Heritage of Honor, Book 2-A Dream’s First Bud (by Puchi Ann)

Summary:  As he deals with problems in a sparsely settled land, Ben fights his own loneliness after Inger’s death.  Another death takes him to New Orleans, where he meets Marie, and they return to struggles at home and the birth of a third son.

Word Count: 200,442  Rating: T

Heritage of Honor Series:

A Dream Deferred
A Dream’s First Bud
A Dream Imperiled
A Dream’s Darkest Hour
A Dream Divided

Heritage Companion

Never Alone
Centennial! A Journey of Discovery

 

CHAPTER ONE

              The cabin was dark, silent but for soft sounds of slumber, when Ben Cartwright rose and, dressing quietly, slipped out to walk in the cool, brisk air of the November morning.  It was dark outside, too.  Not even the sun was awake to accompany Ben on his solitary survey.  Too early for him to be awake, too, Ben realized, but this was not a day for sleep.  Today was special.  Today was a new beginning.

Ben turned and looked at the cabin behind him, smiling in remembrance.  A year ago to the day——November 1, 1850——had been a special day, too, though Ben hadn’t known that then.  That was the day he and Clyde Thomas had started felling logs to build this cabin.  They planned it to be only a temporary home, a place to survive the winter until they could continue on to their true destination in California.  Ben laughed softly.  No one could have told him that November morning a year ago that he’d already reached his true destination, that western Utah would become his home.  But Ben had fallen in love with this land, the pine-forested hills to the west even more than the fertile bottomland here along the Carson River.

When Ben made his decision to settle east of the Sierra NevadaMountains, he assumed he would continue to live in the cabin he and Clyde had built.  But when he offered to buy out Clyde’s share, Ben discovered that the Thomases also wished to remain.  Ben was never sure whether Clyde and Nelly had reached that decision independently or whether they simply hadn’t wanted to leave him behind.  Regardless, Ben was glad they were staying, though he wasn’t about to consider spending another winter under the same roof.  Too much closeness strained the best of friendships, even as warm a one as he shared with these companions of the Overland Trail or the one his older son Adam enjoyed with young Billy Thomas.

Clyde and Nelly hadn’t argued with Ben’s desire for a place of his own, and there’d been only brief discussion about what to do.  The Thomases would keep this cabin along the Carson River, while Clyde would help Ben build another wherever he chose.  Once their joint trading post had closed for the season, they’d worked on the Cartwrights’ new home.  Now it was ready.  Today Ben and his boys would move, and tonight Ben would sleep under his own roof for the first time in a year and a half.

Ben laughed again.  It was longer than that!  That roof in St. Joseph hadn’t belonged to him anymore than the myriad of boardinghouse roofs beneath which he and Adam had slept while making their way west.  Ben had, in fact, never slept beneath a roof of his own.  He and Adam’s mother Elizabeth, daughter of a New England sea captain, had rented their cottage in New Bedford.  And, except for the year they had spent in Missouri, Ben and his second wife Inger had slept primarily under a tent beside their covered wagon.

Ben’s brown eyes clouded as he looked northeast.  He couldn’t, of course, see beyond the piñon-dappled mountains to the lonely grave by the Humboldt River where Inger lay buried, but she still felt close to him, perhaps because she, like Elizabeth, had left a son to carry on her memory.  Hoss didn’t look a great deal like his mother, but her Swedish heritage was evident in his blue eyes and straight, wheat-colored hair.  And, more importantly, his open face showed he had inherited her loving nature.  Even at fifteen months, Hoss was a big-hearted boy.  Big in every other way, too.  Inger had named their son Eric, after her father, but the boy’s size demanded a name as big as the mountains.  The one Inger’s brother Gunnar had suggested (and Adam had insisted on) had eventually been adopted by everyone, even Inger herself.

Ben’s long legs strolled slowly through the fields he and Clyde had planted last spring.  Barren now, but what a harvest of good food they’d produced!  All the two families could eat and enough to sell to emigrants passing by on their way to California.  Sixty thousand of them had come over the Carson route this year, so the trading post had done booming business throughout the spring and summer, despite the competition from the one at nearby Mormon Station.

Though Ben had never quite understood how, Mormon Station had passed into the hands of John Reese, a man in his early forties, who, along with eighteen others, had arrived from Salt Lake City in July, bringing ten wagons of flour, butter, eggs and beef.  Although Reese’s Mormon Station was better stocked than Ben and Clyde’s humbler trading post, the two partners priced their goods competitively and had all the business they could comfortably handle.  They’d made a handsome profit on their investment, enough to make improvements in their respective cabins and still have some to lay back for livestock next spring.

Clyde Thomas, having never forgotten or forgiven the way Mormons gouged him (his opinion) for ferry passage over rivers on their overland journey, grunted whenever their neighbors were mentioned.  Ben, however, liked Reese.  He seemed an honest man, even if his prices were higher than Ben considered justifiable.  Still, his and Clyde’s weren’t that much lower, for the cost of freighting goods over the Sierras had to be taken into consideration.  No, despite Clyde’s opinion, Reese was a good man, a hard-working man, a man who looked to the future.  Unlike Mormon Station’s previous owner, Reese evidently intended to stay.

Some of the others that came from Salt Lake City with Reese, however, made less pleasant residents with whom to share CarsonValley.  James Finney, for instance, was not only illiterate, but feather-brained in the bargain and, in contrast to most of the Mormons Ben had met, almost perpetually drunk.  Ben wasn’t sure whether Finney was Mormon or had just hired on as a teamster to make his way west.

Frankly, Ben would have been glad to see the man continue on over the mountains, but Finney showed no inclination for California.  He seemed to prefer chipping around the canyons to the north.  Odd behavior for a miner, Ben thought, or maybe not.  Maybe the hope of a new strike naturally drove a true prospector to the lonely, isolated places of the earth.  Finney, after all, wasn’t the only one searching for gold in the area.  The miners even found a little color now and then, but no one had discovered the big strike of which they all dreamed.

Sandy Bowers was another who had come as a teamster with Reese’s party and stayed to prospect for gold.  Bowers was as unlearned as Finney, but Ben couldn’t help liking the big eighteen-year-old with the booming laugh.  Everyone, even Clyde Thomas, liked Sandy.  Like Finney, like the other miners, Sandy rarely found more than enough gold to buy his daily ration of beans and bacon, but he was perpetually optimistic about the bonanza he was sure to uncover with the next swing of his pickax.

Ben hadn’t gotten well acquainted with the other miners in the area, but that didn’t seem to matter now.  Most of them had gone over the mountains the previous month before snow blocked the passes.  By the time Ben returned from his final trip to Sacramento for winter supplies, CarsonValley’s population had dropped to a fraction of its summertime peak.  Ben had hoped to persuade his brother John to winter here with him and his sons, but on reaching Placerville, he learned that John had heard of the discovery of gold in New South Wales and joined the transoceanic rush to the new field.  Ben shook his head, wondering if it was really the lust for gold that drove John or his craving for salt spray in his face.  Unlike Ben, John had never shaken loose the wanderlust of his youth.  Ben couldn’t understand how a man with a wife and boy he hadn’t seen in close to three years could set sail for a distant land, but he and John had always been different.

“Pa!  Pa!”

Ben turned and smiled as eight-year-old Adam came running across the field to meet him.  Though Ben, too, had loved the sea, here was the reason he had left it.  This dark-haired, dark-eyed boy and his infant brother.  If he never again viewed distant ports, Ben would count himself blessed above all men on earth, so long as he had those two precious faces in sight.

Ben scooped Adam up in his muscular arms.  “Well, you’re up early,” he said, giving the boy’s blue suspenders a teasing yank.

“You, too, Pa,” Adam said.  “I guess we’re both pretty excited about our new place, huh?”

“I know I am,” Ben replied, setting the boy down again after giving him a good squeeze.  “Are the others awake yet?”

“Just Miss Nelly,” Adam reported.  “I think she’s fixing some food to take with us.”

Ben smiled as he raked wind-blown brown hair back into place.  That was probably exactly what Nelly Thomas was doing.  Though she had recognized the need for the two families to live separately, Nelly fretted about how the Cartwrights would manage without a woman to cook for them.  Ben had to admit he didn’t cook as well as Nelly, but he figured he and the boys weren’t likely to starve.  Especially not when they’d still be sharing meals with the Thomases from time to time.

Reaching the cabin, Ben went inside, followed by Adam.  “Good morning, Nelly,” he said to the sandy-haired woman at the stove.  How Nelly’s brown eyes had widened when Ben and Clyde unloaded the new cast iron stove after that last trip over the mountains!

“Mornin’, Ben,” Nelly said softly.  “Up early, ain’t you?”

“You, too,” Ben chuckled.

“Well, I had reason,” Nelly asserted.  “I aim to see to it you and the boys have a proper breakfast to start the day and a decent meal to reheat for dinner.”

“Appreciate it,” Ben said, “but I do wish you’d quit worrying, Nelly.”

Nelly sighed.  How could she help worrying?  Ben could take care of himself and Adam, she supposed.  But a baby?  There’d been no persuading Ben to leave Hoss here with her, though.  “Now, I’ve written out a bunch of my best receipts,” Nelly told Ben, “and I’ve done my best to make them clear enough for even a man to make out.  You follow them, Ben, and you’ll do all right.  I don’t want to hear of you feedin’ these younguns nothin’ but bacon and biscuits like you was on the trail.”

Ben responded by giving her a smart salute.  “Yes, ma’am!” he promised.  “Turnips and taters at every meal.”

Nelly wagged a finger beneath his broad nose.  “Hush your sass,” she warned.  “You’ll be teachin’ these boys your ornery ways.”

Ben laughed.  “Now, Nelly, since when did Billy need lessons in orneriness?”  Nelly laughed, too, acknowledging with a nod the well-earned reputation of her favorite mischief-maker.

From the bed in the front room came a long, lazy yawn.  “You talkin’ about me?” Billy drawled.

“They sure are!” Adam informed his friend as he perched at the foot of their shared bed.  “And not a word of it good.”

Billy sat up and frowned, his freckled cheeks bulging out.  “Why’s everybody always jumpin’ on me?” he demanded.

“Oh, nobody’s jumpin’ on you,” his mother scolded.  “Get on up and get the cow milked, boy.”

“You see to ours, Adam,” Ben ordered.

“Okay,” Adam agreed readily.  He gave Billy a shove that sent the redhead sprawling back onto the mattress.  “Beat you to the barn,” he challenged.

“No fair!” Billy hollered, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and grabbing for his trousers.  “You’re already dressed.”

“Early bird gets the worm, Billy,” Ben grinned.  Billy scowled and, scrambling into his red shirt and brown britches, followed Adam out the door.

Yawning and scratching his tangled auburn hair, Clyde came around the canvas curtain that separated his and Nelly’s sleeping quarters from the rest of the cabin.  “You’re sure noisy critters this mornin’,” he muttered.  Nelly stopped stirring the pumpkin she was stewing long enough to give her husband a good morning kiss.

Clyde clapped Ben on the back.  “Well, the big day’s finally here, is it?”

Ben laughed.  “The day you get shed of me, you mean?”

Clyde frowned, his blue eyes narrowing.  “Ain’t what I meant and you know it.”

“I know,” Ben said, “and now’s as good a time as any to tell you both how much I’ve appreciated your hospitality this last year.”

“Now, Ben, this was your cabin, same as ours,” Nelly chided, arms akimbo.

“Sure,” Ben agreed, “but it wouldn’t have been a home without the touches you added.  I’ll always have good memories of this place.”

“You sound like you was leavin’ forever,” Clyde snorted.  “Last I heard, you was gonna be back in a couple of days.”

Ben guffawed.  “That’s right!  I can’t bear being away from Nelly’s cooking longer than that.”  The three friends enjoyed the private joke.  While the Cartwrights were leaving today to establish their own home, everyone knew Ben and Clyde would be working together on a number of projects, so they’d all see each other frequently.  And Nelly had insisted on a standing invitation for Ben and his boys to share Sunday dinner each week.  “Can’t abide not seein’ my Sunshine at least once a week!” Nelly had declared.

Ben smiled as he recalled that reference to his younger son.  Judging by the bulge beneath Nelly’s skirt, she’d soon have her own infant to fondle.  Maybe, then, she’d be less possessive of Hoss.  Secretly, Ben doubted it.  Even before Inger’s death Nelly had taken comfort in cuddling Hoss’s fat little body, comfort she’d sorely needed after cholera took her younger son, four-year-old Bobby.  Then, when Inger was gone, Nelly’d stepped in to provide the mothering the baby had needed, and her attachment for the child had deepened daily.  Hoss loved her, too.  Separating the two was likely to be the hardest part of the move, Ben realized.

After a heartier than usual breakfast, Clyde helped Ben load his share of the supplies in the wagon, while Adam and Billy brought the Cartwrights’ personal possessions from the cabin.  There weren’t many, so it was soon time to leave.

Nelly gave Hoss a parting hug and handed him to his father.  Hoss crowed merrily when Ben bounced him on his arm, but his blue eyes clouded as his father carried him away, and one plump hand stretched over Ben’s shoulder back toward Nelly Thomas.  Hoss wasn’t really old enough to understand what was happening.  Though Adam had tried to explain it for the last two days, Hoss only understood that changes were taking place.  Sensing the sudden quietness of the child, Ben held him more tightly and pressed a kiss against his chubby cheek.  “It’s all right, son,” he whispered.  “We’ll see them again soon.”  The promise seemed to satisfy Hoss, who squirmed around to see where they were going, instead of where they’d been.

The Cartwright cabin was almost four miles northwest of the Thomas home.  For the oxen it was a good two-hour haul, though the man and his sons could have walked it more quickly.  Someday, maybe next summer, Ben hoped to have a riding horse.  Jonathan Payne, another companion of the journey west, had intended to breed horses once he arrived in California.  Ben planned to locate him, though all he knew at present was that the Paynes had settled somewhere in the vicinity of Monterey.  Since that area would be a good place to find beef cattle, too, perhaps Jonathan could tell Ben what local men had the best stock and the fairest prices.

Ben chuckled.  Here he was planning next year’s work when he had plenty to do right now.  Coming out of his own reverie, Ben noticed that Adam was unusually quiet.  “Something on your mind, son?” he asked.

Adam frowned up into his father’s face.  “I miss Billy,” he said.

Ben tousled the boy’s black hair.  “Here, now; none of that,” he teased.  “You’ll have us all turning around if you keep that up.  Besides, you and Billy will be seeing each other again in just a couple of days.”

“Tomorrow’s Sunday,” Adam pointed out.  “Miss Nelly said we could come to dinner every Sunday.”

“Not tomorrow,” Ben said firmly.  “We need to get settled, and their family deserves a day to themselves, too, son.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam mumbled.

“We’ll be there early Monday to help lay the floor,” Ben reminded Adam, “and if I know Miss Nelly, she’ll save some of her special Sunday pie for us.”

“Pie!” Hoss chirped happily.  It was one of his favorite words.

“Oh, you and your pie,” Ben teased, tickling the baby’s ribs.  Hoss squealed with delight.

The cabin, crowded tight against the abrupt rise of the Sierra foothills, came into sight, and Ben gratefully set Hoss on the ground.  Two hours was a long time to carry his armload of a son.  Hoss had started life at a whopping fifteen pounds; and though he had no scale to prove it, Ben felt sure the boy was twice that now, thanks to Miss Nelly’s cooking.  “Watch your brother while I unhitch the team,” Ben instructed Adam.

“Can we go in the cabin?” Adam asked.  “I want to show Hoss around.”

Ben suppressed the urge to laugh.  Showing Hoss around the small cabin should take all of five minutes, maybe less.  “Sure, Adam,” he said, lips twitching.  “Give him a good tour.  I’ll be through soon and we’ll unload the wagon.”

Adam took Hoss’s plump hand in his slender one.  “Come on, Hoss,” he said.  “Wanna see your new bed?”

Hoss cocked his head, still not understanding what was going on, but content to follow Adam anywhere.  Adam had to shorten his steps to accommodate Hoss’s uneven ones, but he was glad his little brother had finally learned to walk.  There were times Adam thought the baby never would.  Truthfully, Ben had begun to wonder, too.  Of course, considering how much weight Hoss had to lift just to stand upright, maybe it wasn’t surprising that he preferred to crawl.  Adam thought to himself that they’d probably make better progress if Hoss would drop to his hands and knees, but they finally managed to cross the few yards between the wagon and the front door.

Adam lifted Hoss over the threshold and gave the puncheon floor a solid stomp with his brown shoe.  “See, Hoss, we’ve got a good, strong floor,” he pointed out.  “That’s something the old place didn’t have.” Adam knew he wouldn’t be able to claim that distinction for long, though.  Flooring the Thomases’ cabin was first on the list of projects his father and Mr. Thomas would be working on together.

Hoss flopped on his rear and began to pat the smooth wood.  Adam frowned and hauled the child to his feet.  “No, Hoss,” he commanded.  “You can’t sit right in the doorway.  Besides, there’s more to see.”

As Adam led the way into the main room, Hoss toddled contentedly after him.  “There’s the fireplace,” Adam said, pointing to the recess in the west wall, near which sat a rocking chair.  “You remember to stay away from fire, don’t you, Hoss?”

Hoss’s fat chin bobbed up and down.  He’d learned that lesson well.  Fire was hot; so was Miss Nelly’s new cook stove, though Hoss didn’t know the word for the new piece of furniture that had been installed only a few weeks before.

“And see, we have our own table now,” Adam bragged.  The benches on each side of it were the old ones from the Thomas cabin, though.  Clyde had made new chairs for everyone at his place, and Adam felt jealous of that.  Pa had promised, though, that he’d make some for them as soon as he could.  Having helped Clyde with the others, Ben was sure he was ready to tackle making one by himself.

With both palms flat, Hoss patted one of the benches.  “Eat,” he said.

Adam shook his head.  “Not yet, you bottomless pit.  Come see the bedroom.”  Adam took Hoss’s fat hand again and led him to the east end of the cabin.  They walked through another doorway into the bedroom.  “See, Hoss, a real wall, not just a curtain.  Isn’t that nice?”

Hoss didn’t respond.  Curtains, walls——it was all the same to him.  He toddled toward the bed with a rush of steps and grinned as he rubbed his face against the patchwork coverlet.

Adam grabbed the baby under the arms and hefted him onto the bed.  “This is Pa’s bed,” he informed his little brother, “but look where you and me will sleep.”  Reaching down, Adam pulled a trundle out from beneath the larger bed.  It, too, was fitted with a mattress stuffed with pine needles and grass and covered with a colorful quilt.

Hoss leaned over to look at his new bed and tumbled headfirst onto the mattress.  He gave one sharp cry of surprise, then grinned up at his big brother.

“You stay put when I put you somewhere!” Adam scolded.  “What if I hadn’t pulled out this mattress?  You’d’ve cracked your noggin!”

Hoss’s grin faded.  He didn’t understand what Adam meant, but the reproachful tone was unmistakable.  His lower lip started to tremble.

“Don’t cry,” Adam soothed, sitting down next to the baby.  “I’m not mad, Hoss.  I just don’t want you to get hurt.  You have to mind brother, remember?”

Hoss wrapped pudgy arms around Adam’s middle.  “Bubba,” he chortled.  Adam grinned and gave the little lad a tickle.  Hoss responded, as usual, with a giggle.

“Well, it sounds as though Hoss likes our new home,” Ben said brightly, walking in to see the brothers rolling on the trundle.

“Yeah, he does, Pa,” Adam reported.

“And how about my big boy?”

“Big boy!” Hoss chirped.

“No, not you,” Ben said, bending over to pinch the toddler’s plump belly.  “I meant Adam.”

“I like it, too, Pa,” Adam said, “but it’ll be lighter once we get the windows in.  I don’t see why we have to do all that work over at the Thomases first.”

“Because Miss Nelly is a lady, son,” Ben explained.  “Getting a house just right is important to a lady.  It won’t take long to get them fixed up, though; then Mr. Thomas will help us put in our windows.”

Hoss pulled on Ben’s pants’ leg.  “Eat!” he demanded.

Ben chuckled.  “Fix him a slice of bread and butter, would you, Adam?”

“I wanted to get my things put away,” Adam pouted.

“It won’t take that long,” Ben scoffed, “and he’ll get less underfoot with food in his hand.”

Adam laughed.  “That’s for sure!”

While Adam prepared Hoss’s snack, along with one for himself, Ben started unloading the hundred-pound sacks of flour and cornmeal.  One of each went inside the cabin; the others Ben stacked neatly in a small shed he’d built of sawed lumber brought over from Sacramento earlier in the summer.  Once the temperature dropped to freezing, he’d use it for meat storage, as well.

Long before the heavier supplies were unloaded, Adam was ready to unpack his belongings.  First things first, though, Adam decided.  He found one of their gray blankets, well worn from its use on the journey west, and spread it near the cabin’s front door.  He steered Hoss, buttered bread in hand, to it and plopped him down on his rear.  “Stay,” Adam ordered, pointing at the blanket.

For the moment Hoss seemed too absorbed in his food to wander, so Adam felt free to scramble into the wagon in search of his personal treasures.  Most valuable to Adam, of course, were his textbooks, those he’d brought overland and those his teacher in St. Joseph had sent by the Pacific Mail Steamship Company via the Isthmus of Panama to San Francisco.  His arms full, Adam headed for the cabin, checking on Hoss as he passed the door.  Still on the blanket, Adam noted.  Good.

Entering the cabin, Adam headed directly for the wall separating the main room from the bedroom.  Pa’d built three shelves along that wall and told Adam the lowest would be his.  Carefully, Adam arranged his schoolbooks according to size, noting that there’d be just enough room to set the treasured music box that had once belonged to his mother beside them.  He went back outside.  Hoss was still sitting on the blanket, but the bread was gone now.  Adam shook his head at his brother’s buttery chin and fingers.  “Sit still,” he commanded, “and I’ll get something to clean you up.”

From the wagon Adam grabbed a knobby flour sack and hurried back to the blanket.  “Want your toys, Hoss?” he grinned as he emptied the sack onto the blanket.  Wooden blocks rained down, along with a carved squirrel, bird and deer.  Hoss crowed happily and snatched up the bird, his favorite.  He started to put its wing in his mouth, but Adam pushed the fat hand down.  “No, no; don’t eat,” he cautioned.  Then, using one end of the flour sack, he wiped Hoss’s face and hands clean of the butter.  “That’ll have to do until I fetch some water,” Adam said.  “Now, can you play here with your toys while brother unpacks?”

Hoss didn’t respond verbally; he was too busy making his bird fly through the air.  Satisfied, Adam went back to the wagon, intending this time to move his spare clothing indoors.

“You’re doing a good job of watching our boy, Adam,” Ben said proudly as he lifted another sack of cornmeal from the wagon.

Adam squared his shoulders.  “I’m trying, Pa,” he said.  “Hoss minds me pretty good, but I’m not always sure he understands.”

Ben laughed.  “He’s still a baby, Adam.  Believe me, it’s wiser to assume he doesn’t.  Just keep watching him like you’re doing.  I’m going to need your help more than ever, son, now that we have our own place.”

“I’ll do my best, Pa,” Adam promised.

Walking toward the shed, Ben smiled.  He knew Adam’s word could be relied on, and it was one of the qualities he most admired in his young son.  There were grown men who didn’t have half his eight-year-old’s measure of responsibility and integrity.

By the time the wagon was completely unloaded, the sun stood directly overhead.  Ben sent Adam to a nearby creek for a bucket of water and began building a fire to heat their dinner.  “Is Pa’s boy hungry?” he asked his toddler.

“Eat,” Hoss replied, his blue eyes gleaming as his father hung the kettle of stewed pumpkin over the fire to heat.

“Good,” Ben said, interpreting that one word as an affirmative response, “‘cause Miss Nelly fixed us a fine dinner here, Hoss——fried squirrel, stewed pumpkin and plenty of fresh bread on the side.  I’ll fry some potatoes to go along with that.”

Once he had the potatoes diced and sizzling, Ben lifted the little boy into his arms and sat down in the rocker to keep an eye on the food.  Though Ben had protested taking the rocker, Nelly had insisted.  “It helps Hoss get to sleep,” the kind-hearted woman had declared.  “Besides, Clyde’s promised to make me a new one.”  Ben had submitted to her wishes then, in the knowledge that anything Clyde Thomas made was likely to be of better quality than the rocker Ben had found abandoned outside the Mormon Station trading post last year.

When Adam returned with the water, Ben saw to it that everyone was washed and ready by the time dinner was hot.  They said grace and dug in, each knowing that supper wasn’t likely to be as tasty or as filling.  Ben was a fair cook, but he had a long way to go before he could feed his boys as well as Nelly Thomas had for the past year.  Ben sighed and resolved to study the recipes Nelly had sent after the boys went to bed.  He wasn’t confident the results would compare favorably with hers, even if he followed her instructions to the letter, but he was determined to keep his boys well nourished.  He owed that to their mothers.

After dinner Ben laid his drowsy younger boy on the bed and covered him with the down-filled comforter Nelly Thomas had made the boy for Christmas last year.  Coming out of the bedroom, he saw Adam pulling out one of his schoolbooks.  The boy’s hand swiftly dropped to his side.  “Is it okay to read awhile, Pa?” Adam asked.

Ben nodded.  “Sure, son, but you’ll need to go outdoors.  It’s too dark in here with no windows.”

“Can’t I light a lamp, Pa?” Adam wheedled.

Ben shook his head.  “No, son; Pa tried to buy plenty of lantern oil, but it’s not a good idea to squander it this early.  We’ll need it more this winter when we can’t sit outside.”

A soft whimper drifted through the bedroom door.  “Bubba,” Hoss called.  Adam frowned.  He’d been watching Hoss all morning and felt he deserved some time to himself.

Reading the boy’s thoughts in his expression, Ben gave Adam’s shoulder a consoling pat.  “He’d probably quiet down quicker if you’d lie down next to him awhile,” he suggested.  “I’d do it myself, but I need to work on getting a supply of firewood laid in.”

“Okay,” Adam sighed, “but he’d better get to sleep fast or I’ll read him a page out of the New England Primer.”

Ben laughed softly.  “Not a bad idea, Adam, if it weren’t so dark in that room.  A story might just do the trick.”  No story was needed this time, though.  Once both boys lay side by side on their father’s bed, the younger one quickly fell asleep and his older brother soon followed.  It had been a busy morning and Adam was tired.

Adam woke before Hoss, though, so he did find time to study a little and to make an entry in his daily journal before supper.  It was a light meal, just some bacon fried to go with what was left from dinner.  After the table was cleared and the dishes washed, Ben took from the second shelf the thick volume of Shakespeare’s works that Josiah Edwards had shipped to him as a Christmas gift last year.  “Ready to start a new play, Adam?” he asked.

“Yes, sir!” Adam replied enthusiastically.  “More about King Henry, please, Pa.”

Ben laughed.  “Yeah, well, I guess it makes sense to read Part II after Part I, son.  Henry the Fourth it is, then.”  Ben opened the big book and laid it on the table by the coal-oil lantern.  Adam sat down in the rocker and pulled Hoss into his lap.  As he listened to his father’s cello-toned voice reading the words of the immortal bard, Adam rocked his baby brother.  Hoss didn’t understand a word of the play, of course, but he found his father’s voice soothing and his brother’s lap as good a place as any to snooze.

CHAPTER TWO

             When the Thomas cabin came in sight Monday morning, Adam raced ahead.  “Hey, Billy!” he yelled.

Billy ran out the door of his cabin, waving and hollering.  “Hey, Adam!  Come see what we got done already.”

Adam charged up to his friend and both headed inside.

“Lands, you folks must have been up before the sun to get here this early!” Nelly exclaimed.  “Have you had breakfast?”

“Yes ma’am,” Adam replied.  “Pa fixed pancakes and bacon.”

“Didn’t burn ‘em too bad, did he?” Clyde cackled.

“I did not,” Ben snorted, entering the cabin.  “As evidence, I offer the fact that both my boys cleaned their plates.”

“All that proves is that they were hungry,” Nelly teased, reaching for the baby in Ben’s arms.  “Hello, Sunshine.  You gettin’ enough to eat at Pa’s house?”

“Eat!” Hoss cried, falling into Nelly’s arms.

Nelly laughed.  “We’ll eat later, Sunshine.  Aunt Nelly’s plannin’ a big dinner come noontime.”

Ben raised a thick, dark eyebrow.  “Aunt Nelly now, is it?”

Nelly blushed.  “Well, I guess I was takin’ liberties.  You folks sure seem close as kin, though, so maybe I can be excused.”

Ben smiled warmly.  “Nelly, I never had a sister of my own, but I’d be proud to call you that——which would, of course, entitle you to be my boys’ aunt.”

Adam walked over to Mr. Thomas.  “Does that make you Uncle Clyde?” he asked seriously, as Adam tended to take almost everything.

Clyde chuckled.  “I reckon, but just by marriage, it seems.”

“Clyde!” Nelly scolded, turning apologetically to Ben.  “Trust my man to take funnin’ one step too far.”

Ben put an arm around Nelly and gave her a gentle embrace.  “Think nothing of it, sister dear.  There are black sheep in every family,” he said, giving Clyde a wink.

Nelly’s face flamed redder than her son’s hair.  “High time the both of you quit flappin’ your tongues and went to work,” she chided, “if you plan on finishin’ this floor today.”

Ben chuckled and nodded his acceptance of the admonishment.  He moved toward Clyde.  “Looks like you’ve made a good start,” he said, his hand sweeping toward the doorway Clyde had cut in the cabin’s north wall, against which Ben’s and the boys’ beds had stood when they all lived together.

“Come on through and see what I’ve done,” Clyde said.

Ben followed his friend through the doorway into what had once been the stable and had later served as the trading post.  Gone was the counter behind which Ben had conducted business.  Gone were the shelves along the east wall.  Nothing, in fact, remained in the room.  The ground had been beaten down firmly and a few half-logs laid in place near the north wall, beyond which Clyde’s smithy still stood.  “You have been working,” Ben whistled.

“Still plenty to do, Ben boy,” Clyde chuckled.  “Or should I say ‘Brother Ben’?”

Ben grinned.  “I’ll answer to either, and even quicker to the dinner bell.”

“Ha!” Clyde snorted.  “Missin’ your sister’s cookin’ already, ain’t ya?”

“Oh, yeah,” Ben said.  “Tell me where you stowed my ax, and I’ll get to work splitting logs.”

“In the smithy,” Clyde replied.

With both men working, the area that would become Clyde and Nelly’s new bedroom was completely floored by the time Nelly announced that dinner was ready.  Everyone gathered around the table, Adam and Hoss both eyeing the bounty eagerly.  Ben cut a surprised glance at Nelly.  “You’ve gone all out, Nelly.  This looks more like a Sunday dinner than a weekday’s.”

“Well, now, I—I got to make sure you and the boys eat proper once a week, don’t I?” Nelly stammered.

Ben chuckled.  “You won’t hear me complain.  Someday, though, I’m going to have to invite you to my place, so you can see we’re not really dying of malnutrition over there.”

“Lands, I didn’t mean——” Nelly began, then stopped when she saw Ben smile at her.  He was teasing.  “Would you say the blessing, Ben?” she asked instead of completing her apology.

Ben bowed his head, the others followed suit, and a brief prayer thanked the Giver of all good things for the abundance He’d provided for their table.

“Eat!” Hoss demanded as soon as the grownups’ heads came up.  Young as he was, he had learned that nothing would reach his mouth before the prayer ended.  But he was always ready for food the minute it did.

“All right, greedy belly,” Ben said, chucking the little fellow under his chubby chin.  “Goodness knows, I’ll get no chance at dinner ‘til you’ve had yours!”  Feeling not an iota’s guilt, Hoss just grinned.

As Ben had said, the table was loaded with enough food to rival Nelly’s best Sunday dinners.  And he could see two pies sitting at one end, a sure sign that today’s dinner was intended to be special.

“We’re gonna need to move everything out of here before we can go much further,” Clyde said.  “Hope that stove don’t take all day to cool down.”

“Oh, it won’t,” Nelly said.  “I cooked everything at the fireplace except the pies, and they were done early.”

“Good thinking, Nelly,” Ben said.

Nelly laughed.  “You don’t know how I been longin’ for a real floor, Ben.  I’ve had everything planned out in my mind for days.”

Clyde forked another pickle onto his plate.  “What she means is she’s all set to boss the job.”

“You planning to sleep outside tonight, Clyde?” Ben asked dryly.  Clyde grinned.  He got the point.

As soon as dinner ended, Nelly put the boys to work clearing the table.  “Take all the dishes outside,” she ordered, “well away from the cabin.  I’ll wash ‘em up once the men get started.”

While the boys worked at the table, Ben and Clyde took down the canvas curtain and began unpegging the bed from the east wall of the cabin.  “Might as well take this on in the other room,” Clyde suggested.

“Might as well,” Ben agreed.

By the time the men had finished setting up the bed, Nelly and the boys had taken all the chairs and the table outdoors.  Ben and Clyde carried out the heavy cast iron stove and started building the floor, beginning at the west end, where the fireplace stood.

They’d been working for about an hour when Nelly poked her head through the cabin door.  “Rider comin’,” she announced.  “Looks like John Reese.”

Clyde stood and limped to the door.  The leg that had taken a poisoned arrow——like the one that had killed Ben’s wife Inger——had never been as strong after that.  Clyde had gotten used to the limp, though, and those around him barely noticed it any more.  Stepping outside, Clyde shaded his blue eyes with a bronzed hand.  “Yup, it’s Reese,” he said.  “Wonder what he wants.”

Ben followed Clyde out and stood waiting until John Reese reined in a chestnut gelding.  Reese tipped his felt hat to Mrs. Thomas, but didn’t dismount.  “Howdy, ma’am,” he said.

“Howdy to you, Mr. Reese,” Nelly responded.  “Sorry I can’t offer you a cup of coffee, but I’m not set up to cook just now.”

Reese nodded.  “I can’t stay anyway, ma’am.  I just wanted a word with your husband.”  He turned toward Clyde.  “Mr. Thomas, a few men from this area will be meeting at my place next Wednesday, and I’d like you to join us.”  He looked at Ben, standing behind Clyde.  “You, too, Cartwright.  I was going to ride over to your place as soon as I talked to Mr. Thomas here.  As two of the oldest settlers in this region, you should have a voice in our discussions.”

“What’s this here meetin’ about?” Clyde inquired.

“With so many folks settling in this part of the territory,” Reese explained, “we’re going to need some government established.”

Clyde spit tobacco juice onto the bare ground.  “Thought we had a government,” he muttered, “over to Salt Lake City.”  The Compromise of 1850 had set the territorial capital at FillmoreCity, but everyone knew the real power resided with the head of the Mormon church in SaltLake.

Reese shook his head.  “That’s the problem.  SaltLake’s too far away to give us any real help, and the leaders there seem in no hurry to set up anything local.  Some of us at Mormon Station feel it’s time we undertook the job ourselves.”

“That might not sit too well with the leadership of your church,” Ben said bluntly.

Reese chuckled.  “I may be Mormon, Cartwright, but that doesn’t mean I see eye-to-eye with Brigham Young about everything.  I think we need a government more closely tied to our needs here.”

“I agree,” Ben said.

“Yup, me, too,” Clyde added.  “We’ll be at your meetin’, Reese.”

“Ten that morning sound about right?” Reese asked.

“We could be there earlier,” Ben said, “but ten’s fine.”

“I’m going to ask a few men from the new settlement at Eagle Station, too,” Reese explained.  “That’s where I’m headed now. They have further to come, so I thought it better to start later.”

“Sure you wouldn’t rather light down and help lay a floor?” Clyde suggested dryly.

Clyde hadn’t sounded like he was joking.  Reese saw through the straight face, though, and grinned back at the sweaty builder.  “Believe I’ll pass,” he said.  Tipping his hat once more to Mrs. Thomas, he rode north.

Ben gave his friend a hard clap on the back.  “Back to work, Clyde.  I plan to get Sister Nelly set up to cook again by suppertime.”

“Hear that, Nelly?” Clyde cackled as he turned toward the cabin.  “Give the beggar one good meal, and he invites himself back for more!”

“Lands, he’s earned it!” Nelly cried.  “I planned on him and the boys stayin’ to supper.”

From his perch in her arms, Hoss crowed with delight.  “Eat!  Pie!” he declared.

Along with the others, Nelly laughed.  “Yes, Sunshine, there’s pie left, and Aunt Nelly will make sure you get some.”

Though Ben and Clyde worked hard that afternoon, only half of the cabin’s main room had been floored by the time the sun started to dip behind the mountains.  They moved the stove back inside, so Nelly could prepare supper, but left the table outdoors.  No use cluttering up the room until the job was done, and eating in the open air would feel refreshing after a day of laboring indoors.

“Nobody’ll be braggin’ on this like it was Sunday dinner,” Nelly said apologetically.  “I’ve really had to throw this meal together.”

“It tastes real fine, ma’am,” Adam said.

“Well, thank you, son,” the cook replied with an appeased smile.

“It’s easy to see my younger boy agrees,” Ben laughed.  Hoss’s face was smeared with his exuberant enjoyment of the meal.

Only one face at the table wore a frown.  “What’s your chin draggin’ the dust for, boy?” Clyde demanded of his son.

“I thought you was gonna finish that floor today,” Billy whined.

“Why, son, your pa and Mr. Cartwright have done their best, I reckon,” Nelly remonstrated.  “They’ll finish up tomorrow.”

“Yeah, but it’s my bedroom they didn’t get to,” Billy wailed.  “Where am I supposed to sleep?”

“Oh, lands, what a ruckus over nothin’,” his mother scolded.  “We’ll spread your mattress on what floor we got.”  Billy didn’t look the least bit mollified.

Suddenly, Adam’s face lit up.  “Hey, why don’t Billy come home with us?” he cried.  “He can sleep in my bed!”

Billy looked up, a grin starting at the corners of his mouth.  “That’s a good idea!” he said and turned pleading eyes on his mother.

Ben chuckled.  “It’s all right with me,” he assured Billy’s parents, secretly wondering why Billy thought Adam’s trundle was that much improvement over a mattress on the floor.

Billy spent that night in the Cartwrights’ cabin, and for the next several days, while the men worked to finish the floor, install the glass-paned windows and make a few other improvements in the cabin, he and Adam traded off as host to the other.  Both families spent a few days apart after that to catch up on regular chores, planning to cut windows in the Cartwright cabin right after the November 12th meeting at Reese’s Mormon Station.

* * * * *

The trading post was just ahead now, but Clyde’s steps had slowed almost to a crawl.  Looking back, Ben saw the man, who though just two years older than Ben’s thirty years, walked like a man of much greater age.  “Leg bothering you?” Ben asked.

Clyde shook his head.  “Naw, just ain’t anxious to go amongst a nest of Mormons.”

Ben shook his head.  “Oh, Clyde, don’t start that today!”

“I don’t hold with their religion, and no man can make me say I do!” Clyde snapped.

“Neither do I, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good neighbors,” Ben reasoned.

Clyde lifted his hat and raked callused fingers through his coppery hair.  “So far, I reckon, but I don’t cotton to old Brigham Young or his kind takin’ rule over my life and land.  Any man that goes cavortin’ around with twenty or more so-called ‘wives’ ain’t fit to make laws for decent folks.”

Ben smiled.  “I thought that’s what this meeting was about, Clyde,” he pointed out softly.  “Reese doesn’t like the idea either.”

Clyde nodded.  “Yeah, but I don’t know if the same holds true for the rest of the men here at Mormon Station.  We’re gonna be outnumbered, Ben.”

Ben threw an arm around the shorter man’s shoulder.  “Since when aren’t you and I a match for anything thrown at us?”

Clyde grinned.  “More than a match,” he said with a quick jerk of his chin, “provided they don’t throw their womenfolk agin us, too.”

“What womenfolk?” Ben demanded as he and Clyde started walking once more toward the designated meeting place.  “There isn’t one besides Nelly this side of Salt Lake City!”

Clyde gave a loud hoot.  “Ain’t it the truth!  Must make it hard for these Mormons to practice their religion, huh?”

“Will you stop?” Ben hissed.  “We’re almost there, and so help me, Clyde, if you bring up polygamy—”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Clyde replied with a maddening grin.

Ben rolled his brown eyes heavenward.  He couldn’t figure out whether Clyde was as prejudiced against Mormons as he sounded or if the man just liked to get a rise out of his long-suffering friend.  At times like this, Ben suspected Billy came by his penchant for mischief honestly.

As soon as the two men walked through the door of Reese’s trading post, the Mormon leader strode briskly across the room to greet them.  “Cartwright; Thomas,” he said.  “Glad you could make it.”  A second man came up behind Reese and nodded at the two new arrivals.  Catching a glimpse of the man out of the corner of his eye, Reese beckoned him forward.  “Have you men met William Byrnes?”

Ben extended a hand.  “Of course.  How are you, Byrnes?”

“Doing well, Cartwright,” Byrnes replied.  “Excited about making a real community out of Mormon Station.”

“And the rest of Carson Valley,” Clyde added testily.

“Oh, of course,” Byrnes agreed hastily.  “The entire valley.”

“Bill, I’m not sure our neighbors here know all the others,” Reese said.  “Would you introduce them around?”

“Glad to,” Byrnes said.

Ben and Clyde had already met most of the occupants of the room, the exceptions being some of the new settlers in Eagle Valley, so the introductions took but a short time.  And that was fortunate since Reese called the meeting to order only minutes after they had finished greeting acquaintances old and new.

“All of you know the purpose for our meeting today,” Reese began.  “A year or two ago Carson Valley was just a place to pass through.  No more.  People are beginning to settle here, to make their homes here.  But any government available is a long way from our valley, too far to provide effective leadership.  We need to take steps to provide it ourselves.”

“Here, here!” Byrnes sang out in agreement.

“We must face facts, gentlemen,” Reese continued.  “Without legal title to our lands, all of us here are nothing more than squatters.  Yet Salt Lake City seems reluctant to send officials here to deal with that most basic of legal needs.  And while we’ve been fortunate in attracting mainly god-fearing, law-abiding citizens, we can’t afford to assume that such will always be the case.  We need a plan to deal with criminal activity.”

Ben and Clyde nodded to each other.  Everything Reese had said so far made sense.  Any growing community could expect sooner or later to attract a lawless element, as well as more solid citizens.  Better to nip that element in the bud than let it take root.  The lack of legal title to their lands was an even more immediate concern.

“Fine words, Reese,” said a man Ben had just met, Frank Hall of Eagle Station.  “But what can we do about it?  You think Utah’s gonna just let us order things like we want?”

Reese smiled.  “What I propose will take the territory of Utah completely out of the picture.  I suggest we petition Congress to grant us a territorial government independent of Utah and to send a surveyor to define all land claims.”

Clyde whistled.  “Bold critter, ain’t he?” he whispered to Ben.

Ben gestured to get Reese’s attention.  “If we expect Washington to honor such a request, we’ll have to show them we’re ready to govern ourselves.”

“Absolutely right, Cartwright,” Reese said.  With a long finger he swept the room.  “That’s why we’re here, to set in motion a government Washington will have to respect.”

“There’s others ought to have a say in this,” Frank Hall protested.  “Ain’t more than twenty men here, and the Federal government ain’t gonna smile on no territorial convention that small.”

Ben smiled.  Though his poor grammar revealed Hall to be a man of little learning, he was talking common sense.

“There’s more than just Mormons in this valley,” an even rougher-looking man growled.

Reese flushed.  “Yes, of course, though most of the men you’re speaking of are transients rather than permanent settlers like those in this room.  Our meeting today is just intended to get things started.  I’m sure there’ll be other meetings, and we can involve more men in those.  I suggest we elect a committee today to act as our temporary government and give them the power to appoint officials where needed.”

“What about a legislature?” Joseph Barnard, another settler from Eagle Station demanded.  “A proper government should have more than just an executive branch.”

“Kind of gettin’ the cart before the horse, ain’t you?” Clyde snickered.  “We ain’t gonna have no proper government ‘til Congress recognizes us.  And ‘til then we don’t need no fancy legislature.”

A loud debate ensued with men vociferously voicing opposing viewpoints.  Finally, Ben Cartwright stood, raising both arms to get the men’s attention.  “Perhaps the idea of an official legislature is a bit premature,” he said, “ so why don’t we simply nominate a committee today to begin thinking about the laws we need most and report to the body at large.”

“Good idea,” Jameson, a resident of Mormon Station, shouted.

“I’ll settle for that,” Barnard agreed.

“What we need most,” William Byrnes interrupted, “is a limit on how much land a man can settle.  Fertile land’s scarce in the valley.  No one man should control more than a quarter-section.”

“That’s a good suggestion, Bill,” Reese said smoothly, “but what we need first, as Cartwright suggests, is a committee to examine such ideas.”

“All right, then, I nominate you,” Byrnes announced.  Other Mormons vied with one another for the privilege of seconding the nomination.  Though no official vote was taken, Reese obviously would head the new committee on laws for Carson Valley.

Clyde almost leaped to his feet as soon as nominations were declared open for other members of the committee.  “I nominate Ben Cartwright!”

Ben grabbed at Clyde plaid flannel sleeve, jerking him back into his seat.  “What are you doing?” he demanded.

“Got to have something besides consarned Mormons on this committee,” Clyde whispered.

“Aren’t enough of us gentiles, as they call us, to elect anybody,” Ben muttered under his breath.  To his surprise, however, he was elected to the committee, as was Joseph Barnard of Eagle Station.  Then followed the election of the governing committee.  William Byrnes, John Reese and Jameson were elected to this committee, as well as the one on which Ben would serve, and four others were selected to round out the committee of seven.  The meeting dismissed, and those elected to consider laws and resolutions adjourned to the home of William Byrnes to continue deliberations that afternoon.

Toward evening Ben walked along the cottonwood-lined banks of the Carson River.  Here and there a few orange-yellow leaves still clung to the bare branches, but soon they would all be gone.  In the hills to the west red and gold aspen stood in vivid contrast to the dark evergreen of the pines.  That view lay behind Ben, though, as he directed his steps toward the Thomas cabin.

Adam, playing with Billy on the seesaw their fathers had built three months earlier, suddenly jumped off when he saw his father.  Billy’s half of the board slammed to the ground and Billy slid off on his backside.  “Hey!” he yelled.  “Give a feller some warnin’!”

Adam was too far away to pay much mind to Billy, however.  Ben laughed and tossed the boy high in the air when he came running to meet him.  “You were gone all day, Pa,” Adam scolded.  “That must have been some meeting!”

Ben laughed.  “Yeah, well, you can thank Uncle Clyde for how long I was gone.  You been a good boy?”

“Sure,” Adam said readily.

“And Hoss?”

“Pretty good,” Adam said, his brow furrowing thoughtfully.  “He sure gets underfoot a lot, Pa.  Me and Billy’s hardly had a moment’s peace.”

Adam looked so serious Ben couldn’t keep a straight face. He laughed as he set Adam down.  “Seems like I remember another little lad who got underfoot a lot.”

Adam frowned.  He knew Pa was referring to him when he was younger, but he didn’t think the comparison a fair one.  He couldn’t possibly have been as annoying as Hoss!

Clyde came around the corner of the cabin with a load of firewood.  “Trust Ben Cartwright to show up when the work’s all done,” he cackled.

Ben made a growling face at his friend.  “You’ve got some right talking after the job you dumped in my lap.”

Clyde guffawed even louder.  “Face it, Lieutenant Cartwright,” he said, using the honorary title awarded Ben by the people with whom they’d traveled west, “you were meant for greatness.  How’d the meetin’ go?”

“Good,” Ben reported.  “We plan on having another one next week, larger this time, maybe as many as a hundred men involved.  We’ll present the laws we came up with today then.”

“Anything I ought to worry over?”

Ben grinned.  “I ought to let you stew over that for a week, but, no, nothing you can’t live with.”

Nelly came to the door, with Hoss toddling after.  “Pa!” the sticky-faced boy cried, raising his arms to be picked up.

Ben lifted the youngster and gave him a kiss on his sugary cheek.  “Now, what have you been into, Hoss?”

“Pie!” Hoss chortled, a wide grin splitting his face.

Nelly shook her head.  “Climbed up in a chair when I wasn’t lookin’ and helped himself.  I’m afraid one of the pies I fixed for supper don’t look real invitin’ any more.”

Ben laughed.  “Sorry, Nelly.”

“Like I said, underfoot and into everything,” Adam accused, staring reproachfully at his little brother.

“Oh, no harm done,” Nelly laughed.  “If it was any other youngun, I’d fear spoilin’ his appetite, but—”

Ben hooted.  “Nothing spoils your appetite, does it, Hoss?”  He lifted the boy’s wool shirt and blew on his stomach to Hoss’s giggling delight.

“Well, come on in and set a spell,” Nelly said.

“No, we can’t,” Ben said.  “I’ll be cooking a late supper as it is.”

“Ben Cartwright, you are eatin’ supper here!” Nelly declared.

“Now, Nelly—”

“It’s all planned,” she said.  “Lands, the food’s cookin’ now, and I made enough for everyone.  You don’t want it goin’ to waste, do you?”

“No fear of that,” Ben chuckled, patting his younger son’s ample stomach.  “I’ve sired the perfect solution to leftovers.”

CHAPTER THREE

             “Adam.”  Ben shook the small shoulder lying next to Hoss in the trundle bed.  “Adam, wake up, son.”

Adam’s black eyes slowly opened.  “Morning, Pa,” he yawned expansively.

“Good morning, Adam,” Ben whispered, not wanting to wake Hoss yet.  “I need you to fetch some water from the creek, son.”

Adam propped himself up on sharp elbows.  “How come so early?”

“I want to get the stew on, so there’ll be nothing to do but heat it for the Thomases,” Ben explained.  “You know Miss Nelly.  If there’s anything left to do when she gets here, she’ll take right over.  And this is my party.”

Adam grinned as he swung his bare legs over the edge of the bed and stood up.  “You mean Aunt Nelly,” he reminded his father.

Ben arched an eyebrow, not sure he’d ever get used to the new appellation.  “Yeah, well, by whatever name, she’s my guest today.  I aim to prove I can take care of my own boys.  You with me?”

Adam gave a decided nod.  “I’m with you.”  He grabbed his blue pants from a peg on the wall and stepped into them.  “I don’t know why Aunt Nelly’s comin’ today anyway.  You don’t need her to set in the windows.”  He drew a suspender over each shoulder.

“She’s coming to watch Hoss and to hang the curtains,” Ben replied, walking through the doorway.

Following his father into the main room, Adam scowled.  “Curtains!  Why we need curtains?  Ain’t nobody around to spy in, anyway.”

Ben rumpled Adam’s black hair.  “I, for one, appreciate the touches a woman adds to a home.  You know if your mother or Hoss’s were still alive, we’d have curtains, and I don’t plan to raise a couple of heathens.”

Adam’s face had grown pensive at the mention of his mothers——he always felt he’d had two——but he couldn’t figure what curtains had to do with making him either heathen or god-fearing.  From the look on Pa’s face, though, now wasn’t the time to ask.  Now was the time to fetch water.  Adam trotted outside, grabbed up a pail and headed for the creek.

By the time he returned, Adam could smell the chunks of deer meat searing in the pot.  Ben had the potatoes and carrots peeled and sliced, ready to add as soon as the meat was browned on all sides.  Adam sniffed the air appreciatively as another familiar fragrance hit his nostrils.  “Fried mush!” he chirped.  “My favorite, Pa.”

“Is it?” Ben smiled as he turned the slices of cold mush to fry on the other side.  “I thought your taste ran to bacon and eggs.”

“Well, it would if we had any chickens,” Adam admitted.  “That is one thing I miss from Aunt Nelly’s place.”

Ben laughed.  “I appreciate honesty, Adam, but today’s not the best time to tell me you preferred living with the Thomases.”

“I didn’t say that!” Adam protested indignantly.  “I like having our own place.”

“Good,” Ben said.  Then he gave Adam a wink.  “I miss the eggs, too, son.  Maybe next spring I could bring back a brood of our own, if I had a boy willing to be responsible for them.”

“Me, Pa,” Adam announced.  “I’d be responsible and Hoss could help.”

Ben’s laughter rocked the rafters.  “I wouldn’t count on it, son,” he cackled.

From the next room came a demanding “Pa!”

“Uh-oh,” Ben said.  “I didn’t mean to wake him up yet.  See to your brother, would you, boy?”

Adam frowned.  He knew that “seeing to” his brother’s morning care generally involved changing a dirty diaper.  Since Pa was busy with both breakfast and lunch, however, Adam saw no way out of the offensive chore.  With a sigh he walked through the doorway and over to the trundle, the edge of which Hoss was trying vainly to roll across.

“Okay, up you come,” Adam said, struggling to lift the baby to Pa’s higher bed for changing.  Hoss was already almost beyond the older boy’s strength to lift.  Adam tickled the baby’s chin.  “Hoss, you either gotta quit this growing or you gotta grow big enough to tend yourself.  This in-between stuff is wearing me out.”

Hoss smiled adoringly at his older brother and kicked his legs, wafting the fetid odor from his diapers toward Adam’s nose.  Adam turned his head away quickly and groaned.  The bad kind.  Why did he always get stuck with cleaning Hoss up after the bad kind?

Suddenly, the smile on the baby’s face seemed taunting to his older brother.  “You don’t have to look so all-fired happy about it,” Adam scolded.  “High time you learned to trot to the outhouse on your own.”  The suggestion made no impression on Hoss, however, so Adam set to work making his brother presentable for company.

Hoss had on a fresh diaper, but nothing else, when Ben stuck his head through the doorway to call his boys to breakfast.  “Hoss ain’t dressed yet, Pa,” Adam reported.

“Isn’t,” Ben corrected.  “Don’t bother ‘til he’s eaten.  He’ll be warm enough like he is.”

“And that way we won’t have to change his shirt afterwards, huh, Pa?” Adam grinned.

Ben laid an affectionate hand on the boy’s slender neck.  “Adam, my boy, you’re quite a mind-reader,” he smiled.

The boys were fed, the dishes washed and the cabin shipshape when the guests arrived.  Billy Thomas burst through the door without bothering to knock.  “We’re here,” he announced.

“So I see,” Ben scowled playfully.  “How far back did you leave the old folks, Billy?”

“Fur as I could,” Billy tittered.

Ben walked outside, taking a deep breath of the pine-scented breeze.  Waving at the Thomases, who were only a short distance behind their son, he walked to meet them.  “Why’d you bring the cart?” Ben asked.

“Easier than totin’ this much on my back, that’s why!” Clyde snorted.

Ben looked into the ox-drawn cart.  Clyde’s tools were there, of course, as well as a brown-paper-wrapped package Ben took to be the curtains.  In addition, the cart held four pies.  “Good gracious, Nelly,” he ejaculated.  “We don’t plan to work up that huge an appetite.”

“Speak for yourself,” Clyde hooted, giving Ben’s arm a solid punch.

“I only planned two for dinner,” Nelly explained.  “The others I’ll leave here since you said you weren’t comin’ for Sunday dinner this week.”

Ben shook his head.  He wondered if he’d ever convince Nelly Thomas that he and the boys were capable of managing on their own.  Still, he had to admit all three of them relished dessert.  It was in short supply at the Cartwright table, too, for Ben had never understood the mysteries of pie-making.  He smiled his thanks and helped carry the pastries inside.

“Pie!” Hoss crowed in happy greeting when his father walked in.

“Yes, and you stay out of them,” Ben ordered, waving an admonishing finger under the nose of his younger son.  Hoss looked disappointed, but bobbed his head soberly.

Nelly, having followed Ben in with the last two pies, set them down and began what was obviously an inspection tour of the cabin.  “Why, you’ve got it fixed up right nice,” she said, smiling at the table already set for dinner, “and whatever that is cookin’ smells almost edible.”

“Almost!” Ben sputtered.  “You wait ‘til you taste it before you go criticizing, Nelly Thomas.”

“I wasn’t criticizin’,” Nelly contradicted.  She approached the mantel over the fireplace and looked at the two daguerreotypes Ben had set there, one on each side.  One face she recognized.  “I never knew you had a picture took of Inger, Ben,” she said softly.

Ben gazed dreamily at the picture.  “Yeah, we had that made on our first anniversary——first and last,” he said quietly.  His thoughts were particularly nostalgic since November was the month he and Inger had married three years before

Nelly nodded, sharing the moment of sorrow with Ben, for Inger had been a cherished friend.  She pointed to the other picture.  “That your first wife?” she asked.

“Yes, that’s Elizabeth, Adam’s mother,” Ben said of the handsome, dark-haired woman in the other gilt frame.

“Two fine-lookin’ women you found for yourself,” Clyde said from the doorway.

“Fine-looking and fine-hearted,” Ben said.

“When you aim to put a third picture up there?” Clyde asked with an impish grin.

Ben paled.  “Never,” he said tautly.

Secretly, Nelly didn’t think Clyde should have brought the subject up this soon after Ben’s loss; but since he had, she thought she might as well express her opinion, too.  A year might seem a short time to grieve, but Ben’s boys needed a mother and Ben a wife to share this home he was building.  “There’s other fine-hearted women, Ben,” she said softly.

“Not of their like,” Ben replied, coloring.  To lighten the sudden sobriety in the room, he laughed.  “Besides, where in all of UtahTerritory would I find an unmarried woman of anything but the Mormon persuasion?”

Clyde chuckled.  “Or even that kind.  With their men takin’ two or three apiece, there can’t be many left over.”

Nelly clucked her tongue reproachfully.  “You men had best clear out and start to work.  I won’t have such matters spoke of before these innocent boys.”

“Innocent?  Him?” Ben teased, pointing at Nelly’s red-haired son, then skipping out before Nelly could toss a pie at him for his sass.

“Still set on three winders?” Clyde asked, pulling his saw from the cart.

Ben chuckled.  “I know you think it’s an extravagance, but we want lots of light in our front room.  We’re a family of readers, you know.”

“Hoss, too, I suppose,” Clyde sniggered.

Ben shrugged.  “Time will tell, but he’s gonna have the right example set before him.”

“Yeah, all right,” Clyde said, eager to change the subject.  He wasn’t setting his own boy much of an example in the education department, and sometimes that made him uncomfortable around Ben Cartwright, who set such store by learning.  “You’re plannin’ to read in bed, too, I reckon,” he added, referring to Ben’s previously stated intention of putting a window in the bedroom, as well as one on each side of the cabin’s front door.

“Maybe,” Ben chuckled.  “Mostly, I plan to wake with the sun coming through that east window and be about my work, unlike some of my lazy neighbors.”

Clyde turned to spit a stream of tobacco juice away from the cabin.  “I don’t need the sun to wake me up.  My own innards act like a regular clock when it’s time to start chorin’.”

Ben arched a blue-black eyebrow.  “Did I say I meant you?  I have other neighbors, you know.”

Clyde slapped his knee.  “Okay.  You slickered me that time.  Who’d you have in mind?  Old Virginny, maybe?”

Ben scowled at the reference to James Finney, who took his nickname from his home state.  “No one in particular, but Finney doesn’t strike me as a beaver for work, now you mention it.”

“You men better start workin’ like beavers yourselves,” Nelly warned from the doorway, “or I’ll take a lesson from Inger’s book and make you sing the praises of James Finney before you get your dinner.”  Both men smiled, remembering the times on the trail when Inger, who couldn’t tolerate criticism of anyone, had made them earn their dinner in just the fashion Nelly mentioned.

Ben made her an elegant bow.  “Yes, ma’am!” he said.  “We’ll soon have you a window to dress with those frills you brought.”

Hoss tugged at Nelly’s skirt.  “Pie, Aun’ Nenee?”

Nelly scooped the toddler up and carried him outside.  “Not yet, Sunshine.  Let’s take us a walk in the trees ‘til the menfolk get the window holes cut.”

“Good idee,” Clyde snorted.  “That’ll get the both of you out from underfoot.”

“Idea, Clyde,” Ben groaned.  He’d tried all last winter to break his friend of his folksy pronunciations and sometimes felt ready to toss it up to a lost cause.

“Idea,” Clyde corrected himself amiably.  “I remember more than I forget nowadays, Ben.”

“Glad to see you making some progress,” Ben said, though he looked dubious.

“Yeah, well, I’d like to see you make some progress,” Clyde sniggered.  “At this rate we won’t have the first winder——uh, window——set ’til long past dinner.”

Ben accepted the rebuke with a nod.  It was more true than not.  He’d rather jaw with Clyde than do chores any day.  He and Adam both, however, were looking forward to having more light in the house, so Ben grabbed up his saw and began to open a square on one side of the door while Clyde sawed away on the other.

The glass for both front windows was in place by the time the sun stood overhead.  “Now you folks sit and rest while I heat up the stew,” Ben ordered.  “Dinner won’t be as fancy as the ones I enjoy at your place, but it’ll be tasty.”

“I’m sure it will, Ben,” Nelly said, seeing how nervous the man was and feeling certain he needed reassurance.  It was obvious Ben felt the need to prove himself, so despite her desire to pitch in and help, she let him stir and bake his own corn pone to go with the stew.  At least, she’d have the satisfaction of topping off the meal with a slice of pie for everyone.

Ben soon announced that dinner was served, and family and guests alike scooted onto the log benches on both sides of the table.  Hoss stood on the bench and spatted the table with both palms.  “Pie!” he demanded.

“Dinner, first,” Ben said sternly, tying a napkin around the boy’s neck.

Hoss’s lower lip shot out, but he didn’t say anything.  Once Ben filled his plate with savory venison stew, thoughts of pie fled his mind.  Hoss may have preferred pie, but almost any food met with his affectionate embrace.  After the first bite the boy banged the tabletop again.  “Good!” he announced.

“It surely is,” Nelly laughed.  “You followed my receipts right well, Ben.”

“They’ve been a big help,” Ben admitted.

While Ben’s stew met with unanimous approval, the real attraction of that meal, or any other they shared, was the dessert.  Nelly’d made both dried apple and peach pies.  They sliced one of each, so everyone could have the kind he favored.

Nelly had swept the front room clear of the wood splinters before dinner, so as soon as it ended and she’d washed up the dishes, she was ready to hang the curtains.  First, though, she heated the flatiron she’d brought along and pressed the calico ruffles smooth.  Once the curtains were hung, she called to Ben, “Come see what you think.”

Despite being in the middle of installing the bedroom window, Ben willingly stopped to admire the tie-backs now gracing his front windows.  He smiled as he saw the blue flowers blossoming on vines of green.  “Inger would have liked that print,” he said.

Nelly smiled back at him.  “She did like it, Ben.  I made the curtains from that yardage of hers you give me.”

“Blue was her favorite color,” Ben added, fingering a ruffle.  “Almost everything she made for our little home in St. Joseph was blue.  I’m glad you thought to use this for the curtains; we’ll think of her whenever we see it.”

Nelly looked close to tears.  “You better get back and finish that other window, Ben, so I can get the curtain up in there before we have to leave.”

Ben nodded and returned to the bedroom.  The work was done by mid-afternoon and, giving his friends his heart-felt thanks, Ben and his boys waved good-bye.

“See you Wednesday,” Clyde called.

“What’s Wednesday, Pa?” Adam asked once their company was out of sight.

“You remember, son,” Ben said.  “That second meeting about forming a new government.”

“Oh, yeah,” Adam said.  “Me and Hoss is gonna stay with the Thomases while you’re gone.”

“You and Hoss are going to stay with them, Adam,” Ben corrected with a shake of his head.  Sometimes he wondered if so much exposure to the Thomases, however good-hearted they were, was a good influence on his boy’s education.  Ben rebuked himself immediately for the thought.  There were more important things than grammar, and in those things his uneducated friends excelled.

Ben looked down at Adam.  “We’ll be spending the night with them, too, since Reese expects the meeting to go a second day.  That’s why I didn’t want to impose for Sunday, too.”

“We’ll make out, Pa,” Adam declared.  “After all, we got pie.”

Hoss squirmed in Ben’s arms.  “Pie!”

Ben frowned at his older son.  “Now look what you started,” he scolded.

Adam shrugged and gave his father a sheepish grin.

* * * * *

The hills to the west were splashed with sunset shades when Ben Cartwright finally approached the Thomas cabin on the evening of November 19.  On days like this, Ben really felt the need for a mount.  Though Mormon Station wasn’t far from Clyde and Nelly’s home, Ben was tired and would have much preferred to ride rather than walk.  The meeting had lasted so long, too, that Ben feared he was holding up dinner.  He quickened his pace.  A delayed meal was the one thing most calculated to make his younger son hard to handle.  And Ben figured the normally sunny little lad was probably just about at that point now.

Nelly, however, had foreseen the problem.  “I fed Hoss early and put him down on Billy’s bed.” she explained when Ben walked in and didn’t see his toddler.  “That’s where we’ll put you tonight, too, Ben; these young ones can handle a pallet for one night.”

“Better than I could,” Ben chuckled, then laughed louder as he caught a glimpse of Billy’s disgruntled face.  How quickly they spoiled, these privileged boys!  Billy and Adam had both been content to sleep on the ground on the journey west.  Now, after only a year of settled life, they considered themselves put upon to do the same.  Ben said as much, to explain his sudden laughter.

“Ain’t it the truth?” Clyde snorted.  “Maybe we ought to bed ‘em out in the barn, just as a reminder of where they come from.”

“No, sir!” Billy yelped.  “Me and Adam’s real content with a pallet by the fire, ain’t we, Adam?”

Adam’s chin bobbed up and down quickly.  “Real content,” he assured his father.

“Good,” Ben said firmly.  He hadn’t seen Adam react negatively to Nelly’s edict in the first place but wanted to be certain his boy understood that such behavior was unacceptable.  In their own home Ben permitted Adam to speak his mind, but he was glad to see his son had his company manners on tonight.

Nelly had been keeping dinner warm until Ben’s arrival, so everyone found a chair.  “Nothin’ fancy,” Nelly declared, belittling her own cooking, as usual.  “Just plain oxtail stew.  I tried that receipt you brought back from Ludmilla last time you went through Placerville, though, Ben.  You be sure and tell me if it’s good as hers.”

Ben forced himself to keep a straight face.  Nelly had shown definite signs of jealousy ever since Ben and Adam’s first trip over the mountains for supplies last spring.  They’d found their old trail mate, Ludmilla Zuebner, running a cafe in Placerville and had returned singing the praises of the food they’d eaten there.  Then Clyde had made a later trip for the same purpose and come home singing a second verse of the same song.  Nelly had been fit to be tied and had demanded that the next one of them to visit Ludmilla had to bring back recipes for the dishes they were so wild over.  To Ben had fallen that thankless task, but Ludmilla had been warmly generous in her response.

“You know, Nelly,” Ben said as he ladled stew into his plate, “you ought to make Clyde take you over to Placerville next time he goes.  Ludmilla always asks about you, and I know she’d love a visit.”

Nelly touched her protruding belly, knowing that what was growing there was likely to prevent paying any long distance calls for some time to come.  “No more than me, Ben,” she sighed.  “Bein’ the only woman this side of the mountains, I do get lonesome for decent conversation.”

“Since when ain’t my conversation decent?” Clyde demanded.

Nelly reached over to pat his callused hand.  “Now, you know what I mean.  Women like to talk about babies and sewin’ and the like.  All I ever hear is talk of crops and trade and government meetin’s.”

Ben choked on the stew in his mouth.  He’d been just about to bring up the subject of the meeting he had attended that day.  “Sorry, Nelly,” he apologized, for he saw in her eyes that she had guessed what caused his sudden discomposure.

“It’s all right, Ben,” she laughed.  “I want to hear the news, but maybe we could hold it ‘til after the meal.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ben replied meekly.  Then mischief sparked in his eyes.  “My, Clyde, that’s a fetching new outfit you’re wearing tonight.”

Clyde looked down at his red wool shirt and gray pants.  They weren’t new.  All at once, Clyde grinned, seeing what Ben was up to.  “Yeah, pleased you like it.  And, Ben, that hat of yourn would look right smart with a peacock plume stuck in the band.”

Billy snickered at his mother’s reddening face, while Adam bit his lip to keep from joining in.  He really was on his company manners for the night, even though Pa evidently wasn’t.

Nelly looked askance at both men, then flapped her hand at them across the table.  “All right, you two nuisances, that’ll be enough.”

It wasn’t enough for Billy, though.  He bounced up from his chair and began to prance around.  “Now, my duds ain’t new,” he announced, “but ain’t I a purty sight?”

“Your bottom’ll be a pretty sight if you keep that up,” his mother warned.  “Sit down and finish your dinner.”

“I am finished,” Billy insisted.  “Can me and Adam go out to play?”

“There’s pie, sugar,” Nelly offered.

“Can I save mine for tomorrow?” Billy asked.  “I’m full, Ma, and I want to go outside.  That government talk bores me, too.”

“It’s dark now,” Nelly said.  “I don’t want you wanderin’ off.”

“Just to the seesaw?” Billy wheedled.

Nelly relented.  “Well, I reckon you can go that far.  You finished, Adam, or do you want pie first?”

“I’d like to save it for tomorrow, please,” Adam replied.  He’d seen the warning frown on Billy’s face and knew that was the safest answer.  Besides, like Billy, he’d rather play than listen to the grownups talk.

“You’re excused then, Adam,” Ben said.  “Go no further than the seesaw.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam said, sliding from his chair and following Billy outside.

“Now, if you two tell me you want your pie saved ‘til tomorrow, I’ll—I’ll give it all to Hoss,” Nelly threatened.  “He, at least, appreciates my cookin’.”

“As do I, ma’am,” Ben said quickly.  “A nice thick slice, if you please.”

“That’s better,” Nelly giggled.  “I’ll cut us each a slice and get you some more coffee.  Then I reckon we’ll be ready to hear about the meeting, Ben.”

Over pie and coffee the friends discussed the laws the squatter government had passed.  William Byrnes’ proposal to limit each settler to a quarter section of arable land had been adopted, as well as one to hold the timbered lands in common.  “Anyone buying a claim will be required to improve it in value by five dollars within six months,” Ben continued.

“I like that,” Clyde said.  “We ain’t interested in riffraff settlin’ here.  Folks that make improvements is more likely to stay.”

“I think so, and five dollars is a small enough amount that anyone should be able to handle it,” Ben agreed.  “All of this, of course, is contingent on Congress’s allowing us to separate from Utah Territory.  If they don’t, none of our titles would hold up in court.”

“We gonna set up courts of our own?” Clyde asked.

“Yeah,” Ben replied.  “As a matter of fact, that’s on the agenda for tomorrow, as well as elections for justice of the peace, sheriff and a jury.”

“What office you runnin’ for, Ben?” Clyde inquired with a wicked wink at his wife.

“Don’t you think committee member is job enough?” Ben demanded.

“Naw, justice of the peace sounds good to me,” Clyde snickered.

Ben scowled.  “You want me performing weddings for our Mormon neighbors, do you?”

Clyde guffawed.  “Sticks in your craw, don’t it?”

“I wouldn’t do it,” Ben said firmly, “not if I knew there was already another spouse.  I doubt I have anything to worry about, though.  Even with more than 100 men voting, the Mormons are as likely to run this government as the one in Salt Lake, my friend.”  It was Clyde’s turn to scowl.

Ben’s prediction proved true.  In the elections the next day, as well as those for several years to come, the Mormon majority controlled the results.  Winning a place on the jury, Ben was among the few gentiles selected to serve.  But he thought everyone elected this time, whether gentile or Mormon, would do a good job, assuming, of course, that Congress didn’t disallow all the work the squatter government had begun.

Ben picked up his boys Thursday afternoon.  Nelly was a little put out with him because he wouldn’t stay to supper and refused her invitation to Sunday dinner, too.  “Haven’t you seen enough of us the last week or so?” Ben teased.

“You’re always welcome here, and you know it, Ben Cartwright!” Nelly sputtered.

Ben laid an affectionate hand on her shoulder.  “I do know that, and I want to keep it that way.”

“Well, you are coming for Thanksgiving, aren’t you?” Nelly demanded, clearly perturbed at not getting her way.

Ben laughed.  “Wouldn’t miss it!  If the weather holds, that is.  We had our first snow the day after Thanksgiving last year, remember?”

Nelly nodded.  “I do, but there hasn’t even been snow on the mountains yet, Ben.  Funny, ain’t it?  If the snows had held off last year like they’ve done this, we’d all be livin’ in California.”

It was funny, Ben thought, as he and the boys headed home.  A thing as ordinary as the weather could decide a man’s future.  If it had been more favorable last year, he would have bypassed the Carson Valley the way most emigrants did.  Had Inger been alive, she would have pointed out that weather was in the hands of God and been sure the snows were His way of making His will known.  And she’d have been right, Ben decided, feeling more strongly than ever that this place had been his destined home long before he first saw it.

Dreamy-eyed, Ben snuggled Inger’s son against his chest.  This child, too, had been the product of his wife’s faith, a demonstration of her conviction that God would fulfill her heart’s desire for a child in His time.  And now her faith had taken root in Ben’s heart.  He’d been a believer in God all his life, of course, but Inger’s simple trust in an all-knowing, all-caring Father had changed the way he looked at everything, from the changes of the weather to the development of this land he would call home.  Whatever affected him or his boys, Ben now felt, was not ruled by happenstance.  Everything, great and small, was directed by the hand of a loving Creator, who had a plan for each individual life and was perfecting it in ways beyond the understanding of mere man.

CHAPTER FOUR

             Though snow began to dust the Sierras by Thanksgiving, none fell on the valley floor.  The Cartwrights and Thomases were able to count their blessings together over a table even more bountifully spread than the one they had enjoyed their first winter together.  Not until mid-December did the first snowflakes float down on the Cartwright’s roof.  Ben greeted their coming with pleasure, certain now that the temperature would remain cold enough to store whatever game he shot.

The day after that first snowfall he and Clyde took an extended hunting trip to lay in a supply of meat.  The results of that trip, along with the pig he’d bought from one of the residents of Mormon Station and butchered and smoked earlier, made Ben confident he and the boys would eat well during the months the CarsonValley was shut off from California.  Not as well as the Thomases, of course, who had a better cook, but what Ben’s cooking lacked in quality, he could rectify with quantity.  And for Hoss, especially, quantity was the key word.

About a week and a half before Christmas, Ben began to whittle some simple shapes similar to those that had decorated their tree in St. Joseph.  “Are we gonna have our own tree or put one up at the Thomases again?” Adam asked.

Ben saw the yearning look in his boy’s dark eyes, so he didn’t need to ask, but he did anyway.  “Which would you prefer?”

“Our own,” Adam answered at once.  Forthright by nature, Adam had never had the least fear of speaking his feelings, for his father encouraged openness.  “Can we have one, Pa?”

Ben chuckled.  “Why do you think I’m sitting here whittling these things, boy?  If we were sharing a tree, we’d have no need for more than we made last year.”

Adam grinned.  “I guess that’s right.”  He frowned, then.  “Uh-Pa?”

“Yeah?” Ben asked, smoothing the back of the deer he was carving.

“You think maybe Mr. Thomas would make us some animals to hang on the tree?” Adam asked tentatively.

Ben’s head jerked up.  “Mine aren’t good enough for you, boy?”

Adam’s mouth twisted askew.  “They’re all right, Pa, but—”

“But not as lifelike as Mr. Thomas’s, eh?” Ben said.

Adam gulped.  “N—no, sir, and I think we should make our tree the finest there is——for Hoss, I mean.”

“For Hoss, is it?” Ben laughed.  “I doubt it’s Hoss’s interests you’re concerned about.  Tell the truth, Adam.”

Adam grinned sheepishly.  “For me, then, Pa.”

“Mr. Thomas has enough chores without decorating our tree,” Ben said soberly.  “Besides, I think by the time we’re finished, you’ll be pleased with the result.  I brought some special things back from Sacramento.”

“What things, Pa?” Adam demanded.

“Paint, for one.”  Ben smiled.  “Remember how much fun you and Jamie had painting the ornaments in St. Joseph?”

Adam was smiling broadly now.  “I sure do.  That’ll make our tree real colorful, not plain like last year.”

“It’ll be almost like the one we put up in St. Joe,” Ben said.  “I bought some small candles, too, and popcorn to string for a garland.”

“And to eat!” Adam chirped.

A bleary-eyed Hoss, just up from his nap, toddled into the room in time to hear his brother’s last statement.  “Eat?” he asked, rubbing his eyes.  Ben and Adam both laughed.  They might have known Hoss would wake up to hear that word!

Once Ben had a dozen shapes carved, he gave Adam small cans of red, blue and yellow paint and a brush.  “Wait ‘til Hoss takes his nap, then you can go to work,” Ben whispered.

Adam nodded solemnly.  He could just imagine Hoss’s plump fingers taking a dip in the pretty colors and smearing broad strokes across the table or, worse yet, his big brother’s shirt.  Pa was right; waiting ‘til the baby was sound asleep was the best plan.

Adam smiled.  That way, too, the tree could be a surprise for Hoss, come Christmas Eve.  Last year, when Pa was trying to soothe Adam’s disappointment over learning there was no Santa Claus from loud-mouthed Billy Thomas, he’d said that now Adam was old enough to play the Santa game with Hoss.  Pa had said then it would be fun.  And as Adam anticipated his baby brother’s wide-eyed wonder when he saw the tree, he began to understand what Pa had meant.

Like Adam, Ben found himself looking forward to Hoss’s daily nap time.  While Adam worked busily at painting the new ornaments, Ben sat by the hearth carving first more ornaments and then slats for ladder back chairs the way Clyde had shown him.  The house was quiet with both father and son intent on their work, and Ben found the stillness restful after the constant activity of spring, summer and fall.  He’d never been overly fond of cold weather, but being shut in had its advantages.  Quiet afternoons like this brought a refreshing peace to his soul.

One afternoon Adam, with the tip of his brush, gave his yellow bird a blue eyespot and sat back, satisfied.  “They’re all painted, Pa,” he reported.

Ben looked up from the chair he was working on.  “That’s good, Adam.  I’ve been watching your work, and you’ve done a real fine job.”

“Were you gonna carve some more?” Adam asked.  “The tree will seem kind of bare if this is all, don’t you think?”

Ben chuckled.  “Maybe, but I don’t think we have time to make more this year.”

Adam frowned thoughtfully, then his countenance lifted.  “What about hanging pinecones to fill in with?  We did last year.”

“So we did,” Ben said, “and maybe you could add a touch of paint on the tips.”

“Yeah!” Adam cried enthusiastically.  “I’ll get some cones right away.”

“Not now, son,” Ben said with a shake of his head.

“But, Pa, I’ve already got the paint out and everything,” Adam argued.

“Yes, but Hoss is likely to wake soon, and you’ll want to get things put away before he does.  Then you can take him with you to pick up pinecones and paint them tomorrow.”

“Aw, Pa, he’s no help,” Adam complained.

“Then teach him to be a help,” Ben said firmly.  “You might keep your eye out for the tree you want while you’re at it.”

“Oh, I already know that!” Adam exclaimed.  “I spotted one just the right size last week.”

Ben laughed.  “All right.  Day after tomorrow we’ll chop it down and set it up.  Now put your supplies away, son.”

Adam did as he was told, setting the ornaments atop the mantel to dry and the paints and cleaned brush on the highest bookshelf in the cabin.  He went to the front window and pressed his nose against the glass pane.  “It’s snowing again, Pa,” he said softly.

Ben caught the note of uneasiness in Adam’s voice.  “Real pretty, isn’t it, when it drifts down slow like that,” he commented tentatively, standing up and stretching the kinks out of his back.

Adam turned worried eyes to his father’s face.  “You think there’ll be too much?  For us to get to the Thomases, I mean.”

Ben moved to the window beside Adam.  “I don’t think so, son.  Unless there comes a real storm, we’ll make it.  I’m looking forward to that goose Mrs. Thomas promised, too.”

“And the presents,” Adam grinned.

Ben tousled Adam’s dark hair.  “Time I started supper.  Fried ham and potatoes sound good to you?”

“Yeah, especially if you throw in some applesauce on the side,” Adam giggled.

“Good idea,” Ben laughed.  “Get some dried apples out of the shed.  I already have everything else.”

Adam snatched his red and black plaid jacket from the peg by the door and ran outside.

* * * * *

“No, Hoss!” Adam ordered, swatting the little boy’s hand.  Hoss immediately sent up a bellow of angry frustration.

Ben turned sharply from the counter where he was dicing leftover boiled beef.  “Adam, what did you do?” he demanded.

“I just spatted his hand, Pa,” Adam said.  “He keeps sticking it in the popcorn, and I’ll never have enough for the garland at the rate he eats!”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous,” Ben snapped.  “There’s plenty of popcorn, and if you need more, I’ll pop it.”  He laid down the butcher knife and sat on the bench next to Hoss.  Putting his arm around the youngster, he soothed him until he quieted, then turned displeased eyes on his older son.  “If there’s any spatting to be done, Adam, I’ll do it,” he said gruffly.  “Last time I looked, I was still the father.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam said, his chin drooping.  He picked up a kernel of popcorn and held it out to his brother.  “I’m sorry, Hoss.  Here, you can have a piece.”

Hoss grabbed the popcorn and stuck it in his mouth, immediately reaching into the bowl in front of Adam once again.

“See what I mean!” Adam fumed.

“Here, here now,” Ben said, standing up.  “I have the solution to this problem.”  He took a tin plate from the shelf to the right of the fireplace, filled it with popcorn and set it in front of Hoss.  “Now you eat from your own plate, Hoss, and leave brother’s popcorn alone.”

“That won’t hold him long,” Adam warned.

Ben arched an eyebrow, but decided the statement was probably valid.  He squatted down to meet Hoss at eye level.  “If you want more, Pa will get you some, Hoss.  Don’t reach in the bowl.”

“Mo’,” Hoss said.

Ben laughed.  “Eat what you have first.”  He stood up.  “You’ve got a ways to go, Adam,” he observed.

“Yes, sir,” Adam said.  “I was hoping to be done by suppertime, but I don’t think I’ll make it, thanks to you-know-who.  What are you fixing for supper, anyway?”

“Oh, I thought I’d make some biscuits and cut that smidgen of meat we had left from dinner into some gravy to pour over them,” Ben said, walking back to the counter to continue the meal preparation.

“Gavvy,” Hoss squealed on hearing one of his favorite foods mentioned.

“Gravy, Hoss,” Adam corrected.

Hoss’s face puckered with effort.  “Gwavy,” he tried again.

Adam shook his head.  “No, Hoss, it’s—”

“No lessons today, Adam,” Ben chuckled.  “It’s Christmas Eve.”

Adam grinned.  “Okay, Pa, no lessons.  Just lots of gavvy.”

Soon the three Cartwrights were digging into plates full of biscuits with “lots of gavvy” and fried potatoes on the side.  Hoss, of course, never dawdled over his food, but tonight even Adam ate hurriedly, anxious to finish his garland and decorate the tree.  He had better success after supper, for with a full stomach Hoss seemed less inclined to gobble his brother’s stock of popcorn.

By the time Ben had the dishes cleared, scoured and put on their storage shelf, Adam’s garland seemed long enough, so the two of them set to work winding it around the tree with Hoss as an avid audience.  When the garland was in place, Ben started attaching small candles to the tips of the branches, while Adam hung the painted ornaments by strings of red yarn Nelly Thomas had donated to the cause of Christmas cheer.  Hoss watched quizzically for a moment, then grabbed a yellow star and draped it over a lower branch.

“No, Hoss,” Adam scolded.  “Me and Pa will fix the tree.”

“Adam,” Ben chided softly, “it’s his tree, too.  Let him put some on where he can reach.”

“It won’t look as nice,” Adam grumbled.

Ben lifted the boy’s chin with one broad finger.  “It will to me,” he said.  “This is supposed to be a night of ‘Peace, goodwill to men,’ Adam.  It had better start between you two.”

Adam nodded slowly.  “Yes, sir.”  He picked up a wooden bird and handed it to Hoss.  “Here, baby, put it on the tree.”

Hoss grinned, took the bird and fumbled to drape its yarn loop over the tallest branch he could reach.  Getting into the spirit of the occasion, Adam helped guide the fat fingers, then patted the toddler’s head.  “That’s a good job, Hoss.”

Ben beamed an approving smile at his elder son.  “Now I have another surprise,” he said.  From behind the wood box that sat just inside the front door, Ben drew a small package wrapped in tissue paper.  “And since Adam’s been such a cooperative helper, he may open it.”

“A present?” Adam murmured in awe.

“Not yet,” Ben laughed.  “This is for the tree.”

Adam grinned sheepishly and removed the tissue paper, drawing out a shiny metal star.  “Ooh, it’s gold,” Adam cooed.

“Not exactly,” Ben chuckled, “but made to look that way.  Put it on the top of the tree, Adam.”

“Billy’s tree won’t have anything to match this,” Adam said as he pulled the bench close enough to stand on and reach the top of the tree.  He affixed the spiral wire at the star’s base to the tree and turned to look at his father.  “Like that, Pa?”

“Just like that,” Ben said.  “Now, if you’ll watch Hoss for a few minutes, so I can light the candles, I’ll have one more surprise for my boys.”

“Something else for the tree?” Adam asked, jumping down from the bench.

“No, and no more questions, you inquisitive rascal,” Ben ordered.

“Come on, Hoss,” Adam said, taking the baby’s hand.  “Let’s go sit in the rocker.”

Ben lighted the tiny candles adorning the branches of the verdant pine, then stepped back to admire his handiwork.  “There.  What do you think of that?” he asked brightly.

“Great, what’s the surprise?” Adam demanded.

Ben’s laughter rocked the rafters.  “I shouldn’t tell you anything a minute ahead of time, should I, boy?” he teased.

Adam ducked his head, a lopsided grin lifting one corner of his mouth.

Shaking his shaggy brown locks, Ben went into the bedroom for a moment and returned carrying a thin volume Adam had never seen before.  “A book!” Adam cried.  “For me?”

Ben scowled playfully.  “For all of us,” he scolded softly.  “A Christmas story I want to read you, but I thought I’d pop some more corn first for you to nibble while I read.”

Adam’s face beamed just as brightly as before.  He loved to hear his father read.  “I’ll get the popcorn,” he offered, plopping Hoss into the rocker.

Soon Ben was seated in the rocker, book in hand, while the boys sat at his feet, a large bowl of salty popcorn between them.  “Now, this story may get a little intense for Hoss.  If it does, we’ll have to stop and put him to bed.  You understand?”

Adam’s brow wrinkled.  “No, sir.  What does ‘intense’ mean, Pa?”

“Well, in this case, ‘scary,’” Ben replied.

“Scary!  A Christmas story?” Adam scoffed.

“Ah, but you see,” Ben went on, his voice dropping mysteriously, “this is a Christmas ghost story.”

Adam’s black eyes widened with excitement.  A Christmas ghost story!  That was something different, indeed!  His arm instinctively slipped around Hoss’s ample mid-section.  “Don’t be scared,” he whispered.  It would be just his luck for the baby to take fright at the most interesting part of the story.  Hoss reached for another handful of popcorn.

“‘Marley was dead, to begin with.  There is no doubt whatever about that,’” Ben began, the cello-timbered tones of his voice hushed with suspense.  On he read, while the lights flickered on the fragrant pine and their warmth seemed to waft the brisk aroma across the room.  Adam became so involved in the story that he only thought to take a kernel of popcorn now and then.  That was fine with Hoss, who was quite content to have it to himself.

Finally, Ben came to the last line.  “‘And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us every one!’” he read and slowly closed the book.

Adam let out a sigh of deep content.  “That was wonderful, Pa,” he whispered, not wanting to break the mood with louder words.

Looking up, Ben chuckled at the scene before him.  Hoss hadn’t quite made it through the story.  He lay with his head in Adam’s lap, still clutching two kernels of popcorn in his chubby fist.  “Looks like someone’s ready for bed,” Ben said softly, gathering the baby into his strong arms.  “Probably time you were asleep, too, Adam.”

Adam gave a little yawn.  It was late, the story having been a long one, but he wasn’t sure he could sleep with all those images of Christmas ghosts to float through his dreams.  Anxious to be up early the next morning, however, he dutifully went to bed and was soon snoozing cozily next to his little brother.

* * * * *

Ben placed the last present under the tree and stepped to the doorway to check on the boys.  By some miracle, both of them were still asleep.  Ben chuckled softly, pleased with himself.  It had been hard work the last several Christmases to wake up before early-bird Adam, but the boy was sleeping soundly this morning.  Figuring he’d have time to mix the batter for their pancakes, Ben stepped briskly to his worktable at the other end of the main room.  He had just started stirring the ingredients together, though, when he heard rumblings from the bedroom.

Adam shook Hoss’s small shoulder.  “Wake up, Hoss,” he said.  “It’s Christmas!”

Hoss’s blue eyes slowly opened.  He gave his brother a puzzled look, for he was used to sleeping as late as he liked.

“Time to get up,” Adam urged, “and open presents.”

Hoss showed no inclination to leave his warm bed.

“Don’t you want to see what Santa brought you?” Adam demanded.

“Sanna?” Hoss asked, his eyes showing no recognition of the name.

Adam gave his little brother a shake.  “Santa Claus, Hoss,” he repeated impatiently.  “I’ve told you a dozen times.  He brings presents.”

Hoss’s face showed no greater understanding, so Adam sighed and rolled out of the bed.  Reaching back, he pulled Hoss up.  “Come on,” he ordered.

Amiable Hoss, always glad to follow where his big brother led, let himself be guided into the other room.  Ben scooped his baby up and snuggled him close.  “Merry Christmas, Hoss!” he said enthusiastically, then turned to smile at his other son.  “Merry Christmas, Adam.”

“Merry Christmas, Pa,” Adam replied, but his black eyes were staring at the bundles under the tree.

“Go ahead,” Ben laughed.  “Maybe Hoss will get more in the mood once he sees what’s in one of those packages.  Yours are on the left.”

Adam grinned and eagerly tore brown paper from a square box. He read the title on the box aloud.  “Round the World.  What’s that, Pa?”

“It’s a board game,” Ben explained.  “You can learn more about geography while you play.”

“Oh, that sounds like fun!” Adam said.

“Yeah, well, the only problem is you need someone to play with,” Ben explained.  “Maybe you’d like to take it with you to the Thomases this afternoon.”

Adam laughed.  “Yeah.  Maybe Billy’ll like geography better if we make a game of it.”  He untied the string around the top of a paper bag and pulled out a new pair of shoes.  “Thanks, Pa,” he said.  “I needed a new pair.”

“I know,” Ben chuckled.

Hoss suddenly seemed to comprehend the purpose of the knobby packages under the tree.  He squirmed and pointed.  “Me!” he cried.

“All right, you can go next,” Ben said.  “Hand me the small sack, Adam.”

Ben untied the string and helped Hoss open the bag.  One fat fist plunged inside and drew out a shoe like Adam’s, only smaller.  Hoss crowed merrily and banged the shoe against his father’s arm.

“That’s not what it’s for,” Ben scolded gently and laced the shoe onto Hoss’s plump foot.  Ben was pleased to see that it fit.  Shoes for the boys had been hard to find in California, whose population as yet boasted few women and children.  The toys would have been even more difficult had not Ben’s old friend Lawrence Larrimore, owner of a San Francisco emporium, placed a special order for him.

When both feet were shod, Hoss happily banged them together, then pointed to the tree.  “Mo’!” he demanded.

“You and Hoss have one present just alike,” Ben told Adam.  “Let’s open it next.”

“I see it,” Adam said, grabbing an oddly shaped bundle from each side of the tree.  He handed Hoss’s package to Ben and tore the paper from his own.  “A top!” he screamed.

“Top!” Hoss screamed in response.  His toy was blue, while Adam’s was red.

“Show him how it’s done,” Ben suggested.

Adam took his top to the table and set it spinning dizzily.  Then Hoss tried, with less success, but equal pleasure.

“One more gift for each of you,” Ben said.  “Who wants to go first?”

“Let Hoss,” Adam offered.

Ben smiled broadly.  “That’s my good, unselfish boy.”  He set Hoss beside the largest gift under the tree.  The baby needed no instruction now.  He grabbed the paper and ripped it off.

“Look, Hoss; it’s a Noah’s Ark,” Adam said, then grinned up at his father.  “I bet I know who made this.”

“You’d be half right,” Ben smiled.  “I made the ship, but Mr. Thomas did carve several of the animals.”

“I can tell which ones,” Adam teased.

Ben tweaked his ear.  “Open your last present now before Santa takes it back for all your sass.”

Adam grinned and carefully took the paper from the last package.  He could tell from the size and shape that it held books, and Adam was always careful with books.  He eagerly read the titles:  Pilgrim’s Progress and Aesop’s Fables.

“I hope you enjoy them,” Ben said.

“Oh, I know I will!” Adam cried.  “Can I read one now?”

Ben laughed.  “Don’t you want your stocking first?”

Adam giggled.  “I forgot.”  He ran to the fireplace and took both his stocking and the one he had loaned Hoss from their nails on the mantel.

Ben set Hoss on the bench at the table and helped him empty his stocking.  Hoss’s held mostly candy, while Adam’s included some marbles and a two-bit piece, as well.

“It’s been the best Christmas ever, Pa!” Adam said.  “I never had so many presents before.”

“Santa’s been a little more prosperous this year,” Ben said, giving Adam a wink.

Adam winked back.  He knew what Pa meant and understood why he’d said it the way he did.  Hoss wasn’t in on the secret about Santa Claus yet, so they’d have to talk circles around him.  Suddenly, Adam felt very grown up and knowledgeable, and that was the best Christmas gift of all.

* * * * *

“Get your sled from the barn, son,” Ben ordered, “while I get Hoss bundled up.  Then we’ll be ready to leave.”

“There’s not enough snow to go sledding, Pa,” Adam argued.

Ben tousled the boy’s dark hair.  “No, but there’s just enough on the ground that I can pull you boys, if you’re willing to hold the gifts for our friends.”

Adam grinned.  “I’m willing.  What did you get Billy?”

Ben swatted the youngster’s backside with a light hand.  “No questions.  Get the sled.”  Adam took off.

Soon both boys were settled on the sled, the gifts for the Thomases wedged between them.  “Hang on to Hoss,” Ben instructed.

“Ain’t it about time he did that kind of thing for himself?” Adam grumbled.  “He’s big enough.”

“Isn’t,” Ben corrected, “and no.  It isn’t his size that’s in question, Adam; it’s his age.  You hang on.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam mumbled, “but it won’t be easy with all these presents, too.”

“You’ll manage,” Ben said bluntly, picking up the rope he’d attached to the sled.

Despite his doubts, Adam did manage to keep both bundles and brother in place on the sled.  He had to admit the trip went quicker this way.  The sled skimmed easily over the snow, much faster than Adam’s short legs ordinarily covered the distance between the two cabins.  Pa looked kind of out of breath when they arrived, but Adam wasn’t a bit tired, and Hoss was giggling merrily from the brisk slide over the wintry carpet.

Billy Thomas came bursting out the cabin door as soon as the Cartwrights came into view.  “I got a sled of my own now!” he yelled to Adam.  “It’s got real metal runners, too.”

“That’s great!” Adam said.  “Can we take turns with it?”

“If I can talk Pa into takin’ us up in the hills,” Billy promised.  He pointed to the packages on the sled.  “Which one of them is for me?”

“Pa wouldn’t tell me,” Adam replied, disgruntled.  Honestly, you’d think Pa would know he was big enough to keep a secret!

Ben gave Billy’s ribs a good tickle.  “Who says any of them are for you, you scamp!”

Billy just grinned.  He knew Mr. Cartwright better than to think he’d be left out in the gift-giving.  “Want me to tote ‘em inside?” he offered.

“I do not,” Ben chuckled, “but since you’re so fond of toting, I’ll let you tote this.”  He plunked Hoss in Billy’s arms.

“The presents’d weigh less,” Billy muttered, but he hefted the baby to his shoulder and lugged him inside.

“Need any help?” Clyde called from the door.

“Nope!” Ben said, then winked at the other man.  “You’re as bad as your boy; you just want to pinch at the presents.”

Clyde snickered.  “Never denied it.”  He stepped aside to let Ben in.  “You can put ‘em under the tree, but keep your paws off anything else you see there.”

Adam leaned the empty sled against the cabin wall and went inside, carrying his new board game.  Billy pulled him into his bedroom.  “Ain’t you got no idea what your pa got me?” he whispered.

“I got one idea,” Adam whispered.  “One of them feels like something I got, but I ain’t telling.”

“Gimme a hint,” Billy demanded.

Adam plopped onto Billy’s bed.  “Okay, if you tell me what you got for Christmas.”

“Already did, mostly,” Billy replied.  “I got the sled and a pocket knife and tons of candy.  Oh, and a two-bit piece.”

“Me, too,” Adam said, his brow furrowing.  Sometimes he wondered if Pa and Mr. Thomas didn’t work in cahoots on ideas for presents.  He hadn’t gotten a pocket knife, though, and he’d surely have treasured one.

Billy gave Adam’s arm a hard punch.  “So, what’s my hint?”

Adam grinned.  “Well, mine was red, and Hoss got one, too——a blue one.”

Billy frowned.  “A baby’s toy?”

“You’ll like it,” Adam promised.

Billy charged back into the main room.  “Hey, Ma, when we gonna open them presents?”

“Not ‘til after lunch,” his mother scolded.  “I’m too busy cookin’ now to be bothered with presents.”  She was wearing a crisply starched white apron over her best blue dress, the one that had belonged to Inger and that Ben had given her for Christmas the previous year when there’d been no chance to shop for holiday gifts.

“Wouldn’t be no bother for me,” Billy grumbled under his breath, then turned and called back to Adam, “You want to seesaw ‘til dinner?”

“Yeah,” Adam agreed.  Both boys charged out the front door, Billy slamming it hard behind them.

Hoss toddled across the room and spatted his palms against the log door.  “Bubba,” he called.

Nelly lifted the baby in her arms.  “Too cold for you outside, Sunshine.  How ‘bout one of Aunt Nelly’s sugar cookies?”

“Tookie!” Hoss crowed, all thoughts of his brother banished by brighter prospects.

“That’s right,” Nelly laughed.  “A cookie and a nice glass of milk.  I don’t think it’ll spoil his dinner, do you, Ben?”

“Nothing ever does,” Ben said wryly.  He lifted chocolate eyes to Nelly’s face.  “You still have milk?  I’ve already let my cow go dry for the winter.”

“I wanted the milk for the holiday bakin’,” Nelly explained.  “We’ll let her go dry after today.  Chickens has quit layin’, too, but I stored back enough eggs for the pies and cakes.”

“Pies and cakes,” Ben said.  “Plural?”

Nelly’s brown eyes narrowed.  Sometimes Ben Cartwright could be right rilesome about throwin’ around high-falutin’ words.

“Think he means more than one of each, woman,” Clyde offered, remembering the word from the lessons Ben had taught him the previous winter.

“Well, lands, yes, there’s more than one!” Nelly exclaimed.  “There’s dried peach, pumpkin and custard pies, fruit cake and pound cake and plum pudding, too.”

Ben gave his stomach a sympathetic pat and addressed it directly.  “Do you hear that?  Do you hear what I’m supposed to fit into you?  The woman has no pity.”

“I reckon it’ll get eaten,” Nelly smirked.

“I reckon you’re right!” Ben guffawed.  “Too many hungry men and boys at the table to let much go to waste.”

“You gonna talk pie and cake all morning or ain’t you got no man’s business to discuss?” Clyde asked dryly.

Ben smiled.  “Not much going on at my place.  Been working on some chairs for the table.”

“Show him what you made me for Christmas,” Nelly suggested.  “That man of mine’s been busy these cold days, too, Ben.”

Ben already knew what Clyde had made Nelly for Christmas.  They’d discussed it many times, but he hadn’t seen the finished project.  In the corner by the cook stove sat a new pine cupboard with ivy vines carved into the face of each door.  Ben examined its workmanship with interest.  He didn’t need anything as fancy for his own use, of course, but it would be nice to have a place to store dishes besides an open shelf pegged to the wall.  Ben mentally added a cupboard to his list of projects, though he doubted he’d get to it this winter.  Not being as gifted with wood as Clyde Thomas, he was slower about making things.  The chairs were probably all he could manage before spring came, leaving him no leisure for woodwork.

The table Nelly spread for Christmas dinner was lavish beyond Ben’s belief.  “Nelly, this is the closest thing I’ve had to a real New England Christmas dinner in years,” he said.  “Roast goose, Boston-baked beans and steamed pudding, too.  It takes me back to my boyhood.”

Nelly flushed with pleasure at the compliment.  “Well, my folks was from there, Ben.  These are just old family receipts, handed down from mother to daughter.”

“I thought you were from Indiana,” Ben said, surprised.

Nelly laughed.  “I was reared there, but my folks came from Massachusetts, same as yours.”

Clyde cackled.  “Maybe you really are kin, then.”

Ben arched an eyebrow, then smiled.

“Well, now.  I hope you saved room for dessert,” Nelly said as she began to clear the blue pottery plates.  They, too, were a Christmas gift, and she was using them for the first time.

“I’ll take a little pudding,” Ben said, “but anything else will have to wait.  I’m stuffed fuller than that goose.”

“Yeah, I want to wait, too, Ma,” Billy said.  “Let’s open presents.”

“No presents ‘til everyone’s done eatin’ and the dishes cleared,” his mother stated firmly.

“Aw, Ma,” Billy wheedled.  “Adam wants his presents now, and he’s company.”

Clyde guffawed.  “We all know how you’re frettin’ about Adam gettin’ his presents, son!”

Billy gave a sheepish shrug.  Now would have been the perfect time for Adam to take the hint and speak up, but, of course, he didn’t.  Adam, unfortunately, was cursed with an overabundance of manners, in Billy’s opinion, and sometimes it got in the way of his doing what the saucy redhead thought he ought.  So Billy had to hold in his curiosity until everyone had finished, even that everlastingly slow Hoss, who seemed more interested in custard pie than in what was under the tree.

The toddler’s attitude changed quickly, though, once the gift exchange began.  He squealed with delight when Clyde pulled the wooden squirrel set on wheels across the puncheon floor, and he seemed even more pleased with the soft calico dog Nelly had stitched for him.

“It’s just a cuddle critter to take to bed with him,” she explained in response to Ben’s expression of thanks.  “I made it from some scraps I had left from my new work dress.”

Her gift to Ben had been made of scraps, too, but he praised the hooked rug as profusely as though it had been a Turkish carpet.  “This will look perfect in front of our fireplace,” Ben said.

“I was aimin’ to make one for your bedroom, too,” Nelly apologized, “but I run out of time.  I’ll get around to it someday, though.”

“Nelly, you spoil us,” Ben smiled.

“Hope you like that book I picked out for you,” Clyde said.  “I don’t know one from another, but the bookseller over to Sacramento said this were a good un.”

Ben looked fondly at his new copy of The Count of Monte Cristo.  “It looks very interesting, Clyde, and there’s nothing I love more on a winter’s night than a warm fire and a good book.”

“Thought you ought to have something besides that Shakespeare feller,” Clyde explained.  “Course, ain’t no tellin’ how good a man with a name like dumb ass is with words, but leastways he sounds like a good American ‘stead an old redcoat.”

Ben smiled.  No need to tell Clyde that Alexander Dumas was French.
“I love my wagon, Uncle Clyde,” Adam said.  Clyde had made the boy a miniature prairie schooner, its body painted bright blue and its wheels red to match the ones they had all driven west.  This one was just the right size for a boy to pull, and Nelly had stitched a white wagon cover to go over the detachable hickory bows.

“Thought you could use something to pull that chunky brother of yours in,” Clyde chuckled, “and I reckon you’ll find other uses for it, too.”

“I reckon,” Adam grinned.  He was sure he could find better uses than just pulling Hoss around!  “Thanks for the mittens and the muffler, too, Aunt Nelly,” he said.  “I needed new ones.”

Nelly smiled her acceptance of his thanks and offered a few words of appreciation for the flower seeds and mantel clock Ben had given her.

“Can me and Adam go to my room and play this here game?” Billy asked.

“Glad to get shed of you,” Clyde said dryly.

Knowing he was being teased, Billy just tucked his Snakes and Ladders board game under one arm and motioned Adam to follow him.  Hoss toddled in right behind them, carrying Billy’s new yellow top, which he had appropriated as soon as the nine-year-old unwrapped it.

“You set for a lickin’?” Clyde asked, setting the checkerboard Ben had given him on the kitchen table.

“We’ll see who gets the lickin’!” Ben scoffed, seating himself opposite his friend.  “Before I leave, though, I want to see how you are at chess.”  In addition to a store-bought checkerboard and pieces to replace the homemade one he’d given Clyde the previous Christmas, Ben had purchased chessmen.

“Never played that before,” Clyde said.  “You’ll have to teach me the rules.”

Ben nodded.  “There aren’t many rules to learn, but it’s more challenging than checkers.  You’ve got think further ahead.”

“Sounds like you know this game pretty good,” Clyde remarked.

Ben shook his head.  “No, I’m a beginner.  My friend, Josiah Edwards taught me, and we played a number of times that last winter I spent in St. Joseph, but that’s all.”

“Maybe I won’t be too far behind, then,” Clyde chuckled.  “Red or black?”

“Red,” Ben said and the checkers match began.  They played five quick games, Clyde winning three to Ben’s two.  Then Ben explained the rules of chess to Clyde and they began a game.

“Slow-moving game, ain’t it?” Clyde said after they’d been playing an hour.

“Yeah,” Ben admitted, “but I thought it would be a good one to have going this spring while we’re running the trading post.  You can think through your next move while we wait on customers.”

“Or you yours,” Clyde smirked, moving his queen in direct line with Ben’s king.  “Check,” he announced triumphantly.

“But not mate,” Ben said, deftly moving his knight to capture Clyde’s queen.

Clyde scowled.  “I keep forgettin’ them horsey fellers can move crooked-like.”  He propped his elbow on the table and leaned his cheek against his fist as he pondered what to do next.

“Nelly, I believe I’m ready for a slice of pie now,” Ben announced.

“Help yourself,” Nelly said from the rocker by the fire where she sat holding a drowsy Hoss.

Between pie and games and light-hearted conversation the afternoon passed quickly.  Though the Cartwrights had originally planned to stay for an evening meal of leftovers, a light snowfall about four o’clock that afternoon changed their plans.  For once  Nelly made no protest.  Four miles was a long walk, and with the possibility of heavier snow, it was safer for her guests to start home early.

