The Earth Will Hold Us (by Claire)

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Summary:  A story in five parts, exploring the ties of love and loyalty between the Cartwrights

Rated: T (48,580 words)

 

The Earth Will Hold Us

Chapter 1:

“Oh Ben! I’m so glad you’re home!”

 

 

 

As Marie flung herself into his arms, Ben felt absurdly gratified. How many men came to such a beautiful young wife who greeted them with such a rapturous welcome? Stealing a surreptitious glance at the clock, he realised there were at least two hours before his older sons arrived home from school and a smile of anticipation crept across his face. Ben’s eyes sparkled with a deep joy as he enveloped her within his arms and dipped his head down to bestow a tender kiss upon her delicately fragranced neck, glorying in the unexpected delight of being completely alone.

 

 

 

Marie sighed happily and curved her body in towards his. She stood on tiptoe and entwined her fingers around his neck, smiling beguiling upwards. At that precise moment, Ben reflected, she could ask for the sun, the moon and all the stars and he would rush outside to gather them and then weave them into a necklace to drape adoringly around her neck. Nothing, absolutely nothing in the entire world was too good for his darling Marie. He would move oceans, just to please her, just for the possibility of seeing a smile upon her lips.

 

 

 

“Ben?” The whisper of her breath sent shivers up and down his spine, as he began to plan various delightful pleasures, those seldom afforded to a young couple who rarely had the pleasures of an almost-empty house at their disposal in the middle of the afternoon. Ben tightened his grip around Marie’s waist and he angled his head slightly until his lips touched hers.

 

 

 

“Mmmm?” he murmured happily, savouring the scent of lily of the valley that floated tantalisingly from the curls clustering at the nape of her neck. The heady aroma made his senses swim with delight. Moving with a volition entirely of their own, Ben’s hands eased upwards to caress the curve of her breasts.

 

 

 

A sigh of delight greeted his touch. Frantically striving to keep her emotions under control, Marie forced her mind to concentrate and she struggled to enunciate the words that had to be spoken.

 

 

 

“I have to go away.”

 

 

 

Ben jumped backwards, an expression of shocked bemusement on his face. “WHAT?” he demanded indignantly.

 

 

 

Marie winced slightly at the volume.  “Only for a few days,” she offered in mitigation. Ben did not look noticeably appeased and she tried to mollify him, explaining that her beloved Tante Polette would be visiting San Francisco for a few days. “And it has been oh! so very long since we last met. It would mean so much to me.” She took hold of his hand and gazed upwards; secure in the knowledge that Ben would find this particular mixture of adoration and supplication hard to refuse.

 

 

 

Fighting a desperate rear-guard action, Ben struggled to find a reason to tell why Marie such a trip should not be undertaken, why it was both impracticable and impossible. The truth was, he hated the mere idea of climbing into an empty bed at night, of returning home and not receiving the bewitching smile and warm embrace that made the long hours and hard labour worthwhile. Marie so seldom asked for anything for herself, he thought, and Tante Polette was her favourite aunt, after all.

 

 

 

But how will I cope without her?

 

 

 

“What about the boys?” he asked.

 

 

 

Marie smiled brightly. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly take a tiny baby all that way for just a few days!” she said, in a tone of eminent reasonability. Her assurance did not greatly console Ben, who remembered all too well the amount of work involved in looking after a small child. “Besides,” Marie continued blithely, “Routine is so important to a baby. It will be much better for everyone concerned if Little Joe  stays safely at home with his father and brothers.”

 

 

 

It was not often that Ben Cartwright was rendered speechless, but he was still struggling for words when an unmistakable squall announced that the topic of conversation was awake and demanding urgent attention.  Disentangling herself from her husband’s slightly frenetic embrace, Marie hurried upstairs, leaving Ben to sink into his armchair and regard the floor with an increasing sense of disbelief. It was not that Marie was especially forceful or particularly stubborn – well, no more so than most women! It was just that she somehow managed to turn a situation to her own advantage. And the galling thing was that she did it with such charm…. Ben steeled his soul, determined to have one last attempt, while tacitly acknowledging the battle had been fought and won before he even put one foot inside the door.

 

 

 

He scarcely had time to marshall his rumpled thoughts before there was a familiar step on the staircase, answered by a slight creak of the steps and Marie appeared, cradling the youngest member of the family in her arms. Still half-asleep, Joe was making little, fussy noises, as when his mother sat down and began to soothe him.

 

 

 

Ben gave her a reproachful look. “How can you possibly go away, when Joseph still needs you?”

 

 

 

It was difficult to imagine that a look of such dark disdain could shoot forth from Marie’s green eyes. “As you know very well, Joseph has been taking a bottle for weeks now. Or had you forgotten?” Chagrined, Ben sat back in his chair. Was it his imagination, or was Little Joe glaring back at him with equal intensity, from eyes the colour of peridots?

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

At first, Marie had fed her baby, but it soon became apparent that she could not keep the child satisfied. Joe seemed to be constantly hungry and made his discomfort known to the whole household with considerable verve and vibrato for one so young. Despite Paul Martin’s assurances that this was a common problem among mothers and that supplementary feeds from a bottle would solve the problem immediately, Marie felt inadequate. The situation was not improved when Ben reminded her that Adam had been bottle-fed and thrived on it. As Adam’s mother had expired in childbirth, this was not the most tactful of remarks, nor did it greatly console his tearful wife, who regarded her screaming child with mournful resignation, before despatching Ben into town to purchase the necessary equipment. Given the increasing volume of his son’s screams, Ben was grateful to escape, and then felt a twinge of guilt as he thought of Marie pacing up and down the room, trying to pacify her fractious child.

 

 

 

The initial attempts at bottle-feeding were not an unqualified success. First, Joe resolutely spat out the teat of the bottle every time it was offered to him and then, when he finally deigned to accept it, he refused to suckle. Ben marvelled at the obstinacy of his son, even as he silently cursed his wilfulness, but eventually, hunger won out and Joe reluctantly drank the contents of the bottle. And then promptly regurgitated the contents, clear across the living room. It was an impressive, if unwelcome and disturbing spectacle.

 

 

 

“Wow!” Even worldly-wise Adam was impressed at both the trajectory and sheer distance his baby brother could achieve. “You wouldn’t think such a little drop of milk could go so far, would you?” He stared at the milk-spattered wall in evident awe.

 

 

 

Not quite sharing his son’s enthusiasm, Ben occupied himself in collecting a bucket of hot, soapy water and some cloths. While he endeavoured to scrub the wall clean, Marie paced up and down, rubbing Joe’s small, heaving back as he sobbed out his misery and hunger against her shoulder.

 

 

 

“Funny how something so small can make so much noise and mess, isn’t it?” Adam continued conversationally. Marie glared at him and reflected how fortunate it was that both her hands were fully occupied. She wondered how long it took for a baby to starve to death and then had to stifle her sobs. Her agitation conveyed itself to Joe, who began to howl with increased vigour.

 

 

 

“I don’t think Little Joe likes that milk,” Hoss said slowly.

 

 

 

“Really?” Ben replied gravely, swabbing down the wall. It would definitely require a fresh coat of whitewash to cover the stains, he thought. Marie clutched Joe tightly and he yelped in protest. Looking at his wife, Ben saw that she could no longer hold back the tears and beckoned her over to his side.

 

 

 

“Everything will be fine,” he reassured her.  “Joseph will be alright. Don’t worry about a thing.”  He stroked the baby’s downy golden curls in supplication, praying that he was right. “Adam, ride over to the Richard’s and ask if we can borrow their nanny-goat. Tell them your little brother has decided to be awkward and develop an aversion to cows milk, so we want to see if goat’s milk sits any easier on his tummy.” He eased the child into his arms and flashed Marie what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “I’ve heard people say it’s easier to digest, so we’ll see how he likes it, shall we?”

 

 

 

Anxious not to be left out of the discussion, Hoss tugged at his elbow. “He sure can puke though, can’t he, Pa?” he asked proudly

 

 

 

At last this new brother was able to do something useful and entertaining. Initially intrigued by the novelty of having a baby in the house, Hoss had rapidly discovered that tiny infants are extremely demanding, while simultaneously offering little in the way of entertainment for their energetic older brothers. When Joe’s eyes started to change inexorably from blue to green, Hoss could barely restrain his disappointment. Once again, he was the only person with blue eyes in the family: Mama and Little Joe had green eyes, while Pa and Adam had brown eyes. This did not strike Hoss as fair and it certainly did not endear him towards his baby brother. However, this new trick of regurgitating the contents of his bottle with force was certainly impressive and Hoss began to wonder if Joe might produce further novel forms of entertainment.

 

 

 

Ben pondered the situation. Perhaps it would be safer to feed Joe outside on the porch in future, where any future demonstrations would have less disastrous effects, should he just invest in a large supply of whitewash? Looking at the frantic expression on Marie’s face, he decided the latter option was the safer bet.

 

 

 

Oh well, he thought philosophically, a bit of light painting won’t do Adam any harm!

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

Ben handed Marie the feeding bottle and watched as Joe’s eyes lit up eagerly at the sight of it, his small hands reaching upwards to grab onto it. Silence, punctuated only by the sonorous ticking of the grandfather clock and the eager sucking noises coming from the baby, descended for a few blissful moments.

 

 

 

“Can I go then?” Her voice was low and pleading, with a certain husky undertone that thrilled Ben.  He could almost swear that the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. How could this woman possess so much power to unman him?

 

 

 

Because I gave you my heart and soul the moment I first saw her, he thought. And now I belong to you, forevermore.

 

 

 

Ben looked at Marie, intently gazing at her baby, absorbed in his needs and thought that the purity of her profile had no equal in the world.

 

 

 

Had I truly known love, before I met you? Ben wondered. He had been in love, of course he had, and both Adam and Hoss were the living embodiment of that, but both of these relationships had been fleeting and transitory, cruelly foreshortened, with no time to develop the deep bonds that had grown between him and Marie. Ben cherished the memories of both Elizabeth and Inger, but he knew that they paled into insignificance when compared to the passion and resonance of his love for Marie. He had not begun to comprehend what true love was before Marie came into his life. She was his entire reason for existing.

 

 

 

Her voice broke into his thoughts. Ben snapped his jaw shut suddenly aware he was gazing at his beautiful wife with open-mouthed admiration, a stance that was less than conducive to advancing his position.

 

 

 

Marie struggled to keep a sombre face, knowing she would be travelling to San Francisco very soon. “Surely you could look after Little Joe for a few days? After all, you’re always telling me how involved you were with Adam and Hoss when they were babies, but you hardly seem to spend any time at all with Little Joe. Don’t you want to be with him?”

 

 

 

And don’t you realise how much I could do with a break sometimes? Just a few moments to draw breath?

 

 

 

“Things have been very busy,” Ben protested weakly. She did have a point, he admitted. When Adam and Hoss were babies, he had spent nearly every waking hour with them, but this time around it had been different. The fact they were not living in a covered wagon, but in a comfortable house, plus the sheer amount and volume of work that had to be done on a ranch the size of the Ponderosa meant that he tended to only see this new son in the mornings and evenings. Still, Marie was right. He should spend more time getting to know Little Joe. The halcyon days of babyhood lasted for such a brief time and he realised that he did not want to miss out on this precious time.

 

 

 

“You go,” he announced. “You go and have a wonderful time. And I’ll look after the boys. We’ll all be perfectly fine. As you say, I’ve looked after babies before! There’s no need for you to worry about us at all.”

 

 

 

Marie said nothing more, but she suspected that the sight of a helpless (and handsome) young widower, with a young child had melted more than one heart on the trail and attracted many offers of help. Certainly, the first time Ben had attempted to change Joe’s diaper, it had been an unmitigated disaster, with both parties emerging red-faced, bad-tempered and definitely disgruntled. It would do father and son good to spend some time alone together, she thought. And it would certainly remind Ben of just how demanding a small baby could be. Marie began to look forward to her trip with renewed vigour.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

“You’re going to San Francisco?” Adam looked stunned at the announcement and Hoss choked back an anguished sob, giving his stepmother a heart-broken look of reproach.

 

 

 

“Just for a short visit,” Marie soothed, and patted Hoss gently on the hand. “I won’t be gone for more that ten days.”

 

 

 

This seemed like an eternity to Hoss, but he nodded bravely. He adored Marie and had done from the moment he met her, trotting in her wake like a faithful dog. And although he knew why she had to spend so much time with Little Joe, it did not make it any easier for Hoss to accept.

 

 

 

She can’t love him that much if she’ll leave him with Pa! Hoss reasoned. He knew his father was good at ranching, but tending to a demanding baby like Little Joe?

 

 

 

Adam was still mulling things over. “Who’s going to look after Little Joe?” he asked.

 

 

 

“I am!” Ben said, in a matter of fact voice and was disconcerted to see a look of horror flit across Adam’s face. “I think I’m capable of looking after my own son, don’t you?” he enquired, shaking his head in disbelief.

 

 

 

Sometimes I wonder how Adam thinks the world managed to exist before he was born, he thought grimly. I might have to remind him exactly who changed his dirty diapers! Or does he think that happened by magic?

 

 

 

Adam nodded. “Yes sir,” he replied meekly. He felt a stab of pity for his baby brother, who was only a few weeks old and looked rather vulnerable cradled in Pa’s big hands.

 

 

 

Ben continued eating his meal placidly, unaware of the thoughts racing round in his eldest son’s head.

 

 

 

 Marie gets up at least twice a night with Joe! How will Pa cope with that? Adam turned his head cautiously and studied his father unobtrusively. Pa isn’t exactly young, is he? His hair is turning quite grey. I just bet all those interrupted nights will mean he’s tired and bad-tempered all the time Marie is away. I really hope she’s not gone too long.

 

 

 

At the end of the meal, Adam walked round to Marie. “I hope you have a lovely trip,” he said politely. “But please come home as soon as possible. We’ll all miss you.” There was an earnestness and solemnity that left no doubt as to his sincerity. He leant forward and pecked her gravely on the cheek, then ran a consoling finger down Joe’s cheek.

 

 

 

With tears in her eyes, Marie assured him she would do just that. At last! her heart sang joyously. He’s accepting me at last!  This trip is proving to a blessing in disguise!

 

 

 

There are times when it is an undoubted best that families are not privy to the inner thoughts of their nearest and dearest. Such things are best left private and undisturbed, if only for reasons of continued harmony. Truth is not an absolute in family life, after all. It emerges unsullied and then is bent and twisted to practicality. The only person not to express his feelings on the matter was Joe. Unless the hearty belch he produced after his feed could be counted as an apt commentary on the entire scenario.

 

 

 

That evening, Marie instructed Ben on the intricacies of his youngest son’s extensive wardrobe. He sat open-mouthed as she showed him piles of small dresses, nightgowns, bootees, caps, jackets, undershirts and other assorted garments whose exact purpose escaped him.

 

 

 

“Does he really need all these things?” he asked weakly, looking at the tiny buttons and intricate pale-blue embroidery with which Marie had adorned the neck and hem of a something she referred to as a day-dress. “Adam and Hoss never had all these bits and pieces.”

 

 

 

One look from Marie was enough to convince Ben that Joseph not only needed every single item he already possessed, but was likely to receive several new outfits from San Francisco.

 

 

 

“I’ll get up if he needs anything tonight, shall I?” he offered. “That way you can get a good night’s sleep and I can get into the swing of things.”

 

 

 

Marie was only too delighted to agree. It seemed like years since she had slept for more than three hours at a stretch.  With any luck, Ben might even agree to take over the night-time feeds and changes entirely!

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning, a bleary-eyed Ben waved farewell to the departing stage. All three of his sons were behaving beautifully: Adam and Hoss had taken one look at the dark circles under their father’s eyes and had been as quiet and obedient as they knew how. Little Joe lay slumbering peacefully in his father’s arms, enjoying the sleep that had eluded both father and child the previous night.

 

 

 

Nothing Ben had tried seemed to placate his unhappy, crying child and he had honestly began to wonder just how long a baby could cry for, when Joe had given a sudden gulp, blinked twice and then fallen asleep. Looking at the clock, Ben calculated he would be very lucky to snatch two hours of sleep before it was time to get up again.

 

 

 

Looking down at the two boys walking obediently at his side, Ben smiled proudly. “How about we pop into the Mercantile before we go home? I reckon you both deserve some candy.”

 

 

 

Two rapt and joyous beams greeted this pronouncement and Adam and Hoss sped ahead, grateful to run off some steam. They looked like two puppies, gambolling in the sheer joy of being let off the leash. Ben walked carefully in their wake, having little inclination to treat the inhabitants of Virginia City to the sound of Little Joe’s excellent lungs. Besides which, he didn’t know if he could stand another ear-piercing barrage. He looked down at the sleeping child in his arms and smiled in contentment. A new life welcomed into the family – another child to love and protect and guide. He shifted his arm slightly and watched in amusement as the small face screwed up in momentary displeasure, then settled back down in repose.

 

 

 

In the Mercantile, Ben was immediately struck by the difference in his two elder sons. While Hoss hopped anxiously before the large jars of candy, desperate for his father to hand across a penny, Adam stood stock still before the small selection of books, carefully considering each title, head cocked to one side in rapt concentration. Ben carefully studied his sleeping baby and wondered how he would develop, what sort of a little boy he would become.

 

 

 

“You’re going to be good little boy, who listens to his Pa and doesn’t give him any trouble, aren’t you?” he whispered hopefully. Apart from a contented smile that flitted momentarily across the small mouth, the sleeping baby gave no sign that he had heard his father.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

“Ma gives Little Joe a bath every day,” Hoss informed his father.

 

 

 

“Every day?” Ben asked weakly. He seemed to remember popping Adam in the tub no more than once a week. How that boy had shrieked and yelled!  Ben had always been worried that passers-by would think he was beating his child, rather than merely trying to keep him relatively clean. Bath night had been torture for both father and son. Hoss, by nature a much more placid child, had not enjoyed baths either, but had submitted to them with a teary-eyed resignation.

 

 

 

Hoss nodded firmly. “She says he likes it.”

 

 

 

“And does he?” Ben felt he was grasping at straws now.

 

 

 

Hoss thought carefully for a moment. “Reckon so. He don’t scream none, anyway.”

 

 

 

Adam looked up from his reading. “I could give you a hand,” he offered. “He tends to squirm about.” Was it his imagination, or did a certain look of relief pass across his father’s face? He wandered across to the cradle lying at the side of the hearth and peered in. “Still sound asleep,” he announced.

 

 

 

Ben felt a rush of relief at this statement, which was swiftly replaced by a pang of guilt. It wasn’t Little Joe’s fault; he was just a baby, after all. Maybe it was him? Being a father didn’t seem so easy with this tiny child who only understood his own wants and needs. It seemed an eternity since he’d last bathed a baby, and he had forgotten just how small and fragile they were. Surely Adam and Hoss had never been that small? All of a sudden, Marie seemed very far away indeed and Ben felt bereft. He just hoped the baby would continue sleeping until his fathers and brothers had eaten their dinner.  And later, after the trials and tribulations of bath-time, once all three of his boys were safely in bed, Ben promised himself a large and restorative brandy. It was the least he deserved. Round-ups, brandings and harvest time seemed very relaxed in comparison with child care.

 

 

 

“He sure sleeps soundly, don’t he? Nothing seems to wake him.’” Hoss said happily. Within a few days of his birth, it had become apparent that Little Joe could happily sleep through all manner of rumpus and mayhem created by his brothers. Ben gave thanks for that small mercy.

 

 

 

There was no avoiding the ordeal of bath-time. Ben carefully tested the water and then tentatively began to undress his son. Little Joe gave a couple of unhappy cries as his clothes were removed, but soon quietened down once he was immersed in the warm water, lying contentedly, in the crook of his father’s arm and staring upwards with rapt attention. It seemed a very long time since a baby son had looked at him with that particular mixture of trust and adoration and Ben discovered he was beginning to enjoy this precious time alone, just the four Cartwright males.

 

 

 

He was considerably less sanguine at 3 o’clock in the morning. The whole house had an entirely different feeling at night, as if its character had altered subtly and mysteriously. Shadows appeared out of nowhere and lengthened angles out of their normal perspective, while every footstep seemed to sound twice as loud as normal. There was an uncanny emptiness, almost as if the house sensed Marie’s absence.

 

 

 

Oh Marie, my love! I never realised I could miss anyone quite so much, Ben thought, then resumed his steady pacing up and down the living room, gently patting his sobbing son’s back and trying every technique he had ever used with Adam and Hoss. Nothing seemed to work with Joe until, in desperation, he started singing a song, long tucked away from his seafaring days.

 

 

 

“Farewell and Adieu, To you fair Spanish Ladies,” he sang, his deep voice sounding even more sonorous in the still air of night. There was a momentary lull in the wailing. Encouraged, Ben continued singing, holding Joe across his chest and his hand rubbing rhythmically across his back. Gradually, the howls subsided. Looking longingly at the brandy decanter, Ben slowly climbed the stairs to bed. He had the feeling it was going to be a long day tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

*********

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning, Adam tiptoed into his father’s room, carefully carrying a cup of coffee, to discover Ben was still asleep, with Joe sprawled comfortably across his chest. At the familiar creak of floorboards, Ben opened one eye and broke into a smile when he saw the steaming coffee.

 

 

 

“You are a wonderful son!” he announced thankfully and watched as Adam, blushing deeply, placed the cup on the dresser and then carefully picked up his brother.  Ben took a long drink of coffee, savouring the taste and enjoying watching his eldest son cradling his baby brother so protectively.

 

 

 

“Can I take him downstairs and give him his bottle? I know how to do it. You needn’t worry. I’ll even change his diaper!” Adam patted Joe’s butt tentatively and was relieved to find that that particular chore did not demand urgent attention. He gave his father a look that was half pleading, half antagonistic, perfectly reflecting the boy who stood on the cusp of adulthood and wanted to prove he was both capable and responsible.  His father’s willing nod was all the encouragement Adam needed to take his brother downstairs.

 

 

 

“For a little guy, you sure do cause Pa a lot of trouble!” he whispered and was amused to see Joe gaze sleepily up at him and then give him a gummy smile, before reaching up to grab hold of Adam’s hair and tugging hard. “I get the message!” Adam laughed. “You’re hungry and you don’t want to wait! Your wish is my command, oh great and wonderful Joe!” Hurrying into the kitchen, Adam busied himself preparing the feed. He sang tunelessly, his voice croaking suspiciously on certain notes, as Joe wriggled in delicious expectation.

 

 

 

Ben found himself settling into a routine: setting Adam and Hoss to their chores in the morning and then attending to bookwork in the few scant moments Joe did not need his attention. He was amused to discover all sorts of personality traits emerging in this child, who lay chuckling away in his cradle by the fireside.

 

 

 

“Always on the go, aren’t you?” he said conversationally, watching the little hands reaching up and waving, like fronds of seaweed under water, while Joe’s toes curled and uncurled, almost of their own volition, it seemed. “Never like to be still. Do you want to come with Papa to see the horses?”

 

 

 

Judging by the smiles and gurgles that greeted this, Ben decided that Little Joe judged this to be a fine idea. The late summer sun still warmed the yard as he walked across to the barn, telling his baby son all about the horses on the Ponderosa and his plans to break wild horses and sell them to the army. Was it his imagination, or did Little Joe seem to listen intently, nodding his small head in agreement?

 

 

 

By now, nighttimes were less of an ordeal. Ben had begun to savour the peace of an evening feed, sitting by the fireside, considering the small, unimportant events of the day as Joe sucked his bottle contentedly. How proud Adam had been to be allowed to ride the new bay mare – the boy was beginning to become more confident on a horse. And hadn’t Hoss done well with his reading tonight?

 

 

 

I’m turning into an old father hen! Ben thought. And I’m glad. Childhood lasts for such a short, sweet time and I want to enjoy every moment with my boys. Still, he would be glad when Marie came home. He did not feel complete without her. But a part of him would miss these quiet moments of solitude, watching a sleepy, milk-drunk baby slip contentedly into sleep, retreating into his own private world of dreams. Where do you go, little one? Who populates your dreams? Ben felt his heart was very full. And when Marie got back, the dream would be perfect reality.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

Ben awoke early on the morning of Marie’s return, churning with restless expectation, yet feeling strangely rested. Realisation struck him like a thunderbolt and his stomach seemed to knot itself, while his heart thudded ominously. He had slept the entire night. Not a single interruption to his slumbers. No angry protests from a baby yelling his loud indignation against the discomforts of a wet diaper and an empty stomach. Ben sat upright, his mouth as dry as if it were full of ashes.

 

 

 

No! his mind protested as his hand automatically pulled the covers aside. In a daze, Ben watched his legs swing out of the bed and dash across the floor to the crib by the window. How could he sleep so soundly when his boy needed him?

 

 

 

“Please, just let him be alright. Don’t let anything happen to him.” Ben heard his voice, but he was not aware of speaking. He hardly dared to look down. Joe lay in his crib, arms flung back above his head, still and silent. Ben held his breath as he studied the baby intently. Nothing else mattered; every other event of his life suddenly seemed trite, unimportant and irrelevant. Every fibre of his being was concentrated on the small, beloved body in the crib.

 

 

 

Had he felt like this before? Was this the natural instinct of a parent – to be willing to endure anything, to go through anything, just as long as their most precious child was unharmed? Ben could not remember feeling this mixture of anguish and love before. Had the deaths of Elizabeth and Inger deadened something within him, an emotion that had lain dormant until now?

 

 

 

Was the tiny chest rising and falling? If so, the movement was almost imperceptible.  Ben strained forward and decided he could not tell if his child was alive or dead. For some reason his vision was blurred and there was a pounding in his ears. Stretching out a shaking finger, he prodded Joe gently in the stomach and was vastly relieved when his son’s eyes shot open and he regarded his father belligerently, before bellowing out loud displeasure.

 

 

 

“Thank you!” Ben’s cry of jubilation reached Adam and Hoss, who looked at one another curiously and then shrugged in unison.

 

 

 

“Guess the strain’s getting to Pa,” Adam whispered, helping his brother to fasten his shirt buttons.

 

 

 

Hoss agreed. Little Joe cried all the time, it seemed to him. It was certainly nothing to be happy about. He craved for a quiet, peaceful life, yet somehow knew it was not likely.

 

 

 

As the stagecoach drove into town, one passenger leant precariously out of the window, craning forward anxiously, desperate for a first glimpse of her precious child and beloved family.

 

 

 

“Just look at your Mama! No more sense than a blind hen!” Ben chided, understanding exactly how she felt. He could hardly wait until she was beside him once more, and he was holding her in his arms again. Marie leapt out of the coach, almost before the horses were at a standstill and raced across to her family, her arms outstretched.

 

 

 

“How I’ve missed you,” she murmured, cradling Joe gently, his head tucked under her chin so that she could inhale his delicious baby-scent.  Her eyes met Ben’s, returning the look of contentment she found there. Contentment and, if he were not mistaken, the promise of much more to come.

 

 

 

“I missed you too!” Hoss chirped happily.

 

 

 

“We’ve all missed you,” Ben corrected and gave his wife a decorous kiss on the cheek, accompanied by a look that spoke eloquently of just how very glad he was to welcome her home. Marie thought of her new, exorbitantly expensive lingerie, carefully swathed in folds of tissue paper and looked forward to unveiling it before an admiring and exclusive audience of one. She longed to be safely home with all her heart.

 

 

 

Much later, as they lay in bed, relaxed and content, Marie rolled over and draped herself across Ben’s chest.  She let one finger idly draw circles on his bare, receptive flesh. “I missed you horribly,” she confessed.

 

 

 

“Just me? Or did a certain young man enter into your thoughts?” His hand toyed idly with her hair, stroking the silken lengths that fell forward over her shoulders to gently caress his skin. Marie could feel the reverberance of his deep voice travel through her body, but she ignored this statement.

 

 

 

“The next time, we’re all going!” she declared firmly, jutting her chin forward, just as an inimitable unmistakable cry started.

 

 

 

“Go on, my dear! I know how much you missed your baby!” Ben teased. It was too much to hope that Little Joe would sleep two entire nights in a row after all.

 

 

 

That child will have to develop a better sense of timing, he vowed.

 

 

 

Throwing a mock glare over her shoulder, Marie threw on an almost-diaphanous robe and hurried from the room. Moments later, she returned with a querulous baby and his late night feed.

 

 

 

“Get back into bed before you freeze in that silken nothing!” Ben said, admiring the way the shell-pink material clung to her hips.  He reached out and took Joe from her, settling him into the crook of his arm and taking the bottle with his other hand. Snuggling into his side, Marie felt a wave of perfect contentment as she watched her two men.

 

 

 

“Did you miss me?” she asked after a moment.

 

 

 

“Dreadfully.” There was no doubting Ben’s sincerity. “But you are home now and I’m not letting you go away for a long, long time!”

 

 

 

“Why would I want to go away?” Marie asked seriously. She leant forward and kissed him lightly, then enfolded Joe’s small foot in her hand. “I’ve got everything I could ever want right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

 

 

 

Late at night, when the entire world appears to be deep in slumber, it is easy to imagine you are the only people in the world. The boundaries between reality and fantasy seem almost interchangeable, blending one into another, so that anything might be possible. As they lay entwined in one another’s arms, Marie and Ben knew that everything that was really important was contained within these four walls, secured and protected by their love. What could possibly breach such stout defences? The future stretched out  before them, gleaming with myriad wonders and  offering infinite joys and shimmering promises.

 

 

 

Joe lay stretched out between them in serene slumber, for neither parent wanted to put him back in his crib. It seemed important that they should all spend the night together. In his sleep, Joe’s hands contracted and then unfurled, to reveal small, smooth palms that had yet to be written on by life.

 

 

 

Eventually, Ben turned out the light and let the velvet darkness slip into the room to caress their bodies. He lay in perfect contentment, adjusting his breathing so that it was in perfect synchronicity with Marie’s. Everything was restored to perfect balance and he smiled as he thought of the golden years that surely lay ahead.


Chapter 2:

“Joseph! Get down here at once and eat some breakfast! We are leaving in twenty minutes and I do not intend to be late.”

