Summary: An exploration of perhaps the most controversial subject in Bonanza fan fiction — what if Ben and Marie also had a daughter? But this is not a story about a Cartwright sister. Though viewed through a different lens, it’s a story about a family we all know and love, whose relationships are tested and reaffirmed in the face of the inevitable. (First in a series)
Rating: K+ (27,784 words)
Ties That Bind series
Author’s Note: This story is an extensive revision of one first published in 2004. My sincere and everlasting thanks to Sandspur for doing the betas and holding my feet to the fire for the rewrite. Thirteen years after the fact, I wasn’t even sure I could get back into this world that had been silent for so long, but I couldn’t ignore the challenge. (Writers, you know what I mean.) This version is the result of an older and, I hope, wiser perspective. If you’ve made it this far, perhaps you can be persuaded to go a little further and step out of canon, just for a while. I promise you won’t find any Mary Sues, but you will definitely recognize the Cartwrights.
I would also like to thank my faithful readers in the forum during the WIP phase. You were a blessing to me, and you know who you are. 🙂
TIES THAT BIND
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing
Our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing…
Eleven-year-old Jilly Cartwright fidgeted on the crowded pew, hemmed in on either side by the sturdy elbows of her father and oldest brother. Stealing a glance over her shoulder at her brothers in the back of the room, she wished she could join them. Joe and Hoss had given their seats to the two women at the end of the row, and even Adam’s robust baritone couldn’t drown the shrill tones of the woman sitting next to him, who seemed intent on singing louder than anyone else in the congregation. Joe pulled a mocking face that made Jilly giggle; Adam nudged her and directed her eyes back to the hymnal they shared. She made a mental note to ask him what a bulwark was, since he seemed to know everything else.
The woman on Adam’s left stared down her long nose at Jilly with piercing blue eyes and pursed lips that registered disapproval. Jilly didn’t know who she was; there had been no time for introductions when she had bumped into the woman on the street, nearly knocking her over, just a hasty apology as she ran to rejoin her family before the service began. (The Cartwrights walked in together, on time—that was the rule. Pa expected discipline in the ranks; stragglers arrived late at their own peril.)
Jilly returned the woman’s unsmiling gaze with an impassive expression. You don’t even know me and you don’t like me, but you sure like my brother, don’t you? That was plain in the silly way she smiled at him when he offered her his hymnal, but no surprise to Jilly. Most women found Adam attractive and seemed to go out of their way to get his attention, which didn’t seem to faze him. He was cordial to a fault but not easily impressed. This simpering beanpole could never expect more than a polite time of day from Adam Cartwright, and that thought gave Jilly more than a little satisfaction.
Yes, Adam was handsome, though not in the same way as Joe’s friend Mitch Devlin. In Jilly’s view, Mitch was in a class all by himself—flaxen-haired, blue-eyed, more muscular than Joe, and he had the nicest smile. Adam was dark and handsome in the way her father was handsome, especially when they cleaned up. Both of them turned out well in their Sunday clothes.
Some people said they looked alike, Jilly and Adam—Ben Cartwright’s bookends, someone called them—though she could never really see it. Her hair was lighter and not as curly, and her brown eyes were darker than Adam’s, which reflected gold when they caught the sun. They did have the same cleft chin, but so did Joe, who everyone agreed looked like his mother. No one ever said Jilly looked like Marie, with good reason, she supposed. Marie Cartwright had been dead for nearly ten years but was still remembered for her beauty, among other things. Jilly didn’t need a mirror to remind her she was not beautiful. (Dr. Martin had once told her she had beautiful teeth—a small consolation. The only other thing about her face that truly pleased her was her petite nose.) Beauty wasn’t everything, her father once told her, and in the same breath he assured her she was a very pretty girl. Adam and Hoss had ventured the same opinion at one time or another, but everyone knows brothers don’t count where compliments are concerned, and fathers even less.
Joe never bothered with compliments; he was better with insults. He could be her best friend and worst enemy almost in the same breath. Jilly had grown up following him everywhere, but lately he seemed to be leaving her behind. At fourteen he was too interested in other girls to be any fun. At the last church picnic, he had promised to be her partner in the sack race (which they ended up missing because he spent so much time showing off for Anna Mae Shivers while she made cow eyes at him). Cow-eyed Anna Mae was just one of a gaggle of silly girls that lately followed Joe around, and he acted almost as silly as they did. It made Jilly want to throw up sometimes, but mostly she was hurt, much more hurt than she would ever let on, that he no longer seemed to have time for her.
Jilly’s mind continued its ramble far away from where the preacher droned above, until her eyelids got heavy and her head dropped against Adam’s shoulder. She roused to the sound of singing when he nudged her again.
Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love…
The congregation was on its feet for the closing hymn, one of her favorites, though marred by the strains emanating from Miss Longnose next to Adam. Jilly gave him a wary sidelong glance, and he winked at her, stifling a smile. “Just sing,” he whispered.
When we asunder part, it gives us inward pain, but we shall still be joined in heart and hope to meet again….
As soon as the last ‘amen’ was uttered, Jilly slipped past her father and out the door to find Joe and Hoss. Mitch was there too, much to her delight, and his smile and friendly greeting made her heart dance a little.
“Did you see who was sitting next to Adam?” Joe asked her.
“I think you must mean did I HEAR who was sitting next to Adam, and the answer is yes. I bet everyone else did too.”
“Do you know who she is?”
“No, should I?”
“If you don’t, you will soon,” said Joe, looking serious.
“What do you mean?”
“She’s the new schoolteacher.”
“If I’m lyin’ I’m dyin’. Tell her, Hoss.”
“It’s the truth,” said Hoss. “She and her mother just moved to town, accordin’ to Sheriff Coffee. Her name’s Abigail Jones.”
“Thank you so much for the use of your hymnal. It was very gallant of you.”
Adam proffered a gracious smile to the tall woman before him. “Not at all, Miss..?”
“Jones. Abigail Jones.”
“Ah, you’re the new schoolteacher. I’m Adam Cartwright, and this is my father. Pa, this is Miss Abigail Jones.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Miss Jones,” said Ben.
“Please, call me Abigail,” she insisted with a smile, lowering her lashes and then raising them to meet Adam’s eyes, not looking at Ben.
“Abby-gail, aren’t you going to introduce your mother?” asked the big-hatted woman next to her in a loud voice.
Abigail’s expression soured a little. “Of course, Ma; I was just getting to that. This is my mother, Mrs. Winifred Nutley.”
“Mrs. Nutley,” both Adam and Ben acknowledged.
“Charmed to make your acquaintance, Mr. Cartwright,” she beamed at Ben. “Was that your daughter who just ran out of here?”
“Yes, she’s my youngest. I also have two other boys.”
“Is there a Mrs. Cartwright?”
“Not for many years, I’m afraid.”
Mrs. Nutley looked appropriately sympathetic though her tone remained cheerful. “My, but you must have had your hands full, raising them by yourself, you poor man. Abby-gail’s father died when she was five, and that was hard enough before I married Mr. Nutley, God rest his soul.”
Adam suppressed a smile at the thought of another widow sizing up her prospects in the form of his father. Not much chance there, though. He turned his attention back to the schoolteacher, who all at once seemed very close. He involuntarily stepped back.
“Uh, how do you like Virginia City, Miss Jones?”
“Abigail,” she reminded him with a smile. “I like it just fine so far, Adam—may I call you Adam?”
“Of course. When do you plan to start teaching? It’s been six weeks since the last teacher left, so the children are anxious to get back to their studies.” That wasn’t entirely true; the parents were probably more anxious than the children.
“Next week. That will give me time to prepare the classroom and get more acquainted with the town and the people. If only I had someone to show me around…”
She had moved in close again, smiling all the while. Her owlish blue eyes were sizing him up as well, he decided. He swallowed hard to try to relieve the sudden dryness in his mouth. “Uh, why don’t I introduce you to some of your new students?”
“They’re comin’ this way,” said Joe.
“She hates me, I tell you,” said Jilly.
“She doesn’t even know you, Brainless. You’re always so dramatic.”
“I am not.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Hush up,” said Hoss. He removed his hat as Pa and Adam approached with the ladies.
“There’s someone here I’d like for you all to meet,” said Pa. “This is Miss Abigail Jones. She’s going to be your new teacher. Oh, and this is her mother, Mrs. Nutley. Ladies, these are my sons Hoss and Joe, Joe’s friend Mitch Devlin, and my daughter Jilly.”
“Hoss—that’s an unusual name,” said Miss Jones.
“It’s Swedish; it means ‘big friendly man’,” said Jilly, smiling at Hoss.
Hoss smiled back. “My real name’s Eric, Miss Abigail, but I’ve been Hoss my whole life.”
“I see. Will you be in my class too?”
He laughed, “Oh, no ma’am, not me. Just these three.”
“Not me either,” said Mitch. “I’m helpin’ my Pa with the ranch now.”
Joe’s eyebrows shot up; he leveled a hard stare at Mitch, who merely shrugged. Jilly felt particularly chagrined.
“Joe, would that be short for Joseph?” asked Miss Jones.
“Yes ma’am.” Joe looked glum.
“And what about Jilly?”
“Jillian, but no one calls me that.” It occurred to her that Miss Jones might not be fond of nicknames, but she intended to make herself clear on the subject.
“Not unless we have to,” Adam volunteered with a grin.
“Well, Joseph and Jillian, I look forward to having you in my class next week. I’m sure we’ll get along famously.” The smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes blossomed when she turned to Adam. “And I’m so looking forward to having you show me around Virginia City this week, Adam.”
This time Adam’s eyebrows shot up, but—ever cordial—he accepted the gloved hand, delicately cocked at the wrist, and assured her he would be delighted.
The next week passed largely without incident. Adam obligingly escorted Miss Jones and her mother on a tour of Virginia City and the environs, which included a visit to the Ponderosa. Jilly found Mrs. Nutley to be a likable woman, even if she was a little loud. She had a naturally open and friendly face, as opposed to her daughter’s, which sometimes looked like it was weaned on a pickle. Jilly marveled at the transformation in that pinched expression whenever Adam was around, and she almost felt sorry for Miss Jones, who had yet to learn the vanity of her efforts.
Mitch’s announcement that he would not be returning to school put a great big burr under Joe’s saddle. He tried to convince Pa to let him do the same, but of course Pa would have none of it. Mitch was older anyway, and Joe would have to stay in school at least one more year. Jilly was more than thankful for her father’s stubbornness in this case, but it left Joe in such a foul mood that he wasn’t fit company for anyone except his horse for the next few days.
Though still wary at the prospect of Miss Jones, Jilly was glad for school to resume because at least it would give her something to do. Apart from her few chores, there was little to fill her days while everyone else was working the ranch. And it was a working ranch, as they were quick to remind her. No one had time for fishing or picnicking when there were wells to be dug, horses to be broken and cattle to be branded. “This is a job for men,” they would tell her, “so be a good girl and stay out of the way.” Maybe not in those exact words, but that was the message. Even Hop Sing didn’t want her in the kitchen. (“Her head in stars, not in flour,” the cook had once complained to her father.) So Jilly did her chores and read the same books over and over and tried to be the good girl everyone expected her to be, but it was getting harder and harder. Sometimes, alone in her bed at night, at the end of a day that was no different from the one before or even the one before that, she wrestled with an emptiness so profound that she cried herself to sleep. It was nothing she could understand or explain, so she didn’t try, and no one guessed.
“Jilly, for the love of Zachary Pete Taylor, will you please hurry up!”
“Keep your shirt on—I’m coming!”
He rolled his eyes and shed an exaggerated breath, but it was mostly for show, especially the entertainment of his older brothers. Truth was, Joe Cartwright didn’t mind having a sister nearly as much as he sometimes let on.
He was the baby for three years until she came along. He didn’t remember much about that particular day, though he’d heard the story enough times of how “Little Joe” was so excited about becoming a big brother and how he cried when Jilly turned out to be a girl. She surprised everyone by coming early, and the doctor wasn’t sure she would even live. Aside from worried faces and a lot of hushing and shushing, he mostly remembered that she was too little to be any fun and that he had to share his mother, who seemed sad even when she smiled. He wasn’t at all sure Jilly was worth it.
Mama died before Jilly’s second birthday. By then he was pretty used to her. Everyone thought she was cute, and he supposed she was. She hardly ever cried, and she was the only one who seemed to be able to make Pa laugh in those days. Joe used to think Jilly was lucky because she was too young to be sad remembering Mama, but later he decided he was the lucky one because not being able to remember would be even sadder.
Adam left for college in Boston the next year. Joe missed him fiercely, but probably not as much as he might have if he hadn’t been so busy looking after Jilly. She followed him everywhere unless Hoss was around. She could be a pain in the neck sometimes, but having a younger sister really wasn’t so bad. It was kind of nice being looked up to when you’re only seven.
He was fourteen now, fifteen by the end of the summer, old enough to quit school and work the ranch with Adam and Hoss. It rankled that Pa couldn’t see that. “Another year of schooling won’t hurt. You’ve got a few things to learn yet,” Pa told him. As far as Joe was concerned, next year couldn’t come soon enough.
Jilly met him in the yard where he was waiting with their horses. “Why are you in such an all-fired hurry today? Oh, let me guess—Anna Mae Shivers.”
He ignored the face she made and smiled as he mounted. At least he had one consolation. “Why not? She is the prettiest girl in town.”
“She’s dumb as a post,” Jilly grumped, “and if you only like her because she’s pretty, then you deserve each other.”
Abigail Jones woke with the sun and a throbbing headache on the first day of school. The annoying tickle in the back of her throat the day before had escalated to a worrisome cough that kept her up much of the night, as the dark circles under her eyes attested. This was not the start she envisioned.
Abigail had never wanted to become a teacher in the first place. Like so many women her age with no marriage prospects, she had landed in the profession by default and with encouragement from her mother. It was also her mother who insisted she accept the job in Virginia City, and being a dutiful daughter, she agreed, though reluctantly.
Upon arriving, Abigail found Virginia City to be precisely the dirty little mining town she had imagined, which gave her a smug satisfaction that her hesitation had been justified. However, her mother refused to waver in her belief that it was on the verge of a boom of astronomical proportions (as dear Mr. Nutley had predicted, God rest his soul) and would soon be teeming with eligible bachelors buoyed by newly minted fortunes. She loved her mother, but Winifred’s cockeyed optimism sometimes grated on Abigail’s nerves—especially in this case—as she found nothing in their new home to warrant it.
But that was before she met Adam Cartwright.
Adam was handsome and chivalrous, cast in the same mold as Sir Walter Raleigh from Queen Elizabeth’s court, with a voice that could put the angels to shame (she had heard it that first day in church when he had so gallantly loaned her his hymnal). Also, he was a scholar who could no doubt appreciate an educated woman (which put the odds in her favor, judging from the local citizenry). Abigail had sensed their kinship from the beginning.
Ma was more practical in her assessment of men. Good looks and fine manners might turn a woman’s head but couldn’t put a roof over it. There were plenty of educated, dulcet-toned scoundrels (Abigail’s father, the not-so-dear departed Mr. Jones, had been one, much to Winifred’s dismay) capable of sweeping a fair maiden off her feet, but only one thing really mattered (well, two in this case)—the Cartwrights were people of property, and Adam was unattached.
His courteous attentions coupled with an invitation to the Ponderosa bolstered Abigail’s conviction that she and Adam were somehow destined for one another. It might take him a while to see that but life had taught her patience if nothing else. In the meantime, they shared an inevitable and convenient bond through the two youngest Cartwrights in her classroom.
Joseph was well aware of his good looks, but likable, with an easy charm, probably used to talking his way out of trouble. And he was bound to find it, if she was any judge. Jillian, on the other hand, was quieter; pretty when she smiled, which wasn’t often. She had a disconcerting way of looking at a person, almost as though she could see through them. That first morning in church, Abigail shot her the practiced glare that had withered many an unruly pupil, yet the girl held her gaze without flinching, her face unreadable. Odd child, Cartwright or not. Still, she might prove helpful with the younger children. If Abigail’s headache was any indication, she was going to need all the help she could get today.
Sheriff Coffee was waiting at the school house when Joe and Jilly arrived. There were no other students in sight. “Been waitin’ for you two,” he greeted them with an air of impatience. “No school today.”
“Why not?” Joe asked.
