Going Home (by mcfair_58)

Summary:  It is 1847 and such a winter had never been seen!  Snowstorms and squalls.  Sleet and ice.  Winds so ferocious they built drifts high as a man.  Driven by a need to escape the memory of his late wife, Ben Cartwright ventures out into a frozen landscape and becomes lost.  As he seeks a way to survive, he has no way of knowing that another member of the family has become lost as well.  Will the killer snow claim two Cartwright lives?

Rated PG

Word count 20,990

White.

There was nothing else.

No trees.  No sky.  No mountain ranges.  No lake.  No…nothing.

Just white.

Thirty-seven year old Ben Cartwright reached for the collar of his corduroy coat and drew it closer about his throat to stave off the cold.  He’d lost his hat in the last blast of frigid air and the scarf that anchored it to his head in the one before that.  Winters were often harsh in this part of the territory, but this one redefined the word.  Bone-chilling cold.  Snow followed by ice, followed by more snow.  Hurricane force winds.  Man-high drifts.

In other words, if he didn’t find shelter soon he was dead.

The older man ran a trembling hand through his gun-metal gray hair to dislodge the cap of snow that had settled there in lieu of his missing hat.  Then he looked at the sky.  It was white too; a sort of grayish-white like a fog laying low over a harbor.  He had no idea what time it was.  He’d ridden out from the Ponderosa early that morning and arrived in the settlement just as the merchants were opening their shops.  Knowing the ride home was close to four hours, he’d left just after noon.  The weary man let out a sigh.  He could still see Adam standing by the settee – arms folded, a scowl on his young face – chiding him for even attempting the journey.   Before he left, Hoss and Little Joe had peppered and pestered him with questions – ‘Why, Pa?  Why are you going?’

He had no answer.

Call it wanderlust.  Or maybe, a restiveness.   Christmas was approaching.  It would be the first without his beloved Marie and, though he’d made his peace with her loss, the sight of the house decked out for the holidays had produced in him a deep melancholia.  He’d done his best to keep it from the boys.  After all, hadn’t he just put them through six months of heartache?  It had taken him that long to come to terms with his wife’s sudden and seemingly pointless death, as well as to reconcile himself with the concept of a God who would allow such a thing to happen.

Three times.

He had his sons, he told himself.  He had his Ponderosa.  God had been good to him.  He was blessed.

But he was also lonely.

An unexpected nudge on his shoulder moved Ben forward nearly a foot.  The tired rancher turned to face his horse.  Buck was staring at him as if he had lost his mind.  The buckskin snorted and then struck the earth with his hoof as if to say, ‘I’ve had enough of this!  I’m cold!  Let’s get going!’

The rancher chuckled as he reached for his pocket.  His fingers were stiff from the cold, so they protested as he lifted the pocket flap and pulled out a lump of sugar.  Buck was proving to be a diligent and trustworthy companion.  Earlier, and without warning, a portion of the road they traveled had given way.  He was sure the buckskin would panic and they’d plunge into the chasm it created.  Instead, Buck remained calm.   He leapt forward and landed – safely – on the other side.  The rancher placed a hand in the crook of his back and stretched.  He’d been thrown from the horse as they landed, but any injuries he’d incurred were more than worth the price!

Ben patted his friend’s nose and then moved to the animal’s side and mounted.  He’d been walking for some time in order to give Buck a chance to recover.  Earlier he’d considered removing the buckskin’s saddle and sending him home.  If Buck pulled into the yard – riderless – it would be a sure sign that he was in trouble.  There was only one problem.  He knew who would come to rescue him – his seventeen-year-old son.  The last place he wanted Adam was out in this cold.  The boy had been sick recently.  In fact, all three of his boys had been sick.  The illness ran a two week course.  During that time, he’d had to face the very real possibility that one or more of them could die.  They were better now, but none of them needed to be exposed to weather like this.

Vicious weather that had moved with the stealth of a cat seeking its prey and pounced without warning, catching everyone off guard.

Winter had come early this year.  It arrived mid-November with a heavy fall of snow that measured nearly three feet.  The sudden storm cut them off from the settlement.  As November turned to December, there’d been an unexpected change in the weather.  The sun came out and much of the snow melted away.  There was, of course, no way of knowing how long this beneficence would last.  More snow was on the horizon and it was a sure bet that, once it started, it was unlikely to stop.  So, he’d decided to ride in to the settlement today and order supplies.  He’d visited the mercantile first and then the hardware store.  While there he’d spent some time chatting with friends and catching up, and then headed for his horse with the intention of riding home.

Tomorrow he would send in a couple of hands in to fetch what he’d bought.

Or so he thought.

As he neared the settlement, the weather shifted.  The temperature fell, the wind rose, and tiny flecks of white began to appear.  By the time he’d completed his business, small drifts had formed.   Fearful that he might not reach home in time, he’d headed for Buck and put his foot in the stirrup – only to return it to the ground as Beth Riley called his name.  She took him by the hand and dragged him into her pie shop, and then insisted he wait while she filled a tin with hot coffee and put together a sack of food for him to take along on his journey.

Once she’d put the coffee on, Beth came to the table carrying two slices of dried apple pie.  She sat down and scooted the second piece his way.  He admitted with chagrin that he hadn’t eaten all day and dug right in.  As they ate, they talked – about her shop and the future of the settlement, as well as the Ponderosa and his boys.  It was only natural that their conversation turned to Marie and his unexpected loss.  Tears filled his eyes as the rancher explained his reason for coming to town.  He confessed he felt lower than a snake for putting a damper on the boys Christmas’ joy.   When he spoke of how hard their first Christmas would be without Marie, Beth gasped and stood up.  She muttered something he missed and then headed into the back room where she slept.   The blonde woman returned a few minutes later with a large box and sat it on the table.

Beth and Marie had been great friends.  The talented cook had attempted to teach his New Orleans’ bride the art of cooking pies.

Ben hid his smile.

The operative word being ‘attempted’.

Beth smiled wistfully as she lifted the box lid and drew out several garments.  It contained a small coat of green corduroy, a large black cloth one, and an even larger coat, brown as the earth.  The blonde woman explained how she’d been in financial straits the year before and how Marie had insisted on paying her ahead of time for new winter coats for the boys.  When his wife died, she’d set them aside until she could work on them without shedding tears.  Beth said she’d meant to bring them out to the Ponderosa before the snow set in, but had lost her chance when the weather shifted.

Ben glanced at the thick bundle that was tied securely to the back-housing of Buck’s saddle.  The coats were there, wrapped in a slicker to keep them from getting wet; ready to be presented to their new owners when he arrived home.

The rancher glanced up.  Several thick snowflakes settled on his lashes as he did.

That was, if he ever got home.

 

“Little Joe!  Dang your ornery hide, baby brother!  You get back here!”

Adam Cartwright sighed as he lowered his new book and looked toward the staircase.  At first all he saw was Hoss turning the corner at the top, but then he noted the small figure – wearing a cut-down version of his old blue and white nightshirt – barreling toward him across the freshly polished floor.  The teenager steeled himself for the collision and was pleasantly surprised when it didn’t happen.  Then, he wondered why it didn’t happen.   A soft touch on his ankle made Adam lean over and look under his chair.

One thing he had to admit was that Marie’s boy was just about the cutest thing he’d even seen.  With his wide green eyes, cherubic face, winsome smile, and mop of golden-brown curls, Little Joe was adorable enough to charm the birds out of the trees.

He was also adorable enough to get by with murder.

Baby brother put a finger to his lips.  “Shh!  Don’t tell Hossy I’m here.”

‘Hossy’, of course, was five feet away and staring directly at the underside of the chair where Little Joe was ‘hiding’.

“How come?” Adam asked.  “Did you do something wrong?”

“No.”  Joe scowled.  “Hossy did.”

Adam glanced at his other brother.  Hoss shook his head and rolled his eyes.

“And what crime exactly is it that Hossy stands accused of?”

Joe blinked.  “Huh?”

“Sorry.  What did Hossy do wrong?”

“He yelled at me,” Little Joe pouted.

“Goldarn, it, Little Joe!  No I didn’t!  I was just trying to – ”

Adam cut Hoss off with a look.  He really wanted to hear what Joe had to say.  “Well?”

Little Joe coughed.  He struggled for a second before replying.  “Hossy wants me to drink that stuff.  I won’t!”

Hoss held out a familiar blue bottle and a silver spoon.

“You mean the medicine Mister Paul left for you?”

Joe’s nose wriggled.  “Yuck.”

Adam put his book on the table and slid to the floor next to the chair.  Little Joe, being the youngest, had been hit by the influenza the hardest.  For a day it had been touch and go.  Now, nearly a week later, the just turned six-year-old was feeling better, but still on the mend.  Paul Martin, their father’s friend and the settlement’s unofficial doctor, had come out a couple of days back and pronounced Little Joe well enough to get out of bed.

The teenager stared at his brother as he considered how best to deal with the situation.  Little Joe was nothing if not obstinate – especially when he was overly tired – and he really needed to take his medicine.   Adam wiggled his fingers, indicating Hoss should place the medicine in it.  Once he had it in hand, he popped the cork and lifted the bottle to his nose.   As he breathed in what was admittedly a vile scent, the teen’s eyes widened.  Quick as a bunny, he replaced the cork and handed the medicine back to Hoss.

“Put this in the cupboard!” he ordered.

Middle brother was scratching his head.   “How come?”

Adam effected a frightened air.  “We can’t leave that out where anyone could get hold of it.  It isn’t Joe’s medicine!”

“It ain’t?”  Hoss opened the bottle and sniffed.   “What is it, then?”

Adam looked directly at his baby brother.  “It’s magic.”

Those wide green eyes blinked.

“Magic?”  Hoss made a face.  “You sure you got that right?”

“Of course, I’m sure.”  The teenager dropped his voice to a conspiratorial level and leaned in toward his baby brother.   “I bet you’ve wondered how Hoss got so big,” he said.

Little Joe eyed Hoss from his hiding place and nodded.

“A long time ago – when Pa sailed the seas – he found himself in the middle of a storm.  He spotted a small ship adrift and knew the crew were in trouble.”  Adam made a ‘whooshing’ noise.   “The rain was coming down in sheets and the wind was howling.  The waves rose tall as a Ponderosa pine.  Pa braved them and went to that ship.  He climbed on board and searched it from stem to stern.  Strange as it seems, there wasn’t any crew.  There was just one passenger; an old lady with gray hair and wide, wild lavender eyes.  She was all bent over and couldn’t stand up straight.  There was no way she could have saved herself.”

By this time Hoss had taken a seat on the hearth and was listening as intently as Joe.

“The lady asked Pa to take her back to his ship and drop her off at the next port.  He agreed and, once she was on land, made sure she was well looked after.  He paid for her hotel and her doctor bill and even left extra money so she had a way to get back to her family.  A week later, he went back to sea.  In time he forgot all about her.”

“What happened after that?” Little Joe asked.

“One year later, Pa was sleeping,  when – bam! –something woke him up.   With a start, he realized there was someone in his room!”

“Was it an old lady?” Hoss asked.

Adam shook his head.  “No.  It was a young lady with pale yellow hair and violet eyes; beautiful as a May morning.  Pa demanded to know who she was.  She told him that she was the old lady he’d rescued and that she’d been in disguise.  She was actually an angel, and God put her there to test the officers of passing ships, to see if they were worthy.”

Little Joe had wiggled out from under the chair and was sitting beside him.  “And Papa passed the test!”

“He did.”  Adam brushed his little brother’s curls aside, surreptitiously using the touch to check for any lingering signs of fever.  “Do you know what the angel said next?”

Both Hoss and Little Joe shook their heads.

“The angel told Pa he’d earned a reward.  He got one wish, and it could be for anything in the world.”

“What did Papa wish for?” his little brother asked.

“Well, Joe, Pa didn’t really know what to wish for.  He thought about gold or a really long life, but finally said, ‘My wish is for three strong, tall, and handsome boys.’”  Adam gestured to Hoss, indicating he needed the bottle again.  “She gave him this.”

Joe looked skeptical.  “The yucky stuff?”

“Uh huh.”

The little boy cocked his head.  “Did you take it?”

Six-foot tall Adam nodded solemnly.

“Then how come you’re smaller than Hossy?”

“I done took a double-dose, Little Joe,” Hoss said, catching on.  “I’m sorry now I was tryin’ to feed it to you.  I done thought it was your medicine.  You’re too little to be taking a magic potion.”

Joe thrust his lower lip out.  “No, I’m not.”

“Hoss is right, Joe,” Adam said solemnly.  “We can’t have you growing taller than either of us!  We’re a lot older.  What would Pa think if you suddenly shot up like a tree?”

“But I want to be tall as you!”  Joe made a grab for the bottle.  “Give it to me!  I’ll drink it all!”

Adam held the bottle just beyond his brother’s reach.  “This is special magic, Little Joe.  It could make you grow so tall you won’t be able to fit in the house anymore!  You don’t want that, do you?”  As his tiny brother shook his head, the teen uncorked the bottle.  He gestured for Hoss to hand him the spoon.  “What do you think, Hoss?  One teaspoon at night and one in the morning ?  That should be safe.”

“How long will it take me to get big as Hossy that way?”

