Summary: A silent killer stalks the streets of Virginia City, and all Ben Cartwright’s sons are at risk.
Word Count: 14,210
Damp . . . dark . . . shivery cold . . . miserable. Good! He deserved it. Maybe it would be enough.
A month earlier . . .
Ben Cartwright clamped a firm hand on the slumped shoulder of his friend. “You look like you have the weight of the world on those shoulders, Paul,” he said, when the good doctor turned around. “Been delivering babies into the wee hours of the night?” It was an old joke between them, for even though men outnumbered women three to one in the town atop Sun Mountain, the doctor always seemed to be delivering a baby when the Cartwrights had dire need of him.
Dr. Martin gave him a wan smile. “I wish,” he said with all sincerity. Even the longest, hardest delivery would be child’s play, compared to what actually faced him and the citizens of Virginia City.
“Let me buy you a drink,” Ben said, sensing his weary-eyed friend could use a stimulant.
“Maybe later,” the doctor said. Then his eyes brightened. “You’re still on the school board, aren’t you, Ben?”
“Probably doomed to it until Little Joe finishes school,” Ben said with a sour twist of his mouth. Oh, he didn’t really mind the responsibility and considered it, in fact, an honor to serve, but the monthly meetings always seemed to come when he was most tied down with the ranch. At least, with Adam back from college, he had an able surrogate to send in his place or, if his vote were genuinely needed, to leave in charge of the Ponderosa. The boy had come home with a good head on his shoulders, even if it was crammed with newfangled ideas that weren’t altogether practical in his father’s opinion.
“I can use your help, then,” Dr. Martin said. “I was on my way to the schoolhouse. There’s a problem.” Catching sight of the look on Ben’s face, he smiled. “No, it’s not Little Joe, at least I hope not.”
Ben felt embarrassed at his reaction, but who could blame him? His youngest had a penchant for trouble, both in school and out. He straightened his shoulders. “What is the problem and how can I help?”
Paul Martin sobered at once. “There’s been an outbreak of measles.”
Breath caught in Ben’s throat. When he was able to release it, he said, “Measles. Oh, Paul. How many cases?”
“Five that I know of here,” Dr. Martin said. “I wired some colleagues in Genoa and Carson City; another eight or nine cases. No response from Dayton yet, but you can probably add a few more there and in other outlying communities. I assume you know how contagious it is?”
“Oh, yes,” Ben said. “It went on a rampage on board ship when I was a cabin boy.”
“In close quarters like that, it would,” the doctor agreed. “You?”
“Yes, I had it,” Ben said. “Light case, but several of my mates weren’t so lucky. Three died.”
Dr. Martin nodded. “It can be a killer. That’s why I was on my way to the school, to recommend closing it down. In a way, a school is worse than a ship packed with sailors. The little “mates” make port every night to share it with their families, and it can quickly get out of hand. Can I count on your support with Miss Jones?”
As he pictured the measles racing through Virginia City and, perhaps, even the Ponderosa, Ben spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “Of course,” he finally answered, “but I’m only one member of the board. I can’t speak for them all.”
“Shouldn’t have to,” the doctor said. “Between us, I think we can exert enough influence to close it for the rest of the day. Then, this being Friday, we have the weekend to schedule a meeting of the board to make it formal.”
“Yes, yes, that should work,” Ben said, still feeling a little dazed.
Dr. Martin quickly perceived that his friend’s concern was for something more personal than just the community. “You’re not likely to take it a second time yourself, of course, but I know for a fact that Little Joe hasn’t had it. And, well, neither has Hoss, at least since I’ve known him. He was very young then, so I’m assuming he’s never had it, either.”
Ben sighed. “No, nor Adam. All my boys are at risk.”
“All the more reason to get Little Joe home, then, and not risk further exposure.”
Ben agreed, although he wasn’t looking forward to confining his youngest to the ranch. Little Joe, naturally, would take that as punishment, when the ones actually being punished were him, Hoss and Adam, who’d have to put up with the restless youngster. Maybe he could come up with some creative chores to keep the boy busy, but he couldn’t think about that now, as he and the doctor walked toward the schoolhouse.
Little Joe, along with all but the most diligent students, looked up when he heard the door open, and his eyes widened with surprise when he saw his father enter and then narrowed with puzzled concern when the doctor followed him in. Much as he liked Doc Martin, when he came to dinner or for a game of chess with Pa, he hated him just as much when he came carrying his black bag of horrors . . . like he was now.
“I wonder if we might have a word, Miss Jones,” Ben said, trying to keep his voice pleasant. “It might be best if the children could have an early, or possibly a second, recess so that we can speak privately.”
“Well, if it’s important, Mr. Cartwright,” Miss Jones said hesitantly. She disliked disrupting her students’ routine and wouldn’t have done it for just anyone, but as Dr. Martin had suspected, a member of the board carried considerable weight.
“It’s important,” the doctor said.
Fear flickered in the teacher’s eyes as she correctly read who was actually making this unusual request. “Of course.” Walking to the center of the room, she said, “Attention, students. There will be another short recess this morning, so please line up as usual and leave the classroom in an orderly fashion.” She frowned into silence the whoops that greeted her announcement. Eager to leave, all the students formed their lines and proceeded to march out.
As his youngest passed him, Ben pulled him out of line. “I’d like you to stay, son.”
“Why, Pa?” Little Joe protested. “It’s recess!” With a small pout, he added, “And I’ve been good.”
“I know,” Ben soothed, “but . . .” He really didn’t know how to finish without upsetting the boy more.
“Somewhat akin to closing the barn door after the horse gets out, Ben,” Dr. Martin observed with a wry smile.
Ben cut a sharp glance toward his friend, and then, understanding that he’d meant the short time on the playground probably wouldn’t expose his son more than he already was, he sighed. “I suppose so. All right, Little Joe. Go on . . . but stay close to the building.” Hopefully, that injunction would put a little distance between Joe and most of the other children.
He turned to see Miss Jones bending over a boy who was still at his desk. “Johnny doesn’t have to go, does he, Doctor?” she asked. “He hasn’t been feeling well this morning.”
“He definitely should stay,” Dr. Martin replied. “In fact, I’ll just have a look at him before we begin.”
“Oh, good,” the teacher said. “Just a cold, I think, but he feels quite warm to me.”
A quick look at Johnny’s throat revealed the tiny white spots with bluish-white centers that were telltale signs. Straightening up, Dr. Martin looked first at Ben. “He has it, too,” he said. Seeing Miss Jones’ questioning look, he added, “Measles, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, dear,” she said. “I—I should have sent him home.”
“You weren’t to know,” the doctor consoled her. “Early symptoms aren’t different from a cold. This is why we came, Miss Jones. Johnny here makes six cases in Virginia City, with more scattered throughout the territory, so I feel it only makes sense to close the school to limit exposure. As a member of the schoolboard, Ben agrees.”
“I do, as well,” the teacher said, “and upon Mr. Cartwright’s authority, I will do so at once.” She started toward the door when the doctor stopped her.
“Not quite yet,” he said. “I’d like to examine each student before he or she leaves, so we can know what we’re up against. If you could call them in one at a time . . .”
“Of course, Doctor!”
“We might start with Little Joe,” Dr. Martin suggested. “Then Mr. Cartwright can be on his way.” With a grin toward his friend, he added, “Might as well start with the worst patient, eh?”
Ben winced slightly at the all-too-accurate appraisal of his son. God help them all if Little Joe did take the sickness.
“Reckon Pa’s home,” Hoss said from his perch atop the barn roof. He hadn’t turned to look, but had drawn his conclusion from the sound of horses pulling the buckboard.
“Not just Pa,” Adam, who was working with Hoss to mend the roof, said. “Little brother’s with him.”
“Huh?” Hoss swiveled to see, almost losing his balance. “Why, you reckon?”
“Can’t be anything good,” Adam observed. “I think it bears checking out, brother.”
Hoss grinned. He wasn’t about to argue with anything that got him off the roof and out of the sweltering sun for a few minutes. “Yup. “Reckon you’re right. What kind of trouble you think the kid could have got hisself into this time.”
“Something inventive, no doubt. You comin’?”
Hoss went down the ladder first, and Adam followed, but it was the oldest Cartwright brother who spoke first. “Pick up a stray along the way, Pa?” he asked.
“Not exactly,” Ben said. Frankly, he wasn’t in a joshing mood.
“I ain’t a stray!” Little Joe snorted. “Didn’t they teach you the difference ‘tween a boy and a calf at that fancy eastern school?”
“Well, you’ve strayed away from school, haven’t you?” Not picking up on his father’s mood, Adam continued to tease.
“No, I ain’t,” Little Joe smirked. “I was sent home.”
“Uh-oh,” Hoss said. “What you done now, little brother?”
“Nothin’,” Little Joe said. He didn’t take offense with Hoss because—well, because he was Hoss. “We all got sent home.”
