Mama Inger (by Sibylle)

Summary:  Five-year-old Hoss makes a dangerous decision, that affects his parents, and especially his older brother.  Adam isn’t adjusted to Marie yet, and the danger Hoss is in makes his problems worse.

Rated: K+  WC 10,000

A prequel set around 1842 (shortly before Joe’s birth)

Story Notes:

Thank you, Sklamb!

The story is following “A Long and Twisted Path”. Marie is Ben’s wife for around 15 months, and the family lives now in the new house.

Mama Inger

“Don’t worry, youngu’ns! You’re safe. I’ll take you far away. He will never ever find you!” the bare-footed, chubby five-year-old mumbled as he peeked under the lid into the basket on his lap. Normally Hoss Cartwright used it for collecting eggs, but it was a comfortable enough way to carry his three young rabbits. He’d paused at the fork in the path to decide which way he should take them – down towards the creek, or up into the denser forest. By the creek the grass was better, he thought; he could build them a real corral where they could graze on their own when he couldn’t come to feed them. Upset as he was, he couldn’t help giggling as he imagined trying to rope the baby rabbits with a lasso and put them in a corral like the hands did with new horses. “Don’t worry! I wouldn’t do that. I know it would hurt you!” Hoss reassured the animals, gently stroking their soft fur. Then he stood up and turned to his right – down to the creek.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

As the wagon approached the ranch house, Adam was already on his feet, his right hand braced on the back of the driver’s seat. He kept his balance easily as Ben Cartwright reined in the team and set the brake so the heavily laden wagon wouldn’t roll into the horses’ hind legs as they came to a stop between the barnand the big new house. It had been three months since they had moved into their new home, although it wasn’t really finished yet. Later on they planned to add a second story with enough bedrooms for everyone to have one. Even as it was, though, the new house was much more comfortable than their first small cabin had been. Adam particularly admired the big stone fireplace that would make the harshest winter days cozy and warm.

Today Adam only took a short glance at the house because he was eager to share his news as soon as possible with his younger brother. There was always news to learn at the trading post; the small settlement around it had grown quickly, -and now they planned to build a school there! Better still, Adam’s father had promised he and Hoss could attend the school when it started in the fall.

As he jumped to the ground the eleven-year-old held a small bag high in the air and called out, “We’re back, Hoss. I brought us candies…Hoss, where are you?”

Just then the ranch house door opened and Marie came out, one hand pressed against her stomach. “Ben, Hoss is missing. I can’t find him…it’s like the earth has swallowed him up.” Adam noticed how pale she looked. “I searched for him everywhere I could, but in my condition…I’m not so agile…”

“Where did you see him last, Marie?”

“In the kitchen with me preparing supper-but he ran out to take his rabbits a few carrot peelings. Then Charlie came by to tell me he and Hank were taking a cartload of posts up to the new pasture in the north, and said Hoss was still at the rabbit hutch talking to Hank. But that was two hours ago.”

“Could he have sneaked himself into the cart to go look at the new pasture?” Ben suggested.

His wife shook her head. “I doubt it, Hank would have seen him and said something. You know he doesn’t like having the boys hanging around.” Marie’s hand went again to her stomach and Adam saw his father reach out to her with concern.

“Come back inside; you need to sit down. Hoss must be around here somewhere. Adam and I will find him, you’ll see…”

Adam didn’t wait for his father to finish guiding his wife back inside; he was already on his way to the rabbit hutch. He examined it suspiciously, and wasn’t very surprised to find the three baby bunnies, Hoss’s great pride and joy, were missing. What could Hoss have done with them-or even Hank? It hadn’t taken Adam long to realize that the new short-term hire with the meaty red hands enjoyed teasing Hoss and calling him a “big baby” whenever Charley or his Pa weren’t around to hear him. Adam was certain Hank’s talking to his brother had something to do with the boy’s disappearance. The man liked to make Hoss cry.

At the sound of the second wagon returning to the yard Adam ran back around the barn to confront Hank at once. “What have you done with my brother and his rabbits?” he shouted as the wagon came to a stop. “Hoss was last seen with you!”

“Calm down, Adam, and tell us what happened,” Charley said, but Adam was in no mood to explain anything, and Hank responded just as angrily.

“Typical disrespect for your elders, throwing your weight around because you’re the boss’s son…I didn’t do anything to your big baby of a brother, you impudent brat. Just told him what a fine dinner those rabbits of his will be in the fall and what a tasty sandwich they’d make already.” Hank smacked his lips noisily and guffawed. “Nothing but a little joke, boy!”

“Scaring him on purpose like that wasn’t funny, you-you filthy brute!” Adam shouted back.

“What did you call me? When I get my hands on you…”

“Hank, let it go. He’s only a child,” Charley begged, trying to hold Hank back as the other man scrambled down from the wagon.

“I’ve had enough of his impudence!” Hank spat back, advancing on Adam with fists tightly clenched.

Adam stood his ground, too furious even to think of running.

“Don’t you touch my son!” a voice suddenly thundered across the yard.

Hank lowered his fists but shouted back, “Then you teach your boy better manners towards his elders!”

Ben Cartwright came up beside his son and looked from Hank to Adam. “Is he telling the truth? Were you rude to him?”

How could he answer that if he couldn’t tell the whole story? But Adam knew better than to avoid a direct question from his father. “Yes, sir, I suppose, but….” he stammered.

“What did you say to him?” Ben interrupted him sternly.

“F…filthy brute.” All the same, Adam didn’t drop his eyes or look away. If Pa would only let him explain…it was unfair for Pa to have interrupted him instead of listening to both sides first!

But instead Ben was already fixing the same angry glare upon Hank. “My boy knows better than to use language like that. What did you do to provoke him so much?”

“Me? Provoke him? He got upset that I joked with the little one about having roasted rabbit. How was I supposed to know how sensitive your baby boys are?” Hank’s voice rose in mocking derision. “I always liked helping slaughter the pigs as a boy. It’s the most normal thing in the world. Why the little sissy started crying and ran off when I talked about his stupid rabbits…”

“You did what?” Ben Cartwright’s voice grew louder with each word. “You scared a five-year-old boy into running off and then drove away without looking for him? Where is he? You…” Adam saw his father swallow hard.

