Summary: Adam has been away at school for two years when he starts having vivid dreams about his youngest brother. He wonders why his memories center around Little Joe even while he misses his entire family. What he is about to find out will shake his certainty about many things and make him look for a clue hidden in his dreams.
Rating: K (Word Count 22490)
A Still Small Voice
Note: This was a story I’d done when I first started writing about 7 years ago. I hadn’t read it in a while, and when I did, it made me cringe a little. My first stories were written and posted without the help of a beta reader. They got a point across, but were often repetitive and I’d add things that took away from the story. Then one day, Sandspur, offered to help, and with time and a lot of rewrites, and thought about things like POV, story flow, good characterizations of our favorites and additions, grammar and quality, they started to improve. I took the old story by this name and gave it a face-lift, leaving in the good dream and memory scenes, while updating the connecting pieces to fit my own prequel canon. It’s just as long, but it’s a better story and more true to Adam’s way of handling a crisis.
The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a still small voice. (I Kings 19:11-12)
Ben sat at his desk reviewing the column of numbers in his ledger. He tried to concentrate, but he was experiencing a bout of uncertainty over the double role he had to play with his boys. The loss of Elizabeth, Inger, and Marie had forced him to be both mother and father for his sons. It wasn’t that he “mothered” them, but it did mean he had to consider his decisions for them from both angles. It had been easiest with Adam. He’d always seemed older than his age, and he’d reasoned everything out. Ben knew there had been times when a younger Adam had seethed below the surface of that calm-looking exterior, but he didn’t often voice his anger or reject his responsibility as the oldest child of a family with only one parent.
Hoss had always been an easy-going child, and after Adam had left for college in Boston, he had willingly taken on some of the jobs and responsibilities that had become vacant with his older brother’s absence. The tall, affable teenager wasn’t a risk taker unless he saw danger for the land and creatures he loved, or the brothers he loved more.
Ben sighed and smiled. And then there was Joseph Francis who pushed the limits of risk, fun, and parental tolerance at every opportunity. Little Joe’s personality was as big as the sky above, and blew with the same force as the wind coming down the mountain. Joe could bring out the best and worst in those he drove to the brink of murder. They all loved this child who had brought such energy to their family, as well as the need for patience and humor.
Little Joe was nearly eight, going on 30. He was a good enough rider that Ben had traded out his pony with a small mustang he’d found on the Ponderosa. It had a gentle nature, and while small enough for Joe to manage, it still had a fierce heart and could run like the wind when Ben allowed his son to ride free. Little Joe’s independence was flourishing, and he’d been pestering Ben to allow him to make a ride somewhere on the ranch by himself. The boy knew his way around from spending so much time out there with his family, but he’d put Joe off by saying there was no need for him to go anywhere alone. Town was still too far away for him to take a solo ride, and he had concerns about the native tribes whose land bordered the Ponderosa. The Cartwrights had good dealings with the Paiute and Washoe, but he still worried about his young son getting into some kind of trouble with them. Little Joe was a force of enthusiasm and ideas, and had no patience for ways that weren’t as plain-spoken and direct as his own. Ben was pretty sure that Joe would try to talk himself out of a situation with their neighbors, and forget that their ways called for an approach of respect and deference.
The discussion had come up again today when Ben received a note for one of the hands. He knew Lester’s wife was due to give birth to their first child over in Eagle Valley, near a settlement along the Carson River. Lester and Mary had come out west as homesteaders, but Lester had taken a job on the Ponderosa when their funds ran short. Ben looked at the envelope in his hands and figured it had news the man needed to hear, but the crew was just far enough away, that he couldn’t make a quick ride there and back and still get through the paperwork that he had to have ready for the courier heading to San Francisco tomorrow. He’d finally decided to do his work and send the note along with Hoss in the morning.
Little Joe had seen his father’s uncertainty, and approached him with his idea. “Please Pa,” Joe reasoned, “They’re branding just a few miles out from the house. I’ve been there lots of times, so I know the way. Hoss’ll be there, and if I have any trouble, I’ll wait to come home with him.” When his father remained silent, Joe added, “You’d want to know what’s in that note.” Joe used his best doe-eyed look as he added, “And what if it’s bad news, Pa. They may need him home. Besides, it’s only noon; I can be back before that clock strikes three if I hurry.
A picture of Marie appeared in the maternal side of his consciousness, telling him, “You can’t let him go alone. He’s just a baby!” But his father’s pride and desire for his sons to challenge themselves whispered that Adam and Hoss had far more responsibility by the time they were this age, and maybe it was time to let Joseph prove that he was trustworthy.
“All right,” he’d finally conceded and he’d given a continuous lecture to the boy as he got him ready to leave. His final warning had been, “You keep that horse at a trot. Come straight home; don’t wait for Hoss. He’ll be busy and I don’t want you getting in the way.” Little Joe had rolled his eyes, and that had almost made him rescind the opportunity. A warning look had brought the child to instant agreement, and he’d sent him on his way with the letter and some sweets Hop Sing had made for the “Middle son.”
But that had been three hours ago, and as time continued to pass, he began to doubt his decision. He turned to the portrait of Marie on his desk and growled, “Stop staring at me, my love. He’ll be fine. He has to grow up a little.” He felt less sure of that statement than he should have, and quickly glanced again at the clock before going back to his ledger. The figures still made no sense, so he pulled out the most recent letter from Adam and read it through again.
The note from his son thanked the family for the Christmas gifts they’d sent and told about spending the holiday with Abel. He’d also mentioned being invited on a regular basis to spend time with the family of his roommate, and that their stable provided opportunities for him to ride. Letters took so long to reach their destinations that the news was already months old by the time they were received. But each one of those from Adam filled Ben with joy no matter how dated the news. He knew that his letters to Boston were equally as old, but he had no doubt that his son felt the same about the news he received, detailing events on the ranch and tales of his brothers.
Letters from Boston had confirmed that Adam was doing very well in school—this news had come from Abel rather than Adam. Ben’s father-in-law had expounded on the perfect grades and end-of-year honors bestowed on his grandson, while Adam’s letters had merely said he was doing “fine.”
Ben tried not to look at the clock but it beckoned him as his nerves began to jangle more. Reading the letter had taken only a few minutes so he was about to choose another when he heard a horse enter the yard. He hurried to the door, and his heart began beating normally as he saw his youngest trotting in.
“What took you so long?” He called from the doorway.
“You wasn’t worried, was you Pa?” Little Joe gave his father a curious stare. “I said I’d be back as quick as I could, and I am. I just stopped to talk to Hoss for a few minutes and then came right home.” His face scrunched in thought. “Well maybe it was more’n a few minutes since he was showing me the new calves, and then we ate them cookies from Hop Sing.”
Ben’s heart swelled with relief and pride at this first test of reliability. “You did a good job, Joseph. Did you remember to give the message to Lester?”
“Sure, Pa. He’s got a baby girl. He said I should tell you he’ll ride home after they finish, and he’ll be back by the end of next week.”
The proud father couldn’t help but notice the swagger in his son’s walk as he led his horse to the barn. A few minutes later he came bounding in and ran to the kitchen to find out how soon Hop Sing would have supper ready. “So grown up,” Ben said under his breath, and quickly finished adding up the numbers that hadn’t made any sense to him in the hours Little Joe was gone. Now that his son was back, his mind and heart were able to cooperate again.
“Doggone it Little Joe,” Adam raged as he shook the water from his hair. The older brother had been working for most of the day on a plan for a self-closing corral gate using a system of weights and pulleys. He had drawn it to the correct scale and made his calculations on a length of brown paper he’d salvaged from the parcels they’d brought from Cass’s store in town.
His current anger and dampness was the culmination to his day-long attempt to keep his five-year-old brother doing something besides bothering him while he’d tried to work. With Hoss confined to bed with a stomach ache, and Pa busy with ranch paperwork, the youngest Cartwright had kept pestering the only person left to distract him. Adam had turned him away repeatedly, promising they’d do “something fun” when he finished. But he’d lost himself in his endeavor, and he hadn’t realized that as he had closed in on a workable plan, Little Joe had come up with a plan of his own.
Because of Adam’s singular focus, he hadn’t heard the little boy creep up behind him as he’d bent over the feedbox jotting down his final notes. Nor had he noticed Little Joe dip ice-cold water into a small feed-bucket from the trough, and struggle to carry it across the yard without spilling its contents. He’d heard Little Joe grunting in effort, but he hadn’t stopped working to find out why. Had he done so, he might have seen the child hoisting the heavy pail atop a tack box positioned just behind where he was working, and that Little Joe had followed the pail up and was now at eye level with his older brother.
His first inkling that his brother’s labors were aimed at him came too late. He’d looked back toward the corral to make sure of the gate placement, and caught sight of Little Joe standing on the box, holding the pail. He’d managed to scold, “Get down from there before you fall down,” just as the boy’s nefarious plan had been executed. He’d seen Joe swing the bucket backward using both hands, and then bring it forward, sending a wave of water toward his head. It had been too late to duck, and he’d taken the full brunt of the frosty splash. The liquid drenched the side of his face and saturated his hair before continuing its gravitational path downward, pooling on the lid of the feed box. He’d shivered in shock while the frigid rivulets made their way down his back, and then he’d stared in horror as the penciled plans he’d made on the wrapping paper washed away along with the hours he’d spent making them.
Little Joe was fast, and he’d nearly flown off his perch once the deed was done. Adam’s initial grief at seeing his work disintegrate before his eyes turned to anger as he took off after the boy. He knew it was a fruitless chase since his brother had a head start, so he began hollering instead. If he couldn’t catch him, he could use his words to put the fear of God…and Pa…into the boy. All three Cartwright sons had found themselves in need of Pa’s “necessary talks” from time-to-time, but Little Joe held the record for vexing the man.
Adam knew that Ben Cartwright did not believe in sparing the rod, although as he’d gotten older, he’d come to realize that his father’s discipline was as much about building the anticipation of the event, as it was the actual application of hand to backside. And there was always an actual “talk” given along with the punishment. Pa would explain the infraction, and help them to understand its impact on their current and future lives. He’d end the lecture portion by telling them that bad deeds always hurt someone…and that this punishment was his way of making them share in the pain they’d caused. The actual spanking hurt far less than having to hear the disappointment in their father’s voice.
Adam was pretty sure that Pa would view Little Joe’s actions as an act of treason, just as he did. His self-closing gate would have benefited everyone, and Little Joe’s thoughtless act meant he would have to start from the beginning. The math involved in setting the mechanism to work correctly hadn’t come easily, and he hadn’t locked the information into his memory because he’d written it down. The only satisfaction left in this day would come in watching his brother endure the hours up to his talk with Pa.
Ben heard the commotion from inside the house, and went running to find the cause. As he got nearer, he could see that Adam was dripping water from his hair and shirt while he tried to pull his little brother from behind the wood pile. Little Joe was small and wiry, and catching him was often like trying to hold onto a flapping fish. Ben could see that his youngest son had wedged himself deep behind the stacked cuts of wood, and Adam was having trouble grabbing any part of the squirming youngster. He was about to tell his oldest son to stand down when Adam managed to get a good grip on Little Joe’s arm and held it aloft like he’d just caught a prize trout. Ben stopped in his tracks for a moment as he watched the captured little boy switch between laughter over whatever it was he’d done, and tears over the consequences he knew were coming.
“He ruined everything! Adam groaned as his saw his father’s eyebrows meet and his facial lines harden into what his sons had long ago dubbed: Pa’s mad face. “All my work destroyed because he wanted to pull a prank!” He looked down at the boy he was still holding securely. “Why couldn’t you just leave me alone?”
“Adam,” cautioned Ben as he went over and removed Little Joe’s hand him from his angry brother’s grasp, and shooed him toward the house with an order stay put. When the object of the confrontation was gone, he laid a reassuring arm around his oldest son’s shoulder and asked, “What did he do?” He listened as Adam recounted the episode, nodding in agreement over his son’s conclusions. But as a parent, Ben had come to know that there was always another side to any story, and in this case he knew that Adam wasn’t completely innocent.
“I agree that Little Joe was wrong in what he did, and he will be punished. But I heard you two out here all day, and I think this could have been avoided. You told Little Joe to go away several times, and it would have been kind of you to stop what you were doing for a few minutes to play with him or listen to what he was saying. He just wanted your attention.”
