The Homecoming – Part 1 (by karilyn)

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Part of the fourth story in the  Destiny series

Summary: Adam and Mary Lynn travel to Boston to visit Nolan at college.  Adam has a surprise planned that will affect every member of the Cartwright family.

Rated: K+ (23,040 words)

Destiny Series:

Blizzard of Destiny
Desert Destiny
Destiny Next Door
Brothers
No More Birthday Parties, Thank you
It’s Just for Now
The Homecoming Part 1
The Homecoming Part 2
Logan’s Bride

 

                                             The Homecoming – Part 1

 

Travel weary and dusty, Adam and Mary Lynn Cartwright stepped off the train in Boston in late November, 1880.  Adam wanted Mary Lynn to take a seat in the train station while he saw to their baggage, but she made it known that she’d been sitting plenty long enough, thank you, and she would rather stand up for a while.  Smiling to himself, he let her do exactly that while he went off in search of their bags.

 

They were in town to celebrate Thanksgiving with their oldest son, Nolan, who was completing his first term at Harvard.  They hadn’t seen him since sending him off to school in August, and they had missed him more than they had ever imagined.  In fact, the entire Cartwright family was unanimous in that feeling.  There was a calm, steadying, supportive nature about Nolan that they had all leaned on at one time or another.  In many ways he was similar to his revered grandfather, Ben, who always seemed to know what to do or say, no matter what the situation.

 

Young Caroline, his sister, had perhaps fared best during Nolan’s absence.  That was because in her angst at having to say good bye to him in August, the two of them had made a deal to think about each other every night just before eating dinner.  Carrie did this religiously, sometimes before sitting down to eat, and sometimes right at the table, when she would be the last person to pick up a spoon or fork. For the eight-year-old, it was like the silver thread that kept their souls in contact with each other.  She had also kept up a steady stream of letters to her brother and, as promised, in every letter he sent home to the family, there was a private one for Carrie.  She always went immediately to a private place with these letters, and never spoke about them to anyone, but she was always happy and serene after receiving one.  She kept them safely in a secret place, and there wasn’t a soul in the house beside herself who knew the location of this hiding place.

 

Adam took a deep breath as he waited for a porter to bring the bags.  There was something invigorating about being back in this bustling city where he had attended college.  It was both nostalgic and stimulating.  He was looking forward to seeing the campus again, and also to comparing notes about scholastics with his son.  And then, of course, there was the surprise.  He couldn’t wait to reveal the surprise, but that would come later, and would affect everyone in the family, just as he had planned.

 

Mary Lynn couldn’t stop smiling.  It was so hard to believe that she was at last in the same city as her son!  She kept looking around as though he would walk up to her any moment, when she knew perfectly well that they would be meeting him once they were settled in their hotel.  Every greeting she witnessed between travelers and their friends or families seemed to squeeze her heart.  She would never have guessed that three-and-a-half months would crawl by so slowly.  She remembered days when she looked over at his empty chair at dinner, opening her mouth to say something to him, only to close it mutely when he wasn’t there.  And she had lost count of the number of times she had seen his identical twin brother, Logan, come down the stairs thinking it was Nolan instead.  That had never happened when they were both at home; they were so different in every way except looks.  She sighed.  It wasn’t just her, though.  Everyone on the Ponderosa seemed to be stumbling over the fact that he was gone.  Education is good, she kept telling herself, education is good.  But she could hardly keep her feet still.  In just a few hours she was going to be able to put her hands on her son and squeeze him.  He would no doubt be embarrassed.  So be it.

 

Adam re-appeared at her side.  The porter outside had hailed a hansom cab to take them to the Parker House.  As they left the train station, a chill breeze hit them.  Mary Lynn pulled her wool cloak more tightly around her and adjusted her hat.  Adam handed her into the carriage and tipped the porter.  After speaking with the driver, he sat back and put his arm around his wife, pulling her close to him.

 

“Well, what do you think so far?”  He watched her with a twinkle in his eye.

 

She clutched his jacket.  “Oh, Adam, just think.  We’ll be seeing him so soon now!”

 

He chuckled and bent his head to kiss her warmly.  He still made her stomach thrill when he kissed her, and she was glad the cab was covered.  She moved as close to him as she could get and together they marveled at the city that was Boston, with its multi-storied brick buildings, green lawns, and people moving about everywhere.  It wasn’t Virginia City, that much was certain.  Adam said that he could smell the ocean salt in the breeze.  Mary Lynn could smell a variety of smells, but none of them the ocean.  Then again, Adam had spent a number of years here, so she believed him, but she spent the rest of the ride sniffing the air, to her husband’s amusement.

 

When the cab pulled up to an impressive, giant brick building and stopped under an elegant portico, a uniformed doorman stepped forward to help them down.

 

“Good afternoon, Sir, Madam.  Welcome to the Parker House.”  This greeting was offered with a slight bow and a doff of the man’s high topped hat.

 

Within just a few moments they had been whisked into the lobby of the hotel, efficiently checked in and escorted to their suite on the seventh floor in a brushed brass open grill elevator.  Riding in an elevator was a hobby of sorts for Adam, because although San Francisco and Sacramento buildings had them, Virginia City had just one, at the International House, and he was very interested in how they operated.  Mary Lynn left Adam asking a dozen questions of the white gloved elevator operator while she followed the bell hop to their rooms.

 

The Cartwright suite turned out to be very plush.  There were thick Aubusson carpets in a floral pattern, and a huge bed with large fluffy pillows and a thick crimson comforter.  Large floor-to-ceiling windows let daylight into a well appointed sitting room, and most amazing of all was a full private bathroom with a water closet, sink, and built-in bathtub with running water that was heated by a small gas furnace adjacent to the tub.  The bell hop busied himself unloading bags from a luggage cart while Mary Lynn eyed the tub with delicious thoughts about washing off all the travel grime in the hottest water she could stand.

 

Adam appeared just in time for the bell hop to collect his tip.  As Mary Lynn removed her hat and cape, he moved to one of the windows to observe the city.  It had expanded greatly since he had lived in Boston.  For as far as he could see in any direction there were homes and buildings.  He knew they were a little more than two miles from Harvard, but even so he thought he could see Harvard Square from where he stood. Although many of the trees had already lost their leaves, there were still some that blazed orange and yellow.  He pulled Mary Lynn over to look at the view with him.  She stood in his arms and he rested his chin on her head.  He pointed out where Harvard was and she sighed, knowing that Nolan was almost within reach.

 

She turned in his arms and they kissed again.  She pulled him over to gawk at the bathroom.  He had been studying the best way to bring running water to the Ponderosa.  He turned the knob that brought water flowing into the tub through a faucet, and then started the heater that would take a while to warm the water.

 

“Sweetheart, why don’t you soak in a warm tub?  It’ll feel good after the long trip,” he looked at her with one brow arched wickedly and a growing smile on his face.

 

Her eyes widened suddenly and she began to back up.  “Adam, no.  We don’t have time for this.  Nolan will be here…”

 

“At six-thirty,” he finished for her.  “That gives us almost three hours to take a bath and be ready by the time he gets here.  I’m sure we can manage.”

 

“I have to unpack,” she protested.

 

“I’ll do it for you,” he said.  “Save some water for me.”

 

***

 

Nolan Cartwright was hurrying across campus, head down against the November wind and a stack of books under one arm.  He had one more lecture to attend before he headed into the city to meet his parents for dinner.  Brittle leaves covered the ground everywhere from the oyster shell paths to the expansive lawns.  It was the last day of classes before the Thanksgiving recess, and already the students were beginning to thin out, heading off early for homes on the East Coast.  With half a dozen things on his mind, Nolan was charging headlong toward his last class when he came up against an immoveable force.

 

“Hey Cartwright, take it easy.  Looks like the very devil is on your tail.”  Strong hands grabbed his shoulders and a voice he recognized was chuckling.  He looked up to see his friend, Carter Anderson, whose dormitory room was next to his.

 

“Sorry, Carter.  I wasn’t watching where I was going,” Nolan stopped to take a breath.  “I have one more lecture and then I’m going to meet my parents.  They got in today from Nevada.”

 

Carter whistled.  “I keep forgetting that’s where you come from.  That’s one heck of a train ride.”  He and Nolan had talked at length about Nolan’s home and Carter, who hailed from Connecticut, had a hard time envisioning the desert climate, snow peaked mountains, and wide open spaces.

 

Nolan smiled, and his remarkable resemblance to his father revealed itself, although Carter couldn’t know that.  “It sure is.  It takes days, but it beats a stagecoach any day of the week.  One summer you’ll have to come home with me and I’ll show you a little about cowboy life on a ranch.”

 

Carter, blonde haired and blue eyed, grinned at his dark haired buddy.  “That’d be great.  It would beat a summer of clerking in my father’s law office,” he grimaced.

 

The two friends parted company, agreeing to make sure they said their good byes before Carter left for home in the morning.  They had met at the beginning of the fall term, both overwhelmed freshmen trying to orient themselves to college life.  Having a buddy to learn the ropes with had proved to be a salvation for both of them, and their friendship had grown close since then.

 

Nolan ran up the steps of the science building, scooted down the hall, and slipped into the classroom just as the professor was closing the door.  He slid into a desk, pulled out paper for notes, and sat back, his arm aching from carrying the books all day.  One more hour, he thought, one more hour.

 

***

 

Just before 6:30 that evening, Nolan’s cab pulled up at the Parker House.  The evening had grown distinctly cold and he appreciated the warmth of the lobby as he entered the building.  He presented himself at the front desk and was directed to his parents’ suite on the seventh floor.  As he headed for the elevator, he found himself nervous as well as excited.  What would they expect him to be like now, after almost a term away at school?  His schedule kept him so busy that he hadn’t had time to think too much about their visit, other than to make sure he got himself a good haircut and had his shirts cleaned.  He’d been able to keep his grades up, but attending Harvard required more effort than attending the schoolhouse in Virginia City.  He spent a lot of time studying in his room and in the campus library just to keep up with assignments and exams.  But still, he was keeping his head above water.  He wondered what it had been like for his father.

 

As the elevator reached the seventh floor, the operator opened the door.  Nolan took a deep breath and walked into the hallway. Reaching the correct room, he knocked on the door, which was opened almost immediately and he felt himself pulled directly into his mother’s arms.

 

“Oh, Nolan!  We’ve missed you so much.  Let me look at you,” she stepped back, dabbing at tears in her eyes.  She looked as lovely as ever, wearing a fitted dress of cranberry merino wool with a small train, her blonde hair pinned up into a twist, her cheeks flushed.  She reached out and put her hands on his cheeks.  She smelled good, too.  Just the way he remembered.

 

“Mary Lynn, let the boy come in,” Adam said, leaning comfortably against the wall behind his wife, but smiling at his son over her head.  Once this had been accomplished, Adam pulled his son into a quick bear hug.

 

“It’s good to see you, son.  How are your studies?  From your letters, we gather you’re bearing up well.”

 

Nolan shrugged out of his coat and sat in the chair his father indicated.  His parents sat on a small couch opposite him and both sat smiling at him.

 

He smiled back at them.  They were a sight he had missed seeing the past few months.  “I’m keeping up well.  It’s quite a bit more work than I expected, though.”

 

“That’s what I discovered too when I first got to Harvard, but I found that I got used to the pace.”

 

Nolan made a wry face.  “Sometimes the pace can break your neck!”  This brought a chuckle from his father.  “I’m glad you could both come, though,” he added quickly.  “I think I would have been all alone on Thanksgiving at the rate everyone is leaving campus.”

 

“Well, your mother thought of it, and coming back to Boston sounded good to me,” said Adam, putting his arm around his wife, who was just feasting her eyes on her oldest son.

 

Nolan sat forward.  “Tell me about home.  How is everyone, and what’s going on right now?”

 

“Everyone is just fine, and they all wanted to come along with us,” Adam said.  “They just finished round up and now they’re busy battening down everything for winter.  Logan said to tell you that if you were home he’d put you in a saddle and make a cowboy out of you.  He could use the help right now.”

 

“Are he and Ross still attached at the hip?”  Nolan smiled thinking about his twin and their youngest brother, who were virtually inseparable.

 

“You know they are,” said Mary Lynn, “and Logan is teaching Ross how to shoot.”  She shuddered thinking about it, even though all the Cartwright boys, and some of the girls, had begun learning how to handle guns at a young age.

 

“Mom, you know he’ll be careful,” Nolan said.  He was right, of course.  Gun safety always came first on the Ponderosa.

 

“Hop Sing broke his ankle when he was chopping some wood for the stove, so the Cartwright women are fetching and carrying for him for once.  They’ll all be making Thanksgiving dinner,” Adam paused.  “Actually, I’m glad we’re here and not there right now.  That will be one crazy day in the kitchen.”

 

“I beg your pardon,” Mary Lynn interjected.  “We are a well oiled team in the kitchen, if I do say so myself.  But it will be nice when Hop Sing can get around again,” she finished with a smile.

 

“How’s Grandpa?”

 

“He’s fine.  I think he misses you more than he lets on.  He misses your regular chess games,” Adam said of his father.

 

“I miss him, too.  I’m sure I could find someone here to play chess with, but there’s just no time.  Even my weekends are filled with studies, and it seems that what little free time I have, I sleep!”

 

“You do look a little thinner to me,” his mother said, frowning at him.  “Are you getting enough to eat?”

 

“That’s one area that’s not a problem, Mom.  There’s plenty of food, and it’s pretty good, too.”

