain in his side was worse with every passing hour. He hadn’t been kicked by a filly as he’d told Pa, but the truth would have invited questions that he wasn’t ready to answer.

 

The simple act of bringing oxygen into his body erupted a firestorm of pain. A man in his condition saw a doctor. A man in his condition would be drinking brandy at this moment to dull the pain. Adam was unwilling to do either.

 

Adam closed his eyes and prayed that the pain would subside enough so that he could be up and ready for work in the morning. If he could work, Joe could go for Hoss. Adam prayed that some day soon his brother would be ready to look him in the eye again.

 

**********

 

“Hoss, I don’t know about this.” Lottie sat on the bed while he closed the lid to her traveling trunk.

 

“It’s okay, honey. You gotta’ go and have this adventure. It won’t take more than 6 months. Going by ship might even shorten it a few weeks. ‘Sides, I’m going to San Francisco with you. We don’t have to say any real “good-byes” now.”

 

“You’ll write me?”

 

“Every day I will. By the time you get to New York, you’ll have a fistful of letters. It’ll be like you never went anywhere. Might even write you a poem.”

 

She smiled. “I’ll put it in my book.”

 

“Not if you want that darn book to sell, you won’t.” Hoss sat down next to her and took her hand.

 

She leaned into him. “I’ll be very careful, and I’ll write every day, and a few weeks after I get to New York, you’ll have a fistful of letters filled with poems about my wonderful husband.”

 

He put his arm around her. “You’re the most precious thing in the world to me.”

 

A knock interrupted, and there was Pa at the door, clearing his throat. “I hate to interrupt, but you aren’t going to make the Virginia City stage if you don’t go now.”

 

Out on the porch, Joe enveloped her in a bear hug and swung her around. “You take care now, Lil’ Sis.”

 

She laughed at him. “I’m eight months older than you are. I’m not your little anything.”

 

Joe shook his head. “As far as I’m concerned, you’ll always be my Lil’ Sis.”

 

Ben handed her a beautifully engraved travel valise. “There wasn’t time for them to send an entire set. Still, I found this piece. I thought it was important that you have top rate traveling gear.”

 

Lottie held it carefully, looking at it from all angles. “It’s exquisite!”

 

Hoss smiled. “It’s real nice.”

 

Lottie blushed. “You shouldn’t have purchased something so…elegant. I don’t need much.”

 

“Are you kidding? Pa aims to spoil his first daughter-in-law,” Adam said.

 

Joe winked. “He would never do anything so nice for one of us.”

 

“Lottie, don’t listen to those sons of mine. You’re a Cartwright now, and I want to make sure you are well taken care of. You check inside that valise. I added some new writing materials, some journals, and a couple of bottles of ink. You can keep all your writings in there.”

 

**********

 

Adam leaned against the gate to the corral. He tried to look casual, but pain in his side was constant, and he knew he was having a hard time hiding it. Things had become blurry in the last couple of hours, his head was pounding, and sweat poured off his brow. He knew he was fevering again. It had started last night, and it took all of his strength to climb out of bed this morning, but he did it, and finally after two days of stewing, Joe announced at breakfast that he was ready to go after Hoss.

 

Adam just needed a couple more hours to ensure Joe was out of the territory. Then he would lie down and let the bad ribs heal.

 

**********

 

Joe was filling his saddlebag with a couple pounds of Addie Murray’s venison jerky when he saw a figure come trotting at him. It was ol’ Virgil Simpson, and Joe reckoned that Virgil was really hurting now that Hoss wasn’t around to raise roofs for him and such. Joe was a generous man as long as he didn’t feel like he was being fooled with. Virgil Simpson left him feeling foolish every time.

 

“I ain’t got nothing for you, Virgil. I’m headed out of town right now.”

 

The lanky man stopped. “I ain’t asking you for anything. I’m just inquiring as to your brother.”

 

Joe sighed. “We haven’t seen Hoss for a few months now. In fact, I’m aiming to go get him now.”

 

“I ain’t asking about Hoss. I mean, we all know he’s hurting after losing Lottie and all, but I’m asking about the oldest one, Adam.”

 

“Huh?”

 

“He’s been out to my farm every week for the last six.”

 

“Adam?”

 

“Yes. He came out one day and sat under the tree with me whilst I was drinking, and he talked to me.”

 

“Adam?”

 

“Yes! Told me all about how he beat drinking spirits. Suggested to me that I could it too. I admit I wasn’t too much interested, but he came out every week. He had no need to put himself out like that.”

 

“My brother, Adam?”

 

Virgil kicked the dirt. “Yes! Look, I ain’t got no time for your games. He was out to the house three days ago. He saw a depression on the roof Hoss put up. Wanted to get up there and fix it. Said Hoss would expect it. I told him that I’d already been up there, and it weren’t nothing but a little slope, but he had to see for himself.”

 

Joe frowned. “I don’t get why you’re telling me this.”

 

“Aw come on, Joe. He fell off the roof. Don’t tell me you didn’t notice him walking funny. Probably stove in 3 or 4 ribs. Cut a nice little hole in his side too. I tried to send for the Doc—“

 

“He said a filly kicked him.”

 

Virgil shook his head. “I don’t know why he’s telling stories, but it weren’t no simple horse kick. I came into town today sure he was over to Doc’s, but Doc hasn’t heard a single thing about it.”

 

Joe reflected on Adam gritting his way through the last couple of days, pushing to get Joe on the road and after Hoss. Joe cursed, kicked dirt, and ran down the street to Doc Martin’s house.

 

**********

 

Ben found Adam about a quarter mile from the house. He’d heard Sport’s nervous snorting. It could have been anything, but sometimes a man gets a feeling in his gut. He found the horse untethered, running circles around the path to the west pasture. It took only a few moments for him to find his eldest son, sprawled on his back across the path. From a distance, he was motionless, but Ben was greatly relieved to find that he was breathing. There was a flushed look on his face that told Ben something was very wrong. He knelt beside him, and noted the way his black shirt was damp and plastered to his chest. He slowly unbuttoned it. It was time to really get a look at those ribs.

 

**********

 

“What was he thinking!?” Joe paced the living room.

 

Ben sat quietly, his chin resting on folded hands. Staring at the fire was oddly comforting, and he was sure he preferred to lose himself there rather than respond to his agitated son.