Ben padded Adam’s new wagon with the multi-colored hooked rug and lifted Hoss to set him inside.  When Ben pried Billy’s yellow top from the fat fingers, though, Hoss sent up a loud, indignant wail.  “That’s Billy’s,” Ben said firmly, spatting the little hand.  “You have your own.”

“Now, Ben, do it the easy way,” Nelly advised, holding out a sugar cookie to the baby.

With one final sniffle Hoss grabbed the cookie and willingly let himself be placed in the wagon along with the other gifts his family had received.

“I boxed up some of the leavin’s to take with you,” Nelly said.

“Wouldn’t put ‘em in the wagon with that youngun if you expect any supper,” Clyde drawled dryly.

Ben chuckled.  “A point well taken.  Loan me a piece of rope and I’ll tie the food box to Adam’s sled.”

With Ben pulling the wagon and Adam the sled of goose meat, pie and cake, the Cartwrights headed for home, reaching their cabin shortly before the snow began to fall in heavier clumps.

Hoss had long since fallen asleep, but Ben and Adam celebrated one more tradition before they turned in for the night.  Beside a flickering fire Ben sat with Adam in his lap, reading, as he did each year, the centuries-old story that alone gave meaning to all the celebrations since that first one in a Bethlehem stable.

CHAPTER FIVE

             Snow covered the ground occasionally during January, but most of February was cold and clear.  On the nineteenth of that month, Ben finished his chores quickly with Adam’s help.  Coming into the cabin, Ben immediately shed his warm coat, but Adam left his on.  “Can we go in to Mormon’s Station today, Pa?” he asked.

Ben shook his head.  “It’s too cold for Hoss to be out that long, son.  What’s the attraction at Mormon Station, anyway?”

“Aw, Pa,” Adam whined.  “I want to see what Billy got for his birthday.”  Billy Thomas had celebrated his tenth birthday the day before while Adam would commemorate his ninth on Friday.

“You’ll likely see him Sunday,” Ben said, “and that’s soon enough for you boys to compare notes.”

“But, Pa, I want to check on the mail, too.  Can’t I?” Adam begged.

“Oh, Adam, don’t be foolish,” Ben scolded.  “The mail hasn’t gotten through since October.”  A man named Chorpenning had contracted to carry mail from Placerville to Salt Lake City that year, and everyone in the valley had eagerly awaited each monthly delivery.  Until November, that is.  That month, for the first time, the mail failed to arrive.  One hundred miles outside Salt Lake City, Indians had waylaid the mail train and the letters had been lost.  As far as Ben knew, he personally hadn’t lost any mail, but neither had he received any.  Chorpenning simply didn’t show up at the expected time in either December or January, and Ben suspected the snow-packed passes of the Sierras had defeated the man’s intention to provide regular service.

“Can’t I check anyway?  Please, Pa?” Adam pleaded.  “I want to see if my journal to Jamie gets off, and maybe his will be there for me.”

Ben smiled.  He knew how eager Adam was to receive that journal from his friend in St. Joseph.  Last year he’d had to wait until spring, but Chorpenning’s monthly visits had given the boy hope he might hear from Jamie Edwards sooner this year.  “I think it’s a wild goose chase, Adam,” Ben said, “but if your heart’s set on it, I guess you can go.”

“Thanks, Pa!” Adam cheered.

“Bundle up snug,” Ben said, “and ask Mrs. Thomas to give you your dinner.  You should have something warm before starting home.”

“Oh, she’ll be glad to do that,” Adam replied confidently.

As Ben did his chores that morning, he frowned at the snow-laden Sierras to the west.  Much as he enjoyed the beauty of the dark evergreens set against a backdrop of glistening white, the snow effectively cut CarsonValley off from the rest of the world several months each year.  Ben chuckled to himself.  Funny how little it took to spoil a man, like those boys and their soft beds.  Last year all he cared about was having enough food to survive the winter.  Now, because of a few months’ mail service, he fretted about blocked passes.  Like Adam, he’d grown to rely on the monthly opportunity to send and receive mail, but he saw no way Chorpenning could continue with the snows as deep as they appeared.

Ben’s fears were confirmed that evening when Adam returned without mail.  Foolish as he knew it to be, Ben had hoped for a letter from his brother John or his sister-in-law Martha.  Adam was especially disappointed, though.  “Hearing from Jamie would have made my birthday perfect,” he sighed.

Ben had given his son a sympathetic hug, but he wasn’t too concerned about Adam’s birthday.  He had a feeling the new pocketknife the boy would receive tomorrow would make up for any disappointment he’d suffered today.

Another month passed without the return of the mail carrier.  Ben would ultimately learn that Chorpenning had gotten the mail through in February, but he’d had to route it up the Feather River over BeckworthPass, then down to the TruckeeRiver and the Humboldt, far to the north of his usual route.  It had been a horrible trip, too, all the horses freezing to death and the men forced to pack mail and supplies for two hundred miles on foot.  After that fateful trip Chorpenning’s men quit, choosing to remain in Salt Lake City rather than tackle the deep snows once more.  Chorpenning was forced to carry the mail back to California unassisted, but not even he dared risk the journey again until spring.  Ben wouldn’t discover that for several months, though.  For now he and the other residents of CarsonValley could only guess what was going on in the outside world.

Winter confined the Cartwrights close to home, but even the coldest days, when no one ventured outdoors, were far from idle.  Ben busied himself making chairs, three full-sized ones and a tall one so Hoss could sit at the table.  Ben felt prepared, then, for a visit from his friends, although when they came, his older son would have to give up his chair and share a bench with Billy.

Adam spent extra time with his lessons and seemed perfectly content to spend a chilly afternoon sprawled on his father’s bed reading one of his new books while Hoss napped on the trundle below him.  He usually read one of Aesop’s fables to his little brother after lunch each day to help Hoss lie still until he fell asleep.  Then, in the evenings after Hoss was in bed, Ben would read aloud to Adam, either an act from one of Shakespeare’s plays or a chapter from The Count of Monte Cristo.

When weather permitted, Ben chopped down pines and split rails for the corral he planned to build once he had enough.  March arrived before he completed that task, so it had to be laid aside while he and Clyde plowed their fields in preparation for the spring planting.  Technically, the fields were on Clyde’s property, but both men agreed that it made more sense to combine their efforts in one area and share the produce.  Since Clyde’s land was closer to the trading post they’d run together once the emigrant traffic began, as well as closer to a water supply with which to irrigate the fields, that’s where they would cultivate their crops.

The work was done by the end of the third week of March, however, and since that was still too early to plant, Ben went back to splitting rails.  He’d only been at it two days, though, before something again interrupted his work.

Early on the morning of March 24th, Ben woke to the sound of someone pounding on the door.  “Hey!  Let me in!” a young voice hollered.

Good lands, Ben thought.  What’s Billy Thomas doing here this time of the morning?  He stumbled to the door and opened it.

Billy squeezed in as soon as the door opened a crack.  “Brr!  It’s freezin’ out here,” he declared.

“What are you doing here, Billy?” Ben demanded.  “Do your folks know you’re gone?”

“Sure, they sent me,” Billy announced.  “Ain’t Adam up yet?”

“I am now,” Adam yawned from the bedroom doorway.  “What’s going on?”

“It’s comin’,” Billy said, “and Pa said to get out from underfoot, so here I am.  What’s for breakfast?”

Ben laughed.  “I haven’t had time to decide.  What do you mean ‘it’s coming’?  What’s coming?”

“The baby, of course,” Billy explained, wondering why Mr. Cartwright hadn’t figured that out for himself.  “I like pancakes best, if you’re lookin’ for suggestions.”

“And sausage,” Adam added.  “That’d be good, Pa.”

“All right.  Get some out of the shed then,” Ben ordered, “and see to your regular chores while you’re out there.  You can help, Billy.”     Billy shrugged.  He didn’t mind working for his breakfast so long as it was a big one.

The size of Billy’s breakfast met with his approval, as did the heaping plateful of rabbit stew Ben dished up at noon.  “This is real good, Mr. Cartwright,” the redhead announced appreciatively.  “We ain’t had no fresh game for a spell on account of Pa stickin’ close to home.  And Ma’s cookin’ ain’t been up to snuff lately, either.”

“I wonder why,” Ben muttered wryly.  “Couldn’t be she was extra tired these last few weeks, and you didn’t do your part in helping out, now could it?”

Billy grinned.  “Naw, that couldn’t be it.  I been as saintly as ever.”

“That’s what I meant,” Ben teased.  “You had enough to fill you or you want more, son?”

“Mo’, Pa!” Hoss shouted, banging his spoon against his tin plate.

Billy shook his head, his blue eyes wide with amazement, for Hoss had already eaten a helping as large as either Billy’s or Adam’s.  “How you ever put enough game on the table to keep up with him is beyond me, Mr. Cartwright!”

“It’s a challenge,” Ben chuckled.  He stood and dished Hoss another plateful of stew, then turned to his older son.  “Adam, you and Billy get the table cleared and the dishes washed up.  And put Hoss down for his nap.  I’ll be back soon, and we’ll take Billy home.”

“I ain’t forgot the way,” Billy snorted.

Ben winked at the boy and took his rifle down from its peg over the front door.

“Where you going, Pa?” Adam asked.

“Not far,” Ben promised.  “I thought I’d try to scare up a little fresh game to take to our friends, so Billy here won’t wither on the vine.”

Billy grinned.  Fresh meat on the table would be worth washing a few plates for.

Ben returned by middle of the afternoon with two sage hens, but Hoss was still asleep.  “Guess you’d better stay here, Adam,” his father said.

“Aw, no, Pa,” Adam whimpered.  “I wanted to go, too.”

“I understand, son, but your brother needs you to watch over him,” Ben explained.

Adam scuffed his shoe across the floor.  “That’s all I do lately, Pa.”

Ben knelt and gave him a hug.  “I know I’m asking a lot of you, Adam, and I wish I didn’t have to.  There’s just no one else that Pa can depend on, and I’m real proud of the way you handle the responsibilities I give you.”

Adam smiled slightly at his father’s words of praise.  “Okay, Pa, I’ll take good care of him.”

Ben patted the sturdy young shoulder.  “That’s my boy.”

While Billy walked toward his home, he frowned up at Ben.  “If this here baby of ours is as much trouble as Hoss, I might just be willing to sell him off cheap.”

“I’m not in the market,” Ben said dryly.  “Besides, you know you don’t mean a word of it.  And what makes you think the baby’s a boy?”

Billy shrugged.  “Just took it for granted.  Who’d want a girl baby?”

Ben laughed loud.  “Your mother, for one.  I imagine she’s about ready for some female company.”

Boy and man arrived to discover that Nelly had, contrary to Billy’s expectation, given birth to a tiny girl with red-blonde hair and pale blue eyes.  “What a little doll,” Ben cooed when the baby was placed in his arms.

Nelly beamed her pride.  “Ain’t she pretty, Ben?”

“She is indeed,” Ben replied, not quite truthfully.  Like most babies, this infant was red and wrinkled, but all babies were beautiful in the eyes of their parents and doting friends, Ben supposed.  “Do you have a name picked?” he asked.

Nelly nodded.  “I’d like to call her Inger,” she said softly, “if it’s all right with you, Ben.”

Ben’s eyes glistened.  “I’d be very pleased,” he said, “and so would my Inger.”

CHAPTER SIX

             Ben stood, breathless, appreciative eyes scanning the evergreen-edged shores of the alpine lake.  The climb to this vantage point had left him winded, of course, but what really took his breath away was the beauty of the scene.  Never in his life, though he’d traveled widely, had he seen a place so picturesque.  Lying north to south, the huge expanse of blue-green water stretched for more than twenty miles, its width half that distance.  Reflected in the clear water, so clear Ben could see the pebbly bottom deep below, were the surrounding snow-capped mountains with fluffy clouds floating overhead.  The pines and aspens, rocks and boulders encircling the lake also found their counterpart in its shimmering waters, and Ben’s seafaring eyes spied excellent bays and coves in all directions.  If this matchless serenity resembled even slightly the mountain lakes of his beloved Inger’s homeland, Ben could understand why she had yearned for them.  This was the kind of place any man would cherish as a home, the kind of place Ben would ultimately like to build his.

For the time being, of course, home was some fifteen miles southeast of this point.  Ben had come this far out of desire to see the lakeJohn Frémont had called Bonpland in his descriptions of his travels in the west, but the panorama had exceeded Ben’s imagination.  Scenery wasn’t his alleged purpose for being here, however.  As it was early April, both he and the Thomases had begun to run short of meat, so he was supposed to be hunting, and it was time he got to it.  Reluctantly, Ben turned away from the lake and began watching the ground for animal tracks.

It felt good to walk alone through the virgin forest.  Ben was sorry, of course, that Clyde had been too ill to come on this hunt, but the blacksmith would have wanted to hunt closer to home.  Pragmatic by nature, he cared little for scenic views.  Adam, however, would have enjoyed the trip.  Ben regretted having to leave the boy home, but someone had to look after Hoss.  Though their friends hadn’t seemed dangerously ill, Ben had thought it safer to keep some distance.  With no doctor this side of the Sierras, he’d hate to have two sick boys on his hands.  Besides, with a new baby and both Billy and Clyde coughing hard enough to rattle the cabin walls, Nelly didn’t need two more boys to look after.

Ben spotted deer tracks and began to follow them, his path leading up a rocky ridge.  Suddenly his jaw tightened.  The deer tracks still led upward, but they had been joined now by tracks of another sort, tracks no animal had made and, probably, no white man——moccasin tracks.

He hadn’t expected to see signs of Indians up here.  He hadn’t thought the Washos’ range extended this far north or the Paiutes’ this far south.  Foolish of him.  Why would people living on the subsistence level of the Diggers ignore a game-rich country like this?  Of course, they would come here and one obviously had.  Perhaps more than one.

Ben had continued up the ridge while he thought over the situation, but he came to an abrupt halt.  Obviously, another hunter was already on the track of this deer, one who might take interest in more than meat should Ben overtake him.  Not a good idea, he decided, prickles starting up his neck.  He could find game nearer home and wisdom dictated that he should.

Just as Ben turned, however, his ears caught a low sound.  He held his breath.  There it was again, like the whine of a dog with a thorn in its paw, but Ben instinctively knew the sound hadn’t come from an animal.  Somewhere down the rocky slope below him was an injured person, probably the one whose moccasins had followed the deer.

Ben’s broad brow furrowed as he pondered the dilemma.  He felt wrong to leave without offering assistance to someone in obvious pain.  But was it safe to help an injured Indian?  After all, Ben was no doctor.  What if the man was badly hurt?  What if his people showed up and misunderstood Ben’s intention?  Ben swallowed hard.  What was the use of asking unanswerable questions when someone was lying down there in need of help?  Whatever the risk, he couldn’t just walk away.

He followed the moccasin tracks on up the ridge.  They didn’t go much further.  At a narrow place scattered with loose gravel the tracks stopped.  Ben looked down a sharp incline, not seeing anyone, but certain from the crushed plants below that the Indian had fallen over the edge and rolled down the hill.  Ben looked for, and found, a safer place to descend the gorge.

About halfway down he sighted the Indian and felt instantly foolish for his fears.  This was nothing but a boy, a lad of some fifteen or sixteen years.  Should he show any signs of belligerence, Ben could easily handle so small an opponent.

Relaxing, Ben approached the boy.  But Ben’s calm contrasted sharply with the sudden tension of the Indian youth.  Gripping a knife, he thrust it threateningly toward Ben.

“Here now, none of that.  I mean you no harm, boy,” Ben said, then chided himself for his stupidity.  The boy probably didn’t know one word of English.

The Indian struggled to sit up, drew his arm back and threw the knife, falling back from the expended effort.  Ben side-stepped the flying blade just in time, the knife whizzing past his right leg.  His jaw tight, Ben stepped toward the boy, hoping he didn’t have a second weapon.  He didn’t, but with all the energy he had, the youngster fought against Ben’s hands as they held him to the ground.  Exhausted at last, the boy lay still, gazing wide-eyed at the white man.

Ben slid his hands down to the youth’s injured leg, lying beneath him at an acute angle.  Obviously broken.  At least, it was an injury Ben knew how to treat.  Gently, he pulled the leg from beneath the boy and laid it out straight.  Spotting a nearby sapling, Ben took the Indian’s knife and whacked off several branches to use as splints.  He broke off one small piece and held it to the boy’s mouth.  The Indian spit at it, his dark eyes disdainful.

Ben arched an eyebrow.  Indians were reported to be stoical, of course, but he doubted one this young could accept the pain of having his leg set without something to bite down on.  He offered the stick again and met with the same response.  “Have it your own way,” Ben muttered, grasping the boy’s leg and giving it a quick yank.

A groan escaped the youngster’s lips, but nothing more.  “You’re a tough young fellow,” Ben admitted as he tied the splints to the straightened leg.

Once the procedure was complete, he squatted down beside the Indian.  “Now what do I do with you?” he asked, smiling ruefully, knowing he’d receive no answer.  What would I do if he were white? Ben asked himself.  Take him home to his folks, of course.  But Ben wasn’t sure the Golden Rule was a good guide for this situation.  This boy’s folks might decide taking Ben’s scalp was the best way to reward his well-intentioned intervention.

What alternative did he have, though?  Take the boy home with him?  Ben scoffed at the idea.  Drag a reluctant boy fifteen miles away from his home.  His own people were surely closer than that and likely looking for the missing lad already.  If they overtook Ben, how would he explain why he was taking the boy the wrong direction?  No, far better to be caught returning him to his home.  That was the right thing to do anyway, Ben decided, so he might as well brace himself to it.

He took a closer look at the Indian.  He was dressed somewhat differently than the Washos Ben had seen close to Mormon Station.  “Paiute?” he asked.

The boy nodded.  “Pah-Ute,” he replied.

Ben pointed north.  “Home?” he asked.  “Teepee?”

The boy gave no sign of comprehension.

Ben laid his head on his hands, as if in sleep.  “Sleep where?” he asked, hoping the gesture would convey the meaning of his words.

The boy’s eyes sparked with understanding.  “Karnee,” he said, pointing north.

Ben pointed to himself, then to the Indian, then north once again.  “I take you karnee,” he explained while he was gesturing his meaning.

“Truckee,” the boy replied.

Truckee?  Did the boy mean the TruckeeRiver?  Ben hoped not.  That was probably a longer trip than the one to his cabin would have been.  Still, the river did lie to the north, so Ben might as well head toward it and hope he came across the boy’s family before going that far.  He clapped his hand to his head.  What was he thinking!  Meeting up with the boy’s family was likely to cost him his life.  Well, he’d already committed himself.  There was no backing out now.

Getting the boy out of the gorge was Ben’s first problem, and it wasn’t an easy one.  In fact, had the Indian not been as tolerant of pain as he was, Ben doubted he could have accomplished it, for he had to half drag, half carry the lad over rocky, steep terrain until they again reached the top of the ridge.  It was easier going after that, but Ben and his patient still made little progress before the sun began to sink behind the western slopes.

When he determined to visit LakeBonpland on his trip, Ben had planned to camp out one night, of course, due to the distance involved.  He carried a blanket roll for that reason, so he made the Indian youth a bed, then scouted around for something to eat.  Not wanting to go too far, he couldn’t track any large game, but he did spot and shoot two rabbits.  That would do nicely for their supper.

Ben groaned inwardly.  To cook the meat, he’d have to light a fire, and that would make his position more visible to the savages.  Ben shook his head.  With the venture he had before him, meeting them was unavoidable anyway.  He built a fire and roasted the rabbit over it.

The Indian wolfed down his food, making Ben wonder how long the boy had lain helpless in that gorge.  Then Ben chuckled.  Judging by his own appetite, it didn’t take all that long to make a man ravenous.  He polished off his share of the meat almost as quickly as the Paiute boy had.

Ben covered his patient carefully and sat down opposite the fire, leaning back against a boulder with his gun across his lap.  He intended to keep vigilant watch, so no visitors took him unaware.  Yet in the quiet of the night, thoughts he’d pushed to the back of his mind all afternoon surfaced, thoughts of the two boys he’d left home alone.  Would he ever return to them?  If not, how would they manage without their father?

Ben smiled as he thought of responsible, reliable Adam.  The boy would have sense enough to go to the Thomases for help if Ben were overdue.  And Ben had no doubt his friends would take his sons in and raise them as their own.  The boys would be all right, but how Ben would miss ardent Adam and hearty Hoss.  He drifted to sleep, their sweet faces smiling at him in his dreams.

He woke with a jerk when he felt his rifle yanked from his grasp.  Opening his eyes, he saw it pointed at his chest.  Afraid to move, Ben pressed his spine against the boulder behind him and prayed fervently.  The Indian boy by the fire gave a sharp cry and began to talk with rapid-fire words.  Help him explain.  Dear God, help him explain, Ben prayed.  His life was now in the hands of that injured boy, and Ben could only hope the lad had understood his intentions and could communicate them to the other natives now standing over Ben’s frozen figure.

Another voice rang out.  Ben couldn’t understand the words, but they were spoken with authority.  As an Indian old enough to be father to the one holding the gun on him came into the firelight, the younger man lowered the rifle.  His sputtered words, though, sounded argumentative.  Ben had a feeling the man still wanted to kill him, but would not without the other’s permission.

The older man approached Ben.  “Me Truckee,” he said, striking his palm against his chest.

Ben gasped.  Truckee!  Was that what the boy had meant?  Not the river, but the man for whom it had been named?  Truckee was a name Ben knew from his reading of Captain Frémont’s report, the name of the man who had helped guide the explorer over the mountains.  Could this be the same man?  Ben took hope.

After announcing his own name, Chief Truckee tapped Ben’s chest.  Ben understood.  “Cartwright.  Ben Cartwright,” he replied.

“My nah-tze say you help him,” Truckee stated.

“Yes,” Ben said quickly.  “I helped him.  I was trying to bring him to his people.”  He wasn’t sure how much English the Indian had picked up in his previous contact with the whites so he kept his words simple.

Truckee said something in Paiute to the man who still held Ben’s rifle.  The younger brave grunted and responded in his own tongue.  Truckee again turned to Ben.  Laying a hand on the other Indian’s shoulder, the chief said, “This Poito, man of my daughter Tuboitonie.  Him ask why you help his son.”

Ben looked into the stony gaze of Poito and answered slowly.  “The boy was hurt.  He needed help.”

Truckee translated, his words meeting with muttered response from Poito.  “Poito say white men bad, want only kill Indian, take land, burn piñon.  Why you not kill son?”

Ben forced himself once more to look directly into the eyes of the distrustful Indian.  He decided a bold answer would win him more respect than backing down.  “Indians killed my woman,” he said.  “Does that make all Indians bad?  Does it make Poito bad?”  He waited for Truckee to translate.  “I, too, am a father,” he continued.  “I know a father’s heart for his sons.  That is why I helped yours.”

When Truckee conveyed Ben’s words to Poito, the man’s expression changed slightly.  To say he grew warm and receptive would have been an exaggeration; the expression was more one of thoughtful consideration, as if the Indian father were mulling over the words of the white one.

Truckee motioned for Ben to rise.  “You come our camp,” he said.

Ben paled.  “No,” he said, with what he hoped was polite refusal.  “I go to my own camp, to my sons,” he said.

“Near?” Truckee asked, his eyes scanning around.

“No,” Ben said quickly, wanting to keep Hoss and Adam’s position vague.  “Far to the southeast.”  He pointed toward that direction.

Truckee grunted.  “Washo land.  You come our camp,” he repeated, obviously unwilling to take no for an answer.

Feeling he had no choice, Ben nodded.

Truckee muttered harsh words to Poito, who thrust Ben’s rifle into his hands and turned away toward the other Indians assisting his son.

By the return of his weapon, Ben realized he was being invited as a guest, not taken as prisoner, to Truckee’s camp.  He began to believe he would get out of this encounter alive after all and perhaps could even establish the foundation for good relations with these fierce neighbors.  Friendly relations could prove invaluable if he did decide to build north of his present location, as he’d been considering, especially after seeing the beautiful Lake Bonpland.

It was still dark when Ben and his hosts arrived at the Indian camp, but Truckee ordered food prepared for his guest.  Ben swallowed hard, hoping it would be something more appetizing than what he’d heard these Diggers ate.  Whatever was set before him, however, he was determined to eat enthusiastically, to avoid insulting his hosts.  He knew he could carry it off, too, for he’d managed with feigned relish to eat grasshoppers in Africa for the same reason.

Fortunately, the bowl Ben was handed looked as if it contained nothing more threatening than cornmeal mush.  Ben took a tentative taste and smiled at Truckee.  “Good,” he said, meaning it.  Though the dish obviously wasn’t cornmeal, having a nuttier flavor, its taste was quite respectable.

“Truckee,” the Indian responded.

Ben’s brow wrinkled.  “Yes, you are Truckee.  You told me before.”

A slight smile touched the Indian’s lips.  “Truckee mean good, like you say,” he explained.

Ben chuckled.  Now he understood, not only the chief’s words, but young Natchee’s response when Ben announced his intention to take him home.  The boy had meant that going home was good, truckee.  Ben lifted his bowl.  “Food is truckee,” he said, “but I do not know its name.”

“Come from piñon tree,” Truckee explained.  “Paiute can not live through winter without piñon nuts.  That why Poito say white men bad to burn trees.”

Ben set the bowl down and looked sorrowfully into the chief’s dark eyes.  “I, too, have burned the piñon in my fires,” he said.  “I will not do so again.  I did not know they were Indians’ food.”

Truckee nodded.  “Even white men can learn,” he said.

“Do you want white men to go from your land?” Ben asked quietly.

Truckee looked at the stars overhead.  “White men here.  Cannot make leave.  I think can live in peace, but not all my people think this.”

“Poito?” Ben asked.

Truckee shook his head.  “No.  To Poito, all whites bad.  Maybe you show him some have good hearts.”

“I hope so,” Ben replied earnestly.  “I wish to be a friend to your people, to live in this land as a good neighbor to you.”

Truckee drew a rolled piece of paper from his shirt.  “This my white rag friend,” he said, handing it to Ben.

Ben unrolled the scroll and read with amazement a letter addressed on the chief’s behalf by Captain John Frémont.  “A treasure,” he said, returning it to the chief.  He wasn’t sure the Indian understood the word, but Truckee nodded, having gathered Ben’s meaning from his respectful tone and manner.

Truckee stood.  “Now time sleep.  You come my karnee.”

Ben grinned as he recognized another word Natchee had used.  Karnee evidently was the name for the wickiup to which Truckee led him and beneath whose domed roof Ben soon drifted to sleep, grateful to be alive and to have made, he hoped, a friend.

* * * * *

Adam read the arithmetic problem a second time, but it didn’t make any more sense than it had the first.  He looked toward the cabin’s door and sighed.  He needed Pa to explain this lesson, but Pa wasn’t here.  He should have been, too.  He’d been due back from his hunting trip yesterday.  It wasn’t just perplexity over his schoolwork that furrowed Adam’s brow: he was beginning to fear something had happened to his father.

Hoss, playing with his Noah’s Ark on the rug by the fire, glanced up at Adam.  “Done, Bubba?” he asked, having learned by experience that Adam was unlikely to respond well to any request made during his study time.

“As much as I can,” Adam sighed and slammed the book shut.

Hoss immediately pushed himself up and toddled over to his big brother.  “Eat?” he asked hopefully.

Adam frowned.  It was getting close to lunch time, all right, but the boy was running out of options for meals.  Pa’d made a big kettle of oxtail stew before he left, but that was gone now.  There were plenty of supplies still in the larder, but Adam had no training as a cook.  He wasn’t sure what he could fix on his own.

Hoss patted Adam’s leg to get his attention.  “Eat, Bubba?” he asked again.

“Later,” Adam muttered.

Hoss’s lower lip pooched out.  “Hungee,” he whined.

“You always are!” Adam snapped.

A tear trickled from the corner of Hoss’s eye.  Adam reached out quickly to brush it away.  “Don’t cry, baby,” he soothed, feeling ashamed of himself for the sharp answer he’d made to Hoss’s very legitimate request.

“Bubba mad,” Hoss wailed.

Adam put his arms around his little brother and gave him a hug.  “No, brother’s not mad.  I just don’t know what to fix for lunch, Hoss.”

“Stew!” Hoss shouted.

Adam shook his head.  “You ate it all.  I guess I could make pancakes.”

Hoss scowled.  “No!” he hollered.

Adam’s nose wrinkled in agreement.  He’d tried his hand at pancakes that morning with less than appetizing result.  “Well, you got any better ideas?” he demanded.

“Pie?” Hoss suggested.

“Pie!” Adam yelled.  “I burn plain pancakes, and you want me to tackle pie?”

Hoss shook his head vigorously.  “An’ Nenny,” he explained.

“No, Hoss,” Adam said firmly.  “Aunt Nelly has sick folks to look after.  We can’t bother her unless it’s an emergency.”  The boy’s lip started to tremble.  If Pa didn’t get home today, Adam figured he’d have a genuine emergency on his hands, and they’d have to head for the Thomases, sickness or no sickness.

Hoss couldn’t really understand the explanation his brother had given, but he understood enough to know there’d be no pie for lunch.  “Hungee, Bubba,” he repeated insistently.

“Okay, okay, I’ll think of something,” Adam promised.  His black eyes brightened.  “How about popcorn, Hoss?”

Hoss grinned.  “Good,” he said.

Adam stood quickly, glad to have come up with an idea that would work.  Popcorn might not make the most nutritious meal they’d ever eaten, but, at least, Adam knew how to prepare it.  And the fluffy kernels ought to fill Hoss up for a while, anyway.

After lunch Adam pulled out the trundle and made Hoss lie down.  “Stowy?” Hoss begged.

“Yes, I’ll read you a story,” Adam said, pulling his volume of Aesop’s Fables from beneath his arm.  “It’ll have to be one you’ve already heard, though.  We finished the book yesterday, Hoss.”

Hoss didn’t seem to care what story he heard, so Adam opened the book to the first page and began to read.  Hoss soon drifted to sleep, as he usually did once his tummy was full, and Adam closed the book.

Ordinarily, Hoss’s soft snores would have been Adam’s cue to find a book of his own and sprawl out on Pa’s bed for a comfortable afternoon’s read.  Today, however, Adam was in no mood for books.  He slipped out the front door and stood for a long time looking north, but he didn’t see his father.  Finally deciding he was wasting his time, Adam took two pails and headed for the nearby creek.  Whatever else happened, he’d need more water before morning.  As he walked, he tried to decide what he could cook without ruining it.  Potatoes, maybe.  He could probably chop them up and fry them like he’d seen Pa do.  And some bacon.  He could slice that off and fry it first so he’d have some grease to fry the potatoes in.  Yeah, Hoss would like bacon and potatoes——so long as his big brother didn’t burn them the way he had the pancakes.  Adam sighed and hoped Pa would be home before supper.

But Ben hadn’t returned by the time the sun started to slip behind the western mountains, painting the hillsides with a pinkish-auburn glow.  Hoss was up from his nap and, naturally, hungry again, so Adam got the side meat from the shed and started to slice off short, fat pieces.  “Get me a couple of potatoes, Hoss,” he ordered.

Feeling big, Hoss waddled to the burlap bag in the corner that held potatoes and grabbed one with each hand.  He had started back toward Adam when he looked up and saw a familiar figure looming in the doorway.  “Pa!” Hoss shouted, letting both potatoes drop and roll across the floor.  He ran toward the open door as fast as his fat legs would go.

Ben laughed and scooped his baby into his arms.  “Pa’s mighty glad to see you, too, little fellow!”

Ever responsible, Adam first picked up the potatoes his baby brother had dropped, then rushed to throw his arms around his father.  “Oh, Pa, you were gone so long!” he cried.

Ben set the baby down and stooped to enfold the older boy in his arms.  “I know, son, and I’m sorry for worrying you, but it couldn’t be helped.”

“Did you have a hard time finding game, Pa?” Adam asked.

Ben laughed.  “No, I just found the wrong kind first.”  Seeing Adam’s puzzled look, Ben explained.  “I ran into some Paiutes, son.”

Adam paled.  “Paiutes!  Oh, Pa!”

Ben patted the boy’s shoulder and stood up.  “There, there now.  No harm done.”

Adam stared, wide-eyed.  “But Paiutes, Pa!  Aren’t they the ones that killed——”

Ben laid his index finger across Adam’s lips and tilted his head toward Hoss.

Adam got the message.  He wasn’t to say anything in front of Hoss about the death of the baby’s mother at the hands of the Diggers.  He nodded to show his father he understood.

“I’ll tell you all about it later,” Ben said.  “Now what’s this I see you fixing for supper?”

“Just side meat and potatoes, Pa,” Adam said, “but I’m sure open to other ideas.”

Ben laughed.  “I think bacon and potatoes will do nicely tonight, Adam,” he said.  “We need a quick supper because I want to get a share of the meat I shot over to the Thomases tonight.”

“Tonight?” Adam queried.  “But it’s getting dark, Pa.  Won’t it keep ‘til tomorrow?”

“We have more important things to do tomorrow,” Ben said.  “I want you to get Hoss ready for bed right after supper, and you turn in, too, as soon as you’ve cleaned up the supper things.”

“Why, Pa?” Adam asked, curiosity sparking in his black eyes.

“Because we’re getting up bright and early tomorrow to pay a visit to our neighbors, the Paiutes.”  Seeing his son’s troubled look, Ben reached out to stroke the boy’s cheek.  “It’s safe, Adam.  I made friends with them, and the chief himself invited me to bring you boys to Pyramid Lake for their spring gathering.”

Adam could hardly contain his excitement.  “I’ll get to bed real early, Pa,” he promised, not even caring now that he’d miss the trip to the Thomases.  What was that compared to meeting a Paiute chief!

CHAPTER SEVEN

             Getting two small boys to PyramidLake was a challenge, of course.  Having failed to convince Ben to forego the trip to the savages’ camp altogether, Nelly Thomas had argued vehemently that Hoss, at least, should be left with her.  Frankly, Ben himself would have preferred to leave the toddler behind.  However, he hadn’t been able to persuade Captain Truckee, as the chief liked to be called, that a three-day journey with an infant in diapers represented a hardship.  After all, Indian babies traveled regularly with their nomadic parents, and Truckee had insisted on meeting both Ben’s sons.            Diapers were, of course, the main problem, one Indian parents probably didn’t have to deal with, Ben grumbled to himself.  He could just see Nelly’s reaction to letting Hoss traipse through the sagebrush bare-bottomed, though, so he piled every clean didee the baby owned into Adam’s wagon, along with bedrolls, a skillet and grub for the journey.  He also squeezed in a tin of tobacco and a bag of flour as gifts for his Paiute friend.  That left little room for Hoss, so Ben had to carry the squirming armload except for brief respites when the baby fell asleep.  There was room enough in the wagon to wedge a sleeping baby, but not an alert, active one.

While Hoss’s presence on the trip was almost more trouble than it was worth, Adam’s, on the other hand, more than made up for it.  The boy willingly took his turn pulling the wagon (when Hoss wasn’t in it, that is), but more than that, Ben just enjoyed his son’s company.  As they walked north the first day, Ben shared the exciting tale of his first encounter with the Paiutes.  Adam listened, enthralled, as Ben described seeing the moccasin tracks and following them to the injured Indian and shivered when his father told of waking to find his own gun pointed at his chest.

As he talked, Ben emphasized to Adam the importance of making friends with these fierce neighbors.  “They’re not bad people, Adam,” he said.  “When the first white men came through this land, the Paiutes offered friendship and guidance to them.  But with the discovery of gold, more and more came, upsetting the balance of survival in this delicate land.  We can’t really blame the Indians for shooting at the emigrants’ oxen the way they do.  They’re hungry, and some of that is the white man’s fault.”

“That’s why they shot Mama, isn’t it?” Adam asked.

“I don’t think these Indians were part of that tribe,” Ben said soberly, “but it’s true the ones who did were acting out of hunger; they were shooting at our cow, not Mama.”

“And Mama said to forgive them, didn’t she, Pa?” Adam murmured softly.

“Yes, she did,” Ben replied, “and I hope you’ve been able to, son.”

“I try, but it’s hard, Pa.  I miss her so much.”

Ben laid a gentle hand on Adam’s slender shoulder.  “Me, too, Adam, but I think I honor her by doing as she asked.”

Adam looked up into his father’s face.  “I want to honor her, too, Pa.”

Ben smiled.  “Good.  I know your mother would be proud of you for extending the hand of friendship to these people, Adam, and I’m proud of the courage you’re showing in making this trip.  I want to caution you, though, to avoid giving offense in any way.”

“I don’t know what you mean, Pa,” Adam said.

“The Indians have different ways from us, son,” Ben explained.  “That doesn’t mean our ways are good and theirs bad.  You must keep an open mind and try to understand them, not brag about how much better our customs are.”

“That would be rude, Pa!” Adam asserted loudly.

Ben nodded.  “It would be very rude——and very dangerous.  I know I can trust you, Adam, but I should warn you that they may offer you some strange foods, some you may not want to eat.  You will eat whatever you’re given, though, and if you don’t like it, keep your opinion to yourself.”

Adam frowned, remembering his brother’s outspoken rejection of the pancakes the previous morning.  “What about Hoss, Pa?  He don’t have sense enough to keep his opinions to himself.”

Ben chuckled.  “If it’s something to eat, Hoss will probably like it.  Besides, I think the Paiutes would make allowances for a baby.  You’re a big boy, though, Adam, big enough to mind your manners.”

“I will, Pa,” Adam promised earnestly.  “Did you eat any of their food while you were with them?”

“Yes, of course,” Ben responded, “and what I had tasted fine, so there may not be a problem.  I just wanted to prepare you in case there was.”

When the sun began to sink behind the mountains to their west, Ben selected a campsite and began to unload the supplies they’d need that night.  “Gather up plenty of firewood, Adam,” he ordered.  “The nights still get real cool outdoors.”

“Okay,” Adam agreed readily.

Hoss toddled toward him.  “Help bubba,” he called.

Adam turned to frown at him.  “Some help you’ll be,” he scolded.

“Take him with you, Adam,” Ben said.  “He needs to learn, and big brothers make the best teachers.”

Adam scowled at the baby, but took his fat hand and led him into the woods.  Finding some dry branches that had fallen from the trees, he placed a small bundle in Hoss’s outstretched arms and gathered an armload for himself.  “Walk ahead of me, Hoss,” Adam ordered, “so I can keep an eye on you.”

Hoss headed back for camp with an unerring instinct that surprised his big brother.  “Hoss found his way real good, Pa,” Adam reported, when he and his brother dumped their loads at the spot their father had cleared for the campfire.  “I didn’t have to give him one hint.”

Ben gave his younger son an approving pat on the head.  “You’re going to make a good woodsman, are you, Hoss?”

“Good boy!” Hoss beamed.

“That’s right,” Ben laughed, then laid a hand on Adam’s shoulder.  “And here’s another,” he said fondly.  The smile on Adam’s face spread as broad as that on the baby’s.

While supper was cooking, Ben told the boys about the beautiful alpine lake he’d seen before meeting the Paiutes.

“I wish I could see that,” Adam sighed.

“You can,” Ben promised.  “We’ll swing by there on our way home.”

“Oh, boy!” Adam cried.  “And can we go swimming?”

“Brr!  No,” Ben shivered.  “Not this time of year, son.”

“Brr!” Hoss chortled, not having the slightest idea what the sound meant, but enjoying the way it buzzed past his lips.

Ben and Adam laughed as they cleared away the supper things and made a bed for the three of them to share.  Ben arranged it so that Adam lay closest to the fire with Hoss sandwiched between the two of them.  The sleeping arrangement was uncomfortable, of course.  Ben would have preferred a bedroll to himself, but didn’t want to take the chance of having Hoss wake and wander off during the night.  Actually, though, it was Adam, with his endless questions, who kept Ben awake long after the stars sprinkled the blackness above.  Finally, all three Cartwrights fell asleep, each dreaming of the adventure ahead.

Late in the evening of the third day of their journey, a sheet of blue water came into view.  “Is this the lake you told me about?” Adam asked excitedly.  “It’s beautiful, Pa!  But I thought we weren’t gonna see it ‘til we went home.”

Ben chuckled.  “Beautiful it is, Adam, but it isn’t LakeBonpland.  This, I believe, is PyramidLake.  See the rock in the middle.”

“You can’t miss it, Pa,” Adam scoffed.

“That’s true,” Ben laughed.  “But notice its shape, Adam.  When Frémont first saw it, it reminded him of the pyramids of Egypt.  What do you think?”

Drawing on his memory of a picture he’d seen in his geography text, Adam nodded.  “Yeah, I can see what he meant, Pa.  So that’s why he called it PyramidLake, huh?”

“That’s why.”

Hoss squirmed in his father’s arms, pointing ahead.  “Lookee, Pa.”

Ben bounced the boy up and down.  “What do you see, baby?”

“Men,” Hoss cried.

“I see them now!” Adam announced.  “Are they Paiutes, Pa?”

“Yep,” Ben replied.  “Remember all I told you along the road, Adam.  Mind your manners.”

Adam nodded his acquiescence and followed his father toward the Paiute encampment by the lake.  “Those are funny teepees,” he commented.

“They’re not teepees, Adam,” his father corrected, “and that is just the kind of remark I was warning you about.  Don’t use words like ‘funny’ when describing someone’s home, son.”

“Sorry, Pa.  I’ll do better,” Adam promised.

“Good boy,” his father said, giving him a smile.  “Now, the Paiutes call their homes karnees, though those look different from the one I stayed in before.  They may have a different name.”  Instead of the mat-covered domes Ben had seen at the winter camp, the structures near PyramidLake consisted of nothing more than a grassy roof stretched over four upright poles.  Shelter from the sun, but not much else.  Maybe, though, that’s all that was needed during spring and summer, Ben thought, chiding himself for judging by white men’s standards.

As Ben and his two boys entered the encampment, a dozen small brown children in loin cloths encircled them, evidently fascinated by the small covered wagon Adam was pulling.  They’d seen emigrant wagons before, of course, but the sight of one so small clearly amused them.

Hearing a loud voice, the children scattered.  Ben smiled and extended his hand as he saw his friend Truckee walking toward him.

Truckee took his hand.  “Your sons?” he asked, pointing to the two boys.

“Yes,” Ben said.  He put his hand against Adam’s back and pushed him forward.  “My oldest, Adam.”

“He is welcome,” Truckee said with a nod toward the boy.

“And this,” Ben said as he juggled the chubby tike he was holding, “is my second son Hoss.”

Hoss grinned and reached out to touch the Indian’s craggy face.  Something close to a smile touched Truckee’s lips, but he turned away immediately.  “Tuboitonie!” he called sharply.

From a nearby shelter a woman approached, a pretty little girl slightly younger than Adam clinging to her apron of sagebrush bark.  “My daughter,” Truckee said, waving his hand toward the woman, “and this shy one who hides from whites is her daughter Thocmetony.”

Ben smiled gently.  “Thocmetony is a lovely little girl with a lovely name.  I hope she will soon learn I am her friend.”

The little girl stepped out from behind her mother and held out her arms.  “I take baby?” she asked in stilted English.

“You take,” her grandfather answered before Ben had a chance to say anything.  “She take good care,” the chief assured Ben.

Hesitantly, Ben lowered Hoss into the girl’s arms, then relaxed as he saw her tender touch with the baby.

“Boy stay with women,” Truckee said.  “We walk together, talk while food is made ready.”

Adam didn’t like that idea.  Being left alone with Indians, even if they were just females, felt uncomfortable.  Hoss, on the other hand, showed no trepidation at all.  Cooing contentedly, he grabbed one of Thocmetony’s shiny black braids.

“Ow-oo!” she cried.

“Hoss!” Adam rebuked, sharply rapping the baby’s fingers.  “That’s no way to act.”  Hoss puckered up.

Thocmetony giggled and gave the baby a quick kiss, turning the impending whimpers into smiles again.  “I am not hurt,” she said.  “He surprised me only.”

Adam’s brow wrinkled.  “You talk pretty good English for a Paiute,” he offered.  “Where’d you learn it, from your grandfather?”

“Grandfather?” Thocmetony asked, as if the word were unfamiliar to her.

“Chief Truckee,” Adam explained.  “He is your grandfather, isn’t he?”

“He is father of my mother,” Thocmetony said.  “Is that ‘grandfather’?”

“Yeah,” Adam said, wide-eyed at her ignorance.

“Grandfather,” Thocmetony repeated, savoring the sound.  “I like that word.  You have grandfather?”

Adam shook his head.  “Not anymore.  Pa’s father died when Pa was not much older than me, and my mother’s father when I was about two.”

“Ah,” Thocmetony sighed sympathetically.  “Too bad.  Grandfathers teach much.”

“So is he the one who taught you English?” Adam asked again.

Thocmetony shook her head.  “Some from him I learn, more from white people over mountains.  I learn fast.”

“Have you been across the mountains?” Adam asked, stunned.

Thocmetony nodded.  “I not like.  Too many whites.”

“How come you’re scared of whites?” Adam pressed.

“I not want them eat me,” the Indian girl said seriously.

Adam tittered.  “We don’t do that!”

Thocmetony nodded quickly.  “Oh, yes.  No Indian do so bad thing, but in mountains whites in wagons do this.”

Adam shook his head.  Where had the girl gotten such a stupid idea?  “Well, I never met any who did, and we sure don’t,” he said firmly, “so you shouldn’t be afraid.”

Thocmetony smiled.  “I try.  Now I must help mother with food.”

Adam gulped.  He wanted desperately to ask what was for dinner, but he didn’t dare.  Dinner, when it appeared, turned out to be strange, but basically good.  Adam had no idea what the tender, pale green shoots were, but he was so hungry for fresh vegetables he didn’t really care.  Of course, these would have benefited from a little sideback being mixed in, maybe some salt and pepper, but even without seasoning the novelty of fresh food made the dish a treat.  And Adam had been unable to hold back his enthusiasm when he saw the other item offered to the white guests.  “Eggs!” he chirped.  “I haven’t had eggs in forever, Pa!  Do they raise chickens here?”

Ben laughed.  “They’re marsh birds’ eggs,” he said, then did his best to explain to his Paiute hosts the difference between the birds the white men raised for eggs and the ova the Indians harvested here on the shores of PyramidLake.

“Some white ways good,” Truckee stated.

“More bad,” Poito said bluntly from across the fire.  Ben arched an eyebrow.  He hadn’t thought Truckee’s son-in-law spoke any English.  Evidently, he did, though not nearly so much as Captain Truckee or little Thocmetony.

“They have more food,” Truckee insisted.

“Because we have learned to grow our own,” Ben commented.  “This is something your people could learn, too, Truckee, to help them eat better through the winter.”

“I am old to learn new ways,” Truckee said, “but it be good Pah-Utes have more food.”  Poito only grunted.  Truckee ignored the other Indian’s rudeness and turned back to his guest.  “Tomorrow I show you the treasure of the Kuyuidokado.”

“Kwi-kwi-kado?” Ben asked.

Truckee thumped his chest.  “Kuyuidokado,” he repeated.  “In your tongue, ‘fish people.’”

“I thought you were Paiutes,” Ben puzzled.

Truckee nodded.  “All our people Pah-Ute,” he replied.  “My people, Kuyuidokado.”

Ben wasn’t sure he’d understood correctly, but as best he could make out, Truckee was telling him that his particular branch of the Paiute tribe were known as the fish people.  “Are the fish good here?” he asked.

“You see——tomorrow,” Truckee promised.

The next day Truckee, accompanied by young Natchee, led Ben to the shores of PyramidLake to show him the fish the Indians came here each year to harvest.  “Fishing feast next moon,” Truckee explained, “but for you we spear cui-ui today.”

“You don’t need to change your plans for me,” Ben said urgently.  “If it will cause bad feelings among your people—”

“No bad feelings,” Truckee replied quickly. “Catch only few today, but before big harvest we pray and dance so Kuyuidokado spear many fish to dry.”

“Ah,” Ben said.  “My people wait ‘til after the harvest to say prayers of thanks, but your way is good, too.”

While Ben was watching the natives spear the suckerfish from which the tribe derived its name, Adam and Hoss were accompanying Thocmetony as she gathered green shoots from the edge of the marshes.  “Is this what we ate last night?” Adam asked.

Thocmetony nodded.  “Tule,” she said.  Peeling the green exterior from the shoot, she bit off a piece of the white inner layer and then offered it to Adam.

The boy took a tentative bite.  “Not bad,” he said, “but I like it better cooked.”

Hoss grabbed the peeled tule shoot and took a bite.  His face puckered and he spit it out.  “No good!” he declared and toddled over to splash at the water’s edge with small bronze bodies diapered, despite Ben’s presumption that they went bare, in coverings woven of sagebrush fiber.

Adam took a deep breath, fearful the baby’s response would cause trouble, but Thocmetony just tittered.  “He look like me first time I eat white food,” she giggled.

“You don’t like white food?” Adam said.  “I—I think it’s real good.”

“Some like, some not,” the Indian girl said as she waded into the water and began pulling tule shoots to fill the basket she had brought.

Adam pulled off his shoes and waded in beside her.  When he reached for a green shoot, however, Thocmetony pushed his hand aside.  “Woman’s work,” she said.  “Men hunt eggs.”

“Oh, okay,” Adam replied.  “I’ll look for eggs then.”  If there was one thing he didn’t want to do, it was woman’s work!  Besides, he’d rather have more eggs for dinner than all the tule in the lake.  He waded through the marsh searching for a nest.  At last he found one and gathered the eggs into his hat.

He hurried back to where he had left the Indian girl.  “See what I found, Thock——Thockma—”  He gave her a chagrined look.  “Why do Paiutes have to have such hard names?” he demanded, in his frustration forgetting his father’s injunctions against criticism of Indian ways.

“White names hard,” Thocmetony said calmly.  “Ca—Ca—rye,” she sputtered.  “See?  Hard!”

“Cartwright,” Adam said.  “I guess it is hard to say if you’re not used to it.  You can call me Adam if it’s easier.”

“Better,” the Paiute girl said.  “You call me Sarah.”

“Sarah?” Adam said.  “That’s a white name.”

Thocmetony nodded.  “White people over mountain call me that.  It better for them.”

“Easier,” Adam rephrased.  “Yeah, it would be, but I want to learn your Paiute name, too.”

The girl smiled.  “Thocmetony,” she said slowly.  “It mean ‘shellflower.’”

“Shellflower?” Adam asked.

“Pink flower of desert,” Thocmetony explained.

“Oh!  I’ve seen that,” Adam said.  “It’s pretty.  I’ll call you Shellflower then.”

“What Adam mean?” Shellflower asked.

“Pa told me once,” Adam said, “but I’m not sure I remember.  Wait a minute:  I think it’s something like ‘man of red earth,’ because Adam was the first man, and God made him out of the earth, you know.”

Shellflower tittered.  “Call you Red Man then.  Good Indian name.”

Adam laughed, too.  “You’re silly, Shellflower.  You just want to turn me into an Indian ‘cause you’re afraid of white people.”

“At first,” Thocmetony replied, growing more serious. “I cry with fear when Grandfather make me go over mountain to them.  Then I much sick.  White woman come with cool hands.  Make feel better.  Fear go, but sometimes come back.”

“You’re not still afraid of me, are you?” Adam asked.

“No,” the girl giggled.  “You eat eggs, not Pah-Utes.  Now, go find more, Red Man.”

* * * * *

“More fish, Adam?” Ben asked.  “There’s one piece left.”

“I’m full up, Pa,” Adam sighed contentedly.

Ben looked at his younger son and laughed.  No need to ask if this one wanted more.  Though he obviously wanted to finish the piece in his hand, Hoss was yawning drowsily, his eyelids fighting to stay open.  “Come here, tired boy,” Ben soothed, picking up the toddler.  “Let Pa tuck you in.”  He settled Hoss in the middle of the bed they’d share and, prying the fish from the child’s clutching fingers, gave him a good-night kiss.

Ben sat down again and nibbled the final piece of fish.  Like Adam, he was “full up,” but couldn’t let the food go to waste.  “We’ve had quite a trip, haven’t we, son?” he commented.  “Did you enjoy it?”

“I really did, Pa,” Adam replied.  “I—I didn’t like to say so, but I was a little scared at first.”

“Pa wouldn’t take you into danger, son,” Ben assured him.

“I know, but they are Paiutes, Pa.”

“Are Paiutes so different from us, Adam?” his father pressed.

Adam grinned.  “I guess not as much as I thought.  They were nice, most of them.  I like that Shellflower a lot.”

“A fine little girl,” Ben agreed, “and I think I’m making progress with her father, too, even if he doesn’t think too highly of white men in general.”  Part of Poito’s changing attitude was due, Ben felt sure, to the white man’s spontaneous gift.  He had originally intended both flour and tobacco for Truckee.  At the last minute, though, something told Ben to offer the tobacco to Poito.  The Indian had seemed pleased and had even begun to converse a little with Ben in his syllabic English before the visit ended.

Ben started to say more about the foundation of good relations he hoped they had laid over the last few days, but he saw Adam’s mouth stretch wide.  “Looks like I have another tired boy,” he said, smiling.  “You crawl in next to Hoss, son.”

“I should help you clean up,” Adam murmured slowly.

“No, no,” Ben assured him.  “I’ll take care of everything.  We have another hard day’s walk up to the lake tomorrow.  You want to be wide awake for that.”

“I sure do,” Adam said as he lifted the blanket and lay down next to his younger brother.  Tired as he was, though, Adam found it hard to relax with his mind full of the excitement of his visit to the Paiutes and the prospect of seeing the mountain lake the next day.  Instead of going to sleep, he watched his father clear away the plates and feed more wood onto the fire.

“Paiutes have some funny ideas,” Adam said.

“I hope you didn’t tell them that!” Ben chuckled.

Adam grinned.  “Of course not, but I did tell Shellflower we don’t eat people like she thought.  She wouldn’t believe me, though.  She said white people in the mountains did it.  Isn’t that stupid?”

“Not as stupid as you think, Adam,” Ben said soberly.  “She was talking about the Donner party.”

Adam propped his head up on his elbow.  “Who’s that?”

Ben came to sit next to Adam.  “Some emigrants who got trapped in the Sierras the winter of ‘46.  When they ran out of food, they did resort to eating the flesh of the people who died.”

Adam sat up quickly, his face distressed.  “That’s awful, Pa!”

Ben put a soothing arm around his son.  “Yes, it was a terrible thing.  Captain Truckee told me Shellflower’s fear of white men started when she heard those stories.  It had the same impact on many of the Indians, I’m afraid.  Made them think white men were savage barbarians.”

“We’d never do something like that!” Adam said stoutly.

Ben kissed the top of the boy’s head.  “I’m just grateful I never had to make a choice like that, Adam.  We’ve been blessed.  Now lie down and get some sleep.  Think about a clear lake surrounded by pines and snow-capped mountains that scrape the sky.”

Adam pulled the covers up to his chin and snuggled close to Hoss.  As he closed his eyes, a grisly picture of starving people eyeing each other hungrily flitted past his eyelids; but he consciously replaced it with the image his father suggested and fell to sleep and pleasant dreams.

The dream became reality the next day when Adam stood beside the lake his father had described to him in glowing terms.  As the boy looked at the mountains rimming the vast expanse of water, tears began to trickle down his face.

“Why, Adam, what’s wrong?” Ben asked, setting Hoss down and kneeling to take his older son in his arms.

“It’s like she saw it,” Adam murmured.

Ben’s face softened.  “Mama?”

Adam nodded.  “Like the mountains in Sweden, remember?”

Like Ben, Adam had never seen those mountains and couldn’t be sure these were similar, but he’d felt the same impression his father had when he first saw the snowcaps surrounding the lake.  “I think Mama would have liked this place,” he said, stroking Adam’s dark, straight hair.

“Could we live here?” Adam asked impulsively.  “We promised Mama we’d build our house in a place like this, and you said we’d always keep our promises to her.”

Ben was taken aback.  How frequently his young son mirrored his own thinking!  “I’d like that,” Ben said, “but I doubt building our home here on the lake would be practical.  Closer to the valley floor would be better.”

“But near here?” Adam pressed, his voice almost pleading.

Ben smiled.  “Near here——a fine, big house just like I promised Mama.”

“When can we start?” Adam asked, excited.

“Oh, not for a long time, Adam,” Ben laughed.  “That’s a dream for the future, not for anytime soon.  As sparsely settled as this land is, I think it’s better to stay close to our friends for now.  And have you forgotten that the emigrant season is almost on us again?  I’ll be spending most of my time at the trading post.”

“But after that?” Adam insisted.

Ben tickled his ribs.  “No, not even after that.  Our cabin’s good enough for the time being.  First things first, Adam.  And first comes building up our ranch, stocking it with cattle.  Once the ranch is established on a sound footing, we can think about building a better house.”

“But here?  For sure, here?”

“Here; for sure, here,” Ben said, then, tapping Adam’s nose, “That’s a promise.”

Hoss clapped his hands as he saw Adam smile.  “Pomish,” he chortled.

CHAPTER EIGHT

          Dusk was just beginning to fall when Clyde Thomas and Ben Cartwright, each accompanied by a son, arrived in Placerville.  “Looks like we made it before the cafe closed,” Clyde yelled back to Ben, who was guiding the second wagon into town.

Ben guffawed.  “As if you hadn’t timed the trip just to that end, you old hypocrite!”

“You sayin’ you had other plans?” Clyde snickered.

Ben shook his head, still laughing.  “Couldn’t say it with a straight face,” he called.  “Let’s get the stock tended to and see what Ludmilla’s offering tonight.”

Adam and Billy, as eager as their fathers to sit down to one of Ludmilla Zuebner’s hefty plate dinners, helped get the teams situated in a livery at the edge of town.  Then everyone headed down Placerville’s main street with mouths drooling.

Ludmilla, as always, wrapped each of her old friends in an exuberant embrace and seated them at their favorite table by the front window.

“What’s the special today, Ludmilla?” Ben inquired.

“Do you have strudel?” Adam asked, dark eyes hopeful.

“Strudel I have,” Ludmilla replied, “and special is sauerbraten.”

“My favorite!” Adam announced.  “That’s what I want, please.”

Billy leaned over to whisper in Adam’s ear.  “What is it?”  Billy’d only been to Placerville once before and he’d had oxtail stew that time.”

“Roast beef,” Adam whispered back, “in kind of a spicy gravy.  It’s real good, Billy.”

While Billy mulled that information over, Ben placed his order.  “I think I’ll have the Hangtown Fry, Ludmilla,” he said.

“Hey, yeah!” Billy declared.  “That’s what I want, too!”  He’d heard both his pa and Mr. Cartwright rave over the combination of oysters with scrambled eggs and decided he’d have to try it.

“Good, good,” Ludmilla said.  “And for you papa?”

“Oxtail stew can’t be beat,” Clyde said.

Ludmilla bustled into the kitchen to dish up their meals.  While she was gone, the door to the cafe opened and a young man of fourteen and a younger girl came in.  Ben smiled broadly.  “Stefán!  Marta!” he called, raising his arm to wave at the youngsters.

“Mr. Cartwright!  How good to see you again,” Stefán said, coming forward to clasp first Ben’s hand and then Clyde’s.

Marta, meantime, had pranced up to the table, doubled her fist and slammed it into Billy’s arm.  “Look what the cat drug in!” she cried, a mischievous twinkle in her blue eyes.

Billy’s freckled hand calmly reached up to yank the long blonde braid dangling over her shoulder.

“Here now, that ain’t no way to act!” Clyde sputtered.  “You been reared better than that, boy.”

“Aw, Pa, it’s just Marta,” Billy asserted.  “She’s used to me teasin’.”

“And didn’t miss it a lick,” Marta smirked, then favored Billy’s friend with a softer smile.  “Hi, Adam.  Nice to see you, at least.”

“Hi, Marta,” Adam giggled.

“You here for dinner, Stefán?” Ben asked.

“Yes, we always eat here when the café is open,” Stefán explained.  “It is easier for Mama than bringing food home.”

“Adam, you and Billy move to that next table and let Stefán sit here and talk with us,” Ben ordered.

Adam immediately stood and moved to the next table.  Billy got up, too, although a little more slowly.  “Reckon we’ll have to put up with you,” he told Marta with a playful scowl.

She scowled right back as she followed the boys to the next table.  “I’ll be the one doin’ the puttin’ up with,” she declared, tossing her head so hard that her braid bounced behind her shoulder.

Marta’s older sister Katerina exited the kitchen, her arms laden with the dishes ordered by her old friends from the Overland Trail.  Deftly she slid each plate in front of the appropriate customer after giving them a warm greeting.

“My, Katerina,” Ben purred, “you’re getting prettier all the time.”

Katerina blushed, the rosy tint of her complexion making her look even prettier.  “It is so good to see you all again.  Is everyone well?  Mrs. Thomas?  And little Hoss?”

“Hoss is getting to be a big boy now,” Ben reported.  “Healthy as a horse with the appetite to prove it.”  Katerina smiled.

“Nelly’s doin’ fine, too,” Clyde put in, “and so’s little Inger, even if you didn’t ask.”

“How could she, Clyde?” Ben chided softly, then smiled at the German girl.  “Clyde and Nelly had a new baby girl in March and named her after my wife.  Fortunately, Inger takes after her mother.”  Everyone laughed at the look on Clyde’s face when Ben made that final remark.

“Such good news!” Katerina said.  “I hope someday I will see these babies.”

“Katerina,” her brother interrupted authoritatively, “I, too, would like to eat, as would your sister.  We have had a hard day’s digging at the mine.”

Katerina blushed again, this time from embarrassment.  “I am sorry, Stefán.  What can I bring you?”

“Sauerbraten,” he replied.

“Hangtown Fry for me,” Marta called.  Katerina nodded and headed back toward the kitchen.

“Well, Stefán,” Ben said, “how’s that brewery idea of yours coming along?”

“I am working toward it,” Stefán said, “but so far I make only a little for private use.  If you would like to taste, I will be glad to draw you a glass.”

“Sounds good to me,” Clyde cackled.  “Oxtail stew gives a man a powerful thirst.”

Ben chuckled.  “Just the thought of beer gives you a powerful thirst.”  Clyde just grinned and shrugged.

Stefán went to the kitchen and returned with three glasses of homemade beer.  Ben and Clyde tasted it and pronounced it good.  “Matter of fact,” Clyde mused, “we could probably sell this at the trading post, if you have some to spare.”

“I am afraid I do not,” Stefán replied, “but if you are interested, I will make more and save some back for the next time you come.”

“What you think, Ben?” Clyde asked.  “This is sure better than what folks could get over to Mormon Station.”

Ben laughed.  “You can say that again!  But I thought you liked Valley Tan.”

Clyde scowled.  “Man makes do with what he has,” he protested.  He turned to Stefán.  “You save us back some, son, and we’ll show these emigrants what good liquor tastes like.”

“We’ve been cooped up east of the mountains the last few months,” Ben began.  “Anything going on in the wide world we ought to know about.”

Stefán thought for a moment.  “All I can think of is the flood at Sacramento last March.  It nearly wiped out the town.”

Ben looked alarmed.  “That’s where we planned to resupply.”

“Oh, you will have no problem,” Stefán assured him.  “They are set up for business again and will be glad for your trade.”

“That’s good,” Clyde mumbled, his mouth full of oxtail stew.

“Yeah, I’m particularly glad to hear that,” Ben stated, “because I’d planned to go on to Monterey from there.  I might have had to change my plans if we’d had to go to San Francisco for supplies.”

From the next table Adam caught the word ‘Monterey’ and his lips curled in a surly pout.  Ben’s trip to that town had been a source of contention with his older son.  Adam, always eager to explore new sights, had begged to go, too, but Ben had refused.  Clyde and Billy would need his help getting the second wagonload of supplies back home, Ben had insisted, and nothing Adam could say would change his father’s mind.  Pa could be so stubborn, Adam had grumbled wordlessly all the way across the mountains.  It never occurred to him that he was the one souring everyone else’s trip with his stubborn, stony silences.

* * * * *

As the two wagons entered Sacramento, Ben was pleased to see the place bustling with activity.  Though reportedly devastated by flood only two months before, the city had made a rapid recovery: muddied buildings scrubbed clean and necessary repairs made with the same zeal that had rebuilt San Francisco after the previous year’s near-total destruction by fire.  Sacramento looked fresher than ever, restocked and ready for business and, if the saloons lining the streets perpendicular to the AmericanRiver were any indication, for pleasure, as well.  “Westerners pitch right in to rectify anything man or nature throws at them,” Ben commented.  “Makes a man proud to number himself among them.”

“Yeah,” Clyde agreed, “but it stands to reason, Ben.  The cowards never started, and the quitters didn’t make it halfway.  What you got left is bound to be the cream of the crop.”

Ben smiled.  “Like you, you mean?”

“Like the both of us,” Clyde said firmly.

The two men guided their wagons to the business that had supplied them with trade goods the previous year and found it in operation.  After selecting the items they wished to purchase, they left the wagons to be loaded and led the oxen to a livery for the night.  Clyde would pick up the loaded wagons the next morning and with the help of the two boys begin the trip east while Ben headed southwest to Monterey.

As they walked toward the K Street lodging Clyde had suggested, he pointed out the main reason he’d recommended staying in this part of the city.  “There it is, Ben.”

Reading the sign posted outside the business, Ben nodded.  “Alpha Bath House.  Yeah, you could use a good scrubbing, Clyde.”  He pinched his nose between his thumb and index finger.  Trailing behind their fathers, Billy and Adam snickered.

“Very funny,” Clyde snorted.  “How long since you had a good washin’, Mr. Snoot-nose?”

“Saturday before we left,” Ben said with a proud uplift of his chin, “and high time for another, I’ll be the first to admit.”

Clyde scowled.  He should have known Ben Cartwright would be one of them weekly bathers, though he hadn’t gone in for it that winter they’d lived together.  Not enough privacy, likely enough.  Clyde, personally, considered too many baths unhealthful, but the habit didn’t seem to be doing Ben and his boys any harm.  Jerking out of his reverie, Clyde pointed to the final words on the sign.  “It’s that shower bath I’m after,” he said.  “Had one last time I was through and found it right refreshin’.”

“I’m willing to try it,” Ben said.

“Hey, we ain’t got to take no bath, do we?” Billy demanded.

“Only if you want one,” his father said.  And just let Ben Cartwright wrinkle his nose!

“Well, we don’t!” Billy declared.

Ben arched a blue-black eyebrow.  “Maybe Adam would like to speak for himself.  You want a fresh scrubbing, son?”

Adam thought a shower bath sounded interesting, but before he could answer, he saw Billy shaking his head violently.  The look in Billy’s eye told Adam the impish redhead had mischief brewing.  Already outside his father’s good graces, Adam decided he’d better stay in Billy’s.  “Naw, I don’t want no bath,” he replied, deliberately using poor grammar to further irritate his father.

Ben’s eyebrows knit together.  He’d tried to be patient with Adam’s sulkiness, but he’d just about had his fill.  “Fine,” he said sharply.  “We’ll find a room, then have some dinner.  Afterwards, Clyde, let’s deposit these two dirty urchins in bed and treat ourselves to a night on the town.”

“Sounds mighty fine,” Clyde agreed.

After a dinner that in no way lived up to the one they’d eaten in Placerville, the quartet went back to the rooming house on K Street.  There Ben and Clyde gave the boys strict instructions on bedtime before heading out for a bath and a beer.

No sooner had the men left than Billy began to pull on his lightweight jacket.  “Come on, now’s our turn for some fun,” he announced.

“What you up to?” Adam asked, knowing from experience that some of Billy’s ideas were nothing short of hare-brained.

“You remember how your pa told us about that saloon here in Sacramento with all the picture paintings of the trail west?”

“Yeah,” Adam said slowly.

“Well, don’t you want to see ‘em?” Billy demanded.

“Sure I do,” Adam said, “but my pa’d have a fit if I went in a saloon.  Yours, too.”

Billy rolled his blue eyes at the ceiling.  “So who’s gonna tell ‘em?”

“Nobody’ll have to tell them if they come back and find us gone,” Adam reasoned.

“We won’t stay out that long,” Billy argued.

“We try going in a saloon, though, and they’ll kick us right out.  Maybe even send for the law,” Adam said nervously.

“Look, ‘fraidy cat,” Billy pressed.  “We’ll just peek in at doors ‘til we find the right place.  Then we’ll march in and tell the barkeep we come to see his artistic masterpieces.  He’ll be so flattered he won’t give us a lick of trouble.  Probably give us a tour of the place.”

Adam bit his lip.  He really would like to see the pictures his father had described, and Billy made his plan sound workable.  Though he normally thought things through before acting, Adam was just mad enough at Pa to be reckless.  “Okay,” he said impulsively, “but if we don’t find the right place in, say an hour, we got to come back.  Agreed?”

Billy grabbed his friend’s hand and pumped it.  “Agreed!”

Adam slipped his jacket on, and soon the two conspirators were walking the darkened streets in search of one particular saloon.  It was a quest destined to fail, for covering all the opportunities for liquid temptation Sacramento offered would take far longer than the hour allotted to the venture.

Billy didn’t mind, of course.  He wasn’t as much interested in art work as he was in seeing the inside of a saloon, anyway.  But he intuitively sensed Adam would have said no to that without added enticement.  “Hey, this one looks interestin’,” he announced as they approached a huge circular tent with big blazing letters declaring it the City Diggins.

“I don’t know,” Adam said.  “It looks like a circus tent.”

“Oh, it ain’t no circus,” Billy scoffed.  “Use your ears, boy.  Can’t you hear that plunky ole piano and all them miners carousin’ around?”

“I know it’s a saloon!” Adam snapped.  “But it’s probably decorated like a circus inside, too.  It won’t have the pictures we’re after.”

“Won’t know ‘til we look,” Billy said, nonchalantly pushing Adam inside.

“You said we wouldn’t go in,” Adam hissed.

Billy shrugged.  “How else we gonna see?  Come on, ‘fraidy cat.”  He began edging his way into the rowdy crowd.

“Billy!” Adam wailed, pushing after his friend.

A miner turned at the sound of the youthful voice.  “What you doin’ in here, kid?” he demanded, pushing a brawny palm against Adam’s chest.

Adam pointed into the crowd.  “My friend.  I need—”

“No place for kids,” the man said gruffly.  “Where’s this here friend of yourn?”

Adam pointed again.  “There he is.”

“The little redhead, huh?  Yup, he’s too young to be in here, all right.”  The miner plowed through the bodies between him and Billy and, grabbing the youngster by one ear, pulled him back to Adam.  Then he grabbed Adam’s ear with his other massive hand and escorted both boys roughly to the entrance to the saloon.  “And stay out!”  he ordered, dusting his hands after thrusting the two intruders outside.

Billy picked himself up.  “Weren’t the right one,” he announced.

“What gave you your first clue?” Adam demanded hotly from his seat in the dust.  He scrambled to his feet.  “Let’s get back to the hotel.”

“Not yet,” Billy insisted.  “We got to try one or two more.”  He started off down the street in the opposite direction from their lodgings.

Adam rolled his eyes heavenward.  He should have known better than to let Billy talk him into this fool idea in the first place.  But he couldn’t abandon his friend on the dark streets; he had to follow.

Billy next approached a drinking establishment called the Round Tent.  “They got fiddles playin’ in here,” he said.  “That’s the kind of high-class place we’re lookin’ for.”

“Maybe,” Adam agreed.  The music was nice, not as raucous as the out-of-tune piano from the City Diggins.

“You can stay here,” Billy offered.  “I’ll just slip inside the door and see if they got pictures.”

“Okay, but come right out if they don’t,” Adam told him.

Billy nodded.  He didn’t particularly relish staying long enough for some miner to grab his ear again.

Adam crowded close to the entrance as Billy went inside.  Billy didn’t come out right away, but neither did he tell Adam to come inside.  “Billy!” Adam whispered intently.  “You there?”

“Yeah,” Billy drawled, his voice awestruck.

“Well, do they have pictures or not?” Adam asked.

“Oh, yeah, they got pictures, all right,” Billy said.  “You gotta see this!”

Grinning, Adam walked in.  His eyes widened when he saw the paintings on the canvas walls.  “Naked ladies!” he sputtered, then dropping his voice to a whisper, “We gotta get out of here, Billy!”

“Uh-huh,” Billy agreed, but he didn’t move.  He continued to gape at the erotic paintings as if in a trance.  Adam grabbed his arm and pulled him outside.

“I ain’t never seen the like of that!” Billy exclaimed.

“You ain’t supposed to see the like of that!” Adam shouted.  “Nor me, either.  Why didn’t you tell me what kind of pictures they had?”

Billy shrugged.  “Too busy lookin’, I guess.”

Adam’s eyes narrowed.  “Billy Thomas, you wanted to gawk at those ladies!”

“You did plenty of gawkin’ yourself!” Billy yelled.

Adam doubled his fist and plowed it into Billy’s nose.

“Yeow!” Billy shouted and landed a flying fist on Adam’s left jawbone.

Adam fell to the ground and Billy hurled himself on his friend’s prone body.  The fist fight turned into a wrestling match with neither boy landing another telling blow, but each tearing the other’s shirt as they clawed and kicked on the ground.

“Fight!  Fight!” yelled voices all around them.  Pouring from the nearby saloons, men crowded around, amused to see two youngsters scuffling in the street.  “Hit him, Red!” called one.

“Two bits on the little one!” another called, and his bet was accepted by Billy’s supporter.  Neither man collected the prize, however, for the fight ended abruptly when strong hands pulled the battling boys apart.

“Adam!” shouted the man collaring the dark-haired boy.

“You scoundrel!” the man holding a squirming Billy hollered.

Both boys looked up into the eyes of their irate fathers, and all the fight washed out of them as they were peppered with questions.  What were they fighting about?  Where had they been?  Why weren’t they in the room where they’d been told to stay?  Adam and Billy both tried to answer at the same time, each pointing accusingly at the other.

A roar of laughter rose from the surrounding throng.  Secretly sorry to see the fisticuffs end, the audience still found the aftermath amusing.  Two naughty boys berated by two crimson-faced fathers was a sight not often seen in a society dominated by grown men.

Suddenly noticing the crowd of onlookers, however, Ben decided it was time the spectacle ended.  “Come on!” he growled, gripping Adam’s elbow with an iron hand and steering him through the congregation of miners.  Clyde, dragging Billy in the same manner, followed in his friend’s wake.

The quartet moved awkwardly toward their lodgings.  When they arrived, Ben exchanged a significant look with Clyde.  “You’re welcome to the use of the room for a while,” he muttered.  “Adam and I will be taking a short walk before we turn in.”  Adam and Billy exchanged a significant look of their own.  Each had a good idea what awaited him at the end of his journey.

Clyde nodded, giving Billy a swat that was a foretaste of things to come, and pulled him inside while Ben continued to steer Adam down K Street toward the docks.  “Pa, you’re hurting me,” Adam whined.

It was the one thing Adam could have said to dilute his father’s anger.  “I’m sorry, Adam,” Ben said, loosening his grip, but continuing to clasp the elbow firmly enough to steer the boy where he wanted him to go.  They turned onto Front Street, walking past the ships tied up along the shore.  The riverfront wasn’t entirely silent, for even at night some steamboats were unloading cargo.  The street was quiet, the only sound the footfall of their steps on the planked walkway.  But to Adam, the stillness was the calm that portended a storm.  “I—I guess we’re gonna have a very necessary little talk, huh, Pa?” he asked nervously.  He knew that was his father’s favorite euphemism for a spanking.

“We are,” Ben said firmly.  “You’ve disobeyed and you’ve got that coming, but first we’re going to have an even more necessary little talk.”  Adam wasn’t sure what that could mean, but it sounded ominous.

Ben stopped near a pile of crates that had been unloaded from a now vacant steamboat and motioned for the boy to sit on one of them.  “I’ve been very disappointed in you, Adam,” Ben said, facing his son, arms akimbo.

“It was Billy’s idea, Pa,” Adam accused.

Ben’s right hand fired forward, his index finger almost striking Adam’s nose.  “That’s enough!” he shouted.  “I don’t care whose idea it was, and I don’t care why you were fighting!  When I say I’m disappointed, Adam, I’m talking about more than just tonight.  I’m talking about your behavior this entire trip.”

“Oh,” Adam said, his face draining.  Ben didn’t need to elaborate.  Adam knew he’d behaved badly——had, in fact, done so intentionally to irk his father the way his father had irked him.  But Adam knew he’d crossed over the line tonight and it was all going to catch up with him.  “I’m sorry, Pa,” he said quickly.

“Are you?” Ben asked dubiously.  “Adam, I suspect all you’re sorry about is being called to account.”  He lifted the boy to his shoulder and pointed at the boat tied to the wharf.  “What controls that ship, Adam?”

“The wheel, I guess,” Adam replied.

“Which turns?” Ben probed.

“The rudder,” Adam responded, remembering tales of his father’s life at sea.

“Who turns your rudder, Adam?” Ben asked softly.

Adam’s lips curled.  “I do, Pa.”

Ben shook his head.  “No, that’s what you want, not what is.  Tonight, by your own report, Billy Thomas turned your rudder, son.”

“No, Pa,” Adam insisted.  “I—I could have said no.”

“You could have, yes,” Ben agreed.  “You could have kept your own hands on the wheel, but you didn’t.  You turned command over to someone else.”

Adam frowned.  He didn’t like the picture his father was painting.  “I—I was mad at you,” he offered as explanation.

“I know that,” Ben said.  “You’ve made that clear every day since I told you you couldn’t come to Monterey with me.  So what you’re telling me now is that your anger is your rudder.”

“No,” Adam protested.

“Yes,” his father insisted.  “You let it control you, didn’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” Adam admitted, his head hanging.  He looked up and said, “I’m sorry, Pa,” meaning it this time.

“You are forgiven,” Ben said, giving the boy a squeeze, “but there’s one thing more you need to understand, Adam.”

“What’s that, Pa?”

“You need to understand, son,” Ben said, “that you do not command your own vessel.  At nine years of age, you haven’t the wisdom to pilot your own life.  That is the task of your father.”

“You’re my captain?” Adam asked.  “Is that what you mean?”

Ben chuckled.  “That’s one way of putting it.  And when you disobey, Adam, you’re committing an act of mutiny.”

Adam gulped.  He knew no crime aboard ship merited harsher punishment.  “I—I don’t want to do that,” he said earnestly.

“Then you’ll do as I say and return home without giving Mr. Thomas any trouble?” Ben asked.

“Yes, sir,” Adam promised.

“And without subjecting him to anymore of your sullen behavior?”

Adam flushed, ashamed now of how he’d acted the last several days.  “No, sir.  I’ll behave, Pa.”

“Good,” Ben said, setting him down.  “And now, Adam, I’m afraid it’s time for that ‘very necessary little talk’ I promised you.”  Adam nodded solemnly and dropped his trousers.

CHAPTER NINE

             Just ahead Ben could see a small adobe house with a red clay tile roof.  He hoped the directions he’d been given were accurate and that he would soon see his old friends, Jonathan and Rachel Payne.  His journey had already taken three days longer than planned, for the Paynes hadn’t been in Monterey.  Ben had, however, learned from a hide merchant that they lived on a small ranchero some fifty miles east of there, and this place fit that description.  Though he felt awkward about arriving so near suppertime, Ben walked to the house and rapped on the door.

A dark-haired woman in her late twenties opened the door.  “Yes?” she asked, peering into the sunlight from the darker room.

“Rachel?” Ben smiled.

Rachel squealed.  “Ben Cartwright!”  She grabbed his hand and pulled him through the door.  “Oh, Jonathan, look who’s come!”

Long, lanky, light-haired Jonathan Payne got up from the gold Spanish-style sofa and extended his hand.  “Ben, what a surprise!”

Ben laughed.  “A pleasant one, I hope.”

Rachel squeezed him.  “How could you think anything else?  Where are the boys?”  Her face sobered suddenly.  “They—they are all right?”  Rachel, as well as anyone, knew the dangers of the overland journey.  Like Nelly Thomas, she had lost a son to cholera.

“The boys are both fine,” Ben assured her quickly.  “And how is little Susan?  I heard she took quite ill during your ordeal in the mountains.”

“She did,” Rachel said, “but she’s fine now.  Shows no ill effects of the hardship of her first year.  The children had an early dinner, so she’s sleeping in the other room now with her brother.”

“Her brother?” Ben asked, his countenance lifting.

“Born in January,” Jonathan said proudly.  “We call him Samuel.  Sit down, Ben, and we’ll share all our news.”

“And hear all yours, too,” Rachel added as she seated herself in the rocker near the sofa where Ben took his seat.

“I should see to your horse,” Jonathan said, starting for the door.

“Don’t bother,” Ben chuckled.  “There isn’t one.  That, as a matter of fact, is why I’m here.  You told me once that if I’d see you a year after you reached California, I could pick out the best of your string.  I’m a little late getting here, of course.”

“Just as well,” Jonathan laughed as he sat next to Ben.  “It took me longer than I expected to get established here.  I lost my colt and my mare in the blizzard that hit us in the Sierras.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Ben sympathized.  “I remember how much she meant to you.  And the little colt Inger helped into the world, too.”  Ben shook his head sadly.

“Well, I’ve managed to catch and tame a few mustangs,” Jonathan said, “so—”

“Oh, hush that now,” Rachel protested.  “Business talk can wait.  I want to hear all the gossip about our old friends.  You said your boys were fine.  Did Clyde and Nelly survive the winter in CarsonValley, too?”

“They did, indeed,” Ben said.  “In fact, we’ve survived two winters there.  Once spring came, we found we liked the place so well we decided to settle there.”

“Oh, my,” Rachel giggled.  “Imagine that!  So you’re all still living together?”

“Heaven forbid!” Ben guffawed.  “No, Adam and Hoss and I have our own cabin now, just under four miles from the original one where the Thomases still live.”

“And is that Billy as sassy as ever?” Jonathan asked.

“Sassier,” Ben said wryly and related the trouble the two boys had gotten into in Sacramento.

After the three friends had a good laugh at Billy’s expense, Rachel said, “Nelly’s got her hands full with that one.”

“Her hands are doubly full since March,” Ben smiled.  “That’s when her baby was born.”

Rachel clapped her hands, delighted.  “Oh, I’m so glad.  Of course, the new ones never take the place of the ones we lost, but it is a comfort to have someone to cuddle again.  Boy or girl?”

“A little girl; they call her Inger,” Ben said softly.  Rachel reached out to squeeze his hand.  She had been one of the original Inger’s closest friends.

A Mexican lady in a red gathered skirt and a white peasant blouse embroidered with red flowers around its scooped neckline entered from the next room.  “La comida está servado, señora,” she said softly.

Gracias, Mañuela,” Rachel replied.  “We have a visitor, so please set an extra place.”

“It is already done, señora,” Mañuela said shyly, dark eyes fixed to the floor.

Bueno,” Rachel said, smiling brightly.  “Let’s go in to dinner, then, gentlemen.”

“You don’t have to ask me twice,” Ben said, rising at once.

“I’m afraid you may be in for a surprise,” Jonathan chuckled, taking his guest’s arm.  “Mañuela cooks like a dream——if you dream of Mexican food, that is.”

“I’ve tasted it before,” Ben said, “and liked it quite well.”

“We’re having arroz con pollo,” Rachel announced, sitting at one end of the table.  “Have you had that before?”

“I don’t think so,” Ben said.  “At least, I don’t recognize the name.”

“Chicken with rice,” Jonathan interpreted as he indicated the chair at the middle of the table to Ben and seated himself at the end opposite Rachel.

Ben unfolded his napkin and laid it in his lap.  “Sounds wonderful.  You must be doing very well, Jonathan, to afford household help.”

Jonathan laughed.  “Not as well as it looks, Ben.  Mañuela is married to one of my vaqueros, so we’re almost getting two for the price of one.”

“I see,” Ben said.  “Well, if this tastes as good as it looks, you’re definitely getting a bargain, my friend.”

“Believe me, we are,” Rachel said enthusiastically.  “With two babes under two, I don’t know what I’d do without Mañuela.  She’s wonderful with the children.  Ben, you’ll do us the honor of saying grace, won’t you?”

“Of course,” Ben agreed readily and bowed his head.

As they ate, Rachel reluctantly let the men discuss business.  “I know just the horse for you, Ben,” Jonathan said.  “He’s a bay gelding, well-broken to the saddle and easy to handle.  And there’s a gray colt about the right size for Adam, if you’re interested.”

“I hadn’t thought about a mount for Adam,” Ben mused, “but perhaps he is old enough.”

“Certainly, he is!” Jonathan said enthusiastically.  “He’ll be a better horseman for starting early, Ben, and that’s important in this part of the country.”

“I’m sure you’re right,” Ben said, “so if we can come to terms on the price, I’d like the colt, too.  I’d also hoped to purchase some cattle while I was here.  I hadn’t, of course, expected you to be in that business, but since the hide merchant in Monterey knew you, I assume you must be.”

“I am, but not in a big way,” Jonathan laughed.  “At least, compared to some of my neighbors, my herd is quite small.  I could let you have about twenty-five head, Ben, but surely you’ll want to make a bigger start than that.  With the influx of miners into California, cattle aren’t just raised for their hides anymore.  There’s good money in selling the beef now.”

“I suppose so,” Ben said.  “Truthfully, Jonathan, I’m not sure how many I can handle.”

“I’d recommend a hundred, to start,” Jonathan advised.  “That is, if your funds will stretch that far.”  Jonathan told him the price he could expect to pay for prime Spanish cattle.

“I think I can swing that,” Ben said.  “I’ll be spending a little more than I’d planned, but I do have the funds available.  Our trading post did quite well last year.  But won’t it be difficult for me to herd that many back over the mountains?”

“You’ll need help, of course,” Jonathan stated.  “I can loan you one of my vaqueros for the trip, and you can probably pick up any others you need in the area.  I’ll ask around when we visit some of the neighboring ranchos tomorrow.”

Ben raised an eyebrow, and Jonathan laughed.  “It’s the only way to find the cattle you need, Ben.  Don’t worry; I’ll see to it you’re treated fairly.”

Ben smiled.  “I knew I could count on you for that, Jon, and I appreciate your taking time to show me around.”

“Well, if you gentlemen are through discussing livestock,” Rachel tittered, “I’ll have Mañuela serve the flan.”

“I’d halt any discussion for that!” Jonathan exclaimed.  And when Ben spooned the first creamy taste of cool, caramel-sauced custard into his mouth, he added a hearty amen.

* * * * *

Disgruntled, Billy Thomas took a whack at the weed crowding close to a bushy green turnip top with his hoe, killing both it and the turnip at the same time.  “Dadbern it!” he growled.

“You watch where you’re slingin’ that hoe, boy!” his father snapped.

“And watch your language while you’re at it,” Nelly put in.

“Yes, sir; yes, ma’am,” Billy responded perfunctorily.  He looked over at Adam, hoeing in the row next to him and sighed.  No use looking for sympathy from that direction.  Adam actually liked working in the garden.  Besides, ever since that night in Sacramento when they’d both taken lickings from their fathers, Adam had been practicing up for sainthood.  Even the two babies were more fun these days.

Billy glanced at the edge of the garden where his sister lay on a blanket spread on the ground with Hoss sprawled beside her, tickling her tummy.  Raising his eyes to the distant horizon, Billy saw a rider on a yellowish horse, leading a gray one behind him.

“Billy, quit that wool gatherin’ and get back to work!” Clyde snapped.

“Rider comin’, Pa,” Billy reported.

Adam looked up from his diligent pursuit of weeds, shading his eyes against the bright sun.

“You need glasses or somethin’?” Billy demanded.  “It’s your pa, stupid!”

“Why, it is!” Nelly cried, overlooking Billy’s disrespectful name-calling.

Adam threw down his hoe and ran from the garden, heedless of the tender plants he trampled on the way.  “Pa!” he shouted.

Hoss clambered up from the blanket and trotted after Adam.  “Pa!” he yelled.

Ben all but leapt from his horse and swept the two boys into his arms.  “Oh, am I glad to see you!”  He smothered them both with kisses.

“I’m glad to see you, too,” Billy said, sauntering up to them, “but don’t try any of that slobbery stuff on me.”

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Ben snorted, reaching out to ruffle the unruly shock of fiery hair.

Clyde was already examining Ben’s bay gelding.  “Mighty fine lookin’ animal,” he appraised.

Ben stroked the animal’s black mane.  “Yeah, Jonathan sure picked out the best for me.”

“Oh, you found them!” Nelly cried, giving little Inger a squeeze to express her pleasure.

“Yes, ma’am,” Ben laughed, “and I’m full of gossip, as Rachel calls it.”

“I can’t wait!” Nelly said.

Perched in Ben’s arms, Hoss reached out to pat the horse, too, in imitation of his father.

Adam couldn’t take his eyes off the gray colt beside the bay.  It couldn’t be for him, could it?  Adam shook his head sadly.  No, not after the way he’d behaved.  The horse must be for Mr. Thomas, though it looked small for a man.

Ben couldn’t imagine why his older son suddenly seemed so somber.  Picking up the reins of the gray’s bridle, he smiled and held it out to Adam.

“That’s not for me,” Adam murmured, then his voice quavering hopefully, “is it?”

“Well, if he don’t want it, I’ll take it!” Billy hollered.  Everyone but Adam laughed.

“It’s yours, son,” Ben said, puzzled by Adam’s behavior.

A slow smile brightened Adam’s face.  “Honest, Pa?”

“Of course,” Ben said.  “Climb up and give her a try.”  He showed Adam how to mount the horse and let him walk her around the yard.

“Can I try?” Billy begged.

“Billy, you let Adam enjoy his own horse awhile,” his mother scolded.  “You got weeds to hoe.”

“Aw, Ma,” Billy whined.  “Who wants to hoe weeds when he can—”

A heavy swat landed on Billy’s backside.  “Do like your ma says.  Git now!” his father ordered.

“Oh, here now,” Ben soothed.  “I didn’t mean to make trouble.  I’m sure Adam won’t mind giving his friend a turn on his horse.”

“Well, I mind backtalk,” Clyde said emphatically, “so Billy’ll just have to wait a spell for his turn.”

Ben didn’t argue the point.  A father had the right to discipline his own son.  He reached up to lift Adam down.  “You have some hoeing to do, as well, I expect.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam said at once and dutifully followed Billy to the garden.

Hoss lifted his arms toward Ben.  “Up!”

Ben obligingly picked the youngster up again, but Hoss leaned out toward the gray filly.  “Oh, no,” Ben chuckled.  “You’re too small for that.”

Hoss started to whimper, but a tight hug from his father brought back his characteristic toothy grin.

“Well, come on inside and tell me all that gossip,” Nelly suggested.  “I’ll make a fresh pot of coffee, and there might even be a doughnut or two left from breakfast.”

“Provided, of course, that feed bag you’re totin’ ain’t snuck in and helped hisself,” Clyde snickered.

Ben laughed.  “You mean bag of feed, don’t you?  He’s heavy enough.”  He set the boy down on the ground as they approached the cabin door.

Inside, Ben reached for the baby in Nelly’s arms.  “Now, here’s a load I can handle.  Come to Uncle Ben, darling.”  He’d been amused when Nelly adopted the title of aunt to his boys, but now that he had a “niece” of his own, Ben decided there was no better word to describe the closeness he felt for this child not of his blood.  Of course, that would make Billy his “nephew,” too.  Ben chuckled, not at all disturbed by the addition of the irrepressible redhead to his family.  At least, life would never be boring.

Little Inger made no protest at leaving her mother’s arms.  “What a sweet little lady,” Ben cooed as he sat in the rocker by the empty fireplace and stroked the baby’s wispy, strawberry blonde hair.  On a warm spring day like today, no fire was needed; even the heat from the cook stove provided more than the small room required.

“Did you know that Uncle Ben’s been looking out for you while he was away?” Ben teased, more for the ears of Inger’s parents than for the baby’s.  “Yes, Uncle Ben’s found just the right boy for you.  His name is Samuel, and he’s just two months older than you and as handsome as you are pretty.  Brown hair like his mother, but he has his father’s blue eyes.”

Nelly spun from the stove where she had just set the coffee to boil.  “Rachel has a new boy!” she exclaimed.

“That’s right,” Ben laughed.  “You’re a good guesser, Nelly.”

“Oh, that’s good news,” Nelly said.

“Yeah,” Clyde snorted, “but Ben here’s already tryin’ to marry off our little girl.  That ain’t good news to me.”

“Now, you know Ben’s teasing,” Nelly scolded.

Hoss had pressed close to his father’s knee as soon as Ben sat down.  At first Ben thought the boy was jealous of Inger’s place in his father’s arms, but Hoss evidently was as interested in being close to the baby as to Ben.  Ben gave the boy’s head an approving pat, receiving another of Hoss’s sunny smiles in response.

“Thought you was gonna bring back some cattle, too,” Clyde was saying.

“Hmn?” Ben said, his attention jerking back to the conversation.  “Oh, yeah, I did.  They’re back at my place.  I got in yesterday, but it was so late, I figured I should wait ‘til this morning to pick up the boys.  I hope they weren’t too much trouble.”

“Just keepin’ the feed bag full,” Clyde cackled as he swooped Hoss up and gave him a good-natured tickling.

“And Adam?” Ben asked more seriously.  “He give you any problems on the way home?”

“Naw, not really,” Clyde said.  “He’s been extra quiet, as a matter of fact.  That boy’s a brooder, Ben.”

Ben frowned.  “Still sulking?”

“No,” Nelly put in quickly.  “More like he’s mullin’ things over.  No trouble, honestly.”

Ben nodded, satisfied.

“So, how many head you buy?” Clyde asked.

“A hundred,” Ben replied.  “That’s what Jonathan advised.  He says prime beef brings a high price now with all the miners to be fed.  I can believe it, too, when I see what Jon’s been able to accomplish with his place.  You should see the house, Nelly.”

“I want to hear all about it,” Nelly said, pouring each of them a cup of coffee.  There were only three doughnuts left, so she handed one each to Clyde, Ben and Hoss.

Clyde tried to turn the conversation back to the price of cattle, but Ben laughed.  “Ladies first,” he jibed.  “The Paynes’ house is larger than either of ours, really shows mine up for the hovel it is,” he began.

“Hey!  I thought we done right well on your place,” Clyde snorted.  “Hovel, he says.”

“I stand corrected,” Ben chuckled, “but the Payne place does show mine up for a cramped, crudely furnished cabin.  Their house is made of adobe in the Spanish style you see so much in southern California, and I’d just as soon have logs like we do.  But they have a parlor and dining room and a kitchen out back to keep from heating the house.  The climate there’s dry and hot, you know.”

“A separate room just for eating?” Nelly said.  “Imagine that.  And they got enough furniture for all that?”

“The furnishings are a little sparse,” Ben admitted, “but what they have is good quality.”  He described the parlor for Nelly.  “I didn’t see the bedroom,” he said.  “There’s just one large room, where they all sleep.  Not liking to intrude in there, I slept with the vaqueros.”

“They got hired hands, too?” Clyde asked.  To him, that was a greater sign of prosperity than store-bought furniture.

“They even have a cook!” Ben reported, amused by the surprised looks on both his friends’ faces.  “Jonathan’s place is small, though, compared to some of his neighbor’s haciendas.”

“You wishin’ you’d gone on to Californy after all, are you?” Clyde demanded.

Ben shook his head.  “Not at all.  I doubt they’re much, if any, ahead of us financially, Clyde.  And I surely wouldn’t trade the life I have here for all the gold in California.”

“Nor all the store-bought furniture, either,” Nelly said firmly.  Then, she sighed.  “A parlor does sound nice, though.”

“Someday, darlin’,” Clyde promised.  “If this here emigrant season goes good for us, I just might bring you back a sofa come fall.”

“You’d have to add a room to put it in,” Nelly giggled.  “No, I expect a parlor can wait ‘til there’s more folks around to entertain in one.”

Ben leaned back in the rocker, patting Inger to sleep.  Nelly’s remark about adding another room had been made in jest, but Ben found himself wondering if another room wasn’t just what his own cabin needed.  A separate room for the boys with a bed for each, so Adam didn’t wake up next to a soaked diaper every morning.  There was no time for that now, of course, with the emigrant season almost upon them, but when the weather cooled—

“I’d better be getting home,” Ben said softly to avoid waking the baby.

“Can’t you stay to dinner?” Nelly asked.

“Not today,” Ben said, “but we’ll see you Sunday.”

“All right, then,” Nelly said, mollified.

Ben handed her the baby and reached for his own boy.  “Time to go home, Hoss,” he said.

Hoss stretched his arms toward Inger.  “Baby,” he said urgently.

“That’s right,” Ben said, patting the boy’s sturdy back.  “Inger’s a baby.”

“Mine!” Hoss said, reaching for her again.

“No,” Ben laughed.  “She’s not your baby.”

Nelly giggled.  “I’m afraid he’s got real attached while you were gone.”

“You can’t have my baby, you little cradle robber,” Clyde snickered, poking Hoss’s well-padded ribs.  “Tell pa he’ll have to git hisself hitched so he can give you a baby brother or sister of your own.”

Hoss’s head bobbed up and down vigorously.  “Bubba!” he cried.

“That’s not funny, Clyde,” Ben sputtered.  “Don’t go putting something in the boy’s head that he can never have.”

“Well, you never know,” Clyde teased.  “Just might be a widder woman on one of these emigrant trains who’d take a shine to you.”

“Hush now, Clyde,” Nelly hissed.  Knowing how sensitive Ben was about the idea of marrying again, she thought her husband had gone far enough.

Hoss wailed at leaving his new playmate behind, but once Ben lifted him into the saddle of the yellow bay and climbed up behind him, Inger was forgotten in the excitement of the new experience.  Adam mounted his gray colt and waved good-bye to the Thomases.

“I wanna ride that horse tomorrow!” Billy called.

“You can,” Ben promised.  “Adam, at least, will be here to help in the garden tomorrow, probably the rest of us, too.”

Hoss babbled happily as they rode along, but Adam was virtually silent.  From time to time Ben glanced over at him.  “You seem unusually quiet, son,” Ben finally commented.  “Something wrong?”

Adam shook his head.  “No, Pa.  I just, that is, I—”

“What is it, son?” Ben asked gently.  “Since when can’t you talk to Pa about whatever troubles you?”

“Since I acted up so bad on our trip to California, I guess,” Adam admitted.  “I really am sorry, Pa.”

“I know that, Adam,” Ben replied.  “That’s all in the past, son; no need for you to keep brooding over it.”

“But I don’t understand you bringing me a present when I don’t deserve it one bit,” Adam quavered.

“Adam, Adam,” Ben said gently.  “You don’t understand forgiveness, do you, son?”

“I guess not, Pa.”

“Listen, son,” Ben said earnestly.  “You told me you were sorry back there in Sacramento, and I forgave you.  When I say it’s all in the past, I mean I won’t hold it against you in the future.  So if I choose to make you a present, what you did before is no hindrance to me.  You understand?”

Adam smiled.  “I think so.  Thanks for the horse, Pa.  She’s the best present you ever gave me.”

“You’re very welcome,” Ben said.  “These animals will certainly make it easier to get around.”

“Yeah,” Adam agreed.  “I can go see Billy any time I’ve a mind to, and—”

“Not quite,” Ben said, his eyebrow arching.

“When you say I can, I mean,” Adam added hastily.

Ben laughed.  “That’s better.”  He gave Hoss a squeeze.  “Now, is my other boy about ready for his present?”

“Hoss gets a horse, too?” Adam cried.

“No!”  Ben shook his head, chuckling.  “What Hoss gets is a puppy.  One of the dogs at Rancho Hermosa gave birth a couple of months ago, so Mr. Payne said I could take one of the pups home to my boys.  Since you have a new horse, I figure the dog should be Hoss’s.”

“I guess that’s fair,” Adam admitted, “but I’d like a pup, too, Pa.”

“I imagine Hoss will share,” Ben said, “especially the chore of feeding and cleaning up after him.”

Adam scowled, secretly planning to teach Hoss to do his own chores.  They rode in silence for awhile, then Adam asked, “What’s Rancho Hermosa, Pa?”

“That’s the name of the Payne place,” Ben explained.  “It means ‘beautiful ranch.’”

“Ooh, I like that!” Adam bubbled.  “We should have a name like that for our place.”

“Well, I’ll put you in charge of thinking one up,” Ben said, reaching over to tousle Adam’s dark hair.

“Tree!” Hoss shouted.

“Huh?” Ben asked, looking down at the baby seated in front of him.  “What about a tree, son?”

Adam giggled.  “I think he wants to call our ranch Tree!”  Hoss’s fat chin bounced up and down.

“Surely, we can do better than that!” Ben laughed.  “Something to do with trees might be appropriate, though.”

“I’ll work on it,” Adam promised.

CHAPTER TEN

             Having a name for his ranch made Ben Cartwright feel more like a solid fixture in the community of CarsonValley, though neither he nor Adam was satisfied with the designation of Pine Tree Station.  Somehow, the name didn’t suit the lofty dreams Ben described for his son, but they’d been unable to come up with a name grand enough to match their aspirations.  For Hoss, of course, even Pine Tree Station was too much of a mouthful.  To him, home remained simply “Tree.”  The toddler’s refusal to use the full title frustrated Adam, for it pointed out the name’s inadequacy.

“Don’t worry about it, Adam,” Ben laughed.  “After all, this cabin is just temporary.  Surely, by the time we build our big house, we’ll have thought of something more appropriate.  And by that time Hoss will be better able to pronounce whatever name we choose.”  Adam couldn’t take much comfort in Ben’s words, however, for from the way his father talked, the big house was years in the future, so far removed that it seemed as substantial as a castle in the clouds.

Name aside, the ranch itself was flourishing, the cattle thriving on the rich meadow grasses.  Near the trading post the garden, larger this year than last, was sprouting bountifully in expectation of a profitable emigrant season.  Though Adam, with Billy’s reluctant help, was kept busy chopping the weeds attacking their produce, this was his favorite season of the year.  He liked the feel of the warm sun on his back, the touch of the breeze rippling his sweat-soaked shirt.  Best of all, he liked pausing now and then to look at the wild peach trees flaming with pink blossoms.  Though most Americans thought of the Great Basin as arid and barren, the CarsonValley, at least, dazzled the eye with vibrant, colorful life every spring.

Adam threw down his hoe one tranquil afternoon and walked to the bucket of water sitting in the shade of a willow.  Tossing a dipperful down his throat, Adam looked up to see Billy reaching for the dipper.  “Funny how you always get thirsty same time as me,” Adam teased.

Instead of answering, Billy dipped up some water and threw it in Adam’s face.  “You need coolin’ off,” Billy snickered.

“You, too,” Adam giggled, splashing a handful of water drops at Billy.

The incipient water fight halted abruptly when the boys saw a rider galloping recklessly toward them.  The man bounded off the horse and threw its reins to Adam.  “Where’s your pa, boy?” he demanded urgently.

“In the trading post,” Adam said.  “He and Mr. Thomas are stocking the shelves for—”  Before Adam could finish his explanation the man turned and raced toward the trading post.

Billy slapped his friend’s arm.  “Come on; let’s see what’s up.”

Adam didn’t budge.  “Maybe we better not.”

“Well, I’m going!” Billy declared.  “Stay or go, it’s all the same to me.”

Overcome by curiosity, Adam followed Billy, his steps, like his friend’s, growing stealthy as they approached the post.  Billy plastered himself against the outside wall near the door and Adam crowded close to him.  The first words they heard explained the rider’s agitation.

“Is he dead?” Ben was asking.

“Not yet,” the man said breathlessly, “but I don’t see how he can last.  Haskill shot him full of holes.”

Adam’s eyes flew wide.  Haskill was an important man at Mormon Station, a member of the governing committee.  And he’d shot a man!

“How can you be sure it’s Haskill that did the shooting, Jameson?” Ben asked.

“Well, he sure isn’t denying it!” Jameson shouted.  “Reese has got him locked up in a storeroom at his trading post and aims to hold the trial tomorrow morning.  Asked me to see that all the jury members got the word.”

“We’ll be holding court at Reese’s place?” Ben asked.

“Yeah.  Can you make it?”

“I’ll be there,” Ben promised.

“Good,” Jameson said.  “I’ve got to get over to Eagle Station to see another juror.”

“Joe Barnard,” Ben said.  Like Ben, Joseph Barnard had been selected for the jury the previous November, but until now there’d been no cases for them to try.  Ben followed Jameson outside, suddenly seeing the two boys beside the door.  “What are you doing here, Adam?” he asked sharply.

Adam bit his tongue.  “Listening, Pa,” he admitted.

“And how much did you hear?” Ben probed.

“He said Mr. Haskill shot someone,” Adam replied, “but I didn’t hear who.”

“William Byrnes,” Ben said softly, laying his hand on Adam’s neck.

“Is—is he gonna die, Pa?”

“Sounds that way, son,” Ben answered, “but we’ll sure pray otherwise.  Now you and Billy get back to the garden.”

Adam nodded and headed back to his chores at once, Billy following.  “I hope they shoot that Haskill full of holes,” Billy sputtered.

“That’s not nice,” Adam said bluntly.

“I don’t care; I liked Mr. Byrnes.  Besides, it’s Bible,” Billy insisted.  “An eye for an eye.”

Adam picked up Billy’s hoe and tossed it to him.  “Oh, hush and get to work.”

Billy rolled his eyes heavenward.  Murder and carnage going on in the valley and all Adam could think of was killing a few stinkin’ weeds!

* * * * *

Ben’s heart was heavy as he entered Reese’s trading post the next morning.  Only a few months ago a hundred men, their hopes high, had met here to establish a basis for law and order in the valley.  Now two of those in whom they’d placed the highest confidence had blighted those budding hopes, blasting them as full of holes as Byrnes’ bullet-ridden body.  Ben greeted the other members of the jury quietly, their expressions and wordless nods telling him that they, too, were shocked to silence by the sudden intrusion of violence into their peaceful community.

Reese called the jury to order.  “This is a sad day, men.  When we constituted this jury, I assumed we’d be dealing with civil matters, not criminal cases.  Now the decision before us is not a matter of property rights, but of—”

“Murder!” Jameson shouted.  “Murder, pure and simple.”