 

 

 

Ben Cartwright cast an imploring look at Hoss. “Would you mind going upstairs and chivvying him along? We could be here all day, at this rate.”

 

 

 

Even as Hoss obediently rose from his chair, casting a regretful look at his plate of ham and eggs, a flurry of footsteps announced Joe’s arrival as he barrelled down the stairs and clattered noisily across the room. Grinning at his father, Joe held out his tie with a pleading look.

 

 

 

“Can you help me, Pa? I couldn’t get it to lie properly.”

 

 

 

With a sigh, Ben pulled Joe to stand in between his knees and started to loop the tie around his son’s neck. He wondered what on earth Joe had done to it, for the bedraggled object looked as if it had been thoroughly chewed. On reflection, he decided to not ask, for undoubtedly he would not wish to know what new mischief Joe had been up to. Long years of experience had made Ben an expert in the ways of small boys. He finished by arranging the loops of the tie as neatly as possible and then gave Joe a light swat on the butt.

 

 

 

“There, all done. You both look very nice – very nice indeed.” He looked at his two sons with pride: neatly dressed in their Sunday clothes, they were a credit to any father. Joe had even dampened his hair with water and attempted to brush his curls so that they would lie flat. If he were a betting man, Ben would wager that by the time breakfast was finished, the curls would reassert themselves with characteristic independence.

 

 

 

“Now get some breakfast inside you. We don’t want to be late to meet Adam, do we?”

 

 

 

Correctly judging that no answer was expected, Joe eased into his seat and helped himself to a small portion of bacon and eggs. He really could not see why it was necessary to get all gussied up, just to ride into town, but he knew better than to argue with his father. For an entire week Ben had barely been able to restrain his excitement at the prospect of Adam’s return and this morning he was so tense with anticipation that the air seemed charged, almost as if there was a storm brewing. Joe screwed his head around and looked out of the window, but the sky was a clear blue, with only a few white clouds dotted around.

 

 

 

“Sure will be great to see Adam again!” Hoss contemplated the last remaining roll and decided it would a shame to let it go to waste. “I can’t wait, Pa!”

 

 

 

“Yes, it’ll be wonderful to have Adam back home again,” Ben mused. “It’s been four long years since he left.”

 

 

 

Joe kept silent, devoting his entire attention to his breakfast. He really could not understand what all this fuss was about. To him, Adam was little more than a vague memory, a tall, dark haired man with a deep voice. He did have some faint recollections of Adam singing to him and telling bedtime stories, but as far as Joe was concerned, his family consisted of just two people: his father and Hoss. Big brother Adam was no more than a distant stranger, someone who wrote letters and who sent presents for Christmas and birthdays. Pretty good gifts too, Joe thought. But he did not know this older brother and consequently found it difficult to excited about the return of a virtual stranger. What possible difference could the visit of one man make to his life anyway?

 

 

 

Hiding the remainder of his eggs underneath the uneaten portion of his roll, Joe placed his knife and fork neatly together and smiled engagingly at his father. Ben nodded abstractedly and then went outside to check that the buggy was ready and waiting.

 

 

 

“Boys! It’s time to leave! We don’t want to be late, do we?”

 

 

 

I don’t see what difference it would make, Joe thought rebelliously. Adam’s not so all-fired important, even if he has been to college.

 

 

 

He walked wearily outside and noticed that Ben’s fingers were tapping agitatedly against the side of the buggy. Heaving a small sigh, Joe climbed up, sitting with his arms crossed and a martyred expression on his face. It looked as if it was going to be a very long day.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

Waiting restlessly outside the stage depot, Ben peered up the street impatiently and then consulted his pocket-watch for the fifth time in as many minutes. “He should be here any moment now.”

 

 

 

“I hope the stage is on time,” Hoss said anxiously. His insides were churning with excitement and the prospect of even a short delay seemed unbearable.

 

 

 

“Oh, I don’t think we need worry!” Ben laughed. “The Overland Coach Line is pretty reliable.” He looked around and noticed that the youngest member of the family was missing. “Joseph! Get over here at once!”

 

 

 

Heaving a sigh, Joe said goodbye to his friends and sauntered back over to the depot, his hands stuffed into his pockets and his feet scuffing along the ground. Already his tie was halfway around the back of his neck and his shirt cuffs were undone. Tutting away in exasperation, Ben grabbed the boy’s chin in one hand and yanked the tie back into place with the other, before pulling out a clean handkerchief.

 

 

 

“Spit!” he ordered and began to scrub the grubby face. “How can you get so messy in just a few minutes?”

 

 

 

We’ve been hanging around here for hours! Joe thought. I had to do something or I would have died of boredom. With a struggle, he held his tongue and meekly submitted to his father’s ministrations, wondering once again what all the fuss was about.

 

 

 

“It’s comin’!” Hoss yelled. “The stage is comin!”

 

 

 

Ben released Joe and rushed over to join the small crowd waiting at the depot. The stage pulled up slowly, the door opened and a familiar figure stepped out, blinking slightly in the bright sunlight.

 

 

 

“Adam!” His voice choked with emotion, Ben crossed the distance between them with a couple of long strides. “Good to see you, son. Welcome home.” He clasped Adam’s hand warmly and then drew him into a brief embrace, before standing back and proudly surveying the young man. “You’re looking well,” he smiled. His first-born child was back and his family was complete once again.

 

 

 

“It’s good to be back,” Adam started, but before he could say anything more, Hoss engulfed him in a hearty embrace, thumping him joyously on the shoulder, his round face beaming with pleasure. The three men revelled in being together, laughing with the sheer joy of their reunion.

 

 

 

“This your bag?” A voice broke into their excited conversation.

 

 

 

“Yes. And that trunk too.” The luggage was handed down and as the Cartwrights moved away from the stagecoach to allow the next passengers on board Ben noticed that Joe was not with them. He looked around frantically, knowing the child’s remarkable propensity for getting into trouble at the drop of a hat, and was relieved to see him sitting on the edge of the boarded sidewalk.

 

 

 

“Come and say ‘hello’ to your brother,” he urged. It was not like gregarious Joe to suddenly become shy.

 

 

 

Joe stood up reluctantly and slowly brushed the seat of his pants. For a brief moment, as Adam hesitated in the door of the stagecoach, Joe thought he could remember reaching up to a man on horseback, a man who had leant down, then took hold of his hands and swung him up into the saddle. But that memory had vanished quickly, to be replaced by this vision of an elegantly dressed stranger. He had watched his father and brother greet the man with obvious love and joy, but Joe felt nothing, absolutely nothing, and that troubled him.

 

 

 

“Pleased to meet you,” he said politely, sticking his hand out in greeting. Adam grinned broadly and bent down, resting his hands on his knees to survey the boy. Joe hastily drew his hand back and stared into a pair of brown eyes, partially shaded by a homburg hat.

 

 

 

“Hello little brother,” Adam said softly, sensing the boy’s shyness. “It’s good to see you again. You’ve grown up while I’ve been gone.”

 

 

 

It was exactly the right thing to say and Joe gave him a happy smile.

 

 

 

“I’m real strong too!” he informed his brother. “I could carry that bag, iffen you like?”

 

 

 

Adam agreed readily, somehow managing to keep a straight face as he watched Joe drag the carpet bag with some difficulty along the sidewalk, while Hoss lifted his heavy trunk as if it weighed no more than a tray of eggs.

 

 

 

“I can’t believe the changes in both of them!” Adam remarked as he and his father walked slowly behind the two boys. “Hoss is taller than me – and broader too! He looks like a full-grown man.”

 

 

 

Ben nodded. It was sometimes difficult to remember that for all his size, Hoss was still just a young adolescent, with a fair degree of growing-up to do. The boy had such a big heart and was so willing to help that he had a tendency to take on too much. Ben kept a careful eye upon Hoss and insisted the boy take as much leisure time as possible.

 

 

 

“And Joe! Well, he was just a little boy when I left, with golden curls. He fallen and knocked out a front tooth, do you remember? I can still see him waving goodbye to me, with that gappy smile and the tears running down his face.”

 

 

 

Adam had carried that mental picture close to his heart for four long years. In his mind, he could still hear the pitiful sound of Joe’s sobs and feel the heaving of his small chest, pressed desperately against his big brother’s, as he begged him not to go.  He reached into his pocket and fingered a small object hanging from his watch chain: edged in silver, the baby tooth had accompanied him throughout his travels and to every single one of his examinations. It was more than a good-luck charm, it was a talisman a reassurance to Adam that he would indeed return home one day. Over time, it had come to symbolise innocent and hope, two qualities that he prized deeply.

 

 

 

“You’ve been away for nearly half of Joe’s life,” Ben remarked. “I expect you’ll both have some adjusting to do.” He was blissfully impervious of the adjustments the whole family would have to make in the months that lay ahead. All Ben cared about was the fact that his son was back home and he had all his boys together once again. What could be more perfect than that?

 

 

 

Adam squeezed his father’s arm fondly. “Everything is going to be just fine,” he assured his father, never dreaming for one second that his glib confidence was sorely misplaced. Everything will go back to the way it was before, the way it had always been, he thought, not realising that the accumulated changes of four years could not be dismissed in such a cavalier fashion.

 

 

 

 

 

*********

 

 

 

 

 

“I’ve put your bag in your room!” Joe announced breathlessly. “It’s the one….”

 

 

 

“I know where it is!” Adam laughed, not realising how dismissive he sounded. “After all, I slept there for eight years!” He went upstairs, not seeing the hurt and puzzled expression on his brother’s face.

 

 

 

Doing the arithmetic in his mind, Joe was confused. Eight years? Then that meant Adam had lived here before Joe was even born. That didn’t seem right. It meant that Adam had lived here when he was Joe’s age and he found that difficult to believe. Did that mean Adam was just as much a part of the Ponderosa as he was? How could that be, when Joe didn’t even know him? It was all very strange, he decided. It gave him an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach.

 

 

 

Upstairs, Adam looked around his room with delight. Everything was exactly as he had left it. Hop Sing had kept the room dusted and aired, but there were all his books, standing in their allotted order and even his guitar still stood in the corner. Picking it up, Adam plucked an experimental chord and frowned as the notes rang out discordantly. He would have to put on new strings and retune the instrument.

 

 

 

There was hot water in the ewer beside his basin and fresh towels on the towel rail, while a new razor lay invitingly in front of his shaving mirror. Everything possible had been done to make his homecoming as comfortable and welcoming as possible, right down to the inviting smell of roast beef that wafted up from the kitchen. Fancy restaurants were all very well, but there was simply nothing to beat the taste of home-cooked Ponderosa beef!

 

 

 

Pulling off his shirt and quickly washing off the grime of the journey, Adam noticed freshly laundered clothes lying in a neat pile on his bed. They looked familiar, but somehow he doubted if they would fit, for Adam was considerably broader now than he had been at 18. However, closer inspection showed that these clothes were brand new and looked to be the right size. And there, tucked into the breast pocket of the shirt was a packet of guitar strings.

 

 

 

You always did know how to make a man feel welcome, Pa, he thought contentedly, pulling on the dark coloured trousers and shirt, before grabbing the guitar and running downstairs.

 

 

 

“What are you doing?” Joe asked curiously, watching as Adam sat hunched in his favourite chair, working intently on his guitar.

 

 

 

“Putting on new strings.”

 

 

 

“Why?” Joe hung over Adam’s shoulder, breathing heavily as he watched his brother. Adam found the warm breath on the back of his neck rather annoying and wished Joe would leave him in peace to complete the tricky job.

 

 

 

“The others were too old to be able to tune it properly.” Adam finished stringing and tuning the instrument and leant back, so that Joe had to move away or risk being crushed. He looked around the room. “Nothing much changed here – except for the dining table. You’ve moved that around, haven’t you?”

 

 

 

“Yes, it fits in better that way, I think,” Ben agreed. “It gives us a bit more room to move around.”

 

 

 

I don’t know what they’re talking about, Joe thought. The table’s always been like that. For as long as I can remember.

 

 

 

Fascinated by the guitar, he leant forward and reached out a tentative finger to pluck the strings, only to draw it back quickly as Adam him sharply across the knuckles.

 

 

 

“It’s not a toy!” Adam said, more brusquely than he had meant to. Joe gave him a reproachful look and wandered into the kitchen. A stream of Cantonese soon indicated that Hop Sing was less than appreciative of his help.

 

 

 

“I don’t think I’m managing very well with Joe,” Adam confided. “One minute he’s bounding around, literally all over me, the next thing he doesn’t seem to want to know me.”

 

 

 

“Give it time, son. Things will settle down. You and Joe just need to find some common ground and re-establish your relationship. You’ll get on just fine with your little brother, so don’t worry. He’s been so excited about your return.”

 

 

 

Standing hidden from their sight in the passageway that lead from the kitchen to the dining room, Joe shook his head firmly.

 

 

 

Oh no I haven’t! he thought mutinously. You and Hoss were excited, Pa, but I wasn’t and you didn’t even notice. I don’t know why Adam’s come back, ‘cos he ain’t needed around here. I don’t need him. I’ve got Hoss and he’s the best brother in the whole world. I don’t need another brother!

 

 

 

Comforting himself with the thought that Adam would not be around for long, Joe wandered listlessly back into the kitchen

 

 

 

“I think Hoss is out in the barn,” Ben continued. “Why don’t you pop out and see him? I know for a fact that he’s longing to show you the horses, especially the one he’s picked out for you to ride.”

 

 

 

Adam looked slightly apprehensive: having scarcely ridden at all during his time at college, he knew that there would be a long and painful period of re-adjustment before he was once again accustomed to spending long days in the saddle. Noting his discomfiture, Ben added a note of reassurance.

 

 

 

“Hoss is a very good judge of horseflesh, you know. I’m sure he’s picked out a suitable mount for you.”

 

“Pa, at this moment, just about the only horse I’d feel comfortable on is a rocking horse! Better warn Hop Sing I’ll be wanting lots of hot baths and linament for the next few weeks!”

 

 

 

Chuckling to himself, Adam strode across the room, noticing how peculiar his homburg looked next to the western hats belonging to his father and brothers. Wonder when I’ll wear that again? I’ll have to remember to get a more suitable hat, next time I’m in town. In one way, Adam longed to resume the familiar routines of life on the Ponderosa and to put some of his own ideas into practice, but he was aware of a lingering sadness as he contemplated packing away the clothes that represented life at an eastern college.

 

 

 

In the kitchen, Hop Sing handed Joe a cup of coffee. “Give to father – an’ be careful! No spill on floor an’ make mess!”

 

 

 

Nodding solemnly, Joe walked tentatively across to the fireside, where his father sat with his eyes shut, resting his head against the back of his seat.

 

 

 

“Pa? You awake? I’ve got a cup of coffee for you.”

 

 

 

Ben smiled at the boy and took the cup and saucer gingerly. Joe tended to spill half the liquid into the saucer, so that the unwary recipient often ended up with a liberal splash of hot coffee in his lap. This time, only a small dribble had slopped over the edge of the cup.

 

 

 

“Thank you, son.” He sipped the hot drink gratefully. “Ah- that’s good. Just what I needed. It’s been an exciting day, hasn’t it?”

 

 

 

Joe shrugged his shoulders unenthusiastically. “I guess so.” He looked intently at Ben, wondering if there were to be any other changes to the accustomed rhythms of his life. Looking at the child, apprehension etched clearly on his face, Ben realised what was worrying his son and put down the cup of coffee.

 

 

 

“How about you come and keep your old Pa company for a bit, Little Joe?” He patted his knee invitingly and was relieved to see the eager smile that lit up Joe’s face. Hugging his youngest son close, Ben smiled consolingly: poor Joe! It rather looked as if his small nose would be well and truly out of joint for the next few days. But in the meantime, he could provide a little comfort and reassure the child that some things in his world had not changed and remained constant. Besides which, he enjoyed these moments just as much as Joe did. Perhaps even more, for Ben knew the day was fast approaching when Joe would feel far too grownup to sit on his father’s knee. It was a rite of passage, something all his boys had been through, but that did not make it any easier to accept or any less painful to endure. And before, there had always been another little boy who still wanted to sit on his knee. This time was different. Ben savoured each precious second, acutely aware this might be the last time he would ever cradle his son on his lap. The transitory nature made the moment even sweeter.

 

 

 

Don’t be in too much of a hurry to grow up, Little Joe, he prayed. I still need my little boy. I still need to be needed.

 

 

 

As if he sensed his father’s distress, Joe tightened his grip around Ben’s waist and burrowed his head into his chest.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

“Dinner time!” Hop Sing called across the yard, summoning Adam and Hoss to the table. Giving his hands a cursory wash, Adam sat down and surveyed the spread laid out invitingly before him.

 

 

 

“Now I know I’m home! Hop Sing – you’ve excelled yourself.  This looks wonderful.”

 

 

 

Hop Sing bowed his head in delight at the praise and slipped back into the kitchen.

 

 

 

Unfolding his napkin, Adam was suddenly aware of a presence at his elbow. He looked around to see Joe standing beside him, with a dark scowl on his face.

 

 

 

“What’s the matter?”

 

 

 

“You’re sitting in my seat.”

 

 

 

It had been a long and tiring journey and Adam had no intention of re-enacting Goldilocks and the Three Bears. He just wanted his dinner and this child was not going to distract him from that pleasure.

 

 

 

“Don’t be silly. That’s my seat,” he pronounced firmly. “I always sit on Pa’s right and Hoss sits on his left. Why don’t you sit down here, next to me?”

 

 

 

Joe shook his head stubbornly. “That’s my seat,” he repeated stubbornly. Adam noticed the bottom lip was sticking out in a petulant manner and this just hardened his resolve.

 

 

 

“It was my seat before you were even born. Now, just go and sit down and eat your breakfast!” He didn’t see the tears that filled Joe’s eyes as he scurried fearfully to the far side of the table to sit beside Hoss, as far away from Adam as possible.

 

 

 

Ben appeared, wreathed in smiles and took his accustomed place at the head of the table. Joe gave him a hurt look as he realised that his father was impervious to the new seating arrangements. He picked at his food, but for once Ben was too busy talking to Adam to even notice. A cold feeling gripped Joe’s stomach.

 

 

 

I wish he’d never come back. And I hope he’ll go away real soon. Nothing’s the same anymore.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

The next day, Ben decided that the family would not go to Church, but would spend some valuable time together. He was all too aware of the undercurrents of tension between his eldest and youngest sons and was determined to try to breach the gulf that seemed to be stretching wider by the hour. That morning, Joe had neatly dodged around Adam as they were called for breakfast and slid into the cherished seat on his father’s right-hand, where he sat ensconced with a triumphant smile on his face.

 

 

 

Adam stood stock-still for a second, with an aggrieved expression on his face, before sitting down next to Hoss. Deliberately ignoring the situation, Ben wondered if he should invest in a round table.

 

 

 

“Who would like to go fishing?”  A ready chorus indicated all three of sons regarded as an excellent idea. At least there is one thing they can agree upon, Ben thought with relief.

 

 

 

Ben set a slowly, steady pace on the ride out towards Lake Tahoe, out of consideration for Adam, who was finding riding just as difficult and painful as he had anticipated.

 

 

 

“Do not rush ahead, Joseph!” he called out and was relieved to see Joe rein back obediently, even if he did throw a reproachful look back over his shoulder. “That boy rides entirely too fast for either my peace of mind or his own safety,” he explained to Adam. “He simply doesn’t seem to know what danger is.”

 

 

 

Adam thought back to a time when he too rode with carefree abandon across the wide pastures and felt a sneaking sympathy with Joe. Not that he was tempted to follow suit. At this precise moment, Adam was concentrating very hard just to move in unison with his horse and felt that anything more than a slow walk or, at the very most, a gentle jog was quite fast enough. He had quite forgotten just how high up you were on horseback. Looking down, he saw that his right leg appeared to have developed a disconcerting habit of sticking out at an unbecoming angle. Pulling it back into the horse’s side, Adam felt a twinge in his knee and winced slightly. He had the distinct impression that just walking would be a painful chore tomorrow.

 

 

 

Father and son rode side by side up to the top of the ridge, where they halted, absorbing the beauty of the landscape that stretched out before their eyes: the dark, verdant green of the forests, the emerald-blue of the lake and the purple-grey hues of the mountains, over-arched by a pure sky that serenely framed the scene.

 

 

 

“This is what I missed!” Adam sighed joyfully, feeling the peace seep deep into his soul. “Room to breathe in the all this emptiness and solitude and just to feel alive! A man can find his soul here.”

 

 

 

Hoss urged his horse down the slope, giving Joe’s reins a tug as he passed. “Come on! Can’t you see Adam and Pa want to be alone?”

 

 

 

Joe gave him a bemused look. “They do? Why?”

 

 

 

“They want to talk, man-to-man. An’ they don’t need us hanging around, do they? So, we’ll just go ahead and get things started. You want to fish, don’t you?”

 

 

 

Joe was happy enough to start fishing, having no use for gazing slack-jawed at a scene he saw just about every day of his life, but he was perplexed by Hoss’ words. All his life, his father and brother had included him in their discussions and it was difficult for him to comprehend that there were situations where his presence was neither required not welcomed.

 

 

 

Everything keeps changing since Adam came home. And I don’t like it when things change. Why can’t things just stay the same?

 

 

 

He looked across at Hoss, who was carefully selecting his preferred fishing spot. “How long is he staying for?” There was a wistful note in his voice that was impossible to miss.

 

 

 

Hoss looked at him strangely. “What on earth do you mean? Adam’s not going away again – he’s come home.”

 

 

 

But it’s my home, not his! Joe’s heart protested. “He’s really staying? Forever?”

 

 

 

Hoss nodded. “Course he is! Boy, I have missed him! Things just weren’t the same when Adam was gone.” Looking back at the two figures silhouetted on the ridge, Hoss felt as if he had regained a long-lost part of his childhood.

 

 

 

Joe digested this information slowly, not liking what he heard. He had always thought that he and Hoss were best of friends, as well as brothers, but it had never occurred to him that Adam might have the same claim on Hoss’ affections.

 

 

 

“Oh. I thought he was just visiting for a while, and then he’d go away again. Like he did before.”

 

 

 

“No way!” Hoss said firmly. “Adam’s gonna help me an’ Pa run the ranch.” He grabbed his fishing pole and settled down comfortably at the edge of the lake, not seeing the devastated look on Joe’s face.

 

 

 

But what about me?  Joe wondered. Where do I fit into this? What’s left for me to do?

 

 

 

Watching the younger boys out of the corner of his eye, Ben shifted in his saddle and regarded Adam thoughtfully. “You don’t regret your time at college, do you?”

 

 

 

A dreamy smile flitted across Adam’s face as he drank in the beauty of the scene that stretched out before him. “Not for a single moment. It was all I dreamt it would be – and then some more! But I can’t lie, Pa. There were times when I longed to be here breathing the clean air and living freely. Being away has made me see things through fresh eyes.”

 

 

 

His words were music to Ben’s soul. How truly blessed he was.

 

 

 

They moved off slowly, the horses picking their way down the narrow trail that wound gently down to the crystalline waters of the lake and joined the other two members of the family. Joe mumbled a greeting and then concentrated hard on fishing, determined to show his brother just how skilled a fisherman he was. Gradually, a little peace began to ease back into his troubled mind. He even offered some advice to Adam on where the fish were most likely to bite. For his part, Adam accepted the advice, while his mind floated back to memories of two boys paddling in the chilly waters, Joe clinging on to his hand and screaming with joy when the waves splashed them. The past and present seemed so incredibly close, and Adam felt that he could almost reach out and pull the two back into a coherent whole.

 

 

 

Dusk was beginning to fall as they rode back into the yard, tired but content.

 

 

 

“Bath and then bed for you, Little Joe,” Ben commanded. “It’s a school day for you tomorrow.”

 

 

 

“Shall I give you a hand, Little Joe?” Adam volunteered. The day at the lake had been so companionable and relaxed that he found himself automatically slipping back into his role of elder brother.

 

 

 

Joe gave him a look of withering contempt. “I’m not a baby, you know!” he announced in ringing tones of deepest disdain, marching off to the washhouse, indignant outrage evident in every inch of his small body.  “And my name is Joe!” The door slammed hard behind him, crushing Adam’s buoyant mood.

 

 

 

“I was only trying to be helpful!” Adam protested, wondering how he had misjudged the situation so badly and bemused at how a small boy had the power to make him feel so dreadful.

 

 

 

“He’ll come around,” Hoss advised. “He’s just a bit confused right now. Told me he thought you were only here for a visit. I set him straight on that score!”

 

 

 

The moment he finished, Hoss realised that he had said the wrong thing and cringed inwardly as his father and brother stared at him, their jaws slack with disbelief.

 

 

 

“Would you care to explain?” Ben said eventually. “Why on earth does Joseph think that Adam is a visitor and not home to stay?”

 

 

 

Hoss shuffled nervously. “Well, I guess Little Joe don’t really remember Adam too well. He were just a little ‘un when you went away, and the fact is, he can’t recall when you used to live here. “ Hoss was painfully aware that he was not helping things.

 

 

 

“Little Joe doesn’t remember me?” Adam repeated in a stunned voice, scarcely able to believe what he was hearing. Joe was such an important part of his life, his cherished baby brother, that he had automatically assumed that he occupied an equal part of Joe’s affections.  Suddenly, the boy’s indifferent, almost antagonistic attitude began to make sense. At best, Joe regarded him as a mere houseguest. “I mean, I know he was just a little boy, when I left, but still…” His voice tailed off in despair.

 

 

 

Ben hastened to offer an explanation, trying to absolve one son’s tactlessness, another’s total indifference and to console the third. “Adam, you were never forgotten. Not a single day went by when you were not remembered and missed. We spoke about you often and I read every single one of your letters outloud to your brothers. You were always in our hearts. But of course Joseph has only a few memories of his mother too and you left just a few weeks after she died.  Four years is a very long time for a little boy, after all. Almost half his life. Perhaps Little Joe decided that, like his mother, you were gone forever. I’m sorry, Adam, I should have realised how he felt and spoken to him.”

 

 

 

Adam nodded, still rolling the unpalatable idea around in his mind and struggling to come to terms with it.

 

 

 

A sound of splashing accompanied by a high treble voice singing loudly drifted from the washhouse.

 

 

 

“I’d better go and check on him,” Ben chuckled. “Despite what he may say, Little Joe still struggles to rinse his hair properly. And he never seems to remember to wash behind his ears.”

 

 

 

“Don’t worry, he’ll come around.” Hoss tried to reassure his brother, but Adam felt that part of the joy had gone from his homecoming.

 

 

 

“I’ll see to the horses, if you like,” Adam offered. It would be good to have some time alone to properly digest this unpleasant news and work out a plan of action to recapture the love he had once taken for granted. “You’ll want to get ready for school too.”

 

 

 

Hoss busied himself, undoing the cinch and removing the saddle. He picked up a currycomb and bkept his head well down, tending to his horse before he dared to speak. “Fact is, I left school some time ago, and I’m working full time now.” The regular swishing sounds of the brush stood starkly between them and he was careful not to meet Adam’s gaze, knowing only too well the importance his brother placed on book learning.

 

 

 

“Another joyful surprise,” Adam remarked tartly. “Something else you conveniently forgot to tell me, brother? I’m in constant suspense, just wondering what the next happy little revelation will be. Only thing I can think of is that Pa will come bounding in, clutching some young lady by the hand, and then introduces me to his new wife, whom he’s kept hidden under the stairs until just the right moment.”

 

 

 

Hoss gulped and grabbed a stable rubber to complete his grooming chores. Adam was the natural scholar in the family, though Little Joe was as smart as a whip. For himself, Hoss had drearily endured his years at school, longing for a release. Working on the ranch suited Hoss: it gave him a sense of achievement and fulfilment. He just hoped that he could make Adam realise that this was the right choice for him, just as going to college had filled a need for Adam. Just because they were brothers didn’t mean they had to be alike, did it?

 

 

 

 

 

*********

 

 

 

 

 

Later that evening, with the younger boys upstairs and, it was devoutly to be hoped, asleep, Ben and Adam sat for a long time, talking idly and sharing experiences and ideas, beginning to sew the seeds of a new relationship. Adam realised what an engrossing companion his father could be, revelling in the way that Ben treated him as an equal, as a man.

 

 

 

For the first time, Ben realised what a large, gaping hole had existed in his life and just how much he had missed adult conversation in the evenings. For so very long, once Little Joe and Hoss were in bed he would sit alone by the fireside, letting his mind run back to the days when he and Marie would sit and laugh and plan and just love one another. That  seemed part of another life.  After her death, quiet evenings lost all their charm for Ben and stretched out in a long, lonely, seemingly interminable series, but now there was once again pleasure to be sought at the end of the day and a new enjoyment to be derived from looking towards the future.

 

 

 

He looked at his eldest child with pride: Adam had grown into a fine young man, with a keen brain bursting with new ideas he was eager to put into practice. Ben thought with pride of all the great things they could accomplish jointly in partnership. Together they could take the Ponderosa to new heights of success. It had been a terrible wrench when Adam went away to college, but the result was ample reward. Much of Adam’s childhood had been clouded with sorrow, loaded down with hardships and responsibilities, which the boy had accepted without complaint, despite the fact his young shoulders were not able to bear the load comfortably. His time at college had been ample recompense for the earlier tribulations, an ideal opportunity to put himself foremost and to concentrate on his own dreams and desires.

 

 

 

Later on, as the fire was beginning to die down, Adam lit a lamp and went upstairs, treading softly. He hesitated outside Joe’s door for a moment and then eased it open, shading the beam with his hand. Joe lay sprawled across the bed; his nightshirt rucked up around his hips, the bedclothes in a hopeless mess and his bare feet decidedly icy to the touch. Lying with one hand cradling his cheek, Joe was obviously dreaming of something pleasant, as evidenced by the happy smile on his face.  Carefully turning down the lamp and then pacing it on the dresser, Adam retrieved the bedding from the floor and tucked it around Joe’s skinny frame. He stood back and looked at the child, wondering where all the years had gone and despairing that he could ever find a way to bridge the gulf that yawned in an aching chasm between them.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

At breakfast, Joe glowered in a bleary-eyed fashion from the seat next to Hoss, contemplating his oatmeal with disinterest while his father outlined plans for the day ahead.

