Summary: A fellow rancher asks Adam to look in on his daughter’s family who lives in California, where Adam is about to travel with a small herd. A problem has arisen is that this daughter has fallen ill while visiting her parents in Virginia City, leaving her husband with a farm to run and two young children to care for, at the busiest time of year. While that seems easy enough, the other information Adam is given about the situation at that home, and the request being made of him, is anything but simple. What he finds on arrival, dictates the roles he must assume to help this family, and leaves him questioning where he needs to go next in his own life.
Rating: K (General)
Word Count: 32505
A Simple Favor
Adam took a quick look around his bedroom, making sure he’d grabbed everything before securing the flaps on his larger saddlebags. The pouches hung heavy when he slung the unit over his shoulder, a tribute to his skilled folding and stashing ability that allowed him to bring two complete changes of clothes, his personal kit, a couple small books and the paperwork for the cattle being delivered to California.
It wasn’t that he was overly concerned about wearing the same clothing for the entire drive, or stewing in his own juices as someone had once described the way drovers—who didn’t value frequent bathing—smelled towards the end of a long cattle drive. But slipping into clean clothes after a bath in a stream or lake when time and opportunity merged, held near miraculous restorative powers for his body and mind.
Convinced he had everything, he exited, shutting the door behind him. His progress stalled at the top of the stairs: surprised at seeing his father at his desk, speaking with someone standing near the door. His cheek rose as he remembered hearing a knock while he was in his room, and presuming it was one of his crew saying they were ready to move out. But this was not an employee, and with a closer look, he recognized Ned Carver, a cattle rancher with a nice spread to the northeast of the Ponderosa.
Adam began his descent, making Ben turn and wave him over. “Last week in town, I mentioned to Ned that you were taking a herd towards Sacramento today.”
“Hi, Ned.” Adam loped down the remaining steps and went to shake Ned’s hand before perching on the corner his father’s desk. “Does your visit have something to do with my trip?”
Ned stepped closer to the two men: shifting his feet in a nervous jig after he stopped. “I’m sorry to show up so close to you leaving, but I wasn’t sure I should ask this …” He scrubbed his face and shook his head. “I need a simple favor, Adam.”
A quick glance towards his father, confirmed that Ben had no clue about what Ned was about to suggest. “I should probably hear what you have in mind before making any promises.”
“Your pa said you’re taking cattle to Camp Union.” He received a nod from both Cartwrights. “You remember that my Nadine married one of my best ranch hands, and they bought a farm in Elk Grove a few years back. It’s about 20 miles south of that cavalry post.”
Adam nodded again. “Was his name Fritz … Fritz Brooks?” The nod came from Ned this time. “Do you want me to drop something off for them before I come home?”
Ned’s cheeks grew from a soft pink to bright red. “More’n that, Adam.” The jig began again, this time accompanied by Ned wringing at his hat like a wet towel. “My son-in-law is a proud man who worked hard and even made a few good investments in the mines, thinking he had enough to take on his own place.” He looked directly at Ben. “But you and I know how fast money goes when you first start out.”
“I sure do.” Ben nodded sagely; his lips set in a thin line of remembrance. “I set out from Boston thinking Adam and I would be on our way west in a couple of months. But money always ran out before the miles did.” He smiled at Ned. “Are Nadine and Fritz experiencing this?”
Ned looked down at his twisted hat and punched it back into shape. “You might’a heard that my wife was feeling poorly for a spell in spring. Nadine said she couldn’t come over with it being planting season. But then she wrote that couldn’t come at all. Money was ‘a little tight’ because a drought last summer ruined their crops.” He shook his head, sucking his breath through his teeth. “A little tight doesn’t even begin to cover what we found out. About two weeks ago she wired that she was coming for a quick visit. She arrived on the eastbound stage from Sacramento and planned to catch the same one home when it came back around in two days.”
Adam’s cheek rose. “You say ‘planned.’ Is she still here?”
“Yup. We could see she was feeling poorly as soon as she stepped off the stage, and we took her straight to Doc Martin.”
“I hope she’s not ill,” Ben told his friend.
“She’s expecting again, and Paul told us she’s not been taking care of herself, so she needs rest and Mavis’ good cooking for a couple weeks. Even then, he’s worried that traveling by stage might be hard for her. We decided to put the bows and canvas back on our prairie wagon, and fix it up comfortable with a bed so she can rest all the way home. Mavis and I’ll set out with her as soon as the doc says, and Mother will stay there as long as she’s needed.”
Ben clucked in a fatherly concern. “As serious as this is, there’s providence in her being here. She’ll do well for your care.” He cringed. “Does this delay leave Fritz at home alone with the children and the harvest: assuming the crops did well this year?”
“Nadine says it was a better year, but the harvesting isn’t my worry.”
“What’s bothering you most?” Adam prodded when Ned grew silent.
“It was Nadine’s reaction to the news of expecting a baby that set Mother and me spinning. She cried and looked so forlorn we finally forced her to talk to us.” Ned sunk into a chair near the desk, as a look of agony set on his face. “Imagine hearing that your child used their last cent for stage fare to come ask for money. They raise animals and got some taters and things left from the little they harvested last year, so they’re not starving. But it’s bad in every other way.”
Adam shook his head. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Thank the good Lord they aren’t going hungry: but they are going without because Nadine refuses to purchase anything on credit that isn’t a necessity to survive. It’s been drier than normal for a couple of years now, meaning they haven’t broken even in some time, and the amount they owe keeps climbing. Even with a good growing season this summer, they won’t get square because they couldn’t buy enough seed last spring. The harvest is good, but it’ll be small. Nadine felt desperate about all this, and she wasn’t sleeping or eating well to begin with. Then she realized she was expecting too, and decided she had to ask us for help. Ned drew a deep breath. “I already wired money so Fritz can pay off some bills, get supplies and hire a woman to help with the kids and house.” He blushed deeply. “But I’m sure he’s at wit’s end by now.”
Adam sent Ned an encouraging smile. “Perhaps he’s doing better than you think. Necessity makes people adapt quickly.”
Ned’s head lolled side-to-side. “I hope that’s true, but ….” He nodded towards Adam. “I saw how your father raised you boys. From little on, he expected that you help with whatever chores you could handle. Nadine was coddled a bit more than the Cartwright boys, but she was taught to take care of herself.” Ned began twisting his hat again, and finally looked back up, his agonized look even deeper set than before. “I love my daughter and respect Fritz, but …. My two grandchildren don’t know how to do anything for themselves. I stopped there on the way home from San Francisco last spring, and was shocked to witness that they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, so much as wash up and get dressed on their own. The boy is young, but his sister is old enough to do that and a whole lot more to help out.
“In the morning, Nadine ran around like a headless chicken, trying to get Fritz out the door, while Winnie and Jack sat at the table, waiting for her to serve their breakfast and then help them get dressed. They don’t straighten their beds, set the table, clear their dishes or help their mother with anything. They’re dear children, and it’s not their fault they don’t do these things.”
Ned stopped to clear his throat, and withdrew an envelope from his jacket pocket, extending it to Adam. “If you would, I’d have you drop off this bank draft for more money to make sure they have what they need until we get there.”
The look exchanged between father and son was completely understood with no words exchanged. Ben posed their thought. “It would be faster to wire this. It will take over a week for Adam to get to Camp Union with the herd.”
Adam adjusted his position on the desk to look more fully at his father. “The men need me through the mountain passes, but I could ride on ahead to complete the sale once we’re on the California side. That cuts a few days from my trip.” His gaze shifted to Ned. “Still … a wire would be faster.”
Ned leaned forward in his chair to rest an arm on the edge Ben’s desk. “The Cartwrights take no pleasure in the hardship of another, and that’s why I’m asking this of you, Adam.” He briefly rested his head on his arms, before continuing. “It’s not just about the money. I need to know what’s going on there: all of it—good or bad. I’d go myself, but I need to drive Nadine back, and frankly, you might spot what’s really going on. When I’m there, Fritz pretends that everything is fine.”
“What do you think is going on?” Adam asked evenly.
“My daughter won’t say it outright, but I feel in my bones that there’s a bigger problem than the weather.” Ned looked directly at Adam. “You’ve got a good mind for business just like your pa, and you’ll see right off what’s wrong. I need your honest opinion as to whether offering more cash will help turn things around or just throw good money after bad.” He nodded sideways towards Ben. “Your pa told me what you did for that family what had troubles with Jedediah Millbanks. You were supposed to foreclose on their property, but instead you got things figured out so’s they could make a go of it. Ben said you staked them with your own money, and they repaid you in no time. I’ll put up the money if you find a way to help Fritz and Nadine like that.”
Adam scratched his head while considering Ned’s request, and finally smiled at their guest. “You could insist Fritz be honest about their situation in light of what Nadine told you. My guess is what you really want is for me to ease your son-in-law towards a solution that he thinks he’s found.”
Ned grinned back. “I knew you’d understand. My daughter loves Fritz, and I might cause big problems if I point out his failings. I’d appreciate a wire letting me know what you find. If it’s too far gone to shore up, then I’ll step in to protect my daughter and grandchildren.”
Adam expression and tone turned serious. “I can take a look, but I won’t go behind Nadine and Fritz’s backs to report to you, unless there is a dangerous situation. I’ll talk to your son-in-law about what I might suggest can turn things around: not you. Then he and Nadine will have to decide what to do, and they can speak to you.”
Ned stood and shook Adam’s hand. “You’re a good man, Adam. It won’t be easy, but I’ll honor that.”
Father and son stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the doorway as they watched Ned ride away.
Ben smiled widely as he shut the door and then clapped his son’s back. “Well … that was unexpected. Did he honestly say he was asking for a ‘simple’ favor?”
Adam’s grin was lopsided. “I believe that was the wording. Yet, he suggested it because my father told him about the Hackett family.”
“I was so proud of what each of you boys did with Jedediah’s orders: how you each turned life around for the people you met. I’ll pray that this proves a similar opportunity.”
Adam chuckled. “You always taught us to look for ways to give people a second chance, Pa.” He squinted as he thought. “This will extend my time away. Fritz has a heavy load right now, and I’ll stay to give him a hand should he need one.” He winked at his father. “Not all men can run a business and raise children like you did.”
“You and I, and then your brothers, learned to make it work. Hard times—those deep pit situations—are often when we grow the most.”
Retrieving his holster from the credenza, Adam buckled it around his waist and tied the rawhide strings around his thigh, before grabbing his coat and hat from the hooks. Looking around, he went back for the saddlebags he’d left on his father’s desk, and shrugged then over his shoulder before returning to the door and reaching for his father’s hand. “If all goes well, I should arrive at Camp Union and send a wire home by Thursday. I’ll wire you again once I reach Elk Grove.”
The hand grasp between the two men was sturdy and long. “Don’t worry about hurrying back. Just take care and get home safely.”
The tired cowboy lifted the covers and gently eased himself onto the soft mattress. A quiet sigh accompanied his nestling between the clean sheets and feather-packed quilt, as he let his overworked muscles relax.
He’d left the ranch six days ago, and despite fighting winds in the mountain pass, they’d brought the small herd through in good time, allowing him to ride ahead to Camp Union. After he’d explained the situation, the commander had authorized payment based on the trust built from their continual business association with the Cartwrights. This “trust” didn’t mean the cavalry wouldn’t count the arriving beef and alert the Ponderosa to any discrepancy.
The deal had been concluded early enough for him to head for Sacramento to deposit the payment. The day was waning by the time he finished his tasks in the city, and since Elk Grove was too far away to make before dark, the decision whether to leave then, and spend another night sleeping in a bedroll, or remain in Sacramento, had been easily made.
Moving this herd had been his first adventure since recovering the use of his legs after being paralyzed for several weeks. Both the doctor who’d treated him, as well as Paul Martin, who’d been asked to render an opinion when he’d returned from the trip that had prevented his care at the time of the accident, had advised against spending hours on horseback or nights on the hard ground for a good while.
Instead of doing cattle drives, he’d worked hard around the ranch through the summer, while returning to the house each night. When no ill-effects had materialized with his robust work load, he’d been given the go ahead to resume everything he’d done in the past.
Adam stretched his arms up behind his head, recalling the firm, long handshake his father had given him before he’d left. There’d been no other choice but for him to test his mettle. Hoss and Joe were away with their own delivery of a large sale, and his father was embroiled in a bid that required his constant attention. Even though both doctors had agreed that he’d be “just fine,” Adam knew Pa would worry until he heard that this was truly the case. To honor his father; the first thing he’d had done after securing the money was to send a brief telegram home. Arrived in Sacramento (Stop) Just fine(Stop) Price good(Stop) Money secured (Stop) Arrive Elk Grove tomorrow(Stop)
What had surprised Adam during his days with the herd, was despite the conditioning and incremental easing back to ranch work, the trip had become increasingly uncomfortable. By the second night, he’d had to face that he was getting older, and wasn’t able to bounce back as easily as he had in his 20’s. His pain and fatigue had never reached a point where he couldn’t endure it, but he’d had to laugh off the teasing from the hands when they’d called him, “Old Man,” as they’d witnessed his hunched-over crab-walk for the first few steps after crawling out of his bedroll in the morning. As much as he’d looked forward to proving he’d reached back-in-the-saddle condition, he’d been extremely pleased to leave the herd behind after those days of hard riding over rough terrain, campfire sleeping, and baked beans.
With the first part of his job done, and the unknown work ahead of him at the Brooks’ farm, he considered this night at a good hotel a necessary luxury. The “necessity” had also included a hot bath; dinner at a favorite restaurant, and a few games of billiards and spirited conversation in the salon. With all that, he was in bed before 10 PM: grateful it wasn’t any later.
The sun had risen ahead of the occupant of room 207. Even so, as he now stretched and yawned, he felt no guilt at being in bed at the scandalous hour of 8:00 AM. He’d made an agreement with himself before turning in that he would rest as long as his body required, and he’d actually turned over and gone back to sleep when the first rays of sun had slipped between the edges of the drapes, focusing a beam of sunlight on his pillow.
If allowed to exercise his predilections, he’d choose to remain up after his family retired, enjoying the peaceful quiet of the house into the wee hours of the night. This was a tendency he’d fought his entire life except for his years in college when no one cared how late he stayed up, as long as he didn’t disturb others and made it to class the next morning.
He indulged himself occasionally during the winter, but ranch life was a series of necessary chores that didn’t allow for midnight rendezvous with a good book or sessions of personal contemplation. The Cartwrights didn’t rise before dawn, but they were usually up with the sun.
Today, Adam enjoyed the comfortable mattress until a glance at the clock finally made him slip from the covers to don a robe. He grabbed his pants and pulled some coins from the pocket for the bellman when he heard the light rap on the door. While he’d planned to “sleep in,” he’d known that there was a limit, and had prearranged his breakfast to be brought up at a reasonable hour.
Sport was anxious to hit the road when Adam claimed him from the livery after enjoying the last moments of his respite. The chestnut pranced down the main road out of town, side-stepping and bobbing his head to indicate his willingness to charge ahead.
With the Sacramento streets behind him, the well-rested and fed Cartwright allowed his equally rested and fed steed to have his way, and the two chewed up the miles to Elk Grove, arriving well before noon. Adam slowed their pace to a walk while heading onto the main street.
He passed a small, red brick building first. The black bars mounted over the windows and the reinforced entry door, indicated it was the town jail. There was a decidedly quiet look to the sheriff’s office, with the shades down and no horse waiting at the ready. This didn’t surprise him. Roy Coffee was seldom in his office either since that’s not where disputes happened or laws were broken.
What became evident as Adam rode further, was the difference between a growing area like Virginia City in the wake of the Comstock lode, and a small—even though established—town like Elk Grove, was the lack of activity at the busiest time of the day. Adam spotted only two wagons being loaded outside stores in the distance, and the same number of people on the boardwalk.
There were a few larger, well-kept houses beyond the jail—undoubtedly belonging to the banker, lawyer, physician and business owners—followed by a few big buildings that upheld the small-town atmosphere. When a town took off, the amount of citizenry would support a separate Western Union office, hotel, stage office and cafes. But here, signs outside the two-story structure Adam was passing, indicated it housed all of those services.
He smiled when he noticed two saloons directly facing each other. If he had the time, he’d have done a quick stop to confirm his theory that one offered more in the way of hard gambling, with a poker game going on at a corner table most hours of the day, while the other would be a hard drinking establishment, with a piano player accompanying the frequently bending elbows; the corner tables occupied by the dozing, homeless inebriated.
After passing another large building housing a seed and hardware store, with a large painted arrow on the side, directing people to the back for a livery and blacksmith, Adam finally saw the place he needed. The signs on the weathered, clapboard building indicated it housed the general store and post office. He tied Sport out front with enough slack to reach the water trough, and headed inside.
Despite the outside needing a coat of paint, the inside was spotless and organized, with as good a variety of supplies he’d ever seen at a mercantile. In a large cubicle designated as the post office, a woman was slipping mail into individual slots. Another woman was arranging a display of decorative hurricane lamps behind the main counter. Both had their backs to him, and they gave no indication they’d heard him enter.
He cleared his throat. “Excuse me, ladies. I wonder if you might help me with some information.”
The lady at the counter spun quickly, and greeted the new arrival with a broad smile. “Well hello there.” She eyed him from head to toe, and reversed the process, ending at eye-level. “Aren’t you just a cool glass of water on a hot day.” She motioned to the woman in the postal section. “Have a look, Edna. We don’t get many strangers stopping in, but this one’s a keeper.”
Edna gave the other woman a sharp look, and shook her head. “I’m Edna Richter, and this forward woman is my sister, Elaine. Welcome to Elk Grove. How might we help you?”
Adam noted the family resemblance, figuring Edna was near 50: a few years the senior of her “forward” sister. He tipped his hat to each of them, flashing a toothy smile. “Ladies. I need directions to the Brooks’ homestead. Since the post office is here, I hope you can send me down the right road.”
Elaine began to answer, but Edna quickly cut her off, directing her reply to the newcomer. “We know the Brooks, but you best tell us a little more about yourself before we send you anywhere.”
A pink blush rose in his cheeks: something he hoped wasn’t as noticeable as it felt. “That’s only proper, and I’m sorry I didn’t lead with that information. I’m Adam Cartwright from Virginia City, where Nadine Brooks grew up. Our families have been friends for many years, and with Nadine unable to return as quickly as she’d hoped, and me passing nearby, her father asked that I check in on Fritz.”
Edna nodded her head several times. “Fritz showed us the telegram from Nadine’s pa when it came in. We’re so sorry to hear she’s unwell. That family sure doesn’t need any more troubles.”