“Attempted murder,” Reese corrected the vituperative juror.

“Byrnes is still alive?” Ben whispered to Joseph Barnard, seated next to him.

Barnard nodded.  “Just barely,” he whispered back.

“It’s murder,” Jameson insisted.  “Everybody knows Byrnes can’t last much longer.”

“We can’t try a man for murder without a dead body,” John Reese protested.

“Well, we can’t keep Haskill locked up in a storeroom ‘til Byrnes kicks off,” Jameson snarled.  “His partner already tried to break him out last night.”

Ben’s heart sank further.  Washington Loomis, Haskill’s partner, had served with Ben on the committee for laws and resolutions.  Now he, too, was caught up in this morass of contention, aligning himself against the laws of civilized men.

“I understand,” Reese said.  “We aren’t equipped to confine criminals on any long-term basis, so we’ll have to deal speedily with the charges.  But we have to act lawfully.  Unless Byrnes dies during our deliberations, the charge must remain attempted murder.  Is that agreed?”  Murmurs of assent rumbled reluctantly across the room.

“Were there any witnesses to the shooting?” Joe Barnard asked.

“Just Byrnes himself,” Reese replied.  “I thought we should adjourn to his place and hear his testimony if he’s able to talk.”

“I know what happened,” Jameson snapped.  “No need to be bothering Byrnes.”

“You think you know what happened, but you weren’t there,” Reese pointed out patiently.  “Let’s take Byrnes’ statement, if possible.”

Reese’s suggestion seemed the best policy, so the others trooped down the street behind him until they reached the small cabin where William Byrnes lay——weak, wan, breathing hard.

“We’re sorry to disturb you, Bill,” Reese said, “but the jury needs to hear what happened to you.”

“Went to serve Haskill,” Byrnes gasped.  “Court notice.”

“We understand,” Reese said.  Turning to the jury, he added, “For those who don’t know, there was a dispute between Haskill and Jameson concerning water rights to an irrigation ditch.  Byrnes was acting in his capacity as sheriff to inform Haskill that he’d have to come before our court to settle the issue.”  He turned back to Byrnes.  “Tell the jury what happened when you went to see Haskill, Bill.”

Byrnes took a slow, shallow breath.  “Said no one had right——judge him——grabbed rifle——fired——again, again, again—”  Byrnes’ voice tapered off and his eyes closed.

“I don’t think we should tax him further,” Reese said.

“We’ve heard all we need,” Joe Barnard stated grimly.

Just before they left, Ben reached out to take Byrnes’ hand.  The man’s eyes fluttered open, and he smiled slightly when he saw Ben.

“You’ll be in our prayers, my friend,” Ben said softly.

“Thanks, Cartwri—”   The eyes closed again.  Ben tucked Byrnes’ hand beneath the covers and walked softly out.

Back at Reese’s trading post, Reese was trying to quiet the other jurors, some of whom were ready to pronounce Haskill guilty without further discussion.

“Anyone doubt Haskill’s the one shot poor Bill?” Jameson demanded.

No one did, but Ben raised a point.  “Was there any ill feeling between Byrnes and Haskill?” he asked.  “Anything that would make him accuse the man falsely?”  Each of the others shook his head.

“To the best of our knowledge,” Reese said, “Bill was doing the job to which we elected him and was gunned down for no other reason.”

The evidence seemed clear, and the jury quickly rendered a verdict of guilty.  A somber cloud hung over the room, and the next words cracked like lightning through the blackness of the mood.  “Haskill deserves to hang,” Jameson announced.

Murmurs of agreement were heard from some, others just as loudly denouncing Jameson’s statement.

“Not for attempted murder,” one voice shouted.  “That’s going too far.”

“Hanging’s too good for the likes of Haskill!” another hollered.

“Wait a minute!” Ben shouted.  “What Haskill deserves isn’t the point.  What authority do we have to condemn a man to death?  When all’s said and done, what we have is a squatter’s government.  Something as serious as the death penalty should only be given by real governmental authority.”

“Where are we supposed to find that?” Jameson snarled.  “We’re the only effective government there is!”

“That’s right,” Joe Barnard agreed.       “Like it or not, the decision is ours.  San Francisco found itself in the same predicament last year.  They had to take matters into their own hands and form a vigilance committee.”

“Let’s not resort to that!” Ben cried.

“Why not?” Barnard demanded.  “It worked well in California.  Cleared out the Sydney Ducks, who were causing all the trouble.”

“I know,” Ben said, “but I still say we have no right to take a man’s life without appeal to recognized legal authority.”

“You mean Salt Lake?” Jameson demanded.  “Taking Haskill that far is not practical, Cartwright; you know it isn’t.”

Ben made no response.  He knew Jameson’s point was valid, but could not consent to hanging Haskill.  Still, he had no other solution to offer.

“Look, men,” Reese reasoned.  “I agree that Haskill probably deserves to hang, but Ben is right.  If we take the law into our own hands, we may undo all we’ve tried to accomplish so far.  If Congress were to hear that lynch mobs ruled in this territory, that might push them to reject our appeal to separate from Utah.  Now, none of us wants that, do we?”

Reese’s words silenced even Jameson.  The last thing any of them wanted was to remain under control of the territorial government in Salt Lake City.

“All right,” Barnard growled.  “But maybe we can learn a lesson from the vigilantes, after all.  While they did hang several ringleaders, they just banished most of the riffraff.”

“It’s a mild penalty,” Jameson complained, “especially if Byrnes dies.”

Ben nodded sadly, but in the end the jury decided banishment was the only penalty they could risk enforcing.  Haskill, along with his partner Washington Loomis, was escorted over the hills into California and warned never to return.

William Byrnes hovered near death for nearly a week, then began, miraculously, to make a slow recovery.  But to Ben, it seemed the barrage of bullets had wounded the man’s soul more deeply than his body.  Instead of open interest in the world around him, Byrnes’ eyes held a haunted look, as though he were constantly expecting bullets to fly from some dark corner.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

             Nelly tied her green-sprigged sunbonnet snugly and, smoothing Inger’s matching smock, lifted the baby in her arms and walked out the cabin’s door.  Seeing them, Hoss immediately abandoned his pup and ran over, stretching his arms up.  “Go,” he cried.

Nelly patted his head.  “No, Sunshine, not this time.  You stay with Pa and the boys.”

Hoss’s lower lip thrust out.  “Go,” he whimpered.

Coming up behind him, Billy gave his ribs a tickle.  “What you want with an old hen party anyway?” he teased.  “Me and Adam’s got plans, and you’re a part of ‘em.”

“What kind of plans?” his ever suspicious mother demanded.

Billy turned the most innocent set of blue eyes she’d ever seen to her face.  “We was just plannin’ to help Pa and Uncle Ben all we could,” he said angelically.

Nelly’s eyes narrowed.  Helping out was rarely at the top of Billy’s list of activities for the day.  “Best help you could be is to keep Hoss occupied and happy.”

“Just what I aim to do, Ma,” Billy assured her.  “Just keep him out from underfoot.”

“All right, then,” Nelly said, still dubious.  Blowing Hoss a kiss, she walked past the corral where the men were inspecting the oxen.  “I’m headed out,” she called.  “There’s a pot of beans simmering that should be ready come dinnertime.”

“Have a good gabfest, darlin’,” Clyde called.  He grinned at Ben.  “Seems like I hardly see my good wife since them Motts moved in.”

Ben chuckled.  “Hardly surprising when you consider how starved for female company Nelly’s been.”

“Yeah, well, she’s sure makin’ up for lost time with that Eliza Ann,” Clyde snorted.  “Beans again!”

Ben had to laugh.  He was a little tired of beans himself, that being one of the staples on his menu at home.  But he didn’t resent Nelly’s helping the Motts make their cabin more livable.  The place, thrown together from boards Israel Mott had scavenged from abandoned wagon beds along the Humboldt, needed all the help it could get.  And with a new baby, Eliza Ann found it hard by herself to add the little touches that spelled home to a woman.  With helpfulness being practically Nelly’s middle name and after almost two years surrounded by nothing but men, Ben could hardly blame her for seeking every opportunity to visit another woman.  And their baby girls, born just three months apart were good company for each other, freeing the mothers to stitch curtains or hook rugs while they shared recipes and compared notes on child-rearing.

“All right, what are these ‘plans’ you and I have?” Adam demanded as soon as Billy’s mother was out of earshot.  “I don’t remember making any plans.”

Billy grinned.  “No, but Ma’d have been even more suspicious if she knew the idea was all mine.”

Adam’s brow wrinkled.  “If you’re plottin’ more mischief, Billy Thomas, so help me—”

“No mischief,” Billy said hastily.  “Just helpin’ out, like I said.”

The furrows in Adam’s brow deepened.  Like Nelly, he had no reason to trust Billy’s idea of what constituted help.  “Since when do you volunteer for extra chores?” he demanded.

Billy scowled.  “Not chores, but I got an idea to drum us up more business.  That’s helpin’, ain’t it?”

“I guess so,” Adam agreed.  “So what’s the idea?”

“I figure we ride out to meet some of them emigrants headin’ our way and sort of advertise how our post’s the best in the territory,” Billy explained.  “You know, best prices, best produce.”

A smile lifted a corner of Adam’s mouth.  Advertising sounded like a good idea, but he foresaw a problem.  “We’re supposed to be watchin’ Hoss,” he sighed.

“We take him with us,” Billy said.  “He’s the best advertisin’ we got.”

“Huh?”

“You’ll see,” Billy cackled.  “Just go ask your pa if we can go ridin’.”

Adam shrugged.  That was easy enough.  “Okay.”

“I don’t mind your taking a ride,” Ben said as soon as Adam asked, “but one of you needs to stay here to mind Hoss.”

“We were gonna take him with us,” Adam said.

Ben chuckled.  “Well, I guess your horse will hold all three, but you hang tight to your brother.”

“‘Course I will,” Adam assured his father.  He understood that keeping watch over his baby brother was always his first and most important responsibility, and he handled it the way he handled all responsibilities, with a maturity far beyond his years.

Adam raced back to the cabin.  “Billy!  We can go,” he called.

Billy poked his head out the door.  “Come clean up your brother!” he hollered.

Adam frowned.  “I thought you were watching him!”  He went inside to find his brother’s face smeared with plum jam.

“I figured we might be out past lunch time, so I was fixin’ some sandwiches,” Billy explained.  “‘Course, the bottomless pit here had to have one.”

“Okay, I’ll wash him up,” Adam said, taking Hoss’s sticky hand and leading him outside to the bucket of water set there for just such purposes.

“Where you boys headed?” Clyde called when the three were mounted.

“Just down the river a ways,” Billy yelled from his perch behind Adam.  “I fixed us a picnic, so you can have the beans to yourself.”

“Thanks a lot!” Ben guffawed.

Billy grinned and leaned forward.  “Let’s go before they ask anything else,” he whispered in Adam’s ear.  Adam tapped the gray colt’s flanks with his heels and the animal trotted forward.

The three boys rode for two hours before they spotted ten wagons circled near the Carson River for their noon break.  “Howdy, folks,” Billy called as they rode in.  He slid quickly to the ground, leaving Adam to help Hoss down and manage the horse.

“Howdy, son,” a rail-thin, brown-bearded man replied.  “Where you younguns come from?  I thought we were the first train to make it this far.”

“You are, mister; you are,” Billy assured him.  “We live here in the valley.”

“Must be from that Mormon Station we heard about,” the man’s equally skinny wife, her drab, dust-covered calico hanging tattered around her ankles, put in.  “Folks back along the trail told us there was a trading post at the base of the mountains.  Sure hope it’s close, ‘cause we’re powerful low on supplies.”

“Folks always is this late in their journey,” Billy commented sociably, “but you don’t look like Mormons.”

“We ain’t,” the man snorted, “but I reckon they’ll sell to us, Mormon or not.”

“Sure, they will,” Billy agreed quickly, “but that ain’t the best place for you, mister.”

“Didn’t know there was any other,” the woman said.

“Oh, yeah!” Billy said.  “Our folks run a post a mile this side of Mormon Station, and since you ain’t part of their church, you’d be a heap better off tradin’ with us.”

“That so?” the man chuckled, folding his arms and regarding Billy with bemused gray eyes.

“I reckon I don’t have to tell you how high Mormons price things,” Billy chattered on.  “If they did you the way they done us on our trip out in 1850, you had to pay through the nose every time you come to a ferry or trading post along the road.”

“Ain’t it the truth!” the woman cried.

“Billy!” Adam hissed under his breath.  He had a feeling his pa wouldn’t take kindly to their drumming up business by running down the competition.

Billy ignored Adam.  “Well, mister, it’s the same at Mormon Station.  Now, we run an honest American trading post.  You get fair value for your dollar when you trade with us.”

“If you got what we need,” the man probed.

“Well, sir,” Billy said warmly, “we got prime oxen, recruited from last year’s emigration, to replace these tired beasts of yourn.  ‘Course we got the usual flour and cornmeal to restock your wagons and fresh produce, too.”

“Good quality?” the emigrant’s wife queried.

Billy jerked up Hoss’s smock and patted the ample belly.  “Why, here’s proof of that!” he asserted.  “This youngun was just a scrawny thing when we come here.  You can see how he’s thrivin’ on what we grow.  We eat good at home, don’t we, Hoss?”

“Eat good!” Hoss chortled as Adam jerked his clothing down and gave Billy a stern, reproving look while the emigrant family laughed at the way Hoss’s countenance beamed when food was mentioned.

“What kind of truck you got?” the woman asked.

“Oh, green beans, turnips, taters and the sweetest watermelons you ever did eat!” Billy said, licking his lips as if the juice were running down his chin.

“Watermelon!” a tow-headed youngster cried.  “Oh, Ma!  Can we have some watermelon?  Please!”

“We’ll see, son,” his mother said.  “Depends on the price.”

“Dirt cheap,” Billy declared.

“Billy!” Adam protested, giving his friend a sharp poke in the ribs.

“Hush!” Billy hissed.

“You let your brother talk, boy,” the man said.  “He ain’t hardly said a word.”

“He ain’t my brother,” Billy said.  “He’s just, well, my cousin, you could say.”  Adam rolled his eyes.

“All right, then, let’s hear what your cousin has to say.”

Billy gave Adam a look that told him he’d better go along with Billy’s advertising spiel, but Adam felt uncomfortable with any dishonesty.  “Our prices aren’t dirt cheap,” he said, his dark eyes serious.  “Prices are high in California where we buy our supplies, and we have to charge for freighting them over the mountains, too.”

“I understand freighting costs,” the emigrant said, scrutinizing Adam’s face carefully, “but is it a fair markup?”

“Yes, sir,” Adam replied confidently.  “You’ll likely find our prices higher than you want, but they’re below what they charge at Mormon Station and that’s the truth.”

The man patted Adam’s shoulder.  “Son, I believe you; you got an honest way about you.”  He turned to grin at Billy.  “You could take a lesson from your cousin in that, sonny, but I like your spunk.  I reckon you can tell your folks we’ll be stoppin’ at their post.”

“I’ll do that,” Billy grinned, “and if you tell me how many oxen you might be needin’, we could go ahead and pick out the best.”

“What’s the goin’ rate of exchange?” the man asked.

Billy shrugged.  “Two for one, same as anywhere,” he admitted, figuring a dose of Adam’s plain, unvarnished honesty was what was called for.

The man took a quick poll of the other wagon owners in the train.  “Tell ‘em we’ll take eight,” the man said, “provided they’re in good condition.”

“Yes, sir!” Billy shouted, proud of the success of his venture.  “We’ll have ‘em waitin’ for you.  Just stick to the north side of the river and it’ll take you straight to our place.”  He grabbed Hoss to lift him into the saddle, but the toddler let loose a squeal of protest.

“Eat!” Hoss demanded, wriggling out of Billy’s grasp and heading for the emigrant’s cookfire.  “Eat!”

“No, Hoss, we got our own food,” Adam said, shame-faced.

“Now, now, I reckon we can share a mite, long as we’re close to fresh supplies,” the woman laughed.  “You boys set down and we’ll give you each a helping of salt pork and corn pone.”

Adam wasn’t sure what Pa would think of their practically inviting themselves to dinner with total strangers, but it seemed impolite to refuse.  The warm food tasted good, too.  To repay the emigrants’ hospitality, Adam and Billy donated their jam sandwiches to the children in the party.  Hoss, of course, saw no need to share his with anyone.

The emigrant train that pulled up to the Cartwright-Thomas Trading Post that afternoon was the first of a huge, hungry hoard to pass through CarsonValley that summer.  And thanks to the boys’ advertising, business was booming.  Clyde and Ben had a good laugh with many of the emigrants over the antics of the two “cousins.”

Billy had been so pleased with the results of their first effort that he used the same tactics again and again, knowing he could count on Adam to insist on spitting out the truth at just the right moment.  Billy was a sharp enough salesman to see that the contrast between his blustering braggadocio and Adam’s painfully precise pronouncements attracted business.  Everyone liked to think he’d caught the freckle-faced redhead stretching the truth, but rarely did anyone feel put off by it.  If anything, they admired the boy’s loyalty to his pa’s place and enjoyed a good laugh at his expense.  Billy didn’t mind, so long as the emigrants arrived at the trading post in good humor, ready to buy or trade.

Having succeeded in luring a significant portion of the emigrant traffic to the trading post, Billy next suggested to Adam that they ride north to persuade some of the miners in the area to pass up the small posts closer to them and bring their business to the one Billy called “the best in the West.”

“All right,” Adam agreed, “but you got to quit showin’ off my brother’s belly.”

“Aw, come on, Adam,” Billy protested.  “He’s our best sellin’ point.”

“It ain’t decent,” Adam snapped.

“He’s just a baby,” Billy snorted.  “He don’t mind his belly showin’ or his bare bottom, even, if the truth be told.”

“He stays home or I do!” Adam insisted.

“Okay, okay.  I reckon we’ll make do without him.”  Billy shook his head.  That book-crazed Adam just didn’t know a good sales technique when he saw one.

Neither of the boys, of course, felt it necessary to inform their parents of their intention.  When they rode out, the adults assumed they were going to intercept another train and sing the praises of the business.  “Push the turnips,” Clyde hollered.  “We got plenty.”  Billy gave him a wave to acknowledge the instruction.

Adam steered the gray colt along the river, as usual, for the miner’s camp, they’d been told, lay not far from the emigrant road.  Passing one train on the way, the boys stopped long enough to urge the men there to stop at the trading post, then continued downriver to the point where it turned abruptly to the northeast.  Near there, at the mouth of a ravine coming down the south side of a hill, the boys found the miners’ camp and dismounted.

“Howdy, men!” Billy called, trudging up the ravine to where two grizzle-bearded miners were panning.  “You findin’ any color?”

“Hey!  Younguns!” the older man shouted.  A child was a rare sight in mining country and almost as welcome a one as a female.

“You findin’ any color?” Billy asked again, squatting down to chat.

“Some, sonny, some,” the man answered.

“You done much pannin’, boy?” the other man asked.

“Not a lick,” Billy admitted.  “My friend there, he’s done some.”

“Not much,” Adam said, smiling shyly, “but I know how.”

“Well, here, boys,” the first miner said, generously offering them his pan and his partner’s.  “You pan awhile and you can keep half of what you find.”

“Oh, boy!” Billy shouted, completely forgetting to advertise the trading post in his excitement.  He grabbed the pan and sloshed it so hard the water sprayed out, soaking the miner who’d loaned it to him.  “Sorry, mister,” Billy grinned.  “Guess I ain’t got the hang of it yet.”

“Reckon not!” the man said, wiping his face.  “Here, let me show you.  Swish it around easy like ‘til the gravel washes away.  Now, what’s this?”  He lifted a glistening flake from the bottom of the pan.

“Gold!” Billy yelled.  “That’s what!”

Adam laughed, looking up from his own pan.  “I got some, too,” he said.

The two boys panned for about half an hour before turning the pans back to their owners.  “That’s hard work,” Billy admitted, “if you was to keep at it all day.”

“And you got to if you’re gonna make enough to buy beans,” the miner chuckled.  “You got something to tie up your dust in, boys?”

Billy frowned.  As usual, he’d ignored his mother’s frequent admonitions to carry a handkerchief.  Adam had one, though, and offered his friend the use of a corner.  “Thanks a heap, mister,” Billy said, bouncing the gold-laden handkerchief in his hand.  “Now it’s time for us to do you a favor.”

“What’s that, boy?”

“Well, sir, you’re gonna be able to buy a sight more beans at the Cartwright-Thomas Trading Post than anywhere else in the territory,” Billy boasted.  “That’s what we rode all this way to tell you.”

The miners hooted.  “Could have saved yourself the trip, boy,” the older one cackled.  “We was by your place last week and stocked up.  Didn’t see you younguns, though.”

Billy shrugged.  “Must’ve been out drummin’ up business,” he grinned.  “We just figure everyone ought to know about our place, so you spread the word to the other miners, okay?”

“Be glad to, son,” the other man said.  “Liked the prices and the way we was dealt with.”

“Thank you, sir,” Adam said.  “I’ll tell my pa you said so.”

“Which one’s your pa, boy?”

“Ben Cartwright.”

“Well, you can also tell your pa you boys are welcome to pan over here anytime you like,” the man offered.

“Yeah, the other miner agreed.  “I figure you younguns’ll act like a good luck charm.”

Adam and Billy waved good-bye and mounted the gray colt.  “Made out better than we figured,” Billy commented.

“Yeah,” Adam said, “but I don’t know what Pa’s gonna say about me mining.”

When Ben found out, he was mildly annoyed.  “I don’t want you traipsing all over the countryside, Adam.  I assumed you went out to talk to the emigrants.”

“We did that, too, Pa,” Adam said hurriedly.  “We just went a little further than usual.”

“Quite a bit further,” Ben said bluntly, then reached out to rumple Adam’s black hair.  “No harm done, I suppose, but in the future I want to know exactly where you’re going, son.”

“Okay, Pa.  Is it all right to do some more mining?”

“Once in a while,” Ben agreed, “but I’d rather you stuck closer to home most days.”

The boys spent about one day a week that summer at the miners’ camp, and by the end of the season each had stashed away a few ounces of gold dust.  There wasn’t much except food to spend it on this side of the mountains, of course, and while Ben and Clyde teasingly talked of charging the boys room and board, neither youngster took the threat seriously.  Both Adam and Billy planned at the earliest opportunity to hit the stores in Sacramento feeling like millionaires.

Most of their time was spent in the garden.  Just after the summer solstice it was time to replant, Nelly wanting to keep fresh vegetables on the table as long as possible.  So Billy and Adam did less advertising and mining and more hoeing, as they had in the spring.  One day when they were out riding, though, they saw a cloud of dust too large to be an emigrant train.  Riding closer, they grew excited and raced back to the trading post.  They both tried to leap out of the saddle at the same time and ended up sprawled on the ground in a tangle of legs.

“Pa!” Adam shouted, scrambling to his feet.

“What is it, Adam?  What’s wrong?” his father cried.

“Nothing, Pa,” Adam panted.  “It’s sheep——thousands and thousands of them.”

“Sheep?  You sure, boy?” Clyde asked.  “C. D. Jones is running a few in the valley, but nowhere near that many.”

“Thousands,” Billy affirmed, “and headed this way, Pa.”

“That’s a sight I’d like to see,” Clyde said.

“Take my horse,” Ben offered.  “I’ll hold down the fort.”

Clyde grinned, saddled Ben’s bay and took off with Billy, on Adam’s horse, to lead the way.  “What’d you find out?” Ben asked when his partner returned.

“The boys was right,” Clyde said.  “Man named Dick Wootton is bringing some nine thousand head to Sacramento.  Says he bought ‘em for a dollar a head in New Mexico, and figures he can get five or ten in California.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised.”

“Told him I’d take ten head off his hands,” Clyde reported.  “Nelly’ll be glad of the wool, and I figure you and me can trade some beef for mutton.”

“All right by me,” Ben laughed.  “I like a little variety in my diet.  But you keep your woolies away from my cattle.  I hear the two don’t mix.”

“Don’t know,” Clyde said.  “Don’t know much about sheep, but if there’s that kind of profit in it, might be worth drivin’ a herd over the hills.”

“Not this season,” Ben chuckled.  “We’ve got our hands full, thanks to our enterprising sons.”

“Ain’t it the truth?” Clyde cackled.

The “enterprising sons” so enhanced their fathers’ business, in fact, that an extra trip had to be made over the Sierras for supplies.  Ben did the traveling, as usual during their busy season, for Clyde’s skill as a blacksmith made it more profitable for him to stay in the valley.  Billy, eager to spend his gold dust, raised such a ruckus about being left behind that Ben finally agreed to take him, too, and for once Billy was on his good behavior.

“I want to get my ma somethin’ special,” he announced.  “You got any ideas, Uncle Ben.”

“No, but I’ll help you look,” Ben promised.  “Is this a Christmas present or just ‘cause you’re feeling rich and generous?”

“I’d sure like to save it back for Christmas,” Billy said, “but I ain’t got no place to hide stuff where Ma won’t look.”

Ben laughed.  “You can stash it at my place, boy.  Adam, what do you plan to spend your wealth on?”

Adam grinned sheepishly.  “Books, mostly.  Maybe some candy for Hoss, too.”

Ben gave the boy’s shoulder a proud squeeze.  “I think that’d be real thoughtful.”

“Yeah, I want a bunch of candy, too,” Billy declared.

Ben lifted an eyebrow.  “For your mother?”  He exploded with laughter at the look on Billy’s face.

Their purchases successfully made, the trio returned home and settled back into the summer’s routine of equipping emigrant trains for the final trek across the Sierras.  September found them busier than anyone wanted to be.  Emigrants continued to pour up the Carson River, and in between servicing them, there was corn to pick, as well as the last of the green vegetables.  Clyde and Ben had spent odd hours digging a root cellar to store carrots, potatoes, onions and other root vegetables where they wouldn’t freeze during the winter.  Later, they’d dig another at Ben’s place, but for now all the spare vegetables went into this one.

Though snow rarely fell in the mountains until November, the settlers commonly made their final trip west for winter supplies during October.  “Let the Mormons handle the stragglers,” Clyde announced.  “I aim to do me some special shoppin’ this trip.”

Ben, too, wanted to make some extra purchases for Christmas, so he and Clyde went all the way to San Francisco this time, leaving the two boys home to harvest and store the pumpkins.  Everywhere they went there was talk of the upcoming presidential election.  Franklin Pierce was running on the Democratic ticket against Winfield Scott, Vice-president Millard Fillmore having been refused the nomination of his party because of his support for the Fugitive Slave Act.

“That’ll split the Whigs down the middle,” Ben commented.  “Pierce is sure to win.”

“Yeah, especially with that snappy campaign slogan he’s got,” Clyde cackled.

Ben laughed.  The slogan, “We Polked you in 1844; we’ll Pierce you in 1852” did have a certain flair, though that was no reason to vote for a man.  Actually, whoever won the election, national politics were likely to have little effect on their lives in Carson Valley, but politics was a topic the men liked to discuss as much as Nelly enjoyed her home-and-hearth talks with Eliza Mott.

CHAPTER TWELVE

             As soon as the emigrant season ended, Ben went to work on his planned improvements.  With Clyde’s help, he first dug a root cellar and moved his share of the produce to his own place.  Then he added another room to the cabin, extending it back from the northeast corner and cutting a door from his own bedroom by which to enter it.

Adam was profuse in his praise of the new arrangement.  “I didn’t want to say anything,” he commented, “but I was getting awfully old to sleep in a trundle.”

“Were you?” Ben chuckled.  “Yeah, well, I guess so.  You sure act more grown up than that.  Pa should have noticed sooner, huh?”

Adam gave his father a quick hug.  “Oh, no, Pa.  I understand.  The ranch comes first.”

Ben stooped down to wrap the boy in his arms.  “No, Adam.  Never.  You and Hoss come first.  The ranch means nothing unless it’s for my boys.  It’s just that Pa can’t give you everything he dreams of at once.”

Adam rubbed his smooth cheek against his father’s stubbled one.  “Dreams take time, huh, Pa?”

Ben laughed as he stood up.  “That’s right; that’s my mature young man.”  He swooped Hoss up in his arms.  “And how does my little boy like his new bed?”

Two-year-old Hoss looked perplexed, not understanding the changes taking place.  That night, when Ben tucked him in his new bed, Hoss wailed.  “Now, what’s wrong?” Ben cooed, sitting on the edge of the bed to cuddle his younger son.

Hoss stretched his arms toward Adam, who was just crawling beneath the covers of the bed on the opposite wall.

“No, you have your own bed now,” Ben explained, “like a big boy.”  Hoss frowned eloquently as Ben laid him down again and tucked the covers snugly up to his chin.  Ben gave each of the boys a kiss and went into the front room to read a little before turning in.

Hoss threw the covers back and slipped to the floor.  Toddling over to the other bed, he slapped Adam’s blanketed shoulder.  “Bubba!” he whispered.

Adam rotated his shoulder, irritated.  “Go back to your own bed, Hoss!” he ordered.

“Sleep Bubba,” Hoss insisted.

Adam rolled over and sat up.  “No, you can’t sleep with brother.  You’re too big to act like such a baby, Hoss.  I like having a bed to myself, and you’re just gonna have to accept it.”

A big tear ran down Hoss’s cheek.  Adam groaned.  Not that, anything but that.  “Look, Hoss,” he pleaded, “be a big boy and brother will take you down to the creek tomorrow and you can go wading.”

“Pomish?” Hoss begged, his eyes brightening.

“Yes, I promise.  Now, back into bed before Pa catches you.”

Hoss wasn’t sure what would happen if his father caught him out of bed.  Adam made it sound ominous, however, so Hoss scooted back under the covers, clinging to the stuffed dog Nelly had made him for Christmas until he fell asleep.  He wasn’t entirely happy with the new arrangement, missing the comfort of Adam’s warm body pressed close to his own.  Adam, on the other hand, was only too happy to relinquish the sensation of a damp diaper plastered up against him.  Hoss had finally made his acquaintance with the outhouse, but only during daytime hours.  At night he slept right through the dampness, so diapering him still seemed the wisest choice.

Ben was not the only one in the community making improvements in his property.  Israel Mott and John Reese had secured a franchise from the squatter government to construct a toll bridge over the Carson River.  Clyde grumbled loudly about Mormons setting up their own government, then assigning themselves the privilege of collecting tolls.  “It’s the Overland Trail all over again,” he groused.

Ben just laughed.  “You have to admit these Mormons are an enterprising lot,” he said.  “At least, the government has set a limit to the tolls they can charge; besides, the contract also calls for them to improve the road up the mountains.  That, my friend, is worth paying for!”

Clyde knew Ben had a point, but he wouldn’t admit it.  In his opinion, give a Mormon an inch and he was bound to take the whole territory; so concession was out of the question, regardless of the facts.

As the Cartwrights and Thomases met to share a Thanksgiving meal, even Clyde was forced to concede that they had much for which to be thankful.  It had been a profitable year, and not just financially.  The community was growing, and most of the settlers were the kind they were proud to call neighbors, even though they did increase the Mormon majority.  Looking back over the previous year, both Ben and Clyde found much to be grateful for and much to look forward to, as well.

The boys, of course, looked no further forward than Christmas.  Even Hoss seemed to anticipate the holiday this year.  When Adam told him tales about Santa Claus, his blue eyes sparkled with remembrance and he ran to pat his Noah’s Ark sitting in the corner nearest his bed.  “Santa!” he chortled.

“That’s right,” Adam said.  “That’s what Santa brought you last year, and this year there’ll be new presents beneath the tree.”  Adam paused and looked soberly at Hoss.  “If you’ve been a good boy, that is.”

Hoss’s fat chin bobbed repeatedly up and down.  “Good boy!” he announced.

“Pretty good, I guess,” Adam grinned.  “Santa’ll probably bring you something nice.”

Early on Christmas Eve Ben dragged in the tree and set it in place beside the front door.  Squealing, Hoss ran to bury his face in the branches, caressing the fragrant boughs with his chubby cheeks.

Ben chuckled.  “My, you do love trees, don’t you, Hoss?”

Hoss looked up at his father.  Pulling one of the spiny branches, he chirped, “Birdies, Pa!  ‘Tars!”

Ben tossed the boy to his shoulder.  “You remember, do you?  Yes, we’ll put birds and stars in the branches again.”

“Pwitty,” Hoss declared.

“Prettier than ever,” Adam announced as he brought the popcorn garland he’d strung to drape across the branches.  He and his father had been busy the last couple of weeks carving and painting more birds, bells and stars to hang on the tree.  This year there were enough to satisfy even Adam, but he hung a few pinecones, too, just for tradition’s sake.

Soon all the ornaments decked the tree except the tin star for the top.  “Let Hoss put it up,” Adam offered.  “I got to last year.”

“He’ll probably need help,” Ben said, smiling approval at his older son’s unselfish suggestion, “so you stand in a chair on the other side while I lift him up.”

Adam dragged his chair into position and mounted it.  “Ready, Pa,” he announced.

Ben closed Hoss’s fingers around the star and lifted the chunky toddler to his shoulder.  “On the very top, Hoss,” he instructed.

Hoss seemed to remember where the gold-painted star went.  Leaning over, he could reach the upright stem, but as Ben had predicted, his fingers lacked the dexterity to pull the spiral wire down over it.  Adam reached out to guide Hoss’s fingers, but it was obvious from the way Hoss clapped afterwards that he felt he’d done it all by himself.

As soon as his feet touched the floor, Hoss dropped to his knees and began crawling under the tree.  “Hoss, you get out from there!” Adam ordered.

Hoss peered out from beneath a drooping pine branch.  “Santa!” he explained.

Ben dragged the reluctant toddler from his quest.  “Santa’s not under there, son,” he chuckled, then dropping his voice to a whisper, “Santa won’t come ‘til you’re sound asleep.”

Hoss grabbed Adam’s hand and started to pull him toward their shared room.  “Bed,” he demanded.

Adam pulled his hand free.  “Too early,” Adam snorted.

“You haven’t had your supper yet,” Ben said persuasively.  “You want to eat, don’t you, Hoss?”

For a moment Hoss looked confused.  He was eager for Santa to come, but he’d never turned down a meal in his life.  “Eat!” he decided.  “Eat now!”

Ben laughed.  “Eat soon, yes.  Then, a story; then, bedtime.”

After supper Ben brought out the small volume of Dickens’ Christmas tale and began to read.  This year even Hoss stayed awake through the visit of all three Christmas spirits, although he seemed more interested in the bowl of popcorn he and Adam shared than in the fate of Tiny Tim.

Hoss needed no urging to scramble out of bed the next morning.  Just the mention of Santa brought all his eager expectations flooding back and he charged through the door into his father’s bedroom, trotting past a still slumbering Ben.

Adam pulled him back before he could reach the next doorway.  “No, Hoss; wait for Pa.”

Hoss ran back to swat his father’s leg.  “I’m awake,” Ben yawned.  “Just give me a moment to get conscious.”  Smiling then, he said, “Merry Christmas, boys.”

“Merry Christmas, Pa,” Adam grinned.  “Hoss is in a hurry this morning.”

“So I see,” Ben chuckled, grabbing his toddler and tossing him on the bed.  “You let Pa get his britches on; then we’ll see what Santa’s brought my boys.”

“Good boy,” Hoss chirped.

“Yes, yes,” Ben agreed, slipping his legs through the brown trousers Adam tossed him.  “Both of you are very good boys and Pa’s real proud.”  Ben took the tan shirt from its peg on the wall and motioned toward the door.  “Lead the way; I’ll follow,” he said, sticking one arm in its sleeve.

Adam grinned and took Hoss’s hand.  “Let’s see what Santa brought,” he whispered.

“Santa!” Hoss crowed and ran to the tree, snatching the first knobby bundle he saw.

“Not that!” Ben shouted.  “That’s brother’s.”  He picked up a brown paper-wrapped package from the opposite side of the tree.  “This one’s yours.”  Hoss eagerly tore into the package.

Soon that package and all its companions were opened and the contents of the two stockings hanging from the mantel dumped on the dining table.  Hoss clearly liked the candy in his stocking best of all, but he laughed happily as Ben helped him work the jointed wooden bear so it would climb a rope, and he was ecstatic as he galloped around the room on the stick pony his father had made.

Adam examined his gifts more quietly.  “Not disappointed, I hope,” his father queried.

Adam looked up and smiled.  “Oh, no, Pa.”  He lifted the harmonica.  “This’ll be fun to play, except I’m not sure how.”

“Yes, I was hoping to find an instruction book, but no such luck,” Ben sympathized.  “All I know is that you make sounds by blowing into the instrument and others by sucking air out.”

Adam blew into the instrument, producing a couple of wavering notes.  “I’ll figure it out,” he grinned, “and then I’ll play you a real tune.”

“I’ll be looking forward to it,” Ben said.  “I know the books may be a little grown up for you, too, boy, but it’s the best I could do.  San Francisco stores don’t stock many books at all, much less ones that are aimed at children.”

“I’m not a child, Pa,” Adam protested, “and I read real well.”

“That you do,” Ben said proudly, “but if Sir Walter Scott proves a little hard, you just ask and I’ll help.”

After breakfast the Cartwrights prepared to go to the Thomases for Christmas dinner.  Because they had gifts to carry there (and presumably back) Ben put Adam’s small prairie schooner to work again.  Piling the gifts inside, he set Hoss, bundled in the blue-hooded flannel wrapper that Nelly Thomas had made him, in the middle with strict instructions not to open any of them.  Then he tied a rope to the wagon and held the other end as he mounted his bay gelding.  “You ride behind so you can keep an eye on Hoss,” Ben said, turning to Adam, seated on his gray.

“Okay, Pa,” Adam promised.

Pulling the wagon slowed their trip, of course, but they still arrived in time to exchange gifts before dinner.  Adam and Hoss each received a small wooden chest, on the ends of which were carved pine trees with each boy’s name surrounded by pine cones on the front.

“Seein’ as how we got such rich younguns,” Clyde drawled, “I figured they could use a trunk to keep their gear in.”

“Aw, Pa, we ain’t got that much stuff,” Billy sniffed.

Ben laughed.  “I’d liked to have had half the toys you youngsters have when I was young!”

“You can say that again,” Clyde snorted.  “Only question is whether I made the chest too small to hold all your things, boy.”

“I got one, too,” Billy confided to Adam, “but mine’s got a cabin on the ends and the river with willows bending over it on the front with my name.”

“I want to see,” Adam demanded.

“Now, you best look inside them chests first,” Clyde snickered.

“There’s more?” Adam said, kneeling down to open his chest.  The “more” proved to be only a new set of clothes fashioned by Nelly’s needle and the usual knitted cap and mittens, but Adam said thank you politely.  He didn’t get new clothes often enough to take them for granted, even if they didn’t excite him quite as much as books and toys.  Hoss’s chest held clothes, too, as well as a small plain bowl.

“To feed your pup,” Clyde explained and Hoss grinned.  “I’d carve his name on it, if you’d ever think one up.”

“Pup,” Hoss insisted, for that was all he ever called the dog.

“Face it, Clyde,” Ben laughed.  “That’s the dog’s name.”

“I reckon,” Clyde cackled.  “Okay, Pup it is; I’ll carve ‘er for you after dinner.”

“Oh, Clyde, it’s Christmas,” Ben protested.  “You don’t have to—”

“Won’t take long,” Clyde said, as if that settled the question.

“Hey, Uncle Ben!” Billy called as he started to go into his room to show Adam his chest.  “Did you bring my present for Ma?”

“My present?” Nelly asked, her brown eyes widening.

“Yes, ma’am,” Billy declared proudly, prancing back to take the small package Ben was holding out.  He gave it to his mother.  “I bought it with my own gold dust, Ma, and Uncle Ben’s been hidin’ it for me.”

“Oh, my!” Nelly said, overcome with joy at her boy’s remembrance.  Her eyes sparkled even brighter as she unwrapped the package and drew out a lacy white scarf.  “Oh, my!” she said again, this time overwhelmed by the exquisite craftsmanship.

“It’s a mantilla,” Ben explained, “like the Spanish ladies in California wear.”

“Ain’t it purty, Ma?” Billy pressed.  “Like you,” he added, planting a shy kiss on her cheek.

Nelly blushed furiously.  “Lands, boy, this finery’s a heap prettier than me.  Much too pretty to wear over my tousled head.”

“Ma, you gotta!” Billy protested.  “I got it so you’d look extra fancy when you go sashayin’ over to Miz Mott’s.”

“And so I shall, boy,” Nelly replied, giving her boy a squeeze.  “This is too light to wear for winter, but come spring I’ll sashay like a fine lady and make Eliza Ann pea-green with envy.”

Billy grinned and, giving a satisfied nod, left to show Adam his Christmas riches.

Ben Cartwright, too, felt rich as he and the boys returned home that evening after a sumptuous dinner of roast goose and other favorite foods.  It wasn’t just the contents of his stomach or of the little red, blue and white wagon that made him feel that way, either, though both were bulging.  Ben felt himself rich in the love of his sons and the warmth of friendship, treasures too vast to fit in any wagon, even one of the huge Conestogas after which Adam’s small replica had been fashioned.  These were riches, too, that would not be depleted, no matter what the upcoming year might bring.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

              The first three months of 1853 were a peaceful interlude between busier times.  While Adam watched Hoss each day, trying to fit in a little study time between his brother’s demands, Ben tended to needed chores, including the building of a corner cabinet for their dishware, and rode out to check on his herd.  It was doing well.  Though the wind could be sharp and the air cold, winter was generally mild on the valley floor; and adult animals, while they didn’t exactly flourish, held their own with the available grasses.  The only cattle at risk were newborn calves, but Ben lost just two to winter kill that year.

The only noteworthy event of the season occurred in February just before Adam’s tenth birthday.  Their request for status as a separate territory having been rejected, forty-three residents of Carson Valley, Ben among them, petitioned the California legislature to annex the valley for judicial purposes.  Like the previous request, this one, too, was destined to be declined.  Feeling the state of California was too large already, Congress refused to increase its boundaries.

Beyond that, the only events were family ones:  Sunday dinners with the Thomases, a joint birthday party for Billy and Adam, and a small celebration to commemorate little Inger’s first year of life.  Simple events, unnoted by the world, unrecorded in history, but the kind that make up the fabric of life.  To Ben, however, that fabric was not the plain homespun it might have seemed to outsiders; to him, it was tapestry so beautiful it might have graced the palace of a king.

The trading season began with a boom.  In earlier years Ben and Clyde had enjoyed the luxury of slow preparation for the supply-depleted emigrant trains that arrived each summer, eager to purchase whatever provisions were available.  There’d been time to plant crops, travel over the mountains to lay in supplies, even harvest some of the produce, before the first customers darkened the door to the trading post.

This year, however, Ben and Clyde had customers to service almost as soon as they brought their first load of supplies across the Sierra Nevadas.  There’d always been a few prospectors, of course, who traveled eastward with the first thaw, hoping to find in Utah the El Dorado that had evaded them in California.  This spring, Ben estimated, almost two hundred men were searching nearby ravines for traces of color; and while the miners had brought supplies with them, they soon needed more.  Most patronized the trading post at Eagle Station or Spafford Hall’s place at the mouth of the ravine where they were prospecting, but a significant number made the longer trip to give their business to Ben and Clyde.  As Billy had pointed out on his advertising ventures, the miners’ gold dust bought more beans and bacon at their trading post than in the others.

Billy and Adam didn’t need to advertise to keep their fathers busy this year; and that was just as well, for with the men occupied in almost full-time merchandising, to the boys fell the responsibility of the garden.  Adam accepted it proudly, enjoying the feeling that he was contributing to the family income.  Billy, on the other hand, mourned for the carefree freedom of the previous summer.  “Pa finally gets me a horse,” he grumbled, “and I got too much hoein’ to take time to ride!”

The hoeing paid off, though, when the boys harvested the first green beans and turnip greens.  Not only did they enjoy the fresh vegetables after a long winter of mostly meat and potatoes, but they had enough to sell.  Once the word spread, miners flocked to the Cartwright-Thomas trading post, as well as to Mormon Station, for the other traders didn’t bother growing produce.

One afternoon a pair of blond-haired, blue-eyed youths walked in.  “We heard you had fresh garden greens,” the taller of the two said.

Ben smiled at the ruddy-cheeked Grosch brothers.  “Hosea, Ethan,” he said.  “I hadn’t heard you were back in the territory.”  The Grosch brothers had done some prospecting the spring of 1851, but hadn’t returned the following year.

“Yes, we’re back,” Ethan Allan replied.

“Havin’ any luck?” Clyde asked amiably.

“Enough to buy fresh beans, if you have them,” Hosea Ballou chuckled.

“Well, you’re in luck,” Clyde said, nodding as Adam and Billy carried a basket of green pods through the door.  “Just got in a fresh shipment.”  He slapped his knee, more tickled by his own joke than anyone else was.

“A couple of sturdy young freighters you have here,” Ethan grinned.

“Hi, Mr. Grosch,” Adam smiled back.  He remembered the personable brothers from two summers back.  They’d always spoken kindly to him, and he liked them.

“The beans look wonderful,” Hosea put in.  “We’ll take three pounds, please.”

“Forget the beans,” a thick voice slurred from the corner.  “Take my advice and have some of this top notch beer.  Valley Tan don’t hold a candle to it.”

Ben frowned.  He hadn’t counted on attracting customers like James Finney when he’d brought back two kegs of Stefán Zuebner’s home-brewed beer, but Finney seemed to have a built-in magnet for liquor.  The beer was good, and Ben didn’t mind stocking some for the miners in the community, but he had no intention of running a saloon for the likes of James Finney.  Fortunately, the man was rarely a successful enough miner to afford the price of a drink.

“The beer is good quality,” Ben said quietly, “if you boys would care to try a glass.  A friend of ours over in Placerville brews it.”

“Thank you, but no,” Ethan Allan refused graciously.  “Our father, being a minister, didn’t allow us to touch spirits, and we’ve never acquired the taste.”

Ben nodded, respecting the Grosches even more than before.  He couldn’t help wishing Finney had had a father like theirs.

Clyde handed the older Grosch brother the beans he’d weighed out.  “Anything else, fellers?” he asked.

“We are a little low on cornmeal and bacon,” Hosea said.

“How ‘bout eggs?  We got half a dozen we could spare,” Clyde offered.

“Ah, yes, that would be a treat,” Ethan said.  “We’ll take them, too.”

Finney stumbled across the room to slap Ethan on the back.  “You fellers must be makin’ out good to buy such fancy grub,” he sputtered.

“We just came well prepared,” Hosea said calmly.  “We intend to prospect in a scientific manner, and that takes time.”

“Hosea!” his brother interrupted sharply.  “There is no need to bore these gentlemen with our plans.”

Adam’s ears had pricked up at the word ‘scientific.’  “Could I come see you sometime?” he asked eagerly.

“Adam,” Ben chided softly.

“That’s all right, Mr. Cartwright,” Ethan said quickly.  “Of course, Adam, you will be welcome any time.”

“Don’t you boys have more beans to pick?” Clyde asked pointedly.

“Yes, sir,” Billy moaned, “and corn to hoe.”  Shuffling outside, Billy grabbed Adam’s elbow.  “What you aim to do at the Grosches?” he demanded.

“I just want to find out what they meant by scientific mining,” Adam explained.

Billy groaned.  “I might’ve known.  Always playin’ the smarty britches.”

“Well, I’d rather have smart britches than be a dumb donkey,” Adam snapped.

“Oh, go grab a hoe,” Billy grumbled.  “I ain’t fixin’ to fuss today and chance missin’ that peach cobbler Ma’s makin’ for supper.”

Adam grinned, in total agreement with Billy on that point, if on no other.

* * * * *

“And they have all this equipment to test the ore with,” Adam mumbled.  Having been given time off from his chores, he had been to visit the Grosch brothers that Saturday afternoon and could hardly contain his enthusiasm for the information about mining he’d gleaned.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Ben chided gently.

Adam chewed his current mouthful carefully and swallowed before speaking again.  “They tested some while I was there, too, Pa.”

“Well, was it high quality ore?” Ben asked, amused, but proud of his son’s perpetual quest for new knowledge.

Adam shook his head knowingly.  “It showed some color,” he stated, “but not enough to rate it a bonanza.”

“Bonanza?” Ben queried.

“That’s what Old Frank said,” Adam explained.  Old Frank Antonio was a Mexican who, some said, knew more about mining than all the other prospectors thrown together.  “He said a bonanza is what they call a really fine strike, the kind that’ll make men rich.”

“I see,” Ben said, reaching over the wipe Hoss’s messy face.  “You through, baby?”

“Mo’ peas, Pa,” Hoss demanded.  “Taters, too.”  Now that he was almost three, Hoss’s vocabulary was growing rapidly, especially in words that designated foods.

“Pa, you speak Spanish, don’t you?” Adam asked as his father dished the requested items into Hoss’s plate.

“Some,” Ben replied, then chuckled.  “I didn’t know ‘bonanza,’ and that’s Spanish, isn’t it?”

Adam grinned.  “Yeah.  I was just wondering ‘cause Old Frank said something else I didn’t understand, but Mr. Ethan wouldn’t let him explain.  You know what ‘mucha plata’ means?”

Ben’s brow wrinkled in thought; then he shook his head.  “Sorry, Adam, but I don’t.  I think ‘mucha’ means ‘much,’ but I don’t recognize the other word.”

“Gold, maybe?” Adam suggested.

“Ben laughed.  “Mercy, no!  The word for gold is ‘oro;’ that much I know.”

Adam shrugged.  “I just couldn’t figure out why Mr. Ethan didn’t want me to know, unless it had to do with gold they’d found.”

Ben tweaked Adam’s classic Roman nose.  “Maybe he thought a certain little boy was sticking this too far into his business.”

“Oh, Pa,” Adam snorted.  “That’s not it.  He showed me all his mining books and everything.  They got a whole shelf full, Pa!”

“All on mining?” Ben asked.

“Yeah,” Adam said, his eyes wide with wonder at the memory of the rough plank sagging beneath the weight of all those books.  “I asked if I could borrow one, but—”

“Adam,” Ben scolded.  “I thought I’d taught you better manners than that.”

Adam gulped.  “I guess I got a little excited, Pa, but it doesn’t matter.  Mr. Hosea said the books would be too techni——well, hard——for me, anyway.  I looked at one, and he was right.”

“You help me get these dishes cleaned up and I’ll read you some Shakespeare,” Ben offered.  “I dare say, you’ll enjoy that more than any dry mining text, my boy.”

Adam stood at once and began to clear the table.  The night before his father had left off reading Macbeth at an exciting part, and he was eager to see how the play ended.

* * * * *

The population of western Utah increased in early June with the arrival of several settlers from Salt Lake City.  “Brigham Young’s scared spitless us gentiles is gonna have some say in our own government,” Clyde groused.  “So scared he’s got to send in fresh recruits.”

Ben turned from the shelf where he was busily arranging tins of oysters and salmon.  He’d brought back a few on his last trip west to test the market among the miners, who seemed to relish such things as an occasional treat.  “He didn’t send enough to make much difference, my friend,” Ben said, his lips twitching

But there was no appeasing Clyde Thomas.  “There’ll be more,” he prophesied morosely and went back to studying Ben’s last move on the chessboard they kept set up in the trading post.  He and Ben had been taking turns handling the supplies and moving their chess pieces; but so far Ben, with his annoying habit of quickly countering Clyde’s long-pondered moves, was doing more of the actual work of the trading post.

“Maybe,” Ben mused, turning back to his task, “but from what the Ellises said, the governor didn’t want to send too many, lest they be corrupted by the lust for gold.”

“Ain’t workin’ too well with them, is it?” Clyde taunted.

Ben chuckled.  Laura and James Ellis had taken up land less than two miles from the canyon where most of the mining activity was taking place.  Like Clyde, Ben suspected the temptation to neglect the needs of their farm to go prospecting might prove too strong.  The Ellises seemed like sound folk, however, as witnessed by the sturdy log cabin they were building——a far cry from the huts of canvas and sagebrush the miners generally erected.  Maybe, if they did succumb to gold fever, they’d get over it quickly and settle down to become good neighbors.

Absorbed in their own thoughts, neither Ben nor Clyde noticed the entrance of a third man until his long shadow fell across the chessboard.  Clyde looked up to see Paul Martin, one of the valley’s newer residents, staring at the game pieces.  “Got a customer, Ben,” Clyde drawled dourly and bent over once more to study the board.

Ben smiled as he recognized the smooth-featured man, whose weary, shuffling walk made him seem so much older than Ben knew he could be.  Though probably only a few years older than Ben, the miner’s dark brown hair was already touched with silver at the temples.  “What can I help you with, Mr. Martin?” he asked.

“Coffee,” Martin replied laconically.  His words, like his soundless step, always seemed calculated to draw the least possible attention to himself.

“How much?” Ben queried.

Martin seemed lost in his appraisal of the chessboard.  “Huh?” he said, his attention jerking back to Ben.

“How much coffee did you want?” Ben repeated patiently.

“Oh—uh—about three pounds, I guess,” Martin mumbled, frowning as he saw Clyde move his rook with a satisfied grin and stand up.  Martin shook his head in evident disapproval of Clyde’s decision.

Ben caught the gesture at once.  It was the first time he’d seen the tall miner show interest in anything.  Usually, Martin’s gray eyes seemed sad, almost haunted, but a spark of life had flickered in them while he watched the board.  Scooping out three pounds of coffee beans, Ben asked.  “Do you play chess, Mr. Martin?”

Martin shrugged as he took the small paper cone of coffee beans.  “Used to.”

“Like to play you sometime,” Ben suggested.

“I ain’t givin’ you enough competition, am I?” Clyde snorted.

“Not with moves like that one,” Ben laughed as he walked from the behind the counter, moved one piece and announced, “Checkmate, my friend.”  A trace of a smile touched Martin’s lips and he gave Ben an almost imperceptible nod of approval.

“Doggone!” Clyde sputtered.  “Now, why didn’t I see that comin’?”

“Martin did,” Ben replied with a maddening grin.  He softened his expression as he addressed the miner.  “Board’s available, if you’d like a match,” he offered.

“Uh—no—uh—got to be going,” Martin stammered.  “Work to do.”

Ben’s smile faded.  Of all the men who’d come east this spring, Paul Martin seemed the least likely to succeed as a miner.  The newly-formed blisters on his hands revealed that he wasn’t used to handling a pick and pan, and he never spoke about making a big strike the way most miners did.  Martin seemed satisfied to pan just enough to keep himself fed, though from the way his clothes hung on him, not as well as he’d been accustomed to.  Ben knew the fumbled statement of having work to do was simply an excuse to avoid human contact.

“Why not come by my place this Saturday evening then?” Ben suggested quietly.  “Have a bite to eat and a good game?  A man deserves a little entertainment after a hard week’s work.”

Martin started to shake his head, but Ben continued before he had a chance to decline the invitation.  “You’d be doing me a favor,” Ben said.  “I’d relish a good, challenging game for a change.”

“Humph!” Clyde snorted.  “Guess I know when I ain’t appreciated.”

Ben frowned, but ignored the comment.  He’d deal with Clyde’s ruffled feathers later.  “How about it?” he pressed the miner.

“Yeah, okay,” Martin muttered, clutching his package of coffee with tense fingers and exiting quickly.

“Reckon I ought to be grateful to you for puttin’ up with my poor play long as you did,” Clyde grumbled when the miner had left.

Ben laid a firm hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “It’s got nothing to do with the way you play, Clyde,” he said.  “For a beginner you do real well, but that man’s in need of company.  A miner’s lot is a lonely one, but he carries it to extremes.”

Clyde grinned.  “Them two boys ain’t handful enough, huh?  You got to play mother hen to every lost soul comes along?”

Ben shrugged.  “Someone has to.  Now, seeing as how the sun’s directly overhead, I suggest we see what your good wife has prepared for us.”

“I already know,” Clyde groaned.  “She’s over to Eliza Ann’s this morning.  Beans, bah!”

* * * * *

“Put your books away and set the table, Adam,” Ben dictated Saturday evening just as the sun was setting.

“I’m almost done, Pa,” Adam murmured, not looking up from his arithmetic book.

“Adam, put it away,” Ben ordered more sharply.

There was no missing what that tone meant, so Adam promptly closed the book and slid it back onto the lowest bookshelf.  Taking four tin plates from the cupboard, he set them on two sides of the table.  “Sure smells good, Pa,” he said approvingly.  “You must really want to impress Mr. Martin.”

Ben chuckled.  “Mostly, Adam, I just want to give him a good meal.  I fancy he doesn’t pan enough gold to buy more than beans and bacon.  In fact, I know he doesn’t unless he’s been buying them from someone else.”

Hoss tugged on his father’s pants leg.  “Eat soon?” he queried.  Like Adam, he found the aroma of roasting sage grouse so appealing he couldn’t wait to sink his teeth into it.

Ben had gotten precise instructions from Nelly Thomas on how to make the dressing, and she’d even measured out the spices he’d need and wrapped them in a bit of cloth.  That made the preparation even easier, and Ben felt confident the result would taste better than anything Paul Martin had eaten in months.

Hoss yanked harder on his father’s trousers.  “Eat soon?” he repeated more urgently.

“As soon as our company comes,” Ben said, giving the boy’s tawny hair a kindly ruffle.  Almost immediately a rap sounded on the cabin’s door.  “Get that, would you, Adam?” Ben asked.

“Sure,” Adam said.  He trotted to the door and opened it.  “Come in, Mr. Martin,” he said politely.

Paul Martin doffed his black felt hat and stepped inside, nodding a wordless greeting at the boy.

“Welcome, Martin,” Ben said heartily.  “Excuse my not meeting you at the door, but this gravy needed a good stirring.”

“We’re having a great meal,” Adam said sociably.  “Roast grouse with dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and turnips.  Aunt Nelly even sent a chocolate cake for dessert.”

“Yes, and I’m afraid my bachelor cooking will be hard put to live up to that,” Ben laughed.

A smile flitted across the miner’s lips.  “From the smell, it’s better than mine,” Martin said appreciatively.

Hoss toddled over to the stranger and held his pudgy arms up.  Ben caught his breath, unsure how his reclusive guest would respond, but Hoss’s sunny smile proved irresistible.  Martin instinctively bent over and lifted the boy up in his arms.  “Eat soon,” Hoss promised cheerily.

“And if you’re an example, the eating’s pretty good around here,” Martin teased, giving Hoss’s plump body a squeeze.  Hoss immediately wrapped his arms around the miner’s neck, and Martin laid his stubbled cheek tenderly against the youngster’s soft, smooth one.  “Quite a hefty lad you have here, Cartwright,” he said.

“He’s a real armload all right,” Ben said.  “Hard to believe he won’t be three ‘til the end of next month, and he’s close to his older brother’s weight already.  Worries me a little, his growing so fast.”

“No need,” Martin said with a knowledgeable air.  “He’s large for his age, but—”  As if suddenly wary of revealing more than he intended, Martin broke off.

“You sound like a man with some experience of children,” Ben probed gently.

“Some,” Martin said, but offered no explanation.

Ben thought it better not to push.  “Well, take a chair,” he suggested.  “Dinner’ll be on the table right away.”  He had intended the two boys to sit on one side of the table, so Adam could help Hoss while the two men enjoyed undisturbed conversation; however, Martin intuitively placed Hoss in the longer-legged chair that helped him reach the table, then sat next to him, seeming to want to remain close to the little one.  Not so surprising, Ben realized.  Most of the miners cherished the rare glimpse of a small child, and Hoss’s openness could be absolutely disarming.

“You might want to reconsider where you’re sitting,” Ben suggested softly.  “He’s a pretty messy eater.”

Martin gave the child’s hand a little pat.  “We’ll get along, won’t we—”

“Hoss,” Ben inserted, realizing Martin had faltered, not knowing the child’s name.

Martin laughed for the first time that Ben had ever heard him.  “Fits him like a glove.”

Ben smiled.  “Yeah.  His real name’s Eric, but his brother Adam here insisted we call him Hoss, and it’s sort of stuck.”

“It was Uncle Gunnar’s idea,” Adam corrected.

“Yeah, I know, son,” Ben said, setting the grouse on the table.  “My wife’s brother,” he explained for Martin’s benefit.

Soon the other foods filled the table and after saying a brief grace, Ben told his guest to help himself.  Adam politely let company go first, but Hoss hungrily reached toward the dish of roast fowl.  Martin smiled and forked a small piece into the boy’s plate.  “Does he need that cut?” he asked Ben.

Ben shook his head.  “He’ll just use his fingers anyway, I’m afraid.  Hoss handles a spoon well enough, but forks seem beyond him.”

“Perfectly natural,” Martin said, that informed tone in his voice once more.

“What did you do in the States?” Ben asked.

“Minded my own business,” Martin said gruffly, then blushed at the rudeness he heard in his own voice.

Ben had been shocked by the response, for his question was one of the most common ways to open a conversation with a new acquaintance.  All the miners had followed some other vocation before coming west, and most waxed nostalgic at the mention of their former lives.  Only men with shady pasts tended to be evasive in the free and easy mining country, but Paul Martin didn’t look like the kind of man who should have had something to hide.  “Sorry, didn’t mean to pry,” Ben said quickly.  “I just thought, with your understanding of youngsters, you might have been a schoolteacher.”  Then Ben laughed.  “Though I guess that wouldn’t give you much experience with lads Hoss’s age, after all.”

Martin smiled slightly.  “No, he’s not quite school age.”

“I am,” Adam announced, “but there’s no teacher, so I have to study by myself.  I wish you were a teacher, Mr. Martin; I’d sure have questions to ask if you were.”

“Adam, I invited Mr. Martin here as my guest, not your instructor,” Ben chided softly, then chuckled.  “My boy here has an insatiable appetite for learning and no hesitance about asking anyone he meets to satisfy it.  He’s even been pestering the Grosch brothers to read their technical books on mining.”

“And chemistry.  You know anything about chemistry, Mr. Martin?” Adam added, completely ignoring his father’s admonition about pumping their guest for new knowledge.

“Some,” Martin said, “but mostly the organic variety.”

“Huh?”

Martin smiled.  “The kind that has to do with living things, son.  Inorganic chemistry deals with minerals, like the books you were looking at.”

“Oh,” Adam said.  “I didn’t know there were two kinds.  I’ll remember that.”

Ben shook his head.  “He will, too,” then with a pointed look at his son, “just as I’m sure he’ll remember his manners, if he tries hard enough.”

Adam gulped and turned his attention to his plate.

“Mighty fine meal,” Martin said.  “Best I’ve had in some time.”

“Pa said it would be,” Adam offered.

Ben groaned and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, but Paul Martin just laughed.  “You never know what they’ll say at that age, do you?” he said, clearly bemused by Ben’s embarrassed expression.  “I—uh—figured it was something like that.  You needn’t feel sorry for me, though, Cartwright.”

Ben coughed once to cover his discomposure.  “I’m just afraid you’ll end up feeling sorry for me at the end of our chess match.   I haven’t had a challenging opponent since I left St. Joseph; I’m probably rusty as nails left in the rain.”

“I’m looking forward to it,” Martin said, helping Hoss to a second helping of potatoes and gravy after wiping most of the boy’s first off his face.

“Well, I’m ready,” Ben announced, “so we’ll leave Adam to clear the table while I set up the board.”

Adam frowned.  Washing dishes was not his idea of the best way to spend an evening, but he knew better than to argue.  “Hurry up and finish,” he hissed to Hoss as he gathered the other plates from the table.

“Shouldn’t rush him,” Martin mumbled.  “Bad for digestion.”

Adam sighed and sat down to watch Hoss’s slow mastication of his food.  Mr. Martin was probably right, but he didn’t know how poky Hoss could be.

The chess match had barely begun before Ben found himself as badly outclassed as Clyde Thomas was when he played with Ben.  Ben lost the first game quickly, but managed to hold his own longer before succumbing to Martin’s superior gamesmanship in the second.  “Well, that’s enough for tonight,” Ben said.  “You’re a better player than the man who taught me, Martin.”

Martin smiled, both in satisfaction at the compliment and in encouragement to Ben.  “He taught you well, whoever he was.  I—uh—enjoyed the evening, Cartwright.”

“Enough to come back, I hope,” Ben urged.  “You owe me a rematch, my friend.  Next Saturday?”

Martin hesitated for only a moment.  “All right,” he said quietly.  “Next Saturday.”

As he lay in bed that night, arms folded under his neck, Ben congratulated himself on the success of the evening, but he found himself more puzzled than ever about his new friend.  The man had opened up a little tonight, but then he’d closed shut again, as though a curtain had dropped on a play moments after its beginning.  Behind that curtain loomed some secret Martin seemed determined to hide, but Ben didn’t think it was a sinister one.  What, then, could make this urbane, well-spoken, intelligent man build such a wall of silence and solitude?  His love of chess had opened a crack in his defenses, and Ben had managed to wedge a toe in that crack.   Hopefully, weekly visits in his home would widen it.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

             “Whoopee!” Billy yelled, tossing his hoe out of the garden.  As Adam finished hilling the final stalk of corn on his row, he grinned at his friend.  He, too, was glad the time had come to let the corn lay by ‘til harvest.  Both Ben and Clyde had promised their boys the day off as soon as they finished, and Billy had sweet-talked his mother into packing them a picnic lunch.

Billy was already charging up to the cabin to claim the sandwiches, so Adam dutifully picked up the hoe the impulsive redhead had abandoned and took it to the blacksmith shop where all tools were stored.  “Done, are you?” Clyde asked when Adam entered.  “And that ornery scamp of mine left you to put things up, did he?”

Adam shrugged, not wanting to get Billy in trouble.  “He’s fetching our picnic lunch,” he offered as explanation.

“All right,” Clyde said.  “Best let your Pa know before you take off.”

“I will,” Adam said and walked over to the trading post.  “Me and Billy’s headin’ out, Pa,” he called from the doorway.

Ben looked up from the table where he was trying to calculate a fair price for the latest supplies they’d brought in from California.  “Where you headed?”

“Just downriver, I reckon,” Adam said.  “We don’t have any real plan, Pa.”

Ben smiled.  “Well, sometimes it’s more relaxing when you don’t plan too hard.  Think you might do some fishing?”

“Maybe,” Adam said.

“Nothing doing!” Billy snickered from behind Adam.  “Sounds too much like work.”

Ben guffawed.  “Fishing?  Oh, come on now, Billy.”

“I like to fish,” Adam argued.

“I don’t want to sit still and concentrate on bringin’ home supper,” Billy declared.  “I want to ride like the wind and put that fool garden miles behind me.”  He punched Adam’s arm and leaned over to whisper in his ear.  “Come on; let’s get out of here before the pest wakes up and bawls to go along.”

Adam nodded.  He didn’t want Hoss along any more than Billy did.  Watching the baby was far more likely to turn the afternoon’s fun into work than fishing!  He turned and trotted after Billy.

“You boys ride careful,” Ben called.  Both boys waved back an assurance that they would.

Had Ben seen the races the two boys ran up and down and across the river, he probably would not have considered their horsemanship careful.  Each, however, had too much respect and affection for his horse to run reckless risks.  With the exuberance of youth, Billy and Adam galloped in spirited competitions, with the victories split almost half and half, and by the time they stopped for lunch, Billy’s wildly tousled hair testified that he had stirred up as much wind as even he could desire.  Adam’s didn’t look much better, but neither boy cared.  They dropped, exhausted, by the banks of the Carson, letting the horses crop the lush meadow grass while their owners grazed through a succession of roast beef and cheese sandwiches, topping the meal off with a fried peach pie apiece.

“You wanna race some more?” Billy asked, licking the last traces of pastry from his lips.

Adam sprawled flat on his stomach.  “Nope.”

Billy poked a freckled finger in Adam’s ribs.  “You gotta give me a chance to catch up, boy.”  Adam was one race ahead.

Adam lifted his head to grin triumphantly at his friend.  “I like the score the way it is,” he snickered.  “Besides, I’m tired of riding.”

“How can you be,” Billy whined, “when we ain’t had a day off ‘til now to do none?”

“I ride every day,” Adam yawned.

Billy frowned.  “Just to our place,” he argued.  “That’s not much of a ride.”

“I satisfy easy,” Adam yawned again and rolled over onto his back.  “And what would satisfy me best right now is a nap.”

“Nap!” Billy hollered.  “You gotta be kidding!  I knew I should’ve brought Hoss, instead.”

“Welcome to ride back and get him,” Adam offered, pulling his brown felt hat over his eyes.  He knew an empty threat when he heard one.

“Hey!  What’s that?” Billy yelled.

Adam lifted the hat from his face and looked in the direction of Billy’s pointing finger.  “Dust,” he said, lowering the hat.

Billy grabbed the hat and tossed it aside.  “Kind of a lot of dust, wouldn’t you say?”

Adam sat up.  “Yeah, I guess so.”

“You don’t reckon the first emigrant train has got here this early, do you?” Billy puzzled.

“It’s not even July yet,” Adam scoffed.  “Might be more of them Mormon colonists, though.  They don’t have so far to come.”

“If that’s Mormons, it’s a passel of ‘em,” Billy declared.  Suddenly, his face lighted.  “Hey!  I know what it is!”

“Yeah, what?” Adam asked dubiously.

Billy stood over his friend, arms akimbo.  “When’s the last time you seen dust clouds that big?” he demanded.

Adam frowned and shook his head.

“When that Wootton feller brought that herd of sheep through last spring!” Billy announced exultantly.  “I’ll bet he’s back!”

Adam sat up, looking more intently at the clouds of dust swirling in the distance across the river.  “Might be,” he said.  “Yeah, that just might be a flock of woollies.”

“Let’s go see,” Billy ordered.  “Our folks’ll want to know about something that size, whatever it is.”

“Okay,” Adam agreed, his curiosity now burning almost as intensely as the other boy’s.

They mounted quickly and walked their horses across the river before breaking into a gallop.  Billy evidently intended to make a race of it, and having a head start, he reached the destination before Adam.  “Howdy, mister,” he called out to the stranger riding at the head of the herd of sheep.

The man doffed his hat, revealing a head of hair that was thinning on top, but fuller below, reaching almost to his broad shoulders.  “Howdy, son,” he yelled back.  “Where you from?”

Billy pointed in a vaguely westward direction.  “You workin’ for Wootton?” he asked sociably.

“Uncle Dick Wootton?” the man asked.  “You know him, boy?”

Billy pulled his horse alongside the man’s just as Adam rode up.  “Sure, we know Uncle Dick,” Billy said.  “Guess you do, too.”

The man laughed.  “Yeah, real well, from the time he was a young whippersnapper back at Bent’s Fort.  Me and Uncle Dick was huntin’ partners for a time.  So, how is it you younguns know him?”

“We met him last spring when he brought a flock of sheep through here,” Adam explained.

“Yeah, I knew about that,” the man said.  “Fact is, it was Uncle Dick convinced me to bring a herd over myself.  Well, boys, seein’ as how you’re friends of a friend, so to speak, I reckon we ought to make our introductions.”

“I’m Billy Thomas,” Billy announced, “and he’s Adam Cartwright.”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” the stranger said, a twinkle in his clear blue eyes.  “Name’s Christopher Carson.”

Adam’s black eyes all but popped out of his head.  “Not K—Kit Carson?” he stammered, awestruck.

“Guilty as charged,” Carson chuckled, “though I hope I’ve not been charged with anything too serious.”

“No, sir!” Adam exclaimed.

“Not the one they named this whole blamed valley after,” Billy babbled.  “Not that Kit Carson.”

“I’m afraid so, son,” Carson said, “and it’s right honored I am to have my name fixed to so fine a place.”

“Well, you were one of the first to see it, along with Captain Frémont,” Adam declared.  “It’s only right and proper.”

Carson gazed nostalgically toward the Sierras looming over the valley floor.  “Those were fine days, when I was with Frémont,” he said.  “Wish I had time to tell you boys about them, but I’ve got a herd to tend.”

“Come to supper to our place,” Billy said impulsively, “and tell us all about it.”

Carson laughed loud.  “Now, don’t tempt me, boy.  I’ve been eating trail grub so long, I’m an easy mark for the offer of a home-cooked meal.”

“You wouldn’t turn it down if you’d ever tasted my ma’s dried apple pie,” Billy grinned.

“Dried apple pie,” Carson mused, licking his lips.  “Anybody ever tell you you got natural talent as a tempter, boy?  Sure your folks won’t mind?”

“No, sir.”  It was Adam who answered this time.  He figured all the meals he’d shared at the Thomas table made him an expert on Nelly Thomas’s hospitality.

“Well, I’ll take you up on it,” Carson smiled, “if you’ll give me directions.”

Billy quickly told the famous explorer where to find the cabin; then he and Adam rode home to give Nelly warning that she’d have extra guests for dinner.  “Us, too,” Adam told Billy.  “She’ll ask, and Pa won’t turn down a chance to meet Kit Carson!”

“Reckon not!” Billy agreed.  “Come on; first one back gets to spread the news.”  Kicking his roan colt’s flanks, he charged ahead.  Adam grinned and gave chase.

* * * * *

“Just help yourself, Mr. Carson,” Nelly babbled, clearly flustered by serving such a famous guest.  “I know the food’s not fancy, but there’s plenty of it.”

Kit Carson flashed the frazzled woman a friendly grin as he filled his blue crockery plate, Nelly having set out her Sunday dishes in his honor.  “Ma’am, I believe you’ve gone to entirely too much trouble, but I surely plan to enjoy every bite.  I can’t even remember when I last had chicken and dumplings.”

Nelly blushed.  “Well, it’s easy to make on short notice.”

“But it’s the best, Ma,” Billy declared loyally.

“Oh, shush now,” his mother ordered, her face flaming redder.

“Truth should be spoken, ma’am,” Carson said.  “This is every bit as good as my ma used to make, and nobody cooks like a boy’s ma, you know.”

“You promised to tell us about your expedition with Captain Frémont,” Adam said, helping himself to chicken and dumplings.

“Now, Adam, let Mr. Carson enjoy his dinner,” Ben chided.

“Oh, I can eat and talk, too,” Carson laughed, “and I’ve got to earn a dinner this good.  Well, first off, son, he wasn’t Captain Frémont when I first met him.  He was a lieutenant with the United States Topographical Corps in those days and a man with a big dream.”

“Like you, Pa,” Adam declared.

“Hush, Adam,” Ben said, as eager as the boys to hear the explorer’s reminiscences.  “Please go on, Mr. Carson.”

Carson winked at Adam.  “I went on three expeditions with Lieutenant Frémont,” he said, “and I don’t reckon there’s time to tell all that tonight.  I figure you folks would be most interested in the time we spent here in your part of the country.”

“Yeah!” Billy said.

“That was our second expedition,” Carson continued, “the first being a short trip with orders to map South Pass.”

“We know where that is!” Billy announced proudly.

“‘Course you do, son; all the emigrant trains pass through there,” Carson agreed amiably.  “Easiest way across the Rockies.  We were hoping to find a shorter, quicker route, but didn’t have enough time to do a proper job of it and follow orders, too.  That’s one reason Frémont was so determined to go back.”

“That was the summer of 1843, I believe,” Ben commented.

Carson looked impressed.  “That it was, Mr. Cartwright.  Lieutenant Frémont had hired me and Broken Hand Fitzpatrick as guides.  Now, both of us were experienced mountain men, but neither of us knew a short way across the Rockies.  It was all new territory to us.  The lieutenant sent Broken Hand north over the emigrant route you folks must have traveled coming west; then he and I, with twelve others, turned west, looking for a pass.”

“Did you find it?” Adam asked eagerly.

“We traveled five days through some of the finest country God ever created,” Carson said.  “Tall mountains dark with pine, but full of sheer drops that made it an impractical route for wagons.  We had a hard time ourselves, but finally came out to find a grassy river bottom covered with wildflowers.  Prettiest sight I ever saw, saving my lovely wife’s face.”

“Oh, you’re married,” Nelly said, her brown eyes sparking with interest.

“Now, Nelly, you’re interruptin’,” Clyde rebuked.  He didn’t want Carson distracted from his story to answer any of Nelly’s typically female questions.

Carson smiled.  “Tell you about her later, ma’am.  These boys look to be on the edge of their chairs.”

“We sure are,” Billy said, “and we don’t want to hear about no wives.”

“Mind your manners, boy,” Clyde said sharply.  It was one thing to feel the way he did, another to blurt it out before company.  Billy slunk down in his seat, determined not to say another word.  Tonight was no time to get banished from the table.

“We met up with Fitzpatrick’s party,” Carson continued, “and went on west.  Just two days after Christmas we came to a point of decision.  We had reached the southern border of Oregon, which fulfilled all our orders, so we could have just turned around and gone home.”

“But you didn’t,” Adam said triumphantly, “else how would you have discovered—”

“Adam,” Ben said, more sharply than before.  “Quit interrupting.”

Hoss, seated to Ben’s left, reached up to tap his father’s arm.  “Shh!” he demanded.  “Wanna hear story.”  Everyone laughed, Carson loudest of all.

“All right, sonny,” he said.  “Come perch on my knee, and I’ll tell it just for you.”

With a wide grin Hoss scooted out of his chair and claimed his perch on the former mountain man’s buckskin-clad lap.

“Now, as young Adam here said, we didn’t turn back,” Carson said.  “We’d been away from home for nine months; we were tired and hungry, and we’d faced more than our share of hard times.  But Lieutenant Frémont had a hunger to map new territory, to find the legendary Buenaventura River that was supposed to flow west through the mountains.  So we headed south into the most God-forsaken desert country I’d ever seen.  For two weeks we struggled through that powdery, alkaline soil, wondering if we’d ever see a green leaf again.”

“My brother traveled that part of the country when he came west,” Ben commented.

“Pa!”  “Uncle Ben!”  Both boys had been rebuked so many times for interrupting themselves that they were outraged when one of the adults did it.

“Now, now,” Carson appeased, “let’s just say whoever feels a need to say something can.  It pleasures me to hear other voices besides my own.”

Ben chuckled.  “All right, then.  Interruptions being welcomed, I’ll go first.  My brother wrote back to St. Joe and advised me not to take that route.”

“Good advice,” Carson laughed, “and I’m sure you took it.  There wasn’t anyone to advise us, though, so we just trusted our lives to the care of Almighty God and He didn’t fail us.  Just when we thought we were doomed to starve to death in that desert, we came upon a huge lake and gorged ourselves on salmon trout.”

“I bet that was Pyramid Lake,” Adam inserted.

“It was, son,” Carson smiled.  “You seen it?”

“Yeah, we went up to visit Captain Truckee there,” Adam replied eagerly.

“We try to visit him each spring,” Ben put in quickly, fearing Adam was about to launch into a full rendition of their own adventures.  “I’ve been taking the Paiutes a few beef ever since I started my herd.”

“Kind of you, sir,” Carson said.  “The chief did us a good turn, and I’d like to return the favor.  If you have time to make the trip up to Pyramid, I’d be glad to leave a few of my sheep as a gift to my old friend.”

“I’d be glad to,” Ben agreed.  “Truckee speaks with great warmth of Captain Frémont and is especially proud of the letter he gave him.”

Hoss pulled on Carson’s chin.  “Story!” he demanded.

Carson nodded solemnly.  “Yes, sir!” he said.  “Okay if Miss Nelly dishes me up a piece of pie first?”

“Okay,” Hoss grinned.  “Me, too!”

Carson paused in his story long enough to take a bite of the dried apple pie.  “Your boy surely spoke the truth about this pie, ma’am,” he said enthusiastically.  “It’s real good.”

“Real good,” Hoss echoed, his face already sticky with sweet syrup from his portion.

Carson patted the boy’s protruding belly.  “Yeah, it’s easy to see you’ve had your fair share of Miss Nelly’s fine cooking.”

“Boy, has he!” Billy declared.

“Well, back to my story,” Carson said quickly.  “We continued south, finally reaching the river you folks settled by.”

“The Carson,” Adam said.

Carson laughed.  “Well, it didn’t have a name then, but, yes, the Carson.  We were low on food again and feeling pretty low down.  Having come this far south, we knew for sure the Buenaventura was nothing but a river folks wished for, one that didn’t exist outside men’s dreams.  We knew now we couldn’t float into California like we’d planned, but Frémont was still set on getting there.  Camped there by the river, he told us he planned to cross the Sierras Nevadas on foot.  It wasn’t good news.”

“Why not?” Billy demanded.

“Remember what time of year it was, son,” Carson said patiently.  “It was just past the middle of January, and no one had ever tried crossing the Sierras in winter.”

“Oh,” Billy said.  “Everybody knows that’s crazy.”

Carson laughed.  “That’s how most of us felt, but I trusted Frémont, so I’d’ve gone anywhere he ordered.  West we went, climbing over the first low mountains, coming into Antelope Valley.  From there we could see the main range, snow-packed and sharp with ice.  We made our way up for two days, leaving more and more of our personal gear behind.  But we still had that infernal cannon.”

“What cannon?” Billy asked, his blue eyes widening with renewed interest.

“A twelve-pound howitzer we’d dragged all across the country,” Carson said.  “You see, Frémont and his father-in-law, Senator Benton, had a feeling we’d be at war with Mexico by the time we reached California and thought the cannon might come in handy.”

“And did it?  In the war, I mean?” Billy asked eagerly.

Carson shook his head, chuckling.  “No, son, after all our troubles, we finally had to leave it behind in the mountains.  Still there, far as I know.”

“Whereabouts?” Billy probed.

“That’s enough, boy,” his father said bluntly.  “We can’t leave Frémont’s whole party to freeze in the mountains while you talk artillery.  Tell how you got out alive, Mr. Carson.”

“Well, two days into the mountains, our last Indian guide quit on us.  ‘Rock upon rock, snow upon snow,’ he said and warned us we’d never get out of those mountains.  Frémont realized the Indian’s words would prove true unless he found a trail, so he left everyone behind except me and Broken Hand.  It was hard going, but we made it through.  We came to a large snowless valley, and beyond it I could see a low range of mountains I knew were the ones bordering the coast of California.  Though it had been fifteen years since I’d been there, I recognized Mount Diablo.  We went back for the other men, taking about twenty days to get them up to that peak again.  Hard days they were, too, with men going snow-blind and getting so hungry they finally broke down and ate their pet dog, Klamath.”

“No!” Hoss wailed, burying his face into Carson’s shirt.

The explorer’s countenance dropped.  “Guess I should’ve left that part out,” he said apologetically.  “Forgot what big ears little pitchers can have.”

“He has a pup of his own,” Ben said by way of explanation.

Carson patted the boy’s heaving back.  “Yeah, I understand,” he said.  “The men with us were grown, but they cried, too, when they——you know.  Starving though they were, they’d been saving scraps out of their own plates to keep that little dog alive, and it broke their hearts when they finally had to face the hard truth that it was him or them.  Anyway, we finally made it to Sutter’s Fort a month after we left the river here.  We looked more like walking skeletons than living men, but we’d proved the mountains could be crossed, even in winter.  Only loss to the party, a twelve-pound cannon.”

Hoss peered up with red eyes.  “And a pup,” he added mournfully.

Carson gave him a squeeze.  “Yeah, son, and a pup.  A fine pup who gave his life so his masters could live.  Klamath was the real hero of the expedition, you could say.”

Hoss nodded solemnly.  Ben wasn’t sure the boy really understood the concept of sacrifice at just under three years of age, but at that moment he appeared to.

“Tell about the war in California now,” Billy demanded.

“Oh, that came much later, and I’m afraid I haven’t time to start that story tonight,” Carson said, setting Hoss down and standing.  “Ma’am, much as I’d like to stay, I’d better get back to those Mexican herders of mine and see that the flock’s secure for the night.”

“A pleasure havin’ you, Mr. Carson,” Nelly said.

“You come back anytime,” Clyde added as he escorted their guest to the door.

“Mr. Carson,” Adam said, running up to him, “did you say your herders were Mexican?”

“That’s right, son,” Carson replied.

“So, do you speak Spanish?”

“Enough to get by,” Carson laughed.

“Oh, I know where this is headed,” Ben chuckled.  “An old Mexican hereabouts said something about ‘plata,’ and Adam’s been about to die of curiosity because the man wouldn’t explain what he meant.”

Carson’s lips puckered in thought.  “Well, let’s see.  I think ‘plata’ means ‘silver,’ son.”

Adam grinned broadly.  “I knew it was something important!  You reckon there’s silver in the hills around here, Mr. Carson?”

“Oh, I doubt that,” Carson said.  “If you’re after mineral wealth, son, you’d better head over the Sierras.”  He chucked Adam under the chin.  “Just don’t do it in winter,” he added with a saucy wink and, tipping his hat to Nelly, departed.

Nelly sighed.  With all the interest the others had shown in his adventures, Carson had never gotten around to talking about his wife.  Typical man.

* * * * *

“You want another slice of pound cake, Ben?” Nelly asked.

Ben groaned as he flopped back on the blanket spread out for their picnic.  “Not another bite or I’ll never get up from here.”

“You, Clyde?”

“Full to the brim,” Clyde assured his wife.

“I’ll just pack things away then,” Nelly said, “soon as I feed Inger.”

Ben looked up at her and smiled.  “Don’t you ever rest?  It’s the Fourth of July, Nelly, and you’ve worked hard to set out a fine lunch like this.”

Nelly laughed as she lifted her baby girl.  “A woman’s work is never done, they say, but it’s so restful here by the lake, it feels like a holiday.  Listen to them younguns enjoyin’ themselves.”

Ben smiled and closed his eyes, relishing the sound of his children at play.  Adam and Billy had met a couple of Washo lads at the alpine lake Frémont had called Bonpland and the Indians Tahoe, and they were playing a noisy game of tag among the pines with the Indian lads.  Nearby, Hoss was frolicking with his pup.  Ben could hear him calling again and again, “Fetch, Klam; get the stick.  Here, Klam; here, boy.”

From his spot on the blanket near Ben, Clyde chuckled.  “Whatever possessed that youngun to call his dog Clam?” he asked.

Ben opened one eye.  “Not Clam,” he explained dryly.  “Klamath, after a certain heroic dog we heard about last week.  Hoss just can’t get anything but the first syllable out.”

Clyde cackled louder than before.  “Oh my lands!  That story sure made an impression on the boy, didn’t it?”

“Sure did,” Ben yawned, “and not just on Hoss.  Or hadn’t you noticed what game our older boys have been playing the last few days?”

“I have,” Nelly tittered.  She had moved out of their view to nurse Inger, but she was still close enough to join in the conversation.  “One day Billy plays Frémont to Adam’s Kit Carson, and the next the other way around.  They been acting out the Sierra crossing for days now.  Fact is, they’re the ones started calling Hoss’s pup Klamath.  Hoss sure squalled when they pretended to eat him, though.”

“I didn’t know that,” Ben said.  “I’ll have a word with Adam on that subject!”

“That Carson sure had some tales to tell, didn’t he?” Clyde commented.

“He sure did,” Ben said fondly.  “Never thought I’d have the privilege of meeting a legend of the west like him.  Such a kindly man, too, to put up with our boys’ endless questions.”

“A real gent,” Clyde agreed, “and with a fine head for business, too.  You know he’s takin’ thirteen thousand head of sheep to Sacramento?”

“I was there when he told you,” Ben pointed out.

“Yeah, I know,” Clyde said impatiently, “but have you figured how much profit he stands to make?”

“Didn’t figure it was my business,” Ben drawled.

“Could be, if we was to bring over a flock of our own,” Clyde suggested.

Ben rolled onto his left side and propped his head up on one elbow.  “I had a feeling that’s where we were headed,” he grinned.  “So, how much would we make, my friend?”

Clyde pulled himself closer to Ben’s head.  “Carson said sheep cost a dollar a head in New Mexico and sell in California for anywhere from five to twelve.  Even at the lowest price, he’d clear four dollars a head.  Calculate for yourself how much that would be, Ben!”

Ben thought for a moment, then sat up.  “Fifty-two thousand,” he whistled.

“At the lowest price,” Clyde pointed out.

“That’s a tidy profit,” Ben agreed.  “You really want to do this?”

“I think it’s a chance we shouldn’t pass up,” Clyde said firmly, “and one that won’t last forever.  If rumors is right, the emigrant traffic is gonna be slower next year.”

“And likely to thin down after that,” Ben admitted.  “I figured on building up my cattle herd and relying on ranching once trade petered out.”

“You could build it faster with more funds,” Clyde said.

Ben laughed.  “Building up my ranch is not the reason you want to herd sheep, now, is it, Clyde?”

Clyde shrugged, grinning.  “Got my own reasons,” he said.  “I was tryin’ to appeal to yours, Ben boy.”

Ben didn’t need to ask Clyde’s reasons.  After the years they’d spent together, he could almost read his friend’s mind sometimes.  Clyde’s ambition had never included becoming a farmer or rancher; he was a blacksmith and preferred to make his living by that vocation.  But once the emigrant traffic stopped, the valley’s need for a blacksmith would decline sharply.  As surely as he knew his own heart, Ben knew Clyde wanted to build himself a nest egg against the leaner times he feared were coming.

Ben sat up.  “I’d like to go in with you on this venture, Clyde,” he said, “but I’ve already got a sizable herd to tend.  What am I supposed to do with my cattle while we travel to New Mexico and back?”

“You got two men working for you,” Clyde offered wryly.

From the corner of his eye, Ben threw his friend an irritated glance.  “You’re not serious,” he said bluntly.  “Diego’s good with cattle, but he prefers mining; he only works for me long enough to set back a grub stake.  Then he’s off to the diggings.”

“Always comes back,” Clyde grinned.

“When his poke runs empty,” Ben replied gruffly, “and as for Tuquah—”

“Now, I’ve heard you brag on his work,” Clyde snickered.

“He does real well most of the time,” Ben said, “but you know how it is with his people.  The Washos are hunters and gatherers.  Hard for them to understand the kind of life that ties a man to one place.”

“So Tuquah takes off anytime he gets itchy feet, is that it?” Clyde cackled.

Ben raised an eyebrow.  “Something like that.  When it’s time for the piñon harvest or spring fishing or——well, you get the picture.  Not a man I could leave in charge for weeks at a time.”

“Yeah,” Clyde admitted.  “I see your problem, but if you could find such a man—”

“Then I’d join you in bringing back a huge herd of woollies,” Ben grinned, “though I don’t think we could afford as many as Carson.”

Clyde lay back on the blanket, satisfied.  “I figure we ought to leave late January, so we’d be back in time to trail the sheep over with the first thaw.”

Ben stared at the suddenly drowsy man lying beside him, then looked quizzically up at Nelly, who had just laid Inger down to sleep and was packing the leftovers into a basket.  She laughed and shook her head.  Better than Ben, she knew how rock-headed Clyde could be once he got his mind set on a thing, and in his mind the trip to New Mexico was obviously set as solid as if Ben had given him a definite yes.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

             The sun beat down with a merciless heat the first Saturday in August.  Billy and Adam eagerly stripped off their clothing and splashed into the cool waters of the Carson River not far from the Thomas cabin.  “Oh, yeah,” Billy sighed contentedly.  “That’s what I been needin’.”

“Me, too,” Adam said, stretching full length on the water’s surface.

“Bubba!  Bubba!” called an eager voice from the shore.  “Me swim, too, Bubba.”

Adam groaned.  He might have known Hoss would follow them.  “Go back to Aunt Nelly,” he ordered.

“Yeah!” Billy yelled.  “We ain’t got the time or the energy to put up with you.”

“Aunt Nelwy busy,” the three-year-old stated as he plopped down on the riverbank and began pulling his clothes off.

Adam gave Billy a sour look.  As they both knew, Nelly Thomas was devoting the afternoon to baking bread, and with Inger fretful from teething, she really was too busy to tend Hoss, too.  “Guess we’re stuck,” Adam moaned softly.

“Guess so,” Billy admitted.  “Can he swim?”

“Doubt it,” Adam replied glumly, “but I’ll be hanged if I’m gonna hold his hand while he wades in the shallow water.”

“Doggone right!” Billy asserted.  “It’s a get-your-whole-body-wet kind of day.”

Stripped naked, Hoss stuck a tentative toe in the water, then stretched his arm toward Adam.  “Bubba,” he called.  “Help, Bubba.”

“Oh, bother!” Adam snapped, stomping toward his little brother.  He grabbed Hoss’s hand and pulled him in.  “Come on, Hoss,” he ordered as he dragged the boy behind him.  “If you’re gonna swim with us, you gotta go in the deep water.”

Hoss was beaming happily until his chin dipped below the surface.  Then he screamed, wrapping pudgy arms around Adam’s waist.  “Deep, Bubba!” he hollered.  “Go back; go back.”

“Oh, don’t be such a fraidy baby,” Billy snorted.  “Look at me, Hoss.”  He dived under the water and came up grinning.  “Now you try it.”

“No!” Hoss yelled, clambering up Adam’s neck.

“Turn loose!” Adam croaked.  “You’re choking me, Hoss.”

But Hoss clung tight, terrified of the water splashing his buttocks.  “Go back,” he insisted.

“All right,” Adam said, “but you gotta go all the way back.”  He sloshed to the river’s edge and pushed Hoss out of the water.  “Now get your clothes and go back to the house,” he ordered sternly.

“Wanna swim, Bubba,” Hoss wailed.

“Oh, no, you don’t,” Adam sputtered.  “What you want to do is wade and I don’t.  Now get back to the house!”  To add emphasis to his command, Adam landed a stinging swat on Hoss’s bare bottom.

Hoss bellowed his protest, but grabbed up his clothes from the grassy bank and stalked toward the cabin.  Adam felt a pang of guilt as the tear-tracked face turned away from him, but he pushed it aside and splashed back into the center of the river.

Hoss stumbled toward the cabin with full intentions of tattling on his hard-hearted brother, but when a ground squirrel scurried across his path, he forgot his sore bottom.  “Swirlwy,” he cried happily, dropping his clothes and trotting after the furry rodent.  “Come back, swirlwy.”

Adam and Billy enjoyed a carefree afternoon of swimming and sunning themselves on the riverbank.  Fully dry, they scrambled into their clothes and raced toward the seesaw, Billy arriving first.

Nelly, hearing his exultant shout of victory, came to the door.  “‘Bout time you younguns came up for air,” she scolded, “before you burn to a crisp out in that water.  Hoss ain’t used to that much sun.”  Her brown eyes scanned the dirt yard.  “Where is Hoss?” she demanded.  “Lands, you scamps didn’t leave that baby alone down by the river!”

“We sent him back to you, Aunt Nelly,” Adam said, his face blanching.

“Hours ago,” Billy added earnestly.

“Good lands!  Last I seen him he was following you boys to the river,” Nelly cried.  She began to run toward the trading post a few hundred yards downstream from the cabin.  “Ben!” she shouted as she ran, Adam and Billy charging after her.  “Ben!”

Ben finished loading a hundred-pound sack of flour into an emigrant’s wagon and turned.  “What is it, Nelly?” he asked anxiously, reading her alarm in her expression.

“Hoss!” she cried breathlessly.  “I don’t know where he is, Ben.  I thought he was swimming with the boys, but they say they sent him back to the house hours ago.  He didn’t get there, Ben!”

Ben grabbed Adam by the shoulders.  “Where did you see him last?” he demanded.

“By the river, Pa,” Adam stammered.  “He was headed for the house, though, honest, Pa.”

“Show me where you were swimming,” Ben ordered, taking Adam’s hand.

Adam led the way toward the river.  Suddenly, Ben stopped and bent to pick up a small shirt and trousers from the tall grass.  “Hoss!” he cried.  “Hoss!”  There was no answer.

Adam’s chin started to tremble.  His little brother was lost and it was his fault.  “I—I’m sorry, Pa,” he stuttered.

Ben turned sober eyes on his older son’s face.  “I’ll deal with you later,” he said sternly.  “Right now the important thing is to find your brother.”

“Yes, sir.  I’ll help look, Pa,” Adam offered quickly.

“You and Billy fan out that way,” Ben said, pointing away from the river.  “Look everywhere and look close.  Hoss may have gotten tired and lain down in the grass somewhere.”

Adam and Billy trotted away and spread out, each keeping the other in view.  Ben walked close to the river, dreading the thought that he might find his baby’s body submerged in the water, but not wanting Adam to be the one to come on such a grisly sight.  Half an hour later Clyde Thomas came running up to Ben.  “No sign of the boy yet?” he asked anxiously.

Unable to speak, Ben shook his head.

Clyde clapped his friend’s shoulder encouragingly.  “We’ll find him,” he said.  “I got that emigrant train taken care of, and I can help look now.”

“Thanks,” Ben said.  Then his eyes scanned the horizon.  “Big country,” he murmured.

“Yeah, but we’ll find him,” Clyde repeated.  “Don’t you fret, Ben.”  Clyde scratched his head.  “You reckon that pup of his could track him?”

Ben’s head jerked up.  “I don’t know,” he cried, “but it’s worth a try.”  His eyes searched northward until he spotted his older son.  “Adam!” he called and waved the boy toward him.

Adam ran up, smiling.  “Did you find him?” he called excitedly.

Ben shook his head.  “No, son, but we’ve had an idea.  Find Klamath and bring him here.”

“Okay,” Adam replied, “but it’ll take awhile, Pa.”

“Just do it!” Ben snapped.

Adam flushed, turned and ran to do as he was told.

Ben felt immediate chagrin.  “I shouldn’t have yelled at him like that,” he muttered.

“Worry’ll do that to a man,” Clyde said.  “Don’t fret over Adam now; time enough to make amends once we find the youngun.”

“I suppose,” Ben mumbled.

When Adam finally returned with Hoss’s dog, Ben held the boy’s small garments under Klamath’s nose.  “Can you find him, boy?” Ben asked urgently.  “Find Hoss, Klam.”

The little dog seemed to recognize his master’s scent and barked sharply.  At first Ben thought the dog wasn’t up to the task, for he ran away from the quartet of searchers.  But when he stopped, Ben realized the dog was not far from where he’d first picked up the little boy’s clothing.  “That’s right, Klam!” Ben called, trotting behind the pup.  “Find Hoss, boy.”

Klamath began moving slowly westward, toward the foothills of the Sierras.  For two hours the searchers followed the dog without sighting the boy.  “Reckon there ain’t much bloodhound to old Klamath, after all,” Clyde conceded.

“You don’t reckon injuns took him, do you?” Billy offered.

“No, I don’t!” Ben snapped.  “This isn’t some wild adventure we’re playing out, boy!”

Billy kicked at the grass with his bare toes.  “Sorry,” he muttered.

Ben looked at him quickly.  “No, I’m sorry, Billy.  I’m on edge, that’s all.  But I don’t think blaming the Indians is a particularly helpful notion.  The Washos are peaceable enough.”

“They steal, Pa says,” Billy asserted.

“Food, boy,” Clyde grunted.  “Foodstuff and stock, sometimes.  Never heard of ‘em takin’ a youngun.”

Billy shrugged.  “I was just tryin’ to help.”

“Look, it’s getting late,” Ben said.  “You boys head back to the cabin and have your supper.”

“I want to look for Hoss,” Adam whimpered.  “It’s my fault he’s lost.”

Ben knelt and took the trembling boy in his arms.  “We’ll talk about that later, Adam, but there’s no need for you to stay out here looking.  Go back to the house like Pa says.”

“Let me stay, Pa,” Adam pleaded.

“I’d let him, Ben,” Clyde said.  “Doin’ somethin’s easier than sittin’ and frettin’.”

“Yeah, all right,” Ben agreed, standing up.

“I’m stickin’, too,” Billy declared loyally, feeling that his friend’s problem was his, as well.

“Good enough,” Clyde said, “but stay in sight, boys.”

“We will, Pa,” Billy promised.

Klamath gave a sharp bark, as if to regain the hunters’ attention, and trotted toward the sun that was just dipping behind the mountains.  Dark soon, Ben realized.  Harder then to find a small boy.  Oh, dear God, let us find him soon.

When Klamath reached the forested foothills and moved into the trees, Ben’s heart dropped.  Not in there.  How in mercy would they find Hoss among the pines?  On they went, moving deeper into the shadows of the trees.  Dark as night here, even if the sun was still peeking over the summit of the Sierras.  The temperature was dropping, too.  Getting chilly, and none of them had brought jackets along.  Ben’s fingers tightened around Hoss’s clothing.  The naked boy must be shivering by now.

Suddenly, Ben stopped, holding up his hand.  “Wait,” he whispered.  “I think I heard something.”

“Wind in the pines,” Clyde said.

“No, listen,” Ben said urgently.  A whimper wafted toward them on the wind, but they couldn’t discern its direction.  “Hoss!” Ben cried.  “Where are you, son?”

There was no answer from the boy, but his little dog gave a happy bark and charged ahead.  “Atta, boy, Klam!” Billy yelled.  “Come on,” he hollered back at Adam.

The men couldn’t keep up with the little dog, but the boys did.  Running into a small clearing, they saw the pup jump into his little master’s lap.  “Klam!” Hoss cried, his arms closing around the dog, who licked the tears from his face.

“Hoss!” Adam shouted, pouncing on the boy with as much enthusiasm as the little dog.

Billy grinned and trotted back the way he’d come.  “Hey!  We found him,” he called.  “Over here.”

The words pumped new vigor into Ben’s legs and he ran up the incline to the clearing.  “Hoss, baby!” he cried, scooping the boy into his arms.  “Oh, my sweet baby boy.”

“Pa!” Hoss whimpered.  “Cold, Pa.”

Ben let loose a laugh of relief.  The moonlight revealed the goosebumps on Hoss’s bare flesh.  “Yeah, I bet you are,” Ben said.  “Pa’s got your clothes, baby; let’s get you dressed.”  He sat down and began pulling Hoss’s arms through the sleeves of the small shirt.

“Naked as a jay bird,” Billy scolded.  “That ain’t no way to traipse the woods, boy.”

Hoss shook his head sadly.  “Swirlwy too fast,” he whimpered.

“Swirlwy!” Adam exclaimed.  “He ran off after a squirrel, Pa!”

“Yeah,” Ben chuckled.  “Looks like both my boys need a little talking to.”

Adam gulped.  Of course, Pa hadn’t said the fatal words, “very necessary little talk,” so maybe he didn’t mean a spanking, but Adam figured he had one coming.  When they finally reached home late that night, however, all Ben did was give a stern lecture to each boy.  Hoss was made aware that he was never to leave home unaccompanied, and Adam given explicit instructions on which came first, his own pleasure or his brother’s safety.

Adam didn’t need the lecture, though:  during the anxious hours of searching for Hoss, he’d made a solemn vow that never again would he shirk his responsibilities as an older brother.  Hoss had acquired a watchdog more vigilant than Klamath, who, as the hero of the search party, basked in the extra attention and food scraps he received over the next few days.

* * * * *

The next afternoon the three boys were again cooling their bare, sun-browned bodies in the Carson River.  This time, however, Adam patiently waded the shallows with his little brother, leaving Billy to splash alone a few yards downstream.  Ben and Clyde were back at the cabin waging war at the checkerboard.  Though they kept a running game of chess at the trading post during the week, Sunday afternoons were reserved for checkers.  Clyde’s skill at the more familiar game was second to none, so the matches were hotly contested.  With Inger bedded down for her nap, Nelly was using a drop spindle to make thread from wool recently shorn from their small flock of sheep.

It was a quiet afternoon, the only sounds the gliding of wooden pieces across the game board and the intermittent creak of Nelly’s rocker on the puncheon floor.  Then the stillness was broken as a horse clattered into the yard.

Clyde, whose chair faced the open doorway, glanced up from the game.  “Howdy, Mulligan,” he said, a slight frown on his lips as he recognized one of the miners who frequented their business.  “Trading post ain’t open Sundays, you know.”

Ben swiveled in his seat, his brow furrowing as he saw the miner slouched against the doorjamb.  “Unless you have an urgent need,” Ben added, noting the pallor of the man’s face.  After all, he and Clyde willingly opened their storeroom for emigrants who happened to pass on a Sunday, and Ben saw little point in treating a needy neighbor with less respect.

Mulligan stumbled into the room.  “I got an urgent need, all right,” he murmured, “but it ain’t for supplies.”

Seeing the blood caked on the man’s shirtfront, Nelly dropped her spindle and started toward him.  Being closer, Ben reached him first and guided the injured miner to a chair.

“Who done this, Mulligan?” Clyde demanded, jumping up.

The miner gave a weak grin.  “Got no one to blame but myself, Thomas.  Reached for a loaded gun muzzle-end first and the thing went off.”  His dark eyes looked pleadingly at the others in the room.  “Got no right to ask, I know, but you always seemed like kind-hearted folks, so I thought maybe you could see your way to get this here bullet out of me.”

“Lands, Mr. Mulligan, we ain’t doctors,” Nelly protested.

The man shook his head grimly.  “I already been to the doctor, for all the good it did me.  Sent me packin’ the minute I asked for his services.”

“What are you talking about, man?” Ben queried.  “There’s no doctor this side of the Sierras——none I ever heard about, at any rate.”

“Shucks, you know him,” Mulligan said weakly.  “Bunch of us miners knew Doc Martin in California, but he sure ain’t the man he was there.”

“Paul Martin?” Ben asked, amazed.  “He practiced medicine in California?”

The miner nodded.

Clyde looked thoughtful.  “Lots of them what calls theirselves doctors in Californy ain’t had no real schoolin’ in it.”

“Martin did,” Mulligan muttered through gritted teeth.  “Real medical doctor, degree on the wall and everything, but I wouldn’t give two cents for all that now.  I’m in sore need of help, folks, if you could—”

“Lands, yes,” Nelly said.  “Here you two are jawin’ at the man when you ought to be figurin’ what to do.”

Ben looked beyond Mulligan to Clyde.  “You ever removed a bullet?”

Clyde shook his head.  “Nope, and I ain’t about to start.  You got steadier hands than me, Ben.”

“He’s right,” Nelly put in.  “You men help Mr. Mulligan up on the table, and I’ll put some water on to boil.  Then Ben can go to work.”

Ben swallowed hard, then helped Mulligan lie down on the table.  Leaning over his patient, he said, “You understand I’ve never done this; I can’t promise how it’ll turn out.”

“Just——get the bullet out——so it don’t fester in me,” Mulligan stammered feebly.  “I ain’t gonna complain if you carve me sloppy——just so’s you get it out.”

