Summary: Following the death of his wife Marie and his son Adam’s departure for college, Ben Cartwright and his two younger sons struggle to deal with both losses while meeting the challenges of a growing community and the crises in the lives of their friends.
Rated: T Word Count: 161850
Heritage of Honor Series:
Standing rooted in front of the Pioneer Hotel in Carson City, Ben Cartwright stared at the dust of the departing stagecoach, which was carrying fully one-third of his heart away from him. The sound of a low chuckle at his right elbow broke his trance, and he turned toward his long-time friend, Clyde Thomas.
“Reckon if you stare long enough, that stage’ll just turn right around and bring him back?” Clyde teased.
Slight smile curving his lips, Ben shook his head. “Wouldn’t want that if it could. Boy has a right to his dream.” And what a dream that boy had! Ben was still reeling from the recent revelation that his eldest son dreamed of educating himself at one of the most prestigious colleges in America, but if any boy from the far West could accomplish that auspicious goal, it would be bright, studious Adam.
“Maybe,” Clyde conceded, clapping a hand to Ben’s broad shoulder. “On t’other hand, maybe boys ain’t got sense enough to do the pickin’ and choosin’, even for their own dreams.”
“Oh, hush your fussin’ ‘bout your own boy and leave Ben in peace ‘bout his,” his wife Nelly scolded. “Ben, you and the boys come on down to my place and, at least, have a cup of coffee before you head back to the Ponderosa. Be better if you stayed to lunch.”
“That I can’t do,” Ben said, “but coffee sounds good.”
Satisfied, Nelly lifted Little Joe from the arms of his older brother and, making cooing sounds as she wiped away the trickle of tears on his cheeks, led the way to the yellow frame house on a side street off the plaza. Eleven-year-old Hoss Cartwright trotted at her side. “You got any cookies, Aunt Nelly?” he asked. “I don’t want no coffee, but I’d favor a cookie or two.”
“Or twenty,” giggled Inger, Clyde and Nelly’s daughter, who was two years younger than Hoss and thought of him as a big brother—in other words, a God-given object for teasing.
Nelly reached out to yank one of Inger’s strawberry-blonde braids. “He can have all he wants. Mind your manners, girl.”
“With Hoss? He ain’t company.” With a mischievous grin that proved her to be a true member of the Thomas clan, the little girl scampered ahead. “Come on, Hoss. Race you home!” With a grin, Hoss gave chase, even though he suspected that she had too much head start to make the race a fair one.
Little Joe squirmed for release from Nelly’s arms, but she held tight. “Oh, no, Sugarfoot, you stay with me.” She lengthened her stride, however, to keep pace with the other youngsters and soon left the ambling men behind.
“Was that comment about boys not having sense to pick their own dreams meant for Billy?” Ben asked.
“Yeah, Nelly pegged that one right, I reckon,” Clyde admitted, spitting a stream of tobacco juice off to the right. “That scamp is soon gonna be out of a job with the Pony Express, but he won’t hear of coming to work with his pa in the blacksmith shop. Says he never took to that work, rather work out in the open.”
“How soon?” Ben asked.
Clyde shrugged. “Month, month and a half at the outside, I reckon. Soon as the telegraph meets up.”
“And he doesn’t have any plans after that?”
“Nary a one . . . but that’s Billy for you, takes one day at a time.”
“Well, he’s always got a place with me, if he wants it,” Ben offered as they turned onto the Thomas’s street. He grinned. “So happens I’m short a hand.”
Clyde laughed at the reference to Adam’s departure. “I’ll mention it to Billy, next time he rides in. Flighty as that boy is, though, he might not have sense enough to settle in with a steady job.”
“Back to that, are we?” Ben scolded. “Billy may be a mite flighty, but he’s got a good head on his shoulders and generally lands on his feet. Quit worrying, Clyde.” He mounted the porch steps and entered the Thomas home, the door of which had been left ajar for their arrival.
“I will if you’ll quit frettin’ over yours,” Clyde jibed back.
Nelly came from the kitchen with Little Joe still in her arms. “I put the coffee on,” she said. “Be ready soon. Ben, I’m gonna put this boy down for a nap. He’s plumb wore out from gettin’ up so early to see his big brother off, and you can stay a mite longer than just time to down a cup of coffee.”
Seeing Joe’s tiny hand scrubbing at his red eyes, Ben nodded. He could ill spare the time, but it had been a difficult day for his youngest and Ben didn’t want to make it any harder. That child—all his sons, for that matter—had endured enough hard days lately without adding needlessly to the load. Maybe if he dozed off soundly now, Little Joe would stay asleep when he was moved to the buckboard and little time would be lost. Following Clyde’s lead, Ben entered the kitchen and sat companionably at the table.
Inside, Inger was heaping a platter with cookies. “We’re takin’ ‘em up to my room to eat,” she told her father. “Ma said we could.”
“Long as you clean up,” Clyde said. “Don’t want you makin’ more work for your ma.”
“I always do—clean up, I mean,” Inger announced with a proud flounce of her head. “Come on, Hoss. We’ll play house.”
House was far from Hoss Cartwright’s favorite game, though he often good-naturedly consented to play it with the little girl. Having real cookies for their meal this time was a powerful incentive, of course.
Clyde checked the coffee pot, but it hadn’t even started to boil yet. Since he was up, he took three cups and saucers from the cupboard and brought them to the table before sitting back down. “Bill Stewart’s already knocking on doors,” he commented.
Ben laughed. “Doesn’t surprise me. He was angling for my vote when I asked him to write that letter of recommendation for Adam. I had to remind him that I reside in District Seven, not Carson City!”
Clyde slapped his knee. “That’s a politician for you, fishin’ for votes in any crick he can. I didn’t promise, but I figure he’ll get mine.”
Ben nodded. “No argument here. He’s ambitious, but on the whole a good man, in my opinion.”
“So, who you votin’ for, come the end of the month?”
“James Sturtevant for the House,” Ben answered. “Not sure about the Senate yet.”
“You’d be a better man than him—or Stewart, either,” Clyde suggested.
Ben shook his head. “No. There was a time I had ambitions, too, but . . . well . . . things change.”
Clyde nodded, knowing that Ben was referring to the untimely death of his wife Marie. “Something to consider, though . . . for the future.”
“My boys need me, will for a long time,” Ben said softly. He’d made the mistake of neglecting those precious boys in his grief over Marie’s death and had vowed that nothing would ever come between him and them again, certainly not something as unimportant as political ambition. What would a seat in the Governor’s office mean, anyway, without her at his side as first lady of the territory? He’d envisioned that so clearly the day he and Marie had dined with Territorial Governor James Nye, seen it almost as their destiny together, never dreaming that they had no destiny together.
Nelly came back in, gave Clyde a pat of appreciation when she saw the cups and saucers already on the table and started setting out the sugar bowl, cream pitcher and spoons. “Ben, I was noticin’ that Hoss’s britches seem a sight short.”
Ben smiled in warm affection for his middle son. “Yeah, he’s growing.”
“Don’t think they can be let down enough,” Nelly observed as she brought the coffee pot to the table and poured a cup for each of them. “Probably need new ones before school starts.”
Ben sighed. Marie had always kept so abreast of the boys’ need for new clothes that he’d paid no attention. Another responsibility he would obviously have to take on, and despite his brave show for Adam’s sake, to keep the boy from giving up his dream, he still felt hard-pressed just to make it through a day, much less do all he ought for his sons. “Appreciate your bringing it to my attention,” he said. “Can’t really rig the boy up the way he deserves by the time school starts, though. Been a lot of extra expenses lately, and things are gonna be tight ‘til I drive some cattle to California.” Another brave show he’d put on for Adam, the fantasy that paying for the boy’s college and travel expenses was no hardship. Adam merited every penny spent on him and would prove it by his performance at Yale, Ben had no doubt, but added to the expense of Marie’s funeral, those pennies meant there weren’t many freely available at home.
Nelly understood exactly what expenses Ben meant and discerned that he was now feeling guilty about shorting one son to support another. “Ben, you shouldn’t be too proud to accept help when you need it,” she began tentatively, for Ben had once been highly touchy on that subject. “You’ve helped us often enough, and I’d be more than happy to make some new clothes for Hoss.” Seeing him start to protest, she hastened to add, “You can pay me for the cost of the fabric later, but don’t insult me by offering to pay for my labor. That boy’s practically like one of my own.”
“I know that,” Ben said with genuine warmth, “and I’ll take you up on that offer.”
“I’ll just go up and take some measurements then,” Nelly said.
“Best take them cookies away,” Clyde cackled, “or them measurements’ll change before you get his new britches sewed.”
* * * * *
Ben took a final draw on his pipe and set it aside. The hour was late, the house dark, except for the lamp burning beside him, and still, but for the rhythmic ticking of the tall clock on the opposite wall. The boys had long since been tucked into bed, and it was time he joined them, but Ben couldn’t quite bring himself to face the loneliness of that empty bed. It had been a long day and a difficult one. He’d managed to get away from the Thomases in time to get some work in, but he’d found it hard to focus on chores, however needed, when his mind kept wandering . . . to exactly where it was wandering now . . . to a stagecoach rolling east.
Wonder where. . . . He smiled, recalling the boys’ conversation at dinner. “Adam in Haven now?” Little Joe had asked earnestly.
“New Haven,” Hoss had been quick to correct, “and ‘course he ain’t. It’s a far piece, punkin.” His nose had crinkled in thought. “Just how far along is Adam by now, Pa?”
Ben had taken a rough guess, as much as he could do now. Adam was still in Nevada Territory, of course, somewhere out in that rough desert country to the east, but having never traveled that direction by stage, Ben didn’t know the schedule well enough to calculate just where. Did it matter? The boy isn’t here; that’s what matters. Gone less than a day, and already the house feels empty without him . . . without her . . . emptiness upon emptiness. Ben shook himself, made himself get up and bank the fire and head up the stairs. He stopped to look in on Hoss and Little Joe, who had chosen to sleep together in Hoss’s room, no doubt to assuage each other’s loneliness for their big brother. Ben drew up the rumpled sheet, all the cover needed on a warm August night, and placed a kiss on each sweaty temple. Neither boy stirred, although Hoss’s soft snores were momentarily disrupted.
Across the hall, he quietly opened the door to Adam’s room. Pushed for time as the boy had been, he’d left the room orderly. The only clutter was the items laid out for later shipping: clothes neatly folded, books tidily stacked and, of course, that bulky guitar, lying on the bed. That would take some careful packing, Ben mused with a smile. Well, he had time to figure that one out; he wouldn’t ship anything until he heard from Adam and had an address for him.
For just the briefest moment he allowed a fleeting thought that perhaps he wouldn’t have to ship those things at all. Then, chiding himself for the selfishness of wanting his son home, he breathed a prayer that Adam would successfully pass his entrance exams and start down the path toward his individual dream. I want him to have his dream, Ben reminded himself as he walked down the hall. Just never expected it to be divided from my own. Entering his own room, he sighed as he contemplated another night alone in a bed too large for one. He’d never expected that, either. Despite his previous losses, he’d never expected to sleep alone again. Should he have foreseen tragedy piled upon tragedy? Ben shook his head. No, a man couldn’t live that way; if he did, he missed all the blessings, too.
Blessings he’d had, more than many men twice his age. In remembrance of them, he went to the massive rosewood armoire that Marie had selected in New Orleans and from the bottom drawer drew out two framed portraits, one of Hoss’s mother Inger and the other of Adam’s mother Elizabeth. They were in the drawer because Marie had been uncomfortable with having them displayed. Oh, she’d never said anything; he’d just sensed her insecurity, so when they’d moved here, he’d put them away, to be gazed at only in private moments. Now—now that she was with the originals of the portraits—he thought Marie would understand, and he wanted to hold all his blessings close. He set the frames side by side on his bedside table, gazing a long time at the likeness of Elizabeth. “Keep him safe, my love,” he whispered. He kissed his fingers and touched them to her face first and then to Inger’s. Finally, he got into bed, gave Marie’s empty pillow the same sort of kiss and with a strangled cry buried his face in the downy depths that had once cushioned her golden head.
Chattering with enthusiasm, Little Joe swung his feet frenetically beneath the dining room table. His curly head bobbed with energy to emphasize each point he was making.
“Yes, that’s all very interesting, Joseph,” Ben said, picking up the child’s fork and placing it once again into his left hand, “but you need to finish your breakfast.”
“Not hungry, Pa,” Little Joe insisted, letting the fork drop, “and it’s ‘bout time for us to hit the trail, huh?”
Ben’s lips twitched with amusement as he picked up the utensil yet again. “Soon, but a real wrangler would never ‘hit the trail’ on an empty stomach, son.”
“He ain’t much of a wrangler,” a glum-faced Hoss mumbled into a plate as neglected as that of his younger brother.
The amusement faded from Ben’s face. “What was that, Hoss?”
Hoss shrugged. “Nothin’.”
“A lie is a poor way to start the day, young man,” Ben said sternly.
Hoss squirmed and, seeing no alternative, answered honestly this time. “I said he ain’t much of a wrangler.” Ignoring the scowl on his brother’s face, he added, “I’d make a better one, Pa; you know I would.”
Ben sighed. “Hoss, we’ve been all through this, more than once.”
“Yes, sir,” the boy agreed perfunctorily. Pa had, after all, spoken the plain truth, no arguing that. They had been through all the reasons he couldn’t go on the trail drive, over and over again. Well, there was only one reason, a bad one in Hoss’s book, but there’d been no talkin’ Pa out of it. School had started just one week ago, and Pa insisted that he couldn’t afford to miss a string of days so soon after starting. Missing the trip to California just to bury his nose in a book, on the other hand, seemed a pure waste of time to Hoss.
He hadn’t gotten truly disgruntled, though, until he’d learned that Little Joe was going on the drive when he couldn’t. He’d come close to earning a trip over Pa’s knee for the fit he’d pitched when that was announced. He understood about Joe, honest he did. The poor little kid had screamed in terror when Pa told him that he was going away for a spell. For Pa to leave, on top of Mama and Adam both disappearing, was just plain more than the little fellow could take, and fearing that Little Joe would have nightmares every night he was gone, Pa’d decided to just take the baby with him. Joe’d been yappin’ a mile a minute ever since. “I’m a big boy now, Hoss,” he’d chirped gaily. “I’m goin’ on roundup.” All that eagerness had been hard for Hoss to swallow when he couldn’t share it himself.
“Cheer up, Hoss,” Ben said now with forced brightness. “You’re going to enjoy staying with your friend.”
Hoss nodded. Staying over with Pete Hanson was the one sunny spot on his horizon. It had come about when Diego, who usually handled the chuck wagon on trail drives, had taken a bad fall and broken his arm. Hop Sing had offered to take his place, and for a moment Hoss had thought that meant that he, too, would be going, since he couldn’t very well stay home alone. Then Pa’d come up with the idea of asking the Hansons if he could stay with them and they’d said yes. Pete was excited about it, and Hoss guessed he should be, too, but he sort of felt like he was gettin’ stuck with second best, especially when Pa talked nonsense, like callin’ Little Joe a wrangler. Some wrangler!
Hop Sing bustled in from the kitchen and stood glowering at the food still on the plates. “Why boys all-a-time play with food?” he demanded.
Ben arched a regal eyebrow. “I don’t believe they are.”
“Not eat, same as play,” the cook scolded. “Hop Sing want leave kitchen clean. No can ‘til have plates for wash.”
Ben gestured toward the one in front of him. “Take mine, then; I’m finished.”
“Me, too,” Hoss insisted, pushing his forward.
“Me, too,” Little Joe added in chorus.
“No, Joseph, you’re not,” Ben said firmly. “Please take a few more bites.” He glanced at Hoss’s plate. Not as clean as the boy normally left it, but at least his middle son had eaten enough to tide him over until noon. “If you’ve finished eating, Hoss, get your things together.”
“I got my bag packed already,” Hoss said, wiping his mouth with a red-checked napkin. “Just got to get it.”
“You pack plenty clean clothes?” Hop Sing asked. “Plenty soap?”
Halfway to the stairs, Hoss turned. “Not soap. Miz Hanson’ll have soap.”
“You take,” Hop Sing insisted. “Wash hands, behind ears ev’ly day.”
“No, that’s not necessary,” Ben began, but the cook interrupted him.
“Velly nes’saly. Hop Sing not want Missy Hanson think he raise dirty boy.”
Ben exhaled loudly. “I didn’t mean washing wasn’t necessary. Of course, Hoss will wash.”
“Behind ears.” The cook punctuated his dictate with a crisp bob of his chin.
“Yes, behind his ears,” Ben agreed with strained patience, “but he doesn’t need to take soap. Mrs. Hanson might think we were insinuating that she couldn’t provide for a guest.”
Hop Sing pondered a moment. “She lose face?”
Ben grasped the analogy like a drowning man. “Yes. She would lose face.”
The cook nodded soberly. It was a concept he understood. “All light. Not send soap.” He frowned. “Hop Sing bake cookies for Hoss take with him. That make lose face?”
“No, that’s all right, a gift for all to share,” Ben assured him.
“All light. Hop Sing wrap for take.” Gathering up the soiled plates, he exited to the kitchen, shaking his head. Soap bad, cookies good. American ways most puzzling.
* * * * *
Ben rested a broad palm on his middle son’s shoulder. “All set?”
Hoss finished attaching his book strap to his saddle. “Yeah, Pa.”
Hearing the disconsolate tone in the boy’s voice, Ben smiled gently. “I know you’re disappointed, son, but this really will be for the best.”
Not trusting himself to speak, Hoss merely nodded, but the gesture conveyed no confidence.
“I know I don’t have to tell you to be a good boy, ‘cause you always are.” Ben gave Hoss a hearty hug. “Now, go say goodbye to your little brother and be off. Don’t want you late to school.”
“Yes, sir.” Still dragging his feet, Hoss walked toward Little Joe, who was supervising Hop Sing as he loaded the last of the supplies in the cook wagon. “Hey, punkin, time to say goodbye.”
Little Joe looked confused for a moment, and then his face contorted. “No!” he screamed and grabbed Hoss about the knees.
Hoss patted his brother’s curly head. “Hey, I’ll miss you, too, but I got to go, else I’ll be late to school.”
“No!” Little Joe shrieked. “You come with me!”
Hoss gulped. There was nothing he’d like better, but Pa had made it clear that he had to stay behind and go to school. Still, staying wasn’t his idea, so he didn’t think he should have to be the one to explain it to Little Joe. He glanced over at his father and shrugged.
Ben strode swiftly up behind his youngest and took hold of his arms. “Joseph, turn loose of your brother,” he ordered.
“No,” Little Joe declared defiantly, clinging all the tighter.
“Now, Joseph, we’ve been all through this.” He stopped short in sudden realization. True, he’d repeatedly been through the subject with Hoss, but he hadn’t discussed it at all with Little Joe. He’d assumed the child had overheard and understood his conversations with Hoss. Evidently, a critical mistake.
“Son, brother has to go to school,” he explained patiently now, as he gently pulled the recalcitrant arms.
“No! I hate school!” Joe raised pleading eyes to his father. “I want my brother. Him and you and me and Hop Sing, all together.”
Ben forcefully detached the clinging vine and gathered the now sobbing child into his arms. “Why, Little Joe,” he cajoled, “I thought you were a big boy now, big enough to go on roundup.”
“With Hoss.” The little boy’s expressive emerald eyes, so reminiscent of his mother’s, shimmered and threatened to spill over. His lower lip quivered as he added, “I’m big enough to go with Hoss . . . and you.”
“And Hop Sing,” the cook added.
Ben glared at the Oriental. “That was not a helpful addition!”
With an eloquent shrug Hop Sing turned back to his work, resolving to let Number Three Son work his magic alone. Such speaking eyes the child had! His honorable father would read their message, whether he listened to words or not.
Little Joe patted his father’s cheek urgently. “Please, Pa . . . Hoss, too. He be lonely without me and I be lonely without him. We needs us, Pa.”
Hope sparkled in Hoss’s alpine blue eyes. Could Little Joe do what he’d found impossible, sway Pa into letting him go to California, too? “We needs us, Pa,” he whispered tentatively.
Ben looked from one son to the other, and in that moment he understood that all of them were coping with loss, not just him and not just Little Joe. They’d all lost Marie, and in a way that must seem almost as permanent to his younger sons, they’d all lost Adam. Hoss had said little about his feelings over either loss, but he, too, was aching, Ben realized. He might not have nightmares like Little Joe, but for him, as well, it was too soon to be separated from the only family he had left. Slowly, Ben nodded. “Yeah . . . we needs us,” he sighed. He straightened and squared his shoulders. “Hoss, I want you to mount up and—”
“No!” Little Joe wailed.
“Hush now,” Ben soothed, patting the small back. “You’re going to get your way, little tyrant.” He gazed at his middle son. “Hoss, first put your carpetbag in the wagon; then mount up and ride over to the Hansons. Tell them I greatly appreciate their willingness to board you, but I’ve decided to take you with me.”
“Hooray!” Hoss whooped, tossing his hat into the air. “Thanks, punkin!”
Thanks, punkin? For a moment Ben looked irked; then his countenance softened. Why should he expect thanks himself? After all, it was Little Joe who had insured that his brother was coming, and everyone in the yard clearly knew it. “Get on with you,” he scolded playfully. “Meet us down at the meadow where the herd is gathered. Oh, and give Mrs. Hanson those cookies to make amends for any trouble she’s gone to.”
“Yes, sir!” Hoss snatched his carpetbag from his horse and tossed it into the back of the wagon.
“Get the books, too. You will be doing some lessons on this trip, boy.” Ben shook his head. Had he taken leave of his senses? Trailing a herd over the mountains was tough enough, without caring for a four-year-old and now tutoring a schoolboy added into the mix. He turned to see Hop Sing gazing at him with a knowing smile. “What are you staring at? If you’re loaded, head on out to the herd.”
Hop Sing continued to smile as he slowly shook his head. “Not quite loaded, Mistah Cahtlight. Have extra man feed now; need little mo’ food.” He paused, considering Hoss’s appetite. “Maybe lot more. Not Hop Sing fault: you tell him this many men, he take this much food; you not tell him you change mind.” With an inimical smile he turned toward the kitchen, ostensibly to gather extra supplies for that extra hand.
“I’m gonna gain a reputation as the softest touch on the Comstock,” Ben muttered to himself. He held Little Joe high over his head and grinned broadly. “And do you know whose fault that is? Do you, hmm? That’s right, little boy—yours!” He pulled the giggling child close to his chest and joined in the infectious laughter.
* * * * *
In the flickering firelight Ben saw his two younger sons frolicking in a self-styled version of tag. “Hoss, Little Joe—come here,” he called.
Tired of the chase, Hoss reached for Little Joe’s hand. “Come on, punkin. Pa’s callin’.”
Little Joe scampered just out of reach. “I wanna play some more.”
“Thought you wanted to be a wrangler,” Hoss said with just a hint of reproof.
Little Joe thrust out his lower lip. “I am a wrangler.”
Hoss shook his head. “Wrangler has to do what the trail boss says and you ain’t, so you must not be a wrangler.”
“Am, too,” Little Joe insisted, hurrying back to his brother’s side. “We go see what the trail boss wants now?”