 

“Well, I swore I wasn’t going to say anything, but…for what we’re paying in tuition, the food better be good and plentiful,” Adam said, and then mentally kicked himself for making such a typical father remark.  He must be getting old, he thought.

 

“Speaking of food,” Nolan began, “how soon are we having dinner?  It feels like lunch was a long time ago.”

 

“Well, we can go downstairs any time you’re ready,” Mary Lynn said.  “The restaurant here is wonderful.”

 

Nolan was on his feet the next second. His stomach had been growling for the last fifteen minutes.  His father got up and moved to put on a black suit jacket with an Ascot tie which his mother pinned with a stylish gold pin.  Then she stood back looking at the two Cartwright men before her, both looking devilishly handsome in black suits with white shirts and black hair.  They could almost pass for twins themselves.  She always enjoyed going out with Adam and their twin sons because anywhere outside Virginia City they always caused heads to turn.  Most people looked at least twice to make sure they weren’t seeing double or even triple.

 

So it was that with a handsome man on each arm, Mary Lynn and her family were escorted to a table in the restaurant of the Parker House.  It was a very fine restaurant, and as they selected their food and wine they were treated to a wonderful evening.  There was even live music provided by a talented harpist.  Nolan felt as though he was being cocooned in his parents’ warmth and acceptance.  He felt as though he was relaxing for the first time since he had arrived in Boston.  The restaurant wasn’t crowded the evening before Thanksgiving, so they lingered and talked about many subjects, but mostly family.  Nolan wanted to know something about everyone at home, and when he was satisfied in that area, he turned to the animals.

 

“How’s Pegasus doing?  Does he miss me?  Is someone exercising him for me?”  He was referring to his beloved horse.

 

“He’s just fine, son,” Adam assured him.  “Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this, but I’m not sure he’s had time to miss you.  Logan, Eli and Eric are doing an excellent job of keeping him exercised and entertained.”

 

“Good,” Nolan let out a sigh and sat back as triple layer chocolate cake was set before him.  He was going to be stuffed, but he loved chocolate too much to let this pass by.

 

“Ooh, that looks divine,” said Mary Lynn, who had foregone cake for tea.  But she reached over with a fork nevertheless and tried a small bite.  “It is divine.  Hop Sing would be envious.  Try some, Adam.”  In the end, they all ended up sharing the delectable dessert.  Nolan was happy; it felt so good to be with his parents. It was almost like being at home again.

 

When the last crumb of cake was gone, as well as the last drops of wine and tea, the Cartwrights made their way back to the seventh floor.  Adam had asked at the desk for a chessboard, which had been delivered to the suite, and he and Nolan began a game together.  Mary Lynn curled up in a chair and just watched happily.  Her mind wandered back to her first days on the Ponderosa after she and Adam had just met after seeking refuge together for a week during a late spring blizzard.  Once they had been able to travel safely back to the ranch, she remembered sitting in the great room of the ranch, by the huge stone fireplace, watching Joe and Hoss play checkers together.  Joe had been cheating shamelessly on Hoss, who was losing badly.  From her vantage point, however, she had quickly figured out Joe’s mischievous strategy.  She chuckled to herself remembering.  She had tried to keep from laughing even then, but it was hard.  Joe was being so obvious and Hoss finally gave up. Then it was her turn to play checkers with Joe, and things didn’t go as smoothly for him, to his discontent.  She loved them both dearly, she thought.  It had been the beginning of a wonderful life with the Cartwrights.  She had probably been pregnant even then with Nolan and Logan.  She blushed thinking about it.  She was sure she had fallen in love with Adam the very first time she saw him, almost frozen to death from riding for hours in the snowstorm.  He had always taken her breath away, and he still did.  She blushed again, thinking about that afternoon and the wonderful, heated hotel bathtub.  She sighed.

 

Adam looked over at her.  “Are you getting tired, sweetheart?”  Then he winked at her.  He winked!  Sometimes she thought he only ever had one thing on his mind.  Shame on him.  He was acting just like a man.

 

She smiled at him coyly.  “No, just reminiscing, that’s all.”  He had already turned back to the game, but there was a satisfied smile on his face.

 

The chess game concluded with a victory for Nolan, but a rematch resulted in a win for Adam.  Nolan stood and declared that it was time for him to get back to campus.

 

“Would you like us to ride with you, son?  I’d like to see your room,” Adam said.

 

“No, I’ll be fine, Dad, but why don’t you both come out tomorrow before dinner and you can see my room and walk around campus a little?”

 

“Sounds good.  How about eleven?”

 

“That’s fine.  Bundle up, though.  It could be mild, but you never know.  You felt how chilly it was today,” Nolan advised.  He then hugged and kissed his mother and shook hands with his father before heading back to his room on campus.  Adam gave him some extra money for a cab.  As the door closed behind him, Mary Lynn came up to hug her husband.  She put her head on his shoulder.

 

“Seeing him again was like a tonic.  I’ve missed him so much!”

 

“He’s a boy to be proud of.  We’ve been blessed, Mary Lynn, we really have.”

 

She looked up at him.  “We’ve been blessed many times over,” she smoothed his hair with both hands and caressed his face.  He took her hand and kissed it.

 

“Let’s hurry and test that great big bed,” he suggested with a smirk, pulling her toward it.

 

“Adam, I believe it’s time for sleep now,” she scolded.

 

“We’ll see, we’ll see,” he said as he began to pull off his tie and unbutton his shirt.


Chapter 2

The next morning they slept late and woke up at 9:15 to the unfamiliar sounds of a busy city seven floors below.  Mary Lynn stretched and slipped out of bed to pull the curtains aside at one of the windows to look down at the busy downtown.  Adam came up behind her and put his arms around her, kissing her neck.

 

“Adam, look.  Today is Thanksgiving and even still, there’s all that traffic in the street and all those people who are out and about.  And the sounds!  I’m surprised we even slept through all the street noise.”  She leaned back against him.

 

“Don’t forget that Boston had a head start on Virginia City.  About 100 years, in fact.  The whole east coast was settled well before the rest of the country.”

 

“I think I like the quiet of the Ponderosa better,” she murmured, holding onto his arms around her.

 

“Me too, even with all those kids and horses and cattle underfoot everywhere.”

 

She laughed and turned to face him, discovering that he had not bothered to wear his nightshirt during the night.

 

“Adam!  Go get dressed.  This is Thanksgiving.”

 

“What?  No one can see me, except you, and you know what I look like.  The turkeys aren’t going to care.  They’ve already been sacrificed for our dinner.  Care for a bath?”  He was obviously in a good mood.

 

She put her hands on her hips.  “Go get dressed.  We’ll be late to meet Nolan, and I’d like to get some coffee downstairs before we leave.”

 

“Oh, all right,” he turned and headed for the bathroom like a disappointed kid who’d lost his balloon.

 

Thirty minutes later they found themselves back in the restaurant where they had dined the evening before, sipping coffee and nibbling on pastries, mindful not to overeat due to the feasting that would occur late that afternoon. After only a short time, Adam said they should hire a cab to take them to Harvard Square.  They finished their coffee and made their way to the front entrance where the uniformed doorman hailed them another hansom cab.  The day was cool and breezy with a weak sun showing now and then between scudding clouds.  The ride to campus took about 25 minutes.  Adam told the driver the name of Nolan’s dormitory building and they were dropped off within easy walking distance of it.

 

Soon they found themselves knocking on their son’s door, and he opened it immediately.  It was actually a little roomier than Adam remembered.  It had the requisite bed and desk, but there was also a small sitting area, two bookcases and a fireplace.  Nolan had books open on the desk as well as several sheets of paper he had written on from top to bottom.  There was a small paned window that overlooked a brick pathway and courtyard with benches, a grass lawn and several large trees.

 

“Are you comfortable here, son?”  Adam watched his son carefully.  He remembered that it had taken him a while to get used to living in one room after living for many years on the Ponderosa.

 

“I am now,” Nolan replied.  “My friend, Carter Anderson, has the room next door and often I’m there or he’s here, so that expands the space a little, or at least it feels like it does.”

 

“Ah yes, Carter Anderson.  You wrote about him in a couple of your letters,” Mary Lynn commented.

 

“Unfortunately he’s already gone home to Connecticut, or I would introduce you.  He’s the closest friend I have here.  We both met just after we arrived, and things were a little overwhelming.  It helped to have someone to work it all out with.  He loves hearing about the Ponderosa, and I told him I’d like to bring him home with me one summer.”

 

“Absolutely.  Whenever you want to,” Adam said, and then moved over to one corner where a guitar stood.  “So you bought one,” he said, picking it up to admire.

 

Nolan smiled.  “Yes.  About two weeks after I got here.  My fingers were getting itchy.”

 

Everyone laughed at that since Nolan had grown up playing the guitar with his father.  Since he couldn’t take his own with him when he left for school, one of his going away gifts had been enough money to buy himself a new one once he got to Boston.

 

Adam put his foot up on the desk chair and began softly strumming the strings, humming in a low baritone.  “It’s got good tone.  You chose a good one, Nolan.  And the inlaid wood is very nice.”

 

“Carter went with me when I bought it.  Sometimes a few of the other guys come in when I’m playing.  Some of them sing along, others just listen.  It’s a good way to relax for a while when I need to take a break from reading.”

 

Mary Lynn took her son’s arm.  “Let’s go outside so you can show us a little of the campus.  I want to have a picture in my mind of where you spend your days.”

 

They spent the next hour and a half strolling around the campus, with Nolan showing them where his classes were, and entertaining them with stories about his professors and some of their eccentricities.  After making their way back to Nolan’s dormitory, they were all chilled and also getting hungry.  Adam suggested they make their way back to the Parker House to be ready and waiting when dinner was served.  He got no argument from anyone because both his wife and son had been hoping that would be the plan.

 

***

 

Several hours later they sat back at their table in the Parker House restaurant, full and sated. They had laughed and enjoyed each other’s company, mostly talking about the family, and picturing them sitting down to their dinner thousands of miles away in Nevada.  That had been bittersweet and nostalgic, but the meal had been outstanding.  They all agreed they would never tell Hop Sing how much they enjoyed it.  In addition to roast turkey, there was roast goose, prime rib of beef, veal, stuffing, mashed potatoes with gravy, sweet potatoes, glazed carrots, green beans with onions, every type of cheese that Nolan had ever heard of and some that he hadn’t, wild rice with celery and onions, smoked herring in cream sauce, corn, asparagus, delicious she-crab soup and some delicious buttery rolls that had been created by the Parker House’s own chefs.  Nolan kept eating them; they were warm and melted in his mouth.  Heavenly.  And of course, there was nearly every type of dessert one could imagine, from traditional pumpkin and mincemeat pies to cakes, ice cream and puddings.  Anyone who left that restaurant hungry that Thanksgiving day had only himself to blame, Adam said.  They had toasted with champagne at the beginning, had sipped wine with dinner, and were now just finishing up coffee.  Nolan was feeling his eyelids get heavy.  A nap would certainly be divine just then, he thought.

 

“Nolan, I’ve got something to tell you,” Adam said seriously, looking up from his cup of coffee.

 

Nolan looked up too, as did Mary Lynn since she had no idea what Adam had to say to their son.

 

Nolan watched his father carefully.  The last time he had made an announcement like that a new baby was on the way.  He was pretty sure that wasn’t the case now; there hadn’t been a new baby for a number of years.  Adam was smiling, and Mary Lynn was looking back and forth between her husband and son with raised eyebrows.

 

“You know that we’re spending a week here in Boston before we head back,” Adam began.

 

Nolan nodded, aware of his parents’ travel plans.

 

“Well, it took some arranging, but when we leave for Nevada, you’re coming with us,” his father told him, taking his time about letting the secret out.

 

Nolan sat up straight and was aware that his mother did the same thing.  “Coming with you?  The term doesn’t end until just before Christmas.  Am I leaving Harvard?”  He was beginning to feel alarmed and he knew he was frowning.

 

“Adam, I don’t know what…?” Mary Lynn started and then stopped when she saw Adam smile.

 

“I talked with the school officials and with your professors, and they agreed that you could come home with us around December 1 and return to Boston right after New Year’s for the new term.  I even have your assignments so you can keep up while you’re at home.”

 

Nolan hadn’t said anything; he was still trying to digest his father’s news.  Was he suggesting that his son wasn’t handling college very well and needed to come home?  If so, then this wasn’t very good news.  But his father was smiling at him.

 

“I don’t really understand.  I mean, it’s a long way to go…” he drifted off.

 

“Yes, but it’s also a long time to stay here alone over Christmas if you stay until the end of the term,” his father said.  “This way, you get to come home for a month, we get to see more of you, and everyone on the Ponderosa will get one of the best Christmas surprises they’ve ever had.  I wrote to your professors in October about this idea.  There aren’t many students here who come from as far away as you do.  They realized how much we would all benefit from having you home with us a little longer, and they said even then that you are an excellent student and would be able to keep up with your scholastic work.  And you’ll be back in Boston to start the next term on time.”  Adam sat back and looked at his son as if he had just handed him a sack of gold.

 

“Adam, I had no idea you were planning this!”  Mary Lynn’s hands were clasped together.  She knew how much the entire Cartwright family had missed this young man.

 

Adam was still smiling.  “I know that.  I wanted it to be a surprise for everyone.”

 

As the plan began to sink in, a slow smile began to spread across Nolan’s face.  If he stayed at school until Christmas, there wouldn’t be enough time to go home and get back again in time for the new term in January.  His father had thought the whole thing through carefully.  This really was a surprise.  He and his mother were receiving it now, and the rest of the family would receive it when they got off the stage in Virginia City.