“What?” Adam finally took note of his father’s sober expression. “What’s going on, Pa?”
Ben sighed. “Measles. Quite an outbreak.”
“Poor little kids,” Hoss said. “I’ve heard that can be right uncomfortable.”
“That’s too bad,” Adam said. “How long will the school be closed?” Despite four years of college chapel, he wasn’t much of a praying man, but the plea that went through his mind at that moment came close to a petition to the Almighty. Have mercy. Don’t let it be long.
“Until further notice,” Ben replied, looking like he’d just prayed the same thing.
“Fine with me,” Little Joe said. “I can use a vacation.”
“Oh, you’re not getting a vacation, little boy,” Ben said, planting a light swat on his youngest’s ill-padded posterior. “I’ve brought home all your schoolbooks, so you’re going to be studying right along.”
“Aw, Pa,” Little Joe whined. “Can’t a kid have any fun?”
“Oh, maybe a little,” Ben chuckled, making Adam shake his head at his father’s laxity. “Run inside now and see if Hop Sing can spare some cookies and milk for you.”
With a happy grin, Little Joe ran inside, with Hoss trailing after him.
“You’re worried,” Adam said to his father once the door to the kitchen had closed behind his brothers.
“I’ve seen what measles can do,” Ben said, looking grim.
“But he doesn’t have it, does he?”
“Doesn’t seem to,” Ben answered, “but doesn’t mean he won’t. Dr. Martin says it can take up to two weeks for the first symptoms to show up. He could have it now, Adam, and not know it and spread it to others, and I am specifically talking about you and Hoss.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry, Pa,” Adam said, laying a hand on his father’s shoulder. “After all, I’m young and fit, and Hoss is strong as an ox.” He stroked his chin. “Now, let’s see: cookies and milk or a trip back to the roof?” With a decisive nod, he headed for the kitchen.
Fool boy, Ben thought, though he couldn’t help chuckling. It wasn’t often his eldest gave in to the child within, and he liked to see it. Still, Adam wasn’t giving the matter as much concern as he ought, but then it was the prerogative of the young to think themselves invincible.
The three older Cartwrights were convinced that the next week was the longest of their lives. It wasn’t, of course. They’d all experienced far worse, but current miseries always seem more vivid than faded memories, and currently, Little Joe was making all of them miserable. Ben had tried to lay out a routine for his youngest that would keep him occupied and out of mischief, but it was a busy time on the ranch, and it was hard to supervise Little Joe and get any of his own work done. He’d designated mornings for schoolwork, but set the little boy free to play in the afternoons, provided his chores were done.
Adam had offered to oversee the boy’s lessons and been sharply refused, despite being the obvious best choice for the job. As much as possible, Ben wanted to put distance between his older sons and his possibly contagious youngest. Mornings were no problem in that regard. He just let Little Joe sleep as long as he wanted, so Hoss and Adam had left for their day’s work by the time their brother reached the breakfast table, and he contrived to keep them away from the house and Joe close to it throughout the day. He couldn’t think of a reasonable way to keep them apart at supper, but their usual seating arrangement provided a little distance, and he did his best to keep Little Joe close to him and away from his brothers the rest of the evening. Being a bright little boy, Joe soon figured out that Pa thought he was a danger to his brothers and declared to the rafters the unfairness of it all. He wasn’t sick and he wasn’t gonna be sick, he announced, and Pa was just plain mean!
Ben had set the boy down and explained to him about how measles worked, emphasizing that they just needed to be careful a couple of weeks, and then everything could go back to normal. “Try to be patient, son,” he urged as he fought to hold on to his own patience. “Tell you what, why don’t you draw up a calendar, so you can cross off each day, and when we get past Day 14, we’ll all do something special together.”
“Like what?” Little Joe demanded.
“Well,” Ben said, stalling for time to think, “um, how about a fishing trip? We can stay the whole day. We’ll take a picnic lunch and swim and fish, and cook up the fish for supper.”
“And sleep out?” Little Joe asked, brightening a little.
“Well, maybe. We’ll see.” When a pout formed on the boy’s face, Ben amended his answer to “Probably.”
“All of us?” Little Joe pressed with narrowed eyes.
“Of course, all of us,” Ben replied. After two weeks, he could be fairly satisfied that they were all in the clear.
Having attended some business in town, Adam came in early that afternoon, and Little Joe quickly took advantage of Ben’s brief absence to run over to show his brother the calendar he’d drawn up. “See? In two weeks, everything’ll be normal, and we’re gonna have a big trip to the lake and swim and fish, all of us together!”
“Yes, but that’s in two weeks,” Ben said, coming in from the kitchen with a cup of coffee and waving his youngest away from his eldest. Little Joe scowled, but moved back.
“Well, that’ll be quite a day,” Adam said, adding with a significant look at his father, “A double celebration.”
“Double?” Little Joe asked, thinking that sounded promising.
“Sure,” Adam said. “It’s Pa’s . . .”
“Adam!” Ben cut him off sharply. He took the calendar from his oldest son and handed it back to Little Joe. “Run put that in your room, son,” he instructed.
“Okay, Pa,” Little Joe said, still frowning. He didn’t see what the fuss was. Even if he had the evil measles, he couldn’t hand it to Adam on a piece of paper, could he? To further show his displeasure, he dragged up the stairs, step by slow step until Pa yelled at him to get a move on.
“Mind telling me what I said wrong?” Adam drawled out once his little brother finally disappeared.
“Not wrong, exactly,” Ben said. “I just didn’t want Joe to know. I picked the first Saturday after two weeks had passed and forgot . . .”
Adam exploded with laughter. “Your own birthday? I’ve heard that happens as people age, but . . .”
“That’ll be just enough out of you, young man,” Ben chided, half in play, half seriously. “I want this to be Little Joe’s day. He shouldn’t have to share it with his aged father.”
“I doubt he’d mind.” Seeing his father frown, he quickly added, “But we’ll do it your way, Pa.” He’d caution Hoss not to mention Pa’s birthday, either. These days Pa was getting as touchy as his youngest son, and it didn’t pay to cross him. Secretly, however, he planned to have Hop Sing bake a cake and include candles in that picnic basket.
But that cake was never baked, and that year they didn’t celebrate Pa’s birthday, because a week before the planned release from quarantine, everything changed.
Ben was already disgruntled when he woke up that Saturday morning. If there was anything he didn’t need in the leadup to spring roundup, it was an unscheduled meeting of the school board. He understood the necessity, and considering the topic, this was not a meeting he could palm off on Adam. The measles had not abated, as everyone had hoped. Instead, case numbers were spiking throughout the territory, and Virginia City was now a hotbed of contagion. It had become obvious that its children wouldn’t be returning to school soon, so whether to close it for the rest of the school year was the main item on the agenda for the meeting tonight. Ben tended to favor that, except it made him question anew what to do with Little Joe, once he could no longer argue the necessity of keeping up his studies.
His first reaction, when the summons had been delivered late yesterday afternoon, was disgruntlement, but it quickly melted into sorrow, compassion and reawakened fear with the message that had come with it. Virginia City had seen its first death, and it struck closer to home than Ben would have liked. Little Johnny Bayless, the boy who’d felt so sick the day he and Dr. Martin had gone to the school, had passed away, and there’d been no hiding the news from Little Joe, for he’d been sitting at the dining table, drawing, when the messenger blurted it out. His boy had been both heartbroken and terrified.
Johnny wasn’t a particular friend, being two years younger than Little Joe (a massive gulf at that age). However, he was someone his son knew well, as all the students in the small school did, and the news had exploded Joe’s innocent belief that this dumb disease couldn’t touch him. Now he knew it could kill friends—and brothers, and when that possibility hit home, Ben had a near-hysterical boy on his hands, especially since Hoss had, apparently, patted him on the head a few times. Ben had tried to assure him that measles wasn’t that easy to catch, and he determined then and there that he wouldn’t rebuke Hoss for the contact, either. Life had come to a pretty pass when such a small show of affection created fear.
The funeral, he had been told, would be at ten that morning, with the board meeting following, over lunch at the Washoe Club, and, of course, he planned to attend both. He didn’t know the Bayless boy’s parents well, but they’d always struck him as good, hard-working people, scraping to make ends meet. He wasn’t sure what he could say in the face of such devastating loss, but he’d learned from past experience that it meant something to people to have a community leader like him show respect at such a time, and at any rate he wouldn’t want to be the only board member not there.
As he took his hat from the peg beside the door, he turned to give Adam his final instructions. “Best to let Joseph sleep as long as he wants,” he advised. “Easier for you.”
Adam barely averted rolling his eyes. He’d read “easier” with its true meaning: safer, and Pa’s concern about keeping him and Hoss away from Little Joe had reached ridiculous proportions. Oh, sure, he’d keep the restrictions, but only because his hide (meaning his ears at this age) would suffer if he dared violate them.
“Better for him, as well,” Ben continued, oblivious to the reception of his words. “He had a rough night.”