The two sisters looked at each and shared an unstated agreement before Elaine took up the story. “Fact is we kind’a forgot about Fritz being out there alone. It’s a busy time of year for us with ladies needing canning things, and large orders arriving nearly every day with supplies we’ll need over winter. The day he got that wire, he placed an order for tools and household staples, and told us that he was expecting money to pay for it. Mr. Fontane, from the bank, brought the money over after the wire came through, and Edna put it in the safe, after taking out what Fritz owed us.” She gave her sister a questioning look. “I don’t recollect him being back since then. Did he come while I was out?”
When Edna shook her head, Elaine disappeared into the back room and returned with a good-sized crate, filled with supplies she’d set aside. “There’s some tools back there too, but these are the staples.”
Edna returned to her mail cage; disappeared behind the counter for a few moments, and stood again, holding up an envelope. “I still have his money.”
“It sounds like he hasn’t been around for well over a week?” Adam asked as he began to grow wary.
“At least that,” Edna replied. “We offered to let him take the supplies right away, but he said he wanted to wait until he could pay cash.”
Elaine and her sister exchanged another look of agreement, before she added, “If you know Nadine and Fritz, then you probably know why he said that. Those two have a lot of outstanding credit, and he wanted to use the money from Nadine’s folks to even things up.” The younger sister shivered. “Now I’m concerned as to why he hasn’t returned.”
Adam’s wrinkled brow registered his own concern. “Nadine’s father hoped Fritz could use some of that money to hire someone to help with their children. Are you aware of him doing that?”
Both sets of shoulders rose and fell, but Edna explained, “Not so’s we’ve heard. But even if he had money for help, it’s a time of year when families need every able-bodied person harvesting crops. There are two older widows at the boarding house who hire out, but I saw both of them this week and they didn’t mention going out there.”
Adam forced a smile. “Maybe Fritz has things under control and is just too busy to come in.” He lifted the crate of supplies from the counter to gage its weight. “May I ask you to go through this and pick out the most necessary items. I’m on horseback, but if we could put those things in couple of bags, I can tie them over my saddlebags.”
While Elaine and her sister did a quick sort, Adam searched a display with children’s toys. He turned back towards the women. “Nadine’s father said she has a son and daughter, and I’d like to take along something to ease the sting of me showing up instead of their mother. But I can’t recall their ages.”
The younger sister hurried over to help with his hunt. “Winnie is six.” Elaine picked up a cloth doll with long, yellow yarn braids, and showed Edna. “She’d like this, don’t you think?”
A sad smile crossed Edna’s face. “That child would be thrilled with most anything. Those children never get store-bought toys.”
Elaine turned again to the shelf. “Jack is four … maybe five already.” She picked up a set of carved animals that came with a wooden box painted like a barn to store them. “He’d have fun with this, if it’s not too much, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Both things seem perfect, and I hope you have some storybooks too.”
The middle-aged woman blushed. “I was pretty sure you didn’t have any concern over price. I’ve been in this business long enough to know when things are special made, and most of your clothes are just that because of your height. Your belts and holster are full leather, not split, and you carry yourself like someone who knows what you want. Nadine used to talk about knowing a family that owned a huge ranch where she grew up.” She looked up while trying to remember. “It was named after some kind of tree. Is that you?”
“It’s my family’s ranch: the Ponderosa. My father brought us out here before much of anything had come this far west, and we’ve built it together.”
“Then I’d say Nadine and Fritz are fortunate that you’d take the time to stop just to make sure all is well.”
“It’s my pleasure. People have looked out for us over the years too.”
“Mr. Cartwright,” Edna called from behind the stack of supplies. “Is there any chance you know how to cook?”
Adam laughed. “No. Why do you ask?”
“I’m imagining you arriving at the Brooks’ place with enough flour, sugar, salt and baking powder to feed an army, and not having a clue what to do with it.”
“If Fritz doesn’t know how to cook, then that’s a certainty.”
Edna walked over to a glass case and reached inside. “We sell fresh bread and baked goods that Claire, from the boarding house supplies. How about instead of the things Fritz ordered, I make up a couple packs of ready foods. We’ve got canned peaches, Sally’s bread and cookies, and we sell some jars of ready-to-go mixes that a lady in town puts up for biscuits and pancakes. Each jar’s got all the ingredients except the eggs and liquid, and the directions are inside.”
“The Brooks have chickens and pigs, so you’ll have eggs and bacon.” Elaine disappeared into the storeroom, and returned, carrying a sack with “Jellybeans” printed on the label, and two books tucked under her arm. “One of these is fairy tales and fables,” she said, while depositing the books on the counter. “The other is about animals in simple words and big print, so maybe Winnie can read it to her brother.”
While Edna wrapped the toys and books in brown paper, and stuffed them in the bags along with the other goods, Elaine tore off a piece of the same paper and drew a map for Adam to follow. Before leaving, he paid for his purchase, telling the ladies to keep the rest of the items together, and finally asked how much money remained from the bank note so he could tell Fritz.
“Thank you both,” he said sincerely. “I have one further favor. If you see either of those women from the boarding house, please mention that Fritz is looking to hire. Once I see what’s going on out there, I’ll be back to send a few telegrams and pick up those supplies.” He tied the string of the two cloth bags together and lifted them from the counter while sending the ladies a wink and a salute. “I look forward to seeing you later.”
The ride to the Brooks’ house took no more than 15-minutes, but a good deal of apprehension rode along with him as he considered why Fritz hadn’t been to town for days. It wasn’t unusual for a farmer to work weeks-on-end without going to town at busy times. But Fritz had ordered tools, along with the grocery items, and most of all: he’d had money coming.
He could see a number of buildings on the homestead as he neared the turn off. None of them were large or well-built, but certainly sturdy enough to house their animals, provisions and the family. The browning stalks of corn in the field he was passing didn’t speak to a large crop, but it could yield enough for their winter feed. Dying vines in a garden nearer the house spoke to potatoes and squash ready for harvesting, and he could see three cows in a corral outside the barn.
As he turned onto the rutted road leading to the house, he felt a shiver ripple across his shoulders: a foreboding that something was off. The cows were mooing—more like groaning while swaying back and forth. Nearing their enclosure, he noticed that their udders were distended. Flipping Sport’s reins over one of the fence boards, he dismounted and made a quick perusal of the barn. It appeared empty except for a few bleating goats kept inside a pen. He could hear grunting, and checked outside the back door to find a lean-to pen with a large brood sow and a few piglets.
“Fritz!” he called out. He shouted again, without a receiving a reply. Returning to where he’d started, he grabbed Sport’s reins, and headed him towards a few tufts of grass to nibble. At hearing a squeaking hinge from the direction of the house, unaccompanied by any verbal greeting, he moved his hand to his pistol before turning.
The door was ajar just enough that he could see two frightened faces—one above the other—staring out at him. “Are you Winnie and Jack?” he asked as he stepped ahead slowly. “I’m Adam Cartwright: a friend of your mama and papa, and your grandpa Ned.”
The door opened another inch. “Is Mommy with you?” The voice was shaky, but filled with hope.
“Your mama had to stay with Grandma and Grandpa for a bit longer, but I came to see your daddy. Is he around?”
The girl finally stepped outside. Adam tried not to react to the disheveled appearance of the youngster. Her hair was a wild nest that hadn’t been combed in some days, and her dress was gray with dirt and stains.
She looked down at her dirty, bare feet. “Daddy took the wagon to get hay a couple days ago, and he never came back.” She sighed heavily as she looked back up at the stranger.
“Did he leave you here alone?” Adam asked gently.
Winnie nodded. “He was supposed to be back for lunch.”
“Do you know which way he went?”
She turned and pointed in the direction of the corn field. “It’s past all that, by the stream.”
Jack slipped out the door to join his sister on the porch. His physical state matched hers, and his dirty cheeks were streaked with the trails of tears. “Mister,” he said softly. “Do you have anything to eat? Me and Winnie are so hungry.”
The child’s words set Adam to action. Fritz’s whereabouts would have to wait. He grabbed the bags of food from Sports back and told the children to go inside. He wasn’t sure what would greet him beyond the door, but while the kids were a mess, the house was organized and as neat as he could imagine it being after a couple weeks of missing the homemaker who’d created the cozy interior. As he dug out the contents of the bags, he gave silent thanks for the forward-thinking sisters who’d sent food he could have them eating in minutes.
“Do you have butter?” he asked Winnie, who nodded and retrieved a bowl from the crock. “How about eggs or bacon?”
“The eggs are gone, and I don’t know how to cut the bacon. With Daddy gone too, I didn’t know what to do.”
“I saw a coop out back.” He offered while squatting down in front of her. “Are there laying hens out there?”
She nodded sturdily.
“Did you think about checking for eggs?”
“Mommy always does that. She says Jack and me get the hens too worked up when we go in there. And anyways, I don’t know how to make a fire or cook them.”
Ned’s warning that his grandchildren might be helpless to fend for themselves rang a gong in his head, and he reminded himself to remain gentle.
“How about some jelly or jam?” While Winnie retrieved a covered bowl with jelly, Adam looked through the pile of dirty dishes on the cupboard to find a slicing knife. Thankfully the house had an inside pump and he quickly filled a pan with water and washed enough plates and utensils to get the children fed. “You both need to wash up before you come to the table.” He looked around the room until spotting the ewer, and pointed towards it. “Winnie, please bring that over so I can fill it.
“It’s got water in it,” she told him, “But I can’t lift it.”
Adam dried his hands and motioned her to meet him by the wash stand. He lifted the pitcher. “It isn’t heavy. I bet you just need to learn how to hold it better.” Without waiting for a reply, he took the girl’s hands and placed one on the handle, and one towards the base of the pitcher. “Now, try lifting and pouring. I’ll give you a hand.”
A smile grew on the little girl’s face as she splashed water into the bowl.
“Good job!” Adam said enthusiastically. “How about you help your brother with the soap and towel, and I’ll finish getting the food out.”
He served an instant lunch of thick-cut buttered bread with jelly, and a bowl of canned peach slices. The chef accepted the children’s rave reviews as they wolfed it down, and considered what to do next. As much as he wanted to search for Fritz, he understood that there were pressing needs here too. He could still hear the cows’ mournful bellows, indicating that if he didn’t relieve them soon, there’d soon be no milk for the family.
“Winnie, when you finish eating, please wash your face and comb your hair as best you can, and then help your brother to do the same. After that, you can take that basket from the cupboard and gather eggs.”
“But Mommy says …”
Adam cut her off, using an encouraging tone. “Your mother says you can’t help because you get the chickens riled. How can you do it so that doesn’t happen?”
Her eyes widened. “I’ll talk soft to them, and cluck, like Mommy does, and just slip my hand under them for the eggs.”
“That’s perfect. Jack can go with you, but he should wait outside while you do the gathering. I’ll be milking the cows, and once that’s done, we’ll look for your pa.”
After entering the barn to find milking pails, Adam stopped to listen to what sounded like rubbing against the rough boards inside a stall he originally thought empty. A peak over the boards allowed him to see a bull calf with large, soulful eyes staring up at him. “Aha,” he said with a chuckle. “I bet your mama is one of those ladies outside.”
The animal was young, making Adam wonder why he wasn’t bawling for a meal. But evidence of hay in the stall, led him to believe the young man had been eating that. The baby trotted beside him out to the corral, and ran straight for his mother to nurse. Not finding any other calves in the barn, he assumed the other offspring were older, and had already been sold. He made quick work of milking the two ladies: at least enough to ease their discomfort.
A quick look toward the chicken coop, while noting the absence of any commotion, made him hopeful of Winnie’s success. As he pulled the last squirt of milk into his second pail, she came running over to present her half-filled basket of eggs.
His praise of her accomplishments, both for the clean faces and egg gathering, brought a rosy glow to the little girl’s cheeks that vanished quickly. “Can we get Daddy now?”
The last thing he wanted was two children along as he scoured the land beyond the corn. “How about you stay here with your brother while I go look.”
Winnie’s chin began to quiver: her miserable tears following quickly along with her choking plea. “I don’t want to be here alone, Mister. I’m afraid you’ll go and won’t come back either.”
Adam could see the terror in her large blue eyes that reminded him of his middle brother. He’d seen the same look of fear many times when Hoss was this age, and he was defenseless against it. “We’ll all have to ride on my horse, but if you promise to sit still and hold on, we should manage.”
“We’ll be good; I promise!” she told him while drying her tears on the hem of her dirty dress.
It soon became clear that Winnie and her brother knew a lot about the way their house was run, even though they weren’t expected to participate. They showed him where the milk and eggs were stored to keep cool. While in the root cellar, Winnie pointed out a few baskets with aging vegetables, and hooks holding bacon and ham.
With everything stowed and the cows comfortably chewing hay, he had the kids climb onto a large feedbox near the corral, hoisting Jack onto his lap, and Winnie onto a folded blanket behind him. He wrapped his arms around the boy, and twisted around to say, “Hold on, Winnie. Pull on my shirt sleeve if I’m going too fast or you need me to listen.”
Adam was uneasy about having the children along. He felt certain Fritz wasn’t a man who would abandon his children just because things got tough. He’d promised to be home for lunch, and something had happened to prevent his return. Adam kept a close eye on the horizon, trying to pick up any sign of the young father. His constant prayer as he continued forward at a careful pace, was that he’d spot anything amiss before stumbling into a situation that would cause these little ones endless nightmares.
In minutes they cleared the cornfield and moved towards the grass that was still growing thick and green. A copse of trees was to his left, and a line of green brush growing along a meandering course, confirmed Winnie’s mention of a stream. The land around him was beautiful, and he understood why Fritz had bought it. Much like the Hackets, Fritz and Nadine appeared to have the resources to make a good life. What he sincerely hoped he’d find was that unpredictable circumstances had created a snowball effect, bringing them to their present hardship.
He shook his head, reminding himself that there was something far more pressing to think about now. He stopped, bringing his hand up to help shield the midday glare as he performed a visual search. His muscles tensed at seeing the outline of a wagon near a section of cut grass, just this side of the unseen water. The wagon was upright and a horse grazed nearby. The pastoral scene gave no inkling of anything being wrong, except that there was no sign of Fritz.
Setting Sport to a fast walk, he steered away from where he’d seen the wagon, heading towards the trees instead. As he assisted the youngsters down, he told them evenly, but firmly, “I’m going to leave you here while I look around. It will go far faster, and I promise I won’t ride so far away that you can’t see where I am.”
He grabbed the blankets he’d used for padding, and spread one out in a shady spot. Neither child spoke as he worked, and their wide-eyed, frowning expression, made him drop to one knee and gently pull them to his side. “You’re both being so brave. It must be scary that your mama didn’t come home like you expected, and to have your papa disappear. Then I showed up and you don’t know who I am or whether you should trust me. It’s important that you do trust me though, and be brave a little while longer. Can you do that?”
Winnie nodded, but her brother looked so exhausted that Adam feared the child would pass out. “I bet Jack will take a snooze if you sit with him.” Anticipating the little girl’s response, he quickly added, “How does your mama get Jack to sleep?”
“She rubs his back and talks soft to him.”
“How about you both lay down on the blanket and you rub his back until he dozes off.” Once brother and sister were cuddled together, Adam placed the second blanket over them and squatted down next to Winnie to whisper. “If you need anything, just holler as loud as you can and wave your arms. I promise I’ll look over this way every little while to make sure you’re fine.”
Looking back as he rode away, he suspected that both children were already asleep. Adam offered his fervent thanks, and sent up another request that they remain that way while he located Fritz.
Perspective on a flat plane was enigmatic. At times an object in the distance appeared nearby, yet it took some time to arrive. In this case, the opposite was true and Adam trotted up to the grazing horse in minutes. The good-sized animal seemed content with its situation, turning only to give him a casual glance as he approached. He’d suspected from the onset that Fritz’s absence had nothing to do his transportation. The house was so close, he could have easily walked back had there been a mechanical problem, and that left only one ominous option.
A section of grass was down and already dry, indicating that Fritz had accomplished a good deal of work, prior to whatever had gone wrong.
Adam cupped his hands around his mouth and hollered, “Fritz!” The day was breezy, and many sounds returned to him on the draft: sans anything human. He walked across the cut grass, until reaching a matted footpath along the edge of the field, leading towards the stream.
Listening again, he heard a strangled moan floating on a gust of wind. It sent him running further along that path, until his gut seized and he stopped. Fritz’s body was below him: his leg wedged securely between two large rocks at the bottom of a steep bank, a foot or two from the stream.
He had to assume Fritz was still alive, although he made no response to another shout of his name. Adam gave a shrill whistle, making Sport’s head pop up. The tall, lithe gelding immediately walked to his master’s side.
“Good job, buddy.” Adam rubbed the horse’s nose and patted his rump affectionately as he grabbed his canteen and then carefully climbed down the grassy bank to kneel next to the injured man.
Fritz was woozy, but conscious. The blood-saturated pants; the contorted angle of his trapped limb and the fact that his torso was downhill from his legs, provided evidence of a serious injury, as well as the mathematics that had kept him from rescuing himself.
“Fritz Brooks, I presume?” Adam said as he held the canteen to the man’s lips. “I sure am glad to see you.”
“You are…are…aren’t half as g…g…glad to see me as I am to see you.” Fritz’s voice was punctuated with the staccato of someone in shock. His eyes suddenly grew haunted as he grabbed his rescuer’s arm. “My kids! They’re at the house…d…d…down that road. B..b…been alone for th…th…three days now. Please go th…there fist!”
Adam offered the canteen again, and laid a reassuring hand on Fritz’s shoulder. “I stopped at the house first. The kids were hungry and worried, but fine. Winnie showed me where to look for you, and they both insisted on coming along. They’re napping by the trees.”
Fritz released a long sigh—a simple act that brought his shivering under control. “Thanks mister. They were all I could think of. I figure my leg is broken. Still I could have crawled home, but I couldn’t hoist myself up enough to get my leg free.”
“The principles of physics were against you,” Adam told him as he stood and assessed how best to extricate Fritz from his rocky trap.
“What was against me?”
Making his way up the bank, Adam stood at the far end of the rocks trapping Fritz’s leg, and decided what needed to be done. “You were fighting against gravity and the odd angle of your body. The downward push on your body created by the slope of this bank, kept you from pushing yourself uphill enough to loosen your knee and lift your leg free. The other problem is that you’re twisted too much to sit up correctly to provide any help.” Adam shook his head. “I don’t know how you’re still conscious, much less alert and calm.”