“All right, I’ll try my best,” Ben promised.  He selected the sharpest knife Nelly had and dropped it in the pan of water to boil.  “I guess we’ll need to cauterize the wound once I get the bullet out,” he told Clyde.  “That’s your job.”

Clyde frowned and, nodding grimly, laid a poker on the stove to heat.

“You—uh—wouldn’t have a little whiskey you could spare, would you?” Mulligan asked.

Ben shook his head.  “We don’t stock it; just a little beer.”

The miner gave him a crooked grin.  “Willing to try it,” he said.

“I’ll get it,” Clyde offered, heading for the trading post.

With his patient duly anesthetized, Ben bit his lip and, sending a quick prayer heavenward, bent over the miner.  He placed the knife at the ragged entrance wound and slit downward to give himself more room to probe for the bullet.  Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead as he heard the miner’s moans.  “Sorry,” he muttered.

“I can take it,” Mulligan groaned.  “Do what you gotta, Cartwright.”

The next few minutes seemed like an eternity to Ben.  His eyes and fingers stayed intent on the task at hand, but his mind swirled from the shocking revelation about his friend.  He’d known, of course, that Paul Martin was shielding his background for some unknown reason, but he’d been encouraged by the way Martin had seemed to be opening up.  Now he realized how shallow had been his penetration of his friend’s wall of reticence.

Ben couldn’t imagine why the man would turn his back on a noble profession and, worse yet, on a man in need of his help.  The gentle man who so patiently explained principles of chemistry to inquisitive Adam, the man who calmly wiped potatoes and gravy from Hoss’s messy face, couldn’t be the same man who refused to use his medical skills to aid an injured neighbor.  The two images didn’t coincide, but Ben couldn’t find the answer to that paradox.

Fortunately, he had greater success probing for the bullet.  Once Ben had removed it, Clyde steeled himself and laid the hot poker to Mulligan’s chest.  The man screamed and passed out.  The stench of charred flesh sickened Ben, but he knew no better way to combat infection.  Martin might have, Ben thought angrily, vowing in that moment to confront his friend at his next opportunity.

That opportunity didn’t come until Saturday evening, and the week’s wait gave Ben time to cool down.  He still couldn’t bring himself to make cheery conversation at the dinner table, but if Martin noticed his host’s unwonted taciturnity, he didn’t comment on it.  Once dinner was over, Ben told Adam to put Hoss to bed.  “You can read in your room afterwards,” he said.  “I’ll see to the dishes.”

Adam looked puzzled.  He was happy to leave the dish washing to his father, of course, but he liked watching the two men play chess.  And between moves Mr. Martin let him ask questions about the chemistry text the miner had loaned him.  The look on Pa’s face invited no argument, though, so Adam took Hoss’s hand as soon as the baby had kissed his father good night.  Hoss pulled away and moved across the room to Paul Martin.  “Night-night,” he said, lifting his chubby arms.

“Good night, Hoss,” Paul Martin said, bending over to give the little lad a warm hug.  Again Ben was hit by the contrast between the man he knew, or thought he knew, and the one he’d heard about the previous Sunday.  But still he said nothing.

Not until Martin had made a particularly skillful move did Ben broach the subject that had been burning in his brain for nearly a week.  “Pretty slick move,” he said, adding, “Doctor.”

Martin’s head snapped up, and he saw Ben appraising him with cool eyes.  His shoulders slumped.  “Who told you?”

Ben leaned forward.  “It’s true, then?  You’re a medical doctor?”

“Past tense,” Martin said curtly.  “Was.  I was a doctor.  Not now.”

“But why?” Ben demanded.

“None of your business!” Martin snapped.

“It is when I have to treat a patient that came to you for help!” Ben retorted.

Martin’s cheek muscles tightened.  “Mulligan?”

“Have you refused anyone else treatment?” Ben asked hotly.  “I don’t understand, Paul.  How could you leave the man to my inexperienced hands when you knew what to do?”

“You didn’t have to stick your long New England nose into it,” Paul muttered.  “If you think Mulligan will thank you for it—”

“He already did,” Ben said, “but that’s scarcely the point.  I’m not a doctor.”

“Neither am I,” Paul said quickly.

“You were trained as one,” Ben sputtered.  “Whatever your reasons for leaving the profession, you had no right—”

“No right!” Martin shouted, flying out of his chair and sweeping the chessmen off the board.  “How dare you judge me, Cartwright!  You have no idea what motivated my decision.”

Ben took a deep breath.  “Then tell me,” he said quietly.  “For the love of mercy, man, I’m your friend; you can tell me anything.  Did—did you lose a patient?”

Martin laughed harshly.  “All doctors lose patients, Ben.”

Ben’s face softened.  “And I’m sure that’s hard to handle for a sensitive man like you, but, surely, no harder than watching them suffer and perhaps die because you refused to try.”

The doctor moved toward the door.  “Look, I came to play chess, not to have you pry into my private affairs.  Since the game is obviously over, I’ll just go home and try to forget this whole conversation.”

“Don’t,” Ben said.

“Don’t forget it?” Martin sneered.  “If I don’t, you’ll never see me again, Ben.”

“Don’t leave,” Ben said.  “You know perfectly well you can reconstruct this game, play by play, so we might as well finish it out.”

“No more questions?”

“No questions, Paul,” Ben said sadly.  As he watched the other man set up the chessmen, each in the position it had occupied when he knocked them over, Ben felt a deep sense of defeat.  He knew intuitively that some intense torment burned in the doctor’s soul, and he wanted to soothe that pain with the balm of his friendship.  How could he, though, when Martin resisted his offer of a listening ear?  All Ben could hope was that by remaining friends, on whatever limited basis Paul would accept, he could eventually instill in the doctor the confidence to unburden himself without fear of judgment.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

             September arrived, bringing with it the first crisp breezes of autumn and a bumper crop of emigrants to greet Ben’s thirty-third birthday.  Though the emigrant traffic was not as heavy as in previous years and despite the competition of new merchants in the area, business was good.  The trading post was busy enough to keep Ben and Clyde occupied there most days, and Ben fell into the habit of having Adam ride out each afternoon to check on the cattle herd.  Rarely was there a problem to report, but Adam’s chest swelled almost visibly with new feelings of importance.  Usually he chose to make his cattle inspection as soon as Hoss was bedded down for his afternoon nap, for the older boy still considered caring for his baby brother his chief duty, much to Billy’s disgruntled displeasure.

Sundays were, as always, a welcome haven of peace and rest from the labors of the week.  The second one that month was typical.  In the cabin Clyde was, as usual, winning the checkers competition, Nelly was knitting, and Inger napping.  Outside, the only sound heard was Hoss’s merry chortle as he and Adam, on one end of the seesaw, swung up and down with Billy on the other end.

“Real nip in the air,” Nelly was saying during a lull in the competition in which each man poured himself a cup of coffee.  “Makes me wonder if we’ll have an early winter.”

“A possibility,” Ben admitted as he sugared his coffee.  “Might be a good idea to get our supplies laid in a little earlier than usual.  What you think, Clyde?”

“Maybe,” the older man agreed.  “Might give it some thought.”

Billy came charging into the cabin with his usual gusto.  “Hey, Pa!” he hollered.  “There’s folks comin’.”

“Emigrant train?” his father asked.

“Naw, just one wagon,” Billy said and dashed to the door to eye the visitors again.  “They’re strangers, though.”

Ben and Clyde followed Billy out.  Ben smiled as he saw Adam helping Hoss get his fat legs over the edge of the seesaw.  But prideful thoughts could wait.  Like Clyde, he peered curiously toward the approaching wagon.

“Man and woman,” Clyde said, “but I don’t recognize ‘em.”

“That, my friend, is our latest competitor,” Ben chuckled.  “Name’s Walter Cosser.  Just started a mercantile over at Gold Canyon, and that must be his wife.”

“Oh, good!” Nelly said, having joined them after whisking a few things into place.  “I can’t remember when we’ve had a Sunday caller.”  Seeing Ben’s arched eyebrow, she laughed.  “You don’t count, Ben.  You’re family.”

Nelly welcomed the visitors into the cabin and offered them each a slice of pie, but though Mr. And Mrs. Cosser accepted it graciously, the others soon learned that this was not a social call.

“I’ve come to ask your advice, Mrs. Thomas,” Mrs. Cosser said, her thick accent marking her Scottish heritage.

“Why, certainly,” Nelly said, flattered.  “Anything I can do to help.”

“Short of telling all our trade secrets,” Clyde snickered.

Nelly frowned at what she considered rudeness, but Walter Cosser found Clyde’s remark amusing.  “My wife’s got us in quite a pickle, I’m afraid,” he said, smiling.  “We were told you folks were just about the oldest settlers around and so here we are, hat in hand, but not to beg for trade secrets.  Got my own, you know.”

“Hush your foolishness,” Mrs. Cosser sputtered.  “This is no laughing matter.  Do any of you know a man named Benjamin Cole?”

“Only Benjamin I know is this one,” Clyde said, pushing his thumb at Ben’s chest.

“I think he came in the trading post once,” Ben, whose memory for names and faces was better than Clyde’s, replied, “but he’s new in the territory.  I really don’t know anything about him.”

“And the Powell family?” Mrs. Cosser asked.

Not even Ben recognized that name, so he shook his head along with the others.

“Oh, dear,” Mrs. Cosser sighed.  “Well, I may be interfering when I shouldn’t, but it just doesn’t seem proper to me, and—”

“Start at the beginning, my dear,” her husband suggested.  “These people have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Cosser said hurriedly.  “Well, Mr. Powell came here to mine this summer, bringing his two children with him.  At first, they lived in a tent, like so many of the boys.  But with winter coming on, I thought a good boardinghouse would be a profitable investment, so we built one.”

“Been doing well, too,” her husband added proudly.  “Keeps the customers close, so to speak.”

Ben chuckled.  “Now who’s giving away trade secrets.”

“You’re both interrupting,” Mrs. Cosser scolded, “and this is a serious matter.  As I was saying, Powell left his children at the boardinghouse.”

“Alone?” Nelly asked.

“Well, he had little choice,” Mrs. Cosser admitted.  “The mother died recently and he thought the youngsters would be better off with a roof over their heads than camping out at the diggings.”

“Not likely to think so now,” her husband grunted.

Mrs. Cosser waved her hand to silence her husband, then sighed again.  “I’m afraid he’s right.  Well, you know how it is out west, Mrs. Thomas——a hundred men to every woman.”

“We’re definitely outnumbered,” Nelly smiled encouragingly.

“Well, the little Powell girl worked just like pollen on bees to the men around here.  No sooner had they heard there was an unattached female staying with us than we were besieged with men begging for rooms.  You wouldn’t believe the price I was offered for just a cot in a stone basement.”

“I would,” Clyde cackled.  “A female’s worth ‘most any price out here.”

“So you’re havin’ trouble keepin’ the men away?” Nelly asked, giving Clyde’s leg a tap with her shoe beneath the table.

“More than I knew,” Mrs. Cosser said.  “This Benjamin Cole I mentioned——he’s gone and married the girl.  And her a child of fourteen!”

“Oh, dear!” Nelly cried.  “Without her father’s consent?”

“Absolutely without his consent,” Mrs. Cosser said.  “He doesn’t know a thing about it.  Now, I know girls sometimes marry that young, but it just doesn’t seem right to me.  I was hoping you could give me your opinion and tell me whether this Cole is the right sort of man or if he’s only taking advantage of the child.”

“I’ll give you my opinion!” Clyde said, his fist striking the table.  “No man better think of marryin’ my little girl without my say-so.  I’d skin him alive.”

“Cole left Mary with us,” Mr. Cosser explained, “while he went to build a cabin for them, but my wife thinks maybe we should encourage the girl to wait until her father returns before she goes off with the man.”

“Have you spoken to Miss Mary about this?” Ben asked.

“Not plainly,” Mrs. Cosser replied, “but she’s talked to me a little, and I think the girl’s having second thoughts.  You know how young girls are, Mrs. Thomas——full of romantic notions.  I’m sure she was flattered by all the attention.”

“And in love with the idea of being in love,” Nelly added, “more than with the man.”

“Exactly my feeling,” the other woman said.

“Then she isn’t ready for marriage,” Nelly concluded.  “I think you’re right to encourage her to talk with her father first.”

“Thing is,” Mr. Cosser inserted, “the situation’s already causing a lot of talk.  Some of the miners——friends of Cole, I guess——think he had a right to marry the girl, so long as she agreed.  Others, especially those with children of their own, are taking the father’s side just as strongly.”

“You think there could be trouble?” Ben asked.

Cosser nodded grimly.  “If it comes to it, I’d like to know we had the support of prominent settlers like yourselves.”

“You got mine,” Clyde stated sturdily, “and I reckon I can speak for Ben.”

“Yeah,” Ben said quietly.  He didn’t feel as strongly as Clyde——maybe because he had sons, not a daughter——but, still, it wasn’t right, going behind the father’s back.  He remembered the support Captain Stoddard had given him and Elizabeth when they married.  That’s the way marriage was meant to be, not some sneaky, back-handed contract rushed into without thought.  “Yeah,” he said more firmly.  “I’ll stand with you if troubles comes.  Let’s just hope it doesn’t.”  And as the autumn leaves began to change colors and drop to earth without any sign of conflict, Ben felt certain his hope had been justified.

* * * * *

October added the annual pumpkin harvest to Adam’s list of chores, and Billy’s, as well.  The boys claimed the two biggest ones to save for jack-o-lanterns at month’s end and, after stocking the trading post with all that were likely to sell, divided the rest equally between the two families.  All but a few straggling wagon parties had passed by mid-month, and Ben and Clyde made plans for their final trip across the Sierras for winter supplies.  The weather had continued colder than usual, and they wanted to make an early trip.

Two days before their scheduled departure Ben entertained Paul Martin in his home for what he presumed would be their last chess match.  Proud to have won it, Ben poured a cup of hot coffee for his friend.  “I’m going to miss these Saturday evenings with you, Paul,” he said.

Still trying to analyze Ben’s winning strategy, Paul looked up quickly.  “You saying I’m not welcome here anymore?”

“Of course, you’re welcome here,” Ben laughed.  “But I told you I’d be leaving Monday, and I naturally assumed you’d be gone by the time I returned.  Hardly any of the miners spend the winter here.”

“Well, here’s one that plans to,” Martin replied, a hard edge in his voice.  “I’ve seen all of California I care to.”

“Have you got enough supplies stockpiled?” Ben asked as he poured a cup of coffee for himself.

Paul shrugged nonchalantly.  “I figured I could get what I needed at the trading post.”

A half-smile lifted one corner of Ben’s mouth.  “That was a dangerous assumption, my friend.  Most of us shut down for the winter.”

“You, too?” Paul inquired, looking more serious.

Ben nodded as he moved to the opposite side of the table.  “Of course, Reese stays open, and maybe Cosser will; but Reese, at least, only stocks the basics this time of year.”

“And maybe not enough to go around?” Paul asked.

Ben shrugged.  “I don’t know.  I bring in my own, of course, so I don’t often have to trade there.”  He pulled out his chair and sat down.

Paul bit his lip.  “Would—would you have enough room in your wagon to bring back supplies for me?” he asked, clearly reluctant to request the favor.

Ben chuckled.  “Oh, I imagine I could squeeze in a little extra beans and bacon.  But are you sure that’s what you want?  Winters here get pretty cold.  We haven’t had a real severe one since we settled here, but Tuquah tells me they can get bad some years.  The way the weather’s been shaping up, this one just might get that way.”

“Well, I’m sure I don’t want to go back to California,” Paul grunted.  “That doesn’t leave me many options.”

Ben sipped his coffee slowly.  “What happened in California?” he asked quietly.

Paul clunked his tin cup down.  “Stickin’ your long New England nose in where it doesn’t belong again, aren’t you?”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Maybe I think it’s a friend’s prerogative.  That’s the reason you quit medicine, isn’t it?  Something that happened in California?”

Paul took another sip of coffee.  “Keep stickin’ your nose out like that, Ben, and it just might get punched back where it belongs.”

Ben shook his head, not worried that his friend would suddenly and uncharacteristically resort to violence, but he’d gotten the message, obviously Martin’s intent.  “Let’s discuss what supplies you’ll need for the winter,” Ben said, and once launched into that safe topic, found Paul once more easy to converse with.

* * * * *

As the Cartwrights’ wagon pulled up before the Thomas cabin early Monday morning, Adam jumped from the end and reached back to help down his sleepy little brother.  “You about ready?” Ben called to Clyde.

Clyde made a final check on his oxen’s harness.  “Ready,” he announced.

Ben bent over to give Hoss a farewell kiss.  “Be a good boy and mind Aunt Nelly,” he instructed.

“Good boy, Pa,” Hoss assured him with an emphatic bob of his pudgy chin.

Ben laughed and rumpled the boy’s sleep-tousled tawny hair.  Then he laid a hand on Adam’s shoulder.  “And you be a good boy, too,” he chuckled.

“I always am, Pa,” Adam said, a trifle grumpily.  Ben wasn’t sure whether the boy was still sleepy like his brother, disgruntled because he’d been refused permission to go on the trip or whether he felt genuinely offended by what he considered an unnecessary admonition.  The last problem, at least, Ben could remedy.  “I’m sure you’ll be as good as always,” he said.  “Look after Hoss for me.”

Adam smiled.  “I will, Pa.”

Clyde was squinting into the rising sun.  “Didn’t know Cosser was plannin’ to bring two wagons.”

Ben looked over his shoulder.  Sure enough, two wagons were lumbering toward them.  “Nor did I.  Of course, with that boardinghouse to provide for, maybe they need extra supplies.”

“Two wagons full?” Clyde scoffed.

Ben shrugged.  The only way to answer that question was to wait and ask Walter Cosser.

Cosser raised a hand in greeting as his wagon pulled into the yard.  “Hope you men don’t mind, but I invited Mr. Powell to travel with us.  He’s headed for California, and like we discussed before, there’s safety in numbers.”

Ben smiled.  “As I told you before, I don’t think there’s much danger, but you’re both welcome to travel with us——at least to Placerville.  I’m not sure our plans coincide after that.”

“That should be far enough,” Powell said.

Ben’s brow wrinkled, and the furrows deepened as he saw two young children peeking through the opening in the wagon cover.  “You expecting trouble?” he asked quietly.

“Maybe,” Powell replied cautiously.  “Cosser here said you’d be willing to help, even if—”

“We are,” Clyde inserted hurriedly.  “Just like to know what we’re up against.”

“Fair enough,” Powell agreed.  “My girl’s too young to be married, so I’m gonna resettle in California.  Mining chances here don’t seem any better than there, anyway, so it’s all one to me.  This Cole fellow don’t know yet that we’ve left, but might be he’d follow.  Mary seems to think he’s real attached to her.”

“You bring your sidearm, Ben?” Clyde asked.

“It’s in the wagon,” Ben replied gravely.  Though he rarely carried a handgun at home, reports of robberies on California roads had made him deem it prudent to buy one for his trips there.  So far, he’d never had to use it, but it was cleaned and ready.

“Hey, Pa!” called a drowsy voice from the cabin’s doorway.  “Maybe I better come along after all.  Be an extra gun hand, you know.”

Ben had to laugh.  Standing there barefoot in his nightshirt did nothing to make Billy look like a gun hand.

Clyde, however, didn’t find the offer even slightly amusing.  “I’d better not see you handlin’ my gun, boy!”

Nelly jerked on Billy’s elbow.  “Get back in here!” she ordered.  “What’s the matter with you, showin’ yourself to that girl without proper clothes on!”  Billy disappeared an instant later.

“That’s all we’d need,” Clyde grumbled, “to have trouble followin’ and take it along with us, too!”

“Pa,” Adam said, his face concerned.  “Pa, you be careful.”

Ben knelt down and gave his son’s arms a squeeze.  “I will be, Adam.  No need for you to worry, boy.  Probably won’t be any trouble.”

“Adam!” Hoss called from the doorway.  “Aunt Nelwy fixin’ pancakes!”

Ben stood and gave Adam’s bottom a playful swat.  “Better get them while the getting’s good,” he cautioned.  “Your brother’s mighty fond of pancakes.”  Adam grinned and trotted into the house.

The wagons pulled out.  Though they made good time, a group of men on horses easily overtook the ox-drawn wagons when they stopped for a light lunch.  “Bound to be Cole,” Powell declared, pulling his rifle from his wagon.

“No, Pa!” Mary Powell pleaded.  “Don’t shoot him!  He loves me, Pa.”

“Love!” Powell shouted.  “You don’t know the meaning of the word, girl.”

“Put the gun down, Powell!” Ben shouted in a commanding voice.  “Maybe all the man wants to do is talk.”

“He don’t need that many men with him to talk,” Powell protested.

“Nonetheless,” Ben said, taking the rifle, “if gunplay starts, it’s these youngsters who are likely to get hurt.”

Nodding grimly, Powell released the gun.  “All right,” he said, “we’ll talk, but that man ain’t takin’ my little girl.”

The first rider, followed closely by three others, reached the encamped wagons and vaulted from his saddle.  Sweeping a hank of blonde hair out of snapping brown eyes, the young man stepped swiftly to the side of Mary Powell.  The girl’s father stepped just as quickly between them.  “Is this the one, Mary?” Powell demanded.  “Is this the fiend who preys on little girls?”

“Oh, Pa,” Mary cried.  “It wasn’t like that.”

“I’ll be the judge of that, girl!” her father sputtered.

Benjamin Cole stuck a long finger beneath Powell’s hooked nose.  “You watch how you talk to my wife!” he yelled.

Clyde walked up to stand beside Powell, and Walter Cosser flanked the father’s other side.  “Fourteen’s too young to be anybody’s wife,” Clyde said.

Cole turned to face him.  “Look, I don’t know you, mister, and I don’t know what business you think this is of yours, but—”

“I’m a father,” Clyde snapped, “a father who can understand what another father feels, that’s all.  You had no business goin’ behind Mr. Powell’s back to marry up with his girl.”

“Look at her,” Cosser pleaded.  “A mere child.  Find yourself a woman, Cole.”

“She’s a woman in every way that counts,” Cole alleged.

“Except in judgment, perhaps,” Ben said from the place he’d taken behind the others.

Cole squinted at the latest man to enter the debate.  “I know you, don’t I?  Cartwright, isn’t it?”

“That’s right,” Ben said.  “I don’t know you well enough to judge your intentions toward this girl, Cole, but—”

“Honorable,” Cole protested.  “If they’d been otherwise, I wouldn’t have bothered with a wedding.”

“That’s a point in his favor, Powell,” Ben said.  “Mary would have had no defense against a man determined to force her favors.”

“So maybe he ain’t as bad as he might be,” Powell argued, “but I don’t call goin’ behind my back honorable, either.  He deliberately waited ‘til Mary had no one to protect her from a smooth talkin’ fancy man.”

Mary pressed her palms to her burning cheeks.  “You all talk like I wasn’t here at all,” she cried.

Ben glanced at the girl with sudden sympathy.  “She’s right.  I haven’t heard anyone ask Mary what she wants.”

“She’s too young to decide,” Powell stammered.

“Perhaps,” Ben agreed, “but if this were my daughter or my beloved, I’d want to hear her feelings.  Surely, what we all want is what’s best for Mary.”  His brown eyes fixed on Cole’s face.  “Surely, Mr. Cole, as an honorable man, you wouldn’t demand that Mary return with you against her will.”

“Well, no,” Cole admitted.  “Not if Mary’s set against our marriage.”

“Then you’re willing to abide by her decision?” Ben pressed.

Cole flashed a self-assured smile at the pretty young girl.  “Yeah, whatever Mary wants.”

“And you, Powell?” Ben asked.

Powell frowned.  “I—I don’t know.”

Cole rubbed the handle of his holstered revolver.  “Make up your mind,” he mumbled in a low, threatening tone.  “Is it Mary’s choice or not?”

Powell looked at his daughter, and in that look Ben read the agony of heart he was sure he himself would feel in a similar situation.  “I think there’s only one fitting choice for a girl her age, but I’ll let her be the one to make it,” he said.

“Come on, Mary,” Cole said, stretching a hand toward the flustered girl.  “Let’s go home.”

“Oh, I don’t know!” Mary sobbed.  “I don’t know what to do.  Can’t you give me some time?”

“That’s reasonable,” Ben said.  “Let the child have an hour to make her decision.  Her whole future depends on it.”

“An hour,” Powell agreed, then took his daughter’s hand and gave it a gentle squeeze.  “Can you decide in an hour’s time, honey?”

Mary gazed into his gray eyes.  “I reckon I’ll have to, Pa.”  She excused herself and wandered off toward the riverbank near which they’d stopped for the noon break.  The others left her alone for almost the full hour.  Then Ben ambled over to the river to fill his canteens.  “I don’t mean to disturb you, Mary,” he said as he squatted down and let the canteens sink into the water, “but we’ll be pulling out soon and I need fresh water.”

“That’s all right, Mr. Cartwright,” Mary said quietly, twirling a broken reed between her fingers.  “I—I want to thank you for stepping in like you did.  You’re the only one who cared about me.”

Ben sat on a nearby rock.  “Mary, I think they both care about you, maybe so much they aren’t thinking straight.”

Mary’s lips formed a soft smile.  “I’m not sure I am, either, Mr. Cartwright.  I still don’t know what to do.  What do you think, Mr. Cartwright?”

Ben capped his canteens and stood up.  “Has your relationship with your father been a good one, Mary?”

“Oh, yes,” she said immediately.  “He’s been a real good father, sir.”

“Then, shouldn’t you be asking advice from him rather than a complete stranger?” Ben asked.

“The stranger didn’t take sides,” Mary explained.  “I’d rather hear what he thought.”

Ben brushed a wisp of dark brown hair from Mary’s cheek.  “Do you think you’re ready for marriage, Mary?” he asked gently.

Mary tossed the reed aside.  “I’m not sure.  I like the idea, and Benjamin——my Benjamin, I mean——he’s so handsome and he says such sweet things.”

“But do you love him?” Ben asked softly.

Mary kicked at the grass.  “Maybe it’s like Pa says——I don’t really know what love is.”

“Don’t you think you should find out before you tie yourself to one man for the rest of your life?”  Ben smiled.  “Shouldn’t you know first what you want in a man——as a husband and as a father to your children?”

“Children!” Mary cried.  “Lands, Mr. Cartwright, I know I’m not ready to be a mother!”

Ben reached out and took her hand.  “One usually follows pretty much on the heels of the other, child,” he said.

Mary paled.  “Oh, dear, I suppose you’re right,” she sighed.  “I’m really not ready yet, am I?”

“Doesn’t sound like it,” Ben replied.  “Want me to tell them your decision?”

Mary squared her shoulders.  “No——thank you, but no.  I’m woman enough to do that myself.”

Ben took her arm.  “Then, at least, let me escort you back, young lady.”  Mary smiled up into his warm brown eyes.

Together, they walked back to the train.  Mary went directly to Benjamin Cole, who smiled triumphantly as she approached.  She took his hand and stroked it kindly.  “Much as I like you, Benjamin,” she said, “I’m not ready to be a wife.  I still have a lot of growing up to do, and I think the best place to do it is in my father’s house.  I want to go on to California.”

Cole blushed furiously.  He’d been so sure she would choose him and now felt embarrassed in front of his friends.  “I think you’re makin’ a mistake, girl,” he muttered, “but I won’t go back on my word.”

Mary glanced quickly at Ben Cartwright.  “I’m not a girl,” she said, tossing dark curls over her slim shoulder.  “I’m a young lady——something you and my pa both forgot——and I reckon I’ll stand by my choice.”

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Ben stopped his wagon in front of the canvas and scrap wood shelter which Paul Martin called home.  “Hello the house,” he called.

Bare-chested, with his suspenders hanging from the waist, Martin stepped outside into the fading sunlight.  “Back, are you?” he asked.  “Good trip?”

“Fine trip,” Ben replied.  “A little trouble at the start, but it turned out all right.  Saw several old friends and found enough trinkets to brighten my boys’ Christmas.  Thought I might as well deliver your supplies directly, rather than unloading them at the store first.”

“Thanks,” Paul said.  “Guess we’d better get the job done, huh?”

“Soon as possible,” Ben agreed.  “I want to get back to the Thomases and collect the boys before dark.”

“Should have brought them with you,” Paul said.

Ben chuckled.  “Well, that didn’t suit my purpose.  I have a favor to ask.”

Paul looked skeptical.  Not once in his acquaintance with Ben Cartwright had the other man let him play the benefactor.  Always the other way around.  “What do you need?” he asked, hoping it was something he could provide.

“Just a place to hide the afore-mentioned Christmas presents,” Ben laughed.  “There aren’t enough hidey-holes in my cabin to fool certain prying little eyes, and that Billy Thomas is getting snoopier by the day.  I don’t think my usual device of hiding them at his place is going to work this year.”

Paul smiled.  “My place is even smaller, but you’re welcome to its use, provided you haven’t spoiled those boys with a pile of toys taller than the mountains.”

Ben ignored the taunt.  “I appreciate it,” he said as he began to unload Martin’s supplies.

Paul hefted a sack of cornmeal to his shoulder and followed Ben into the cabin.  “Just pile it in the back corner,” he said in answer to Ben’s query.

Ben dropped the bag of flour in the designated spot and headed outside to get another load.  As he was exiting, however, he noticed the black bag sitting in the corner nearest the door.  There was no mistaking the distinctive shape.  Ben picked it up and held it out toward his friend.  “I thought you’d given up the practice of medicine, doctor,” he said bluntly, “so why keep this?”

Paul snatched the bag from Ben’s hands.  “It was a gift——from someone who meant a lot to me.  That’s why I keep it.  And you dare accuse Billy Thomas of snoopiness!”

Ben smiled wryly.  “I assure you he didn’t learn it from me, present evidence to the contrary.”

“I thought you wanted these supplies unloaded fast,” Martin muttered as he set the bag down.

Ben nodded.  Working in virtual silence, the men quickly finished their task.  “Something else I’d like to talk to you about,” Ben began when the work was done.

“If you plan on sticking that nose of yours in my business again,” Paul retorted sharply, “you can—”

“Hey!” Ben snapped.  “What I want to discuss is a job offer, but maybe you consider that sticking my long New England nose in, too.”

“A job?”  Paul looked suspicious.  “What kind of job?”

“Well, you know Clyde Thomas and I have been talking about driving a flock of sheep up from New Mexico,” Ben began again.

“You’ve mentioned it,” Paul said, feeling calmer.

“Yeah, and I was wondering——since you’re planning to winter here——if you’d mind looking after my place and seeing to the stock while I’m away.”

Paul laughed.  “Do I strike you as a cattleman?”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “More so than a miner.  Cattle, at least, are living things, more in your line than panning for gold, Doctor Martin.”  At the risk of offending his abrasive friend, Ben deliberately emphasized the title.”

Martin blanched.  “Ben—”

Ben raised an interjecting hand.  “Yeah, I know.  Keep my nose where it belongs.  Let’s look at it strictly as a business proposition then.  Now, I have two men working for me——part time, at least.  They can handle the day-to-day management of the cattle, but I’d prefer to leave someone more trustworthy in charge.  You may not have experience with cattle, but your medical skills will be useful when they calve.”

“I never was a vet,” Paul chuckled, “but I imagine I could play mid-wife to a cow, if needed.”

“Exactly what I thought,” Ben said.  “I’d pay you for your help, of course, and you’re welcome to stay at my place while we’re away.”  He looked around the ramshackle cabin.  “Certainly, you’ll be warmer there than here.”

“What about the boys?” Paul said.  “You want me to look after them, too?”

Ben shook his head.  “No, they’ll stay with Nelly Thomas, though I’d appreciate it if you looked in on them from time to time, just to see that everything’s going well.  A woman alone might need someone she could call on, maybe someone to chop a little wood once in a while.  It looks to be a cold winter.”

“I guess I could handle that,” Paul said.  “Sure, I’ll watch the place while you’re gone, Ben, but I’ll miss our Saturday chess matches.”

A twinkle sparkled in Ben’s brown eyes.  “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, they say.  Maybe you’ll learn to appreciate a certain long New England nose when it isn’t around to poke into your business.”

Paul chuckled and shook his head.  Snoopiness notwithstanding, he was glad it would be three months before he had to give up those weekly visits with the one man he called friend.

* * * * *

November slipped past unnoticed, except for the annual gathering around a table crammed with proof of a bountiful harvest and a prosperous year.  That holiday was no sooner celebrated than the Cartwright boys began to feel excited anticipation of Christmas.  “How long now, Bubba?” Hoss demanded each December morning.  “‘Morrow?”

“No, not tomorrow,” Adam said, exasperated.  He squatted next to the fireplace where his father was frying bacon for breakfast.  “Pa, what are we gonna do with him?” he grumbled.

Ben chuckled.  “Serves you right for talking about Santa this early in the month.”

Hoss slapped his hand repeatedly against Adam’s back.  “How long, Bubba?” he persisted.

“Well, not tomorrow!” Adam snapped, jumping to his feet.  “Not for lots of tomorrows.”

“Adam,” Ben rebuked gently, seeing Hoss’s lower lip pooch out.  “He can’t help it.  Three-year-olds don’t have much concept of time.”

“Well, he needs one,” Adam declared adamantly.  “It’s time he learned what a week is, anyway.”

Ben tweaked Adam’s nose.  “All right, little schoolmaster, you teach him.”

Adam smiled, liking the idea.  “I bet I could.”  He gave Hoss’s tawny head a pat.  “Want to learn the days of the week, Hoss?”

Hoss’s chin bobbed up and down.

“Okay, let’s get started,” Adam said.

“Breakfast first,” Ben said firmly.  “Then chores.”

Adam groaned, hating to put off a project once he had it in mind, but there’d be no convincing Pa that teaching Hoss was more important than mucking out the cow’s stall.  The lessons would have to wait.

With necessary duties out of the way, Adam seated his little pupil at the table.  “Can I use the calendar, Pa?”

His lips twitching, Ben got the desired “textbook” for his son.  Adam spread it open at the proper month.  “Okay, Hoss, this shows all the days in December, but we’ll just learn a few at first.”  Adam pointed to December 10th.  “This is today.  We call it Saturday.”

“Sat-day,” Hoss repeated earnestly.

“Good boy,” Adam said.  “Now, do you know what happens every Saturday?”  Hoss’s head wagged from side to side.

“Saturday’s the day Mr. Martin comes to teach me chemistry,” Adam lectured.

Ben looked up from the harness he was mending.  “Oh, is that why he comes?” he chuckled.  “I always thought he came to play with me.”

Adam grinned sheepishly.  “Yeah, I guess so,” he admitted, “but I like the other part best.”  He turned back to the calendar, pointing out two more dates to Hoss.  “See, Hoss——one, two more Saturdays and it will be Christmas Eve.”

“Santa come!” Hoss chirped, then cocked his head.  “Pau-Pau Santa?”

Ben laughed as he recognized Hoss’s garbled pronunciation of their weekly visitor’s name.  “Now you’ve done it!” he snickered at Adam.  “Now he thinks Paul Martin is Santa Claus!”  Of course, Hoss wasn’t far wrong this particular year, Ben thought with amusement.

“No, no, Hoss,” Adam corrected.  “Mr. Martin is not Santa.  He just usually comes the same day that—”  Adam raised quizzical eyes to his father.  “Is he coming that Saturday, Pa?  Christmas Eve, I mean.”

Ben sat down across from Adam.  “You know, I hadn’t realized ‘til now that Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday.  It might be a neighborly thing to have him here, though.  People get lonely at Christmas time when they have no family of their own.”

“But you wouldn’t just play chess, would you?” Adam asked urgently.  “You’d still read the Christmas ghost story and fix up the tree like always?”

Ben reached across the table to squeeze the boy’s hand.  “Of course, Adam.  That’s our special tradition; we’ll always do that.  But it doesn’t hurt to share our special times with others, does it?”

Adam smiled.  “No, Pa.  Sharing makes them better.”

“Good.  I’ll ask Mr. Martin to join us then.”

Adam turned his attention back to Hoss’s instruction and by the time he put away the calendar was convinced his little brother understood just when the gifts would appear under the Christmas tree.  He was convinced, that is, until the next morning when Hoss greeted him with “How long now, Bubba?  ‘Morrow?”

* * * * *

Standing on a chair, Hoss pressed his nose flat against the cold windowpane in the front room, then turned to look at Adam.  “Santa Pau-Pau come?” he asked urgently.

“Santa will come,” Adam promised, “but I don’t know about Pau-Pau.”

Ben gave the stewed turnips a final stir and looked anxiously out the window.  The rain was still coming down and, if the temperature continued to drop, was likely to turn to snow by morning, perhaps earlier.  Like Hoss, Ben was concerned that the weather might keep Paul from coming, and though Adam didn’t realize it, in that event Santa Claus wasn’t likely to arrive either.  Paul had been reluctant to intrude on a family holiday, but had finally given in to Ben’s insistence and promised to bring the boys’ presents with him when he came.  No Paul, no presents, and Ben was disappointed on both counts.

The skies had been gray all day, but they grew darker as night fell.  No sense holding supper, Ben thought as he set out three tin plates.  Before he could get all the food on the table, however, several loud thumps struck the door.  His face lighting, Ben ran to open it.

In the doorway stood a totally drenched Paul Martin.  “Pau-Pau!” Hoss cried, bustling over to greet their guest.

“Mercy, man, get in here and dry off,” Ben ordered.

“Yes, sir!” Paul said, giving Ben a smart salute.  He gave Hoss a gentle pat.  “I’ll hug you later, son.  I’m wet to the bone.”

Oblivious to the dampness, Hoss hugged Paul’s pants leg.  Ben pulled the boy away.  “Later, son,” he laughed.  “Let Mr. Martin over by the fire.”  He smiled at Paul.  “I was afraid you might not make it, the weather being what it is.”

Paul winked.  “Santa’s sleigh runs through any storm, you know.”

Hoss plucked Adam’s shirt sleeve.  “See.  Pau-Pau Santa.”  Adam rolled his eyes, but it was his ears that pricked up at his father’s next words.

“Did you—uh—bring anything with you?” Ben asked.

Paul laughed.  “In the barn,” he whispered, but Adam heard him.

“Maybe I should put up Mr. Martin’s horse, Pa,” Adam offered, keeping his face innocent.

Ben and Paul both hooted, seeing at once through Adam’s stratagem.  “Oh, no, you don’t!” Ben said, ruffling the boy’s dark hair.

“I tended my horse before I came to the house, son,” Paul added.  “You just didn’t hear me because of the storm.”

Adam grinned, not minding at all that he’d been caught.  “We’re just glad you’re here,” he said, “and even more now that—”

“Careful, Adam,” Ben cautioned.  “Little pitchers have big ears.”

Adam tittered, remembering all the times grownups had used that phrase around him.  He hadn’t liked the feeling of being left in the dark, but now, of course, Pa meant Hoss, and Adam enjoyed being in on the joke.

Ben loaned Paul some dry clothes, and while his friend was changing, finishing setting out the food.  Hoss banged on the door to his father’s room.  “Hurwy, Pau-Pau,” he called.  “Time eat.”

“Hoss, get away from that door,” Ben scolded.

The door opened immediately and Paul swooped Hoss up in his arms.  “Now for that hug I promised you, little man.”  Hoss giggled as Paul gave him a squeeze and swung him to his shoulder.  “Now, where’s this food you promised me, Hoss?”  Hoss pointed to the table and Paul swung him down into his special, long-legged chair.

The others gathered around the table and Ben asked their guest to offer thanks.  Paul did, then sniffed the air appreciatively.  “Oxtail stew, isn’t it?”

“You have a trained sniffer,” Ben smiled as he ladled his friend’s plate full of the savory broth in which swam large chunks of meat, carrots and potatoes.  “Not a traditional meal, I suppose, but stew’s my best dish.”

“Always a favorite with me,” Paul said.

Evidently, the stew was a favorite with everyone, for all four ate large helpings.  In fact, by the time they were finished, nothing remained on the table.  Ben and Adam hurriedly cleared the table and washed the dishes while Paul amused Hoss playing cat’s cradle with a bit of string he’d brought in his pocket.

Then they worked together to wind a popcorn garland around the tree and hang the usual ornaments from the branches.  “Now we eat popcorn while Pa reads a story,” Adam informed their guest.

“You may eat popcorn,” Paul laughed, “but I am full up to here.”  He held his hand just below his chin.”

“Storwy, Pa,” Hoss chirped.

“Soon as I pop the corn,” Ben promised.  “Adam, you get the book down.”

Paul reached for the volume as soon as Adam had taken it from the shelf.  “Ah!  A Christmas Carol——a favorite of mine, too.”  He glanced over to the fireplace where Ben was preparing the snack.  “Mind if I help with the reading, Ben?”

“Sure, that’d be a treat for me,” Ben said.

Out of politeness Adam didn’t say anything, though he secretly wanted his father to do all the reading.  Pa always made the story seem so real.  As the reading began, however, Adam learned that Paul Martin also had a gift for making words come alive.  He and Ben divided up the characters——Ben providing the voice for some and Paul, others.  It was almost like seeing the story acted out, Adam decided, and hoped Mr. Martin could be there for all their Christmas Eves.

When the story ended, the boys said their good-nights and headed for bed.  “Look, Pa,” Adam said as he glanced out the window.  “It’s snowing!”  He frowned worriedly.  “You think we’ll be able to get to Billy’s place for Christmas tomorrow?”

Ben laid the chessboard on the table.  “Oh, I imagine we can get through, though it looks like Santa will have to use his sleigh and reindeer tonight.”

Adam giggled.  “Yeah, that’s right.  Come on, Hoss, let’s get tucked in so Santa can come.”

“Wanna see waindeer,” Hoss insisted, stretching for the doorknob.

“If you do, Santa won’t leave any presents,” Ben warned with a twitch of his lips.

“Night-night,” Hoss called as he hustled into the bedroom with Adam close behind.

Ben chuckled and started to set the chess pieces in place.  Watching the snowflakes fall, Paul frowned.  “Maybe we’d better forego the chess game tonight, Ben,” he said.  “I think I should head home before this gets any heavier.”

“You’re not going anywhere,” Ben said firmly.  “You’re staying the night here.”

“Oh, Ben, I can’t do that,” Paul protested.

“Can and will,” Ben stated.  “I won’t hear any argument, sir.”

“Christmas is for family,” Paul insisted.

Ben laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “So, we’ll adopt you for a night.  Common sense ought to tell you it’s not safe out.  You’d probably catch your death of pneumonia, and as we all know, there’s no doctor in the territory.”

Paul bristled at the veiled rebuke in Ben’s last words, then a crafty smile touched his lips.  “All right, I’ll stay——on two conditions.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Which are?”

Paul shook a finger under Ben’s nose.  “First, no more snide jokes about my former profession.”

“Agreed,” Ben said with a smile.  “And second?”

“I get to make the first move.”

Ben laughed.  He could almost guarantee the results if he gave Paul that kind of advantage, but he readily acceded to his guest’s demand.  And as he’d predicted, Paul won the first game.

By the end of the second, which Ben won, both men were yawning.  “We’d better turn in,” Ben said.  “Those boys will be up early tomorrow.”

“Maybe we should bring in the presents tonight?” Paul suggested.

“Yeah, good idea,” Ben replied.  “If you can see to that, I’ll move Hoss to the trundle and you can have his bed.”

“Fair enough.”

With the presents placed under the tree, Ben and Paul said good night, and the house lay still beneath the softly falling snow.  Hoss and Adam smiled sweetly in their sleep, evidently with the legendary visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads.  Ben, too, rested calmly, but Paul Martin tossed uneasily from side to side, moaning as he slept.

The sky was still black when Ben was awakened by loud, repeated cries from the next room.  “Aggie!  Aggie!” the tormented voice groaned again and again.

Ben sprang to his feet and hurried through the door.  “Paul,” he said, shaking the man’s shoulder.  “Paul, wake up.”

Paul’s gray eyes opened.  “What is it, Ben?” he asked.  “Something wrong?”

“That’s what I want to know,” Ben said.  “I think you were—”

“Pa,” called a voice from the other bed in the room.  “Pa, is it time to open presents?”

Ben moved quickly across the room and tucked the covers more tightly under Adam’s chin.  “No, son; it’s the middle of the night.  Go back to sleep.”  He pressed a kiss to the boy’s forehead.

“Okay,” Adam yawned and turned his face to the wall.

Paul was sitting on the side of the bed when Ben returned to his side.  “Sorry,” Paul said.  “I didn’t mean to wake the boy.”

“Were you having a nightmare?” Ben asked, sitting beside him.

“Ghost of Christmas past, I guess,” Paul said.

“Long past?” Ben asked with a smile, taking his text from the story he and Paul had read together earlier that evening.

Paul stood and headed for the door.  “Not long enough,” he mumbled.

His brow furrowed in consideration of Paul’s cryptic response, Ben followed his friend to the fireplace in the front room.

“Mind if I make some coffee?” Paul asked.

Ben frowned.  “I don’t mind, of course, but that’s not likely to help you sleep.”

“Nothing does,” Paul sighed.

Catching the weary tone in Paul’s voice, Ben quietly lighted the coal oil lantern and began to fill the coffee pot with water.  “You have these nightmares often?” he asked gently.

Paul laughed gruffly.  “Not so much lately.  At first—”  He stopped.

“Want to talk about it?” Ben asked.

Paul shook his head.

“Might help,” Ben urged.  “I’ve known for months you had something bottled up inside.  Maybe if you get it out, it won’t disturb your sleep.”  Paul said nothing, but he looked as though he were weighing the idea.

“Who’s Aggie?” Ben probed, hoping the question might help his friend get started.

Paul paled.  “Who told you about her?”

Of course!  Aggie would be a woman’s name.  Ben was surprised he hadn’t realized that immediately.  “You called her name in your sleep——over and over,” he explained.

“Did I?” Paul murmured softly.  “Dear Aggie.  I suppose it is thoughts of Christmas that bring her to mind tonight.  She loved Christmas so, with the kind of starry-eyed wonder you usually see only in children.”

“Someone close to you?” Ben pressed.

Paul looked steadily into Ben’s face for a moment.  “Very close,” he said after taking a deep breath.  “Her given name was Agatha, but I called her Aggie.  My wife, Ben.”

Ben set the coffee pot down abruptly.  “You’re married?” he asked.  Now, why had he assumed Paul Martin was a bachelor?  Lots of the miners had wives back home.

Paul took the daguerreotype of Inger from the mantel.  “The same way you are,” he said and set the picture down again.

Ben’s eyes grew misty.  “She’s gone——like Inger?”

“No, not like Inger,” Paul sputtered bitterly.  “You had something you could bury.”

“What happened, Paul?” Ben asked sympathetically.

Paul shook his head.  “Oh, Ben, it’s a long, ugly story——not the kind to tell on this holy night.”

Ben laid a hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “Exactly the kind to tell on this holy night,” he said.  “I can think of no better way to celebrate the night angels sang of peace on earth than to bring peace to your heart.  Don’t keep the pain pent up any longer, Paul; let it out and let peace come.”

A single tear slipped down Paul’s cheek.  “Maybe,” he said.  “Maybe that is possible.”

“Tonight of all nights,” Ben said, pulling a chair close and motioning Paul to take the rocker.

“Quite the idealist, aren’t you, Ben?” Paul commented bitterly, then softened.  “So was I once.  An idealistic young fool.  I didn’t come west for any of the usual reasons——not for gold, not even for the money to be made off the miners.  I came because I knew there’d be a tremendous need for doctors in a newly settled area, and I guess I saw myself as some knight on a white horse, riding from cabin to cabin dispensing medical wisdom to the grateful masses.”

“You think there was something wrong with that?” Ben asked.  “I can see you on that white horse, my friend, and you look more natural there than swinging a pick against a rock ledge.”

Paul shook his head.  “Stupid, romantic dream,” he muttered, “but I left a decent practice in New York and sailed all the way around the Horn to follow it.  The real tragedy, of course, is that I didn’t come alone.”

“Did your wife die on the trip?” Ben asked.  “I know many did.”  He made a quick conjecture that the reason Paul hadn’t been able to bury his wife was that she’d been lost at sea.

“No,” Paul said.  “Not then.  Even that would have been easier to take.”  He paused, not sure he could go on.

“It’s cold,” Ben said.  “Stir up the fire and I’ll put that coffee on.”

Paul nodded, seeming glad to have something to do with his hands.  When he had the fire burning bright, he sat down in the rocker again, staring at the flames as if they held a secret meaning.

Ben set the coffee pot on the grate above the fire and sat down.  “How long were you in California before your wife’s death?” he asked to open the subject again.

“A little over a year,” Paul replied, “and Aggie never complained, despite the rugged living conditions of the camps.  She was a wonderful woman, Ben.”

“I’m sure she was,” Ben murmured.

Paul placed his elbow on the arm of the rocker and leaned his forehead on his palm.  “There was another so-called doctor practicing in the same region where we settled.  And I do mean ‘practicing’——or maybe ‘experimenting’ is the more precise term.  Like so many in California, he just appropriated the title without earning it.  The man knew nothing about medicine, and we had several clashes over patients.  I was probably a little arrogant in the way I flaunted my medical knowledge against his folksy treatments, so maybe I should have expected retaliation, but I didn’t.”

“This retaliation,” Ben said when Paul paused.  “Was it against your wife?”

Paul sighed deeply.  “Not directly.  A miner came to me with a leg badly smashed in a fall.  Bones crushed, no way to save it.  But when I recommended amputation, the patient refused.  Gangrene set in and he died.”

“A needless tragedy,” Ben commented.

Paul nodded.  “Yes, and it led to a greater one.  The other ‘doctor’ stirred up the miner’s friends, claiming he could have cured the man and that his death was the result of my malpractice.”  Tears began to stream down Paul’s face.

“Go on,” Ben urged, sensing they’d reached the heart of his friend’s agony.

Paul took a slow, deep breath.  “I’d been out late that night with another patient.  So tired when I came in that I didn’t even bother grooming my horse, just tossed him some hay and headed for the house.  Even left my doctor’s bag in the buggy, which I’d never done before.”  He paused and gave Ben a significant look.  “A good thing, as it turned out.  I told you once it was a gift from someone close to me.”

“Aggie?” Ben asked, his face tender.

Paul nodded.  “All I have left to remember her by.  I fell into bed and slept like the dead.  Even when the yelling finally woke me, I was still groggy, not thinking straight.  I started to stumble outside, but Aggie stopped me.  She could hear the angry shouts and was afraid the men would harm me.  She was right, of course, but I shouldn’t have listened.  I should have faced them.”

“What did they do?” Ben asked.

Paul swallowed hard.  “They set fire to our cabin, to force me out” he said, choking on the words.  “If they knew there was anyone else living there, I guess anger fogged their memory.”

Ben nodded silently, realizing that most miners so revered women that they’d be unlikely to inflict intentional harm on one.  Undoubtedly, Paul alone had been their target.

”Anyway,” Paul went on, “by the time we realized what they’d done, the situation was critical.  Aggie begged me to save our little girl. Said she could get out on her own.  I threw a blanket around Sally and carried her out through the smoke that was filling the cabin, but when I turned back to help Aggie, the flames were too high to force my way through.”

Ben’s chin quivered and his eyes swam with sympathetic tears.  “She burned to death?”

Paul nodded silently.  “And I could do nothing but listen to her scream.  That’s what I dream about night after night——those screams, those awful, gut-wrenching screams.”  He buried his face in his hands and wept.

Feeling the tears would be cleansing, Ben let him cry.  In the meantime he poured each of them a cup of coffee.  Paul finally settled down.  “I’ve wanted to tell you for weeks now, Ben, so you’d understand, but I just couldn’t get it out.  You see now why I can never practice medicine again.”

Ben’s brow wrinkled.  “No, I can’t see that,” he said as he handed Paul a cup of coffee.  “Why deprive innocent people of your help because of the actions of a few vindictive men?”

“Because they’re representative,” Paul muttered bitterly.  “I decided if what people in this part of the country wanted was sham doctors, I’d leave them to the mercy of the quacks.”

“You can’t live with hate,” Ben began.

“Don’t,” Paul said bluntly.  “Don’t talk about what you know nothing of.”

“What makes you think I don’t?” Ben asked abruptly.  “Do you think I felt differently about the Indians who shot Inger?  I hated them at first, but whenever the hate rose in my heart, I’d hear Inger begging me with her dying breath to forgive them.  Eventually, I had to, to make my peace with her.  I know it’s hard, Paul, but you can’t get on with your life until you get past the hate.”

Paul stared into the flames as he sipped his coffee.  “I can’t, Ben; I just can’t.  If I hadn’t played the hero on the white horse, Aggie would be alive today.  I can’t be that man again.”

“You feel responsible,” Ben said.

“Yes, and don’t tell me you know how that feels!” Paul sputtered.

Ben smiled sadly.  “Don’t I?  I brought Inger west, took her into dangerous country, just as you did Aggie.”  He looked up at the other picture on the mantel.  “And before her, Adam’s mother died in childbirth.  I felt responsible for that, too.  After all, I was the one who planted the seed inside her.”

Paul looked up quickly. “And how long did it take you to come to terms with it, Ben?”

“Quite awhile,” Ben admitted.

“Then give me time,” Paul said.

“All right,” Ben agreed slowly.  “My Christmas present to you——time to heal without anyone’s long New England nose sticking into your business.”

For the first time since the conversation started, Paul smiled.

Ben poured himself a second cup of coffee.  “You mentioned a daughter.”

“Sally,” Paul said.  “She’s about Adam’s age.”

“Where is she?” Ben asked.

Paul looked uncomfortable again.  “In Hawaii.  I sent her to a boarding school there shortly after her mother’s death.”

Ben stared at the other man, his eyes betraying his shock.  The one thing that had helped him through the grief over his wives’ deaths had been the closeness of their sons.  He couldn’t imagine a father and child separated at the time they needed one another most.  “Oh, Paul, she belongs with you,” he murmured.

Paul shook his head.  “No, not as I am now.  I’m not fit for civilized society.  That’s why I came here instead of going back east.  At least, in Hawaii Sally’s getting a good education, and the missionaries probably give her better parenting than I could now.”

“I’m sure she’d trade all that in a minute for the comfort of her father’s arms,” Ben argued.  “At a time like this, especially, she needs you.”

“Indian giver,” Paul accused.

“Huh?”

“That long New England nose is pushing in again,” Paul said dryly.  “You didn’t give me much time to heal.”

Ben flushed.  “That may be a hard promise to keep if I continue to unearth new secrets, but I’ll try.  And speaking of trying, maybe we should try to get a little sleep before the boys wake up.  We have a busy day ahead.  Dinner at the Thomases, and you’re coming with us.”

“No,” Paul said firmly.

“Yes,” Ben said with equal firmness.  Standing, he slapped his friend’s shoulder.  “That’s your Christmas present to me, and I’ll accept no other.  High time you reacquainted yourself with civilized society.”

* * * * *

A fiddle’s frolicsome tune drifted down to Ben as he and Adam turned their horses into the corral at Spafford Hall’s Station on New Year’s Eve.  “We’re late, Pa,” Adam grumbled.  “I knew Hoss would make us late, dawdling over dinner like he did.”

Ben lifted his three-year-old and smiled down at his older son.  “No harm done, son.  We’re no more than fashionably late, as they say.”

Adam couldn’t understand that concept.  All he understood was that the first real party in western Utah was starting without them.  And it was a big party, too; folks were coming from as far as fifty miles away, Adam had heard.  Not that he cared about the dancing, of course.  Dances could be fun, as he had discovered at the trailside one he’d attended on their journey west, but trotting around the room with something sweet and frilly wasn’t the main attraction for the boy.  At this time of year more than enough time was spent indoors, and anything that broke up the routine of daily chores was welcomed, even if it involved prancing around the upper room at Spafford Hall’s with a bunch of girls.

Had Ben been able to read Adam’s mind, he would have laughed, for when they entered the rustic ballroom after climbing the stairs, no more than nine fair damsels graced the dance floor——a small number to constitute a bunch——and that included ladies as young as twenty-month-old Inger Thomas.  Still, nine was a good representation, Ben thought, when you considered that there weren’t more than a dozen females of any age living in this part of the territory.

Adam spotted Billy Thomas cavorting his way around the room with Inger as a partner.  “Is she the best you could find?” Adam hooted as he tapped his friend on the shoulder.  “Why don’t you put her down?”

“She’s too slow that way!” Billy chortled as he swung his little sister around, then finally let her feet touch the floor.

“Here, Inger,” Ben said, putting her little hand in Hoss’s.  “Here’s a partner more your size.”  Hoss knew nothing about dancing, but he got the general idea from the others stepping to the music and started to hop around, holding both of Inger’s hands.

Billy ruffled the youngster’s sandy hair.  “Don’t you tromp on her toes, Hoss boy,” he cautioned, “or I’ll have to punch your snoot.  Matter of honor, you know,” he explained to Hoss’s father.

Ben snickered.  “Since when do you know the meaning of that word?  Where’re your folks, Billy?”

“Well, Ma’s bound to be dancing,” Billy said.  “There’s so many extra men here, Pa’s havin’ to share, but I don’t know where he is.”

Ben searched the dance floor and found Nelly Thomas.  He tapped her dance partner, Sandy Bowers, on the arm.  “May I cut in?” he requested.  Sandy relinquished his prize with a good-natured grin, then spotting a whiskered miner with a bandanna tied about his arm to designate him as a “lady” for the evening, moved to claim his next partner.

“Thanks for rescuing me, Ben,” Nelly laughed.  “That Bowers flaps his arms too hard for my taste.  Wore me plumb down.”

“You want to sit this one out?” Ben asked.

“Not when I finally got a partner who can dance,” Nelly tittered.

“Where’s Clyde?” Ben asked.

Nelly glanced around, then nodded toward the punch bowl.  “Just about where you’d expect,” she snickered.  “Your friend Martin’s been dancing pretty steady, though,” she said, nodding the other direction.

Ben wheeled around to see Paul Martin dancing with a girl who would have made an appropriate partner for Adam.  “Oh, I’m glad he came,” Ben said.  “I wasn’t sure I’d talked him into it.”

“He was here at the beginning, like us,” Nelly said.  “Funny thing, though, he ain’t asked any of the grown women to dance, just the young ones.”

“Not surprising to me,” Ben said.  “He hasn’t spent much time socializing the last several months, and the young ones probably remind him of his own little girl.”

“Martin has a daughter?” Nelly asked, her feminine curiosity instantly aroused.

“Um-hmn,” Ben murmured, spinning Nelly around so she’d quit staring at his friend.  “Name’s Sally, and she’s about the age of the girl he’s dancing with.”

“You don’t say!” Nelly said.  “Back east with her mother, I reckon.”

Ben shook his head.  “Her mother’s dead.  I’ll tell you about it sometime, but not tonight, Miss Gossip.  Tonight is given over to festive frolic.”  As the fiddle cranked out a livelier tune, Ben trotted Nelly around the room until she begged for a reprieve.  Laughing, Ben took her hand and led her to the punch bowl, where they found Clyde downing another cup.

“You save a dance back for me?” Clyde snorted.  “I’m gettin’ mighty tired of them fuzzy-faced ladies I been partnerin’.”

“You’re next, you fuzzy-faced old thing,” Nelly promised, giving her husband’s auburn beard an affectionate pull.

Ben uttered a loud laugh.  “Adam just cut in on Dr. Martin,” he said in answer to the Thomases’ questioning looks

“He lets you call him that now, does he?” Clyde grunted.

Ben chuckled.  “Not to his face, but I’m trusting the day will come when he answers to it again.”

“Sure glad you asked him to Christmas dinner last Sunday,” Nelly said.  “He seems such a lonely sort of man.”

“Yeah,” Ben said.  “That’s why I pressed him to come tonight.  Even promised I’d wear the bandanna and dance the lady’s part for him, and, thanks to my young son, it looks like I’m gonna have to keep my word.”  Ben took the bandanna from his neck and, tying it around his left arm, moved across to offer his services to the now partnerless Paul Martin.

Music and laughter echoed around the room.  Lost in their enjoyment of the evening, the settlers were unaware of softer, stealthier sounds outdoors.  Not until the families with young children made preparations to leave did anyone realize they had had visitors uninterested in music and whose laughter was that of victory over the unvigilant dancers.

Israel Mott, the first to head downstairs, rushed up again, banging open the door to the second floor.  “Hey!” he shouted.  “The horses is gone!”  Immediately he found himself the center of a circle of men, all questioning him at once.  Then the circle made a stampede for the door, clattered down the stairs and rushed to the empty corral.

“Fresh moccasin tracks; we can follow them easy,” Spafford Hall declared.  “Let’s get our stock back, men!”

General agreement met his words.  Not even a sliver of moonlight touched the earth, so the men knew they wouldn’t make much progress before dawn, but no one wanted to stand around waiting for the morning light.  Quickly the men designated three of their number to remain behind to guard the women and children and gathered up all the firearms they could locate.  Adam raced up to Ben.  “Pa, I want to go with you!” he pleaded.

Ben squatted down to look his son eye-to-eye.  “No, Adam.  I need you to stay here with Hoss.”

“Aunt Nelly can take care of him,” Adam argued.  “I want to take care of you!”

Ben smiled.  “I can take care of myself.  You see to Hoss.”  He stood and shouted “Ready!” in answer to Spafford Hall’s call.

With a troubled frown Adam watched his father’s figure fade into the darkness.  Pa was brave and Pa was strong, but sometimes he took chances, like waltzing into a Paiute camp.  Sometimes Pa acted like he’d forgotten Indians could be dangerous, but Adam couldn’t forget.  He had only to remember what they’d done to his stepmother to make the prickles start up his neck.  If it happened to Pa——

“Adam!” Nelly Thomas yelled from the open door to Hall’s Station.  “Get in here, boy!”  Reluctantly, Adam turned and scuffed his feet toward the door.

Most of the settlers with children had come in wagons and had thrown in blankets so their children could sleep snug on the early-morning journey home.  Paul Martin, who had remained with the women, gathered up all he could find, and Nelly supervised the making of pallets.  Hoss and Inger were soon tucked in for the night, but the older boys stood, noses pressed to the frosty window that looked down into the yard.

“Now, you don’t plan on spending the night starin’ into the dark, do you?” Nelly scolded, giving her boy a light swat on the seat of his pants.  “You get into bed now.”

“Aw, Ma, can’t I wait up for Pa?” Billy whined.  “Adam’s gonna.”

“No, he isn’t,” Nelly said.

Adam turned around, a glint of stubborn determination in his black eyes.  “Yes, I am,” he announced, his expression defying contradiction.

But Nelly was used to dealing with defiant boys.  “Your pa left me in charge,” she said firmly, “same as he’ll do when he goes to New Mexico, and you will mind me or suffer the consequences.  Billy can tell you they won’t be pleasant.”  Billy’s nose wrinkled up in distaste and he nodded at Adam.

“Now get to bed,” Nelly ordered.  Once the boys had complied, she leaned over to kiss them both good-night.  “Don’t you fret, either of you,” she said.  “Everything’s gonna turn out fine.”

Adam nodded dutifully, but he rolled over so she wouldn’t see his eyes fill with frightened tears.  He wiped them away quickly, and though none followed the first trickle, the fear grew with the passing hours.  Adam was sure he wouldn’t sleep all night, but eventually the stillness of the darkened room combined with his weariness to pull him into the misty realm of troubled dreams.

The sun was barely up when Adam awoke.  Clambering over Billy’s snoring figure, he crept to the window and peered down into the yard.  Empty.

“Up early, aren’t you, Adam?” Paul Martin asked, laying a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“They’re not back yet,” Adam said.

Martin pulled him close.  “How could they be, son?  There’s just now enough light to make a decent search.”

Adam nodded and wandered away from the window.  As Adam passed the pallet Hoss had shared with Inger and Mrs. Thomas, the little boy sat up, rubbing his eyes.  “Pa back?” he asked.

“Not yet,” Adam whispered.  “Go back to sleep.”

“Hungy, Bubba,” Hoss whimpered.

“Here, here,” Nelly said, reaching across Inger’s sleeping body to soothe Hoss.  “Aunt Nelly will fix you some breakfast, Sunshine.”

“Cake,” Hoss suggested.  It had been his favorite refreshment the night before.

Nelly laughed lightly.  “If there’s some left,” she said.  “Then we’ll see what else we can scare up.”

Nelly and the other ladies made a raid on the supplies of the trading post to prepare breakfast for everyone at the station.  Unlike Hoss, Adam didn’t feel very hungry, but he ate a couple of biscuits and a slice of bacon.  Without waiting for permission, he trotted down the stairs and into the dirt yard, Billy on his heels.

“Sure wish they’d let us go with ‘em,” Billy said as he climbed the corral to sit on its top rail.

Adam stood on the bottom rail next to him.  “Yeah,” he said simply.  Neither boy felt inclined to confess his real worry, but their actions that day revealed it clearly to anyone with eyes to see.  Some of the other children played tag  or hide-and-go-seek, but neither Billy nor Adam felt interested in anything except watching the trail.

Lunch time arrived, and the women once again joined forces to feed the occupants of the station.  “We’re gonna have to take up a collection to repay Hall for his provisions,” Eliza Mott said later that afternoon.  “We’ve used so much already, and it looks like we’ll have to cook dinner here, too.”

Nelly nodded distractedly.  How far had the men gone after the horses?  Or was the news worse than just a long journey?  Had they caught up with the Indians and made a fight of it?  Were any of them coming home?  She and the other ladies were once again meeting in the storeroom to plan a menu for supper when a cloud of dust appeared on the horizon.

Billy spotted it first.  “Hey!” he shouted from his lookout post on the corral fence.  “Hey, I think they’re back!”

Adam, who’d been trying to keep Hoss amused, spun around and a wide smile split his face.  “And they’ve got the horses!” he yelled.

Billy ran into the trading post.  “They’re back!” he hollered at the top of his lungs.  “They’re back!”

The women rushed outside.  “There’s Clyde!” Nelly shouted, pointing out one of the lead riders.

“And Israel!” Eliza screamed.  “Pray God they’re all safe.”

Adam strained his eyes to see through the dust.  He saw Uncle Clyde and Israel Mott.  Behind them he spied Sandy Bowers and a couple of other miners he knew.  But where was Pa?  Adam’s heart jumped into his throat.  He couldn’t see Pa!

Finally, at the back of the herd of horses, came a trio of men, one slumped over his horse.  Adam looked closer and smiled in relief.  It wasn’t Pa; it was Spafford Hall, the man who owned the trading station.  Pa was riding beside him on his bay horse, and he looked fine.  Adam started breathing easier.

“Pa!” yelled Hoss, trotting toward his father.

“Hoss, no!” Adam cried and pulled the toddler back out of the path of the oncoming horses.  He jerked his now blubbering baby brother away from the corral and held him tight.

“Want Pa!” Hoss wailed, squirming to get away.

“You have to wait!” Adam said.  “Be good or I’ll spank!”

Hoss dropped into the dust and twisted his knuckles into his eyes.  “Bubba mean!” he whimpered.  Then strong arms were lifting him and the tears stopped.  “Pa!” Hoss cried.

“Pa’s here now, baby; don’t cry,” Ben soothed, patting the heaving back.

“He was in the way of those horses, Pa,” Adam accused.  “I had to get firm with him.”

“I saw,” Ben said, “and you did just right, Adam.”  He saw Billy across the yard, jabbering to his father, probably asking a hundred questions a minute.  “Billy, come here,” he called.  “I need help.”

Billy didn’t respond right away, but a sharp word from Clyde made him hustle over to Ben.  “Yes, sir, what you need?” he asked irritably.

“Take Hoss inside for me, son,” Ben requested.  “I need to talk to Adam.”

Adam had run to the corral, searching diligently for his gray filly.  He hadn’t spotted her when he heard his father say he needed to talk to him, but she must be there.  Among all those horses, she must be there.

“Adam, come here,” Ben said solemnly.  “I’ve got some bad news.”

Adam walked slowly to his father.  Bad news?  But Pa was safe, and they’d gotten the horses back.  What else——

“It’s about your horse, son,” Ben said quietly.

Adam grew solemn.  “They got away with mine, didn’t they?”

“Not exactly,” Ben said, putting his arm around the boy, “but she won’t be coming back, son.”

“Why not?” Adam demanded.

“Because by the time we reached the Washo camp,” Ben explained, gently rubbing Adam’s shoulders, “they had had a feast——a feast of roast horse, son.”

Adam’s chin trembled.  “My horse?” he asked, his voice quavering.

Ben nodded sadly.  “Yours and one more.  The others they just turned loose.  Rounding them up is what took so long.”

Adam buried his face in his father’s tan vest, and Ben stroked Adam’s dark hair with a soothing hand.  “I know how you loved her, son,” he said, “and I’m sorry, but to the Indians she was just meat on the spit.”

Adam pulled back and swallowed hard.  “And I’m supposed to understand that they were hungry, aren’t I?” he asked bitterly.  “I know I shouldn’t be mad, Pa, but I am.”

Ben drew Adam to his chest and held him tight.  “Of course, you should be mad, Adam,” he said.  “You should be mad and you should feel hurt.  Don’t deny the feelings, but don’t hold on to them; just let them work themselves out.”

The tears came at last.  “I’ll miss her, Pa,” Adam whimpered.

“I know,” Ben said, “but I’ll get you another horse, son.”

“I don’t want another horse!” Adam wailed.

Ben patted the heaving back.  “You will,” he whispered, “once the pain washes through.  There’s a settler east of here who has some horses we could look at, or if you’d rather, we could wait until I get back from New Mexico and get one from the Paynes.”

Adam blinked back the tears.  “Could I go to Monterey to pick her out?”

Despite the seriousness of the moment, Ben had to smile.  He might have known Adam couldn’t resist the temptation to see a new place!  “I think that might be arranged, son,” he said.  “Now let’s get Hoss and get on home.  It’s almost suppertime, and I haven’t had a bite all day.”

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

             Nelly sat in her favorite rocker near the low-burning fire.  Her hands held one of Billy’s stockings, which, as usual, needed darning.  But her stitches were few and far between.  Nelly was tired and, to tell the truth, feeling a bit low down and lonesome, as she phrased it.  Her husband had been gone for close to two months and she missed him.  The four youngsters kept her busy, of course, and they were good company, but she missed the comfort of Clyde’s bony knees poking her in the back at night.  She even missed the music of his snoring.

The boys had really been feeling their oats the last few days.  Spring fever, Nelly supposed.  She couldn’t blame them.  The weather had been colder than usual this winter, and they’d had to stay indoors more.  Now that the days had begun to warm, she’d put them to work plowing the fields.  Hard work for young ones, but it needed doing, and Clyde and Ben weren’t here to do it.

Nelly took another stitch or two at the holey sock, then laid it aside.  Much as she hated to leave the task to another day, she couldn’t see wearing herself out.  After all, tomorrow was Sunday, and she always tried to fix an extra nice dinner for Sunday.  If it had been just her and the youngsters, she probably wouldn’t have bothered.  Hoss would eat anything, Inger wasn’t hard to please, and neither Billy nor Adam had earned anything special after the way they’d snapped at each other all day.  But Paul Martin had been stopping by every Sunday to see if she needed anything, and she welcomed adult company too much to let him leave without taking dinner with them.  Besides, Ben had shared Martin’s tragic loss of his wife, and she just naturally wanted to ease the poor man’s loneliness.  He seemed to be responding, too——not at all the morose, scanty-worded man she’d taken him for at first.

At least, seeing Martin would sweeten Adam’s temper.  The man must have the patience of Job, the way he put up with that boy plying him with questions the rest of them weren’t smart enough to ask, not to mention teaching the youngster to play chess.  Adam wanted to learn as a surprise for his pa, and Martin seemed glad to oblige.  Only Billy disapproved.  He might quarrel with Adam all week long, but he could get downright green-eyed with envy when someone else took a few hours of his playmate’s time.

Laying aside the mending for another day, Nelly turned down the lamp wick and tiptoed to the room Billy and Adam were sharing.  As she peered down at the two peaceful slumberers, she chuckled.  The little scamps.  Looking at them now, you’d never guess what a ruckus they could stir up.  Nelly kissed both angelic faces and slipped out to check on the other two children sleeping in her bedroom.

* * * * *

Ben sat easy in the saddle as he rode on the left flank of the flock of sheep.  It had been an uneventful trip:  no major problems, few animals lost, and a sameness to each day that almost lulled a man to sleep.  On the other hand, maybe he was just tired.  Ben chuckled to himself.  He was tired, all right——tired of listening to sheep.  He’d always found the lowing of cattle soothing to his ear, but the bleat of sheep grated on him like a baby’s bawling.  Just let Clyde Thomas try to talk him into another trip like this!  Ben’s lips twitched.  No chance of that.  Clyde was as irritated by the incessant baa-baaing as Ben, and he’d be just as glad when they reached the CarsonValley and could get away from it for a while.  It had been a long trip, and they were both eager to get home again.  No more than two days’ drive now.

Ben drifted back and wheeled his bay alongside the chestnut ridden by Jean D’Marigny.  The Frenchman touched his gray felt hat in greeting.  “Monsieur Cartwright,” he said.  “All is well with the sheep.”

“I know,” Ben smiled.  “It’s been a good trip.”

Oui, un bon voyage,” D’Marigny replied, lapsing into his native tongue.  “And California, is it much further now?”

Ben nodded.  “California is, yes, but we’re getting close to my land.  We’ll be stopping there two or three weeks before continuing on, and I, for one, am looking forward to the rest.”

The Frenchman flashed him a bright smile.  “Ah, oui, that will be good, but I had not realized we were not going straight through.”

Ben reached down to stroke the neck of his bay.  “We can’t.  The snows will still be blocking the passes.”

D’Marigny looked thoughtful.  “I should like to have seen snow.  I have heard it is most picturesque.”

Ben turned surprised eyes on his hired sheepherder.  “But surely you’ve seen snow in New Mexico.  Have you not been in the mountains there?”

D’Marigny laughed.  “No, monsieur.  I was only passing through when I met you, and it did not snow then.  It is a rare winter indeed that would bring snow to New Orleans.”

Ben laughed.  “Is that where you’re from, New Orleans?”

Oui, monsieur.  All my life I have lived in that beautiful city.”

“Beautiful, it is,” Ben agreed.  “I made port there a number of times while I was sailing.  But surely you didn’t learn to be a sheepherder there.”

D’Marigny laughed again.  “A sheepherder, monsieur?  All I know of that profession I have learned from you——and the other men you hired.”

Ben chuckled.  “Mostly from them, I’d say.  I’ve never been around sheep before.  You, either?”  When the Frenchman shook his head, Ben commented, “Well, you certainly have an aptitude for livestock.  Of all the men we hired for this trip, I’ve been most impressed with your work.”

The other man doffed his hat and gave as elegant a bow as he could on horseback, the movement serving to emphasize D’Marigny’s grace as a rider.  “Thank you, monsieur.  It pleases me to please you.”

“You please me very much,” Ben said, “so much that I’ve been wanting to talk with you about staying on with me.”

It was D’Marigny’s turn to look puzzled.  “But, monsieur, I thought you intended to sell all the sheep.”

“That’s right,” Ben said.  “Mr. Thomas will keep a few for personal use, but the rest will be sold in California.  I’ll be buying cattle there, though, to add to my herd, and the increase will mean I’ll need more help than I’ve had before.  I plan to ask a couple of the other men to stay on, but I’ll need a foreman.  I’ve watched the way you handle yourself, the way you relate to the other men, so I’d like you to fill that position.”

“I am honored, monsieur,” D’Marigny said, his white teeth flashing once again.  “It was my intent to stay in California, but perhaps your UtahTerritory will be far enough from New Orleans.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Any reason you need to get far from New Orleans, D’Marigny?”

Drooping lips replaced the brilliant smile.  “Unpleasant memories only, monsieur; no trouble with the law, if that is what you feared.”

“Good,” Ben said.  “Then, you’ve got yourself a job.”  He rode forward again, shaking his head, wondering where he’d developed such a talent for picking up unhappy strays.  Surely, Jean D’Marigny wasn’t another Paul Martin, running from a miserable past.  Not that there wasn’t enough tragedy abroad in the world to touch untold numbers of men, and many men did come west as an escape.  He’d never have guessed the affable D’Marigny to be one of them, however.  Unlike the laconic doctor, D’Marigny seemed gracious, even gregarious.  A cover, perhaps?  His protection, just as Martin’s sullen silence had been his?

Ben’s grip tightened on the reins, as though that would help him take grip on his thoughts.  It was none of his business.  Paul Martin was his friend, and he had work enough ahead helping the doctor come to terms with his haunted past.  D’Marigny, on the other hand, was merely an employee.  Whatever memories lurked back there in New Orleans surely couldn’t be as gruesome as Paul’s.  Even if they were, Ben had no intention of opening himself up anew to the charge of sticking his long New England nose into someone else’s affairs.

* * * * *

Hoss and Inger were busily patting mud pies in front of the cabin while inside Nelly was peeling potatoes for supper.  When he heard a horse’s hooves galloping toward him, Hoss looked up and with a cry of joy dropped his pastry into the puddle between his legs and trotted toward the rider.  “Pa!” he yelled, loud enough to alert Nelly and even Billy and Adam, working at the far end of the garden beyond the house.

Ben leaped from the back of his tall bay and scooped his son up in his arms, oblivious to the mud smeared on his vest and shirt collar.  “How’s my boy?” Ben cried, hugging the youngster close.  “My, how Pa’s missed you!”

Nelly came running from the house, wind flapping at her brown gingham skirt.  “Ben, you’re back,” she cried.  “And Clyde?  Where’s he?”

“Back a ways,” Ben said.  “We flipped a coin to see who had to stay with the flock, and he lost.  He’ll be here soon, though, with an appetite that would put this boy of mine to shame.”

“Oh, lands, I better see what I can do to stretch dinner,” Nelly said, hurrying back toward the cabin.  “I only planned enough for me and the younguns.”

Following her, Ben laughed.  “Well, looks like these two young ones have dessert under control.”

“Will you look at them?” Nelly sniffed, spinning back around.  “And me with not an extra minute to wash ‘em up.”

“I’ll wash them,” Ben said.  Nelly nodded her appreciation and headed inside.

Adam and Billy came running up, Adam straight into his father’s arms.  “Oh, Pa, I thought you’d never get back,” he scolded.

“My goodness,” Ben teased, “and I thought I’d made such good time!”

“Seemed like forever,” Billy cackled, “as grumpy as Adam’s been.  Where’s my pa?”

Ben jerked his head over his shoulder.  “That way, son.”  Billy took off for the barn.  “Hey, wait!” Ben called.  “I need your help getting your sister cleaned up.”

“I’m riding out to meet Pa,” Billy yelled back.

Ben chuckled.  “Looks like you and I are stuck with the job, boy.”

“Billy’s always sticking me with his jobs,” Adam complained, rankled by Billy’s earlier accusation.

Ben clucked his tongue.  “Sounds like you and Billy have seen a little too much of each other lately.”

“That’s for sure,” Adam said bluntly.  “I’m gonna be glad to get shed of him.”

“Yes, and just as glad to see him again in a day or two.  Take hold of Inger and follow me.”  Ben picked up the bucket of water beside the cabin door and led the way toward the grassy area to the east.  Setting the bucket down, he plopped Hoss next to it.  “Okay, Adam.  Which of these two muddy urchins do you want to wash up?”

“Inger, of course,” Adam replied.  “That other one squirms too much.”

Hoss shook his head in vigorous denial.  “Good boy, Pa,” he declared.

“Oh, you’ve been a good boy, have you?” Ben teased as he stripped off the youngster’s mud-speckled shirt.  “Well, I guess Pa will just have to bring you back something special from California then, won’t he?”

Hoss’s double chin bobbed up and down.  “Candy,” he suggested with a strong voice.

“Me, too?” Adam asked, pausing for a moment in his washing of the only slightly less dirty little girl.  “I’ve—I’ve been pretty good.”

“Didn’t sound like it awhile back,” Ben snorted.  “Besides, I’m buying you a new horse.  Don’t tell me you want more.”

Adam shrugged.  “Guess not.”

Ben laughed.  “Your face says different.  Well, we’ll see.  We just might find some other little gewgaw to bring back your smile.”  And the faint glimmer that touched Adam’s lips then made up Ben’s mind for him.  Adam, too, would have something special by which to remember this trip across the mountains that gave every promise of being prosperous.

By the time Clyde arrived, the cabin was permeated with tantalizing aromas.  Ben cut a bite of thickly sliced ham and held it beneath his nostrils.  “It’s almost enough just to smell good food again.”

“Not for me,” Clyde said, forking a huge piece into his mouth.

Ben laughed and followed Clyde’s example.  “Yeah, you’re right,” he chuckled.  “Eating is definitely better than just smelling.”  He speared three slices of carrot onto his fork.  “Any news of the territory to report, boys?” he asked.

“I’ll say!” Billy announced.  “We ain’t in Utah Territory anymore!”

Ben looked up quickly.  “You don’t say!  Did California annex us?”

“No such luck,” Nelly replied with a shake of her head.

“Billy’s wrong, Pa,” Adam inserted loftily.  “We are still in Utah Territory, but now we live in Carson County.”

“Guess Utah’s so scared of losin’ us they decided to make us into a separate county.  Near as I can figure, all we got out of it is a new name,” Nelly said.  “You can read all about it in the newspaper.”

“Newspaper?  What newspaper?” Clyde demanded.

“Mo’ taters, please,” Hoss requested, holding out his plate.

“Why, sure, Sunshine,” Nelly said, spooning another helping into his plate.

“What newspaper, woman?” Clyde asked again, more loudly this time.

“Why, the Scorpion, of course,” Nelly said with a naughty twinkle in her eye.  “Oh, there’ve been several improvements in our little community while you were away, gentlemen.”

“A newspaper,” Ben commented, satisfaction in his voice.  “Why, we really are becoming a community if we have enough news to rate a newspaper.  Who’s publishing it?”

“Stephen Kinsey,” Nelly answered.  “It’s just one page, hand-written on foolscap, but I saved back a copy of the first issue for you.  I knew you’d be interested.  No reading at the table, though, mind you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Ben laughed.  “We’ll mind our manners.”

“The paper tells about the new mill, too, Pa,” Adam announced, savoring reporting news his father hadn’t heard.

“At the head of Carson Valley,” Nelly explained.  “Thomas Knott’s building a sawmill for John Cary.”

“Now, that is an improvement,” Clyde said enthusiastically.  “Sawed lumber will help the town build faster.”

“I don’t know,” Ben mused.  “I think I’d still prefer the solidity of log walls when I build again.”

“You aimin’ to build yourself a new place?” Nelly asked, her brown eyes lighting with womanly interest in a new nest.

“What for?” Clyde snuffled.  “Your place is plenty big for you and the boys.  Or did one of them dark-eyed señoritas down in New Mexico put ideas in your head?”

“Clyde!” Ben sputtered.  “No, of course not.  It’s just that Adam and I have talked about moving further north eventually.”

“Is it time, Pa?” Adam asked eagerly.

Ben laughed.  “No, I don’t think so.  I still want to concentrate on building up my cattle herd first, son.  And as Mr. Thomas points out, we don’t really need more space yet.”

“I guess we don’t either,” Nelly sighed, “though it’d be nice to have the kitchen separate——in summer, at least.”

“Well, I’ll think about it, darlin’,” Clyde promised.  “If we do as well as I expect to with this sheep drive, I reckon we could afford to add you a fancy sittin’ room.”

“To this place?  Lands, it looks thrown together now, and that would probably make things worse,” Nelly sighed.

“Well, we’ll think on it,” Clyde said.  “Now, you got any other improvements to report, woman?”

Nelly brightened.  “Why, yes!  The Ellises are havin’ a baby, due any time now.”

Clyde choked.  “You call that an improvement?  Another squall-bawlin’ baby to put up with?”

“Well, I agree with Nelly,” Ben said.  “Children are the best improvement to any community.”

“That only goes to prove what listenin’ to a bunch of sheep night and day will do to addle a man’s brains,” Clyde cackled, then stuffed a forkful of carrots into his mouth.

* * * * *

Two weeks had passed since Ben’s and Clyde’s return.  The rest and the abundant meadow grasses were putting weight on the sheep, weight that would translate into extra profit when the thawing snow finally permitted driving them across the Sierras.  About another week, the men figured.

Their sons couldn’t wait.  Adam, of course, was excited about buying a horse from their old friends the Paynes, but Billy was even more elated.  Since several of the sheepherders had deserted to the mines of the region, Billy had prevailed on his father to let him make the trip and had been promised wages for his help with the sheep.  Adam, having no horse, didn’t qualify as a hired hand, and Billy lost no opportunity of pointing out that his friend would be a mere passenger with the caravan, while he would arrive in California with coins jingling in his pockets.  “Play your cards right, sonny,” he teased, “and maybe I’ll buy you a peppermint stick.”

Normally, spending nights apart was enough to smooth over any friction Billy and Adam felt during the day, but Adam found Billy’s lofty attitude hard to take, especially when his tormentor wasn’t even doing his share of the garden work.  As usual, Billy didn’t miss a chance to slack off, making three trips to the water bucket for each of Adam’s.

There he goes again, Adam fumed to himself.  Deciding he’d had enough, he stomped toward the water bucket where Billy was once again taking slow sips from the dipper.  “It’s a wonder you don’t slosh when you walk,” Adam taunted.

“It’s a wonder you don’t dry up and blow away,” Billy snorted back.  “Here, you need this.”  He threw the remaining contents of the dipper into Adam’s face.

Adam pursed his lips to restrain his temper.  He was getting more than a little tired of Billy’s favorite way of greeting him at the water bucket.  “Cut it out and get back to work,” he ordered.  “You’re not doing your share.”

Billy gave a whoop.  “Injun no like work,” he said, prancing around Adam in his version of an Indian dance.  “Injun like go Tahoe for fishing festival.”

Adam giggled.  Tuquah had just taken off again for the annual gathering of his people at Lake Tahoe, and that was, of course, what sparked Billy’s comment.  “You make a silly looking Washo with that red hair,” Adam snickered.

Warming to the appreciation of his audience, Billy danced more wildly.  “Them fighting words, white man,” he called as he danced over to the chopping block and grabbed up the hatchet he’d left there after splitting kindling for his mother that morning.  Billy rarely put a tool away without at least one reminder.

Adam grew sober.  “Put that down, Billy!” he yelled.  “That’s not a toy!.”

But Billy just raised his “tomahawk” aloft and charged toward Adam, patting his palm against his open mouth to produce the traditional replica of an Indian war cry.  Adam prudently turned and ran.

A sharp cry make him spin around to see Billy lying on the ground, screaming and clutching his leg.  Adam ran back.  “Are you hurt?” he cried.

“My leg!” Billy wailed.  “I tripped over that blame hoe and cut my leg bad.”

Adam blanched at the blood soaking his friend’s trousers.  Not only had Billy cut the back of his leg on the hoe, but he’d dropped the hatchet, slicing a deep cut in the front of his thigh, as well.  “I’ll get your ma,” Adam said, taking off at a run.

“Aunt Nelly!” he screamed as he rounded the corner of the cabin.  Nelly stepped outside and, noting the panic-stricken face, immediately asked what was wrong.  “Billy cut himself.  He’s bleeding bad,” Adam reported breathlessly.

“Oh, lands!” Nelly cried.  “Down by the garden?”  When Adam nodded, she turned back to the house long enough to snatch up a couple of rags to stanch the blood, then ran to the garden.  Adam was already gone when she came out, having headed for the barn.  Quickly saddling Billy’s horse, Adam tore off for the pasture where he knew his father and Billy’s were watching over the sheep.

The three raced back to the scene of the accident.  Clyde flung himself off his horse and squatted beside his son.  “How bad is it?” he asked anxiously.

“It hurts, Pa,” Billy whimpered.  “It hurts bad.”

“It’s bleedin’ somethin’ fierce,” Nelly said.  “I’m havin’ a hard time gettin’ it stopped.”  Looking up, she saw Adam staring at the oozing cut in Billy’s thigh.  “Adam, boy, run back to the house and check on the younguns,” she said.  “I’ve been too busy to give ‘em much thought, and goodness only knows what they’re up to.”

“Okay,” Adam replied readily.  “Take good care of Billy.”

“We will, son,” Ben said, rubbing his son’s shoulder.  “Run along and see to Hoss and Inger.”

Adam walked Billy’s horse back to the cabin, tied it to a post and went inside.  “Hey, Hoss!” he hollered.  “Where you at?”

“Here, Bubba,” Hoss called from the back bedroom.

Adam moved to the doorway and grinned as he saw his baby brother seated on the hooked rug, cradling Inger in his arms.  As the little girl wept, the small boy patted her back, trying to console her.  “That’s a good boy, Hoss, to take care of the baby,” Adam said as he bent over them, palms flat on his knees.

Inger’s head lifted and her blue eyes widened.  “Mama?” she inquired.

“Mama’s outside with Billy,” Adam explained, lifting the diminutive girl and carrying her into the front room.  “Billy hurt his leg and your mama’s fixing him up.” Adam sat in the rocking chair by the fire, holding Inger in his lap.  Hoss followed them in and leaned on the arm of the swaying rocker.  “Bilwy sick?” he asked.

“Not sick.  Hurt,” Adam said.

“Oh,” Hoss said.  “Too bad.”  He sympathetically stroked Inger’s strawberry-blonde curls.

Hearing footsteps, Adam looked up and saw Ben and Clyde carrying Billy to his bedroom.  “You got him all fixed up?” he asked Nelly as she followed them in.

Giving a happy cry, Inger stretched her arms toward her mother.  Nelly stepped across the room to take her baby.  “I finally got the bleedin’ stopped,” she told Adam, “at least, for now.”

“He’ll be all right,” Adam declared optimistically.  “Billy’s tough as nails.”

Nelly smiled.  “He is that.  Well, I’m gonna finish cleanin’ up his leg and get it bandaged tight.  Can you watch the younguns ‘til I’m through?”

“Sure,” Adam said, reaching for Inger.  The baby whimpered her protest, but the kiss Nelly placed on her forehead seemed to soothe her.

Clyde bumped into his wife as she headed for Billy’s room.  “I’m gonna see if I can talk that doctor feller into takin’ a look at our boy,” he announced.

Nelly laid a hand on his arm.  “Oh, Clyde, if only he would!  I think the boy needs stitches.”  She saw Ben standing in the doorway to Billy’s room.  “Do you think he’ll come, Ben?”

Ben shook his head.  “I don’t know, Nelly.  Can’t hurt to ask, but he can be pretty stubborn on that subject.”  He glanced sharply at Clyde.  “Want me to come with you?”

“Naw, I can handle it,” Clyde said.  “You got your own boys to see to and it’s gettin’ late.”

Ben nodded.  “Good luck, then.”

Nelly moved past Ben into the bedroom.  “I’d ask you to stay to dinner, Ben,” she said, “but I don’t figure there’ll be much to set out.  I want to stay near Billy.”

“You do that,” Ben said, his countenance brightening.  “I’ll fix dinner for you for a change.”

“Lands, Ben, we can’t come to your place tonight,” Nelly protested.

Ben chuckled.  “I meant here, Nelly.  I think I still know my way around well enough to throw a little grub together.  Nothing to compare with yours, but it’ll be warm and filling.”

Nelly smiled.  “I’m gonna take you up on that offer, Ben, then you and the boys will stay the night.  It’ll be too late to ride home.”

Ben tweaked her nose.  “All right.  I’ll take you up on that.  We don’t mind a pallet, eh, Adam?”

“No, sir,” Adam declared stoutly.

“No, you and the boys can take our bed, Ben,” Nelly said.  “I figure me and Clyde’ll sit up with Billy, at least ‘til we see he’s restin’ good, so you might as well take the bed.”

“All right,” Ben agreed, seeing there’d be no point in arguing.

As Nelly went to Billy’s side, Ben began to scrounge through the corner cupboard.  He frowned.  The Thomases’ larder looked about as lean as his own after a winter’s meals——leaner, in fact, since the boys had spent most of the winter eating at Nelly’s table.  Supper wouldn’t even be up to his usual standard, much less hers, but it wouldn’t matter.  So long as it was warm, it would likely get eaten.  Ben sliced off pieces of bacon and set them sizzling in a skillet while he chopped onions and potatoes to fry on the side.  A hot pan of cornbread would round out the meal.

“Can I go in and see Billy, Pa?” Adam asked from the rocker.  “Inger’s asleep.”

“Yeah, if you can put her down without waking her,” Ben said, “and you leave when his mother says he’s had enough.”

Adam had only a short visit, for Billy seemed very tired.  “Can I help, Pa?” he asked when he came out.

“Yup, sure can,” Ben said cheerily, feeling useful work the best cure for Adam’s worries.  “Fix a pot of coffee, then set the table.  We’ll be eating soon.”

The food was ready before Clyde returned.  First Nelly prepared a plate for Billy.  “He says he’s hungry.  That’s a good sign, don’t you think, Ben?”

“A very good sign,” Ben agreed heartily.

“I won’t fill his plate too full, though,” Nelly said.  “He can always ask for seconds.”  A horse’s hooves clattered into the yard.  “Oh, I bet that’s Clyde now with the doctor,” she said brightly.

Her optimism struck no responsive chord within Ben.  He’d heard only one set of hooves.

“Where’s the doc?” Nelly asked when Clyde entered and shut the door.

“Ain’t comin’,” Clyde grunted.

Nelly paled.  “He turned you down?”

“Almost quicker’n I could ask,” Clyde muttered.

Nelly shook her head.  “I thought he was comin’ around.  What makes a man want to hole up inside hisself, Ben, when there’s folks that need him?”

Ben’s face was rigid with anger.  “I don’t know, Nelly.  I’ve known grief myself, but—”  He couldn’t put into words what he was feeling.

Nelly patted his arm.  “Now, don’t fret, Ben.  Billy’ll likely do fine——just an ugly scar or two to impress the girls with later on.”

Ben laughed uneasily.  He hoped that’s all the accident would amount to.

* * * * *

Three days passed, and with each sunset Billy’s condition grew graver.  The appetite that had seemed so healthy that first night faded as his temperature rose.  With each change of bandages a sickly sweet odor arose from the greenish-yellow pus seeping from the ragged edges of the wound.  Finally, the boy lay listless, too weak to raise his head, and his tormented parents feared for his life.

Ben stopped by that evening, as he did at the end of each day’s work, to inquire about the youngster.  “Oh, Ben,” Nelly wept in a croaking whisper, “I—I think he’s got gangrene.  I reckon the only chance he’s got is to take his leg, but I don’t see how I can do it.  I’d be as like to kill him tryin’.”

“It’s my job to do, woman,” Clyde groaned, “if it needs doin’.”

“Oh, if only—” Nelly cried, swiping at her moist eyes.

She didn’t finish the sentence, but she didn’t have to.  Ben could read the desire of her heart.  For her son to lose a leg was bad enough, but it would comfort her to know the job had been done properly, to believe that Billy had, at least, a chance of survival.  Ben bit his lips and slammed his hat back on his head.  “Don’t do anything ‘til I get back,” he said tersely.

“What you aimin’ to do?” Clyde demanded.

“What I should have done in the first place,” Ben growled.  “Grab a certain doctor by the nape of the neck and drag him here.”

“Won’t do no good,” Clyde snorted.  “Man ain’t got a heart.”

“Yes, he does,” Ben muttered, “somewhere deep down inside, he still does.  And if I can’t bring it to the surface, at the very least I’m gonna make him look your boy in the face and tell him why he has to die for what some idiots in California did.”

Spurred even more by anger than the need for speed, Ben galloped hard toward Paul Martin’s ramshackle cabin.  He couldn’t ever remember feeling such fury.  He considered himself a reasonable man, but he had no intention of reasoning with the recalcitrant doctor tonight.  There’d been talk enough, pleading enough.  And it had all failed.  Now he couldn’t afford to fail.  A young boy’s life hung in the balance; and though he abhorred violence, he was prepared to beat Paul Martin to a pulp and drag him every step of the way back to Billy, if that’s what it took.

He flung himself off his bay gelding as soon as he reached his destination.  Without bothering to knock, he burst into the cabin.  Paul Martin, seated at his makeshift dining table, looked up.  He lifted a smoke-colored whiskey bottle in his right hand.  “Hello, Ben,” he drawled.  “Come to share a nightcap with me?”

Ben stopped, stunned, for he’d never known Martin to take a drink, much less drink himself into a stupor.  “What’s this all about?” Ben demanded.  “Can’t you live with yourself sober?”

“None your business,” Martin slurred, lifting the bottle to his lips.

Ben knocked it away with a backhand swipe.  The bottle crashed to the floor and shattered, whiskey puddling the dirt floor.  “I’m right, aren’t I?” he yelled.  “You can’t live with what you’ve done.  You turned your back on a child who needed you, the son of people who’ve been nothing but kind to you.  And you think you can drown that in a bottle?  Oh, no, my friend, it’s not that easy.”

“Go away, Ben,” Paul stammered.  “I’m all you say——and one thing more.”

Ben faced his friend, arms akimbo.  “And what’s that?”

“A coward,” Paul moaned, dropping his head into his open palms.

Ben’s jaw hardened.  He rounded the table and jerked Martin to his feet by his shirt front.  “You’re coming with me,” he ordered.

Martin flinched away.  “Ben, please—”

“No!” Ben shouted.  “It’s settled.  That boy’s eaten up with gangrene, and if he’s got to lose his leg, the least you can do is make sure it’s done properly.  You can’t leave that to his parents!”

Paul’s face went gray.  “They wouldn’t,” he whispered.

“What choice do they have?” Ben sputtered.

“They’ll kill him,” Paul murmured, his hand raking his rumpled hair.

“No, they won’t,” Ben said, “because you’re gonna do the job.”

Paul lurched to the other end of the cabin.  “Think what you’re asking,” he protested.  “It’s a leg wound, for mercy’s sake, Ben!  If it had been anything else, maybe I could have faced it.  And amputation!  Recommending that is what got Aggie killed.”

The anger drained from Ben’s countenance.  He hadn’t stopped to think that the nature of the injury itself had brought Paul’s buried pain boiling to the surface.  “Look, Paul,” he said.  “I’ve helped bury one of Clyde and Nelly’s boys; I’m not gonna stand by and see them lose another.  I understand it may be the hardest thing you’ve ever faced; but if you don’t face it, you’ll never be able to hold your head up.”  He nudged the broken whiskey bottle with his boot toe.  “And there won’t be enough of this in any saloon to drown the guilt.”

Paul backed up against the wall.  “Ben, I—I’m not in condition to perform surgery.”

Ben grabbed the doctor’s bag sitting in the cabin’s front corner and tossed it at his friend.  “We’ll sober you up,” he said.  “Come on!”

Paul Martin was sobered, if not sober, by the time he and Ben entered the Thomas cabin.  “Nelly,” Ben said, “could you make the doctor a pot of coffee before he examines your son?”

“Of course!” Nelly said.  “There’s some on the stove now, and I’ll fix as much as he needs.  Oh, Dr. Martin, thanks so much for coming.”  She looked at him with almost worshipful awe, then hustled to the stove.

Paul groaned inwardly.  He’d forgotten that look, that all-trusting look patients and their families often gave physicians.  Once he’d felt proud when people looked at him that way.  Now he felt nothing but shame, knowing how little he’d done recently to merit anyone’s respect.  “May I see Billy now?” he asked quietly.

“This way,” Clyde said, ushering the doctor into the boy’s bedroom.

Dr. Martin sat in the chair beside the bed and took the youngster’s feverish hand.  “Hello, Billy,” he said softly.

Billy pulled his hand away.  “You go away,” he murmured.  “I heard ‘em talkin’.  You’re gonna whack off my leg.”  His head wagged weakly from side to side as he moaned, “No, no.”

“All I’m gonna do right now is look at it,” Paul said soothingly.  “Then your folks and I will talk about what treatment you need.”

The look on Billy’s face wasn’t nearly as trusting as his mother’s had been, but he made no more objection as the doctor unwound the bandages and examined the wound.  He groaned when Dr. Martin touched his thigh, but bit his lips to hold back further sound.  Paul left the wound unbandaged and pulled the covers back over the boy.

Returning to the front room, the doctor accepted the cup of coffee Nelly poured for him.  He took a seat at the table and motioned for the others to be seated, as well.

“He’s got to lose it, don’t he?” Nelly wept.  “I knew it; I just knew it.”

Paul reached across the table to take her hand.  “It may come to that,” he said, “but I’d like to try to save the leg.  A young boy like that.  How old is he?”

“Twelve,” Nelly sniffled.  “Just twelve, doctor.”

“A young one like that needs both his limbs,” Paul said.  “Obviously, the leg is badly infected.”

“And you know why!” Clyde snapped.

Paul met the accusative gaze directly.  “Yes, I do,” he replied meekly.  “I take full responsibility for whatever happens to your boy, Mr. Thomas.  I’ve done you a grave injury, and all I can do now is ask your forgiveness and do all I can to help Billy.”

“That’s all we ever asked,” Clyde said gruffly.  “You sayin’ he don’t have to lose his leg?”

“I’m saying there’s a chance to save it,” Paul said.  “Not a guarantee, mind you.  I may yet have to recommend amputation, but I’d like to drain out the wound and close it properly, then see what happens.”

“I won’t risk his life,” Nelly said.  “I’ve lost one boy.”

“Yes, Ben told me,” Dr. Martin said sympathetically.  “I’ll do my best to see you keep this one, Miss Nelly.  There is one problem, though.”

“What’s that?” Clyde demanded.

“The pain,” Paul said plainly.  “I’ll need to cut into the boy’s leg.  Ordinarily, I’d give him ether, but since I haven’t practiced in some time, I only have a small amount in my bag.  And I’d prefer to save that in case I do need to amputate later.  He’d need it more then.”

Nelly buried her face in her hands, hating the thought of her child’s suffering.

For the first time Ben entered the conversation.  “Billy’s as ‘tough as nails,’ as Adam says.  He’ll handle the pain.”

Paul smiled.  “I’d say Adam’s a good judge of character.  That’s just how I read Billy, too.  Now, Mrs. Thomas, if you’ll heat some water and brew some more coffee, we’ll see what can be done for that tough little fellow of yours.”  He looked across the table at Ben.  “You as good at sticking your hands in other people’s business as you are that long nose?”

Ben’s brow furrowed.  “I don’t follow your meaning.”

“I could use an assistant,” Paul said, “someone to hold Billy down, and I’d rather it weren’t his parents.”

“Yeah, I’ll help,” Ben replied at once.

“Good.  Wash your hands and use plenty of soap,” Dr. Martin ordered briskly.

Ben’s eyebrow arched, and Paul laughed.  “Don’t look offended, Ben.  I dare say they’re clean enough for normal purposes.  Let’s just say I’m extra careful.”

“Never heard of no doctor bein’ fussy about clean hands,” Clyde commented.

Paul shrugged.  “Most aren’t, but I’ve read some studies by doctors in Europe who think it’s a factor in preventing infection.”

Nelly turned from the stove.  “Oh, no, doctor!  You’re not sayin’ I made Billy worse ‘cause I didn’t wash my hands!”

“No, I wouldn’t say that,” Paul replied quickly.  “We really don’t know what causes infection, any more than we know what causes diphtheria or whooping cough or cholera.  But this Dr. Semmelweis from Austria noticed that far fewer of his maternity patients died of childbed fever when he and his students washed their hands between touching each one.  I was skeptical at first, but it was a simple enough thing to do, so I tried it.”

“And it works?” Ben said from the wash basin where he was scrubbing at the grime under his fingernails.

“I think I get better results,” Paul said, “though I couldn’t prove it scientifically.”

“Well, as you say,” Ben commented, drying his hands, “it’s simple enough that’s it’s worth the effort if it helps even a little.”

Paul took his turn at the wash basin, then finished by pouring alcohol over both his hands and Ben’s.  “I don’t expect you to actually touch the wound,” he told Ben.  “This is just in case of incidental contact.”

Paul took his instruments in hand and went to Billy’s bedside.  “Billy,” he said, “I don’t believe in lying to my patients, not even young ones like you.  This is going to hurt, son, and I need you to lie still, so Mr. Cartwright here is going to hold you steady.”

Ben gave Billy a nod and an encouraging smile as he laid his hands on the boy’s shoulders.

Dr. Martin pulled back the blankets to expose the wound and began to wash the area gently with warm water.  Billy winced.  The doctor noticed, but gave no indication that he had.  “Billy, did Mr. Cartwright ever tell you about the time he played doctor to an Indian boy?” he asked instead.

“Yeah,” Billy muttered through gritted teeth.

“Mighty painful, having a broken leg set,” Paul commented, “and the way I heard it told that brave lad didn’t let out a whimper.  You think you can be as brave as an Indian, son?”

“Br—braver,” Billy stammered, then gasped as the doctor’s scalpel sliced his leg.  But he didn’t scream.  No Indian was going to show him up!

“You must have some other stories you haven’t told our young patient, Ben,” Paul suggested.

Ben took the hint.  “Yeah.  How about my trip to Zanzibar, Billy?  I ever tell you about that?”

“Unh-uh,” Billy grunted.

Ben immediately launched into a recitation of his adventures in that exotic island that successfully kept Billy’s attention riveted on him instead of the pain.

Paul cleaned the wound thoroughly, then rebandaged it.  Finally, he gave Billy’s arm a pat.  “You did real well, Billy.”

“Is—is it gonna get better?” Billy whispered.

“I think so,” Dr. Martin said.  “Now, you do your part by lying still and getting plenty of rest.”  He motioned for Ben to follow him out.

Nelly, who’d been sitting in her rocker, knitting to keep her fingers busy, stood immediately.  “Is he gonna be all right, doctor?”

“Like I said before,” Paul answered carefully, “I can’t promise, but it looks hopeful.  I think it’d be a good idea if you got some clean sheets on that bed and made him comfortable for the night.  And, if you don’t mind, I’ll stay the night here.”

“Speaking of night, I’d better start for home,” Ben said.  “Adam will be wondering what’s kept me this long.”

“I’ll walk you out,” Paul said.  “I need some fresh air.”

Clyde met him at the door.  “Thanks, Doc,” he said, but there was a world of emotion in those two simple words.

Paul nodded and followed Ben outside.  “You’re the one they should thank,” he said quietly.

“They don’t need to,” Ben replied.