Hoss grinned then. “Yeah, let’s do that.” Taking Little Joe’s hand, he led him back to their father. “You wanted us, Pa?”
Sitting near the campfire, Ben patted the ground next to him. “Time for lessons, son.”
Hoss scowled. “Aw, Pa, it’s too dark to read.”
Ben chuckled. “Adam wouldn’t have thought so, but I agree. No books tonight, just a geography lesson, of sorts. Sit down, boys.” He reached for Little Joe and placed the child between his legs.
“I don’t go to school, Pa,” the four-year-old protested. “I’m too little.”
“Only for formal schooling. You’re not too little to learn, sweetheart,” Ben said, kissing the rampant curls. “Did you notice all the bright stars tonight?”
Little Joe looked up at the pinpoints of light in the sky. “Lots,” he agreed.
“Did you know that the stars have names?”
Little Joe’s eyes widened at the innumerable lights. “All of ‘em?”
Ben rumpled his son’s hair. “Well, maybe not all, but many do.” He pointed to a group. “Like those. I’ll bet Hoss can tell you their name.” He arched an inquiring eyebrow toward his other son.
Hoss grinned. He didn’t mind lessons one bit when he knew the answers, and Pa had taught him this long ago. “That’s the Big Dipper.” He traced his finger from star to star, outlining the shape. “See, Little Joe? Don’t it look just like the dipper that hangs by our well back home?”
Little Joe nodded vigorously. “Who drinks out of that dipper, huh, Hoss? God, maybe?” His eyes brightened suddenly. “Mama?”
“Maybe,” Ben agreed quickly, seeing Hoss’s perplexed expression. “It isn’t a real dipper, though, Little Joe, just a picture of one.”
“A star picture,” Little Joe said, sounding awed.
“A star picture . . . and an important one,” his father continued. “Every night while we’re on the trail I want you to show me where that star picture is, Little Joe. Do you remember why it’s important, Hoss?”
“Sure, Pa,” the other boy replied readily. He ran his finger on a line from the two stars at one end of the dipper until it pointed to another. “It shows the way to the North Star, and if we know where north is, we can always find our way.”
Ben smiled. “So, which way is home?”
Hoss lowered his finger to the horizon. “That way—north.”
“And which way is California?”
Hoss pointed to the left, where a range of mountains lay. “West.”
“Now point toward Adam.”
With a grin Hoss swung his arm to the opposite side. “That way—back East.”
“Adam in Haven now?” Little Joe asked, staring east.
“He’d better be,” Ben chuckled. “He’s supposed to sit for that entrance exam tomorrow.”
“You reckon he’ll pass, Pa?” Hoss asked. “Adam said it was a real hard test.”
“Yeah, probably the hardest he’s ever taken.” A wistful look crossed Ben’s face as he thought of his oldest son, so far away, poised on the brink of a great adventure. “Boys, I think we should pray for your brother tonight, that God will help him on that test tomorrow.”
Little Joe crawled over his father’s leg. “Nuh-uh. I’m gonna pray he don’t do good; so’s he’ll come home.”
Ben pulled his youngest back into his lap. “Joseph, that’s a very selfish prayer.”
“Don’t care.” A petulant pout emphasized his point.
Ben tilted the tiny chin upward. “God doesn’t like us to be selfish, Little Joe.”
“Don’t like God much, either. He takes people ‘way.”
“Joe!” Hoss sounded as if he expected a bolt of lightning to strike his baby brother any second.
Remembering his own brief rejection of God after Marie’s death, Ben smiled softly. “It’s all right, Hoss. God’s big enough to deal with a little boy’s anger.” He cuddled Joe close. “It isn’t fair to wish your big brother bad luck, Little Joe. He’s always been good to you, hasn’t he?”
Reluctantly, Little Joe nodded. “He can’t be good to me in Haven,” he argued.
Ben brushed a drooping tendril from the child’s forehead. “Well, I don’t know about that. Maybe he can, somehow, but one thing I know for sure: he wouldn’t pray for bad things to happen to you. I bet he’s praying that God will take good care of you and keep you safe.”
“I—I want him safe,” Little Joe whispered.
“Happy, too,” Little Joe agreed after a brief hesitation.
“Then you need to pray that he’ll pass that test,” Ben said, “because Adam won’t be happy if he doesn’t.”
Little Joe sighed deeply and slowly. “Okay.” He folded his hands, as his mother had taught him, and his high-pitched voice piped a simple—and remarkably reluctant—prayer: “Dear God, keep Adam safe and make him happy in Haven and—and do it fast, so’s he can come home soon, okay?”
Ben chuckled as he tousled the child’s chestnut locks. “That’s a good prayer, though I don’t think that last part’s going to get answered very soon. Now, it’s time for all little wranglers to wrap up in their bedrolls. We have to be up early tomorrow.”
“To make up for today, huh, Pa?” Hoss asked as he spread his bedroll below his upturned saddle.
“We need to,” Ben agreed. Waiting for Hoss to return from the Hansons meant the drive had gotten a late start that morning. As a consequence, the herd was bedded down just north of Genoa, miles shy of where Ben had planned to be tonight. He spread his bedroll not far from Hoss and fixed a pallet of blankets between them for Little Joe. Pulling up his own blanket against the chill of the September evening, he gazed at the stars and let his mind drift eastward to his oldest son. Heavenly Father, be with him. Like Little Joe, I want him home, but not at the cost of his dream. Make it possible for him, as you’ve made my dreams possible for me. You know how tired he’ll be after his long journey, with no time to rest up before that important test. Give him the strength he needs and—
A little body snuggled up against him. Ben turned toward his son and saw Joe’s tiny arm stretched over his head. “That’s north—Ponderosa,” a sleepy voice mumbled.
“That’s right.” Ben stroked the boy’s forehead.
Joe pointed toward the mountains. “West—California.”
“Shh—go to sleep.”
The little arm flung itself across Hoss’s slowly rising chest. “East—Adam.”
Ben drew Joe’s arm back before his brother awoke and tucked the covers snugly around him again. “Very good, son. Now, go to sleep!”
With a gaping yawn Joe cuddled closer and drifted into his dreams.
“You are a precious nuisance,” Ben whispered just before he dropped a kiss on the smooth forehead.
* * * * *
The hand holding the reins also encircled the waist of his youngest son as Ben leaned forward in the saddle and pointed ahead with the other hand. “You know what that is, Little Joe?”
Little Joe frowned in thought. “West—California?”
Ben chuckled. “Yes, yes, it’s west—well, more like southwest, but close enough—and we’re already in California.” He shook his head, ruing the day he’d shown Little Joe the north star and the points of the compass. Every night since then he’d been awakened by a groggy recitation of the information. “I wasn’t asking the direction, son. Do you recognize that town up ahead?”
Joe shook his head. “Not Haven; it’s east.”
Ben rolled his eyes. Would this child never stop with the geographical liturgy? “No, not New Haven. That’s Placerville, son, and do you remember who lives in Placerville?”
“Mama Zue-Zue—” Little Joe frowned in frustration as the word refused to come out.
“Zuebner,” Hoss, who was riding at his father’s side, finished for him.
“Yeah!” Little Joe said, face beaming. “Good food!”
“That’s for sure!” Hoss agreed.
“And good friends, too, you little greedy bellies,” Ben chided playfully.
“Yeah, Pa, I wasn’t forgettin’ that,” Hoss cackled, “but I’m lookin’ forward to somethin’ besides trail grub.”
Ben guffawed and then collected himself. “Don’t let Hop Sing hear you say that, boy, or you’ll be eatin’ my cooking on the trail home.”
Hoss grinned. “No, sir, Pa; I got sense.”
Sense. Ben had to smile. Nothing about this trip made sense. He’d seen the men’s faces when they realized he was bringing along a four-year-old. Complete disdain, and Ben couldn’t blame them. Little Joe had been every bit as much—no, more—trouble as he’d expected. He’d entertained foolish notions of the child riding with Hop Sing in the cook wagon, but soon learned that Little Joe would have none of that. Oh, no, he was a wrangler; and wranglers, however small, spent all day in the saddle. Ben had lost that battle the first morning and had shared his saddle with his son ever since. Needing to protect, he’d held out against letting Little Joe ride with his brother until late the second afternoon, when there’d been a problem with the herd. Keeping Joe in his own saddle then would have been more dangerous than trusting Hoss, so Ben had made a quick transfer and ordered both his sons to safety. Thereafter, the two older Cartwrights had alternated as saddle companions for the youngest, and while the sight of Little Joe on a horse still reminded Ben vividly of the way the child’s mother had died, he had to admit that Little Joe was just as safe with his brother as with his father.
The men’s opinion of him as a doting father had only been augmented as they waited for Hoss to join them that first day, for they all knew he hadn’t originally been part of the crew. Accustomed to working with him during the summer, however, they’d quickly accepted him, and Hoss had easily proven his value as a trail hand. For that matter, the men had seemed to delight in having both youngsters along, especially lively Little Joe. No matter how tired they were when camp was made, the men not standing night guard managed to find energy to romp with the little fellow and his bigger brother, who readily switched from willing worker to child-at-play when the opportunity arose. And Ben found that he relished having his children with him, even looked forward to that little body crowding up against his and that groggy recitation of north, east and west, as it related to the Ponderosa, New Haven and California.
* * * * *
“Uncle Ben!” The girlish squeal of delight belied the womanly dignity signified by the upturned flaxen hair.
Ben still preferred the braids the girl had worn along the trail. “Hello, Marta,” he said with a fond smile. “Can you seat three hungry wranglers?”
“Oh, of course.” She started to lead them toward a table by the front window. “Only three?” She wagged an admonishing finger. “Don’t tell me you made Adam stay with the herd. You know how I relish seeing him.”
“As would I, my dear, as would I.” Seeing her look of perplexity, he explained quickly. “Adam’s gone back East to continue his education.”
Marta touched a slender hand to her rosy cheek. “Oh, my, that’s a surprise. I thought . . .”
“As did I,” Ben murmured, a trace of sadness tingeing his tone, “but Adam had other ideas, and young people are entitled to their dreams.”
“Yes,” Marta said softly, making Ben wonder what dreams of her own this young woman might be keeping from her mother, as Adam had kept his from his father. “Well, do sit down,” the young woman urged. “We have oxtail stew today.”
“And strudel?” Hoss asked eagerly.
She shook her head. “No, but Mama did bake a delicious cake with thick, creamy icing, Hoss.”
“I want some,” he said with a decisive nod.
“Stew and cake all around,” Ben ordered, “and I’d like to see your mother if she has time to come out.”
“She’ll make time,” Marta assured him. She started toward the kitchen and then turned back. “Mr. Thomas wrote us of your loss,” she said awkwardly. “I’m so sorry, Uncle Ben.”
Ben nodded acceptance of her condolences, but said nothing.
When she saw clouds form in Hoss’s sky-blue eyes, the girl bit her lip, fearing she had spoken amiss, and hurried to the kitchen.
Within minutes Ludmilla Zuebner scurried out from the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. As she squatted down between the chairs occupied by Hoss and Little Joe, she put an arm around each. “Ach, meine lieblinge,” she cried. “Meine armen lieblinge.”
Neither of the Cartwright boys had the slightest idea what she had said, but they each understood the sympathy behind the sobbed words, and each fell into her arms. Ben blinked back a tear at this fresh evidence of how much his sons still yearned for a woman’s—a mother’s—affection. “It’s . . . good to see you, Ludmilla,” he said.
Ludmilla stood and wrapped Ben in her warm and ample embrace, just as she had the boys. For a moment he felt embarrassed, fearful of displaying his emotions in public, but then he yielded to the comfort he needed as much as Hoss and Little Joe. “I thought this was all behind me,” he choked.
Realizing he was referring to the loss of two wives before Marie, Ludmilla held him tighter. “Is behind,” she promised. “Is life ahead for you, Ben.”
Ben broke and began to sob unashamedly. Life ahead. Exactly what he had promised Marie after the duel at the Plantation Allard, when she had said that death followed her. Life ahead—a promise fulfilled, though cut short of what it should have been—but their brief time together, what vibrant life it had been! He lifted his head from Ludmilla’s shoulder and his loving gaze fell on Little Joe’s sprite-like face, upturned in concern. And what life it had produced! “Forgive me,” he whispered, with a swipe at his damp cheeks.
“Is good you cry,” the German woman insisted. “To hold in is—is”—she floundered for the right words in English—“greater pain.” She patted his shoulder consolingly. “You sit, eat. Tonight, you come to my house. We talk . . . of my Fredrich and your Marie, yah?”
“Yah,” Ben said with gratitude. Sometimes, in his grief, he forgot that others had faced loss, too, and he was grateful for the reminder and for the chance to talk openly with someone who would understand exactly what he felt. “Yes, tonight we will talk . . . of your Fredrich and my Marie.”
* * * * *
Ben tenderly tucked the covers around his youngest son and bent to kiss him good night.
“Pa,” Little Joe whimpered plaintively. “I miss Mama.”
Ben sat down beside the child. “I know, son.” He smoothed the unruly curls and smiled gently. “I miss her, too.” Words he’d hesitated to speak aloud before, but somehow they came more easily after the evening of sharing with Ludmilla and her family. Probably the reason his baby could say them now, too, for both Joe and Hoss had listened, enrapt, to the conversation.
Little Joe smiled back, yawned and snuggled down in the covers. “Night, Pa.”
“Good night, Little Joe.” Ben stood and made his way back into the outer room of their suite at the El Dorado Hotel.
Hoss looked up from the table, where he was struggling with an arithmetic problem. “Pa, I could use some help with this one.”
Ben at once came to stand over his second son’s chair. “You forgot to carry the two,” he said, pointing at the column of figures.
“Oh, yeah.” Hoss quickly rubbed out the wrong number and added two to it. “That works. Thanks, Pa.”
“You’re welcome.” Ben gave the boy’s sandy head a soft pat and started toward the settee across the room.
“Pa.” Hoss’s voice sounded as plaintive as had his little brother’s earlier. “I—I sure liked hearing you talk about Ma with Mama Zuebner. Her and my other ma, too.”
Momentarily, a lump caught in Ben’s throat. “Leave the books for now, Hoss,” he urged. “Come sit with me.”
Hoss came gladly and nestled up against his father on the settee.
“It felt good to talk about them,” Ben said. “We haven’t done enough of that.”
Hoss swallowed hard. “I thought, maybe, you didn’t want to . . . that it . . . hurt.”
“It does . . . some,” Ben answered honestly, “but I think Ludmilla was right when she said holding it in made a greater hurt. Anytime you want to talk about your ma, Hoss—either one of them—you let me know, and we’ll talk.”
Hoss’s eyes sparkled, and an almost shy smile touched his lips. “It’s kinda hard to remember what she looked like—my first ma, I mean. There used to be a picture . . .”
Ben wrapped an arm about the boy’s shoulders and squeezed. “There still is; it’s in my room.”
“Could I see it sometime?”
“Sure, you can. In fact, I’ve been thinking that I might bring it downstairs and set it on the desk by Mama’s—and Adam’s mother, too. You think that would be all right?”
Hoss beamed. “Yeah, Pa. I’d like that a lot. I could see her anytime I wanted then.”
“You don’t think Little Joe will mind?”
Hoss shook his head. “He’ll like seein’ ‘em, knowin’ what they looked like. They’re—they’re part of him, too, ain’t they, even if he never knew ‘em? Like Adam’s ma is part mine, ‘cause she gave me him?”
Ben planted a warm kiss on his middle son’s broad brow. “Hoss, my boy, you are wise beyond your years. Yes, they’re all part of all of us, and it’s time we let that be shown plainly. First thing I do when we get home is set all three of those pictures on my desk.”
“I’ll help you bring ‘em down,” Hoss offered.
Ben chuckled. He was quite capable of carrying two pictures by himself, but he sensed Hoss’s need to participate. “All right, son. You can carry your ma’s picture. Now, I think you have a few more arithmetic problems to work out . . .”
Not even the thought of lessons could dim the brightness of Hoss’s smile.
Fire and Fools
Ben leaned back in his green leather desk chair and with his right hand massaged the aching muscles at the back of his neck. Paperwork—there was nothing he hated more, especially at the end of a long day. They’d only arrived back on the Ponderosa late that afternoon, and there’d been myriad details to tend to since then. He hadn’t found an opportunity to open the books and record the results of the successful cattle drive until after the boys were in bed. He smiled. Nothing unusual about that. The boys always commanded his attention whenever they were up and about, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
As his eyes fell on the three framed portraits gracing the corner of his desk, he chuckled. Nothing would satisfy Hoss except bringing those pictures of his mother and Adam’s downstairs the minute they walked through the front door. Pa had said “first thing,” and the boy had taken the promise quite literally. Then, since the pictures were completely new to Little Joe, he’d had to take the little lad on his lap and help him understand the family history. He wasn’t sure it had all sunk in, but there’d be other nights, and there were definitely more stories to tell.
“He’ll know you all, my loves,” Ben promised. “Both of them will.” He spared a wistful wish that Adam could be there, too, to listen to those stories and share his own memories, but Adam was back East, making fresh ones. It would be a long time before that son could join them around the fireplace and share his memories, old or new. When they’d come home this afternoon, a telegram had been waiting, slipped under the door. Just a few brief words, giving the basic facts and his boy’s new address, but Ben could read between the lines well enough to visualize how excited Adam had been to pass his exams at Yale. He was excited for the boy, too, though the thought of four years without his eldest son sometimes seemed as crushing as the lifetime ahead without Marie . . . or Inger . . . or Elizabeth.
Shaking himself free of the sorrow that came rushing toward him, Ben stood and rounded the desk, just as the clock struck ten. That late? He had a full day’s work ahead tomorrow, and it was time he was in bed, but he turned, instead, toward the front door. If he tried to sleep now, he was certain, all the figures he’d been dealing with for the last couple of hours would just keep marching through his brain. A few minutes out in the cool, pine-scented air would relax him and help him sleep.
He walked slowly, aimlessly, into the yard, no destination in mind, but found himself strolling toward the open area beyond the corral. Can’t go far, he advised himself, just need to stretch my legs a bit and work out the kinks in my muscles. Nothing puts kinks in a man’s back like leaning over a set of figures, however favorable they might be. These had been mighty favorable, too, he realized with a satisfied smile. The drive had been a success. Its proceeds would see them through the winter, even leave enough left over to send some extra funds to Adam, in case college expenses turned out to be more than they’d estimated.
He halted and took a deep breath of the fragrant air. Then his nose wrinkled. Something sharper than pine was wafting toward his nostrils, an acrid odor of wood smoke and . . . burning pitch! Following his nose, he looked toward the northwest, and the auburn reflection of the sky over the far ridge shot alarm through every nerve of his body. He turned and ran back toward the house. “Fire!” he shouted. Reaching the house, he grabbed the rope of the bell hung in the front yard to signal an emergency and pulled it again and again, all the time yelling, “Fire! Every man out!”
Men in varying degrees of dishabille stumbled groggily out of the bunkhouse. Most looked first to the house or the barn before noticing the orange-red glow on the horizon. “That ain’t on the Ponderosa,” mumbled one, a man who had hired on just for the drive.
“And we aim to see it stays that way!” snapped Hank Carlton, one of the Ponderosa’s regular hands.
“Fire like that can go ‘most anywheres,” another agreed, “and there’s other settlers in them hills.”
Ignoring the discussion, Ben fired orders to gather shovels, hitch the wagon, saddle horses and “stop that fire before it spreads!” A couple of men, who hadn’t been asked to stay on past the night, sneered their disdain of the orders, but most, regardless of whether they still had a job or not, had enough civic responsibility or zest for adventure to join the battle against the encroaching flames.
As supplies were being gathered and transportation readied, the front door burst open, and the two youngest Cartwrights barreled into the yard, though it was more of a tumble in Little Joe’s case. “What’s wrong, Pa?” Hoss cried. “I heard the bell and come runnin’.”
“It’s a fire up in the hills, son,” Ben explained quickly. “Go back inside and take Little Joe with you.”
“Fire?” Hoss looked toward the hills northwest of the house, and his eyes widened in alarm. “I wanna help,” he insisted.
“Me . . . too,” Little Joe chimed in, yawning between the two words.
“I don’t have time for this,” Ben muttered, but though he knew that was true, he nonetheless took time to squat down in front of the two boys. “Son,” he said, directing his words toward Hoss, “the best help you can give is to take your little brother back to bed and make sure he stays there.”
“Aw, Pa,” Hoss whined. “Can’t Hop Sing see to him for once?”
“No,” Ben said firmly as he stood to his feet. “He’s your brother, Hoss, and I expect you to ‘see to him.’ No argument.”
“Pa,” Little Joe whimpered. He stopped rubbing his eyes long enough to reach his arms up toward his father.
Though he had no time to spare, Ben couldn’t resist the plea. As men rushed around him, carrying out his orders, he lifted the boy up and instinctively tucked the little cold, bare feet inside his jacket. “Pa has to go, son,” he whispered. “There’s a job to be done. You stay here with brother and be a good boy for Pa.”
Little Joe laid his head on his father’s shoulder. “You stay, Pa. Don’t want you burned up.”
“Oh, precious,” Ben soothed as he gave the child a comforting squeeze. “Pa isn’t going to get burned up, I promise, but I have to go, so that fire doesn’t burn up part of the Ponderosa or one of our neighbors’ homes. Now, you go with brother.” He set the child down and gave him a light shove toward the older boy.
Hoss’s mouth puckered with dissatisfaction, but he instinctively gathered Little Joe in and put his arm protectively around him.
“Got your horse saddled, Mr. Cartwright,” Carlton called, leading Ben’s bay gelding toward him.
“Thanks, Hank,” Ben said, taking the reins. He mounted and turned back toward the house, where his sons still stood, wide-eyed with apprehension. “Back inside, boys,” he urged. “It’s too chilly to be out in your nightshirts.”
Hoss watched his father ride away and then hoisted Little Joe up on one hip. “Come on, punkin. Time you was in bed.”
“You, too,” Little Joe dictated. “Pa said.”
“Aw, shut up,” Hoss growled, perturbed at the reminder that Pa had lumped him in with the baby. It made no sense to Hoss. Hadn’t he done a man’s work all summer in those same woods that were ablaze now? Didn’t he have as much—or more—at stake as any of those trail hands? The Ponderosa was part and parcel of him, and by all rights he should be out there, protecting their land and their home alongside Pa, not snuggling under the covers like there was nothing going on. He’d earned the right to be treated like a man, hadn’t he? Not according to Pa! No, Pa was treating him like he was no older than Little Joe—well, not much older, anyway. Pa might try to make it go down easier by pretending it was important for him to stay here and look after his baby brother, but what he was really doing was making sure both his little boys stayed safe. “Only I ain’t a little boy,” Hoss muttered under his breath.
“Hoss,” Little Joe whimpered imploringly as his brother carried him up the stairs. “You sleep with me?”
“Aw, doggone you,” Hoss started to grumble, but then he saw the terror shimmering in the depths of his little brother’s emerald eyes. “Yeah, I reckon so,” he said. “Guess you best come into my bed, though. Don’t much think I’ll fit in yours.”