“He ran off towards the chicken coop-not far at all. What’s the big idea?” Hank shrugged.

“I will tell you what the big idea is,” Ben hissed. “I warned you last week I didn’t like how rough you are with the horses. And now this-you will leave my land at once and don’t you dare come back again. You have ten minutes to collect your things. And if anything has happened to my son you’d better make sure I never find you again. Here are your remaining wages.” Ben held out three dollars in a hand that shook with his fury. Hank gaped at him in astonishment, then snatched the money and turned away without a word, heading towards the bunkhouse to gather up his gear.

Adam, watching the exchange, had relished how the hired man had shrunk under his father’s glare, and tried not to do the same when his father turned back to face him.

“Even when you’re angry, Adam-and you had a good reason to be, I admit!-it’s unacceptable for you to talk in such a way to an adult. Is that clear?”

“Yes, sir,” the boy nodded.

“And don’t provoke someone who’s so much bigger and stronger than you are!” Adam relaxed as his father reached out to ruffle his hair. “You must learn not to be so stubborn, son.” Ben had one eyebrow arched, but was smiling slightly. For a second Adam almost forgot about Hoss.

Just then Hank returned, leading his horse. As he swung into the saddle, he glanced down at Ben and sneered, “I guess you hope that third bun your old woman’s got in the oven ain’t gonna be as worthless as his brothers. But with a lousy father like you I sure can’t see why he won’t be.” With that he spat on the ground, put spurs to his horse, and galloped out of the yard.

OOOOOOOOOOOO

After an hour’s unsuccessful search they had to admit Hoss wasn’t somewhere in the yard. The grim look on his father’s face sent fear crawling up Adam’s spine, but he knew there was still another possibility. Hoss might have left the yard. He had done it once before, back when they still lived in the old cabin. Adam had never told his father how Hoss had run away after an argument and wandered far into the woods. He swallowed hard as he realized he had to do so now.

“You never mentioned this before,” his father grumbled.

“I’m sorry, Pa…but it was a long time ago-more than a year. And I did find him…” Adam’s voice trailed away. “Pa, please, we should look outside the yard.”

“But where? He didn’t even have shoes on…” His father looked earnestly at Adam. “It seems you know your brother better than I do. Where do you think he would go?”

“Not anywhere near the wagon-trails, because of Hank…I think he would go down the littler path and try to hide his bunnies somewhere near that.”

“Then let’s look there,” Ben nodded, and they followed the narrow footpath that started behind the new house.

At the fork in the footpath they first headed uphill, but Ben quickly decided no one had passed that way for a long time, and they turned back down towards the creek – though it was more like a small river in the rainy season, when it ran deep and strong. Its currents were always dangerous for an inexperienced swimmer, and Hoss was strictly forbidden to go there alone at any time of the year. Adam, anxious and eager, ran down well ahead of Ben.

“Look, Pa!” he called back to his father.

Finally, there were clear signs Hoss had been there: some straw, a few fresh sticks stuck into the ground in a circle, and several tiny pellets of fresh rabbit scat. But no little rabbits, and no little boy. Both the creek’s banks were densely overgrown with low thorny bushes; even Adam had to admit it was impossible for a barefoot child to walk along them. Adam turned back to his father and froze in mid-movement. Ben was kneeling by the edge of the creek, looking down at its muddy bottom. Just a few inches away in the shallow water was the clear imprint of a little bare foot.

On his father’s face was an expression as chilled as the river water. An expression Adam had seen only once before, when he himself had only been five years old:

On their way West they had joined a small wagon train of other settlers for a few weeks. The convoy paused for a day at a meadow beside a clear creek.

The adults allowed themselves a nap in the shade, the oxen ruminated, and the horses grazed. The children played.

Two small girls Adam’s age wanted to play “house” with him, but whenever Adam had tried that before they’d always complained he did everything wrong as a father, which he didn’t like.

So Adam went over to the creek instead, where Mike, a boy at least four years older than Adam, was making himself a bark canoe. “I’m going to put it in the creek. I wonder if it will float all the way to the big river. Maybe I should go with it in case it gets stuck.”

That sounded much more interesting than playing house. “Where is the big river?”

“Over there…my big brother and my father rode there yesterday. See the row of trees? That’s where it is.”

Adam stared into the distance. Were those trees maybe a little far away? He knew he was supposed to stay where he could hear his father call him. But his Pa had a real loud voice…one of Pa’s shouts could surely reach all the way to the trees. Adam decided to tag along behind Mike and watch the progress of the canoe.

Sometimes Mike had to free the little boat from some snag by the shore but for the most part it floated quickly. Without noticing, the boys followed it at least two miles downstream until they came to the river junction. The broad surface of the bigger river, with its sandy shores, was very inviting in the heat of the summer day.

“Do you know how to swim?” Mike asked the five-year-old.

“Not so well,” Adam admitted. “I can dog-paddle, and I like being in the water,” he added more confidently.

“Come on then! I can teach you to swim like a frog.”

Adam knew he wasn’t allowed to go into the water alone, but after all, he was with Mike, and Mike was nine years old. Besides, the sun was very hot…

The two boys played happily in the water without paying any attention to how the time was passing. They were practicing floating on their backs perfectly still in the water when Adam, despite having his ears underwater, heard his name being called in a tone he’d never heard before. And when he lifted his head out of the water he saw for a moment his father’s face, twisted in horror and fear.

The same expression he was seeing now.

Pa’s look had changed very quickly then, Adam remembered, and for a short moment Adam wasn’t sure if he should wish for Hoss that Pa would be the one to find him. Cautiously he put a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Maybe Hoss only waded a little here. It’s not deep. Maybe he went on down the creek…the bunnies aren’t here. If there was an accident ….” Desperately he hoped for his father to agree.

Ben reached up to his shoulder to pat the hand of his son. Then he stood up slowly and turned away from the creek. “Adam, please, do me a favor. You’re right; he could only have gone down the creek from here. But it may take me a while longer looking, so please go back to Marie and let her know what I’m doing. She’ll be worried if nobody comes back.”