“But Pa, I nearly had the gate figured out, and I would have lost my thoughts if I’d have stopped.”
The arm around Adam’s shoulders tightened into an embrace as Ben continued. “You and your rother are much the same when you take on a project. You are both intelligent and move purposefully in everything you want to accomplish. I understand you wanting to finish your plan, yet you have to admit that it can’t be constructed or tested for some time. Your urgency to finish was not based on fact.”
Adam’s stared at his father as his nose wrinkled. “I don’t understand.”
Ben chuckled. “You told me about the gate at lunch, and it seems logical and well thought out. But we can’t get the pulleys and weights you need from Cass’s store. They’ll need to be special ordered. It will be some time before this could become more than lines on a piece of paper. I’m sure you can remember enough of what you did that we can send for the hardware while you refigure the details.” He winked at his son. “The lesson for you to remember is that Little Joe is just as determined as you are. His methods are just as carefully planned, and he doesn’t always see how the impact might affect others. This time he figured out exactly how to get you away from what you were doing.”
“Adam,” Catherine Harris whispered, making the young man jump as he awoke. “You nodded off and were talking rather loudly in your sleep.”
“Oh, sorry, Mrs. H.” His cheeks bloomed to a rosy glow as he whispered back. “I didn’t mean to cause a problem.”
Mrs. Harris sat on the chair next to Adam. “There’s no problem.” She laughed as she looked around the large room. “I don’t know why we’re whispering. Everyone else has gone.” She patted his arm. “You must have been having a bad dream about your brother. You hollered, ‘Little Joe,’ and sounded quite angry.”
Adam smiled sheepishly. “Little Joe has given me many nightmares.”
“The library closes in 15 minutes, young man,” she informed him as she rose and ruffled his hair. “Better get packed up.”
Adam nodded and began gathering his things.
“Mrs. H,” as the students called her, walked away while thinking about how she’d come to know the young man who had such vivid dreams about his family. Catherine Harris was one of the only females who “worked” on the Harvard campus in other than a domestic role.* She was married to Thaddeus Harris, who had been the head librarian at Harvard in the past. He did research and taught classes in entomology now, but Catherine had often helped out during his tenure at the library, and when the current librarian had needed a volunteer for a few evenings each week, he’d remembered her work with the students.
It was also through Thaddeus that she had come to meet Adam. Her husband’s expertise had placed the couple in the company of other natural scientists at Harvard, including the renowned botanist, Asa Gray and his asscociate, Adolf Metz, another botany professor who’d been gone four years studying plant materials in the Western Territories for Asa. The Harrises had attended a welcome-home reception for the professor, and had met a young man that evening—Adolf’s protégé—who he’d described as, “a scholar blooming amid the wildflowers.”
Professor Metz had told them of how he’d found the perfect setting for his studies, only to discover that he was on land owned by Ben Cartwright. This information had been imparted by Ben’s oldest son, who’d seemed fascinated by Adolf’s work, but more impressed with Adolf’s credentials.
Catherine still remembered the description Adolf had given. “The young man who tod me I was trespassing practically bounced with excitement when he heard where I’d come from. And when he found out that I would be doing research for a number of years, he brazenly asked me to tutor him in exchange for free range on the Cartwright property, use of the line shacks and bunk house, and a few home-cooked meals. I never expected to find a young man with a dream of attending a fine university out in that wilderness, but that’s what Adam had. What he didn’t have was the means of getting the education necessary to accomplish that dream.” Adolf’s voice had cracked with emotion as he’d added, “This boy longed to learn as much as the land longs for water after a summer dry spell.”
The reception had been a year-and-a-half ago already, and Catherine smiled as she began replacing books on the shelves while the minutes until closing ticked down to ten. She loved volunteering at the library, and had been happy when the young man she’d met at the reception had begun studying in Gore Hall on a regular basis. She soon found herself keeping a special watch on him.
The Harrises had 12 children of their own, so it was easy for Catherine to spot the students who were serious about school, as opposed to those who were there for a last bit of independence before they returned home to take over family businesses or inherit their trust funds. Those boys studied just enough to leave with a degree they could hang on their walls. But Adam was one of the most serious students she’d ever known.
That didn’t mean he was odd or emotionally cold as some scholarly types. He had a dry and wry sense of humor that showed up frequently, and he had made friends—although they usually left the library far earlier than he did. He was also very handsome, but he didn’t seem to realize that. Catherine was sure that he was the object of many young women’s dreams in the Cambridge community.
This was Adam’s second year of classes, and she knew he was doing very well. But she let her mind drift back to the beginning of his freshman year—a time that had been hard on him. First year students entered college feeling invincible and excited at being on their own for the first time. But some of them lost their spark of enthusiasm as the months wore on, and they dropped into a dark void of homesickness, doubt and fear.
She was with these boys often enough that she could spot the first signs of trouble. There was no one to talk to about how they felt. Their families were too far away, and university professors didn’t discuss feelings, touting the value of studiousness to cure all ills. Usually all these young men needed was a sympathetic ear. When she saw one of her charges drifting away, she would sit next to him while doing her paperwork, and casually ask about their home and family, letting them talk about the people they missed.
Catherine had seen the growing melancholy last year as Adam had reread letters from his family during breaks from his studies. Freshman year was a test of character for everyone, and more so for long-distance students. Some gave into the loneliness and headed back home. But those who found friends, studied hard, and had other things to keep them busy, stuck it out and moved forward.
Professor Metz had mentioned that Adam had a grandfather in Boston. Yet it seemed that Adam had only made the trip from Cambridge to Boston on long weekends or holidays at first, and he’d spent all his free time in the library. She’d sat next to Adam on one of those long Saturdays and asked him to tell her more about meeting Professor Metz, and where he’d come from. He’d eventually told her about the two brothers who had often driven him crazy, but that he missed fiercely. And there was no mistaking the love and respect he had for his father. On future Saturdays, when they were the only two people left in the library as closing time drew near, the young man had shared stories about his early life traveling along the Oregon Trail, and setting up a new homestead. She’d been mesmerized by the tales…and the losses he’d endured, although he’d been matter-of-fact in telling about it all, and wouldn’t accept any sympathy.
It was hard for her to imagine this sweet, intelligent student as a cowboy; riding a horse, branding cattle, and wearing a gun on his hip. He had such wisdom and loyalty to his family that she’d become very protective of him. As he’d become comfortable with her, he’d confided his greatest fear: that he might fail. She’d had her husband make some inquiries with Adam’s professors, and he’d been assured that the boy was at the top of his class in every subject. She’d come to realize that in Adam’s mind, anything less than perfection, was failure. He hadn’t said it outright, but she suspected that he struggled with choosing a path that removed him from helping his family, while at the same time taking financial resources from them. He’d received scholarships with his offer of admission, but Catherine knew the high cost of a Harvard education.
Adam had relaxed a little after first semester grades had been posted. She assumed he’d finally received proof that he was accomplishing his goals. He hadn’t come as often on Saturdays after that, and had told her that he felt he could get his classwork done between spending time with his grandfather on weekends. Catherine had seen another positive change as well. Adam’s roommate was from a wealthy and well-known Boston family, and the Wadsworths began including the newcomer in their family gatherings. Frankie Wadsworth had also started coming to the library with Adam, and Catherine had suspected that Adam was helping the Frankie with his studies. She’d worked close enough to eavesdrop on those sessions a few times, and had been amazed at how easily Adam could explain difficult concepts. One of his favorite techniques was to tell a tale from home to illustrate his point, and it had always left both boys laughing so loudly, she’d had to go shush them.
Her thoughts about the last year ended as the clock struck the nine. Catherine waved goodbye across the room as Adam finished piling his books into his arms and headed for the door. He nodded to her and tried to wave back, causing a textbook avalanche. She hurried over to hand the books up to him while he created a sturdier stack, and then she waited by the door to watch him head across campus toward his dormitory.
Adam’s room was dark and he could hear Frankie snoring rhythmically when he stepped inside. He carefully laid his books on his desk, undressed in the dark, and shivered when he slipped between the cold sheets. He hadn’t shared a room with anyone since Pa had built a small house on the ranch and he’d gotten a small bedroom of his own. He got along great with Frankie, and it was nice to know someone expected him to be there each night. Adam’s years of helping to raise his younger brothers made him a good roommate. He was used to a little chaos going on around him, and if he wanted privacy to study, he’d head to the library or the silent study room on the main floor of his dormitory.
He pulled the blankets up to his ears and waited for them to chase the chill away while he thought back to nights of sitting up with his brothers when they’d been ill, or reassuring them when they’d rushed into his room as a storm approached. He missed his brothers and father so much that his chest ached with the loneliness at times. But he’d struggled through the worst of it, and he felt comfortable in Boston now. There was joy in remembering his family, but there was new joy in being with his grandfather and the people he was getting to know in this five-year detour from the Ponderosa.
His breathing slowed as he warmed up, and he let memories of home take him into sleep.
Little Joe hollered, “Look, Adam,” as he walked along a sturdy branch lodged against a rock on the edge of the trickling creek. “I’m a tightrope guy like in that circus book.” Joe’s arm flew wildly as he mimicked the drawings of the funambulist walking on a rope above the crowd. He nearly fell twice but managed to correct his balance and continue his performance.
The creek was a dry bed most of the year, but now it should have been swelling to a few feet of depth with snow melt from the hills above. Adam was a ways upstream from Joe, clearing out branches and debris that were damming the flow. The blockage was causing flooding in the hills behind it, and keeping all but a rivulet of water from reaching the grasslands and thirsty cattle below.
The four Cartwrights had ridden out that morning to check on the grazing land and cattle now that spring had taken a sturdy toehold, and they’d been surprised to find that the rocky bed was barely damp. The cattle they’d expected to be gathered nearby were scattered over the hillside looking for puddles of water.
Ben had given his oldest son a knowing look and split the family into two forces to deal with the problems. Hoss accompanied Pa to round up the strays, and Adam took Little Joe to find out why the water wasn’t making it to the valley.
He hadn’t been pleased with having his youngest brother in tow, but he’d had to agree that Hoss was good enough in the saddle now to help with the steers. The youngest Cartwright wasn’t a bad rider for his age, but he believed himself to better at it than he actually was, and the short-legged pony he had would have gotten in Hoss and Pa’s way.
He’d taken Joe on his horse, leaving the pony behind, and it hadn’t taken long for them to find the problem. Adam had looked things over and figured he’d have things running smoothly in no time. He’d been wrong. A more thorough look at the congestion revealed that he’d have to remove it in layers. The trickiest part was working on the downstream side where a collapse would pin him under a mass of branches and water. The sun had made its way from the east to nearly overhead by the time he’d gotten the outer layers removed, but he’d finally reached the point where he could get to the side of it, and remove the large branch that was pinning the remaining mass in place.
Before he’d started he’d had a talk with his brother. “That water will move fast once I clear the dam, Little Joe. You know how to swim, but you aren’t strong enough to fight that current. So stay away from the creek while I’m working on it.” The warning had seemed to work, and he’d been aware of the boy chasing bugs and toads, and climbing in the lower pine branches as he’d pretended to be something…maybe a ship’s captain. He’d heard him yelling things like, “I’ll have ye swabbin’ the decks if ye don’t pay attention.”
Adam had counted on his brother to remember his caution, but he should have known better. He could hear the boy talking but he’d lost track of Little Joe’s position as the work had stretched on far longer than he’d hoped. He was just glad that wherever Joe was, he wasn’t nearby pestering him. At this moment, Adam was tired, scratched by a thousand pointy dry branches, damp, and ready to be done with the mess as soon as possible. He was already thinking about getting home to clean up and work a few hours on the assignments Adolf had given him for the week. In his rush to be done, he yanked out the branch that was pinning the flotsam, and only then remembered that he hadn’t eyeballed his brother’s location. He did recall hearing him say something about a circus, and he mentally kicked himself as he realized the voice had been downstream from him. He offered a fervent prayer that his mistake in not checking first wasn’t about to cost an unforgivable price as the mass began to swirl and break apart, finally allowing a wall of water to shoot down the dry bed.
