East, West: Home’s Best–The Westerners (by Puchi Ann)

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Summary:  To help Adam’s friend George, Little Joe has impulsively boarded a ship for Boston.  Now it’s up to Adam to chase him down and bring him home.  Written for BoNaNo challenge (over multiple years).  2nd in a series of 3 stories.

Rating:  K  (97,504 words)

East, West:  Home’s Best Series:

East, West: Home’s Best – The Easterner
East, West: Home’s Best – The Westerners

 

East, West: Home’s Best–The Westerners

Sept. 30, 1860

Leaning on the polished brass rail of the steamship California, Little Joe Cartwright stared at the receding shoreline until it disappeared beyond the horizon.  He heaved a huge sigh and shook his head at his own foolishness.  Even if he had spotted his older brother Adam, there would have been no way for them to switch places, short of   each jumping into the Pacific Ocean and swimming in opposite directions.  Though they were both strong swimmers, the California had been too far out to make that feasible for at least half an hour; however, he hadn’t been able to turn loose of hope until he could no longer see the faintest rim of land.

Now there was nothing to see but waves, rising and falling, crashing against the black hull of the ship or spinning over its red side paddle.  Spinning—suddenly, the whole world felt as though it were spinning, especially his head and his stomach.  His hurriedly-eaten breakfast gurgled up his throat, but he managed to swallow it down and, turning away from sight of the waves, lurched across the undulating deck toward the steps that would lead down to his—or rather, Adam’s—stateroom.

He made a desperate grab for the green rope running alongside the stairs as a sudden surge of the ship propelled him forward and then worked his way, hand over hand, down its rough fibers to stagger along the passage below.  He paused hesitantly outside the room of Adam’s friend, George Pontpier, but another roiling wave of nausea made him stagger past that door and practically fall through the next.  The inevitable consequences of confessing what he’d done would come hard enough without spewing the contents of his stomach over George’s plaster-casted leg to complicate the confrontation.

Little Joe dropped down onto the couch beneath the porthole and soon found himself stretched out, aching head lolling on the pillow.  He’d had a short, virtually restless night, most of it spent perched on a window ledge, eyes as fruitlessly craned for sight of his older brother on the street below as they had been on the shore since dashing onto the steamship at the last minute.  What on earth had kept Adam from meeting him, as planned?  He shook his head at the pointless question and instantly regretted it as the world lurched out of focus.  He wasn’t likely to learn the answer for months, if he even remembered to ask after Adam finished ripping him apart for taking his place aboard ship.

What other choice could he have made, though?  He couldn’t let George travel alone, not with that broken leg, for which Joe still felt responsible, despite George’s assurances to the contrary.  With a sigh he closed his eyes.  It helped.  He could still feel the ship moving beneath him, but that didn’t seem to bother him as much as seeing it.  Maybe it was being so tired that made the motion affect him so strongly, he thought as he surrendered to the weariness and drifted into a light sleep, hoping that both his body and his mind would seem calmer when he woke.

*****

Leaving the office of the Pacific Telegraph Company, where he’d just sent a terse telegram of instruction eastward, Adam Cartwright ambled slowly back toward the hotel, as good a place as any to have breakfast.  He knew, of course, that he should also have wired his father, apprising him that his youngest son was now somewhere on the Pacific Ocean, headed for Panama City and points beyond.  In the interest of life and limb, however, he preferred to have that message delivered in an entirely different—and much slower—manner.

When he arrived in the hotel’s restaurant, he perfunctorily ordered bacon and eggs.  Though he had no appetite, he had nothing else to occupy his time, and he supposed his stomach deserved something to gnaw on besides itself.  The steaming cup of coffee, at least, he appreciated.  He’d had a long and tense night, with almost no rest, on that accursed steamboat Asiago.  Maybe he’d just take a nap to make up for the loss of sleep and then treat himself to a night at the theater before Hoss joined him, hopefully tomorrow.  Hope was about all he had of even that going right, since almost nothing else had since he’d left home on the most frustrating trail drive he’d ever bossed.

Slowly he lowered the coffee cup to the table and slumped forward, his head dropping into his left palm as the picture of that empty hotel room filtered back into his thoughts.  There’d be no making up lost sleep today, he suddenly realized.  What lay in store for him was a rather extensive—and expensive—shopping trip, because for whatever reason, younger brother had elected to take older brother’s steamer trunk on board with him.  Adam had not a stitch of clothing, other than what he’d carried in his saddlebags on the trail drive.  It simply wasn’t enough for the unexpected ten-day stay in San Francisco, much less the three-week journey to Boston before he caught up with his own carefully packed apparel . . .  and a skinny neck to wring.

*****

Hearing eight bells ring, George Pontpier stifled a sigh as he lifted his left leg with two hands and slowly eased it to the floor.  The weight of the plaster cast made the maneuver more difficult; for that matter, it made everything more difficult, especially in the confined space of the stateroom.  He’d assured Adam’s little brother that he could manage on his own, but truthfully, he knew he’d miss the help the boy had given him over the past couple of weeks.  Even more he’d miss Adam’s company and assistance on this long journey.  As he rested from the effort to get himself upright from the couch on which he’d been lying, he wondered again what had kept his friend from joining him.  Something unavoidable, he was certain.  Much as Adam would miss the anticipated trip east, he’d be still more concerned about leaving the irrepressible Little Joe Cartwright on his own in San Francisco.  And not without cause.  A fond chuckle whistled past George’s lips.  No doubt that young rascal was even now exploring the enticements of the Stinking Stilton or some saloon equally unsavory.

A knock sounded on the cabin door.  Surprised, since he knew no one here, George called, “Come in.”

The door opened, and a steward stepped in.  “Dinner is served, sir.  I brought your rolling chair and wondered if you might need further assistance in getting to the dining saloon.”

“It’s on this deck, isn’t it?” George inquired.

“Yes, sir.”

“Then that’s all I’ll need.”  The chair made getting around much easier, but there was no room for it in the narrow cabin, so this same steward had earlier taken it away for temporary storage.

“Very good, sir,” the steward said.

As he started to leave, however, George asked, “By the way, did Mr. Cartwright’s trunk get off-loaded before the ship sailed?”

“His trunk, sir?”  The steward looked puzzled.  “I believe it’s still in his room, sir, but won’t he need it on his journey?”

George sighed.  “Well, he would, if he’d arrived in time to sail, but since he was evidently delayed . . .”

The steward smiled broadly.  “Ah, I see what’s confused you, sir.  Mr. Cartwright did cut his arrival time dangerously close, but he made it aboard at the last minute.”

George straightened abruptly.  “Are you certain?” he asked eagerly.

“Oh, yes, sir,” the steward said.  “I saw him enter his room.”  He leaned close to George and whispered, “I don’t think he’ll be joining you for dinner, sir.  Looked a bit peaked, if you catch my meaning.”

George’s brow wrinkled quizzically.  It was odd that Adam hadn’t, at least, stepped in to announce his arrival.  He surely knew I’d be concerned, George fretted.  He must really be ill!  Odd.  He’d sailed a number of times with Adam back East and never known him to be seasick.  Still, it had been a long time.  Perhaps a man lost his sea legs after long absence from the sea, but all that could be discussed later.  For now, it was enough that Adam was aboard.  Beyond all hope, Adam was aboard!  Scarcely able to contain his delight, George said, “I’ll just step in and check on him, so if you could leave my chair outside his room, I should be able to manage from there.”

“As you wish, sir,” the steward said, backing out of the cabin.

George reached for his crutches, skillfully placed them under his arms and stood, steadying himself against the roll of the deck beneath his right foot.  Then he moved cautiously to the door that connected his room to the adjoining one and knocked softly.  “Adam,” he called.  “Are you all right in there, old chum?”  When a wordless groan met his ear, he opened the door and went inside.  “Since when are you subject to seasickness?” he asked as he entered.  Then his mouth gaped open as he saw the figure on the couch roll to a seated position.  “Little Joe!” he cried.  “What in heaven’s name are you doing here, boy?”

“Dying,” Little Joe managed to mumble before folding forward, arms clasped around his stomach.  Then he peered up at the bleary figure before him.  “You need help?” he asked weakly.

George’s wide-eyed shock was tempered by a bit of perverse humor at the notion of being cared for by someone who couldn’t hold up his own head.  Then his innate compassion took over and he urged, “Lie down; lie down, boy; it helps.”

Moaning, Little Joe collapsed onto his pillow.  “Don’t understand,” he gasped.  “Never had . . . this . . . before.”

“When did you ever sail before?” George scoffed.

New World,” Little Joe muttered.

“Riverboats don’t count,” George chuckled, recognizing the name of the one he and Joe had ridden from Sacramento to San Francisco.  “You can see land from their decks.”

“Much better,” Joe mumbled miserably.

“No doubt,” George agreed wryly.  “Well, you have some explaining to do, young fellow, but being a merciful man, I won’t interrogate you yet.”  He leaned over to tousle the boy’s rampant chestnut curls.  “You should feel better tomorrow, so explanations and a well-deserved scolding can wait until then.”  Bidding Joe farewell, he exited the cabin and found his rolling chair just outside, as requested.  He sank into it and, leaving his crutches at the door to his own cabin, wheeled himself toward the dining saloon.

*****

When someone again pounded on his door, Little Joe groaned, “Go away,” but the door opened almost immediately.

Carrying a bowl, a stranger in some sort of uniform entered.  “Your friend suggested that I bring you a bit of broth, sir.”

“I don’t want anything,” Joe grunted.

“Yes, sir, I understand,” the man said, “but it does sometimes help to have some small amount in the stomach.”

Feeling too weak to protest further, Little Joe rolled upright and took the steaming bowl from the man.  “Thanks,” he said, his father’s training in manners bringing forth the automatic response.

“You’re welcome, sir; I hope you’ll feel better soon.”  With that kindly wish, the man disappeared.

Little Joe stared into the bowl.  Beef broth, piping hot.  He didn’t really think he could stomach even broth, but it did smell enticing.  Perhaps just a spoonful or two.  He savored the warmth in his mouth before swallowing, and when the first taste stayed down, he took another.  Slowly, cautiously, he emptied the bowl, which hadn’t been overly full to begin with.  Surprised to find that his stomach did feel calmer, he smiled as he again lay down.

At dinnertime the waiter again appeared with the same offering, and this time Little Joe received it with greater appreciation.  As he slowly sipped the broth, he felt a vague sense that someone, probably George, had looked in on him that afternoon.  Something about that didn’t seem right, as if the shoe were on the wrong foot or the cart before the horse or some such thing, but he didn’t feel inclined to pursue the notion.  Closing his eyes, he again drifted to sleep.

 

Oct. 1

Little Joe woke slowly to the repeated ding of the ship’s bell and a vague awareness that he’d heard that same sound, off and on, throughout the night.  Some way of counting time, he supposed, but he didn’t think it worked the same as the grandfather’s clock back home.  There never seemed to be enough strokes to mark the hours that way, but he couldn’t be certain that he hadn’t just slept through some of them.  The sun was shining through the porthole above his head, so it must be morning, but he had no idea whether it was early or late.

He swung his legs over the edge of the couch and sat up cautiously.  When he sensed none of the giddiness which had assaulted him ever since the ship pulled from shore, he smiled in relief.  Though his head still ached dully, at least he no longer felt like death warmed over.  Finally daring to let his gaze sweep around his accommodations, he wrinkled his nose at the dimensions of the stateroom.  Even Roy Coffee’s jail, which he’d had the misfortune to occupy on a few misguided occasions, seemed spacious by comparison, and he almost visibly shuddered at the thought of spending weeks confined in these cramped quarters.

He’d never made it into either of the curtained berths stacked directly across from him, but the couch had been comfortable enough, especially after he discovered that the board across its back could be placed in front to keep him from rolling out while he slept.  At the far end of the room, a round mirror was screwed to the wall above a wash stand with sockets for a pitcher, soap dish and brush tray, as well as a few pegs for clothing.  Glancing the other direction, he blinked in sudden consternation.  “Some caretaker you turned out to be,” he mumbled as he steadied himself and moved toward the door between the two staterooms.  Rapping lightly on the door, he softly called the name of Adam’s friend, and when he heard George call back, “Come in,” he entered the adjoining room.

“Well, I must say you look better,” George declared with annoying cheer.

“Yeah,” Little Joe muttered.  “Guess I got such a shallow share of Pa’s salt water in my veins that it took awhile to show itself.”

George chuckled.  “No doubt Adam took the lion’s share before you came along.”

“Just like him.”  The obligatory grousing might have been more effective without the fond smile tugging at Joe’s lips.

“Think you can manage breakfast this morning?” George asked.

“Hope so,” Little Joe said, “‘cause I do feel sort of hungry.”

“Best hurry and dress then,” George advised.  “Eight bells already sounded.”

“Eight bells,” Joe muttered.  “Is that eight o’clock?”

“In this case, yes,” George said with a grin, “but it also means twelve and four.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Little Joe observed with a shake of his head.

“I’ll explain it over breakfast,” George promised.  “For now, just remember that almost everything important happens at eight bells: wake-up call, lunch, dinner, tea.  And since we’ve just had our wake-up call, breakfast awaits, so get yourself groomed and ready, my boy.”

“You first,” Little Joe insisted.  “Anything I can help you with?”

“I’d be most grateful,” George admitted.

*****

With a disdainful scowl Adam took his new suit from the armoire in his room.  The hotel service had done its best to press the garment, but the faint traces of creases still remaining down the front of each trouser leg all but shouted ready-made to a discerning eye.  No help for it, of course.  Properly tailored suits took time to procure, even in San Francisco, so unless he wanted to wear his river-soaked range clothes to theaters and fine restaurants, a ready-to-wear suit was his only option for another day or so, at least.  He’d refused, on principle, to buy more than one.

He’d had no choice but to purchase that one, of course.  His stop by Larrimore’s Emporium the previous morning had led to the predictable and irrefusable invitation to dinner with the owners, old friends from the wagon train with which he and Pa—and in good time, Hoss—had come west.  Mr. Larrimore would not have objected to anything Adam wore, but one simply did not dine at Camilla Larrimore’s ornately set table in less than proper attire.  Adam’s store-bought suit barely met the grade, even if it had come from their own establishment.

Camilla had openly commiserated with the predicament in which Adam found himself, and at first he had somewhat relished the sympathy.  As usual, however, Camilla had taken sympathy one “Tsk, tsk” and “What was that boy thinking?” too far.  Irritated as Adam had been with Little Joe, he didn’t appreciate having his little brother taken to task by anyone else, especially by someone who had been perennially critical of the boy.  Besides, he felt that he was as much responsible for the current situation as Little Joe.  He’d been so sure that it couldn’t happen, that nothing could keep him from meeting the steamship deadline, that he hadn’t given the boy any instructions regarding what to do if he did not.

He dressed and went down to the hotel dining room for a late breakfast and tried to map out a plan of action as he waited for the meal to arrive.  First, he needed to visit a tailor and be measured for a couple of new suits, enough to last until he caught up with his trunk in Boston.  He probably would use the one Camilla had recommended, since, judging by the fashionable, well-constructed clothes worn by her own family, French, Wilson and Company were as highly qualified as their newspaper advertisement claimed.  Adam had, however, managed to deflect her offer of a personal introduction.  He knew full well she wouldn’t stop with a simple introduction, but would want to supervise his selections of fabric, style and accessories, as well, stretching an efficient masculine visit into a full day of shopping bliss for her and hell for him.

He’d purchased extra nightshirts, underwear, socks and street shoes yesterday at Larrimore’s Emporium, and while he could probably get by with what he’d found there, he thought he might stop in at another shop or two this morning and then have lunch somewhere other than the hotel.  The food here was fine, as the plate of sausage and hotcakes being slid in front of him demonstrated, but he’d have ample opportunity to eat here, and some variety would be welcome.

As he poured maple syrup over his buttered hotcakes, he pondered how to spend the afternoon.  Perhaps a bookstore?  After the trials he’d endured just getting to San Francisco, a quiet afternoon, reading in his room or, perhaps, in a nearby park, was appealing, and he’d certainly need to purchase a couple of volumes for the long sea journey.  Much as he would have enjoyed an evening at the theater, that would have to wait until tomorrow night.  Tonight, he needed to meet Hoss at the steamboat landing.

Poor Hoss was in for a shock when he saw which brother welcomed him to San Francisco.  Explanations would have to be made and plans laid or, rather, explained, since he’d already worked out what they each needed to do.  Convincing Hoss to face Pa alone might take a bit of persuasion, but he’d soon see that there really was no other option.  They certainly couldn’t leave Little Joe on his own back East.  The kid would be completely out of his depth, treading water for all he was worth, unless Adam missed his guess, and while Little Joe could swim like a fish in Lake Tahoe, he might easily drown in the sea squall of Eastern culture.

Adam finished his breakfast and stopped by the front desk to see if Hoss had wired his of arrival, but there was no message.  Surely, his younger brother hadn’t left booking his passage until the last minute.  Maybe he’d been concerned that problems with delivering the cattle to the buyer might delay him and hesitated to send a definite arrival time until he’d finished the job.  Goodness knows, there’d been enough delays in getting those recalcitrant beeves to Sacramento to make any man skittish, but since Hoss was expecting Little Joe to be on his own here in San Francisco, Adam knew that nothing short of a major earthquake would keep him from getting here as quickly as possible.  Still, earthquakes happened frequently enough in California to make him shudder as he left the hotel for the tailor’s shop.

*****

Little Joe rolled George’s chair up to the long table in the dining hall, but remained standing, nervously nibbling at his lower lip.

George looked up at him.  “This is where breakfast is served, young fellow.”  He tapped the cushioned seat beside him.

“Yeah, I know, but”—Little Joe cast an anxious eye at the table—“I ain’t sure I should.”

“Sit down,” George said.  “You’ll feel much better if you eat something.  Just stick with something light—scrambled eggs and toast, perhaps.”

Remembering how the warm broth had soothed his queasy stomach the day before, Little Joe took his chair.  He ran his hand along the raised ledge surrounding the table.  “This might be hard to get used to.”

George chuckled.  “If we hit a rough sea at mealtime, you’ll be grateful for it.”

Little Joe grinned.  “If we hit a rough sea at mealtime, you’ll find me lying flat on that couch in my room.  This is better than having your plate in your lap, I reckon, but it sure makes it hard to prop your elbows on the table.”

“Good training for when you sit at table with my beloved sister Madeleine,” George observed dryly.

“Oh, boy,” Little Joe groaned.  He’d been taught proper table manners, of course, but he wasn’t sure they were proper enough for fancy eastern folks—if he could even remember the ones he’d been taught, for that matter, in the face of the formidable Madeleine.  “Just tell me if I do anything scandalous, all right?”

George handed his young friend the menu.  “I shall make it my seaboard project.”

Little Joe scanned the hand-written list of items available for breakfast.  Even the thought of sausage, mutton or calves’ liver turned his stomach, and the offer of tripe made it ripple even harder.  Beef steak, fried fish and ham at least sounded good, but not for his first meal.  Handing George back the menu, he said, “Yeah, I think I’ll have a scrambled egg and, maybe, the French roll.”

“Go easy on the butter,” George suggested, “and I think you’ll do well.”

George’s prediction proved correct, and Little Joe was smiling as he pushed the injured man’s chair away from the table.  “You wanna go back to your stateroom,” he asked, “or, maybe, join some other passengers in the gentlemen’s cabin?”  He’d heard another passenger mention going there.

“Neither, thank you,” George replied.  “I’d like to go on deck.”

Little Joe visibly paled.  “Uh, you sure that’s a good idea?  I mean, it’s kind of tough on you, going up those stairs, ain’t it?”

George shook his head and offered his companion a maddening grin.  “Why is it I think you’re more concerned about your discomfort than mine?”

Little Joe returned a weak, sheepish smile.  “Maybe ‘cause I am?  I’d sort of like to get past scrambled eggs and toast and have a decent lunch.”

The maddening grin broadened, and there was a definite twinkle in George’s eye.  “Good sea air, just what you need.”  He swung his chair around to face his young friend.  “I wouldn’t suggest it if I thought it would make you worse,” he said earnestly.  “I think it might actually help, but if you should have problems, why, just leave me.  Someone will help me get back here.”

“You put a lot of trust in strangers.”  Little Joe exhaled in slow resignation.  “Okay, I might as well give it a try.  Spending a couple of weeks in that little room would probably drive me crazy.”

“No one needs to drive you crazy, Little Joe,” George quipped.  “You’re already there, as witness to which I have only to point to your very presence on this ship.”

“Hey, I did it for you!”

George reached over to touch Joe’s hand.  “I know—and I’m grateful.”

With the assistance of a steward to carry up George’s rolling chair, while Little Joe helped steady the man himself, they made it up the stairs.  “Where you reckon we are by now?” Joe asked as he rolled George, at his request, toward the rail of the ship, while keeping his own eyes glued to the boards beneath his feet.

“Ask one of the sailors,” George suggested.

Weaving unsteadily, Little Joe moved to one, who immediately answered his query.  “Just rounding Point Piedras Blancas, sir.  Usually a good place for viewing elephant seals.”

Joe hustled back to George, in his excitement over the seals forgetting his fear of the sickening sea waves.  He soon spotted the seals, sunning themselves on the sandy shore.  “Look at the size of ‘em!” he cried.  “You ever see the like, George?”

“Only on my way here from the East,” George chuckled.

“Oh, yeah, guess you would have.”  Little Joe shrugged in chagrin.  “I’ve seen ‘em, too, but it’s been awhile.  We don’t often go all the way to the coast, even when we got business in California.”  He pointed at an especially large one.  “Look at the nose on that fellow.”

“All nose and no ears,” George added with a grin.  “It’s quite a look, I must admit.”  He paused and then asked, “So, how’s the stomach?”

“Huh?”  As the question registered, Little Joe laughed in surprise.  “Hey, no problems.  It helps to be able see land, I guess.”

George nodded.  “And to be focused on other things.  So, you think you’ll enjoy your journey, then?”

“Well, sure.”  He laughed again.  “I’d better, ‘cause what’ll be waiting for me when I get back is gonna be anything but enjoyable.”

“And every bit of it deserved,” George scolded.  “I only hope Adam forgives me.”

“What could you have done?  Can’t stop what you don’t know about.”

George raised an index finger to indicate making a point.  “Ah, but Adam will not know that.  He’ll only think I didn’t keep proper watch over you—and he’d have reason.  I should have seen this coming.”

“I ain’t that predictable,” Little Joe argued.  “Just ask anyone in the family.  And I can guarantee Adam won’t be blamin’ you.  When things go wrong, he always looks straight at me first before even thinkin’ somebody else might be to blame.”

“And, of course, you’ve never given him reason for that.”

“Oh, sure I have.”  The words sounded to George more like a boast than an admission of guilt.  I think I may have my hands full with this one, he thought, and Heaven help me if there are any attractive young ladies aboard.

They spent the morning on deck, watching the changing coastline on the port side of the California or dolphins sporting off its starboard.  Then they made the difficult descent to the dining salon, where George enjoyed a hearty lunch of rib of beef and vegetables, while Little Joe cautiously dipped into a bowl of chicken gumbo.  “One of Mama’s favorites,” he stated, as if that connection, in itself, would assure that the soup stayed down.

“Do you actually remember that?” George asked.

Little Joe looked surprised.  “Yeah, I think so, but it’s hard to be sure what I remember and what I’ve just been told so many times it seems like I do.  You know what I mean?”

“In a way, I do.  I think we’ve all heard childhood stories told by our elders that have that effect.”  George said.  “In my case, however, most of those stories revolve around embarrassing boyish antics that I supposedly perpetrated.”

“Oh, I get plenty of those, too, especially from Hoss and Adam.”

“And not a one of them exaggerated, I’ll wager!”

“You sound an awful lot like those bothersome brothers of mine,” Little Joe scolded, pushing his empty soup bowl aside.  “You think I could still order something else?  That sat so well I’d like to try something a little more filling.”

“Of course.”  George signaled the steward, and since it was the one who had been so attentive to the injured man on the first day, he immediately came and took the younger man’s order for a dish of chicken pot pie.

After lunch George elected to sit in the gentlemen’s cabin, but Little Joe wanted to return to the upper deck.  He was gone the entire afternoon, and when he came running into the gentleman’s cabin shortly before time for supper, George asked drolly, “Elephant seals putting on quite a performance, are they?”

“I’m sorry,” Little Joe said.  “I was enjoying the sights so much, I forgot to come back and check on you.”

“I’m perfectly capable of rolling this chair to my own cabin, young fellow,” George scolded, “so you needn’t concern yourself on my account.  I’ve had an enjoyable afternoon and met some congenial gentlemen.”

“Oh, good.”  Little Joe looked relieved.  “I met some nice people, too.”

George laughed.  “Well, I didn’t really think those seals would hold your interest all this time!”

“Eight bells comin’ up soon, or so they tell me,” Little Joe said.  “You want to go back to the stateroom to get freshened up before dinner?”

“My, aren’t you becoming acclimated quickly!”  George smiled as he nodded.  “Yes, I’d like that—and it will give you a chance to wash behind your ears.”

“Oh, cut that out!”  Little Joe gave the rolling chair a potent push, which elicited nothing but another laugh from George.

Eight bells soon sounded, and the two companions emerged from George’s stateroom.  As George was pushed up to the table, he heard a silvery voice call, “Hello, Little Joe.”  He turned and caught sight of not one, but two rather fetching young ladies, the auburn-haired one twinkling her fingers at the youth, who returned a lively smile.  The other nodded demurely and drew her companion toward their own table.

George groaned audibly as Little Joe sat by his side.  “Are these the ‘sights’ you enjoyed all afternoon?”

Little Joe was still following the girls with his eyes.  “Hmm?  Oh, yeah.”  Seeing George’s skeptical look, he said, “They are very nice.”

“Oh, I’m sure.  Well, at least, they’re an improvement over the Cheshire Cow and the Beaufort Ballerina.”

“They were nice, too,” Little Joe said, his eyes dreamy with fond memory of their night at the Stinking Stilton in San Francisco.

George shoved the menu into Joe’s hands.  “Concentrate on something other than a pretty face for just a few minutes.”

“Like baked ham in champagne sauce?”

“Much safer.”  George shook his head.  He’d only thought he was joking when he’d contemplated the possibility of fending off fair maidens earlier that day.  He should have known better.  Warnings about shipboard romances were a staple of the travelogues he’d read, and Little Joe Cartwright, with his handsome face and ebullient personality, was probably a stronger magnet for single ladies than their customary targets of the ship’s captain and bachelor officers.

Over dinner, Little Joe enthusiastically filled George in on all he knew about the Lawrence sisters, who were traveling to Philadelphia to enroll in finishing school.  “I told them their manners were already impeccable,” he said, looking proud of himself for using the twenty-dollar word, “and their bearing so graceful that I didn’t see the need for a finishing school, but I was certainly glad that they were traveling with us.  Girls like to hear things like that, George.”  The attitude was that of a sage bestowing his years of accumulated wisdom on a youth barely out of knee pants.

George rolled his eyes.  “Is there the slightest hope that either of them saw through this substantial slathering of soft soap?”

Little Joe frowned.  “Well, Miss Margaret—she’s the older one—seemed a mite skeptical, but it’s not soft soap, George.  They are graceful and well-mannered!”

“I’m sure they are.”  In truth, the brief glimpse he’d had of the sisters suggested nothing else.  “Surely, two such proper young ladies are not traveling alone?”

Little Joe sliced off a bite of ham and dragged it through the sauce.  “No, there’s a male cousin on board somewhere, but he doesn’t hang around them much.”

“Hopefully, he didn’t bring a shotgun.”

With a lengthy exhale of exasperation, Little Joe said, “Why would he need one?  I have manners, too, you know.”

“And far too much charm for your own good, young fellow.”

Little Joe grinned.  “How can a fellow have too much charm?”

“Slather it on any thicker,” George said, “and you’re likely to find out.”

“Not a chance.” Little Joe waved the concern aside.  Then he pushed back from the table and patted his stomach.  “I could use some exercise to work off a meal like this.  You wanna go topside again?”

George shook his head.  “No, it’s been a long day; I think I’ll retire for the night.”

“Okay, I’ll help you get changed and into your berth before I take a little—um, exercise—on deck.”

“Aren’t you afraid you’ll miss your appointment for this moonlight promenade?”

“Oh, no, Eva will wait.”  Little Joe broke off and covered his face with his hand.  “That was supposed to be a secret.”

George wagged his finger under the young man’s nose.  “No secrets.  I am responsible for you, and I doubt my friendship with Adam could survive my sending you home engaged—or worse.”

“Oh, relax,” Little Joe said as he began guiding the rolling chair to George’s stateroom.  “I know how to handle women.”

“Oh, dear,” George sighed, wondering (not for either the first or last time) why fate had saddled him with such a daunting responsibility.

*****

Saddlebags slung over his shoulder, Hoss walked down the gangplank.  His jaw dropped when he saw, not his expected younger brother, but his elder moving toward him, hand languidly raised in greeting.  “Adam, what’re you doin’ here?” he asked as they met.

“Meeting you, obviously,” Adam said dryly.  “Glad you finally wired me your passage details.”

“Yeah, but”—suddenly the truth hit Hoss.  “Aw, doggone.  You didn’t make it in time?”

“Nope,” Adam answered laconically, as he turned and began to walk away from the dock.

“I knew you was cuttin’ it close,” Hoss said, falling in at his brother’s side, “but I thought for sure you’d make it.”

“Let’s just say the trip on the Asiago highly resembled our drive over the mountains,” Adam grunted.  “One thing after another.”

“That’s a shame,” Hoss empathized.  “I know you was lookin’ forward to goin’ East with George.  He get off okay?”

“Yeah, he’s on his way.”

Hoss shook his head.  “That’s good, I guess, but I sure hate to think of him goin’ all that way by hisself, the shape he’s in.”

“Oh, he’s not by himself.”

“He ain’t?  But who?”  His eyes flared wide and he stopped dead still on the street.  “No,” he croaked, shaking his head, his very tone a plea to be told that his sudden fear was unfounded.

“I’m afraid so,” Adam said curtly.  “Our little brother is on his way to Panama and, ultimately, Boston.  You didn’t think I’d just left him back at the hotel, did you?”

Hoss shrugged.  “Hadn’t give it much thought, one way or t’other.  Figured, maybe, he was makin’ an early night of it.”

Adam arched a skeptical eyebrow.  “Joe?”

Hoss’s nose scrunched.   Adam was right: the notion of Joe and an early night in the big city just didn’t go together.  “What we gonna do, Adam?  We cain’t leave that boy driftin’ off to Panama and on, can we?”

“If you can think of another option, I’ll be glad to hear it, because I am fresh out of ideas.”

Hoss sighed.  “I was hopin’ for a bite to eat, but I reckon we need to talk.”

Adam chuckled.  “We can do both.  Feeling confident that no matter how well the steamboat fed you, you’d be ready for a snack, at the very least, I arranged to have some sandwiches delivered to the room.”

“Lead on, then, brother, and let’s see if we cain’t figure some way to get little brother out of this mess he’s made.”

“Again,” Adam intoned tartly.

 

October 2

 

Little Joe wakened to the sound of bells.  He wasn’t sure how many there’d been, but by the light through the porthole, he judged that the number was probably eight.  Time to get up, but he couldn’t resist lying in his berth a bit longer, dreamily recalling last night’s blissful moonlight promenade.  George had been completely correct in calling it that, for the moon had shone throughout the evening, as brightly as the lighthouse on the hilltop at Point Conception when they rounded it to enter the Santa Barbara channel.

Eva wasn’t able to join him in time to see that, but the moonlight had revealed the enchanting shorelines of Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa as, arm in arm, they walked and watched the ship cruise inside the chain of islands of which those were the largest.  Even more enchanting was its illumination of her delicate face and dazzling sapphire eyes as they gazed up into his with such allure.  Ah, such was the stuff of dreams that he had drifted on through the night.  With a sigh he surrendered dreams to the daily responsibilities that dawn presaged.  One final luxurious stretch and he rose to dress and hurry in to assist George.

 

*****

 

In the hotel’s restaurant Hoss ordered as hearty a breakfast as Hop Sing normally served at home.  “How do you do it?” Adam asked with an amazed shake of his head. Having eaten late the night before, his breakfast choices were light by comparison.  He smiled.  Nothing new about that; his choices were always light, compared to Hoss’s.

“Huh?” Hoss asked.

“Sure you can burn all that off?  You won’t be punching cows this morning, buddy.”

“I’m just a growin’ boy,” Hoss said with a grin, which suddenly turned sour.  “‘Sides, I cain’t face what I gotta do on an empty stomach.”

“You don’t have to face it yet,” Adam pointed out as he raised his coffee cup to his lips.

“Maybe not, but the thought of what’s comin’ . . .”

“Should not be allowed to spoil the pleasure of the day,” Adam finished for him.  He set his coffee down.  “I’m really sorry to lay this on you, Hoss, but I do think it’s the best plan.  We can’t leave Joe on his own.  One of us has to go and . . .”

“And it doggone sure ain’t gonna be me!”

“Which leaves you the responsibility of telling Pa.  We agreed last night that it’s the sort of news he needs to hear in person.”

“I know all that,” Hoss said.  “I’m just dreadin’ it, that’s all, wishin’ I could put it off for—well, for somethin’ like forever, I reckon.”

Adam laughed.  “I can’t give you forever, but you are due some time off.  Pa expected you to take it here, so as long as you get home in time for him to send me word if he doesn’t want me to follow Joe, no reason not to enjoy yourself for a couple of days.  And considering what’s facing you, I think it’s only right that you be the one to pick what we do while you’re here.”

“To make up for stickin’ me with the worst chore?”

“Something like that.  What strikes your fancy?”

Just then their breakfast plates were delivered, and that distracted both of them for a couple of minutes.  Then Hoss said as he sawed into his ham, “Been a while since I seen the Wentworths.  Kind of like to do that this afternoon, maybe take ‘em to supper.”

“They’ll want an early night,” Adam said.  “Would you like to see a play afterwards?”

“Maybe tomorrow night, if’n there’s a good un playin’.  No Shakespeare.”

For far from the first time, Adam poured mental castigation on the unsuspecting head of Abigail Jones, whose syrupy interpretations of Shakespeare’s romances had forever soured both his brothers on the work of the Immortal Bard.  “And tonight?”

Hoss flashed him a wide-toothed grin.  “Cain’t you guess?”

Adam groaned, but he, too, was grinning as he did.  On his first trip to San Francisco, he’d brought home a carved whale tooth as a gift for his middle brother, and ever since Hoss had gotten big enough to come to the big city himself, no trip was complete without adding a new piece to his collection.  “Cobweb Palace it is,” Adam said.

*****

“Guess we’re still in the Channel,” Little Joe observed as he rolled George across the deck after a better breakfast than he’d dared risk the day before.

“I’d say so,” George agreed.

“Hello, Little Joe.”

Little Joe turned toward a voice well coated with honey.  “Why, hello, Miss Eva.  Fancy meeting you here . . . and your lovely sister, as well.”

Though the older sister sent him a chiding glance, a hint of a smile nonetheless graced her lips.

“But I’m forgetting my manners,” he said quickly.  “My dear ladies, please allow me to introduce Mr. George Pontpier of Boston.  George, I know you’ve seen the lovely Lawrence sisters, but as you haven’t properly met, this is Miss Margaret and Miss Eva.”

“You were pointed out to me at a distance,” George said, “but a nearer view reveals still more grace and beauty.”

Margaret laughed.  “I now see where your young companion learned his charming way with words.”

George shook his head firmly.  “Oh, no.  I assure you I am in no way responsible for anything that comes from that lad’s lips . . . although I will try to assure that he doesn’t make a bother of himself.”

“How could he possibly?” Eva asked with a pretty pout on her lips.

“The same way you could, I presume,” inserted her sister.

Little Joe slipped his arm inside the younger girl’s elbow.  “Miss Eva, why don’t we take the air on the other side of the ship and leave these old folks to look after each other?”

George made an elaborate choking noise.  “Old folks?”  He looked at the other girl.  “Keep a civil tongue in your mouth when you speak of a lady, you inveterate rascal.”

“He is, isn’t he?” Margaret said.  She waved the two of them away.  “Run along, children.  I am quite content to share Mr. Pontpier’s company for a while.”

“Children!” Eva snuffled.  “I am not . . .”

“Shh,” Little Joe whispered in her ear.  Louder, he said, “Yes, Miss Margaret, we’ll run along and play . . . just as ordered.”

“No one said ‘play,’” George called as the two youngsters tripped lightly away.

Eva laughingly grasped the opposite rail, once they’d moved out of sight of their elders.  “That was fun,” she said, “but I’m afraid all the sights are on the port side.”

“The best sight of all is on this side,” Little Joe, leaning close, said.

“The empty ocean?”  Eva looked skeptical.

He shook his head.  “Eyes as blue as the ocean, but definitely not empty,” he said, moving closer yet.

She stepped just out of reach.  “A pretty compliment, but you’re rather bold, sir.”

Little Joe chuckled.  “And you’re a shy, retiring violet?”

“In broad daylight with an audience of sailors, I am.”

“Ah, so you’re fishing for another moonlight promenade.”  Little Joe’s blue-jay giggle echoed across the waves, turning the heads of fellow passengers strolling nearby.

“I don’t fish . . . nor do I need to.”  Eva tossed her auburn tresses across one shoulder.

“Pity,” Joe said, “‘cause there’s some pretty awesome ones right over there.”  He pointed oceanward.

Eva clapped her hands in girlish delight.  “They’re flying!”

Heart soaring higher than the fish, Little Joe dreamed of the possibilities the night might bring, when neither daylight nor sailors nor—perish the thought—George or Margaret was around as an audience.

“I suppose we should join the others,” Eva suggested, “or they’ll think we’re up to no good.”

Little Joe laughed.  “You heard George.  He always thinks I’m up to no good.”

Eva linked her arm with his.  “And are you?”

Naughty twinkle in his eye, he said, “Only when I get the chance.”

“Do not say that in front of my sister!” she dictated.

“Trust me for that!” he declared.

“George and I were beginning to worry about you two,” Margaret scolded some time later as the younger couple returned to the port side of the ship.

George now—no longer Mr. Pontpier, Little Joe noticed, with a congratulatory wink at his brother’s friend, and at the very thought that he might be following a poor example, instead of setting a proper one, George blushed radish red.

*****

The Cartwright brothers slowly wound their way through the clutter that all but clogged the path to the back rooms, where in contrast to the eccentric décor, the finest of imported liquors were served.  As Adam ducked to avoid another of the place’s namesake cobwebs, hanging in festoons from an ornate chandelier, he glanced back at his brother and sighed.  Hoss had once again stopped to admire part of proprietor Abe Warner’s collection of oddities, and there’d be no budging him until he’d had his fill of chattering to the parrots and watching the antics of the resident monkey.  At heart, Hoss was every bit as much a child as the youngsters whom Warner regularly welcomed here to see the animals, though no children were around at this hour.

Adam tried to amuse himself by gazing at one of the thousands of paintings of nude women that adorned the walls, but as with everything else, they were so draped with the gauze of spider webs that whatever allures the ladies held were demurely shrouded.  For Adam, the main allure of the Cobweb Palace was in that rear room, and when Hoss was along, it always seemed to take forever to get there.  Still, he thought with a fond grin, he wouldn’t have had the big fellow be any other way.

Hoss finally looked up and wrinkled his nose sheepishly when he saw Adam looking at him.  “Sorry,” he said, catching up.  “They’s just so interestin’.”

Adam responded with a half-chiding chuckle.  “Everything is interesting to you.”

“Ain’t that a good thing?”

Adam acknowledged that it was, but added, “not if it keeps you from a better one” with a significant cock of his head toward the back.

“Yeah, I am gettin’ kind of thirsty,” Hoss said.

They found a table in the rear room, and a waiter soon stood before them.  “What’ll it be, gents?” he asked.

“I’ll have a whisk—hey!”  Hoss reached down to rub his aching calf, which had just taken a sharp kick from his brother’s boot.  “Uh—no, that ain’t what I meant,” he stammered, suddenly recalling that the last time he’d ordered whiskey here, he’d been told in no uncertain terms that if he wanted anything as common as that he should go to a saloon.  “Um—I’ll have—uh.”  He looked helplessly at Adam.  “What will I have?”

“Ale,” Adam suggested.  “A good English ale for my brother, please, and I’ll have your finest French brandy.”

“Very good, sir,” the waiter said with a nod of approval, “and are you dining, as well?”

“No, we’ve already—ouch!”  This time it was Adam’s calf that required rubbing.  “Apparently, we’re still hungry?”  He turned an inquiring eye toward his brother.

“Just a mite,” Hoss said.  “Sort of a bedtime snack, you might say.  You got somethin’ small like that, mister, with them crabs or clams you make so tasty here?”

“I believe we can do that, sir,” the waiter replied.  He turned to Adam.  “And for you, sir?”

Adam started to decline, but decided suddenly that he could find an empty spot or two, even after the hearty meal they’d shared with the Wentworth family.  After all, Pacific crabs were prepared to perfection at the Cobweb Palace.  “Something small, to share,” he suggested.

As soon as they’d ordered, Hoss stood.  “I’m gonna go have a look-see at them carvings of ole Abe’s.”

“Knock yourself out,” Adam said dryly.  Knowing Hoss, he’d have to see each walrus tusk or whale tooth that Abe Warner had etched with some patriotic scene, and Adam was quite content to sit here and sip brandy in the meanwhile.  Good thing we ordered food after all, he mused as Hoss set out on his mission.  That, at least, should lure him back sometime before dawn.

*****

“Want me to ask where we are?” Little Joe offered when he brought George back to the deck after supper.

George just laughed.  “I know where we are.  He pointed across the rail when they reached it.  “That’s San Diego Bay.”

Little Joe grinned.  “I keep forgetting you’ve been here before.”

“Well, not every landmark is as distinctive as this,” George admitted.  “If you look closely, you can see the hide houses at the foot of the hills.”

Little Joe squinted into the distance.  “If you say so.”

“I guess it is getting a bit dark.  Ever market there?”

“Don’t think so,” Little Joe said with a shake of his head.  “Maybe in the early days.  Nowadays we sell the whole beef, not just the hide.  ‘Course, some might end up there, after the buyer gets through with the meat.”

“You can’t see it well yet,” George said, “but once we pass the southern shore of the bay, we’ll be very close to Mexico . . . the peninsula, that is.”

“Wow,” Joe said, impressed.  “I’ve barely been outside Nevada, and now I’m gonna see a whole other country.”  He sighed softly.  “Guess I won’t see much of it, though, just the shoreline like here.  One stretch of sand probably looks pretty much like another.”

George chuckled.  “Oh, I think you might notice a few differences, and we will be making one stop.”

Little Joe perked up.  “Yeah?  Where’s that?”

George either didn’t hear the question or was distracted by the vision walking toward them.  “Oh, look, there are the ladies.”

“Yeah.”  Little Joe’s voice was flat.  He’d had such hopes for tonight’s moonlight promenade . . . until George and Margaret had announced that they, too, wished to see the play of moonlight on rippling waves and suggested—with all the force of a judicial edict—that the four of them enjoy the sights together.

 

October 3

Still weary from the rough cattle drive and a later-than-expected night at the Cobweb Palace, the two older Cartwright brothers indulged in a luxury unknown on the Ponderosa, except to their younger brother: sleeping in.  Habit still roused Adam relatively early, but he let Hoss sleep, while he arranged another unaccustomed extravagance, having breakfast delivered to their suite.  With anyone else he might have been more cautious, but Hoss was never finicky.  As long as the food was plain and plentiful, he’d be satisfied with whatever his brother ordered.  Knowing he’d want it hot, however, Adam did wake him when the meal arrived, and though already dressed himself, encouraged Hoss to partake of another bit of absolute decadence, eating in his nightshirt.

Once they’d carved the edge off their hunger, Adam asked, “Any thoughts on what you’d like to do today?”

“Yup,” Hoss said between bites.  Finishing off the next, he said, “Won’t sound like much, I reckon, but this bein’ my last day here, I figured to do me some fancy Christmas shoppin’ in the big city.”

Christmas!  Adam’s fork hung in midair.  With all that had been going on, he hadn’t given a thought to Christmas.  “I won’t be here,” he said to himself, but Hoss heard.

“Doggone.  I hadn’t thought of that.  You sure you cain’t get back in time?”

Adam exhaled gustily.  “A month out, a month back.  There’s a window to squeeze through, but it’s only open a crack.  Maybe that’s why I didn’t think about it before.  Leaving on the original date, I probably could have returned in time.  Take into account a ten-day delay in departing, and I’d have to cut my visit with the Pontpiers discourteously short to make it happen.  And even that’s assuming the weather in the Sierras decides to cooperate.”

“It don’t tend to cooperate much in December,” Hoss admitted.  “You and Joe both gone for Christmas—Pa sure ain’t gonna like that.  Thanks a heap, big brother.”

Adam gave him an ironic smile.  “Sorry to make your job tougher, buddy, but you can tell Pa I’ll be bringing him home the gift he wants most.”

“Aw, he don’t have to wait,” Hoss said, attention back on his breakfast.  “Do your shoppin’ today, same as me, and I’ll tote back whatever you want when I head home.”

Adam laughed.  “I’ll do that, too, but I was talking about his baby son.”

“Oh, yeah.”  Hoss felt a moment’s chagrin for not understanding right away what his brother had meant, but his wide-toothed grin was quickly back in place.  “Best tie a purty bow on ‘im, then.”

“And plop him in Pa’s lap,” Adam said, returning the grin.  “Preferably, bottom side up.”

*****

Both Little Joe and Eva had been as eager as children with a new toy to sight the shores of Mexico.  But a morning of leaning over the ship’s rail convinced them that one sandy beach was, as Little Joe had predicted, much like another.  And since George and Margaret stayed in close attendance, neither felt much desire to spend the afternoon in the same way.  To George’s shock, over a fine lunch of baked trout in butter sauce for him and roast chicken with sweet potatoes and peas for Little Joe, the younger man asked if there was some book—“not too boring”—that he might borrow.

“You’re welcome to anything I have, of course,” George said.  “I finished Two Years Before the Mast on my way out here, and I think you might find that ‘not boring.’”

Little Joe brightened.  “Yeah, I’ve heard Pa mention that one; said it kind of whetted his appetite to come to California, though the sight of Nevada changed his mind about that.  I’ll give it a try.”

Stating that he preferred to spend some time in conversation in the gentlemen’s lounge, George told his young friend where to find the book, and they went their separate ways for the afternoon.  Little Joe became so absorbed in the tale of the sea that the time passed quickly, and he was surprised when he heard eight bells sound again.  With some reluctance he put the book aside, brushed his hair and then rapped on the door to the adjoining stateroom.

As they again approached the table, both young men glanced wistfully at the girls on the way to their own table.  “Seems a shame we can’t switch eating places,” Little Joe observed.

“We might be able to join them when we change steamships,” George said.

“When do we do that?”  That opportunity obviously couldn’t come too soon for Little Joe, nor—he suspected—for George.

Certain he could read the young man’s mind, George laughed.  “Not until we reach the other side of Panama—more than a week from now, in other words.”

“Oh.”  Little Joe shrugged.  At least, it was something to look forward to.

*****

Hoss’s face was flushed with the effort of knotting his tie beneath his collar.  Unable to watch the torture any longer, Adam stepped up and deftly maneuvered the loops and pulled them into a perfectly proportioned bow.

“Thanks,” Hoss said.  “Don’t see how you stand wearing a fancy neckerchief like that, Adam.  Plain string tie ‘bout strangles me to death.”

Over his brother’s shoulder Adam peered into the mirror, well satisfied with the way the blue brocade cravat gave the ready-made suit a much-needed air of elegance.  “All in your imagination, brother,” he insisted.  “Neckties do not strangle.”

“Ones they use at necktie parties do,” Hoss snorted, “and this thing feels just like ‘em.”

“As you know from vast personal experience, no doubt.”  Adam’s arched eyebrow gave him a decidedly snide appearance.

“Well . . . not vast,” Hoss admitted.  “Don’t reckon anybody ever gets vast experience with such as that.”

“You can say that again!” Adam laughed.  He raised a cautioning finger.  “But don’t.  You’ve spent so much time primping that we’ll have to walk briskly to arrive before the curtain rises.”

“Let’s get goin’, then.”  Once they were in the cool October air, Hoss said, “I sure hope this play’s a good un.  You seen it before?”

“No, it’s new to me,” Adam replied, “but Maguire’s generally stages good productions.”  Though he felt some personal concern about the subject matter of a play called The Octoroon, he had nothing better to offer his brother.

Adam’s concerns about the play were fully vindicated with the first words uttered on stage.  The character Solon spoke in an atrocious rendition of slave dialect, which Adam had heard often enough during his family’s sojourn in Missouri to recognize the butchery.  The second act introduced an Indian speaking a language so foreign to any known tribe that even Hoss looked askance at his brother; however, he, at least, was drawn into the melodramatic plot, a feat Adam could not accomplish.

As Act III ended, however, the drama enacted next to him surpassed anything the stage had to offer.  A livid Hoss bolted out of his seat, bellowing, “No!” and Adam had his hands full restraining his brother from charging the stage to rescue poor Zoe, the title character being sold away from the white family that had accepted her as one of their own, despite her being the offspring of the deceased head of the household and one of his black slaves.

“It’s just a play,” Adam hissed.

Whether it was his brother’s voice or the pull of his arm or the stares of the other theater-goers, Hoss finally got the message and sheepishly took his seat.  “Sorry,” he whispered, to which Adam gave only a nod before turning his attention back to the stage and praying the rest of the audience would, too.

For Adam, the best part of the play was its end, when Zoe drank a vial of poison because her white lover had said that he would prefer to see her dead, rather than enslaved to the evil man who had purchased her.  Hoss, of course, was in tears as they left the theater.

“Did you ever see anything more tragical than that, Adam?” he mourned as they walked to a nearby restaurant for late-night refreshments.

It was all Adam could do to keep from laughing, though he wouldn’t have hurt his brother’s feelings for the world.  “Why, Hoss,” he finally said, a hint of mischief nonetheless creeping in, “I thought you didn’t like Shakespeare.”

“That ain’t who wrote this,” Hoss scoffed.  “He didn’t know nothin’ about Louisiana.”

Adam chuckled.  “No, but Boucicault has obviously read Shakespeare.  You didn’t recognize the similarity to Romeo and Juliet?”

Hoss’s nose wrinkled in distaste.  “You’re kiddin’ me, right?”

Adam shook his head.  “Not at all.  Two more star-crossed lovers I’ve never seen since those two, the girl even dying by her own hand, just like Juliet.  The only difference is that Shakespeare killed off Romeo, too.”

“Doggone,” Hoss said.  “Maybe I’ll have to give that old thing another go sometime.”

“If it accomplishes that, The Octoroon may well become my favorite play of the season,” Adam observed with a wry grin as he held open the door to the restaurant.

Not even pie and coffee could distract Hoss’s attention from the fate of poor Zoe, however.  “Is that how it really is down south, Adam?” he asked.  “All that talk of one little drop of blood makin’ all the difference?”

“I’m afraid so, Hoss.”

Hoss shook his head.  “Don’t make no sense.  Blood’s all the same color.”

Adam forked off a bite of pie.  “Unfortunately, the southern aristocracy doesn’t share your respect for common sense.  Don’t you remember how it was with Marie?”

“She wasn’t like that,” Hoss protested.  “All folks was the same to her.”

Adam smiled sadly.  “But she wasn’t the same to all folks.  Don’t you remember?”

“You mean her bein’ part Creole?”

Adam bit his lip.  That was the way Pa had always referred to the situation, at least to Little Joe.  Was it possible that Hoss, too, had never been told what lay at its root?

“What?” Hoss demanded, seeing his brother’s expression.  “You ain’t sayin’ she was . . . like Zoe?”

Adam shook his head.  “No, that’s doubtful.  But she couldn’t prove her ancestry, and to aristocrats like her first husband’s family, that meant she might have that one drop of ‘black blood’ that would have tainted her.”  Moistening his lips, he added, “Look, don’t say anything to Little Joe.  I’m certain he doesn’t know, and you know how he is about his mother.”

Hoss nodded.  All it had ever taken to make Little Joe tear into someone was one word said against his ma, but Hoss had always understood that.  He’d’ve done the very same.  Just now, however, Adam’s caution only made him more sharply aware that it would be a very long time before he’d be saying anything at all to his little brother.

 

October 4

Little Joe and George had barely left the breakfast table the next morning before Eva came running up.  “Oh, Joe!” she cried.  “Isn’t it the most wonderful news ever?”

“That we can catch a good view of the Benito and Cedros islands if we hurry up on deck?” Little Joe asked playfully.

Eva spatted the hand pushing George’s chair.  “You can be so infuriating!  You know I meant the dance.”

“Oh, that news.”  Little Joe winked at her.  “Yeah, that was pretty wonderful, all right.”

“I have the most beautiful ball gown,” the girl announced with an enticing smile.

“Can’t wait to see it,” Little Joe said as Eva flounced away in answer to her sister’s call.  Margaret kept her distance, though her wistful eyes were fastened on George.

Little Joe pursed his lips.  “Sorry, George.  I guess a dance isn’t exactly good news for you.”

“Hmm?” George, whose eyes were still following the older Lawrence girl, asked absently.

“The dance,” Little Joe said.  “Can’t be much fun for you, and I still feel real bad about your leg.  Is there somethin’ you’d rather have us do?”

George spun the chair to face his young friend.  “My dear boy, you are not to think of missing that dance out of some false sense of responsibility to me.”

“I’m only here to help you.”  The sacrificial words were the right ones to say.  Little Joe knew that, but he couldn’t help wishing he were free to enjoy all the attractions of this trip . . . especially those with eyes of ocean blue.

George just chuckled.  “Well, do as you like, but I intend to be at that dance!”

Furrows wrinkled Little Joe’s forehead.  “But you can’t dance.”

“I can listen . . . and watch . . . and perhaps some fair damsel will take pity and sit with me awhile.  Didn’t you give me some such advice back at the Stinking Stilton?”

Little Joe laughed then.  “That’s the spirit!  I’m sure the lovely Miss Lawrence will be glad to keep you company.”

“Not the whole time, though,” George insisted.  “Promise me you’ll ask her to dance, Joe.  I know you prefer Eva, but . . .”

“I can’t keep a lady hogtied to me all night,” Little Joe said.  “It ain’t done, George, leastways not in my part of the country.”

“Nor in mine.  Now, how about getting me on deck before I miss that tantalizing sight of the passage between the islands?”

*****

Adam laughed at the figure of his brother Hoss, standing on the dock with his bag of parcels slung over one shoulder.  “You’re the picture of Santa Claus,” he said in answer to the quizzical look that met his outburst.

Hoss grinned.  “Feel like him, too.”

“You should be used to that.”  Almost every Christmas Hoss appeared in his red flannel underwear, sporting a cottony white beard and bearing an even heftier load of gifts for the children from the local orphanage.

“Never hurts to practice,” Hoss said.

Adam held out a sealed envelope.  “Here’s another delivery, Santa, but you’d best give this one to Pa early.  And no peeking!”

“Oh, ho!  Santa gets a gift of his own, I reckon.”

“If he wants one, he’d better deliver the instructions to Pa.”

Hoss’s grin soured for a moment.  “Yeah, I reckon Pa could use somethin’ else to think on besides that other message I gotta deliver.”

Adam nodded.  “Look, no matter how Pa reacts, let me know as soon as you can, so I can cancel my passage if . . .”

“Aw, Adam,” Hoss interrupted, “you know Pa ain’t gonna want that.  He’ll want you to go after Little Joe.”

“I’m confident he will,” Adam said, “or I wouldn’t have booked the passage already, but it may go down easier with Pa if we make it clear that the decision is still his to make.”

Hoss cocked his head and examined the other man.  “You know, you can be downright connivin’, older brother.”

“It’s been known to help,” Adam said with a smile just shy of smug.

“Yeah, well, I reckon I can use all the help I can get this time,” Hoss said, “so I’ll put it to him just like you say.”  At the cry of “All aboard,” he stretched his hand toward Adam.  “Sure hate to think of you all on your own these next few days.  Gonna be powerful lonesome and borin’ for you.”

Adam chuckled.  “I’ll be fine.”  He shook Hoss’s hand and watched him board the Chrysopolis, headed for Sacramento.  As he watched the steamboat pull away, he shook his head in amusement at Hoss’s concern.   Now that he no longer had to consider his brother’s taste in entertainment, he could indulge in the more sophisticated attractions San Francisco had to offer, beginning with the opera tonight.  Bored?  Not likely, but lonely?  Yes, he admitted, though with some reluctance, he already missed Hoss and would definitely miss Pa on the long journey ahead of him . . . and, yes, though for a shorter time, even that scamp he’d soon be chasing through the tropics.

*****

The dining hall of the California wasn’t designed for dancing and, in fact, was rarely used for that purpose.  However, since a group of musicians happened to be among the passengers on this voyage, an evening of special entertainment was appealing to all, and the evening they would leave the coast of Lower California and strike out for the mainland of Mexico seemed the ideal excuse for a celebration.

Rather than moving the tables, the planners elected to leave them in place, so that passengers could either dance in the open spaces or sit and enjoy the music while eating typical tea-time refreshments.  George, of course, chose the latter.  He never missed the final meal of the day, even if his young companion scoffed at the notion of eating again four hours after supper, citing lack of exercise as his reason for not requiring or even desiring more food.  Well, the lad couldn’t complain of that tonight.  Nibbling a macaroon, George watched with interest the untiring energy of one of the most popular partners on the dance floor.

Little Joe had eyes only for his companion of the moment—the pretty ones, that is.  While he dutifully danced with the plump dowagers on board, he couldn’t resist peering over their well-padded shoulders to exchange a wink with one of the younger girls, especially the one with eyes of ocean blue.  As often as politely possible, though, he swept Eva around the room, and their bright smiles and brisk steps enlivened everyone they passed.

After dancing for about an hour, Eva’s sister Margaret came up to George.  “May I rest with you for a while?”

“By all means,” he replied, gesturing toward the chair next to him, “though I hate to deprive the other gentlemen of so graceful a dance partner.”

“I greatly regret that you cannot be among them,” she said.  “I’m sure you are a wonderful dancer.”

“Not as good as my young friend,” he said with a nod toward Little Joe, who happened to sashay past them just then with Eva on his arm.

Margaret’s lips tightened slightly.  “He seems nice,” she said, “but I would appreciate your assurance that he is . . . well . . . trustworthy.”

George took her hand.  “Impeccably.  Little Joe would never do anything dishonorable, although he’s a bit frivolous in his display of affection.”

“One might say flirtatious,” Margaret said, “although Eva is, as well, I must admit.  I would not wish to see her heart broken, but perhaps, she doesn’t take this encounter seriously, either.”

George nodded.  “I think that’s the case; I think they’re both just amusing themselves on a long voyage.    I wouldn’t worry, Miss Margaret; shipboard romances rarely linger beyond reaching port.”

“But you wouldn’t say never, would you?”

Looking directly into the eyes fixed meaningfully on his face, George said softly, “No, I wouldn’t say never.”

Lost in each other’s soulful gaze, neither saw the younger couple slip out of the dining saloon and head down the passage that led to the stairs.

*****

Adam knotted his silk cravat and stepped back to admire the cut of his new suit in the mirror above his wash stand.  Small as it was, it still showed to perfection how the fashionable lines set off his well-proportioned figure.  Turning this way and that, he nodded in satisfaction.  His old suit had been fine for western purposes and would have been accepted in the Pontpier home, but though he regretted the situation that had occasioned the need for a new one, he was secretly glad that he had something more stylish to wear to social events elsewhere in Boston.  Yes, he’d fit right in now.

He laughed lightly.  “But here I am, preening like my peacock of a baby brother, when La Traviata is waiting!”  Eager for the soul-refreshing strains of Italian opera, he moved briskly toward the door.  As he walked down the street, however, he found himself wondering what on earth Little Joe was wearing.  Even aboard ship he’d be expected to dress for dinner, and while he had a whole trunk full of his big brother’s clothes, none of them would fit.  As for Boston . . .  an amused smile quirked at his lips as he contemplated what Madeleine Pontpier would make of whatever getup little brother had managed to piece together for his arrival in Eastern society.

*****

A duet of lighthearted laughter, the voices differing only in pitch, rippled up the stairs.  Suddenly, a bright-eyed, breathless couple burst onto the deck.  “We made it!” Eva Lawrence declared in triumph.

“Was there ever any doubt?” her handsome companion inquired with a twinkle in his eye.

“With a watchdog like Margaret, there’s always doubt,” the girl insisted.