“Miss Abigail’s puny. Her mother said she done lost her voice and can’t croak more’n a whisper. Everybody else has gone home so you young’uns best do the same. I need to get on with my rounds. Give my regards to your Pa.”
Jilly could hardly contain her disappointment. “It looks like we rode out here for nothing. I guess we’d better go home like the sheriff said.”
“Not necessarily,” said Joe.
“What do you mean?”
“We have the whole day to ourselves. If we go home we’ll just have to do chores. Is that what you want?”
“If we don’t go home, where would we go?”
“We could ride out to the lake.”
“Are you sure? I mean, won’t Pa be mad?”
“Pa’s not home, remember?”
“Well, Adam then—and you know how he is.”
“Yeah, but what older brother doesn’t know won’t hurt him. We’ll be home in plenty of time.”
“But isn’t that kind of like lying?”
“Not unless somebody asks, Brainless. Now we can ride out to the lake and have a picnic on one of the prettiest days of the year, but if you want, we can just go home. I’m sure Adam will find plenty of work for both of us. It’s your choice; which would you rather do?”
The choice wasn’t up for debate; they both knew the answer before he even posed the question. Joe had an uncanny talent for getting what he wanted. She had followed him everywhere all of her life and saw no reason to stop now.
When Joe mentioned the lake, Jilly knew exactly where they would end up. She suspected it was where he went those days he was off riding by himself, sulking about Mitch, throwing a cold shoulder to the rest of them. No one seemed too concerned; that was just Joe working his way back to himself.
He crouched next to the headstone and rested his hand on top while she watched from a distance. He came here more often than anyone, she supposed. Jilly envied him for being able to love and remember their mother, because to her Marie Cartwright was hardly more than a picture in a frame and a name on a marker; they were bound by blood but nothing more. She sometimes felt guilty over her indifference, but how can you love someone you never knew?
She waited until he stood up, and then she joined him in respectful silence, lingering only briefly after he walked away. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, but only the wind heard.
By the time they finished their lunch Jilly had forgotten her earlier reservations about not going home. Joe was right about one thing—it was a beautiful day. Too beautiful to be cooped up in a school room; it was the kind of day she wished could go on forever.
Joe was cheerful and talkative. Maybe it was because there was no one else around for him to impress, but when it was just the two of them he was more like the brother she grew up with, the one who shared her secrets, the one she had worshiped from the time she was old enough to take notice of another person in the world. Of course, she’d never admit that to him. His head was already big enough most of the time. She could understand why the girls liked him, though she still couldn’t see what was so special about Anna Mae Shivers.
“Do you really think Anna Mae is the prettiest girl in town?”
He looked amused. “What brought that on? I thought we were talkin’ about Miss Jones.”
“I don’t know. I just wondered. You used to say the same thing about Connie McKee.”
“Well, Connie’s not here anymore. I guess she’s having the time of her life at that school back East.”
Connie was nearly the same age as Joe, lively and smart. And she was a lot nicer than Anna Mae, who was dull and snooty, in Jilly’s opinion. “I miss her, don’t you?”
“Yeah, I guess,” he murmured, looking away.
“If I could be pretty, I’d rather look like Connie. She’s much prettier than Anna Mae, if you ask me.”
Joe frowned at her. “There’s nothing wrong with the way you look. Heck, Mitch even thinks you’re kind of pretty.”
She didn’t volunteer the fact that she had been thinking of Mitch all morning, and the mention of his name made her insides quiver. “Did he tell you that?”
“He might have,” Joe shrugged; his expression noncommittal. “Come on, Brainless; time to go.”
She put her hands on her hips and scowled. “I don’t know why you keep calling me that, but I don’t like it and I wish you would stop. There’s no one else around to hear you anyway.”
He looked amused again. “You want to know why? Okay, I’ll tell you. It’s because you don’t even know how smart you are. Maybe one day you’ll figure it out, and then I won’t have to call you that anymore.”
It was an accident, Joe reminded himself afterwards. It could have happened to anyone.
As usual he gave Jilly a head start in the race, just to make it close, but she was quicker this time. He’d have to push to catch her before the creek. No problem there; besides, he always loved the chase.
The creek was coming up fast and she was still ahead of him with no sign of slowing. He had jumped it before but she never had. Jilly, what are you doing? Are you crazy? He swallowed his natural inclination to sprint past her and pulled up, hoping she would do the same.
His heart slid back down from his throat when she landed on the other side. “Woo-hoo! Atta girl!”
She turned and waved. “Well, aren’t you coming?”
Joe circled his pony back to gain the length he needed, jumping near the spot where she had crossed the swollen creek. He cleared it easily, but his paint stumbled to gain footing in the soft bank. All his efforts were focused on trying to stay in the saddle and out of the water, so he didn’t see Jilly’s predicament.
Something spooked her horse, and she lost the reins. By the time Joe was firmly on solid ground she was in the mud. She looked too mad to be hurt, and he almost laughed as he dismounted to help her.
As she was getting to her feet she slipped and slid toward the creek; suddenly things weren’t so funny anymore. He managed to grab her before she went in. The way it was moving, she would have gone with it.
From a safe distance, they watched the bank where they had just been standing collapse into the rushing water. Jilly dropped to the ground with her head in her hand. Joe sagged next to her, contemplating what almost happened as he caught his breath.
“Are you all right?”
“I guess so.” She looked at her hand. “I think my head is bleeding.”
“Let me see. Yeah, it’s bleedin’ all right.” The gash was near the hairline, not too deep but oozing considerably. A blue lump protruded above her right eyebrow, and an angry splotch on her cheek marked the beginning of a bruise.
“Ow, quit poking.” She pulled away from him.
“I need to clean it. Give me your bandana.” He retrieved his canteen from his horse and soaked the cloth. “Hold still.”
She winced as he dabbed at the cut.
“Sorry. Say, when did you learn to jump like that?”
“I don’t know; I just did it. Guess it wasn’t such a good idea.”
“Are you sure you’re not hurt anywhere else?”
“I don’t think so. I’m a mess, though.”
“Yeah, you are.” He handed her the bandana. “Keep pressure on it.”
“Adam’s gonna know we weren’t in school.”
“Just let me do the talkin’ when we get home. If we’re lucky he won’t be around and you can at least get cleaned up before he sees you.”
She made a face and spat on the ground. “I have a feeling we might’ve used up our luck for today.”
Hoss emerged from the loft as Adam led Sport into the barn. “Thought I heard you ride up.”
Adam noted the empty stalls where the two ponies were normally stabled. “I see they’re not back yet.”
“No, but I don’t reckon they’ve had time to get home.”
“I think they’ve had plenty of time.”
“Well, I wouldn’t worry, Adam. I’m sure they’ll be along. Maybe Miss Abigail kept Joe after school,” Hoss chuckled.
“What makes you so sure?”
“I ran into Roy while I was out. He said there was no school today.”
“Miss Abigail is sick.”
“Huh. Wonder why they didn’t come on home?”
“That’s not hard to figure, is it? I just wonder what they’ve been up to all day.”
Nearly an hour passed before Adam had the chance to find out, and by then he was beyond annoyed. He and Hoss were on the porch when they arrived, looking like drag riders at the end of a hundred-mile cattle drive.
“You two are a little late, aren’t you?”
“We took the long way home,” said Joe.
Jilly kept her head down and said nothing as she slid off her pony and ducked into the barn with him. Joe quickly followed.
“You were right. They’re up to somethin’,” said Hoss.
“Let’s give ‘em a little rope and see how long it takes before they hang themselves.”
They joined the errant pair in the barn. “So,” Adam began, “how were things in town on this fine first day of school?”
“Good,” said Joe.
“I always loved the first day,” said Adam. “How was it? Anything exciting happen at school today?”
Joe shook his head slowly. “No…not really…hardly anything happened at school, actually.”
Jilly coughed but otherwise remained silent with her back to them while she brushed her pony.
“How was Miss Abigail?” Hoss winked at Adam. “I know she was excited about today.”
“Well, um…Miss Abigail was kinda puny today. In fact, she could hardly croak more than a whisper.”
“That’s a shame. Did you hear that, Adam?”
“You know, Hoss—I did hear that, from Sheriff Coffee as a matter of fact. I meant to tell you.”
“Come to think of it, you did mention it. Guess I just forgot.”
“Yeah, I ran into Roy by chance while I was out this morning. Jilly, you’ve been mighty quiet. Do you have anything you’d like to tell us?”
She averted his gaze. “Not right now. I need to go to the outhouse.”
At Adam’s nudging, Hoss blocked her path when she tried to edge past him. “Hold on, Little Bit.” His amiable tone changed when he turned her around. “Hey, what happened to you?”
Adam lifted her chin and brushed her hair away from her face to get a good look. “What in the world…?”
“It’s nothing. I’m fine.”
There was dried blood on her forehead, her cheek was bruised and her left eye was nearly swollen shut.
“I wouldn’t call it nothing. All right, let’s cut out the games. I want answers from both of you. We all know you weren’t in school, so where have you been and how did this happen? You first, Jilly. And don’t look at Joe.”
She looked miserable and wretched. “We were just riding. I fell in the mud.”
Adam waited for the rest but she offered nothing more. “Just riding, huh? Well, I’m sure there’s more to it than that,” he frowned. “You’d better be glad Pa’s not here right now. He’d have a fit seeing you like this. We need to get your face cleaned up and see what we can do about it, although my guess is that it’ll probably look worse tomorrow.”
“I can take care of myself.” She shrugged away from him. “And if you want to punish me, that’s fine, but you’ll have to do it later.”
“Don’t go far. I’m not through with you,” he called after her. “All right, Joe. What’s the story? I want details.”
Joe made no attempt to hide his irritation. “We rode out to the lake, had lunch, rode some more after that, and she fell in the mud. Then we started back.”
“It took you long enough to get home. Where were you when it happened?”
“Mason’s Creek?” Hoss frowned. “I was out there the other day and it was higher than I’ve ever seen it. I couldn’t even find a good place to cross. I hope you weren’t fool enough to try to jump it.”
“I wasn’t planning on it, but that’s how it turned out.”
“I hope you’re not saying she fell trying to follow you across that creek.”
“No Adam, I’m not saying that. The truth is, I followed her across, and she was standing still when she fell. Brownie got spooked and took off right out from under her. It could have happened to anybody. Heck, I’ve had my share of falls—I’ll probably have a lot more.”
“Well she’s not you, Joe—thank goodness—and that’s the point. But she wants to do everything you do, and you don’t do anything to discourage her. You shouldn’t have been anywhere near that creek in the first place, and you should never have tried to jump it.”
“I told you it was her idea.”
“Well, she seems to get most of her ideas from you.”
Joe stuck out his chin, his mouth set in a firm line. “I don’t know what you expect from me, Adam. It’s not my fault. She does what she wants to do, when she has the chance. I would too if I was her. Try givin’ a person a little credit once in a while.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means you’re makin’ a mountain out of a molehill, just like always.”
“I don’t need your sass, boy. Remember who you’re talkin’ to, little brother.”
“How can I forget when you’re always remindin’ me, older brother?”
Adam forced his voice to remain calm even though Joe was straining his last nerve. “Well, let me remind you of something else. You’re supposed to be looking out for her, not leading her off into danger. Why don’t you try thinking of someone besides yourself for a change?”
Joe balled his fists at his side. “I’ve spent practically my whole life looking out for her, including all those years you were in Boston. I think I know how to take care of my sister; but then again maybe not, because Adam always knows best, right?”
Hoss stepped between them. “That’s enough, Joe. You go on to the house and check on her.”
Joe glared at Adam. “I was just about to.”
“I’m gonna have to fight that kid one of these days,” Adam frowned, watching Joe storm away. “You wait and see. He’s gonna push it just that far because that’s what he wants.”
Hoss shook his head. “Probably so, but he ain’t ready yet.”
“No, but he acts like he thinks he is. You better talk to some sense into him.”
“Yeah, you—you’re the one he listens to.”
“Aw, I don’t know about that.”
“Sure you are, and it’s always been that way. Besides, you’ve earned the right to tell him a thing or two. You’ve certainly gotten an earful from him through the years.”
“Well, I reckon that’s true. He’s been jawin’ at me since he was knee high to a grasshopper. Adam, don’t take what he said too personal. He didn’t really mean it; little brother’s just feelin’ his oats.”
“Oh, he meant it, but I’m not taking it personally. You’re right, he is feeling his oats, and still mad because Pa wouldn’t let him quit school. It’s a good thing for us, too. I can’t imagine having him around here all day, every day. He’d think he was boss by the end of the week. I’d have to take him down a notch for sure.”
“Yeah, little big man,” Hoss chuckled. He’ll grow into himself one of these days, though, and then watch out; he might take you down a notch.”
They looked at each other and burst out laughing. Joe might have gotten a little testy lately but it was nothing they couldn’t handle, knowing him well. Their younger brother was an open book. He wore his emotions on his face and his heart on his sleeve—quick to anger and just as quick to forgive.
“Hoss, do you think I’m makin’ a mountain out of a molehill?”
“No, I don’t like it any more than you do. But like Joe said, it was an accident and coulda happened to anybody.”
“Jumping that creek was no accident.”
“At least she made it. I sure hate to think about what coulda happened if she hadn’t.”
“I wish she hadn’t even tried it. Now she has one more reason to think she can do anything, just like Joe; just like….”
“Don’t say it, Adam.”
“Honestly, it’s hard not to draw the comparison sometimes.”
Anyone who saw Joe ride might think he was born in the saddle. His inherent ability and impetuosity had melded into a cocksureness that sometimes made him as wild as the wind, and just as unpredictable. Like his mother. Marie had been a fearless and formidable horsewoman; Adam was fifteen before he even came close to beating her. She left a burning trail in her wake, always a length ahead of the fire, until the day it finally caught up with her. People always said she would break her neck on that horse. They were right.
But you can’t keep people from doing what comes naturally any more than you can stop time. Adam knew that as sure as he knew anything. Your best hope is that they will pay attention to the lessons of history—and when they don’t, you pray for grace.
Jilly pushed her food around her plate during supper because her stomach rebelled at the thought of putting anything into it. Hop Sing had cleaned the cut above her eye and dressed it with honey, but it still throbbed in tandem with the hammering in her head which had escalated on the ride home. A bath had afforded only temporary comfort. Joe was mostly silent, and judging from the way he was sulking, she imagined he’d already had his ears burned by Adam.
Adam wasn’t finished with either one of them, but he was taking his sweet time. Maybe that was part of their punishment. Jilly wished he would just get it over with so she could go to bed.
“I’m not sure how long Miss Abigail will be indisposed, but you two will be staying around here the next few days regardless. There’s plenty of work you can help with, Joe. We’ve got that new string of horses…”
Joe’s sour mood lifted, but only for an instant.
“…and since Hoss and I will both be tied up with that, you can start digging the new outhouse tomorrow.”
Jilly coughed and put her hand over her mouth, earning Joe’s green-eyed glare from across the table.
“Is that funny?” Adam asked her.
“No.” It wasn’t funny at all. Her stomach was quite clear on the matter. “Excuse me.”
She bolted from the table, through the kitchen and out the back door where she promptly threw up.
Hop Sing was behind her, holding her hair, and afterwards he sat her down on the steps with a wet cloth. Adam sat down beside her and put his hand on her back.
“Is it your head?”
She nodded with her face buried in the cloth. “Maybe it’s a little better now.”
“As strange as it may seem, sometimes that does help. Are you all done?”
She nodded again.
“Okay then. Let’s get you up to bed. I think you’ve have enough of today.”
With Adam’s help she made it up the stairs, declining his offer to carry her even though her legs felt like rubber. If Hoss and Joe hadn’t been watching she might have accepted, but she had already made a spectacle of herself and had no wish for further attention. She got into her nightgown and into bed in hopes of putting the day behind her as quickly as possible.
There was a knock on her door few minutes later and Joe poked his head in. “You still awake?”
“How’s your head? Hurt much?”
“It’s not too bad.” Actually, it was pounding again but she didn’t want to be a whiner. Her brothers had all had worse injuries at one time or another.
“Well, I just wanted to see how you were feeling and say goodnight.”
“Could you stay for a minute?”
“Sure.” He sat on the edge of the bed.
“I’m sorry you have to dig the outhouse.”
He shrugged and made a face. “No big deal.”
“Were you scared today? At the creek, I mean.”
His expression grew serious as his eyes met hers. “A little.”
“Me too. I knew you wouldn’t let me go, but for a minute I thought we were both going.”