 

“It was the dumbest…“

 

“Joseph! Sit down, please.”

 

“I don’t feel like sitting…”

 

Ben looked up sharply. “Sit down!”

 

Joe stopped and sank into a red leather chair.

 

Ben rubbed his temples. “You and I both know why he did it. If we knew how badly he’d been injured, you would never gone after Hoss. He didn’t want anything to get in the way of bringing Hoss home.”

 

The door upstairs closed, and Ben and Little Joe turned their attention to Doc Martin slowly padding down the staircase.

 

Ben stood. “How is he?”

 

Dr. Martin shook his head. “He’s got three broken ribs and a nasty infection. He’s got quite a high fever. He could be bleeding internally. I don’t know. I’m very worried. Do you have any idea why he waited this long for treatment?”

 

“It’s complicated, Doc. What can we do?”

 

“He’s sick, Ben, and I’m worried that he’s going to get much sicker. I don’t think that this is going to resolve itself in a couple of days. Infection is deep and if he’s bleeding internally…I just don’t know. It could be weeks before this is over.”

 

“You think this could end badly?”

 

“It’s up to Adam and his will to fight this. He’s going to need a lot of encouragement and family; he’s going to need all of you…especially Hoss. He keeps asking for Hoss. It’d be nice if that boy were here right now to calm him down. It might make a difference.”

 

**********

 

They both sat with Adam through the night. At times, he was lucid and uncomfortable with their fussing, and then other times, he was restless; mumbling to himself and then calling out for Hoss. It was near dawn that Ben looked at his youngest son. “We both know what he needs more than anything right now.”

 

Joe nodded. He got up and leaned over Adam, speaking softly. “Don’t worry. I’m going for him. Not coming back until I find him.”

 

Adam ragged breathing started to slow, and Joe smiled. “Uh, huh, you don’t get it that easy. If I take off after Hoss, I need guarantees from you. You understand? I need to know that you’re…not going to give up while I’m gone. Promise me!”

 

Adam’s head started to loll from one side to the next. It was clear the fever was burning him up. Ben went to the top of the stairs and shouted for Hop Sing to prepare a cool bath. Joe watched Adam closely for a response until Ben prodded him. “He can’t hear you right now, Joe.”

 

“Is it right to leave him or you right now?”

 

Ben gripped his arm. “We all need Hoss right about now. Find him.”

 

**********

 

Hoss tossed and turned on the wooden floor. The family had two beds in the house, but he couldn’t fathom such a breach of courtesy without their permission. The floor was hard on his back especially after the long hours he put into the farm. He was proud of what he’d accomplished. The fields were planted, a new pigpen erected with three little piglets within, the front porch repaired, and he was only 40 eggs short of buying a milking cow.

 

Emmaline came every night, and his discomfort about her age and safety seemed to ebb away. She listened well, and he found himself relating tale after tale of his life. There were nights when he told more stories about the Ponderosa than he did about Lottie. At about the time he started yawning, she’d disappear. After awhile, he stopped leaping off the porch after her, stomping through the forest in an effort to find her and escort her home.

 

His dreams had become more vivid, and tonight, he was remembering himself sitting in the dirt, chubby fingers full of yellow dirt. He’d sit there every day until he could see his big brother trudging up the path from the country school. Adam was a solemn boy, but he always found a smile for the chubby blonde boy in the dirt. This would delight him, and he would run down and tackle Adam.

 

He could feel the gritty dirt running through his fingers. Bugs were curiosities, and he generally picked them up off the ground and sent them to live at one of the big dirt palaces he was building. Then he was dreaming about the day he saw something even better than bugs.

 

It was three or four colors all at once and lay still in the prairie grass. It was a snake and it was thicker than a rope. Hoss knew that snakes were dangerous. His Pa had made that point to him several times, but there was something so easy about it, quiet; curled up like a cat in the weeds. His curiosity overcame him, and he reached out and grabbed the tail. It wasn’t gentle like a loose rope. Instead, it was rough, heavy, and tight, and a hissing sound erupted from the grass.

 

At that same moment, he caught sight of Adam’s straw hat. He leaped up, dragging the snake off the ground with him. Adam stopped and cocked his head at him. Hoss raised his arm to show big brother his wonderful prize. Adam froze. The snake’s head swung around and hovered in front of Hoss. A feeling washed over him, and for the first time in his young life, Hoss was paralyzed with fear.

 

“Hoss, let go! Let go and run!”

 

Before Hoss could react, the oval head darted at him and bit him on the arm. Hoss howled more in surprise than in pain. The head swung around again, ready to strike a second time when Adam got there and grabbed it out of Hoss’ hand. He didn’t give the snake a chance to orient itself. He turned and swung it hard on a rock. He did it three more times until he was sure the snake was dead.

 

Fear and confusion had enveloped the little boy, and he started wailing at the top of his lungs. Adam grabbed him around the middle, and pulled him through the prairie grass down the hill to their sod house. All Adam could think to do was start screaming Pa’s name over and over.

 

Ben Cartwright came running from behind the hill, and without a word, took the crying boy away from Adam. By this time, Adam had given into tears as well. It took a moment for him to gather enough breath to whisper, “snake”. Ben started searching Hoss’ body until Adam reached over and guided him to the spot on his right arm where there were two small red holes.

 

Ben let out a gasp, and started running with Hoss for the house. Then he turned abruptly and looked at Adam. “What kind of snake?”

 

Adam shook his head.

 

“Did you kill it?”

 

He nodded, sobs hiccupping out of his thin frame.

 

Ben let out a deep breath. “Go get it, Adam, and throw it in a burlap sack. I want to see it, but, for God’s sakes, don’t touch it until you are absolutely sure it’s dead.”

 

When Adam got back to the house, Pa had wrapped a tourniquet tightly around Hoss’ arm, and was grimly sharpening his biggest knife. The little boy lay crying on the bed.

 

“He’s gonna’ die, isn’t he, Pa?”

 

Ben ignored him. “Let me see the snake.”

 

Adam dumped it out on the sod floor. Ben came over and squatted over it. He checked the tail, eyes, and the mouth, and then sat back on the ground hard. He picked up the snake and checked it over again. Then he dropped his head between his knees and Adam could hear muffled noises that sounded a lot like crying.

