Summary: As they return from Boston, Adam and Joe Cartwright plan to defer resolving their differences until they reach home, but that’s going to be a lot longer and harder journey than they could ever imagine.
Word Count: 49,640 words
East, West: Home’s Best Series:
East, West: Home’s Best–The Journey Home
Little Joe Cartwright hung over the rail of the Northern Light, feeling nauseous as he typically did when there wasn’t a strip of land in sight. Something about the open sea just gave him a crawly stomach, but at least, he felt better today than yesterday, when the same conditions had prevailed. The knowledge that they’d reach Aspinwall tomorrow and, at least briefly, be on solid ground again gave him hope. Of course, he could have stayed below to avoid the sickening sight of the sea, but he’d have had to stay in his cramped stateroom, since Adam was amusing himself in the gentlemen’s saloon. And Adam must be avoided at all costs.
Little Joe sighed. It should have been so different. They could have enjoyed traveling home together, if they weren’t still at odds. Odd—yes, that word best described their attitude toward each other the past several days. It wouldn’t have been odd if they were at each other’s throats. It was kind of normal for their differences to build up to an explosion like that and then be over. This time, however, there’d been no explosion, not even a slow burn on either side. More just a rubbing of each other the wrong way and, with it, a cool politeness that was more customary between strangers than brothers.
He had expected to share a stateroom with Adam, to save money. Of course, separate rooms gave each of them more space and made the journey more comfortable, but Joe suspected the separation had less to do with comfort, at least his, and everything to do with Adam plain not wanting his company, even when they were asleep. It hurt.
Little Joe felt the ill will was his fault, but when he’d tried to apologize for his behavior back in Boston, Adam had turned a deaf ear, so Joe had given up, resigned himself to the coldness between them and, being Joe, found other people to talk to.
“Hey, Mister Joe!” A tow-headed boy of twelve came running up.
Little Joe grinned at the youngster. “Hey yourself, Mark. Where’s your sidekick?” The boy’s twin brother was almost always at his side.
“Still pukin’,” Mark informed him. Puffing out his chest, he added, “I’m all better now, just like you.”
“Not quite all better,” Little Joe admitted, “but mostly. Better than Matt, anyway.” He’d joked once to Adam, back when he still entertained some hope of regaining his good graces, that it was a shame the twins’ mother hadn’t had quadruplets, so she could finish out the gospel writers with Luke and John.
“Perish the thought,” Adam had said with a shudder, for he took a rather dim view of his brother’s rambunctious little friends. Doubling their number was, to him, the makings of a nightmare. Joe, on the other hand, relished the boys’ zest for life—and mischief. They reminded him of himself when he was a kid, which, come to think of it, was probably exactly what Adam disliked about them.
Their poor mother had been at a loss to keep them occupied on the long voyage, so Little Joe had willingly taken them in hand. He’d kept the twins enthralled with tales of ranch life and the rousing adventures of the Cartwrights of the Ponderosa. The boys were eager to explore western life, for the West would be their new home. Their father had come to California alone to establish a home and after two years had sent for them and their mother. They figured their new lives would be about as exciting as those of the Cartwrights, so they drank in Joe’s stories as if they were the elixir of life.
“I’m not quite all better yet, either,” Mark said, proving once again that he wanted to be like his friend Joe in every way, “but I reckon I’m up to another cowboy story, if you feel up to tellin’ one.”
Little Joe stroked his chin as if thinking the suggestion over. “But won’t Matt be disappointed if you hear one that he doesn’t?”
“Yeah,” Mark said, almost licking his lips in satisfaction.
Little Joe laughed. “You want to get one up on him, huh? Well, I guess I could. Us younger brothers got to stick together, don’t we?” Mark was all of two minutes younger than Matthew, as the older brother had been quick to point out at their first meeting.
“Yup,” Mark said, poking his thumbs into the waistband of his pants as he fell into step beside Joe.
“Hmm,” Little Joe mused. “Have I told you yet about the time Hoss and I robbed the bank?”
“You never!” Mark exclaimed, mouth hanging open. He couldn’t picture his hero as a bandit, but his eyes lit with excitement.
“Yup, I did, with good cause,” Little Joe said, “but if I tell you about it, it’s got to be our secret, younger brother to younger brother. Older brothers don’t understand; at least, Adam sure didn’t.” Pa hadn’t, either, but he left that unsaid.
“Our secret,” Mark agreed quickly.
Adam contemplated his next move for several minutes. He’d found an able chess opponent in James Addison, so he was having to give each move more thought than he normally did with anyone but Pa. Finally, he smiled with satisfaction and moved his knight into strategic position. Another three moves and he should have the black king in check. The traveling chess set was an early Christmas gift from his younger brother, who had presented it to him their first day out from New York City. Given their attitude toward each other of late, he’d been stunned and hadn’t known what to say, other than an unadorned thank you, of course.
It was a thoughtful gift and he was glad to have it, but he hadn’t had anything to give Joe in return and was, frankly, embarrassed to have been outdone by his younger brother. He, of course, had followed the advice he’d given Joe to the letter and shipped all his gifts for Pa and both his brothers home. He probably should have thought, at least, to buy the kid a couple of those horrid dime novels he liked, to help pass the time, as the chess set was meant to do, but during those final days in Boston, he’d spent all his energy just trying not to throttle the kid. Besides, he’d given him his back wages, so Joe could have bought himself any number of the trashy little books, if he’d wanted.
He’d been so angry with Joe over his attitude toward Lily, the girl Adam had met on his eastbound ship and come to care for deeply. Joe’d never been overtly rude, of course; Pa’s upbringing had seen to that, but he had opposed their relationship, for some unfathomable reason, and Lily had noticed. He’d never explained himself very well, either, and Adam wasn’t disposed to reopen the subject. He’d told the kid that he didn’t need advice about his love life from his baby brother—and, yes, he’d used that insulting title deliberately, wanting to hurt as he’d been hurt. Childish behavior, of course, unbefitting his role as elder brother, and he regretted it now. He wasn’t exactly angry anymore, but he wasn’t quite ready to forgive the kid, either, or, rather, to risk another explosion of hostilities with the confines of a seagoing vessel. It had been tough enough at the Pontpier house. For now, it seemed sufficient to be polite, as he would with any man, and just keep the peace.
His thoughts distracted him from his game so much that he missed Addison’s clever counter to his last move and fell into a trap. His opponent’s triumphant declaration of “Checkmate!” was all the proof he needed that time spent thinking about Joe was time wasted. Whatever differences they had were best deferred until they reached their final port and had to face them. San Francisco was probably big enough to sustain the explosion.
As eight bells sounded, signaling time for the evening meal, Little Joe sighed. Time to face another bleak hour, sitting across the table from Adam. It might not have been so bad if there’d been anyone else at their table for him to talk to, but they were predominantly city-bred men who had more in common with his older brother than with him. So, Joe mostly ate his food in silence, while his brother ignored him in favor of charming everyone else at the table. The only one who paid him any mind at all was the lone female of the group, sadly a woman of at least fifty years. Like them, she was returning from a visit back East, in hopes of being home by Christmas. She’d probably make it, since San Francisco was her final destination, while, as Adam had reminded him more than once, they might have trouble getting across the Sierras in time. Joe had faith, though, and he’d better be right, since he was the one who had insisted on leaving Boston earlier than Adam (not to mention Madeleine Pontpier) had wanted. If there was one thing he didn’t need, it was to hear a lofty “I told you so” from his big brother.
At least, there was the evening reading to look forward to. By mere chance, one of their fellow passengers had been on the same steamship which had brought Adam from Aspinwall to New York City. On that voyage he’d evidently entertained the passengers by reading through some novel by Charles Dickens after supper each night, and the man had told the captain of this ship about it. The captain then asked Adam to treat his passengers to the same nightly entertainment.
Adam, of course, had been only too happy to oblige, and Little Joe was glad. Adam had come up with a pretty good story, something called Adam Bede, and Little Joe just flat out loved to hear his brother read. Always had, from the time he was a little kid, listening to Aesop’s Fables to all the times he’d been laid up by illness or injury and Adam’s ability to make words on a page come alive had been the only thing staving off the dual foes of pain and boredom. Now, the nightly reading was the only thing that made him feel close to Adam, and he relished the praise the other passengers heaped on his brother’s worthy head and wished he could find the words to give Adam his due himself.
He gave his curly hair a quick brush, straightened his tie and hurried out into the dining saloon, eager to get supper over and get to what, for him, was the best part of any day at sea. Even on days he’d been so sick he could hardly hold his head up, he’d dragged himself from his stateroom to listen to his brother read.
The Northern Light docked at Aspinwall just after sunrise, and when Little Joe heard there’d be an hour’s delay before they could board the railroad across the Isthmus of Panama, he headed into town. He knew it wasn’t much of a place, but it was a chance to stretch his legs. Most of the other passengers did the same, although some, like Adam, elected to stay comfortably on board the steamship until they could transfer directly to the train. Adam had shaken his head at Joe’s foolishness, but only said, “Don’t be late.” Of course, Little Joe had assured him he wouldn’t. The consequences of missing that train were too disastrous to contemplate.
Spurning the views of the sea, however beautiful they were, he strolled the dirt streets. He wasn’t really looking at anything in particular, but he did notice Mrs. Davis up ahead, with her twin boys in tow. Briefly, he thought of offering to help her corral them, but decided against it. She was probably headed for the shops and street vendors, and they had nothing he wanted. Instead, he wanted this hour to himself, to walk the solid earth beneath his feet and breathe in air that was, at least, a little less salty than what he’d taken in the last week. A cool, fresh breeze was blowing steadily from the north, and he wanted to enjoy it.
He turned left on leaving the wharf and passed the building that housed the company’s employees, when they were in town, and about 200 yards east of that he saw a beautiful old church, built of heavy stone, as fashionable as any back in Boston. Beyond that, he walked along the railroad track, past hotels, a freight house and offices. As George had told him on his outbound journey, it wasn’t safe to walk much of anywhere else. The swamp behind the buildings teemed with creatures he had no desire to encounter except through the window of a railcar.
Since there wasn’t much to see, he turned back and retraced his steps in well under the hour allotted. Even so, he could see some passengers beginning to board the train. He wouldn’t join them, of course; he wanted fresh air as long as he could get it. Up ahead, though, he saw a slight commotion, but it didn’t set off any alarm bells until young Matthew Davis broke through the crowd and came running pell-mell toward him, screaming, “Mr. Joe!”
“Whoa, whoa, pardner,” Little Joe said, catching the boy just before he careened into him. “What’s up?”
“Mark!” the boy cried. “He’s—he’s run off, and it’s ‘most time for the train—and Mama’s havin’ a conniption.”
“Yeah, and she’s gonna have another when she sees you’ve run off, too,” Joe said.
“But I got to find my brother!” Matt protested. He hitched in a breath and threw out his chest. “He’s my baby brother, you know.”
Little Joe barely restrained himself from rolling his eyes. Matt sure traded a lot on those two minutes, which only proved that big brothers were the same, the world over. “I’ll find him,” Little Joe promised, “but we can’t have your mother worrying about you, too. Now, where did you leave her?”
For probably the first time since they’d been acquainted, Matthew looked put out with his friend Joe, and he sounded disgruntled as he dragged out, “By the church.”
Joe could understand what the boy was feeling and decided distraction would work better than argument. It always had with him. He grabbed Matt under the arms and smoothly swung the youngster onto his shoulders so fast that Matt squealed, first with surprise and then delight, as Joe began to trot down the street like a galloping stallion under a Pony Express rider (or so Matt envisioned). In no time at all, Joe was swinging his rider down into the arms of his frantic mother.
“Oh, Mr. Cartwright, thank you,” Mrs. Davis cried and immediately started scolding her son. “Matt, how could you take off, too, when you know what a worry your brother’s being?”
“Why don’t you stay here and corral this buckaroo, ma’am, and I’ll find Mark,” Little Joe suggested.
“Oh, Mr. Cartwright, could you?” Mrs. Davis said. “I’ve no idea where to look, and it’s almost time for the train to depart and—”
“Yes’m, I’ll find him,” Little Joe broke in and took off before her worried spiel could begin again. At first, he just moved away from her, with no destination in mind, but then he remembered that Mark was a lot like him and asked himself where he’d have gone, if he’d been a boy, suddenly freed from all restraint. This time he didn’t even try to keep from rolling his eyes. Instead, he made a beeline for the place the boy had most likely been warned against—the alligator-infested swamp behind the buildings.
And that’s where he found him, standing paralyzed, knee-deep in muck, staring at an enormous beast with a jaw full of razor-sharp teeth. Little Joe stopped about six feet behind Mark, on ground that seemed squishy but still basically solid, and called the boy’s name softly. He didn’t want to spook the gator, although he didn’t know enough about the animal to guess how it might react if he did. “Take a step backwards, buddy,” he said, “slow and easy.”
Mark didn’t move, as if he’d turned to stone—petrified by fear, Joe surmised. He didn’t blame the kid. He was feeling pretty petrified himself, but he couldn’t give into it. So, he gulped down the boulder in his throat and took a slow step forward. The gator didn’t move. Good. He took another step and felt the ground give an inch or so. Not good; not good at all. He thought he saw the beast’s eye turn toward him, but it could have been his imagination. He stepped forward again, paused to stabilize himself in the sinking terrain and again moved forward. He wanted to run forward, snatch Mark by the hand and run for their lives, but he wasn’t sure he could in the deepening swamp, so he just kept walking, with painfully laborious steps, toward his little friend, until he could lay his hand on Mark’s shoulder, praying the boy wouldn’t detect how hard it was shaking.
“Mark, we’re gonna walk backwards out of here,” he said with a calmness he didn’t feel, especially since the swamp muck was now up to his calves. “You get behind me. Do it now, Mark,” he said sternly when the boy failed to respond at once.
Mark hesitated another moment, but then, thankfully, did as he was told. Still keeping his eyes on the monster’s opening jaw, he got behind Joe, which effectively shielded him from the fearsome sight. Joe reached a hand back to steady him. “Keep moving back, real slow and easy,” Little Joe said, repeating the instruction whenever Mark seemed to hesitate. Step by step, the boy moved backwards, and Joe did, too, even when he thought it was probably safe to turn and run. Finally, they reached the side of a building that effectively blocked them from the alligator’s view.
Little Joe rounded on the boy and said sharply, “What did you think you were doing? Didn’t anyone tell you what might be back there?”
“I wanted to see,” Mark whimpered. “I never seen a gator before.”
“Well, me, either!” Joe shouted. “And I’d just as soon I hadn’t seen this one.”
Mark’s lower lip thrust out. “Don’t be mad, Mr. Joe. I didn’t mean no harm.”
Little Joe took a deep breath. “Yeah, I know, but you scared me out of a year’s growth, buddy.”
“Sorry,” Mark said, with a sheepish look at the man who was more his hero than ever.
Little Joe slid to the ground and removed his shoes. As he poured out the water that had seeped into them, he said, “I know you are, and I ain’t mad, but your ma may be, and you’re on your own handling that.”
Sitting down to empty his shoes, too, Mark grinned. “I can handle Ma,” he assured Joe, who laughed and tousled his hair as he herded him back to his mother.
Mrs. Davis greeted her little prodigal with a cry of joyous relief. “Oh, Mark, baby!” She held his cheeks between her hands and folded him to her bosom, heedless of what his muddy trousers were doing to her dress.
Mark flashed a cunning grin at Little Joe, who thought it didn’t look as if “Ma” would need much handling, after all. He ambled toward the train, brushing his own trousers as he went.
“Oh, for mercy’s sake!” a disgusted voice sputtered.
Little Joe gave his brother the same sort of sheepish grin Mark had sported. “Oh, hey, Adam.”
“You just had to do it, didn’t you?” Adam scoffed.
“Did no one tell you it wasn’t safe to go into the swamp behind the buildings?” He felt a stab of guilt that he hadn’t done so himself, but it only fueled his irritation.
“Yeah, sure,” Little Joe said, “but I had to, Adam.”
“Oh, of course! You just had to see the alligators and venomous reptiles!” Adam exhaled with disdain. “It isn’t a zoo, Joe! The animals aren’t in nice safe cages for your entertainment!”
“I know that!” Joe, too, was building a head of steam by this time.
“And just look at you.” With revulsion Adam eyed his brother’s soaked pants, brown from the thick water and dabbled with moss green stains. “At least, do me the courtesy of keeping that mess well away from me. I don’t choose to have my suit ruined, too!”
“Oh, I’ll keep well away from you, all right!” Little Joe declared hotly. “Nothing would be suit me better, older brother.” He stomped toward the train and swung aboard without a backward glance.
Adam shook his head. What was the matter with that boy? The fact that he was still a boy, probably, but he was a boy who wouldn’t reach manhood, if he kept amusing himself with larks like this. He sighed. Only four more hours on dry land; then he’d have the kid safely on board a ship all the way to . . . Acapulco. Another big sigh greeted the thought of the only stop made on this run. He’d already heard from George how the pretty señoritas had manipulated his brother there! They could be as dangerous as alligators, in their way, so he’d be forced to keep an eye on Joe during the brief stopover. Thank goodness, they wouldn’t also be stopping at Manzanillo this trip, as he had on the way down. Guarding the kid from pretty señoritas in two South American hamlets was tempting fate, and fate was one thing Adam had learned not to tempt where Joe was concerned.
He simply wanted to deliver the kid, alive and unattached, to their father. Then he remembered he had to get Joe safely through San Francisco, with its Barbary Coast, first, and another huge sigh escaped his lips. Imagining the possibilities for a reckless kid in that haven of cutthroats distracted Adam until he almost missed the departure of the train himself. He deliberately took a seat a few rows behind his brother, where he could keep him in view without escalating the tension between them. Besides, this way he could exit first and make sure that Joe didn’t miss the ferry that would take them to that nice, safe ship waiting in the harbor.
Mrs. Davis and her two little wretches boarded even later. As she bustled them down the aisle, Adam caught only a word or two of the scolding she was giving them, but unfortunately, one of those words was “Cartwright.” Seeing one boy’s trousers coated in the same muck as Joe’s, he put two and two together and came up with five. Good grief! Wasn’t it enough that Joe had endangered himself without involving that child? It was unconscionable!
Feeling his anger rise, Adam took a deep breath and reminded himself that it might not be the way it looked. Perhaps Joe hadn’t taken the boy into the swamp, but only been followed into it. After all, those two rapscallions followed his brother everywhere, like tail-wagging puppies. Adam himself had been pulled into enough crazy situations by Joe to give his brother some benefit of the doubt. And if it were unmerited, he could probably rely on the mother to keep the trio of miscreants apart.
As the train began to roll, he settled back to enjoy the jungle scenery, which was majestically lush and refreshing after days on the open sea. They soon crossed the narrow channel separating the marshy island on which Aspinwall was built from the mainland and then ran along the left bank of the Chagres River. Here and there distant glimpses of misty mountains provided relief from the dense acres with varied shades of green, as did the blooms of crimson, purple, orange, blue, pink and white, a veritable kaleidoscope of color. Few birds could be seen, perhaps having been frightened away by the noise of the iron horse, but occasionally Adam caught the sweet, resonant whistle of a turpiale or the harsh cry of a parrot.
About three miles out of town, the track crossed the Mindee, a small, sluggish stream lined with slim spears of bamboo. However, also on the bank lay a group of alligators, which only served to remind Adam of his brother’s reckless behavior back in town, and his mouth drew into a taut line. There really was no excuse. Joe should have known better, and when Adam thought of what could have happened, he felt a distinct urge to turn the kid across his knee, half-grown or not. It didn’t help that he could hear his little brother’s distinctive jaybird laugh, echoing down the rows of seats between them, proving that Joe hadn’t taken the whole affair with half the seriousness he should. In a generous mood, Adam might have called his brother irrepressible; today, he was more inclined toward Madeleine Pontpier’s oft-applied description—incorrigible. And irritating, to boot.
The views out the train windows became even more pleasing, the terrain as luxurious and smooth as green velvet carpet along the base of steep hills rising from the eastern side of the valley. Once they passed Lion Hill Station, the growth became less dense and more aquatic with large patches of cane brake, huge tree ferns and scrubby mangroves rising from dark swamps along the roadway. Along the track grew some plant with lavish blossoms of feathery pink. At times like that, Little Joe wished that he and Adam were on better terms, for surely his brother could tell him what kind of plant it was, as well as the occasional exotic animal he glimpsed along the way. The twins were full of questions about those, but Little Joe could only shrug and admit he didn’t know and hope his honesty didn’t knock him down too many pegs in his worshippers’ eyes.
Every four miles or so they passed a station, but this express train never stopped. Shortly before the halfway point in the journey, the porter passed through the car, collecting tickets. Adam had two ready for him and pointed out his brother to the man. Joe, however, didn’t see that and panicked when he saw Mrs. Davis hand over tickets for her and her boys. “I don’t have . . .” he began.
“Already taken care of, sir,” the porter said and proceeded up the aisle.
“Who took care of it, Mr. Joe?” asked Matthew.
“My brother,” Joe said. “That’s what older brothers do, you know.” He turned and grinned back at Adam.
“I know,” the boy said, squaring his shoulders as if in preparation for the weight of the world those two extra minutes of life had placed on him.
It was comical, of course, but it touched a sweet place inside Joe, as he remembered the many times his older brother had taken care of him without being asked and sometimes, he sheepishly admitted, without even being wanted or appreciated. He’d try to remember to tell Adam this time.
Then, a sudden commotion in the car in front of theirs usurped all else in his thoughts. It sounded as if a fight had broken out, and of course, Little Joe’s first instinct was to charge forward to see what was happening and, if needed, intervene. Adam’s instincts, however, had kicked in even faster, and he was up the aisle, grabbing his brother’s elbow just as Joe managed to untangle himself from the twins, one of whom had been in his lap, while the other leaned across him for a better view out the window. “Stay out of it,” Adam hissed.
“Someone might need help, Adam,” Little Joe protested, jerking his arm free.
“That someone will be you if you don’t keep your seat,” Adam said through gritted teeth.
“Aw, come on, Adam!”
Adam shook his head firmly. “I will look into it. You look after the two leeches.”
Little Joe started to protest that description, but then realizing he did have a responsibility to the two boys, he exhaled with exasperation and slumped into his seat.
Welcome to my world, little brother, Adam thought as he continued up the aisle. He heard a bell ring, but didn’t realize what it meant until the train jerked to an abrupt stop and he was thrown to the left. He almost landed in another passenger’s lap, but grabbing onto the seat, he stopped himself just in time.
Shouting his brother’s name, Little Joe jumped up and tried to crawl over Matt to get to the aisle.
“I’m fine,” Adam shouted back at his brother. “Stay put!”
Feeling he was being treated as a child, Little Joe fumed, but sat down. He’d have had a hard time getting out, anyway, he consoled himself, with both boys clinging like—well, like leeches, he was forced to admit, much as it chafed him to admit Adam was right.
“Are you all right, sir?” asked the passenger beside Adam, a gentleman of about forty-five years.
“I’m fine,” Adam said again.
“Why do you suppose we stopped so suddenly?”
“I’ll try to find out,” Adam said. “Sorry for our near collision, sir.”
“No trouble at all,” he was assured just before he again headed for the door between cars. Even before he opened it, he could hear that the commotion in that car had turned into a regular fracas, if not an outright brawl. Probably none of his concern, but if he didn’t investigate, he knew his little brother would. This, too, I must do for you, he mused with a half-smile at the singsong phrasing of that thought.
His lips settled into a straight, taut line as he went through the doorway into pandemonium. He started to follow the advice he’d given Joe and back out the way he’d come, but suddenly realized that the conductor was under assault by a number of steerage passengers, or so he assumed from the roughness of their dress. He waded into the fist-flinging crowd, dodging them when he could and taking blows when he couldn’t, but he finally reached the man, and they stood back to back to fight the assailants. The conductor obviously wasn’t a hardened fighter, but Adam was, and they slowly beat back the irate passengers. Then, more help arrived, although it wasn’t help Adam particularly wanted, when Little Joe burst through the door and threw himself into the fray. They were making headway, but the tide turned as two other rail employees, coming from the forward car, joined the battle.
“Who’s the culprit?” the brakeman demanded with a dark look.
“This man,” the conductor said, pointing as he paused to catch his breath. “Put him off the train.”
As the brakeman took hold of the man and started to wrestle him down the aisle, Little Joe joined the shouting protests of the other passengers. “Wait! You can’t do that!”
“Shut up, Joe,” Adam ordered.
Joe turned, instead, to the conductor. “You can’t do that,” he said again. “You can’t put him out in the middle of nowhere.”
“It’s less than a mile to the station,” the conductor said. “He can walk, as I’d advise you gentlemen to do—back to your own car. This affair is none of your concern.”
“Well, I’m making it”—Joe’s hot words were cut off by his brother’s tight grip on his biceps.
“Since you have the affair well in hand, sir, we’ll do just that,” Adam said, “but might I ask what the man did to merit being escorted off the train?”
For a second the conductor looked insulted. Then he remembered that this was the man who had come to his aid, the man without whom he might have been seriously injured before help from other trainmen could come. “He failed to produce a ticket,” he said. “Tried to say it was in his luggage, but it’s more likely he was a stowaway on the ship and planned to do the same on the connecting one. It happens all the time, sir.”
“I see,” Adam said. “Well, we’ll leave it to you, then.”
“That’s best, sir, but I do thank you for your help.”
“You’re welcome. Come along, Joe.”
“But, Adam,” the younger boy protested.
The grip on his arm tightened like a vise. “Come along, Joe,” he repeated tersely.
He hadn’t said, “No argument,” but Joe clearly heard it. Though his face reddened, and he was all but blowing smoke out of every orifice in his head, he let himself be led—dragged was more like it—down the aisle and through the door into their own car.
Not until they were inside did Adam loosen his grip. Then Little Joe spun on him. “How could you let ‘em do that, Adam?”
Adam arched his left eyebrow. “How did you propose I stop them?”
“Just . . . do it!”
“Oh, that’s helpful,” Adam said dryly.
The passenger with whom he’d nearly collided earlier called out, “Please, sir, what was the trouble?”
The whole car was all ears. “Stowaway,” Adam said laconically. “Ejected from the train.”
“We don’t know that!” Little Joe protested.
“Oh, I think we do,” his brother replied, “but even if his preposterous story were true, there’s nothing we could do for him.”
“We could buy him a ticket.”
The eyebrow arched higher this time. “Meaning I could, I suppose.”
At the sudden realization that he didn’t have an extra $25 in his pocket, a suddenly subdued Joe could only say, “Yeah, I guess so.”
“And when he can’t produce a ticket for the steamship, do you want me to foot the bill for that, too, or just turn a blind eye while he sneaks on board?”
“What if he isn’t a stowaway? Accused ain’t the same thing as convicted, Adam,” Little Joe threw at him.
“No,” Adam admitted, “but my instinct tells me the conductor was right.” Embarrassed at having this conversation before an audience full of itching ears, he leaned close and said, “Now, take your seat, boy, or I might be tempted to have them put you off the train!” Collecting his dignity, he smiled at his fellow passengers to assure them all was well and made his way back to his seat as the train finally started up again.
Glaring eyes followed him down the aisle, but Little Joe dropped into the seat beside his two little friends and blew out his frustration in a lip-vibrating gust. He knew Adam would never carry out the threat to toss him off the train, but it had been said, and Joe was mad—again. Seemed like he and Adam had been that way with each other, off and on, since Boston. At the moment Joe didn’t care whose fault it was this time.
Matthew tapped his hand tentatively. “Is the man gonna be all right, Mr. Joe?” he asked, almost whimpering with fear. “What if the alligators get him?”
The same thought had crossed Joe’s mind, but he quickly said, “Naw, he’ll be all right, Matt. He can follow the train down the tracks. That’ll keep him out of the gators’ reach.” He’d just that minute thought of it, but realized it was probably right.
“Oh, sure,” Matt said, relieved. If Mr. Joe said it, it must be true.
The train soon crossed the rapid current of the Chagres River over a long iron bridge and headed for the summit. They passed the train going the other way, which had stopped to let them by, while they rode on unhindered. When they reached the high point at Culebra, the train made its only scheduled stop, to take on water for the steam engine. Several of the passengers got off to walk around to stretch their legs, and the twins at once began to yammer to do the same.
“Ask your mother,” Little Joe said.
They scrambled across the aisle and commenced whining and pleading. Joe grinned at her and said, “I’ll see to ‘em, ma’am, if you’re willing.”
She laughed lightly. “Go ahead, if you can stand the racket, Mr. Cartwright. Goodness knows, I can use a few minutes of peace and quiet.”
“Come on, then, boys,” Little Joe said, feigning the need to cover his ears when they whooped in delight. When he turned to get his hat, though, the boys rushed down the aisle and out the door. Chuckling, he took his time and followed at a more leisurely pace. In the world of big-brother responsibilities, of course, that was a mistake. He couldn’t see the boys when he exited the train, but it was easy to hear them, shouting their freedom aloud to the world. Little Joe’s eyes followed the sound, and he stifled a curse when he saw where they were. The little dickens! Why did they always have to run to the exact spot they should have avoided like the plaque? He took off at a trot, alternately yelling each boy’s name. They weren’t listening.
He stopped at the edge of a field and blew out some of the steam he felt building. Last thing he wanted was to go into the tall grass, which could hold . . . well, anything, but he couldn’t leave the boys there, either. At least, it didn’t appear to be a swamp; the ground was too stable for that. He took a deep breath, and since they still hadn’t stopped, he, too, started running. “Hey, I’m not playing!” he yelled when they darted almost within reach and then dashed away. “You get back here!”