“Well, that’s how it would’ve been, because if you go, I go. That’s how it is, you know.”
There he was, for the second time that day, the Joe she knew so well. Underneath the bravado and the wisecracks, he was still unabashedly her hero. And she loved him so. Without words to tell him, she simply threw her arms around him, squeezing her eyes shut to force back the tears. He hugged her just as tightly.
“I’d better let you get some sleep,” he said, rising from the bed.
“Did Mitch really say that—about me?”
“What, that you’re pretty? Yeah. But you’d better not let him see you now or he might take it back.” He grinned and ducked through the door as she tossed her pillow at him. “’Night, Jilly.”
On his way downstairs Joe met Adam on his way up with a tray. “Is she still awake?”
Neither of them said anything further as they passed each other. Joe figured there had been too many words between them already. Besides, he really wanted to talk to Hoss.
“Hey, have you got a minute?”
Hoss put down his book. “Sure, what’s on your mind?”
“I didn’t exactly tell the whole story about what happened today, and I really need to tell somebody.”
“I sorta figured that, since it was pretty short, all things considered. How ‘bout you sit down and tell me—exactly.”
Joe sat down across from him and recounted the events at the creek—how he barely had time to grab Jilly as she slid toward the water, how he wasn’t sure he could hold her, how the bank where they had been standing only seconds before collapsed in front of them. He finished with a shuddering breath and the realization of how easily they could have both been swept away. “We should never have been there, and it’s my fault that we were.”
“You’re right, and I’m glad you know that.”
“I still don’t know how we didn’t wind up in that creek, because for few awful seconds I thought we were both goners.”
“Well, I always kinda figured you had a guardian angel lookin’ out for you.” Hoss leaned over and thumped him on the head. “But quit pushin’ your luck!”
They both laughed, and Joe stood up. “Hoss?”
“Are you gonna tell Adam? I mean, does he really need to know?”
Hoss frowned and didn’t answer right away. “I won’t tell him,” he finally said, “on one condition. You apologize to him. You had no call to speak to him like you did today. He deserves your respect, not your lip.”
Joe answered with a crooked grin. “I know. I was planning on doing that anyway.”
Jilly’s door was open when Adam went up with the tray of tea and broth. “Room service,” he announced, “something to settle your stomach and help you sleep, according to Hop Sing. How are you feeling?”
She acknowledged him with a thin smile as he set the tray in front of her. “Okay.”
“Head still hurting?”
He lowered himself into the chair next to the bed. “You got quite a bump today. Drink the tea; it should help.”
She took a swallow and made a face. “This tastes awful.”
“Well, that’s how it is sometimes with things that are good for us. They’re bitter at first; not what we want but what we need. Sip it—it won’t be so bad after you get used to it.”
“Are you mad at me?”
“Do I look mad?”
“Well, you are a little frowny.”
“I don’t mean to be. It just hurts me to look at you.”
She lowered her head when she answered, “Then don’t look.”
“It’s a hard habit to break.”
“When is Pa coming home?”
“In a couple of days.”
“Are you going to tell him?”
“We can’t keep it from him. He’ll take one look at you and demand a full accounting, so be prepared.”
She sighed and her shoulders sagged a little. “Are you going to punish me?”
“Well, I’m pretty sure I know who the real culprit is, and you’ve already gotten the worse end of the deal. Besides, I don’t think you’re in any shape to help Joe dig the outhouse.” Not that he would expect that from her.
She looked up. “Adam, please don’t be too mad at him.”
“If you think that’s why I’m punishing him, you’re wrong, Jilly. I’m trying to teach him a lesson, and I want it to stick. It’s for his own good, believe me. Drink your tea.”
She took another sip and wrinkled her nose.
He rested his chin in his hand, studying her as a memory flitted across time—his homecoming from college. She wouldn’t look at him at first, even after he coaxed her away from Hoss. She was only two when he left, and when he came back it nearly broke his heart seeing how much of her young life he had missed. Joe’s too, but at least he hadn’t forgotten him. To Jilly he was hardly more than a stranger. Pa, Hoss and Joe were her world, with Joe at the center.
“Look, I know how it is with you two, and I know how persuasive Joe can be; when he says frog, you jump. But it doesn’t always have to be that way. You could say no sometimes. In fact, you should, for both your sakes. He might actually listen to you if you put your foot down once in a while. I know you’re capable of that, and you’ve got a good head on your shoulders—don’t be afraid to use it. It might save you both a world of hurt.” And the rest of us too, he thought. He intended to make one thing clear. “Jilly, I saw man and a horse drown in a creek like that. It’s something I won’t forget. You’ll never know how lucky you were today. Next time you might not be. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
From the look on her face he knew he’d struck a nerve. That’s what he had hoped, but it surprised him to see her close to tears. “Cheer up, Brown Eyes. At the end of the day, what matters most is that you’re safe and sound,” he reassured her softly. He stood up and planted a kiss on the top of her head. “Leave the tray on the table when you’re done; I’ll get it later.”
Joe was waiting for him when he went downstairs. “Adam, I want to apologize for what I said today. I was disrespectful, and I’m sorry.”
Adam smiled as he accepted the offered handshake before pulling his young brother into an embrace, ruffling his hair. “You’d better get to bed yourself. You’ve got a busy day ahead of you tomorrow.”
“I’m on my way,” he promised. “G’night.”
Adam watched him bound up the stairs. “How do you like that?”
Hoss grinned over the top of his book. “I like it just fine.”
Ben Cartwright unfolded his six-foot frame from the cramped coach and onto the main street of Virginia City two days later than he had planned. Muddy roads and a broken wheel had wreaked havoc for the stage line on the way from Sacramento, compounded by a thunderstorm necessitating an unscheduled stop at the way station near Placerville. The twinge in his back was an unfriendly reminder of a restless night on the unforgiving plank floor, padded only by a worn-out bedroll and his valise for a pillow.
He looked around, disappointed there was no one to meet him. Not that he expected it, considering the delay and uncertainty of his actual arrival, but he was disappointed all the same. He’d have to rent transportation from the livery, but perhaps first a meal at the International House. Or maybe he should just go home, have a bath and crawl into bed. Weary and weighing his options, he was unprepared for the voice behind him calling his name.
Winifred Nutley’s beaming visage greeted him when he turned. “Mr. Cartwright, how lovely to see you again. I heard you’ve been traveling.”
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Nutley. Yes, I just returned from Sacramento. I was supposed to be back earlier in the week but I was delayed. As you can imagine, I’m very anxious to get home.” He hoped she would take the hint.
“Yes, I’m sure you’re anxious to see your family, especially your poor daughter. When Abigail and I heard about her terrible accident we were so concerned.”
“What terrible accident?”
“Of course you’ve been away, but I thought surely they must’ve gotten word to you.”
“No, Mrs. Nutley. What terrible accident?’ Ben’s alarm was growing. What could have happened?
“Apparently she went riding with your young son and was thrown from her horse. Took a nasty blow to the head and nearly broke her neck, poor little dear,” she replied, shaking her head in sympathy. “The last we heard she didn’t even have the strength to get out of bed.”
“Oh, but you mustn’t worry, Mr. Cartwright. I’m sure your sons are taking good care of her. The doctor told Abigail he’s sure she’ll come out all right eventually, though he couldn’t say when she’ll be back in school. She’s missed the whole week already.”
“Will you excuse me, Mrs. Nutley? I really must get home, you understand.”
Ben’s heart pounded in his throat as he started toward the livery. The memory of Marie’s death had faded from a choking nightmare to a specter on the horizon over the years, but at that moment it roared back to life. Joe was the one he’d always worried about most; Jilly seemed more cautious, but perhaps that was only in the light of Joe’s recklessness. As they grew older, he had allowed himself to become complacent without even realizing it. He had taken too much for granted, especially where she was concerned.
Halfway to the livery he changed his mind and started toward Dr. Martin’s house instead. He didn’t know why it hadn’t occurred to him before. He’d get answers from Paul. At least he would know something before he got home.
Unfortunately, the good doctor was out. Ben heaved a sigh and began retracing his steps when he heard another voice calling him. Relieved, he turned to see his middle son crossing the street toward him.
“Howdy, Pa, welcome back. Sorry I didn’t meet you at the stage. It came in while I was pickin’ up supplies. The wagon’s over behind Cass’s store.”
Reassured by Hoss’s usual cheerful demeanor, Ben relaxed a little. “Never mind about that. I want to know about Jilly. How is she?”
Hoss looked surprised. “How’d you know about that?”
“Mrs. Nutley told me. She said Paul told Abigail she was recovering but didn’t know when she’d be back in school.”
“Well, she’s gonna be fine now, so don’t you worry. Doc Martin saw her this morning and said it’s definitely not scarlet fever.”
“Huh? Mrs. Nutley said she was thrown off her horse and almost broke her neck!”
“Oh, well yeah…she did take a tumble, but that was before. And Pa, it ain’t like you’re thinkin’. She did get a bump on her head, but nothin’ for you to worry about. I reckon she was comin’ down with somethin’ even before that. That’s the reason she’s been puny this week. I was gonna tell you all about it on the ride home. I’m sorry you had to hear it the way you did. Must’ve been awful worrisome.”
“Yes of course it was, though all’s well that ends well I suppose.” The tension ebbed from his shoulders with a long sigh. “Sounds like it’s been a trying week for all of us. I certainly will be glad to get home.”
“Me too. Hop Sing’s fixin’ roast pork for supper. I can taste it now,” Hoss grinned, licking his lips in anticipation.
Nightmare abated, Ben smiled at his predictable, reliable, easy-going second son. He climbed into wagon seat next to him, thankful and a little less weary, and a single thought came to him:
My cup runneth over.
The days following Jilly’s accident blurred in her mind, but it was only because of the fever. She remembered getting out of bed that first night, at least trying, and the next thing she knew Adam was scooping her up from the floor. His voice sounded like a hundred bees inside her head; she couldn’t understand was he was saying. After that, the world became jigsaw pieces of shadow and sound. Hot became cold and day became night. Hands pushed and pulled her as the bees droned in her head, and dark water swirled at her feet. She was shaking so hard she thought her teeth would fall out. Someone called her from far away but she couldn’t answer. She didn’t even have the strength to open her eyes.
When she did open them, it was to a light, cool touch on her forehead, and Mrs. Shaughnessy was there; dear Mrs. Shaughnessy who had helped to take care of her ever since her mother died, whenever she needed her. Something in the way she smiled at Jilly made her want to cry, but not because she was sad. The bees and the shadows and the dark water were gone, replaced by the woman’s cheerful prattle, the dapple of sunlight through the lace curtains, and the scent of lavender in the fresh gown she pulled over her head.
Dr. Martin came again, the second time (Jilly didn’t remember the first) and seemed well pleased with her recovery. He told her she could sit up for a while, as long as she didn’t overdo it. She was up and dressed when Pa arrived later that afternoon.
She expected him to frown and scold or at least ask questions when he tilted her chin up to study her face. Adam had warned her to be prepared. But Pa did neither. He just smiled, a little sadly she thought, before asking, “How’s my best girl?” The look in his eyes made her heart a puddle.
“Fine, Pa,” she assured him, checking her tears. “I’m glad you’re home.”
He hugged her for a long time without saying anything. She breathed in a memory of when she was little, and amid those strong arms she realized how much she had missed him.
Ben brushed the back of his hand against Jilly’s cheek as she slept that evening. It was cool, just as it had been both times before when he’d checked. Adam had assured him it wasn’t necessary, but old habits die hard. The bruises on her face had faded to mostly yellow tinged in purple, a sign of healing; with luck the cut above her eye wouldn’t scar. Satisfied once more, he kissed her goodnight and retired to his room. After a week away, it was good to be home, to finally climb into his own bed. His own, empty bed.
He frowned at the ceiling as sleep danced away from him. His conversation with Mrs. Nutley that afternoon had conjured the spirit of his last dead wife with such force that even now she was close enough to keep him awake. There were still times when he missed her deeply.
In those days, weeks and months after her death, she came to him in dreams so vivid it was a nightmare waking to find her gone. He could feel her body pressed against him in the dark, the scent of lilac on the pillow where she laid her head, stirring the aching love they shared on so many nights.
He had loved, married and buried three women, all so very different. Elizabeth had been a snug harbor to a sailor newly home from sea. A captain’s daughter, her engaging smile and quick-witted charm captivated him the first day they met. He pledged her a lifetime, but they had less than a year together, just enough time for her to present him with his first-born son. She died the next day. With a warm spot in his broken heart, he headed west to fulfill his promise, the realization of their shared dream. He had no idea how difficult it would be; if he had, it’s likely he would never have started.
Inger was a port in the storm for a poor, wayfaring stranger. Her unconditional kindness was a lifeline for a drowning man, a widower with a sick boy, a man running out of options and faith. She was truly a breath of clean air for one who had been shut up inside himself for so long, and with her patient, gentle ways she taught him how to love again. He was surprised at how easy it was and how right it felt. And by God’s grace she had given him another son. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. The words burned in his throat as he uttered them through trembling lips at her graveside a few weeks later. No more, his raging heart swore; from that day on it would beat only for his sons.
And then he met Marie.
Marie was the sea itself—wild, tumultuous, mercurial; serene on the surface with unfathomable depths below. She washed over him like a forty-foot swell the first time they met. She nearly ran him down with her horse on the Rue Royale, a misstep on his part. He stared into the laughing face above him, high color in her cheeks, and it wasn’t merely the unexpected jolt that quickened his breath as he watched her ride away.
By this time, life had become method and rhythm for Ben Cartwright, building a ranch and raising his sons, and most days he prided himself on admirably managing both. It was a hard climb from where he had been, but with two fine boys and money in the bank, he couldn’t complain, could he? However, managing life is not the same as living, and the difference became crystal clear when he fell in love with Marie. She brought life back to him in crashing waves.
Their marriage might have seemed hasty to some, but his urgency was born of his own experience. Time was a thief, a predator without mercy. A third son soon joined the other two, and three years later, a daughter.
Marie was a devoted mother to all her children, among whom she counted Adam and Hoss; but it was watching her at play with the little ones that always made him smile. That gift had twice been denied him, so he savored it all the more. Until that awful day.
She had been riding, of course. He couldn’t have stopped her any more than he could have dammed up the sea. But he cursed himself for not trying. He moved out of their bedroom shortly afterward because he couldn’t bear to sleep in that bed without her. His heart still thumped in his chest, but otherwise he was a walking dead man. The tide had gone out, and the sea with it, leaving him to drown in the desert.
It was the little ones who eventually rescued him. Joe was five and Jilly was barely two. He watched them together, playing the games they learned from their mother. She had taught them well, and she was still with them. She was there in Joe’s quick laugh, in Jilly’s smiling eyes. “Play with us, Pa,” they coaxed him. Play with your children, Ben, Marie’s voice whispered in his soul. They are life. Don’t turn away.
Once again, by Heaven, he found the strength, if only for the sake of those two hopeful faces; and he vowed to be best father he could be. Though he could swear in good conscience that he loved all his children equally, he had to admit to a desperate love for his two youngest. They were a charge to keep, and he sensed Marie was somehow watching.
Though she wasn’t badly hurt, Jilly’s riding accident unsettled him more than the fever. All he wanted to do was protect her, the way he wasn’t able to protect her mother. It had been relatively easy when she was a little girl. He wasn’t sure how to do it now.
The week ended on a more positive note than it began. The bank in Sacramento had approved Ben’s loan, Joe had finished digging the new outhouse (with a little help from Hoss), and all five Cartwrights presented for breakfast as usual on Saturday morning.
“You’ll never guess who I ran into while I was away,” said Ben, pouring his coffee and not waiting for a response, “Denver McKee.”
“What was he doing in Sacramento?” Adam asked.
“Business of some sort; he didn’t say exactly. We mostly talked about Connie. He says she’s doing real fine at that school back East.”
Jilly, who had yawned through the meal until now, took note of the news. “Poor Connie, I feel sorry for her.”
“I don’t think you should feel sorry for her, Jilly. According to Mr. McKee she’s made a lot of new friends and really likes it there. That’s what she wrote in her last letter.”
“I don’t believe it.”
Ben raised an eyebrow at her over his cup. “You don’t think he would lie about that, do you?”
“No, but…maybe Connie was just trying to make him feel better about sending her away. She didn’t want to go to that school. She said so.”
“Maybe not at first,” said Adam, “but it sounds like Connie might have changed her mind. A person can do that, you know.”
