Leo – Romancing the Ponderosa Book 3 (by millieshepherd)

Summary: Hoss rescues a small girl and after finding out her mother’s a widow and that she doesn’t have a penny to her name, he invites them to stay on the Ponderosa until they can get back on their feet. But then disaster strikes the second day of their stay and the Cartwright family is forever changed.

Rating: T

Word Count: 18,984

Romancing the Ponderosa series:

Mrs. Little Joe (Book 1)

The Redhead (Book 2)

Rose, My Love (Book 4)

 

Note: This is the third book in the series and it should be read in chronological order. Ty 🙂

 

Leo 

 

Chapter 1             

Pullin’ up in front of the general store, I climb off the buckboard  an’ am ‘bout to go in when I hear two drunks hoopin’ an’ hollerin’ out in front of the saloon. I look over at them and start to shake my head but freeze. There’s a little gal runnin’ across the street right towards their buckin’ horses. Without even thinkin’, I run after her, hopin’ that I can grab her before she’s trampled. 

She lets out a little scream as my arm wraps around her belly. I lift her up outta the way and carry her away to safety. I walk towards the buckboard with her but look over my shoulder when I hear a little voice a shoutin’, “Cherry, Cherry darlin’, where are you?” 

“Ovah here, Jeff!” The little gal in my arms shouts back. A little boy with yeller blonde curls comes runnin’ up beside me. Bendin’, he puts his hands on his knees as he tries to catch his breath. I sit the gal up on the buckboard bench while I wait for him to get his breath so he can tell me what this is all about. 

“Hey, mister, you just saved my little sister’s life! Thank you! If it wasn’t for you she’d be about as flat as one of Ma’s pancakes.”

“I’m just glad I saw your little sister when I did.” I put my hands on my hips. “I figure you were supposed to be watchin’ her an’ she got away from you, didn’t she?”

“Yes, sir. I’m real sorry that she did, but you see, she’s always runnin’ off. Not just on me either but on Ma, too.” He shakes his head at her. “Well, we best be gettin’ on back, Ma’s waitin’ on us.” 

“Hold on a minute.” He tries to get her off the seat despite the fact that the top of his head doesn’t reach the underside of the bench, so I pick her up instead. “How about I go with you? That way you won’t lose her again on the way back. Anyhow I think it’s only fittin’ that I meet your Ma.”

“Ok, mister… what’s your name?”

“Hoss. Hoss Cartwright.” I point for him to lead the way. 

“Horse?” He grabs my free hand as he leads me along. 

“No, just plain Hoss.” 

“That’s sure a funny name for a man.” 

“What’s your name, little buddy?”

“Jeff Tirk and that’s Cherry.” 

“Cherry, hmm, like the fruit?” 

“Yeah, but her real name is Evangelina. We just call her Cherry.” 

“Well, Cherry, you’re a lot like me then.” Turnin’, I look at her an’ she smiles up at me, her purty blue eyes all scrunched up. 

“ ‘Ow?” She asks in a little, high pitched baby voice. 

“Well, you see, people call me Hoss but my real name is Eric. Hoss is my nickname like Cherry’s your nickname.” 

“Me tink me ‘ike ‘Oss betta.” 

“I do too, sweetheart.” I look between the two of them tryin’ to figure out their ages. “How old are you two, anyhow?”

“Me two!” She holds up two pudgy fingers. 

“And I’m five.” 

“Purty young to be runnin’ around town all by yourselves, don’t you think?” I can’t help but wonder what kinda ma these kiddos have. 

“Ma was busy with our luggage at the stage station and Cherry ran off, so I went to find her.” 

“I figure your Ma’s probably worrin’ herself into a fit right about now.” Walkin’ up to the stage station I see a purty blonde gal pacin’ up an’ down the sidewalk. She hears my boots and turns towards me.

“Oh, there you two are!” She grabs Cherry off of my arm an’ wraps her in a tight hug. “Don’t you two ever run off again, do you hear?!” 

“ ‘Es, Ma.” 

“Yes, ma’am, but I had to find Cherry.” He tugs on her sleeve. “Ma, Hoss here saved Cherry’s life. She almost got trampled by horses again.” 

“Sir, I’m very thankful that you were able to save my daughter’s life. I don’t know how to repay you.” 

“Oh, don’t worry about it, ma’am, it was nothin’. I’m just glad that I saw her an’ was able to get to her in time.” Takin’ off my hat, I hold it between my hands. “Now, ma’am, if you’ll excuse me I’ve got some business that needs tendin’ to.” 

“Oh, of course! But wait, what is your name? I don’t think you told me.” 

“Cartwright, ma’am. Hoss Cartwright.” 

“I wish we could have met under happier circumstances, yet I’m glad to meet you, Mr. Cartwright. My name is Leona Tirk and I’m sure you already know my children’s names.” 

“Yes ’um, that I do.” I put my hat back on and tip it in her direction. “Now if you’ll excuse me, ma’am, I’ll be on my way.”

 

Chapter 2

Steppin’ outta the general store with the last sack of flour on my shoulder, I flop it down on the back of the buckboard. As I wipe the sweat off my face, somethin’ catches my eye. I turn my head just in time to see Mrs. Tirk jump up from where she was sittin’ on the hotel steps to chase after Cherry. She snags her just before she runs out in the street. That little gal kicks up a fuss as her mama sits back down with her an’ plants her firmly in her lap. I can’t help wonderin’ why her husband ain’t helpin’ her with them youngins or why they’re on the outside of the hotel instead of inside where it’s cooler. 

Jeff sees me as I walk towards ‘em an’ stands up from his seat on the step, wavin’ with a big ole toothy grin. Mrs. Tirk looks in my direction as well, a look of relief on her face. Cherry wiggles from her lap, runs up to me an’ grabs my legs. 

“Mrs. Tirk, it looks like you’re havin’ a little bit of a hard time with these youngins. They’re more than a little gal like you can handle, ain’t your husband around someplace? I can go fetch him for you if you want.” I offer as I scoop Cherry up so she don’t trip an’ fall over my feet. 

“I really wish you could, Mr. Cartwright, but my husband passed away a little over a year ago.” She looks up at me with a sad smile. 

“You mean to tell me you’ve been takin’ care of these two youngins all by yourself for a year?” I give her face a closer look an’ can see how tired she is by the dark circles under her eyes. She has rather plain features but she’s still a purty gal. 

“Yes, it’s been hard but we’ve made it this far.” With a sigh she stands up. “Except for five cents, I spent every last penny to get us here to Virginia City. I figured I could find work and be able to take better care of my children here than I could in Carson City, but now I have nowhere to go and no way to feed them or myself.” 

“Ma’am, you could come stay on the Ponderosa, my Pa’s ranch, for a few days. Well, at least until you get back on your feet.” I offer, feelin’ terrible for the little gal. 

“I’m sorry, Mr. Cartwright, but I don’t want charity.” 

“Then don’t think of it as charity, think of it as doing me an’ Pa a favor. The house has been down right lonesome since my two brothers moved out.” Grinnin’ at Cherry, I ruffle Jeff’s hair. “These two little rascals will liven the house up quite a bit, they’re just what my Pa needs.”

“I guess if you put it that way, we’d be glad to stay at your place.” She says after a thoughtful moment as her face breaks out in a grin. She snatches her carpet bag off the step which I take from her insistin’ on carryin’ it, so she grabs Jeff’s hand instead and follows me across the street to the parked buckboard.

“I figure you’ll want this little missy up on the seat with you.” I swing Cherry up on the seat before helpin’ Mrs. Tirk up an’ over the wagon wheel. I gently toss the carpet bag behind the seat while I give Jeff a boost into the back on top of the sacks of goods. He plants his hat on his little head an’ pushes it back slightly; the way it’s angled reminds me of the way Joe wears his hat sometimes. I walk around the side of the buckboard an’ climb up on the seat beside Mrs. Tirk, who’s holdin’ Cherry firmly in her lap. As I slap the reins, I call out, “Giddyup!” 

“Mr. Cartwright, I can’t thank you enough for your hospitality.” She runs her hand over Cherry’s hair to smooth her messy curls. “If there was only something I could do for you in return.” 

“There is, ma’am, just call me plain ole Hoss.” 

“Oh, alright, I will, that is if you’ll drop the Mrs. Tirk and just call me Leo instead. Calling each other Mr. and Mrs. sounds so formal and this isn’t exactly a formal sort of place.” 

“That it ain’t, ma’am, that it ain’t.” Lookin’ over at her, I see Cherry’s sound asleep, her head pillowed on her mama’s chest. “Did you say Leo? That ain’t much of a name for a purty little gal like yourself.”

“Well, Hoss isn’t exactly a name for a man either, even though it seems to fit you quite well. I’ve been called Leo ever since I was a little baby. I guess it was just easier to call a baby Leo instead of Leona.”

“My name ain’t actually Hoss, it’s really Eric. When my older brother saw how big I was he started callin’ me Hoss an’ it just sorta stuck.”

“You said you had two brothers and a Pa, what are they like?” 

“Well, my older brother, Adam, he’s the brains of the family. He even went back East to go to college and got a lot of fancy book learnin’. Then about five months ago he got himself hitched to a purty little gal.” 

“What do your brother and his wife look like?” She interrupts. 

“Adam’s a little shorter than me an’ he has black hair an’ light brown eyes. His wife, Misty, is a purty little thing with fiery red hair and gray eyes, she’s a spitfire, too. She actually lived with the Indians for fourteen years.”

“Oh, how awful!” 

“And then there’s my little brother, Joe, well I should say Little Joe. He’s hotheaded and wild but since he married Hannah, he’s calmed down quite a bit. I figure you want to know what they look like too, don’t you?” She nods. “Well, Little Joe’s the shortest of us four menfolk an’ he’s got curly brown hair an’ green hazel eyes. Hannah’s a purty little thing just like Misty, that is except she has dark brown hair instead of red an’ the prettiest dark green eyes you’ve ever seen.” 

“What about your Pa? What’s he like?”

“He’s steady an’ sure, I guess you would say he’s just Pa.” I shrug, not knowing how else to describe how Pa is. A person has to meet him for himself to find out how he really is. “He’s got a really deep, smooth voice an’ dark brown eyes with gray hair.” 

“Hoss, your family sounds wonderful! I hope I get the chance to meet all of them.” 

“You won’t have to wait long cuz they’re all comin’ to supper tonight.” 

 

Chapter 3

A few hours later all nine of us cram ourselves around the dinner table. It’s tight, but we fit. Cherry and Jeff share the end opposite of Pa while Adam, Joe, an’ I sit across from the three ladies. I’m awful glad I brought Leo and her youngins home today, the look on Pa’s face said all I needed to know. They weren’t even in the house for an hour before Pa was sittin’ with little Cherry in his lap, helpin’ her with her rag dolly. Even though he’s a tough man, he’s got a soft spot for babies an’ little ones. Cuz of that soft spot, all three of us boys know how excited he is about the baby Hannah’s gonna have. 

“Leo, those two babies of yours sure have brighten up this house! I haven’t seen Ben look so happy since before Little Joe and Hannah moved out.” Misty scoops mashed taters onto Cherry’s plate an’ then hands the plate across to Adam. He takes it with a smile as he scoops some onto Jeff’s plate. Leo watches from where she sits between Misty an’ Hannah, clearly knowin’ that they sat down real quick like so to only leave the middle chair open for her. They both saw how tuckered out she was an’ immediately pitched in to help.

“I ain’t a baby! I’m five years old.” Jeff shoves a forkful of taters into his mouth. 

“Jeffry! You know that’s not how you talk to people. Apologize this instant, young man.” 

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Cartwright.”

“Apology accepted, and just call me Misty.” She winks at him as a big grin spreads over his face. “Anyway, it’s my fault. I should have known better, a five year old isn’t a baby.”

“Me no ‘aby!” 

“Oh, you aren’t? Just how old are you, young lady?” Adam’s grin looks like it’s going to split his face in two.

“Me two!” 