Little Joe giggled at the picture of Hoss all scrunched up in his short bed and for a moment forgot his fear that the fire would take Pa away, the way a horse falling had taken his mother and a team of six of them had ripped Adam away.
Hoss carried him up and put him in the mahogany four-poster and then crawled in after him.
Little Joe snuggled close. “Pa be okay, Hoss?” he whispered.
“Yeah, Pa’ll be fine,” Hoss assured him. “Now, get them cold feet off o’ me and get to sleep!”
Thirty minutes later the first nightmare struck.
* * * * *
Trickles of perspiration carved rivulets down the sooty landscape of Ben Cartwright’s rugged face as he leaned heavily on the handle of the shovel whose blade was sunk into blackened earth.
Smudging the soot on his own forehead with a swipe of his sleeve, Hank Carlton ambled toward him. “I think that’s got it, Mr. Cartwright.”
“Yeah, I think so,” Ben agreed. “Take a couple of men and ride the perimeter of the burned area, just to make sure. I’m gonna head up that way, see if I can’t discover what started this blaze.” As he pointed north, he could almost hear his little son lisping, “North—home,” and the memory of those nights on the trail brought a gentle smile to his lips. North wasn’t home now—thank God. If it had been, home could have been a huge ash heap tonight.
“Sure you’ll be all right alone, Mr. Ben? I could ride along with you.”
Ben shook his head. “Appreciate the offer, Hank, but I know this land like the back of my hand. I’ll be fine. Just check the perimeter and then get yourself some shut-eye.”
The two Ponderosa men walked back to the horses. Then Hank took the shovel from Ben. “You sure, boss?” he asked again. “If this was a set fire . . .”
Ben’s eyes went from grim to glinting. “If it was, someone will answer to me!” The thought of an arsonist loose near the Ponderosa, endangering his home and his sons, appalled him, but he had to admit the possibility. There’d been no hint of lightning on this cool September evening, so the fire had to have been the work of man, but whether by accident or intent, the signs, thus far, gave no clue.
He followed the track of scorched earth to the shore of Lake Tahoe and then rode along its edge, looking for any indication of what could have started the fire. Finally, he came upon a manmade clearing and dismounted for a closer look. There were signs here of habitation: rough-hewn trunks, blackened tin cans, ash-covered plates. Someone had been living here, and by the awkward look of the blade strokes on nearby trees, someone who didn’t possess many pioneering skills.
Laughter filtered to him through the trees just to his north, but there was no trace of humor on Ben Cartwright’s face as he followed the sound to the shore. Two men were pulling a boat out of the water, one of them shaking soot from his great bush of auburn hair. “Superb!” he was crying to his companion. “We’ll never see the like of that again, Johnny!”
“I would hope not!” Ben roared. “Are you two the fools behind this infernal blaze?”
The men looked startled, but then the auburn-haired one came forward, waving a languid greeting. “Howdy, neighbor,” he drawled. “Did you see the conflagration? Magnificent, wasn’t it?” He swept his hand toward the treetops. “Like blazing banners, a hundred feet in the air. Grand as any Fourth of July fireworks I ever saw.”
“‘Cept it’s a good bit past the Fourth, Sam,” his companion snickered.
Sam scratched beneath his rusty slouch hat. “Well, never too late to celebrate the nation’s birth, eh, friend? We had a splendid view of it from out on the lake. That’s the place for a sight like this, I can tell you!”
For a moment, in the face of such idiocy, Ben could only stare in consternation. Then his face hardened as he planted clenched fists on his hips, mostly to keep from plowing them into the idiot’s nose. “Listen here, Sam, or whatever your name is—”
The man thrust out his hand. “Sam Clemens,” he said congenially.
The scathing words he’d been about to spew withered on Ben’s tongue. “Clemens?” he croaked. “Any relation to Orion Clemens?” Though he had yet to meet the man, he knew the name of the new secretary of the territory. Who in Nevada did not?
Sam beamed. “Yes, sir! Orion’s my brother, I’m proud to say. You’ve heard of him, I take it?” He laughed. “Well, of course, you have! Very important man, my brother. I’m secretary to the Secretary, you might say, though the job pays nothin’. That’s why me and Johnny here set out to build ourselves a little timber ranch.” He gazed around at the blackened tree trunks. “Guess that’s come to naught.” He shrugged nonchalantly and tried to grin at Ben, but the grin faded at the sight of Ben’s darkening countenance.
Ben kept a tight grip on his temper. The secretary of NevadaTerritory was, indeed, an important man, and from all reports, a decent one. Out of respect for the man and his office, Ben restrained himself from the tongue-lashing Secretary Clemens’ idiot of a brother so patently merited, but even as careless an eye as that of Sam Clemens could tell the broad-shouldered rancher was seething. He had a feeling the scent of smoke came from more than just the charred trees.
“See here, now.” Sam shot off a fusillade of fast-fired arguments in his defense. “It’s not like we did it on purpose. A pure accident, I assure you. Campfire just got away from us, and we didn’t do any real harm, did we? Just burned off the undergrowth, mostly, right? Maybe a few trees burned. Plenty to spare here.” He forced a grin again.
That did it. Important brother or no, Ben could contain himself no longer. “No harm?” he bellowed. “Acres burned, homes endangered. Only by the grace of God none lost! My eleven-year-old boy understands more about the woods than you do. For that matter, my four-year-old has better sense!”
Sam Clemens flinched back with a nervous titter. “Well, as you say, we—uh—we are the proverbial babes in the wood. Maybe Johnny and I had best take up another line of work, eh?” He laughed again, through an obviously tighter throat. “I—uh—guess the fire pretty much put us out of operation here, and, anyway, chopping wood is too tough a job.” Step by step, he edged away from Ben. “Got to be an easier way to make a living, don’t you think? Yes, yes, I agree. Maybe we’d best pack up our gear and head back to Carson City, do a little more work for the Secretary.” He clapped his companion on the shoulder, and Johnny’s head bobbed in ready agreement.
As the two scrambled away in haste, Ben stared at them in dismay. It was hard to know what to do with culprits as ignorant as Clemens and his cohort. Evidently, they had intended no harm . . . nor done much, the rancher was forced to admit. Since the fire had never crowned, it was mostly underbrush and dead sentinels of the forest that had burned. He tried to temper his wrath by reminding himself that his own pioneering skills had once been as primitive as—he shook his head. No, not even at his most naïve had he ever been as careless as those two. It hadn’t been much of an exaggeration when he’d said that even Little Joe would have fared better on his own in the woods, though Ben shuddered at the image that brought to mind. “One thing for sure,” he grunted as he mounted his horse, eager to get back to his sons. “Orion Clemens may be a fine man, but that brother of his will never amount to much.”
* * * * *
The sky was dark, even the stars dimmed by the haze drifting in the air, when Ben returned to a quiet house. Inside, a lamp had been left, burning low, on the round table beside his favorite chair. Ben was tempted to fall into it, but mindful of his soot-stained garments, he delayed that collapse long enough to take a dark wool blanket from the credenza by the door and drape it over the chair. Then he sank into the inviting cushion with a long, slow sigh of gratitude. He reeked of smoke, and his weary muscles yearned for a relaxing soak in a steaming tub. He didn’t have the energy to draw himself a bath, though, and he wouldn’t dream of rousing Hop Sing this early to do it for him. It wasn’t long until dawn, anyway; the chair would just have to do for the few hours remaining before time to rise and begin the new day. He’d begin it with that hot tub and a good hard scrub, but for now he’d just rest his eyes. A millimeter at a time, they closed, and his head unwittingly fell against the wing of the chair.
He woke with a start and threw aside the blanket draped over him. His brow furrowed for a minute, his hand fingering the blanket that still rested beneath him, to protect the upholstery. He didn’t remember taking a second one from the credenza, though. Had he taken to walking in his sleep? Then he smiled as the obvious answer came to him. Hop Sing, of course, the same person responsible for the tempting aroma of fresh coffee that had no doubt drawn him from his slumber. He stood, yawning and stretching, and moved toward the kitchen, but came to an abrupt halt and stared in disbelief at the window in the dining room. A glance back at the grandfather clock confirmed what the level of light pouring through that window had hinted at: it was late . . . very late.
Ben hurried on into the kitchen. “Why didn’t you wake me, Hop Sing?” he chided.
The little cook looked up from the batch of biscuits he was stirring. “You much tired, Mr. Ben. Need sleep.” His nose wrinkled disdainfully. “Need bath, too.”
“I know that,” Ben grumbled. “I’d already planned to bathe this morning.”
The Chinaman beamed. “Hop Sing have plenty hot water ready, fixee bath chop-chop.”
“Thank you,” Ben murmured, whatever disgruntlement he’d felt evaporating like dew on a scorching hot morning. “If that coffee is ready, I’ll have a cup first.”
Hop Sing’s nose again crinkled, but he said nothing. Mr. Ben have hard night; another time mo’ better for remind him wash before eat. He poured a cup of coffee and handed it to Ben.
Ben took a soul-restoring sip. “Little Joe still asleep?”
“He sleep, Mr. Ben,” Hop Sing replied. “They both sleep.”
Ben looked up. “Both? Hoss, too? You didn’t get him up for school?” He dashed the tin cup to the table, sloshing coffee over the side. “Oh, for goodness’ sake! This whole house is gone to rack and ruin this morning!”
The little cook drew himself up, his rigid posture the picture of affronted pride. “Is-a not Hop Sing fault, Mr. Ben.”
“No, no, of course not,” Ben agreed quickly. The last thing he needed to deal with right now was a threat to go back to China. “It isn’t your fault.”
“Whose fault it is?” Hop Sing demanded, for he, too, was displeased with the way this day had begun: meals off schedule, housework not yet started, dirty boss yelling at him and spilling coffee everywhere.
“Sam Clemens!” Ben bellowed as he charged out of the kitchen.
The cook shuffled to the doorway and peered inquisitively around it. “Who dat Sam man?” he called. “He come breakfast?”
“Not if I have anything to say about it!” Ben yelled as he bolted up the stairs.
He rounded the corner at the upper landing and dashed down the hall and through the open door into Hoss’s room. Mouth open, ready to shout out a wake-up call, Ben skidded to an abrupt halt, transfixed by the tender tableau before him. Little Joe, looking absolutely cherubic, without a trace of underlying mischief, lay curled trustingly in the crook of his brother’s arm, while Hoss’s other arm rested on his little brother’s back. With a soft smile Ben gently disentangled his sons’ limbs and lifted his youngest to his shoulder. Then, leaning over the bed, he lightly shook Hoss’s shoulder. “Wake up, son,” he urged. When Hoss didn’t respond, he shook a little harder and spoke a little louder, although still softly enough not to wake his other boy.
Hoss cracked an eyelid and stared groggily at his father. “Huh? Oh, hey, Pa.” He yawned widely. “Is it mornin’?”
Ben rolled his eyes. “It’s halfway to being afternoon, son. Now, get up and get dressed. You’re already late to school.”
Hoss groaned. “Aw, Pa, do I got to?”
“Yes, of course, you ‘got to,’” Ben said, his voice growing a little gruff. “You’ve already missed quite enough class time, young man, by going on the trail drive. Now here you are late for your first day back and whimpering to be let off the hook, but you will make an appearance and that’s final. Now, get up!”
“Yes, sir.” Hoss dragged first one foot and then the other out of the bed and stumbled over to his washstand.
Ben placed Little Joe back in the bed and tenderly covered him. He brushed aside an errant curl, his hand lingering against the boy’s brow. So like his mother, Ben thought wistfully.
“How come he gets to sleep?” Hoss grumbled from behind the towel with which he was drying his freshly washed face.
Ben frowned at his middle son. “Because he’s only four years old, and unlike you and me, he has no responsibilities to fulfill. I’ve had a hard night, son, and I don’t feel any more inclined to go to work than you do to go to school, but when a man has a job to do, he does it.”
Hoss yawned. “Okay, Pa.”
Ben relaxed, and a loving smile replaced his frown. “That’s my boy. You get dressed and get down to breakfast. I’m going to have a bath before I join you.”
Hoss snickered softly, so as not to wake Little Joe. “Yeah, Pa, I reckon you better. Fightin’ fires sure is dirty work, ain’t it?”
Ben clapped his son’s sturdy shoulder. “It sure is, son.”
* * * * *
Ben could have happily spent the other half of the morning, easing his muscles in the luxurious tub that Hop Sing had prepared for him, but he made himself climb out and dress for work. He’d lost enough time as it was, and he did want to see Hoss again before the boy left for school. As he walked briskly down the stairs, however, he was surprised to see his middle son, elbow on the table, cheek propped on his palm, his half-finished breakfast being pointedly ignored. Even before he reached the dining room Ben’s ears told him why, as Hoss’s sonorous snores broke the otherwise silent air. “Hoss!” he said sharply, sliding into his place at the head of the table.
Hoss’s hand fell, striking the edge of his plate. He barely managed to keep his head from doing the same. “Huh?”
“What on earth is wrong with you this morning, boy?” Ben chided. He opened his napkin and laid it in his lap as Hop Sing placed a plate of bacon and eggs before him.
Hoss stifled a gaping yawn. “Just plumb tuckered, I reckon, Pa.”
Despite his irritation, Ben chuckled lightly. “Now, why are you so tuckered?” A possible explanation suddenly struck him, and he felt ashamed that he hadn’t earlier explored the reasons behind Hoss’s uncustomary lassitude. “I know the fire bell woke you last night. Did you have trouble getting back to sleep, son?”
“A mite,” Hoss admitted. “Little Joe kept puttin’ his cold feet on my bare leg.”
Ben smiled gently. “You didn’t have to take him into your bed, you know.”
Hoss shrugged. “Felt like I did. He was workin’ up a fret ‘bout you and the fire. He’d’ve ended up there anyway, once them nightmares started.”
“Oh, dear,” Ben sighed. He looked more carefully at his middle son’s drooping eyes. “Nightmares, you said. More than one?”
“Yeah,” Hoss said. “I’d no sooner get the little feller quieted down and get back to sleep myself than he’d start in screamin’ again. I sure hate it when he does that, Pa. I wanna help him, but don’t seem like I do much of a job of it.”
Ben reached over to rest a consoling hand on his son’s sturdy arm. “Hoss, I’m sure you did as good a job as anyone could. I’m real proud of you, boy.”
Hoss sported a lopsided grin as he picked up his neglected fork. “Thanks, Pa.”
“All things considered,” Ben said, “I think, maybe, you should go on back to bed, instead of to school.”
A sparkle flickered in Hoss’s blue eyes for a moment; then he shook his head. “You said when a man has a job to do, he does it, Pa.”
“True enough, and I’m glad you gave heed to what I said, Hoss,” his father replied with a tender smile, “but I think you’ve been manly enough for today. Missing school one more day won’t make that much difference. Besides”—his smile widened into a grin—“I don’t think you’ll learn much with your eyes closed, and the noise just might keep the other scholars from learning, too.” He mimicked a resonant snore.
Hoss cackled. “Reckon you might be right about that!”
Ben laughed, too. “Let’s finish up breakfast, son, and then I’ll roust your little brother out of your bed.”
“Aw, you don’t have to,” Hoss said with a good-natured shrug. “His feet oughta be toasty warm by now!”
“All right, then.” Ben readily accepted the generous offer, for moving Joe always ran the risk of waking him, with the predictable consequence of dealing with a cranky child. He’d gotten off lucky once this morning, and didn’t feel inclined to press his chances. “Later you can help me crate up Adam’s belongings,” he told Hoss, “so we can send them to him the next time we’re in town.”
“Maybe we could do that this afternoon,” Hoss suggested eagerly. “Adam needs them things bad, I’ll bet.”
Ben arched an eyebrow. “And I’ll bet he can just get by without them ‘til a month from Saturday. I do need to get some work done today, young man.”
Hoss yawned. Pa was probably right. Besides, he’d done enough traveling lately and would probably enjoy a trip to town on Saturday more than he would today.
Building Bonds in a Broken World
Frustrated frown on his face, Little Joe sat on the top porch step and with the heel of his shoe, he rhythmically kicked the riser of the step below him. Yipping for attention, a small brown dog bounded up the steps, leaped on the little boy and began licking his face. Joe’s nose scrunched up as he turned away from the slobbering tongue, but the next moment his arms closed around the pup in a heartfelt embrace. “You miss him, too, doncha, Klam?” he asked with a sniff of sympathy, mixed with a heavy dose of self-pity.
Little Joe had spent a good part of the morning feeling sorry for himself. During the trail drive he’d come to expect the constant companionship of his father and his big brother, and it had even extended through yesterday, when Pa had let Hoss stay home from school because he was too tired to go. All that had ended this morning, though. Pa’d gone off to work, and Hoss had headed to school right after breakfast. Though Hop Sing was here, he was busy working in the kitchen. He’d told Little Joe to play outside, but Little Joe didn’t feel like playing. He just felt lonely. Mama gone. Adam gone. And now Pa and Hoss gone, too.
He gave the dog’s short-haired coat a rub. “You hungry, Klam? Bet you are. I’m gettin’ that way, too. Wanna bone, fella? I’ll ask Hop Sing for you. Come on.” He stood up, and Klamath trotted at his heels as he headed toward the side door to the kitchen.
Hop Sing, who was chopping vegetables, spun around at the sound of the opening door and scowled at the brown dog following the boy in. “No let dog in house, Little Joe,” he ordered.
Little Joe looked up at the cook with the “speaking eyes” the Chinaman had seen so effectively used to turn Ben Cartwright into moldable mush. “He’s hungry. Doncha got a bone for him?”
“Little dog is-a not hungry,” Hop Sing declared. “Hoss feed him all-a time.”
“Hoss ain’t here.” The diminutive lips puckered into a pout. “And it’s ‘most lunch time. Klam needs lunch, same as me, and Hoss ain’t here to get it for him.”
“Is-a not lunch time yet, Little Joe.” Then the cook’s eyes filled with concern. “You hungry? You not eat big breakfast.”
Joe nodded. “Little bit. Klam, too.”
“All light, all light,” Hop Sing muttered with a shake of his head. “I give little dog little bit food after we eat. Not much or he be fat like pig and Hop Sing use for bacon. He go out now. Little dog is-a not belong in kitchen.”
Satisfied, Little Joe climbed into a chair at the table while Hop Sing shooed Hoss’s pup outside, slipping him a bite of carrot to keep him quiet. “What you fixin’ for lunch?” the boy asked, eyeing the array of chopped vegetables on the cutting board.
“This not fo’ you; this Hop Sing lunch,” the cook said. “I fixee nice food fo’ you first. Just chopee this fo’ cook after.” Since the little boy had said he was hungry, Hop Sing hurried to finish preparing the vegetables for his own meal, intending then to set them aside and tend to the child’s need.
On his knees in the chair, Little Joe propped his elbows on the table and leaned closer to scrutinize the food Hop Sing was preparing. “Ain’t that nice food?”
“Velly nice,” Hop Sing affirmed with a vigorous nod. “It Hop Sing food—velly nice, velly tasty.”
Little Joe sat back on his haunches and frowned at the cook. “Joe’s food, too,” he proclaimed, a stubborn pucker at his lips.
“No, no,” the cook remonstrated. “This Chinese food. You little ‘Melican boy. You not like.”
The frown deepened, and the lower lip thrust further out. “Would, too.”
“Not think so,” Hop Sing said. “You want nice slice beef sandwich, maybe?”
Little Joe shook his head wildly from side to side. “Want that,” he declared, pointing at Hop Sing’s pile of vegetables.
“You not want that,” the cook insisted.
“All light, all light,” Hop Sing told the red-faced child. “I give you bite or two, all light? You see. Is-a velly different from ‘Melican food.” He quickly finished dicing the vegetables and bits of beef, added sauce and seasonings to his liking and sizzled it over the fire. The meal was soon prepared, and he served Little Joe a miniscule portion atop a spoonful of fluffy white rice.
“That all I get?” Joe protested.
“You like, I give more,” Hop Sing promised. “You taste now, please.”
Little Joe maneuvered a small bit of the mixture, along with some rice, onto his fork and raised it tentatively. Slowly he slid the food into his mouth, chewed cautiously and swallowed.
Hop Sing watched warily and awaited the verdict.
Little Joe pushed his plate toward the cook. “More, please,” he chirped. “It’s good!”
A broad beaming smile split the Oriental face. “Little ‘Melican boy got little bit sense, after all,” he declared.
* * * * *
Hoss’s face twisted in tortured concentration. Greeting his friends out in the schoolyard on his first day back had been fun, but then the bell had rung and all the fun had ended. While he’d hate to admit it to Pa, for fear of future consequences, his trip to California had put him behind everyone else in his class, and if this morning was anything to go by, he was going to find it hard to catch up. The arithmetic problems Miss Appleton had set for him just plain made no sense. Oh, they weren’t hard in themselves, except the teacher had said he wasn’t to use his slate, but add the sums in his head. She’d called it mental arithmetic, and Hoss had already decided he didn’t like it one bit. Arithmetic was hard enough for him, even when he could line the numbers up and see them together, but seeing them sitting sideways from each other, with a bunch of words in between, was pure foolishness in his book—and dad-blamed hard foolishness at that!
Recitation had been even worse than studying the problems at his seat, for then he couldn’t even use his book. Instead, Miss Appleton read one after another out loud, asked him to repeat it and give the solutions. The first few went well enough, even without being able to see the numbers. After all, the book started with a solution as simple as two plus one and only gradually got harder. Then on one problem the teacher had warned him would take extra concentration, he’d stumbled over repeating it back just right, and there’d been hoots from the back of the room that distracted him into adding the numbers wrong, too. The hoots turned into guffaws before the teacher threatened extra work if it continued.
His face relaxed when Miss Appleton announced recess. He enjoyed getting away from the schoolroom, at least until his old nemesis, Cal Hulbert, sauntered up to taunt his poor performance. “Still can’t add worth a lick, can you, horse brains?” Cal snorted almost as soon as they were dismissed.
“Don’t insult horses,” snickered Walter Grogan, close behind Cal. “I’ve seen trick ponies that can add better than fat boy here!”
“You’re right, Walt!” Cal, eager to have the older boy back in his camp, was quick to agree.
Face grim and eyes narrowed, Hoss came nose-to-nose with Walt. “Thought we had a bargain, Grogan. Thought you said you kept your bargains.” Last year he’d fought single-handed against three boys, to make them stop bullying him. Cal’s word had meant nothing, but Walt Grogan had so far kept his promise.
“We did—and I do,” Grogan barked, “but seems to me you’ve forgotten what the bargain was, Cartwright. It was to leave you be ‘til the end of the school year.” He grinned snidely. “In case you ain’t noticed, flea brain, it’s a new year. Bargain’s over. If you can’t take some ribbin’, study hard, so’s maybe you can figure out two plus one equals three.”
“That ain’t the one he missed,” snapped Pete Hanson, who had originally been one of the three boys making sport of Hoss every day. After losing the fight to Hoss and being abandoned by his cohorts, however, Pete had become a steadfast and loyal friend. “That Mustard problem was a hard one!”
“Ten plus eleven—twenty-one.” Grogan flapped a disparaging hand as he and Cal strode off, laughing.
Pete shook his head. “That ain’t right, either. That’s the answer I gave last week, and Miss Appleton said it was wrong. Wouldn’t tell me the right one, though. Just smiled and said to think it through.”