“I think you’ll need to take it for a week at least.”  That was how long Paul had prescribed the medicine for.  The teenager poured a teaspoon full and held it out.  “Are you ready?”

Joe made a face and then opened his mouth.  He almost spit the medicine back out, but in the end took it like a man.

Adam looked him up and down.  “Can you feel yourself growing?”

Baby brother concentrated hard for a few seconds – before his eyes opened wide and he nodded.

“Good.  Now, I want you to go back upstairs with Hoss and let him tuck you in.  You need to sleep.  Otherwise the magic won’t work.”

Joe sniffed.  Then he leapt forward and threw his arms around his neck.  “I love you, Adam!”

The teen returned the hug.  “I love you too, Little Joe.”

 

Ten minutes later Hoss returned to the great room.  Middle brother took a seat on the hearth and stared at him.

Adam put his book down – again.  “What?

“’What’ is right.  What’re you gonna do when Little Joe figures out that there medicine ain’t any kind of magic.”

He folded his hands over the book.  “And just how is Joe going to figure that out?”

“When he don’t grow tall as a Ponderosa pine by New Years Day!”

The teenager shrugged.  “Who’s to say he won’t?”

“Adam, we both know Little Joe ain’t never gonna be tall as you, let alone me.  He’s on the shy side of big just like Mama.”

The teen thought a moment before a sly smile crept across his face.  “But Joe’s heart isn’t small.  Even at six, his heart’s big as all outdoors.  I’ll tell Joe the medicine went straight there and that a big heart is more important than a big body.”

Hoss considered it and then chuckled.   “He’s still gonna pop you on the nose.”

Adam smiled.  “I can take it.”

A sudden sound made them turn toward the kitchen wing.  Hop Sing was just entering the dining room.  He came to their side before speaking.

“This one hear Little Joe talk talk.  Sick little boy supposed to be in bed!”  His black eyes narrowed as he peered around the dimly lit room.  “Where big brothers hide boy?”

“We ain’t hidin’ him, Hop Sing,” Hoss replied.  “I just tucked Joe in bed.”

“Little Joe was down here because he ran from Hoss when he tried to give him his medicine.  We convinced him he should take it.”

“Boy take medicine and not spit it out?”

“He did.”

The Asian man’s lips curled at the ends.  “Christmas time for miracles.  How Mistah Adam work this one?”

“Adam done told Little Joe the syrup was magic and it’d make punkin grow tall as me…in about a week.”

Hop Sing shook his head.  “Mistah Adam most unwise.   Best cook liniment along with supper.  He need it for sore knees!”

“And his sore nose!”

Adam rose to his feet and put his book down on the chair.  “I know….  How about I put Little Joe on my shoulders and walk around with him for a week?  That way he’ll be taller than any of us….”  The teenager turned toward the front door.  “Did you hear that?”

Hoss and Hop Sing exchanged a glance before shaking their heads ‘no’.

“What’d you hear?” middle brother asked.

“I don’t know….  There it is again.  Do you hear it?”

Hoss did this time.  “Sounds like a harness jingling.”

Adam breathed a sigh of relief.  He hadn’t said anything to his brothers, but the deteriorating state of the weather had him alarmed.  While Pa was an excellent rider and more than capable of taking care of himself, tonight the older man was up against a capricious and unpredictable woman.

Mother Nature.

“That be Mistah Ben come home,” Hop Sing agreed.  “I go finish food.”

Adam completed the short journey to the door and opened it onto a hellish night.  Following a day of almost unprecedented snowfall, the temperature had risen and it had begun to rain.

Ice.

Sleet pelted the teen’s exposed skin like gunshot as he left the porch and stepped into the yard, seeking the source of the sound.  Adam’s heart plummeted to his toes when he found it.

Buck was there.

Without a saddle or a rider.

 

 

TWO

 

He’d hated to do it but he’d removed his saddle, slapped Buck on the rump, and sent the horse flying for home.  Ben was counting on his mount’s keen senses to get him there.  The temperature had risen with the setting of the sun and a soft rain begun to fall.  He’d ridden for nearly an hour at a pace before it plummeted and the rain turned to sleet.  Buck’s steps had grown unsteady and they’d begun to pitch and slide.  It was only a matter of time before they fell.  In the end, the only logical thing to do was to part ways.  Providentially, just as the rancher came to that conclusion, a light appeared on the horizon and he caught a whiff of smoke.  Ben couldn’t tell if it was a campfire or a chimney, but either way, the promise of shelter and assistance offered a hope he had all but abandoned.

Without both, he wouldn’t make it through the night.

Ben shook his head as he moved through the thigh-high drifts.  He must look a sight!  With his hat and scarf gone he’d feared frostbite, so he’d opened the bundle and removed its contents.  First he tugged Adam’s black coat on over his own. Then he used little Joe’s green one to cover his head, crossing the sleeves under his chin and tying them like a scarf.  Hoss’ coat, rolled up, served as a muff to keep his hands warm.

Before leaving the settlement he’d lifted his face to Heaven, where his late wife now walked, to tell her ‘thanks’.   He did so again and the stars – bright as Marie’s mischievous eyes – sparkled and said, ‘You’re welcome!’

The rancher pulled his small son’s coat closer about his cheeks as a fierce chill shivered through him.  He could barely feel his fingers or his toes.  The idea of a nose had become a distant possibility.  Ben trained his eyes on the light that shone through the trees and through sheer force of will continued to make his way toward it.  His body was slowing down.  His thinking was muddled.  Each step he took required a hundred times more grit and determination than the last.  He wanted to give up, to lie down and sleep, but he couldn’t – he wouldn’t.

His sons were counting on him to keep his promise that he would never leave them again.

After what seemed an eternity, Ben reached the homestead.  He pushed a rickety gate open wide enough that he could pass through and stepped into the yard before stopping to take a look around.  There was nothing he recognized, which made the rancher wonder just how far off the beaten path he had strayed.  The main dwelling place was a humble one – more of a cabin than a house.  It was constructed of rough logs with a coarse sort of chinking in-between.   The roof was more than half of the cabin and descended at a sharp angle toward the ground.  It was covered with foot-long hand-hewn shingles, some of which had fallen off and lay scattered about the yard.  There was a single low door  in front, along with two windows.  The light he’d seen flickered feebly behind the isinglass, and spilled out to illuminate the virgin snow beneath it.  Ben glanced at the chimney and noted that smoke was rising from it.  So someone was home.

He had no choice but to find out who.

As the rancher neared the cabin, the wind rose.  It howled around the simple structure and drove stinging snow into his eyes so that he stumbled.  Ben thrust a hand out to stop his fall and was startled when his fingers found something unexpected.  Whatever it was, it lay just beyond the reach of the light.  He straightened up and reached out again, this time with deliberation.  At first he thought it was a log, but then he felt the lip of a boot and several stiff, ice-coated shoelaces

It was a woman.

Frozen solid.

Ben fought losing what little food he had in him.  He spit out bile and drew a deep breath before exploring further.  When he touched the woman’s corpse, it gave off a hollow metallic sound indicating that death had occurred a good many hours before.  In the dark it was nearly impossible to determine the poor woman’s features, but he could tell she was young.  As the rancher shifted forward to brush snow and ice from her face, he heard a familiar ‘click’.

“You get away from her, mister.”

Ben looked up.  A boy stood in the open doorway.  At a guess he would have put his age somewhere between Adam and Hoss.

He was holding a rifle.

The rancher spread his hands wide as he rose to his feet.  “Son – ”

“I ain’t your son!” he snarled.  “Now, you get them hands up higher or I’ll blow your head off!”

Another young face, framed by a halo of rampant golden-brown curls, appeared behind the boy.  The little girl was diminutive in stature and might have been anywhere from five to eight.  Her brown eyes were wide with fear.

Ben raised his hands higher as he indicated the fallen woman with a nod.  “Your mother?”

“Ain’t none of your business if she is or isn’t.  Now, you just turn around and march out of here.”

He shook his head.  “I’m afraid I can’t do that.  I need warmth and food to survive.”

“Don’t you count on getting it here!  Like I said, you get out of here.  Otherwise I’ll have to shoot you!”

Ben stood his ground.  “Go ahead.”

“What?”

“If I go back into the snow, I’ll die slowly.  I’d rather have a quick and clean death.”  He lowered his arms and opened his hands wide.  “I’d suggest aiming at my heart.”

The boy’s finger tightened on the trigger.  “I’ll do it!  I swear I’ll do it if you don’t go now!”

Ben shrugged.

The boy was obviously trying to be brave and wanted to protect his sister.  He admired that, but he couldn’t let the child’s fear keep him from what he needed.

“You…you really want me to shoot you?”

The boy was obviously conflicted.  The weapon was loose in his hand; it’s tip rising and falling with indecision.  Rising…falling…rising….

Ben moved quickly.  He advanced on the boy and drove him back into the cabin, even as he took the rifle from his hands.

Seconds later the little girl was kicking at his shins.  “You leave Robby alone!” she shouted.  “Don’t you hurt my brother!!”

“Sally Ann, you stop that!  Come here!” Brave lad that he was, Robby circled his sister with his arms, gave her a hug, and then placed himself between them.  “Mister, you take whatever you want, but don’t you hurt Sally Ann.  I swear I’ll follow you if’n you do and make you pay!”

Ben hid his smile.  “I’m sure you would,” he replied, “so it’s a good thing I don’t want anything other than a cup of hot coffee and a place to sleep before the fire.”

Robby swallowed over his fear.  “We…we ain’t got any coffee, Mister.  Sorry.”

He smiled.  “Maybe tea?”

The little girl’s eyes misted with tears.  “Mama loved tea,” she said and began to cry.

Ben glanced at Robby, seeking permission, and then knelt before his sister.  “Do you like tea, Sally Ann?”

She sniffed and nodded.

“I bet you know where it is.  Can you show me?”

Sally Ann glanced at her brother for permission.  Robby eyed him and then gave a tentative nod.  “I’ll put the water on to boil,” he said.

“Thank you,” Ben replied.  “I appreciate it.”

Robby had stopped and was staring at him, a frown on his face.  “Mister….?”

“Ben, please.  Call me Ben.”

“Okay…Ben.  Can I ask you a question?”

He nodded.  “Certainly.”

“Whatever is that you’re wearin’ on your head?”

Hoss Cartwright finished his descent and headed for the kitchen.  It was three in the mornin’ and he was a mite peckish.  Hop Sing’s supper had been great as always, but none of them had any stomach for it.  Adam was worried about Pa, and even more worried about letting Little Joe know he was worried about Pa.  They’d done their best to keep Joe from knowin’ that Pa was missin’, and might have done it if one of the hands hadn’t come to the door lookin’ to talk to him.  Jim had seen Buck in the barn and figured Pa was home.  Joe’d finished his nap and was sittin’ at the table, so there weren’t no way to keep the little feller from hearin’ what was said.  Adam told Jim that Pa was overdue and most likely caught out in the storm.

After that, well, Joe, he got real quiet.  Baby brother did that sometimes.  It was like, when them wheels started turnin’ in his little brain, he didn’t have no energy left for words.   Adam closed the door and came back to the table and sat down.  Every so often he glanced at Little Joe – and in-between would glance at him.  They both knew little brother real well and was sure he was cookin’ somethin’ up.

They just didn’t know what.

He was the one got to take Joe back to bed.  He had him all tucked in and was reachin’ for a book to read when he realized the little boy was snifffin’.  When he turned back, he saw the tears streamin’ down his cheeks.

“What is it, punkin?”

Joe sniffed again and shook his head.

“Come on, Little Joe, you can tell me.  I’m your best friend.”

Joe’s jaw tightened and his chin jutted out.  “No, you ain’t!  You lied to me!”

He was genuinely surprised.  “Joe!  You know I don’t tell no lies.”

“Yes, you do, and Adam does too!”

“Okay, punkin, if I am, then you tell me what I’m lyin’ about.”

Joe sucked in a shuddering breath.  It came out in a stream of words.  “Papa’s dead!  Papa ain’t lost like Adam said, he’s dead!  Papa’s dead!”

He slipped onto the bed then.  “Now, Little Joe,” he said, “you listen to me, boy.  Pa ain’t no such thing.  He’s just late gettin’ home.”  The youngster stared at his brother for several heartbeats and then pulled the little boy’s covers back.  “You get your robe on and come with me.”

Joe’s brown brows formed a ‘V’.  “Where are we going?”

“Just over here.  I want to show you somethin’.”  Hoss waited until the little boy covered up, and then picked him up and headed for the window.   “What do you see out there?”

Joe looked.  “Nothin’.”

“What do you mean ‘nothin’?”

“There’s nothin’ out there but colors, Hossy.  It’s all blue and white.”

The little boy was right.  The moon was shinin’ down on the snow, casting blue shadows before and beyond the white dunes.

“You’re right, Little Joe.  There ain’t nothin’ but blue and white.  Those colors you see are snow.  Pa’s gotta push Buck through all of that.  That takes time.”  He thought a moment.  “You remember last year when we went sleddin’ and the snow started fallin’ and just kept fallin’ and fallin’, and it took us hours and hours to get home?”

Joe’s eyes went wide.  Even more tears fell.