 

“I haven’t let myself think about it, but I’ve really missed the Ponderosa.  I didn’t think I’d see it again until summer,” he said.  “Thanks, Dad.  This is a great surprise.  I can’t wait to see everyone,” as the excitement continued to build, Nolan lifted his champagne glass and he and his parents toasted family and Thanksgiving and surprises and Christmas, all at once.

 

Early in the morning five days later, Nolan and his parents boarded the train headed west for the trip home.  Nolan had attended a couple of days of classes, had introduced his parents to his professors, and also to an envious Carter Anderson.  He had hurriedly packed one suitcase knowing he had plenty of clothes at home.  He was more selective about the books he brought with him, and based them on the list of assignments he had to complete by the beginning of January.

 

They settled into their seats and the train began to roll.  For the first thirty minutes or so Nolan watched the passing landscape, but finally sighed and reached into his book bag.  Looking at his parents seated across from him, he explained that he might as well spend the confined travel time doing his assignments inasmuch as he knew without a doubt that once he reached the Ponderosa he wouldn’t want to be cooped up behind a closed door studying.  He was going to spend that time in a much different way.  They both nodded in agreement.  They knew what his homecoming and visit would be like, and it was an excellent idea to get as much work out of the way now as possible.

 

As the hours passed, Massachusetts rolled by and became New York, then hilly Pennsylvania, a stop in Cincinnati by Lake Erie, and then onto Chicago which had risen in majesty from its great fire in 1871.  The Cartwrights knew that rail travel from Boston to Chicago was well equipped with full service dining cars, which they made use of.  Past Chicago, however, passengers were lucky to buy a sandwich and an apple from a railroad employee passing through the cars with a food basket.  Many passengers boarded with their own food.  The further west the train traveled, the less reliable the food sources were.  But Adam knew which stops had sufficient time that he could hurry into the nearby town to pick up food to take back to the train.  Such was a stop in Council Bluffs, Iowa and Lincoln, Nebraska.  These were the flat plains of the United States, and the crops had been harvested for the season, leaving only the vastness of the land for as far as the eye could see.  They were following the Platte River now, and growing weary.  They were all ready to be home in just one more day.  Nolan thought that if he had to read another page in another textbook he would be just as happy to fling the book out the window.  He had managed to write some essays despite the movement of the train.  He knew he would have to recopy them, but at least the hard part was done.

 

During the last 24 hours of the trip, the train crossed the Rocky Mountains at the Great Divide Basin in Wyoming and then cut through northern Utah on its way to Nevada.  They passed Promontory, Utah, the place where the historic golden spike had been driven when the Central Pacific Railroad, building east from Sacramento, met the Union Pacific Railroad which had built the transcontinental railroad west from Omaha.  By the time the train pulled into Reno on the fifth day after leaving Boston, everyone was dusty and cranky.  Nolan had been napping, his head nodding, when his mother had shaken his shoulder.  They were in Reno.  Almost home.

 

Nolan could feel his bones creak when he stood up.  He felt as though he had been folded up in the seat for the past five days.  His father had already left to make sure all their baggage was taken off the train.  It was early afternoon, and they would still be able to catch a stagecoach to Virginia City yet that day.  Adam had wired ahead at a recent stop to let the family know exactly when they would be arriving in Virginia City.  Logan would be picking up his parents, Mary Lynn told Nolan, whose eyes sparkled at the thought of seeing his twin.  It would be fun to see the surprise on his face when they saw each other.

 

The stage wasn’t due to leave for another hour, and wasn’t even in town yet, but there was a nearby café where the three Cartwrights went to have some food and wait.  The café was busy.  Adam was able to find a table in the back of the café and the three of them dropped into chairs.  They were hungry and ready for a hot meal.  It wouldn’t be a Hop Sing meal, but they were almost close enough that they could smell Hop Sing’s cooking.  If Hoss had been with them, he would have been able to manage it. That thought made them chuckle while they waited for hot stew and fresh bread.

 

*** 

 

At last they were on the stage and rolling steadily toward Virginia City.  There were two other passengers in the coach, so the seating was a little tight.  The sights were familiar now and conversation was limited beyond the initial pleasantries exchanged with the two other passengers.  They were just waiting to reach home now.  When the stage finally turned down Virginia City’s main street, Nolan could see his mother mouth ‘thank heaven’ as she brushed dust off her traveling suit and retied her hat strings.  When the wooden block of stairs was set in place underneath the door, the driver opened it to let everyone out.  Adam indicated that the other passengers should disembark first.  He had already seen Logan waiting for them and had waved an arm out the window.  He turned and winked at Nolan, who winked back.  He was more than ready to be done traveling and to see the rest of the family again.

 


Chapter 3

Adam stepped down first and turned to help his wife out.  Nolan heard them greet Logan and heard his brother ask after him.  Then he saw his father gesture into the coach and tell Logan to see for himself.  The next thing to happen was Logan’s head and shoulders popping into the stage, and his look of astonishment at seeing his brother.  He let loose a whoop and hauled Nolan out bodily, followed by a bear hug and each brother slapping the other’s back.

 

“What are you doing here?”  Logan held him at arm’s length.  “They didn’t kick you out, did they?”  He sounded incredulous.

 

“No, they didn’t, and even I’m surprised that I’m here.  It’s Dad’s Christmas surprise for all of us.  I get to stay for almost a month.”

 

Logan whooped again and grinned at his parents who were enjoying watching the reunion.

 

Nolan draped an arm around his twin.  “Have I changed?”  He looked at his parents for a comparison.

 

“No,” answered Adam with a smile, “the genes are still in place.  Other than your clothes, you two are like a mirror hanging on the wall.”  At his son’s slightly crestfallen look, Adam hastened to add, “Your brain cells may be expanded as a result of your studiousness, but on the outside you’re both the same.”

 

There was a high pitched squeal and the sound of footsteps running on the wooden walkway.

 

“I forgot to mention that Elizabeth…” Logan began, but decided to abandon his explanation as his sister hurtled into the family group and attached herself around Nolan’s neck.

 

“What are you doing here?!”  And with that Nolan squeezed her and realized that he would spend the rest of the day explaining his presence to dozens of people.  Elizabeth broke away and wiped tears from her cheeks, looking from her brothers to her parents and back again.  “I had no idea, I mean, we didn’t know…Daddy, you knew about this, didn’t you!”  She sounded like an outsider who had just figured out the punch line that everyone else already knew, but then she smiled and hugged her brother again.

 

Adam smiled fondly at his daughter and pulled his wife against him.  This was going to be as much fun to watch as he had hoped.  They were beginning to attract a crowd, primarily due to the decibel level of Elizabeth’s voice, but the citizens of Virginia City always enjoyed seeing Adam Cartwright’s children because there was such a strong family resemblance among them, even if they didn’t happen to be identical twins.

 

Nolan was shaking hands with friends from town as he asked his brother, “Did you bring anyone else to town with you?”  Logan shook his head as he began hefting bags over to the wagon he had brought into town.  His father joined him, and they spent a few minutes figuring out where everything would fit inasmuch as Logan had already loaded the wagon with supplies that Uncle Hoss had ordered.

 

They were on their way home to the Ponderosa just in time to be there for dinner, with Adam driving, and the twins riding in the back, sitting on supply boxes.  Nolan was taking in the scenery as though he was seeing it for the first time.  He thought briefly about the commons area at Harvard and it seemed worlds away from this “wild west” setting.  Soon, however, he and his brother were busy comparing notes about changes at the ranch, with Elizabeth taking an active role as she turned and practically hung over the back seat of the buck board.  Mary Lynn smiled as she sat back and thought about how the noise level would multiply as soon as they reached the ranch.

 

Although they said nothing when they arrived home, the family radar was in good working order as the entire Cartwright family spilled outside to greet Nolan as if he were the prodigal son. Even Hop Sing hobbled out on his casted ankle to join the group as the young man was propelled from hug to hug like a spinning top.  He mussed the hair of the littler ones, but some he grabbed, like Marianne, the littlest.  She wound up being pressed in the middle of hugs, but she loved the gaiety of it and she knew she was safe in her brother’s arms.  Carrie flew at him much as Elizabeth had done in town, almost knocking him over, although he was surrounded by plenty of people to keep him upright.  He bent over and gave her a special kiss.  Soon he also had his brother Ross in his other arm and his aunts and uncles had to maneuver around the little ones to reach him.  Adam stood off to the side with Mary Lynn, enjoying the sight of his whole family together again.  Elizabeth took Marianne and Logan took Ross so Nolan had free arms to wrap around his Grandpa Ben in a bear hug.  They beamed at each other, promising to engage in as many chess games as they could, and then Ben went to wring out of Adam how he had managed to arrange and keep this wonderful secret.

 

Soon even some of the ranch hands were coming over to greet the young college student, and Hop Sing began to complain that if he known this was a special day, he would have planned a better dinner.  Everyone was talking at once, and the younger boys were hopping about with excitement.  They were all realizing that Nolan would be home for Christmas and that meant it would be a perfect celebration instead of a day when they all pretended it was perfect, but something important was missing.

 

One of the hands took charge of the wagon and began to unload it after removing the luggage and putting it inside the house.  Slowly, the family began drifting back into the house.  It was dinnertime, but the travelers wanted to wash up and change clothes before they ate.  Mary Lynn held Adam’s arm as they followed their family inside.

 

“When I look at those two boys of ours, it’s almost like seeing you for the first time.”

 

Adam smiled.  “They do look like me, don’t they?”  He squeezed her arm.

 

“They didn’t get so much as a freckle from me,” she laughed.

 

“Maybe not physically, but some of their finer qualities are definitely attributable to you,” he assured her gallantly, finishing the same conversation they had had at least a thousand times. It wasn’t as if Joe or Hoss didn’t have children who strongly resembled them; they did, both physically and characteristically.  But the fact that Adam’s two oldest were identical twins seemed to set them apart for distinction.

 

When the family was at last gathered around the dinner table, Ben said a special grace expressing the joy of having Nolan home again for the Christmas season.  There was a lot of chatter about what Nolan’s life was like in Boston.  The younger children, who didn’t really have a concept of what college was, gazed wonderingly at their cousin/brother as though he had returned from another planet.  The older children had a sense of reverence for the fact that he had gone to live so far away for the purpose of education.  The adults wanted to hear about Harvard and each class Nolan was taking.  There were lots of questions about Boston, too, since the biggest cities they were familiar with were Sacramento and San Francisco.  Even Hop Sing lingered at the table to hear the answers to the continuous questions.

 

The family stayed at the table well past the dinner hour until the younger children grew tired or bored.  Eventually they moved, as usual, to the great room by the big fire.  Nolan found himself functioning as a hat tree for as many of the youngsters who could fit on his lap or the arms of his chair.  He himself would have loved to make a quick trip to the stables to see how his horse, Pegasus, was doing.  One thing he knew was that the following day they would be taking a long ride together.  Conversation slowly turned to different topics.  The men were discussing the family businesses and the women were planning the annual Ponderosa Christmas party.  The older girls were discussing two things: young men and the dresses they would wear to the Christmas party.

 

A tug on Nolan’s sleeve made him look down, expecting another question from a child.  He was surprised to see his twin lounging on the floor next to his chair.

 

“Want to ride into town for a beer?”  Logan asked.

 

Nolan hesitated.  He was tempted because he’d not only be able to spend time with his brother but ride Pegasus too.  However, he was also dead tired.  Finally he answered, “I’d like to, but I’m bushed.  Tomorrow?”  Logan smiled and nodded, squeezing his brother’s shoulder.

 

“Hey, do I even have a bed to sleep in?” Nolan addressed Logan, but was looking down at Ross, who was nodding off on his lap.  “I’ll bet anything this little rug rat appropriated my bed the first night I was gone.”

 

“Yeah, that sorta did happen just like you said, but he can sleep with Eli and Hunter.  Eli will be able to handle him if he fusses.  If you wait just a few more minutes, he’ll be out cold anyway, and I’ll just take him upstairs,” Logan replied.  He gestured to Eli, who made his way over, careful not to step on any siblings or cousins in the process.  Hearing that Nolan would like to sleep in his own bed, Eli understood immediately.  He assured his brothers that he would take care of Ross during the nights Nolan was home.  Logan gave him a thumbs-up, which Eli returned.  At 15, he was growing up nicely.  He wasn’t a dead-on look-alike for his father as much as his older brothers were, but there was enough of a resemblance that people sometimes had to look hard to tell if they were addressing Eli or the older twins, especially now that Eli’s height had recently shot up.

 

It wasn’t too long before the adults began shepherding their children off to bed.  It was a weekday, after all, and there was work and school the next day.  Elizabeth came over and took Marianne from Nolan, and Eli got the sleeping Ross.  Carrie came over and squeezed Nolan all over again before heading toward the stairs.  As she passed her parents, Adam reached out a hand and grabbed her blonde braid.

 

“What’s this?  No hug for me, Miss Caroline?”  He pulled her back into his lap and kissed her cheek, tickling her with his beard stubble.  She giggled, putting her arms around his neck and kissed him.  Then she put her head on his shoulder.

 

“Take me upstairs, Daddy.”  She used a wheedling voice she well knew always worked on her father.

 

Adam groaned and complained, but he stood up and headed for the stairs while she hung onto him like a monkey with an ear-to-ear grin.  Nolan waved goodnight to her.  He looked at his mother and grandfather.

 

“It’s good to be home,” he said quietly.  “There are so many things I want to do.”