“Well then, you are a big girl.” 

“ ‘Ep!” She gives him a little nod an’ smile. 

“Cherry’s birthday is soon.” Jeff says, his mouth full of food. 

“When is the big day?” Joe asks Leo from where he sits on my right. 

“In two weeks on the fourteenth.” 

“We’ll have to have a party then!” Hannah exclaims. 

“Oh, that’s completely unnecessary!” 

“No, it’s not! I’ve been searching for a good excuse to throw a party and you just gave me something better than an excuse. Anyways, it’ll be the best way for you to meet everyone.” 

“If it’s alright with Ben, I’ll gladly let you throw Cherry a birthday party.” Pa nods his approval. “She’s never had a birthday party before so it’ll be extra special for her, but I insist on helping. I don’t want you all to have to do everything.” 

“Hannah.” She looks up at Joe, his voice serious soundin’. “Don’t over exert yourself, you hear?”

Sittin’ up straight, her lips twitchin’ as she tries not to grin, she puts her hand on her forehead in a salute. She quickly lowers it, “Yes, sir.” 

Everyone but Joe starts to laugh. He glances around at us and the serious look on his face slowly melts into that grin of his. His little boy laugh joins in with ours after a second. Cherry looks at all of us, her little eyebrows all scrunched up, “Why ‘augh, ‘ike ha ha?”

Her question just makes us laugh even harder. Hannah’s laughin’ so hard it looks like she ain’t even breathin’ while both Misty an’ Leo are wipin’ tears off their cheeks, tryin’ to catch their breath. Once he’s stopped laughin’ too, Pa signals to Hop Sing, who’s got a big grin on his face. 

“Hop Sing, will you make us some fresh coffee?” He nods and heads back to the kitchen. We all settle down as Pa turns towards us. He’ll probably have us all go sit in the livin’ room since we’re done eatin’. “Shall we go sit down in the living room?”

“If you don’t mind, I think I’ll put my little ones to bed. It’s about time for them to go to sleep, they’ve had a long day.” Standin’ up, Leo starts herdin’ Cherry an’ Jeff towards the staircase. “I’ll be back down in a few minutes.” 

I sit down on the fireplace as Pa starts fillin’ up cups with the coffee that Hop Sing brought. He hands them around as everyone else settles down around the room. 

“Those two little ones are just adorable!” Misty says from where she sits in Adam’s lap over in the blue chair. “Hoss, how did you find her?”

“Well, I was pullin’ up in front of the general store when I saw Cherry about to be trampled by the horses of two drunk cowboys. I luckily was able to snatch her up before that happened. Jeff came runnin’ an’ then he took me back to his mama. I left them by the stage station to go finish my errands an’ right before I was about to head for home, I saw her sittin’ on the hotel steps. So I went over to make sure she was alright. After she told me she was a widder and that she only had five cents to her name, I invited her here.”

“Big brother, I believe this just might be one of the best bunch of strays that big heart of yours has made you bring home.” Little Joe nods at me, clearly approvin’ of the Tirks. 

“I have to agree with Joe.” Adam puts in. 

“I think we can all agree that those children have brightened up this house tremendously, they’re just what everyone needed.” Hannah leans her head on Joe’s back where he sits on the arm of the couch beside her. We all know that she really means Pa an’ not everyone. 

Hearin’ soft steps on the stairs, we all look up to see Leo comin’ down. She covers her mouth with her hand to try to hide a yawn. She smiles as she sits down on the couch beside Hannah and Pa hands her a cup of coffee, “I figure this might help some.” 

“Thank you, sir. It’ll help but I think what I really need is a solid night’s sleep in that soft bed upstairs.” She laughs before she takes a long drink from the steamin’ cup. With a sigh she leans back into the couch with her eyes closed for a moment. As sets her cup in her lap, she catches my eye and gives me a small smile. “Hoss, I can’t thank you enough for talking me into staying here. You made it seem like I was doing your family a favor, but really you’ve already done so much for me and the children in this one evening that I don’t know how I’ll repay you.” 

“Ah, don’t worry your purty head ‘bout a thing. We enjoy takin’ care of folks who need takin’ care of.” I wave my hand at her and dismiss her need to repay us. 

“I just can’t sit around and do nothing, I’ll go stir crazy.” She gets a determined look on her face. “I can cook, clean, and even do ranch work. I’ll do whatever you want me to, it’s the least I can do for you.”

“Did you say ranch work?” Joe asks. “You don’t look big enough to do ranch work.”

“I can too.” She laughs. “Size doesn’t matter, you should know that being the smallest in your family. My husband and I owned a little ranch which had about ten head of cattle and a three acre corn crop. I ran the ranch by myself after my husband died a year ago. The only reason I ended up in failure was because we had a freak hail storm come through that destroyed the crop and then I got swindled when I sold the cattle. Our house burnt down one night about five days ago and thankfully we all  got out in time without any injuries. We were staying at the hotel but I realized I only had enough money for few more days and the food to last us that long or two tickets to Virginia City. You know what I chose to do since I’m here now. I couldn’t stay in Carson City, my husband wasn’t exactly liked there and therefore I wasn’t either.” 

“Why wasn’t your husband liked in Carson City?” Pa asks.

“Many reasons.” She sighs. “He ran a whiskey still and was one of the town drunks. Plus he had debts at practically all the main stores.” 

“Why’d you marry a man like that? You don’t seem like the type of gal to get yourself hitched to a no good.” 

“Well, Little Joe, I was actually a mail order bride. I used to live in a small town in Ohio with my mother, father, and nine younger siblings. My older twin sisters both had become mail order brides and are happily married, so since my father was having a hard time providing for all twelve of us at home, I decided to become a mail order bride as well. I would have married a boy from my hometown but the only single men were scraggly old men without any teeth.” I see Misty shutter so I figure she’s thinkin’ about how close she came to marryin’ a dirty ole man. “William’s letters were the first I received. He told me wonderful things about his little ranch and the plans he had for it; in a way I was swept off my feet. He paid for my stage ticket and I came West. When I arrived, I found a man who was twelve years older than me, which was something he hadn’t mentioned in any of his letters. He was sort of a burly man with jet black hair and brown eyes. We were married for three years before we started to have problems. Our ranch began to fail, we worked so hard too, but it still failed and with the failure came debts. Plus on top of the failure and all the debt I was expecting Jeff. Will began to go to town and when he came home it would be really late and he would smell like booze. Each time it got worse and I could tell he was beginning to have a hard time holding his liquor. After a while he would just come home stone cold drunk, so drunk I would have to lead him to the bed when he got home.” 

“I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how did he pass away?” Misty asks.

“One night a little over a year ago he came staggering in the drunkest I’ve ever seen him. Somehow he made it to the bed by himself. As soon as he was in the bed he rolled over and told me that he loved me and the children. He rolled back over and fell asleep. I woke up the next morning to find him dead beside me in bed. I guess he had reached his limit and his body couldn’t take that much alcohol anymore.” She wipes a tear off her cheek. “He really wasn’t a bad man, our hard times just got the better of him. Despite the fact that during most of our last four years together he was almost never sober, he was never mean to me or the children. I truly loved him.”

“Oh, how awful!” Misty whispers.

“We’ve all been through something.” Leo shrugs off her concern. “I’m sure each of you have a story to tell.” 

“That we do.” Hannah scooches herself into a more comfortable position on the couch; her belly gets more swollen each time I see her. “But what do you plan on doing now that you’re in Virginia City?”

“I had planned on finding whatever work I could get my hands on.” 

“Well, I just might have a job for you. Joe’s going into town tomorrow to pick up the bushel of peaches I bought to make preserves. With this belly and my aching feet, I could use some help. If you’ll help, I’ll pay you five cents a jar.” 

“I don’t know how I can refuse! Putting up preserves was always one of my favorite things to help my mother do.” 

“It’s a deal then?”

“It’s a deal!”

 

Chapter 4

Pullin’ up in front of Little Joe’s house, I stop the horses. I climb down an’ walk over to help Leo get to the ground safely. She gives Cherry an’ Jeff quick kisses before puttin’ her hand into mine. She grabs her skirt with her other hand as she hops down to the ground. 

“You two be good for Miss Misty, you hear?” She points her finger at them where they sit on the wagon seat. 

“Yes, Ma, we will.”

“ ‘Es, mama.”

“Cherry Berry, we’ll just have to wait and see about you.” She laughs at Cherry’s little innocent look.

The front door opens an’ Little Joe steps out, ploppin’ his hat on his head. He waves to the kids an’ nods at me. “Hannah’s already got all the jars lined up on the counter and about five peaches cut up. She’s rearing to go!”

“Well then, I best get in there!” She scoots past Joe into the house. “Hannah?”

“Back here!”

“Let’s get goin’, big brother, Adam’s probably waiting for us.” He climbs up on the wagon seat and puts Cherry in his lap. I step up on the other side, squishin’ Jeff between Joe an’ me. He lets out a little grunt. “What’s the matter buddy, a little tight?”

“Yeah, Little Joe, I can’t breathe!”

“Well, I’ve got two legs.” Joe puts Cherry on his right leg so Jeff can climb onto his left. 

“Don’t you drop those little ‘uns now, Joe.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got them.” He squeezes them tight to prove it an’ Cherry lets out a little squeak. “Now as long as you don’t hit a big bump in the road, we’ll be ok.”

“I’ll try an’ not hit any, everyone ready?” Seein’ everyone is, I “giddyup” to the horses with a slap of the reins on their backs. 

As I listen to Joe talkin’ with Cherry an’ Jeff, the three mile ride to Adam’s place seems to take half the time. When I stop the wagon in front of Adam’s barn, Little Joe looks up with a surprised expression on his face. I guess he hadn’t realized how much time had gone by. 

Adam walks around the barn towards us, wipin’ sweat off his forehead. The front door of the house opens an’ Misty comes out She tucks loose hair back into it’s proper place as she walks over, where steps over to Joe an’ she reaches up for Cherry. She swings her onto her hip an’ bounces her until she giggles. Adam reaches up to take Jeff so Joe can get down without droppin’ the little feller. Once on the ground, Jeff grabs Misty’s free hand an’ they skip along to the house together.

“That little gal’s goin’ make a good mama one of these days.” I say, shakin’ my head as I climb down from the wagon myself. 

“Yeah and hopefully sometime soon, too!” Joe laughs, slappin’ Adam on the back. Adam gets a funny look on his face, like he’s excited ‘bout something’ but he’s tryin’ to keep it a secret. “Hey, Adam, what’s that look for, what’s goin’ on?”

“Oh, nothing.” Adam walks towards the back of the barn, glancin’ over his shoulder at Joe to see if he’s sparked his imagination. Joe glances at me before he takes off at a sprint to catch up with him. 

“What’d you mean, nothing? Apparently it’s something, you’re acting mighty suspicious.” He looks over at me. “Ain’t he, Hoss?”

“Yeah, what’s goin’ on Adam?” I cross my arms over my chest, brows all scrunched up, lips puckered out a bit. He looks between Joe an’ me, the look on his face tellin’ that he’s ‘bout to give in. 

“Alright. I’ll tell you.” He throws his hands up in the air an’ then points at us, “But you have to promise not to tell Pa, I want to tell him myself!”

“I won’t tell.”

“Me neither.” 

“Well, Misty’s expecting.” I don’t think I’ve seen him smile that big since the day when he came walkin’ out from between those Indian tepees with his arm wrapped around Misty, holdin’ her close. 

“Woo hoo!” Joe yells as he grabs him in a hug. Adam pats him on the back, his grin turnin’ goofy. Joe let’s go an’ I see his grin is as big as Adam’s, but then his look turns into realization, “Who else knows?”

“Your wife.” Adam cocks his right brow, all the while that grin still plastered to his face.

“That explains it!” Little Joe snaps his fingers. “Hannah’s been acting like she’s got something up her sleeve for a few weeks now. I kept asking her what was going on but she would just smile and say nothing. Well, this ain’t nothing, that’s for dang sure!” 

