Heritage of Honor, Book 3-A Dream Imperiled (by Puchi Ann)

Summary:  The Cartwrights are caught up in ever-increasing conflict between Indians and white settlers, culminating in the greatest peril of all, the Pyramid Lake Indian War.

Word Count:  222,074   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

A Small Cloud on the Horizon

No fire burned in the huge stone fireplace that dominated the main room of the Ponderosa ranch house.  Much as Ben Cartwright relished the idyllic charm of firelight’s warm glow on the faces of his loved ones, the summer heat wouldn’t permit the fire he kept burning whenever possible.  The light from the hanging lamp above him wasn’t quite as romantic, of course, but it served to light a scene that never failed to enchant him.

The lamplight fell on the golden head of his beautiful wife Marie as it bent close to the dark-haired one of fourteen-year-old Adam.  Though Adam had been slow to accept his father’s third wife, he had come to look upon her as a friend and, in these last few months, a teacher.  Tonight, as they waited for their cook Hop Sing to call them to supper, she was helping him conjugate French verbs in preparation for his studies at the academy in Sacramento.  Adam wasn’t sure he’d be taking French this fall, but he enjoyed study and the language was both interesting and beautiful.  He wouldn’t count his summer hours wasted even if he couldn’t immediately put the new knowledge to use.

Ben’s second son, chunky six-year-old Hoss lay sprawled on the striped Indian rug shaking a rattle in the face of Ben’s third boy, a gift doubly precious because both Joseph and his mother had almost perished at his birth just seven weeks earlier.  Hoss was grinning because the baby was awake for a change, Hoss’s chief complaint being that his new brother spent far too much time sleeping.  His parents didn’t share that opinion, for despite his diminutive size, Little Joe could emit the most ear-piercing shrieks, with which music he generally chose the middle of the night to favor his mother and father.

Hoss, Ben recalled, had been an easy-going, sunny-dispositioned baby, happy as long as he was well fed, sleeping through the night by the time he was a few weeks old.  Not so Little Joe.  Everything bothered him——a wet diaper, an empty tummy or too bright a shaft of sunlight falling across his face——and he had no qualms about letting the world hear his discontent.  But the smile Ben flashed as the baby’s tiny fingers waved at the rattle plainly declared his prideful joy in the newest member of the family.

As his brown eyes swept the scene, Ben’s face reflected the satisfaction of a man watching his dreams unfold.  For so many years settling in the West had been just that, a dream.  It was a dream he had shared with three wonderful women: Adam’s mother Elizabeth, the daughter of a New England sea captain, with whom the dream had been birthed; Hoss’s mother Inger, the Swedish shopkeeper whose gentle courage had brought him to the brink of its fulfillment; and, finally, Marie, the Creole beauty with whom Ben hoped to share the flowering of all he had dreamed before.  With her and with his three sons, each a cherished gift from one of Ben’s beloved wives.  Ben released a sigh of deep contentment, and Marie looked up briefly to smile at him, her emerald eyes shining with quick comprehension of his sentiment.

A loud insistent knocking battered the front door.  Ben started to get up, but before he could leave his mauve armchair, a soft-slippered shuffling told him Hop Sing had, as usual, hurried from the kitchen to answer the door.  And, as usual, he was chattering complaints in a mixture of Chinese and broken English.  The little Cantonese cook, whose life Ben had saved and who had, in gratitude, attached himself permanently to the Cartwright family, took fierce pride in protecting the areas he considered his exclusive territory, which included both answering the door as a proper houseboy should and, of course, the kitchen.  As absolute ruler over that domain, Hop Sing did not welcome interruptions at mealtime, and it was the unseen caller at the door who was the intended recipient of the expletives being hurled in its direction.

Hop Sing opened the door and a fiery-headed, grinning boy of fifteen with a newspaper folded under his arm sauntered in.  “What’s for dinner?” Billy Thomas snickered in answer to the Chinaman’s grumbling.

“Loast beef,” Hop Sing grunted.  “Maybe so, you stay, eat?”

“Why, thanks, Hop Sing,” Billy replied enthusiastically, “I reckon you talked me into it.”

“Hmph!” Hop Sing snorted and stomped back to the kitchen, secretly pleased to have another person to savor his food.

“What’s the matter, Billy?” Ben drawled.  “Pantry running so low at your place you have to sponge a free meal wherever you can find it?”

Billy just grinned.  “Why, I figured it was the least you could do after me riding all this way just to deliver your paper.”  He drew the latest issue of the Scorpion from under his arm and tossed it to Ben.

Ben scowled eloquently.  As pleased as he was to get the local news earlier than usual, he knew better than to credit Billy Thomas with so selfless a motive.  Obviously, the boy was up to something.  Had his mother Nelly been there, she’d have been sure to point out that the “something” was bound to be mischief.

While Ben perused the paper, Billy said hello to Marie and Adam, then wandered over to the cradle.  Bending over it, palms on his knees, he asked, “Well, how’s life treatin’ you, little Wet and Wail?”

Hoss glared up at the older boy.  “That ain’t his name!”

“Isn’t, Hoss,” his father corrected absently.

“Yeah, Pa,” Hoss sighed.  He’d done so poorly in school last year that Pa was making him spend the whole summer doing lessons, but Hoss’s grammar showed little improvement.  “But that ain’t——I mean, isn’t——his name.”

“It’s what we used to call you,” Adam laughed.

“No such thing!” Hoss denied vigorously.

“Oh, yeah,” Billy confirmed.  “Little Chief Wet and Wail, to be specific——’cause that’s all you did, just like this one.”

Hoss’s lower lip thrust out.  “Little Joe’s a sweet baby,” he announced, “sweet as pumpkin pie.”

“Pumpkin pie!” Billy hooted.

“Especially when his diaper needs changing,” Adam commented dryly.

“Pa, make ‘em quit,” Hoss demanded.

“Oh, hush, Hoss,” Ben chided softly.  “They’re just teasing, and if you want my opinion, Wet and Wail’s a far more accurate name than Pumpkin Pie.”

“You are all so cruel, to make sport of my sweet little François,” Marie said, rising and lifting her baby to her shoulder.

As she had expected, everyone groaned.  “Pumpkin Pie sounds real fine next to that!” Billy snorted.

Standing next to Marie, Hoss patted the baby’s back.  “You like that better, don’t you, Punkin?  Sure you do.”  Little Joe’s head bobbed back and forth in what Hoss took as a gesture of agreement.

Marie flashed Ben a triumphant smile that let him know she’d tossed out the baby’s French middle name just to make peace by giving everyone something they could join forces against.  Ben wagged a playful finger at his wife to tell her he’d seen through her stratagem.  He was sure he’d seen through Billy’s, as well.  “This article about the upcoming dance wouldn’t have anything to do with giving us the pleasure of your company tonight, would it, Billy?” he asked with a smirk.

“Dance, what dance?” Adam demanded, reaching for the paper.  Ben handed it to him, and as Adam read about the grand ball to be held at Lucky Bill’s hotel in Genoa, his black eyes brightened.  “We’re going, aren’t we?”

“Sort of interferes with some other plans we’d made,” his father pointed out.

“The picnic?” Adam asked.  “I don’t see why.  That was gonna be the Fourth of July, Pa; the dance isn’t ‘til the fifth.”

“Oh, the energy of youth!” Ben chuckled.  “Two major outings——in opposite directions, I might add——in two days is more than my poor old bones want to think about.”

“You are not old, Ben,” Marie scolded, “only thirty-six.”

Ben smiled.  Compared to her mere twenty years, thirty-six certainly felt old, but he didn’t contradict her.  Nor did he mention the true cause of his reservations.  Marie had suffered through a difficult breech delivery and still seemed to tire easily.  Ben hesitated to plan more than her recovering strength could stand. “Yes, my love,” he said agreeably, “but I still think—”

“Oh, of course, we should change our plans,” Marie interrupted.

“No picnic?” Hoss wailed.

“But, Hoss, think what fun a dance will be,” Marie urged.

“Not as much as a picnic!” Hoss protested.  “I’d rather fish at Tahoe any day as flounce around a floor with frillies.”

“Here now, I’ve got an idea,” Ben said.  “What if we picnic at WashoeLake instead of Tahoe, like we’d planned?  It’s closer, so we could get home early and be ready for another day of fun.”

“Tahoe’s a better place,” Hoss muttered, still disgruntled.

“I know,” Ben said, “but there’ll be other times.”

A broad grin split Hoss’s face.  “My birthday!” he yelled.  “Like last year!”

The first response to Hoss’s idea came from his little brother.  Along with wet diapers, an empty tummy and bright light, Little Joe had little toleration for loud voices in his ear.  He screamed vociferously and Hoss looked immediately chagrinned.  He reached for the baby and when Marie released him, rubbed the small back until Little Joe began to settle down.  “There, there, Punkin Pie,” Hoss soothed.  “Brother’s sorry.  Don’t cry, Punkin.”