George Winters, another friend of Hoss’s, chuckled. “We all missed that one. It’s a trick question, to my mind.”
“What you mean, George?” red-haired Joe O’Neill asked, pushing into the circle of friends.
George leaned back against a tree trunk and folded his arms. “Okay, so here’s the problem: ‘Mustard has 10 sisters and 11 brothers; how many are there in the family?’”
“What kind of name is Mustard?” Joe’s younger brother Robert demanded.
“No worse than Hoss, I reckon.” Hoss grinned as he shrugged a shoulder.
“Lots worse,” Pete insisted, “but what matters is his brothers and sisters. I still count twenty-one.”
“Which means his ma was one busy lady,” Joe cackled.
George grinned. “You gotta remember to count Mustard hisself in the family. That’s the trick. So, the answer’s twenty-two.”
“Oh!” The other four looked satisfied for a minute; then Joe asked, “What about his ma? She’s in the family, too, ain’t she?”
Obviously having not thought of that, George scratched his head. “Uh, yeah, guess so, so I guess there’s twenty-three in the family.”
“Or twenty-four, if you count Mustard’s pa,” Hoss put in.
“If he’s got one,” Robbie said. “Not everyone does.” He spoke from experience, since his own father had died before they came west.
“Not everyone’s got a ma, either,” George, whose mother had died in a steamboat accident, said soberly.
“Yeah.” Hoss could only get that single syllable past the lump in his throat.
The awkward silence said that each of Hoss’s friends understood he was thinking about his recent loss, but none of them knew what to say to comfort him. Finally, Joe O’Neill said, “Well, I think we oughta tell Miss Appleton that we can’t work this problem ‘til we know a heap more about Mustard’s kin.”
“Yeah!” the others agreed noisily, and since their teacher had just come outside to ring the bell to end recess, they all rushed upon her and demanded to know the exact makeup of Mustard’s family.
* * * * *
Hop Sing stood, arms akimbo, and glared at the child standing in the doorway from the dining room into the kitchen. “What for little boy out of bed again?” the cook demanded. He had already tucked the four-year-old into his bed three times and didn’t appreciate the necessity of climbing the stairs again.
Little Joe flashed a puckish grin. “Nap all done. Time to play.”
Hop Sing scowled. “Is-a not time fo’ play. You not take nap yet.”
The child skittered past the cook. “Don’t need nap.”
“Honorable father say you do.” Hop Sing strode after the boy, who pranced down to the opposite end of the cook’s worktable. “You stay one place,” Hop Sing scolded.
“No!” Little Joe slapped the tabletop with both palms. The anger disappeared as quickly as it had surfaced and with a giggle, the child cried, “Catch me!”
As the sputtering Chinaman came toward him, Joe scooted around the table away from him. Around and around they went, Little Joe’s hilarity increasing and Hop Sing’s face flushing more with each circuit. Finally having enough, the cook pulled out a chair behind him, setting it directly in Joe’s path. Then he pretended to carry on the chase, but the minute the child slowed down to get around the roadblock, Hop Sing reversed directions and caught the boy up into his arms. “Bad boy,” he stated emphatically. “Now you go bed—and you stay there this time if Hop Sing have tie down!”
Tears instantly sprang into the boy’s green eyes. “No, no, please no,” he whimpered. “I-I don’t like it up there all alone. Don’t make me—please!”
Feeling the little body tremble against his chest, Hop Sing sat down in the chair he had used as a roadblock and began to pat the boy’s back as he rocked back and forth. As many times as he’d waged this naptime war with Little Joe, he’d never before realized that fear lay behind the child’s recalcitrance about going to bed upstairs. “Nothing hurt Little Joe,” he soothed. “Hop Sing not let anything hurt Little Joe.”
Little Joe buried his head on the cook’s shoulder. “You’re too far,” he sobbed. “I don’t like it alone . . . so—so far away.”
“All light, all light,” Hop Sing said, his calloused hand caressing the child’s soft curls, “but father say you take nap, so you take nap.” As Little Joe shook his head violently from side to side, the cook arrested the motion with a steadying hand and laid the curly head back against his shoulder. “Little boy must obey father,” he said gently, “but Hop Sing keep close, all light?”
Little Joe pulled back so he could look into the Oriental’s face. “Real close?” he asked hesitantly.
“Velly close,” Hop Sing promised. He moved down a short hallway just off the kitchen and turned into a small room. He laid the child on a narrow bed. “You sleep here in Hop Sing bed, all light?”
Little Joe clambered up on his knees to scan the unfamiliar room with interest. Though sparsely furnished, it looked like no room he’d ever been in before, from the lacquered boxes on the bureau to the picture hanging over it of a fascinating creature with fire coming out of its mouth. “What’s that?” he asked in awe, pointing.
Hop Sing laid the child down and drew a light coverlet over him. “That dragon. Him have much power for protect little boy.”
The child’s eyes widened. “Won’t that fire burn things?”
“No, no,” the cook assured him. “Only bad things that try hurt little boy. You not be afraid . . . but maybe best you not tell father about dragon. It be our secret, all light?”
“O-okay. I-I like it here.”
Hop Sing smiled. “See? Like Hop Sing say before, little ‘Melican boy got little bit sense. You sleep now.” Sitting on the edge of the bed, he began to croon a soft Cantonese lullaby he remembered hearing his mother sing, long ago in KwangtungProvince. The words were meaningless, the tune alien to Little Joe’s American ears, but he felt the undertone of love, and that soothed him into dreamless sleep.
Hop Sing gently stroked the soft chestnut curls. Little ‘Melican boy like Chinese things . . . like Hop Sing, too, he thought, surprised at how full his heart suddenly felt.
* * * * *
Hoss slowed his gray mare to a walk as he entered the yard at the Ponderosa. He never knew when Little Joe might be playing outside; and if he were, the little fellow was bound to come running to greet his big brother. No amount of scolding or “necessary talks” seemed to have any effect on those flying feet. Put something he wanted in front of Little Joe’s eyes, and he just plain forgot everything he’d been taught. It was easier—and smarter, Hoss thought—just to slow down. Charcoal wasn’t skittish like some horses; she wouldn’t kick out at the little boy, but if she galloped in fast, it might happen accidental-like. Hoss chose to be safe, especially where his baby brother was concerned.
He grinned as he dismounted. Sure enough, there was Little Joe at the kitchen door, pulling against the restraint of Hop Sing’s hand. Once the cook saw that Hoss was on the ground, he let go, and Little Joe came rushing over to throw his arms around his big brother’s legs.
“Hoss! I thought you’d never get here!”
“Thought that myself!” With a laugh Hoss scooped the little boy up and swung him around in a circle until both were breathless. Then he set Little Joe in Charcoal’s saddle for his usual ride into the barn.
Little Joe leaned over to pat Hoss’s head sympathetically. “School rotten, like always?”
It had been, and Hoss was tempted to give an earful to the only audience on the ranch that would commiserate with his complaints. He remembered, though, that Mama hadn’t liked him to say such things to Little Joe, hadn’t wanted him to teach his little brother to hate school before he ever went, so out of respect for her memory, he shook his head. “Naw. Just sort of middlin’ bad today.” He figured that if he told Joe out of the blue that school had been great, the poor kid might think he’d lost his mind, so it seemed better to just step down to “middlin’ bad” and ease his way into something better—if he could do it without lying. Mama wouldn’t want him to lie, either, he reasoned.
Little Joe nodded soberly at his brother’s assessment of his day and then smiled brightly. “Hop Sing’s got cookies waitin’,” he announced, “and milk.”
“That’s great!” Hoss returned with enthusiasm. Good ole Hop Sing; just like Mama, he never forgot. “Let’s get Charcoal taken care of, so’s we can get right to ‘em.” He reached up and pulled Little Joe from the saddle. He set the boy on top of the slats dividing Charcoal’s stall from the empty one next to it and went to work unbuckling the cinch.
“Can we go fishin’ after the cookies, huh, Hoss?” Little Joe asked, leaning over to stroke Charcoal’s mane.
“Naw, there ain’t time before supper, punkin,” Hoss said, reaching for the curry brush. “Fishin’ is for Saturdays or maybe, once in a while, on a Sunday.”
“You take me fishin’ Saturday?” Little Joe pressed.
Hoss shook his head. “Can’t this Saturday, punkin. We got to go to town, to mail that box of things to Adam.”
Little Joe sat up straight, eyes shining with excitement. “Me, too? I wanna go to town, too!”
Hoss looked up, his open face communicating both his doubt and his concern for what voicing it might mean. “I don’t know, Little Joe,” he said, deciding plain honesty was his safest option. “Pa ain’t said.”
“Ask him,” Little Joe begged. Then he smiled craftily. “Tell him we needs us.”
Hoss chuckled. “I ain’t so sure that’s gonna work every time, punkin.”
“But it might work this time,” Joe insisted. “Ask . . . okay, Hoss? Please!”
“Yeah, I’ll ask,” Hoss said, “but you keep quiet and let me be the one to do it.” He rolled his eyes. Might as well tell his little brother to stop running at horses; it would do just about as much good.
* * * * *
Ben barely had time to take off his hat before Little Joe, with poignant pout and pleading puppy eyes, trotted out his “we needs us” argument. “You scamp,” Ben chuckled as he scooped the youngster into his arms and carried him to the fireside chair. “You are just like your mother.”
“He ain’t nothin’ like Mama,” Hoss scoffed, scowling at his little brother. “She could keep her mouth shut.”
Ben settled into the chair. “When it suited her need,” he said. “She was a master manipulator, just like this one.” He snuggled Little Joe and rumpled his curly head. Seeing Hoss’s mystified look, he explained, “She knew how to get her own way.”
“Oh!” Hoss said with a grin. “Yeah, she did—and he’s right good at it, too.”
Little Joe peeked up at his pa. “I get my own way?” he queried with his sweetest smile.
Ben laughed. “Yes, little scamp, you do.” He tilted Little Joe’s chin up and looked into his eyes. “Joseph, I always intended to take you with us on Saturday. An occasion such as this should definitely be a family affair.”
Ben kissed the boy’s forehead and simplified. “We needs us. And what we needs now—the lot of us—is to get washed up for supper.” He set Little Joe down and patted his backside. “Off you go.”
After supper Ben suggested that Hoss write a letter to Adam, to be included with their package. “Me, too,” Little Joe insisted. “I write Adam, too.”
“You can’t write,” Hoss scoffed.
“You can print your ABCs,” Hoss said with a consoling pat to his little brother’s head, “but you don’t know how to make words with ‘em yet, punkin.”
“That’s all right,” Ben soothed as he handed his youngest a blank piece of paper. “Adam will enjoy seeing how you’re getting on with your letters. And you could draw him a picture, Little Joe.”
“I know just what to draw!” Little Joe announced.
“You do that, then.” Waving the boys over to the fireside table, he took out stationery of his own and wrote a long, gossipy letter, full of news about everyone Adam held dear.
“See, Pa, see!” cried Little Joe, running over to show his completed letter to his father.
Ben halted his pen and took the paper in hand to peruse the letters of the alphabet at the top of the page and the rather remarkable creature sketched below it. “Well, that’s fine, Little Joe, just fine. Your writing is . . . well . . .”
“Tipsy,” Hoss, who had come around the desk to look over his father’s shoulder, said.
“Now, Hoss,” Ben chided, “he’s just a beginner, and, well, he hasn’t had much help with his letters lately.” Something else I need to take in hand, he told himself.
Remembering that it was Mama who used to work with Little Joe on his writing, Hoss swallowed hard. “Yes, sir. I reckon they ain’t so tipsy as all that.” He laughed to get past the knot in his throat. “You sure gave Klamath a long tongue, though, punkin.”
“That’s not Klam,” Little Joe scoffed. “That’s”—he clapped his hand over his mouth, remembering Hop Sing’s admonition to keep the dragon a secret.
“What is it, son?” Ben asked.
“What?” Little Joe looked startled. “Oh! I mean it’s not Klam’s tongue; it’s a big stick he’s fetchin’.”
“Oh, I see.” He didn’t, of course. The picture looked nothing like Hoss’s little dog, nor did the thing in the dog’s mouth look much like a stick. He’d never imagined that art would be one of Little Joe’s talents, though, so this drawing was simply confirmation. Nonetheless, it would do its job of bringing a touch of home to Adam, far away in New Haven, and Ben assured the youngster that his big brother would be delighted with it.
* * * * *
“For the sixth time, Joseph, sit down!” Exasperation was evident in Ben Cartwright’s voice, and tension tightened his grip on the reins.
Either unconscious of or unperturbed by his father’s rising irritation, Little Joe sat down, but chattered on about anything and everything that caught his attention. “Pa, you got my letter to Adam?” he asked in an abrupt change of subject.
“Yes, Joseph.” Ben refrained from mentioning that Little Joe had already asked that question a mile back . . . and a mile or so before that, too.
“Yes, Joseph, I’m sure.” He fought to hang on to his patience.
Ben exhaled gusty frustration. “Joseph, I am completely confident that I have your letter to Adam and Hoss’s letter to Adam and my letter to Adam all tucked safely inside my vest pocket.”
“Maybe you oughta check, huh?”
“Joseph, that is enough!”
“Okay, Pa.” Little Joe’s tone held a hint of offended innocence, but it disappeared as he asked brightly, “Can I drive the team, Pa?”
Ben laughed. “No, of course not.”
Seated to Little Joe’s right, Hoss burst out with a loud guffaw.
A pout puckered Little Joe’s mouth. “Adam let me.”
“Oh, he did not,” Hoss cackled.
“He just let you think so, punkin,” Hoss said. “You ain’t big enough to handle a team.”
Disregarding all previous warnings, Little Joe jumped up from the seat of the buckboard. “Am, too!”
“Joseph, do you want me to turn this rig around?” Ben asked brusquely.
Hoss gazed wide-eyed at his father. Pa looked serious, but he couldn’t mean it, could he? Why, they were almost to Carson City! And Adam needed all those things they had packed up in the back of the wagon.
For the first time Little Joe seemed to comprehend that he was dangerously close to overstepping some line with his father. “No, Pa,” he said quietly.
“Then, sit down,” Ben ordered, “and no more talk about driving the team. Your brother is right: you’re much too small.”
“I’m too small for everything,” Little Joe sulked.
“That’s just about right,” Ben said dryly, and over the head of his youngest he gave his middle son a wink.
He pulled up in front of the Wells, Fargo office and with Hoss’s help unloaded the crates holding Adam’s books and his carefully packed guitar. As he waited in line inside, a bittersweet smile touched his lips. The last time he’d been in this building, Adam had been at his side. What a flurry they’d been in, those last few days, getting the boy ready for his long journey, and now, standing inside these same four walls again, Ben couldn’t help realizing how much longer the journey seemed now—four years long. Oh, he’d never really doubted that his son would pass the entrance exam for Yale—being Adam, how could he do otherwise?—but until the telegram confirming that arrived, he hadn’t let himself dwell on just how long it would be until he saw his beloved boy again. Four years. How would they ever get by without him for that long? The same way Adam would get by without them, he supposed—one day at a time.
A short drive from Wells, Fargo brought the trio of Cartwrights to the Thomas’s yellow frame house. “Billy!” squealed Little Joe.
The lanky redhead stood up, laid down his hammer and sauntered over with an inviting grin. “Hey there, Shortshanks. Been awhile since I seen you. Hey to you, too, Hoss.” He rumpled the sandy hair of the boy closest to him.
“And me?” Ben asked with a chuckle.
Billy thrust out his hand. “Always good to see you, Uncle Ben. Ma said you was comin’ to dinner tomorrow, but I wasn’t expectin’ you today.”
Ben laughed as he stepped down from the buckboard and reached back to lift Little Joe down. “Neither is she. I hope I’m not banking on a welcome I have no deposits to cover.”
“You’re always welcome, you know that,” Billy chuckled, “but we’d better let Ma know, so she can throw an extra potato in the soup.”
“What kind of soup?” Hoss asked.
Billy gave the boy’s sturdy back a sound clap. “Don’t know as we’re havin’ soup at all, buddy. I just meant we need to tell Ma to cook a mite more.” Patting Hoss’s tummy, he sported an impish grin. “Or maybe a lot more?” All humor left his face as he hollered, “Little Joe, you put that hammer down!”
As if it were a hot poker, Little Joe dropped the hammer he’d just picked up from the porch step and spun to face Billy with a cherub’s smile. “Just helpin’, Billy.”
Billy’s characteristic grin came back as he bent over to pick up the hammer and keep those little fingers safe from it. “I can do without your help, Shortshanks. Besides, I gotta earn my keep, now that I’m back home.”
“Oh?” Ben looked quizzical for a moment; then his countenance lifted as the implication struck him. “Has the telegraph met up, then?”
“Not yet,” Billy said, “but it’s covered the ground of my run.”
“So the Pony’s over.” Ben said it with a hint of regret, and Hoss looked positively glum at the thought of never again seeing a red-shirted Pony rider gallop in and take off in the space of minutes.
Billy nodded. “For me, it is.”
“Lands sakes, what are you yellin’ about, boy?” Seeing the others in the yard, Nelly Thomas pushed open the front door and aimed straight for the two youngsters. “Sunshine! Sugarfoot!” she cried, opening wide her arms.
“Next time I’m just sending the boys,” Ben said wryly as his two sons rushed into Nelly’s warm embrace. “Appears I can’t get a welcome around here myself.”
Nelly flapped a dismissing hand in his direction. “You know better. Thought you wasn’t comin’ ‘til tomorrow, though.”
“We had some packages to mail to Adam,” Ben explained, “and thought we’d stay over. With Billy home, though, maybe you don’t have room for us.”
“Oh, sure we do,” Billy said.
“Lands, yes,” Nelly agreed. “I got plenty of blankets to spread a thick pallet for the boys . . . or I reckon one could bunk with you and the other with Billy.”
Ben and Billy exchanged a glance of mutual commiseration; then with a smile lifting one side of his mouth, Ben said, “I’m sure the boys would relish the chance to sleep on a nice thick pallet.”
* * * * *
Ben tamped tobacco into his pipe from the stock he kept stored at the Thomas house for his frequent visits. Once he’d lit the pipe, he set it in his mouth and opened the latest copy of the Territorial Enterprise, which Clyde had just handed him.
“Best news is right at the top,” Clyde offered from across the room.
Ben smiled. “You mean that the Enterprise is going to publish daily, starting next week? It is good news, especially for those of you in town, who can benefit from it. Still, there are occasions when I get in more than once a week, and I must admit I relish news from back East more these days, with all that’s going on . . . and with someone back there it might impact.”
“War news ain’t none too good,” Clyde said slowly.
“Just getting to that,” Ben said, eyes riveted to the column. Clyde was given to understatement, he decided. The war news was bad and, worse, it did impact someone he knew back East. St. Joseph, Missouri, had been captured by the Confederates, and no one was being permitted in or out of there. Not even the mail was being allowed through. That didn’t bode well for the packages he’d just deposited with Wells, Fargo. They’d get through sometime, he was sure, but God alone knew when Adam would get his things.
He chided himself for not having included a larger draft of credit for his son. The trail drive had been successful, so he’d felt comfortable forwarding fifty dollars against unexpected expenses. Now, however, the territory and the turmoil between them might make it difficult to send more, and he chided himself for being overly cautious with his funds. Who else were they for, if not his sons? But he had two here, as well, and—
Nelly came into the room. “The boys are settled on their pallet, Ben, and I think they’ll drop off soon.
“What?” Ben shook himself from his absorption with the news story and its implications for those he loved. “Oh, yes. Thank you, Nelly. I should go up and kiss them goodnight.”
“Something wrong, Ben?” she asked, sitting down in her chair by the fire.
Ben nodded, frowning, and briefly mentioned his concern.
“Why, Ben, you’re not worried about Adam, are you?” she asked as she picked up her latest knitting project from a basket beside the chair.
“No, no,” Ben said. “I had a wire from Adam after he reached New Haven, so I know he’s safe.”
“You knew that, woman,” Clyde chided. “He told you at supper about Adam wirin’ that he passed that test.” He looked over at Ben. “It’s that friend of yours you’re worried about, ain’t it? Didn’t he live in St. Joe?”
“Yeah,” Ben said, “and I am concerned about him. He’s a Union man, and that could put him at risk . . . unless he left with the others.”
“Into Kansas, ain’t that where the paper said the Union men went?” Billy, who was lounging on the floor in front of the fire, asked. “Took the ferry with ‘em, too, so the Rebs couldn’t cross after ‘em.”
“That’s what it said,” Ben agreed, “but it can’t tell me where the one man I’m concerned about is.”
“Trust the Lord and hope for the best, Ben,” Nelly advised as her knitting needles clacked.
Ben smiled. “I’ll try, Nelly.” He set his pipe down on the occasional table by his chair and stood up. “I’d better get up to the boys.”
He lay, wide-eyed, in bed later, his spirit unable to find rest from his concern for Josiah. If only there were some way to know that his friend was safe. There had to be a way! He considered telegraphing Adam, to see if Jamie had heard anything from his father, but two things held him back. Knowing Adam, the boy would perceive the query as urgent and would feel obliged to telegraph back. With his freshly awakened concern that his son might have run into unexpected expenses back East, Ben didn’t want the boy to squander precious resources on a telegram when a little patience would give him the information he wanted in due course. Secondly, any display of apprehension on his part would communicate itself to Adam and automatically on to Jamie, as well, and if the boy hadn’t heard from his father, he certainly didn’t need an old fussbudget friend heightening his own anxiety.
In the end, the only place of rest Ben found was the one Nelly had suggested. As he sat in church with fellow worshippers the following morning, he finally released Josiah Edwards into the hand of God. His reward came only days later when Billy Thomas rode over to the Ponderosa to deliver the latest news from the now-daily Territorial Enterprise. Union forces had retaken St. Joseph, and though some sort of bridge disaster was still hindering passengers and mail, both were slowly getting through. It wasn’t a guarantee that his friend was safe, but it raised his hopes. He composed a short letter of inquiry and sent it back with Billy to be posted, knowing he’d have to wait weeks for a response, but trusting that the news, when it came, would be good.
~ ~ Notes ~ ~
George Winters and Joe and Robert O’Neill are historic characters; Cal Hulbert, Pete Hanson and Walter Grogan are fictional.
Hoss’s puzzling problem in mental arithmetic is found in The Normal Mental Arithmetic: a thorough and complete course by analysis and deduction by Edward Brooks, published in 1858.
News items from the East in this chapter, as well as throughout the book, are usually taken from the historic New York Times online. Dates any particular news arrived in Virginia City are generally conjectures, based on the date it appeared in New York and communication capabilities available at the time.
For a full description of how the bridge disaster mentioned in the final paragraph impacted Adam, please see the Heritage Companion, A Separate Dream, Book 1, A Fresh Beginning.
News From Near and Far
Ben dropped the final copy of the Territorial Enterprise to the floor beside his chair and reached for his pipe, which was sitting on the table at his elbow. It had taken quite some time to read all the back issues Clyde had saved and let him bring home for private perusal. Now that the newspaper was a daily, catching up was a bigger challenge than it used to be, but he couldn’t think of a better way to spend a quiet Sunday evening at home. The boys had romped themselves into exhaustion upon coming home from the Thomases after church and a fine, big meal; and now, with them in bed, Ben had time to sit and read, smoke his pipe and think over the news of the week.