“Poor kid,” Adam murmured. Death was hard to face at Joe’s age. He knew. He’d had to face it early himself.
Ben frowned slightly. “Yes, well, keep your sympathy . . .”
“At a distance?” Adam suggested with a lordly lift of one corner of his mouth. At least, so it looked to his father.
Ben’s frown deepened. “That’s not quite how I’d put it.” Although that was probably an accurate reading of his thoughts, he admitted, only to himself.
Adam was sorely tempted to say something like, “Oh? And just how would you put it?” But sound judgement, coupled with previous admonitions about his smart mouth, overcame the urge. Pa was an old mother hen, but he couldn’t help that, and he had been under a lot of pressure lately. Most of it self-induced, of course, but he couldn’t help that, either. He’d had the burden of raising three sons on his own for so long that he’d become an inveterate worrier. So, wisely, Adam simply said that he understood and would, of course, respect his father’s guidelines. Ben would later note that he hadn’t said follow.
Adam closed the ledger with a sigh of satisfaction. Unlike his father, he enjoyed working on the books. It gave him a chance to put his education to use, as well as insight into improvements that might be made. So far, Pa wasn’t too receptive to those, feeling that he still knew better than the young college graduate how to run a ranch, but at least he seemed more willing to trust that Adam could tally a column of figures without feeling the need to check them himself. In fact, he was leaving more and more of the hated bookwork to his son. That pleased Adam, though sometimes Pa let it pile up before handing it over to him, and that could make for long sessions at the desk, as it had this morning. Adam needed a break.
He pushed back from the desk, intending to get a cup of coffee and read a bit in his comfortable blue chair, but as he stood, he saw Little Joe trailing down the stairs. Inconvenient timing, of course, as Joe was prone to, but it was certainly time the little fellow was up. It was almost noon. “Well, good morning,” he called, adding with a teasing grin, “although I should probably say ‘good afternoon.’”
“Sorry,” Little Joe said, rubbing at his eyes.
“No problem,” Adam assured him. “Pa said to let you sleep as long as you wanted. Now, the question is: do you want a very late breakfast or an early lunch?”
That response should have triggered suspicion in the older brother, but to Adam the kid just sounded tired, like he hadn’t quite woken up or, perhaps, that he’d had a rough night, as Pa had said. “Let’s make it lunch, then,” Adam suggested, “and I’ll join you.” He frowned at the little boy’s bare legs and feet below his nightshirt. “Is that how we come to the table nowadays, little brother?” It certainly hadn’t been in his younger days!
Little Joe yawned and said, “Uh-huh,” and Adam decided to let it slide. Pa probably was letting the kid get away with murder, and if he wasn’t going to uphold the family standards, Adam certainly wasn’t going to bother. As Pa had frequently reminded him in the months since he’d finished his education at mid-term, he was not the boy’s father. “Well, come on to the table, then, and I’ll let Hop Sing know we’re ready for lunch.” He went into the kitchen, prepared for a minor explosion when he delivered that message, but he was generally good at smoothing things over with their Chinese cook.
Little Joe dragged to the table and slumped into his usual seat, close to the head of the table—very close these days. He used to sit halfway between Pa and Adam, with Hoss straight across, but Pa’d moved his chair until he felt like he was practically sitting in Pa’s lap. He’d been frustrated by it, but today he didn’t care. He didn’t care much about anything.
His eyes lighted with puzzled interest, however, when Adam sat down in Pa’s chair, close enough to reach out and touch. He didn’t do it, of course. Touching wasn’t allowed, but he hadn’t been this close to his brother in days, and he wasn’t about to risk reminding Adam of the rules.
Grousing under his breath, Hop Sing delivered two plates of food and retired again to the kitchen. “My, this looks good,” Adam said, loud enough to be heard in the next room. There were situations where a lathering of soft soap was called for, and asking for a meal to be served early constituted one. He laid it on thick, enthusing over practically every bite. Little Joe, on the other hand, mostly pushed his food around the plate, with an occasional bite reluctantly making its way to his mouth.
Adam didn’t press him; he’d seen his brother’s red eyes and figured he’d been crying about Johnny. He congratulated himself on being wise enough not to mention it. Joe would only deny it and that would lead to friction between them, something he was anxious to avoid. If he could show Pa how well he could manage Little Joe, he might be able to take some of the load off his mother hen of a father. “What would you like to do this afternoon, Little Joe?” he asked as he finished off his own plate. “Play outside or stay in? We could play checkers, if you like.” He figured his little brother would go for that. He seemed a little droopy for outdoor games, and having finished all the bookwork, Adam had some time on his hands.
But Little Joe shook his head and swiped his nose with the back of his hand. Wanting to forestall any tears, Adam brought out his best kid-pleasing guns. “How about a story, then?”
Little Joe looked up for the first time. “Okay,” he said. He always liked to hear Adam read.
Adam went in search of a book he thought would interest his little brother without straining his own, more refined interest. In the end he found an old friend of his youth, Robinson Crusoe, and carried it back downstairs, only to find Little Joe curled up like a baby on the settee. At first, he thought the boy had fallen asleep again and wondered whether he’d slept at all the night before. Then he saw Joe look up, and as he stood on the landing, he announced his choice of book. “You’ll like it,” he said when he didn’t get a response and came the rest of the way down after snatching up the Indian blanket that covered the stair rail. Given how lightly the kid was dressed, he might need some cover, and it would also hide those feet on the furniture that Pa was forever chiding Little Joe about. They were bare at the moment and no more than usually dirty, so Adam didn’t think they could do the upholstery much harm, but just in case Pa came in, the disobedience wouldn’t be immediately visible. Not that he probably had much need to worry; Pa seemed especially lenient with his youngest during this quasi-quarantine.
Within a few pages, Adam was caught up in the story and was reading with only an occasional glance at Little Joe to make sure the little fellow was still awake. With one of those glances, he caught the now-familiar swipe of the hand beneath the nose, this time accompanied by a slight cough, which his brother tried to smother with the same hand. It took another paragraph or two for the connection to register, but when it did, Adam slammed the book shut and was kneeling at Joe’s side within two seconds. Dear God, he thought, let it just be a cold. In his heart, of course, he knew it wasn’t. Cartwrights, especially the youngest, didn’t have that kind of luck, and his suspicion was confirmed as he laid his hand across Little Joe’s forehead, shocked by the level of dry heat that met his touch.
“Oh, baby, you have a fever,” he sighed. Then he sucked his lips into his mouth, as if to pull the word back, for one of the first mistakes he’d made on getting off the stage from the East was to call his youngest brother by what had been a pet name when he left. Little Joe had immediately and vehemently informed him that he was not a baby. Always a quick learner, Adam hadn’t made that mistake again . . . until today, when concern and compassion had brought it bursting up his throat. It should have provoked an eruption. That it didn’t only heightened Adam’s apprehension that all his father’s fears weren’t as foolish as he had thought.
The fear filled Little Joe’s eyes, too, as he asked, trembling, “Do I got it? Do I, Adam?”
Much as he wanted to say no, Adam couldn’t lie. Too much his father’s child, he supposed, not crediting that the honesty was innate inside him, as well. Besides, he wanted his brothers to know they could always trust what he said, so he answered, “Probably.”
He’d wrongly attributed the red eyes to tears before. Now they were real, pouring down his little brother’s cheeks. Pa would kill him, but he saw nothing else to do. Wrapping the blanket around his brother, he lifted him in his arms, carried him to Pa’s big chair and cradled him in his arms as he patted the small back and tried to soothe him with assurances that everything would be all right.
“Am I going to die?” Little Joe cried.
“No!” Feeling his brother flinch at the sharpness of his tone, Adam immediately softened his voice. “Of course not, little buddy,” he said.
“But Johnny did,” Little Joe insisted, quavering.
“Johnny wasn’t a strong, healthy little boy like you,” Adam said. The words carried weight because they were true. The Baylesses always had a lean look about them, as if they didn’t get enough to eat, and though he didn’t know where they lived, it was more likely to be a shack with wind blowing through the cracks than a tightly constructed, comfortable home like theirs. He didn’t bother explaining all that to Joe; it was enough that he understood he had a better chance at recovery than his schoolmate. Most kids did come through the measles without much problem. That, he did tell his brother, and slowly Little Joe calmed down, although he clung to his oldest brother.
Adam was happy to let him. After the enforced separation, it felt good to cuddle and comfort his little brother. He’d had a harder time reconnecting with Little Joe than with Hoss after the four years apart, and they’d just started to reestablish their relationship when the crisis began and Ben had dictated they keep their distance. It hadn’t been good for either of them, Adam felt. Holding the boy, however, felt right. It reminded him of the closeness they’d shared after Marie’s death, and so he was content to sit, holding the blanket-wrapped bundle, long after Little Joe fell asleep.