His stomach lurched as the propulsion coincided with a panicked scream he knew all too well. Adam spun around, knowing that his prayer couldn’t correct the error he’d already made. He saw the water charging ahead and sucking in everything near the banks of the swelling creek as he tried to pinpoint where the scream had come from. His heart and limbs froze when he spotted Little Joe toppling into the chilly stream along with the branch he must have been standing on. His brother was caught in the rapid current as the creek obeyed the laws of physics and headed to a point of less resistance in the valley below. Joe’s head bobbed in and out of the froth as he screamed, “Adam!”
Adam wrenched himself from his panic, knowing he had to do something. He could see that Joe was holding onto the branch, and that helped some. But the rolling waves of water were splashing over the boy’s head. Little Joe was strong, but he was barely five, and Adam knew that with the chill of the water, and the constant pummeling he was taking, the little boy’s strength would wane quickly.
The truth punched him in his gut; he couldn’t get to Joe in time. The reason the jam had happened where it had was because there was a flatter stretch of land at this part of the descent. Water from the melting snow above slowed enough at this terrace to allow the debris in it to catch and accumulate. Once that had started, all the refuse behind it had stuck too. But the terrace ended just feet from where Little Joe was now floating. From that point, the grade steepened, and the water would plunge downhill like a run-away locomotive with no regard for a child caught in its fury.
Adam ran. He knew he couldn’t run fast enough to get to Little Joe before he would disappear over the drop-off, but he ran anyway, mouthing silent prayers that his strides would cover the distance more rapidly…or for a miracle. His heart was pounding in his ears as he envisioned his father’s face when he’d tell him that he’d let Little Joe drown. Ben Cartwright’s constant answer when someone offered sympathy at his losing three wives was that he still had a part of each of them with him in his sons. He was the son of Pa’s youth, when a young Ben was full of ideas and hopes for the future. Hoss had been the son of their journey—a living promise. But Little Joe was the son of fulfillment. Marie had been with their father far longer than Elizabeth and Inger. And she’d given him another son: a son who confirmed that the Cartwright family had found their destiny. Adam knew that his father would do badly with the loss of any of his children, but he wasn’t sure if the man would recover if Joe died because of his carelessness.
He kept running even as the log and the boy twirled wildly in the eddy created in the deeper basin just before the downhill plunge. “Hold on!” he screamed to the boy. It was a useless caution because Little Joe was already holding on the best he could. The only idea he could come up with was to jump in and let the current take him as well. Maybe, if the heavens were looking kindly on him, the branch would slow just enough at the drop-off that he’d be able to get to his brother. I can hold his head above water or push him toward the bank, he thought as he let his jacket slide down his arms and fall to the ground so it wouldn’t weigh him down.
The plan might have worked if his boot hadn’t slid in the mud at the edge of bank as he angled toward the water. Both legs flew out from under him, and he was in flight for a moment until he landed on his back with a solid thud. It was over. He stared up at the fluffy clouds dotting the spring-blue sky, knowing it was too late to help now. His back ached from the impact, but he had to get downhill to face whatever had happened. He tried to stand in the slippery goo, but lost his footing again, sprawling face down in the muck this time. He finally stayed on all fours and crawled to dryer ground. His despair covered him as completely as the mud, and he sighed raggedly.
He was trying to stand when he heard the laughing. It started as a chuckle and grew to an all-out guffaw. Although he was on firm footing, his boots were still slick and he almost tumbled again as he swung around to see where it was coming from. Once he got his legs solidly under him, he turned to see Little Joe and his branch firmly wedged between two good-sized rocks at the edge of the precipice.
“You really flew, Adam,” the youngster yelled out between giggles as his brother ran to him. “You looked like a giant vulture flappin’ away.”
Adam plucked Joe from the water while voicing his anger over the entire situation. “Why’d you go and play near the water when I asked you not to? I warned you about the danger and then you went and almost got yourself kil…” His anger silenced as he understood that he was angrier at himself than at his brother. Kids did dumb things, and Little Joe did them with more frequency than others. But what had nearly happened came as a result of his distraction. He’d been thinking too far ahead of the circumstance at hand and he’d failed to protect the child in his care.
Little Joe usually had plenty to say in his defense at a time like this, but he remained silent as he looked up and saw the mixture of sadness and terror in Adam’s eyes. “Did you get hurt when you fell?” he asked softly. “I wouldn’t a laughed if I knowed that.”
“I’m fine.” He went down on one knee to be at eye level. “I was worried about you, kid. I should have checked where you were before I broke that dam.”
“Aw, that weren’t nothin’, Adam. I got wet is all and had a good ride, but I knew you’d get me out of trouble.”
Adam pulled the boy into a bear hug, and squeezed tighter when he looked over Little Joe’s shoulder, realizing how close they’d come to disaster. The branch that had kept his brother afloat had finally dislodged, and he saw it splinter in the rushing current before disappearing down the hill.
“I’ll always get you out of trouble if I can, Joe. I promise you that.” He gave a last hard squeeze that made Little Joe squirm and giggle, and then helped him undress. He laid the clothes to dry on a sun-warmed rock, and considered how to keep the skinny boy warm. Fortunately he’d tied a bedroll on his saddle to use for the picnic lunch they’d planned. He wrapped it around the Joe the best he could and secured it in place with a length of twine he found in his saddle bag. After rinsing out his muddy clothes and laying them out to dry as well, they ate the bacon sandwiches they had along and found a sheltered area with plenty of sunshine. They leaned against a downed tree trunk tucked under Adam’s coat, and it didn’t take long for both of them to doze off.
“Wake up Adam. We’re gonna be late.”
A resigned sigh escaped when Adam rolled over. “Pa will wait for us, Little Joe. Go see if your clothes are dry.” He’d enjoyed his rest immensely and wasn’t anxious to leave the cozy hideaway they’d found. When he finally opened his eyes, he saw Frankie Wadsworth grinning down at him. Adam’s cheeks were already pink from the warmth of his bed, but they blushed to a deeper hue as he pushed the covers back and sat up.
“You had one heck of a dream going on there, Cartwright.” Frankie laughed. “You were screaming at your brother and flailing your arms and legs so hard I thought you would actually take off in flight.” He grabbed his books from his desk after punching Adam’s shoulder playfully. “You overslept a little and we have that physics test today. You can’t be late for that.” He turned from the doorway. “Don’t dawdle. I’ll save you a place in the dining hall.”
Once Frankie was gone, Adam made his bed, washed up, and shaved as quickly as he could without nicking himself. With his roommate gone, he had time to think back to the dream he’d been having when he awoke. There’d seemed no hope that day, but he’d prayed for a miracle, and he’d gotten one. There were probably sound principles of flow and current that had moved the branch from the center of the stream long enough for him to get Little Joe to safety. But at the time there’d seemed no way to prevent the eventual outcome. He sent a heartfelt thank you heavenwards for whatever forces—physical or supernatural—had kept his brother alive that day. “I’ll always get you out of trouble if I can, Joe,” he whispered as he had in his dream, and then laughed as he walked out the door, mumbling, “I just wish you didn’t get into trouble so darn often.”
It had become easier for Ben to allow Little Joe a modicum of freedom over the summer and early fall. He let him ride out to visit Hoss and the hands for an hour or two if they were near enough to the house, and he let the boys go fishing together without accompanying them. While he thought this was a good thing for the boys, he was always relieved to hear the sound of hoof beats entering the yard, indicating their safe return.
He rose from his desk and looked out the door to see Joe and Hoss returning from a day together with a full stringer of bass hanging from the saddle. He exhaled deeply and then realized he’d been holding his breath all the while they’d been gone. It had only been about six months since he first let Little Joe venture out, and he assumed it would get easier to see him off…or at least that’s what he told himself. Yet somewhere deep in his heart, he knew that would never be true. It hadn’t been any easier to let Adam go to Boston and he still held his breath whenever he thought about him so far from home. But for now, he relaxed and headed out to hear the fish story Hoss would have for him.
Adam stared at the dictionary in front of him on the table, but couldn’t pay attention to the definition he was reading. His mind kept drifting back to a day when a similar book had almost occasioned a, “Wanted: Dead or Alive” poster to be issued for him and Little Joe.
He’d been working with Professor Metz for two years when the teacher had been asked to go to another part of the territory for several months. Adolf had promised to return afterwards to take Adam along back East for school, and he’d left lessons plans to use in his absence. He’d also sent for a set of freshman textbooks from Harvard to give Adam a head start on some of the courses he’d be likely to take no matter which school he’d attend.
Adam hadn’t had much time to study though. He’d spent the summer working with the crew, and then he’d been hurt and spent several weeks in bed, so when he’d gotten back on his feet again, he’d spent most of his spare time reading and studying to be ready to leave come spring. His obsession with preparing, had affected his brothers too. Hoss had said that he didn’t understand his brother “Wantin’ all that schoolin’,” but he’d left Adam alone.
Little Joe had been a different story. The youngster saw his brother’s study time as a challenge, and would make every effort to distract him, or he’d interrupt so often that study time had to be postponed until Little Joe was in bed.
Adam grinned and tapped his pencil on the library table as he thought about the afternoon Joe was as intent on getting his attention, as he was about ignoring the interruptions. It had started with sneak attacks where Joe would slip into the room and pull on his ears, or poke his ribs and then run away. When that failed to elicit a response, he started tossing things at Adam from the doorway. He could still hear Joe giggling as rolled-up dirty socks flew through the air and dropped onto his open book.
It had become a war of wills at that point, with Little Joe reappearing every few minutes with something new to try, while he’d remained unruffled—at least on the outside. But then Joe had remembered the one thing that had always irritated him beyond toleration: the little boy had started talking. He’d stood in the doorway reciting the alphabet; he’d sung children’s songs, and repeated the chant, “Adam is a bookworm.”
Adam recalled that his teeth had clenched to the point of endangering his molars, and his desire for quiet overruled his sensibilities. He’d continued to look down at his reading material while he’d reached for the dictionary on his desk. When he had it firmly in his grip, he’d swung around and let the book fly toward the door…with better velocity than trajectory. He’d thought he’d thrown it high enough that it would miss Joe completely, while having the desired effect of making him run away.
It had seemed the perfect plan, considering the short time from conception to execution…except for the fact that Pa had heard Joe’s taunting, and had come upstairs to put a stop to it. He’d pulled Little Joe aside as the last singsong phrase had left the boy’s mouth, and stepped squarely into the doorway facing his oldest son. Adam grimaced, just as he had that day when his eyes registered who was standing there…and that the weight of the book was taking its path downward far faster than he’d planned. His father had been standing as he often did, with his legs planted wide and his hands at his hips. Adam had seen the man’s eyes widen and his mouth form a silent “oh,” as the book had sailed towards him. It had been too late for a reaction and the sharp corner of the heavy book had driven towards its unintended target…centered about six inches below Pa’s belt. It had connected with a solid smack, and then spun and hit again a tad lower until its momentum had exhausted and it had fallen to the floor between Pa’s legs.
Everyone with working ears within a mile of the house had heard Ben’s cry of pain, followed by his loud, fragmented bellow. “You…two…!” He’d doubled over in pain before completing his thought, holding his bruised privates in one hand while he’d grabbed Joe’s arm with the other, and had still managed to give his eldest a withering glare. The oldest and youngest sons had exchanged a look as their father moaned and sank to the floor against the door jamb. They’d both known they’d committed the ultimate offense. Their tiff had ended by embarrassing their father, and had possibly caused a serious injury as well.
A few days, many lectures, and seemingly hundreds of extra chores later, Adam and Little Joe had still winced each time they saw their father gingerly lower himself onto chairs or into his saddle. Needless to say there had been no further incidents of horseplay at the Cartwright house before had Adam left for Boston.
The young man smiled one last time as he thought about the episode, even as he grimaced again at the outcome. His thoughts returned to Gore Hall when a group of friends came to get him for a late night trip to a nearby pub.
Adam stretched and yawned as he awoke. He knew it was nearly time to get up even without looking at the clock, because the early sunrise was already dancing tongues of red and orange flames on the wall opposite the window. But he lingered in the warm comfort of his bed and thought about the dream of his youngest brother he’d been having just prior to opening his eyes. It seemed he was thinking a lot about the youngster lately, but he supposed that wasn’t unusual. He often dreamt or daydreamed of his family.