Ben nodded, “Denver said she told him it was the best thing he could have done for her, and she’s very grateful. From what I gathered it’s quite expensive but he said it was worth the sacrifice.”
“Well, I wouldn’t like it,” she frowned.
“What makes you so sure?” Adam asked. “You don’t know anything about it. How do you know you wouldn’t like it?”
“Because I just know,” she hissed through clenched teeth, slamming her fork down and scowling at him.
Eyebrows raised all around the table.
“Jilly, that’s no way to talk to your brother.” Ben’s reprimand was gentle but firm.
She lowered her eyes to the half-empty plate in front of her. “Sorry. May I be excused, please?”
“You haven’t eaten much.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“All right then, you may go,” said her father, after a long pause. He waited until she was upstairs and out of earshot. “What do you make of that?”
“Reckon she’s still off her feed, after bein’ sick and all,” Hoss volunteered.
“I don’t think that’s what Pa meant,” said Adam. “I’m not sure, but maybe we should avoid the subject of Connie McKee for now, since it seems to be a sensitive issue.”
After breakfast Hoss and Joe set up the checkerboard; Adam settled down to read the latest issue of the Alta California. Ben was getting something from the desk when he stopped at the window.
“Looks like we’ve got company.”
“Who is it, Pa?” asked Joe.
“It’s Miss Abigail and her mother.”
The hopeful look on Joe’s face crumbled. “Oh boy.”
“Mind your manners, Short Shanks,” Hoss reminded him.
“Joe, ask Jilly to come down, please,” said Ben before going out to greet their guests.
“JILLY! PA WANTS YOU!” Joe yelled from the bottom of the stairs.
“Not like that! Go up and get her,” Adam frowned.
She emerged from her room just then. “What is it?”
“Company,” said Joe, making a face only she could see.
The front door opened, and Ben escorted the two ladies into the room. “Please, sit down, make yourselves at home. Would you like some coffee, or tea, perhaps?”
“Tea would be lovely, thank you,” Mrs. Nutley smiled.
“Yes, thank you,” said Abigail, joining her mother on the settee as Ben headed to the kitchen. “It’s good to see you, Adam,” she simpered. “I haven’t seen you in town lately.”
“Well, I’ve been busy here on the ranch,” he replied, feeling a bit guilty at being glad for the excuse. “What brings you ladies out this way today? It’s quite a journey.”
“I came to check on my errant pupils and offer my assistance. Naturally, I was horrified when I heard about Jillian’s riding accident, and since she and Joseph have missed a week of school I brought some of their assignments. I wouldn’t want them to get too far behind.”
“I don’t think you’ll have to worry about that, Miss Abigail. They’re both very capable students.” Adam motioned to the pair at the bottom of the stairs. “Why don’t you come over and greet our guests?”
“My, my…” Abigail murmured when she saw Jilly. “That’s a quite a black eye you have, Jillian.”
“That’s nothing. You should have seen her a few days ago,” said Joe. Jilly didn’t reply, acknowledging his comment with an elbow to his ribs.
“You poor dear,” said Mrs. Nutley.
“Of course, if you little varmints had gone home like the sheriff said, it never would have happened,” said Abigail. “Don’t you agree, Adam?”
His father returned with the tea tray, interrupting the conversation. “Here you are, ladies. There’s sugar and cream as well, however you like it.”
“Lovely,” said Mrs. Nutley. She smiled as she poured her cup. “Mr. Cartwright, I do so admire you.”
Ben looked puzzled. “And why is that?”
“I’m sure it must be very difficult raising a daughter out here without a mother, especially at her age.”
Her comment took Adam by surprise, his father too, judging from his face. In the awkward silence of his hesitation, Adam caught Jilly’s eye before she looked away from him, and his heart went out to her. He knew she disliked being the focus of attention, sympathetic or otherwise. At the same time he felt a niggling irritation toward their guests and wondered about the real reason for their coming.
“Well, Mrs. Nutley, in my experience nothing worthwhile is ever easy, but the rewards are often far greater than the difficulties,” said Ben. “Like everyone else, we just do the best we can.”
“And that’s all anyone can do, isn’t that right, Miss Abigail?” Adam engaged her with a smile.
“Well, uh, certainly…” she stammered, blushing under his gaze. “No one would doubt that Mr. Cartwright is indeed a very fine father, but still a young girl like Jillian…”
“Miss Abigail,” Adam leaned over and interrupted her with a hand on her arm, “perhaps we could continue this conversation some other time, in private?”
Her eyes widened and her color deepened as she stared at him. “Yes…” she breathed…then finding her voice, “of course, if you think it best, Adam.” Mrs. Nutley looked on with delighted approval.
After an impromptu lunch as the ladies were preparing to leave, the conversation turned back to the matter of school. “Shall I expect the children in class this week?” Abigail asked.
“I’m sure Joe will be there, but I’m not sure about Jilly,” said Ben. “I think the fever took more out of her than she wants to admit. It’s a long ride back and forth every day.”
“Well, perhaps she wouldn’t have to ride back and forth every day,” said Mrs. Nutley. “We have a spare room. I had planned to take in a boarder but haven’t yet. A woman has to be very careful, you know. Jilly could stay with us in the meantime.”
Abigail’s head bobbed in agreement, her hopeful smile fixed on Adam. He didn’t have to see Jilly’s face to know her feelings on the subject, and that wasn’t the only objectionable reason. His father’s answer relieved him.
“That’s very kind of you, Mrs. Nutley, but I’d like to keep Jilly at home. I’ve been away, you know, and I’d like to be able to look after her myself. You do understand, don’t you?”
Abigail looked a little disappointed when she bid Adam farewell, though she smiled again when she reminded him of their unfinished business—perhaps on his next trip into town?
It was a small sacrifice, he reminded himself.
“Well, that was interesting.”
“Indeed,” Ben replied as they stood in the yard watching Abigail and Mrs. Nutley drive away. “Adam, do you have any idea what’s wrong with Jilly lately?”
“No, but I’m just about the last person she would confide in these days.”
“Not the last.”
“I guess it’s a toss-up between the two of us then. Whatever it is, it’s not just lately. Maybe it’s just growing pains.”
“That’s what worries me.”
“You’re thinking of Connie McKee, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” Ben sighed. “Denver said it was the hardest thing he ever did, but it was the right thing and he knew it, even if she didn’t. It got me thinking about a lot of things I hadn’t been willing to admit. I’m sure you know what I mean.”
“Unfortunately, yes.” During the week of Jilly’s illness Adam was never more grateful to have Mrs. Shaughnessy here to tend to her most personal needs. But she wouldn’t be around forever; in fact, she was planning to move to Sacramento to live with her recently widowed nephew.
“Pa, you’re not thinking of sending her to that school, are you? I know you can afford it but it’s awfully far…and besides, Jilly’s not Connie. It would break her heart.”
“And mine too. I’m afraid I’m not as strong as Denver in that regard. No, I don’t think I could do that. She’s never been away from here a single day in her life without one of us.”
“So where does that leave us?”
“I don’t know. This is uncharted territory for me. I never had to give it a thought before with you boys.”
“Well, it would certainly be easier if she were a son instead of a daughter. I can’t even imagine that though, can you?”
“No, and I wouldn’t change a hair on her head. But I know taking care of her means more than nursing her through a fever or keeping her from falling off a horse.” He cuffed Adam’s shoulder with a rueful grin. “That’s hard enough with sons.”
“Ride him out, Adam! Stay with him!” Hoss leaned against the corral railing where Joe and Jilly were perched watching their oldest brother saddle break a rambunctious mustang. “You watch him now. He’s somethin’, ain’t he?”
“Yeah, that horse is really somethin’,” Joe grinned.
“I think he meant Adam,” said Jilly.
“Pay attention and you might learn a thing or two,” said Hoss, just before Adam bounced into the dirt. “You all right?” He sprang away from the railing to offer his assistance.
“Yeah, just dusty.” Adam brushed himself off while Hoss calmed the frightened animal.
“Well, that was educational,” quipped Joe, hopping off the fence. “Hey Adam, how about lettin’ me try?”
“You’ve gotta be kidding.”
“Why would you think I’m kidding?”
“Why indeed?” Adam looked only slightly amused. “Not now, Joe.”
“Come on, Adam. All I want is a chance.”
“You’ll get your chance, but not today.”
“When I say so, that’s when.”
“And who knows when that’ll be.”
Adam grabbed Joe’s arm. “It’ll be when I think you’re ready and not before. Is that clear? You may have been able to talk Pa into letting you stay home from school these past few days, but don’t expect to come down here and wheedle your way onto one of these horses. I’m the boss here and what I say goes. If you can’t wrap your hard head around that, then you can just leave. And that goes for you too,” he scowled at Jilly.
“What did I do?”
“For starters, I told you to stay on that fence. You’re not to set foot in this corral. I’ve warned you about that more than once.”
Joe was fuming, headed toward the barn when Jilly caught up with him. “Where are you going?”
“Nowhere. None of your business.”
He shrugged her off. “Just leave me alone, Jilly. Go back to the house.”
For once in her life his sister did as she was told. She didn’t even argue with him; so much the better. He saddled his horse and did what he always did whenever he needed to cool off. Without much of a thought to where he was going, he drove out of the barn and put the wind at his back.
It didn’t take him long to realize he’d been wrong, about Jilly at least. He reined Cochise to a stop, frowning as she approached. “What are you doing out here? You’re not even supposed to be riding.”
“Pa didn’t exactly say that. Besides, I’m tired of just sitting around.”
“Well, I told you to leave me alone.”
“If you go, I go—that’s how it is. You said so yourself.”
“This is different, Jilly.”
“I don’t see it that way.”
“I don’t want you here, understand? Now, go home!”
She bit her lip, looking a little stung, but instead of turning around she pulled alongside him. “I understand you’re mad, Joe. You don’t have to talk to me, and I won’t say a word if that’s how it needs to be. But I’m not going home.”
He drew in a breath and let it out with a curse; she didn’t flinch. That’s when he knew she’d made up her mind and nothing was going to change it. He was stuck with her.
“All right, but you’d better keep up,” he warned over his shoulder.”
“Don’t worry. I caught you, didn’t I?”
Jilly stayed true to her word, both in keeping silent and keeping up. Joe had to give her credit for that. It was a far cry from the days where she trailed after him as more of a nuisance than anything else. To be honest, she was a pretty good rider – not nearly as good as him, but much better than last year since she’d grown a couple of inches. The fact that they were almost the same height didn’t bother him too much anymore; after all, he was still a growing boy whose father hadn’t reached his full height until he was nearly eighteen.
When they stopped to rest the horses, Joe’s stomach reminded him they had missed lunch. He pulled some jerky from his saddlebag as a peace offering. “Sorry, it’s all we’ve got.”
“Not all.” She reached into her own saddlebag and tossed him an apple.
“Hey, thanks.” He peered over her shoulder. “Got anything else in there?”
“Just soda biscuits and hard boiled eggs—that’s all I had time for.”
“That’ll do,” he grinned. “You may just be worth somethin’ after all.”
“Are we talking now?”
He ducked his head, remembering his harshness earlier. “Sorry.”
She shrugged as if it didn’t matter.
“No, really; I shouldn’t have talked to you that way before. I am sorry, Jilly.”
She looked surprised, and then the corners of her mouth turned up slowly. “Well, there’s no need to get mushy about it. Let’s eat. I’m hungry.”
If Joe had wanted to get mushy, he could have told her how much he hated being in school without her, especially since Mitch wasn’t there either. He supposed Miss Jones wasn’t a bad teacher overall, but she did tend to go on about some things; and when her voice reached a certain pitch and remained there for any length of time it was enough to put him to sleep. Literally. When she rapped on his desk that first day he nearly jumped out of his skin, giving the other students a good laugh. And as much as he hated to admit it, Jilly was right about Anna Mae Shivers, whose charming assets couldn’t make up for the fact that she was, indeed, dumb as a post.
After three days, he was so miserable it didn’t take much to convince Pa that something was no doubt amiss and perhaps it would be wise for him to stay home the rest of the week. He looked appropriately listless when Pa checked his forehead for any sign of fever while his brothers rolled their eyes in the background. Well, let ‘em roll. Adam and Hoss didn’t have to sit in class with Miss Jones, so what did they know?
They finished their lunch and watered the horses at a nearby rivulet, transparent as it rippled over the stones forming the bed. He knelt to refill their canteens, handing hers up first.
“Can I ask you something?”
She waited for him to stand. “Tell me about Mama.”
He took a long drink before answering. “What do you wanna know?”
“I want to know what you remember. What was she like?”
A sigh escaped him. His memories of his mother were mostly sensory now, but there were things he remembered.
“She was beautiful, just like her picture. And she smelled like flowers—roses, lilacs.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “She had this green velvet dress, my favorite. I remember sitting on her lap in church, rubbing my cheek on her sleeve, breathing in her perfume while she stroked my hair. I remember her reading to Hoss and me at bedtime and giving us extra cookies. I remember her rocking me to sleep, humming in my ear. She used to sing us a song about pretty horses; do you remember it?”
“I also remember her sitting in the floor with the two of us. We were building a block tower just so you could knock it down as soon as it was finished. Her hair was unpinned, and she was laughing. We were all laughing.” He smiled at the memory and looked over at her. “You’ve got her eyes.” He had never really noticed before.
“That’s just about the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
He cleared his throat to swallow the lump that had formed there. “Yeah well, don’t cry about it, okay?”
Bending down once more to top off his canteen, he heard his name again. “What now?” When she didn’t answer he straightened up and turned around to see what had suddenly struck her dumb.
Two braves on horseback. Paiutes.
The first brave, atop a gray paint, wore only a breech cloth and leggings, revealing a smooth, muscular chest. His black hair loosely brushed the top of his powerful shoulders. The second, slighter and clad in a buckskin tunic and pants, sported two long braids. They appeared to be somewhere in their early to mid-twenties. Neither looked friendly.
The Cartwrights and the Paiutes had shared the land ever since Joe could remember. They had even traded together; in fact, Joe’s own horse had been acquired from Chief Winnemucca in return for a buffalo gun. But it was a tenuous relationship at best. The Paiutes could turn like the weather. Pa regarded them with a healthy mix of respect and mistrust and had taught his sons to do the same.
An uncomfortable silence hung in the air until the first brave spoke. “You are the brother of Adam Cartwright. That is your sister?”
Joe instinctively stepped in front of her, holding his gaze steady as he answered, “Yes.”
The brave said something unintelligible to the other, who nodded and gave a snort, almost a laugh. Joe frowned.
He spoke again, his face a stern mask. “I also had a sister. She died of the white man’s fever.”
The four of them stared at each other. Joe wasn’t sure what else to do. At that moment, he wasn’t thinking of himself, only Jilly. If they were in trouble it was surely his fault, as Adam’s words about leading her into danger accused him.
“Go home, little brother. Take care of your sister,” said the brave, just before he and his companion wheeled their horses around and loped away.
“Do you know him?” she asked, wide-eyed.
“Never seen him before.”
“How did he know Adam is our brother?”
“I think the Paiutes probably know more about us than we know about them, Jilly. Besides, Adam has made friends with a few.” Maybe he was one of them. Joe couldn’t be sure.
“What do you suppose they wanted?”
“Aw, they probably just wanted us to know they were watching. Their camp is on the other side of those trees.” Joe hadn’t realized they were so close. “But don’t worry. Pa and Chief Winnemucca have an understanding,” he assured her. “We don’t bother them and they don’t bother us.”
Back on his horse, his insides settled enough for him to enjoy the look of wonder and admiration on her face. He’d never let her know how scared he was. “We’d better head home.”
“Which way? I don’t even know where we are.”
“It’s a good thing you’re with me then,” he grinned. “Come on, I know a short cut.”
The adrenaline pounding his veins found release in the open meadow where he gave Cochise his head. Hang school. This is how he would live if he had his choice, because he never felt more connected to the earth than through the galloping hooves of a good horse.
Those were Joe’s last coherent thoughts before that connection was unceremoniously interrupted, and in the seconds that followed, surprise, fear, and pain ebbed into blackness.
It was only a few seconds, but they would play over and over in Jilly’s mind for a long time after—the horror of Cochise stumbling and rolling in front of her, Joe’s limbs flailing as he pitched forward into the grass.