Mama was there.”

Goldangit!  He hadn’t meant to remind little brother about Ma!

“I miss her,” Joe said in a wee tiny voice.

“I do too, punkin,” he agreed, and meant it.

“How come Mama had to go live with God?”

Hoss considered it.  “Well…I guess ‘cause God needs her more than we do.”

Joe’s tiny fingers formed fists.  “I’m gonna box God’s ears!”

The youngster stifled a chuckle.  Knowing little brother, he would!

“Now, punkin, God’s got His reasons and they’re the right ones”

What reasons?”

Hoss shifted uncomfortably.  He sure wished Pa would step into the room right now!

The twelve-year-old closed his eyes.  Behind them he could see Mama comin’ down the stairs for last year’s Christmas dinner.  Her golden hair was spun so high on her head it looked like flax on a distaff!   Around her neck was the pearls Pa had given her the night before.  Just for them, ‘cause they wasn’t goin’ anywhere, she’d put them on along with one of her fancy dresses; a green one made of velvet with gold trim.  It was like lookin’ at a livin’ Christmas tree.  They all loved Mama, but Little Joe needed her more than the rest of them ‘cause he was just a little tyke.  Hoss remembered thinkin’ then how lucky little brother was on account of he got to know his mama.

Never havin’ one was a different kind of pain.

“What reasons?!” baby brother demanded.

He thought a second.  “Well, you know, God don’t have a wife.”

Joe frowned.  “He don’t?  How come?”

“Jesus didn’t either.  They was just too busy, I guess.  I’m thinkin’ God needed Mama to brighten up Heaven.  You know how she put flowers everywhere and was always singin’?  Mama’s singin’ with the angels now, Little Joe.  Maybe even leadin’ them in a song.”

Joe seemed to be thinkin’ that over.  “How come he didn’t take someone else’s mama?”

Hoss let out a sigh.  “Cause there weren’t no other mama like Mama.”

Little Joe slipped out of his arms.  Once on the floor, he went to the window where he pressed his nose against the glass.  He stood like that for several heartbeats before lookin’ over his shoulder and askin’,  “Does God need Papa too?  He sings pretty.”

Hoss went to stand by his brother.  “Heck, no, Little Joe.  God knows we need Pa here since Mama’s with him.  You’ll see.  Pa will be home anytime now.”

Joe turned to look at him.  “Papa’s really not dead.  He’s just lost?”

The twelve-year-old nodded.  “That’s right, Little Joe.  But he’s only lost ‘til someone finds him.”

His brother continued to stare at him.  Then, without another word, Joe went back to his bed and climbed in.

“That’s right, Little Joe,” Hoss said as he pulled the covers up to his punkin’s chin.  “You go to sleep and you’ll see, Pa’ll be here when you wake up.”

His brother’s large limpid eyes were trained on him.   “Promise?”

“Promise.  Now, how about you and I say a prayer that God makes it so?”

“Okay.”

Hoss bowed his head.  He cracked one eye to make sure his brother was doin’ the same before he started.  The words sounded hollow as he spoke them, but he knew from Pa that you had to have faith that they were true.

“First off, God, thanks for listenin’.  Little Joe and I love you and we know you love us.  Our pa’s out in the cold, so we’re askin’ you to keep him safe and warm and see him home.  I made a promise to little brother here and I’d like to keep it, so I’m askin’ for another thing too.  Tomorrow when the sun shines – when Little Joe opens his eyes – please let the first thing he sees be Pa.  Thanks again, God, for hearin’ us.  Amen.”

Joe’s voice chimed in.  “Amen.

Hoss reached out and ruffled his brother’s curls.  “Now you get yourself to sleep and don’t you worry none.  You’ll see Pa come daylight.”

“I ain’t worried,” his brother said as he disappeared under the covers.  “I know I will.”

That’d been about five hours back.  He’d gone to bed and laid there thinkin’ about what he’d said, and about Mama.  He was kind of scared about Pa too, though he wouldn’t admit it to Little Joe.  After a few hours of tossin’ and turnin’, he’d decided maybe puttin’ somethin’ in his stomach would help, and so here he was paddin’ through the empty house in his stockings.

Only it weren’t empty.

A shadow shifted near Pa’s desk and someone spoke his name.

“Hoss.”  When he jumped, the speaker went on.  “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.”

It was brother Adam.  He was dressed and had a rolled-up map under his arm.

“What’re you doin’ awake?” Hoss asked.

“The same as you, I imagine.  I couldn’t sleep.  I figured I might as well prepare for the morning’s ride.  With all the snow, it’s not going to be easy to find Pa.”

“You really think he’s lost?”

“It’s the only thing I can think of.  Otherwise, he’d be home by now.”  Older brother walked to the door and opened it.  The wind was howling.  More snow was falling, buryin’ the ice from before.   “I’m hoping this stops by dawn.”

“Pa won’t like you goin’ out in it.  Not with you bein’ sick such a short time ago.”

Adam closed the door and turned to face him.  “I don’t care whether Pa likes it or not!” he snapped.  A second later older brother passed a hand over his eyes.  “I’m sorry, Hoss.  I know Pa won’t like it, but it’s not like I have any choice.”

Hoss hesitated.  “Adam, can I –”

“No, you can’t come with me.”

“How come?”

“In the first place, you’re only twelve.”  Adam’s gaze traveled the stairs to the second floor.  “In the second, I need you to look out for Little Joe.”

“Hop Sing can do that.”

His brother placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Think about it, Hoss.  Marie is dead.  Pa is missing.  I’m going to disappear.  If you’re gone, there will be no family left.  We can’t do that to Joe.”  Adam paused.  “Not after what he’s been through this year.”

Mama died back in the spring.  It had been a sad one ever since.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

“I know I’m right.”  Adam brightened.  “Now, what are you doing up?  Wait, I know.  You’re hungry.”

He pursed his lips.  “I’m just a growin’ boy, Adam.”

“…and growing and growing.  You’re going to be taller than me soon!”

He had just turned twelve come December.  Brother Adam was seventeen and a half and they was nearly of a height.  Pa told him it was the Viking blood in his veins.  Adam’s blood wasn’t Viking.  According to the people in the settlement, it was blue.

“I’m just waitin’ on that day, older brother,” he answered with a grin.

“If you think you’re going to get out of your chores, just because you’re bigger than me, then you have another ‘think’ coming.”

“Aw, shucks.  I don’t want to get out of any work.  I figure, when I clean out the stable, I’ll just pick you up and use that fancy hair of yours as a broom!”

Adam took a swipe at him.  Hoss ducked under his arm and headed for the kitchen.  When he returned, food in hand, it was to find his brother sitting, staring at the fire.

“Hoss,” he said.

“Yeah?”

“We have to prepare ourselves.  Not that I think anything has happened to Pa, but…just in case.”

It was the risk of livin’ where they was.  God done made the mountains and the lakes and the trees that surrounded them to show His glory, but all them things didn’t give a fig about whether or not a man survived.  They knew other kids their age who had lost both parents and were on their own.

He nodded.

“Night, Adam.  Don’t you take off ‘til I’m up to say goodbye.”

“We’re leaving around eight.  Soon as the sun is up.”

“I’ll be there.  Night, brother.”

“Goodnight, Hoss.”

Hoss glanced at the tray he carried.  His appetite wasn’t what it had been and he was tempted to return it to the kitchen.  Instead, he started the short trek up the steps.   A full belly would help him fall asleep.

Or at least he hoped it would.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THREE

 

When Ben Cartwright laid down to sleep on the floor next to the wood stove, he considered what he should do next.  Earlier that evening he’d found a stack of children’s books in a trunk tucked in the corner of a back room.  One of them was a compendium from which he’d selected a cheery tale entitled ‘Old Mother Mitten and Her Funny Kitten’ to read to Sally Ann.  The little girl had cried her grief out and then refused to go to bed, stating she was scared of the big white monster outside.  He’d chuckled at her choice of terms, thinking of his own small son who loved snow and lacked a healthy fear of it.  From the time he’d been old enough to walk out the front door, Little Joe had been fascinated by the idea that you could take plain old rainwater, add cold air, and – poof! – you had a wintry wonderland.  Joseph loved to leap in and out of the white dunes and to build snow-block fortresses with his older brothers.  Thinking of his youngest made Ben realize just how much he missed the boy and longed to touch him.

Just like Sally Ann missed her mother and longed for her touch.

As soon as the little girl fell into a deep sleep, Ben returned to the common room.  Once there, he and Robby set to work plugging the holes in the windows and walls with wadded up cloth.  It was imperative they prevent the wind and snow from blowing in.  When they were done, they covered the walls with an extra layer of blankets and in no time the humble cabin was warm.

It took Robby a little longer to thaw, but eventually the boy started talking.

His parents had prepared for winter, he said, but not for the winter they got.  The Hutchins were Easterners who’d farmed a small plot of land outside of Sacramento for a few years, before selling it and making their way to the Utah Territory.  Their first winter here had been mild and they’d expected this one to be the same.  Little did the Hutchins or anyone else know that this winter would turn out to be a winter unlike any other, with constant squalls of snow, moments of spring-like warmth, and then ice and more snow.  It was during the last thaw that Robby’s father headed out to hunt.  In his absence, their mother insisted on minding the animals – even in the midst of a horrific storm.  Robby and his sister huddled in the cabin with strict orders not to follow.  They waited and waited – and then waited some more.  When morning came and their mother had not returned, the boy stepped outside to look for her.

And found her frozen to death not ten feet from the door.

Robert James Hutchins was a quiet child who, in many ways, reminded him of Adam.  The boy was dark-haired and pale-skinned and quite a thinker.  Robby was fully aware that the care of his little sister had fallen squarely on his twelve-year-old shoulders and he was doing his best not to let it cow him.  He’d admitted that the gun he’d held on him wasn’t loaded.  He said his pa had taught him that just the sight of a gun was often enough to make a cowardly man fly.

Just like he’d taught his sons.

It was possible Robby and Sally Ann’s father would return.  He might have been caught in the hills, unable to descend.  Of course, it was just as possible that the man was dead.  So it fell on him to see that Alexander Hutchins’ children came to no harm.  In doing so he was faced with a choice – remain here and hope that the storm ended soon, or take two small children out into the worst winter tempest he had ever seen.  Their best chance lay in the hope that Buck had reached the ranch and sounded the alarm.   If Adam used his head, he would send out some of the more experienced men to conduct the search.

If the boy used his heart, he would come himself.

His eldest kept his feelings close, but there was a bond between them that went beyond father and son.   They were friends and companions; joined at the hip by a dream that had driven them from the streets of Boston to the mountains of the Sierras.   Adam was his second, his right arm – his prop.  Though he hoped the boy wouldn’t come, he knew better.  There was no way the Adam he knew would sit still and wait while others sought him.

God protect him.

“Mister Ben?”

Ben rolled over in his make-shirt bed to look at Robby who was sitting up on the cot where he had been sleeping.

“Just Ben, please.”

“I don’t  think my pa would like me callin’ you by your first name…sir.”

The rancher nodded.  He understood the value of respect.  “What can I do for you, Robby?”

“Are you gonna take us away from here tomorrow?”

Ben shifted and sat up.  “Do you think I should?”

“I’d be okay, but, Sally Ann….  Well, she ain’t used to doin’ things the hard way.”  Tears welled in the boy’s eyes, but didn’t fall.  “Mama kind of spoiled her.”

Sally Ann was seven.  Only a year older than Joseph and five years younger than her brother.

Ben nodded.  “We need to take care of her.”

“I don’t want to go,” Robby said as he looked around the cabin, “ but I think we should.”

“It will be a hard journey.”  He paused.  “Impossible, maybe.”

“I don’t see as we have a choice, Mister…Ben.  I gotta get Sally Ann somewhere safe and warm.  We don’t have much wood and our supplies are runnin’ low.”

He’d checked the larder earlier.  The boy was right.  They had enough food for, perhaps, two days at most.  There was wood outside, of course, but it was buried under several layers of ice and snow.  Even if they could get to it, it would be all but worthless.

“You’re both welcome to stay at the Ponderosa until your father returns.  We’ll leave him a note so he knows where to find you.”

The tears fell this time.  “Do you really think Pa is alive?”

Ben stood up and crossed over to the boy.  He sat beside him and placed an arm around his shoulders.   “You have to have faith, Robby.  I know it’s hard – hard to understand and even harder to accept.  We have to keep on believing that your Pa is alive until we know otherwise.”  He smiled.  “As Hop Sing says, ‘Keep a green tree in your heart and perhaps the singing bird will come.’”

Robby sniffed and ran a hand under his nose.  “Who’s Hop Sing?”

“A very wise man.  You’ll meet him when we get to the Ponderosa.”

“I…think I’d like that.”

He rose to his feet.  “Son, you need to get some sleep.  Tomorrow will be a long, hard day and you’ll need to be at your best to protect Sally Ann.”

The boy scooted down into his covers.  “Mister Ben?”

“Yes?”

“Your boys?  Hoss, Adam and….”

“Little Joe.”

Robby nodded.  “Little Joe.  They’re awful lucky to have you as a pa.”

“Thank you, son.  Your pa is lucky too.”

“You think so, Mister Ben?”