“Dinnah leady; you come now!” Hop Sing scolded from the dining room.  Everyone laughed and dutifully filed around the table to the appropriate chair, Hoss still holding the little brother he obviously adored.

“How about it, Pa?” Hoss ventured more quietly.  “A picnic at Tahoe for my birthday?”

Ben chuckled.  “Sounds fine.  You’ll relate the change in plans to your folks, Billy?”

“That’s why I’m here,” Billy grinned.  “Ma and Pa figured you might want the dance, instead of the picnic, so I offered to ride over and ask.”

“And arriving at dinnertime is just a coincidence,” Ben said with a dubious arch of his blue-black eyebrow.

Billy helped himself to a slice of roast beef.  “That’s right,” he cackled.  Then he turned an ominous face toward Adam as he passed the platter to his friend.  “Real reason I came is to let buddy boy here know I’ve staked my claim to Miss Sally Martin for the dance.”

“She know that?” Adam taunted.

“I asked and she said she’d come with me,” Billy replied loftily, “so keep your hands off, boy.”

“Fat chance,” Adam informed him as he piled his plate full of beef.

* * * * *

Nelly Thomas, seated in a straight chair in her bedroom, gave a contented sigh.  “Lands, Marie, but you got a gentle hand with hair.”  The Cartwrights had taken Sunday dinner with the Thomases and since they wouldn’t have time to return to the Ponderosa before the grand ball that evening, had brought their evening clothes along.  The men had long since been dressed, but the ladies were taking their time, taking as much pain with their toilet as if tonight’s ball were hosted by President Buchanan, instead of hotel owner William Thorrington.

Standing behind Nelly, Marie gave the light strands another stroke.  “You have nice hair to work with, Nelly, fine but so thick.”

“Well, I sure never thought it could be fixed fancy as you’re doing,” Nelly tittered.  “Won’t I be a sight at that ball tonight?  Folks won’t know me, all primped up like a china doll!”

“You will look beautiful,” Marie purred.  “I would like to steal that gorgeous green gown.”

Nelly gave her head a slight shake.  Green would have been the perfect color for Marie, of course, almost a match for those unusual eyes of hers, but the dress was much too large for the Creole woman’s slight figure, even this soon after her pregnancy.  Besides, Marie’s blue satin, crafted by a New Orleans dressmaker, was stylish beyond what any other woman in the valley would be wearing.  She’d be the one taking every man’s eye tonight, and that would have been true had she worn faded calico.  Marie was the beautiful one, Nelly thought, and she had to know it for all her acting unconscious of her looks.  A good thing Ben Cartwright wasn’t the jealous type.

“There!” Marie said, stepping back, brush still in hand.  “Take a look, Nelly.”

Nelly stood, approached the mirror over her washstand and gasped.  That couldn’t be her reflected in its polished surface!  Forget other folks not knowing her; Nelly didn’t know herself.  “Lands, I wish I had your talent with hair,” Nelly cried, turning to hug her young friend in appreciation.

“And I yours in handling children,” Marie sighed.

Nelly’s hug turned compassionate, concerned.  “What is it, honey lamb?  Adam ain’t bein’ fractious again, is he?”

Marie smiled.  “No, all is well between us, except that I shall miss him when he goes to school.”

“Well, you don’t have to cross that bridge for another couple months,” Nelly said, then smiled.  “Now, I know Hoss ain’t givin’ you a lick of trouble, so it must be our new little darlin’.”

Marie nodded.  “Ben keeps talking of how different he is from Hoss, how much less he eats, how much more he cries.  I am sure I’m doing something wrong, but I am too ignorant to know what.”

“You’re not doing anything wrong,” Nelly soothed.  “Children are different, that’s all, and if anyone ought to know it, it’s Ben Cartwright!  Why, the three I birthed were different as night and day, so how Ben can expect three boys by three different mothers to be anything alike is beyond me!”

“Little Joe seems all right to you?” Marie asked anxiously.  “He is so small.”

“Started out that way,” Nelly agreed, “and likely will be all his life.  Honey lamb, he’s you all over, even got your eyes, and you’re small.  I reckon his appetite fits his size.  You can’t go comparin’ him with Hoss.  That boy could eat a side of beef when he was Little Joe’s age!”

“You are exaggerating,” Marie accused, but she was smiling again.

“Not by much,” Nelly laughed.  “And don’t fret about the cryin’ either.  Little Joe’s extra sensitive, that’s all.  Likely he’ll grow out of it, but if you ask me, a baby that hollers about wet diapers is just showin’ good sense.”

Marie laughed.  “Then I think I have the most sensible baby there ever was.  Ben teases me about bathing him every day, but my little boy likes to be clean.”

Nelly bit her lip.  A daily bath went beyond her ideas of what was best, but she didn’t want to make the young mother feel more insecure than she obviously already did.  “Well, let’s see what the menfolk think of our finery,” she suggested.

“‘Bout time,” Clyde Thomas grumbled as the bedroom door opened, but the complaint died on his lips when he caught the first glimpse of his wife.  “Nelly, hon,” he purred, “you look plumb gorgeous.”

“Wow, Ma!” Billy exclaimed.  “Never knew you was such a looker.”

Nelly blushed, but she was obviously pleased.  “It’s Marie’s doin’,” she deprecated.

“She done good work,” Billy agreed, “but it ain’t all her, Ma.  Can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, you always said, so she must’ve had somethin’ pretty fine to work with.”

“Oh, go practice your flatterin’ ways on that Martin gal,” Nelly laughed.  “You gents ready to go?”

“Thought I was,” Clyde chuckled, “but maybe I ought to dude up some more if I’m gonna be seen with the likes of you, Nelly gal.”  Clyde’s worn tweed suit did look a little ragged next to his wife’s polished appearance.

Nelly hooked an arm through his elbow.  “You’re duded up enough for me.”

“And altogether too duded up for fighting off those miners who are bound to throng your lady tonight,” Ben teased.

“Best worry about your own duds,” Clyde sniggered.  “That gal on your arm ain’t exactly hard on the eyes, Ben boy.”

“Pa, do I have to go?” Hoss pleaded again.  Having no interest in dancing, he had offered to stay at the house and watch the baby.

Five-year-old Inger Thomas, her strawberry blonde hair set off by her new red calico, answered before Ben could.  “‘Course, you have to go, Hoss.  You’re my partner.”

Hoss frowned.  As girls went, his mother’s namesake was nice, but he felt clumsy as an ox when it came to dancing.

Sharply dressed in his gray cutaway jacket and maroon satin vest, Ben offered Marie his arm.  As they walked outside, Marie whispered, “I hope we have made the right decision.  What if the music makes Little Joe cry?”

“If it does, we’ll ask Lucky Bill if we can’t bed the boy down in a spare room,” Ben said.  “I’d rather not leave them home alone, and Hoss can use a little work on the social graces.”

“Now, Ben, don’t turn a dance into a lesson,” Marie scolded gently.  “Poor Hoss thinks he has had little else this summer.”

“All right,” Ben laughed as he handed her up to the seat of their buckboard.  “No lessons tonight.  We’ll just dance our toes sore.”

Strains of lively music greeted the party as they entered Lucky Bill’s Hotel.  Clyde took a firm grip on Nelly’s elbow.  “I may not be able to hold you for long,” he said, “but the first dance is mine.”

Nelly stroked his short auburn whiskers.  “You don’t hear me arguin’.”  She willingly let herself be led to the dance floor.

“I’d like to grab you while I have the chance,” Ben chuckled, “but I see another fellow already has you tied down.”

Marie smiled, knowing he meant the baby in her arms.  “Take the basket over by the others,” she requested.  “I want Laura to see how our little one is growing before I put him down.”  Ben nodded and carried the basket to the side of the room where two other babies lay snoozing.  Ben sent a quick prayer heavenward that Little Joe would follow their cooperative example.

Seeing no help for it, Hoss took Inger’s small hand and headed for the dance floor.

Billy spotted Sally Martin dancing with her father and made a beeline to cut in.  Though, technically, Sally was Billy’s date for the evening, his family owned only one multi-passenger vehicle.  He hadn’t wanted the whole family along when he picked up Sally and she hadn’t wanted to ride horseback in her new evening gown of violet silk, so the young couple had agreed to meet at the dance.

Adam started after Billy, intending to challenge his friend’s claim to the young beauty, when another pretty face caught his eye and he veered toward her, instead.  “Thocmetony!” he cried, grasping her bronze hand as soon as he reached her.  “What a surprise to see you here!”

“Instead of in my grandfather’s karnee, you mean?” the Paiute girl asked with a mischievous smile.  “I live here in Genoa now, with the Ormsbys.”  She turned toward the younger girl standing shyly at her side.  “You remember my sister Elma?”

“Elma?” Adam asked, brow furrowing.  “That’s not the name I remember.”

Thocmetony laughed.  “We took Christian names while we were in California.  Mine is Sarah, remember?”