Little Joe grinned.  “I know exactly what you mean.”  He had a couple of watchdog brothers every bit as protective as Eva’s sister.  A wave of wishing they were here momentarily washed over him.  He hadn’t realized until the last few days just how much he depended on the oversight he’d previously viewed as stifling and completely unnecessary.  Here, however, with a shipload of strangers, except for one man he’d known only a few weeks, and facing a daunting journey into worlds unknown, he felt truly alone for the first time in his life.

Such worries, though, were better saved for another time, some silent, solitary moment when there were not beautiful eyes to gaze deeply into.  He smiled into Eva’s as he took her arm and said, “I think our watchdogs are too occupied with each other to pay us much mind tonight.”

Eva pressed close to his shoulder.  “Aren’t they, though?  I’ve never seen my sister so taken with a man.  I’ve always thought she was too bookish to even notice one.”

“Pity my brother Adam missed the boat, if that’s what she favors,” Little Joe, having previously told her how he’d ended up on this ship, confided.  “He’s as bookish as they come, quotes Shakespeare and the like all the time.”

“And George?”

“Well, yeah, him, too,” the young man admitted.  He offered her a small pout.  “You can’t imagine what I’ve been through, putting up with the two of them together these last few weeks.”

Eva gave a mock shudder and then smoothed away his pout with a delicate touch of her index finger.  “There!  That’s better.”

Her amethyst silk ball gown, with its inviting décolleté, brought out flecks of violet in her eyes that Little Joe found even more enticing than pure blue.  He, on the other hand, felt dowdy and underdressed for the occasion.  He had brought exactly one suit with him to San Francisco, even that being solely due to the expectation that brother Adam would inflict a night at the opera on him.  He’d donned, at least, the jacket for supper each night aboard ship, and he’d had nothing else to dress in for the special occasion of a dance.  It wasn’t even his best suit, for he’d spurned the notion of toting that on the trail with no one but a persnickety older brother to impress.  Now that he had someone he did care to impress, he regretted the decision.

“Oh, look,” Eva said, pointing toward the shore.  “Is that Cape St. Lucas?”

Little Joe looked past the point of land she was indicating.  “That’s a lot of ocean past it, so, yeah, I think that might be the big occasion for the dance.”

Eva leaned over the railing.  “It doesn’t feel any different.”  When the dance had been announced, the captain had stated that Cape St. Lucas would mark their entrance into the warmth of the tropics.

Little Joe laughed.  “Well, maybe we should give it more than a couple of minutes to heat up.”

Eva slapped his chest with the flat of her hand.  “Keep that up, and you’ll have me wishing your older brother hadn’t missed boarding!”

“Oh, he’s not your type at all,” Little Joe returned with cocky confidence, “but he could definitely give George a run for his money in winning Miss Margaret’s hand.”

“And then we’d be brother and sister!” Eva chortled impishly.

“Um-hmm,” Little Joe murmured, head bending close, “and then I could give you a brotherly kiss without fear of rebuke.”  He nuzzled her inviting neck with a kiss so light and breathy that it tickled her tender flesh.  As his lips moved upward to place the promised brotherly kiss on her cheek, the tickle became a shiver of expectation, and then lips pressed to lips in a kiss that was anything but brotherly.

 

October 5

When Little Joe entered George’s stateroom the next morning to assist with his daily ablutions, the older man shook his head and clucked his tongue.  “Did you forget the captain’s admonition or were you so lost in daydreams of the lovely Eva that you never even heard it?” he chided.  Seeing that his youthful companion had no idea what he meant, he asked plainly, “Why are you still wearing that?  You’ll swelter in the heat off the Mexican coast.”

Little Joe scowled at his woolen shirt and trousers.  “What choice I got?”

“Your linen suit, of course,” George started to say.  Then he slumped in recognition of his own stupidity.  “You don’t have one,” he stated flatly.

“Don’t often need ‘em in the Sierras,” Little Joe said, his mouth lifting wryly on one side.

“No, of course not, and you weren’t planning to be anywhere else,” George sighed.  Suddenly, he snapped his fingers.  “Of course!  Borrow Adam’s.”

“What?”  Little Joe stared at the other man as if he’d sprouted another head.

“Look in Adam’s trunk,” George suggested.  “I know he packed his old linen suit that he wore home from college because we discussed it.”

Little Joe laughed.  “It’d be a good idea, George, if’n we matched in size a mite better.”

George frowned.  “Hmm.  I know he tried it on, to be certain it still fit—he has bulked up some since our school days.  Not as much as I, but—I believe he said it was snug, but he thought it would do until he could replace it with something better.”  He appraised Little Joe’s figure, eyeing in particular the impossibly slim waist.  “I suspect it will still be loose on you, but I think it might work, Joe, if you use your belt to cinch it up.”  He gave the boy a wicked grin.  “Of course, you may not cut quite so fetching a figure for the ladies, but sweat isn’t particularly attractive, either.  It’s purely a question of pride or practicality, my boy.”

“Ha ha,” Little Joe said with a dry scowl.  “Well, let’s get you ready first and then I’ll give it a try, ‘cause you’re right about the heat.  I slept awful warm last night.”

*****

Adam sliced off a bite of ham and chewed it slowly as he contemplated how to spend his first full day alone in San Francisco.  He’d enjoyed the opera the previous night and already had plans for tonight, but the hours until dusk stretched before him like an endless void.  How could he fill them?  There were always sights to see around the city, but without a companion, none of them seemed appealing.  Now, if he were only on board ship, he’d probably catch sight of the coast of Mexico sometime today, he judged, calculating the days since the California had left port.  He wondered if Little Joe was appreciating the view.  Then he smiled.  Of course, he was.  The kid was always ready for any new sight.

The smile twisted a bit as Adam asked himself if Joe would equally enjoy the steamy weather of the tropics that he was now entering.  He was probably sweltering in his Sierra woolens, Adam thought with a chuckle.  Thank goodness, he’d packed his old linen suit and that it still fit him well enough to—shoulders slumping, Adam groaned softly.  His linen suit was halfway to Panama by now.  Well, at least, he knew how he’d be spending part of this day.  Finishing his breakfast, he headed back to French, Wilson and Company.

*****

“Isn’t he just the cutest little ragamuffin ever?”  Eva’s light laughter rippled across the deck as she gave her escort’s arm an affectionate squeeze.

For once, Margaret’s usual veneer of prim disapproval disappeared in favor of a sympathetic, almost motherly smile.  “He does look adorable.  All he needs is bare feet to look the part of a sweet little street urchin.”

“I believe they call them calles in this part of the world,” was George’s droll response to the flushed scowl on his youthful caretaker’s face.

“I told you this wouldn’t work,” Little Joe muttered with an impatient tug at his borrowed trousers, which persisted in slipping, no matter how tightly he cinched his belt.

“Relax,” George chuckled.  “You can buy a pair of your own once we reach Acapulco.  Only two more days.”

Since the girls were with them, Little Joe kept silent.  Had he and George been alone, he might have pointed out that it was hard to buy anything without money, a substance of which he was painfully short.

The Mexican coastline, with its hazy blue mountains as backdrop, was so much more scenic than the dry shores of Lower California, sterile but for a few cacti and stunted shrubs, that the travelers were content to drape themselves, agog, over the ship’s rails most of the afternoon.  Shortly before suppertime, George excitedly pointed at the land.  “Look!  It’s the Volcano of Colima!”

The other three members of his party followed his finger.  “Is that smoke?” Eva asked.

George laughed.  “No, just clouds, I think.”

“Oh,” the girl said, clearly disappointed.  “Then what makes you think it’s a volcano?”

“She’s got a point, George,” Little Joe put in, anxious to support his lady friend.  “It looks like any other mountain to me.”

“Well, I didn’t expect—or want—to see it erupting,” George grunted.

Little Joe and Eva both looked as though that were exactly what they’d like to see—from a safe distance, of course.  A colorful volcanic eruption, in their view, would provide a much-needed break from the routine of shipboard life.  “Then, how do you know?” Joe finally asked.

“By its nearness to Manzanillo,” George explained.  “I read about it in my travel guide and was disappointed that the clouds were so thick on my previous passage that I couldn’t see it at all.  I was later told that it’s quite rare to actually catch a glimpse of it.”

Margaret rested a hand on his forearm.  “How fortunate we are, then, to be seeing it with you.”

“It must have been destiny,” George said softly as he gazed upward into her smiling face, while Little Joe and Eva rolled their eyes, wondering how their elders would respond if they were to display such open affection.

*****

Since his destination tonight was near the hotel, Adam elected to have supper in its adequate dining room.  There were more noted eateries he wanted to visit while he was in San Francisco, but he still had time.  Besides, there were bound to be temptations to nibble where he was headed after supper.  Better to eat a light and simple supper.

He walked the short distance to Jackson St. and purchased his ticket for Dan Rice’s circus, which was set up next to the International Hotel.  Bag of roasted and salted nuts in hand, he slid onto a wooden bench surrounding the center ring of packed earth.  In a way it seemed odd to him to be attending an event like this alone.  He’d always told himself that he only endured such childish entertainment for the sake of his younger brothers, probably because their first trip together had been for exactly that purpose.  Virginia City’s first circus had come to town shortly after Marie’s death, during those dark days when Pa had been so lost in his own grief that he couldn’t even see that of his sons.  Adam had taken his brothers as a way to distract them from the loss of their mother and, in a very real way, that of their father, too.

Ever since, he’d only attended circuses with his brothers, yet here he sat tonight without either of them around as excuse.  Was he just missing them so much that he wanted to revive the nostalgia of that first night?  Or was it simply time to admit that he relished rustic entertainment as much as sophisticated drama and music?  No, not quite as much, he decided as the first equestrian act pranced into the ring.  Tomorrow’s offering was more appealing, but for tonight, he was content to watch the horses and revisit memories.

 

October 6

Promptly at 10 a.m. Adam Cartwright entered the just-opened music store, where he was first in line to purchase a ticket for that evening’s “grand concert.”  A night devoted to vocal and instrumental music from a wide variety of genres was not to missed.  While there probably was no real rush for tickets, San Francisco being only slightly more sophisticated than Virginia City in its musical tastes, he didn’t get such opportunities often enough that he cared to risk losing it by mere tardiness in laying out the single dollar the evening’s entertainment required.  Besides, he had little else to occupy his day.

Spurning the idea of pacing his hotel room as a means of passing the morning, he first browsed around the music store, and though he saw a couple of new songs he’d have otherwise purchased, he elected not to drag them all the way to Boston and back.  He could always make that sort of purchase on his return trip, although he could probably find even better selections back East.  As it was still somewhat early for lunch, he walked around town, stopping in a store here and there, but making only a couple of small purchases.

When he started to feel hungry, he realized that he was near San Francisco’s first and most famous French eatery, so he stopped in at The Poodle Dog, as all the locals called it.  “Bonjour, Ami,” he said, calling the dog by name as he patted its white furry head.

Bonjour, Monsieur,” the waiter greeted him.  “I see you are acquainted with our chien.

Oui.  Nous sommes de vieux amis.”  He didn’t recall the waiter, if this man had even worked here at Adam’s last visit, more than a year ago, but he’d known the white poodle, the pet of the owner’s wife, from the restaurant’s early days of sand floors and meals served on a rough wooden table covered with oilcloth.  Now, The Poodle Dog was a fashionable restaurant for gentlemen, but the food remained much the same: delicious, plentiful and reasonably priced.  “A pity I didn’t think of this while Hoss was here,” Adam mused while waiting for the first course, a rich peasant soup, to arrive.  It was followed by flounder, served with a French sauce reminiscent of one Marie used to make, and that turned his thoughts toward his other brother, who must surely be nearing the port of Acapulco by now.

The meat course was served en bloc, and knowing what was to come, Adam sliced himself a fairly small portion, but ate it with a liberal application from the pot of mustard that accompanied the two large dishes of vegetables.  Then the chef, with great ceremony, personally served the mixed salad and offered after it a platter of fruits of all kinds, as much as any guest cared to eat.  The owner’s claret, pressed and fermented from local mission grapes, accompanied the meal, and Adam willingly paid the extra nickel for a large beer stein of coffee to finish off a lunch that caused him to leave, mumbling to himself, “I’d better eat lightly tonight.  I don’t need enough fuel to punch cows, any more than Hoss!”

*****

Lunch was the last thing on the mind of Little Joe or that of his friend Eva, for that matter.  Older heads prevailed, however.  George insisted, and Margaret eagerly concurred, that they sample the native cuisine during the ship’s brief layover at Acapulco.  Little Joe looked so solemn at the prospect that George began to wonder whether he was afraid his stomach might turn touchy again.  More likely, he decided, the scamp had entertained plans of escaping the scrutiny of anything resembling adult supervision and sampling other native pleasures, whether with or without Eva the older man couldn’t decide.  That he could not allow, being fully convinced that, left to himself, Little Joe Cartwright would soon find himself in the hut of some obliging and barely dressed Panamanian señorita.  His friendship with Adam was on shaky enough ground as it was without weighing that into the equation!

Little Joe’s strangely serious attitude, however, had nothing to do with any ideas of which his older brother might disapprove.  His mind was absorbed with calculating the contents of his pockets and wondering whether they held enough to pay for his own meal, much less Eva’s, if he were expected to treat her to lunch.  He was quite sure that George intended to pay for Miss Margaret’s, and Eva would naturally expect him to follow suit.  For that matter, he would have expected it of himself, had his circumstances been different, so it was with enormous relief that he heard George’s insistence that he be given the bill for the entire group’s meal.  With that problem solved, Little Joe’s happy smile was back, and he ate with relish the squab and stewed bananas and drank heartily two cups of the best chocolate he’d ever tasted.

“Now to see the town!” Eva exclaimed enthusiastically as they left the restaurant.

“I thought you’d been seeing it,” Little Joe teased, waving his hand toward a line of adobe houses, their neatly white-washed walls contrasting with the pointed roofs covered with red tile.

“No, I mean the town,” Eva insisted with a light slap of his upper arm.

“She means the shops,” Margaret said, “and I must say I’m interested in that myself.”

“To the plaza, then,” George suggested, “and the first stop we’ll make is whatever passes for a haberdashery.”  He chuckled at Little Joe.  “You, my boy, are in serious need of a linen suit that actually fits.”

Little Joe nibbled his lower lip and then said, “Aw, that’s all right.  I can make do with this one for a couple of days.  We’ll be out of the tropics by then, right?”

“Not quite,” George said slowly, his brow furrowing in bewilderment.  He knew for a fact that Little Joe normally tended toward peacock pretentiousness regarding his appearance, especially in the presence of a pretty girl.  At the moment he looked very much like the street urchin they’d teased him about aboard ship.  In fact, if he’d just roll up his pants’ legs and take off his shoes, he could almost pass for one of the native men strolling the streets.  Something was clearly wrong, and with Little Joe, something wrong always bore investigation, George had firmly come to believe.  As soon as they reached the plaza and the girls were excitedly examining the coral and conch shells offered by venders on mats spread on the ground, he asked if they could excuse him for a few minutes.  “I need my young friend’s help with a private matter,” he said.

Margaret blushed a bit, but said, “Of course.  We’ll be right here.”

Little Joe wheeled George away from the girls.  Then, leaning over, he whispered, “You gotta go?  I ain’t sure where . . .”

“Over there,” George said, pointing to an area near the cathedral that took up one side of the plaza.  Once they reached the side, where some shrubbery shielded them from the girls’ gaze, he said, “All right.  What’s the problem?”

“Huh?”  Joe shrugged.  “No problem.  I thought you needed . . .”

“I needed to talk with you, that’s all.  Now, be honest with me, Little Joe.  Why don’t you want a suit that fits?  Because I can’t believe you honestly prefer to dress like a ragamuffin.”

Little Joe flushed.  “Well, no, of course not, but—well, I guess since it’s just us, you might as well know.  I don’t have much money on me, George.  Adam was supposed to give me some share of the trail drive profit when he got to town, but . . .”

“He never got to town,” George finished for him.  “I’m sorry.  I should have realized.”

Little Joe shrugged.  “Yeah, well, it is what it is.  I don’t even know how I’m gonna pay my way back home.  I reckon Pa would wire me something for that, but spending money?  I’m fresh out—close to, anyway.  Dead sure don’t have enough for a suit.”

George shook his head.  “Joe, Joe, do you seriously think I would let you do without anything you needed, when you’ve given up so much to help me?  I’m not such a cad!”

“Of course, you’re not, George,” Little Joe protested.  “It don’t reflect on you at all.  But I can’t spend what I ain’t got, and that’s the simple truth.  Just don’t embarrass me in front of the girls, all right?”

“You deserve pay for the service you’re rendering me, young man,” George insisted, “so anything you need on this trip—and that includes spending money—we’ll simply consider your salary.  Now, let’s get to that haberdashery and secure a decent suit for you.  I won’t take no for an answer, so don’t even bother arguing.”

“Don’t seem fair to you,” Little Joe said, quickly waving off George’s protest, “but I ain’t in no position to argue, so I’ll just say, ‘Thanks,’ and if my tab runs higher than you think I’m worth, I’ll get Pa to reimburse you.”  His cocky grin was back in place.  “He thinks I’m worth a king’s ransom, you know.”

“I won’t disabuse him of that notion,” George said wryly, “exaggerated as it is.  Let’s get back to the girls and let them know the new plan.  I’m sure they’ll be delighted at the prospect of helping a handsome young man select new clothes.”

“I think we could bet on that!” Little Joe laughed.

Eva clapped her hands with glee when told that Little Joe had changed his mind about buying a suit.  “Oh, this will be such fun!” she declared.

“Like dressing your own dolly?” George teased.

“Exactly!” the girl cried to Little Joe’s wry-faced chagrin.  However, being dressed like a doll by a beautiful girl was not without its attraction, so he willingly let the girls pick and choose his suit and accessories, checking for George’s affirming nod at each addition to the bill.

As they left the shop, Eva proudly circled the elbow of her newly dressed doll, and it quickly became apparent that she was not the only one attracted to the handsome man, now attired in crisp linen and a colorful native shirt that bespoke Anglo wealth and economic opportunity.  Crossing the plaza toward the vendors once again, the party was met by a sun-bronzed beauty in the typical short skirt and embroidered chemise of the local peasant girls.  She made a beeline for Little Joe and draped a coral necklace about his neck.  “Me give you present, Señor,” she said and, dropping a low curtsey, she ran away.

“Hey, thanks!” Little Joe called.  Fingering the necklace, he said.  “That was nice of her, wasn’t it?”

George hid his snicker behind his hand, but his young companion had eyes only for Eva’s pretty pout, which disappeared when Little Joe took off the necklace and presented it to her, instead.

As the older man had expected, the peasant girl soon reappeared and boldly approached Little Joe.  Seeing her gift around the neck of the white girl made her frown briefly, but she quickly fastened her broad smile on the young man again.  “Now you give me present, Señor, of quarter dollar, sí?

Little Joe’s mouth gaped open, but he quickly pulled a quarter from his pocket and gave it to the girl.  As she danced away, George burst out laughing.  “She saw you coming.”

“Yeah, I reckon,” the young man admitted with a rueful smile, which became a whole-hearted one as he faced Eva.  “Still, it looks mighty fetching on you, Miss Eva, so I don’t mind bein’ fleeced this time.”

“You’re very gallant,” Eva said.  It was not their only such encounter that afternoon, but with the help of their companions, both men were able to fend off any more unsolicited gifts.  Additionally, George and Margaret successfully fended off all suggestions from the younger two members of the party that the group split up.

Far too soon for any of them, the signal cannon sounded.  “Half an hour to get back to ship,” George informed them, “so if you have any last-minute purchases, ladies—or gent—you should make them now.”  Everyone professed satisfaction with what they already had, although George did find his convenient lap laden with a little extra fruit and a few bags of nuts as they left the vendors behind.

*****

Dressed in his newly tailored navy wool suit, complete with burgundy brocade vest and matching silk cravat, Adam took his seat in Platt’s New Music Hall and scanned the program.  It was precisely as printed in the Alta California, a wide variety of vocal music that included old favorites like arias from Mozart and Verdi, as well as songs of simpler origin, such as the old English ballad, “Sally in our Alley” and the more promising “Sweet Mountain Home” by Tully.  “That should appeal to a western audience,” he mused as he gazed around the virtually packed room.  With a chuckle he wondered whether the crowd was here for the music or for the chance to see Prince Lot Kamehameha, whom the newspaper had announced would be in attendance.  For a moment Adam pondered how the Hawaiian prince had felt when his more charismatic younger brother had been chosen as king, instead of him.  About like I’d feel if Little Joe were made my boss! he concluded.  Of course, escapades like his current one should pretty much insure that never happens!

The music began, and by the time a medley from Le Nozze di Figaro gave way to Schubert’s Ave Maria, Adam was riding waves of nostalgia for the cultured East he’d left behind after college.    Music, literature, art—all so much more available back there than here in the West.  At times like this, he second-guessed the choice he’d made to live here.  He was a man of two worlds, moving fluidly through both, but never feeling completely at home in either.  Where did he belong?  Perhaps this trip to Boston would be a good time to reevaluate that choice.

 

October 7

Adam was bored.  It was the only excuse he could make for his choice of activity that dull Sunday morning.  He could, of course, have attended some house of worship, but four years of daily chapel during his college years had effectively filled him brim-full with words of pastoral wisdom.  While he attended regularly at home, primarily to please his father and set a good example for his brothers, none of the messages in their local church were as inspirational as those he’d heard back East.  He maintained a basic belief in God, but when he was on his own, he generally treated Sunday as a day of pure rest.  After a week of hard work, it seemed like the best use of a free day, but since he’d had overabundant time to rest this week, he was only interested in some way to pass the time, and on Sunday that could be difficult to find.

So here he was, boarding the steamer Clinton for an excursion to San Quentin.  He had no particular interest in touring the prison.  (After all, Pa would have disapproved if he dropped Little Joe off there, once he hauled him back to this part of the world.)  However, it was something to do, and a carriage ride through the countryside to San Rafael, available for a small additional sum, had prospects of being, at least, a pleasant way to pass the time.  For now, he’d just relax and enjoy the music of the onboard band and dream of the soon-to-be day when he’d set sail on his longer journey.

*****

After attending the onboard worship service in the morning, Little Joe and Eva spent the entire afternoon draped over the ship’s rail, hoping to catch a glimpse of the three volcanoes they were supposed to be passing.  The first two were pointed out to them as the California cruised the Guatemalan shore, but clouds covered the tops of Fuego and Agua so thickly that they looked like any other mountains.  Lost in the beauty of sunset with low-lying clouds in hues of amber-gold, fading into amethyst, then rose and, finally, bronzed green as the eye traveled skyward, they almost missed seeing the volcano of Isalco, but turned toward shore just in time.  “Look!” Eva cried, pointing at the columns of fire shooting skyward.  Soon the rail was crowded with excited passengers, who squealed their delight as streams of lava streaked down the sides of the mountain only twelve miles from the San Salvador shore.  “Perfect ending to a perfect day,” Little Joe whispered, brushing a circumspect kiss next to the girl’s ear under the glow of the copper-tinged horizon.

*****

Though Adam was tired from his long day of sightseeing across the bay, he still pushed himself to change into more formal wear, have a quick dinner in the hotel restaurant and be in his seat at Maguire’s Opera House well before the curtain rose at 8 p.m.  Opera was not on the bill tonight, but a evening of comedy might be just the ticket for the pure relaxation to which this day was devoted.  “Our American Cousin” had premiered a couple of years ago back East, and that was about as new as a play got out here.  Certainly, Adam had never seen it, but it was reported to be hilarious, and he enjoyed a good laugh as much as anyone—well, with the exception of Little Joe.  No one laughed as much or as easily as that light-hearted kid, and suddenly this seemed like a more appropriate place to bring his little brother than the grim prison he’d visited earlier. Wish I could, he thought and immediately wanted the same for his other brother, who was probably enduring the anguished fury of Ben Cartwright about now.  As homesickness once again drew threateningly near, Adam welcomed the rising curtain and eagerly entered the drawing room of an English manor and the lives of its ridiculous inhabitants.

 

October 8

Perhaps it was thoughts of home that pulled Adam toward the agricultural exhibition on Monday.  Not that he was uninterested in the livestock show.  Hoss might have a greater appreciation for cattle breeds, but when it came to horseflesh, there was no better judge than Adam, even if he did say so himself.  It was horseflesh that was on offer at eleven that morning—and what horseflesh!  Stallions, mares and colts from as far as Vermont, thoroughbreds of the sort his father would never sanction on the ranch.  Adam had ridden a few such animals, and his thighs ached to feel those powerful flanks once again between his legs.

The urge to ride only grew stronger as he sat in the viewing stands later and watched the races.  The first, being a pacing race, didn’t interest him too much, but then came a match between two-year-olds, a bay colt called Wilson Lemon and a filly named Miami, their boyish riders in regular jockey costumes.  At the tap of the drum, both horses leaped forward, Miami taking the lead.  The colt steadily gained on her, however, and as they came down the stretch and Wilson Lemon drew close, Adam, in common with everyone else in the stands, was on his feet, yelling encouragement to both horses to “Go, go!”  Go, they did, but at a signal from her owner, Miami let loose and easily won by three lengths.  A race between saddle horses was next, and finally, another horse-in-harness match race easily netted a purse of $500 for the winner and an afternoon of satisfying entertainment for Adam Cartwright, that child of two conflicting, but at times overlapping, worlds.

*****

Though the clouds overhead threatened rain, the tiny tug Taboga deposited its passengers next to a long, covered wharf that led directly to the cars of the Panama Railroad.  Little Joe was relieved, as he’d spent the short steamer journey from the California staring at those clouds and praying they wouldn’t release a downpour on their hapless heads.  For himself, he wouldn’t have minded, and even Eva, who’d possessively latched onto his elbow, could have made a dash for cover, but Joe had feared that George’s rolling chair might become hopelessly bogged down in a sea of soppy sand, ensuring that they all arrived at the train disguised as drenched rats.  Thankfully, both the weather and the transportation system had forestalled any resemblance to rodents.

It was every man for himself when they reached the train, since there was no division of the passengers, as there had been on board ship.  Here, all paid the same $25, so all were entitled to any seat they chose.  Most of the steerage passengers chose to remain with the people they knew, but a few, apparently determined to sample the pleasures of high society, if only for a few hours, mingled boldly with the well-dressed men and women from the first-class staterooms.  “People should know their place,” George stage-whispered to Margaret, earning only a wrinkle-nosed sneer from the offending passenger, puzzled looks from both ladies in his company and a foreboding frown from Little Joe.  Though residents of a larger city, the girls were almost as accustomed as the young rancher to seeing people of all sorts mingling at social gatherings, and George’s well-intended commiseration did nothing but activate their concerns about fitting in back East.

They had barely boarded the train when the clouds discharged a deluge, accompanied by loud thunderclaps and bright jags of lightning that split the sky.  “Oh, poo,” Eva said with an eloquent pout.  “Bad enough they don’t give us time to explore the city; now we won’t even see it!”  She wasn’t quite right, for just before the train pulled off the side track onto the main line, an enormous burst of lightning briefly revealed the high walls and turrets of Panama City, “but none of the shops,” she moaned when Little Joe pointed that out.

He laughed.  “I doubt they’d be much different from the ones in Acapulco.  Besides, who needs shops when you’ve got that to look at?”  His hand swept toward the window, through which a grove of exotic trees with dangling yellow and scarlet pods could be seen.  “Know what they are, George?” he asked.

Theobroma Cacao,” George replied, eyes twinkling at the dazed stares which met him.  “Greek for ‘food of the gods,’” he explained and then asked merrily, “Chocolate, anyone?”

“Pity they don’t serve hot chocolate on this train,” Margaret observed.  “I know we’re in the tropics, but that rain makes me shiver, nonetheless.”

“Oh, the rain isn’t likely to last long,” he assured her, “and the rainy season does bring out some of the most beautiful blossoms, I’m told.”

“Well, that’s something to look forward to,” Eva said.

George pointed out the window at a herd of cattle grazing in a field, beyond which a few native huts could be seen through the mist of the dissipating rain.  “There’s a sight to remind you of home, Little Joe.”  He instantly regretted bringing up the subject, for although Little Joe nodded, his gaze at the cattle was so wistful that George instantly recognized all the signs of genuine homesickness and from that moment determined to point out every distracting sight the train passed.

There weren’t many at first, as the train passed through terrain that alternated between swamps and cultivated savannahs, but when the road began to climb, the scene became more picturesque.  Leaving behind the groves of coconut and other palm trees, the train traveled over ravines and curved around the base of conical hills.  They by-passed one station, but when they steamed past the next, as well, Eva protested, “Aren’t we ever going to stop?  There were passengers waiting at that one!”

George chuckled.  “Still thinking of shopping, are you?  The steamer trains always go straight through.  Local trains stop at each station . . . and those people are probably heading the other direction.  We should meet their train soon, and then you might have a few minutes to get off.”  He wagged a finger at both her and Little Joe.  “But no wandering off to explore.  You might be left behind.”

“Wouldn’t bother me,” Eva announced, turning away with a flounce of her auburn curls.

Little Joe looked as if being left alone with a beautiful girl in a tropical paradise wouldn’t bother him, either.  After all, he felt no great desire to reach Boston, and while he would love to have been home, what awaited him there was a prospect he was quite willing to delay.  When he glanced at George, however, his romantic dreams melted in the face of the responsibility he owed to the temporarily handicapped man.  Paradise would have to wait until his journey home . . . provided Pa saw fit to wire him the price of a return ticket, instead of telling him to go jump in the ocean.

About a mile below the summit, they rounded a cliff of basalt crystals (or so George informed them).  To Little Joe, they looked more like a haphazardly stacked pile of logs, ready to topple over onto them at the slightest tremor, much less the clatter and shaking of the iron wheels along the rails.  Eva shuddered and inched closer into the shelter of his circling arm.  Within minutes, however, they reached the native settlement of Culebra, and from there the track grew smoother and began a gentle descent to the narrow valley of Rio Obsipo.

In the beautiful meadow of Matachin, as predicted, they met the westbound train.  Moving onto the side track to allow it to pass afforded the passengers a few minutes to get off and visit the native huts that studded the foreground of a group of conical hills covered with short grass and royal palms.  George insisted that he preferred to remain aboard, asking only that Little Joe purchase some juicy oranges, and soon the younger man was escorting both Margaret and Eva from hut to hut, each of which offered something for sale.  They came back with their arms loaded with cakes and other dulces, as well as a full dozen oranges, which George immediately passed around as the train departed from the station.

Little Joe and Eva nibbled segments of orange, sucking each drop of juice, and watching the passing scene, both laughing heartily when a pair of black-and-tan terriers bounded toward the rails as they passed San Pablo station with an Englishman, obviously the station master, in pursuit.  Presumably, he caught them, for the train raced on unimpeded, past a broad, swift river that curved like a horseshoe and through the meadowlands bounded by tall, steep hills.

They crossed a wrought-iron bridge at the halfway point and tickets were collected before they plunged through a dense grove of palms, dotted with funnel-shaped flowers in bright shades of blue, scarlet and pink, that soon gave way to fields of Indian corn.  Woven birds’ nests, often as long as three feet hung from the trees, and keeping their eyes fixed on the wide fronds, passengers soon began squealing with delight at the colorful birds and occasional monkeys they spotted.  Further along, the track was edged with a profusion of feathery pink blossoms, as well as the flaming scarlet fruit of the wild pineapple.  “Only a great artist could capture such brilliant beauty,” Margaret remarked.

“Indeed,” George murmured, his gaze fixed on her shining eyes.  Catching a glimpse of that by-play, Little Joe snickered and Eva tittered, but when the older couple turned to look their way, both were apparently amused by something outside their window.  Monkeys, George presumed, but Margaret cast a chiding glance at her younger sister before turning her smile on the gentleman at her side.

The further they traveled, the denser the vegetation became, and the harder it was to spot even a bird.  The air grew heavy with moisture, and throughout the cars women fanned themselves and men stalwartly endured the discomfort they feigned not to feel.  Worse than the desert, any day, Little Joe thought as his linen suit clung to his skin.  Small wonder the natives run around half naked.  He blushed involuntarily at the vision, both exhilarating and worrisome, of Eva’s seeing him in his bare chest.  If only he had a physique like that of his brother Hoss . . . or even Adam.  Though he viewed himself as a man, in that regard he knew full well he was still a boy.  So much for dreams of going native with Eva as his Panamanian princess!  They were featherweight dreams, anyway; he was a cowboy at heart and intended to stay one.

They were crossing the Mindee when Eva screamed, though more in excitement than fear.  “Look!” she cried.  “Isn’t that . . . ?”

“An alligator,” Little Joe whispered, staring in awe at the long, leathery beast basking in the sun amidst the sky-sweeping stalks of bamboo that lined the listless stream.

“Why, look,” George said, “we’re about to meet another train.  Perhaps there’ll be time for you to get out and commune with the creature.  I know how you both love exploring.”

The younger people peered intensely down the track, and seeing no sign of another engine, both turned their disgusted gaze on him.  George burst out laughing, and Margaret merrily joined in, while Joe and Eva shook their heads at having been taken in so easily.  Because they were on their guard after that, they were skeptical when George announced that they were only 3 miles from the end of the line at Aspinwall.  In fact, only Margaret’s query about having time to visit the city convinced them the information was accurate this time.  “Perhaps, briefly,” George said, “but we’ll board our new ship almost immediately.”

*****

Adam arrived back at his hotel late that afternoon, weary from a full day at the fair.  He had all but walked his legs off and wanted nothing more than a hot bath.  Careful as always in his planning, he had allowed time for that and a light supper before his anticipated evening of Shakespearean comedy.  The exhibits had captured his attention enough to make him a little late, so he crossed the lobby with purposeful stride.  He had no sooner reached the foot of the stairs, however, than he heard his name called by the clerk behind the desk.  He turned to face the man with an inquiring expression.  “Yes?”

The man held aloft a thin envelope.  “Telegram for you, Mr. Cartwright.”

The telegram!  How could he have forgotten that?  He was at the desk within seconds.  Thanking the clerk, he took the stairs at an even brisker pace.  The bath could wait; supper was unimportant; even Shakespeare could be sacrificed.  He finally had word from home, his father’s verdict on his upcoming expedition.  As soon as he reached his room, he tore open the envelope and scanned the short message:

 

Regret problems

Stop

Continue east, as planned

Stop

Trust your judgment completely

Stop

Bring both my boys home safe

Stop

Pa

Full Stop

 

With a slow exhale of relief Adam sank into the padded chair.  Though he’d been certain that Pa would want him to follow Little Joe—leaving him to find his way home on his own was, after all, unthinkable—somewhere in the back of his mind, doubt had niggled, more persistently than he had until this moment realized.  Only one more day until he sailed, and now, all uncertainty having evaporated, he could fully enjoy not only Shakespeare tonight, but whatever San Francisco had to offer tomorrow.  He felt like celebrating, but he still had time only for the hot bath and light supper he’d planned before.  No time to lose, even for that, so he immediately began gathering what he needed to carry to the bathing room down the hall.

*****

The quartet of travelers spent about an hour looking around the city of Aspinwall, far more than necessary in the eyes of the gentlemen and far less than enough for the ladies.  Having been warned that anything beyond the back street was knee-deep swamp, populated primarily by alligators and poisonous water moccasins, even adventurous Little Joe was content to remain in town.  They might have toured the shops longer had he not pointed out the looming clouds overhead that suggested rain.

“I think you’re right,” George said, “and I’ve heard it tends to rain every hour or so in the rainy season, so perhaps we should make our way to the ship.”

“Oh, we won’t melt,” Eva insisted, but Margaret sided with the men, so the younger girl could do nothing but pout as they walked toward the wharf.

They boarded the S. S. North Star, a far larger ship than the California had been.  Margaret gasped as they came into the entrance saloon.  “Oh, how plush!” she cried, sinking into the crimson velvet of a large circular sofa.

“Nothing else on the line compares, miss . . . nothing on any line,” a nearby steward stated proudly.  “Mr. Vanderbilt used the North Star as his personal yacht before dedicating her to this service, so, of course, he chose only the best furnishings for his family.”

“Oh, of course,” she said.  “What a pleasure it will be to travel on her.”

“That is always our aim, miss.  Now, may I conduct you to your stateroom or do you wish to rest here awhile?”

“I suppose we should get our things settled,” Margaret said, rising.

“I think I’d prefer to sit here a few minutes,” George ventured.  Though he hadn’t wanted to hinder the others’ exploration of Aspinwall, he’d felt weary from the rail journey to begin with, and the constant bumping of his rolling chair along the rutted dirt streets had left him exhausted.

“Then I shall remain here to keep you company,” Margaret insisted.  “Eva can arrange our stateroom, and perhaps Mr. Cartwright would be kind enough to accompany her.”

“Sure,” Little Joe said.  The exact location of the Lawrence girls’ stateroom was, after all, information he was very interested in learning.  “I’ll see Eva settled and then come back to help you down the stairs,” he offered George.

“Thank you, my boy,” the other man said, though his gaze was fixed on the lady at his side.

The steward preceded them down the elegant staircase and then led them to the Laurences’ stateroom.  Little Joe’s room, the man pointed out, was across the main saloon, and Joe assured him that he would need no further help in finding it.  Once the steward had left, he spent a few minutes outside Eva’s door, supple fingers intertwined with her slender ones.  Then he slowly raised them to his lips and kissed the tips tenderly.  “I’d better get back to George,” he said.  “See you after dinner?”

“Of course,” she whispered.  As he turned to leave, however, a thoughtful expression touched her face, and once he was out of sight, she hurried to find the steward.

Anxious to get back to George, Little Joe paid scant attention to his surroundings as he crossed the main saloon, so much larger and more richly furnished than that room on the California had been, and scampered up the stairs.  He first brought down the rolling chair, then trotted up the stairs again to help George maneuver them on his crutches with Margaret following solicitously behind.  Little Joe took George to his stateroom first, as it was on the near side of the saloon, and then escorted Margaret to hers and came back to help George unpack and settle in.  “Take a moment to breathe, my boy,” George urged.

Little Joe just grinned.  “You forget I’m not a worn-out old man like you.”

“No, you’re an imp with too much energy,” George jibed back.  “Perhaps it is best if I keep you so busy you can’t find more mischief in which to indulge.”

“Me?”  Little Joe adopted an air of aggrieved innocence.  Then he stuffed his hands in his pockets and whistled as he gazed around the stateroom.  “No bigger than the other,” he said, “but almighty grand, ain’t it?”

“Daily lessons in grammar will be available each morning following breakfast,” George suggested dryly and then laughed at the sour expression on his companion’s face.  “The rosewood is ‘grand,’ as you say.”

“And lace curtains!”

“Not standard on the line, I’m sure,” George agreed.

“Yeah.  Well, if you don’t need anything else, I’d better get next door and see to my own gear.”

“By all means.  I won’t need you until dinnertime.  I’m still quite tired, so I’m going to rest here until then.”

Little Joe went to his adjoining room and put it in order for the week’s journey to New York City.  It took little time, for in the previous ten days he’d worked out exactly where to place things to make them easy to access, but stowed to prevent their rolling out of place with each sway of the ship.  Since eight bells had not yet rung, signifying dinner, he set out to see what possibilities the larger ship had to offer.  He quickly discerned that the North Star was the same sort of wooden side-wheeler the California had been, and fancy as it was within, it was still a standard steamship in the ways that counted most.  The greater length did, however, offer the alluring possibility of  longer promenades with Eva under the Caribbean moon.

*****

Little Joe rolled George’s chair up to the table, each place elegantly set with fine silverware.  As he looked across the table, his eyes widened in pleasure, for the Lawrence girls were being seated opposite them by a young man, who took the chair between them.

“High time you looked up,” Eva pouted.  “I’ve been trying to catch your eye for the last minute.”

“Eva, please,” her male companion chided.  “Try to be a lady.”

“She always is, sir,” Little Joe said in defense.

To diffuse the uncomfortable air beginning to stir, George spoke up quickly.  “Why, what a wonderful surprise,” he said, smiling at Margaret.  “You’re dining at our table this trip?”

“Apparently, we are,” she said demurely.  “How fortuitous.”

Eva had no taste for artificial modesty.  “I arranged it with the steward,” she boasted.  “Aren’t you pleased?”

“Very,” Little Joe said.  “And this gentleman?”

“Cousin Horace, of course,” the girl tossed aside lightly.

“You must be the incomparable Mr. Cartwright,” Horace Lawrence said with a look Little Joe wasn’t sure how to read.  “I’ve heard much about you, young man.”

Little Joe wished he could return the compliment, but in truth, Eva had said next to nothing about the man who was supposedly chaperoning her and her sister on this trip and who had, to this point, been conspicuous only by his complete inattention to the responsibility.  “Well, I don’t know whether to be pleased by that . . . or plumb scared,” Little Joe said.

Horace’s light laugh was completely without mirth.  “I suppose that depends on the state of your conscience.  I’m simply pleased to finally meet such a paragon of masculine pulchritude.”

“Uh, it’s a pleasure to meet you, too, sir.”  Since he had no idea what “pulchritude” meant, Little Joe didn’t know whether to be insulted or flattered.  The soft snicker to his left indicated that George understood his dilemma perfectly, but found it too entertaining to let him off the hook on which he was squirming.

Eva spatted her cousin’s arm.  “Oh, behave yourself, Cousin Horace!”  She smiled across the table at Little Joe.  “And he scolds me about my manners.  Honestly!  You mustn’t pay him the least mind.  I never do.  He’s obviously swallowed a dictionary, just to impress any fancy folk he might meet back East.  Do you even know those twenty-dollar words yourself, Cousin Horace?”

“I don’t see how he could have come up with such an accurate description of my young friend if he didn’t,” George, still barely containing his urge to laugh out loud, observed.

Little Joe again didn’t know whether to be insulted or flattered, but he thought a change of subject was in order.  “This dining saloon is fancy enough, even for Eastern folks, right, George?”

Now George did laugh.  “Far fancier than what you’ll see in my home, my boy.”

“Your home is in Boston, I believe Margaret has said, Mr.”—Horace paused—“Pontpier, is it not?”

“Yes, to both queries,” George replied.

“The décor here is magnificent,” Margaret agreed, “and I’m sure George knows exactly what the walls are covered in.”

“Italian marble,” he said with certainty, “and the darker panels are granite . . . from Naples, I would guess.”

“Precisely correct, sir,” their steward said, “and the marble is yellow Pyrenees.” He asked if they were ready to order.

Once that necessity had been attended, Horace remarked, “You seem very familiar with fine stone, Mr. Pontpier.”

“Occupational knowledge, Mr. Lawrence,” George said.  “I’m an architect by trade.”

“An honorable profession,” Horace observed, although he looked slightly disappointed, as if, Little Joe thought, he had expected more.

“Why, you’ve never mentioned that, George,” Margaret said.

George shrugged.  “I didn’t think to.”  A slight blush crept up his neck as he added, “I suppose we were occupied with other things.”  The blush deepened.  “The sweeping ocean views, the tropical shoreline . . .”

“The moonlight on the waves,” Little Joe suggested cheekily.  Eva giggled, but a reproaching glare from her cousin silenced both young people.

Their food arrived, served on fine china of ruby and gold finish, and as they ate, Horace asked George to describe his home in Boston.  “We’re new to the East, you see,” he explained, “and would appreciate knowing what to expect.  Is your home typical, would you say?”

“To me, of course, it’s extraordinary,” George said, deftly handling a question Little Joe had considered a trap, “but, then, doesn’t every man feel that way about his own home?”

“But you, as an architect, are uniquely skilled in describing the building for us, surely?” Horace pressed just as deftly.

“Oh, well, yes, if it’s the architecture you’re interested in . . .”

George launched into a description that quickly had Little Joe shooting a look at Eva in expectation that she was as bored as he.  Eva, however, had not grown up with an architect for an older brother, and seemed to find the discussion of lines and angles almost as fascinating as the other two Lawrences, especially when the discussion was interrupted with questions that elicited descriptions of the Pontpier home’s luxurious décor and furnishings.  By the time he rolled George back to his stateroom, Little Joe was thanking his lucky stars that his architectural brother was a simple Cartwright and not an aristocratic Pontpier.  At his worst, Adam had never been as mind-bogglingly boring as this!

 

October 9

Adam Cartwright stretched so wide that his long arms and legs practically touched the corners of his overstuffed mattress, and he lay sprawled in bed almost as languidly as his little brother habitually did.  It was, after all, his last chance to do so.  Whatever else one might say about sleeping on a steamship, one couldn’t sprawl in those narrow berths.  He would have, of course, one more night here in a comfortable bed, but tomorrow morning he’d have to get straight up, as was his more usual inclination, and be about the business of boarding the Chesapeake.

He had business to attend today, too, although not as much as he’d intimated to Mrs. Larrimore, he admitted as he pulled back the covers and padded barefoot to the washstand.  She, with daughter Jewel simpering at her side, had issued him an invitation to attend the Tenth Anniversary Ball for the Eureka Benevolent Society at Platt’s New Music Hall.  “Such a worthy cause,” she’d gushed.  “I’ve been a member for years, of course, and know well the value of their charitable work.”

“And men who dance as well as you, Adam, are always in short supply,” Jewel had added with a pitiful attempt at a provocative eyelash flutter.

“You flatter me,” Adam said smoothly, “and I don’t doubt the worthiness of the cause, Mrs. Larrimore, but you realize that will be my last day in San Francisco, and I have a great deal of packing to do.”

Her laugh was almost a snicker.  “Now, surely, Adam, you will have finished that by early that evening, if, indeed, you haven’t already!  I know what an organized boy you’ve always been.”

She was correct on both counts, but Adam quickly pointed out that the ball would undoubtedly last into the wee hours of the morning.  “I need to be up early to board my ship,” he reminded her, “and I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to tear myself away from the company of such lovely ladies until the final dance.  No, I’m afraid I must forego the pleasure, but I thank you for thinking of me.  You’re always so thoughtful in that way.”  That was rather a thick layer of soft soap—dancing with Jewel being anything but a pleasure—but it accomplished the desired goal of getting out of a painfully boring evening without offending them, as well as avoiding the risk of boarding his ship with fractured toes.  Wouldn’t he and George make a hobbled pair in that event!

There was truth in the excuse, too, however, enough to keep him also from a night at the theater, much as he would have relished another opportunity to see Julia Dean Haynes perform.  She’d been magnificent the night before, and tonight the renowned Junius Brutus Booth was in the cast, as well.  One couldn’t have everything, though, and while he’d chafed at the delay in pursuing his errant little brother, he’d enjoyed his ten free days in San Francisco.  They had given him a deeper immersion in culture than time had afforded him in years.

Today was best spent in making certain he had everything he needed for the journey, having a leisurely supper, a long soaking bath and an early night.  As he would be staying around the hotel most of the day, he dressed in his comfortable range clothes and went down to breakfast in the attached restaurant.  He’d probably have lunch there, as well, unless he discovered some item he’d forgotten to purchase, but he wanted one last chance to have dinner somewhere more interesting.  While he ate his corned beef hash and over-easy eggs, he mulled the possibilities, and his face lit up as inspiration struck him.  Of course!  There was a place he hadn’t been yet, where the food was good and the conversation stimulating.  Where better to take his final dinner than Ma Tanta’s?

*****

Little Joe was still in his berth when eight bells rang the next morning.  With a sigh he rolled out of bed and dressed quickly.  Like his brother Adam, George was an early riser, and while he was getting around better now and needed less help, Joe was still uneasy about leaving the man completely to himself.  Giving his own face a quick wash and brushing his curls, which the moist sea air seemed to kink tighter than usual, into some semblance of order, he rapped on the door to the adjoining stateroom and entered at George’s invitation.

As always, George expressed appreciation for the help, but then he sat in his rolling chair, head cocked first one way and then the other in apparent study of his young companion’s face.

“What?” Little Joe finally said.

“There are more amenities on the North Star than there were on the California,” the older man suggested.

Joe’s puzzled frown deepened.  “I noticed.”

“A barber, for instance,” George said.

Little Joe stroked his smooth cheek.  “Appreciate your willingness to pay for that luxury, but I already shaved this morning.”

George threw his head back in laughter.  “I was referring to a haircut, you young rascal, and I think you knew it.  I believe I heard your father recommend getting one before you came home.”

“Oh, I will,” Little Joe assured him with a cocky grin.

“He expected you to be home by now!”

“Well, yeah,” Little Joe admitted, “but circumstances change, you know, George.”

“So does the length of those unmanageable locks,” George snorted, “and not for the better.”

“I like it long,” Little Joe insisted, adding with an impish twinkle in his eyes, “and so do the ladies.  Gives ‘em somethin’ to twirl around their fingers.  You oughta try it sometime.”

“No, thank you,” George said dryly, “and if I were you, I wouldn’t encourage Eva to twirl them.  I’m quite certain her sister wouldn’t approve . . . not to mention Cousin Horace.”

“That stuffed shirt?”  Little Joe hooted.  “He don’t seem to pay much mind to what she and Margaret get up to.”

“Miss Margaret doesn’t ‘get up to’ anything she shouldn’t,” George snorted, “and I hope the same can be said for you and her sister.”

“It can,” Little Joe assured him.  “You keep talking about haircuts and such, though, and we’re gonna miss breakfast.”

George, never in favor of missing any meal, quickly decided to curtail any further admonitions about “haircuts and such” in favor of getting to the table on time.

*****

Adam leaned forward in his saddle to pat the black gelding’s sleek neck.  It was a beautiful animal; nothing to compare with his mount back home, of course, but still a handsome, spirited horse.  He was glad he’d decided to rent one from a local livery and ride out into the open country south of the city.  He really hadn’t needed the full day to finish his packing.  As Mrs. Larrimore had said, everything but what he’d need for tonight and tomorrow morning was already stowed in his new steamer trunk.  What he really needed, he’d decided after checking and double-checking his gear, was some fresh air and exercise, so he’d ridden out along the old Mission Road, past Mission Dolores and on to the Willows, where he’d eaten a light lunch before heading back toward town.

He hadn’t gone far, however, before he spotted a single man, trying to drive a small group of cattle down the road.  He had his hands full, since the beasts, perhaps sensing they were headed to market, appeared to be in a wayward frame of mind.  Adam moved his horse to the side of the road to let the cattle pass, but before they reached him, he saw one veer off the road to rush toward a woman, who was holding tightly to the hand of a little boy.  He, apparently, was in the same wayward frame of mind as the cow—or, perhaps, just eager to pet her.  A child that size, city-bred, probably didn’t realize the danger.  Either way, he was insistently pulling his mother toward the animal, while she shouted and pulled the opposite direction.

The owner of the cattle left the rest of the herd to chase after the wild cow, and Adam instinctively urged his own mount to give chase, as well, but before either man could divert her, the cow charged, and the woman thrust herself between it and her boy.  Her terrified scream pierced the air as she went down under the cow’s hooves.

Adam waved his hat and shouted at the cow, while others standing nearby rushed forward with clubs to drive her away.  “That’s not the way,” Adam cried.  “Get a rope!”  Someone did and tossed it to him.  He quickly formed a loop and lassoed the cow; then he sprang from his horse to throw the animal and hobble her hooves.

Someone shouted, “That’s the way to do it!” and the crowd echoed with roars of approval and thunderous applause.  Ignoring it, Adam walked over to the woman, who was modestly trying to hold the torn edges of her skirt together, lest her red petticoat excite any of the other beasts.  “Are you all right, ma’am?” he asked with a tip of his hat.

“What?”  She looked up distractedly.  “Oh, yes, thank you.  Now, what’s become of that boy?”

Adam chuckled.  If he knew boys—and he’d had plenty of experience with two homegrown ones—he knew just where to look.  Sure enough, the boy, undaunted by the bruises beginning to darken his skin, was bending over the hobbled cow.  “I’ll fetch him, ma’am,” Adam said and with long strides reached the boy’s side and scooped him up under one arm.  Returning him to his mother, he offered to see them home and to fetch a doctor, if she wished.

“No, thank you,” she said.  “We ain’t hurt much, and we don’t live far.”  Seeing her son squirming in Adam’s arms and remembering her need to hold her skirt together, she exercised a woman’s prerogative to change her mind.  “Well, if’n you wouldn’t mind, sir.”

“No trouble at all,” Adam assured her.  “Just let me get my horse.”  He swung the boy around to his back and carried him piggyback over to the black gelding.  “Want to ride?” he asked.

“Yeah!” the youngster declared.

Having expected that answer, Adam was already swinging the boy into the saddle.  He led the horse back over to the woman and then walked beside her.

They had gone only a few steps when a young man about Little Joe’s age came running up.  “Hey, wait.”  Panting at Adam’s side, he said, “Name’s Talbot.  I work for the Alta California.  Like to ask a few questions.  Can I get your names?”

The woman gave hers, but Adam only said, “Just someone passing through.”  When he refused to say more, the woman took her cue from him and also declined further interview, citing her need to get her boy home “to tend his cuts.”  The reporter scowled at the man he’d intended to make the hero of his article and huffily stalked back to seek some more publicity-craving subject.  Adam delivered his charges to their home, accepted the woman’s thanks and again headed back toward town.  “Once a cowboy, always a cowboy,” he chuckled to himself.  Even on vacation, he couldn’t avoid rounding up strays!

*****

Little Joe stifled a groan when he saw Horace Lawrence heading toward them in the gentleman’s saloon.  All day it had seemed as though the girls’ cousin had latched onto them like a tick on a hound.  All meals were spent in his company, of course; that was to be expected.  However, he’d also accompanied them on deck after breakfast, and if Joe and Eva had thought having two chaperones was bad, three seemed infinitely worse.  Having stiff and proper Cousin Horace around was like putting a fifth leg on a dog and a wooden leg at that.  The whole group seemed to hobble, instead of stroll, and the easy laughter they had shared was dampened by his dour frown upon anything that smacked of levity.

Little Joe felt certain their added appendage was the reason the girls had expressed a desire to visit with some of the other lady passengers after the noon meal, and he had meekly followed along when George suggested they mingle with the gentlemen for a change.  Horace seemed bent on following them, and now he stood with wide-footed stance directly in front of Little Joe in a corner of the room.  “I wonder if I might have a word with you, Mr. Cartwright,” he said with an air of authority that banished any thought of refusing, while igniting an intense desire to do just that.

“Uh, sure,” Little Joe replied, with noticeable discomfort.  Mr. Lawrence didn’t seem exactly hostile, but the expression on his face sure wasn’t friendly, either.

George hesitated a moment, wondering whether he should offer to leave.  The discussion might be private, but on the other hand, he did feel responsible for Little Joe, and he, too, had noted the other man’s expression.  He decided to stay.  He was glad he had when he heard Horace’s first words.

“What exactly are your intentions toward my young cousin, Mr. Cartwright?” Horace demanded.

“My intentions?”  Little Joe gulped.  “Well, we’re . . . uh . . . friends, Mr. Lawrence . . . just friends.”

Horace’s brows knitted together.  “Yes.  Well, I think that’s how it should remain, don’t you?  Perhaps, rather more distant friends than has apparently been the case heretofore.”

Little Joe frowned, the furrows in his brow deepening.  “I don’t understand.”

“Nor do I,” George put in.  “Has either of us caused some offense, Mr. Lawrence?”

Horace floundered for a moment.  “You, Mr. Pontpier?  Certainly not.  You’ve been a perfect gentleman, I’m sure.  My concern is directed solely toward Mr. Cartwright.”

Little Joe’s cheeks flamed.  “Are you sayin’ I ain’t been a gentleman?”

George laid a restraining hand on his young friend’s arm.  “Allow me to assure you, Mr. Lawrence, that Mr. Cartwright has, indeed, comported himself as a gentleman, as I’m quite certain Miss Eva would confirm.”

Horace snorted derisively.  “Miss Eva’s confirmation is scarcely to be credited on that subject.  But surely you would agree, Mr. Pontpier, that to behave as a gentleman, one must first be one.”

Face even hotter, Little Joe grabbed Horace by his left lapel.  Just as he was drawing back his arm, however, George’s sharp, “Little Joe!” stopped him from delivering the intended punishment for the insult to both himself and Eva.

As the echo of surprised gasps and the movement of chairs died around them, George said with deliberate, but deadly calm, “I think that remark requires explanation, Mr. Lawrence.”

Horace readjusted his jacket.  “I should think it would be self-explanatory.  In your present situation, Mr. Pontpier, I can understand your traveling with a manservant and even the necessity of having him sit with you at table.  However . . .”

George lifted a silencing hand.  “Obviously, Mr. Lawrence, you have entirely misinterpreted our relationship.  Mr. Cartwright is scarcely my manservant.  Rather, he is a dear friend, who, knowing my need, elected to travel with me.”

Horace ran a skeptical eye up and down Little Joe’s slight frame.  “Your friend?  Pardon my perplexity, Mr. Pontpier, but he does seem rather young to be a friend of yours.”

George made a conceding gesture with his hand.  “You’re correct, of course.  It’s actually his older brother whom I’ve known for many years and who had originally planned to travel east with me.  When he was unable to do so, however, this fine young man offered to take his place . . . at no small sacrifice to his personal business affairs, I might add . . . so that I would not be forced to travel alone in my ‘present situation.’  And that, sir, is the mark not only of a gentleman, but one of great heart and honor, his youth notwithstanding.”

Little Joe stifled a gulp at that speech.  In his view, George had come close to flat-out lying about how and why he’d taken Adam’s place, and he couldn’t help wondering what business affairs he was supposed to have sacrificed to make this completely unauthorized journey.

It was Horace, however, who raised the question that had formed in Little Joe’s mind.  “Business affairs?  But Eva called him a cowboy.  What business affairs could a mere cowboy possibly have?”

George forced himself to emit a laugh intended to dissipate tension, while Little Joe’s attempt to also treat the question as a joke only resulted in a tentative and, therefore, twisted smile.  “A cowboy?” George chuckled.  “Well, the Ponderosa does maintain a sizeable herd of cattle, certainly, and the Cartwrights are not above working with them, but I would not refer to someone who owned a quarter interest in the largest ranch in Nevada as a mere cowboy, Mr. Lawrence.”

Little Joe bit his tongue and tried to keep his book-readable face from blurting out his almost automatic denial.  Oh, it was true enough that a quarter share of the Ponderosa was his . . . or, at least, would be someday, but Pa was keeping most of that in trust until he reached his majority.  For the time being, he earned only a ranch hand’s wage.  He was, as Eva had rightly said, just a cowboy, but if George wanted to paint a better picture for Cousin Horace, who was Joe to interfere?  It looked to be the best way out of this miserable situation that had the eye of every man in the saloon fixed anxiously on them.

Horace had looked increasingly impressed as George’s description progressed.  “Not—surely not the ranch that supplies that excellent Ponderosa beef we enjoy in San Francisco’s finest restaurants?”

“Yeah, we sell there and Sacramento and Placerville and, well, all over,” Little Joe added with a shrug.  “I reckon it ends up in restaurants.  I never gave it much thought.”  That final remark was plain truth, as he’d always been more concerned with their beef while it was on the hoof—or their own table—but he had occasionally seen “Ponderosa beef” listed on a menu and been pleased to know that their cattle had earned enough respect to warrant special mention.  That it was as well known as this he’d been completely unaware.

Little Joe’s nonchalance only heightened his esteem in the eyes of the young San Franciscan.  In Lawrence’s experience, only the truly wealthy carried such an air of unconcern about their financial status.  “Well, that—that does place things in rather a different light.”

“Yes,” George said with a drawl just short of disdainful, “I thought it might.”

Horace offered them a slight bow.  “I hope you will excuse me, gentlemen.  I felt a natural concern for my impressionable young cousin’s associations, of course, but I see now that my concern was, in this instance, misplaced.”

George regarded him from under veiled eyelids.  “I wonder that your natural concern did not lead to such a conversation much earlier, sir.”

Horace flushed.  “Yes, well, I do see your point, sir.  Perhaps I was lax in my responsibilities, but I had made some inquiries and knew you to be a gentleman of some . . .”

“Substance?” George suggested dryly.

The flush deepened.  “Reputation,” Horace countered quickly.  “Therefore, I trusted my cousins in your company, so much so that I may, indeed, have failed to provide them with the proper oversight.  It was only when Eva’s conversation seemed to indicate a growing interest in your friend . . . manservant, as I was erroneously told, you must understand . . . that I felt I must, in all conscience, intervene.”

“Of course,” George said, his tone flat.  He looked up at his young companion.  “Joseph, I’m afraid I’m feeling rather tired.  Perhaps the effects of overindulging at the table.  I’d like to rest in my stateroom, if you wouldn’t mind helping me back.”

“Sure,” Little Joe said at once.