Ben grinned.  “I know so, son.  He has you.”

 

It was after eight and Adam was ready to depart.  He’d been ready for hours, but acknowledged the fact that he needed light to navigate his way through the white world he was about to enter.  The snow had tapered off – finally – but was still falling.  It had topped the fence rails the night before.

Now they were nowhere to be seen.

While he’d been getting ready, Jim had cleared a path to the barn from the house and saddled their horses.  His new mount, Sport, was still skittish, so he’d decided to ride one of their older, steadier horses.  Captain was part Fresian, the child of a draft horse and a thoroughbred.  He measured sixteen and a half hands and had an even temperament and just about the surest step he’d ever seen.  And best of all?  The horse had no fear of snow.  In fact, he relished it!  Jim’s mount, a Gypsy Vanner, was of a similar size and temperament.  Together, the stolid animals would shepherd them along a road that was no longer visible and through drifts the height of a man.

“You gettin’ ready to head out, older brother?”

Adam turned to find Hoss coming down the stairs.  He was alone.

“Where’s Little Joe?”

“Still sleepin’.  I just checked on him.”

The teenager nodded.  “Good.  He needs his rest.  I heard him coughing last night.”

“Leastways his cough ain’t as deep as it was.”

“You be sure to keep him warm.”

“I will, Adam.  I ain’t stupid.”

He winced and then grinned.  “Sorry.  Pa isn’t here, so I get to be the mother hen.”

Hoss snorted.  “I guess you do at that.”

A knock on the door turned them both toward it.  Adam went to open it.  Jim was standing outside, kitted up for an expedition to the Arctic.

Which wasn’t too far away from where they were going.

“You ready, Adam?”

“Almost.”  He turned back to Hoss.  “You keep the home fires burning ‘til I get back, okay?”

“Sure will.”

“And keep both eyes on that little brother of ours.  I’m counting on you to make sure Little Joe is safe and well, even if you have to sit on him to do it.”

“Hop Sing help.”

The Asian man had just come into the dining room.  He advanced toward them, linens in hand.

“Thanks, Hop Sing.  I appreciate it.”

“Sun’s up, Adam.  We best get movin’,” Jim said.

“All right.  Hoss, I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

“With Pa, right?”

“With Pa.  You make sure Little Joe knows that.  Okay?”

“I will.”

And with that, Adam turned and walked out the door.

 

Hoss watched his older brother go and then followed Hop Sing into the kitchen and helped him finish up breakfast.  The smells were almost more than he could take – blueberry flapjacks , maple syrup, hot bacon and sausages, and crisp brown hashed potatoes.  He helped Hop Sing set the table before heading upstairs to wake his little brother.  As he climbed the stairs the twelve-year-old let out a sigh, thinking of the battle to come.

When he was sick, Little Joe was just like a fat mouse what didn’t want no more food.

Joe’s room was dark.  Pa’s friend Paul Martin told them to keep the curtains drawn so Little Joe wouldn’t wake up too soon.  They was open just a peep and Hoss could see the snow falling outside.  He’d been kind of surprised when Adam opened the door at just how much the temperature had dropped.  The youngster shivered.  Fact of the matter was, it was right cold in here!  He glanced at his little brother’s fireplace.  It was blazin’ away.  Puzzled, the youngster followed the trail of cold air over to the window and – dang it! – if it wasn’t open a crack.

Hoss glanced at the small lump in the bed behind him.  What in Sam Hill was little brother thinkin’?  Pa’d skin his scrawny hide if he knew Little Joe’d opened the window and let in the winter air.  The twelve-year-old leaned on the sash and closed it.  As he did, he noted movement outside and saw Adam and Jim pullin’ out of the yard.  He sure was sure gonna miss older brother.  Even more than Pa, Adam had a way of puttin’ what he called ‘pre-spective’ on things.

Older brother was calm as Lake Beigler after a storm – even in the middle of the storm!

Hoss watched until his eldest brother disappeared and then turned and walked to his baby brother’s bed.  Little Joe’d moved into his own room and his ‘big boy’ bed just before Mama passed.  Seemed to him there wasn’t quite enough of the boy yet to fill it!  Up near the pillows there was a funny little lump.  Joe’s covers was usually wrapped around him like a twister, but tonight they weren’t.

“Hey, punkin, time to rise and – ” Hoss gasped.  “No!”

Tate’ lump’ was two pillows squished up together to look like a boy!

Hoss turned on his heel and looked around the room.  Then he dropped, pulled up the dust skirt, and looked under the bed.  Desperate, he ran to his little brother’s closet and rummaged through all the toys and clothes on the floor.

No Joe.

By this time he was plain scared.  Hoss glanced at the window again, shook his head, and left the bedroom.  He ran down the hall, heading for his Pa’s room.  Five minutes later he’d checked all of the other rooms on the upper floor too.

Still no Little Joe.

The youngster stood for a moment, his heart fair knockin’ the ribs out of his chest, and then he flew down the stairs shouting, “HOP SING!  HOP SING!!”

Before he reached the settee, the Asian man appeared, towel in hand.  “What Mistah Hoss shout for?  All time shout like father!  Shout so loud make dishes jump from shelves!”

He was panting so hard it took him a moment to find his voice.  “Hop…Sing….sorry…sorry, I…yelled…but Little Joe’s…gone!”

The older man’s eyes narrowed.  “What boy mean brother ‘gone’?”

“Gone!  Joe…ain’t in his…room.”

“Boy look under bed?”

“And in…his closet and in all the…other rooms upstairs.”  Hoss drew a deep breath.  “He ain’t up there!”

“Maybe boy play game and hide.”

“I sure hope so, Hop Sing.”  He had his voice at last.  “When I went into Joe’s room it was awful cold.  The window was open.”

“Window open?  Little boy sick.  Why window open?”

He shrugged.  He really had no idea.  Unless….

The twelve-year-old swallowed over his fear.  “You don’t suppose…  You don’t suppose Little Joe went after Pa?”

“How boy do that?  Go out window, over roof, and down tree?” Hop Sing shook his head.  “No.  He too small.”

Little Joe’d done it before ,though neither he or Adam had told the grown-ups.   One time, when he was just about four, Joe’d decided he wanted to visit a nice lady that lived in the settlement.  She made real good cookies.  It was cold, so he wore his hat and mittens – and just about nothin’ else.  Luckily, he and Adam spied the little boy walkin’ down the front path.  Of course, Joe didn’t know how long it took to get to the settlement.

Little brother didn’t know he would have died.

“Hop Sing, you’ve been in the kitchen, we’re here now, and punkin ain’t upstairs.  Where else could he be?”

The Asian man nodded.  “Mistah Hoss go get coat and extra clothes for little brother.  Come back here, quick, and put on coat.  First we search yard.  If not find little brother, find father’s men and make them look.”  Hop Sing glared at him.  “What boy wait for?  Go now!  Chop chop!!”

There was no way of knowin’ when Joe’d snuck out, but it’d already been a quarter of an hour since he’d found him missin’.  It was snowin’ again to beat the band and mighty cold outside.  Punkin was just a little feller.  He could step into a snowdrift and disappear.

Hoss took off running.  His coat and hat was by the door but little brother’s was in his room since he’d been off his feet so long.  The youngster went there first to gather up what he needed, and then went into his own room where brother Adam’s old coat was hangin’ in the closet.  He’d outgrown it so fast, it was still in pretty good shape.  It’d add a layer of warmth when they found Little Joe.

And they was gonna find him!

Hop Sing entered the great room just as his feet hit the floor.  The older man had his outdoor gear on and was carrying several blankets.  Hoss made a beeline to the chest tucked in the corner by the stair and came back with another one.  It was a thick green wool.  Pa used it to tuck over his feet when he was readin’ late at night; when it was extra cold.

Maybe since it smelled like Pa, it’d make Joe feel better.

“That work better.  Not too big for small boy,” the Asian man said as he abandoned the blankets in his arms.  “Now, Hop Sing need Mistah Hoss listen to him.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Hop Sing search around house back and front.  Want Mistah Hoss to search barn and stable.  You stay in yard when done.  You no go outside yard looking.”

That was a hard promise to make.

“But, Hop Sing, what if Little Joe ain’t in the yard?  What if he’s out in the snow somewhere, maybe just on the other side of the gate?  I gotta – “

The Asian man placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Then we go look for little brother together.  No good go alone.  Father not want Mistah Hoss go missing too.”

 

Hoss spent the next fifteen minutes frantically searching the barn and stable, as well as the yard as far as the fence went.  He was heartbroken when he didn’t find anything.  His little brother was out here – somewhere – in the middle of all this white stuff, probably freezin’ to death, and he couldn’t do anythin’ about it!  Like a flash flood, a bleak future opened up before his eyes – Little Joe dyin’, Adam blamin’ himself for leavin’ and not takin’ care of Joe; him blamin’ himself for not findin’ punkin in time.  Pa comin’ home to the fact that he’d not only lost Mama but all that was left of her too.  Pa was barely survivin’ now.

This would kill him.

A whinny and snort drew his attention back to the stable.  It was repeated two times.  If his hat hadn’t been tied to his head, the youngster would have scratched it!  He’d just been in there and all the horses seemed fine.  So why was one puttin’ up a fuss now?  ‘Course, he should of taken time to make sure they was all bedded down and fed when he was in there.  They’d expect that this time of night and he was usually the one to do it.  Instead he’d taken a turn around the stalls and hadn’t even said so much as ‘howdy!”.  Hoss eyed the house, searching for some sign of Hop Sing.  It took him a minute to spy the lantern-light near the back.

Since the Asian man had told him to stay put, he guessed he had time to go and see what that horse was worryin’ about.

Hoss opened the door again, stepped inside, and remained still, listenin’.  The horses had a peckin’ order of their own and sometimes they took care of their problems without no human interferin’.  Pa’d taught him to give them time to do that.  He’d just about decided to leave when the horse started talkin’ again.  This time it neighed and nickered low like it was worried about something.

“I’m comin’, boy,” the youngster said as he headed for the back of the stable.  The stall next to the last held the pony Pa was groomin’ for Little Joe.  His name was Cadfan and he was a Welsh Cobb.  Cadfan was as even-tempered as they came and smart as a whip.  He and little brother done took to each other right away.  Pa told Little Joe that, come this spring, he’d get to ride him.  He’d even bought little brother a new saddle as a promise.  It was kind of cute to watch punkin come out and climb up on that big old horse and pretend to ride.  Sometimes Joe did it bareback, and sometimes they’d take the saddle from the stall wall and put it on Cadfan’s back for him and….

The saddle weren’t there.

Hoss frowned and looked around.  It had to be in the barn.  It was too small for anyone else on the ranch and, ‘sides that, Pa didn’t let no one use it.  He wondered if maybe it had fallen onto the floor and that was what had the Cobb scared.

“Easy, boy,” Hoss said as he patted Cadfan’s nose.   “Easy there.  Ain’t nothin’ to be scared of.  You just let me check and see if that old saddle’s at your feet.  I’ll get it out if it is.”

The horse nickered again and then groaned as if in pain.  A quick look-over didn’t show Hoss nothin’ wrong with it.  He gently moved the Cobb to the opposite side of the stall and then – with one eye on the nervous animal – knelt in the wet muck and began to search.  It didn’t take him long to find it.  The saddle was on the floor just like he guessed.  It was layin’ at sort of an odd angle, so Hoss stood up before he lifted it.  When he did, he heard a small sound.  At first the youngster thought it was Cadfan, groanin’ again.  Then he realized he hadn’t only found the saddle.

He’d found Little Joe.

 

Ben Cartwright glanced at the children by his side.  He’d been lucky – no – blessed to find not only a sleigh in the Hutchins’ stable but a single surviving horse.  All he could think was that the diligence of Robby and Sally Ann’s mother in tending to their animals that last fateful night had saved their lives.

Her name was Rachel.

He prepared the sleigh as best he could for travel through a wild and wintry landscape, loading it with what little food remained and several containers of hot liquid.  He’d also boiled some potatoes and placed them in the children’s pockets and at their feet to keep them warm.  Snow was falling again, adding more inches to those already deposited.  The wind was chilling and nipped not only at one’s nose but their cheeks as well.  In the cabin he’d found a few extra garments for the children to don and then placed Beth Riley’s precious coats over the top of them.  Sally Ann was wearing Little Joe’s.  The sight of the little girl with her golden-brown curls in his small son’s coat stabbed his heart.

Why had he left home?  What was he thinking?

How could he be so selfish?

Then again, if he had not left and been drawn out of desperation to the Hutchins cabin, most likely the two children sitting beside him would have died, either of starvation or the cold.  As he often told his own children, God’s ways were mysterious and wondrous to behold.  Didn’t it say in Luke?  ‘Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God?  But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows.’  He’d read to the children from their family Bible the night before, noting the entries for births and deaths, marriages and funerals.  Alexander and Rachel had lost two children.  From the dates, it appeared the couple was  on their own with no parent to assist them.  The family had already known much sorrow.

Just as he had known sorrow.

Sadly, it was the way of the fallen world they lived in.  God created impossible beauty, and even more impossible, offered companionship with Him.  Mankind rejected His covenant and His love, just as it rejected His son, Jesus.  They were all paying the price.  One day – Ben drew a breath – one day there would be no more sorrow and all who believed would be reunited again.  The rancher smiled.