“But, Pa, I want to go with you and help you,” Adam tried to protest.

“I know, son. But you will help me the most by going back. You know how, in her condition, she may need to have somebody with her.”

Adam nodded slowly. He could tell that below a concern for Marie lay another reason why his father didn’t want Adam to come with him, and that reason filled him with fear.

“Don’t worry, Adam. Please, go home.” Ben squeezed Adam’s shoulder quickly and turned him around to face the way back to the house. “I may be late. You two go ahead and have supper without me; I’ll eat when I get in.”

Adam managed to leave without looking back.

OOOOOOOOOOO

“Adam, stay inside now. I don’t want you to wander in the dark.”

“But maybe…”

“No, Adam. Your Pa will come when he comes and I don’t want to worry about you as well. Dinner is on the table; come and eat.”

Adam closed the door and came to the table his stepmother had set. “I’m not hungry,” he muttered.

“Neither am I. But we both will eat now all the same. Maybe we will need the strength,” Marie said firmly. More gently, she added, “At least eat a little.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Adam squared his shoulders. His father expected him to be a support for Marie, after all. He started to eat, trying not to think about Pa and Hoss outside in the dark. Even so, his throat felt constricted somehow. He stared down at his plate, willing himself to eat another forkful.

Then he heard a sob, and Adam’s whole body went rigid. He didn’t know what he should do if she started to cry. “Pa will be back soon, Marie,” he mumbled, head bent down. Would his father expect him to hold her hand? He had almost never touched her before. Adam waited for another sob, keeping his eyes on his plate.

“I know,” Marie murmured-but her voice wasn’t shaking, and when Adam looked up she smiled reassuringly at him. “Women in my condition are too emotional sometimes. Perhaps we should both go to bed. Then we wouldn’t worry so much.”

“Yes, ma’am. Good night, ma’am!” Adam rose quickly, glad to escape into the little walled-off space, separate from the main room, where he and Hoss slept.

Even though it was more than an hour before his usual bedtime he only wished to be in his bed and under his blankets, blocking out the world. He undressed quickly, not bothering to light a lamp, then sat down on the bed and reached under the pillow for his nightshirt. It was a struggle to try and put it on; when he realized that he’d pulled out his brother’s nightshirt by mistake, he couldn’t help but collapse backwards on the bed. Pressing the smooth fabric against his eyes he stammered, “Hoss, little brother…oh, where are you? Ma, I looked after him, always, really. I tried to protect him. I tried…I wasn’t here when he disappeared…dear Lord, please, help my little brother, please…rescue him!” Adam spent several minutes fervently praying for Hoss’s safety, until finally he could look for and put on his own nightshirt and crawl under the covers. He turned to the wall and pulled the blanket up to his neck so he wouldn’t feel the emptiness behind him.

OOOOOOOOOOO

After only a short doze he woke up to hear his Pa’s deep voice. Adam opened the door a crack and saw his father embracing Marie as she cried into his shoulder.

“Pa, what happened to Hoss?” He almost didn’t dare to ask.

“I didn’t find him, son,” Ben answered hoarsely. “But at least I’m sure he isn’t drowned. I would have found him otherwise…that’s the good news, but we still don’t know where he is. We’ll have a full posse out looking for him tomorrow. I went by some of the neighbors. They’ll all be here in the morning.”

“May I come with you?” Adam felt sure his father wouldn’t refuse. Pa knew why Adam had to find Hoss-or did he

Ben looked at his son, lost in earnest thought, for a long time before he slowly nodded. “I’ll wake you up. Try to get some sleep so you’ll be fresh in the morning. I’ll try too.”

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

When Adam woke again it was dawn. He dressed quickly but hesitated before opening the door, again listening to the sounds Marie and his father were making. “Good morning, Pa, ma’am,” he finally greeted them around the lump in his throat.

“Good morning, son. Let us go tend to the animals quickly; breakfast is ready and Marie is making sandwiches, so once the neighbors have arrived we can start.”

Adam nodded, hoping that his father wouldn’t see how weak he felt, and hurried towards the barn, fighting down the fear that made his stomach ache.

OOOOOOOOO

While he was tossing hay into the horses’ feedracks, Adam heard his father speaking with Charley outside the barn.

“Sure, boss, I’ll keep an eye on your wife. Don’t matter to me it’s Sunday. I’m sure you don’t need my help, you’ll find Hoss just fine.”

“I hope so!”

“Sure you will, boss. Good luck and God’s blessing with you!”

The ache in Adam’s stomach lessened as he heard the certainty in his experienced friend’s voice.

By the time he and his father had eaten their hasty breakfast three of the neighbors had arrived, and Marie carried mugs of coffee for them all out to the yard where they waited for the other two to arrive.

A few minutes later they heard approaching hoofbeats and swallowed their last gulps of coffee fast, but the arrival wasn’t one of the latecoming neighbors. Instead, a middle-aged stranger in fancy clothes came riding into the yard.

“Good morning, gentlemen, ma’am!” The man touched the brim of his hat courteously as he greeted them. “Please, excuse me for interrupting, but have you seen a canvas-covered wagon with a pinto horse pulling it? My wife…well, it’s been five days since I’ve seen her. Has she come this way?”

“I’m sorry,” his father answered. “My little son has been missing, too, since yesterday. We’re forming a posse to look for him–there are the last ones coming–and we have to leave now. But if we should meet with a wagon like that, well….”

Adam stopped listening to his father’s speech. He didn’t like how the stranger was watching him so intensely.

“Your missing son–does he look like this one?” the stranger asked, still staring hard at Adam.

“No, Eric is blond and has blue eyes. You’d never take them for brothers.”

“And this…Eric…how old is he?”

“Now, just why are you asking so many questions about my boy? And may I ask your name?”

To Adam’s relief, his father had come to stand beside him, laying a hand on his shoulder. The stranger, a big man with light gray hair, nodded and said in a calmer voice, “I’m sorry for being so abrupt. My name is Baker, John Baker, and I think I may be able to help you.”

Adam could feel his father’s impatience as he responded, “I’m Ben Cartwright. Help how?”

“Is your missing boy around seven or eight?”

“No, only five–but he’s big for his age. And what has that to do with anything?”