Fritz’s chuckle turned into a moan. “It ain’t been easy to hang on, but whenever I thought of giving up, I remembered Winnie and Jack, and I hung on a little longer.” The young farmer eyed his rescuer more closely. “Aren’t you one of the Cartwrights from the Ponderosa? I kind of recall seeing you around Virginia City.”
“Your memory is unaffected. I’m Adam Cartwright.”
“What made you come here?”
“I brought a herd this way, and Ned asked if I’d stop by.”
The young father’s face blazed, although turning only a light pink. “So, he assumed I couldn’t manage.” His tone was angry, but then he groaned out a chuckle. “I guess I should be grateful, ‘stead of spiteful.”
“It seems to have been providential.” A quick grin was replaced by a serious expression. “I need to know how you ended up down here before I start pulling on you.”
Fritz rolled his head back and forth, his cheeks pinking again. “I wanted a drink before I finished the last of the cutting, so I tossed the scythe over my shoulder and headed down the bank. I was hurrying …” A long sigh. “And not paying attention. Stepped in a hole, and took a header down the incline. Coming out of the first summersault, the tip of the blade sliced the back of my leg before it fell aside. I sort of dove over these rocks when I got launched forward, but I came down too fast and my leg jammed between them. That brought the bottom half of my body to a stop, while the top half was still moving. I heard a snap, and from the pain and the fact that I’ve got no strength in that leg, I’d say it’s broke.”
Adam slipped down the hill again and helped Fritz turn to align his torso with his legs, causing a yelp and heavy panting as Fritz adjusted to the new position. “Do you think the broken bone is in your thigh or calf?” With Fritz’s one-word reply of “calf,” Adam moved up the hill again to check the lower part of Fritz’s leg. What he found made his heart pound and his stomach lurch. The injured leg filled Fritz’s pants like sausage in a casing. The probability of what was going on under the fabric, made Adam start to sweat.
“I’ll be honest,” he told the anxious-looking man. “There’s a serious injury here so we need to hurry. I’m going to lift your leg free, and then pull you out no matter how much it hurts.” Adam didn’t give his patient time to think before starting. The lack of further warning kept Fritz from tensing up, and although he screamed through the entire process, he never asked Adam to stop.
The rescuer blew a thankful breath when the young man lay free. “Sorry, Fritz. It’s not over yet. I’ve got to roll you over to see how bad that cut is. Then I’ll decide whether ride to town for help, or make a splint, move you up to the wagon, and take you in.”
Getting Fritz up the steep bank proved to be the most challenging issue, but with a couple sturdy branches secured with fabric strips ripped from his own shirt sleeves, he felt reasonably sure he wouldn’t cause more injury. Adam fashioned a rope halter to go under Fritz’s arms and around his chest, and tied the other end to his saddle horn. Using voice commands, he had Sport back up, while he guided Fritz’s movement from below. He imagined how painful this had been, yet Fritz stayed conscious, uttering only a few oaths and painful shouts over the worst of the bumps. One thing Adam could report to Ned, was that his son-in-law was as tough as they came.
A glance upwards confirmed that the rescue had taken a while. With fall days getting shorter, Adam knew he couldn’t slow down. Adrenalin was still pushing him through the frenzy of activity needed to hook the horse to the wagon, and move it closer. He’d saved one heavier branch and wedged it under Fritz’s arm as a crutch after helping him onto his feet, and supported the injured side for the final step to the wagon.
“We’ll pick up Winnie and Jack; stop at the house for padding to get you more comfortable, and then hightail it to town,” Adam told him as he helped him up into the wagon bed.
Fritz’s face turned gray. “Just get me home. I’ll rest up a few days and be good as new.”
“You know that’s not true. Your leg is swollen to double-size, and now that it’s free, feeling will return, and the pain will be unbearable. You need a doctor.”
The young farmer grimaced and groaned as he tried to find a comfortable position. “I can’t do that. We owe the doc so much money he’ll send me away.”
“First off, no good doctor would turn you away. And when I stopped at the mercantile for directions, the women who own it, said to remind you that they’re holding a good sum of cash from a money wire. You can pay the doctor with that.” He watched as this news let Fritz relax his shoulders.
Another more careful look at the young man spurred Adam to action. His skin color where he wasn’t blushing from exertion, was nearly white, and the shivering had returned.
“I’m g…g…grateful for Ned’s help, yet a…ashamed Nadine had to ask for it.” Fritz said as quietly as his chattering teeth would allow.
“Your father-in-law knows you’re doing the best you can.” Adam climbed onto the driver’s seat. “There’ll be time to talk more about things once you’re feeling better. For now; just hold on!”
The trip into town had seemed long, but had taken less than 20-minutes. The young father had stayed awake long enough to reassure his children that he’d be fine, and then drifted off while Winnie and her brother kept vigil. Adam would turn at intervals and ask the little girl to describe what her father was doing. Her descriptions had been limited to the pronouncement that he was still asleep, but he’d known it would keep her thinking instead of fretting.
Fortunately, the doctor was in when they arrived, and he helped Adam carry Fritz inside. The patient groaned miserably with the manhandling, and awakened enough to again give his children his promise that all would be well, while reminding them to behave while they waited.
“I’ll have you three wait in the outer office while my wife and I do an initial examination,” the doctor told Adam, after getting Fritz settled in the treatment room.
When they’d stopped at the house for padding, Adam had the forethought to grab the bag of toys and books he’d bought. Asking the children to sit quietly, he went out to straighten the mess of blankets in the wagon, and brought the bag along in. Their surprise at the gifts brightened their faces for a moment, but they retook their seats on the straight-backed chairs lining the wall of the waiting room, holding tightly to their new possessions; their wide-eyed expressions a mixture of relief and terror.
As time passed, Winnie finally started to tend to her doll, cuddling it close and talking to it. She declared to Adam and her brother that she named it Sissy, and became excited at realizing the calico dress was removeable. Her play had allowed her brother to relax as well, and he opened the barn to examine the animals inside. He soon slipped to the floor to set up his farm.
With the children occupied, Adam borrowed a pencil and paper from the doctor’s desk and began making notes for what to include in each of the telegrams he’d send as soon as he knew more about Fritz’s condition. His good rest the night before had kept him going through the twists and turns of the day, but with the effects of the frantic few hours waning, he yawned widely, and stretched to overcome his fatigue and tightening muscles. He didn’t know what all was wrong with Fritz, but just the obvious problems confirmed that he wouldn’t be on his feet anytime soon. He’d arrived in Elk Grove intending to help Fritz, but now he realized that he would be taking over everything Fritz had been doing, and he wondered how well he’d manage with children, a house and crops to tend.
A solution came to mind, causing him to smile and pen one more telegram. The Ponderosa crew was still a day or two out from Camp Union, giving him time to wire the cavalry post with the request that two of the small crew head to Elk Grove to help, when the others returned home. He expected he would have two full days to get things organized for the big push once the men arrived. Fritz would be down a long time, but Adam and his men could leave when Ned arrived. Thinking forward to Ned’s arrival, he added another item to the message for the Carters, telling him to bring a man along from their ranch to help.
He was so deep in thought, he jumped when the door between the waiting area and exam room opened.
Doctor Jacobs took a moment to introduce himself formally and get a little more information about Adam, before nodding to the children. “I’d like you to continue playing for a few minutes while I take Mr. Cartwright in to see your father and talk about grownup things. Then you can have a short visit with your papa.”
Adam could see the fear in Winnie’s widening eyes, so he dropped down to eye level, pulled her closer and tipped her chin up. “We’ll be on the other side of that door, so if you need to, knock and I’ll come out. But … if you stay brave like you did before, you’ll be with your father in no time.”
Winnie nodded, and leaned over to whisper in Adam’s ear. “Please don’t take too long, mister.”
Fritz was propped up on pillows sipping water when the two men entered the room. The grime had been cleaned from his face and hands; he now wore a gown and was covered with a sheet that rivaled his complexion for which was whiter. His dirty clothes were in pieces on the floor, indicating they’d been cut off rather than removed.
“You’re still pale.” Adam offered a pained smile. “But you look a lot better than you did an hour ago.”
“Thanks again,” Fritz told him between sips. “I was getting mighty desperate when you showed up.”
“Keep drinking,” the doctor ordered, before turning to Adam. “Fritz was able to give us the details of the accident, and that you happened to drop by as a favor to his father-in-law. He is a most fortunate man, and it’s a wonder for him to have held on so long.”
Adam nodded, and realized again this young man’s spirit. “Have you determined why his leg is so swollen?” He held his breath, waiting for the answer: praying it wasn’t gangrene. The loss of a limb would change everything for the Brooks family.
Dr. Jacobs gave Adam a knowing glance, and then a quick smile. “It’s not what you’re fearing, Mr. Cartwright: at least not yet. The cut is superficial, and the tissue looks healthy. Fritz says he heard a snap when his leg stuck between the rocks. I’d surmise the break is in the fibula or tibia, but I won’t know for sure until the swelling goes down. There’s bruising on both sides of his leg from being trapped, and the limited blood flow, along with a fracture are the likely culprits for the stagnancy of fluid in the limb. Once we get that leg to its normal size, I can set the bone if needed, and apply a sturdy plaster splint.”
Suspecting that the children in the next room were getting antsy, Adam tried to speed the conversation. “What do we do now?”
The doctor frowned deeply. “Fritz wants you to load him into the wagon and take him home where he promises to stay in bed until his leg heals. If this was simply a broken bone, I’d let him go. It’s those two areas that were pinched that concern me.” Dr. Jacobs swallowed hard and rubbed his head, “they must perfuse with blood soon or the inflammation we see in that tissue will become an infection.”
Adam swallowed equally as hard as the doctor. He’d face a similar diagnosis after a dirty arrow had driven deep in his calf, causing an infection along the path it had taken. Only his hard-headedness at not allowing Paul Martin to remove his limb, and Paul’s willingness to attempt every possible means of treatment, had prevented it. Yet that was an open wound, allowing Paul to lavage the channel with antiseptics, rather than something affecting a large area of tissue beneath unbroken skin. His brows rose as he locked eyes with Dr. Jacobs to indicate his understanding.
Dr. Jacobs broke into the silent aftermath of the situation he’d put forth. “Fritz must stay here for now. We have rooms in the back for patients who need to be monitored. My wife is a skilled caregiver who will provide treatments around the clock to ensure the best outcome.” He issued a quick smile at the two men. “This arrangement will also avoid having you rush into town in the night, should Fritz need help.”
Fritz pushed himself up onto his elbows. “There’s two things wrong with that, Doc. There’s no one to watch my kids if I don’t go home, and I can’t afford what you’re suggesting.”
Taking a deep breath, Doctor Jacobs walked to the side of the examination table, placing his hand on Fritz’s shoulder. “I’ll be direct with you. You won’t be able to take care of your kids even if you do go home. I know you won’t follow my orders if there’s work to be done, and that will ensure you lose your leg to gangrene.”
Adam didn’t think it was possible for Fritz to get paler, but he did. “What treatments are you suggesting?” he asked.
“Leslie will put warm compresses on his leg for 20-minutes every hour. We’ll keep his leg elevated, and move his knee joint just enough to increase circulation.” He focused on Fritz. “Furthermore, she’ll make sure you rest and eat.”
“But … the kids?” Fritz said miserably. “Nadine won’t be back for a couple of weeks.”
A back door to the room opened, and the doctor’s wife, entered, carrying a cup of broth. “Claire at the boarding might take the children while you’re here?”
A light of hope brightened the worried father’s eyes for an instant, until another thought snuffed it. He groaned miserably. “The farm! Someone’s got to take care of the farm and animals. I’ll have to chance losing my leg or I’ll lose my farm.”
“You don’t have to lose either one.” Adam stepped closer to the bed. “I’d planned to stay if you needed my help, and that seems to be the case. The children will feel more comfortable in their own home, so they can stay there with me. We’ll make do until we can hire someone to help with the house, and I’ll take care of the farm.”
Fritz’s face contorted. “Why would you do that? You don’t even know me!”
“I may not know you, but I know what you’re going through. Anyone can experience illness, injuries and setbacks: even the Cartwrights. We … I … know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of grace. It’s not easy on the pride, but you’ll get over it.” He smiled at Fritz and turned to the doctor and his wife. “So, what’s next?”
“How about we let the children see their papa for a bit, and then we’ll get to work,” Leslie said as she sought confirmation from her husband.
“I’ll sedate Fritz to ease his pain and suture the cut after that,” Dr. Jacobs added to his wife’s statement. “It will be enough to keep him out for the night, so you might as well take the tykes home after that … or … perhaps it would be easier to stay in the boarding house tonight.”
Adam moved towards the door. “We can figure out the details while the kids visit,” he suggested, escorting the doctor and Leslie into the waiting room while Winnie and her brother rushed inside to see their father.
With the children out of earshot, Adam spoke again. “It will be easiest to stay at the house and come in each day to check on Fritz. The trip isn’t long; life will seem a little more familiar for the kids, and I’ll be able to get things done out there.” He paused to consider his next moves. “I need to send several wires before we leave town, so might that restaurant in the hotel be open for supper? I can get the wires processed while we eat.” Receiving Leslie’s assurances that it was, he grimaced as another thought set in. “Is there somewhere I could get the kids cleaned up before we go there? They were alone at the house those days, and I know Nadine would be mortified if she thought they’d been seen town in their current state.”
Leslie chuckled. “You are a perceptive man, Mr. Cartwright. Take the children to the boarding house. Claire will get them bathed while you send your telegrams. She can provide supper too, and it’ll be a lot better than the hotel fare.” Leslie clucked as she shook her head. “Those little ones must have been terrified when their pa didn’t come home.”
“They did as well as they could. Too bad there aren’t neighbors nearby,” Adam told the pair.
Dr. Jacobs leaned into the other room to make sure the visit between Fritz and his children was going well. “There’s a farm just down the road from the Brooks’ place; a nice family and no more than a ten-minute walk.” He shook his head. “It’s a shame they didn’t realize that.”
Adam considered again that Ned’s concern about his grandchildren was justified.
The afternoon light was casting lengthy shadows on the floor of the waiting room, prompting Adam to get loose ends tied so they could leave. “I’ll stay until the Carters bring Nadine home. But I’d like to hire someone to help us with the house. It would be best if they’d be able to oversee Fritz’s care too when he gets home. Can you recommend someone?”
The two Jacobs exchanged a look and a nod. “There are two women, but they’re both helping out families with new babies.” The doctor’s face pulled into a deep pucker. “Thelma should be free soon. I’ll speak to her when I check on Mrs. Marks tomorrow.”
Claire, the owner of the boarding house, had listened open-mouthed as Adam had explained the incident with Fritz in the barest of terms, and the need to have the children looked after while he sent telegrams. He’d been amazed at how quickly she’d sprung into action, promising to have them bathed and ready for supper by the time he returned.
Having no clean clothing for them post-bath, she also suggested he stop at the mercantile to purchase nightclothes and perhaps a few other things to get them through the next days.
He sent his wires, and then hurried to the store, where Edna and Elaine were awaiting his arrival.
“How’d you know I was coming?” he asked when he entered to a hearty welcome, and their immediate display of children’s clothing that would fit Winnie and Jack.
“It’s a small town.” Edna laughed. “Justin, Claire’s son, came running over as soon as you left, and told us all about it.”
“You know what happened then?” Two nodding heads answered his question.
“It’s so fortunate you came along.” Elaine blushed deeply. “Edna and I feel bad we didn’t realize Fritz hadn’t come back. When I think of what might have happened, I just feel sick.”
“There’s no need to feel badly,” he soothed. “There was no reason to suspect such dire circumstances. You can’t keep track of your customers when you have so much to do yourselves.” Suspecting that this conversation might continue for longer than he wanted, he gathered the clothes. “We’ll be back tomorrow to check on Fritz, and we’ll all stop in then. I best hurry back now, since I’m sure they’re waiting for these. How much do I owe you?”
“It’s our gift …” Edna told him. “The least we can do to help.”
Adam had turned to go when he thought about another problem he’d seen back at the house. “Is there anyone who does laundry around here?”
“There’s a lady just outside town, but this time of year she hires out for crop picking,” Edna explained.
“It’s been a while since I did wash,” he said with a laugh. “But I’ll manage.”
As with the food at most boarding houses, Claire’s fare was tasty and plentiful.
“Why don’t you all stay the night,” Claire suggested as she delivered dessert.
“As good as that sounds, there are animals to feed at the farm.” After taking his first bite of apple pie, Adam made a different proposition. “I’ll bring the kids in each day to see Fritz while he recovers. If we come later in the day, could we have supper here before heading home? I can manage breakfast and a sandwich for lunch, but we’ll all do better with one of your good meals in the evening.”
Winnie and Jack had dressed in their new night clothes after bathing, and Adam bedded them down in the wagon using the blankets and pillows from their father. As he tucked them snuggly against the cool evening air, he said, “You’ll be asleep by the time we get home, so tell me which beds to put you in.”
Winnie yawned widely. “Thanks for not leaving us at the boarding house, Mister Adam. Papa said to trust you cuz you were good friends with Grandpa Ned, and you’re a nice man.” She yawned again, and then giggled. “I forgot. Jack has the small bed with the rail on the side, and mine is the big one. A lot of times when we’re a little scared, Mommy and Papa let us sleep together, so maybe …”
“I should just put you together for tonight?” he finished.
Her smile blossomed like a moon flower in the silver light of late evening. “Yes, please.”
Adam tucked the sleeping children into the larger bed, and headed back outside to unhitch the horse and feed the animals. He mentally kicked himself for not paying more attention earlier, since finding the appropriate feed by lamplight in the darkly shadowed barn proved difficult. There was a dwindling supply of hay piled in the corner, explaining why Fritz had gone out to harvest more, but there was plenty to dole out to the critters that could eat it. It took more scouring to find a sack of mash for the pigs. His final job involved carrying hay to the feed crib in the corral while dodging the ample supply of cow patties littering the ground, with only the starry night providing illumination. His aching back and tired mind poked at him, telling him it would be fine to wait for another milking until morning, while the rational part of his mind reminded him of the bigger consequences of not getting them back on a regular schedule. He’d left the calf with its mother when they’d gone in search of Fritz, leaving only two set of udders to tend.
He stood after finishing the first, and stretched to ease the growing discomfort in his lower back and hips; grabbed his half-full pail and stool, and headed toward his remaining duty. His spirits sank when he felt and heard a recognizable squish as his foot settled into a mound of manure when he stepped forward to set the stool in place. A mild oath flew from his mouth, creating a small cloud in the cooling air, and he added two more chores to tomorrow’s must-do list: mucking out this corral, and cleaning his boots.