“But I do,” Paul insisted.  “I’d forgotten, Ben.  Once I took an oath.  Among other things, I promised to do no harm, but I’d forgotten that sometimes we can do harm just by doing nothing.”

Ben nodded as he looked up at the stars.  “True for all of us, Paul, though I guess it’s more obvious when you deal with life and death like you do.”

Paul placed both hands on Ben’s upper arms.  “Thank you for reminding me.  You were right:  I’d never have forgiven myself if I’d let that boy die without trying to help.”  Ben pulled his friend close and gave him an unashamed embrace with only the stars as witness.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

             Billy Thomas lay back against the pillows propped behind him, a frown on his face.  “It ain’t fair,” he whined.  “I’m feelin’ real good now, and that blame doc still won’t let me out of bed.”

Adam, grinning broadly, perched on the foot of Billy’s bed.  “You’re just jealous ‘cause now I’ll be the one with the jingling pockets.”

“Doggone right I’m jealous!” Billy exclaimed, sitting forward.  “It was my idea to hire on as a sheepherder.  I’m the one talked Pa into it and now you get the job.”

“Aw, Billy, you know you can’t do it,” Adam argued patiently, feeling his friend’s disappointment.  “Your leg’s not full healed yet, and you can’t risk breakin’ those stitches open on the trail.”

Still weak, Billy flopped back into the pillows again.  “Yeah, I reckon.  It ain’t you I’m mad at.  You know that, don’t you?”

“Sure, I know that,” Adam assured his friend, “and thanks for loaning me your horse, so I could take the job.”

“You take good care of her,” Billy ordered, “and you better bring me back a peppermint stick like I’d’ve done for you.”

A wicked twinkle flared in Adam’s black eyes.  “I’ll bring you two,” he said with an elaborate expression of generosity.

Billy pulled a pillow from behind his back and tossed it at Adam.  “Aw, get on out of here!” he demanded grumpily.

Adam fired the pillow back, then stood up.  “Yeah, I better,” he said.  The trail drive was beginning that morning, and Adam’s first responsibility had been dropping his little brother at the Thomases.  “Time I got that filly saddled and headed out on the trail to meet Pa,” he added, then ran as the pillow once more flew after him.

In the front room Adam stopped at the table to give his little brother a farewell hug.  “You be a good boy, Hoss; take care of Billy for me.”

“Okay,” Hoss mumbled, his mouth full of egg.  “Bwing me pep’mint, too, Bubba.”

Adam scowled at the little boy.  “You been eavesdropping, Hoss?  That’s not good manners.”

“Loud as the two of you were yappin’, a body don’t have to eavesdrop,” Nelly laughed.  She handed Adam a paper-wrapped package.  “Just some biscuits and bacon to nibble on the trail,” she explained, seeing Adam’s puzzled look.

“Oh, thanks,” Adam said.  “We had an awful hurried breakfast this morning.”

“Figured as much,” Nelly said.  “Get on with you now before your pa figures you’re a stray little lamb needs roundin’ up.”  Adam laughed and headed for the barn to saddle Billy’s horse.

* * * * *

“More coffee, Señor Cartwright?” a vaquero holding a tin pot asked.

Gracias, Diego,” Ben replied, holding out his near empty cup.  As he sipped the hot brew, he leaned back against the trunk of a tall pine at the edge of the meadow where the sheep were bedded down for the night.  Next to him, the campfire glowing on an intent face, Adam sat strumming the guitar he had borrowed from one of the men hired in New Mexico.  Remarkable, Ben thought, how the boy had picked up the right fingering for the chords from the few lessons Lupe had given him at camps along the trail.  Of course, any boy who could coax tuneful music from the cheap harmonica Ben had bought him a Christmas or two ago was bound to have a good ear for music.

Bon soir, messieurs,” Jean D’Marigny said as he approached father and son.

“Good evening, Jean,” Ben responded to the tall, dark-haired Frenchman.  “The sheep sound contented.”

Jean squatted beside his employer and held his hands to the warm fire.  “Oui, they are most fond of the rich grass in this——what was the name?”

“Hope Valley,” Ben replied.  “Hope was what this place represented to the first emigrants after the long struggle up Carson Canyon.”

Oui, that was a hard trail,” Jean agreed.  “It is good to let the sheep rest a day here.”

“I’m going fishing tomorrow,” Adam announced, laying aside the guitar.  “Trout are real good in that stream over there.”

“I’ll expect a nice mess for breakfast,” Ben drawled, tousling Adam’s black hair.

“I just might,” Adam giggled.  “Trout for breakfast sounds good to me, too.  You like trout, Mister D’Marigny?”

“You may call me Jean, Monsieur Adam,” the foreman said.

“Well, I’m just Adam,” the boy stated.  “Would you like trout for breakfast, Jean?”

Oui, that sounds good,” Jean said.  “I have never eaten trout, but I always liked seafood.”

“Trout isn’t—”

“He knows that, Adam,” Ben smiled.  “My son, the instructor,” he added apologetically to D’Marigny.

Jean flashed the boy his typically bright smile.  “He is a good learner, too, monsieur.  He is becoming a better herder of sheep each day.”

Adam scowled.  “I like cows better.”

Ben laughed loudly.  “Me, too, son.  No more sheep for us, eh?”

“No, sir!” Adam agreed emphatically.

“I hope they are not too different,” Jean said.  “I am just getting used to sheep, and now I must learn all over again with cattle.”

“If anything, cattle handle more easily,” Ben assured him.  “My opinion, of course, but I have no doubt you’ll make the transition successfully.”

“You sure ride good,” Adam complimented.

“Well, Adam,” Ben corrected.

“Yes, sir,” Adam replied hastily.  “I meant ‘well.’  Jean rides really well.”

“Very well, indeed,” Ben agreed.  He took another sip of coffee.  “Were you raised around horses, Jean?”

“The stables on our plantation were among the best around New Orleans,” the Frenchman replied.  “From a child, I had my choice of mounts and I rode often.  A Creole gentleman must be an excellent equestrian, you know.”

Adam’s forehead wrinkled.  “Creole?” he asked.  “Equestrian?”

Ben laughed.  “Now you’ve done it, Jean.  Don’t use new words around this boy if you don’t want to become a schoolmaster in addition to your other duties.”

Jean smiled.  “That would be my pleasure, monsieur.  A Creole, Adam, is a descendant of the French who first settled Louisiana.”

“I think it can refer to those of Spanish descent, too,” Ben commented.

Jean shrugged.  “You are right, of course, but my family is so proud of their aristocratic French heritage that they act as if none other existed.  They do accept the Spanish nobles, grudgingly, but Americans are still considered interlopers and barely tolerated.”

Surprise flickered in Ben’s brown eyes.  “You were a member of the aristocracy, Jean?  And wealthy, I take it?”

Jean shrugged.  “Oui, monsieur.  Few in New Orleans lived more elegantly than the D’Marignys.”

“I’m surprised you’d leave all that to come west as a common laborer,” Ben commented.

Jean colored slightly, but his smile remained warm.  “I am content with my life here, monsieur,” he said, “though there are things I left behind with only the greatest reluctance.”  A dreamy look came into the man’s dark eyes and the smile faded slightly.  “I, too, unfortunately, have my share of the family pride.”

“You didn’t tell what ‘equestrian’ meant,” Adam said, giving his father a reproachful look for interrupting the train of his lessons.

Jean’s smile flashed bright again.  “A horseman, Adam, such as you are becoming.”

Adam’s chin lifted proudly, the compliment and the new word with which to describe himself adding to the grownup feeling surging through his breast.  He wasn’t just a boy learning to ride anymore:  he suddenly saw himself as an accomplished horseman, an equestrian, and it felt good.  “I better get to sleep if I’m gonna get up and catch those trout for breakfast,” he said, standing and squaring his shoulders.

“He is a fine boy,” Jean said as Adam walked away.  “You have much reason for pride.”

“Yes, I’m proud of him,” Ben admitted, “unashamedly so.  Pride is a good thing when it draws us closer to those we love.”  He threw a significant glance at Jean.  “Not so good when it pulls people apart.”

Jean stood abruptly.  “I am sure you are right, monsieur,” he said hastily, “just as it is a good thing to sit by a warm fire, but not so good when it is my turn to watch the sheep.  I must relieve Lupe, monsieur.”

Ben’s eyebrows met in a line above his nose as he nodded.  “All right, Jean.  You be sure and join us for breakfast.  You’ll like the trout.”

Oui, I will see you then,” Jean called as he faded into the darkness beyond the flickering campfire.

Ben shook his head.  There he went again, sticking his long New England nose where it didn’t belong.  Or maybe it did.  Didn’t the Good Book say something about being your brother’s keeper?  All at once, Ben’s thoughts turned to his own brother, whom he hadn’t seen for three years now.  How he’d relish sticking his long New England nose into John’s business!  He’d love to tell his older brother a thing or two about leaving his family to dig his way around the world in search of golden dreams.  Probably he should just be grateful for the miles between them, though.  John wouldn’t hesitate to give him the punch in the snoot Paul Martin had once threatened to throw.

Ben finished his coffee and headed toward his bedroll.  He wasn’t likely to influence either John or the man who shared the French equivalent of his name anytime soon.  For now he had enough responsibilities getting this flock of bleating sheep to market, finding just the right horse for Adam and driving a herd of new cattle home to CarsonCounty.  Then there was the upcoming emigrant season to prepare for.  Yes, someone else would have to play brother’s keeper to those two wanderers from home.  Ben was just too busy.

* * * * *

Ben and Clyde moved away from the teller’s window of the Sacramento bank and stood to one side of the busy room.  “Satisfied with the profits, my friend?” Ben asked, his smile indicating just how rhetorical the question was.

“Never thought we’d do this good,” Clyde admitted.  “I know I talked big, but ten dollars a head is more than I dreamed of!  We done good, Ben boy; we done good.  And I could never have done it alone.  Didn’t have the spare cash to bring through a herd this size.”

“I think those extra weeks pasturing at home fattened them up.  That’s what raised their value,” Ben said.  “But don’t get any ideas; I am through with the sheep business.”

“Me, too,” Clyde laughed, “soon as we pay off the men.”  He grinned down at Adam, who had hugged his father’s side all through the banking process.  “Reckon we might as well start with this one,” he said.

“Yup, always start with my right-hand man,” Ben agreed, counting out Adam’s wages.

“I—I want to send half home to Billy,” Adam said.

“That’s a kind thought, son,” Clyde said, “but there ain’t no need.  You earned your pay.”

“Yes, there is,” Adam argued stubbornly.  “His horse did half the work, so he should be paid for her hire.”

“Take it, Clyde,” Ben said, his hand resting proudly on Adam’s shoulder.  “I agree with my son.  Take it and buy Billy a fine get-well present from all of us.”

“All right,” Clyde agreed.  “Guess I’d better pay off the men and head down to Stanford Brothers for a load of provisions.”

“Diego’s still planning to take the second wagon back for you, isn’t he?” Ben asked.

“Far as I know.”

“I’ll pay Jean and Lupe,” Ben said, “since they’ll be staying with me to bring back my cattle.  You can pay the others.”

They all moved outside, where the hired men were waiting for their wages.  Ben motioned Jean and Lupe to one side.  “Here’s your pay, men,” he said, counting it out in gold and silver coins.  “Try not to spend it all in one place.”

Lupe grinned.  “No, señor.  There are many cantinas here, ?”

,” Ben agreed, but he was frowning.  “Now, remember, Lupe, we’re leaving in the morning.  I want you sober.”

“Oh, sí, señor,” Lupe assured him, grinning as he moved away.

“Wait, Lupe,” Ben called.  “When you’re through seeing the town, there’ll be a room for you at the Empire Hotel.  You, too, Jean.”

Oui, monsieur, the Empire,” Jean said.  “I will remember.”

“Planning to visit the cantinas, Jean?” Ben asked.

Jean shrugged.  “I may have a drink or two, monsieur, but I think I would prefer a bath, a shave and a quiet dinner, then early to bed.”

Ben nodded approvingly.  “I can recommend the Alpha Bath House.  It’s near our lodgings.”

Merci, monsieur.  I will see you in the morning, then.”  Pocketing his wages, Jean headed down the street.

Ben smiled at Adam.  “Now, where shall we set our heading, matey?  The nearest bookstore?”

Adam shook his head.  “I hope I have enough money left over for a book or two, Pa,” he said, “but there’s something I want more.”

“It had better not be a visit to a cantina,” Ben chuckled.

Adam flushed.  “No, Pa, no more saloons for me.  I didn’t relish what I got after visiting the last one.”

“What do you relish?” Ben asked.  “Lunch, I hope.”

“Yeah, that first,” Adam admitted.  “I’m hungry.”

“Let’s see what we can find, then,” Ben said, rubbing the boy’s neck affectionately as they walked along J Street.  Entering a modest diner, Ben asked for a window table.  The waitress seated him and Adam at the requested table and handed them printed menus.  They perused them quickly and placed their orders.

Adam grinned.  He liked to watch the people passing by, and he’d have a good vantage from this table.  As his father’s hand covered his own, Adam looked up.

“I’m real proud of you, Adam,” his father said, his expression speaking the message even more clearly.  “You’re getting to be quite a little hand.  You did good work on the drive, and sharing your pay with Billy was a kind, unselfish thing to do.”

“I was just being fair, Pa,” Adam insisted.

“All right, but Pa’d like to reward you for that fairness,” Ben said.  “Let’s make a special night of it, shall we?”

Adam beamed.  “Sure, Pa.  What you got planned?”

“Well, we’ll spend the afternoon shopping,” Ben said.  “Then, let’s have dinner in the best restaurant we can find.  After that, I thought we might go to the theater.”

“The theater?  Oh, Pa!” Adam cried.  He could imagine nothing more wonderful.

“I saw a playbill posted in one of the store windows we passed,” Ben said.  “They’re playing King Lear at the American.  You like to see a little Shakespeare?”

“Yes, sir!” Adam exclaimed, then his face took on a puzzled expression.  “We haven’t read that one, have we, Pa?”

“No, I’ve always thought you a bit young for the tragedies,” Ben admitted, “but as grown up as you’ve been acting, I think you’re ready, unless you’d prefer something else.  There are other theaters in town.”

“No, I want King Lear,” Adam said.  “Shakespeare’s my favorite.”

“All right.  Now, I have several stores I want to visit.  You have anyplace particular in mind?” Ben asked.

“Not a particular place,” Adam said.  “I was hoping I could buy a guitar, like Lupe’s.  You think they have a store like that in Sacramento, Pa?”

“I seem to remember passing a music store last time I was through,” Ben mused.

“Oh, good,” Adam said.  “You—you think I have enough for a guitar.”

“You’ll have enough,” Ben promised.  “One way or another, you’ll have enough, son.”  Their food arrived and both Cartwrights dug in heartily.

After lunch, feeling more than normally generous after the prosperous sale of the sheep, Ben led Adam on a shopping tour of Sacramento.   They stopped first at Charles Crocker’s dry goods store, where each came away with a new suit——for Adam, his first.  “I know you don’t have much cause to wear one back home,” Ben said, “but we are going to a fancy restaurant and the theater tonight, and Pa’s in a mood to splurge.”

Adam admired himself in the mirror.  “I like it, Pa.  Wait ‘til Billy sees me duded up like this!”

Ben laughed.  “You think he’ll be jealous?  I, for one, can’t picture Billy Thomas in a suit.”

“Me, either,” Adam snickered, “but I gotta wear it some at home, to be worth the price.”

“It’s worth the price to me, even for one night,” Ben said indulgently, “but I’m not totally impractical.  I bought it with room to grow.  And there’ll be other trips to town, my boy.”

“Yeah.  Where to next, Pa?” Adam asked eagerly.  “The music store?”

“Not yet,” Ben laughed.  “We’re headed for Kaerth and Smith’s Philadelphia Boot Store.  If you’re going to be a real hand, you need proper footwear for the job, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir!” Adam agreed enthusiastically.

“Then I guess we’d better locate some candy and trinkets for your little brother.”

“And two peppermint sticks for Billy,” Adam grinned.  “I promised.”

“All right,” Ben chuckled.  “Candy for Hoss and Billy, then the music store.”

The required sweets, along with two new toys for Hoss, were purchased at Hardy Brothers and Hall on J Street, conveniently located next door to Dale and Company’s music store.  Adam found his desired guitar, and Ben purchased some simple sheet music.  “I can show you how to read the notes,” he told Adam.  “I learned when I was not much older than you.”

“You still remember?” Adam asked.

Ben swatted his son’s britches.  “It hasn’t been that long, boy!” he guffawed.  “Now, what say we take all these packages back to the hotel and head for the Alpha Bath House before we dude up for our night on the town?”

“Sounds good, Pa,” Adam said.  “I’ve been wanting to try out that shower bath.”

* * * * *

Rachel Payne answered the rap on her front door, and her hands flew to her cheeks when she saw the two Cartwrights, flanked by Jean D’Marigny and Lupe Rodriguez.  “Oh, you’re here!” she cried.  “We’ve been expecting you ‘most a week now.  I didn’t know you were bringing Adam, though.  What an unexpected delight!”  She stooped down and gave Adam a hug.  “My goodness! how you’ve grown, boy.”

Adam cocked his head at his father.  “How’d she know we were coming?”

“Why, from your pa’s letter, of course,” Rachel replied, standing up to exchange an embrace with Ben.  “We were real sorry to hear about your horse, Adam, but Jonathan’s got one picked out for you that I’m sure you’ll like.”

“But there’s no wintertime mail from Carson County,” Adam puzzled.

“I didn’t mail it from there,” Ben explained.  “They do keep a southern route open, Adam, and I made connections with that when we went after the sheep.”

“Oh, sure,” Adam said.  “I just didn’t know.  I was hoping to pick my own horse, though.”

Rachel smoothed his dark hair.  “You’re welcome to anything we’ve got, sweetie, but I bet you’ll choose this one in the long run.  She’s the sweetest little sorrel mare.”

“Full grown mare?” Ben asked, his brow wrinkling.

Rachel smiled.  “Full grown, but small, Ben.  She’ll fit Adam fine.  Now, you both come in and I’ll fix some lemonade.  I’ll bet you could use some after your long, hot drive.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Adam agreed.

“That sounds good,” Ben said, “but I need to see to my men here first.  You have a place where these two could bunk tonight?”

“Sure, we built a new bunkhouse since you were here last.  They can stay with our men.”  She pointed south.  “You see that building there?”

Sí, señora,” Lupe replied, doffing his sombrero.

“Well, take your gear down there,” Rachel said, “and I’ll send Mañuela down with some refreshment for you, too.  The other men should be back in about two hours for dinner.  Plenty of frijoles and tortillas for everyone.”

Lupe bowed, smiling happily.  “Gracias, señora.”

“Frijoles and tortillas,” Ben moaned.  “With Diego cooking for the trail drive, I’ve had my fill of beans and tortillas, I assure you.  I do hope there’s something else on the menu at the main house.”

“There is,” Rachel smiled, “even at the bunkhouse.  But you know most of our hands are Mexican, so they expect frijoles and tortillas at every meal.  Whatever else shows up on the table is immaterial.  I think it’s enchiladas tonight.  For us, too, probably.”

“What’s enchiladas?” Adam asked.

“Cheese and onions wrapped in a tortilla and covered with chili and more cheese,” Rachel said.  “I’ll ask Mañuela to fix some albondigas soup, too.  That’s meatballs.  You’ll like it, Ben.”

Ben laughed.  “I’m sure I will.  Now, how about that lemonade?”

“Mercy, yes,” Rachel laughed.  “Come in out of this hot sun and we’ll get that right away.”

As soon as they entered, a pretty little blonde of about Hoss’s age popped into the room from the bedroom beyond.  “Mama,” she called.  “Sammy’s awake.”

“Oh, he would, the minute I sit down with company,” Rachel laughed.

“Can I get him up for you?” Adam asked, feeling he’d rather spend time with the two youngsters than listen to adult conversation.  “I’m used to babies.”

“Why, Adam, that would be so nice,” Rachel said.

“Hi, Susan,” Adam said to the little girl.  “Want to show me where your little brother is?”

“How you know my name?” Susan lisped softly.

“Oh, sweetie, Adam was on the wagon train when you were born,” Rachel explained.

“Oh!” Susan cried in awe.  “Sammy’s in here,” she said, pointing to the bedroom.

Adam followed her in and grinned at the drowsy two-year-old boy.  “Hi, there, Sammy,” he said.  “If I know babies, I bet you need your diaper changed.”

“Unh-uh.  No diaper,” Susan said.

“Big boy,” Samuel chortled.

“And boy am I glad!” Adam announced, lifting the little boy and swinging him around.  “Babies are a lot more fun when they keep themselves dry.”

* * * * *

Ben tiptoed into the spare bedroom the Paynes had added to their hacienda since his last visit.  Adam had turned in not long after dinner, while Ben and the Paynes had recounted old times and shared news of their separate lives.  Ben sat down on the bed, eager to pull off his new boots.  He hadn’t broken them in yet and they were tight.

“Pa,” Adam said.

Ben twisted around to look at his son.  “You still awake?  Can’t you sleep, Adam?”

“Just thinking, Pa,” he replied.

“About getting your new horse tomorrow?” Ben asked, plunking his boots in the floor and stretching out beside Adam.

“Yeah, that——and other things.”

“What other things?” Ben asked, noting Adam’s sober tone.

“About Hoss, Pa,” Adam said.  “Susan’s just his age, isn’t she?”

“About six weeks older, as I recall,” Ben answered.

“She sure talks better than him,” Adam said.

“Oh, yeah, I noticed that,” Ben said.  “Of course, she’s a girl, son, and I sometimes think girls are born talking.”

“You—you don’t think there’s anything wrong with Hoss, do you?” Adam asked anxiously.  “Little Sammy sure seems quicker about things than I remember Hoss being.”

“Now, don’t you worry about your little brother,” Ben said, giving Adam a comforting pat.  “He picks up things slower than I remember your doing, for a fact, but he seems to get there eventually.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s what matters,” Adam yawned.  “I’m getting sleepy, Pa.”

“Roll over and start snoring, then,” Ben chuckled, planting a kiss on the boy’s cheek.

“Night, Pa,” Adam smiled and obediently rolled over.

Ben’s smile faded.  Was Hoss’s slowness that obvious?  Obvious enough to worry Adam?  Ben had noticed himself, of course, but he’d just figured that Adam, being extra quick and bright, made his more stolid brother look slow.  But both the Paynes’ children seemed sharper than Ben’s roly-poly son.  Was it possible there was really something wrong with Hoss?  Ben couldn’t have asked for a healthier boy or a sweeter one, but he wanted Hoss to be sound in mind, as well.  Obviously, he wasn’t equipped to judge that, but maybe Paul Martin could tell him.  Might be a good idea to have him check the boy out once they got home.  Laying aside the concern, Ben quickly finished undressing and climbed under the covers next to Adam.

* * * * *

Riding his new sorrel mare and leading Billy’s roan by the reins, Adam rode up to the garden beside the Thomas cabin and raised a hand in greeting.  “Hey!” he called.

“Back, are you?” Clyde responded.  “Where’s your pa?”

“Settling the cattle in at our place,” Adam replied.  “He sent me to fetch Hoss.  How’s Billy doing?”

“See for yourself,” Clyde said.  “He’s up to the house watching the younguns.”

Adam grinned.  He could just imagine how Billy relished that chore.  He walked the horses up to the cabin and slid off, slipping his hand into the saddlebag and pulling out two slender striped sticks.  With them hidden behind his back, he walked into Billy’s room unannounced.  Billy wasn’t there.  “Hey, where you at?” Adam called.

“In here,” Billy hollered from his parents’ bedroom.

Adam ambled back through the front room and into the one where Billy lay sprawled on the bed, watching Hoss pile blocks one atop the other, only to send them crashing down again the next time his inept fingers tried to add a block to his tower.

“Bubba!” Hoss cried, scrambling up and running to wrap his older brother in a bear hug.

“Keep it quiet, will you?” Billy demanded.  “Inger’s still asleep.”

Adam grinned at the baby in her crib, then laid a finger to his lips.  “Shh, quiet, Hoss.”  He ran an appraising eye over Billy’s prone figure.  “You doing better, ole buddy?”

“Yeah, doin’ good,” Billy said.

Adam pulled his hand from behind his back and held out the peppermint sticks.  “Here’s that candy I promised you,” he snickered.  “Two.  Count ‘em.”

“Candy!” Hoss cried, stretching for the red and white sticks.

“No, Hoss!” Adam said sharply.  “These are for Billy.”

“Aw, he can have one,” Billy said.  “Pa brought home some candy, so my sweet tooth ain’t achin’ too bad right now.”

“Yeah, and I’ll bet Hoss has already had his share,” Adam giggled.  Then he frowned at Hoss.  “I have some for you in my saddlebag, Hoss.  You can have it on the way home.”  Hoss’s lips curled at having to wait, but he let Adam give both candy sticks to Billy without further whining.

Billy took a lick of his candy.  “Thanks,” he said, “and thanks for sharin’ that money with me, too, pardner.”

“That’s okay,” Adam said.  “I spent my share on a new guitar.  I’m learning to play pretty good now.”

“Wanna see what Pa spent mine on?” Billy asked.

“Aw, I was hoping he’d let you spend it yourself,” Adam groaned.  “Guess I should’ve given it to you direct.”

“Naw, that’s okay,” Billy assured him.  “I like what Pa picked just fine.  Fact is, he put some extra with it to bring me somethin’ special.  Wait’ll you see!”  Billy swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up.

“Hey, are you allowed out of bed?” Adam sputtered.

“Sure,” Billy said.  “Leg’s still kinda sore, so I don’t do much walkin’ yet, but Doc Martin says a little exercise is good for me.  Come on; it’s in my room.”

Adam followed Billy, with Hoss tagging along.  Billy reached up to the pegs over his doorway and pulled down a shiny twenty-two.  “A rifle!” Adam shouted.  “You got a rifle!”

“Ain’t she a beauty?” Billy drooled.  “‘Course, it’ll be awhile before I can take her out, but I can’t wait to bring home some real game.”

Adam nodded.  Now, why hadn’t he thought to buy a rifle?  Then he shook his head.  Because Pa wouldn’t have let him, that’s why.  “Maybe I can get one next year,” he said.

Billy understood immediately what Adam meant.  “Yeah, we’ll have us a real good hunt then,” he said sympathetically.

“Can you go outside?” Adam asked.  “I wanted to show you my horse.”

“Sure,” Billy said.  “Let’s go.”

They went outside and Billy made the appropriate oohs and ahs over the sorrel mare.  Hoss just pointed to the saddlebag.  “Candy!” he cried.  “My candy now!”

Adam laughed.  “Okay, okay.”  He took another peppermint stick from the saddlebag and gave it to Hoss, then stroked the sorrel’s white mane.  “What do you think?” he asked Billy.

“She’s something,” Billy said.  “That white mane and tail really make her an eyeful.”

“Mr. Payne picked her out for me,” Adam said.  “I could’ve had any I wanted, but I liked this one best.”

“Sure makes my filly look plain,” Billy said, “but she’s a good horse.”

“Yeah, she is,” Adam agreed, “and I’d better get her stabled and head for home.”  He looked disapprovingly at Hoss.  “Come on, sticky face.  You can finish off that candy while I tend to Billy’s horse.  Then I’ll clean you up and we’ll go see Pa.”

“Pa!” Hoss chortled happily.  Not even a second peppermint stick sounded better than that.

* * * * *

Ben eagerly opened the door in answer to Paul Martin’s rap.  It was the first Saturday after his return from California and the first opportunity they’d had to play chess since the middle of January.  Though Ben had arrived back in the territory in early April, he’d been too involved with the sheep then to take time for their weekly game.  He was looking forward to an enjoyable evening.

Ben’s lips twitched with amusement as he saw the bag in Paul’s hand.  “You aiming to do some doctoring while you’re here?” he chuckled.

“Back to my old habits,” Paul smiled.  “Never know when I might need it.  As a matter of fact, I’ve just been called upon to give my professional opinion of Adam’s new horse.”

Ben guffawed.  “The boy’s insufferably proud of that animal, but she is a little beauty.”

“And certified sound,” Martin said in his most doctorly tone.

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “And what will the bill be for your services, doctor?”

Paul sniffed the air.  “Two plates of oxtail stew should cover it.”

“It’s Adam’s bill,” Ben laughed.  “He should pay it, not me.”

“All right, then,” Paul snickered.  “Since he’s grooming my horse, we’ll call it square.”

“Hoss with him?”

“Sure.  Planning to help, I think.”

Ben scowled.  “Adam won’t appreciate that.”  He started to set the table.  “All joking aside, I would appreciate your medical opinion on something.”

“Of course, Ben,” Paul said, sobering.  “Are you not feeling well?”

Ben shook his head as he placed a spoon by each plate.  “No, I’m fine.  It’s Hoss I’m concerned about.”

Paul laughed.  “I thought you were serious.”

“I am,” Ben said gravely.

“That boy’s as healthy as a horse,” Paul said.

“I know, but—”  Ben took a deep breath and told Paul his concerns about Hoss’s development, how much slower he seemed than Adam had been or even the two Payne babies.

When Ben finished, Paul laid a warm hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “Do you demand perfection from your sons, Ben?”

“No, of course not,” Ben said.  “Nothing could change the way I feel about the boy; but if there is a problem, I want to be aware of it.”

Paul smiled.  “What’s the matter, Ben?  Now that you’ve gotten me straightened out, aren’t there enough problems in the world without imagining them in your own boy?”

Ben looked intently into the doctor’s  gray eyes.  “Is that what I’m doing?  Imagining problems where there are none?  I pray I am!”

“You want the plain truth?” Paul asked.

“Certainly, I want the truth!” Ben sputtered.  “Quit tiptoeing around the question and give it to me straight.”

“All right,” Paul agreed.  “Sit down.”  When Ben complied, Paul sat down, folding his hands.  “Unless you’re demanding a perfect child, there is no problem, Ben.  That’s why I asked.  In all honesty, Hoss isn’t as bright a boy as Adam.”

“Well, who is?” Ben muttered.  “I know I didn’t have that boy’s head for learning when I was his age.”

“Precisely,” Paul said.  “Adam is exceptionally sharp-witted, and he loves learning.  Hoss, on the other hand, is a little slow, I think.  Not feeble-minded, not dim-witted.  But while Adam seems to catch on to new ideas immediately, Hoss will probably be one of those boys who really has to study hard to learn his letters.  But he does learn, Ben, and I doubt he’s much behind other boys his age.”

Ben smiled, relieved.  “He’s a precious, loving boy; I hated the thought of his not being able to make his way in the world.”

“He can make his way,” Paul assured him, “but his way won’t be Adam’s way, nor yours——though not so different, at that.  The way the child loves animals, I’d say he’s a born rancher.  And he doesn’t need to understand Shakespeare or chemistry to be a good one.”

Ben stood to give the stew another stir.  “Thanks, Paul,” he said.  Turning, he asked, “How does it feel to be doctoring again?”

Paul grinned broadly.  “It feels wonderful, Ben.  I’ve even had my second patient already.”

Ben laughed.  “You referring to Adam’s horse or his little brother?”

“Neither,” Paul chuckled.  “I meant a real patient.”

“Oh?” Ben said.  “Who’s sick?  Anyone I know?”

“No one’s sick,” Paul laughed more heartily, “and you haven’t met this particular patient yet.  His name is James Brimmel Ellis, and he was just born May first.  And I’ll tell you another thing, my nosy friend: saving a life, bringing a new one into this world——I’d forgotten how good that could feel.  I don’t know yet whether I can make a living at medicine here, but no more mining for me.  I’m a doctor.”

Ben smiled.  “Word’s bound to spread quickly, but if the pickings get a little lean, there’s always a plate of stew for you here.”

“Two plates,” Paul reminded him.  “That’s my bill for medical advice concerning your younger son.  And you can’t argue your way out of paying it this time.”

Ben ladled the doctor’s plate brimful of steamy stew.  “Here’s your first installment, then, doctor.  Eat hearty, and if you want a second helping, eat fast.  Where food is concerned, there’s nothing slow about Hoss!”

CHAPTER TWENTY

             The latter half of 1854 brought a number of changes to the residents of Carson County——for the most part, developmental changes, the kind any growing community desired.  A few were less pleasant.

The emigrant season was much as it had always been.  Though the traffic didn’t approach the numbers of the gold rush years, more than two hundred wagons had passed through Carson Valley by the first of July.  But while the number was smaller, Ben felt busier than ever.  He had put a large portion of his profits from the sheep drive into cattle, and they required more and more of his time.  The business of the trading post, which had once been his livelihood, now seemed an intrusion on time he preferred to spend developing his ranch.

So far, Clyde hadn’t complained about Ben’s frequent absences, but Ben felt stretched by the pull of two opposing responsibilities.  He knew at some point he’d have to snap one direction or the other.  He began to ponder the idea of dropping his partnership in the trading post.  The sale of his cattle would be sufficient to support him and the boys, and Clyde no longer really needed his capital to purchase trade goods.  The profits made from their trip to New Mexico would enable Clyde to continue the venture without Ben, if that’s what he wanted, or to give him the needed cushion if he decided to switch completely to blacksmithing.  Ben didn’t feel the need to make an immediate decision; the end of the year would be soon enough.  In the meantime, he had plenty of work to occupy his days.  More than occupy; overload was a more accurate term.

Thomas Knott finished building the sawmill for John Cary and began another, as well as a grist mill, for John Reese.  Ben would have preferred to give his business to the pioneer he’d known and respected for years, but when Cary’s mill opened July 26th, Ben was among its first customers.  His new hired hands hadn’t complained about being housed in tents, but Ben wanted to provide them with a regular bunkhouse.  He’d have to, anyway, before winter came, and the sooner the better.  He’d found some good hands, and he wanted to keep them.  The best way to do that, Ben felt, was to treat them the way he’d want to be treated in their place.  And that meant a solid roof over their heads.

Hoss turned four only a couple of days after Ben started the bunkhouse and seemed to celebrate the event by shooting upward in height, measuring almost a foot for each year of his life.  The growth, of course, had been gradual, but Ben suddenly became aware of just how tall his baby boy was.  He was tempted to ask his physician friend whether that was normal, but checked his concerns before he spoke.  He figured he’d just get laughed at again and told that he was once more imagining problems where none existed.  And this time Ben was pretty sure he was.  Boys, like communities, were meant to grow, and if Hoss was doing it more quickly than most, well, so did some cities.

The August 5th issue of the weekly Scorpion brought news of a change that was either desirable or horrifying, depending on one’s outlook.  Adam greeted with exultant joy the news of a school to be opened September 4th, but Billy moped openly, mourning the good old days of running barefoot and ignorant through the grass.  According to the Scorpion, Israel Mott, having built a new home for his family, was donating his former cabin for use as a school, and his wife Eliza would act as teacher.

While the benefits of a new school might be open to debate, everyone in CarsonCounty regretted the news printed the final Saturday in August.  Editor Stephen Kinsey couldn’t remain unbiased as he reported the disaster which had befallen his uncle, John Reese.  E. L. Barnard, one of Reese’s partners in Reese and Company, had absconded with the total profits of a large cattle drive in which most of the company’s assets had been invested.  For Reese, personally, the financial failure couldn’t have come at a worse time, for he was unable to pay for his recently completed sawmill and grist mill, thus adding debt and disgrace to his disappointment in what had been a trusted friend.

The next week’s issue of the Scorpion reported the sale the previous day of all the holdings of Reese and Company to William Thorrington, known as “Lucky Bill” to his friends.  Included in the sale were all ranch and farm property, livestock, tools, household furniture and cooking utensils and all the dry goods, groceries and hardware at the Mormon Station trading post, as well as the claim to Eagle Valley Ranch and half-ownership in the toll bridge over the Carson River.

“Wiped out,” Ben murmured as he read the paper the next afternoon at Clyde and Nelly’s.

“Sure makes you want to count your blessings,” Clyde said.

Ben nodded gravely, then smiled at his old friend.  “Yeah,” he said, “and chief among them I count a partner who can be trusted.”

“Exactly what I meant,” Clyde replied, giving Ben a hearty slap on the arm.

* * * * *

“Which books should I take, Pa?” Adam queried seriously.

Ben looked up from stirring the pot of oatmeal.  “Oh, I think just your speller and reader today, Adam.”

“But arithmetic, Pa,” Adam pressed.  “I’m sure hoping we’ll study arithmetic.”

“All right; take that, too,” Ben laughed.  “Then you can tell Mrs. Mott what other texts you have and ask which you should bring.”

Adam added his gray copy of Joseph Ray’s Arithmetic to the pile on the table containing McGuffey’s Third Eclectic Reader and Noah Webster’s blue-backed speller.

Hoss leaned over from his chair to pat the book.  “Read story!” he demanded.

Adam impatiently pushed the little hand away.  “No, Hoss.  It’s not a storybook; these are my schoolbooks, and you don’t touch.”

Hoss’s lower lip pooched out.  “Story!” he yelled.

Ben plunked a bowl of oatmeal in front of his younger son.  “No story,” he said firmly.  “Time for breakfast.”

Hoss grabbed his spoon and dug in, smearing his cheeks with clumps of cereal as he ate.

“What a pig,” Adam muttered under his breath.

“Adam,” Ben said sharply.

“Well, look at him, Pa,” Adam insisted.  “He’s getting it everywhere but in his mouth.”

Ben chuckled as he wiped Hoss’s face with a red-checked napkin.  “True, true, but you must not call your brother names——however well deserved.  You just concentrate on your own breakfast.  You don’t want to be late your first day.”

“No, sir!” Adam declared, lifting a spoonful to his mouth.  “I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks.”

“No,” Ben drawled playfully.  “You don’t say!”

Adam grinned at the teasing tone in his father’s voice.  No need to tell Pa how much he wanted to go to school again, he had to admit, not when he’d talked about little else since hearing the news.  Adam lost no time finishing his oatmeal and bundling into his jacket and cap.

Hurrying outside, he saw his father lead his sorrel mare, already saddled, from the barn.  Adam tied the leather strap holding his books around the saddle horn.

Seeing his brother prepared to ride out, Hoss trotted to the barn for his stick pony, mounted and galloped to Adam’s side.  “Me go, too!” he announced.

“Oh, no, you don’t!” Adam giggled as he swung into the saddle.

“Mind your manners and be attentive to your teacher,” Ben admonished.  “Don’t let that Billy lead you astray.”

“Pa, I wouldn’t!” Adam protested, offended.  “Not at school.”

“Look to your horse when you get there,” Ben reminded him.  Adam nodded as he touched his heels to his mount’s flanks and moved away.

Hoss started after him.

“Oh, no,” Ben laughed, swooping the hefty boy, pony and all, into his arms.  “Pa can’t spare you today.”

Hoss wriggled, both arms flailing wildly.  “I wanna go Bubba!” he whimpered.

Ben spit the stick pony’s yarn mane from his mouth.  “You stay Pa,” he said firmly, setting Hoss down.  “You’re too young for school, Hoss.”  Hoss looked like he was about to let loose a loud squall, so Ben quickly took his hand.  “Come help Pa in the barn, son,” he said.  With one longing look at the dust from Adam’s trail, Hoss trotted to the barn beside his father.

“Put your horsey up,” Ben chuckled.  “No riding in the barn.”  He and Adam had laughed heartily at the way Hoss treated his toy horse with the same attention they showed their mounts.  When they groomed their horses, the stick pony got a rub down, as well; when Ben and Adam pitched hay for their animals to eat, Hoss took a handful to feed his wooden horse.  Amused at first, Ben had decided that caring for his toy was a good way for Hoss to learn how to treat live animals, so he’d designated one corner of the barn as Hoss’s stall, and there the boy stabled his wooden pony.

As Ben started to feed his bay and the milk cow, Hoss crawled between his legs to get a handful of straw.  Ben tripped over him and landed bottom first on the dirt floor.  Grabbing Hoss and pulling him out of reach of the cow’s hind legs, Ben scowled.  “Now, how am I supposed to work with you underfoot?” he demanded roughly.

His face reddened.  Just yesterday Nelly Thomas had posed that very point to him and offered to keep Hoss while Adam was in school.  But Ben had proudly asserted that he could take care of his own son and still tend to his chores.  After all, Hoss was a big boy now.  Lips set with determination, Ben picked himself up, then guided Hoss across the barn and plunked him down.  He’d prove he could take care of his boy if it were the last thing he did.

The barn chores took extra time that morning, due to a small distraction that wouldn’t stay put in his corner of the stable.  For the last week Ben had looked forward to getting Adam out of the house.  The boy’s interminable chatter about the delights of returning to school had been grating on his father’s nerves.

Now Ben thought putting up with the racket a small price to pay for having Adam’s help around the place.  Until this morning Ben hadn’t realized how much help Adam gave him.  Not only did the boy do his share of chores, but he kept his younger brother occupied, a greater blessing than Ben had recognized before.  He sighed as he set the pitchfork down, suddenly feeling very appreciative of his older son.  A boy who loved learning as much as Adam deserved his chance at an education, though.  Ben planned to see his boy got that chance if it were the last thing——

Ben grinned.  That phrase had trickled through his mind too many times this morning.  Maybe some fresh air would clear his thinking.  “Come on, Hoss,” he chuckled.  “Let’s work outside awhile.”

Ben led his younger son into the yard.  “Pa’s gonna chop a little kindling.  You want to ride your horsey or get some of your toys from the house?”

Hoss shook his head.  “Eat, Pa,” he said, pointing to the house.

“You can’t be hungry already!” Ben argued, arms akimbo.

Hoss bobbed his head hurriedly.  “Hungry, Pa.  Eat!” he demanded, tugging on his father’s hand.

“Oh, all right,” Ben conceded grudgingly.  He could just imagine the look on Nelly’s face if she saw this scene, but he’d show her.  He’d prove he could handle whatever arose without the help of any woman.  “I’ll give you some jam and bread,” he said, taking Hoss’s hand, “but that’s gonna have to hold you ‘til dinner.  Pa has work to do, baby.”

“Jam!” sweet-toothed Hoss chortled, licking his lips.  The snack contented him for a while, but before Ben could get much kindling split, a small hand tugged on his pants’ leg.

“It’s too soon for dinner, Hoss,” Ben said firmly.

“No, Pa; gotta go,” Hoss tried to explain with his limited vocabulary.

Seeing the boy point toward the outhouse, Ben comprehended the message and slammed the hatchet into the chopping block.  While Hoss was old enough to visit the outhouse on his own, he didn’t like going into the dark shed alone to do his biological business.  Didn’t, for that matter, even relish sleeping in a room without a candle burning.  Ben sighed.  Another chore he’d always relegated to Adam.  Well, no help for it.  The boy needed assistance, and there was no one else to give it.  Ben escorted his son to the outhouse.

By the time Ben managed to get a good supply of kindling chopped, the sun was directly overhead.  Time to cook dinner and it had better be a good one, he decided, for he planned to head into the nearby hills afterwards to fell some trees for firewood.  He figured if he filled Hoss full enough, the boy could sleep on a pallet out of harm’s way, and Ben just might get a full afternoon’s work accomplished.

After eating, Ben draped a couple of blankets over one of his oxen and set Hoss atop.  Hoss seemed to enjoy the smooth-gaited ride up the hill, but protested when his father spread out the blankets and told him to lie down and go to sleep.  “Story,” he whined.

Ben sighed.  Hoss was used to his brother reading to him before his nap each day, but Ben had brought no book.  “Pa’ll just have to tell you a story, I guess,” he said as he sat beside the boy on the blanket.

Hoss snuggled close, laying his head in Ben’s lap.  Ben smoothed the boy’s wheat-colored hair with a tender hand and began, “I was just thirteen when I first went to sea.”  As Ben reminisced nostalgically, Hoss slowly began to yawn, finally closing his eyes and snoring softly.

Smiling, Ben slid the small head off his thigh and walked downhill to the tree he’d selected.  Grabbing an ax, he swung blow after blow into its bark.  As he worked, Ben whistled happily.  Despite the delays of caring for a small child, the day was going well.  He’d soon have this tree down and chained to the ox’s yoke for transport back to the cabin.  By the time they arrived, Adam should be home and he could tend his brother for a while.

Ben finished the undercut and started to chop on the opposite side of the tree.  When the tall pine began to sway, he ran to the side and stood watching the massive trunk topple.  Suddenly, from beyond the tree came a happy cry, “Pa!”

Ben’s attention snapped at the sound and he saw Hoss running toward him, arms outstretched.  “No, Hoss!  Stop!” Ben yelled, his face contorted with alarm, for the huge pine was falling directly across the boy’s path.

Hoss gamboled on, heedless of danger.  Ben ran toward the child, wishing his legs could race as rapidly as his heart.  Moments before the trunk crashed to ground, he flung himself at Hoss, knocking the boy aside and rolling with him down the hill.  Ben slammed to a stop against another pine and Hoss almost immediately piled into his chest.

Hoss wailed, and Ben instinctively gathered the boy into his arms.  “There, there now,” he cooed soothingly.  “It’s all right, son; you’re safe now.”

Hoss continued to cry and Ben soon realized the tears came from pain and not just fear.  “Oh, baby, you’re hurt,” Ben cried, tenderly touching the cut on the little head.

Gently, he lifted his son and carried him back to the blanket, where he’d also left a canteen of water.  Ben took the bandanna from around his neck, wet it and wiped the blood away as best he could.  “Ooh, you’re gonna have a goose egg, too,” he purred sympathetically.

Hoss had gradually quieted.  “Tree,” he whimpered.

“Yeah, the tree fell,” Ben said.  “I didn’t expect you to wake up so soon.  Pa should have kept better watch.”

“No,” Hoss whimpered, frustrated that his father didn’t understand.  “Wanna go Tree, Pa.”

Realizing Hoss was referring to his name for their ranch, Ben squeezed the child to his chest.  “Yeah, we’ll go home, son,” he said.  “Just let Pa get things together and we’ll go home.  Stay right here, Hoss.”

As he chained the downed tree to the ox and gathered up his tools and the blankets, Ben chided himself harshly.  What a fool he’d been!  What a proud, ignorant fool to think he could adequately care for his child and still do the needed work of the ranch.  Nelly had been right, and Ben wouldn’t let pride stand in the way of accepting her offered help anymore.  That mule-headed pride had almost cost him one of his most cherished treasures, and what a poor trade that would have been!  It wasn’t a mistake he’d make again.  No matter how much crow he had to eat, no matter how many times Nelly said “I told you so,” he’d trust his precious boy into her hands and rest in the assurance that Hoss was safe.

* * * * *

Adam clattered into the yard and led his mare to the barn.  “Pa?” he said, peering inside.

“Over here,” Ben called from the cabin’s front door.

Adam grinned and trotted across the yard.  “Hi, Pa!”

“Hi, yourself,” Ben chuckled.  “How was your day?”

Before Adam could answer, he felt his legs wrapped in a circle of small, fleshy arms.  “Bubba!” Hoss crowed happily.

Leaning over to give his little brother a hug, Adam noticed the white bandage around the little fellow’s head.  “Ooh, what happened to you?” he asked.

“He took a tumble,” Ben said soberly.

Adam gave the little boy’s head a gentle pat.  “That’s too bad, Hoss.  Does it hurt bad?”

Hoss’s head bobbed.  “Hurt bad,” he reported.

Ben lifted the child and gave him a squeeze.  “Now, son, it doesn’t still hurt, does it?”

Hoss touched his head and nodded solemnly.

Ben sighed.  “Well, I don’t know what I can do that would help, child.”

A wide grin split Hoss’s face.  “Jam!” he cried.

Ben and Adam both laughed.  “I’m kind of hungry, too, Pa,” Adam giggled.

“Come on in, then, soon as you’ve stabled your horse,” Ben said.  “I guess we don’t need Dr. Martin to administer that kind of painkiller.”

Ben handed Adam a slice of bread spread with peach jam when the boy ran in after completing his chores.  He again asked Adam how his day had gone.

“Pretty well,” Adam said.  “Mrs. Mott isn’t nearly as interesting a teacher as Mr. Edwards was, though.”

“I didn’t think she would be,” Ben admitted.  “Do you feel you’re wasting your time, Adam?”

Adam shook his head.  “Oh, no.  There’s plenty she can teach me; it’s just that she sort of makes it work.”

Ben smiled.  “And Mr. Edwards made it fun?”

“Yeah,” Adam said fondly.  He took a bite of the bread, then jerked up.  “Oh, I forgot, Pa.  Mrs. Mott wants to see you at your earliest con—convenience.  Yeah, that’s the way she put it.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Don’t tell me you’re in trouble already.”

Adam frowned.  “No, Pa!  Of course not.  I think it has something to do with geography.”

Ben chuckled.  “Geography?”

Adam swallowed his mouthful of jam and bread.  “Yeah.  I showed her my books, like you said, and told her what others I had.  Then Billy piped up and said he liked geography best of all ‘cause you made it so exciting with all your stories about the places you’d been.  That’s when Mrs. Mott said she wanted to see you, so I think it has something to do with geography.”

“Well, I’ll ride in with you tomorrow and see,” Ben said.  “We’ll need to leave early though; I’ve got to stop by the Thomases first to eat some humble pie.”

Hoss looked up expectantly.  “Pie?” he queried, his blue eyes brightening hopefully.

Ben collapsed with laughter.

* * * * *

When the door opened, Eliza Mott looked up from the rough plank desk at the front of her classroom, which had at one time been the kitchen of her cabin.  “Why, Mr. Cartwright,” she said, rising quickly.  “I didn’t dream you’d respond so quickly to my message.”

“I was in the area,” Ben said simply, “and, of course, I’m very concerned about anything that relates to Adam’s education.”

Eliza smiled at the boy who had entered behind Ben.  “Yes, I can understand that.  He’s a very bright boy, and I can tell he’ll be one of my best students.”  Adam blushed furiously, but it was obvious he was pleased by his teacher’s praise.

“Actually, what I wanted to talk with you about, Mr. Cartwright—” Eliza began.

“Please call me Ben,” Ben interrupted.

“Of course, Ben,” Eliza smiled.  “As I was saying, it wasn’t really for Adam’s sake that I asked to see you.  I’m sure he’s already had the benefit I hope you’ll afford the other students.”

Ben cocked his head quizzically and Eliza rushed on.  “It’s geography, Ben.  The only traveling I’ve ever done was the trip here from Missouri, so I’m afraid what little I know comes strictly from books.   And when Billy Thomas mentioned your teaching him the subject, I just knew that if that little scamp actually enjoyed the lessons, the other children would surely profit by listening to you lecture.”

Ben laughed.  “I’m afraid I also tried teaching the little scamp some basic grammar, and I couldn’t tell he profited much from that!”

Eliza smiled.  “Well, I can deal with grammar.  I truly would appreciate your help with the geography lessons, however.”

“You’d like me to come by sometime and talk to the children?” Ben asked.

“Not just sometime,” Eliza explained.  “I thought it over last night, and it seems to me the best thing to do is have you come in once a week, say on Saturdays, and teach the children then.  It would be something for them to look forward to and I trust not unduly take up your time.”

Ben shrugged.  “I’m not overly busy at this time of year, of course, but once Spring comes—”

“Oh, I understand,” Eliza said hurriedly.  “And while I can’t pay you for your help, I would write off Adam’s tuition in return.”

“That’s more than fair,” Ben said.  “I’ll be glad to help out.”

Eliza extended her hand.  “I’ll see you Saturday morning, then.”

Ben clasped her hand warmly and the bargain was sealed.

As Mrs. Mott had predicted, all the children looked forward to Saturdays.  Each Saturday morning brought another of Ben Cartwright’s intriguing stories about life and customs in foreign lands.  After the geography lesson the children competed in a spell down.  Since there were only six scholars in the Mormon Station school, the contest never lasted long.  To reward the youngsters for good work and good behavior during the week, Mrs. Mott dismissed class as soon as someone, frequently Adam, emerged victorious.  The prospect of a free afternoon provided sufficient motivation to keep the children attentive the rest of the week, and Mrs. Mott had few discipline problems.

For Ben, as well as the young scholars, Saturdays were a pleasant break in the regular routine.  While giving his weekly geography lectures, Ben couldn’t miss the look of pride in Adam’s eyes, and Ben found it difficult to keep a similar expression out of his own as he watched Adam’s regular triumphs in the spelling bees.  Then, too, teaching the children gave Ben a sense of contribution to his community, made him feel a part of its growth.

While the changes taking place in Carson County were primarily good ones, the news outside the valley was increasingly bad.  The country had been in turmoil ever since Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act annulling the provisions of the Missouri Compromise.  Giving each territory the right to choose whether to permit slavery within its borders had only exacerbated the controversy dividing North from South.

As proponents of both viewpoints flocked to Kansas, trying to insure a majority for their cause, open hostility raged within that afflicted territory.  Each month’s mail from back east brought word of more fighting and killing, and even the Scorpion, normally devoted to news of local interest, began to carry stories of what was all too appropriately labeled Bleeding Kansas.

Ben felt thankful for the safe haven of the West.  California was already within the fold of free states, and slavery was unlikely to find a foothold in Mormon Utah, even if it ever achieved a population large enough to merit statehood.  Carson County was certainly doing nothing to enhance Utah’s chances of that, Ben had to admit ruefully.  But obscurity and isolation had their blessings, and the chance to grow and develop slowly seemed greatest among them whenever Ben heard news of the turmoil outside his peaceful valley.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

             After receiving Eliza Mott’s thanks for his help with the geography class, Ben walked outside to meet Adam one Saturday.  Resting a hand on the boy’s shoulder, Ben said, “We’re branding the new calves this afternoon.  You want to come along?”

Adam bit his lip and glanced at Billy, with whom he’d been in earnest conversation just moments before.  “Well, I’d like that,” Adam admitted, “but me and Billy—”

“Billy and I,” Ben corrected with a smile.

“Yes, sir.  Billy and I,” Adam said hurriedly.  “We were talking about making kites.  The wind’s good for flying this afternoon.”

Ben chuckled.  “Yeah, it’s brisk.  So where’s this kite-building taking place?  Our place or Billy’s?”

“Ours,” Adam grinned.  “I’ve got the makings all set aside.”

“You know you’ll have to watch Hoss, too,” Ben pointed out.

“Aw, you could leave him at our place,” Billy argued.

“No, I couldn’t,” Ben said firmly.  “That’s not fair to your mother; furthermore, I have no intention of going all the way back there from my cattle range just to give you rapscallions the pleasure of an afternoon alone.”

“That’s all right,” Adam quickly assured his father.  “We can pick Hoss up first.”

Billy groaned, but saw little point in arguing further.  Ben Cartwright was even less vulnerable to that kind of manipulation than his own folks.  “Let’s go,” he urged, elbowing Adam.  “You can take dinner at our place.”  He threw Ben a significant glare.  “Ma won’t mind,” he insisted.

“I know she won’t,” Ben grinned.  “Fine with me if my boys have a hot meal.  There’s not much ready to eat at our place.”

“That’s for sure!” Adam exclaimed.  “I’m hungry, too.  Let’s go, Billy.”

“Yeah,” Billy agreed, “before that chunky brother of yours picks the table clean.”

Adam and Billy mounted their horses and raced for the Thomas cabin, four miles to the north.  Billy won and, leaping off his horse, rushed into the cabin.  “Ma, me and Adam’s gonna build kites at his house this afternoon.  That’s all right, ain’t it?” he asked, rushing his words.

“If it’s all right with Ben, I got no objection,” Nelly replied, pushing a damp tendril of light hair off her forehead.

“He done said yes,” Billy announced.  “What’s for dinner?  Adam’s eatin’ with us.”

“Should have told Ben to come along, too,” Nelly chided.

“He’s anxious to get to the calf branding, ma’am,” Adam said from the doorway.  “Diego’ll have something for the men to eat there.”

“Humph!” Nelly sniffed.  “Some meal that’s likely to be.  Well, at least, you younguns will have good food.”

“Yeah, good food!” Hoss chirped, clambering into a chair at the table.

“Not yet,” Nelly laughed.  “You run along and play with Inger awhile longer.  Dinner’ll be ready in about half an hour.”

“Long?” Hoss asked Adam as he climbed down.

“Short,” Adam said, knowing those two words comprised Hoss’s entire concept of time.  Hoss grinned and trotted back into the bedroom where he’d been playing with Inger.

After a filling lunch the boys mounted, Hoss behind Adam on the sorrel mare, and rode to Pine Tree Station.  Adam helped Hoss down, then faced the four-year-old, arms akimbo.  “All right now, Hoss, you want to feed your pony while Billy and I take care of our horses?”

Hoss shook his head.  “Pony all fed,” he said.  His pup came racing from the barn to greet him with leaps and licks.

“Go find some toys to play with then,” Adam ordered.  “Billy and I’ll be real busy making our kites, and we don’t want you underfoot.”

“Me help,” Hoss offered amiably, turning his face aside to avoid Klamath’s wet tongue.

“Oh, no, you won’t!” Adam sputtered.  “You keep your hands off.  Now, in the house and find some toys.”

Hoss thrust out his lower lip, then drew it back in when he thought of something he’d like better than toys.  He jogged toward the cabin, Klamath trotting at his heels.  “No, Klam, stay,” Hoss ordered.  He patted the little dog’s head, went inside and pulled from the corner cupboard half a loaf of bread and a crock of plum jam, successfully carrying both to the table.

Feeling like a big boy, able to fix his own snack, Hoss climbed in a chair, stuck his fingers in the crock of jam and slathered it lavishly on one end of the loaf of bread.  Pa, of course, would have sliced off just one piece, but Hoss instinctively knew he’d be in trouble if he touched one of Pa’s sharp knives.  Besides, jam and bread tasted sweet no matter how you put them together, and Hoss was prepared to finish off all the bread anyway.  Highly satisfied with his creation, he sunk his teeth in.

When Adam and Billy walked in, Hoss was sloppily applying more jam to the nibbled end of the loaf.  “Want some?” he offered generously, favoring Adam with one of his sunniest smiles.

Adam’s lips tightened, his brows met in a straight line, and his face reddened——a perfect copy of his father, when angry.  “What have you done?” he demanded.  “Look at the mess you’ve made, Hoss!”

“Sorwy, Bubba,” Hoss whimpered, lapsing into baby talk at the sight of Adam’s angry countenance.

“Don’t ‘sorry,’ me, Hoss Cartwright!” Adam snapped.

“That youngun’s a mess waitin’ to happen,” Billy charged.

“You can say that again,” Adam moaned.  “Now we’ll have to clean him up before we can start the kite.”

“Not to mention the table,” Billy commiserated.  “He’s swiped jam everywhere.”

Disgruntled, Adam grabbed Hoss roughly by one arm and herded him outdoors.  When Klamath stood and growled, Adam let go of Hoss’s arm and snatched up the bucket resting by the front door.  “Stay right there and don’t touch anything,” Adam ordered, heading for the creek.

Hoss flopped down on the ground and, with Klamath’s tongue busily assisting him, began to lick plum jam from his fingers.  When Adam returned, he held his pudgy palms out to demonstrate that he was already clean.

“Not good enough,” Adam snapped, thrusting first one, then the other, sticky hand into the water and scrubbing hard.  Hoss whined, for the water was icy.  Klamath began nipping at Adam’s heels.  Adam kicked at him, and though the dog wasn’t hurt, he slunk back, adding his whimpers to Hoss’s.

“It’s your own fault,” Adam said harshly, “so you can just quit the bellering.”  Not sure whether Adam meant him or his dog, Hoss wiped his dripping nose with his just-washed hand while Adam scrubbed the other.  Adam dried both his brother’s hands.  “Now sit here ‘til we get the table washed off,” he ordered.

“Cold,” Hoss whimpered.

“Then go in the house,” Adam retorted, “but stay in your room.”

Adam, with Billy’s help, was vigorously scouring the table when Hoss ambled in from the bedroom he shared with Adam.  Crumpled in his hand was a large sheet of paper.  “Here, Bubba,” he said, obviously hoping to appease his irritated sibling.  “Make kite.”

Adam yelped and jerked the paper from Hoss’s hand.  “Doggone you!  You’ve gone and scrunched it full of wrinkles.”

“Tore it, too,” Billy added, conveniently overlooking the fact that it was Adam’s precipitous action that had torn the paper.

“S—sorwy,” Hoss sputtered.

“Don’t start that again!” Adam snapped.  “Sorry doesn’t cut it, Hoss.  Billy’s right.  You’re a ca-catastrophe waiting to happen.”  He chose to replace Billy’s simpler term with one from the previous week’s spelling list.

“We won’t get nothin’ done with him around,” Billy complained.

“So I’m just gonna see to it he’s not around,” Adam said firmly.  He grabbed Hoss by one elbow.  “Give me a hand,” he ordered Billy.

Billy took the other elbow.  “Where we headed?”

“The tool shed,” Adam replied.  “He can’t open it from the inside.”

“Good idea,” Billy said.  Between them, the two boys dragged the kicking, squirming youngster.  Behind them, Klamath barked in loud protest.

Adam opened the door to the shed and shoved Hoss inside.  “You, too,” Adam ordered as he pushed Klamath in with his young master and slammed the door.

“No, Bubba!” Hoss screamed.  “Dark!”

For a moment Adam felt a twinge of guilt.  He knew Hoss hated dark places.  That’s why he’d never go to the outhouse alone or sleep without a lighted candle.  “Time he got over it,” Adam mumbled under his breath.  Aloud he said, “Quit that blubbering, Hoss.  I just want you out of our hair for a while.  I’ll let you out soon as we finish the kites.”  And I’ll do that a lot sooner with you in there, Adam told himself, justifying his actions.

“Let’s get to it,” Billy urged, “before your Pa gets home.”

Adam flinched.  Pa.  That was the fly in the ointment, all right.  Pa’d have his hide for treating Hoss this way.  Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea, after all.

“Come on,” Billy, who had already reached the cabin, called.

Adam squared his shoulders.  He couldn’t back down now——not in front of Billy.  “I’m coming,” he shouted over Hoss’s vociferous pleas for help.

Without Hoss’s interference, the older boys quickly constructed two wind-worthy kites.  “Bet mine’ll fly the highest,” Billy bragged.

Adam tossed the challenge back in his friend’s face.  “No, sir; mine’s the best.”

“Prove it,” Billy dared, racing outside.  He ran as fast as he could and soon the kite was soaring skyward.  Adam charged after him, grinning as he saw his kite sail higher than Billy’s, higher than the emerald pines fringing the foothills west of the cabin.  Back and forth the boys raced, each flaunting the merit of his own creation whenever it chanced to rise above its competitor.

Evening shadows lengthened unheeded.  Suddenly, a voice rang through the trees.  “Adam!” Ben Cartwright called.  Jubilant with triumph, his cheeks chafed ruddy by the wind, Adam ran to greet his father.

Ben’s face, however, was glowering with a different kind of warmth.  “I thought I told you not to leave Hoss at the Thomases,” he said tersely.

“I didn’t,” Adam said, then clapped his hand over his mouth.  Hoss!  He’d meant to let his little brother out of the tool shed as soon as he’d finished his kite, but in the excitement of his contest with Billy, he’d completely forgotten.  Adam hurriedly explained what he’d done.

“You did what!” Ben shouted with undisguised fury.

“Well, he—he was being an awful pest,” Adam sputtered, “and we wanted to make the kites and—”

“I get the picture,” Ben growled, “and it’s not a pretty one.”

Adam gulped.  “No, sir, it’s not.  I’m sorry, Pa.”  Suddenly, his face drained.  He hadn’t accepted Hoss’s apologies.  Why should he expect any better response from Pa?

“I think it’s time you went home, Billy,” Ben said firmly as he turned his back on the boys and headed for the tool shed.

“High time,” Billy muttered.  “Boy, are you gonna get it!”  He gave Adam a sympathetic look.  “I hope he ain’t too hard on you.  It was part my fault.  Tell him that if you think it’ll help.”

Adam shook his head.  Pa was smart enough to figure out Billy’s part without being told, but whatever his friend had done wouldn’t excuse Adam’s behavior.  That was the attitude Pa would take, so there was no use trying to squirm out of whatever punishment Pa laid down.  And seeing Hoss’s tear-streaked face when he was released from the confining shed convinced Adam more than any amount of scolding that he deserved the worst Pa could think up.

Adam’s footsteps dragged the dust as he approached the bench beside the cabin door where Ben sat comforting his younger son.  A growl rumbled in the throat of the dog sitting at their feet and Adam took a step back.  “I’m sorry, Pa,” he said again, not hoping to lessen his penalty by the words, just feeling the need to say them.

Anger was still glinting in Ben Cartwright’s eyes.  Hoss, too, looked up at Adam with a look the older boy had never seen before.  Nothing akin to the hero worship with which Hoss ordinarily ogled him.  “I’m sorry, baby,” Adam murmured.  “Brother forgot.”

“Forgetting wasn’t the problem, Adam!” Ben grunted.

“No, sir, I know that,” Adam said.  “It wasn’t right in the first place, but I never meant to leave him that long.”

“How long is ‘that long’?” Ben demanded.

Adam shrugged.  “A couple of hours, I guess.”

“Two hours,” Ben sputtered.  “How do you think it feels to be shut up in the dark for two hours, Adam?”

“Not good, I guess,” Adam admitted.

“Well, you’re about to find out,” Ben stated bluntly.  “That’ll be your punishment.  I’ll lock you in that shed for exactly two hours.  Then we’ll have a little talk about how it feels!”

Adam nodded silently and headed for the tool shed.  He pulled the door shut behind him and immediately felt the darkness close in.  A few minutes later he heard the door latched from the outside and knew he was as hopelessly trapped as Hoss had been.  Adam started to cry, but not for himself.  For Hoss and the fear he’d endured at his big brother’s hands.  Adam sat down on the cold earth and let the shame wash over him.

The minutes straggled past, dragging as slowly as his footsteps had earlier, until Adam was sure that Pa’d forgotten him the way he’d forgotten Hoss.  Finally, the door creaked open.  “You can come out now,” Ben said.

Adam almost didn’t respond, the dark shed seeming preferable to the sight of his father’s wrathful eyes.  Two hours had done little to wipe the fury and disappointment from Ben’s visage.  Adam silently followed his father into the cabin.

Ben pointed to a slice of dry bread and a cup of milk on the table.  “That’s your supper,” he said.  “Eat it.”

“I’m not much hungry, Pa,” Adam whispered.

“Eat it,” Ben said, but his voice was gentler this time.

Adam sat down and tried to comply, but the dry bread stuck in his throat.  Ben sat across from him.  “Well, how was it, son?” he asked.

Adam choked down the bread in his mouth.  “Bad, Pa,” he said.  “Worse than I thought.”

“And worse yet for Hoss,” Ben said grimly.  “He’s only four, Adam.  He was terrified.”

“I know, Pa,” Adam murmured, staring at the tabletop.  “I—I guess he hates me, huh?”

“He was very angry, very hurt,” Ben said, “but I talked with him about it.  I think he’ll forgive you, Adam, but you can’t play this kind of game with his feelings.  Baby or not, Hoss is a person, same as you; he deserves to be treated with kindness and respect——no matter how much he gets in the way of what you’d rather do.”

“Yes, sir, I know.”

“Then behave as if you knew,” Ben said firmly.  “I’ve entrusted you with a great responsibility, Adam, and most of the time I’ve been proud of how you handle it.  But I don’t feel proud today.”

Something shriveled inside Adam.  He’d basked in his father’s approval for so long.  Now it was gone, and Adam would rather Pa had blistered his bottom than to lose that respect.  “Will—will you forgive me, Pa?” he asked hesitantly.

“You are forgiven, son,” Ben said without hesitation, “but not excused.  When you’ve finished your dinner, go straight to bed.  And for the next week, you’ll pick up Hoss after school and come directly home——no dawdling at Billy’s afterwards.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam said.  He finished his milk quickly and went to his room without saying anything else.  Quietly, he undressed and pulled his nightshirt over his head.

“Bubba,” a timid voice called.

Adam knelt beside the bed where Hoss lay on his stomach.  “Yeah, Hoss?”

“You still mad, Bubba?”

Adam threw his arm across the chunky little boy’s back.  “No, I’m not mad.  You still mad, Hoss?”

“Unh-uh,” Hoss muttered.  “Sc—scared.”

Adam patted the youngster’s shoulder.  “Want me to sleep with you?” he offered.

“Yeah!” Hoss cried, scrunching over to let Adam in.

Adam grinned and crawled beneath the covers.  “I’m sorry I scared you, Hoss,” he whispered as he lay his dark head beside the sandy one on the pillow.

Hoss cuddled close, nestling his head against Adam’s chest.  “Kite fly good?” he asked.

“Real good,” Adam said.  “I’ll show you tomorrow, maybe even let you fly it.”

“Oh, boy!” Hoss shouted.

“Time for bed, boys,” Ben ordered from the doorway.  His voice sounded firm, but he was smiling, glad to see the brothers at peace again.

The next morning Adam got the kite soaring high, then handed the string to Hoss.  “Hold tight,” he said.

“Looky, Bubba,” Hoss cried.  “See it fly!”  Hoss clapped his hands in delight and the kite string slipped from his hands.

Adam lunged forward and caught it, tumbling to the ground.  Hoss clapped his hands again and laughed.  Lying on the ground, Adam laughed, too, suddenly realizing that Hoss could be as much fun as Billy.  You had to get down on his level, of course, but that was a small price to pay for the toothy grin you got in return.  Over the next week, deprived of Billy’s society, Adam had a chance to work on his relationship with Hoss, and he rediscovered just how much he liked his little brother.

* * * * *

Shortly after Adam’s reprieve from confinement at home, Ben had a chance to practice the patience he’d preached to his older son.  Though he regularly sent Hoss to stay with Nelly Thomas while Adam was in school, one crisp September morning Ben decided to keep the boy home with him.  Hoss had a slight case of the sniffles, and since Ben planned to spend the day doing chores in the barn and tack room, he saw no reason to send the child on a long, cold ride.  Better to keep him indoors and ward off a bad cold.  Even with a doctor in the county, Ben preferred healthy boys to fretful, sick ones.

Hoss wasn’t, however, sick enough that he appreciated staying inside.  “Wanna help, Pa,” he insisted as Ben prepared to go out.  “Hoss big boy.”

Ben’s mouth twitched.  Hoss was indeed a big boy, a fact confirmed every time Ben tried to lift him.  “Hoss is a big boy,” he agreed, “and a good one to want to help Pa.  But I think you’d better stay out of the wind today, son.  Pa’ll be in the barn if you need anything.”

“Wanna help, Pa,” Hoss repeated, his face drooping.

Ben gave the youngster a hug.  “The best help is to do as you’re told, Hoss.  Now, go back to your room and play with your Noah’s Ark.”  Ben opened the door, then turned, remembering Adam’s description of what had first irritated him the day he’d locked Hoss in the tool shed.  “And stay out of the jam,” Ben ordered firmly.  “This place is messy enough without your making it worse.”

Hoss’s chin bobbed up and down.  He hadn’t forgotten the aftermath of the last time he’d helped himself to a snack.  As his father disappeared, he looked at the table covered with the dirty dishes from breakfast.  Ben, who hated washing dishes just about worse than anything, had decided to let them sit until lunch time and do them all at once, but Hoss didn’t know that.  He thought his father had just forgotten.  “Place messy,” Hoss muttered, repeating Ben’s evaluation.

A wide grin split the youngster’s face as he spotted the bucket of water set just inside the door.  Adam had brought it from the creek earlier that morning so he could wash up for school and had left it for the dishes.  “Hoss help Pa,” the boy cried, pulling the tin dishpan down from the counter and setting it in the floor by the fire.  Hoss dragged the water bucket over to the pan and tipped it so the water spilled into the pan.  Most of it, at least.  Some was on the floor, but not enough to bother Hoss.

The four-year-old grabbed a bar of lye soap and lathered up a pile of suds.  Then he took the fortunately unbreakable tin plates from the table and dropped them with a splash into the dishpan.  Hoss frowned as he saw more water slosh onto the floor.  He’d have to remember to ease the next ones in.  Sitting on the hooked rug, he hummed off key as he scoured the plates with vigor.  Holding the first one up, he grinned at his dull image reflected from the metal surface.  Nice and clean.  He gave the others similar treatment and, drying them with the towel ordinarily used for hands, stacked them back on the table.

All that remained was the three-legged spider in which Ben had fried the bacon that morning.  Hoss grabbed the long handle and pulled.  The skillet hit the floor with a loud bang.  The boy ran to the window and peered anxiously out.  It wouldn’t do to have Pa come investigating suspicious noises and discover Hoss’s surprise before it was completely done.  Satisfied the clatter hadn’t reached the barn, Hoss scooted back to finish the job.  He slipped in the bacon grease that now filmed the floor and sat down hard.  Hoss shook his head.  He was going to have to do something about that floor.  First, though, he gave the skillet an energetic rub, dried it and set it back on the table.

All done now except emptying the dishpan.  Hoss had started to drag it to the front door when an idea struck him, an idea that would solve the problem of the greasy floor, as well.  Instead of pulling the dishpan of water out the door, he just tipped it over and let the water flood the puncheon floor.  Now to find something to scrub with.  He ran into the bedroom he shared with Adam and snatched his brother’s nightshirt from the peg on the wall.  Adam wouldn’t need that until nightfall.  It would do nicely.

Hoss had worked halfway across the front room when the door opened.  “Oh, you peeked,” he cried in disappointment.  “Not done, Pa.”

“Not done with what?” Ben demanded, staring at the wet floor.  “What have you done, Hoss?”

“Place messy,” Hoss explained, sure his father would understand and be as proud of him as he always seemed to be of Adam.  “Me help.”

“Help!  Is that what you call it?” Ben croaked, then stopped as he caught sight of his little boy’s sudden change of demeanor.

Hoss’s lower lip was trembling.  “Try help,” he whimpered.

Ignoring the water soaking through his trousers, Ben knelt and gathered the youngster into his arms.  “Yeah, it was a good thought, Hoss,” Ben said comfortingly.  “Pa knows you meant well, but you’ve made quite a mess, son.”

Hoss shook his head in denial.  “Mop,” he said, “like Aunt Nelly.”

Ben guffawed.  “Is this what she uses, Hoss?” he laughed, pulling Adam’s nightshirt from the pudgy fingers.  Hoss gave his father a sheepish grin.  Now that Pa mentioned it, he could remember that Aunt Nelly didn’t use clothes; she used a scrub brush.

“Well, I hate to admit it,” Ben said, looking around the room distastefully, “but this place could use a thorough cleaning.  Not what I planned for this afternoon, but I guess I’d better make a change, starting with this floor.”

“Me help,” Hoss offered.

“No thank you,” Ben laughed.  “I’ll—”  He stopped abruptly, seeing Hoss’s wet clothes.  And this was the child he was keeping out of the cold so his sniffles wouldn’t worsen!  “In the other room right now!” Ben said.  “You need dry clothes, boy!”  Hoss shrugged and followed his father’s pointing finger.

Ben soon had the child redressed.  “Now into bed, son.”

Hoss shook his head.  “No, no.  Help Pa.”

“You’ve done your share,” Ben grinned.  “Get under the covers and warm up while I finish the floor.  Then Pa’ll fix us something to eat.  Sound good?”

“Good!” Hoss agreed.  “Toy?”

Ben poked through the chest at the foot of Hoss’s bed and handed him the calico dog Nelly had made him.  “This do?”  Hoss grinned and reached for the soft, cuddly dog.  Klamath would have made a better companion, of course, but Pa wouldn’t let a real dog in the house.  Hoss never could understand why.

Ben went back into the front room and located the rarely used scrub brush.  His knees hit the floor, a position Ben was sure the Almighty had only intended man to use in prayer.  “Housework.  Blah!” he grumbled with masculine disdain as he vigorously scoured the puncheon floor.

* * * * *

“Come in out of the cold, you tardy wretch,” Ben laughed, opening the door for Paul Martin.

“Sorry, had to see a patient,” Paul said quietly.

Ben nodded understandingly.  “I figured it might be that, and I’m afraid I’ve got another one for you.”

Paul looked up, alarmed.  “Not Hoss?” he asked.  Adam was reading in the rocker by the fire, but the younger boy was nowhere to be seen.  “Why didn’t you send for me?”

“I don’t think it’s serious,” Ben explained, “but I’d like you to take a look as long as you’re here.”

“Sure, right away,” Paul said, going at once to the boys’ room.  “Well, little man,” he said, sitting on the edge of Hoss’s bed.  “What’s your trouble?”

Hoss coughed hoarsely.  “Sick,” he mumbled.

“Just a cold, I think,” Ben said.  “He’s been sniffling around for two or three days, and yesterday he said his throat hurt.  He started coughing today.”

Dr. Martin laid his hand across the boy’s forehead.  “Not much fever,” he said.  “Open your mouth, Hoss, and let Pau-Pau see your throat.”  Hoss obliged and the doctor smiled up at Ben after giving the throat a quick examination.  “A little red, but I agree with your diagnosis, Dr. Cartwright——just a common cold.  Keep him warm and see he gets plenty of rest.”

“I’ve been feeding him salt pork and onions,” Ben said.  “His mother said it was an old Swedish remedy, and it always seemed to help Adam when his throat was sore.”

Paul chuckled lightly.  “I imagine it’s the salt that helped, Ben.  I sometimes recommend gargling with salt water for a sore throat, but Hoss will probably prefer his mother’s medicine.”

“It’s food,” Ben said, as if that explained everything.

The doctor gave Hoss a parting pat and stood with a sigh.

“Something wrong?” Ben asked.

Paul shook his head.  “Just not feeling worth much as a doctor these days.  I’ve seen three patients this week and couldn’t help one of them.”

“But Hoss isn’t seriously ill, is he?” Ben asked, puzzled.

Paul rested an assuring hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “No, he’ll be fine in a few days, and so will the patient I saw earlier this evening.  Not because of any help I gave, of course, but that doesn’t matter when the situation isn’t serious.”

“You mentioned three patients,” Ben probed as he followed the doctor into the front room.  “Was the other situation serious?”

“Fatal,” Dr. Martin murmured softly.  “The first patient I’ve lost since settling here.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Ben said sympathetically.

Paul took a chair.  “Yeah, and it makes it harder when the patient is a neighbor, someone you know and care about.”  Seeing the question in Ben’s eyes, he answered without being asked.  “James Ellis,” he said.  “Shot himself cleaning his rifle.  I did all I could, but a gutshot from short range—”

“Oh,” Ben moaned.  “Yeah, there’d be no way to treat that.”

“I closed the wound,” Paul said, “but he’d lost too much blood by the time I got there.  He died about an hour afterwards.”

“How’s his wife taking it?” Ben asked.

“Pretty well,” Paul said.  “Thanked me for trying to save her husband and started counting her blessings, like having that new baby to carry on his father’s name.”

“Brave woman,” Ben said admiringly.  “Does she have folks back east she can go to?”

“Doesn’t plan to,” Paul said.  “Says this is her home, and she’s not leaving.  Plans to take in sewing and washing, maybe do some baking for the miners.”

“You know, my boys could use some new clothes,” Ben mused.  “Nelly Thomas usually makes them, but she has enough to do taking care of her own.  I think I’ll bring some cloth back from California and see if Mrs. Ellis won’t take on the job.”

“A kind thought, Ben,” Paul smiled.  He saw through Ben’s transparent reasoning at once.  Ben Cartwright was just the kind who’d want to help a young widow and do it in a way that didn’t hurt her pride.  “Speaking of California, though, are you heading that direction soon?”

“In about a week,” Ben replied.  “You want to send a list of supplies with me?”

“I do,” Paul said, “including a list of medicines I’d like you to pick up, if that’s all right.”

“It’s all right, provided you print it out legibly,” Ben smiled.  “I’ve seen your writing, my friend, and I have no intention of deciphering your scrawl for some poor apothecary.”

“I’ll print it in big block letters,” Dr. Martin laughed.  “Now, what’s for dinner?”

* * * * *

Ben looked thoughtfully at the signboard announcing Ghirardelli’s Fine Chocolates above the store across the street.  Might make a nice gift to take Camilla Larrimore, Ben mused.  Not that his friend from the overland journey couldn’t buy all the candy she wanted now, especially here in San Francisco, where she lived.  But her husband Lawrence always insisted Ben stay with them when he was in town, and Camilla would appreciate the gesture of courtesy to her as his hostess.

Ben smiled.  Camilla had started taking on airs ever since Lawrence had built her the grand mansion she’d always dreamed of back in St. Joseph.  Then he chuckled.  Be honest, Ben, he scolded himself; Camilla took on airs back then, too.  She just didn’t have the money to flaunt them in those days.  Now she did, and her ambition seemed to be the best of everything——for herself, her husband, and especially for her two children.  Ben quickly crossed the street and entered the chocolate confectionery.

Inside, the florid face and extravagant hand gestures marked the man behind the counter as an Italian.  Since the man was busy with another customer, Ben eyed the candy behind the glass counter.  So many kinds.  At least, they looked different in size and shape, though all were obvious made of chocolate.  Ben shook his head in wonderment.  Wouldn’t Hoss crow with joy if he could see this lavish display?  The boy’d never actually eaten chocolates, but Ben knew they’d meet with Hoss’s immediate approval.  All candy did.

The Italian concluded his business with the previous customer and came at once toward Ben, his smile broad, either by natural tendency or business courtesy.  The former, Ben decided.  “Signor, how may Ghirardelli help you?” the man asked.

“You’re Ghirardelli, the owner?” Ben said.  “Pleased to meet you, sir.”

“Oh, sí, signor,” the Italian beamed.  “Domingo Ghirardelli.  You have not been to my shop before?”

“No,” Ben said.  “I live out of the state and haven’t had the pleasure.  I’m visiting friends and thought I might take a box of chocolates to the lady of the house.”

“Ah, , and what kind would you like?”

Ben raised his hands in perplexity.  “I have no idea what I’m looking at, Signor Ghirardelli, and no idea what the lady would like.”

“An assortment, then,” Ghirardelli suggested.  “If you permit, I will make up a box of my especial favorites.”

“Yes, please,” Ben agreed readily.  “About a pound, I think.”

Sí, signor,” the proprietor said, reaching immediately for a triangular piece of candy.  “Since this is your first visit to my establishment, perhaps you would like a sample?”

Ben nodded and accepted the chocolate, biting into its creamy,  orange-flavored center.  “Delicious,” he said.  “I’m sure my friend will love these, and I may return tomorrow to buy some to take back to Utah with me.  They keep well?”

“Like any chocolate, they will melt in the heat, signor,” Ghirardelli said, “but the weather is cool now.  They should travel well.  Shall I make up another box for you to pick up tomorrow?”

“Yes, like this one, please,” Ben said.  “It’ll go to an even more special lady.”  Ghirardelli beamed, his romantic soul clearly putting the wrong cast on Ben’s words.  Ben didn’t bother to correct the obvious misconjecture.  Nelly Thomas might not be the woman of his heart, but she was the most special lady he knew.  She deserved a fine Christmas present like those chocolates——and would appreciate them more than Camilla Larrimore, who could have all she wanted any day of the week.

Ben enjoyed his stroll through the streets of San Francisco.  The town had grown, even since his last visit, but Ben had paid scant attention to the stores before.  Now, with all the money he’d made this year from the sheep drive, the trading post and, most recently, the sale of some cattle, Ben felt rich.  More than rich——extravagant.  For the first time in his life, he could rain gifts on his boys, and he was tempted to buy out the town.  He resisted the temptation, though.  He had only to look at Lawrence Larrimore’s two children to see what too much too easily obtained did to children, and he had no desire to spoil his own youngsters.

Hoss and Adam, however, were good boys, and Santa was going to be good to them this year, unusually good.  Ben would, as always, get some of the gifts at Larrimore’s Emporium, in honor of his friendship with the proprietors, but this year he wanted to find the best San Francisco had to offer for his boys.  So he was scouting out possibilities today, even though he couldn’t make the purchases until he left the Larrimores tomorrow.  Better not to let Camilla know he gave his business to anyone else.

* * * * *

Ben grinned happily as he leaned on the railing of the stern-wheeler Eclipse that would carry him northeast to Sacramento.  It felt good to be afloat again.  A steamer, of course, couldn’t compare with the square-rigged ships Ben had sailed on long ocean voyages, but it was, at least, a reminder of those happy times.  What Ben would really like to sail was one of those fast clipper ships he’d read about in newspapers from back east.  Why, only three years ago the Flying Cloud had made the trip from New York to San Francisco in just eighty-nine days.  Imagine that!  But the speedy little clippers wouldn’t be too useful for travel on western rivers.  No, Ben would have to content himself with steamers, probably for the rest of his days.

For now, though, this uneventful boat trip was luxury enough for Ben, a far more pleasurable way to travel than following an ox team——for an old sea dog, anyway.  Ben felt prosperous enough now to afford the fare; he’d even splurged on one of the thirty-dollar cabins.  Probably should have saved himself the extra price, though, Ben admitted, since he’d spent the majority of the voyage leaning over the rail, enjoying the scenery floating by and the feel of a deck beneath his feet.

The cabin made a good place to leave the overwhelming number of bundles and boxes he’d brought back with him, though.  In addition to his sons’ Christmas gifts, there’d been presents for the Thomases and for his hired hands.  The cabin also held Dr. Martin’s requested medicines, Ben having felt they would be more readily obtainable in San Francisco than in the smaller towns closer to home.  Thankfully, he didn’t have to manage the box containing that huge doll Paul had instructed him to purchase for young Sally Martin.  Ben had posted it on the steamer to Hawaii, along with a thick letter from her father.  Ben knew the letter would brighten Sally’s heart, for Paul had shared its contents, a promise to meet Sally in San Francisco in May and bring her home to live once more with her father.

Ben hired a young fellow passenger to help him get his baggage from the steamboat landing on Front Street in Sacramento to the stage depot.  Travel in a crowded stage was about as uncomfortable a means of conveyance as Ben had ever experienced, but he had no other way to get to Placerville.  Clyde Thomas, who had elected to bypass the annual trip to San Francisco, had agreed to shepherd, with Lupe’s help, both his own and Ben’s wagonload of supplies back to Carson County.

In Placerville Ben somehow juggled the packages to the nearby El Dorado Hotel.  He decided to try the hotel’s dining room rather than walking down the street to Ludmilla Zuebner’s place.  If she found out Ben was in town, she’d insist on boarding him at her house, and Ben hated to be eternally imposing on his friends.  Not when he could afford the price of a room.  He’d see Ludmilla tomorrow, for breakfast, at least.  Hopefully, the buckboard he’d contracted from local wheelwright John Studebaker would be ready and he could leave for home soon after that.

Ben opted for the three-dollar full meal that included rice pudding for dessert.  The pudding was excellent, but the rest of the meal made him wish he’d gone to Ludmilla’s after all.  The food wasn’t bad, not bad at all, but it didn’t compare to the fare at the Zuebner Cafe.

* * * * *

Ben took his time on the journey home, partly to give the new team he’d purchased at the livery in Placerville time to get used to him and partly to baby them over the rough Sierra roads.  The steady emigrant traffic over the years had gradually improved them, but the sharp rocks could still be hard on a horse’s tender feet.  Ben took his time and skirted every rough spot he could avoid.  The snows were holding off, so he was in no hurry.

His first stop, once he reached Carson County, was the little community growing up at the mouth of Gold Canyon.  He dropped off the fabric he’d purchased for the boys’ new clothing with Laura Ellis, who thanked him gratefully for the work.  Then he’d made his way to Cosser’s boardinghouse, where Paul Martin now made his home.

Paul helped him carry the boxes of medical supplies into his room.  “I suppose the rest of this is supposed to fit in my quarters, too,” Paul snickered, looking at the wagon filled with boxes and barrels.

“Not quite all,” Ben chuckled.  “I at least want to leave Adam’s new rifle here, though.  He could tell in an instant what that was, just by the shape.”

“Well, maybe I can disguise it by Christmas,” Paul mused.

“By his birthday,” Ben said.  “He’s not getting that rifle until he turns twelve.”

“You shop early,” Paul said.

“Have to when you live this far from the stores,” Ben pointed out.  Despite the encouraging growth of the area, anything beyond basic supplies was still hard to find during the winter months.  And the county offered nothing too fancy, even in warm weather.  Someday Ben hoped it would be different, that he wouldn’t have to plan so far ahead.  But that seemed less likely than ever this year.  The gold fields in the region were petering out, most miners making no more than five dollars a day at the diggings.  With prospects of wealth as slim as that, Ben suspected that few of them would return next spring.

Paul somehow made room for all Ben’s Christmas bundles inside his room, leaving only the three kegs in the buckboard.  “You’ll have to make other arrangements next year,” Paul advised.  “With Sally here with me—”

“Here?” Ben asked with an arch of his dark eyebrow.  “I think you’re the one who may have to make other arrangements, my friend.  You don’t want some Benjamin Cole-type snapping her up for a wife, do you?”

“Just let them try!” Dr. Martin snorted.

Ben grinned and mounted the seat of his wagon.  “Well, maybe Adam will take her off your hands before the miners get a good gawk.”

This time it was Paul Martin’s eyebrow that arched disdainfully.  “Can’t have a rifle until he’s twelve,” he taunted, “but you’ve no scruple against marrying him off early, huh?”

Ben laughed.  “So far, I don’t think any female could attract him as readily as a new book.”

“Wait’ll he gets a ‘good gawk’ at Sally,” Paul warned.  “He might grow up a lot quicker than you think.”

Shaking his head, Ben drove away chuckling.  He made his way back to the Thomas cabin to unload the three kegs of Zuebner Beer Clyde had requested and to pick up Hoss and Adam.

“Sure not much in that new wagon,” Adam commented as he helped his father hitch the oxen to the larger one that held their winter supplies.  “Thought you went to San Francisco to buy some things.”

“And you know what kind of things,” Ben teased, “so quit prying.”

“Well, where are they?” Adam inquired.

“At the north pole,” Ben replied slyly.

Adam hid his mouth behind his hand and tittered softly.  He couldn’t ask, of course, but from what he remembered of last year’s Christmas, he figured the north pole was a lot closer to Gold Canyon than he’d ever thought before.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

            As the Cartwrights and the Thomases gathered around the table for their annual Thanksgiving feast, another guest took the place of honor.  Clyde and Nelly felt that the preservation of Billy’s ornery hide (Clyde’s description) was their greatest blessing of the previous year and, among human benefactors, Dr. Paul Martin most merited their thanks.

To see Billy that day, however, no one would have believed his well-earned reputation as an ornery nuisance.  Having provided the turkey for the meal with his own rifle, Billy beamed with pride and seemed determined to act with grown-up dignity, though Adam, green with envy, called it swelled-headed swaggering.  Loud and lavish were the praises heaped on Billy’s fiery head as the blue crockery plates were filled and filled again with succulent turkey and savory sage dressing.

“Our most traditional Thanksgiving yet,” Ben said as he raised his glass of water, “and I propose a toast of gratitude to the fine young hunter who provided it.”

Paul Martin lifted his glass.  “Hurray for Billy!” he announced.

Adam lifted his glass grudgingly.  “Yeah, hurray,” he muttered.

“‘Ray, Billy!” Hoss shouted fittingly, for only the three men had consumed more of the bird than he.

“Hush,” Adam hissed in his brother’s ear, then turned guiltily away from the puzzled frown on Hoss’s face.  Why’d Billy have to be a year older, anyway?  If Adam had had a rifle of his own, he could have been the one reaping in the acclaim.  Adam knew what he was feeling wasn’t right, though, so he kept his thoughts to himself.

“Too bad them men of yourn can’t have a feed like this,” Clyde taunted.

Ben chuckled.  “They may not be having turkey, my friend, but I imagine Mrs. Ellis is doing well by them.”  To express his appreciation for the work his hired men had done, Ben had asked Laura Ellis to prepare a Thanksgiving meal for them.  Needing the money, she had gladly accepted, and because Ben was paying for the food, had promised to leave the leftovers, if any.  Since Nelly would undoubtedly send food home with him, too, Ben figured he and his sons would eat well for days to come without his doing much cooking on his own.

“In fact,” Ben continued, smirking at Clyde, “maybe I’ll just have Mrs. Ellis prepare a big meal and have you all at my place for Christmas.”

“Ben Cartwright!  You’ll do nothing of the sort,” Nelly scolded hotly.  “The day you have to hire a Christmas dinner for me!”

“Sorry, Nelly,” Ben apologized quickly.  “It wasn’t your goat I was trying to get.”

“Oh, well, if it’s Clyde you’re aimin’ to rile, I reckon I won’t object,” Nelly laughed, “so long as you promise to take Christmas dinner here like always.”

Ben lifted his right hand, palm out.  “I promise,” he pledged, “though I wish I could return some of the hospitality I’ve enjoyed here so many times.”

“I know what you mean,” Paul said, “but it’s hard for a couple of bachelors like us, Ben.  Perhaps when my Sally gets here, we can put a meal together with her help.”

“Oh, are you bringing your girl here?” Nelly asked eagerly.  “I’ve been prayin’ you would.”

Paul nodded and told the Thomases what Ben already knew, that Sally would arrive from Hawaii in May.  “I got a letter back from her by the last carrier, and she’s thrilled about coming here to live.”

“Well, of course, she is,” Ben said enthusiastically.  “She’s missed her pa.”

“Yes, that’s what she wrote,” Paul agreed.  “I don’t deserve her love, after the way I’ve treated her, and the fact that I still have it is what I’m most thankful for this year.”

Ben patted Hoss’s stomach.  “And what are you most thankful for, my boy, as if I didn’t know?”

Hoss cast an affectionate glance at the sideboard.  “Pie!” he shouted and everyone laughed at the totally predictable answer.

* * * * *

Winter winds blasted CarsonCounty, and though they brought no snow, the weather was bone-biting cold.  Nightly songfests, however, warmed the Cartwright cabin or, at least, the hearts of those within it.  Ben’s baritone rang in spirited accompaniment to Adam’s guitar, while Hoss’s lusty, if tuneless, singing demonstrated clearly that he had none of his brother’s gift for music.  Nor even his father’s, Ben admitted ruefully.

As December began, Adam started to learn Christmas carols, practicing faithfully whenever he had time to spare from lessons and chores.  He’d been asked to sing and play for the school’s Christmas program later that month and wanted to do his best.  When Ben informed him one night, however, that he couldn’t listen to “Joy to the World” one more time, Adam decided to take a break and tackle a second project he had in mind.

He’d tried with limited success to teach Hoss the days of the week a year before.  Now Hoss began repeating those same tiresome questions about Santa’s arrival, so Adam took down the calendar and made a determined effort to give his little brother some concept of time.  Hoss’s tongue didn’t fight the syllables the way it had last year, so within a few days he could rattle off the days of the week and did so incessantly.  “I’d rather hear ‘Joy to the World’ again,” Ben grumbled one night after Hoss had recited Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday for the twelfth time.  Adam grinned and obligingly picked up the guitar.

When Adam finished playing his four favorite carols, Hoss clapped exuberantly.  “Good, Bubba!  Play ‘em again.”

Adam frowned.  “Quit calling me Bubba, Hoss,” he scolded.  “You’re not a baby any more, and it’s time you called me by my name.  Now say Adam.”

“Bubba!” Hoss insisted stubbornly.

“No——Adam!” the older boy demanded.  “Say it!”

Hoss wagged his head from side to side.

“Doggone it!” Adam shouted.  “If you can say a big word like Wednesday, you can say Adam.  You mind me!”

“Adam,” Ben chided softly.  “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”

“Huh?”

“He’s not going to respond to your yelling,” Ben explained, “and if you keep it up, I’ll give you a response you won’t care for.”

“Well, what else can I do?” Adam sputtered.

“Try giving him a reward,” Ben suggested.

“We ate the last of the cookies after dinner,” Adam moaned, “and food’s all he cares about.”

“Oh, Adam,” Ben laughed, “surely there’s something else he likes.”

A light sparkled in Adam’s dark eyes.  “How about a story, Hoss?  Would you like that?”

Hoss’s fat chin bounced up and down.

“Okay, then, I’ll read you one if you say my name right,” Adam offered.

Hoss frowned for a moment.  He had a feeling he was being tricked, but he couldn’t figure out how.  Still, a story would be nice.  “Read me a story,” he said and after a slight hesitation added, “Adam.”

Adam grinned.  “That’s good boy.”

“Story now!” Hoss shouted.

“Okay, okay, let’s go in the bedroom and pick one out,” Adam said.  Soon the two brothers were seated side by side on Adam’s bed as the older boy, by the aid of a coal oil lantern on a shelf between the two beds, read Hoss’s favorite fables by Aesop.  And while Hoss frequently lapsed into the use of “Bubba” during the following days, Adam continued to tempt the little boy with a story or a song or a romp in the woods, and soon Hoss’s use of his brother’s proper name became habitual.

* * * * *

“I can’t decide which songs to sing,” Adam moaned as his father looped the brown string tie around his neck.

Joy to the World!” Hoss cried.

Adam shook his head.  “No, Hoss; Pa’s tired of that.”

“No, I’m not,” Ben laughed, standing back to admire Adam in his brown suit.  “Besides, it’s the one you practiced most, and it really does sound best, Adam.  I think you should definitely treat the folks to that one.”

“Okay,” Adam said, smiling with relief.  He really had wanted to sing his favorite.  “But what else?  Mrs. Mott asked for two, one to open the program and one to end it.”

“My, my,” Ben clucked, “my boy sure is the highlight of this program.”

Adam beamed; he thought so, too, and he liked feeling important.  “Which other song do I sing really well, Pa?” he asked.

“Hark Angels,” Hoss suggested.

“You already picked one,” Adam scolded gently.  “Let Pa choose now.”

“Well, you do Hark the Herald Angels real well,” Ben mused, “but I think I prefer The First Noel.  Why don’t you sing that one, Adam?”

“Okay, I’ll do that one first,” Adam decided, “and save Joy to the World for the end.”

“Sounds like a good plan,” Ben said.  “Now, let’s get bundled up and on our way.  We don’t want to be late for such a special night.”

Every proud parent in Mormon Station and from the homesteads round about crammed into the Mott’s old cabin that now served as the community schoolhouse.  Adam opened the program with a sweet rendition of The First Noel that won applause from all in the audience.

“My, I had no idea Adam was that good,” Nelly whispered to Ben, seated just beyond Hoss to her left.  She had dressed in her best blue dress edged with ivory lace and, despite the cool weather, had draped the light mantilla Billy had given her across her shoulders.

“Wait ‘til you hear his other song,” Ben whispered back.  “It’s even better.”

“Shh!” Inger, on her mother’s lap, urged, her finger to her lips.  “Billy gonna talk.”

Ben nodded solemn acceptance of the little girl’s mild reproof and focused his attention on Billy’s recitation of a holiday reading about a naughty boy who found nothing but lumps of coal in his stocking Christmas morning.  Everyone who knew the impulsive redhead considered the choice most appropriate.  As the reading concluded, Clyde leaned around Nelly.  “You got any coal lumps I can borrow for a certain stocking?” he asked Ben.  Nelly thrust a sharp elbow in his side.

Each child presented a poem, story or verse of Scripture.  The younger ones, of course, spoke very brief pieces, but the older students amazed their parents with the lengthy recitations they had memorized.  Ben was perhaps most surprised when Adam flawlessly quoted A Visit from St. Nicolas by Clement Moore, for the boy had deliberately kept his choice secret.

Thunderous applause of appreciation greeted Eliza Mott as she stood before the assembled parents and friends of her students.  Wearing her best black satin dress, unadorned except for a little white frill at the neck, she smiled.  “We’re not finished yet,” she said, “but we will have a short intermission while the children get into costume for their version of the Christmas story.  They’ve dramatized this all by themselves, and I’m sure you’ll find it quite unlike any Christmas pageant you’ve ever seen.”

“I’m sure of that,” Ben chuckled, turning to Nelly.  “What part is Billy playing?”

“Lands, I don’t know,” Nelly tittered.  “The boy’s turned shy on me.  Won’t say a word about what he’s doin’.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  The idea of Billy’s turning shy was too ludicrous to contemplate.  No one else would have believed it either after the youngster’s boisterous portrayal of the innkeeper.  Even Adam, acting the part of Joseph, was caught off guard when the innkeeper knocked him to the ground in answer to his request for shelter.  They hadn’t rehearsed that part!  With a warning glint in his eye, Adam stood and went on with his lines as though nothing unexpected had happened.  The innkeeper——after an ad-lib monologue, in which he paced and pondered what to do with these unwanted guests——finally relented and allowed young Joseph to escort his visibly pregnant wife to the stable.

And there, with a couple of cutely costumed lambs bleating in the background, the Child Jesus somehow appeared in the manger.  As the little Mary held a blanket-swaddled doll up for the audience to see, Adam, still costumed as Joseph, drew his guitar from behind a bale of hay and sang an exuberant conclusion to the school’s first Christmas program.  Everyone joined in on the choruses, as if they, too wished to express the joy that come into their hearts while they watched this retelling of the story that never grows old.

* * * * *

The next week found Ben Cartwright busily trying to sandwich in preparations for Christmas between the necessary work of the ranch.  He’d spoken to Laura Ellis after the school program about once again providing a holiday dinner for his workers.  She had agreed, provided the meal could be served other than on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.  Those, she explained, she wanted to observe at home with her baby.

Ben had readily accepted her conditions and decided on Saturday, the twenty-third, as the best date.  Then, determined to provide something other than beef for the party, Ben had gone hunting.  Unlike Billy, he didn’t flush a turkey, for they were rare in the region, but he did manage to shoot enough sage grouse to feed everyone in the bunkhouse.

Ben decided to invite Paul Martin to dinner that night, too, so he and Adam set up two rough plank tables, one for the hired hands and the second for the family and their other guests, Adam having begged permission to have Billy come.  The tables, of course, had to be outside since there wasn’t room for that many people in the cabin, but Ben planned a big bonfire.  That would keep everyone warm enough unless it snowed.  If it did, they’d all just have to crowd into the house and probably eat in two shifts.  Not a pleasant prospect, so Ben hoped the weather continued as fair as it had been thus far.

Stars shone in a cloudless sky Saturday night as the guests gathered for the celebration.  Everyone took their places, Ben shaking hands with each man as he arrived and giving him an envelope containing his week’s pay, along with a silk neckerchief as a token of appreciation.  The wide smiles which greeted the gifts assured Ben that no one, with the possible exception of Jean D’Marigny, had ever owned a bandanna quite so elegant.

Hoss had been perched in his chair ready to eat from the moment the first dish was set on the table.  Finally, everyone expected had arrived and the others joined him, Paul giving the youngster an affectionate pat on the head as he seated himself to Hoss’s left.  “I know I can trust you to show me what’s good,” Paul chuckled.

“All good,” Hoss assured him.  The only experience he’d had with Laura Ellis’s cooking had been the leftovers from the Thanksgiving meal, but they’d been tasty and this looked even better——especially the pumpkin and custard pies.

Paul tickled the boy’s well-padded ribs.  “Tell me, Hoss, is there any food you don’t think is good?”

Hoss’s face screwed up as he spat out “Liver!”

“Well, it is good for you, of course,” Paul said, catching Ben’s nod of approval out of the corner of his eye.  Then he leaned close to Hoss’s ear.  “But I don’t like it either,” he whispered.  Hoss grinned.

“‘Course this ain’t as good as turkey,” Billy announced from across the table, “but sage grouse makes mighty fine eatin’, and these look prime, ‘most as good as my ma would make.”

“A left-handed compliment if ever I heard one,” Ben commented dryly.

From the foot of the table opposite Ben, Mrs. Ellis laughed.  “Every boy thinks his own mother’s cooking is the best there is.”  She smiled gently at Billy.  “I know that’s just the way I hope my boy will feel.”

“He’d have reason,” Billy said, having taken his first bite of the bird.  “This is as good as it looked.”

“Sure is, ma’am,” Adam said.

Hoss’s face held an unusually thoughtful expression.  “My ma cook good?” he asked Adam.

“The best,” Adam replied emphatically.

“Yeah, she did good,” Billy acknowledged.  “A lot like my ma.”

“Better,” Adam insisted.  “All you ever ate was her trail cooking, but when we were at home, Inger made the best meals you ever tasted.”

“Adam,” Ben chided softly.  “It’s not polite to brag.”

Adam shrugged.  He couldn’t understand why it was wrong to brag up his mother (Hoss’s, really) when Billy had sung Aunt Nelly’s praises to the sky without anyone’s scolding him for the loud-mouthed braggart he was.  Adam decided to try a safer approach.  “Remember that Swedish Christmas dinner she fixed, Pa?  Wasn’t that special?”

Ben smiled in fond remembrance.  “Yeah, real special.”  He looked down the table at Laura Ellis.  “Our last Christmas together my wife prepared traditional holiday foods from her country.  Very unusual.”

“I don’t know anything about Swedish cooking,” Laura said.  “Do you remember what she fixed?”

“Well, there was a corned pork roast,” Ben said.  “It took ten days to prepare and it was unforgettable.  Then there was sauerkraut cooked with onions, apples and brown sugar.”

“And pork, Pa,” Adam added.  “There was pork in it, too.”

“That’s right,” Ben nodded, remembering.  “And split peas with bacon and caramelized potatoes and some kind of fish.”

“Lutfisk, Pa,” Adam inserted.  “Don’t you remember?”

“Not as well as you, evidently,” Ben laughed.

“It was swimming in cream sauce,” Adam continued.

“That don’t sound good at all,” Billy declared.

“Well, it was!” Adam snapped.

“Boys, boys,” Ben said, “neither of your mothers would approve of this behavior.”  Adam and Billy looked at each other quickly and nodded in agreement.  It was too close to Christmas to get caught acting up.

“I can see why you remember that meal,” Laura said brightly to dispel the sudden silence.  “I’ve never heard of such dishes.  I—I don’t suppose your wife left the receipts, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben shook his head.  “I don’t think she ever wrote them down——just carried them in her memory.”

“And the cookies!” Adam cried.  “Oh, she made good cookies.”

Ben started to caution Adam about starting up the controversy again, but before he could speak, Hoss looked wistfully at his brother.  “Ma made cookies?” he asked.  “Like Aunt Nelly?”

Ben quickly reached out to brush his fingers through the boy’s fair hair.  “Yeah, good ones,” he said softly, regretting the boy’d never had a chance to taste them.  Adam might remember Inger, but this boy had no memories of his mother, and that seemed to Ben an incomparable loss.