“It’s very possible that we have the same problem. I think your boy may be with my wife.”

Marie’s shrill voice broke into their conversation. “Mon dieu! Ben, this woman has kidnapped Hoss!”

“Ma’am, please don’t worry….”

“He says his wife kidnapped our son and I’m not to worry!” Even though Marie’s voice hurt Adam’s ears he found himself agreeing with her completely.

“Ma’am, I…please let me explain….”

Ben put an arm around Marie, who was trembling with fury, while Adam glared at the stammering interloper. What could this man know about Hoss?

“My wife is, let us say, a troubled woman.” John Baker licked his lips. “In the spring…well, the last few years it hasn’t happened, but when it does, it’s always in the spring…it was spring when we lost our little boy. Norman died of fever when we were crossing the prairie. He was only two years old…he’d be eight now.” The man had to clear his throat before continuing. “We have two daughters still. The oldest one is preparing for her wedding; she and her sister are staying with her fiance’s family. I was away on a business trip and my wife was at home alone. She must have had a new exacerbation.” Adam had never heard the word before but guessed its meaning, especially when Mr. Baker continued, “She took our old wagon and started to search for her boy again. Once a few years ago she had come across a little blond boy.” With a look at Marie he went on hastily, “She didn’t harm him at all. The boy was happy with her; I don’t think he ever realized she had kidnapped him. It’s just…Gloria has never gotten over Norman’s death.” The man’s voice grew even lower. “Her soul has been damaged somehow ever since.”

Watching his father and Marie, Adam was surprised to see Marie’s face soften. Could the story of a woman losing her son be somehow more important to her than her fears for Hoss?

But when she spoke, Adam decided she was still worried. “She wouldn’t hurt Hoss?”

“No, she wouldn’t. I promise you.”

“But where is she, then? Because we haven’t seen her!” Marie’s voice was getting shrill again.

“At least it’s easier to find a wagon than a little boy,” his father said. Adam knew Ben was trying to sound optimistic to calm his wife down–but was she really as upset as his father thought?

Without losing any more time, Ben divided the posse into groups and gave out his orders. “If anyone finds Hoss, fire three shots, and if the wagon is there too, fire another three times after that.”

“Please,” the stranger begged. “Give a signal if anyone finds my wife but not the boy.”

That made Adam feel uncomfortable again and his father also glared briefly at the man before saying, “Four shots in that case. We’ll meet here again at dusk if no one finds anything. Mr. Baker, Adam, we three will go back and search the creek again. If there was someone with Hoss, maybe carrying him, the thorny bushes wouldn’t be a problem for him.”

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Adam reached the riverside before the others and dismounted quickly to begin his search through the bushes. He was sure there had to be a trail to show where Hoss had gone, but even wearing sturdy boots it was difficult going, and soon his legs, bare under his baggy trousers, were badly scratched. He could hear his father and the stranger, both examining the far side of the creek, so Adam knew he had to be very thorough in searching this bank by himself. The closest he came to finding a sign of Hoss was some pellets of rabbit scat, though, and he had to admit it looked more like what an adult wild one would make. Adam tried to keep from being frustrated. There had to be some trace of his brother; he had to find it!

“Adam, come here! I need to show you something!”

The shout from the other side of the creek sent him leaping upright and splashing at top speed through the water towards the other bank. He reached his father wet to the waist and out of breath.

“Is this Hoss’s?” His father was holding out a blue-banded marble on the palm of his hand.

For a moment he could only nod and gasp for air, but he recognized it at once; he himself had given that marble to his brother the previous Christmas.

“It’s Hoss’s second best marble, Pa. He must have been here and lost it.”

Ben looked back at the rocky edge of the creek. “This would be a good place to get fresh water. Maybe a person…maybe that man’s wife was here after all. But on this stony ground, tracking’s so difficult….”

“Mr. Cartwright, look!” Mr. Baker yelled from a dozen yards away. He was holding something between his thumb and forefinger that glittered. Another marble! “Could your boy be marking a trail on purpose? It would be very clever for a five-year-old.”

“My brother’s very clever, Mr. Baker,” Adam shouted back. “Plenty clever enough for that!”

It didn’t take them long to find a third and a fourth marble, leading them through the thorny undergrowth into more open grassland. They remounted their horses and rode slowly along the faint indications of a trail, keeping their eyes on the ground. The grass was bent down in places and there were even a few adult-sized footprints, but the colorful balls of glass were the only sign that Hoss had come that way. Adam carefully gathered them all up. Except for his rabbits, his pocketful of marbles was what Hoss had always treasured most.

After riding for about half a mile, they found a large ruby marble. “His favorite!” Adam declared, rolling it between his fingers.

But however diligently they searched they couldn’t find any more. “He must have saved his favorite for last,” Adam’s father decided. “He’s run out of marbles.”

“What now, Pa?” Adam felt his hope ebb away.

His father looked uphill in the direction they’d been riding. “We haven’t seen any hoof prints or ruts from wagon wheels, so they–I’m guessing Hoss and that woman were together–they must have been walking. If they are still walking, we have horses and can catch up to them, and if they get back to her wagon there will be more of a trail to follow. We’ll have to split up so we can cover more ground.”

Adam could tell his father wasn’t just saying something to comfort him, and began to feel hopeful again.

Pa continued planning aloud. “I’ll turn off to the left here. Mr. Baker, would you take the right side?” Mr. Baker nodded agreement. “And you, Adam, continue straight ahead. Fanning out like that we’re sure to find something. After half an hour we’ll come back here and compare notes. Adam, can you hold the direction and know when you’ll have to turn back?”

Typically Pa, Adam thought to himself. “Sure, Pa. You taught me how to follow a straight bearing when I was a baby.”

“Adam!” came a snapped retort. Pa didn’t like that sort of remark, Adam knew, and he was bracing for a reprimand about his disrespect when his father surprised him by giving him a lopsided smile instead. “Sorry, son. Sometimes I forget you grew up in a wagon. I know you won’t have any problems, but be careful! Let’s go!”

Pa must be really worried about Hoss to let something like that pass, Adam thought. I should be more considerate and not anger him. Feeling a solemn responsibility for the task before him, he spurred his pony and rode on up the hill.