“Certainly,” Horace all but blathered, eagerly grasping this easy exit from an embarrassing situation.  “I’ll see you at dinner, gentlemen?”

“Inevitably,” George said.  “That is, I’m certain I’ll have recovered my appetite by then.”

Horace forced a laugh.  “Indeed.  The cuisine is most tempting, isn’t it?”

“Indeed.  Until then, Mr. Lawrence.”

Horace grabbed his hand and pumped it and then gave the same treatment to Little Joe.

Only concern for George’s safety kept Little Joe from racing the rolling chair across the saloon to the stateroom.  Once inside, he exhaled a long whoosh of relief.

George, on the other hand, was fuming.  “That insufferable stuffed shirt!” he exploded, borrowing a phrase he’d learned back on the ranch.  “Of all the bigoted, mean-spirited . . .”

“Ease up,” Little Joe said.  “I’ve heard worse.”

“But he treated you like a . . . like a . . .”

“Menial?” Joe asked with a wicked smile.

George’s face reddened, although not quite to the crimson tone Horace Lawrence had earlier exhibited, at the reminder of how he had once spoken of the Cartwrights’ Chinese cook.  “Well, yes.  I suppose that is what I meant.  I’m sorry.  Old ways of thinking die hard, my friend, but I thought you westerners were supposed to be above such things . . . more democratic and all that.”

Little Joe laughed roughly.  “Not all of us.  And Cousin Horace is, for sure, not the first man who ever wanted to match up a female relative with a rich Cartwright . . . much less a Pontpier.”  He ended the sentence with his best imitation of a hoity-toity accent and then burst out in a genuine guffaw at the sour look on George’s face.

“You don’t think . . . Miss Margaret?” the older man asked, voice trailing off in a gulp past the sudden knot in his throat.

Little Joe laid a hand on the other man’s shoulder.  “Not at all,” he assured the other man.  “She doesn’t care any more about such things than Eva would.”  Seeing the relief on George’s face, he smiled.  “Now, I reckon I’d best help you lie down.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” George snorted.  “I only said that so we could make our escape from that man.  Just hand me my book and then go run around the deck if you like.”

Little Joe offered the requested volume, but said, “I think I’d just as soon read awhile myself.  That book you loaned me is pretty good.  Okay if I bring it in here?”

“Of course.  I’d enjoy the company.”

Little Joe trotted next door and within minutes was stretched on the couch in George’s stateroom, lost in a world that had once been his father’s domain.

*****

Adam entered the establishment on Washington, just above Kearny, in happy expectation.  Though small and not particularly stylish, Ma Tanta’s was special.  For one thing it dated almost to the founding of San Francisco.  The only earlier restaurants were those opened in the beached ships cluttering the Bay when the discovery of gold had driven everyone mad.  A number of those eateries remained the best in the city, and Ma Tanta’s was among them.

A plumpish woman with iron-gray hair bustled over to him, eyes sparkling with delight.  “Ah, Monsieur Cartwright!” she exclaimed.  “How long it has been.”  She took his face in her hands and kissed him on both cheeks, a greeting Adam returned in the same style.

“So long I’m surprised you remember me, Ma Tanta,” he said.  Her real name was a closely guarded secret, but she had always been so warm and welcoming to him, as well as to all her other guests, that calling her “my aunt” had felt natural from his first visit.

“Ah, but I never forget,” she returned, wagging a finger, “especially one who graces my table with such savoir faire.  Come.  You must sit near the head.”

“You honor me,” Adam said, meaning it, as he followed her and took the seat she indicated at the long table.  There was no menu.  The food was served like a family meal, and, also like that, one ate what was set before him.  But just as was true of Hop Sing’s cooking, he never had to fear that it wouldn’t be good, for Ma Tanta served the finest French peasant food in the city.  It always reminded him of the meals Marie had served on the rare occasions when Hop Sing was away.

When it came to parties, Marie could orchestrate an elaborate meal like a master composer, but her own cooking was always simple.  Certainly nothing to compare with Ma Tanta’s, or even Inger’s, but then nothing could touch the sacred memory of the woman who had showered him with the first mothering he’d ever known and transformed a father shipwrecked by grief into one capable of warm, affectionate love.  Her meals, too, had been simple peasant food to warm the heart and soul, as well as nourish the body.  With associations like that, he wondered, why had he always thought his brothers would not enjoy dining here?  He resolved in that moment to bring Little Joe for a meal when they passed through on their way home.

Ma Tanta returned from the kitchen, bearing a huge bowl of salad.  She passed it to each guest in turn, and each served himself.  As the hostess went back to the kitchen, a faint whiff escaped through the doorway to indicate more tantalizing things to come, so Adam was glad he’d resisted the temptation to heap his plate, much as he relished fresh greens.  Hop Sing’s garden greens were already dying off in the cooler air of a Sierra autumn, and it would be a long time before they again appeared on the Ponderosa table.  Here in California, warm weather meant a longer growing season, and the lettuce and radishes, in particular, were crisp and cold, the way he liked them best.

Soon Ma Tanta bustled back in with an enormous tureen of soup, which she served in the same way.  With mounting satisfaction Adam dipped his spoon into the steaming broth and raised it filled with large chunks of root vegetables.  Flavored with onions, celery and parsley, the soup was so hearty it almost made a meal in itself.  In Marie’s day, in fact, soup very much like this had often served as their entire supper.  Between it and the long baguettes of bread and creamy butter that accompanied the meal, no one, not even a young, growing Hoss, had ever left the table hungry.

Their hostess kept busy, bringing one course after another to the table: fish, entrée, roast and dessert, a delicious dish of flambéed crepes.  Finally, Ma Tanta poured black coffee for everyone, and Adam’s favorite part of any meal here began as she seated herself at the table and began to lead a discussion of the topics of the day.

Adam felt better prepared than usual to join in.  Oh, he did his best to keep up with national events, but news always came more slowly to Nevada than to San Francisco.  Now, however, he’d had the benefit of a ten-day stay in the city, and with little else to do, he’d read the Alta California from cover to cover each morning.  Tonight he was conversant, not only with the upcoming presidential election and all the issues that bore upon it, but with items of strictly local interest, such as whether the Market Street Railroad Company should be allowed to operate steam cars, even though their charter dictated that only horses or mules could provide power, and whether they should hold their speed down to the required 8 miles per hour.

When those topics were exhausted, each of the diners shared some personal experience.  Adam’s ten days in San Francisco had also given him enough time to get over his frustration, and he was able, with just the right touch of wry humor, to relate the tale of the disastrous trail drive that had brought him here mere hours too late to board ship and how his impulsive little brother had sailed off in his place and how he would be leaving the next morning on a chase halfway around the world to bring him back.  By the time he finished, the entire table was rollicking with laughter, laced with commiseration.

“Ah, Monsieur Cartwright, you never fail to entertain,” Ma Tanta said.

He raised her hand to his lips and kissed the knuckles.  “And you, Ma Tanta, never fail to feed both body and soul at your sumptuous table.”

She blushed as others echoed Adam’s compliment, wishing they had chosen words so apt to ingratiate themselves into her good graces.

When the laughter and compliments faded, a young man from the far end of the table cleared his throat and, once attention turned his way, said, “It’s a shame, Mr. Cartwright, that you can’t stay one more day.  My younger brother had his first article accepted by the Alta California this afternoon, and from what he told me, I believe it would interest you greatly.”  He went on to describe an incident his brother had observed, in which a woman and her child were almost run down by a charging cow.  “And would have been, but for the courageous intervention of a cowboy such as yourself, Mr. Cartwright.  Perhaps, if you are up and about early enough you might obtain a copy before boarding your ship and derive some entertainment from it on your journey.”

“No doubt Mr. Cartwright could have handled the situation with even greater aplomb,” another diner suggested, chuckling.  “After his experience on that trail drive, surely there is no trick any cow could play that he would not have faced already!”

The table again erupted in laughter, but instead of joining in, Adam blushed so feverishly that someone guessed the truth, and soon he was being dubbed a hero by all present.  “It was only one cow,” he protested.  “The greenest hand on the Ponderosa could have managed one cow.”

“My brother was most perturbed that you wouldn’t give him an interview,” the man who had related the news item chided, “or, at least, your name.  It would really have impressed the editor with his reporting abilities.”

Adam, who also had a heart for younger brothers and their ambitions, apologized quickly.  “Had I realized it was his first venture, I would have been more cooperative,” he said, “but, you see, I’ve had one encounter with a writer who wanted to turn my life into a dime novel, and I wasn’t anxious to repeat the experience!”

That remark, of course, only led to pleas for more tales of the adventures of Adam Cartwright, Courageous Cowman of the West, but pleading the need for an early night, he turned them deftly aside.

“Ah, but you must promise to visit me again on your return to San Francisco,” Ma Tanta insisted.  “No doubt you will have even greater adventures to tell us then, mon cher.”  And her, Adam could not refuse.

 

October 10

Adam rested his folded arms on the ship’s rail as the Chesapeake pulled away from San Francisco harbor.  At last!  He was finally on his way, richer in many ways for the delay, but anxious now to reach his journey’s end and reunite with his brother.  What, he wondered, had Little Joe felt as he stood in this same position ten days before?  Excitement?  Fear?  A mixture of both, most likely, just as he himself had felt on his first journey east, to attend college.  Every mile had offered new sights, new sounds, new challenges, but at least he’d had the support of his family.  Little Joe, on the other hand, had felt compelled to leave without their knowledge, and knowing the kid as Adam did, he could easily guess the strain that had placed on him.  “Brother’s coming, little buddy,” he whispered to the distant shoreline.  Ridiculous, of course.  Even if he had shouted, Joe couldn’t have heard those words of reassurance.  At least there’d be a telegram waiting for him in New York City, but even that was more than a week away.  So, foolish as he felt, Adam again flung his whispered message eastward and prayed that, somehow, Little Joe would sense the encouragement he had no hope of actually hearing.

Recognizing the futility of continuing to ruminate over what he could not change, Adam turned and headed for the stairway to the lower level.  He wanted to get his stateroom set in order for his time aboard and then take a stroll around to see what amenities the ship had to offer, or, perhaps, he might meet some of his fellow passengers in the gentlemen’s saloon.  No, they were probably busy settling in, just as he planned, so he’d just stretch out on his couch and start one of the new books he’d purchased and wait until dinner to meet new acquaintances.

*****

Eva tucked her arm into the crook of Little Joe’s elbow.  “I’m glad Cousin Horace got over his fit of responsibility so quickly,” she said.

Little Joe chuckled softly.  Horace Lawrence had not only overcome his belated sense of responsibility for his young cousin; he had all but pushed her into Little Joe’s arms, urging them to “run along” and not be held back to the pace of their elders.  “One of the benefits of being more than a ‘mere cowboy,’ I suppose,” he said.

Eva frowned slightly.  “Did he say that to your face?”

“Oh, yeah,” Little Joe said.  “That and more.”

“Well, I never said that; at least, I don’t think I did.”

Little Joe shrugged.  “No harm if you did.  I am a cowboy and don’t care who knows it.  Like I said, though, owning a quarter share in the Ponderosa . . . someday, at least . . . has its benefits.”  It always had, of course, though more with some people than others; he favored most those who didn’t care a whit more than he did.

Perhaps Eva guessed the train of his thoughts, for she said, “I hope you don’t think it matters to me.”

He closed his left hand over the one resting on his other forearm.  “I know it doesn’t.”

“Are you sure?” she asked, peering at him closely.  “You don’t seem quite yourself today, Joe.”

He smiled a bit sheepishly.  “I don’t feel quite myself, either.”  He hadn’t the day before, either, and he’d finally figured out why during this turn about the deck.  “Touch of seasickness, I guess,” he said, though he hated to admit weakness.

“Oh, you poor dear,” she empathized.  “Would you rather go below?”

“No, it’s not bad, honest, not like when I first came on board in San Francisco.  I think the fresh air helps, but if you wouldn’t mind sitting down . . .”

“Of course!”

“It’s all this open sea, I think,” he said as they settled into neighboring deck chairs.  “My brother Hoss would say it gave him the crawly skin.  With me, it’s a crawly stomach,” he added with a self-deprecating snicker.

“Oh, I know,” she murmured.  “We always had something to look at on the Pacific side of our voyage.  Now there’s just . . . nothing.”

Joe nodded.  “All day yesterday, all day today.  George says we should spot land around noon tomorrow.”  He didn’t add that George had also told him it wasn’t much of a piece of land.  His exact words, in fact, had been, “Don’t blink.”

 

October 11

Small as it was, pear-shaped Navassa Island, all two square miles of it, was a welcome sight to Little Joe’s eyes as he craned over the ship’s rail for a first glimpse.  It was a wonder the North Star didn’t tip over, he thought, for virtually every passenger was leaning on the rail on that side of the ship.  Even Cousin Horace, who had pointedly absented himself from their company the day before, stood beside Margaret and George to Joe’s left, with Eva cozied up to his other side.  “It is small, isn’t it?” she observed.

George leaned across Little Joe to chuckle, “There’s a park under construction in New York City that’s almost as large—and about twice as appealing.”

“But this seems pleasant,” Margaret said, “especially the ring of white cliffs surrounding it and the trees on the ground above.”

“Decent grassland, too,” Little Joe commented.  “Good for cattle.”

Eva tittered and whispered in his ear, “See?  A mere cowboy, after all.”

“Shh,” Little Joe hissed softly with a glance down the line to where Horace stood.  Lenient, not to mention downright encouraging, as Eva’s chaperone had been the previous day, he didn’t want her pushing their luck with any ill-advised teasing.  Raising his voice, he said, “Don’t suppose there’s a chance we’ll put into port, just to stretch our legs.”

George laughed aloud.  “No port there at all, my friend, reassuring as it might be to touch United States territory again.”

“We own that?” Little Joe asked, amazed.  “Why?”  Sure, it was decent ground for grazing cattle . . . if you could get them there, but it was a long way from the American mainland, the closest land of any nationality being sixty miles away in Haiti or in Cuba, barely visible on the far horizon.

“For the guano,” George said.

Little Joe and the ladies stared blankly at him, while Horace instinctively held a handkerchief to his nose, a purely symbolic reaction, as the only fragrance was the familiar one of sea air.

George reddened slightly.  “Well, to put it as delicately as I can for the ladies, guano is . . . um . . . bat droppings.  I believe the intent is to mine it for fertilizer.”

“My, isn’t that . . . interesting?” Margaret said, her intent obviously only to ease his discomfort.

“Yes, quite,” Horace chimed in.

“We use horse—oompf.”  Little Joe broke off abruptly at the sharp elbow in his right side.

“Cowboy, cowboy,” Eva chided softly and then said, again only for his ear, “Cousin Horace may have swallowed a dictionary, but sometimes I think your friend George has swallowed every book ever written!”

Little Joe grinned wickedly, “You should hear my brother Adam.  He’s worse.”

*****

Adam rested his forearms on the rail of the Chesapeake as she entered the Santa Barbara Channel.  A few other passengers ambled the ship’s deck, but most had remained below, victims of the infamous mal de mer.  For the same reason the tables had been sparsely populated, both yesterday and today, so he hadn’t met many of his fellow travelers yet.  His dining companions had been congenial enough, but not sufficiently scintillating conversationalists that he cared to seek out their company for more of the same.  The pages of his book offered better diversion, that and memories.

As they’d passed Monterey Bay the day before, he’d remembered that Rancho Hermoso, home of old friends from the trail, lay just beyond the city.  Odd, he mused, how rarely he visited the Paynes, whose company he genuinely enjoyed, and how frequently he found himself in the Larrimores’ stifling parlor.  Both business and pleasure took him more often to San Francisco than out-of-the-way Monterey, of course, and then he felt obliged to look in on those old trail companions.  Convenience and obligation—nothing more than that and the enticements of the big city had led him to neglect stronger ties and more pastoral pleasures.  Maybe it was only because ten days in the big city had thoroughly satiated him, but he regretted not using part of that time to make the trip to Monterey.  A lesson learned.  In future, he’d make a point of reversing his tendency to slight better friends for obligations to lesser ones.

 

October 12

Little Joe was happy as a clam.  After a hearty breakfast he escorted Eva on deck without a qualm.  During the night they’d crossed the last long stretch of open water, at least for a day or so, and slipped past the eastern edge of Cuba toward a whole string of small islands.  With the prospect of land in sight the majority of his day, he relaxed, determined to enjoy his newfound freedom with Eva.  She leaned over the rail as eagerly as he when the larger of the two Inaguas islands came into sight.  “Oh, what beautiful birds!” she exclaimed as a flock of large, brilliant pink waterfowl filled the sky above the center of the island.

“Now, why don’t these ships ever stop at places like this?” Little Joe complained.

She turned toward him with a concerned appraisal.  “Crawly stomach again?”

He laughed.  “No, I feel fine.  Just wish I could squish my bare toes in that white sand.”

“Oh, I know,” she sighed.  “That would be heaven—and there’s so much of it!  Well, I suppose we can’t expect time to play when we’re carrying the U. S. mail.”

“Aw, what’s a day more or less matter?”

She rested her head on his shoulder.  “A day more would always be my choice,” she whispered.

“Mine, too,” he replied with a gentle kiss on her upturned brow.

*****

Adam’s dining table had finally reached full population.  In addition to the men he’d already met, he was joined at noon by a banking executive whose paunch had suffered little shrinkage for fasting the last two days and a tall man in owl-rimmed spectacles with the look of a clerk, as well as a mother and her spinster daughter.  Mrs. Parker had not actually described her daughter that way, of course, but Adam had seen enough of the breed to recognize a woman with her eye out for a man, in this case for a prospective son-in-law.

“What is your profession, Mr. Clarkson?” the mother asked as soon as they’d given their orders to the steward.

The tall man cleared his throat.  “Well, ma’am, I worked for D. Appleton & Company, back in the States.  Hope to again.”

“Oh?”  Mrs. Parker looked interested.  “Will your travels enable you to add to their fine line of guidebooks?”

“Me, ma’am?”  Mr. Clarkson almost squeaked the question; then he all but tittered his answer.  “No, sorry, ma’am.  I didn’t mean to lead you astray.  I don’t write for Appleton’s; I was a salesman.  Went west to see the elephant.”

“And did you?” the daughter inquired.  “See an elephant, I mean.  Wouldn’t you have fared better at a circus?”

“That’s not his meaning, Irene, darling,” the mother scolded.  “Were you successful in your mining attempts, Mr. Clarkson?”

“I saw some color from time to time,” he said, “but not enough to stay at it.  Mining’s hard on a man’s health, you know, so I thought I’d best go back where I belong.  I’m not much cut out for the West.”

“Um.  Unfortunate.”  The soup arrived, and for a few minutes she gave her attention to that.  Then she cast an appraising eye across the table at the next prospect.  “And you, Mr. Cartwright?  What might be your profession?”

Adam deliberately slurped his soup with uncommon gusto.  “Me, ma’am?  I punch cows for a livin’,” he drawled, “when I can get the work.”

“Oh, my, how . . . interesting,” she said with slow distaste, convinced now that if there were a single eligible man of means on the entire vessel, he certainly was not sharing the table with her and darling Irene.

*****

Little Joe and Eva spent most of the day on deck, descending only for meals.  Perhaps it was passing all those island paradises along the way, but as they reached the eastern curve of Crooked Island, the moonlight playing on white sand, or, perhaps, the threat of Cousin Horace’s brief-lived opposition aroused feelings that seemed more intense than they’d experienced before. One lingering kiss led to another, the intervals spent in interlocked arms.  Maybe, thought Joe, it is more than just friendship.  Maybe, but he could think no more, for her lips were again lifted toward his, inviting just one more kiss—or perhaps another . . . and then another.

*****

The Chesapeake was sliding past San Diego when Adam heard a throat deliberately cleared behind him.  Turning, he saw the banker with whom he dined earlier.  “Mr. Peterson,” he said.  “Taking a final constitutional before retiring for the night?”

“Precisely,” Peterson said.  “Now, you must tell me how a cowboy became familiar with a term such as ‘constitutional.’”

Adam grinned.  “Oh, one picks up terms here and there, you know.”

“I do, indeed, know,” Peterson said.  “Your true identity, that is.  My compliments, sir, on your effective ruse.  I see now why the Ponderosa has a reputation for savvy negotiation.”

Adam pursed his lips.  “How did you know?”

Peterson’s chin twitched.  “I’ve met your father, so naturally I recognized the name Cartwright.”

“Ah, I see.  Well, thank you for not revealing my ‘ruse,’” Adam said.  “May I count on your continued discretion?”

“Certainly, certainly,” Peterson chuckled.  “Sympathizing with your peril, Mr. Cartwright, you may rest assured that I won’t give you away.  However, I may not be the only person aboard who has heard of the Cartwrights and the mighty Ponderosa.  I suspect you saw no need to disguise who you were until today.”

Adam acknowledged it with a shrug.  “Well, for your kindness thus far, I thank you.  May I join you on your constitutional?”

Peterson nodded.  “It would be a pleasure, sir.”

 

October 13

“Tell me, Mr. Cartwright,” Mrs. Parker inquired as she unfolded her napkin into her lap the next morning, “how does a cow puncher find himself on a ship to Panama?  I wasn’t aware many cattle were raised there.”  With a night to mull over their previous conversation, she had obviously landed on the major crack in his tall tale.

For a moment Adam considered whether to admit his ‘ruse,’ as Peterson had called it, but decided to maintain his disguise as long as he could.  Still, the truth, at least in part, might be the safest, most easily remembered, answer, so he said, in his best imitation of Hoss’s speech patterns, “Mission of mercy, ma’am.  You see, my young brother took off from home, headed this way, so I sort of felt obliged to give chase.”

“Oh, dear, how adventurous,” Irene observed, not sounding the least approving of the unknown brother’s adventurous spirit.

“Yes, miss, he’s a mite young for adventure, so I thought best to fetch him home.”

Mrs. Parker’s ears seemed to rise at attention.  “Home?  Is that where you punch your cows, Mr. Cartwright, on your own home place?”  The prospect of a landowner, however small his property, held a certain appeal.

Adam immediately realized the pitfall looming before him.  “Um, well, yes’m, sometimes, to help out the folks.”  He laughed uneasily.  “My pa says I’ve got a wanderin’ foot, though, never quite easy at home.”  Those were not exactly Ben Cartwright’s words, but he had, quite truthfully, expressed concern that his eldest might never be completely content on the Ponderosa when an exciting, unexplored world lay just beyond the horizon.  To deflect the conversation away from him again, Adam added, with a chuckle, “Guess my baby brother’s got one, too.  The folks is right worried about him, so I volunteered to chase him down and drag him back by the ears, so to speak.”

“Mercy, how will you ever find him if he’s off wandering the world?” Irene asked.

“Oh, he left word he was headed for Boston,” Adam said quickly.  Little Joe had, of course, left no word at all of his plans, but it hadn’t been hard to figure them out.  “So, you see, ma’am, it’s not the whole world I got to search, just the one town.”

“I should think that would be quite enough, considering the size of Boston,” Mrs. Parker sniffed and turned her attention back to her breakfast.  Apparently, Adam Cartwright was both rootless and footloose, neither of them marriageable qualities, and equally apparently, it ran in the family.

*****

About midmorning the North Star moved past the southern tip of Watlings Island.  “George says one of these islands we’re passin’ is where Columbus first set foot in the New World,” Little Joe told Eva.

“Which one?” she asked.

Little Joe shrugged.  “Seems like no one’s sure, but it might be this very one.”

“Mmm, it’s a shame we can’t spend more time in such a historic spot,” she murmured.  The shimmer in her eyes made it clear that she wanted to spend time on the island for reasons that had nothing to do with history.

The same light shone in Little Joe’s eyes as he envisioned himself, hand in hand with the beautiful girl, frolicking in the waves lapping the beach and sipping coconut juice, straight from a shared shell, beneath the palms along the shore.  The impression only increased when they spent that afternoon slipping past a couple of other narrow islands in the Bahamas.

As they all dined together that evening, many significant looks were exchanged across the table, and even though they were making the same sort of exchanges themselves, both George and Margaret began to feel a heightened level of concern.  Cousin Horace, on the other hand, looked more and more like a crafty cat anticipating the forthcoming consumption of a delectable mouse.

 

October 14

A storm broke over the Caribbean the next day, and the queasiness Little Joe thought he’d escaped laid siege and bound him to his berth.  This time even the thought of clear broth was nauseating, and he was sure, once again, that death was stalking him, mere steps behind.

Though George would not have wished that misery on anyone, he could not silence the thought that there had never been a timelier storm.  He’d noticed the extra stars in Little Joe’s eyes as he and Eva had walked on deck that morning before the sea began to toss—whole new constellations, in fact, as Joe himself had once described his vision after falling from that infernal horse who had also broken George’s leg.  Perhaps an afternoon in his berth was exactly what young Casanova Cartwright needed to dim a few stars.  “Adam, I’m trying to keep him safe—and single—for you,” George moaned plaintively as he lay on his own berth, “but it’s the toughest job I’ve ever taken on!”

*****

As Adam wandered the sweltering streets of Manzanillo, he wondered what sins he could possibly have committed to merit the unprecedented streak of bad luck that had dogged his trail ever since he’d left the Ponderosa.  A disastrous trail drive, a miserable trip on the ill-fated Asiago, a ten-day delay in San Francisco, and now he’d been forced to book passage on the one steamship per month that put in at Manzanillo, as well as Acapulco.  Oh, the delay was a slight one, and he was pettish to chafe at it, but it had just been delay upon delay for weeks now, until even a small one seemed intolerable.  He couldn’t even excuse his peevishness with the need to get to Joe, for his brother was perfectly safe with George.  Logic didn’t change his irritability, however, and the sweat dampening his new linen suit only made him touchier.  Thankfully, he was soon aboard the Chesapeake again, crawling down the coastline in his brother’s long-subsided wake.

 

October 15

Little Joe slumped over the ship’s rail, eyes closed, slowly breathing in and out.

“You can’t enjoy the view that way,” George snickered.

“Much better this way,” Little Joe insisted, “unless the waves have calmed down any.”

“Of course, they have,” George said with strained patience, “as you’d know if you’d just look.”

Little Joe cracked open a single eyelid for a tentative glance.  The waves still gave him the “crawly stomach,” as he’d told Eva, but at least, no bile came up in his throat.  “About an inch, maybe,” he grunted, but he opened both eyes and kept them firmly fixed on the far shore.

George laughed.  “Oh, come now!  Surely, just the sight of the dear old United States ought to warm your heart.”

“My heart’s been plenty warm in the Caribbean,” he said with a touch of his old joviality.

“Truer words never spoken,” George said, shaking his head.  “It’s regrettable that the girls are still not feeling well enough to come on deck.”  He secretly considered Eva and Joe’s continued separation propitious; however, during the storm Margaret had also fallen prey to “a slight malaise,” as a green-about-the-gills Horace had phrased it.

Little Joe chuckled.  “Yeah, I miss ‘em, but I was talking about the heat.  Still warm here, but not like in that island chain.  I would’ve thought the storm would cool things down more.”  He repeatedly pulled his damp shirt, pinched between two fingers, away from his chest.  “Just feels stickier.  Is it always like this in the Atlantic?  Stormy, I mean.”

“No more than your so-called Pacific always lives up to its name,” George observed, “but we are headed for Cape Hatteras, and that has rather a bad reputation for storms.”

Little Joe groaned.  “How long ‘til we’re past that?”

“By tonight,” George promised.  He clapped his young friend on the shoulder.  “And then, my boy, it’s straight on to New York!”  A series of seven bells sounded.  “Only half an hour to luncheon.  I’d like to freshen up a bit, so would you take me down now?”

“Sure,” Joe said, stepping behind George’s rolling chair.

“I hope you’ll be joining me at the table.”

Little Joe took a mental inventory of his stomach.  “Yeah, I’ll try some soup.”  As he wheeled George toward the stairway, he dreamed longingly of stepping onto dry land in just a couple of days.

*****

In complete contrast to the day before, Adam’s mood was as sunny as the glare on the adobe buildings of Acapulco.  Here, at least, he had planned to stop, had even looked forward to stopping.  Here was an attraction from which not even nubile young nymphs in their off-the-shoulder peasant blouses could deter him.  They tried, of course, but he waved them all aside in his single-minded pursuit of his destination.  One did manage to delay him just as he caught sight of the prize.  She danced in close enough to drop a garland of flowers around his neck and started to dance away again, as was her custom, but long, lean fingers closed around her arm.  With his free hand Adam deftly removed the garland from his own neck and draped it around hers.  “So much prettier when it has a pretty picture to frame,” he said smoothly.  A pout started to form on her lips, but quickly disappeared when he also slipped a silver coin into her palm and released her with a smile to dance off in search of her next target.

Adam moved closer to the old cathedral, examining its graceful lines and curves.  A pity he hadn’t thought to pack a sketch book, as one rarely had the opportunity to see such a fine example of ancient Spanish architecture.  Well, surely he could find some sort of paper on board the Chesapeake and make a rough sketch from memory.  Ignoring the temptations offered by the prancing flower girls and the more mundane merchandise of gray-haired venders, he spent his time memorizing each detail and eagerly awaiting the moment he could capture it on paper.  When he reached Boston, he could purchase suitable supplies and make a better copy.  Properly embellished, it would make an excellent gift to send home.  Hoss would enjoy seeing where he and Joe had been, especially if he included a winsome flower girl in the foreground.  If he could get it in the mail promptly, it would make a fine Christmas gift for his long-suffering middle brother, who certainly had earned one.

 

October 16

Adam sighed as he gave the palm-lined beach a final glance before responding to the bells’ call to dinner.  The day had seemed to drag slow feet from dawn to dusk, a sensation only heightened by the sameness of the scenery, beautiful as it was.  If he closed his eyes for an hour, he’d open them to the same sights: sand, sea and palm leaves swaying in the placid breeze.  It made him feel as if the ship were moving about an inch an hour, and he had nothing to look forward to tomorrow except another day of the same before he could finally disembark at Panama City for the second half of his journey.  Of course, he was already actually more than halfway to his destination, in a strict calculation of miles, but Panama marked a change of course from south to finally north, and the sense of progress that would bring made it a goal that he expectantly looked toward.  Tomorrow—at long last, tomorrow—he’d finally be moving toward Joe and not just away from home.  Purely a matter of semantics, of course, but semantics could affect sentiments.  Any well written book demonstrated that.

After freshening his toilet in his stateroom, he took his place at the table and had barely placed his order for roast beef with cauliflower and macaroni au gratin when Mrs. Parker spoke his name.  “Yes, ma’am?” he asked.

“If you wished to travel incognito, Mr. Cartwright,” she said sharply, “would you not have been wise to do so under an assumed name?”

Adam’s eyebrows drew together.  In truth, he was traveling under an assumed name, that of his younger brother, but that was only the name on his ticket.  To his fellow passengers, he was merely Mr. Cartwright, so he had no fear of discovery when he answered, “I’m not traveling incognito, Mrs. Parker.”

She tapped her fork impatiently against the table.  “Indeed?  I can imagine no other reason for styling yourself a simple ‘cowpuncher’ when I’ve only this afternoon been told that you own one of the largest ranches in the West—some thousand square miles, they say.”

Adam darted a quick glance at Mr. Peterson, who shook his head almost imperceptibly to indicate that the information had not come from him.  “Yes, well, the Ponderosa is that large, I admit,” Adam said, “but my father is the actual owner.”  He shared in the ranch’s profits, of course, having years ago elected to do so in lieu of salary, but the deed remained in Ben Cartwright’s name.  With the level of trust between father and son, there’d never been any need to change the original documentation; it was simply understood that the Ponderosa belonged to all of them—or they all belonged to it.  Adam was never sure which.

“Well, really, Mr. Cartwright,” Mrs. Parker snorted, “I do believe you are quibbling over insignificant details.”

“Perhaps,” Adam conceded, grateful for the interruption occasioned by the arrival of their dinner plates.

“Mama, you mustn’t scold,” Irene Parker said.  “I’m sure Mr. Cartwright has his reasons, and I’m certain they are good ones.”  She smiled ingratiatingly across the table, while Adam concentrated on cutting his roast beef.

“The beef is tender, isn’t it?” Mr. Peterson, who had ordered the same entrée as Adam, inserted.  “Not quite to the standard of Ponderosa beef, which I’ve had the good fortune to sample, but good nonetheless.”

“I thank you for the compliment to the family standard,” Adam said smoothly.

“I shall order it at the next opportunity,” Irene declared, looking askance at her own platter of sole and cabbage.

“And perhaps the gentlemen will be good enough to point out the superior qualities of Ponderosa beef,” Mrs. Parker suggested.  “I’d be most interested in the ‘family standard,’ Mr. Cartwright.”

Adam stabbed a floret of cauliflower, wondering as he dragged it through the sauce of his macaroni au gratin whether it would be considered indelicate to emphasize the role good manure played in fertilizing his father’s favorite alfalfa field.  If it discouraged further contemplation of the ranch’s possibilities as a potential honeymoon home for darling Irene, it might well be worth the risk of being labeled less than a gentleman.

*****

As the North Star slipped into New York harbor, George and Margaret said their final goodbyes, reluctant to separate, but each certain of meeting again, hopefully soon.  A short distance away Little Joe and Eva stood facing each other, each clasping both of the other’s hands.  Her eyes were awash with tears, while he was certain that the dampness in his own was merely a sympathetic reflection of her emotion.  As his arms closed around her, he told himself he was only taking advantage of a good opportunity to hold a beautiful girl.  He knew from experience that he had enough Lothario in him to do that, but when he felt her trembling against him, his embrace instinctively tightened in genuine comfort and Lothario transformed into someone more closely resembling Brother Hoss.

“Oh, Joe,” she sighed.  “I wish this trip could last forever.”

Little Joe couldn’t share that sentiment.  He could scarcely wait to set foot on solid land again, but, again instinctively, he said the right words: “I’ll miss you, too,” and was surprised by how sincerely he meant them.  He’d told himself again and again that Eva was merely someone with whom to while away a long journey, but he realized, more deeply than before in these final moments together, that she’d become more than that.  She’d become, perhaps not a sweetheart, but certainly someone he cared about, at the very least a close personal friend.

“I’m so scared,” she whispered with a furtive glance to make sure no one else overheard.

Surprised, for Eva hadn’t shown an ounce of any sort of squeamishness aboard ship, Little Joe asked, “Of what?”

“Finishing school,” she confided with a shudder.  “I never wanted to come east, Little Joe.  It was all Mama’s idea; she wants to make ladies of us.  Margaret will do well, I’m sure—she’s already a lady—but I’ll never fit in with these eastern snoots.”

Little Joe understood the feeling all too well.  He had concerns, as well, about how he’d fit into eastern society, but he quickly said, “Aw, you’ve got nothing to worry about, Eva.  You’re already a lady, same as Margaret.  No eastern snoot can lay a finger on you, so don’t ever let ‘em make you feel like you’re less than we know you are.”  He lifted her tucked chin.  “Hold your head up, little western gal; you got nothing to fret about.”

Eva smiled up at him.  “How is it you always know just what to say?”

“I don’t,” Little Joe said, gently stroking her cheek.  “I don’t know how to say goodbye.  I’d say ‘so long,’ except I don’t know when we’ll ever meet again.”  The thought pinched harder than he’d ever thought it would.

“George said something about inviting us for Christmas,” Eva confided.  “Of course, Mama and Papa will have to approve, but I’m certain Cousin Horace will support the plan, and I suspect they’ll listen to him.”

“Oh, I’m certain,” Little Joe chuckled.  “Well, that’s great for George and Margaret, but I’ll be long gone by Christmas.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” she sighed again.  Then, with effort, she brightened.  “But you’ll write to me, won’t you?  George has our address.”

He winced.  “I’m not much hand at letter writing, Eva.”

“Oh, Joe, please,” she urged.  “It will help me so much . . . to feel less alone.”

“I’ll try,” he said, “but don’t expect pure poetry.  That’s my brother Adam’s territory, not mine.”

“I don’t want poetry,” she laughed.  “I expect to be drowning in it at that tiresome old finishing school.  Just tell me how you get on with your own set of eastern snoots.”

“Maybe they won’t be,” Little Joe said, fairness outweighing whatever fears he felt.  “George ain’t, and it’s his family I’ll be with.”

“Tell me all about them, then.”  She leaned closer to whisper in his ear.  “After all, they may become part of my family, the way things are going.”

Little Joe nodded.  The only people on board who seemed to be having more trouble parting than he and Eva were George and Margaret.

Ultimately, it was Cousin Horace who pointed out that they were at risk of becoming the last to leave the ship.  “And we aren’t captains, and it isn’t even sinking,” he quipped dryly.

Weak smiles met the feeble joke, but they all dutifully filed down the gangplank and said one last final farewell.  Both George and Little Joe were so fixed on the departing figures of the Lawrence sisters that neither of them, at first, heard the call of a messenger boy: “Telegram for Mr. Cartwright!  Mr. Adam Joseph Cartwright!”

The name caught George’s attention first.  He reached up to pluck his companion’s sleeve.  “Joe, I think that’s you.”

“Huh?” Joe said.

“Telegram for Mr. Adam Joseph Cartwright!”  The words registered with Little Joe this time, but his forehead creased with puzzlement.  “Adam Joseph?” he asked.

“Odd, I admit,” George agreed, “but I think it has to be you, my boy.  There is no other Cartwright aboard.”  He raised his hand and called, “Here!”

The messenger made his way through the crowd of departing passengers and those meeting them on shore.  “Mr. Cartwright?” he inquired when he finally spied the man in the rolling chair.

“That’s this gentleman,” George said, slipping the man a coin to reward his efforts.

“Very good, sir, and thank you, sir.”  He handed the telegram to Little Joe and began to weave his way back through the crowd.

“Well, open it,” George insisted.

Scratching his head, Little Joe tore open the envelope and scanned the contents before handing it on to George:

 

STAY PUT

STOP

I’M COMING

STOP

OLDER BROTHER

FULL STOP

 

George broke into a wide smile.  “Adam’s coming!” he cried.  “What wonderful news!”

“For you,” Little Joe moaned.  “I thought I could avoid a raking over the coals until I got home.”

“That’s not why he’s coming, you little fool,” George chided.  “He’s concerned about you.”

Little Joe smiled wryly.  “Yeah.  I sort of figure he’s gonna be addressing that concern to the seat of my britches.”

George laughed as he punched the boy’s arm.  “And well deserved if he does.  Come along, you scamp, and see if you can’t hire us a carriage to the hotel.”

*****

“Why, dear Mr. Cartwright,” Irene Parker exclaimed as she approached the handsome young man at the rail.  “How fortuitous to meet you here.  Out for a final stroll beneath the stars, are you?”

Adam moaned inwardly, but managed a polite smile for the lady, although her sudden appearance on deck, unescorted, after dark, was not the sort of behavior in which ladies normally indulged.  She must truly be desperate to engage . . . well, given her impending old-maid status, to engage herself to any reasonably suitable man.  “A little fresh air before retiring for the night,” he said.

“Oh, yes, my thoughts exactly.”  She worked her fingers into the crook of his elbow.  “Do you mind if I join you?”

He did mind, immensely, but saw no gentlemanly way to refuse.  It was all too obvious, now that the Parkers knew of the wealth and status of the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa, that he’d become the target he’d feared from his first meeting with mother and daughter.  Suddenly, New York City and its promised release from the leech on his arm seemed much further than mere miles could measure.

*****

Swallowed up in Adam’s nightshirt, Little Joe perched in the window of his room at the 5th Avenue Hotel.  A rueful smile lifted one side of his mouth as he recalled his last such vigil.  That, too, had been in a hotel window, back in San Francisco, and then, too, he’d been thinking of Adam.  He’d been hoping and praying throughout that long, sleepless night that his brother would come by morning, but he didn’t bother with prayers this night.  For one thing, there was no way Adam could get here that quickly; steamships just didn’t make the trip every day.  Even if they had, there was no point in praying unless a man knew what to pray for.  Any familiar face would have thrilled Little Joe’s homesick heart, Adam’s no less than Pa’s or Hoss’s.  Well, maybe a little less than Pa’s; there was no one like Pa to fill up an empty heart, but Adam would have worked just fine for that.  On the other hand, Adam was much more likely than either Pa or Hoss (way more likely than Hoss!) to lay the heavy hand of judgment on him, and there was no way Little Joe could pray for that to come a minute sooner.

So, Joe perched tonight, not for a prayerful vigil, but to stare at the forest of tall buildings outlined against the dark sky.  He’d never seen the like of it before, not even in San Francisco, and frankly, he figured he could have died content without ever seeing it, without ever feeling this closed in and breathless.  This forest didn’t give off the fragrant scent of pine on the breeze that always refreshed him, no matter how tired he might feel; this forest, what little he could sniff of it through the barely cracked window, seemed almost void of scent, except for a faint whiff of smoke, wafting from a thousand chimneys or more.  George had apologized that they’d only be here one night, not enough to show him the marvelous sights of New York City, but Little Joe figured he’d seen all he cared to on the short carriage trip here from the wharf.

Why anyone would want to live, packed tight, in a place like this was beyond him, but lots of folks obviously did.  Adam had once been one of them and could so easily be again, Little Joe feared.  Keeping his brother far from that temptation had been the silver lining amidst all the seasickness and fear of the unknown and dread of the repercussions once he got back home.  Joe would like to have said that the East had nothing to offer, but he had to admit he’d enjoyed eating in the elegant (and ridiculously expensive) restaurant George had treated him to for supper.  Delmonico’s had, by far, the finest French cuisine he’d ever tasted, and that sort of food always warmed him inside and out with memories, however vague, of his beloved mother.  And, for Adam, cities like New York and Boston offered more than just fancy food.  He could feast on opera and classical music and art museums and high-brow playacting every night, instead of once in a blue moon, like he settled for back home.

Just thinking about all those temptations and how they might lead his brother astray, now that he was sure to be exposed to them again, kept Little Joe wakeful for several hours, despite George’s warning that they’d need to rise early to catch the train, but weariness eventually set him yawning.  He crawled under the sheets and sank into the comfort of the down-filled mattress and pillows.  Although at first it felt odd not to have the bed swaying beneath him, he soon drifted off.

 

October 17

It was half-past seven when the hired carriage deposited George and Little Joe in front of the depot at the corner of 4th Avenue and 27th Street.  Though it was only a few blocks from their hotel, a distance Little Joe would gladly have walked, it was too far for George, even in his rolling chair.  Getting that thing in and out of a carriage was a nuisance, and it probably wouldn’t fit well on the train, either, but Joe dutifully maneuvered it up the steps to the ticket office.  From that point George took over.  As the man with both the experience and the money, it only made sense.

Though they’d rushed through breakfast as if time were short, they’d actually arrived early.  “I hope you don’t mind taking the morning train,” George said as they sat in the waiting room.  “The evening route is more comfortable, of course, but I am anxious to get home.”

Little Joe shrugged.  “Either one’s fine with me.  I hear they got sleepin’ cars in some trains.  Is that what you meant by more comfortable?”

George chuckled.  “Well, sleeping is what I meant, yes, but not on a train.  We would have taken the evening boat to Fall River and then boarded the train for Boston.  Since it doesn’t leave until 5 p.m., sleeping accommodations are provided, of course.”

Little Joe’s eyes narrowed as he cast a side glance at the other man.  “A boat?” he squawked, bile rising in his throat at the suggestion.  “How could you even think of putting us on another boat, George?”

At that, George positively guffawed.  “Well, knowing your great love for seafaring, I thought you’d want to extend the experience as long as possible.  It really is more comfortable to sleep away a good portion of the journey, but I selfishly elected to speed home via the railroad.”

“Be selfish all you want,” Little Joe snorted, “so long as it’s on land.”

A porter entered just then to announce that the New York and New Haven Railroad was now boarding.

“That us?” Little Joe asked, seeing George straighten in his chair.  “I thought we were going to Boston.”

“Via New Haven, Hartford, Springfield and more,” George said.  “Trains wait for no man, my boy, so let’s get on board.”

*****

Adam was aboard the little tugboat Taboga, which would take him from the Chesapeake to the train depot in Panama City.  By skillful maneuvering he’d managed to avoid the same boatload as the Parker ladies.  Hopefully, by the time he boarded the train, they’d already be seated, and he could easily avoid taking his own place anywhere near them.

The boat docked and he dawdled his way toward the train.  He paused for a longing look at the city, wishing he could walk its ancient streets and savor the architecture of its cathedral, as he had in Acapulco, but trains waited for no man.  Finally, realizing that his choice of seats grew more limited with each passenger who boarded before him and fearing that, however unlikely,  his only option might be next to the man-hungry women, he hurried onto the train and breathed a sigh of relief as he spied the objects of his avoidance and took a seat as far from them as possible.

He settled in for the four-hour journey, relishing the delightful tropical scenery as much as the other passengers oohing and ahhing over each colorful blossom, bright-feathered bird or monkey cavorting through the trees.  After the slow, almost lazy days on the steamship, he felt as though he were racing across the isthmus, the train gobbling up miles like a voracious beast.  Watching the jungle flash past, he wondered what would come of all the talk of a transcontinental railroad and how it might change transportation across the United States.  On this frantic chase after his brother he would have welcomed the decrease in travel time a railroad could provide.  Had this been, however, the pure pleasure trip he’d originally envisioned, the slower steamboat would probably have been preferable.

*****

After about three hours on the train Little Joe began to understand the appeal of taking the steamer route.  Not only could he have slept through most of the journey, but he could have avoided the hassle of getting both himself and George and all their gear transferred to a second rail line.  Well, maybe not, since he’d have had to change from boat to train, but the seating was bound to be less crowded aboard ship and having some place to walk other than the narrow aisle would have kept him less fidgety.  Thank goodness the railroad handled their checked luggage, so he didn’t have to wrestle with two heavy trunks, in addition to carpetbags, crutches and the rolling chair.  Once all that and George were comfortably settled aboard the New Haven, Hartford and Springfield Railroad, he stole a few minutes to stretch his legs before the whistle blew and hopped on board, just in time to ease George’s anxiety that he’d be left behind.

The journey wasn’t even half done, here in New Haven, but though his body was tired of traveling, Little Joe frankly wished he could extend the trip beyond the eight or nine hours George had predicted.  He had assured Eva that George’s folks would probably be as friendly as he himself, but the closer Joe came to Boston, the less sure he felt of his welcome.  After all, he was arriving, unannounced, on their doorstep.  Worse than that, they were expecting Adam, and he and his older brother had next-to-nothing in common.  Adam, with his education and sophistication, always fit in just fine with fancy folks, while Little Joe tended to feel like his collar had suddenly shrunk two sizes when he had to mingle with the posh people of Virginia City or, worse yet, San Francisco.  He had a real fear that even those people would seem like rubes to Bostonians, much less a country boy like him.  He finally voiced his concern to George, concluding, with an uneasy laugh, “Well, maybe they won’t mind.  I guess one Cartwright is pretty much like another, huh?”

His perverse mood still prevailing, George pretended to give the matter serious consideration before finally say, “Actually, I’ve come to feel that each Cartwright is pretty much nothing like any of the others.”

Little Joe grimaced as the truth of that remark struck him.  All three Cartwright brothers were as different from each other as night and day—well, maybe just a daybreak-and-noontime difference between him and Hoss—but, still, no one who didn’t already know ever took them for brothers at first glance.  They didn’t look like kin, and a lot of the time they didn’t even act like they’d been raised in the same house.  And as for Pa—well, each of his sons reflected some sliver of his image, but none of them was a mirror image.  Not that anyone ever could be, ‘cause Pa was a man without equal.

Seeing the somber mood of his companion, a boy whose normal attitude was lighthearted and laughing, George laid a consoling hand on Little Joe’s arm.  “My parents will welcome you with open arms,” he promised, “especially when I tell them all you’ve done for me.”

Little Joe smiled tentatively.  Wonder what they’ll think when they find out what I did to him, he mused, the image of Meteor flashing into his mind.  It was days later before he realized that George had not included his sister in that promise of welcome.

*****

As soon as the train stopped at the end of the line, Adam sprinted toward town with all the urgency of a little boy in need of the outhouse after a long Sunday sermon.  After four hours he had that need, of course, but it could wait.  His greater goal was simply to get away.  He wanted to take a stroll about the town before boarding the new ship, and he wanted, desperately, to take it unencumbered by anyone frilly attached to his elbow.  As his seat was near the exit, he safely made his getaway and was soon walking the unpromising streets of Aspinwall.  The town had none of the charm of its sister on the other end of the railroad and definitely none of its history or architectural interest, for it was the creation of the railroad, built on a swampy, alligator-infested island only ten or so years before.

Adam pitied anyone ever detained here overnight.  The only hotels available were constructed with a flimsy framework of pine boards, completely unlike the Ponderosa’s solid log structure, and he had a feeling the meals would be of commensurate worth.  All this and mosquitoes, too.  With a shudder he turned his steps toward the wharf and climbed aboard the Ariel.  He moaned as he reached the deck and found two ladies waiting there.

“Ah, dear Mr. Cartwright,” Mrs. Parker said, “we were concerned that some mishap had detained you.”

“Thank you for your concern,” Adam said, “but as you can see, I’m fine.  I was merely stretching my legs before boarding.”

“Had I but known, I would have accompanied you,” Irene announced.  “I would have enjoyed seeing the sights of Aspinwall.”  She did not add “with you,” but the additional phrase was clearly inferred by the batting of her eyes.

“Believe me, you didn’t miss anything,” Adam assured her.  “It isn’t much of a town.”

“The enjoyment would have been in the company, of course,” the girl returned smoothly, apparently fearing her eyes had not communicated as well as hoped.

Adam nodded his head in silent acceptance of the compliment, which spared him the necessity of returning it.

“I believe we are again dining together,” Mrs. Parker told him.  “Isn’t that fortuitous?”

“Yes, isn’t it?”  Adam was not sure, and never could be, whether that seating was simple convenience on the part of the steamship line or whether it was the result of crafty maneuvering by the woman who clearly dreamed of becoming his mother-in-law.

*****

Huddled inside his lightweight green jacket, Little Joe stood before the massive stone steps, leading up to a wide double door.  He craned his neck back, trying to see the top of the red brick building and whistled as he counted four floors, including the street-level one, with a couple of dormer windows bowing out above the fourth that probably went with a cloud-high bedroom.  Each tall window, as well as the front door, had some sort of fancy stonework over it, just for show.  “Quite a place,” he said.

“It’s home,” George said, “no different than the Ponderosa.”

Little Joe looked askance at him.  The place was palatial.  He immediately thought how proud Miss Jones would be of him for remembering that twenty-dollar word from some long-ago vocabulary list.  He’d never needed it before, but nothing else would come close to describing this house, and if George didn’t know that, he was some kind of fool.  “It’s some different,” he finally said.  “Who do you put in all them rooms?”

George laughed.  “You should talk.  How many extra bedrooms does the Ponderosa have?”

Little Joe gave him a sheepish grin.  “More than we need for just us,” he admitted, “but folks do need a place to stay when they’re too far from home to make it there by nightfall.”

“I’d like to show you the inside, as well,” George said wryly.

Little Joe laughed.  “Okay, I can take a hint.”  He plopped his carpetbag into George’s lap, swiveled the rolling chair so he could back it up the steps and soon had it at the front door.  He had only tapped the knocker a single time when the door was opened by a man in a dark suit.  “Mr. Pontpier?” he asked tentatively.

“Indeed, not.”  The man’s face registered momentary surprise at sight of the man in the chair, but he recovered quickly and said, “Master George!  Welcome home, sir.”  He swung the door wide, and Little Joe wheeled his friend inside.

“Thank you, Horace,” George said.  He indicated the carpetbag in his lap.  “Could you please see that this is placed in the guest room prepared for Mr. Cartwright?”

“Certainly, sir,” the butler said, relieving the young master of his burden and taking, as well, George’s own carpetbag.  He moved toward the stairs.

A rustle of skirts announced the arrival of two women and a tall, well-dressed man who looked exactly like an older, slimmer copy of George himself.  “George, darling,” said the older of the two women, hurrying to kneel before him, “whatever has happened to you?”

“A slight accident, Mother, nothing to worry about,” he assured her.  “The leg’s broken, but well on the mend.”

“Now, you see,” scolded the younger woman, “this is exactly why I objected to your making that ill-timed trip to the West.”

George’s eyes twinkled playfully.  “You predicted I would break a leg, Madeleine?  I never realized you were clairvoyant.”

The girl flushed.  “I predicted you would be delayed and endanger your being here for the anniversary.”

“Well, you were wrong,” her brother said.  “I have obviously made it home in time for the party.”

His father clapped a hand on his shoulder.  “So you have, my boy, so you have.”

Madeleine ran an appraising glance up and down the figure of the rustically clothed youth standing awkwardly beside her brother.  “Well, what are you gawking at, boy?  Have you not been paid for your services or were you hoping for a larger tip?”

Little Joe’s mouth dropped open, but he could think of nothing to say.

“He’s not a servant, Madeleine,” George said, mouth twitching.  “This is our houseguest.  May I introduce Mr. Joseph Cartwright?  Little Joe, my parents, Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Pontpier and my sister Madeleine.”

Little Joe swept his hat from his head.  “Pl-pleased to meet you, sir . . . ma’ams.”

“But—but your letter said . . . Adam,” Madeleine stammered, her disappointment obvious.

“It’s a long story,” George said, “best told after we’ve settled in, but in short, Adam was unable to come, and since I needed assistance on the journey, this young fellow volunteered to take his brother’s place.”

George’s mother rose to her feet.  “Why, how thoughtful,” she declared, approaching Little Joe and kissing him on both cheeks.  “Thank you so much, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Oh, ma’am,” he said, “it was the least I could do, seein’ as how . . .”

George’s loud clearing of his throat cut off Little Joe’s intended explanation.

“We were just sitting down to tea,” Mrs. Pontpier said.  “Will you join us or would you prefer to rest from your journey?”  Her gray eyes swept from one traveler to the other.

“No, thanks, ma’am.  I’m not thirsty,” Little Joe said.

Everyone stared at their young guest.  Then Madeleine said, “I suppose westerners aren’t familiar with the social tradition of teatime.”

“Oh, you meant the meal,” Little Joe said, crimson creeping up his neck.  “They served that on ship; I just figured folks on land were too busy workin’ to eat an extra meal in the middle of the afternoon.  I mean, we are at home, but I reckon when folks are as rich as you, they don’t . . . have . . . to . . . work.”  He bit his lower lip, stared at the floor and then lifted his head to look forthrightly at his hosts.  “I’m sorry.  That was an awful thing to say.”

“It’s quite all right,” Mr. Pontpier said.  “As you surmised, tea is becoming more difficult for those who must travel into the city proper for work.  However, my employment is nearby, and as they say, I keep banker’s hours, so we maintain the older tradition of tea.  The ladies like it.”

Mrs. Pontpier touched Little Joe’s elbow.  “Now that you understand the question better, will you join us for tea, Mr. Cartwright?”

Little Joe shook his head.  She was being kind; they all were, but he was embarrassed and wanted nothing more than to escape to whatever room they planned to stow him in.  “No, thank you, ma’am.  I’m really not hungry.”

“George?” she asked.

“I’ll take tea, of course,” George said.  “I’m positively famished!  You know how difficult it is to obtain proper nourishment on a long train ride.”

Little Joe stared at him in disbelief.  He’d managed to get ham sandwiches and hard-boiled eggs for both of them at one of the stations, and there’d been boys walking up and down the aisles with baskets of apples and hand-held pies all through the journey—certainly more than he’d ever had offered on a stagecoach!  He’d felt full-up with the nourishment available on the train, and George had eaten at least twice as much as he had.

George’s mother laughed lightly.  “My poor boy.”  She turned to the butler, who had just returned.  “Horace, would you please show Mr. Cartwright to the room we prepared for his brother?”

“Certainly, madame.  This way, sir.”

Just as Little Joe was mounting the broad spiral stairway, he heard Madeleine say, “Really insufferable.”  She probably hadn’t meant to be overheard, but her piercing voice carried.

“I found his openness and naiveté refreshing,” her father said, loud enough that he, quite possibly, had meant to be overheard.  Whether more was said, Little Joe never knew, for he passed out of ear range.  He followed the butler up two flights of stairs and entered the room to which the man opened the door.

“Will there be anything else, sir?” Horace inquired.  On assurance that nothing was needed, he added, “I’ll send your trunk up as soon as it arrives from the station, sir, and if you desire assistance in unpacking it—or require anything else, simply pull the bell.”  He indicated a tapestry pull near the bed.  “Dinner will be at eight, sir.”

Little Joe heaved a heavy sigh of relief once he was alone.  He stood in the middle of the room and with a low whistle surveyed his new domain.  The size alone was staggering.  The bedrooms at the Ponderosa were good-sized, larger than those in most of his friends’ homes, in fact, but this one dwarfed them.  The four-poster bed was massive, big enough for three or, maybe even four fellows Joe’s size.  He had thought the one at the hotel represented the height of luxury, but he’d obviously been wrong.  The mattress here was thicker than any he’d ever seen, and it was piled with four fluffy feather pillows.

He walked around the room, running his hand over the smooth, polished walnut of the bed and the cool, marble top of the dressing table, opening the tall armoire, before which sat his carpetbag, and fiddling with the writing materials on the desktop, until he finally came to the window. He pulled aside the drapes and looked out the window, pleased to see that it overlooked the oval park he’d seen when they arrived.  His forehead wrinkled in curiosity, however, as he saw the decorative cast iron grating outside the window.  So, there was a balcony.  Only it was so shallow that there wasn’t really room for a man to go out on it.  Just for show, then.  Easterners really went in for show.

He fingered the thick, green damask drapes as he closed them.  They’d keep out the cold, for sure.  Not that it was cold in the room.  A fire had been lit in the marble-mantled fireplace, and while that struck Joe as odd, this early in the evening, he was grateful.  He’d been shivering all through this gray, damp day, though he’d tried to hide it from George.  His green jacket wasn’t heavy enough for the fall weather here in New England, but it was all he had, except for his suit coat.  In this room, however, he felt warm enough to take it off.  Still, he’d need something warmer, unless he stayed indoors all the time and that was unthinkable.  Maybe, he mused as he gave in to a wide yawn, Adam had packed a winter coat in his trunk.  Like all his brother’s clothes, it would be too large, but coats didn’t need to fit snugly to keep a fellow warm.  He hadn’t dug that deeply in the trunk before, but he’d check when it arrived.  For now, that bed looked too inviting to resist.  He’d gone to bed late the night before and awakened earlier than he liked, so he pulled off his boots, stretched out on top of the satin spread and was soon oblivious to all Eastern luxury except the softness of the welcoming mattress.

*****

The sun was just setting, and the ocean was aglow with shimmering red-orange ripples.  The Ariel was underway at last, headed for . . . Adam was surprised by the word that sprang into his thoughts: home.  It was odd, but he felt as though he were headed home, not away from it.  Certainly, the Ponderosa was his home—by heritage, by choice, by inclination . . . yet the East was home, too.  Maybe that explained the restlessness he often felt: home lay in two opposite directions, and he was constantly being pulled one way or the other.

Then a soft smile touched his lips.  It wasn’t the pull of the East he was feeling; it was simply that he was headed toward Joe.  Maybe for some people, home was a place; for him, it was family.  Maybe it was all that time when home was just a wagon and Pa had been his whole world, but for Adam, Pa was home and Hoss was home, and now, lying ahead of him, it was Little Joe tugging him homeward, just as the three of them had pulled him back from the East years ago.

He knew he’d feel the same tug when he headed back the opposite direction; in fact, he’d feel it more strongly, because then his brother would be at his side, both of them yearning to be back on the Ponderosa.  A lot of days and a lot of miles lay ahead before he reached that final destination, but any way you looked at it, Adam was headed home.  Then, laughing at how philosophical he’d become in the fading light, he took a final stroll around the deck before descending to the dining salon.

*****

“Sir?  Sir?”

The tentative voice finally filtered through Little Joe’s dreams of lying on fluffy clouds, floating in a sky of azure blue over Lake Tahoe.  “Hmm?” he asked, eyelids fluttering.

“Sir, the family was wondering if you were joining them for supper or if you’d prefer a tray in your room.”

Supper?  Though Little Joe was still drowsy, the word stabbed him sharply awake.  Surely, he hadn’t slept all the way to suppertime, but the darkness of the room indicated that he had.

“Sir?  A tray, perhaps?”

Little Joe sat up.  “No, I’m gettin’ up now.  I’ll be there in two shakes.”

“Two shakes?”

Even in the dim light Little Joe could see the man’s bewilderment.  “Right away,” he said.

The servant nodded.  “Very good, sir.  I’ll tell them you will be down directly.”  Before leaving, he drew the curtains and turned up the wall-mounted light to illuminate the room in soft haze.