“I—I wish she was here,” Hoss murmured.

“Yeah, so do I, Hoss,” Ben said, his voice barely audible.  Like Laura before him, he smiled suddenly to keep the party from being bogged down with sentiment.  “Better eat up,” he cautioned Hoss, “if you plan on having pie.”

That night, though, after the guests had gone home and the boys were in bed, Ben sat in the rocking chair by the fire, staring at his second wife’s picture.  This was supposed to be a season of joy, and he’d make it one for the boys, of course; but tonight all he felt was loneliness.  He missed Inger, and if he let his thoughts wander further back, he’d be missing Elizabeth, too.

Tonight, however, Hoss’s plaintive words echoed in Ben’s heart and made him think of Inger.  Deep words they’d been for such a little lad.  Oh, it was probably cookies Hoss was really wishing for, but maybe it did go deeper than that.  Maybe it was mothering the boy craved and cookies just symbolized that for him.  Maybe I’m wrong to deprive him of a mother because I can’t bear the thought of marrying again, Ben mused.

For a moment he thought of Laura Ellis, left to make her way in the world without a mate, her baby boy left without a father.  It was a match that made sense, but you couldn’t form a union based on mutual need, could you?  Well, maybe.  Ben had heard of successful marriages starting just that way, but such a coupling wasn’t for him.  Having been blessed twice with deeply loving relationships, he wasn’t willing to settle for one of convenience.  And as fine as woman as Laura Ellis was, he simply wasn’t in love with her.  Nor she with him, more than likely.

Ben stood and set Inger’s picture back on the mantel.  He touched his index finger to his lips, then to her portrait, then kissed Elizabeth in the same way.  “Merry Christmas, my loves,” he whispered and headed for bed, more convinced than ever that he would never again know a woman’s closeness.

* * * * *

“Can’t you hurry him up?” Adam complained, frowning at Hoss, who was taking far more time eating his oatmeal than Adam considered needful.  “I want to see Billy.”

“Oh, my, yes,” Ben scoffed.  “It’s been almost twenty-four hours since he left here, so I can well understand the urgency, Adam.”  Billy had spent the night after the Christmas party and hadn’t left until mid-morning of the next day.

“But, Pa, it’s Christmas,” Adam moaned.  “I want to hear what he got.”

“And brag about your own gifts.  I know,” Ben laughed, “but we’re not leaving until your brother finishes his breakfast.”

“Come on, Hoss,” Adam wheedled.  “There’ll be more presents at the Thomases.  Want more toys, Hoss boy?”

Hoss’s spoon paused in mid-air.  “More toys,” he agreed cheerfully just before popping the spoon in his mouth.  “Breakfast first, Adam,” he mumbled.  “Then more toys.”

Ben roared with laughter as he reached over to run affectionate fingers through his younger son’s wheat-colored hair.  “Sounds like you know what’s really important, boy; your brother here seems to have forgotten.”

Adam rolled his eyes.  “It’s Christmas,” he repeated as if that one fact made his impatience logical.

“Take your time, Hoss,” Ben chuckled.  “Give your food plenty of time to digest.  Greedy britches here can just wait for ‘more toys.’”

Adam frowned.  Toys, indeed!  As if that’s what he really wanted.  Of course, the chemical cabinet he’d found beneath the tree this morning with its pint-sized powders and potions was obviously meant for children, not real scientists, but Adam considered it more a learning tool than a toy.  And his new books couldn’t be considered toys either; Moby Dick and Ivanhoe were both bound to have plenty of hard words.  So Pa was seeing him as somewhat grown up.  Obviously not enough, though, or Adam would have received what he’d so earnestly wished for.  Sighing, he propped his elbows on the table and watched his poky brother lick every grain of cereal from his spoon.

Hoss eventually finished his breakfast, and while Ben quickly cleaned up the dishes, Adam saddled their horses.  The boy raced his sorrel mare ahead with Hoss holding on for dear life, while Ben, gifts tied behind his saddle, trotted at a more leisurely pace.  Galloping up to the cabin, Adam helped Hoss slide down, then vaulted from the saddle.

Billy rushed outdoors to greet them.  “Did you get it?” he whispered.

Adam shook his head grimly.

“Aw, shucks!” Billy commiserated.  “I was aimin’ on askin’ my pa to take us huntin’ tomorrow.”

“Well, my pa spoiled that,” Adam muttered.  He planned to straighten up his face by the time Ben arrived, however.  No matter how disappointed he was at not finding a shiny rifle beneath the tree, Adam wouldn’t have dreamed of revealing his shattered hopes.  Pa’d been too good to him for that.

“Well, come on in and see my loot,” Billy suggested.  “It was my biggest Christmas ever.”

Adam grinned with genuine pleasure.  “Yeah, mine, too,” he said and started to chatter about his chemical cabinet.  Somehow, though, even that grand gift paled in comparison with Billy’s sharp new hunting knife.  A man’s tool.  When would Pa ever understand that Adam was as near manhood as Billy, even if he was a whole year younger?

Ben received a warm welcome from the Thomases when he came in.  Inger, dressed in a crisp new frock of blue calico, immediately claimed his attention.  “My, what a pretty dolly,” Ben cooed when the little girl showed him the rag doll her mother had obviously crafted since it wore a dress identical to Inger’s.  Uh-oh, he thought.  He hadn’t meant to compete with her parents’ gift, but, having no experience with girls, he hadn’t known what else to buy the child except a doll.

“Want see my stove?” Inger asked.

“Sure do,” Ben replied.

The diminutive strawberry-blonde took his hand and led him into the next room.  “Pa make,” she said proudly.

“And a fine job he did,” Ben stated.  That Clyde, he could make anything with his hands.  Inger’s tiny wooden stove, painted coal black, was an exact replica of her mother’s cast-iron one.  And it came equipped with miniature pots and pans, some obviously store-bought, but Ben suspected the little three-legged spider had come straight from Clyde’s blacksmith shop.

As Ben ambled back into the front room, Nelly turned from her stove.  “Clyde, show Ben what you got me for Christmas,” she giggled.

Clyde blushed.  “Aw, Ben’s seen lumber before.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Lumber?” he scoffed.  “A romantic gift if ever I heard one.”  He laid a firm hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “Are you trying to run this dear woman off, sir?  Bad policy with so many unattached men in the county.”

Nelly laughed, enjoying Clyde’s discomfort.  “It’s a better gift than it sounds,” she explained.  “Clyde’s gonna cut a door where this stove is now and build a kitchen beyond it.  Then, come Spring, I’m goin’ to Californy to pick out some parlor furniture and make this a regular sittin’ room.”

“Ah!” Ben said appreciatively.  “I take back all my mocking words.  That, sir, is a gift worthy of this lovely lady.”

It was Nelly’s turn to blush, but she pretended it was the heat of the stove that made her suddenly fan her face with a dishtowel.

* * * * *

Ben’s most cherished gift of the season arrived during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.  He still wasn’t used to the idea of receiving mail during the winter, but this year carriers had been bringing it over the Sierras by pack mule, using snowshoes when necessary.  And while getting mail of any kind as long as snow blocked the passes was a pleasure, the letter from his brother John was an even more unexpected delight.  Since John had traipsed off to New South Wales, letters had been few and far between.

This one, however, brought news Ben wasn’t pleased to read.  John confessed himself ready to give up his quest for gold nuggets, but instead of sailing for the coast of California, John had signed on as second mate for an extended voyage in exactly the opposite direction.  Needed the money to get home, he said, but Ben knew that wasn’t the real reason.  Pride was behind John’s reluctance to return home, that and perhaps a nostalgic yearning for the sea thrown in to boot.

Maybe it was the holiday season that made the importance of family seem so fresh to Ben as he read his brother’s letter.  How long had John been away from home now?  Since the Spring of ‘49, almost six years.  A lifetime when you realized how quickly boys grew up.  John’s boy Will was just older than Adam and hadn’t seen his father since he was seven.  His wife Martha’s letters, too, were increasingly despondent, as if she’d given up hope of seeing her wandering husband again.

It wasn’t right, Ben decided, and it was high time he took his older brother to task.  That approach had never worked before, however; maybe a gentler, less condemning appeal would be better.  Ben took pen in hand and wrote a warm letter describing how his own boys had been growing, how much they had changed in the time since John had last seen them, then suggesting that Will would probably be barely recognizable to his long-absent father.  Ben mentioned the emptiness he had felt a few days earlier while thinking of his beloved Inger and mused that John must surely feel a similar loneliness for Martha, whose letters clearly showed signs of missing her husband.  Wasn’t it time, Ben concluded, for John to consider returning to his wife and boy?  If it was only a matter of money, Ben would be more than happy to help his brother on his way.  And if it were pride, John would do well to remember that the Scripture said that went before destruction.

Ben reconsidered the last phrase.  Too strong?  No, the tone was exactly right, he decided.  He signed and sealed the letter, then consulting the list of ports at which John was scheduled to call, chose the one which the mail steamer would most likely reach before John’s vessel and addressed it there.

The mail carrier wouldn’t be back through for several weeks, of course, but Ben dropped the letter off at Mormon Station when he and the boys went to the Thomases for Sunday dinner.  Later that evening they all traveled together to Spafford Hall’s Station for the New Year’s Eve dance.  This one promised to be even better attended than the first, with more female partners available, and they’d make sure to avoid last year’s mistake.  This time the men would take turns standing guard over the horses, so none of them provided a holiday feast for their neighbors, the Washo.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

 Adam’s nose wrinkled in appreciation of the aroma that awakened him New Year’s morning, 1855.  He didn’t recognize the fragrance, but whatever it was smelled appealing, so he bounded out of bed to investigate.  “What is that, Pa?” he called as he entered the front room.

“Special New Year’s breakfast,” Ben said.  “Hoss up yet?”

“No, sir, not yet,” Adam replied, scuffing over to the fireplace to find a more specific answer to his query.  “Hangtown Fry!” he cried.  “That is special, Pa!”

Ben laughed lightly.  “Thought you’d like it.  Been saving eggs back just for today.”

Adam grinned and climbed up to perch on the table’s edge, bare feet hanging from beneath his faded gray nightshirt.  “I wonder if Hoss will like it.  He’s never been to Placerville to taste Miss Ludmilla’s.”

“I’ll be mighty surprised if he doesn’t,” Ben chuckled, cracking another egg into the spider.

“Yeah, I guess it is food,” Adam commented dryly, “but there must be some kinds he doesn’t like.”

“Liver, remember?” Ben said.  “He was quite adamant about that.”

Adam wriggled uneasily.  “Pa,” he asked hesitantly, “would it be too soon to hint for my birthday present?”

Ben turned to look at his older son.  “Too late would be more like it, Adam.  Surely you’re bright enough to realize that I bought your present on my last trip to California.”

Adam sighed.  “Yeah, I guess you’d have had to, huh?”

“Yup,” Ben said, reaching out to smooth Adam’s sleep-tousled hair.  “Now, don’t tell me you’re already bored with your Christmas gifts.”

Adam bit his lower lip.  “No, sir,” he started, “it’s just that—”

“Go on,” Ben encouraged when Adam broke off.

“Well, me and Billy had made plans to go hunting,” Adam sputtered, “but I didn’t get a rifle for Christmas like I wanted, so I was sort of hoping—”

“That you’d get one for your birthday?” Ben finished for him.

Adam nodded sheepishly.

Ben set the eggs off the fire and sat down in a chair facing Adam.  “I’m sorry you were disappointed in your Christmas.”

“Oh, no, Pa,” Adam assured him.  “I like what I got.  It’s just that——well, Pa, don’t you think I’m as grown up as Billy?”

Ben rubbed the boy’s knobby knees affectionately.  “Oh, at least!” he laughed.  “Compared to Billy, Adam, you’re a little man.”

Adam flushed.  “I’m serious, Pa.”

“So am I,” Ben stated.  “The way you take hold around here, especially the responsibility you show in caring for your brother.  Those are signs of maturity, son.”

“Then why can’t I have a rifle?” Adam pleaded.  “I guess I shouldn’t ask, but—”

“Of course you should ask,” Ben said quickly.  “You can always ask Pa anything, Adam.  You may not get the answer you want, but you can always ask.”  Ben took the two slender hands in his larger-boned ones.  “It’s not wrong for you to want a rifle, son, but there are a couple of things you do have wrong.”

“What, Pa?”

Ben gave the small hands an encouraging squeeze.  “First of all, you’re wrong to think you should have a rifle just because Billy has one.”

“But if I’m more grown up than him—”

“Let me finish, Adam,” Ben said firmly.  “There are other factors involved, not just maturity.  There’s bodily strength and coordination to take into account, and you’re not the best person to evaluate all those factors.”

“You are, I guess,” Adam mumbled.

“That’s right,” Ben said solemnly, “and when I make decisions about you, I don’t look at what’s going on with Billy or any of your other friends.  I just look at what’s best for you.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam sighed, picturing his cherished rifle fading further and further from sight.

Reading the boy’s mind, Ben smiled sympathetically.  He hated to see his child miserable, but the boy’s joy would be all the greater when his birthday did arrive.  He pulled Adam into his lap and gave him a tight hug.  “There is one other thing you had wrong,” he whispered.

Adam sighed again.  “Yes, sir?”

“Your first hunting trip will not be with Billy Thomas,” Ben said gently.  “I claim that privilege for myself.”

Adam smiled and laid his head on his father’s shoulder.  “I’d like that fine, Pa.”

Ben dropped a kiss on his son’s forehead.  “Would you like that for your birthday present, Adam?”

The dark head came up quickly.  “A hunting trip?  I’d love it, Pa, but without a rifle?”

Ben laughed loudly.  “I might let you take a shot with mine.  Would you like to start learning to use it, so you’ll be ready on that far distant day when you get a gun of your own?”

Adam beamed.  “Yes, sir!”

“What’s for breakfast?” Hoss yawned, rubbing his eyes as he stumbled into the room.  “Me’s hungry.”

“I’m hungry,” Adam corrected.

Hoss yawned again.  “Yeah, me, too.”

Adam slid off his father’s lap and scooted over to his little brother.  “We’re having Hangtown Fry, Hoss.  You think you’ll like eggs and oysters?”

“Like eggs,” Hoss replied sleepily.  “Eat now, Bubba.”

Adam wagged his finger under Hoss’s nose.  “Not Bubba,” he scolded.  “Say Adam, Hoss.”

“Adam Hoss,” the younger boy chortled, giving his brother a playful push.  Adam went sprawling to the floor.

“Here now,” Ben scolded.  “Don’t play so rough with your big—”  Suddenly, Ben roared with laughter, for it no longer seemed appropriate to call Adam Hoss’s big brother.  Physically, the younger boy was more than a match for the older.  Ben pulled Adam to his feet.  “Be kind to your older brother, Hoss,” Ben cautioned, tongue in cheek.  “He’s just a little fellow.”

“Me big boy!” Hoss cackled happily, while Adam glowered at him, obviously not appreciating the role reversal.

“All boys, big and small, get your faces washed while I finish up this breakfast,” Ben said quickly to divert their attention.  Both hungry boys dashed for the wash pan and began to lather their hands.

* * * * *

Ben passed the latest copy of the Scorpion back to Clyde, who was warming his backside at the Thomas fireplace.  “Looks like we’re gonna have some real government at last,” Ben commented.

“If Mormon government can be called real,” Clyde scoffed.  “Reckon you noticed that Orson Hyde they’re sendin’ here as judge is one of their twelve apostles.”

“I noticed,” Ben smiled, “but I figured to wait until I met the man to decide what I thought of him.”

“I figure we got a few months before we have to worry about what damage the man can do,” Clyde stated firmly.  “Hyde won’t be here ‘til Spring.”

“Clyde, Clyde,” Ben chuckled.  “Do you always have to look for the cloud in every silver lining?”

“When the clouds rain Mormons, I do,” Clyde grinned good-naturedly.  He and Ben had long ago agreed to disagree on the subject of their neighbors.

Ben stood and stretched his arms.  “On that note, I’ll take my leave,” he said.  “Time Adam and I headed for home.”

Nelly looked up from the panful of dishes she was washing.  “Hate to see you leave, but it is gettin’ late.  Don’t fret none about Hoss now; he’ll be fine with us.”

“I know that,” Ben smiled.  “I’ll just step in and tell him good-bye.”  Ben walked into Clyde and Nelly’s bedroom, where Hoss was amiably playing house with Inger.  “Is she a good cook, son?” Ben chuckled as he watched the boy pretend to eat what the little girl had prepared on her new stove.

Hoss’s chin bobbed agreeably.  “Very good pie,” he announced.

“Well, don’t let her get away then,” Ben said with a twinkle in his eye.  “Good cooks are hard to come by out here.”  He stooped down and put his arms around Hoss.  “Time for Pa to leave now, boy.”

Hoss scrambled to his feet.  “Okay, let’s go Tree.”

“No, no,” Ben said, running his fingers through the lad’s thin, sandy hair.  “You’re staying with Aunt Nelly while I take Adam hunting, remember?”

Hoss’s face puckered.  “Take me, too,” he wailed.

“No, Hoss, you’re too young,” Ben said firmly, “and stop that blubbering right now or Pa will have to spank.”

Hoss swiped his hand across his eyes.  “Wanna go, Pa,” he whimpered.

Nelly’s head poked in the door.  “Don’t cry, Sunshine,” she cooed.  “Aunt Nelly’s gonna make cookies tomorrow and you can help.”

“There now, won’t that be fun?” Ben said brightly.

Hoss’s chin bobbed and the tears that threatened to spill down his face dried almost immediately.  “Yeah,” he agreed.  “I gonna make some for you, Pa!”

Ben smiled wryly.  “Just so he doesn’t make them out of mud,” he muttered as he passed Nelly.  From the front room he called to Adam.  “Time to go, boy.  We want to get an early start tomorrow.”

“Comin’,” Adam called from Billy’s room, where Billy had been filling Adam full of advice for his first hunt.  Adam hustled out and thrust his arms into his warmly padded plaid jacket.

“Don’t forget your package,” Clyde reminded the boy.

“No, sir, I wouldn’t forget that,” Adam grinned.  “It’s from my friend Jamie, you know.”

“Figured as much,” Clyde snorted.  Lands, how could he forget after all the years he’d picked up that journal at the post office for Adam!  Since the Cartwrights almost always took Sunday dinner with the Thomases, Clyde had fallen into the habit of picking up Ben’s mail when he got his own and giving it to him on Sunday.  Same way with the newspaper.

Ben wrapped his Christmas muffler tightly around his throat, for the air was chilly.  “Happy birthday, Billy,” he said once more as he and Adam prepared to head out into the wind.  Since Billy’s birthday fell on Sunday this year, he and Adam had shared a birthday cake after dinner rather than meeting on the day between the two boys’ birthdays as they often did.  And Adam would get his promised hunting trip a day early because it was more convenient to leave Hoss with the Thomases tonight than to make the trip back again tomorrow.

“Yeah, it was a good one,” Billy acknowledged.  “Hope Adam enjoys his as much.”

“I will,” Adam promised.  “I’ll still be out hunting with Pa, you know.”

“Bring back a big buck,” Billy challenged.

Adam grinned.  Nothing would please him more than to bag a deer his first time out.  So far, Billy’s greatest triumph had been that turkey at Thanksgiving, and Adam longed to outshine his friend and put a stop to Billy’s endless bragging.

* * * * *

Ben shook his older son’s shoulder.  “Adam,” he said softly.  “Time to wake up.”

Rubbing his eyes, Adam yawned.  “Morning, Pa.”

“Happy birthday, son,” Ben said cheerily.

Adam sat up, grinning.  “Not ‘til tomorrow, Pa.”

Ben chuckled.  “You saying you’d rather wait ‘til tomorrow to see your present?”

“No, sir!” Adam exclaimed.  “I thought the hunting trip was my present, though.”

“Just part of it,” Ben laughed.  “Hustle into your clothes and come see what’s waiting on the table for you.”

Adam needed no further encouragement.  He pulled on his blue shirt and gray pants, drawing the suspenders quickly over his shoulders, and hastened into the front room.  His mouth gaped as he saw the Sharps rifle lying on the table.  “Pa!” he screamed.  “You did get me a rifle!”

Ben laughed.  “Don’t you think I knew what you wanted most, Adam?”

“You sure did!” the boy declared, hugging his father enthusiastically.  “I should’ve known, Pa.  I shouldn’t have any trouble hitting a deer with this!”

“A deer, is it?” Ben chuckled.  “Sure you wouldn’t rather bring home a squirrel?”

Adam shook his head, grinning.  He knew Pa was teasing.  He’d already shot plenty of squirrels, using his father’s gun.  It was time to hunt for bigger game.

Adam was quite willing to forego breakfast, but his father insisted he eat.  Then, with a warm, filling meal in their stomachs, the two Cartwrights headed into the foothills, leading a pack mule to carry their supplies.  They’d sleep under the stars at least one night, maybe more if they didn’t find game sooner, so the pack included bedrolls.

They headed north, gradually moving into the forest.  Though the valley floor had been free of snow, an icy crust crunched under their feet, for beneath the canopy of evergreens the snow was sheltered from thawing rays of the sun.  While they walked, Ben reviewed all he’d been teaching Adam about the safe handling of guns and the necessity of making his first shot count.  “Otherwise, you’ll have to track the animal and finish him,” Ben stated.  “It’s unkind to wound an animal and leave it to suffer a slow death.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam replied.  “I’d never want to do that.  I’ll aim true.”

Shortly after midday they came to a small clearing.  “This is where we’ll make camp,” Ben said.  “Let’s get the mule unloaded, then you can picket him over there where the grass is thickest.  Always look to the needs of your animal before your own, son.”

“Right, Pa.”  Adam hurried to relieve the mule of its burden and stake him out to graze.  When the animal was cared for, he gathered all the dead branches and pinecones he could find for the fire.  They would eat a cold lunch, but hopefully they’d have found some kind of game for supper.  Even if they didn’t, they’d need the fire once the sun faded behind the Sierras and plunged the eastern slopes into shivering shadows.

After munching on bacon and biscuits left over from breakfast, Ben wiped his mouth.  “You still set on bagging a deer, Adam?” he asked.

“Yes, sir,” Adam replied with determination.  “Do—do you think I can, Pa?”

“It’ll be a challenge,” Ben admitted, “but it’s one I think you’re ready for.  I’m gonna show you a spot where I’ve had good success in the past.”

Adam jumped to his feet, rifle in hand.

Ben laughed as he stood.  “You won’t be doing any shooting this afternoon, Adam, but you’re right to keep your gun with you.”

“Why not now, Pa?” Adam pressed.  “I’m ready.”

Ben laid one hand on Adam’s shoulder as the two walked side by side.  “You’re ready,” he said, “but the deer are not.  They’ll be hidden in thick brush this time of day, son, but tonight they’ll come out to feed and we’ll be waiting.”

Suddenly, Ben stopped and laid a finger across his lips.  Adam looked where his father pointed and descried the shape of the rabbit crouched against a snow bank, its white fur blending into the background so well it was barely visible.  Ben raised his rifle quickly and fired, hitting the little animal in the head.  He smiled down at Adam.  “There!  That assures us of a hot supper, no matter what else happens.”

Adam nodded.  It wasn’t as if Pa didn’t trust him, he consoled himself, but better safe than sorry had been their motto for so long the thought was almost habitual.  It was good planning, too; after all, you couldn’t count on a deer coming within sight just when you needed one.

Within a hour Ben pointed out the spot where he’d often seen deer come to feed.  “First we get downwind,” he said, “then we keep as quiet as possible.  Deer have a keen sense of smell and of hearing.”

Adam’s voice immediately dropped to a whisper.  “Then we can’t talk at all, Pa?”

“You can now,” Ben chuckled softly, “but once the shadows start to lengthen, you’ll want to stop.  Any questions?”

“Is deer about the hardest game to shoot, Pa?” Adam queried.

“Adam, Adam,” Ben scolded gently.  “That’s pride asking that question.  You need to quit thinking about impressing Billy Thomas with your prowess.  I don’t approve of killing animals for sport.  A man needs to learn to hunt so he can put food on the table, son, not to give himself bragging rights.”

Adam’s ears perked up at the word ‘man.’  “It does take a man to shoot a deer, though, doesn’t it, Pa?”

Ben frowned.  “Adam, have you heard a word I’ve said?”

The boy’s face fell.  “Yes, Pa,” he whispered.

Ben reached out with two fingers and lifted the boy’s crestfallen chin.  “I suppose it’s natural for a boy to yearn for manhood.  And our neighbors, the Washo, do connect that with a boy’s first deer kill.”

“Honest, Pa?” Adam asked eagerly.  “A Washo that kills a deer is a man?”

“If it’s big enough,” Ben replied with a wink.  “They turn the antlers’ points down; then the boy tries to crawl through.  If he’s shot a deer large enough so he can, he’s considered a man, and he’s eligible to take a wife.”

“That’s what I’m gonna do,” Adam boasted, “shoot one big enough to crawl through.”

“Not if you don’t quiet down, you’re not,” Ben pointed out.  Adam nodded solemnly and pressed his lips together.

Father and son waited in silence until the sun started to splash the horizon above them with shades of lavender and burnt orange.  Then Ben pointed to the far side of the clearing where three deer were just stepping into sight.  He nodded at Adam when the buck came toward them.

Adam raised his rifle.  So did Ben, in case his son missed the first shot and only wounded the deer.  Adam fired, his bullet glancing off the buck’s rack of antlers.  The three deer started to run.  Ben immediately pulled the trigger and the buck crumpled.

Adam looked up at his father, his face abashed.  “I missed,” he said.

“You did,” Ben agreed, “but your shot was mighty close, son.  Sometimes you have to get used to a new rifle, you know.”

“Yeah,” Adam muttered, but he didn’t think the excuse a valid one.

Seeing the boy’s disappointment, Ben touched his shoulder gently.  “You can have another chance in the morning, Adam.  Now, we’d best get the meat back to camp and fix our supper.  Rabbit stew sound good?”

Adam nodded morosely.

Back in camp, Ben had Adam skin the rabbit while he peeled and chunked potatoes and carrots for the stew.  “Maybe we should put some of the leg meat of that buck in, too,” Ben mused.  “I’m hungry enough to eat a lot.  What do you think, Adam?”

“I don’t care,” Adam muttered.

Ben frowned.  “Adam, quit moping,” he ordered.  “We got meat and that’s what counts.”

“But I wanted to shoot it, Pa——not you,” Adam protested.  “Everybody already knows you’re a crack shot.”

“I wasn’t at your age,” Ben said.  “Come here, son; I want to show you something.”  When Adam dragged over to his father’s side, Ben pointed to the antler broken by Adam’s first shot.  “Do you realize how near the mark you were, Adam?  You’ve nothing to be ashamed of, and I’m certainly proud.”

The boy’s countenance lifted slightly.  “You think I’ll do better tomorrow.”

“Wouldn’t be a bit surprised,” Ben offered encouragingly, “and even if you don’t, it’ll still have been an enjoyable and worthwhile trip.  Don’t get your eyes so stuck on one thing that you miss everything else, Adam.  Look at those stars, boy.  You ever see them shine so bright?”

Adam looked into the dark sky, glittering with twinkles of light.  “Yeah, there’s a bunch tonight,” he admitted.  He looked at the surrounding trees and smiled.  “It’s really pretty up here, Pa.  Remember how we used to talk about settling up this way.”

Ben leaned back on one elbow.  “Yeah.  Haven’t talked much about it lately, have we?”

Adam sprawled companionably next to his father.  “It was a promise, Pa, a promise to Inger.”  Now that Hoss was old enough to understand that he and his brother had had separate mothers, Adam had fallen into the habit of referring to his stepmother by her first name.  It seemed to prevent confusion for the younger boy, who couldn’t comprehend the difference between “Mother,” by which Adam referred to the woman who had given him birth and “Mama,” as he had called Hoss’s mother while she was living.

“You think it’s time we kept that promise, do you, boy?” Ben asked.

“I do, Pa.  Don’t you?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” Ben agreed.  “Time to start planning anyway.  First thing we should do is decide what kind of house we want.  Then we’ll scout out a place to put it.”

“A big house,” Adam said, lying back with his arms folded beneath his head.  “You promised her that, too, remember?  A house big enough to shelter anybody that came by needing a place to stay.”

Misty memories floated in Ben’s warm brown eyes.  He did indeed remember the night he’d made that promise to his second wife.  It was during the time Adam’s young friend Jamie Edwards had been ill with cholera and Inger had longed to bring him and his father into their home where she could nurse the boy properly.  That hadn’t been possible in their tiny quarters behind the Larrimore store in St. Joseph, and to console her, Ben had promised that when they came west, they’d build a home large enough to accommodate anyone who needed help.  Inger was gone now, but Ben, like Adam, still felt constrained to keep that promise, whether it made sense or not, if only to honor the big-hearted woman to whom he had made it.

“A big house, then,” he replied.  “When we get home, why don’t you draw out a picture of what you think it should look like?”

“I’ll do that, Pa,” Adam said eagerly.  “I’ve got lots of ideas.”

“Well, they’ll probably need some modifications,” Ben laughed, “but I sure want to see them.”  He sat up.  “Better see how that stew’s coming along.”

* * * * *

Ben roused the boy long before daybreak the next morning, so they could get into position in a clearing not far from the one where Ben had shot the deer the day before.  Again they waited in silence until a lone buck entered open ground.  Adam spotted the animal and, raising his Sharps, took careful aim and squeezed the trigger.  The buck fell, a bullet through his head.  Adam jumped to his feet, his jaw dropping.  “I got him!  I got him!” he screamed.

Ben leaped up and wrapped his boy in a bear hug.  “You sure did!  And a big one, too.  Let’s get it back to camp.”

Back at the clearing Ben helped his son skin and cut the venison into pieces.  “We’ll split the meat with the Thomases,” he said.  “We don’t need this much for ourselves, and it won’t keep with the days getting warmer.”

“Pa, you think I could keep this rack of antlers?” Adam queried.

“I don’t see any harm in it,” Ben chuckled, “but you’ll have to earn the privilege.”  He took the rack of antlers and turned it so the points touched the ground.  “Crawl through, boy, and I’ll help you peg it on the wall above your bed.”

Adam quickly pulled off his jacket to make himself as thin as possible.  Lying flat on the ground, he squiggled carefully between the upright antlers, so he wouldn’t tear his clothing.  Emerging on the other side, he smirked triumphantly.  “There!” he said.  “Now I’m a man!”

“Headed that direction, for sure,” Ben smiled.  “You got the girl picked out yet, son?”

“Pa!” Adam cried, horrified.  “I don’t want to get married!”

Ben guffawed.  “Oh, I see.  You want all the pride of manhood and none of the responsibilities.”

Adam shrugged sheepishly, and Ben swung the boy into the air.  “Well, Pa’s proud enough for both of us,” he crowed.  “Proud as punch of my fine young man.”  And from that time forward, he regularly referred to his older son by that title.

* * * * *

Adam and Billy swung down from their mounts almost simultaneously and charged toward the door to the Cartwright cabin.

“Adam!”  Ben shouted.  “See to your horse first, young man!”

“Aw, Pa, I want to show Billy those antlers,” Adam protested.  “It won’t take a minute, and we’ll tend the animals right after, I promise.”

“Oh, all right,” Ben conceded indulgently, “but be quick about it.”

Hoss slid off the back of Ben’s bay.  “Wait, wait,” he called.  I wanna see, too.”  Chuckling, Ben gathered the reins of the three horses and led them all to the barn.

“Wow!  What a rack!” Billy was exclaiming when Hoss trotted in.

“Ooh,” the four-year-old murmured, wide-eyed.  He reached out to grab one of the points.  “Ouch!” he cried as it stuck his hand.

“Keep your hands off!” Adam ordered.  He snatched the small hand and examined it.  “You’re okay,” he said, dropping Hoss’s hand.  “It didn’t break the skin.  Now, don’t touch, Hoss.”

Hoss nodded, sticking his finger in his mouth to suck on the imagined wound.

“Where you gonna hang ‘em?” Billy asked.

Adam pointed at the head of his bed.  “I figure right above there.”

“Yeah, that’ll look grand,” Billy agreed.

Hoss frowned, staring at his own bed, which suddenly looked plain and unadorned.  “How ‘bout here, Bub——uh, Adam?” he corrected quickly, pointing above his own bed.

Billy hooted.  “You’ll have to grow big and shoot your own buck if you want a rack of antlers, boy.”

“That’s right,” Adam said, setting the antlers up on his quilt-spread bed for safekeeping.  “We better get to the barn, Billy, before Pa comes looking.”

“You’re right,” Billy said.  The two friends headed out immediately to give their horses the needed attention.

When they were gone, Hoss tiptoed over to Adam’s bed and gingerly touched the antlers.  Growing bolder, he stroked their smooth sides affectionately.  No sense asking Adam to give up his prize, and Pa wasn’t likely to make him, either.  So Billy was right:  if Hoss wanted a rack of antlers, he’d have to shoot a deer himself.  His lower lip thrust out with irritation.  Billy’d had one thing wrong, though.  I don’t need grow big, Hoss thought.  I big now.

It was true, at least in the sense Hoss understood.  Adam might be taller, but Hoss already weighed more than his older brother.  From the corner of his eye, he spotted the rifle Adam had tossed on the bed and picked it up.  Acting quickly, before Adam or Pa had a chance to catch him and take the rifle away, Hoss slipped quietly through the front door and began to run toward the woods.  As usual, though, his clumsy feet tripped him up.  He fell and the rifle discharged with a terrifying boom.  Throwing his hands over his ears, Hoss screamed.

Ben, Billy and Adam, in that order, rushed from the barn.  “Hoss!” Ben yelled.  “What are you doing with that gun?”

Hoss sat up, fear in his blue eyes.  “Goin’ huntin’, Pa,” he said quickly.  “I wanna deer, too.”

Adam ran over to snatch his new rifle up from the ground.  “You little idiot!” he screamed.  “Pa makes me wait ‘til I’m twelve to have a gun, and you expect to use one at your age!”

“That’s enough, Adam,” Ben said sharply.  “I’ll handle this.”  He held his hand out toward his younger son.  “Come here, Hoss,” he said sternly.  “Pa needs to have a very necessary little talk with you.”  Head drooping, Hoss stood and reluctantly put his hand in his father’s.  He hadn’t had many spankings, but he sensed he was due for another.

As they walked toward the house, Ben called over his shoulder, “You come inside, too, Adam.  I’ve a few words to say to you, as well.”  Adam scuffed the ground with his shoe and slowly followed his father and brother.

“Uh—guess I’d better head for home,” Billy suggested.  “Not a good time for me to stay the night, I reckon.”

“No, you can stay,” Ben said from the doorway, “but I’d suggest you make yourself useful outside for a while.  There’s some kindling needs chopping.”  Billy nodded and went immediately to the woodpile.  With two boys already in trouble, he didn’t plan to make it three.

Adam propped his elbows on the table and stared at his rifle morosely as he listened to his father administering the “very necessary little talk” to his brother’s buttocks.  Hoss shouldn’t have touched his gun, of course, but it was really his fault for leaving it on the bed to tempt the little fellow.  How could he have known, though, that Hoss would do something that stupid?

Ben emerged from the boys’ bedroom and sat opposite Adam.

Adam raised a penitent head.  “I’m the one you should whip,” he muttered.  “I shouldn’t have left Hoss alone with that gun in reach.”

“No, you shouldn’t have,” Ben agreed soberly, “but I have to share the responsibility with you, Adam.  Owning a gun is new to you.  I should have reminded you to stow it high, and I should have provided you a place to do that.”

“Then why’d you spank Hoss?” Adam asked.

“For the same reason I used to spat your hand when you reached for the fire,” Ben smiled.  “A little pain to make you avoid a greater one.”

Adam shrugged.  “I don’t remember doing that, Pa.”

“You were young,” Ben chuckled, “younger than Hoss is now, and while you may not remember the lesson, you certainly learned the principle.  Hoss will, too.  Don’t berate yourself too harshly, Adam.  I’ve cautioned Hoss often enough about touching my guns that he knew he was doing wrong.  He deserved what he got.”

“And me?” Adam probed.

“You’re getting a mite old to spank,” Ben said, “and in this case there’s little to be gained by it.  I think you’ve already learned your lesson.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam said seriously.  “If anything had happened to Hoss—”

Ben stood, circled the table and gave his older son a consoling embrace.  “Thank God, nothing did.  Just be more careful in the future, young man.”

“I will, Pa.”

Loud thumping sounded through the door.  “Hey!  You about through whuppin’ them boys?” Billy hollered.  “It’s cold out here!”

Ben laughed and opened the door.  “Yeah, I’m through whuppin’ them boys,” he announced.  “Now, while I fix supper, you two whittle some pegs so we can mount that rack of antlers.”

“And my rifle,” Adam added.  “I want it up high, where certain snoopy little fingers can’t reach.”

“Huh!  That ain’t likely to stop him,” Billy snorted.  “He knows how to climb a chair.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “He also knows what’ll happen if he does.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

 Leaning on a rail on the wharf overlooking San FranciscoBay, Ben took a deep draught of the salt-tipped breeze.  To him, no fragrance ever seemed quite so refreshing, though the pine-scented air near the big lake the Indians called Tahoe ran a close second.  This trip to San Francisco had been unusually relaxing.  For the first time Ben’s attention hadn’t been focused on the purchase of supplies.  He’d bought a few things, of course, primarily treats to take back to the boys.  But since dropping out of partnership in the trading post, he no longer needed to be burdened with a wagonload of goods.  He’d be buying all his supplies from Clyde from now on.

In fact, there was really no reason for Ben to be in San Francisco this May morning——none, that is, except to provide moral support for the world’s most flustered father.  Ben glanced over his shoulder to confirm that Paul Martin was still restlessly pacing the boards behind him.  The ship from Hawaii that would carry his daughter was due to anchor this morning, and Paul’s attitude was a mixture of eager anticipation and absolute dread.

Ben’s ostensible reason for making the trip with Paul was to show the drawings of the projected house he and Adam had worked out to someone who could advise them on their feasibility.  Ben had been a little leery of using the man Lawrence Larrimore had recommended.  After seeing Larrimore’s new home, he simply wasn’t sure the man who had designed that palatial residence could even understand the rustic elegance he and Adam envisioned.  Clarence Williams had been enthusiastic, however, and had contracted to draw a set of working plans based on young Adam’s design.  “Your boy has a fine eye for line, Mr. Cartwright,” Williams had said.  “Most of his ideas are quite usable, though some alterations will be needed to give the proper foundation and structural strength for your home.”

Ben had filed away that compliment to repeat to Adam, but to be honest, the design wasn’t entirely Adam’s.  Ben had added his own ideas, of course, but so had almost every friend the Cartwrights had.  Even young Hoss had put in his two-cents’ worth by demanding a big pantry with one shelf set aside for the pies he was sure Aunt Nelly wouldn’t mind donating.  Nelly had insisted on a sizable kitchen and had made the suggestion Ben liked best, that of placing it with a family dining room on one side and one for his hired hands on the other, to serve the men who would sleep in the bunkroom beyond that dining area.

He hadn’t been as fond of the addition Paul Martin had declared essential.  Ben didn’t like entertaining the idea that one of his boys might become ill enough to require close supervision, but he’d finally admitted having one bedroom downstairs was probably a good idea.  As Paul had pointed out, little boys and broken bones sometimes went together, and if it happened, the affected youngster wouldn’t enjoy negotiating stairs often.  And in the passage of time, some of the Cartwrights’ friends might grow old or otherwise become incapacitated enough to appreciate a first-story guest room, as well.

Most of the house, though, reflected young Adam’s ideas, and Ben especially loved the openness of the lower floor his son proposed.  Reflecting the multi-purpose room which had been its progenitor in the original cabin, the lower floor was a combined dining room and living area with a huge stone fireplace as its focal point.  Ben had suggested having a desk at which he might work on the ranch books while still keeping his sons in sight, so Adam had drawn an alcove at the front of the house that flowed smoothly with the rest of the room.  Clarence Williams had waxed particularly eloquent about that open flow from area to area, so different from the homes he’d been called on to build in San Francisco.

Strong fingers gripped Ben’s elbow.  “Ben, Ben!”  Paul croaked hoarsely, drawing Ben from his reverie.  “Isn’t that a clipper?”

Ben smiled at his nervous friend.  “Probably the very one,” he agreed.

“I knew it; I knew it,” Paul babbled.  “Oh, what will I say to her?”

Ben propped an elbow on the rail.  “How about ‘Howdy, Sally’?”  He gave his friend a mischievous wink.

“Don’t make fun,” Paul sputtered.  “I’ve got to make a good beginning with my girl.”

“Then give her a hug and hand her that box of chocolates we picked up this morning,” Ben suggested.  “That ought to win her over quickly.”

“The chocolates!” Paul cried, looking frantically in every direction.  “Where did I leave the chocolates?”

“With me, thank goodness,” Ben chuckled, bending over to pick up the box of assorted candies Mr. Ghirardelli had personally selected for them.

“Yes, thank goodness,” Paul said with a sigh of relief.

They stood side by side, waiting as the passengers disembarked.  “There she is!” Paul cried, spotting a kelly green bonnet.  “There’s my little lady.”

The face beneath the bonnet lit up brightly as Sally caught sight of her father, but the girl politely kept her place in line.  “A well-mannered little lady, indeed,” Ben declared.  And a lovely one, too.  Ben couldn’t help but contrast Sally’s rosy-cheeked charm with the appearance of the daughters of two of his old friends from the Overland Trail, both of whom he’d visited the day before.  Mary Wentworth had always been a pretty child, of course, in a pale, fragile sort of way.  The trip west had been difficult for Reverend Wentworth’s child, and she’d never really recovered her health.  If anything, though, Ben had found himself more disturbed by the change in little Jewel Larrimore.  Affluence had only made it possible for her mother to spoil her more easily than before, and Jewel was growing positively pudgy on a steady diet of bonbons and pastries.  To counter the image of a fat child, Camilla dressed her daughter in low-cut gowns far too mature for her, and the effect was one of a little girl playing dress-up in her mother’s cast-off finery.  At least, Jewel didn’t paint her face yet, but that was the only thing that saved her from looking completely ridiculous.

How different the blooming girl who now stood before him, smiling sweetly!  “Ben, this is my Sally,” Paul said proudly, then touching her arm, “Sally, my best friend, Mr. Benjamin Cartwright.”

Sally curtsied demurely, her green hem brushing the toes of her neatly buttoned brown boots.  “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben took the diminutive hand gently.  “And I, Miss Sally, am most pleased to make your acquaintance.”

* * * * *

Ben found Sally Martin a most engaging young person, and the impression was only heightened by her congenial conversation and courteous conduct on the trip to CarsonValley.  His response to the doctor’s daughter, however, was mild compared to the reception that awaited her at the Thomas cabin, where Ben stopped to pick up his sons.

Nelly’s invitation to dinner was, of course, predictable and readily accepted after a long day’s journey.  Clyde behaved normally, too, as did Adam, Hoss and Inger, but Billy was uncharacteristically struck silent by the ruffled vision that descended from the wagon. It wasn’t her red-headed admirer who caught Sally’s eye, however.  Those sparkling blue orbs were fixed smilingly on Ben’s older son.  Uh-oh, Ben thought.  Looks like we’ve just introduced a little Eve into our Garden of EdenOnly we’ve got two Adams to vie for her favor.  Or perhaps not.  The boy who actually bore the name of Eve’s Biblical mate seemed glad to welcome Sally as the daughter of his father’s respected friend, but he showed no interest in her obvious feminine allure.  Billy, on the other hand, openly gaped at the girl.

“Dinner’ll be on the table in about an hour,” Nelly said, “so you men go off and do your jawin’ about the latest news.  Then we won’t have to listen to it at the dinner table.”

“May I help you with the meal?” Sally asked as Nelly herded Hoss and Inger back into the cabin.

“What a sweet girl to offer,” Nelly cooed, “but it’d be a bigger help to me if you’d help these young ones finish up their bakin’. I’m gonna need to set the table soon, but they’ve got it cluttered up playin’ with some pie scraps I gave them.”

“I—I could help, too, Ma,” Billy offered.  Both Billy’s mother and his friend Adam stared at him in disbelief.

“Since when are you so eager to help?” Nelly asked, her brown eyes narrowing.

Billy’s face flamed to match his red hair.  “Aw, Ma, you know I help out a lot around here.”

“Well, if you’re so eager to be a help,” Nelly said crisply, “you can start with your regular chores.  Plenty of work left in the barn.  Now, clear out.”

Billy scowled, but turned on his heels and dragged toward the barn, not expecting to find anything there half so attractive as what he was leaving behind.

Inside the cabin Hoss and Inger climbed back into the chairs they’d left when the wagon pulled up.  Sally stood behind them, laying a soft hand on each small shoulder.  “What are you making, children?” she asked.

“Sin rolls,” Hoss informed her.

Sally tilted her head, puzzled for a moment.  “Oh, you mean cinnamon rolls,” she laughed suddenly.

“Help them roll out the scraps, then spread it with butter,” Nelly began as she tied a dishtowel around Sally’s waist to protect her dress.

“Then sprinkle it with cinnamon and sugar,” Sally said, dusting her hands with flour.  “At least, that’s how my—my mother used to help me make them.”

Nelly noticed the catch in the girl’s voice when she mentioned her mother.  “That’s right, dear,” she said gently.  “That’s exactly how we do it, too.”

“Now, then, who wants to roll out the dough?” Sally asked the two youngsters.

“Hoss,” Inger replied.  “He do it better.”

Sally gave the little strawberry blonde a hug.  “My, aren’t you the prettiest little thing,” she whispered, “and a sweet, unselfish girl, too.”

Hoss impulsively threw his flour-coated hands around Sally, powdering the back of her lavender gingham skirt.  “Me, too,” he demanded.  Sally laughed and returned the hug the boy obviously wanted.

Nelly turned from the stove to smile sadly at the scene.  Hoss was such an affectionate boy that she was sure he suffered from the lack of cuddles and kisses a child normally receives from his mother.  Of course, Ben was a warmer father than most——always hugging and kissing and mussing his boys’ hair like a mother might do——but he was still a man, often so caught up in his work he missed the little signs that hinted at a youngster’s yearnings.  A child like Hoss needed and deserved a mother, but Ben was as adamantly opposed to remarriage as he’d always been.  Doctor Martin seemed of the same mind, so Nelly saw no hope for either of their motherless children.  She’d do what she could to fill that void, of course, but there was only so much a family friend could do.

* * * * *

Hoss threw the short stick as far as he could.  “Get it, Klam,” he urged.  “Get the stick, boy.”  The brown dog yipped and obediently chased after the stick.

Billy Thomas clattered into the yard and jumped off his horse, wrapping the reins around the hitching rail Ben had erected in front of the Cartwright cabin.  “Hi, Nuisance,” he called to Hoss.  “The big boys around anywhere?”

Hoss planted both palms on his hips.  “I’m a big boy,” he insisted, then obligingly pointed to the barn.  Klamath returned, stick in mouth, and Hoss bent over to reward the dog with a solid pat on the head.

“Thanks, big boy,” Billy snickered and sauntered toward the barn.  He found both Adam and Ben inside.  “Howdy, gents,” he drawled, stuffing his thumbs behind his gray suspenders.

“Howdy, yourself,” Ben said.  “You come to give us a hand?”

“Not hardly,” Billy snorted.  “I come to ask Adam if I could borrow his mare, seein’ as how he said he’d be tied up all day chorin’.”

“What’s wrong with your horse?” Adam inquired, leaning on the pitchfork he’d been using to toss down fresh straw in the stalls.

“Not a thing,” Billy replied, “but I need two.  I figured to show Sally Martin some of the scenery hereabouts.”

Adam frowned.  What was the fun in that?  “If you’d help with these chores, I could be through early enough to ride up and show you where we’re thinking about building the new place,” he suggested alternatively.

Billy scuffed his black boot through the straw scattered on the barn floor.  “Yeah, I’d like that sometime, Adam,” he said awkwardly, “but I got other plans today.”  He threw his shoulders back and lifted his chin defensively.  “After all, it’s only neighborly to show new folks around.”

Ben’s lips twitched.  “Why, I’m proud of you, Billy,” he chuckled.  “It’s wonderful to see a young man exhibit such civic responsibility.”

Billy glowed.  “Yeah,” he agreed readily.  “That’s what it is, a civic responsibility.”  He’d have never thought of those fancy words on his own, but he liked the feeling of importance they carried.

“Well, that’s fine,” Ben continued, trying to control the laughter gurgling into his mouth.  “According to the Scorpion, there’ll be a number of new settlers arriving next month from Salt Lake City, and I’m sure you’ll be equally glad to take them on a tour of the territory.”

Billy blanched, his rusty freckles standing out against his suddenly pale face.  “Well—uh—I don’t know about that,” he stammered.  “They’ll likely be mostly grownups.”

Ben guffawed.  “Oh, I see!  There’s a limit to your civic responsibility!”

Billy grinned sheepishly.  “Yeah, sort of,” he admitted.

“Sort of, my foot!” Ben roared, raising dust from Billy’s red shirt as he slapped him on the back.  “Your civic responsibilities are limited to twelve-year-old girls!”

Billy grinned more broadly.  The joke was on him, but he didn’t mind.  “Worse than that,” he cackled, willing to pick a little fun at himself.  “It’s limited to pretty twelve-year-old girls.”

“Well, I’m sure Adam won’t mind loaning his horse to such a good cause,” Ben chuckled.

Adam shrugged.  “So long as I get her back, I reckon.”  He didn’t think Pa should have agreed to loan out his horse without checking with him first, but he really had no reason to object.

“Sally and her pa’s comin’ to your place tonight, ain’t they?” Billy asked.  “I figured she could keep the mare ‘til then.”

“That’ll be fine, Billy,” Ben assured him.

Sally Martin returned Adam’s horse that night when she and her father arrived for the usual Saturday night dinner and chess match.  While Adam felt somewhat disgruntled by the fact that his friend had chosen to spend his free time with this girl, he found himself enjoying her company, too.  Not as a girl, of course, but Sally had fascinating tales to tell about her stay in the Sandwich Islands.  Adam was particularly interested in the courses the girl had taken in the school there.  Like him, Sally enjoyed learning, and Adam found himself looking forward to Saturday nights, when he and Sally could exchange information.  Besides, Sally had learned enough from her mother to help with the cooking, and the quality of their Saturday night suppers definitely improved with her arrival in Carson County.

* * * * *

Nelly refilled the bowl of gravy and set it on the table near Hoss, who immediately grabbed for the spoon and sloshed his mashed potatoes liberally.  “You don’t have any more of that stashed out, do you?” a chagrined Ben muttered.  Giggling, Nelly shook her head as she sat down.

“That’s okay,” Hoss assured her.  “I got enough.”

“That’s not exactly what I was worried about,” Ben chuckled, tweaking the boy’s ear.  “Go a little slower, son; someone else just might crave a little gravy, too.”

Hoss gulped.  “Oh, sorry,” he said.

“That’s all right, Sunshine,” Nelly said, giving his hand a comforting pat.  “You know you must always eat your fill at Aunt Nelly’s house.”

“As if he didn’t do that everywhere he goes!” Billy cackled.

Nelly frowned at her son, and Billy turned his attention back to the chicken remaining on his plate.

“Aw, don’t let your pa fool you, youngun,” Clyde snickered.  “Ain’t you he’s riled at; it’s them new neighbors.”

Ben frowned.  Clyde had, unfortunately, hit the nail on the head.  The new contingent of colonists from Salt Lake City had recently arrived, but instead of settling near Mormon Station as expected, they had taken up claims to the north in Washoe Valley, some of them on land Ben had hoped one day to call his own.  Not, thank goodness, the proposed site for their new home, but much of the best pastureland in the area.  Ben was upset about it, and it didn’t help that Clyde was taking pure pleasure in seeing his old friend irritated with the Mormons for a change.

“Have you met any of the new folks yet?” Nelly asked.

“Yeah, a few,” Ben said, absent-mindedly stirring an extra teaspoonful of sugar into his coffee.  “I met Hyde, of course, and his wives.”

Fork half-way to her mouth, Nelly frowned.  Though she knew Mormons believed in polygamy, it had still come as a shock when the new judge arrived with four women in tow.  “Well, everyone’s met him, I think,” she sputtered.  “I meant the regular folks.  Like the Cowans, for instance.”

“Oh, yes,” Ben moaned.  “They’re the ones who snatched up the piece of ground I favored most.”

Nelly laughed gently.  “Sorry I brought it up then.  I got to meet Mrs. Cowan, though.  A right likable woman.”

“For a Mormon,” Clyde groused into his auburn beard.

“Oh, now, Clyde,” Nelly protested.  “From the looks of it, Eilley ain’t what you’d call a faithful Mormon.  Done her shoppin’ here ‘stead of with her own kind and told me straight out she’d left her first husband ‘cause he wanted to bring in a second wife.”

“You’re in favor of divorce now?” Ben queried with a significant arch of his eyebrow, which had begun to sprout a few gray hairs at the outer edges.

“You know better,” Nelly scolded, rapping Ben’s knuckles with her spoon, “but even that’s a far cry more decent than polygamy.”

“What’s lig’my?” Inger asked, her blue eyes wide in consternation at her mother’s abnormally petulant tone.

“Something you ain’t never gonna have nothin’ to do with, that’s what!” her father snorted.

Ben decided it was time to repay Clyde for some of his sass.  “Now, I don’t know, Clyde,” he commented with apparent seriousness.  “There aren’t many but Mormon men to choose from.  You may just have to swallow your pride and take one for a son-in-law.”

Clyde turned beet red and his cheeks puffed out with barely contained rage.  “Over my dead body!” he yelled.  “Ain’t one of them cusses gonna touch my girl!  Over—”

“Over!  That’s just what this conversation is,” Nelly snapped, banging her palm flat against the tabletop.  “I won’t have such topics at the table with these innocent little pitchers listening in.  Behave, the both of you!  For lands sakes, Clyde, Inger’s three years old.  You’re more than a decade too early worryin’ about some man carryin’ her off.”

“Yeah, it’s that other youngster of yours you need to be worrying about,” Ben chuckled.  “He’s moving pretty fast.”

Billy’s ears flamed to match his father’s face.  “No such thing,” he protested.  “Sally’s just—just—”

“Just a civic responsibility,” Ben finished, nodding his head with gravity denied by the twinkle in his eye.  “Yes, Billy, you told me.”

Adam snickered, and Billy flushed a deeper shade of red.  “You stay out of it!” Billy demanded.

Adam stuck out his tongue.  “Make me,” he taunted, then jumped to his feet and ran out the side door that led outside from the new kitchen.  Billy leaped up, knocking over his chair, and charged after Adam.

“Boys, boys, you haven’t had dessert yet,” Nelly called, but her words didn’t penetrate the slammed door.

“Let ‘em go,” Clyde snorted.  “Leaves more for the rest of us.”

“More for us!” Hoss chortled happily and clapped his hands as his elders and Inger joined in his laughter.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

 Ben finished yoking the final ox to the wagon and gave the animal’s side an affectionate stroke.  “Gonna kind of miss you, boy,” he murmured.  He’d had the ox a long time.  Most of the team was made up of animals he’d traded emigrants for over the past few years, but this one had made the trip west with him.  He had no more use for oxen, though.  Now that he was through freighting heavy wagonloads of supplies over the Sierras, it made sense to sell them, along with the bulky wagon they pulled.  The light buckboard he’d bought last year was more useful for ranch chores and transportation in the valley.  So once he reached Placerville, he’d sell the wagon and oxen.  He and the boys could travel the rest of the way by stage and steamboat.

Ben went inside to check on his sons’ progress.  Entering their bedroom, he saw clothes piled on the bed, but few actually in the carpetbag he’d told them to pack.  “We’re not gonna get a very early start at this rate,” he mumbled.

Adam heard him.  “I’m not sure what to take, Pa.  What about my suit?  Will we be going to the theater or anything?”

Ben looked quickly at Hoss.  “Well, I’m not sure, Adam.  I’d like to, of course, but it may not be practical.”  Not with Hoss along this trip.  He was a little young to attend most stage performances, and Ben wasn’t certain he’d be able to leave the boy with anyone.

He looked back at Adam.  “You’d better pack it, anyway, for when we visit the Larrimores.  They dress for dinner nowadays.”

Adam scowled.  Who’d ever heard of putting on a suit and tie just to eat!  And with that stuffed shirt, Sterling Larrimore, too!  “We gotta go see them, Pa?” he whined.

“Of course, we do,” Ben insisted.  “Lawrence is one of my oldest friends.  Besides, the Larrimores have never met your brother.”  He smiled.  Introducing his younger son to his old friends was the part of this trip Ben anticipated most.  Everyone always asked about the youngster they’d left behind when the rest of the wagon train moved on, leaving the Cartwrights and the Thomases in Carson Valley.  None of them had seen him since he was three months old, and the women, especially, would be thrilled to see this stalwart lad.  They’d been so afraid he wouldn’t thrive without a mother’s care.  Well, one look should silence those concerns forever.

“Pa, Hoss doesn’t have a suit,” Adam pointed out.  “What’ll we do about him?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Ben said abruptly.  “I’ll worry about that when the time comes.  Now, get that bag packed, so we can head out!”

“Okay, okay,” Adam muttered, hastily stuffing shirts and pants into the bag.  “Ready!” he beamed.

Ben rolled his eyes.  Maybe he could get one of Camilla’s servants to press the boy’s suit when they got there.  “Let’s get loaded then,” he muttered.

Adam snatched up the carpetbag and ran out to the wagon, while Ben carried the last of their supplies for the trip.  Hoss grabbed his calico dog and trotted after them.  Klamath barked when he saw his young master, and Hoss squatted to give him a farewell pat.  “You can’t go, boy,” he said sadly.  “Pa says it’s too far for a pup.  I’ll be back soon, boy.”

“Do not worry, my little friend,” a voice with a soft French accent assured Hoss.  “I will care for your dog.”

Hoss grinned up at Jean D’Marigny.  “Yeah, I know, but he’ll miss me.  I ain’t never left him before.”

Oui,” Jean said sympathetically, “but I will keep him company, and I see you have someone to keep you company.”

Hoss squeezed his stuffed dog tight.  “Yeah.  Bye, Jean.”  Pa had tried to teach him to use the foreman’s last name, as was proper for a young boy speaking to a man, but Hoss couldn’t manage the odd French pronunciation, so everyone had finally decided “Jean” was respectful enough, at least for now.

Hoss crawled in the wagon, while Ben and Adam mounted their horses to ride alongside.  The sides of the canvas covering the hickory bows was rolled up, so Hoss could see the countryside as they traveled.  He couldn’t get enough of the new sights.  He’d been some distance to the north before, on regular visits to the Paiute camp with his father, but as the wagon rumbled south past Mormon Station, Hoss found himself in unexplored territory.  Ben rode close to answer the unending questions, but Adam had his fill of Hoss’s chatter quite quickly and trotted out ahead, priding himself that he was scouting for possible danger.

A few days’ travel brought them to Placerville.  Hoss’s blue eyes shot wide when he saw all the buildings.  “Big town!” he cried.

“Placerville’s not big,” Adam scoffed.  “Wait’ll you see San Francisco!”

“One experience at a time, Adam,” Ben chuckled.  “There was a time you thought Placerville was quite a sight, remember?”

Adam grinned and nodded.  “It’s still quite a place,” he told Hoss.  “You’re gonna love Mama Zuebner’s.”

Ben’s nose wriggled.  “Mama Zuebner, is it?”

“That’s what everyone calls her,” Adam said defensively, “and Hoss will love her cooking.  You know he will.”

“Oh, yes!” Ben agreed readily.

“Let’s eat,” Hoss suggested eagerly.

Ben laughed.  “Not yet.  I need to transact a little business first.”  He took Hoss’s hand and led the way to the corner of Main Street and Bedford Avenue, where John Studebaker kept his wagon shop.  “Ah, Mr. Cartwright,” Studebaker said when Ben and the boys entered.  “No problems with that wagon I sold you, I trust.”

“No problems; it’s a fine piece of work,” Ben assured the craftsman.  “No, I’m here because I have an old wagon I’d like to sell, and I wondered if you might be able to help me find a buyer.”

“Let’s see it,” Studebaker said.  They went outside, where he examined the old wagon.  “It’s seen a lot of use,” he told Ben, “but it’s in good condition.  I don’t market anything this heavy myself, but if you’d care to leave it with me, I could probably sell it to a freighting company that comes through regularly.  Can’t promise a high price, though.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Ben replied.  “I know from my previous dealings with you that it’ll be a fair one.”

“That it will,” Studebaker promised.  “The team looks too old to fetch much of a price, though.  Might as well sell them for meat.  Philip Armour should give you a fair deal.”

“Thanks,” Ben said and followed Studebaker’s directions to Armour’s shop.  He briefly explained his business to the red-headed butcher and, after a little haggling, arrived at an acceptable agreement.

“Now, lunch,” Ben told the boys.

“Hooray!” Hoss shouted.  “I’m hungry.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” Ben guffawed.  “Let’s go.”

The three trooped into Mama Zuebner’s Cafe, where they were greeted by a pretty flaxen-haired maiden of fifteen.  “Oh, Mr. Cartwright, how good to see you again!” she cried.  “And you, too, Adam.”

“Wonderful to see you, Katerina,” Ben smiled.  “You grow prettier by the month, my dear.”

Katerina Zuebner blushed modestly.  “And you have brought a friend?” she asked to change the subject.

“Friend, nothing!” Adam hooted.  “That’s my brother.”

Katerina screamed.  “Oh, it can’t be!  Not this big boy!”

A large, amply padded woman hustled out from the kitchen.  “Katerina!” she called.  “What is wrong?”

“Oh, nothing, Mama,” Katerina said quickly.  “Just see who’s here.”

A welcoming smile spread across Ludmilla Zuebner’s florid face.  “Ah, Ben!” she cried, then turned to frown at her daughter.  “But, mercy, what a scream.”

“I’m sorry, Mama,” Katerina said, “but when I saw Hoss—”

“Hoss!” Ludmilla screamed, louder than had her daughter.  “This is Hoss?”  She immediately wrapped her plump arms about the boy and squeezed tight.  “I not see you since you little baby,” she said.

“He’s not little now,” Ben said.  And a good thing, too, or he’d never survive the hug Ludmilla was giving him.

Ludmilla patted the boy’s sturdy shoulder and felt down his arms.  “No, no, he big boy.”

Hoss grinned brightly.  “Are you Mama Zuebner?” he asked.

“Yah, yah, I Mama,” Ludmilla said, “and I gonna fix you big plate oxtail stew.  You like?”

“He’ll like,” Adam snickered.  “I guarantee he’ll like.”

“You like, too?” Ludmilla laughed.

Adam nodded.  “Yeah, me, too, unless you got sauerbraten today.”

“Not today.  Sorry,” Ludmilla said, “but I fix extra big plate oxtail stew.  You need meat on your bones, Adam, like your brother.”

Grinning, Adam shook his head.  He had no ambitions of putting as much meat on his bones as Hoss had.  When Ludmilla hustled back to the kitchen, Adam turned to Katerina.  “Where’s Marta?” he asked.  “Out mining?”

Katerina giggled.  “No, we don’t do much mining any more, Adam.  Stefán is busy with the brewery, and we try to keep Marta in the kitchen.  She is fourteen now, old enough to act like a young lady.”

“Marta?” Adam laughed heartily.  “She’ll never be a lady.”

Katerina shrugged.  “Well, Mama tries.  I will tell Marta you are here.”

Shortly, Marta, a slightly smaller copy of her sister, burst out of the kitchen.  “Hi, Adam,” she said, sliding into the chair beside him.  She exchanged greetings with Ben, too, then looked across at the younger boy, whose coloring resembled her own.  “This can’t be Hoss,” she said.

“Yes, I am,” Hoss replied.

“You’re a big one,” Marta laughed.  “He’s gonna outgrow you, Adam.”  Hoss’s chest puffed out, but Adam scowled at Marta’s prediction.

Seeing his expression, Marta laughed again.  “Where’s that nuisance of a Billy?” she asked.  “It’s about time for him and Mr. Thomas to come back through for more supplies, isn’t it?”

“Pretty soon, I think,” Adam said.  “We don’t keep track of the business much now.  We’re busy at the ranch.  But I reckon he’ll come with his pa unless he’s too busy sparkin’ that girl.”

A strange glint flickered in Marta’s blue eyes.  “What girl?” she demanded.

“Sally Martin,” Adam said.

“Oh, her,” Marta murmured.  “I met her when your pa and hers brought her through here.  She’s pretty, all right.  I—I guess Billy’s head over heels for her, huh?”

“Something awful,” Adam reported.

Marta’s face fell slightly.  “Well, you tell him I said ‘howdy,’” she said.  “Here’s Katerina with your food.  I’ll get back to my dishes while you eat, but don’t leave without saying good-bye.”

“We won’t,” Ben promised, giving her a sympathetic smile.  Adam might be blind to the girl’s obvious feelings, but Ben was not.  And who could tell?  In the long run, this merry-hearted lass might be the one who won mischievous Billy.  They had much in common.

Marta leaned close to Adam’s ear.  “There’s strudel,” she whispered, and Adam grinned happily in response.

After a thoroughly satisfying lunch, including two helpings of apple strudel for Hoss, the Cartwrights bid their friends farewell.  “You will stop again on your way home?” Ludmilla asked.  It was a needless question.  The Cartwrights always did take at least one meal there when they passed through.

“We’ll be here,” Ben promised anyway, to reassure her.

Hoss threw affectionate arms around the German lady’s hips.  “I’ll make ‘em,” he said.  “I like you, Mama.”

Ludmilla laughed, delighted, and returned the embrace exuberantly.  “Mama likes you, too, sweet boy.  You only one in family eat good.”

Ben shook his head amused.  In Hoss’s case, at least, the way to a boy’s heart was definitely through his stomach.  He and the boys made their way down the street and caught the next stage for Sacramento.  There’d be no old friends there, and certainly no strudel, but Ben was eager to see what Hoss thought of California’s capital.

They had only a short layover in Sacramento before the steamer was scheduled to leave, so Hoss saw little of the town.  The size of what he did see, however, impressed him more than had Placerville’s, and he found it hard to believe his brother’s declaration that San Francisco would be larger still.

There was only enough time to visit a few shops.  Their first stop was Kaerth and Smith’s Philadelphia Boot Shop.  Hoss had outgrown his last pair of shoes, as he always quickly did, so Ben took him in to be measured for a custom-made pair to be picked up on their return trip.  Adam’s feet hadn’t grown much in the last year, so he didn’t need new shoes.  To keep things even, Ben took him by Dale and Company’s music store and treated him to some new sheet music.

Then the three Cartwrights trooped next door, where Hoss stood enthralled by the jars of brightly colored candies standing along the counter of Hardy Brothers and Hall’s dry goods store.  “Pa!” he cried.  “Can I have some?  Please, Pa.”

Ben ruffled the light hair indulgently.  “Oh, a little, I guess.  You want some, too, Adam?”

“Yeah, I’d like some lemon balls,” Adam replied.

“Me, too,” Hoss announced, “and some licorice and some—”

“I said ‘a little,’ Hoss,” Ben said firmly.  “We’ll take a nickel’s worth of the lemon balls,” he told the proprietor, “and a nickel’s worth of whatever this little greedy belly wants.”

The proprietor’s salt-and-pepper mustache twitched merrily as he bent over the counter to speak to Hoss.  “And what for you, little man?  Maybe a mixture?”

Hoss beamed.  “Yeah!”  That way he didn’t have to make the difficult choice of what to leave out.

Around mid-afternoon they boarded the stern-wheeler, the Hartford, headed for San Francisco.  This time Ben didn’t bother paying for a cabin, even though the trip would take ten hours.  He assumed, accurately as soon became apparent, that Hoss would want to stay on deck and see the countryside along the riverbanks, even after dark.  Hoss might not have his older brother’s scientific mind, but he was definitely impressed by new sights and sounds, and he obviously enjoyed the new experience of floating on water.  Ben finally gave up keeping the boy tied down to one location and posted himself on one side of the steamer and Adam on the other and let Hoss run back and forth between them.  “We might as well have let him walk to San Francisco,” Ben grumbled under his breath.  “He’s covering more ground this way than he would have if we’d gone by foot.”

* * * * *

Hoss ran his index finger around the inside of the tight, stiffly starched collar of the fancy dress shirt once owned by Sterling Larrimore.  He had quickly decided that he shared Adam’s opinion of dressing up for dinner.  And so far the food wasn’t making up for the discomfort of his clothing or the high, delicately carved chair on which he perched at the Larrimore table.  The raw oysters had tasted all right, though a bit slimy for Hoss’s taste, and the soup was good, creamy and flavorful.  There wasn’t enough of it, however, and his father had warned him not to ask for more unless it was offered.  It wasn’t offered.

Hoss sighed as the yellow-skinned man in silky blue pantaloons and tunic reached to take his bowl.  No seconds, then.  Soup wasn’t much of meal to offer guests, Hoss decided, wishing earnestly that he could go back to Placerville for some of Mama Zuebner’s heartier hospitality.  She knew how to feed people!  Mrs. Larrimore obviously did not.

His opinion changed moments afterward when the Chinese servant presented him with a plate on which sat thin slices of both ham and beef, potatoes and creamed peas.  Now this was more like it!  Hoss felt a little puzzled, though.  When Pa made stew at home, that, along with bread and milk, was their meal.  You got all you wanted, of course, but just the one thing.  Even at Aunt Nelly’s, where the choices were more plentiful, they all appeared on the table at once.  Hoss had never seen a meal served in stages the way this one was.  Must be more fancy dinner nonsense, he figured, not sure he liked it any better than the borrowed suit that pinched his elbows and hung short of his ankles.  Hoss thought it was better to see what you had to choose from, so you knew how much of each thing to take.

“I do hope the meat is to your liking,” Camilla Larrimore was saying to Ben.  “It’s so hard to get decent beef here, and our new Chinese cook hasn’t learned our American style of cooking as well as I’d like.”

“The meat is fine,” Ben assured her, keeping to himself the conviction that this meal was much tastier than the ones Camilla used to cook herself before growing affluence made possible all the frills of the Larrimore’s new lifestyle.

“Not as good as we raise, of course,” Adam couldn’t resist saying, although he knew Pa would give him what for later.  He was dressed in his brown suit with matching string tie.  He didn’t mind, though.  Since they were going to the theater right after dinner, it made sense to dress for the meal.

Ben coughed into his napkin.  “Well, our beef is fresher, of course, and that does make a difference.”  He glared at Adam, then turned to smile at Camilla.  “This meal certainly surpasses my feeble attempts at cooking, however.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Camilla sympathized.  “It must be difficult for you to prepare a proper meal after a day’s work.  I must say, though, that your younger boy hasn’t suffered, by the look of him.  He’s certainly a stout little fellow!”

Ben caught the note of disapproval in Camilla’s voice and wondered silently how she could criticize Hoss’s size and overlook the obvious weight problems of her own two youngsters.  Hoss, after all, was more large than fat.  Aloud, he said, “Yes, he’s a fine, healthy boy, and I’m very proud of him.”

“Oh, of course, you are,” Camilla stammered quickly, discerning that she’d offended her old friend, “but, really, Ben, it might not be a bad idea to let a doctor examine the child while you’re here.  He does seem to be growing at an enormous rate.”

“We have a physician back home,” Ben said quietly, “and he assures me Hoss’s size is normal for him.”

“Oh, well, good,” Camilla said.  “I just hope he’s a qualified man.  It isn’t easy to find one, I can tell you.  Why, I searched and searched before finding a doctor who could properly understand my children’s needs.”

“Now, Camilla, Ben doesn’t need your advice,” Lawrence inserted, “certainly not on that subject.”  Observing the difference between Ben’s two hearty sons and his own sickly offspring, Lawrence couldn’t help thinking that Ben was not the one who needed advice.  Larrimore wasn’t at all happy with the way his children were turning out, but he hated the thought of confronting Camilla about it.  He never won those arguments.  Three against one were daunting odds.  Besides, a man preferred peace at home after a day of wrestling with merchandising problems.

Lawrence patted his lips with the lace-edged linen napkin and stood.  “Really, my dear, if we’re going to reach the theater before the curtain rises, we’d best be leaving.”

“Dear me, yes,” Camilla murmured.  “I don’t want Ben to miss this opportunity to hear our opera company.  I’m sure he misses cultural pursuits in that backwoods wilderness of his.”

“Camilla,” Lawrence muttered sharply.

Ben laughed.  “It’s all right, Lawrence.  Camilla is quite correct.  We do have few cultural performances in CarsonCounty, though that may come in time.  This is my first opera, and I’m looking forward to it.”

“Me, too,” Adam added eagerly.  “I’ve been to the theater a couple of times in Sacramento and I liked it.”

“Really, it gets incredibly boring after a while,” sixteen-year-old Sterling yawned, “but I suppose it’s better than staying home with the children.”

“I don’t see why I have to stay home, mother,” Jewel pouted.  “You’ll be going to Delmonico’s afterwards, and you know how I love their desserts.”

Camilla smoothed the girl’s carefully positioned ringlets.  “Now, sweetheart,” she cooed.  “You wouldn’t want to leave Hoss alone.  Be a good little hostess, and Mama will bring you home some pastry from the restaurant.”

“Well, all right,” Jewel agreed, but the pretty pout didn’t leave her painted lips.  The one touch lacking to make the eleven-year-old a ridiculous caricature of a lady of fashion had now been added with the application of cosmetics.

“Now, you mustn’t be a bit concerned, Ben,” Camilla said as she rose from the chair her husband pulled out.  “The governess will see that Hoss goes to bed at eight just as you ordered.”

Ben nodded, and after giving Hoss a few words of admonition about minding the governess who was being left in charge of him and Jewel, left with the others for an evening’s entertainment.

* * * * *

Jewel, blue merino and velvet wrapper tied loosely over a ruffled and ribboned blue linen nightdress, ran to her mother as soon as the opera party entered the vestibule of the Larrimore home.  “Where’s my pastry?” she demanded.

Adam, yawning against his father’s thigh, stared at her in disbelief.  How could anyone want to eat at this hour?  He’d been too sleepy to do more than nibble at his dessert after the musical performance.

“Now, Jewel,” her father protested.  “Why don’t you wait until tomorrow?”

“Yes, sweetheart,” her mother purred.  “You know how delicate your stomach can get when you eat late at night.”

Jewel stomped her foot.  “I want it now!  And I deserve it after all I’ve put up with from that horrible boy!”

Ben bristled.  The ‘horrible boy’ in question could be none another than his own Hoss.

“Why, whatever do you mean, dearest?” Camilla was asking her daughter.  “Did you and Hoss not get along?”

“He hit me!” Jewel declared, squeezing tears from the corners of her eyes.

Adam jolted instantly awake.  “Hoss wouldn’t do that!” he sputtered defensively.

“Well, he did,” Jewel accused, flipping her brown ringlets back from her face.  “He knocked me to the floor and smudged my pretty dress.”

“Well, really,” Camilla said, eyeing Ben with displeasure as she put a protective arm around her daughter.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Ben said soberly, “I’ll speak to Hoss.”

“He’ll just deny it,” Sterling snorted, glaring at Adam as if he were responsible for his brother’s misbehavior.

Setting his lips tightly, Ben ignored the boy’s words and headed down the hall to the room Hoss was to share with Adam, who followed on his father’s heels.  Ben walked into the room, expecting to find Hoss asleep at this post-midnight hour, but the youngster lay awake on his bed, sobbing as if his heart were broken.

Ben immediately sat next to Hoss on the bed and pulled the youngster close to his side.  “Here, now, boy,” he soothed.  “Settle down, son, and tell Pa what’s upset you.”

Hoss shook his head violently from side to side.

Ben frowned.  “That wasn’t a request, Hoss,” he said firmly.  “I’m going to ask you some questions, and I expect you to answer me honestly.”

Hoss looked into his father’s face and nodded, though his face continued to be streaked with tears.

“Jewel says you hit her,” Ben reported, “and pushed her down.  Is that true, Hoss?”

Hoss swiped at his wet face.  “I pushed her,” he admitted, “but she hit me first, Pa!”

“Why did she hit you?” Ben pressed.  “Were you arguing?”

“N—no,” Hoss quavered.  “She kept pokin’ me in the stomach and callin’ me a fat baby, so I pushed her back.”

“I see,” Ben said gravely.  “Well, Jewel shouldn’t have behaved that way, son, but that doesn’t give you the right to respond in kind.  Boys mustn’t hit girls, Hoss.  Women——small ones, especially——are built more delicately than men——or boys——and they must be treated with respect, whether they deserve it or not.  And you must be extra careful because you’re such a big boy.  You could hurt someone without meaning to.”

“But she killed him!” Hoss wailed.

“Huh?” Adam asked, crawling onto the bed at Hoss’s other side.  “Killed who, baby?”

“My doggy,” Hoss whimpered and buried his face in his father’s gray satin vest.

Ben looked completely perplexed, but Adam began to search the room, and soon his sharp eyes spotted Hoss’s little calico dog, its head torn off, tossed under a table.  Adam hopped up and grabbed the little dog.  “Look what she did!” he yelled.  “No wonder Hoss pushed her.”

“No,” Hoss admitted honestly.  “I pushed first, then she took my dog and——and—”  He buried his face again.

Ben held the boy close for a moment.  “You see, Hoss, that’s just what I’ve been trying to tell you.”  He took the fabric dog from Adam’s hand.  “Jewel did this because she lost her temper, and if you don’t learn to control yours, you could hurt a real person just as badly.  You know, like when you play too rough with Adam sometimes?”

“Tell me about it!” Adam grinned.  His tailbone had been bruised for a week after his last wrestling match with his brother, and that had been in fun.

Ben frowned at his older son for distracting Hoss’s attention from the point he was trying to make.  “Do you understand, Hoss?  No pushing,” Ben said firmly.

“I—I’m sorry, Pa,” Hoss said meekly.

“And that’s just what you must tell Jewel tomorrow morning,” Ben dictated.  He stood and eased Hoss into a reclining position.  “Go to sleep now, Hoss.”  He looked at the damaged toy in his hand and continued, “And don’t worry about your dog.  I’m sure Aunt Nelly can mend him good as new.”

“Sure,” Adam said, wrapping a comforting arm around his brother.  “Aunt Nelly can fix anything.”

At last a feeble smile flickered across Hoss’s face.  Ben kissed both boys good night and took the injured dog with him to pack away in his carpetbag until they reached home again.

“Adam,” Hoss whispered after his father had left.  “I—I still don’t like that girl.”

“Me, either,” Adam replied loyally, as he undressed for bed, “or her fancy pants brother either, but we’d better keep that to ourselves.”

“Yeah, to ourselves,” Hoss agreed.

Adam pulled his nightshirt over his head, buttoned it snugly and crawled in beside Hoss.  The younger boy huddled close and Adam let him lay his tawny head against his shoulder.

* * * * *

The atmosphere at breakfast the next morning was decidedly chilly.  Urged by her mother, Jewel accepted Hoss’s apology, but neither mother nor daughter regarded the youngster with warmth afterwards.  Ben ached for his little boy.  Hoss had always been such a loving child, and to see him slighted pained Ben’s heart.  He said nothing, however, for fear he’d say too much.  He couldn’t see destroying a friendship over a disagreement between two children and could only hope the Larrimores would feel as he did.  The look on Camilla’s face, however, didn’t bode well for that hope.

When the meal ended, Lawrence asked if he could see Ben alone in his study.  Reluctantly, Ben followed his host into the book-lined room and sat in the leather armchair Lawrence indicated.  Lawrence sat in a matching chair nearby, nervously fingering the brass studs on the armrest.  “I’m supposed to be saying some firm words to you about your son’s behavior toward my daughter,” he said quietly.

Ben shifted uncomfortably, though the chair was amply padded.  “Lawrence, I—”

Larrimore raised his hand, palm toward Ben.  “There’s no need to defend your boy, Ben,” he said.  “He hasn’t told his version of the story——at your instruction, I’m sure——but without hearing it, I know whatever happened was instigated by Jewel.”

Ben blew out a sigh of relief.  “Well, Hoss was at fault, too,” he conceded.  “He did push her——though not without some provocation.”

“I’m certain of that!” Lawrence ejaculated.  “You don’t have to tell me how provoking that child can be.  Sometimes I despair of her——and Sterling, too, for that matter.”

Ben sat forward, his face grave.  “Lawrence, far be it from me to criticize another father’s parenting.  Goodness knows, I make mistakes with my boys, but if you’re dissatisfied with your children’s behavior, isn’t it up to you to change it?”

Lawrence sighed.  “Easier said than done, Ben.”  He looked earnestly into his old trailmate’s eyes.  “You don’t know what it’s like, Ben, to have disharmony in your home.  You and Inger always agreed on everything.”

Ben smiled.  “Not everything,” he said quietly, “but the important things, yes.”

“Well, Camilla and I are miles apart on everything,” Lawrence stated bluntly.  “Sometimes I think we’d have been better off if we’d never come west.  I thought I could make a better living here, and I have.  We’ve made money, but it only seems to make Camilla want things she’d never have been tempted with in St. Joseph.  She even talks of my running for political office.”

“Is that what you want?” Ben asked quietly.

“Good lands, no!” Lawrence protested.  “I’m a businessman, not a politician.  It’s the prestige of a title Camilla yearns for, but I don’t need that.”

“Then, tell her,” Ben said.

“I try,” Lawrence sighed, “but it’s like talking into the wind.”

“Keep trying,” Ben urged as he stood.  He laid an encouraging hand on his friend’s shoulder.  “And keep trying with those youngsters, too,” he continued.  “Sterling’s almost a man, Lawrence.  If changes are going to be made, they should be made soon.”

Lawrence nodded, though his face reflected no hope, and reached out to shake Ben’s hand.  “I’ll see you out,” he said.

Ben smiled.  “Would it help if I looked duly chastened?”

Lawrence chuckled.  “It might, but I’d rather keep things honest, at least between you and me.  Tell Hoss I’m sorry about the unpleasantness and that we’ll try to make his next visit a happier one.”

“I will,” Ben promised.

“And give my best to the Reverend Wentworth.”

“That, too.”

* * * * *

Ben loaded their carpetbags and got the boys settled into the carriage, then gave directions to the driver.

“That’s not down by the wharf, is it, Pa?” Adam asked as Ben stepped inside the vehicle.

“No, Adam, it’s not,” Ben said, sitting across from the two boys.  “I thought we’d stop by Ghirardelli’s first and pick up a box of chocolates for Mary.  I doubt she gets many treats.”

“And deserves ‘em more than some who get more than their share,” Adam observed.

“Hush,” Ben cautioned.  “Little pitchers—”

“I know who you mean,” Hoss protested, “and I know who Adam means, too——that bad girl.”

“Hoss—” Ben said, warning in his tone.

“I don’t like her, Pa; I don’t like that Jewel at all,” Hoss sputtered.

Adam slunk down in his seat.  Trust Hoss to blurt out what he’d promised to keep to himself.  Now, if he just wouldn’t implicate his big brother—

“Well, let’s not talk about her,” Ben said, lifting Hoss’s chin with two fingers.  “Pa’s gonna take you to a place that’ll make you forget all about Jewel Larrimore.”

Adam sat up straighter.  “Yeah, Hoss.  Mister Ghirardelli makes chocolates.  Candy, Hoss, a whole store of nothing but chocolate candy.”

“Oh, boy!” Hoss cried and his characteristic smile returned.

Ben sat back, relieved.  Never before had he heard Hoss express dislike for anyone.  The little lad had always been open and trusting of everyone he met, and Ben hated to see that innocence die.  A few chocolates wouldn’t really cure a brush with harsh reality, but an afternoon with the Wentworths might.  The minister and his family had little to share of material goods, but they had warm, loving hearts, and right now that was what Ben’s wounded little boy needed.

The carriage pulled up outside Ghirardelli’s Confectionery and Ben jumped outside.  “We won’t be long,” he told the driver.  “Please wait.”  The carriage driver tipped his top hat in acknowledgment.

Adam had helped Hoss out of the conveyance, and the younger boy was tugging on his brother’s hand, eager to go inside.  Ben laughed and gave Hoss’s free hand a happy swing.  All smiles, the three Cartwrights entered.

“Ah, Signor,” the Italian behind the counter called.  “You have come again and brought another new customer, I see.”

“This is my younger son, Hoss, Signor Ghirardelli,” Ben said.

“Ah, a fine, big boy, he is,” Ghirardelli said, his face beaming, “and do you like chocolates, my leetle friend?”

“Lots!” Hoss cried.

“Yeah, well, lots is not what you’re gonna get,” Ben chuckled.  “Too many sweets aren’t good for you, son.”

“That’s-a true,” Ghirardelli agreed, “but it’s a long way to come for more, Signor.”

Laughing, Ben agreed.  “I want a pound of assorted chocolates like you’ve made up for me before——for a very sweet little lady, and then a small bag for each of the boys here.”

“Sure, sure,” the Italian agreed readily.  “What-a kind you like, boys?”

“I want all orange,” Adam said.

“And how about a you?” Ghirardelli asked Hoss.

Hoss’s nose was pressed up against the glass behind which all the tempting confections lay.  “Are they different?” he asked.

“Sure, all different,” the confectioner said as he was putting Adam’s triangular chocolates with the creamy orange centers into a bag.  “Maybe I fix you up with a few each kind, eh?”

“That’s what you should do, Hoss,” Adam advised.  “That way you can decide which kind is your favorite.”

Hoss nodded eagerly and Ghirardelli went to work fixing up his bag of chocolates and filling a box for Mary Wentworth.

* * * * *

Ten-year-old Mary was thrilled when the Cartwright boys presented her with the box of candy.  “Oh, how wonderful!” she said.  “I’ve never had such a treat.”

“I got some, too,” Hoss informed her, “but not as many.”

“Hoss,” Ben rebuked quickly.

Fair-haired Mary laughed, a silvery sound.  “It’s all right.  I can’t imagine how long it’ll take me to eat so many.  Maybe Hoss would like a piece of mine.”

“He would not,” Ben said firmly and Hoss’s face fell.

“She’s nice,” Hoss announced, “not like that Jewel girl.”

“Hoss,” Ben chided again, then shook his head, chuckling.  No need to keep up appearances with Ebenezer Wentworth.  They’d been through far too much together on the journey west to keep secrets.  “Hoss and Jewel had a disagreement last night,” he explained.  “Hoss is still upset because Jewel ripped his toy dog apart.”

“Aunt Nelly fix when we get home,” Hoss declared, but his blue eyes were still clouded.

Mary bent down to look into Hoss’s face.  “Maybe I could mend your doggy,” she offered.  “Would you like me to try?”

“I’m sure Mary can do the job,” Ebenezer said, smiling at Hoss.  “She’s a fine little needlewoman.”  The proof of his statement was all around them, in the yellow gingham curtains at the roughly cut window and the cushions tied to the plain, unmatched chairs in the Wentworth’s makeshift sitting room.

Hoss’s face lit up, as if sunny rays had split the clouds in his eyes.  “Unh-huh.  Try,” he said, fumbling at the clasp on his father’s carpetbag, which still sat in the floor.

When Hoss had burrowed beneath his father’s shirts and stockings to pull out the beheaded dog, Mary took his hand.  “Let’s go back to my room, then, Hoss, and find a needle and thread.  You coming, Adam?”

“Adam will be coming with me, Mary,” Ben said.  “Hoss, are you sure you want to stay here?”  Oh, how he hoped the boy would say yes!  A squirming almost-five-year-old was the last thing Ben wanted to take to Clarence Williams’ office, but after his experience last night Hoss might not be trusting enough to stay with strangers.

“I wanna stay,” Hoss said.  “Let’s fix my dog, Mary, and go look at the big boats.”

“All right, that’s just what we’ll do,” Mary agreed as she led Hoss toward her room.  “And you mustn’t think too harshly of Jewel, Hoss; she’s been very good to me.  Did you know she gave me this dress of hers after she outgrew it?”

Hoss shook his head, not believing that Jewel Larrimore could ever have worn anything that small.

* * * * *

“Now this alcove at the front is where I’ll do the book work,” Ben said, pointing to the finished plans spread out on the table around which the Reverend Wentworth and his two sons, along with Ben and Adam, were grouped.

“It’s a fine house, Ben,” Ebenezer said admiringly.  “You must be very proud.”

Ben ran affectionate fingers through Adam’s dark hair.  “If you mean proud of my boy, I certainly am.  The ideas were mostly his.”

“And fine ideas they were,” Wentworth’s older son, eighteen-year-old Matthew said with a kind smile toward Adam.

Adam couldn’t respond.  He was still glowing with the warm praise Clarence Williams had heaped on his head, and to receive more from the young man he’d admired so much on their trip west was overwhelming, like icing on a cake already too sweet.

The door cut in the side of the old sailing vessel in which the Wentworths lived opened.  “Pa!” Hoss yelled, running to his father.  “I saw the ocean and big, big boats.”

“Well, that’s fine, son,” Ben said, then noticed with alarm how bedraggled Hoss’s pretty companion looked as she shut the door.

“Mary, you shouldn’t have gone out with the wind so chilly,” her seventeen-year-old brother Mark admonished.

“Oh, Mark, don’t scold,” Mary pleaded.  “Hoss wanted to go, and it wasn’t that cool.”  Her sudden cough gave more credence to Mark’s words than her own.

“I’d have taken him when I got home,” Mark said.

“Mary, love, go lie down a bit,” her father urged, his dark eyes clouded with concern.  “You’re tired.”

“It’s time to start supper,” Mary protested.

Ben laid a gentle hand on her frail arm.  “You’ll not be cooking tonight, my dear.  I’m taking you all to dinner.”

“Oh, Ben, no,” Ebenezer protested.  “That’s too costly.  There’s four of us.”

“I’ve done very well with my ranch, Ebenezer.  I may not have the kind of wealth the Larrimores do, but I’ve more than enough for our needs,” Ben said.  “Let me share with you what God has blessed me with.  It would give me pleasure.”

“Oh, Papa, a real restaurant,” Mary murmured, her blue eyes shining.  “I—I would so like that, and I am tired.”

Mary was the one person who could possibly have swayed the Reverend Wentworth, for the softest spot in his heart was reserved for his delicate daughter.  “Well, if Mary would enjoy it, I suppose I oughtn’t say no,” he said, smiling fondly at her, “but she must rest awhile before we go.”

“I will, Papa,” Mary promised, lightly kissing his cheek before heading down the hall to her room.  Like a faithful pup, Hoss trotted after his new friend.

“Have you had a doctor examine Mary recently?” Ben asked anxiously.

“Last month,” Wentworth said.  “She’s not ill, Ben, just not strong, so we tend to be protective.”

“She needs a warmer home, Ebenezer,” Ben stated flatly.  “She’s done wonders in turning this old hulk into one, but it’s drafty and hard to heat, I should imagine.”

“I tell father that constantly,” Matthew muttered.

“It’s the best we can afford,” Wentworth said, laying a silencing hand on his older son’s shoulder.  “My congregation is small, at least the portion of them which pay their tithes.”

“They pay them on the Barbary Coast,” Mark spat out bitterly.

Ebenezer sighed.  “I’m afraid that’s more true than not.  Are you familiar with the area, Ben?”

Ben nodded.  “Slightly.  I don’t go there myself.”

“Thank God!” Ebenezer exclaimed.  “That twelve-block section is the most depraved place I’ve ever seen: nothing but cheap groggeries and bawdy houses, where girls sell their souls for the price of a drink.”

“And Cheap John stores, don’t forget them,” Mark snapped.  “We’d all be naked but for those and the Larrimores’ charitable castoffs.”

“Cheap Johns sell used clothing, Mr. Cartwright,” Matthew explained.

“Probably stolen from shanghaied sailors,” Mark groused, “but we aren’t too proud to wear them, are we, father?”

“Boys, this is no way to behave before a guest,” Ebenezer chided.

“I’m not a guest,” Ben said quickly.  “I’m your friend, practically a member of your family.  Why haven’t you told me how hard things were?”

Ebenezer brushed against Ben’s shoulder as he passed him and sat down in one of the rickety chairs.  “The Lord provides,” he whispered.

Ben flushed.  He believed in that principle, of course, but he also believed that God generally provided through people.  “Ebenezer,” he said softly.  “Like others in your congregation, I’ve been remiss in paying my tithes——for years now.”

Wentworth smiled.  “You’re not part of my congregation, Ben.”

“Then, whose?” Ben pressed, taking a seat near the other man.  “You’re the only minister I’ve had since I left St. Joe.  There’s certainly none in Carson County, unless you count Mormons.  Why shouldn’t I express my gratitude to God for all He’s given me by supporting your work here?”

Ebenezer sat forward, tears in his eyes.  “Bless you, Ben.  How can I refuse?”

“Just see you spend it on Mary and not on drunken sailors or whores from Pacific Street,” Mark said harshly.

“Mark!” his father protested, but Mark merely folded his arms and stared his father down, obviously unrepentant.

Ben’s eyes narrowed.  He’d never heard one of Ebenezer’s boys speak so disrespectfully to his father.  Too much hardship, endured too long, perhaps——that and a brother’s honest concern for the welfare of his little sister.  Well, Ben would do his best to relieve the hardship and lessen the concern, starting tonight.  “Look, you’re going to have to tell me where we should eat,” Ben suggested.  “I don’t get here often enough to know the best places.  We ate at Delmonico’s last night, and it was good, but a little on the grand side.  We can go there, of course, if that’s what you’d like, but I’d be content with simpler fare.”

“There’s the Irving Restaurant, not far from here,” Matthew suggested.  “Not a door the Larrimores would darken, of course, but it would suit us, I’m sure.”

“The Irving it is, then,” Ben said brightly.  “We’ll leave as soon as Mary’s sufficiently rested.”  He stood and began to roll up the plans for his new home.  Tapping them, he turned to Ebenezer.  “When this is built, I want you all to come for a nice, long visit,” he said.  “We’ll have plenty of room.”

“Ben, I couldn’t,” Wentworth said.  “It’s a kind offer, but I couldn’t leave my work here.  The needs are too great.”

Ben sighed, but he knew the minister too well to argue against what the man saw as his duty.  “Mary, at least,” he said softly.  “That’s why we’re building those extra rooms, for people like her.”

“Ben,” Ebenezer said, standing to hold his friend by both arms.  “Ben, that isn’t possible.”

“But, Ebenezer, think how good it would be for her,” Ben urged.  “A few months in our cool, dry air would strengthen her; I know it would.”

Wentworth sighed.  “I don’t doubt that, but it would ruin her reputation, my friend.”

Ben blanched.  “Surely, you don’t think I’d—”

The minister’s bony fingers gripped Ben’s arms tightly.  “No, of course not!” he said firmly.  “But that isn’t the point.  The Scripture teaches us to avoid the very appearance of evil, and you must consider how it would appear.  I can’t send my girl to live with an unmarried man, Ben; you know I can’t.”

Ben’s face dropped.  “I—I didn’t think of that,” he whispered hoarsely.  “Forgive me, Ebenezer.”

“For what?” Ebenezer smiled.  “For having a generous heart, a heart so free of guile it didn’t stop to think how less honorable hearts might construe his kind offer?  No, Ben, don’t be ashamed of that, and don’t worry about what you’re unable to give.  What you can do is quite sufficient and all God expects of anyone.  Now, shall we see if Mary’s ready to go to dinner?”

Ben blinked back the moisture in his velvety brown eyes and nodded.

* * * * *

The horse pulling the hired buggy clopped along at an easy pace.  “We’re close now, aren’t we, Pa?” Adam asked.

“About a mile,” Ben replied, then smiled.  “You tired of traveling, Adam?”

“Kind of,” Adam admitted.  “We’ve been a lot of places this trip.”

“That we have,” Ben agreed.  And now, at last, they were approaching the destination that was the main reason for this summertime journey.  He’d wanted to pick up the plans for the house, of course, and introduce Hoss to all his old friends, but the real purpose of this trip to California had been to purchase a horse for Hoss’s birthday.

The boy would turn five tomorrow, and though that was far younger than Adam had been when he received his first mount, Hoss’s size made the acquisition of an animal almost imperative.  He’d been riding double behind his father or brother, but now his added weight had become a disservice, if not outright cruelty, to any horse.  And to whom else but Jonathan Payne would Ben turn to find the right animal for his son’s first mount.  He’d written ahead of their arrival and was sure Jonathan would have the perfect horse already selected.

Ben had tested Hoss out at home and decided he was ready for a horse of his own.  Though young, the boy was careful around the ranch stock.  He’d happily groomed his father’s bay under Ben’s direction and was thrilled when Ben rewarded him by helping him into the saddle and letting him walk the big animal around the yard.  Still, Hoss had no suspicion of the birthday present Ben had planned for him.  In fact, he hadn’t mentioned his birthday once since they’d left home.  Ben suspected the boy had lost all track of the date.  He still had little notion of the passing of time.

The buggy rounded a curve and the Payne hacienda came into view.  “There!” Adam cried, pointing ahead.  “That’s where we’re going, Hoss, Rancho Hermosa.”

“Good,” Hoss said.  “We gonna eat soon?”

“Don’t you ask,” Ben cautioned.  “It’s the middle of the afternoon, boy.  Think of something besides your belly for a change.”

“Okay,” Hoss agreed grumpily.  What difference did it make what time it was if a fellow was hungry?  His face perked up again, however, when he saw the three children playing tag in the yard as his father reined up before the house.  “Look, Pa, kids!” he cried.

“Some your age for a change, eh?” Ben laughed.  “Well, clamber down, son, and I’ll introduce you.”

Hoss “clambered down” more quickly than Ben had ever seen him move before and trotted over to the youngsters who stopped their play to examine the newcomer.  “Hi,” Hoss called, running to them.

“Uncle Ben!” the little girl squealed and came running.

Ben tossed her high and gave her a quick squeeze.  “Hello, Susan,” he said, then setting her down, “I want you to meet my son Hoss.”

Susan, though slightly older than Hoss, had to look up into his face.  “Hi, Hoss,” she said.  “Mama said you’d be coming, and I’m real glad.  We’re gonna have a party for you——with cake and even ice cream!”

“Cake!” Hoss shouted.  “Oh, boy!”  Then his face screwed up in thought.  “What’s ice cream?” he asked.

Ben laughed.  “Oh, you’ll like it.”  He started to stoop down to greet three-year-old Samuel Payne, but just as his knees bent, he heard a rush of footsteps running across the porch.

“Oh, Ben!” Rachel Payne cried, throwing her arms around him and planting a kiss on his cheek.  She spun around and gasped as she caught sight of the sandy-haired boy standing by Susan.  “Oh, this can’t be Hoss,” she murmured, folding him in her arms.  “Oh, Ben, he’s so—so tall.”

“For five, you mean?” Ben said.  “Yes, you’re quite a big boy, aren’t you, Hoss?”

Hoss nodded, tilting his head to gaze quizzically at the dark-haired lady.  Ben read the question correctly and answered it.  “This is Mrs. Payne, Hoss, your mother’s dearest friend.”

Hoss smiled then.  That made the lady seem very special.

“Mama, may Hoss come play with us?” Susan asked.

“Ben?” Rachel queried.

“Sure,” Ben said, then touched Hoss’s shoulder.  “Remember to play gentle, boy; they’re smaller than you.”

Hoss grinned and walked away with Susan, Samuel and the little Mexican girl they’d been playing with.  Adam hadn’t been invited, but he tagged along after the younger children, figuring that would be more fun than listening to his father and Mrs. Payne talk over how all their friends were doing.  That conversation had been repeated at every stop they’d made the last couple of weeks, and Adam didn’t care to hear it again.

“Come in, Ben,” Rachel said, taking his arm.  “Would you like some coffee, or maybe lemonade?”

“Lemonade sounds refreshing,” Ben suggested.  “It’s been a dusty drive.”

Rachel smiled.  “I just knew you’d come today.  Jonathan wasn’t sure, but—”

“Nor was I,” Ben chuckled as they entered the hacienda, “but I’m glad it worked out as planned.  I really wanted to give Hoss his birthday present on the right day.”

“Well, Jon had just the horse picked out,” Rachel said, sitting on the sofa, “but I have a feeling he’ll have to pick another.  You wrote that Hoss was big for his age, but we took it for a proud father’s bragging.  You weren’t exaggerating, though!”

“Oh, no,” Ben laughed as he sat beside Rachel.  “Now, what’s this I hear about a party?”

Rachel flushed.  “Oh, I hope you won’t mind, but I’ve asked a few of my children’s friends to a luncheon tomorrow in Hoss’s honor.”

“How could I mind such a thoughtful gesture?” Ben said.  “Hoss will be thrilled, especially by that ice cream.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

 Ben sat casually in his saddle and gazed across the range where the men were finishing the fall roundup by branding the new calves and those that had evaded the spring cow gather.  He was smiling, happy on this, his thirty-fifth birthday.  Though there’d be no cake and ice cream for him, as there had been for Hoss’s special day, Ben was content.  He didn’t need the trappings of a celebration to tell him how much he had to celebrate.  The ranch continued to show a profit; in fact, as Ben had indicated to the Reverend Wentworth, he had far more than enough to meet basic needs——both for him and his boys.

Ah, those boys! They were the pride of his life.  Ben smiled even more broadly as he saw Hoss walking his gray mare in the wake of Adam’s sorrel one.  The younger boy still didn’t sit a steady saddle, so he was required to stick close to either his brother or his father when he rode.  He obeyed that restriction flawlessly, however, so Ben didn’t worry about him even when he was out of sight.  Hoss was doing his share of chores around the place now, too.  To be honest, more than his share, for the boy’s physical strength enabled him to carry out tasks that Adam could only have dreamed of doing when he was five.

Hoss loved animals and gladly did any chore concerned with their care.  In fact, the only problem Ben had had with Hoss lately had developed when they’d started branding the day before.  Fearful the little animals were being hurt, Hoss had wept openly, but finally seemed to accept his father’s word that burning the calves’ hide with a searing iron was essential.  Seeing the gangly-legged creatures get up and run off afterwards as if nothing had happened seemed to convince Hoss that all was well, and he definitely liked the look of the brand Ben had chosen, a stick figure portraying a pine tree.

Then, Adam.  What a fine hand that older boy was turning out to be!  Adam didn’t have Hoss’s affinity for animals, but he possessed a firm devotion to duty and always seemed to be looking for new ways to help out.  He was picking up the skills of a real cattleman from the men, too.  Ben laughed joyously as he saw Adam expertly cut a calf from those milling about and drive it to the branding area.  Better than I could have done, Ben admitted.  But then Adam had gotten an earlier start.  Yes, both boys had a fine future ahead of them on this ranch Ben was building and that was fitting: he was building it for them.

Building.  Yes, there’d be a lot of building going on this year and next.  As soon as roundup was finished, Ben hoped to begin logging trees and squaring timbers for the new house.  That would take some time, so he didn’t plan the actual raising of the house until next spring.  By that time, though, he hoped to have all the preparations made, so by this time next year, he and the boys should be well settled into their new home.

Ben jerked himself out of his reverie.  Birthday or no birthday, there was work to do, and he’d best get back to doing his share.  He touched the bay gelding’s flank with his heels and trotted across the range.

Later that evening Ben met with his foreman Jean D’Marigny to assess the final tally of calves branded.  “More than I expected,” Ben said.  “We’ve had a good year.”

Oui, un bon an,” Jean replied.

Ben smiled.  “You must miss having someone around who understands your language, Jean.”

Jean shrugged.  “One becomes accustomed to what one must, monsieur.”

Ben’s smile faded.  “A sad philosophy, Jean.”

Jean spread his hands in a noncommittal gesture.  “It is a sad world, monsieur.  We can but make the best of it.”

Ben’s brows knit together.  “You—you said once you had a wife, Jean.  I’m sure you must miss her greatly.”  A sudden thought made Ben brighten.  “It just occurred to me, Jean, that by this time next year I’ll have no need for my cabin.  Perhaps you’d like to bring your wife out and—”

“No,” Jean said abruptly.  “That one will never share my bed again!”

“I—I’m sorry,” Ben stammered.  “I didn’t mean to pry.  I just assumed—”

Jean shrugged.  “A natural assumption, monsieur; think nothing of it.  It was a kind thought, but as much as I love my wife, never again can I exchange with her a kiss, an embrace.”  The Frenchman’s voice broke slightly, but he recovered quickly and flashed Ben the smile that his employer now suspected he used to cover a heart filled with pain.

“But if you love her,” Ben began, then stopped himself.  It was really none of his business.

Jean, however, seemed to think his employer had a right to an explanation, or perhaps, Ben later thought, the Frenchman really needed to unburden himself.  Whatever his motive, Jean said passionately, “I love Marie as I love my heart and my soul, but I cannot hold in my arms a woman who was unfaithful.”

“Are you certain she was?” Ben asked sympathetically.

“I myself found her in the arms of another——in the bed where we had shared only a month together as man and wife,” Jean declared.  “She protested her innocence, of course, but it was impossible to misread the evidence of my own eyes.”

“Yes,” Ben conceded, feeling the other man’s grief over his wife’s behavior.  “I am sorry, Jean.  That’s why you left New Orleans, I suppose?”

Oui, and why I can never return,” the foreman said, a trace of sadness touching his words.  “Every sight, every smell is a reminder of Marie and of the amour we shared, though for so short a time.  She betrayed that love, then lied to cover her sin.  I can never forgive that, monsieur.”

Ben lightly touched the Frenchman’s shoulder.  “‘Never’ is a long time, Jean,” he said.  “I can’t pretend to know how you feel, but I have learned that harboring unforgiveness only poisons your own heart.”

Jean pulled away.  “As you say, monsieur, you cannot know how I feel.”  D’Marigny, evidently fearing he’d already too openly revealed his emotions, excused himself quickly.

Ben went inside the cabin and looked at the pictures on the mantel.  How blessed he had been to find two such worthy women to share his love.  He lifted both frames and held them close to his heart, glad no one was there to see the foolish gesture, although it was meaningful to him.  Like Jean, he would never again know the embrace of a woman, for no one, he was sure, could fill the shoes of Elizabeth or Inger.  Though clutching their likenesses made him doubly aware of that, it made him feel closer to them, too.  Ben knew something that would work even better, though, so he set the pictures back in place and headed for the barn, where Adam and Hoss were doing chores.  The boys were living legacies of their mothers’ love, and with them in his arms, Ben knew the aching loneliness couldn’t touch him.  The boys were everything to him, and that’s what he wanted for them——everything.