 

Adam had never felt such terror in his life. That big knife his pa was sharpening could mean only one thing. All he could think to do was climb in the bed with a whimpering Hoss and hold him tightly.

 

Finally Ben lifted his head. Clutching little Hoss, Adam peered at his father feverishly. “You’re going take his arm, aren’t you? That’s the only way to stop the poison.”

 

Ben shook his head. “There’s no need.”

 

“It ain’t too late, Pa! We gotta’ do something!”

 

Ben stood up. “It’s okay, Adam. Hoss is going to be okay.”

 

Adam clutched the little boy harder. “Don’t lie to me, Pa!”

 

Ben sat down on the bed next to them. He ran his fingers through his older son’s dark hair. “It was a rat snake, Adam. It’s not poisonous. Hoss is going to be okay.”

 

Adam looked up at his Pa. “You sure?”

 

Ben nodded. “Give that little rascal to me.”

 

Adam pushed the little boy into his Pa’s lap and let Ben rock the child. Adam got up and circled the dead snake on the floor. Finally, he kicked it for good measure. Then he advanced on his little brother. “I ever catch you within 50 yards of another snake, Pa’s going to have to get in line to whip your behind. You hear me, Boy!?”

 

Hoss started wailing again, and Ben clutched him tighter. “That’s enough, Adam.”

 

Adam frowned. “He’s gotta’ learn.”

 

“I don’t think your brother is ever going to touch a snake again.”

 

“We gotta’ be tough. We can’t lose him, Pa. He’s so sweet and good. He brings happiness into this house that we didn’t have before…” Adam swallowed hard. “We gotta’ watch over him.”

 

“That’s right. We do. So why don’t you come over here and sit with him while I finish rounding up the cattle.”

 

Adam got back into bed and held Hoss while Pa finished chores. He didn’t scold him again. A feeling of relief had washed over him, and all he wanted to do was rock the little boy, and tell him stories about cowboys and horses. By the time, Ben got back to the small house, the two boys were sleeping, Adam still holding Hoss protectively against him.

 

Hoss sat up, breathing hard. The memories were so strong; it felt like his whole life had happened only yesterday.

 

**********

 

Adam put his hand gently on Hoss’ shoulder. “You’ve been staring out this bay for almost an hour. Do you plan to stay here 6 months until you see that ship again?”

 

Hoss sighed. “I reckon I’m going to be counting hours.”

 

“She wouldn’t want you worrying like that.”

 

“A ship with a name like Integrity oughta’ be a strong ship, don’t you think?”

 

“It’s a strong ship, Hoss.”

 

“I think she’s gonna’ enjoy Conway’s family. They’re awfully nice people.”

 

“I think she’s going to have the adventure of a lifetime.”

 

Hoss nodded, never taking his eyes off the horizon over the San Francisco Bay. The water was a deep blue and as calm as he’d ever seen. It was a sunny day, warm even; it was San Francisco at it finest. Hoss pointed off at the north. There was a line of gray clouds. He turned to Adam. “I heard an old-timer saying that the wind’s coming out of the north. He said it’s blowing the trees funny. I been keeping an eye on that gray sky over yonder.”

 

Adam chuckled. “Storms are not unusual off the bay.”

 

Hoss looked at him. “You ain’t worried?”

 

“I’ve travelled by sea, Hoss. We went through plenty of storms. It wasn’t always comfortable, but I always felt safe.”

 

“You sure?”

 

Adam patted his back. “Come on, little brother. I’m going to buy you some breakfast.”

 

**********

 

The afternoon brought angry clouds and the evening brought sheets of rain, thunder, and lightening. Sometime after midnight, the wind began. Both brothers tossed and turned in their beds. Then the pitch rose, and Adam saw a woman screaming. He got up and ran toward her, but he seemed unable to catch her. Every time he got close, she disappeared. He called out when he spotted her again and lunged forward.

 

Adam sat up in his bed, breathing fast. It was dark in the hotel room. He looked across the room, and Hoss was still sleeping. The wind howled wildly outside his window. At times, the pitch rose like a shriek. He remembered sitting next to his pa as a boy; the two of them listening to a storm raging outside. Pa told him them to never worry about a wind until it begins to sound like the screams of a woman.

 

Fear flooded his gut, and Adam got out of the bed and headed to the window. The rain was so heavy he could see nothing. As quietly as he could, he pulled on his pants and slid on his boots. He grabbed his coat and headed out the door.

 

He could barely see. Cold rain blew through him like icicles. Adam stayed close to buildings to escape the fury of the storm. When he reached the harbor, everything was battened down; there wasn’t a man in sight. Still, Adam could see a small beacon of light, and he pushed through the wind and rain to the harbormaster’s house. He pounded on the door, and fell through into a dimly lit room packed with seafaring men.

 

An old man with a white beard helped him up. “Not a good night for a walk, young feller.”

 

“My sister-in-law is on the Integrity.”

 

One of the men gestured to a chair. “Ain’t much we can do right now but wait.”

 

Adam sat slowly. “This storm…I have a feeling about this storm…”

 

A man with in a captain’s hat looked down at him. “I’ve been on this coast 15 years. I’ve never seen a squall like in this before.”

 

“Do you think the Integrity will be okay?”

 

Men shifted and murmured amongst themselves. The Captain shook his head. “No way to know, Son. I imagine the Captain saw this coming, and headed for a cove; some place to ride it out. Let’s just hope that’s what happened. Many of us have family out on the water tonight. In fact, a couple of crew members on the Integrity are local boys.”

 

Adam nodded. A man handed him a cup of coffee that he accepted gratefully. He pulled his coat together around his neck. Shivers ran through his body, but it was only partly caused by the cold rain. These men were not gathered merely to escape the weather. They were sitting vigil for the souls fighting the wind and the waves out on the water.

 

“I don’t imagine we’ll hear anything until after this blows over, but you’re welcome to wait with us.”

 

Adam couldn’t quite raise his eyes to meet the captain’s. “Thank you.”

 

**********

 

Men blew in and out of the harbormaster’s house all night. No one knew anything, but they hadn’t come for news. They came in order to stand quietly next to one another and join in their spirit of each other’s prayers. A few hours after Adam arrived, a sailor stumbled in, bringing the cold and wet with him. He nodded at the door. “There’s a feller out there, he’s a big’ un, and he’s got himself wrapped around a pole. All he’s doing is staring out into that storm. Tried to bring the dang fool with me, but he wouldn’t listen.”