With a long poker he reached over to stir the embers of the fire. October had brought with it chilly nights, though the days were still pleasant enough. He glanced down at the papers in the floor, wondering how much of the news he should share with Adam. He certainly needed to tell the boy about the opening of a post office in WashoeCity. That meant they wouldn’t have to ride all the way in to Carson to fetch the mail. Hoss could stop by there every day after school and bring the latest letters—hopefully, many from Adam—and they could post more regular letters to Adam, too. It made him seem closer. Yes, he’d definitely need to include their new address in his next letter to Adam.
He questioned whether he should waste precious letter space on local politics, although had Adam still been home, father and son would, no doubt, have discussed the subject thoroughly. The newspaper had devoted much of its space to the opening of the Territorial Legislature on the first of the month, and Ben had followed each line of its proceedings with a reawakening awareness of the outside world. His interest was tainted with a tinge of regret, however. Once he had envisioned a large role for himself in the shaping of the territory—and then state, should Nevada continue to prosper—but those dreams were dead now, dead and buried with the woman he had expected to share them.
He smiled softly into the fire. He had a different dream now, one that all along had meant more to him than any political ambition. All he wanted from life these days was to raise three healthy, happy and honorable sons, and, maybe, one day, to see them take places of importance in the development of this wild land into civilized society. Dream enough for a man’s lifetime, he mused as he gazed into the flickering flames, so he said farewell to dreams of political office. His sons—the younger ones, at least—needed him here at home, not always away in some committee meeting or another, and they’d need him for a very long time, long enough for the political power brokers to have long forgotten the name of Ben Cartwright.
Bill Stewart hadn’t forgotten him yet. The new council member evidently still thought Ben had enough influence with the Governor that he’d invited him to the ball at John Winters’ house that would end the legislative session. Ben was grateful for the honor, but he couldn’t bring himself to attend. It would be too sharp a reminder of similar dances with golden-haired Marie on his arm, especially that last wonderful evening, when they’d driven home beneath the stars and stopped by the lake to . . .
Ben pushed aside the exquisite pain of recalling that final ecstatic coupling in the grass and stood to his feet. No, he definitely wouldn’t be attending any formal political balls for some time to come. Far better to focus on the fruit of the love that he and Marie had shared. He moved toward the stairs, eager to gaze into the slumbering faces of his beloved boys and to fall asleep thinking of the one far away, whom the new post office would keep in closer touch.
* * * * *
Hearing a horse ride into the yard, Ben rose from his chair behind the desk and looked out the window behind it. Glad of the excuse to get away from the hated bookwork, he threw down his pen and walked to the front door, arriving just in time to answer the rhythmic tap of the brass doorknocker. “Enos,” he greeted his foreman. “Now, what are you doing here on your afternoon off?”
Enos Montgomery extended a sheaf of envelopes. “Well, first, I picked up the ranch mail while Kat finished her shopping. There’s a couple of pieces I didn’t think could wait,” he said with a grin. “I told ‘em to forward everything to WashoeCity from here on, too.”
Ben glanced down at the top two letters on the pile and smiled broadly as he recognized the handwriting of his oldest son. “I’m obliged,” he said. “I think you know how eagerly I’ve been waiting for this!”
“Yes, sir, sure do.” Enos twisted his hat in his hand.
Noting the nervous gesture, Ben asked, “Anything wrong, Enos?”
Enos laughed and shook his head. “No, sir. Everything’s right as rain. Just figure I’m likely to get shot for telling you another piece of news, but I’m about to burst with it.”
With instant intuition, Ben murmured, “Katerina’s with child.”
Enos’s mouth dropped. “Now, how could you know that? I know she ain’t said nothin’. Blushed red as a beet, just tellin’ me last night.”
Ben chuckled. “Let’s just say you’ve got that future-father look in your eye.”
Enos’s brows drew together as he puzzled Ben’s remark. “I thought it was the woman who got a certain glow about her,” he mumbled.
Ben rested a hand on his foreman’s shoulder. “Oh, it’s hard for man or woman to keep the glow from their eyes when a child’s on the way.” He gave the shoulder a hearty clap. “Congratulations, my man!”
“Just had to tell you,” Enos said with a shrug. “I guess you know how it is.”
“I do, indeed,” Ben assured him with a comradely smile. “When is the child due?”
“Kat figures sometime in April.” Enos lowered his eyes and then looked up into the face of his employer. “I just hope I can be half the father you are, sir.”
“I hope you’ll make only half the mistakes I have,” Ben said modestly, though he flushed with pleasure at the praise, for being a good father had become his highest goal in life. He’d been thinking about that a lot this week, so the praise was especially sweet.
“Don’t let Kat know I told you,” Enos warned. “She thinks it ain’t proper to speak of such things.”
Ben gripped the other man’s hand in solemn covenant. “It’ll be our secret, Enos. Believe me, I have had enough experience to know how women feel about ‘such things.’”
* * * * *
“Pa! I caught a big fish!” Little Joe shouted as he blasted through the front door later that afternoon.
Ben caught the little boy up in his arms and hugged him tight. “That’s wonderful, Little Joe! Is he big enough to make supper for all of us?”
Little Joe excitedly bobbed his head up and down. “Hoss is takin’ him to Hop Sing right now, Pa!”
“Yum, yum,” Ben said with an exaggerated smack of his lips. “Crispy fried brook trout—just what I was hoping for.”
“We caught a bunch,” Hoss reported, coming in from the kitchen. “Hop Sing said he’s real happy to have so many.”
Ben reached over to ruffle the boy’s straight, wheaten hair. “Did you have a good time together?”
Hoss grinned. “Yeah. Little Joe’s gettin’ better at fishin’, Pa.”
Ben laughed. “Keeping quieter, you mean?”
Hoss returned the laughter. “Yeah, that’s what I mean.”
Little Joe patted his father’s cheek to get his attention. “I didn’t scare fish away today, Pa. I do good, huh?”
“You did well, son, very well.” Ben kissed his youngest and set him down. He walked toward his office alcove. “As if the day weren’t special enough, with this wonderful supper to look forward to, I have another treat for you boys.” He took two envelopes, one already opened, from his desk.
“Letters from Adam!” Hoss shouted. “Hurray!”
“Hurray!” echoed Little Joe. When Ben handed the unopened envelope to Hoss, Little Joe eagerly reached for the other.
Ben held it out of reach. “No, no, baby; that’s Pa’s letter.”
“Where’s mine?” Little Joe cried.
Ben squatted down to take the toddler in his arms. “There isn’t one to you this time, Little Joe, but I’m sure there will be soon. I’m going to read my letter to you, though, and perhaps Hoss will share his.” Seeing the hesitant look on his other son’s face, he added quickly, “If it isn’t private, that is.”
“Sure, Pa,” Hoss quickly agreed, “if’n it ain’t private.”
“What’s ‘private’ mean?” Little Joe demanded.
“Sort of secret,” Hoss said.
Little Joe folded his arms and glared at his brother. “I don’t like secrets.”
Hoss gave him a quick squeeze. “Ah, don’t fret, punkin; I bet there ain’t much private to it. Let’s open ‘er and see.”
Ben smiled his approval, and they all went over to the seating area near the fire. He sank into his padded armchair, while the two boys perched, side by side, on the settee.
Hoss quickly scanned his letter and grinned. “Ain’t nothin’ private,” he assured his little brother, “so I’ll just read the whole thing out loud. Okay, Pa?”
“Hoss, that sounds wonderful,” Ben replied.
Hoss held the letter with both hands and began to read:
I thought I’d write the first letter to you, but please tell Pa and Little Joe I will write to them also, as soon as I can.
“He didn’t write me,” Little Joe said, pouting. “Adam lied.”
“Hush now, Little Joe,” his father urged. “You know that isn’t so. You can see from Hoss’s letter that Adam is thinking about you. And your brother is a man of his word: if he said he’ll write, you can depend on it that he will. Your letter will probably be at the post office the next time we pick up the mail.” He nodded to his other son. “Please go on, Hoss.”
Be glad, little brother, that you have never had to ride a stagecoach all the way to the Missouri River. Bump, bump, bump! It’s a wonder I don’t have bruises head to toe. It was interesting to see so much of our great country so quickly, though, and I know you would enjoy that. At a couple of stage stations, I picked up some interesting rocks that I will be sending to you and Little Joe.
“Me? He’s sendin’ ‘em to me?” Little Joe bounced on the settee.
“There now, you see,” Ben soothed. “Your brother hasn’t forgotten you.”
“When’ll they get here?” Little Joe asked urgently.
“When they get here,” Ben said firmly. “Now let your brother finish the letter, please, or it’ll be your bedtime before he gets to the end.”
Little Joe giggled. “Silly Pa. We gotta eat trout first.”
Ben chuckled. “So we do; so we do. Now, let your brother read, Joseph.”
Hoss began again where he’d left off:
The rocks are obsidian, granite, flint and quartz in different colors. I tried to make your set and Little Joe’s as nearly alike as I could, but all rocks are a little different, you know. If either of you thinks you’ve gotten the short end of the stick with the way I divided them up, let Pa settle any fusses between you.
Hoss frowned at his little brother. “There ain’t gonna be no fussin’, is there?”
Little Joe shook his head. “No fussin’ . . . long as Adam plays fair.”
“I’m sure he will,” Ben interjected. “Hoss . . . the letter?”
“Yes, sir,” Hoss said and continued to read:
We ran into some bad weather just east of Courthouse Rock. (Ask Pa to tell you where that is.) I had never seen a tornado before, and it’s something to see, but dangerous, too. It’s a big windstorm that circles around on itself, and when it touches down to the ground, it looks a little like the funnel Hop Sing sometimes uses in the kitchen. The tail came twisting toward us, whipping up a cloud of dust, but we were safe inside the sod station.
“That’s good Adam didn’t get blowed away,” Little Joe offered.
“Yes, I’m sure we’re all glad that your brother came through the storm safely,” his father agreed. “Anything more, Hoss?”
“Just a mite,” Hoss said. “Adam says to tell you he’ll write you next, Pa, and then Little Joe.”
“Why I gotta be last?” Little Joe demanded.
“‘Cause you can’t read yet,” Hoss said.
Whatever Adam’s reason had been, Ben was quite sure that wasn’t it, but as long as Little Joe was satisfied, he was content to accept Hoss’s explanation.
“Anyway, the last thing Adam says is about you, punkin,” Hoss said.
“Really?” Little Joe’s eyes grew wide.
Hoss bobbed his head. “Yup, sure ‘nough. He says, ‘Give Little Joe a hug from me—not a bear hug, though; you’ll squish him.’ Then he says ‘Love, Adam,’ and that’s all.” Taking Adam’s directive literally, Hoss put his arms around his little brother and squeezed gently. “There! That’s from Adam.” He looked over at his father. “Now, what’d Adam write to you, Pa?”
“You come suppah now,” Hop Sing ordered as he set the platter of crispy fried trout and fried potatoes on the table. “Eat fish while hot.”
“That’s when it’s best,” Ben agreed, standing up. “We’ll save the letter for dessert.”
“Ain’t there no real dessert?” Hoss asked, his face drooping dolefully.
Ben laughed. “Yes, I’m sure there is, Hoss, but I think I’ll write to your brother and tell him just how well he stacks up against apple pie!”
“Aw, Pa, you know I’d a lot druther have a letter from Adam than even a whole pie,” Hoss protested
“I want pie and a letter,” Little Joe declared adamantly.
“Oh, you always want it all, you scamp,” Ben scolded jovially as he swung Little Joe to his back and trotted him to the table.
* * * * *
Ben slid the single sheet from the envelope and spread it open on the desk. The boys were in bed, and he wanted to get his letter to Adam written before time for him to retire, as well. Still, he couldn’t resist reading Adam’s letter just one more time before he framed his reply. Some of it had been disturbing and would require a well-worded response.
I am so full of news I scarcely know where to start. In fact, there wouldn’t be room in this letter to tell you everything I’d want to say if we could just sit down together and talk. The most important thing, I suppose, is that I started classes today, and they are all I’d hoped for and more. Thank you again for allowing me this opportunity; I promise to make the most of it. I had to put down two hundred dollars as bond, and Jamie and I are intending to join a freshman society together, so finances may be tight, but I’ll manage. My Greek professor, a wonderful man and outstanding teacher, has loaned me the use of an old text of his until I can afford my own. (Jamie and I had hoped to share, to curtail expenses, but because we are separated during class that won’t work.) We joined an eating club, the Vultures, which is helping with that expense. (Tell Hoss I’ll write him more about the club in my next letter.)
The trip here was amazing. I couldn’t help contrasting it with the journey you and I and Inger—and then Hoss—made together. The stagecoach went whizzing past landmarks that we’d strain our eyes for weeks, hoping to see. (Remember Chimney Rock and how much it meant to me to finally reach it?)
You know about the tornado from my letter to Hoss, but the trip was mostly uneventful, until just before I reached the Missouri River. That’s where I learned about the Confederates burning the bridge over the Little Platte River. I was frantic to get to St. Joseph then, to make certain that Josiah—Mr. Edwards says I should call him that, now that I’m a man—was all right and whether I’d be able to continue on or not. Fortunately, he had thought ahead and had everything worked out. It took some doing, but I made connections with the railroad past the bridge and was on my way again.
There was one incident on the train. We were about halfway down the line when I saw riders coming toward us. At first, I thought they were another Union patrol, as I’d seen soldiers riding along the railroad earlier, but they were Rebel raiders. Thanks to Josiah’s warning, I had my gun with me and was able to help defend the train until Union soldiers arrived to drive off the attackers. Frightening, but only for a few minutes. I was beginning to think I’d never make it to New Haven, but I finally did—with not a single day to spare. I was exhausted, but somehow I made it through two days of entrance exams, and it has all been worth it.
There’d been no problem with that part of the letter. Oh, it had been a little too stimulating to the boys when they heard about that attack on the train. Little Joe had immediately said that he wanted to ride that train in Missouri and fight off bad men, but Ben had put a short end to that nonsense. He’d been concerned, too, about Adam’s mention of tight finances. Thankfully, the cattle he’d sold on the last drive had enabled him to send the boy a draft of credit to help with that, and since St. Joseph was now in Union hands again, he could send another with his next letter.
What followed, however, what Adam had written for his father’s gaze alone, had unsettled him.
FOR YOU ONLY:
As happy as I am to be here, sometimes I still fear I’m doing the wrong thing. I still feel I’m abandoning you, Pa, but I won’t say more about that, as we’ve been through it all before. The only way I can validate your sacrifice is to get the most benefit possible from my time here, and I will.
Maybe it’s because of all I saw in Missouri, but it’s hard sometimes to think that it’s right to sit in a classroom, enjoying myself, when men my age—and some younger—are giving their lives for a cause in which I also believe. Don’t worry, Pa; I remember my promise to you to stay out of the “eastern conflict,” and I’ll keep it. That will be easy, as it lines up with my own desire. It just seems selfish, somehow, but maybe my weariness is keeping me from thinking clearly. Maybe I’ll feel better in the morning. I guess I shouldn’t have poured out my heart like this and caused you unnecessary concern, but I can’t take the words off the paper, and I don’t have either the supplies or the time to start a new letter.
Please don’t worry about me. I am happy and healthy. I miss you and the boys so much. Give them both my love, and tell Little Joe I will write him soon. I was going to put a short note in with this, but I knew the little fellow would feel left out if he didn’t get a letter all his own. All my love to you, too, Pa. I owe you everything.
Your grateful son,
Laying Adam’s words where he could see and refer to them, Ben began his own letter. He wrote the easy part first, telling Adam how much they missed him, how much Hoss had enjoyed his letter and how eagerly Little Joe was looking forward to his and to the promised collection of rocks. He thanked his son for being so thoughtful in selecting that remembrance of his trip for his brothers. Then he wrote homey news of family and friends, including Hoss’s response to his remark about serving up Adam’s letter as dessert and Little Joe’s insistence on having it all. Knowing that Adam was far enough away to keep the secret, he shared the good news of an upcoming birth on the Ponderosa. Then he turned to more serious matters:
My dearest boy, never fear that you should withhold from me any thought of your heart. Though parted by thousands of miles, I am still your father and, as such, am intended to help carry such loads. My shoulders are broad, Adam, and strong enough to share your concerns.
I’m sure that you were much affected by what you experienced on the trip, and I can understand that you might feel drawn to the service of your country when you see others answering that call. However, I believe you are wrong in referring to what you are doing as sitting in a classroom, enjoying yourself. That is not what you are doing, my boy, just seeking your own pleasure; you are preparing yourself for the future beyond this terrible conflict that separates our country. Remember, Adam, that your goal is to become a builder, and how greatly our country will need builders when this cruel war is over! You are doing the right thing, and I hope you will no longer waste precious time second-guessing your decision. Though it is hard to be parted from you, I know—I absolutely know—that you have made the right decision.
Let us hear from you often. As Hoss said, a letter from you rates higher than even an entire apple pie—with all of us.
With a heart filled with love and longing,
* * * * *
Hoss began to dread coming home from school each day. His little brother had always looked so happy to see him before, but now all Little Joe wanted to see was his letter from Adam and his special package of pretty rocks. Though it was a little out of his way, Hoss checked the post office every day; but every day he had to disappoint his little brother. Today would be no different. There’d been a letter for Pa from Uncle John, back in Denver, but nothing from Adam.
Little Joe scampered out to greet Hoss as soon as Hop Sing released him from the kitchen. Seeing the envelope in his brother’s hand, he whooped, “It came! It came!”
Hoss bent down and hugged his little brother to his heart. “No, punkin,” he said sadly, “it ain’t from Adam; it’s from Uncle John.”
Little Joe broke away, and Hoss cringed as he saw a single tear trickle from the corner of one eye. “Ah, don’t do that, punkin,” he begged. “That letter’s comin’ soon, I promise you it is.”
Little Joe shook his head wildly from side to side and turned and ran around the corner of the house.
Hoss gave chase and quickly caught up with the shorter-legged child. “Don’t you go runnin’ off,” he scolded as he pulled Little Joe into his arms again.
“I ain’t; I’m just runnin’,” Little Joe said, “‘cause I just plain need to, Hoss.”
Hoss stood up and held his brother by one hand. “Yeah, I can understand how you might, but let’s run together, okay?”
Joe used his free hand to wipe his sniffling nose and bobbed his head up and down. “Yeah, let’s run together.”
The two boys ran around the house and then the yard until they were breathless. Hoss thought the exercise had pushed all thoughts of the missing letter from Little Joe’s mind until their father came home and the first thing from his brother’s mouth was the report that “that letter still ain’t come, Pa.”
Ben lifted his youngest son and carried him to the chair beside the fireplace. Sitting down, he held Little Joe in his lap and said, “I’m sorry, son. It should have been here by now, except there has been some problem with mail getting through from the East.”
“Yours did and Hoss’s did. Even that’n from Uncle John,” Little Joe said through pouting lips.
“Well, Uncle John’s didn’t have to come as far,” Ben explained. “There’s been no disruption from Denver.”
“Huh?” Joe asked, and Hoss looked confused, too.
“No mail problems from Denver,” Ben said more simply, “but there were some further east. Remember Adam’s letter to me, when he told about the problems he had getting to New Haven because a bridge had been destroyed?”
“Yeah,” Hoss said. “Mail might have trouble the same way, huh?”
“I think so,” Ben said, stroking his youngest son’s unruly curls. “The Enterprise said that mail was getting through now, but I’m sure it got backed up some. I think that’s the explanation, boys. The letter’s on its way . . . just delayed by war problems. Try to keep trusting just a little longer, all right, Little Joe?”
After frowning thoughtfully for a moment, Little Joe looked into his father’s face and said, “I’ll try, Pa . . . just a little longer.”
Ben gave his son’s smooth cheek a kiss. “That’s my boy. Now, let’s see what news Uncle John has to share.”
* * * * *
Still clad in his nightshirt, Little Joe lay sprawled across the foot of his father’s bed as Ben stowed a change of clothing and grooming necessities into a saddlebag. “Why you gotta go, Pa?” the boy demanded.
Ben fastened the saddlebag’s buckle. “I can’t say no to the Governor, son.”
“I can,” Little Joe declared stoutly as he scrabbled up to his knees.
Laying a caressing hand on the child’s curls, Ben chuckled. “You say no entirely too easily, little boy.” He bent down to Little Joe’s level and looked into his eyes. “It’s important that we keep up good relations with the Paiutes, son, and Governor Nye feels he needs the help of someone who knows them well. I’m honored that he asked me to go along on this mission. Do you understand?”
Stubborn frown on his face, Little Joe shook his head from side to side.
“I understand, Pa,” Ben’s other boy said quietly, “but I sure wish you didn’t have to go.”
Ben crossed the room to place a hand on Hoss’s shoulder. “I don’t enjoy leaving my boys, either, but this is important. You’ll look after Little Joe for me?”
“Sure, Pa. Always do.”
Ben gave the boy a hearty hug. “That’s right; you always do. I can always count on my good boy.”
“Me, too, Pa,” Little Joe said, bouncing up. “I can count—one . . . two . . . three.”
Ben grinned. “Not that kind of counting, sweetheart.” He caught Little Joe in mid-bounce and held him close for a moment. “Be a good boy for brother . . . and for Hop Sing. Pa’ll be back in just a couple of days.”
“Take me with you,” Little Joe pleaded.
Ben smiled, remembering his first trip to the Paiute encampment. He’d taken a very young Hoss, diapers and all, with him and Adam, but those days of innocence were gone. Though the Pyramid Lake War was over and the Indians established on reservations, relations were still strained. He expected no trouble on this trip, but he wouldn’t risk his child’s life on that assumption, not in these times. “I can’t, Little Joe,” he said as he set the boy’s bare feet back on the bed. “Be a brave boy for Pa now . . . please?”
Reluctantly, Little Joe nodded. As his father left the bedroom, he slid to the floor and followed in his wake, right behind Hoss.
“Now, I’m a big enough boy to see myself off,” Ben chuckled when he noticed the parade behind him. “Hoss, you help your brother get dressed and down to breakfast, please, and then get off to school on time. Start the week right.”
“Yes, sir, I will,” Hoss promised. Taking Little Joe’s hand, he went as far as the head of the stairs, and they both waved until Ben disappeared through the front door. “Come on, punkin,” he said then. “Let’s get dressed and see what Hop Sing’s got that’s good to eat.”
* * * * *
There was a pleasant crispness in the air that morning as Ben rode toward WashoeLake, where he would meet the Governor’s party. His spirits were soaring high enough to reach the fluffy white clouds drifting above. Was it only two weeks ago that he’d decided his usefulness to the territory was finished, that he had no role to play in its development? Now, in about an hour, he’d be riding at the Governor’s side on a special mission. He still didn’t believe he should hold any regular office, for that would take too much time from his growing sons. It felt wonderful, however, to discover that he could, in unofficial ways like this, influence the growth of Nevada, as well.