He wondered which of his three wives would greet him first.

Ben jiggled the reins and, with one last glance at the Hutchins’ cabin, ordered the horse forward.  For some time the three of them rode in silence, and then a little voice spoke.

“Mister Ben?”

He looked down at Sally Ann who was nestled in the crook of his arm.   “Yes?”

“Do you think your little boys will like Robby and me?”

Robby was there, beside his sister.  The boy had kept vigil most of the night and, in spite of the cold, had fallen sound asleep shortly after they departed.

He kept his voice low.  “I’m sure they will love you.”

“What are they like?”

He thought a moment before speaking, mostly about how amused seventeen-year-old Adam would be to be called a ‘little’ boy.

“Well, let’s see.  Adam would seem all grown up to you.  He’s almost as tall as me.  He has black hair and wise hazel eyes and the girls think he is very handsome.”  Sally Ann ducked her head and hid her smile.  It was amazing how young it started!  “Hoss is the same age as Robby, but he’s almost as big as Adam.  You’ll think he’s a giant.  Don’t worry, though.  You won’t meet a gentler one.”

“What’s Hoss look like?”

“He has brown hair that looks red sometimes.  He’s got a big broad face that matches his big broad laugh, and eyes clear and clean and blue as the waters of Lake Beigler.”

“There’s another little boy, right?”

Ben’s attention was drawn for a moment to the sleigh, which he navigated through a thick bank of snow before answering.

“That would be Little Joe, or Joseph.  He’s younger than you.   He has curly hair just like you do and it’s about the same color.”

“That’s what he looks like,” she said with a yawn, “but what’s he like?”

“Oh, you mean is he a good boy or a bad boy?”

As Sally Ann leaned against him Ben’s thoughts flew back nearly a year, to the last Christmas he’d shared with his beloved Marie.  Joseph had just turned four and come into his own as far as mobility – and mischief!  They’d brought a huge fir tree into the house to decorate for Christmas.  It was a massive tree with evenly spaced branches for candles and a substantial trunk.  Even Adam clapped as it slipped into the housing that would hold it for the next two weeks.  They’d started that night to place the ornaments, but time ran out and they’d sent the boys to bed and then retired themselves.  Around three o’clock in the morning they heard the most horrendous CRASH!   He and Marie, and Hoss and Adam, met in the hall.  Marie flew into Joseph’s room to check on him and emerged almost as quickly to tell them he was not in his bed.

There were pine needles everywhere – as well as shards of broken dishes and the remnants of his favorite reading lamp.  The tree had fallen over and come to rest on what was left of his leather chair.  Under the chair, was a very contrite and completely terrified Little Joe.

The little boy had tried to climb the tree to put the angel on the top.

“Mister Ben?”

The rancher chuckled.  “I apologize, Sally Ann, I was thinking about Little Joe.  Joseph is the sweetest, most loving child I know.  He is also a little dickens!”

She snuggled in closer.  “You mean he gets into trouble?”

“Yes.  All the time.”

The child wrapped her arm around his and leaned her curly head on it.  “We’ll get along just fine,” she said, her voice falling off to almost nothing.  “Pa called me…his…little dickens too….”

Sally Ann fell silent.  The night fell silent too.  The moon was large and high.  Snow was falling and, for the moment, their sleigh was gliding easily over the blue-white dunes.  At this rate it wouldn’t take very long to get to the Ponderosa.  He couldn’t have expressed just how much he wanted to be home even if there had been anyone around to listen.

No.

There was someone to listen.

With that thought, Ben Cartwright’s lips began to move in prayer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FOUR

 

Adam Cartwright dropped to his knees in order to search the ground for any sign of his father.  He knew it was pointless, but what else was he going to do?  He was not about to give up looking.  Since there were no tracks, he and Jim had agreed to take the path he knew the older man used to get to the settlement.  It brought them to the place where his father abandoned Buck.  He’d found Pa’s saddle.

Now he had to find Pa.

There wasn’t much between the Ponderosa and the settlement other than a few homesteads set pretty far back from the road.  They made it a habit to visit their neighbors from time to time to check on them and to offer assistance where it was needed.  He knew where most of their houses lay and was sure he could find them – on a clear day, with a clear perspective and no white stuff coming down to block his view.   He and Jim had parted a short time before.  The place where Pa’s saddle lay had been near a fork in the road.  One trail led up and the other continued on toward Reno.  He’d chosen the more difficult path and sent their hand on to follow the road.  They’d agreed to meet back at the Ponderosa by dark.

The teenager stood and dusted his knees off.  He drew his hat down over his eyes and tightened the collar of his coat before looking around.  It was cold – so cold you could see it in the air.  There was no sound.  The animals were hunkered down and the birds, wisely, sheltered deep within their nests.  Adam snorted.  Middle brother was right.  Hoss said man was the only animal stupid enough to venture out into a killing snow.

The landscape was desolate, but brightened by the fact that everything everywhere glittered.  It reminded him of the world described in Spenser’s Faerie Queene or the one created by the Bard for Midsummer’s Night Dream.  He would have loved to wax poetic about it – if he was at home with his family sitting around the fire listening to him.  The teenager grinned at the thought of his little brother’s reaction.  Little Joe would squirm and then sigh, and then beg and bargain, and then – finally – fall asleep in their father’s arms.  Joe had the potential to be a scholar.  He had a sharp inquisitive mind.  What he lacked was the patience or drive to study.  Everything had to come quickly with Joseph Francis Cartwright or it was put aside as something irrelevant.        

Marie had been the same way.

The teenager ran a gloved finger under his nose.

“Cold air must be getting to me,” he muttered as he blinked back tears and headed for his horse.

It was then he heard it.

Singing?

Adam took a step back and looked up the hill.  There was something there.  It was gliding toward him, so he guessed it was a sleigh or sledge.  He raised a hand and squinted against the dazzling landscape, trying to make out who was driving.  It was a man, with either a gray hat or hair.  The horse that pulled the sleigh looked to be done in.  By its size and shape, it was obviously a plow horse and not one trained for such a vehicle.

Did he dare hope that man – with the glinting gray cap – was his pa?

Then again, there was that music.

The man wasn’t alone.  There had to be at least one child with him.  Maybe more.  As the sleigh glided along, the occupants sang.  They passed the verse as they passed through the trees and went on to the refrain, so what greeted him on this cold, desperate, hopeless morning were the joyous strains of ‘Glo-o-o-o-o, glo-o-o-o-o , glo-o-o-o-o-oria!  In excelsis de-e-e-o!’ 

It was as welcome as the song the angels sang on the night of the Savior’s birth.

“Pa?” Adam shouted as he started up the hill.  “Pa?  It’s Adam!”

He heard the man shout, ‘Whoa! Whoa, there!’, in a voice that should have shaken the snow from the trees.   And then, a question came that let him know he’d been right.  “Adam?  Son, is that you?”

It was tough going, but the teenager slogged the rest of the way up the hill to his father’s side.  By that time Pa was out of the sleigh and coming toward him.

“Adam!” Pa shouted as he caught him in a bear hug that took his breath away.  The older man moved back and took a look at him.   “Are you all right?  What are you doing here?  You should be in bed!”

“I’m fine, Pa.  And what I’m doing here is looking for you!”

His father’s smile was chagrined.  “I guess I am a little overdo.”

“Buck came into the yard without a saddle or you.  We were afraid….”

“Sorry, son.  It was the only way I could think of to let you know I was alive and headed for home.”

‘Well, it worked,” the teenager replied as his gaze strayed to the sleigh and he noted two sets of young eyes watching them.  Adam nodded toward the children.  “Are you going to introduce me to your friends?”

Pa nodded.  “The story will keep until later, but yes, it’s time you met.  Robby!  Sally Ann!  This is Adam, my oldest boy.”

The boy looked to be around Hoss’ age.  The little girl, well she just looked like Little Joe.  Robby waved.  “Hey, Adam!”

Sally Ann, on the other hands, said nothing.

“Aren’t you going to say hello, Sally Ann?” Pa asked.

She cocked her head and made a face.  “He don’t look so handsome to me.”

Adam’s brows shot up as his father snorted.  “Women!  What are you going to do with them?”

The teenager laughed as well.  He was so relieved that he gave his father another hug before saying, “That horse looks pretty tuckered out, Pa.  Mine’s below.  Maybe we should switch them out before we head to the Ponderosa.”

“Sounds like a good idea.”  Pa placed a hand on his shoulder.  “Thank you, son, for coming to my rescue.”

“It doesn’t look like you needed to be rescued.  You’d have made it home by noon at the pace you were going.”

Pa held his gaze.  “I’m not thanking you for saving me, but for trying to.”

He pursed his lips and nodded.  “Thanks accepted.”

“Now, let’s get home to your brothers.  I’ve been missing you all something fierce.”

“Little Joe is really worried about you.  Because…well…you know.”

Yes, he did, and Ben felt like a heel for having left and brought his son such pain.  “I know.  I’ll make it up to him…somehow.”

Pa got back into the sleigh and piloted it down the hill as he went for his horse,

He couldn’t wait to tell Little Joe.

Baby brother was going to be so happy!

 

“Lordy, punkin!  What have you got yourself into this time?!”

Hoss knelt beside the befouled form of his little brother.  Joe was an inch deep in the filth that lined the stall.  From Hoss’ vantage point, it looked like he’d tried to pull the saddle down by himself and ended up underneath it.  Nothin’ looked to be broken, though he couldn’t be sure, but the boy was shiverin’  somethin’ fierce.  There was a small amount of blood on his brother’s forehead and some around his lips, most like from one of the buckles on the saddle strikin’ him as it came down.

Joe wasn’t movin’.

He was gonna pick the boy up and head for the house right quick, but reason talked him out of it.  Little Joe could have injuries he knew nothin’ about.  So, instead, Hoss went to the door of the stable and threw it open and started hollering.

“Hop Sing!  Hey, Hop Sing!!  I found Little Joe!”  When there was no reply, he tried again.  “Hop Sing!  You hear me?”

“Hop Sing hear!” came a faint reply.  “Come to Mistah Hoss now!”

The light appeared seconds later, closer this time, and kept growing bigger as it moved toward him.  Pretty soon it gave way to Hop Sing.

“Where Mistah Hoss find little boy?”

“Little Joe’s in Cadfan’s stall.  Looks like he was tryin’ to saddle him.”

“Why boy do that?” the Asian man said as they headed for the stable door.

“To go look for Pa, I’m guessin’. “  He’d been thinkin’ about it and remembered tellin’ Little Joe that Pa was only lost ‘til someone found him.

Joe must have thought that ‘someone’ needed to be him.

“Mistah Ben lost, Little Joe lost – maybe both lose life,” Hop Sing growled.  “Such foolishment!”

“Punkin’s way at the back.”

They got there lickety-split.  Little Joe hadn’t moved and was layin’ there in the muck lookin’ pitiful.  Hop Sing took one look at him and began to issue orders as he wrapped Joe in Adam’s old coat.  “Boy go to kitchen and put on kettles.  Wait by fire.  I bring Little Joe in quick as bunny hop.”

“Is Joe okay?  Do…do you think he’s hurt?”

“Hop Sing not know.  Bring brother in out of cold and then find out.  Doctor say boy not to take chill and he cold as ice.  Now, go!  Stoke fire and put kettles on!”

Hoss was staring at his little brother.  Joe was so still.  His skin was paler than his hair, and his lips were tinged with blue.

“You go now!” the Asian man ordered.

He almost saluted.

“Yes, sir!”

 

Hop Sing watched his boss’ number two son leave before turning back to examine son number three.  He needed to make certain the little boy had no serious injuries before he moved him – even though he did not relish the idea of keeping the child in the cold stable one more minute.  Little Joe would have to be moved.  It was his desire to do it in such a way that the child would experience as little pain as possible.  The Asian man ran his hands quickly and efficiently up and down the boy’s legs, and then moved on to his arms.  When his fingers touched the child’s left wrist, it elicited a moan.  With care, Hop Sing shifted the boy and placed him in the crook of his arm.  Then he used the tail of his shirt to wipe off the boy’s lower arm.  Bruises were to be expected, but the limb was already swelling and upon closer examination he saw it was bent in an odd way.

And obviously broken.

Using the blanket he’d brought with him, Hop Sing wrapped the boy in it before placing him on the floor of the stall.  Then he rose and went into the stable to seek a piece of wood the right size.  Finding it, he snapped off two pieces.  Next he found some twine.  Each had its part to play, but together they would create a splint to stabilize the child’s arm.  Little Joe cried out as he tightened the twine around the boards, but did not wake.

Once he was done, the Asian man picked the little boy up and left the stable.

 

Hoss was in the kitchen firing up the stove when he heard a sound.  It was a funny one and put him in mind of the band of gypsies who’d come to the house last spring lookin’ for food.  To thank Pa for what he gave them, they’d put on a concert before they left.  There was a man with a guitar and a pretty girl about Adam’s age who’d played a tambourine.

It sounded kind of like that.