Ben was weary as he rode into the yard. The two-hour ride from Virginia City usually left him that way, but this day had been particularly draining, although, at least, shorter than he’d originally anticipated. The schoolboard meeting had gone quickly, with all but one of the members opting to close school for the remainder of the year. There’d been some minor discussion about whether to reopen it earlier than usual to make up for lost time, but in the end, they’d decided to let the lost time just remain lost.
What had been much harder had been the earlier scene at the funeral. Mrs. Bayless had held herself together for the service at the church, but when she saw that open grave, ready to receive her little boy, she’d completely given way and had barely been restrained from throwing herself into it when the casket was lowered. Ben had been the one to restrain her and had taken it upon himself to assure her that the pain would lessen over time. It should have been her husband, of course, but he was paralyzed by shock and his own grief, and Ben, having felt similar devastation when he’d buried three wives, seemed best equipped to console both of them. They’d thanked him afterwards, but it had taken a lot out of him and had revived his own sense of loss, as well as the fear that he, too, could lose a son to this scourge. The board meeting, while not contentious, had tired him further, and the long ride home had left him with no desire but to collapse in his chair and enjoy an almost unheard-of mid-afternoon nap.
When he walked in, though, he found a scene that froze him in his tracks. His oldest son sat dozing in his chair, and in his lap, ignoring all his orders, lay his youngest. “What the . . .” he shouted. Then, seeing that Little Joe was asleep and deeming it wise to keep him that way, he abruptly lowered his voice to hiss, “What do you think you’re doing, boy?”
Adam, who was only sleeping light, had awakened at the first shout. “Pa, I can explain.” He, too, was mindful of the boy sleeping in his arms, and kept his voice soft.
“Did I not make myself clear?” Ben fumed, like a tea kettle starting to steam.
“Of course,” Adam whispered back, “but, well, he’s sick, Pa.” He figured he might as well get to the crux of matter at once.
Ben blanched, pale as the white hairs just beginning to weave themselves among his dark ones. “All the more reason,” he sputtered. “Give him to me!”
With a sigh Adam started to transfer Little Joe over to his father, but stopped when he felt the boy stirring, awakened by either the movement itself or, more likely, the volume the men found increasingly difficult to curb.
“Give him to me!” Ben repeated, more sharply. He reached again for his son.
Little Joe reacted violently. “No!” he demanded, squirming away. “I want Adam!”
“I think you’ve had quite enough of Adam,” Ben declared with a glare at his eldest as he pulled the boy into his arms.
“No!” Little Joe kicked and fought.
Ben was tempted to swat his flying legs, but reminding himself that the boy was sick, he held him all the tighter, instead, and headed toward the stairs. “You need to be in bed, child,” he said, determined to keep his voice soothing, despite the bare feet pummeling his midriff, “and Adam has work to do.”
No, I don’t, Adam thought, but kept that particular dose of truth to himself. Pa hadn’t raised him to be a fool, and only a fool fought a battle he was doomed to lose.
Ben got his youngest settled into bed and then checked him over for telltale signs. The fever was obvious; he’d felt it just holding the child. Careful questioning revealed a sore throat, in addition to the symptoms Adam had already noted, and while, like his oldest son, Ben would have liked to convince himself that they were dealing with a simple cold, he knew better.
“I’m a strong, healthy little boy,” Little Joe said, chin trembling as he quoted Adam’s words. “Not like Johnny.”
Ben smiled. “That’s right. You’ll be just fine,” he said, smoothing damp curls from the boy’s forehead. He sounded certain, and his assurance was enough to quiet his son’s fears. As Little Joe drifted to sleep, however, his father wondered just how difficult a siege they were in for and how far its reach might be.
Though Ben kept a watchful eye on his disobedient eldest, it was Hoss, who had mostly kept the rules, who succumbed a day later to the disease that had attacked his little brother. For him, the distancing had come too late. As Dr. Martin had indicated the first day, that horse had already left the barn by the time they knew to shut the door, and Ben could only hope they’d shut it in time to spare Adam. After all, he didn’t normally spend as much close time with Little Joe as Hoss did, so there was still reason to hope.
That hope died two days later, though Ben didn’t realize it for several days more. For one thing, first Little Joe and then Hoss had begun to break out with the characteristic red spots, covering first their faces and gradually spreading down arms and torso, legs and thigh, and in Hoss’s case, even the soles of his feet. Hoss bore the discomfort manfully, miserable as he was, but Little Joe soon lived up to his reputation as the territory’s worst patient. He was continually either throwing off his covers or scratching the spots he’d been told to leave alone, and Ben was at his wits’ end, as well as the end of his patience. The whole struggle left him too exhausted and distracted to catch subtle signs his oldest boy was only too anxious to hide.
Adam, of course, knew at once when he started coming down with the same thing his brothers had; he also knew he had two or three days before any visible symptoms would appear and felt nothing was to be gained by letting Pa in on his secret any sooner. After all, someone had to keep the ranch going, and Pa was looking more haggard by the day. Since he wouldn’t let Adam help out by caring for his brothers, he was determined to keep working as long as he could, taking the load off his father and leaving him free to nurse the other boys. Frankly, Adam thought that was the harder job, especially in Little Joe’s case, and welcomed the extra load he was carrying as a further opportunity to prove his worth and the value of his education to his father. But it was beginning to wear on him.
When Adam woke that morning, he knew that time for his charade was almost at an end. His throat, only slightly sore when he’d gone to bed, felt like he’d become a flame-eater at the circus, and as he pulled himself out of bed, every muscle in his body ached. Stumbling to his washstand, he leaned close to the mirror above it and pulled the straggling black locks from his forehead. As he’d feared, light red spots graced the hairline, but he thought careful combing could disguise them a little longer. This would probably be the last day he’d have, though, so he’d better make the best of it.
He took his time, making sure there was nothing out of the ordinary in his appearance. Then, after carefully peeking into the hall, he slipped across it and into his brother Hoss’s room. “Hey, big fellow,” he said softly, all too aware that Pa was probably in the next room with Little Joe. He leaned on the closed door behind him. “How you feelin’?”
“Pretty miserable,” Hoss admitted. “You know you ain’t ‘sposed to be here.”
“I know,” Adam said with a conspiratorial wink. They went through this same song-and-dance every morning. Just in case Pa walked in, Hoss covered his own behind with the reminder and then gave his big brother a welcoming grin. To cover his own, Adam always stayed near the door. Surely, even Pa couldn’t complain since there was a good ten feet between them. Besides, he and Hoss had been working together up until he took sick, so it was another case of the horse already being out of the barn, and by tomorrow Pa would know that and they could all be together again. “Anything I can get you?” he asked, as he did every morning.
“A new birthday suit?” Hoss said. “This one’s ‘bout driving me crazy with itching.”
Adam chuckled. “If you’re making bad jokes, you must be feeling some better.”
Hoss’s face scrunched up. “Maybe some. Who’d’ve thought a kid’s disease could lay a man so low?”
“Yeah. Works that way, I think. Harder on older ones than younger.” As he’d soon have cause to know, Adam thought with a grimace.
“Well, seems to have passed over you, at least, you lucky cuss,” Hoss said. Then, seeing something in Adam’s face, he asked, “What?”
Adam shrugged. “Maybe not so lucky.”
“Ah, shucks,” Hoss said. “Sorry, big brother.”
“Not your fault,” Adam said. “Bound to happen from the beginning. No telling Pa that, of course.” He paused and with a significant look, reiterated, “No, seriously, don’t tell Pa.”
Hoss winced. “Doggone it, Adam. If he finds out I knew and didn’t say nothin’ . . .”
“You don’t know,” Adam pointed out. “I only said, ‘Maybe not so lucky,’ so you’re in the clear, big fellow.”
A relieved grin split Hoss’s speckled face. “Yeah, that’s right. Big brother pulled the wool over my eyes.”
“I won’t tell him different,” Adam promised, and Hoss knew he could count on it. Keeping secrets from Pa was an old tradition between the Cartwright brothers, especially the older two. “Well, time I put in an appearance next door, or Pa might come looking.”
“Can’t have that,” Hoss said with a chuckle. “Get on out of here. Nice seein’ you, big brother.”
Adam lifted a hand in farewell. Then, after a careful peek out the door, he moved into the clear hallway. He checked to make sure his hairline was still covered and then opened the door to Little Joe’s room, intending to say a quiet good morning to his father, as he did each day.
Perhaps it was because he’d arrived later than usual, but Little Joe was awake for a change. The little boy gave a happy bounce when he sighted his oldest brother and chortled, “Adam!”
Ben planted two palms on his youngest’s shoulders and pressed him down to the mattress. “Keep still,” he said firmly as he turned toward Adam with a reproachful look.
“Sorry, Pa,” Adam said. “I wasn’t expecting him to be awake.”
“You’re later than usual,” Ben said, giving the covers a tight tuck, much to Little Joe’s squirming dissatisfaction.
“I know; I’m sorry.”