They kept up the game of tag or chase or whatever they fancied it to be, getting bolder with each foray, and just as Little Joe had figured, one of them finally came close enough to grab. “Aw, shucks,” Mark said. “Am I ‘it’ now?”
“Nope,” said Little Joe. “You’re my prisoner, kid, and you have to pay a penalty before you can go free.”
Mark’s nose scrunched up. “What kind of penalty?”
“Call your brother.”
Mark’s face lit up. “And he takes my place as your prisoner? That’s great.” Without waiting for confirmation of his theory, he yelled to his brother, “Hey, Matt! Come help me tackle this giant!” He grinned up at Little Joe. “That should do it,” he whispered as he grabbed hold of Joe and pretended to wrestle him.
“Uh-huh,” Little Joe said. He was taking nothing for granted where these two were concerned.
Matt fell for the lure and came running, pummeling Little Joe’s midriff, though not hard since he truly believed it was a game.
Little Joe grabbed him up and lifted him off the ground, and screaming in frustration, Matt squirmed to get down. Joe held tight both to him and his brother.
“I got him for you,” Mark said. “You’re s’posed to let me go.”
“Who says you make the rules?” Little Joe turned and started to walk out of the grass. Then he yelped, “Ouch! What have you crazy critters picked up?”
“I don’t . . . ouch!” yelped Matt, soon followed by a similar cry from Mark. “Somethin’s bitin’ me!”
“Aw, stinkin’ on it!” Little Joe cried. “You’ve got into a nest of wood ticks. Now, we’re in for it.”
Both boys started to bellow and Little Joe ran faster, as if he could outrun the sound, impossible since he was carrying it with him. Once he got out of the grass, he set the boys down and started pulling the ticks off them. The ticks didn’t want to turn loose, of course, and the boys screeched with each one pulled off. Before Joe could finish the job, however, the train whistle blew, indicated its departure, and he told them to run for the train.
“We can’t take ticks on there,” Matt protested.
“Run!” Little Joe ordered, and they did, with Joe close on their heels. They ran into the car at the last minute, and the boys ran, whining, straight to their mother.
“Mercy sakes, what have you boys gotten yourselves into now?” she asked, shaking her head.
“Ticks, Ma,” wailed Matt, echoed by Mark.
“Oh, mercy, you’re crawling with them,” she cried. “What am I going to do with the two of you?” The lady in the row behind them hastily got up and moved.
“Get ‘em off,” Mark whimpered. “It hurts, Ma!”
“Serve you right if I just let it,” she said, perturbed, but nonetheless going to work on him.
“You want me to see to Matt, Mrs. Davis?” Little Joe offered.
She looked up and gave him a weak smile. “Don’t you need to see to yourself, Mr. Cartwright? These boys of mine have been nothing but trouble to you all day, and I don’t doubt they shared a few of their little friends with you, too.”
Little Joe tried to laugh, but he winced as he felt one of the “little friends” take hold of him. “Nothin’ but trouble, ma’am,” he agreed, “but I’m kind of used to trouble. I’ll sort Matt out . . . and then I’ll sort me out.”
“I’d be obliged,” she said warmly. “You’re a pure angel, Mr. Cartwright.”
Little Joe did laugh, then. “Fallen one, my brother would say. Come on, Matt; let’s get those bugs off you.” He led the boy across the aisle and began to pick the ticks off him and toss them out the window.
Further back in the car, Adam wagged his head from side to side, as he made clucking noises of disapproval. He wasn’t sure what sort of devilment Joe and his motley miscreants had gotten up to, and he didn’t think he wanted to know. He turned his attention back to his book, wondering if he’d be asked to read to the other passengers. A new ship, a new captain—it wasn’t guaranteed, but it was likely someone would mention it, so he might as well be prepared.
The train began to descend, and the scenery became more striking with each mile. Just one mile past the summit Adam looked up from his book and smiled at the imposing cliff of basalt, its giant crystals nearly a foot in diameter and eight to twelve feet long, jutting from the landscape at a 40-degree angle. Through the open window he could hear the roar of Panama’s Rio Grande, as it looped through the thick forest far below the tracks, and he saw cone-shaped mountains among the irregular ridges the curving road took them past. He tried to go back to his book, but how could he read when there was so much to see? He’d seen it before, of course, but not from this direction, and so he saw it through fresh eyes.
The road continued to descend into an area populated with groves of coconut and palm trees. Through them Adam could see ancient forts, now dilapidated, and the ruined towers of an old cathedral. Oh, for the time to stay over and visit those architectural wonders! But the steamship would be loading as soon as they arrived, so he wasn’t free to indulge his interest. Looking ahead, he viewed the bare top of Mount Ancon and knew they were close to their destination. Minutes later, they passed Rio Grande Station, the last on the line, surrounded by native huts and fields of pastureland, dotted with cattle, and within a mile the long, metal roofs of the rail terminus came into view.
The beautiful Bay of Panama then opened before his eyes, but Adam had no time to enjoy it. He began to gather up his belongings so he could exit quickly and make sure his errant little brother made it safely—and on time—to the ship that was awaiting their arrival. His first instinct was to rush forward, grab Joe by the arm and escort him—kicking and screaming, no doubt—to the boat. The kicking and screaming part stopped him, not quite in his tracks, but enough to make him take a look at what his brother was actually doing. After all the friction they’d had of late, that was probably a wise course. And what Joe was doing wasn’t bad at all; in fact, it had possibilities of being actively good.
Joe was still ahead of him, but he was walking beside the Davis woman, carrying one of her boys, while the other held tight to his hand. And they were headed straight for the landing. Good boy! Feeling like the proud owner of a puppy who’d finally sat when he was told to sit, Adam grinned at the analogy and relaxed, while maintaining a watchful eye. This particular puppy had a propensity for starting out on the straight and narrow and ending up in unimaginable predicaments. This time, however, he ended up just where he should, aboard the Tabogo, bound for their new ship, the Golden Dream, anchored some three miles off shore. I suppose I should commend him, Adam thought, but he’d probably think it more insult than compliment.
Since Joe was safely on the first tugboat to the ship, Adam realized he had a little time to spare and decided to indulge in a luxury he hadn’t been able to afford on his eastward journey. Then he’d been forced to take a later boat to avoid a certain manhunter who had set her unattractive eye on him, but now, so long as he watched the time, he could take a brief look around Panama City, and he was keenly interested in the architecture. The temptation proved too strong to resist.
He strolled about the town of 10,000 or less, enjoying the stuccoed two- and even three-story houses that were common. Built of stone, occasionally mixed with brick, they were roofed with the concave-convex tiles typical of the Spanish architecture he’d seen in California. The roofs projected over balconies that hung above narrow sidewalks, while the balconies themselves were filled with flower boxes, monkeys and parrots. Windows were rare. Instead, both on the street level and the balconies were wide double doors and scattered over the walls were star-shaped holes to ventilate the homes. Not practical in the Sierras, of course, but they seemed perfect for a tropical climate. Most of the lower floors held businesses, while Adam assumed the upper ones served as living quarters.
He started to head back to the boat dock, but then he saw the cathedral on the west side of the plaza and had to take a quick look. On each side of the stonework main structure, as he stood before it, gazing upward, twin towers stretched to the sky. Their weather-beaten stucco received extra luminance from the pearl oyster shells speckling their surface, and Adam found it beautiful. He was charmed by the sound of the bells that began to ring in each tower, though he could see no reason for it. It wasn’t Sunday, after all, and this would have been a strange hour for services, at any rate. He checked his watch to verify the time, still out of simple curiosity, and then panic suddenly propelled him across the plaza toward the dock. After all his concern about Joe, he was the one about to miss the last tugboat!
They were just pulling up the gangplank as he ran up to the ship. “Wait! One more!” he cried, and the board was lowered into place again.
“Cutting it fine, sir,” one of the crew said.
“Yes, I’m sorry,” Adam said, panting. “Lost in the landscape.”
The crewman shrugged. “It happens.”
All things considered, it was a more generous response than Adam felt he was due. And considerably more generous than the one he received from his little brother, who stood at the rail of the Golden Dream, his head wagging in disapproval. Adam could say nothing, of course, for he knew he deserved it, but it was decidedly unpleasant to have the shoe on the other foot when it came to brotherly reproach.
As soon as he finished supper, Little Joe hurried up on deck. It had become his practice since boarding the Golden Dream, a name he thought perfect for a ship headed for San Francisco. And the ship seemed perfect in almost every other way, too. It was older, less fancy than most of the others he’d traveled in, but it rated better than the California, the old tub he and George had taken from San Francisco, and better than the fancy ones, too. At least, in his eyes. Probably not in Adam’s. He figured his brother might miss the amenities of the larger ships they’d traveled along the eastern seaboard, but he didn’t. Who needs a barber aboard ship? he thought as he ran his fingers through his lengthening chestnut locks. Plenty of time to get shorn like a sheep, once he got to San Francisco, and if they were pressed for time, it wouldn’t matter. Pa might scold, but he’d be so happy to have them home for Christmas he’d probably let it ride until the New Year.
Of course, Little Joe didn’t really know what Adam thought about the Golden Dream or anything else, ‘cause they still weren’t talking much. Almost missing the tugboat to their new ship had given his big brother a spark of humility—much needed, in Joe’s opinion—and Adam hadn’t given out any criticism in the week since they’d left Panama City. Maybe he was scared he’d get some back if he did. And not without reason, Little Joe acknowledged with a cocky grin, but so far, he’d restrained himself—well, mostly. It was awfully satisfying to be one up on Adam for a change.
He finally spied the light in the distance that he’d been looking for and felt a ripple of excitement rush through him. Acapulco! Halfway between Panama and San Francisco, so it made home feel close. Besides, Little Joe had rather fond memories of the town and its pretty señoritas. Oh, sure, one of them had taken him for two bits when he’d had little to spare, but by comparison he was flush now. He’d gladly pay the price for one of their flower garlands, maybe two, for the chance of getting a little better acquainted.
He’d had plenty of female attention on the voyage out, moonlight promenades and heart-fluttering kisses, but precious little on the return. There just weren’t many females going west this time of year, and those that were weren’t his type—by about thirty years. He was ready to chase a few skirts, and in Acapulco a man didn’t even have to chase ‘em. They came to him, swishing their skirts in his face. Add to that, the ship was arriving in the evening this time, and while it probably would too early for a stroll in the moonlight with a señorita on each arm, the evening shadows would definitely set the atmosphere and, perhaps, offer the opportunity for a stolen kiss or two. Maybe more. He almost panted in anticipation.
The lighthouse continued to guide them toward the channel into the bay, and four bells sounded just as they entered the harbor. Six o’clock, Little Joe calculated, translating the signal into landlubber time. Perfect. He’d have an hour to entertain the sweet señoritas, while the ship took on coal and provisions, and be back on board for tea time, though he expected to feast on so many kisses that he had no appetite.
“You can forget it,” Adam said, as he came up behind his brother.
Little Joe spun around. “Huh?”
“Your plan for amorous adventures in Acapulco,” Adam replied with a smirk. “There won’t be any.”
Little Joe stared at him, once again amazed at his brother’s ability to read minds. How did he accomplish it, time after time? Nonetheless, he decided to brazen it out. “What makes you think I got any planned?”
Adam uttered a sputtering laugh. “Your renowned propensity for folly.”
Little Joe scowled. He hated it when older brother tossed around twenty-dollar words. They didn’t come to his mind easily, but he knew how to toss cuttings ones, even if they were simpler. “What do you care?” he asked, his tone bitter.
Though the words hurt, mostly because Adam knew he hadn’t shown much brotherly care and concern on this voyage, he shrugged in response. “My concern is for my own hide, younger brother, and the discomfort it will suffer if I show up at home without you.”
“Your hide will be just fine,” Little Joe snorted. “I got no intention of missing the boat, so just put your mind at ease.”
“Oh, I know you won’t,” Adam said with a maddening smile, “because you and I will be joined at the hip while we’re on shore.”
“Aw, come on, Adam,” Little Joe protested. “I’m not the one who needs a keeper.”
“And what is that supposed to mean?” Adam asked, getting his back up.
“I ain’t the one that almost missed the boat back in Panama City.” Little Joe proved that he, too, knew how to smirk.
Lips pursed, Adam nodded, his suspicions verified. “That was an aberration,” he said tersely, “completely contrary to my standard practice. With you, it’s an established way of life. That is why, much as I would prefer to explore the city on my own, we stay together. And that is my final word, Joe.”
It wasn’t Joe’s final word, by any means, nor, of necessity, Adam’s. In the end, however, Adam won, as he tended to do in such skirmishes. Little Joe knew Pa expected him to obey his older brother, and that gave Adam a powerful advantage. A sullen-faced Joe stuck to Adam’s side as they left the ship.
At first, Adam seemed only interested in the native architecture until Little Joe taunted, “Didn’t learn your lesson about that in Panama, older brother?”
Stung, Adam countered, “It wouldn’t hurt you to absorb a little of the native culture, boy.”
“Oh, I could absorb a lot of it, if you weren’t around,” Little Joe hinted with a suggestive glint in his eyes.
Adam’s dry smile was humorless. “That is not the culture I was referring to. Now, why don’t you concentrate on the graceful lines of this church?”
Wondering how Adam could possibly prefer that to the graceful curves of a woman, Little Joe shook his head, but stared up at the building, seeming to have resigned himself to an hour of enforced education.
After several long minutes, Adam relented and led his brother to the plaza and bought him an orange from one of the venders. Little Joe instinctively said, “Thanks,” Pa’s training kicking in again, but he was glad enough for the treat. Oranges were a rarity back home, although with any luck there’d be one in his Christmas stocking, imported from California. As he sucked the sweet fruit, his attitude seemed to sweeten, as well.
Patting himself on the back for how easily he’d assuaged the pouting child, Adam scanned the row of venders, looking for some small gifts to tuck in stockings back home. He’d just purchased a bag of nuts for Pa when his attention was drawn to a ruckus that had broken out on the opposite side of the plaza. Normally, he would have assumed that Little Joe was in thick of it, drawn toward trouble like filings to a magnet, but thankfully his brother was safe at his side. He wouldn’t, of course, be foolish enough to voice that thought to Joe, but he couldn’t resist turning to the kid with a brother-knew-best smile on his face . . . which quickly evaporated. Joe was nowhere to be seen.
Little Joe smiled victoriously as he drew the dark-haired beauty into an alley back of the plaza. He’d been looking for an opportunity to break free from Adam, and the upheaval on the opposite side had provided it. At first, he concentrated on just mingling with the crowd, his shorter height being an asset, but once he was confident Adam wouldn’t find him quickly, he turned his attention to finding a pretty girl such as he’d dreamed of aboard ship. Thanks to his bothersome brother, he didn’t have time to pick and choose, so he took the first one he spotted. She was doggone pretty, though, and pretty doggone willing, too. When she tried to “gift” him with a garland of flowers, he’d said, “I’ll take four and give you a full dollar, if you’ll throw in a kiss or two.” And his smile was so friendly and charming that she’d immediately taken his hand and led him to this secluded spot, and under the rising moon, she’d wrapped her arms around his neck and given him full payment for his dollar—and then some. He probably had only a half hour left, but he intended to milk it for all it was worth.
Adam, meanwhile, was frantically searching the plaza for his prodigal brother on the assumption that Joe couldn’t get far in the short time he’d had. That had obviously been a mistake, he realized as his temperature rose. The kid always had moved with jackrabbit speed, and Adam cursed his stupidity in not remembering that in time—and in not tethering the rabbit to his side with a sturdy rope, in lieu of the handcuffs he had neglected to purchase before boarding the ship back in New York City. Leaving the plaza, he began to scour the side streets and alleys.
A signal shot fired to warn passengers of the ship’s imminent departure. Knowing that he had 30 minutes left, Adam consulted his watch and marked the time. Brother or no brother, he, at least, would be on that ship. Let Joe rot in Mexico for all he cared! The kid deserved it. He continued to search, pulling out the watch at brief intervals, until it showed only eight minutes to spare. Then, reluctantly, he made his way to the Golden Dream, looking over his shoulder every few steps. He never saw his brother, of course. That would have made life too simple.
Little Joe, too, had heard the signal and understood what it meant, that he’d have to start thinking about ending what Adam had called “his amorous adventure”—soon . . . but not . . . just . . . yet.
“You can’t leave. My brother’s not on board yet.” Adam tried to keep his voice calm, reasoning, though he himself was long past reason.
“The U.S. Mail can’t be delayed because your brother can’t keep track of the time,” the officer stated bluntly. “I’ll wait another ten minutes. After that, he’ll have to find accommodations in town and wait for the next ship . . . if there’s room on board.”
Throwing up his hands as the man stalked away, Adam wondered whether Joe even had funds for accommodations. Probably not. He suspected his brother had spent most of his money for Christmas presents. Generous, of course, but it made no provision for emergencies. He puffed out a derisive breath. When had Joe ever made provision for emergencies? He depended on others to get him out the scrapes he habitually fell into, and Adam supposed it would be no different today. He might have told himself he didn’t care if the kid rotted in Mexico, but he couldn’t leave him to that fate, however deserved. And he couldn’t blame his capitulation on fear of Pa’s reaction, either, because that wasn’t really the reason; as furious as he was with the kid, Adam felt a strong duty of care.
Well, there was no help for it. He’d have to debark himself and hope the next ship had two spaces available. The Golden Dream wasn’t full, winter not being a favored season for pleasure trips, and that next ship probably wouldn’t be, either. There was no time to offload their steamer trunks, but he could, at least, throw a few things in their carpetbags. Since he had less than ten minutes to pack and get to shore, he took the stairs at a run.
Punctual, as always, Adam made it back on deck just as they were pulling up the gangplank. “One moment,” he called to the officer in charge.
The man hitched in a perturbed breath, and then said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright, but we cannot wait.”
“Then let me off,” Adam said.
“Are you sure, sir?”
Adam shook his head, but contradicted the signal by saying, “I can’t leave him. Please let me off.”
“Very good, sir.” The officer gave the order to put the gangplank back in place, and as Adam stepped onto it, he offered more congenially, “Good luck, sir.”
Adam was nodding his acknowledgement of the sentiment when another shout was heard: “Hey, wait!” He turned and there was Joe, charging toward the ship. Adam gasped with relief. “It’s him,” he told the officer.
“Yes,” the man said. “For your sake, I’m glad, sir.”
Adam winced. The officer, out of courtesy to a passenger, hadn’t said anything more about the delay, but he’d felt the coolness. It fueled the opposite reaction in him. It started a slow burn in him—well, no, not slow at all. By the time Little Joe ran up the gangplank and sprang on deck, Adam was a steam boiler, about to blow.
“Hey, brother!” Little Joe said, grinning, looking highly pleased with himself. “Guess we got separated in the crowd.”
“And not by accident,” Adam hissed.
Little Joe’s grin broadened. “Did you miss me?” Then he spotted the carpetbag in Adam’s right hand. “Hey, Adam, why you totin’ that?” And then he saw the bag in his brother’s other hand, and with a puzzled look, he asked, “And what are you doin’ with my carpetbag?”
“I was getting off the ship to look for you,” Adam growled.
“What for? I knew where I was.”
“Well, I didn’t! And they were going to leave without you!”
Little Joe looked nonplused. “Oh? Was I late?”
Adam dropped the bags and moved toward his brother.
“Aw, come on, Adam,” Little Joe said, backing up. “They were just pulling up the gangplank when I came.”
“Wrong,” Adam spat. “They were lowering it again—for me!”
“Oh.” Little Joe realized he was in trouble, but decided to brazen it out. “Well, lucky for me they were, huh? But that señorita just didn’t want me to go, brother. You know how women are when they take a shine to a man.” He offered Adam a conspiratorial wink, one man to another.
Adam exploded. “A man? You are anything but a man!”
Little Joe was shocked into silence for a moment. “You don’t mean that, Adam.” Seeing the glare in his brother’s eyes, his face hardened. “You better not mean that.”
Adam’s gaze narrowed. “You are a child,” he said slowly, with intent.
Little Joe’s gaze matched Adam’s. “Take it back,” he said tightly.
“Huh! A child’s taunt.” Adam’s mimicked his brother’s words in a high-pitched sing-song. “‘Take it back.’ You behaved like a child, an irresponsible, thoughtless child. You deserved to be left to rot in Mexico!” He’d thought it so often, the words came easily, laced with equal parts anger and exasperation.
“Then, why didn’t you?” Little Joe demanded hotly.
Adam snuffled derisively. “For Pa’s sake, of course. You can scarcely think I’d choose to be saddled with you another day!” Within two days he’d have reason to rue those words, and not just because of the blow his out thrust chin took two seconds later.
Joe was sulking, much to Adam’s embarrassment, for what he had considered a minor blowup, Joe seemed determined to deem a major conflagration. While they hadn’t spoken much before, basically staying out of each other’s way, the silence now, at least on Joe’s part, was weaponized, to the point that those who shared the brothers’ table wondered what had happened to the charming, albeit rather quiet, young man of earlier days. It never occurred to them that what had happened to him was the other charming man at their table, who had uttered the fatal words that stripped away his fledgling manhood and left a petulant child in their wake.
As for Little Joe, he felt perfectly justified in his deteriorating attitude. In the early days of this journey home, he’d felt largely to blame for the differences between him and Adam and tried to make amends. No more. After all, he’d only wanted his brother to stay on the Ponderosa. A decent brother might have been flattered by that, but not Adam, and now Joe didn’t care if he ran back to his Lily Ann as soon as they docked in San Francisco. At least, he told himself he didn’t.
He also told himself that if Adam was gonna treat him like a child, he might as well behave like one, so for the next two days he led the Davis twins on wild romps from port to bow and stem to stern, on deck and below. He did it to annoy Adam, and the granite glares from old Granite Head told him he’d succeeded. At supper that night, however, everything changed.
For once, Little Joe beat Adam to the table and was, as a consequence, quite pleased with himself. How he’d relish throwing that smack in his self-righteous and oh-so-punctual brother’s face! Then he remembered that he wasn’t speaking to Adam and wondered if he might make this one exception, since it would give him such exquisite pleasure.
Adam had gotten caught up in preparing his nightly reading, so he was slightly late in arriving for the evening meal. Passing the captain’s table, he started to greet him when he saw the first mate bend to the captain’s ear and whisper something.
Captain Lawson frowned as he received the message. “Nonsense!” he declared. “I don’t believe it.” Despite that declaration, he immediately stood and left the table.
Adam sensed something might be wrong. His first thought was that Joseph Cartwright and those incorrigible twins had gotten up to some mischief, but a quick glance at their table revealed that his brother was already there—and smirking. Narrowing his eyes, he set his jaw and came to his accustomed place. “Sorry to be tardy, gentlemen,” he said, pointedly ignoring his brother.
“Why, you aren’t, Mr. Cartwright,” portly Mr. Albright said. “They haven’t begun serving yet, after all. I do hope you have an exciting chapter for us this evening.”
“Quite exciting,” Adam said with a gracious smile as he took his seat, never dreaming that the evening was about to get more exciting than anything in the pages he planned to read.
They all ordered their supper selections and began to chat amiably as they waited. Fifteen minutes passed, slowly for Little Joe, since he wasn’t participating in the conversation. After all, it was mostly about Adam and the wonderful entertainment he was providing each evening. He’d been proud of his brother’s prowess before; now, hearing the praise was an irritant, without, as yet, the benefit of a good meal to distract him.
However, Little Joe was not the first to complain about the tardiness of the service. That honor fell to the true gourmet at their table. “I say,” a perturbed-looking Mr. Albright asked, “what is keeping the food? It’s never been this late before.”
“No, it hasn’t,” Adam agreed. He’d been enjoying the conversation too much to notice, but the man was right. And then he noticed something more disturbing: Captain Lawson had not returned to the dining area. With sudden intuition Adam sensed that the “nonsense” the captain had refused to believe had proven all too real and was the underlying cause of the disruption of their dinner. “Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said. “I believe I’ll try to find out what’s holding up our supper.”
“Give them a piece of my mind, as well,” Albright declared.
Adam nodded, more a gesture of dismissal than agreement. He paused briefly and glanced at his brother, opened his mouth and then shut it again. What, after all, could he say to Joe? He didn’t know anything yet; he merely felt an uneasiness. He turned and walked away.
Little Joe saw the glance, but it was the troubled look in his brother’s eye that sent a shiver up his spine. Then, he saw Adam go, not toward the galley, from which food was delivered, but out to the deck, and he knew something was wrong. He got up and followed his brother.
On deck, pandemonium reigned. Oh, it was a well-ordered pandemonium, but there was no disguising the panic in the eyes of the crew. Adam caught the captain’s arm as he hurried past and asked, “What’s wrong? Don’t fear to tell me, sir.”
Captain Lawson at first looked perturbed at the interruption. Then he took note of who had stopped him. Even in the short time he’d been aboard the Golden Dream, Mr. Cartwright, the elder, had struck him as a man of sense and composure, so he didn’t hesitate. “The ship’s on fire, Mr. Cartwright. Since we’re only fifteen miles off Manzanillo, I hope to run her aground, but we may have to abandon her, I’m afraid. I was just on the way to inform the passengers.”
“How can I help?” Adam asked at once.
Looking into his face, the captain saw the calm acceptance and resolve he had expected from this passenger. “We’ve formed a bucket brigade. If you wouldn’t mind . . .”
“It’s my life, too, sir,” Adam said. “Just point me in the right direction.”
“Between the forward smokestack and the cabin galley,” the captain said. Laying a hand briefly against the other man’s upper arm, he added, “God bless you, sir.” Then he moved again toward the stairs to the lower deck, meeting the younger Mr. Cartwright as he did. This one’s eyes registered alarm and fear, so he immediately said, “Come below, sir, and all will be explained.” In his haste, he didn’t stop to see if his order had been obeyed, though from what he’d seen of this boy in their five-day acquaintance, he probably should have guessed it wouldn’t be.
Little Joe, instead, went straight toward his brother, but Adam was already heading down the deck. As he’d done hundreds of times on the Ponderosa, Little Joe instinctively followed his older brother, trying to catch up with him. On open land, he probably could have, even given Adam’s longer stride, but his path was clogged with other men, some of whom were doing their best to run the opposite direction. Not bothering to ask any of them what was wrong, Little Joe weaved through them in the wake of the man he could trust to know and tell him what to do.
He never reached Adam. Before he could, he realized the line of men was a bucket brigade, and without prior experience he understood what a fire aboard a wooden vessel meant. He automatically took a place in line, knowing that somewhere up ahead of him, Adam would be doing the same. It was what Cartwrights did.
Both Cartwright brothers worked, handing off a bucket and reaching for another, time after time. They were sturdy young men, used to hard work, except they hadn’t done much of it for the last couple of months, and each could tell the difference the extended days of leisure had made. The heat from the tropical evening, as well as the heat from the growing fire, sapped their strength, as well, and soon sweat poured down their bodies. Since they’d been dressed for dinner when the fire started, they still wore their good suits, but they, along with the few other passengers who were trying to help, soon shed the coats. Only the need for propriety before any ladies that might pass kept their shirts on their backs, and they were soon drenched.
At first, neither could see the flames, but as Adam threw bucket after bucket around the smokestack, he felt the roasting heat and choked on the smoke pouring from the engine room hatchway. Finally, the men in that area could bear no more and gave up, knowing the ship was lost. The fight now would be to save lives.
The crew fell back in reasonable order, though some pushing and shoving was inevitable. Then they reached the more open part of the deck, clogged with panicked passengers, women weeping and children, according to their bent, either clinging to their mothers or—well, running amok would have been Adam’s description, had he had time to deal with them. He assumed his brother, who would have still been in the dining room when the order came to abandon ship, was somewhere among the crowd. Joe might be young and foolish, but he wouldn’t be like many of the other men aboard, so determined to save some bit of earthly treasure that they lost sight of the true wealth—their very lives.
With disgust, Adam viewed the men thronging the purser, demanding the belabored officer open his safe and give them the money they had checked with him for the duration of the trip. It was impossible, of course. Even had there been time for such foolishness, it would have been impossible. The fire had started too near that area of the ship. No one could reach it now. Adam started to remonstrate with his fellow passengers, to try to make them see reason, but soon gave it up as a hopeless cause. There were others in greater need of his help.
His first thought was to find his brother, but the pandemonium and press of the crowd was too great. Looking eastward, he estimated the ship was still miles from shore and knew the captain’s hope of running aground was hopeless. The ship wouldn’t last that long; the time to abandon her had truly come. Adam trusted the captain to make that decision, so he headed for the area from which the lifeboats would be launched, not to save himself, but to render assistance to all he could.
Along with members of the crew, he helped the women and children into the lifeboats first and pushed back those men who insisted that position should be theirs. Patiently he devested the passengers of carpetbags and jewel cases. “There’s no room,” he tried to explain, realizing there weren’t enough launches for all the people. Some protested and clutched their belongings all the more desperately, but most relinquished them almost at once. What did things matter, after all, compared to lives?
Adam’s strong arms were much appreciated as he helped the crewmen lower the boat into the water, for all the men were exhausted from their firefighting efforts. He would never be sure afterwards if their weariness was to blame or whether the passengers had shifted the balance, but as they were lowering the second lifeboat, with cries of terror women, children and the few men who had made it into that load began to spill over the side of the launch into the sea. The boat then broke loose and followed them into the waves.