 

 

 

“Hoss, I’d like you to check the fence lines on the northern pastures, please.”

 

 

 

“Can Adam come with me? I thought I’d introduce him to some of the hands,” Hoss asked.

 

 

 

Ben considered this for a moment. “Perhaps you could do that tomorrow, son. I’d planned on taking Adam into town with me today, so he could meet some of the men he’ll be doing business with. Then, I also need to set up authority for him to draw on our various bank accounts, negotiate on contracts – that sort of thing. We’ll ride in with Little Joe on his way to school.”

 

 

 

Hoss tried hard to disguise his disappointment, while Adam groaned inwardly at the thought of yet another excursion on horseback. The muscles in his butt and thighs were screaming with pain and he wasn’t quite sure that he would even manage to mount a horse, far less stay on board.

 

 

 

For once, Hoss felt his appetite disappear completely. Adam had only just come home, knowing next to nothing about ranching and already Pa was giving him lines of credit and suchlike, while he had worked away for over a year without these responsibilities ever being suggested. Conveniently ignoring the fact that entering into negotiations or checking the clauses of a contract would constitute a cruel and unusual form of torture to him, Hoss sought for a way to re-establish his rightful place in the family. His gaze fell upon Joe, daydreaming as usual.

 

 

 

“Stop playin’ with that oatmeal and eat up, Shortshanks! You’ve gotta leave for school soon.”

 

 

 

Joe scowled blackly, but managed to choke down a couple of mouthfuls. Even Hoss was turning against him! He wondered if he would ever get to spend time alone with his father, or if Adam was always going to be tagging along and getting in the way.

 

 

 

Ben sipped his coffee and contemplated the day ahead. At least there hasn’t been any actual bloodshed so far, he mused. That was the one positive thing he could think of, so he concentrated on that, as the undercurrents of annoyed and aggrieved feelings swirled around the breakfast table like the wilful Washoe zephyrs.

 

 

 

 

 

*********

 

 

 

 

 

Riding out with Hoss a month later, Adam looked at a barren area of ground with great interest. It was near enough to the ranch to be used as a useful holding paddock and grazing area, yet it was standing empty and unused.

 

 

 

Catching his quizzical expression, Hoss started to explain. “Thin soil. Only goes down a couple of feet before you hit the bedrock. Simply won’t hold enough moisture to grow fodder or decent grazing. A real shame, for it come in right handy, being so close to the house.”

 

 

 

Catching his bearings, Adam stood up cautiously in the stirrups, still not entirely confident in the saddle. He doubted if he would ever be half the rider that Joe was, and that was slightly annoying. It did not seem right that his little brother should be able to outstrip him so effortlessly. Their relationship had moved from outwardly antagonistic to mere disdain, and Adam was seriously beginning to doubt if it would improve beyond that, but he persevered. Despite himself, he had to admire Joe’s stubbornness, no matter how aggravating it was. The kid just wouldn’t budge an inch, despite his father’s best attempts at mediation. There was obviously something troubling the boy, but Joe resolutely refused to discuss it.

 

 

 

Shading his eyes, Adam peered into the distance, where a stand of trees grew tall and straight at the top of a slight incline. “Didn’t there used to be a stream over there?” he asked, a hint of excitement colouring his voice.

 

 

 

“Still is,” his brother agreed. “But it’s too far away to be any good. The moisture doesn’t make its way down here.”

 

 

 

Sitting back down carefully in the saddle, Adam positively smirked with joy. “Ah, but if we dam up that stream and then dug irrigation channels, we could bring the water down here and we’d soon have a decent pasture. It would take some careful planning, but I think I know how to do it. I worked on a very similar project in my last term, and I’ve brought the plans back with me”

 

 

 

Hoss gave him a look of pride, mixed equally with despair. “That’d be right handy,” he agreed. “Pa sure will be pleased.” Not for the first time, he wished he was more like Adam: it would be great to be able to come up with a plan like that, and have the knowledge and skills to be able to put it into action. Not for the first time, Hoss wondered if Adam were destined to be the shining star on the Ponderosa, while he and Joe shimmered unnoticed in the background.

 

 

 

Once the plan was explained to Ben, he was delighted with the prospect and willingly gave his permission for Adam to start work. However, there was another matter causing him concern.

 

 

 

“I see you’re planning to change the work rotas,” he remarked, being careful to keep his voice casual and light.

 

 

 

Adam nodded. “I’ve rationalised things and I think there will be definite advantages if we do things my way.” He glanced at his father. “Is there a problem?”

 

 

 

Ben tried very hard to ignore the off-hand note in his son’s voice. “Actually, there is. Quite a big problem. You put Asa Melvin and Frank Rogers in the same crew and now Frank has handed in his notice. I just wish you had discussed this with me first before you changed things.”

 

 

 

“Sorry.” Adam did not sound in the least contrite. “I wasn’t aware that I should run all minor scheduling changes by you. I won’t make the same mistake again.”

 

 

 

That sally earned him a hard glare, but before Ben could respond, Joe piped up joyfully.

 

 

 

“Everyone knows Asa and Frank can’t work together!” It was almost impossible to ignore the note of glee in his voice.

 

 

 

Trying very hard to be tolerant and holding on tight to the fraying ends of his temper, Adam regarded him gravely. “And why would that be?”

 

 

 

“Asa and Frank were courting the same girl last year and she chose Asa. They ain’t never spoken since,” Hoss explained.

 

 

 

Adam rubbed his chin and permitted himself a rueful smile. “I can see why my changes were such an unmitigated disaster! How about I go to talk to Frank, and then take another look at the rotas? I’m really sorry, Pa – I got carried away looking at the figures and just didn’t thinks about the men involved. I know it’ll take me a while to get to know everyone and their specialities, so maybe I could run over any plans with you?”

 

 

 

“With pleasure,” Ben agreed. He was happy to encourage Adam to make his own decisions, but he had hoped to be consulted occasionally. After all, there was a great deal to be learned about running a ranch this size, even if you did have a college degree. He knew that his son was anxious to prove himself to men who regarded him as an interloper, still wet behind the ears, but it was depressing that Adam did not ask for advice or guidance until he was forced into a corner. At least the boy had the sense to admit when he made an error and he did have to make some mistakes along the way. At least this one wasn’t as costly as the fiasco at the timber mill.

 

 

 

Without Ben’s knowledge, Adam had ordered and fitted some expensive new saw blades. “They’re the very latest,” he explained proudly to the timber crews. “I got them shipped from back east and they’ll cut through timber like a hot knife through butter. See the special arrangement of the teeth?”

 

 

 

There was just one problem: Adam had not realised that the blades were designed to cut hard wood, not the soft, resinous pine grown on the Ponderosa. First of all, the timber splintered badly and cracked along its length. Then the blades became clogged up with sticky resin and lost all their cutting power, before twisting out of shape. Realising the magnitude of his mistake, Adam went disconsolately home to explain why they would be late in meeting the timber order. His father’s words rung in his ears, even now.

 

 

 

It’s early days son and we all make mistakes. As long as you learn from this, we’ll say no more.

 

 

 

He looked across at Hoss. “Would you come with me to talk to the men?” he asked. “You know them all and I could really use your advice and support.”

 

 

 

Puffing out his chest with pride, Hoss was happy to oblige, delighted that Adam wanted his help. Perhaps book learning wasn’t everything after all? Maybe he did have something to offer?

 

 

 

“I could come too,” Joe offered, unwilling to be left out.

 

 

 

“We’ll manage just fine, “ Hoss assured him dryly. “You concentrate on finishing your chores and getting your homework done.”

 

 

 

Joe dropped his head and stared hard at his feet, willing the tears standing in his eyes not to fall. Adam and Hoss were together all day, while he was stuck in that dumb old school. It just wasn’t fair! His mind whirled back in time and Joe caught hold of a fleeting memory: he was running across the yard in pursuit of his brothers, calling out for them to wait for him. Then there was a tug on his clothing and he was swept up into his mother’s arms.

 

 

 

Let your brothers go. You’re too little, Joseph.  Was this what his life was going to be like? Forever chasing after Adam and Hoss, but never quite catching up?

 

 

 

“What are doing at school now, Little Joe? Anything interesting?” Ben could see how hurt Joe was at the unintentional exclusion and his heart ached in sympathy for the boy. He knew from personal experience how difficult it was being the youngest in a family and he wanted to bring the boy back into the conversation, to try to make him feel a part of things once again. He raised his eyebrows meaningfully at Adam and was gratified to see an immediate flash of understanding cross his face.

 

 

 

“Miss Jones set us a project to work on and when we’re finished, there’s gonna be a special show, after school. With cakes and lemonade and everything!” Joe announced. “I’m working on something real special and it was all my own idea!” He looked around proudly.

 

 

 

Taking the heavy hint, Adam leant forward. “That does sound intriguing! Can you tell us what it is, or is it a secret?”

 

 

 

“It’s secret alright! But you’ll see at the show. Fact is, I’d better get started on my plans.” Joe marched off self-importantly, while his family struggled to keep straight faces until he was out of sight.  At least ten minutes passed before he came sheepishly downstairs, with inky hands and wildly ruffled hair. He approached Adam gingerly, with an expectant expression on his face.

 

 

 

“I might just need a bit of help with my plans…”

 

 

 

Adam tried to choke down the lump that suddenly rose in his throat. There was something so trusting about the way that Joe stood before him, head tilted to one side and looking nervously at him that tugged at his heart. He knew how stubborn and independent Joe was and it meant so much that he was one chosen to help.

 

 

 

“Sure thing, little buddy. We could work on it together, if you like?”

 

 

 

Joe beamed gratefully and grabbed his brother’s hand, dragging him towards the stairs. “Great! But you have to promise not to tell anyone!” he beseeched.

 

 

 

“I promise!” Adam vowed fervently. “It’ll be our secret, just between you and me!” He reached down and tossed Joe over his shoulder and then dashed upstairs. The peals of gleeful laughter from both brothers rang out clearly.

 

 

 

In Joe’s characteristically messy bedroom, Adam studied the plans closely, and was careful to offer a few, very tactful suggestions, lavishly interspersed with extravagant praise for the boy’s detailed plans and imaginative ideas. At last it seemed as if Joe was finally starting to accept him and Adam did not want anything to bruise this delicate new relationship.

 

 

 

After a while, Joe sat back on his heels and looked up curiously. “Will you come to school to see the show?” There was an undertone of uncertainty in his voice.

 

 

 

“Of course I will, little buddy. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

 

 

 

Nibbling his lower lip, Joe persisted. “You’re not just saying that, are you? You’re really not going away again?”

 

 

 

Adam hunkered down on the floor beside him and put a consoling arm around his brother’s thin shoulders. “Joe, I’m not going anywhere. Trust me.”

 

 

 

Pushing away, Joe stared at the floor. “But last time, you said you’d come back and you didn’t.” A tear ran down his cheek. “You didn’t come back. Not for Christmas or Easter, or even my birthday. You just left.“  Pulling in a heaving breath, Joe struggled to continue. “And I missed you, Adam. I missed you so much that it hurt, right here.” Thumping his chest for emphasis, Joe flung himself into Adam’s arms, for the first time since his return home.

 

 

 

How glibly they had all assured the child that his brother would be back, carefully explaining that Adam would be gone for a long time, but he would come back. To a small boy, the distance between summer and Christmas stretched out in an eternity, and no-one had thought to check that Joe had actually understood his brother would not be coming home for not just one, but four Christmases four birthdays and four Easters. Hugging him close, Adam began to realise how betrayed Joe must have felt.

 

 

 

“I missed you too, buddy, more than you can possibly know.” As he soothed the child, Adam felt that his homecoming was finally complete. The past had forced its way back into the present, but it was finally resolved, allowing him to move on.

 

 

 

Downstairs, Ben noticed that Hoss seemed to have lost interest in his pudding and was merely pushing his apple fritters around the plate. As the middle child, Hoss had always been in demand: it was either Adam and Hoss doing things together, or Hoss and Joe. When Adam returned, this familiar scenario continued, but now things appeared to be changing. This bugeoning new relationship between oldest and youngest brothers was a novel and unwelcome experience for Hoss, who was clearly feeling as left out and abandoned as both his brothers had done in the past. Ben began to feel worried. His shy and reserved middle son found it difficult to make friends outside the family and he tended to hover on the sidelines at social events, fearful of rejection. In contrast, Joe just bounced up to people, making friends in an instant, while Adam’s cool wit and nimble mind made him an engaging companion.

 

 

 

Although a part of him was pleased to see his brothers getting along, Hoss was beginning to feel excluded and slightly jealous. “Wonder what Joe’s got planned?” he asked, struggling to keep his voice neutral and light.

 

 

 

Ben saw through the subterfuge immediately, for Hoss wore his heart on his sleeve and his normally cheerful face had a distinctly woebegone look. Nevertheless, he appreciated the effort his son was making.

 

 

 

“I’m sure we’ll find out before too long. Little Joe’s not very good at keeping a secret, is he? But actually, Hoss, I’m glad we’ve got a few moments alone, as there’s something I want your advice on.”

 

 

 

The subterfuge worked brilliantly. Hoss perked up immediately and was soon occupied in helping his father to plan the celebrations for Adam’s birthday at the end of October.

 

 

 

“I think we should make this birthday really special,” Ben said. “After all, it’s the first big celebration since Adam came home and we do have four years to make up for. Have you got any ideas?”

 

 

 

Hoss leant forward eagerly and spooned up a large mouthful of apple fritter. “Reckon I have! I think it’s time we got Adam a real good horse of his very own. Something special.” He took another mouthful of pudding, working things out in his mind. “You used to talk about a friend with a horse ranch outside of Nevada City – how about we go up there and let Adam choose himself a new mount?”

 

 

 

“I’d almost forgotten about Jim Ross! It must be five years or more since we last met,” Ben mused, recollecting how Jim had bred some of the finest horses he’d ever seen. “Well done Hoss! I think that would be just perfect.”

 

 

 

Basking in the praise, Hoss was soon helping his father to plan out the route they would travel. By the time Adam and Joe finally came back downstairs, the preparations were complete. There was just one snag: they would be gone for over a week.

 

 

 

“I don’t mind missing school!” Joe volunteered nobly. He looked offended at the laughter that greeted this guileless proclamation. “I could do with a new horse too,” he added, hoping this might swing the decision in his favour.

 

 

 

“In the first place, you are not missing school. Your education is far too important.” Joe slumped back in his chair. “In the second place, it’s far too long a journey over rough ground for a small boy. And finally, you are riding a perfectly good pony,” Ben informed his youngest son firmly, covering all possible grounds for argument.

 

 

 

“Sides, when you’re a bit bigger, Cherife’s ready an’ waiting for you. He’s a real good horse,” Hoss offered.

 

 

 

Joe’s mouth turned down, “I always get hand-me-downs!” he said plaintively. “Hand-me-down horses and hand-me-down clothes! It’s not fair. I could go up into the attic right now and see my entire life up there waiting for me, all packed up in mothballs. I never get anything just for me. This shirt used to belong to Hoss and my winter coat was made over from one of Adam’s and…”

 

 

 

“We do not want a run-down of your wardrobe, Joseph,” Ben warned. “This is Adam’s birthday treat and you will not spoil it for him. Is that understood?”

 

 

 

“Yes, sir,” Joe said softly, his entire body drooping with disappointment.

 

 

 

Ben had to steel himself to remain firm and resolute, for he knew perfectly well that Joe hated to be left behind and tended to worry and fret whenever his father went away. He looked was still very young and looked so  small and vulnerable that Ben was sorely tempted to give way, just this once. Still, it was a valuable opportunity to spend some time with his two elder sons, and Adam really did deserve a special birthday treat this year to make up for all the years he had been away from his family. “It’s only for a week or so,” he consoled Joe. “Hop Sing will be here to look after you, and you’ll be at school for most of the day anyway.”

 

 

 

What if something happens? Joe worried. What if something happens and you don’t come back?

 

 

 

He hated it whenever his father went away on a trip and felt quite sick at the prospect. There was always a nagging thought, gnawing away at his mind that he was never quite able to suppress, the awful fear that Ben would ride out of the yard one day and simply not come back, just like his Mama had or even Adam. Except that Adam had come back, after all. That made Joe feel slightly better, but he could not quite shake the feelings of injustice.

 

 

 

“Why do I always come last?” he asked. “It ain’t fair, Pa. I’m fed up with being the youngest.”

 

 

 

“Oh Joseph! You know that I love you just as much as I love Adam and Hoss, don’t you? And there are some privileges that come with being the youngest.”

 

 

 

Joe looked sceptical, but he took the bait dangled so enticingly before him. “Yeah? When do I ever get to go first?”

 

 

 

Adam swatted him gently on the butt. “When it’s time to go to bed, kid! Now scoot!”

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

Joe waved goodbye and then turned his pony down the road that led to the Virginia City schoolhouse, while his father and brothers set off in the opposite direction, towards Nevada City. There was a large lump in his throat that would not go away, no matter how hard he swallowed.

 

 

 

Don’t be such a baby, he chided himself. It’s only for a few days. Nothing’s going to happen.

 

 

 

It was little consolation and Joe could not help sniffing loudly and then was forced to wipe his nose on his sleeve. For some reason, he never seemed to have a handkerchief when he needed one. Then a sound of hoof beats made him turn around and he saw Ben dismounting and walking quickly towards him, arms open wide. Joe scrambled off his pony and ran forward to savour one last, fierce hug from his father.

 

 

 

“Be a good boy,” Ben whispered, holding him closely. Joe nodded and then reached upwards, clasping his cold hands around Ben’s neck and planted a farewell kiss on his father’s cheek.

 

 

 

The child’s hands are freezing, Ben thought. I must remember to get him some gloves before winter sets in.

 

 

 

Waiting at the end of the lane, Hoss felt dreadful. “Poor little guy – he hates being left behind.”

 

 

 

“His turn will come,” Adam said reassuringly. “But not this trip, brother! This trip is for you, me and Pa!”

 

 

 

Ben rejoined them, and if his eyes were slightly red and his voice was slightly huskier than normal, neither of his sons commented upon it. Besides, they didn’t quite trust their own voices not to crack.

 

 

 

 

 

*********

 

 

 

 

 

Much to his surprise, Joe found the days actually passed quite pleasurably. For once, school was marginally less boring than usual. In addition to working on their projects for the show, the lessons were actually holding his interest for once. Miss Abigail Jones had chosen a topic that was dear to many of her pupil’s hearts and was teaching them all about the Overland Settlers, a subject that was of considerable interest and relevance to most of her pupils. Thus the days passed quickly and relatively painlessly for Joe.

 

 

 

“Many of those who made the long and hazardous journey westwards were very young children,” Miss Jones began earnestly, clasping her hands in front of her thin chest. She fixed Joe with a beady glare. “I believe that your older brother, Adam, was one of our hardy pioneer children, Joseph?”

 

 

 

“Yes ma’am, he sure was. And my brother Hoss was born on the trail too, “ Joe announced proudly.

 

 

 

Abigail Jones smiled benevolently, while dismissing the latter part of this statement. She was not in the least bit interested in Hoss Cartwright. “Perhaps Adam would like to come to school one day and give us a little talk about his experiences?” she suggested, with a smile that showed a considerable amount of teeth.

 

 

 

Joe answered non-commitally, being perfectly sure that Adam would rather clean out the Ponderosa outhouse single-handedly and on a hot, sunny day to boot before he would willingly collaborate on a project with Miss Jones.

 

 

 

I wonder why he’s so scared of her? he pondered. She ain’t his teacher and she can’t thrash him with her ruler! Joe had a sudden vision of Adam lying across Miss Jones’ lap as she spanked him vigorously with her ruler and struggled valiantly to keep a straight face.

 

 

 

Miss Jones started on her topic for the day and soon every child in the schoolhouse was listening with rapt attention as she related the tragic events that befell the Donner Party. There was complete silence as she explained about the unseasonably early snowstorms that trapped the pioneers in the mountain pass to the Sierra. The serried rows of children were absorbed as she related the desperate efforts of the Forlorn Hope as they strove valiantly to get help for the stricken party.  By the time Abigail described the terrible events at the Camp of Death, more than one child was near to tears.

 

 

 

Mindful of her youthful audience, Abigail was careful to give a highly censored version of events. “Out of an original party of eighty nine people, only forty eight souls survived,” she concluded. She had purposefully not mentioned that many of those who had survived had been forced to eat the dead bodies of their erstwhile travelling companions. Not wanting a stream of irate parents banging at her door and complaining that their children were waking screaming from nightmares,  Abigail concentrated on stressing the bravery and fortitude of the settlers.

 

 

 

The classroom was uncharacteristically quiet as she finished her lesson. The children sat, inwardly digesting the information and considering the many hazards their own families and friends must have faced on the long journey westwards. When Miss Jones dismissed the class for lunch, Joe hung back from the mad stampede towards the door. Instead, he walked over to the large map that hung behind the teacher’s desk and, with a shaking finger, began to trace out the route his father and brothers were travelling along. He shuddered when his finger arrived at the Donner Pass. The same place and at the very same time of year!

 

 

 

They’ll be home tonight, Pa promised! And Pa never lies, he never breaks his promises!

 

 

 

Shaking off his fear, Joe picked up his lunchpail and went out to join his friends. Some of the older boys were eagerly giving the younger children an unexpurgated version of the full horrors the ill-fated Donner Party had been forced to endure.

 

 

 

“’Course, you gotta understand they were starving to death,” Jim Adams began, in a ghoulish tone. “All their food was gone and they were trapped. No way out and no help coming any time soon. Eventually, there was only one thing to do.” He paused for dramatic effect and was pleased to see the younger children looking up at him expectantly. This was better than telling ghost stories at Halloween! “One by one, people began to die, and all they could do was to bury their bodies in the snow. And then they realised – there was only one thing they could do, if they wanted to survive.”

 

 

 

Matt Greenstone took up the tale with relish. “They didn’t want to do it, but they were starving to death. And the bodies were kept fresh by the frozen snow, so one day, when the hunger pangs got real bad, they realised they had only one option to stay alive….”

 

 

 

“You mean – they ate them?” Helena Morgan looked as if she would be sick.

 

 

 

Matt nodded solemnly. “Cannibalism!” he replied. There were several nervous gulps and at least half a dozen white faces in the little crowd. Nobody felt much like eating afterwards and most children went home with full lunchpails that evening.

 

 

 

That afternoon, the children worked hard to put the finishing touches to their projects, in preparation for the show the next day. By two o’clock, all the lamps were lit, as the sky outside was heavy and grey, with the promise of snow. Gulping down his fear, Joe tried very hard to concentrate on his work, but his hands were clammy and clumsy and he kept dropping things.

 

 

 

Abigail Jones surveyed his work with delight. “That’s very good indeed, Joseph. You’ve shown considerable application and worked very hard on this. I am proud of you.”

 

 

 

“Thanks!” Joe’s eyes shone with pleasure, for a compliment from Miss Jones was rarer than hen’s teeth. “I’m really looking forward to the show tomorrow.”

 

 

 

“Will your family be coming along?” Abigail asked, with studied nonchalance. Oh cruel fate, if she denied the opportunity of spending some time with the intriguingly delicious Adam Cartwright! She had fallen hopelessly in love with him from the first moment he appeared in church, but for some reason she could not quite fathom, there had been few opportunities for conversation. Abigail was a lady with steely determination in her soul and was determined to seize upon any opportunity to bedazzle her beloved.

 

 

 

“Of course they will,” Joe responded confidently. “They’ll be back this afternoon. In fact, I bet they’re waiting there for me right now.”

 

 

 

Joe rode home at full-pelt, convinced that his father would be sitting at the fireside, ready to greet him with open arms. His heart sank when he led his pony into the barn and saw the other stalls were still empty.

 

 

 

Oh well, they’ll be back for supper, he thought philosophically.

 

 

 

Hoss certainly wouldn’t want to spend a night out in the open, eating cold jerky and beans when he could be tucking into Hop Sing’s delicious cooking. Smiling broadly, Joe ambled into the kitchen and perched on the edge of the table, watching intently as Hop Sing deftly jointed chickens and then dredged the portions in flour, ready to start frying them once the family returned home.

 

 

 

Eventually, once it was completely dark, they had to acknowledge that the older Cartwrights would not be back in time for dinner. Joe managed to choke down a few mouthfuls, consuming the bare minimum to keep Hop Sing from nagging at him and then sat staring into the fire, his arms wrapped around his bony knees.

 

 

 

“I’m not going to bed until my Pa gets home,” he announced firmly.

 

 

 

Of all the men who lived and worked on the Ponderosa, there was only one person who could match Joe for sheer wilfulness. Brandishing a wooden spoon, Hop Sing gestured towards the staircase. “Bed. Waiting not make father and brothers come sooner.”

 

 

 

“I won’t sleep,” Joe threatened.

 

 

 

“Bed,” Hop Sing repeated implacably and gave added emphasis by tapping Joe firmly across his butt. Groaning loudly and hobbling in a dramatic fashion, Joe went upstairs reluctantly. For a long time, sleep eluded him and when he heard the sound of horses in the yard below, he leapt out of bed and dashed towards the window. It was freezing cold that night and frost was already starting to form on the inside of his window, so Joe breathed heavily on the glass and used a corner of his nightshirt to rub a small peephole. Peering out, he saw Charlie, the ranch foreman, returning from town. With a sigh, Joe wandered back to bed.

 

 

 

Winter was coming early, there was no doubt of that. The bushes were covered with berries already and Hoss always said that was a sure sign the winter would be long and hard. Thinking back to his lessons in school, Joe remembered that the Donner Pass was on much higher ground than the Ponderosa, and there could easily be snow there already. Lots of snow, in fact. His Pa could be trapped and….

 

 

 

With a little sob, Joe burrowed under the covers and tried to block out the terrifying images that swirled around in his head, dancing with horrid clarity. The wind that blew around the eaves of the house would be much stronger up in the mountain passes. In his mind, Joe could hear the melancholy sounds it would make, whistling down a narrow gorge, where a small party waited for help that would not arrive until it was far too late.

 

 

 

If he shut his eyes tightly and concentrated very hard, Joe could see the smile on his father’s face and the love that shone from his eyes. But all too rapidly this comforting image was replaced by another: the sad expressions on Adam and Hoss’ faces, as they lay pale and still, almost merging into the snow that built up in banks and drifts around them. All around them the  snow whirled wildly, forming dizzying patterns that drifted slowly  ownwards to gradually obliterate their features. Soon, the only thing Joe could see was their eyes, staring at him, pleading for help.

 

 

 

And as the small boy cowered under the bedclothes, secure and safe, he could see the eyes of his father and brothers grow blank and unseeing, not flinching or blinking as the snow floated down to settle on the irises. First one flake of snow, and then another and another. Joe watched in horror as his father’s brown eyes began to turn white. Soon, all too soon, their eyes were full of snow and Joe knew he had lost his family forever.

 

 

 

Seated by the warmth of the kitchen range, Hop Sing was sipping a cup of tea when a cold hand tugged at his sleeve. He only just managed not to drop the cup, but stifled back his angry retort when he saw the anguished expression on Joe’s face.

 

 

 

“Who’s gonna look after me if my Pa don’t come home?” Joe asked in a small, thin voice. “What if something bad has happened to them?” He shuffled his bare feet nervously on the floor and gazed up at Hop Sing imploringly.

 

 

 

“No need worry. Father and brothers fine. Be back tomorrow.”

 

 

 

“Do you promise?” Joe asked.

 

 

 

“Promise,” Hop Sing confirmed, sending up a quick plea to whichever Gods might be looking down on the Ponderosa that evening. He knew the weather was closing in and was deeply troubled that the family had not returned home. Mr Cartwright was a man who kept his word, no matter what, and the unexpected delay worried Hop Sing gravely. But he would never let his private concerns convey themselves to the small boy who stood before him, so Hop Sing bustled Joe back up stairs and into bed with all his accustomed vigour.

 

 

 

Returning to the kitchen, Hop Sing sat with his elbows propped on his knees, staring with great intensity at the outside wall. If sheer will power could produce results, there would have been a clatter of footsteps on the porch and then a shrill blast of chill air would rush through the house as the travellers returned. Instead, the only thing disturbing his thoughts was the resonant ticking of the grandfather clock in the next room, as it sonorously marked each passing, unfulfilled moment.

 

 

 

Joe only went to school under great duress the next morning. Hop Sing had almost relented and let him stay at home, as it was obvious from his pale face and the dark circles under his eyes that the child had barely slept. However, a day at home would only give him more time to worry and fret, so Hop Sing chivvied and chided Joe relentlessly. Looking at the steaming cup placed before him, Joe raised his eyebrows questioningly. Hot chocolate was an expensive treat, normally strictly rationed and reserved for special occasions.

 

 

 

“Cold outside. Maybe snow later. Drink up!” Hop Sing knew there was little chance of Joe eating any oatmeal that morning and was determined the boy should consume something that was warming and nourishing. The smile he received was ample recompense.

 

 

 

The ride to school had never seemed longer or lonelier to Joe. He wished that Hoss was beside him, pointing out all manner of interesting things.

 

 

 

Funny how you don’t realise how important something is until it’s gone, Joe thought.

 

 

 

Over the past few days, he had thought about Adam a lot, and was rewarded with more and more memories. Just small, inconsequential moments, like the way Adam would give him a piggy-back ride on the way up to bed, but they were precious remnants of a time he had almost forgotten and Joe cherished them.

 

 

 

I’m only just starting to get to know him again. I can’t lose him now – he doesn’t even know that I love him. His heart ached with loneliness.