 

Adam got up, nodded at the men, and pushed out into the storm. He didn’t need any further description to confirm who the dang fool was. He immediately spotted him as sheets of rain could do nothing to disguise the stubborn profile of Hoss Cartwright. He was clinging to one of the timbers on the pier staring out into the bay.

 

It would take Adam almost half an hour to pry him off the wood, and convince him to go indoors and get out of his wet clothes. He wouldn’t take the coffee Adam offered nor the hot soup. Adam draped a blanket over his shoulders, but he kept shrugging it off. He finally let it go, and quietly sat next to his brother while Hoss stared out the hotel window over San Francisco Bay.

 

**********

 

Adam waited until Doc Martin left for the day. He tried himself up on his elbows, but his arms wouldn’t cooperate. He had to content himself with simply raising his head and gesturing to his father. Ben returned to his chair.

 

“Doc Martin doesn’t think I’m going to make it, does he?”

 

Ben shook his head. “He didn’t say anything like that.”

 

“I’ve been fevering for 10 days. I’m only lucid a few hours at a time. I saw the look on his face when he was cleaning the wound.”

 

No, you’re hanging in there, Adam. That’s all anyone focuses on.”

 

“I’m not getting better, Pa. One day, maybe tomorrow, I’m not going to wake up from the fever. The infection is deep. We gotta’ face facts.”

 

Ben reached for a damp cloth. “Your facts are not my facts.”

 

“I kept asking for Hoss. You ended up sending Joe off to find him. We should never have done that. I want to say good-bye to at least one of my brothers.”

 

Ben cooled his head with the cloth. “That’s enough, Adam.”

 

“No!” Adam pushed the cloth away. “You can’t ignore me, Pa.”

 

“I’m not doing that.”

 

Adam shook his head emphatically. “I need you to do something for me.”

 

“What is it, son?”

 

“I need to make out a will.”

 

“No, you don’t. You don’t need to do that.”

 

“Pa! I’m not a child! I’m a grown man and I need you to do this for me.”

 

Ben hung his head. “What do you want?”

 

“Please go get paper and pen. I need you to record my will.”

 

Adam had to struggle to stay conscious long enough for this process. He was relieved when Ben finally came back with his pen and paper. Adam nodded at him.

 

“I, Adam Cartwright, being of sound mind and body decree this to be my last will and testament…Do you have that, Pa?”

 

Ben sighed and then nodded.

 

“To my father, I leave all of my holdings, monetary and stock, to distribute or invest as he sees fit.”

 

Ben dutifully wrote every word. Adam paused after his statement. “I don’t know who wants my rifle. Who should have Sport? Hoss is too big for him, but he’ll give that animal the best possible care. Joe will run him hard, and that’s what that horse was built for…”

 

All of a sudden, Ben picked up the ink well and threw it hard against the wall. “It doesn’t matter, Adam! It doesn’t matter who gets Sport!”

 

“Pa?” Adam winced.

 

Ben was on his feet. “None of this matters! Do you think either brother will care what you leave them? Joe doesn’t care if he gets your rifle or your coat or your horse. All he’ll care about is losing you. Hoss is the same way.”

 

Adam furrowed his brows. “I want them to know that they were special to me. I want them to know that I thought about them.”

 

“They don’t care about your stuff. They care about you. This has no meaning for them.”

 

“Pa, you know me. I don’t have words for my feelings. I don’t tell people what I feel…how will they know?”

 

Ben sat down and touched his face. “Son, they know.”

 

“Are you sure?”

 

“You are the best of men. You have talents and dreams that extend beyond this ranch. Adam, they know what you feel about them because you’re here. You’re not in Boston designing buildings. You’re not in Europe creating something magnificent. You’re here on this ranch scolding them, mentoring them, teasing them, teaching them, laughing with them…You’ve chosen us, and for the time we have you, we’re blessed. No one questions what you feel for your family. On his worst day, Hoss would never accuse you of not loving your family.”

 

“I wish they were here. I would say it out loud.”

 

“I want you to rest now, Adam. No more talk about wills or dying or regrets. Just rest. You’re going to need the energy so that you can tell them yourself.”

 

**********

 

He cocked his head at her. “Where’d you find fresh carrots this time of year?”

 

She shrugged. “My pa plants early.”

 

Hoss picked up another one and started chewing. “I used to wait all summer for these when I was a young-un. My brother, Adam, once saved up a whole row just for my birthday. Pa says my skin even got orange. I don’t remember it, but he claims it. How’d you ever know I loved carrots?”

 

She sat on the step lower than him and drew circles in the dirt with her bare feet. “Hoss, this is the last night I come to visit you.”

 

Hoss narrowed his eyes. “I reckoned your pa would catch up with your wild doings. I still can’t countenance how you run around at night like a raccoon.”

 

Emmaline pushed stringy brown hair away from her forehead and looked up at him. “My teacher says I’m done with you.”

 

He shook his head. “You have the oddest teacher, Emma. I don’t quite understand how you’ve involved her in my stories like you have.”

 

Emmaline looked at him solemnly. “You don’t have bad feelings toward your brother anymore?”

 

Hoss wrinkled his nose and looked off to the setting sun. “I ain’t sure I ever really was mad at him. I think I was mad at me, and I couldn’t face it.”

 

“You had a rare love, Hoss. My teacher says that while you can’t stop mourning the loss; you need to start treasuring the memories.”

 

Hoss frowned at her. “I shouldn’t be taking advice on love from a slip of a girl.”

 

“It’s from my teacher.”

 

“Well, she’s the busiest body I ever…well, I never met her, but she is the busiest body ever, I reckon.”

 

Emmaline got to her feet and faced him. “She wants me to leave a couple other messages before I go.”

 

Hoss felt anxiety rise up in his gut.

 

“My teacher says that your family needs you very much right now. She also says that you need to read the last entry in the journal in that valise you have.”

 

Hoss stopped breathing for a second. Emmaline turned and ran to the meadow. His breath came in a rush and he was on his feet chasing the child through the tall grass. He had run for a full 10 minutes when he realized he couldn’t see her anymore. He stopped a moment to catch his breath. Around him, there was no movement other than a gentle wind ushering in the dusk. He saw the distant lights from the town, and began running that way. He was heaving air by the time he got there, but it was past time he had a talk with the sheriff about that child.