 

“Well, why don’t we start with a good game of chess right now,” Ben suggested.  He had missed playing lively games with his oldest grandson, and he was pleased to see him get up and head for the chess table.

 

Mary Lynn yawned and headed upstairs, and Logan followed behind her.  Ben and Nolan had the whole downstairs to themselves.  Without saying a word, Ben poured two glasses of brandy.  This was a first for Nolan, so he was taken aback to see the glass set before him as he was setting up the chess pieces.  He looked up quickly at his grandfather, surprise showing on his face.

 

“Don’t tell anyone,” Ben said, “but I think it’s safe to do this now,” and he winked at Nolan.

 

The game wasn’t a long one, and Ben won it.  Nolan couldn’t help stifle yawns and his fatigue, along with the brandy, didn’t make him the best strategist.  Ben chuckled, sitting back to gaze at the young man fondly.

 

“You remind me so much of your father.  How I remember his college days in Boston.  We missed him like fire, but it was a great experience for him.  We didn’t think we’d see you until summer, but I’m glad you’ll be here for Christmas.  Travel sure is a lot easier now than it was for your father.  The transcontinental railroad has made it possible to make a formerly months-long trip in just days now.  It’s incredible to me, when I think of the long wagon trip we made from the east out here.”

 

Nolan had heard the story many times, but it was one he never tired of.  His father had been a young boy, Hoss had been born on that trip, and sadly, his mother had been killed in an Indian attack.  He knew that his father had taken on some very grown up duties very quickly from that point on.  His father had known three mothers, and each one had died.  What tragedy for his grandfather to bear, he thought.

 

“Grandpa, did you ever think you’d have this houseful of people back then?”

 

Ben laughed out loud.  “You can bet I didn’t.  Who would have guessed that a father and his three sons would turn into a houseful of 24 people?  But I can tell you I have loved every minute of it, and every one of you, too.”

 

“I love it too, Grandpa.  I’m really glad to be back here.  I missed everyone.  But I like school, too,” he hastened to add.  Then he yawned again and knew it was time to turn in.  “Thanks for the brandy.  I won’t tell anyone.”  As he headed upstairs he left his grandfather reminiscing in his red leather chair with his pipe, watching the fire and smiling.

 

***

 

The following day brought a happy reunion between Nolan and his horse, Pegasus.  He was in the barn right after breakfast with an apple and sugar cubes just in case the horse didn’t recall him.  He went directly to his stall and began talking to him, rubbing his nose.  Pegasus whinnied and nodded his head up and down, stamping the floor with one foot.  He remembered Nolan all right.  His brothers and cousins had been taking good care of the horse, but Nolan took the time right then to groom him from head to toe, having a good long conversation the whole time.  Once he was saddled, Nolan led him to the yard outside the stable.  He knew that Logan and Eric were busy with ranch projects, although Logan probably would have abandoned his to ride with his brother.  With a flash of inspiration, Nolan tethered Pegasus at the hitching post and went back into the house, calling for Elizabeth as he went.  He found her in the kitchen with his mother and aunts.  They were planning party menus, heads bent together.  He felt awkward when they all stopped what they were doing to look at him.

 

“I was going to ask Little Bit to ride with me, but I can see you’re all busy…” he trailed off, starting to back toward the door.

 

Elizabeth’s head came up and her eyes sparkled.  She gave her mother a questioning look and was rewarded with a quick smiled and one word, “Go.”  She flashed a bright smile and grabbed her brother’s arm as they left the kitchen.  She asked for five minutes to run upstairs to change into her riding habit and asked her brother to saddle her horse.

 

Minutes later they were riding side by side down the road away from the house.  The weather was cold—it was December after all, but they were dressed for it.  There had been no snowfall as yet, but that could change any day now.  Nolan was itching to let Pegasus have free rein and Elizabeth knew it.  She could sense his excitement.  Her horse, Trixie, was a good runner but would never beat Pegasus in a race, or Logan and Rocket either, for that matter.  The boys could race each other; she and Trixie would follow discreetly behind.  When they reached one of the Ponderosa pastures, Nolan looked at his sister and she gestured for him to take off.  He gave her a grateful look as he bolted off with Pegasus.  She urged Trixie into a run and they galloped off behind the “boys.”  Trixie would stay the course and keep a steady pace, and Elizabeth was perfectly comfortable keeping body and soul together at a more sedate pace than breakneck speed.

 

Her brother stopped about two miles later, feeling exhilarated and rubbing Pegasus’ neck.  He saw his sister coming up a little way behind him.

 

“Good boy, Peg,” he said to the horse.  He felt good, this felt good.  He was home.  It was his place, his people.  He belonged.  Elizabeth was laughing when she reached him.

 

“Did you get it out of your system?”

 

Nolan laughed too.  “A lot of it, yes.  I really missed riding Peg.”

 

The sun was out and it felt good, dissipating some of the chill in the air.  They rode together talking for some time, letting the horses graze as they wished.  Elizabeth talked a lot about doings in town and Christmas.  They spent some time discussing gifts, since Nolan needed to hurry with his shopping.  He had not had the time to think about it while he was at school.  His sister gave him a few welcome suggestions, and then Nolan slid a glance over at her.

 

“And how is James?”

 

“James?”

 

“Yes, James.  You remember, your fella.  How is he?”  He was smiling at her coyness and he watched her turn pink.  She had been seeing James Fenway for over a year, ever since he’d graduated law school and joined his father in practice in Virginia City.

 

She cleared her throat.  “He’s fine.  He’s so busy I don’t see him as much as I’d like to.”

 

“He coming to the Christmas party?”

 

“Oh, I hope so!”  And she reddened more.

 

“Well, that’s good,” he said mildly, “just checking.”

 

“Oh, you!” She pretended to fume and turned Trixie on a dime, racing away from him, knowing full well he would beat her home.

 

***

 

At the end of Nolan’s first week home it was time to begin decorating the house for Christmas, which was a lot more work than it sounded like.  There was the tree to cut, of course, and pine garlands for the staircase and the outside of the house.  And bows.  Big red bows that punctuated the greenery outside and in.  The ladies always took care of the bows.  Then there was decorating the tree, and that was a family event attended by punch and gingerbread.  The weather had cooperated by covering the Ponderosa with six inches of heavy snow, which meant the sleigh could be brought out for the tree and garland hunt.  The sleigh only held six—and that was if everyone held their breath, but it was still fun to hear the sleigh bells jingle as the coach on rails made its way across the snow.  Generally the younger children rode in the sleigh and the others took their horses.  The older boys were responsible for finding and cutting down the tree.  That included Nolan, Logan, Eli, Eric, and young Ben.  Uncle Joe had started calling young Ben “Ben-too” after a young man he had befriended years ago, Charlie-too.  Charlie-too had been sworn to kill Joe’s father after his own father had died.  Joe had never been sure whether Charlie’s name was Charlie-too or Charlie-two, but it didn’t make much difference, and Ben-too didn’t seem to object to the appendage.

 

Elizabeth, Susannah and Isabel supervised the bough cutting to make the garlands.  They were attended by Gunner, Hunter and Little Joe (formerly Joey until he had insisted that it be discontinued).  Some of the family wondered why he wasn’t called Joe-too, but they didn’t make an issue of it.  The boys were slightly disdainful of their chore; they would rather be part of the tree party with the older boys. It had more panache.  They resented having to do whatever the girls told them to do, and all it involved was clipping off boughs, and anyone could do that, even a girl. To increase the responsibility level of the task, they regulated how many boughs could be taken from a single tree, and a few trees had to be left intact  in between before another could be cut upon.  This preserved the overall look of the forest.  The girls didn’t argue since they understood the family’s view about conserving the trees.

 

On this day Sarah, Marianne and Ross were riding in the sleigh, along with Carrie, James and Jon, who was driving it.  It was the most fun of all to ride in the sleigh, because all you had to do was keep warm under the blankets and be excited about Christmas.  Cutting the tree was real work, and gathering the boughs was downright tedious because so many were required.  The sleigh could also go back home whenever its occupants tired or got too cold, although they usually departed after the cutting of the tree.  The poor bough cutting party was always the last to finish, and they were generally annoyed with each other by the time they got home.  Worse yet, the boughs still had to be wired together before they became garlands, but the adults helped with that part, thankfully.  Hop Sing made sure there were warm cookies and hot chocolate at the ready as soon as the bough cutters came through the door.

 

When the bough party did arrive, they found Hoss and Logan on ladders holding the huge tree upright, with Eli and Ben-too on the staircase assisting while Adam, Nolan and Eric were on the floor under the tree fitting it into its sturdy, six-footed wooden base.  Mary Lynn, Erin and Amy stood watching from the dining room to get a perspective on the tree.  They agreed it had a beautiful shape, but wondered if it shouldn’t have been taller.

 

“No, this is the right height,” Hoss told them.  “Any higher and it could tip.”

 

“As it is, this one may be too big.  I think we need to shave more off the trunk to get it to fit,” Adam muttered from under the tree.

 

Joe was standing nearby with the necessary tools and soon he was at work narrowing the base of the tree.  As it was being refit into the stand, James gathered up the shavings and threw them into the fireplace, where they snapped as they hit the flames.

 

“How is that looking? My arm hurts from holding this thing,” Logan complained from his post on the ladder.  His Uncle Hoss shot him a look.

 

“Don’t let go yet.  Helpin’ with the tree builds character.”

 

“I thought my character was finished and you were working on Hunter and James and Ross now.”

 

Hoss rolled his eyes and Mary Lynn suppressed a smile when Erin nudged her.

 

Ross shot up from where he was sitting and dashed toward Logan.  “I’ll help ya by holding the ladder.  You’ll feel better.”  He braced his feet apart and gripped the ladder firmly.

 

Logan feigned a grimace.  “Thanks, brother.  I think I can hold on a while longer now.”

 

By then everyone in the room was rolling their eyes, but Ross was grinning from ear to ear.

 

Under the tree, Nolan was grinning too.  He wouldn’t be anyplace else in the world right now except this room with these people. For a moment Adam took his eye off the tree trunk and met his son’s eyes.  They smiled at each other, each feeling the same warmth.

 

“Thanks, Dad,” Nolan said quietly.

 

“You’re welcome, son,” Adam replied.


Chapter 4

Once the tree was judged to be properly secured, work was started on wiring the boughs together.  That required many hands, almost like a quilting bee.  Everyone but the youngest children was put to work on it.  Aunt Amy was supervising garland construction this year.  She had a wire cutting station set up and three teams of assemblers.  Mary Lynn and Erin selected the boughs and distributed them to each team.

 

Logan was helping Ross tie the wire securing two boughs together.  Ross complained that the pine needles were sticking him.  Logan explained that not only did needle sticks build character, but that it was also one way Santa knew how much a person cared about Christmas.  As the adults stopped to stare at his announcement, he looked up and gave them a self-satisfied smirk.  Adam recognized it as his own and burst out laughing.  Mary Lynn tried to hush him, whispering that it would only encourage their son, but he told her it was way too late for that.

 

The bow committee had been busy while the tree cutters and bough gatherers were out hunting, and the dining room table was piled with perfect wide, red bows with long tails.  Dinner time was nearing, and Hop Sing asked where the safest place was to move them to.  Erin laughed and told him there was no such place in the house, but she undertook the task of moving them so the table could be set for dinner.  Later Hoss would find them scattered throughout their bedroom.

 

As they ate dinner, they discussed the next day’s event, decorating the tree.  It was standing sturdy and proud next to the staircase, but it was bare, and there were boxes and boxes of ornaments that had been collected over the years.  The following day was Sunday, and after church and lunch the decorating would begin.  A team of the men would be working on the outside garlands, but most everyone else would be gilding the tree.  Ladders would be in place so that all the decorations didn’t wind up on the lower third of the tree where most of the family could reach.

 

After dinner as the adults retired to the great room for their coffee, Logan, Eric and Nolan  decided to head into Virginia City to have a beer.  Nolan had never taken his brother up on his earlier offer, and tonight was a good time.  A lot of people would be in town and they would likely run across friends.  Eli, Ben-too and Little Joe looked on enviously as the older boys put on coats and gloves.  They were waiting for the day they could be served in the saloons, but for now they would have to make do with hot cocoa.

 

***

 

Out in the stable, it took only minutes for the boys to saddle their horses.  Eric was prepared to watch his cousins’ backs on the way to town because he expected them to engage in their usual madcap race.  From the day they had gotten their horses, each had sworn they had the faster, sleeker mount, and spent countless hours trying to prove it to each other.  Eric, having inherited practicality from both his parents, was happy with his large, strong horse, Samson, who couldn’t beat Rocket or Pegasus in a race, but always came through no matter what was required of him.  He had pulled Eric out of a tight spot or two in his time, and he was highly valued for his versatility among other traits, such as calmness and innate intelligence.

 

The three boys left the ranch together, but as soon as they hit the road, the twins looked at each other, and with no words spoken, took off like shots.  Eric and Samson cantered behind them.  At least they had the foresight to race on the roadside rather than right on the snow-covered road which undoubtedly had slippery spots in the dark. When Eric reached the Bucket O’ Blood saloon, the twins were already drinking large mugs of beer, but at least they had one ready for him.

 

“Sorry about that, E old boy,” Logan said as Eric slid into a chair at their table, “but you know we had to do that.”

 

Eric took a gulp of his beer and smiled.  “I’m just glad you got the brew for me.”

 

“Yeah, I’m afraid that race was pent up and just waiting to happen,” Nolan added.

 

“I grew up watching you two.  You don’t have to explain it to me,” Eric said easily.