He did his best to clean his footwear in the limited light, but left them outside when he returned to the house.
Thinking back to awakening in comfortable bed in Sacramento, he considered how improbable it seemed that it was still the same day. The dead-boned tiredness he felt was certainly justified, and with the assumption that the Brooks children would be up with first light, he turned a blind eye to any household chores needing to be done, and concentrated on starting a fire and setting up a place to sleep. A check of an ornate wooden chest against the wall between the bedroom doors proved a bonanza. The two quilts and extra pillows he found, created a soft nest to bed down on the floor. Come morning, he’d figure out a better sleeping arrangement, but tonight he needed to rest without further fuss, and enjoy the warmth of the fire.
He wasn’t hungry, but he hoped he’d find something to take away the internal chill and aches. The cupboard was small with nothing inside to indicate that the Brooks kept hard liquor in the house. He would have bet the Ponderosa on there being a jug of something homemade and strong enough to stand his hair on end, stashed in the barn or tool shed, but he wasn’t in the mood for an expedition. Just as he decided to abandon the search, he spied the long neck of a bottle sticking out above the “good” dishes on the top shelf, and he withdrew a bottle of sweet wine—undoubtedly kept to offer guests. He was a guest, so he poured a good dose of the burgundy liquid into a glass. A long sip shot the cloying liquid onto his tongue, making him grimace and shudder. It had the taste of bad medicine, yet it produced a soothing warmth working its way down to his stomach.
While letting the fire produce embers to sustain heat, he finished the glass of “wine,” and looked over the notes he’d made earlier. Each checkmark he added, confirmed that he’d accomplished as much as he could for today, so he began making a new list. “Where to start,” he mumbled to himself as his pencil flew down the sheet, jotting his intentions. Reading over what he’d written, he nodded and said quietly, “That’s enough for now. We’ll be lucky to get half of this done before checking on Fritz.”
With a few good-sized logs added to the fire, and the lamps turned low, Adam folded himself into his makeshift bed and settled in for what he expected would be an easy journey to the arms of Hypnos. Yet sleep evaded him a while longer as he considered ways to prepare Winnie and Jack for the return of their parents. With their mother amid a difficult pregnancy and their father’s serious injuries, the children would need to increase their self-reliance.
Adam was up with the first streak of light in the eastern horizon. He stood from his nest and stretched from his toes to his head to loosen up before digging into the new day. There were still good coals at the base of the fire, so he moved some to the stove and added kindling to warm water and make breakfast. His stomach growled, as his mind conjured images of bacon, eggs, toast and coffee. He banished them in favor of accomplishing a few other tasks first.
After washing quickly in lukewarm water, he gathered his bedding from the floor. His folding wasn’t as precise as Nadine’s, so he sat on trunk’s lid to close the latch before heading into Fritz and Nadine’s bedroom. The small room was in the disarray of tending by a man who was not accustomed to caring for himself. There was a knot of sheets and blankets atop the bed and a stack of dirty clothes piled in the corner.
He was uncomfortable nosing around personal belongings, yet he needed to know whether there were clean linens or even a set of clean things for Fritz to wear home. The empty dresser drawers indicated that the man owned very few clothes, and they were all dirty.
The list he’d made up the previous evening, had noted the need to do laundry at some point. What he hadn’t planned on, was that “point” being today. Making a mental readjustment of tasks, he started stripping the bed, but stopped at hearing the door hinge squeak. He turned to see two sleepy faces staring at him. “Good morning,” he said cheerily. “You both slept like logs. I didn’t hear a peep all night.”
Winnie nodded and looked around the room. “What’cha doing?”
“I slept on the floor last night, but thought I might stay in here until your pa gets home. Would that bother you?”
Both heads swung back and forth, with Jack finally saying, “Grandpa and Grandma stay in here when they come. Mama and Papa sleep with us then.”
With their permission given, the kids turned and headed for the table, each taking a chair.
“What are you making for breakfast?” Winnie asked, as Adam followed them to the kitchen area.
“A feast from the chickens and the root cellar. But I’ll ask that instead of waiting for me, you two get cleaned up and dressed, and then set the table.”
“We had a bath last night,” Jack said forlornly.
“A quick dust off then.” Adam smiled. “The water should be warm enough now to do your faces and hands. Wear old clothes. You can change into your new things when we go to town.”
“We can’t.” Winnie’s answer was matter-of-fact.
“Why is that?”
“Everything is dirty. Papa was going wash them, but he didn’t get to it.”
Adam walked towards the children’s bedroom and asked Winnie to join him. “Let’s see what we can find for today, and we’ll do some laundry after breakfast.”
The situation was worse than he imagined. There was one set of clothes for each child in the small laundry pile, along with another set in the bag of soiled things he’d brought home last night. “You’ll have wear your new outfits now,” he said when they returned to the kitchen. “We’ll just be careful to keep them clean.”
Back in the kitchen area, Adam received several displeased looks from Winnie as she poured water from the pitcher on her own. They continued as she helped her brother wash up and get dressed before doing the same for herself. Yet her unhappiness was replaced by a look of accomplishment when they approached him with the job completed. “I need help, Mr. Adam. I can’t braid my own hair.”
“I’d be pleased to lend a hand, although I won’t be as good as your mama.” He smiled as he dried his hands, sat on a chair and had her turn around in front of him. Gathering and smoothing her hair at the back of her head, he separated three equal portions for the plaiting. He’d braided things before, but the leather strips and rope he usually worked with didn’t shift or slip from his fingers like a satin ribbon, as Winnie’s fine-textured hair was doing. After several failed attempts, he wet the strands, and finally managed to capture enough in the long tail to call it finished.
He rushed back to the stove to check on the bacon he’d brought up from the root cellar, and when he turned around, he saw both children waiting at the bare table again. Slipping the frying pan from the heat, he joined them at the table, and looked each child in the eyes. “We need to talk.” His next comments were prefaced with a warm smile. “I know you’re doing things as you always have. But that’s not going to work now.”
Both sets of eyes rounded as they sat back stiffly in their chairs.
He saw their confusion turn to fear, and knew he’d have to present this in a way they’d understand without being frightened. “With your parents away, you two are in charge of your house … or at least in charge of doing everything you can until things get back to normal. I promise to remain here until your parents come home, so you won’t have to worry about being alone again. But I can’t do everything two people did without your help. Why, I bet you already know how to do most of things I’ll ask of you.” He smiled again. “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Winnie nodded. “You mean like washing up and getting dressed?”
“That’s it exactly! You’re doing a great job with that!” He winked at Winnie. “I bet you can set the table real fine too.”
“I can’t reach the dishes,” she told him. “So, Mommy just does it.”
“How about I get down the things you can’t reach, and you can set them out?”
Her answer was sullen, but that didn’t deter him. Mastering new skills always made kids feel good, even when attempted with limited enthusiasm. As he began to rise, he saw Jack stick his tongue out at his sister.
“You’re younger than Winnie, Jack, but not too young to help.” He held back a smile as the boy’s eyes widened again and his cheeks reddened. Looking towards each child, he continued, “Instead of telling you everything at once, how about we take one step at a time. For now, I’ll get the plates down so Winnie can set the table. And Jack can get the books from the sack over by the door, so we can read after breakfast.”
When he reached for the clean plates on the top shelf of the cupboard, Winnie said. “Those are Mama’s good dishes. We only use those for company and days like Christmas and Easter.”
“Hmm,” Adam said as he looked back at her. “I’m sort of company, and today is a pretty special day since your papa is safe, and we’ll be working together. I think this is a good-dishes occasion, and you mother will be fine with our using them.”
Winnie’s look was accepting yet carrying a cloud of doubt. “I anything gets broken, you’ll have to explain it to Mama.”
He took the top plate, examining it to assess whether it might truly be an expensive piece, but recognized the pattern as one he’d seen on the china in the sisters’ store, next to the toys. “We can do better than that,” he reassured her. “If something gets broken, I’ll replace it before she gets home. Will that work?”
Her nod was still accompanied by a wary look, but she accepted the three plates he gave her, and she went to set them on the table, and completed the task by finding forks and knives in a drawer she explained were also saved for company, because they all matched.
It was only 7 a.m. when the last bit of egg yolk had been mopped from the plates and the dishes stacked off to the side of the table to make room. He had Winnie move her chair closer, while he pulled Jack onto his knee. Rather than reading to them, he asked Winnie to try her best with the words in the picture book. He covered the drawing above the printed word with his hand, revealing it only when she got it right. She knew every word, so he pulled the story book into place and asked her to read as much as she could.
“How old are you, sweetheart?” he asked after she finished the first few paragraphs with only a few stumbles.
“Almost seven,” she replied with a lift of her chest and shoulders.
“Have you started school?”
The question caused her to look down and pick at her fingernails. She sighed before answering. “I started a few weeks ago, but then Mama had to go to see Grandma, and Papa couldn’t get me to town.”
He wrapped his arm around the young lady’s back. “Did you like being in school?”
A quick nod. “I saw other kids, and it felt …” a long sniff, “good.”
“Your mama must have taught you to read. You do very well.”
“It’s easy. I know numbers too. The teacher said I was smart.”
“She’s right.” He wanted to say he’d take her in each morning for class, but found himself bumping up against the same restrictions her father must have experienced. Still, with Winnie’s abilities probably ahead of where the rest of the first-graders would be, she could easily keep up with her class until she rejoined it. He leaned over and gave her a conspiratorial wink. “I’ve got an idea. Let’s stop at the school when we go to town. The teacher can give us lessons to do here. That way you’ll be right with your class until we can figure out a way to get you there.”
Her face brightened and she wrapped her arms around his neck. “I like you, Mr. Adam. You’re smart too.”
Adam spent a few minutes doing simple arithmetic with Winnie, and then tried a tactic he’d seen Marie use with Hoss when he was Winnie’s age. She’d woven stories that required his middle brother—who was not much interested in “schoolin’”—to work number problems, spell, learn new words, or recall some bits of the history and grammar she’d taught him—as a way to unlock the next part of the story.
By the time Adam finished the tale of the shy rabbit who wandered into the chicken coop, both children were giggling, and just like Hoss, they were totally unaware of how much they’d learned and recalled along the way.
With the books stored and the kids in a good mood, he brought a footstool from the living area, over to the sink and had Winnie stand on it to wash dishes while her brother was assigned the duty of bringing over the dirty plates, one-at-at-time, to prevent mishaps. To her complaint that she ‘didn’t know how,’ he said it was just like washing her face: scrub until it’s clean. He wasn’t expecting perfection: just effort.
Meanwhile he filled every cooking pot he could find with water and set them on the stove to heat for laundry. It was a cool morning, but the sun and breeze promised to provide a warm enough day to dry things quickly on the lines he’d seen strung behind the house.
As a child, Adam had learned … and done … every imaginable household chore until increasing prosperity had allowed his father to hire Hop Sing around the time Marie had become part of the family. She’d taken over the house while their cook took care of everything involved with feeding the family and ranch hands. This had freed Adam to work with his father full-time. That change of roles left him at a disadvantage now, as he tried to order the day in a proper sequence to get everything done.
Making it more difficult, was that he wanted to get Winnie and Jack involved, and their “help” would actually slow the process. Since everything would be new to them, it would require his teaching, supervision, and the hardest for him: his patience.
Changing the ways things were done in this family seemed imperative, yet he wondered if Fritz and Nadine would resent his efforts. It couldn’t matter; he’d been put in an unexpected situation and he would deal with it the best he could.
In his attempt to keep the kids clean and dry, he washed the laundry solo, sending Winnie to gather eggs and then to dust the flat surfaces in the house after a quick lesson in housekeeping. Jack was tasked with removing the sheets from their beds: something the boy had thoroughly enjoyed as he imagined he was doing battle with the linen and bringing it outside, a piece at a time, after conquering it.
Both children handed him wet items to hang, and despite everything awaiting him in the barn, he suggested they take a walk when the laundry was done. He chuckled inwardly at the incredulous looks he received for this idea.
As they moved down the Brooks’ drive toward the main road, he questioned them about where their closest neighbor lived.
“It’s a long, long ways over there,” Winnie replied, stopping to point east.
“You’ve never walked over there?”
“It’s too far, Mr. Adam,” she explained in a most serious tone. “We always take the wagon.”
Adam smiled: positive that neither child had a concept of distance. Children didn’t pay attention while traveling, unless they were charged to do so. Ben Cartwright had done just that. Adam recalled the constant lessons his father taught while heading west. Even as a small boy, he’d known how to figure his direction, based on the position of the sun. He’d always assumed all children learned these things but he’d been wrong. Being a single parent had instilled a particular sense of urgency in his father. He knew he couldn’t always have his eyes on his sons, and therefore he felt obligated to teach them to locate themselves; to understand distance, and what to do if they ever became separated. Those lessons had paid off many times.
“You’re going to be surprised then,” he told her, while taking their hands and turning left onto the main road. Within a few minutes, they reached the entrance to the neighboring farm. “Was that a long, long walk?” he asked his companions.
Jack shook his head. “Why is it far in the wagon?” he asked with honest curiosity.
“It’s the same distance; it just feels different when you’re a passenger.” He walked up the drive and waved to a woman who’d stepped out onto the porch.
She introduced herself as Eve Henderson, and Adam gave her a simple version of what had happened next door.
“I hope you don’t mind that we came by unexpectedly,” he offered as the tale came to an end. “Winnie and Jack had no idea how close your place was.”
Eve clucked over Winnie and Jack, pulling them close. “Both our families are so busy we don’t get together as often as we should.” She stopped to make sure both children were looking at her. “You come here anytime you need help. If I’m not here, just wait until someone gets back.” She winked at Adam. “Now, why don’t you two go check out the corral by the barn. Our mare had the prettiest foal and he loves to have his nose stroked.
With the children on their way, she told Adam, “Now tell me the whole story.” Hearing the true extent of Fritz’s injuries, Eve frowned deeply. “I haven’t seen the Brooks in several weeks. I’m so sorry I didn’t realize they needed help.” She thought a moment. “Why don’t you three come for dinner each night.”
Adam gave his thanks, explaining their intent to visit Fritz and eat in town. “But I might take you up on the offer if he comes home before his in-laws arrive.”
The children came running back after a quick visit to the foal, and Eve bade them all goodbye, staying put to watch as the man in the all-black clothing headed down the driveway, holding the hands of the Brooks children. “My-oh-my,” she mumbled while fanning her face. “If I was a few years younger … and not married …. You don’t find many men that good looking who have good hearts as well.”
After returning from their walk, Adam and the kids ate lunch while the warm breeze finished drying the clothes and bedding. Before taking care of the barn, he had Winnie and Jack pull clothes from the line—folding them the best they could manage, and help get sheets back on the beds.
The work with the animals went well too, with the kids staying away from the mucking, and concentrating on adding fresh bedding to the stalls and giving the animals fresh water. He’d made them watch from the fence while he’d moved a good number of the corral’s cow patties off to the side in an effort to avoid further instances of late-night shoe cleaning.
They ran out of time before being able to gather more hay, leaving him to pray the good weather would hold. He cleaned up, using the tub of the wash water he’d saved, knowing he’d need a good scrubbing before going to town.
Winnie and Jack looked tired, yet happy, as they chattered to each other on the wagon seat next to him. When he’d asked about the possibility of a nap in the back during the trip, they’d professed that they hadn’t slept during the day in a “long, long time,” despite their snooze just yesterday.
The look on Dr. Jacob’s face when he welcomed Adam and the children, was enough to tell him that all was not well.
Leslie appeared as soon as she heard her husband’s greeting—her concerned look similar to her husband’s—and quickly rounded up Winnie and Jack. “Your papa has been so anxious for you to get here,” she chirped. “Let’s go say hello.” When the two headed for the exam room door, she herded them towards a different exit. “Your papa’s in a nice, sunny room in the back.”
“Your wife’s exaggerated cheeriness, and your dour look, are giving me pause.” Adam smiled as he leaned on the edge of the desk. “How bad is the news?”
The lines in the doctor’s face relaxed as he sighed into a smile of his own. “I don’t mean for you to think his situation is dire. I was simply considering our next steps when you arrived.”
“So his condition is …” Adam prompted.
“He’s running a fever, which is entirely predictable. He fought off the effects of his injury, but now that he’s safe, his body has gone from survival to healing. The good news is the warm compresses are restoring blood flow. Those awakening nerves were causing great pain, so we’ve kept him sedated. Leslie tapered his dose early enough so he’d be awake for your visit, and She’s used the time to make him eat and drink.”
“You two are giving him the best chance to recover. I’m grateful for that.” Adam chewed his lower lip. “Do you have any idea how long it might take?”
The doctor’s head moved slowly, side-to-side. “Our main concern is infection, but the second one is silent, unpredictable and deadly. Because his leg was pinched so long before getting blood going again, a clot could have formed in the deep veins1. There’s no way to know if this is occurring until it becomes obvious, and then it’s often too late. We measure the circumference of his leg frequently, and the swelling is going down, although extremely slowly. That’s good for now, and we’ll remain vigilant.” He suddenly stood straighter and shook his head. “I forgot ….” Jacobs rummaged through the pockets of his white coat, and withdrew three small envelopes. “These telegrams were delivered for you.”
Adam was relieved to have them, yet confused. “They came here?”
Jacobs chuckled. “It’s a small town, Mr. Cartwright. Everyone knew you were coming in with the children today, so Felix from Western Union waited until he had an equal number of answers to the number of wires you sent, and brought them here.” Another chuckle. “I imagine a town like Virginia City doesn’t keep track of people as well as we do in Elk Grove.”
“You’d be surprised,” Adam countered. “Some people can remain anonymous in a bigger town, but bad news and gossip spreads as fast as a wildfire during a drought.”
“Your family being one of the most recognizable in that area certainly diminishes any attempt at anonymity.” He nodded at the envelopes in Adam’s hand. “I’ll leave you to read those. When you’re done, head through that door and down the hall.”
Giggling, and the excited abundance of words rushing like water from a cracked pitcher, easily identified the room where Fritz was staying. Adam stopped outside the door to observe rather than entering. Although reclining in bed, the young father held a child next to him in the crook of each arm, listening as they talked a blue streak. He was nodding and laughing, and would give each child a squeeze as they finished their turn to speak.