Hurriedly, Adam took off his shoes and started to climb the railing. Before he could dive in, however, a sailor jumped into the water to right the boat and help the people reload. Adam stepped down to the deck and without bothering to put his shoes back on, helped move the third launch into place and began to load it, mostly with men this time, since so few women were traveling during the winter season.
Everything was noise and confusion until he had no time to think, except for a single, imperative question: where was Joe? He would not, of course, have been among those who pushed women aside to board early. Young as he was, he was built of better stuff than those cowards. There were other launch points, further down the deck, and in the brief time he could spare to think, Adam decided his brother must be at one of them, either waiting his turn for a boat or, more likely, helping others to board. He felt a moment’s pride; then the urgency of the next moment drove all else but loading people from his mind.
Little Joe was, indeed, down the line at another launch station. He spotted Adam just once, before one of the men he’d worked beside in the bucket brigade asked him to help load passengers, and he’d gladly done so. After all the friction between them, it was almost as if he and Adam were working together again. Almost.
He was helping to load his third boat when he heard a woman screaming. The fact that she was a woman was enough to set off alarm bells, for like the crew working with Adam, this group had also given first place to women and children, most of them going in the first launch. But this woman was screaming a name he knew only too well. He pushed past the men crowding into the launch area, calling, “Mrs. Davis!” Some of the male passengers, realizing that a woman was behind them, tried to push her forward, but she pulled back, shouting at them to leave her be. When the men saw Little Joe pressing toward her, they drew back to let him through. If the stripling was determined to push himself into authority over grown men, let him deal with this!
“Oh, Mr. Cartwright!” Mrs. Davis, clutching one trembling son to her side, cried as he reached her. “I can’t find Mark anywhere. I only turned my back a minute and he was gone!”
“That’s all it takes,” Little Joe said ruefully. Seeing her stricken face, he added, “It’s not your fault, ma’am; he’s fast, that one. Don’t worry; I’ll find him. Let’s get you and Matt loaded first.”
“No, I won’t leave him,” she said, “but do get Matt aboard.”
“No, Mama!” Matt cried. “Don’t leave me!”
“Hey, hey, Matt, it’s okay,” Little Joe said, trying to keep his voice calm. “Your mama’s going with you.”
Mrs. Davis lifted a resistant palm to cut off his words. “No, I . . .”
“Ma’am, you have to.” Little Joe leaned close to her ear. “There aren’t enough boats,” he whispered, “and I can find room later for one small boy easier than for the three of you together. I’ll find Mark, but you go now!” He wasn’t accustomed to ordering his elders about, particularly the female variety, but urgency lent authority to his voice.
Shaking all the harder, she nodded and delayed only long enough to say, “Once again you are our guardian angel, Mr. Cartwright. Thank you!” Then she let herself and Matthew be pushed through the line of men toward the launch as Little Joe began to circle the deck in hope of quickly finding the missing child.
The boats were packed tight as tins of fish, but there still wasn’t room for all the passengers. There’d been a good bit of pushing and shoving in an attempt to get aboard the last one. Adam saw Mr. Albright, standing back, staring with fear-filled eyes, but not fighting for a place in the boat. He forced his way back to his table-mate and took him by the arm. “I’ll see you get a seat, sir,” he said.
“Thank you, no, Mr. Cartwright,” Albright said. “I’ll—I’ll wait my turn.”
“Mr. Albright, let me be blunt,” Adam said. “You wouldn’t have a chance in the open sea. Those of us who are younger”—and leaner he thought, but did not say it—“can swim or hold on to the sides of lifeboats. Please, sir, let me find you a place.”
Mr. Albright’s face blanched and he nodded wordlessly. Adam took his arm, using his free one to push his way forward and with the help of the crewmen who’d been working with him all evening, he managed to get the older man into the boat and then worked to lower it into the waiting sea.
Loud and vociferous were the protests of the men left on deck as that final lifeboat, with its meager promise of safety, dropped. “Why aren’t there more boats?” angry men demanded, and Adam could scarcely blame them. The same question was pounding in his brain. The ship was lightly loaded this trip, and there still hadn’t been enough, proving the Golden Dream was woefully unprepared for an emergency of any magnitude.
Captain Lawson, who had long and futilely argued that same need, could offer no explanation, even had there been time. There wasn’t, and he bluntly stated that. “There’s no choice, gentlemen. If you want to save your lives, dive into the sea and swim for shore. It’s no more than four miles now.”
“But I can’t swim!” one man protested.
The captain closed his eyes briefly. “I’m sorry, sir, but there’s no choice but to go into the sea. Take a life preserver, and if you can possibly reach one of the boats, hang onto the side or some of the floating timber, if that fails.”
“Timber? Where do you expect me to find timber?” the man demanded.
Captain Lawson sighed. “From the ship, sir; there’ll be plenty when she breaks up.” He walked away from the man, who was staring at him, aghast, and repeated the same instructions to everyone he passed, adding, “Take off your shoes, gentlemen, and any extra weight on your persons. Nothing you might try to save is worth your lives.”
Adam was already shoeless, but he somewhat reluctantly unfastened his money belt and let it drop. Most of his money was in the inaccessible purser’s office, anyway, and he was a strong swimmer, but it wasn’t worth the risk. Thunder was beginning to rumble in the west, and a storm would make it hard enough to reach shore without the added weight to pull him down. As other passengers, some under protest, also followed the captain’s order, gold and silver coins rained down on the deck, but Adam barely noticed them. He knew he had mere minutes to get off the blazing ship, but how could he leave until he knew Joe was safe? He ran down the deck, dodging the hot tar that fell as the flames reached the treated rigging.
Little Joe was about ready to wring a kid’s neck. He’d searched the deck, as far as the encroaching fire would let him go and was satisfied that Mark wasn’t up there. He wasted thirty seconds in trying to convince himself that the boy had turned back up while he was searching and had managed to get aboard the last launch. He knew better. It wasn’t the kind of sensible thing an ornery kid would do, and he should know: he’d been one. In Adam’s eyes, he still was. The thought of his brother brought a wry grin to his face, but then his mind turned to the more practical matter of where that confounded kid might have taken himself. Think, Joe, he told himself.What would you do? Almost instantly, he came up with the answer, and with an audible groan, he headed down the stairs.
“Mr. Cartwright!” The captain practically bellowed his name. “Why are you still on board? I gave the order to abandon ship!”
“Have you seen my brother?” Adam asked, anxiously grabbing the captain’s arm.
“Not recently,” Captain Lawson said, “but I’m sure he’s gone. Everyone is.” It wasn’t quite true; the fire had burned first and hottest toward the rear of the ship, quickly trapping the passengers in steerage. If they hadn’t jumped into the water, they might still be aboard, but no longer alive. Sadly, there’d been no way to reach them, and it weighed on his heart.
Adam stood rooted, babbling his thoughts aloud. “He’s not on deck, but he wouldn’t stay below, surely.” He kneaded his temple with long, supple fingers. “Still, I can’t be sure.”
“I saw him on deck at one point,” the captain said. “He was helping my men load the launches. I’m sure they would have put him in one of the final boats.” Or he dived into the sea, he might have added, but didn’t want to draw the brother’s concern to that dire possibility.
“But you can’t be sure,” Adam argued, though he wanted to believe. It was inconceivable to him that Joe would have left without seeking him out, but then they hadn’t been getting along too well of late. Perhaps Joe hadn’t thought an emergency was the best time to tear down the wall between them.
With a mighty crack, the foremast toppled to the deck and caved it in.
“I’m sure of one thing,” Captain Lawson declared. “You and I are the last men aboard, and I can’t leave until you do, Mr. Cartwright! Now, come on!” He took his passenger’s arm and propelled him to the front of the ship. “Climb out on the bowsprit,” he ordered, “and watch for your chance to jump clear of the ship.”
Seeing the flames behind him, eating up the deck, Adam gave a crisp nod and climbed out onto the narrow spar, past the foresail, and hung from it as he committed his soul to God and plummeted into the churning surf. A second splash soon followed.
Once below, Little Joe began a room-by-room search of the passengers’ cabins, cursing himself for not learning which one had been assigned to the Davis family. There’d never been any reason, of course. The boys had always gone there under their mother’s charge. He was just exiting one cabin when he saw Mark stumble out of another and yelled his name.
“Mr. Joe!” the little boy screamed. Whatever boyish trinket he’d come back for was forgotten in his newly awakened terror. “It’s gettin’ hot!”
Little Joe swallowed down his own fear. “We’ve got to get out of here, Mark—now!” He heard the fear leaking out and made an effort to calm down. “Stay with me, no matter what,” he ordered, holding out his hand.
Mark grabbed it and held tight as Little Joe practically dragged his shorter legs toward the stairs. Black smoke boiled toward them as they came up on the empty deck, and the growing flames forced them forward. Mark started to choke on the fumes. “I . . . can’t . . .”
“Hush,” Little Joe ordered as he snatched first one shoe and then the other from the boy. “Can you swim?” he asked urgently.
“Y-yeah,” said Mark, “but I’m scared, Mr. Joe.”
“Got to be brave, buddy,” Joe said, turning out the boy’s pockets. “I’ll be right behind you, okay?”
“O-okay.” Mark began to cough as the increasing smoke irritated his lungs.
“I’ll toss you out as far as I can,” Little Joe said as he lifted the boy over the railing. “Get to a boat or something floating if you can.”
“I’ll wait for you,” Mark said, tears in his eyes.
“No!” Joe said sharply. “Start swimming as soon as you hit the water. This ship’s still moving, and I got no notion which way it’ll turn with no one steering, so get as far as you can, fast as you can. You hear me, Mark?” When the boy nodded, he said, “Okay, here goes. One . . . two . . . three!” On the count of three, he tossed his little friend into the sea, and once he saw him hit the water and start to swim away, Little Joe pulled off his own shoes. He was climbing the railing when the fire reached the steam engines, and as ship exploded, he felt himself being launched upward like one of the rockets Hop Sing liked to fire to celebrate Chinese New Year.
Adam broke the water’s surface to a cascade of ash and cinders. Since the air was charred with the scent of burning wood, he took a deep breath, plunged beneath it again and swam underwater, hard as he could stroke. The ship, badly damaged from the explosion, whose concussion he had felt underwater, was still moving toward shore, and he had to get out of its path. He surfaced again and saw that he was far enough away to relax his pace a little. He was exhausted from his efforts to fight the fire and to see other passengers safely exit the doomed ship, and he needed rest before striking out for shore again. While he was still a good three miles off shore, he stopped to tread water for a while and looked back at the burning hulk. One question blazed in his brain: had Joe made it off? There was only one way to find out, so he again started to swim for shore.
As the sun was sinking on the western horizon, he stumbled onto the beach, collapsed and for a brief spell lay motionless in the sand. At least, he thought it was brief, but the sky seemed darker than he remembered it being when he’d shut his eyes. He clambered to his feet and began walking down the beach, searching among the survivors, asking everyone he passed if they’d seen his brother. His heart grew heavier with every negative response he received.
Finally, he saw Captain Lawson, wading through the surf, helping to shore those who were still struggling through the surf and, sadly, dragging ashore the bodies of those who through physical frailty or the weight of gold and silver they had hoarded had succumbed to the sea. Adam immediately went to his side and began to help him. “I don’t see any of the lifeboats,” he said. “Surely, they didn’t all perish.”
“Pray God, none of them did,” said the captain. “I ordered my men to row straight for Manzanillo, so they wouldn’t be here, Mr. Cartwright.” He looked into his aide’s weary face and added, “There’s every reason to believe your young brother is among them.”
“Yes,” Adam said. He didn’t sound convinced, but his tiny spark of hope burned a little brighter.
“Well, that appears to be the last of the swimmers,” Captain Lawson said, a little of the emotion he felt stealing into his controlled voice. “We’ll wait for morning to bury the dead. Tonight, we focus on the living. Do you have any strength left, Mr. Cartwright?”
“If you need it,” Adam said, “I’ll find some, sir.”
“Then see if you can find anything useful to our survival among the wreckage coming ashore, Mr. Cartwright. If my eyes don’t deceive me, that’s a keg of ale over there, and that would certainly be a boon to thirsty men and women!”
“No women here, are there?” Adam smiled.
“Just one, that I’ve seen,” the captain said with a wry smile back. “Don’t ask me why, but there’s one.”
Adam arched an eyebrow, but this was not the time to ponder the inexplicable. There was still work to be done. “I’ll fetch the keg,” he said. He made his way through the waves sweeping the shore, while the captain continued to scan the incoming wreckage for useful items. “It’s intact!” he called when he had the keg secured. As he hefted it to his shoulder, he mused that he and the captain should probably take the first taste of what was inside. After all, didn’t the Good Book say the laborer was worthy of his hire?
He had just set the keg on the sand and turned back to the sea to search for more salvage when he shielded his eyes from the setting sun and stared, unable to believe his eyes. “Captain!” he cried. “One more!” He pointed out to sea, where someone was clinging to a piece of the old ship’s paddle. Joe? Could it possibly be Joe? He raced through the foaming surf with newfound strength.
He soon realized it wasn’t his little brother. Joe was small for a man, but this person was even smaller, a mere boy, in fact. What was a boy doing out here? Like the solitary woman, he should have been in a lifeboat, but inexplicable as it was, here was a boy. Her son, perhaps? If so, what joy she’d feel when she had him again in her arms, the same revitalizing joy, quickly quashed, that Adam himself had felt moments before. As the water deepened, he began to swim, his strong arms and legs eating the distance between him and the boy floating so precariously between life and death.
When he reached him, he realized the boy was barely sensible, which made it easier and safer, as well, to bring him back to shore. Half-drowned boys, as he knew from the time he’d rescued a floundering Hoss from Lake Washoe, could fight like the dickens when they were scared half to death. Of course, this one, being a fraction of Hoss’s size, had less chance of pulling his rescuer down with him, and for that, Adam was grateful.
Weary himself, he didn’t try to swim the child back to shore, but left him on the floating wood until he reached the shallows. Gathering the boy in his arms, he walked, ill-balanced as a drunken man, onto the beach, where the captain met him and attempted to take the child.
“No,” Adam said. “I want . . . to give him . . . to his mother.” Though so spent, it had become important to finish what he had started, to do for another what he wished could be done for him.
Captain Lawson looked puzzled, and then seemed to understand. “This isn’t her son, Mr. Cartwright. This is one of the Davis boys.”
Jolted, Adam took a closer look at the boy resting in his arms. Was this really one of the hooligans who had terrorized the deck of the Golden Dream? He looked more like a golden-haired cherub in this state, but then, Little Joe, too, had always looked angelic in his sleep, however much mischief he had gotten into during the day. For the first time of their brief acquaintance, Adam smiled tenderly at the youngster for the sake of that reminder.
“Let me take him, Mr. Cartwright,” the captain offered, “and you get some rest.” He feared the man who had given him so much aid on ship and shore was about to keel over himself.
Recognizing his own weakness, Adam was in the act of the transferring the boy when Mark stirred. “Mr. Cartwright?” he whimpered in response to the name the captain had used. Opening his eyes, he looked up with expectancy, but his face quickly deflated with disappointment. “Oh, it’s you,” he said. “I thought . . .” Tears began to seep, mixing with the salt water already coating his cheeks.
It hit Adam in a flash. This was his brother’s friend, the one who was always where he shouldn’t be. Wouldn’t he have done the same in an emergency? And wouldn’t Joe have made it his business to protect the little scamp he’d romped with? Suddenly, he knew: they’d been together, and if he’d survived, then surely Joe—his arms tightened around the Davis boy, and he pulled him back from the captain’s arms. “He knows,” he explained to the clearly confused Captain Lawson. “He knows where Joe is!”
Adam carried the boy to a more sheltered part of the beach and set him in the sand. He patted his cheeks until Mark appeared attentive. “Where is the other Mr. Cartwright, boy? He was with you, wasn’t he?”
Mark nodded, and the tears poured even more steadily. “Mr. Joe,” he whimpered.
“Yes, Mr. Joe,” Adam repeated anxiously. “Where is Mr. Joe?”
“Gone!” wailed Mark.
Adam’s heart sank, but he couldn’t give up, not yet. “Gone where?” he asked as he sank to his knees before the child.
Mark shook his head, as if to say he didn’t know; then he choked out, “H-heaven, I guess. He was good enough, leastways to me.” And he began to sob in earnest. “It’s all my fault,” he cried.
“Now, now, son,” the captain said, bending down to pat the small shoulder. “I’m sure that isn’t so. Can you tell us what happened?”
Through stammering lips Mark told them how Mr. Joe had found him below and brought him up to the deck and told him to swim for shore and thrown him out from the ship. “And then . . . and then . . .”
“Yes . . . and then?” Adam pressed him, heart in his throat.
Mark gestured wildly with his hands as he searched for the right words to describe what he’d seen. Failing, he finally said only, “Boom!”
“Dear God,” Adam whispered, blanching whiter than the sand on the pristine beach. “He was still on board.” Rising, he stumbled through the sand.
Captain Lawson came to his side. “I know it sounds hopeless, but he might have survived, and if he could get to one of the lifeboats or even to some piece of debris . . .” He couldn’t finish, for he knew how slim a thread of hope he could realistically offer. He pressed the other man’s shoulder. “Get some rest, Mr. Cartwright. We have a lot to do in the morning.”
Eyes blank, Adam nodded. Mind as blank as his eyes, he had no will to resist as he was led to a place he could lie down. He couldn’t think, wouldn’t let himself think of his baby brother lying in a briny grave. That would come with the morning. From utter exhaustion, he fell into a light and, thankfully, dreamless sleep, knowing he’d wake again to the nightmare all too soon.
Adam woke with the first glow of dawn, and as his drained fellow survivors slept on, he waded through the lapping waves, bare toes curling into the warm sand, and finally faced the ugly truth: Joe was gone. Never again would he see that elfin face as it ran the gamut of every emotion known to man, from mischief to laughter, anger to unbridled joy. His mind fixed on the anger, not Joe’s, but his own. He’d been so angry with his brother, and now for the life of him, he couldn’t have said why. It all seemed so petty now, and most of it was just petty irritation. Except for Lily. Joe hadn’t wanted him to fall in love with Lily, and he’d never understood why. The one time he’d demanded an explanation, Joe hadn’t given a coherent one, and Adam had taken that to mean that the boy had no real reason. Now he wondered, but now he’d never know.
If only he’d been able to read the future. He hadn’t intended to stay angry forever, but he’d thought he had time to indulge the luxury for a few days. He hadn’t. And how he longed for those few days back. Oh, it was Joe’s fault, as much as his own. He knew that, but he was—he’d once been . . . and how his heart exploded at that bombshell change of perspective—the older brother, the one who should have been too mature to squabble with a child. He winced at the hated word, which he’d spewed at Joe with deliberate intent. He’d never use it again, but it was too late to help his brother. Too late, forever, because he’d indulged, just for a few days, in the luxury of anger.
He wouldn’t indulge in it now, not even toward himself, or grief, either. There was still work to be done, if he and the other passengers were to survive. Captain Lawson had said something like that to him in those final moments before he collapsed on the beach, and he reached for duty now as a way to pull himself from painful self-examination. He began to walk the shore with more purpose, searching, as he and the captain had last night, for anything of value to their survival.
Realizing his thirst, he first looked on shore for the keg of ale and prayed he hadn’t slept away his opportunity for the freshest drink available. He sighted it, further up the coast from where he’d slept, and walked to it, licking his lips, though that was a mistake, since they tasted of salt. Lying on top of the keg were a number of large shells, which he assumed had served as drinking vessels. Taking one, he opened the keg, found it about half full and assumed the captain had rationed out its contents, saving some for this morning. Since he’d had none the night before, he dipped in the shell, took what he thought was a fair share and then set out to search the flotsam of the ship.
His only major find was a length of rope, which he thought might be useful, and he was looping it around his arm when he spied something, wedged between two medium-sized boulders just off shore. Thinking at first that it was a suitcase, he headed toward it. If his own shredded clothing was any example of the near-nakedness of the other survivors, surely someone could use whatever was inside. As he neared it, he realized the wooden case was too small to hold even a child’s clothes, and then he knew exactly what it was and began to run through the surf toward a prize that had personal significance. He snatched from the battering waves the traveling chess set his little brother had given him as an early Christmas present. It was cracked on one corner, but otherwise intact. As he clasped it to his chest, his emotions at last gave way, and great, wracking sobs convulsed him while he stood ankle-deep in the foaming waves and all but submerged in grief.
Jolted from his stupor, Adam looked up and saw the captain waving him in to shore, and he somehow managed to put one foot in front of the other in obedience to the summons.
“What do you have there?” Captain Lawson asked as his foremost scavenger waded from the water. “Something useful?”
“A chess set,” Adam answered dully.
The captain laughed. “Not worth the weight to carry. Toss it away.”
Adam clasped it still tighter. “No! It’s mine.”
The captain stared at the man, fearing he had finally lost his reason. “Nevertheless,” he said, keeping his voice calm, “not useful. Let me dispose of it for you.”
Adam gave him a fierce look. “No! It’s mine, I tell you!” He swallowed down his rising bile and stammered out, “A gift . . . from my brother.”
Captain Lawson looked at him then with eyes of compassion. “I see. Well, I think you’ll find it a hindrance, Mr. Cartwright, but keep it, if you will. You’ll have to set it down, however, if you’re going to help bury the dead. You are going to help, aren’t you?”
It took a long moment for duty to register. Then Adam nodded and began to search for a safe place to stow his treasure while he worked. The answer came from the least expected place.
“I’ll hold it for you, Mr. Cartwright,” a small voice piped up.
Adam turned and saw Joe’s little friend and was at first reluctant to give the case to someone he still looked upon as a hooligan, but it was either that or trust that someone else wouldn’t find it and chuck it into the sea. “It was Joe’s,” he said to impress upon the boy its value.
“Yes, sir,” Mark said, looking at it with such reverence that Adam felt a smile tickle his lips, and the hooligan was transformed before his eyes into a guardian angel, albeit one with as endearingly tarnished a halo as that of the cherubic lad who’d given the gift.
He handed over the chess set. “Don’t go prying,” he cautioned and when he saw the boy gulp, added, “You can see it later, when I’m with you.”
Mark grinned then. “Yes, sir. I’ll guard it with my life.”
Adam almost laughed at the overblown statement, but stopped himself in time, just as he would have with a young Little Joe. From that moment, Mark became a representation of his little brother. Joe was gone, but this boy, who had been his friend, would be saved, for Joe’s sweet sake.
Men not fit to dig first stripped the dead to clothe the living, all of whom were in rags, while the able-bodied men salvaged boards from the shipwreck and used them to dig shallow graves in the sand. They weren’t intended to be permanent; in time the dead would be interred in more substantial resting places. For now, the only intent was to shelter them from the elements and protect them for proper burial later. Mrs. Winston, the sole woman among them, used a small length of rope to tie two pieces of wood together to fashion a rough cross. “At least, folks’ll know it’s a sacred place,” she said.
When the burying was done and the clothing distributed among the men, everyone gathered around the captain for further instructions. His first order was to ration out the remaining ale, starting with the woman and young Mark Davis, who looked quite pleased to take his share of what would the day before have been forbidden to a child like him. Neither he nor Mrs. Winston complained when Captain Lawson said they would all have to walk to Manzanillo, but several of the men argued against the plan. “Surely, a boat will be sent for us when the others arrive in town,” one, making himself a spokesman, said.
“That could take several days,” Captain Lawson pointed out, “and since we have no food or fresh water . . .”—he left the sentence unfinished, but all argument ceased.
“How far is it?” the newly humbled spokesman inquired.
“About fifteen miles,” the captain said, “so at least two days. It could be more. Impossible for me to say without knowing the terrain.”
“We can’t go two or more days without water!” another man cried.
“No,” the captain admitted frankly, “but there’s a chance we’ll come across some as we go inland.”
The ragtag band of twenty-five couldn’t leave immediately. Even after raiding the dead washed up on shore, some remained shoeless, so the crew helped bind their feet in strips of canvas from the remnants of the sails their older ship had still carried. Having found a pair of balmorals only slightly too small, Adam was one of the lucky ones with actual shoes. Mrs. Winston was another, although the men’s style looked strange on her slender feet. No children’s bodies had come in with the tide, so Adam bound Mark’s small feet with canvas and made a bargain with the boy. “You carry my chess set, and I’ll carry you,” he suggested, and Mark accepted the commission with a broad grin.
It was no easy trek. The sand was soft, but constantly shifting, and as the sun rose toward its zenith, it began to burn their feet, particularly those bound in canvas. The ones with shoes weren’t much better off, for the sand sifted into their footgear. About four miles into their journey, their way was blocked by a large white rock, and they were forced inland, through jungle and thorns and began to long for the burning sands, which at least didn’t tear at their tender feet and their bodies, scorched first by fire and then by the heat of the sun. By midday everyone was dripping with sweat in the tropical heat and humidity, but their spirits were enlivened when they came across a small pool of water. It didn’t matter that it was dirty and filled with vegetation; it was water, and they drank greedily of the brackish stuff. After a brief rest, the trek began again.
From the sun’s position, Adam estimated it was about 4:00 that afternoon when they stopped for the day. Alone, he might have pressed on, but he was tired and some of the others more so. Due to the increasingly difficult terrain, he’d had to set Mark down, and in those waning hours of the day’s journey, he felt keenly the foolishness of burdening himself with the chess set. He knew he should leave it behind, but no matter how often he told himself, he couldn’t do it. His brother’s final gift? No, only if it meant life or death would he relinquish it. And it gratified him that, in those stretches when he could carry the child, Mark immediately reached for the wooden case. For him, too, it held significance. Together, they’d see it through to Manzanillo.
The travelers made camp and spent another night without food or water, for the slightly saline pool they’d found that morning had been all they’d seen throughout the day, and though the jungle undoubtedly held a wealth of fruit, none grew close to their path. His energy drained by the exertions of the day, Adam slept soundly, dreamlessly, until he was awakened by the captain just prior to dawn.
“I wonder if I could prevail upon your help once more, Mr. Cartwright,” Captain Lawson said.
“Of course,” Adam responded from natural reflex. “What do you need, Captain?”
With a quick glance at the boy sleeping at Adam’s side, the captain motioned for him to get up and follow and Adam did. Once they were alone, he said, “You strike me as the sort of man who knows his way around a wilderness.”
A brief smile lifted one corner of Adam’s mouth. “Not this particular wilderness,” he said, “but I know how to scout an area, if that’s your meaning.”
“It is, precisely,” the captain said, smiling at the man’s quick perception of his intention. He sobered quickly, however. “I’ll be frank, Mr. Cartwright. We can’t go another day in this heat without water.”
“No, I agree.”
“Do you think you could find some?”
“If it’s there to be found, I’ll find it,” Adam promised.
“Good man,” said the captain, clapping the other man’s shoulder. “I’ll send one of my men with you, along with that pail we salvaged from the ship. A pain to carry, I know, but the best thing we have for bringing water back.”
At the words “pain to carry,” Adam instinctively glanced at the burden he’d carried all day yesterday. When he saw that the captain had followed his glance, he shrugged. “I know you think it’s foolish.”
“Unneeded weight, yes,” the captain said, “but I do understand, Mr. Cartwright. You needn’t fear: it’ll be here when you return.”
Adam uttered a short, rough laugh. “I wasn’t afraid. You’d have to fight a certain small tiger before you could toss it out.”
Recognizing the reference to the boy, Captain Lawson also laughed. “I think you’re right. My man Jamison is waiting for you. I’ve told him you’re in charge, and he’ll follow orders.”
Adam nodded. “We’ll leave right away, then. You’ll be here?”
“Yes,” the captain said. “Without knowing the terrain ahead, I think it best we wait for you.”
“Do you think we’ll find water, Mr. Cartwright?” Jamison asked. They’d plowed through thorny chaparral for almost a mile, and he was beginning to think their quest was a fool’s errand.
“It’s Adam. No formality needed here,” Adam said, “and, yes, I’m sure we’ll find water.” He was less sure than he sounded, though he thought their chances were good. He pointed to the mountains towering on their left. “Those are bound to stop the rain, and where there’s rain, there’s water. Trust me, I know, ‘cause I live on the wrong side of the mountains back home.” He flashed a grin. “The water’s definitely on the California side.”
“Take your word for it,” Jamison said. “Me, I never get past San Francisco. Well, plow on, I guess.”
“Plow on,” Adam agreed. It was difficult plowing, as their narrow path weaved between the mountains on one side and impassible cliffs to the seaward side. Adam began to wonder if it might peter out completely. If it did, he saw no hope of walking to Manzanillo. Their only hope, then, would be if the lifeboats reached the small town and sent back a rescue boat. Even so, it would be the custom house boat he’d seen on his eastbound voyage, too small to carry them all, so some would have to wait, probably another day, for it to make a round trip back for them. That made finding water all the more imperative.
As Adam walked back into the sparse camp by the shore, a small figure came running to him, grabbing him around the legs. “Mr. Cartwright!” Mark cried. “Why’d you go off and leave me?”
Adam rested a hand atop the boy’s tow head. “You know why, son, but I’m back now. Everything’s okay.”
As Mark squeezed all the tighter, the other survivors began to congregate around Adam. “Didn’t you find water?” asked a heavy-set man who’d been a petulant complainer throughout most of their trek the day before.
“I did, Mr. Jordan,” Adam wearily assured him. Between the child clinging to his thorn-ravaged body and the man assaulting his ears, he had a hard time even standing up, much less being civil.
The captain worked his way through the press to Adam’s side. “Where is Jamison?” he said.