He was in his second year of school, but he’d been gone well over two years already. It had taken a couple of months for him and Professor Metz to make it to St. Louis with the supply train they’d joined. It had gone more quickly once they could take trains to their final destination, and they’d made it to Boston early enough for him to make application and test for schools before the fall term. Most of the freshmen classes had already been set by the time he’d arrived, but Professor Metz’s reputation in the scholastic community had brought some leeway with the admissions directors. He’d stayed with his grandfather during that time, and worked in a livery stable between testing and getting to know Abel Stoddard.
It was nearly time to get up, but Frankie was still sleeping as evidenced by the soft snore making its way across the room, so Adam continued to think about home. Hoss was a teenager now, and from the letters he’d received from Pa, his middle brother had continued to grow into a sturdy young man who was riding with the crew when they were near enough for the boy to make it home at night. That’s the way it had been for him too when he’d first started riding herd, and he smiled at his father’s protectiveness. Little Joe was eight, and continued to be a handful, judging from the various escapades his father revealed in his notes. Yet Pa was giving the youngster a little more independence, and the latest letter from home had told of Joe’s solo rides and reliability.
He loved his entire family, so he wondered why Little Joe was the one he thought of the most the last few days. Maybe it was that he had taken Joe under his wing after Marie had died. Pa had struggled with her death, and he’d drifted into melancholy when he hadn’t been busy. The man had mustered on, but had preferred being alone; pulling into himself like a turtle resting safely inside its shell. Little Joe had missed his mother, but he’d been young, active and full of ideas and schemes. It hadn’t been easy having Little Joe along with him so often back then. It had slowed him down, and the kid’s constant chatter had often locked his mind and jaw, but he’d never resented the time they’d spent together. He’d gotten to know his youngest brother in those days, and it had been very hard to say goodbye to him when it had come time to leave.
The dream he’d had just before awakening had been from one of the times he’d taken Little Joe on an errand to give their father time alone. He’d sometimes allowed the boy to ride his own pony, but they’d ridden double that day because he’d been anxious to accomplish his errand. Getting anywhere with Little Joe along brought delays, and that day had been no exception.
Adam smiled in the early morning light as he thought about trying to get the child moving. Hollering didn’t help. The boy would look up at you with questioning eyes that revealed he had no clue as to what he was doing to upset you. They’d finally gotten on the road, but Joe had a bladder the size of a pea, and since he’d asked for a second glass of milk at breakfast, and coupled with the gentle bouncing of the horse, he’d needed to stop often. Adam could always tell when a break was necessary. The saddle he used was long enough that they could both sit comfortably, but when Joe’s urge to pee started in, the boy would start wiggling. He would ignore his little brothers shifting and squirming for as long as he could but he’d finally have to pull over. Admonishments to, “hurry,” served no purpose. Joe could lose himself in watching a bug crawl across a rock or forget why’d he’d dismounted as he climbed the low branches of a pine until he couldn’t “hold it” any longer. The older brother knew this was the case and always carried a book to read while waiting for the little guy to get finished.
The memory of what had happened during that trip to town flooded Adam’s memory with the same emotions he’d felt on the day it happened.
It had been the fifth episode of wiggling and squirming that had made Adam’s mood go dark, and he’d waited until Little Joe was bouncing in the saddle with need before he stopped in a grassy area and dismounted. He lifted the boy down and sent him on his way, hollering after him. “Just pee and get it over with. It’s going to be dark before we get to Cass’s.” He pulled a small book of verse from his pocket and leaned forward against the saddle to read while he waited. His irritation grew as the number of poems he finished increased, and he finally hollered again for Joe to, “Hurry up!” His call was answered by silence and his annoyance was replaced by a gnawing fear. They were in a meadow where it was flat as far as the eye could see, so he should have been able to see him. He couldn’t.
The first indication of where his brother might be came when he heard the low rumbling growl off to his left. He turned and finally caught a glimpse of Little Joe’s hat sticking just above the swaying rye grass heads. The growling continued menacingly, and he began to make his way slowly toward the hat. When he got close, he found a standoff going on between the boy and a coyote over the pup his brother was clutching to his chest. It didn’t take a college degree for him to figure out that Joe must have found a coyote pup separated from its mother, and she was back and unhappy about the situation.
The large female coyote’s lips were pulled back, exposing some very strong-looking teeth, and Adam’s mind raced for a solution that would get them both out of there in one piece. He considered it fortunate that the animal was so focused on the pup that he could continue moving up behind his brother without forcing a move on her part. “Put the pup down,” he said evenly. Little Joe didn’t move, so he said it again with more force. Unfortunately, the child was frozen. He got close enough that he could squat down behind Joe and move the terrified child’s arms forward until the pup was resting on the ground. He whispered, “Let go, Joe.” This time the boy complied and the little coyote ran toward its mother. Adam decided that he had to move fast while the female was more interested in protecting her offspring than making them pay for their incursion into her territory. He picked Joe up and ran back to their horse, practically tossing the boy into the saddle as he found the stirrup, swung a leg over, and had the horse moving before he was fully seated.
Adam’s heart had beaten faster as he relived the coyote encounter. Once they’d gotten away, he remembered being overcome with relief…first…and then anger as he chided his brother for doing something so stupid. He grinned as he thought about Little Joe’s answer. The kid often had the perfect comeback to disarm his detractors, and make them remorseful for their impatience or exasperation. That day Joe had angled himself to see his older brother, and had reached up to touch Adam’s cheek as he’d given a teary explanation. “I thought that little pup’s mama had died just like mine, and I was gonna bring him home so he’d have a family too.”
Ben had sent Little Joe off that morning to get a message to Hop Sing, who was a few miles away at the drovers’ camp near Thunderhead Pass. Ben and his feisty cook had made an agreement that he would prepare a hearty meal once each week for the crew when they were near enough to the house to be feasible. Hop Sing had blustered about it at first, but the hands were so appreciative of his good food that he now looked forward to doing it. It took a little extra planning on Hop Sing’s part, and Ben insisted that their cook take an extra day off the during the weeks he provided the mobile meal, so the arrangement seemed to make everyone happy.
This “arrangement” had another unintended bonus. Hoss had finished his classes with Abigail Jones last spring, and spent his days out with the hands now, as long as they were close enough that he could make it home in the evenings. This had been possible throughout the summer because they’d been using the pasture land to the east that was an easy ride each day. Hop Sing helped keep an eye on Little Joe most days, but when both he and Hoss were out at camp, or on the cook’s days off, Little Joe focused all his attention on his father. The boy’s interest in a project or his school work never lasted as long as Ben needed to get his paperwork done. A solution had presented itself after Little Joe’s successful completion of his round trip to camp with the note for Lester.
During the summer, Ben had started sending his youngest out with messages to his cook or foreman whenever he had bids to work up or correspondence to finish. Little Joe would leave early enough to have lunch at camp, and he’d arrive home around four. There was nothing important in the notes to the men at camp, other than Ben’s thanks for keeping an eye on Little Joe for a bit, and to send him on his way when lunch was over.
The plan had proved perfect so far. He would get quiet time to work, and Little Joe would get another successful ride under his belt. The boy had been so punctual and focused in doing these trips that Ben hadn’t realized he was late in returning this time until he had to light a lamp on the desk to see the penciled figures in his ledgers. The situation gave him pause until he remembered that Joe might have decided to wait for Hoss and Hop Sing. It wasn’t the plan for him to do that, but Ben always told him to wait if there was anything on the ride out that bothered him.
While he told himself that was all that was delaying Joe, his heart started beating a little faster as he grew impatient for his sons to be safely under his roof. He nearly ran to the door when he heard a wagon enter the yard, and the flutter in his chest became a wild pounding when he saw only Hoss and Hop Sing.
“Where’s Little Joe?” Ben called to the duo as he hurried to them.
“We dunno.” Hoss shrugged before dismounting. “He left us hours ago when I suggested that he help Hop Sing clean up the mess from lunch and load the wagon.” Hoss saw the concern in his father’s face. “Did we beat that little critter home?”
Ben’s horse was still saddled in the yard, and he walked toward it while pointing to Hoss. “Stay put, son. We’ll take a ride and see where he got sidetracked.” He turned to Hop Sing. “You stay here in case he gets home. And whatever you do, don’t let him come looking for us when he…” Ben’s words silenced as Little Joe’s horse galloped into the yard, minus its rider.
There were a few hands at the ranch who’d been working on repairs, and Ben called for them to mount up too. “We’ll ride back out towards camp,” he explained to the men as they headed toward the road. “Once we get out a little, we’ll spread out and look for signs of a horse heading off.
The route to this camp was an easy ride compared to some that lead to other grazing areas. There were no drop-offs or dangerous sections. But the road was bordered by thousands of places that might distract an 8-year-old.
Over the next two days, Ben, Hoss, and a couple dozen hands and townsfolk searched every inch of that trail without success. They’d found a few sets of prints leading off to rock formations and stands of trees, but there was no sign of Little Joe having been there recently. The problem was that much of the land bordering the road was hard enough that they couldn’t have seen a detour even if there had been one.
The most promising place they’d searched was a rocky outcropping near what the Cartwrights had dubbed, the Black Bear Caves. There were never any bears there, just a dark rock formation that looked like bears curled up in the sun. But there were many nooks and crannies that Little Joe had always loved to explore. After finding no evidence to show Joe had been there, they’d moved on.
The crew foreman, Hugh, had taken Ben aside the afternoon of the second day. “Mr. Cartwright, we’ve been up and down this road, and we’ve spread far and wide with nary a sign of your boy. I hate myself for suggestin’ this, but I think we should drag that one pond we’ve been passin’. Little Joe loved to chase them frogs, and well…maybe he got out there too deep and…” He stopped when he saw the anguished look on his boss’s face.
“Joe could swim,” Ben growled as his frustration exited in anger. He didn’t want to believe that his child could have died in a pool of water he’d been swimming in his whole life. “I’m sorry, Hugh. That’s a good idea. I think it’s shallow enough that a line of men could walk across.”
Twelve men moved shoulder-to-shoulder across the rocky bed of the pond several times without dislodging anything more than a few branches and muck. Ben’s spirit had gone from his first worry to all-out panic as he realized how long their fruitless searches had been going on. He hadn’t stopped to eat or rest, even when he’d told the others to do so. He’d walked for hours in the dark, calling Joe’s name, listening for any sound to break the silence; praying that his son had only gotten lost or turned around in the vast acres of their property, and they’d find him wandering as the search widened. His greatest fear remained that the child had been thrown from his horse on whatever side trip he’d taken and he’d been seriously hurt. If that was the case, then it would remain a matter of luck that they find the right spot in time.
The other possibility of Little Joe’s disappearance came from Will Cass. The shop keeper, and good friend of the Cartwrights advanced a theory when he made Ben sit in the shade of a rocky overhang for a few minutes of rest after they’d searched the pond. “I don’t know how to tell you this, Ben, but the Ponderosa is making a name for itself in this area. We’ve had a lot more people passing through these parts on their way across the mountains, and it’s possible that one of them heard enough about you to know you’d pay a goodly amount to get a child back. They may not have even planned it, but ran across Little Joe out here after his horse took off, and figured to take advantage of the situation.”
Ben nodded thoughtfully, even as his stomach turned. “I’ve considered that, Will. But then why haven’t we gotten a ransom demand?”
Will pointed out at the various people searching on the hillside. “When Hop Sing rode into town yesterday morning and told us that Little Joe was missing, I enlisted the help of anyone I could find. A few of the men I recruited were strangers at the saloon. How do we know they aren’t the ones who took your boy and came to town to see what would happen when he came up missing. They could be watching you, knowing that your motivation to get him back will increase with the number of hours spent searching.” He saw the doubt wash across his friend’s face. “Admit it Ben, if someone came up to you right now and said they’d return your son for a large fee, you’d do whatever you had to raise the cash.”
“I suppose you could be right.” Ben sighed raggedly. “I’ve wondered about the Indians too. But they would have come to me by this time, or given me an obvious sign that they were unhappy with something Joseph did. They don’t play games.” He took a drink from the canteen Will offered, and stood. “But until I get an indication that he’s being held, I’ll keep looking.”