OOOOOOOOOOOOO

Adam had only ridden for a few minutes when he heard his father’s call, and he quickly turned to his left. He found his father standing by a few large boulders under a broad-branched tree. Mr. Baker joined them very soon, just as his father was saying, “They must have camped overnight here, I think. It’s a good place for a camp and the ashes in the fireplace are fresh. And look, here there are wagon tracks!”

Mr. Baker knelt down to look at the rutted ground. When he stood up again, his face looked somehow smoother and younger. “I think you’re right, Mr. Cartwright. They must have been here!”

His pa turned around to point back the way he had come. “Hoss must have seen the wagon from where he dropped his last marble.”

Once again Adam felt a surge of pride for his little brother, but at the same time fear tightened his throat. “Please, oh Lord, let him be all right!” he prayed silently.

“It’s an easy trail to follow now,” his father said, and Adam managed to swallow down the lump in his throat.

All three of them rode gently along the wagon’s tracks, which first circled the hill and then began to climb again, heading due east. Mr. Baker shook his head. “Always she wants to go back to the prairie,” he muttered.

When they reached the ridge, they could scan across a broad grassy valley strewn with boulders towards distant, wooded mountains. But it wasn’t the spectacular view that caused Adam’s heart to make an extra beat. “Pa, look!” The boy pointed to a canvas covered wagon just below them in the valley. Adam was kicking his pony into a gallop when his father yelled, “Stop that! You know better than to race downhill on stony ground, Adam!”

“But, Pa, maybe…” Adam pleaded, but reined his pony in.

“No, son. A few more minutes now doesn’t matter. Stay behind me!”

The boy tried not to show how disappointed he felt as he followed his father slowly downhill. He kept his eyes on the wagon and a smaller dot beside it that grew clearer as they approached it.

“Pa, it’s Hoss! Please, now we’re on level ground….” He couldn’t complete his sentence because his father spurred his own horse and rode at a dead gallop towards their goal.

OOOOOOOOOOOOO

 

By the time Adam reached the wagon Ben had brought his horse to a halt and was staring wide-eyed at the figure before him. It really was Hoss sitting there cheerfully playing with his bunnies, pushing sticks into the ground to make a circular pen.

 

“Hi, Pa, Adam! There you are.” Hoss glanced up from his work with a proud smile. “Look, I’m building….”

 

Adam didn’t need to hear his father’s noisy snort to know that an explosion was imminent. The boy jumped down from his pony and ran towards his little brother, wincing as his father’s bellow reached his ears. “How could you just wander off, Eric? How could you do such a thing? Wait until I get a hold of you!”

 

Adam dropped to one knee, spread wide his arms, and called, “Hoss, come here! I was so worried about you…I’m so glad we found you!” The little boy, looking suddenly upset, rushed into his big brother’s arms and hugged him tightly.

OOOOOOOO

 

Seeing his two sons hugging each other so closely, Ben’s rising anger evaporated like fog in the sun. He dismounted and went over to them on legs suddenly unsteady with relief, then swept both of his sons into a tight embrace. Adam let himself be hugged for a few moments before squirming free. As Ben lifted Hoss into his arms, he looked over at his older son, now sitting on a boulder, and wondered thoughtfully if Adam had done what he’d done on purpose. Certainly Hoss was fortunate to have such a loving big brother, and so also would be the unborn child….

 

“May I ask you a question, boy?” Mr. Baker interrupted Ben’s thoughts. He had gone all around the wagon and peered inside it as well. “Where is the lady who owns this wagon?”

 

“She went to the water so’s the horse can drink. Bunnies don’t need water  less’n it’s very hot,” the boy explained earnestly.

 

“Which way did she go, do you know?”

 

Hoss pointed vaguely behind him. “But she’ll be back soon, so you could wait here for her, Mister,” he added politely.

 

“Thank you! But I think I had better go look for her.”

 

Ben lowered Hoss back to the ground and looked down at the sweet and polite boy who had caused so much trouble and anxiety for them all. “How could you have gone off with someone you didn’t know, Hoss? Why would you follow a stranger?” he asked urgently once Mr. Baker had gone past the wagon.

 

Hoss stared down at his feet and also at his rabbits. Slowly he bent down to examine the ear of one of the little animals, not looking up at his father.

 

“Hoss, I asked you a question!” Ben felt his anger surging up again. “Don’t play with your rabbits when I’m speaking to you!”

 

“Maybe she made Hoss go with her by force,” Adam intervened.

 

“I’m talking to your brother, Adam. Don’t keep interfering! He’s old enough to speak for himself!” As soon as he saw the change in Adam’s expression Ben regretted his harsh tone, but he forced himself to concentrate on Hoss. “I’m waiting, Eric!”

 

The little boy whispered, more to his rabbit than to his father, “She said she was my…my mama!” Looking up again he went on, “Not Mama Marie. My real mama. Mama Inger. She said she’d lost me a long time ago, and she was living in a wagon. You and Adam, you always told me Mama Inger lived in a wagon, Pa.” The boy was watching his father now with wide blue eyes.

 

“Surely you didn’t really think she was your mama, Hoss?” Ben’s eyes suddenly were burning. “Your mama is in heaven; she can’t come back to us. I’m sorry, my son.” He patted his son’s head, fighting down his emotions.

 

“Pa, she called me Norman,” the little boy stated seriously. “She’s his mama, isn’t she, not mine?”

 

“Yes, she must have mistaken you for another boy,” Ben was surprised how hoarse his voice still sounded.

 

“How did you come up with the idea of dropping the marbles?” Adam inquired suddenly. “That was very clever!”

 

“You told me the fairy tale yourself–about the children whose parents tried to lose them in the woods! She said Pa would know where we were and would find us. But…just in case, I left the trail.” Hoss closed both his eyes in an attempt to wink at his brother.

 

“That was great, Hoss!” Adam winked boldly back.

 

The little boy grinned from ear to ear on getting such praise from his older brother.