“When are you goin’ to tell Pa?”

“We had planned on telling everyone last night but with that story the little lady you brought home told.” He shakes his head. “We both agreed it wasn’t the time to tell.” 

He bends an’ picks up a hammer to start workin’ on the fence we’re buildin’ behind his barn. “I’m going to ride over tonight and tell him.” 

 

Chapter 5

“Cherry! Get back here!” Jeff’s voice shouts across the yard, she must have gotten away from him again. “Evangelina Rosemary Tirk, I said come back here! I’ll tell Ma an’ she won’t let Miss Misty watch you ever again!”

I hear his patterin’ feet as he chases after her an’ Joe straightens, wipes the sweat outta his eyes, lets out a little laugh, an’ says “That girl’s name sure is a mouthful! Evangelina Rosemary Tirk, whooee. I’m glad she’s just called Cherry.”

“I’m sure her mother’s glad, too, as much as she has to chase her around.” Adam laughs while he unbuttons an’ untucks his black shirt. “She reminds me of you, Joe, when you were her age. I’m honestly surprised you survived!” 

“Cherry! Jeff!” Misty’s voice floats across the yard. “I’ve got some cookies and milk, come get them.” 

A high pitched scream comes from the barn followed by a soft thump an’ all three of us take off runnin’ for the barn. Joe beats us to her; he scoops her off the ground an’ cradles her limp body to his chest. Misty’s at his side in an instant, pushin’ damp curls off Cherry’s pale face while Adam bends down next to a cryin’ Jeff, who’s sittin’ in a heap near the door. Not gettin’ an answer from him, he picks him up so he can at least have some comfort. “Jeff what happened? We need to know.” 

“Oh, Adam, it was awful!” He sobs even harder. 

“What was awful?”

“She was climbin’ up the ladder to the loft an’ I must have scared her when I ran in. She fell off the ladder!” 

“How far up was she?”

“ ‘Bout halfway.”

“Adam, she needs a doctor badly.” Joe says. “I can feel blood on the back of her head and it looks like her arm might be broken.” 

“She needs her mother, too.” Misty says, slowly takin’ her from Joe. 

“I’ll ride back home and get Hannah and Leo. Hoss, you take Cherry back to the house since it’s closer, I’ll bring the girls there.” Joe turns but then realizes he ain’t got a horse to ride. “Adam, I don’t have Cochise.” 

“Take Blueberry, I’ll need Sport to go get Doc Martin. Misty, go with Hoss and the little ones.” He gives her a quick kiss before sittin’ Jeff down so he can saddle his horse. 

They take off as I’m helpin’ Misty an’ the little ‘uns into the back of the wagon. I climb up on the seat an’ slap the horses into action. I make ‘em go as fast as I dare so I don’t jostle Cherry too much. 

When we’re ‘bout halfway to the house I hear quiet cryin’. I quickly look back to see who it is an’ find Misty sobbin’. Jeff scooches over to her an’ taps her on the arm. “Please, Misty, don’t cry! It ain’t your fault Cherry fell. It’s all my fault so please stop cryin’” 

“Oh, Jeff, it isn’t your fault!” I hear him begin to sob, too. “Sweetheart, stop crying, please, it’ll only make matters worse, not better. I can’t stop if you don’t and I don’t want Adam to know I’ve been crying. It’ll upset him since he hates to see me cry.” 

I hear ‘em both try an’ stop their tears an’ by the time I’ve pulled up in front of the house the only trace of their tears is Misty’s red rimmed eyes an’ Jeff’s occasional sniff. Little miz Cherry’s still unconscious an’ neither Adam or Joe are here yet. 

The front door opens as Pa hurries over, knowin’ somethin’s wrong cuz I ain’t supposed to be home until supper time. I help Misty outta the wagon bed as Pa grabs Jeff an’ swings him to the ground. Misty an’ I hurry into the house with Cherry. 

Misty gently lays the still unconscious gal on the bed in the spare room downstairs by the dining room. Pa comes in a moment later with a bowl of warm water an’ a clean cloth. Jeff’s nowhere to be seen so I figure Pa musta given him somethin’ to keep him busy an’ outta the way.

“Here.” Pa hands the squeezed out wet cloth to Misty an’ she wipes Cherry’s face with it. “Jeff told me what happened. Has she woken up since the fall?”

“No and that’s what worries me the most.” Misty hands Pa back the cloth to dip in the water again. “She must have hit her head harder than we thought.” 

We hear a wagon pull up fast outside. “I reckon that’s Joe.” 

Walkin’ out to the livin’ room, I hear feet run across the front yard to the door which flies open seconds later. Leo runs in, her eyes lookin’ wildly around for Cherry. 

“Leo, she’s in the little room over here.” I point to the open door an’ she rushes in. I hear more footfall on the front porch an’ look up to see Joe an’ Hannah come in. “Any sign of Adam?” 

“No, not yet.” Joe throws his hat on the table. “Is Cherry any better?”

“She hasn’t woken up yet.”

“You mean she’s still unconscious?” Hannah gasps. “She must be way worse than Little Joe thought.”

“I’m ‘fraid so. That’s why I was askin’ if you’d seen Adam, he should be back by now with the doc.” I turn around to look for Jeff as I suddenly remember him but he’s nowhere in sight. “I reckon Jeff went upstairs or somethin’. Pa was with him last an’ probably sent him up there.” 

I walk up the stairs an’ glance back to see Hannah plop down on the sofa, fannin’ herself with a handkerchief. Joe’s standin’ over by the open front door where I reckon he’s watchin’ for Adam. 

As I turn the corner at the top of the stairs, I hear faint cryin’. With hurried steps, I make my way down the hall an’ into Jeff’s room. Walkin’ in the open door I see the little feller face down on the bed with his face buried in a pillow. 

“Hey, Jeff, there ain’t no reason to cry.” I sit on the edge of the bed an’ rub his back. “Things like this happen all the time.”

“They do?” He picks his head up off the pillow an’ looks at me with red, teary eyes. 

“Yep. You wouldn’t believe how many timeless we’ve had to put Little Joe back together!” I laugh, tryin’ to cheer him up. 

“You mean Little Joe’s gotten hurt bad before?” He slowly inches over into my lap, his eyes as big as saucers. 

“That little brother of mine’s gotten himself hurt so many dadburn times I’m surprised he’s still in one piece.”

“Has he ever gotten shot?”

“More times than I can count on one hand.”

“Oh, wow! He don’t look like it though.”

“You don’t have to look like it.” I give him a nod. “You want to know somethin’?”

“Yea, I sure do, what is it?”

“Almost all of us Cartwrights have been shot before. The only Cartwright who ain’t been shot is miz Misty.” 

“You mean Miss Hannah’s been shot before? But she’s a lady, my ma said so!”

“Well, Jeff, sometimes ladies get shot, too.” I shift him onto my other leg. “You see, ‘bout a year ago, Little Joe found miz Hannah walkin’ by herself through one of our fields. She was hurt real bad like, so Joe brought her home. Then two days later a bad man came to try an’ take Hannah away but we put up a fight. Durin’ that fight Little Joe an’ Hannah both took a bullet, Joe in the arm an’ Hannah in the leg.” 

“Oh, wow!” 

Hearin’ two horses ride up outside, I sit Jeff back on the bed. “I figure that’s Adam an’ the doc. I better get back down there, you stay up here, alright?” 

“Alright, Hoss.”

 

Chapter 6

“There’s nothing else I can do for her.” Doc Martin says as he snaps his bag shut. “She seems to be in a coma from how hard she hit her head, now it’s all up to her whether or not she pulls through. Her heartbeat is strong as is her breathing.”

“And if she does pull through?” Leo nearly whispers from where she stands by Pa’s red chair, grippin’ the back so tight her knuckles are white. 

“There’s a very large chance of memory loss. Whether it would be temporary or permanent I don’t know. Plus there’s also a possibility that she might be different after this.” 

“What do you mean by different?” Adam asks from where he’s sits on the fireplace. 

“Sometimes after a person hits their head really hard it causes damage to the brain which in turn can cause a person to act differently.” He turns back to Leo. “How did she act before this, what type of personality does she have?”

“She’s extremely full of energy and is constantly running off to see something that’s caught her eye. She’s always happy and cheerful, in fact she’s almost never grouchy or tempered.” A small smile plays on her lips. “Evangelina is like a little angel, that is a feisty little angel.”

“Well, after this, that is if she pulls through, she might be quiet, slower, and not as even tempered.” His sigh sounds like the whole world is sittin’ on his shoulders. “I don’t want to worry or scare you Mrs. Tirk, but also want you to know the truth. Do you think you can handle it? Perhaps you should sit in that chair instead of standing behind it.”

She steps around the chair an’ sits down before she slowly nods at Doc Martin, “I want to know. Please don’t mince your words because you think I can’t handle it; I can handle it and I have to know.”

“Alright, I’ll get straight to the point: if she does make it, it would really surprise me. The impact her head received is likely to have caused her brain to bleed, which can be fatal if it doesn’t stop or is more than a small amount. Truly the only thing that can save her now is prayer and a miracle.” 

“But if she does make it?” Leo sounds like she’s tryin’ her best not to begin to cry. 

“If she does, then we can only hope she doesn’t have too much head pain and that she doesn’t experience severe memory loss. Her arm should heal nicely since it was a clean break but right now, that’s the least of our worries.” He lets out another sigh as he picks up his bag. “I don’t like to leave, but there’s nothing else I can do and I have other patients that I need to tend to. I’ll come back tomorrow morning.” 

Pa walks him to the door, thanking him for all his help. As soon as the door clicks shut, Misty begins to sob. Hannah wraps her arm around her shoulders since she sittin’ next to her on the sofa as Adam jumps up from his seat. He quickly pulls her to her feet and wraps her in his arms. 

“It’s all my fault!” Her voice is muffled by sobs an’ Adam’s shirt. 

 Leo jumps up an’ walks over to Adam an’ Misty. She reaches out to squeezes Misty’s shoulder, which makes her lift her head up an’ look at her. When she sees who it is she starts to sob even harder. “Misty, please it’s not your fault!” 

“Yes, it is, Leo! If I hadn’t turned my back to pour that milk then she would’ve never run out of the house.” 

“No, it’s not your fault, it’s not anyone’s fault! I feel like deep down I’ve always known something like this would happen.”

“What do you mean?” 

“Well, as soon as she could walk, she began to run off and get into dangerous situations. Something like this could’ve happened yesterday but Hoss stopped it. It wasn’t the first time she ran into the street and I knew it wasn’t the last.” She wipes the tears off her cheeks. “I just never expected it to happen this soon or this way.”

“Even if it wasn’t my fault, I still feel horrible about it.” Movin’ away from Adam, Misty wraps Leo in a tight hug. 

“I need to get back to Cherry.” Leo leans back, wipin’ the tears off of Misty’s face an’ kisses her cheek before lettin’ go. She turns to go back to Cherry but I guess she remembers somethin’ else cuz she turns back around an’ looks at Hannah. “Hannah, I’m sorry I can’t help you finish putting up the peach preserves. I feel bad, you’re already wore out.”

“Don’t worry about it! I’ll finish them myself somehow or have Little Joe help me.” Hannah moves to get off the couch but doesn’t quite make it. Adam, who’s the closest to her, offers her his hand. She takes it with a smile as he helps her to her feet. “I’ll go ahead and pay you for the jars you did make. If I don’t right now I know I’ll somehow forget. How many jars did you make again?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Well, at five cents a jar, that evens out to be a dollar and twenty-five cents.” She looks over at Joe. “Little Joe, do you have your wallet? I left my reticule at the house.”

He pulls it outta his jacket pocket an’ tosses it to her. She takes out the amount an’ puts them in Leo’s hand. “But, Hannah, you said a dollar and twenty-five cents, this is two dollars.”

“I know. That extra seventy-five cents is for your excellent company today.” She grins with a wink. “Now you get back in there to your baby girl.” 