As planned, he reached the lake early; and while his horse grazed, he walked the shore, reliving memories of gatherings here with family and friends. We’ll have to make a point of having Hoss’s birthday party here, he mused. The boy got short-changed last year, and I’ll not allow that again.
Looking up, he saw enough dust on the horizon to herald the Governor’s arrival, evidently with a considerable entourage. Maybe I shouldn’t flatter myself with his invitation, Ben chuckled. Looks like half of Carson City came along for the parley. When the caravan came closer, however, he saw that most of the dust was being raised by two wagons full of supplies. It was the first thing he commented on after greeting the Governor. “I’m glad to see that the government is sending food to our Paiute friends. They need that sort of help with winter coming.”
Governor Nye’s rueful smile looked more like a scowl. “It isn’t food, Ben, and I doubt what’s in most of those crates will be much help in preparing for winter. Apparently, the Federal Government has a very poor understanding of needs out here.”
Ben was almost afraid to ask, but he did. “What is it?”
Nye shook his head apologetically. “Hoops,” he grunted.
Ben’s jaw dropped. “Hoops? Barrel hoops?”
Nye pursed his lips. “Barrel hoops would be an improvement, Ben. No, what Washington, in its infinite wisdom, has sent me to deliver to our Paiute friends is the kind of hoops ladies wear beneath their dresses.”
“You’re joking,” Ben gasped.
The flabbergasted look on Ben’s face made Nye laugh. “I wish I were . . . and I’m appointing you to come up with some way to explain this to the Paiutes.”
“Oh, thanks!” Ben sputtered. “I believe, Governor Nye, that you have confused me with Solomon.”
The Governor gave Ben his most charming smile. “I have the utmost confidence in you.”
* * * * *
Ben had never felt more grateful for Paiute ritual than he did that afternoon as the pipe made its way around the circle of men. He took a puff and again passed it to the man on his right. How many circuits had it made now? Four—or just three out of the traditional five? He hoped it was only the third, so he’d have a little more time to think. Not that he was sure it would help. He’d wracked his brain every mile of the trail here to PyramidLake, but still didn’t know how he could explain those blasted hoops. The Paiutes valued honesty, so maybe he should just put it to them straight: It’s like this, Winnemucca, the white leaders in Washington are a bunch of blathering idiots. No, he could scarcely say that. Gracious a man as he normally was, Governor Nye might yield to the temptation to string him up to the nearest tree on their way home! But he couldn’t come up with some cock-and-bull lie, either. Winnemucca’s daughters had lived among white people long enough to know exactly what those hoops were really used for. Ben rubbed his crossed legs to keep from clinching his fists and wondered where the wisdom of Solomon was when a man needed it. If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God . . . didn’t the Scripture say something like that? I’m asking, God!
He saw Winnemucca pass the pipe to the Governor, seated on his right. Once more around, then; at least that much respite. As his troubled gaze fell on the circular and open-topped structure behind the chief, an idea slowly started to take shape. The ritual ended, and the Governor began to speak, telling the assembled chiefs that the white father in Washington had sent gifts to his friends, the Paiutes. “The White Winnemucca will present them,” Nye said with a significant look at Ben.
Ben stood slowly and motioned the soldiers forward with the first crate. He ordered it opened for the chiefs’ inspection and was surprised to see that this crate, at least, contained something more useful than dress hoops. “Wool blankets to keep your people warm through the cold winter nights, Winnemucca,” he said with relief.
One by one the crates were opened and their contents described for the assembled Paiutes. Some were useful, some not readily so, but Ben managed to find some explanation that satisfied the Indians. The sixth crate contained the dreaded hoops. Sending one last prayer winging heavenward, Ben took a deep breath. “Winnemucca, you know I always speak the truth to my friend.” He swallowed hard and continued. “I am not sure what the white father intended you to do with these. They are used by the women of our villages, and perhaps your women will find things to do with them that a man such as myself cannot think of.” He lifted one hoop from the crate. “I have thought of one thing, though.” He pointed to the dwelling behind the chief, tracing its domed shape in the air and then ran his hand over the smooth curve of the hoop. “Perhaps the curve of these hoops will be useful as a foundation for your karnees. It is all I know to suggest, but I am sure that the wisdom of the Paiute will show you even better uses for these—these wonderful mechanisms.”
Winnemucca took one of the “wonderful mechanisms” and began to stroke the wood as Ben had. He still looked puzzled, but grunted acceptance of the gift.
From across the circle the voice of Winnemucca’s nephew Numaga rang out. “The trinkets of the white man are of little importance,” he said. “What we must learn is why you build such a high fence through our land.”
Ben now looked as confused as the chief examining the hoop. “Fence?” he asked, looking to the Governor for enlightenment. Clearly bewildered, the Governor shook his head. “I know of no high fence on your land, Numaga,” Ben replied slowly.
Numaga’s keen black eyes did not flinch. “The White Winnemucca says he always speaks truth, but only the blind cannot see this fence. Poles that stretch to the sky, tied with long ropes. Which side must the Paiute stay on? We do not wish war again, but we must know which side is ours or war may come.”
Ben’s mind raced. Poles that stretch to the sky . . . tied with long ropes . . . what on earth had the man seen? Then it hit him, and he smiled in relief. “It is not a fence, Numaga,” he said. “It is a telegraph line. It sends the words of the white men from one side of our country to the other.”
The Paiutes all exchanged skeptical glances.
Sensing their befuddlement, Ben tried again. “It is like the Paiute signal fires that sent word of Captain Truckee’s death from hill to hill. The ropes—they are called wires—carry news in a similar way.”
Some nodded in polite recollection of the memorable event at which Ben had been present; others still shook their heads. A signal fire could be seen, and all knew its meaning, but ropes to carry words? It made no sense . . . but, then, many things about the white man made no sense. To the Paiutes’ minds, however, only one question mattered. “Which side ours?” Winnemucca demanded.
Governor Nye took over. “The Government is grateful that you allow our telegraph poles to be planted on your land,” he said, “but they are not intended to restrict your movement in any way. You may ride, hunt, do what you will on both sides, Chief Winnemucca. Treat them as if they were not there.”
Ben could tell that the Indians still didn’t understand the purpose of the “high fence,” but relief also was evident on their faces. The Paiutes wanted peace as much as the white man, Ben realized, and though his contribution had been small, he felt warm satisfaction in the part he’d played this afternoon in keeping it.
* * * * *
The hem of his nightshirt brushed his kneecap as Hoss Cartwright propped his elbows on the windowsill and gazed out at the dark sky. Ma would have noticed that he needed new nightclothes, that the old ones were getting too short, but Pa didn’t take note of such things as quick. Hoss hated to ask, ‘cause he knew Pa’d spent a heap of money on sendin’ Adam back East to school and had even had to borrow the goods to make his new school clothes from Aunt Nellie. Nobody saw him under the sheets, so the nightshirt could wait . . . not much longer, if he kept growing, but a little while. That wasn’t what was keeping him awake in the middle of the night.
It was a pretty night, the kind he liked best, with the stars all twinkly and the air still enough to hear a bird twitter, except most of them had already taken off south for the winter. The setting didn’t give him the usual sense of serenity tonight, though, and he knew why. The house just didn’t feel right with Pa gone. Hop Sing was right downstairs, if they needed anything, but at night, up here, it was just him and Little Joe, and the house felt mighty lonesome without Pa . . . and Adam . . . and Ma.
A piercing cry knifed through the stillness. Hoss jumped back and padded across the room and down the hall on bare feet, as if he’d been waiting for that cry to come. Maybe he had. There at the window he’d felt like he was waiting for something, but he hadn’t put words to what it was. Now he knew. Little Joe’d started having nightmares right after Ma died and then again when Adam left. It had happened the night Pa went off to fight the fire, too; so, deep down, Hoss had known it could happen tonight—or anytime Pa was gone, ‘cause Little Joe was plumb scared of losing folks. He felt the same himself, but he was bigger and handled it better. At least, he tried.
He raced into the next room and saw Little Joe sitting in the middle of his bed, wide-eyed and wailing. Hoss climbed up behind him, and on bended knee he pulled his little brother back against his chest. “Hush now,” he soothed. “Ever’thing’s all right, little punkin. You’re just havin’ a bad dream.” He brushed the boy’s damp curls as he’d seen Pa do. “Wanna tell brother ‘bout it?”
“Paiutes!” the little boy cried, near hysteria. “Scalpin’ Pa!”
Hoss held the quivering little body even tighter. “No such thing,” he said firmly. “I ain’t never heard of a Paiute scalpin’ nobody, even when they was at war.” He knew what had planted that fear in his little brother’s head. It was all that fool talk after church yesterday about what was goin’ on in Arizona with the Apaches. “I know there’s some injuns that do,” Hoss explained as calmly as he could over the anger he felt at people who’d let a little boy hear such talk, “but not the ones Pa went to see—not ever.”
“Not ever?” Little Joe asked, leaning his head back to look up at his brother.
“Not ever.” Hoss’s voice was solid and sure. “You just put that right out of your head.”
“I don’t like Pa goin’ off,” Little Joe whimpered, tears trickling down his face.
“Me, neither,” Hoss admitted, “but it’s gonna happen from time to time, so there ain’t no use cryin’ about it.”
Little Joe responded with a fresh stream.
“Aw, now,” Hoss said, hugging his brother close. “Didn’t mean to make you feel worse. What can brother do to make it better, huh?”
Little Joe shook his head, as if to say that nothing could make him feel better.
“How ‘bout I sing you a little ditty?” Hoss offered, casting desperately for an idea.
“You can’t sing,” Little Joe sniffed as he shifted around to look directly at his brother.
“Can, too. Maybe not good as Adam, but good enough when it’s just you and me, I reckon.” Unable to think of a song that fit the occasion, Hoss started to hum whatever notes came into his head and then he slowly put words to them. “Whatcha gonna do when your tears run dry?” he crooned, slightly off key. “Whatcha gonna do then, punkin pie?” He held an imaginary pitcher over his eyes and mimicked a pouring motion. “Gonna pour a little more water in?” He shook his head in wild negation. “Or gonna give in—and grin?”
Little Joe laughed at the big, silly grin that spread across his brother’s face and clapped his hands. “Sing it ‘gain, Hoss; sing it ‘gain.”
Hoss obliged, complete with motions:
Whatcha gonna do when your tears run dry?
Whatcha gonna do then, punkin pie?
Gonna pour a little more water in?
Or gonna give in—and grin?
When Little Joe demanded yet another repetition, Hoss shook his head. “Nope. That’s lullaby enough. Bedtime now.” Seeing his little brother start to pucker up again, he slid off the bed and, wrapping the younger boy in a light coverlet, lifted him into his arms. “You can sleep with me,” he said.
Little Joe immediately settled. “Bun-bun,” he said, hand stretching toward his stuffed rabbit.
“And Barker,” Hoss agreed, with his free hand gathering up both the rabbit and the seal that Aunt Nelly had made for the little boy. He carried his brother into his own room, put him into bed and handed him his cuddle critters. Then he crawled in beside his brother, who immediately snuggled up against him and started to doze. As Hoss drifted off himself, his last coherent thought was Shoulda done this to start with. House don’t feel half so lonesome when we’re together.
* * * * *
As he neared home after school the next day, Hoss had a big grin on his face. Not only was Pa due home today, but he had something in his saddlebag guaranteed to add to the joy of that. Rounding the final curve, he saw Little Joe jump up from the porch step, where he was seated. Hoss immediately dismounted, so that he could better control both his horse and his little brother.
However, Little Joe didn’t come running toward him, as usual. Instead, the light in his eyes faded and his chin drooped. “I thought you was Pa,” he said.
Leading Charcoal, Hoss walked over to his brother. “Ain’t Pa back yet?” he asked, fret lines furrowing his forehead. “I thought for sure he would be.”
Little Joe shook his head. “You real sure Paiutes don’t take scalps?” He looked up, and Hoss could see again the fear that had been in his brother’s eyes the previous night.
“I’m real sure, punkin.” Hoss wrapped Charcoal’s reins around the hitching rail. Ordinarily, the first thing he did when he came home each afternoon was to tend to his horse’s needs, but he thought Pa would understand why he let the animal wait today, ‘cause another little critter needed tending even more. He opened his saddlebag and took out an envelope. He put his arm around his brother and led him back to the porch. “Pa’s just runnin’ late—maybe had some extra parleyin’ to do with the Paiutes, but he’ll be home soon. And look here what I got for you.” He waved the envelope.
Little Joe’s eyes widened. “Is it . . . mine?” he asked hesitantly.
“Sure is. Want me to open it and read it for you?”
With his pocketknife Hoss carefully slit the envelope and drew out the single sheet. “Dear Little Joe,” he began:
I told a lot about my trip in the letters to Pa and Hoss, but there was one place we passed that made me think of you. Just past Courthouse Rock we crossed a small creek called the Little Punkin. Now, how do you suppose they named a creek after you when you’d never been there? Isn’t that funny?
Little Joe giggled. “My creek,” he chirped. “All mine.”
Hoss grinned. “Sure sounds like it. Now, why you reckon there ain’t a creek called the Little Hoss?”
“Big Hoss,” Little Joe tittered.
Hoss laughed. “Yeah, I reckon it ought to be, at that.” He again read from the letter:
You’ll probably think it’s funny, too, that I took a nap this afternoon, just like a certain baby brother of mine. I know you don’t like them, but I really needed one, because it was hard to sleep in a stagecoach, and I couldn’t rest when I got here, either, because I had tests to take.
“Bad ole tests,” Little Joe said with a scowl, “to wear Adam out.”
“Tests wear me out, too,” Hoss agreed. He scanned ahead in the letter and chuckled. “This is more like it.”
We met a black man named Candy Sam, who sells candy to students here. He’s blind—that means his eyes don’t work—but he can make change just as if he could see. His fingers see for him. Jamie and I bought some divinity, and it was really good. I think Candy Sam will get plenty of our business!
“He’d get plenty of mine, too,” Hoss said with a lick of his lips.
“Yeah. MaybePa’ll bring us some candy,” Little Joe suggested.
“From the Paiute camp?” Hoss made a face. “Naw, they just suck on tule shoots for sweetening. It ain’t too good, punkin.”
“Oh. That all Adam says?”
“Just a little bit more.” Hoss finished the letter:
It will soon be time for supper, so I will say good-bye until next time, and I’ll mail this on our way to the meal. I will be sending a gift from the trail at the same time. I hope you enjoy it.
Your big brother,
“Our rocks!” Little Joe cried. “Did they come, too?”
“In the saddlebags,” Hoss said as he folded the letter and put it back in the envelope. “We’ll get ‘em out later, but first I gotta stable Charcoal. Poor pony’s waited long enough.”
Little Joe looked disappointed, but he solemnly nodded his head. Young as he was, he already understood Pa’s feelings about keeping a horse waiting for proper care.
* * * * *
Little Joe scampered at his brother’s side as Hoss carried the pail of milk, fresh from the cow, out of the barn. Hearing hooves coming up the road that led around the barn, Joe sprang forward happily.
Hoss dropped the pail of milk and chased down his brother, just as their father rode into the yard. “Doggone you,” he scolded as he grabbed Little Joe’s hand, pulling him back from the horse’s path just in time. “Look what you gone and made me do.” He pointed at the pail, lying on its side, milk draining into the dirt.
“Sorry,” Little Joe muttered, but he pulled against Hoss’s restraint, crying, “Pa!”
Ben, who had reined in and dismounted as soon as he saw his little son rushing toward him, opened his arms wide. “Let him come, Hoss.”
Hoss released his brother and then stalked over to the tipped pail and set it upright. “It’s ‘most all spilt,” he grumbled. Feeling a hand on his shoulder, he looked up to see his father, holding Little Joe in one arm while reaching out to him with the other. He moved into the warm embrace.
“It’s all right, son,” his father said. “Your little brother’s more important than any amount of spilled milk. Thank you for watching out for him.”
Hoss nodded. “Proud to, Pa, but he oughta know better by now.”
“Yes, he should,” Ben said, turning grave eyes on his youngest. “What should you know by now, Little Joe?” he asked, keeping his voice gentle.
Little Joe hung his head. “Don’t run at horses.” He glanced up with brimming eyes. “But I missed you, Pa.”
Ben’s parental resolve melted. “Pa missed you, too, baby—and you, Hoss.”
“You was kind of later than I ‘pected, Pa,” Hoss said.
Ben nodded. “We didn’t get off as early as I expected this morning. The Governor had some extra talking to do with Winnemucca.” He felt his hat falling back from his head and made an unsuccessful grab for it.
“Oops,” murmured Little Joe.
“What are you doing, son?” Ben asked.
“Just checkin’,” the boy said. “You got hair.” He looked relieved.
“Well, of course, I have hair,” Ben chuckled. “A little grayer, thanks to you, but it hasn’t fallen out yet.”
“I think he was more afeared it might’ve got lifted, Pa,” Hoss explained. “Remember all that talk about the Apaches after church?”
“Oh.” Ben held his little son closer. “I wasn’t with the Apaches, Little Joe,” he said. “The Paiutes are our friends and would never hurt me, son. There’s no need for you to fear when I’m with them.”
“That’s what I told him.”
Ben gave Hoss a nod of approval. “That’s right. And you can always trust your big brother, Little Joe.”
“Guess what, Pa!” Little Joe exclaimed. “I got a letter!”
Ben’s eyes sparkled. “From Adam? That’s wonderful, Little Joe!”
“And pretty rocks, too! Wanna see?”
“I surely do.” Ben set the boy down. “Run get them for me.” As Little Joe ran toward the house, Ben smiled at Hoss. “That’s a relief. I was afraid that letter had gotten lost in the mail. I didn’t want to say that to Little Joe, but it’s a risk with war-torn country between us and Adam.”
“I sure was glad to see it at the post office this afternoon,” Hoss agreed. “I didn’t know how I was gonna keep ‘splainin’ it to the little feller.”
Ben ran a tender hand through his son’s wheaten hair. “Oh, Hoss, that’s not your job; that’s mine.”
“Mine, too,” Hoss insisted. “I got to be a good big brother to Little Joe, like Adam always was to me.”
Ben patted his head. “That’s right—and you are. Any problems I should know about, while I was gone?”
Hoss had already decided not to mention Little Joe’s nightmares. If Pa knew that, he’d most likely feel he shouldn’t have gone with the Governor, and Hoss figured it was important for Pa to do that kind of thing. “Nary a one,” he started to say; then he faltered. “Well, just one little un. Joe liked my yellow quartz better than his, ‘cause it was smoother, so I just traded with him, and then he was happy.”
Ben pulled the boy into a one-armed embrace. “Hoss, I think you’ve got this big brothering down just about pat.”
~ ~ Notes ~ ~
The Government really did send the Paiutes a collection of women’s dress hoops with James Nye, and according to the San Francisco Bulletin, one of their chiefs came into Carson to inquire about the high fence and which side belonged to the Indians.
The last half of October flew by, like Hermes on his winged feet. Ben smiled to himself as that comparison came to his thoughts, for it seemed like something his bookish son back East might have said. He found his mind working more like Adam’s these days, a way to keep the boy closer, he supposed. The completion of the transcontinental telegraph near the close of the month made the distance between them seem shorter, although he doubted that there would be need for either of them to send an expensive telegram to the other. Expense hadn’t bothered the territorial legislature, however, when it was accorded the privilege of sending the first telegram east over the completed wire. Like true politicians, the legislators had waxed verbose:
Resolved by the council, the house concurring, that:
Whereas, the privilege of forwarding the first telegraphic message across the continent, has been given to the legislature of NevadaTerritory, therefore be it,
Resolved, that the said communication shall consist of the following language, viz:
NevadaTerritory, through her first legislative assembly, to the president and people of the United States—
Nevada for the Union, ever true and loyal! The last born of the nation will be the last to desert the flag! Our aid, to the extent of our ability, can be relied upon to crush the rebellion.
While Ben approved the patriotism of that pledge of loyalty, he didn’t see his territory offering much real aid to the war effort. In money, maybe; in men, unlikely. The telegraph, on the other hand, would prove an invaluable aid in providing up-to-date news of the war, but the first news transmitted west—in answer to the question, “How goes the war?”—was not encouraging. The Union had sustained yet another defeat at Ball’s Bluff, this time with 1,900 Northern casualties and, Ben assumed, about that many, more or less, from the South. As he bowed his head in church the following Sunday, he thanked God that both his family here in Nevada and his son in Connecticut were secure from such devastation.
With the final amen of the benediction, Ben rose from his seat and began to herd his sons down the aisle behind the Thomases, who were with them today at the WashoeCity church and would take dinner at the Ponderosa. His intentions of getting out quickly were blocked, quite literally, when Nelly stopped at the exit to tell the Reverend Bennett how much she had enjoyed the sermon.
“Ben, oh, Ben,” called a sharp voice behind him. “Ben Cartwright!”
Ben sighed, but quickly disguised his frustration at being trapped by the widow Hunter. “Good morning, Elvira,” he said, “or I suppose ‘good afternoon’ would be more appropriate, given the hour.”
Elvira Hunter chuckled. “My, yes, the good reverend did run a mite overlong, didn’t he?” she observed in a conspiratorial whisper.
“I found his message most edifying,” Ben said.
“Oh, to be sure,” she said quickly, “and goodness knows, there’s heathen enough in this territory to call for even longer sermons. I just wanted to see how you and yours were gettin’ along these days.” She patted Little Joe’s curly head. “Can’t be easy, runnin’ a ranch and raisin’ two boys.”
Ben felt somewhat perturbed that she’d omitted his oldest son, but magnanimously concluded that she might have assumed that one was already raised. “Oh, we manage,” he said, for he was catching the drift of this conversation and didn’t care to encourage it.
“I’m sure,” Elvira said, not sounding the least bit certain. “I just wanted to remind you that we’re close enough neighbors for you to call on me, any time you need”—she veiled her eyes demurely—“a woman’s touch with these younguns.”
Ben felt outraged at the thought of any woman taking the place of his beloved Marie, but tried to give Elvira Hunter the benefit of the doubt as simply a concerned neighbor.
Nelly Thomas was far from that generous. “She’s on the prowl for a man,” the woman who was like a sister to Ben snorted as they drove away. “You be on your guard, Ben Cartwright.”
“I assure you I have no interest in Elvira Hunter,” Ben said, glancing over his shoulder to the back seat of the surrey, where Clyde, Nelly and young Inger were sitting.
“She ‘pears to have plenty in you,” Clyde snickered.
“Ma’s right, Uncle Ben,” Billy, who was riding his horse beside the surrey, chimed in. “Best keep your guard up or you’ll find yourself hitched before you know it.”
“Hitched? To her? Pa, you wouldn’t!” Hoss protested.
“No, I wouldn’t—and that’s the end of this subject!” Ben growled.
“Wouldn’t what?” Little Joe asked.
“Never you mind, boy.” Seeing the child shrink back from his irritated tone, Ben leaned over to drop a kiss on the curly head and softened his voice. “Nothing for you to worry about, Little Joe. Just grownup nonsense.”
“I like nonsense,” Little Joe said, bright smile returning.
“Don’t we just know it!” Clyde cackled.