 

“When was the last time we raced?”  Logan’s face was scrunched up, thinking.

 

“The day before I left for school, of course,” replied his brother.

 

“Makes sense.”  Logan stuck up his arm and waved over a couple of young men they had gone to school with. “Marty, Steve, sit down.  Look who’s home for the holidays.”

 

Eventually seven young men were squeezed around the table, all former schoolmates enjoying each other’s company and making small talk.  Nolan found himself relishing the camaraderie and was relieved that no one seemed to care much that he attended Harvard.  He wasn’t something different in that way; he was plain old Virginia City boy, Nolan Cartwright.

 

With poker games going on all around them, they just talked about whatever came up, laughed loudly, and drank beer.  Nolan stopped after two beers, as did Eric, but Logan kept going.  Frankly, the more he drank, the funnier he got.  Nolan exchanged a look with Eric, who understood his meaning immediately.  Unless they got Logan out of the saloon and on the way home, he would be one miserable cowboy in church tomorrow.  It was past midnight anyway and high time for them to be on their way.

 

“…so when Pete tripped on the walkway, he went straight into the mud, and because he was holding onto Roberta’s arm so she wouldn’t slip, she went right in with him, new dress and all!”  Logan threw his head back laughing as a loud guffaw rose up from the table.  “They’re still not speaking to each other!”

 

“Hey, Logan, we need to pull out now.  It’s late and you know we have the tree and all tomorrow,” Nolan rose with Eric and they each took an arm.  Surprisingly, Logan went willingly enough.  They bid their buddies good night and paid for their drinks.  Outside, Logan swung up on Rocket easily, still telling stories and laughing.  However, the smaller audience was less encouraging to him than his table in the saloon and as the three set off toward home, he quieted down.

 

As they left town, though, he began to sing, which did make Eric and Nolan laugh since he was off key and the words to his tunes were nonsensical. It was harmless enough, however, until he decided he wanted to race again.  And when he did, he took off without warning, right down the middle of the road.

 

“Dang, Nolan, if Rocket hits a slick spot, they could both go flying,” Eric muttered.  He steered Samson off the road and kicked him into a run, shouting for Logan to stop.  Nolan immediately followed suit.  His brother knew better, but he’d had at least four beers and he wasn’t using good judgment at all on the dark road. Nolan took the opposite side of the road and urged Pegasus into a full gallop through the snow.  He knew he had a better chance of catching his brother than Eric did.

 

Fortunately the night was clear and there was a half moon, so some light illuminated the road.  Nolan could see that he was gaining on his brother.  He and Eric were both shouting at him to stop.  They could hear him whoop as he urged Rocket on.  Nolan thought he was within a minute or so of catching up with his brother, although he wasn’t precisely sure what he would do when he did.  That eventuality was removed from his concern when Eric’s worst fear was realized.  Without warning, Rocket hit an icy spot in the road and his feet when out from under him.  Both he and Logan went down.  A loud shriek came from the horse, and no sound at all from Logan.

 

Nolan cursed as he watched it happen.  He halted Pegasus and leaped off to run to his brother.  Eric arrived within seconds and went straight to Rocket, who was struggling to get up on his feet.  Logan had been thrown into the snow off the road.  He was lying on his back, his hat crushed under his head.  His eyes were closed and he wasn’t moving.  Nolan called his name but received no answer.  He pulled off his gloves and began to feel his brother’s face and head for blood.  Finding none, he checked arms and legs for broken bones and looked up briefly to find that Eric was doing the same thing for Rocket.  Eric sent up a silent prayer for the horse to be all right.  If Rocket had broken a leg, Logan would be inconsolable.

 

“Logan!  Logan, can you hear me?  Answer me, Logan,” he urged, patting his brother’s face with his hand.  Still there was no response, but Nolan watched as Eric stood up and moved back to allow Rocket enough space to get up on his legs, which appeared to be holding him well enough.  Talking to him softly, Eric bent again and ran his hands up and down each leg.  He looked over at Nolan and nodded his head.  The horse was agitated, but he appeared to be whole.

 

Nolan gathered his brother against him as he knelt in the snow.  He would try to keep him warm.  They were closer to Virginia City than home still, and he thought about sending Eric into town for the doctor.  There wasn’t a good way to move Logan in his present condition, and without a wagon.

 

Eric was adjusting Rocket’s saddle and tightening the cinches, but he looked over at his cousin and suggested that he ride for the doctor.  Nolan nodded his agreement and asked for the saddle blanket on Pegasus.  He could use that to buffer the wind from his brother.  Just as Eric was mounting to leave, Logan began to stir.  He moaned, and moved a hand to his head.

 

“Logan, can you hear me?  Do you hurt anywhere?”

 

“Head hurts.  Wha’ happen?”

 

“Well, you were an idiot and you raced Rocket down the road after you had too many beers.  He slipped on ice and you both went down.”

 

That information penetrated Logan’s brain and he tried to sit up to see to his horse.  That move was a mistake, however, because he groaned again and quickly dropped back against his brother.

 

“Rocket…”

 

“Rocket’s okay, and you’re damn lucky,” Nolan was starting to get mad.  “He could easily have broken a leg, but you weren’t even thinking.  Show me where your head hurts.”

 

Logan’s eyes closed, but he reached up again to touch his head.  Nolan followed the hand to a place near his left temple where a knot was beginning to form.  He looked at the depression in the snow where Logan had landed, and felt around the area he thought his brother’s head had hit.  Underneath the crushed hat was a medium size rock along the roadside.  It was no doubt the culprit.

 

“Can you move your arms and legs?”

 

Logan did the minimum required to show that he could.  Eric and Nolan discussed whether they should return to town or head home.

 

“Wanna go home,” Logan muttered.

 

“All right, we’ll try it, but you’re riding with me, and we’re going slowly.  Rocket probably doesn’t want to see you right now anyway.”  Nolan reached for his brother’s hand and slapped the snow off it and tried to reshape it before he set it on his head gingerly.  He knew that knot would be purple and painful before long.

 

Both Eric and Nolan helped Logan to his feet, and just as they were about to hoist him onto Pegasus, Logan leaned over and threw up.

 

Nolan rolled his eyes.  “Feel better?”  They moved a few feet away from the mess, and on the second try they got him up on the horse.  Nolan swung up behind him and took the reins.  Eric mounted Samson and led Rocket, who did seem to be favoring one leg as they started out.  When Nolan looked at him with raised brows, Eric reassured him.

 

“It’s not broken.  It could be a sprain.  We’ll take it easy and I’ll see to him at home,” Eric said.

 

Logan, who was leaning heavily against his brother, opened one eye to take note of that exchange, but dropped his head down again after hearing his cousin’s diagnosis.

 

Nolan kept an arm around his brother’s waist all the way home, even though he seemed to be sitting steadily enough.  It took forever to walk the horses slowly home in the frigid December night air, but at last they made it.  The house was dark with the exception of one light burning in the great room, its light visible through the window.  Nolan assumed care of his brother while Eric took the horses, and Nolan figured that Eric got the easier job.  He finally got his brother awake enough to put one foot in front of the other, but he largely dragged him up to the front door.  He swung it open and pulled Logan through the entry.  Hauling him to the nearest chair he sensed a presence, and looked up to see his Aunt Erin standing in the kitchen doorway in her robe, her long braided hair over one shoulder and a cup of tea in one hand.  Instant concern came over her face.

 

“Boys!  What happened?  Is it Logan?  Is he all right?”

 

If he had to encounter anyone, Nolan guessed he was glad it was Aunt Erin.  He looked at the floor for a few seconds before answering.  “He drank too much and fell off his horse.  Hit his head.”

 

Erin made a quick mother sound as she hurried over.  Setting her tea down, she took the one lamp in hand and examined the bump after Nolan removed his brother’s hat and indicated the knot, which was indeed purple, but not bleeding.  Logan was limp and sleeping where he had been deposited.  Erin made a face when she smelled the beer on his breath, and she stood up suddenly, remembering that her own son had also gone to town that night.

 

“Where’s Eric?”

 

“He’s putting the horses away, ma’am, but he’s all right.  He only had two beers.  He’s probably looking after Rocket because he fell too, on the ice.”

 

His aunt’s eyes widened, knowing the implications of that statement.  Then she gathered herself together.  “I’ll make a poultice for Logan’s head.  He’s going to be an unhappy person in the morning, and I don’t think your parents will be too sympathetic.”

 

“I know, ma’am, thank you, ma’am,” Nolan said quietly.  “I’ll wait for Eric to come in and then we’ll help Logan upstairs.”

 

His aunt nodded and went off to prepare the poultice.  The medicinal agent was ready before Eric was, but finally Logan was roused and his caretakers semi-dragged him up the stairs and into his room.  Both boys took deep breaths when he was finally on top of his own bed.  Nolan could handle things from there.  He looked at his cousin.

 

“Thanks, Eric, for everything.  I really needed your help.  Logan will thank you too when he regains his wits.”

 

“Sure thing,” Eric was turning to head for his own bed.  “Just do one thing for me.  Don’t ever let me drink four beers like that.”

 

Nolan laughed, but it was shaky.  “Deal,” he said.  Then he turned his attention to his brother.  He lit a lamp so he could see and started removing the easiest things he could from his brother.  Hat and boots first, then coat.  He pulled off his pants, wet from the snow, and decided to stop there.  He was just wrestling his brother under the bedclothes when there was a sound at the door and some additional light.  He turned and found his father standing there in his nightshirt.  His heart fell.  He was hoping to avoid explaining this to his father.  Let Logan do it in the morning.

 

“Having trouble, son?”

 

Nolan grimaced and recited the sequence of events rather rapidly, ending with the poultice Aunt Erin had made.

 

“It’s 1:30,” was all Adam said as he moved toward the bed to help get his other son safely into bed.

 

“I know, but Logan was passed out for a while, and Rocket was down too so Eric was checking him out, and then we just came home real slow.”  Nolan really was getting tired of the whole escapade.

 

Adam sat by the side of the bed and gently felt the bump on his son’s head.  He gave a low whistle and reached for the poultice which was placed over the wound.

 

“You said he had four beers?  They’ll probably come up,” he warned.

 

“They already did,” Nolan replied dourly.

 

“Oh, well then you’re safe I guess.  May I ask why you let him keep drinking?”

 

Nolan felt angry again, but pushed it back.  “Well we had a whole table of buddies there and he was already wound up and going, if you know my meaning. He made his own choices”

 

“Ah, yes.  He was performing.  Well you’re both going to church tomorrow, and morning comes before you know it.”  He stood up, started for the door and then turned back.  “You don’t need me to tell you that family takes care of each other.”  He looked steadily at Nolan for several seconds before quietly leaving the room and closing the door.

 

Nolan fumed.  Rarely were he and his father at odds, and he wasn’t used to being upbraided like that.  Logan wasn’t a kid, and he had made his own bed, as the saying went.  And hadn’t he held his brother all the way home and gotten him into bed?  He had taken care of him!  Nolan shucked off his clothes, pulled on a nightshirt and crawled into bed, where he lay awake for a long time listening to his brother snore.

 

***

 

Morning did come before both twins knew it.  Ross announced it by bursting into the room and leaping onto Logan, where they unfortunately bumped heads. Logan shouted something incoherent and probably blasphemous in a very loud voice and Ross began to cry.  Nolan groaned inwardly and lifted up his covers to allow Ross to climb in with him until his head felt better.  Logan covered his head with his pillow and turned over.  Nolan put his arm around Ross and tried to go back to sleep, but that was futile.  The smell of breakfast was drifting up the stairs and through the open door.  Ross recovered and began asking questions about Logan.  Then, to make matters worse, Adam came into the room fully dressed for church.  He told his oldest sons to get up; they only had 30 minutes to get dressed and eat before the family left for church.  This caused Nolan to remember their previous encounter only a few hours earlier.  Logan began to mumble something from under his pillow.  He sounded pathetic.  Ross, tears still shining in his eyes, sensed a game and began pulling at the pillow over his brother’s head.  Adam, unamused, took his youngest son’s hand to leave the room, but gave Logan a swat on his backside before he did so.

 

Nolan rubbed his eyes for a long time and finally sat up.  He knew he would be held responsible for Logan’s promptness, so he pulled the covers off him and tossed some fresh clothes on his bed.  He splashed water on his own face, combed his hair and dressed quickly because there had been no fire in the fireplace last night and the room was freezing.  As his brother’s keeper, he hauled Logan to his feet and propelled him to the dresser and washstand.  Logan stood there with his head in his hands, moaning about his head.  Nolan stuck a comb in his hand and told him to get busy.  He retrieved the poultice while Logan made feeble attempts to ready himself.  The knot on his temple was no bigger, but had turned an ugly purple.  It was partly covered by his hair, but only partly.

 

With ten minutes to spare, the twins made their way downstairs.  The table was empty since everyone else was getting ready to leave.  Nolan poured coffee for himself and his brother.  He didn’t even look at the food, and he knew Logan wouldn’t want to either. They both managed to get a cup of hot coffee inside them before the multitudes assembled at the door.  Mary Lynn came and looked them over at the breakfast table, and she wasn’t smiling.

 

“Well, come on, boys. We’ll be late.  Nolan, Eric saddled your horse for you, and…”

 

“Mom,” Nolan interrupted her.  “Logan needs to ride in the buggy.  His head can’t take anything else this morning.”

 

She reached out and moved his hair to examine the bruise, making a clucking sound with her tongue when she saw it.

 

“You were lucky, Logan.  I was going to say that you can’t ride Rocket anyway.  He has a sprained leg, and you’re lucky he’s even alive.  I can’t imagine what you were thinking.”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Logan mumbled into his coffee cup.