 

Should he leave matters there? Ben wondered. After all, the crisis was over. No, it was too important that Hoss learned his lesson. Leaving the yard without asking and going down to the creek were things Hoss knew were not permitted. Following the woman was an error of judgment. But there were rules because children weren’t able to judge well for themselves, and the children had to obey those rules. That was a fact as old as the Bible. The memory of a riverbank somewhere back on the prairie flashed through his mind as he straightened his shoulders. Another time, things might not end so happily. Reluctantly, Ben cleared his throat. “Eric, it’s still necessary that we two have a talk about your behavior.”

 

When Ben saw panic appear in both his boys’ eyes he began to wonder if this was the only way to deal with the situation. Should he try a different approach? He had to fight against the pronouncements of his own father before he could speak to the son now before him.

 

“Eric, you know that you were supposed to stay in the yard?”

 

A very contrite little boy nodded.

 

“And what have you been told about the creek?”

 

“Not to go there alone,” the child whispered.

 

But you did both. And you went out without your shoes. You know what could have happened?”

 

The boy only stared at him.

 

“You could have hurt yourself by stepping on  a sharp stone, or thorns, or maybe even on a snake, so you couldn’t walk anymore. You might have been lying down helpless and we wouldn’t know where you were! Do you understand how dangerous it was?”

 

Hoss nodded again.

 

“And even if you weren’t hurt you might have gotten lost walking out here all alone. What would we do without you, Hoss? We love you so much!”

 

Ben could see in Hoss’ face how hard his mind was working.

 

“When you didn’t come back yesterday, we searched for you, Adam and I, the whole afternoon and evening. But we didn’t find you and then – we were so sad and worried. We couldn’t sleep at all.”

 

The boy’s whole face was now twisted in distress.

 

“And your Ma cried the whole night, she was so anxious about you. And this morning all our neighbors left their work to come looking for you … “

 

Tears began to run down the boy’s cheeks when he heard about his stepmother crying for him. “I sorry, Pa! I sorry!” the boy choked out, holding up his arms. “I didn’t want make Ma cry! Please, Pa, I sorry! I not want hurt her!”

 

Ben knew he had reached his soft hearted boy, “Hoss, promise me never to leave the yard again alone! Especially if someone’s frightening you. Tell us about it instead!”

 

“I promise, I promise, Pa!” the  boy sobbed.

 

Ben  knelt  down, and the child threw himself against his chest, crying into the fabric of his shirt. He carried the boy over to where they could sit on a stone and rubbed circles on the child’s back until the tears subsided. Ben was sure the boy had learned his lesson as well as any boy could learn from bad experiences. Children were children after all; they and their parents need guardian angels, Ben thought, holding Hoss close to him, grateful they’d been spared from a cruel fate.

 

“Pa,  the neighbors, the sign!” suddenly Adam called.

 

“All right, Adam, I think you can give the signal yourself. But not too close to us. I hope they will hear it from here but we can do it a few more times on our way back. Go ahead, son.” Ben gave Adam his gun.

 

Ben watched how carefully and seriously Adam dealt with the weapon. As he had finished Ben gave his son an approving smile that brightened his oldest’s face. They are so different, Ben thought, but both fine boys! And they were well educated whatever that crude horse-whipper thought!

 

“Reload, Adam, and secure the pistol again.”

 

“Aw, Pa! I know, I’m eleven, not five anymore,” Adam snorted.

 

“Don’t be insolent, Adam!”

 

“Sorry, Pa,” Adam mumbled and sat down in the grass a few yards distant.

 

Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched, Ben thought, but had finally to smile to himself. No, they were fine boys, even if Adam was sometimes cheeky.

 

“Pa, who’s Norman?” asked a little voice near his shoulder after a few minutes of silence. “I thinks she wants him.”

 

“Norman is her little boy. He is in heaven, and can’t come back,” Ben explained.

 

“Is he there with my Mama Inger?”

 

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he is. Taking care of a little lost boy would be just like her. Wouldn’t  it, Adam?” Ben wanted to show Adam he wasn’t angry with him.

 

Adam glanced at his father, then came slowly over and laid a hand on Hoss’s shoulder. When his brother turned, Adam knelt down and looked him straight in the eyes, “She cares about little motherless boys, Hoss. She cares … “

 

With that Adam turned away abruptly and sat down again at a distance, his back towards his father and brother, his right hand fiercely pulling up clumps of grass and throwing the blades back to the ground.

 

Hoss looked after his older brother and then quizzically up at his father. Ben only shrugged and pulled the child closer to him, kissing the top of his head gently. He wanted to ride home at once, but he couldn’t just abandon the Bakers. Politeness meant he’d have to resign himself to a wait. While stroking Hoss’s back he watched Adam, who now sat absolutely motionless. Sometimes Ben wondered why Adam was always so reluctant to expose his feelings. Well, the boy had gone through so many things in his life that must have left their marks on him. Ben wished his eldest would at least allow him to hold or embrace him sometimes.

 

“Mister Cartwright, may I introduce my wife? Gloria, this is Mr. Cartwright.” Ben looked up to see John Baker and his wife. If not for the old knitted shawl over her fashionable but rumpled dress the blonde woman would have cut a very attractive figure despite being around forty years old. Her erratic gaze darted around the camp, passing quickly over Ben’s face to settle at last on his younger son.

 

Ben set Hoss down and rose to shake hands with the woman. “I’m glad to meet you, ma’am.”

 

“The pleasure is mine,” she responded vaguely without taking her eyes off Hoss. “John, look. I found Norman, just as I told you!  He’s grown bigger, but after all, he’s almost eight years old now. Look what a strong boy he is!” she  exclaimed. “Norman, say ‘hello’ to your papa,” she added encouragingly to Hoss, pointing at her husband.

 

Hoss looked up at Ben questioningly, and then walked resolutely over to Mrs. Baker.

 

“Ma’am, my name ain’t Norman. My name is Ho – is Eric Cartwright. This is my Pa, and this is my brother Adam, like I told you. I need to go home with my pa to my ma. She cried because I’m away,” Hoss had to swallow hard when he spoke about Marie but he continued bravely. “But now I know where your Norman is. My big brother ‘splained it to me. He’s with my mama Inger in heaven. She takes good care of him like she took care of Adam when he was little.” Hoss took a deep breath and then gave Mrs. Baker a beaming smile before he turned, obviously satisfied with his long speech. Ben nodded approvingly at  his little son as he came back. Could a father be prouder than he was in that moment?