Little Joe stared at the glowing glass globe.  Gas light?  In the house?  He’d seen gas used for street lamps in New York City, but to put such a thing in a house seemed amazing . . . and a mite reckless, though maybe no more so than coal oil or kerosene.  He had no time, however, for such speculations.  The fact that they’d sent someone to check on him probably meant that he was already late for supper.  No time to do more than splash water on his face and run a comb through his tousled curls.  As he dug into his carpetbag to get what he needed, he pondered whether easterners—fancy ones like these, at least—dressed for dinner, like the first-class passengers had on the boat.  Well, they did that, even at the Ponderosa, when they had special guests.  Though he didn’t feel particularly special, he decided he should, at least, wear his string tie.  Digging it out and looping it quickly, he headed downstairs at a sprightly trot.

The moment he entered the dining room, he knew the tie wasn’t nearly dressy enough.  The two men were wearing suits, different from the ones they’d worn earlier, and the ladies were in dresses that Sunday-best didn’t even come close to describing.  Still, Mr. and Mrs. Pontpier welcomed him, inquiring whether he’d been able to rest and hoping his accommodations were satisfactory.

“Satisfactory?” Little Joe sputtered, as he took the seat they indicated to him.  “That bed is about the softest thing I ever floated on, ma’am.”  He addressed his remark to Mrs. Pontpier, for in his experience it was the lady of the house, when there was one, who managed such things.

“I’m glad you found it comfortable, Joseph,” she said.  “I may call you Joseph, may I not?  We want you to feel like one of the family while you’re here.”

“Then you’d better call him Little Joe,” George said with a twinkle in his eye.  “That’s what the family calls him at the Ponderosa.”

“How quaint,” Madeleine said.  The slight titter in her voice, which had begun with his description of the bed, had a tinny ring.

“I think it’s charming,” Mrs. Pontpier said.  “May we call you that, young man?”

“Um, yes, ma’am,” Little Joe said.  He wanted to tell her just to call him Joe, but she was looking at him so kindly, so . . . motherly . . . that he couldn’t have said no if she’d wanted to call him Francis, instead, and he really hated his middle name.  Anyway, it had never bothered him for his family to call him Little Joe, and since he much preferred to be considered family here, instead of an unexpected and unwanted interloper, the Pontpiers’ use of the family nickname might help.

A petite girl, white cap partially covering her auburn curls, entered the room, carrying a large tureen.  “I’m afraid Cook planned a menu of George’s favorites, in honor of his homecoming,” Mrs. Pontpier said.  “I hope our New England fare won’t be too foreign for your taste, Little Joe.”

“I eat ‘most anything, ma’am,” Little Joe assured her.  “Except dog,” he added, recalling a dish with which Chief Winnemucca had once presented him.  “I had a hard time chokin’ that down.”  Seeing the shocked expressions around the table, he hurried to say, “The soup smells right tasty.”

“It’s New England chowder,” George said, sniffing the air appreciatively.  “With cod, Mother?”

“Bridget?” his mother inquired of the young girl serving each of them a bowl of the soup.

“I believe so, mum,” the girl said.

“Madame—or mistress,” Madeleine corrected her.

The girl bobbed her head.  “Yes, miss.”  She ladled chowder into Little Joe’s bowl.

“Thank you, Miss Bridget,” he said, flashing her the smile that made girls back home swoon.

Fortunately for the heavy tureen she carried, the servant girl didn’t swoon, but her eyes sparkled as she said, “Me pleasure, sir.”  Seeing Madeleine frown at her, she hurried out.

“Honestly, it is so difficult to train these Irish girls to serve properly,” Madeleine declared in a stage whisper that might easily have been heard in the next room.

“Show some patience, my dear,” her mother urged.  “The girl is quite new,” she explained to Little Joe.

Little Joe couldn’t see that the girl had done anything wrong, but felt too new here himself to say anything.  He decided to just dip into the creamy broth, swimming with fish and vegetables.  It was delicious and he said so.

For a few minutes the family ate in silence.  Then Madeleine cleared her throat and said, “Perhaps you’re unaware, Joseph, but if any of your clothing—your dinner suit, for instance—requires refreshing, you have only to pull the bell at your bedside, and someone will attend you.”

Flushing, Little Joe set down his spoon and turned to Mrs. Pontpier.  “I apologize, ma’am, for coming to table in my shirt sleeves.  I—I can see it’s not how you do things here.”

“No need,” George said sharply and then looked at his sister with piercing eyes.  “Honestly, Maddie, how could you?”

“Why, George, there’s no need to take umbrage with me,” Madeleine said, looking genuinely surprised.  “I’m sure your own things need refreshing after your long journey, and it’s no insult to assume that your young friend’s may, as well.  I was merely telling him how to rectify that need.”

“Still,” he protested, “to take up such an issue with a guest at the dinner table . . .”

“She’s right, though,” Little Joe said.  “Truth is, ma’am,” he continued, addressing himself to Mrs. Pontpier, “I only have the one suit—well, except for the linen one George bought me for the tropics, and I don’t think that would be proper for dinner, either.”

“Scarcely,” Madeleine said with a roll of her eyes.  “But how can you have only one suit, Joseph?  I know your trunk was delivered, along with George’s, and why would you need one, if not for suits and . . . whatever else gentlemen require for long journeys?”

Little Joe gave her a rueful grin.  “It’s not my trunk, ma’am; it’s Adam’s.”

“Adam’s?” she queried.

“I told you, Maddie,” George explained with strained patience.  “Adam planned to come with me, but did not arrive in time.  We had already loaded his trunk, and then this young fellow decided at the last minute to take his place.  So, yes, there is a trunk full of appropriate suits . . . and whatever else gentlemen require for long journeys . . . but they belong to Adam, and I assure you they will not fit Little Joe.”

“Certainly not,” his father said with a chuckle.  “Though it’s been years since I’ve seen Adam, I well recall his height and broad shoulders.”

“Then you have . . . nothing?” Madeleine asked, her dismay evident.

“Two suits—if you count the linen,” Little Joe began.

“I don’t,” she said.

“Yes, ma’am, I understand.”  He shrugged.  “But that’s what I’ve got, and like I started to say, I’ve worn the one suit almost every day since I left home, and when Miss Madeleine says it might need . . . um . . . refreshing . . . well, that’s an understatement.”  After almost constant wear in the humidity of the ocean voyage, the suit, not new to begin with, was drooping with wear.

“You must remember that he packed only for a trip to San Francisco and directly home again,” George reminded them.

Mrs. Pontpier smiled kindly at her guest.  “Well, you’ll certainly need more for your stay here, so we’ll just have to take you shopping!”

“Why, yes,” Madeleine agreed, looking excited at the prospect of a shopping trip.  “Our Boston stores will have whatever you need.”

“Except money.”  Little Joe flushed a deeper crimson, but though he was embarrassed to tell them, he saw no point in hiding what would soon become obvious.  “Another sad consequence of leaving so unexpected-like is that Adam never got there with my wages, so I’ve kind of landed on your doorstep with the clothes on my back and not much else.”

“We will gladly provide whatever you need while you’re here, young man,” Mr. Pontpier said.

“I’ve already told him that,” George said.

“How could we do less after all you’ve done for our son?” Mrs. Pontpier, eyes glowing with gratitude, put in.

Little Joe cut a reproving stare at George.  “What have you been telling these people?” he asked.  Then he faced the two older Pontpiers and said, “Look, if George has made me out some kind of hero, just because I came along to help him on the trip, and if you think you owe me anything because of that, then I think you ought to know that I’m the reason he was hurt in the first place.”

“No, you were not,” George said firmly.

“You know better,” Little Joe chided, “and they deserve to know the truth.”

“I’ve told them the truth!”

“But perhaps not the whole truth?” Madeleine suggested with a suspicious look at both young men, who were seated side by side across from her and her mother.

“No, not the whole truth,” Little Joe agreed.  He hurried to give the explanation he felt the Pontpier family was due before George tried to stop him again.  “The whole truth is that I didn’t want George on the Ponderosa, and I did my best to make him feel unwelcome.”

“But why?” the mother asked in surprise.

“Just bein’ childish, ma’am,” Little Joe admitted.  “I was plumb jealous and, well, kind of scared he might make Adam want to leave and live back here again.”

“I see,” she said, her face softening.

“Feelin’ that way, I said things I shouldn’t’ve, the worst bein’ that I taunted him about not pullin’ his weight on the drive to San Francisco.”

“Drive?” Madeleine asked, looking confused.

“Let the boy finish, Madeleine,” her father said.

“Thank you, sir,” Little Joe said.  “It was to prove me wrong that George tried to ride that green-broke horse, and that’s how he busted his leg, so you see, it was ‘cause of me he got hurt, and comin’ along to help out was the very least I could do.  You got nothing to thank me for, and frankly, I wouldn’t blame you if you threw me out in the street, instead.”  Only a nervous nibble of his lower lip betrayed his concern that they very well might.  He hoped they’d put up with him, if only for Adam’s sake, because he really had no other options.

“Oh, my dear child,” Mrs. Pontpier said, stretching her arm across the table toward him, “of course, we shall do nothing of the sort.”  When Little Joe took her offered hand, she turned toward her husband.  “Arthur?

“Certainly not,” her husband agreed, adding with a twinkle in his eye, “and I believe, young man, that I shall accept my son’s evaluation of your character and actions, rather than your own.”

“Hear, hear!” George chimed in.

Only Madeleine said nothing, but her taut-mouthed scrutiny of Little Joe’s face might have frozen Lake Tahoe on a summer day.

“Please, everyone, let’s finish our soup before it grows cold,” Mrs. Pontpier urged.  Seeming grateful for the break in tension, everyone complied, and it was not until the first course was being cleared that she again opened the conversation.  “As I said earlier, Little Joe, we will need to take you shopping to supplement your wardrobe.  I wish it could be tomorrow, dear, but I feel I must be here when the doctor attends George.  We will, of course, send for him first thing in the morning, but I don’t know at what hour he may be able to come.”

“Now, Mother, I don’t need a doctor,” George protested.  “The leg is healing nicely.  It doesn’t even hurt anymore.”

“I’m glad to hear that, my boy, but I really won’t feel assured until our personal physician has examined you.”

“All right, Mother,” he said, giving in to the inevitable.  “Day after tomorrow, then, for the shopping trip?”

“Yes, I believe that is the best we can do,” she said.  “If you’ll give your suit to Bridget tonight, Little Joe, the staff should be able to freshen it for you by tomorrow evening.  In the meantime, as you are will be quite acceptable.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Little Joe said, “but about that shopping trip . . . I just can’t let you folks foot the bill for that.”

“You can and you will,” Mr. Pontpier stated in his own version of Ben Cartwright’s no-argument voice.

Little Joe argued anyway.  “No, sir, I can’t.”

“You apparently had no trouble in letting George ‘foot the bill’ for a linen suit,” Madeleine observed frostily.

“That was different,” Little Joe insisted.  “I worked for that, helping him with his—uh—personal needs and such.”  He brightened suddenly.  “Hey, that’s it!  I can just go on tendin’ him and work off the price of—well, whatever you figure I need for how you do things here.  Good idea, huh?”

With the possible exception of George, whose expression was more difficult to read, all four Pontpiers stared at him, aghast.  “We are not in the habit of treating our guests like menials,” Mr. Pontpier said firmly.

George winced.  He well remembered how Little Joe had reacted to that word when he himself had used it to describe the Cartwrights’ employees.

“Well, we Cartwrights are in the habit of working for a living,” Little Joe said, straining, but failing, not to sound testy.  “There’s no shame in it.  Like I said, it’s no different from how I helped George on the trip.”

“That was a necessity,” Madeleine said curtly.  “We have servants for such duties here.”

“I appreciate your work ethic, young man,” the father said with a gesture of restraint toward his daughter.  “It gives honor to your upbringing.  However, I would no sooner require a guest to work for his upkeep while in our home than I’m sure your father would have considered charging George for anything he required—medical attention for a broken leg, for instance—while he was your guest.”

“George helped out,” Little Joe said, though weakly, for he knew their guest had done only what he chose to do and Ben Cartwright would have been just as disinclined to require chores of a guest as Mr. Pontpier.

George laughed.  “Very little, only enough to get a taste of western life, and I have a feeling even that was more hindrance than help.  Give it up, Little Joe.  You’re being treated to a new wardrobe, like it or not.”

*****

“How pleasant to dine daily with old friends,” Mrs. Parker observed.  She tittered in a manner obviously put on for effect.  “I suppose, after a journey of two weeks in such close quarters, we may consider ourselves old friends, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Nothing like an ocean voyage to accelerate acquaintance,” Adam said.  Unfortunately, he added to himself.  “Is the soup to your taste?” he inquired to redirect the conversation to a safer topic.

“It’s satisfactory,” she said.  “I see that you ordered the cream of celery.  Irene did, as well, you may have noticed.”

“Yes.”  And judging by the timing of her selection, darling Irene had deliberately copied his own choice.  To demonstrate their affinity, even in matters of culinary taste?  The Parker ladies were nothing if not blatantly obvious in their pursuit of his attention.

“This ship seems more elegantly appointed than the Chesapeake, don’t you think, Mr. Cartwright?” Irene asked.

Adam ran an appraising eye over the mirrored walls, the richly carpeted floor and the large columns of patterned glass that stretched from the floor to the skylight above them.  “Yes, definitely.”

“Perhaps you prefer your décor more rustic?” Mrs. Parker probed.

With an enigmatic smile and a decided preference for keeping his true tastes unknown, he replied, “Perhaps I do.”

“Oh, I think I do, as well,” Irene quickly said.  “So much more a reminder of home, don’t you think?”

“If your home is a log cabin,” he said.

Her laugh bore a marked resemblance to her mother’s forced one.  “Well, my home is not quite that rustic.”

“A pity,” Adam said.  “Mine is.”

“Oh.”  She appeared uncertain whether to take him seriously.  Surely, people as rich as the Cartwrights were reported to be did not live in a log cabin.  On the other hand, they were ranchers and mere men, so perhaps they had no idea what could be done with a proper home. “Well, I suppose that is a classic example of western architecture.  Are you interested in architecture, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Oh, a bit,” he said, his expression more inscrutable than before.

*****

Little Joe had been in his room no more than a minute before a rap sounded on the door.  Before he could reach it, the door opened, and the girl who had served at supper bobbed a curtsey.  “They said as how you’d be havin’ a suit in need of cleanin’, sir,” she said.

“You do that, too?” Little Joe asked.

“I do a bit of everything, sir.”

He chuckled.  “A Jack of all trades, huh?  Though, I guess, it’s a Jill in your case.”

“I don’t take your meanin’, sir.”

“Oh, sorry,” Little Joe said.  “I guess you haven’t been here long enough to know every American saying.  It means, well, that you do a bit of everything, just like you said.”

She smiled then.  “That’s me, then, a Jill of all trades.  Mostly, I clean the upstairs rooms and serve table, but I do what I’m told, sir.  You do have a suit to give me?”

“I do,” he said, walking toward the wardrobe.  He opened it and removed his decidedly limp jacket and trousers.  “I’m not sure what you can do with it.”

She giggled.  “Sure ‘n’ I’ll be doing nothing but givin’ it to those who do know what to do with it.”

He handed it to her.  “I could have taken it if I just knew who that person was.  No need to make you trot up here after all the work you’ve already done.”

“‘Tis me job, sir,” she said, laying the suit across her arm.

“Thank you, then . . . Bridget, isn’t it?”

She stole a glance behind, apparently to check if she could be overheard and then said, “It’s not me name, not really.  It’s just what Americans call all Irish serving girls . . . or so I’ve been told, findin’ it hard to remember our real names, I’m supposin’.”

His bright grin flashed.  “What is your real name, then?  I promise I’ll remember.”

“It’s Aideen, sir.”

“It’s beautiful,” he whispered, “almost as beautiful as you.”

Her cheeks flamed in guilty pleasure.  “Go on with you,” she said, “makin’ me live up to its meaning like this.”

“Oh?  What’s that?”

“Aideen?  It means ‘little fire,’” she replied.

He laughed.  “And are you?  A little fiery, that is.  I’m supposin’ you are.”

She backed toward the open door.  “It’s me ears that’ll be burnin’ if I stay here a minute longer.  If your suit is ready by morning, you’ll find it hangin’ in your wardrobe.”

“Uh, okay,” he said.  He didn’t much like the idea of anyone coming into his room while he was sleeping, but apparently that was how things were done here.  “Thank you, Miss Aideen.”

“‘Tis welcome you are, sir.”  Then she vanished on swiftly tripping feet.

 

October 18

Smiling in his sleep, Little Joe snuggled under the thick covers.  Wasn’t it good of Pa to let him sleep in like this?  That didn’t happen often!  Frown lines slowly creased his brow.  No, it didn’t, especially not when Pa was as mad as he had been earlier in . . . his dream.  With a sigh Little Joe cracked an eyelid and confirmed the niggling suspicion that he wasn’t really back home on the Ponderosa.  The realization of where he actually was filtered in more slowly: George’s house, Boston, nowhere close to home.

He opened his eyes, yawned and stretched.  Though the room was dark, thanks to the drawn curtains, he felt so well rested that he knew it must be past his regular rising time, much less the even earlier hour that Pa and older brother Adam always thought the day should start.

He got out of bed, walked to the window and pulled back the drapes.  He dropped them in shock as his eyes squinted in the bright morning light.  Good lands!  How late was it?  Why hadn’t someone wakened him?  Well, ‘cause that’s not how folks treated guests, of course, but he felt appalled by his own lack of courtesy and, suddenly aware that he was starving, assaulted by the fear that he’d missed breakfast altogether.  He hastily donned the shirt and pants he’d worn the night before, splashed water on his face and brushed his hair.

Peeking out the door and finding the hallway clear, he bolted for the stairs and trotted down the steps.  Maybe, just maybe, the family would still be in the dining room and take pity on his empty stomach.  If not, maybe he’d spy that cute little servant girl, Aideen, and could sweet-talk her into scrounging something for him from the kitchen.  Even bread and butter would do!

“Good morning, Master Joseph.”

Little Joe careened to a halt as he landed in the ground floor entry.  “Oh, uh, hi—I mean, good morning, Mr. Horace—isn’t it?”

For a moment the butler looked confused.  Then, deciding that the young man’s query probably referred to his name, rather than the quality of the morning, he said, “Simply Horace, sir.  May I direct you somewhere?”

“Um, well, where is the family just now?” Little Joe asked awkwardly.

“The family, sir?”  The butler straightened.  “The ladies and Master George have not come down as yet, but Mr. Pontpier is in the dining room.”

“Oh, great,” Little Joe said, relief evident on his face.  “I’ll join him there, if that’s okay.”

“Certainly, sir,” the butler said after a moment’s hesitation to ponder why a guest seemed to be seeking his permission to go where he pleased.  Surely the boy was not answerable to those in service at his own home.

Mr. Pontpier lifted his eyes when he heard footsteps approaching the dining room and smiled with pleasure when he saw to whom they belonged.  “Good morning, Little Joe.  My, you’re up early!”

Little Joe blinked.  “Early?” he squeaked.

Mr. Pontpier laughed.  “I suppose it isn’t early at all to a westerner.  Rise with the sun, do you?”

Grinning, Little Joe shook his head.  “Not if I can help it, though I’m pretty sure Pa and Adam beat it up, most days.”

“Ah, yes, I should have remembered from Adam’s visits with us.  Well, make yourself at home, young man.  Have some breakfast.”  He waved toward the sideboard.  “I hope you’ll find something you like.”

Little Joe’s eyes lit up at the sight of the row of covered dishes lining the sideboard.  “I’m sure I will, sir.”  He was fairly confidant that would prove true with so much to choose from, but if it didn’t, he’d do his best to choke down whatever eastern oddities he might find.  After all, it couldn’t be any stranger than things he’d been offered by the Paiutes back home.  At least, he hoped not.

All anxiety on that point vanished when he lifted the first lid and found a plate full of flaky pastries.  After further explorations he heaped his plate with those, as well as the equally familiar bacon, sausage and eggs he was used to back home.  Bringing that back to the table, he seated himself next to the older man.

Though conversation was, at first, awkward, Little Joe and his host were soon chatting companionably.  Little Joe rarely met a stranger, since he was curious by nature and honestly interested in everyone he met, and Mr. Pontpier was flattered by the questions about his work.

“Do you always have breakfast alone?” Little Joe asked as he polished off his final pastry.  Accustomed as he was to a table full of family at virtually every meal, the prospect of eating alone seemed incredibly lonely and, frankly, wrong.

“George usually joins me on days he goes into his office,” Mr. Pontpier replied, “and Madeleine occasionally makes it down in time for me to see her before I leave.  My wife prefers to have a tray in her room, but she’s always awake before I come down.”  He paused.  “Of course, if you like, you’re welcome to take breakfast in your room, as well.”

“Oh, no,” Little Joe said at once.  “I’d much rather join you.”

Mr. Pontpier looked pleased.  “I’ll look forward to that, then.”  He dabbed his mouth with a napkin.  “I’m afraid I must be leaving now, though.”

“Could I walk a ways with you?” Little Joe asked.  “I’d like to stretch my legs a mite.”

Mr. Pontpier smiled broadly.  “That would be most pleasant, my boy.”

Little Joe dashed up the stairs to get his jacket and bounded down them again to meet an amused Mr. Pontpier at the door.  They walked out together, beginning a routine that would continue throughout Little Joe’s stay in Boston.

*****

Adam felt better than he had in days.  Apparently, the Parker ladies were among those passengers who could not face an open sea without their stomachs turning queasy, so he could promenade the decks at will without fear of encountering them.  Of course, there wasn’t much to see today, except beautiful blue water, reflecting a nearly cloudless sky, but the salt-tipped breeze was refreshing and the atmosphere could not have been more heavenly had the air been filled with the song of angels.  Breakfast, with only the solid male company of Mr. Clarkson and Mr. Peterson to divert him, was sheer bliss.  Each had the exquisite good sense not to so much as hint at matrimony, much less suggest that some young lady of their acquaintance would make the perfect mate for the oh-so-eligible Mr. Adam Cartwright of the famous Ponderosa.  Both, on the other hand, could make reasonably intelligent comments on either politics or business or the popular literature of the day, even if Clarkson’s taste ran more in line with that of Little Joe than his older brother.

*****

Cheeks reddened by the crisp air, Little Joe let himself back into the house.  “Hey, Horace,” he said when he saw the butler in the entry.  “Anybody up yet?”

“The ladies are in the parlor, sir,” Horace replied.  “Master George remains in his room, no doubt weary from his long journey.”  He paused, for he suddenly realized that the young man standing before him had been on the same long journey without any visible loss of energy.  Indeed, so very much visible energy.  Would it become a problem in this sedate household?

“Maybe I oughta wake him up,” Little Joe offered.

An excess of energy, indeed. Horace drew himself stiffly erect.  “I would think not, sir.”

Little Joe bit his lower lip.  “Just wouldn’t want him to miss breakfast,” he muttered.

“Have no concern, sir,” Horace assured him, immediately thinking better of the boy.  “Master George will be provided for.  Would you wish to join the ladies?”

A slight shudder shook the younger man, who then sighed, “I guess so.”  As Little Joe moved toward the room that the butler indicated by gesture, Horace permitted a small smile to curve his lips.  Clearly, their energetic young guest did not anticipate spending the morning with the ladies, and Horace could scarcely blame him.

Taking a deep, bolstering breath, Little Joe plunged into the parlor.  With cheeriness he far from felt, he said, “Good morning, ladies!  Sure is a fine one.”

“Good morning, Little Joe.”  Mrs. Pontpier greeted him with a welcoming smile.  “I’m so pleased you have returned safely.  I was concerned when Horace said you’d gone out.”

Little Joe cocked his head quizzically as he took a seat near her.  “Why, ma’am?  Is Boston that dangerous a city?”

Madeleine laughed mirthlessly.  “Boston, I assure you, is a completely civilized city.”  She didn’t add, “Compared to where you’re from,” but Little Joe heard it as clearly as if she’d spoken aloud.

Seeing him bristle, Mrs. Pontpier quickly said, “No, dear.  I was only concerned because you’re unfamiliar with our streets, and I feared you might lose your way.”

Little Joe laughed lightly.  “Ma’am, I only went a few blocks . . . and I was with your husband, goin’ at least.  All I had to do was retrace my steps.  Didn’t even have to call up my Indian tracking skills.”

His attempt at a joke fell flat when Madeleine met it with a skeptical look.  “Do you have such skills, in addition to a taste for . . . canine cuisine?” she asked in a tone that clearly communicated her opinion on the value of having either.

“Since I was a youngun, Miss Madeleine,” he said, adding with a wink, “though I think they was more used to track me than by me.”

Again, his humor was lost on her.  “I’m sure,” she said dryly.   Though she had, of course, never met Adam’s nemesis Mrs. Parker, she would have readily shared her opinion that the boy now in her home was footloose by nature and felt that a firm leash, rather than tracking skills, might have been more practical in keeping up with him as a child.

“You had a good breakfast before you left, dear?” Mrs. Pontpier inquired.

Little Joe flashed her a genuine smile.  “Oh, yes, ma’am!  The only thing that could’ve made it any better was your pretty face at the table.”

Though Mrs. Pontpier blushed like a young girl, she laughed gently.  “I can see you are the flatterer of the Cartwright family.”

“Just speakin’ the truth, ma’am, like my pa always taught me.”  The quip reminded him of another truth that begged being spoken.  “I was just askin’ Horace if’n I should wake ole George up, so’s he don’t miss breakfast.  He said not to worry, but I sort of do.  I sure hope he ain’t tired enough to sleep in this late.  You reckon I should check on him, ma’am?”

“I ‘reckon’ not,” Madeleine said with a sniff.

Mrs. Pontpier laid her slender hand on Little Joe’s arm.  “It’s good of you to be concerned, my dear, but there’s no need.  I’m responsible, you see.  I told George I thought it best he remain in bed until the doctor had seen him.”

Little Joe gulped.  “All day, ma’am?  That’s gotta be hard on him, don’t you think?”  He knew how he’d feel if an edict like that had come from Ben Cartwright!

Madeleine gave a most unladylike snort at this query.  “You must remember, young man, that Boston is nothing like the untamed West.  It does not take all day to have a doctor in attendance.”

“I sent for Dr. Lewis first thing this morning,” Mrs. Pontpier said with a chiding glance at her daughter.  “I’m certain he’ll come as soon as he’s able; in fact, I’m waiting here in anticipation of his arrival at any moment.”  Seeing his strained smile, she said, “You needn’t, of course, wait with us, if there’s anything you’d rather”—she laughed abruptly—“Oh, you poor boy, there’s really nothing for you to do here, is there?  At least, nothing you’re accustomed to.”

“Well, no, ma’am, not much,” he answered honestly.  “You do have a nice little park across the street.  Maybe I’ll take a look at it, once it warms up a mite.”

She was suddenly aware of his corduroy jacket.  “My dear child, is that the only coat you have?”

He gave her a sheepish look.  “‘Fraid so, ma’am, except for Adam’s winter coat.  I’m assumin’ he packed one, and I reckoned to make do with that ‘til he comes.”

“‘Reckon’ again,” Madeleine said, pursing her lips and shaking her head.

“No, that won’t do at all,” Mrs. Pontpier said.  “Now that we know Adam is coming, as well, you’ll need your own.  Well, we’ll just have to add that to our shopping list tomorrow.”

“No, ma’am,” Little Joe insisted with a stubborn set of his jaw.  “You’re doin’ too much as it is.”

“Nonsense,” Madeleine said.  “You can scarcely face Boston weather in that.”  The derisive inflection of her voice indicated her opinion of the homely work jacket, which, to Little Joe, was sufficiently dressy, even for a dance, if he added a string tie.

“I so wish we could make our shopping trip today,” Mrs. Pontpier said, “but I must be here to consult with the doctor.”

“Of course!” Little Joe declared.  “I’m in no hurry, ma’am, trust me.”

She laughed then.  “Oh, I can well believe that.  It’s always an ordeal to get either Arthur or George to a clothing store, isn’t it, Madeleine?”

“A characteristic of the male species, I suspect, Mother,” Madeleine said with a scowl at the only representative of the species in the room.  It fell somewhat short of being playful, although Little Joe hoped that had been her intent.

“Gotta admit I’d rather hunt down a cougar,” Little Joe said, and his attempt at a joke this time met with amused titters from both women.

“I trust we won’t encounter any of those tomorrow,” Madeleine finally snickered.

Glad to see her in a better mood, Little Joe quipped back, “Don’t worry, ma’am; I’d protect you.”

Her eyebrow raised a bit at that, but she still smiled as she nodded before returning to whatever she was recording in the lined book before her.  Just so’s it ain’t a list of my faults, Little Joe thought.  Bad enough she was probably keeping that list in her head.

*****

It was barely mid-morning when Dr. Lewis arrived, proving either that medical care was much more prompt in the East or, Little Joe suspected, that money talked.  He immediately felt ashamed of the thought and wondered whether it wasn’t equally true where he came from.  Lots of people in Virginia City, whether tradesmen or professionals, were more willing to serve people like his family or the even wealthier mine owners than the hard-working men who toiled to produce the riches.  At least, Pa always saw to it that anyone working for them had any medical care he needed, but even he, much to Little Joe’s frequent displeasure, sent for the doctor more quickly when it was a son.

Madeleine laid aside her pen and closed her book when the butler ushered the doctor in.  As Mrs. Pontpier rose to greet him, Little Joe, too, set aside the newspaper he’d been trying to make himself read and stood.  He wasn’t family, but he was as eager as they to hear the doctor’s verdict on George’s leg.  Hopefully, the craziness of traveling, often in uncomfortable circumstances, hadn’t done him any harm, though Little Joe was more concerned that irreparable harm might have been done earlier.  He yearned to hear that his misguided taunts had not cost George any permanent injury.

“Good morning, my dear Mrs. Pontpier,” the dapper doctor said.  “Now, how, pray tell, has George managed to break his leg?”

“In an encounter with a rogue horse, apparently,” Madeleine said tersely with a cutting glance at Little Joe.

“Not rogue, ma’am,” Little Joe inserted quickly, “just not full-broke.”

“A pity we cannot say the same for my poor brother’s leg,” she countered sharply.

“On his trip out West,” Mrs. Pontpier amplified.  “He returned home only yesterday, doctor, and I, of course, sent for you at the earliest opportunity.”

“Quite right,” Doctor Lewis said with an approving smile, “and how long ago was this?”

Both ladies turned toward Little Joe, who did a quick calculation in his head.  “I reckon about eight weeks ago . . . or close to.”

The doctor looked concerned.  “That long?  Well, I hope it was set properly, as it will certainly be knit in whatever position it was placed by this time.”

“Doc Martin’s the best,” Little Joe declared loyally.

“Yes, well, perhaps I should examine my patient now, and then we can determine the best course of action.”

“I’ll show you to his room,” Mrs. Pontpier said.  As she exited the parlor, Little Joe ignored Madeleine’s unwelcoming glare and fell into line behind the others.  He needed to know the verdict every bit as much as George’s mother, if for different reasons.

Like ducklings in a row, they all traipsed up the stairs, down the hall and into George’s room, where they found him still in bed, his empty breakfast tray on a table beside him.  He chuckled when he saw the entourage.  “I feel like the star attraction in a carnival sideshow.”

“Naturally, Mother and I are concerned about you,” Madeleine said.

“Me, too,” Little Joe murmured, swallowing the mammoth knot in his throat.

“If you prefer us to leave, George, of course we will,” his mother said.  “I am concerned, but I don’t wish to make you uncomfortable.”

“I’m not,” George assured her.  “I don’t expect we’ll be doing anything that requires privacy, will we, Dr. Lewis?”

“Just an examination to begin,” the doctor replied.  “If any treatment is needed, we can ask the ladies to leave then.”

“And the gentleman,” Madeleine said pointedly.

“Um, yes, of course,” Dr. Lewis, picking up on her displeasure, said.  “Now, if I could have a little room . . .”

They all stepped back as the doctor drew back the covers and began his examination of George’s leg.  “Have you tried putting any weight on it?” he asked.

“A little,” George replied.  “I hesitated to, but it was easier to get around my stateroom when I did.”

“Only proving what a ridiculous undertaking the entire trip was,” Madeleine muttered.

George gave no indication that he had heard, although Little Joe suspected the comment had been more directed at him.  For once he felt completely free from guilt, since it was George himself who had insisted on making the trip, come hell or high water.  Recognizing the aptness of that phrase to an ocean voyage, Joe chuckled, earning himself another frown of disapproval from George’s sister.

“The cast has been properly applied,” Dr. Lewis observed, “and the leg appears straight.  Any pain when you stood on it?”

“A little at first,” George admitted, “but none for a week or so, at least.”

“Good.  Let’s test your stance now.”  He assisted George in getting out of bed and then stepped back to evaluate him.  “Well, everything looks favorable, my boy.  Of course, we have no way of seeing how well the bone has mended—can’t see through skin, much less the cast, you know—but judging by what I can see, I’d say our next step would be to remove the cast, so perhaps it is time to ask your family . . . and friend . . . to retire.”

“By all means, Doctor,” Mrs. Pontpier said at once.  Madeleine nodded and followed her mother to the door.

Little Joe, however, said, “I’m not squeamish.”  It wasn’t exactly the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, like folks swore to in court, since the sight and smell of blood tended to turn his stomach.  Unless the doctor got clumsy with his saw, though, this procedure shouldn’t involve any, and he really needed to know the verdict as soon as possible.

“Well, really!” Madeleine expostulated.

“I have no objection,” George said quickly.  “We’ve been through it before, right, old chum?”

“Right,” Little Joe said, determination evident in both his tone and the set of his jaw.

The ladies departed, Mrs. Pontpier with a kindly smile and Madeleine with an exasperated roll of her eyes.

Despite his determination, Little Joe did find himself averting his eyes as the sawing began, though there was really no reason.  The only disconcerting sight was his first view of George’s leg, and that was only troubling because of its thinness and pasty color.  Little Joe knew from personal experience, however, that both of those problems would resolve themselves in time.  “So, how’s it look, Doc?” he asked, trying to keep his voice light.

“Well, young man, I’d say your confidence in your personal physician was well founded,” the doctor said.  Turning to his patient, he added, “The leg will need strengthening, of course, so don’t try too much walking at first.  Some massage and exercises will be beneficial.  If you have a man attending you, I could show them to him before I leave.”

“Couldn’t I do it?” Little Joe asked.

“No reason at all, if Mr. Pontpier finds that agreeable,” the doctor replied.  The more he saw of George’s earnest young friend, the better he liked him.

“I could find no one more agreeable,” George said.

*****

Lunch aboard the Ariel was as female-free (and therefore, for Adam, simply free) as had been breakfast.  He celebrated by indulging in a luxury he would never have risked had the Parker huntresses been on the prowl: he spent the afternoon on deck, stretched out in a chair, book in hand.  Remaining stationary would have made him too easy a target on most days, but today he could relish the relaxation.  While the only scenery was still open ocean, the warm sunshine and the balmy breeze brushing his hair from his face made this afternoon his most refreshing since boarding ship.

*****

Little Joe had never passed an afternoon more slowly or, at least, not since he’d spent that first afternoon listening to George snore after being assigned to his care, back at the Ponderosa.  Mr. Pontpier was still away at work, and both his wife and Madeleine were completely wrapped up in preparations for the upcoming anniversary party.  It was beginning to sound more like a fancy dress ball with the mention of each new detail, recorded in that mysterious book Madeleine had used earlier.  Not that they were talking to him, of course.  His opinion was worthless in such matters; for that matter, not even George’s was much more welcomed.  At least, he had something to occupy his time.  He’d been asked by Madeleine (ordered was the more correct word) to make a list of whatever clothing and accessories he thought Little Joe would need and to develop a plan of action for hitting the stores the next morning.  Again, Joe’s opinion was deemed worthless.

Little Joe’d been busy enough at first, learning the exercises the doctor had outlined for George and then working through their first session together.  That had taken them to luncheon, as Madeleine called it.  George had eaten with relish, like a man set free, which, based on personal experience, Little Joe figured was exactly how he felt.  He himself had eaten lightly, restrained by the knowledge that both teatime and dinner awaited him on a day when he’d done almost nothing to work up an appetite.  After luncheon they’d all ended up back here in the parlor, where Little Joe had completely run out of anything to occupy his mind and his time.  He’d scanned one of the books lying on a side table and found it even worse than the newspaper, which was about people and places completely unknown to him.

Finally, unable to sit still any longer, he stood up.  “If’n nobody minds, I thought I might could stretch my legs some in that pretty little park you got.”

“By all means!” Madeleine said with a look that made him feel like a puppy persistently underfoot.

“Certainly, dear,” Mrs. Pontpier agreed with a gentle smile.  “It is, as you say, a lovely little park, and I’m sure you’ll find a walk there most refreshing.”

“Perhaps I’ll join you,” George said.

“Oh, George, I don’t think so, not on your first day,” his mother protested.  “The doctor did say you should take things slowly, and we have a long day ahead tomorrow.”

“Besides, you still have work to do,” Madeleine added crisply, pointing to the list in front of him, which looked far too short to be complete.

George sighed.  “Yes.”  With a wry smile at Little Joe, he said, “Sorry, chum.  Looks like you’re on your own this time.”

“Next time,” Little Joe said, looking cheery for George’s sake.  With as little as there was to do in this place, he felt certain there’d be a next time . . . and a next . . . and a next for visiting that pretty little park.

“Honestly, Maddie, how could you?” George scolded when Little Joe had left.

Madeleine looked up at him.  “How could I what?  Ask you to help?”

“I was referring to your rudeness to my friend,” George said.

Madeleine looked genuinely puzzled.  “I only agreed with his idea of taking a walk.  Perhaps I was thinking of myself as much as him, but it’s difficult to concentrate when someone is fidgeting as frenetically as that boy!”

“The poor boy must find us very boring,” Mrs. Pontpier said.  “We must think of ways to entertain him.  Perhaps he’d enjoy seeing some of our historic sights?”

“Probably,” George said.

“We can’t possibly manage a sightseeing tour until after your anniversary,” Madeleine said.  “It’s only two days from now, and it’s quite enough to try to fit in a shopping trip with all I have to do!”

“I agree,” Mrs. Pontpier said, “but please try to be a little more patient, my dear.  I’m afraid that George is correct in feeling that your sharpness made our guest feel unwelcome.”

“And that will scarcely enhance your chances with his older brother,” George added with a wicked grin.

“George!  What a brazen thing to suggest!” Madeleine protested, although her sudden blush testified that his dart had hit its mark.  “Well . . . well . . . as mother suggests, I will try to be more patient with the boy.  As for you”—she pointed at him with her pen—“finish that list!”

*****

Adam was glad when suppertime arrived.  He’d thoroughly enjoyed his peaceful afternoon, but too much of anything, even peace and quiet, was not necessarily a good thing.  Not that he yearned for the return of the Parker ladies!  He was quite content to see that, while a few of the stricken passengers had made it back to the tables that evening, that particular duo was still keeping themselves to their stateroom.  In all likelihood, they’d be back tomorrow, so Adam relished his final opportunity to linger over a meal with men only.  It was, to a degree, reminiscent of table talk at home, though he missed the happy banter with his brothers that typically seasoned supper at the Ponderosa.

 

October 19

Adam stifled a moan as he saw Irene Parker approaching the breakfast table.  He immediately rebuked himself for the uncharitable reaction.  He had no appreciation for her company, of course, but he wouldn’t wish mal de mer on anyone . . . well, with one possible exception.  He had to admit he might take perverse pleasure in seeing that particular problem visited upon a certain errant little brother.  “Miss Parker,” he said as she took her seat, “I’m glad you’re feeling able to join us this morning.”  He found that he meant it, though for her sake, rather than his own.

She, too, seemed surprised.  “Why, thank you, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Your mother is still unwell?”

“I fear so,” she replied.

Though Adam didn’t wish Mrs. Parker ill will, either, he felt some relief that it was the straightforward Irene he’d have to contend with today, rather than her more subtly suggestive mother.  “A pity,” he said.  “Of course, you’ll want to spend most of your day attending her.”

“I suppose.”  She cocked her head pensively.  Was it possible that the attractive man (in both looks and social standing) had actually missed her?  Perhaps her chances were better than she’d supposed!  In that case, her mother would without doubt prefer that she attend upon him, instead of her.

*****

Little Joe stopped, stunned, in the doorway to the dining room.  He’d looked forward to the man-to-man company of Mr. Pontpier over breakfast, but he was surprised, not too pleasantly, to see Madeleine sitting at her father’s left hand, especially since he’d been told that she rarely made it down before her father left for work.

She looked equally surprised, but she bestowed on him a rare approving smile.  “Good morning, Joseph,” she said.  “I’m gratified to see you up so early on what will be such a busy day.  If only George would take the matter so seriously!”

“Now, Madeleine, you know your mother is concerned about George,” Arthur Pontpier said.  “I’m sure she urged him to get extra rest before starting ‘such a busy day.’”

“Oh, I don’t doubt that!” his daughter returned.  “She spoils him so.”  With a rough laugh, she added, cocking her head in Little Joe’s direction, “The son and heir, you know.”

Mr. Pontpier’s laugh sounded more sincere.  “Mothers will fret.”  Noticing that their guest was still standing at the entrance to the room, he said quickly, “Well, come in, my boy; come in.  You know where the food is.”

Little Joe nodded and moved toward the sideboard, as much to cover the emotion in his face as to satisfy his hunger.  Though his own mother had been with him only a short time, he remembered her loving touches, how she’d fussed over his little hurts or even just his rumpled curls.  Yes, mothers would fret, and it didn’t take a long acquaintance to recognize that Mrs. Pontpier was the genuine article.  He envied George.  Pa could be just as genuine a fretter as any mother hen, but there was a difference, and he found himself missing his mother’s touch.

By the time he’d filled his plate and taken a seat on the other side of Mr. Pontpier, Little Joe had fought down the sudden surge of emotion to a level that could be disguised by keeping his attention on the food.

“I do hope the son and heir won’t stay abed too late,” Madeleine said to her father.  “I was planning an early start.”

“Not as early as you’d hoped, ma’am,” Little Joe said.  “Your mother did pretty much say what your father guessed, but George and me talked it over.  He’s gonna take breakfast in his room, like she wanted, but I’m gonna go up as soon as I finish mine and help him with his exercises, so’s we can get an earlier start.”

“Well, thank you,” she responded, again with an approving smile.  “That will be helpful.  I have so much to do here that I’m anxious to get back and begin the decorating this afternoon.”

Little Joe set down his fork.  “I sure hate to be taking your time like this, Miss Madeleine, and far as I’m concerned, this can wait ‘til next week.”  Or forever, even, he added silently.

“You need a dress suit for tomorrow night—and for church on Sunday,” she insisted firmly, “so it will have to be today.”

He swallowed hard.  “Well, I could . . . just stay in my room . . . I guess.”  His voice tapered off at sight of both their faces.

“Certainly not,” Mr. Pontpier said with a foreboding glare at his daughter.

“No, of course not,” Madeleine murmured, though Little Joe thought he’d caught just the slightest glint of relief when he made the suggestion.  Either she didn’t dare oppose her father or, more charitably, her own instincts as hostess had taken over.

Mr. Pontpier’s right hand reached out to cover Little Joe’s left.  “It wouldn’t be the same without you, my boy.”

His smile was so sincere that Little Joe grinned in response.  It had been a hard offer for him to make, for there was little he enjoyed more than a good party, and the thought of dancing in the fancy ballroom upstairs that George had described back on board ship made his toes tingle in expectation.

*****

Little Joe pushed George through his exercises and helped him dress in record time, though to be honest, George was also anxious to complete his necessary preparations and get out and about as quickly as possible.  He wasn’t in the least concerned about all that needed to be done that day—he had full confidence that his sister could manage everything with aplomb, no matter the challenges that came her way—but he was eager to do something besides rest and take care of his leg after his long confinement.  He wanted fresh air and a sense of life returning to normal, even if his mother insisted that he use that confounded rolling chair for a lengthy excursion like the one planned this morning.

When they arrived downstairs, they found both ladies bonneted and ready to go.  While Horace fetched their coats, Madeleine took a few minutes to outline their attack on the stores.  “We’ll begin at Janes and work our way back down Washington St.,” she announced.  “That’s for your suit, Little Joe.  Since we want it by tomorrow, we need to arrange that first.”

Little Joe’s brow wrinkled with worry.  “Jane’s, ma’am?  Womenfolk do your tailoring here?”  Sure, women made good seamstresses, but tailoring?  That was for men!

George laughed.  “H. B. Janes and Company,” he said.  “They are one of the best establishments in Boston.  Both Father and I use them exclusively.”

“Oh, okay,” Little Joe said, looking relieved as the image of frills and ruffles on his cuffs faded away.

Madeleine cleared her throat.  “As I was saying, we’ll work our way home, stopping at Clapp’s for hosiery and gloves and then at Bacon’s—which sells shirts, not pork belly, Joseph—and finish with appropriate footwear at William Collier’s, near here on Shawmut Ave.”

Little Joe opened his mouth to protest that his own boots suited him just fine, but at a warning shake of the head from George, he decided not to bother.  Experience had taught him that when a woman was as determined as Madeleine, it was best to just let her take the reins.

*****

Adam settled into a deck chair and breathed in the salt air with deep contentment.  Since there was still nothing to see but open ocean, he’d elected to spend the morning reading on deck.  It might, after all, be his last chance to do so in blessed solitude.  Undoubtedly, more passengers would find their sea legs today, and sooner than he’d like, he’d probably be fending off the unwanted attentions of the Parker ladies.  Congratulating himself on how deftly he’d cited daughterly duty to divert darling Irene from joining him this morning, he opened his book and began to read.

He’d had no more than half an hour of that peaceful pursuit, however, when he heard a sharp voice he knew all too well.  “Why, there you are, Mr. Cartwright!  If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were hiding yourself away.”

He closed his eyes to gather his strength and opened them again after taking a long, slow breath and exhaling at an even slower pace.  “I’m in plain sight, Miss Parker.  But I thought you were spending the morning with your mother.”

She moved closer.  “She’s napping now and urged me to take in the ocean air—so invigorating, you know.”

“Ah, yes.  Well, do enjoy it,” he said, turning back to his book.

The chair next to him was unfortunately vacant, and Irene needed no invitation to seat herself beside him.  “What are you reading?” she asked.

Adam stifled a sigh.  “A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.”

“Oh, I do love Dickens!” she declared.  “Dear little David Copperfield and Oliver Twist.  How I wept over their tragic little lives.  I haven’t read this one, however.”

“It’s relatively new,” Adam said.  “I would, of course, be happy to lend it to you once I’ve finished.”

She laid an imploring hand on his arm.  “Oh, dear Mr. Cartwright, I’m sure I would enjoy it much more if you were to read it aloud.  Just hearing you speak, I know you must have a marvelous reading voice.  And you’ve barely started it, I see.  Could we not share the pleasure together?”

Adam had been told many times, even by audiences as critical as his two younger brothers, that he had an excellent reading voice, and ordinarily, he loved to read aloud, to make the material come alive for the listener.  Today, however, he had no desire whatsoever to ‘share the pleasure’ of his new book.  In all good conscience, though, he had no reason, other than selfish ones, to deny her request, so he turned back to the beginning of the book and began to read, “‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. . ..’”  He had a feeling as he read the words that, for him, the worst of times had just begun.

*****

Little Joe faced the door to the esteemed H. B. Janes and Company with a fair amount of trepidation.  It wasn’t the establishment itself that gave him almost as crawly a stomach as he’d felt on board ship.  If he’d had money in his pocket, he’d have enjoyed exploring a fancy store and buying himself a new suit of clothes.  He’d even enjoyed that day in Acapulco when Eva and Margaret had dressed him up like their new dolly, but he was quite certain the same experience in Madeleine Pontpier’s hands wouldn’t be a quarter as pleasurable.  Determined to make the best of it, if only for sweet-hearted Mrs. Pontpier’s sake, he followed the ladies in, pushing George’s rolling chair.

The proprietor came to greet them as soon as they entered.  “My dear Mrs. Pontpier,” he said.  “How delightful to see you again.  You did not need to pick up Mr. Pontpier’s new suit, however; we planned to deliver it this afternoon, as requested.”

Mrs. Pontpier smiled at him.  “My husband hadn’t told me he’d ordered a new suit, Mr. Janes, but as long as we’re here, we might as well take it with us and save you the trouble of delivering it.”

“No trouble at all,” Mr. Janes assured her.  “I see that this is a family occasion.  Miss Madeleine, a pleasure.”  His brow wrinkled as he noticed George in his chair.  “Oh, my, I trust you are not ailing, Mr. Pontpier.”

“No,” George said at once.  “Recovering from a broken leg and giving in to overly solicitous ladies.”

“Indeed, we are not!  We have much to do and cannot be delayed by your inability to keep up,” Madeleine declared, “but you mustn’t distract us from our principal purpose here, George.  Mr. Janes, I apologize profusely for the short notice, but we are in need of a second suit, and I’m afraid we must have it by tomorrow evening.  Will that be possible?  Your establishment is our first choice, of course, but if you’re unable to accommodate us, I’m afraid we will have to try elsewhere.”

For a moment Mr. Janes looked nonplussed, but he quickly composed himself.  “As you say, Miss Madeleine, it is short notice, but we will do our utmost to meet your need.  You are such valued customers.”  A look of concern crossed his face.  “Oh, dear, I hope I wasn’t giving away a surprise when I mentioned Mr. Pontpier’s suit; he did say it was for a special occasion.”

“It is,” Mrs. Pontpier replied with a smile.  “Our anniversary.”

“Ah, yes, that is something to celebrate,” he almost cooed, “and may you share many more years of felicitous union together.”

“Thank you,” she said.

“Now, are you able to stand for measurements, Mr. George?” the tailor asked.  “I do have your previous ones if you are not.”

“My gracious, the suit isn’t for him,” Madeleine said with a distinctly unladylike snort.  “It’s for this boy.”

“Our houseguest, Joseph Cartwright,” Mrs. Pontpier said warmly.  “He hadn’t expected to be here for our party and, therefore, did not come prepared.”

“Not even for a simple dinner at home,” Madeleine muttered, but fortunately Mr. Janes was so intent on assessing the young man’s ridiculously slight figure that he didn’t hear her.  Less fortunately, Little Joe did.

“I see,” Mr. Janes said.  “Well, if you’ll come with me, young man, we will soon have your measurements taken, and then you can select the fabric for your suit.”

“We’ll see to that,” Madeleine said.  At a look from George, she added, “It’ll save time.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Little Joe said and escaped into the safety of the fitting room.  When he returned, Madeleine showed the tailor the fabric she had chosen.

“An excellent choice!” Mr. Janes fairly gushed.  A cynic might have assumed that his enthusiasm was based on the price of that particular fabric, but he was as much pleased to be working with such quality material as he was with making a sizable sale.

Just how sizable was soon revealed when Mrs. Pontpier called Little Joe to her side.  She showed him two pieces of fabric, one a rich brown wool and the other a moss green tweed with thin gold threads woven throughout.  “What do you think of these?” she asked.

Little Joe fingered them and liked the feel of both.  “They’re nice, ma’am.  You thinkin’ of orderin’ ‘em for your husband?”

She laughed lightly.  “No, my dear—for you.”

He leaned closer.  “Don’t wanna make trouble between you and your daughter, ma’am, but I kinda think she’s set on that black piece.”

“Of course,” she said gently, “but that’s for special occasions.  You’ll need something simpler for dinner and for church.  You do attend services?”

He nodded.  “‘Most every Sunday, but you don’t need to buy me a second set of duds, ma’am.  I got this.”  He pinched the lapel of the suit he was wearing between the thumb and index finger of his left hand.

“Which, as you correctly said, is very nearly worn out,” she clucked.  “Now, which of these do you prefer, or would you like something different?”

He had a feeling arguing would be pointless.  “Either one would be just great.  You probably know better’n me what’s proper here in Boston, so you choose, please.”

She laid her cool palm against his cheek.  “I intend to purchase both,” she said, “but if you have a preference, we’ll have Mr. Janes make that one first.”

“Three new suits?” Little Joe croaked.  “Ma’am, that’s too much.  After all, Adam’ll be here soon, and . . .”

“I insist,” she said firmly.  “Now, which first?”

He surrendered to the immovable force of womanhood and murmured uncomfortably, “The green, please.”

Taking both bolts of fabric, she approached the tailor.  “We’ll take two more suits to the same measurements, Mr. Janes,” she said crisply.  “Would it be possible to have the green one by sometime next week?”

Mr. Janes looked relieved that he was not expected to produce all three by the following afternoon.  Women, he had come to believe, could be far more demanding about such things than any man.  Thanking his lucky stars that this one was more reasonable than most, he assured her that he could easily produce the second suit by midweek and the other shortly thereafter.

Then George showed the tailor his own choice of fabric, but said, “No hurry.  Put Mr. Cartwright’s suits first.  I just couldn’t resist that rich wool.”

“A wise decision,” Mr. Janes said.  “You won’t find the like of that anywhere else.”

“Precisely,” George said, “as is always true of your shop.  Thank you, Mr. Janes.”

“Yes, thank you,” Madeleine said with a significant look at her brother.  “Come along now, George; we have other errands, you may recall.”  As soon as they’d exited the shop, she dictated, “On to Bacon’s—and no dawdling, gentlemen!”

*****

Irene Parker returned to her shared stateroom with a pout that in no way enhanced her meager looks.  She’d spent a most wonderful morning, of course, sitting side-by-side with the eligible Mr. Cartwright, but she’d been denied a privilege about which she’d dreamed throughout their reading session.  She’d pictured herself being admired by everyone they met as she entered the dining salon on his arm.  How proud Mother, in particular, would be!  But that dream had shattered when he’d closed the book a full forty-five minutes before the ship’s bells chimed for luncheon.

And when she’d urged him to continue, he’d said, “We’re at a good stopping place, and no doubt you wish to freshen up before dining.  I know I do.”

“I couldn’t argue with that,” she explained to her mother, who demanded every detail of how the quest had gone as soon as she entered.  “It wouldn’t have seemed genteel.”

“I’m not sure how genteel Mr. Cartwright is,” Mrs. Parker said, “but you were right, of course.  It’s always the task of the lady to bring her man up to her standards.”

“Thank you, Mother.”  Praise from her mother was much rarer than criticism, so Irene felt both relieved and pleased.

“Did you remember to thank him for his time?” the mother asked.

“Of course, Mother!”

“And to gush over his reading skill?”

“Gush!”  Irene shook her head in consternation.  “Oh, Mother, how could I?”

“My dear, there is nothing men wish more to hear sung than their own praises,” Mrs. Parker declared.  Index finger tapping her lips, she mused for a moment.  “Well, perhaps it’s better that you didn’t—while you were alone, that is.  He’ll no doubt respond more favorably if you say it at luncheon, when there’s an audience.  Men are so vain that way.  And it will make it more difficult for him to refuse when you request the pleasure of hearing him read again.”  Stars or, perhaps, dollar signs swam before her eyes as she mulled the possible result of her daughter spending each day between here and New York in the company of Mr. Adam Cartwright.  “Yes,” she concluded decidedly.  “That’s just what you must do.”

*****

Adam, meanwhile, had splashed his face with cool water and given his windblown hair a quick brushing and then spent the remainder of his time until eight bells in determining how to avoid a repetition of this morning’s torture.  Actually, he’d wasted a good portion of that time in cursing his poor judgment.  Why had he assumed that he had one more free morning to indulge his enjoyment of reading in the open air?  Women, as he should well have remembered, were perverse creatures, often doing the exact thing a man was certain they would not.

He’d done his best to keep his voice little better than a monotone, but the material was so interesting to him that, despite his intentions, he’d reverted to form and allowed the emotion he was feeling to color his reading.  He wasn’t sure, for that matter, that an absolutely dry rendering would have discouraged Miss Parker; therefore, it was imperative that he come up with something, anything that would distract her from continuing the novel.  He certainly couldn’t take another week with darling Irene as his sole companion.

He entered the dining salon and took his seat.  “Mrs. Parker,” he said on seeing the older lady seated across from him and beside her daughter, “I trust you are feeling better.”

“Somewhat, Mr. Cartwright,” she replied, “although I intend to eat only lightly.”

“A wise decision, I’m sure,” he said.  He nodded a greeting to her daughter, hoping that would suffice and spoke briefly to the other gentlemen at the table.  Conversation was sparse and inconsequential until each diner had made his or her choice from the handwritten menu.

As soon as that necessary business was out of the way, Irene cleared her throat and said, “I must tell you again, dear Mr. Cartwright, how very much I enjoyed your reading to me this morning.  Never have I heard such a vivid rendering of the written word.  Why, it was just as if Mr. Dickens himself was reading his work!”

Adam’s eyebrow arched slightly.  He knew he deserved no such compliment for the morning’s efforts, though how the young lady could possibly have any notion of Charles Dickens’ reading skills was beyond him.  Since he didn’t wish to pursue the subject, however, he simply said, “Thank you.”

“I do hope we can continue with the next chapter after luncheon,” she said.  Then, seeing his reaction, she added quickly, “Unless your voice is too tired, of course.”

“Why, I’m certain it isn’t, Irene dear,” her mother inserted.  “A strong, healthy young man like Mr. Cartwright must certainly find reading easier work than punching cows.”  She tittered lightly and smiled coquettishly, as if to imply that she was merely teasing.

“Which of Mr. Dickens’ works are you reading, Mr. Cartwright?” Mr. Peterson asked.

Blessing the banker for his timely interruption, Adam grasped at the chance to talk to anyone except the Parkers.  “A Tale of Two Cities.  Have you read it, Mr. Peterson?”

“No, I haven’t, and I generally enjoy his work very much.”

“I have, before I went west,” Mr. Clarkson put in.  “As an employee at Appleton’s, I often get first crack at new books.”

“I envy you,” Adam said in simple honesty.

“As I was saying,” Irene said, raising her voice, “I do hope we can continue the story this afternoon.  After all, there’s little else to do when there’s nothing around us but water.”

“We should be almost to Navassa by the time we finish eating.  You wouldn’t want to miss that!” Adam said in desperation, for he well knew that particular island had almost nothing to offer scenically.

“I’m sure Irene would be delighted to delay the reading briefly, Mr. Cartwright, if you could point out the attractions of the island for her,” Mrs. Parker said with a crafty smile.

Adam felt trapped.  At this point he really couldn’t admit that Navassa had no attractions.  Not only would that reveal his subterfuge, but it would inevitably land him right back in a deck chair, reading to his personal ball and chain for the afternoon.

It was then that Mr. Peterson spoke up.  “If it isn’t asking too much, Mr. Cartwright, perhaps you wouldn’t mind sharing your reading with a larger audience.  I know I would enjoy hearing this new novel by Mr. Dickens, and no doubt there would be others, as well.  Perhaps the captain might arrange a gathering in the evenings, when there are no fascinating islands to see.”  His discreet wink indicated that he knew exactly how fascinating tiny Navassa Island would be.

Grasping the suggestion like a rope tossed to a man washed overboard, Adam said that he’d be delighted.  “And that will leave the afternoons free for the ladies to do their needlework or whatever they might choose in the ladies’ salon,” he added.  “Yes, that’s an excellent plan, Mr. Peterson.”  Their dinners were served just then, and a relieved Adam ate with relish.

*****

Little Joe hopped out of the carriage as soon as it pulled up before the Pontpier home in Union Square.

“My goodness,” Madeleine said as he handed her down to the sidewalk.  “If you must take the role of a servant, Joseph, you should, at least, wait until the horses stop . . . for safety’s sake.”

“You’re always safe with me, ma’am,” he assured her with a twinkle in his eye.

“No doubt,” she said dryly.

His charms evidently lost on George’s sister, Little Joe reached up to assist Mrs. Pontpier, who returned his smile warmly and thanked him for his assistance.  Ordinarily, men saw to their own descent, but since George was looking tired after the lengthy excursion, Little Joe gave him a hand down, as well, while the driver brought the rolling chair to them.  “If you’ll give me the packages,” he told the man, “we can just plop ‘em here in ole George’s lap and I’ll wheel the whole lot in.”

“I scarcely think we need . . .” Madeleine began.

“It’ll save time, ma’am,” Little Joe said with a cheeky grin, for he’d heard so many lamentations over all she needed to do that morning that he simply couldn’t resist teasing, even so straitlaced a target as Madeleine Pontpier.

Confused, the driver raised his eyes to Mrs. Pontpier for guidance.  “Let them plop,” she tittered.  At Madeleine’s reproving look, she said, barely containing her mirth, “Well, it will save time, my dear.”