“Thank you, Hannah. Thank you everyone for everything!” She turns an’ hurries back into Cherry’s room. 

 

Chapter 7

I wake up with a start, a snore comin’ out a loud snort. I lay there not exactly sure what woke me up. Then I hear it again, a shout from downstairs. Swing’ my legs off the bed, I jump up, my green checked nightshirt fallin’ back over my knees.

I hear Pa in the hall as another shout comes from downstairs, “Mr. Cartwright! Hoss!”

Leo’s voice cracks like she’s tryin’ not to let a sob loose. The worst must have happened while we were all asleep. I brace myself for the grim news as I hurry down the hall, reachin’ the top of the stairs just as Pa sprints down the bottom half.

We’ve both come to love little Cherry in the short time that the Tirks have been with us. I see Pa’s shoulders stiffen right before he walks into Cherry’s room. I know he’s goin’ to take Cherry’s passin’ hard. I know I am, too. In fact all of us Cartwrights will, we’re just a big bunch of softies who open our hearts easily. Especially to fiery, towheaded little gals. 

Walkin’ into the room, I prepare myself for the worst but I see a sight I ain’t expectin’. Leo and Pa try to hold a writhin’ Cherry still. She lets out little moans as her body continues to shake. I step up to the bed knowin’ this ain’t goin’ end good. I can hear her little teeth clackin’ together inside her mouth as her seizure continues. I watch, not knowin’ how to help, as tears fall off Leo’s cheeks an’ splash down onto Cherry’s pale face.

Her seizure keeps goin’ for what feels like an hour, but I glance at the clock on the wall an’ see it ain’t even been two minutes. Suddenly her whole body relaxes into the bed an’ all three of us release the air we’ve been holdin’ in. Reachin’ up, Pa wipes his cheeks dry. Seein’ the tears that he’d let trickle freely down his cheeks makes me notice my own. Usin’ my sleeve, I dry ‘em off as Leo sinks onto the edge of the bed. Her shoulders begin to shake with silent tears. 

Walkin’ around the edge of the bed, I lay my big hands on her shakin’ shoulders. Slowly, she lifts her head up from where she had it cradled in her hands. Her face is red an’ puffy from all her cryin’. Tears stream down her cheeks as she tries to choke back her sobs. I slowly pull her to her feet an’ she steps into my arms, layin’ her head on my chest. As I rub my hand up an’ down her back, she lets loose. Her whole body shakes from the force of her sobs. I let her cry herself out, tryin’ to give her as much comfort as I can. 

Pa runs his big hand over Cherry’s forehead. She looks so little layin’ there in that big bed, her face a pale white with pink flushed cheeks. Pa slowly sits down on the edge of the bed beside her an’ takin’ her little hand in his, he bows his head, lips silently movin’. I know he’s prayin’, prayin’ for that miracle that Doc Martin said was the only thing that would save Cherry. 

All cried out, Leo just lays limp against my chest. Slowly she turns and looks back at Cherry. She shutters, I imagine thinkin’ ‘bout what just happened. Steppin’ away from me, she looks up at me and mouths, “Thank you.”

“Mr. Cartwright, thank you for helping me.” She gives Pa a look of gratitude as she runs her hand over Cherry’s forehead. Her face screws up into a worried look again. “She’s burning up!”

“Yes, I noticed she was hot.” Pa stands up an’ moves towards the door. “I’ll get some cold water and a cloth.”

As he walks outta the room, Leo sits back down on the bed beside Cherry. Steppin’ away from the bed, I walk across the room an’ stand in front of the wall by the door. Pa comes back in the room, carryin’ a bowl of water an’ a cloth. He glances at me as he passes an’ gives me a small smile. 

“Here, Leo.” She takes it from him, immediately wettin’ the cloth. After squeezin’ it out she wipes Cherry’s forehead. Cherry doesn’t move a muscle, she just lays there limp an’ quiet.

Seein’ the little gal like that on the brink of crossin’ over causes somethin’ to crack inside me. Feelin’ my eyes fill with tears again, I back up until my backside bumps into the wall. Watchin’ Leo an’ Pa workin’ to keep her on this side makes me feel small for the first time in my life. I’ve always known that life is precious and short, but watchin’ this gal fight for her life makes it become even clearer. 

I feel a sob well up in me as I watch Pa an’ Leo tryin’ to lower Cherry’s high temperature. Feelin’ it slowly make it’s way up, I quickly clear my throat tryin’ to make it disappear. Pa looks over his shoulder at me, his brow wrinkles up then smoothes as he slowly smiles. “Everything’s going to be alright. Hoss, why don’t you go back to bed. We don’t need your help right now and someone needs to get some sleep tonight.” 

“Yes, Pa.” My voice sounds creaky but he just nods at me so I turn to leave the room. As I walk up the stairs, my heart feels heavy in my chest. 

Floppin’ down on my bed, I listen to it creak under my weight. Pa’s words echo in my head, “Everything’s going to be alright.” But I ain’t so sure everythin’ is gonna be alright this time. Layin’ on my back, I close my eyes as tears trail down my cheeks an’ onto my pillow. Silently I pray for Cherry, for Leo, an’ for all of us. With my endin’ amen, I let myself go an’ sob. Still sobbin’, I drift off into a dreamless sleep. 

 

Chapter 8

I wake up the next mornin’ to the sound of patterin’ feet goin’ down the hallway. The sound brings back memories of when Little Joe was still a youngster. Shakin’ my head, I thumb the sleep outta my eyes. I swing my legs off the bed an’ look up as my door squeaks open. A little blond haired head pops into the room. Blue eyes squint and then go wide as they look at me. 

“Hoss, you look awful!” He exclaims, his voice somehow soundin’ a strange mixture of surprise and seriousness. His brows scrunch up as he slips all the way into the room. 

I can’t help but laugh at the little worried look he’s givin’ me. Standin’ up, I lay my hand on his head for a second as I walk passed him to get a look at myself in the mirror. I see that he ain’t wrong cuz I look like I haven’t slept in a week an’ my eyes are still a bit red from all those tears I cried last night. I know some folks think it’s weak for a man to cry but I don’t think so. A man has every right to shed tears, too. I’ve seen my Pa cry a time or two an’ he’s no less a man to me cuz of them. 

“Well, little buddy, it seems you’re right!” I ruffle up his hair with a smile before reachin’ for the pitcher of water on my nightstand. Pourin’ some into the bowl, I look down to see those two little blue eyes watchin’ me. “How about you stand out in the hall while I get dressed an’ then we’ll go see what ole Hop Sing’s fixin’ for breakfast.” 

“Sure thing, Hoss.” He hurries over to the still open door. Pullin’ it closed behind him, he sticks his head back in. “You’ll hurry? I’m half starved.”

“I’ll hurry!” I shoot him a wink as he closes the door with a grin. 

I quickly wash the sleep off my face an’ throw on my clothes for the day. Pausin’ for a moment, I can’t help but wonder what today will bring for Cherry. Somethin’ deep in my belly tell me that after what happened last night, it ain’t gonna be good. I quickly shake my head, decidin’ to act cheerful an’ happy no matter what for Jeff’s sake. As I reach for the doorknob, I hear a foot tappin’ on the floor out in the hall. 

“What’s the matter, I go too slow?” His head turns and he looks at me, his face all puckered up in a fake serious look. It makes me laugh which causes a grin to slowly spread across his face. 

“Hoss, you took so long gettin’ ready I thought I was gonna shrivel up like a raisin!” Shakin’ his head at me, he puts his hands on his hips. Still laughin’, I put my hand on the back of his head an’ lead him towards the stairs. 

We walk down the stairs, together both of us still chucklin’ a little, an’ see Pa get up outta his chair. As he hurries over to the staircase, I try an’ read his expression but all I see is a tired an’ worried look. 

“Be quiet you two.” He says in a loud whisper. “Miss Leo is asleep and I don’t want her to wake up. She’s just fallen asleep after not having any all night.” 

“Yes, sir. I’ll be quieter than a mouse!” Jeff whispers back with a serious nod an’ even seriouser look. 

“Your breakfast is on the table, son. Go eat it while it’s still hot.” Pa pats Jeff’s head as he passes him, goin’ as fast as he quietly can. 

“Pa?” He looks at me, his eyes soulful. He knows what I’m askin’ without me even sayin’ anymore. Lookin’ behind him to make sure Jeff’s at the table busy with his breakfast, he turns back to me. 

“No, she’s still with us.” He says slowly shakin’ his head. “She’s still burning up with fever and it doesn’t seem to want to break.” 

“Any more seizures?” 

“No, thankfully not.” He puts his hand on my shoulder. “It’s up to the Lord now whether or not she lives.” 

“Yes, sir.” I nod. 

We slowly walk across the room to the table. Sittin’ down, we silently eat our breakfast with a little boy who very soon might become an only child. 

 

Chapter 9

Just as I’m puttin’ my last bite of hominy grits in my mouth, someone knocks on the front door. Pa an’ I look at each other for a second before he quickly wipes his mouth, layin’ his napkin on the table. “I’ll get it.”

As Pa walks to the front door I hear the bedroom door squeak open. Both Jeff an’ I look up to see a very tired an’ pale Leo standin’ in the doorway. She walks towards the table an’ sits down in an empty chair. 

“Mornin’, Ma.” Jeff smiles but I can see the worry in his eyes as he looks at his worn out ma. 

“Good morning, Jeff.” She pours herself a cup of coffee as Pa comes around the corner with Doc Martin. Takin’ barely a sip, she puts her cup back down an’ jumps up. “Oh, doctor, I’m so glad you’re here! I’m afraid she’s taken a turn for the worse.”

All three hurry into the bedroom. Pa gives me a look mixed with worry an’ concern before closin’ the door behind him. Jeff sighs heavily beside me, “Hoss?”

“Yeah, Jeff.” 

“Is Cherry gonna die?” 

“I don’t know.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “Only God knows an’ it’s all up to Him.”

“Yes, sir.” He quickly lowers his eyes as they fill with tears so I give his shoulder a light squeeze. 

Hop Sing walks in to clear the table. He starts to pick up the dirty plates but then he notices Jeff’s tears an’ my worried look. “Mister Jeff?”

“Yes, Hop Sing.” His head pops up fast like an’ he wipes his cheeks. 

“You help Hop Sing make pie?”

“Oh, Hop Sing, can I?”

“Yes!” 

Grinnin’ Jeff jumps outta his chair an’ gives Hop Sing a big hug. Hop Sing awkwardly pats him on the back, clearly uncomfortable. I can’t help myself, I let out a chuckle. Hop Sing throws me a dirty look before leadin’ Jeff into the kitchen. 

Gettin’ up from the table, I walk over to the livin’ room. I almost sit down in Pa’s chair but then decide I better not sit down. I need to do somethin’ with my hands or I’m gonna go crazy waitin’ on that door to open. So I go over to the fireplace an’ grab the poker stick to stir the dead embers around a bit. I’m makin’ my fifth round with the poker in the embers when I hear a horse gallop up outside. I figure it’s either Adam or Joe come to see how Cherry’s fairin’. 

The front door opens a moment later an’ Adam walks in. Layin’ his hat on the table, he walks towards me. I see him lookin’ around to see if anyone else is in the room before he nods at me an’ leans against the back of the red chair. “Mornin’, Hoss.”

“Mornin’.” I lay the poker down an’ turn around to walk over an’ sit in the blue chair across from him. “How’s Misty?”

“She’s alright.” He sits down after glancin’ back at that closed door. “How long has Doc Martin been here?”

“ ‘Bout ten minutes or so.”

“Did she make it through the night?”

“Yeah.” Leanin’ up, I rest my elbows on my knees. “But last night was rough. Pa an’ I woke up at about two in the mornin’ to Leo hollerin’ for us. Cherry was havin’ a bad seizure an’ she’s had a fever ever since then.” 

“I have a feeling that this isn’t going to turn out very good.” Adam sighs an’ then as if suddenly rememberin’ somethin’, he sits up an’ looks around. “Where’s Jeff?” 