 

 

 

Miss Jones kept her pupils busy and by two o’clock, the schoolroom was transformed. All the desks were pushed to the edges of the room and now held an impressive array of models, painting, pieces of embroidery and various other artefacts, encompassing all aspect of the chosen theme: My Home. Typically, Joe had decided on a suitably ambitious project and decided that nothing less than a representation of the Ponderosa would satisfy him. Adam had managed to persuade him to amend his plans slightly and had offered sage advice, but Joe had laboured lovingly over his model.

 

 

 

In the background stood a painting of the ranch house, painstakingly rendered, with five small figures, cut out of cardboard, adorned with woollen hair and clothing made out of scraps of fabric. Each member of the family was represented, and Joe laboriously plaited a long pigtail for Hop Sing. In the foreground, four little horses stood inside a small, rather rickety corral. Each one was lovingly carved out of wood and then painted, while more scraps of wool served as manes and tails.

 

 

 

Miss Jones watched as Joe made the final adjustments to his display. Just as he placed the last figure in its appointed place, she clapped her hands together loudly and announced in ringing tones “Children! It’s almost time for your families to arrive! Into your places and get ready.”

 

 

 

Absorbed in his thoughts, Joe gave a violent start and then stared in dismay as he uncurled his fist to reveal a cardboard figure that was crushed and crumpled beyond repair or recognition.  Stifling an exclamation, he discarded it and meekly joined the line of children lining up beside the teacher.

 

 

 

It doesn’t matter, he told himself fiercely. They’re not coming. Yet something within him kept hoping.

 

 

 

Soon, the schoolhouse was filled with excited chatter as proud parents and doting relatives viewed the displays and congratulated the children on their work. The floor was soon scattered with cookie crumbs, while the lemonade and hot punch were gulped down gratefully by young and old alike. Joe stood to one side, staring out of the window and watching in vain for the sight of three figures riding towards him. The various representations of My Home just seemed to mock him and all his pride and joy in his own display was now as dull and lifeless as the ashes from last night’s fire.

 

 

 

Abigail Jones was not greatly blessed with much intuition or understanding, but she did have a kind heart and was deeply moved by the pensive air of the one child who stood alone and isolated from the festivities.

 

 

 

“Joseph? If you would like to leave early today – that would be alright.”

 

 

 

Joe nodded his head sombrely and managed to stammer a few words of thanks, before grabbing his coat and cantering home, hoping that his family would be waiting to greet him, rather than lying cold and still in an inhospitable valley high in the mountains.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

“We’ve made good time!” Ben announced, as they rode up to the schoolhouse. The return leg of the journey had been long and hard, hampered by icy winds and snow, which made the high mountain passes treacherous for men to traverse on horseback. It was too early for the horses to be shod with their winter shoes, which had studs screwed into them to provide extra grip on icy surfaces, so the Cartwrights had no choice but to dismount and lead their horses over the most dangerous parts. But despite the cold coming, they were nearly home, safe and in one piece and they had achieved the object of their mission – a feisty sorrel horse, that Adam rode with evident pride. There was only one thing left to do – collect Joe from school and return home for a celebratory meal.

 

 

 

Abigail Jones stood on the steps of the schoolhouse, waving goodbye to the last of the departing children and their parents when her heart gave a little leap. Self-consciously patting her hair into place and adjusting the bodice of her dress to maximum advantage, she smiled happily as the enigmatic Adam Cartwright rode towards her, mounted on a magnificent sorrel with four white socks. There was something deep and mysterious about the eldest Cartwright son that intrigued Abigail deeply and she thought he was the living embodiment of Mr Darcy. If only he could see that she was destined to be his Elizabeth Bennett! She ran forward to greet the party in a positive fluster of lace trimmed petticoats.

 

 

 

Adam’s new horse did not like the dancing bands of white that rushed across the schoolyard and started to dance around skittishly. Struggling to control the animal, Adam forced himself to smile pleasantly at the teacher, who was gazing up at him with a most peculiar expression on her face. He was not altogether convinced that Miss Abigail Jones should really be left in charge of impressionable young children. Indeed, there were times when the woman seemed to be positively lacking.

 

 

 

Ben’s deep voice broke into Adam’s reveries. “Good afternoon, Miss Jones. I hope we are not too late to enjoy the show your pupils have worked so hard on?”

 

 

 

“Indeed no!” Abigail simpered happily and led them into the schoolhouse with a jaunty sashay of her hips. Ben looked around the empty room with dismay.

 

 

 

“Where is Joseph? And the other children?”

 

 

 

Abigail was more than a little scared of the imposing Ben Cartwright and grew flustered. She was also deeply dismayed to notice that Adam was standing as far away from her as possible, while Hoss walked slowly around the classroom, inspecting the handiwork.

 

 

 

“I allowed Joseph to go home early. He was a little upset and it didn’t seem fair to make him stay, when…” Her voice trailed off miserably.

 

 

 

“When Joseph was the only child without his family present.” Ben finished the sentence for her. He knew that for all his outgoing, fun-loving nature, Joe was still just a little boy, in need of love, praise and reassurance. How must he have felt, standing alone and exposed, while all the other children basked in the praise and admiration of their families?

 

 

 

“Pa?” Hoss was standing at the far end of the room, his meaty hand resting on a small desk. “You’d better come and have a look at this.” His voice was unsteady and as Ben walked closer, he was shocked to realise that his son was close to tears. Placing a comforting hand on Hoss’ shoulder, Ben looked down and smiled at the rendition of the Ponderosa, created with so much love and smiled at the sign that boldly proclaimed My Home in Joe’s unique, backward sloping handwriting.

 

 

 

“That’s quite some piece of work!” Obviously, Joe had spent hours working on this. Bending down, Ben studied the figures closely. The one with the pigtail must be Hop Sing, but the other three were virtually indistinguishable from one another. Unless – the one with grey hair must be himself, while the one with the large white blob on its head would be Hoss. By a process of elimination, the remaining figure must be Adam. Joe had considerably more enthusiasm than artistic talent. Nevertheless, it was an impressive sight.

 

 

 

Miss Jones smiled at Adam in what she fondly assumed to be an alluring manner and wondered why he averted his eyes. Of course! He’s too much of a gentleman to let his feelings show! Such delicacy of sentiment! A flush crept up her throat and she found it difficult to catch her breath.

 

 

 

“But Pa – can’t you see? We’re all there – you, me, Adam – even Hop Sing. But where’s Joe?”

 

 

 

Adam bent down, a concerned look on his face. “He certainly planned to put himself in there. He told me so.”

 

 

 

As he looked more closely, Ben realised that there was no figure representing his youngest son. Why would he portray his home in such detail, yet leave himself out? The answer flew back at him, straight and true, piercing his heart. Because he does not feel a part of that home. He feels left out, alone and abandoned.

 

 

 

Adam gave a small cry and picked up a crumpled piece of card from the floor. Smoothing it with his fingers, they looked at a small figure with a smiling face, green eyes and curly brown hair.

 

 

 

“We must be going,” Ben announced and marched out the schoolhouse, without a backward look. Abigail Jones watched Adam’s retreating figure and began to tidy up the classroom, busily planing which dress she would wear to church on Sunday. Adam Cartwright might pretend to be politely indifferent to her, but she knew that was only his natural reticence. He would not want to declare himself until he was sure she returned his affections. Humming a little tune, Abigail soon lost herself in happy fantasies.

 

 

 

All the way home, Ben reproached and berated himself. Had he been so busy with his elder sons that he had failed to notice how Joseph was suffering? What must his little boy have been going through? Was it really fair to exclude the child from a family trip, even if it was over rough, inhospitable country and during the school term? He set a fast pace, anxious to see his child as soon as possible, and to try to set things straight. As he rode, Ben kept thinking of the crumpled and discarded cardboard figure. Did Joe feel so worthless and insecure that he felt he no longer belonged on the Ponderosa? Did he doubt how much his father and brothers loved him?

 

 

 

Behind him, Adam and Hoss rode side by side, speaking quietly and each finding some solace in the other’s company and words.

 

 

 

“Sure hope the little guy’s alright,” Hoss said. “I bet he’s been real lonely and missing us summat fierce. After you left for college, he took to sneaking into your room at night and sleeping there.” He cleared his throat loudly. “He’s a good kid, Adam, a real good kid. Big heart, but he does fret over things. Always afraid of being left out or left behind. Sure hope he doesn’t think I’ve tossed him aside, now that you’re home. I never meant to do anything like that.”

 

 

 

Adam realised that it was often Hoss who voiced what others were thinking but could not quite put into words. Such niceties as grammar and phraseology did not greatly concern his brother, but the very simplicity and sincerity of his words just served to emphasise the deep and pure emotions he felt.

 

 

 

“I hope I can be as good a brother to Joe as you are,” he confessed. “You’ve given me a hard task to follow. I don’t want to let Joe down. I went away once and he felt that I’d abandoned him.”

 

 

 

“You’ll be fine,” Hoss assured him. “Joe’s got a heart as big as Lake Tahoe. Mind you, he’s as stubborn as molasses that’s set hard!”

 

 

 

Smiling slightly, Adam redoubled his efforts to keep the horse under control and just managed to stop the animal from barging his hindquarters into Buck. He certainly was a challenging ride and Adam could foresee some interesting days ahead. He could imagine how Joe would clamour to be allowed to ride him. Once he had the animal more firmly under his control, he would take Joe out for a special trip, just the two of them, alone together.

 

 

 

He recalled all the times they had ridden together in the past and how tightly he had held onto a small boy, brimming with self-confidence. It grieved him beyond words that Joe had no recollection of those times that were so precious to him.

 

 

 

Trying to view things objectively, Adam acknowledged that he had arrived home in the full and certain expectation that things would be exactly the same as when he had left, including his relationships with his family. And, where Pa and Hoss were concerned, things had worked out pretty much as he’d expected them to. But with Joe, things were very different. Joe had steadfastly and stubbornly insisted that his life would continue just as it had always done. A life in which Adam played no real or meaningful part. It was only know, as he thought of how his little brother must be feeling, that Adam could acknowledge just how much Joe’s attitude had hurt him.

 

 

 

It is not too late, he vowed. I am not loosing you, brother. I simply will not allow you to slip through my fingers. We can get back to where we once were, I know we can. With enough love, anything is possible.

 

 

 

If his words had a certain tone of desperation about them, Adam was able to dismiss this as mere fanciful conjecture. He was a man of action and as good as his word!

 

 

 

A plume of smoke arose from above the treetops, signalling that they were nearly home. The three men urged the horses on faster, their speed in direct opposition to the feelings of dread that consumed each of them. Ben cantered right up to the porch of the house, unwilling to wait for a single moment longer.

 

 

 

“Joseph!”

 

 

 

At the sound of the familiar cry, a small figure came hurtling out of the door, launching itself across the porch at breakneck speed.

 

 

 

“I knew you’d come home!” Joe screamed in delight, impervious of the fact that Ben only just managed to keep Buck from trampling him underfoot, while Sport shied nervously in the background. For once, Ben did not scold his son’s impetuosity, rather he delighted in the fact that Joe seemed to be acting so normally and looked to be overjoyed to have his family home once again.  He dismounted quickly, throwing the reins to Hoss and picked up his son to savour the precious feeling of holding him close.

 

 

 

“You’re squashing me, Pa!” Joe protested. Ben merely pressed his cheek against the soft curls and gave Joe a fond kiss, before finally settling him back down on his feet. Thus released, Joe submitted to a bearhug from Hoss and then approached Adam, who was still mounted on Sport, slightly apart from the rest of the family.

 

 

 

“I missed you, Adam. I’m real glad you’re home.”

 

 

 

Adam nodded, not daring to say anything. Joe looked at the horse critically. “I’d try another type of bridle,” he advised knowledgeably. “Maybe a martingale might make him a bit easier for you to handle.”

 

 

 

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Adam replied dryly. He leant down and stretched out a hand. “Want to try him?”

 

 

 

Joe blinked, as the past and present seemed to merge seamlessly into a perfect whole. Everything seemed very clear and straightforward now. Reaching up, he grasped hold of Adam’s fingers, gave an agile bounce and was lifted up into the saddle. They rode around the yard a couple of time in silence, before Joe trustingly leant back against Adam’s chest and stared up at him. That was when Adam knew he was truly home, when he felt the unconditional love and trust flow from every fibre of Joe’s body.

 

 

 

“You know, if you keep your right leg in close to his side, you’d get on a lot better,” Joe confided in a confidential tone of voice.

 

 

 

“I’ll try to remember,” Adam said, and then reached forward to waggle Joe’s ears. The boy squealed laughter and wriggled wildly, but Ben knew there was no danger. Adam was holding on tightly to Joe. He would look after him.

 

 

 

Ben looked at his boys and knew that whatever trials and tribulation lay ahead, they would be able to face them together, as a family. No matter how different they might be, their strength lay in the deep love that stretched like a golden cord, binding them together into an immutable whole. At times that cord might be stretched to breaking point, but the purity of its essence would always endure, come what may.

 

 

 

Riding towards the barn, Joe fixed his father with a beseeching gaze. “Can I get a new horse soon, Pa? Please?”

 

 

 

Ben rolled his eyes meaningfully. “Joseph!”

 

 

 

Some things never changed. He hoped they never would.


Chapter 3:

“Joe! Tighten up on the left! We’re going to loose half the herd if you keep daydreaming like that!” Adam’s voice rang out clearly across the pasture.

 

 

 

Tightening his lips into a straight line, Joe merely nodded and bent his attentions to ensuring no beast would wander off, but internal, his thoughts were churning rebelliously.

 

 

 

When will Adam ever stop treating me like a child? And a none too bright child at that?

 

 

 

“Ease up on the kid,” Hoss advised. “Cut him a little slack.”

 

 

 

Adam snorted contemptuously. “So are you volunteering to explain to Pa why some of the best beeves this side of the Sierras are missing? Because little brother over there is busy wool-gathering and can’t keep his mind on the job? I don’t think so, do you?”

 

 

 

“He’s doin’ his best,” Hoss pleaded. “It’s his first roundup and he’s got a lot to learn, sure – but he’s as keen as mustard, Adam. If you keep riding him like that, you’ll just flatten the spirit right out of him.”

 

 

 

“The kid’s unsquashable!” Adam grumped, but then considered his brother’s words carefully. “I don’t treat Joe differently to any of the other hands,” he said, trying hard not to sound too defensive.

 

 

 

“That’s just it – Joe ain’t one of the hands, is he? Did Pa treat you like that, when you first came back home? Embarrassing you in front of the men or putting you down in public? I don’t think so.”

 

 

 

“I was considerably older than Joe. And I had a lot more experience than our baby brother over there.”

 

 

 

Hoss watched as Joe deftly herded a particularly recalcitrant cow back into the main body of the herd and gave him a companionable wave of his hand. “Time will sort that out soon enough, Adam. You of all people should know that. But we can all help to make it as easy a passage as possible for Joe.”

 

 

 

Adam considered this as they continued to drive the herd slowly down towards the tree-lined meadowlands, which would provide shelter from the worst ravages of winter. Much nearer to the ranch house, it was fairly easy to keep the animals supplied with hay, once snow covered the ground and froze the grazing solid. But this year, the high summer pastures were already fetlock deep in snow, for winter was making its presence felt with a vengeance. Normally, there would still be abundant grazing in the meadowlands, but Adam knew this would soon be depleted and then the tedious task of driving out with wagonloads of fodder would begin.

 

 

 

“Perhaps I should give Joe a little more responsibility,” he mused.

 

 

 

Hoss brightened up, not noticing the sardonic smile that curved his brother’s lips. “That’s just what I meant. Did you have anything particular in mind?”

 

 

 

“You know those half-Guernsey calves?”

 

 

 

Hoss nodded, for he had been the one to come up with the initial idea to breed a high-quality milk cow that was sturdy enough to survive the bleak Nevada winters.  Over the summer, around twenty calves were born and they were all anxious to see how Guernsey-cross calves would fare.

 

 

 

“Well, I thought that Joe could assume responsibility for the herd. Keep them supplied with feed, check up on them – you know the sort of thing. Not too arduous, but a man’s job, nevertheless. What do you think?”

 

 

 

Sometimes, Hoss thought that Adam should have trained as a lawyer, for he was certainly sneaky enough. While the project certainly represented an independent endeavour for Joe, it was no secret that he had no especial interest in cows and much preferred working with the horses. Of course, Adam kept saying that it was important for Joe to gain knowledge about all aspects of the Ponderosa’s operations, so maybe this was for the best.

 

 

 

“I guess you’re right,” he admitted, unwillingly. Casting a look at the snow-covered peaks of the mountains and the sullen skies, Hoss gave a little shiver: he certainly didn’t envy Joe making that slow wagon journey every couple of days through miserable weather, while the rest of the family stayed close to the house, concentrating on book work, planning and preparing for the coming season and repairing various pieces of tack and livery.

 

 

 

Joe could see his brothers engaged in conversation and felt a familiar stirring of resentment.

 

 

 

 I just bet they’re plotting and planning my future! Don’t bother to ask my opinion, will you Adam? Oh no, I’m just your dumb little brother, who you’ve got to watch over.

 

 

 

He redoubled his energies to keeping the cattle from straying, determine to frustrate any further escape attempts.

 

 

 

Working full-time on the ranch was not turning out quite the way had hoped. There were only a few hands still employed at this time of year and they were all experienced men, who had worked for the Cartwrights for years. And therein lay another part of Joe’s problems. These were men who had known him all his life and several of them still called him Little Joe. There were times when Joe absolutely detested his childhood nickname and he wondered when people would finally drop it.

 

 

 

But that paled into insignificance when compared with the problem of his father and brothers! Overprotective, bossy and loving – Joe often felt smothered and frequently wondered if he would ever be allowed to think or act independently. These were the bitter fruits of being the youngest child, as far as he was concerned. There were days when Joe felt that everything he suggested or attempted to do had been done long before by one or other of his brothers, and done far better into the bargain. Squaring his shoulders, Joe stared miserably at the rumps of the cows ahead of him and gloomily contemplated life and all its many injustices.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

The stomping of boots on the porch alerted Ben to the return of his sons, just as dusk was beginning to colour the grey skies with tendrils of purple and deep blue. The days were growing much shorter now and he was always relieved to see his boys safely home before darkness fell completely. In they trooped, in order of age and arranged themselves in front of the fireplace, jockeying for position as each tried to get a share of the heat. Hoss stood immobile in the middle, stolidly reaching out his hands to the heat and ignoring the antics of Adam and Joe, who jostled him fruitlessly but never succeed in moving him away from the prized position. Ben wondered if they would ever realise that the only way to oust Hoss was for them to act together? He seriously doubted if that day would ever occur.

 

 

 

“Did you get the cattle down safely?” he asked.

 

 

 

“They’re all in the winter pastures. And Joe’s going to tend those heifers and the Guernsey-cross calves over the winter.”

 

 

 

Joe threw a pleading glance at his father, but Ben deliberately ignored it. He was not going to contradict Adam, who often made decisions concerning the day to day operations of the Ponderosa. Besides which, this was an eminently suitable job for a youngster, a touch boring perhaps, but a necessary and vital chore. And it would give Joseph an outlet for his energies, while keeping him relatively close to the house and out of any possible harm. This suited Ben perfectly.

 

 

 

After dinner, Ben made an announcement. “I’ll be leaving for San Francisco on business on Saturday. There are some valuable leases coming up for renegotiation and I’ve arranged a series of meetings in the city with some brokers and other valuable contacts. If I’m successful, this could lead to some valuable new lines of business with the Army and some of the Railroad companies. I should be gone for at least three weeks.”

 

 

 

He looked keenly at his sons’ faces, as they sat digesting this information. Did they ever guess how their father could read the emotions that flitted across their faces? Ben sincerely hoped not – he needed to retain the upper hand in any way he could!

 

 

 

Adam was obviously torn: on the one hand, he would have dearly loved to take part in the negotiations, but he realised that his father needed him to run the ranch in his absence. And to keep an eye on Joe! That boy could try the patience of a saint! But Adam would do his duty resolutely, Ben knew that.

 

 

 

Hoss had no especial desire to visit San Francisco during the winter months, as demonstrated by the little shiver that shook his massive frame. It was bad enough on the Ponderosa, but Hoss knew how the chill and damp weather enveloped the city during the winter months, making its inhabitants shiver and sneeze. Hoss would much prefer to stay at home and savour Hop Sing’s delicious winter specialities.

 

 

 

For once, Ben found it difficult to judge what Joe was thinking. That was peculiar, for normally, his youngest son was the easiest of the three to read. Emotions never lay very beneath Joe’s skin and were usually reflected in his mobile face. But this evening, Joe merely nodded his agreement, wished his father a pleasant journey and then announced that he was tired and going to bed early.

 

 

 

“It was a long, hard day,” Hoss said, observing the concerned look on Ben’s face. “He worked real hard and I guess he’s tuckered out.”

 

 

 

“But everything went well, didn’t it?” Ben did not want to pry, but he could not ignore the fact that Joe seemed miserable.

 

 

 

“Fine,” Adam reassured him. “I had to remind him to keep his mind on the job a couple of times, but apart from that, there were no problems. Like Hoss said, I expect he’s just tired. After all, he’s been growing fast this year and it was a long day for all of us.”

 

 

 

Ben agreed. Joe had certainly grown, both physically and mentally, over the past few months. Childhood was well behind him, and while not yet a man, the seeds were sewn and beginning to assert themselves. This was the third time Ben had dealt with the phenomenon of realising that his precious child was ready to strike out and face the world on his own terms. Familiarity did not make it any easier for an anxious father. Actually, it was more difficult for Ben to deal with, third time around. It became more difficult to deal with each successive son. This time, with his youngest son, Ben wondered if he could bear the realisation that there would be no one to follow Joseph, no trusting soul, gazing up at him in the undoubted expectation that his father had all the answers to everything that troubled a young man. Ben had been a father for nearly thirty years, more than half his life, and it was almost impossible for him to subdue his paternal instincts, or to suppress the instinct to protect and guide his sons. Something deep within his soul told him that Joe was in particular need of his father’s support and encouragement and Ben felt impossibly torn. He needed to be sure that Adam and Hoss fully understood.

 

 

 

“You will keep an eye on Joe, won’t you? I know he thinks he can do just about anything, but…”

 

 

 

“We’ll watch over him, don’t you fret none, Pa. Me and Adam’s been doing that since the day he was born, ain’t we? We’re not about to stop now.”

 

 

 

Yes, Ben thought, but you are only his brothers. I am his father and that is the vital difference.  Still, he appreciated Hoss’ support and understanding.

 

 

 

“Give him a little slack, won’t you? He’s just a boy and he needs time to enjoy himself and run free.”

 

 

 

Adam chortled. “But not too free, eh Pa? I don’t fancy having a string of irate fathers coming beating on the door and demanding Joe’s hide!”

 

 

 

His attempt at humour fell flat. “I think I brought my boys up better than that, “ Ben informed him. “All my boys. I hope I wasn’t wrong?” He cocked an eyebrow at Adam and was amused to see that he could still reduce his eldest son to meek boyhood. “One last thing – give Joe a chance and remember to listen to what he says. Joe may be young, but he’s got a good brain, so let him use it.”

 

 

 

“The best decisions are made jointly,” Adam agreed smoothly, quickly recovering his composure. It was amazing the way Pa could reduce him to the status of a guilty schoolboy!  Adam secretly wondered what contribution Joe could possibly make to life on the Ponderosa. The boy seemed more concerned with sparking pretty girls and having fun than anything else.

 

 

 

Ben left early on Saturday morning, accompanied by Adam and Joe. There had been a light fall of snow, but it was not yet deep enough to use the sleigh, so they hitched up the buckboard, intending to kill two birds with one stone and to stock up with supplies at the mercantile.

 

 

 

“You could do with a new coat, son.” Joe’s old winter coat was stretched tight across his chest and his wrists poked out of the sleeves. “Have a look in the Mercantile and put it on the account. It looks as if this winter is going to be a hard one and I don’t want to think of you shivering for the want of a warm winter coat.”

 

 

 

“Now you’re a working man, you’re going to be out in all weathers,” Adam contributed.

 

 

 

Joe stood up a little straighter, with his shoulders held back and his chest thrust out as far as the constricting coat would allow. A look of anxiety crossed Ben’s face as he thought of his youngest child facing the inhospitable weather that often left the Ponderosa cut off and isolated, but he managed to choke down his worries. Once again, he had to remind himself that he had faced this very situation twice before and that both Adam and Hoss had emerged with flying colours. There was no need to worry. Joe would be fine.

 

 

 

“Have a safe trip,” Joe whispered, as he hugged his father farewell. He was no longer plagued by worries when his father went away, but it did make him slightly uneasy. He would never admit it to anyone, but Joe was happiest when life ticked over at a normal pace and change always made him slightly wary.

 

 

 

“Look after yourself,” Ben replied, thinking how much easier life had been when his sons were little boys and a consoling hug from their father would immediately set the world to rights for them. He almost felt as if he could weep for those golden years that were now consigned to the past.

 

 

 

A reassuring pat on his shoulder made Ben reluctantly relinquish his youngest son and his eyes met Adam’s with a flash of mutual understanding.

 

 

 

“We’ll be fine,” Adam said, gently drawing Joe towards him and placing his arm around the youngster’s shoulders. “Don’t worry about a thing.”

 

 

 

Worry? Ben thought ruefully, as the stagecoach started on its long journey. You don’t know the meaning of the word, son! Just wait until you have children of your own – then you might just begin to understand!

 

 

 

As the miles between Virginia City and San Francisco passed, Ben’s thoughts were not on the important business deals that awaited him, but remained concentrated on his children. Three sons – fine, strong young men, independent and able to face the challenges that life might throw at them. He knew he had prepared them well, with a lasting of legacy of love, tolerance and understanding. He had spent so many, many years encouraging his boys to find their own feet and form their own opinions and now that phase of his life was almost complete. What was left for him to achieve? Of course, they still sought his advice and listened to his council, but they were no longer the little boys who needed their Pa to reassure them that everything would be all right. The harsh realities of the world had fashioned their understanding at an early age and too many times he had seen the innocence retreat just a little further from their clear eyes.

 

 

 

When did I grow old? he wondered. And what do I do now, when I see my main role in life diminishing a little more each day? Do I sit back and just watch, growing less relevant with each day? Or do I make the break swift and sudden?

 

 

 

Ben knew that his whole life had been marked by a relentless belief that there was always something better awaiting him, supplemented by a restless energy and drive, traits which had helped him to overcome the deaths of three beloved wives.

 

 

 

But I always had my boys and they needed me. I had to be strong, for their sakes. But what do I do now? There are no new challenges left for me. Is this it?

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

Joe wandered up to Adam with a disconsolate expression on his face. “There ain’t no coats in my size,” he informed his brother.

 

 

 

“Sometimes, I think you should have stayed on at school, if only to knock the basics of grammar into your head.” It was a familiar refrain and one that neither brother took seriously.  Grabbing Joe by the elbow, Adam walked purposefully towards a rack of winter coats. “This one looks about right – try it on.”

 

 

 

This time, his voice held no room for manoeuvre. With manifest bad grace, Joe shrugged off his old coat and reluctantly tried on the blue-checked garment Adam held out.

 

 

 

“See? I told you it was too big.”

 

 

 

“There’s some room for growth, certainly, but apart from that, it’s fine.”

 

 

 

“I don’t like it.”

 

 

 

Ah! Now they were reaching the crux of the matter. Adam pulled Joe towards him and spoke in an undertone. “You look fine. Just fine. It’s a good coat and it’ll keep you warm. And I am not going to be the one who explains to Pa why you have double pneumonia and frostbite. Do you really want to spend the winter in bed, drinking Doc Martin’s vile medicines?”

 

 

 

Despite himself, Joe smiled and let himself be persuaded into accepting the despised coat. He still didn’t like it though. Especially the funny little half belt at the back – what was the point of that? He eyed up Adam’s custard coloured coat speculatively, wondering why such choice garments were never handed down. All he got were shirts that were frayed at the collar, or pants that bagged at the seat. Those were the penalties of being the youngest and slimmest member of the family. It seemed strange that Adam never had to wear Hoss’ outgrown clothes. Snickering quietly at the choice picture this produced, Joe followed his brother outside.

 

 

 

A cold chill greeted the brothers and Joe actually felt grateful for his new coat. As he strolled down the boardwalk, he tipped his hat politely at one of the saloon girls peeping beguilingly out of the swing doors and flashed her an engaging smile.

 

 

 

“Mornin’ ma’am!”

 

 

 

“Adam Cartwright! Is this another of your brothers? My, they sure do grow handsome men on the Ponderosa and this one is best yet!”

 

 

 

Joe looked absurdly pleased at this compliment and was saddened when Adam merely mumbled a few words in response and hustled him away. “She seemed like a real nice lady – is she a friend of yours?” he asked ingenuously.

 

 

 

“We may have exchanged a few words, on occasion.”

 

 

 

Just how much has Pa explained to the kid? Adam worried anxiously. There was no way he felt ready or prepared for that particular chore.

 

 

 

“I’ll believe you Adam, though thousands wouldn’t!” Joe assumed his very best ‘unfledged-angel’ expression and then ducked to avoid the light-hearted swipe aimed at his head.

 

 

 

As they set off towards the Ponderosa, a few flakes of snow were beginning to fall. The brothers turned up their jacket collars and settled their hats down as protection against the weather. Winter was setting in with a vengeance.

 

 

 

“So, tell me Adam, how did you meet that lovely young lady?” Joe called out with a wicked twinkle in his eye. He did not wait for a response, but eased Cochise into a canter, weaving in and out of the trees with carefree abandon that left his brother open-mouthed in admiration.

 

 

 

“Be careful, you idiot!” Adam yelled, knowing that he was obliged to sound a cautionary note, even if his entire being ached with envy and longed to be able to emulate his brother’s horsemanship. Not likely to happen now, he thought grimly and concentrated on driving the buckboard home safely.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

Over the next few days, the snow fell steadily and the winds blew ferociously. Joe stopped moaning about his coat and gladly relished the warmth and protection it afforded him. Outdoor work had virtually ceased, with only the most urgent chores being attended to, while a journey into town was simply unthinkable. Adam and Hoss stayed close to the house, hurrying back to the fireplace whenever they were forced outside. Even the briefest trip to the barn left them with numb feet and hands.