“I remember,” Adam said with a smile, “but I still think your Indian name has a prettier meaning, Shellflower.”  Shellflower was the English equivalent for the pink desert flower after which the thirteen-year-old Paiute was named.

Sarah’s deep gold flesh darkened from the neck up.  “And I still think of you as Red Man, Adam,” she said, “but perhaps it is time to put aside childish things.  The Ormsbys prefer white women’s names.”

“And white women’s dress I see,” Adam added, noting the simple yellow gingham his friend wore.  “You look real pretty in it, Sarah.  Would you like to dance?”

“It is new to me, but if you will be patient, I would like to learn,” Sarah replied, taking the hand Adam offered.

“Good, and you can tell me all about why you’re living with the Ormsbys instead of your own folks,” Adam said as he led her to the dance floor.

“That is simple,” Sarah responded.   “My father wishes us to have the white man’s learning.  We will go to Genoa school soon, but now Elma and I do housework and help serve the stage passengers to earn our board.”

Giving his partner an energetic twirl, Adam nodded.  He knew William Ormsby owned a local store, which also served as a stage stop for the Carson Valley Express.  “I’ll be taking that stage before long,” Adam offered, “when I leave for school in Sacramento.”

“Ah, I will see you then, at least,” Sarah said, flushed with the vigor of the dance.

“Maybe more,” Adam said.  “Maybe I’ll just”——a hand tapped him on the shoulder.  Adam frowned as he glanced sideways and caught sight of Billy Thomas.  “What are you doing here?” Adam demanded.  “Thought you had a partner.”

“Hard to keep around here,” Billy shrugged, “with all these miners cuttin’ in.”

“You’re no miner,” Adam grunted.

Billy just grinned.  “No, but I’m cuttin’ in, same as they done me.  What’s your name, pretty?”

The Indian girl smiled, pleased as any other to have two fellows vying for her attention.  “Sarah,” she said and took Billy’s hand.

Across the room Laura Ellis was smiling into the face of Marie’s baby.  “Ooh, you pretty thing, you,” she cooed.  “You’re just the prettiest baby boy I ever saw, yes you are.”

Little Joe evidently appreciated the compliment, for he smiled cheerily, his little head bobbing as his bright eyes took in the new surroundings.

Marie giggled.  “Clyde says that most fathers have to keep a shotgun handy to protect their girls, but Ben will need one to drive away all the girls that will want to marry our beautiful Little Joe.”

Laura laughed.  “Clyde’s right.  This one won’t have to do much skirt-chasing; they’ll chase him.  But you’ll probably be the one wielding the shotgun to hold them at bay!”

Mais oui, I will,” Marie began, but she was suddenly aware of a swarm of men swooping down on her.  She wasn’t surprised.  Even in populous New Orleans men had flocked around the Creole beauty, but here in CarsonValley, where anything in a skirt was a rare and cherished sight, the homeliest woman would be the recipient of more requests for a dance that she could possibly fill.  The fact that Marie was, beyond argument, the loveliest woman in the room guaranteed she’d be kept busier than most.

Recognizing the man leading the pack as James Finney, Marie made a desperate search of the room for Ben, but he had his back to her, talking to Dr. Martin.  Marie remembered with distaste the last dance she’d shared with the man everyone called Old Virginny, after his home state.  Not only had the miner tromped on her toes, his breath had reeked of alcohol.  But Marie would have considered herself ill-mannered to turn him down.

Just as Finney was stretching out his scrawny fingers to claim his prize, another lanky man stepped in front of him and, sweeping off his black stovepipe hat, announced loudly, “Henry T. P. Comstock at your service, ma’am.”  Comstock didn’t ask for a dance; he simply assumed it was his for the taking.  He gripped Marie’s elbow and guided her toward the dance floor.

“But, my baby,” Marie protested.

“I’ll see to him,” Laura called, her lips twitching with amusement.

Irritated, but not despairing, Old Virginny and the scruffy miners behind him turned hopeful eyes on Laura, who merely laughed.  “I’m in charge of the refreshment table tonight, gents; I’m too busy right now to dance, but maybe later.”

“Maybe, for sure,” called a not unhandsome miner in his middle twenties, who was far to the rear of the pack.

Laura smiled at the likeable young man who, like Finney, had come west as a teamster for John Reese in 1851 and stayed to mine the nearby canyons.  “All right, Sandy; I’ll save my first dance for you.”  Sandy Bowers might be a little rough around the edges, but he was good-natured and open-hearted.  Laura figured she’d enjoy dancing with him far more than her friend was likely to be enjoying her turn around the floor with pompous Henry T. P. Comstock.

Finishing his conversation with Paul Martin, Ben searched the room for Marie.  He spotted her and groaned audibly.  “I should know better,” he explained to the doctor.  “I should know better than to expect a dance with my own wife.”

“I imagine she’d welcome your cutting in,” Martin chuckled.  “Old Pancake’s dance technique is a mite vigorous for most ladies’ taste.”

Ben smiled at the miner’s nickname.  Though Comstock had only been in the territory about a year, his reputation for laziness had earned him the moniker of Pancake because he rarely went to the trouble of making sourdough bread, choosing to drop the batter on a hot griddle instead.  “You’re right; it would be an act of charity,” Ben said, the smile on his lips belying the solemnity of his tone.

“Charity,” Martin scoffed.  “On that note, I believe I’ll adjourn to the punch bowl.”

“If James Finney hasn’t drunk it dry,” Ben commented saucily.

Ben claimed his wife for a dance, but couldn’t for long hold off the eager horde seeking the same privilege.  Throughout the evening partners changed regularly as lonely men satisfied their craving for female company.  Even Hoss lost his partner, to a gray-whiskered miner, but he didn’t care.  The boy navigated a straight course to the refreshment table, where Mrs. Ellis obligingly filled his plate full of sandwiches and cookies.  Hoss plunked himself on the floor behind the table next to three-year-old Jimmy Ellis and settled down to enjoy his favorite part of any social gathering.

Ben counted himself lucky to have danced with every woman, young and old, at the dance, so whenever he lost his latest partner to another eager-faced gentleman, he contented himself with roaming the room in search of a neighbor with whom he hadn’t chatted in a while.  He couldn’t help noticing, however, that many conversations seemed to break off abruptly when he approached.  The occasional snatches he caught were disturbing, for their tone was almost belligerent.  “I stand with Brigham,” one of Ben’s closest neighbors, Alec Cowan, hissed to another Mormon.  “If the United States thinks it can”——in response to the other man’s curt nod, Cowan broke off and pasted a thin smile on his face.  “Hello, Mr. Cartwright.  Warm for July, isn’t it?”

“July’s always warm here,” Ben replied lightly.  “You’ve lived here long enough to know that.”  There wasn’t much else to say about the weather, though, and Cowan seemed disinclined to discuss anything more serious, at least until Ben wandered off toward the refreshment table.  As he left, a quick glance over his shoulder told Ben the heads of his Mormon neighbors were once again bent in earnest grappling of some problem that evidently wasn’t considered the business of any gentile in the territory.

Hating to feel shut out by his neighbors, Ben nonetheless shook off his irritation.  Tonight was a celebration in honor of the birth of their nation and a rare opportunity to come together for fun and frolic.  He didn’t intend to spoil it by worrying over how other folks acted.  Passing the three baskets of babies, Ben peered into the one nearest the refreshment table, hoping to see a slumbering son, but Little Joe was wide awake, face smiling, arms and legs kicking.  To Ben’s imagination, it seemed as if the tiny boy were keeping time to the music, almost dancing in his basket.  “Like parties, do you, Little Joe?” Ben asked gently.  “Well, Pa’s glad to see that——mighty glad to see that.”  He let the baby waggle his finger for a moment, then headed for a glass of punch.  He was thirsty.

As he stepped toward Laura Ellis, however, he once again had the unpleasant experience of seeing a conversation broken off the moment he came within hearing distance.  The two blond-haired, blue-eyed Grosch brothers had been talking animatedly with Mrs. Ellis, but, spotting Ben, they stopped, and though they greeted him amiably enough, they soon wandered away in search of dance partners.  “What is going on?” Ben all but exploded to Laura.  He’d gathered that the Mormons were talking about Brigham Young’s growing controversy with the new President, but though that couldn’t possibly concern the Grosches, sons of a Universalist minister, the two brothers were acting equally secretive.

“Oh, you know miners,” Laura laughed nonchalantly, “always chattering about some big strike they hope to find.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  Perhaps that’s all it was in the case of the Grosch brothers, but Laura’s answer seemed just a bit evasive.  Then he shook his head.  No sense imagining slights where none were intended.  “That middle boy of mine left anything for his famished father?” Ben joked.

From behind the table Hoss looked up and grinned.  “It’s good, Pa; better get some while you can.”

Ben laughed loudly.  “Sound advice, if ever I heard it.  Fix me a plateful, would you, Laura?”