Her own horse shied but she stuck in the saddle this time, averting a collision and further disaster. Cochise scrambled to his feet but Joe didn’t move. An icy sweat of terror engulfed her, sucking the air from her lungs as she raced toward him.
He was on his side; his eyes were closed and he didn’t move a hair when she called his name, not even a twitch. He was so still she checked twice to make sure he was breathing. She had no idea how badly he was hurt or what to do about it if he didn’t wake up and tell her.
She grabbed her canteen and wet her bandana, wringing the water onto his face and mopping it up. “Please wake up, Joe, please!” He groaned but didn’t open his eyes. She continued her efforts until he rolled over on his back and cried out in agony.
Through tears she watched his eyelids flutter. “Pa,” he moaned. “Sorry…” Then he was quiet and still once more.
A shuddering fear wormed from the pit of her stomach into her throat as she knelt next to him. Joe had always been the one to lead them out of a scrape, no matter how frightening. He had never failed her. But he needed her now. He was hurt, maybe dying for all she knew, and she didn’t know how to help him. She didn’t even know how to get home. And no one knew where they were.
“Please, God—tell me what to do.”
It was a desperate prayer, and in the silence of the meadow there was no answer. With the sun dipping lower in the sky over her shoulder, Jilly put her head in her hands and cried.
A voice inside shook the tears out of her. Don’t be a ninny, crying won’t help. Think, Jilly, think… What would Joe do? For one thing, he would know the way home. Why hadn’t she paid more attention to where they were going instead of just following him blind? Maybe it would have saved them some grief, like Adam said. “You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, don’t be afraid to use it….”
What would Adam do? He certainly wouldn’t cry. He wasn’t emotional like Joe or Hoss, or even Pa. She had seen them all shed tears at one time or another; never Adam. He always used his head. But she was nothing like Adam, and she’d never imagined trying to think like him, so what was the use?
She wondered if they had been missed by now. Probably, but she didn’t know how long it would take for someone to find them. They had water enough, jerky and a couple of biscuits, so they wouldn’t starve even if Joe woke up enough to eat. She swabbed his face again. The problem with staying here was that she didn’t know how badly he was hurt and if there was even time to wait.
The idea of spending the night in the open meadow raised more worries. They’d have no fire, and who knew what kind of wild animals might come prowling after dark. She could use Joe’s rifle if she had to, but if her last attempt was any measure of her ability they would be sitting ducks no matter. At least it seemed they wouldn’t have to worry about the Paiutes.
A thought swirled in her head that she immediately tried to dismiss, but it was too stubborn. The Paiute camp wasn’t far, if Joe had been right. Maybe she could find it. Oh, but she couldn’t go there, could she? The prospect filled her with new dread. Would she be welcome? Would they even understand her? At least one of them spoke English. And he knew Adam.
She set Joe’s canteen next to him and leaned over to whisper, “I’m sorry, Joe. I can’t get you home by myself. I’ve got to get help. I love you and I’ll be back soon, I promise.”
“Their camp is on the other side of those trees.”
That’s what Joe had said, and that’s the direction the two braves were headed before they disappeared from view. Jilly wiped her sweaty palms on her trousers and took a deep breath to try to calm her runaway heart. Joe needs you, she reminded herself. For once in her life, someone was depending on her, and she couldn’t let him down.
She nudged her pony into the shadowy wood, threading her way through the pines and the aspens, careful to note the way she had come. Joe had said the Paiutes had been watching them; maybe they were watching her now. Maybe they would find her before she found the camp. Either way, it didn’t matter as long as she could get help.
The trees spread out as the land sloped toward a small valley. She smelled the campfire smoke before she reached the clearing, and there it was. It had been easier than she thought, but she knew the hard part was yet to come, and suddenly she was terrified, more than she had ever been. It wasn’t fear for her life; it was fear of failing and what that might mean for Joe. For all of them.
Please, God. Make them listen. And keep Joe safe.
She was preparing to go down when she heard a noise behind her. A mix of relief and dread washed over her as the two Paiutes approached. So they had been following her.
The stern one spoke, “Little Sister, why do you come here alone? Where is your brother?”
The words tumbled out of her almost in one breath, “He was thrown from his horse in the meadow…he’s hurt and needs help…please….”
He said something to the other one, who looked at her and frowned before answering. Jilly couldn’t understand them but they seemed to be at odds.
“Lean Knife says this is not our concern, that we risk bringing trouble on ourselves by the foolishness of children.”
Jilly trembled, both in anger and in fear. “Does he speak for you? What do you say?” There was something in his face, stern though it was, that gave her hope. “My brother could die if you don’t come! Please!”
He didn’t answer her right away, continuing his discourse with the other brave. Finally, he said, “We will take you to our camp. You will be safe there. We will bring your brother.”
“No! I’m going with you. I promised him I would come back.” That was a promise she intended to keep, no matter what else happened.
He stared at her and grunted, somehow looking a little less forbidding. He spoke again to Lean Knife, who scowled in return. A moment later the three of them turned back through the trees toward the meadow.
“The Lord moves in mysterious ways”—it was one of those Pa-isms that Jilly had never found in her bible but seemed to be divinely true. It meant that God sometimes answered prayers in ways people weren’t expecting, or that some things happened for reasons they didn’t understand until much later. When she prayed for help that day, she hadn’t really expected it in the form of a stoic Paiute and his grumpy companion. But she was grateful for however it came.
His name was Tukwa, she learned. Lean Knife was his cousin.
When they arrived back at the meadow, Joe hadn’t moved. Jilly didn’t know whether that was good or bad, but at least he was still breathing. Tukwa knelt next to him, probing for injuries, and she was almost surprised at his gentleness. No broken ribs, but when he squeezed Joe’s upper right arm he winced and moaned. Tukwa carefully unbuttoned his shirt, revealing a grisly purple shoulder with an unnatural lump at the top.
She gasped. “Is it broken?”
“Maybe yes, maybe no. Either way there is much pain. We will take him to the camp so our women may tend to him. Winnemucca must also know of this.”
“How will we get him there if he can’t ride?”
He didn’t answer her; instead he addressed Lean Knife, who sat down at Joe’s head. Tukwa removed his hunting knife from its sheath and began cutting Joe’s shirt from just below the collar lengthwise down the sleeves. Lean Knife placed his hands under Joe’s back, lifting him enough to free it from beneath him. Tukwa folded the body of the shirt into a sling for Joe’s arm, securing it with the sleeves tied together around his neck.
The movement elicited more moans, and Joe’s eyes flicked open in pain and confusion. “Pa…”
Tukwa placed his hand on Joe’s head, “Lie still, Little Brother.”
The lines faded from Joe’s brow, and he closed his eyes once more. “Adam…I knew you’d come.”
Jilly’s throat ached with unshed tears. Adam, I wish you were here.
The ride to camp was tedious and slow for Joe’s sake. Groggy and mostly unaware of his surroundings, he rode with Tukwa, braced against his chest and steadied by his strong arms. Jilly followed, leading Cochise. Lean Knife rode ahead of them to make preparations.
Chief Winnemucca greeted them when they arrived. Jilly understood the gist of what he and Tukwa were saying even if she didn’t know the language, especially when she heard her father’s name. Tukwa handed Joe down to two of the young men who carried him into a tipi. She started to follow them but he stopped her.
“Winnemucca says I must take you to your father and tell him we will care for his son until he comes for him.”
“No!” She supposed they could force her, but that’s the only way she would leave this place without Joe. “I can’t go home now; my brother needs me. Please, Chief Winnemucca, I mean no disrespect to you but I have to stay with my brother. My father would want me to stay. Send someone for him, and let me stay until he comes. Please,” she implored Tukwa. “Tell him.”
The two men exchanged glances. Tukwa said nothing. Winnemucca answered instead, “You have told him yourself. Let it be so.”
The sun was sinking and supper was on the table, but the three Cartwrights seated there were merely going through the motions of eating. They took turns glancing at the clock until Ben finally slammed his fork on the table and rose from his chair to look out the window as he had done at least half a dozen times that afternoon.
“This is ridiculous! I’ve just about had it with those two. They know better than to ride off without telling anyone; and they certainly know to be back here in time for dinner!” It was easier to give voice to anger than to the worry gnawing his insides, but he knew he wasn’t fooling Adam or Hoss, who felt as he did.
“I guess maybe I was a little hard on Joe this morning,” Adam frowned.
Hoss shook his head. “No, you weren’t. He had it comin’.”
“Either way, it’s no excuse for this.” Ben scowled at the clock once more before retrieving his holster and gun from the credenza. His boys were right behind him.
From the porch, they saw two riders approaching. Adam recognized one of them. “It’s been a long time, Tukwa,” he greeted him. “What brings you here?”
Tukwa nodded, “Yes, many moons, Adam Cartwright. Winnemucca sent me with a message for your father.”
“Yes?” Ben frowned.
“Your children are in our camp. Your son has been injured.”
“Joe? How? Is he all right?”
“He was thrown from his horse. His shoulder may be broken. Our women are caring for him.”
“What about my daughter?”
“She is well. It was her wish to stay with her brother until you come.”
“I’m coming now, as soon as I saddle my horse,” said Ben. “Adam, you and Hoss pack some blankets and food; bring the wagon. We’ll need it for Joe.”
Joe woke up agitated when they brought him in, but Jilly was able to calm him by assuring him she was all right, Cochise was fine, and Pa was surely on his way. A gray-haired Paiute woman applied a strong-smelling poultice to Joe’s shoulder. She spoke only a few words of broken English but her kindness needed no translation. A young girl about Jilly’s age brought a small wooden bowl of willow bark tea—good for pain, the woman said. Their tender ministrations left an indelible imprint on Jilly’s impressionable young heart as she watched.
Stifled by the air inside the tipi where Joe lay sleeping, Jilly ducked outside to breathe and stretch her legs. She hadn’t realized how tired she was until now. Night had fallen, bringing a chill from the mountains, and a round white moon peered through the trees.
The young girl who brought the tea motioned her to the campfire and pressed a bowl into her hand. Clearly it was food, and Jilly was expected to eat it, but she didn’t have any idea what it was except it was some sort of meat. She smiled her thanks and took a small piece so as not to be rude. It wasn’t the worst thing she’d ever tasted, but in truth she’d have to be starving before she could eat much more of it.
They sat down together at the campfire. The girl smiled and touched her chest. “Saratucci,” she said.
“Jilly,” she replied, indicating herself and smiling.
“Jilly,” Saratucci repeated. She fingered the yellow ribbon on one of Jilly’s braids.
“Do you like it?” Jilly untied it and offered it to her.
She smiled. Jilly tied the ribbon into a bow on one of Saratucci’s braids, and then did the same with the other. The girl laughed, and so did she.
The old woman from the tipi joined them at the campfire. She smiled at Saratucci’s delight and then put her hand on Jilly’s shoulder. “Father comes,” she said, pointing.
There was Pa, like something out of a dream, sweeping her into his arms.
“Are you all right, sweetheart?”
Blinking back tears, she could only nod.
“Let me look at you,” said Pa, cupping her chin in his hand. “Tukwa told me what happened. You were very brave, and I’m so proud of you.”
“Have you seen Joe?”
“I just looked in on him. He’s still sleeping.”
“He’s gonna be all right, Pa—he is, isn’t he?” It was her secret fear, that in spite of everything, he might not be.
“He’ll be fine in a few days. We just need to get him home.”
By the time Adam and Hoss arrived with the wagon, Joe was awake; still groggy, memory vague, but he recognized the faces around him.
“Pa,” he mumbled.
“Right here, son.”
“She’s here; everyone’s here,” Pa assured him as he stroked his hair.
“Hey, little brother.”
“Hey Hoss; Adam.”
“How do you feel, Joe?” Adam asked, examining his shoulder.
Joe winced. “Not too bad.”
“What do you think, Adam?”
“I agree with you, Pa, not broken, just dislocated. I think it’s better to take care of it now than later.”
“All right,” said Pa. “Hoss, would you take Jilly outside, please?”
“Sure, Pa. Come on, Little Bit.”
She cast an anxious glance at Joe before leaving with Hoss. “What are they going to do?” she asked.
“They’re gonna pop that shoulder back in place where it belongs. Don’t worry, Adam and Pa know what they’re doin’, and it’ll make the ride home easier for Joe.”
Home. It felt like forever since she left. Her eyes stung, and she was so tired.
“You all right?”
She nodded, not looking at him.
All the tears she had been saving that day flowed freely then in the refuge of her brother’s embrace.
It was time to leave. Joe was bedded down in the wagon with plenty of quilts and blankets; Cochise and Brownie were tied to the back. Saratucci gave Jilly a cardinal feather as a gift. Tukwa said the red bird was a good omen and the feather would bring her luck. He almost smiled.
With thanks and goodbyes exchanged all around, they would soon be on their way.
“Daughter of Ben Cartwright.”
Jilly had never contemplated the voice of God but if she had, she might have imagined it just like Chief Winnemucca’s. She turned to face him, more in awe than fear.
“You bring honor to your father.”
She felt Pa’s grip on her shoulder tighten, and she thought she saw tears in his eyes when he smiled at her, but it might have been the moonlight.
Hoss was grinning from ear to ear. Adam’s expression was more thoughtful, and when he lifted her into the back of the wagon with Joe, he kissed her cheek.
“You’d better get some sleep. It’ll be a long ride home.”
Joe was sleeping again. He looked so much like a little boy that without thinking, she reached over and brushed a curl from his forehead. What are you dreaming now that makes you smile? She didn’t want to think it was Anna Mae. Perhaps it was their mother. Yes, surely it was.
Jilly stretched out next to him and pulled the blanket over her. The night was clear and cold, and a twinkling net of stars stretched across the sky as far as she could see. The wagon creaked forward and suddenly she was five years old again, trundling home from the barn raising at Connie McKee’s, snuggled beneath the quilt with Joe’s soft snoring in her ear. The stars came closer and closer, until she was caught up in them, and there was a lullaby somewhere at the edge of her dream.
Blacks and bays, dapples and grays,
All the pretty little horses.
Joe milked his injury for all it was worth over the next few weeks and got his wish. He no longer had to endure the tedium of Miss Jones’s classroom. She was kind enough to prepare lessons for him to complete at home, and Jilly studied along with him. When they took their exams at the end of the term they were both at the top of the class, to the great surprise of their teacher.
The mantle of summer, comforting in its familiarity, settled over the Ponderosa with warm lingering days and balmy, cloudless nights. There are rare times when all seems right with the world, and for Jilly this was one of those times. But the world turns imperceptibly, and an ordinary day can become extraordinary without warning.
“Hey everybody, Pa’s home!” called Joe. “Let’s eat. I’m starved!”
“Pa, you made it back just in time.” Hoss laughed. “I don’t know how much longer we could’ve held Little Joe back from the table.”
“Hey, I’m a growin’ boy,” Joe protested good-naturedly, already seated and unfolding his napkin.
Ben chuckled, shaking his head. His youngest son’s latest growth spurt was a source of amusement to the family; so far, the only thing that had grown was his appetite.
Adam took his seat next to Ben. “Did you get the mail, Pa?”
“Yes, that book you ordered came in. Speaking of mail, I got a letter from Miles and Margaret Hightower. It looks like they’ll be paying us a visit soon.”
“Ain’t they the folks with all them girls?” Hoss grinned at Adam.
Adam rolled his eyes. Miles Hightower was an old friend of Pa’s from the army. He and his wife Margaret had three daughters—Barbara, Alice Ann and Gertrude, called Trudy. The Hightower girls were popular in San Francisco society and suitors were not scarce, but it was no secret that over the years Mrs. Hightower had been holding out for a Cartwright, namely Adam. At this point Trudy was her last hope. She was a nice girl, not unattractive, but with a rather forward manner and a laugh like a braying mule. Adam winced at the recollection.
Ben suppressed a smile. “Well, I hate to disappoint any of you, but apparently Trudy got married a couple of months ago. So we’ll only have two guests this time.”
Adam let out the breath he had been holding unaware with such a force that the whole table erupted in laughter.
“When are they coming, Pa?” asked Jilly.
“They’ll arrive day after tomorrow. That doesn’t leave much time for getting ready. I’ll need you all to pitch in.”
A lively discussion of plans and preparations followed. “Company” on the Ponderosa was always a festive occasion, and Jilly looked forward to their guests’ arrival. Little did she know how much her life was about to change.
Adam flinched as Hoss rubbed bear grease into the stinging wound on his shoulder.