“You are a bad influence,” Madeleine declared to Little Joe.

“Yes, ma’am, sure am,” he chuckled in response.

“Insufferable,” she muttered as she turned sharply on her heel and headed up the steps, apparently not wanting the neighbors to associate her with the scene about to be created.

When the pile of packages reached the tip of his nose, George protested, “Leave me room to breathe!”

“Just one more,” Little Joe said, tucking a small package alongside George’s right hip.  He stepped back to survey his work and shook his head in dismay.  It was ridiculous what ladies thought a man needed for a short stay in Boston.  Of course, a couple of the packages belonged to George, but the bulk of the pile was destined for Little Joe’s wardrobe.  He’d tried to talk them out of some things, just to keep the bill down, but the Pontpiers seemed to have no concern whatsoever for money, and he’d finally given up trying to talk them out of spending it on him right and left.  It was a hard concept to wrap his head around, having that much, when he—and Hoss, for that matter—found it hard to pay for a beer by the end of the month.  Pa and Adam always had plenty, of course, but they were still frugal, almost penny-pinching, in comparison to these city folks.

He slowly turned George’s chair so he could back it up the stairs.  “Hang on tight,” he ordered.  “It won’t save any time if you spill it and we have to start over.”

George mumbled something indecipherable through the packages piled in front of his mouth, but Little Joe accepted it as “Message heard” and started rolling the chair up to the front door, one step at a time.

Holding the door for them, Horace looked appalled and immediately began unearthing his young master.

“Most of those are mine,” Little Joe said.  “I’ll just trot ‘em up to my room real quick and . . .”

“No, dear,” Mrs. Pontpier objected.  “Horace will see to them, although I’m sure he would appreciate your telling him which go to your room and which to George’s.  Oh, that large one is for Mr. Pontpier, Horace.”

“Very good, Madame,” the butler replied.  “If you’ll allow me, sir . . .”  He took two packages from Little Joe, who released them with another shake of his head.

“Would you take me in to luncheon, please, Little Joe?” Mrs. Pontpier asked, extending her hand to the young man.

He took her arm.  “My pleasure, ma’am, and I sure appreciate all you did for me today.”

She patted his forearm with her free hand.  “Ah, that was my pleasure, my boy.”  Looking over her shoulder, she added, “Coming, George?”

“Yes, Mother,” George said.  Ignoring her mild frown, he rose from the chair and walked slowly behind them into the dining room.

Madeleine was already there.  George moved to hold her chair, while Little Joe did the same service for the lady on his arm.  Once they were all seated, Madeleine said, “Knowing we’d be eating late, I told cook this morning that we’d want only a light luncheon.  It won’t be long until tea time, so this is only meant to sustain you until then.”

“Somehow, we’ll manage to survive, won’t we, Little Joe?” George said with a wink.

“I will,” Little Joe responded cheekily.  “I can’t be sure about you, George.”

The Irish servant girl, Aideen, brought in a large tureen.  Carrying it to each place, she ladled in a cup or so.  Then Madeleine said, “Leave it, please, Bridget; the gentlemen may want more, and they can serve themselves.”

“Yes, miss,” Aideen said, setting down the tureen and dropping a curtsey.  “Will you be wantin’ the rabbit right away or will ye ring?”

“Right away,” Madeleine said, “and it’s rarebit, not rabbit.”

“As you say, miss.”  Aideen dropped another half-curtsey and moved quickly into the kitchen.

Little Joe started to correct George’s sister about the young maid’s name, but when he saw the strain on her face, he decided not to.  “The soup looks good, ma’am,” he said.  He took a sip and looked up, puzzled.  “Tomato?  Kind of late in the season for them, at least where I come from.”

“Here, too,” Mrs. Pontpier said.  “No doubt this is one of Mr. Huckins Hermetically Sealed Soups. They’re still relatively new here, so I doubt they’ve made their way west yet.”

“Soup in a can?  No, ma’am, we don’t have anything like that,” Little Joe admitted.  It wasn’t as good as Hop Sing’s fresh concoction, of course, but it tasted pretty good, and seemed like a good choice to go with the cheesy Welsh rarebit that Aideen brought in moments later.  “You couldn’t have picked a better lunch, Miss Madeleine, if you’d tried all day,” he said.

“I’m glad it meets with your approval,” she replied, “especially since I certainly didn’t have all day to spend on its selection.”

“Madeleine,” her mother said with a cautionary tone.

“I meant nothing by it, Mother,” Madeleine said, “but it is a busy day.”

“I’d be glad to help, any way I can,” Little Joe said.  “Least I could do after takin’ up all your time this morning, and I’m right good at climbin’ ladders and puttin’ up decorations.”

“Oh, dear, no,” Madeleine protested, a look approaching horror crossing her face.  She quickly composed herself.  “Thank you, Joseph, but we have servants to do the actual work.  I have to supervise, and there’s really nothing you could do in that area.”

The look of horror transferred itself to Joe’s face at the mere thought of supervising the house’s décor for the special event.  “Oh, no, ma’am,” he said at once.

“It was kind of you to offer, though, wasn’t it, Madeleine?” her mother put in.

“What?”  Madeleine took the hint.  “Oh, yes, thank you for the thought, Joseph.  Perhaps you’d like to spend the afternoon practicing your dance steps,” she suggested with a light laugh.  Then her hand inadvertently rose to cover her mouth.  “Oh, dear,” she sighed.  “Please tell me you can dance.  I really don’t have time to add dancing lessons to the schedule.”

Perhaps Little Joe had heard that complaint one time too many, but he was suddenly hit with a spark of orneriness.  “Why, shore, ma’am,” he drawled.  “I can do-si-do and swing my partner with the best of ‘em.”

Madeleine paled.  “Is that some sort of . . . folk dance?”

Little Joe beamed with pleasure at her perception.  “Yes, ma’am, and ain’t nothin’ I like better’n a good square dance.”

She began rubbing her forehead.  “I can’t,” she murmured to herself.  “I simply can’t; there’s no time.”

Though he was enjoying the exchange immensely, George took pity on his overwrought sister.  “He’s pulling your leg, Maddie,” he said.

Her head came up sharply.  “I don’t have time for that, either!” she sputtered.

“Oh, my poor girl,” Mrs. Pontpier said, trying to restrain her temptation to laugh.  “I fear you may have taken on too much.”

“It’s my fault, ma’am,” Little Joe said.  “I shouldn’t have teased.  Yes, Miss Madeleine, I can dance,” he added, returning to the original question.  “Pa and Adam saw to that.”

“Well, Adam, at least, I can trust,” Madeleine declared with a reproving glare at both men.

“I shall look forward to sharing my third dance with you, Little Joe,” Mrs. Pontpier said.  “That is, unless George is unable to take the second, in which case that will go to you, my dear boy.”

George reached for her hand.  “I’ll be able; I wouldn’t yield my place for the world, Mother.”

“And with two older brothers, I’m used to takin’ third place, ma’am, sometimes even on bath water,” Little Joe put in.  “Dancing with you will be a heap more worth waiting for than that!”

Three people at the table laughed, one at his own joke, while Madeleine could only shake her head in weary forbearance of those who had time for such frivolity.

*****

Despite knowing how little there was to see, Adam Cartwright stood at the rail, staring at Navassa Island like the majority of passengers.  After two days of nothing but open sea, any land whatever was a welcome sight.

As he’d feared, Irene Parker soon inserted herself into the space beside him at the rail.  “I must say,” she said, “I was expecting something a bit more scenic after your insistence that I see this, Mr. Cartwright.”

Before coming on deck, Adam had developed a plan of action he hoped might disillusion her regarding his prospects as a marriageable man.  “Well, now, ma’am,” he drawled.  “Scenery ain’t everything.  This island here’s got attraction beyond pretty sights.”

“Oh?”  Encouraged by his atypical attention, Irene leaned closer.  “What is that, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Why, the guano, ma’am.”

“Guano?”

“The bat droppings, ma’am,” he explained, employing all his acting skills to keep a straight face.  “Great source of manure, I hear.  ‘Course, I don’t know if’n it’d be as useful as what our horses produce, but it’d be a right interestin’ study, don’t you reckon?”

“I—uh—couldn’t say.”  Her nose wrinkled as if she’d caught a whiff of something unpleasant.

“Oh, Miss Irene, you got no notion how important manure can be to the proper running of a ranch!” he declared with enthusiasm.  “Why, I could tell you . . .”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to enlighten me another time, Mr. Cartwright,” she said hastily.  “I really must check on mother, so if you’ll excuse me . . .”

“Why, sure, ma’am,” he said and somehow managed to contain his glint of glee until she’d started down the stairs to the lower deck.

*****

Little Joe shook his head at the pile of parcels perched atop Adam’s steamer trunk at the end of his bed.  His room had seemed like a safe place to escape Madeleine’s anniversary madness, but now he could only stare and wonder where he was supposed to put it all.  It reminded him of a picture he’d seen in one of his schoolbooks, the Leaning Tower of—where was that thing?  Adam would know, of course; he never forgot anything he’d read.  Even Pa probably knew ‘cause he’d sailed all over the world.  Wherever it was, it had lasted for centuries, even tipped like it was, but frankly, he was afraid that if he pulled one package off this leaning tower of menswear, the whole thing would topple over.  Well, he’d just have to pick it up if it did.

He gingerly took the top package off the pile and set it on the bed to open it.  It turned out to be underwear.  Thank goodness, the ladies had let him and George shop for that on their own!  They sure knew how to shop, though, even if they did seem to feel a fellow needed a lot more clothes than he thought necessary.  He’d tried to convince them that he only needed enough to see him through until Adam arrived.  “Adam’ll get me whatever I need when he comes,” he’d told them confidently, for he was certain that, no matter how mad Adam was, he wouldn’t let his kid brother run around Boston half-naked.  He might threaten to, but he wouldn’t do it.  His protests hadn’t daunted the ladies’ shopping fervor one bit, and Little Joe was sure he had enough clothes to last him through a six-month visit, long past the time they’d be heading home.

Hearing a tap at the door, he called, “Come in,” and wasn’t surprised to see a servant enter.  He was pleasantly surprised to see that it was Aideen.  “Hey!  Through in the kitchen already?”

“For now, sir,” she said.

“It’s Joe.  How can I help you, Miss Aideen?”

She giggled.  “Sure an’ it’s me that’s come to help you.  The Miss sent me for your shirt for the party tomorrow, so it can be ironed.”

“Oh,” Little Joe said.  He waved a hand toward the leaning tower of packages.  “It’s in there somewhere.  I just started unpacking.”

“Let me help you with that, then.”

“Thanks!” he said, brightening.  “I’m not sure what to do with it all.  Did you ever see the like?”

“Oh, yes,” she said, moving briskly toward the packages and lifting one from the pile.  “The grand folks have closets and drawers bulging with such things.”

Little Joe snickered.  “I’ll bet they do, especially the ladies!”

“Especially the ladies,” Aideen agreed with a smile.  Opening the package, she lifted out a shirt.  “Is this it, then?”

Little Joe shook his head.  “No, that’s one of the everyday shirts.  The one we’re looking for has got frills all down the front and ruffled cuffs.  Keep looking.”

She giggled again.  “You don’t seem like a frills- and ruffles-kind of lad.”

He shrugged.  “Nah, but I don’t mind ‘em for a party.”

“‘Tis going to be a grand one, it is,” she said as she spread the shirt on the bed and reached for another box.  “You should see the ballroom, all flower-bedecked it is.”  With a darting glance toward the door, she whispered, “Though if I were you, I’d be keepin’ me distance from it, at least until the Miss finishes.”

“Oh, believe you me, I’m keepin’ my distance from Miss Madeleine today,” Little Joe confided with a grin.  “I’ve been enough bother already, and I’ve got sense enough to stay clear when someone’s frettin’ herself silly, like she is over this party.”

“I wish I could do the same,” Aideen said with a little sigh, “but I’ve been told to help.  ‘Twas glad I was to be sent to you, instead!”

He lightly stroked her cheek.  “I’m glad, too.  Maybe, if we go a little slower, you can avoid her altogether.”

Aideen blushed.  “I dare not.  If she has to come lookin’, ‘twill be the worse for me!”

“I’ll take the blame,” Little Joe said.  “Believe me, she won’t have a bit of problem finding fault with me.”

“I’d not like seein’ that, either,” she said.  She continued to unpack boxes and lay the garments on the bed, sorted as to type.  Finally, she opened the last one and pulled out a linen shirt so fine and frilly that she’d have been proud to wear it herself.

“Wouldn’t you know it would be the last one?” Little Joe chuckled.

“It matters not,” she said.  “They all need to be put away.  Now, if you’ll tell me where each goes, I’ll . . .”

“I don’t know,” Little Joe said.  “I put my nightshirt in that top drawer, but everything else is still in my carpetbag.”

She shook her head as if to imply that she’d expect nothing better from a gentleman, even if this one seemed less afraid of work than the eastern gents she’d seen.  “I’ll put things away, then; you can watch so you’ll know where to find whatever you need.”

“That’s a great plan,” he said with relief, adding with a naughty wink, “and it’ll keep you away from Miss Madeleine’s mania awhile longer.”

“I don’t know this word ‘mania,’” she said, carrying his new nightshirt toward the drawer he’d pointed out earlier.

“Craziness,” Little Joe told her.

“It’s not crazy,” she said pertly.  “She’s doin’ it to honor her parents, and it’s worthy they are.  I’ve not been here long, but long enough to see that.”

“You’re right,” he said.  “They’re fine folks.  I’m looking forward to the party.  How about you?”

“Me?” she asked in surprise as she looked back over her shoulder.  “Sure ‘n’ why would I be lookin’ forward to it?  ‘Tis only extra work to me.  Not that I mind doin’ it, mind you.  It’s happy I am to have such folk to work for, but it’s still work, not a party, to me.”  She put the nightshirt into the drawer, but before she could close it, she felt his hand on her elbow as he turned her around.

“I was hoping for a dance with you,” he said softly.  “Don’t you think you could spare five minutes from your work for that?”

“Not if I’m wantin’ to keep me job,” she said.

“Don’t see why they’d mind,” he returned, leaning a little closer.  “I could ask . . .”

“Ah, no!” she cried.  “I’m beggin’ you, sir, not to put me job at risk.  I need it!”

He stepped back.  “Easy, easy,” he said, patting the air in a calming gesture.  “I won’t say a word.”  He flashed her a naughty grin.  “Mind you, I’m not above sneaking into the hallway for a private little sashay down the hall, if you’re willing.”

“You’re a wicked lad,” she said, but she was smiling as she did.

*****

Adam smoothed his dark locks into place and then, lowering the adjustable round mirror mounted on the wall, stepped back so he could examine the rest of his attire.  Ordinarily, he dressed in fresh clothes before the evening meal, but tonight he’d saved his best for his performance.  With a final adjustment of his blue silk cravat, he took a deep, bolstering breath and moved toward his stateroom door.  He was confidant in his ability as a reader, of course; anyone who could keep as fidgety an audience as Hoss and Little Joe captivated had to possess some signature ability in that department.  And he’d had experience in reciting and even acting, both in college and in local Virginia City productions, so he wasn’t inclined to stage fright.  Still, he felt a certain degree of nervousness.  This was his first performance before strangers, and the audience here might be less tolerant than one composed of schoolmates, family, friends and neighbors.  On the other hand, after such a long time aboard ship, his fellow passengers might also be more in need of diversion than audiences he’d faced before.  That could easily work in his favor.

The crowd was larger than he had expected, which Adam took as a sign that the passengers were, indeed, in dire need of diversion.  Dickens was a popular author in America, of course, and A Tale of Two Cities was relatively new, especially to westerners, but being unknown himself, he certainly didn’t credit the attendance as a personal compliment.  From the introduction the captain gave, however, the casual listener might have assumed that Adam Cartwright was a dramatic reader of national renown.  Surely, Dickens himself would have rated no less lavish an introduction!  Determined to live up to the sterling description, if only to save both himself and the captain from embarrassment, Adam approached the lectern provided for him, opened his book and began to read once again of the best and worst of times in France.

This time, unlike his reading to darling Irene, he gave it his all.  How could he not with such a rapt and responsive audience?  It wasn’t long before they were leaning forward in their seats, hanging onto every word.  That, of course, only encouraged Adam to put even more feeling into his reading.  He came to the end of a chapter and closed the book.  “That seems like a good place to stop,” he said.  “If you would care to continue the story tomorrow evening . . .”

Thunderous applause, complete with standing ovation, provided the answer, and Adam soon found himself surrounded by gushing ladies and more reserved, but equally complimentary gentlemen.  Somehow, Irene Parker pressed her way through the crowd.  “Oh, darling, you were magnificent!” she loudly proclaimed as she beamed and took his arm to stake her claim.  “I’m so glad I prevailed upon you to share your gift with the world.”  She turned to smile at the other ladies.  “He’s so shy about public performance, but you’d never guess, would you?”

The ruse—suggested by her mother, of course—proved effective.  Those young enough to be rivals murmured their compliments and drifted away, and soon only the married ladies and widows remained to challenge Irene for the attention of what appeared to be her beau.

And that, Mr. Dickens, Adam mused, is how to turn the best of times into the worst of times!

 

October 20

Returning from his morning walk with Mr. Pontpier, Little Joe cracked opened the front door and peered through the narrow opening.  “Is it safe?” he asked the butler.

Horace gazed at him with cocked head and, though tempted to feign ignorance of the young man’s intent, smiled wryly and gave him as direct an answer as he deemed appropriate.  “Miss Madeleine is in the ballroom, I believe, Master Joseph.”

“Great!”  Little Joe raced toward the stairs, not bothering to protest about that exalted term of address.  He’d pleaded for what he was sure must be fifty times since his arrival in Boston to be addressed simply as Joe and knew he’d get no better response than a slight rolling of the eyes.  Boston ways, apparently, were not to be questioned, and today escape was more important than any difference in standards.

As previously arranged, he went directly to George’s bedroom to begin the exercises on his leg.

“Did you run back all the way?” George asked as Little Joe turned back his covers.

“Huh?” Joe asked in blank-eyed return.

“You’re out of breath.”

“Oh.”  Little Joe gave him a sheepish grin.  “Dashed up the stairs and down the hall to stay out of sight, if you know what I mean.”

George grinned, then, far more broadly than his young friend.  “I do, indeed, and I have a proposal to that effect.  How would you like to go shopping with me this morning?”

Hands cupping George’s flaccid calf muscle, Little Joe gulped.  “Shopping?”  He’d had about all the shopping a man could tolerate earlier that week, but he certainly couldn’t say that!  “I don’t know, George,” he said, struggling to find an acceptable alternative.  “I mean, you folks’ve been so doggone generous already that I don’t need a thing.”

George shook his head in a chiding manner.  “Did it ever occur to you that I might?”

All pretense at social nicety plummeted earthward as Joe’s jaw dropped.  “Well, no,” he said as George’s packed trunks on ship, his bulging armoire here and every lavish trinket populating the house flashed before him.

Apparently reading Joe’s mind, George rolled his eyes.  “Not for myself, of course.  I have plenty.  However, there is one particularly urgent item I need and that I haven’t had a good opportunity to search out, given the way both mother and Madeleine have hovered over me since we arrived.  I could scarcely shop for my parents’ anniversary gift with Mother at my side, now could I?”

Little Joe snickered.  “Not that I’ve had any experience, but I’d say no.”  With a perverse lift of the left side of his mouth, he said, “I’m sure Miss Madeleine would be pleased as punch to do that for you, though.  It ain’t like she’s got a thing else to do.”

“You are a wicked and cruel man,” George declared with narrowed eyes.  “It would serve you exactly right if I left you behind, but as I wish to maintain my family’s reputation for being ‘doggone generous,’ I offer you the choice.  Will you come with me or do you prefer to remain here to face . . . the madness of Madeleine?”  His voice dropped dramatically as his waving fingers arced eerily through the air, suggesting the all-encompassing nature of said madness.

Having already had a taste of her party-planning insanity, Little Joe shuddered.  “Anything but that.  Where you want to go?”

*****

That morning Adam discovered that his newfound notoriety brought with it both benefits and annoyances.  Heretofore he had kept largely to himself on his morning promenades, at least when he could escape the ever-seeking eye of Miss Parker.  His demeanor had apparently transmitted an inclination for solitude, for few of his fellow passengers had done more than give him a cordial nod or a short phrase of greeting, which he had returned in similar fashion.  Now, however, almost every person he passed stopped him to say how much he or she had enjoyed the previous night’s reading.  “You will continue, won’t you?” each had invariably asked.

“As long as people are interested enough to listen,” he modestly assured one and all.  He could not have been more flattered, although he couldn’t credit all of them with strictly literary interest.  The men he, of course, assumed were speaking their honest opinions, and he generally accepted the older women’s praise as equally sincere.  Neither of those groups had any reason to dissemble; as for the younger ladies, he tended to view their remarks, especially the gushing, Parker-like ones, with a profoundly skeptical eye.

A couple of the younger women made such astute comments on Dickens’ work that he had no concern that delusions of shipboard romance lay throbbing beneath their lace-edged and beribboned bodices.  In one case he rather regretted that.  Miss Lily Ann Jennings was lovely, both of face and demeanor, and spoke so knowledgeably of recently published books that he felt her to be a true kindred soul.  They were conversing about their mutual regard for Henry David Thoreau when Irene Parker showed up and begged him to explain a certain point in the previous night’s reading.  Miss Jennings courteously excused herself and left him in the grasping clutches of his chief annoyance on this endless voyage.  Unfortunately, his performance of the night before had netted him at least three other admirers so like darling Irene that they might have been quadruplets.

*****

Seated across from George at a small table in the Cornhill Coffee House, Little Joe leaned back in his chair in apparent need of more room for his expanding stomach.  “That was some feed,” he said.  “I sure hope Miss Madeleine is planning on light refreshments for the party tonight.”

“For after the dancing, of course,” George said, “but there’ll be a full meal before that.”

Little Joe groaned.  “How do you do it?  Breakfast, lunch, tea and supper, plus refreshments later.  Even Hoss would be hard put to keep up with all that, and a full table don’t usually daunt him none.”

George laughed.  “Don’t I know it!  I don’t see why you’re complaining, though.  I thought you’d be famished after our morning’s exercise, and all you ordered was sandwich and soup.”  George himself had indulged in turtle soup, lobster salad and veal cutlets in tomato sauce, along with the vegetables and bread that accompanied each plate.

“Exercise!”  Little Joe sniffed derisively.  “Traipsin’ through a few shops don’t count as exercise, George.  Back on the Ponderosa, Pa considers that a rest break after a full day’s work.”

“Perhaps I feel it more than you, then,” George conceded, absently reaching down to rub his leg.

Little Joe slumped in self-reproach.  How could he have forgotten?  George had refused the rolling chair today, and now was apparently paying for it.  “Aw, doggone, I wasn’t thinkin’ about your leg.  Did we overdo it?  Maybe we shouldn’t have made that extra stop at the bookstore.  I mean, I appreciate the new book and all, but . . .”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” George interrupted him.  “I was as interested as you in finding something new to read, and Spencer’s is only a short distance from here, anyway.  I do think we’d better head home after this, however.  If I’m to have any energy left for dancing, I probably shouldn’t ask any more of the leg this afternoon.”

“Dancing?”  Little Joe almost choked on his hot coffee, recently refreshed by the waiter.  “Uh, George, maybe that’s not such a good idea, huh?  You’ve barely started walking, after all.”

George’s face set like granite.  “I will dance with Mother on her anniversary.”

Little Joe’s head wagged from side to side.  “What is it with you Yankees?  You and Adam both are the stubbornest, orneriest . . .”

“You should talk!” George laughed.  “From what I’ve seen, Hoss is the only Cartwright that doesn’t describe!”

Little Joe smiled fondly at the thought of his big brother.  “Yeah, I reckon.  Well, I guess we had better head back to the house, then, though I sort of wish we could stay away the rest of the afternoon.”

“You can hide in your room, curl up with your new book.”

Little Joe shook his head.  “I’m afraid that might be a little too close to the insanity for comfort.  That ballroom’s right over my room, you know.”

“It’s over everyone’s room,” George snorted.  “It extends the length of the house, after all.  You do have a point, however.  We probably will be able to hear Madeleine’s manic screeches through the ceiling.  So much for thoughts of an afternoon nap.”

“‘Fraid so.  You ready?”

“Oh, no,” George said.  “We haven’t had dessert yet.”

Little Joe closed his eyes.  “Tell me you’re joking.”

“Certainly not!  At least a lemon ice cream.”

“I think you’re trying to kill me,” Little Joe sighed.

“I shall leave that pleasure for Adam,” George said with a smirk, and that effectively silenced his young companion.

*****

Adam cautiously stepped on deck.  He’d spent the morning in his cabin, preparing for the evening’s reading and was in need of fresh air and exercise; however, there were other things on deck that he fervently hoped to avoid.  Then he saw her: a vision of loveliness with golden hair and eyes a similar shade of blue to Hoss’s.  Darting a quick glance around to make sure no danger lurked nearby, he moved to her side and said, “Good afternoon, Miss Jennings.  Are you enjoying the island views?”

She turned and smiled a warm welcome.  “Indeed, I am, Mr. Cartwright!  How could one not with such beauty of nature to be seen?”

“Natural beauty is, as you say, a most welcome sight.”  He took her hand and bowed to give it a continental kiss.

Having perceived the intended compliment, she blushed, but her eyes sparkled.  “Will you not join me in its enjoyment?”

“Thank you, I will, as your company will certainly enhance my enjoyment of the scene,” he returned.

“If that is so, I am pleased, for you have certainly enhanced my enjoyment of our voyage”—realizing the words might be misunderstood, she flushed a deeper shade of pink and added quickly, “by your delightful reading of Mr. Dickens, that is.”

“You’ll be in attendance tonight, then?”

“Oh, yes,” she said breathlessly.  Then, apparently fearing she’d revealed too much of her admiration, she turned toward the island beside which they were gliding.  “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such exotic and vibrantly colored birds,” she commented.

“Flamingoes,” Adam said.

She smiled up at him.  “Yes, I know.  I’ve seen them pictured in books, of course, but I’d never imagined them in such numbers.”

“Or such striking color,” Adam agreed.  “No printer could do them justice.”

“No, that would take a true artist.  Do you enjoy art, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Very much,” he said, “although I get little opportunity to see truly fine art in Nevada.”

“Oh, is that your home?”

“It is.  And yours?”

“I’m from Boston,” she replied.

A slow smile spread across his face.  “That’s wonderful,” he said.  “That’s where I’m going.  Perhaps you could tell me some of your favorite galleries.”

“I’d be delighted, Mr. Cartwright.”

They stood, side by side at the rail, throughout the afternoon, chatting of art galleries and museums and the historic sights of Boston.  Adam shared that he had attended school there and was familiar with some of the places she mentioned, while the others were pleasures he would look forward to seeing on his current visit.  Time and even the exotic beauty of the islands passed barely noticed, as did the frowning attention given them by a woman whose narrowed-eye appraisal increasingly sharpened the edges of her already angular face with each circuit she made of the deck.

*****

Little Joe stood before his mirror, turning this way and that as he tried to view his image from every angle possible, in a maneuver Adam generally referred to as preening like a peacock.  He looked proud as a peacock, too.  “Um, um,” he said in satisfaction.  “That is one fine figure of a man, if I do say so myself.”  The new suit fit him like the proverbial glove and was far more stylish than anything he’d ever had before.  Not even clothes tailored for him in San Francisco could hold a candle to this, and he felt enormous gratitude to the Pontpier ladies for seeing him so fashionably turned out.

The afternoon had seemed long, but then time always did drag its feet when a fellow had nothing to do except hide from whatever was keeping people scurrying above his head from the time he and George returned from their shopping trip until now, almost time for supper.  He had insisted on skipping tea.  With the dessert George had insisted he try, luncheon had been larger than he needed, and supper was apt to be grander than usual, too, since a number of close friends had been invited to partake of it with the celebrating couple.  Adding in the refreshments scheduled to follow the dancing, Little Joe simply couldn’t face the extra meal.

So, after putting George through his afternoon exercise routine, he’d stayed in his room.  Fortunately, that new adventure book George had bought him (the kind Adam insisted on deriding as dime novels) had been a real page-turner, but he’d finished it so quickly he almost wished he had asked for another.  He’d been ashamed to, though, after all George’s family had spent on him this week, and he’d been so hard put to find anything to occupy himself that he’d finally done the unthinkable and lain down for a short nap.

Now, he took one last appraisal of his appearance and gave the mirror a nod of satisfaction before heading downstairs.  The smile with which the butler greeted him at the foot of the stairs was all the confirmation he needed that his appearance, at least, would not disgrace the family tonight.  As for his behavior, he had to admit he was nervous about picking up the wrong fork or some such failing, but nothing more.  Pa had taught him good manners, and he expected they would stand him in good stead, especially if he steered clear of Madeleine’s fault-finding eye.

His eyes widened as he entered the dining room, for its already elegant appearance had been transformed into a spectacular sight with garlands and bouquets of fresh flowers and the most elaborate, silver-embellished table setting Little Joe had ever seen in his life.  Not even the silver kings of Virginia City ever set a table as grand as this!

Mr. and Mrs. Pontpier stood near the doorway, greeting each visitor as they entered, and when Little Joe approached, she reached toward him with both hands.  “I’m so glad you could be with us tonight,” she said, brown eyes glowing.

He knew she meant it.  By all rights, she should have been put out with having an unexpected guest, penniless to boot, land on her doorstep on the eve of such a special occasion; she should have been disappointed, as Madeleine clearly was, that he wasn’t Adam, the Cartwright she knew and had expected, but she’d welcomed him with warmth and generosity.  She was just that kind of person.  “I’m glad I can, too,” he said.  “I can’t think of anyone who deserves all this more than you do, ma’am.”

She smiled as her cool hand came to rest tenderly on his cheek.  “Thank you, my dear.  Do enjoy yourself tonight.”  Then she turned to greet the next guest arriving.

Feeling awkward in the roomful of strangers, Little Joe moved into the room.  He spotted Madeleine, who had transformed herself, as well, from the frantic shrew of the afternoon into an elegantly attired and determinedly gracious hostess.  Though he somewhat dreaded coming under her scrutinizing purview, she deserved some well-earned words of praise, and now seemed the best time to say them.

He took a deep breath and walked over to her.  “Miss Madeleine, you look lovely tonight,” he said, “and what you’ve done to this room—well, given how much of your time I took up, you’ve worked miracles.  You’ve done your folks proud.”

She flushed with pleasure at the compliment.  “Why, thank you, Joseph,” she said.  “It’s been a labor of love.  They deserve all this—and more.”

“Yes, ma’am, that’s easy to see, even on short acquaintance.”

“Thank you,” she said, “and though it may seem that I’m praising myself, let me say that you make a fine appearance yourself.”

He chuckled.  “Take all the bows you want, ma’am.  It’s all your doing, and I thank you for it.”  He leaned close to her ear.  “Where do I sit tonight?”

She smiled, pleased that he was showing concern for how to behave properly.  “Near your usual place,” she said.  “You’ll find a name card.  We’ll be sitting soon.”

“Thanks.  I’ll let you get back to greeting your guests,” he said, giving her a slight bow before moving on.

As he circled the room slowly, he purposely passed the area where he’d sat at every meal and spotted his name, written in beautiful script on a white card with a narrow silver border.  Obviously, it had been done at the last minute, but it fit in so well with the professionally printed ones that no one would guess.  He was a little surprised that he was seated near the head of the table with the family.  Surely, that place should have gone to an honored guest, someone who’d known the family for years, not an interloper of a few days’ acquaintance.  He supposed it was because he was a guest in their home and wondered if he should volunteer to take another seat.  He didn’t really know how to make that offer without embarrassing them, though, and could only hope he didn’t cause offense to some friend of much longer term.

Little Joe saw Madeleine whisper something in George’s ear.  He smiled back and walked over to his mother.  Raising his voice, he said, “Thank you all for joining us on this joyous occasion, as we honor the greatest parents with which a man”—he nodded toward his sister—“or a woman has ever been blessed.  Please take your seats now and enjoy the meal.  All thanks is due to my sister Madeleine, and knowing her as I do, I am sure we are all in for a feast that will long linger in our memories.”  He took his mother by the arm and led her to the head of the table, cater-corner to her husband, who was escorted to his place by Madeleine, as the other guests applauded warmly.

When Madeleine moved to her seat, Little Joe pulled out her chair for her.  “Why, thank you, Joseph,” she said, the note of surprise in her voice clearly telling him that she hadn’t expected him to have any grasp of good table manners.

“My pleasure, ma’am,” he said, though he feared that sitting next to her for the dinner might be anything but pleasurable.  Then he had a sudden, shame-filled thought that sitting next to him was probably not the pleasure she had envisioned when she planned this party, either, and he vowed to be a gracious dinner partner to reward her for her sacrifice.

Glancing to his other side, he smiled at the white-haired lady seated there.  “How do you do, ma’am?” he said.  “I’m Joe Cartwright, and I’m pleased to meet you.”

“And you, as well, Mr. Cartwright,” she replied.  “Are you a friend of Madeleine’s?”  Though the question was asked politely, she could not hide a hint of disapproval at the idea of Madeleine’s taking up with a boy far too young for her.

“More one of George’s,” Little Joe responded, “and he’s really more a friend of my older brother.  I’m just visiting here . . . from Nevada.”  As much for his hosts’ sake as his own, he left the circumstances of his visit unstated.

The woman looked relieved.  “Oh, of course.  I seem to remember George’s having a friend in such a place.”

“You’ve known the Pontpiers a long time, then,” Little Joe said.

“Indeed.”  And she launched into a recitation of their years together that soon had Little Joe wondering if he’d be able to keep his resolution to be attentive to Madeleine.  However, the woman, a Mrs. Grayson he learned, had been well schooled in appropriate dinner behavior and soon turned her attention to the gentlemen on her right.

Knowing that he was expected to converse with Madeleine, Little Joe turned toward her with a nervous smile.  “It sure looks like you’ve done a fine job of planning this party for your parents, Miss Madeleine.”

“Why, thank you, Joseph,” she said with a blush that made her look almost pretty.  “I trust you won’t find the French cuisine tonight too strange to your western palate.”

“My mother was French,” he said.  “Did Adam never mention that?”

“He may have,” she replied.  “I’m afraid I don’t recall much of the family history.”

“That’s okay,” Little Joe said.  “It’s your family history that matters tonight.”

She smiled.  “Thank you.  You’ve eaten French dishes before then?”

“Um, yes, some kinds,” he said, looking at the bowl of clear soup that had just been placed before him, “but I don’t recognize this.  Beef broth?”

Consommé de boeuf,” she said.  “A richer, deeper flavor than simple broth, I think you’ll find.  We wanted to keep dinner relatively light, since we’ll be dancing afterwards.  There will, of course, be refreshments later in the evening.”

“That sounds like a good plan,” he complimented her.  He dipped his spoon into the broth and discovered what she meant by its “richer, deeper flavor.”  Normally, he only ate broth when he was ailing and thought this variety would probably give a sick man a lot more strength that what Hop Sing usually cooked up.  He had to bite his tongue when his dinner plate was served, however.  This might be Madeleine’s idea of a light meal, but it fit his description of Sunday dinner . . . provided they were expecting the governor for dinner.  It consisted, as she helpfully told him, of filet de boeuf au vin de Madère with sides of pommes de terre, en gratin, and haricots verts.  Most of those words he had recognized on his own, but he thanked her politely nonetheless and assured her that a meal like this would be a treat for him, as well as her other guests.  Thankfully, dessert actually was light, a single poached pear, swimming in dark chocolate sauce.

It was during dessert that the toasts began.  George went first, inviting all the guests to raise their glasses in honor to his parents.  A number of other gentlemen then stood and spoke warmly of their affection for and enduring friendship with the elder Pontpiers.  Though he’d never offered a toast in his life, Little Joe impulsively sprang to his feet.  Lifting his glass, he said, “To the most gracious hosts who ever welcomed an unexpected guest and treated this stranger like someone they’d known all their lives.  Thank you!”  The speech raised not a few quizzical eyebrows and had a number of people whispering to their dinner companions on either side, but no one could provide the slightest clue to who the young man was.  The responsive smiles from the head of the table, however, indicated the family’s acceptance, and the other guests took their cue from the honorees.  As George announced that dancing would soon begin in the grand hall upstairs, several of the ladies resolved to renew their acquaintance with gossipy Mrs. Grayson.  If anyone knew who the self-styled stranger was, she would.

*****

Adam delayed leaving his stateroom that evening out of sheer cowardice, or, at least, so he accused himself.  He did need to keep his focus on the reading, of course, but he knew perfectly well the delay was actually an effort to avoid another encounter with darling Irene, who had seemed irked at dinner, despite assuring him that she would be sitting front and center for his performance.  “You’ll have no trouble finding me afterwards,” she said with a stiff smile and flint-edged eyes.

As he approached the crowd awaiting him, however, his eyes avoided front and center, in favor of searching the rows of chairs, more tonight than before, for one lovely face.  He finally spotted Miss Jennings, sitting, unfortunately, in the second row and sent a warm smile in her direction.  He immediately sensed danger, for while she returned his smile with equal warmth, so did another lady, one he had no desire of attracting.  Irene Parker had carried out her promise (threat, in his opinion) and was seated in the front row, so he would have to get past her in order to reach the lady he wished to see when his reading concluded.  That, he foresaw, would be a sizeable challenge, despite Irene’s spindly form.

After another glowing introduction from the captain, laced with genuine appreciation for the previous night’s performance, Adam took his place at the lectern.  “I see we have a larger group tonight,” he said.  “I hope that is a sign of favorable word-of-mouth reports and not simply that you’re all bored by the prospect of viewing the Inaguas islands in the moonlight.”  After the ripple of laughter, followed by a loud call or two of “No, indeed!” he smiled and said, “Since there are a few new faces, I’ll begin with a brief synopsis of the previous chapters.”  He kept that summary brief, for the sake of those who had already heard that portion of the story and then opened the book and began to read.  The synopsis did dual duty: not only did it bring newcomers up to date; it also gave him a chance to collect his disturbed mind and enter into the spirit of the drama.

As he closed the night’s reading, loud and exuberant applause thundered through the room.  Adam was again surrounded by those eager to compliment him, and he accepted the accolades graciously, without blushing.  He knew he’d done well and saw no reason for the prevarication of false modesty.  When one of his admirers made an insightful comment about the material, however, he was just as quick to compliment the other person or to invite speculation of what the author might have planned for the next development.

As he conversed, however, he kept an eye on the movements of a certain golden-haired lady and had just managed to excuse himself to seek her out when a sharp voice said, “We really must be going, Adam dear.”  Irene Parker sidled up to him, wagging a bony finger in his face.  “You are such a naughty boy to mention in public our moonlight stroll to view the Inaguas islands!”  She tittered to tell those still clustered around him that she wasn’t too put out with him, despite her chiding words.  With a few chuckles and a couple of completely unwarranted winks from male travelers, the crowd faded away.

Irene latched onto his elbow with a triumphant smile.  “Are you ready for our moonlight promenade, my dear?”

Adam exhaled his frustration.  “Madam, we have no such appointment,” he said bluntly.

“Oh, but surely, you’re not bored with the Inaguas islands yourself,” she teased, maintaining her hold.

“With the islands, no.”  His voice sharpened as he pulled his arm from her grasp.  “I’m sorry, Miss Parker, but I have other plans this evening.”  And every evening, he added to himself, as well as every morning, noon and nighttime!

“With her?” Irene demanded haughtily.  “Don’t think I haven’t seen you making eyes all through your reading at that—that hussy in violet!  I thought we had an understanding.”

“I have not been ‘making eyes’ at anyone,” he hissed under his breath, “and we have no such understanding, Miss Parker.”

“Well, if my company is undesired,” she began.

“It is,” he interrupted sharply in a complete departure from the manner in which he’d been instructed to treat women from childhood up.  “I regret being so blunt, but you leave me little choice.”

“Pray excuse me, then!”  With a swish of her skirts and an air of offended dignity, she swept from his presence.

Adam took a deep breath of relief, quickly followed by one of deflated disappointment.  Not only was he dissatisfied with his poor handling of the situation, he felt even more disgruntled with how long it had taken.  The lovely Miss Jennings was nowhere in sight.  He hurried on deck, hoping to find her there, but apparently neither the Inaguas islands nor the prospect of his company appealed to her.

*****

Little Joe gasped as he entered the third-floor ballroom.  Madeleine Pontpier had provided a fine dinner in an elegantly decorated setting, but that triumph was nothing, compared with what awaited guests upstairs.  The hall itself, which Little Joe had not before seen, was magnificent.  Ornate gaslights adorned the walls of the long room, papered in panels of gold brocade, which were separated by arched frames of dark mahogany.  Tiered chandeliers, sparkling with hundreds of lights, hung from the ceiling, which was painted with classical figures, floating amidst the clouds of a clear blue sky.  Long tables, cloaked in silver-embroidered cloths anchored each end of the room, one almost buried with gifts for the celebrating couple and the other set up for serving refreshments, although all that was on offer this early in the evening was a large bowl of punch.  In one corner, near the refreshment table, a small orchestra was already playing as the guests entered.

Instead of dancing, however, all the guests left the center of the room empty, and following their lead, Little Joe also found a place to stand at the edge of the room.  Back home, everyone would have just started dancing to the music, but evidently things were handled differently here in the alien East.  Feeling unsure what to do, he decided to wait and see what everyone else did.  When George’s parents walked, hand in hand, to the center of the room and began to dance, he happily joined in the applause that greeted them, and he wasn’t surprised when George and Madeleine waltzed onto the floor next.  The applause slowly dissipated, as a few other couples and then the rest began to dance.

Since Little Joe politely waited to give every man a chance to dance first with the lady he’d come with, there was no one his age left for him to choose from.  Where he came from, though, there was always a shortage of women, so he was quite used to dancing with ladies of all ages, whomever was available at any given moment.  He normally set his sights a little younger than the gray-haired ones, but since they appeared to be the only ones without a partner, he did the gentlemanly thing and went over to one and asked if she would care to dance.  A girlish flush brightened her cheeks as she waltzed off with the handsome young stranger.

The unattached ladies quickly gathered around Mrs. Grayson, demanding that she reveal everything she’d learned about the young man during dinner.  Happy to be the center of attention, she gossiped cheerily with her friends, who were just as happy to spread the news to daughters and granddaughters, and by the time a few partners had been exchanged, Little Joe found himself the target of a number of young ladies dangling their dance cards in his vicinity.  He was happy to fill in a line on each one offered and began to thoroughly enjoy himself.  Not since he and George had visited the Stinking Stilton together had he had as much fun.

Finally finding himself unattached for a dance, he visited the refreshment table for a glass of whatever was in that crystal bowl and was pleased to find his friend Aideen manning the ladle.  “Well, this is a pleasant surprise,” he said with a smile.

“Sure ‘n’ I told you I’d be workin’ the party, did I not?” she returned with a smile of her own.

“Sure ‘n’ you did,” he teased.

“‘Tis makin’ fun of me, you are,” she scolded lightly.

“Not at all,” he assured her.  “I love the way you speak.  I just wish I could copy it better.”

“Thank you, kind sir.”  There was a twinkle in her eye, and her smile sparkled all the more.  “May I offer you a glass of the punch, sir?”

“If you tell me what’s in it,” he chuckled.

“Taste and guess,” she thrust back as she dipped and poured a glass for him, “but only a sip at first.”

Accepting the challenge along with the glass, he lifted it.  Unfortunately, he ignored her advice and took a sizable swallow, and the bubbles went straight up his nose.  Coughing and laughing at the same time, he said, “Ah, champagne.”

“You’ve had it before, then,” she said.  “I should have known, you bein’ rich and all.”  She touched her fingers to her lips.  “Oh, dear.  I’m thinkin’ that was rude.”

“Not at all,” her assured her, “and I’m not rich—well, maybe a little, but not like the Pontpiers or the silver kings back home.”

“I’m that surprised that you have champagne back home,” she giggled.  “I thought you were from the wild west.”

“Not that wild,” he chided with a grin.  “I have had champagne, but only once before . . . and Pa doesn’t know about that one.”

Madeleine glided up to Little Joe’s side, frowning at both maid and guest.  “There are other guests to be served, Bridget,” she said firmly.

“Yes, mum—miss, I’m meanin’.”  She quickly ladled another glass of punch and handed it to the mistress of the house.

Madeleine nodded curtly and then turned to Little Joe with a mildly forced smile.  “You’re enjoying yourself, Joseph?  I believe you’ve danced with a number of partners.”

“Um, yes,” he replied cautiously.  He leaned close and whispered, “Is that all right or does it go against some eastern way of doing?”

Her response stopped just short of an unladylike roll of the eyes.  “Of course not,” she said.  “You’re quite a good dancer, from what I’ve observed, and it’s gracious of you to—well, to . . .”

Seeing her at a loss for the right words, he cheekily provided, “To spread my talents around?”

“Insufferable,” she said, though far less sharply than she’d said the word in the past.

“You only say that because you haven’t sampled them yet,” he chuckled.  Then, holding out his hand, he asked, “May I have this dance, Miss Madeleine?”

She hesitated only a moment.  “Yes, of course.  Thank you.”  Wishing to be free to oversee the occasion, she had paid little attention to filling her own dance card.  She was open for the next dance, and young Joseph Cartwright was, after all, a guest, deserving the same gracious response she would have given any other man there.

As he led her to the dance floor, the music began.  “Oh, dear,” she murmured.  “It’s a mazurka.”  Then, blushing, she added, “It’s just, well, such a vigorous dance.”

“If you’re not up to it, ma’am,” he said with a wicked twinkle in his eye, “I could always ask Mrs. Grayson.”

Madeleine frowned.  Subtlety was obviously lost on this insufferable boy.  “If you’re sure you know what you’re about, then . . .”

He only laughed and twirled her under his arm into position.

“Oh, my,” she gasped.  “That’s not a mazurka step.”

“Really?” he asked, managing to look innocent.

“Yes, really.  I knew I should have taken time to instruct you, but—oh!”  she gasped again as he began the lively steps that made up the mazurka polka.  A few seconds into the dance she gave him a chiding smile.  “You are a tease, sir.  You know the correct steps perfectly well.  I suppose Adam saw to your education in that.”

He laughed.  “He helped some, but it was mostly Pa.  He’s a really good dancer.  Of course, if you want to see how vigorous we can be in the ‘wild West,’ I could ask the orchestra to speed up the tempo a mite.”

Not knowing whether to take him seriously, she at once said, “No, thank you; that won’t be necessary.”  When she saw his grin, she realized he was teasing again and decided it was best to play along with the silly boy.  “After all, the pace might be too much for dear Mrs. Grayson.”

Delighted that she was getting into the spirit of his banter, he grinned even more broadly as he guided her—vigorously, of course—around the room.  When the dance ended, he led her off the dance floor and bowed deeply.  “I trust that was vigorous enough for your eastern taste,” he said.

“Quite,” she replied, somewhat breathlessly.  “I’m surprised you have the energy . . . after your long journey.”

He chuckled.  “Ma’am, you’re not the first person who’s said something like that.”

She smiled, saying with a shake of her head, “I’m sure I’m not.  Thank you for the dance, Joseph.  Now, run along, like a good boy and ‘spread your talents’ among the other ladies.”

“My pleasure, ma’am,” he said and with another bow he set off in search of new hearts to conquer.  They were easy to find, and he only failed to dance when he wanted to visit the punch bowl.  On one such trip he whispered to Aideen, “I thought they were serving something a little more solid somewhere along the line.”

She giggled.  “It’s hungry you are, then?”

“A night of dancing requires fuel,” he replied with a wink.  “Any chance something’s coming or should I sneak down to the kitchen and put on my best pitiful puppy look?”

Lips pressed together to keep from laughing aloud, she shook her head.  “‘Twill not be needed.  There’ll be sandwiches and sweets and a grand tiered cake served at midnight.”

“Must be near that now,” he said.

“I’ve no watch, but I’m thinkin’ you’re right; I’ll be told when to fetch things up,” she offered, “so when you see me leave, you’ll know ‘tis coming soon.”

He grinned.  “And when I see you leave, that’s when we’ll have our dance.”

“Shh,” she said, leaning close.  “You know I canna do such a thing.”

“Of course, you can,” he insisted.  “I’ll just follow you out into the hall—discreetly, of course—and we’ll have its whole length for our frolicking.  No one will notice if you take a few minutes more to bring up those sandwiches and such.”  He returned his glass to her and said, with the naughty twinkle so typical of him, “Well, back to work, I guess.  Now, don’t go running off until I’ve had at least one more dance.”

“‘Tis a tempter you are,” she chided softly.  “Off with you, then.”

Laughing, Little Joe went off to offer his services to his dinnertime friend, Mrs. Grayson, and since the next dance was a slow waltz, she gladly accepted.  As he returned her to her seat along the side of the room with other older ladies, he saw Aideen slowly making her way toward the door.  He let her get well ahead of him and then slipped through a different doorway into the hall.  He found her waiting near the head of the stairs.

“Only the one dance,” Aideen insisted with a nervous glance toward the hall.

“Only the one,” he promised.  “I wish it could be more.”  The music started.  “Um, a schottische,” he said.  “You know it?”

“No,” she whispered.

He smiled.  “Then, we’ll improvise, like we do back home.”  He took her hands and, as the music was lively, led her down the hall at a trot.  She quickly caught on to the simple steps, and her cheeks reddened with both the effort and the pleasure of the dance.  Caught up in their enjoyment, neither noticed the frowning observer of their frolic.  As the music came to an end, Little Joe leaned in and pressed a kiss to Aideen’s willing lips.

“Enough!” proclaimed a voice in strident protest.

The young couple broke apart, and Aideen’s hand flew to her mouth, while Little Joe gulped.  “I can explain,” he said hastily.

“I’m quite capable of judging what my own eyes have seen,” Madeleine said sharply.

“I—I meant no disrespect, miss,” Aideen said.

“And you consider this a respectful way to behave?” the other woman demanded.  “I most certainly do not!  You will, of course, leave immediately, and your services will no longer be required.”

“You can’t do that,” Little Joe protested.  “This is all my doing, not hers.”

“I’ve no doubt of that,” Madeleine replied haughtily, “but I have no control of your behavior.  I do, however, have the right to exercise it over our staff.”

“But it’s the middle of the night,” Little Joe protested.  “You can’t turn a girl out on her ear at midnight.  That’s inhuman!”

“You may stay in your room until morning,” Madeleine amended.  “Of course, I would not send a girl into the streets at this hour, especially one obviously vulnerable to the charms of strange men.  When I said, ‘Leave immediately,’ I was only referring to leaving the area.  I will not have my parents’ anniversary party disturbed by any further breech of conduct.”

“It was only a dance . . . and a kiss,” Little Joe said, only adding the final phrase in response to Madeleine’s disbelieving cock of the head.  “It won’t happen again,” he promised.

“Indeed, it will not,” Madeleine decreed, “as Bridget here is going directly to her room.”

“That’s not her name,” Little Joe hissed, mindful that those in the next room must not hear this dispute.

“It doesn’t matter, sir,” Aideen said.  “I’ll—I’ll do as you say, miss, but oh, please, do not take me job.  Me aged mother depends on me wages.”

“You should have thought of that before you took liberties with a member of the household,” Madeleine said with disdain.

“She didn’t take liberties with me; I took them with her!” Little Joe protested, his voice rising.

“Be quiet,” Madeleine hissed.  “I will never forgive you if you spoil this evening.  The final decision will rest with Mother, of course, but not until morning. Please go now, Bridget.

Aideen ran past Little Joe’s outstretched hand and up the stairs.

“Would you like me to leave, as well?” Little Joe asked.

“You may do as you wish,” Madeleine returned haughtily.  “As I said, I have no control over your behavior.  If you can avoid kissing every woman in sight, certainly you may return to the festivities.  In fact, it might raise questions if you did not!”  She turned her back and strode briskly away.

Little Joe stood in the hall for several minutes.  The last thing he wanted at that moment was to return to the dance floor, but he knew she was right about questions being raised if he left abruptly.  Perish the thought, but Mr. and Mrs. Pontpier might notice his absence and become concerned about him, and not for the world would he detract from one moment of their enjoyment of their special evening.  They’d done so much for him and had welcomed him so sincerely, and that would be a poor way to repay all their kindness.

Still, he wasn’t sure he was capable of hiding his feelings well enough that questions wouldn’t just as likely be raised if he did return to the ballroom.  He decided to make a quick dash down to his room and splash some water in his face.  Then, he’d take a good look in the mirror and decide whether he could conjure enough party spirit to come back.  He made a brief stop at the water closet on his way down the hall, figuring that was an excuse readily acceptable to anyone who noticed his absence and queried him about it.

He returned to the ballroom, a much-subdued young man, compared to the one who had scampered around the floor for hours before.  He made his way to the refreshment table and slowly began to fill a plate with sandwiches.  It seemed safer than returning directly to the dance floor, and it was, after all, what most of the guests were doing.  George came up to him.  “Having fun?” he asked.

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Little Joe said.  “It’s a great party, George.”

“You’re quite the hit with the ladies, you know.”  He laughed.  “Fortunately, most of them are too old to have fathers who carry shotguns.”

“Very funny,” Little Joe said.

George cocked his head.  “You don’t seem quite yourself.”

“Tired, I guess,” Little Joe excused.  “You know, long trip and all.”  He flushed a bit in the sudden realization that if anyone had the right to feel tired, it was George.  “How’s the leg holding up?” he asked.

“It aches,” George admitted.  “I haven’t done nearly as much dancing as you, of course.  Don’t feel as though you have to stay until the end, chum; your bed awaits, if you need it.”

Little Joe smiled, then, his heart warmed by another demonstration of his hosts’ kindness and consideration—with the exception of one member.  He was confident he’d never hear another kind word from Madeleine and equally concerned that he didn’t deserve one.  He’d known he was nudging a toe over the line by inviting Aideen into the hall for a private dance, but he’d done it anyway, and then he’d taken a giant leap across it by planting an uninvited kiss on her winsome mouth.  He couldn’t let her lose her job over his foolishness.  He had to make it right.  And, at least for tonight, he couldn’t.

 

October 21

Breakfast for Adam was a stiff and uncomfortable meal.  Both of the Parker ladies favored him with frosty looks and icy silence.  The silence should have been a blessing, especially if it signaled a loss of interest in him as a matrimonial prospect; instead, it seethed with anger and simply felt . . . uncomfortable.  The gentlemen at his table could not help but notice.  Mr. Peterson looked mildly amused, as if the entire scenario had been nothing but a welcome diversion from the monotony of shipboard life; Mr. Clarkson, on the other hand, looked gleeful—or was the correct word ‘hopeful’?—at the eligible Mr. Cartwright’s apparent loss of favor with the ladies, who had openly fawned over him before.  Was it possible the young book salesman was jealous of the attention Mrs. Parker and darling Irene had slathered on their reluctant prey? If so, he was welcome to it!  Adam would be more than happy to advance Miss Parker’s cause with anyone actually interested in paying her court.

*****

Pacing the thick carpet at the foot of his bed in his bare feet, Little Joe debated what seemed the only course of action open to him.  He couldn’t allow Aideen to lose her job because of his actions, but Madeleine had made her position clear.  There was little to be gained by appealing to her again.  On the other hand, she had said the final decision would rest with her mother, and Mrs. Pontpier seemed to be a woman with a heart.  Little Joe was sure she would, at least, listen, but he felt he needed to speak to her alone, to put his case before her without interference, and as soon as possible.  If he waited until after breakfast, the Irish serving girl, upset as she was, might well have fled.

That’s where the rub came in, for Mrs. Pontpier took her breakfast in her room, and Little Joe rarely saw her downstairs before mid-morning.  That left, as far as he could see, only one option open to him, yet it was one so out of keeping with acceptable behavior, even back home where social standards were less restrictive, that he wasn’t sure he dared risk it.  It might only result in both him and Aideen being thrown out on their ears.  Fair enough, in his case, but totally unjust in hers.

No help for it, then; he had to do it.  Thrusting his feet into the fur-lined slippers Mrs. Pontpier had bought him, he wrapped the equally new quilted brocade robe around him and walked to the door of his room.  He opened it and took a cautious peek into the hall.  It wouldn’t do at all to be caught before he’d done this awful thing; afterwards, well, all he could do was throw himself on the mercy of the court, so to speak.  Heaven help him if Madeleine was acting as judge.

He tiptoed down the hall—needlessly, of course.  The carpet down its length was almost as plush as that in his bedroom and effectively muffled all sound.  Everything about this mission, however, demanded secrecy and stealth, and it felt instinctive to use them, even when it didn’t matter.  Finally, he stood outside the door he sought, but only the fear that a different one might open before he could work up the courage to enter made him raise his knuckles and rap, rather feebly.

At first there was no response, and then a husky voice called, “Come in.”

Mr. Pontpier!  Little Joe panicked at the unexpected sound.  He’d expected the man to have left for work by this time.  Then he struck his palm to his forehead at his own stupidity.  Of course, Mr. Pontpier was still here: it was Sunday, not a work day, and after the late hours he’d kept the night before, he had probably been indulging in the unaccustomed luxury of sleeping in.  Little Joe wished he could run back down the hall and hide in his room, but that would accomplish nothing.  He opened the door and came hesitantly in.  Mr. Pontpier was knotting the belt of his robe, while, still in bed, his wife drew the covers up to her chin.

“I’m sorry,” Little Joe said.  “I forgot it was Sunday, and I just plain wasn’t thinking.  I shouldn’t be bothering you this early, but it’s kind of important.”

“Is something wrong, young man?” Mr. Pontpier inquired.

“Well, yes, something is wrong,” Little Joe said.  “I was wanting to speak to Mrs. Pontpier about it, but I guess I’ve gone about it all wrong.”  Like everything else, he chided himself silently.

“And it won’t keep, will it?” Mrs. Pontpier surmised, her voice gentle.

“I’m afraid to let it,” Little Joe admitted.  “Please, ma’am, it’s all my fault, but it ain’t—I mean, isn’t—right for the innocent to suffer for what I did.  You wouldn’t want that, I’m sure.  You’re just not that kind of person.”

“I hope not,” she said, “but, Little Joe, you’re making no sense, dear.  Perhaps if you”—but before she could continue, another knock sounded on the door.

“Apparently, we’re popular this morning,” Mr. Pontpier observed dryly, and then he again called, “Come in.”

Little Joe moaned as Madeleine breezed into the room.  So much for seeing Mrs. Pontpier alone.  All it needed was George to make the audience complete.  Maybe they should just let the whole Pontpier staff, butler and all, in on the show, too!

“What are you doing here?” Madeleine demanded as soon as she caught sight of the young visitor.  “This really is insufferable, even for you.”

“Madeleine!” her father interjected.  “That is no way to speak to a guest.”

“Normally, no, Father,” she replied, “but I think it might be quite the right way to speak to this one!  Nothing less would penetrate his thick western skull.”  She rounded on Little Joe.  “I suppose you’re here to play on my mother’s sympathies on behalf of your little amour.”

Little Joe flushed.  “She isn’t that.  She’s a good, decent girl, and she doesn’t deserve what you’re planning to do.”

“Who are we talking about?” Mr. Pontpier demanded.

“Bridget, of course,” Madeleine snuffled disdainfully.

“You don’t even know her name,” Little Joe charged.  “It’s Aideen, not Bridget.”

“It scarcely matters,” she said with a perturbed roll of her eyes.

“Well, then, let’s just call you Bridget or—or Brunhilda or something,” Little Joe snapped.

“That’s enough, both of you,” Mrs. Pontpier said firmly.  “Mercy, Madeleine, this reminds me of how you and George used to squabble when you were younger.  Now, one of you needs to tell us what this is about.”

“I’ll be pleased to,” Madeleine said.  “This ignorant rustic . . .”

“No name calling,” her mother interrupted sharply.  “It’s ill-mannered and I won’t stand for it.”

Madeleine took a deep, sighing breath.  “Yes, of course; I’m sorry, Mother, but no one—absolutely no one in our circle of friends would have been so gauche, so completely—forgive the word—ignorant of proper behavior as to do what this boy did last night.”

“I observed no improper behavior,” her father inserted.  “In fact, I believe young Joseph was quite well received last night—and not without cause.  He made himself attentive and congenial to one and all.”

“That was true in regard to our guests,” Madeleine admitted.  “Unfortunately, in his case, ‘one and all’ includes those it should not.”

Little Joe flashed her a cheeky grin.  “Well, you did say I should spread my talents around, Miss Madeleine.”  The grin, which had helped him get by with a myriad of failings back home was completely wasted on the daughter of the house.