“My pleasure,” she said smoothly and began to cover a plate with sliced meat and cheese, sandwiches and cookies.

In the wee hours of the morning, Ben lifted the basket containing his, at last, sleeping son and herded his family toward the door.  They paused to express their appreciation to their host, Bill Thorrington.

“Glad you could come, folks,” the powerful man with the handsome face and convivial manner said.

“It’s been a real pleasure,” Ben replied earnestly.  “Like to stay longer, but these youngsters are getting drowsy and we still have a long ride ahead.”

“We’ve got vacant rooms, if you care to spend the night,” Lucky Bill suggested with a cheerful grin.

Ben chuckled.  “Thanks, but I favor my own bed.”  He loaded his family into the buckboard, Marie on the seat beside him and the two older boys in back with the baby between them.  “Did you have a nice time?” he asked his wife.

Marie snuggled close.  “Especially when I was dancing with you.”

Ben laughed.  “Didn’t happen often enough for my taste.”

They rode in silence for a while.  Then Hoss asked, “Pa, what’s a monster vein?”

“What?” Ben asked.  “Where’d you hear that, Hoss?”

“Them Grosch boys,” Hoss yawned.  “They was sayin’ somethin’ about findin’ a monster vein.”

“Oh,” Ben smiled.  “I imagine they were just dreaming of a big gold strike, son.  Not too likely around here.”

“Somebody’s gonna give ‘em six hundred dollars,” Hoss reported.  “They told Jimmy’s ma——”

“Hoss, it is not polite to eavesdrop,” Marie chided.

“Yes, ma’am,” Hoss muttered.  “I wasn’t aimin’ to.”

“I’m sure you weren’t,” Ben said.  “I feel like I’ve been eavesdropping all night, too.  Something’s going on among our Mormon friends.”

“It troubles you?” Marie asked, for she’d heard an edge to his voice.

Ben shrugged.  “I don’t know enough to be troubled.”

“I heard some folks talking about leaving the valley,” Adam said.

“Oh, I hope not,” Marie said.  “There are so few of us now.”

Ben laughed.  “Few?  Why, there’re more than five hundred people settled this side of the Sierras, ma’am.  The territory’s growing by leaps and bounds!”

Marie tittered softly, knowing she was being teased about her cosmopolitan upbringing in New Orleans, so different from life in sparsely settled western Utah.  “Yes, it feels very crowded.  Perhaps it would be well if some left.”

She wasn’t serious, of course, but her words proved prophetic.  Within two weeks sixty-four of the Cartwrights’ Mormon neighbors had departed for Salt Lake City.  Ben could only surmise that the Mormons felt threatened by President Buchanan’s desire to install a secular governor in place of Brigham Young, who had held tight rein over the territory for the last decade, and had left to close ranks against the intrusion of the United States in the affairs of the Saints.

The repercussions of that exodus by far exceeded the small drop in population.  The Utah legislature soon rescinded the creation of CarsonCounty, attaching it to Great Salt LakeCounty for elective, revenue and judicial purposes and demanded that all records of probate and county courts be sent to Salt Lake City.  Ben, along with everyone else remaining in western Utah, was infuriated by the transfer.  Salt Lake City was, as always, too far away to provide effective government, and now the former CarsonCounty wouldn’t even have a representative to voice their concerns.  They were back to the situation that had existed when the first squatter government was set up, and once again the cry to separate from the territory of Utah rang through the hills and valleys along the eastern Sierras.

CHAPTER TWO

Unexpected Reunion

Sighing, Marie handed the slate covered with figures back to Hoss, who was sitting cross-legged on the carpet before the fireplace.  “No, Hoss.  Five plus three is not nine.  And two plus four is not five.  Try again.”

Hoss groaned.  He was tired of sums.  He cast an imploring glance at the cradle near him.  If Little Joe would just wake up, his mother would have to stop his lessons long enough to care for the baby.  But Little Joe showed no signs of providing the relief his older brother craved more than cookies, heretofore the first love of his life.  Hoss stared at the printed problems and, hiding his fingers beneath the coffee table, began tediously to count out the answers.

A rap at the door made the boy’s head jerk up and drove the total he’d just calculated from his mind.  Marie frowned.  “Whoever it is does not concern you, Hoss.  Do your sums.”  Supporting his weary brain on a crooked elbow, Hoss slumped over his slate once more.

Hop Sing answered the door and waited for the tall, well-muscled stranger to announce himself.  “Is this the Cartwright place?” the man asked hesitantly.

“Pondelosa,” Hop Sing replied with an air that indicated everyone should recognize the name of the Cartwright’s ranch.

The man swept an unruly lock of brown hair from his sun-bronzed face.  “Yes, but what I need to know——”

Smiling, Marie came to his rescue.  “I am Mrs. Cartwright,” she said pleasantly as she walked toward the door.

The stranger’s gray eyes clouded with bewilderment.  “Mrs. Cartwright?” he stammered.  “I—I’m sorry, ma’am, but it was Ben Cartwright’s place I was looking for.  I thought this place matched the directions I was given.”

Marie’s golden head tilted.  “Mais oui,” she replied.  “I am Mrs. Ben Cartwright.  My husband is not here now, but should return shortly.”

“Mrs. Ben Cartwright,” the man mumbled, shaking his head as if trying to absorb words that made no sense.  “Ben’s married again?”

Marie laughed softly.  “Ah, I see.  It has been some time since you saw my husband?”

“Six years, ma’am.”

“Then you could not know,” she said.  “We have been married just over a year now.  Please come in, Monsieur——”

“John,” the man replied as he entered and walked toward the furniture grouped before the fireplace.

Oui, Monsieur Jean,” Marie repeated.  “You are an old friend of Ben’s?  From California, perhaps?”

An impish smile lifted one corner of John’s mouth.  “Oh, Ben and I go back a lot further than that,” he commented as he sat in the blue armchair near the cradle.  He stared in amazement at the sleeping baby.  “Ben and I were boys——and, I hope, friends——together back in New Bedford.”

Marie clasped her hands in delight.  “Oh, Ben will be so pleased to see you, I know——and you will, of course, stay with us.  We have plenty of rooms, though not all are furnished yet.”

John’s eyes scanned the large room, taking in the stairs to the second story.  “Yes, I can see how it might take time to furnish this much house.  Ben’s doing well, I take it.”

Marie thought that question a bit presumptious, even for a boyhood friend, but she nodded politely.  She laid a slender hand on Hoss’s head.  “Six years ago, you said.  Did you meet this boy then?”

John laughed.  “We met, but he was a good deal smaller then, eh, Hoss?”

“I don’t ‘member you, mister,” Hoss said with a grin, tickled that the man knew his name without being told.

John gestured toward the cradle.  “Your boy, ma’am?”

Marie nodded.  “And Ben’s, of course.  We call him Joseph.”

The stranger’s head rose abruptly.  Then he smiled.  “A fine name,” he said softly, as if it had special meaning for him.

Just as Marie sent Hoss to the kitchen to request Hop Sing to serve coffee and cookies for their guest, the youngest Cartwright woke, crying, as usual, to have his diaper changed and his stomach fed.  Marie excused herself and took the baby upstairs to clean and nurse him.  In the meantime Hoss happily munched cookies with John and bemoaned his sad fate of doing lessons all summer.

“Aye, matey, but how will you learn to navigate without knowing your numbers?” John asked.

“You a sailor?” Hoss asked.  “My Pa was, too.”

“Aye, most New Bedford boys dream of going to sea the way youngsters out here dream of herding cattle or panning for nuggets,” John laughed.

“Was you on the same boat as Pa?”

“No, never that,” the man chuckled.

Little Joe rode downstairs in his mother’s arms, head almost erect, not bobbing nearly as much as it had at the dance earlier in the month.  When they reached the first floor, John stood.  “Do you think I might hold the lad?” he asked.

Marie, always overprotective when it came to her precious Joseph François, immediately felt nervous.  She didn’t want to relinquish her boy to a total stranger, but John’s arms were outstretched and he was, after all, a guest and an old friend of Ben’s.  With a gracious smile that belied her true feelings, Marie let him take Little Joe.

Far from sharing her qualms, Little Joe chortled contentedly as the man bounced him playfully.  “We’ll get along fine, won’t we, wee Joseph?” John chuckled.

Hoss snickered.  “Little Joe’s what we call him, mister.”

“Suits him,” John said, “like your name does you.”

Outside, Ben and Adam had just arrived home from their day’s work.  “Looks like the Thomases are here,” Adam commented, seeing the wagon and horses in the yard.  “I thought they weren’t coming until tomorrow night.”

“That’s the way I heard it,” Ben mused.  Hoss’s birthday had been the day before, but the picnic at Lake Tahoe had been planned for Sunday.  The Thomases were to spend the night Saturday so they could get an early start the next day.  Yet here their wagon sat a day earlier than expected.  Ben’s puzzled brow drew into still greater furrows when he glanced inside that wagon.  The wooden crate aroused no questions.  Probably something Nelly was bringing for the meal, but a seaman’s bag?  Where had they even found one in this land-locked territory?