“Sorry,” said Hoss. “But you ought to know better than to turn your back on a wild mustang.”
“Yeah, Adam,” said Joe. “What’d you go and do a fool thing like that for?”
Adam shot a dark look at his youngest brother, who seemed to find a sadistic humor in his discomfort. He was tired and irritated and soaked in sweat after trying to get a saddle on that black stallion all morning. The fact that the horse had bitten him added injury to insult.
“That horse has a devil in him.”
“Sure he does,” said Joe, a little too agreeably, with a knowing look at Jilly.
“I’m telling you, he’s got a real mean streak!” said Adam, his voice rising.
“Black Star’s not mean,” said Jilly. “He’s just scared. How would you feel if someone took you away from your home and dropped you in a strange place with strange people? He just needs a friend.”
Adam stabbed a finger toward her. “You stay away from him.”
Jilly arched her eyebrows. “What do you mean?”
He stood up, buttoning his shirt. She knew exactly what he meant. Lately, Jilly and horses were like ticks on a hound, and she had already taken it on herself to name this one. “You heard me. I don’t want you anywhere near that horse until I break him. He’s dangerous.”
“Adam’s right, Jilly,” said Hoss. “An animal like that is just plumb unpredictable.”
“JOSEPH! JILLIAN!” Pa’s voice bellowed through the open window.
Joe and Jilly grimaced at each other. They had only half finished mucking the stalls when the commotion in the corral lured them away. Joe sighed. “Well, I guess the fun’s all over now. Come on, let’s go.” He tugged one of her braids.
Jilly followed him through the door, then ducked her head back in. “I’m really sorry he bit you, Adam, but you should try being nicer to him next time.”
The door shut quickly before he could respond. Who did she think she was, telling him how to handle a horse? “Can you believe that?”
Hoss shrugged. “Might be worth a try,” he muttered, avoiding his dumbfounded brother’s gaze directly.
“Suddenly everyone’s a critic.” He flexed his shoulder. It was sore, but not enough to keep him from using it. “Thanks, Hoss.”
Hoss grinned. “Anytime, brother.”
Adam stepped out onto the porch contemplating the unruly beast in the corral. He was one prime piece of horseflesh, all right. Adam decided to give him a wide berth for a while, hoping Jilly had sense enough to do the same. She was a smart girl, but unpredictable herself sometimes. He hoped today hadn’t given her any big ideas.
Black Star had been watching Jilly, but she had pretended not to notice. Acknowledging him for the first time that morning, she met his eyes from across the corral as they appraised one another. He was bigger than Brownie, solid black with a white star on his forehead. And he was the most beautiful horse she had ever seen.
She paused at the gate but swallowed the urge to open it and go inside. After all, Adam and Hoss had both warned her to “stay away from that horse,” as if she hadn’t been around horses her whole life. Older brothers could be a bother sometimes. Lucky for her they weren’t around. Joe and Hoss had gone with Pa to Genoa to meet the stage. Adam had ridden off somewhere earlier; she didn’t know when he would be back.
Jilly hoisted herself onto the fence railing and carefully swung her legs over. There was no harm in sitting. “You just need a friend, don’t you boy?” she murmured, her eyes locked on his. She kept talking, her voice barely above a whisper as he watched her. His big body was motionless, not lifting a hoof. He wouldn’t hurt her, no matter what any of them said. She eased herself down inside the corral, one foot on the ground, then the other.
Keeping her hands loose at her sides, she took a step forward, then another. “You understand me, don’t you?” The horse took a step back. “It’s okay, boy. I just want to be your friend. I’m not here to hurt you.” She kept her voice and her arms low, edging closer. Black Star dropped his head slightly, his ears relaxed. She was near enough to touch him but thought it better not to rush the introduction. Suddenly the horse jerked his head up and tensed his neck, flaring his nostrils at something behind her. Jilly heard someone call her name.
Adam was home.
“Don’t turn around, just back up slowly to the fence.”
“Quiet. Just do it.”
His voice was calm and measured, but Jilly knew that tone, and her stomach sank like a rock. As she stepped back, the horse moved with her, stopping short of the fence.
“Now climb out, easy.”
Jilly kept her eyes on Black Star as she lifted herself up and over. She had taken a risk and hadn’t figured on getting caught. Standing in front of her big brother now, she wasn’t sure it was worth it. Adam looked as angry as she’d ever seen him.
“What in heaven’s name were you doing in there? That horse could have killed you!”
“But Adam, didn’t you see…?”
He interrupted her. “What I saw was a little girl being willfully disobedient. Didn’t I tell you yesterday to stay away from that horse? What got into you? And don’t you dare say you forgot. Well?”
She felt the color rising in her cheeks. “I’m tired of everyone around here treating me like a baby!” It wasn’t an excuse, just an honest sentiment.
“Well, then don’t act like one!”
Black Star whinnied and tossed his head. They watched as he reared up and delivered a crashing foreleg blow to the ground.
“Did you see that? Now you tell me honestly, do you still think he’s not dangerous?”
Jilly squinted up at him. “Maybe he doesn’t like you yelling at me.”
Adam’s mouth was a grim line, his jaw muscles clenched. “All right, we’ll take it inside. After you.”
The silent walk to the house seemed longer than usual. She had no defense for her actions. She had gambled and lost and would have to take what was coming to her. She was not a baby.
Adam closed the door and hung his hat on the wall. He took his time unbuckling his gun belt and putting it away before he spoke again. “I’m sorry I yelled at you, Jilly, but you can’t just do whatever you please whenever you want.” He paused and rubbed the back of his head. “I know you didn’t think that horse would hurt you, and I’m thankful he didn’t, but that was a real possibility you chose to ignore, in spite of what you were told. Suppose he had hurt you, or someone else who might have had to go in there after you? You didn’t think about that, did you?”
Jilly hung her head. She honestly had not.
“You and Joe, you don’t think about anybody but yourselves. What I mean is you don’t think about consequences and how they can also affect others. As a part of this family, you have a responsibility to the people who love you to take care of yourself. Bad things can happen even when you’re being careful, but you put yourself in danger needlessly, and for what? To please yourself. That’s selfish. And childish. If I sound angry, it’s because I am. Let me put it bluntly. If something awful happened to you, it would just about kill Pa. He’s had enough tragedy in his life already. So if nothing else, think about that the next time you get it into your head to do something…stupid.”
She wanted to say she was sorry but didn’t trust her voice to speak. She wouldn’t cry in front of Adam. She bit her lip and stood there, waiting.
“I swear, somebody ought to take you over his knee and teach you a lesson you’ll remember before it’s too late,” he sighed, “but it’s not going to be me.” His brows relaxed, and he looked more solemn than angry. “Go upstairs and get cleaned up. Pa and the others will be home soon.”
She started slowly up the stairs, pausing to look back. He was massaging his forehead, frowning like he had a headache, and she guessed she was to blame for that. He must have felt her eyes on him because he glanced up. The look on his face tore at her heart. She’d have to hurry to her room to make good on her promise not to cry.
Adam wasn’t surprised that Jilly barely acknowledged him when she took her seat next to him at dinner. Her hair was loosed from the braids and tucked behind one ear with the silver comb he had brought her from San Francisco for her last birthday, he noted, and it made her look older. Pa had been pleased and proud when she presented herself to Mr. and Mrs. Hightower in her best dress with her most gracious manners. She had been mostly quiet that afternoon, speaking only when spoken to, and only Adam knew why.
“Pa, would you please pass the salt?” she asked.
The shaker was on the table between Ben and Adam. “Your brother is sitting right next to you; why didn’t you ask him?”
She stared at her plate without answering. Adam set the shaker down next to her. “There you are.”
“Thank you.” She didn’t look at him.
Ben cocked an eyebrow toward Adam. “Is there something I should know?”
Adam threw a long look at Jilly before he answered, “No, nothing.” He turned to Ben and smiled, “Everything’s fine, Pa.”
Satisfied, Ben turned his attention back to Miles and the price of beef in San Francisco. Out of the corner of his eye, Adam caught her watching him. He winked at her. She said nothing, but returned to her plate with that familiar half-smile on her face, a good sign. He glanced at the guest sitting across from her. Margaret Hightower was watching Jilly, as she had been since their arrival, and he wondered what she might be thinking.
Jilly arrived at the breakfast table the next morning out of breath and fifteen minutes behind everyone else. She’d had a hard time getting to sleep and woke up tired, but Pa would likely see that as a poor excuse. He expected punctuality at mealtimes, especially with company in the house.
“Mornin’, lazy Mary.”
She ignored Joe as she sat down, offering a meek apology to her father instead, “Sorry, Pa.” She pulled her suspender strap back onto her shoulder and crossed her fingers that he wouldn’t send her upstairs to change into a dress.
Ben’s mood was jovial. “Well, we’re just delighted you could join us this morning, Jilly. Miles, how about some more coffee?”
Relieved, she helped herself to a serving of scrambled eggs. “Pass the salt, please.”
“Why do you always do that?” Adam asked.
“Ask for salt before you even taste your food. Maybe it doesn’t need it.”
“I like salt.”
“Here,” said Joe. “Have all you want.”
“Thanks.” She turned the shaker upside down and the lid fell onto her plate, along with the contents.
Jilly’s face burned. “Joe Cartwright! I ought to box your ears for this!”
“I didn’t do anything!” Joe tried his best to look innocent but he didn’t fool her, not for one second.
“You’re a flannel-mouth liar!” she accused him, swatting him on the side of the head.
“Jillian!” Ben looked aghast. “Mind your manners and your tongue, young lady!”
“Pa, he ruined my breakfast!”
Ben glowered at Joe. “Joseph, what on earth possessed you to do such a thing?”
“It must be broken I guess….” Joe’s voice trailed off as he withered under his father’s scowl. He rubbed the side of his head.
Adam picked up the shaker and screwed the lid on tightly. “It seems to be in working order now.”
Ben frowned. “Since the two of you don’t seem to know how to conduct yourselves in front of company, you can just finish your breakfast in the kitchen.”
“Now Pa, that don’t hardly seem fair…” said Hoss, trying to keep a straight face, “…punishin’ poor old Hop Sing like that.”
“I’m finished, Pa,” said Joe, “so if I could just be excused…”
“I’m not hungry anymore, and I don’t want to eat in the same room with him anyway…”
The conversation grew louder and more heated as they tried to talk over each other, until their father interjected.
“Quiet!” Ben closed his eyes and looked to Jilly as though he were praying for what he frequently called Almighty Guidance. When he spoke again his voice was lower but just as firm. “I want the two of you to apologize to Mr. and Mrs. Hightower for your behavior this morning.”
“Sorry ma’am. Sorry sir,” said Joe to their guests, whose collective gaze focused on Jilly.
“Me too; I’m sorry,” Jilly blushed further under their scrutiny.
“Now to each other,” said Ben.
Jilly glared at her brother. This was his fault. She had only given him what he deserved for that little prank, but she would never get out of there without an apology, and that was all she wanted to do. “Sorry,” she mumbled.
“Likewise,” he muttered, rolling his eyes.
“All right,” said Ben. “You may be excused. Go do something… constructive, hmm?”
The two raced for the door like a pair of jackrabbits, but Jilly turned back to the table to snatch the biscuit from her plate before she was off again. Adam and Hoss grinned at each other; Ben just shook his head. “There go the two main reasons I have all this gray hair,” he quipped. “It’s not always easy keeping them reined in. I hope you’ll pardon them.”
“My word…” Margaret whispered to her husband. “Did you see…?”
“I was thinking the very same thing.”
She explained, “Oh Ben, we’re used to children, young girls especially.” Her blue-gray eyes crinkled in a smile. “We think Jilly is lovely…she reminds us so much of our Claire.”
Ben looked puzzled. “Claire?”
“Claire was our second oldest,” Miles explained, “a year behind Barbara. She died when she was just about Jilly’s age. Typhus.”
Ben’s eyes softened in sympathy. “I had no idea. I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right, really,” said Miles. “We often talk about her; it’s our way of keeping her close to us.” He smiled at his wife, and she patted his hand. “The others are grown and gone now, but Claire will always be our little girl. She could be full of pepper sometimes,” he laughed, “but I daresay a sweeter child never lived.”
Ben smiled in empathy. “Sugar and spice.”
“Don’t forget the salt.” Adam raised the shaker in a mock toast. “To young girls everywhere.”
The others laughed in unison. “Here, here!” exclaimed Miles.
That evening after supper, the family gathered in the great room. Ben poured a brandy for Miles and one for himself. “Would you like some coffee or tea, Margaret?”
“No thank you, Ben. My hands are occupied.” She held up a delicate weave of pastel yarns.
“What are you making?” Jilly asked, sitting down next to her on the sofa.
“I’m crocheting a blanket for my first grandchild.” Alice Ann was due to give birth in a few months. Margaret smiled at Jilly. “Would you like me to show you how?”
Jilly nodded. Margaret gave her a crochet hook and some yarn and guided her hands through several steps until she had made a chain. “There you go. See how easy it is?”
“Look, Pa!” Jilly beamed. Ben smiled at her delight.
“My, what lovely long fingers you have,” said Margaret. “A musician’s hands if I’ve ever seen any. What I wouldn’t give for a pair like that.”
“Do you play?” asked Ben.
Miles answered for her. “Margaret is quite an accomplished pianist. She taught all of our girls.”
“I could teach you too,” she said to Jilly. “Why, I bet you’d pick it up in no time. Here let me show you something else….”
Ben watched the two of them together with a fresh pang from an old wound. He couldn’t help thinking of Marie and how much their daughter had missed growing up without her.
Hoss finished tying the last of the luggage onto the back of the buggy. “Mr. Hightower, I reckon we’d better get goin’ if we’re gonna make that stage.”
Miles shook Ben’s hand. “We’ve had a delightful time, old friend. The Ponderosa is even more spectacular than I remembered, and you’ve been a most gracious host.”
Ben smiled, “It’s been wonderful seeing the both of you again. I’m just sorry you couldn’t stay longer.”
“Well, so am I,” said Miles. “A man could get used to a place like this. However, duty calls.” He turned to Jilly. “Young lady, I just want to say that I have enjoyed the pleasure of your company immensely these past few days. Wait a minute; I think there’s something behind your ear…what’s this?” He held up a gold dollar.
“How did you do that?” she asked, wide-eyed.
“It’s a trade secret among bankers; I’m afraid I’m under a solemn oath not to reveal it to anyone else,” he winked and grinned, handing her the coin.
Margaret kissed her on the cheek. “We hope you’ll visit us in San Francisco, Jilly. We have plenty of room, and there are many things to do in the city. You’d like to come, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh, yes ma’am. I’d like that.” She smiled.
“God bless you, Ben,” said Margaret, embracing him. “We’ll look forward to hearing from you, soon I hope.”
Ben put his arm around Jilly as they waved their farewells, his thoughts on the conversation earlier that morning…
“Ben, Margaret and I have a proposition for you,” said Miles, “and we sincerely hope you’ll consider it once you get over the shock.”
Margaret looked excited. “We stayed up late last night discussing it, and we think it would be a wonderful opportunity for Jilly, and helpful to you. We’d like for Jilly to come and live with us in San Francisco.”
He was too stunned to speak. Margaret took his hand. “I know you weren’t expecting this, but think of what it would mean for her. She would have an excellent education, all the cultural advantages of the city, and she would have a mother to take care of her. I know you’re a wonderful father,” she said gently, “but even you can’t give her that. And at her age she needs a mother more than ever before.”
“I…I don’t know what to say,” he stammered.
“Ben, we don’t expect an answer right away. Of course you need to time to think about it.” Miles put a hand on his shoulder. “I don’t envy you, my friend. Believe me, I know how hard it is to let go of a daughter. But I promise you we would love and care for her as one of our own.”
Miles and Margaret were two of his dearest, most trusted friends. He promised them he would think about it, and he would talk to Adam of course…
“What do you think of the idea, son?”
Adam had been listening to his father with a growing knot in his stomach. So this was what Margaret had been thinking. He traced the rim of his coffee cup with his forefinger, his brows drawn together. “Well, my gut reaction is…I hate it. I hate the fact that we’re even talking about it. I hate the fact that it’s necessary to talk about. But we both knew the day was coming when decisions would need to be made.” He bit his lip. “It was easier to think about when it seemed farther away. I never expected it to be this week.”
“Neither did I. It’s a very generous invitation, you’ll have to admit.”