 

Under Nolan’s supervision, Logan put on his coat and slapped his crumpled hat on his head.  On his own steam, he walked out to the buggy and the family tried to avoid staring at his red rimmed eyes.  As the buggy began to move, along with the sleigh, another buggy and numerous horses, Logan silently let his head slip into his hands.  Nolan rode alongside his brother, and averted his own eyes when they passed the location of the accident.

 

The entire Cartwright family took up five pews in the church, which was already festooned with its holiday garlands.  Nolan made sure he sat next to Logan, and Ross protectively sat on his other side, although Nolan would have preferred Eric.  Logan kept his eyes closed throughout most of the service, but for each hymn, he stood with the help of his brother literally hoisting him up by one arm.  Ross valiantly tried to help too by pushing up on his other elbow.

 

“Lean against me,” Nolan whispered as the congregation began to sing.  And thus Logan survived church with the mother of all hangovers.  He’d had such a good time at the saloon, too, he thought, wondering why Eric and Nolan weren’t as miserable as he was.


Chapter 5

Back at home, Hop Sing brewed a special tea which he promised would help Number One Son feel better.  To Hop Sing, both Nolan and Logan were Number One Sons.  Normally Logan eschewed tea, but he drank this, staring miserably at the fire, and by the time lunch was on the table, he had to admit he was beginning to feel better.

 

The family was excited because this was the day the tree would be decorated.  While Logan was nursing his tea, the rest of the family brought down box after box of Christmas decorations for the tree.  After lunch, Adam, Hoss and Joe went outside to hang the garlands on the house.  Eric and Nolan stood on the ladders near the tree and hung what was handed up to them exactly where they were instructed to put it. Nolan was just glad to be there because he had expected to be alone in his room at Harvard.  Elizabeth and Isabel stood on the stairs at different levels hanging what they could from there.  Eli and Ben-too were put to work hanging the inside garlands under the supervision of Aunt Amy.  The bows would be attached later.  Everyone else either hung decorations at lower levels of the tree or unwrapped them from the boxes they were packed in.

 

There were beautiful painted ceramic angels, homemade cutout snowflakes made by the small hands of Adam, Hoss and Joe as boys.  Out came wooden snowmen painted white and black, and a miniature hand-carved wooden sleigh.  Some of the decorations were done in sterling silver, and others in crystal.  The girls always exclaimed over the fancy ones every year as though they were seeing them for the first time.

 

Soon the smells of popcorn and gingerbread wafted from the kitchen.  Susannah, Carrie, James and Jon were set to stringing garlands of popcorn and cranberries.  Even Logan found he could manage to alternate popcorn and cranberries on heavy sewing thread by this point, but only with Ross’ help.

 

Hop Sing brought out hot gingerbread and hot spiced apple cider for everyone as they worked.  He stopped to admire the tree and pronounced it to be very suitable.  Mary Lynn consulted with Erin and the older girls about spots that needed more coverage.  Ben watched from his easy chair with his pipe.  This was one of his favorite scenes: his family all together celebrating a cherished holiday.  Adam, Hoss and Joe came in and went directly to the gingerbread and cider.  Hoss asked why it was never hard cider, and Erin gave him a playful swat.  Joe said they needed a woman to come outside to make sure that the garlands had the proper swag.  Erin bundled up and went out to check, returning to report that they were perfect.  Now the bows had to be wired to the garlands.  The men headed back outside with bows, wire and Erin to point out where they should be placed.

Elizabeth supervised the placement of a spiral garland snaking up each of the banisters on the staircase.  All the inside bows were then wired.

 

It was late in the afternoon by then and except for the popcorn and cranberry garlands, the tree was decorated, all the way up to a shimmering star at the top.  Every last decoration had been placed on the tree.  Amy suggested that it probably could use some bows strategically placed here and here, and her sisters-in-law agreed.  While the girls began to make red bows that were much smaller than the large ones on the garlands, Nolan and Eric began placing the popcorn garlands around the tree.  They patiently cooperated with pointers called out by their mothers, sisters and cousins about which branch to drape it over as it was hung and then rearranged several times over.  They worked their way down the ladders, however, and soon were standing on the floor finishing the task.  As it turned out, there was just enough of it to cover the lowest branches of the trees, and everyone let out a sigh of relief at this stroke of luck.  By the time Hop Sing gave the dinner call, the girls had finished about 25 bows.  They would put them on the tree after dinner, and hope they would be the final touch needed for a perfect Christmas tree. The very last detail was the placement of a quilted tree skirt done in red and green circles on a white background by Joe’s mother, Marie, many years ago.  It was a cherished heirloom used by the family every year.

 

The outside team came in reporting a brisk wind was blowing in more snow, but that the wired-on bows were holding tight.  They had even placed bows on the sleigh and buggies.  Everyone sniffed the air, appreciating the scent of fresh pine in the house.

 

As dinner was being put out, Adam went over to Logan and examined the bruise on his temple, which made his son wince and pull away.  His father gave him the same long, steady look Nolan had received the night before.

 

“Let this be a lesson to you about watching how much you drink.  If you were younger I would keep you off of Rocket for a couple of weeks, but that’s going to happen anyway with the sprain on his leg.  You’re a very lucky young man to have your horse all in one piece today.  And you’re lucky your brother and your cousin were there to help you.”  With a quick glance at Nolan, Adam slipped out of his coat and walked to the door to hang it up.

 

“Yessir,” Logan replied, studying his boots closely.

 

Nolan was surprised to hear his father speak to Logan that way in front of the whole family. Usually he did that in private.  He must still be pretty angry, he thought, and decided to steer clear of his father for a while.  He glanced quickly at his grandfather and found him looking thoughtfully at his pipe.  The rest of the family quickly began to busy themselves with other tasks to cover up the awkward moment.

 

“Logan,” Uncle Hoss said, “after dinner we’ll go outside and take a good look at Rocket.  Eric’s done a fine job with his leg, but I want you to see it.  You come too, Eric.”

 

Later, walking to the barn, they felt the impact of the wind as it blew snow in their faces.  The normally fluffy flakes felt like little pinpricks against their faces, even though they walked head down against it.  It was much more pleasant in the barn with the door shut firmly behind them.  Hoss walked over to Rocket’s stall and opened it to lead him out slowly.  Logan stroked his nose and spoke to him softly, taking heart in the animal’s recognition of him.  They all crouched to look at his right foreleg, where the hock was swollen.  It had been wrapped with damp strips of toweling to keep it cool.

 

Even though Logan knew that this was normally an injury resulting in a full recovery, he felt a sweat break out on his face.  The full impact of the accident hit him then.  He had not seen Rocket on the ground; Eric had taken care of him.  Logan looked up at his cousin.

 

“Did he go completely down?”

 

Eric nodded, running his hand up and down the slender black leg.  “He was in the road.  You were thrown to the side.”  There was no criticism in his voice.

 

“How long did it take him to get up?”  Logan was picturing it now in his mind.

 

“He was moving right away.  He tried a couple times, but I was in his way.  Once I moved, he got himself up OK.  I checked right away for broken bones.”

 

Logan looked a little queasy.  His horse meant the world to him.  “Thanks, Eric.  I’m glad you were there.”

 

“I’m glad I was too,” and Eric smiled at his cousin.  They all stood and gave Rocket some special attention.

 

“Don’t worry, son, he’ll be all right in a week or two,” Uncle Hoss reassured his nephew.  He knew the young man was feeling pretty guilty.  He and Eric then left the barn, sensing that Logan would like to be alone with his horse.

 

For a long time Logan stood with his cheek right up against Rocket’s neck, stroking it slowly.  He knew he’d done a stupid thing; he usually didn’t drink that much.  He apologized to the horse more than once and gave him some sugar cubes he’d brought in his pocket.  He was also smarting from the public chastisement his father had delivered in the house.  He knew he deserved a talking to, but he also knew that he competently carried a large load in the running of the ranch.  His father had made him feel as though he was as small as Ross.  Just then the barn door opened again, and Nolan slipped in quickly.

 

“Whew!  There’s a storm blowing up, that’s for sure,” he was brushing snow off his jacket as he came toward his brother.  He inspected the horse and talked to him a little bit.  The twins then looked somberly at each other before Nolan shrugged.

 

“I’m sorry Dad lectured you in front of everyone.  Last night after he helped me get you in bed, he blamed me for letting you drink as much as you did.  I felt pretty bad, so I’m sorry if I let you down.”

 

Logan scowled.  “You didn’t let me down.  Who watches over me while you’re at school?”

 

Nolan gave a humorless smile.  “Well, that’s what I thought too, but he seemed to think it was important.”

 

Logan snorted and began to move Rocket back into his stall.

 

“Which horse will you use while Rocket heals?”

 

Logan closed the stall door and looked at his brother.  “Not Sport, that’s for sure!”  Then they both laughed, and with an arm around each other’s shoulder they walked back out into the night.

 

***

 

The days leading up to Christmas brought a couple of significant snowfalls.  Nolan helped with ranch chores part of the time, and spent the rest of the time working on his school assignments.  He recopied the papers he’d written on the train, and spent hours reading the textbooks he’d brought with him.  His brother used Pegasus when Nolan wasn’t riding him, and nothing more had been said about the night accident on the road.  Logan’s bump resolved and was a fading shade of yellow after a week’s time.

 

The Saturday before Christmas, James Fenway picked up Elizabeth in a two-seater sleigh for dinner at the International House.  Adam and Mary Lynn welcomed him into the house while their daughter finished getting ready.  They served brandy, and although they were cordial and liked the young man, he seemed nervous that evening.  He was a good looking man, tall, with blonde hair and blue eyes, which contrasted with Elizabeth’s almost black hair when they stood together, although her eyes were still the deep blue they had always been.

 

Adam, who was overseeing the Ponderosa’s mining interests, knew that there had been some legal battles recently between some of the mine owners, and he asked James whether his firm had been involved in any of them.  The Cartwright mines had thus far avoided those troubles, but Adam was deeply aware of them.  James discussed them in general terms.  Of course, he couldn’t reveal any specific details of any cases he and his father were handling.  Adam could tell he was familiar enough with the issues, however, so they were able to have a conversation about the problems confronting all the mines.  James kept glancing toward the stairway, clearly waiting for Elizabeth to appear.  She was usually prompt, and Mary Lynn wondered what was keeping her, but she smiled to herself as she watched James squirm.  She remembered Adam’s first meeting with her grandfather, Vance Nolan.  Of course, the circumstances had been quite different, and Adam had been rewarded with a punch to the jaw for his trouble.  Or maybe for his recklessness.  She almost chuckled, but just at that moment Elizabeth appeared at the top of the stairs.

 

James jumped to his feet and was graced by her beatific smile.  She was lovely that night in a dark blue velvet dress with a sweetheart neckline and lace at the cuffs and neck.  Her waist seemed impossibly small and the skirt was full.  Susannah, who could work magic with long hair, had coiffed her sister with a series of rolls and ringlets on top of her head.  She seemed to float down the stairs, where James met her.  Mary Lynn felt Adam stiffen beside her, but she squeezed his hand before moving toward the couple with a smile.

 

James helped Elizabeth into her coat and Mary Lynn helped her tie on a festive winter bonnet that wouldn’t crush her hair.  James politely turned and thanked them for the brandy and said he would have their daughter home by eleven.  They both said goodnight, and Adam watched from the door as James tucked a lap robe around his daughter in the sleigh.  As they heard the bells ring when the sleigh began to move, he shut the door and turned around.

 

“She’s going to catch her death of cold.  It’s ridiculous to be out on a night like this,” he complained.

 

Mary Lynn took her husband’s arm and rubbed his back, cajoling him.  “Well, all our party guests will be out on a night like this very soon when they come to our holiday party,” she pointed out.

 

“Well, that’s different,” he replied, sounding cranky.

 

She steered him over to the settee where they could sit together, and handed him his unfinished brandy.  She had a feeling this was a special night for Elizabeth and James, and she suspected that Adam knew it too.

 

“How is it different?”

 

“It won’t be my daughter, that’s how it’s different,” and he tipped his head back to finish off all the brandy at once.

 

“Your daughter has to grow up sometime, you know,” Mary Lynn slipped her hand into his.

 

“No she doesn’t.  She’s perfectly fine the way she is.”

 

“Don’t you think she’ll be unhappy if she doesn’t get married at some point?”

 

He turned to look at her with a dour expression.  “No.  She can have a very happy life without getting married.”

 

“We got married,” Mary Lynn said sweetly.  “Twice.”

 

Adam’s eyes widened then and he turned his whole body toward his wife.  “You don’t think…?”  He couldn’t even finish the sentence and put a hand over his eyes, sighing deeply.

 

His wife’s laughter pealed in the room.  “No, I don’t.  But I do think that young man loves our daughter, and I think she loves him too.  You’re being a very ungracious father, dear, but I believe you can be forgiven for that since I think you’ll come around nicely in time.”  She leaned over and kissed his cheek.

 

Adam stared at the fire for the few minutes.  He reached out to pull his wife close to him.  But he wasn’t quite yet finished voicing his grievances.

 

“That young man never even asked me for her hand,” he grumbled. “That’s a sign of elitism.  I’m going to have a talk with my sons tomorrow and tell them how to properly propose to a lady.”

 

“That will be fine, Adam.  I’m sure that will help them in the future.  For all we know, James will do a fine job proposing to a lady.  He perhaps just forgot to propose to her father?”  And she was laughing again as she snuggled up against him.  She would forego any mention of how he had “proposed” to her and of how stealthy they had been in arranging their own marriage.