“Ooh!”  Madeleine fumed.  “Do you see what I mean?  No sense of propriety, and further, he has no concept whatsoever of how to behave toward a menial.”

Little Joe started to protest her use of that hated word, but one look from Mrs. Pontpier made him bite his tongue.

“What exactly happened?” Mrs. Pontpier asked.  “Little Joe, you begin this time, please.”

Little Joe gave her a grateful smile.  “Thank you, ma’am.  Miss Madeleine is right about one thing: it was entirely my fault, the whole thing.  I—I talked Aideen into having a dance with me—out in the hall, so it wouldn’t bother your guests.”  His egalitarian sensibilities couldn’t be held in any longer, and he suddenly burst out, “We wouldn’t have had to hide back home, ‘cause out there we really do believe ‘All men are created equal,’ but I guess it’s some sort of crime here, ‘cause when Miss Madeleine caught us, she fired Aideen on the spot and wouldn’t listen when I tried to tell her it was all my doing.”  He gave Madeleine a hard look.

Madeleine returned it with equal severity.  “He isn’t telling you the whole story.  There was more than just a dance; they were . . .”

“Kissing,” Little Joe admitted.  “I gave her a kiss when the music stopped.”  Accusing eyes fixed on Madeleine, he hit his chest with the fingers of his left hand.  “I gave a kiss to her, not the other way around.”  He turned back to Mrs. Pontpier, his eyes pleading this time.  “So, don’t blame Aideen; don’t punish her for my mistake.  If you really think a little kiss is such a crime, then I’m the one you should put out on the street, not the innocent girl I committed it on.  Maybe you don’t know what it means to be poor and in need of a job . . .”

“Nor do you,” Madeleine said with a sniff.

“No,” Little Joe readily admitted, “but I’ve seen what it means to other people, and for someone like Aideen, with a widowed mother to support, it means everything.”

“Well, I didn’t know about that,” Madeleine said awkwardly.

“You didn’t even know her name,” Little Joe retorted.  “To you, she’s just a”—he bitterly uttered the hated word—“a menial, someone beneath you.”

“I believe I understand the situation now,” Mrs. Pontpier intervened.  “I realize our ways are unknown to you, Little Joe, and may be different from your own, but we don’t encourage excessive familiarity with our staff.”

“Then throw me out, not her,” he said earnestly.

A chuckle interrupted his earnest plea.  “And where, exactly, would you go, Joseph?” Mr. Pontpier asked.

“I don’t know,” Little Joe said.  His face fell for a moment, but then rose in earnest determination.  “Wherever men go to look for work in this town, I guess, but that don’t matter.  Better me than an innocent girl.”

“She wasn’t entirely innocent,” Madeleine inserted.  “She knew better; you yourself said she did.”

“But I’m a guest here; that gives me a certain power over her, don’t it?” Little Joe pressed.  “Makes it hard for her to say no.”

“I doubt she wanted to.”

“I doubt any woman from Mrs. Grayson down would have wanted to,” Mr. Pontpier offered, trying without much success to keep from laughing.  “I can’t remember when I’ve seen her sashay down a room with such . . . energy.”

Little Joe flushed.  “I hope it wasn’t too much for her.”

Madeleine rolled her eyes.  “This boy’s charms, inspiring as they may be, have nothing to do with the matter at hand.”

“No.”  Her mother sent a chiding glance toward her husband.  “It is a serious matter, my dear, if a young woman’s livelihood—and the support of a widowed mother—is in question.”

“Please, no,” Little Joe said, and the sad puppy eyes he turned to her were completely uncontrived and, therefore, all the more winsome than usual.

She smiled gently as she stretched out her hand.  “Come here, dear.”

With an uneasy look toward her husband, Little Joe slowly approached her bed and took her hand.  Talk about inappropriate!  He’d started all this hullabaloo with a simple kiss of an unattached young woman, and now he was holding hands with a married lady in her bed.  Why was this acceptable when the other was, apparently, such an outrage?  It made no sense.  Back home, kissing a girl wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, while walking into a married woman’s bedroom might get a man’s head raised from his shoulders.  He was careful to keep an arms’ length away from Mrs. Pontpier’s actual bed.

Mrs. Pontpier gave his hand an encouraging squeeze.  “Tell me honestly, my dear, just how deeply are you involved with this girl?”

“Oh, not at all, ma’am,” he quickly said over the rising lump in his throat.  He’d caused all this ruckus, and yet it was him she was concerned about; he could see it in her eyes, and the tender concern reflected there almost undid him.  “She’s been kind to me—helpful, I mean—and I—well, I guess I wanted to pay her back for that, with the dance.”

“And a kiss?” she pressed with an inquiring tilt of her head.

Little Joe’s face reddened.  “That wasn’t planned, ma’am.  She’s just so doggone pretty that I . . . just . . . did it.  Not thinking.”  Under the warmth of her gaze, an involuntary smile flickered on his lips.  “Not thinking things through—Pa would tell you it’s one of my worst faults, but like I said, the consequences should fall on me, not on Miss Aideen.”

“If we allow this young woman to stay, can you assure me that there will be no more of this . . . not thinking?” she asked.  “I feel I have a duty of care to your father while you are with us, my dear, and I’m quite sure he would prefer that you not form any unexpected attachments during your visit.”

Little Joe made the promise easily, primarily for Aideen’s sake, but also because he knew his feelings for the Irish maid were only casual.  He’d considered her a  friend, nothing more, and if he needed to be more circumspect, even with that, then he would.  “Thank you, ma’am,” he said as she released his hand.

“It isn’t settled yet,” she cautioned.  “I want to speak to the girl first, but I promise I will take into consideration all you’ve said.”  She looked toward her daughter.  “Is there anything further you need to add, Madeleine?”

“No, Mother, except that I’m sorry to have disturbed you so early this morning.  I felt it was necessary, but I do regret if anything has diminished your enjoyment of your special occasion.”

“Nothing could, my darling,” she said warmly.  “You planned everything to perfection, and your father and I could not be more grateful.  I do hope you will allow yourself a well-earned day of rest now, especially as it is the Sabbath, and let us deal with this small matter.”

“Of course, Mother.”  She approached the bed and kissed her mother’s cheek.  As she turned away, her eyes fell on Little Joe and his lips instinctively hardened into a straight line.

“I’m—I’m sorry I disturbed you, too,” Little Joe said, backing toward the door, “and I’ll let you get back to . . . uh, whatever you were doing before.  I should get dressed for breakfast, I guess, or . . . church?”

“We normally attend morning services,” Mr. Pontpier said, his eyes chuckling, “but given the lateness of the party last night, we thought we’d attend the 2 p.m. service today, so take your time about dressing.  Pull the bell when you want breakfast served.  I think the rest of us will be eating in our rooms this morning, so you might as well indulge, too, my boy.”

Little Joe kept backing toward the door.  “Yes, sir; I’ll do that.  Thanks . . . and thank you again, ma’am.  I mean, I know it’s not settled, but . . . thanks, anyway.”

“You’re welcome, Little Joe.”  Only years of training in self control enabled Mrs. Pontpier to keep from giggling and, then, only until her young houseguest had exited the room, backing up all the way.  “Oh, he is a charmer,” she tittered almost as soon as the door closed behind him.

“So, you won’t blame the little maid for succumbing to that kiss?” her husband asked, restraining his own urge to laugh aloud.

“Oh, I imagine not,” she said.  “I think I might find it quite irresistible myself . . . though I will always prefer yours, of course.”  There was no missing the invitation of his sweetheart of twenty-five years, and he was quick to take advantage of it.

*****

Adam was thoroughly frustrated with his morning’s turns about the deck.  His one hope was to encounter Miss Jennings and further his acquaintance with her, but so far, he’d been completely unsuccessful.  They were like ships passing in the night, even though the sun shone brightly in a clear sky of Caribbean blue.  The one time he’d spotted her, strolling on the arm of a man as white-haired as Pa, he’d been in a discussion of Dickens with another admirer of his reading and could not, without being rude, leave the man to approach the lovely lady.  He considered only briefly the option of simply remaining still until she and her escort, presumably her father, circled the deck back to him, but that was too risky to consider.  There were admirers of another sort that he wished to avoid, even if the Parkers were currently spurning him, and staying in one place made him too easy a target for their unwanted attentions.

He finally decided to slow his pace of walking and keep to one side of the steamship.  That, he surmised, would double his chances of crossing her path, and within a quarter hour he saw her and quickened his steps to intercept her.  “Miss Jennings,” he said, “how pleasant to meet you again.  May I assume that this gentleman is your father?”

“He is,” she said coolly.  For a moment she seemed disinclined to introduce them, but then she did.  “Mr. Abraham Jennings.  Father, this is Mr. Adam Cartwright, the reader whom I mentioned yesterday.”

“Ah, a pleasure, Mr. Cartwright,” the other man said cordially, extending his hand.  “I regret that my early hour of retirement prevents my enjoying your reading of Mr. Dickens.  He is a favorite of mine.”

“Perhaps we might discuss him sometime in the gentleman’s salon,” Adam suggested, returning the handshake warmly.  “For now, may I join you in your stroll about the deck?”

“I think not,” Miss Jennings said, a bit abruptly.  Turning to her father, she added, “I’m growing a bit chilly, Father.  I’d like to return below, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course, my dear,” Mr. Jennings returned.  With a nod, he said, “Another time, Mr. Cartwright” and guided her toward the stairs to the lower deck.

Adam stared at their departing backs, wondering what had so changed her attitude toward him.  The slight breeze was anything but chilly, yet chilly perfectly described her demeanor toward him.  She had obviously used that complaint as a subterfuge to leave his company, which she had appeared to enjoy the day before.  What had changed her opinion of him?  Speaking with her, preferably alone, became all the more imperative.

*****

Normally, Little Joe would have felt uncomfortable in such a large, ornate church.  The vaulted ceilings of such places made God seem far off and unreachable, but today He was as close as Joe’s overflowing heart and easy to give thanks to.  He had plenty of thanks to give, too.  He’d seen Aideen serving lunch, smiling in relief, her eyes sparkling with joy, though she was careful to avoid his own, and he’d known in that moment that her job was safe.

He kept his eyes from wandering where they shouldn’t, too, but now, here in the quiet of the church, he found release for the emotions throbbing in his breast.  He’d thank Mrs. Pontpier later for her gracious reprieve, but now his thankful praise rose to God, who had created a woman with such a merciful heart and had brought both him and Aideen within its all-encompassing grace.

*****

Adam felt a sudden surge of thankfulness at almost the same moment his little brother was feeling it in Boston.  She was standing at the rail, the ribbon on her straw bonnet trailing in the light breeze, and she was alone.  He stepped quickly to her side.  “Miss Jennings,” he said.

There was no attempt to disguise the frosty eyes she turned upon him.  “Mr. Cartwright,” she said flatly, without a hint of encouragement, and she immediately returned to viewing the coast of San Salvador.

Obviously, something had changed between them, and he wanted—needed—to determine what it was as quickly as possible.  Since this was no simpering Parker femme, playing hard to get to further tempt his notice, he spoke directly.   “Miss Jennings, I perceive that I have in some way offended you,” he said.  “I hope you will tell me what it is, so I may make amends.”

She faced him, her pursed lips parting to take a determined breath.  “As you wish,” she said.  “I dislike dissembling, Mr. Cartwright.”

“As do I.”

She cocked her head.  “Do you?” she asked skeptically.  “Then, though you may find it unladylike, let me say forthrightly that I had felt drawn to you.  However, at the time I believed you to be unattached.  Now that it seems otherwise, I have no interest in taking your time or attention away from the lady of your choice.”

Adam suddenly grasped the problem.  “I am unattached, Miss Jennings.  I assure you of that.  Although I do seem to have drawn some unwanted attention from a few other ladies, one in particular, it is not of my seeking.  The only lady whose attention I have sought and whose respect I pray I have not lost is . . . you.”

She gazed into his face for long moments, and then her lips relaxed into a smile.  “I recognized some of that attention as admiration for your excellent reading . . . and person,” she said, “but one of the ladies seemed more familiar, even possessive, in a way that suggested a stronger connection.”

“Miss Parker,” Adam replied with a sober nod.  “I have shared a table with her and her mother since leaving San Francisco, and their attempts to curry my attention have become increasingly burdensome.  I realize it is ungentlemanly to say that so frankly, but I, too, wish to be forthright.”

“I noticed some separation between the two of you today,” she said, blushing at this admission of the covert glances she’d taken at both him and Irene Parker throughout the day.

“A permanent one, I hope,” he said with a wry lift of one side of his mouth.  “I had no wish to hurt her, but I finally felt I had to tell her directly of my lack of interest, and I did that last night after the reading.  Meal times today have been—to say the least—uncomfortable.”

She laughed lightly then.  “I’m sorry for your discomfort—and Miss Parker’s, as well, for that matter.  However, I must admit to a certain satisfaction in observing the distance between you, both this morning and this afternoon.”

His smile was full and broad.  “And I take satisfaction in your satisfaction.  May I join you, dear Miss Jennings, in viewing this beautiful island?”

“Please do,” she said, gazing warmly into the depths of his hazel eyes, “and please call me Lily . . . Adam.”

His hand covering hers on the rail accepted the offer and hoped for so much more.

 

October 22

Sitting up in bed, his breakfast tray across his lap, George heard a tap on his door and called out, “Come in, Little Joe.”

As the door opened, his visitor called out, giggling, “I’m not Little Joe, but may I come in, anyway?”

“Of course, Maddie,” her brother replied.  “I wasn’t aware you ever arose this early . . . when there wasn’t an anniversary party to plan, at least.”

“Thank goodness, that’s over,” Madeleine said, “although I do think it came off well . . . despite your young friend’s best efforts to make himself the center of attention.”

“I doubt that was his intention,” George said.

“You know, then, about his escapade?”

“He told me.”

Madeleine seemed surprised.  “Well . . . good,” she finally said.  “It makes things easier if you already know the problem.”

George chuckled.  “I thought the ‘problem’ was resolved.”

His sister shook her head.  “The problem to which I was referring is what to do with that boy.  Obviously, we can’t leave him to his own devices for diversion.”

“Oh, no,” George agreed, laughing even harder.  “I can assure you that would be a mistake.”  Images of the Stinking Stilton and its renowned entertainers, the Beaufort Ballerina and the Cheshire Cow, floated across his memory.  If there was such a place in Boston, he felt certain that Little Joe Cartwright, left to his own devices for diversion, would be sure to find it.

“I’m glad we’re in agreement,” Madeleine said, “but what on earth shall we do with him?  I don’t suppose he shares any of his older brother’s taste for orchestral music or the opera?”

“Uh . . . no.”

She sighed.  “I was afraid of that.  He’s probably had his fill of shopping, too.”

“Definitely,” George agreed, “with the possible exception of another dime novel.”

Madeleine shuddered.  “Ghastly.  What about historic sights?  I believe they were mentioned the other day.”

George nodded.  “Yes, I think he’d enjoy those.  I can take him around to a few, so you won’t be bothered.”

“Thank you.”  Madeleine favored him with a grateful smile.  “That should keep him busy during the day, at least.  As for the evenings, I suppose we’ll have to settle for parlor games or conversation.”  The idea of spending an entire evening talking to the uneducated Westerner elicited another sigh.  “I had so hoped you might escort me to the ballet.”

“Of course, I will,” George said.

“And leave that boy to run rampant through the servants’ quarters?” Madeleine scoffed.  “I think not!”

George laughed.  “I think he’s learned his lesson, Maddie, but we can take him with us.  I doubt he’s ever seen a ballet, and it would do him good to absorb a little Boston culture while he’s here.  In fact,” he added, picturing Little Joe’s likely response to a dozen shapely legs dancing across the stage on tiptoe, “I think he might actually enjoy it.”

“Really?” his sister asked skeptically.

As the image in his mind grew clearer, George smiled and said, “Really.”

*****

Amazing how suddenly a man’s perspective can change, Adam thought as he strolled the deck with the beautiful Lily Ann on his arm.  Even yesterday, all I could think of was how soon I’d reach New York, how quickly I could escape the Parker clutches and reunite with Joe.  Now, I wish we weren’t approaching the east coast.  I wish we could cruise these islands another month or so or, perhaps, find ourselves shipwrecked on some isolated island, where I could play Adam to her Eve, darling Irene and her mother, alas, having gone down with the ship.

He instantly rebuked himself for the wicked thought.  No, not even on them would he wish such a fate; they could simply drift to a different island, along with all the other passengers.  He smiled and shook his head in response to Lily’s inquiring look.  Someday, perhaps, he might be willing to admit the places his imagination could take him, someday when they’d known each other for years.  For now, he was content to spend this final day in the Bahamas at her side, discovering what they had in common and relishing their complementary differences.

*****

Madeleine sighed in contentment as the dancers entered to begin their performance.  She couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a more relaxing day.  Certainly not since that boy had come.  She blushed at her unfairness, for she had to admit she’d been in a tizzy far longer than that, perhaps since the day she’d begun planning the anniversary celebration for her parents.  She’d probably worked too hard at making things perfect, but they deserved so much, and she didn’t resent a moment of the work, just the fretfulness that had come with it.  Some of that she might fairly lay at the doorstep of young Joseph Cartwright, but most just came with her natural disposition.  A character flaw she should probably work on, and perhaps the best way to begin was to set aside any concerns she had about the boy for this one night and simply enjoy the beauty set before her.

Perhaps the concerns were needless, anyway.  George had done a marvelous job of keeping their young guest occupied throughout the day.  She wasn’t sure what masculine mischief they might have gotten up to, and frankly, she didn’t want to know—at least, not tonight.  George had insisted that he needed to check in at his office after his long absence, and he’d taken his friend along with him, although an architectural office couldn’t possibly hold much attraction for the young westerner.  They’d come home with a package or two, so she assumed there’d been more shopping, though she shuddered to think where.  The packages had been small, so perhaps they contained a few items gentlemen need that she and her mother had overlooked, and the gentlemen had been reluctant to mention in front of them.  Ladies needed personal things, and so, she presumed, might gentlemen, though she couldn’t imagine—and didn’t want to—what they might be.

The historic sights of Boston might keep that impossible boy occupied and out of mischief for the few days remaining before Adam arrived to take charge of him.  Adam!  She couldn’t keep the smile from her lips at the thought of seeing him again.  If only he could be persuaded to remain in Boston permanently—perhaps as partner in George’s firm?  Then she might again entertain thoughts of blissful union with the handsome and debonair man she remembered from his college years.

Seeing her smile, George leaned close to her ear.  “Enjoying the dance?”

Though startled, Madeleine quickly collected herself.  “Oh, yes.  Very much.  Thank you, George.”

“My pleasure,” he whispered and returned his attention to the ballet.

Oddly enough, Madeleine observed, the impossible boy seemed to be enjoying the ballet, as well.  Perhaps there was a bit of his brother in him, after all, or, more likely, Adam had managed to cultivate a drop of more refined taste into his young brother.  She’d compliment him on that, for though people said the stomach was the way to a man’s heart, she’d come to believe that flattery was the shorter route.

*****

Adam couldn’t remember when he’d spent a more enjoyable day, even though he hadn’t done much except walk the deck and view the sites.  With a beautiful, intelligent, charming woman.  That made all the difference, of course.  By the end of the day Miss Jennings had become not just Lily, but “my Lily,” and they had both begun talking about plans to see one another again, once they reached Boston.

When he took his place behind the lectern for the night’s reading of A Tale of Two Cities, Adam saw his Lily seated front and center, in the place Irene Parker had previously appropriated.  Her smiling presence there was both an inspiration and a distinct distraction, as he stumbled over his words for the first time.  Only once, however, as he quickly took possession of his errant mind.  He had an obligation to his devoted audience, after all, as well as a fervent desire to merit his Lily’s continued admiration.

Darling Irene was there, too, glaring her displeasure and snorting at his one slip of the tongue.  That was a distraction, too, of course, but though he regretted having incurred her ill will, in a way he felt he deserved it.  He should have been more honest with her in the first place, rather than using the subtle subterfuges he’d employed in an attempt to avoid her without hurting her feelings.

 

October 23

By everyone’s estimation, George did an outstanding job of keeping Little Joe occupied the next day.  At supper that evening the young westerner, though still looking hale and energetic, declared that they had seen every inch of Boston.  The Pontpiers had chuckled indulgently over that, while Madeleine had almost emitted a most unladylike hoot.  “That would scarcely be possible,” she said.  “I’m sure you barely touched the surface of all Boston has to offer.”

“Probably, ma’am,” Little Joe admitted, “but he made a fair try at walking my legs off.”

Good, she thought.  Anything to keep the boy from running after every pretty maid on the premises.

No one noticed her look of satisfaction, however, for George was laughing out loud.  “I might have done just that,” he finally said, “if my own legs had been up to it.”

His mother looked instantly concerned.  “Oh, my boy, I hope you haven’t overdone.”

“No, I’m fine, Mother,” he assured her.  “We didn’t push ourselves, regardless of what this one says.”  He inclined his head toward Little Joe.  “We only covered a few of the major historic sights.  We’ll see more tomorrow.”

Mrs. Pontpier smiled then.  “What impressed you most, Little Joe?”

“Anything to do with Paul Revere,” George answered for the young man to his right.  “All that fast riding, you know.”

“Maybe,” Little Joe admitted.  “I always liked the stories about him when I was in school.  I did like seein’ his house and the Old North Church, where they hung those lamps that set him off ridin’.  That and the monument at Bunker Hill—or, Breed’s, I guess it is, though that still don’t make a lick of sense to me.  I thought you Bostoners were pretty set on getting things right.”

“We do our best,” George snorted.

“No doubt it was some western visitor who named it in error,” Madeleine added almost in concert.

Little Joe met the comments with a little grin.  He doubted that Madeleine had forgiven their own western visitor for his errors yet, but it was good to see some friendly repartee between her and her brother, even if it did make him a little homesick.  Back at the Ponderosa, he was likely to be the target of concerted efforts by his two big brothers to keep him in his place, but he gave as good as he got and he kind of missed the back-and-forth banter and battle that sometimes took place at the dinner table.  He just flat-out missed his brothers.  And Pa.  He couldn’t begin to describe the ache in his soul that only Pa could fill.  They said Adam should be here any day now, though, so maybe he’d soon be on his way home.

*****

For Adam, the day had been his most relaxing since boarding ship.  Pleasant as the southeastern shoreline of the United States was, it didn’t create the sort of exotic awe of the Caribbean islands he and Lily had savored the day before.  She had also confided that she felt remiss in leaving her father so completely alone, though she seemed reluctant to leave Adam’s side, as well.

“Let’s join your father, then,” Adam had suggested to her sparkling-eyed delight.

While he’d intended the gesture as a kindness to the old man, Adam found that he was the beneficiary.  Abraham Jennings was as cultured and well read as his daughter, coupled with a practical wisdom that reminded Adam profoundly of his father, and he was a delight to converse with.

It wasn’t until he retired that night, after another much-lauded reading of Dickens that Adam realized that this was the first day he had spent not either worrying about reaching his wayward little brother or in active avoidance of the attentions of a man-hungry woman.  Today, instead of pacing the deck, driven by one or the other of those needs, he’d just relaxed in good company, and it had felt wonderful.  Why, or why, in the confines of a ship, had it taken him so long to find the Jennings?  Now, he had only one more day to enjoy the newfound friendship before they docked in New York City and separated, at least for a few days.  The Jennings were staying over in the city for a day or so, to do some shopping and see friends, and while Adam was tempted to come up with some excuse to do the same, he didn’t want to do his own friends the discourtesy of further delaying his arrival in Boston.  He had exchanged addresses with the Jennings, however, and been given a promise that they would notify him when they arrived home, which significantly eased the pinch of a few days’ deprivation.

 

October 24

Adam scowled at the clutter covering every surface of his small stateroom.  It was amazing how much repacking he needed to do before debarking this afternoon.  A man liked to spread out and make himself comfortable, even in a temporary home, but he was still surprised by how much his things had spread across . . . well, everything.  It was likely to take the better part of the morning to put them in order, when he’d much rather spend it with Lily Ann.  With a lopsided grin he shook his head.  If he thought he’d made a mess of his belongings, how much repacking would a lady be likely to need?  Ladies typically traveled with more accoutrements than practical men, and his Lily, while more sensible than most, probably had greater need of spending time in her stateroom than he in his.

It wouldn’t have mattered if they could have had the afternoon together, but when several of his regular audience for the evening readings had implored him to give an extra one that afternoon, so that they might hear the end of the story, he’d felt obliged to agree.  He well understood the irritation of an unfinished story and could not willingly inflict it on anyone, when it lay in his power to assuage it.  So, there went the afternoon, for it would take the better part of it to reach the climactic end of the novel.  Having read into the wee hours the previous night, he knew what a treat awaited his readers.  At least, he should have the pleasure of Lily’s smiling face in the audience.  No sensible woman could need more than a morning to pack up a stateroom, could she?

*****

Little Joe spotted George sitting on a bench ahead of him and with a relieved grin hurried down the grass-lined path and dropped down next to him.

“Don’t tell me you’re tired,” George chuckled.  “I know that can’t be true.”

Little Joe shook his head.  “Naw.  That’s for old men . . . like you and Adam.”

George slapped the young man’s sturdy thigh.  “That for your cheek, you bottomless pool of energy.  I won’t concede the ‘old’ part, but I freely confess to being tired.”  He rubbed his leg, the one that until a few days ago had been encased in plaster.

Seeing the movement, Little Joe slumped.  “Oh, boy, I’m sorry, George.  Why didn’t you say something sooner?  I’ve been walking your legs off the last couple of days.”

“More yours than mine today,” George said.  Unlike yesterday’s tour, which had taken them all over Boston, they’d kept close to Boston Common, where they now sat, for today’s excursion.  They’d begun with Old South Meeting House, where the patriots had met to plan the Boston Tea Party and then walked a short distance down School Street to City Hall, mostly so Little Joe could see the immense bronze statue of Benjamin Franklin there.  The western youth had been less impressed by the information that the street had been named in honor of its being the location of the first public school in the United States.  From the look on his face, Little Joe apparently would have preferred that no one had ever thought of that innovation to American society.

They’d walked through Granbury Cemetery and paid their respects at the graves of Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, the patriot most revered by the proficient western rider, who rewarded George for the groan-worthy pun with a punch in the arm.  Then they’d made a brief stop by the State House—well, brief for George at any rate.  He’d only stayed long enough to point out the stately statue of George Washington in the entrance hall and to direct Little Joe to the staircase that would take the young man up to the dome for a spectacular view of the city.  George himself had begged off, the climb being too much for his already abused leg, and walked across the street to the Common after giving his young friend directions on how to find him.

It was that view from the top of the State House that had shaken Little Joe’s confidence in his ability to find his way around town and given rise to the relief with which he’d sighted George.  Not until he’d seen that sweeping panorama had he realized just how large a place he’d landed in, and while he thought he could probably have found his way back to the Pontpier home in Union Square, he’d still been glad to see his guide once again.  This was definitely not the Ponderosa, where he practically knew every rock and pinecone.

*****

Almost every passenger aboard the Ariel lined her deck as she pulled into New York harbor.  Some waved exuberantly to people awaiting them on shore, while others, including Adam, simply drank in the sight of the great city’s skyline.  Most were excited to leave the ship and either get back to their lives or begin the adventure of a visit.  Adam, however, was torn between two emotions.  He was pleased, of course, to reach his destination, and eager to reunite with Little Joe, as well as to see George’s family again, but the ship’s docking meant that he could no longer spend almost every waking moment with Lily Ann.  And that, he was finding, bothered him immensely.

At least, they would have one final meal together here in New York; he and the Jennings had already made plans to meet for supper this evening at Delmonico’s.  They had also exchanged their Boston addresses with promises to see one another there, hopefully on many occasions, although Adam, of course, could not slight his hosts.

“Well, Mr. Cartwright,” a voice at his elbow said, breaking into his reverie, “it would seem our separation is upon us.  We shall miss the pleasure of your company.”

The coolness of the tone belied the flattering words, but Adam responded to the literal words with civil courtesy.  “Thank you, Mrs. Parker.  You and your daughter have been gracious table companions on this long voyage.”  A stretch, but he could afford to be generous now.

Irene Parker sidled up to him to say enthusiastically, “Oh, yes, Mr. Cartwright!  Your company has made the miles simply fly.  They are ending far too soon.”

That, of course, was totally opposed to Adam’s own sentiments.  He would be only too happy to part company with the man-hungry Mrs. Parker and her darling Irene.

Irene, however, was rattling on, blissfully unaware of his inner recoil.  “How I wish we might have the same pleasure on our return voyage.  And perhaps we shall!  When do you return, dear Mr. Cartwright?”

Adam moistened his suddenly dry lips.  “I can’t be sure yet,” he said.  “There are a number of factors to consider.”  To be honest, he hadn’t given the timing of his return to Nevada any consideration, but even had he known the exact date and the name of his westbound ship, he would have kept them close to his vest, at least from this pair.  He had an all too realistic fear that his departure date would instantly become theirs, regardless of their present plans.

As the gangplank was lowered and passengers pressed toward it, he managed to distance himself from the two women.  After making arrangements for his luggage to be sent ahead to the Astor House, he fulfilled his first and most important duty by sending a telegram to Boston, apprising his hosts of his expected time of arrival the next day and another to tell Pa he’d arrived safely.  Then he hailed a hansom cab and headed to his hotel to take a long, leisurely bath and dress for dinner with his new friends.

*****

Dinner at the Pontpier table no longer featured the sedate sharing of the day’s events that had characterized it before the arrival of a certain young guest from the West.  Little Joe met each day with such exuberant enjoyment and overflowing zest that it could not but infect the others, as well, for he seemed able to find adventure, even in a simple walk down the street, much less the grand tour of Boston he’d made with George the last two days.  Once again, he had arrived home bubbling over with enthusiasm for what had become mundane to the family, and the Pontpiers found themselves seeing their home town with fresh eyes.

He paused politely, however, when the butler entered, carrying an envelope on a silver tray, and although the Pontpiers were yet to realize it, Little Joe’s egalitarian treatment of all, a result of his upbringing at the hand of Ben Cartwright, had begun to rub off on them, as well.  Every fork dropped and every head turned to listen cordially to whatever the butler had to say.

Horace, perhaps noticing the change of attitude more than his employers themselves, seemed unsure how to react, but he quickly returned to form.  “I am sorry to interrupt you at table, sir,” he said, “but this being a telegram, I thought it might be urgent.”

“Quite right,” Mr. Pontpier said with encouraging grace as he reached for the envelope.  “Thank you, Horace.”

As the butler bowed and backed out of the room, Mr. Pontpier opened the envelope and pulled out the message, while everyone else sat silent, waiting with the sudden breathlessness with which most people met a telegram.  Telegrams were costly and, therefore, rarely used for anything but emergencies.  While that was less true for people as wealthy as the Pontpiers or even the Cartwrights, the reaction seemed almost inbred in the human race.  Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the head of the house smiled at them and said, “It’s all right; it’s from Adam.  He’ll be arriving tomorrow.”

“Oh, how exciting,” Madeleine enthused.

“It will be so good to see dear Adam again,” her mother said, adding with a smile across the table, “although we’ve had a fine representative of him with us for several days.”

By rote, Little Joe smiled back at her.  He was grateful for her warmth and kindness, of course, but he still felt himself in a measure of disgrace in this household.  No one could convince him he’d ever be as welcome here as his older brother so obviously was.  One had only to look at Madeleine’s face to see how very much more welcome Adam would be.

He heard the news with mixed emotions.  Of course, he wanted his brother to arrive.  Any familiar face would have been a gift, and though he would never have admitted it to Adam’s face, he knew he’d feel relieved to have his older brother’s guidance and advice to help him avoid the pitfalls of eastern society.  On the other hand, he couldn’t help feeling nervous about Adam’s reaction to his impulsive decision to accompany George here, without so much as a by-your-leave from anyone in authority.  He’d done what he thought was right, but he couldn’t be sure whether Adam would applaud him for a job well done or throttle him for taking on more than he should.  He’d seen it go both ways on previous occasions when he was sure he’d done what was right, only to learn the hard way that older brother thought it anything but.

“Um, could one of you tell me how to get to the station?” he asked.  “I’d like to meet Adam’s train, and I’m not sure I remember how to get there.”

“Certainly,” Mr. Pontpier started to say, but was interrupted by his daughter.

“What a wonderful idea!” Madeleine proclaimed.  “We can all go and surprise him!”

“Now, Madeleine, we can’t all go,” her father teased.  “Some of us have to work, you know.”

“I didn’t mean you, of course, Father,” she said.

“I think it would be best if I remained here to welcome him to our home,” her mother said.

“Yes, of course, Mother,” Madeleine said with strained patience.  “I was referring to us young folk.  Don’t you think it will please Adam to have a welcoming party, George?”

“Perhaps,” George conceded.  Glancing to his right, he noticed an expression on his young friend’s face that he couldn’t quite read, but which concerned him.  “Unless, that is, you’d prefer to meet him on your own, Little Joe.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, George,” Madeleine hastened to insert.  “Why would he?”

“Well, he might tell you if you gave him a moment to wedge in a word,” George chided.

All eyes turned expectantly on Little Joe, who flushed and muttered that it would be fine.  As anyone on the Ponderosa could have told them, “fine” was not a word to be taken literally when uttered by Little Joe Cartwright, but they all accepted it at face value.  Only George considered that the young man might not have been completely forthright, but he hesitated to embarrass him by further inquiry in front of the others.  Something did seem to be bothering the boy, but now was not the time to bring it up. He thought he might find an opportunity before bedtime, but he didn’t think of it again until after he was in bed, and the night’s sleep completely wiped it from his mind.

 

October 25

Little Joe was edgily pacing the length of the waiting room at the depot.  Madeleine, sitting primly beside her brother on a polished oak bench, pursed her lips and shook her head.  “Do something,” she finally whispered to George.

The next time Little Joe passed near them, George called out, “Joe, come here.”

It took a pace or two for the message to register, but Little Joe then dutifully walked over and stood before the other man.  “You need something, George?” he asked.

“Sit down,” George said bluntly.

“Yes, please,” Madeleine added with sharper urgency.  “Mercy, boy, I’ve seen caged tigers who were less restless.”

“Sorry,” Little Joe muttered as he dropped down on the bench beside George.  “Didn’t mean to embarrass you.”

“You didn’t,” George assured him, although Madeleine didn’t look as though she agreed, “but the train won’t get here any sooner for all the energy you’re expending.”

Little Joe exhaled forcefully.  “I wasn’t tryin’ to rush it.”

“Ah!” George chuckled with sudden insight.  “You’re not still afraid Adam will kill you, are you?”

Little Joe shrugged.  “Naw.  He might want to, but he won’t.”

“Certainly not!” Madeleine exclaimed.  “Adam would never resort to violence!  He’s too much a gentleman.”

The remark brought an arch to Little Joe’s eyebrow worthy of any either his father or older brother had ever sported.  Obviously, Miss Madeleine had never seen older brother with his bull-of-the-woods horns on or she’d never have said anything so patently ridiculous.  Given the right provocation, like a threat to his home or family, Adam was fully capable of violence, and Little Joe had personally been on the receiving end of it, mostly verbally, but on occasion accompanied by a slap to the face or, when younger, a swat on the seat of his britches.  He wasn’t really afraid of any physical response now, but almost terrified of what Adam might say.

Somehow, the Pontpier siblings managed to keep the caged tiger confined to the bench until the train pulled into the station.  Then they all rose together and made their way to meet the arriving passengers, with Little Joe, in a sudden burst of atypical timidity, lagging behind the others.

“There he is!” cried Madeleine, the first to spot Adam, as he stepped off the train.  “Adam!  Oh, Adam!  Over here!”  She hurried forward and grasped him by the forearm.  “Oh, Adam, how good it is to see you again.”

“Thank you, Maddie,” Adam said with a genuine, if cautious, smile.  “It’s good to see you again, too.”  His smile broadened as he caught sight of George.  “George,” he said, extending his hand.  “Wonderful to see you walking on your own two feet again!  You suffered no ill effects from your journey, then?”

“None,” George assured him, adding with a quick glance toward Little Joe, hesitantly coming up behind him, “thanks, largely, to the help a certain young stowaway rendered me on board ship.”

“Ah, yes, the stowaway,” Adam chuckled, all his intentions to wring his little brother’s neck having flown out the window at first sight of him.  A closer look at the nervous face made him open his arms wide and say, “Come ‘ere, kid.”

And Little Joe came, his head resting against his brother’s broad chest as he clutched onto him like a drowning sailor grabbing a board from a sinking ship.

As Adam’s arms circled his brother’s slender frame, he felt the boy shaking, and immediately his mouth moved close to Little Joe’s ear as he said soothingly, “Easy, little buddy.  Everything’s all right now: brother’s here.”  He was gratified to feel both the trembling and his brother’s heartbeat slow.

Little Joe pulled back, grinning with relief.  “I really am glad to see you, brother.”

Adam clapped him on both shoulders and stepped back.  “Well, tell me now,” he said with a wink toward George, “just how big a nuisance has this rascal been?”

“Oh, about what you’d expect,” George teased.  “Seriously, though, he’s been very helpful.  I don’t know what I’d have done without him on the trip home.”

Adam nodded and looked satisfied; he did not, however, miss the tight set of Madeleine’s lips and suspected there was something he might need to question George about more fully, once they were alone.

As they moved toward the exit, Little Joe proved his mercurial nature, having in the last half hour transformed from caged tiger to frightened rabbit and now into something resembling a tail-wagging puppy, bouncing around his master’s legs.  He would, of course, have vehemently rejected any suggestion that Adam was his master, but in every other way the analogy fit, or so George thought.  Madeleine, without benefit of longer acquaintance with the youngest Cartwright, just looked stunned.

When they neared the door to the street, however, Little Joe managed to catch them all, older brother included, by surprise.  “Hey, since we’re so close, maybe we ought to book our passage home,” he told his brother.  “We could even get the train tickets before we leave here, unless you’re afraid we can’t get passage on the next ship, bein’ late as it is.  Or do you think we ought to go by the steamer office and get that settled first?”

Adam stared at him.  “Joe, what are you babbling about?”

“Going home,” Little Joe said as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“But you just got here, Adam,” Madeleine protested.  “You can’t possibly be thinking of leaving already.”

“Of course not,” Adam assured her, eyes fixed on his little brother’s falling face.  “Joe, the next ship leaves in just five days.”

“Yeah, I know.  I been keepin’ track in the paper,” Little Joe replied.  After one nervous flick of his eyes toward Madeleine, he plunged on, “I know it’s close, but I can be packed and ready, and you’re already packed and . . .”  His voice died off as the stares of the other three finally took their toll on his tail-wagging happiness.  “You don’t want to go,” he said slowly.

“Not that soon, no,” Adam said with a bemused shake of his head.  “I’d like to visit with my friends a little longer than I spent just getting here.”

“Of course!” Madeleine chimed in enthusiastically.  “Mother and Father are so looking forward to seeing you again.”

“And I, them,” Adam responded with a gracious and genuine smile.

“Oh, yeah, sure,” Little Joe mumbled.  Swallowing down his disappointment, he let his ebullient nature rise to the surface again.  “Next after that, then.”

Madeleine’s laugh sounded a bit forced.  “Oh, don’t be ridiculous.  That’s still much too soon.  You must let us keep you long enough for a proper visit, Adam.”

“Thank you,” Adam said.  After a quick, courteous smile in her direction, he looked back at his brother.  “We’ll discuss it later,” he said with a sober enough tone that Little Joe knew the subject was closed until they were alone.

“Well, then, how about stopping by Cornhill Coffee House for lemon ice cream,” George suggested, hoping to lighten the mood.

“Oh, George, you can’t be serious,” Madeleine objected.  “You know Mother is preparing a special tea in Adam’s honor.”

“I can accommodate both,” George chuckled.

Adam joined him.  “I think I can, too.”

Madeleine caught their enthusiasm.  “Well, then, lemon ice cream all around!”  She linked her arm with Adam’s as they headed out the door with Little Joe trailing behind, still like a puppy following his master, but no longer bouncing with joyful energy.

*****

It was wonderful to have Adam in their home again.  All the Pontpiers said so, Madeleine most enthusiastically and persistently of all.  He fit back into the family with easy grace, as if he’d never left.  In fact, as they gathered for tea, their pleasure in having him at their table so entranced them that at first no one was aware of the change in their other houseguest.

Finally noticing, Mrs. Pontpier’s face reflected her concern.  “Little Joe,” she said, “are you not feeling well, my dear?”

It took a moment for it to register with him that he was being spoken to.  Looking up, he gave her a nervous smile before saying, “I’m fine, ma’am.  Just not very hungry—after stopping for ice cream and all.”

Mrs. Pontpier clucked her tongue, though her tone was indulgent as she said, “Oh, you naughty children, spoiling your appetites that way!”

“Way to go, Joe,” George chided, winking at Adam as he did.  “Just toss us all under the buggy wheels.”

“Buggy wheels?”  Madeleine emitted an uncharacteristic snort.  “How terribly quaint.”

Little Joe flushed.  “I didn’t mean it that way.”

“Of course, you didn’t,” Mrs. Pontpier assured him soothingly.  “I’m glad you’re not feeling poorly, and I can only wonder how the others are managing to eat with such relish after their naughty escapade.  I’m sure you all enjoyed the treat, however.”

Little Joe hadn’t particularly enjoyed the ice cream, mostly because of the turmoil brewing inside.  He’d felt rather left out of the conversation of the other young people, as they shared reminiscences of old times in Boston during Adam’s previous sojourn.  If there was anything Little Joe didn’t want Adam to dwell on, it was how much he’d enjoyed living in this big eastern city, with all the temptations it had to offer a man like him.

“Mother,” Madeleine said brightly, “do help George and I persuade Adam to pay us a nice, long visit.  We haven’t been able to get a commitment from him yet.”

“Can you, Adam?” Mrs. Pontpier asked.  “I know you have responsibilities at home, but we would be delighted to have you—and Little Joe, of course—remain with us as long as possible.

“Thank you,” Adam said, gracious, but still noncommittal.  “We really haven’t had an opportunity to discuss our plans.  I only hope we won’t overstay our welcome.”

“Not possible, my boy,” Mr. Pontpier declared decisively.

“Indeed not!” Madeleine declared enthusiastically.  “Think what fun we could have over the holidays with you here.”  She paused and dutifully echoed her mother, “And Little Joe, as well.”  Her fervor rose again as she entreated, “Oh, do say you’ll stay until the New Year!”

Little Joe, who had been making an effort to eat to assuage Mrs. Pontpier’s concern, almost choked on the bite of scone in his mouth.  “New Year!” he protested.  “Don’t joke about a thing like that, Miss Madeleine.”

“I’m not joking,” she said.  “I think it’s a splendid idea.”

Little Joe turned pleading eyes to his brother.  “She’s joking, right?  She has to be joking.”

A wry smile played at Adam’s mouth.  “I don’t think so.”

Something grabbed at Joe’s chest.  “But you wouldn’t,” he said in a tone like that of a medieval serf petitioning his liege.  “You—I mean, we—couldn’t.”

“Well, we could, of course,” Adam started to say.

“No!” Little Joe cried.  “Miss both Thanksgiving and Christmas?  That’s crazy, Adam.  I mean, a joke’s a joke, but this isn’t funny!”

“We’ll discuss it later.”  Adam’s voice, while low, came out almost as a growl.

“I want to know now!” Little Joe demanded.  “Tell me now you’re not serious!”

Adam took a slow breath.  “We will discuss it later,” he repeated tersely, “and if you are unable to keep a civil tongue in your mouth, I would suggest that you go to your room.”

Heart pounding and mind racing, Little Joe suddenly bolted from the table and stormed out.  Yet even in his turmoil, he caught, from the corner of his eye, both the tender commiseration on the face of Mrs. Pontpier and the taut-lipped nod of approval her daughter directed toward his older brother.

In the wake of Little Joe’s departure, a heavy silence fell over the room.  Then Adam raised his napkin and dabbed his lips before setting it to the right of his still half-filled plate.  “I apologize for this unpleasantness,” he said.  “If you will excuse me, there is a matter I must attend to without delay.”

“No, Adam.”

The adamant command was all the more riveting for having come from the person at the table least likely to raise her voice.  George and Madeleine could have testified, however, that when their mother spoke with that level of authority, no one had ever been known to withstand her.  Even without that prior understanding, Adam was reluctant to do so, but he felt he had no choice.  “I am sorry to cause you any grief, dear lady,” he said, “but I cannot permit such rudeness to go unchallenged.  My father would never countenance that sort of behavior at our table, and I will not excuse it at yours, so if you will pardon me . . .”

“No, Adam.”  The words were spoken more softly this time, but just as intensely.  As the young westerner fixed his attention on her, Mrs. Pontpier’s lips softened sympathetically, and she said, “It isn’t rudeness, Adam; it’s pain, shock and pain, and you cannot scold a child out of either.”

Moistening his lips, Adam slowly nodded.  “I understand what you’re saying, but even so, the situation must be addressed.”

“In anger?” she pressed.

He smiled wryly.  “I will try to restrain my inclination to throttle him, but I don’t feel this should wait.”

“Why not send an emissary?” she suggested.  “In my experience, pain generally calls for a mother’s touch.  I know you’ve had little opportunity for that in your life; nor has that boy, but I think it may achieve more than a brother’s anger, even restrained.  May I try, please?”

The mention of mother triggered, as it always did, the image of a blond-haired, blue-eyed personification of love, stooping to lay her hand against his fevered brow—his first memory of Inger Borgstrom.  What a change her mother’s touch had brought into his life!  How richly and deeply he had been loved, though for all too brief a time.  And while she’d been entirely different from Hoss’s mother, Marie D’Marigny, too, though once a stranger, had restored to his life a mother’s touch.  Now, it was her son who needed what all the Cartwright boys had known far too briefly, and again it was a loving stranger offering it.

“I’d take her up on it, Adam,” George advised, with a heartening grasp of his friend’s upper arm.

At first Adam was appalled at the idea of foisting his responsibility off on anyone else, much less this gracious lady, but as he gazed into her loving eyes, he knew she was right.  No matter how much he tried to restrain himself, the anger would seep out, and he and Joe would find themselves at each other’s throats.  He suddenly found himself remembering words he’d first heard at his father’s knee: “a soft answer turneth away wrath.”  Soft words were more likely to win Little Joe, and Adam knew he was incapable in this moment of uttering them.  “I hate to give you such a thankless task,” he finally said, “but if you wish, then, yes, please be my emissary.”  His face tightened again momentarily.  “But take no disrespect from him.”

She shook her head as she stood to her feet.  “There won’t be any,” she said.

*****

The caged tiger was back, this time pacing a serpentine circuit of the guest room and giving the carpet more wear than it had seen since it was laid.  Little Joe moaned when he heard the rap on his door.  Of course, Adam had followed him.  No surprise there, except for the minor one of his older brother’s having shown enough courtesy to not simply throw open the door and barge in unannounced.  If he thinks I’m gonna invite him in to rake me over the coals, he’s the one in for a surprise, Joe snorted inwardly.  He stopped pacing, folded his arms across his chest, to better fortify himself against attack, and awaited the inevitable.

He was prepared to face the worst Adam could bring; he was not prepared for who actually peeked around the door as it slowly opened.

“May I come in, dear?” Mrs. Pontpier asked with a tender smile.

For a moment Little Joe couldn’t say anything; then he babbled out, “It’s your house, ma’am.”

She laughed lightly.  “No, my dear.  This is your room, your private domain, where you are its sovereign ruler.  So . . . may I come in?”

He grinned then.  “Yes, please enter, your majesty.”  He gave her a bow worthy of royalty.

She entered, closing the door softly behind her, and came straight to him.  Placing her cool hands on each of his feverish cheeks, she pulled his head down toward her and kissed his forehead.  “There,” she said, stepping back and lavishing him with her warm gaze.  “Better now?”

His lower lip began to tremble, kindness having undone him as no sharp rebuke could have.  “Oh, ma’am,” he choked out, “I’m so sorry.”

“Shh,” she said, again taking his face in her hands.  “That’s all past now.  Come sit with me and let’s talk.”  She sat down companionably on the edge of his bed and patted the mattress beside her.

“I didn’t mean anything against you,” he said.

“I know,” she said and again patted the mattress.  This time he came and sat beside her.  “You were hoping to go home soon?”

For a moment he could do nothing but nod; then the dam burst.  “It isn’t anything to do with you,” he said again, desperate that she understand.  “You’ve been great, just great, but . . . but . . .”

“But this isn’t home?” she suggested.  “And you do miss home, don’t you, my child?  More than we realized, I think.  More, perhaps, than even you realized.”

Traitorous tears swam in his eyes, and again the struggle to hold them back made him temporarily unable to speak.  When he thought he had a measure of control, he said, “I thought we’d be going home as soon as Adam got here.  Stupid of me, of course.  I should have known he’d want to visit with you awhile . . . and that’s only right and proper, I know . . . but it was a disappointment, and then Miss Madeleine started talking about holidays, and that was something I hadn’t even thought of.  I suddenly realized that if we didn’t leave right away, I wouldn’t get home in time for Thanksgiving, and then she said New Year’s, and all I could think of was not spending Christmas with Pa and Hoss and . . . I’m sorry.”  The words had come out in a rush, and now he was spent, practically gasping for breath.

She stroked light fingers up and down his arm.  “Of course,” she said.  “Have you ever been apart during the holidays?”

He shook his head, and then self-corrected, “Well, I’ve been apart from Adam before . . . when he was back here for his schooling, you know?”

“Yes, I know,” she said, “but never away from your father, your other brother?  Not for this long . . . ever?”

“Never,” he whispered.  He looked up, his eyes pleading for understanding.  “I don’t know if I can,” he confided.

She took his hand.  “I do understand,” she assured him, “but it’s not my decision to make.  It’s yours and Adam’s, and the two of you need to talk, the sooner the better, I believe.  I won’t try to influence the decision either way, other than to say that I would take great pleasure in having you here for as long as you both care to stay.”  She reached up to cup his cheek in her hand.  “And I do mean you, Little Joe, not just Adam, dear as he is to us.  I would love to have more time to get to know you better—I’m not likely to get another chance, after all—and if you stay, I promise to make your holidays a happy time, perhaps even an adventure to remember all your days.  If you don’t, I shall just have to bear it as bravely as I know you will, should the decision go differently than you hope.”

Again, his heart was too full for words, especially when her arms came around him, and as she held him close, for a few, brief minutes, he remembered what it was like to have a mother.

*****

Little Joe paused, pen in hand, when he heard another knock on his door a couple of hours later.  No mistaking that firm sound for the tap of a lady’s dainty knuckles!  It was bound to be brother Adam this time, and Joe was no more inclined to receive him than before.  His conversation with Mrs. Pontpier had pointed out the obvious, however: he and Adam had to talk.  So, despite the sudden rise in his heart rate, he called out, “Come in,” but didn’t bother getting up.  Keeping the writing table between them seemed like a good idea.

Adam entered.  “Are you feeling better?” he asked, as if the reason for Joe’s sudden departure from the tea table had been an unexpected attack of queasiness.

“I don’t know,” Little Joe said cautiously.  As his brother approached, he turned over the letter he’d been writing, so only its blank backside showed.  “I guess that depends on what you’re here to say.”

“I don’t have a prepared speech,” Adam said, “but I think we need to come to an understanding about how long a visit to make here.”

“You know how long I want it,” Little Joe grunted.

“Yes, but I hardly think leaving on the next available ship is fair to me—or to our hosts, do you?” Adam pressed, striving to keep a caustic tone out of his voice.

Little Joe sighed as he ran a hand through curls so tousled they must have been subjected to the same treatment several times already.  “I reckon not.  I can understand you wantin’ to spend time with ‘em, like you planned, but that don’t have to mean me, too, does it?  I mean, they’ve seen plenty of me—some might say more than enough—so you could just put me on a ship for home and stay here yourself.”

Adam laughed forcefully, without a trace of humor.  “I most certainly could not!” he declared.  “You may think you’re now an experienced traveler, but I am not about to answer to our father for sending you off on such a long journey by yourself.”

“Pa don’t have to know,” Little Joe countered.

Adam arched an eyebrow.  “You don’t think he’ll notice when you get off the ship alone?  Besides, Pa already knows that the principal reason I came was to bring you back safely.”

Little Joe stared at him.  “You told him that?  You went home and then back to San Francisco in what . . . a week?

“Of course not.”  Adam couldn’t stop the roll of his eyes at the ridiculous idea.

“How, then?”

Adam smirked a bit.  “Handy little invention we have now.  It’s called the telegraph, and I heard back from him, too, via the same means.  My instructions are quite clear.  We go back together, little brother—no argument.”

Little Joe slumped as he accepted the inevitable.  “Okay, but you’re not serious about stayin’ all the way to New Year’s, are you?”

“I don’t know.  I really hadn’t settled on a specific departure date,” Adam admitted.  “Before we left home, I planned to stay about a month, which would have put me here for Thanksgiving, and with my delayed departure from San Francisco, I did make certain preparations in regard to being away from home at Christmas, too.”

Little Joe groaned.  “Before you left?”

“Yes, but”—Adam held up a hand when he saw Joe about to protest—“all I mean is that I purchased some Christmas gifts and had Hoss take them home with him, in case I didn’t make it back in time.  I haven’t checked the ship schedules, so I don’t even know if that’s possible.  I suppose that’s our first step.”

Little Joe suddenly brightened.  “I already picked one up, when I was out walking one day.”  He opened the center drawer of the writing desk, slipping his letter inside at the same time, and took out a pamphlet.  He unfolded it and spread it on the desk top.  Adam came around the desk, so he, too, could read it.  “See?”  Joe said, pointing at the departures’ column, “The first ship leaves a week from today, and then there’s one on the eleventh of November.”  He bit his lower lip.  “I guess you think that’s still too soon, huh?”

A smile twitched at the corner of Adam’s mouth.  “I still do, yes, and the next would be the 21st.  Frankly, I’d prefer to spend Thanksgiving here, rather than on board ship, wouldn’t you?”

Little Joe fidgeted in his chair.  “I guess so.”

“I think they’re counting on it,” Adam said.

“Yeah.”  Joe sighed in resignation; then he purposely lifted his head.  “So, December 1st, then?  We could make it home by Christmas if we left then, couldn’t we?”

“Probably, if everything goes precisely as planned.”  He fixed his eyes on his brother’s face.  “You know as well as I that there can be problems—a storm at sea, for instance—and problems can lead to delays.  Even if everything goes according to plan, we’d be arriving in San Francisco on the 22nd, which leaves only three days to get over the mountains and back home.  We could end up spending Christmas in San Francisco or, worse, trapped in the mountains by a sudden storm.  Are you sure you want to risk that?”

Little Joe’s gaze was as steady as his brother’s.  “I’m sure,” he said.  “Chances are just as good and probably better that everything’ll go just as it should and we’ll be home, with Pa and Hoss, for Christmas.”

If there had been any doubt in Adam’s mind before, the sudden choke in Joe’s voice when he said “Pa and Hoss” dispelled them.  “All right,” Adam said quietly.  “We’ll leave on the first.”

“Good,” Little Joe said, not trusting anything more to get past the lump in his throat.

Adam patted his brother’s arm as he passed him and walked over to perch on the side of the bed.  “George and I have been talking,” he began, “making plans for how to spend our time, and I think it’s only fair I share that with you.”

Fire sparked in Little Joe’s glinting green eyes.  “You and George think you can make plans for me, do you?  Without even talking to me first?”

“I’m talking to you now,” Adam pointed out.  Hearing the sharpness creep into his voice, he deliberately chose a more conciliatory tone.  “Actually, we only discussed our own plans, but unless you intend to spend every waking moment in this room, our plans will inevitably affect your own.  Do you want to hear them or not?”

Little Joe leaned against the writing desk, facing his brother.  “Putting it that way, I guess I better.”

“Due to his physical problem, as well as the need to entertain a certain young houseguest,” Adam began again, “George has fallen behind on some of his work projects, and he’s asked me to help him catch up.  It seems the least I can do, so I’ve agreed to go into the office with him three days a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.”

Little Joe closed his eyes, while at the same time looking away.  Having seen that reaction on other occasions, Adam recognized it for what it was: an attempt to block out something painful or upsetting, while at the same time attempting to hide the hurt from prying eyes.  “What’s wrong?” he asked.  “Afraid of being left on your own that much?”

“No, course not,” Little Joe sputtered, opening his eyes.  “I’m not a little kid, Adam!”

“Something’s bothering you,” Adam said plainly.  “I can read the signs, little buddy, so why not save us both a lot of trouble and tell big brother about it, huh?”

Little Joe nervously moistened his lips.  “Don’t, okay?”

Adam shook his head, clearly bewildered.  “Don’t what?”

“Don’t go to work with George,” the younger boy said, a quaver in his voice.

“I don’t understand,” Adam said.  “Why would that possibly bother you?”

“‘Cause I don’t want you stayin’ here!”  The words came gushing out.  “If you spend half your time here workin’ with him, you’ll get all wrapped up in bein’ an architect again and you’ll never leave!”

Adam was tempted to laugh, because, to him, the idea was ludicrous.  Seeing that his little brother was genuinely troubled, however, he merely smiled.  “Joe,” he said softly, “Pa expects me to bring you home, remember?  We leave on December 1st—together.”

“Promise?” Little Joe barely whispered.

“Word of honor,” Adam responded, hand raised as if taking an oath in court.  “Now, as to the remaining days of the week, I’m free to spend them as I please.  I do have other friends in the area whom I would like to visit, but I thought you and I could spend most of them together.  In addition to all there is to see here in Boston, I also thought we might make a couple of short trips.”

Little Joe’s face perked up.  “Trips?  Where?”

Adam laughed at the sudden transformation.  Even though it was the norm with his quixotic little brother, he was quite sure he’d never get used to the rapid-fire change of emotions that could arc through the life of Little Joe Cartwright in a single day—or a single hour, for that matter.  “Well, with Thanksgiving coming up, I wondered if you might enjoy a jaunt over to Plymouth Rock, for instance.”

Little Joe’s mouth gaped.  “Plymouth Rock.  The real one?”

Adam arched an eyebrow.  “Is there an imitation?”

Little Joe flushed.  “No.  I just never thought . . . is it close?”

“Close enough,” Adam said, “and I don’t know whether you’ll want to accompany me for this or not, but I thought I’d swing over to New Bedford, lay a flower on Mother’s grave.  I’d be pleased to have you come with me, but you can stay here if you prefer.”

A smile softened Little Joe’s lips.  “I’ll come with you, Adam.”

“Good.”  Adam stood.  “Now, I would suggest that you freshen up and change for dinner.  I need to do the same, so I’ll see you there.”

*****

Little Joe stood just outside the door to the dining room, chiding himself for his cowardice, but still unable to take those final steps that would open him to the view of those who had seen his precipitous exit from the previous meal.  Then he heard a gentle voice—her voice—ask, “Isn’t Little Joe joining us?”  That moved him a step closer, but he still couldn’t round the corner into the room until he caught a glimpse of the butler, appraising him with a quizzical cock of his head.  Trapped between two awkward situations, he instinctively moved toward that gentle voice.  She, at least, had already forgiven him for his egregious behavior, as had his older brother.  Mr. Pontpier would probably do the same, and George knew him well enough by this time to overlook it as another Joe Cartwright foible.  As for Madeleine, she still hadn’t forgiven him for messing up that anniversary ball, so there wasn’t any hope from that quarter, anyway.  He might as well just gather up his courage, face her stern stare and get it over with.

“Oh, there you are,” Mrs. Pontpier said as he tentatively entered.  “I wondered if I might need to send up a tray.”

“I’m sorry I’m late,” Little Joe said as he took his place beside Adam, his own position at the table having moved down a seat upon his brother’s arrival.

“We’re only just starting, dear,” she said.  “You haven’t delayed us at all.”  Looking toward the doorway into the kitchen, where a young maid stood waiting, she called, “You may serve now . . . Aideen, isn’t it?”

“Yes’m,” the girl said.

“Madame,” Madeleine instinctively corrected.

Little Joe kept his eyes studiously off the young Irish servant.  He’d caused enough ruckus today without reminding everyone of the previous one, and while Adam didn’t seem too perturbed with him, he’d just as soon that tale didn’t come leaking out anytime soon—or ever, for that matter.  He smiled inwardly, however, in realization that he had affected some slight change in the Pontpier household.  At least, someone had begun to see the servants as people who deserved to be addressed by their own names, not some label attached to everyone of their national background.  Maybe, someday, even Madeleine herself might be bothered to call an Irish girl something other than Bridget.