 

“Gloria, come on now.  Maybe the boy’s right. It’s a nice way to think about it all,” Mr. Baker said gently to his wife.

 

“No, John, no. He isn’t dead. Our boy’s alive! It’s not true! He’s alive!” the woman screamed.

 

“Gloria, you know he died back on the prairie. You both had the fever, and he died of it. Remember how we buried him by the trail? You yourself twined flowers around the cross I made…”

 

Gloria began to tremble. “Oh, John, I do remember. We lost our baby, we buried him in the prairie, “ she whispered desperately, clinging to her husbands arm.”But I would like to see his grave, I want to bring him flowers again.” Her voice shifted to the whine of a sullen child. When Mr. Baker tried to pull her closer to him, she began struggling and screamed again at the top of her lungs in fury, “Why can’t I visit his grave? Do you even know where it is? Our little boy is lying in the prairie all alone! And you…you do nothing!”

 

“Gloria, please, calm down, calm down, “ Mr. Baker hadn’t loosened his grip on her hand even when she pulled away. After a short trial of strength she gave up resisting and fell back into her husbands arms, sobbing,  “John, if I only could sit by his grave, if I only had a place where I could be near to him, where he could hear me.”

 

“Ma’am,” a small voice became heard in that moment, “my brother taught me how I could speak with my mama Inger. He does it himself because he’s very sad she’s in heaven and not with us. She can hear us in heaven. Maybe you could do it  the same way…”

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Adam still sat motionless. But his hands were clenched over his elbows, his arms tightly circled his shins; through his mind flashed pictures he desperately tried to chase away. Pictures of graves in the prairie, wooden crosses left behind, wagon tracks across the graves, and Pa crying. He laid his forehead on his knees. Curled almost into a ball now, he tried to shield himself from hearing the woman behind him and from the pictures her words called up for him. He rocked his body slightly but the noise behind him grew steadily louder. If only he wasn’t digging his fingernails into his arms so hard he would put his hands over his ears….

But then he heard his little brother’s voice. “ He does it himself…he’s very sad…” How could he be telling these secrets to a stranger?

“Hoss, don’t, you… you traitor!” Adam sprung to his feet, desperate to silence his brother.

“Maybe you could use the same way ….”

“Adam, don’t speak to your brother in that way!” His father’s reprimand was angry.

Adam suddenly felt helpless. He hadn’t the strength any longer to fight against everything that wanted to overwhelm him. He couldn’t, wouldn’t hear any more; he wanted only to flee, to be alone…. And he ran. He didn’t care where he was going, he only ran, ran without looking forward. There was no point in looking forward because his eyes were filling with water. He hated it when he cried. But he was crying now and couldn’t stop. As he ran he angrily wiped the tears away with the back of his hand.

“Adam, come back!”

His father’s voice had its effect on him. He slowed down but he didn’t stop. Not now, not when he felt so embarrassed. How could Hoss have said all that! In the night time, when the darkness made dreams and secrets easier to discuss, he had sometimes shared with Hoss his memories of Inger. It made Adam feel sad and happy at the same time to talk about Inger to Hoss. But even if he felt sad doing it she was Hoss’s mother and it was Adam’s responsibility that her memory would not be forgotten. He needed to explain to Hoss who his mama really was, how much she had loved her baby son, how much she had loved both of them. But except for his brother nobody must know how Adam missed her. Least of all Pa! Pa was sad when he thought about Inger or Adam’s own mother Elizabeth. And Adam didn’t want to make Pa sad. It was hard enough for Pa to be alone with two boys. No – nowadays he wasn’t alone anymore. Now he had Marie. She was pretty and delicate. She wasn’t like a real mother. But she was something for his father. A man needs a wife. He didn’t want to hurt Pa’s feelings, so he tried to be polite, but he didn’t need her. And neither did Hoss. Well, she cuddled Hoss a lot and told him fairy tales, and he liked it. That was probably normal for a kid of his age. Adam wasn’t sure if she really loved his brother. Well, everyone loved Hoss, of course, but Marie really cared most about Pa. Sometimes he felt so angry with Pa!  Had he completely forgotten Inger already? Adam sped up again in his anger.

Then he cried out with startled pain, as his thoughts and his running both came to a sudden halt. His right foot had slipped into a hole and even when he clutched his ankle with both hands the pain wouldn’t go away.

Within a few moments his pa was at his side. “What happened, son?”

“My foot hurts, Pa,” Adam pressed out through clenched teeth. He was grateful that there was a obvious reason for his tears at least.

Ben examined the foot. “You seem to have sprained your ankle, but at least I don’t think it’s broken. How foolish to run on that ground! Come on, wrap your arms around my neck, I will carry you back. We can put cold compresses around your ankle to make it hurt less. Be brave, my little big boy.”

Should he let his Pa carry him like a baby? Adam deliberated. But since he was hurt and couldn’t walk, it seemed all right.

“Easy, boy, you didn’t have to hold on so tightly. Relax, I can carry you without your helping me.”

Adam tried to relax and suddenly found himself enjoying being so close to his father.

“I’m happy, son, you found a way to speak with Inger, “ Ben whispered in his son’s ear after they were halfway back. “I have one, too.”

“Really, Pa? I thought … you didn’t think of her anymore.” The boy pitched his voice even lower than his father’s.

“I will always remember and love her, Adam, like I do your mother. Inger is a part of my life and will be forever.”

“But now you love Marie, “ Adam stated reproachfully.

“Yes, but just as I can love you and Hoss, and the new baby as well, I can love Marie without forgetting Inger or your mother. You can love more than one person. Love isn’t limited.”

Adam fell silent. Yes, that sounded reasonable, he thought, and snuggled his head against his father’s shoulder.

Just before they reached the others Adam whispered, “How do you speak with her, Pa?”

“Do you remember the bright starlit sky over the prairie?”

Adam nodded slightly.