Ben turned warm eyes toward his eldest this time. “No need, boy. You’ve been carrying an extra load these past few days, and you probably needed some extra rest.”
Adam was quick to take advantage of the excuse, but chose to do so with a dash of humor. “Yes, taking on Joe’s chores has been most taxing.”
Ben chuckled, as he’d been intended to do. Everyone (except Joe himself, of course) knew that any chore done by a boy the age and size of Little Joe was an easy task for a grown man. “I would imagine you’re finding it harder to fill Hoss’s shoes,” he said.
“That’s for sure,” Adam admitted.
“You could stay and read me a story,” Little Joe offered. “That’d rest you.”
Grinning, Adam shook his head. “That’s not how I remember it.” Joe could make even reading a job with his constant interruptions and questions. Sadly missing the day he’d taken ill. “Sorry, little buddy, but I’ve got work to do. Just wanted to check with Pa to see if there’s anything specific he wanted me to handle.”
“I think you have it well in hand,” Ben said, “though I’m sorely tempted to hand the job of getting this one to eat his breakfast over to you.”
Little Joe was quick to leap into the opportunity. “I’ll eat for Adam,” he said cheerily, proving, Adam thought, that absence really did make the heart grow fonder.
“You’ll eat for me,” Ben stated with an arch of his eyebrow that told his youngest he meant business, “and you know the rules.”
“Yes, sir,” Little Joe said, slumping down in the bed again with a protruding lower lip.
Adam moved into the hall. By tomorrow the rules wouldn’t matter, so maybe he could grant Joe’s wish then. As he headed for the stairs, though, he shook his head. Once Pa knew that he, too, had the measles, he wouldn’t be feeding his little brother. He’d be tucked up in bed himself, and if his luck ran really bad, being spoon-fed his own breakfast.
He’d just as soon have skipped it today, but didn’t want to arouse Hop Sing’s suspicions. Most of the time the Cartwright boys could count on their Oriental factotum to keep their secrets. Adam felt certain he didn’t share a thimbleful of the mischief Little Joe got up to, for instance, but even for Joe, Hop Sing drew the line at hiding anything harmful, and measles was definitely that. They’d been fortunate that the man himself had already had the disease, brought to his homeland by white tradesmen when Hop Sing was a boy. It had decimated his village, but there, as here, the young had fought it off more successfully than their elders, and Hop Sing had survived the white man’s plague.
Adam slid into his seat at the foot of the table and tried to smile cordially at the cook when he entered from the kitchen. “I just want a light breakfast this morning, Hop Sing,” he said, masking how he was feeling behind a calm countenance.
“Why Mistah Adam not eat good breakfast?” the cook demanded. “He work hard, taking place of father and brothers; he need.”
“Yes, but I’m running late and I have a great deal to do today,” Adam argued, “so just coffee and”—unable to think of anything else he wanted, he finished weakly, “maybe toast?” Crispy toast actually sounded like torture to his sore throat.
“Not save time if pass out from hunger,” Hop Sing said, crossing his arms and regarding the oldest Cartwright brother sternly, lips pursed.
Later, Adam would blame his impending illness for his inability to counter that argument. Instead, he just sighed and said, “Eggs, then, but I’d like them scrambled, if it’s not too much trouble.” Soft scrambled eggs, at least, had less potential for assaulting his aching throat.
“No trouble,” Hop Sing said, as his lips eased into an approving smile and he headed back to the kitchen.
Knowing that he’d soon be off his feet, Adam felt that the first order of business was to put someone else in charge of the various areas he’d been overseeing. They weren’t easy decisions for him, because he’d only been home a few months and didn’t know the men as well he’d like. Back when they first became aware of the sickness, he and Pa had questioned the men as to whether they’d had the measles, and while Pa, with his immunity, felt free to approach any of them, Adam had kept his contact confined to those for whom possible contagion was no risk. It was Pa’s decree, and he had, at first, scoffed at it (though only to himself and Hoss). Now that he knew the risk was real, he saw the wisdom of Pa’s policy and was glad he had followed it. It meant, of course, that he’d been around fewer men and, therefore, had fewer to choose from as overseers. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to select the best men that way, but at least it made the choices seem obvious, and of course, Pa could always override them if he thought Adam had chosen poorly. That might prove awkward, so he’d make clear that the appointments were temporary and would only become permanent with his father’s approval.
Someone to head up the lumber camp was the easiest choice. Jake Webber was already doing a fine job as straw boss, and Adam was confident Pa would approve his advancement to bull of the woods. Since he was confident of Jake’s acceptance, he’d leave the long ride up to the camp to the end of the day.
Pa had agreed to appoint him trail boss for the upcoming drive. That was impossible now, and he’d lain awake for hours last night, trying to decide who should take his place. He’d finally settled on Dick Latimer, who though only five or six years older than Adam himself, had proven himself a top hand. In a sudden burst of wisdom, he only told Dick that he was making him his lieutenant, to act in his stead, if necessary, and that he wanted him to treat today as a dry run for that responsibility. That would make it easier for Dick to accept demotion if Pa dictated it later, but would put him in place for the top spot, should Pa see sense and let someone besides a Cartwright head up this year’s drive.
By the time he rode into the yard that evening, Adam was slumped over his horse, and he was ready to admit that he’d tried to do too much that final day. Assigning supervisors to the various tasks had proven the easiest part of the day. All the men he’d selected had been pleased to serve and had, for the most part, been accepted by the other hands, when they were told. One man had taken umbrage when Latimer was chosen over him and stormed off, spewing loud denunciations of kids lording it over their elders and betters. Adam wasn’t sure whether the man meant him or Dick, but it didn’t really matter. Good riddance to bad rubbish, he figured, certain Pa would back him up on his decision to let the man go.
After that, one thing after another seemed to go wrong or, at least, to take more time than planned, and he began to rue leaving the long ride up to the lumber camp to the end of the day. He’d been feeling progressively worse as the day wore on, but he managed to disguise his depletion so long as he was in front of the men. That effort, in itself, was taxing, and by the time he reached home, he could barely stumble into the barn to care for his mount. He wasn’t about to let the animal suffer, though, so he gave the chestnut a thorough rubdown, watered and fed him. He made it through the front door before he collapsed, literally, on the floor.
Hop Sing spied Number One Son through the kitchen window and frowned his disapproval at the late arrival as he headed into the barn. He understood that helpless animals must be cared for, but so must people and Mister Adam was very late to supper. Still, he was reluctant to scold Ben Cartwright’s eldest, the way he would easily have done sons number two and, especially, three. As the eldest, he was accorded greater respect to begin with, and his status as a scholar added yet more honor; however, the steadfast character of the young man, in particular the way he was walking in his father’s shoes during this crisis, meant he would be given the same regard as Ben Cartwright himself. Mister Adam could eat late, and nothing would be said. Should he try to refuse, however, he would be treated like a bad little boy, the same as Mister Ben when he did that which was foolish.
Hop Sing cut a couple of slices of bread and put them on a plate, along with a generous amount of freshly churned butter and took it to the table, but he waited until he heard the front door open to take the warming supper plate from the oven. Hot food was best to tempt weary appetites. As he was carrying the plate into the dining room, however, he heard a loud thump that set off alarm bells in his head. He hurriedly set the plate down to investigate. Rounding the corner to the entry, he saw Number One Son sprawled in the floor and began to shout, “Mister Ben, Mister Ben! You come!”
Ben came barreling down the stairs. “What are you bellowing about, Hop Sing?” he demanded. “I just got Joseph to sleep!” He stopped abruptly on the landing at the sight of the Chinese cook bent over the motionless figure of his oldest son. Then he ran down the final few steps and came to Adam’s side. “Adam? Son?” he asked anxiously.
Adam stirred groggily. “Sorry, Pa,” he whispered hoarsely.
And suddenly Ben knew exactly what was wrong. “Oh, Adam,” he sighed. “You, too.”
“Not . . . invulnerable,” Adam croaked.
Despite his concern, Ben choked back a chuckle. Who but Adam would spout such a large word when he could barely talk at all? “Let’s get you into bed, boy,” he said. With Hop Sing’s help he got Adam to his feet and managed to walk him up the stairs.
Once they’d settled him in bed, Adam lay on the pillow, hardly able to keep his eyes open. “Dick Latimer,” he said.
Ben stared. “What?”
“Trail boss,” Adam said. “Jake Webber . . . bull of . . . woods. Pete Jernigan . . .”
“Hush,” Ben ordered, laying his hand on his boy’s forehead. “That’ll all be taken care of.”
“Already . . . taken care . . .”
“I know,” Ben said grimly. “Fool boy, I know.” Fool, indeed, he thought. How long had this fool of a son known he was ill and kept it to himself so he could keep the ranch going? Why did the young never understand what was truly important? He’d been that young and foolish once himself. Now he was old . . . and full of dread.