* * * * *

“Hey, Ben!” Clyde shouted.

Ben raised a hand in salutation and waited for the older man to reach him.

Clyde swung down from his mount.  “You goin’ in or comin’ out?” he asked, jerking his head toward the building behind Ben.

Ben chuckled.  “Coming out, Clyde.”

“Done made your choices, have you?”

“Yup, too late to campaign for your favorite candidates,” Ben smiled.

Clyde scowled.  “You know my favorite candidates,” he said gruffly.  “Every gentile on the ticket, few though they be.”

“That’s the truth!” Ben laughed, shaking his head.  It really wasn’t a laughing matter.  Virtually every office for which the new judge Orson Hyde had called this September 20th election offered a slate of only Mormon candidates.  Worse than that, in Ben’s opinion, was the fact that many of them were new to the county, and Ben hadn’t gotten to know them as well as he would have liked to before marking his ballot.  “Never felt less prepared for an election in my life,” he remarked to Clyde.

Clyde snorted.  “Don’t see as how it makes much difference how we vote; we’re plumb outnumbered.  Well, gotta go through the motions, I reckon.  Stick around while I do this fool thing, and we can ride back to my place together.  Nelly’ll have my hide if I don’t ask you to lunch.”

“Can’t have that!” Ben said gravely.  “Your ornery hide wouldn’t even make decent shoe leather, so I’d better wait.”

Clyde aimed a stream of tobacco juice just short of Ben’s boots and walked inside to do his civic duty.

Ben didn’t learn the election results until the following Sunday when he and the boys arrived for dinner at the Thomas’s.  The Mormons hadn’t scored quite the unvarnished victory Clyde had feared, but they had elected their own candidates to every office except that of prosecuting attorney.  Clyde’s was not the only voice raised in protest.  Elsewhere in the county, discontent with Mormon domination became increasingly vocal; many openly declared that they would prefer to align themselves with California.  In response to the outcry, Orson Hyde requested California governor John Bigler to conduct a survey to determine whether Carson County lay within the borders of that state.  To no one’s surprise, the survey concluded that the residents of Carson Valley were completely within the jurisdiction of the Territory of Utah.

Though Ben had tried to support the Mormon government, as being the only one they had, he found it hard to defend the actions of the special term of court which met in John Reese’s home October 27th.  At Sunday dinner the next day Clyde was fuming about the “connivin’ Mormons” granting themselves “the sole and exclusive” right to dig ditches to channel the waters of the Carson River near Gold Canyon.  Ben had to agree; the ruling seemed biased, for one of the men granted the privilege was none other than Judge Hyde himself.  Other prominent men involved included John Reese and his nephew Stephen A. Kinsey, editor of the Scorpion.  “Got half a mind never to buy a copy of Kinsey’s rag again!” Clyde stormed.

Ben smiled.  Small chance of that.  The Scorpion probably did slant its stories to a pro-Mormon viewpoint, but it also provided practically the only news available in this remote region.  Not likely Clyde would be willing to give that up.

Reese brought in fifty Chinese laborers to dig his ditches, which gave Clyde something else to complain about.  “We’re drownin’ in heathens,” he growled.

Ben kept his opinion to himself, but he personally admired the Orientals.  They were hard workers, who mostly kept to themselves and caused problems for no one.  Besides, Ben thought they added a little exotic flavor to the community with their loose blue cotton tunics and pants, and their peaked straw hats.  More and more of them, however, were exchanging their Chinese garments for the red flannel shirts and denim britches of the local miners.  Reese complained that too many were deserting the work for which he’d imported them to prospect in the mines, but that was his problem.  Ben didn’t feel inclined to criticize a man for wanting to better himself, although he didn’t personally think mining was the surest road to prosperity.

Despite his diminishing work force, Reese completed his water project and began to compel other settlers to pay for the use of the water which had previously been free to all.  Neither the Cartwrights nor the Thomases were personally affected, however; both lived too far from Reese’s canal to be serviced by it.  The Mormon leader, nonetheless, fell a rung or two on the ladder of Ben’s respect.

* * * * *

Just before entering the building Ben laid a firm hand on Adam’s shoulder.  “I want you to remember, son, that however much this place looks like a barn, it is, in actuality, a court of law.” he admonished.  “You’re here to listen and learn how our government works, not to call attention to yourself in any way.”

“I’m not a baby, Pa,” Adam protested.  “I know how to act.”  I sure should, he grumbled to himself, after all the lectures I had to listen to before you’d let me come.

“See that you do, then,” Ben said and went inside the stable.  He and Adam climbed a ladder into the loft, the only place in town large enough to hold court sessions.  When Clyde Thomas signaled him, Ben angled to the left for the seats his friend had saved, giving the one on the aisle to Adam so he could see around the taller heads of the men in the room.  Adam was the only youth there.  Clyde had offered to let Billy come, but despite the fact that attending the first criminal trial in the newly organized Carson County meant a day’s reprieve from school, Billy had chosen to remain at his desk.

So he wouldn’t miss a chance to ogle Sally Martin, Adam suspected.  He felt proud that no girl could turn him into that kind of fool and glad that work at the ranch was slack enough on this second day of November to permit his father to bring him here.  Adam was certain the experience would be educational——and downright interesting to boot.

“That’s Charles Daggett,” Ben said, pointing to the bearded man in the black suit who was seated to their right behind a table at the front of the room.  “He’s the new prosecuting attorney.”

Adam nodded.  “And the other man?”

“Don’t know his name,” Ben admitted, “but he’s the defendant’s lawyer.”

“Who talks first?” Adam asked.

“Mr. Daggett, son.”  As he saw Orson Hyde enter the courtroom, Ben laid a finger across his lips to silence any further questions.

After the preliminaries Charles Daggett called his first witness, A. J. Wyckoff.  “Mr. Wyckoff, please describe in your own words the incident that occurred between you and Mr. Thacker at your store on the morning of October 29th,” Daggett said.

“Thacker come in my store for supplies,” Wyckoff said, “and had ‘em mostly together when Mrs. Jacob Rose come in.  Naturally, I went to wait on her.  Thacker didn’t like the idea of waitin’ his turn and got right rilesome.  When I tried to service the lady instead, he started threatening both me and Mrs. Rose.”

“What was the nature of those threats?” Daggett asked.

“Said he’d burn my store down around my ears——with me in it,” Wyckoff snarled.  “Mrs. Rose spoke up and said she’d tell the authorities if he did what he said.  That’s when he said he’d set her place ablaze, too, and cut her heart out and roast it on the coals if she opened her mouth.”  A roar of outrage greeted his words.  Women were highly revered in Carson County, and no threat to one was taken lightly.

Judge Hyde banged his gavel.  “Silence!” he ordered.  The observers quieted down.

“And did you and Thacker become embroiled in an altercation at that point?” the prosecutor pressed.

“Huh?  Well, we had a fight, if that’s what you mean.”

“That’s what I mean,” Daggett stated.

“Yeah, I slugged the nigger, sure,” Wyckoff declared proudly.  “Wadn’t gonna stand for no ugly black buck insultin’ a white woman.”

“Objection, your honor!” shouted the defense attorney.  “The witness should be admonished against the use of such defamatory language as ‘ugly black buck.’”

“Well, that’s what he is, ain’t he?” Wyckoff demanded, glaring at the defendant’s attorney.  Murmurs of agreement rippled through one section of the room.

Hyde slammed the gavel.  “Mr. Wyckoff,” he ordered.  “You are out of order in responding to counsel.  That is my job, sir, and the objection is sustained.  There’ll be no gratuitous name-calling in my court.”

“Good,” Ben whispered.  “No need for that.”  Adam cut his father a reproachful look.  Honestly! after all Pa’s admonitions about keeping quiet in court, he was the one breaking the rules!

“To continue,” Mr. Daggett said, “what was the outcome of this altercation?”

“Two other men come in about then and between the three of us, we wrestled that black—” Wyckoff looked sharply at the judge and amended his original phrasing——“man——outside and sent for the law.”

“Thacker was then taken into custody and held until his trial today, is that correct?” the prosecutor asked.

“Yeah, that’s right,” Wyckoff said.

“Your witness,” Daggett said and sat down.

The defense counsel was a considerably younger man than the prosecutor.  The beardless young Mormon stood and approached the witness.  “Mr. Wyckoff,” he began, “is it not true that Mr. Thacker had already gathered his supplies and was ready for you to tally the total when Mrs. Rose entered?”

Wyckoff shifted uneasily.  “Couldn’t be sure of that.”

“But did he appear to have finished his selections?” the attorney pressed.

“Yeah, it looked that way,” Wyckoff admitted.

“Then, why didn’t you simply tell him how much he owed, let him pay and leave?” the lawyer asked, his head cocked to one side.  “After all, the lady had just arrived.  No doubt she wanted to look around awhile before making her choices.”

“Objection,” the prosecutor stated, looking up from the notes he was jotting on a sheet of paper.  “Counsel is calling for a conclusion from this witness, asking him to read the mind of a woman.  I submit no man is qualified to do that.”

Laughter met his jibe.  “You can say that again, mister!” a miner called out.  Daggett turned to grin at the man while Hyde again called the courtroom to order and sustained the objection.

“Without attempting to read the lady’s mind, then,” the defense attorney asked, “why did you leave a customer ready to pay to inquire into her needs?”

“‘Cause she was a lady,” Wyckoff sputtered.  “No lady oughta have to wait on a—a”  He broke off, uncertain what to call the defendant without drawing down the wrath of Judge Hyde.

“An ugly black buck?” the Mormon lawyer suggested.

“Objection, your honor!” Daggett cried, jumping to his feet.  “Counsel is violating the ruling he himself elicited.”

“Goes to the bias of the witness, your honor,” the other attorney stated.

Hyde nodded.  “I’ll allow it.”  Looking at the prosecutor, he frowned.  “Take your seat, Mr. Daggett; your objection is overruled.  The witness will answer the question.”

“For the sake of clarity, let me rephrase my inquiry,” the defense counsel continued.  “Are you stating that your sole reason for refusing Mr. Thacker service was the color of his skin?”

“I didn’t refuse him,” Wyckoff said.  “I told him to wait.  The lady deserved that respect.”

“Because she’s white?”

“Yeah, because she’s white,” Wyckoff snapped.

“And you can’t understand how a man might take offense at such arbitrary treatment?” Thacker’s lawyer quizzed, sarcasm in his tone.

“His kind should know their place,” Wyckoff declared.

“His kind being black men?”

“His kind bein’ niggers, yeah,” Wyckoff snarled, daring the judge to make him alter his words.  No objection was lodged this time.  The defense attorney turned from the witness with a look of contempt and announced, “I have no further questions.”

The next two witnesses, the men who had come to Wyckoff’s assistance, were dispatched quickly.  The prosecutor drew from them a straightforward description of their actions, and the opposing attorney scored a point when he compelled the men to admit that they had not actually seen who instigated the scuffle they broke up.  They were followed to the stand by Mrs. Jacob Rose, a middle-aged woman dressed in the conservative style favored by Mormon women.

“Mrs. Rose, did you have a conversation with the defendant on the morning of October 29th?” Mr. Daggett began.

“I did,” Mrs. Rose replied.

“Will you relate that conversation for us, please?”

“I overheard Mr. Thacker threaten to burn down Mr. Wyckoff’s store,” Mrs. Rose stated, “and immediately told him that should he do so, I would inform the authorities and see to his arrest.  He told me to mind my own business or he would seek out where I lived and burn my home to the ground, as well.”

“Were those his precise words?” Daggett asked.

Mrs. Rose blushed furiously.  “Sir, I cannot repeat Mr. Thacker’s exact words,” she pleaded.   “As a saint, I believe such language to be inappropriate.  I have given you his meaning as I understood it.”

“Far be it from me to compel a lady to repeat the strong language used between men during an altercation,” the lawyer said smoothly.  “However, I must ask whether you can verify that Thacker told you he would cut out your heart and roast it over the hot coals of your home.”

Mrs. Rose nervously twisted the handkerchief in her hands.  “Yes, he said precisely that.”

“And did you fear for your life?”

“I did, sir; oh, I assure you, I did,” Mrs. Rose murmured, her lips trembling.

“I have no further questions, madam,” the prosecutor said.

The defense attorney rose slowly from his seat.  “Do you need a moment to compose yourself, Mrs. Rose?” he asked with deliberate gentleness before approaching her.

Mrs. Rose shook her head and settled back in the witness chair.  “No, I’m perfectly able to continue.”

The lawyer smiled graciously.  “I have only a few questions.  Were you able to hear any of the argument that preceded these alleged threats?”

“Not at first,” Mrs. Rose admitted.  “As their argument became more heated, their voices rose.  I heard Mr. Thacker’s threat clearly.”

“Did you, for instance, hear Mr. Wyckoff call Mr. Thacker a dirty nigger and order him to remember his place?” the attorney queried.

“I don’t recall those exact words,” Mrs. Rose said, “but they’re similar to what I did hear.”

“And do you believe such language appropriate, to use your own word, when referring to those of Negro descent?” Thacker’s counsel asked pointedly.

“No, certainly not,” Mrs. Rose replied, sitting with her spine rigid against the back of the chair.  “I believe all men are created in the image of God.”

“Then, why, madam, did you insinuate yourself into the conversation when all Mr. Thacker was doing was defending his personhood?”

“I did not,” Mrs. Rose said, her chin rising haughtily.  “I ‘insinuated’ myself, as you call it, only when violence was threatened.  I believe my actions were proper.”

The defendant’s lawyer realized he might have overstepped the line of safe cross-examination with the Mormon lady.  “Indeed, madam,” he said quickly.  “I meant no disparagement of your behavior or disrespect to your person; I sought only to remind the court that my client also is a person meriting respect.  Thank you for your testimony, Mrs. Rose.”

“The people rest, your honor,” Mr. Daggett announced.

Thacker’s attorney stood.  “Your honor, we have heard from all the witnesses to this incident except one.  I call Mr. Thacker to the stand.”

As Thacker stood, Ben could easily see why diminutive Mrs. Rose had felt so intimidated.  The burly black miner could have broken her slender neck with one squeeze of his mighty hands.  Thacker lumbered to the front, swore to tell the truth, then sat in the designated chair.

“Mr. Thacker, I’d like to ask you a few questions about your background,” his counsel began.  “Are you a free citizen of the United States?”

“Yassuh, I is,” Thacker answered.

“But that wasn’t always the case.”

“No, suh, I done been born a slave.  Been a slave ‘most all my life.”

“Until when?”

“‘Til my massa brought me to Californy in de gold rush.  When it become a state, weren’t no slav’ry ‘lowed, so I up and left him.”

“Would you say your master treated you with respect and dignity, Mr. Thacker?” the lawyer asked, his voice dripping with implied empathy.

“Your honor, I object,” the prosecutor said wearily.  “What does this recitation of the defendant’s past have to do with the crime for which he stands accused?”  Ben nodded.  He’d been wondering that himself.

“It relates directly to the motive behind his actions, your honor,” the other attorney argued.

Hyde thought for a moment.  “I’ll overrule the objection, for now.  I would advise counsel to make his point quickly, however.”

“Thank you, your honor,” the defense counsel replied briskly.  “I’ll be brief.  Mr. Thacker, what kind of treatment have you come to expect from white men such as Mr. Wyckoff?”

“Ain’t knowed hardly none white mens ever treat me like I’s worth scratch,” the black man alleged bitterly.

“And you feel such treatment is unfair?”

“Yassuh; I’s a man, same as white folk.”

“Mr. Thacker, you don’t deny being in Mr. Wyckoff’s store or having an argument with him, do you?” the lawyer asked.

“No, suh, and dey done tole de truf ‘bout what I said,” Thacker admitted.  Ben’s eyes widened; the man had just admitted his own guilt.

“You did threaten to burn both Mr. Wyckoff’s store and Mrs. Rose’s home?” the lawyer continued.

“Yassuh.  I ain’t proud on it, but I said dem tings,” the black man replied.

“Why, Mr. Thacker?” his counsel pressed.  “Why did you say those threatening words?”

“I said ‘em in anger, suh.  I’d heared words like Mr. Wyckoff were usin’ all my life, and it were just too much all on a sudden,” Thacker explained.

“And the vivid language you used to Mrs. Rose,” the attorney said.  “What made you choose such gruesome words, Mr. Thacker?”

Thacker looked sorrowfully across the courtroom to where Mrs. Rose sat.  “Din zactly choose ‘em, suh.  Dat what ole massa used to say to me when I don’ hop to de way him tink I ought.  I do ‘pologize to de lady, but I was so mad I wanna lash out, kinda de way my back been lashed to ribbons by ole massa.  Only ting, I use words, not a whip.”

“You fought back with words, not a weapon.”  The attorney leaned close to his client.  “And would it ever have gone beyond words, Mr. Thacker?”

“Don’ tink so, suh,” the defendant said earnestly.  “After I simmer down, I’s sorry I say dem words.”

“You wouldn’t actually have harmed either Mr. Wyckoff or Mrs. Rose?”

“No, suh, don’ tink so.”

“In fact, you did them no harm, did you, Mr. Thacker?”

“No, suh.”

“Your witness,” the attorney informed the prosecutor.

Daggett leaped immediately to his feet, his attitude belligerent.  “You admit you made the alleged threats, right?” he asked sharply.

“Yassuh,” the defendant replied.

“You expect us to believe that you wouldn’t have carried them out, but we have nothing but your word for that, do we, Thacker?”

“Reckon not, suh, but I’s tellin’ de truf.

“Did you or did you not have to be restrained and dragged bodily from Mr. Wyckoff’s store?” Daggett demanded loudly.

“Yassuh, dat true.”

“And have you not been incarcerated from that time to this?”

“Been locked up, yassuh.”

“So even if you’d wanted to carry out your threat, you had no opportunity, did you?”

Thacker looked down at the floor.  “No, suh, reckon not.”

Both attorneys made passionate closing arguments, then Judge Hyde adjourned the court until one o’clock.  Ben, Clyde and Adam left the courtroom, and Ben was surprised to find his foreman, Jean D’Marigny waiting outside.  “Jean, problems at the ranch?” Ben asked.

“No, monsieur,” Jean assured him.  “I did not think you would mind if I came to watch the trial.”

“No, of course not,” Ben replied.  “Goodness knows, you’re due for some time off, but I didn’t see you inside.”

“I came late and sat in the back, monsieur,” Jean explained.  “I wanted first to set the men to their work.”

Ben smiled.  Yes, Jean would want to do that.  He was a good and trustworthy foreman, and Ben thought himself lucky to have found the Frenchman.  “Have you found the trial interesting?”

“Look,” Clyde interrupted, “I reckon we all got things to say about this here trial, but I’m in favor of findin’ some grub first.”

Ben laughed.  “An excellent point, my friend, but we don’t have time to get to your place, much less mine, and be back by one.  Bread and cheese from the store satisfy you?”

“Reckon it’ll have to,” Clyde groused, “but let’s get it down to Moses Job’s place.  His prices are as fair as we’re likely to get in a Mormon town.”

“Join us, Jean?” Ben offered.  “I’m buying.”

Oui, monsieur, with much thanks,” Jean said.  He fell into step at Adam’s side behind Ben and Clyde.  “Adam, my young friend, did you understand the words of these lawyers?” he asked.

“Most of them,” Adam said.  “I don’t know what Mr. Thacker’s lawyer meant by ‘mitigating circumstances.’”  The attorney had used that phrase in his closing argument.

“Me, neither,” Clyde admitted, talking over his shoulder.  “Them lawyers sure do like to throw around the fancy words, don’t they?”

Ben chuckled.  “They do, for a fact.  What the man was trying to say, gentlemen, was that he wanted the judge to look at more than just what Mr. Thacker did.  He wanted him to consider, as well, the reason he did it.”

“All that about what happened when he was a slave makin’ him extra touchy?” Clyde asked.

“That’s what I understood,” Ben replied.

“Such treatment I do not understand,” Jean inserted.  “My family, of course, owns slaves.  All the best families do, but we treat them well.”

“It isn’t always so, Jean,” Ben pointed out.

“No,” Jean admitted, “but in New Orleans the type of treatment this man received would have been censored by other slave owners.  Our Code Noir would enable such a cruel master to be brought to court by others of his class.”

Ben stepped onto the porch of Moses Job’s store.  “But would the charges be upheld, Jean?”

Oui.  At least, it was so before the Americans came,” Jean hedged.  “They try to impose their barbaric laws on our people, and—”

“Hey!” Clyde sputtered, his patriotic pride offended.  “American law is the best there is!”

Jean shook his head in disagreement.  “No, Monsieur Thomas.  Americans treat their blacks far more harshly than we Creoles ever did, and as for free men of color, they are scarcely allowed to exist.”

“Is there a difference between black and colored?” Adam asked.

Ben rolled his eyes.  “Before we get into that, let’s get something to eat.”

“I’m for that,” Clyde cackled.

“You would be,” Ben said dryly.  “So help me, I think my younger boy inherited his appetite from you.”

“Huh!” Clyde snorted.  “I ain’t blood kin, remember?”

“Well, he sure didn’t get it from me or Adam,” Ben teased, going inside.

Purchases made, the quartet of courtroom observers exited the store and the three men sat along the edge of its porch.  Adam plopped down Indian-style in the street facing them so he could hear the conversation more clearly.  “So what’s the difference between black and colored?” he asked again, taking a nibble of cheese.

“None that I know,” his father answered.

“Ah, you are wrong,” Jean said, “at least, in New Orleans.  We say ‘black’ when speaking of a Negro slave and ‘colored’ when we mean a person of color who is free.”

“Can’t be many of those,” Clyde snorted.

“Again, you are wrong, Monsieur Thomas,” Jean smiled.  “Before the Americans came, almost a third of the Negroes of New Orleans were free people of color.  There are still many.”

“I didn’t realize that,” Ben said.  “My visits to New Orleans were always brief, not long enough to comprehend all the distinctions of the society.”

Jean laughed lightly.  “A lifetime would be too brief to understand the society of New Orleans, Monsieur Cartwright; it is most complex.”

“Gettin’ back to the trial,” Clyde said, “either of you gents think Thacker’ll get off?”

Ben shrugged.  “Hard to say.  He admitted making the threats, but did no real harm.”

“Didn’t have a chance,” Clyde alleged.

“‘Cause they locked him up,” Adam said.  “How can anyone tell what he’d have done if he was loose?”

“So how would you decide the case, Adam?” Ben inquired.  “I’d be interested.”

Adam’s face pinched in thought.  “I understand why he got mad and why he said those things, but they were still wrong.  And Mrs. Rose is too nice a lady to have to stay scared.  I think they should do something.”

“Guilty as charged,” Clyde stated.  “Ain’t no other verdict Hyde can give.”

Ben looked at the sun and judged the time.  “I guess we’ll know soon.  Shall we finish eating and head that way?”  Everyone made gestures of agreement and turned his attention to his meal.

Court reconvened at one o’clock with Judge Orson Hyde behind the bench.  He ordered the defendant to rise for the verdict.  “In light of Mr. Thacker’s confession, I have no choice but to find him guilty of the charge of using threatening language,” the judge stated, “but in assessing the penalty I have taken into consideration the other facts presented here today.  My decision is based not on the defendant’s background, for had he actually carried out his threats, no sympathy for his unfortunate past could excuse criminal behavior.  However, such behavior did not occur, and no one can state with certainty that it ever would have.  A man may have malice enough in his heart to kill another, and judgment and discretion to prevent him from committing the deed; he may have the ability to cut a lady’s heart out and roast it upon the coals and at the same time he may have the good sense not to do it.  In the absence of evidence to the contrary, this court will assume that Mr. Thacker possesses such good sense.”

Hyde gazed gravely at the defendant.  “The judgment of this court,” he stated, “is that the defendant will pay a fine of fifty dollars and the costs of this suit.  Thereafter, Mr. Thacker, though I have no legal authority to so order, I recommend for your own safety that you return to California and that in future you guard your words when hot with anger.  I wish you well; you are free to go.”

The quartet of storefront commentators gathered outside.  “I thought that was a fair verdict,” Ben stated.  “Just, but merciful.”

“Yeah,” Adam chipped in.  “I think so, too.”

Oui,” Jean agreed.  “I had not expected so impartial a ruling from an American court.  It is good.”

Clyde took out a plug of tobacco and put a chaw into his cheek.  “Yeah, Hyde done better than I thought he would.  Shows he can be fair——when his own interests ain’t at stake, that is.”

Ben arched an eyebrow, agreeing with the assessment, but disturbed by it.  After all, when did a judge more need to be fair than when his own interests were at stake?  If fair play could only be expected when Mormon interests weren’t involved, then surely Justice’s legendary blindfold had slipped and the government she represented was unworthy of trust.

For that reason, when other Gentiles began circulating a petition requesting the California legislature to annex Carson County, Ben added his signature to the list.  The proposal met with favor in the neighboring state, where a resolution was passed urging Congress to permit the merger.  When the decision finally came down, however, Ben and those of like spirit were destined for disappointment once again.  Congress evidently felt that California was too large already, and that the interests of the settlers on the eastern slope of the Sierras would best be served by improving the government in Utah Territory.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

 Ben led three saddled horses from the barn, then frowned.  The boys should have been ready to go by now.  He walked across to the cabin door, opened it and hollered inside, “Hey!  Get a move on, you two!”

Adam and Hoss emerged a couple of minutes later.  “You want to be late for school?” Ben scolded.  “Your Christmas holiday’s over, boy.”

“Sorry, Pa,” Adam said, “but I wanted to get my journal ready to mail to Jamie.  I’ll drop it by the post office after school.”

Ben shook his head, chuckling.  “Adam, Adam, no need to do that this early.  The mail won’t be picked up for days, assuming, that is, that it’s picked up at all.”

“Yeah, I know,” Adam sighed, “but I can’t take the chance it won’t be on time.”

“That’s right,” Ben teased.  “Jamie couldn’t possibly wait an extra week or so to learn of your doings over the past year.”

“Or me to learn of his,” Adam grinned.

“Yeah, well, maybe by your birthday, if the snows don’t delay the carrier too much.”

Adam nodded in grim acceptance of the unreliability of winter mail to their valley.  “Come on, Hoss,” he said.  “Got to get going so I can drop you by Aunt Nelly’s before school.”

“I wanna go with you,” Hoss complained.

“Not a chance!” Adam snorted, swinging into the saddle and stroking his sorrel’s white mane.  He started forward.

Hoss frowned, mounted his gray and followed at a slow trot.  Ben rode the opposite direction to check on the herd.

What neither Ben nor his boys knew that frosty January morning in 1856 was that reliable mail service lay just on the horizon for Carson County.  Ben couldn’t believe his eyes the first time he saw their new mail carrier come sliding into town on the longest set of snowshoes Ben had ever seen.  They had to be ten feet if they were an inch!  Narrower than normal snowshoes, too, with upturned front edges; the man fairly skimmed over the snow.

Realizing by the canvas pack on the man’s back who he must be, Ben made his way directly to the post office in hopes of receiving a letter.  Other people of the town were just as eager for news, so by the time Ben reached his destination, he found so many ahead of him, there seemed little point in standing in line.  He decided to meet the mail carrier instead of crowding the harried postmaster.  “Well, you’re a sight for sore eyes,” Ben said.  “Can’t tell you how we look forward to news of the outside world.”

The tall, muscular young man uttered a loud, hearty laugh.  “Yah, I know,” he said.  “You folks look like me when I get letter from home.”

“Is home in Sweden?” Ben asked, smiling.  The man’s accent reminded him of Inger’s.

“No, no, but near there,” the man replied with good humor.  “I am from Norvay.”

“My late wife was from Sweden,” Ben explained.  “Your speech sounds like hers, Mr.——uh—”  He tilted his head questioningly.

“Thompson,” the Norwegian replied, thrusting out a huge hand for Ben to shake.  “John Thompson.”

“Ben Cartwright, and I sure hope we’re going to be seeing a lot of you this winter!”

“Yah, yah, I come twice a month,” Thompson promised.  “Snow not stop me.”

“I noticed those shoes of yours,” Ben commented.  “They look like they could really fly over the snow.”

“Shoes?” Thompson asked, looking with puzzlement at his feet.  Suddenly, the light dawned.  “Ah, mine snowshoes, you mean.  I make like I see at home in Norvay, not fat ones, like here.  Yah, they are fast.  Only five days from Placerville to here.  I think when I know the route better I make it in four or even three, maybe.”

“Three days!” Ben cried.  “That’s amazing!  You don’t plan to pack mules at all, then?”

“No, faster this way,” Thompson said, “and I strong, so I carry ‘bout a hundred pounds in pack.  No need mules.”

Ben’s eyes widened.  The man looked strong of course, but carrying one hundred pounds over the ninety-mile journey from Placerville was quite a feat.  No wonder Thompson was dressed so lightly in only a Mackinaw jacket.  Every added ounce would slow him down.

The crowd was thinning out, so Ben excused himself and took his place in line, willingly paying postmaster Stephen Kinsey the dollar charged for each letter.  He walked out shortly, gratified at receiving two pieces of mail, the letter he had been hoping for from his brother John and a small package from Josiah Edwards, a book by the shape and feel of it.  Ben smiled.  That Josiah, always concerned with keeping his friend supplied with the best new literature, always worried that important works wouldn’t reach the unlettered western wilderness he pictured Ben’s home to be.

As he tucked the book and letter into his saddlebag, Ben congratulated himself on the book he’d mailed to Josiah as a Christmas gift.  The engraved drawings by George Holbrook Baker in his Sacramento Illustrated just might help convince the erudite Mr. Edwards that Ben wasn’t quite so far from civilization as his friend feared.

Ben walked down the street to John Reese’s store.  Though he normally made his purchases at Clyde Thomas’s trading post, on occasion he bought some small item in town.  Today he found himself running short of tobacco and the Thomas place was enough out of the way that he thought he’d just get it here.

Ben was surprised, however, to see Bill Thorrington, whom everyone called Lucky Bill, behind the counter.  “Hello, Bill,” he said in greeting.  “You working for Reese now?”

The smooth-faced man shook his head.  “Nope, workin’ for myself,” Thorrington said proudly.

Ben’s face registered surprise.  “Really.  Reese sold out to you?”

Thorrington shrugged.  “Wasn’t exactly a sale.  Transfer for moneys owed.  Reese hasn’t been doing too well since that partner of his took off with his assets.”

“Oh, yeah?” Ben murmured.  “Sorry to hear that.  He’s one of our oldest settlers.”

“And a good man,” Thorrington said.  “Hate to see him lose everything, but I can’t afford to be out what I loaned him either.”

“Sure,” Ben agreed.  “You say Reese lost everything?”

“Almost,” the new proprietor reported.  “Had to give some property to Thomas Knott to pay for that sawmill he built him, some to me.  I think he’s still got some left, but I hear there’s more creditors out there.”

“Too bad,” Ben said with a shake of his head.  “Well, I came in for some pipe tobacco, best grade you’ve got.”

“Sure thing,” Thorrington said brightly, turning to the shelf behind him.  He handed Ben a tin of tobacco, which Ben paid for.  “Hope to see more of you, Cartwright.”

“I don’t get in here often,” Ben replied, “but I expect you’ll see me from time to time.”

“Make ‘em close together,” Thorrington grinned.

At home, Ben eagerly read the letter from John, but he frowned with disappointment as he finished.  No word of plans to come home, no mention of the letter Ben had written, urging his brother’s return.  Was John angry, then, so angry he couldn’t bring himself to broach the subject at all?  Ben sighed and laid the letter aside, hoping he hadn’t made the situation worse by his firm words of admonishment.

Turning to the package, Ben found a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  The letter Josiah had slipped inside its front cover explained why he had sent the volume.  “This book’s been available about four years now,” Josiah wrote, “but you wrote that you hadn’t read it.  As unpleasant as the subject is, Ben, I think you should acquaint yourself with Mrs. Stowe’s work.  The question with which it deals grows more heated by the day, and this book is playing no small part in stirring up the furor.”

Ben sighed and laid the book aside.  Josiah was undoubtedly right, but Ben was reluctant to admit it.  He’d hoped the issue splitting the United States into northern and southern factions had been left behind when he came west.  There were so few blacks residing in Carson County that slavery seemed a mute point out here.  A man couldn’t be an ostrich, hiding his head in the sand, though, however much he might wish to.  Ben nodded grimly to himself.  Yes, he’d make himself read the book, and if it weren’t too gruesome, he’d have Adam read it, as well.  If the issue were destined to be as volatile as Josiah Edwards thought, it would undoubtedly come to Adam’s attention, for the youngster read any newspaper he came across as avidly as did his father.  Since it would be impossible to shield his son from the controversy over slavery, Ben preferred to discuss it openly with him and guide the boy’s understanding.

The day after Adam’s thirteenth birthday in late February, news came that made Ben glad he and Adam had started talking about the issue of slavery.  That Saturday the Scorpion reprinted the text of President Franklin Pierce’s February 11th proclamation asking citizens of all states to stop meddling in Kansas’s affairs, though it was Sunday before the Cartwrights picked up the copy they shared with the Thomases.

“You think folks will leave Kansas alone, Pa?” Adam asked that night after he, too, had read the article.  “It’ll go Union if they do, don’t you think?”

“I think so, Adam,” Ben replied, “which is why I doubt the interference will stop.”

“Slavery’s wrong, Pa. Why don’t folks just see that?”

Ben smiled and gave Adam’s neck an affectionate rub.  “Not as wise as you, boy, I suppose.”

Adam didn’t return the smile.  He wanted to be taken seriously, and Pa was making jokes.  “I mean it,” he said bluntly.

Ben sat back and drew a thoughtful draught on his pipe.  “It’s a hard thing, Adam, when men are raised in one belief, to make a 180-degree turn and steer into a wind that blows against all they’ve ever been taught.  Take Jean, for instance.  He really doesn’t see anything wrong with slavery because he’s known it all his life.”

“And because his family were good masters, I guess,” Adam mused.  “I don’t think that matters, though, Pa.  Uncle Tom had a good master to start with, but look how he ended up.”

“Yeah.  Well, of course, that’s a work of fiction, Adam,” Ben said, “but if it comes even close to the truth, it demonstrates the blight slavery is on our country.”

“You think it’ll ever end, Pa?”

“I think it has to.”  Ben shuddered to think of the price that might ultimately be paid to purge the land of the blight of slavery, but couldn’t bring himself to mention that to Adam.  He prayed, as did all  good men, whether their allegiance lay with the North or the South, that their country would be spared the bloody ravages of war that now engulfed the Territory of Kansas.

Kansas seemed far away, however, and though Adam discussed its problems for several days, the arrival of Jamie Edwards’ journal turned his thoughts to more personal concerns.  Night after night, as soon as Hoss was in bed, he avidly read through the cherished remembrance of his old school chum, covering weeks of the journal at each reading.

Within two weeks of the journal’s arrival in the mail, Adam finished the final entries and closed the slim volume with a sigh.

Ben caught the sound and looked closely at his son.  “Anything wrong, Adam?” he asked.  “Jamie not feeling well?”  Too often, as Ben knew, the December entries of Jamie’s journal reported sickness, for Adam’s friend was prone to severe colds during the winter months.

“Better than usual,” Adam answered.

“Then why the glum face?”

“Jamie writes a lot about his plans for next year,” Adam sighed.  “He’s going on to the academy after he graduates.”

Ben suddenly understood.  “And there’s nothing like that around here,” he said sympathetically.  “Is that what troubles you, son?”

Adam looked chagrined.  He hadn’t meant to let his disappointment show.  The last thing in the world he wanted was to make Pa feel bad about bringing him west.  Nothing but the truth ever suited Ben Cartwright, however, so Adam nodded quietly.  “Sounds like he’ll be learning a lot of real interesting things,” he said.

Ben laid aside his nightly pipe and patted his knee.  “Come here, Adam.”

Adam willingly perched on his father’s lap, though he secretly considered himself a little old to be dandled on anyone’s knee.  “I’m glad we came to live here, Pa,” he said.

Ben smiled.  “So am I, but I think you’re missing some opportunities we left behind.”

Adam shrugged.  “No sense wishing for what can’t be.”

Ben pulled Adam close against his shoulder.  “I don’t know that it can’t be.  We don’t have any academy here, of course, but I understand they’re starting to teach some advanced subjects in Sacramento.”

Adam’s face brightened with interest.  “Yeah?  What kind?”

“Oh, history, astronomy, bookkeeping,” Ben said, remembering what he’d read in the last Sacramento Bee he’d seen.  “Even some foreign language, I think.”

“Latin?” Adam asked.  “Jamie’s going to study Latin.”

“Probably,” Ben said, “though I don’t know for certain.”

Adam sighed deeply.  “Well, that’s nice to know,” he said, “but Sacramento’s a long way from here, too far to go to school.”

“Not if you want it,” Ben said firmly.  “You’d have to board, of course, so you couldn’t see me or your brother for months at a time, and you’d have to spend Christmas alone.  But if you’re willing to pay that price, I can handle it financially.”

Adam’s brow creased with thought.  “I don’t know if I’d like being away from here that long, Pa.  I’d miss you, and Hoss, too.  Besides, you need me to take care of him.”

“He’s doing a pretty good job of taking care of himself these days,” Ben chuckled, “and he’ll be in school, as well, next year.”

Adam laughed.  “I forgot about that!  My baby brother’s not such a baby anymore, huh?”

“No, you don’t need to be concerned about him,” Ben said, “though it makes me proud that you thought of his needs.  I’m not trying to push more education on you, Adam.  Goodness knows, I’d like to keep you close, but I don’t want to stunt the growth of your mind, either.  So you think about whether you want to take those advanced studies over at Sacramento.  I trust you to make a wise decision.”

Adam flushed in the glow of those words of respect.  Then, the dignity of his thirteen years notwithstanding, he threw his arms around his father’s neck.  “You are the best pa ever born,” he declared.

Ben returned the embrace.  “And you’re the best son.  You and Hoss both.”

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

 Spotting Paul Martin as the doctor entered the crowded room, Ben motioned him forward.  “Saved you a seat,” he said when Paul reached him.

“Thanks,” Paul said, then nodded beyond Ben to Clyde and Nelly Thomas.  “Howdy, folks.”  He blew a kiss to Inger, in her mother’s lap, then ruffled the sandy hair of the little boy seated beside Ben.  “Howdy, Hoss.”

“Howdy, Doc,” Hoss grinned.  He’d decided Pau-Pau was too babyish a name to call anyone, but still didn’t like using the doctor’s formal name.  They were much too good friends for that.

“Howdy, Doc,” Inger mimicked, giggling into her fingers.

“Glad you made it,” Nelly said.  “We were beginnin’ to worry.”

Paul laughed.  “No, I wouldn’t dare miss Sally’s graduation exercises.  Almost did, though.  Patient kept me late.”

“Nothin’ serious, I hope,” Nelly said, smoothing her gray skirt, where Inger’s fidgeting had wrinkled it.

“Nothing the boy won’t survive,” Paul replied.  “Jimmy Ellis took a tumble down the front steps.  Raised a real goose egg, but he’s all right.”

“Glad to hear it,” Clyde said.  “His ma works too hard as it is to be tied down with a sick youngun, too.”

“No mother escapes that!” Nelly snorted.  “One time or another they all take sick.”

“Not my boys,” Ben announced, his prideful posturing swelling the breast of his starched white shirt.  “They respect their pa.”  He gave Hoss a squeeze.

“And it doesn’t hurt that they have the constitution of horses,” Paul remarked wryly.  “Or should I say ‘hosses’?” he teased.  Hoss looked up at him, grinning at the joke.

Ben grinned, too.  “One of life’s chiefest blessings, I’ve always felt.  One reason I’m willing to let Adam board over at Sacramento during the school term is the assurance that his health is sound.”

Paul nodded.  “Yes, a healthy child is definitely a blessing.  I’ve been blessed that way, too.  Incidentally, I’m supposed to beg you to make Adam quit pestering my girl to go away to that academy with him.”

Clyde guffawed.  “He’s been after Billy to go, too, but my boy was lucky to make it this far.  Graduatin’ a year behind them other two as it is.”

“Eighth grade is more learnin’ than we ever had, anyway,” Nelly said.  “I reckon it’ll be enough for that rapscallion of ours.”

“For Sally, too, I think,” Paul added.

“Lands, yes!” Nelly said.  “Girl don’t need much education to run a home.”

Paul smiled.  “I’m not sure I agree, but Sally felt she couldn’t bear to leave her old father after being reunited so short a time.”

“I’m sure you tried to talk her out of that,” Ben commented with a mischievous wink.

“Didn’t try at all,” Paul admitted.  “I was flattered.”

Eliza Mott, who had been at the door greeting parents as they came in, walked to the front of the room.  “Let me welcome you all, on this first Saturday in April, to the closing exercises of Genoa School,” she said formally.

Ben smiled.  He liked the new name Orson Hyde had given the town of Mormon Station.  Having never sailed into the Mediterranean, he couldn’t confirm Hyde’s opinion that the mountains here resembled those surrounding Genoa, Italy, but the association was a pleasant one and the name rolled well off the tongue.  Even Clyde liked it; of course, he’d have liked anything without the offensive word “Mormon” in its title.

Hyde was also trying to lay out Genoa, as well as the newer settlement over in Washoe Valley called Franktown, on the Mormon plan first used in Salt Lake City.  Ben approved of the broad streets with irrigation ditches on each side, but he and Adam both frowned at the new homes being raised under Hyde’s direction.  The Mormon houses were nothing if not plain, while the Cartwrights preferred a building to have grace and beauty, not just unadorned utility.

At Mrs. Mott’s direction, the students all came forward for the spelling bee.  The competition was fiercer than during the weekly contests, for everyone had studied extra hard for this final program of the year, when every parent tried to attend.  Even Billy, whose spelling skills were pathetic, held his own longer than usual, but in the end the competition came down, as it generally did, to a heated contest between Sally Martin and Adam Cartwright.  When Adam successfully spelled the word Sally had just missed, he grinned triumphantly, then shook hands with his opponent and congratulated her on a good contest.

Normally, Sally would have smiled sweetly in return, then said, “I’ll get you next time.”  But there would be no next time and both youngsters knew it.  As they clasped hands, Sally said, instead, “It’s been fun, Adam.  I’ll miss you next year.”

“You could still come with me,” Adam teased as they took their seats in the front row.

“For the millionth time, no,” Sally said, rapping him sharply on the knee.  “Father needs me.”

Adam nodded.  He could understand duty.  He still felt a little guilty about leaving his father with the extra responsibility of Hoss’s care.  That had been Adam’s job for so long, it didn’t feel right to leave it, even for something as important as his education.

Adam, Sally and Billy waited with varying degrees of patience while the younger students presented their recitations.  Then Mrs. Mott again faced the assembled parents.  “This is a particularly proud day for Genoa School,” she said, “for today I have the honor to present to you our first graduating class.”

The three graduates filed to the front, faces flushed with the excitement of this culmination of their years at the small school.  Mrs. Mott had words of praise for each of them before she handed each a hand-printed certificate of merit for successfully completing the course of study.  “I’m particularly pleased to announce that one of our students, Adam Cartwright, will be continuing his education at the academy in Sacramento,” she said when she handed him his.  “Adam was one of my first students here, and has always set a standard of excellence for his schoolmates.  I expect great things of him, and I’m sure Sally and Billy will also make important contributions to our community.  I ask you to join me in congratulating these three fine young people.”  Mrs. Mott began to applaud and the parents stood to add their hearty clapping to hers.

As the exercises ended, Clyde reached over and pulled at the buttons of Ben’s gray satin vest.  “Still attached, I see,” he cackled.  “I figured you’d have bust ‘em off by now.”

Ben gave his friend a playful shove.  “As if you weren’t equally proud of your boy.”

Clyde grinned.  “I admit it.  Never thought Billy had it in him.”

“I think a certain charming young lady dressed in blue had something to do with his success,” Ben teased.

Nelly laughed as she shifted her slumbering little girl to her shoulder.  “I know it did!  Billy’s given a lot more attention to his books since Sally came to the valley.  Didn’t want to look the fool in her eyes, I reckon.”

Paul Martin smiled.  “I think it has to do more with not letting the competition outdo him.”

“If you mean Adam,” Ben objected, “there’s no competition.  He’s too interested in his studies to give much thought to girls.”

Clyde and Paul both hooted.  “Take a look,” Paul suggested, “at who’s holding Sally’s hand.”

“And who’s mad as a hornet watchin’ ‘em,” Clyde added.

Ben looked to the front of the room, where Adam indeed held Sally by the hand right under Billy’s glowering gaze.  “Maybe I’d better pack that boy off to Sacramento sooner than I’d planned,” he smiled.

The other parents laughed.  “When does he leave?” Paul asked.

“Well, I don’t know exactly,” Ben said.  “We have to deal with spring roundup first, then drive some cattle over the hills for sale.  We’ll enroll him then and see when the term actually begins.  I’m guessing the first of September.”

“We got chocolate cake and coffee down to our place to celebrate,” Nelly said.  “I’m expectin’ you all to stop by.”

Hoss, who’d been slumping sleepily against his father’s thigh, suddenly came to life.  “Oh, we will!” he said.  “Chocolate’s my favorite!”

* * * * *

The heavy clouds had grown steadily darker for the last thirty minutes, and the storm Ben had feared all morning, ever since he saw the halo around the sun, threatened to break.  “Adam!” he yelled and waved the boy toward him.

Adam trotted around the edge of the herd, Hoss following slowly behind.  “You need me, Pa?” he asked, raising his voice to be heard above the increasing wind.

“Yeah, I need you to take Hoss back to the house,” Ben said.  “This storm’s gonna break any minute, and I don’t want him out here.”

“Aw, Pa,” Adam moaned.  “I don’t want to miss roundup.”

“I ain’t scared of gettin’ wet, Pa,” Hoss protested, “and I wanna help, too.”

“No argument out of either of you!” Ben snapped.  “These animals are getting edgy, and you know perfectly well Hoss isn’t a good enough rider to handle a skittish horse.”

“Yeah, okay,” Adam grumbled.  “Come on, Hoss.”

Hoss’s lower lip stuck out with irritation, but he did as he was told.  He was pretty sure what the consequences would be if he didn’t.

With the boys safely out of the way, Ben turned his attention back to the herd.  So far, as he’d said, the cattle were only edgy, but that could change in a minute.  He’d seen cattle stampede before, and running all their flesh off was the last thing these animals needed right before a drive to market.

Feeling the first drops of chilly rain strike his face, Ben pulled the slicker from behind his cantle and put it on.  Rain started to pelt down, so cold it felt like icicles stabbing his cheeks.  Occasional light showers were common in April, but fierce-looking storms like this didn’t usually hit until a month later.

Then the first bolt of lightning struck.  The animals reacted as Ben had feared they would.  They began to mill around, their eyes wide with terror.  Just in the eyes so far, though.  Maybe they could still be calmed.

Another fiery beam zigzagged to earth.  Ben’s horse shied, but he got him under control.  The herd, however, suddenly made an about face and began to run for the open valley.  Ben and the other men charged after them, trying to circle around and head off the cattle.

Ben had just reached the front of the stampeding animals and started to turn them when another bolt of lightning crashed with ear-splitting closeness.  His horse, terrified, reared and Ben flew off, landing with stunning force on the ground.  He looked up to see three cattle veer off from the others and head straight for him.  He scrambled to get out of the way, knowing with heart-draining dread that there wasn’t time.

His foreman, Jean D’Marigny, saw the danger and quickly galloped between the charging beasts and his employer.  The animals turned slightly, giving Ben the time he needed.  But in his concern for Ben, Jean failed to realize how close he himself was to the animals.  One cow bumped hard against his horse’s flank, and the sorrel gelding flung his front hooves heavenward,  and throwing Jean back into the path of the other two cattle.  Jean screamed as four pairs of hooves trampled him.

“Jean!”  Ben cried, running toward him on foot.  The herd was still moving past them, too close for comfort.  Ben put both hands under his foreman’s armpits and pulled him out of harm’s way.

But the harm had already been done, as was all too evident from the Frenchman’s contorted face and gasping struggle for air.  “Jean,” Ben whispered hoarsely.  “Jean, you saved my life.  You lie still now, and we’ll get you the help you need.”

The foreman nodded once, too breathless to respond verbally.  Ben’s hired hand Diego galloped up.  “Señores!” he cried.  “You are all right?”

“Jean’s hurt,” Ben called.  “We’ve got to get him back to the ranch.”

Sí, Señor Ben,” Diego said.  “I will get the wagon.”

“Good,” Ben said.  He sat down beside his foreman and took the man’s hand.  “It’s gonna be all right, Jean,” he promised, squeezing hard.  “Everything’s going to be all right.”  Ben wasn’t sure whether he was talking to encourage Jean or himself.  The injuries looked serious.

While the other men successfully stopped the stampede, Diego rode to the house for the buckboard.  With Adam’s help he carried a mattress from the bunkhouse and laid it in the back.  Hoss, the tears streaking his face quickly washed away by the pouring rain, clambered up onto the mattress.

“Hoss, you get down from there!” Adam ordered.

“No!” Hoss shouted.  “Jean’s my friend.  I’m gonna help him.”

“Some help you’ll be,” Adam bellowed.  “Get down this minute or I’ll spank your bottom.”

“Please, Señor Hoss,” Diego pleaded as he pulled on the boy’s legs.  “You are keeping me from going to Señor Jean.”

Hoss bit his lip and quit resisting.  He didn’t want to slow Diego down, not when it might mean his friend’s life.

As soon as Diego pulled Hoss within reach, Adam snatched the younger boy off the buckboard and landed a heavy swat on his backside.  “That’s for disobeying!” he shouted.  “Now get inside or you’ll get more!”  Hoss hustled into the cabin, less from fear of a spanking than from concern to get out of the way quickly so Diego could get the needed help to Jean.

Adam entered soon after and immediately grabbed Hoss by both shoulders.  “If I leave for a while, can I trust you to stay put?”

“Where you goin’?” Hoss demanded, quivering at the sight of Adam’s grave face.

“If Mr. D’Marigny’s hurt bad, like Diego said, he’s gonna need a doctor,” Adam explained quickly.  “I can ride over and fetch Dr. Martin, but not if I have to stay here to make sure you behave.”

“I’ll behave,” Hoss promised.  “Get Doc here fast, Adam.”

Adam gave his little brother a smile of approval.  “I will.  You shouldn’t need to put any wood on that fire before Pa gets here, so leave it be.  You can get some toys and play right here where it’s warm.  Don’t go outside.”

“I won’t,” Hoss said.  “Hurry, Adam.”

Adam ran outside and re-saddled his horse, tearing east as soon as the mount was ready.  Hoss watched him leave through the front window and stood there looking out until he saw his father and Diego arrive with the buckboard carrying the ranch foreman.

Ben and Diego carried Jean inside and placed him on Ben’s bed.  “Adam!”  Ben called.  “Adam, come here.”

Hoss followed them into the bedroom.  “Adam, ain’t here, Pa,” he said softly, hoping he wasn’t getting his older brother into trouble.

“What do you mean he’s not here?” Ben demanded.  “Where is he?”

“He—he went to fetch Doc,” Hoss explained hurriedly.  “I promised to be good, so he could go.”

“Oh,” Ben sighed with relief.  “That’s good; that’s just where I was going to send him.  That boy’s got a good head on his shoulders.”  He bent over D’Marigny.  “You hear that, Jean?  The doctor’s on his way.”

Oui, bon,” Jean murmured.  “Do—do not look so worried, little friend.”

Ben turned to look at Hoss’s anxious face.  Then, taking him by the hand, he led him into the front room.  “I’d rather you stayed out here, son,” he said.  “Jean is very weak and needs to rest.  Can you play quietly?”

“I don’t wanna play, Pa,” Hoss whimpered.  “I want to help.”

Ben gave the tender-hearted boy a hug.  “Yeah, that’s fine, son, but the best way to help is to be quiet, all right?”

“All right,” Hoss said.  “Can I look at Adam’s book, the one with the pictures of all the animals?”

“I’ll bring it to you,” Ben said.  Soon he handed Hoss Adam’s copy of Aesop’s Fables and went to do what he could to make Jean comfortable.

When Dr. Martin arrived, he made a thorough examination of the foreman, then, not wanting to speak in front of Hoss and Adam, motioned Ben into the boys’ bedroom.  “It’s serious, Ben,” he said gravely.  “His ribs are crushed, and I suspect internal injuries.”

“How serious?” Ben pressed.  “Is there any chance at all?”

Dr. Martin shook his head sadly.  “I’m sorry, Ben.  He may hang on a day or two, but it’d be a mercy if he went quickly.  He’s in a great deal of pain.  Laudanum will help, but—”  He broke off, knowing no further words were necessary.

Ben sat at Jean’s side throughout the night as the Frenchman drifted in and out of consciousness.  Often, just as he was coming to, he’d whisper, “Marie,” and Ben wished with all his heart he could bring the man’s wife to him, but that would be a journey of months, not hours.

“Marie,” Jean murmured as he again awoke from the fog in which he drifted.

“No, Jean, it’s Ben,” Ben whispered.

“Always here,” Jean breathed raggedly.  “I—I have not much longer, have I, monsieur?”

Some people might have thought it a kindness to deny the truth, but Ben couldn’t do that.  “Not much longer.  I’m sorry, Jean.  If-if you need to make things right with your Maker, now’s the time.”

Tears began to flow slowly down the Frenchman’s cheeks.  “One thing only troubles me.”

“What is it?  Can I help?” Ben asked gently.

“Marie,” Jean said.  “You were right, monsieur; I should have forgiven her.”

Ben stroked the callused hand lying listlessly on the covers.  “Yes, and now you have.  Now you can rest in peace.”

“But she does not know,” Jean wept.  “My Marie, she must know.  You will do this for me, monsieur?  You will take a message to my wife? You will tell her that I love her and I forgive her?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Ben agreed readily.  He didn’t consider the length of the journey he’d have to undertake to carry out his promise or the disruption it would bring to his life.  All he could think of at that moment was that the man who had saved his life at the cost of his own had made but one request in return.  The thought of saying no never entered his mind.

* * * * *

“You’re not serious!” Nelly Thomas protested.

“Of course, I’m serious,” Ben insisted.  “How could I be anything but serious on a day like this?”  They’d buried Jean D’Marigny that morning in the cemetery at Genoa, and Nelly had invited the Cartwrights to her home afterwards for lunch.

“But New Orleans!” Nelly remonstrated.  “Do you have any idea how far that is?”

Ben smiled ruefully.  “Of course, I do, Nelly; you don’t need to tell an old sailing man where New Orleans is.”

“You talk sense to him, Clyde,” Nelly ordered.  “I got to start cookin’.”  She bustled into the kitchen, where the banging pots declared her frustration.

“She’s right, you know,” Clyde began.  “Ain’t no sense in goin’ all that way to deliver a message you could send by mail.”

“Would you want to get that kind of message by mail?” Ben asked, settling back onto the parlor sofa and crossing his legs.

“I admit it might make it some easier on the lady to hear it in person,” Clyde said, “but it’s too far to go, Ben.”

“Not as far as Jean went for me,” Ben replied quietly, “and this is what he asked.”

Clyde shook his head.  “I know you feel you owe the man your life, but think how hard a trip like this is gonna be.  What you plan on doin’ with your place, for instance?  Got no foreman now, and busy as Doc Martin stays these days, ain’t likely he could fill in like before.”

Ben moved to the edge of his seat and pressed his palms against his knees.  “That’s the first problem I have to deal with, of course.  I thought I’d visit with Jonathan Payne.  Lots of good cattlemen in his part of California, and he could suggest one that would make a trustworthy foreman.”

“Yeah, I reckon,” Clyde conceded, “and I don’t mind lookin’ out for the money end of it, if you want.”

“I want,” Ben smiled.  “I’d also like to leave the boys with you.”

“Goes without sayin’,” Clyde responded gruffly.  “Wouldn’t have it no other way.  But what about that house you was gonna build?  No way I can supervise that and run the trading post, too.  Busy season’s comin’ up soon.”

“Yeah, I know,” Ben sighed.  “The house will have to wait, I’m afraid.  Adam will be disappointed, but it can’t be helped.”

Nelly appeared in the doorway.  “You’re set on this fool trip,  aren’t you?”

“I’m set on it,” Ben said firmly.  “I consider it a sacred obligation.”

“Might have known,” Nelly scolded.  “I always said there was nothin’ on earth as stubborn as a mule or a Cartwright.”

“If being a man of my word qualifies me as stubborn,” Ben said, raising his eyebrow in his characteristic gesture of moral certainty, “then I’ll carry the label proudly.”

“Oh, just carry yourself to the table,” Nelly ordered irritably.  “Dinner’s ready.”

That night after Hoss finally fell asleep, Adam tiptoed past him into the front room.  “Pa,” he called softly.  “Can we talk?”

“Sure,” Ben said readily, stretching an arm to invite Adam close.  “Can’t you sleep, boy?”

“Didn’t really try,” Adam said. He twisted the tail of his nightshirt nervously.  “I was just waiting ‘til Hoss was asleep so we could talk, man-to-man.”

Ben smiled at the phrase.  “All right, young man,” he said.  “What’s on your mind?”

“I heard you talking today at the Thomases,” Adam began, “about the things you have to take care of before you can keep your promise to Mr. D’Marigny.”

“Eavesdropping, were you?” Ben smiled, his eyebrow rising.

Adam nodded.  “Enough to hear you need a new foreman.  I—I’m volunteering for the job, Pa.”

The idea would have struck Ben as ludicrous had Adam not looked so serious.  “Son—” he began.

“I’m as good a horseman as anyone around here,” Adam argued hurriedly, “and I know cattle.  I can do the work, Pa.”

“I’m sure you could handle the day-to-day operations, Adam,” Ben said proudly, “but I have to hire someone who can handle emergencies, too.”

“I can do that, Pa,” Adam insisted.  “You always said I was mature for my age.”

“Yes, and I meant it,” Ben said, “but even if you were completely able to deal with anything that came up in my absence, I couldn’t leave you in charge, Adam.”

“Why not?” Adam sputtered.  “Don’t you trust me?”

Ben reached to take the flustered boy in his arms.  “With all my heart, I trust you, Adam.  I trust you more than I would many grown men, but I have to be practical.  The men here will not be comfortable taking orders from a thirteen-year-old boy, and that’s the plain fact that overrides everything else.”

“And the house?” Adam asked.  “I guess you think I’m too young to boss that job, too?”

“Yes, the same facts apply,” Ben said, giving his son a comforting squeeze.

“Even though I’m the one who drew up the plans?” Adam persisted.

“Even so,” Ben said.  “There’s something else we need to discuss about the house, Adam.  You realize, of course, that even if I can persuade Clarence Williams to start as soon as I return, the house can’t possibly be finished before you leave for school.”

Adam pulled away, his frustration obvious.  “You know how much it means to me to be here while we’re building, Pa.”

“Yes, I know,” Ben said, “and I’m sorry, Adam.  The only alternative is to put it off another year.”

“I can think of another one,” Adam declared.  “I could put off school for another year.”

“You could,” Ben admitted.  “I hate to put you in this predicament, son, but I feel I must keep my word to Jean.”

“Of course, you must,” Adam said firmly.  “I know that; I just hate the way it’s messing up our other plans.”

“I hate that, too,” Ben said sympathetically, “but part of growing up, Adam, is realizing that sometimes plans change.”

“Like when we put off coming west for a year?” Adam asked.

Ben nodded firmly, pleased that Adam had remembered so apropos an example.  “Exactly like that.  We made that decision because we felt we’d be better off in the long run.  And though it involved sacrifice in one way, I think we made the right choice.”

“Yeah,” Adam said quietly.  “So what gets put off this time, the house or the schooling?”

Ben took the boy’s face between his hands.  “You’re the one most affected,” he said gently.  “You decide.”

Adam’s countenance brightened.  “Really?  I decide?”

Ben smiled warmly.  “As I said, Adam, I trust you.”

“I’ll think about it,” Adam said seriously, “and let you know in a couple of days.”

“Soon enough,” Ben agreed.  “I don’t plan to leave until the first of next week.  Any time before then will be fine.”

* * * * *

The Cartwrights spent Sunday, the 20th of April at home alone.  Ben would be leaving the next morning, and he wanted this final day alone with his boys.  Hoss had sat in his lap for most of the afternoon, while Ben tried to help him understand what a lengthy journey this would be.  Hoss seemed unable to comprehend the difference between this trip and one to California, but he clung to his father as he had increasingly since the death of Jean D’Marigny.  Hoss apparently needed reassurance that his father would not depart, never to return, the way his friend had.

“I can fix supper if you want to pack,” Adam said late that afternoon.

“I believe I’ll just let you,” Ben smiled.

“I can help you pack,” Hoss, not to be outdone by his big brother, offered.  Ben chuckled softly, not wanting to hurt the little boy’s feelings.  “Sure,” he said.  “Just what I need.”

“Like you need an extra thumb,” Adam teased.

“Shh,” Ben cautioned with a wink.  “As for you, young man, I’m going to need your final decision tonight.  If you want to attend the academy, I should probably enroll you on my way through Sacramento.”

“I’m not going,” Adam stated.

“You sure?” Ben asked.  “You’ve been wavering back and forth all week, and I know how you’ve looked forward to school.”

“Not as much as seeing the house go up,” Adam explained.  “I think a builder’s what I want to be, Pa.”

“Ah, in that case,” Ben said as he slid Hoss off his knee and stood, “I don’t think you should pass up the chance to watch Mr. Williams at work.  I hear he’s one of the best.”

“Right,” Adam said, glad his father approved of his decision.  “Besides, with you being gone so long, I’d hate to leave right after you got back.  It’d be like not seeing you for almost a year.”

Ben gave his son a quick embrace.  “Yeah, I’d thought of that, and I’d sure hate sending you off so soon myself.  I’ll check with Mr. Williams, and if he’s not able to start in August, I’ll go ahead and enroll you at the academy.  But I hope it works out so we can do as we’ve planned.”

Ben took Hoss’s hand and started toward the bedroom.  “You think you know what Pa should pack, son?”

“You goin’ to them fancy folks again, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“The Larrimores?  Yeah, I imagine so, Hoss.”

“You’ll need your suit, then,” Hoss sighed.

* * * * *

Ben walked into the Payne parlor patting his stomach.  “Ah, Rachel, that was a wonderful meal.”

Rachel laughed lightly as she followed Ben and her husband into the room and settled into the rocker, while the men took the sofa.  “I’m afraid the credit for that belongs entirely to Mañuela,” she said.  “I cook so little these days it’s almost embarrassing.”

“Well, my compliments to Mañuela, then,” Ben smiled.

“Wait ‘til you see the breakfast she’s planning,” Rachel teased.  “You haven’t had huevos rancheros before, have you?”

“No, I don’t believe so,” Ben replied.

“Hope you like your eggs spicy,” Jonathan Payne commented dryly, laughing at the uncertain expression that crossed Ben’s face.

“Ben, I was so sorry to hear about the death of your foreman,” Rachel said.  “He seemed such a personable young man when he was here with you.”

“Yes, in many ways,” Ben agreed.  “Hoss was particularly fond of Jean, and his death upset the boy badly.”

“Of course, it would,” Rachel murmured sympathetically.  “Hoss is such a gentle, loving child.  I could tell that just from the couple of days he spent here last year.”

Ben smiled.  “I’ll take that as a compliment to my son.”

“Then I’ll add another,” Rachel continued.  “Susan told me after Hoss left that she was sorry he didn’t live closer because she liked playing with him better than any boy she’d met around here.  And speaking of Susan, I’d better check on her bedtime preparations.  She has a tendency to dawdle.”

“Is there a child who doesn’t?” Ben chuckled.  One perhaps, he immediately thought, that exception being sober, dutiful Adam.

Rachel smiled in response to the jest and excused herself.

Ben adjusted the sofa pillow behind his back and turned to Jonathan.  “So, do you think you’ll be able to help me find a new foreman?”

“Almost positive,” Jonathan replied.  “I have a young fellow in mind that I think would suit you well.”

“How young?” Ben inquired.

“Late twenties,” Jon answered.  “Twenty-eight, I think.  He’s worked with cattle about six years now.”

“You sound like you know this fellow pretty well,” Ben commented.

“Well enough to recommend him,” Jon said.  “He’s working on the Rivera place.”

“Where I bought some of my cattle?”

“That’s the place.  Rivera only hires the best, as I’m sure you’d agree.”

Ben nodded.  Some of Rivera’s men had helped him drive his first herd over the mountains.  They were among the best vaqueros he’d ever seen.  “Rivera pays well,” he said.  “Why would this young man be willing to leave a good position?”

“For the chance to advance himself,” Jonathan replied readily.  “He came by here hoping I could make a place for him as a foreman, but I already had a good one.  The same’s true at Rivera’s ranch, so there’s no real future for the boy there.”

“Well, I’d be interested in talking to him, if it can be arranged,” Ben decided.

“I’ll send for him tomorrow morning,” Jonathan promised.  “You care for a cup of coffee before we turn in?”

“Better not,” Ben said.  “Keeps me awake if I take it too late.  Same room as last time?”

“That’s the one.”

“Think I’ll hit the sack, then,” Ben said.

“And dream of huevos rancheros?” Jon teased.  Ben rolled his eyes and headed down the hall to the guest room.

The next morning Ben’s mouth had barely had time to cool down from the salsa-covered fried eggs that sat atop crisp tortillas when he heard Jon greeting the young man who hoped to become Ben’s foreman.  The lean, lanky man entered, removing his slouch hat as soon as he came inside.  “How do you do, sir?” he said formally, but as he raised his eyes to Ben’s face, they shot wide with surprised recognition.  “Mr. Cartwright!” the young man cried.

The sunlight behind the young man made it difficult for Ben to see him without squinting, but as the man moved further into the room, Ben’s face reflected the same startled recognition.  “Enos?” he asked in disbelief.  “Enos Montgomery, is that you, boy?”

“Sure is,” the dark-haired, sunburned cattleman said.

“Enos!” Ben cried and wrapped the other man in a bear hug.  Then he looked reproachfully over at Jonathan Payne, who was grinning like Alice’s Cheshire cat.  “You rascal!” he scolded.  “You never said a word.”

“You never asked,” Jon chuckled.  “I guess I don’t have to tell you much about Enos’s skill with cattle.”

“Indeed not,” Ben said.  Enos Montgomery had worked his way west by caring for the extra cattle Ben and other members of the wagon train had brought with them.  Ben could think of no one he would trust more to take over Jean D’Marigny’s role at the ranch.

“Are you the man looking for a new foreman?” Enos asked, excitement gleaming in his blue eyes.

“I’m the man,” Ben said, “and if you want the job, it’s yours.”

“When do I start?” Enos asked eagerly.

“As soon as Señor Rivera’s willing to release you,” Ben replied.  “I’ll be out of the country for around three months, so the sooner you can leave the better.  Clyde Thomas is watching the place for me until I send someone to take over.”

“Just give me directions, and I can leave in the morning,” Enos said.  “Señor Rivera’s never been one to stand in a man’s way when he had a better job waiting.”

Ben stretched his hand forward to seal the bargain with a handshake, then wagged his index finger at Jonathan Payne for springing such a surprise on his unsuspecting friends.

* * * * *

“Ben, dear, you won’t mind taking a bit of advice from an old friend, will you?” Camilla Larrimore asked as the servants placed a piece of thickly frosted lemon cake before each person at the table.

Ben hesitated a moment, not sure what advice Camilla was qualified to give.  To be polite, he responded, “Of course not, Camilla.  I’m sure there’s much about me that needs amending.”

“Oh, no, no,” Camilla hastened to say, her face growing flustered.  “Nothing about you personally, Ben.  It’s your clothes.”

“Camilla!” her husband protested.  “That’s hardly the way to speak to a guest.”

“Ben knows I have only his best interest in mind,” Camilla silenced her critic smoothly.  “It’s just that your suit is years out of fashion, Ben.  Now, that’s no problem out here where no one seems to care about being up to date.  You did say, however, that this woman you plan to see——your foreman’s mother——was of the French aristocracy.”

“That’s right,” Ben said, “and of course I plan to see his wife, as well.”

“Yes, but his mother’s the one to consider when you choose your wardrobe,” Camilla stated emphatically.  “You’ll want to look your best before such a distinguished person.”

“Now, Camilla,” Lawrence asserted, “I still say—”

“No, that’s all right, Lawrence,” Ben interrupted.  “I hadn’t thought of it, but Camilla is correct.  I haven’t had a new suit in years, and I’m sure I’ll look quite the rube to Jean’s mother dressed in this worn old thing.  But I’m not sure I’d know what to buy to correct my style.”

Camilla sat up, clasping her hands eagerly before her.  “Oh, Ben, you must let me take you shopping tomorrow,” she cried.  “I study all the latest fashions from back east, and we do try to keep a selection of the best fabrics and accessories at the emporium.  I can take you to the finest tailor, too.”

Ben smiled awkwardly.  He’d never shopped for clothing with a woman before, and while there wasn’t much else about Camilla Larrimore he cared to emulate, he certainly had to admire the fashionable flair with which she dressed her family.  “Yes, I’d appreciate your help, Camilla,” he said, “if you think there’s time to have a suit tailored before my ship leaves.”

“The first of May you said?” Camilla inquired.  At Ben’s affirming nod, she smiled.  “Plenty of time.”

“Are you certain you’ll be able to find these people, Ben?” Lawrence asked.  “It’s a long way to go without a definite address.”

“I have one for his mother’s home, of course,” Ben replied.  “D’Marigny was able to tell me that much, but he wasn’t certain his wife would still be at the address where they lived together.  He gave me the name of his old fencing master, who was a close friend to both Jean and his wife.  It shouldn’t be too hard to locate the Angierville Academy on Exchange Street, and, hopefully, Monsieur Angierville will be able to direct me to Mrs. D’Marigny.”

“Yes, that sounds workable,” Lawrence agreed.

“Oh, I do envy you the trip to New Orleans,” Camilla sighed.  “Such a fine city, from all I’ve heard.”

Ben smiled ruefully.  “I’m afraid my trip to New Orleans is strictly business, and unpleasant business at that.  It’s what comes after I’m looking forward to.”

“Oh?” Camilla asked with a coquettish tilt of her ringlet-crested head.

Ben’s smile grew broader.  “I’m going to treat myself to a steamboat up to St. Joseph to see my dear friend Josiah Edwards.  I can’t imagine I’ll ever have another chance, and it will only add a couple of weeks to my time away.”

“Oh, St. Joseph,” Camilla said flatly.  Of all the places on earth she had no desire to see again, provincial St. Joseph, Missouri, headed the list.

Her husband’s eyes, however, perked up at Ben’s words.  “Now, that’s a destination I could envy,” he cried.  “I’d like another look at the old store, like to see what the new owner’s made of it.”

“Oh, you would,” Camilla chided.  Sometimes she feared she’d never make a society man out of Lawrence Larrimore.  She had greater hopes, however, for her son Sterling, who was already showing a taste for the finer things of life.  Suddenly, Camilla clapped her hands.  “Oh, Ben, if it’s truly just a business trip, perhaps you wouldn’t mind conducting some business for us in New Orleans.”

“Camilla!  What on earth!” her husband sputtered.

“Think of it, Lawrence,” Camilla continued, brushing aside his outrage.  “Think of the quality merchandise Ben could purchase for us in New Orleans and how well it would sell here.  And for all his personal simplicity, Ben knows quality when he sees it.  I know he’d choose wisely.”

Lawrence was growing redder by the minute, but his wife’s idea appealed to his business sense.  “It would be better than ordering sight unseen,” he admitted.  “Would it be asking too much, Ben?  We’d pay you, of course, for your time and effort.”

Ben laughed.  “That would help offset the cost of the trip.  Yes, Lawrence, if you and Camilla give me clear instructions about the type of merchandise you want, I’ll make the selections and arrange for their shipment before I go to St. Joseph.  That’s the least I can do to repay Camilla for getting me decked out in decent duds.”

Camilla squealed with delight.  “Oh, this is working out beautifully, isn’t it?”

Ben nodded, but he couldn’t help thinking that however much profit came out of this trip, it could never pay for the loss that made it necessary.

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

 One day short of three weeks after leaving San Francisco, Ben stepped off the steamer onto the dock at New Orleans, happier than he’d dreamed possible to touch land again.  He’d enjoyed the sea voyage down the coast——though he would have preferred a fast clipper to the more plodding, less graceful steamship——and the new railroad across the Isthmus had connected the next day with the Pacific Mail Steamship Company’s boat to New Orleans.  So the journey had taken far less time than before, and Ben had been spared the discomfort of transport by natives through a stifling jungle and the unpredictable wait for an available steamer that the pioneers who’d come this way in ‘49 had bemoaned.  Still, he was tired, and while he was anxious to conclude the serious errand on which he’d come to this southern seaport, it could wait until tomorrow.  For now, all Ben wanted was a hot bath, a good meal and a comfortable bed.

Having made inquiries of fellow passengers returning home to New Orleans, Ben had been assured that he could do no better than the St. Charles Hotel, two blocks above Canal Street in the American sector.  He told the driver of the carriage seeking passengers at the dock where he wished to go and soon found himself gazing admiringly at what the driver told him was one of the architectural wonders of the New World.  Seeing it, Ben wished his son Adam were at his side.  How Adam would have appreciated the white dome covering the Corinthian portico!  Truly, a magnificent building.

As he entered, however, Ben caught sight of the activity taking place under the rotunda of the stately hotel.  A slave auction, the barter and sale of human flesh, Negro men and women stripped bare to reveal their physical strength or fecundity.  Ben felt his stomach churn and averted his eyes, glad now that he’d left Adam at home.  They’d both seen similar scenes in Missouri, but somehow it seemed more out of place here in the presence of such classic beauty.  Or perhaps the reminder of whose labor had made possible such structures was more than appropriate here.  Maybe it was just, though unintended, tribute.

Ben registered and went to his room, setting his carpetbag at the foot of the brass bed.  He walked to the mirrored table where a pitcher of water and wash bowl stood ready for his use.  Looking into the mirror, Ben scowled.  No wonder the clerk had turned up his nose when Ben requested a room.  Not wanting to wear his new suit on the sea voyage, Ben had arrived in his well-worn brown one, which, frankly, looked as though he’d traveled in it for a month, and though he’d shaved that morning, Ben’s face was stubbled with a five-o’clock shadow that added nothing to his appearance.  Ben poured water into the bowl and set to work to rectify his grooming before looking for a place to dine.

Dressed in a gray cut-away jacket with tails and fawn-colored pants stylishly strapped beneath his boots, Ben admired his reflection in the mirror as he set on his head the tan hat banded in a lighter shade of the same color.  Quite stylish, according to the other attire he’d seen on the streets of New Orleans.  Camilla had done well by him, and she’d kept the cost down, too.  Ben had only the one jacket, but two pairs of trousers and several vests that would allow him to change his look from day to day with little added expense.  He’d chosen the wine-colored one to wear this evening, along with the beige and wine plaid string tie.

Not feeling particularly hungry yet, Ben decided to walk the streets of New Orleans on a sort of get-acquainted tour.  He saw much that pleased his eye.  Going down Canal Street to the Custom House, he walked inside to look at what he’d been told was the finest Greek Revival interior in the country.  Most of the newer buildings he passed were built in the Greek style, but this one was outstanding, even outside, with its colossal columns.

Pulling his slate gray, knee-length cape close against the damp wind, Ben left the Custom House and crossed Canal Street.  As he neared the corner leading to the Rue Royale, a rider came galloping past on a powerful black stallion.  Ben pulled close to the wrought iron fence and stared up at the rider as the stallion reared close to him.  A smile touched Ben’s lips.  The rider was a young woman, no more than twenty, the most spectacularly beautiful woman he’d ever seen.  It was no exaggeration.  Framed between a black top hat, ribboned in white with a crimson plume, and a gray, frilled jabot that set off her black riding habit was the face of a golden-haired, emerald-eyed angel.  She nodded demurely at Ben, her way of apologizing for the close encounter, then urged the horse on down the Rue Royale.

You’ve been in the wilderness too long, Ben scolded himself, if the first female you see turns you to mush.  Think what sport Clyde and Nelly would make if they saw you now.  Slowly, he began to walk into the French section of the city.  Though he had no intention of calling on anyone tonight, undoubtedly those he planned to see on the morrow lived within the confines of the original settlement.  It wouldn’t hurt to acquaint himself with the streets.  He tried to take note of their names as he passed each intersection.

It was hard to keep his mind on streets and avenues, however, when such a rich panorama of life flowed around him.  New Orleans was a cosmopolitan city, where people of all races, nationalities and stations teemed the streets.  Ben saw Frenchmen, of course, but just as many of Spanish descent.  That made sense, since the Spaniards had held title to the city for so long.  Much of the architecture, in fact, was Spanish in style, with overlapping clay tile roofs and balconies graced by rails of intricate, lace-like wrought iron.  There were Americans, too, some elegantly attired, some in simple homespun.

Ben passed the Place d’Armes and entered the French Market, where an intriguing variety of goods could be purchased, and found an even greater ethnic mix.  Greeks, Italians, a few Chinese selling shrimp and fish, and even Indians, wrapped in blankets, with more exotic wares.  And weaving in and out through the crowd, black faces of every shade from the midnight of recent arrivals from Africa to the cafe-au-lait of those whose African heritage had been diluted to virtual extinction.

Most of the vendors sold foodstuffs and Ben couldn’t resist nibbling his way from one booth to the next.  He ate oranges and bananas until he was sure he’d ruined any dinner he planned to have later.  Then, when he reached the riverfront, he visited the oyster stalls and, like the other customers, waited while the oysters were opened so he could eat them fresh from the shell.  So much for supper!  Moving back through the square, however, he did find room for a dish of sherbet sold by a Greek vendor in a red fez.

Ben chuckled to himself as he returned to the St. Charles Hotel. Too bad there was no way to pack that sherbet back to CarsonValley!  Adam might have enjoyed the architecture of this old, yet ever-new city, but Hoss would definitely have been the one to take on a tour of the French Market.  Ben undressed and went to bed, feeling lonesome for both his boys.  The sooner he finished his business here and got back to them, the better pleased he would be.

* * * * *

Ben had passed Exchange Alley on his walk the previous night, so it was a simple matter to locate the AngiervilleAcademy.  As was true of most two-story structures built during the period of Spanish rule, the academy was made of brick, which had been painted gray.  The door was standing open, so Ben walked in without knocking.

A flight of wooden stairs stood almost at the entry.  Ben moved past them, past the embroidered tapestry of a rearing golden horse hanging on the wall above a narrow table decorated by two statuettes, one a knight in armor, the other a swordsman in more modern attire.  He saw, sitting beside a table, an elderly man with a luxurious shock of wavy white hair and an ample mustache, stretching horizontally past his cheeks and climaxing in sharp points.

The man, with his back to Ben, sat polishing his already gleaming rapier.  He paused to finish the glass of red wine that sat on the table.  As he again started to polish the blade, the old man spotted Ben.  He flexed the steel with both hands.  “A fine instrument, eh, monsieur?” he said.  “Thirty-five inches of authority.”

“Yes, sir,” Ben said,  hat in hand.  “Excuse me, sir.  Are you Marius Angierville?”

The fencing master scarcely turned.  “A bit worn in the tooth,” he said, stroking the rapier, “a little bit sour in the stomach, but the very same.”

Ben smiled.  “I’m glad I found you, sir.  My name is Ben Cartwright.”

The other man cocked his head toward Ben.  “Should I know you?”

“Oh, no, sir, no,” Ben replied quickly.  “I’ve just arrived in New Orleans.  I have a ranch up in Utah Territory.”

“Oh, you’ve come a long way, monsieur,” Angierville commented, still polishing the rapier.

“Yes.”

“By ship?”

“By steamer, yes, and train from Aspinwall to Panama City, then another steamer.”

“A fine voyage?”

Ben smiled fondly.  “Yes, sir.”

“Ah, how I miss that!” Angierville sighed.

Ben hadn’t realized before how aged Jean’s friend was.  Ben hated more than ever to bring the sad news he carried, but delay wasn’t likely to soften the blow.  “Sir, there was a man who worked on my ranch,” Ben began.  “He was from New Orleans——Jean D’Marigny.”

Angierville stood at once.  “Jean?” he asked eagerly.  “It’s been so long.  Is he well, happy?”

Ben took a breath.  “No, sir.  He’s dead.”

The fencing master looked away in pained disbelief.  “Jean?  He was like my own son.”

“His last thoughts were of you and his wife,” Ben said.  “I promised I’d see you both and, of course, his mother.”

“His mother!”  Angierville almost spit the words at Ben.  “Forgive me, but there are some things—”  He looked into Ben’s face and stopped.  “But, no.  Whatever else Madame D’Marigny may be, she was Jean’s mother.  She must be told, of course.  I can direct you to her home.”

“I have the address, sir.  I—I thought perhaps you might accompany me,” Ben suggested.  “The presence of an old friend might ease the situation.”

Angierville uttered a bitter laugh.  “No, my boy, you will be more welcome in that home without me.  But where are you staying?  Have you accommodations here in New Orleans?”

“Yes, sir, at the St. Charles.”

“Ah, a fine hotel, monsieur, but perhaps it would be more convenient if you stayed here, closer to the people you must see,” the Frenchman offered hospitably.

“Well, yes,” Ben stammered, taken aback by the offer, “if you have room.”

Angierville gestured with his head to the room that opened between the stairs and the front door.  “I have room, and any friend of Jean’s is welcome here.”

“I accept gratefully, then.  I trust you can help me find Jean’s wife Marie,” Ben said.  “You know where she lives?”

“No, not where she lives,” the old man sighed, “but I know where we can find her.”

Ben’s brow furrowed, not understanding the cryptic answer nor the fencing master’s evident animosity toward Jean’s mother.  Perhaps all would become clear later, when he met the two women in Jean D’Marigny’s life.

* * * * *

Ben observed the D’Marigny townhouse from across the street, a two-story white brick home with dark green shutters at each downstairs window and the usual wrought-iron adornments across the second story.  Not as ostentatious as he’d expected, though Marius Angierville had assured him that Jean’s family was every bit as prestigious as the young foreman had boasted.  “Direct descendants of Antoine Phillippe de Maringy de Mandeville,” Marius had said, as if that explained everything.  Ben didn’t recognize the name, but it was obvious from the way Marius said it that the first D’Marigny was a man of renown.

And power.  Marius had emphasized the power.  “There is great power in wealth,” he stated ominously, “especially when one has no compunction against using it.  Be careful, my boy.”

Such warnings seemed ridiculous as Ben looked at the silver-haired grand dame who received him after he passed through the arched doorway into the sitting room.  The furnishings demonstrated the owners’ wealth, as did the ornate jewels gracing the lady’s neck and ears, but Ben saw nothing to fear in this elderly woman listening to the news of her son’s death with such rigidly contained grief.

“I’m sorry to have to bring you such bad news, Madame D’Marigny,” Ben said kindly after explaining the circumstances of Jean’s death.  “I hope that it might give you some consolation to know of your son’s courage.”

Madame D’Marigny dabbed her nose with a lacy handkerchief drawn from inside her blue sleeve.  “I’m growing old, monsieur, and quite dry of tears,” she said proudly.  “The D’Marignys carry a proud, but bitter, heritage.  We cried at the death of the Emperor; we cried in the streets of New Orleans when the French flag came down, and I cried when my son ran away from his disgrace.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed in puzzlement.  “His disgrace, Madame?”

“You knew little about him,” the mother stated.

“Only that he had separated from his wife, whom he loved very dearly,” Ben said.  He knew more, of course, but couldn’t bring himself to mention the infidelity of Jean’s wife.  He wasn’t sure the mother knew about that, though perhaps that was the disgrace of which she spoke.

Madame D’Marigny made no explanation.  “Love is often a crown of thorns,” she said, softly touching the black velvet bows cascading down the light blue yoke of her dress, whose sleeves and overskirt were a deeper shade of blue.

Ben looked at the floor.  “Yes, yes, I suppose that’s true.  I hope to see his wife Marie.”

“I do not wish to discuss her, monsieur,” the aristocratic woman said, standing abruptly, as if in dismissal.

“Well, Madame,” Ben stammered, “she is your son’s wife.”

“Marie D’Olivier was never meant to be the wife of a D’Marigny!” Jean’s mother declared haughtily.  “Forgive me, monsieur, but that is not your concern.  If I can be of service while you are in New Orleans—”

“Well, there is one thing,” Ben began.

Oui?”

“I had been engaged to purchase some quality merchandise for a friend’s business in San Francisco, and I thought perhaps you could direct me—”

“But, monsieur, I have little connection with my late husband’s import business,” Madame D’Marigny said.  “Still, I could give your name to his associate.”

“I’d greatly appreciate it,” Ben said.

“Where are you staying?” she asked.  “I will have Monsieur Clairmont contact you there.”

“With a friend,” Ben said, “Marius Angierville, at his academy in Exchange Alley.”

Madame D’Marigny’s eyes grew icy.  “You know Marius Angierville?”

“Well, yes,” Ben faltered, feeling the chill.  “He’s a friend of your son’s,” he added hastily.

Madame D’Marigny’s drew herself stiffly upright.  “That one is no friend to my son.  Bonjour, monsieur.”  There was no mistaking the air of dismissal this time.

Ben bowed from the waist.  “Thank you, Madame.  Good day.”  When Jean’s mother made no response, Ben left quietly.

Later, in a carriage with Marius, Ben described his visit to the D’Marigny home.  “Jean’s mother wasn’t too friendly toward me,” he said wryly.  “She isn’t exactly fond of her daughter-in-law, is she?”

“No, she isn’t,” Marius stated bluntly.  “Never was.  I’m afraid Marie isn’t very fond of me.  We may not receive a warm reception, my boy.  I haven’t seen her since the day Jean left New Orleans.”

Ben stared at the other man.  “Jean told me that you were very good friends,” he said, wondering how that could be true if they weren’t even on speaking terms.

“We were,” Marius said, “until I challenged her beloved cousin, Edward D’Arcy to a duel.  She’s never forgiven me for wanting to kill him, which I was most anxious to do.”

No further explanation was forthcoming, so Ben sat back, remembering what Jean had once said about the complexity of New Orleans’ society.  Evidently it rubbed off on the inhabitants, for Ben felt certain the people he’d met so far in this city were more complex than any he’d seen in his travels around the world.  And though he had no inkling of it at that moment, he was about to meet the most complex of all.

The carriage halted before a building similar, at least on the exterior, to the D’Marigny home, though perhaps less ostentatious.  Inside, however, the furnishings rivaled that dwelling.  Mirrors with gilt frames surrounded a room graced by gold brocade draperies, and crystal chandeliers spread a soft glow over round tables intended for gaming or tête-à-tête.

A woman stood conversing with two gentlemen seated at the nearest table.  Leaving them, she approached Ben and Marius.  She moved gracefully, a vision of loveliness in her light blue, off-the-shoulder gown, whose low neckline revealed a sapphire pendant that matched her earrings.  Ben found himself staring at the woman.  She seemed so familiar, but he was sure they’d never met.  Suddenly he knew.  This was the same woman who had nearly run him down in the street two days before.  He had thought her angelic then, but in this regal attire she seemed even more stunning.

Ben was glad he’d changed into a fresh white shirt and topped it with the beige satin vest and red string tie.  Even so, he looked less elaborately dressed than the other occupants of the room.  Even Marius, seemed more fashionable with his wide blue bow tie and dark blue top hat, and it was to him that the woman directed her steps.  “Marius Angierville, I thought by now the devil had claimed you for his own,” she said with a beguiling smile.

“I’m afraid both you and he will have to wait a trifle longer,” Marius said smoothly.  “I brought a friend to meet you, fresh from the wilderness, Marie.  May I present Monsieur Cartwright from the Utah Territory?”

Marie directed her attention toward Ben.  “I’ve heard there is such a place,” she said.

Ben was struck silent for a moment.  This ravishing creature couldn’t be Jean’s wife!  No wonder the separation had tormented the young Frenchman so.  “Yes, ma’am,” Ben stammered, in his fluster forgetting the French form of address, “I’m afraid there is, full of wild animals and much wilder people.”

“Now, if you’ll forgive me, I’m going to the bar,” Marius excused himself.

“Madame, may I speak with you in private?” Ben asked as the fencing master walked away.

Monsieur, is that a western custom, demanding a lady’s attention on such short acquaintance?” Marie asked.  Ben couldn’t be sure if her tone indicated offense or bemusement.

“What I have to say is rather serious,” he explained.

“Serious?” Marie laughed.  “Why, no one is serious here.  People come here for pleasure.”

“What I have to say, it’s about your husband,” Ben began.

One of the men who had been at the table with Marie when Ben and Marius entered the gambling salon approached them.  “Marie,” he said peevishly, “I thought you were going to join us.”  Marie turned to assuage the gentleman.

At the bar Marius was sipping a glass of brandy when a man in an expensively tailored suit of royal blue approached the bar.  “A little cognac for me, please,” the gentleman ordered, and the bartender immediately came to serve him.  The man turned toward Marius.  “It seems the game-legged old hotspur himself has decided to distinguish us with a visit.”

Marius regarded the other man with an arrogant eye.  “Why not, D’Arcy?  We will squat in hell together, you and I.”  He raised his glass in a disdainful toast.

“If you are in a hurry to get there, hotspur, I am always available to assist you on your way,” D’Arcy replied, returning the toast with a sneer.

“Next time the boot may be on the other foot,” Marius declared, but D’Arcy’s only response was a noncommittal spread of his hands that somehow managed to convey unacceptance of the possibility of defeat.

Meanwhile, Marie had successfully soothed her offended gentleman friend and introduced him to Ben.  “I am pleased to have met you, monsieur,” the man said with disinterested social courtesy.  “Marie, please hurry,” he added as he went back to the table.

Marie turned to Ben.  “Monsieur,” she said bluntly, “I do not wish to discuss my husband.  I—I think you had better leave.”

“Is your husband of no interest to you?” Ben pressed.

The lovely woman’s chin lifted proudly.  “Of no interest whatsoever.”

Ben tried again.  “I’m afraid there’s something that you don’t know.”

Marie shook her head.  “There is nothing I wish to know about Jean.  Bonjour, monsieur.”  She turned her back on Ben and returned to the two gentlemen eagerly awaiting her at the table.

Ben started to follow her, to somehow make her listen, but a man’s hand restrained him.  “Monsieur!” the man said quickly.  “My name is D’Arcy.  I’m the proprietor here.”

“How do you do?” Ben said perfunctorily, his eyes still following Marie D’Marigny.

D’Arcy’s eyes followed Ben’s.  “Are you a friend of Marius?”

“Yes, in a way,” Ben replied.  No further explanation seemed necessary to a total stranger.

“You don’t seem to be attracted to our little sport,” the proprietor commented, preferring the newcomer’s attention to be fixed on gambling rather than on his pretty cousin.  “Most Americans find it very stimulating.”

“I didn’t come here to gamble,” Ben said sharply.  “I’m afraid I’m not exactly attracted to blind chance.”

D’Arcy glanced at the lovely Marie.  “Perhaps you are attracted more by aesthetic things?”

Ben was growing irritated.  “And if I am?” he asked, challenge in his voice.

“Oh, that would surprise me,” D’Arcy replied, his tone smoothly insulting.  “You lack a certain polish in your technique.”

Ben squared his shoulders.  “I guess my polish has been dulled by hard work, monsieur,” he said bluntly.  “Good night.”  He turned to look for Marius, but the fencing master had already left.  Ben lost no time in following suit.  What was it about these New Orleans people that made it impossible to hold a normal conversation with any of them? he fumed as he rode back to Marius’ place.  Whether he was talking to Madame D’Marigny or Marius, Marie D’Marigny or her cousin D’Arcy, Ben always seemed to come away feeling like he’d been on the losing end of a clash of rapiers.

With such thoughts in mind, it seemed perfectly reasonable, when he returned to the academy, to find Marius practicing sword thrusts before a three-paneled mirror.  As the old man lunged forward, however, his left hand dropped to grab his leg.  Ben walked toward him.

“I fought amid the grapeshot and bullets of Waterloo, a saber in my hand, with valiant men, honorable men,” Marius boasted, his voice slurring.

“You’ve had too much to drink, Marius,” Ben chided.

“Don’t tell me what I’ve had,” Marius commanded, his touchiness proving Ben’s accusation.  “‘In vino veritas.’  In wine, there is truth.”

Ben rolled his eyes and took the old man’s arm.  “Let me help you.”  He noticed the sudden grimace of pain.  “What is it?”

Marius shook his head.  “An old wound.  This afternoon it became as fresh as the day I received it——defending the honor of an old friend.”  He sat down in the chair to which Ben led him.

Ben patted his shoulder and started to go to his room at the foot of the stairs.  “Ah, Jean, Jean, you came to me, but I failed you; we all failed you,” Marius sighed.

Ben stopped, then walked to a table near the stairs on which sat a pitcher of water.  He returned, carrying a damp cloth.  “Better?” he asked as Marius held the cloth over his face.

“Umn,” the old Frenchman murmured from behind the cloth.

“What did that mean?” Ben asked.  “You all failed him?”

Marius sighed, lowering the cloth.  “Well, he’d just been married.  He adored his young and beautiful wife.  But when he believed her unfaithful, he ran, his whole world shattered.”

“And his mother knew?” Ben queried.  “That would explain why Madame D’Marigny didn’t want to talk about her.”

“I never believed the stories spread about Marie,” Marius declared.  “I tried to prove them false.  She was the innocent victim of deceit.”

Ben found himself wanting to believe Marius rather than the story Jean had told him.  Having actually met Marie, he found it difficult to believe evil could reside in so fair and flawless a package.  “What was the truth?” he asked.

Marius shook his head.  “The real facts about what happened are locked in her heart, along with grief and disillusionment.”

Ben considered the words soberly as he lay sleepless on his bed that night.  Grief and disillusionment.  Yes, those words might describe what he’d seen in her face when he mentioned her husband.  If she were truly guiltless, how must she have felt when the person who should have stood by her side simply left her to face the gossips alone?  Such thoughts seemed disloyal to the man who’d saved his life, but like all these other inhabitants of his native city, Jean had been full of complexities, paradoxes, puzzles.  Still, Ben had made him a promise, a promise to deliver a message, and however little Jean’s wife wished to hear it, somehow Ben would have to speak it.  He’d try again tomorrow.

* * * * *

Ben smiled approvingly at the simple dwelling before him.  If the information Marius had finessed from the bartender was correct, this was the home of Marie D’Marigny.  From the ornate elegance of the room in which he’d seen her last night and from the fashionable dress she’d worn Ben had expected something as lavishly overwhelming as the home of Jean’s mother.  This building, however, was only one story, roofed in red tile, its front courtyard fenced with heavy black wrought iron between pillars of red brick topped with large gray finials.  Most attractive, as was the courtyard through which Ben walked to reach the recessed doorway, ornamented on each side with potted plants.

Marie answered his knock.  She was dressed today in a royal blue frock with a more modestly cut neckline that, to Ben, made her seem even more attractive than what she’d worn to the salon.  Her hair was dressed more simply, too, forming a softer frame for her lovely face.

But while she was a delight to Ben’s eyes, he was anything but delightful to hers.  “Sacré boulon!” Marie cried.  “It’s you again!”

Ben removed his hat.  “I’m a stubborn man, Madame.”

“Please go away,” Marie said firmly.

“I will, as soon as you give me a chance to talk to you,” Ben insisted.

“I know all I need to know about Jean,” Marie said and began to close the door.

“Do you know that he’s——dead?” Ben blurted out.  Marie’s slender hand touched her bare throat.  “I’m sorry,” Ben apologized, his eyes compassionate.  “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.  He made me promise to seek you out and let you know.”

Marie made a demure gesture with her head to invite him inside.  “Thank you,” Ben said as he entered.  In a glance he took in the few furnishings of the foyer:  another potted plant just inside the door, a single chair to one side of the entrance, a small table with a candelabra——not gold, however, like the one at Madame D’Marigny’s.  Everything here was plainer, yet, to Ben, twice as appealing as the wealthier woman’s home.

“I’m sorry I had to give you the news so bluntly,” Ben said, “but you left me little choice.”

“Go on, monsieur,” Marie invited, preceding him through an open door made of finely turned spindles into a parlor lighted by a wall of ceiling-to-floor windows that looked out on the greenery of the courtyard.  The furniture here was stylish, its wood finely carved, but unadorned by the gilt he’d seen in Jean’s former home.

“Jean died after saving my life,” Ben said to Marie, who kept her back to him.  “He was a brave and courageous man.”

“I accept your statement, monsieur,” Marie replied, plucking at the white undersleeve peeking from beneath a wide blue ruffle, “but it does not fit the Jean D’Marigny I knew.”

“He asked me to tell you that he loved you,” Ben began again.

“Love,” Marie sputtered bitterly.  “He didn’t know what it meant to love.”

“A man on his death bed doesn’t lie,” Ben stated firmly.  He owed some defense to Jean’s memory, after all.

Marie turned toward him, her face hard.  “All right, you’ve told me.  Now, good day, monsieur.”

“That isn’t all he asked me to say to you,” Ben declared.

“I’m not interested,” Marie replied, her head high.

That was obvious, but Ben had to continue.  “He asked me to say that he forgave you.”

“Forgave me!” Marie cried.  Fire sparked in her emerald eyes.

“Yes,” Ben made himself say, “his words were he loved you and he forgave you.”

“For what?” Marie demanded.  “He believed a horrible lie.  It was absurd.  He couldn’t have accepted it and really loved me.  Instead of trusting me, he ran off, leaving me disgraced and humiliated.  Where was he when I needed him, when my baby needed him?”

Ben was taken aback.  “I didn’t know there was a child.”

Marie regained control of her emotions.  “There is no child,” she said more quietly.  “His mother took him from me at birth.  He died of the fever.”

“Jean never told me about that,” Ben admitted, then looked up at her sharply, suddenly recalling that Jean and Marie had been married only one month before they separated.  “Did he know?”

The fire flew back into her face.  “If he knew, would he have cared?” she asked hotly.  Turning away, she begged, “Leave me alone, monsieur, please.”  She collapsed on the nearby settee.

Having no words to heal her pain, Ben turned and walked softly out, leaving her to weep away her grief and anger in solitude.  He decided to walk back to the academy instead of hiring a carriage.  He needed time alone, time to think, time to sort things out.  He’d done his duty to Jean now; now he was free to leave New Orleans, to put these confusing people and their entangled emotions behind him.  But he didn’t feel free.  His own emotions felt as tied in knots as theirs, and he had no idea how to loosen their grip.  Maybe he wouldn’t be able to until he left the exotic fragrances of this city behind and breathed once more the pure, invigorating air of home.  He couldn’t leave yet, though.  He still had a commission to fulfill for Lawrence Larrimore, and he had yet to hear from Monsieur Clairmont.

* * * * *

Marie D’Marigny exchanged rapier thrusts with her old fencing master, Marius Angierville.  Despite his greater age, Marius easily parried her attack time after time.  “Touché,” Marie said as the point of her opponent’s sword touched her protective vest.  She pulled off the mesh mask.  “Merci, cher maître.”

Marius removed his mask and shook her hand.  “You have speed and accuracy,” he analyzed, “but your long lunge left you open to my riposte.  You’re too anxious for the kill.”

Marie loosened the sides of her black skirt, which had been fastened to permit her legs freer movement.  “I’m an impatient woman, Marius.”

“It will be the death of you,” Marius said soberly, then suggested more brightly, “Another bout.  Three touches.”

Marie brushed back the damp hair on her forehead with both hands.  She’d worn it down today, falling loosely to her shoulders.  “I’m tired.”

“You didn’t come here for a fencing lesson, Marie,” Marius said, laying a hand on her shoulder.  “Not after all this time.”

Marie gave him an enigmatic smile.  “I’m not sure why I came.  I’m not sure of anything anymore.”

“Well, I can’t give you any fatherly advice,” Marius sighed.  “There are no words to prevent memories from coming back to haunt you.”

Marie sat in the chair beside a small table and looked fondly into her old fencing master’s face.  “You remind me of a gaunt old tree, gnarled and sad, all covered with Spanish moss and standing up to your knees in dark water.  You’ve been a loyal friend, Marius, even though you were wrong about my cousin Edward.  He’s been very good to me.  I——I think I wanted to tell you I’m sorry.”

Just then Ben walked in, gray cape over his arm, hat in hand.  He dropped both in the brocade-covered chair beside the door.  Marie immediately stood and reached for her cloak.  “Oh, please don’t run off on my account,” Ben urged.  “I’ll be out of your way.”

“Marius told me you wouldn’t be here today,” Marie said.

“I came back sooner than I planned,” Ben explained.  “I was out walking around your magnificent city.”

Marie looked embarrassed.  “I—I’m sorry if I’ve been rude, but you just don’t understand.”

“Allow me,” Ben said, opening the door and placing the black cloak about her shoulders.  “New Orleans is a strange city, strange and unpredictable.”

“There’s none other like it in the world,” Marie agreed.

“I find the people rather difficult to understand, too,” Ben continued, for some reason not wanting the conversation to end.  “They’re a blend of so many things.”

Marie nodded, an intriguing smile playing at her lips.  “Yes, good and evil, bitterness and sorcery and virtue.  You could live a lifetime and find nothing worse than warm sunshine or bubbles in honey.”  Her face darkened.  “Or you might suddenly become aware of the most——the most terrible rottenness.”

“The west is like that, too,” Ben said quickly.  “Out west there are trees that touch the blue of the sky, unimaginably beautiful, and yet there’s an anger and violence about nature that seems to be there just to test people.  But it hardens them, too, makes them strong and unfeeling.  It’s a man’s country.”

“Are you going back soon?” Marie asked, surprised that she cared.

“Yes,” Ben replied.  “I thought——maybe——before I go——maybe we could have supper together, and I promise not to talk about anything more personal than bubbles in honey.”

Marie looked down demurely, then up into his face.  “I’m sorry.  Good day, monsieur.”  She looked over her shoulder and called, “Bon jour, Marius.”

Ben closed the door behind her, wondering why her refusal so saddened him.  He’d only meant the invitation as a courtesy to the widow of a friend.  Certainly, it had no meaning beyond that.  Perhaps it was the very commonplaceness of his gesture that made her refusal seem so tragic, as if there were no room left in her life for simple joys.

“She’s like a woman possessed,” Marius commented as he poured himself a glass of wine, “one moment gay and full of life, the next driven, running to escape from something which seems to chase her.  Well, she loses herself in her way and I in mine.”  He took a sip of the wine.

Ben picked up the fencing glove Marie had left on the table, folded it and laid it aside.  “You’ve got to learn to recover from sorrow.  I did from mine.”  He sat down, moving the mask Marie had left in the chair.

During the evenings they’d spent together Ben had told Marius about the loss of his two wives.  Now the old Frenchman faced Ben directly and queried, “Did you?  I think not.  You’re still nursing your wounds, just like me.”

“I learned to forget, Marius,” Ben alleged, pouring himself a glass of wine.

“Marie can’t forget!” Marius declared hotly.  “A husband who deserted her, a mother-in-law who loathed her.  They had to be married secretly to avoid her interference.”

“What about this other man, the one who was supposed to—”

Marius stood and began gathering his fencing equipment from the table.  “I never found out who he was.  One of D’Arcy’s friends, perhaps.  I tried to make Jean see the truth, but it was no use.”

Ben stood and lifted the glass of wine.  “Well, it isn’t my affair.  I have my own responsibilities.”  He took a drink.

“Jean saved your life!” Marius accused loudly.  “He gave you this responsibility.”

“Just a minute, Marius,” Ben objected.  “I paid my debt to Jean.”

“How?” Marius pressed.  “By bringing us the sad tale of his death?  By bargaining with his mother for the purchase of rare imports?”

“That’s a business obligation,” Ben said defensively.  “Besides, what could I do here that you have not been able to do?”

“You could help me find the other man,” Marius declared.  He placed his sword, mask and glove on the bench beside the stairs.

“Aw, that happened years ago,” Ben argued, toying with the remaining sword.  “Wouldn’t help Jean now anyway.  It’s a dead issue.”

“Not to me!” Marius cried.  “And Marie is not a dead issue either.  You could talk to her, make her see that D’Arcy isn’t what she thinks, that he isn’t trying to help her, that he wants only to fulfill his own ambitions by marrying her off to some fat aristocrat.”

“Well, what makes you think she’d listen to me?” Ben shouted.  “She all but ran from the room the minute she saw me.”  He dropped the sword to the table with a clatter.  “Anyway, I’m not going to get involved.  I have two sons; I’m going to get back to them.”

Marius stared thoughtfully at Ben for a long moment.  “Maybe you’re right, my boy,” he said with poignant softness.  “Why bother with other people’s agonies when you have your own to keep you company?”  He drained his wineglass.

Ben blanched.  How dare he?  How dare this crippled old man presume to read his heart?  How dare he stab him with truths too painful to face?  Ben walked away without responding and spent another restless night trying to sort out his turbulent thoughts.

* * * * *

Sunday morning Ben finally received a note from Monsieur Clairmont, stating that he would be pleased to discuss business with Monsieur Cartwright the next evening at the Salon D’Arcy.  Having nothing better to do that afternoon, Ben took another stroll around the Vieux Carre, the French sector of New Orleans.  He had dressed in his fawn trousers and looped a matching string tie beneath the collar of his white shirt.  With his gray cut-away jacket and tan hat, he felt he had achieved a casual, but well-dressed look that seemed in keeping with the attire of most men he passed on the street.  He wanted to blend in, to call no undue attention to himself, just to wander alone with his thoughts.

When he peered through a spindled gate into the garden of the Convent of Ursuline Nuns, however, he was glad he’d gone to the trouble of dressing neatly.  On a gray iron bench beneath a statue of some unknown saint sat Marie D’Marigny, lovely as always, in a ruby dress with white lace yoke and a large, shady hat with crimson ribbons and creamy feathers framing her delicate face.

Ben entered the garden and walked up to her.  “I saw you from the street, Madame.  May I?” he suggested, gesturing toward the bench.  Marie nodded and he sat down.