The scene reminded him of listening to the excited storytelling of his brothers when they’d been little boys, and it prodded at a hidden thought. He stepped back into the shadow of the hall and leaned against the wall as an ache burned into his chest. While the pain was real, it didn’t come from a medical condition. It sprang from the absence in his own life of anything close to the blessings this financially insolvent, injured farmer had. His logical mind didn’t accept the concept of emotional pain, yet he couldn’t deny this. The heart-ache was real: something he’d been experiencing with increasing regularity. His desire to be a family man had caused an ill-conceived proposal to Laura. Thankfully, the physical paralysis after his fall hadn’t kept him from walking his mind away from the bad situation. Following that, a near-divine intervention and healing, allowed him to complete that walk on his own feet a few weeks later. Yet he’d gotten stuck after those first steps, straddling a fence between leaving to seek his own life, and staying with the family he couldn’t imagine being without.
Pulling from these thoughts, he focused on what he was learning about Fritz. He was a good man. He was a fighter; a proud man; a protective husband and a fine father who had the absolute devotion of his children. All wonderful qualities. What remained to be discovered was whether he might find his way to become a better provider.
Despite having slept many hours since his rescue, Adam could see the exhaustion in Fritz’s eye when he finally entered the room and got to the bedside. The man’s eyelids paused in a shut position at intervals, but he continued to rouse himself for Winnie and Jack.
Adam broke into the chatter. “You look a lot better today.” The comment was mostly a lie. Fritz’s coloring was still ashen, with the green and blackish patches of healing bruises from his tumble, adding the only color.
Fritz pushed up onto his elbows, and grinned. “You need spectacles, Adam.” He nodded towards his visitor. “Looks like you have telegrams in your pocket. Do any of those concern me?”
Leslie Jacobs took her cue. “It’s time for grownup talk,” she said, while rousting the children from the bed. “I found a few toys from our children stored in the attic. Let’s go take a look.”
Once the children were gone, Adam helped Fritz sit up and tucked pillows behind him, before handing him the envelopes. “Ned said they’ll leave by week’s end, but it will take several days since Doc Martin set a limit on the hours they can travel each day. He’s bringing one of his men along as well.”
“That’s good news,” Fritz said, before frowning. “But … I don’t want Nadine to risk her health to get home.”
“Ned and Mavis wouldn’t allow that, so don’t add bother to your joy.” The frown faded, allowing Adam to add more information. “One of those responses is from Fort Union. They confirmed that a forward rider from our drive arrived last evening, and they expect our herd tomorrow. I asked for two men to come over and help me until Ned arrives. The third wire is from my father, who sends his prayers for your recovery.” Adam waited while Fritz read the brief messages, noting that they did little to ease the worried lines etched at the corners of the young man’s mouth and across his forehead.
Fritz refolded the telegrams, and handed them back.
“You seem troubled,” Adam remarked at hearing the young man’s heavy sigh. “What’s bothering you the most?”
“I see the looks between the doctor and his wife when they check my leg. They just cluck and pat my shoulder when I ask about it, but I hope you’ll tell me the truth. Am I going to die? Or even worse, am I going to lose my leg?” He sniffed long and loudly. “This morning, Edna brought over what’s left from the money Ned sent, and it was enough to pay the Jacobs what we owed, but not enough to pay for this kind of care.” Fritz looked down, picking at the rough skin on his hands. “It’d be better if I do die so Nadine and the kids can go back with her parents. They’d have a good life that way.”
Adam sat on the edge of the bed, taking Fritz by the shoulders. “Ned sent more money with me. You two can work out a repayment later if that’s how you want to handle it.” He saw that this information did not bring relief. Instead, Fritz’s pale cheeks colored to a milky crimson. “I understand how hard it is to rely on others for your recovery, as well as with the farm and money. The hardest thing any man ever does is to let go of his pride to ask for … and accept help.”
“Great words coming from a Cartwright.” Fritz’s tone was sullen and accusatory as he sank back onto the pillows. “When did you ever have to admit to failing miserably, or face losing a leg to become an invalid: a millstone around the neck of your family?”
The chuckle rumbled up from Adam’s chest like an approaching wagon. “Fritz, I am perhaps the one person who knows exactly what you’re feeling. First off, the Cartwrights started with nothing. Our efforts have been successful, but everyone has financial setbacks when you’re making a new life. And as far as the other things you’re facing …. A few years ago, I took an arrow just below the knee. The wound festered, and the suggested treatment was to amputate. You can see that I still have both legs: mostly because I’m stubborn. Then last spring, I fell off a ladder and was paralyzed for a number of weeks. My life and limbs were spared, but in both cases, I fought the same dark thoughts about being a burden to everyone, and the fear that after a while of tending to me, my family would come to hate me. It became nearly impossible to overcome the anger and misery, or to find any purpose in staying alive.” His words drifted away as he remembered the gun he’d held to his own chin when despair and self-loathing over his paralysis had shown him only one solution.* “There’s something you need to know. I see how your children look at you …. They don’t see failure; they see the man they believe is the best father in the world.” He stood; pulled a chair over and sat next to the bed.
“I’m sorry I assumed your life was easy just because you have cash in your wallet.” Fritz huffed and then laughed miserably. “The only thing I really own is my pride, but it’s worthless if it makes me feel sorry for myself.”
Adam nodded and quickly changed the subject to facts instead of emotions. “Tell me the order you’d planned on harvesting the fields, and where you want everything stored. We can get started when my guys arrive.”
Fritz grinned at his visitor when they finished the list. “Speaking of chores. Winnie and Jack told me about all the things they’re helping with since you arrived.”
His breath stopped mid-inhalation. “Does that bother you?” he asked, before exhaling.
Fritz blushed again, but he looked directly at Adam. “It embarrasses me.”
“Why is that?”
An extended sigh seemed to deflate the injured man. “I’d be grateful to know what Ned told you when he asked you to stop by. We’re not far from Camp Union, but it’s not exactly ‘on your way’ home.” He waited to see if Adam would reply, before continuing. “Ned was here last spring, and his sour looks over things the kids either did or didn’t do, indicated his disappointment with how we’re raising them.” A strangled laugh ended in a groan. “His concerns were right. My kids would have starved, and I would have died because they didn’t know they could walk next door for help, or even come out to look for me.”
Adam considered his reply. “Ned’s request came from concern that being both mother and father at a busy time would pose difficulties.” He cupped his hand over his cheeks while considering what else to reveal. “His worry included that this would be made harder because your children don’t help out. That shouldn’t surprise you since you just admitted this is true. Winnie and Jack are sweet kids who catch on quickly. They only need encouragement to do what they already know from watching their parents.” Closing his eyes, he blew out a long breath and asked the hard question.
“You and Nadine have a close and loving family. But, if you’re as unhappy with the situation as you seem to be, why haven’t you begun making changes?”
Fritz shook his head and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. “I thought a lot about that when I was stuck out there. It came down to me being the oldest of 12 kids back on my folk’s farm in Iowa. It was about the same size as ours, but Pa worked as a carpenter. Sometimes he’d be gone for weeks working in other towns, leaving Ma and us kids to manage. I don’t know how she did it, but Ma even taught me reading and figures when I was little. But each year another baby came along, and Ma struggled to just keep up with the kids and house, while the rest of the chores got piled on me. By the time I was Winnie’s age, I had so much to do, I worked from sunup to sundown.”
“You never got to be a kid,” Adam supplied.
“Not so’s I recall. I left at home at 17, feeling old and worn out. I wasn’t angry, just exhausted from carrying the responsibility for a situation I didn’t have any say over.”
“You want your children to have a good childhood with happy memories.” Adam concluded.
“Since money is too tight to buy them things, we sort of spoil them other ways.”
Adam smiled. “Winnie and Jack don’t think they lack for anything. They’re great kids, and they seem happy to help.”
“Thank you.” The patient’s eyes began to droop, but he fought to finish his thoughts. “Thanks for being honest about why Ned sent you. Did he tell you about our money troubles too? Nadine must have told him what’s going on, since he sent more cash.”
Adam stood, circled the chair and leaned heavily against the back, before nodding. “Ned implied you were having some tough times, but didn’t share anything more than that they stemmed from a drought. He wonders whether there’s a way to avoid these setbacks though, and he asked me to stop because I’ve suggested better ways of using the land for other folks that worked out well. Right now, I’m only lending a hand until you’re back on your feet. Once you’re feeling better, if you like, we can take a look at your operation. I bet you’ve already had some ideas.”
Fritz smiled as the blush faded, and his more normal pallor returned. “I’d appreciate that. Thanks again for being honest.”
Adam patted the young man’s shoulder before heading towards the door. “Rest now. I’ll take the kids to dinner, and bring them back to say goodnight.”
Adam laid back, and breathed in the scent of lye soap and sun-dried sheets. The straw ticking of the Brooks’ bed needed a refill, but it was far more comfortable than the floor. His mind was still active, letting him recall the final hours of another long, but satisfying day.
He had stopped at the school on the way into town, where he’d met the young teacher and found out she was staying at Claire’s boarding house. She’d had books and hand-written lessons ready for them when they’d arrived for supper.
Wanting to be home before total darkness, Adam had left for town by mid-afternoon. He’d accomplished many things in addition to visiting Fritz. While the tired man had rested again, he and the kids had made a trip to the sisters’ store where they’d each picked out a slate and chalk, paper and pencils for their schoolwork, while he’d worked with Edna to find another set of clothing, along with extra socks and underthings to supplement the few items he’d laundered.
Edna and Elaine had listened intently to Winnie’s story about her father going missing, and Mr. Adam showing up to rescue them all. Adam had caught the older sister’s appreciative smile and nod towards him as the children told about taking the walk, and helping with chores.
There’d been no lingering after dinner, and as he’d hoped, he’d finished the chores, secured the out-buildings and already had a fire blazing inside as a moonless night had covered the farm. The children had stayed inside to get ready for bed and stow their new clothes. When Adam finally sat in the rocking chair, Jack had crawled onto his lap, asking him to tell one of the “special” stories where they could figure out the clues. With another long day coming to a close, he’d struggled to create something coherent, but even his less than polished creation had been eagerly received.
The next two days flew by. Adam continued the time after breakfast for schoolwork, even improvising extra challenges for Jack, who caught on quickly to the simple letters and numbers the teacher had sent for him. Winnie and her brother became adept at setting the table and cleaning up after their two meals at home, along with gathering eggs and feeding the chickens and goats. The three of them had straightened, dusted, and scrubbed the floors of the house, and then went on a treasure hunt to find the storage areas that Fritz had mentioned. By the third morning, those areas had all been emptied and swept, awaiting the harvested crops.
There were moments when he’d see the children lost in thought, and suspected they were wondering if things would ever be normal. To ensure those moments didn’t become frequent, he kept them busy. Chores and lessons did the trick during the day, and their daily visits with Fritz reassured them before the long night.
Winnie and Jack were comfortable with him, and accepted his suggestions easily: sometimes even enthusiastically. Yet Adam continued to be awed by what he saw when they visited Fritz. They became completely at ease as soon as they walked into his room and jumped onto the bed. Their conversation never lagged as they told their father everything they’d done. It was impossible not to notice their frowns and sighs when they’d leave for home. But to their credit, the grief never lasted longer than a mile or two, and then they’d begin their inquisition about what they’d be doing the following day.
The hardest questions they asked, were the ones about their father’s condition. He kept his answers short and as honest as he could be with them. Some of it was obvious. They could see his sore leg, but they couldn’t understand why he was still so tired and in bed. Adam tried to liken it to their own bouts of illness: those where it took longer to feel better. The bothersome aspect about his reassurances, was that they were based on hope over fact.
Fritz’s recovery was snail-paced; the swelling retreating so slowly it could only be seen in fractions of inches when measured with a seamstress tape. Still, his leg remained pink and the pain had eased. This buoyed the doctor’s anticipation for recovery, and this had lessened Adam’s qualms regarding his optimistic reports to Winnie and Jack.
The brother and sister team washed up and set the table after getting up on the morning of the expected arrival of Adam’s crew, and then went to gather their school supplies while Adam cooked breakfast. Hearing voices and horses sliding to a stop outside, he grabbed the edges of the towel he’d tucked around his waist, and slid the hot, bacon-loaded skillet to a cooler part of the stove. While expecting his drovers today, if it was them arriving, it meant they’d left Sacramento before dawn. The other possibility for early visitors—the one that made his heart and breathing race—was that Fritz had worsened during the night.
If it was about Fritz, he hoped to get outside before the children realized someone had come. They surely didn’t need to hear bad news blurted from a messenger from atop a horse.
He made his quiet exit to find two men stretching while remaining horseback. They began laughing as they gave him a good once over.
“That’s a different look for you, boss. I ain’t known you to be the domestic type.”
Adam looked down at the towel covering him to his knees, and chuckled. “You might be surprised just how domestic I’ve become, Jeb.” He nodded toward the other rider. “I’m pleased to see you, but didn’t expect you until later. Didn’t you stay in Sacramento last night and toss back a beer or two?”
“Shucks, Adam, me and Cal are gettin’ to the age where a night in a saloon makes life a whole lot worse than better,” Jeb told his boss.
Cal nodded. “We got a good meal, played a couple games of poker, and then went to bed.” He looked over at his partner. “A night on a good mattress made us feel a lot better than a night of carousing.”
Adam smiled. “I’m thankful you’ve arrived so early, in such good condition. There’s lots to get done.” His cheek pulled into a question. “How did you decide who’d ‘volunteer’ for my special duty?”
“We said right off we’d do it,” Cal explained. “We knew the other three would want to do just what you suggested: spend the night drinking ‘til they couldn’t stand straight. On the other hand, Jeb and I knew we’d take it easy and get on the road early.”
“We’ve been with the Cartwrights a few years now, so we know somethin’ else those young bucks don’t.” Jeb told Adam, as a sly grin grew.
The cheek and eyebrow rose further on the aproned man. “What is it that you know and the others don’t?”
“We know that when one of you Cartwrights ask for a ‘special favor,’ there’s always a ‘special reward’ in it.” Jeb looked over at Cal, who nodded and grinned as well. “And we both knew Fritz from when he worked for Ned Carter. We’d see him when the two ranches got together, and at dances and such. He wasn’t a hard drinker either and we weren’t surprised when he married Ned’s daughter and set off on his own. When we heard it was him needing help, we had to come.”
Adam smiled at the admission. Cowboys … wranglers … ranch hands—whatever name they went by—were a nomadic bunch for the most part. Yet when they found a good job with an honest employer who paid and treated them well; they stayed put. It didn’t surprise him that friendships developed among these men, even though they worked for different ranches. It also didn’t surprise him that these men would act out of loyalty to an old friend. “Thank you.”
“Should we stow our gear in the barn?” Jeb asked.
“We’re so close to town that I arranged for you to stay at the boarding house in Elk Grove. You’ll get a good rest, along with a good breakfast and supper.” Adam pointed to his apron. “I cook breakfast for the kids, but we go to see Fritz at the doctor’s house in town each afternoon, and eat at the boarding house too.”
“Fritz has kids?” Jeb’s question was answered when Winnie and Jack appeared on the porch. “Hi there,” he called. “I’m Jeb, and this here, is Cal. We come to help out while yer pa is ailing.”
Winnie came to Adam’s side, while Jack stayed near the door. “Hello,” she said shyly. “Mr. Adam is sorely needing some help.” She looked up quickly to make sure her comment sat well with Mr. Adam.
“She’s right,” Adam conceded before pointing to a shady spot near the house with enough grass to keep the two horses happy. “You can tie up over there, and come inside for breakfast.”
The two hands looked at each other and laughed loudly, with Jeb explaining, “I’m not sure I’ll ever be hungry enough to eat your cooking, boss.”
It took nearly an hour for Adam to tell his crew what had happened and go over his plans for the harvest. Despite their initial protestations, they hadn’t refused when Adam tossed in more potatoes, bacon and eggs. Before heading out to start working, they even complimented his skill with a frying pan.
Fritz had suggested digging potatoes first, and had told Adam about a special blade he’d made for his plow to help unearth the tubers. The curious engineer had checked it out as soon as he’d gotten home that night, and decided that the rounded cutting tip, and a broader, bowl-like digging blade might indeed make for much faster harvesting.
Winnie and Jack did the dishes while Adam walked the men outside to gather the equipment they’d need, and helped them set up the plow. These were seasoned workers, who could move ahead while he did the children’s lessons.
The men had just plowed up the last row of potatoes, when Adam’s “harvesting crew” arrived with gunny sacks and a pitch fork to pull the more stubborn spuds from the loose dirt. He let Jeb and Cal continue working together, while he and the kids began filling sacks.
Adam leaned back into a long stretch after being hunched over his task for a while. They were nearly done, and they’d easily finish after lunch. The harvest was good for the field size, with several well-formed, good-sized potatoes under each dead vine. But multiplying the rows by the average number of tubers they got in each one, gave him a good clue into the Brooks family’s money problems. Both Claire and the sisters had mentioned buying vegetables from Fritz, and Edna had told him it was the same for the hotel. From the size of this harvest, the family’s need along with saving some for seed, wouldn’t leave enough for a profitable sale.
There were still carrots, corn, beets, turnips and squash to gather in, but those fields were even smaller, indicating the financial position would remain in a defeating spiral of debt and repayment.
Adam looked across the expanse of land, imagining the stand of grass beyond the corn, bordering the creek. If he remembered rightly, it was a big enough plot to raise a few head of beef: even more than a few if the land extended beyond the watershed. As he bent back to his task, he found he was becoming impatient for the young farmer to be well enough for a serious discussion.
Rather than start another big chore after the last sack of potatoes was stacked in the corner of a larger root cellar behind the chicken coop, Adam sent Jeb and Cal on ahead with the children, hoping the surprise visit of old friends would raise Fritz’s spirits. This wouldn’t have been possible had Winnie and Jack not felt at ease with the men. But these two had disarmed the youngster by playing tricks on Adam, and he’d played along, allowing the kids a chance to laugh until they couldn’t breathe. Winnie had been a fast study, soon finding ways to poke Jeb and Cal with troubles as good as they’d given.
When the other four headed to town, Adam completed the chores he usually did when they arrived home after supper. He smiled broadly as he washed and changed, knowing he’d be able to have a relaxing evening for the first time since arriving. The only remaining job for today, was to get his guys settled at the boarding house.
Doctor Jacobs looked up from his desk and gave Adam a happy smile when he entered the office. “The surprise visit by friends is doing our patient wonders,” he reported. “They’re still in there telling tall tales. Everyone’s laughing.” His smile switched from one of joy, to a one-sided, near smirk of satisfaction. “And, even better: there’s been appreciable shrinkage of his leg overnight.”
Adam nodded, letting his smile grow to toothiness. “That’s wonderful. Thelma was back at the boarding house last night, and she mentioned that you’d spoken to her about helping when Fritz comes home.”