 

The sheriff’s office had a light on, and he found the man sitting alone at his desk. Hoss’ face was red and he was breathing hard, but the sheriff didn’t blink an eye. He just pointed at the chair across from him and waited.

 

“I’m here about your daughter. She’s been coming out to see me at night. It’s out of hand. Ain’t proper for a child. And she keeps delving into business that ain’t hers to know.”

 

“Do you want her to stop?”

 

Hoss shook his head. “I want…I want Emmaline to be home safe at night. I want her to stop talking about me to her busybody teacher. I want to know how she knows things about me.”

 

“I don’t control her.”

 

“That ain’t the kind of thing I want to hear out of a parent. Poor child. I know she ain’t got a mother, but that just means you gotta’ step up. My pa raised three boys with no woman in the house.”

 

“I think it would be better to show you why your request isn’t possible.” The sheriff got up, grabbed a lantern, and headed out. Hoss shook his head and followed him out. The sheriff walked to the edge of town where a cemetery lay. He knelt in front of a gravestone and lit the engravings. Emmaline Walker 1846-1856.”

 

“Don’t make no sense. That’s got to be another Emmaline.”

 

Sheriff shook his head. “That’s my daughter. That’s the only Emmaline I lay claim to.”

 

“I don’t know what’s wrong with ya’, but you got a wild little girl running around claiming to be yours.”

 

“We need a drink, a bottle really. I got one in my desk.” The sheriff turned and walked back into town.

 

Hoss stared at the headstone for another minute. He shook his head and followed.

 

The sheriff had coffee cups, and he filled two of them with whiskey. He pushed one of them toward Hoss. “It was almost nine years ago that she got taken by a drifter. She was playing in the street with her toys and a feller started talking with her. I never coached her to be anything but solicitous with folks. Five minutes later, she was gone. She was all I had left. Her mama and brother had died of fever years earlier.”

 

Hoss winced. “Did you catch ’em’?”

 

“Never did. Found her body though. It was a bad time. I was so angry, so sad. Breathing hurt like needles.” Sheriff shook his head and looked away.

 

“I know what that feels like.”

 

Sheriff took another swig out of his cup. “I was a bitter man. About five years ago, something happened. A feller named Watson lost his wife. It was a big blow. They had something special, and Watson, well, he didn’t do so good. I used to go out and check on him every once in a while. I went out there one night in the winter, and Watson was doing better. He said he’d had a visitor, but he wouldn’t tell me who. All winter he improved. Started caring for his ranch, talking to people; I was really happy for him. I was visiting again near spring and after a couple of whiskeys he told me that Emmaline had been visiting. Said she’d show up every night and just listen to him. I let him finish, and then I got up and punched his lights out. We didn’t talk for years after that.”

 

Hoss shook his head. This was all beyond what he knew of the world.

 

“Two years ago, Maudie Allen lost her two babies in a fire. She was inconsolable. Nobody thought she would recover…“

 

Hoss put up a hand. “You’re fixing to tell me that Emmaline came to visit.”

 

“Maudie was afraid to tell me. She thought I’d hit her, but she was feeling so crazy she had to tell someone. I let her talk, and everything she said about Emmaline sounded right. I know it sounds crazy, but I really believe she comes to visit. When you walked up and said Emmaline was talking to you, I figured she wanted me to keep you in town. Hawthorne place needed tending. It seemed like the thing to do.”

 

“You’re telling me I been talking to a ghost all these weeks?”

 

Sheriff shook his head. “I ain’t telling you nothing. All I know is that my girl seems to come back when someone’s grieving threatens to swallow them whole. I don’t know your story, but I’m betting that you lost someone precious recently.”

 

Hoss looked away.

 

“Yeah, well I reckon you got a lot to think about here.” He reached into his desk and pulled out a new bottle of whiskey. “Take it. Go back to the Hawthorne’s. Let me know if you need to talk more.”

 

Hoss grabbed the bottle and got up. Courtesy demanded that he acknowledge the gesture, but the only thing he could manage was a grunt before he went out into the night.

 

**********

 

Hoss tried to sleep, but the sheriff’s fantastic story kept him restless. Interspersed with memories of Emmaline’s words, Hoss couldn’t do anything but stare up at the stars. It was near dawn when he remembered that she told him to look into the valise. He dragged it from where he’d hidden it under a bed. Outside the sun was beginning to rise, and he sat on the porch with it. It smelled musty. He’d carried it around since San Francisco, but he’d never dared open it. It was Lottie’s. Her thoughts, her writings; opening it meant flooding himself with what he’d lost, but he couldn’t run from it any longer.

 

Inside, the smell intensified. Her papers were water-stained and yellowed. At the bottom was a sealskin journal his pa had given her that last day on the ranch. Hoss opened it and found the papers within were as crisp and fresh as brand new. He smiled. Only pa would know to send her off on a sea voyage with a waterproofed journal.

 

Hoss leafed through the empty pages. She’d only had it a week. Toward the front he found a few entries. He found an entry from the night before she’d gone on the ship. She wrote about the excitement and the anticipation. She wrote about the difficulty of leaving him. She wrote that her life felt like a fairy tale adventure.

 

His fingers lingered over her words. Her writing was so soft and pretty; such a complement to who she was. He swallowed hard and turned the page. The next entry was after she’d boarded the ship. She wrote about meeting on the Conway’s daughter, Meg. She wrote about the difficulty in saying good-bye to him. She wrote about the cramped quarters and the solicitous stewards.

 

He turned the page again. Her voice had changed. The storm had begun. She wrote about the rocking of the boat and the motion sickness she felt. She wrote about Meg’s fears and the captain’s assurances that all would be fine.

 

The final page was different. The writing was shaky. Her tone was terse, anxious. Hoss read her words slowly.

 

“The captain has us huddled in the hallway with our lifejackets. The Conways are with me; Meg is crying in her mother’s arms. The captain dropped anchor in an inlet, but the waves are so high that the ship still drifts. There was a large cracking sound five minutes ago, and all the sailors disappeared. I fear the worst. The ship is listing to the side, and I suspect we’re headed for lifeboats. “

 

“I need to put thoughts to paper, just in case. My husband knows that I love him dearly, but I worry that Hoss will lose himself to his grief I don’t return. I worry that he’ll push away his family. I worry that his anger will overwhelm him.”