“Hop Sing’s got him in the kitchen helpin’ make a pie.” 

“Good, he doesn’t need to go through all of this with us. Misty and I were talking about it last night and we thought that maybe we should keep him out at our place for a few days. That is, at least, until we know what the outcome is going to be. But if Leo wants him here, that’s understandable as well. Even though he’s young he still deserves to know what’s going on, but he just doesn’t need to start worrying or worse, blame himself.”

“Do you think Misty’s up to it?”

“She said she is. She hasn’t been that sick, well at least not like Hannah was at the beginning.” 

Hearin’ another horse gallop outside, I figure it’s probably Joe this time. An’ sure enough it is cuz he comes through the door and hurries across the room towards us. Just like Adam did, he glances back at that closed door before throwin’ himself onto the sofa. “Mornin’. How’s Cherry?”

“Still with us but barely. She had a bad seizure last night an’ now has a high fever.” I fill him in. 

“Oh boy.” He blows out a sigh. “How’s Leo?”

“Really tired. She’s maybe gotten half an hour of sleep.”

“Now we have to hope she doesn’t wear herself out and get sick.” Adam says as the bedroom door opens. All three of us jump to our feet as Pa, Doc Martin, an’ Leo walk across the room towards us. Leo leans on the back of Adam’s chair, lookin’ past exhaustion. Adam gently takes her arm an’ makes her sit. Given’ him a very small smile, she sinks back into the chair with a sigh. 

“Well, how is she?” Joe asks, his arms crossed over his chest. 

“Like I was telling your father and Mrs. Tirk, at this point I would be extremely shocked if she does make it.” He lets outta deep sigh as Leo begins to gently sob. Steppin’ over to her, I lay my hand on her shoulder. She reaches up an’ gently pats my hand in thanks. “Instead of improvement from how she was yesterday, I see the opposite. But then, of course, only time can tell with these things.” 

“So there’s nothing you can do?”

“Unfortunately not. I’m sure she’s in pain but since it’s a brain injury, I can’t give her anything for it.” His head bobs down towards his chest as he sighs yet again. “Now it’s just a waiting game.”

 

Chapter 10 

Sittin’ next to Leo, I try an’ get her to eat her lunch. She’s so tired she can barely eat but she hasn’t ate since lunch yesterday. That on top of being extremely tired ain’t a good combination. Even though she’s tryin’ to hide it from me, I can see her hands tremblin’. 

She’s been workin’ really hard to get Cherry’s fever down ever since Doc Martin left this mornin’. Pa, Hop Sing, an’ me have been helpin’ her all we can by fetchin’ all the cold water an’ clean cloths a body could want. We hoped that she would rest an’ let one of us take over for a few hours but she’s one stubborn woman an’ won’t let any of us do anythin’ but bring her what she needs. But at least we don’t have Jeff to trip over an’ worry ‘bout since Leo let Adam take him home with him. 

“Leo, please, at least, just try an’ eat some of the roast beef.” 

“I’m sorry, Hoss, but I’m just not hungry.” 

“Then don’t eat for yourself, but for your two little ‘uns. You have to have strength to comfort them.” Reachin’ over, I lay my big ole hand on top of her little tremblin’ one. She looks up at me, her big blue eyes sad an’ soulful. “Please, Leo.” 

She puts a forkful of the beef in her mouth as Pa comes out of the bedroom, bowl of water in hand. Seein’ that door open makes her get antsy. Glancin’ at me first she looks down at her plate that’s still full of food. She ignores it an’ she reaches over to pick up her cup of coffee, takin’ a drink an’ settin’ it back down. She stands slowly an’ creeps back into Cheery’s room. 

So much for gettin’ her to eat. I lean back in my chair with a sigh as I cross my arms over my chest. Comin’ back through with a new bowl of water, Pa looks at her full plate of food. He shakes his head as he looks at me an’ I shrug in defeat. But I can tell he understands by the look on his face. 

Followin’ him into the bedroom, I look past him at the bed. The sight saddens me. A very pale an’ hollow eyed Leo leans over her still an’ quiet, feverish child. She continues to dab that cool cloth on Cherry’s pale yet rosy red cheeks an’ forehead. 

Pa sits down the bowl of water an’ watches Leo with a worried look. Wonderin’ why he looks so concerned, I take look closer at her. That’s when I see it. She’s quiverin’ like a leaf in the wind. She starts to sway an’ quickly tries to hide it from us by leanin’ on to the bed. But it does the opposite cuz it only makes Pa an’ me notice it more. I go over to her as she begins to sway again. 

“Leo, just sit an’ rest a bit.” Grabbin’ her shoulders, I gently push her down onto the edge of the bed. “We can’t have you goin’ an’ gettin’ sick on us, now can we?” 

“No, we can’t.” Givin’ me a small smile full of hopelessness, she lays her head in her hands. “I just feel so helpless! I just can’t sit here and watch her fade away like this, but I don’t know what else to do.” 

“Leo, listen to me.” I squat down in front of her so we’re eye to eye. “You just have to have faith is all. Remember faith can move mountains. If we all believe she’s goin’ get well an’ work real hard like to try an’ make it happen then she has a better chance. But if we wear ourselves out with just plain ole worrin’, we won’t have the energy to help her like we should.” 

“I know, Hoss. I’ll try to stop worrying.” Straightenin’ her shoulders, she lets outta deep sigh. “I know the only thing that can save her is pure grit, faith, and a miracle if God’ll grant it.” 

“Now that’s the attitude.” Pa walks around the side of the bed to us. “We all know that this isn’t going to be easy, but that’s why we’re all going to be here for you every second of the way.”

“Thank you so much, Ben.” She pats the hand he has restin’ on her shoulder. “I know you will but I need to get back to work now.”

“No, young lady, what you need right now is a nice hot cup of coffee.” He walks outta the room to go get it. 

“Hoss, you and your family are very insistent people.” She lets out a small laugh. 

“That we are, ma’am, that we are.” I smile at her an’ the smile she gives back is one of the beautifulest I’ve ever seen. 

“Ah, here you go, Leo.” Pa hands her the cup of coffee. “It’s hot and fresh. Hop Sing just made it.” 

 

Chapter 11

Walkin’ down the stairs the next mornin’, I can’t help but wonder again what today’s gonna bring. Yesterday was pretty uneventful with us just tryin’ to get Cherry’s fever down an’ then tryin’ to get her stubborn mama to eat. That dadburn woman just wouldn’t eat! Everytime we tried she would insist that she was fine an’ wasn’t hungry, but she ain’t had anythin’ but coffee since the day Cherry fell an’ that was two days ago. 

Pullin’ out my chair from the table, I hear a strange noise come from out of the bedroom. I open the door to see a very pale Leo tryin’ to make her way to the door. She’s usin’ the footboard to hold herself up as she tries to get to me. 

“Leo!” Hurrin’ across the room, I grab her so she don’t fall. 

“Oh, Hoss.” She sobs out as her whole body goes limp in a faint. I catch her an’ carry her out to the livin’ room. 

“Pa!” I yell, layin’ her on the sofa. “Pa! Come quick!”

Runnin’ outta the kitchen, he sees me over by the sofa an’ hurries over. His face falls when he sees Leo layin’ pale an’ small on the sofa. “I had a bad feeling this would happen. You better go into town and get Doc Martin.” 

“Yes, Pa.” Grabbin’ my hat an’ gun belt, I run out the door. Pretty much throwin’ Chub’s saddle on, I skeddle to town. Seein’ an’ feelin’ Leo faint dead away like that in my arms scared me more than I care to let on. It scared me nearly as much as Cherry’s seizure did. 

I’ve been tryin’ and tryin’ the past few days to fight a certain feelin’ that’s been swellin’ up inside of me. I know it ain’t the time to let myself catch that type of feelin’ with everythin’ goin’ on, but I’ve not been able to fight an’ keep ‘em away, especially after Leo fainted like that. I love that purty gal an’ both of her little ‘uns. I know I’ve only known them for a few days but I feel like when a person goes through somethin’ like this, it can’t help but bring out their true colors. Plus I can’t help but recall the words Pa told Joe an’ Hannah when they wanted to get hitched after only knowin’ each other for a little over a day. He’d said, “Sometimes you don’t have to know a person that long to know they’re that special someone in your life who you find yourself not being able to live without.” 

I never realized that three days ago I had found that person who I can’t imagine livin’ without. Leo’s just special somehow. She’s real pretty, but stubborn an’ somehow meek at the same time. Of course her young ‘uns helped out, too. That spunky little gal an’ towheaded boy that both look like miniature versions of their mama have gotten ahold of my heartstrings an’ they ain’t lettin’ go. I’ve loved an’ lost gals in the past, whether it be to another man or to the Maker, but I know for a fact I’m not gonna let this one get away without a fight!

‘Bout fifteen minutes or so later I jump down from Chub in front of Doc Martin’s. Walkin’ in, I see him through the window separatin’ his office from the sittin’ area. He’s busy sortin’ his medicines but he hears me an’ he turns in my direction. 

“Hello, Hoss, is something wrong?” He hurries towards me. “Has Cherry taken an even bigger turn for the worse?”

“No, Doc, it’s Leo, she fainted an’ is doin’ poorly.” Takin’ off my hat, I fiddle with it in my hands. 

“It’s probably from not having eaten and then the stress and shock of Cherry’s condition.” He grabs his bag and follows me outside. “Have you gotten her to eat anything since I was out there last night?”

“No, sir. The only thing she’s had is a few cups of coffee. She makes the most dadburn excuses an’ then if they ain’t workin’, she waits until something distracts us an’ then sneaks back into Cherry’s room.” 

“The girl’s stubborn, that’s for sure!” 

 

Chapter 12

Back at the house, Doc Martin inspects a still unconscious Leo. He looks worried but he ain’t said anythin’ yet. He just keeps listenin’ to her heart an’ lookin’ at his watch. Sittin’ down on the coffee table, he let’s outta a deep sigh. 

“Well, Doctor?” Pa asks.

“Ben, I’m afraid we’ve got two sick patients on our hands now.”

“What’s wrong with her, Doc?” 

“Well, Hoss, from what I can figure is that she’s just worn herself out. Everything that’s happened the past few days has put her through a lot of stress and worry, which has just now caught up to her. For the past few days she’s been running on straight adrenaline. That and the fact that she hasn’t eaten anything in over two days has caused her to collapse. Her heart is beating very fast and she has a slight fever, it’s just the way her body is reacting.” 

“What do we need to do?” 

“Try and get the fever to break and then when she wakes up, get some good hearty food into her.”

“What kinda food exactly?”

“Things like broth and soup. Maybe even some milk and of course plenty of water.” 

“I’ll tell Hop Sing.” Pa goes into the kitchen. 

“She’ll also need lots of rest. Rest and food are the most important things right now.” He stands up. “I’ll check on Cherry since I’m already out here.”

Goin’ into the bedroom together, he begins to check her. But as he pulls up her eyelids an’ listens to her heart, he stops dead in his tracks. For ‘bout half a minute or so he just stares at her. Somethin’ must be wrong, but I know she ain’t gone cuz I can see her little chest movin’ up an’ down. 

“I…I can’t believe it!” He stutters out. 

“Can’t believe what?” I ask, worried, as Pa comes into the room behind me an’ lays his hand on my shoulder. We both hold our breath as we wait while he continues to stare at her. 

“Martin?” Pa asks.

“She’s…She’s come out of the coma!” He runs his hand through his hair. “I never expected this to happen, it’s a miracle!” 

“Oh, this is wonderful news!” Pa practically shouts. “This means she’ll live, right?”

“No, not necessarily. There’s a high chance we could still lose her, but this is a step in the right direction.”

“Hoss?” A weak soundin’ voice calls from out in the livin’ room. Turnin’ around, I hurry outta the room as Pa an’ the Doc follow me. She looks up at me an’ her brows scrunch together in a worried look. “Hoss, what’s wrong? Why are you crying?” 