The doctor’s smile faded. “It won’t be immediate, Mr. Cartwright. I plan to keep him in bed another day, and watch carefully for pain or redness in his calf as the swelling diminishes. Should there be no indication of a clot, we’ll get him up and moving.”
“Are you still convinced his leg is broken?”
A nod. “I’d hoped to do a solid cast, but a splint will let me keep an eye on his leg. He’s feeling better, but if I allow him to go home now, he’ll force himself to work, and end up back here anyway.” The doctor eyed Adam craftily. “I think he’ll be well enough to release as soon as your men get the harvest done. With you staying on until Nadine arrives, he won’t have the excuse that he needs to do chores either.”
“Ned’s last wire said to expect them a week from now. Do you think you can hold him until then?”
“That’s a stretch, but Thelma’s a good soul who doesn’t take any backtalk from her patients, so you two will do fine if he’s ready a day or two before that.”
Nine (Five days later)
Several things had left an impression on Adam during his stay in Elk Grove.
One of these was how much could be accomplished with two extra sets of hands. Cal and Jeb had been the perfect solution. They were ranch veterans who adapted to whatever was asked of them. Young or new hands to cattle, hired on with expectation of spending their days in the saddle, watching herds. This wasn’t the true nature of ranch work, and these men often became resentful over the endless mundane chores. Cattle tended themselves, except when they were being gathered, branded or moved to grazing land or market. Hands were more likely to spend days riding fence lines making the continual repairs that kept steers from wandering astray; cleaning up after the many other animals on the Ponderosa, and doing the upkeep and repairs of buildings and equipment.
Jeb and Cal had been Ponderosa employees for twenty years between them. They’d long ago adjusted to their lifestyle, and appreciated the days when they’d return to a clean bunkhouse and good meals each night, instead of camping out in weather that either baked, froze or left them wet and miserable. It wore a man to “move” cattle. These solid men helped temper and teach the younger inductees into the brotherhood, and the Cartwrights rewarded their loyalty with good living conditions and premium wages. The assumption that there’d be special consideration for their assistance was true as well, and Adam had already secured the cash he’d slip them the day they left for Nevada.
With everyone working together, they’d managed to pull and store all the vegetables. They’d removed the dried ears of corn, chopped the stalks for fodder and bedding, and made vital repairs to the barn roof and corral boards.
The hard work ended each day at 3 PM, allowing Adam to send the group ahead into town while he finished chores. He’d joined them for the end of their visit with Fritz, and they’d all go for supper.
The foremost thing that continued to marvel him, was the transformation of Winnie and Jack into helpful, eager kids who now asked for things to do. Their yields during the harvest had been miniscule, but their effort had been immense. This would never have happened if they were selfish or truly “spoiled” children. Fritz and Nadine might not have required physical labor from Winnie and Jack, but they were loving parents who were raising respectful and malleable youngsters who could adjust to changing circumstances.
Adam’s admiration for Fritz’s spirit continued as well. He was now sitting up during the day, and learning to use crutches. The only issue keeping him from going home, was the doctor’s fear that increased activity would cause further swelling. So far, the results were encouraging.
Hoping to work with his crew as much as possible, Adam had hired Thelma immediately, asking her to come out a few hours each morning. The last of the harvesting required swinging scythes and heavy lifting that wasn’t safe for the children to help with, so Thelma kept them busy preparing for their parent’s return.
The simple addition of Thelma during the day, had brought peacefulness and order to the house. When they returned from town, Winnie and Jack would get ready for bed, while he did a quick outside check, and they’d meet at the rocking chair when they were done. The conversations they had in those final minutes of the day, delighted him. Evenings ended with both sleepy youngsters on his lap, as he either read or told stories.
His favorite part of being around these children, came as he listened to their prayers before tucking them in, and receiving the absolute blessing of their goodnight hugs, and of late, their professions that they “loved him.” There was deep love between the members of the Cartwright family that was fierce and always understood, yet seldom spoken aloud. But Winnie and Jack’s declarations were pure and freely given, springing from a God-given source of innocence that let them express it without considering anything more than that they felt it.
The date for the arrival of the Carter party was confirmed by the telegram waiting at the doctor’s office mid-week.
Fritz held up a small envelope when the group walked in. “Read this, Adam. Ned figures they’ll be here in three days. He’s got two of his ranch hands along as well.”
Adam examined the wire, noting that it had been sent from a town about 60 miles northeast. His eyes widened briefly as he read the part about bringing help to do fall chores, prompting him to consider how much was still undone. As he chewed on his cheek … and his decision … Dr. Jacobs and his wife walked in, carrying the clothing Adam had brought several days earlier for Fritz’s release.
“As you can see, our patient is doing very well,” the doctor began. “If you’d be so inclined, Mr. Cartwright; I’ll have you come to town tomorrow morning, and take Mr. Brooks home. I’ve already spoken to Thelma, and she’ll get out to the farm early to get things ready, and stay nights until Nadine arrives.”
“That’s great news!” Adam meant each word he’d said, so he couldn’t account for the void of air he felt in his lungs or the arrhythmic flutter in his chest.
Winnie and Jack hugged their father securely and began crying as they understood the news. “Why are you crying?” Fritz asked. “I thought you’d be happy I’m coming home.”
Winnie nearly screeched. “People sometimes cry when they’re happy, Papa!”
Adam’s mind worked quickly to sort out his next steps. He looked at Jeb and Cal with a smile. “If you two would meet me here in the morning, you can help get Fritz in the wagon, and then head for the Ponderosa.”
Fritz traveled back home in much the same way he’d come to town: supported by pillows and blankets in the back of the wagon, with his children keeping sentry on either side.
What Adam had noted immediately, even during the chaotic activity surrounding the transfer, was that the rightful relationships in this family had immediately realigned with Fritz’s presence. Winnie and Jack needed to be near their father, nearly tripping Fritz and Adam by getting underfoot during the walk to the house. Dr. Jacobs had insisted that his patient spend the rest of the day in bed, so the children took up residence in his room too, only coming out to get their food plates, and quickly returning to eat with their father.
As Fritz’s first day at home progressed to evening, Adam ensured that Thelma had everything she needed, and then gathered his things to stay in the barn.
Pulling a pile of hay into far corner created a makeshift bed, and he laid his tightly woven saddle blanket atop it, hoping to keep the sharp shafts of dried grass from poking through.
It was already dark when he brought the calf inside the barn, and looked around to make sure he’d finished everything. A smile broke his serious expression. He’d been here a little over two weeks, yet everything seemed so familiar that it had become second nature to close the farm down for the night. He breathed in the scents of earth and beast: hay and feed, and began to shift his thoughts towards returning home. These thoughts were broken when one of those unexpected pains tugged at his chest when he considered how differently this day had ended compared to the others during his stay.
He’d stuck his head into Fritz’s room to say goodnight, and reminded the children that they should get ready for bed on their own. But they’d been so busy telling their father some tale, he assumed his words had fallen to litter the bedroom floor along with the abandoned toys and shoes. After Thelma had declined his offers of help in getting Fritz comfortable, he slipped out into the cool night air, closing the door behind him. He wasn’t feeling left out … exactly … but with Fritz home, his presence had become redundant.
The thought that he could leave tomorrow to meet Ned on the trail, pushed itself aside as he remembered that neither Thelma nor the children could do the heavier chores. The one thing he did resolve, was that it was time for this family to move forwards, while he’d pull back until the Carvers arrived.
A shiver rippled across his back, as he washed off the dust and dirt of his evening tasks with cold water from a pail. He toweled off on the corner of his shirt, hung it across the stall boards to dry, and pulled a small book from his saddle bags. He’d looped a rope around a beam and hung a lantern over his bedding, giving him enough light to read until he got sleepy.
The cold-shoulder he’d received from the children, kept nipping at him, and he sought to understand what he was feeling. Tonight, there’d been no requests for stories; no prayers to be heard; no tucking to be done, or goodnights to answer. Tonight … he was alone, and he felt the loss of those precious routines.
His sigh might have rattled the rafters had he looked upwards while doing it, making him laugh at himself before settling back into his book … and his “normal” life.
The squeak of the rusty door hinge made him reach towards the holster he’d left nearby. His hand came to rest on the pistol grip, but he withdrew it quickly when he realized that the lamp being held by the “intruder” was much too low to indicate a person of any height.
Winnie and Jack pushed through the opening they’d created, and quickly shut the door behind them.
“We thought you’d gone away,” the young girl told him while looking down. “We came out of Papa’s room when Miss Thelma told us to get ready for bed, and you weren’t there.” She held the lamp a little higher to illuminate their faces. “Jack and me, well we were so … um … scared you’d left for good that Miss Thelma lit the lamp for us and told us to check in the barn.”
“Why didn’t you say goodnight to us?” Jack asked in a volume barely above a whisper.
He sat up and motioned them closer. “I did say goodnight, but the excitement at having your papa home, kept you from hearing me.” Noting that they were dressed only in their night clothes, he tossed his blanket aside and began to rise. “It’s chilly out here. I should get you back to the house.”
Winnie’s lamp illuminated the pout created by his suggestion. With his eyes adjusting to the shadows, he finally noticed that each of them had a folded blanket under one arm, While Winnie had the lamp and Jack clutched a large book in the other.
“Miss Thelma said it might be fun if we’d do our story time out here while she tends to Papa,” Winnie told him as she took a step closer.
The emptiness in his heart filled quickly as he patted the straw next to him. “I think she’s right.”
Adam managed to get a child wrapped snuggly on either side of him, and after two stories from the book, they asked for a “special” one to end the evening. He’d become more proficient in his storytelling over his days in Elk Grove, and this one kept both kids wide-eyed and anxious to give the right answers, unlocking the tale of Hoss and Joe, and the pancake eating contest.
Adam’s bed in the barn had felt more welcoming when he returned from walking the pair to the house. Thelma reported that Fritz was already asleep, so the trio had gone straight to the children’s room for prayers and tucking.
He stretched widely and loudly as he settled back under his blanket, and mentally organized his final days on the Brooks’ homestead.
The most important item remained a talk with Fritz about the farm. He wasn’t sure how he’d accomplish this, so as he offered his own bedtime prayers, he asked that there’d be an opportunity where Fritz could speak openly, without fear of judgment.
His morning wash proved even colder than it had been the night before, but he gritted his teeth and made the necessary ablutions that would make do until he found a town on his trip home where he’d get a bath. With the chilly air becoming more the norm than the exception, he’d purchased two flannel shirts from the sisters’ store, and decided he’d break one out this morning. He groaned with disappointment as his arm exited the red plaid sleeve, and saw that the cuff ended a few inches above his wrist. The supposition Elaine had made about his clothes being special made to fit his long arms and torso, had been correct. She’d even warned him that the clothing they sold was made for average-sized men. The sleeve length was off, but it fit comfortably through the body, and the thicker fabric was comfortable, so he turned the cuff up twice to keep it in place, leaving the long sleeve of his winter undershirt covering the remainder of his arm.
The sun was barely lighting the eastern sky when he headed towards the house. He’d promised Thelma he’d make breakfast, allowing her time to help Fritz. He could hear her talking with her patient in the bedroom when he walked in, so he stuck his head in to say good morning, and headed directly for the stove.
The skillet of sliced spuds and onions was browning to perfection, and the sliced ham was sizzling and popping when Winnie and Jack exited their room, yawning. Instead of walking toward the water basin, they plopped onto their chairs at the table. Adam turned, giving them a questioning look and assumed the stance his father had always used to show his displeasure: legs spread slightly to balance his stretch into a towering posture—with fists firmly planted on his hips.
“Why aren’t you getting washed and dressed?”
Winnie’s mouth hung open as she stared at the unhappy man by the stove. “Well … uh … um…. Papa’s home now, and Mommy and Grandma are coming tomorrow.” Her lips twisted as she struggled to explain her position. “This is how we do things when they’re here.”
Adam pulled a chair from the table and straddled it, waiting for them to make a better choice. He saw only furtive looks being exchanged between the youngsters. “You two learned to do so many helpful things, please don’t abandon the pride you got from that and go back to your old ways.”
When his comment provoked no verbal response or action, he shook his head. “I’m going to leave this up to you.” He sighed dramatically. “I sure wouldn’t sit around waiting to be washed and dressed, or have others wait on me … if I knew how to do those things for myself.”
Rising silently, he turned the chair back to the table and went to stir the potatoes. A secret smile stretched his cheeks as he heard the chairs move behind him, followed by water being poured from the pitcher into the bowl. “Good choice,” he whispered.
Fritz looked happy and comfortable sitting at the breakfast table on his first morning home.
Winnie and Jack had positioned themselves at his sides, and he reached out to hold their hands when they finished eating. “I can’t believe all the things you’re doing to help now! I am so proud of you.” He squeezed their hands. “Your mother will appreciate this even more than me. We won’t tell her about it, and you can surprise her by just doing them.”
“You ain’t seen nothing,” Winnie said while kneeling on her chair to hug her father’s neck. “I know how to wash dishes, dust and clean some, change the sheets on our bed, hang wash and feed the chickens after getting their eggs.”
Jack waited for his sister to finish. “I carry the plates to Winnie and help with lots of stuff too.” He giggled. “Sometimes Mr. Adam says that the best way I can help is staying put so he doesn’t trip over me. He says I do that real good now.”
Fritz caught Adam’s eye and winked. He continued to hold onto his children as he addressed the man across the table. “I feel good today and can get around on these crutches, so maybe you and me can get outside and go over everything you did while I was laid up.”
Adam nodded. “That’s a good idea.”
“I can get up on the wagon seat with your help, and we can take a ride out to the fields.”
“Winnie and Jack do their school lessons now, so if you’d oversee that, I’ll do morning chores and get the wagon ready.” When he saw a doubtful look pass over Fritz’s face, he added, “They know what they have to do. Your job is making sure they stick with it.” When the father’s unsure look remained, he added, “Have Winnie read to you. You’ll be surprised at how well she’s doing.”
“Can we come on the ride too?” Jack asked; his tone indicating his expectation that the answer would be yes.
Fritz gave Adam a brief look to confirm that this was to be a private outing. “How about we all go for a ride later? This one is all business, not fun.”
Thelma spoke quickly to stave off the disappointment she saw brewing on the little boy’s face. “There’s plenty of chicken left from last night. It seems like it might be a warm enough day for a picnic, so you and Winnie can help me get things ready.”
Fritz inched along the wagon seat, careful not to bang his leg, while Adam watched in awe of how far the young man had come in his return to health. With Fritz secure, he slapped the reins to set the big horse moving. Keeping a slow pace as they toured allowed him to point out what he and his helpers—both young and older—had managed to finish
“Looks like everything is harvested.” Fritz said as they neared the grass by the stream.
“We didn’t have time to turn the soil, but Ned’s men can do that.”
“I don’t know how to thank you, Adam.” Fritz looked down and shook his head. “Not just for this: for everything.”
“Just take it easy until you’re fully healed. And once you are, don’t let your pride keep you from accepting other kinds of help.” Adam grinned as he turned towards Fritz. “You’re a good farmer. Your harvest was on the small side, but what you grew produced good results. Your harvesting blade is remarkable too. I admire folks who see a need and figure out a solution.” He paused, considering an idea. “If you’d like, I’ll make an engineering drawing so you can get a patent on it, and then sell it to John Deere.”
Fritz blushed. “They wouldn’t want that old thing.”
“You don’t know that. We don’t do farming on the Ponderosa, so I don’t know about the latest implements. But I know a good idea when I see one.”
“How do you feed your crews if you don’t raise crops?” Fritz asked as his cheek rose.
“It turns out that the Cartwrights are much better at raising cattle and timber than we are at farming. Our cook plants a huge garden for summer vegetables and fruits, but Matt Wilson operates a farm that supplies us with the rest of it.”
Adam pulled the wagon to a stop at the edge mown field where this odyssey began, and pointed to the far end. “There’s cut grass over there that Ned’s men can bring in.”
Fritz nodded silently, chewing his cheek, until he finally sighed. “What am I gonna do to support my family, Adam?” He sighed again. “I was uncomfortable when you told me that Ned asked you to look into that, but now I just want to know if you can see what ….” He swallowed hard. “Do you see what I’m doing wrong?” the young man asked, his voice tinged both with eagerness and despair.
“Have you thought about anything you might try?”
Fritz adjusted his position to face Adam directly. “Living hand-to-mouth or on credit like the past few years, makes me too scared to try anything. The only smart thing I’ve done is to not mortgage the farm. We own it clear, at least for now.”
“There’s good grazing land on both sides of this stream,” Adam began. “Have you considered asking Ned for a few head to start a small herd? You could sell to restaurants in Sacramento, and add a new source of cash to your books.”
Fritz’s face screwed up until it resembled a dried apple. “I get tongue-tied just thinking about talking to someone about buying from me. Edna and Elaine got people in town to buy from us when I was too afraid to ask.” He removed his hat and scratched his head. “Would this honestly be enough land to do what you propose?”
Adam looked around, doing mental calculations. “Where does your land end?”
“At the stream here; the road on the front, and on the far edges of the fields you harvested. Total is about 60 acres: two-thirds crops—when I can afford to plant it all—the rest, grass.”
“That’s it?” Adam blew out a reedy sounding whistle. “If you’re the farmer I think you are, you already know what I’m going to say.”
“It’s enough land to supply us if everything goes right, but not enough to make money,” Fritz offered.
“Could you get a loan and purchase adjoining land?”
Fritz moved his arm ahead of him in a sweeping arc. “All this, as far as you can see, was owned by an older couple up until 15 years ago. When they couldn’t handle the load, they kept these acres with the house and buildings and sold the rest. The Henderson—the folks you met next door—bought the land and built their own homestead. They wanted to buy this parcel when it came up for sale, but they didn’t want to pay the added cost for the buildings back then.” He closed his eyes. “It seemed so huge and beautiful when I saw it, that I jumped without thinking square about it.”
Fritz pursed his lips and laughed feebly. “I asked the Hendersons if they’d sell us some bordering acres back when things were still going good. They came back with an offer to buy us out, since their son was getting to the age where he’d want to have his own place.”
“The land you have is good, and there might be better ways to use it.”
Fritz looked down, picking at his threadbare trousers. “I’d appreciate your ideas.”
While he formed his reply, a thought began bumping around Adam’s mind like a rock in a wagon bed. It was something he’d already said, but he couldn’t pull it forward. “How committed are you to remaining here?” he asked abruptly, making Fritz draw back.
“It’s our home. But if things don’t get better, it might not stay that way.”