“Coming,” Adam said. “He insisted on carrying the pail of water . . .”
“At my order,” Captain Lawson interrupted to say.
Adam nodded. “So I understood. Freed of that weight, I could walk faster and thought it best to come ahead, so you could organize for rationing the water.” He managed to peel Mark’s arms loose, but kept his hand on the boy. He lowered his voice as he added, “It’s all there is, sir. Not much more than a puddle, but we drank what was left after filling the pail, so we won’t need a share of what we’ve brought.”
The captain clapped both of Adam’s shoulders; then he turned to the people under his charge. “Water has been found!” he announced. “Please line up as we discussed earlier. Mrs. Winston, you’ll be first, and then this child.” He reached for Mark’s hand, but the boy continued to clutch Adam’s.
“I’ll take care of him,” Adam assured the captain. “Come on, Mark. Let’s take our place in line and get you a drink.”
Jordan rushed toward Jamison as he walked into camp, but another member of the crew quickly restrained him, and the others fell into line, as instructed, giving first place to the woman and the child. Once Mark had received his share, Adam felt free to collapse and so he headed back to the area where he’d slept the night before. There he found the chess set, placed between two small boulders for safekeeping. He was spent and didn’t know how he’d manage to carry it along the difficult path ahead of them, but he was determined to save this last vestige of Joe. Oh, there’d be other things, once he reached the Ponderosa, but somehow he felt Joe’s presence more deeply with this object he’d touched so recently, a gift of love for him and him alone.
He felt a stab of painful regret at that thought. Why hadn’t he shared the gift with Joe? He’d used it, but always with other people. Not once had he offered to play a game with his brother. No point asking why; he knew why, but it all seemed so foolish now, a thought that kept recurring in moments when his mind wasn’t occupied with actual survival. So foolish. He and Joe had spent the whole journey apart, when they could have been enjoying each other. Instead, he’d spent all his time with people he’d never see again, never dreaming that his own brother would be one of them.
Adam jerked himself from his dark reverie. He had no time for this now. Lives depended on his staying alert, moment by moment. He was responsible for Mark, after all . . . and Mrs. Winston . . . and Jamison. Even that lout Jordan. He stopped short of shouldering responsibility for Captain Lawson, who, ultimately, was responsible for them all, but even he needed Adam’s help, didn’t he? Of course, he did. So, that was settled. Adam was needed . . . he needed to be needed . . . not least of all to silence the tormenting thoughts of his little brother, blown into a thousand bits and scattered along the beach, far from the Ponderosa he’d loved and yearned for . . . leaving his big brother behind with nothing but a heart full of regrets.
Just then Mark ran up to him. “Captain says we’re leavin’, Mr. Cartwright.”
Adam almost leaped to his feet, ready to take on his responsibilities and anyone else’s, for that matter. “We’d best get people moving, then, eh, boy?”
Mark, too, was a boy who was wrapping himself in the moment to avoid thinking of those he loved, and he eagerly agreed. “Yes, sir. We got to get ‘em moving.” He reached for the small chess set. “Don’t be forgettin’ this.”
“No.” As he grasped the handle, the torment came throttling back into Adam’s soul, and he knew, however hard he tried, he wouldn’t be able to silence the grief for long. “Here, you carry it,” he said, handing it back to the boy. “I’ll carry you.”
Mark threw out his chest. “I can walk.”
A fleeting smile flickered on Adam’s face. “You’ll have to soon enough. Those wrappings on your feet will take a beating before this day’s done, so best to spare them while you can.” He picked the boy up, grateful that he made no argument. Not so much like Joe, after all, Adam mused.
Everyone’s feet, even those that were shod, took a beating that day. With few exceptions (Jordon, naturally, being one) they bore it stalwartly. The wear and tear on their feet wasn’t the half of what the survivors endured that day. Thorns from the encroaching cactus and chaparral tore at their already ripped clothing and scraped their tender, sunburnt flesh. Sweat dripped from their brows and down their backs, and as the path narrowed and narrowed again, voices rose in protest. How far had Cartwright and that crewman scouted ahead? Not far enough, obviously! They were being led deeper into the jungle, farther from civilization, if Manzanillo could even be called civilization! And who knew if they’d ever find their way out? The rumblings crescendoed into cries to go back, to return to the beach and wait for rescue.
“Will we make it through?” Mark asked, his wrinkled forehead transmitting the fear he’d picked up from the critics, who numbered more than just Jordan and his like by this time.
“We will,” Adam said, though seeds of doubt were starting to sprout in him, as well. He hadn’t had time to scout the entire trail, of course, and at the moment making it all the way to Manzanillo didn’t look promising. Still, going back really wasn’t an option, so they’d have to press on, ignoring the evidence of their eyes and trusting the same merciful Providence that had brought them safe thus far. At least, that was what he told himself in better moments; in worse ones, he, like the others, listened to his sour and increasingly empty stomach.
The change, when it came, was subtle, but Adam, with his expertise as an outdoorsman, perceived it first and whispered to the child he was carrying at the time, “We’re going down, and the path is less overgrown.”
“Down to the town?” Mark whispered back, proud to be sharing secrets.
“Eventually,” Adam said. He had no idea how close they’d be when they finally came out of this jungle, but he was confident now they’d make it.
His prophecy proved true, and as the pathway broadened, everyone soon sensed they were closing in on their goal. The sun began to sink behind the diminishing cliffs to their right, and up ahead a few lights began to glow in the windows of Manzanillo. Their steps quickened. Though long past being able to run, everyone managed to pick up their pace, wanting to reach the town by nightfall. They barely succeeded, as the last rays of sunset lighted their stumbling steps into the plaza.
Captain Lawson halted them in front of the church. “Wait here,” he said. “I’ll inform the company that we’ve arrived and see what provision they can make for us tonight.” A shout of victory went up from the band of twenty-five, and though it was feeble, it was loud enough to bring the townspeople to their doors. Soon the people were pouring out, carrying fruit and wine and bread for the starving travelers.
“Mr. Cartwright?” Mark hesitantly asked. “Will—will Mama be here?”
Still holding the boy in his arms, Adam gave him a squeeze as he said, “I hope so, son.” Feeling the need to make it stronger, he added, “I believe so. There’s a good chance she—and your brother—are here.” He saw tears shimmering in the child’s eyes and set him down, sensing that another consoling squeeze at that moment would have brought forth a flood of pent-up tears.
Across the plaza, he saw Captain Lawson moving toward them, a virtual army at his back, for the word was out. Survivors had arrived! Those who’d been in the lifeboats thronged out to meet the newcomers, to see which of their shipboard friends had made it through the ordeal all had shared, and families were reunited, as women and children found fathers and brothers for whom there’d been no room in the boats.
One woman, clutching a tow-headed twelve-year-old at her side, outran the captain, calling out, “Mark! Mark! Are you here?”
“Mama!” Mark screamed and took off, dropping the wooden case he’d carried so far.
Adam bent to pick it up and when he rose, he saw his young friend in his mother’s arms, grimy face and sweaty head being smothered in kisses. Then he saw Mark turn to throw his arms around his twin brother, and Adam felt a sharp twinge of jealousy, for there would be no such reunion for him. He had no brother to embrace. He and Joe had never been as close as identical twins, of course. In fact, he hadn’t felt as close to Joe as he did to Hoss. The difference in their ages, as well as temperaments, he supposed. Now, he’d change that if he could, but like so many other good intentions, this one had come too late. The unwelcome thoughts he’d kept submerged all day came surging back.
The captain made his way toward the cluster of former passengers who had no one to reunite with and gathered them around him. “I’m afraid there are no rooms remaining in the hotel,” he said, “but I understand a number of the townspeople have opened their homes to you. It may take time to sort out, but I’m confident we’ll find a bed for each of you.”
“Señor Captain,” said a man in his mid-forties, who wore a long brown robe, tied with a rope for a belt.
“Yes, Father, or is it Brother?” Captain Lawson said.
“I am Padre Diego,” the priest said. “We can take a few men into the brothers’ domicile, if it will help. The beds are not as comfortable as those in the village, but they will find them quiet and peaceful.”
Quiet and peaceful. Adam could think of nothing he needed more. “I’ll stay there,” he volunteered. He’d forgotten that quiet and peaceful was the last thing he wanted.
Silent as a panther, Adam padded down the narrow corridor in his bare feet. Exhaustion had ensured he fell asleep almost as soon as he lay on the spartan cot in a room scarcely large enough to hold it, but it hadn’t kept him in blessed oblivion for long. Unlike Joe, he wasn’t normally given to nightmares, but this had been a particularly hellish one. His brother, trapped on the burning deck, was crying reproachfully, “Why did you leave me?” Then, just as the flames began to lick at his curly head, the ship exploded and—Adam awoke. Thankfully, he hadn’t screamed and wakened the sleeping friars, but he had to get out of that room. So much for peace and quiet.
Still wanting not to disturb anyone, he made his way out of the dormitory and into the church. He took a seat in one of the pews and gave in to the waking nightmare he’d avoided all day. No one needed him now. Joe had, and he hadn’t been there for his brother. That was what that dream was about, of course. He’d failed his brother when he needed him most, and he didn’t know how to live with that. And how would he face Pa? He’d gone east to find Pa’s baby son and bring him safely home, and he’d failed miserably. Maybe he should just stay in Manzanillo and let Pa think they’d both died in that shipwreck.
It wouldn’t work, of course; too many people knew he had survived, and he wasn’t seriously contemplating it. Yet, as much as he wanted to be home, to go there without Little Joe was unthinkable. At least, he didn’t want to think about it; yet in the silence of the church, all he could do was think. Well, not think, exactly, for he hadn’t had a coherent thought since he woke, but he could feel. Oh, God, how he could feel! And how he wished he couldn’t. He bowed his head on the pew in front of him and tried to hang on to his sanity.
He had no idea how long he stayed there before he became aware of the hand resting on his bent neck and slowly raised his head to stare into the face of Padre Diego. “Padre,” he said. “Am I intruding here?”
“No one intrudes here,” the priest said. “All are welcome.” He moved to the pew ahead of Adam and sat down. “You are troubled, my son.” It was a statement, not a question.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Adam said, “or, rather, I could, but not . . . peacefully.”
“You have been through much.”
“Much,” Adam agreed. Too much, he thought.
“But that is not what troubles you,” the priest said. Again, a statement.
Adam smiled wryly. “Do you read minds, Padre?”
Padre Diego shook his head. “Not minds—souls. I have met many troubled souls here, and you have the same haunted look in your eyes. May I not offer you some balm?”
“Is there balm in Gilead?” Adam muttered.
“Jeremiah’s question,” said the priest. “You know the Holy Scriptures, my son.”
“A passing acquaintance,” Adam said with a shrug. “Four years of college chapel. How is it you speak English so well, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Padre Diego chuckled. “You are assuming I am Mexican. I am now, but I was born in California, where I grew up speaking both English and Spanish. I came here six years ago.”
“For such a time as this?” Adam asked, calling up another Scripture from his chapel days.
The priest shuddered involuntarily. “I pray there will not be many such times as this. So much loss of life. More than 200, I am told.”
Adam shook his head. He hadn’t known, hadn’t thought to ask. Two hundred lives lost, but he’d thought only of one, as, perhaps, all of them who’d lost someone had done.
“But we were speaking of you and the trouble in your soul,” Padre Diego said, and then asked, “Are you Catholic, my son?”
“A pity,” said the priest with a sympathetic look. “I could then offer you the comfort of the confessional. Still, I could listen as a man, a friend, even as a father, though not in the religious sense. It might help.”
Adam laughed bitterly. “A dress rehearsal?”
“I do not understand, my son.”
“Telling you first what I must tell my father when I return home,” Adam explained. “It might help, but I shouldn’t burden you with my sins, Padre.”
“To carry such burdens is my vocation,” the priest said. “If you were Catholic, you would know this.”
“I remember,” Adam said softly. At the priest’s quizzical look, he explained, “My stepmother—his mother—was Catholic.”
“My brother.” Adam almost choked on the words. “I-I lost him in the shipwreck.”
The priest laid his hand on Adam’s arm. “Tell me of him.”
Adam did, leaving out nothing of the pettiness of his quarrels with Joe, making it clear that the breach hadn’t been serious, that he’d always intended to mend it, that he hadn’t meant to abandon his brother, but in the end had failed him. When he had talked himself dry, the priest nodded in understanding. “You did not heed Paul’s advice or, perhaps, your chapel did not teach that Scripture,” he said with a smile that was both teasing and tender.
Adam looked puzzled for a moment and then grimaced. “‘Do not let the sun go down upon your wrath?’” he queried. “I didn’t need chapel for that one. My father drilled that into me from boyhood up. You’re right, of course; that was my sin, hanging onto wrath when I should have let it go.”
The priest spread his hands, as if to say the conclusion was obvious, but there was no condemnation in the gesture. “But you have told me only of your fault, my son, and of his. Do you have no good memories of your brother?”
Startled, Adam protested, “Of course! Many.”
With a light laugh, the priest said, “Then tell me one. What is the memory you cherish most?”
It took Adam no time at all, and the muscles in his face relaxed as he said, “His laughter. Joe was always laughing, and it was so infectious, you couldn’t help laughing with him, even when he was at his most maddening. And he could be that, too, but his anger was always a flash in the pan, over and done with. He had no problem with Paul’s advice.”
“Ever?” The priest smiled his skepticism.
“Well, less than his older, supposedly wiser brother,” Adam said with a sigh.
The smile faded, and the sigh was copied. “Focus not on the fault, my son; you have sorrowed enough over that. If you were Catholic, I would give you penance and it would be done.”
“Then treat me as if I were!” Adam cried, and the priest could hear his desperation.
Silently praying for wisdom, Padre Diego laid his hand atop Adam’s head. “I shall do as you ask, my son. Paul gives other advice in Philippians.” He paused a moment, for it had been years since he’d quoted that verse in English. Then he continued, “‘Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report . . . think on these things.’ If you will find solace, my son, take this as penance: go now to the seashore, listen to the lap of the waves and think of such things. Think of your brother and yourself in the good times. Let the grief and the tears come, but let them be gentle, without reproach. Will you do this?”
Adam’s chin was quivering, but he managed to say, “I’ll try.”
“Good. Go now, even before the sun wakes.” With his hand still on Adam’s head, the priest spoke a blessing over him and released him. “Stay as long as you need,” he said. “We keep regular hours in the refectory, but we will find you something to eat whenever you return.” With that, he rose and left Adam alone.
Adam didn’t hesitate. Still barefoot and clad only in the muslin nightshirt one of the friar’s had loaned him, he left the church and walked into the predawn darkness, across the plaza to the very edge of the sea and, settling on the sand, drew his knees up to his chin. As he listened to the ebb and flow of the waves, he thought, as best he was able, of good things and good times with his brother. Slowly, the grief he’d fought so hard to submerge, rose like an incoming tide, and he wept, not the hard, wracking sobs of that first condemning explosion of grief he’d felt when he found the chess set, but slow, gentle tears that brought, in their wake, healing.
As the rising sun bathed the mountains behind him, he heard the town stirring to life after the long night and felt his spirit rise, as well, out of the long, dark night of his soul. Suddenly aware that he was not in a fit state of dress for public view, he jumped up and ran back to the church with light feet and a lighter heart.
The plaza rippled with excitement, not simply because it was Christmas Eve. This was the day the survivors of the Golden Dream had longed for, the day they would leave Manzanillo, and there could not be a better Christmas gift than that. The ship was already in the bay, making whatever adjustments necessary for the unexpected extra passengers, and though accommodations would be tight, they didn’t care. They’d gotten used to crowded quarters in the humble homes they’d shared the last four days, and luxury didn’t matter anymore, except to a few habitual complainers like Mr. Jordan. They were going home! Even the ones whose homes weren’t in San Francisco could hardly wait to see that city, where they would, at last, feel safe on American soil.
Adam wasn’t quite as eager as the rest. He’d found peace here in the Mexican village, and feared he might lose it again, away from the quiet solace of the church and the godly council of the men who lived there. San Francisco, to him, only meant saddening Pa and Hoss with the tragic news of Little Joe’s death. No, he wasn’t eager to face that, but he was ready. He had passed through the storm, both literally and figuratively, and knew that one day the clouds would break and dawn would come for all the Cartwrights. For all but one, that is.
Thoughts of his brother sent another stab of guilt through Adam. Little Joe had so longed to be home for Christmas, and if they’d left Boston immediately, as he had wanted, they’d no doubt have made it. No shipwreck, just the joy of being together as a family on that special day. But Adam had insisted that it wasn’t polite to pay so short a visit, so they’d stayed with the Pontpiers through Thanksgiving. It had seemed reasonable at the time, but Joe had paid for it with his life. Adam shook the accusing thoughts away. Think on good things, he reminded himself, and the peace settled back in place.
Finally, the call came to board, and the survivors began to make their way up the gangplank. Adam stood back to let others go first, as did a number of other men, although he noticed that nincompoop Jordan pushing past women, children and family units to ensure he got a decent stateroom. Adam didn’t care if his quarters ended up being in the cargo hold, so long as he got on board. He set down the light burden he carried to wait his turn. The drawstring bag the friars had given him didn’t hold much. Having taken a vow of poverty, they hadn’t much to give, but it held a change of clothes, the shoes he’d taken off a dead man, a fresh loaf of bread from the refectory ovens and, of course, the chess set. He had a feeling he and Pa would prefer it to any other in future games.
He watched the line of passengers file up the gangplank, a painstakingly slow process since each man, woman and child had to be assigned a place, and occasionally adjustments had to be made to keep families together as much as possible. Finally, though, he felt it was time to take his place in line, for while he was willing to sleep in the cargo hold, it wasn’t his preference, and even his association with Padre Diego and the friars hadn’t made him saintly enough to take last place in boarding the ship.
As he was waiting his turn to mount the gangplank, he became aware of some commotion behind him in the line. Turning, he saw a Mexican peasant pressing through the Anglo men, stopping before each one to make some sort of query, receiving a shake of the head from each one and then moving on to the next. As the man drew closer, Adam jerked to attention, for what the man was saying to each man he passed was “Señor Adam? Adam, señor? Señor Adam?”
He was stunned into silence, but then thrust his hand high above his head and called, “I’m Adam.” Realizing the man probably spoke no English, he switched to Spanish. “Yo soy Adam!”
The man pushed others aside to get to Adam. “Usted es Adam?” he asked in an excited voice. When Adam said he was, the man held tightly to his arm and said, “Venga conmigo, señor!”
“Come with you? Why? I mean, porqué?”
“Es importante, señor!” Seeing Adam’s skeptical look, he said the words that, for Adam, changed everything: “Hay un muchacho.”
The man rattled on in rapid-fire Spanish, but Adam’s swirling mind would not move past that first sentence. “There is a boy,” the man had said, and from the few words he caught after that, apparently that boy had asked for him by name. Or maybe not him. He wasn’t the only man named Adam, of course, but there wasn’t another among the survivors, as far as he knew, and the man had used the Anglicized version of his name, so it must be an English-speaking Adam the man sought. But what boy would ask for him? The Davis boys had already boarded with their mother, and he knew no others, except . . . no, it wasn’t possible. He’d come to grips with that loss; he couldn’t bear to have hope raised again, only to be crushed again. Still, hay un muchacho. Foolish or not, he had to know. “Llévame a él,” he said. “Take me to him.”
The man, all smiles now, led him past the few remaining passengers who hadn’t already pushed by them and moved across the plaza. Adam naturally assumed he was being taken to some casa in the village. When he saw, instead, that the man led him through the plaza and started to head out of town, he stopped and looked back toward the dock. Here in the village, it would take only a few minutes to check out this boy who had called for an Adam, but leaving town would take longer, and there was every chance the ship would leave without him. He’d made his peace with going home and hated to risk what another squelched hope might do to him. But hay un muchacho. How could he not answer that call? With a crisp nod of determination, he started forward again and didn’t balk, even when the man led him into trackless jungle.
While the journey wasn’t as difficult as the one Adam had endured after the shipwreck, he was glad he’d decided to wear the sandals provided by the friars and save those toe-pinching balmorals to “dress up” for supper aboard ship. Though he still thought of it as a jungle, there wasn’t as much thorny chaparral here, and while he could see the mountains, they weren’t hemming in the path the way they had north of Manzanillo. By comparison, this was an easy walk, but it seemed endless, as journeys of unknown length always did, especially when a man was anxious about what he’d find—or, in this case, not find—at its end.
More than once Adam cursed himself for a fool. He’d heard the ship’s horn sounding and knew he’d lost that chance to go home, and it would be ten days, at least, before another ship docked at Manzanillo. It might be as much as a month, since normally ships only stopped there that often. In the meantime, news of the wreck of the Golden Dream would reach San Francisco five days from now with the returning survivors and would make front-page headlines in the Alta California, and that would be picked up by the Territorial Enterprise, causing untold distress for Pa and Hoss. Surely, there’d be a list of survivors, and surely, he’d be on it. That should give them some relief, but Joe’s name wouldn’t be there, and his family would learn of his loss in the worst possible way, the stark black and white of impersonal newsprint.
He could have spared them that, at least, if he just hadn’t listened to the clarion call of those three tantalizing words, but fool that he was, he had to answer the call. It was probably all for nothing. Joe was dead. He might just as well turn around and walk back to town, except that, too, was futile now. The ship was gone, and he’d be left to beg his daily bread, since all his money had gone down with the Golden Dream. Oh, Padre Diego and the friars would probably take him in again. They were kind and generous men, but they were also poor men. It wasn’t right that they should have to share their meager resources again, especially with a man too foolish to get on the boat for home. And when on earth would they get to wherever they were going? “Cuán lejos?” he asked. He felt and sounded irritated, though more with himself than the man who’d led him out here in the middle of nowhere.
“No lejos, señor.”
Not far, huh? Adam wasn’t sure he could believe that, but at this point, what choice did he have?
It was further than he would have described as “not far,” but the foliage slowly began to thin until it finally gave way to a manmade clearing in the deciduous trees. Planted in pasture grass, it was scampered over by a small herd of goats, and at its far edge sat a native hut. From the open doorway escaped three stairstep boys, who came running toward the man at Adam’s side.
Adam sucked in a wincing breath. A father with his three sons, a sharp reminder of what the Cartwrights had once been. Why couldn’t it have been two? No, that would remind him of what the Cartwrights now were. Four, then. Dear God, why not bless the man with four or five? Of course, he might not have been able to feed that many. Adam shook himself loose from the storm of unbidden thoughts and steeled himself to face the reunion of father and sons.
A woman came to the doorway, spoon in hand, but remained there, and the homecoming no longer reminded him of his own family. Except for a few brief years with Marie and even fewer with Inger, there had been no woman waiting at the Cartwright door. And they weren’t waiting now, except for Little Joe. No, that wasn’t right. Ben’s three wives weren’t waiting for Joe; they’d already greeted him, unless he was in some land of limbo. Didn’t the Catholics believe that unbaptized souls stayed in limbo, instead of being admitted to heaven? No! He refused to believe that had been his brother’s fate. Feeling perilously close to losing his reason, Adam ended the reunion with a biting “Hay un muchacho?”
“Sí, señor. Venga.” The abashed father pulled free of his sons’ embrace and headed toward the hut. He entered with a chatter of words for his wife, and she responded excitedly with chatter of her own.
Adam couldn’t follow the rapid stream of words in the foreign tongue, and frankly, he didn’t care. He was focused on one thing, seeing this mysterious muchacho and laying to rest, once and for all, the ghost of his little brother. The man motioned him forward, indicating a small room off the main living area. Entering, Adam saw at a glance that the person lying in the double bed was Anglo, for his curly hair, beneath a circling bandage was lighter than a Mexican’s would have been. His torso was also heavily bandaged, and he was lying on his side, with his back turned.
Adam moved closer and bent over the figure in the bed. The face was battered and, like his back, blistered by the sun, possibly even singed by fire, but he’d have recognized it anywhere, in any condition. He whispered breathlessly what must surely be the three most glorious words in any language. “Hay un muchacho. Oh, my God, there is a boy!” And if three words had been glorious, what superlative was enough to hint at the impact of that one? Is, not was. With trembling hands, he cupped the face of his little brother—alive, here, with him still. By what wonder, he had yet to discover.
“Señor? Le conoce?” the man who had brought him here anxiously asked.
Did he know him? Of course, he did! Adam laughed for pure joy. “Sí, sí. Le conozco. Es mi hermanito.” My little brother, risen from the dead, he thought and blessed the boy’s overworked guardian angels.
“Su hermanito? Gloria a dios, señor!”
“Yes,” Adam breathed. He was a man who carried his faith lightly, speaking less comfortably of it than his father or either of his brothers, but at this moment his heart was full of praise to God, and he was glad someone had voiced it.
More than one someone, for the room filled with excited voices echoing the praise and saying—well, he had no idea what, but knew that they were sharing his joy. He felt like he was sealed within a giant bubble, just him and his resurrected little brother, while the rest of the world swirled in the mist beyond the thin membrane. And he was content to have it so.
The hubbub died down, as the mother shushed her children with reminders that someone was enfermo. Joe, of course, Adam realized as she shooed them out. The sheltering bubble softly popped, and he began to explore his brother’s injuries.
“Tenga cuidado, señor,” the man behind him said urgently.
“What? Sí, sí.” Impatiently, Adam waved aside the concern. Of course, he would be careful.
Gently, he lifted the bandages and examined the purpled flesh beneath them. The head wound was brutal and probably meant that Little Joe was not just sleeping, as he’d hoped, but unconscious. He must have been semi-alert at some point, however, or he could not have called his brother’s name. Adam was full of questions, but though he spoke Spanish fairly well, he wasn’t familiar with even simple medical terminology. It wasn’t the kind of thing the vaqueros from whom he’d learned the language had much need to discuss.
As his probing hands moved down Joe’s body, he saw more signs of the battering his brother had taken. He paused over the viciously mottled ribs and looked up to ask, “Roto?” At least, he thought he remembered how to say “broken.”
“Creo que sí,” the man said, his face concerned.
“He needs a doctor,” Adam said to himself and then to the man, in Spanish.
The man began awkwardly to apologize, saying something about there being no money for a doctor and having done the best he could.
Adam stopped him with a raised palm. “Perdóname, señor,” he said, suddenly realizing he hadn’t even thanked the man for what he had done, and in halting Spanish, choosing his words carefully, he began to do so. The sacrifices this poor family had made to care for his brother were evident, now that he was awakened to them. They had obviously given up their very bed for Little Joe, for there was only one. Goodness only knew where the three boys slept. A trundle stored under their parents’ bed, perhaps, as he and Hoss had once had under Pa’s. And here Adam had not even asked the man’s name. “Como se llama?” he asked.
“Manuel Mendoza, señor,” the man said, smiling. He motioned his wife forward. “Y mi esposa, Margarita.”
Adam smiled and nodded in greeting. “Y sus hijos?”
Manuel beamed his pride in his boys. “Mateo, Marcos y Lucas.”
“Y Juan?” Adam asked, laughing, as he pointed to Margarita’s protruding belly.
Manuel began to laugh, too. “Sí, sí, pero creo que cuatro apóstales serán suficientes.”
Adam sensed that, for the blushing wife, namesakes for four apostles would also be enough. He felt a sudden stab of pain, remembering a long-past conversation with Joe about the Davis twins, who were also named for two of the gospel writers. Now, cherishing every reminder of his little brother, he regretted saying he was glad there weren’t four of them. “Somos tres,” he said, pointing first to himself and then to Little Joe. “Yo y Joselito y Hoss.” Seeing the puzzled look Manuel exchanged with his wife, Adam chuckled and translated his other brother’s name. “Caballo,” he said, “porque es un hombre tan grande como un caballo.” It was the simplest explanation he could give for Hoss’s nickname.
Everyone laughed then. Even the little boys giggled, and they were no longer strangers of diverse culture, but simply people who shared common bonds of family and, though the Mexican family did not yet realize it, of poverty. Adam had known it as a child and, having lost all he owned in the shipwreck, had felt its familiar pinch in Manzanillo. For himself, he wanted nothing more than what the generous men of the church had already provided, but for his brother, consigned to the deep and brought back to life by a merciful God . . . Joe should want for nothing human hand could provide, and if further divine intervention were needed, Adam wasn’t too proud to ask it again. Yes, he’d move heaven and earth to see that Joe survived. He repeated again that his brother needed a doctor and stood to leave in search of one.
Manuel quickly communicated that the hour was late; the doctor would not come so late in the day. In fact, he did not think he would come at all to such a place as this. They would have to take Joselito to el doctor, if the boy could travel. He begged the señor to stay the night with them, though they had nothing worthy of such a fine gentleman.
Adam hated to impose, but since he still had no assets of his own, he had little choice but to accept the offer gratefully, and he did, with one stipulation. “Llamame Adam,” he insisted. “Somos amigos.”
Manuel and Margarita exchanged a hesitant glance, for the cultural divide between Mexican and gringo, rich and poor, was strongly rooted. Then an almost imperceptible nod passed between them, and the divide dissolved in friendship.
Adam had expected a simple meal of tortillas and the ubiquitous frijoles that were a main feature of every meal he had eaten in Manzanillo, but he had forgotten that this was Noche Buena. On this night, even the poorest Mexican tried to make a special feast, and this supper was no exception. A goat had been slaughtered, and its tender, savory meat filled tamales, served with a spicy red sauce. In contrast, a dish of field greens, stewed with potatoes and cactus and a few shrimp, was served over rice and topped with a green mole sauce. The red and green colors of the two dishes heightened the festive Christmas spirit.