“I don’t know, Pa. Do you think the only reason they’ve asked is because Jilly reminds them of their dead daughter? That could be a little uncomfortable for her.”
“Well, I’m sure that’s why they were taken with her in the beginning, but I don’t believe they’re looking for a replacement. I think they see it as a mutually beneficial arrangement. They have a big empty house that feels lonely right now, and Jilly needs a woman’s guidance at this stage in her life.”
“I suppose it’s an option worth considering.”
“Do you have a better one? If so I’d love to hear it. Of course, there’s always Mrs. Nutley and Miss Abigail….”
Adam grimaced and chuckled. “She’d probably rather go to school back East with Connie if those were her only choices. I’m not really laughing. It’s not the least bit funny, is it?”
“No,” Ben sighed, “it’s not.”
“San Francisco isn’t so far away. We could visit her, and she could come home occasionally.”
“That’s what I was thinking. We could even do it on a trial basis for now.”
“I think so.”
“Well, I guess you’ve got your answer,” said Adam, feeling a little sick inside.
“I suppose it’s settled then.” Ben sat quietly for a few moments, chin in hand, looking glum. “I’ll talk to her in the morning. No sense putting it off.”
“Do you want me with you?”
“No, I think I’d better handle this alone. She might not take it well, and maybe it will be easier if there’s no one else around.”
“I think you’re being optimistic,” said Adam. He did not envy his father.
In a lighter moment, he might have appreciated the irony. Margaret Hightower had finally snagged a Cartwright, one nobody would have ever guessed.
Her father called her when she was on her way outside to finish her chores.
“Jilly, would you come and sit down for a minute? I’d like to talk to you about something.”
She followed his gesture and perched on the edge of the sofa. Being summoned for a sit-down conversation with Pa usually wasn’t pleasant for the one being summoned. She wondered if Adam had told him about her foray into the corral with Black Star. That was days ago, though, and Pa didn’t look angry; he looked worried. She waited while he fidgeted in his seat and cleared his throat. Then he leaned forward, patted her knee and smiled.
“Mr. And Mrs. Hightower have invited you to visit them in San Francisco. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Oh, yes Pa, when can we go?”
“Soon, very soon—and they’d like for you to stay a while.”
“But it’s almost time for school.”
“There are schools in San Francisco. As a matter of fact, there’s a wonderful school their daughters attended….”
She interrupted him, “I wouldn’t be staying that long.” His hesitation disturbed her. “You don’t mean stay there and go to school in San Francisco?” He couldn’t have meant that.
“Well, for a while, just to see how you like it,” said Pa. “And I’m sure you will,” he added, smiling.
“How could you possibly think I would like going to live with strangers in a strange town?”
“Honey, Miles and Margaret aren’t strangers. They’re some of our oldest and dearest friends.”
“They’re your friends, not mine. I barely know them.”
“Sweetheart, I want you to listen very carefully. You’re my only daughter, and there aren’t enough words in all of language for me to tell you how much I love you, though I hope you already know that. I would never even consider this if I didn’t believe it was for your own good. This is a wonderful opportunity for you. I’ve talked it over with Adam and he agrees with me.”
Adam. She might have known he had something to do with this.
Pa kept talking, cajoling, reassuring, entreating, all in a valiant effort to persuade her, but his words didn’t matter. She couldn’t listen any more. Her heart pounded in her ears and her lungs felt empty. She took a deep breath and nearly choked on it.
“Jilly, I’m sorry you feel this way, but I’ve made the decision because I feel it’s best for you. Believe me when I say it’s going to be difficult for all of us. You can make it harder or you can make it easier. It’s up to you.”
That was it, then. No further discussion. Hot tears stung her cheeks; she could hardly look at her father. “May I please be excused?”
She wasn’t quick enough to avoid Hoss and Adam, who had just come in.
“Whoa, Little Bit—where’s the fire?” Hoss teased. “Hey, what’s the matter?”
“Adam knows.” She whirled on him, “Pa always listens to you, doesn’t he? I’ll bet you can’t wait.”
“Jilly…” Adam caught her arm as she turned away but she jerked it free.
“Leave me alone!” She raced up the stairs sobbing, and slammed the door to her room.
Hoss looked stunned. “Adam, what in the world was she talkin’ about?”
His answer was a terse “ask Pa” before walking out the door.
~ * ~
Jilly lay on her bed, staring at the ceiling through red rimmed, aching eyes, with her breath coming in ragged waves. It seemed like a bad dream, like the nightmares she had after the incident at Mason’s Creek. At least then she could wake up the next morning and know that everything was all right. She was already awake, and Pa was sending her to San Francisco, away from her family, away from her home and everything she loved. Her whole world was crumbling, and she was powerless to stop it.
She rolled over and reached for the picture on the side table. For the first time she could remember, she cried for her mother.
~ * ~
“Anybody know what’s eatin’ older brother?” Joe stood in the doorway, frowning. “I just asked him a simple question and he nearly bit my head off!”
Ben motioned him inside. Hoss shoved his hands in his pockets and stared at the floor.
“What’s going on? What’s wrong?”
Ben explained the situation, though daunted by the mounting anxiety in his youngest son’s face.
“No! Pa, you can’t … how could you even think of doing something like that?”
“Hush up, Little Joe. You’re not helpin’ anything,” said Hoss. “You know Pa is only doin’ what he thinks is best.”
“I don’t know how anyone can think it’s best to ship her off to live with strangers! Jilly’s a Cartwright, and we’re her family, not the Hightowers!” Joe’s eyes filled. “Pa, you always said we take care of our own.”
“Joe, that’s exactly what I’m doing, in the best way I know how. Of course we’re her family. That’s never going to change. But she’s a young girl, and her needs are…well, they’re different from any of ours. I know it’s hard for you to understand. I wish I knew a better way.”
Joe’s bottom lip trembled. “She needs us. This isn’t right. It’s not fair.”
Ben sighed. “Son, as you get older I’m afraid you’ll find there’s so little in life that is fair, and so many painful decisions as a result. Sometimes we have to sacrifice what we want for what’s necessary. The best way is often the hardest.”
~ * ~
Ben knocked on Jilly’s door but got no answer, so he opened it and peered inside. She lay curled up on the bed clutching a gold frame to her chest. When he eased it from her grasp she opened her eyes and sat up.
He smiled, “Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty. Are you feeling better?”
“I don’t know. I don’t even feel like myself anymore. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Pa.”
He sat on the edge of the bed and patted her hand. “Sweetheart, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’re just growing up, that’s all.”
“But sometimes…sometimes I feel so sad, and not just today; it’s…I don’t know what it is.”
“Maybe it’s because deep down you know you’re leaving something behind. I’m not talking about your home or your family because those things will always be here. But you aren’t meant to be a little girl forever, even though I might like to keep you that way at times. The best part of your life is yet to come.”
“I wish things could just stay the same.”
“Nothing ever stays the same. Time doesn’t stand still and neither do we. Change can be upsetting, but it can also be a good thing, though sometimes you don’t see the good until you’ve had a chance to walk down the road and look back from a distance.”
She picked up the picture again and traced her finger around the face in the frame. “Things would be different if my mother was here.”
“Yes, things would be different for all of us. But since she’s not here, we just have to do the best that we can. That’s what I’m trying to do.” He raised her chin with a finger. “Will you help me?”
Her eyes were pooling as she nodded.
His expression was tender but his voice was firm. “I want you to understand something, Jilly. I’m your father, and I make the decisions for this family, not Adam. Is that clear?”
She nodded again.
He held her as she sobbed into his chest. “It’s all right, honey. It’s not the end of the world, even if it feels that way right now. Everything will be all right, you’ll see. In the meantime, a good cry never hurt anybody. Believe me, your old Pa knows a thing or two about that,” he murmured through his own tears.
Supper was a dismal affair, in Adam’s opinion. He had apologized to Joe for snapping at him earlier; still, the boy moped through the entire meal. Pa and Hoss made admirable attempts at light-hearted conversation, but the mood at the table dispelled their efforts. Adam had to admit, he wasn’t very helpful. Hop Sing had prepared one of Jilly’s favorites, chicken and dumplings, and when he asked her why she wasn’t eating she burst into tears and asked to be excused. The rest of them finished in silence; apparently misery didn’t always love company. Adam escaped the gloomy atmosphere by volunteering to tend the stock.
He lingered on the front steps as the house dimmed behind him. From a field of stars, the moon poured its light at his feet and spilled it across the yard, shimmering in the lilac-tinged air. A night fit for poets and lovers, he might have noted; but his mind was preoccupied with darker things. He couldn’t forget the look on Jilly’s face when she had confronted him that morning. It was gut-wrenching to see her so distraught, and whether or not she realized it, she wasn’t the only one hurting. Contemplating her absence from their lives made his chest ache. Did she really believe he would be glad to see her go? If so, he wondered how he could have failed her all these years.
The front door creaked, and he turned to see a lithe figure in a nightgown. “What are you doing up? I thought you went to bed a long time ago.”
“I couldn’t sleep,” said Jilly. “I’ve been waiting for you to come in. I wanted to talk to you.”
He patted the step next to him. She sat down, bundling her knees to her chest.
“What’s on your mind?”
“I think you know.”
“I suppose I do.”
“I’m sorry for what I said to you today.”
“It’s okay. People get upset and say things they don’t mean. I understand.”
“But I did mean it. I wanted to hurt you, Adam. I’m sorry for that.”
“I see. You know it’s not true, right?”
“That I’ll be glad to see you go—nothing could be further from the truth.”
She dropped her head. “I know. I just said that to be mean, because I wanted to make you feel bad. I guess I’m a mean, rotten person.”
“Yeah, you’re just about the meanest, rottenest person I know.” He elbowed her for emphasis.
“What are you thinking right now?”
“I’m thinking…maybe I shouldn’t think too much.”
“Are you scared?”
“Why do you ask?”
“Because I was the first time I left home, and I was much older than you.”
“I’m not sure I believe that.”
“I wouldn’t lie to you, Jilly—never have, never will.”
“It’s hard for me to picture you being scared of anything. You’re just about the bravest person I know.”
“So are you.”
She shook her head, “Not me. I’m nothing like you.”
“Tell me something. Were you scared when you rode to the Paiute camp?”
“Did you ever think about how much courage it takes to do something that scares you?”
“I didn’t do it because I was brave. I had to do it. I didn’t have a choice.”
“Sure you did. You had the same choices everyone has—face your fear or run from it. Jilly, you didn’t run. We all saw that.” He put his arm around her and took a deep breath. “Sometimes life comes hard and fast, and there are things you can’t ride around. I guess this is one of those things, and I’m sorry if it was put to you badly because no one ever meant to hurt you. But you’re brave, and you’re smart, and you’re strong. And I know you’ll show everyone exactly who you are.”
Her smile was soft, and if he’d had the power to freeze a moment in time, it would have been that one—Jilly in the moonlight, with her hair hanging down and the stars in her eyes, on the steps at the edge of the rest of her life. He knew that’s how he would remember her, long after that night and even years after she was gone.
She shivered; he drew her closer, rubbing her shoulder. “Cold? Should we go inside?”
“Not yet.” She nestled under his arm. “I like it here.”
Later that night, when Jilly was tucked in bed for good, Adam still couldn’t still sleep. After tossing and turning for several minutes, he got up, lit the lamp and took out pen and paper while the evening was still fresh in his mind. It took him a couple of hours, but he was satisfied in the end. He folded the paper and stuck it inside a folio that contained a few others he had written over the years. Likely no one else would ever read them.
Then again, maybe he would show this one to her. Someday.
There is a girl both young and fair
As sweet and lovely as can be
A rosebud on the brink of bloom
Wise in ways she cannot see
So brightly shines her tender light
It shames the stars from whence she came
Heaven’s gift, by Love and Grace
Where all the angels know her name
The moon falls softly on her face
And rings a halo ’round her hair
A moment, soon a memory
Would that I could keep her there
Her laughter is my soul’s delight
And at her smile my heart can break
Unknowingly, she passes by
Leaving stardust in her wake
Adam Cartwright, 1857
(The title was added later. He called it Jilly in the Moonlight)
“Wake up, sunshine! You ain’t plannin’ to sleep all day, are ya?”
Jilly squinted one eye open. “What time is it?”
“It’s nearly seven o’clock,” said Hoss. “I figured we better get an early start before it gets too hot.”
“Too hot for what?” She sat up and yawned.
“For fishin’. I got us a picnic all packed so we can have our breakfast down at the creek. You better hurry up and get dressed. You can’t go fishin’ in your nightgown.”
The morning was mildly crisp. Jilly closed her eyes and breathed in the scent of pine and cedar as Hoss maneuvered the buckboard between the sunlight-dappled trees. She laughed at his inimitable version of “Where have you been, Billy boy?” It had always been one of her favorites, especially the way he sang, “She’s a young thing and cannot leave her motherrrr.”
The world seemed perfect. If only it could stay this way.
Hoss pulled up on the reins before they reached the creek. “I thought we might stop here for a few minutes. I wanna show you somethin’.”
They left the wagon and walked up a rise. At the crest, Jilly gasped at a view she had never seen before, a stunning panorama of sky, trees and mountains reflected in brilliant blue-green waters.
“It does kinda take your breath away, don’t it?” said Hoss.
“Can we have our breakfast here?”
He grinned. “I was hopin’ you’d say that.”
They spread out a quilt and unloaded the picnic basket of ham, biscuits, hard boiled eggs, potatoes, and some of Hop Sing’s sugared doughnuts. Jilly laughed at the quantity of food Hoss had packed, but soon realized she was hungrier than she thought, and together they made a sizable dent in the supply by the end of the meal.
Afterwards, Hoss stretched out on his back, hands beneath his head, yawning. Jilly sat cross-legged, facing the lake. Surely, there was no more beautiful place in the whole world than this one. There couldn’t possibly be.
“I dreamed about my mother last night,” she said, staring into the distance.
“What about her?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I don’t remember anything except that she was there. I couldn’t see her face, but I knew it was her.” She paused, picking idly at some grass. “I wish I could remember her the way everyone else does.”
“I wish you could, too.”
“You’d think I would remember something.”
“Well, you weren’t even two years old.”
“All my memories are of you and Pa and Joe and Adam. You’re all I know. I’ve never even been to San Francisco. I’ve never been anywhere but here.”
He sat up and moved closer to her, his brows drawn together. “Jilly, I know leavin’ is gonna be hard for you—it’s gonna be hard for all of us; believe me, that’s the truth—but I also know Pa would never ask you to do anything that would hurt you. Now I’m not smart like him and Adam, and I don’t know much, but I do know a thing or two about animals. You take baby birds, for instance. They don’t know they can fly, even though they’re born to it. But that old mama bird, she just pushes ‘em out one day, ‘cause she knows they’re ready. It’s probably a shock at first, but can you imagine how they must feel when they find out they’ve got wings? Instead of hittin’ the ground they go soarin’ off into the sky.” His blue eyes sparkled as he smiled. “I reckon that’s how it is with some people. Sometimes they need a little push to help ‘em to see what they can do, and I think a gal like you could do most anything.”
Jilly wiped her eyes, smiling in return. Whenever Hoss said he didn’t know much, he usually ended up saying something wise in a way she could understand. “I don’t know about that,” she said, “but I think you’re one of the smartest people I know.”
“Me? Aw shucks,” Hoss blushed at the compliment, grinning. “Well, I guess we better get a move on if we’re gonna do any fishin’ today.” He put on his hat. “I’m feelin’ pretty lucky, how ‘bout you?”
Lucky. Oddly enough, that’s exactly how she felt at that moment.
~ * ~
Their luck didn’t extend to fishing though, at least not until the end of the day. And it was Jilly who turned out to be the lucky one. Hoss whistled in admiration at the size of the trout on the end of her line. “Don’t that beat all? We’ve been out here all day without a bite and just about the time we’re ready to leave, you go and land Old Jake!”
“Old Jake. I’ve nearly caught him several times myself, but he’s a smart ole dodger, always managed to get away from me. Yes sir, he’s been real lucky, right up until today.”
The sight of the big fish struggling before her touched her heart. “Could we put him back?”
He looked surprised. “You really wanna do that?”
“Yes. Seems like he’s lived here a long time. Let’s just let him go home.”
He unhooked the prize catch and looked the fish square in the eye. “All right, you ornery cuss, looks like this was your lucky day after all. But you watch out next time,” he warned, tossing him into the water, “‘cuz if I catch ya, I dang sure ain’t throwin’ ya back!”