As soon as the soup was served, Adam said, “Joe and I have had a chance to discuss our plans now, and we feel it would be best if we sailed on the ship that leaves the first of December.  That will give us the opportunity of being home in time for Christmas, while, hopefully, departing before you are overly eager to boot the two of us out.”

His attempt to end on a note of humor sent a chuckle around the table.  “We would never feel that, my boy,” Mr. Pontpier said, while his wife smiled softly at Little Joe, pleased to see that harmony had been established between the two brothers.

Only Madeleine’s face reflected any disappointment, but she kept it discreet as she said, “We shall miss having you through the entire holiday season, of course, but at least this will give you an opportunity to experience a true New England Thanksgiving.”

Adam merely smiled, but Little Joe, whose face tended to register every emotion he felt, couldn’t keep his stunned surprise from showing.  What on earth did she think they usually had?

Madeleine, of course, caught the boy’s expression, and given their previous history, naturally read it as criticism.  “Have I said something amiss?” she asked with an exasperated sigh.

“No, ma’am, it’s fine,” Little Joe said quickly, but not convincingly enough to avoid quizzical looks all around.

Adam cleared his throat.  “I think my brother was simply surprised by the idea that we hadn’t already experienced Thanksgiving in true New England style, given the fact that our father comes from here,” he explained, leaving Little Joe to wonder how on earth his brother always managed to read him so accurately.  The mind reader in the carnival had nothing on Adam!

Madeleine looked flustered.  “Well, of course, I meant no disrespect to your father.”

“Oh, no, ma’am,” Little Joe said at once.  “I’d never think that of you.”  That testimonial, so obviously genuine, drew a smile, even from Madeleine.  “I guess I just figured Thanksgiving was the same all over.”

“I see,” she said, although she really didn’t.  That idea simply didn’t fit with her conception of the state of culture in the wild West.  “I merely thought it might be difficult to obtain the”—she struggled for the right way to express herself—“the proper ingredients for the traditional meal.”

In an effort to lighten the conversation, Adam chuckled.  “And what, precisely, did you think we managed to put on the table at Thanksgiving, Maddie?”

“Well . . . buffalo, perhaps?” she suggested.

Little Joe grabbed his napkin and tried to stifle his sudden fit of giggles, but they just wouldn’t stifle.  “No, no,” he finally found breath to say.  “We don’t have any of those roamin’ around, any more than you.”

“Antelope, perhaps,” Adam said with a chuckle, “although their population was greatly reduced during the early days of the silver rush.  We usually manage to bag a turkey and serve it up with cranberry sauce.  The berries, I admit, we must ship in.”  He gave the girl a wink across the table.

Pleased, as always, to be the focus of Adam’s attention, she laughed lightly.  “Perhaps I’ve formed the wrong impression.  At any rate, we shall enjoy having you here for Thanksgiving, and perhaps, it will be all the more pleasant for you if the table offerings do look familiar.”

“Without a doubt,” he said suavely.

“You must tell us if there’s anything we can do to enhance your enjoyment of the holiday,” Mrs. Pontpier said.

“Seeing you across the table is enough to achieve that,” Adam said warmly.

Little Joe echoed him with a hearty, “Amen to that!” that brought another round of chuckles.

“That’s good,” Mr. Pontpier inserted, “because I believe we’d be hard put to find antelope in the local butchery.”  And the soup course ended on a merry note.

They were halfway through the entrée when George said, “Oh, I say.  I think I’ve thought of the perfect way to enhance the enjoyment of the holiday—for Little Joe, at least, and most certainly for me.”

“Well, don’t keep us waiting in suspense, George,” Madeleine scolded.

Ignoring her, George turned toward his father.  “You recall my mentioning the young ladies we met on board ship?  We’d discussed inviting them here for Christmas, but since Little Joe would not be able to see his friend if we waited that long, I wondered if we might invite them for Thanksgiving, as well.”

“They won’t wish to be with family?” his mother asked.  “Most people do, after all.”

“The only family they have here is their cousin Horace,” George said, “and I’m not even sure he’s still in town.”

“If he is, I guarantee he’d like nothing better than spending some time in this house,” Little Joe said, remembering all the questions Horace had put to George about his home, as well as to Joe himself about the furnishings at the Ponderosa.

“By all means invite them, then,” Mr. Pontpier said.  “I’m looking forward to meeting this young lady you’re so taken with.”

“Yes, as am I, George,” Adam put in with a wry smile.  He flicked a glance toward his younger brother.  “Not to mention the latest fish on the string of young Casanova Cartwright.”  He had a sudden suspicion that the letter his little brother had been so anxious to hide earlier was addressed to this mysterious young lady from the ship.

“Oh, you don’t have to wait for that,” George said, “or look any further than the next room.”  He gave a discreet nod toward the kitchen.

Little Joe moaned.  So much for keeping anything from older brother.  When it came to letting cats out of the bag, George was worse than Hoss!

 

October 26

When Little Joe entered the dining room the next morning, he was stunned to see three men already at the table.  To this point, only he and Mr. Pontpier had risen early enough to breakfast together.  It was no real surprise to see Adam there, of course.  Older brother had always been an early riser, but George definitely was not; yet here he sat, halfway through a full plate.  “What’s up?” Little Joe asked.

Adam, quicker to discern what his brother meant than the others, replied, “It’s Friday, remember?”

“Yeah, I know, but”—he suddenly understood.  “You’re going to work today?  I didn’t think you’d be starting until next week . . . after the long trip and all.”

“Precisely why I’ll only be staying half a day,” Adam said.  “That and the need to purchase a few personal items.  I wondered if you might like to meet me for lunch and do a little shopping yourself.”

“Sure,” Little Joe said at once.  He couldn’t imagine what he had any need of, after all that had been so generously supplied him by the Pontpiers, but the thought of an afternoon alone with Adam was a welcome one.

“Do you know where the Tremont House is?”

“No,” Little Joe admitted.

“You walked right past it the other day,” George chuckled.  Seeing Little Joe’s blank look, he said, “Just beyond the cemetery where Franklin is buried—corner of School and Tremont streets.”

“Oh.”  The young man still looked uncertain.

“If you’re still planning to walk with me this morning,” Mr. Pontpier said, “I can show you where to take the horsecars.”

“Of course, I am, sir,” Little Joe said.  “I wouldn’t miss it.”

“Then you’d better fill your plate, young man,” the head of the house said, a pleased twinkle in his eye.

With a grin Little Joe moved to the sideboard and did as directed.

*****

Little Joe stared up at the impressive granite-faced building, soaring four stories into the sky.  It was a hotel, of course, in addition to being a restaurant, so the additional floors made sense.  He glanced up and down the street, but saw no sign of his older brother, who was ordinarily the most punctual of men.  Would he have gone inside?  Deciding that was more likely than that he would stand outside on this windy day, Little Joe entered the building.  At first, he saw only a mass of people milling about the large reception area, but then he noticed one rising to his feet and beckoning him forward.  With a grin of relief, he joined his brother.

“You had no trouble finding it, then?” Adam inquired.

“Not much,” Little Joe said.  He had, in fact, missed his stop, but had spotted the hotel in time to get off at the next and walk back.  Explaining that to Adam, he said, “Sorry if I was late.”

“No problem,” Adam assured him.  “We have the entire afternoon.”  He led the way into the dining room and requested a table near the windows on the Beacon Street side of the room.  “Order whatever you like,” he said when the Negro waiter handed them menus, “although I might suggest the canvas-backed duck.  George says it has an excellent flavor, which it absorbs from the wild celery it feeds on along Chesapeake Bay.”

“Good as anything,” Little Joe said with a shrug.  A large part of the menu was in French, so he had no idea what those dishes were and didn’t care to ask.  The items in English were pretty plain, and that suited him better for a midday meal anyway.  He figured if he ate too many of those French delicacies, he’d soon pack as much meat on his bones as George, maybe even Hoss.

The meal began with the soup course, in this case a creamy clam chowder.  As soon as it was served, Adam said, “I noticed at breakfast that you seemed unsure how to get here.  Have they given you any instruction on how to find your way around the city?”

“Not really,” Little Joe admitted.  “I’ve always been with someone whenever I was out.”  He uttered a short, nervous titter.  “They seem to think I need a keeper.”

“Oh, you do,” Adam said with a chuckle, “but that’s neither here nor there.  You should be able to find your way around, so I’ll give you a brief lesson on that while we eat.”

Little Joe shrugged again.  “Don’t much matter, Adam.  I’ve got about a dime to my name, which kind of makes it hard do anything on my own, anyway.”

Adam nodded.  “We’ll stop by the bank and get you some spending money.  I was supposed to give you your pay when we met up in San Francisco, if you recall.”

Little Joe rewarded him with a bright smile.  “Thanks!  I hated to mention it, after all the extra expense I caused you, but it’ll sure feel good not to be owin’ someone for every little thing.”

“Don’t spend it all in one place,” Adam cautioned.  “It’s got to last you until you get home, and I’m assuming you’ll want to spend some portion of it on Christmas gifts . . . unless, of course, you have them already purchased and squirreled away back home.”

“Uh . . . no,” Little Joe said, frowning at the obvious lack of surprise on his brother’s face.  “You think I ought to do that here, not wait ‘til San Francisco?”

“Wider selection here, and our tight schedule won’t leave much time in San Francisco,” Adam observed, “but it’s up to you.  We can do that another day.  Is there anything in particular you need now?”

“Well, I could use some decent reading material,” Little Joe said tentatively.

Adam almost choked on his chowder.  “There’s a library full of remarkably decent reading material at the house.”

“If you say so,” Little Joe said with a sour skew of his mouth.  “What I saw looked to be more your style than mine.  George bought me a couple of books, but I polished them off kind of fast.”

Adam sighed.  “Meaning dime novels, I presume.”

“Meaning something with a little action to it, yeah,” Little Joe snorted.  “Essays by Emerson don’t cut it, big brother.”

“We’ll stop by the bookstore, so you can purchase whatever you like,” Adam said with a resigned shake of his head, “but I also intend to show you a few better choices at the house, which should have enough action in them to hold even your flighty attention.”

Little Joe set down his soup spoon and fastened a hard gaze on his brother.  “That why you asked me out, to dress me down for not bein’ like you?”

“What?  Not at all,” Adam said quickly, although his first instinct was to box the touchy child’s ears.  “Just thought you might be open to broadening your horizons a bit, but if not, then so be it.  Now, eat your soup before it gets cold.”

“Yes, Pa,” Little Joe returned in a singsong voice, whose taunting quality was tempered by the slight smile with which he followed the words.

Adam chose to respond with a chuckle and a mild shake of his head.  “Touché, mon fils.”

The slight smile widened into a genuine grin.  That much French Little Joe understood, and he enjoyed a good rejoinder whenever he and Adam had a verbal sparring match.  He lifted his spoon and began to eat.  “The chowder’s good,” he said amiably.

Nodding his agreement, Adam launched into his tutorial on transportation around Boston between bites.  “However,” he added with a smirk, “you are not to misconstrue this as permission to scout the city, looking for skirts to chase.”

“I haven’t been doing that!” Little Joe sputtered.

“Oh?  What’s this about a little friend you made on board ship?  Someone named Eva, I believe George said.”

Little Joe rolled his eyes.  “George is a blabbermouth,” he groaned.  Setting aside his soup spoon for a minute, he said, “We’re just friends, Adam.”

Adam quirked a half-smile at his brother.  “A friend with whom you correspond regularly, if I’m not mistaken.  Knowing how rarely you take pen to paper, I’d say that indicates a rather serious relationship.”

“It ain’t been all that regular.”  Little Joe shrugged.  “She asked me to.  She’s lonely, bein’ so far from home, that’s all.  Probably found a whole string of beaus by now.”

“Ah, so it’s a broken heart you’re nursing, then,” Adam teased.

Little Joe scowled across the table.  “Thought you was gonna teach me how to get around this big ole city,” he grumbled.

Adam chuckled.  “Ah, yes.  I am being derelict in that duty.”  He began again to map out the grid of streets and explain the transportation system.

By the time the duck arrived, Little Joe felt that he had a chance of maneuvering through the streets of Boston on his own and was ready to make a stab at it.  He’d have to wait until the next week, of course.  With the weekend upon them, Adam would be with him until then, so he wouldn’t have need of finding his own entertainment until Monday.  As he raised his first bite of fowl to his mouth, he caught a whiff of its fragrance.  “Hey, you can even smell the celery,” he said.  Popping it into his mouth, he chewed it tentatively and then grinned.  “Not bad.”

“Not bad,” Adam scoffed.

“Delicious,” Little Joe admitted.  “Thanks for the suggestion.”

Adam gave him a maddeningly superior smile, mitigated only by the twinkle in his eye.  “You can never go wrong doing as older brother suggests.”

With a grinning shake of his head, Little Joe inquired, “So what does older brother suggest for tomorrow?  Where we goin’?”

Adam almost choked on his duck.  “Going?  Who said we were going anywhere?”

Little Joe stared at him.  “You did.  Weekends for trips to places like Plymouth and New Bedford, remember?  Did you pick one of those or do you have something else in mind for tomorrow?”

Adam’s chin dropped dramatically.  “Oh, boy of boundless energy.  No wonder they’ve all been desperate to keep you occupied.”

“It is what you said,” Little Joe insisted.  His voice took on an edge.  “Or was it all just talk?”

“No, of course not,” Adam said sharply.  “We’ll do those things.  Just not tomorrow, all right?  I’ve only just got here, Joe, and while you may be rested up and ready to tackle another journey, I am not.”

“Oh, yeah.”  Little Joe kept his embarrassed gaze on the tablecloth.  “Sorry.  I wasn’t thinking.”

“I would like to keep things loose and easy tomorrow,” Adam said.  “Nothing more strenuous than a call on friends, perhaps, during the day, but I thought we might take in some sort of entertainment in the evening.  In fact, I’d like to invite all the Pontpiers to be our guests, as minor repayment for all their kindness.”

“That’d be great,” Little Joe said.  His nose wrinkled suddenly.  “Just not opera, though, huh?”

Adam’s eyes rolled.  “Not opera, though they would enjoy it.  We’ll take a look at the advertisements and see what’s on offer.  Now, can we get back to enjoying our duck?”

Little Joe’s answer was to pop another bite into his mouth, running the tip of his tongue across his lips as he closed his eyes in exaggerated ecstasy.  Adam sent up a silent prayer that none of the other diners would notice the performance.

 

October 27

Little Joe sat in a corner of the parlor, oblivious to however the rest of the household was occupying themselves in the same room.  Either reading, like him, or catching up on correspondence, which is what he probably should have been doing.  He still hadn’t finished the letter to Eva, begun the evening of Adam’s arrival, but that could wait.  It was more important to keep turning page after page of the book his brother had taken from a shelf after luncheon and handed to him.  “Try one chapter,” was all he’d said.  In a display of what he was sure qualified him for sainthood, Little Joe had accepted the book without comment and settled into the padded chair.  One chapter had led to another until he was forced to admit that there was, at least, one decent book in the Pontpiers’ library.  This one about a fellow named Edmund Dante had all the adventure of the best dime novel he’d ever read.

“Little Joe,” George said, raising his voice, since the first two times he’d called the boy’s name had met no response.

“Hmm?”  Little Joe tore his eyes from the page to see the young master of the house towering over him.  “You need something, George?”

George chuckled.  “We both do—to dress for the theater.”

“Already?”

Clucking his tongue, George took the book and gazed at the title.  “Ah, The Count of Monte Cristo, an old favorite.”

“Of yours?”  Little Joe gave him a cheeky grin.  “Who’d’ve figured.  It’s not Shakespeare or even Emerson.”

“Unfortunately, I don’t have time to properly chastise you for your insult to my taste, young fellow.  The ladies went up half an hour ago, and while I, at least, don’t need as much time as they to change into evening clothes, I do require a few minutes.  You, my fine peacock, can scarcely get by with less.”

“Can when I need to,” Little Joe said, getting to his feet.  “Adam back yet?”

“No,” George said, moving through the doorway into the foyer.  Then, as he glanced behind him, he saw the concern on his young friend’s face.  “I’m sure he’ll be here soon.  I’ve never known Adam to anything less than punctual.”

“Uh-huh.”  Little Joe couldn’t contradict that, especially in light of the numerous lectures older brother had issued him on that very subject, but he wasn’t about to sing Adam’s punctual praises, either.  He climbed the stairs behind George and opened the door to his own room.

“You have about forty-five minutes,” George advised.  “Meet you downstairs.”

“I’ll be there,” Joe promised.  He turned to find a fresh suit laid out on the bed and wondered who had ordered that done.  Mrs. Pontpier, perhaps, fearing he might not know what sort of dress was proper for the theater or maybe Madeleine, from the same concern, though with far less kindly motive.  Mrs. Pontpier would have wanted to spare him any embarrassment; Madeleine, on the other hand, would be concerned solely for her own.

Switching suits took no time at all.  Smoothing his unruly curls into perfect placement was, as usual, a much more time-consuming task . . . which didn’t make him a peacock, no matter how many times George or Adam might toss that accusation at him.  Little Joe frowned as his brother’s name crossed his thoughts.  Where on earth had older brother taken off to this afternoon?  He’d just accepted Adam’s description of visiting friends at face value until George had asked if it were anyone he knew and suggested that he might go along if it were.

Adam had only said that it wasn’t a mutual acquaintance, but he’d looked downright mysterious and hadn’t even mentioned the name of the person he intended to call on.  It was like he didn’t want any of them to know what he was up to, and that, of course, did nothing but arouse Little Joe’s curiosity.  Then he’d gotten lost in that book and forgotten all about older brother’s cagy behavior.  Now, with time to think as he preened before the mirror, the questions returned.  Who was Adam with that would keep him away until the last minute on a night that he himself had planned?  Grinning at his reflection in the mirror, he gave himself a knowing nod.  A woman; it had to be.  Wouldn’t do to come right out and ask, but Little Joe determined to keep his eyes and ears open.  Secrets, especially a brother’s, were made for ferreting out, and no one did that better than Joe Cartwright, he told himself as he smiled in satisfaction at the image in the mirror and laid down the hair brush.

Almost at once there was a rap on his door.  Before he could cross the room, however, it opened and Adam came in, already changed into his evening clothes.  “Ah, you are ready,” he said.  “George laid odds that you’d stay so long at your mirror that we’d miss the first act of the play.”

“How much did you bet on me?” Little Joe asked.  He stroked his chin.  “Seems like I ought to get a share of the winnings.”

Adam clucked his tongue.  “I didn’t accept the bet, of course.  I certainly couldn’t take unfair advantage of our host.”

“Too bad that fairness don’t ever extend to younger brothers.”

“Oh, it does.”  Adam smiled as he arched an eyebrow.  “I would never take unfair advantage of Hoss.”

Little Joe groaned.  “I give up.”

Adam laughed.  “Wise decision.  Come on; it’s time we headed for the theater.”

“Yeah.  You came close to bein’ the one to make us miss the first act,” Little Joe scolded.  “You must have really enjoyed your visit with your friend.”

The eyebrow arched again as Little Joe, with a smirk, preceded Adam out the door.  The boy had put a certain emphasis on his final word that seemed to give it extra significance . . .  almost as if he knew exactly what sort of friend Adam had seen that afternoon.  But that wasn’t possible, Adam assured himself.

*****

Little Joe was completely awed by the vast size and sweep of the Boston Museum.  The granite building extended from Tremont Street to Court Square, with three balconies running the entire length of the building.  Inside, the first floor contained a number of large stores, as well as the entrance to the museum itself, with its promise of a multitude of wonders to delight the eye.  “Can we?” Little Joe eagerly asked his brother.

“Another time,” Adam chuckled.  Not all the featured exhibits were worth seeing, some being outright hoaxes, but he could remember his own wonder at his first sight of some of the art, artifacts and taxidermic species he’d never seen in real life.  No doubt it would be modestly educational and enjoyable for his younger brother some afternoon, but tonight he hoped for better fare.  “We need to get upstairs for the theater presentation.”

“Okay,” Little Joe, easily assuaged with the promise of a future visit, said.

As they began their climb to the upper level, however, it was Adam who delayed them when he stopped midway up the flight to gaze at a large painting hung at the top of the staircase.  “An old friend,” he explained when he became aware that the rest of the party had halted beside him.

“Indeed,” said George, “and how easily we allow familiarity to make us overlook him.”

“George Washington, isn’t it?” Little Joe asked.

“Of course,” Adam replied with a chuckle.  “Looking completed composed on the eve of battle.”  He lifted a quizzing eyebrow at his brother, but when Joe merely shrugged, he amplified, “It’s Thomas Sully’s Passage of the Delaware . . . and the battle is . . ?”

“Trenton,” Little Joe answered quickly.  “Christmas night, 1776.”  He’d always enjoyed the adventurous bits of history, and even the date had been easy to remember for this important moment in the Revolutionary War.  “Thought we needed to get upstairs, though,” he reminded his brother with a cheeky grin.

“We do,” Adam admitted.

Madeleine stepped to his side and slipped an arm through the crook of his elbow.  “Still, it’s good to remember old friends,” she said, smiling up into his face as if to remind him that they, too, were old friends.  The look clearly communicated how much she, at least, would like to not only renew, but reinvigorate their friendship.

Barely restraining a scowl, Little Joe started up the stairs ahead of the others.  If there was one thing he didn’t need, it was to see any woman, particularly this one, fawning over his older brother.

 

October 28

The Cartwrights attended church the next morning with the Pontpiers and dined at home around two o’clock.  The remainder of the afternoon was spent in quiet pursuits, keeping the Sabbath in true New England, almost Puritan, tradition.  The gentlemen kept to the parlor, either reading or writing, while the ladies retired to their rooms, doing whatever ladies did on a quiet afternoon.  Becoming bored with the silent pursuits, Little Joe went up to his room after a couple of hours and, removing his shoes, stretched out on the bed.  By the time he woke he suspected it was nearing teatime, so he straightened his attire, brushed his curls into place and returned downstairs.  Finding the parlor empty, he hurried on to the dining room, where everyone but Adam was already at the table.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said.  “Looks like Adam’s even later.  Maybe I should wake him?”

“Your brother stepped out earlier,” Mr. Pontpier said.

“Adam’s not here?”

“No, son, but I’m sure he’ll be back shortly.”

“Where’d he go?”

“He didn’t say,” George put in.  “Just said he had a call to make and would be back later.”  He raised an eyebrow in his best imitation of Adam.  “Getting to be quite mysterious, isn’t he?”

“I’m sure Adam is entitled to his privacy,” Madeleine said in his defense.

“And you aren’t the least bit curious, are you, Maddy dear?” George tossed back with a teasing smile.

“Perhaps the least bit,” she admitted, returning the smile, “but I’m sure Adam will tell us in his own good time.  It’s his way.”

That remark made Little Joe give her a second look.  Apparently, Miss Madeleine Pontpier knew his brother a lot better than he’d given her credit for.

The meal ended, and they all gathered in the parlor, each finding some way to occupy his time, all of them lifting their eyes at the slightest sound beyond the open doorway.  Adam, contrary to his usual character, did not arrive until the sun had begun to slip below the horizon, and each exhaled in unspoken relief when they finally heard him greeting the butler by name.

He came at once into the parlor, his aspect apologetic.  Before he could make that apology, however, Madeleine cried, “Oh, Adam, where have you been?  Your poor brother has been so concerned!”

Little Joe stared at her, wondering how she could have guessed at his concern when he’d not expressed a word of it.  As he looked at her, however, it was obvious that she was only using him as a shield for concerns of her own.  For once, he was quite willing to play along with her device.  “Yes, brother,” he said promptly.  “I’ve been most concerned about your safety on these busy city streets . . . and your whereabouts, of course, since you told no one where you were going.”

Had they been alone, Adam would have just as promptly replied that his whereabouts were none of his younger brother’s business.  In the presence of his gracious hosts, however, he immediately tendered his planned apology.  “I’m sorry for any concern I’ve given any of you,” he said.  “I hadn’t intended to stay out so late, but I was invited to stay to dinner and then persuaded to linger for further conversation.”  He did not, of course, mention how little persuasion it had taken when it was his Lily doing the asking.

“May we inquire whom you were visiting?” Madeleine pressed.  “Perhaps we know the family.”

“Perhaps,” Adam conceded with a smile that said he saw straight through her.  He turned to Mr. Pontpier.  “Are you acquainted with Mr. Abraham Jennings?”  Personally, he doubted it, since the Jennings had not seemed to recognize the name of his hosts when he mentioned it, but it would make a certain planned request simpler if they were known, at least by reputation.

“No, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” Mr. Pontpier replied.

Adam fairly leaped at the opening.  “I’m hoping you will soon.  I hadn’t intended to make my request tonight, but I learned this evening that the Jennings have no family here in Boston, nor any desire to travel so soon after their recent journey.  Since both George and my younger brother have invited guests coming for Thanksgiving, I was wondering whether I might beg the same privilege for my friends.  I’ve said nothing to them, of course, so if it’s at all inconvenient—”

“Not at all,” Mrs. Pontpier said at once.  “How large a family are they?”

“Just the two of them,” Adam said, “and you’ll find them most congenial, I assure you.”

She smiled.  “I think we might have guessed that, simply from knowing they were your friends.”

“Recent ones, I take it?” George inquired.

Adam chuckled.  “We met on board ship.  Mr. Jennings is a retired businessman, very cultured and well read.  You’ll like him, George.”

Mrs. Pontpier brushed her lower lip with a thoughtful finger.  “Retired, you say?  An older couple, then?”

“Mr. Jennings is about my father’s age,” Adam said.  For the time being he chose to keep Lily’s much younger age his personal secret.  The elder Pontpiers and George would enjoy the joke, once it was revealed, while Madeleine didn’t need to know yet that she had a rival, and throwing the ever-inquisitive Joseph Cartwright off the scent had even greater appeal.

“I was only concerned that an older couple might have dietary needs to be considered,” Mrs. Pontpier said with an inquiring cock of her head.

“The fare on the table tonight certainly would not indicate it,” Adam said, “but I can make inquiries if it would ease your mind.”

“Yes, please,” she replied.  “If there are changes to the menu needed, it’s best to tell cook about them as soon as possible.”

“Ah, yes.  Having seen Hop Sing’s reaction to similar changes of menu, I can well understand your situation,” he said.

“Hop Sing?” Mrs. Pontpier queried.  “Your cook?”

“Cook and fifth member of the Cartwright family,” George put in quickly.  He tossed Joe a wink and got one back in response, as well as a roll of the eyes from his sister, who well remembered how little appreciation the youngest Cartwright had for distinction between the classes.

 

October 29

On Monday, Little Joe tried shopping alone in downtown Boston.  He’d decided the best time to find a Christmas present for Adam would be while his older brother was safely tucked away in George’s office.  Selecting the right gift for him, though, was always a challenge.  Older brother had the most peculiar tastes of anyone Joe had ever seen.  In years past he’d just picked out the most boring-looking book he could find in Virginia City on the assumption that Adam would think it was great, but he had a feeling that wasn’t really fair to Adam.  After all, his brother had picked out a right interesting book for him to read.  Maybe that Alexandre Dumas fellow had something new out that Adam hadn’t read yet.

When he asked at the bookstore, however, he was shown the two most recent works by Dumas and quickly decided neither one would suit his older brother.  The first, a book called The Wolf Leader, was about some supernatural monster called a werewolf, and although the clerk assured him the other was not on the same topic, The She Wolves of Machecoul sounded so similar he wasn’t willing to take the chance.  He finally settled on a book of folk songs, planning to add something else later.  He didn’t find it that day, though, and after a light lunch he returned to the house, hid the songbook in his room and stretched out on the bed with The Count of Monte Cristo until time for tea.

 

October 30

Little Joe practically sprang out of bed the next morning.  Today was his first full day out with Adam in Boston!  He couldn’t really explain why he was so excited about that.  He’d already walked about the city quite a bit, after all, and had been shown any number of historic sights by his hosts, so he doubted Adam would show him much different today.  And he’d never particularly envisioned his older brother as a purveyor of good times, either.  Not that Adam didn’t enjoy a good time; he did, but his idea of fun often came across to Joe as boredom, at best, and hard labor, at worst.  So, why was he looking forward to the day, then?  Maybe, he decided, because he could be himself with Adam.  He felt like he’d been on his best company behavior for weeks now, and while minding his manners involved no real hardship, it kept him sort of stretched tight, for fear he’d break some back-East rule he knew nothing about.  If he did, Adam would tell him in no uncertain terms, but he wouldn’t hold a grudge over a simple mistake.  Neither would most of the Pontpiers, for that matter, but he did feel obliged to try harder for them.  With Adam, he could breathe.

Although he was up early by Pontpier standards, Adam was already halfway through his breakfast when Little Joe entered the dining room.  Good!  That meant Adam was rested up from his trip, so they could make a full day of it, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do.  After they both walked Mr. Pontpier to his streetcar stop, a bubbling Little Joe suggested that they visit the waxworks at the Boston Museum.  “I thought they looked real interesting,” he said, “and probably educational, too, don’t you think?”

“Not highly,” Adam replied, arching an eyebrow in amusement.

“But we’ll never have time if we’re there for a play,” Little Joe said, a small pout puckering his lips.  “It’d be better to go there in daylight, don’t you think?”

“Oh, all right,” Adam chuckled, “but not today, Joe.”

“Why not?” Joe demanded.  “What you got planned so special it can’t wait?”

“It could wait,” Adam said, “but the museum isn’t open today.”

“Oh.”  The younger boy’s disappointment was almost palpable.

“It would be open on Wednesday,” Adam observed.  “Perhaps, if it doesn’t inconvenience George, we could alter our schedule next week and have our outing on Wednesday, instead . . . unless, of course, it’s just so special it can’t wait.”

“It can wait,” Joe agreed, all smiles again.  “So, what were you thinkin’ of for today?”  He winced.  “No opera or anything like that, okay?”

Adam shook his head.  “Opera is generally reserved for evening entertainment,” he observed wryly.  “It may not excite you, but I thought we’d do some Christmas shopping this morning, and I have a luncheon spot picked out that I think you’ll enjoy.  While we eat, we’ll decide what to do this afternoon.”

“I did some shopping yesterday,” Joe told him, “but I could stand to do some more.  Maybe you could help me with an idea for Pa?”

“I have to think of one for myself first!” Adam laughed.  Then, wrapping a long arm around his brother’s slender shoulders, he started down the street.

*****

Several rows of long tables, covered in plain red-checked cloths, lined the rectangular hall where Little Joe sat across from his brother in an eatery as simply appointed as one might find in Virginia City or even smaller towns back home.

“Not what you were expecting?” Adam asked, chuckling at the look on his brother’s face.

Little Joe offered a chagrined shrug.  “Not for Boston, no.  I thought they went in for fancy.”

“Not in the marketplace,” Adam said.  “I think you’ll enjoy the food, though, simple as it is.”

“I like simple,” Little Joe said.  “You’re the fancy man, remember?”

“Ah!”  Adam nodded.  “Will you let this fancy man order for you, then?”

Little Joe looked irritated until he caught the twinkle in his brother’s eye.  Still, he felt obliged to say, “I’m a big boy now, Adam.”

“Yes,” Adam readily agreed, “but I brought you here for a specific experience, and if you’ll put yourself in my hands, I think you’ll be pleased with the result.”

Little Joe stroked his smooth chin as if the request demanded great consideration.  “Well,” he finally drawled, “I guess I could do that . . . provided you put yourself at my mercy the next time we eat out.”

“Why, you little”—Adam laughed abruptly.  “Oh, all right . . . with the further provision that you order for yourself the same meal your mercy allots me on that occasion.  That’s what I intend to do here.”

“Fair enough,” Little Joe said with his characteristic grin.  “Bring on your delicate Eastern tidbits.”

It was Adam’s turn to smile.

When the “tidbits” were served, Little Joe gaped at the plate put before him, with a cut of prime rib so large it hung over the plate.  “You seriously expect me to eat that?” he protested.  “It’s huge!”

Adam chuckled.  “I thought you were a big boy now.”

“Big, maybe,” Little Joe said, shaking his head, “but I’m not Hoss.”

Adam laughed loud enough to make heads turn.  “Oh, come on.  I’ve seen you eat Hoss under the table a time or two.”  He stroked his chin line with his thumb.  “And never look a pound heavier for it, either.  As our hearty brother would agree, that is definitely not fair.”

“No one eats Hoss under the table,” Little Joe scoffed, “but the times I’ve come close were always after a hard day’s work, something that don’t never happen here.”

“Drop the double negative, please,” Adam said, “but if your unplanned excursion east has given you an appreciation for hard work, I’ll consider it well worth the annoyance of chasing after you.”  Seeing his brother’s puckered mouth, he laughed and reached across the table to give Joe’s forearm a couple of light pats.  “Just eat what you want,” he said, “but be sure to save room for the Indian pudding.  You won’t want to miss that.  We can eat light at tea or skip it altogether, if we’re still full.”

“Hate to be rude,” Little Joe muttered as he sliced into the meat.

“Don’t worry about it,” Adam said.  “Once I tell them we’ve been to Durgin-Park, they’ll understand.”

 

October 31

Somewhat later than usual, Little Joe sauntered into the dining room the next morning.  He was early enough for breakfast and his daily walk with Mr. Pierpont, and that was all he cared about.  After all, he had nothing else to do the whole livelong day, and much as he liked that Monte Cristo book, a man couldn’t do nothing but read.  He greeted the other three men at the table and moved languidly to the sideboard.

Adam exchanged a knowing smirk with George, who cleared his throat and said, “You’d better get a move on, youngster, if you’re to do all Adam has planned for you today.”

Little Joe turned slowly, and though he smiled, his whole aspect was that of a man resigned to a day of complete boredom.  “You’re a day late . . . or, maybe, early, George.  Had my day with Adam yesterday.  He’s working with you today, remember?”

George grinned back maddingly, but said nothing.

Taking pity on his brother, Adam swallowed his current bite of food and said, “Change of plans.  George feels he’d have more use for my services tomorrow, so if you’ve no objection, we could switch and have another day together.”

Little Joe looked skeptical.  “Is this a trick?”

Adam cocked his head quizzically.  “A trick?”

“Well, it is Halloween,” Little Joe said dryly.  “You know, trick or treat?”

Adam laughed.  “I’d forgotten the date.  It was meant to be a treat, little brother.”

“Then we can see the museum?” Little Joe asked with eager expectation.

“If you insist.”  Adam’s dry tone clearly said he knew that Joe would.

“Oh, yeah!”

Never had a countenance changed so quickly, except, of course, for that of Joseph Francis Cartwright the last time a day had gone from dark and stormy to radiant with sunlight in a moment’s time.  Even Mr. Pontpier couldn’t resist a chuckle at the sudden transformation.

When they reached the Boston Museum, Little Joe hurried over to the giraffe that loomed near the entrance to the collection of stuffed animals and then proceeded to gawk at the two huge elephants that dominated the area.

“Pity you can’t see living animals,” Adam observed.

“I’ve seen elephants,” Joe reminded him.

Adam nodded, smiling softly at the fond memory of Joe’s first encounter with the huge pachyderm.  Shortly after Marie’s death, he had taken his younger brothers to a traveling circus, and there had been others since, of course, but he sensed that Joe, too, was remembering that first time.  “They’re planning a zoological park in Philadelphia, first true one in America,” Adam told him. “You could see much more than just elephants there, in the flesh, but it isn’t built yet.”

“They got one here,” Little Joe said, brightening.

Adam laughed outright.  “No, no.  I’ve seen the advertisements, too, but those are mere menageries by comparison.”

“We could try it, though,” Joe said, but his attention had already gone to the next unfamiliar creature.  They moved through the other taxidermic wonders, the animals getting progressively smaller, through small mammals and on to colorful tropical birds and, finally, to an endless succession of cases of insects.

When Joe had taken all of that he could stand, he said bluntly, “I’m not Hoss.”

“Hmm?” Adam queried absently.

“He’s the only one I know that gets excited over bugs.  Well, except for that guy that came scoutin’ them out and got mixed up with them others lookin’ for gold on the Ponderosa.”

“Ah, Dr. Lovejoy, the entomologist.”

“Yeah, him.”  It was a bad memory, since Dr. Lovejoy had gotten himself shot, just an innocent casualty caught between greedy men and the Cartwrights, who only wanted to protect their land.  Funny that it’s them who shot the bug man and we’re the ones that feel bad, he thought.  “Can’t we move on?” he said with eloquent sigh, wanting no bad memories to color this day.

“Oh.  Of course.  This is your day.”  A smile lifted one corner of Adam’s mouth.  “And though I seem to be accused of that mistake on a daily basis, I do know you’re not Hoss”

Little Joe grinned then.  “Good to know.  Anything else to see here.”

“Waxworks, perhaps?”  Adam thought they weren’t particularly well done, but Joe might find them interesting.

He did, at least at first.  The pirates’ cabin excited his sense of adventure, and he had a good laugh at the schoolroom scene with its strict schoolmaster and the funny- faced scholars.  However, Adam’s remark that the boy wearing the dunce cap in the corner reminded him of a certain younger brother was met with a frown that quickly turned into a smirk.  “You ought not talk about Hoss when he ain’t here to defend himself,” Joe jibed.

Adam laughed.  “Oh, I wasn’t.  I have been thoroughly warned against confusing you with Hoss and have assured you I know the difference.”

“Oh, you’re funny,” his younger brother insisted, unable to come up with a better comeback, but he said it in good humor.  The tour began to deteriorate from there, however, until a set of tableaus featuring the stages of intemperance made Joe decide to agree with Adam about the quality of this particular part of the waxworks.

When Adam suggested they visit the art gallery next, Little Joe said that, maybe, he’d had enough for one day.

“Or,” Adam said with an amused quirk of his mouth, “I suppose we could see the matinee, instead.”

Little Joe, whose spirits had been dragging, immediately perked up.  “Yeah, let’s do that.”

“If you’re sure you’re not too tired,” Adam said dryly.

“Uh, well, we’d be sitting down, after all.”

“And not bored?”  Adam laughed at the chagrinned expression on Joe’s face.  Then he threw an arm around his brother’s shoulders and said, “Come on.  It’s a comedy, so hopefully, we can finish up the afternoon with a few good laughs.”

Little Joe grinned, then, and let himself be led upstairs to the theater.  It was a good day, he decided, in spite of the bad waxworks and the boring insects.  Little did he know that he would soon think of it as the last good day he had with Adam, the last one not covered with a cloud of dread.

 

November 1

Those figurative clouds began to form the next day, but no one could have predicted the storm from the early signs.  Little Joe found that his long, boring day of nothing to do had only been delayed, and the sky that first day of November seemed to reflect his gloomy attitude.  It was overcast, though not threatening, just a dull gray haze that hung heavy with a premonition of rain that didn’t come.  His early morning walk with Mr. Pontpier was not nearly as enjoyable as usual, for a chilly wind was blowing, not the bracing breeze he’d experienced before.  He stayed indoors the rest of the day without even the respite of a brief walk through the neighborhood park.  Instead, he spent the afternoon in the parlor with the ladies.

Having written to Eva in the morning, he was enjoying The Count of Monte Cristo when George came in.  He noticed that Adam was not with his friend, but didn’t say anything at first, for Mrs. Pontpier had immediately risen from her chair to greet her son with her customary kiss on the cheek.

“You’re home early, my dear,” she said.

“We finished the project early, and it was too late to start anything new,” George explained.

“Then where is Adam?” Madelaine inquired, saving Little Joe the trouble.

“Since it was early, he decided to pay a call on friends, the same ones he’s inviting to Thanksgiving, I believe.”

“Those old folks?” Little Joe said, face scrunching in a way that obviously said he couldn’t imagine what Adam saw in them.  He liked some older people himself—there were some real characters in Virginia City—but on the whole he found them set in their ways and, well, boring.

“He mentioned he was reading to them.”

“Oh.  Well, that’s good of him,” Little Joe murmured.  He liked to hear Adam read himself, although he generally had to be sick to get that luxury.  Adam always put a lot of feeling into the words.  Why, he could even make Shakespeare sound full of life!

“Yes, that will be a treat for an elderly couple,” Madelaine said, but though the words sounded considerate, Little Joe had a feeling she would prefer that Adam were treating her to the dramatic reading, instead.  Give it up, Maddie, he thought, barely managing to keep a smirk off his face.  Adam’s got better sense than to hook up with you.

            Madeleine, of course, did not hear him and hadn’t the sense to take good advice if she had.  Therefore, when Adam returned, just in time for dinner, she immediately suggested he do a reading for them.  Even her mother’s gentle chiding that Adam’s voice might be tired after reading all afternoon barely dissuaded the girl.  “Perhaps another time would be better,” Adam suggested.  Therefore, the family spent Friday evening listening to Adam’s melodious voice.  Little Joe wasn’t discontent, except for the fact that Madelaine had won a victory in her quest for his brother’s attentions.

So she thought, at any rate, and while Joe had no fears on that score, he didn’t realize that on an entirely different front, the storm clouds were rolling in and would break the following evening.

 

November 3

At supper the previous night Adam had suggested they all see “Speed the Plough” at the Howard Athenaeum on Saturday evening.  “It’s been around since the 18th century,” he said, “so, perhaps, you’ve already seen it.  Neither Joe nor I have, of course.”

“Nor I,” said George.

Madelaine quickly said that she had not, either, and even if she had, she was sure seeing it with Adam would enhance the experience.

Mr. and Mrs. Pontpier had seen the play before and said they would prefer to leave the evening to the young people and be well rested for the Sabbath.

“You’ll be missed,” Adam said.  “I was planning to ask the Jennings, as well.”

“Those old folks?” Little Joe said, looking puzzled.  “I don’t know, Adam.  Aren’t you afraid they’ll be . . . uh . . . reluctant to stay up that late.”

“Little Joe just called you old,” George dryly informed his parents.

“No such thing!” Little Joe protested.  “You’re both spry as spring chickens.”

“Oh, dear.”  Mrs. Pontpier tittered into her hand.  “I’m sure that’s a compliment.”

Little Joe’s shoulders slumped.  “I meant it as one,” he said with a tinge of chagrin that made her stretch a consoling hand toward him.  Smiling, he gave it a squeeze and turned back to his brother. “Anyway, I pictured your friends bein’ a lot older, Adam.  They might not make it through the play!”

“Oh, I think they’ll manage,” Adam said with a mysterious smile.  “They’re spry as spring chickens, too.”

*****

It was all Little Joe could do to keep from restlessly pacing the lobby of the theater.  Adam had purchased the tickets earlier in the day, so they could have taken their seats, but no one suggested it.  Since it was beginning to rain, Adam had taken the Pontpiers’ carriage to pick up his friends, and it seemed only polite to wait until the party was complete.

Though the waiting seemed interminable, Adam actually arrived well ahead of the opening curtain, but everyone gaped at the “old folks” he had brought with him.  Mr. Jennings did look surprisingly spry for an older man, and as for the lady on Adam’s arm, she was anything but old—no older than Adam, in fact—and beautiful to boot.  He had a twinkle in his eye as he introduced them to his brother and his two friends.

“You sly dog,” George said, giving his arm a subtle fist thump.  “You let us believe your friends were pushing ninety.”

“Oh, Adam, you didn’t,” Lily chided, but her voice was mirthful.

“I never mentioned their ages,” Adam chuckled.  “I am scarcely responsible for any wild assumptions you made.”

“Technically, no,” George admitted, laughing, “but you did infer it.”

“You certainly did,” Madeleine, who was definitely not laughing, scolded.

Little Joe said nothing, but from the expression on his face, he clearly was not amused, either.

“I apologize for the misconception,” Adam said, looking not the least bit sorry.

“I hope we aren’t too much of a disappointment,” Lily said.

“No, indeed,” George replied.  “You, my dear, are a welcome surprise, even if Adam is a blackguard for springing it on us this way.  And you, sir, are exactly as advertised, spry as a spring chicken.”

“At my age, that’s definitely a compliment,” Mr. Jennings said.  “I’m pleased to meet you, young sir, and am looking forward to spending Thanksgiving with your family.”

“Allow me to introduce my sister Madelaine,” George said.

Adam proceeded to introduce his brother, and Lily gave Little Joe a warm handshake.  The one he gave her in response was a little tepid, but she chalked that up to a lingering sense of shock.

They took their seats, with Adam sitting between Lily and Little Joe with her father on her other side.  Madeleine, much to her displeasure, was seated between Little Joe and her brother.  Joe gave her a small smile of commiseration: the evening wasn’t going the way he’d anticipated, either.

Sometime during the first act, Adam glanced to his right and was surprised to find his brother’s eyes fixed on him, instead of the comedy on stage.  “You all right, buddy?” he leaned close to ask.

“Sure,” Joe said.  He spoke softly, and had it not been for the way he clipped the word, Adam would have thought he was only being respectful of others in the theater.  The way he said it, though, made it sound as though he meant the exact opposite of what he’d said.  Something was definitely not all right, but Adam couldn’t imagine what.  Surely, Joe wasn’t that irritated by the surprise his older brother had sprung.  Why, the kid usually could take a joke, even one at his own expense, better than anyone, with the sole exception of Hoss.  Adam certainly hoped the boy wasn’t coming down with something.  On the other hand, the plot was involved and one character’s feigned Swedish accent so broad that he was hard to understand.  Oh, that must be it; his little brother was merely bored and not breeding an illness.

Little Joe could have told him it was neither.  He was too taken up with staring at the handsome couple to his left as they softly chatted throughout the play.  They seemed in complete accord, fitting together like hand in glove, and a dark fear, worse than any illness, began to breed in the young man’s soul.

 

November 4

By the time they’d exited the theater the previous night, the rain had turned into a severe storm out of the northeast, and the temperature had dropped to a chilly forty degrees, but it cleared off by Sunday morning, and the weather remained pleasant throughout the day.  The same could not be said for Little Joe’s attitude, which had not benefited in the slightest from attendance at the worship service.  Of course, the minister had not preached a sound message on repentance, which Adam felt was exactly what his young brother needed, not that he was likely to respond by appropriately hitting his knees.

“Do you have a cold coming on, dear?” Mrs. Pontpier asked the boy that afternoon as the family gathered in the parlor after luncheon.  “Such terrible weather to be out in last night.”  She didn’t lay a hand on his forehead, though she was sorely tempted.

“No, ma’am, I’m fine,” Little Joe said and from that moment tried to present a better attitude, though solely for her sake.

“The play was scarcely worth the late hours we kept,” Madeleine observed, “at least, in my opinion and, I assume, in yours, Adam, since you spent most of the evening talking to your young lady friend.”

“I don’t understand,” Mrs. Pontpier said.  “I thought you had invited the Jennings, Adam.  Was there someone else in the party?”

Before he could answer, Madeleine hastened to say, “Only the Jennings, Mother, who were not quite as they have been described to us . . . or did you not intend to let my parents in on your little joke until your guests arrived for Thanksgiving dinner, Adam?”  Though she tried to cover it, the frost in her tone was evident.

Little Joe sent her a discreet, slightly conniving smile.  Who’d have ever thought that he and Madeleine Pontpier would ever be aligned together, but they were obviously of one mind regarding Adam and his “young lady friend.”  Even had he himself not been put out with Adam, Little Joe would have enjoyed seeing his big brother squirm to explain himself, but now he listened with positive relish.

 

November 5

Monday morning dawned, clear and pleasant, and Adam had never been more glad to greet a fresh day of work in a nice, calm architectural office, where the only stress was an occasional deadline.  Today, he wasn’t even facing that, so he was happy to escape the house, where almost everyone was, in some measure, upset with him.  His little joke had plainly not struck anyone else as funny, with the exception of George, and while Mr. and Mrs. Pontpier had quickly forgiven him, she had hinted that she always appreciated knowing in advance just who her guests might be.  “At least, I now know that Miss Jennings will be dancing at the ball and not in need of some quieter entertainment,” she’d said with just the slightest trace of annoyance.

Madeleine, of course, had been more than annoyed, but that was to be expected.  She naturally wouldn’t welcome a rival for Adam’s attentions, even though she should know by this time that she had no chance of becoming their focus.  “‘Hope springs eternal,’ I suppose,” he muttered beneath his breath, quoting Alexander Pope, although in her case, there was no chance she was ever “to be blessed.”

And then there was Joe.  Everyone else’s reactions he could understand, from the mild to the strong, but Joe’s was inexplicable.  “What else is new?” he muttered as he bent over the architectural rendering before him.  When had his little brother been anything less than inexplicable?

*****

That evening as the family gathered in the parlor after dinner, Madeleine said, “Did you not find the poem by Mr. Whittier in the Transcript most inspiring, Adam?”

Responding to the more congenial tone, Adam replied, “I haven’t had an opportunity to read it as yet, Madeleine.”

“Oh?  May I read it to you, then?”

“By all means,” Adam said, though he would have preferred to read it himself.  It seemed important to reestablish friendly relations with her, as well as the other Pontpiers.

She read “The Eve of Election” aloud and then repeated a single stanza:

 

“Not lightly fall

Beyond recall

The written scrolls a breath can float;

The crowning fact

The kingliest act

Of freedom is the freedman’s vote!”

 

She laid aside the paper with an eloquent sigh.  “It so makes me wish women had the vote—in this important election, particularly.”

“A woman such as you should have it,” Adam said, and it was not mere flattery, but something he earnestly believed.  “You’re intelligent and well-informed and would vote more wisely than many men.”

“Why, thank you, Adam,” she said, relishing the attention from him that was her main goal in speaking in the first place.  “There is a clear choice this year, and while I wish that I, too, might cast a vote in favor of freedom, I know I can rely on Father and George and you, as well, to cast yours for Abraham Lincoln.”

Adam looked awkward for a moment; then he gave her a wry smile and said, “I’m afraid not.”

A ripple of shock ran around the room, not least in the heart of Adam’s young brother, for all the Cartwrights had been impressed with Lincoln since they read his “House Divided” comments in the Territorial Enterprise.  And of them all, Little Joe would have thought his New England-born brother, who’d spoken vociferously about the evils of slavery, would have backed the man everyone either hoped or feared would end it.

Only Madeleine was bold enough to voice such thoughts, though they were in everyone’s minds.  “But you can’t mean it,” she gasped.  Her face hardened.  “Are you having another bad joke at our expense?”

“Madeleine!” her father said sharply.  Then he turned to Adam.  “I apologize for this introduction of politics into civil conversation, Adam.  Madeleine knows better.”  He gave his daughter a severe, rebuking glance.

“No, please don’t apologize,” Adam quickly said.  “The fault is entirely mine, and while I wasn’t joking, I’ve left you with a false impression and should have spoken more quickly to correct it.  I simply meant that because I am not a resident of Massachusetts, I cannot vote for Abraham Lincoln, much as I would like to.”

“Oh, of course,” George said.  He gave a short laugh.  “You had me going for a moment there, chum.”

“I was hasty in my response, as well,” Madeleine said.  “Do forgive me, Adam.” She was certain the sophisticated Miss Jennings never would have made such a mistake.

“Of course,” he said readily.  “Friends again?”

“Oh, always, dear Adam.”  And how she wished it could be more!

Mrs. Pontpier ended the subject when she said, “I don’t involve myself in politics, but it is so good to know you are all in agreement.”

“Always in agreement with you, dear lady,” Adam said, his hazel eyes warm with affection.

 

November 6 – Election Day

With some reluctance, Adam knocked on Little Joe’s door the next morning.

The look on his brother’s face, when he answered, was scarcely welcoming.  “You want something?” Joe asked, suspicion clouding his eyes.

“Just to talk with you,” Adam said.

The suspicion darkened as Joe’s eyes narrowed.  “What about?”

Frankly, there was an attitude adjustment he’d very much like to discuss with his irritable young brother, but now, clearly, wasn’t the time.  “About our plans for the day,” he answered simply.

“Oh.”  There being no fault to be found with that, Little Joe opened the door wide enough to allow Adam into the room.  “Yeah, what did you have planned for today?”  Whatever it was, it represented a chance to get Adam back on the right track, so he was prepared to take it, even if it was an art museum or the dreaded opera.

Adam sighed.  “Well, I had thought we might visit the zoological offerings, such as they are, but the weather may turn inclement, so I was wondering if you’d prefer to just stay indoors.”

“No,” Joe said at once, as Adam might have predicted.  Not only was staying indoors alien to his vocabulary, but he had reason to fear how Adam might occupy himself if they weren’t out together.  “No, the zoo sound great.”

Glad to hear a little of Joe’s customary enthusiasm back in his voice, Adam nodded agreeably.  “I do think a wise first stop might be a store that sells rain gear—a slicker, at least.”

Joe grinned agreeably.  “I’m all for wisdom, big brother—for both of us.”

There was something more than slickers and umbrellas behind those words, but Adam was loathe to delve too deeply into dark caverns.

*****

Adam insisted on full raincoats for both of them.  “It’ll be warmer,” he insisted.  “You’ll thank me later.”

Little Joe shrugged, although he had to admit that New England cold was different from the cold of home—wetter, more apt to cling to a man.  He probably would be glad of better protection, especially if the skies let loose the storm that seemed more and more likely.  “How come you thought of the zoo for today?” he asked as they walked along the street.  “I thought you’d be more likely to want one of the political rallies mentioned in the paper.”

Adam gave a harsh laugh.  “I prefer the animals behind cages to the ones marching in the streets.  You have no idea, boy, what a political campaign back here is like.”

Joe bristled.  “You think they’re tamer, back home in the Wild West?”  He elongated the “Wild” as his fingers waggled eerily.

Adam snorted.  “You’ve been listening too much to Madeleine.”

“Who’ve you been listening to?” Joe retorted.

Adam stared at him a moment and then shook his head.  “I have no idea what you mean.”

“Never mind,” Joe said, fearing he’d already said too much.  “I didn’t mean anything.”

But he had and Adam knew it.  A cold, wet street wasn’t the place for any kind of discussion, however.  “Of course, if you’d prefer a political rally . . .”

“Nope.  I prefer the animals in cages, too,” Joe said with a quick grin.

They had the zoo almost to themselves; most of the animals, in fact, had sought shelter wherever it was available, making them less visible.  Joe seemed determined the spend the entire day out in the wet, though, until Adam finally called enough.  “We can come back a better day,” he said.

“Promise?” Joe asked.

“Yes, of course, I promise . . . if there is a better day.  Weather can be unpredictable this time of year.”

“Everywhere,” Joe agreed.  “Yeah, I guess I’m ready to call it a day.”

As they walked home, there were less people milling about the streets than Adam had expected.  Of course, the weather was atrocious, but even that could not keep people from voting in this election.  Adam was pleased to see the heavy turnout despite the prevailing rainstorm that seemed intent on keeping men from the polls.

The next day the election returns began to come in, and the household was happy to see that Boston had given their votes to Abraham Lincoln.  Results for the rest of the country would trickle in over the next few days, and the wait would be even longer to learn how the far West had voted.

 

November 8

Thursday morning Adam again approached Little Joe in his room.  “This is getting to be a habit, older brother,” Little Joe said.

Adam shrugged.  “Just thought I should apprise you of my plans for the day.”  In truth, he had wanted to avoid an explosion in front of their hosts, which he feared would be Joe’s response to those plans.

“Don’t you mean our plans?” Little Joe asked, the back of his neck prickling with suspicion.

“You’re welcome to come along if you like,” Adam said, “though I’m not certain you’d find it interesting.  I’m going over to Cambridge to see the college, maybe catch up with a few old professors of mine.”

Little Joe scowled.  “Sounds like pure torture.  But I thought this was our day.”

“Joe,” Adam said with strained patience.  “I do think I’m entitled to a day for my own pleasure once in a while.”

Little Joe had the grace to blush.  “Well, sure.  It’s just I thought . . . never mind.”

“Perhaps I should have told you earlier,” Adam conceded.  “Of course, if you’re planning to accompany me this weekend, you might have a few things to take care of yourself.  I thought I would make the trip to New Bedford tomorrow evening.  Of course, you may find that as much “pure torture” as the trip to Cambridge, in which case I’ll gladly excuse you, but you had indicated you wanted to come.”

“I do,” Little Joe said.  “Sure I do.”  He’d forgotten all about the visit Adam had mentioned when they first discussed things to do back East, and while he felt a little embarrassed to tag along on such an emotional journey, especially since he and Adam were somewhat at odds now, he still wanted to be there for his brother.  No one should have to visit his mother’s grave alone.  A shadow crossed his face.  “Unless you’d rather go alone,” he said quietly.

“No, not at all,” Adam said.  In all honesty, given the mystifying friction between him and Joe the last few days, he had somewhat been hoping his brother would decline the trip.  Nothing should disturb this sacred venture, but perhaps, away from the Pontpiers, they’d have the chance to discuss whatever was bothering Joe and find their way back together.  After all, they weren’t so far apart, were they?  He’d known times when the distance between them seemed much greater and icier by far.

“Have you finished your Christmas shopping?” Adam asked.

“Not quite,” Little Joe said, cocking his head at the abrupt change of subject.  It really wasn’t one, as he soon saw.

“I thought we’d mail our gifts home on the way to the depot tomorrow,” Adam explained, “so you should finish up today, if possible.”

“I figured we’d just take them on the ship,” Little Joe said, looking puzzled.

Adam laughed.  “Do you really want to be loaded down with that every time you change from train to hotel to ship to stage to . . .”

“I get the picture,” Little Joe said with a grin.  “Yeah, probably better to mail them.”

“Especially if we should be delayed for any reason,” Adam said.  “Hopefully, we won’t, but it’s possible.  Okay, so you’ll have plenty to do, getting those things ready and packing for the trip, although you’ll have most of tomorrow, too, if you need it.  No need to pack heavy, but do remember your raincoat.  Being on the coast, New Bedford is, at best, damp and, at worst . . . well, it could be worse.”

“Great,” Joe, who’d had enough of rainstorms on his trip to the zoo, said.

 

November 9

Little Joe spent most of Thursday shopping for his final Christmas gifts, mostly for something else to suit Adam.  In a way it seemed pointless, since no matter what kind of delay they had to deal with, he and Adam would be together on Christmas.  Frankly, Little Joe didn’t think there would be one, and he had just about convinced himself that the whole idea had been an excuse not to spend time with him.  Not that he could blame Adam much; he hadn’t exactly been easy to get along with the last few days.

He thought he’d finally found something sure to please in the same place he’d earlier bought a new set of ivory chessmen for Pa.  For Adam, he’d selected a chess set meant for traveling by rail or ship.  To get the best use of it, though, he’d probably need to give it before Christmas, to use on their journey, so he’d also put together a few things to ship home, so his brother would have something to open when they were all together: the book of folk songs, a silk cravat and a book.  He’d wrap all that in the morning, along with Pa’s chessmen and Hoss’s stereoscope with views of Egypt, Italy and Holland, as well as American landmarks.

He had started to feel more magnanimous toward Adam when he went downstairs for tea and learned something that again hardened his heart.  Instead of coming home after his visit to his old college, Adam had gone to see that girl again and wasn’t expected home for dinner, either.  Clearly, older brother was becoming much too drawn to someone who was totally wrong for him, and he’d hidden his plans to boot.  He’d as good as lied about them, and Little Joe could feel his heart icing over again.

 

November 10

Adam found the train ride to New Bedford unpleasant, to say the least.  Not only had a prevailing rainstorm, with fierce winds out of the northeast, dropped the temperature outside the car, it was still more frigid inside, sitting next to that icicle formerly known as his younger brother.  Other than one frosty question at breakfast this morning—“Did you have a good time with your college friends, older brother?”—Joe had been as silent and unyielding as a sculpture in ice.  Since he obviously disdained his brother’s company, why had he even bothered to come along?  Well, Adam was not about to put up with it, not on this trip.  Joe could sulk all he wanted; he’d just ignore him.

Though it scarcely seemed possible, Little Joe got quieter as the evening went on, and they both went to sleep in the hotel with the barest of good-nights.  Inside Joe, however, a battle was raging between anger and fairness.  He was angry with his brother, but when he faced why, shame began to outstrip anger in his heart.  Adam was falling for a girl.  That much was clear, but had the same thing happened back home, it wouldn’t have bothered Joe one bit.  He might have teased, but he’d have been secretly glad that older brother had found someone to come up to his exacting—and, at times, downright peculiar—standards.  Not many girls did.  Most of the girls in Virginia City were too—well, frothy was the word that came to mind—for Adam.  He liked his women serious and bothered about all sorts of subjects most girls didn’t give a fig about.  He liked them pretty, too, of course, but even that wasn’t as important as that they be deep thinkers, like him.

Little Joe had told himself that Miss Jennings was all wrong for Adam, but that wasn’t true.  She was exactly the right kind of girl for Adam, and that made her dangerous.  She was just the kind to make him think about packing up and moving back East forever.  Little Joe remembered the night in New York City, when he’d sat in the window and wondered if just being here would stir too many yearnings inside Adam.  As he lay in bed that night in New Bedford, Joe acknowledged, clearly for the first time, that Lily Ann Jennings might be just what it took to push his brother over that cliff . . . and it terrified him.