The men from town helped with the search until that afternoon, and then Ben sent them home to their families. He’d appreciated the help but he still had his crew, and he was beginning to think that a smaller number of people would make it easier to do a controlled search. In the past two days he’d often found people wandering off and covering old ground. He and Hugh had taken time to set up a pattern the hands would follow come daylight that would cover large areas faster and more thoroughly. Then Hugh had suggested that Ben have the crew build a fire to warm some food and coffee. He’d agreed, and had sat with them to get their thoughts about any areas he might be missing. They were bedded down now, taking a much-needed rest.
Ben’s intent had been to continue his ritual from the night before, using the night’s stillness to listen for the small voice of a child that might not be heard with the rush of wind or others moving around and talking. But Hoss followed him when he tried to leave. He could see that his son was so exhausted he could barely put one foot in front of the other, yet Ben could say nothing that would dissuade Hoss from coming along.
His adult frame put him in better physical condition than Hoss, but his mind was as weary as his son’s body, and he knew he had to shut his thoughts down for a time to be able to make the best decisions come morning. He looked out at the vast acres stretching into the darkness, praying for a clue to find his missing child, and then took Hoss by the arm. “C’mon, son, we’re going to rest for a little while.”
“But, Pa…” the boy protested, while allowing his father to lead him to a spot near the fire.
Ben’s sleep had come purely from fatigue. He’d fought it, but his body had overruled his mind, and he awakened a few hours later. The short respite had reset his thoughts, and he had a new idea. He found Hugh curled up near the edge of the camp and jostled him. “I’m sorry to wake you,” he offered as the sleepy foreman opened one eye, “but I need to get going, and want to make sure you know what to do at first light.”
A few minutes later, he had his horse saddled and was picking his way through the darkness to get to the main road. He wasn’t heading home to find a comfortable bed or a good meal; he wanted a pencil and paper, and the services of Hop Sing, who’d remained at home to care for Little Joe if he managed to find his way there. He pulled to a stop outside the house as the sky lit a first orange streak in the east, and ran inside to his desk.
Hop Sing jumped up from the red leather chair where he’d been resting; his mouth was moving as fast as he was when he got to Ben’s side. “You find Little Joe? Where he was and why he not with you now?”
Ben’s pencil stopped on the paper as he looked up. His smile was genuine as he realized how much this man loved the boys of the Ponderosa. The overwhelming weariness returned as the smile faded. “We haven’t found him, but I think we need to get some help from the one person who knows Little Joe as well…or better…than any of us.”
Hop Sing’s face brightened and then collapsed to sadness again as he understood who his boss was talking about. “How you talk to him? Not like he next door.”
“It’ll take some time, Hop Sing, but we can try.” He returned to the note he was writing and handed it to the cook when he finished. “I want you to ride to the trading post at the Carson River Settlement in Eagle Valley. I heard they just got a telegraph line there and hopefully they can send this message. Wait there for a reply if it goes through, and bring it out to us.” Ben went to unlock the safe and grabbed a fold of cash. “I don’t know what it will cost, but this should be enough. Don’t show them how much you have, but don’t worry if they ask for a goodly amount either.” Hop Sing nodded. “Do you have any food made?” Ben knew the answer even before he’d asked. The Mandarin cook eased his anxiety by doing what he was good at, so Ben knew there’d be something available to take back to the crew.
“On table. I go put in baskets.”
“You get going to Eagle Valley. I’ll find the food. You’ll use the same road to get there that you used to get to camp the other day. I’ll put up a marker to show you where to find us on the way back. The road’s in pretty good shape, so you should be able to make it back even if it’s dark.” He touched Hop Sing’s arm. “I know I’m asking a lot of you, but I know you’ll do your best. You always do.”
Adam had just agreed to head back to the dining hall for dinner with his friends, when Frankie Wadsworth bounded through the library door holding a small envelope aloft. He ignored the signage calling for quiet, and hollered, “Hey Adam, they came looking for you at the room. You got a telegraph!”
Those nearby focused their attention on the two roommates as the gathering of papers and books silenced. Telegrams were uncommon on campus, and they most often bore a tragic announcement. Adam knew this as well as anyone, and his hand trembled as he opened the paper on the table and began to read.
Catherine Harris was on duty and hurried over when she heard the commotion. She was a few feet from Adam when she saw him grab onto the edge of the table while the sheet of paper fluttered to the floor. It took one look at his face for her to know that he was close to being sick or passing out, and she made a quick grab for the telegram on the floor as she sat next to him. She had one arm wrapped around his back as she scanned the note, gasping at its content:
Adam (Stop) Joe missing (Stop) Disappeared on solo ride from Thunderhead Pass. (Stop) Horse returned alone. (Stop) Searching for 2 days (Stop) No sign of him (Stop) Your thoughts son.
She looked around the room as she asked for attention. “There’s an emergency, and I have to close the library early tonight. Thank you for understanding.”
Frankie waited until the bustle of students had filed out the door, and then told Catherine, “The Western Union messenger is waiting outside for a response. What should I tell him?”
She blew a breath upwards and looked back at an ashen Adam. “Please tell him that we’ll come there shortly.” Frankie had turned to leave when she added, “After that, could you please go to my husband’s office and bring him with you to the Western Union office?” He nodded and headed toward the door. “Thank you Frankie.”
Catherine locked the doors, and hastily scribbled, “Closed due to an Emergency” on a sheet of paper and pinned it to the window frame of the entrance. Adam still looked dazed when she returned and sat next to him. “Tell me what you’re thinking.”
Adam didn’t speak. He just leaned forward, pinching the bridge of his nose while shaking his head. He sighed deeply without making a sound as he took the note from the table and reread it. His soul felt as silent and cold as he imagined his brother could be.
It took Catherine a great deal of effort not to wrap him in an embrace and tell him to let it out, but she suspected that Adam was not the kind to fall apart in times of pain or to want mothering. She remained near if he needed her, but she let him work it through.
He finally breathed deeply, sat tall, and looked at her. “Tell me this isn’t happening, Mrs. H. Wake me up and tell me this is just another dream.”
Catherine’s smile was kindly as she patted his hand. He seemed ready to talk, and she was ready to listen. “Little Joe is your youngest brother, the one with so much spirit and daring?” Adam nodded. “You had a dream about him here the other day. But you said, ‘another’ dream, so has it happened more than that?”
He nodded again. “The dreams and memories of times we were together when things went a little off have been going on for a couple of days now—almost every time I close my eyes or let my mind wander.” Adam took a huge breath and asked, “What do you think it means?”
The empathetic woman had sat with other grieving students over the years, and had come to know that it was better to listen before giving her opinions. “What do you think it means?”
“I don’t know.” He paused and then voiced the thing that had sent his head spinning when he’d read the telegram. “Maybe this is God’s way of telling me that I shouldn’t have left my family. Maybe Little Joe’s been hurt…or worse…because I wasn’t there for him. I always protected him and now I’m not there to do that.” He turned away, clenching his teeth and fighting back the stinging in his eyes. As his pain and frustration grew, he swung his arm across the mahogany table, sending his texts flying. He saw Catherine lean down to pick them up, and groaned. “Leave them! I put my effort into those useless books instead of staying home to protect Little Joe. Now he’s paid the price for my selfishness.”
Catherine sat next to him again and rested her hand on his arm. “I think you’re assuming facts that aren’t yet known.” Catherine studied Adam’s face as his angry stare drilled through her. She returned his glare with a gentle smile. “The telegram didn’t say that your brother was found dead, only that he’s missing.” She tightened the grasp on his arm. “I know you probably don’t want to hear this just yet, but while your family might have appreciated that you’d delay or give up your dreams of going away to college, that gesture could neither have guaranteed that you would have been with your brother every time he was faced with danger, nor could it ensure he wouldn’t be in the same situation he is now.”
“Maybe so, but I would be there now to help find him.”
“What makes you think you can’t help find him from here? Isn’t that exactly what your father asked of you?”
Adam fists unclenched and a sad smile played at the corner of his lips. “I guess he did.” He thought a moment. “Still, all these thoughts and dreams about Joe…. They must mean something.”
“You may be right. But let’s look at other options rather than that it’s God’s indictment of your selfishness for being here instead of home.” Adam turned in his chair to face Catherine more directly. The angry look of a few minutes ago had faded into one of interest. She continued, “I believe that God communicates with us all the time. Sometimes we find words of scripture that speak to us in a particular situation; sometimes it’s through the words of someone who comes into our lives and brings perspective, and very often, I think He touches our hearts with a message that we must allow him to help us unravel.”
She waited to see if her companion was accepting her theories and when he urged her to, “Go on,” she continued. “I was a minister’s daughter. It was a life that was probably pretty dull compared to the Cartwrights’ life of rustling cattle.” Catherine stopped as she saw the dimples appear at the edges of Adam’s smile. “What?”
In spite of his confusion and pain, Adam found humor in how little people understood the life of a rancher. “Ma’am, the Cartwrights rope, punch, wrangle, drive, herd, and brand cattle, but I assure you we never rustle them.”
Catherine grinned as she asked, “I’m assuming I used the wrong term?”
“Rustling means stealing. The Ponderosa has cattle by the thousands grazing in our pastures, so we don’t really need to rustle any.” They both laughed, but they sobered again when their eyes were drawn back to the telegram on the table.
“The point I was trying to make before my vocabulary blunder, was that I learned much about the human soul and spirit being around the church as a child. I know some of my father’s parishioners claimed to have received visits from their departed loved ones after a death. My father never discouraged those feelings. He said those were sacred memories, and since we don’t have the mind of God, he could not presume to know what the Father may have shared with them or question His means of doing it.”
“Sounds like your father was a pretty smart man, and a progressive thinker.”
“Yes,” Catherine sighed. “Some called him blasphemous for his opinions, but that never made him fear encouraging people to feel the presence of God. When he faced his critics, he’d cite the visitations of angels described in the Bible, and he reminded them about the visions and the spiritual interventions that Mary, Paul and other disciples experienced. Many accepted this, but some of his parishioners still thought he was more than a little odd.” She laughed softly. “I loved walking through the cemetery at the church and reading the headstones. The one I’ll always remember said, ‘Here lies the earthy part of Eugenia Thompson.’ It was my favorite because it was such an accurate description. True believers know that the spirits of our loved ones live on, and all that’s left behind are the chemical elements of the body that return to the dust of the earth.”
Adam’s haunted look was fading as he listened, and Catherine couldn’t help thinking that this young man was exactly where he was supposed to be. He might love his family and the land he’d left behind, but his mind was seeking truth that he needed to find on his own. He was strong enough that his beliefs wouldn’t be swayed simply by reading another man’s opinion in a book, but he still needed to read them and make up his own mind.
Her pause ended as she noticed his brows had risen in expectation of her next thought. “Those words came to mind again when you were describing the dreams that lead up to the notice of your brother’s disappearance. The time we live in is one dimensional, but if we are truly spirit as well as ‘earthy,’ then our life is an accumulation of times and events with others that can be relived in our hearts and minds. Am I making any sense, Adam?”
“If my mind allows my heart to feel it, I can experience another person even when they aren’t physically here.” Adam thought a moment. “So maybe my dreams are truly Little Joe telling me goodbye by giving me pieces of our times together to remember.”
“Perhaps…” Catherine could see the tension and uncertainty building again in Adam’s rigid posture. “But our soul isn’t just touched by man’s spirit; it’s also touched by the spirit of God who has no boundaries of time.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I don’t know what your dreams mean, but since your brother wasn’t in trouble until just recently, I think you might need to use a broader brushstroke in thinking about this. Do you recall the story of the prophet Elijah being tormented and looking for the word of God to sustain him?”
“God told Elijah to await his voice. After that there was wind, earthquake, and fire and Elijah expected to find his answer in those powerful phenomena. But those just served to get Elijah’s attention. When God’s answer was given, He spoke through a still, small voice in a gentle breeze.”
Catherine nodded. “So maybe your dreams were preparation, Adam. The dreams about your brother brought him near to your heart. Those dreams may have been the wind and earthquakes, and now you need to listen for a gentler voice to tell you what you need to know.
The library fell silent as the vanishing rays of day brought the room to a darkness lit only by the table lamps. Catherine rose. “I have to put a few things away and then we’ll go to the Western Union office to send an acknowledgement to your father.” She stopped a few steps away, and said softly, “Adam, the other possibility is they were just dreams because you are lonely for your family again. Your mind constructed what your heart was feeling. It may have been your way of being home without leaving here.” She took another step. “I’ll be gone a few minutes. Use the time to think things over and say a few prayers.”