“Good luck, fish!” Jilly hollered.
“He’ll need it,” said Hoss.
They both laughed, and it felt good. They were packing their things to go home when Jilly realized something. In spite of everything and to her great surprise, she was happy. There were still things to laugh about, things to appreciate. Maybe her world was wider and stronger than she had imagined.
“You ready?” Hoss had already finished loading the buckboard.
“Almost.” Jilly scooped a mound of fresh earth from the creek bank into a small bottle and replaced the stopper. She put it in her pocket and climbed into the seat next to her brother. “Ready.”
“Did you have a good time today?”
“Today was one of the best days of my life.” She meant it.
He grinned. “It ain’t over yet.”
On the way back to the house, they stopped at the corral. “Looks like Black Star’s gettin’ used to his new home,” said Hoss as they watched Adam slip the bridle freely over the stallion’s head and fasten the bit in his mouth.
“Maybe,” said Jilly, climbing onto the railing. A person might get used to a toothache; that didn’t mean he liked it.
Adam led the horse over to them. “So how was the fishing?”
“Jilly caught Old Jake, but she was in too generous a mood to keep him.”
“Is that a fact?” A smile played on Adam’s lips. “Here,” he said to her. “I thought you might want to say hello to your friend.”
“Don’t you mean goodbye?” She stroked Black Star’s nose. “I’m leaving tomorrow, you know.”
Her brothers exchanged glances over her head.
“I guess you’ll be selling him now that he’s broken.”
Adam patted the stallion’s neck. “Well, that was what we had planned, but Hoss and I talked it over and decided to keep him. He’s sort of grown on me, now that we’ve reached a mutual understanding. Besides, pretty soon you’ll outgrow that pony of yours. We thought you might like to have this one.”
Jilly’s eyes widened. She looked from one face to the other, unable to speak.
Hoss winked at her. Adam chuckled, “Hoss, I think we stumped her. She can’t think of anything to say.” He leaned over and chucked her under the chin. “Better close your mouth before the flies get in.”
She swallowed hard. “Can I ride him?”
Adam shook his head. “I don’t think you’re quite ready for each other yet,” he said gently. “But when you are, he’ll be here.”
Hoss smiled. “We’ll take good care of him for ya.”
“Did you hear that, boy?” she murmured, nuzzling him. “You’re gonna be mine. How about that?”
Hoss laughed, “Come on, Little Bit, let’s go get cleaned up. I’m as hungry as a bear!” He patted her on the back as she fell in beside him.
“Hold on,” Adam called after her, “I think you dropped something.” He bent down and retrieved an object from the ground. It was a small bottle filled with dirt. “What’s this?” he asked, examining it before handing it back to her.
“Nothing really,” she replied without looking at him. “Just something I picked up.”
Jilly emerged from the bathhouse, refreshed by a long soak and scrub.
“Well, it’s about time!” Joe sounded as irritated as he looked.
“Oh, did you need in there? I thought you had a bath last month.”
“Very funny,” he said, making a face. “For your information, I had one yesterday.”
“Then what are you complaining about?”
“I just wanted to talk to you. You were gone all day.”
“Well, I’m here now. What do you wanna talk about?” She sat down on the porch step, waiting.
Joe cleared his throat and looked a little uncomfortable. “Um, here, I got you a present.” He held out an object wrapped in a dark green bandana.
Jilly untied the knot and grinned. “How thoughtful,” she said, holding it up. “My very own salt shaker.”
“I made real sure the lid fits good and tight,” he said, pointing to the top.
He sat down beside her, his green eyes serious. “I’m really gonna miss you, you know.”
Jilly bit her lip. She knew she would cry later, but they had time yet before goodbye. “Probably not half as much as I’ll miss you, but first we’re gonna have a great time together in San Francisco.”
“You bet we are—I can’t wait to see the Barbary Coast!”
She laughed. Next to his sense of humor, the thing she admired most about Joe was his unshakable optimism. “If you think Pa’s gonna let you anywhere near that place you probably think pigs can fly.”
He shrugged, “Hey, a fella can dream, can’t he? By the way, that’s my new neck cloth,” he said, pointing to the bandana in her hand.
“It is? Gee, thanks. It’s real nice.”
“Jilly, it’s not part of the gift.”
“But Joe, you gave it to me.”
“I didn’t mean to…I just used it for wrapping. You can give it back now, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, but I do mind. I think I’ll just keep it.” She stood up.
“Come on, Jilly.”
“If you want it, you’ll have to catch me,” she said over her shoulder as she took off running.
Shouts and laughter lured Ben to the window. Those two, he smiled, watching them through misty eyes. The bittersweet moment caught in his throat. It’s the right thing, he reminded himself. Please God, don’t let it be a mistake.
Exhaustion overtook Jilly at supper; Adam caught her just as she was about to tumble out of her chair.
“I’ve got her, Pa.”
He carried her up to her room and laid her on the bed, removing her boots and covering her with the quilt. Her trunk was packed except for a few things laid out on her dresser, among them the picture of her mother, the silver comb he had given her, a hairbrush, her little bottle of Ponderosa dirt and…a salt shaker? He lingered in the doorway, thinking how empty the room would be tomorrow. It pained him that he’d be gone when she woke up but it couldn’t be helped. Things don’t always work out according to plan. He kissed her goodnight and hoped she would understand.
Jilly stood in front of the mirror, appraising her appearance. She hated wearing a bonnet and was sure she wouldn’t be able to stand it all the way to San Francisco, but Pa liked it so she put it on to please him. The dress suited her, though. It was a deep red smartly trimmed in black. Adam had picked it out. She frowned. Where was he? What could be more important to him than her leaving? No one seemed to be able to tell her, only that he had promised to be in Genoa by noon to see her off.
Pa appeared behind her and put his hands on her shoulders. “You’re a lovely young lady, even more so when you smile.” He smiled at her reflection, and she obliged him in return. “It’s time to go,” he said softly. “Are you ready?”
She took one last look around the room. Don’t cry, not here, not now. She took a deep breath. “Yes, I’m ready.”
Joe and Hoss were waiting for them outside along with Hop Sing. Jilly turned to the cook. “Goodbye, Hop Sing. You won’t forget me, will you?”
“Not forget,” he said, accepting her hug and patting her on the back. “Hop Sing watch you grow from tiny baby to fine girl. You come back fine lady.” He dabbed at his eyes with his apron as he waved goodbye.
Jilly waved back, watching him grow smaller and smaller, along with the house she grew up in, until both disappeared from view.
“I can’t wait any longer, Mr. Cartwright. I got a schedule to meet,” said Charley.
“All right,” said Ben. “I suppose Adam must have been detained. Come on, Jilly, we’d better get aboard.”
Joe bounced inside the coach, impatient for the journey to begin. “Hurry up, you’re holdin’ up the stage!” he yelled out the door.
Jilly couldn’t imagine leaving without saying goodbye. “Hoss, why isn’t he here? Do you suppose something happened to him?”
“Now don’t you worry about Adam; he can take care of himself. He said he’d be here; there must be a really good reason why he ain’t,” He reassured her with a tender smile. “We’re gonna come see ya in San Francisco first chance we get, and we’ll have us a big ol’ time, ya hear?”
She nodded, blinking tears. “I love you, Hoss.”
He pulled her into his arms. “I love you too, Little Bit, and I’ll miss ya every day.”
“I’ll miss you more,” she whispered.
“I don’t see how that’s even possible.” After a few seconds, he peeled her away from him and walked her over to the stage where Joe was hanging out the window.
“Little Joe, you better behave yourself in the big city.”
“Never mind about me, Hoss, you just make sure Hop Sing doesn’t catch you in the kitchen,” laughed Joe.
Hoss turned to Ben, “Don’t worry about nothin’ ‘round here, Pa. Me an’ Adam’ll take good care of everything while you’re gone.”
“I know you will, son. I just wish he had gotten here in time to see her off. I was afraid this would happen.”
“Me too. I tried to talk him out of it but you know how he is when he gets somethin’ in his head. Maybe he can catch up.”
Ben clapped him on the shoulder in farewell and climbed into the coach. Hoss closed the door and stepped back as the stage began to roll. Jilly waved to him from the window, forlorn.
They had no sooner pulled out of town before Joe began poking around in the picnic basket Hop Sing had generously stocked for the trip. “Go easy on that food, Joe,” Ben laughed. “I’m sure Hop Sing intended for it to last more than just the first ten miles.”
Joe, taking full advantage of the fact that the three of them were the only passengers on the stage, lounged on the opposite seat with a half-eaten drumstick. “Pa, I’m a growin’ boy,” he mumbled through a mouthful of chicken.
Jilly acknowledged their bantering with a polite smile, but her mind was on Adam, wherever he was. What could have been so important to keep him away this morning? She didn’t know when she would see him again. Did he even care? She stared from the window at the road behind them, the road that led back to the only home she had ever known and all the people she loved.
A rider appeared in the distance, in a great hurry. There was something familiar about him that made Jilly lean out for a better look, and her heart leaped into her throat. “Stop!” she cried to the driver. “Please, stop!”
Ben caught her by the waist for fear she would topple out the window. “Jilly! What in the world do you think you’re doing?”
“Pa! It’s Adam! Tell him to stop!”
He peered down the road at the approaching rider, and then bellowed up to Charley. The surprised driver had no idea what was going on, but he immediately responded to Ben’s authoritative manner. The horses slowed.
As soon as the wheels stopped turning, Jilly dashed from the coach, her bonnet trailing. Ben and Joe emerged behind her.
“You made it.” She stopped in front of him, her eyes shining.
Ben smiled. “It’s good to see you, son. Joe, why don’t we stretch our legs a bit?” He picked up the bonnet and dusted it off as they walked away.
Adam pushed his hat away from his forehead, regarding his sister with a playful smirk. “Well, are you just gonna stand there or what?”
She launched herself at him with such a force he had to steady them both. He exhaled a sigh, feeling almost out of breath himself, and not just from the ride.
“You do love me,” she grinned up at him.
“Not much,” he grinned back. “I brought you something. Close your eyes and give me your hand.”
He placed the object in her palm. She opened her eyes and drew a breath. “It’s beautiful,” she whispered, tracing the engraving on the gold heart locket with her finger.
“It belonged to my mother. The chain was broken,” he explained. “I asked Mr. Kaufman to get a new one for me last week in Sacramento. He was supposed to bring it to the ranch yesterday but he was delayed, so I went to meet him this morning.” He knew he would probably collapse when he got home, but this single moment made it worth every bone-jarring mile.
The tears welling in her eyes spilled onto her cheeks. “Adam, are you sure you want me to have this?”
“Quite sure.” He took the locket and fastened it around her neck, fumbling a little because his fingers were trembling. “You’re the only girl I ever loved at first sight, Jilly. You’ve had a big piece of my heart since the day you were born. This is to remind you that no matter where you go and no matter where I am, that will never change. There, it looks perfect.” he smiled. “It’s not supposed to make you sad, though.”
“I’m not sad…I’m …I’m just full, that’s all.”
He studied the rosy elfin face that would undoubtedly break hearts one day. In truth, it had already begun. “I know the feeling.”
Ben and Joe returned to the coach, signaling the need for their departure.
“Well, I guess you can’t keep San Francisco waiting any longer. Just remember, you’re only on loan to the Hightowers,” he said as he kissed her and handed her up to his father. “You’re a Cartwright, and don’t you forget it.”
She smiled. “I won’t forget.” She leaned out the window and waved as the stage lurched forward. “I love you, Adam.”
He blew her a kiss and felt the ache in his chest as the stage vanished through the trees. The little girl who was leaving on it would not be coming back. At least he no longer had to hide his tears.
Jilly fingered the locket around her neck, smiling. She knew she would miss her family, but she no longer worried about losing them. The ties that bound them together extended far beyond the edges of the Ponderosa; she understood that now.
A rumbling snore from her father beside her disrupted her thoughts. She and Joe grinned at each other.
“I think you’ve had that seat to yourself long enough. Move over and hand me that picnic basket before you eat everything in it.”
Joe held up his hands in friendly protest. “Hey, I only had two pieces of chicken and three cookies, maybe four…okay, five at the most. And if you want this basket, see if you can take it.”
She sat down next to him and made a grab for it, but surprised him by tickling him instead. Joe let out a whoop that woke Pa, who glared at them with one fierce eye, sending them both into fits of laughter so contagious even he couldn’t resist joining in.
Later, in a quiet moment while Pa and Joe both slept, Jilly tilted her head out the window, letting the breeze rake her hair as she pondered the road in front of her. Maybe, just maybe, San Francisco wouldn’t be so bad after all….
It was her turn to fly, and she was ready.
A few weeks later, the Cartwright brothers gathered in the great room as their father read an important letter postmarked “San Francisco.”
Dear Pa, Adam, Hoss, and Joe,
I hope you are all well. I am fine. I’ve made a lot of friends at my new school, and my teacher Miss Somervell is very nice (and pretty, if anyone is interested). We had our first writing assignment the other day. We had to write about ourselves and our families and also something we learned this year. Miss S. said it made her look forward to meeting all of you, so I think she liked it. Aunt Margaret thought you would like to read it too, and Uncle Miles wants to post it this afternoon so I have to hurry. I promise I will write again soon. I love you all very much.
P.S. Adam, I love the poem you wrote. It made me cry, but only in a good way.
Everyone looked at Adam. He shrugged, “It was just a little something I put in her trunk before she left…”
Ben smiled and continued reading.
Me, My Family, and Things I’ve Learned
My real name is Jillian, but no one calls me that unless I’m in trouble, so most of the time I’m just Jilly. I grew up on a ranch with my father and three older brothers. I don’t remember my mother because she died when I was still a baby. Some people might think I missed a lot growing up without her, and I never thought I did because my family always made sure I had everything I needed, and besides, how can you miss someone you never knew? But I was wrong, and everyone seemed to know that except me.
He cleared his throat a couple of times before continuing.
I used to think growing up meant being big enough to saddle your own horse, but now I know it’s more than that and a lot harder. I probably learned more this summer than any other time in my life. I learned that being afraid doesn’t mean you aren’t brave, and sometimes other people know you better than you know yourself. The best gifts aren’t always new or expensive, and home is more than just a place, it’s also people who care about you.
Some people say our family is rich, and if we are, it’s not because of how big our ranch is or how many cows we own or how much money we have in the bank. Pa says…
Ben paused for a few seconds to wipe his eyes. Adam stood up and took the letter from him, put his hand on his father’s shoulder and continued:
Pa says a person can have all that and more and still be as poor as a pauper, and he’s generally right about those kinds of things. Pa believes what St. Paul told the Corinthians, that love is the most important thing, and without it nothing else matters. I think I’m finally beginning to understand that. The funny thing about love is that sometimes it makes you happy, and sometimes it makes you sad, but it always makes you better because it makes you care about someone more than yourself. I guess that’s the biggest and hardest thing I learned this year. If love is what makes a person rich, then we Cartwrights might be richer than anyone. Other than that, I’d have to say we’re a pretty regular family.
Jilly Cartwright, 1857
Adam sighed, folded the letter and laid it on the desk without looking at the others. Ben sniffed a few times. Hoss flicked at the toe of his boot and stared at the floor.
Joe stood up. “What’s everybody mopin’ around here for? This ranch doesn’t run itself, you know.” He retrieved his hat from the hook on the wall and opened the door. “Are you comin’ or not?”
His father and brothers looked at each another and laughed. One by one they followed him.
A few moments later, Joe came back inside alone. He went to the desk and reread the letter, smiling through tears. I guess I can’t call you Brainless anymore.
Then he folded it, put it in the drawer, and hurried out to join the rest of his family.
There are two gifts we should give our children.
One is roots, and the other is wings.
Character Acknowledgements: Abigail Jones and Ma Nutley appeared in “The Wooing of Abigail Jones” written by Norman Lessing. Tukwa appeared in “Death on Sun Mountain” written by Gene L. Coon and David Dortort. Lean Knife appeared in “Mr. Henry Comstock” written by David Dortort. (Winnemucca and Saratucci are fictionalized versions of historical figures and also appeared in this episode.) The Hightowers are original characters with no relation to Bessie Sue. 🙂
Other Stories by this Author
- A Piece of Cake (by JC)
- A Pearl Without Price (by JC)
- Guarding the Henhouse (by JC)
- Interval (by JC)
- Something About Amy (by JC)