“I come here often,” Marie said, looking around the garden with affection.  “I was brought up in the convent after my parents died.”

“It’s a beautiful place,” Ben commented.

“I was happy here,” Marie said fondly, “though something of a rebel.”

Ben tilted his head to examine her face and smiled.  “Yes, I think I can imagine you as a rebel.”

A slight smile touched Marie’s lips, as well.  “I used to climb that tree,” she said, nodding toward one near the gate, “and look over the wall, fascinated by the beautiful French ladies in their Paris gowns with shining black hair and skin like roses.  I couldn’t wait to wash my face in sour buttermilk.”

Ben laughed, amused that this exquisite beauty could ever have thought her looks lacking in any way.  Her recollections made him think of his own youthful dreams.  “When I was a boy,” he told her, “I used to stand on a pier and watch the great ships putting out to sea.  I used to imagine myself a captain on the quarter-deck, scanning the horizon, looking for rich new lands to discover.”  He laughed.  “For a long time I had to content myself with finding my heroes in books.”

A shadow crossed Marie’s fair face.  “I think that was far better,” she said, that customary trace of bitterness lacing her voice.  “Then if they disillusion you, you can throw them into the fire.”  She stood and twirled her gray parasol in her white-gloved hands.  “It’s getting late.”

“May I walk you home?” Ben requested.  When Marie nodded, he took her arm.  “Who were your heroes, Marie?”

“Don Jean of Austria, Henri of Navarre, Cardinal Richelieu,” she responded readily.

“Bold, forceful men,” Ben said as they passed through the gate onto the street.

“Perfect heroes for a young Creole girl who hadn’t the vaguest ideas about love and life.”

“You seem to have some definite ideas now,” Ben said soberly, as he guided her past the Indians selling beads along the sidewalk.  Ideas entirely too grim for a girl of twenty, he thought, but didn’t voice it.

“About life?” Marie asked.  “We don’t live; we’re only in the expectation of living.”

“And love?”

“To love is to place one’s happiness in someone else’s hands,” Marie sighed, clearly thinking of Jean.

“Yet there are hands that would cherish such happiness,” Ben said softly, “hands in which love would be safe.”

As she opened a parasol so small it was little more than ornamental, Marie gave a deprecating laugh.  Sometimes Monsieur Cartwright seemed naive beyond belief.  “You have known such hands, monsieur?”

“Yes, twice,” Ben replied.  Marie looked up at him quizzically.  “I’ve been married twice,” Ben explained, “each time to a woman in whose hands I could trust my love without fear of betrayal.”

“Oh, oui,” Marie said.  “I had forgotten you were from Utah, where men take as many wives as they wish.”

Ben laughed, loud and hearty.  “No, no,” he assured her.  “I’m no Mormon.  I’ve also been widowed twice, Madame D’Marigny.  Now I’m quite alone, except for my boys.”

Marie blushed in embarrassment at her innocent misconception.  “You have sons?  You are fortunate in that, monsieur.”

“They are the spark of my life,” Ben said.  “Without them, I don’t think I’d have had the heart to go on after the deaths of their mothers.”

“Yes,” Marie agreed sadly, “to go on alone is the hardest task life demands of us.  We have more in common than I had thought, monsieur.”

They had reached her house.  “I see so much of my own loneliness in you,” Ben said as they entered the courtyard.  He paused for a moment.  “I know I have no right to ask, but what happened that night?”

Looking into his face, Marie felt she could trust this man who had also known sorrow and loss, but the words locked so long within the dungeon of her heart came slowly, painfully.  “I—I was alone.  Jean had finally worked up the courage to——to tell his mother we’d been married.  But he wanted to do it by himself.”  She took a breath.  “I must have been sleeping for some time when I—I became aware of someone near me.  I thought it was Jean.  When I realized it wasn’t, I struggled.  That’s when Jean came in the room.”

“It must have been terrible for you,” Ben said softly.

“He should have believed me,” Marie declared, her golden head proudly lifted, her eyes brimful of the crushed idealism of youthful romance.

“Yes,” Ben said slowly, sympathetically, “he should have.”

“His mother was anxious to believe the lie,” Marie stated bitterly.

“Something should have been done about that lie a long time ago, Marie,” Ben said.

Marie looked into his face, seeing no dissimulation, no mockery.  Without a word, she turned and walked inside.  That was rude, she told herself later, but she had been too shocked to think of manners at the time.  How could this stranger believe her so readily when the man who had promised to love, honor and cherish her had so easily accepted the lie?  It made no sense, nor did her attraction for the man.

Marie smiled as she remembered all the gentlemen to whom her cousin Edward had introduced her since Jean’s departure.  Any one of them would have made a better match than this rough westerner.  Yet, though Edward had urged her to remarry——for her own benefit and future security——Marie had not been able to bear the thought of giving her heart to another man.  Secretly, she had hoped Jean would one day return to beg her forgiveness.  Instead, he had sent a blunt-mannered rancher to offer forgiveness to her!  The message was unspeakably insulting.  But the messenger?  Once Marie separated him from his awkward message, Ben Cartwright no longer seemed the boorish barbarian she had first thought him.  He was a man of sensitivity——one, perhaps, in whose hands love could be trusted——and Marie found herself envying the two women who had been blessed to be his wives.

* * * * *

Marie felt foolish giving so much attention to her toilet Monday evening.  She always dressed well when she went to her cousin’s salon, of course.  Edward expected it of her and had often told her that her beauty encouraged the right sort of customers to frequent his place of business.  Many nights Marie would have preferred a quiet evening at home, but she felt she owed Edward any help she could give.  It was small repayment for all his kindness to her.

Tonight, however, she wanted to look especially fine, so she chose her coral satin gown edged with gold braid.  She adjusted the puff sleeves so a graceful ruffle circled the curve of each elbow, then added the most exquisite jeweled necklace and earrings that Edward had bought her.  All because she knew Ben Cartwright would be coming to the salon tonight to meet with Monsieur Clairmont.

Foolish, she chided herself again.  To him, you are only the widow of a man to whom he feels a debt of honor.  Tomorrow or the next day he will be gone, and he will forget you.  Be wise, and forget him as quickly.  None of her arguments succeeded, however.  She made herself as alluring as possible, as Edward had often urged her to do.  If nothing else, Monsieur Cartwright’s last impression of her would be a pleasurable one.

When Ben entered the salon with Marius, Marie’s feelings of foolishness faded, for Mr. Cartwright also was dressed to please the eye. Her eye, perhaps?  He wore the same gray jacket as always——Marie suspected he had no other——but tonight he wore gray trousers with a gray vest flecked with crimson and a crimson tie.  To her, he looked as handsome and as well-dressed as any of the rich plantation owners idling away the hours over a hand of cards.

Edward D’Arcy, seated with her at a small table, noticed her distracted attention.  “How popular we are becoming, cousin!  Marius and his American friend are becoming regular customers.”

Marie stretched an imploring hand across the table.  “Leave Marius alone, Edward,” she pleaded.

“Don’t concern yourself,” Edward said smoothly, covering her hand with his.  “My quarrel with the old hotspur is ancient history.”  He performed a deft card trick for her amusement and Marie gave him an obligatory smile.

“That’s Monsieur Clairmont with his back to us at the table,” Marius told Ben.

“Wait for me at the bar,” Ben suggested.  He approached the rear table where four men sat playing a game of cards.  “Monsieur Clairmont, I’m Ben Cartwright.”

“Oh it is a pleasure to meet you, monsieur,” the importer replied, shaking Ben’s hand.  He wore spectacles above a narrow brush-like mustache of iron gray.

“I got your note and came at the time requested,” Ben said.

“Oh, yes, yes,” Monsieur Clairmont said absently, “about some goods you hope to purchase for resale.  Madame D’Marigny spoke to me.  Er——you play poker, Monsieur Cartwright?”

Ben looked puzzled.  “Well, I thought you wanted to discuss business, sir.”

“Oh, certainly, my boy, certainly,” Monsieur Clairmont replied.  “I have a room in the back reserved for our negotiations.  But won’t you join us for a little while and we’ll discuss business later?”

Another man at the table gestured to the empty chair between him and Monsieur Clairmont.  “Please do join us, monsieur.”

“Well, thank you,” Ben said, reluctantly taking the seat.  He could count on one hand the number of times he’d played poker in his life, and he didn’t particularly want to play tonight.  It seemed, however, the only way to conclude the business he’d contracted to do for Lawrence Larrimore.

Monsieur Clairmont smiled.  “I have one vice——cards.”  Ben nodded perfunctorily and the game began.

They had played for approximately half an hour when Edward D’Arcy approached their table.  Ben’s luck had been surprisingly good for one unpracticed in the art of gambling.  “Well, gentlemen, I have three queens,” he announced, showing another winning hand.

“Ah, Monsieur D’Arcy, have you had the pleasure of meeting Monsieur Cartwright?” Monsieur Clairmont asked.

“Yes,” D’Arcy replied coolly.  “He’s the gentleman who does not devote himself to blind chance.”  Ben glanced sidewise at the salon’s proprietor.

“Certainly doing well with it tonight,” Monsieur Clairmont announced amiably.

“Throw a lucky man in the Nile, says an old Arabian proverb, and he’ll come up with a fish in his mouth,” D’Arcy commented.  Ben joined in the laughter that rippled around the table, though he wasn’t sure D’Arcy’s comment had been made in jest.  There was a cynical undertone to the comment that Ben found disturbing.  One man, having lost repeatedly, excused himself from the game.  “May I join in?” D’Arcy suggested.

“Please do,” Monsieur Clairmont invited.

D’Arcy sat in the vacated chair and the game continued.  Surprisingly, so did Ben’s good fortune.  When Ben raised the last bid, Clairmont folded his cards.  “I believe you, Monsieur Cartwright.”

“I’ll pay for the pleasure of seeing your hand, Monsieur Cartwright,” D’Arcy declared, matching the raise.

Ben laid down his hand, a straight.  “Incredible luck!” Monsieur Clairmont exclaimed.

“It’s your deal,” D’Arcy pointed out.

Alone at her table, Marie looked across to the bar where Marius stood, decked in his usual drab olive jacket with black velvet lapels.  “Marius, won’t you join me?” she called.

Marius bowed.  “Thank you.”  He brought his drink and sat in D’Arcy’s vacated chair.  Together, they watched the progress of the game of poker.  This time Ben was the dealer.

Monsieur Cartwright, may I see those cards?” D’Arcy demanded abruptly.

Startled and irritated, Ben slapped the cards to the table.  D’Arcy slowly spread them out, face up, revealing three aces at the bottom of the deck.  Monsieur Clairmont cut a suspicious glance at Ben.  D’Arcy stood.  “You are a cheat and a thief,” he accused.  Alarmed, Marie and Marius stood, as well.

So did Ben.  “D’Arcy, you cut those cards!” he sputtered.

“Barbarian!” D’Arcy cried, his outrage visible to all in the room.  “You accuse me!  Why, you uncouth, backwoods—”

Ben doubled his fist and slammed it into the man’s jaw, decking him.  Though he rarely resorted to violence, he knew instantly that he’d been deliberately set up, deliberately made to appear dishonest, and he was furious.

The other three men at the table stood quickly and moved aside as D’Arcy rose from the floor, touching his bleeding lip.  “I demand satisfaction for this insult, monsieur:  the Plantation Allard at dawn.  Weapons——rapiers.”

Oui,” Ben said, using the French word to exhibit the contempt he felt for his French opponent.

Marius came forward, grabbing D’Arcy’s arm.  “He can’t fence, D’Arcy, and you know it.”

“If he doesn’t wish to satisfy me, he’d better conduct himself out of town immediately,” Edward advised with a surly sneer.

Marius took a wineglass from the card table beside him and flung its contents into D’Arcy’s face.  “He won’t need to do either!” he shouted.

“Marius, you stay out of this,” Ben cautioned.

“I’m already in it,” Marius announced with fierce pride.

“This is my affair,” Ben insisted.  “Now stop interfering.”

“You can have him when I’m through with him,” the old fencing master said hotly.

“How popular I am,” Edward laughed disdainfully.  “Gentlemen, it will be a pleasure to do business with both of you.  Whoever is first is immaterial.”

“Let the cards decide,” Marius suggested.

“Now, Marius, listen to me,” Ben protested.

Marie had followed Marius to the scene of conflict, but had remained silent until now.  She laid delicate fingers on Edward’s sleeve.  “Edward, no, please,” she begged.

“Marie, you stay out of this,” Edward ordered.

“Marius, will you please listen?” Ben was continuing to ask an unheeding Marius.

“You cut the cards,” Marius said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Ben snapped.

“All right, I’ll cut them for you,” Marius replied, lifting first one card, then another.  “Yours, queen; mine, king.  You lose, my boy.”  He turned to the salon’s proprietor.  “All right, D’Arcy, the oak grove, Allards Plantation, at dawn.”

D’Arcy lifted his chin haughtily.  “Perfectly satisfactory.”

“Now, Marius—” Ben started to protest again.

“Come along, my boy,” Marius ordered, taking Ben’s arm.  “Come along!”

When they had left, Marie turned to her cousin, fire in her eyes.  “Edward, no, please,” she repeated, pulling his elbow to make him face her.  “Monsieur Cartwright is no match for your rapier.  He knows nothing of such things.  And Marius is an old man!  He’s crippled!”

“Why are you so concerned about Monsieur Cartwright?” Edward asked, eyes intent on her face.

Marie’s cheeks flamed.  She couldn’t answer.  She barely understood herself what her feelings were for Ben Cartwright.  How could she explain them to Edward?  And just now, she was too angry with her cousin to speak at all.  She walked away without answering, took her cloak and left the salon.

* * * * *

Ben leaned against the back of a chair as Marius practiced thrusting his rapier before the three-paneled mirror.  He’d started the minute they arrived back from Salon D’Arcy and had thus far given himself no rest.  “To a Frenchman, my boy, honor is sacred,” the old fencing master declared.

“Oh, come on, Marius,” Ben argued.  “I was tricked into that duel; you know that.”

“Of course, you were,” Marius agreed, lunging forward once again.

“Why?” Ben asked.

“Obviously, you’re considered a threat,” Marius stated matter-of-factly.

Ben pulled himself upright.  “A threat?  To what?  To whom?”  He spread his hands to the walls  “By whom?”

“Obviously, again, by Madame D’Marigny,” replied Marius, tucking his rapier beneath one arm, “which is why she’s hired D’Arcy to arrange your convenient demise.”

That made no sense to Ben.  What threat could he possibly pose to Jean’s mother?  Did she that greatly fear his uncovering the truth about the night that had led to her son’s repudiation of his wife?  He folded his arms.  “Well, it’s still my fight, and I won’t have you interfering.”

After placing his weapon on the bench by the stairs, Marius turned to face Ben.  “My dear boy, do you actually believe you could meet D’Arcy in a cartel with rapiers?  The man’s a professional duelist.  He’s killed four men.  He half crippled me, a fencing master!”

Ben couldn’t deny those facts.  “Well, then, we’ll have to find some other way to settle it.  That’s all.”

“There is no other way!” Marius shouted.  “Unless I kill the man first, he’ll kill you.”

Ben gave the older man a confident look.  “Marius, I’m not helpless.  I may not be a fencer, but I can hold my own with the best of them with my fists or with practically any kind of firearm.”

“Too late for that,” Marius sneered eloquently.  “He’s maneuvered you so he has the choice of weapons.”  He walked to the table and poured himself a glass of wine.

“You’d better understand me, Marius,” Ben warned.  “I’m not leaving town, and I’m not going to let you do my fighting for me.”

Marius, blue eyes snapping, declared, “And there’s something you must understand:  I have been given another chance, and you’re not taking it from me.  You have everything——a great future, sons; for me, there is only honor.  Without it, I’m nothing.”

“Honor!” Marie cried, sweeping into the room through the open doorway.  She had walked from the salon to the academy, but it wasn’t just the exercise that brought the heightened color to her cheeks.  “The word hangs in the air of New Orleans like the refrain of a song.”

“I taught you the art of fencing, Marie,” Marius responded defensively.  “I taught you the code that holds men to the high standard of honor and courtesy.”

“The Code,” Marie said bitterly.  “Marius, this time you will die.  I know it,” she added, her voice soft with feeling.

“Perhaps, but with dignity,” Marius announced proudly.

Marie stepped over to Ben.  “Ben, Marius is just trying to save you.  He can’t win.”

“He’s not gonna have a chance to try,” Ben assured her.

“Ben!” Marius protested.

“I’ve heard all I want to hear, Marius; the discussion is over.”

Marius looked at his friends thoughtfully.  “Well, maybe you’re right, my boy,” he said, suddenly, inexplicably, tractable.  “Maybe it’s just the stubborn pride of an old man.”  He left the room, going up the stairs.

Marie looked into Ben’s brown eyes.  “What about you?” she asked.  “How are you going to fight D’Arcy?”

Ben gazed searchingly at her.  “I thought your concern was for Marius.”

Marie averted her eyes.  “I love the dear man, but—”

“But what?” Ben pressed.

Marie blushed, then looked steadily into Ben’s face.  “My concern isn’t only for Marius,” she admitted.

Ben’s heart leaped.  For him, then.  She was concerned for him.  As she would be for anyone in danger?  Or did he dare hope her concern was more personal?  Sleep came slowly to Ben that night, not solely from fear over his fate, to be decided at dawn.  As on other nights since he’d come to New Orleans, he found himself trying to solve the enigma of surging emotions, emotions he’d thought dead and buried in the graves of Elizabeth and Inger, emotions that tonight seemed not only alive, but flaming hot.

When Ben finally fell asleep, he slept heavily and woke feeling sluggish.  He wasn’t sure at first what had awakened him, then he became aware of the pounding on the front door.  He pushed aside the mosquito netting around his bed and stumbled to answer the door.  He opened it and Marie stepped inside.  She was still dressed in the gown she’d worn the night before, wrinkled now.  “Ben, I couldn’t go to sleep,” she said hurriedly.  “I just saw Marius and Edward headed for The Oaks.”

Ben was suddenly aware of daylight.  Already dawn, the scheduled hour of his duel with D’Arcy, and because he’d overslept, Marius was making good his threat to take on the professional swordsman before Ben had a chance.  “The fool!” Ben cried.  “You’ll have to show me where they hold these stupid duels.”

“My carriage is outside,” Marie said.

Ben snatched his great cape from the rack by the door and hurried out after her.  Though Marie urged the driver to make all haste, the duel was well underway by the time they arrived at The Oaks.  Ben sprang from the carriage and helped Marie down, then they both ran toward the rapid clang of steel on steel.

D’Arcy made a final vicious lunge and plunged his blade between two of Marius’ ribs.  The old fencing master staggered back, dropping his rapier.  Marie rushed forward crying his name.  Ben was close behind her.  “Marius, you old fool!” he cried as he eased the old man to the ground beneath a towering oak.

“I failed you, my boy,” Marius gasped.  “I failed you both.”

Fire flashing across his face, Ben stood and moved toward D’Arcy.  “Ben!” Marie cried, still kneeling at Marius’ side.

Ben ignored her.  “You know what you are, D’Arcy?” he demanded.  “A hired assassin, fighting an old man.  You’re a white-livered disgrace to yourself and your so-called code of honor!”

With the back of his hand, D’Arcy slapped Ben’s cheek.

Ben saw his chance.  “I consider that a challenge which supersedes our previous arrangement,” he announced.  “My choice of weapon is pistols——here and now!”

“Agreeable, monsieur,” D’Arcy snapped.  “André, the pistols.”

As Ben removed his cloak, he saw Marius nod in satisfaction.  Now Ben and D’Arcy stood on equal footing.  Now the fight would be a fair one.  Marie put her arm behind Marius’ back and raised him to watch the contest.

The two opponents stood back to back and paced away from each other to the count of ten.  Then both turned and D’Arcy immediately fired.  The shot grazed Ben’s upper arm, but drew little blood.

“You did not fire, monsieur,” D’Arcy’s second, André, pointed out.

Ben pointed the pistol at Edward D’Arcy.  He had, despite his contempt for the man, no desire to kill.  “You’ll live, D’Arcy,” he announced, “if you tell the truth about Marie and the man you hired to disgrace her.”

D’Arcy sneered.  “You know nothing of the matter of honor,” he shouted.  “Fire and be done with it!”

“Honor,” Ben spat.  “What do you know about honor?”  Pointing his weapon skyward, he discharged it, tossed the pistol aside and advanced on D’Arcy.  He doubled his fist and slammed it into the Frenchman’s jaw.

D’Arcy went down, but came up at once, hitting the side of Ben’s head with the pistol he still held.  Ben fell, and before he could rise, D’Arcy kicked him in the ribs.  From his knees Ben swung and knocked the pistol from D’Arcy’s hand, then stood and threw his opponent against a towering oak.

Ben’s skills clearly exceeded D’Arcy’s in a fair fight, which this was, now that D’Arcy was disarmed.  Though the Frenchman was younger than Ben and kept himself fit through regular fencing engagements, the rancher had muscles built by hard work, while D’Arcy’s were the sensitive hands of a professional gambler.  Ben’s advantage was further strengthened by his righteous indignation.  D’Arcy had smeared an innocent woman; he had dealt an old man a fatal blow with his rapier; he didn’t deserve to live.

Fury fired Ben’s fists, and he soon pummeled his opponent into gasping submission.  “Tell them, D’Arcy,” Ben ordered, clutching the Frenchman by his frilled shirt front and hauling him around to face the assembled observers of the fight.  “Tell them the truth about Marie.”

“Yes,” D’Arcy stammered breathlessly.  “Madame D’Marigny arranged the whole thing——through me.”

Marius sank back to the ground, a smile of supreme satisfaction on his frail face.  Ben released D’Arcy, letting him slump against the carriage wheel against which Ben had held him, and walked immediately to the dying fencing master.

Marius stretched a hand toward him.  “Thank you, my boy,” he whispered, then turned to Marie, kneeling at his other side.  “I’m knee deep in dark water,” he said, recalling her earlier description, “but no longer sad.”

Marie wept softly, her emerald eyes shimmering as she watched him die.  “No, Marius, no!” she cried, shaking him.  He couldn’t leave her; he was all she had in the world now that Edward’s perfidy had been exposed.

Ben looked across at her with deep compassion.  “Don’t cry, Marie,” he said, longing to comfort her.  “He died as he wanted to, according to the code by which he lived.”

Marie jumped to her feet.  “The Code!” she cried as she turned and stalked away.  “I’m sick to death of the Code.  All this stupid, shallow desperation that drives decent men to destroy themselves.”  She turned to find Ben directly behind her.  “Look at this hanging moss with its slime and sickness,” she fumed, flinging her head at the ancient oaks shrouded in feathery gray drapes of Spanish moss, “like this proud society that builds a wall around itself and shuts out the world.”

Ben took her by both shoulders.  “Marie, there’s a world beyond that wall——a real world, a beautiful world.”

Marie stared defiantly at him.  “Where trees touch the sky?” she asked sarcastically.

Ben ignored the tone.  “Yes, where trees touch the sky,” he said earnestly, “and they grow straight and tall and clean, where life is reborn every moment, every day.”

Marie glanced back to the body of her old fencing master, now being attended by his seconds for the duel.  “Not for me,” she said, looking sadly toward the scene.  “Death follows me.”

Ben pulled her around so all she could see was his face.  “Only in the past, only in the past,” he promised fervently.  “There’s life ahead for you, for us.  Without you, it would be empty for me.”

Marie seemed overwhelmed.  “Empty?” she murmured in disbelief.  “But with your sons and the future you are building for them?”

“Until I came here, I thought my life was quite full,” Ben declared, amazed himself by the ardor of his words, “My sons were all I needed, but now I know:  without you it could never be complete.  Come back with me.  Be my wife.  I love you.”

Marie gazed into his warm, tender eyes.  It couldn’t be true.  He couldn’t love her.  Yet as soon as he said the words, she realized how much she longed for them to be true, how much she loved him, though she was admitting it to herself for the first time.  But for him to love her, too?  That wasn’t possible.  Such love happened only in storybooks.  But those velvet eyes couldn’t, wouldn’t, lie.  “Oh, Ben,” she cried, impulsively casting aside her fears, “I love you!”  She melted into his arms and his impassioned kiss breathed life into her heart once more.

CHAPTER THIRTY

 Morning sunshine sifted through lace curtains, forming interesting patterns of light and shadow on the small table in Marie’s kitchen.  “More café, Ben?” Marie asked, reaching for the pot.

Ben tried to keep from smiling.  “No, thank you, my dear; this will be quite sufficient.”

Pouring herself a cup, Marie laughed.  “Oh, I’m sorry, Ben.  Americans do not take their coffee so strong, do they?”

Ben reached across the table to press her hand.  “Not by a considerable measure,” he chuckled.

“Well, I shall learn to do all things to your taste,” she promised.

“Everything about you is to my taste,” Ben purred.  “I’m glad you asked me to breakfast here, instead of stopping at the restaurant as I suggested.”

“It is more private,” Marie said, as she had during their earlier conversation, “and we have much to talk about.”

“We do, indeed,” Ben agreed.  “So much has happened so fast I scarcely know where I am.”

“In New Orleans,” Marie teased, “though I hope not for long.”

A sour look crossed Ben’s face.  “I’d be happy to leave this evening, as soon as we’ve buried Marius, but unfortunately I still haven’t made those purchases for my friend in San Francisco.  Now, without Monsieur Clairmont’s help, I don’t even know where to start.”

Marie broke off a piece of flaky croissant and spread a little butter on it.  “Why do you think he will not help you?”

Ben reached for the pot of strawberry jam.  “I can’t imagine he’d want to do business with a cheat.”

“Ben!” Marie cried.

“That’s how he sees me, my love,” Ben said, “after that charade D’Arcy staged last night.  And for all I know, Clairmont may have been in on it.”

Marie laughed.  “You would not say that, Ben, if you knew Monsieur Clairmont.  He is easily manipulated, that is true, but only because he himself has so innocent a heart.  And by now all of New Orleans knows of the confession you forced from Edward this morning.  It is he who is discredited, not you.”

Ben looked hopeful.  “You think there’s a chance, then, that I could conclude my business relatively soon?”

“I am sure it can be arranged,” Marie said, “and, like you, I am eager to leave New Orleans.  It holds nothing for me now but painful memories.”  She looked at Ben and her face brightened.  “But I shall bury all that this afternoon, along with dear Marius.  And tomorrow we shall begin a new life, oui?”

“A new life, a wonderful life,” Ben vowed.

Marie glanced shyly at him.  “Ben, could we be married soon?” she asked quietly, “I know you might prefer to wait until you can be with your family and friends—”

“Oh, Marie.”  Ben took her hand again.  “I would like to have the boys at our wedding, of course, but that simply isn’t practical.  It will take weeks to reach my home, and if we’re to travel together all that time, I believe we should do so as man and wife.  I wouldn’t jeopardize your reputation for anything on earth, my love.”

A single tear trickled from the corner of Marie’s eye.  “Ben, you touch me: your courageous actions this morning have vindicated my honor, and still you guard it.”

“I didn’t feel courageous,” Ben said wryly.

Marie’s eyes fell lovingly on his face.  “To me, you are Don Jean of Austria, Henri of Navarre and Cardinal Richelieu, all my childhood heroes in one.”

“Oh, my,” Ben laughed.  “How shall I ever live up to that?  But I promise you one thing, my love.”  He spread his hands, palm up, before her.  “These may be only the hands of a rancher, rough and worn from wind and weather and work, but you can trust your love, your honor, your life in them.”

Marie put both slender hands in his outstretched ones.  “That I will never doubt.”  For a moment they sat quietly, drinking in the affection and respect each saw in the other’s eyes.  Then Marie pulled her hands back and broke off another piece of croissant.  “We can be married soon, then, as soon as tomorrow?”

“As soon as you can make the arrangements,” Ben said.  “I—I suppose you’ll want to be married by your priest.  Can he do that tomorrow?”

Marie shook her head, smiling at his ignorance.  “No, Ben, not tomorrow——nor any other time.  I cannot marry you in the church.”

“But why?” Ben asked.  “It doesn’t matter to me, of course, since I’m not Catholic, but I thought you’d want—”

“It is because you are not Catholic, Ben,” Marie interrupted to explain.  “No priest will marry us.”

“You’re stepping outside your faith to marry me, is that it?” Ben asked, his brow wrinkling with concern.  When she nodded, he asked, “Does that disturb you?”

“A little,” Marie admitted, “but only a little.  It is a long time since I felt welcome in church, Ben.”

“I don’t understand.”

“The priests, the nuns treat me well enough,” Marie told him, “but every time I went to Mass, each woman I passed drew her skirts aside, lest they be sullied by brushing against the sinner.”

“Sinner!” Ben fumed.  “It was those who slandered you who sinned.”

Marie nodded.  “But the proud women of New Orleans would never admit they judged me wrongly.  Their pride would make them find other things to criticize.  No, I will not be sorry to leave the church.  Except for the blessed sisters, the only women there who accepted me were the prostitutes.”

“Marie,” Ben chided softly.

“It was so,” Marie said defensively.  “Many of them are not evil, Ben, just women with no place to turn.  And such I might have been had it not been for Edward.”

“Edward!”  Ben all but spat the name.

“I know,” Marie said, then looked sadly at the white linen tablecloth as she ran her index finger along its edge.  “I know now that what Marius told me long ago was true:  Edward was only kind to me to bring advantage to himself.”  She looked up.  “But when Jean abandoned me, I had no way to make my living, Ben.  Before I married, I lived by my needle, but when he left, no one wanted to employ an adulteress, as I was believed to be.  Edward came to me, claiming affection for one of his own blood, and offered to support me.  Everything I have, Ben——my house, the table at which we sit, the very clothes on my back——came from Edward.”

Ben came to kneel beside her, enfolding her in his arms.  “No wonder you defended him so staunchly.”

“I was completely taken in,” Marie sighed, “so you see why I wish to marry quickly.  Who knows if I shall have a place to lay my head by tomorrow?”

“You have a place to lay your head,” Ben said, gently placing it against his shoulder.

Marie smiled up into his face.  “I could ask for no sweeter pillow.”

Ben stroked her smooth cheek.  “So, we’ll be married tomorrow, a civil ceremony, I suppose.”

“Then as soon as you finish your business we will set sail for your home,” Marie sighed contentedly.

Ben bit his lip.  “Uh, there’s just one thing, my love.”  He stood and walked a step away before turning to face her.  “I had made other plans——before I met you——and, of course, if they must be changed, we will, but—”  He couldn’t make himself ask.

Marie stood and came to him, encircling him in her arms.  “What is it, Ben?”

Ben looked chagrined.  “Well, I’d planned to travel upriver to Saint Joseph, to visit an old friend.  I know it’s not much of a honeymoon, but it’s so far from there to CarsonValley that I doubt I’ll ever have another chance.”

“Then we will go,” Marie said tenderly, “and the journey there shall be our honeymoon.”

Ben’s face lighted happily.  “Oh, what a woman I’m marrying!”  For the second time that morning, he wrapped her in his arms and pressed his lips to hers.

* * * * *

Propped on his left elbow, Ben brushed the loose, golden hair lying next to him on the snowy pillowcase.  He still couldn’t believe this beautiful creature could be his wife.  So lovely, so young, only twenty.  What did she see in an old man like him?  Why, he was almost old enough to be her father, but there was nothing in the passion with which they’d made love the night before that indicated she saw him as old and fatherly.  Slowly, the long-lashed eyelids fluttered open and those exquisite emerald eyes were gazing up into his tender brown ones.  “Good morning, Mrs. Cartwright,” he whispered, still awed by his incredible good fortune in calling her his.

Marie smiled and stretched her arms toward him.  He bent to kiss her lips, then, gathering her into his arms, lay down again, her head cradled against his breast.  “Too soon it is morning,” Marie sighed contentedly.  “I would lie by your side until the moon rises again.”

Ben kissed her forehead.  “I suppose we could,” he chuckled, “though our neighbors might think us quite decadent.”

“Our neighbors?” Marie asked.

“In the other staterooms,” Ben explained.

“Oh, them,” Marie giggled.  “What do we care for them?  I suddenly find I am hungry, though.”

“So am I——for you,” Ben teased, nibbling her ear.

“I am not a disappointment to you, then?”  She sounded serious.

Ben’s brow furrowed.  “A disappointment?  How could you be?”

Marie twisted the edge of the sheet between her slender fingers.  “I have little experience, you know, only that one month with Jean, and we could meet but rarely.”

Ben laughed and caught her up in his arms.  “And I’m such a man of the world, am I?”

“You’ve had two others to compare me by,” Marie whispered.

Ben gently stroked her golden hair.  “I’m not in the habit of comparing my wives,” he said.  “Elizabeth and Inger were both fine women, and I loved them dearly, but not more than you.”

Marie smiled then and snuggled against his shoulder.  “Tell me about them,” she said.  “Were they beautiful?”

Ben sank back on the pillow.  “Yes, each in her way.  Elizabeth was dark-haired with fine black eyes that were sharp with intelligence.  Adam’s a great deal like her.”

“Your older son?”

“That’s right,” Ben said.  “Adam’s thirteen now and quite a young man.  You know, when Jean passed away, Adam wanted me to make him foreman of the ranch.  I almost could have, too; he’s a very responsible boy.”

“But that would be too much responsibility for one so young, oui?” Marie asked.

Oui,” Ben said, “though I’m not sure Adam would agree.  I think he was still unhappy with me when I left, but he should be over it by now.  His mother could be stubborn, too, downright hard-headed once her mind was made up, and Adam’s like her in that.”

Marie studied Ben’s face.  “Elizabeth was not perfect, then?”

Ben smiled and tickled her chin.  “No one is, my love.  You’ll find I have faults enough, I’m sure.”

Marie lifted her lips to his cheek.  “Not in my eyes, my love, never in my eyes.”

“I’ll remind you of that after our first quarrel,” Ben chuckled.

“Which shall be in two minutes if you keep this up,” Marie threatened.  “I have a terrible temper, you know.”

“I know; I’ve seen it, but you’re beautiful when you’re angry,” Ben laughed, rolling her onto his prone body.

Marie pushed away and hammered his chest with diminutive fists.  “Tell me about your second wife, you naughty man,” she ordered.

“Inger?” Ben said.  “Very different from Elizabeth.  She was Swedish——large-boned, but lovely——though she didn’t think so.  I suppose, to be honest, her real beauty was her sweetness of spirit, her large heart.  And Hoss, my younger boy, seems to have inherited her loving nature.  He’s a big boy, with nearly a foot of height for each of his five years, but so gentle with little children or animals.  He’ll take you to his heart in an instant.”

“As I shall take him.  I cannot wait to meet him——and Adam,” Marie murmured, “though I think I shall be a shock for them.”

“Not a shock, a wonderful surprise,” Ben predicted.  “The boys need a woman’s touch as much as I do.  Now, perhaps, we should dress and see what’s available for breakfast.”

They got up and Ben poured water for washing and shaving while Marie fingered through the contents of her trunk.  Hearing her sigh, Ben turned and smiled.  “Don’t tell me; you don’t have a thing to wear.”

Marie sat in the floor beside the overflowing trunk.  “More than I need, I think,” she admitted, “but I’m not sure they are the right sort of clothes.  These gowns were meant to entertain in the salon, to attract men’s attention, I am ashamed to say.  Perhaps I should have left them behind, but I had few others.”

Ben stepped across the cabin and lifted her to her feet.  “You’re beautiful in them, and you earned them, my love.  Wear them without shame, but I agree they may not be appropriate to life on a ranch.  We’ll be in Saint Joseph about a week, time enough to visit a dressmaker and have some simpler things made.”

“Could I, Ben?” Marie asked, her eyes lighting.  “Have you money enough for that?”

“Mercy, woman,” Ben laughed.  “Did you think I’d married you without having funds to feed and clothe you?”

Marie blushed.  “I have no idea how much money you have, Ben, nor do I care.  But a wife should know such things, so she does not bankrupt her husband with her purchases.”

“You can buy a complete new wardrobe without bankrupting me,” Ben chuckled.  “I may not be as wealthy as the D’Marignys, but I’m doing well.  Why, we’re even planning a fine new house.”

“Truly, Ben?” Marie asked with evident interest.  “Oh, you must tell me all about it!”

“In good time, my love,” Ben said.  “Now please pick one of these dresses, so we can, at least, have a cup of coffee before our neighbors take it all.”

“I shall be dressed before you,” Marie tittered, pushing him away.  “Go shave your scruffy face.”

Ben rubbed his chin.  It was rough, and here he’d been pressing it up against her smooth, porcelain cheek.  He lathered his face quickly and lifted his razor.

Marie, of course, was not ready by the time Ben had shaved and dressed.  He’d never met a woman who could put herself together that quickly, but he didn’t have to wait long.  And he was gratified to find that they weren’t so late in arriving that there was nothing left to eat.  Fresh fruit was such a treat that Ben loaded his plate with pineapple, orange segments and bananas, along with apples and figs and dates.  With a freshly baked pastry and a steaming cup of coffee, made to American taste, Ben considered himself well fed.

After breakfast he and his bride strolled along the promenade, finally leaning against the rail to watch the magnificent plantation houses sliding past.  As a particularly large one came into view, Marie pointed it out.  “That was Jean’s home,” she said.

Ben gaped, mouth open.  “But—but I thought his home was in New Orleans.  I saw his mother there.”

“That was their townhouse,” Marie said, “but they spent the summers here.  All the wealthy families leave New Orleans when the heat comes, Ben.  The risk of yellow fever is too great in the city.”

“Oh, I see,” Ben said.  “That’s what took your baby, isn’t it, the fever?”

“Yes,” Marie replied, her eyes reflecting the sadness of that memory.  “That is where he lies buried,” she continued, nodding across the water to the D’Marigny estate, “though I have never seen his grave.  I was not welcome there even for that.”

Ben took her by the shoulders.  “Would you like to?” he asked, his voice hard.  “I could see to it.”

Marie placed gentle hands on his taut muscles.  “No, Ben,” she said.  “The past is buried; let it stay so.  And your sons shall become mine.  Besides, my little boy is not in that plot of earth.  He is alive in heaven; I would rather wait and see him there.”

Ben took her face between his hands.  “You’re a remarkable woman, Marie.  You’re right, of course; we both have loved ones waiting in heaven, but, please God, we shall have many happy years together before we go to meet them.”

“A hundred would be too few,” Marie said, drawing close, her arms circling his waist.  They embraced, inviting the indulgent smiles of other couples promenading the deck.

* * * * *

Ben spotted the tall, thin man with bushy black sideburns and silk top hat.  “There he is!” he cried, pointing.  “That’s Josiah Edwards, Marie.”

“A most handsome man,” Marie teased.  “How sad I did not meet him first.”

Ben frowned eloquently at her, then laughed and waved to Josiah.

Edwards waved back, as did the young, fair-haired boy at his side.  When the gangplank was lowered, Ben’s old friend charged up it, his son at his heels.  “Ben, Ben!” Josiah cried, wrapping Ben in a hug worthy of any bear.  “It’s so good to see you.”

“And you,” Ben said, returning the embrace warmly.  He smiled down at the youngster peering up and down the deck.  “You, too, Jamie.”

“Where is he?” the boy demanded.  “Where’s Adam?”

“Adam?” Ben asked, puzzled.  “Why, Jamie, he’s back home in Carson Valley; I thought I’d made it clear I was coming alone.”

“You did,” Josiah smiled, resting his hand atop Jamie’s head, “but when we got your wire telling your date of arrival and saying that you were bringing a surprise, I’m afraid Jamie leaped to the conclusion he wanted.”

“Oh,” Ben said sympathetically.  “I’m sorry, Jamie; I didn’t mean to mislead you.”  He turned and took the slender hand of the woman behind him.  “This is the surprise I mentioned.  Josiah, Jamie, I’d like to present my bride, Marie Cartwright.”

Josiah’s jaw dropped.  “You’re joking!”  Marie’s eyes sought the deck.  Seeing her embarrassment, Josiah took her hand.  “You are a most unexpected, but very welcome, surprise, Mrs. Cartwright.  I thought Ben was a confirmed bachelor.”

“So did I,” Ben admitted ruefully.

Jamie made a graceful bow to Marie.  “Very nice to meet you, ma’am.”

Marie smiled gently.  “I hope I am not too great a disappointment, Jamie.”

Jamie grinned.  “No, ma’am; you’re a beautiful lady.”

“Here now,” Ben said, “don’t practice your flattery on my wife, young man.”

“But I meant it,” Jamie, still too young to disguise his feelings, declared honestly.  The adults laughed at his earnest face.

“We may have to find other lodgings,” Josiah said.  “I reserved only a small room for you.  Perhaps a suite would be better for a couple.”

“Yes, I think so,” Ben agreed.

“Well, let’s get your bags and walk over to the hotel,” Josiah suggested.

“All right, but I’m afraid we’ll need a wagon; I have a trunk, as well.”

“He means I have a trunk,” Marie said, blushing, “a trunk full of worthless dresses.”

“If they’re as pretty as the one you’re wearing, ma’am,” Jamie said quickly, “they’re a far cry from worthless.”

Marie tittered.  “Ben is right; you are a flatterer.”

“Jamie, why don’t you escort Mrs. Cartwright to the hotel while Ben and I tend to the luggage?” Josiah suggested.

“That’s a good idea, Father, and I’ll ask them to change the room to a suite,” Jamie offered.

“Good lad,” Ben said.  As Jamie and Marie walked down the gangplank, Ben turned to Josiah.  “He’s growing into a fine young man, Josiah.”

Josiah smiled proudly at his son.  “I couldn’t ask for a better boy, though I could wish him sturdier.  He had a rough winter.  Feeling better now, though.”

“Good,” Ben said, then threw his arm around his friend’s shoulders.  “Oh, how I’ve looked forward to seeing you again!”

* * * * *

Having deposited Marie at the dressmaker’s, Ben and Josiah were walking down the main street of St. Joe.  “Incidentally, I read that book you sent,” Ben said amiably, “and I’d be interested in discussing it with you.”

“Not here,” Josiah muttered quickly.  “Let’s walk down by the river.”

Ben glanced sharply at his friend.  “I don’t understand.”

“Too crowded,” Josiah hissed.  “Later, Ben, when we’ve left the docks behind.”  Seeing the look on Ben’s face, he softened his tone.  “It’s a dangerous topic to discuss in the open, Ben, but we will talk, I promise.  Tell me what else you’ve been reading.  Any Shakespeare, for instance?”

Ben nodded, still perplexed by Josiah’s unwonted secretiveness.  “Yes, as a matter of fact, I finally talked Adam into reading Romeo and Juliet with me.”

“How did he like it?”

Ben laughed.  “Better than I’d hoped.  You see, there’s a certain pretty little thing back home that’s changing his attitude toward tragic tales of love.”

Josiah laughed, as well.  “I’ve been spared that so far with Jamie; he still prefers a good book to any ‘pretty little thing’ hereabouts.”

“Your time’s coming, my friend,” Ben teased.  “I’d bet on it.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Josiah replied.  “Jamie’s completely intent on his upcoming studies at the St. Louis academy.  I suppose Adam’s excited, too, about that school you mentioned in Sacramento?”

“He was,” Ben sighed as they reached the river and turned their steps northward along the bank, “but we’ve had to delay that.  Adam wants to be home while we build the new house, and we can’t possibly get it finished before school starts.”

“But, Ben, you shouldn’t allow the boy to delay his schooling,” Josiah objected.  “Adam has too bright a mind to neglect.”

“I don’t intend to neglect it,” Ben sputtered.  “A choice had to be made, and I felt Adam should make it himself.  He knows what he wants, Josiah.”

“He’s thirteen, Ben,” Josiah protested.  “No boy of thirteen should—”  He stopped himself.  “I’m sorry, Ben,” he apologized.  “He’s your son; you have every right to make whatever decision you feel is best without my interference.”

Ben rubbed his friend’s back.  “I respect your opinion, Josiah, but I respect Adam’s, too.  He thinks he wants to be a builder, and this seemed too fine an opportunity to miss.”

“I see,” Josiah mused.  “Adam’s considering becoming an architect, then?  Yes, I see your point.”

They had reached the outskirts of St. Joe.  Ben pointed to a shady willow overhanging the Missouri River.  “Shall we sit there awhile and talk?  It looks like a private enough place for any discussion.”

Josiah nodded, and he and Ben both sprawled beneath the feathery canopy of the willow.  “I’m sorry if I was abrupt with you before,” he said, “but I didn’t want you voicing your opinion of slavery on the street.”

“You were never shy about voicing yours when I lived here,” Ben pointed out.

Josiah smiled ruefully.  “I’ve grown older and wiser, perhaps.  Incidentally, Ben, if anyone asks you if you’re sound on the goose, either say yes or feign sublime ignorance.”

Ben’s forehead furrowed.  “I won’t have to feign anything,” he declared.  “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“And you’re probably better off staying ignorant,” Josiah sighed, “though I don’t suppose that would satisfy you.”

“You know me too well for that!” Ben exclaimed.  “What is this ‘sound on the goose’ business?”

“A sort of code,” Josiah explained.  “It’s used to determine whether you hold the right views on slavery.”

“Right in this case being in favor of it, I take it,” Ben commented.

Josiah closed his eyes and nodded.  “It isn’t safe not to be ‘sound on the goose,’ Ben.  Had you been here a few weeks ago, I could have shown you the bruises to prove it.”

“What happened?” Ben demanded.  “Why didn’t you write me?”

Josiah gave an ironic laugh.  “I did, Ben; the letter undoubtedly crossed you in transit.”

Ben smiled wryly.  “Oh, yeah, nothing speedy about postal service to the west, is there?  Well, what did the letter say?”

“It didn’t amount to much,” Josiah said.  “I was asked the question I warned you about and made an uncircumspect answer.  A few border ruffians, as we call those who hope to influence the ballot boxes of Kansas with their fists, escorted me into an alley and gave me a thrashing.”

“You weren’t badly hurt?”

Josiah shook his head.  “Battered and bruised, one cracked rib.”

“Josiah!”

Josiah slapped Ben’s thigh.  “No harm done.  At least, they spared me the tar and feathers.  Some slavery opponents have been subjected to that.”

Ben’s brown eyes widened.  “You’re not serious.  It’s come to that?  In a land that protects freedom of speech?”

Josiah shook his head.  “Not on that subject, my friend, not in this state.  You must have read of the recent conflict.”

“I haven’t read many newspapers lately,” Ben admitted.  “I was traveling the greater part of May; then after I reached New Orleans, I was absorbed in other things.”

Josiah smiled.  “And very pretty things they were.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Not all of them,” he said, thinking of Marius’ body lying beneath the oaks of the Plantation Allard.

“You know, of course, the fury that’s been raging over Kansas’ statehood,” Josiah said, eyeing Ben inquiringly.

“Of course,” Ben said.  “I read the President’s proclamation urging other states to stop interfering in the matter.”

“Well, they haven’t stopped,” Josiah said sarcastically.  “In fact, the situation’s grown hotter, especially after the raids last month.”

“What raids?” Ben asked.  “I seem to remember something about looting in Lawrence.”

“That attack was against the free staters,” Josiah instructed, “and John Brown followed it up, about the time you were in New Orleans, with a massacre at Pottawatomie Creek.  Five settlers who favored slavery were slaughtered, and the aftershocks are still rocking this side of the Missouri.”

Ben looked out across the water.  How calm it looked, but on both sides of its banks a storm was raging, a storm that could blow the nation apart.  He gazed toward the western horizon, unable, of course,  to see all the way to his home, but Ben found himself wishing he were already back in that peaceful valley, a valley he hoped would never be touched by the kind of conflict brewing in the eastern half of the United States.

* * * * *

“Tell Adam I’ll write as soon as I get to school and tell all about my classes and what the teachers are like,” Jamie directed.

“I will,” Ben promised, solemnly shaking the young man’s thin hand, “and I’m sure Adam will write you all about how the house is coming along.”

“I want pictures,” Jamie dictated.  “If he’s going to be an architect, he ought to be able to draw his plans out for me.”

“He can,” Ben laughed, “and I’ll see to it.”  He reached to shake the hand of Jamie’s father.  “Josiah, I’ve truly enjoyed my visit with you.”

“No more than I have,” Josiah said, giving Ben’s shoulder a hearty clap.

“Or I,” Marie ventured softly, as if reluctant to intrude.

Josiah bent to kiss her hand.  “Meeting you, my dear, has been the most delightful part of the visit.  If Ben here doesn’t treat you properly, you know you’ll always have a home in St. Joseph——with Jamie, that is.  I believe he’s thoroughly smitten.”

“Father!” Jamie protested.  “You mustn’t tease like that.”

“Come, Jamie,” Marie said, extending her hand.  “Why don’t you see me to our stateroom while these two saucy fellows say their good-byes?”

“I’d be pleasured, ma’am,” Jamie said, tossing his father a triumphant look.

Josiah watched them walk away.  “She’s quite wonderful, Ben,” he said, then, looking warmly into his friend’s eyes, “I’m sure Inger would be pleased to see you so happy again.”

Ben’s eyes grew misty.  “You think so?”

“I know so,” Josiah assured him.  “She loved you too much to want you to remain alone forever.”

“I never thought I’d marry again,” Ben admitted, smiling at his bride’s disappearing figure, “but, like Jamie, I was thoroughly smitten.”  He looked back at Josiah.  “Now you owe me a visit west, my friend.”

Josiah shook his head, laughing.  “I doubt you’ll collect on the debt soon, Ben.  I’m not a pioneer, you know.  Then, there’s Jamie to consider.  He’ll be at the academy several years, then on to a university, I hope.”

“He does get time off for good behavior, doesn’t he?” Ben scoffed.  “School terms don’t run year-round nowadays, do they?”

“No, but I still doubt we’ll see that new home of yours for many years.”  Josiah didn’t add “if ever,” but both men knew the thought was there.  They exchanged a long embrace, knowing that it might be the last they ever shared.  “Now, you’ve got the box of books for Adam?” Josiah checked.

Ben slowly nodded.  “Yes.  That was a good idea to send him a set of the same texts Jamie will be studying.”

“Can’t have that sharp mind neglected,” Josiah twitted.  “Tell Adam to write any questions he has.  If I can’t answer them, perhaps Jamie can.”

“I will.  Take care, my friend,” Ben urged.  “Don’t tell anyone you’re not sound on the goose.”

“I keep my convictions to myself,” Josiah said, “though I won’t deny them if I’m questioned directly.  You’d better get aboard, Ben.  I believe that whistle’s the last call.”

Ben smiled, pressed his friend’s hand warmly once more and hurried up the gangplank, passing young Jamie on the way down.  He stood at the rail and waved as the steamboat pulled away.  Feeling a soft hand on his elbow, he looked down to see his wife blowing kisses ashore with her free hand.  “Those had better be to the younger one,” he teased.

Marie laughed and laid her head against his shoulder.  They stayed at the rail until they could no longer see their friends, then turned and made their way to their stateroom.

* * * * *

Ben’s conversation with Josiah Edwards had reawakened him to the seriousness of the political situation, so though he still considered himself on his honeymoon, he made a more diligent effort, as they drifted down the Mississippi to New Orleans, to obtain a newspaper each time the boat docked.  He chose, however, to read it in the privacy of his stateroom, rather than in the Gentleman’s Cabin, where his newly alert ears began to pick up heated conversations on the subject of slavery and the upcoming presidential campaign.

Ben whistled as he read the article describing the convention of the new Republican Party that had begun on June 17th.

Marie, touching up her hair in preparation for the evening meal, turned from the vanity.  “Something astounds you?” she asked.

“Yeah, though I’m not sure it should,” Ben said.  “You’ve heard of the new anti-slavery party?”

Marie shook her head.  “No, Ben, I leave politics to the men; it has never interested me.”

“Oh, well I don’t want to bore you,” Ben said.

“No, no, whatever interests you, interests me,” Marie encouraged with a smile.  “You support this party?”

“I don’t know yet,” Ben said.  “I was just surprised at the man they’ve nominated for president——John Charles Frémont.”

“Frémont?  That is a French name, is it not?” Marie asked with interest.

Ben laughed.  “I guess you’re right.  I’ve never met him, of course, but he was one of the trailblazers of my part of the country.  Governor of California under the Bear Flag Republic.”

“So you will support him?” Marie asked.

“My support is of little importance, my love,” Ben chuckled.  “We don’t vote in the national election.  Utah’s not a state yet, remember?”

“Oh, oui,” Marie laughed.  “Well, I told you I was not political.  But if you cannot vote, why do you care who becomes president?”

Ben smiled.  “I care, Marie, because that man affects the entire nation.  I can’t vote, but I can, at least, pray that those who can will make a wise choice.  I’ve always respected Frémont, and certainly I hold the same view of slavery as—”  Ben stopped suddenly.  “Here I am rattling on, when I’ve never asked how you feel on the question.  I—I suppose, having grown up around it, slavery doesn’t disturb you.”

“Disturb me?” Marie pondered, getting up and coming to sit beside Ben on the bed.  “No, I suppose not, Ben.  I never had dealings with slaves myself, but those I saw seemed content enough with their lot.”

“‘Seemed’ being the key word, I think,” Ben said quietly, “but I thought you had a slave.”

“Me?” Marie cried.  “Where would I have found the money to buy a slave?”

“No, no, I’m sure she was actually your cousin’s property,” Ben hastened to say, “but I did see a black woman working at your house.”

“Oh, you mean Matilde,” Marie laughed.  “No, she was born free, Ben, and she is not black.  She is a griffone.”

“Griffone?” Ben queried.

“Three-quarters black,” Marie explained.

“You’re not serious,” Ben said, dumbfounded.  “You don’t actually have names for the degree of racial mix?”

Mais oui,” Marie declared.  She began tolling the names on her fingers.  “There is the full-blood African, of course, and the griff or griffone, if she’s female.  Then you have the mulatto, half-black; the quadroon, one-quarter black; the octaroon, one-eighth black.”

“Please tell me it doesn’t go further than that!” Ben exclaimed, closing his eyes.

Marie laughed.  “Beyond that is only cafe-au-lait, like coffee with a little cream——what Madame D’Marigny feared I might be.”

Ben’s head jerked in her direction.  “You’re——uh——part Negro?”

Marie looked anxious.  “Does it matter, Ben?  I did not think you were the sort of man who would care.”

Ben folded her into his arms.  “I don’t care; it doesn’t matter in the slightest.  I’m just surprised.  You’re so fair-skinned, and your hair’s so fine and light, I naturally assumed—”

“Correctly, I think,” Marie said, smiling at his flustered face.

“But you said—”

“I spoke of Madame D’Marigny’s fears, Ben, not of what is true.”

“Oh.”  Ben shook his head.  “I suppose that would matter to her.”

“Very much it mattered,” Marie declared.  “It would to any Creole family of unmixed blood, Ben.  That is why they investigate one’s background so carefully.  They refuse to permit marriage to anyone who cannot prove his lineage, and my family had no such proof.”

Ben fell back on the bed.  “I will never understand Creoles,” he ejaculated.

“You had better learn,” Marie tittered, her blue satin skirt rustling as she fell into his arms.  “You are married to one.”

Ben laughed.  “Well, maybe I’ll learn to understand one, then, but just one, I’m sure.”  He began to cover his wife’s cheeks with kisses, and as a consequence, they were both among the last to arrive at the dinner table.

* * * * *

Marie woke slowly, her right hand seeking Ben’s pillow, but, feeling nothing, she came fully alert.  “Ben?”

“I’m here, love,” he called from across the room.

Marie sat up and saw her husband, fully dressed, seated in a gold brocade chair reading the morning paper.  “Is it very late?” she asked, hiding a yawn behind her pretty fingers.

“About ten o’clock,” Ben smiled as he folded the paper and came toward her.

“Oh, Ben, I’m sorry,” she murmured.  “Why did you not wake me?”

“Because I had greater pleasure in watching you sleep,” he chuckled, sitting beside her to give her a kiss.  “After all, it was quite late when the steamboat pulled in last night; you had every right to be tired.”

“Is that café I smell?”

“Um-hmn, nice and strong, the way you like it.  I had some pastries sent up, too.”

“Oh, Ben, you spoil me,” Marie sighed.  She stood and slipped into a lacy peignoir, tying each of the three pastel green ribbons that closed the front.

“I love spoiling you,” Ben said.  “Now, we have the whole day free since our passage on the Pacific Mail steamer is booked for tomorrow morning.  Anything special you’d like to do?”

Marie shook her head.  “Whatever you like, Ben.  After all, New Orleans is not new to me.”

“I thought you might like to do some shopping this morning,” Ben said.  “You know, for feminine foofaraw and the like.”

“I do not know this word ‘foofaraw,’” Marie said, tilting her head quizzically.

“Things strictly for ladies,” Ben laughed, “like cosmetics, perfume, underthings.  You’d better lay in a good supply, you know.  They’re hard to come by where we’re going, so buy enough to last a year.”

“Oh, I hadn’t realized,” Marie said.  “I will need some things then, if you can spare the money.”

“Marie, I’ve told you before, get whatever you need,” Ben said patiently.  “I’ll give you some cash for this morning.”

“We are not going together?”

Ben kissed her fingers.  “Do you mind?  I have an errand to run, and I thought it best if we worked separately this morning, then met for lunch.  We’ll shop together after we eat.”

Marie giggled.  “For more foofaraw?”

Ben chuckled.  “I was thinking more of furniture.  We have a house to furnish, remember?”

“Remember?” Marie squealed.  “You have said nothing, Ben.  You don’t have furniture now?”

Ben fell back on the bed, overcome with laughter.  “Oh, Marie, Marie.”

She flounced down beside him.  “Answer me, Ben,” she demanded.  “It is important.”

Ben propped himself up on one elbow.  “Yes, Madame Cartwright,” he said with exaggerated docility.  “I have furniture, but none I care to take to our new home.  We need everything.”

Marie threw her hands to her cheeks.  “Everything!  But, Ben, how can we buy everything in one afternoon.  What were you thinking?  I don’t even know what size the rooms are or the colors or—”

“Whoa!” Ben said, grabbing her waist.  “None of that matters, my love.  I don’t intend you to buy everything today, just a few basics:  a bed for us and one for each of the boys, and some parlor furniture, maybe a dining table.”

“Is that all?” Marie asked hotly.  “Ben, you ask the impossible!”

Ben put his arms around her trembling figure.  “Don’t worry, darling.  What we don’t decide on today can be ordered later.  I just thought we might make a start.  Come over here now and have your breakfast.”

Marie still looked perturbed, but she let Ben lead her to the tiny table and pour her a cup of coffee.  “Ben, what about spices?” she asked as she munched the flaky pastry.  “Are they as hard to find as those other things?”

Ben sat across from her.  “Well, it depends on what kind,” he said.  “I’m sure you could find most of what you need in San Francisco or Sacramento, but if you have in mind anything unusual, you’d best get it here.”

“Like filé?”

“I have no idea what that is,” Ben laughed.

“For gombo,” Marie explained.

Ben looked as puzzled as before.  “Gombo?”

Marie set the coffee cup down with a clatter.  “Ben, how can you possibly visit New Orleans and not know what gombo is?” she demanded.

“I’ve been busy,” Ben teased and his wife smiled back at him.

“Well, you must have a bowl of gombo for lunch, whatever else you eat,” she ordered.

Ben raised his right hand in a crisp salute.  “Aye, aye, captain,” he acquiesced, lips twitching.

“So I will need to visit the market, too,” Marie sighed, “for filé and saffron, perhaps ginger?”

“Bring back some of those gingercakes, why don’t you?” Ben suggested, then sighed.  “Too bad they won’t keep long enough to take to Hoss.  He’d love them.”

“I’ll bake him some fresh ones,” Marie promised.  “Can you have your errands done by one?”

“Earlier, I should think,” Ben said.  “Where would you like to eat?”

“Oh, it will be easiest here, Ben,” Marie replied.  “I’ll have packages to bring back to the room, and the chef in the hotel dining room is excellent.”

“I’ll meet you back here at one, then,” Ben said.

Shortly before the appointed hour the door to the Cartwright’s room at the St. Charles opened, and Marie, in the ruby dress she’d worn the afternoon Ben saw her in the convent garden, stepped through, followed by a slim black youth, heavily loaded with packages.  Marie took a silver coin from her ivory reticule and handed it to the young man after he placed the bundles on the small table where she and Ben had eaten breakfast.

Ben thanked the black man for his assistance and closed the door behind him.  “Well,” he said, examining Marie’s pile of purchases, “I expected more than this.”

“I only bought what I thought necessary, Ben,” Marie said defensively, “and what of your purchases?  I see no boxes at all.”

“I didn’t say anything about shopping,” Ben smiled.  “I said I had errands.  But, as a matter of fact, I did bring back one small package.”  He slipped his hand into his pocket and drew out a tiny square velvet box.  “For you,” he said, handing it to his wife.

“Ben, what have you done?” Marie demanded.

“Open it,” he ordered softly.

Marie lifted the hinged lid and gasped in delight.  “Oh, Ben!” she cried, taking the ring of two intertwined golden bands from the slotted cushion in which it nestled.  She looked inside the ring and read the inscription, BC – MD – May 21, 1856.  “How did you know?” she whispered.

“You know I told you I hadn’t had time to buy you a ring because we were married so quickly,” Ben said.  “That wasn’t quite the truth.  I visited a jeweler that morning, intending to pick up whatever I could, but the jeweler told me this was the kind of ring that’s traditional around here.  Since he assured me he could have one ready before we sailed from New Orleans, I ordered the work done.”

Marie’s emerald eyes glistened.  “All my life I dreamed of wearing a ring just like this.  All Creole girls do, but I had given up hope of its ever happening for me.”

“But surely Jean, with all his money,” Ben stammered.

Marie shook her head.  “You must remember, Ben, that my marriage to Jean was a secret.  Someone as well known as a D’Marigny could not purchase an engraved ring like this without the matter being known.  No, this is my first and means so much more to me than anything the richest man could have given.  Thank you, my love.”  She kissed his cheek.

Ben slipped the ring on her slender finger, then kissed the hand that wore it.  “Now, shall we go down to the dining room and try that dish you insist I must eat?”

Gombo, Ben,” Marie laughed, “and I do insist.  Yes, let us eat right away; we have much to do this afternoon.”

* * * * *

Ben and Marie stood on the deck of the Pacific Mail steamer, watching the levee of New Orleans fade away.  Ben smiled down at his bride.  “Will you miss it much?”

Marie nodded.  “Some things I will miss——the sights, the smells——but it is exciting to think of the new places I shall see.”

“You haven’t traveled much, have you?” Ben asked.

Marie laughed.  “Not at all.  So far, the furthest I have been from New Orleans is St. Joseph.”

“Well, here’s hoping you’re a good sailor,” Ben teased.

Fortunately for the comfort of their journey, Marie, after a brief bout of seasickness, did prove to be a good sailor, and the crossing to Aspinwall, on the Atlantic side of the Isthmus of Panama, was uneventful.  Ben purchased passage on the railroad for twenty-five dollars each, and within three hours of docking, the Cartwrights were moving overland.

“How long ‘til we reach the Pacific coast?” Marie asked.

“About four and a half hours,” Ben replied.  “It’s just forty-eight miles.”

“Ah, good,” Marie said, patting her damp neck with her lacy handkerchief.  “It’s warm.”  She glanced out the window beside her.  “Oh, Ben,” she cried, “a monkey!”

Ben laughed at her childlike delight.  “They have the most colorful birds in the world here, too.  You’ll want to keep a sharp eye out for them.”

“Oh, I will,” Marie said enthusiastically.  Soon she spotted a large bird with green feathers, along with markings of crimson and yellow.  “Oh, Ben, what is that?” she murmured, pointing.

Ben looked around her.  “That’s a macaw, I believe.”

“Oh, he is so beautiful.  I wish we could have one.  Could we?”

Ben patted her hand.  “It couldn’t live through one of our winters, my love.”

“Oh, does it get very cold?”

“Very,” Ben chuckled.

Despite the heat, Marie gave a slight shiver.  “I am not used to cold.”

Ben put his arm around her.  “I’ll keep you warm,” he promised.

Marie smiled, but pulled away.  “I do not need warming now,” she giggled.

The train reached the summit station at Culebra, where the passengers disembarked.  “Care for something to drink?” Ben asked, nodding toward the roadside saloon.

“Something cool,” Marie sighed.  “I feel ready to wilt.”

“I shouldn’t wonder, in that tweed traveling dress.  It looks warm.”  The matching golden brown skirt and jacket were both trimmed in dark braid, as were the tapered sleeves.  Stylish, to be sure, but not comfortable, at least to Ben’s eye.

“It is,” Marie said ruefully.  “The dressmaker in St. Joseph suggested this fabric, but it is too heavy for the tropics, I fear.”

“She probably had Missouri winters in mind when she chose it,” Ben teased.  “It’ll feel about right around November, I imagine.”

After refreshing themselves with liquor or lemonade, according to their taste, the passengers reboarded the train, which chugged along at a steady pace.  In just over the time Ben had predicted, it pulled into the final station at Panama City, where Ben found lodgings for himself and Marie.

“When will the ship for San Francisco leave?” Marie asked.

“Day after tomorrow,” Ben reported, a trifle disgruntled.  Panama City was not his idea of a good place to lay over, but it couldn’t be helped.

* * * * *

Ben tipped the bellboy who had carried their bags and trunks to the suite at the Parker House in San Francisco, closed the door and, tossing his hat and jacket on a chair, flopped across the bed.

Marie removed the jacket of her golden brown tweed traveling dress, revealing a gold blouse with ruffled jabot, and perched beside him.  “You are tired, mon amour?” she asked.

“Aren’t you?” Ben asked in return, taking the hand she extended.  “It’s been a long trip.”

Oui, I, too, am tired,” she said.  “Are we near your home now, Ben?”

Ben laughed wearily.  “I’m afraid we’ve still a long way to go, my love.  But let’s take a rest before we go on.  Two or three days here in San Francisco will refresh us, and while it’s not quite the city New Orleans is, there are a few attractions you might enjoy.”

“But are you not anxious to see your sons again?” Marie asked.

“Our sons,” Ben corrected, “and, of course, I am eager to see the boys and introduce them to my wonderful surprise.  But a few days more won’t matter.  I have friends here who won’t forgive me if I don’t bring my new wife by to meet them, and I’d like to take you to the architect’s office and show you the plans for the house.”

“Ooh,” Marie squealed.  “I can hardly wait for that.  Can we go right away?”

“Horrors, no!” Ben protested.  “This afternoon we rest.  I may find the strength to venture out for a brief stroll later, but nothing more.  I’ll send a message to Mr. Williams’ office and request a meeting tomorrow morning.”

Marie lay down beside Ben.  “All right,” she yawned.  “I’m sure your plan is best.  But I hope our stroll will lead past a few interesting stores.  I’d like to see what San Francisco has to offer.”

“Don’t expect too much,” Ben warned.  “This isn’t New Orleans.”  There was no response, and, glancing sideways, Ben saw that Marie was already drifting into slumber.  He closed his eyes and sought the same repose.

* * * * *

“A pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Cartwright,” Clarence Williams said enthusiastically, “and how fortuitous that you have arrived before we began building.  We will want, of course,  to make any adjustments to the house you feel necessary, but I should warn you that major changes will delay our projected schedule.  I—I hope our basic design will meet with your approval.”

“I’m sure it will,” Marie replied, giving him a charming smile.

Williams visibly relaxed.  “It’s really a beautiful plan,” he said.  “I’ve prepared a drawing of how the exterior will look.  Would you like to see that first?”

“Yes, please,” Ben urged.  He couldn’t help seeing how the architect’s eye ran approvingly over Marie’s slender figure, shown to its best in the green suit she wore today.  Ben felt no jealousy, however.  How could any man be expected not to notice how beautiful his wife was?  Especially a man like Clarence Williams with an eye for fine lines.

The architect had taken a color drawing from his portfolio and spread it on his desk.  As Marie bent to look at it, Ben peered over her shoulder.  The sketch Williams had previously shown him had been in pencil.  This one caught all the color of the surrounding pines, as if the architect had actually seen the site of the proposed building, though Ben knew he had not.

“But this is lovely,” Marie murmured.

“You’re sure you wouldn’t prefer something more like the plantation houses we passed along the Mississippi?” Ben asked.  Clarence Williams flinched fearfully.

“Oh, no,” Marie said, to the architect’s relief.  “That would look out of place, I think.  See how this almost blends into the forest behind it, Ben, like it had grown there always, side by side with the pines.”

“Yes, yes.”  Williams’ face was warm with affection.  “That is exactly the effect I hoped to achieve.  How perceptive you are, Madame!”

Marie smiled, pleased by the compliment.  She was used to men praising her beauty, but they generally overlooked her other qualities.  It felt good to have one of them affirmed.  “May I see the interior now, Monsieur Williams?”

“Oh, of course,” Williams declared, drawing several sheets from his portfolio.  “This is the first floor, Madame.  You see how it all flows together.”

“One big room,” Marie said.  “I am used to more intimate settings, but this is nice.  We can all be together, no matter what we are doing.”

“Exactly,” Williams enthused.  “Oh, I do hope you like it; it’s my favorite aspect of the plans.”

“I like it very much,” Marie said, amused by his earnestness.  “There is another story?”

“Yes, one more,” the architect replied, pulling out the sheet under the first sketch.  “A stairway leads up here from the main room and another narrow one near the kitchen.  These rooms are, of course, bedrooms——more than the family actually requires, as Mr. Cartwright directed.”

“For guests,” Ben explained.  “I hope we shall have many, and with distances what they are out here—”

“Of course,” Marie said quickly.  “All your friends must feel welcome to stay as long as they like.  But, Monsieur Williams, I see no room for—for personal care.”

The architect merely looked puzzled, but Ben, understanding her meaning, winced.  “Uh——there isn’t any indoor plumbing, Marie,” he said softly.  “I’m sorry.”

“Oh,” Marie sighed.  “Well, that is all right, Ben.  It is what I knew as a girl, in my parents’ home.  I suppose I can become accustomed to it again.”

“We might, at least, provide a pump in the kitchen,” Mr. Williams suggested.  “That would require no structural changes, and you did plan to dig a well, didn’t you, Mr. Cartwright?”

“Yes, I did,” Ben said.  “Certainly, we can bring water into the kitchen.”

“Please do,” Marie requested.

“Is—is everything else to your liking, then?” the architect asked hopefully.

Marie looked hesitant.  “Well, there is one change I would like, if it is not too difficult.”

“This is your home, Marie,” Ben said.  “You mustn’t be afraid to ask for exactly what you want.”

“First show me which room is to be ours,” Marie directed.

“Whichever you like, of course,” Ben said, “but I’d planned to take this one.”  He pointed to a room at the southern end of the house that overlooked the front yard.

“That’s why I made it the largest,” Williams explained.

“I thought so,” Marie smiled, “but I wanted to check.  Would it be difficult, Monsieur Williams, to make that room a little larger and have doors opening from it into the next room?”

“Easily done, Madame,” he replied, “but it will, of course, make the other room quite small.”

“A nursery does not need to be large, Monsieur Williams,” she said sweetly.  She looked into Ben’s face and smiled, her eyes full of love and of promise.

“That, Mr. Williams, is a room we didn’t plan for,” Ben laughed.

“No, indeed, but one you’ll certainly want to include,” the architect responded cheerfully.  “I’ll make those changes, then, and I’m sure I can still arrive by our anticipated date of August first.  I have a project here to finish first, but it’s on schedule.”

“Good,” Ben said, extending his hand.  The architect shook it.  “We’ll be looking forward to your arrival.”

* * * * *

Marie knelt before her open trunk, a silk dress in one hand, a muslin in the other.  “Ben, what should I wear tonight?” she asked.

“The best you have,” Ben chuckled.

“But I do not wish to embarrass your friends,” Marie pleaded.  “I felt badly about the silk I wore to the Wentworths last night.  Mary looked very sweet in her little yellow frock, but I could see it was quite worn.”

Ben stood behind his wife to massage her taut shoulders.  “You were kind to notice,” he said, “but I’m sure Mary didn’t begrudge you your finery.”

Marie looked up into his face.  “No, I suppose not; she seemed an unusually unselfish girl.  I liked her very much, Ben, and her father and brothers, too.  I was a little afraid to go there when you told me Monsieur Wentworth was a reverend, but he treated me most graciously.”

“Why wouldn’t he?” Ben queried.

“My religion,” Marie whispered.

“Oh,” Ben said.  “Yeah, that might have been a problem a few years ago.  Ebenezer was pretty rigid when I first met him, but he mellowed a lot on the trek west.”

Marie giggled.  “Then I am glad I waited ‘til now to meet him.  But you have not answered my question.  What should I wear?  Do these Larrimores dress as—as modestly as the Wentworths?”

“You mean as cheaply,” Ben said bluntly, walking back to the mirror to finish shaving, “and the answer is no.  Mrs. Larrimore will be dressed in the best San Francisco has to offer, so I recommend you pick your fanciest gown, Mrs. Cartwright.  It will give me fiendish pleasure to see you outshine Camilla.”

“Oh, Ben, what a wicked thought,” Marie chided gently.  “Do you not like these people?  Monsieur Larrimore seemed pleasant enough when we met at his emporium yesterday.”

Ben wiped his face free of lather.  “I like them, of course,” he said, “but since they’ve come into money, Camilla, especially, tends to put on airs.  Sometimes I find that hard to handle.  She’s got a basically good heart, though.”

“Airs?” Marie said pensively.  “Then I think I shall wear my coral satin.”

“Oh, do; it’s my favorite,” Ben said, splashing his cheeks with bay rum.  “I’ll be squiring the most elegant woman at the opera tonight.”

Marie laughed and pulled out the coral gown edged with gold braid.  “I suppose I should wear my rubies, too, if we’re trying to impress.”

Ben laughed.  “By all means.  Camilla will turn green with envy.”

Whatever jealousy Camilla felt on meeting Ben’s bride was well hidden beneath the veneer of the gracious hostess.  She took Marie’s arm and led the way into the dining room.  “Now you must tell me all about your husband’s family, Mrs. Cartwright,” she began.

“But—but you have known Ben longer than I,” Marie demurred as she took her designated seat.

Camilla laughed as she placed herself to Marie’s right.  “But, my dear, I didn’t mean Ben,” she tittered.  “I know all there is to know about Ben.  I was interested in the family of your former husband.  French nobles, weren’t they?”

Marie blushed and Ben’s face tightened.  He knew how little Marie wanted to speak on that subject!  But she handled the question with poise.  “I never actually met Jean’s family, Madame Larrimore,” she said quietly.  “We were married only briefly, you know, before Jean came west.”

Camilla’s disappointment was obvious.  “Oh, that’s too bad,” she said.  “I thought we might have some interesting conversation.”

“Oh, I would find it much more interesting to talk about your life here,” Marie said.  “It is all new to me.”

“My dear child, of course it is,” Camilla said, then launched into a string of French words, evidently hoping to make her guest feel more at home.

Ben coughed into his napkin.  Even to his untrained ears, Camilla’s accent sounded deplorable.  How painful it must be to Marie!  He felt her slender fingers seek his, felt them squeeze his hand, but nothing showed on her smiling countenance.

Mercí, Madame,” Marie replied.  “You are most kind to use my tongue, but let us speak in English.  I need the practice.”

Ben nearly choked at the artless ease with which his wife told the bald-faced lie.  He knew that Marie’s education at the convent of the Ursuline nuns included extensive instruction in English, and what she hadn’t learned there, she had perfected with practice at her cousin’s business, which was regularly frequented by Americans.  The little minx!  Ben might have credited her with concern for Camilla’s feelings had it not been for the mischievous twinkle in her emerald eyes when she turned to smile at him.  Ben had a feeling they were in for an interesting evening at the opera.

* * * * *

Marie was unusually quiet as she lay beside Ben in the mahogany four-poster at the Parker House.  “Ben, do you come to San Francisco often?” she asked finally.

“About once a year, usually,” Ben replied, fingering the lacy edge of her nightgown.  “I suppose we could come more often if you’d like.”

“No, I did not mean that,” Marie said.  “Do—do you always visit the Larrimores when you come?”

“You didn’t like them,” Ben discerned, his hand dropping to take hers in a comforting caress.

“Well, not as much as the other friends I have met,” Marie admitted.  “I did like Lawrence, though he seems a weak man, and Camilla is merely tiresome.  But their children, Ben!  Sterling is a languid, lazy lout, and Jewel a cloying caricature of a lady of high fashion.”

“Oh, yeah,” Ben muttered.  “I know what you mean.  They are insufferable little brats.”

“To have all they have and be so discontent,” Marie ranted on.  “When I think how much less the Wentworth children have and how grateful they are for the smallest kindness—”  She touched her hand to Ben’s cheek.  “Please promise me that no matter how our ranch prospers, we will never allow our children to become so—so—”

“I promise with all my heart,” Ben said, silencing her with a kiss.  “Our boys will know the meaning of good, honest sweat.  There won’t be a languid, lazy lout among them.”

Satisfied, Marie settled into her pillow.  “Ben,” she murmured softly, “will there be many more people to meet before we reach your home?”

“Our home,” Ben corrected.  “No, not many, my love.  I’m sorry if I’ve overwhelmed you.”

Marie smiled weakly.  “It did not seem so until tonight.”

Ben chucked her under the chin.  “No more like the Larrimores, I assure you.  I do have other friends in California, but the only ones we’ll see on the way home are the Zuebners in Placerville, and them only briefly.  Ludmilla Zuebner is another dear friend from the Overland Trail, a simple-hearted soul I’m sure you’ll like.  She runs the best café in Placerville, so I always eat there when I pass through.  And her son is keeping my wagon and team for me.  If the stage arrives in Placerville early enough, we won’t even spend the night.  Just eat, pick up the wagon and go.”

“Oh, I hope so,” Marie whispered.  “I am so eager to meet Hoss and Adam.”  Nervously, her fingers plucked at the linen sheet.  What if they do not like me?  The words rattled in her heart like seeds in a gourd.  But Ben had assured her his sons would soon grow to love her as deeply as he himself.  That was too much to ask, of course.  But, oh, please let them like me, she prayed, and let me love them with all the affection I would have given my own little boy.  She snuggled close to the security of Ben’s side, and her fears faded.

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

 The brilliant sun stood almost directly above the cottonwoods along the Carson.   The trees spread their limbs wide, dark leaves creating broad circles of shade, as the newlyweds rolled eastward in the buckboard.  Ben turned to his bride with a wide grin.  “That’s the Thomas place just ahead,” he announced.  “That’s where the boys are.”

“So close?” Marie shrieked.  “Oh, Ben, stop, please!”

Ben reined in the horses.  “Whatever for?  I thought you couldn’t wait to meet your new sons.”

“I can wait until I wash the dust from my face,” Marie sputtered, scrambling down from the wagon without waiting for assistance.  “I am covered with it, Ben!”

“All right,” Ben laughed.  “Just don’t fall in the drink, Mrs. Cartwright.  That won’t add a thing to their first impression of you.”

Marie cast him a reproachful look and scurried to the river’s edge to dabble her handkerchief in the water and wipe her face.  Ben walked up behind her and turned her around.  “You look beautiful,” he said, planting a kiss on her freshly washed cheek.

“How can you say that?” Marie fretted, brushing the skirt of her green traveling suit.  “Look at me!”

Ben laughed.  “No one here will be bothered by a bit of dust.  We’re used to it.”

Marie smiled.  “It is just, as you say, that I wish to make a good first impression.”

“You will,” Ben assured her.  Putting an arm around her waist he led her back to the wagon and helped her to the seat.

In the packed dirt of the cabin’s yard, four youngsters were at play.  Billy and Adam, for all their pretensions of manhood, were taking a turn at the seesaw that Sunday morning, while Hoss and Inger played toss-and-fetch with Klamath.

Sharp-eyed Billy was, as usual, the first to spot the approach of visitors.  “Reckon who that could be?” he asked.

Hoss, a little closer than the older boys, stood still, stick in hand, and squinted at the approaching wagon.  The stick fell to the ground.  “It’s Pa,” he hollered and took off.

“Can’t be,” Adam scoffed.  “There’s a lady with that gent.”

“Sure is,” Billy agreed, “but that’s your pa, sure as the world.  Come on!”  He hit the ground running, leaving Adam to pick himself up off the ground at his end of the seesaw.  Billy charged up to the cabin door.  “Hey, Ma!” he yelled.  “Uncle Ben’s back, and he’s got a lady with him.”

Nelly wiped her floured hands on her apron and came to the doorway.  “Lands, who can that be?” she asked, shading her brown eyes with her palm.  She stepped into the yard, Clyde joining her as the wagon, with Hoss running at its side, pulled up.

Ben sprang down and wrapped the chunky youngster in his arms.  “How’s Pa’s big boy?” he cried.

Before Hoss could answer, Adam had thrown himself at his father, too, and for all three Cartwrights actions made words unnecessary.  The fourth Cartwright sat on the wagon seat, thirstily drinking in her first view of her new sons, until she became aware of the ocean of eyes staring at her.  Her cheeks reddened under the scrutiny.

“Did you bring me something, Pa?” Hoss, the only one oblivious to the newcomer, demanded.

“Hoss!” Adam scolded, cheeks flaming.  “That’s a fine thing to let fly out of your mouth first thing!”  Seeing all the boxes and bundles in the back of the buckboard, he was wondering the same thing himself, of course, but it was ill-mannered to ask for presents straight off.

Hoss looked chagrined, but Ben just rumpled his sandy hair and laughed.  “Yes, I brought surprises for both my boys,” he said, “but you can’t have yours ‘til after dinner.

“Candy!” Hoss squealed.

“That’s right,” Ben chuckled.  “Bonbons for you and books for Adam.”  He smiled back at the lady blushing on the wagon.  “And I brought an even more special surprise,” he announced, offering her his hand to descend from the wagon.  When Marie stood at his side, Ben said, “Clyde, Nelly, children——I’d like you to meet Marie D’Olivier D’Marigny—”  He intended to add Cartwright, but Nelly cut him off.

“Jean’s wife!” Nelly cried.  “That’s who you are!”

“Well, yes, I was.”  Marie sent Ben a mute appeal for help, but Ben just folded his arms, obviously finding sport in letting the misconception play itself out.

“Yes, dear,” Nelly was saying sympathetically, assuming Marie had used the past tense because Jean was now dead.  “You’ve suffered a terrible loss, and you must be tired, too, after your long trip.  You come right inside and refresh yourself.”  She led Marie to the rocking chair by the fire in the parlor.  “There now, you just rest.  I’ve got dinner started, but I’ll hurry it along.”

“Oh, please, may I help?” Marie asked, starting to rise.

Nelly pushed her gently back into the rocker.  “I wouldn’t hear of it, Mrs. D’Marigny.  You must be exhausted.”

“Yes, but—but I am not—” Marie sputtered.  She threw Ben another pleading look, but he just winked mischievously.

The men and youngsters had followed the two women into the parlor.  Nelly turned around.  “Clyde, you’d best ride over to Cosser’s boarding house after dinner and see if they have a room for Mrs. D’Marigny.”

“No need of that, Nelly,” Ben chuckled.

“Well, of course, there’s need, Ben,” Nelly scolded.  “You’re tired, and Clyde’ll be glad to see to the arrangements.  The lady will need a place to stay while she’s here seein’ to her husband’s affairs.”  Nelly wasn’t sure what affairs Jean D’Marigny could have left unattended here in UtahTerritory, but she could imagine no other reason the woman would have traveled from New Orleans.

“No, I meant that the lady will be staying at my place,” Ben announced, watching carefully for the explosion he was sure would follow.

“Ben!” Nelly hissed.  “How could you even think of anything so scandalous?”  She took Marie’s hand protectively.  “If you don’t care what folks think of you, at least consider this poor child’s reputation.”

“There’ll be a lot more talk if I don’t take her home with me,” Ben stated wryly.  “After all, man and wife generally sleep under the same roof.”

The silence that followed was as deafening as the aftermath of a cannon blast.  Everyone stared first at Ben, then at the furiously blushing Marie.  Finally, Clyde grinned and clapped Ben on the back.  “You sly old dog!” he cackled.  “Let you out of our sight a few weeks, and you go and git yourself hitched!”

“That’s right, I just can’t be trusted,” Ben chuckled.

Nelly pressed her hands against her cheeks.  Then, as Ben tried to give her a repentant hug, she slapped his arms away.  “Ooh, you awful man!” she fumed.  “Lettin’ me go on like that, after you led me astray deliberate.”

Ben just laughed and gave her a squeeze.  “Is it my fault you interrupted my introduction?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.  He took Marie’s hand and lifted her to her feet.  “Let’s start again, then.  This, my friends, is Marie D’Olivier D’Marigny Cartwright.”  He laid heavy emphasis on the final word.

Ben caught sight of Hoss’s puzzled face and stooped down to the little lad’s level.  “I brought you more than bonbons, Hoss,” he said softly.  “I brought you a new mama.”

“For real and true?” Hoss whispered, awestruck.  “A real mama?”

Marie bent to take his pudgy cheeks between her palms.  “I hope to be a good one, Hoss.”

Hoss threw his chubby arms around her.  “I always wanted a mama,” he declared.

Marie held him close.  What a darling boy!  He was just as Ben had described him, warm and loving, taking her to his heart in an instant.  She looked hopefully at the older boy and her smile faded, for Adam was staring at her with dark, brooding eyes.

“Adam, don’t you have a greeting for your new mother?” Ben was asking.

“She’s not my mother!” Adam shouted, spun on his heels and ran from the cabin.  Billy trotted after him.

“Oh,” Marie cried, “we have hurt him!”

Nelly was at her side in an instant, holding the slender, trembling girl in her warm embrace.  “There now; don’t fret, honey lamb.  Adam’ll come around.”  She turned censorious eyes on Ben.  “You and your surprises,” she chided.  “It was bad enough leading me on, but to spring the news on the boy that way!  Ben, where was your head?”

“I guess I didn’t think,” Ben conceded, “but I sure never expected that reaction.  Adam’s been taught better manners than that.”

“Oh, Ben, no one remembers manners when he is wounded,” Marie objected in Adam’s defense.  “You must go to him.”

“This child’s got more sense than you,” Nelly said.  “For mercy’s sake, Ben, go after the boy.”

Ben looked torn.  He hated to leave Marie among virtual strangers, but she was nodding her permission, and Hoss had instinctively moved closer to comfort her.  “Will you take care of Mama for me while I talk to Adam, son?” he asked.

“Sure, I will,” Hoss declared, chest puffing out.

“I’ll be back soon,” Ben promised, pressing a soft kiss to Marie’s forehead.

“Ben, you been out of commission longer than I figured if you think that’s the way to kiss a new bride,” Clyde guffawed.

Ben smiled, his spirit lightened by the jibe.  “You’re right,” he said as he pulled Marie into his arms and gave her lips a loud, vigorous smack.

“Ben, please,” Marie pleaded, embarrassed.

“Scat, Ben,” Nelly ordered, flapping her apron at him.  “You come in the kitchen with me,” she said, gently pulling Marie toward the door.  “I think I could use a little help after all.”  Better to keep the girl busy, Nelly decided, and for all she’d been married twice, the new Mrs. Cartwright was still little more than a girl, young and innocent like the two little ones who followed at her heels.  Clyde could call Ben a sly dog if he wanted, but Nelly figured cradle-robber came closer to truth.

Adam hadn’t gone far.  He leaned back against the cabin’s west end, arms stiffly folded, black eyes flinty.

“What’s the matter with you?” Billy demanded.  “You’d think your pa’d brought home a grizzle bear instead of the prettiest lady I ever saw!”

“What’s looks got to do with anything?” Adam snarled.  “She’s got no business here.”

“Huh!” Billy snorted.  “Seems your pa thinks different, and I’m takin’ his side.”

Adam clenched his fist and took a step toward Billy, but before he could reward his friend’s impudence with the appropriate retaliation Ben rounded the corner.  Adam’s fingers loosened and fell to his side.

“Don’t need to tell me,” Billy announced.  “I know when to clear out.”  He ran back around the corner Ben had just passed.

Adam jerked away from the wall and stalked to the nearby woodpile.  Picking up the hatchet stuck in the chopping block, he slammed its blade along the edge of a small log.

Ben frowned.  “I didn’t hear anyone ask for more kindling, boy.”

Adam winced.  The very address his father had chosen told him he was in deep trouble.  “Just figured to make myself useful,” he said, splitting off another piece of wood.

Ben grabbed Adam’s elbow and wrenched the hatchet away.  “You’re avoiding me, Adam; that’s not like you.  Now, what’s this all about?”

Adam answered with another question.  “How could you, Pa?” he demanded.  “How could you go and get married without asking us first?”

Ben took a deep breath.  “I don’t need your permission to take a wife, boy.”

Adam folded his arms and glared at his father, stubborn as before.  “You did when you married Inger.”

Ben shook his head in disbelief.  “Oh, Adam, I wasn’t really asking your permission back then, either.  I already knew you loved Inger.”

“You didn’t know it about this one,” Adam sputtered, knocking the remaining wood off the chopping block.  “You didn’t even tell us.”

Ben took the boy by both shoulders.  “I couldn’t, Adam; everything happened too quickly for that.”

“You could have written, at least,” Adam insisted.

Ben removed his hands.  “I suppose I could have, but I wanted to tell you this news in person, son.  I admit I did a poor job of choosing time and place, and for that I apologize.”

“I just don’t understand, Pa,” Adam murmured, the pain evident in his voice.  “Was it because you felt bad about the way her husband died or ‘cause she didn’t have anyone to take care of her?  Why, Pa?”

“For none of those reasons,” Ben said calmly, “but for the best of possible reasons.  I fell in love with her, Adam, and you will, too, if you give yourself a chance.”

Adam shook his head violently.  “No,” he declared adamantly.

Ben’s face grew stern.  “Adam,” he said sharply, then made his tone more conciliatory.  “You shouldn’t make such snap judgments, son; it’s never wise and totally wrong in this case.  Marie is going to make a wonderful addition to our home.”

“We don’t need her,” Adam pleaded, his black eyes anguished.  “We were fine the way we were.”

“I wasn’t fine,” Ben said quietly.  “I was incredibly lonely, Adam.  Now I have someone to share my life.”

Tears were filling Adam’s eyes, but he blinked them back.  “You had someone before.  You had me and Hoss.”

“There’s room in Hoss’s heart for someone else; why not in yours?” Ben asked soberly.

“Hoss is a baby,” Adam railed, “and too dumb to know better.”

“That’s enough!” Ben shouted.  “At this moment I’ll take the baby’s maturity over the boy’s.  Now, dinner will be ready soon.  I expect you to be at the table and I expect you to be civil.  As long as you’ve started, I suggest you go ahead and split a little kindling.  Maybe you can work off some of your temper!”  He turned and walked away.

Adam stared sadly at his father’s retreating back.  He couldn’t ever remember feeling this desolate, this devastated.  His father had always been his best friend, his greatest supporter.  Now all that seemed lost, all because of an unexpected, unwanted intruder.  He picked up the hatchet and a block of wood, but no matter how forcefully he whacked at it, he couldn’t release his anger.  He came to dinner when he was called, but sat silent at the table, eyes riveted to his plate.  He was afraid if he raised them, his feelings would show and drive his father further away.

As soon as dinner ended, the Cartwright boys gathered their possessions and loaded them in the buckboard.  Ben helped Marie in, then noticed Hoss climbing up on the other side.  “No, Hoss,” he said, “you ride in back, son.”

“Oh, there is room,” Marie said, scooting close to Ben’s side.

“All right,” Ben laughed indulgently, “but don’t complain if he’s a tight fit.”

Hoss’s addition did make for tight seating, but Marie wouldn’t have dreamed of asking him to move.  She put her arm around him in a welcoming embrace and he snuggled close, each happy in the other’s closeness.  Alone in the back of the cluttered buckboard, Adam smoldered all the way home, rejecting all Marie’s attempts to draw him into the conversation.  Klamath, trotting alongside the wagon, received more of his attention than she.

“I cannot wait to see our home,” Marie enthused.  “Are we near there, Ben?”

“Another mile,” Ben said.

“And is it as small as the Thomas’s cabin?”

Ben coughed.  “Well, uh, as a matter of fact—”

“It’s smaller,” Adam grunted, finally favoring them with a remark since it could be a discouraging one.  “Lots smaller, barely big enough for three.”

Ben turned and fixed a stern stare on his elder son.  Adam shrugged and slid toward the back of the wagon and back into silence.

“I guess we will just have to squeeze together then, like now, oui, Hoss?” Marie giggled, hugging him tighter.

“We?” Hoss said.  “You mean me and you, Mama?”

Ben laughed.  “No, Hoss; ‘oui’ means yes in French, and you’d better learn it.  Your new mama uses it a lot.”

“I do, don’t I?” Marie smiled.  “A old habit.”

“Don’t bother breaking it,” Ben said.  “I’m rather fond of that habit, and the boys will soon become accustomed to it, right, Hoss?”

Hoss tittered.  “Oui, Pa.”

Adam scowled, resolving never to use or respond to the French terminology.  Blamed if he’d let any foreigner change the way he talked!  He conveniently forgot how readily he’d adopted Inger’s Swedish phrases.

Hoss pointed excitedly ahead as a rough cabin came into view on the far horizon.  “There, Mama!” he cried.  “That’s Tree!”

“Tree?” Marie asked inquisitively.

“Pine Tree Station, to be more precise,” Ben chuckled.  “Hoss shortened it to Tree early on, and we’ve never been able to break him of it.”

“It needs a better name,” Adam grumbled, making his first contribution in more than half an hour.  He didn’t want the newcomer thinking they were satisfied with anything so prosaic.

“Yeah, it does,” Ben agreed, then added brightly.  “Perhaps Marie can help us come up with a new name.”

“Oh, but Ben, I know already,” Marie bubbled.  “You remember that man we met in Panama City, the one who studies trees?”

“The botanist who was headed back east?  Sure, I remember,” Ben said.

“Did he not have a special name for the pines he studied in the mountains?”

“That’s right,” Ben recalled.  “He called them——let’s see——ponderosas, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, that is it,” Marie cried.  “I remember thinking what a beautiful sound the word had.  Wouldn’t the Ponderosa make a lovely name for our home, where so many pines grow?”

“The Ponderosa.”  Ben rolled the word across his tongue, liking the feel of it.  “That’s perfect, my love.  What do you think, Adam?”

“Well, it’s better than Tree,” Adam admitted grudgingly.  He wrapped his arms around his legs, holding himself tight.  It wouldn’t do to admit how much he liked the name.  Not when she’d chosen it.  Of course, it was really that unknown botanist who had provided the terminology, and the scientific basis for the ranch’s new name was what appealed to Adam.  He couldn’t afford to let his father’s wife know he liked it, though.  Might make her feel he was warming to her, and Adam had no intention of doing that.  “Likely we won’t get Hoss to use a long word like that, though,” he grumbled.

“Yes, I will,” Hoss declared defensively.  “I ain’t a baby no more.  I can say Ponderosa, so there!”

Ben winced at Hoss’s slaughter of English grammar.  He should have corrected it, of course, but not today.  Considering that Hoss was the only one of his sons giving Marie an unreserved welcome to the family, Ben hadn’t the heart to find the slightest fault with him.  A good thing, though, that the boy would be off to school in a few months.  His grammar needed attention.

Ben reined the team to a halt before the door of his three-room cabin.  “Well, here we are,” he announced with forced enthusiasm.  Suddenly, presenting the cabin to his bride, Ben realized how woefully inadequate it was to anything but a bachelor’s use.  What would Marie think of her hero now that he was offering her a shack to live in?

Looking at her new home, Marie’s heart dropped.  It was, as Adam had said, much smaller than the Thomas cabin.  “Well, let us see the inside,” she remarked, keeping her voice lilting to cover any disillusionment she felt.

Ben smiled ruefully and helped her down.  Hoss jumped off the wagon seat and raced around the front of the team.  Grabbing Marie’s hand, he pulled her toward the door.  “Come on, I’ll show you around,” he offered.

Ben released Marie to her new guide, then turned to Adam.  “Coming in, son?”

Adam dropped over the side of the wagon.  “I’ll unhitch the team; someone needs to,” he said.

Ben nodded quietly, guessing the real motive behind Adam’s helpfulness.  But, motive aside, the work did need to be done.  “Yeah, you do that,” he suggested, “and we’ll see you inside later.”  Ben went into the cabin and found Hoss eagerly pointing out its features to his new mother.  Marie was looking around the main room, the dismay on her face unconcealable.

Ben crossed the room quickly to take her in his arms.  “I’m sorry,” he said.  “You deserve so much better than this.”

“Don’t you like it?” Hoss murmured, worry furrowing his brow.

Mais oui,” Marie whispered, her tone more one of concern for the child than one of conviction.  “It is a good home, but I am glad we are already planning one where we will have more room.”

Hoss looked puzzled.  Unlike his father and brother, he’d never quite understood the need for a bigger house.  This one had always seemed fine to him, but maybe it would be extra crowded with a fourth person living here.  Yeah, that must be it; that must be what his new mother meant.  “We’ll build it fast, huh, Pa?”

“Fast as we can,” Ben chuckled.  He looked apologetically into his bride’s green eyes.  “Think you can make out here a few months?”

“But, of course,” Marie declared.  “Now, where is the kitchen, Ben?”

Ben’s mouth twisted awry.  “You’re in it,” he said softly.

“But—but where is the stove?” Marie asked urgently, her face almost frantic.  “Where do you cook?”  As Ben pointed to the open fire, she collapsed in a chair beside the table.  “Oh, Ben,” she cried, “I do not know if I can.”

“Sure, you can,” Ben said encouragingly.  “It can’t be all that different from cooking on a stove.”

Marie looked dubious.  She ran her finger along the edge of the table, leaving a trail in the dust.  She frowned at Ben.

“Sorry about the dust,” he said, “but no one’s lived here while I’ve been away.”

“Well, dust, at least, I know how to deal with,” Marie said, standing.  “If I could have some water—”

“I’ll fetch a pail,” Hoss said, eager to help.

Ben beamed his approval.  “Good boy.”  He turned to Marie.  “I should let my foreman know I’m back and see how things have gone in my absence.”

“Of course, Ben, please go about your work,” she urged.  “I have plenty to keep me busy here, and I’m sure Hoss will give me all the help I need.”  She was suddenly aware of the absence of the other member of the family.  “But where is Adam?  Has he run away again?”

“No, no,” Ben assured her.  “He’s busy in the barn.  I’ll bring back a couple of men from the bunkhouse to help Adam and me unload our belongings.”

“There is no hurry,” Marie said with a weak smile.  “I do not want my things brought in until the house is clean.”

Ben winced.  “Maybe I’d better put them in the barn for now.”

Marie nodded, her eyes at last lighting with a twinkle of amusement.  “Just bring me something plainer to change into, s’il vous plait.”

“Right away,” Ben said.

Hoss soon returned, lugging two full pails of water.  Marie, now dressed in a brown-sprigged calico with cream-colored apron, took one from him.  “My, what a strong boy you are, Hoss!”

Hoss squared his shoulders proudly.  “I’m a big boy, and I can be lots of help.”

“Yes, I will need lots of help,” Marie said.  “Did you ever see such dust?”

“Lots of times,” Hoss offered ingenuously.

Marie tittered.  “Oh, Hoss, you are a priceless jewel,” she said, giving him a hug.  “Now, where shall we start?  With the table, I suppose.  We must eat before we sleep, oui?”

Oui,” Hoss agreed.

“I will need soap and a scrub brush.”

“I’ll get ‘em,” Hoss offered.

Adam appeared in the doorway.  “Pa said to ask if you needed anything,” he muttered.

“Well, I could clean better with hot water,” Marie replied. “Do you know how to build a fire, Adam?”

“Well, sure,” Adam declared, his tone implying that anyone who couldn’t was no smarter than a jackass.

“I would appreciate it,” Marie said, offering him a smile.

Adam shrugged and went to bring in the needed wood.  Marie didn’t ask for anything else, so he wandered back outside, scuffing at the dust with his boots until his father returned and they began to unload the boxes and bundles from the buckboard.

Inside, Hoss and Marie made a concerted attack on the piled up dust, and before long the front room looked better than it had since the day the three Cartwrights moved in.  Marie fingered the curtains at the windows.  “Who made these, Hoss?” she asked.  “Your mother?”

“Unh-uh,” Hoss said.  “Aunt Nelly.”

“Aunt Nelly?” Marie queried.  “Mrs. Thomas is your aunt?  But Ben called them friends, not family.”

“I don’t know,” Hoss said.  “Better ask Pa.”

“I will,” Marie smiled.  “She did a nice job with these curtains, but they have not been washed for some time, I think.”  She didn’t add “probably never,” but their condition implied that the curtains had never seen a wash tub.  To be expected, she supposed, with only a man and two boys to do the housework after their other chores.  Well, she’d rectify that as soon as she could.  Not tonight, though.  “Time to work on the bedrooms,” she told Hoss cheerfully.

“Okay,” Hoss agreed.  “Wanna see mine first?”

“By all means,” Marie laughed.  She followed the boy through the first room into the one beyond.  She looked approvingly at the two beds, each with a small chest at its foot.  One bed sported a rack of antlers above its head.

“That one’s Adam’s,” Hoss informed, following her line of vision.  “Mine’s over here.”

“You boys keep your things neatly put away,” she praised.

“Not always,” Hoss admitted.  “Pa made us clean up extra good before we left.”

Marie touched the quilt covering Hoss’s bed.  “More of Mrs. Thomas’s work?”

Hoss shook his head.  “I think Mama——my mama, I mean——made those.”

Marie smiled tenderly at him.  “They are beautiful,” she said.  “Your mama was a good seamstress.  See the tiny stitches she used.”  She took the boy’s hand.  “Do you remember much about your mother, Hoss?”

“Don’t ‘member her at all,” Hoss answered.  “I was a baby when she died.  She was pretty, though; Pa’s got a picture of her——Adam’s mother, too.”

“I saw them on the mantel,” Marie said quietly.  “Your mother is the one with hair light like yours, oui?  She was pretty, Hoss.”

“Yeah, but not pretty as you,” Hoss said with a grin.

Marie laughed and gave him a hug.  “Well, like the curtains, these quilts need washing, but that is too big a job for today.  Let’s take them outside and give them a good shaking, though, to get rid of some of the dust.”

“Okay, I’ll take mine,” Hoss offered.  Marie nodded, picking up Adam’s quilt.  As she passed back into the other bedroom, the one that must be hers and Ben’s, she paused to take the quilt from that bed as well.  She halted with a frown.  This bed was as narrow as either of the boy’s.  Obviously, it hadn’t been built for two.  Marie sighed.  Another problem to solve.  But that one she would have to leave to Ben.  Turning her attention to the one she could solve, Marie carried the two quilts outside.

The sun was beginning to dip behind the western mountains by the time the house was cleaned to Marie’s temporary satisfaction.  She sat wearily in a chair at the table and stared into the fire, contemplating the biggest problem she’d yet faced.

Hoss, standing beside her, patted her arm.  “Tired, Mama?” he asked solicitously.

Marie smiled at him.  “Not half as much as I would be without your help.  But now it is time to cook supper, and I have never cooked over an open fire.  I do not even know what there is to prepare.”

“I like pie best,” Hoss suggested.

Marie laughed.  “There is no oven, Hoss.  How could I make pie?”

Hoss shrugged.  “I don’t know much about cookin’, Mama.”

“Where would your father keep meat, if he had any?” she asked.

“Oh, that’s easy,” Hoss said.  “In the root cellar.  There’s lots more food in there.”

Marie stood at once.  “Show me this root cellar,” she said.

Hoss trotted to the door to comply and met his father coming in with Adam.  “Mama wants some meat to cook, Pa,” Hoss announced.

“You and Adam bring some salt pork and potatoes from the cellar,” his father dictated.  When they disappeared, Ben crossed the room to give Marie a kiss.  “The house looks so much better already,” he praised.  “You’ve been working hard.”

“Yes, but the hardest work is just ahead, I fear,” Marie sighed, casting a discouraged glance at the fireplace.

Ben’s arm slipped to her waist to give her an encouraging hug.  “We’ll keep it simple tonight.  Just fry some salt pork and potatoes and stir up a batch of cornbread.  You can handle that, can’t you?”

“Well—” Marie murmured uncertainly.

“Oh, of course, you can,” Ben assured her.  “Is there anything you’d like brought inside now that the place is clean?”

“That trunk of dresses I had made in St. Joseph,” Marie replied.  “I don’t suppose I’ll have any use for the silks and satins out here, so they might as well stay in the barn.”

Ben chucked her delicate chin.  “Don’t be so sure.  We throw a fandango or two even here in the wilderness, and, of course, you’ll want nice clothes for our trips to San Francisco.”

Marie laughed.  “Oh, Ben, I did not mean to complain.  But there is no room for unneeded clothes in here.  If you could find the bundle of spices I brought from the market, I am sure I can find a place for those.”

“Your wish is my command, fair princess,” Ben smiled.

Adam and Hoss entered just as their father left, bringing the supplies he had ordered.  Marie took them, then stared perplexedly at the boys.  “How—how does your father cook this salt pork and potatoes?” she asked nervously.

“Can’t you cook?” Adam jeered.  “I thought all ladies could cook.”

“Of course, I can cook,” Marie sputtered, her color rising, “but I am used to different foods.”  She turned to Hoss.  “Can you answer my question?”

“Well, Pa kinda chunks ‘em up and fries ‘em,” Hoss offered.

“That does not sound too difficult,” Marie said tentatively, taking the food to the counter just left of the fireplace.

“I’ll get a knife,” Hoss said.

Marie spun around.  “No, Hoss!” she cried.

Adam grabbed Hoss’s arm.  “You know better than that!” he yelled.  “Pa never lets you touch knives.”

Marie pulled Adam’s fingers from his brother’s arm.  “There is no need to be so harsh,” she said.  “Hoss was only trying to help.  Why don’t you find a sharp knife for me?”

“Sure,” Adam muttered.  Giving Hoss a disapproving scowl, he found the knife and slapped it on the counter.

Marie frowned at the boy’s obvious distemper, but she resolved to say nothing.  No mere words would win Adam’s heart, she was sure, but perhaps if she responded to his rudeness with courtesy and kindness, he wo