He didn’t fall asleep this time, but another memory of his brother vied for his attention as he tried to pray.
“C’mon Adam. You promised we could go into that deep cave and search for gold,” chided Little Joe, while tugging at Adam’s shirtsleeve.
Adam stood solidly, making it impossible for Little Joe to move him. “Listen squirt; that’s not a mining cave. There’s no gold in any of the Black Bear caves that we’ve ever noticed. But there may be some interesting things to look at if you want.”
Little Joe did ‘want’ and held onto Adam’s belt as they moved deeper into the cave that was illuminated only by the lantern they carried. Farther in, Little Joe spotted a shaft of hazy light stretching from the ceiling to the floor. “What’s that?” he asked as he pointed.
Once under it, they looked up to see a well-defined chimney leading toward a patch of sunlight. “It’s an airshaft,” Adam explained. “It was formed as the rocks making up the cave compressed.”
Little Joe was impressed by the shaft but not by the explanation. “That’s all fine, but can I climb up there?”
“It’s too smooth to climb; there wouldn’t be any hand or footholds, and it’s a long way up. But it would be easy to climb down using a rope….” He swallowed hard and closed his eyes, knowing he’d made a serious error in saying that out loud.
“Let’s do that Adam! Please….” Joe continued to plead as his brother pulled him along, retracing their steps out of the cave.
“It’s too dangerous, Joe. It’s a long drop to get down there, and you’re not even six-years-old.” Adam knew he had to satisfy at least some of his brother’s curiosity or they’d never get the strays rounded up. “I’ll do this much. We’ll go up the hill and find where the shaft exits.” The two brothers scoured the area above and behind the cave’s mouth until they found the hole hidden in a grouping of rocks and scrub brush.
“So if you won’t let me do it,” Little Joe wheedled, “at least tell me how you’d do it.”
He’d gone this far, so he figured he might as well be truthful, and make it sound as difficult as possible, so Little Joe wouldn’t try some crazy way to do it himself when he got the chance. He brought their horse up on the rise, and showed his brother how to tie the right kind of knot to hitch the rope to the saddle horn. “Now you tie it just like I did.” He handed the rope to the eager child and watched as he struggled to follow the directions. After demonstrating a few more times, Little Joe managed to get a loose version of the correct configuration.
“Now what? The child demanded.
Adam had a moment of insight. “We train our horses to stand still when we’re working with a rope for the cattle. They’ll even back up when you lasso a small steer to help keep the lag tight when you’re trying to turn a calf for branding. You’d use your horse similarly if you were going down that shaft. But you’d have to train him a lot more so he’d understand what to do. You could even get him to follow a command or certain tug to pull you back up if you needed help.” He took the boy by the shoulders. “So, until you teach your horse properly, and get a little stronger and older, you will not attempt anything like this.” He heard the snort and tightened his grip. “You promise me right now that you’ll do as I ask.”
“Sure, Adam. You trust me, don’t ya?”
Joe’s easy agreement left Adam with the sinking feeling that they should have never have made this stop on the way out to Thunderhead Pass.
It came in a whisper as he pulled from his memory. Adam jumped from his chair hollering, “Mrs. H! We gotta get to the telegraph office right away!”
Catherine grabbed her cloak, hat, and Adam’s hand as they tore out the door, letting it lock behind them. Her buggy was parked outside and Adam took the reins, as he began to talk as fast as the words would tumble out.
“I know where he is…or at least where he might be. It was in Pa’s telegraph. The place he mentioned brought back a memory and it all fell together.”
“How so?” she asked breathlessly as the lightweight buggy flew through the streets between Gore Hall and the Western Union office.
“He said Joe’d left from camp at Thunderhead Pass. Pa wrote some time back that the mouth of a cave we used to explore had filled in during a rockslide. And in his last letter he said he was letting Little Joe ride alone between the house and nearby camps. But the kid doesn’t pay attention to important things, so he probably didn’t know.”
Catherine wasn’t sure if it was the ride or the explanation that was making her head spin. “What important things didn’t he know?”
Adam glanced sideways and gave her a raised-lip stare. “That the entrance collapsed.”
“So you think he’s in the cave?” She shook her head. But how could he get in there now if it collapsed a while ago.”
“Through the top!” He swatted the horse’s rump with the reins. “Didn’t I say that?”
She was holding her hat on with one hand and the seat of the buggy with the other, as she laughed. “No, you did not. How do you get through the top of a cave?”
“There’s a chimney—a shaft into it that Little Joe probably thought he could descend now because Pa thought he was old enough to go somewhere alone. But that’s not what I told him back when….” His eyes were wide as he shook his head. “You can never give Little Joe permission for one step but that he doesn’t jump three, and forgets that the step in the middle is the most important one.”
“He forgot that he had to train the horse and learn to tie the knot better, and he went right for the big finish.” Adam pulled the horse to a stop in front of the storefront housing the telegraph service and jumped down. He’d taken a step away, but then remembered he was with a woman, and went back to help her down.
“Go on.” she waved him away. “I’ll tie the horse and meet you inside.” Catherine offered a prayer of relief and hope that whatever he’d been trying to tell her held the answer: and that it would make it across the miles between Boston and the Ponderosa with God’s care and speed.
The trading post at the Eagle Valley had started to gather a crowd. A few people had been there when Hop Sing had arrived in a cloud of dust with his braid flying behind him, and an intensity in his effort that had people wondering what was going on. Those folks had followed him inside and heard him try to explain his request for the telegraph operator to send a wire to Boston. Ben’s note was the one thing the operator could easily understand but he’d been caught off guard by the flurry of activity, and seemed unable to move ahead without the full story of what was going on at the ranch to the west.
It was fortunate turn of events that Will Cass had headed over to the Carson River area early that morning to pick up farming implements that had arrived there for his store. He pulled in shortly after Hop Sing, and was able to calm the Cartwright cook, and help him tell of the events leading to his presence.
Slim, the telegraph operator shook his head as he finally realized the seriousness of the situation. “I know what I’m doin’ here, but I ain’t never tried to get a message this far before. It won’t go direct; I’ll have to start a relay where it’ll get sent from station to station until it makes it to the coast. It’ll take some time though, and if it makes it, then they’ll have to find this here, Adam Cartwright. His answer will have to come back the same way it got there. You might as well go over to the hotel and wait there.”
Will had Hop Sing help him load the implements onto his wagon, and then they’d gone to the hotel. No one would think of Will Cass as a rugged man. He knew he wasn’t made for heavy labor, and preferred being a shop keeper to any work that entailed long hours outdoors. He’d lost his wife a few years ago, and had left Ben’s search party to get home to his children and store. By his estimation that wasn’t a big loss to his friend. Will had figured he was as likely to get lost out there as Little Joe, but staying with Hop Sing had given him a way to help that would be beneficial.
The two men had found the café inside the hotel and ordered a late breakfast to help pass the time. But as the news of the attempt at placing a long-distance telegram, and the reason for it, had begun to spread, a small crowd had gathered. The cook at the restaurant had come out and demanded that if they were going to mill around, they needed to order something. Will smiled as he’d seen the plates of food exiting the kitchen, and suspected that the restaurant was probably having its best day ever.
As the empty plates had returned to the kitchen, the suppositions had begun to grow as people had started to compare their thoughts. The Cartwrights were prosperous, so people paid attention to the news…and gossip…about them. Some of the wives around this settlement had husbands working on the Ponderosa, and they’d heard the stories about the tragedy surrounding the family. Will had overheard one woman ask another, “Isn’t he the one who lost three wives already? And now to lose a son….” They’d shaken their heads and talked on about the unfairness to some men—especially prominent ones, it seemed.
Other conversations had drifted to them, supposing that the boy had drowned in that big lake over that way and they’d probably never find the body, while others had suggested that there was a cloud of doom or a curse on the Cartwrights.
It had made Will’s stomach churn to hear the distortions of truth and overabundant supply of solemn conclusions. He’d looked over and realized that while Hop Sing’s English speaking ability was a little less than wonderful, he understood enough of what was being said to look horrified. Will hadn’t been able to shake his suspicions that some of the negative thoughts were pretty accurate. It would be hard for a skinny kid to be out for two days and nights without food. It was warm during the fall days, but the temperatures dropped at night, and from what Ben had said, Little Joe’s horse still had a blanket and the boy’s jacket attached to the saddle when it got home.
They’d relocated to the small hotel lobby and had been talking with some of the town’s people when Hop Sing approached Will and pointed to the clock. “Almost three hour pass now. Maybe it not work, and no message get to Mista Adam.”
He’d barely finished his thought when Slim had raced through the door. “It got there!” he’d hollered as the crowd applauded. “I never thought we could get news from here to Boston in three hours. What’ll they think of next?”
“What did Adam reply?” Will had spoken loudly to be heard over the chatter.
“Oh, I don’t know that it got to him yet,” Slim had answered as he’d grimaced. “Sorry, I didn’t mean I’d heard anything yet. I just got a confirmation that the last relay had gone through. Now we gotta wait for the other end to get a message to the right person, and his answer on the way back to us.”
The hotel clerk had asked for attention then. “You heard what Slim said. It’s gonna be a lot of hours yet before we hear anything, so you might as well all go home.” When no one had moved, he’d added, “I know you might not want to leave until you find out how this ends, but you can’t stay here. The guests can’t even get in the door. Move this gathering to the saloon if you want, but please vacate the lobby.”
The women had stayed put. They weren’t about to go to the saloon, but the men had ambled away to reunite down the street. Will and Hop Sing had stayed at the hotel too; offering to pay for a room if that would help ease the congestion.
“Nah,” the clerk had replied with a smile. “This is the biggest thing to happen here since Mary Sue Noland left her husband and kids, and ran off with a no-account drifter. At least some of them cleared out, and that’s good enough.”
Thaddeus Harris and Frankie had made it to the telegraph office before Adam, and had already arranged to cover the fees of the outgoing message. Since they were paying for the response, the operator allowed them to know the contents of the inbound wire. They were still talking with the key operator when Adam ran through the door asking for a paper and pencil.
“Do you have any ideas where your brother is?” Frankie asked as he slid over to let Adam next to him at the counter.”
Adam mumbled, “unhuh,” as he printed out his reply and handed it over. “I saw that this originated in Eagle Valley,” he addressed the telegraph operator. “Do you know how long it might take to get back there?”
The operator looked at his notes. “Says here it started at mid-morning out there, but it didn’t get here for more than three hours, and then I had to send Harry out to find you, and that took another two.”
“Will it take that long to get back there?”
“Let me get this sent first.” The young man read over Adam’s note, asking a couple of questions and noting the answers. He sat at the metal key and began tapping. When he got a response from the station he’d contacted he keyed in the actual text, and waited for confirmation of receipt. “There, that’s done.” He looked up at Adam. “I can tell that this is a life or death sort of situation out there, but I have no idea how long it might take. It came through during the day, but it’s evening now, so there’s no guarantee that the operators along the relay won’t have gone home already or aren’t out at supper. Each station will continue trying until it gets the message moved along, but it could take all night if things don’t fall in place just right.”
Adam slumped against the desk and exhaled heavily. “Thank you.”
Catherine had made it inside to hear the devastating possibility of a long delay. She produced a determined smile and continued over to her husband. “It sounds like your thoughts are on the way, Adam, and there will be a wait, so why don’t we all go down the street to get some dinner at that little cafe?” She looked pointedly at the Western Union employee. “I’m sure that with something so ‘life-or-death’ in the balance, the office will remain open until we hear something.”
“Yes, ma’am,” the young man answered. “I work all night anyway. Boston’s a big city and important wires come in at all hours, so we’re always here to receive and deliver.”
“That’s wonderful! Thank you.” Catherine ignored Adam’s resignation to leave, and ushered the group out the door.
Once outside, Frankie begged a brief leave. “I should run back to the dorm and let them know we’ll be out past curfew, and then I’ll come back. It’s too late for the dining room anyway, so I’d appreciate having dinner with you.”
The wise woman sent him on his way, knowing that Frankie Wadsworth could charm the women in the dining hall to warm up a dinner for him if he wanted one. The boy wouldn’t leave Adam at a time like this any more than she and her husband would. The roommates were becoming brothers, and she was thankful that Adam would have Frankie near him during this ordeal.