The youngster checked the fires and made sure they were turned low before he headed out the side door to see what was goin’ on.  Across the way he saw Hop Sing comin’ out of the stable carryin’ Little Joe in his arms.  One quick look told him their cook hadn’t  made the jingling noise.

That would have been the big old sleigh pullin’ in beside him – right in front of brother Adam who was followin’ behind and ridin’ a big fat plow horse.

Pa was drivin’ the sleigh!

Hop Sing remained where he was.  Not him!  There weren’t enough ice in all of the Utah Territory to freeze his boots to the ground.  Hoss took off running and didn’t stop until he collided with his father, who had just climbed out of the sleigh.

“Pa!  Golly, Pa!  I can’t believe it’s you!”

The older man pulled him into a hug.  “I’m sorry I worried you and your brothers.  I shouldn’t have left.”

“Ah, gosh, Pa.  We knew you’d come back.  You always do.  It’s just that Little Joe….”

Pa looked around, his near-black eyes narrowing with concern.  “Where is Joseph?   Did you leave him alone upstairs?”

His pa had a lot of voices.  Most of them were loving and concerned.  He had one that was kind of proud and  put-out, and another that let you know he was upset enough to give you a talkin’ to.  Pa had one last voice that was just plain mean.  He used it when he was confontin’ strangers on their land, or when he thought someone had disregarded his orders or done somethin’ wrong.

He was about halfway to ‘mean’ now.

Hop Sing stepped forward.  “Mistah Cartwright.”

Pa turned toward the man from China.  He frowned at the bundle in his arms.   “Yes?”

“This one fail in duty.  Number three son leave house.  Look for boy for long time.  Brother find him in stable.  Little Joe very cold.  Hurt arm.”

Hoss saw it dawn in the older man’s eyes –  the fact that Little Joe was wrapped up inside all them blankets.  Pa took two long strides and was at Hop Sing’s side.

“Give me my son!” he ordered.

Their cook surrendered Little Joe and took a step back.  “This one most sorry.  Most –“

His father pulled the blanket back to take a look at Little Joe.  It was plain as the nose on his face that Pa didn’t like what he saw.  “Sorry?” he barked, making it all the way to ‘mean’.  “Sorry?  How could you, a grown man, let a child slip out of the house in the middle of this storm without knowing?  Dear God!  Joseph may have caught his death!”

Hop Sing’s head went down.  Pa couldn’t see it, but he could.  There was tears falling.

“Joseph is wheezing,” Pa said.  “Go inside and make up a mustard plaster while I take him upstairs and get him into bed.  Bring it up to me when it’s done.”

“Yes, sir, Mistah Cartwright,” Hop Sing replied.

A moment later he was gone.

“Pa?”  He wanted to tell him that it wasn’t Hop Sing’s fault – that Joe getting’ hurt weren’t nobody’s fault but his.   “I…”

“Not now, Hoss.”  Pa drew in a breath and let it out slowly.  “There are two children in the sleigh.  Their names are Robby and Sally Ann.  Introduce yourself and take them inside.  Once Hop Sing brings the plaster to me, I will have him prepare a room.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Get them some food first.  Then you can take them up if they’re tired and want to rest.” Pa glanced at what showed of Little Joe, which was only his filthy curls.  ”I know you’re worried about your brother, but I need you to keep them entertained so I can do what needs to be done.  Oh, and send Adam up when he comes in.”

“Okay, Pa.”

The look out of his father’s eyes softened.  “I’m sorry for being so harsh, Hoss.  None of this is your fault.”

Before he could tell Pa it was, the older man walked into the house.  Hoss turned and waved at the two kids, and then started their way.

He sure hoped they wanted to go right to bed!

 

Ben Cartwright lowered his head into his hands.  He was bone-weary, but refused to relinquish his seat by his son’s bedside even though Adam had practically begged him to.  Hoss came up to tell him that he’d brought Robby and Sally Ann inside and they were eating breakfast.  The boy brought a tray for him as well.  He’d accepted it with thanks – and then placed it on the bedside table where it remained untouched.  The only thing he’d partaken of was the coffee.  The hot liquid had warmed him to the last inch of his frost-nipped toes and fingers.

Would that it could bring some warmth back to his son.

Adam came as requested.  While he removed his son’s filthy clothes, the boy’s elder brother prepared a warm bath.  They bathed Joseph from head to toe, and then quickly swaddled him in heated blankets to prevent any chill.  Ben noted various bumps and bruises during the procedure – occasioned, he understood, from a saddle falling on top of the boy.  How and why Little Joe had decided to leave the house he still didn’t know.

He’d needed to talk to Hop Sing.

The rancher leaned back and blew out a sigh.  He’d been harsh with the Asian man, but then again, he’d left him in charge of his greatest treasures and he’d failed to keep the wolf from the door.  He couldn’t conceive of a way the boy could have left, other than to have walked straight out the front door.  Of course, Hop Sing could have been busy cooking or doing something with Hoss.  He needed to rein in his indignance until he understood what had actually occurred.

When he did, whoever was responsible would be dealt with.

Ben leaned forward and took his son’s arm in his hand.  Joseph was so small.  He needed a mother to watch over him in the way only a mother could.  He was a man with a man’s obligations.  They left little time for attending to such a young child.  Out of necessity, he’d turned a great deal of the boy’s care over to Hop Sing and Hoss.  Adam looked out for his brother too, but the teenager had his own unexpected burdens to bear.

Losing Marie had left them bereft in more ways than one.

The rancher gently turned his son’s arm from side to side and waited to see if the resulting pain provoked any response.  So far the boy had not awakened.  He’d heard the tall case clock strike not too long before and knew it had been over an hour since he’d brought him in.  One of the hands had gone to fetch Paul, but he doubted they would make it back today.  Ben glanced at the window.  Beyond it the snow was still falling.  He laid his son’s arm down, rose, and crossed to the window.  With one hand braced on the side-jamb, the rancher turned his weary stare on the world.  It seemed, at times, that there was little in it but pain and longing.  Oh, there were moments of happiness, but hours – even days – of sorrow seemed to follow.  The birth of each of his boys had brought him untold joy.  The deaths of their mothers had left him bereaved and deeply grieved.  Still, their youthful adventures and exuberance were enough to keep his head above water.  There was no greater pleasure than watching the trio grow into the young men he knew they would be.

Ben turned back to look at the still small figure on the bed.

Would Joseph live to be a man?

The weary father returned to his son’s side and resumed his seat.  Not only did Joseph have a broken wrist, but there were signs of frost nip on his extremities.  Worse than that was the cough, and even worse, the fever that was raging through his tiny body.  Ben picked up a cloth, dipped it in the basin of cool water on the stand, wrung it out, and placed it on his son’s forehead.  The little boy tossed and moaned at his touch, but still didn’t wake.

The rancher scowled as he rose and went to get another cloth.  Little Joe had been so sick just a short time before.  All of his boys had the influenza, but it’s toll had been worst on his youngest son.  A week to the day, they’d come out of the storm convinced they’d won.  Modern medicine was a marvel and he thanked God for it.  With the return of Joseph’s symptoms, the rancher became acutely aware how much he had also come to rely on it.  When he realized no help would be forth-coming – that he would be left alone to care for his sick child – he’d come close to panic.  It was then a still small voice whispered in his ear, speaking words he had known all of his life.

‘Wait for the Lord.  Be strong and let your heart take courage.  Yes, wait for the Lord.’

Be strong and let your heart take courage.

Ben sat down, wrapped his large hands around his son’s small ones,  and bowed his head in prayer.

 

Adam Cartwright stepped away from his little brother’s door and headed back down the stairs.  He’d come to ask his father if he had any instructions regarding the Hutchins’ children, but stopped short when he saw him praying.  Hoss had been a bit vague about what they were to do with the pair, but he figured he’d handled two younger siblings alone before – one of them a handful – and he could certainly handle these two.  Besides, the teenager thought as he turned the corner on the stair, Robby seemed to have his little sister well in hand.

They were cute kids.  Robby was overly polite and Sally Ann never stopped asking questions.  A lot of those questions were about Little Joe.  Seems Pa had told her they were a lot alike, and she wanted to meet him.  Her brother finally got her to understand why she couldn’t when he reminded her of how sick their ma had been the year before, and how they had to leave her alone so she could get better.  That reminded the little girl of her mother, so recently lost, and she’d burst into tears because she was sure Little Joe was going to die too.

Adam sighed.

He wasn’t sure, but he feared it.

The kid was really sick.  The fact that Joe wasn’t entirely over the influenza was bad enough, but coupled with exposure and the injuries he sustained when the saddle fell?  To put it bluntly, Little Joe was a mess.  By the time Pa got Joe settled in his bed, he’d developed a fever and it was spiking.  Pa looked so tired.  He’d offered to relieve him, even though he knew what his father’s answer would be.  Their father was like that with all of them, but even so more with Joe.  Baby brother needed him, of course, more than either of them did.  Hoss was still young, but seemed to have been born with an inner sense of stability and a sure and certain belief that things could and would turn out for the best.

Which was why it was odd to find the youngster sitting on the hearthstones looking so forlorn.

“Anything I can do to help?” the teen asked as he came abreast the table behind the settee.

It took Hoss a second to look up.  “No, thank you, Adam.  It’s sure nice of you to ask, though.”

Adam looked around at the quiet room.  “Where are Robby and Sally Ann?”

“Hop Sing took them upstairs.  They was awful tired.  Sally Ann was still cryin’.”

He nodded.  “She’ll be okay once she can see Little Joe’s okay.”

“You think he’s gonna be, Adam?  Really?”

There was a pain in that question he didn’t understand.  “Sure, he will.”

“Mama wasn’t okay.”

Adam completed his journey and took a seat on the settee.  “What’s this all about?”

His brother hung his head and mumbled something.

“What?”

“It’s my fault, Adam!” Hoss blurted out.  “It’s my fault Little Joe’s gonna die!”

Sometimes – often – he forgot how young his middle brother was.  They were nearly of a height and Hoss had grown up among the men, so he’d learned a thing or two already.  Still, he was a boy.  A twelve-year-old boy who was worried sick about his brother.

Adam rose and went to sit beside him.  “Do you want to tell me about it?”

“Do I?”  His brother snorted.  “No, I don’t.  But I got to.”

“Okay.  Shoot.”

Hoss glanced up the stairs.  “I waited to make sure Little Joe was asleep afore leavin’ his room.  I crept out real quiet so as not to wake him.  Hop Sing needed help in the kitchen and then we set the table.  When I went back up to Joe’s room, he was gone.  He done climbed out of the window like he did that time he went lookin’ for cookies!”

The teen suppressed a chuckle.  That had been a day!

“So how is that your fault?  You know Joe.  Nothing stops him once he has his mind set on something.”

His brother let out a long heartfelt sigh.  “I got to thinkin’, Adam.  The night before – when I put Little Joe to bed – he was awful upset.  I tried talkin’ to him to see if I could calm him down.”

“You must have succeeded if he went to sleep.”

“That’s what I thought.  But then, when I realized he was gone, I remembered somethin’ I said and I think that’s why he left.”

“What was that?”

Hoss rose and began to pace.  “You know Joe, he was sure worried about Pa.  I told him Pa was fine and would be home anytime.  Right then, he turns those big green eyes of his on me and asks, ‘Papa’s not dead?  He’s just lost?’

It was a perpetual worry for their little brother; that someone else he loved would die.

“So how did you answer?”

“I told Little Joe that Pa was only lost ‘til someone found him.”  The twelve-year old turned misty eyes on him.  “I’m sure that’s why he went lookin’ for Pa.  Little Joe thought he was that ‘someone’ needed to find him!”

It made sense, but it didn’t make Joe leaving the house Hoss’ fault.

“Look, Hoss, Joe may be only barely six, but he knows as well as you and I how dangerous it is to go out into the cold and snow. “

“I know he knows, Adam, but this is Little Joe.  He don’t think straight when it comes to people he loves.”

If you asked him, Little Joe didn’t think straight about most things.  Just like his mother.  But Hoss was right.  Joe was the most loving child he’d ever known.  His little heart literally bled when any of them were sick or in danger.

“I get that, but Hoss, you can’t take the blame when there is no blame to take.  Little Joe is a child and he doesn’t understand enough to be scared.”  Adam smiled.  “If I know that little kid – and I am pretty sure I do – he was planning an escape long before you said anything.”

Hoss brightened.  “You think so?  Really?”

“You remember the year he tried to go to the Widow Corney’s house for cookies?  Or how about the one where he slipped out the back door and nearly froze to death because he was going from one tree to another trying to snatch ice faeries from their branches?”

“Yeah, he thought they was all sparkly and pretty and wanted to get one for Ma.”

Adam rose to his feet.  “So, you see, there’s nothing to feel guilty about.  Agreed?”

Hoss rose too.  He nodded.  “Agreed.”

“Good, now where’s Hop Sing?  I need to talk to him about fixing something that will tempt Pa to eat.  The tray you took him was on the table next to Little Joe’s bed.  I don’t think he touched any of it.”

Hoss frowned.  “You know, I ain’t seen him for a while.  Not since Robby and Sally Ann went upstairs.”

“He’s probably in the kitchen.  Thanks, Hoss.”

“You want me to go check on Pa and Little Joe?”