“We sat often at night, Inger and I, and spoke about our dream, and about your and Hoss’s future, looking up to the stars, so happy together. And now, when the same stars shine bright over the Ponderosa I tell her how far our dreams have come and how well our sons are doing, and I’m sure she can hear me and smiles.” Adam felt something like an embrace-but maybe his father had only lifted him a bit to hold him better.

“Adam, would you maybe tell Mrs. Baker how you talk to your Mama Inger? She is so desperate  because she thinks she needs a place to reach her little boy. — Or maybe allow Hoss to do it?”

Adam nodded. If his father wasn’t ashamed he could also concede that he spoke with her and could feel her warmth.

After his Pa set him down in the grass next to Hoss, Adam immediately realized how badly he had upset his little brother. “I’m sorry I yelled at you.”

“It’s all right, Adam. But what’s wrong with your leg? Are you hurt?”

“It’s nothing!” Adam’s tone of voice was more annoyed than he had intended. “Sorry, Hoss,” he apologized again to his brother and then he swallowed before he plucked up the courage to ask Hoss to talk to Mrs. Baker. The brothers exchanged a long look and finally Hoss went over to the Bakers.

Mr. Baker was still holding his wife in his arms, and if they were puzzled by Adam’s behavior, they didn’t show it, Adam realized gratefully.

“Ma’am, do you want to know how me and Adam speak with my mama?”

“Sure, Eric, if you would like to tell me,” Mrs Baker bent down to the little boy.

“At night in bed we close our eyes, and then Adam hums her song, and then we can feel her and talk to her even if we speak very soft or just think things. Adam says he can smell her scent sometimes and hear her laughter. She loved to laugh. Do you have a song, too? A song helps.”

“Yes, Eric. I have a song. A song I used to sing him every evening,” Gloria Baker answered sadly. “I will try it!” And a smile appeared just for a moment on her lips.

“Let us hitch up the horse and drive home, Gloria,” Mr. Baker softly interposed. “Next week is Caroline’s wedding. You have a lot to prepare before our daughter’s wedding, don’t you, darling?”

“Yes, John. Certainly. I’m looking forward to that,” Gloria Baker answered, looking up to her husband and smiling even more broadly.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

“Mr. Cartwright, we would like for your boys to ride in our wagon. Adam could put his foot up, and it would be a pleasure for us if Hoss sat with us.”

“I’d be glad to, Mr. Baker.”

Adam was laid comfortably into the wagon, his ankle bandaged with wet handkerchiefs before his father lifted Hoss on the carter’s seat to place him between the Bakers. “Stop, Pa!” Hoss struggled vehemently. “My rabbits, please, give me the basket.” When he eventually sat, the boy mumbled into the basket, “I will build you that corral at home, my bunnies, don’t worry!”

“A rabbit corral, Hoss? Rabbits don’t need a corral. That’s nonsense, they need a hutch,“ their father said disapprovingly. “In a corral they would be caught by hawks!”

 

Lying in the wagon, Adam recognized how tired he was. “Thank you, Lord,” he muttered and then he fell asleep just as the wagon rumbled into motion. Not even the signal shots he heard couldn’t disturb him for longer than a moment.

When Adam came fully awake again they had already left the main road and turned up towards the Ponderosa.

Marie must have heard the approaching wagon and come out to wait in the yard, because Adam heard her asking a lot of questions as soon as his father rode around the corner of the barn. “Ben, did you find him? We heard the signal. The neighbors have left already but we owe them all an invitation to dinner at least. How is he? Where is he?”

Just then the wagon arrived in the yard. “He is fine, Marie”, his father laughed and lifted Hoss down.

“Eric, how could you leave the yard? How could you scare me so much? Je suis morte du peur!”

Hoss’s big smile changed to suspicion when Marie approached him in such a state. And he was right to worry. Marie grabbed Hoss by the back of his shirt and his suspenders and firmly swatted his behind a few times. Then she bent down and tearfully embraced the child as he hid his head in her skirt, telling him never to scare her like that again.

 

Adam was astonished. He held out the basket towards where his little brother had been standing, and stared open mouthed at his stepmother. Had he underestimated her? Was she maybe more a part of this family than just his father’s wife? What an irony, little brother; sorry, I didn’t realize that would happen. Shaking his head, Adam scrambled down from the wagon, carrying his brother’s precious basket with his rabbits – the reason for all the trouble.

 

“Mrs. Cartwright, Mr. Cartwright, I’m sorry we caused so much inconvenience,” Mr. Baker cleared his throat. “And thank you for your and your sons’ help. I hope this has been my wife’s last exacerbation. But…nobody knows. Good bye and thank you again.” Mr. Baker shook hands with Pa and greeted Marie with his hand touching his hat but she only looked up briefly, too involved in soothing Hoss. Then the Bakers left, still waving as they drove away.

 

Adam waved back, gritting his teeth while he tried to balance himself only on his good foot.

 

OOOOOOOOO

When Ben Cartwright lowered his hand he became aware that his oldest was standing beside him. “Adam, you shouldn’t put weight on your hurt ankle. Let me carry you inside.”

“Ah, Pa, I can walk alone just fine, don’t bother,” and Adam, proving himself wrong, limped slowly into the house.

While Ben hesitated, unsure if he should intervene and carry the boy with or without his approval, a small hand pulled on his vest. Hoss, lightly hiccupping, looked up at him. “Pa, where can I build the corral for my bunnies? I thought about it, we need a roof to keep the hawks away,” Hoss persisted.

Ben sighed, no matter how his sons were or what kind of trouble they caused or were in, one thing was sure, they were incredibly stubborn. The Cartwright stubbornness! Would the new baby inherit it too? Or maybe Marie’s quick temper? Deciding there was a good chance it would inherit both, Ben sighed again. But he would meet that challenge, he thought with a lopsided smile.

Maybe he wasn’t such a “lousy father” at all.

THE END

 

 

Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters and settings are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. No money is being made from this work. No copyright infringement is intended.

Other Stories by this Author

Bookmark(1)

No account yet? Register

Author: Sibylle

3 thoughts on “Mama Inger (by Sibylle)

  1. I’m glad to have found this story. Looking up at stars and talking to someone lost from this earth is something it never occurred to me that anyone did — apart from me.
    Thank you for your writing.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.