“I have two ideas. The first is that you stay here, plant a big garden to feed your family. Then sow more grass to raise cattle, and plant just one commodity crop on the remaining acres. The beef might make a profit, or at least get you through in years when the cash crop doesn’t do well.”
“What’s the other idea?”
“Sell this farm. I’d bet your neighbors are still interested.” Adam waited to gage Fritz’s expression. To his relief, the suggestion hadn’t caused the upheaval he’d anticipated. “Then buy a larger place. Remember I told you that we buy our produce from Wilson Farms? It just came to mind that Matt has been talking about selling and going back to the Midwest. The best part is that it borders Ned’s ranch.”
Fritz frowned deeply. “That place sounds huge. We could never afford that.”
“It’s a good number of acres, but not so many as you might think. Matt has a knack for getting the most from what he has … just like you. You’ll have a down payment from selling this, and can get a loan on a property with proven profitability. Ned can cosign if the bank requires it. And the Carters would love having your family nearby.”
The frown faded to a thoughtful look. “Nadine would like that too. It nearly killed her when her mama was ailing and she couldn’t help.” Fritz rubbed his calloused hand across his weathered cheeks and sucked a breath through his teeth. “What if I can’t run such a big place?”
The smile was genuine. “You won’t know what you can do until you try.”
“Like my kids, huh?” He glanced over at Adam and laughed. “Winnie and Jack are so proud over all they can do now.” His gaze turned forward. “I’d like to feel that way too.”
Adam drew his lips into a thin line and closed his eyes while deciding whether to bring up his last idea. “There’s one more possibility. Ned can’t keep ranching forever. He’s often said he hoped you’d want to take over. Have you given any thought to returning to the Double C and learning how to run a cattle operation?”
“Would Ned really want me back after I walked away?”
“You’ll have to ask him.” The big horse started down the rutted path along the edge of the field with a gentle slap of the reins. “He respected your decision to set off on your own. He’ll respect your decision to return. And don’t assume he doesn’t want you back because he doesn’t ask you to come. Ned won’t make an offer at a time when you’d feel compelled to take it.” Adam pulled the horse to a stop again, and looked directly at Fritz. “Ned asked me to assess whether you have what it takes to succeed. I knew the answer as soon as I saw you at the bottom of that drop-off. Anyone who would keep himself alive and alert through the conditions you endured, worrying about his family more than for himself, can accomplish anything.
“Talk with Nadine about this. Then talk to Ned and Mavis. The Cartwrights and the Carters failed as much as we succeeded in the early years, and we both had to rely on help, encouragement, and even lots of credit to get by. Accept what you need now; pay it back when things get better, and then show your thanks by helping others.”
The remainder of Fritz’s first full day home went well. The nice day did allow a picnic, and the children stuck to their father like burdock. They’d played him out so fully, that he’d gone to bed following supper, and Adam had completed the bedtime rituals one last time.
As promised, Ned and his group pulled in right after breakfast the next morning, sending the household into a tizzy.
The children dissolved into tears when they saw their mother and ran to embrace her. A similar reaction happened when Fritz hobbled his way onto the porch, tossed his crutches aside, and grabbed his wife, lifting her off her feet and shouting with joy. Winnie and Jack had forced their way into that embrace, and the four of them had clung to one another like moss on a north-facing tree limb.
Although encouraged to stay for a celebration, Adam knew it was time to go. He performed his last duty by taking Ned around to go over what needed to be finished.
“So …” Ned eased into his inquiry as the pair walked back towards the barn. “I’m anxious to hear your thoughts about Fritz making a go of this place?”
Adam actually admired Ned’s restraint. Since this man wasn’t any more patient than Ben Cartwright, he was surprised the question wasn’t asked as soon as they arrived. “We discussed options yesterday, and he’s considering them.” The vague answer didn’t reassure Ned, who eyed him with a combination of anger and impatience. “You already know he’s a good man, Ned, or you’d have sent him packing when he began courting your daughter. I can’t tell you more, because I don’t know which way his heart is heading. He will talk to you after he and Nadine make a decision.” Adam controlled his urge to smile when Ned continuing to stare him down like a gunslinger ready to draw. His relief came when the older rancher finally relaxed his posture.
“You told me back at the Ponderosa that you wouldn’t tell tales behind Fritz’s back. I’ll have to be thankful that he listened, and that there are options,” he offered begrudgingly.
After Ned walked away, Adam gathered the last of his things from the barn and saddled Sport, bringing him to the front yard to wait while he went inside to say goodbye. “I’m all set to go,” he said over the happy chatter when he entered the house. He smiled at Nadine and Fritz. “Thank you for the opportunity to be a part of your family for a few weeks.”
Fritz extended his hand. “You’ve done so much for us, while expecting nothing in return.”
Accepting thanks or praise had never come easily, and Adam replied simply: “My pleasure.” He expected that the children would come over to say goodbye, but when they remained tucked into the folds of Nadine’s skirt, peering at him with the same fearful look he’d seen the first day he’d arrived, he decided not to prolong the uncomfortable situation. “Goodbye you two,” he offered with a salute. “You were great helpers. Thanks for listening so well and especially for liking my cooking.”
Nadine’s brows rose as she looked at Adam, and she shrugged. Pulling Winnie and Jack from her side, she chastened them. “You’ve talked nonstop about Mr. Cartwright since I got home, and now you can’t even say goodbye or thank you?” Rather than pushing them forward, she stepped back, leaving them standing there.
Winnie cast a furtive look backwards toward her mother, and finally, uttered a barely audible, “Thank you.”
Jack did the same before retreating to his mother’s skirt.
He tipped his hat, issuing a final goodbye to everyone, and left the house alone. He understood the children’s chilly reaction, yet he struggled to shake it off. These children had relied on him during a time of extreme stress, and with their lives returning to normal, he’d become an unwelcome reminder of those frightening days.
The depth of his thoughts, and the length of his stride increased once he stepped off the porch, and he was nearly to Sport when he something impacted his legs from behind, nearly toppling him forward.
He stuck his arm out to steady himself on Sport’s broad rump, and looked down, finding the cause of his near-tumble smiling up at him. Winnie was holding onto his left leg, and Jack was latched onto his right.
Winnie placed her hands on his shoulders after he squatted down to eye level. “I don’t want you to leave!” she’d said as her bottom lip quivered, and large tears rolled off her bottom lashes, leaving wet circles wherever they landed.
Jack tucked in under his arm, hugging him tightly. “I want you to stay too!”
“Your folks are here, so I have to go home. Shucks, you’ll have so much fun with your grandparents that you’ll forget about me by this afternoon.” He’d kept his tone gentle and teasing as he smiled reassuringly, and tightened his hold around each of them. “It has been my great joy getting to know both of you. I will never forget these weeks, and I promise that you’ll always be in my heart and prayers.”
Winnie’s voice was little more than a whisper. “We sort of forgot that getting Mama and Papa back meant you’d have to go.” She laid her head against his cheek. “I love you, Mr. Adam, and I’ll always remember you too.”
Jack’s additional affirmation of loving him, had both swelled and broken Adam’s heart. “I ….” He stopped to think about what he truly felt for these children, and the conclusion came easily. “I love each one of you too.” They remained in a silent embrace.
Adam heard the door open, and released his grip as Fritz called to his children, telling them it was time to let Adam get on his way.
He’d stood, but bent down again, and tilted each little chins upwards. “Remember everything you learned.”
“We will,” floated back to him as they ran to the house. Their waves and shouted goodbyes accompanied him all the way to the road, ending only when Fritz shooed them inside the house.
Sport snorted and bobbed his head to register his displeasure at being stopped once they’d cleared the Brooks’ drive. After a last look back, he gave a gentle nudge, keeping the powerful chestnut reined at a walk. Far enough down the road to be certain he wouldn’t be seen from the house, he stopped again. After checking to make sure he was alone, he leaned forward in the saddle, grabbing the horn solidly as the wave of memories from his time at the Brooks’ house flooded his heart. There was relief that all had turned out so well for this family. While in charge, he’d had to maintain a positive veneer for the sake of the kids. That in turn had made him just as positive as his portrayal. There’d been reserve about Fritz’s condition at first, but he’d chosen to believe that the younger man would recover and based every plan he’d made on that promise. This careful planning had kept them all moving forward without fear.
The one thing he hadn’t “planned” on doing during this side trip, was experiencing the innocent, wonderful love of Winnie and Jack, and how this would re-spark the desire for a family of his own.
He’d known brief moments of this when he’d courted the Dayton ladies. But Laura and Peggy were like a solid fort, with Laura standing watch atop the stockade. He’d been allowed to ride the perimeter of their camp, but he’d seldom been welcomed inside the walls.
It had been such a different experience here. Fritz had immediately trusted his judgment based on what he’d heard from his children during their visits. That trust had allowed his children to form strong bonds in the worst situation.
He took a deep breath as he sat up straight again, breathed it out as a sigh, and finally released Sport to run all the way to Elk Grove.
Adam approached the crossroad where one path led home: the other towards Virginia City, and took the one heading away from the Ponderosa. He’d done a lot of thinking during his four-day trip from Elk Grove, his conclusion being that he needed to send a telegram before resuming life on the ranch.
On the way back, Sport had been willing to push on each day until they’d come to a town where Adam could find a room, or even bed down with the chestnut in a livery stall. Another conclusion he’d made was that with the arrival of chillier weather, he had little desire to commune with nature through sleeping on the cold, hard ground. It wasn’t that he’d spoiled on the idea of camping, but the chilling fall wind had kept him hunched over in his saddle trying to stay warm. This caused his previously injured back to begin speaking to him in a low, disapproving grumble.
On reaching Virginia City, he quickly condensed his thoughts into the truncated sentences used in Morse code, and got his wire dispatched to Abel Stoddard. There was no reason to wait for a reply, since his request was that his grandfather perform an investigation that couldn’t be accomplished immediately. After leaving the Western Union office, he rode down the main street looking for evidence of his family being in town: the stab of disappointment he felt at not spying Chubby, Cochise or Buck, dissolving at seeing two familiar draft horses and the Ponderosa’s large, green wagon waiting outside the general store.
Tying Sport near the Cartwright team, he headed inside, and saw Hoss and Joe facing the counter, checking their order with the clerk.
He moved quietly away from the door, and then summoned his best cockney accent. “It’s a doggoned shame it is, that someone takes up the entire front of this establishment in parkin’ their conveyance. Why I had to take dozens of extra steps just to get around it to the front door, I did!”
The young clerk glanced up from the counter, and grinned at him without giving anything away.
Little Joe nudged Hoss, and stood taller without turning. “It’s on the street where people normally leave their … ah … conveyances. Where might you think it should be?” He finished his comeback by spinning around with his hands on his hips.
Joe’s laughter made Hoss turn as well; his mouth sagging open before becoming a broad grin. “I though you was never comin’ home, Older Brother!”
Both men rushed towards Adam, each taking one of his hands to shake. Hoss’ greeting was completed with a mighty bear hug and another handshake.
“Did you two actually miss me?”
“Nah.” Joe stated soundly. “It’s just that the dinner table always tilts toward Hoss’ full plate without you there to help balance things out.”
A sour look shot from the middle to the youngest Cartwright. “That might be so, but for me, it’ll be nice to have you sharin’ the work again. Seein’ that Joe here only works half as hard when you’re not around to push him, I’ve been doin’ the work of two-and-a-half people.”
Adam nodded and laughed. “One thing about coming home; I just drop right back into the same craziness that was going on when I left.”
“I’m sure you mean that in the nicest way,” Joe teased back.
“Sure.” A familiar silhouette moving across the store’s large window made Adam look towards the door.
“I saw Sport outside when I was crossing the street to the bank,” Ben nearly shouted as he covered the distance to his son. “Welcome home!” Following his own round of handshakes and back-slapping, Ben stepped back, and as he was prone to do, took stock and issued a plan. “I still need to go to the bank. You three load the wagon: then we’ll get lunch at the hotel and catch up.”
*** (Later that night)
Ben had become an expert at seeing the nuances of his sons’ expressions. He could detect when their words were hiding uneasiness, intentional deception, the need for confession and atonement, or filled with tempered joy. Adam’s emotions were the best concealed. However, they’d been obvious while his eldest had recounted his trip to Elk Grove during lunch.
The memory of what he’d seen earlier was keeping Ben awake now. Several attempts at repositioning had done nothing to provide enough comfort to drift off, so he closed his eyes and tried to figure out what he’d actually witnessed.
Adam’s account about the work he and the men had accomplished, had mirrored the report Cal and Jeb had given on their return. His son had admitted not telling the hands about the true conditions he’d found when he’d arrived, or anything about the Brooks’ financial situation.
What left them all on the edge of their seats in the private dining room Ben had requested, was that Fritz and his children would have perished had he not been asked to stop by.
The seriousness of the situation he’d found, had shown on Adam’s features during the recounting. Then suddenly, his son’s eyes had brightened and his face relaxed into a continuous arcing smile while telling of his time as a caretaker of the Winnie, Jack and the Brooks’ homestead.
Even though his son’s conclusion had been that things had “gone well,” those words belied what Ben had observed. Despite the initial shock of the situation, Adam had “enjoyed” …. No, it was more than that. Adam had clearly loved the experience.
Ben grinned in the dark. His son had the brains, financial wherewithal and organizational skills to run a small empire rather than a small farm. But this hadn’t been about creating an empire, it had been about creating a working family. Adam usually kept his emotions tucked-in and private, but his father knew something wonderful had happened during his son’s time away.
The grin faded as Ben recalled more from their luncheon talk. When Adam finished his story, the eyes that had been alive and happy had clouded with something different: loss. His solid, organized son had given his heart completely to Winnie and Jack, and in that he’d also had to experience the loss associated with loving what hadn’t been his to keep. Ben knew this truth well: it was the essence of parenthood.
Ben’s sons had been gifts to him from their mothers and a gracious God. As he’d watched them grow and develop their unique characters, he’d understood that his job was to protect, provide for, and encourage them, so that one day they could bless others. He’d been further gifted in that his sons were still at home, choosing to work the family ranch rather than setting out on their own. But he’d had a taste of this loss 17 years ago, when he’d sent Adam away on a supply train, heading back to Boston for school. A piece had torn from his heart that day, leaving a wound that had only healed with Adam’s return.
His eldest hadn’t returned as a boy though. Their father-son relationship had undergone a change since then: a good change that contributed to the phenomenal success of the Ponderosa. In these adult years, Adam had made great progress … as a businessman. Unfortunately, his personal life seemed stuck.
As a father, he’d suspected this why he’d proposal to Laura, and the day she’d left with Will, Adam had confirmed that while he’d been cooling on the idea of marrying Laura anyway, his mistake had become abundantly obvious after seeing an old “friend” in Sacramento when he’d been stuck there at the time of his engagement party. It turned out she’d been a lot more than a friend, with Adam admitting he’d proposed to this woman in Boston, before coming home from school. Things had gone awry, making him believe that relationship had ended, and his sense of honor to Laura, had prevented them from doing anything that might be seen as betrayal. Yet in those hours together, he and this woman had been able to figure out what had gone wrong after they’d parted 12-years ago. Ben had seen that even though his son had remained loyal to his commitment, old embers had been fanned, and would need only needed a breath of air to combust.
Regaining the full use of his legs and recovering his strength after weeks of inactivity following the paralyzing fall, had taken Adam’s total focus, and there’d been no further talk of the mysterious woman. Ben didn’t ask further, assuming his son had decided against pursuing a reconnection. It was clear now that his work with the Brooks family may have provided the oxygen needed to get that fire burning again.
Fourteen (Six weeks later)
The three Cartwright brothers neared Virginia City as the sun shone nearly overhead. They’d completed morning chores, and were headed in to join their father for a lunch meeting at the Cattlemen’s Association.
The November days were getting shorter and cold, but so far, snow had only graced the uppermost peaks of the Sierras. Hoss pulled up the collar of his heavy wool coat to protect his ears from the chilly breeze, and looked over at Joe, who was riding at his side. “Adam’s in some hurry,” he told his brother while pointing at the horse and rider a good-ways ahead of them.
“He wants to get the mail before the meeting,” Joe replied.
Slowing Chubby to a walk, Hoss leaned forward in his saddle and faced his middle brother. “Don’t it seem that somethin’s been on our older brothers mind since he got home from California?”
The corner of Joe’s mouth dipped in a sour expression. “What do you mean?”
“It’s like his body is home, but his minds somewhere’s else. He stays in his room except for meals and work. I can’t evens say he’s ornery like he can get when he’s puzzlin’ on some thought, and he talks like nothin’s wrong when he stays put long enough to join a conversation. But dadgummit, I just know somethin’ ain’t right.”
A nod from Cochise’s rider. “He has been quiet. Heck, now that you mention it, the other day I left a short-handled pitch fork in the straw while I was doing stalls, and wouldn’t you know, Adam walked over that way; stepped on the end, and it swung up with the handle smacking his knee. He yelped and rubbed his leg, but then he just hung the fork on the wall without lecturing me for 10-minutes about it.” Joe giggled. “He was limping when he left the barn, but it seemed he didn’t have the energy to holler.”
“That don’t sound like Adam. Somethin’ must be plaguing his mind, but he won’t say nothin’ lest it gets so bad Pa forces him to talk.” Hoss sighed and then laughed. “Even then, Pa ain’t gonna tell us a thing about it. For now, we just best catch up to him, so we’re not late for that meeting. Unlike Adam, Pa ain’t got a problem hollerin’ at us.”
Ben’s presence inside the Cattlemen’s Association was confirmed when the brothers saw Buck waiting outside.
Hoss noted his older brother’s anxious look towards the Post Office across the street, before finally turning Sport towards the other Cartwright horses.
“Since Pa came into town early, chances are he already picked up the mail,” Hoss offered, as he slipped behind Adam’s back once he dismounted, and gave him a gentle nudge towards the association’s front door.
Hoss, Joe and Adam entered a room buzzing with activity. Lunch was scheduled for noon, and with the Regulator clock showing 20 minutes before the food would be served, groups had formed around the bar: their laughter and high spirits indicating these conversations were not oriented to business.
The younger brothers stopped to greet their father, and then headed over to join their friends. Adam took a seat at their table rather than accompanying his brothers: partly because he wasn’t in the mood for conversation, but more so because he spotted the stack of envelopes to the left of his father’s fork. “I see you got the mail,” he began, getting Ben’s attention away from the newspaper he’d returned to reading once his sons had gone. “Is there ….” His sentence went unfinished when someone clapped him hard on the shoulder from behind.
“Adam! I’m so glad you’re here.”