Adam glanced at the clock.  “Give it about fifteen minutes and then come and let me know if either of them is awake.”

“Will do.”

The teenager smiled at his brother before heading into the kitchen wing.

Hop Sing was nowhere to be found.

Supper was in an hour and all the goods were laid out on the table.  There was a big roast beef on a silver platter, swimming in gravy and surrounded by vegetables.  Next to it was a giant batch of green beans with bacon, as well as a pie, a chocolate cake, and  a pot of broth for Little Joe.  There were biscuits and cookies being kept warm on the stove.  It looked like their cook had outfitted an army.  Adam grabbed one of the cookies and sat down to wait for the Asian man’s return.  Most likely, he was in the larder or his room.  As soon as he was seated the teen spotted a piece of paper, folded and tucked under one corner of the silver platter.  He took it in hand, opened it, and gave its contents a quick once over.  Then he read it again more slowly, just to make sure he’d read it right.

A second later he bolted out the house and ran toward the stable.

Hop Sing already had the rig hitched and was climbing in.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the teenager demanded, using his best ‘boss’ voice.

The Asian man halted in mid-step and then proceeded to sit on the driver’s seat.  “This one have no honor.   Maybe bring death to beloved number three son.”

“Hop Sing, look,” he said as he firmly placed his boot on the front side of the carriage’s wheel, “what happened to Little Joe is not your fault, anymore than it’s Hoss’ – or mine!”

“Mistah Hoss not do anything wrong.”

“Neither did you!”  Adam ran a hand over his chin and succeeded in not rolling his eyes.  “Look, Hop Sing, I love my  baby brother more than I can say, but Little Joe is used to getting his way.  Marie spoiled him and Pa, well, he indulges him because of Marie.  Once Joe makes his mind up it would take a stampede to turn it in another direction.”

“Hop Sing grown man.  Should be able to handle one small boy.”

“I suppose that means you have eyes in the back of your head?  As well as a pair stationed outside Little Joe’s door and window?  You have your own duties to attend to.”  The teenager hesitated, but said it.  “It’s not fair of Pa to put all that on you.  You can’t be cook, housekeeper, caretaker – and Little Joe’s Ma and Pa.”

He didn’t know what reaction he expected, but it wasn’t the one he got.  Hop Sing looked….

Ill?

“Adam’s right.”  A baritone voice spoke from close behind him, startling Adam so he jumped.  “None of this is your fault, Hop Sing.  Or anyone’s.  It’s mine.”

The teen turned to look at his father.  “Sorry, Pa.  I didn’t mean any disrespect.  I just – ”

“Spoke the truth.”  His father briefly touched his shoulder before crossing to Hop Sing.  “I apologize, Hop Sing.  I had no right to be short with you.”

“Hop Sing should have watched boy better.”

Pa shrugged.  “And I should have been home so you didn’t have to.  No, Hop Sing, my boys are my responsibility and, since their mother’s death, I have been letting them down.”

“It’s okay, Pa.  We understand.”

His father turned to look at him.  “Maybe you do, Adam, but does Hoss?  And what about Little Joe?  All Joseph knows is that he has lost one parent and is having a very hard time keeping track of the other.”  Pa looked at Hop Sing again.  “Now, you go back into the house and get supper on the table.  We have guests to feed.”  When the Asian man began to protest, Pa smiled and shouted, “No excuses!  Chop chop!”

Hop Sing burst into tears.  “Yes, sir, Mistah Ben….Mistah Cartwright,” he sniffed.  “Have supper ready in an hour.  First Hop Sing must put away carriage and take care of horse.”

“I’ll do that,” Adam volunteered.  He grinned at their cook’s puzzled look.  “I’m hungry!”

“Boys need much food to grow tall as father.  I go now!”

They both laughed as their friend all but ran for the house.  “Hop Sing finds fulfillment in taking care of us, doesn’t he, Pa?”

The older man circled his shoulders with an arm.  “Yes, he does.  Whatever Hop Sing left behind, we’re all he has now.  He’s family.”

Adam dropped his head.  “Pa, about what I said before.  I wouldn’t have said it if I knew you were there.”

Pa nodded.  “I’m glad your brother wanted to stay with Little Joe.  Otherwise I wouldn’t have come looking for you – and you would have kept your thoughts to yourself.  ‘You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free’,” he quoted.  “I’m free now, son,  and I’m home.  I don’t intend to stray ever again.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

FIVE

 

Ben moved away from the window and back to the chair by his young son’s bed.  The snow had not relented.  There was no way Paul was going to make it to the house – maybe before spring!  After a few days they’d accepted the fact that they were snowed in and settled into a kind of routine.  For the most part Hoss entertained Robby and Sally Ann, which kept the twelve-year-old busy and gave him less time to worry about his baby brother.  Hop Sing busied himself in the kitchen and kept the table full.

The rancher was rarely at it.

He’d given charge of what little work there was to Adam and dedicated himself to pulling his small son through.  Bit by bit he’d pieced together the story of Joseph’s latest misadventure, or at least he thought he had.  The day he left Adam and Hoss tricked their little brother into taking his medicine – quite cleverly – by spinning a tall tale worthy of any seaman.  Hoss had then taken Joseph to bed.  Sometime early the next morning the little boy decided – for whatever reason – to climb out of his window, shinny down the tree, and head out into the snow.

He’d have to remember to nail the boy’s window shut!

Ben reached out and stroked a sweat-soaked lock of curls from his boy’s eyes.  Most likely Little Joe wanted to visit his horse.  How often had the child gotten in trouble because of his love of horses?  Joe was barely six and, already, he couldn’t count the times on two hands!  The boy obviously found his way to the stable and, once there, tried to saddle Cadfan by himself.  Somehow he ended up under the saddle instead of on top.

Ben sighed.  Little Joe was every inch his mother.

No one knew how long Joseph lay in the barn.  Thankfully, it couldn’t have been too long or asphyxia from the cold would have set in and they would have lost him.  Still, it had been long enough for his son’s already taxed system to weaken further – inviting infection – the result of which was a bout of pneumonia.  He’d dealt with it before.  When young, Adam had plunged into an icy creek and come out sick as a Dover packet boat.  It had been a battle, but he’d made it.  His eldest had always been strong.  The loss of his mother had weakened his youngest son, as had his long absences.

“No more,” Ben breathed between teeth clenched with grief and guilt.  “No more.”

He’d just turned to refresh the cloth on his son’s head when he heard a soft sound that sent a thrill along his spine.

Little Joe’s long eyelashes fluttered and opened to reveal a pair of puzzled eyes.  “Papa?”

Ben placed a hand on his son’s curls.  “Yes, Joseph.  It’s me.”

A slow smile spread across the child’s face, making him look even more like an angel.   “I…found you, Papa.  You’re not …lost…anymore.”

Ben shifted to sit beside him.  “I was never lost, Little Joe.”

“Yes, you were.  Hossy…said so.”

He moved his hand to his son’s face.  “Is that why you went outside?  You were looking for me?”

“Yes, sir,” the boy replied, bobbing his curly head in a solemn little nod.  “Hossy told me you was gonna…be lost…until someone found you.”

“So you sneaked out of your room, and went over the roof and down the tree.”

“I didn’t fall or nothing.”

Good God!

“Only I couldn’t get the saddle on Cadfan.  I wasn’t tall…enough.”  Tears began to flow down his son’s cherry-red cheeks.   “You were gonna die, Papa…and all on account…of me!”

Each of his son’s breaths came with effort.  Between them he sometimes coughed.  To soothe him, Ben lifted the boy up and anchored him in his arms.  Joseph responded, but not as expected.  He kept a small distance between them.

“You were very brave, but very foolish too, son.  You could have died.”

Little Joe turned to look at him.  “Would you have cried if I did?”

How did you answer such a question?  Ben struggled for the right words – shamed that the boy needed any.

“Oh, son!  I would have cried a river of tears.  I don’t know that I would ever have stopped crying.”

Joe frowned.  “But you stopped cryin’ about Mama.”

He had.  All of his tears had dried up.

They flowed now.

“One day, Joseph, you will know what it is to love a woman and take her for your wife.  The Good Book says, the two shall become one.  Your mother was half of my soul.  When she died, it was like losing a part of myself.”

“Am I a part of you, Papa?”

“Yes, son.  As are your brothers.  I love you with everything that is in me.”  Ben turned the little boy so he could see his face.  “I want to make a promise to you, Joseph.”

“A promise?”  The boy’s tone indicated he knew how important that was.

“I will never leave you or your brothers again.  I’m a bad ‘pa’ for running away.”

A little smile curled the boy’s lips as he relaxed and leaned into his chest.  “Is Adam gonna…have a ‘talk’…with you…for going…away?”

Ben smiled as the child’s breathing evened and he fell into a wholesome sleep.

“Yes, Little Joe.  I promise you.  Your older brother and I are certainly going to have a ‘talk’.

 

Adam rose to his feet when he heard his father coming.  He’d been reading while waiting for his return.  Hop Sing was in the kitchen where he belonged and Hoss was out in the yard building a fort with Robby and Sally Ann.

“How’s Little Joe doing?” he asked, half afraid of the answer.

“Your brother woke up.  I sat with him for a while.”  The older man smiled.  “His fever’s down.”

“Thank God!  So you think he’ll be okay?”

“With time and loving care, yes.”

The older man seemed troubled.   “Are you okay, Pa?”

His father stared at him a moment and then indicated the settee with a nod.  “Please take a seat, son.”

“Why?  Am I in trouble?”

His father looked startled.  “Heavens, no!  I just want to talk.

The teenager resisted expressing the ‘phew!’ that was on his lips.  A moment later he followed his father into their parlor and took a seat.

Pa picked up the poker and stirred the coals before speaking.  “When your mother, when Elizabeth died, I thought – no, I knew I could not survive.  It was like the breath had been taken from my body.”  The older man rested the poker against the stones and sat down beside it.  “There I was, only a few years older than you are now, left alone with an infant and no way to care for him.  I grew angry – very angry with God.”

Pa’d told him all about his mother – about how bright and beautiful and brilliant she was.  So far he’d only loved a couple of girls – or thought he had.  When the time came to break up it just about broke him.  He couldn’t imagine what it was to lose a wife.

Or three wives.

“Inger saved you,” he stated simply.

“Yes, she did.  Sweet soul that she was.”  Pa looked right at him.  “I so wanted to give you a mother.”

“You did, Pa.  You gave me two.”

Pa chuckled.  “Ah, yes, Marie.  Oil and water, that’s what the pair of you were.”

“I loved her, Pa.  Maybe not as much as you did, but I loved her.”

His father rose.  He came to the table and sat on the edge of it.  “I know you did, son, in your way.  I know as well that all you have been through has caused you to build walls; a sort of fortress with high battlements to keep love out.”

“That’s not true, Pa!”

His father nodded.  “Perhaps it would be better to say, you’ve built walls to keep your heart in.  It’s hard, son.  No matter what anyone tells you, love is hard.  It requires opening one’s self up to hurt in order to experience joy.”  Pa hesitated.  “For a time, I too had ramparts raised to shield my heart.  I sequestered myself within their walls, and believed the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune could not penetrate.”

Adam smiled at the Shakespearean reference.

“It did nothing to stop them.  All it did was stop me from being with the ones I love.  You, your brothers.”  Pa glanced in the direction of the kitchen.  “Hop Sing.”

“Where’s this leading, Pa?”

His father’s hand covered his own.  “I want to ask for your forgiveness.”

“Pa, no.  I don’t – ”

“Yes, you do.  I already asked Little Joe and I intend to ask Hoss as well.”

“Little Joe?  What did he say?”

“After he asked what ‘forgiveness’ was?”  Pa smiled.  “He got very solemn and nodded ‘yes’.  He was pretty tuckered out by then.”

“Why do you feel you need to ask us?  You know we don’t hold anything against you.”

“Because the Good Book asks – no – demands it of me.  A man can’t forgive himself until the ones he’s wounded have done so.   The circle is incomplete.”

“I forgive you, Pa,” Hoss’ young voice rang out.

They turned to find the door standing open and a white wooly bear – or Hoss in his snow gear – halfway in the house.

“I was comin’ in for some hot chocolate, Pa.  I wasn’t eavesdroppin’.”

Their father rose and went right to him.  “I know you weren’t,” he said as he hugged him.  “And thank you.”

“Mistah Cartwright no need ask Hop Sing to forgive.  Hop Sing just want Mistah Ben to be happy.”

“Are you a mind reader, Hop Sing?” Hoss’ eyes had gone wide.  Hop Sing was holding a tray laden with cookies – and three steaming mugs of hot chocolate.  “How’d you know I was comin’ in for that?”

A little smile curled their cook’s lips.  “Hop Sing not reads minds.  Mistah Hoss’ tummy like clock.  Good cook knows when time for it to chime.”

“Where are Robby and Sally Ann?” Ben asked.

Hoss had the tray in his hands.  “We built us a fort, Pa.  They’re outside holdin’ it down.”

Ah, the resiliency of children.

“You want to come and see it?”

Ben was tired and hungry and the last thing he wanted to do was put on a coat and climb into a four foot hole and hunker down in snow and ice.

“Consider it your penance, Pa,” Adam whispered into his ear.