 

“In the event you find this, Hoss, I want you to read this carefully. If I am not with you on this earth then I will be with you elsewhere. Until then, I will be watching over you, and it will break my heart if you lose yourself to this. Remember me with love, not pain. Don’t be angry with yourself. Don’t be angry with Adam. All of the choices any of us made were out of love. Hoss, be grateful that you and I walked a path that few ever find. Honor me by staying the man I’ve loved. Remember that you’re still the most beautiful poem I’ve ever…”

 

The writing stopped, and Hoss caught his breath, imagining the scene of people yelling and screaming, pushing, running, lurching for a place on a lifeboat, his sweet, young wife undoubtedly waiting patiently, hopefully, for her spot. He could feel the fear that must have shook her as the monster storm howled around her, and how panic often turned people into animals. He squeezed his eyes in fervent prayer that the people around her were kind to her.

 

The thought of it all overwhelmed him and sobs erupted from his huge body. He reached for the bottle and took a long swig. Then he took another and another. Soon he was on his feet, shouting his grief into the early morning light. He searched for something to throw, but all he had were his meaty fists, and he drove one of them into the wall of the cabin. The sound of bones cracking made him howl, but the physical pain was almost a respite from the memory of his wife on a sinking ship.

 

He grabbed the bottle and threw his head back. The bitter fire of whiskey ran down his throat and burned his belly. He choked on it, but kept drinking. He could think of no other way to find release from his agony.

 

**********

 

The storm blew for a total of 36 hours. It another day before a trawler came in with news of Integrity. Hoss’ worst fears were confirmed. The Integrity had run aground on some rocks in an inlet. The trawler had spotted lifeboats and had taken as many survivors as possible.

 

The harbormaster organized a rescue boat to collect those who remained. Hoss offered all of his money in an effort to get on that boat, but Adam talked him down. Strength and courage were not enough to make up for the skill he lacked on a boat. The crew would have room for only experienced sailors.

 

It was 5 a.m. the next morning when the boat returned. Adam and Hoss rushed down to the dock, and one of the first people Adam saw was Curt Conway, and relief flooded into his gut. Then he saw Curt’s wife and his daughter, but then he recognized no one else. The rest getting out of the boat were weary, bedraggled strangers.

 

Hoss grabbed Conway by the shoulders. “Where’s my wife? Please tell me where she is.”

 

Mrs. Conway grabbed his arm. “Leave him alone, please. He’s exhausted. None of us have eaten in three days. Please!”

 

Hoss’ eyes filled. “Please tell me.”

 

Conway avoided his eyes. He turned to his wife. “Take Meg to the hotel. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

 

She looked ready to protest, but then she put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder and walked away.

 

Conway’s face was burnt from the salt and sun. His eyes were red and rheumy. Adam could see he was in no condition to be standing. He took his arm and steered him to one of the waterfront bars. He waved at the bartender. “We need some water. Do you have soup? Bring some broth.”

 

He got Conway situated at a table and they sat down with him. Conway looked at Hoss. “It was so crazy. It was chaotic. There was shouting; half the time, the crew yelled contradicting orders. We barely made it out alive.”

 

“You said you’d watch out for her.”

 

Conway nodded. “I did, Hoss, and I tried. I even got her in the life boat, but when I turned to comfort my wife, Lottie climbed back on the ship. I yelled after her. She told me she forgot something. We were ready to launch the boat. The sea was so rough. One of the stewards jumped out and ran after her. Then she reappeared and she had that valise she’d carried everywhere. She saw me and threw the valise at me. The steward was trying to steady the boat so she could get back in, and a wave hit. It was big. The moorings snapped. We thought the boat would capsize for sure. By the time, the boat settled, we’d drifted 40 yards from the ship. She was still standing there on the deck with the steward. Then another wave hit. By the time, we recovered from that one; the deck on the ship was empty, and it was listing badly. The rest of the night was survival. I don’t remember anything more.”

 

Hoss looked down at the ground. For a long moment, no one spoke.

 

“I’m sorry, Hoss. I didn’t bring her back, but I did everything I could have. I really believe that. The valise is…somewhere. I’ll have someone look for it.”

 

Adam nodded. “Thank you, Curt. I’m grateful…we’re both grateful for what you tried to do. Let’s get you to the hotel.”

 

Hoss reluctantly followed the two men to the hotel. As soon as Adam got Conway situated, he steered Hoss to their own room. He closed the door quietly behind them and looked at his brother. “I am so terribly sorry, Hoss. I pushed so hard for her to go. I had no idea…”

 

Hoss had walked away from Adam and pulled open the curtains at the window.

 

Adam took a deep breath. “I know you loved her deeply. I know…”

 

“No, Adam!” Hoss turned at him. “You don’t know! You don’t know anything about what I felt, what I feel… for my wife. You’ve never felt anything like this in your entire life. You have no idea what has just happened to me.”

 

Adam hung his head. “You’re right, Hoss. I never have loved a woman like you loved Lottie.”

 

“But you understood the writing, didn’t you, Adam?! You understood that her little poems were worth her life. You knew that nothing should get in the way of getting those dumb poems published. You knew she’d never be happy with me if I didn’t let her have this opportunity.” Hoss stood there, tears rolling down his face.

 

“I was wrong, Brother. I was wrong.”

 

Hoss stepped closer. “I spent my whole life listening to you. I can count on one hand the times I didn’t take your advice. You were the wisest person I ever knew. It got so that I didn’t think about things for myself. If you agreed with something, I figured it was the right way to think. You thought this book had to happen, and I just kept telling myself that you understood things better than I did. I reckoned that if you thought it was a good idea, then it needed to be done.”

 

Adam sat on the bed, unable to respond.

 

“I’ve looked up to you, trusted you, loved you…worshipped you, Adam. Now, I can’t even look at you.”

 

Adam looked up. “What can I do?! If you know, please tell me.”

 

Hoss squeezed his eyes shut. “Just leave me alone, Adam. Leave me alone.”

 

**********

 

“Hoss, wake up! Come on, Brother. Wake up!”