Reachin’ up, I wipe the tears I didn’t even know I was cryin’ off my cheeks. She begins to sit up, but bendin’ down beside the sofa, I push her back down. “Leo, nothin’s wrong. Cherry’s come outta that dadburn coma.” 

“Out of the coma?”

“Yes!” 

“Oh, Hoss, it’s a miracle!” Throwin’ her arms around my neck, she begins to cry. I wrap my arms around her, pullin’ her close. I rub my hand up an’ down her back as I let her cry as long as she wants. She leans back after a moment an’ wipes her eyes dry with her sleeve. “I have to go see her!” 

Doc Martin puts his hand on her shoulder as she swings her legs off the sofa. Lookin’ up at him, her lips start to quiver again. “What’s the matter, Doc Martin?”

“This is just what I was afraid of.” Sighin’, he sits down on the sofa beside her after I scoot outta the way. “Even though her coma has broken doesn’t necessarily mean she’ll make it. There’s still a very large chance that she’ll pass away, but this is one step in the right direction. It’s still going to be a waiting game full of hard work. It’s very important to get her fever down, she’s had it for way too long now. Then if we an get it to go away, she’ll have a very long healing process. Her brain has taken a severe blow and I can’t tell how badly it was injured until she wakes up, that is if she does.”

Leo’s shoulders fall an’ her head bobs down towards her chest. Lettin’ outta sigh, she wipes her eyes again. She looks over at Doc Martin an’ straightens her shoulders, a determined look in her eyes. “I’m prepared to do lots of hard work and with Ben and Hoss’s help, I just know we can save Cherry.”

“Well, young lady, you aren’t going to be doing that hard work for a few days.” 

“What do you mean?” Leo interrupts. “My baby needs me!”

“Yes, she needs you, but right now what she needs you to do the most is rest. You have a slight fever yourself and are very weak. Not eating and the stress this accident has caused for you has made you collapse. I’m going to have to order you to stay in bed for the next few days so you can regain your strength. While you’re resting, Ben and Hoss along with Hop Sing will take very good care of Cherry.” Even though she tries to interrupt again, he continues. “Hop Sing is making you some food right now and I want you to eat everything he gives you.” 

“But, Doc Martin, I can’t just lay around and do nothing but eat!”

“Yes, you can and not only can you, you will. I’ll make sure you do. We have enough on our hands right now with only one patient, we don’t need two.” 

“Fine, I’ll rest.” The sigh she lets out sounds like it came from the very bottom of her belly. “But if I have to lay around, I’ll do my laying around on this sofa. I want to be right here so I can hear Cherry if she needs me.”

“That’s fine by me. I don’t care where you lay around, just as long as you do it.”  

 

Chapter 13

Four hours later I sit in Pa’s chair by the sofa an’ watch Leo sleep. We’ve gotten her to eat two hearty meals since Doc Martin left, once at lunch an’ then again at supper which was ‘bout half an hour ago. Either Doc’s words hit home or she just feels really bad cuz she hasn’t put up a fight ‘bout lyin’ around an’ restin’. I figured she’d at least try an’ get up a few times or somethin’ but she hasn’t. 

I’ve known she was a beauty since that first time I saw her, but she looks purtier somehow as she sleeps. Her hair’s kinda messy an’ all around her face but it looks more like a blonde halo or somethin’ instead of just a mess. Then with her long lashes layin’ on her pink cheeks an’ her lips parted in sleep slightly, she’s enough to tempt any man. Her husband sure was a lucky man to have had this little filly for as long as he did. 

Walkin’ outta the bedroom, Pa comes over to me. He lays his hand on my shoulder with a sigh. We both just quietly watch her sleep for a few minutes. Steppin’ around me, Pa sits down on the fireplace where he looks at me then at Leo and back at me again. 

“You love her, don’t you?” He finally asks. The question doesn’t surprise me, Pa can read all three of us boys like one of his books. Somehow it seems like he knows me better than I know myself sometimes. 

I stand up an’ walk around the chair. Grabbin’ the back of it in my big ole hands, I watch Leo shift in her sleep. I turn to look back at Pa an’ find him watchin’ me as he wait for my answer. 

“Can we go outside for a bit?” I ask cuz I don’t want to wake up Leo. Anyhow it would be dadburn awkward talkin’ ‘bout someone when they’re layin’ right there on the sofa asleep beside you. Plus she might not really be asleep but just pretendin’ or restin’ with her eyes closed. 

“Sure, son, we can go outside if you want.” We walk out onto the front porch. I lean my back against the porch pole while Pa sits in a chair. He continues to watch me for a moment. “You love her, don’t you?”

“Yea, Pa, I guess I do.” I sigh an’ it feels like it goes clear to my toes. “I know it sounds so dadburn foolish since I’ve only known her for a few days, but, Pa, I do. I really do love that little gal.” 

“I can’t say I blame you son, she’s a very beautiful young lady.” 

“You don’t think I’m foolish then?”

“No, not at all.” Standin’ up, he puts his hand on my shoulder. I turn towards him an’ watch his eyes as he talks. “She’s a strong, able girl with a sweet temper, and from what I’ve seen, a big heart. On top of that she’s also got a stubborn streak, which, of course, isn’t bad and can probably make her almost feisty sometimes. She’s everything any man could want, Hoss. And even more important she compliments you.” 

“What’d you mean by that?”

“You know, the two of you go together. In a way you’re like two peas in a pod.”

“Like she’s my better half?”

“Exactly.”

“But the only problem now is whether or not she could love a big, ugly man like me.” I sigh again.

“Oh, I don’t think you’ll have too hard of a time with that, and Hoss you aren’t ugly.” Scrunchin’ my eyebrows together, I give him a look. “Hoss, it isn’t about how a man looks on the outside but how he looks on the inside. It’s about whether or not they have a good heart and that, son, is something you have, a great, big generous heart.” 

“Well, I guess Adam an’ Little Joe are just downright plum lucky!”

“How’s that?”

“They’ve both got such dadburn good looks plus some of the biggest hearts I know!” We both have a good laugh together for a moment. After I stop laughin’, I wonder ‘bout somethin’ he just said. “Pa, what’d you mean when you said I wouldn’t have a hard time winnin’ Leo over?”

“Well, Hoss, I’ve seen the way she looks at you when you’re not looking.” He watches me with a serious yet soft look. “And then that night Cherry had that seizure, the way Leo let you hold her. A woman wouldn’t just let a man hold her like that or look at him like she looks at you when she doesn’t at least care for him a little bit.”

“But how can I make her love me if she only cares for me a little bit?”

“Just continue what you’re doing right now and wait and see.”

 

Chapter 14

Sittin’ in the chair next to Cherry’s bed, I let myself doze off for a little, but I wake all the way up when I hear a strange noise. I look around an’ can’t help wonderin’ if I was dreamin’ things up. Dadburn sure I wasn’t hearin’ things, I walk across the room an’ look out into the livin’ room to see if it was Leo I heard. Shakin’ my head, I look around the room again. I coulda swore I hear a soft, sleepy soundin’ voice call my name. 

“ ‘Oss?” I swivel around when I hear the voice again. My eyes widen in disbelief as reality smacks me square in the face. Rushin’ over to the bedside, my knees hit the floor with a crack as I try an’ believe what I’m seein’. 

“Cherry.” It comes out soundin’ more like a sob than I intended it to as I stroke her little rosy cheek. “Cherry, lamb, you’re awake!”

“Why ‘Oss cry?” Her brows scrunch over glassy blue eyes. “ ‘Erry do sumtin’ ‘ad?”

“No, you ain’t done nothin’ bad.” I push the sticky, damp curls off her forehead. “I’m just happy, is all. You’ve been sleepin’ for a long time cuz you hit your little noggin’ an’ I’m just happy you woke up.”

“Oh.” Her eyes slowly close but then pop back open again. “Me ‘ired, ‘Oss. Me sweep.” 

“Yes, little lamb, go back to sleep now.” As soon as she’s back to sleep, I slowly stand up an’ make my way to the door. Walkin’ across the room, I squat down next to the sofa. I reach out an’ gently shake Leo’s shoulder to wake her up. “Leo, Leo wake up.”

“Yes, I’m awake.” She stirs, her voice a sleepy mumble. She rubs her eyes for a second before lookin’ at me. “Hoss, what’s the matter? Is something wrong?”

“No, nothin’s wrong, it’s somethin’ wonderful!” Swingin’ her legs off the sofa, I help her stand up. I put my arms around her shoulders to steady her as we walk towards Cherry’s room. “Cherry was awake.”

“Awake!” Grabbin’ the front of my shirt, she pulls me down to her eye level. “Hoss, so help me, if you’re fooling around with me, I’ll send you to your Maker right now!” 

“Dadburn it, Leo! What kinda man do you think I am?” I look down into fiery, blue tear filled eyes. “She really was awake! I heard someone call my name but I didn’t know it was her until I heard it a second time. I started cryin’ an’ she asked me if she’d done somethin’ bad an’ of course I told her no. I told her I was just happy to see her awake after bein’ asleep for so long. An’ then she went back to sleep.” 

“Oh, Hoss!” She lets go of my shirt an’ practically runs to the bed. I watch from the foot of the bed as she strokes Cherry’s forehead an’ kisses her cheek. Turnin’, she looks back at me, tears streamin’ down her cheeks as her shoulders shake with sobs. “Her fever’s gone.”

“I know.” Walkin’ over to her, I wrap my arm around her shoulders. She collapses against me an’ sobs out all her fear and worry. I put my hand on the back of her neck an’ press her closer as I lay my cheek on top of her head. Tears roll off my cheeks and wet her hair. We stand like that, sobbin’ in each other’s arms for ‘bout ten minutes before she turns an’ looks back at Cherry. 

“It’s truly a miracle.” She looks up at me, her eyes shinin’ an’ red rimmed. “I think she’ll live!”

“I think so, too.” Standin’ side by side, we just look at each other for what feels like an hour but I know it’s really only been a few minutes. I don’t know why, but for some reason all of a sudden she stretches up towards me as I lean down towards her. My hand goes up her back an’ into her hair as our lips meet. After a few moments she pulls away an’ takin’ a few steps to the right, puts a couple of feet between us. She smooths her hair with one hand an’ then cups her cheeks in her hands, takin’ a deep breath.

“I think I’ll go back out to the sofa now since she’s asleep.” Walkin’ towards the door, she turns back an’ looks at me. “If Cherry wakes up again, come get me please.”

 

Chapter 15

In the mornin’, I walk out to the dinin’ room table where I hear Pa an’ Leo eatin’ breakfast. They’re talkin’ together all excited like so I figure Leo’ tellin’ Pa ‘bout Cherry. Pa looks up as I pull out my chair an’ sit down. “Good morning, Hoss!”

“Mornin’, Pa, Leo.” She nods at me with a smile, actin’ the same as always. “I’m guessin’ Leo told you ‘bout how Cherry woke up last night.”

“Yes, she did.” He takes a drink of his coffee, a huge, happy grin splittin’ his face in two. “It’s a miracle! Doc Martin was so sure that she wouldn’t make it, but apparently the Lord had other plans because gave us that miracle.”

“That He did.” I fill my plate an’ start to eat. “We’re really lucky He decided to give it to us.”

We’re all eatin’ in a happy, contended silence when we all hear a noise. Leo slowly lowers her cup of coffee as Pa quickly wipes his mouth, throwin’ his napkin on the table. Standin’ up, they both rush into Cherry’s room. I throw down my fork an’ follow behind them. 

“Mama.” Steppin’ into the doorway, I’m just in time to see Leo scoop up an awake Cherry. “Mama, ‘Erry ‘irsty. ‘Ave ‘ater?”

“Yes, angel, you can have some water.” She looks back at Pa, who noddin’ walks past me to get a glass. I notice that he swipes at his eyes as he walks by. He’s back in a second with the water. Handin’ it to her, Leo helps Cherry sit up a little an’ holds the glass to her lips. “There, Cherry, better now?”