The crowd of interested people in Eagle Valley had grown as the day had moved toward evening. They’d waited for news, and now there were actually bets being made as to whether an answer could make it time to do any good. The macabre attitude tore at Hop Sing, who’d muttered, “Such foolishment,” to Will Cass several times in the previous hour.
The two men had checked in at the trading post several times, and had eventually persuaded the owner to remain open and keep his key operator there until something came back from Boston. Will had even offered to pay the man’s wages if he would stay. There’d been no need. No one was willing to leave until they saw this through.
The small, but vocal crowd had dispersed a bit at dinner time, and then reassembled as it got dark. They’d followed Will and Hop Sing back to the trading post, perhaps suspecting that it was now or never for news to come through. Those who’d worked their way inside found a place to sit or lean, while the rest remained at the open doors and windows. There was instant silence and a mass intake of breath when an insistent tapping indicated an incoming message.
The message took a few minutes to complete, and there was a groan of disappointment when the operator said he couldn’t divulge its contents to anyone but the recipient. Slim walked over to Hop Sing and placed the note in his hand, wishing him a safe trip back to the Ponderosa.
Will looked over Hop Sing’s shoulder as they both read what Adam had sent, and when he looked up, he saw the expectant faces of the gathering. He placed a hand on Hop Sing’s shoulder and leaned in to ask, “May I tell them?” A nod from the Cartwright cook allowed him to address the others. “It’s the message from Boston we’ve been waiting for and it offers hope. That’s all we can tell you for now. Someone will be back later to send the outcome to the East Coast.” He took Hop Sing’s arm and they pushed their way outside.
“It’s such a dark night Hop Sing; will you wait for daybreak?”
“I go now.” Hop Sing pointed to the sky. “Clouds will break; moon will show.”
Will walked the small man to his horse. “We were searching this side of the house, I think, so the ride shouldn’t be too long.”
“One hour maybe if Almighty willing, and horse not trip in gopher hole.”
“My wagon is set to go. I’ll follow you, but don’t wait; I’ll get there when I can.” As the two were speaking, the clouds parted and they were washed in bright moonlight. Both men looked up to see only stars and sky. “I think you’re right about a little divine intervention.” He handed the reins up to Hop Sing once he get settled in the saddle, and gave the horse a swat as the small, but able rider turned and headed toward the road.
The telegraph key began to tap in the Western Union office that was near the Harvard campus. Adam, Thaddeus and Catherine were seated on chairs that lined the wall, while Frankie had made himself comfortable on the floor, leaning back against his roommate’s knees.
The room had become crowded with others who were sitting on the floor wherever they found room. After Frankie had brought news of what was happening to their friends in the dorm, they had sought permission to be out late as well, and had headed over to the telegraph office to keep vigil.
The original four had gone to dinner as Catherine had suggested. She’d managed to keep the men talking and eating to pass the time while waiting for news. It had helped, but not much. Adam had pushed food around his plate, but little had actually entered his mouth. Frankie’s banter had kept them laughing, and Thaddeus told of his latest insect find, while the young man at the center of it all, had feigned interest, and chuckled appropriately.
He’d finally risen, laying his napkin on the table. “Thank you all. I know what you’re doing and I appreciate it. I need to get back now. It may sound foolish, but if feels like I can be in on the search if I’m near that wire that stretches all the way back home.”
Adam sat forward now as he heard the tapping, and slumped disappointedly when the incoming message was far too short to be bringing information. He glanced up at the clock and was surprised to find that this had all started less than three hours earlier.
The key operator, who had introduced himself as Michael when they’d returned, walked over to the railing that separated the office area from the waiting room, wearing a big grin. “I know this isn’t the news you’re waiting to hear, but it is good news.”
Catherine smiled back. “I think we could all use a little good news, Michael.”
He puffed his chest making the brass buttons on his coat twinkle in the lamplight. “I just got confirmation that the message made it to the Eagle Valley station in record time. I think everyone who passed along the original message stayed around, hoping to handle the reply. So, they have your idea now, Mr. Cartwright, and they can act on it.” He leaned forward on the railing, looking directly at Adam. “I have no idea about distance out in that part of the country. Will it take a long time for that message to get from the station to where it needs to be?”
Adam closed his eyes and pictured the Ponderosa. Pa had commissioned a decorative map showing their property, but the artist in St. Louis had oriented it wrong. His father had steamed about it at first, but they’d all learned to think in terms of it being a vertical depiction rather than horizontal as it was hung. He flipped it sideways in his mind to get things in the right place and envisioned where Eagle Valley sat in relation to Thunderhead Pass.
His father had written about a telegraph line being proposed that would come into the Carson River Valley, and he was thankful that for once the lapse of time between proposal and construction had gone quickly. He also breathed in relief that the Thunderhead camp was between the house and Carson. As long as the weather was dry, the road from the trading post to the camp would be in good shape. But Adam also knew that since it was nearly 10 PM in Boston, it was dark back home too. He didn’t know who had taken the note to the post, so he didn’t know if they’d be willing to ride back until sunup. Knowing Pa, he would have chosen a rider who’d cross hell fire and high water to get back, so he based his calculations from that surety.
“I think it will take at least an hour to ride back to where they’re searching. And if they aren’t searching near where I’ve predicted my brother may be, they’ll have to relocate. Once they get to the right place, it should be simple to check my theory.”
Michael removed his cap and scratched his head. “So we’ll say at least three hours to get to your family, and then return to the telegraph station. Add in another two to locate the child, and then another couple for any message to make it back here. That’s a good six to eight hours of waiting, folks. Maybe you’d all rather go home and come back a later?”
Frankie got up and stretched. “I think we’ll wait, if that’s all right with you?” Nods from the Harrisses and Adam confirmed his thoughts. The heir to the Wadsworth fortune made his way through the assembled students from the dorm. “Nathan, you’re in our first class of the morning. Could you go back tonight, get some sleep, and then explain our absence to Professor Clark in the morning? We’ll let you know what happens.”
Nathan went to shake Adam’s hand and wish him the best news possible before he left. Frankie found others who were in later classes and asked them for similar favors, until the number of young men in the office was reduced to a reasonable group. Then he brought his roommate over and got the boys talking about their classwork and let it flow to any tangential conversations that arose.
Catherine moved to the chair next to her husband and listened to bit and pieces of what was being said. When she glanced at the clock, she was surprised to see that over an hour had passed already. She took her husband’s hand and leaned over to whisper. “That Frankie knows exactly what he’s doing. He’ll keep Adam’s mind active enough that the hours will move more easily.”
The clock was striking eleven when the door opened, and a bearded man, wearing a bridge coat and peaked cap, entered along with a blast of cool fall wind. Adam glanced over and jumped up as he recognized who it was. “Grandfather!”
Abel Stoddard chuckled. “You’re surprised to see me. Didn’t your roommate tell you I was coming?”
Frankie joined them at the door. “I wasn’t sure you’d be able to make it, sir, so I didn’t mention anything.”
Adam turned a questioning glare at his friend. “You sent for him?”
“He sent a note with a cabbie, and the man remained while I prepared to come.” Abel supplied.
Frankie grinned. “I figured you had enough on your mind and hadn’t thought about your family here. When there’s trouble in the Wadsworth household, we always rally our troops, and I thought you’d want someone around…in case…the news was….”
Adam nodded. “It was a kind gesture, Frankie. Thank you.” He turned back to Abel. “I’m sorry you had to come out so late. I appreciate that you’re here, but I would have told you about it later. I mean….” He hesitated a moment as he tried to find the right words. “I mean…Little Joe…isn’t your grandson…so….”
Abel saw the torment in his grandson’s eyes as the boy tried to voice his concern. They’d come to know each other in the time they’d had together so far. Yet he knew that Adam Cartwright was very much like his father in thinking he should bear his problems without inconveniencing others. He broke into the young man’s hesitation. “But you are, Adam, and I wanted to be here for you. I don’t know exactly what’s happened; only that Joseph is missing?”
Adam nodded and led Abel to a quiet corner of the room to explain all that was happening.
When he finished, Abel put his arms around his grandson’s shoulders and pulled him into an embrace. “What concerns you, concerns me, son. Don’t ever doubt that.”
For the first time since the nightmare began, Adam allowed himself to be comforted and lingered for a moment in Abel’s strong grasp. When he finally broke away, he introduced his grandfather to the Harrises and the remaining classmates.
Catherine could finally speak privately to Abel about his grandson when Adam and Thaddeus were called over to the group of students to give their opinion on a topic. She explained how she’d come to know of Adolf’s protégé’ at first, and then over his months of studying at the library, finishing with the thought that it was nice that he was finally comfortable enough to spend weekends in Boston. “He thinks a great deal of you, Mr. Stoddard, and seems more anxious than ever for the weekends when he can see you lately.”
Abel’s chuckle made his stiff beard dance and his eyes sparkle. “You seem to know and care a great deal about my grandson, Mrs. Harris, but I’m quite sure there is more to his eagerness at coming to my place these days.” He smiled at Catherine as her brows rose.
“And what might that be?” She asked as she leaned in closer for the answer.
“Since you see him so often, you must recall he was walking with a cane last month.”
“I do. He was gone for a few days too as I recall, and when he returned he said that he’d twisted his knee in a fall.”
“Aye, that he did. It was a fall from a ladder, and my fault entirely. But the horrible incident was witnessed by the lovely young niece of my closest neighbor. The two youngsters have become friends since then, and I’m thinkin’ that the weekends he’s most anxious to be with me, correspond with her visits to her aunt.”
Catherine giggled. “I had no idea.”
“You seem a woman of confidences and this is one I’d have you promise to keep. Tis nothing serious yet, just a budding friendship.”
She patted his hand. “I’m sure his main focus is still to spend time with you. He speaks of you frequently, and always in the highest of terms.”
“I am grateful for whatever reason brings him around.” His face turned sober. “This thing with his brother is upsetting though. I’m glad that young man sent for me. Adam is a firmly planted branch of the Cartwright tree. His life is here right now, but a good part of his heart remains back home. I’m sure you see that too.”
“Indeed. I’ve never seen him look so aggrieved and forlorn as when that telegram arrived.”
“Then you know as I do that if this does not go well, he will blame himself.”
“He already does,” She confided. “He started the ‘if only I’d stayed home’ penitence as soon as he realized the seriousness of the wire.”
Abel looked across the room and met Adam’s eyes, giving him a wink of encouragement before turning back to his companion. “We’ll have to leave this up to God and Ben Cartwright. Neither of them will give up the fight for this child.”
Hop Sing’s wild ride had gotten him to Ben’s sign in under an hour. He’d worried that he’d miss the turn-off, but his boss had filled a bucket with dirt, and stuck what seemed to be a large arrow in it. There were still embers burning from a fire sometime earlier, but it was deserted now, and Hop Sing despaired for a moment until he saw points of light bobbing in the distance. It was too dark to ride out into the rough where the people were searching, and walking there first and then going from lantern to lantern to find Ben would take too long. He needed some way to alert everyone that he was back.
A quick look around the campsite provided nothing that would be loud enough, but as he looked down, he saw the butt end of the rifle sticking out of the saddle sheath. He grinned as he pulled it out, cocked it and shot into the air. “They hear that,” he chuckled. There were many things that the Cartwrights didn’t know about him, and the fact that he was good with a rifle was one of them. Ben had given him a questioning look when he’d run to the cabinet and took one of the family firearms before he left for Carson, but now he knew why it had seemed so important to have it.
A few minutes later, an exhausted-looking group of rescuers started returning to the camp. Hugh was one of the first to make it back and took the note from Hop Sing, but then returned it. “We’ll wait for Mr. Cartwright. He should be the first to see it.” He looked expectantly at the cook he’d come to know well from his treks out to feed the crew. “You know what’s in there. Is there anything that’ll help?”
Hop Sing shrugged. “Son have idea.”
Hugh sat heavily on a rock, and shook his head. “We’ve been out here since first light, and you can see the fear growing in Ben’s eyes every time we clear another section with no sign of Little Joe.” The cook nodded. He had seen the same look in his boss’s eyes during the night. “We haven’t stopped all day. Seems like everyone knows that if the kid ain’t found soon, there’s no way he’ll be alive if we do. There ain’t been any ransom demands either, so we all figure he’s out there someplace.”