Dark clouds lowered over the Ponderosa. Ben reminded himself often that they just indicated spring storms, the type that visited them every year, but this spring they seemed like portents of a more sinister pall spreading over the territory. When Dr. Martin came to call, he reported that the measles had reached epidemic proportions in Virginia City, as well as the capital in Carson City. What was worse, some of the local Indians had come to town to trade and taken the infection back to their tribes, and while the white residents had some acquired immunity, the Washos and Paiutes did not. For them, it was as if the bubonic plague of the Middle Ages had struck their camps, leaving in its wake wanton destruction and wailing women. The Army doctors were doing what they could to heal the sick and prevent a fear-based uprising, but a sense of unrest pervaded the territory. Dark clouds, indeed.
Ben scarcely had time to think about the concerns of the larger community, though; he had enough concerns of his own to manage. Little Joe, at least, was well on the mend, though that was a mixed blessing. Now that his father had other things on his mind, the little boy was all too prone to pop out of bed and scamper barefoot down the hall to visit Hoss or peek in on Adam. After all, he cheerily told his father, they all had the measles now, so they didn’t need to keep apart any longer. Technically, that was true, but Ben was not about to give his youngest that kind of liberty. Hoss was still feeling poorly and needed his rest, and Little Joe shouldn’t be out of bed yet, either. Not accepting either of those propositions, Little Joe watched and waited for opportunities to do as he pleased, however many times he was caught and returned to his bed. Ben still refused, on principle, to swat a sick child’s naughty bottom, but he was beginning to ask himself if, maybe, his youngest wasn’t well enough to begin considering it.
Early in his illness, Adam rattled almost incessantly about the preparations he’d made for roundup and the continuing work of the ranch, more feverishly when Ben tried to stop him than when he let him ramble. He only quietened when Ben agreed to consider his choices, and since he was a man of his word, he did. He knew Jake Webber well and agreed that he was the best man to run the lumber crew. He was less sure about the Latimer boy, who seemed young for such a heavy responsibility. He’d always bossed the trail drive himself, only agreeing to let Adam do it this year when first Joe and then Hoss took sick, and then primarily because he hadn’t wanted Adam exposed to their illness. Adam was even younger than Latimer, of course, but he was a Cartwright, and Ben knew his steadiness. He just didn’t have that confidence in a young man he barely knew. He seriously considered not sending any cattle to market this year, but that would mean a huge loss in income. Adam had confidence in this young whippersnapper, and Ben finally decided to trust his son’s judgement and send young Latimer off with his blessing. If the boy robbed him blind, so be it. He had bigger worries.
Hoss still felt miserable, but he seemed to be improving, and Ben was certain he’d recover, so long as he didn’t suffer some setback. Adam, however, sank rapidly into a state of real danger. All the boys had had high fevers at the start of their illness, as was typical of measles, but Adam’s persisted, and he began to babble incoherently about everything from windmills to Latin conjugations. Or maybe it was Greek; Ben couldn’t tell. All the symptoms of ordinary catarrh seemed heightened in Adam. His eyes were more inflamed, his cough deeper, his breathing more labored, and the day came when Dr. Martin finally confirmed Ben’s worst fear: pneumonia.
Ben swallowed hard. “Will he . . .”
Dr. Martin spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “I don’t know, Ben. I’m throwing every medicine in the book at him: aconite, pulsatilla, bryonia, but so far, they don’t seem to be helping. I’d say it’s touch and go. We’ll hope for the best, but you may want to prepare the other boys for losing him.”
Ben shook his head. “No, no, not until the last hope is . . .”
“Ben, Hoss is still weak himself,” Dr. Martin said. “A sudden shock is the last thing he needs.”
“All right,” Ben said with a sigh and then looked up with firm resolve. “I’ll tell Hoss, but not Joseph, not until we’re certain. He shouldn’t have to face such things at his age.” With grim humor, he added, “And I don’t have the time or energy to deal with that boy right now.”
The doctor nodded, but fixed a firm gaze on his friend. “For the love of mercy, Ben, get some rest, or I’ll have you as a patient, too.”
Ben waved away the concern. “I’ve already had measles.”
“And that is not the only disease that can lay a man low,” the doctor said sharply, “and exhaustion increases the risk that something will. Get some rest!”
“I’ll try,” Ben said, though he couldn’t imagine how he’d keep that edict. Who was there, after all, but him to care for the others?
A terrified little boy sped down the hall and dived beneath the covers of his rumpled bed. He wasn’t afraid of being found out—well, actually he was, ‘cause then Pa would know that he knew what Pa didn’t want him to know. He’d heard that loud and clear through the keyhole. Pa had warned him about eavesdropping on grownups’ conversations, and for the first time, he understood why. Grownups could say just awful things when they thought no kid was listening. With all his heart, he wished he could unhear what Doc Martin had said about Adam, but it kept clanging in his head. Adam had the pew-moan-ya, and it might take him away for more than the four years that stinkin’ college back East had. It might take him forever . . . and it was all Joe’s fault. He buried his face in his pillow to hide his tear-streaked face and muffle the sound of his sobbing, while one thought pounded in his brain: what could he do to stop it?
Ben opened the door to Little Joe’s room, praying the boy wouldn’t be fractious tonight. He’d just repeated the doctor’s difficult verdict to Hoss and spent some time reassuring his middle son that he wasn’t giving up hope yet. He was anxious to get back to Adam, but wanted to, at least, look in on his youngest. If he didn’t, that in itself might alarm the boy and set his inquisitive mind going in goodness only knew what direction. He sighed with relief when he found Little Joe asleep and after smoothing his bed covers and placing a kiss on his damp curls, he slipped out of the room and back across the hall into Adam’s. Later, he would blame his exhaustion for his failure to realize that Little Joe was only pretending to be asleep so early in the evening.
As soon as Ben left, Little Joe rolled over, folded his arms under his head and stared at the ceiling, trying to figure out the puzzle. He was the reason Adam was sick, so it stood to reason that getting his brother well again was up to him, but what could he do that Doc Martin and Pa couldn’t? Nothing. Nothing except feel bad and say he was sorry, but that wouldn’t be enough, would it? Maybe he’d better say it anyway. God kind of frowned on folks not saying they were sorry for bad things they’d done. And he sure needed God not to frown. It hit him all of a sudden that if Pa couldn’t help Adam and Doc Martin couldn’t help Adam, then God was the only one who could, so what he had to do was give God some reason to do it. Figuring that out took a long time, but he’d have to wait even longer, ‘cause before he could do what needed doing, the house had to be dead quiet and everyone in bed. Except Pa, of course. Pa never slept when one of them was sick, so he’d have to tiptoe, quiet as a mouse, when the time came.
The house was the stillest Little Joe had ever known it when he slipped silently into the hall. He’d made sure by listening at his cracked door for a long time. Listening at doors was the right thing to do this time; he was sure of that, too, ‘cause what he was doing was right, and since it was, God was bound to help him get it done. Confident in his purpose, he was still careful to tiptoe down the hall and watch where he stepped on the stairs. God helps those that help themselves, after all. He wasn’t sure where he’d heard that. Hoss, maybe, or Pa. Probably not Adam; he didn’t talk about God much, but he could spout more Scriptures than any of them. He’d been made to learn ‘em in college, he’d said. He just loved to spout stuff like “Be sure your sins will find you out” to his little brother. Well, he’d been righter about that one than Little Joe liked to think. Anyway, he was gonna make it right, and that’s what counted.
And God was helping him. He made it all the way into the kitchen and found it dark. Hop Sing had already gone to bed in the room next door and hadn’t gotten up to fix breakfast yet, so he was safe. Tiptoeing again, in case his friend was a light sleeper, Little Joe reached his destination and opened the door to the cellar. He started to close it behind him, but then realized the cellar would be pitch black once he did, and he didn’t want to fall going down the wooden stairs. So, he hustled back into the kitchen, went to the drawer where he knew Hop Sing kept candles and helped himself to a handful, filling his other fist with matches. Pa didn’t like him playing with matches, but he wasn’t playing. This was work, God’s work at that, so breaking that rule would be fine, and if it wasn’t, well, he’d just have to do it anyway. Whatever he needed to do to save Adam, that’s what he was gonna do.
Since he didn’t want to be found too soon, Little Joe worked his way among the crates and barrels to the very back of the cellar. It smelled like apples, not fresh, crispy ones, but it wasn’t a bad smell. He sat down, pulled his nightshirt over his knobby knees and tucked his bare feet beneath its hem. It wasn’t exactly the correct position for prayer, but he thought God would understand. “Okay, Jesus,” he began and then stopped, frowning in thought. Maybe it was Jesus’ pa he should be talking to. No, Jesus was the one who healed people when he was down on earth, so he was probably the one to talk to about Adam. To cover all bases, though, he invited Jesus’ pa to listen in and began again.