“ ‘Es mama.” Cherry leans back in her mama’s arms, eyes slowly closin’. But they pop back open again. “ ‘Ere Jeff?”

“Jeff’s staying at Adam and Misty’s house.” Leo strokes her hair. “Would you like to see him?”

“ ‘Es, ‘Erry want Jeff.” 

“Little lamb, you’ll get him real soon.” She looks over at me when she hears my voice, a smile on her little face. “I’ll go get him right now.” 

“Thank you, Hoss.” Noddin’ at Leo, I walk outta the room. 

Quickly mountain’ Chub, I gallop off in the direction of Adam’s house. I’m there before I know it an’ Adam’s comin’ outta his front door to see who’s gallopin up. Rushin’ over, he grabs Chub’s reins as I jump down. 

“Is something wrong?” His voice sounds worried as he glances behind him at the house, makin’ sure neither Misty or Jeff have come out. 

“No, actually the opposite.” Takin’ my reins back from him, I tether Chub. “Cherry woke up last night.”

“She what?!” 

“She woke up and her fever’s gone, too. She was awake before I left an’ she wants Jeff. That’s why I’m here, to take him back with me.” 

“Of course!” We walk towards the house together. “It’s truly a miracle!” 

“That it is big brother, that it is.” 

Openin’ the front door, Adam waves for me to go in before him. I take off my hat an’ nod with a smile at Misty. She nods back with a scared look on her face, probably thinkin’ I’m here to tell bad news. Jumpin’ down from his seat at the table, Jeff runs over an’ grabs my legs in a hug. I swing him up so he can look me in the eye. 

“Hoss, why’re you here?” His little blonde brows scrunch up over those big blue eyes of his. 

“Well, Jeff, I’m here to get you.” Pointin’ at him, I gently push my finger into the front of his shirt. 

“Get me?” 

“Yep. You see, there’s this little gal named Cherry who wants to see her big brother.” Hearin’ a thud, I look up. Misty’s dropped the rollin’ pin she was usin’, a look of shock on her face. “She asked me to come get him, so here I am.” 

“She’s awake?”

“She sure is, Jeff. Well, at least she was when I left. She might be asleep again by now, but I bet she’ll wake up just for you.”

“Hoss, put me down!” He wiggles as I set him back on the floor. “I need to get my stuff so we can get goin’!” 

He zooms off into the other room, an’ I hear him openin’ an’ shuttin’ drawers. Walkin’ over to me, Misty still has that same shocked look on her face. Her mouth keeps openin’ an’ closin’ like a fish’s when it ain’t in the water as she tries to say somethin’. She shakes her head in disbelief an’ she is finally successful, “It’s a miracle!” 

“I’ve been hearin’ those words all mornin’ an’ I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of hearin’ ‘em.” Jeff pops back into the room, gunny sack slung over his shoulder. “Ready to go, little buddy?”

“You bet!” 

“Well, let’s get goin’ then!” Walkin’ back outside, I lift him up on my saddle. I swing myself up behind him an’ look down at Adam. “Would you take the good news out to Joe an’ Hannah for me?”

“I’ll head out as soon as I’ve finished my chores.” 

“All right.” I turn Chub towards home. With a sudden thought I slow him down an’ call over my shoulder, “Oh, and Adam, come over for supper tonight. Tell Little Joe an’ Hannah to come too. We’ve got some celebratin’ to do an’ maybe even some new good news, that is if you an’ Misty are ready.” 

“Sure thing, Hoss.” He waves. “See you tonight!”

 

 

Chapter 16

As soon as I set Jeff on the ground he takes off runnin’ for the front door. He throws it open an’ continues to run until he’s in his ma’s arms. I watch from the doorway as she scoops him up, spinnin’ around a few times the both of ‘em laugin’ an’ cryin’. She sets him back down an’ hurries him into Cherry’s room. 

Pa slips outta the room to give them privacy as I hang up my hat an’ unstrap my gunbelt. Sighin’ happily, he walks over to me, pattin’ me on the back. “I know it’s still early in the day but I feel like celebrating. Would you care to have a brandy with me?” 

“Sure, Pa.” We walk over to his study where he pours us each a small glass. He hands me one of them an’ I take a sip of it before I say, “Pa, I invited Adam an’ Misty over for supper tonight. An’ I told him to invite Joe an’ Hannah as well when he goes over there to tell ‘em ‘bout Cherry later. I hope that’s alright with you.” 

“Of course it is!” Pa sits down his empty glass. “Hop Sing needs to be informed so he can make enough food for that many people.” 

Walkin’ across the room towards the kitchen, I stop an’ peek in Cherry’s room as Pa continues on to Hop Sing’s territory. Jeff’s sittin’ on the bed next to Leo, his head leanin’ on her chest with her arm wrapped his shoulders. Since I can’t see Cherry, I lean into the room a little, peerin’ around the two on the bed. Little Cherry’s asleep again. 

I hate to interrupt the tender moment but I need to talk to Leo while I have the chance to. Knockin’ on the doorframe, I watch as Leo’s head slowly turns in my direction. Seein’ who it is, she gives me a small smile. 

“Leo, can I talk to you for a moment?”

“Of course, Hoss. What do you want?”

“Well, I was hopin’ we could talk private like.” Her shoulders stiffen a little bit as she scoots Jeff off the bed an’ stands up. “I was also hopin’ that you’d go on a little walk with me.” 

“Oh, of course I will.” Her voice sounds reluctant but givin’ Jeff a pat on the back of his pants she shoos him outta the room, “Jeff, why don’t you go unpack your things and put them away in your room.”

“Sure thing, Ma.” He flys outta the room an’ up the stairs. 

Leo quietly follows me outside an’ we walk over to the table on the porch, where I pull out a chair for her. Sittin’ down myself, I watch as she tries to look anywhere but at me. I have a feelin’ this ain’t gonna be easy like I thought it would be. 

“Leo.”

“Yes, Hoss?”

“Will you at least look at me?” Her eyes slowly move back to my face from where they were lookin’ over at the corral by the barn. “That’s better.”

“What was it you wanted to talk to me about?” Her eyes travel down to her hands which are fiddlin’ with a handkerchief that she’d pulled outta her sleeve. 

“Last night.” She stiffens as her hands stop movin’ for a second. “I hope I didn’t offend you.” 

“No, no you didn’t.” Her words sound stilted an’ almost rough. Watchin’ her, I see tears begin to roll down her cheeks. A guilty, sinkin’ feelin’ fills my belly. As I reach out, I lay my hand on top of hers an’ feel her stiffen even more. 

“Leo, what’s wrong?”

“Hoss, I just can’t.” 

“Can’t do what?”

“Love again.” She pulls her hand out from under mine. She looks me in the face an’ I can tell that whatever she says next ain’t gonna sit too well. But then at the same time, there’s somethin’ in her face that makes me think that what she’s ‘bout to say is just a bluff an’ that she actually feels the opposite. “I’m sorry, Hoss, but I don’t love you and that kiss last night should’ve never happened. I’m very thankful for all you and your family have done for me, but I only care for you like a friend.” 

Watchin’ her run back into the house, I know that I’ve never loved a woman like I love her. I also know that despite what she just said, she does love me. I could see it in her eyes just now an’ I felt it in her kiss last night. 

 

Chapter 17

Still sittin’ on the porch, I hear the front door open an’ by the sound of a person’s footfall, it must be Pa. Feelin’ a hand firmly squeeze my shoulder, I know I guessed right. He lets outta a sigh as he pulls out the chair across from me an’ sits down. I glance up an’ find him watchin’ me with a thoughtful look on his face. 

“It didn’t go like you thought it would, did it?”

“What’d you mean, Pa?”

“I’m pretty sure I know why you asked Leo out here and why she ran back in the house and up to her room crying.” Leanin’ his chair back, he crosses his arms over his chest. 

“She ran up to her room cryin’?” 

“Yep.” He for some reason has a satisfied look on his face, a look that makes me feel angry an’ uncomfortable. “You told her you loved her, didn’t you?”

“No, dadburn it, I didn’t!”

“Why not?” 

“Cuz she ain’t in love with me.” I stand up an’ begin to pace in front of Pa’s study window. “She told me that right here in this very spot not ten minutes ago. She told me she can’t love again an’ that she only cares for me like a friend.”

“But you don’t believe that.”

“No, Pa, I don’t.”

“What makes you so sure?”

“Well, last night after Cherry fell back asleep we were both so happy that we were both cryin’ an’ I guess I let my happiness somehow take control of me cuz I…” I quickly sit back down, my face flamin’ in embarrassment. 

“You kissed her.” He says it so matter of factly that all I can do is nod. “And because of that kiss and probably something you heard in her voice or saw in her face just now makes you think that what she feels for you is more than friendship.”

“Yeah.” I sigh. “But I don’t know how to make her admit those feelin’s or let her see that she can love again.” 

“It’s quite simple.”

“How?”

“What’s something that means more than the world to her?”

“Her two little ‘uns.”

“Exactly.”

“But how are Cherry an’ Jeff a part of this?”

“You show her that she can love again and not only love again, but love specifically you, by loving her two children.” I nod. “They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, well the way to Leo’s heart is through her children. And you know what, you can start loving those two even more right now. Hop Sing needs a bunch of fresh trout for supper tonight and you’re the man to catch them all. Why don’t you take Jeff along? Fishing always seemed like a good bonding experience, well at least it was for us.”

“Alright, Pa.” We both stand up. “I sure hope you’re right ‘bout this.”

“Don’t worry, just watch and you’ll see.”

 

Chapter 18

“Hey, Hoss, look I’ve gotta bite!” Jeff yanks his pole back, tryin’ to pull the fish to land. 

“You sure do, little buddy!” Layin’ down my pole, I watch as he struggles to pull it in. “That little fish is sure givin’ you a hard time, let me help you.”

We pull the fish in together an’ It lays floppin’ on the ground for a minute or so before I put it on the stringer with the others. We’ve already been out here for an hour but we still need quite a few more fish to feed everyone tonight at supper. “Well, Jeff, you better bait your hook again, we’re gonna need ‘bout six or seven more of ‘em.”

“That many?” He pulls a worm outta the pail an’ sticks it to his hook. He’s a purty good fisherman for only a five year old boy. He casts his line back out an’ it lands with a plop on the lake as he turns back to me. “How many do we have already?”

“Five.” I pick my pole back up. 

“Why do we need so many for, anyhow?”

“Cuz both of my brothers are comin’ for supper tonight an’ Hop Sing needs a lot so that we all have enough to eat.” My pole tugs forward so I quickly yank it towards me. The fish flies outta the water an’ lands at my feet. “Now we’ve got six!” 

Jeff falls back into a fit of giggles. He rolls around for a second, laughin’ so hard he’s barely breathin’. It reminds me of the giggle fits Little Joe used to have when he was a little feller. “Did…did you see it, Hoss? The fish flied!” 

“Yep, it sure did!” I laugh along with him as I bait my hook before throwin’ it back in. His giggles slow down so I look over to see what he’s doin’. He’s just sittin’ there with his pole in his hands, a sad look on his face. “Hey, little buddy, why the sad face?”

“Oh, I was just thinkin’.” He shrugs.

“Thinkin’ ‘bout what?”

“A lil bit of everythin’, I guess.” He lets outta deep sigh as he stares out at the lake. “Mostly ‘bout Cherry, an’ Ma…an’ you, Hoss.”

“Don’t you be worrin’ your little self ‘bout Cherry. Remember what Doc Martin said before we left, he told all of us that Cherry should be fine now.” Smilin’ at him, he gives me a small smile back. “As for your Ma an’ me, what’s botherin’ you? There ain’t nothin’ wrong with us.” 

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, Why’d you think somethin’ was wrong with us?”

“Well, Ma came runnin’ back in the house cryin’ an’ then you were actin’ all sad too when you came back in. I thought you an’ my ma were friends?”

“Jeff, we are friends. We just had a little mistunderstandin’ is all. All friends have them every once in awhile.” 