“Romeritos revoltijos,” Margarita said in answer to Adam’s question about what the green dish was. His Spanish wasn’t up to a clear translation of that, but he gladly partook of the delicacy, sopping the juices up with a tortilla. There was a bean soup, as well, which Adam soon gathered had been prepared with Joe in mind. The beans would probably be too much for him, but the broth would be warm and nourishing, and Adam once again thanked Margarita for her thoughtful care of his brother.
“De nada,” she said, but it was far from nothing in his eyes. He remembered the Catholic tradition of a feast after midnight mass. Marie, with her French heritage, had called it le reveillon, and had cherished its celebration. That this family would share it with him and even serve it earlier in the evening for his convenience was a great honor. They’d probably given up the midnight mass for his sake and Joe’s, as well, and for a devout Catholic family to do that touched him deeply.
As they ate, he learned how Manuel had found his brother and brought him home. Three days ago he had taken his sons to the seashore, some two miles away, to fish for shrimp in preparation for the romeritos dish. Afterwards, as the boys were splashing in the waves, they had come upon the injured boy stretched on the sand. How long he had lain there, Manuel could not guess, but long enough for the sun to have blistered his back. He guessed, of course, that the boy must have come from one of the great passenger ships that passed so often, but in his isolated location, he had not heard of the loss of the Golden Dream and assumed the boy had been washed overboard in some accident. Leaving his three sons to watch over the stranger, he had come back for a cart and brought him here. From that time to this, he had been caring for the boy, fearing to leave him and hoping, at least, to learn his name before going to town to report his discovery.
Joselito, as he now knew the boy was called, had been badly injured. He was burning with fever, regaining consciousness at long intervals, for only minutes at a time, and not until late yesterday evening had he begun to cry out for Adam. Then a man from a neighboring farm had passed by this morning and told him of the shipwreck, and he had decided to go to Manzanillo and seek among the survivors for this man Adam. When he came into town and saw the passengers boarding the ship, he’d become frantic, fearing he had come too late and would never find the man he sought. “Pero Dios es bueno,” he said, gazing upward.
“Sí, bueno,” Margarita agreed, making the sign of the cross over her breast. The three stairsteps chimed in with their echo of God’s goodness.
Adam still found it difficult to speak of such things, but a shiver ran down his spine. Minutes more and he’d have been gone. He’d have boarded that ship and left his Joselito behind, and the separation would have been, at best, long and, at worst, eternal. Alone and injured, among strangers whose language he could not speak, Little Joe might never have found his way back to them, if he’d even survived. Manuel had arrived in the barest nick of time. Did any man need more miracle than that?
In the room beyond the doorway, a celebration had gone on, as simple gifts were exchanged and songs were softly sung to welcome the Christ Child to the world. It brought back sweet memories of early Christmases for Adam, when the gifts had been simple, homemade toys like the ones the three Mendoza boys exulted over and the entertainment had been acapella carols, followed by a bowl of popcorn and Pa reading the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, as he still did each Christmas. He’d been invited to join the family celebration, of course, with apologies that there was no gift for him. Apologies! When they’d given him the best Christmas gift of his life? He wouldn’t hear of it and tried to convey what he was feeling, discovering once again that what he’d thought was a pretty good command of Spanish was inadequate to express all he wanted to say. They had understood, at least, the gist of what he meant, and they expressed, each in his or her own way, that, indeed, Joselito was a Christmas gift from God Himself.
Adam had tried to decline the offer of the trundle bed, but hospitable as ever, Manuel and Margarita had insisted on bedding their entire family on the floor in the other room. Remembering how he and little Hoss had shared a pallet by the fire when guests had to stay over, he hadn’t put up much argument. It was how things were done in humble families like the Mendozas and the Cartwrights.
In honor of their sacrifice, he’d made an attempt to sleep, once the celebration had subsided, but had eventually abandoned the effort in favor of sitting on the edge of the bed, holding his brother’s hand. Probably more for his own sake than Joe’s, although his brother seemed less restless whenever he was touched. No surprise there. He always had, even as a small boy, when Adam used to soothe him out of bad dreams by rubbing his chest. Given Joe’s injuries, he hesitated to do that now and settled for his father’s habit of circling a thumb on the back of his brother’s hand, in hopes that Joe might think he was Pa and be drawn into full consciousness. So far, it wasn’t working, and it was a growing concern.
As Adam yawned a third time in succession, he decided to give sleep another try. He was just slipping his hand from Joe’s when the boy’s fingers closed on his, and his heart leaped with hope. Joe was aware of his presence, then—a very good sign! “All right, little brother,” he whispered as he started the thumb circles again. “I’ll stay, but it’s time you woke up.” He put a little more pressure into the movement. In the dim light of predawn, he saw frown lines appear of his brother’s forehead. His thumb grew heavier.
In another quarter hour, Joe began to moan and twist uncomfortably on the grass-stuffed mattress, and Adam encouraged him to wake, gently at first and then with increasing insistence. “Come on, boy,” he urged. “Do you want to let the sun beat you up?” In the darkness Adam shook his head at his own stupidity. When had Joe not wanted to let the sun beat him up? He wouldn’t get through to the boy that way! He reached up and began to lightly slap his brother’s cheeks, saying again and again, “Come on, Joe; wake up. Hoss will steal all the biscuits.” What he wouldn’t give for Hop Sing’s biscuits right about now! Preferably, without a side of frijoles.
Whether it was the threat to his biscuits or the persistent slapping, Little Joe’s eyes fluttered and closed, fluttered and closed, and the moaning increased. “I’m sorry, little buddy,” Adam said, “but you’ve got to wake up!”
The eyes opened again and stayed open, staring into the anxious hazel ones peering back into his. “Ad-Adam?” Little Joe asked tentatively.
A grin stretched across Adam’s face. “I’m here, little buddy.”
Tears began to slip down Joe’s cheeks as he stretched his trembling left hand toward his brother’s face. “Adam,” he murmured. He smiled softly, and once again his eyes started to close.
“No, no, no,” Adam said, slapping the damp cheeks. “Not yet; not yet. Stay with me, boy.”
Little Joe gazed back at him with reproach, but the very irritation seemed to make him more alert. Then commotion erupted beyond the open doorway, and the three stairsteps burst through with shouts of “Joselito está despierto!”
That brought a look of puzzlement to Joe’s face, but it was semi-alert puzzlement. “Where?” he asked. In the background Margarita was hushing her three rowdy boys with reminders that Joselito was not well.
Adam chuckled and gave the simplest answer possible, “Mexico,” which produced a slight shake of the head. A mistake. Little Joe winced and reached for his bandaged head. Adam gently pulled the hand back. “You’re hurt, Joe,” he said. “Remember?”
Again, the head shook; again, a mistake. “It’s all right; it’s all right,” Adam soothed, placing his hands on both sides of his brother’s head to still it. “You’re going to be all right, little buddy.” And though Little Joe continued to frown, his older brother was all smiles.
“Lo siento, señor,” Margarita said as she was herding the boys out of the room.
“No es nada, señora,” Adam assured her. There was, after all, every reason to celebrate, and the boys’ commotion had helped keep his brother awake.
Manuel came in, again expressing thanks to God for returning Joselito to them. Then he asked hesitantly if Adam still wanted to take his brother to the doctor, reminding him that it was el día de Navidad.
Christmas Day. Adam hadn’t put together until now that he’d be asking for the doctor’s help on a holiday. To Dr. Martin, back home, it wouldn’t have mattered. Sure, he’d regret the disruption of his own plans, but he’d come, for any patient, not just close friends like the Cartwrights. From the little he’d seen of the doctor in Manzanillo, he suspected he was a man of different caliber. He asked again if Manuel was sure the doctor would not come to them.
“No sin much dinero, señor,” he was somberly told.
Money. Of course. That’s what it would take to lure the doctor into the jungle, especially on Christmas, and he had no more of it than the couple who had so generously opened their home to two strangers. So, he’d have to get Joe to Manzanillo somehow. Probably tomorrow.
“Let’s wait awhile,” Adam said, in Spanish he hoped he’d translated accurately. He wanted time to evaluate his brother’s condition and how well he might tolerate the journey. It couldn’t be an easy one for someone injured. Manuel had mentioned a cart. Perhaps he could borrow that, but the journey would still be difficult for his brother. He thought Joe would benefit from a day’s rest and some nourishment before facing that. Margarita had saved back some of the bean soup for Joe, and he hoped his brother would be up to eating it. He obviously wasn’t even up to staying awake, and Adam decided to let him drift off. He’d wake him in another hour, God willing.
Little Joe wasn’t a bit happy with his brother for waking him again. He didn’t understand why, when there were no chores waiting. He did, however, favor the tea the woman brought him. Though it didn’t taste like what he was used to, it was sweet. Sweet was good. Sleep was better. He soon closed his eyes, and mercy upon mercy, Adam let him. His dreams were troubled, however, and he didn’t much mind when Adam woke him again, though he couldn’t remember what had disturbed him so much that sleep was no longer a haven.
Adam stayed by his brother’s side throughout the afternoon, waking him every couple of hours. Thankfully, he could, for Joe was showing obvious signs of concussion. He had a raging headache, and he seemed confused about where he was and how he’d gotten here. Though Adam didn’t question him much, he sensed that his brother had little recollection of the ship’s fire or the explosion that had hurled him into the water. Loss of memory wasn’t uncommon with concussion, he knew from personal experience, and much as he wanted to learn how his brother had survived, what he had endured during the days they’d been apart, he realized Joe just couldn’t tell him, at least not yet. A couple of times he persuaded Joe to eat a little of the bean broth, but as usual when he was unwell, his brother had little appetite.
By nightfall, he thought it safe to let Joe sleep through the night. He wanted the boy well rested for tomorrow’s journey. Exhausted himself, he pulled out the trundle and lay down. When Joe’s hand dropped over the side of his bed, he instinctively took it and fell asleep, lightly clasping it in his own.
He slept past dawn, proving how tired he was, for the mattress was anything but comfortable. As he sat up, yawning and stretching, he looked first to his brother. Joe was still sleeping, though somewhat restless. Wanting to be with him when he woke, Adam slipped out to take care of his necessary morning business. At least, he tried to slip out. The whole family, with the exception of the youngest, had risen before him, so there was some boyish snickering by Mateo and Marcos, quickly rebuked by their mother, as he escaped out the front door with a slightly embarrassed smile.
When he returned from the nearest sheltering foliage, he met Manuel in the yard and asked if it would be possible to borrow the cart to take his brother to the doctor.
“Seguro, señor Adam.” No amount of urging had convinced Manuel to drop the señor in favor of just Adam, although his brother had been Joselito from the moment his name was known. Of course, he’d been simply muchacho, not señor, before that. To them, Little Joe was but a boy—and how Joe would have hated that! But he was their boy, having been adopted by the Mendoza family, or perhaps in a fashion born into it, not by the water and blood of natural birth, but by water and fire.
Manuel said that he would have to milk the goats first, but they could be ready to leave any time after that. And, of course, the señor and especially Joselito would need to eat first.
Especially Joselito. Adam smiled slightly at the preference given his younger brother, but since he felt the same way himself, the smile was only a flicker. “Va con nosotros, entonces?” he asked.
“Claro que sí.” Of course, he would come with them.
Adam warmly thanked him. For any working man, it meant sacrifice to give up a day’s work, but what a gift to be guided back to Manzanillo. Adam thought he could find the way, so long as he didn’t lose sight of the sun to point his way north, but there’d been no clear path through the jungle, and he might have gone astray. For Joe’s sake, he’d be glad to have Manuel along.
Breakfast was some sort of porridge, Joe’s portion well thinned with goat’s milk, to make it easier for him. He still didn’t eat much, but Adam coaxed several bites down before his brother completely balked. Shortly after the meal, they got underway. Just before loading his brother into the cart, Adam told him they were going to town and was rewarded with a spark of interest. Knowing his little brother’s aversion to doctors, he’d avoided that word altogether, rightly judging that a trip to town would be much more enticing. The cart was small, used more to take produce to market than to transport a man, but even with his legs folded up, Joe fell asleep again almost before they left the yard. Manuel led the burro and his oldest son Mateo scampered, proud and pleased, at his side, while his younger brothers wept into their mother’s skirts, whimpering because they couldn’t go, too.
Adam was surprised when Manuel led them to the west, instead of across the meadow, the way they’d originally come. When he questioned it, however, his Mexican friend laughed and said, “No para el carro.”
Adam shrugged. He, too, had thought that route would be rough going for the cart. “Hay otro camino?”
“Sí, sí, por el mar.” Manuel went on to explain that he had brought Adam by the quickest route before, but it was only possible for men on foot. While it was longer to go by way of the seashore, it was better “para Joselito.”
Adam agreed. Anything that was better for Joselito was better for him, too.
Little Joe did not agree. When he woke and heard the roar of waves racing onto the sand, he became agitated and cried out for his brother. “Don’t go in the water,” he pleaded. “Don’t take us in the water, Adam!”
“No, no, of course not,” Adam soothed. Whatever horror Little Joe had endured in the open sea was obviously still with him, whether or not he remembered it. With some difficulty he calmed his brother with repeated assurances that they would stay on the land. “The burro can’t swim,” he said with light humor. It probably wasn’t even true, although he was sure the small animal would prefer dry ground, but it convinced Little Joe, further proof that the boy wasn’t thinking too clearly.
Manuel hadn’t understood their English conversation, and he looked gravely concerned. Adam explained that Joselito was disturbed by the water, understandable after the long time he’d spent in it, but they would keep him safe. The simplified wording was for young Mateo’s sake, for he, too, looked upset because Joselito was. “Cálmate, amigo,” the small boy said, patting Little Joe’s arm. Joe understood only the last word, but he smiled back at the boy, and as the cart rolled on, he again fell sleep.
Manzanillo seemed sleepy the day after Christmas. For Joe’s sake, Adam was glad there were so few people milling about the plaza, so few gawking eyes to see their strange procession into town. Exhausted from the bumpy ride, Joe seemed to be sleeping, and that was providential. It put off his hearing the fatal word “doctor” as they arrived outside the man’s office. It couldn’t be put off forever, however, for Adam was determined to carry his brother straight inside and, dinero or no dinero, demand medical care. With Manuel’s help, he gently lifted Joe from the cart, not knowing whether to be grateful or concerned that he did not stir.
They entered the office, where an overweight and balding American stared at them. “Dr. Johnson?” Adam asked, having heard his name from some of his fellow passengers from the Golden Dream.
“Yes,” Dr. Johnson said, adding bluntly as he looked at the barely clothed body in his visitor’s arms, “Who are you and what do you want?”
“My name is Cartwright,” Adam said. “My brother was injured in the shipwreck and . . .”
“The shipwreck!” the doctor exclaimed. “Why did you not bring him to me before now?”
“I didn’t know he’d survived,” Adam said. “Where would you like to examine him?”
“That depends,” Dr. Johnson said. He looked with disdain at Adam, who, though not as ill clad as his brother, looked as if he were wearing the castoff clothing of the Mexican peasant who had followed him in.
Adam noticed the scrutiny and had a pretty good idea what it conveyed. “On what?” he demanded, barely keeping himself from snarling.
“On how you intend to pay for my services,” the doctor stated plainly.
The snarl was close to breaking through Adam’s gritted teeth. “The steamship company paid you for treating the other survivors, did they not?”
The doctor’s mouth curled derisively. “A pittance. And I can’t depend even on that, without prior authorization from the company. I take it you didn’t obtain that before coming to me?”
“No.” Adam’s voice was a low and menacing growl.
“Most unfortunate. I must insist that you attend to that before I examine your brother.”
Adam instinctively reached for his sidearm, to force the mercenary doctor to care for Joe, but when his hand hit his unholstered hip, he remembered that his revolver had been packed away in his trunk and now lay useless at the bottom of the ocean. Probably just as well, he concluded in a moment of grim logic. That approach would get him nothing but internment in a Mexican jail, which would leave Joe alone when he most needed his big brother. “All right,” he said tersely. “Surely, I can leave my brother here while I attend to that little matter.”
Perhaps it was the fierceness in the gaze fixed upon his face, but the doctor, with a show of reluctance, gestured toward a room off to his left. Adam carried Joe inside, explaining to Manuel in hurried Spanish that he had to get permission from the steamship officials for Joselito to be treated. “Te quedarás con él?” he asked in an undertone.
“Sí, mi amigo,” Manuel answered, also in a hushed tone. Of course, he would stay with Joselito, for though he hadn’t understood the doctor’s words, neither had he liked the way they were said.
With a disgusted glare at the doctor, Adam stalked from the office. He paused for a word with Mateo, to explain why his father was staying inside. Then, telling the boy to wait by the cart, he headed across the plaza to the office of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. The brief conversation with the boy gave him a chance to bring his anger under control. No point, after all, in taking out his frustration on innocent employees at the steamship office, especially when he badly needed their help. He took a deep breath and, forcing a smile onto his face, opened the office door.
“Hello,” he said. “My name is Adam Cartwright. I was a passenger on the Golden Dream.”
The young clerk stared at him, aghast. “But—but, sir,” he burst out. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“Yes, I know,” Adam said. He quickly explained why he was still here. “So you can add another to your list of survivors,” he concluded, thinking that should be good news to the company, “but my brother is badly injured and in need of medical attention, for which the doctor”—he almost spat the word—“is demanding authorization from you before he will give.”
“From me, sir?” the clerk sputtered.
With a slight roll of his eyes, Adam said, “From the Pacific Mail Steamship Company. You are its representative?”
“Well, yes,” the clerk said tentatively, “but not a senior one. I don’t know that I could . . .”
“Now, look,” Adam said, grabbing the young man by his linen lapels. “I have just about had my fill of mercenary doctors and bureaucratic balderdash. My brother needs help; I can’t pay for it because my available funds went down with your confounded ship. I’m asking no more than you provided for other survivors and you will do the same for him!”
He was shouting loud enough to bring another man to the door of the inner office. “Here now,” the man protested. “What’s the meaning of this? Unhand that boy!”
With a gusty exhale, Adam did. “I’m sorry,” he said, though his voice was still taut with frustration.
“He’s from the Golden Dream, sir,” the clerk said, backing away from Adam.
“What?” the other man cried. “But . . .”
Adam lifted a silencing hand. “I know; I shouldn’t be here.” He quickly explained again why he had remained behind and what he needed. “Now, will you give me the company’s authorization for my brother’s medical care?”
The second man, though clearly older and presumably senior to the young clerk, still looked hesitant, but finally said, slowly, “I think I can do that much, sir.”
Adam sighed out his relief. “In writing, please,” he said. “I don’t trust that doctor to take anything less.”
The hesitance grew more pronounced, but after a lip-licking pause, the senior clerk agreed and demanded a sheet of paper from his young assistant.
Relieved of his main concern, Adam thought of another need he and Joe had. “We’ll need shelter, as well. Since the other survivors are now gone, I presume there’s room at the hotel for us?”
The senior clerk looked up from his writing. “I don’t know,” he said slowly and then drew himself up and wrapped the dignity of his office around him. “The company doesn’t own the hotel, and since you would require accommodations for many days, that would involve a larger expenditure than I can authorize. If my supervisor were here, he might allow it, but I simply cannot.”
“And where is he?” Adam demanded, his irritation visibly growing.
The clerk paled as he stammered out, “In Panama City. I’m sorry, sir, but there’s simply nothing I can do.” With sudden inspiration, he straightened. “You didn’t stay at the hotel before, did you, sir? I mean, most of the single men found quarters in the village, and I presume . . .”
“I stayed at the church,” Adam interrupted impatiently.
The clerk brightened. “Indeed! A perfect solution! The padre is a good man, and the church can provide both food and shelter for you and your brother.” Seeing that Adam didn’t look nearly as appreciative of the idea as he should, the clerk swallowed hard and said, “I’m sorry, sir, but it is the best I can offer until my supervisor returns. I am already extending myself in offering medical care, but as that need is urgent, I’m willing to risk it, but not for nonemergency services. What the church can offer may not be as luxurious as the hotel, but it will have to suffice. Beggars cannot be choosers, sir.”
By the end of that speech, Adam was fuming, but short of pulling the loaded gun he no longer had, he saw no alternative but to throw himself on the mercy of the church once more. He couldn’t afford to waste more time here; he needed to get back to Joe. “All right,” he said, snatching the authorizing note from the clerk’s hand. Turning, he stormed from the office.
“Of all the high-handed, imperious . . . beggars, indeed!” he muttered as he strode across the plaza. Financially, of course, he was a beggar, but a beggar who should have had some expectation of help from the company that had, although unintentionally, put him in that condition. It was no great hardship for him to stay with the priests again. For Joe, however, he preferred something more comfortable, and while from the impression he’d gotten from fellow passengers, the hotel wasn’t “luxurious” by any means, it had to offer softer beds than the ones in the friars’ small cubicles.
As he reached the doctor’s door, he paused to throw a smile to Manuel’s eldest. Mateo was a good boy; he’d stayed put, just as he’d been told. Now, if it had been Little Joe—the smile widened to a grin as he entered the office. The doctor sat at his desk in the reception area, basically twiddling his thumbs, obviously unwilling to exert the least effort in his patient’s care without proof of payment. He confirmed that impression by asking, first off, if Adam had been successful. Phrased that way, it didn’t sound quite as grasping as it actually was, but Adam didn’t trust himself to answer verbally. Instead, he wordlessly handed the man what the senior clerk had written out.
“I don’t recognize this name,” the doctor said, frowning at the signature. What he did recognize, however, was the dangerous glint in Adam’s eye, and he immediately stood. “Well, let’s examine the patient,” he said, moving toward the other room.
Hands . . . strange hands . . . touching him . . . everywhere. He didn’t like the way they felt. He pulled away; the hands persisted. He wanted hands . . . just not these. What hands did he want? Pa’s! But Pa wasn’t here. Who was here, in this strange world of confusion and pain? There had been a hand he wanted, some familiar hand here with him. Adam’s. That’s the hand he wanted, the one that had led him through the darkness to a place he did not recognize, filled with chattering voices he could not understand, but that still felt safe. This place, these hands didn’t feel safe. They . . . hurt . . . prodding his sore ribs. He cried out for the hands he wanted and heard his brother’s voice, soothing.
He started to relax, in spite of the pain, when he heard another voice. Not like the soft, chattering voices he’d heard before. This one sounded . . . irritated . . . maybe even mad? “Most uncooperative patient,” it was saying as the punishing hands manhandled his ribs. Did he need to be punished? Had he done something bad? Slowly, it registered. Patient. There was a patient . . . him? And patient meant doctor, and doctor was . . . no one he wanted!
Little Joe jerked into full consciousness with a cry of “Adam!”
“I’m here, buddy,” Adam called. He wanted to reach out and touch his brother, but the doctor was in the way.
“Doctor,” Little Joe whimpered. “Don’t want.”
“Be quiet, young man,” said the voice that went with the cruel hands. “Keep still.”
“If I could reassure him a moment,” Adam said, “it might make things go easier.” For Joe’s sake, he kept his voice calm, reasoning, when what he wanted to do was punch the man’s lights out for his brutal examination. No, that wasn’t fair. He hadn’t been brutal, just professionally aloof, uncaring, and not particularly gentle.
“By all means,” the doctor bit out, lifting his hands and backing away.
Adam moved to Joe’s side. There! Those were the hands he wanted. Feeling safe at last, Little Joe opened his eyes. “Adam,” he whimpered. “Make doctor go away.”
Adam smiled. His brother sounded about four, making the same request he’d probably make when he was sixty-four. “Soon,” he promised, “but you need help, little buddy.”
“Doc Martin,” Little Joe pleaded.
“Too far away,” Adam chuckled. “Put up with this one a little while? For me?”
It was the only appeal that would have worked. For Adam, he’d put up with the strange hands . . . but only for a little while. Hearing the submissive sigh, Adam cupped his brother’s cheek briefly and then stepped away. “Keep your touch light, and he’ll be less ‘uncooperative.’” He advised the doctor.
With a look that said he appreciated interfering relatives about as much as he did uncooperative patients, the doctor resumed his examination. Upon its conclusion, he stepped back. “He has a serious concussion,” he began.
“Could we step into the other room?” Adam growled with an anxious look at his brother.
“Yes, of course,” the doctor said with a roll of his eyes. It wasn’t, after all, an unreasonable request, even if it hadn’t been standard practice in the New York City hospital where he’d trained. He asked himself, scarcely for the first time, why he’d let himself be lured from there to this God-forsaken tropical pesthole.
As they left the room, Manuel stepped to Little Joe’s side and took his hand, whispering soft words which he could not understand, but in a voice he recognized . . . and trusted. Exhausted by the examination, Little Joe closed his eyes.
Adam carried his brother to the center of the plaza and set him on a bench beneath the shade of a palm tree, with Manuel sitting on one side to support him and Mateo taking up guard position on the other. The little boy could see that Joselito was hurting and blamed the doctor for it, quite justifiably, although some pain had probably been necessary. Still, Dr. Johnson, after confirming that the ribs were broken, had bound them particularly tight, and even breathing was painful now. “Volveré tan pronto como puedo,” he said to Manuel.
As he started to move away, a weak voice frantically gasped, “A…dam? Don’t . . . go.”
Squatting down to his brother’s eye level, Adam repeated what he had said to Manuel. “I’ll be back as soon as I can, little buddy. I need to find us someplace to stay; then I’ll be right back, I promise.”
Little Joe glanced between the Mexican father and son. “With . . . them?” he suggested.
A twisted grin greeted the idea of making that long, bumpy trek back to Manuel’s place. “Better in town, Joe, trust me.” He patted his brother’s thigh as he got up. “I’ll be back,” he promised again. “You’ll be safe with them.”
Copying the gesture, Mateo began to pat his young friend’s thigh. He didn’t understand what the brothers had said to one another. He only knew that Joselito was upset, and he wanted to make it better.
Adam crossed the plaza, his pace growing faster and his spirit lighter with each step toward the church. He realized that he was moving toward the one place—and the one man—he most wanted to see, the place he’d found peace and safety and the man who, more than any other, could share the wonder of the gift he’d been given. Why hesitate to call it what it was? he mused as he burst through the church doors. Joe’s return was a miracle, nothing less, and the good padre would be quicker to recognize it than Adam himself.
Decorum be damned, he thought as he raced toward the front of the sanctuary, calling loudly, “Padre Diego!”
The priest turned from lighting a candle at the altar, and his face reflected his shock. “Adam, my son,” he said, moving down the aisle. “Why are you still here?” They’d said goodbye the day before yesterday, when with many words of thanks, Adam left to board the ship for home.
“The most wonderful thing has happened, Padre,” Adam said with a display of emotion totally foreign to his usual controlled demeanor.
The priest smiled then. “Tell me, my son,” he said.
Adam took a moment to catch his breath as he reached the priest. “My brother,” he said, pausing for another breath and then finishing, “He’s been found, Padre Diego!”
“Alive?” the incredulous priest asked. Having heard Adam’s story before and seen his dejection, it seemed impossible, even for a man who believed in miracles.
“Alive,” Adam said, and against his will tears shimmered in his hazel eyes. “Badly injured, but alive.”
“God be praised!” Padre Diego exulted. “He is with the doctor?”
“No.” Adam almost spat the word. Then, calming himself, he explained that his brother had been seen by the doctor and was now resting in the plaza with the man who had found him. “And, now, once again I am in need of your help, Padre. We need a place to stay, and the hotel is not open to us.”
He offered no details and the priest requested none. “You must bring him to us,” Padre Diego said at once.
Unbidden, the tears spilled over in the face of kindness after the bureaucratic stymying of the steamship company and the indifference of the doctor. “Thank you,” Adam said over the choke in his voice. “I’ll get him.”
Little Joe had finally succumbed to the sedative draft Dr. Johnson had administered and was sleeping with his head on Manuel’s shoulder when Adam returned and explained that he’d be taking Joselito to the church.
“Ah, bueno,” Manuel said.
“Sí, bueno,” Mateo echoed, causing both men to chuckle at his need to be just like his father.
With Manuel’s help, Adam lifted Little Joe and carried him into the church, where Padre Diego met him at the door. “The room where I slept before?” Adam queried. There was only one bed there, of course, but he could sleep on the floor.
The priest smiled as he shook his head. “We will take him to the infirmary,” he said, “where Brother Tomás will give him the tenderest of care.”
“I will care for him,” Adam said, his voice respectful, but firm.
Padre Diego’s smile broadened to a grin. “Of course, my son, but do not reject help. You must sleep and eat sometime, and Brother Tomás is skilled in healing.”
Like Brother Hoss. Adam hadn’t been around Brother Tomás as much as some of the other friars, but he’d seen him in the refectory and knew he was a gentle soul. Adam relaxed and nodded, following Padre Diego to a part of the church he’d not been in before. Mateo started to join the procession, but his father pulled him back. It was a private place, he explained; it was time to let their Joselito go. They would stay for a word with the good father and, perhaps, a chance to say goodbye to their friend Adam, and then they would go home.
Adam eased his brother onto the narrow cot, one of four in the infirmary. He was glad to see that they were minimally more comfortable than the one he’d had in the dormitory. The friars didn’t cater much to the flesh, but apparently conceded the need of the sick to more restful quarters. He cast a wishful eye at the bed next to Joe’s, not so much for the better mattress as for its proximity to his brother. “Could I . . .”—he started to ask and then hesitated, fearing he might be stepping over a line. The priests had been kind and generous to him, but they did value their privacy in certain areas. This might be one of them.