Ben sauntered toward the house, running his fingers through dark brown hair, sprinkled here and there with a few gray hairs.  He opened the front door and walked in, expecting to see Clyde and Nelly.  His mouth dropped in total shock, however, when he saw the man holding his youngest son.  “John!” he shouted joyfully and rushed to embrace him, baby and all.

“Uncle John!” Adam, walking in behind Ben, cried.

“Uncle John?” Marie asked, totally perplexed.  “But—but you said you and Ben were friends.”

John chuckled, mischief glinting in his gray eyes.  “I said I hoped we were.  We are friends, aren’t we, little brother?”

Marie dropped onto the sofa, overcome.  “Your brother?” she whispered.  “That John?”

Ben laughed.  “My brother,” he responded, “and I see I’ll have to take him to task for playing such a trick on my bride.”

“Take me to task!” John snorted.  “What about the trick you played me, keeping both a new wife and son a secret?”

“Secret?  No,” Ben protested, “I wrote you——about Marie, at least.  I’ve been a bit slack in writing about Little Joe, I confess, but I promise I wrote about my marriage.”

John shrugged.  “I never got it.  Likely, the letter’s lost at sea.”

“It happens,” Ben admitted, then gave his brother a chagrinned smile.  “Let me introduce my wife Marie, then, brother.”

John chuckled.  “We’ve met.”  He bounced the baby on his arm and Little Joe responded with an excited gasp.  “Her and our father’s namesake.  I always hoped to name a boy Joseph, but you’ve beat me to that, as you did other things.”

“Easier to name boys if you stay home long enough to have them,” Ben observed, a trifle self-righteously, it seemed to John.

John arched an eyebrow in a gesture so reminiscent of Ben’s characteristic one that their resemblance became pronounced.  “Don’t start that,” the older brother warned.  “I came near disowning you after you sent a certain letter correcting me for my vagabond ways.”

Hoss edged close and stared into John’s face.  “You really my uncle?”

John ruffled the boy’s straight sandy hair.  “Aye, lad, your wayward uncle finally on his way home.”  He looked back to Ben.  “The letter angered me, Ben, but I finally saw the wisdom of your words.  I have been too long away from my wife and my boy.”

“You’re not going overland?” Ben asked anxiously.  It was late in the season for such a journey.

“No, I’ll go back to San Francisco, then by way of the isthmus,” John said, “but I wanted to see you once more before I left.”

“You picked the best time,” Hoss declared.  “You gotta come to Tahoe with us day after tomorrow, Uncle John.  It’s the purtiest place there is.”

“Wouldn’t think of missing it, lad,” John smiled.  “In fact, I’ve brought along a contribution for the outing.”

Adam gave a knowing grin.  “I bet that’s what’s in that crate outside.”

John uttered a loud laugh.  “Always was hard to hide anything from your sharp eyes, Adam.  Come along, then and help me carry my things inside.”  He offered Marie a repentant smile.  “That is, sister, if I’m still invited to stay after the trick I played.”

“You are most welcome,” Marie said, “but, please, no more tricks.”

John nodded and raised his right hand.  “Upon my word, no tricks.”

Ben threw an arm around his brother’s broad shoulders, broader even than his own.  “Let’s get your gear in, matey, and unhitch that team.  I notice you stopped by the Thomases first.”

“How else was I to get directions?” John demanded.

“Aye, but we’ll need to get the rig back to them tomorrow, for they’re coming on that picnic, too,” Ben laughed.

As they walked outside, John shook his head, perturbed.  “They didn’t tell me that when they insisted I take the team, and after carrying that load from the stage depot to their place, I was more than eager to accept the kind offer.”

“I’ll fetch them,” Adam offered.  “It’s the least I can do for my favorite uncle.”

“Keep butterin’ me up, lad, and I just might find a special keepsake for you in that bag of mine,” John laughed.

Trotting behind them, Hoss nibbled his lower lip, hoping Uncle John would find something for him in that bag, as well.

* * * * *

The picnickers set off early Sunday morning, August 2nd, as soon as they’d finished the mammoth breakfast Hop Sing served.  Ben and John rode on the seat of the buckboard, wanting to spend as much time together as possible, since John planned to leave the next day.  Clyde perched directly behind them on a box of food for the picnic.  The ladies sat gossiping at the back of the buckboard with Inger and Hoss near them, taking turns holding Little Joe.

Hoss was put out by the bigger boys’ insistence that they wanted to ride alone, but he consoled himself with the thought that Little Joe was better company anyway.  He, at least, never pushed his big brother away and always seemed glad to see him.  Hoss’s dog Klamath trotted along beside them, yipping in happy expectation of exceptional table scraps.  Klamath had been on picnics before and recognized the signs of good things to come.

Billy and Adam were riding behind the wagon, close enough for everyone in the buckboard to hear Adam’s recital of how brave Uncle John had fought against pirates while he’d been at sea and had given Adam the cutlass taken from one of the blackguards.  Ben smiled, as he had when John regaled the boys with his exploits on Friday night.  Having sailed himself, he suspected more than half of the story had substance only in John’s imagination, but he didn’t say anything.

After everyone was in bed Marie had whispered that she thought the tale too stimulating for small boys so near bedtime and the gift too dangerous.  Ben had made light of her worries.  “All boys enjoy tales of adventure,” he’d argued, “and you know Adam will be responsible with that cutlass.  He won’t be out playing pirates with it at his age, and it’ll spark a lot of interest hanging on his wall at the boardinghouse in Sacramento.”

“All right,” Marie had conceded, “but I am glad John’s gift to Hoss was better suited to a little boy.”  John had brought Hoss a lacquered Chinese chariot, complete with a driver in a square hat and two red-plumed horses guided by matching reins of silken cord, a gift which seemed to excite Hop Sing as much as Hoss.  Evidently, the toy reminded the Cantonese of one he’d had when he was a boy in KwangtungProvince.

John’s other gift, the crate of juicy California oranges had pleased everyone.  The Cartwright boys had more opportunities to enjoy citrus fruit than youngsters back east, who were lucky to find an orange in their Christmas stocking, but they had the fruit rarely enough to think it a treat.  Hoss had wanted to feed one to Little Joe, but had finally agreed the baby would probably choke on the pulp.  Hop Sing helped him squeeze out enough juice to give the baby a few spoonfuls.  The tiny mouth had puckered piteously, but Little Joe hadn’t cried, so Hoss insisted his little brother really liked oranges and was glad Uncle John had brought a whole crate.  The remark had brought a chorus of laughter, for everyone knew who was most glad of the oranges——or anything else that appeared on the table.

Some of the oranges were in the buckboard now, to be eaten by the shore of Lake Tahoe, along with fried chicken, bread-and-butter pickles, beef and cheese sandwiches and assorted pies, cakes and cookies.  Far more food than any of them should eat, Ben mused, but the boys, especially, tended to grow ravenous on the extra exercise of swimming, fishing, and running among the trees.  Klamath would be lucky if he got the scraps he craved.

“You headed for Zephyr Cove, Ben?” Clyde asked when Ben made a slight turn to the south as they neared the lake.

“Best place I’ve found so far,” Ben commented.

“Yeah, it’s a fine one,” Clyde agreed.

“Zephyr Cove?” John asked, lips curving gently upward.  “You’ve taken to naming your new world, eh, brother?”

Ben jerked John’s hat down over his eyes.  “Actually, Adam’s the one who came up with that name,” he chuckled, “and just wait ‘til you get a feel of that zephyr that comes across from the opposite bay this afternoon.”  Ben looked over his shoulder to wink at Clyde.  As both of them knew, that afternoon wind was too strong for anyone but a vocabulary-crazed boy to call a zephyr.

Ben pulled the wagon to a halt near the shore of a crescent-shaped inlet, well sheltered by tall Jeffrey, ponderosa and sugar pines.  He reached up to clap John’s shoulder.  “Well, brother, what do you think of our picnic site?”

John said nothing at first.  He vaulted over the side of the buckboard and walked to the water’s edge, Ben ambling along behind him.  Staring at the incredibly clear water, its depth making the lake so blue the sky above seemed pale and washed out by comparison, the older Cartwright heaved a sigh of contentment.  “No wonder you don’t miss the sea, little brother, with this in your backyard.”

“The fragrance is different, but it gives me the same feel as the sea,” Ben admitted.

“You ever sail her?” John asked with a sudden sharp look at his brother.

Ben shook his head.  “No boat.”

“We could build one, couldn’t we, Pa?” Adam queried.  He had just swung down from his horse and trotted over to his father.

“Oh, Adam!” Ben scoffed.  “No time for that with you off to school in three weeks.”

“Next summer then,” Adam suggested, and in his own mind it was a commitment.  “Think what fishing we could do from out in the middle, Pa!”