 

 

 

“Maybe we should give Joe a hand with the cattle,” Hoss suggested, as Joe drove out of the yard with a wagon-load of hay bales to build the animals a rudimentary shelter.

 

 

 

Adam held out his hands to the heat. “You’re too soft-hearted, that’s your problem, Hoss. We both did our share of unpleasant tasks, and now it’s Joe’s turn. The privileges of age, don’t you know!”

 

 

 

Hoss did not think he was especially tender-hearted, preferring to view himself as someone with an ability to place himself in another man’s shoes. Sure, there were menial chores each boy had been ascribed in turn, like collecting eggs from the chicken coop, or laying the fires in the bedroom fireplaces, but this was different. This was cold, hard work, in inhospitable weather and the presence of another pair of hands or a friendly face could make all the difference. More than that, it would let Joe know that he didn’t have to push on alone, or be afraid to ask for help.

 

 

 

After an hour, he could bear it no longer. “I’m going to see how he’s doing,” Hoss proclaimed and left before Adam could say another word, grabbing his oil slicker and pulling it on over his coat.

 

 

 

Although the tall pines gave the pasture some shelter, they were no real defence against the cruel winds that whipped down from the mountains, bringing freezing cold temperatures in their wake. When Hoss arrived, he could see Joe struggling to drive a final spike into the low structure of hay bales he had built. It was no longer snowing, but the rain was falling in near-vertical downfalls.

 

 

 

“Need a hand?” Hoss had to shout to make his voice heard against the building crescendo of wind and rain.

 

 

 

“Thanks!” Joe yelled gratefully and leant back against the makeshift shelter as he watched Hoss complete the job with a couple of swift, well-placed blows.

 

 

 

Turning around, Hoss surveyed the soaked and bedraggled figure before him. “You take Chubb home and I’ll bring the wagon.” Joe was too tired to argue too tired and too cold to care about anything except getting home and getting warm again. He accepted his brother’s offer gratefully and even let Hoss boost him onto Chubb’s broad back. As the horse plodded stoically up the hill towards the house, Joe grabbed onto his mane with frozen fingers that were too numb to hold onto the rain-slick reins. Chubb was not at all perturbed by this: he knew that a warm stall and a hot bran mash awaited him in the barn.

 

 

 

In the yard, a faint beam of light shone out from the barn, like a beacon guiding a sailor home and Joe rode thankfully towards it. For once, he did not bother to dismount outside, but allowed Chubb to walk inside, where Adam and Charlie, the ranch foreman, were waiting. He pulled of his hat and let it fall to the ground as Charlie grabbed the reins. Swinging a sodden leg over the saddle, Joe slithered down, hearing his boots squelch wetly as they hit the ground. He staggered slightly and would have fallen, if it were not for Adam’s firm grip around his waist.

 

 

 

“Thanks for your help, Charlie!” he called, as he walked Joe towards the doors, his arm looped around the boy’s waist. “Much appreciated.”

 

 

 

“Thanks,” Joe echoed weakly, leaning into his brother for support. Once in the house, he sat down gratefully and allowed Adam to pull off his boots without a murmur,

 

 

 

“Why didn’t you wear your oil slicker?” Adam chided, trying to suppress his feelings of guilt and responsibility. He started to unbutton Joe’s coat and eased it off, noticing that it was soaked through, as was Joe’s shirt. He grabbed the shirttails and stripped the garment over Joe’s head.

 

 

 

Typical! Didn’t even cross his mind to put on a woollen undershirt! Adam started to rub Joe’s head energetically with a warm towel.

 

 

 

“My slicker’s too small,” Joe mumbled. “Ow! Stop that! You’re tugging!”

 

 

 

Adam pulled the towel away from Joe’s head, but could not resist giving the drenched curls one final rub. “Go upstairs and get out of the rest of those clothes and into bed, you ungrateful brat!” He tried very hard not to laugh, for emerging from the towel, with his hair wildly dishevelled and standing on end, Joe looked like a small, disgruntled bird, thrust out of the nest by an impatient mother.

 

 

 

“With some whiskey in it too?” Joe asked hopefully. He was starting to thaw out, but he could see Adam was still looking concerned, so there was a chance he might relent enough to dip into Pa’s liquor supply. The decanters were normally locked up in a tantalus, but there was a good chance that Adam had the key.

 

 

 

“Mustard plaster much better!” Hop Sing chimed in. “I go get ready.”

 

 

 

“Why is it always me who gets the dreaded mustard plaster?” Joe moaned. Hop Sing’s remedy was effective in chasing off an incipient cold, but it had peculiarly penetrating smell.

 

 

 

Hop Sing looked first at Joe, then at Adam. “Mr Adam have hairy chest. Much too messy,“ he said darkly.  With that, he disappeared into the kitchen, leaving the brothers looking at one another, not entirely sure which one had been insulted.

 

 

 

Adam was sitting sipping a cup of coffee when Hoss came in, water running off his oil slicker in rivulets.

 

 

 

“Joe alright?”

 

 

 

“He’s fine. Just a bit wet and cold.” Adam paused and stared hard at the floor. “You were right to go out there. I was just being stubborn.”

 

 

 

“No harm done,” Hoss said amicably. “Any sandwiches to go with that coffee?”

 

 

 

Shortly after, Adam went upstairs and gently pushed open Joe’s door.  Judging from the steady breathing, Joe was already sound asleep, exhausted by his activities. Adam stared at him for a long time, realising just how very young his brother still was.

 

 

 

I rode you too hard today, he thought. Sorry kid. But I just want to help you to become the best man you can be. I guess I still need to learn when to stand back and when to intervene. Sure wish I knew how Pa does it so easily.

 

 

 

With a start, Adam suddenly realised how young his father had been when he was going this very same stage. How on earth did you cope? Not just with me, but with Hoss and Joe as well? It can’t have been easy, especially after Marie died.  He reached forward and gently touched Joe’s forehead, relieved to find it cool and dry, and then screwed his nose up as the unpleasant smell from the mustard plaster assailed his nostrils.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

Ben surveyed the dining room of his San Francisco hotel with dismay: it looked to be completely full and, given the inclement weather sweeping in from the bay, he did not greatly relish the prospect of trudging through the rain in search of a congenial restaurant. However, luck was on his side, in the person of the headwaiter, who informed him with suitably unctuous grace that, should Mr Cartwright be willing to share, it might just be possible to accommodate his dining needs.

 

 

 

Mr Cartwright assured the man this would not be a problem in a ringing and forthright tone of voice. It was growing late and he was uncommonly hungry. Shortly thereafter, he was pleasantly surprised to find himself seated opposite a pleasant looking lady from Baltimore. She soon proved to be an entertaining dinner companion, relating amusing tales of her travels and Ben found himself relaxing and enjoying the evening. They were soon on first-name terms and, as the meal drew to a close, Ben realised that he wanted nothing more than to spend some time with Catherine Reynolds.

 

 

 

“I was planning a trip to the theatre tomorrow evening. Would you do me the honour of being my guest?”

 

 

 

A fresh and becoming colour flooded Catherine’s cheeks. “I would be delighted, Ben.” She gave his hand a small squeeze and then hurried off to her room, where she whipped through her travelling wardrobe, and then decided that a shopping trip would be her first priority in the morning.

 

 

 

Ben strolled into the gentlemen’s smoking parlour and ordered a brandy and a cigar. Mulling over recent events, he felt a renewed sense of vigour and purpose. His business deals were progressing well and he now had the prospect of an enjoyable evening at the theatre with a highly attractive companion. Leaning back, he blew a perfect smoke ring and watched with satisfaction as it floated lazily up to the ceiling.

 

 

 

Over the next few days, Ben found he was gravitating naturally towards Catherine, whenever his business would allow it. She bubbled with life and her sheer joy and enthusiasm was contagious. In her company, Ben shrugged off the worries of running a large ranch and keeping a paternal eye on three rambunctious young men. For the first time in almost thirty years he was not “Ben Cartwright, of the Ponderosa”, or even “Ben Cartwright, father of Adam or Hoss or Joe”. To Catherine, he was just Ben and that was strangely liberating. It was like regaining a part of his soul that had long been forgotten, subdued under the myriad of extraneous affairs, long buried and subsumed to the needs of others. He felt alive again.

 

 

 

 

 

*********

 

 

 

 

 

Joe wandered sleepily downstairs, tucking his shirt into his pants with one hand and endeavouring to smooth down his rumpled hair with the other. Ambling over to the breakfast table, an imperious voice halted him in his tracks.

 

 

 

“Not so fast!”

 

 

 

Joe almost stumbled with shock, then realised that Adam was ensconced in a chair, turned towards the fireplace and almost hidden from view. A thin light shone through the windows and he vaguely realised that it was snowing again.

 

 

 

“Good morning,” he said tentatively, wondering what he could have done to annoy his brother so early in the day.

 

 

 

“It’s hardly that! What time do you call this?”

 

 

 

Joe cast a worried glance at the clock. “Just about eight?”

 

 

 

“Exactly! And you should be at the pasture right now, tending to those animals, shouldn’t you?” Adam drummed his fingers in a frantic tattoo on his thigh, his entire body taut with anger. That tenet had been a constant theme throughout their lives: tend to the animals first, come what may.

 

 

 

“I just woke up!” Joe protested. “Normally someone give me a shake.”

 

 

 

Adam stood up and placed his hands on his hips. The resemblance to Ben Cartwright was scary and Joe felt more than a little apprehensive. “You’ve always got some excuse, haven’t you? Well, I’ve got news for you Joe: if you want to be treated like a grown-up, you’d better start acting like one and taking responsibility for your own actions, instead of relying on others.” His voice was cold and distant.

 

 

 

Choking down a protest at this perceived injustice, Joe bit back his first response and managed to say, “You’re right. I’ll get going right away.” He grabbed a slice of bread, doubled it over and stuffed a couple of slices of bacon inside. “You wouldn’t have a clock you could lend me, would you?”

 

 

 

He sounded so truly penitent that Adam found himself offering to look out an old travelling repeater clock of their father’s. Joe flashed him a brilliant smile, gulped down a cup of coffee and then dashed outside, all his worries dissipated.

 

 

 

“He’s done it again!” Adam rued. For some reason, he found it difficult to stay annoyed at his mercurial brother for any period of time. Of course, the kid did have a point: it was difficult to get up without some sort of help. Maybe he should give Joe a watch for his next birthday? One that chimed the hours? Nevertheless, this was a golden opportunity to try to install a modicum of responsibility in his heedless sibling and Adam was determined to succeed where his father had failed so lamentably. Intent on contemplating this wholly reasonable and laudable goal, Adam conveniently managed to ignore the many occasions in his own youth when an irate parent had forcefully ejected a sleeping boy from the comfort of a warm bed on a cold winter’s morning.

 

 

 

Outside, Joe buttoned his coat tightly, before hitching the team up and loading the wagon with fodder and hay. He hummed softly, noticing how his breath coalesced into small puffs of steam as it hit the cold winter air. The ground was frozen hard now, solid and unyielding underfoot, almost as impermeable as iron.  Each day it became a little more difficult to drive the wagon to the pasture and Joe wondered when the snow would be deep enough to use the sleigh. He thought that the snow was firm enough to make the sleigh a viable option, but he was reluctant to do so without Adam’s express permission.

 

 

 

“Better not,” he informed the horses. “No sense in riling Adam any more this morning. Life wouldn’t be worth living if I actually made a sensible decision like that without clearing it with him first of all. I’ll bring it up over lunch, all casual like and see if I can engineer things so he suggests it first! That should satisfy his ego!” Highly satisfied with this plan, Joe snapped the reins and the wagon pulled slowly out of the yard. He glanced back at the house and saw Adam moving past the study window, evidently settling down to another session with the books.

 

 

 

Funny how Adam always manages to stay indoors during the dead of winter, while Hoss and I are out in all weathers! he thought, and then lurched forward as a violent sneeze shook his body, followed by another. It had been a week since his soaking: surely he wasn’t coming down with a cold now? Joe was determined not to be sick.

 

 

 

Pa’s bad enough when I’m ill, hanging around like a broody mother hen, but Adam’s ten times worse! I sure wish he would stop trying to be my father and just concentrate on being my brother!

 

 

 

The horses plodded slowly through the snow, their breath puffing visibly in the frosty air the only sound the deadened thud of their hooves upon the frozen ground. There had been another fall of snow overnight, so the tracks of the previous day were filled in and the animals struggled purposefully along. Eventually, the pasture was in sight – just down a gentle incline.

 

 

 

Joe got down from his perch and surveyed the ground carefully: the sub-zero temperatures had turned the slope into a treacherous incline, glistening malevolently in the thin winter’s sun. It was too dangerous to even attempt to guide the wagon down there, for a simple stumble could result in total chaos. With an audible sigh, Joe trudged wearily to the back of the wagon and began the slow and laborious process of unloading the fodder and then transporting it down the hill to the waiting herd.

 

 

 

He soon realised that there was no need to physically trudge up and down the hill with supplies: given the icy conditions and the downhill slope, it was simple to give the bales of hay a gentle nudge, and they went sailing down to within a few feet of the fence-line. He grinned broadly, planning to coast down to the bottom of the hill on the last hay bale. Why not get a little enjoyment out of a routine chore?

 

 

 

 

 

*********

 

 

 

 

 

“So, what are your plans now?” Catherine asked. They were sitting in a café, sipping Viennese coffee and savouring delicate pastries, celebrating the successful conclusion of Ben’s business deals. Tucked away in his pocket were contracts that ensured the continued expansion of the Ponderosa operations for several years to come.

 

 

 

“I haven’t really thought about that,” Ben confessed. He did not really relish the prospect of returning to the day-to-day drudgery his life had become. With a start, he realised that his closest confidant of recent years was Roy Coffee. Now, while Roy was a stalwart and dependable chap, he was not greatly blessed with conversation, and their meetings tended to revolve around practical matters or a game of checkers.

 

 

 

“Are you going to continue travelling?” Catherine asked curiously and Ben noticed the delicious dimple in her right cheek. She was such a lovely woman and, had circumstances been different…. He pulled himself sharply back to the present. Tomorrow Catherine was leaving on the next leg of her journey, which would take her to Montreal. It was unlikely they would ever meet again.

 

 

 

“Aren’t you going home?” Catherine looked troubled when Ben failed to respond. “Ben, you can’t make that sort of a decision by yourself. You owe it to your sons to discuss it with them, to explain how you feel. What you decided will affect every single one of you.”

 

 

 

Ben knew she was right. It was just that, for a few, brief and joyous weeks, he had experienced the luxury of considering only his own needs. He had been so very young when Adam was born, and yet from that moment, he had ceased to exist as an individual. Everything had been subjugated to the needs of the tiny life so dependent upon him. And after all these years, Ben felt weary and longed for some independence and solitude. He wanted to be the man he once was, the man who had died a little, along with Elizabeth, and then had seen another part of him dissipate like a cloud on a summer’s day when Inger softly breathed her last. When Marie died so tragically, right on their very doorstep, Ben had not been sure if there were any reason to continue living, except for the fact that his boys needed him. But was that still true?

 

 

 

It was raining when they said farewell. The jaunty plumes on Catherine’s bonnet were totally sodden within minutes, drooping down disconsolately. There were drops of moisture on her face and Ben was not sure if they were raindrops and tears. The very heavens seemed to be weeping in sympathy. They knew it was unlikely they would ever meet again.

 

 

 

“God be with you,” Ben said. For the first and last time, he kissed Catherine passionately on the lips, knowing that was his one chance to experience all that might have been between them, had they but time enough.

 

 

 

“Au revoir. Until we meet again.” Catherine’s voice, the way she accented the words, it was as if Marie had suddenly materialised beside him one more. If Ben closed his eyes, he could see her so clearly and all they had planned together suddenly crystallised into startling clarity. Once again, things assumed their proper relevance and shone as clearly as the stars in the evening sky. It then that he knew he had to go home, as soon as possible. There was too much waiting for him there to even consider throwing it away.

 

 

 

He stood waving until the coach drew out of sight. His last of Catherine was of her face, peering out of the window and mouthing the same words that were on his lips: Fare well.  Farewell.

 

 

 

As he picked up his bags and began his own journey home, Ben reflected on the events of the past few weeks. How peculiar that he should have to go far away from all that was precious in order to see it clearly. Was Lake Tahoe more beautiful when viewed from a mountain ridge or when you actually strolled along the shore? No matter, he felt refreshed and reinvigorated and was eager to get home as soon as possible. Then he could begin to live again, among the people he loved.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

Pleased with his ingenious plan, Joe sat astride the last bale of straw, digging his boot heels into the ground. He pressed his hat firmly down on his head and then kicked off, letting loose a cry of delight as he sped down the slope. Skidding as he approached the pasture, Joe felt exhilarated and happily shouldered the hay and strode towards the cows. Above him, the sky was a dull, sullen grey, heavy with dark clouds. Joe redoubled his efforts, anxious to get home before another storm hit.

 

 

 

By now, the animals were accustomed to the familiar routine: Joe would arrive and with him came food. They jostled eagerly, as Joe edged his way through the gate, nostrils flaring as they scented the sweet hay. The cold weather had sharpened their appetites and they suddenly surged forward in a united body, pushing into him as he strode forward.

 

 

 

Joe found he was struggling to stay on his feet as the cows nudged into him, with increasing urgency. Perhaps it was his imagination, but all of a sudden, their eyes no longer appeared large and benevolent, but rather were filled with desperation and urgency. Underneath his feet, the ground was rutted from their hooves, churned up into ridges that had frozen hard and unyielding, slippery beneath his feet. Struggling with the haybale, Joe was unprepared when a cow barged her hindquarters into him, throwing him off balance.

 

 

 

His feet shot out from underneath him, the smooth soles of his boots affording absolutely no purchase on the ice-slick ground. The hay bale shot out to his right and some of the cows and their calves trotted frantically towards it. As Joe careened towards the ground, his hand clipped a calf on its rump. Startled half out of it wits, the creature lashed out with its back legs, making contact, before bellowing its distress and running off at high speed. Joe felt a sharp pain in his left cheek and grunted in shock, propelled forward by the force of the impact to land on his hands and knees, just as the calf’s mother landed a hard kick into his exposed back.

 

 

 

The world swam crazily before his eyes as Joe whooped wildly for a few seconds, desperately trying to get air back into his lungs. Ignoring the searing pain in his back, he crouched with both hands on the ground, steadied himself and then managed to push himself up into a standing position. A couple of cows and their calves stood regarding him curiously, while the rest were tearing at the hay. But none of them had escaped through the still open-gate. That had to be his first priority, Joe realised. He could not risk the cows getting out of this pasture, where they were safe and secure. Moving slowly and unsteadily, Joe staggered towards the gate and, with a struggle, managed to get it secured behind him.

 

 

 

Now the animals were taken care of, Joe suddenly realised that his face was on fire. He leant back cautiously against the gate, realising that his legs were shaking badly and then reached up a tentative hand, wincing at the fresh flame of pain it produced. When he drew his hand down, he was shocked to see it was coated with blood. Tentatively, he ran his tongue cautiously around his teeth and then allowed it to explore the inside of his cheek, exhaling in relief when no further damage was evident.

 

 

 

There was a low rumble, followed by a steady fanfare as large, solid hailstones began to bounce off the ground.  Oh well, it could be worse, he though. Now, if he could just ignore the pain in back long enough to get up that hill, into the wagon and get home. That seemed rather daunting, so Joe decided to break the task down into smaller elements. First, he had to get to the top of the slope.

 

 

 

What had been a gentle slope shortly before had now turned into a steep slope, coated in sheet ice as Joe laboriously crawled back up it on all fours, leaving a trail of dark crimson drops of blood in his wake.  Twice, he lost his grip and slithered down a few feet and he began to doubt if he would ever reach the top.

 

 

 

 

 

*********

 

 

 

 

 

Stoically, the horses plodded back towards the Ponderosa, while Joe swayed dangerously back and forth on the high seat of the wagon, concentrating on staying conscious, holding loosely onto the reins, unable give the team any more than the most basic directions and encouragement. His head was bent and blood continued to flow down his cheek, where the calf’s hoof had gouged out a deep, half-moon shaped wound, close to the edge of his mouth.

 

 

 

Staring stoically ahead, Joe did not let his gaze dip down, searching frantically for the faint beam of the porch light. He was unaware that his shirt and coat were drenched in blood, while the thighs of his pants were sodden and stiff with gore. Nothing seemed to matter; not the ice-hard, painful hailstones that battered his body, or the pain in his face and back. Joe just wanted to get home. He would be able to think about everything else once he was home. If he got ever got home. Surely he should have seen the lamplight by now?

 

 

 

 

 

*********

 

 

 

 

 

Hoss stared out of the window, watching with a growing sense of unease as hailstones bounced down in the yard, carpeting the ground with a thick covering of white.

 

 

 

“It’s miserable out there,” he commented, careful to keep his voice as neutral as possible.

 

 

 

Adam momentarily halted his pacing up and down in front of the fireplace. Was that a note of reproach he sensed in his brother’s voice? A hint that it was unfair to have sent Joe out alone on such an unpleasant day, while he remained in the warmth and security of the house.

 

 

 

“Joe should be home soon. I’ll ask Hop Sing to have some water heated, so he can have a hot bath,” Adam offered in mitigation. He did not always find it easy to express how he felt about his family, preferring to demonstrate his love in practical gestures.

 

 

 

A voice carried clearly from the kitchen. “Hot water all ready! Hop Sing look after Little Joe!”

 

 

 

Another castigation! Sometimes Adam wondered if the entire world was against him! Maybe he should not have left Joe to tend the cattle by himself, but facts were facts: the animals had to be fed and tended to, while Joe needed to learn a little more responsibility. And the books needed to be brought up to date. In the back of his mind, a still, small voice called out that the books could have waited for a few hours, he could have helped Joe. Swallowing hard, Adam forced himself to repress the guilty feelings.

 

 

 

“Here he comes!” Hoss’ relieved cry broke into Adam’s thoughts and he rushed towards the door, grabbing his custard-coloured coat and flinging it on. After all, there was no sense in everyone being drenched.

 

 

 

Joe pulled the horses to a standstill, and regarded the ground dubiously. It seemed an awfully long way down and he wasn’t quite sure if his legs had enough strength in them to move from the wagon seat, far less climb down. So he just sat, quite still, his head bowed and a fine covering of hailstones obscuring the blood soaked legs of his pants.

 

 

 

“Don’t dawdle, boy! You’re soaked through and the horses ain’t much better.”  Hoss clapped Joe on the calf, wondering why his brother was acting so peculiarly. It was freezing out here – surely Joe wanted to get inside to the warmth?

 

 

 

“I could do with a little help.” Joe’s voice was thin and weak and he turned his head to give Hoss a pleading look.

 

 

 

“Joe! Your face! What happened?” Adam rushed forward, almost pushing Hoss aside.

 

 

 

“I slipped and a cow kicked me,” Joe began, but Hoss firmly elbowed Adam out of the way and reached up to take Joe by the arm.

 

 

 

“First things first,” he said firmly, mercifully managing to keep his voice steady at the sight of the gaping wound. “We’ll get you down, take you inside and get you fixed up, alright?”

 

 

 

“Fine,” Joe agreed. He was so tired and cold that it was a relief to have someone else tell him what to do. He’d got the wagon home safely, that was the important thing. Now he could relax and let go.  He knew he would be looked after.

 

 

 

With horror, Hoss saw Joe begin to tumble forward and just managed to jump onto the wagon step and grab his limp body. “See to the horses,” he commanded, holding Joe protectively against his chest, as if he were no more than a baby. In his wake, the hailstones suddenly ceased, to be replaced by a thick and dizzying fall of snow, that instantly blotted out his footsteps and the small drops of blood that splattered onto the ground.

 

 

 

No sane man would ever debate matters with Hoss when he spoke like that, his natural authority asserting itself and demanding instant compliance. Numbly, Adam did as he was bade, automatically going through the routine of unhitching the animals from the wagon, then leading them into their stalls, where fresh hay awaited them. He groomed each horse meticulously, but did not see their coats. All Adam could focus on was the memory of the hideous wound in Joe’s face, marring the smooth perfection of his young skin, irrevocably slashing his good looks and sending them into oblivion.

 

 

 

Hoss strode briskly across the yard. “I’ve got you, Joe. Everything’s gonna be just fine,” he reassured his brother, knowing that Joe could not hear him, yet desperately needing to say something, to provide some tiny grain of comfort. Inside, he laid his brother gently down on the sofa, trying very hard not to look at the gash in his cheek, which turned his stomach each time he saw it.

 

 

 

“What happen?” Hop Sing’s voice was low and quiet.

 

 

 

“Don’t really know. Some sort of accident, I guess.  We’ll need…”

 

 

 

“Hot water, towels, cloths, blankets – Hop Sing know.” With that, Hop Sing hurried back into the kitchen, to prepare the necessary equipment, with an efficiency born of long practice and innate sensibility.

 

 

 

By the time Adam came back into the house, stamping his feet and blowing on his hands in an attempt to get some warmth back into them, Joe was lying quietly on the sofa, swaddled in blankets, the worst of the dirt and blood removed, a large square of white cotton covering the wound and obscuring much of the left side of his face.

 

 

 

“Here’s Adam now,” Hoss said. “We’ll get you upstairs and settled in your bed, okay? You’ll feel a lot better then.” He cast a worried look at Adam, for blood was already seeping through the pristine white dressing. Outside, a storm raged and they knew it was unlikely that anyone would be able to ride to Virginia City to fetch the doctor that night. Neither brother would even begin to countenance the idea that such a journey might not be possible for several days.

 

 

 

“Adam?” Joe looked anxiously around. “I made sure the gate was shut. The cows are alright.”

 

 

 

Adam knelt down beside the sofa and took Joe’s hand in his own. “You did well,” he said simply. “You really proved your worth out there today. Now, you just lie back and let Hoss and I look after you.”

 

 

 

Hoss bent down and picked Joe up, still swathed in the blankets, while Adam ran ahead to turn back the bedclothes and warm Joe’s nightshirt before the fire.

 

 

 

Gently laying Joe down on the bed, Hoss unfurled the blankets, as Adam prepared to slip the nightshirt over Joe’s head, when he caught side of a large, blue-black bruise marring the right lower quadrant of his back.

 

 

 

“What happened here?” Adam asked, gently probing the swelling.

 

 

 

Joe gave a sharp yelp of pain. “Another cow kicked me in the back. Don’t press it like that, Adam! It hurts.” He flinched from his brother’s probing fingers.

 

 

 

“I’m sure it does,” Adam murmured. A raised hoofprint stood proud from the bruising and radiated heat. He finished pulling the nightshirt down and then tucked the blankets up around Joe’s neck. “I won’t hurt you any more. You just lie quietly here and try to get some sleep.” Joe obediently shut his eyes, his long, dark eyelashes startling in their contrast against the white of his face. “Good boy,” Adam soothed. “We’ll be right back”

 

 

 

Good grief! I sound just like Pa! he thought, ushering Hoss outside into the hallway.

 

 

 

“How bad is that gash in his cheek?”

 

 

 

Hoss looked miserable. “Pretty bad. It’s deep and I haven’t been able to get it to stop bleeding. I cleaned it thoroughly – no telling what muck the calf had on its hoof. It’s got to be closed, and closed soon.”

 

 

 

The brothers regarded one another, with mutual distaste at the thought of the unpleasant task. Neither of them had particularly nimble fingers when it came to sewing, their abilities being strictly limited to repairing saddles or bit of harness.

 

 

 

“It doesn’t seem fair,” Adam said unhappily. “That his face should be marked like that.” Since babyhood, Joe had been a startlingly attractive child and he had begun to grow to adulthood in a smooth transition, never going through a gawky, adolescent stage. Over the past year, his face had begun to assume its adult contours and it was obvious he was destined to be a very handsome young man. And now all that promise was irrevocably scarred and ruined. Would people be able to see past a large and disfiguring scar? Would it pull at one side of his mouth, twisting it into a mockery of the insouciant grin they were accustomed to? Adam hated to dwell on the possible consequences, but his mind relentlessly churned them over.

 

 

 

How can I ever learn to look at Joe and not weep at the travesty of his golden good looks?

 

 

 

Hoss rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Don’t seem fair, does it? Joe’s always been the one with the looks. I mean, you and me, we’re passable, but Joe… well, he’s something else. Something else altogether. He’s the spit and image of his Ma, God rest her soul.”

 

 

 

Adam felt slightly offended by this generalisation, and almost protested that several ladies had exclaimed over his saturnine looks, but he realised this was neither the time nor the place for such statements.

 

 

 

Hop Sing appeared at the top of the stairs, carrying a tray, covered with a cloth and gestured them impatiently out of the way. “I help Little Joe,” he said, throwing both brothers a pleading look. He had known Joe since the day he was born and while he was fond of both Adam and Hoss, Joe occupied a very dear place in his heart.

 

 

 

He uncovered the tray and showed an array of sharp needles, with fine, delicate points, plus an assortment of tweezers and scissors, all gleaming brightly. At one side lay a skein of silk thread.

 

 

 

“Very good at stitching,” he assured them and Adam thought back to all the times he’d benefited from Hop Sing’s invisible mending. Pa never knew how many pairs of trousers, shirts and other garments had been restored to their former glory by Hop Sing’s talents.

 

 

 

“Are you sure?” It would be a horrible job and Adam wondered if Hop Sing was capable of driving those sharp needles through Joe’s firm young flesh. His own skin crawled at the very thought of it.

 

 

 

“I want to help,” Hop Sing assured him firmly, his gaze never faltering for a moment. He nodded in satisfaction and then went into the room.

 

 

 

Joe lay quietly, hardly moving as Hop Sing approached the bed. His face felt as if it was on fire, while his back raged furiously, with a deep, internal pain. When he was offered a glass of laudanum, he drank it without protest, welcoming the relief it afforded him.