“So, I reckon you know why I’m here—on account of Adam’s real sick, with the measles and the pew-moan-ya. They’re even talkin’ like . . . like he might be comin’ to live with you.” Little Joe swallowed the lump in his throat and plunged on. “Don’t take him, Jesus! Not when it’s all my fault. I brought the measles to my brothers, and I didn’t stay away from ‘em like Pa told me, and I’m real sorry, so I was hopin’, maybe, we could make a trade. Pa really needs Adam, so you could leave him here and take me, instead. I hope you think that’s a fair trade, but I guess we’ll see. So, I’m just gonna stay here and let you talk it over with your pa.” At first, he didn’t know how to end, but then he remembered what he’d heard in church. “Oh, yeah. Amen.”
Something else occurred to him, so he added a postscript. “And, well, I know heaven’s a great place and all, but the Ponderosa is, too, and I’ll miss it and—and Pa and Hoss and Adam and Hop Sing. So, if you do decide to trade, could you bring my mama with you when you come for me, so’s I’ll feel less lonely? It’d help. Uh, amen again.” He shivered a little, telling himself it was just because the cellar was so chilly.
Hop Sing balanced the breakfast tray on his left forearm as he opened the door to Little Joe’s room. Setting the tray on the bedside table, he frowned at the empty bed. Naughty little boy, he thought. Never where he supposed to be. The cook sighed. He hated to trouble Mr. Ben, who was so worried about Mr. Adam, but the honorable father would want to know. He moved across the hall and entered, asking at once, “Mr. Ben, you know where Little Joe?”
Ben heaved an exasperated sigh. “He’s supposed to be in his room. I take it he’s not?”
“No, Mr. Ben,” Hop Sing said and waited, perhaps for an explosion at least as loud as firecrackers on Chinese New Year.
There was no explosion. By now, Ben was too weary to care about his youngest’s disobedience any more. Though he’d never actually lifted the restrictions, neither could he be bothered to enforce them when they no longer made a difference anyway. “He’s probably in Hoss’s room,” he told the cook.
Hop Sing shook his head. “I take Number Two Son his breakfast before take Little Joe’s. He not there. Not here, either?”
Ben’s brow furrowed with concern. “No, he’s not here. Well, check the yard and send him straight to me when you find him. I think it’s time for a very necessary little talk with that boy.”
Hop Sing noticed that Mr. Ben had not said “if,” but secretly thought that was the word to use. He’d been outside earlier, to gather eggs and feed the chickens, and hadn’t seen the little boy, but there were many places for a small one to hide. He would check again and try to spare Mr. Ben any further worry.
Damp . . . dark . . . shivery cold . . . miserable. Good! He deserved it. Maybe it would be enough. Enough to convince God that he meant business about the trade. He’d fallen asleep sometime, and the candle had gone out. He didn’t try to light it again, ‘cause it might be daytime by now, and Hop Sing might need something from down here, and he couldn’t risk being seen ‘til he got an answer. He didn’t know how long he’d been in this place that seemed like a grave already, but it felt like forever. God couldn’t tell the difference between one day and a thousand years, though. He’d heard a preacher say that. Maybe Jesus was having a hard time convincing his pa that it was a fair trade: one smart, good son for one everyone said was full of mischief and orneriness. “I’ll try hard to be good,” he whispered, snuffling his stuffy nose, “if you’ll take me, instead.” He listened as hard as he could, but couldn’t make out yes or no. Maybe it was only preachers who could actually hear from God. He’d just have to wait and see what happened.
Hop Sing had put it off as long as he dared. He’d checked the yard and then the house, every place large enough to hide a small boy. Nothing. There was nothing left to do but tell Mr. Ben and add to his already heavy burden of worries. Ben looked up as the door opened and Hop Sing slid silently in on soft slippers. “Well, that took long enough,” he said gruffly. “Where was he?”
“Hop Sing not know, Mr. Cartwright,” the cook said quietly.
Alarm instantly sharpened Ben’s features. “You don’t . . . you mean you haven’t found him?”
“Not in yard, not in house,” Hop Sing reported. “Sorry, Mr. Ben. Not know where else look.”
Ben’s mind was racing. Not in the yard, not in the house. Dear God, had he run away from home? No, that couldn’t be it. Certainly, his youngest had chafed at staying in bed, and he should have let him up before now. There’d been no one to keep an eye on him, though, and it was never a good idea to leave Little Joe on his own too long. He sighed. That was exactly what he had done, though, with his orders to stay in his bed, stay in his room, orders he’d kept in place past the time they were really needed. He should have known the little mischief would rebel against that.
And that’s all it was, surely. He’d just run off to play, maybe over to the Devlin place or the Pruitts. Ben looked back to the bed, torn. Someone would have to ride over to see if Little Joe was with his friends, and it wasn’t a job he could delegate to anyone else. But how could he leave Adam, when he was so sick? Then he squared his shoulders. It was time to enlist some help.
He crossed the hall and entered Hoss’s room. He plastered on a smile he prayed wouldn’t look as fake as it felt. “Well, how are you feeling today, son?”
“Pretty good, Pa,” Hoss said, adding with a lopsided grin, “I’d feel a mite better if’n I could get some solid grub.”
Ben sat on his edge of his big son’s bed. “The doctor’s coming later today. We’ll see what he says, but you’re probably ready for more than invalid’s fare.” Probably long since ready, he realized with chagrin. In his concern for his sickest boy, he hadn’t paid as much attention to the needs of the recovering ones.
As he moistened his lips, Hoss sensed his nervousness. “Pa?” he asked, forehead wrinkling with concern. “Is it . . .Adam?”
Ben reached out a soothing hand. “No, no. Not much change, but if anything, he seems a little cooler, a little quieter.”
“But that’s good, ain’t it?” Hoss still looked worried, sensing something was wrong.
“That’s good, but”—Ben sighed. “There’s no good way to say it: Little Joe’s gone missing.”
Hoss threw back the covers and tried to scramble out the other side of the bed. “I’ll find him,” he said.
“No, no, no,” Ben said sharply.
“But, Pa, Little Joe and me—let me find him, Pa!”
“I’ll find Little Joe,” Ben said. “You’re not fit enough for that job, but I do need your help, son. Now, please, hear me out.”
If Hoss had a rebellious streak, it was no more than a quarter inch wide, so he settled back with only a troubled frown to hint at resistance.
Ben told him about the need to check with some neighbors that his little son might be visiting. “But I need you to watch over Adam, if you think you’re up to it.”
“‘Course, I am,” Hoss said.
Ben smiled at him. “I knew I could count on you, son. Now, get your robe on. Dr. Martin says you need to avoid taking a chill with the measles, but I think if you’re well covered, it’ll do you no harm to sit with your brother. He probably won’t need much attention, but if he does, you sing out for Hop Sing. He’ll be working somewhere about.” He didn’t explain that Hop Sing’s main task would be rechecking any spot big enough to hide a small boy or, if Little Joe made his way home, to take charge of him.
“Yes, sir; I’ll do it, Pa.”
As he stood, he pressed a hand to his son’s muscular shoulder. “I knew I could count on you.”
Cold . . . so very cold. What was taking God so long? Little Joe tried to pray about it some more, but he felt so sleepy. Maybe it would be all right to take a nap while he waited. His eyes closed, and he began to dream of seeing his mother soon.
Ben dropped, exhausted and dismayed, into his padded armchair. Raking his hand through his graying hair, he asked himself, as he had a hundred times that afternoon, where his boy could be. None of the neighbors had seen him, which made sense, as he should have realized sooner. Little Joe hadn’t taken a horse from the barn, but Ben had been too frantic to notice when he’d rushed out. He wasn’t noticing much these days, apparently. He didn’t even notice when Hop Sing appeared at his side with a steaming cup of coffee. “No find?” the cook asked, though he knew the answer by the ashen look on Mr. Ben’s face.
Shaking his head, Ben raised blank, hopeless eyes to the other man’s face. “He’s not back, I suppose.”
“No, Mr. Ben,” the cook said softly. “Hop Sing tell you right away if he find little boy.”
“I know,” Ben sighed. He stirred. “I guess I’d better check on Adam, get Hoss back to bed.”
“No need,” Hop Sing said. “Mr. Adam sleep. Mr. Hoss, too, in chair.” He touched his right ear. “You hear?”
Ben chuckled softly. He could, indeed, hear Hoss’s characteristic snore, although muffled by the walls and distance between them. “Still, he should be in bed,” he said, standing. Just then he heard the sound of a team pulling into the yard. “That’s probably the doctor. I’ll let him in; you fetch him a cup of coffee.”
Hop Sing frowned at the unnecessary instruction. He knew how to treat guests, especially the honorable doctor, but making concessions for Mr. Ben’s worries, he decided to make no complaint, this time.
Paul Martin gave his friend a scrutinizing look as he was ushered into the great room. “I see you failed to follow my advice,” he said.
Ben’s brow wrinkled in puzzlement. “Hmm?”
“To get some rest,” Dr. Martin said, shaking his head and pursing his lips.