* * * * *
Toward the middle of that Sunday afternoon everyone decided to indulge in a second piece of pie before the Thomases headed back to Carson City. Billy was helping Hop Sing corral the three youngsters in the kitchen, an appropriate place for him, his parents had teased, saying he was little more than an overgrown youngster himself. Ben had chuckled, but assured Billy that he knew a man when he saw one.
“Know which side your bread’s buttered on, you mean,” Clyde had cackled, referring to the fact that Billy would be staying over at the Ponderosa for a few days to help with the haying.
The pie was about half consumed when someone knocked on the door. Hop Sing answered and ushered a man and woman into the room. With a wide smile on his face, Ben rose to meet them. “Eilley, Sandy,” he called. “It’s good to see you.”
“That it is,” Nelly added. “We don’t see near enough of you folks, now that you’re livin’ in Gold Hill.” Her arms automatically reached for the baby girl in Eilley’s arms.
Eilley didn’t look nearly as glad to see Nelly as Nelly to see her, but she quickly schooled her face to cordial courtesy. “Yes, indeed!” she said as she reluctantly surrendered her child to the other woman. “How’ve you been, Mrs. Thomas?”
Nelly clucked her tongue. “Now, it’s Nelly to old friends.”
“Of course,” Eilley said, but the condescending way she said it made Nelly frown.
The frown fled, however, as Nelly gazed down at the baby, who was just waking. “My, isn’t she a beauty?” she cooed. “Eyes like wild violets.”
Eilley warmed at the compliment. “Oh, yes, and such a joy! Perfectly formed and putting on weight just as she ought.”
Nelly nodded compassionately, remembering that Eilley’s first child, a sickly boy, had passed away last summer, a day shy of being two months old. Having experienced both the loss of a son and the joy of a daughter born thereafter herself, she could readily relate to the other woman’s present contentment.
“Hop Sing, is there any of that wonderful blackberry pie left?” Ben asked as he directed Sandy to the blue chair that sat at right angle to the settee where he led Eilley.
“Little bit left, Mr. Ben,” the cook said with a smile. “Just enough.”
“Oh, my, I shouldn’t,” the plumpish Eilley demurred.
“Why, of course, you should,” Ben insisted.
“I’ll polish off whatever you don’t eat,” her husband offered.
“Oh, Sandy,” she chided. “These folks’ll think I never feed you.”
“Not at all,” Ben assured her congenially. “A long drive like the one you’ve just made works up a man’s appetite, that’s all.”
“Yah, sure does,” Sandy agreed spiritedly. He greeted the arrival of blackberry pie and coffee with even greater enthusiasm. “Long time since I eat anything this good,” he said, wiping a dribble of blackberry juice from his chin with the back of his hand.
“Delicious,” his wife concurred, daintily dabbing her mouth after each bite. “I wish I could send our cook to your Chinaman for lessons.”
Tickling the baby under the chin, Nelly chuckled. “Hop Sing puts together a right fine feed, I must admit, but I brought the pie.”
“Oh.” Eilley looked nonplussed. “Well, then, that explains it.”
“We’re always appreciative of Nelly’s contributions to any meal,” Ben said with a wink at Sandy, who was clearly enjoying his wife’s discomfiture.
“Any news over to Gold Hill?” Clyde asked, hoping to steer the conversation to a more interesting topic than compliments to his wife’s cooking, much as he enjoyed the fruits of her labors.
“Biggest news is the Chollar Mine falling in,” Sandy said, “but maybe you heard that already.”
Clyde nodded. “Read about it in the Enterprise. Sounded like a pretty severe cave-in.”
“Dreadful,” Eilley said. “Just up and swallowed a two-story building above it—and the racket! In the middle of the night, too.”
“Yah, it was loud,” Sandy said.
“Anyone hurt?” Ben asked.
“By a miracle, no,” Eilley replied. “Bein’ eleven at night, the grocery was closed, of course, and the bookkeeper who lived on the second floor said his dog woke him up, scratchin’ and whinin’ to be took for a walk. Reckon he’s countin’ his blessings that he obliged the critter.”
“Cave-in happened while they was out,” Sandy added.
“That young man does have reason to count his blessings,” Nelly said, “and I hope he has the sense to do it.”
“Yes . . . well . . .” Eilley glanced back at the grandfather’s clock near the door.
“Now, you’re not going to eat and run, are you?” Ben scolded, a twinkle in his eye. “It’s too long a trip for so short a visit.”
“Well”—she looked awkwardly at the Thomases—“we were hoping to talk with you, Ben.”
“I hope you’re not wanting your land back,” Ben said. “I’ve got a good long lease on it, if you recall.”
“Oh, no, no,” she said, biting her lower lip as she again glanced at the other guests.
Clyde caught the hint and stood up. “Reckon it’s time we started back, else we’ll be drivin’ after dark.”
“Well, now, Clyde,” Nelly said with a suspicious cast of her eye at the other woman in the room, “if you’re frettin’ over that, I reckon we could stay over, just this once.”
Clyde’s look of astonishment was exceeded only by Eilley’s expression of horror. She relaxed, however, when Clyde exploded, “Have you lost your senses, woman? If you don’t have work to do tomorrow, I do! Now, get your gear together, so we can head out.”
“Gear,” Nelly sputtered as she reluctantly stood and handed the baby back to its mother. “A fine way to talk about your own daughter!”
Ben laughed. “That’s right, Clyde. I’m sure Sandy would never speak of little Teresa here that way.”
“Not in front of her mother, for sure,” Sandy guffawed.
Amidst the men’s merriment Nelly marched huffily to the kitchen to collect Inger, who was trailed back into the great room by the Cartwright boys and Billy. Minor pandemonium ensued for a few minutes as farewell hugs and kisses and promises to see each other again soon were exchanged all around. As her family moved across the yard to the buggy, Nelly pulled Billy aside. “Stick close in there,” she ordered. “Something’s up and I want to know what it is.”
Billy sported an impish grin. “Why, Ma, I never figured you’d want me to be a spy when I growed up.”
She swatted his arm. “None of your smart talk! That woman’s up to something; you keep an eye on her.”
“Oh, yes, ma’am,” Billy snickered. “If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s keepin’ an eye on women.”
“Ooh!” With a gusty exhale of exasperation, Nelly stalked to the buggy and got in, but as they drove away, she kept a concerned watch over her shoulder until the Ponderosa ranch house was out of sight.
Inside, Little Joe had wandered over to the visitors, drawn especially to the infant gurgling in Eilley’s lap. “She’s a baby,” he informed the doting mother. “I’m not; I’m a big boy.”
Eilley beamed at the child as she stroked his smooth cheek. “That you are, and such a handsome, bright little fellow, too.”
Little Joe patted Teresa’s back. “Does she cry much? I like babies, but not when they cry.”
“Oh, no, she’s a happy girl,” Eilley said with a smile. “I’m sure you and Teresa will get along together just fine.”
When Ben, Billy and Hoss came back in from saying their farewells to the Thomases, Hoss perched on the settee at Eilley’s side. “Howdy,” he offered.
“Oh . . . hello, child,” Eilley said absently as she continued to drink in the interaction between the two younger children with satisfied eyes.
The men discussed territorial affairs for a while, but soon all that could be said on that subject had been said, and a blanket of silence seemed to fall over the room. “You said there was something you wanted to talk to me about?” Ben invited.
Eilley glanced uneasily at Billy. “Well, yes, but . . . well, perhaps, this young man would like to take the children out for a romp while we talk?”
When Billy didn’t appear disposed to volunteer, Ben cleared his throat. “Would you mind, son?” he asked. “I’m sure the boys—and possibly you, as well—would find a business discussion uninteresting.”
Billy gave his adopted uncle a cunning grin. “Oh, I’d be interested—and Ma even more. I can take a hint, though. Don’t mind wrastlin’ the boys, but I’m no hand with babies.”
“Oh, no,” Eilley said quickly. “She’ll be just fine here with me.” As if she’d ever trust her precious Teresa Fortunatus to that red-headed lout—the very idea!
Billy gathered up both Hoss and Little Joe, who were eager to play outdoors awhile before the autumn air grew too cold. An awkward silence again descended over those remaining in the room. Ben shifted uncomfortably in his armchair and finally turned to Sandy with a shrug.
“It’s woman’s business,” Sandy muttered, and with a roll of his eyes, Ben looked back toward Eilley.
“Now, that’s not so, Sandy!” his wife protested. “We both agreed”—she bit her lip and composed herself. “Ben,” she began again, “I want you to know how much I sympathize with you in the loss of your wife. I—I’ve had a loss of my own this last year, and I know how hard it is.”
Ben swallowed the rising lump in his throat. “Yes,” he finally said. “Marie and I both were saddened to hear of the death of your little boy. She lost a son once herself—from her first marriage—so she understood better than most what that pain was like.”
With a pudgy pinky Eilley dabbed at the corner of her left eye. “She . . . never mentioned that, but she spoke so kindly when John Jasper passed away that—well, never mind. I didn’t come here for sympathy.”
Ben dearly wanted to ask what she had come for, but good manners prevented him.
After another moment of silence, Eilley took a deep breath and said, “I can only imagine how hard it’s been for you, being both father and mother to your little lad.”
“We manage,” Ben said quietly, realizing with some chagrin that he’d already said those same words once this afternoon. There were times, he knew, when he had managed very ill, but he was trying his best now to be a true father—and mother, when needed—to all his sons. That everyone in his acquaintance seemed to question his fitness to do so was decidedly disconcerting.
“Oh, I’m sure,” Eilley said, “but I do think that it’s best for a child to be raised by both a father and a mother, don’t you?”
“Perhaps,” Ben said cautiously. He had a sudden horror that Eilley was about to propose some friend or relative as a prospective bride. Then, with rising apprehension, it occurred to him that she might even be applying for the position herself. In her faith polygyny was more common than polyandry, but it was not unheard of for a Mormon woman to have more than one husband, and that notion would certainly explain Sandy’s evident discomfort. “Marrying again is not something I’m ready to consider yet,” he said bluntly, deciding that it was best to nip any such suggestion in the bud, “so I guess I’ll just have to muddle along alone.”
Eilley’s face flushed crimson. “Oh, no, Ben! I wasn’t suggesting . . . I mean . . . oh, dear!”
“Spit it out, woman!” Sandy snapped, striking his knee with his fist. “You’re driving Ben and me both daft with this blathering.”
“Oh, honestly, Sandy,” she sputtered. “It’s a delicate matter, and I—well, I suppose it might be best to say it straight out. It’s about the child, Ben.”
“The child?” Ben shook his head in continuing confusion. Slowly, comprehension dawned. “My child?” he asked hesitantly; then his spine stiffened and he demanded, “Which one?”
Eilley uttered a nervous laugh. “Why, the youngest, of course. The other boy is half-grown, but think what a blessing it would be to your little one—to everyone, in fact—if we were to adopt him.”
Ben erupted out of his chair. “Adopt him? You think I’d turn over my own flesh and blood to someone else to raise?”
“Why not,” Eilley pressed, leaning forward, “if it’s for the child’s own good?” Ignoring Ben’s wildly shaking head, she plunged ahead. “With our mine turning out silver faster than we can spend it, we can offer him so much, Ben: food, clothing, playthings, the best education, everything money can buy, and, of course, a loving home with two doting parents.” Tears misted her eyes as she continued, “It would be like having my own sweet son back again, and while your boy is a little older than Johnny would have been, he’ll still make a wonderful older brother for Teresa, and it would be so much easier on you, too, if—”
“Please stop,” Ben interrupted, his face anguished. “I appreciate your kindly intended suggestion, but I cannot consider it. I am not a rich man; no doubt I will never be able to give Joseph all the advantages a silver baron can afford, but I am convinced that no one can offer him greater love. I’ve made many mistakes as a father, but this is one I refuse to make: I will not give my child away, not for what others may see as his benefit and certainly not to make my life easier.” Seeing Eilley’s crestfallen face, he softened his voice. “Surely, you, who have lost a son yourself, can understand how I would feel if I were to lose mine.”
“Well, yes,” Eilley murmured, wringing her hands, “but—”
“Yah, sure we can,” Sandy said, rising abruptly. “I told you this was foolishness, Eilley.” He moved toward the credenza and picked up his hat. Fumbling it in his hands, he looked sheepishly at his host. “Forgive her, Ben. She meant well, but this was poorly done.”
“Of course,” Ben said perfunctorily. Normally, he would, at least, have said that there was no need to rush off, but today he couldn’t wait to see the back of these visitors.
Eilley rose slowly. “I’m afraid we’ve offended you, Ben.”
“No, not at all,” Ben assured her, hoping that he wasn’t stretching the truth too far. “As I said, I know it was kindly intended.” That much he was determined to believe; nonetheless, he was finding it enormously difficult to keep his emotions in check long enough for the Bowers to leave.
Once their buggy had disappeared, Billy Thomas skittered over with the two youngsters at his heels. “What’d she want?” he asked with eager curiosity.
Ben spun on his heels and threw the full brunt of his anger on the young man’s hapless red head. “What she’ll never get!” he shouted. “How could she . . . how could anyone?” he sputtered. “I may not be all I should be as a father, but—”
“Who says so?” Billy demanded. “Her? Is that what she wanted, to take you to task for a poor father?”
“That ain’t so!” Hoss hollered, his reddening cheeks puffing with outrage. “You’re the best, Pa!”
“The best!” Little Joe chimed in.
Ben caught the child up in his arms and hugged him close.
“Pa, you’s squeezin’ too tight,” the four-year-old protested.
With an effort Ben relaxed his arms. “I’m sorry, precious,” he whispered. “Pa doesn’t mean to squeeze too tight.”
“Okay,” Little Joe said, content now to rest his head on his father’s broad shoulder.
Billy caught sight of a tear trickling down Ben’s cheek, and putting that together with his tenacious grip on his little boy, intuitively knew what the Bowers woman had been after. “Oh, lands,” he gasped. Wait’ll Ma hears this! Then he placed a supportive hand against the older man’s back. “Don’t never let her sway you to that, Uncle Ben. You’re the best father I know, second only to my own—and sometimes I wonder about him.”
He said the final phrase with a wink and a wicked grin that made Ben smile despite the emotions gripping him so intensely. “I’ll do you a favor and not repeat that to your father, young man,” Ben chuckled.
“Obliged,” Billy said, grin widening. “Want me to romp with the boys some more?”
Ben shook his head. “No, I’m going to reserve that privilege for myself this afternoon.” He set Little Joe down and pointed to a tall pine across the yard. “Run to that tree, Little Joe, and you, too, Hoss. Let’s see if you can beat Pa in a race.”
“I can!” Little Joe declared and took off. Ben let both boys get a sizable lead and then slow-trotted after them, his eyes shining with renewed love and determination.
* * * * *
Late that night, however, the troubling questions that Ben had evaded all evening kept him restless in his solitary bed. Was he really doing right by his son—by either of them, for that matter—in letting him grow up without a mother’s love? His mind drifted back to the day a lonely Adam’s life had been transformed by gentle Inger’s loving touch and remembered as if it were yesterday how Hoss had soaked in Marie’s love like a thirsty sponge. Did his youngest not need and deserve a mother’s love as much as either of his brothers? How could he, rough man of the frontier that he was, hope to provide that sort of nurture for the boy?
He raked his fingers through his disheveled hair. He’d been incensed by Eilley’s suggestion, however well meant, but scarcely less odious had been Elvira Hunter’s hints at sharing his bed. His parenting called into question twice in one day! And on Sunday, to boot, when a man was most drawn to considering his ways. Was God trying to tell him something? Was he so unfit to be a single father that everyone but him saw it? Or were these women simply opportunists, eager to satisfy their own needs, without real regard for his or those of his sons? He chose to believe the latter, but agonized, hour upon sleepless hour, over the former.
Give Little Joe up? Separate the child not only from his only living parent, but from the brothers who adored him? Unthinkable! Ben smiled for a moment as he recalled Little Joe’s frequent assertion, “We needs us.” We do, indeed, he decided. No, separation would do them all irreparable harm, so adoption was clearly out of the question.
Remarriage, then? Not to the widow Hunter, of course. Oh, he’d heard of instances where marriages of convenience had blossomed into true love, but having known genuine passion and deep commitment with three wonderful women, he could not imagine a union in which those qualities were missing. Would he find another woman to compare with Elizabeth, Inger and Marie? Impossible! his heart cried, but he’d thought that before and been proven wrong twice.
Smiling sadly, he touched the vacant pillow beside him. Months now since golden-haired Marie had lain there with him, yet his heart still wrenched with every fleeting memory of what they had shared. Marry again? Maybe someday, he conceded without genuine belief, but not now—not while all I yearn for is to twine your silken tresses around my fingers and to taste the sweet honey of your lips. Burying his face in her pillow as he once had pressed it into her rose-scented bosom, he wept—for what had been and seemed likely never to be again.
* * * * *
Ben waited with growing expectation for the theater curtain to rise. After a long, hard week of haying, second only to bookwork on his list of hated chores, he felt he had earned this reward, and he had insisted that the Thomases be his guests for the Saturday matinee appearance of renowned Shakespearean actor James Stark. Originally, he had hoped to leave Little Joe with Sally Martin, but with Mark Wentworth’s regiment due to leave the territory any day, she had been reluctant to share a last chance to be with her betrothed. Then Billy had offered to look after both Little Joe and his sister Inger, saying, “Don’t worry, Uncle Ben. I’ll guard him with my life.”
“See that you do!” Nelly had snapped, and the significant glances exchanged between mother and son told Ben that the latest gossip had been transmitted and that Nelly was as furious as only an adopted aunt could be at the notion of Sandy and Eilley Bowers taking off with her little Sugarfoot.
In the darkness of the theater, Clyde leaned over to whisper in Ben’s ear, “Ain’t so sure me and this Shakespeare feller will get along too well. Kinda for educated folks, ain’t he?”
Ben shrugged. “He’ll use some words we’re not familiar with, because English has changed since his day, but I’ve always found that the action on the stage helps me make sense of the dialogue. Just concentrate on that, Clyde, and don’t worry about what you’re supposed to be getting out of it. Just enjoy yourself.” He smiled down at his young son. “Same advice for you, Hoss.” He’d been somewhat concerned about bringing the boy to this particular production. Hoss had always loved going to the theater, since seeing that first production of Pocahontas, but tonight’s offering was King Lear, deep waters indeed for an eleven-year-old. Still, Hoss had worked as hard as anyone at the hated haying, and he couldn’t deny the boy the same reward.
“Sure, Pa,” Hoss said, eyes alight with anticipation. “I’ll just mind what they do and not what they say.”
Giving the boy’s light hair an affectionate rumple, Ben chuckled. “That’s not quite what I said. Let one help you with the other, son; that’s what I meant.” He had little hope that Hoss would do more than endure Shakespeare’s play, but since the scheduled afterpiece was a comedy, he should enjoy that, at least, and his enjoying dinner afterwards at the finest restaurant Virginia City could boast was a given.
A finely proportioned man in a frock coat and cravat stepped through the curtain and addressed the audience. “Good evening, gentlemen,” he said and as he spotted the few women scattered across the hall, added, “and especially you ladies who have graced us with your presence tonight.”
Nelly blushed as if the compliment had been addressed specifically to her. Given the small number of ladies in the audience, it wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion, Ben thought with a smile.
“I must apologize to you all for the quality of our production tonight,” the man continued after introducing himself as James Stark. “Snow in the mountains has prevented our costumes from arriving, but we have done our best to provide the actors with suitable apparel locally.” He smiled puckishly, inviting his hearers to share the humor with him as he added, “Surprisingly few of your shops carry robes designed for ancient British kings and maidens.” When the laughter died down, he concluded, “We will, however, do our best to provide you with an evening of entertainment that will meet your expectations in every other way. To that end, I now offer you an additional recitation before the drama begins.”
He raised his head and stood taller, emphasizing his imposing carriage, and began to recite “The Battle of Bunker Hill.” When he finished, no one applauded with greater enthusiasm than Hoss, for he’d been studying the American Revolution in school and Stark’s powerful delivery had brought the battle to life for him. No longer would Bunker Hill be only a list of names and dates to memorize. The people involved had become real, and he knew he’d remember them the same way he remembered anyone he met in the territory. For once, Hoss felt confident of doing well on his next history test.
After a brief intermission, the main production began. Ben had seen James Stark perform in California, so he couldn’t help contrasting the amateurish costumes on stage today with those he’d seen before. Once the actor began to speak, however, nothing mattered but his deep, resonant voice with its subtle interpretation of emotion.
Hoss didn’t even recognize the white-bearded King Lear as the same man who had earlier recited the poem. At first, he didn’t understand what the men on stage were talking about, but he leaned forward when the girls started to tell how much they loved their father. The first two could sling words together fancier than Adam, but Hoss’s sensitive spirit went out to the youngest when she said, “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.” He had the same problem! He wanted to tell Pa and Adam and Little Joe how much he loved them, but the right words just wouldn’t come. He thought back to what had happened Sunday, when that Bowers lady had made Pa feel like he wasn’t a good father. He’d wanted then and there to tell Pa everything that was in his heart, but all he’d been able to come up with was “You’re the best!” It was true, but it wasn’t enough. Maybe that wasn’t his fault, though. Maybe there just plain weren’t words enough in the whole blame dictionary to tell what a great father Pa was. Hoss sensed that that was what Cordelia felt, too, and his heart was won from that moment.
* * * * *
Hoss had been so groggy by the time they finally arrived in Carson City that night that Ben had found it necessary to help the youngster change into his nightshirt. Nelly had laid a thick pallet on the floor of the guest room for the Cartwright boys, but it remained unoccupied. Though he wasn’t sure what had possessed Billy Thomas to invite squirmy Little Joe into his bed, Ben guessed that his youngest had probably pitched a fit over going to sleep alone on that pallet. With Billy’s sterling example of hospitality set before him, Ben didn’t feel right about asking Hoss to sleep on the floor, so he’d told the boy they could sleep together “just this once.”
Hoss had accepted with delight and now lay beneath the covers, watching his father get ready for bed. “I want to tell ya somethin’, Pa,” he said slowly, rising up to lean back on his elbows.
Ben draped his ruffled shirt over the back of a chair and started to unbuckle his belt. “What’s that, son?”
“I just want you to know that you got nothin’ to worry about,” Hoss declared earnestly, “when you get real old and white-headed, I mean, ‘cause me nor Adam, neither one, wouldn’t act like them gals in that play done, and turn you out and take the Ponderosa away from you. We know how lucky we are to have a pa like you, and—and I’m gonna see to it that Little Joe understands and does right by you, too.” He emphasized his purpose with a vigorous nod of his head.
“You’re going to explain King Lear to your little brother?” Ben choked out with as serious a mask as he could don. Wouldn’t he just love to be a fly on the wall when that discussion took place!
“Yes, sir,” Hoss replied, his solemn intent completely artless and genuine. He blushed slightly. “The best I can, anyway. I didn’t understand ever’thing that went on in that play, Pa.”
Ben sat on the bed beside his son and tousled the boy’s corn tassel hair. “Hoss, don’t worry about that. I think you caught the main meaning just fine—probably better than most of the men in that theater.”