 

 

 

Adam stood at the head of the bed, holding a lamp, while Hoss did the same on the other side. Hop Sing bent his head and selected a needle, already threaded with silk.

 

 

 

“Very strong, this silk. Come all the way from China. Fine but strong,” he remarked, in a matter-of-fact voice. Holding the needle in the tips of the tweezers, Hop Sing gently pushed it through the skin, feeling it emerge on the other side with a slight ‘pop’. Transferring the tweezers to the other side of the wound, he pulled the needle through, then doubled the thread back on itself and then through the loop, so that a fine knot was formed. The ends were snipped off with scissors and he prepared to repeat the process, again and again and again, until the gaping cut was finally closed. A neat row of tiny stitches secured the edges of the wound together seamlessly, the work a real and demonstrable labour of love.

 

 

 

Hop Sing sat up straight, ignoring the protest of his stiffened muscles. It had taken well over an hour to close the hole in Joe’s face. He surveyed his handiwork with a critical eye. “Not bad,” he said finally, squeezing some ointment onto a fresh dressing and laying it gently on top of the sutures, hiding them from sight. “Special salve from Doctor Martin,” he explained. “Will help healing.”

 

 

 

His back was aching and his eyes felt dry and tired, but Hop Sing knew he had done his best for his boy, and that pleased him. All they could do now was to watch and wait.

 

 

 

Adam sat, watching Joe slowly surface from a maze of opium flavoured dreams. He shook his head muzzily, struggling to shake off the sleep that still invaded his consciousness and then winced as his face protested against the action.

 

 

 

“You’re back with us.”

 

 

 

Adam’s voice was carefully pitched low. Joe managed to open his eyes and gazed solemnly at him. “Guess so. Sorry about all the trouble I caused.”

 

 

 

He looked very young and more than a little fragile. Not for the first time, Adam felt all his protective feelings rise and he leant forward, gently covering Joe’s hand with his own.

 

 

 

“You’re no trouble, little brother, no trouble at all. Just lie back and let us look after you.”

 

 

 

Joe managed a half smile, careful not to move the left side of his mouth, which felt stiff and swollen. He wondered vaguely what it looked like, but then decided he was too tired to really care.  At least Adam wasn’t mad at him. Joe cared desperately about what his eldest brother thought and often felt he would never quite manage to meet his exacting standards. But right now, he was happy just to close his eyes and slip back into the warm darkness.

 

 

 

As the night progressed, Adam watched with increasing dread as Joe became more and more restless, tossing and turning, occasionally letting out small moans of pain. When he felt Joe’s head, he was not surprised to feel that his brother was burning up with fever. Wringing out a cloth, Adam gently laid it on Joe’s forehead.

 

 

 

“Pa?” Joe’s voice was hoarse and his eyes were glassy and unfocussed.

 

 

 

“It’s me, Joe. Adam.”

 

 

 

There was no evidence that Joe had heard him. He looked frantically around the room. “Mama? Where’s Mama?”

 

 

 

“I’m here with you Joe. Just try to rest.”

 

 

 

Joe gave him a curious look. “Adam? My back hurts.”

 

 

 

“I know. We’ll get the Doctor in the morning. You just try to sleep.”

 

 

 

Joe frowned, trying to make sense of this. He felt strangely disconnected from the world, no longer sure what was reality and what was a dream. The only thing he knew was that his back screamed with pain, chewing at him from inside. And then something else permeated his understanding.

 

 

 

“Got to go,” he informed his brother.

 

 

 

Adam pulled out the chamber pot from underneath the bed, then gently helped Joe to sit up and swing his legs over the side. Carefully, he helped his brother to stand upright, positioning himself at his back as Joe swayed dangerously, stiff affected by the laudanum. Standing with one arm across Joe’s chest to prevent him from falling, Adam reached down and pulled up Joe’s nightshirt.

 

 

 

“Go ahead,” he said, careful to avert his head. With any luck, Joe wouldn’t remember about this in the morning.

 

 

 

Joe let out a sharp cry of pain and seemed to slump forward in exhaustion, a dead weight against his brother’s arm. It took all Adam’s strength to get him back into bed without further mishap. He was just about to cover the pot and take it downstairs, when something struck him. Turning the lamp up, Adam saw with horror that the pot appeared to be full of blood: viscous, crimson blood.  It looked as if that blow to Joe’s back had done some serious damage. Adam looked down at his brother and prayed as hard as he had ever done in his life. If there was internal damage, there was nothing that Paul Martin or anyone else could do to help Joe.

 

 

 

 

 

*********

 

 

 

 

 

At first light, Hoss slipped out of the barn, leading Chubb. The weather was still atrocious, but he was desperate to fetch the doctor. Joe was delirious now, constantly calling for his father and long-dead mother, while his heartbroken brothers could do nothing to alleviate his pain and suffering.

 

 

 

Chubb’s hooves rang out along the frozen ground, echoing the constant repetition in Hoss’ head.

 

 

 

“It’s not fair. It’s not fair, not fair, not fair.”

 

 

 

Why did this have to happen to Joe? He was so young, so full of life and irrepressible vigour. Hoss tucked his head down, trying to avoid the biting wind that stung his face mercilessly. He knew that Adam was doing his best, but he wished that Pa was at home. He would know what to do, wouldn’t he?

 

 

 

Paul Martin was roused by a frantic banging on his door and loud cries of “Doc Martin? Doc Martin!”

 

 

 

“I’m coming!” he shouted, pulling his woollen robe around him, wondering what the latest calamity out at the Ponderosa was. Hoss outlined the situation in a few short sentences and Paul felt his heart sink when he heard that Joe was passing blood in his urine.

 

 

 

“Is Ben back home yet?”

 

 

 

Hoss shook his head. “We’re kinda expecting him any day, but there’s no definite date.”

 

 

 

Paul rushed to get dressed, his head racing. If only Ben were home! Given the circumstances, it seemed likely that Joe had sustained some internal injury and was bleeding internally. Abdominal surgery was out of the question – patients rarely survived such an intrusive operations in well-equipped hospitals, far less out here. And Paul was only too aware that while he was a good country doctor, he was not a skilled surgeon by any means. Operating on Joe would be a needless cruelty, only adding to the agonies the boy was already enduring. The best Paul could hope for was that he would be able to make Joe as comfortable as possible, under the circumstances. He prayed he would be able to keep the boy alive until his father arrived home and could say goodbye and give his son a final blessing before he began his final journey.

 

 

 

Cursing fate and steeling himself for the difficult time ahead, Paul picked up his bag and followed Hoss out into the inhospitable weather. Despite years of medical training and experience, an abdominal injury was a death sentence. Probably the most he could do would be to make Joe’s last few days or even hours as comfortable as possible. Checking his pocket watch, he realised that the stage would be arriving in less than three hours. Was it too much to hope that Ben would be on it?

 

 

 

It was a long ride to the Ponderosa, but Paul urged the horses to keep going on at a fast pace. There was no time to lose and he knew that Joe must be suffering agonies. His sleigh skimmed over the ground, the runners gouging smooth tracks in the snow.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

Adam paced restlessly up and down the bedroom, occasionally taking his eyes off Joe to gaze out of the window, in the vain hope that the doctor would come skimming over the snow, offering some miraculous panacea, so that Joe would bounce out of bed, completely cured and back to his old annoying self. It was so strange to see his volatile brother reduced to this state: desperately fighting the fever that ravaged his slender body, marshalling all his strength in a painful battle to the death.

 

 

 

He marvelled at how Joe fought, steeling all his reserves. Nothing he tried seemed to lessen his brother’s raging temperature. Hop Sing constantly bustled up and down stairs with ewers of cool water, while Adam frantically bathed Joe’s fevered body down with cold clothes.

 

 

 

“Don’t you dare give up on me now!” he said fiercely, knowing in his soul that Joe could not hear him. “You’ve always been stubborn and obstinate – so don’t you dare change now! Come on, Joe – fight!”

 

 

 

His voice came close to cracking and Adam realised that while he had always prized self-control it no longer seemed a virtue to be particularly proud of. Joe had lived life to the full, and if his life was destined to be short, then at least it had not been uneventful. People remembered Joe; he made an indelible impression upon them. With a growing sense of realisation, Adam realised that however aggravating he found his brother, he would not change a single iota of his being.

 

 

 

“Come on, Joe!” he urged. “You can’t stop now! Don’t you know how much you mean to me – to all of us? You’ve been a born fighter since the day you were born – so don’t give up now. I’ll never forgive you if you die on me. Never.”

 

 

 

And that was all he could do, Adam realised. He hated this feeling of being powerless, of not being in control – it went against every fibre of his nature. He cast an anxious glance at Joe, torn between a desperate need to see his brother react, yet terrified that Joe might glimpse this chink in his own carefully constructed carapace.

 

 

 

But Joe did not react. He lay, caught between delirium and pain, tossed in a nightmare world of frenetic dreams, never able to grasp hold of reality and haul himself back into the world. Adam slumped back in his chair and wondered what there was left for him to do.

 

 

 

And then, as if in answer to his beseeching, there was a faint jingle of sleigh bells, ringing out clearly on the frosty air. As he listened, Adam heard the sound of horse hooves on the crisp ground and knew he could at last relinquish responsibility to someone else. He wouldn’t be alone with Joe when he died after all. That seemed to be very important to Adam, even if he was unable to work out why. But he knew that there would be time in the long days ahead, plenty of time to consider every second in intimate detail.

 

 

 

How do you ever get over watching your brother die, when you know you were partially responsible, that you failed in your bounden duty? Adam was unable to think logically, sunk in deep in gloom and hating his helplessness.

 

 

 

Despite fur lap-robes, Paul Martin was half-frozen by the time he reached the Ponderosa, but he pushed that aside. It was the least he owed to Ben and to Joe. What did his own physical discomfort matter at a time like this? He strode upstairs, treading a well-known route and steeling himself inwardly. How many times had he greeted death as a blessed relief? For the elderly, the terminally ill, death was often a welcome escape from a miserable and constrained existence. Yet, to see a young man, one whom he had known since the day he was born, die before he even achieved full manhood was not something Paul felt he could deal with by suppressing his normal emotions. This hit hard, invading deep into the centre of his soul, into the most private parts of his being. He took several deep breaths in an attempt to compose himself before he pushed open the door.

 

 

 

The room had the unmistakeable aroma of extreme illness: hot and fetid, with undertones of despair and longing. The face that Adam turned to him was haggard with desolation and Paul seriously wondered how long the man would be able to maintain control over his feelings.

 

 

 

Striving to keep a professional air, he walked purposefully over to the bed. Joe was still lost in a world of fever, where nothing was quite as it should be.

 

 

 

“How long had he been like this?”

 

 

 

Adam hunched up his shoulders. “Twelve hours, give or take.”

 

 

 

Paul gently raised the dressing covering Joe’s cheek and could not restrain an exclamation. “Amazing! I’ve never seen work like this! So fine – it should hardly leave a scar! There’s no sign of infection, Adam, and that has to be viewed positively. Now, let’s look at where that heifer kicked him. Right side of the back, Hoss said?

 

 

 

Adam did not respond, but busied himself in assisting Paul to roll Joe over onto his side and carefully lifted up his nightshirt. He watched in silence as the doctor probed the haemotoma, and then began to examine the surrounding area. Paul raised his head briefly.

 

 

 

“Help me lie Joe on his back again, will you Adam? Then I can manage here. But I would like a cup of coffee when I’ve finished.”

 

 

 

The statement hung in the air between them. Grudgingly Adam acknowledged that his presence was neither wanted or required. He ran a hand gently over Joe’s shoulder and then left his brother to begin the slow journey downstairs. He did not say goodbye, for his mouth was full of bitter ashes that choked the words before they were formed.

 

 

 

“Well, well,” Paul muttered. “What have we here, eh?” He ran his hands over Joe’s stomach, pressing and probing.

 

 

 

Joe lay mute and lost in his own private world. There was just the faintest glimmer of hope in Paul’s voice, but it wasted on his unreceptive audience.

 

 

 

 

 

***********

 

 

 

 

 

Was there ever a vista or prospect more guaranteed to lift a man’s heart than the approach to the Ponderosa? If there was, Ben thought, he had yet to discover it. The perfect combination of beauty and love, it spurred his spirits and lifted his heart up to the heavens. What ever was wrong with the world, it could be set to rights and put into its proper perspective once he was home with his boys. How he had missed them! They were an inextricable, invaluable part of his life. However much he gave thanks for, his sons always came first and foremost.

 

 

 

He was slightly disappointed that no-one rushed to greet him, but reasoned the boys must be busy at his chores. Pushing open the door, Ben strode confidently in, only to be greeted by two wan faces, their jaws dropping with shock.

 

 

 

“This is a pretty welcome! Have I been gone so long you forgot what I looked like?” he joked. And then the mood of despair filtered through, permeating straight into his heart. Ben looked at Adam and then at Hoss. Neither of his sons spoke a word. In truth, they did not know what to say or how to say it. Neither wanted to be the one to break their father’s heart.

 

 

 

“Joseph?” It was a question full of a father’s love, acceptance and overwhelming need. It was impossible to answer.

 

 

 

“Joseph?” Ben raised his voice, his anguish unmistakeable. He looked straight into Hoss’ guileless eyes and saw the misery there. Hoss would never lie to him, even if he did not speak a single word. The world spun wildly out of control.

 

 

 

“Ben?” Paul Martin’s voice rang out. “Come up here.”

 

 

 

Needing no second telling, Ben raced up the staircase, one hand gripping onto the banister for much needed support. Joe’s door lay ajar and he could see the doctor bending over the bed.

 

 

 

“How is he?”

 

 

 

Paul smiled kindly. “He’s a pretty sick boy, right now Ben. Bad fever, nasty gash in his cheek and a whopper of a bruise to his kidney. Caused some temporary bleeding and gave his brothers and me a nasty scare. But given the right care, I’m betting Joe will bounce right back.”

 

 

 

Adam stepped forward and took hold of his father’s arm. He did not know if it was to give comfort to the older man or to gain some of his strength.

 

 

 

“No internal damage?” How peculiar his voice sounded: far away and detached.

 

 

 

“Nothing permanent,” Paul confirmed happily and then tactfully busied himself in examining the contents of his medical bag.

 

 

 

Ben moved forward to the bedside and peered cautiously at Joe: still flushed with fever, and with a large dressing obscuring his face, this was still his son, his boy.

 

 

 

“It’s Pa, Joe. I’m home. Everything is alright now.” He ran a tender hand across Joe’s forehead, wincing at the high fever that was still present and then sat down, taking hold of his hand. “Everything is going to be just fine. I’m back.” Was it his imagination, or did some of the tension seem to leave Joe’s strained frame? Did he relax just a little?

 

 

 

“Give him this.” Paul handed Ben a glass full of milky liquid and he coaxed Joe to swallow it, cradling his head against his arm, while his mind flew back to all the times when he’d persuaded a sceptical toddler to try some new food without spitting it out. There was a pressure on his shoulder and Ben looked up to see Hoss smiling at him.

 

 

 

“I’ll sit here awhiles Pa. You go and talk to Doc Martin and get freshened up.” Gentle, but implacable, there was no refusing Hoss and Ben knew that he was offering the best advice. Still, it was difficult to leave his boy.

 

 

 

“I’ll look after him real good,” Hoss assured him, the longing naked in his eyes. He needed to feel that he was doing something to help Joe.

 

 

 

“I know you will,” Ben assured him, and tore part of his heart asunder as he left the room.

 

 

 

Paul looked across at Adam, who leant against the doorjamb, as if that was the only thing keeping him upright. His face was unnaturally pale and he breathed stentoriously.

 

 

 

“Come on, son,” Paul said in a kindly tone of voice, taking a firm hold of Adam’s elbow and almost dragging him out of the room. “Your brother’s going to be fine, but he needs some peace and quiet. Sleep is the best medicine any doctor can offer, you know.”

 

 

 

His jovial, matter of fact tone spurred Adam into action and he followed his father downstairs, where he poured everyone a large glass of brandy.

 

 

 

“To Joe!” Paul announced in heartfelt tones. “I know that I’ve said it before, but it’s never been more true – that boy really is as strong as a young bull! Taking on a half-grown calf and its mother into the bargain and coming out with nothing worse that a gashed face and badly bruised kidneys.”

 

 

 

“To Joe,” Ben echoed, trying to assimilate everything. He looked across at Adam. “Think you can tell me about it?” There was no reproach in his voice, just a world of love and understanding. Adam cleared his throat and began the tale.

 

 

 

“These things happen,” Ben stated eventually. “It was an accident. You couldn’t possibly have foreseen something like this would happen and you have absolutely nothing to blame yourself for. Don’t beat yourself with that Adam, or dwell in your misery. The important thing is that Joe is going to be alright.”

 

 

 

His words were confident, but Ben had many years of experience in putting a brave face on before his sons, of carefully hiding his real feelings and still tried to protect them from the harsh realities of life. Adam realised this and his admiration for his father multiplied.

 

 

 

“I think I’ll just go up and sit with Joe for a while,” Ben decided. “I just need to be with him, to make sure…”

 

 

 

“I understand, Pa.” Adam knew that his father would sit by Joe’s bed until he woke up, silently trying to pass some of his own strength and fortitude into his battered and bruised child.

 

 

 

There are all sorts of wounds: those which hide deep within a person, yet colour their every action and reaction and those which are a visible and outward reminder to the world of the suffering the recipient has endured. Ben gazed upon the dressing on Joe’s cheek and mourned the loss of his son’s perfect, beautiful face, his inimitable smile. And he despaired for the sentiments that would plague Adam every time he looked upon his little brother’s ruined face and was reminded of how easily he might have averted this tragedy.

 

 

 

When he was young, Ben had known a little boy, with a large port-wine birthmark disfiguring one side of his face. He could still see how people had spurned the child, solely because his face was different. They could not or would not look beyond the outward blemish to the person within. Would this happen to Joe? Would people turn their backs on him in the street? Would Joe have to cope with mental and physical scars?

 

 

 

Hop Sing glided up beside him and laid a proprietorial hand on Joe’s forehead. “Still hot, but fever not so bad. Medicine working.”

 

 

 

“I hope so,” Ben responded, easing back the bedclothes and gently running a cool cloth down Joe’s chest. Together, the two men turned him onto his side, so that Ben could bathe his back. The bruise stood out lividly, the size of a dinner plate and a deep, virulent purple.

 

 

 

“Lucky. Very lucky,” Hop Sing whispered, running a gentle finger over the area. “Little Joe born lucky.”

 

 

 

Ben managed a wry smile. He looked at Joe, resting on his left side and displaying a clear, unsullied profile and bit his lip. Hop Sing helped him to lie Joe back down again and then carefully lifted off the dressing, scrutinising his handiwork for several moments.

 

 

 

“Will be little scar.” He held his fingers about three inches apart. “This long, but thin. Sorry – Hop Sing did his best.”

 

 

 

Ben stared at the tiny sutures in wonderment. The stitches were so miniscule and they spoke of years of love and of a selfless devotion. “He’s a lucky boy,” he informed Hop Sing, echoing Paul’s words. “We are all so lucky to have you in our lives. Thank you, my friend.”

 

 

 

Hop Sing blushed, and looked away. “My boy too,” he whispered. “He’s my boy too.”

 

 

 

How many times had he given thanks for this wonderful family, who not only befriended him, but restored his pride in himself and then made him part of their lives? It was such a small thing he had done in return, but he knew his gift would be prized and cherished. Yet he wanted no praise or thanks. To Hop Sing, all that mattered was that he had helped his boy and that was enough. His fulfilment was in the action, not in the aftermath. It was as pure a gift of love as anyone had ever given and Ben blessed the day that Hop Sing had come to live with them.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

“Joseph? Can you hear me? It’s time to wake up, son.”

 

 

 

Joe struggled back to consciousness, feeling as thought he had to fight through layers of sticky clouds.

 

 

 

“Pa?” His voice was hoarse and cracked but to Ben it was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard. “You’re back?”

 

 

 

“I’ve been back for two days now. Just waiting for you to wake up and take notice.” Ben’s voice was full of warmth as he gazed down at Joe, pale and thin, a bit groggy, but undeniably back with them.

 

 

 

Stretching cautiously, Joe looked up at his father and then noticed Paul hovering in the background. “Have I been ill?”

 

 

 

“You had an accident, down at the meadowlands, remember?”

 

 

 

Joe thought furiously and then nodded. “The cows! I should have been there to feed them! Adam will be so mad at me.”

 

 

 

“Why would I be mad?” The cool tones were unmistakable. “Nothing I like better than driving a wagon out in the snow to play nursemaid to a bunch of cows.”

 

 

 

Hoss chortled loudly. “Given what a bad patient Joe is, I reckon Pa will soon be begging to change places with you, Adam!”

 

 

 

Joe protested weakly at this injustice, while Paul cravenly took advantage of his weakened state to insist upon a detailed examination. As they left the room, Adam and Hoss could hear Joe feebly protesting that he was perfectly alright, just a little tired.

 

 

 

“I give Pa two days before he explodes,” Hoss said gravely.

 

 

 

Adam considered this carefully. “I say three. Joe will probably sleep for the rest of today.” They shook hands on the bet and hurried off to complete their chores.

 

 

 

 

 

*********

 

 

 

 

 

“Can’t I go into town?” Joe pleaded. He’d been confined to the house for three weeks now, but at last a thaw had set in and a weak sun was shining.

 

 

 

Ben studied him carefully, marvelling at the boy’s powers of recuperation. “It’s still very cold, so you’d have to wrap up warmly.”

 

 

 

Joe nodded eagerly, then noticed his coat was not hanging in its accustomed place by the door. He remembered that it had been drenched in his blood and probably discarded as unsalvageable. Disappointment flooded through him and Adam smiled as he watched his shoulders droop. When Joe was miserable, everybody knew about it.

 

 

 

“Are you looking for this?” He reached behind the chair and pulled out a familiar blue checked coat, suppressing a chortle as Joe bounded forward.

 

 

 

“It’s as good as new! There’s not a mark on it!” he exclaimed in wonderment.

 

 

 

“Thanks to Hop Sing,” Adam gestured towards the dining room, where Hop Sing stood, wreathed in smiles. He submitted to a hearty hug from Joe and then produced a knitted scarf, which he proceeded to drape around Joe’s neck.

 

 

 

“Keep face covered when out in cold,” he advised, staring keenly at Joe’s face. Already the scar was starting to fade and it would soon disappear to become a faint, half moon indentation, blending almost invisibly into his cheek, curving around his irresistible smile.

 

 

 

“I will,” Joe assured him. He took a few steps and then turned around again. “Thank you, my friend.”

 

 

 

There were many points in Ben Cartwright’s life when he had seen life only in its darkest hues and been driven to his knees in despair. Yet somehow, even in the depths of despair, he had found consolation in love. The love of a relative stranger like Catherine, of his friend Hop Sing, but most of all, the love of his sons. They gave him hope. They gave him a resolve and purpose. They were his reason for living

 

 

 

He watched as Joe raced outside to join his brothers and felt a supreme contentment. Life on the Ponderosa was never going to be quiet, but it was always exciting. “And that keeps me young!” he laughed out loud.

 

 

 

Hop Sing shot him a sceptical look. “Too much foolishment!” he pronounced and retreated to the sanctity of his kitchen.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

Life is made up of many small stitches. It is a work in progress where each person has their own unique colour. Do not be afraid to stand back and view the fabric from a distance. What is confusing may then take on a new clarity and let the true pattern emerge. Sometimes, the design may be spoiled by an injudicious stitch. Then it will take great patience and skill to repair the work and restore its innate essence.

 

 

 

At times, it may be difficult to discern the correct place to lay the threads and all too easy to put a stitch in the wrong place. Do not despair. Ask for help and accept it willingly. Life is a continuing journey and the wise will learn from setbacks. It is more congenial to travel in company and a judicious blend of colours will only enhance your work.  A little lassitude will allow them to sing out in harmony.

 

 

 

There is no absolute pattern to follow and your work will evolve, sometimes outwith your conscious control. Celebrate this and rejoice in the unexpected diversion.  Persevere through adversities and let love guide your hand always. Rest easily then, as the work will be golden and true and will survive unsullied. Above all, remember that only love lasts for eternity.


Chapter 4:

“That woman gets more impossible with every passing day!” Adam strode angrily towards the buggy, leaving a highly disappointed Abigail Jones in his wake. She wondered exactly where she had gone wrong in her careful planning and was puzzled at Adam’s vehement refusal to sing with her at the upcoming church social.

 

 

 

Joe twinkled merrily at Hoss. “And there I was, looking forward to Adam and Abby singing ‘Early One Morning’ in two part harmony!”

 

 

 

“You wouldn’t know two part harmony if it bit you on the nose!” Adam growled. “And I am not singing anything with Miss Jones!”

 

 

 

“I think you make a delightful couple,” Hoss said, managing to keep a straight face with a great effort. “Adam and Abby – why, it’s as if you were made for one another! And your voices complement one another beautifully.”

 

 

 

Adam flung him an offended look and stalked off.

 

 

 

“You really must stop teasing your brother about Miss Jones,” Ben said wearily. Abigail had been relentlessly pursued his eldest son for over twelve years and while her dogged determination showed a sense of dedication second to none, it was equally matched by Adam’s resolute certainty that the teacher was an infernal menace.

 

 

 

“But Pa,” Joe began, then caught the look in his father’s eye and subsided rapidly.

 

 

 

Adam walked rapidly, trying to get as much space between himself and the dreaded Abigail. The woman simply did not know when to let go. Normally, he could rise above such annoyances, but lately…. He shook his head in bewilderment. Lately nothing seemed right. He felt trapped and confined.

 

 

 

Ben waited until he and Adam were alone that evening. He knew that something was troubling Adam deeply and had hoped his son would be able to sort things out, but now he knew the situation had developed to the stage where some interference was essential. Adam had been like a bear with a sore head and had practically come to blows when Joe had asked if he would like to ride into town with him the previous evening.

 

 

 

“That’s your idea of a good time, is it? Drinking and playing cards in the Silver Dollar?”

 

 

 

“Well, yes.” Joe replied, with a bemused look on his face.

 

 

 

“Little brother, don’t you ever want to set your horizons just a bit higher? To aim for something that’s actually worthwhile?” His tone dripped with sarcasm.

 

 

 

Joe bristled. “I work hard all week, Adam and I enjoy an evening in town. It might not meet your high standards, but that’s your problem, not mine.” He surveyed his brother closely. “There’s something bugging you – we can all see that. But don’t take your bad temper out on me.”

 

 

 

Hoss saw Adam’s hands curl up into fists and he stepped forward with resolute finality, interposing himself between his two brothers.

 

 

 

“Me an’ Joe will go into town by ourselves then,” he said. “You don’t want to come, that’s fine Adam. We’ll have a good time, don’t you worry none.” He slung an arm around Joe’s shoulders and the two brothers left the room and their seething sibling.

 

 

 

Shaking his head at the memory, Ben studied his eldest son carefully. Discontent shone out from every pore, obscuring his normal good humour and equanimity. There was no doubt about it: Adam was a deeply unhappy man.

 

 

 

“Are we going to talk about this?” he enquired. “Or do you want to keep pretending that there is nothing wrong?”

 

 

 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Adam kept his head down and refused to meet his father’s eyes.

 

 

 

“”Don’t lie to me!” Ben’s voice rang out loudly, and Adam gave a little start. He sat up straighter and gave his father a sheepish smile.

 

 

 

“Do you remember the time you showed me a bundle of kindling and asked to break it? Then you explained that while a single stick could be broken, it was almost impossible to snap the bundle?”

 

 

 

Ben nodded. He’d used this analogy with each of his sons, finding it an effective demonstration of the strength and power of a united family.

 

 

 

“That’s the problem.”

 

 

 

The stark statement had an unmistakeable ring of truth about it and a look of shocked surprise spread across Ben’s face.

 

 

 

Adam hastened to explain. “Lately, I’ve been looking at my life, at the man I’ve become and I don’t know if I like him. I’m not an individual, I’m a Cartwright.”

 

 

 

“Is that such a dreadful thing to be?”

 

 

 

“No, of course it isn’t. I’m proud of who I am, but now I wonder if that is what I want to be. I had so many dreams, when I was at college, so many breakthroughs that could have led to new opportunities, but I packed those away when I came home.”

 

 

 

“I didn’t realised you felt like that.” Ben felt his heart weep for the man who sat before him. “I thought you wanted to come home, to be here with all of us and work on the Ponderosa. I’m so sorry Adam.”

 

 

 

Adam smiled. “For a long time, this was the right choice for me. I’ve had over a dozen happy years, but recently…” It was so difficult to explain, to try to put the thoughts that whirled around in his head into a coherent whole. “Sometimes when I ride out, I don’t see the dark green of the pines, the bright yellows and emeralds of the fields – everything just looks grey and drab. I don’t belong here, Pa. Not any more.”

 

 

 

“You will always belong here,” Ben protested. “This will always be your home and there will always be a place for you. But if you feel the need to go away, then that’s fine. All I want is what will be best for you.”

 

 

 

“I know, Pa. I know.” A sense of contentment suffused Adam. It was not too late, was it? He could start afresh and turn his dreams into reality. Ben had inspired all his sons with the example he set them: a man determined to make his own way in the world and to provide for his family. For twelve years, Adam had thought he shared his father’s dream, that he could live and work on the Ponderosa and find fulfilment. But now that was no longer enough, it no longer satisfied the craving in his soul to strike out on his own and try to make his own mark on the world.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

Adam did not say anything to Hoss and Joe for a few days. He wanted to sort things out in his mind, to formulate a clear plan of action. He rather dreaded how his brothers would react to his news. Eventually, he could put it off no longer.

 

 

 

The brothers were riding out to corral a small herd of horses for Joe would then break and train, ready for sale to the army. This was a lucrative line of business for the Ponderosa, which Joe had developed from a small, ad hoc operation into a flourishing operation. His reputation spread far beyond the Ponderosa, or even Virginia City and the work suited his equestrian skills and his restless, quicksilver nature. Adam took a long, hard look at Joe: now twenty two, his little brother was still the slimmest member of the family, but his build was deceptive, concealing an inner core of long, hard muscles that enabled him to ride for hours at a time or break a string of horses without complaint.