Ben was breathless from his run, but his face brightened when he saw Hop Sing. “Did you hear from Adam?”
“Here.” Hop Sing handed over the note and Hugh jumped up to hold a lantern. Hoss came into camp last, huffing with exhaustion, and looked over his father’s shoulder as they read.
Collapsed cave by Black Bear – Airshaft 100 feet uphill covered with brush (Stop) LJ there with me before it fell (Stop) Would not let him climb down then, but may have tried now (Stop) Probably got down and stuck when knot on saddle failed (Stop) Let me know (Stop) Adam.
Hoss slapped his thigh when he finished reading. “I kinda remember somethin’ about that, but I wasn’t with them when it happened.”
“When what happened?” Ben grunted while rereading the wire.
“I remember Adam looked worried one night when the two of them got back from checking strays out this way. He wouldn’t say exactly what he’d done, only that he’d told our brother about somethin’ he figured he’d live to regret.”
He looked at his son as his brows narrowed. “I still don’t understand, Hoss. Get to the point.”
“I asked Little Joe about it, and he said Adam showed him a knot to tie to a saddle, and how a horse could hold the rope while he climbed down it. He never said nothin’ about climbin’ that rope down into a cave. I figured he meant over one of the drop-offs…you know…to get at a calf that got its way onto a ledge or somethin.’ And you know how Little Joe is, Pa; he was poutin’ cuz Adam wouldn’t let him actually do nothin’ and had made him promise not to ever try it until he was older and with someone. I s’pose the other day, he decided he was older and forgot the other part.”
“That sounds like Little Joe. I gave him an inch of responsibility and he took it to mean he could do anything that had previously been forbidden.” Ben was already walking toward the wagon where he grabbed coils of rope and handed out a few more lanterns. Fortunately, he’d come to the same conclusion that Little Joe had to be around the Bear Caves. It was the one area that had enough structure and intrigue for a boy to explore…and get lost. They’d spent the afternoon searching the small grottos and brushy coves again, hoping they’d find something they’d missed on the first pass.
They had walked the area above the cave that Adam suggested, but there’d been nothing indicating anything hiding under the brush. The moon was bright enough for the men to find the general area they needed to be, and then they formed a line, much as they done in the pond. They held their lanterns low to the ground, hoping to see some sign that the ground had been disturbed.
Hoss found it. He hadn’t noticed anything amiss, but his foot disappeared into the hole and he’d toppled forward. The spot was sheltered by large rocks, and overgrown with prickly brush, but when they examined it, they saw what they’d missed the other times they’d walked past. Some of the brush was loose, suggesting it had been cleared away and then it must have blown back to cover the opening again. When Ben held the lantern to the ground, he saw a mark on the lip of the hole that could have been made by a rope as it pulled tight. Ben and the others made quick work of clearing the remainder of the opening but his heart sank as he stuck his head and lamp inside the chimney and saw how deeply it penetrated into the hill.
One of the thin ranch hands volunteered to be lowered down. While they tied a makeshift halter around him, Ben lowered a lamp on a separate rope to light the space at the bottom.
The eerie silence as people got things ready put Hoss on edge, and he stood back so those around wouldn’t see the terror on his face. He hoped they would find Joe now, but the hole in the ground was as quiet as a tomb: maybe as quiet as Joe’s tomb.
“Is he there?” Ben had to stick his head deep into the opening to shout at the man at the bottom of the rope because the solid rock walls of the shaft deadened all sound. When he’d first read Adam’s wire, Ben had kicked himself for not listening harder when they’d searched this area the first time. He realized now that if Little Joe was down there, the boy couldn’t have heard them any more than they could have heard him.
The light at the bottom opening of the shaft disappeared as Cletus searched the chamber, while those above held their breath.
The sentence Ben finally heard, pounded in his ears and chest, making him so dizzy and nauseated that he had to sit back and breathe until he regained his composure. His mind grieved for not thinking about contacting Adam sooner. If only…he kept repeating silently as the drover’s words ran through his heart and stabbed at his soul: “He’s down here, Mr. Cartwright, but we might be too late.”
The night had passed more slowly in Boston as topics for discussion had dwindled and students who’d been up all day leaned against walls and railings. They were unwilling to leave, yet too tired to remain awake.
Adam had returned to the chairs by his grandfather and the Harrises, where he was trying to describe the hillside where he knew his father and crew were searching, and what he thought might have happened. After explaining his hurried lesson in rope climbing when Little Joe was six, he concluded, “I’m guessing that he forgot all the warnings I gave him about training the horse and having someone with him, and seized the opportunity to try something new.” He shook his head sadly. “I can even see him getting the knot right enough to hold him on the way down, but then staring up in horror as he tugged the rope to climb back up and it coiled down on his head. He wouldn’t have gotten scared until he understood that the only way out…was up.”
“It seems a real possibility,” Thaddeus agreed. “Is it normal for you brother to do such daring things?”
“Always.” Adam laughed softly. “His fearlessness is his worst and best trait. Once he gets a little older and tempers that with better judgment things will even out.”
An expectant silence filled the room as the clock neared the ninth hour of waiting. Catherine had just said, “Maybe we won’t have to wait much longer,” when the tapping telegraph key brought everyone back to life. It took a few minutes for the entire message to come through, and the length of it indicated that it was either their answer or an actual telegraph for someone else entirely. Mike signaled for Adam to come to his desk and said soberly, “You have your answer,” as he handed him the folded sheet.
Adam’s mouth was so dry that he couldn’t speak. He went back to sit between Abel and Catherine, and leaned forward, turning the note from corner to corner without opening it.
Catherine looked over Adam’s head at his grandfather. She shrugged and then nodded toward the young man, letting Abel know that his grandson might need some help. The older man laid his hand atop Adam’s, stopping the repetitive movement. “You’ve waited a long time tonight to see what’s on this paper. You’re surrounded by people who care for you, and no matter what it says, Adam, you are strong enough to handle it.”
Adam opened the flap. It took only a second to read and he handed it to Abel as he leaned his head back against the wall and released a long sigh.
Abel read it quickly and reached across his grandson to give it to the Harrises. Catherine wiped the tears from her cheek as she gave Adam’s hand a squeeze. No one from the student group moved or asked what the wire contained until Frankie moved forward and retrieved it from Professor Harris. His eyes scanned the printed words and then he looked at Adam. “Do you want me to read it to them?”
The oldest Cartwright son was too exhausted to move more than his head to nod. He needed a moment to deal with all that had taken place in the last several hours, as well as the dreams leading up to this day. He and Catherine had spoken of the possibilities of what had been taking place, but he still had trouble imagining how it had all led to this moment. He sat up straighter as Frankie began to read:
LJ safe in cave where predicted (Stop) Sleeping so soundly we thought efforts too late (Stop) Indignant, hungry, and thirsty- in that order on awakening (Stop) Says to thank you for keeping your promise (Stop) I grow older by the hour (Stop) Thank you son.
The words of the telegraph drilled into his mind more deeply as he heard them instead of reading them, and he realized the promise he’d made to his brother on the banks of a swirling creek had been called in. He was holding Little Joe close in his mind as he lowered his head into his hands and repeated his oath. “I’ll always get you out of trouble if I can, Little Joe. That’s a promise.”
Cheers erupted in the office as the young men realized the ordeal had ended well. They came to share their good wishes with Adam, and then headed out as a group to make it back to campus for breakfast.
The office quieted once only Abel, Frankie, the Harrises, and Adam stood together. The remaining parties looked expectantly at the object of the night-long vigil, awaiting his plan. Catherine finally broke the silence. “Perhaps we should find a café that’s open and have breakfast together.”
Abel shook his head. “I’d like to take my grandson home with me now so he can rest.” He looked out at the street and pursed his lips. “That’s if I can find a conveyance at this early hour.”
Frankie offered, “Your cab is still out there, Mr. Stoddard.”
“He’s waited this entire time?” He laughed, and winked at Adam. “I’ll have to pull the sock with my savings out from between my bedsprings to pay for this.”
“No need, sir.” It was Frankie again. “The Wadsworth name goes a long way in this city. My part of the family is in engineering and building, but we have relatives who own banks. Jerry got his start through my father’s cousin, and my father gave him a good deal on a property with a shed. So he’s always willing to go out of his way to show his appreciation. I’m sure he’s been sleeping in the cab all night, just in case we’d need him.”
“Well, then I suppose we should get going.” He put his arm around his grandson, but Adam didn’t move.
Thaddeus spoke after a poke from his wife. “We live close by. It has been a long night so why don’t you and Adam come to our house for breakfast and a quick rest before heading out.”
Frankie looked at his friend and knew which option Adam wanted. Yet he could also see the hesitancy and figured Adam didn’t want to disappoint either party. He went to his friend, grabbed his arm and pulled him toward the door. “Sorry folks,” he said firmly. “I know you all mean well, but we both have a chemistry test at eleven, and Adam’s got to help me study. We’ll skip our first classes and get an hour or two of shuteye, and then hit the books.” Frank saw Adam’s relief exit in a sigh and smile.
The two young men stopped at the door and Adam addressed the key operator. “Thank you, Mike. You put up with a lot from all of us tonight and I appreciate your patience.”
“I enjoyed it, Mr. Cartwright,” Mike replied. “I’ve never had this much fun at work. Usually the telegrams we get here are pretty bland. You helped Western Union prove that we can be a real tool in helping people.”
Adam returned to shake Thaddeus’s hand and give Catherine a peck on the cheek, thanking them for their help, before going to his grandfather to give him a quick hug. He smiled at Abel and spoke quietly. “I came to Boston hoping to find the family I’d left behind 17 years ago. I am so grateful for getting to know you. But our Boston family is becoming far larger than I had ever dreamed it could be. It will be best if I can get to as many classes as possible today, and I’ll be in good hands.”
Able smiled and touched his grandson’s cheek. “I can see that, son. You make me so proud.” His hand dropped to his side. “Get a good mark on that test, and I’ll see you on Saturday.” He grinned as he leaned in to be heard only by Adam. “By the way, Margaret told me that her niece is coming for Sunday dinner…and we’ve been invited.”
* Catherine and Thaddeus Harris were a real couple. Thaddeus was the head librarian at Harvard, and a well-known physician and entomologist. They had 12 children. Professor Metz is fictional, but there was a Harvard professor and botanist, named Asa Gray, who was could have sent Adolf out West to find new species of plants for his books. Thaddeus actually lost out on becoming a tenured professor to Asa. So while much of this information is true, I can’t tell you whether a woman ever was, or would have been allowed to work in the library, even though I did try to find out. Only men were allowed to head the library for most of its history, but I figured that her previous work with students might have made her a good candidate to be the first to do a little evening supervision.
**The telegraph was in full development by 1837, but a true transcontinental system didn’t exist until the early 1860s. So I’m pushing this bit of history in the story. However, the first cross country system did have a relay in Carson City (which didn’t exist at this time either…) The trading post mentioned in here was real: located on the Eagle Valley Ranch/settlement near the Carson River.
The hard part of doing prequel stories is that the places in Bonanza Canon didn’t exist when the boys were young. Even the writers of the series weren’t sure how to handle it. One of the episodes shows how Virginia City got its name when the boys were the ages they were in the series, during the early days of the silver strike. But then in Marie, My Love, Ben talks about having two sons back in Virginia City.
I’m sure they never expected viewers to Google the history of Virginia City or the telegraph or any of the instant information we have at our fingertips. I had a set of Britannica Junior encyclopedias as a child, and for anything more current or not in them, I’d have to trek to the library for the full version encyclopedias. So I doubt anyone spent a lot of time fact-checking Bonanza episodes 🙂
I envision the town the Cartwrights went to starting as a trading post that became Cass’s store, and then the area became a community with a saloon, rooming house and a few other houses and businesses. It wouldn’t become a large town until silver was discovered in the late 1850s and early 1860s. I like to be true to history, but there is no other way to get information back and forth fast enough to help Little Joe in this story, without a little revisionary fiction. Please bear with me this time, and we’ll have an early telegraph line coming into the Carson River valley a few years before its time.
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Nightmare
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- Hunting for Memories (by MissJudy)