Hoss grinned, the expression ending in a prodigious yawn as he nuzzled into his pillow. Ben soon joined him in the bed, but he lay awake for a while, wondering if Hoss’s comments had been sparked more by what had happened the previous Sunday than by the drama on stage this afternoon. The boy was too young to be weighed down with such heavy matters, but when Ben had imprudently let his anger and frustration flare out in Hoss’s hearing, he’d felt obliged to explain everything, emphasizing that the Bowers had meant well, so his son would bear them no ill will. Hoss had been upset, but had accepted his father’s assurances that the family would stay together, no matter who thought they’d do better apart.
Little Joe, of course, remained in innocent ignorance of the whole affair, knowledge of which could do nothing but undermine his fragile sense of security in the wake of his mother’s death and his oldest brother’s departure. Ben had debated whether to keep it from Adam, too, not wanting to distract him from his studies, but wondered whether he had the right to withhold news of such importance. He’d finally decided that no one had a greater right to know what concerned Joseph than the young man who had born the burden of his father’s failures during those grief-fogged days of collapse, so he’d written a full account and posted the letter upon arriving in town today.
Now, as he listened to his middle son’s soft snores, he smiled with pure pride and joy. If this good-hearted boy, like Adam before him, was the product of his parenting, maybe he didn’t need to entertain those haunting self-doubts one minute longer. He’d done all right by them, even if it had been largely without a mother’s aid, and with their help he’d raise Little Joe to be just as fine a man as his older brothers were turning out to be.
~ ~ Notes ~ ~
The ends of the transcontinental telegraph met on October 26, 1861, and the new territory of Nevada was granted the privilege of inaugurating it by sending the first telegram east.
Having lost her first child, John Jasper at just short of two months of age, Eilley Orrum Bowers must have been thrilled by the birth of a daughter, Theresa Fortunatus, in June, 1861, although that child, too, was not destined to survive.
Near the end of October, Shakespearean actor James Stark arrived by stage in Virginia City, although his costumes, shipped separately, were delayed for weeks by the swirling snow.
Chasing a Kitty and a Kid
Ben pulled the buckboard to the edge of C Street in Virginia City and peered at the stock board outside his broker’s office. He shook his head in disbelief. Stock prices had been rising sharply of late, higher every time he came to town, and the soaring numbers had led to a frenzy of stock manipulation. “Stay right here, Little Joe,” he said as he climbed down from the wagon.
“This ain’t the store, Pa,” Little Joe argued. “You said we was goin’ to the store.”
“Yes, yes, we are,” Ben said, patting the boy’s head, “but Pa has a couple of errands to run first, son. Now, be a good boy and wait here. I won’t be long.”
He went inside the office and made a few prudent sales of stocks he considered risky, investing some of his profit in shares of more solid mines. The rest he’d bank with Wells, Fargo, for he felt certain that the stock prices were being artificially elevated and was unwilling to gamble that they’d stay high, especially when he could put the money to better use. Just yesterday he’d received a letter from Adam, informing him, to his relief, that Josiah Edwards had reached New Haven safely, but, to his distress, that his old friend was virtually penniless, the war having disrupted the school system in St. Joseph and left him without an income. Josiah would find a new position eventually, Ben was certain, but until he did, he’d likely be doing without himself to insure that his son had sufficient funds for college. Ben well knew how expensive that was and was only grateful that his profits made it possible for him to help the man whose friendship had meant the world to him back in St. Joe.
Occupied with folding his papers and tucking them into his vest pocket, Ben didn’t look at his wagon until he was standing next to it. When he saw the empty seat, he exhaled with exasperation. That boy! Was he incapable of following one simple instruction? Wisdom usually dictated having Hoss along to help corral his youngest, but Hoss was in school today. Ben had been so concerned about getting much needed funds to Josiah that he hadn’t wanted to wait for the weekend. He hadn’t been able to resist Little Joe’s pleas to come along, especially since he saw the boy so rarely during the day, but he was definitely reconsidering that decision now. Where was that boy? Ben looked down the rough-planked walkway, but heard a chuckling voice call from the opposite direction. “Lose something?”
He spun around and smiled in relief, for there was his youngest son, standing next to a man who looked familiar, although Ben couldn’t put a name to the face at first. Then with a shudder he remembered that cold rainy night when the whole countryside, including this man, Roy Coffee, had turned out to search for his runaway child. “It appears I did,” he said, striding over to the lawman. “Joseph,” he rebuked sternly, “I told you to stay with the wagon.”
“It’s right over there,” Little Joe insisted. “I was just talkin’ to the sheriff.” He looked offended that his father would scold him when he hadn’t done anything wrong at all. Nothing ever dampened the child’s spirits for long, though. “See that, Pa?” he asked, pointing to the shiny silver star pinned to Coffee’s shirt. “That means he’s a sheriff.” Just in case his father didn’t know, he added, “Sheriffs keep bad men from making trouble in town.”
“They do a fair job of tracking down naughty little boys, too,” Ben chuckled, reaching out to clasp Coffee’s hand. “I can never thank you enough for your help that night.”
“Didn’t do anything,” Coffee said, returning the handshake warmly. “Was you that found the boy.”
“By the grace of God,” Ben murmured. He could never think of that night without large doses of both guilt and gratitude. He cocked his head to look closer at the badge on Coffee’s chest. “Say, the boy’s right: that is a sheriff’s badge. You were a deputy last time I saw you.” His eyebrows knitted in thought. “And you worked out of Carson City then, didn’t you?”
Coffee almost beamed with pride. “Right on both counts. Been a couple of changes in my life. I’m sheriff over this area now, office right down the street in the new jail.”
“I’m glad to hear that’s been built,” Ben observed. “I’m afraid there’s been a growing need for that sort of accommodation.”
Coffee nodded gravely. “That’s why I was hired. And I insisted on a decent jail before I’d take the job. You seen that disgraceful excuse for one they had down in Carson?”
Ben flashed a mischievous grin. “Not from the inside, thankfully, but I know what you mean.” The log shanty that had housed lawbreakers in Carson City had been a farce: prisoners found escape easy and recapture rarely attempted. “Losing a qualified lawman such as yourself must have inspired them to rectify that.”
Coffee laughed. “Yeah, I no sooner left than they started building a better jailhouse.” He touched the brim of his hat in a farewell tip as he prepared to return to his rounds. “Good seein’ you, Mr. Cartwright,” he said. “Hope you’ll come by and share a cup of coffee sometime when you’re in town. Promise not to make it from roasted barley, neither.”
Ben joined the lawman in laughing at the jest, for he, too, had read that suggested substitute in Placerville’s Mountain Democrat in the wake of the heavy duties recently imposed by Congress on the genuine article. “I’ll do it,” he said, “and I want you to come out to the Ponderosa for dinner, where I also vow to serve nothing but real coffee. Least I can do to say thanks for your help with this one.” He affectionately tousled Little Joe’s rampant curls.
“I’ll do it,” Roy responded. “Widower like me don’t get many chances for a home-cooked meal.”
For a moment pain clouded Ben’s eyes, but when he realized that here, too, was a man who had known the loss of a wife, he felt a kinship with Roy Coffee and with it a desire to strengthen that bond. “Come on Sunday,” he suggested. Then his brow wrinkled in thought. “Sunday week, that is. I’ll be in Carson this Sunday, so make it the next, and come hungry. Hop Sing, our cook, sets a fine table, especially on Sunday.”
Coffee nodded enthusiastically. “I’ll be there. You keep track of that youngun, now.” He gave Ben a sassy wink.
Ben rolled his eyes. “I’m trying. It’s a chore, I can tell you.”
Coffee laughed and chucked Little Joe under the chin before continuing down the street.
Ben plunked his son onto the wagon seat and climbed up after him. Taking the reins, he guided the horses back into the busy street.
Little Joe tapped his father’s arm. “Store now, Pa?”
“No, not yet, Little Joe. Pa has a couple more errands first.”
Little Joe frowned. This trip to town wasn’t turning into quite the adventure he’d hoped. “Where we goin’ now?” he asked, lips forming a pout.
“Wells, Fargo,” his father replied. “I need to bank some money and get a draft to send to an old friend.”
“What’s a draft?” the boy asked.
Ben did his best to explain how a simple slip of paper could be transformed into money at a distant destination, but as he pulled up to the bank on the corner of A Street and Sutton Avenue, he felt pretty certain that he’d failed to get the concept across. Not trusting his son to stay with the wagon, he lifted the boy down and took tight hold of his hand as he led him into the Wells, Fargo office.
Ben’s banking business was quickly transacted, and the next stop was the post office, where a letter containing the draft was dispatched to Adam, for transmission to Josiah Edwards. Then, at last, it was time for the promised visit to the general store.
Little Joe ran in ahead of his father and made a beeline for the row of glass jars filled with colorful confections. Certain that contemplation would keep his young son occupied throughout the visit, Ben handed his list of supplies to Will Cass and moved toward a display of detachable collars and cuffs. “New line of merchandise?” he asked lightly.
Cass chuckled. “Thought I’d give it a try, but they’re not selling too well. I reckon folks that want that kind of finery are more apt to look for it at a regular haberdashery. Do me a favor and take a set off my hands.”
“Make me a good price and I might,” Ben returned with a smile.
Cass bent down to Little Joe’s level. “And how about you, young fellow? What you plan to take off my hands?”
“Candy,” Little Joe said, “but I don’t know what kind.”
Cass straightened up and lifted the lid from a jar of peppermint sticks. Taking one out, he handed it to the child. “Well, give that a lick while you’re thinkin’ on it.”
Little Joe grinned and took the candy.
“Say ‘thank you,’ Little Joe,” his father directed.
“Thank you, Mr. Cass,” the boy said.
“You’ll spoil that child’s dinner,” declared a woman looking down her narrow nose at Ben.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Ben said.
“Well, I do,” the woman insisted. “If you’d raised six children the way I have, you’d have more sense. Just look how scrawny that child is!”
As directed, Ben looked at Little Joe, but saw nothing to raise his concern. Certainly, the boy was slim, but Dr. Martin had long ago assured him that his youngest was perfectly healthy and that his size was as natural for him as Hoss’s larger frame was for the older boy. He turned back to the woman. “Ma’am, I appreciate your concern, but I doubt one stick of candy will irreparably damage his health.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” The woman launched into a lecture on the upbringing of children, emphasizing the importance of proper diet on everything from bone strength to moral rectitude.
Ears wincing at the woman’s strident voice, Little Joe backed toward the door and slipped through it. He didn’t want to be anywhere near that woman who wanted to take away his candy, so he decided he’d just wait for Pa out by the wagon. He was moving toward the buckboard when a ginger-coated cat came streaking out the door of the shop next to Cass’s mercantile. With a grin of delight, Joe tucked his peppermint stick into his pocket and gave chase.
Ben was doing his best to extract himself from the clutches of the self-proclaimed expert on child-rearing when he suddenly realized that Little Joe wasn’t any longer standing next to the candy jars. Frantically, he called the boy’s name, and when there was no answer, he asked Will Cass, “Did you see where he went?”
“Sorry, Ben,” Cass said. “Guess I was distracted.”
Ben well knew by what. He groaned and rushed out the door, with a piercing accusation following him: “See? This is just what I was warning you about. Sweets before dinner naturally leads to a child thinkin’ he can have every little thing his own way.”
Ben scarcely heard her. He was too busy frenetically looking up and down the street. Little Joe was nowhere in sight. Ben hurried back inside, hoping the child was simply playing a game of hide-and-seek, but he soon exhausted all possible hiding places and was forced to admit that his four-year-old son was somewhere in Virginia City, all on his own. Having no idea which way the child had gone, Ben turned south and began walking down C Street, gazing into each store or saloon along the way, asking every man or woman he passed if they’d seen a curly-headed tyke of four.
No one had. The longer Ben looked, the more apprehensive he became. Virginia City wasn’t a spot on the hillside anymore, no longer the tent camp of a few miners. Now it was a town of over four thousand, well on its way to earning its moniker of city. Businesses lined both sides of C Street, and the town didn’t stop there. A and B streets ranged up the mountain from the main business area, while D Street ran below and down beyond it were the mines and their hoisting works. A thousand places for a little boy to hide.
Why on earth had the child taken off like this? He’d been perfectly content, picking out the candy promised to him. Then that interfering busybody had stuck her oar in, Ben had gotten occupied with defending himself, and the next thing he knew, his son was gone. Had that shrill biddy frightened him? Perhaps . . . perhaps enough to make him run outside, and once there, it wouldn’t take much to lead inquisitive Little Joe astray. Even at home the child was into everything, and the temptations here far exceeded any on the Ponderosa.
He reached the southern end of C Street and stood outside one of the seedier saloons, trying to decide which way to go next. Back up C Street? But what about the side streets and alleys? Weren’t they just as likely to entice a small boy’s capricious interest? Ben closed his eyes in anguish. Too many choices. Too many places for one man alone to search. He had to have help, just as he had that dreadful night when his son had run away from home, hoping to find his mother. Here, however, his resources for mounting a search were far fewer than they’d been on the Ponderosa. No older sons, no ranch hands, no neighbors. Ben had business acquaintances among the mine owners in Virginia City, but which among them could he really call upon for anything other than business? He was just about desperate enough to try them, though, when he suddenly remembered the one man here in town who had responded to a plea for help before. He turned and began to run up C Street.
* * * * *
Little Joe plopped down on the dusty stoop of a small shack framed haphazardly with pieces of scrap lumber. He’d chased the ginger cat up one street and down another until it dashed out of sight. Then he’d tried to retrace his steps back to the store, but since he hadn’t been paying attention to anything but the cat, he never even made it back to C Street. He’d heard some interesting banging down below him and hurried that way, where he stood, fascinated by the hoist mechanism lowering men into a mine, until a burly man roughly told him to be off. He’d started to make his way back up the hill when he’d realized that he didn’t know if that was the right direction, either.
Now he sat in a forlorn heap, wondering how he’d ever get back to Pa . . . and what Pa might do to him when he did. Pa’d been upset with him, just for going the teensiest bit away from the wagon to talk to the sheriff, and he was much more than a teensy away this time. He had a feeling a “very necessary little talk” would be waiting for him if he ever found his way back to Mr. Cass’s store, but while he dreaded that, even worse was the thought of losing Pa.
As he sat staring at the dirt between his boots, a swish of satin caught his eye just as a soft voice said, “Mon petit ami? Pourquoi êtes-vous ici ? ”
Little Joe’s head bounced up in anticipation. “Mama?” His face fell for a moment; then his eyes lighted again, for while the woman stooping down to him was not his mother, as the French phrases had made him hope, she was someone he recognized. “I couldn’t catch the kitty,” he told her mournfully, adding with a catch in his voice, “and now I can’t find Pa.”
She stood and reached her hand toward him. “Come, mon petit,” she said. “We will find your papá.”
* * * * *
Ben paused outside the door to the sheriff’s office to gather his frayed nerves. It went against a man’s pride to admit he couldn’t keep track of his own child, but pride was a commodity he couldn’t afford at present. He needed help, and the only way to get it was to admit he needed it. Taking a deep breath, Ben turned the knob and opened the door.
Roy Coffee looked up from his desk and smiled warmly. “Well! Did you decide to take me up on that cup of coffee?” He looked beyond Ben. “Say, where’s the young fellow? You didn’t leave him out by the wagon again, did you?”
Ben shook his head. “No. I—I lost him.”
One side of the sheriff’s mouth quirked up. “This is getting to be a habit, Cartwright.”
Ben closed his eyes and murmured painfully, “I know.” The sheriff’s rebuke was a mild one, compared to the castigations he’d already poured on his own soul, but it was an extra tablespoon of salt rubbed into his wounded heart. He felt a hand pressed to his shoulder and looked up to see warm compassion in the other man’s eyes.
“Sorry, Ben,” the sheriff apologized. “It’s no laughing matter, and I shouldn’t make light of it. When did you see the boy last?”
Ben spread his hands in self-disgust at his inability to answer the simplest of questions. “I—I didn’t check the time. He was right there and then—not.” He collected himself. “I searched from Will Cass’s store to the south end of C Street and then came directly here.”
Coffee scratched the back of his neck. “Long enough for him to be anywhere,” he muttered. “Well, we best get some help and find that boy before harm comes to him.”
“Harm?” Ben couldn’t keep the panic from his face. “But, surely, no one would harm a child.” On the Comstock, a child had always been considered a cherished rarity, although more of them were around, now that the town was growing.
“No, no, I’m sure no one would,” Coffee explained, “but this town’s littered with abandoned shafts and prospect holes from the old days, every one of ‘em big enough for a little boy to fall through. Why, just last week an eight-yoke team of oxen disappeared into one!”
“Dear God,” Ben whispered in stricken prayer. “We’ve got to find him!”
“And we will,” Coffee said firmly. “First, let’s get some help.” Taking the ring of keys from its peg on the wall, he moved toward the cell block. “Don’t worry,” he said in answer to Ben’s fretful frown. “I ain’t settin’ hardened criminals after your boy, just a couple of fellers locked up ‘til they settle down after gettin’ into a ruckus. Except for that, they’re a decent sort of gents.” He walked in and stood before the cells. “How about it?” he asked. “You two willing to help find a little lost boy and earn yourselves some time off for good behavior?”
Both men quickly assented, and Sheriff Coffee unlocked their cell doors. The four men moved out onto C Street and were in the midst of discussing who would search what part of town when they heard a happy cry of “Pa!” Little Joe broke away from the hand of the woman who had been leading him and raced into his father’s open arms.
Ben pressed his cheek against the boy’s windblown hair. “Oh, baby,” he murmured. Then he looked at the woman, who was dressed with surprising modesty, given her profession. “Miss Bulette,” he acknowledged her awkwardly and immediately felt ridiculous. Why try to deny familiarity with the woman, especially when she’d obviously done him such a great service? “Julia,” he said more warmly and extended one hand as the other continued to hold Little Joe close.
“Monsieur Cartwright . . . Ben,” she said. “I think I have found something you lost, oui?”
“Oui,” Ben replied, as he had so often to Marie. “I am eternally grateful.”
“He was on D Street, near my home,” she said, “and I must return there now.” She looked hesitantly at the other men, who were gawking at their interchange. “Ben,” she said softly, “I was much saddened to hear of the death of your wife. She was a true and faithful friend.”
“Thank you,” Ben said. “She . . . felt the same.”
Julia Bulette ran tender fingers through Little Joe’s curls. “Good-bye, mon ami,” she said. “You will not chase any more kitties, non?”
“No,” Little Joe promised. “They run too fast.”
Laughing, she kissed his cheek, nodded to the assembled men and turned away.
“Hey, sheriff,” one of the recent residents of his new jail snickered, “what’s our chances now of gettin’ any time off, huh?”
Coffee chuckled. “I reckon you still earned it, just by showin’ yourselves willin’ to be good citizens. Now, if you’ll shake hands and swear not to tear into each other once my back’s turned, you can go along home.” The two men, their quarrel forgotten as soon as the whiskey had worn off, shook hands willingly and departed, each heading a different direction. Looking at the little boy as Ben set him down, the sheriff shook his head. “D Street, huh? A mite young for that sort of thing, ain’t you, boy?” He winked at the boy’s father.
The reference to what generally went on in the small houses of the red-light district sailed meaninglessly over Little Joe’s head, of course. Ben favored the sheriff with a reproachful smile. “The two of them . . . with my wife and middle boy . . . were holed up together in a miserable excuse of a sanctuary during the Paiute War,” he explained. “I understand Miss Bulette was a major asset in keeping this one entertained.” He affectionately tousled Little Joe’s hair.
“Still a major asset in keeping men entertained, from what I hear,” Coffee said with a grin.
“Oh, will you stop?” Ben chided. He stooped down, eye-to-eye with his son. “Little Joe, that was very naughty of you to run off. I’m afraid you and I will need to have a very necessary little talk about that.”
“Got me a couple of empty cells now, if you decide the boy needs more than a talk,” the sheriff teased.
Ben gave the other man a significant look. “The sort of conversation I have in mind should do the trick.”
Comprehending, Roy Coffee laughed. “Good luck, young fellow,” he said to Little Joe as he headed back toward his office.
“Thank you again, sheriff . . . Roy,” Ben said.
Roy gave him a nonchalant wave. “Just part of the job,” he said.
Ben took tight grip on his son’s small hand, determined not to release it again until they reached the Ponderosa or, at least, the wagon headed there.
“I’m sorry, Pa,” Little Joe whimpered as he was dragged along.
“You will be,” Ben said sternly. He tried to ignore the child’s sniffling all the way back to Will Cass’s place, but like the dripping from the lip of a pump, it demanded attention. Be firm, he told himself.
“Well, well,” said the storekeeper, bending over with his hands on his knees to look at Little Joe. “I see the lost has been found.”
“Yes, thankfully,” Ben replied.
“Already loaded your wagon, from the list you left,” Cass said. “Didn’t you see it, comin’ in?”
Ben smiled ruefully. He hadn’t seen much but red on the way here. “Didn’t look . . . but thanks. Give me the tally, and I’ll settle up.”
Cass turned back to the counter and handed Ben the bill. “That’s what’s in the wagon. If you want anything different, either more or less, let me know.”
Ben scanned the list. “That’s everything—no more, no less,” he said and started to dig into his pocket.
Little Joe tugged at his father’s britches. “Pa?” he asked tentatively. “Candy, Pa?”
“Candy!” Ben Cartwright exploded. “You think you’ve got candy coming after today’s shenanigans!”
Little Joe shrank away, lips tight, head waving sadly from side to side.
Ben’s resolve melted. The boy wasn’t the real culprit here; the blame rightfully belonged to that interfering woman. In the name of good health, she’d tried to deprive his child of a simple, and rarely indulged in, treat. To punish him now was not only unjust, but it would reward the very one who most deserved censure for this misspent afternoon. “Well, I did promise, didn’t I?” he said and then, lest he lose all credibility as a man to be obeyed, added, “But only two pennies’ worth. It would have been more, if you’d done as you were told.”
Little Joe’s mouth flew open in delight. To him, two pennies’ worth of candy was a fortune. Running back to the row of glass jars, his eyes sparkled as they moved from one to the next. Ben groaned, feeling that his trip back to the Ponderosa would probably be delayed another hour, while the boy decided. He was wrong, though. Not wanting that mean lady or another like her to come back and rob him, Little Joe made his choices quickly.
“Thanks, Pa,” the boy said, as he sat on the wagon seat, holding a paper bag surprisingly full for two pennies’ worth, in his father’s opinion.
“You’re welcome, son,” Ben said, his sanity and good humor restored, now that they were safely headed home. “Now, tell me, what was it Miss Julia was saying about chasing kitties?”
~ ~ Notes ~ ~
The high stock prices mentioned at the beginning of this chapter were being artificially manipulated. Many sank every dollar into these wildcat claims, but the bottom fell out of the market by winter, when San Franciscans realized the fraud. The savings of Virginia City were wiped out, and even worthy stocks sold at cents on the dollar. Many of those bankrupted returned to California, and the area suffered a serious depopulation.
Shopkeeper Will Cass was a character in “Broken Ballad,” an episode of Bonanza written by John T. Kelly.
Roasted barley was suggested as a substitute for coffee in the October 5, 1861, issue of the Mountain Democrat, available online.
Virginia City’s first jail was constructed in November, 1861. The Carson City jail had been as big a farce as described here.
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