“Sleep here?” Padre Diego finished for him. Lifting a finger to signal Adam to wait, he spoke briefly with Brother Tomás and then said, “You may, my son, so long as the beds are not needed for the sick.”
“Of course,” Adam readily responded. “Thank you.” Then, since Brother Tomás spoke no English, he nodded toward him and said, “Gracias.”
“I will leave you now,” Padre Diego said. “I think, perhaps, Señor Mendoza wishes to make confession before he leaves. He usually does when he comes to town.”
“I’ll come with you, to say goodbye,” Adam said. “Go easy on any penance for him, okay, padre? He’s been an angel of light to us.”
Padre Diego laughed. “I will keep it in mind,” he said as they walked out together.
Strange hands, touching him again. But these, unlike the doctor’s, tended him with a tender touch. Uneasy at first, Little Joe relaxed under their ministrations, but they weren’t the hands he wanted. Where was . . . then he heard his brother’s voice, soothing him back to sleep, and he gladly went. The voice didn’t match the hands, but as long as Adam was there, he’d be all right.
He woke again, this time to daylight and saw his surroundings for the first time. He searched the long room for his brother’s face and, not finding it, began to breathe rapidly. A man in a brown robe came to him at once, speaking words he could not understand, but they were softly spoken and he calmed somewhat, though his brow was still wrinkled with confusion. “Who . . . you?” he murmured.
The friar didn’t understand Joe’s words, either, but some inner sense told him what the boy had asked. He laid his palm against his chest and said, “Hermano Tomás.” Then he smiled and pointed to Little Joe. “Y tu eres Joselito, sí?”
Little Joe knew that much Spanish. “Sí. Where’s . . . Adam?”
Brother Tomás recognized the name and again instinctively knew what was being asked. “Está comiendo,” he said. Then, realizing the boy did not understand, he brought his hand to his mouth as if partaking of food, and Little Joe nodded. Adam would be back. He could rest.
Adam had spent all his waking hours, both by day and by night, at Joe’s side and really had no interest in food. Brother Tomás, however, had insisted that he must eat, uttering the time-honored truth that he could not care for his brother if he did not first care for himself. Adam had bowed to the necessity of sustenance, but he’d eaten quickly and left the table as soon as grateful courtesy to the brothers assembled there allowed. He wanted to be with Joe when he woke.
The minute he entered the infirmary, he saw that he’d failed at that, but his brother’s face lit up when he came into view, and he didn’t seem as disturbed as Adam had feared. Bless Brother Tomás for his gentle ways. “Hey, little buddy,” Adam said as he sat on the edge of the bed.
“Hey,” Little Joe said. “Food good?”
“Sure,” Adam replied, not quite truthfully. It had been frijoles—again—not prepared nearly as well as Margarita’s, proving what a difference a woman could make in a kitchen. No disrespect to Hop Sing, who was far and away a better cook than Brother Pablo at the church refectory.
“You hungry, buddy?”
Little Joe shook his head, then winced at the action.
“Head still hurt?” Adam asked.
“Um.” A noncommittal answer. Typical Joe. Probably a good sign, though. When his brother was in real pain, he had sense enough to admit it. Usually.
Brother Tomás appeared at his side, offering a glass of water with some medicinal powder dissolved in it. “Para el dolor,” he said.
Adam nodded his understanding and appreciation. “Drink this, Joe,” he said, slipping an arm behind his brother’s shoulders. “It’ll help the pain.”
Trusting as a child, Little Joe drank, and when Adam laid him down, he closed his eyes. “Stay?” he whispered.
“Every minute I can, buddy,” Adam said softly back. “Go ahead and sleep.”
Throughout the day Little Joe slept and woke, slept and woke, and always, always Adam was at his side. His brother’s presence gave him a sense of safety, even if beyond the walls of this place, evil dangers lurked, doctor and water being the ones he feared most. To Adam, he seemed a little more alert each time he woke, his speech less choppy, until finally, toward evening, Little Joe looked at his brother through clear eyes and asked, “Where are we?”
“In the church at Manzanillo,” Adam answered.
Confusion again clouded the green eyes. “Why?”
The only response Adam could think of in that moment was what the clerk at the steamship office had said to him, and he repeated them, at last able to see the humor of the situation. “Beggars can’t be choosers, little buddy,” he said with a wry grin.
Little Joe only looked more confused, but he was too tired for further questions. Yawning, he fell asleep once more.
“What day is it?” Little Joe asked the next morning as Adam was urging him to eat a little more of the bland gruel he’d brought back from the refectory.
“Friday,” Adam said, lifting another spoonful.
Wrinkling his nose, Little Joe shook his head. Still not a good idea, he discovered, although it didn’t hurt as much as before. “Which?” he pressed.
“You mean the date?” When his brother nodded, Adam sighed. He’d hoped to avoid that topic until Joe was stronger. “It’s December 28th,” he said, followed by, “I’m sorry, buddy.”
“That we weren’t home by Christmas. I know how much it meant to you.”
“Oh . . . yeah. Well, it’s okay, Adam.”
Adam might have believed him if the look on his face hadn’t been a complete contradiction of the words. He recognized again that it was his fault they’d been on the ill-fated and falsely named Golden Dream, instead of the earlier ship Joe had wanted, but not wanting to burden his brother with his personal guilt, he didn’t speak of it.
“At least, Pa and Hoss got their presents, huh?”
“They did.” Adam pressed his brother’s hand. “You’ll get yours, too, little buddy, and I’ve already got mine.”
Once again, a look of confusion came across Little Joe’s face, and Adam reminded himself that, as much improved as his brother was, he still needed to speak in simple, concrete statements. Nuance and allusion were beyond Joe at this point. With sudden inspiration he reached for the bag the friars had given him for carrying his few belongings and drew out the chess set. “See? I still have the present you gave me.” It wasn’t what he had originally meant, but Joe could probably understand this better.
“But how could you swim with that?” Little Joe understood that they’d been in a shipwreck, and Adam had told him of jumping overboard and swimming to shore, but the details of Joe’s own ordeal—even the explosion, thank God—had vanished from his conscious memory, and Adam suspected neither one of them would ever know how he had survived.
Adam laughed lightly. “I didn’t. It came floating to me the next morning, along with a keg of ale that everyone enjoyed.”
Little Joe laughed, too, the first time Adam had heard that precious sound since his brother’s return from the dead. Joe paid for it, though. His tightly wrapped ribs, meant to restrict his breathing, protested the intrusion of that much air, and he crumpled in on himself.
Brother Tomás came to him at once and checked him carefully. Then, standing back, he smiled and wagged a finger and was rewarded with a grin, thankfully silent. “Está bien,” he said to Adam.
After thanking him, Adam put the chess set back in his bag. “We’ll play when you’re feeling better,” he promised. He remembered Dr. Martin’s saying that a man with a concussion should avoid mentally challenging tasks, and he sensed that Joe just wasn’t up to it yet.
Little Joe cocked his head, looking puzzled, but he’d already been awake awhile and felt too tired for more questions. Some other time he’d figure out why Adam was being so . . . nice. Now, he just wanted more sleep.
Adam looked up from the Bible he was reading aloud and saw his brother staring at him, every feature taut. “I’m sorry, buddy,” he said. “I know it’s not your favorite reading material, but this is a church, and there’s not much else. Trust me, the Bible is a whole lot more interesting than anything else available in their limited library.” Most of their other offerings, in fact, were scholarly works, written in Latin, and while he could read it, translating for Joe would make for slow going. He’d been lucky they had one Bible printed in English. “Soon as we touch American soil, I’ll buy you one of those dime novels you enjoy so much,” he promised, “but this is it for now, I’m afraid.”
When Joe continued to stare at him, Adam sighed. “Something other than the Psalms, perhaps?” He’d chosen them because most were short and uplifting and he thought they wouldn’t strain Joe too much. Boring him, however, wasn’t a good alternative. “What would you like, buddy? How about the stories of Joseph? You always liked them. Or Daniel, perhaps? Fiery furnace, lions’ den, lots of good adventure there.”
Little Joe shook his head and looked away, but there was something in the way he bit his lower lip that signaled more than boredom to Adam. He closed the book and laid it aside. Then he gently turned his brother’s face back toward him and was disturbed by the troubled look in the expressive green eyes. “What is it, buddy?” he asked anxiously. “What’s wrong?”
Little Joe again shook his head, but his eyes began to shimmer. Adam recognized the expression, the one that said Joe wanted to say something, but was afraid to, for whatever reason. “You must tell me, buddy,” he said, keeping his voice calm. Then he dropped his authoritative tone, for a more supplicating one. “Maybe I can help.”
His brother was weighing the suggestion. He could tell by the quickening nibble of his lips and the nervous way his fingers worked the light sheet covering him. He didn’t push. That never worked with Joe. He just waited quietly, and when he saw the furrows in the boy’s brow tighten, he knew it was coming.
“Am I dying?” Little Joe whispered.
“Of course not, buddy!” he exclaimed, shocked. Then his heightened concern took over, and he began to bombard his brother with questions. “Are you feeling worse? Are you having more pain? Trouble breathing? You must tell me, Joe!”
“No . . . no. I’m fine.”
It was Joe’s standard answer, of course, but the very fact that he felt up to using it told Adam that his brother’s condition was better, not worse. He took a deep, calming breath and then asked softly, “Then why do you think you’re dying?”
Fear again in the green eyes. Or, perhaps, just nerves. “It’s okay; you can tell me.” Adam waited. Joe either would or would not respond to the invitation. He knew his brother well enough to realize that pushing rarely produced the outcome he preferred. Come on, buddy, he urged silently. Let brother help. Moments before the words came, he saw they would, but they still jolted him.
“You’re bein’ . . . so good to me,” Little Joe stammered out.
Adam gasped and almost laughed, wondering when he’d ever been anything other than good to his little brother. Then he remembered. And realized Joe did, too. Oh, fine! His brother’s memory was a blanket with gaping holes for all the questions Adam wanted answered, and he had to remember how at odds they’d been for weeks before the accident? Plus, he thought his big brother would only be “good” to him if he were at death’s door? God and the universe were aligned against him.
Then he recovered. “I’m sorry,” he said. Seeing the heightened confusion and anxiety in Joe’s face, he quickly added, “No, not for being . . . good . . . to you, but because I wasn’t before.”
Little Joe seemed to relax a little, although there was an edge of guilt as he said, “My fault, too.”
Adam shrugged one shoulder. “I won’t deny it, but I’m the big brother. You get to wiggle off the hook; I do not.” He saw the faint grin and knew he’d won the day. He considered whether to say more. He was not a man who bared his soul easily, particularly not to his baby brother, but he knew Joe would understand better if he did say what in his heart. “I’m not being good to you because you’re dying, Joe,” he said, his voice choked with emotion, “but because I thought you already had, and when you were given back to me . . . well, I just can’t help but cherish the gift. Yesterday, when I said I already had my Christmas present, I meant you.”
The faint grin spread into the sweetest smile, and as Little Joe reached for his brother’s hand, the universe came back into alignment.
Sunday morning dawned bright and fair, as most of the days in Manzanillo had been, although Adam hadn’t been outside since bringing his brother to the town. Since Joe was feeling stronger, Adam insisted that Brother Tomás attend the morning mass. The friar agreed, insisting on his own part that after the noon meal, Adam must take some time for himself, to walk in the fresh air and let the sun shine on his face. Feeling that his very hovering had fed Joe’s still incomprehensible attitude of “If you’re being good to me, I must be dying,” Adam conceded easily.
Since Joe had obviously had his fill of the Psalms, Adam asked, “What’s it to be, then, buddy: Joseph or Daniel? Or how about Joshua and the walls of Jericho or, maybe, Noah and the ark?”
Little Joe shuddered. “Anything but that,” he said.
The reason for his brother’s reaction to Noah didn’t occur to Adam until much later. Focused only on the current moment, he just said, with forced enthusiasm, “Let’s try Daniel, then.” He read slowly, giving himself time to make the story come alive, from the youths’ decision to abstain from the king’s meat through the challenge of the fiery furnace and on to the terrors of the lions’ den. The Hebrew history was as exciting as any dime novel when overfamiliarity didn’t rob it of its power, and with Adam’s dramatic reading, Joe ate it up. Adam stopped at that point, deciding to spare his brother the more prophetic passages.
The singing of “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name,” its tune familiar to Adam from times he took Marie to mass in Virginia City, signaled the imminent return of Brother Tomás with Joe’s lunch and his own need to join the friars in the refectory, so Adam closed the Bible and helped his brother sit up, cushioning his bony back as best he could with the pillow. The boy, already thin, was still losing weight because he wasn’t eating much, and the older brother was turning into the same “just one more bite” coaxer as Pa, though hopefully, he wasn’t becoming an absolute wheedler like Hoss. Adam grinned. That would really convince Joe he was dying!
Expecting the almost silent, sedate steps of Brother Tomás, Adam looked up in surprise at the rapid clatter of sandals across the stone floor, followed by happy cries of “Joselito!” as the three Mendoza boys rushed toward the bed, oblivious to the alarmed admonitions of their mother. The younger two scrambled right up on the bed and peppered Little Joe with rapid-fire questions he, of course, could not understand. He sensed the boys’ interest in him, however, and had vague memories of seeing them before. Mateo, he recognized from the journey to Manzanillo, as well as the man who came up to the bed and started to peel his younger sons off, while their mother scolded in the background.
“They’re okay,” Little Joe said and grinned a welcome at the boys, as Adam translated his desire for them to stay. They would do Joselito good, he told the anxious parents.
Brother Tomás entered next, clucking his tongue, half in reproach and half in indulgence of the congregation on his young patient’s bed, as he set aside the tray of food. He had given permission for the visit, also thinking that Joselito would benefit from some company other than his and his brother’s. Hopefully, it would not be too much of a good thing.
Manuel said, hesitantly, that he and his family had brought lunch with them, as they always did when they could make it into town for Sunday mass. Would his friend Adam care to share their humble meal on the plaza?
Would he! Despite his fond remembrance of Margarita’s food, he cast an anxious look at Joe. It seemed unkind to leave his brother, just to satisfy his own desire for a change of diet.
Overhearing and sensing Adam’s dilemma, Brother Tomás made a quick and unorthodox suggestion. Why not eat here, in the infirmary, and invite Joselito to partake of some of the food, if he could? His young patient’s appetite had been so poor that the healer was willing to turn a blind eye to the inevitable scraps that would soon litter floor and bedding. Extra labor on the Sabbath was frowned upon, but he thought Padre Diego, who always put the needs of people above ceremony, would approve.
Excited chatter filled the room, and Little Joe turned puzzled eyes toward his brother. Adam’s were eager as he said, “How about a picnic, little buddy? The Mendozas want to share their lunch with us, and Brother Tomás says we can.”
Little Joe didn’t look enthusiastic, but when he slowly said, “Okay,” Adam’s face lit up like the evening sky on the fourth of July.
By the next day Little Joe felt stronger and began to chafe at staying in bed. After consulting with Brother Tomás, Adam agreed that some exercise would benefit his brother and helped him walk, with unsteady steps, into the bright sunshine bathing the plaza. Joe quickly tired, however, and Adam led him to the same bench where he’d rested after the ordeal with the doctor. For a while Little Joe was content to sit and look at any pretty girls who swished their skirts past the handsome Americans, while Adam, viewing it as a sign of returning health, looked on with an indulgent smile.
“Adam,” Little Joe said when no girls had passed for a few minutes, “when are we going home?”
Adam’s smile widened at this further indication of his brother’s increasing wellbeing. “Not sure, exactly,” he replied. “I need to check with the company to see when the next ship arrives.”
Little Joe blanched pale as the sand beneath his sandals, provided by the good friars. “Ship?” he croaked and then nearly exploded, “No, Adam!”
Adam’s breath caught in his throat. There it was again, that fear of water he’d seen on the rough journey from Manuel’s place. And who could blame the kid? He still didn’t know—and never would—how Joe had managed to survive the turbulent sea, but it had to have been terrifying.
“Joe,” he said with as soothing a voice as his shock could muster, “we have to.”
“No, Adam.” If anything, Joe’s resolve was stronger.
Adam closed his fingers around his brother’s forearm. “I’m sorry, little buddy, but there’s no other way home, and I know you want to go home.”
“Not on a boat,” Little Joe insisted, pulling his arm from the gentle grasp. “Boats are dangerous, Adam!” He couldn’t remember exactly why boats were dangerous, but every bone in his body screamed against boarding another one.
Adam decided to try reason. “It’s an awfully long walk, little brother,” he said with a deliberately light lilt. At a guess, he’d have said a couple thousand miles. If that didn’t dissuade his brother, he didn’t know what would.
It didn’t, but it did produce a reaction Adam hadn’t expected: laughter. Maybe because he’d sounded like he was joking. “No, Adam,” Little Joe chuckled. “Not walk—ride.”
The level of his brother’s concussed confusion continued to astound Adam. “On what?” he asked pointedly.
A deeper confusion clouded Joe’s eyes. “Don’t they have horses here?”
Adam hadn’t seen any, but that wasn’t the real problem. “More likely burros, but if there were horses, how would we get them?”
“Buy them,” Little Joe said, confident in his brother’s eternally deep pockets.
Adam closed his eyes, as he leaned his head against the trunk of the tree behind them, and coming up with no better answer than the plain, unvarnished truth, he sighed and turned to look directly at his brother. “We don’t have anything to buy them with,” he said.
Shock slowly registered in the green eyes. “N-nothing?” Little Joe’s quavering voice asked, unable to absorb the incongruity of a penniless Adam. He might be perennially short of cash, but Adam always had enough and to spare.
“Nothing,” Adam confirmed. “I had to leave what I had on the ship that sank. The weight, you know. I presume you did the same.” Not that Joe probably had much to weigh him down to begin with.
Little Joe took it in for a long minute. Vague memories of emptying his pockets—or, maybe, someone else’s—came back. “Then . . . we’re . . . trapped,” he said with slow despair.
“No, no, we’re not trapped,” Adam said, keeping his voice calm and reasoning. “We can get home . . . on the next steamship. Our passage is already paid, and once we reach San Francisco, I have money in the bank, enough for food and clothes and transport home.” He tried to sound brighter as he said the final words, but he was too cautious of Joe’s reaction to be very effective at that.
Another long minute passed. “Adam . . . I can’t,” Little Joe murmured, his voice breathy.
Adam took his hand in a firmer grip this time. “Yes, you can. I know you’re afraid.” Seeing his brother’s defensive jerk toward him, he added quickly, “You have every reason to be. I feel it, too, buddy, and I went through a lot less hell than you did.”
Again, eyes clouded with confusion met his. “You’re scared, too?” Little Joe asked. Unthinkable. Adam was never scared, not of anything.
Adam nodded. “Sick to the pit of my stomach at the thought of boarding another boat, but it’s the only way home, buddy, so we’re going to have to face it . . . together. And I promise that whatever happens, we will be together, no more distance between us.”
The last phrase settled the question. Little Joe’s voice was still shaky, but he faced his brother with resolve. “I’ll . . . try,” he said.
Adam released the breath he’d been holding. “I think it’s time we got you back to the infirmary,” he said. Standing, he helped Joe to rise, and with slow, deliberate steps they moved toward the church . . . together.
“Happy New Year, little buddy,” Adam greeted his brother when he woke the next morning. Ordinarily, all the Cartwrights toasted the New Year on the stroke of midnight, but it was mid-morning in Manzanillo, Joe having exercised his invalid’s privilege of sleeping in. For his brother’s sake, Adam held back a sigh at the thought of Pa and Hoss back on the Ponderosa, who were probably spending the day more in concern than celebration. They couldn’t have known yet about the loss of the Golden Dream; at least, he hoped not, but they wouldn’t be spared much longer. The survivors should have arrived in San Francisco by now, and the story would be telegraphed over the Sierras and picked up by the Territorial Enterprise, as early as tomorrow. Still, expecting them home by now, Pa had probably worried as he stirred up a skillet of Hangtown Fry. Leaving the infirmary to round up a bowl of gruel for his brother, Adam profoundly hoped their traditional New Year’s breakfast of scrambled eggs with bacon and oysters might, conveniently, be one of Joe’s memory gaps.
After Joe had eaten all he’d cared for, Adam set aside the still half-full bowl and took up the Bible once more. “What’s your pleasure?” he asked.
“Isn’t there anything else?” Little Joe moped.
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Adam quipped, though he felt a tad sacrilegious, using that proverb in regard to the Holy Book.
After their monetary discussion of the day before, Little Joe now understood why his brother kept using that saying. He gave Adam a fairly weak smile. “They’re not bad stories,” he said, “but I sort of know how they’re gonna turn out.”
Adam chuckled. “Only sort of?” He began to thumb through the pages, searching for a less familiar story that still had the kind of action it took to amuse his little brother. Passing by Joshua and the walls of Jericho, his eyes fell on a character he thought fit the bill. “How about Gideon?” he asked.
“Yeah, okay,” Little Joe said. He knew the character, but at least he didn’t show up in Sunday sermons as often as Joseph, Daniel and King David.
“That’s my boy,” Adam said with exaggerated approval. “And as a reward, after lunch we’ll take another nice stroll in the sunshine and fresh air.”
“Oh, goodie,” Little Joe said, but he grinned as he said it and settled back for the story, wondering if Israelite girls ever swished their skirts to get Gideon’s attention and why interesting details like that always got left out of the Bible stories. As his brother read on, his eyes closed, and he dreamed of dark-haired señoritas, whose loose peasant blouses slipped temptingly off one shoulder. Once he was asleep, Adam slipped out to the steamship office.
The junior clerk looked up as he entered, and Adam was pretty sure he saw the kid blanch. “Mr. Cartwright?” the young man said tentatively.
“You have a good memory,” Adam said, figuring it couldn’t hurt to butter the boy up.
“How—uh—may I help you?” the clerk asked.
“Just some information,” Adam said. “I’d like to know when the next ship arrives. I’m hoping that my brother will be strong enough to travel by that time, though if it arrives too soon, we’ll have to wait for the next one, of course.”
Information the clerk could handle. “Just over a week, sir, on the 9th.” He swallowed uneasily. “I can’t, of course, promise that there will be room for two more passengers.”
Bureaucratic nincompoop, Adam thought, but he said, with only a trace of sarcasm, “I think that’s likely this time of year, don’t you?” The Golden Dream hadn’t been full, and he saw no reason to think that an even later ship would be, either.
“Well . . . yes,” the clerk said slowly and then hastened to add, “but I can’t guarantee . . .”
“Now, look,” Adam said, jaw hardening. “My brother and I have paid for passage to San Francisco, and your company is contractually obligated to provide it.”
“Yes, yes, of course,” the young man stammered. “I just can’t promise . . . when.”
With an arched eyebrow, Adam gave the youth a taut smile that stopped just short of being threatening. “As I see it, you have two choices: you can either give me some assurance of passage out of here or you can put up with daily complaints from an increasingly discontent passenger. Now, which do you really want?”
Staring wide-eyed, the clerk gulped. “Well, well . . . as you say, it is our slow season, so . . . probably . . .”
“I thought so,” Adam said and left before the boy could back off his tenuous agreement.
That afternoon, after a slight loosening of his wrapped ribs by Brother Tomás, Little Joe walked into the plaza, with Adam keeping a supportive hand on his arm. They headed a different direction from yesterday’s walk, and that was fine with Joe. He liked new sights, although there didn’t seem to be as many girls this way. There were a few, though, who tittered when he flashed his disarming smile at them. Caught up in that search, he did not at first realize where their walk was taking them, and his ear told him before his eyes did. Hearing the roar of the sea, he stopped abruptly and stared at the waves lapping the still-distant shore.
“Come on, Joe,” Adam urged.
“Let’s go back,” Joe said.
“Now, you’re not afraid of the mere sight of water,” Adam scolded gently. He knew full well Joe was, since that was all it had taken on the journey from Manuel’s, but he banked on his brother’s pride to keep him from admitting it.
“‘Course not. I’m just . . . tired.”
No, you’re not, Adam thought, but he didn’t confront his brother. Instead, he said, “You need to build up your strength, Joe. After all, we’re shipping out in just eight days.”
Little Joe stared at him. “How do you know?”
“I checked with the steamship office while you were sleeping, and the next ship arrives the 9th. You want to be ready to go home, don’t you?”
“On a ship?”
Adam sighed. “Yes, Joe, on a ship. Surely, you didn’t forget that.”
Little Joe laughed roughly, mirthlessly. “Oh, no, I didn’t forget that. Adam, I . . .” He couldn’t say it.
“I know, buddy, I know,” Adam said, voice softening, “but we’ve got eight days to get you ready. I know you can do it!” His brother still looked dubious as he continued, “I’ve got a plan, buddy. Today, we’re just going to walk in sight of the sea.”
Adam had never felt a more anxious set of eyes fixed on his face. “We’ll face tomorrow when tomorrow comes,” he said, taking his brother’s arm and moving forward.
“That you, Hoss?” Ben Cartwright called.
“Yessir,” his second son said as he rounded the corner into the office alcove and stood turning his tall hat in his hands.
Finishing his final tally of a column of figures, Ben didn’t see the movement. “Any word from your brothers?” he asked.
“Maybe,” Hoss said.
That response made Ben look up, and he saw at once that Hoss was troubled. “What do you mean, ‘maybe’? They either wired or they didn’t.”
“They didn’t,” Hoss said.
Ben shook his head as he blew out an exasperated sigh. “Those boys,” he muttered. “I wouldn’t expect better from Joseph, but I thought Adam would wire as soon as they arrived.” He caught sight of the newspaper in Hoss’s hands. “Well, has the ship arrived?” he demanded. The Territorial Enterprise typically printed the arrival of each vessel in port, since even here on the eastern side of the Sierras, the comings and goings of the ships that carried the mail were of interest.
“A ship arrived, yeah,” Hoss said, “but I ain’t sure they was on it.”
Ben leaned back in his chair. “Hoss, would you try making sense?”
“I am tryin’, Pa,” Hoss protested. “A ship did come in, but it weren’t the one carryin’ the mail.” He swallowed hard and went on. “Seems like that one met with some trouble.” He’d read the article and knew exactly what sort of trouble, but he wanted to break the news to his father gentle-like.
“Hoss,” Ben chided.
Hoss gulped again. “It caught fire, Pa—and sank.”
“Dear God,” Ben gasped. “Survivors?”
“Yessir, a hundred or so, but no names given.”
“You should have wired the company, son, asking about your brothers.”
“I did, Pa, but I reckon they was closed for the day, ‘cause I never got no answer.” Hoss looked apologetic. “I waited awhile, but then Silas, down to the telegraph office, said probably wouldn’t be comin’ ‘til tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow,” Ben repeated, eyes vacant. An eternity.
They were standing at the door to the telegraph office half an hour before it opened, and mercifully, they did not have to wait much longer for an answer to Hoss’s inquiry. The typical curtailment of words in a telegram exploded the stark force of the message:
ADAM AND JOSEPH CARTWRIGHT ABOARD GOLDEN DREAM
JC REPORTED LOST
White as the paper he held, Ben Cartwright’s hand shook as he passed it on to Hoss.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright,” Silas, who had transcribed the message from the dots and dashes, said.
Ben nodded perfunctorily.
“Reported lost. What does that mean?” Hoss said, folding the telegram and handing it back to his father.
Seeing Ben was still too shaken to respond, Silas offered his best guess. “Reckon it means they didn’t find his body, Hoss, but got no reason to think he made it.”
“But he might have,” Hoss said, more to his father than Silas, who shrugged, not wanting to voice his doubt beyond what he already had.
“Thank you, Silas,” Ben said, still speaking by rote the customary acknowledgement of service. He left the office with Hoss close on his heels.
“Why didn’t Adam wire?” Ben muttered as he moved down the boardwalk, not even noticing which way he was headed. “Why?”
“I dunno, Pa,” Hoss said. “Maybe”—he gulped—“he wanted to tell you in person?”
Ben turned sharp eyes on his middle son and felt an immediate shaft through his heart. He couldn’t think of Hoss that way anymore; if he only had two sons now, there was no middle.
“He may be hurt,” Ben said, beginning to think more clearly, “not able to . . .”
Hoss jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “Want I should go back and send another wire, asking about that?”
Ben straightened decisively. “No. We’re going to San Francisco.”
As soon as his father spoke, Hoss felt his own heart leap with the rightness of the thing. “Stage or horseback?” was all he asked.
Adam was becoming expert at reading his brother’s level of fear. Each day, he’d taken Joe out for a walk, each day edging him closer to the threatening waves, but when he heard his brother’s breathing become rapid and shallow, he knew the boy had reached his limit for the day. When it happened Saturday, he stopped, but instead of turning back toward town, he said, “Can we go a little further?”
“A little closer, you mean,” Little Joe muttered.
“Yes, that’s exactly what I mean,” Adam said, trying to hold back his own impatience. “Look, Joe, we’ve only got five more days, and I’d like you to be more comfortable by the time we board.”
“Comfortable ain’t gonna happen, brother,” Little Joe said bluntly.
“More comfortable is,” Adam insisted. “A little further today, and if you insist, I’ll give you a day off tomorrow, a nice Sabbath rest. How’s that sound?”
“Tomorrow sounds great; more today, not a lick.” Little Joe gave his brother a sheepish smile, though, and took a step forward . . . and then another, while Adam looked on with approval.