“And what exploring,” John chuckled.  He knew his inquisitive nephew.

Adam grinned, then shrugged and returned to his original reason for rushing up to Ben.  “Can we swim before lunch?” he begged.  “There’s time.”

“Now, that sounds fine!” John declared.  “Wouldn’t mind a dip myself.”

“Water’s pretty cold,” Ben informed him.

“Spoken like a true landlubber,” John jibed.

Ben threw a light punch into his brother’s ribs.  “We’ll see who cries ‘uncle’ first, Uncle John!”  He looked over his shoulder.  “Marie, we’re gonna take a swim.  Need anything before we leave.”

“Just the food box,” Nelly called, “but Clyde can get it.”  In answer to Clyde’s frown, she said, “Well, someone’s got to watch the young ones.  You know Hoss won’t want in that cold water.”

“Or any other deeper or colder than a bathtub,” Inger snickered.  Hoss gave the little girl, whom he usually counted a friend, a hard glare.

“Mind your manners, young lady!” Nelly ordered brusquely.

“Yes’m,” Inger said quickly.  “Could we pick berries, Ma?”

“After lunch,” Nelly replied.  “You and Hoss watch Little Joe while Marie and me set out the food.”

“That what I’m supposed to do?” Clyde grumbled, setting the food box at his wife’s feet.  “Watch them watch the baby?”

“Oh, go on with you!” Nelly capitulated.  She faced Marie, arms akimbo.  “Honestly, men ain’t nothin’ but babies grown big.”

Marie smiled.  She didn’t see anything wrong with the menfolk carrying on like boys on a summer holiday.  Ben worked so hard most days, she couldn’t begrudge him a little fun, even if her day so far resembled work more than play.

Ben and John swam side by side, each taking strong strokes through the sapphire ripples.  They easily outdistanced both the two boys and latecomer Clyde Thomas.  Finally tired, they turned to float on their backs.  “How far across is it?” John asked, hands sculling lightly at his side.

“Oh, ten, twelve miles,” Ben replied.  “All the way to California.”

John turned his head.  “That’s California, is it?  I never heard of a Lake Tahoe in California, Ben.”

“They call it LakeBigler over there,” Ben laughed, “but I prefer the Washo name.  I think it means ‘big water in high place.’”

“Any of them around?” John queried.

“Might be,” Ben conceded, “but it’s nothing to worry about.  I get on with my neighbors, brother, red and white.”

“You’re happy here, aren’t you, Ben?”

“Couldn’t be happier,” Ben replied dreamily.  “What more could any man want than a loving family and land so grand it draws his heart to God?”

“Nothing,” John said quietly.  “Time I remembered that, I guess.  The loving family, at least, I have, if they haven’t disowned me by now.”

“They wouldn’t,” Ben assured him.  “Every letter I get from Martha speaks of how she yearns to have you home.”

“Won’t know that boy of mine,” John said edgily.  “When I see how Adam’s grown, I realize the years I’ve missed with Will.”  Adam’s cousin was a year older than Adam, so John could gage his own boy’s growth fairly accurately by observing his nephew’s.

Ben didn’t respond.  The thing he’d most criticized in his brother was his separation from his family.  It was outright neglect in Ben’s eyes, but there was no need to chide John now when he’d plainly seen his own error.

“We’d better head back,” John stated.  “We’re getting pretty far from the others.”

“Yeah,” Ben agreed, but made no move to turn from his back.  “John, do you think there’s any chance of your bringing your family out here.”

“Oh, I’d like that,” John sighed, “but I doubt Martha would hear of it.  Not a pioneering bone in her body, I fear, but I’ll ask, Ben.  I think I could be content in a land like this, more than on that Ohio rock pile we call a farm.”

“There’s good land here for the asking,” Ben said.  “We lost more than threescore neighbors last month, so you could pick up a place, improvements and all, for little or nothing.”

“I’ll ask, Ben,” John repeated, “but don’t hold your breath.  After what I’ve put her through, Martha deserves the last say, and I’m afraid it won’t be to your liking——or mine.”  He turned to his stomach.  “Beat you back to shore,” he challenged and began to pull away with smooth strokes.

Ben turned quickly and swam after his brother.  John, of course, had a slight head start, but Ben suspected his brother would have won the race anyway.  John, half a head taller, had arms and legs to match and had always been a step ahead of his younger brother in any competition they’d ever waged.  The other three swimmers soon followed the Cartwright brothers to shore.

The picnic cloth was spread, so everyone gathered around it, appetites whetted by vigorous exercise and brisk mountain air.  John finally flopped back with a groan.  “Haven’t had a feed like that in years,” he declared.  “How do you avoid growing fat enough to butcher, Ben, with such as this in your feed trough?”

“I work it off, brother,” Ben chuckled.

“Aye, farming’s hard work,” John grunted, obviously dreading his return to it.

Adam grinned.  “We call it ranching out here, Uncle John.”

“Hoss!  Do not feed that chicken leg to your baby brother!” Marie said sharply.

“He’s just playin’ with it,” Hoss mumbled.  He’d been dangling the chicken just out of Little Joe’s reach and watching the tiny fingers stretch for it.

“Food is to eat, not to play with,” Ben scolded.  “Don’t be teaching your brother bad habits.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss muttered and put the chicken leg to better use between his teeth.

“You ladies goin’ berry pickin’?” Clyde asked.

“Sure are,” Nelly replied.  “May go up to one of the higher meadows and see if them Washos left us any strawberries.”

“You clear out if you see injuns!”  Clyde ordered tautly.

“Oh, they are peaceable,” Marie argued.  A year before she’d been terrified at her first sight of a “wild” Washo, but she’d lost much of her earlier fear of the tribe of gatherers.

“Might not be if you pilfer their food supply,” Ben cautioned.  “Don’t dispute them over a few berries, my love.”

Marie sighed.  “I cannot go, anyway.  I couldn’t pick many berries with Little Joe on my hands.”

“I’ll see to him,” Ben chuckled.  “Might teach him how to bait a hook.”

Everyone laughed at the idea of Little Joe’s holding a fishing pole in his diminutive hands.  “We’ll be expectin’ a fine mess of trout to fry up for supper,” Nelly challenged.

“Ah, and a brimming pail of strawberries to nibble for dessert,” Ben threw back at her.

The party split along gender lines, the ladies taking Inger with them to pick strawberries and the male contingent electing to angle for trout.  Marie had nursed Little Joe before she left, so the baby was sleeping contentedly on a pallet in the shade of one of the Ponderosa’s namesake pines.  The men and boys enjoyed a couple of hours uninterrupted fishing and had collected a good supply for supper when Little Joe woke and threatened to drive away every fish within sound of his earnest cries for attention.

Ben was pulling in a steel-blue silver trout, large enough to put up quite a fight, so he hollered to Adam, “See to him, will you?”

“Yeah, sure,” Adam muttered.  He’d had his fill of changing diapers when Hoss was a baby and never volunteered for the chore, but with nothing on his hook, he had no good reason to refuse.  He elbowed Billy’s ribs.  “Come on; give me a hand.”

Billy scowled, but came along.  One sniff told both boys a dirty diaper was, as they’d feared, the source of Little Joe’s discomfort.  “I ain’t never changed a smelly diaper in my life, and I ain’t startin’ now,” Billy stated flatly.

Adam gave his friend a hard look.  “No one’s asking you to, yellow belly.  You want to hold this little stinker or fetch the diaper?”

“I’ll fetch,” Billy said quickly, holding his freckled nose between his thumb and index finger.

“Figures,” Adam snorted, picking up the squalling baby.  “Come on, nuisance,” he grumbled.  “Let’s get you cleaned up.”  He followed Billy back to the wagon, holding the baby while Billy scrounged through the wagon in search of the basket that held the baby’s things.

“Hey, I got an idea,” Adam called as Billy returned with the diaper.  “Take him a minute.”

Billy’s nose crinkled, but he took Little Joe and held the bellowing baby at arm’s length.

Laughing at Billy’s expression, Adam started to shed his shirt and trousers.

“What you doin’?” Billy demanded.

“I figure the easiest place to clean him up is out there,” Adam replied, jerking his dark head toward the sapphire lake, “and I could use another swim.”  Stripped to his underwear, he took Little Joe, pulled off his soiled diaper and started toward the water.  “You comin’?”

“Yeah, I reckon I had my fill of fishin’,” Billy said, pulling off his own outer clothing and trotting after Adam.

When his naked buttocks hit the chilly water, Little Joe uttered a loud shriek of protest, his small legs kicking furiously.

“Hey, none of that,” Adam scolded softly.  “I’m not putting up with another little brother that’s scared of water.”  He bounced the baby gently and Little Joe slowly settled down.  “There, see,” Adam soothed.  “Just like a big bathtub, and you know you like baths.”

Billy reached out to tickle the baby under his chin.  Little Joe grinned and began to spat the water with his tiny palm.  “He likes it,” Billy cackled.