“I hope you get it all figured out soon.”

“I do, too.”

“Hoss, can I tell you somethin’?”

“Of course.”

“I hope that you an’ ma become more than friends.” He walks over to me an’ wraps his arm around the back of my neck. Reachin’ over, I pull him into my lap. “I hope that you’ll fall in love with my ma an’ marry her so you can be our pa.”

“I’d love to be your pa, Jeff, but I can’t make your ma love me like that.”

“So that means you love her, don’t you?”

“Yes, I love your ma, but she doesn’t love me.” I never figured on havin’ a conversation like this with him, but then he’s a curious little fella. “That’s what she told me right before she ran into the house.”

“Well, she lied then!” 

“What do you mean?” 

“I can’t remember much ‘bout my pa, but I remember one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“How Ma smiled at him.” He turns to look right at me. “An’ she smiles at you the same way.” 

“Then maybe there’s hope then.” My pole jerks as a fish takes the bait. Jeff jumps outta my lap so I can pull it in. 

“Hoss?”

“Yeah?”

“I love you.”

I stop short, lettin’ the fish flop around on the ground in front of me. Reachin’ over, I tossle his hair, tears blurrin’ my eyes. “I love you, too, little buddy.”

 

Chapter 19

“ ‘Oss?”

“Yes, Cherry?”

“Want to go out ‘ere.” She points to the door behind me where everyone is gettin’ settled in the livin’ room. She’s been asleep for most of the evenin’, she even slept through supper. “ ‘ease.” 

“Of course! Come here, lamb.” Bendin’ down, I gently scoop her up. She lays her head down on my chest with a sigh. Walkin’ out into the livin’ room, Pa sees me an’ jumps outta his chair, wavin’ for me to sit down in it as everyone turns to look at me. Jeff sees his little sister an’ jumps outta Adam’s lap to run over. 

“Cherry, you’re up!” He lays his head on her for a moment, tryin’ to give her a hug. “Are you hungry?”

“A wittle.”

“Ma, can Cherry eat somethin’?”

“Of course!” She jumps up off the sofa an’ walks over to us. Leanin’ down to Cherry’s level, she strokes her hair, completely avoidin’ lookin’ at me, as she asks Cherry what she wants to eat. After hearin’ what she wants, Pa calls for Hop Sing. 

“Yes, Mr. Ben?”

“Hop Sing, this little girl would like a little dish of those mashed potatoes we had for supper!”

“I get them right away!” He hurries back into the kitchen an’ is back just as quick with a bowl an’ spoon. “Here, missy Cherry, you eat up. Help you get very strong.”

I take the bowl after sittin’ Cherry up on my lap. Since she’s still very weak an’ her hands are temblin’, I feed her. I look up after givin’ her a bite an’ find everyone watchin’ me. Both Misty an’ Hannah have tears in their eyes as they watch the little gal we all thought we were gonna lose sittin’ up an’ eatin. She eats a few more bites before pushin’ the bowl away. With a sigh, she lays her head back on my chest as she curls up in my lap. Within moments she’s sound asleep. I feel a hand on my arm so I glance up to find Leo lookin’ down at me. She mouths the words, “thank you” an’ I nod back. 

“Do you want me to take her back to her bed?” She asks, smoothin’ Cherry’s curls again. 

“No, she’s comfortable here an’ I don’t mind holdin’ her.” With a nod, she walks back to her spot on the sofa. Jeff follows her an’ climbs up into her lap where he snuggles down as she kisses his head. 

Adam clears his throat nervously, which immediately gets everyone’s attention. He stands up an’ he’s real nervous, I can tell cuz he keeps layin’ his hand on his chest, smoothin’ his shirt. It’s the little tick he does when he’s nervous or excited ‘bout somethin’. 

“Pa?”

“Yes, Adam.”

“Misty and I have something to tell you. We had actually planned on telling you sooner but with everything that’s happened we figured it wasn’t the right time and all.”

“Well, what is it? I’m all ears.”

“Don’t get mad at me, but I told Hoss and Joe the day of Cherry’s accident. I had planned on telling you that night but I couldn’t with everything going on.”

“So basically everyone here knows what you’re going to say except for me? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?” Pa has an angry look on his face but all of us except Adam can tell he’s just fakin’ it. I guess he’s just too nervous to tell. 

“Yes, well everyone but you and Leo that is. I didn’t intend to keep it from you but…”

“Oh for goodness sake, Adam! Can’t you tell that he’s really not mad and that he’s just joshing with you?” Misty interrupts as Joe begins to giggle at the look on Adam’s face. “Ben, what Adam is trying to tell you is that we’re expecting.”

“That’s just wonderful!” Pa hurries across the room to give her a kiss on the cheek an’ a gentle hug. Slappin’ Adam on the back, he gives him a hearty handshake. “Why would I be mad at you? I understand that you couldn’t tell me. This is wonderful news, I’m going to be a grandpa to two babies instead of just one!”

We all sit around talkin’ an’ drinkin’ coffee for a while longer. Jeff nods off to sleep in his mama’s lap after an hour or so. Leo shifts him into a more comfortable position as she turns, glancin’ over her shoulder at the clock. “Well, I guess I better get this little man off to his bed, he’s had a long exciting day. I’ll be back down in a few minutes.”

“I think we better be gettin’ on home, too.” Joe says standin’ up as Leo heads for the stairs with Jeff cradled against her chest. “I think it’s going to be goodnight for Hannah and me.”

Adam and Misty decide to leave too an’ after a chorus of goodbyes, the house is empty. Slowly an’ carefully I stand up. Cherry stirs slightly but doesn’t wake up. Walkin’ across the room, I go into Cherry’s room an’ gently lay her on the bed. I fix the covers over her little body an’ place a kiss on her head before I smooth her wild curls with my big hand. 

Walkin’ back out into the livin’ room, I nearly run Leo over in the doorway. I quickly grab her shoulders so she doesn’t topple over. “I’m sorry, Leo, I didn’t see you standin’ there.” 

“It’s ok, Hoss, it was my fault.” She peeks around me. “Is she still asleep?”

“Sound asleep.”

“Good.” She hesitates like she’s got somethin’ else she wants to say. “Hoss, will you go for a walk with me? I’d like some fresh air and I wanted to talk to you.”

“Of course.” We walk around to the front door as Pa starts to go up the stairs to bed. “Night, Pa.”

“Good night.” He tells us both.

We walk out the door an’ don’t stop until we get to the corral. Leanin’ on the fence, I wait for Leo to start talkin’. I have a feelin’ it’s got somethin’ to do with the talk we had earlier. 

“Hoss, I was wrong.” She says after ‘bout five minutes or so. 

“Wrong ‘bout what?”

“About not being able to love again.” She sighs an’ then turnin’ to me, I see the tears rollin’ down her cheeks. “Hoss, I never meant what I said earlier about not loving you because I do! I’ve been thinking about it all day and I was just trying to deny and fight it. To be completely truthful I’ve loved you since that first day.”

Reachin’ over I pull her close to me an’ she lays her head on my chest with a sigh that sounds more like a sob. “I’ve loved you since that first day, too. I hope this ain’t too soon or sudden, but, Leo, would you marry me?”

“Oh, yes, Hoss! I was hoping harder than I’ve ever hoped before that you’d ask.” She leans back, lookin’ at me with those blue, tear filled eyes. “I feel so blessed to be able to find love not only once but twice!” 

Leanin’ down, I kiss her an’ her arms come up around my neck for a moment before I pull away. “When should we get married?”

“Cherry’s birthday.” She says it without hesitation. “Hannah and Misty are still planning that party and it seems like the perfect day. We won’t have to plan the whole thing for another day and anyways if it wasn’t for Cherry we would’ve never met.”

“Cherry’s birthday then.” I pull her close again an’ kiss her. 

 

Chapter 20

“Hoss, hold still!” Joe says tyin’ my string tie again for the third time. “I can’t get it straight with you moving around like that.”

“I can’t help it, Joe, it feels like I’ve got a whole hive of bees swarmin’ around in my belly.”

“Those are actually called butterflies.” Adam laughs from where he sits on the bed behind me. “I had my fair share of them on the morning that Misty and I got married. Joe, what about you?”

“It felt like I had a bushel of them flying around in my stomach!” 

“Well, you two sure did a good job at hidin’ ‘em.” They both laugh at me. “What’s so dadburn funny?”

“The way you’re carrying on.” Joe steps away an’ admires his work. “I think it’s finally straight, what do you think, Adam?”

“It looks straight to me.” He slaps me on the back. “Don’t look so nervous, you’ll be fine.”

There’s a quick knock on the door as it opens an’ Jeff falls into the room. Laughin’, Joe scoops him off the floor. Jeff grabs him around the neck in a hug. 

“Hoss, are you almost ready?” 

“Yeah, little buddy, I’m all ready.”

“Good, cuz Ma is, too.” He turns an’ looks back at Joe. “Little Joe, could you please put me down, I want to talk to Hoss.” 

“Sure thing.” He sets him down an’ both he an’ Adam slip out the door, shuttin’ it behind ‘em.  

“What’d you want to talk to me ‘bout?” I pick him up an’ sittin’ on the bed, put him in my lap. 

“Since you’re marryin’ Ma that makes you my pa.” I nod. “Can I call you Pa then?” 

“Of course you can.” I ruffle his hair. 

“Good cuz I already talked to Ben an’ he said I could call him Grandpa.” His grin turns into a slight frown like he’s thinkin’. “Do you think Adam an’ Joe’ll let me call ‘em Uncle an’ Hannah an’ Misty call ‘em Aunt?” 

“I’m sure they will, I bet they’d even want you to!” I put him on the floor when someone knocks on the door. Openin’ it, I find Pa standin’ there. “What’s wrong, Pa?”

“Nothing’s wrong, it’s time for you to get downstairs.” He grins as he takes Jeff’s hand an’ starts walkin’ down the hall. “You better hurry or your bride’s going to be waiting.” 

I follow ‘em down hall an’ stairs, walkin’ over, I step up next to the preacher. I glance around an’ see the faces of my friends an’ all the people I love. Misty sits next to Adam with Cherry curled up in her lap while Jeff climbs up onto Little Joe’s lap over on the other side of the room. Joe pulls him close as he wraps his arm around Hannah. Leanin’ over, he kisses her on the top of the head an’ she gives him a big, happy smile. Pa hurries back up the stairs to go get Leo. He’s givin’ her away since her own Pa ain’t here to do it. 

It feels like hours but I know it really ain’t more than two minutes when Pa an’ Leo appear at the top of the stairs. She looks beautiful in her white dress an’ long veil. Before I know it, they’re standin’ in front of me. 

Handin’ her off to me, Pa goes an’ sits down. After that everythin’ goes by in a blur. Before I know it I hear Leo say, “I do” and then I say it myself. I seem to get lost in her blue eyes but then the preacher’s voice brings me back. 

“You may kiss the bride.” Pullin’ her close, I kiss her soundly. Somewhere in the distance I hear Little Joe whistle an’ then people clappin’ but I can only think ‘bout the purty gal in my arms an’ the fact that she’s all mine.  

 

The End

 

Tags:  Family, Hoss Cartwright, hurt/comfort, wife / wives

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Author: millieshepherd

I'm a nineteen almost twenty year old Bonanza fan who started writing fanfiction in February 2021.

4 thoughts on “Leo – Romancing the Ponderosa Book 3 (by millieshepherd)

  1. I enjoyed this story very much. Little Jeff and Cherry got hold of my heart fast, as they did with Hoss. The tension after the accident kept me worrying along with the family. I’m so pleased the way it turned out at the end.

  2. 1, 2, et 3 histoires à lire sans modération.
    Merci à vous, vos écrits sont bien sympathiques tout comme la merveilleuse famille Cartwright.
    Je suis fan de Bonanza depuis les années 60, mais il y a bon nombre d’épisodes que je n’arrive pas à revoir en France, dommage !!!

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