 

 

 

“What are you staring at me like that for?” Joe asked, half-wondering if Adam was going to lash out verbally at him again.

 

 

 

“I’m overwhelmed by your good looks,” Adam drawled and batted his eyelashes bashfully at Joe.

 

 

 

“I ain’t the one with Abigail Jones running after me!” Joe reminded him, smirking in pleasure at the pained expression this sally produced. “She’s always chased after you, hasn’t she? For as long as I can remember, Miss Abigail Jones has set her cap at you.”

 

 

 

“Don’t you mean bonnet?” Hoss asked innocently. The image of Abigail, wearing her latest creation to church sprang into their minds: a bright, virulent shade of blue, the bonnet appeared to be accessorised by a medium sized quail, dyed to match the rest of the trimmings. Their laughter rang out, clear and true as they rode along.

 

 

 

Eventually, Adam knew that he could wait no longer and he explained that he would be going to Sacramento, to see if he could pursue his interest in architecture.

 

 

 

“Iffen that’s what it takes to make you happy, you should go,” Hoss informed him. “We sure will miss you.”

 

 

 

“I have to try this,” Adam explained. “To see if the grass really is greener. I need to know.”

 

 

 

Joe looked at him sadly. “Aren’t you forgetting that you’re going to a big city? You won’t find many open spaces or green grass, except in the parks. I’d be miserable.”

 

 

 

“I know you would be, but this isn’t about you Joe, it’s about me.” Adam tried very hard to be reasonable and patient.

 

 

 

“Of course it’s about me! It’s about you, and me and Hoss and Pa! What you do affects all of us – can’t you see that? You’re not an independent agent.”

 

 

 

“I never said that,” Adam protested. “Surely you wouldn’t grudge me the change to explore my options, would you Joe? To see if I’m actually capable of doing something new and different?”

 

 

 

“I always thought you could do anything you put your mind to, Adam. You’ve always been my big brother, blazing a meteor trail of success. You’re the shining star in this family. “

 

 

 

“Don’t be daft!” Hoss grabbed Joe by the arm and gave him a little shake. Which, coming from Hoss, nearly unseated his brother. “Sure, Adam’s got the book learning, but you ain’t stupid, Joe. And you’re the best rider in the family. Ever since you were a little ’un, there’s not been a horse in Nevada that didn’t behave as nice as ninepence when you were on its back. And as for me? Well, maybe I ain’t the best looking man in Nevada, or the smartest, but I reckon I’m pretty good with animals and I like my life here. We’ve all got different talents and it surely would be a sin to deprive Adam of using his.”

 

 

 

“I know,” Joe conceded miserably. “I just don’t want you to go, that’s all Adam. I’ll miss you.”

 

 

 

“I’ll miss you too,” Adam said softly. “All of you.”

 

 

 

It had always been a contradiction in terms: that mercurial Joe, who could never sit still and was forever pushing at boundaries actually hated change of any kind. He needed stability in his life, the reassurance that, come what may, some things would stay constant and true in his life. Whereas Adam, much more phlegmatic and practical by nature, had never been able to subsume his passion to explore new avenues.

 

 

 

“What do you see when you look out here?” Adam asked later that day.

 

 

 

Joe scanned the patchwork of colours spread out before him. “I see the high pastures, where the first shoots of sweet grass will just be pushing out of the ground right around now. Then the forest we planted four years ago – those trees are young and immature, so I can still see the rich earth between each one. It’s not yet carpeted with needles, but I know it will be, in a few seasons time. And then there’s the grey rock of the mountains. Right now, the sun’s shining on them, so they have a golden hue, but later on they’ll look purple and pink, maybe even crimson.”

 

 

 

“I look out and I see possibilities. Large buildings, soaring up to the sky, where people can live in warmth and comfort, even during the coldest months of the year. Maybe even roads, going along the side of the lake or twisting up into the mountains, so that people can travel safely all year round. That’s what I see, Joe. The promise of what could be. And I hope that I cold be the man to make that happen.”

 

 

 

The smile on Joe’s face was the most melancholy mockery of happiness that Adam had ever seen. It deepened the small, curved indentation at the left-hand side of his mouth. “That’s the difference between us, isn’t it? What we regard as progress. I look at all this beauty before me and I hope it will never change, that man will never make an indelible mark on the landscape. I think that my best legacy would be to return in a hundred years time and see no change at all. I hope the Ponderosa never changes and stays unspoiled and true. Progress isn’t always positive. Sometimes it kills the true beauty of things.”

 

 

 

After that, the brothers spoke no more of Adam’s hopes and dreams, realising a wide chasm gaped between their very different views of the world, a void that could never be breached.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

Joe finished early on the day of the church social, determined to soak in a bath and try to ease some of the aches and pains out of his body. As ever, Hop Sing had gallons of hot water heating on the range and he filled the large tin bath, slipping into it with a sigh of contentment, sliding down so that the warm water caressed his shoulders.

 

 

 

“Dadburnit! That little weasel’s beaten us to it, Adam!” Hoss marched in and gave Joe a mock-glare.

 

 

 

“It’s the early bird that catches the worm,” Joe parried with a winning smile. “Anyway, it’s only fair, considering all the years I had to wash in my older brothers dirty bath water.” He picked up a tin cup and poured water over his hair, then shook his head vigorously. “Can you leave now, please? I’d like to get washed.”

 

 

 

Adam sat down, with every appearance of making himself comfortable for a long stay. “Don’t mind us,” he advised. “You just go right ahead. It’s nothing we’ve not seem many times before, is it Hoss?”

 

 

 

“Sure isn’t,” Hoss agreed, also seating himself. “All those times we helped Ma and Pa give our little baby brother a bath.”

 

 

 

“All the diapers I changed,” Adam reminisced happily.

 

 

 

“That was a long time ago!” Joe protested.

 

 

 

“Ah, but such happy memories!” Adam was really enjoying himself now. “And what a sweet little chap you were too – those golden ringlets falling to your shoulders!”

 

 

 

Joe made a sound that sounded rather like “mmmmp!” and busied himself washing his hair. He tried very hard to ignore his brothers, but they simply would not go away.

 

 

 

Adam regarded Hoss seriously. “Do you remember when Marie tried to train Joe to use the pot?”

 

 

 

Hoss nodded eagerly, but was unable to speak. His entire frame shook with barely suppressed laughter.

 

 

 

Adam leant forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “It was mid-summer, so she let you run around in your little dresses without a diaper and told you to go outside and… err, answer the call of nature whenever you felt the need. There you were, happy as could be and we thought you were getting the hang of things nicely.”

 

 

 

“Then we heard Hop Sing shouting!” Hoss’ face was puce and the tears were streaming down his face.

 

 

 

“Oh yes, I’d almost forgotten that,” Adam said smoothly.

 

 

 

Joe wondered what dreaded revelation was coming next. He had a sneaking suspicion that his brothers had carefully planned out this line of attack well in advance.

 

 

 

Adam gave him a loving smile. “We rushed outside, to find you in Hop Sings kitchen garden, happily watering his vegetables. Under your own steam, so to speak.”

 

 

 

“Peeing on the peas!” Hoss was gasping for air between peals of laughter.

 

 

 

“Get out!” Joe yelled, throwing the tin cup at his aggravating brothers’ backs as they ran for cover.

 

 

 

Adam popped his head round the door. “Funnily enough, none of us fancied eating those peas. In fact, I’ve never felt quite the same about peas ever since.”

 

 

 

Hoss joined him. “They sure were a bumper crop too!”

 

 

 

Joe sighed dramatically and ducked his head down under the water.

 

 

 

 

 

*********

 

 

 

 

 

Strolling confidently into the church hall, Joe knew he cut a dashing figure in new suit of midnight blue, with close fitting pants and short, well-cut jacket. He cast a critical eye at his brothers, wondering if Hoss actually owned a suit with matching pants and jacket or if Adam would ever appear in anything but black.

 

 

 

“Guess I’m the only member of the family with any sartorial elegance!” he thought happily, catching the admiring looks a small group of girls were casting at him. With a charming smile, Joe sauntered across to join them. Soon, girlish giggles were ringing out.

 

 

 

“Ain’t Joe just like a peacock? Just look at him in his finery, all puffed up and pleased with himself!” Hoss chortled. He’d never understood why Joe took such pains with his appearance before a dance, or indeed any social occasion, when surely all that was needed was a good wash and some clean clothes?

 

 

 

A look of abject terror spread across Adam’s face. “There’s that dreadful Abigail Jones, and she’s coming straight for me!”

 

 

 

A charitable observer might describe Abigail’s dress sense as unusual or distinctive. The inhabitants of Virginia City were used to her little foibles, but she had excelled herself tonight, in a dress of virulent orange, liberally adorned with yellow frills and what appeared to be jade green spangles.

 

 

 

“I feel sick,” Adam confided, casting desperately around for a means of escape. Abigail bore down on him, for all the world like a three-masted schooner, her wide skirts brushing helpless onlookers out of her way.

 

 

 

Just as all seemed lost, help came from an unexpected direction. The band struck up a reel and Joe appeared beside Abigail, murmured a few words and then swept her onto the dance-floor. He bestowed a large and gleeful wink upon his elder brother, who was still quaking from the near escape.

 

 

 

“The kid does have his uses!” Adam whispered to Hoss and then swiftly disappeared into the throng in search of a suitable partner. Anyone would do, just as long as he didn’t have to dance with Abigail.

 

 

 

Joe whirled Abigail around stylishly, wishing she wouldn’t try to sing along with the band. Her voice had a peculiarly penetrating quality. However, it did mean that he was absolved from making polite conversation with her, which was an undoubted benefit.

 

 

 

As the dance finished, Joe dutifully led Abigail to the refreshment table and procured her a glass of punch, before diving back into the crowds, eager to secure a more congenial partner for the next dance.

 

 

 

“Young Joseph appears to be learning some manners at last!” Abigail informed Mrs Foster. “Perhaps the good example of his elder brother, Mr Adam Cartwright, is finally rubbing off on the young scallywag!”

 

 

 

Janie Foster was only 24 and had long cherished an unspoken admiration for Joe, which was only equalled by her loathing for Abigail Jones, who had made her life a misery at school, always castigating her for not being more decorous. She gave the teacher a cool smile. “Wasn’t the news about Adam a shock? Who would have thought it?”

 

 

 

Abigail struggled to retain her composure, but her voice shook a little. “News? Not bad news, I hope.”

 

 

 

Janie helped herself to a small tartlet before answering. “I suppose that would depend on your point of view. Haven’t you heard, Miss Jones? I thought you were an intimate acquaintance of the family?”

 

 

 

“I have been otherwise engaged,” Abigail retorted. She wished she were not such a lady, for her fingers longed to give the impudent little creature a smart rap across the knuckles.

 

 

 

“I suppose it will be all around town tomorrow,” Janie continued, really enjoying herself now. “Adam Cartwright leaving the Ponderosa! Isn’t that just the most interesting piece of news you’ve heard in a twelvemonth?”

 

 

 

“Fascinating,” Abigail managed to respond, in a choked voice. Suddenly, the hall felt very hot and the music seemed incredibly loud. “Is that the time?” she asked, not even bothering to look at her pocket watch. “I really must be going.” She felt that all her cherished dreams were destroyed in one swift, cruel blow, and only just managed to choke back a sob as she ran pell-mell out of the hall.

 

 

 

Luckily, her house was close by, for Abigail started to sob the moment she stepped out into the fresh night air and was soon howling piteously. She had failed! He was never going to marry her! As long as Adam lived at the Ponderosa, Abigail was able to cherish her long-held fantasy that one day he would come to his senses and realise that she was the only woman in the world who truly understood him and could fulfil his needs. But he was leaving her!  Abigail threw herself onto her bed and kicked her heels furiously asshe pummelled the pillows with her fists and screamed out her fury.

 

 

 

 

 

*********

 

 

 

 

 

“How are you getting on with those horses, Joe?” Ben enquired.

 

 

 

“Nearly there,” Joe answered thankfully. These particular animals had been particularly fractious and recalcitrant, making the process of breaking them to saddle a long and trying time for everyone concerned. Absorbed with planning his move to Sacramento, Adam was already beginning to withdraw from the normal routine of the ranch, so Joe had quietly and unobtrusively assumed many of his responsibilities. He’d never been particularly interested or involved in the timber operations, so he made a point of riding out to the logging stands and cutting mills to speak to the men and then poured over the books at night. There did not seem to be a minute in the day that he could call his own and his body was starting to protest.

 

 

 

Joe looked down at his breakfast and shuddered. The thought of filing his stomach with food was particularly unappetising this morning. He pushed the plate aside and poured himself another cup of strong coffee. At least that should help him to stay awake!

 

 

 

“I thought I’d ride into town today and see if there has been any response to the enquiries I’ve been sending out,” Adam announced. “I could pick up the supplies if you like, Pa?”

 

 

 

“Take Joe with you,” Ben said, casting an anxious look at his youngest son. He knew that Joe was trying to make Adam’s departure as painless as possible, not only for his brother, but for Ben as well. By taking on Adam’s share of the workload, Joe was subconsciously trying to show his father that there was no need to worry about how the Ponderosa would run in the future. Ben appreciated the gesture, but he was concerned that his youngest son was taking on too much. Joe looked exhausted and had a fine-drawn look, rather as if he was walking along a tightrope.

 

 

 

Given half a chance, the boy will work himself into the ground, unless  I step in.  A break will do him good. And, if I know my boys, they’ll take advantage of the opportunity to sample a few beers while they’re in town!

 

 

 

“Fine,” Joe agreed listlessly. His chest hurt and he wondered if he had bruised his ribs. Maybe he could pick up some liniment in the Mercantile? Hop Sing’s normal remedy didn’t seem to be working.

 

 

 

As they drove the buckboard into town, Adam was amused to see that Joe’s head soon drooped down onto his chest and within seconds he was sound asleep. He chuckled under his breath – Joe could fall asleep anywhere, at the drop of a hat! One harvest time, when Joe was no more that eighteen months old, the house had been such a flurry of activity that the toddler had taken to trotting around with a small pillow in his arms. Whenever he felt sleepy, Joe would simply lay the pillow down and curl up for a nap. Marie was driven half frantic, searching for her missing baby and had vowed to lock him in his room until he developed a little sense.

 

 

 

If she’d done that, Joe would still be up there right now! The memory was so fresh and vivid that Adam was shocked to realise he was recalling events from over twenty years ago. Where had all the years gone? It was sometimes difficult to believe that he was in his mid-thirties and it even more peculiar to think that he was about to embark on a new career, while most men his age were well-ensconced in their lives.

 

 

 

Nothing ventured, nothing gained! Adam thought. He had never flinched from a challenge and her certainly was not about to start now.

 

 

 

“Wake up, sleeping beauty!” Adam gave Joe a nudge in the ribs. “Unless you actually want everyone in Virginia City to hear you snoring!”

 

 

 

Joe scowled darkly. “I do not snore!” he said in an undertone.

 

 

 

Adam laughed at his discomfiture and strode off to pick up his mail, leaving Joe to drop off the supply list at the Mercantile. “I’ll see you in the Silver Dollar,” he called out, determined to make time for at least one beer.

 

 

 

His clear tones rang out across the street, and Abigail Jones felt a familiar thrill run down her spine. She tore her gaze away from a particularly attractive bolt of cerise silk in the window of the haberdashers and hastened to prepare herself for an encounter with Adam. This might be her last chance and she had to be ready! Abigail was not prepared to let go of her quarry without a fight.

 

 

 

Business completed, Adam and Joe were soon relaxing.

 

 

 

“Any news?” Joe asked, looking at the sheaf of letters his brother was clutching.

 

 

 

“An interesting proposition from an old college friend,” Adam admitted, trying to keep any emotion out of his voice. “He’s suggested that I could join his company as a surveyor. Doing some of the preparatory work before road building takes place. It’s an expanding area of work, with lots of opportunities.”

 

 

 

“But not much scope for creativity?” Joe sympathised. He knew how his brother longed to use his talents in a more obvious way.”

 

 

 

Heaving a sigh, Adam leaned back in his chair. “Not my first choice, that’s true. But the field has moved on so much since I left college – new materials, different methods of construction – I’ve tried to keep abreast of developments, but without being able to demonstrate practical involvement and skills, no firm is going to employ me as an architect, are they? If I have to start off again at the bottom, then that’s what I’ll do.” His voice rang with determination, for Adam had inherited his full share of the Cartwright obstinacy.

 

 

 

Thumping him lightly on the shoulder, Joe flashed an encouraging smile. “I bet they’ll be begging you to join the design office within a year! But don’t forget – we’re going to need you to help us too. When Hoss and I get married, we’re going to demand our houses are designed and built by none other than Adam Cartwright esquire, the famous Sacramento architect!”

 

 

 

”I can just imagine the weeping and wailing from all the young ladies, the day you do marry!” Adam teased back. “What a day that will be – unrestrained joy on the Ponderosa, while every other female in Nevada will be wearing black!”

 

 

 

Joe gazed at him solemnly. “Just Nevada? I have made one or two conquests in California. And Arizona. Not to mention…”

 

 

 

“Spare me!” Adam threw his hands up in the air in supplication.

 

 

 

They finished their beers and went outside, still laughing.

 

 

 

“Adam? I need to talk to you.” Abigail Jones planted herself firmly in his path. She was dressed in a restrained suit of pearl-grey, with a small tippet made out of silvery squirrel fur and had her hands ticked into a matching muff. It reminded Joe of a similar muff Marie would wear to church and he could vividly remember sitting on her knee and stroking the soft fur, pretending it was a small wolf, his very own pet.

 

 

 

“Miss Jones,” Adam said formally, tipping his hat in her direction. Joe moved discretely away, having no wish to cramp his brother’s style. He had no desire to be involved in the conversation, yet somehow could not resist remaining in earshot.

 

 

 

“A pleasant day,” Adam offered, for Abigail appeared to be uncharacteristically flustered.

 

 

 

“Is it?” Abigail flung back bitterly. “All days are grey and cold, since you heartlessly threw me away!”

 

 

 

Adam could feel his cheeks burn with embarrassment.  He hated emotional outbursts, especially in public. “I don’t think this is either the time, or the place, do you?  And there is nothing between us except mere acquaintance, is there?”

 

 

 

Abigail jerked back, as surely as if she had been slapped. “How can you say that?” she demanded. “After all we have meant to one another?” By now, a small crowd of onlookers had gathered around, eagerly listening to every word.

 

 

 

Struggling to retain his composure, Adam forced himself to speak calmly. “We are members of the same church, Miss Jones and, as such we meet one another at certain social functions. And of course, you were Joe’s teacher. But other than that, we have no ties.” His gaze was firm and unwavering. Abigail felt that he could see deep into her soul and it made her love him all the more. What a splendid man he was!

 

 

 

“I can’t let you go,” she whispered sadly. “I can’t live without you.”

 

 

 

Adam was a patient man, but he was at the end of his tether. That this misguided, clearly deluded woman should accost like this – in the middle of the street, no less! – and then have the temerity to berate him with her sad delusions about an imaginary romance. “You have no claim on my affections,” he informed her coldly. “And you have no right to interfere in my private life.”

 

 

 

Joe decided his brother needed some support and started to walk over. It had been a family joke for many years now, Miss Jones and her unrequited love for Adam, but things had gone too far this time.  There was something rather pitiable about the teacher: she looked lonely and vulnerable.

 

 

 

“Let it go, Miss Jones.” Joe gently touched her elbow. “Let Adam go. If you really love him, then you must let him go. Don’t try to put him into a cage – he needs to be free.”

 

 

 

Abigail Jones whirled around. “This is nothing to do with you!” she screamed.

 

 

 

“It has everything to do with me,” Joe told her. “Adam is my brother. This little show you are putting on could seriously damage his reputation and I won’t allow you to do that. Adam has done nothing to apologise for.” He kept a tight hold of her arm as he delivered this little speech, feeling how violently she trembled. Despite everything, Joe could not help feeling dreadfully sorry for her. Eventually, he let go. “Go home,” he said softly and went to join his brother.

 

 

 

“But I love you!” Abigail’s voice was wild and uncontrolled. She pulled her hands out of the muff and the crowd rapidly drew back as they saw she held a derringer, pointed firmly at Adam. “I love you!” she screamed again.

 

 

 

Judging by the way that her hands shook, Adam did not think Abigail would be capable of hitting a barn door at point-blank range, but he couldn’t take that risk. There were far too many people around, and although the gun was small, it was still capable of killing.

 

 

 

Joe could see his brother start to move towards Abigail, his hands open wide, demonstrating that he meant no harm.

 

 

 

Great idea Adam! Put yourself in the firing line of a desperate woman!

 

 

 

Yet something had to be done. Although Roy Coffee’s office was just across the street, the sheriff had not noticed the commotion. Knowing someone had to do something and realising Roy was impervious to the developing situation, Joe took a couple of steps towards Abigail, placing himself between her quavering gun and his brother.

 

 

 

“Put the gun down, please? Someone is going to get hurt.  I know you don’t want to hurt Adam, so just put the gun down now, Abigail.” Slowly and steadily, Joe reached out a hand.

 

 

 

Abigail shook her head sadly. “I can’t do that, Joseph. I’m so sorry.” Her eyes flickered momentarily, then shut for the brief moment it took to pull the trigger.

 

 

 

There was a loud retort and Joe felt as if he had been punched in the shoulder. The force of the impact caused him to stagger backwards, bumping into Adam’s chest, so that the two brothers collapsed in a heap in the dirt.

 

 

 

“In the name of tarnation, what’s goin’ on here?” Alert at last to the trouble, Roy hurried across the street. Abigail Jones was collapsed in a paroxysm of tears, sobbing uncontrollably, while the small gun lay on the ground beside her.

 

 

 

“I didn’t know it was loaded!” she wept. “I really had no idea it was loaded! I just wanted to give him a fright.”

 

 

 

“You certainly did that alright,” Roy muttered grimly, as he gestured to a deputy to take her away. “Adam? Joe? Are you boys alright?”

 

 

 

With a grunt, Adam rolled Joe off him and sat up. “Feels like Joe had a jolly good try at breaking all my ribs,” he admitted ruefully. But no one was listening to him. Joe lay, face down in the dirt, a large wound gaping through the shoulder of his thin shirt, blood discolouring the material. Raising one hand to his own shoulder in sympathy, Adam felt a small, hard object, caught in the folds of his shirt – a spent bullet! Abigail must have shot Joe straight through his shoulder and the bullet had ended up in his own clothing.

 

 

 

“Joe!” Was it his imagination, or was his voice shaking? “Joe – are you all right?”

 

 

 

The crowd of onlookers moved back slightly, just enough to allow Adam to see his brother sitting up as Doctor Paul Martin clamped large pads cotton pads to the entry and exit wounds.

 

 

 

“I’m alright, Adam. What about you? You okay?” Joe’s face was ashen but he managed a small grin that sat oddly upon his face. He glanced down and watched as blood discoloured the bandages Paul pressed against the wound with a curiously detached air.

 

 

 

“Not a mark on me,” Adam responded, in a flat tone.

 

 

 

Abigail broke free from the deputy’s hold and ran over, flinging herself onto her knees beside Adam. “I didn’t mean to hurt anyone – you must believe me!” she pleaded. Adam just shook his head, to angry to say a single word. Abigail clung desperately to him, but he shrugged off her embrace, as if she were a particularly annoying insect who would not leave him in peace on a hot summer’s day.

 

 

 

“It’s alright, we know that.” Joe’s voice was weak, but he spoke firmly, looking up at Roy. “There won’t be any charges brought, will there Roy?” He held the sheriffs gaze steadily until Roy was forced to agree. Content with that small victory, Joe let himself slide into oblivion.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

“It’s a clean wound – went straight through,” Paul Martin announced. “Some damage to the muscles, but that will heal. And the bone is chipped, but not splintered. The gods were watching out for you today, Joe.”

 

 

 

Fighting off the soporific effects of the drugs, Joe managed to force his eyes open. “Mama taught me to pray to my Guardian Angel when I was little. I still do, every night. So maybe my Guardian Angel was watching over me today…” His eyes felt heavy and Joe fought valiantly against the impulse to sleep. There was a dull ache in his shoulder, but no real sensation of pain yet. That would come later, as he knew from bitter experience.

 

 

 

“There’s no mystery about who was looking after me, ” Adam interjected. “Thank you, little brother.”

 

 

 

“S’alright,” Joe slurred, already drifting back into sleep. “Angel of God, my Guardian dear…” His voice trailed off as he repeated the old, comforting litany of his childhood.

 

 

 

“I think you need a cup of strong coffee,” Paul announced and ushered Adam out of the room.  “Joe should sleep until your father gets here. Roy rode out to the Ponderosa to tell him.”

 

 

 

The Sheriff of Virginia City was dreading this meeting. It was only by the grace of God that neither Adam or Joe had been killed. As it was, Joe had a serious shoulder injury, but it could have been so much worse. And to think that the events had taken place almost directly in front of his office and he had not even noticed! In recent years, more than one person had tactfully suggested to Roy that perhaps he should give way to a younger man, but the sheriff had always insisted he was perfectly capable of doing his job. Roy had been able to ignore his fading eyesight and growing deafness for some time, but after today, he knew that he could not continue as Sheriff. What if Joe had died because he was having a nap, rather than attending to business? It was a hard blow, for Roy had little else in his life other than his duties, but he was an honourable man and knew he could not continue any longer.

 

 

 

Ben listened impassively as Roy related the events, all the while preparing to ride into town. When Roy explained he no longer felt able to continue as Sheriff, Ben nodded thoughtfully. “That would probably be for the best.”

 

 

 

“Maybe Adam might be run for Sheriff?” Roy suggested tentatively. “It’s a right interesting job.”

 

 

 

“I hardly think a career in law-enforcement is what Adam’s looking for,” Ben said and then regretted the sharp tone in his voice. “Adam doesn’t want a job with undue physical demands, Roy. He’s moving towards middle-age and wants to stretch himself mentally and to build a new life for himself.”

 

 

 

“I can’t see Adam as a lawman, neither,” Hoss confirmed. “He don’t have the temperament to be able to live with himself and do a job like that at the same time.” He picked up his hat. “Are we ready to go? I want to see how Joe is.”

 

 

 

Nodding in agreement, Ben strode purposefully towards the door. It was at times like this that he wished the Ponderosa was a little closer to town.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

“How are you feeling?” Adam asked, seeing Joe’s eyes flicker open.

 

 

 

“Like I’ve been shot in the shoulder! Does this wound match the other one?” Joe strove to maintain a light-hearted tone, but his joke went badly awry.

 

 

 

Adam flinched at the innocent remark. He hated any reminders of the time when a careless shot from his rifle had wounded his brother, the subsequent infection almost killing him. Covering up his distress, he poured a glass of water and raised Joe gently up against the pillows so that he could drink more easily. “Pa should be here soon.”

 

 

 

Joe nodded and leant back gingerly. “Is Miss Jones alright? They’ve not thrown her in jail or anything like that, have they?”

 

 

 

Adam pursed his lips. “That silly woman is just fine – unlike you! And after you insisted that no charges were to be brought, she was sent home. You really didn’t leave Roy with any other option, did you?”

 

 

 

Some of the pent-up tension leeched from Joe’s body. “She’s just lonely, Adam. A sad, lonely woman with a fantasy image of you that keeps her going. She got to the stage where she couldn’t think rationally anymore, I guess. I feel sorry for her – she really doesn’t have much in her life, does she? So don’t be too hard on her, will you?”

 

 

 

“For your sake, I won’t,” Adam agreed. “But I cannot abide that woman and nothing you can say will change my opinion of her. She’s an infernal nuisance!”

 

 

 

The clump of heavy footsteps announced visitors. Joe clutched Adam’s sleeve in sudden panic. “Don’t let Pa fuss over me too much, alright?” he implored.

 

 

 

Adam nodded, although he had absolutely no intention of even attempting to dissuade his father from tending to his maimed offspring. There were times when you simply had to let nature take its course, and this was one undoubtedly one of them. Trying to stop Ben Cartwright from his chosen course of action was as fruitless as King Canute attempting to stop the sea from ebbing and flowing.

 

 

 

Joe plastered a bright smile onto his face as Ben walked in. Despite his protestations to Adam, a part of him still reverted back to childhood at times like these and he craved the warmth and strength of his father’s presence.

 

 

 

“Are you boys alright?” Ben’s gaze flitted anxiously from Joe to Adam and then back again.

 

 

 

“Adam doesn’t even have a mark on him,” Paul stated firmly. “Joe’s got a nasty wound to his shoulder, but I see no reason why he shouldn’t make a full recovery. And if he promises to take things easy, I could even let him go home with you. In a buggy!” he added quickly and watched Joe subside. “No riding until that shoulder is healed and you’ll need to wear a sling for a few weeks.”

 

 

 

Sitting down, Ben studied Joe carefully. “How do you feel – and be honest!”

 

 

 

“Pretty sore,” Joe admitted. “But I’d feel a whole lot better at home!” He started to get up and then realised he was only wearing a pair of cotton drawers.

 

 

 

“Looking for these?” Hoss held out a clean shirt and pair of pants. “We came prepared!”

 

 

 

Ben took the clothes from him. “I’ll give Joe a hand to get ready, if you boys go and hire us a buggy.”

 

 

 

The walls in Paul’s house were rather thin, so Adam and Hoss could clearly hear Ben talking to Joe from their position in the hall.

 

 

 

“Now, before we get you dressed, do you need to use the pot? It’s a long journey back to the Ponderosa and I don’t want you to have to go outside and risk catching a chill.”

 

 

 

“Pa!” Outrage and total embarrassment were clearly evident in Joe’s anguished squeak.

 

 

 

“I’ll miss these little details of happy family life!” Adam sighed contentedly. He turned to Hoss. “Could you take care of the buggy? There’s something I have to do.”