 

Hoss opened bleary eyes into the sun and the outline of a familiar face. “Joe?”

 

Joe smiled. “God, I missed you.”

 

Hoss sat up and grabbed Joe in a bear hug. “I’m so glad to see you, Little Brother.”

 

Over his shoulder, he caught sight of the sheriff looking around the property. He put his right hand down to prop himself and let out a howl.

 

Joe grabbed that hand and laid it on his chest. “Don’t use it. It’s darn near swollen three times its size.”

 

The hand throbbed and ached. In competition was a headache the size of Wyoming territory. He shook his head. “Dadburnit, what’s going on?”

 

Joe took his spare shirt out of his saddlebags and began tearing it for bandages. “I’m afraid you got most the answers. The sheriff here sent off a telegram to neighboring towns telling them to keep look out for your kinfolk. I happened to be in Kinbrae when the sheriff was reading his. I rode straight through. The sheriff just brought me out, and we found you sprawled on the porch with an empty bottle of hooch and a hole in the Hawthorne’s wall.”

 

“You actually bought pigs?!” The sheriff called out while surveying the work Hoss had done. And the fields are all planted. I’ll be damned if I don’t hear what sounds like a milking cow. Glory be!”

 

Joe squat before him and started wrapping Hoss’ hand to his chest. “Glad to see you were up to more than just fistfights with walls.”

 

Hoss grunted as Joe tied his hand tightly, and then all the memories came flooding back.

 

“Sheriff says the whiskey bottle was his fault. Said you came into town the other night with some crazy story, and he sent you off with a bottle to calm you down.”

 

Hoss’ eyes searched for the sheriff, but the man had ducked into the barn. “Sheriff tell you much about this crazy story?”

 

Joe shrugged. “He said something about some draft mule driving you nuts.”

 

He closed his eyes in relief.

 

“Hoss, I didn’t come get you just ‘cause I missed you. I…we really need you right now. Adam’s sick.”

 

Hoss frowned. “What do you mean?”

 

“Doc’s afraid he’s got blood poisoning. He’s real sick. I know things aren’t right between the two of you, but he really needs us.”

 

“Help me up, Joe.” Hoss scrambled to his feet and his eyes fell on the open valise. “Let’s gather up my things and then we’ll go.”

 

“You gotta’ broken hand. Sheriff pointed out a doctor, but he’s twenty miles in the wrong direction.”

 

“I don’t need a doc. If we take the pass up over these hills, we can be on the ranch in two days.”

 

Joe shook his head. “If you wait with that hand, Doc’s going to have break it again to set it.”

 

“Stop fussing, Little Joe. Help me get these papers in here. Then we gotta’ talk to the sheriff about watching over this here place until the Hawthornes come home. I ain’t letting these animals starve after all this work.”

 

“You’re ready to come home?!”

 

“You really that slow, boy? I ain’t said one thing to contradict that notion.”

 

**********

 

It was 3 in the morning on the second day when they got to the Ponderosa. Both of them were exhausted. Hoss had made the whole ride with one hand wrapped to his chest. Muscles were screaming at him that he didn’t even know he owned. Joe took both horses and disappeared into the barn.

 

Hoss looked at the big ranch house and waited for the memories of her to sting, but he found nothing in his gut but relief. The front door opened and his pa’s big frame filled the doorway, and he knew he was exactly where he needed to be.

 

Pa didn’t notice the bad hand, and so when he hugged him, it felt someone was squeezing his hand in a vise, but Hoss didn’t care because it felt right.

 

“Hey Pa, don’t manhandle him. His hand is pretty busted up.” Joe called from the yard.

 

Ben stepped away in surprise and Hoss shook his head. “Don’t worry on it none, Pa. It’s just real good to see you.”

 

Joe stepped up. “Is Adam getting any better?”

 

Ben looked at both of his sons and his throat felt thick. “He’s still with us, but he has been unconscious for the last couple of days. Doc thinks he isn’t going to wake up.”

 

Joe shook his head and looked away.

 

“Joe says he hasn’t done well since I told him I never wanted to see him again. Joe says he didn’t see the Doc ‘cause he thought that would slow me getting home. Did I do this to him, Pa?”

 

Ben took him by the shoulders. “No! You didn’t do this! You’ve been grieving. Adam’s been grieving…we’ve all been grieving. You didn’t do anything wrong.”

 

Hoss closed his eyes. “I put all my anger on him, Pa. I was unfair.”

 

“No! That’s enough! I can’t have another son trying to destroy himself over guilt. We’ve been hurting…all of us…but we’re together again, and that’s what will heal us. Do you understand that, Hoss?”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

“No more guilt, son. It’s destroying us.”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

“Lottie wouldn’t want it.”

 

Hoss’ eyes were filled with tears. “I know that, Pa. I really know that now.”

 

“You must be tired. The two of you have ridden all night.”

 

Hoss smiled. “Pa, you’re the one going to bed. I reckon I’ve had a bit more sleep than you have. Besides, I need to be with Adam right now. I’d like to talk to him a bit.”

 

**********

 

Hoss sat on the chair and leaned his good elbow on Adam’s mattress. “You probably figure I oughta’ let you rest now. You figure you know what’s best. Well, Brother, there’s a new sheriff in town, and I say that you’ve done enough resting. Lolling about like this for God knows how long. You really got Pa buffaloed. I’ll tell you that. Why, he thinks that what you need is peace and quiet. Hog jowls! I know what you need. You need the sun and the sounds of this ranch. You done rested five times what anyone else in this family has gotten.”

 

Hoss reached over and wrung out a wet cloth. He carefully placed it on Adam’s forehead. “Yep. You’re going to get some light and some noise. All these delicate treatments are out the window. I want you to need rest so bad, you’ll get up and tell us to shut up already.”

 

There was a gentle knock on the door, and Hop Sing popped his head in. “It’s really you.”

 

Hoss winked. “You’re probably out of practice with them big meals.”

 

“Tomorrow, I cook two of everything.”

 

“What you feeding this boy?”

 

“Broth.”

 

“Pa didn’t let you put any of those special herbs in, did he?”

 

Hop Sing shrugged. “He say it make it bitter. Harder to feed.”

 

“Hop Sing, I want you to get down there and make some of your most potent soup. Put all the good stuff in. We been too easy on him. He’ll wake up when we give him some to choke on.”