“Oh, yeah,” Ben said. “Well, there’s been a development that ensured I couldn’t.”
The doctor’s eyes narrowed with concern. “Adam?”
Ben shook himself more alert. “No. No, I think he’s better . . . or was before I left.” Seeing his friend’s growing puzzlement, he said, “Little Joe’s gone missing. I’ve looked everywhere I can think.”
Dr. Martin groaned audibly. “Oh, that boy. He’d try the patience of a saint, which neither of us is. Well, the good news is that he was almost well, so you can pretty much treat it as ordinary mischief.”
“Feel free to warm his bottom, in other words?” Ben almost smiled.
“Oh, yeah.” Laying a compassionate hand on his friend’s shoulder, he said, “He’ll turn up, Ben . . . probably about meal time.”
Ben uttered a grim “Huh!” Then he said, “Speaking of meals, Hoss is beginning to complain about the quality of his.”
“Let’s have a look,” Paul said, mounting the stairs. “We can probably take him off light rations, if he’s doing as well as the last time I saw him.”
“He is. In fact, I left him in charge of Adam while I . . .”
Surprised, the doctor turned to face his friend on the landing. For Ben to take that step, he must have been truly concerned about Little Joe. “Needs must,” he said to alleviate the haunted expression he caught on Ben’s face.
Muttering in Mandarin, Hop Sing scuffed around the kitchen to prepare the meal Hoss had requested. Mashed potatoes with gravy and canned peaches. What kind of meal was that? Not what he wanted to cook, not what he considered good food, but it was what Number Two Son wanted, so he would do it. He was a good boy, and he was better, and Number One Son was small bit better, too. Reason enough to celebrate . . . except . . . Hop Sing sighed. Number Three Son still missing. Could not have true celebration without his boy. Mashed potato and peaches good enough celebration until Little Joe back with them. Then Hop Sing would do better.
As he started to peel the potatoes, though, he realized there might not be enough. No problem. Plenty more in cellar. As he went down the steps, the earthy odors of root vegetables and dirt and musty apples came to his nostrils. To Hop Sing, the aromas were pleasant and always sparked in him ideas of good food to prepare. Today, they sparked the idea of apple pie. Ah! That would tempt Number Two Son to better food than canned peaches! And, perhaps, Honorable Doctor would stay long enough to share the pie. Honorable Doctor did not eat enough, and he looked weary to the bone, like Mr. Ben. So, yes, Hop Sing would bake a pie, too, for Number Two Son and the doctor and save back a piece for Number Three Son, even though he was too naughty to deserve it, because apple pie was his favorite.
Taking a burlap bag, he started to fill it with apples, but stopped, frowning, when he heard something moving in the deepest part of the cellar. It was only a small sound, but that made it more ominous to Hop Sing. It could be mice, and there was no enemy of the pantry he hated more. If they had invaded again, he would need to get the barn cat down here after them. It would have to wait, though. He needed to start the apple pie right away. He had just started to fill his sack again when he froze, for he’d heard another sound, one that no animal, except the human one, would make: a cough. Someone was down here! Instantly, Hop Sing knew, and he called into the darkness, “Little Joe? That you?”
For a long minute no response came. Then a small voice he knew and loved cried faintly, “Mama? Did you come for me?” And Hop Sing scurried into the depths of the cellar and gathered his beloved boy into his arms. The light from the open door guided him back up the steps into the kitchen.
When Ben and Dr. Martin had come downstairs, they’d found a tray with coffee service on the low table in the open living area. Too inviting to be resisted, they sat down at once to relax from their labors and their worries, blessing Hop Sing for having provided it. “You’ll stay for a bite to eat, of course,” Ben said as he poured them each a cup of steaming brew.
“Mashed potatoes and peaches?” Dr. Martin chuckled.
Ben smiled as he handed over the doctor’s cup. “And gravy; don’t forget the gravy.”
“Never,” the doctor said, his own smile broadening. With all the calls he’d made, he hadn’t taken time for lunch, and breakfast had been early. He’d follow his own advice, for once, and look to his personal health, while setting a good example for the man who regularly ignored it.
“There might be more,” Ben said as he sat in his comfortable leather armchair, “knowing Hop Sing.”
“Fine if there isn’t.” Paul Martin took another sip of his coffee. “Best in the territory,” he declared, raising the cup. Having taken samples from virtually every coffee pot in the surrounding area, he had reason to know. And the food prepared by the same hands would be as good as he found anywhere, too, even if it did turn out to be only potatoes and gravy. (The canned peaches he might safely forego without offending either the cook or his growling stomach.)
“About Adam,” Ben said after taking a taste of the coffee. “I didn’t like to say much in front of Hoss, but . . .”
The doctor nodded soberly. “Not completely out of danger,” he said, “but I think he’ll make it. Just keep that fever down and . . .”
“Mr. Ben! Mr. Ben!”
Ben turned toward the piercing voice and bolted to his feet as he saw the small, limp figure in Hop Sing’s arms. “Where was he?” he cried as he covered the space in long strides, the doctor right behind him.
“In cellar,” Hop Sing said. “So sorry, Mr. Ben. Not think to look there.”
“Nor did I,” Ben said as he took his little boy. “Oh, Paul, he’s like ice!”
“Let me have him, Ben,” Paul directed, calling to Hop Sing to bring some blankets. The cook at once went to the credenza beside the front door. Taking two blankets from the top drawer, he brought them back to the settee, where the doctor was laying Little Joe.
“We need to warm him up,” Dr. Martin said. Then, seeing Ben’s stricken face, he added, “Don’t panic, my friend; it’s probably not as bad as you think.” Turning to the cook, he requested a hot drink. “Tea would be best, I think.”
Concurring with that opinion, Hop Sing hurried out to prepare the teapot, as Dr. Martin called, “Make it sweet.” He began to chafe the boy’s hands, while directing Ben to give his bare feet the same treatment.
The friction against his skin made Little Joe stir again, and he stared into his father’s face with, first, confusion and then fright. “Why—why are you here?” he blathered. “Where’s Mama?”
“Oh, baby,” Ben groaned, fearing the worst.
“Easy, Ben,” the doctor said. He gently turned the boy’s face toward him. “You know where your mother is, son—in heaven, remember?”
“But—but she’s supposed to take me!” Little Joe cried.
“Oh, God,” Ben moaned softly. “What have I done?”
The doctor silenced him with a raised hand. “No, son, you’re going to be with us for a long time yet.”
Instead of the comfort intended, the words heightened Little Joe’s agitation. “No! She’s supposed to take me,” he insisted. “We made a trade . . . leastways, I tried.” He wasn’t sure now that God had ever said they could trade. “For—for Adam,” he said as the tears rolled down his cheeks. “So’s he can stay.”
Aghast, Ben could say nothing, do nothing but shake his head in horror at the thought of exchanging one son’s life for another’s.
But Paul Martin knew what to say. “Adam can stay, Little Joe,” he promised. “There’s no need for a trade; he’s getting better.” As he’d told Ben, he couldn’t really promise yet, though the signs were good, but this child didn’t need to hear anything but a positive prognosis. Surely, God in His mercy would not demand so great a sacrifice from either the little boy or his distraught father.
And He didn’t. It took time, but all the Cartwright boys recovered: first, Hoss and then Little Joe, who suffered no more than a bad cold from his time in cellar, and finally, Adam. Ben never intended Adam to know what Little Joe had attempted on his behalf, but he made the mistake of telling Hoss, remembering too late that Hoss could never keep a secret, at least from his brothers. If anything, the sacrifice the boy had made, though unneeded and, thankfully, unsuccessful, touched his oldest brother deeply and brought them closer together. The days they’d been forced to spend apart during the epidemic did the same for all the brothers, and when they were finally declared well and healthy again, Little Joe insisted on the outing he’d been promised at the very beginning.
The third of June dawned bright and sunny, a perfect day for a trip to the lake, for swimming and fishing and picnicking. As promised, the Cartwrights spent the whole day enjoying their newfound freedom and the joy of being alive and together. That day became, for them, a new annual celebration, dubbed Cartwright Independence Day. It mattered not a whit that the nation celebrated something called by the same name a month later. For all the years they spent together, the Cartwright brothers celebrated independence twice each summer: once for the birthday of the nation and once for the day that brought liberation from the dreaded measles that had almost torn their family apart.
Author’s Notes: My poker hand consisted of the following words and phrases: measles, cellar, at a funeral, 3rd of June, Pa’s birthday
Before 1963, major measles epidemics occurred every two to three years, causing an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year. The development of the vaccine has vanquished that fear for almost everyone. May we one day say the same about covid-19.
Other Stories by this Author
- Santa’s Little Helper (by Puchi Ann)
- The Power of Words (by Puchi Ann)
- To Set the Captives Free (by Puchi Ann)
- It’s A Bonanza-ful Life (by Puchi Ann)
- Crossing the Rubicon . . . Again (by Puchi Ann)