Hoss worked his stiff shoulders this way and then that as he waited for the driver to toss down the carpetbag he and Pa were sharing. When they’d learned that a stage was pulling out of Virginia City within an hour of their leaving the telegraph office yesterday morning, they’d each purchased a change of clothes and a nightshirt and the bag to put them in. Anything else they could get in San Francisco. Pa’d been in a mighty big hurry to get here, but it hadn’t done much good, as far as Hoss could see. The sun was down, which meant the steamship office would be closed, so they couldn’t get any information until tomorrow anyway. But he didn’t begrudge Pa the rush to get here. He felt it, too. There were answers they just had to have, chief among them the whereabouts of older brother Adam. On the stage, Pa had spoke about checking the hospital tonight, but Hoss had argued for getting a room first and, maybe, a hot meal and Pa had given in.
Carpetbag in hand, Hoss set off with his father for the Parker House on Portsmouth Square. They entered the hotel, and Ben immediately requested two rooms, on the second floor, if available.
“Yes, sir, we can do that,” the clerk said. “We’ve been quite full the last few days, but some folks checked out today.”
Ben immediately discerned who those guests might have been. “From the shipwreck?”
“Yes, sir, but as I say, they’ve gone, so we’ll be able to accommodate you on the second floor, as requested.”
“Yes, thank you,” Ben said, hurrying to add, “but I was wondering whether my son, Adam Cartwright, might have been among them.” If Adam hadn’t been hurt enough to need hospital care, he might still have needed to rest up a day or two before facing the journey home.
The clerk instantly looked sympathetic. “I don’t recall that name, sir, but let me check.” He paged back in the hotel register, looking for the name the anxious father had given, and though he hadn’t expected to find it, he was disappointed not to. “No, I’m sorry, sir. At another hotel, perhaps?”
“Perhaps,” Ben said. “Well, we’ll take two rooms, and if the dining room is still open, my boy and I would like a hot meal.” Actually, he didn’t care whether he ate or not, but Hoss needed to eat, and he felt a need, bordering on obsession, to care for the sons he had left. Being the only one within reach tonight, Hoss stood a good chance of being swaddled by the “father hen” feathers his sons liked to tease him about.
“We’ll make sure something is available, sir,” the clerk said, determined to show every consideration to the family of a survivor—or, potentially, a victim—of the lost ship at sea.
Hot stew, served with cornbread, was just the kind of meal Hoss relished. Tasty as it was, however, Ben did little more than drag a spoon through his bowl. He finally gave up and pushed the bowl toward Hoss.
“Pa, you oughta eat,” Hoss said, forehead wrinkling with worry.
“I can’t yet, son,” Ben said. “You go ahead and finish that. I’m going to the hospital.” He stood up. “Would you check some of the other hotels, once you’ve eaten?”
“Yes, sir, I sure will. If Adam’s here, we’ll find him, Pa.” He reached for the second bowl of stew. “‘Course, he could be on his way home now, on the stage headed the other way.”
Ben laughed roughly. “Just our kind of luck, hmm? Well, we’ll scour this town, looking for the rascal, and if we can’t find him, we’ll head back home.”
It didn’t take Ben long to determine that the hospital had no record of an Adam Cartwright being treated there. It was a relief, of course, to learn that his son hadn’t been injured that badly, but it added to the mystery of his silence. It simply wasn’t like Adam not to have wired news of his safe arrival, even if he’d felt compelled to leave the sad news about his little brother until he could be with them. Again, the arrow through his heart at the thought of Little Joe and the jolt of disbelief that that vibrant young life could have been snuffed out. Pushing aside the unwelcome thought, he told himself, Concentrate on Adam now; you have the rest of your life to grieve for Joseph. And grieve he would, just . . . not now.
He headed back to the Parker House, searching each face he passed in hopes of running into his eldest son. He didn’t, of course, but he did see Hoss, coming out of the What Cheer House. Walking up behind his son, he asked wryly, “Get yourself another steak?” The ones at the What Cheer were, as he knew from experience, the size of the plate.
Hoss turned and grinned at his father. “It was tempting, but I just ate a double portion of stew, remember, Pa?”
“Since when has that stopped you?” Ben teased.
“I was looking for Adam, like you asked.”
Ben nodded his knowledge of that, but said, “Not his kind of place.” Adam could afford better than a place that offered meals and lodging for a mere four bits.
“Yeah, I know,” Hoss said, “but I looked everywhere else.” Soberly, he added, “He ain’t here, Pa. Must be headed home.”
“Probably so.” With a palm on Hoss’s back, he turned the big man around. “Let’s go back to our rooms, get a good night’s rest. We’ll learn what we can from the steamship company in the morning and then head for home ourselves.”
“Yes, sir.” Hoss didn’t hold out hope of learning much that way, but another idea had struck him while he was searching the hotels. “Pa, you think, maybe, Adam would stay with friends—the Wentworths, maybe, or the Larimers?” His mouth screwed up a mite as he mentioned the second name. He’d never much cared for prissy Mrs. Larimer, but Adam might go there, instead of horning in on the Wentworths, who had so little themselves.
“It’s a thought,” Ben admitted. Not one he really welcomed; he wasn’t ready to share his grief and worry, not even with those close friends from the wagon train west, but if all else failed, he’d do it.
“Any success, Mr. Cartwright?” the young clerk asked as they entered the Parker House.
“No,” Ben said curtly, passing the registry desk. If he wasn’t ready to share with friends, he certainly wasn’t ready to do it with a stranger!
“Oh, Mr. Cartwright,” the man called as Ben headed toward the stairs. “I have some past issues of the Alta California and the Morning Call, the ones covering the shipwreck. I thought some of the survivors’ interviews might be of interest to you.”
Ben turned quickly, his attitude radically transformed. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, they would. Thank you, young man!”
“My pleasure, sir,” the clerk said, sincerely glad to be of help.
Ben took the small pile of papers in hand and hurried up the stairs. At last! Some real news. Even if it wasn’t specific to his sons, he’d have a better picture of what they had endured, and even that would make him feel closer to them.
Upstairs, Ben preferred to read the papers in order, and he started with the earliest issue of the Alta California, with which he was more familiar. Amicable Hoss took the Morning Call. Ben only scanned the account in his newspaper, for he’d noticed a long list of names further down the article. Guessing it was a list of survivors, he immediately began to read that, and since the list was alphabetized, he soon came to the one he was searching for. “Hoss,” he said excitedly. “Adam’s name is on the list.”
Hoss intuitively understood what list his father meant. “Joe’s?” he asked with desperate hope.
“No,” Ben said softly, “just Adam.”
“Yeah.” Hoss sighed. “Well, that’s what the telegram said, Pa.”
“I know; I know.” Still, it gave Ben extra confidence to read in black and white that his oldest son, at least, was alive, although goodness only knew where. He returned to the beginning of the article to see if he could glean a clue from the account. The preliminary report, however, gave little more than the barest details of the event. It wasn’t hard for Ben to fill in the blanks. With his sailing background, he knew all too well what a fire aboard ship could mean, but he, at least, had sailed merchant vessels. The Golden Dream had been a passenger ship, loaded with men, women and children unused to the discipline of life at sea. Not that sailors couldn’t panic, but with good leadership, they could usually be managed and gotten off a ship as quickly as possible. Civilian passengers could be a greater challenge.
“Just like older brother to make himself a hero,” Hoss said.
“There’s an article in the next day’s Call,” Hoss explained, “Tells quite a bit about Adam, Pa.”
Ben snatched the paper from his second son’s hand and found the article he meant. It gave the captain’s account of the accident aboard ship, but Ben rushed through that part until he saw Adam’s name and read how his son had assisted in saving other passengers and in leading them to Manzanillo, where the survivors found food and shelter after a harrowing two-day trip through the jungle. “I personally arranged a comfortable cabin aboard the ship that rescued us for Mr. Cartwright, whose help had been invaluable,” the article quoted the captain saying, “but he evidently missed the ship and was left behind.”
“That’s not like Adam,” Ben muttered.
“Huh?” As far as Hoss had read, older brother sounded exactly like himself.
“To miss boarding the ship for San Francisco,” Ben said, irritated.
“I didn’t get that far,” Hoss said with a lopsided grin.
Ben looked up and suddenly realized that he’d evidently snatched the paper away before Hoss was through with it. “Oh. Sorry, son.”
“That’s okay. What matters is that older brother’s safe. Guess he’s still in—what was the name of that place?”
“Manzanillo,” Ben said, adding, for Hoss’s benefit, “in central Mexico.”
“Guess he’ll be on the next ship, huh?”
“He had better be,” Ben said, “and he had better have a good explanation for missing the earlier one.” He couldn’t imagine what had kept the boy, who had obviously been in good enough shape after the accident to help all those other passengers. “We’ll ask at the steamship office tomorrow when the next ship is due in.”
Hoss winced. “I been meanin’ to ask, Pa, about that trip to the steamship office.”
“What about it?” Ben was tired, irritated and frustrated, and his voice revealed all that.
The wince tightened. “Well, sir, I was just wonderin’ if the office would be open tomorrow, it bein’ Sunday.”
Ben groaned and gave his son an apologetic look. “No, no it wouldn’t be. I wasn’t thinking clearly.”
“Understandable,” Hoss assured him.
“Well, first thing Monday morning, then.” Another day’s delay, and no guarantee he’d learn much more when Monday came. At least, tomorrow being Sunday, he had some profitable way to spend the time. He’d find a church, preferably one where no one would recognize him and spend some time in prayer for his older son’s wellbeing and for the soul of the one who was probably lost. His heart was still basted together with a thin thread of hope, but he feared the reports about Joe would prove as accurate as the one about his brother.
The fragile thread frayed before Ben made it to church the next day. Hoss had elected to sleep in and have a later breakfast, but the habit of rising early was strongly rooted in Ben. He’d originally intended to have only a cup of coffee and wait for breakfast with his son. The aromas wafting from the kitchen proved too enticing, however, for a man who’d barely touched his supper the night before. He could always share a second cup of coffee with Hoss later. After eating, he picked up a copy of the Sunday issue of the Alta California at the desk on his way back to his room. Since he could still hear Hoss snoring through the thin walls between their rooms, he began to scan the paper for further news of the shipwreck, and on page two he found an interesting account by a passenger, Mrs. William Davis.
Her story was riveting. Even filtered through the pen of a male reporter, the woman’s emotions and those of her child found voice as she related her fear when the fire broke out aboard the Golden Dream, her frantic realization that one of her twin sons had disappeared, just as they were to board the lifeboat, and her desperation as she escaped with one son, leaving at the insistence of a friend, who promised to find the other. He had kept his word, flinging young Mark into the sea just before the ship exploded, with her boy’s rescuer still on board. “But for that gallant young man, my son would have suffered the same fate,” Mrs. Davis was quoted as saying. “We will revere forever the name of Joseph Cartwright, truly a hero in every sense of the word.”
As he read the unexpected final sentence, Ben began to shake, and his breath grew rapid and shallow. It was true, then. His son, his Little Joe, was . . . gone. The thin filament of hope to which he had clung was gone now, as surely as his son; the basting thread holding his heart together snapped, and deep, soul-wrenching sobs doubled him over as the newspaper fell to the floor, unheeded.
Little Joe was laughing, lighthearted as the children he was watching scamper along the beach, and it sounded good to everyone. Adam, especially, felt content to lean back on his elbows, relishing the sound he’d never tire of, and enjoy the lazy stupefaction of the best meal he’d had all week. Margarita had outdone herself for this picnic by the sea. Just seeing the Mendoza family again was a benediction, as much as the one they’d heard at the close of the mass earlier. Adam had understood that they didn’t make the trip into town every Sunday, and he knew, of course, in whose honor they had come. Their Joselito, of course. The family had adopted Joe as their own from the minute they fished him off the beach, and now that he was more himself, his innate charm was working its usual magic, and they liked him even more.
It was a gift Adam often wished he himself had in a measure to equal his little brother’s. If he were honest, though, and he tried to be, the Mendozas had probably come for a last chance to see him, too, for he’d become their friend, as well. He had no way to repay their many kindnesses now, but once he was home, there’d quickly be a package of good things headed back to Mexico. For them, and for the good friars, too.
He’d intended to give his brother a break from the program to help him overcome his fear of the ocean, but he hadn’t counted on a seaside picnic with the Mendozas and three lively boys as helpers in his quest. Now, when Joe was in such a good mood, seemed an ideal time for the next step. They’d be boarding the ship in three days, so it was almost now or never. Pulling off his sandals, he stood and reached for Joe’s hand. “Come on, kid,” he said. “Let’s join them!”
If he had hoped his enthusiasm would distract his brother from what he was asking, he was doomed to failure. “You’ve got to be kidding,” Little Joe said.
“Not a bit.” Adam grinned at him. “You’re not going to let a trio of little boys outdo you in courage, are you?”
Little Joe wasn’t going to be tricked that easily. “Maybe,” he said, eyes shuttering. “You did promise me a day off.” Then he whispered, “Don’t make me, Adam.”
“I would never do that, buddy,” Adam said, instantly sober, “but I think it would do you good.”
“Why?” Joe demanded. “Unless you’re tellin’ me this ship is going down, too, and we’ll end up in the drink again, I don’t see the need!”
Manuel and Margarita exchanged anxious glances, and Manuel looked at Adam and asked, “Hay problema?”
Adam assured him there was no problem and turned back to Joe. “Of course, I’m not telling you that,” he said, “and I admit this is a step further than you really need to go. If you can manage this, however, you should have no problem with anything you do need to face on the trip. Besides, you’d be cheating yourself out of some fun, and I think it’s time we both had some.”
Fun and Adam didn’t go together in Little Joe’s mind, and there was nothing about getting closer to those treacherous waves that seemed fun to him. Still, Adam had, step by step, been helping him fight down the fear, so maybe he should trust him one more time. He hadn’t been wrong yet. Little Joe swallowed down his rising bile. “You’ll stay with me?” he asked.
“Every step,” Adam promised and stretched out his hand again.
Slowly, Little Joe took off his own sandals and reached for his brother’s hand.
Adam pulled him up and wrapped a loose arm around his shoulders as they began to walk. Seeing and sensing what was happening, Margarita began to pray, while Manuel, who had seen Joe’s reaction to the ocean on the trip to Manzanillo, watched with widening smile as they moved closer to it.
Little Joe moved slowly, hesitantly, like the badly injured man he no longer was, but Adam didn’t push, letting him set the pace. As the warm sand squishing through his toes became increasingly moist, Little Joe’s mind returned to long-past days when he’d walked with Pa or one of his brothers along the beaches of California. A rare treat then, and it began to be again. Sensing the changes in breathing he’d become so attuned to, Adam gradually slackened his hold on his brother, and by the time the incoming waves were sloshing their ankles, he knew the battle was won. The two brothers walked through the surf together, as the little boys splashed around them in celebration.
“Pa, you sure you wanna be botherin’ these folks?” Hoss asked as his father rapped on the green door. He figured they’d already been pestered to death by reporters and other curious folks and might just want to rest their first Sunday back from their awful experience.
“I don’t think they’re going to mind, son.” In fact, Ben felt certain, from the personality he’d seen shining through the newspaper article, that Mrs. Davis would be happy, as he would have been in her place, to give the family of the boy who’d saved her son’s life any information she could. She hadn’t been too hard to find, once he’d located a copy of the city directory. While there were several Davises in the area, there was only one William. Ben had given them time to get home from church, if they were attenders, and to have Sunday dinner, but it had been a long wait for him.
A man answered the door.
“Mr. Davis?” Ben inquired. On receiving an affirmative answer, he continued, “My name is Ben Cartwright. I wonder if I might speak with your wife.”
Mr. Davis looked concerned. “Does she know you, Mr. Cartwright? I don’t recognize the name.”
“No, I don’t know her personally,” Ben said, “but she knows my sons. She met them in Mexico—well, before that, actually.”
“On the ship,” Mr. Davis said with sudden enlightenment. “You’re that Mr. Cartwright or, rather, your sons are. Come in, sir; come in!” He opened wide the door and stood aside for Ben and Hoss to enter. Leading the way into the parlor, he said, “Look who’s come, Violet: the father of those wonderful Cartwright boys!”
“And my other son, Hoss,” Ben said.
“Please sit down, Mr. Cartwright. I’m delighted to meet you!” Mrs. Davis said. “I owe so much to your sons.” As the two Cartwrights took a seat in the parlor, she smiled at the younger one. “I’d know you anywhere, Hoss.”
“My brother spoke of me?” Hoss guessed.
“Not to me directly, but to my sons, and I often overheard.” She laughed. “Oh, we know all about the Ponderosa and the adventurous men who live there. Joseph kept my boys enthralled with his tales of home.”
“Then, you knew my sons before the . . . the . . .”— Ben couldn’t finish.
“Before the fire? Oh, yes,” Mrs. Davis said. “I only knew Adam by sight, but Joseph was such a good friend to us, from the time we all boarded ship in New York City until . . . well, until the end of the voyage.” Tears stood in her eyes.
Ben blinked back his own. “I read your interview in the Alta California, but I wondered if there was anything else you could tell me. Any small detail would be a treasure.”
“Of course.” Knowing how she herself would feel if she lost a son, she began with their first meeting with Little Joe and recounted all the small kindnesses he had done, how he’d entertained the boys, allowing her much-needed rest and how he and Mark had faced down a crocodile. They all laughed about how Joe had pulled her boys from a tick-infested swamp, and then she told about that final night, when Joe had found Mark, her perpetual wanderer, aboard the burning ship and flung him to safety. “I saw the explosion from a distance,” she said, “and didn’t know for two days that Mark had survived . . . and that Joseph had not.” She shuddered as she remembered the longest 48 hours of her life.
“Then you can’t be sure he didn’t,” Hoss said. He still couldn’t quite believe Joe was gone; seemed like he’d feel it, somehow, but maybe it was only memories that still seemed so alive to him.
“I’m sure,” she said quietly. “Mark barely got off the ship himself, and he, unfortunately, saw his friend caught up in the explosion. He and Matthew are napping this afternoon, but he’s told me all he remembers, and I’d prefer not to make him go through it again. He still has nightmares, Mr. Cartwright.”
“I understand,” Ben said, although he was disappointed. “Did you have a chance to see my older son after the incident?”
“Oh, yes,” Mrs. Davis said, brightening. “He was very kind to Mark on the journey to Manzanillo and delivered him to my arms again, so I’m very grateful to Adam, too. I did speak of him to the reporter, but he concentrated on Joseph in his story.”
Ben nodded, but a little anxiety slipped into his voice as he asked, “He was well when you saw him, though?”
“No one was in good shape after that journey, Mr. Cartwright,” she said with a shiver, “but Adam was only slightly injured. He was walking under his own power and had even carried my son for a large part of the journey. I saw him on the plaza the day before our rescue ship was due and we exchanged pleasantries. He was well and eager to come home; I can’t think why he didn’t. I suppose he could have taken ill at the last minute. I had some trouble with the strange food myself, so that might explain . . .”
“Yes,” Ben said, though he doubted it. Adam wasn’t unfamiliar with Mexican cooking. Still, he might have gotten hold of some spoiled food or contaminated water. He’d had many a bout with that sort of ill when he’d sailed to foreign ports. “There was a doctor in town?” he asked.
“Oh, yes,” she assured him, “and I’m sure he could deal with whatever malaise might have kept Adam from returning, as he planned.”
“Good, good,” Ben said as he stood to take his leave. Not all his concerns had been relieved, but he now had as much information as he was likely to get before Adam returned. Tomorrow he and Hoss would go to the steamship office and learn just when that would be.
Ben, with Hoss alongside, exited the steamship office shortly after it opened the next morning. He’d learned what he needed to know, but little else. He had, however, picked up the unwelcome notion that the Pacific Mail Steamship Company was almost as perturbed with his eldest son as he was. Apparently, it was annoying to have a man listed as a survivor and then not show himself alive to potential customers eager for proof that they could travel with the company and live to tell the tale. It had taken only the suggestion that his son Adam might have elected to enjoy a tropical vacation at the company’s expense to elicit from Ben Cartwright an explosion to rival that which had taken the Golden Dream out of commission. He was still smoldering as he came out onto the street.
Hoss was a mite surprised the office was still standing, so he broached his question with some trepidation. “So, Adam should be here in just over a week, huh? What you reckon we ought to do, Pa?”
Ben’s head snapped toward him. “Do? What do you think we’re going to do?”
Hoss winced at his father’s volume. “Whatever you want, Pa,” he said. “Meet Adam here or go on home, I reckon.” He knew what he wanted, but Pa wasn’t one to waste time, sittin’ around the big city.
Seeing the look on his big son’s face immediately softened Ben’s attitude. “Sorry, son,” he said. “None of this is your fault.”
“Yours, neither, Pa.”
Ben nodded in concession and then asked, “Do we have anything pressing at home?”
Hoss risked a tentative grin. “Nary a thing, Pa.” He knew full well Pa already knew that and guessed what was coming.
“Then we’ll stay here,” Ben said decisively. He’d had all the secondhand reports he could stomach. He’d latch onto his son the minute he debarked from that incoming steamship, and if for some reason Adam didn’t show up, he, at least, would board the next one out for Manzanillo.
Once again, Adam Cartwright stood ready to board a steamship for San Francisco. He’d walked away from the previous opportunity on the sheerest of chances, but what a reward he’d found in that remote Mexican hut! This time, as he boarded, he wouldn’t be alone; this time his brother, once consigned to a watery grave, stood at his side, and within minutes they’d be boarding together, going home together.
Joe seemed calm, ready to face the challenge, but Adam knew the fear lingered, just beneath the surface. Still, his brother had made rapid progress over the last three days, in just about every way. Physically, he was stronger. His ribs, while still tender, were no longer restrained in tight wrappings. His head remained bandaged, but the headaches had decreased, both in frequency and intensity, and he’d been deemed well enough to take his meals in the refectory, instead of the infirmity, where he and Adam had been allowed to continue sleeping for the short time left.
The change that had made, both for Joe and the friars with whom they shared their meals, was astounding. Adam remembered the quiet, sedate meals he’d eaten with the serious young men before Joe came. Gone, vanished—from the first breakfast he’d joined them. Adam wasn’t sure if laughter had ever been heard around that table before, but it had become a fixture in the last few days. Padre Diego had even told him that he now understood why laughter was Adam’s most cherished memory of his brother. “As you said, it cannot be resisted,” the good father said, laughing himself as he did. Yes, it had been good to hear Joe laugh again, and good for him, as well. His whole demeanor was brighter, and though his memory remained spotty, his thinking, at least, was sharper. They’d finally shared a game of chess together, and while Joe had lost, he’d held his own for quite a while.
When the call came to board, Adam turned to his brother. “Ready?” he asked.
Little Joe took a noticeably deep breath and gave a determined nod. “Yeah.”
Adam resisted the urge to take his arm. Joe was strong enough to make it up the gangplank on his own, and he’d feel less a spectacle if he did. Goodness only knew, they were giving their fellow passengers enough to gawk at as it was. He’d long since given his spare shirt to his brother, but the diligent friars had somehow come up with two more for them. Only one actually fit either of them. Both of Adam’s were a tad tight in the shoulders, while Joe’s spare, Adam’s originally, hung on his brother’s scrawnier-than-ever physique. He didn’t deem it prudent to point out that the one garment that fit Joe had probably been donated by a mere boy. It was enough that his brother, at least, would look presentable and, though he didn’t know it yet, even had a pair of American-style shoes to put on for dinner, when passengers tended to dress more formally. That Adam had taken them off a dead man was, again, something he deemed unnecessary for Joe to know.
The Cartwright brothers’ native garb created a ripple of covert whispers among the other passengers of the Sonora, and word soon spread that they were the last survivors of a horrific shipwreck, of which the others had not yet heard, since they were coming from the East. Hoping to avoid curious eyes, Adam quickly inquired of the steward what accommodations had been assigned to them, and he and Joe were escorted to a stateroom. “Please let me know if there’s any way I can be of service,” the sympathetic steward said.
Adam thanked him, and as soon as he’d left, turned to his brother. “You may not like what I’m about to suggest,” he said.
“Uh-oh,” Little Joe said. “That sounds promising.”
Adam gave him a characteristic half-smile. “I won’t insist, but I think it would be a good idea if you climbed straight into your berth.”
Little Joe cocked his head quizzically. “Why?” he asked, more in curiosity than irritation.
Adam took a seat on the opposite berth. “I remember how you suffered from seasickness on the voyage out from New York, so I was thinking it might go easier for you if you spent the first few hours, at least, lying down.”
Little Joe’s mouth worked from side to side, as if chewing on a tough piece of meat. “I’ve spent so much time in bed lately,” he muttered.
“I know.” Adam shrugged. “It’s your choice, buddy.”
“I don’t like it,” Little Joe said, “but I think you might be right. I’m already feeling a mite queasy, just bein’ on a boat.” It was a hard admission to make for a proud young man, but he didn’t feel as much need to put on a brave show for his big brother anymore.
“I think you’ll feel better sooner,” Adam said, rising and turning down the covers, while Little Joe removed his sandals, shirt and pants. Having so few clothes, neither of them thought it a good idea to sleep in fully half their wardrobe.
Little Joe smiled as he sank into the pillow. “This ain’t half bad,” he said.
Adam laughed. “Compared to our quarters in the infirmary, this is pure luxury, my boy.”
Little Joe yawned. “Good people, though, those priests.” He turned on his side, his usual position for sleeping, his breathing slowed, and soon he was deep in slumber.
Adam wasn’t surprised. Probably worried about the voyage, his brother hadn’t slept well the night before. Not wanting to leave him alone this soon, Adam, too, lay down and was surprised that he also fell asleep. For him, it was only a short nap, however, and he slipped out to determine what provision the company had made for their stay aboard ship. There’d be no money for extras or tips, and what they could eat and what services might be available to them were not subjects he wished to broach in Joe’s hearing.
“I’ll inquire for you, sir,” the steward said when Adam asked his questions, “and if there’s anything I personally can do, you have only to ask. No tipping required or even desired, sir.”
After the reluctant help he’d received from company officials in Manzanillo, the young man’s kindness raised a lump in Adam’s throat. “My brother is still recovering from his injuries,” he said, “and he’s given to seasickness, as well. I doubt he can handle much beyond broth this evening.”
“That won’t be a problem, sir,” the steward said. “Before or after your own dinner?”
“Before, I think . . . and thank you.” He started to return to his room, but turned back. “Oh, and if you or any of the crew has any reading material I could borrow, it would be most appreciated.”
The steward smiled. “I am a reader, sir,” he said, “and would gladly loan you anything I have. If you could give me some idea . . .”
Adam chuckled. “Anything . . . the more adventurous, the better.” He almost added, “Preferably not the Bible,” but fearing to be misunderstood, he left that unvoiced. Not that he didn’t revere the Good Book, but he thought Little Joe had had enough of those well-known tales for at least a month.
Little Joe was still sleeping when the steward returned with a piping hot bowl of beef broth and a thin book. “Was this, perhaps, the sort of thing you had in mind, sir?” he asked, showing him the title after handing him the broth.
Adam recognized the orange cover of a Beadle’s dime novel, the kind Joe relished and he hated. “Perfect,” he said. “I don’t believe we’ve read this one.”
“Just printed last month, sir,” the young steward said with pride. “A friend from the eastern line passed it on to me.”
“Thank you for the loan,” Adam said.
“Oh, no, sir, you may keep it.” He started to leave and then thought of a second message he needed to deliver. “I checked with the captain, sir, and he says you are to feel free to order anything you desire for meals, and should you need laundry done or any other amenity, you have only to ask. There’ll be no additional cost.”
“Very kind,” Adam said, genuinely moved. “I’m afraid we will need the laundry service, as we have only one change of clothing, and, well, you see what it’s like.”
“Yes, sir. Please don’t be concerned. Everyone will understand why you don’t dress for dinner, sir.”
Adam thanked him again and the steward left. Setting down the bowl of broth, he ran the back of his fingers against Joe’s cheek to wake him. “Hey, little buddy,” he said when his brother looked blearily up at him. “Ready for supper?”
Little Joe moaned. “I think I’m . . . sick.”
“It’s just broth; it’ll help.”
“Yeah, I remember.”
Seeing his brother trying to rise, Adam helped him sit up in bed. “If you can feed yourself,” he said, “I have a surprise for you.” When Joe took the bowl, he took the small paper-backed book from his own berth and said, “Ta da!” as he held it aloft in triumph.
Little Joe’s eyes lit up when he saw the familiar orange cover. “How?”
“A gift from the steward,” Adam said. “You eat and I’ll read.” He looked at the title and then read it aloud, “Cedar Swamp; or Wild Nat’s Brigade by William R. Eyster.” He flipped a page and turned the book so Joe could see the melodramatic illustration of a young woman and a prone man, fending off an attack from a mounted ruffian. Another page revealed the subtitle, which he again read aloud: “A Tale of Tory Treachery and Patriot Bravery. Sounds like a Revolutionary War adventure.” That, at least, had some potential for being interesting, although sensationalized to the hilt, he suspected. He turned to the opening page and began to read: “There was a time in the history of our country when the stoutest hearts were filled with fear.” The author introduced the heroine in the first paragraph, a young woman of nineteen, who though described as “not absolutely beautiful,” sounded like it with her golden hair “seldom seen save in poet’s dreams” and her voice “as musical and clear as the notes of a flute.”
Oh, boy, Adam thought. I’m in for it. However, he could see that his brother was already drawn in—who could blame him with a description like that?—and was spooning in broth without worry for whether it stayed down. Satisfied, Adam read on.
He finished the chapter just as eight bells rang, so he closed the book.
“Aw, Adam. It’s just getting good,” Little Joe said with a pout.