 

Hop Sing grinned. “Good plan! I gather all the best herbs. We bring him back.”

 

Hop Sing softly closed the door and Hoss turned his attention back to Adam. He found his hand and squeezed it tightly. “I ain’t being hard just to be hard, Adam. You’re drifting. I know that. I was drifting too, but you need something to wake you up; tell you how bad we need you. I ain’t going to talk much on what happened between us. We both got hurt bad. I got such a big dose that I had to point some of it at you, I guess. But, we survived it, and we got work to do, you and I. Lottie’s watching over us, and she’s not going to be happy if one of us gives up. Think how hard she must have fought. She needs us to fight hard too. I need you to fight hard. I don’t think I can ever get better if you leave me. You hear me, Adam?”

 

Hoss wet the cloth again. “Listen up. This silent guy stuff ain’t fooling me and it ain’t going to make me shut up. I’m gonna’ keep on talking until you start listening. You got it? And when I’m not talking, I’m going to be sleeping right here. Boy, you think it was bad when I was snoring in the next room. Wait until I’m growling right next to your head. In fact, I feel a little sleep coming on. I’m just going rest my head here, and maybe close my eyes a little…hope my snoring don’t bother you none…can’t help it, you know…let me know if you want me to sleep somewhere else…If I don’t hear nothing, I gotta’ figure that you’re happy just to let me snooze…”

 

**********

 

“That’s good, Adam.” Joe put another spoon of broth to Adam’s lips. “Smells like dirty socks to me, but as long as you’re taking it, I’m going to feed it to you. You should’ve seen Pa when he smelled this. He almost wouldn’t let Hoss feed it to you, but Hop Sing and Hoss put up such a fuss, he just had to leave it alone.”

 

Joe wiped the corner of his mouth. “Ready for some more? You’re lucky to get me for the feeding this morning. Hoss insists on doing it, you know. I reckon he gets quite a bit of broth in you. He’s kinda’ been monopolizing your time. Says he wants to make it up to you.”

 

Joe slowly wet his lips with another spoonful. “Hoss had to go to town today. He’s got this broken hand and he’s left it too long, and Doc’s gotta’ reset it. You can just imagine how that’s going to feel. They can’t give him laudanum because of how he gets so they gotta’ whiskey him up. Only Roy won’t let Hoss drink whiskey without another Cartwright in town to ride herd so Pa went along. They’re going to do the whole thing at the jail. Liquor him up, reset the bones, and let him drown in the rest. Of course, Roy’s going to have to lock the cell door before he gets too wild.”

 

Joe wiped his mouth again, and filled the spoon. When he brought it to Adam’s lips again, Adam moved his head. Joe sat back and blinked. Adam groaned and his eyes fluttered open. He wrinkled his nose. “What is that stuff? I have the most god-awful taste in my mouth.”

 

**********

 

Adam sat on the porch. Hop Sing had alternately brought out coffee, cookies, sandwiches, and lemonade. He hadn’t kept up with the bounty before him, and he anticipated another scolding the next time the cook came out to check on him.

 

The last few days had been kind to all of them. The dark circles under Pa’s eyes seemed to disappear overnight. Joe acted as if the weight of the world had been lifted from his shoulders. Hoss finally came back from town, and sat with Adam almost continually. Surprisingly, they said little to one another. Hoss was reluctant to relive the past, and Adam found that Hoss’ presence answered most of the questions he had.

 

He looked up to the sound of a wagon rolling in. Hoss sat in the seat, bringing in the team one-handed. Adam shook his head. Few people realized the strength in that man.

 

“Whoa there! Whoa!” Hoss looked at Adam. “Still taking advantage of the life of leisure, I see.”

 

“I guess I am.”

 

“I would ask for your help, but Pa would have my hide.”

 

“It doesn’t look Pa’s here though, does it?”

 

Hoss looked off at the horizon for a moment. “I picked up a headstone for Lottie.”

 

Adam nodded. “We should have a service.”

 

Hoss sighed. “I reckon we oughta’.”

 

“What can I do, Hoss?”

 

He rubbed at his forehead. “I guess I want to pick a good spot for the headstone. I want to do it private-like before there’s any kind of service. I also want to bury something there.”

 

Adam waited.

 

Hoss pointed at a strongbox in the back of the wagon. “I want to bury her papers there. It ain’t forever. I’m just not ready for ‘em yet, I guess. I ain’t ready to share ‘em. I just want ‘em some place safe. You thinkin’ about talking me out of it?”

 

Adam shook his head. “It sounds like the right thing to do.”

 

“I think Lottie would like it if you helped me find the right place… I would like it if you came.”

 

Adam’s breath caught. “You sure?”

 

Hoss nodded. “Please, Adam.”

 

A smile spread across his features as he climbed onto the wagon next to his brother. Hoss urged the team forward, but Adam grabbed the reins from him. “It’s time I got back to work.”

 

Hoss grinned back at him. “Sounds right to me.”

 

“I knew you’d say that.”

 

“Say Adam, you believe in ghosts?”

 

Adam chuckled. “I don’t believe in much that I can’t touch and see.”

 

“I been hesitating on telling this here story on something that happened to me while I was gone, and I know you’ll probably laugh at me…”

 

“Don’t worry, Hoss, I know you experience the world a great deal differently than I do. If you have a story about ghosts, I want to hear all about it.”

 

“Well, there was a little girl and her name was Emmaline, and she had a teacher and… You sure you want to hear all this?”

 

*****End*****

 

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Author: HazelMom

5 thoughts on “The Most Beautiful Poem (by HazelMom)

  1. HazelMom, this story was just as good the second time around. I loved Hoss and Lottie together. The twist at the end was magical. 🙂

  2. HazelMom, this haunting and beautiful story of grief, guilt, and the eternal nature of true love captured me from the beginning. Poor Hoss and Poor Adam. It was hard to see them at such odds and suffering but you rounded it out so well. I will remember this one. Thank you for writing. 🙂

  3. I found the whole story heartbreaking, in a good way. I liked the fact that you married Hoss off to a known character ( Knight Errant). I can picture Lottie very easily. I liked Emmaline but I should have caught on to what she was earlier. There is a lot of emotion in this story. Its very well written, just like all your stories.

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