 

 

 

Hoss agreed without demur, but he did wonder what urgent errand demanded Adam’s attention. The mystery deepened when he saw his brother disappear into a jewellers shop.

 

 

 

Ben guided Joe carefully into the buggy and settled him comfortably, tucking a warm blanket over his legs. Meekly submitting to these ministrations, Joe wondered if it was such a good idea to be travelling quite so soon, for he felt decidedly light-headed and giddy.

 

 

 

“Close your eyes and lean against me.” Ben’s voice was low and soothing, instilling the perfect amount of confidence and reassurance. Careful of the injured shoulder, he slipped a protective arm around Joe and tried not to shudder when he thought of how easily he might have lost his son today. The realisation helped him to deal with his feelings about Adam leaving. Yes, it would be a wrench, but Adam was striking out, ready to take on the world. He would not be losing him.

 

 

 

Life was precious, but it could not be lived in a vacuum. The sensation of setting Adam free to pursue his dream rekindled memories of watching him take his very first steps. Part of Ben marvelled at his son’s independence, while simultaneously longing to hug him close and protect him from any possible harm.

 

 

 

There as so many people are eager to offer advice about what to feed a baby, or how to deal with teething troubles or a child that is reluctant to go to school, Ben thought, but  who offers advice on when to let go? Does anyone know? Is it actually possible? How can a parent ever stop worrying?

 

 

 

Ben knew that he was struggling with the knowledge that Adam wanted to leave the safety and sanctity of the home he had struggled so hard to build. It was galling to realise that his personal dream, in which he had invested so many years of work and so much love did not resonate in Adam’s heart, but there was nothing he could do about that. It was Adam’s decision and he had to lead his own life. He just hoped that Hoss and Joe would feel differently and want to stay, for he did not think he could bear it if they too chose to leave.

 

 

 

Looking down, Ben saw that Joe had dropped off to sleep once again, and gently moved him into a more comfortable position.

 

 

 

“Are you alright, Adam?” he called out softly.

 

 

 

“I’m working on it,” Adam responded wryly. “It was a bit of a shock, seeing Abigail waving that derringer about and then Joe stepping in between us.”

 

 

 

“That’s how I know I’ve done my job as a father,” Ben confided, letting his hand rest lightly on Joe’s head. “When you boys stand up for one another, without even thinking about it.  Joe was willing to risk his life for yours, without giving it a second thought.“

 

 

 

“You’ve been the best father anyone could ask for. To all of us. You made us a family.” Adam’s testimonial was all his father could ask for.

 

 

 

Ben roused Joe gently as Adam pulled the buggy to halt in front of the porch.

 

 

 

“Joe? Time to wake up, son. We’re home.”

 

 

 

Joe frowned slightly and accepted his father’s help to sit up straight. For the first time since the shooting he was fully conscious of the pain in his shoulder and winced as even the slightest movement set up a fiery agony.

 

 

 

Adam stood at the side of the buggy, holding out an arm. “Need a hand?”

 

 

 

Joe nodded gratefully and let Adam help him down. Hoss hurried over and carefully positioned himself on Joe’s other side. Between them, the two elder boys supported their younger sibling into the house.

 

 

 

I guess I taught all my boys well, Ben thought. He wondered when the three brothers would meet up in the future and felt an overwhelming sadness. His sons were unique individuals, but as they grew older, their differences receded from focus and now all their father could see were the similarities and the bonds that tied them together. How would Joe and Hoss cope when Adam left?

 

 

 

We just keep going in the best way we can, he decided. Taking  each day at a time.

 

 

 

A light went on in Joe’s bedroom and he hastened towards the house. His boys might be grown men, but he still needed to be with them whenever they were hurt or ill. Is it for their benefit or mine? Ben wondered and then decided that it really did not matter. They were a family and if Adam chose to live somewhere else, that did not change things. He would forever remain tied to them and vice versa. Nothing could change that.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

The room looked very bare, with all his books packed away in crates, ready to be sent on when Adam eventually settled down. Most of his ranch clothes were packed away in a cedar chest in the attic and Adam stood surveying his small domain with bemusement. It no longer felt like his room any more. It was just a room, with four walls, a bed – all the normal things. But he had removed all evidence of the man who had once hoped and dreamed of great things. There was no trace of the man who had helped to run the Ponderosa so successfully and, dressed in his smart new suit, Adam wondered if he had ever truly known that part of himself.

 

 

 

There was only one thing left to do: to pick up his watch and chain from the otherwise bare top of his dresser. No sense in regrets – the time for such doubts was long past. Adam slipped out into the hall, shutting the door on his past with impassive finality. It was time to start afresh.

 

 

 

Downstairs, Hoss had been in tears all morning and was now on his third pocket-handkerchief. He gave Adam a watery smile as he joined the rest of the family around the fireplace, trying desperately to be happy for his brother, but failing miserably. Joe watched as Adam carefully threaded the chain through a buttonhole and secured it to one of the buttons of his vest, before slipping his watch in its pocket.

 

 

 

“What’s that hanging from the chain?” he asked curiously. “Some sort of good-luck charms?”

 

 

 

“Something like that,” Adam agreed. “My keepsakes. They remind me of innocence and the power of love. Maybe they are my version of your Guardian Angel prayer?”

 

 

 

Neither of his brothers understood, but Ben knew that Adam still carried Joe’s baby tooth as a talisman. He took a closer look and realised that the second object was a small-calibre bullet, flattened out of shape.

 

 

 

“Lest I forget what is really important, Pa,” Adam said.

 

 

 

Ben could not speak. He took Adam in his arms and hugged him for one last time. “Be happy.”  That was the last gift he could give his son.

 

 

 

Home is not always a physical location, for sometimes it resides within a person. Adam knew that he could roam the world, but that a small part of him would always remain on the Ponderosa, reliving the golden years he had spent with his family. At his request, there were no words of goodbye spoken, for all four men knew that they would meet again one day. A family does not have to live under the same roof or even reside on the same continent to be united. The power of love knows no boundaries.

 

 

 

Adam wanted to travel to Virginia City alone, so that his last glimpse of his family would be of the three men, standing before the house that was so inextricably linked with his life. He mounted Sport and lifted a hand in farewell, struggling desperately to keep his composure. Just when he felt he would surely break down in tears, Joe stepped forward.

 

 

 

“Like I always say, Adam – if you would just keep your right leg drawn into the horse’s side, you’d be a much better rider!”

 

 

 

The sound of laughter seemed a suitable note with which to start his new life. Adam left the Ponderosa, riding out to meet the sun and began to follow his heart.


Chapter 5:

“I’m afraid we have no rooms, left sir. Only a suite. I don’t know if that would suit you? We are very busy, after all, what with the Charity Ball taking place tonight. Nearly every room in the city is booked, but we did have a cancellation on one suite.”

 

 

 

The man standing at the front desk of the Washington Hotel was neatly dressed, but his suit was shabby and shiny around the seams and he looked rather dishevelled. Looking at the list of prices displayed behind the clerk, the man calculated that he had enough money for one night.

 

 

 

“A suite will be perfect. Perhaps you could arrange for some hot water to be brought up?” He could see the sense of doubt on the clerk’s face and produced his wallet. “Would you like me to pay in advance?”

 

 

 

“Oh, that won’t be necessary, sir! Not at all!” Nevertheless, the clerk was obviously relieved that his customer had the financial wherewithal to pay his bill and was not impecunious after all. But you simply could not be too careful! Beckoning a porter over, he gestured towards the guest register. “If you would just like to sign in, then you can get settled into your room.”

 

 

 

The man nodded and scrawled a large confident signature in the book. His gaze flicked over the other entries and it took all his powers of composure not to exclaim outloud when he saw an entry that boldly proclaimed “Mr and Mrs Joseph F Cartwright.”

 

 

 

“Would that be one of the Ponderosa Cartwrights, from Nevada?” he enquired.

 

 

 

“It would indeed. One of the most prominent families in this part of the world. Mr and Mrs Cartwright are returning from honeymoon and will be the guests of honour at the ball tonight.”

 

 

 

Schooling his face to impassivity, the man managed to suppress his surprise. Dismissing the hall-porter with an imperious wave of his hand, he picked up his travelling bag and walked upstairs to locate his suite on the second floor. As he climbed the stairs, a beautiful young woman glided towards him, with deep chestnut hair piled intricately on her head in glossy curls. Her dark eyes met his own with a merry twinkle and he caught a hint of her scent as they passed one another on the stairs.

 

 

 

“Good afternoon.” Her voice was low and melodious and her smile curved her rosebud mouth irresistibly upwards at the corners, so that a dimple appeared in her right cheek.

 

 

 

The man managed to respond, but something compelled him to stop and watch as she reached the foyer and then walked out of sight. Only glimpsed for a second, yet she stirred something in his soul, something he had thought was long dead and buried. Was it possible to meet someone and instantly fall in love? Reason dictated against it, logically it was impossible, but he could not deny the feelings stirring in his breast. The power of the emotion shocked him to the core of his being. He walked wearily along a luxuriously carpeted hallway until he came to his suite

 

 

 

It was pleasant and well appointed, containing everything he required and with tall french-doors that lead to a balcony. He flung them open and stepped out, savouring the fresh air. Soon there was a knock at the door and a porter arrived with copper cans full of steaming hot water. It was time to prepare. There was a lot to do with before the Ball that evening. He could not let this sudden infatuation interfere with his purpose.

 

 

 

After washing off the grime of travel and carefully shaving, the man felt suddenly exhausted. He looked at his reflection in the pier glass and gave a shrug. Not exactly head turning, but he would pass. The bed looked incredibly comfortable and there was enough time for a brief nap after all. It would refresh him and make sure he could deal effectively with Joseph Cartwright at the ball that evening.

 

 

 

He was awoken some hours later by a peal of laughter, obviously coming from the balcony of the adjoining suite. Creeping over to the window, careful not to be seen, the man saw a slender figure, dressed in a white satin gown, that clung to her curves. He recognised her immediately and his heart seemed to beat a little faster. Surely this was fate?

 

 

 

“You spoil me dreadfully!” She was obviously talking to someone inside the room. “Roses every day and now these.” Her hands flew to her ears, where a pair of diamond chandelier earrings caught the light evening light. “They are so beautiful that I don’t know how to thank you.”

 

 

 

Joe grinned lazily and strolled out onto the balcony, to enclose her within his arms. “I can think of one or two things you could do to thank me!” he said suggestively and then bent his head down to kiss her in a certain spot beneath her ear, revelling in the frisson of delight that shivered through his body as his wife pressed suggestively against him. “For a start, I want you in that bed, wearing nothing but those earrings.” His mouth covered hers, effectively stopping her unconvincing protests and then swung her up into his arms and walked back into the room, kicking the doors behind him and shutting them in their own private world.

 

 

 

In the adjoining suite, the man scarcely dared to breath. How ironic that he should land up in the next-door suite to Joe and yet discover his quarry was married to the very woman he had fallen in love with. This certainly added a new dimension to his plans.

 

 

 

His evening suit was of an old-fashioned cut, but it was well made and still looked smart. The man took great care with his appearance, brushing his hair back in two smooth wings. He was still not reconciled to his thinning hairline, but there was little he could do about it. Eventually, he was satisfied with his preparations and took one last look at himself in the mirror and prepared to meet his nemesis.

 

 

 

Of course, he did not actually have a ticket to the Ball, but he was accustomed to living on his wits and was confident he could gain entry. How difficult could it be, after all?

 

 

 

The foyer of the hotel was full of smartly dressed people, and an excited buzz of chatter filled the air. A string quartet was tuning up in the ballroom and hotel staff hurried back and forwards, attending to the guests’ needs. It was easy of the man to integrate himself into a convivial group and join their party.

 

 

 

“I wasn’t aware Joe Cartwright was married,” he ventured, after exchanging initial pleasantries.

 

 

 

“It was a whirlwind romance,” a middle-aged lady seated to his right confided. “They met here in Sacramento, fell in love and went back to the Ponderosa to be married. She’s French, you know. But then, you would guess that from her name – Marie-Louise. A beautiful girl and they seem very happy.”

 

 

 

Another lady snorted. “I still think they could have had a proper wedding, right here, instead of going to the back of beyond. Why, it’s still a virtual wilderness out there!”

 

 

 

Her companion patted her hand soothingly. “They wanted a small wedding, my dear. Just close family and friends.”

 

 

 

“Are the Cartwrights a large family?” the man asked ingenuously. A host of people rushed to answer his query

 

 

 

“Oh no! Not at all! There’s just Joe, his father and two brothers.”

 

 

 

“But one of the brothers left, over four years ago and dropped out of sight.”

 

 

 

“The family were devastated, don’t you know? They tried everything to find Adam, but it seems that he didn’t want to be found. Disappeared without a trace.”

 

 

 

“Such a dreadful pity – it must have broken his poor father’s heart.”

 

 

 

There was an awkward pause in the conversation, but then the quartet began playing some soothing music and conversation resumed. The man was no longer interested in idle chatter: he was just waiting for Joe to arrive. He moved away surreptitiously, sitting carefully to the side of the ballroom, almost obscured by a large parlour palm.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

“We’re going to be dreadfully late,” Joe observed, fastening his cuff links without looking, totally absorbed in watching Marie-Louise repair her coiffure in the mirror. The way her slender neck curved and those tendrils that curled so beguilingly… well, how could a man concentrate with such a sight before him? Joe sighed and wished they did not have to go this confounded ball tonight.

 

 

 

Marie-Louise looked over her shoulder and smiled, knowing exactly what was going through Joe’s mind. “So, we will be fashionably late! And whose fault is that?” she teased.

 

 

 

“Yours!” Joe said firmly. “You are altogether too delicious and too desirable for any man to resist, far less your helpless husband.” He shot her an admiring glance

 

 

 

Marie-Louise finished arranging her hair and bestowed a bewitching smile on him. “And you are the most handsome man in Nevada.”

 

 

 

Joe looked affronted. “But this is California!” he protested in mock-indignation.

 

 

 

“Exactly. So you will have to be extra attentive to me tonight!” Judging by the contended smile on Joe’s face, this would not be a problem.

 

 

 

A lively waltz struck up just as they entered the ballroom.  Joe walked into the centre of the dance floor, gravely bowed to his wife and then the couple glided effortlessly into the dance. They were well-matched and perfectly attuned to each other, gazing deeply into one another’s eyes, impervious to the hoards of people watching their every move as they whirled around the dance floor.

 

 

 

The man observed the couple carefully: Joe had not changed a bit, despite the passage of time. He was still as boyishly handsome as ever, with smooth, unlined skin and clear green eyes. He was a perfect foil to his wife and this aroused a pang of envy in the man. He looked at Marie-Louise and his heart cried out with the injustice. What price would he not pay to be the man holding her in his arms, to be the recipient of her love?

 

 

 

At last, the music stopped and well wishers surrounded the couple. It was now or never. He knew that he could wait no longer.  Patting his vest pocket in a reflexive action, the man rose slowly to his feet and pushed through the throng.

 

 

 

“Joe?” He reached out and tapped Joe’s shoulder. “It’s been a long time.”

 

 

 

There was something uncannily familiar about the voice and Joe whirled around, a look of startled expectation on his face. He looked at the man carefully and then broke into a wide smile.

 

 

 

“Adam? Is it really you?” Not waiting for an answer, he pulled his brother into a warm embrace, scarcely able to believe what was happening. Despite the outward changes and the look of world-weariness, Joe knew his brother instantly and reacted with instant joy.

 

 

 

“It’s been a long time,” Adam agreed wryly, pulling back. “Four years, give or take.”

 

 

 

Joe nodded, still holding onto Adam’s hand, as if he was afraid his brother would simply disappear once again. “Too long. We haven’t heard from you since you left Sacramento. Pa was so worried. Well, we all were. What happened? You never wrote to us and we couldn’t find you.”

 

 

 

Adam shrugged. “It’s a long story. I don’t think this is either the time or the place,” he announced firmly, slipping back into the role of elder brother with an ease and familiarity. Joe struggled not to smile: some things never changed!

 

 

 

They made their way out to the foyer, where several chairs and sofas were arranged in conversational groups. Joe signalled a passing waiter and requested a bottle of champagne to be brought.

 

 

 

“We have to toast your return!” he announced.

 

 

 

Adam gave a half-smile. “And your marriage, I believe? Congratulations, to both of you.”

 

 

 

He struggled to keep a neutral expression on his face as Joe and Marie-Louise smiled happily at one another and entwined their fingers. Their contentment was palpable and Adam wished he too had someone to share his hopes and dreams with.

 

 

 

“Thank you,” Marie-Louise said, jerking herself back to reality. She looked into Adam’s eyes and was shocked at the desolation she found there. He was perched on the edge of his seat, shaking with suppressed emotions and appeared to be desperately clinging onto the last vestiges of control. “It is lovely to meet you,” she continued, trying to keep the conversation going. “Joe and his family often speak about you.”

 

 

 

“You are coming home, aren’t you?” Something about Adam was very wrong, Joe realised.

 

 

 

“I…. I’m not sure.” Adam rubbed his head wearily. “I don’t know anything, anymore.”

 

 

 

Leaning forward, Joe put a comforting hand on his brother’s knee. “I know that I missed you. And now I’m happier than I ever thought I could be. There was only one thing that stopped our wedding from being completely perfect – and that was because you weren’t there to share our happiness.”

 

 

 

The champagne arrived and Joe opened it with a deft flick of his wrist, filling the three fluted glasses to the brim, then raising one in a toast. “To new beginnings!” Marie-Louise and Adam echoed the sentiment.

 

 

 

“Will you come with us?” she asked. “Joe and I are travelling back to the Ponderosa tomorrow. Why don’t you join us? That way, I could get to know you a little better.”

 

 

 

“You might not like what you find out.” One side of Adam’s mouth twisted in a grimace. “I’m not the man you’ve heard about.”

 

 

 

Joe sat up very straight in his chair. “What sort of man are you, exactly? A liar? A cheat? A thief?”

 

 

 

“Of course not!” Adam protested, discovering that Joe’s opinion mattered very much to him. “I’m none of those. I’m just, well, what you see before you. No one very important. No-one at all, really.” He bowed his head sadly.

 

 

 

“You are my brother, Adam Cartwright and I’m damned proud of that!” Joe’s voice rose and several people looked curiously at the elegant lady and gentleman and their rather down at heel companion. “Nothing can ever change that, Adam. You are still my brother and I still love you!”

 

 

 

Under other circumstances, Adam would have been mortified to have such a proclamation of love made with such ringing certainty in a public forum, but this was different. Somehow, Joe was managing to sweep away all his self-doubt with his steadfast loyalty. Just a few hours ago, he was dreading this meeting, wondering if he could even look at Joe without flinching, but now he thought his brother might just be the one to save him from the misery that threatened to overwhelm him.

 

 

 

“Will you come home with us?” Joe’s voice broke into his reveries.

 

 

 

Adam reflected on this for a moment. “Yes, I think I will. I have to explain to you and Pa and Hoss about what happened. I owe you that much.”

 

 

 

“You don’t owe us anything!” Joe assured him. “We won’t pry into your life – that’s private and you can tell us if you want to. But it doesn’t really matter. As long as we know you are happy and safe – nothing else is important.”

 

 

 

The compassion and understanding was too much for Adam to bear. Had Joe been aloof or dismissive or determined to find out what was behind his brother’s long disappearance, then Adam would have been prepared. But this steadfast, unshakeable love and acceptance was a different matter. It gave him the courage to continue.

 

 

 

“I failed,” he said, his voice so soft and low that Joe and Marie-Louise had to strain to hear his words. “I tried to make a new career for myself, but there was so much to learn and so many younger men, with better qualifications. I just couldn’t make any headway and so I started to drift. I took jobs in San Francisco and San Diego oh, I travelled all over, but I never seemed to make any real headway. The big opportunity that would make my name just never happened. And the longer I was away, the more difficult it became to even think about coming home – empty-handed, with nothing to show for my time.”

 

 

 

For as long as he could recall, Adam had always been sure of his place in the world: the beloved son, his father’s right-hand man; the gifted scholar; the older brother his siblings looked up to and tried to emulate, with varying degrees of success. Life had seemed so easy. To be faced a world that simply ignored his talents was difficult to accept and for some time, the lack of progress had threatened to overwhelm him with bitterness. Now, at last there was a glimmer of hope.

 

 

 

“Never empty-handed,” Marie-Louise assured him. “You bring yourself and that is a great and wonderful gift. It is all your family could ever ask for.”

 

 

 

“”You had the courage to try,” Joe affirmed. “You saw an opportunity and went out in pursuit of it. That was a brave thing to do. And now you want to come home – I can see it in your eyes, so don’t deny it!”

 

 

 

His vehemence gave Adam further hope. “Of course I want to come home – if there’s still a place for me there.”

 

 

 

“A place for you? Of course there is – we haven’t rented out your old room or anything like that! And we’ve missed your advice and ideas in all sorts of areas. But, most of all, we’ve missed you. Since you left, there has always been a gap, as if one of the shingles on the roof was slightly out of line with the others. We need you and I think you need us too.”

 

 

 

“Families like yours are very rare, Adam,” Marie-Louise added. “They are capable of infinite love and give it willingly and joyously, whether you feel you deserve it or not. They need to give you this love and,” she paused slightly, her gaze so pure that Adam felt should could see into his soul,” I think you need to accept it. For your own peace of mind. And because your family deserve no less.”

 

 

 

“Beautiful and wise – you are a lucky man, Joe!” Adam tried to make a joke of it, but he could not dismiss the emotions he felt towards Marie-Louise. The longer he was in her company, the more he fell in love with her, with a woman whose only feeling towards him was her obvious and manifest sympathy.

 

 

 

“I am the lucky one,” she said softly. “I wake up every morning and give thanks that the Good Lord gave me Joe and his family. My family – well, they weren’t loving, or supportive like yours are, Adam. When you need someone to talk to, I know they will be there for you. For that is what love is about. True love accepts what is, without question. There is no need for explanations, not to the people who really matter. And if others wish to speculate idly – what does that matter? We know the truth – you had a dream and the courage to follow it. That makes you a great man, in my opinion.” She leant forward to kiss Adam gently on the cheek. “Never lose faith in yourself,” she whispered.

 

 

 

Sitting back, Adam felt a sense of peace infuse his body, and for the first time in weeks, he felt as if he might just be able to sleep soundly. All the turmoil of the past few months had been swept away, as surely as the incoming tide obliterates footprints in the sand and he could begin to look forward to the present. For so many years he had restlessly travelled onwards, but know he could see his ultimate destination was a house built of stout logs, near the shores of Lake Tahoe, a place where he had invested so much of himself, so that the very trees seemed to hold part of his inner essence.

 

 

 

He fingered his watch-chain meditatively, looking at the charms and running them through his fingers as he reached a resolution. He would go home and begin again.

 

 

 

There was still some champagne left, so Adam filled the glasses once more. “To new beginnings!” he laughed. “And to all the Cartwrights – wherever they may be!” He threw Joe a scathing look. “Go on, man! Kiss your wife, for heavens’ sake, before I leap in and do it for you!”

 

 

 

Needing no second telling. Joe picked up Marie-Louise’s hand and kissed it, his eyes never leaving hers, the gaze burning with love and devotion. Then he raised his head up to meet hers, placing one hand on the nape of her neck where it lingered among the soft curls and pulled her close until their lips met in tender passion. Adam tactfully occupied himself by reading the label on the champagne bottle, knowing that this love would surely deepen with time. Somehow, he would have to learn to love Marie-Louise as a sister, but nothing more.  That was the very least he owed Joe.

 

 

 

The suite felt very large and lonely to Adam, he soon gave into the weariness of his body as he sank into the plump feather mattress. Tomorrow he was beginning afresh and starting his new life.

 

 

 

This will be the third time I’ve come back to the Ponderosa, he realised.

 

 

 

First, arriving at the land as a small boy, when the Ponderosa was only a dream in his father’s mind. How hard they had worked to build the house and develop the ranch!  Clearing the land, learning how to ride and tend stock, and even learning how to love a new mother. He knew these experiences had shaped him, fashioning the man he was to become. Then, coming home after college, adjusting to the unaccustomed rhythms of hard work and re-establishing his relationships with his family, only to discover the deep joy of familiar surroundings and the satisfaction of working in unison with his family. And now? Well, it was a new beginning. He was ready for that.

 

 

 

I’m one of three brothers, I had three mothers, so maybe it makes sense that I should have three starts at my life.

 

 

 

With that comforting thought, Adam snuggled down into his pillow and fell soundly asleep.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

Adam felt as if he had only been asleep for a few minutes before he was shaken abruptly from his slumbers by a familiar cry that had him leaping out of bed and running towards the door.

 

 

 

Looks like Joe still hasn’t grown out of those nightmares! Adam thought, shaking his head to get rid of the last vestiges of sleep.

 

 

 

The next-door room was completely dark, but a faint light from the hallway allowed Adam to see his brother sitting bolt upright in bed, still in the throes of his nightmare.

 

 

 

“Little Joe? It’s all right. I’m here.” He touched Joe on the shoulder, feeling how violently the small body was trembling. “Quieten down now – you’ll wake up Mama and Pa.”

 

 

 

“I was scared, Adam!” hiccupped the child, squirming into his brother’s lap for comfort. “I had a bad dream and I was scared.” Joe reached up and snuggled his tear-stained face into Adam’s chest.

 

 

 

“I know,” soothed Adam, rocking back and forth. “I know just how you feel. I had a bad dream too. The worst dream I’ve ever had.” It was such a relief to realise that it was just a dream, and not reality! “But it was only a dream – it wasn’t real and you don’t need to be scared any more. I’m with you.”

 

 

 

Gradually calming down, Joe regarded him solemnly, curls standing wildly on end and sucked his thumb while he thought. “Maybe if I sleep with you, we won’t have bad dreams no more?”

 

 

 

Adam seized at the suggestion, not wanting to be alone after all the turmoils his unconscious mind had subjected him to. “That’s a very good idea, Little Joe.” He picked up his small brother and perched him on his hip, cuddling him close and deriving immense comfort from the simple act.

 

 

 

Marie met them in the hallway, looking tired and worried. “Another bad dream?” she whispered, looking at both of her boys anxiously.

 

 

 

“Both of us,” Adam replied. “But we’re alright now, aren’t we Little Joe.”

 

 

 

Nearly asleep again, Joe just nodded sleepily, and continued to suck his thumb.

 

 

 

“Sleep well,” Marie said, kissing her baby goodnight. “And have golden dreams this time. You are safe here and nothing can hurt you.”

 

 

 

Adam settled Joe into bed and then climbed in beside him.

 

 

 

It was only a dream! he reassured himself, but he could still feel the despondency and anguish of the man in his nightmare.  Don’t be silly, dreams don’t mean anything. It doesn’t have to be that way – the future hasn’t been written! Adam thought desperately, but he was unable to dismiss all the events that had unfolded in his mind. At his side, Joe wriggled in his sleep and Adam reached out to draw him close, finally finding the solace he needed in the small, warm body in his arms.

 

 

 

 

 

**********

 

 

 

 

 

The next day, Ben took his son aside. “I collected a letter for you today when I was in town. It’s from that college back east…”

 

 

 

He got no further, as Adam seized the letter and then stood there, just looking at it in awe and wonderment.

 

 

 

“Aren’t you going to open it?”

 

 

 

For a moment, Adam was afraid, dreading bad news, but then he conquered his fear and slit open the flap with a shaking finger. His eyes flew across the text then met his father’s concerned gaze with utter joy. “I got in! They accepted me!”

 

 

 

Ben enfolded him in a hug. “I’m so very proud of you, Adam. I know how hard you’ve worked and this is no more than you deserve. Congratulations, son.”

 

 

 

Adam smiled with utter contentment and went back to examining the cherished letter, impervious of the drama unfolding on the sofa, where Hoss was listening to Little Joe’s latest tale of woe with a growing sense of despondency as his brother attempted to explain how he had lost six of Hoss’ prize marbles.

 

 

 

“It was all Annie-Mae’s fault,” Joe said earnestly. “She’s a nasty girl and I don’t like her.  I don’t like any girls!”

 

 

 

Hoss considered this carefully. He tended to get on rather well with most of the girls in his limited circle of acquaintances. “I don’t know, some girls are real nice, once you get to know them.” Then he suddenly realised how adroitly he had been diverted. “Anyhow, I don’t care! All I want is the rest of my marbles back. You had no right to take them, so just go and bring ‘em down here

 

 

 

Sensing even Hoss’ legendary patience was severely tested, Joe did as he was bade, scampering up the stairs at full tilt. At the top, he paused, to add a final word. “The only girl I like is Mama! And I’m never, ever getting married.” He poked out a small, pink tongue to emphasise this point.

 

 

 

Trying not to laugh, Ben looked at the clock and saw it was growing late. “And where is you mother, boys? It’s nearly dinner time.”

 

 

 

“She went out riding hours ago,” Adam said. “She should be back by now.” He had the strangest feeling, that left him feeling  as helpless as a newborn baby.

 

 

 

There was a sound of galloping horsehooves from the yard and three faces turned expectantly towards the door. Upstairs, Joe ran happily to his bedroom window and watched as his mother rode full-pelt towards the house. Then there was an earthshaking crash and Adam suddenly knew he was starting to live the nightmare all over again. Only this time, he knew he would not wake up. Sometimes, dreams do come true.

 

 

 

 

 

The End

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Author: Claire

I live in a slightly chaotic household just outside Edinburgh, Scotland, juggling work with my addiction for Bonanza and looking after three cats and two guinea pigs. And the pet count will increase in the summer, when a West Highland puppy will join us. I'm a long-time Bonanza fan and love everything to do with Ben and the boys. I'm also the blonde half of the Giggly Sisters, writing with Rona. I hope you enjoy my 20 stories here in the Brand library.

1 thought on “The Earth Will Hold Us (by Claire)

  1. I am so grateful tô have found your stories! This, um 5 parts, I could not stop Reading! I Loved it! It is like follow the Life of our beloved Family! Great!

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