“It’s all we’ve got, buddy. Best space it out,” Adam said, not entirely selflessly. He wasn’t sure he could take this story in anything other than small doses. “Besides, you heard the bells. I would like to get some dinner myself.”
“Oh, yeah. Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”
“That’s okay. I won’t be gone long.”
The moment he stepped into the dining saloon, everyone knew who he was; his apparel was a dead giveaway that this was one of the passengers who had been shipwrecked. The other gentlemen were all wearing tropics-friendly linen suits, not a loose peasant shirt and trousers, and they sported balmorals, instead of rope-and-leather sandals. Far from being a detraction, however, his garb marked him as a most desirable table guest. After sharing each other’s company for more than two weeks, the other passengers welcomed anyone with new stories to tell, and this new passenger was bound to have a particularly exciting one. Not wanting to repeat his trials on the outbound journey, he spotted a table where only men were seated (not hard to find on this voyage) and asked if he might join them. He was welcomed enthusiastically.
They gave him a few minutes to peruse the handwritten menu, but Adam quickly made his choice, guided by one resolution: nothing resembling frijoles, not even green beans. Not wanting to take advantage of the captain’s generosity, Adam selected only red snapper with tomato sauce and side dishes of peas and corn. As soon as he’d ordered, the first, somewhat discreet questions began. “If it’s not too painful,” one, more thoughtful, man added.
“I’m quite willing to answer your questions, gentlemen,” Adam said congenially, “and this is the best time to do so. You see, my young brother was severely injured in the accident and is still recovering, so I would prefer that he be left in peace and all your questions be directed to me.”
“Well, he needn’t have kept to his room to avoid us,” another man said huffily.
“He’s only keeping to his room because he’s prone to seasickness,” Adam replied, not allowing his irritation to show.
“I suffered a touch of mal de mer myself, when we left New York,” a third man said, “so I certainly sympathize. Perhaps the young man will feel up to joining us tomorrow, and we will certainly not trouble him with any questions.” After a pause he added with just a touch of suggestion, “I’m sure you’ve had enough trouble already.”
“We have, indeed,” Adam said, and as they waited for the meals to arrive, he began by saying, “We had just sat down to dinner, as we are now, when I realized that something had gone wrong.” As he told his story, they hung on every word, for as each of his brothers could testify, Adam was an excellent storyteller, who knew how to build suspense and heighten drama. Each man at the table felt he was fighting that fire alongside the intrepid Adam Cartwright, and they almost felt the spray of salt water as they mentally leaped with him into the foaming sea at the last minute before the ship exploded.
Although he’d been gone no more than an hour, Adam felt drained when he returned to the stateroom. He’d outdone himself in feeding his fellow passengers all the excitement he hoped they had need of. By morning, he assumed the story would have circulated throughout the ship, and he hoped the appetite for more detail would have been satiated. It had taken a lot out of him, to share so much of their private affairs, but if it spared his brother the same invasion, he’d be satisfied. Seeing that Little Joe had again fallen asleep, he lay down in his own berth and was surprised by how quickly he, too, drifted off.
He was wakened abruptly by a piercing cry. Instantly alert, he threw back the covers and crossed the small space in two steps. “Joe,” he said, urgently tapping his brother’s cheeks. “Joe! Wake up!”
Joe did, wild-eyed, as he threw back his own covers and tried to get out of bed. When Adam restrained him, he became even more frantic. “We have to get off the ship, Adam,” he cried. “It’s on fire!”
“No, no, it’s not, Joe,” Adam said. “You’re dreaming, boy. There’s no danger.”
“Danger,” Joe repeated. “Fire . . . and . . . and water. So much water, Adam!”
“No,” Adam repeated more firmly. “It’s a nightmare, Joe. The fire, the water— they’re in the past. Not now.”
“Not now?” Joe asked, clutching his brother’s arm.
“Not now,” Adam assured him. “Long past, on the first ship, not this one. You’re safe, boy.”
Little Joe lay back, panting. “Don’t . . . feel . . . safe.”
“But you are.” A tap on the door to their stateroom prevented Adam from saying more. With a reassuring pat to Joe’s shoulder, he went to answer it and saw their friend, the steward, looking anxious.
“Is all well, sir?” the young man asked. “I thought I heard . . . screaming.”
“We’re fine,” Adam said. Lowering his voice, he added, “A nightmare—reliving the previous accident, probably brought on by the feel of the sea beneath him.”
“Oh.” The steward’s face reflected both comprehension and empathy. “Is there anything I can do, sir?”
“No,” Adam started to say, but then thought to ask, “Would it be possible to have a cup of warm tea?” Given his brother’s queasy stomach, he didn’t want to risk the more traditional hot milk, but thought something warm might be soothing.
“Oh, yes, sir,” the steward assured him. “Right away.” He didn’t mention that the galley was closed and he’d have to brew it himself.
Closing the door, Adam turned back to his brother and was concerned to see tears on his face. “Joe?”
“I’m sorry,” Little Joe said, voice quavering.
Adam wiped his cheeks with a light touch. “No need. It was just a nightmare. You know that now.” He spoke calmly, using the same method he’d applied to help his brother through so many nightmares back home. Short sentences, logical words were usually enough to let Joe drop back to sleep. His father’s way was different. Pa always wanted to get to the root of the night terror by having Joe relate his dream, which in this case Adam already knew, and in any case only seemed to keep Joe awake longer. As for Hoss, he wasn’t sure how he handled Joe’s nightmares. The big fellow was such a sound sleeper that, most times, either oldest brother or father tended to reach Joe first.
Another tap on the door announced the steward’s return. Adam took the cup of tea from him with thanks. “Thanks, as well, for the book,” he said, adding confidingly, “He loves it.”
The young steward grinned widely. “It’s prime, isn’t it?”
“Oh, yes.” In Joe’s eyes, at least, Adam thought, excusing the lie he’d just uttered. Closing the door, he brought the tea to his brother. “Here, try this,” he suggested. “It might help.” He helped his brother sit up, and as he sipped the warm drink, Adam sat behind him with an arm snaked around his shoulders. “Want to sleep?” he asked when Joe had emptied the cup.
“No,” Little Joe said with a shudder. “I’d rather stay awake.”
Adam could have argued the logic of that as a long-term solution, but he didn’t. “Shall we see how things are going for Catherine Vale?” he asked and was rewarded with an eager nod as he reached for the book.
Adam lay in his berth, counting the chimes of the ship’s bell. He groaned when their number reached eight and, pulling himself up, staggered to the wash stand. He’d finally managed to read Joe to sleep, but it had taken a long time, and as a consequence, he’d had little rest himself. The figure staring back at him from the mirror screwed to the wall looked haggard and much in need of a haircut. With a wry grin, he glanced at Joe, who was beginning to resemble, to adopt Pa’s chief denunciation, a riverboat gambler. They’d both need haircuts first thing when they reached San Francisco. Well, maybe not first. First, a telegram to Pa, to tell him they were alive and back on American soil and then the haircuts or, maybe, a decent doctor for Joe and then the haircuts. It was a tossup which of the two his little brother would complain about the loudest, but either way, he was getting both, no argument.
He lifted the heavy pitcher and poured enough water into the basin to wash his face; then he took the brush from the tray and finished grooming as best he could and pulled on the same shirt he’d worn the day before. He’d change into the other for supper and see if the helpful steward could arrange for this one to be laundered overnight. If not, both he and Joe were going to smell pretty rank by the time they left the ship.
Leaving his brother to sleep, he left the stateroom, eager for his first American breakfast in better than two weeks. He greeted his table companions of the night before and scanned the menu in hope. Ah, satisfaction. Beef steak with fried potatoes and eggs and buttered toast. There were other choices, of course, but this morning Adam wanted nothing fancy, just solid food and plenty of it.
He was halfway through the meal and enjoying learning about his tablemate’s backgrounds when one of them stopped mid-sentence to ask, “Would that be your young brother, Mr. Cartwright? He looks a little lost.”
Adam turned to look behind him and said, “Yes, that’s Joe. If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen . . .”
“We can make room, if he wants to join us,” another man offered and Adam nodded his appreciation as he stood. Crossing the room, he came to Joe’s side, noting the relief on his brother’s face as he reached him. “Did you need something, buddy?” he asked. “I wouldn’t have left, but after the rough night I thought you’d sleep awhile.”
Little Joe looked pained at the apology. “I just wondered if . . . I could have something to eat?”
“Of course! If you feel up to it.”
Little Joe moistened his lips. “I’m kind of hungry. Don’t know if it’ll stay down, but . . .”
“Order something light, and if you start to feel queasy, tug on my shirt sleeve, and I’ll get you back to the room, okay?”
“Okay. Thanks,” Little Joe said, relieved at having a graceful way out.
Adam led him back to the table. Someone had motioned the steward over, so Joe was able to place his order for a scrambled egg and plain toast right away, and Adam had barely introduced him to the other men when the food arrived. They had apparently taken his request to leave his brother in peace to heart, for they made only the most innocuous remarks to Joe, who seemed almost shy at that first meal. Assuming that was because he was focused on keeping the food down, Adam didn’t worry. Knowing Joe, the quietness wouldn’t last long, once he was feeling better.
All but one of their tablemates had excused himself and left by the time Little Joe finished eating. As Adam stood, the other man did, too, and asked if he might have a word. Seeing Adam look hesitant and certain he was the cause, Little Joe said, “I’m all right, Adam.”
“I’ll see you in the room, then,” Adam said. Briefly, he followed his brother with his eyes, and then, satisfied that Joe seemed steady, he turned to his fellow passenger. “How may I help you, Mr. Prescott?”
Prescott chuckled. “I had more in mind to help you, Mr. Cartwright, if you wouldn’t be offended.” When Adam cocked his head inquiringly, he continued, “I hope you don’t mind, but the other fellows and I were discussing your . . . uh, clothing situation, and well, we thought, between us, we might round up a change or two. I mean, while San Francisco winters are fairly mild, sir, still it’s not the tropics, and you might need something warmer, at the latest by the time you debark.”
Adam bowed his head momentarily, but raised it again almost at once. While he disliked being an object of charity as much as the next man, he’d learned early in life that sometimes a man . . . or the boy traveling with him . . . needed help. Pa’d struggled with that until he’d had Inger to sweeten the lesson, and Adam had absorbed it right along with him. Now, again, a man . . . and the boy traveling with him . . . needed help, and he wouldn’t be too proud to accept it. “I’d be most grateful,” he said simply.
Prescott exhaled in relief. “Very good. I’m not sure what we can do for your young brother, he being so much smaller than any of us, but surely someone . . .”
“I hope so,” Adam said. “My chief concern is for him, and I’d best get back to him now. Again, I thank you.”
As he entered their stateroom, he saw his brother lying atop his berth. “Joe?” he asked as he crossed the small space.
“It’s okay,” Little Joe said. “Just felt a touch queasy, but better now. What’d that man want?”
“To offer us some warmer clothing”—Adam chuckled—“which, of course, we can use.”
Little Joe gave him a lopsided grin. “Beggars can’t be choosers?” he joked, using what had become a catch phrase between him and Adam.
“No, and they can’t be picky, either.” The arch in Adam’s eyebrow told his brother he was serious.
“Yeah, I know, and I’ll be glad to have something besides this.” Little Joe plucked his loose shirt front. “Not that I wasn’t grateful to get it,” he added. “Definitely better than goin’ naked, which I was close to doin’.” His mouth twisted wryly. “When I think how I fought taking all those things Mrs. Pontpier bought me . . . what I wouldn’t give for one of those suits now. They were the best I ever had.” There was no missing the wistful longing in his voice.
“I know.” Adam laid a hand on Joe’s forearm, and he resolved then and there to contact Mrs. Pontpier for the name of her tailor. No doubt he’d have records of the suits purchased for the Pontpiers’ guest and probably could make an exact replica. Adam added such a suit for Joe to his list of things to take care of when they finally reached home, along with gifts of gratitude to Padre Diego, the Mendoza family, the helpful young steward, Prescott—well, more people than he could count, much less repay, and they wouldn’t expect it, anyway. He’d run into a few people along this hazardous journey who’d been anything but helpful, but so many who had done far more than expected, and it still astounded him that it was those who had the least who’d given the most. It was humbling, but in a good way; he knew, once he was safe home, he’d pay a lot more attention to the needs of those around him, and like receiving charity when needed, giving freely was a good lesson to absorb.
“Well, what’s it to be?” he asked, shaking himself from his reverie. “Story or, perhaps, a game of chess?”
“Story,” Little Joe said, turning on his side to face his brother. “Chess later, maybe.”
Adam nodded and picking up the book, he kicked off his sandals and stretched out on his own berth to take up again the adventures of Wild Nat and the fair Catherine Vale. In the spirit of giving freely, he managed not to sigh.
Adam yawned prodigiously as he wakened. He hadn’t intended to go to sleep, but like Joe, who was still dead to the world, he’d had a short night. He’d read to the end of the chapter once Joe fell asleep, but hated to get too far ahead of the kid, and since he had nothing else to do, he, too, had nodded off again. As the ship’s bell began to sound, he counted the number of rings—seven. Thirty minutes until lunch, so it was time to wake his brother. “Want something to eat?” he asked as he roused the sleepyhead.
“Yeah, I think so,” Little Joe said as he swung his legs over the side of the berth.
“And afterwards, we might take a turn about the deck,” Adam suggested.
Little Joe looked dubious. “I don’t know about that.”
“It’ll do you good,” Adam reasoned, “and logically . . .”
“Oh, stuff your logic,” Little Joe muttered irritably.
Remembering that Joe was never at his best on just awakening, Adam took tight hold on his patience. “My dear boy,” he began.
“I’m not your dear boy,” Little Joe snapped.
Adam took a deep breath, determined not to lose his temper, and then something struck his funny bone. “Well, to be precise,” he said, chuckling, “that is exactly what you are: a boy . . .” He saw Joe bristle as he paused for emphasis, and his voice softened as he added, “and very dear to me.” He hesitated a moment and then decided to take the plunge. “I know it’s not a thing men customarily say to each other . . . but I love you, kid.”
Remembering all the small kindnesses Adam had shown him since they were reunited after the shipwreck, Little Joe’s posture relaxed. “Well, yeah, me, too,” he said awkwardly and then with a crooked smile, he added, “Okay, let’s hear the logic.”
Adam was quick to accept the invitation. “Fresh air is a proven tonic,” he said, “and you’ve always felt better when you could see the shoreline.”
“I didn’t think you’d noticed,” Joe said, surprised.
“Well, I did, although I admit I wasn’t paying the attention I should have in the earlier part of our voyage.” After a momentary pause, he risked the word so unwelcome moments before. “So, logically, a short walk in the sea air, within sight of land, should make you feel better, not worse. And, of course, we can come below whenever you say, little buddy.”
Whether it was the logic or the affectionate use of the pet name, the question was carried, and the two brothers quickly brushed through their hair, tucked in their shirts and headed to the dining saloon on the stroke of the eighth bell. Little Joe still ate lightly, but he was feeling much more congenial, and the men sharing their table soon learned that the younger Cartwright, while very different from his brother, was just as welcome a companion.
While the others were conversing, Prescott, seated to Adam’s left, said, “We’re making progress on the clothing project, although shoes are proving to be a challenge, especially in the smaller size.”
“He has shoes,” Adam said quietly, “so don’t trouble yourself on that score.”
Little Joe had caught the response, and when Prescott went back to his meal, he leaned close to Adam and said, “I do?”
“Eavesdropper,” Adam teased. “Yes, you do.”
“From the church?” Joe guessed.
Adam was tempted to lie, but settled for a half-truth. “Washed up on shore, like the chess set,” he said. “I used them for a couple of days, but they pinch my toes, so you’re welcome to them.”
“Oh,” Joe said and, to Adam’s relief, asked no further questions.
The walk on deck was successful, defined by Joe as anything that didn’t end with him losing his lunch over the ship’s rail. Adam saw more benefits in the renewed color in his brother’s cheeks and the brighter outlook and heightened interest in all around him. When Prescott came by their stateroom that afternoon to deliver the clothes he’d collected, Little Joe was downright enthusiastic. They each changed into a new outfit for supper, as most passengers did, and with the addition of the balmorals, Little Joe was practically strutting like a peacock again as they approached their table. In fact, he looked ready to chase skirts . . . if there’d been any. Almost the entire shipload this voyage was male, with the exception of a few married ladies, a circumstance for which Adam was profoundly grateful. Keeping his young brother free of romantic entanglements was, at least, one challenge he wouldn’t have to face in the final few days before they reached San Francisco.
Hearing movement in the berth opposite his own, Adam asked, “Joe? You awake?”
“Yeah, but don’t worry.”
Adam smiled into the darkness. “Anxious to debark tomorrow?”
“I guess,” Little Joe admitted, rolling onto his side to converse with his brother. “How—uh, mad you think Pa’s gonna be?”
Adam chuckled. “With you? Not at all, as long as you lose that riverboat gambler look by the time you see him.”
Little Joe absently twirled a lock of his hair, which was now longer than even he liked. “I don’t know. There’s something to be said for Samson’s style, you know. Might make me strong as Hoss.” Then, to let Adam know he was only teasing, he asked, “Will you advance me the money for a haircut?”
“It’s on me,” Adam said, “soon as we reach San Francisco.”
“No problem.” That phrase could have described their recent time together, especially the five days since leaving Manzanillo. Adam hated to risk their newfound companionship, but there was something he’d long wanted to ask his brother, and this would be his best chance to settle the major point of friction between them. Once they left the ship, they’d want to head back to the Ponderosa as soon as possible. They’d have at least one night in San Francisco, of course, but they were so close and congenial now that Adam decided to take the risk. The darkness and the closeness of their berths somehow made it easier.
“Joe,” he ventured, “may I ask you something?”
There was a long moment of silence before Joe responded. “Well, brother, if you got to ask permission, it’s probably something I won’t want to answer, right?”
“Possibly,” Adam admitted, “and you can say no, even after you hear the question.”
It wasn’t like Adam to be so reticent; that he was heightened Joe’s tension, but also his natural curiosity. “Go ahead,” he said tentatively.
“Why did you ask me not to marry Lily?” Adam asked softly. “And please don’t sugar-coat it.” He heard the breath catch in his brother’s throat and was glad he couldn’t see the expression that went with it.
After a long silence, Little Joe said, voice thick with regret and something else Adam couldn’t define, “Aw, Adam, we was gettin’ along so good.”
“That won’t stop, I promise,” Adam said. It was a bold promise, considering he had no idea what his brother would say, but he was determined.
Another long silence and then, with a cracking voice, “I was bein’ such a kid.”
Glad once more that Joe couldn’t see him, Adam grinned. For Joe, with his oft-stated assertions of manhood, there could be no greater concession. “Maybe,” he said, “but I’d like to understand why you disliked her so much.”
“I didn’t dislike her,” Little Joe said. “She was . . . perfect for you. That was the problem.”
That threw Adam. “Perfect is a problem?”
“Doggone right!” Little Joe sputtered. “You was gonna leave!”
The flash of insight was like a bolt of lightning hitting the room, and the revelation so vivid he wondered how he could have missed it before. In his mind’s eye, he saw a curly-headed four-year-old, tears streaking his cheeks, as he waved goodbye to another boy only a couple of years older than Joe was now. A kid, really, though he wouldn’t have admitted it then. “Leave the Ponderosa, you mean?” Adam knew exactly what his brother meant, and it wasn’t only that, but he didn’t want to forestall the conversation before it got started. When Joe didn’t answer, he said slowly, “We don’t know that would’ve happened.”
“Sure we do,” Little Joe scoffed. “An eastern gal, who loves all the cultural stuff you do? You think she’d be happy, ridin’ and ropin’ alongside you?”
“Well, maybe not ropin’,” Adam said, allowing himself another little chuckle. Then he sighed. “That, of course, was the problem. I wasn’t certain—nor was she—that she could be happy out West or, conversely, that I was ready to give it up for her.”
“You weren’t?” Having thought there was no question, Little Joe sounded surprised.
“I wasn’t sure,” Adam said, growing dreamy as he thought of what might have been. “There was love between us, Joe, but enough to face the challenges of two such different worlds? We just didn’t have enough time together to answer that, so we decided to part.”
“Not because of me?” The question was loaded with guilt.
Adam was quick to assuage it. “Not because of you. We just weren’t ready to commit to each other. We’ll correspond, but for now, that’s all.” He paused and then decided to broach what he considered the root of the problem. “I can’t promise I’ll never leave you, Joe, but I can promise that, even if I do, you’ll be all right. You’ve got the makings of a fine man.”
Little Joe sounded amused and only a little miffed. “Just the makings, huh? Not there yet?”
“Not quite there, nor was I at your age,” Adam said, “but the signs are plain. Look at the way you handled yourself when that fire broke out. Unlike most of the male passengers, you battled it right alongside the crew.”
“Just doin’ like you,” Little Joe muttered.
The remark, said so quietly, gratified Adam, who’d always felt a responsibility to set a good example for his younger brothers. “But I didn’t search that burning ship for a wayward boy; I didn’t toss him over at the last minute at the risk of my own life. That was you, kid.”
“Huh? I . . . don’t remember that.”
Adam sighed. That cursed concussion. Joe wouldn’t like it, but they might have to stay over in San Francisco an extra day for a doctor’s visit. “Well, you did it,” he said. “You saved Mark Davis’s life, Joe, and I shouldn’t have called you a kid. There were men twice your age on that ship who didn’t show half your courage and manliness.” Adam heard the sigh of satisfaction, and knew he’d successfully navigated the choppy waves of that conversation, but what came next took him off guard.
“Uh, Adam? Who’s Mark Davis?” Hearing his brother stifling a moan, Little Joe let loose his characteristic jaybird cackle. “Just kiddin’. I remember him, just not that stuff you said I did.”
Adam responded with a full-throated groan this time. If Joe was alert enough to pull that kind of joke, maybe they could skip the doctor visit, especially since Pa’d probably send for Paul Martin as soon as they reached the Ponderosa, anyway. The brothers said good night after that, but neither went directly to sleep. Whether it was the excitement of leaving ship the next day or the satisfaction of the harmony between them, each was lost in thoughts that kept him dreamy, but not fully asleep for another hour or so.
“Oh, for goodness’ sakes!” Adam protested. “Will you quit hogging that mirror? I’d like to brush my hair, too, you know.” After their short night, both brothers had indulged in an after-lunch nap and needed to get the tousles out before presenting themselves to the citizens of San Francisco.
Little Joe turned from the round mirror on the wall between their berths. “But, Adam, it’s important to look our best. There might be girls meetin’ this boat!”
“And they’ll probably think you’re one of them, given the length of those curls.” Adam laughed at the scowl that met that jibe. “The trousers might give them a moment’s pause, of course.”
Little Joe smiled down at the woolen trousers donated by one of the smaller stewards. “Pretty sharp lookin’, huh?”
“Pretty sharp,” Adam agreed, although in truth they were a little too long and a lot too loose. It was an improvement, however, and at least the shoes fit perfectly. He hadn’t been quite as lucky as his little brother in the shoe department, but had fared better with his clothing. Prescott had been almost as tall as he, and he even had a suit coat from another passenger that came close to accommodating his broad shoulders.
With a final brush of his unruly curls, Little Joe relinquished the mirror and finished putting his few belongings, including one treasured orange-backed volume, into the bag the friars had given Adam. Then he sat on the side of his berth for the final time and waited, with what amounted to patience for him, for Adam to complete his grooming. Then, together, they left their stateroom behind and headed up the stairs to join all the other passengers on deck, though none, they were sure, were as eager to debark as they.
“Do you see him?” Ben asked, peering past one head and then another to scan the passengers on the deck of the Sonora.
“Not yet,” Hoss said. “He’ll be there, Pa.” Adam had to be there, ‘cause if he wasn’t, him and Pa’d be on the next boat out, and he wasn’t sure he had a single drop of Pa’s salt water in his veins.
“Yes, yes, of course, he’ll be there.” Ben wasn’t as certain as he sounded. His heart felt hollow, like a bell without a clapper, but that would change as soon as he saw his elder son. Adam, at least, was spared to him, and while no one son could fill the place of another, his heart could begin to ring again, even if its tolling were muffled with loss.
So many passengers were crowding the rail of that ship, but Adam, with his greater-than-average height, should be easy to spot. Finally, Hoss, better able to look over the heads of their own crowd than Ben, thought he caught a glimpse of his brother, but before he could be sure, the man turned his back. The hair on his hatless head was the right color, but he wouldn’t say anything to Pa until he was sure. Then he saw the man draw another, smaller fellow, from behind him to the ship’s rail, and Hoss felt his heart rise clean up into his throat and stop there. “Pa,” he managed to choke out. “Pa, look!”
“Do you see him?” Ben asked again, as he craned his neck to see from Hoss’s perspective.
“Not just him.” Hoss was too breathless to say more.
Ben followed his big son’s pointing finger, and his hollow heart began to ring with a whole carillon of bells as he whispered, in awe, “Joseph.” Then, with glazed eyes, “But . . . how?”
Hoss shook his head in wonder. Then he grinned and said, “Aw, Pa. You oughta know you can’t kill little brother.”
The glaze was replaced with a reproachful look. Then, realizing how often that had proven true in his youngest’s short life, he began to laugh, as everything fell into place. The details could wait. He knew now why Adam had missed that first boat home, and the days of anxious waiting were all forgiven.
Hoss took off his big, easily distinguished hat and waved it aloft as he shouted out first one brother’s name and then the other. He saw Adam pointing toward shore, and then Little Joe was whooping and waving, with Adam pulling him back lest he tumble overboard in his excitement. Finally, the gangplank was lowered and each half of the family pressed toward the other.
They met in an explosion of enthusiasm from the youngest Cartwright that was echoed in calmer style by the others. “Pa!” Little Joe cried, all fears of adverse reaction forgotten as he fell into his father’s arms.
“Joseph . . . my boy,” Ben murmured, his son-starved fingers stroking the overlong chestnut mane, which he noticed, but could not have cared less about. “‘This, my son, was dead and is alive,’” he thought, relating to the father of the prodigal son as he never had before.
As he continued to cling to his youngest son, Adam shrugged toward Hoss with a wry smile meant to communicate, “‘Twas ever thus.”
Hoss understood what the gesture meant, if not in those words, and he said quietly, so as not to disturb his little brother’s reunion, “We knew you was alive.”
Adam gasped and then nodded. Of course. He’d lived so long with the knowledge of Joe’s resurrection that he’d forgotten his family wouldn’t know, that for them, it would be as dramatic a revelation as it had been for him the day he stood in line to board another ship and first heard that message of hope, “Hay un muchacho.”
It seemed an eternity before Ben Cartwright remembered he had another son and turned to embrace him. “Adam, son,” he breathed. “So glad you’re home safe.”
As Adam moved into his father’s arms, he saw Hoss reaching for Little Joe and automatically warned, “Watch the ribs!” He hadn’t worried about Pa, but wasn’t sure Joe’s ribs could take one of Hoss’s renowned bear hugs.
“Huh?” Hoss asked, pulling back.
Little Joe threw his arms around Hoss in what was more a cub hug than that of a full-grown bear. “Oh, forget him,” he said with a chiding look toward Adam. “Older brother’s turned into a worse father hen than Pa.”
“That takes some doin’,” Hoss said, as his arms closed gingerly around his little brother. When it came to who to believe in cases like this, he’d bet on Adam every time. When the embraces of all four ended, he suggested, “Hey! How ‘bout we take you fellows out for a good solid meal?” He gave Little Joe’s scrawny ribs a feather-light punch. “This one sure could use it.”
Adam, who still couldn’t forget his lean days in Manzanillo, didn’t hesitate. “I’m all for the solid meal,” he said, “if I can pick the place.”
“Aw,” Hoss said with a pout, “I was thinking of the Cobweb Palace.”
“You always do,” Adam said dryly. “I promised myself that when I brought Joe back to San Francisco, I’d take him to Ma Tante’s.”
The pout disappeared, replaced by a toothy grin broad enough to encompass the entire waterfront. “That French place? Oh, yeah!” Adam had taken Hoss there once, and the fond memories still lingered.
“French” was enough to whet even Little Joe’s still tentative appetite, and the family was soon following Adam to the restaurant. As he drew near, he found himself hoping a certain young reporter might have elected to dine there this evening. Did he have a story to tell him!
© July, 2020
Tags: Adam Cartwright, Angst, Joe / Little Joe Cartwright
For those who may have forgotten (or never read Part 2 of this series), the young reporter referenced in the final paragraph once tried to interview a reluctant Adam Cartwright, whose skills as a cowboy had just rescued a mother and child from a wayward cow. Learning of the youth’s fledgling status with the newspaper, Adam later regretted his refusal, but now has an opportunity to make up for it with an even bigger story. It should be quite a scoop!
While the Golden Dream is a fictitious steamship, its wreck in this story is modeled closely on that of the Golden Gate, which caught fire and sank July 22, 1862. To read the real story, I recommend this website: http://freepages.rootsweb.com/~ssgoldengate/misc/ and for further details from survivors, follow the internal links. Both the Northern Light and the Sonora, as well as the tug Tabogo, are actual vessels in use at the time of this story.
Other Stories by this Author
- East, West: Home’s Best–The Easterner (by Puchi Ann)
- East, West: Home’s Best–The Westerners (by Puchi Ann)
- We’ll Be Home for Christmas (by Puchi Ann)
- Centennial! Journey of Discovery (by Puchi Ann)
- It’s A Bonanza-ful Life (by Puchi Ann)