That made him laugh – and gave him the impetus to journey down the rabbit hole.

 

The Hutchins’ children ended up staying with them for the duration of the winter.  Adam took Robby under his wing and taught him the things he would need to know if he was going to be the man of the household.  Hoss often tagged along.  Sally Ann ran up to Little Joe’s room the minute the boy was allowed visitors and even though she was a, ‘yuck’, girl, she and Joseph soon became fast friends.

Heaven help them all!

The snow didn’t let up until March, and even then, it took another month for the tall piles and deep dunes to vanish completely.  Around the middle of April, Ben – along with a few of the hands – ventured into the settlement to see how their friends and neighbors had fared.  The horrors of the endless winter were plainly visible.  People walked on wooden legs or held fingerless hands behind their backs.  Some hastened to pull their hats down to cover missing ears.  The worst toll fell on the settlements’ parents.  Like ghosts, bereaved mothers and fathers haunted the wooden boardwalks and streets, decked out in lavender, gray, and black.  When he finally located Paul, who was still attending to the victims of the storm, his friend told him there had been a sudden snap in January with temperatures plunging well  below zero.  School was dismissed and the children sent home early.  Many of them didn’t make it.  While in the settlement, Ben went to the church and sat in on a service of remembrance.  During the service he thanked his Maker for the lives of his three sons.

He could so easily have been among their number.

He and the men headed home early that afternoon.  He ‘d promised Joseph he would return by dark and didn’t want to fail him.  Upon his arrival, the rancher found the four children and his teenage son seated in a reading circle on the floor before the hearth.  Adam’s melodious voice filled the room, invoking vision of far off castles; of knight’s errant and the ladies they so gallantly rescued.  He let them be as he removed his coat and hung it on a peg by the door.

“Are you going to join us, Pa?” Adam called.

On the word ‘Pa’, a whoop went up.  A second later Ben almost went down as he was tackled by not one, but two ebullient sons.

“Hey, Pa!” Hoss shouted.

“Pick me up, Papa!” Little Joe cried.  “Make me taller than Adam and Hossy!”

Ben smiled.  He’d been told about the miraculous ‘magic’ that was supposed to make his tiny son tall as one of the Ponderosa Pines surrounding the house.  He’d been happy to lend a hand in making it happen.  Every time he was asked, he whisked the little boy off the floor and raised him as high as he could while Joseph shouted, “There ain’t any Cartwright bigger than me!”

Ain’t.

Sigh.

A tug on his vest brought him back to the present.  “Hey, Pa,” Hoss asked.  “Are you gonna come over and listen to Adam?  That story sure is excitin’!”

He knew ‘Ivanhoe’ well, but delighted to watch the effect Adam reading it had on the children.  Looking up at his youngest son, he said, “Time to bend to the ground, oh mighty pine tree.”  Joseph giggled.  The boy loved this part.  Ben took his son by the hands and swung him down to the floor at a speed that would have earned him a scolding from his late wife.

The rancher swatted his son’s tiny hiney and sent him scooting back to Adam’s side.  “Give me a minute, Hoss.  It’s cold as a dog’s nose out there.  I’d like to fix a cup of coffee first.”

“Coffee ready, Mistah Cartwright.  Put brandy in.”

Now that sounded like an excellent idea!

Ben had just settled in to listen to the tale when someone rode into the yard.  With a wave, he told Adam to continue on while he went to answer the door.  The rancher opened it to find his foreman, Jim, standing there.  Behind him was another man.

“What can I do for you, Jim?” he asked.

“I found this feller walking this way and offered him a lift, Mister Cartwright.  Said he was lookin’ for the Ponderosa.”

“Well, you’ve found it,” Ben said with a smile.  “On foot, eh?  What happened to your horse?”

“I lost it in the storm,” the man replied.  “I lost a lot of things.  I’m hopin’, maybe, you found a couple of them.”

“Me?”  Suddenly, he remembered his manners.  “It’s cold out there.  Why don’t you come inside and then we’ll talk.  Thank you, Jim,” he said as his ranch hand began to move away.

Jim waved and was gone.

“Thank you, Mister Cartwright,” the stranger said as he removed his hat.  “It’s been a long hard trail.  I went to the settlement first after I checked my place.  It was awful.  I felt so bad for all those people who’d lost their children.  Made me hurt more, thinkin’ I might be one of them.”

“Do you live near the settlement?” he asked as the man stepped in.

“No, sir.  About seven miles from there.  Up on the ridge.”

“The ridge?”  Ben was tired and his brain was moving slow as a wagon wheel in mud.  “About seven miles from here, you say?  And you’ve come here because?”

The man reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper.  “I found this.  Had your name on it.  I figured –”

“Papa?” a little voice asked.

Ben turned on his heel.  Sally Ann was on her feet.  Robby stood beside Adam looking stunned.

“Papa!” the little girl cried as she made a beeline for the stranger.

No, not the ‘stranger’.

For her father.

Alexander Hutchins fell to one knee.  Tears streamed down his cheeks and sobs wracked his slender frame as he folded the girl in his arms.  Robby followed more slowly and stopped at a distance.  His father looked up and saw him.  He gave the boy a wink.  That was all it took.  Soon the trio was locked in an embrace Ben imagined it would have taken more than a hundred-year snow to break.

A tug on his hand made him look down.  It was Little Joe.  “Is that Sally Ann’s Pa?”

He nodded, too choked for words.

“Does that mean she has to go home?”

Ben picked his small son up and balanced him on one arm.  “Yes, son.  I imagine she and her brother will go home soon.”

“Does she have to?”

“You’d want to go home if I found you with another family, wouldn’t you?”

The little boy’s face twisted.  “I guess so.”

Ben grinned.  “You know what, Joseph?  Sally Ann doesn’t live very far away.  I’m sure she can come to visit, and maybe you could go visit her too.”

The boy brightened instantly.  “You mean, I could stay overnight at her house?”

“If it’s all right with Sally Ann’s father.”

“I would be more than proud to have your boy come over.  All your boys.”  Alexander nodded toward the hearth where Hoss and Adam sat.  “It’s gonna be hard goin’ back to the cabin, but it was…Rachel’s dream…and I’m not gonna let it die.”  The man suddenly looked like he was going to fall down.  “I can’t believe…Robby and Sally Ann…are alive.”

Ben took him by the elbow and directed him to the table.  ”When was the last time you had anything to eat?”

Alexander shook his head.  “I haven’t got the faintest idea.”

“Well, then, this calls for a celebration!”  Ben turned toward the kitchen.  “Hop Sing!”

The Asian man instantly appeared.  “Yes, Mistah Cartwright?”

“Set another place at the table!  Tonight we’re going to give thanks like we’ve never given thanks before!”

 

Later that night, after the house had fallen quiet, Ben tiptoed into his youngest son’s room.  Though Little Joe had been pronounced ‘healed’ by Paul Martin, the worried father was still concerned about him.  Since the Hutchins’ children’s departure, Little Joe had grown increasingly quiet – and a quiet Joseph Francis Cartwright was not a thing to be left unchecked.

It didn’t surprise Ben to find the boy awake.  What did surprise him was the fact that Joseph was sitting – in his night shirt – in the chair by the window.

“Young man,” he said, his tone somewhat stern.  “Just what do you think you’re doing out of bed?”

That cherubic face turned toward him.  “I was talkin’ to the star, Papa.”

“Oh?”  Ben went to the window and looked out.  He saw one large dot in the sky, diamond-white and brilliant.  Adam had mentioned there would be a special alignment of the planets tonight.  “The bright one?”

The boy’s curly head bobbed up and down.  “A long time ago – when I was little – Mama would sit here with me.  She’d point to a really big star and tell me all the people who loved me were sitting on it, smiling down from Heaven.  Is that true, Papa?”

It wasn’t exactly sound theology, but then women had creative minds.

Ben picked the little boy up and sat down with him on his lap.  “It’s really bright tonight.  Do you think your Mama’s there?”

The boy’s nod was solemn.  “She’s got company.  That’s why it’s so bright.”

“Company?”

“Sally Ann’s ma.  She was real pretty, Pa.  I saw her picture.  Mr. Alex had one in his pocket.”

Ben’s gaze went to his late wife’s portrait where it held a place of honor on his son’s bedside table.  “Pretty as your Mama?”

“What’s wrong with you, Papa?  No one’s pretty as my mama.”

“I agree,” he said.  “So, if Mama is on that star looking down – what do you think she would have to say about her little boy being out of bed – without a robe – when he just got over being sick?”

Joseph bit his lip.  “She ain’t happy?”

“Isn’t,” he corrected.  He was going to have to talk to Hoss.  His middle boy had picked up the dialect of some of the Texans he’d hired.  It sounded ‘mighty’ funny coming out of the mouth of a six-year-old.

“Would Mama want me to say ‘isn’t’ instead of ‘ain’t’?”

“Yes, your mother would want you to grow up to be a polite, well-spoken young man.”

The boy thought about it a moment.  “Okay, Papa.  I’ll do it for Mama.”

Ben rose with Joseph in his arms and returned him to his bed.  He laid him down gently, tilted a little to the right, and placed a pillow under his left arm.  The bones had knit, but the break still brought the boy pain at times.

“How’s that?” he asked.  When Little Joe smiled, he kissed him on the forehead.  “Good.  Now you get to sleep.”

“Papa?

The boy always had one more question.  “Yes?”

“How come mamas have to die?”

Ben sat down on the bed beside his son.  “Everyone dies, Joseph.  We’re only here for a short time before Our Heavenly Father calls us home.”

“But it seems like mamas don’t live as long.  Adam and Hoss lost theirs.  So did Sally Ann…and me.”

He took his young son’s hand in his own.  “The Bible says women are ‘weaker vessels’.  Now, that doesn’t mean they aren’t strong.  If you ask me, I think they are stronger than men.”

“Then what does it mean?”

He thought a moment.  “Do you remember when the big Christmas tree fell?”

His son winced.   “Sorry about that, Papa.”

“It’s over, son.  No need to apologize.  Do you remember what happened to the tree?”

Little Joe shook his head.  “I remember it laying on the floor.”

“How about the glasses on the shelf?”

“They broke.”

“They didn’t break, son, they shattered.”  Ben adjusted his seat.  “Could you have taken one of those glasses in your hand and squeezed it hard enough to make it shatter?”

“No, sir.”

“So it was strong, but it was weak.”

“You mean women are strong, but weak at the same time?  And men are just strong?”

He chuckled.  “We’re weak too, but not in strength.  Women are like that delicate glass.  We protect them and cherish them, but sometimes something comes along – like that tree – that is stronger than we are.”

“Like the horse that killed Mama?”

He sucked in a breath.  “Yes…like the horse that killed your Mama, or the terrible storm that took Mrs. Hutchins’ life.”

Little Joe snuggled down in the blankets.  “I’m glad you’re strong, Pa.  That way I…don’t have to…worry about…you…dying….”

Ben sat there a moment, watching his son sleep, not sure he had said the right thing, but failing to find anything else he could have said.  Joseph was doing well, considering.

Just as he was doing well – considering.

The rancher rose, kissed his son’s blessedly cool forehead, and then went down the stairs.  He’d heard Adam reading to Hoss in his room, so he was alone for the moment.  Ben pulled his coat on and stepped outside and drew in a deep breath of fresh clean mountain air, hoping to clear his head.  As he did, his gaze fell upon Joseph’s star.  It was brilliant as was the moon.  The snow-white dunes around him sparkled as if coated with diamond dust.  The shadows that defined them were black as jet.  Together they created a wonderland of light and shadow.  If Marie’s spirit was to take up residence somewhere, there could be no landscape that would match her mercurial personality better.

“Are you there, my darling?” the rancher asked as he lifted his face to the sky.

The star twinkled.  ‘Yes, mon cher, I am here.  I am home.’

A single tear trailed down Ben Cartwright’s cheek.

As was he, at last.

Tags: JPM, SJS, family, winter, snow, storm

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Author: mcfair_58

Welcome and thank you to any and all who read my fan fiction. I have written over a period of 20 years for Star Wars, Blakes 7, Nightwing and the New Titans, Daniel Boone, The Young Rebels (1970s), Robin of Sherwood and Doctor Who. I am currently focusing on Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie. I am an historic interpreter, artist, doll restoration artist, and independent author.

If you like my fan fiction please check out my original historical and fantasy novels on Amazon and Barnes and Noble under Marla Fair.

I am also an artist. You can check out my art here: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/coloredpencilart and on Facebook. Marla Fair Renderings can found at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1661610394059740/

You can find most of my older fan fiction archived at: https://marlafair.wixsite.com/marlafairfanfiction

Thanks again for reading!

3 thoughts on “Going Home (by mcfair_58)

  1. Lovely story. Ben’s Biblical knowledge is making a lot of sense to me. How he explains to Little Joe at the end about a man’s duty towards women, how to care for “weaker vessels”, is well in keeping with the period and very skilful writing. I loved reading all the conversations especially. The characters’ voices ring true and I feel uplifted after hearing Ben’s conversational prayers. Thank you.

  2. I love your stories and the way you write a young little Joe is perfect- a little spoilt and well loved but devoted and fearless. Thank you!

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