He recognized the voice and turned to offer his hand. “I didn’t know you were back, Ned.”
Ned Carter tucked into the chair next to Adam, and smiled widely. “We got back a few days ago.”
“You said, we. Was Mavis able to come with you?”
“Not just Mavis: Fritz, Nadine, the kids, and the ranch hands.”
Adam’s eyes widened as his jaw slacked, forming a frown. He looked over at his father and saw much the same reaction. “I suppose with both of them laid up; it was the best solution for the time being.”
Ned’s smile broadened until his rising cheeks made him squint. “It’s not for the time being. It’s for good.”
Another glance toward Ben reaffirmed that his father knew nothing about this development either. While Adam had given Fritz a few options to consider, it seemed unlikely that things could have been settled in this short time. “You best start from the beginning.”
The happy rancher waved his hand in front of him as though swatting gnats. “I’m pretty sure I have you to thank for how things worked out. After you left that day, Fritz asked that Mavis and me take the kids to town for some supplies. While we were gone, he and Nadine talked. Later, our son-in-law presented us with their plan.”
A twinkle appeared in Adam’s eye as he inched forward in his chair, anxious to hear which option Fritz had decided to pursue. “What sort of plan?”
“He admitted to making a mistake in not buying a bigger place. They can’t buy more land there, and anything else he’d try would cost more than he’d recoup.” Ned sent a knowing smile Adam’s way. “I assume he didn’t figure that out on his own.”
“He did, Ned. The two of us took a good look at their place just before you arrived. I only confirmed what he already suspected.”
“Good for him!” Ned puffed his chest and pulled his shoulders back. “It takes a good man to see the truth of a thing. Their decision was made easier when their neighbors bought the farm right off, paying extra for the stock and stored crops. Seems their son is getting married soon, so the timing was perfect.” The happy smile from earlier returned. “It also takes a good man to ask for help. Fritz told us he’d heard that the Wilson farm might be for sale, and suggested we find out for sure.”
Ben nodded. “Matthew Wilson has been talking about selling since his wife passed, but he hasn’t done anything officially. Were you able to contact him?”
“We were! Wilson agreed to the sale by telegram, and we did the paperwork as soon as we arrived home. Fritz used what they got for the farm as earnest money. I’m going to contribute some cash and cosign the mortgage. My son-in-law insisted I sign loan papers with him as well. It won’t come due until they pay down a few things, but he wanted something legal.”
“Matt Wilson has a decent business,” Ben said while nodding. “Adam said Fritz is a good farmer, so he should do well too.”
Ned nudged Adam’s arm. “Wilson says he weathers dry spells better than others because of a good well, a windmill, and irrigation ditches in a system you designed for him a few years ago.” He looked up and sighed. “If I had my druthers, I’d have Fritz work with me. But he wants to prove that he can succeed on his own first. He got his feet wet in a farm the size of puddle, and now he’s ready to jump into a bigger pond.” Ned laughed at his thought. “The good thing is that it’s too late in the season to leave for Wisconsin, so Wilson’s going to bunk in his original cabin so Fritz and Nadine can move into the house. During the winter he’ll take Fritz around to meet the people who buy from him, and renew those agreements. Wilson’s also going to teach Fritz to keep the books and how to rotate crops for the best yields. He’s promised to stay until after spring planting.”
“It’s the perfect situation.” Adam’s smile was sincere with a touch of pride over how well his suggestion was working out for this family.
“I know the idea came from you, Adam,” Ned admitted with a grin and another punch to his arm. “Fritz is a good man, but I see the hand of an experienced businessman in this solution.”
“It was a suggestion, but it took guts and gumption to make the decision.”
Ned’s expression took a turn toward the serious with a swath of red pulling upwards from his neck to his forehead. “Thank you for what you did for my daughter’s family: not just for the ideas, but for saving Fritz’s life, and then staying with my grandchildren. Fritz confided all the things you taught them youngsters, and expected them to do. I saw it right away. Winnie set the table for supper that first day, and got her brother ready for bed. Privately, Fritz told me he’d had a long talk with Nadine about how they have to expect more of their little ones.”
“They are wonderful children, Ned, and only needed a nudge in the right direction. I enjoyed being with them.”
Ned stood and grasped Adam’s hand, shaking it first and then continuing to hold on. “I’m not staying for the meeting; I just stopped because I saw your horses outside. You should know that Winnie and Jack talk about you constantly. They’re in town shopping with Mavis, and will have lunch at the hotel. Check for our wagon before you head home. Those two would love to see you.”
“It was nice of him to give you an update,” Ben told Adam once Ned was gone. “Do you think Fritz can manage the Wilson operation?”
“I do. It won’t be easy, but he’ll have people nearby to ask for advice, instead of struggling alone.”
“People like you?” Ben teased, good-naturedly. The absence of Adam’s agreement, produced a familiar chill down the center of his back. As he studied his son, he realized that his eyes, and his concentration were now centered on the table. “I almost forgot,” he said casually. “There’s a letter from Abel in today’s mail.” Flipping through the stack he pulled out the appropriate item and extended it.
Adam fought his urge to snatch it from his father’s hand, and grit his teeth as he accepted the letter nonchalantly, examining it as though assuring that the return address was truly from the Stoddard home. Only then did he use the knife from his place-setting to slit the top and pull the two-page contents from its confinement.
Ben controlled his smile. No one in the Cartwright household had complained, but everyone was aware of Adam’s growing restlessness of late. It was most obvious as he waited for the mail to arrive, and was accompanied by his mournful look each time there was nothing addressed to him. Judging from the granite-like set of his jaw, Ben assumed this was what he’d been expecting, and he lifted his paper while secretly observing the changes on Adam’s face as he read what Abel had written.
“What’s the news from the Captain?” he asked when Adam refolded the letter and tucked the envelope in his inner jacket pocket.
A call to order from those in charge, preempted an answer. “I’ll tell you later,” he replied as his brothers returned to the table, and the meal service began.
The Cartwrights rose from their table, stretching to ease the stiffness from sitting on small, cheek-pinching chairs for the last hour. The meeting updates provided nothing they didn’t already know, but it always proved interesting to watch the reactions of other ranchers who didn’t keep up with developing trends and pricing.
Adam performed a couple quick knee bends to return circulation to his legs, and then looked towards the door when he thought he heard his name being called. With only his torso visible in the open passageway, Ned was waving Adam over. The other three Cartwrights followed him to the door, curious to know what was going on, and glad for the quick escape to the aftermath of the meeting that often turned into a never-ending gossip session.
Ned was smiling ear-to-ear as he’d been earlier. “I’m glad the meeting is over. Mavis wants to get home, and there’s two people who wouldn’t let us leave until they said hello.
The bright afternoon sun made Adam squint, but he heard “Mr. Adam” being shouted by high-pitched voices. He shielded his eyes with his hand to view into the shadows down the street, finally spotting Winnie and Jack with their grandmother. They let go of her hand to run, and he met them half-way, scooping them both up.
“We missed you so much, Mr. Adam,” Winnie professed after kissing his cheek and encircling his neck in a tight hug.
He dropped to one knee, setting his load on the boardwalk, without releasing his hold. “I missed you too. How are your mama and papa doing?”
Winnie giggled. “Papa said lots of bad words when he used his crutches, and mama says she’s we’re getting a new brother or sister.” She shrugged as her lips took a crooked twist. “I hope it’s not another brother.”
“Doc Martin took a look at both Nadine and Fritz when we got here,” Ned offered when he reached Mavis’ side. “He said Fritz can use a cane now, and Nadine is doing well.”
Adam looked up at the couple. “I’m happy to hear that.” He let go of the children and rocked back to give them a good looking over. “I believe you’ve both grown a foot since I last saw you. What’s your grandma feeding you?”
“Just food,” Jack volunteered. “Grandma had to get me new pants, cuz my ankles were sticking too far out from my old ones.”
“I’m right then. You have grown. Say, I hear you’ve moved here.”
Both heads nodded, but Winnie said, “We’re gonna have a new farm, and the best part is that Grandma and Grandpa live next door.”
“You’ll all like that.” He glanced up at Ned, and then back to the children. “Have you kept up with your lessons since I left?”
Jack leaned in to whisper loudly. “Mama and papa can’t tell good stories like you did.”
“They sure don’t,” Winnie agreed. “But I wentto school until we moved, and Grandma took us to the school here today, and we’re gonna start next week.”
“Both of you?” Adam asked.
Mavis explained, “That nice young teacher had Jack do a few things, and she determined that he already knows his letters and numbers.” She chuckled. “He’s a bit young so whether he can stay in school, will depend on his being able to sit still all day. She’ll give us home lessons if he can’t.”
“Miss Scott is a good teacher with ideas on how to keep children interested.” Adam’s mind drifted away as he thought about the other bright woman with excellent teaching ideas that he’d read about in his letter from Abel.
Ben, Hoss, and Joe had managed to get away from the others exiting the meeting, and made their way to the reunion.
“So, who are these sprouts, Adam?” Hoss asked as he dropped to one knee next to his brother.
Adam shook off his thoughts of Melinda, and smiled. “Let me present Jack and Winnie Brooks,” he told his family, and waited while they each shook the hands of both children.
While the conversation with the children continued with the younger Cartwrights teasing their older brother, Ben moved around the group to view Adam’s face. His breath caught in his chest with the power of what he saw. Even with Hoss and Joe asking Winnie and Jack if Adam had been really grouchy during his time with them, and then recalling stories of how strict their brother had been when they were young; Adam looked calm, and more importantly, happy. His eyes sparkled, and the lines that seemed nearly etched into his cheeks and forehead of late, were gone. Whatever his eldest was experiencing, it was transforming him.
Ben only looked away when Ned asked a question about the meeting.
The reunion went on for nearly a half-hour before Mavis declared it was time to go. Her response to the disappointment of her grandchildren was that since they were living in Virginia City, they could see Adam whenever they liked. When Winnie and Jack said they wished they could visit with the Cartwrights soon, Ben obliged by inviting everyone to the Ponderosa for Sunday dinner.
Ben had noticed Adam’s grimace with Mavis’ suggestion that her grandchildren would see him often. This tweaked his suspicions of what had been written in Abel’s letter, and he was already bracing himself for the discussion to come.
He didn’t have to wait long.
“Pa,” Adam said, pulling his father aside as they approached their horses. “I’d appreciate it if you’d send Hoss and Joe ahead. You and I can ride at a slower pace, while I tell you what Grandfather wrote.”
“You wouldn’t rather wait until we’re home so everyone can hear?” Ben knew the answer before asking the question. His query was made to gage the seriousness of what would be said.
A shake of his head. “I prefer this be private for now.”
Father and son gave the younger brothers a good lead after reaching the road to the ranch, and Adam slowed Sport to a walk next to Buck.
Ben waited, but when his son seemed unable to begin, he asked, “Was there bad news from Boston, Son? You seem uneasy, which makes me think Abel is unwell.”
“He doesn’t mention any health problems.” Adam smiled to relieve his father’s concerns, and then sat up straighter, taking a deep breath. “You may recall our conversation the day Laura left, when I told you that I’d seen an old friend in Sacramento. Seeing Melinda, and spending those few hours with her, resurrected feelings I thought I’d tucked away for good.”
Ben nodded, his brows rising as he turned away to grin. The mystery woman finally had a name: Melinda. “I remember.” Ben looked upwards, praying for the right words to ease his son into speaking what was in his heart. “You also said that she’d never married. I’d assumed you would let her know that you were free of the circumstances existing in Sacramento. Yet you said nothing more about it, so I figured you’d decided that the relationship couldn’t be salvaged.”
A nod. “I did write, telling her about the engagement, and thanking her for her honesty. She knew I didn’t love Laura and understood what had pushed me into that mess, Pa. That day we found out that our letters hadn’t reached either one of us, and then she understood why I thought she no longer cared about me or our promises. I might have made arrangements to catch up with her in California when my situation changed, but I needed to be sure there weren’t any lasting effects from the fall.” He grinned. “There was no rush. Melinda was on an extended tour in the West with her teaching manuals.”
“I assume something happened to remind you that time is passing?”
The continued grin he gave his father was filled with respect. A nod was given as Adam adjusted in his saddle: a physical release of his pent-up thoughts. “Being with Winnie and Jack awakened feelings I’d put aside as unattainable. I want a family, Pa—on my own terms this time—not because the situation is convenient or deemed the next logical step. I spent the trip home from Elk Grove considering what I need in my life. There’s no more doubt or hesitation; I need Melinda. I sent a telegram to Abel the day I arrived home, asking him to find out everything he could about her schedule and … other things.”
Adam stopped Sport and leaned forward to laugh. “I thought he’d wire back, but he sent a letter instead. It got here exceptionally fast, but it seemed like months.”
Ben laughed along with his son. “We all knew you were expecting something, although you were more like a caged cat this time, instead of a raging bear as you often are when you’re forced to wait. Was that old sea dog able to help?”
“He sure was.” He pulled back on the reins when Sport tossed his head, wanting to move on. “Melinda inherited her aunt’s house next door to Abel, and she’d returned home from the western tour at the same time as my wire. He invited her over to talk about her travels, and she mentioned seeing me out here.” A chuckle. “He wrote that she smiled all the while she spoke of it. She also divulged that she had received my letter about breaking the engagement.” Adam smiled crookedly. “Abel does not believe in coincidences, preferring to think there was a divine purpose to us meeting in time for her to help convince me that I’d made a mistake that I could rectify. It also revealed that what kept us apart, may have been meant as a delay, rather than an ending.”
“Abel has always been a philosopher. What else did he report?”
“Melinda is setting out for another series of seminars in the middle states. She’ll start in Milwaukee and work her way south to New Orleans. This time she’ll work with teachers in their classrooms, so it’s a long trip.”
“Could you meet somewhere?”
“Abel wrote that she’s under a very strict contract. There was concern that as a single woman, she might run off to get married along the way if they didn’t hold her to completing the trip. Apparently, there’s a costly penalty on her royalties should she become … distracted.”
Ben shook his head. “I doubt there’d be such caveats if she was a young, single man.” He grinned along with his son. “So, what are you going to do?”
“She’ll be done with that next summer. That gives me eight months to plan.”
“Son,” he began, and then hesitated. “Have you considered that without her knowing of your continued affection, she might give up the hope of a happy ending?”
Adam leaned forward in the saddle again, his jaw setting tightly as he sighed. “I don’t expect a guarantee, Pa; I just want a chance. My belief is that if I rush her because I’m in a hurry to fix this, it won’t go well. I’m the one whose impatience could have ruined any chance for us. She knows that I still love her, and considering what I nearly did, she needs time to figure out if that changes her feelings for me. If after all this time, she finds someone she wants more than me, I’ll have to accept that.”
Ben’s brows rose under his hat brim as he grinned. “How soon will you leave?”
“Abel’s housekeeper is friendly with the woman who’s caring for Melinda’s place. He’ll be privy to the latest information, and can let me know when there’s word on her return.” Adam’s cheeks became pink as he added, “It’s not like I’m planning some grand gesture that will put her on the spot to make a decision, like being there on my knee when her train pulls in.”
“In the meantime …” Adam reset his hat, and saddle position. “You’ve talked about taking a trip to St. Louis. Why don’t you make plans to go with Hoss and Joe as soon as the weather allows in spring. The travel will take some time2, so figure a long enough stay to make it worth the effort.”
He knew he’d hit on a good idea when he saw his father’s cheek rise in a half-smile. “Will you come too?” Ben asked.
“I’d rather stick around here and run the ranch a last time.”
“And then?” Ben asked, his tone drifting toward sadness.
“I’ll wait for Abel’s alert.”
Ben nodded, nudging Buck’s broad flank to set him moving again. He wanted to ask whether the plans included a one-way or roundtrip ticket, but Adam’s comment of running the ranch a “last time,” and his constant fidgeting during their conversation, had already given him the answer. He’d always known that a part of Adam’s heart had remained in Boston after college, and he’d always suspected his eldest would return there one day.
Another thought hit Ben as the cool breeze eased the hot blush in his cheeks, and grief sunk its first tendrils into his heart. There was no reason for Adam to stay now that he’d decided what he needed. Ben recognized that the next eight months were Adam’s final gift to his family. He also understood Adam’s reasoning in suggesting the long trip without him. He’d still be home when they returned, but they’d be long enough for them to begin feeling comfortable with his absence. It was so like this son to want to prepay a debt he didn’t owe.
Ben opened his mouth as Adam caught up to him, intending to tell him that he was aware of his intentions: to thank him, and say it wasn’t necessary. But these words lodged like a bone in his throat, leaving him mute. He reached over to grasp Adam’s arm, and finally spoke the one thing he wanted his son to understand. “You owe me only one thing, Son. Find that happy ending.”
(This story will soon be followed by a short sequel called, Three Letters. The stories in my personal canon indicated that Ben knew of Adam’s intent to leave his family for several months, and they talked about it privately several times. But Adam’s actual departure occurred without warning. Three Letters will explore what happened.)
1I was surprised to find that DVT (Deep vein Thrombosis) has been diagnosed and somewhat understood for a long time. They were first considered “evil humors” in the blood, but by 1676 they knew the true cause. In 1793, a man named Hunter, proposed that DVT was a venous occlusion caused by clots that might break away from the vessel and travel to the heart, causing death. Treatment included bedrest, splinting to prevent movement that could loosen the clot, and warm compresses to dissolve it: pretty standard treatment for years until clot-busting meds were discovered. Venous ligation (clamping off of the vein between its location and the heart to prevent its movement upwards) was also done in severe cases. Imagine that this was done without benefit of sterile procedures. Makes you wonder if infection became the next problem! (Information taken from the Clinical Advisor webpage.)
2Adam says that his fathers and brothers are in St. Louis at the beginning of The Flannel Mouthed Gun (the season six episode that occurs in the 8 months my writing canon has him remain home while he waits for news of Melinda’s return). Set around 1864-ish, there was no Intercontinental Railway yet, so their trip would have involved stagecoach with some rail availability as they got further east. The distance from Virginia City to St. Louis is over 1800 miles. A stage in good weather conditions, made around 100 miles per day, with some of the mail coaches doing double that as they ran 24 hours when possible. The round-trip travel alone could have taken a month.
*In my story, When Grace heals a Wounded Spirit, Adam becomes so completely despaired at the situation with Laura and his paralysis that he tries to end his life.
Other Stories by this Author
- The Healing (by Missjudy)
- A Moment Before Leaving (by MissJudy)
- A Father’s Parable (by Missjudy)
- A Little Home Schooling (by MissJudy)
- A Prayer in the Night (by MissJudy)