“Sure, he’s got good sense,” Adam replied loftily.  Supporting Little Joe firmly with one arm, he used the other hand to wash the baby’s bottom.

“Let’s go out deeper,” Billy suggested.

“Okay, but not too far,” Adam said.  “I’d better not get in over my head with this little squirmer to keep hold of.”

Billy had no similar constraint, of course, but loyalty kept him close.  Adam finally laid Little Joe on his chest and lay back to float.  Billy, assuming a similar position, sighed contentedly.  “Now, this here’s the life.”  Little Joe babbled in apparent agreement.

A sudden shriek of terror ripped the air.  Back amid the rocks where they’d been fishing, Ben leaped to his feet.  “That’s Marie,” he cried.

“Injuns!” Clyde yelled.  “I knew we shouldn’t’ve let the womenfolk go off alone!”

The two husbands took off with John and Hoss right behind them.  They clattered down the rugged slope to their picnic area and found Marie screaming hysterically at the water’s edge.  Ben enfolded her in his arms.  “Marie, what is it?”

Marie couldn’t speak.  Sobbing uncontrollably, she pointed out toward the lake.  Ben’s anxious gaze followed her finger.  Then he coughed with relief.  “Oh, sweetheart, he’s all right,” he soothed, holding her with one arm and waving Adam in with the other.

The gesture was unnecessary.  Adam had begun moving shoreward at Marie’s first shriek.  Soon he and Billy were wading out of the water.  Little Joe started to cry, his fingers fluttering back toward the lake.  He liked his new playground and didn’t appreciate being deprived of it.

Marie snatched Little Joe from Adam’s arms.  “Oh, you horrible boy!” she fumed.  “How could you?”

“Marie, Marie,” Ben chided softly.  “No harm done.”

“No harm!” Marie sputtered, her emerald eyes glinting.  “How can you say ‘no harm’ when the water’s icy, and just feel that wind!”  From the glimmering green bay on the California shore a stiff gust, Adam’s so-called zephyr, had begun to blow.

While Marie cradled her shivering, shrieking infant, she rounded on Adam once again.  “See how you’ve upset this baby!” she spewed hotly.

“Me?” Adam yelled, his own temper erupting.  “He was just fine ‘til you made him come out!”

Still perturbed, Marie stalked away and with Nelly’s help, dried and dressed the baby once again.

“Oh, the joys of family life,” John chuckled.  “Maybe I’ll not be in such a hurry to go home after all.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed, but he smiled when he saw he was being teased.  “Remember, brother,” he said saucily, “ladies are made of both sugar and spice.”

“And a little of either goes a long way,” Clyde cackled.

Ben gave his friend a push as punishment for his sass.  “Hoss, can you go back and bring all those fish we caught?” he called.

“Sure, Pa,” Hoss grinned.  “It’s about time to fry ‘em up, don’t you reckon?”

“I reckon,” Ben responded with a wink at Adam.  “I reckon Marie needs something to fry besides your gizzard,” he sniggered.

“I didn’t mean any harm,” Adam alleged, hanging on, as usual, to his offense, “and I don’t think it did him any.”

Ben put an affectionate arm around his oldest son.  “I don’t think so, either.  All things considered, I’d just as soon this boy had an early introduction to the water.  Less likely to turn out like his other brother.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Adam said with a determined nod.

“Don’t tell me you’ve sired a cowardly landlubber,” John accused gruffly.

“Afraid so,” Ben admitted, obvious embarrassment in his tone.  “I’ve tried to be patient with Hoss, but he’s terrified in anything over his waist.”

“Toss him in; let him sink or swim,” John instructed loftily.

“No,” Ben said sharply.  “I remember how that method felt, big brother.  I’m not sure I’ve forgiven you yet for throwing me in the drink.”

“I wouldn’t’ve let you drown,” John protested.

“I know that now,” Ben replied, “but I’ll never forget those first few moments of absolute terror.  I won’t do that to a boy of mine.”

“Better a moment of fear than a lifetime of it,” John sputtered defensively.

Seeing Ben bristle, Clyde started to laugh.  “Like the man said,” he cackled.  “Ain’t nothin’ like the joys of family life!”

Suddenly realizing the ridiculous spectacle they’d been presenting, Ben and John started to laugh, too.  “Come on, little brother,” John said.  “Let’s see if you remember how I taught you to clean fish.”

Ben chuckled.  “Had more experience lately than you, I’ll bet.”

John arched an eyebrow and gave his younger brother a sly smile.  “You’re on, little brother.”

The three boys took charge of gathering wood and building a fire while the men raced to see who could skin and filet the most fish.  To Ben’s disgruntlement, John won, as usual.  “You forget, little brother,” John laughed, “that fish are readily had at sea.  I’ve had as much experience at cleaning them as you, my boy——maybe more.”

With a shake of his head, Ben delivered the trout to the ladies.  Nelly was the expert where frying fish was concerned, Marie’s experience leaning more to gourmet cuisine, so the older woman dredged the pieces in cornmeal and set them sizzling while Marie set out the cold items left from the noon meal.  Inger sprawled on the pallet alongside Little Joe and soon fell asleep, having missed her afternoon nap.  Klamath curled up at the foot of the pallet and sniffed the air in anticipation of his share in the feast to come.

While Klamath enjoyed the scraps of the meal, the human partakers sat dreamily around the fire, reluctant to leave though each knew they couldn’t afford to stay much longer.  Inger cozied up to Ben.  “Tell a story, Uncle Ben,” she demanded.

Ben laughed and put an arm around her.  “My stories are likely to seem tame after the ones John’s been telling my boys.”

“No, I want yours,” Inger insisted.  “You tell the best stories.”

Ben gave the strawberry curls a tender tousle.  “I do have one that might fit the occasion.  Learned it from Tuquah awhile back.”  Tuquah was the Washo man who worked off and on at the Ponderosa.  “It’s about how Lake Tahoe was formed.”

“I haven’t heard that one,” Adam said.

“I’ve been saving it,” his father chuckled.  His voice dropped and he began.  “Once upon a time, when the world was young, a Washo brave was running from the Evil One.  He was a strong runner, but the Evil One was closing in when the Good Spirit appeared and gave the Washo lad the branch of a magical tree.”

“What made it magic?” Hoss asked, eyes wide.

“Each leaf had the power to create a body of water,” his father explained.  “If the Indian boy dropped a leaf when the Evil One drew near, the water would be an obstacle between them.”

“And he could get away!” Hoss grinned.

“That’s right,” Ben said.  “Well, the Washo brave ran harder than ever, but he was getting tired and the Evil One was catching up.  Right here where we’ve been picnicking today he decided to throw down his first leaf.  He picked one off, but the Evil One was so close, the brave panicked and instead of dropping the single leaf, he dropped the rest of the branch.”

“Oh, no!” Inger cried.  “Did the Evil One get him?”

“No, no,” Ben assured her.  “Why, you see what a huge lake that branch formed, don’t you?  It took the Evil One hours to get around it.  The brave ran on to the west, looking over his shoulder from time to time.  Finally, he saw that the Evil One had rounded the south shore of the new lake and was closing in again.”  Ben could feel the little girl shiver against him, so he hurried to the story’s conclusion.  “The Indian had only one leaf left, so he dropped it.  A smaller lake was formed and it took the Evil One just long enough to go around it that the brave had time to cross the mountains safely and escape into the valley of the Sacramento.”

Inger sighed with relief, but Hoss’s lips were puckered in thought.  “What lake is that, Pa?” he asked.  “The little one, I mean.”

“It’s called FallenLeafLake, son, for obvious reasons,” Ben smiled, “and I hear it’s a fine one for fishing.”

“I want to go there,” Hoss said eagerly.

“We might sometime,” Ben said.  “But now, friends and family, I think it’s time we packed up and headed for home.”

Everyone groaned, but there was no argument, not even from the children.  They all knew it would  be dark before they reached the Ponderosa as it was, and everyone except the youngsters had to be up early Monday morning.

CHAPTER THREE

Memorials and Memories

In the faint light of dawn’s first rays, Ben and Clyde hitched the Thomas wagon, while John gathered his belongings and the two ladies said their farewells.  Billy Thomas yawned sleepily as he saddled his roan horse.  He was accustomed to rising about this time, but today it seemed harder than usual to get his eyes open and functioning.

Adam, on the other hand, was fully alert as he tossed saddle blanket and saddle on the back of his sorrel mare with snowy mane and tail.  Ben looked up with surprise when his oldest son led the horse out of the barn.  “Where do you think you’re going, young man?” he demanded, but his voice wasn’t harsh.  Adam generally had a good reason for any actions he took.

“I figured to see Uncle John off,” Adam replied casually.  “That’s all right, isn’t it?”

Ben smiled.  “Yeah, that’s all right.  Don’t get many chances, do we, son?”