Why, he couldn’t have said.  He’d felt that fear for the first time when he’d been a tiny boy, who’d just lost his mother, had seemed to lose his father for a time and then was losing the stay of his life to something called college.  He’d developed a deep and abiding hatred for whatever college was as he waved goodbye to Adam, aboard the stage that took him away.  He’d never go there himself and hurt the people left behind, no matter how many times Adam tried to convince him that it was a wonderful thing.

He’d felt it again, inexplicably, when his brother came home and he’d reluctantly let Adam back into his heart.  Once back, he couldn’t let him leave and go through all that hurt again.  College wasn’t even a threat any more, so the fear had attached itself to the whole stinking East—and now to Lily Ann Jennings as its representative.  The patent unfairness of that was what shamed him throughout the endless night.

He decided to breach the subject at breakfast the next morning.  “Adam, could I talk to you?” he asked over his crab cakes and eggs, one allure of the East he had come to thoroughly appreciate.

Adam’s response, a terse “No,” took him off guard.

“I just wanted to say . . .”

“No,” Adam interrupted to say.  “Not today, Joe.”

Little Joe bit his tongue.  He wanted to apologize and to offer an explanation, if he could somehow find the words, and the earnestness of that desire had made him forget  what he’d plainly known before, that this day, this trip was special to Adam, and nothing, absolutely nothing, should be allowed to intrude until he’d paid his respects to his mother.  He was owed that, so Joe mumbled, “Sorry,” and went back to his breakfast.

Adam was surprised by the easy concession.  It wasn’t in Joe’s nature to give in so easily, but he wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth.  Not today.

*****

At least, it wasn’t raining.  When it rained at funerals, people sometimes said that heaven itself was crying over the loss.  ‘Course, they weren’t at a funeral, only a cemetery; still, a sense of loss hovered over the graveyard, which was empty except for the two Cartwright brothers.  Was it only the overcast sky that fed the feeling of loss or was it something Adam was feeling that clouded the whole atmosphere with quiet grief?

Adam had never known his mother, but that made no difference.  Little Joe knew that from his own experience.  He’d only known his own mother briefly, but at times he felt her loss keenly in a way that went beyond anything he actually remembered.  She’d become, for him, a kind of ideal, but sometimes he wanted more than that.  He wanted someone real, however imperfect, and at those times he grieved for the mother he’d known such a short time.  Adam had never had anything but the ideal, so he probably yearned for the real even more than Little Joe did.

It was a shame his big brother couldn’t visit his mother’s grave more often, as Joe did, couldn’t feel the comfort of pouring out his heart to someone who represented pure, non-judging love, but Adam had never had that privilege.  He’d always lived too far from his mother’s resting place to make that possible.  Except for those years he’d lived back here.  Was that another pull the East had on him?  It didn’t matter; it only mattered that Joe had almost spoiled it for him, and realizing that brought a mist to his eyes that had nothing to do with the mist in the air, which threatened at any minute to become a downpour.

They hadn’t exchanged more than ten words since breakfast, so Little Joe swallowed hard before walking up to his brother and laying a hand on his shoulder.  He felt his brother flinch, so the hand dropped as he asked, “Do you want to be alone with her?”  He wasn’t sure Adam would feel the same way he would have, but he’d have wanted a few moments to speak to his mama in private, and he had to offer, even if Adam thought he was overly sentimental.

Adam hesitated a long minute, as if he were considering the suggestion, but then he softly said, “No.”  He hesitated a moment longer and added, “But thanks.  I, uh, won’t be much longer, Joe.”

“Take all the time you need,” Little Joe said and stepped back, putting a little distance between them, just in case Adam wanted to whisper goodbye.

*****

The gray clouds overhead began to release their moisture just as the Cartwright brothers were leaving the cemetery, but it remained no more than a light drizzle until they arrived back at the hotel and sat down to dinner.  Then it came down like a torrent.  “Looks like we won’t be doing much sight-seeing today,” Adam observed, testing the waters of a different sort.

“Um,” was the only response he got.

The silence was back, but somehow it seemed different, more contemplative than irritated, perhaps more approachable.  Adam decided to take his life in his hands and dive in.  “I believe you wanted to speak with me this morning?” he asked.

Little Joe lifted his head from his bowl of clam chowder, but just as quickly ducked it.  “Never mind,” he said.

He might as well be killed for a lion as a lamb.  “Come on, Joe,” Adam pressed.  “Something’s been bothering you for days.  Obviously, we’re going to have to talk about it at some point, and unless you plan to wait until December, this is probably our best chance to be alone.”  Little Joe kept his head down, but he stopped eating, so Adam knew something was going on in his brother’s impenetrable head.  He waited.

Finally, Little Joe looked up, licked his suddenly dry lips and said, “Don’t.”  Just that and no more.

Apparently, “impenetrable” was stating it mildly.  “Don’t what?” Adam asked.

Little Joe took a visibly deep breath.  “Don’t fall for that girl.”

Adam missed the slightly plaintive tone in his brother’s voice.  He bristled as he said, “I scarcely consider that any of concern of yours.”

“I just think . . .”  He wanted to say, “She’s wrong for you,” but knowing that wasn’t true, he couldn’t, and he finished, instead, with a lame “you shouldn’t.”

Adam stiffened his spine.  “I am not in the habit of consulting my baby brother about my love life—nor do I intend to start.”

His tone would have set Joe’s teeth on edge, even without the added emphasis on “baby.”  The fact that it was said at all, much less so strongly, refueled the anger Little Joe had strived to keep under control all weekend.

“You’d be better off if you did,” Little Joe declared.

“Well, let me see if I understand this,” Adam said with that lofty and irritating arch of his eyebrow he habitually sported.  “You can have a shipboard romance that extends to dry land, but I cannot.”

“I didn’t have a shipboard romance,” Little Joe said through gritted teeth.  “I told you, Eva and I are just friends.”

“Who says Lily and I are more than ‘just friends’?”

Little Joe rolled his eyes and then said as if talking to a three-year-old, “She’s the marrying kind, Adam.”

The eyebrow arched still higher.  “And Eva’s not?  Pa will be interested to hear that his youngest is consorting with a woman who is not the marrying kind.”

“That’s not what I meant and you know it!” Little Joe said hotly.  “Of course, she’s the marrying kind, just not with me.  Lily is interested in you, and I don’t mean just as a friend.  She wants a husband!”

“Well, maybe I want a wife,” Adam thrust back.

Joe felt like he’d taken an arrow, straight to the heart.  “Don’t,” he said, unable to say more.

Adam rolled his eyes.  They were back to that.   “I don’t know whether Lily and I have a future together, but that’s a decision we will make for ourselves—and I’ll thank you to keep your opinions to yourself.  Now, finish your dinner; we have a train to catch.”

Little Joe responded by pushing his plate away and his chair back from the table.  As he stalked from the dining room, Adam briefly wondered whether the kid had gone back to their room or out into the pouring rain.  At the moment, he didn’t much care.

 

November 11

It was still raining when they arrived back in Boston, and the storm continued throughout the night and all the next day.  No one considered braving the deluge to attend church that Sunday, but it seemed almost as stormy inside with two thunderclouds sitting in the parlor.  Everyone could feel the tension between the two Cartwright brothers, but not wanting to risk being struck by lightning, no one asked until George did the following morning on the way to work.

 

November 12

Adam was only too glad to fill his friend’s sympathetic ears with a rant about his unreasonable little brother.

“Has he ever objected to a woman you’ve been seeing before?” George asked.

Adam shrugged.  “Not really.  Not unless . . .”  He looked up at George sharply.  “Oh, good lands.”

“What?”

“You don’t suppose he wants her for himself,” Adam said, aghast.

George laughed.  “No,” he said, trying to control what threatened to become a genuine guffaw.  “She’s not his type.”  The Cheshire Cow at the Stinking Stilton back in San Francisco seemed a better match for Little Joe Cartwright than a sophisticated woman such as Lily Jennings.  “Why not just ask him?” he suggested.

Adam snorted.  “I already tried that.  No, I believe I’ll just let sleeping Joes lie.  I don’t know what to do about tomorrow.  Maybe I’ll get lucky, and there’ll be another storm to keep us from going anywhere together.”

 

November 13

But Tuesday dawned clear and pleasant, and while neither Cartwright brother particularly wanted to spend time with the other, Adam didn’t want to go back on his word, and Little Joe didn’t want to leave his brother free to spend even more time with the enchanting Lily.  So, they stayed together, choosing to visit the Pine Street Fair, which opened that morning.  Fortunately, the exhibits were interesting: antiquities like spinning wheels and old-style looms in full operation, with hand-crafted items for sale and plenty of refreshments, including ice cream, cakes and oysters, while Gilmore’s band provided entertainment.  All the profits were going to build a new church, so it even felt virtuous to indulge themselves, and by the time they left the Cartwright brothers seemed to be at peace with one another.  It was an uneasy peace, however, dependent on neither of them bringing up their main topic of contention.

 

November 14

On Wednesday Adam was back at work, and Little Joe paid another visit to the Pine Street Fair.  A choir of one thousand children was supposed to be singing that afternoon, and Madeleine hinted that she would like to see them.  The hint was probably directed at Adam, but when he pointedly ignored it, Little Joe took up the gauntlet and offered to escort her.  For a moment she looked disappointed; then she thanked him for the gracious offer and accepted.  To his wonderment, he found that Madeleine could actually be an enjoyable companion, and he got along well with the one person in the household to whom he’d taken an almost instant dislike.  Joe began to wonder if she wouldn’t be a worthy ally in keeping Adam away from Lily.  Though he didn’t dare suggest it, he suspected it would probably take little to point her in that direction.  His brother, though, could probably use a push.

That evening he approached Adam in his room.  “I don’t know what you have planned for tomorrow,” Joe began.

Adam sighed.  “Nothing as yet, as least with you.  What would you like to do?”

“Nothing,” Joe said.  “I was kind of thinking we could take a day off.”

Adam looked surprised—and relieved.  “Well, if that’s what you want, sure.  We have been keeping up a pretty steady round of activity.”

“Yeah, sure,” Joe said, “and I was thinking you might prefer to take Madeleine somewhere—you know, an art gallery or some such thing you more educated types like.”

“I’m not interested in Madeleine, Joe,” Adam said.  He instinctively sensed that his brother was trying to distract him from the lady he was really was interested in.

“I know that,” Little Joe said with a slight roll of his eyes.  Goodness knows, he’d never have put her forward if he’d thought there was the least chance that she could wind her way into his heart.  “I just mean, you’re friends and all, and you haven’t spent much time with her, and it would mean a lot to her, and it seems like the polite thing to do, don’t you think?”

“Perhaps,” Adam said cautiously.  “I wouldn’t want to lead her on.”

“No, no, ‘course not,” Joe said.  “I just thought you might want to give her a little enjoyment . . . as a friend.  She really doesn’t get out much, and a lady has to have an escort, you know, if she’s a proper lady, I mean, and George is busy with work, so he can’t very often.  I know she appreciated me takin’ her to the fair yesterday, but you could take her somewhere more suited to a high-class lady.”

“Just as a friend?” Adam said slowly.

“Of course, just as a friend—like I will with Eva, when she comes.”  Little Joe adopted the voice of a teacher instructing a rather dull student.  “You don’t have to be smitten with someone to show them simple courtesy, Adam.”

“I suppose not,” Adam admitted.  He had a feeling he was falling prey to Joe Cartwright’s infamous power to manipulate people—Pa, to be precise and, even more frequently, Hoss.  Adam had always considered himself immune to those powers, but he had no argument to counter what seemed like perfectly sound reasoning.  Madeleine was a friend, she didn’t get out much, and it would be simple courtesy to show a little gratitude to their hosts by escorting the daughter of the house somewhere.  “All right, I’ll—I’ll do it,” he conceded and was rewarded by his brother’s bright smile of approval—or was that self-satisfaction?

 

November 15

If Madeleine had any hope that her afternoon with Adam indicated that he was finally responding to her as she had long dreamed he would, his actions that evening disabused her of the notion.  After a pleasant excursion to the art gallery, he announced at supper that he’d be escorting Miss Jennings to Chapman Hall that evening for a dramatic reading in French, and there was no mention of making it an outing for all the young people.

The only person, besides Madeleine herself, who seemed disturbed by Adam’s announcement was his younger brother, and that wasn’t likely because he wished to go himself.  Madeleine couldn’t imagine the frontier youth knew more than a smattering of French, despite his mother’s heritage.  Her own grasp of the language was rusty from lack of use, and that boy surely couldn’t remember much from time he was four.  Or was he five when he’d lost his mother?  Either way, it scarcely mattered.  It wasn’t enough to follow the dialogue in Scribe’s comedy.

Why had Adam taken her out that afternoon, then?  She’d hoped—but she supposed she’d been foolish to hope that she could ever be more to him than the spinster sister of his good friend.  He’d probably meant it to be kind, and it was, but she wanted so much more than kindness from him, and she feared it was never to be.

*****

“You seem pensive, Adam,” Lily remarked over a plate of Charlotte Russe, which she and her escort were enjoying after the reading.  “Are you thinking of the play?”

“In a way,” Adam said.  “I was thinking of my little brother and how I should like to have shared it with him.”

“Instead of me?” she asked playfully.

Adam reached across the table to hold her hand.  “Definitely not.  I suppose it’s the title that made me think of Joe.”

“Vatel ou Les Fils d’un Grand Homme?” she laughed.  “Does that describe him?”

“The Son of a Great Man?  Oh, yes, we both are.”

“You’re very fond of him, aren’t you?”

“Of Pa?  Of course,” Adam said, being deliberately obtuse.

Her laughter was warm.  “I’m sure,” she said, “but I meant your brother.”

“Oh.”  Adam shrugged.  “Sometimes I am; sometimes he’s . . . impossible, more that than the other lately.”

“I’ve often wished I had a brother or sister, so you must not spoil my fantasies of that exquisite pleasure.”  Her voice tinkled with humor.

“I shall try not to prick that bubble with too much truth, Mademoiselle,” he said, “though you may be less kindly disposed toward him after I tell you that he convinced me to escort another young lady to the art gallery this afternoon.”

For a moment she looked disappointed, but quickly covered it with a smile.  “You are, of course, free to escort any lady of your choice to any destination, Adam.”

He’d caught the glint of jealousy in her eye, however, and it sent a quiver of excitement down his spine.  “It was only Madeleine,” he explained, “and she’s just a friend, but Joe gave me a running spiel about how I should take pity on her and take her out.”

“I’m sure he didn’t put it that way,” Lily chided.

“Almost,” Adam chuckled, “but, no, he’s a little more subtle than that.  That boy can talk in circles until you’re dizzy and find yourself saying yes when you know you should say no.”  Seeing that Lily had finished her dessert, he asked, “Shall we go?”

“I suppose we should,” Lily said, “though I wish the night need never end.  I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly, Adam.”

“It doesn’t have to end yet,” Adam whispered in her ear as he helped her on with her cape.  “The weather’s pleasant, and we could walk home; it’s not that far.”

“Yes, please,” she whispered back.

As they walked along the street together, her golden head came to rest on his broad shoulder in a confident way that made Adam wish the walk were far longer than it was.  Her ease with him spurred his own confidence, and they ended the night with a lingering kiss filled with expectation and anticipation.

 

November 16-20

Friends and family alike soon suspected something had changed for Adam.  George later reported that his friend had seemed distracted at work on Friday, and when a discussion arose that night about some activity they could all share for the weekend, Adam expressed his regrets, saying that he already had plans with Miss Jennings.  He didn’t even share what they were lest someone (not to mention Madeleine or Joe) should consider making a large party of it.  And when he also declined to attend church with the rest of them on Sunday because he had elected to visit the Jennings’ church, everyone knew.

Everyone, with two exceptions, accepted it with good feeling.  George thought Lily was perfect for Adam, and having found romance himself aboard ship, he thought it highly appropriate that his best friend had done the same.  Mr. Pontpier frankly wasn’t concerned one way or the other, while his wife was torn between happiness for Adam and concern for her daughter, who, she knew, still harbored unrealistic dreams of a future with Adam.  Well, perhaps the sooner Madeleine realized that was never to be, Mrs. Pontpier thought, the sooner she might look elsewhere and find the happiness of married life herself.

Little Joe’s worst fears were fulfilled: Adam was falling in love with an Eastern girl, someone he’d be willing to give up the Ponderosa and his entire family for.  In his heart, Joe was four years old again, and Adam was leaving him, just as his mother had.  No amount of telling himself that he was being childish changed the feeling, but instead of making him sad, it made him angry.

Adam wasn’t entirely oblivious to the waves of emotion washing around him, but they all faded when he thought of how much he had enjoyed the piano forte soiree with lovely Lily at his side.  How he missed the opportunity to hear fine music!  Especially in company with someone who didn’t merely tolerate the experience, but relished it as much as he.  He hadn’t really been thinking of marriage when Little Joe first brought it up.  Now he was.

The following Tuesday he planned another outing with Lily.  And, of course, he couldn’t wait until the last minute to ask her, so he’d gone there in the morning to ask if she’d like to attend the chamber concert that night at Chickerings’ new Piano Saloon.  “It’s the Mendelssohn Quintet Club,” he said.  “I know nothing about them, so I can’t promise they’re good.  Perhaps you do?”

“I haven’t heard them, either,” Lily said, “but I’m willing to chance it if you are, Adam.”

Adam grinned.  “Let’s live adventurously, then.”

She smiled warmly into his face.  “I welcome adventure with you.”

It wasn’t until later that he realized this was supposed to be a day spent with his brother.  Well, what could he possibly do with the boy anyway?  It was becoming increasingly hard to come up with activities to amuse the impossible child, and so easy to find cultural events to share with Lily.  Probably Joe was getting bored with city pleasures and, besides, they’d be going to Plymouth over the weekend, so that should give the kid enough to look forward to.  Yes, Joe would be fine with that.

That night was the coldest of the season, which might have suggested to a discerning man that his young brother wouldn’t be thawing anytime soon.

 

November 22

Adam’s suggestion that Joe spend Thursday packing for the weekend excursion was instantly spurned.  “I don’t need two days to pack for an overnight trip,” he declared firmly.  “I want to go to Goodwin’s Zoological.  They got baby animals, just born, a monkey and three lion cubs.”

“Yes, I read it, too,” Adam said, feeling somewhat perturbed.  “Wouldn’t you just as soon see them alone?”

“You’ve got plans with that girl again,” Little Joe accused.

“No,” Adam admitted, although he certainly would have preferred Lily’s sweet smile to the sullen face before him, “not that it’s any business of yours if I did.”  How heartily he wished he did!  “If the weather cooperates, we can see the monkey this afternoon.”

“And the lion cubs,” Joe added with a stubborn outthrust of his lower lip.

“I hadn’t forgotten them,” Adam said tersely.  He wondered momentarily if he could get Little Joe into the zoo at the ten-cent child’s rate, since he was acting like one, but with the accumulated wisdom an elder brother develops in dealing with children, he managed to stop himself from actually suggesting it.

 

November 23

Though they left Boston on Friday evening in the midst of a severe southeast windstorm, by the time they reached Plymouth, the weather was windy, but otherwise clear.  Maybe it was the excitement of a trip or that it was only the two of them making it, but Little Joe made an effort to be pleasant.  Not much more than that, but it was, at least, an improvement for which Adam gave thanks.  Or, at least, tried to.  One ought to be thankful with less than a week to the holiday itself, but he still felt disgruntled.  With so little time left with Lily, to spend even one day squiring around his brother, instead of her, felt like a terrible waste.

Arriving after dark, they settled for a simple supper at their hotel and a quiet evening indoors.  Adam had brought a new book with him, and he was glad to see that Joe had, too, although it was probably one of those mind-sapping dime novels he was absurdly fond of.  Adam wasn’t about to inquire.  At the moment he didn’t care what his brother read, so long as it kept the kid quiet and occupied.  They wouldn’t really have that much to do tomorrow.  Plymouth was a small town without much to see, scarcely worth the trip, but he’d promised, back in the days when he’d wanted to help Joe through the long stay here in the East.  At least, they’d be able to catch an early train back to Boston and shorten the misery of spending time together.

The moment that thought passed through Adam’s mind, he regretted it.  He loved his brother; of course, he did.  He just wasn’t feeling it much at present, but he resolved to try to make the excursion enjoyable—and, perhaps, educational—for Joe.  As for the source of their conflict, Joe would just have to learn to accept Lily—or not.  If, in fact, he even needed to, if he himself had a future with her.  When they had their next outing alone, he’d ask her a significant question, and then he’d know, one way or another.

 

November 24

“The Pilgrims couldn’t possibly have landed on that puny thing,” Little Joe protested.

Adam grinned.  “It’s possible there’s more legend than history in the tradition of Plymouth Rock,” he said, “but the man who started it was born while many of the Mayflower Pilgrims were still living, and he was very insistent.”

“Too small,” Little Joe insisted, “and too far from the sea.”

“Ah, yes, I see,” Adam agreed with a nod, “but neither was true before it was moved.”

“They moved it?  Why?”

Adam scratched his head.  “Wanted to build a wharf, as I recall.  Anyway, the top part of the rock broke away then, and they just built the wharf over the bottom part.  Originally, it was supposed to weigh something like twenty tons, which was quite large enough.”

“I reckon!” Little Joe said, impressed.

“They’re planning to move it back to the original location, according to George, join it up with the bottom part, but there’s not much to see there yet.”

“But we could see the place, the actual place?”

There was no denying the eagerness in his brother’s eyes.  “We could,” Adam agreed.  And though, when they reached the actual place, all they could see was the beginnings of a Victorian canopy which would one day shelter the rock, the surf crashing on the shore gave them both a sense of the hazards their forefathers had encountered in coming to this land, and sharing it together brought them a little closer together, and the unity, tenuous as it was, stayed with them throughout the day and the journey back to Boston.

 

November 25

Sunday dawned clear, but cold and stayed at or below freezing all day.  Still, the Pontpier family and their guests braved the cold to attend church.  A collection was being taken to give the poor a bountiful Thanksgiving, and Mrs. Pontpier, especially, wanted to make a contribution.  Adam, of course, had money to add to the offering plate, but even Little Joe, who had far less, wanted to do his part.  Little as he had wanted to spend Thanksgiving away from Pa and Hoss, he was reminded afresh that many others had far less to be thankful for, and he resolved there in the pew that he would find some way to slip a small gift to Aideen, the little Irish maid he’d stolen a kiss from early in his residence in Boston.  She and her widowed mother weren’t as impoverished as those to whom the church baskets would be delivered, but he was sure they’d be glad of a little extra to make the day special.

 

November 26

“You might as well know that I’ll be spending every day this week at the office . . . until Thanksgiving, that is,” Adam informed his brother in his room Tuesday morning.  “It’s a short week, and there are projects I need to finish up for George before we leave for home Friday night.”

“Sure, Adam,” Little Joe said.  His voice was subdued, but grateful to receive no argument, Adam took the words at face value and went down to breakfast.

Little Joe, who hadn’t been fully dressed when his brother arrived, sat on the edge of his bed with a small sigh.  He didn’t really mind that Adam wouldn’t be taking him anywhere.  He understood the reason, and it would have been only one more excursion together, anyway.  Besides, he’d already seen enough of Boston to last him a lifetime.  It was only that he knew Adam didn’t want to spend time with him that hurt, and that was pretty much his own fault.  He shouldn’t have said what he did about Lily, and it hadn’t even been necessary, since it seemed that his brother’s feelings for her weren’t any stronger than his own for Eva.

At the thought of his shipboard friend, he smiled.  Eva would be here tomorrow evening, and he was looking forward to seeing her again.  Thinking of that reminded him that he really needed to spend his suddenly freed day packing up and being ready to go on Friday, for as soon as Eva and her sister came, his days would be full until it was time to go home.  Home!  Pa!  Hoss!  The Ponderosa and Cochise!  With a new spring in his step, he quickly finished his morning ablutions and hurried down to breakfast.

 

November 27

What Adam hadn’t told Little Joe was his plans for Tuesday evening, and there might be hell to pay when the kid found out.  He’d left that job to George, who had quickly pointed out the contradiction in being given such a thankless task so near Thanksgiving.  “But I’ll be giving thanks to you,” Adam had just as quickly countered and was rewarded with a conspiratorial grin from his friend.

“Make the best of your time with Miss Jennings, then,” George said.  “I, in the meantime, will enter the lion’s den on your behalf.”

“You are a veritable Daniel, my friend.”

“Such flattery will get you somewhere, but not far.”  George clasped his friend’s shoulder.  “Seriously, Adam, good luck.”

Adam arched an enigmatic eyebrow.  “Luck isn’t required for a mere supper engagement.”

George tried, but failed, to imitate the expression.  “Ah, but it might be for another type of engagement.”

“Don’t suggest that at home!” Adam exclaimed.

“To the lion?  My lips are sealed . . . and so, I pray, will be the lion’s, if I really am a veritable Daniel.”  Laughing sturdily at his own joke, George lifted a hand in farewell.

Adam sobered as his friend walked away.  In a sense he, too, felt he would be facing a lion tonight.  Not Lily, of course.  It was ridiculous to describe her that way, but the subject he wished to discuss with her was as daunting as an encounter with a wild beast, especially when he wasn’t even sure how far he wished to explore the possibilities of . . . well, some sort of engagement, as George had surmised.

*****

“Did you not enjoy the play?” Lily asked as they dined after their trip to the Howard Athenaeum.

“No, I did,” Adam said, idly stirring his coffee.

“It was a bit melodramatic,” Lily said, “but an exciting mystery, I thought.”

“Um-hmm,” Adam murmured absently.  “Oh, I’m sorry, what was?”

“‘The Lady in White,’” Lily said with the patient smile women were often required to offer men, although rarely before this to Adam.  “Did you find it too melodramatic?”

“Oh.  Well, a bit,” he admitted.  “I confess, my mind kept drifting elsewhere.”

“I sensed as much,” she said, her smile softening.  “Were you thinking of home?”

“In a way,” he said, “but I’m not homesick, if that’s what you meant.”

“I know you must be, at least somewhat,” Lily said with a sigh, “but I so regret that this is our last evening together—just the two of us, I mean.  I’ll see you Thanksgiving, of course, but there’ll be . . . others then.”

“Yes, others.”  Adam moistened his suddenly dry lips.  “I think I shall be just as homesick for you as I am for the Ponderosa,” he said softly.

“What a lovely thing to say!” she softly cried.  “And I feel the same, as if . . .”

“As if what?” Adam pressed.

She dipped her chin demurely.  “It isn’t ladylike to say.”

Adam lifted her chin with two fingers.  “Say it anyway.”  His voice was soft, a seductive purr.

She took a deep breath.  “As if a part of me were going with you, as if something will be irretrievably lost once you’re gone.  I shall miss you, Adam!”

“And I, you.”  He, too, felt the need for a bracing breath.  “Which leads me to ask a, perhaps, ungentlemanly question: could you see yourself living out West, dearest?”

She blushed and dropped her gaze, but then lifted her eyes and faced him frankly.  “Is this a proposal, Adam?”

“Perhaps,” Adam said.

She frowned slightly.  “I don’t know how to answer a perhaps proposal.”

Adam laughed lightly.  “Perhaps with ‘perhaps.’  I warned you it might be ungentlemanly.”

“Since I’ve never known you to be anything but a gentleman, I can’t accept that.  Speak plainly, please, Adam.”

“All right, I will, and thank you for being the kind of girl who welcomes that.  Lily, I honestly don’t know whether we have a future together or not, but I sincerely hope that we do.  I feel we haven’t known each other long enough for me to propose marriage.”

“I agree,” Lily said at once, “though I, too, have hopes, Adam.”

“That’s why I asked as I did, whether you could even entertain the idea of living in my part of the world,” Adam explained.  “Could you?”

She smiled sadly.  “I enjoyed my visit to the West, Adam, but I don’t think I’d make a very good pioneer.  The East is all I know, and I love my life here: the music, the plays, the lectures.  I don’t know that I could give all that up for the frontier.”

He reached for her hand.  “The West is becoming less a frontier all the time, Lily.  Believe it or not, we have opera and dramas and gifted speakers ourselves, even if some of them are rather homespun.”

“In Virginia City?”  She looked skeptical.

“Well, more in San Francisco, of course, but even Virginia City, while it’s still rather rough at the edges, does have things to whet a cultural appetite.”

“Does it satisfy your appetite?” she asked, her head cocked.

With her, he had to be honest.  “Not fully,” he admitted.

“Then could you consider moving back East?” she said.  “Wouldn’t we both be more content here?”

He leaned back.  “I’ve often asked myself that.  Perhaps someday, Lily, but I don’t think I’m ready to take that step yet.”

“Then we’re neither one ready for marriage, Adam,” she said, “for if we were truly in love, we wouldn’t care where we lived, as long as we were together.”

He nodded at her clear perception.  “I suppose not, but I do hope that we can remain friends.”

“Of course!  Close friends, I hope, Adam.”

“Very close,” he said.  “I’d like it if we could correspond, Lily.”

“I’d like that, too,” she said, her eyes shining, “and who knows what the future may hold, Adam?”

“Who, indeed?”  He reached across the table and took both of her hands, and they smiled into each other’s eyes as the waiter passed by, nodding knowingly and leaving them discreetly alone.

 

November 28

Little Joe woke Wednesday morning after a night of troubled sleep.  He’d felt fine until Adam failed to show up for supper, and George had hinted to the family that Adam was contemplating engagement to their soon-to-be house guest.  He had misunderstood his friend’s intentions, of course, but Little Joe had believed it and was angry that Adam had not told him.  But, then, he was just as angry at himself because he’d made his own company so distasteful that Adam hadn’t felt he could.  The swirling mixture of guilt and anger kept him tossing and turning throughout the night.  He probably should have gone to Adam to talk it out, but he didn’t trust himself not to make matters worse, so he just dressed and dragged himself down to breakfast.

Both George and Adam, as well as Mr. Pontpier, were already at the table, and the audience effectively guaranteed that the Cartwright brothers wouldn’t settle anything that morning.  George had just finished filling his plate at the sideboard when Little Joe walked in.  “You were out quite late,” he said cheerily to Adam.  “Any news to share?”

With hooded eyes, Adam said only one word: “No.”  Clearly, he didn’t want to talk, and George wisely backed off.

Little Joe felt perplexed.  Did that single word mean there was no news to share or was Adam still reluctant to share it with his brother?  The noxious stew of anger and guilt turned his stomach into a churning cauldron, and he only nibbled at his breakfast, a sure sign of inner turmoil had anyone bothered to look.  The thought of Eva’s arrival that evening consoled Joe.  At last, someone he could talk to, someone who would understand without judging.  Of course, he thought wryly, he could probably get that from Madeleine, as well, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to bare his soul to the one person probably more disturbed about an impending engagement for Adam than Joe himself.

*****

“Little Joe!”  The girl threw herself into his arms.

Joe laughed and lifted her into the air before bringing her down for a quick embrace.  “Good to see you, too, Eva.”

Two other young women rolled their eyes.  One was Eva’s sister Margaret, who though she had always known that instilling Eastern manners in Eva was a lost cause, still blushed at her impropriety; the other was Madeleine Pontpier, who smiled patronizingly at the new Westerner in their midst.  And now we’ve a matched pair, she told herself.  Surprisingly, that did not bother her as much as it would have earlier.  After all, the Cartwright boy, whom she’d once thought insufferable, had proven to be a thoughtful lad, and perhaps he had picked up some wisdom along the way.  After all, hadn’t he come to her for advice about a beneficence to bestow on that little Bridget—no, Aideen, it was—and her mother?  A generous heart and the sense to seek advice about what was proper.  Little Joe Cartwright wasn’t up to his brother’s standard, of course—who was?– but a good lad, nonetheless.

“Mother, Father,” George said when the hubbub subsided, “May I introduce Miss Eva Lawrence and her sister, my intended, Miss Margaret Lawrence?”

“Delighted, my dear,” Mr. Pontpier said, taking her hand warmly.

“We’ve so looked forward to meeting you,” said Mrs. Pontpier, “and your charming sister, as well.”

The charming sister suddenly remembered her manners and broke away from Little Joe to greet her hosts for the weekend.  “Thank you for inviting us,” she said sincerely.  “It’ll be so much more pleasant to spend Thanksgiving in a real home, instead of the school dormitory.”

“I hope you’ll think of this as your home, my dear,” Mrs. Pontpier said graciously, “and not only for the weekend.  You are soon to become family, after all.  Little Joe, perhaps you could show your friend to her room, so she can refresh herself after her journey, and, Madeleine, I’m sure you’ll want to afford the same courtesy to Miss Margaret.”

“Oh, please, just Margaret,” said the older Lawrence sister.  “We are, as you say, soon to be family.”

“Margaret it is, then,” Madeleine put in.  “George and Adam are finishing up some tiresome project, or he’d have been here to meet you,” she said as she led the way upstairs.

“I believe they’ve met before,” Eva breathed in Little Joe’s ear as they, too, headed upstairs.

“Shh.  Behave yourself,” he whispered back.

She giggled.  “Like you do.”

He grinned.  “Better than that.”  He escorted her to the door of her bedroom and entered far enough to set down the carpetbag he’d been carrying for her, Horace having done the same service for her sister.  “Maybe sometime this evening we could take a walk or something?  I sure could use a friendly ear.”

She closed the door behind them.  “No time like the present.”

He chuckled.  “You haven’t learned a thing about propriety at that finishing school, have you?”

She lifted her chin with a stubborn jut.  “I didn’t need a finishing school to teach me that friendship comes first.”

He gave her cheek a quick kiss.  “Love you for it, but you’re tired from your trip, and they’ll serve tea soon, anyway.  Better later if you don’t mind the cold.  There’s a nice little park across the street.”

She grinned.  “And I could profess an unquenchable desire to see it in the moonlight.”

Little Joe made clucking sounds as he shook his head.  “Leave off the moonlight,” he advised.  “Some people here already think I’m a rake who pursues every female in sight.”

“Now, that I want to hear more about!” Eva laughed as she pushed him toward the door.

*****

“It’s lovely,” Eva said, gazing at the full moon that seemed to hover above the small fountain, now silenced, in the center of the small park.

Little Joe slipped an arm around her waist.  “Moonstruck, are you?”

Most unladylike, Eva hooted.  “They think you are, and so do I!  Suggesting a stroll in the park when it’s this cold!”

“I’m sorry,” Little Joe said, suddenly sober.  “We can go back in if . . .”

Her gloved hand reached up to stop the words in his mouth.  “Don’t be silly.  I’m not some conservatory plant.  I can take it . . . but get to talking, mister.  I can’t take it long.”

“Okay.”  His arm dropped from her waist, and he took her hand.  “Probably ought to walk as we talk, huh?”

“Warmer that way,” she admitted.  “Quit stalling, Little Joe.”

He nodded.  “It’s about my brother Adam . . . and me, I guess.  Things just ain’t right between us.”  As they walked, he told her everything, how Adam had fallen in love with an Eastern beauty and was going to walk out of his life forever—although he said “the Ponderosa,” instead of owning the more personal loss—and how he’d been first hurt, then angry, then ashamed, then angry again when Adam refused to tell him about the impending engagement, and then ashamed again about being angry and then. . . .

“Enough,” Eva said sharply.  “You are an absolute mess, Little Joe!”

“I know!”

Her tone softened instantly when she heard his wail.  It wasn’t one, really, but she scarcely knew what else to call that sound except, maybe, the cry of a bear cub caught in a rusty trap.  “I’m sorry.  I do understand what you’re feeling—minus all the churning inside.  If you were milk, you’d be butter by now!”

He stared at her, feeling like butter already or, at least, sour buttermilk.  “You couldn’t,” he said.

She lightly laughed.  “No, I do, dearest, I really do.  After all, I’m losing someone to the terrible East, too.”

His eyes widened.  “Oh,” he said as the realization hit him.  “Oh, wow, I didn’t think.”

“Of course not; you’re a man.”  Her indulgent smile expressed her conviction that he was a standard representative of the species.

“Is it killing you inside?” he dared to ask.

“When I think about it, yes,” she said.  “She’s my only sister, after all, and it’ll probably be years between visits after I finish school, ‘cause there’s no way I’m falling for anyone back here.”

Little Joe nodded in complete agreement.  “Bet you handled it better, though—minus all the churning inside.”

“Oh, I definitely handled it better,” she said.  “Women are stronger than men, you know.  There was some churning, but I could see from the beginning how right George was for Margaret and how much they love each other.  I don’t want to be parted from her, but if it’s what makes her happy . . . is it what will make Adam happy?”

“I don’t know,” Little Joe admitted.  “Guess I’ve been frettin’ so much about how it’s gonna affect Pa and Hoss . . .”

“And you.”  She smiled tenderly as she aimed straight for the heart of the matter.

“Uh, yeah,” he said uncomfortably.

“Well, tell me all about this terrible woman,” she said playfully, to alter the tone of the conversation, “and I’ll tell you if she’s right for your brother.  Women have a sixth sense about such things, you know.”

Her attempt to lighten his mood succeeded, at least, in calming him enough to say, with a sigh, “That’s the trouble: she is.  You’ll meet her tomorrow.  She’s a real beauty and as educated and cultured as him and, well, nice to boot.”

“Ooh, a real terror.”  She was grinning now as she took his arm.  “Let’s go back in, then, before we turn into icicles!”  As they reached the door, she said, “Brave face on now.  You’re going make it, Little Joe.”

 

November 29 — Thanksgiving

Lily and her father arrived mid-morning of Thanksgiving Day, a good thing since a steady rain began around eleven.  By then, everyone was chatting comfortably, Mr. and Mrs. Pontpier being delighted with Adam’s guests.  The aromas from the kitchen grew more enticing by the minute, and while they weren’t scheduled to eat until 2 p.m., there were appetizers in abundance to stave off starvation until the feast began.

And what a feast it was!  A giant turkey was the centerpiece of the meal, of course, filled with chestnut stuffing, but there was also oyster dressing, for the Pontpiers were determined to show their Western guests a true New England Thanksgiving, with all the trimmings.  In addition to the mashed potatoes and giblet gravy, sweet potatoes and green beans, which the Cartwrights and the Lawrences were familiar with, there were stuffed clams and acorn squash, a lobster salad and peach pickles.  Desserts lined the sideboard: apple and maple pumpkin pies, along with mincemeat and Indian pudding and a selection of fruits and nuts.  It was all they could have wished for from a Thanksgiving meal, with the exception of Pa and Hoss to share it.

“Your staff has outdone themselves, Mrs. Pontpier,” Mr. Jennings said.  “I fear we shall be worthless for anything but napping this afternoon.”

“You are welcome to do so, of course,” she responded with a gracious smile.  “We can make rooms available.  In fact, I hope you are planning to stay over, due to the rain.  The children are planning to brave it to attend a concert tonight, but we will remain at home and would welcome your company.”

“I think I would find that most enjoyable,” Mr. Jennings said.  “Lily, I know you brought an evening dress for the concert, but can you manage with what you have with you for one night.”

“Madeleine can loan you a nightdress and whatever else you might require, Miss Jennings,” Mrs. Pontpier offered.  “You’re close to the same size.”

“Yes, of course,” Madeleine said.  Frankly, she would just as soon the lovely Miss Jennings went home and left Adam to her for his last night in Boston, but she had been raised to be polite and instinctively said the right thing.

“Thank you,” Lily responded.  “You’ve made our time here so congenial that I would be most pleased to stay over tonight.”  She smiled up at Adam.  “It will give us more time with friends we shall be parted from all too soon.”

“Yes, indeed,” agreed her father.

“It’s settled, then,” Mr. Pontpier said.  “Has everyone had enough to eat?  Shall we adjourn to the parlor?”

“Or to a bedroom,” Mrs. Pontpier put in with a kind look at Mr. Jennings.

Mr. Jennings did accept the offer of a bedroom, while the others all gathered in the parlor.  At first, they were content to just sit and talk and let the mammoth meal digest. Then Adam said, “If you would indulge us, Lily and I have prepared a small musical offering in thanks for your hospitality.”

“Why, how delightful!” Mrs. Pontpier said.

The two young people approached the piano, where Lily settled herself on the bench with Adam standing behind her, facing the listeners.

“Oh, great,” Little Joe whispered to Eva, who was seated next to him.  “She plays piano, too.  I told you she was perfect for him.”

Eva nodded, barely containing her smile.

Lily played a long introduction, and then Adam’s rich voice sang the first verse.

“And sings,” Eva whispered as Lily joined her harmony to Adam’s melody on the chorus.

Little Joe groaned softly and shook his head.  “Hopeless,” he said.

On the second verse Lily took the lead, and Adam harmonized, and when the song ended, one and all applauded effusively.  Little Joe belatedly and rather reluctantly joined them.

“It may not be hopeless, after all,” Eva whispered to Little Joe, and in answer to his quizzical look, said, “I don’t see a ring.  Wouldn’t Adam get her one?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Joe whispered.

“What are you children babbling about?” Madeleine asked pointedly.

“Madeleine,” her mother chided gently, drawing out her daughter’s name.

“We were admiring Miss Jennings’ expertise with the instrument,” Eva answered quickly.

“And her singing,” Little Joe added.

Adam arched a knowing eyebrow.  Whatever they’d been talking about, he was quite certain it wasn’t the music.  Unfortunately, Eva seemed to be just the quicksilver to bring out the mischief in his little brother, and Adam was not going to tolerate any disrespect to Lily or to their hosts.

“Margaret sings, too,” Eva announced.

“Dearest!  You never told me,” George enthused.  “You must favor us with a song!”

“Oh, no,” Margaret demurred.  “I’m not nearly so talented as Lily, and I know only simple songs.”

“Why, those are best type, my dear,” said Mr. Pontpier.  “Do share one with us.”

“I haven’t any music,” Margaret said, “but if Lily will accompany me and if we can find a song we both know . . .”

“I’m sure we can,” Lily said.  “Give us a moment to consult, everyone.”

They soon agreed on a song, and Margaret gave a sweet rendition of “Gentle Annie” that had every woman in the room touching a handkerchief to her eyes.  “We’re not losing a son, Mother,” said Mr. Pontpier.  “We’re gaining a songbird.  Well done, my dear!”

Margaret blushed prettily, but no amount of praise could persuade her to sing again.  “Another time, when I’m better prepared,” she insisted.

“It seems a paltry offering after such gifts of music,” said Madeleine, “but I thought I’d read a poem by Mr. John G. Whittier, printed in yesterday’s Evening Transcript.”  Assured by one and all that “Thanksgiving and Praise” would be no paltry offering, she began, giving what—to Little Joe, at least—was a surprisingly pleasant rendering of the poem, almost up to his big brother’s standards.  He began to wonder, though, if one verse wasn’t being directed pointedly at him:

 

Who murmurs at his lot today?

Who scorns his native fruit and bloom?

Or sighs for dainties far away,

Beside the bounteous board of home?

 

He’d done quite a lot of murmuring, of course, when he first came, not sighing for “dainties far away,” but precisely for “the bounteous board of home.”  The board was probably more bounteous here, but he’d given more than one sigh to be home with Pa and Hoss for Thanksgiving.

As Madeleine continued the next verse, though he began to smile, knowing the rebuke was all in his own head:

 

Thank heaven, instead, that Freedom’s arm

Can change a rocky soil to gold,—

That brave and generous lives can warm

A clime with northern ices cold.

 

Much as he missed home, he had found brave and, especially, generous lives here in Boston.  When he remembered how the Pontpiers had taken an unexpected stranger into their lives, clothed him in luxury, fed him with the bounty of their table, excused his early errors in maneuvering through their world and made him one of them, not only for Adam’s sake, but for his own, his heart swelled with Thanksgiving, and his applause, when Madeleine finished the poem, was heartier than anyone’s.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in parlor games, until one by one all elected to go to their respective rooms and rest before the concert.  The skeleton staff, made up of those without families in the area, prepared a light repast of artfully rearranged leftovers, including a turkey version of the traditional chicken pie.  They left immediately afterward for Mercantile Hall, where George Wright, Jr. was giving his farewell concert.

For Eva, and especially for Little Joe, the evening’s entertainment fulfilled their worst nightmares.  Not only did the music feature grand opera of the most stultifying sort, but no one could miss the way Lily and Adam ignored their favorite type of music to gaze with earnest yearning into each other’s eyes like a couple of moon-sick calves.  Adam obviously had it bad, so bad that Little Joe could not believe Adam hadn’t already proposed.  The nightmare feeling faded as he considered the young lady’s likely response to a last-minute proposal of marriage.  Sometimes older brother didn’t use the sense God gave a goose, little brother concluded, and that should keep him safely on the Ponderosa for years to come.

Others were more sympathetic to, but just as ignorant of what was troubling the young lovers.  “Oh, Adam,” Lily moaned softly in one of the musical interludes, “I can scarcely bear the thought of not seeing you again.”

He touched a finger to her lips.  If you keep that up, we’ll both be in tears, and neither of us wants an audience for that.”

She smiled, then, in fact almost laughed.  “No, neither of us wants that.  I’ll be brave, but it is hard.”

“For me, too,” he whispered.

Others noticed the quiet exchange, but without hearing the words didn’t know what to make of the tears in the young lady’s eyes and no one asked.  Madeleine was tempted, but dreaded the answer, and anxious as Little Joe was, he did have the sense God gave a goose and knew he’d be taking his life in his hands if he inquired.  The rest, while concerned, were too polite to make any reference to what they’d seen, and by the time they all stopped at a restaurant for refreshment after the concert, the tears were under control, and Adam and Lily appeared to be in as celebratory a mood as any of the others.

“Appeared” being the absolutely correct word.

 

November 30

After the late evening everyone was encouraged to sleep in, but other than that habitual sleepyhead, Little Joe, no one did.  Everyone wanted to spend as much time with the Cartwright brothers as possible, since this was their last day in Boston.  When Little Joe finally appeared, he was greeted gladly by one and all, with the exception of his frowning brother, who thought the kid should have shown more consideration for the feelings of others.  “Finishing up your packing, were you?” Adam suggested, though he couldn’t have told himself why he was bothering to provide cover for the inconsiderate one.  “You do remember we’re leaving on the 9 p.m. train.”

“Of course, I remember,” Little Joe, still grumpy from a short night, answered sharply.

“And we can’t forget,” Mrs. Pontpier said, seeking to diffuse any ill feeling on this final day.  “I do so hate to have you two wonderful boys leave.”

Little Joe cast one panic-stricken look at Adam.  He wouldn’t, would he, not after promising they’d be home for Christmas?  The Ponderosa obviously didn’t mean to Adam what it did to him, so the danger that he might reverse his decision, just to stay longer with his friends, especially the alluring Lily, seemed all too real.

“I don’t know how we can leave you and your warm hospitality,” Adam said, “but I think Pa and Hoss might be missing us, too.”

“Yes, I suspect so,” his hostess said, smiling, “so we must give you up.”

“But how hard it shall be,” Madeleine said, and there were unshed tears in her eyes, mostly for what could never have been, had Adam stayed a thousand years.

Wanting to lighten the mood, George said, “Say the word, Adam, and I’ll put you to work on a new project first thing Monday.”

Adam laughed.  “I think I’ve done quite enough projects for you for the time being, good sir.”  He and George both had put in extra hours to complete what they’d started, so that they could have this day after Thanksgiving free.

Little Joe began to breathe again.  They were going home; at long last and without doubt, they were going home!  He’d enjoyed much about his trip to Boston, but he couldn’t wait to leave.

Another rainstorm began about 11 a.m., so Lily and Mr. Jennings were urged to stay for the day, of course, and they were easily persuaded.  He understood her desire to spend as much time with Adam as possible, but insisted they would have to return home that night, rain or no rain.  As the rain continued to pour, off and on, all day, everyone was content to stay indoors and enjoy each other’s company, but the room grew quieter, more pensive, with every passing hour, as the time of the Cartwrights’ departure grew closer.

Finally, it was time to leave for the depot.  Mr. and Mrs. Pontpier stayed home, but everyone else piled into the carriage.  They dropped Mr. Jennings at his home, but Lily continued on to the station after George assured her father that he’d see her home safely as soon as the train left.

Adam tasked Little Joe with checking in their luggage, and for once Joe didn’t mind being handed some tiresome chore by his brother.  Let Adam have his final, few minutes with Lily.  They were going home and that was all that mattered!  Eva tagged along with him, despite her sister’s frowning insistence that Little Joe needed no help.

“You do need me, don’t you?” Eva asked mischievously, lacing her elbow through the crook in Little Joe’s arm.

“Absolutely,” Joe declared.  Leaning his head close, he said, “I’m gonna miss you, Eva.  You’ve helped make this whole thing bearable.”

“Oh, Joe,” she sighed.  “What am I going to do without you to make it bearable for me?  I suppose your letters, few as they were, will stop now that you’ll be busy on the Ponderosa and chasing all the skirts in Nevada.”

“Not all the skirts,” he said impishly.  “Some of them are on fat washerwomen.”   He grinningly received her slap on his arm as punishment.  Then, quieter, he added, “I will write, Eva, and more than I have been, I promise.  I only got a couple of letters from Pa and Hoss while I’ve been here, but theirs and yours have taught me how much it means, so all the skirts in Nevada won’t keep me from writing.  I know you’re as much a fish out of water back here as I was.”

“More, since I don’t have as quick an escape,” she moaned softly and then smiled into his face.  “Thanks, Joe.  You’re a true friend.”

Two other true friends had drawn apart from the others for a final farewell. Seeing the tears standing in Lily’s eyes, Adam said, “Changing your mind about coming to the wild and woolly West?”

“Not quite yet,” Lily said with a faint smile, “but definitely regretting that I’m not—yet—a pioneer woman.  Promise me again you’ll keep in touch.”

“I will . . . and I further promise to ask you that question again someday.”

“I can’t promise my answer will be different.”

“I’m banking on that ‘yet,’” Adam said with a wink.

“Hmm?”

“That you’re not—yet—a pioneer woman.  That ‘yet’ gives me hope.”

She laughed lightly.  “I have just as much hope that you’ll decide you’ve had enough wild and woolly in your life.  Time will tell, I suppose.”

“I suppose.”  Adam leaned close and kissed her, less passionately than he felt, out of respect for the audience close by.

Madeleine had seen and sighed for lost opportunities, but when the call came to board the train, she demanded and received a kiss of friendship.  Let propriety be hanged; it might be her last chance.  Adam obliged gladly and then called, “Joe! Time to go.”

Little Joe undraped Eva’s arms from his neck, and turned to say goodbye to the friends they were leaving behind.  “Don’t go breaking any legs,” he joked with George, recalling what had brought him to Boston in the first place.

“Don’t worry,” George laughed.  “I’ll steer clear of any horses named Meteor.”

“You won’t have to worry, as long as you stay in Boston.”  Then, realizing how that sounded, Little Joe quickly said, “I’m joking, of course.  Come back to the Ponderosa any time you like.  You’ll be welcome.”  Then he planted a quick kiss on Margaret’s cheek.  “Keep him in line,” he said.

“I will,” laughed the girl.

Then he surprised his old nemesis, Madeleine Pontpier, with another cheek kiss and was off before she could recover her shock, but not before hearing his brother say to George, “I’m expecting an invitation to the wedding.”

“You’ll get one,” George promised.  “Margaret’s parents want her to finish her schooling first, but once we know a date, I’ll write.  I hope you’ll be my best man, Adam.”

“I’d be honored.”

Little Joe gulped.  And here he’d thought they’d be out of danger once they boarded that train!  Apparently, the temptations of Boston would have another chance at his brother.

“Joe, we have to board,” Adam said as the final call circulated through the depot.

As if I’m the one holding us up, Joe thought, but he was eager to leave Boston before Adam made any more promises to come back, so he just shoved his brother toward the passenger car.    He rushed for the window as soon as they were aboard and was soon waving to Eva, who, heedless of the rain, had followed them out to the platform.

Typical, Adam thought.  His little brother rarely gave consideration for anything but what he wanted.  Well, he didn’t care whether he sat in an aisle or window seat . . . until he caught a glimpse of Lily and knew that she, too, had ignored the weather for one last look.  Fortunately, the row of seats in front of them was empty, so Adam quickly moved to the window there and waved until she was out of sight.  Then he leaned back into the seat and thought about the extraordinary girl he was leaving behind.

Little Joe stared at the back of his brother’s head, wondering if he’d made himself so odious that Adam no longer even wanted to sit with him—and whether his brother would be impressed that he even knew a ten-dollar word like that.  The small space between their seats seemed to symbolize the growing distance between them, and the weather added a heaviness to the atmosphere.  Mentally, Little Joe was back in the graveyard in New Bedford, as the maudlin idea of heaven weeping tears of rain again filled his thoughts.

Adam got up, and at first Joe thought he was coming back to join him.  Then Adam said, “I engaged berths for us, and I’d advise you to get to sleep soon, as it’s the only rest you’ll get tonight.  We’ll be going directly to the ship after reaching New York.”  He started to leave, then turned to add, “You’ll be in the upper berth, of course.”

“Uh, sure,” Little Joe said.  Somehow, he felt like he was being punished, though it made sense for him to take the upper.  An old man like Adam shouldn’t have to climb, after all.  He trailed down the aisle behind his brother, wondering how long his brother’s attitude toward him would remain cool.  He hoisted himself into the upper berth and carefully removed his clothing, taking care not to wrinkle the suit, since he’d be wearing it again the next day.  The last couple of days had been long and full, and though he’d kept active and alert to the end, once still, it all caught up with him, and he promptly fell asleep.

Due to his work schedule and extra time with Lily, Adam had kept shorter hours than his brother for the past week, but he still remained wakeful behind the curtains of his berth.  He couldn’t believe he’d been such an idiot or that he hadn’t known his own heart.  He’d felt certain that he and Lily had made the right, logical decision about their future together, but then he’d seen the tears in her eyes at saying goodbye and felt his own heart lurch with unexpected pain.  Oh, he’d kept his emotions under control; he was noted for that, but ever since that last goodbye, something had been twisting inside him, signaling that, perhaps, the right and logical decision was, in fact, the worst one he’d ever made.

Impulsively, he wanted to leave the train at the next station and take the next one back to Boston.  He tossed uneasily in his bunk.  For mercy’s sake, he was behaving more like his little brother than the calm, emotionally controlled man he was renowned to be.  Acting on impulse, that was all Joe Cartwright.  Impulse had brought Joe to Boston in the first place, for what else was it to board the ship in Adam’s place?  Oh, it had been a good impulse, born of consideration for George and, quite probably, of guilt for the enmity he’d once harbored against his brother’s best friend, but it wasn’t . . . logical.

He turned to his other side.  Should he follow his instinct (a better word, surely, than impulse) and return to Boston as quickly as possible?  But he couldn’t, could he?  There was one very important reason: Joe.  He’d promised Pa, with Hoss as his messenger, to bring the impulsive kid home safely, and he’d further promised Joe they’d be home for Christmas.  He was a man of his word, so he couldn’t follow his own inclination.  And whose fault was that?  Joe’s, of course.

He rearranged the thin pillow beneath his head, pummeling it into shape again, or, perhaps, as a substitute for the face of the kid to blame for his predicament.  Well, “blame” was the wrong word.  Joe was, after all, only a boy and couldn’t be expected to act with maturity, so it wasn’t logical to be angry with him and he wasn’t, exactly.  He was just . . . irritated.  Yes, that was it, and it was perfectly logical to be irritated with Joe.  The kid earned that practically every day of his life!  He’d managed to deflect his anger—no, irritation—with himself to a more deserving target, but it didn’t make his sleep, when he finally found it, less restless.

 

December 1

Adam was grumpy and groggy the next morning, and it didn’t improve his mood that his brother was fresh as the proverbial daisy and downright cheery at the prospect of heading home.  They arrived in New York City with barely enough time to grab a bite of breakfast, so Adam settled for a cup of black coffee; Little Joe, annoyingly, wolfed down a full plate of bacon, eggs, biscuits and potatoes. As soon as they finished, they headed for the wharf, where their ship, Northern Light, was docked.   Adam ascertained that their trunks had arrived and received their adjoining stateroom assignments.

“I thought we’d be sharing a room,” Little Joe said, looking surprised.  “You know, save money.”

Adam considered saying that he preferred to save his sanity, but decided he didn’t have the energy for a confrontation with his brother.  “I thought we’d enjoy the privacy,” he said, instead.

“Oh.  Yeah.”  Little Joe could tell something was off kilter, but he had a feeling that saying something would be like baiting a bear.  Adam just wasn’t himself this morning.  “Well, it sure is good to be heading home, huh?” he said with a wide smile.

Adam stared at him for what seemed like minutes.  “Sure,” he said at last, his voice void of enthusiasm.

No, Joe decided, Adam wasn’t himself at all and probably wouldn’t be until he’d had a decent night’s sleep.  “Well, we’ll be leaving soon,” he said.  “Guess I’ll go up on deck and watch us pull out.  You wanna come?”

“I prefer to settle in here,” Adam muttered.

Little Joe pursed his lips as he left his brother behind and climbed the steps to the deck.  Hanging over the rail, he watched the shoreline fade into the fog that was covering New York like a shroud, although the gloom was less in the weather than in the murky tension between him and Adam.  It couldn’t last, could it?  Surely, the closer they got to the Ponderosa, the stronger the pull of home would be.  That’s how it would be for him, but he wasn’t Adam.  Though folks tended to think Joe was the mercurial Cartwright, it could be just as hard to figure which way Adam would jump, maybe harder.  He’d give him some space and hope things got better, he decided as he pushed away from the rail and headed below deck to get his own stateroom in order for the voyage.  At least, he’d be home again soon, where Pa could everything right again.

 

The End

© January, 2020

 

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Author: Puchi Ann

I discovered Bonanza as a young girl in its first run and have been a faithful fan ever since. Wondering if the Cartwright saga could fit into the real history of the area, I did some research and wrote a one-volume prequel, simply for my own enjoyment. That experience made me love writing, and I subsequently wrote and published in the religious genre. Years later, having run across some professional Bonanza fanfiction, I gobbled up all there was and, wanting more, decided I'd have to write it myself. I decided to rewrite that one-volume Cartwright history, expanding it to become the Heritage of Honor series and developing a near-mania for historical research. Then I discovered the Internet and found I wasn't alone, for there were many other stories by fine writers in libraries like this one. I hope that you'll enjoy mine when I post them here.

16 thoughts on “East, West: Home’s Best–The Westerners (by Puchi Ann)

  1. What an amazing adventure for Joe and Adam!!! Dont leave us hanging though, I am really anxious to see what happens in the next story of this series!!!!

    1. I’m working on it, Beth, and the next story will be shorter, so hopefully, you won’t have to wait too long. The title will be East, West: Home’s Best–The Journey Home, and that will be the end of the story.

  2. This is a meticulously researched story and wonderfully written bringing out all the characters so well. I really enjoyed it and could hardly put it down.

    I do hope there will be a further story to add to this series. The HOme coming and beyond!!

    1. Thank you, Cherry! I don’t know about beyond, but I’m currently working on East, West: Home’s Best–The Journey Home.

  3. What an amazing story! It was like I were watching a great series in my TV… thanks God when I arrived at the end, I knew that I would have a new part!!!! Anxious to follow Joe in this next one!!!! Thank you for such entreteniment!

  4. What an amazing adventure for the brothers, how different their shipboard experiences. Can’t wait for the conclusion their return home. I can only imagine what you might have in store for them, with the bits and pieces of their Boston bound transit.

    BTW, this was well-worth the wait. Let’s just hope the next part has a more expedient muse. 🙂

    1. Oh, I think the muse will be much more expedient for Part 3. I have a good idea of where I’m going for the final segment, whereas the muse floundered a good deal during the middle part. 🙂

  5. What an adventure for Joe! I’m glad George was so good with him … it was good for Joe to have a gentle hand guiding him during the trip and for that first little bit in Boston. It’s a shame that he and Adam could never seem to get on the same page at the same time — they probably could have had so much more fun together. But those two … oil and water. I’m sure there will be more in the way of adventure to come — after all, they still have to get home! Thx so much for all the hard work you put into this, I very much enjoyed it!

    1. Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed the journey so far. Yes, they do still have to get home, and it’s going to be a lot tougher than getting to Boston. Working on that now.

    1. So glad you like George! Joe’s experiences in Boston were fairly tame, but I fear something more hazardous awaits him on the way home.

  6. That was such a lovely read. The way you research for the stories – I learn so much! Thank you! I can’t wait for the next one.

    1. Thank you! I love learning, too. Hopefully, you won’t have to wait as long for the next part. Thanks for sticking with me.

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