 

Adam stubbornly sat by the fire until eleven waiting for Elizabeth. Mary Lynn had given up and gone to bed, as had the other adults who had joined them throughout the evening.  Adam tensed when he heard the sleigh bells approaching, and when they stopped, there was a long delay before he heard his daughter’s hand on the door handle.  Exactly what were they doing out there?  He had clenched his jaw and his hand was gripping the arm of the chair when the door flew open and a glowing Elizabeth rushed in pulling at the strings of her bonnet.  She went directly to her father.

 

“Oh Daddy, look!  James asked me to marry him!”  She held out her left hand and he saw a ring sparkling on her third finger.  He took her hand and looked at the ring.  A bezel set sapphire was flanked by diamonds, set into a slender yellow gold band.  He grudgingly admitted to himself that Fenway had at least chosen a suitable ring.  Maybe he wasn’t such a big chump after all.  He squeezed his daughter’s hand

 

“Well, this is a surprise.  Did you know he was going to ask you?

 

She sat on the arm of his chair and threw her head back, thinking.  “Well I thought he would sometime, but I didn’t know he was going to do it tonight.  And do you know what he did?  After dinner he had the waiter bring over a covered silver dish as a ‘sweet, compliments of Mr. Fenway.’  And then he left and brought back champagne, which James poured, and he told me to see if I liked the dessert, because if I didn’t, he’d order another one.  So I lifted the lid of the dish and there was the ring sitting in the open box!  I just stared at it and covered my mouth with my hands, I was so shocked.  And then James got down on one knee right there in front of everyone and asked me to marry him!”  She blushed pink just retelling the story.  “All I could do was nod, so he put the ring on my finger, and gave me some champagne, and everybody in the restaurant applauded!  Can you imagine?”  She put her hands to her cheeks reliving the events in her mind.

 

“And you do want to marry him?” Adam asked her gently.

 

She came quickly back to the moment and looked at him in surprise.  “Shouldn’t I?”

 

“Well, he never asked for my permission to propose to you,” Adam knew the steam was quickly running out of this waning complaint.

 

Elizabeth sat up straight and she looked at him with a flash in her eyes.  “Well, I never!  If I had known that I would never have accepted this ring.  Never mind that he loves me and can provide for me,” she began working the ring off her finger.  “I’m going to see if I can catch him to give this back to him,” her tone was righteous as she jumped up and began striding to the door.

 

Adam sighed as he got to his feet and followed her.  He noticed his wife sitting at the top of the stairs, chin in her hands, grinning at her daughter and husband.  This was Elizabeth at her finest, and she was playing her father like a beautiful stringed instrument.  Adam caught up to her just as her hand grasped the door handle.

 

“Now sweetheart, there’s no need to get upset.  You know your mother and I like James very much.  It’s just that…” he stopped and groped for words, but he couldn’t say them.  Instead, he just stood by his daughter with his hands held out before her in supplication.

 

“He doesn’t like to see his babies grow up,” Mary Lynn finished for him, getting up and coming down to hug her daughter.  Defeated, Adam stood watching mother and daughter admiring the ring, one dark head against one blonde head, the story repeated all over again.  He sighed, wondering how many times he would have to listen to it.  In a family this big, at least a dozen times he feared, and the females would all want to hear it more than once.

 

His wife reached out an arm to draw him close so that she had him in one arm and Elizabeth in her other arm.

 

Elizabeth looked up at him through her dark lashes.  “Daddy, if it really means that much to you, I’m sure James will buy a ring for you, too.”  She bit her lip, waiting for his reaction.

 

Mary Lynn tried not to laugh, but she was unsuccessful and had to turn her back, her shoulders shaking.  Giving up, Adam sighed and held out his arms, drawing his daughter into an embrace, resting his chin on the top of her head.   He shut his eyes, remembering the rocky period in his life when she had been born, and the first time he looked at her, thinking how much she looked like a Cartwright. It made his eyes sting.  He looked at his wife, who had turned back to them, and he knew they were thinking the same thing.

 


Chapter 6

“Congratulations, honey.  You and James are a perfect couple.  I know you will be a beautiful bride.”  His voice caught on the last word and he just held her a little longer.

 

Mary Lynn was hoping the wedding would be far enough in the future that Adam would have time to adjust to the idea and be stoic enough to graciously hand his daughter over to her husband-to-be.

 

The following day, breakfast was abuzz with talk of the engagement.  Everyone was thrilled for Elizabeth, but Adam found that he was right.  All of the male Cartwrights with perhaps the exception of Grandpa Ben were fully satisfied after hearing one telling of the engagement events of the previous night, and they began to drift away from the table.  The female Cartwrights, on the other hand, could listen to it indefinitely and were riveted to the table. As a result the family walked into church during the singing of the first hymn.  After church, the Fenways and the Cartwrights greeted each other warmly.  They all agreed that they had an extra blessing to celebrate this Christmas.  Elizabeth received kisses from James’ parents, and Adam shook James’ hand while Mary Lynn hugged him, asking how he had known Elizabeth’s ring size.  It turned out that he had taken her into the jeweler’s to pick up something of his own that was being repaired, and had arranged for the jeweler to show her some other pieces of jewelry, including rings, and to note her proper ring size.  They all parted knowing they would see each other the following Friday for the holiday party at the Ponderosa.

 

***

 

Christmas dawned cloudy and snowy a few days later with the youngest Cartwrights awakening the older ones with squeals as they discovered bulging stockings hanging from the mantel and wrapped packages beneath and surrounding the Christmas tree.  They hopped up and down in excitement as the older members of the family shuffled downstairs in robes, stifling yawns and wondering how morning had come so soon.  They had celebrated their traditional Christmas Eve with Ben reading not only the Night Before Christmas, but also the true story of Christmas, that of Jesus’ birth in the manger, from the Bible.

 

Hop Sing roused them with hot coffee and hot cinnamon rolls, which the adults gratefully sipped at and nibbled on while the children attacked their stockings.  It was quite a crowd in the great room, and this was a day that Ben always relished.  Everyone he loved was in this room, he thought, and there could be no greater blessing.  Nolan, thinking the same thing, met his grandfather’s eye and they shared a smile.  He was so happy to be here in this house rather than being alone in Boston or with a friend in a strange house.

 

Gifts began to be dragged out from under the tree, and in the ensuing madhouse, there were repeated warnings from parents for children to keep track of their own things, which were easily covered under cast off wrapping paper.  Eric and Ben-too sat near the fire and accepted wads of paper that had been responsibly sifted through, and they were tossed in the fire to help reduce the clutter.  The noise level increased steadily and gifts were opened, revealing everything from dolls and stuffed bears to lace and sweaters and new boots.  There were leather bound books, earrings, ribbons, bonnets, gloves for boys and girls, jump ropes and baseballs.  Each of the mothers received a string of pearls with matching drop earrings, which would no doubt debut at the upcoming party.  There were silver coins and chocolate candies, guitars for children who didn’t have one yet, and shiny belt buckles for almost everyone, custom designed in the shape of the Ponderosa tree brand.  One large and bulky item remained unclaimed and tucked almost out of sight beyond the stairs.  It was too big to fit under the tree and it was covered by several blankets.  Ross demanded to know who it was for.  Everyone looked at each other curiously, and as Ross was about to go make the discovery himself, his father held him back.

 

“Wait Ross.  I’ll see who it’s for,” and Adam walked over to the covered surprise.  He looked around the blankets, but found no note.  He crouched down and peeked under the blankets, making sure his body blocked anyone’s view of what lay underneath.  He stood up and rubbed the back of his neck, bemused.

 

“Well, it appears to be for Logan, but it doesn’t exactly say.”

 

Logan’s head popped up from where he’d been changing his belt buckle to the new one.  Slowly he stood up and with a questioning look at his father, started moving toward the object.  This was no small feat inasmuch as he had to step over dozens of gifts and people.  Everyone else had stopped what they were doing to watch.  Logan crouched next to the gift and removed one blanket, then another, and then another.  What remained, placed over a wooden sawhorse, was a beautiful saddle in rich shade of tan leather.  It had been polished to a high shine and boasted ornate scrollwork around its perimeter.  He said nothing, but allowed his fingers to hover over the seat, and just barely brush it.  His eyes were wide as he gazed at it.  Then he almost did a double take.  At the front of the saddle, just below the pommel, in place of scrollwork, was a word burned into the leather: “ROCKET.”  His intake of breath was audible as he traced the letters with his fingers.   He grasped the saddle with both hands, lifted it almost like a measure of its strength and value, and he looked at it underneath before replacing it. Then he walked all around it before looking up. He met his father’s eyes.  Adam was watching him carefully with something close to a smile playing around his mouth.

 

“I understand,” Logan told him softly.  “This explains it all.  I’ve never seen a better saddle in my life.  It’s perfect.”  He looked like he wanted to cry, but Logan would never do that.

 

“Well I should hope so,” his grandfather announced.  “It took your father and me forever to design it and have it made.

 

By this time the children were on their feet, crowding in to see the saddle.  The adults had all seen it, but it had otherwise been kept a secret.  The older boys were especially impressed by it.  Nolan whistled when he got close to it, and Eric just shook his head back and forth.  Nolan also now understood his father’s anger at both him and his brother over the accident.  What good was the saddle without the horse?

 

Logan moved over to his parents to thank them again.  His mother hugged him and his father squeezed his shoulder.  As soon as he could, Logan took the saddle out to the barn to try it out on its real owner, even though there would be no rides just yet. It was a perfect fit.  He removed Rocket’s old saddle from its place and replaced it with the new one.  He turned at the sound of the barn door opening to see Nolan coming in.  He was smiling, and together they admired the new saddle.

 

Now I get it!”  Logan said again.  “I took a stupid chance with this horse’s life and here was this saddle waiting for me.  You can be sure that’ll never happen again.”

 

“And I couldn’t understand why Dad was blaming me for how many beers you had, but it’s all about the saddle.  I guess we learned something, didn’t we?”

 

“Yeah, we did.  Well it’s a good Christmas, brother.  I’ve got you here, and my horse and this great saddle.  Let’s go celebrate.”

 

“Amen,” said Nolan and the two went back to the house to enjoy Christmas with their family.

 

***

 

The holiday party a few days later was a rousing success.  Friends and neighbors came in their holiday finery to celebrate and dance.  Hop Sing and all the women and girls of the house had been cooking and baking since the last crumb of their Christmas feast had been cleaned up.  This day there was an entirely new groaning board of delicious food and drink to sample.  All the furniture had been moved back against the walls to make room for dancing.  There were guitars, fiddles, a cello and the piano for music.  The musicians had struck up their first tune with the arrival of the first guests, and they had been going strong ever since.

 

All the Cartwright men and boys were handsome in dark suits, and their dance partners were lovely in full formal gowns.  Erin, Amy and Mary Lynn were each wearing their Christmas pearls.  Elizabeth and James danced exclusively with each other, but spent plenty of time showing off the new engagement ring.  Eli was thrilled that James Fenway’s sister Meg, who was the same age as he and Susannah, was interested in dancing with him.  Logan, who never spoke much about who he was interested in, found himself surrounded with pretty young ladies who all wanted to spin the dance floor with him.  Mary Lynn told Adam they should count who he danced with more than once because they would learn who he was interested in.

 

Nolan was glad to see some of his boyhood friends, and found himself the object of feminine interest as well.  He had almost as many girls chatting and dancing with him as his twin did.  He was exotic to them now that he had the patina of the East Coast on him.  He hadn’t really dated much, unless you counted town dances and church picnics.  He had usually had his nose in a book.  So he was happily surprised to find himself continually occupied on the dance floor.  He saw Eric whirl past several times with his special girl, Emily, and he knew that Hoss and Erin were hoping for a happy announcement from them at some point in the future.

 

The tempo of the music picked up, but the dancers were up to the challenge.  Joe and Amy, who loved to dance, showed amazing stamina, as did Grandpa Ben who was making a point of dancing with every unescorted woman and girl in the house, and doing a good job of it.  His favorite dance of all was with his two youngest granddaughters, Sarah and Marianne—both at the same time, to their delight.

 

The party went on well into the night, with the last of the guests saying goodnight just before 2:00 a.m. with wishes of Happy New Year, which was just a couple of days away.  Many tired Cartwrights slept late the following morning, and the whole day was slow and lazy.

 

New Year’s Eve was always a relatively quiet celebration on the Ponderosa.  A few close friends were invited for dinner with the sprawling Cartwright brood.  Roy Coffee and Doc Martin always came.  The new doctor in town, Dr. Avery Bennett, and his wife, Claudine came as well with their two boys who were about the same ages as Joe’s boys.  Ben’s longtime attorney, John Granger and his wife, Ann also joined the group.  And this year James Fenway appropriately came too.  It was Hop Sing’s third feast in a week, and he was looking forward to a week off in San Francisco with his own relatives beginning January 2.

 

Conversation was lively around the table and everyone was relaxed.  It had snowed again overnight, and during the day the children had engaged in a wicked snowball fight.  They had divided themselves up into teams led by Gunner and Hunter.  In the end, it was hard to tell who had won, but each side claimed victory.

 

The adults talked a lot about the growth Virginia City was seeing, and how 1881 showed great promise for future progress.  Another doctor was moving into town in the spring, and Dr. Bennett was looking forward to his arrival.  Many new citizens required much of his time.  Roy Coffee and Paul Martin reminisced about the changes they had seen over the years.  Ben joined in that conversation, well remembering Virginia City as a muddy camp with a few log buildings and a lot of tents.

 

When the clock struck twelve, the entire party ushered in the New Year with champagne.  Even most of the children got the tiniest of sips this one time only for the whole year.

 

Adam winked at Logan when he announced that one glass of champagne would be enough for him and made a point of pushing his glass away. Nolan hastened to add that he had been watching, and his brother was telling the truth about his alcohol consumption.

 

The next day was Nolan’s last day at home.  He would leave for Boston on January 2.  It was a quiet day spent appreciating his home and family.  Hoss and Eric had decreed that Rocket’s leg was sufficiently healed and that he and Logan could ride again.  Logan eagerly saddled him using the new saddle and then sedately walked him around the corral for about ten minutes.  He wasn’t going to take any chances. But Nolan took Pegasus out for a long ride alone, talking to him, explaining where he would be and what he would be doing until he returned in summertime.

 

A quiet dinner was enjoyed by all.  With Hop Sing on vacation, the women and girls had planned their own meals and done all the cooking.  The rest of the family declared they were almost as good as Hop Sing, and that they could hardly tell the difference.

 

Nolan talked quietly with his parents, aunts and uncles in the evening, having packed his bag before dinner.  He made a point of speaking individually with every one of his siblings and cousins.  He felt quiet and happy.  This departure was going to be less emotional that his last one for Boston.

 

The next day, Adam alone took his son into Virginia City to catch the stage to Reno.  The day was cold with blowing snow, so the rest of the family stayed home.  Elizabeth had promised that the wedding would be scheduled for summer when he was home.  His mother hugged him for a long time, until he broke away and kissed her cheek.  He hugged his aunts and shook hands with his uncles and grandfather before joining his father in the buggy.

 

The stage was on time, and Adam embraced his son just before he climbed into the stage.

 

“Safe travel, son.  Have a good term.”

 

“I will, Dad.  And thanks again for the surprise; it was great,” Nolan grinned.  As the stage departed, they both waved until they couldn’t see each other anymore.  Nolan leaned back.   Christmas was over.

 

***

 

There wasn’t too much to see through the train window except snow covering the landscape after the train left Reno.  Nolan watched it for a while and then turned to his textbooks.  When he got hungry, he was glad that his mother had sent him off with a sack of food that consisted primarily of leftover treats from their New Year’s celebration.  He accomplished a fair amount of reading, and then dozed late in the afternoon.  In the late afternoon the train stopped in Winnemucca, Nevada. Nolan was fairly far back in the string of railroad cars, so it was hard for him to see, but he didn’t think too many passengers boarded the train at this stop.

 

Several minutes later a young woman entered his car from the one before it.  She was tall and pink cheeked, with long, curling warm brown hair.  She carried a satchel and a hatbox.  She seemed undecided about where to sit, and when the train started moving with a jolt, she almost lost her footing.  She quickly grabbed the back of the nearest seat as her hatbox flew out of her grasp.  Nolan moved quickly and caught it in midair as it sailed his way.  Then he stood and reached out his hand to help steady her.  There were only a few other passengers in that car, and she could have chosen to sit by herself with plenty of extra room, but Nolan smiled at her and gestured toward his seat, inviting her to sit across from him.

 

“Thank you!”  She sounded breathless as she dropped into the bench seat opposite him.  “You must be able to tell I haven’t traveled much,” her cheeks, which were pink from the cold, seemed to color even more.

 

“Well, neither have I, to tell the truth,” Nolan admitted, looking at her dark brown eyes with curiosity.  She held her satchel on her lap and wore a practical black wool coat with a matching hat.  Then, catching himself staring at her, he moved to tuck her hatbox under the seat and held out his hand, offering to stow her satchel as well, which she surrendered. Next he offered his hand to her.

 

“I have the worst manners.  My name is Nolan Cartwright.  Glad to meet you.”

 

She took his hand and laughed lightly.  “You have the best manners.  I’d be flat on my face right now if you hadn’t caught me and my hatbox!  I’m Karen Gregory, and I’m very glad to meet you!”

 

As Karen got herself settled, Nolan made small talk.  He found it a nice change to have more than a book to keep him company.  He asked her were she was going, and she told him she was headed for New York to help an older sister who was about to have a baby and needed help with her older children, who were all quite young and energetic.  As it turned out, the new baby would make a family of five children for her sister and her husband.  Nolan smiled, sensing her excitement.  She was excited to be traveling, to see her sister, and awed by her sister’s growing family.  He found himself telling her about his family, and when she finally realized that they all lived under one roof, her eyebrows rose.

 

“Oh my goodness!  How do you manage it all?  You all must have very patient mothers.”  Nolan admitted that they did, and explained how things generally worked around the ranch.

 

Karen was very interested in the working of the Ponderosa, and they found themselves talking well into the evening.  She noticed that as he talked about his home, Nolan leaned forward eagerly and his eyes shone.  She thought he was extraordinarily handsome with his dark hair that curled slightly under his collar, his cleft chin, cheeks that dimpled when he smiled, and long-fingered hands that gestured animatedly when he talked.  She watched him with a soft smile on her face.  He told her the story about his brother’s accident on the ice with his beloved horse, and the inscribed saddle that was his Christmas gift.  She was biting her lip when he described holding his brother in the snow while his cousin examined the horse for injury.  But moments later he had her laughing with stories of other Logan escapades.  When she learned that they were twins she looked surprised.

 

“But you don’t seem anything like him,” she exclaimed.  “He sounds like the court jester, and you seem quieter somehow.”

 

“Well, we are different in many ways,” Nolan acknowledged.  “But, if he were sitting next to me right now, you would not be able to tell us apart.”

 

“You’re identical?”  She gasped when he nodded, imagining two such handsome men side by side.

 

“We are identical to look at, but if you spent any time around us you would be able to tell us apart easily.  He grew up wanting to be a cowboy, and I always had my nose in a book.  I love to play chess, and he would never sit still long enough to learn how.”

 

“You like chess?  I do too!  How delightful.  My father taught me how to play, but I don’t find many people who enjoy it.”

 

“I love it, and spend hours playing with my grandfather and my father.  Too bad we don’t have a board here.  We could while away the long trip with some great games of strategy.”

 

That began a long conversation about chess openings and strategic moves that was interrupted only when Karen rummaged through her satchel and produced a box containing sandwiches and chocolate cookies, which she shared with Nolan.  They talked through the night and fell asleep as dawn approached.  They spent the next day dozing and talking until they felt they had known each other for years.  Nolan gave Karen his address in Boston and she gave him her sister’s address in New York.  They agreed it would be fun to correspond as they both progressed in their new ventures.  Nolan had told her he was going to school, but he underplayed where he was going and Karen didn’t pursue it.  He found again that he wanted to just be Nolan, not Nolan from Harvard.  He found himself wanting to know more about this young lady, which was exactly what Karen Gregory was thinking about him.

 

In the early morning hours of January 4, 1881, as Karen and Nolan were sleeping in their respective seats, the Central Pacific train encountered heavy snow as it traveled through the Rocky Mountains crossing the Great Divide Basin near Wyoming.  The locomotive was pulling twenty three cars, and the engineer ordered speed to be slowed down by half to avoid any problems with icy rails.  He knew that one tricky spot ahead was a long trestle that crossed a deep yaw formed by several of the mountains.  When the engine subsequently made first contact with the trestle, it had already slowed its speed even further.  The crew operating the locomotive had no desire to tangle with this storm on this trestle among these mountains.  Most of the passengers were sleeping, anyway, and would not notice the difference in speed.

 

When the train had almost completed the crossing, a high pitched squeal was heard in the rear, just before the caboose rammed into the car ahead of it, having encountered ice on the rails.  This caused a natural chain reaction of collisions, as each car was driven into the car before it.  This destabilization of the train, along with the ice and accompanying wind, rocked the train.  The sudden motion awakened most of the sleeping passengers, including Nolan and Karen.  They reached for each other’s hands instinctively.  Some people were shouting and screaming, but Nolan thought the train was starting to steady itself, and he tried to reassure Karen.

 

What was happening, however, was much more terrifying than anyone could have imagined.  The last two cars that remained on the trestle—the two that had initially collided—continued to rock and slide on the rapidly forming ice until they derailed.  The caboose lost its purchase first and its back end left the track.  For a few seconds it was held by the car ahead of it, but in the end its weight was too much and it slid over the trestle until it landed in the rocky canyon many yards below it, dragging its companion car with it.  Both disappeared entirely in the murky dark.  The next car in line had completed crossing the trestle, but was still too close to be out of harm’s way.  It was pulled onto its side and dragged partway off the track, where it rested for about a minute before it, too, was lost forever.

 

Another chain reaction of derailed cars began.  Like dominoes, they overturned.  Nolan and Karen were in car 17 of the 23 cars, and when it flopped to its side with the sound the breaking glass and twisting metal, they were thrown across the car and landed like rag dolls against what had been the upright windows opposite where they had earlier been sitting.  All was dark and there was an eerie silence after two more cars fell to their sides.

 

Those in the front cars could hear the train’s engine still running, but they could not yet fathom what had happened behind them.  They knew it was of disastrous proportions, but they could not understand why they didn’t hear the passengers calling for help.  The crew was immediately sent out into the snow with lanterns and came back reporting bodies inside the cars, bodies in the snow, and people wandering in shock along the track.  They estimated 55-60 people who needed medical attention, and some needed it immediately.  The nearest town was Rock Springs, Wyoming, some 15 miles down the track.  The engine was released from the rest of the train and was sent down the track to that town to report the accident and return with help.

 

Nolan lay for a time where he landed, forcing his brain to decide whether he had imagined the accident or if it was real.  It was almost more than he could comprehend.  Slowly rousing himself, he spent some time looking for Karen but couldn’t find her. He called out her name repeatedly, only to be met with silence.  He heard no voices at all.  The only way out of the train was to climb out through the broken windows on the side where he had been sitting, not where he had landed.  A fuzzy thought came to him that such an exit would be painful for the passengers with injuries, and there must be many.  But really, there was no help for that.  They would be trapped otherwise.  He slowly worked his way up to a broken window and winnowed his way through it.  Once standing outside, he walked across the side of the train until he found a place where he could climb down onto the ground.  Jumping the last few feet, he felt a sharp pain in his leg and realized he had some bruises and maybe even some sprains.  Like Rocket.  That thought amused him. Better wrap his leg with cool compresses.  He continued moving toward the front of the train, now missing its engine car.  He saw that a bonfire had been lit on the tracks with some of the wood the train had been carrying.  He headed there and consulted the conductor about coming back in daylight to try to find his textbooks.  He didn’t care so much about his clothing, but he didn’t want to lose the books and papers he had worked on over the holidays. The man started to answer him, but his attention was diverted by a man who was screaming.  Nolan tried to see what was wrong, but too many people surrounded the man, whose screams persisted horribly.  Nolan began to feel sleepy and moved away to find a place to sit in the snow not too far from the warmth of the bonfire.  He could feel his eyelids grow heavy amid the havoc all around him.  He dozed off, despite the harrowing screams.  He woke up a few moments later, wet and shivering, holding his left leg.  He felt confused.  He must have fallen asleep in the snow.  Someone was kneeling near him, attaching something to his leg.  The screaming man was still in great pain, that much was evident to his ringing ears.

 

“Boy, try not to touch the bone.  Keep your hands off it, it’ll be better that way.”  A voice very close was speaking.  Nolan thought how peculiar it was that he was still so sleepy at the same time he was shivering.  A hand grasped his jaw and he felt some liquid trickling into his mouth. It was bitter and he choked on it going down.  Shortly after that he realized someone had picked him up.  He wondered why, but as he tried to reason the question, he began to spin in a dizzying grey fog that had a quality to it that was not unpleasant.

 

“If I don’t get you taken care of soon I don’t know what will happen to you,” the voice said to him.  The screaming began to recede, probably because whoever had picked him up was walking away from the man in such horrible pain.  Nolan felt himself relax in the arms that held him, and as his head finally fell back, the screams were only a vague echo still roiling around inside it.

 

***

 

On January 5, Adam Cartwright was in Virginia City doing errands and keeping an appointment with John Granger about some mine contracts.  He had just entered John’s office when Harvey Bridgely from the telegraph office ran through the street in his shirtsleeves and burst through the door of the law office.

 

“Mr. Cartwright, this came for you, sir.  It’s urgent.  I thought you better see it right away,” the young man was trying to catch his breath and his spectacles had steamed over.

 

“Thank you, Harvey,” Adam took some coins from his pocket and handed them to the telegraph operator.  He smiled slightly, watching the young man quizzically as he backed his way out of the office and out into the cold.

 

Shaking his head, Adam ripped open the telegram.  It was from the Central Pacific Railroad.  Adam frowned and began reading.

 

John Granger walked out to receive Adam in his office just in time to see his client’s face drain of all color.  He sat down hard, staring at a piece of paper in his hand.

 

John was shocked and questions began tumbling out.  Adam covered his face with his hands and the paper fell to the floor.

 

“Oh my God, I did this.”

 

John picked up the small piece of paper and looked at it.

 

“TRAIN ACCIDENT JAN04/81  STOP   ROCKY MTNS   STOP  83

CASUALTIES   STOP   NOLAN CARTWRIGHT MISSING   STOP”

 

The End

Next Story in the Destiny Series:

The Homecoming Part 2
Logan’s Bride

 

Other Stories by this Author

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Author: karilyn

Retired healthcare executive who grew up watching and loving Bonanza, and also love to write.

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