“No sir, not many,” Adam said, giving his bulging saddlebag a pat.  Not many chances for what he had in mind once he got to town, either.

Billy leaned close to his friend’s ear.  “What you got planned?” he whispered.  It didn’t seem reasonable to him for Adam to ride all the way into Genoa just to say good-bye.

“None of your business,” Adam whispered back, then mounted with a maddening grin.  Billy didn’t have to know everything.  Fortunately, Uncle Clyde could be counted on to keep the mischievous redhead hard at work at home this morning, so Adam wouldn’t have to put up with any nosy interference.

Ben, however, remained totally unsuspecting of Adam’s hidden motive for the early morning ride until they had separated from the Thomases and gone on to Genoa, so John could catch the first stage for the west.  Saying good-bye to his uncle appeared to be the last thing on Adam’s mind as he sauntered into William Ormsby’s store on Main Street, which also served as the stage depot.  While the men asked Ormsby when the next stage would leave, Adam edged along the counter until he stood before the Paiute girl now known as Sarah.

The girl smiled broadly, her straight, white teeth gleaming in welcome.  “Adam,” she said.  “I did not think you meant to leave for school so soon.”

Adam shook his head.  “No, I’m here a few weeks more.  My uncle’s taking the stage back to Placerville this morning.”

“Ah,” the girl responded, then looked demurely at the counter between them.  Feminine instinct told her Adam was deliberately making an opportunity to see her.

“Can you get free?” Adam asked.  “I brought something to show you.”

“I will need to stay until the stage leaves,” Sarah said.

“Me, too,” Adam replied.  He’d have to keep up the appearance of being in town to see Uncle John off, of course.

“Hi, Adam,” giggled a little girl who had sidled up to him moments before.

Adam gave her a quick glance.  “Hi, Lizzie,” he said.  Ormsby’s nine-year-old daughter warranted no great attention in Adam’s eyes.  It was clear from the worshipful gleam in young Lizzie’s brown eyes, however, that Adam Cartwright was an idol worthy of lasting devotion.  She folded her arms on the counter and stared up at him, hoping he’d throw one more glance her direction.

“We’re in luck,” Ben said to John.

“Aye, only an hour to wait,” John agreed.

“And that’s just about what I’ve got available,” Ben chuckled.

“You needn’t wait for me, if I’m keeping you from your work,” John sputtered.

Ben laid a calming hand on his brother’s shoulder.  “Not work exactly.  John Reese, who’s sort of a leader hereabouts, has called a meeting of some of us for ten this morning.”

John raised an eyebrow.  “You into government, Ben?”

Ben laughed.  “What government?  Look, we’ve got time for a cup of coffee.  Why don’t we walk down to Lucky Bill’s and relax ‘til stage time?”

“So long as we don’t miss it,” John said.

“Not a chance,” Ben chuckled.  “We’ll have a front row seat at the hotel.”  He looked around for Adam, spotting him between two pretty girls, only one of whom seemed to have his undivided attention.  Ben frowned, suddenly understanding his son’s eagerness to rise early that morning.  That little schemer!  Then Ben shrugged.  So what if Adam were attracted by a pretty face.  Normal enough for a boy his age.  Besides, he’d soon be safely installed in Sacramento with enough bookwork to keep his mind off the Paiute princess back home.  And from the moon-struck look on Adam’s face, the sooner the better.  “Adam, we’re going over to the hotel.  You coming?”

Adam shot a questioning look at Sarah.  “I’ll ask,” she whispered and went in search of William Ormsby.

“Naw, I’ll hang around here,” Adam called.

John laughed.  “You’re losing him, Ben,” he taunted as the brothers walked outside.

“Not that way, I’m not,” Ben snorted, “not at fourteen.  Losing him soon in another way, though.  Don’t know how I’ll stand nine months with him gone.”

John said nothing.  Nine months may have seemed long to his younger brother, but John couldn’t help comparing that short span to the time he’d been away from his own boy.  Not nine months, but nine years, almost, from the time he’d left home until he’d get back.  Half a lifetime for a boy.  What a fool he’d been to let the years slide past!

The brothers found a table by the window, for John felt more anxious than ever to avoid missing the stage, and sipped hot coffee by the cupful.  “Tell me about this meeting of yours,” John said after the first cup.

Ben shrugged.  “Not much to tell.  It’s just a preliminary meeting, anyway.  We’ve tried for years to establish a real government for this part of the territory, but everything we’ve worked on has come to naught.  Salt Lake City is just too far to provide any real help, and now they’ve taken back what little they’d given.”  He nodded as a waitress offered to refill his cup.  “Let’s not talk about that,” he said to John.  “I’m likely to have my ears full by evening.”

John laughed.  “All right, little brother, we’ll talk of other things.”

“Like your moving west,” Ben suggested.  “I’m gonna write Martha myself and add a little brotherly persuasion.”

“A little womanly persuasion might be more useful,” John mused.

Ben’s head lifted.  “Marie?  Yeah, maybe so.  I’m sure she’d be glad to write and give Martha a special invitation to join us out here.”

“Throw in a few words about that grand house and having your own hired servant,” John suggested, “and maybe Martha won’t think it’s all uncivilized wilderness out here.”

“Hide the truth, eh?” Ben teased.  “Hired servant, indeed!  I assure you, brother, it’s Hop Sing who gives the orders in that house!”  The brothers laughed, for as short as John’s stay had been, he’d had opportunity enough to understand what Ben meant.

William Ormsby had agreed to Sarah’s request for a few minutes to talk with Adam, so the boy and girl had walked across the street to the triangular green area that served as Genoa’s public square.  Sitting down beneath a shady cottonwood, its dark leaves stirred by the drifting breeze, Adam opened one of the books he’d brought for Sarah.  “This was my first primer,” he said.  “I thought you might like to take a look at it, to give you an idea of what you’ll be studying this fall.”

“Oh, yes,” Sarah cried, eagerly reaching for the thin volume.  She turned it over in her hands.  “Is this all the white man’s learning?”

Adam laughed.  “Not even close, but this book will teach you the white man’s language——well, English, anyway——then you can read other books that will teach you anything you want to know.”

“Like those?” Sarah asked, pointing to the other two volumes in Adam’s hands.

Adam opened the blue-backed speller.  “This one goes with the primer,” he said.  “It teaches how to put letters together in the right order to make words.”

“Ah, good, and the red one?”

“Arithmetic,” Adam explained.  “How to count, add and subtract.”

Sarah laughed.  “I can count.”

“Yeah, but there’s more,” Adam insisted.  “Anyway, I thought you might like to borrow the books ‘til school starts.  Then, I’m sure, the Ormsbys will get you your own.”

“I like much,” Sarah said, chocolate eyes shining.  “Thank you, Adam.”

Adam opened the primer to the first page and began to teach the Indian girl the alphabet.  Sarah was a quick learner and before long could successfully recite the twenty-six letters that would become building blocks in the white man’s language.  Adam had just started to show her some three-letter words when six horses charged down Main Street.

Sarah sprang to her feet.  “Oh, I must go!” she cried.  “I promised to help if there were passengers.”

“Yeah, I have to go, too,” Adam said, “to say good-bye to my uncle.”  The two youngsters joined hands and ran across the street.  Adam found his father and uncle standing on the boardwalk in front of the store and endured a little good-natured ribbing from both.

“Come give me your farewell, boy,” John teased, “since that’s why you came to town.”

Adam grinned and willingly wrapped his arms around his uncle’s broad chest.  Then Ben took his son’s place, holding John in a long embrace.  There was mist in both Ben’s brown eyes and John’s gray ones as they gazed fondly at each other.  In each face was mirrored the fear that they might never meet again, though they hoped differently.

“Write when you’re safely home,” Ben urged.

“Aye, and you keep the mail service busy, too, little brother.”

John stepped into the stage, the driver flicked the six reins, and the horses leaped away.  Ben and Adam stood on the street, waving until the coach faded to a dot in the distance.  Then Ben turned to his son.  “Now, if you have no further business in town, young man, you’ll find your chores waiting at home.”

“You be home for supper?” Adam asked.

“Should be,” Ben said.  “I don’t expect today’s meeting to hold long.  Now, no more dawdling, Adam.  Off with you.”

Adam nodded to show he’d heard and, gathering the reins of his sorrel, mounted and rode toward the Ponderosa, while Ben headed toward Gilbert’s Saloon, where the meeting was ready to start.

* * * * *

Later that afternoon Ben walked down to the garden plot where his two sons were gathering fresh vegetables for the evening meal.  “Adam, come here, son,” he called from the edge of the garden patch.

Adam carefully made his way across rows of green beans and around hills of cucumber and squash to meet his father.  Hoss hadn’t been called, but he followed gladly in his brother’s wake, tromping green leaves with almost every step.

“You need me, Pa?” Adam asked.

“Sure do,” Ben said brightly.  “Committee wants me to ride up to HoneyLake and invite folks there to our conference on creating a new territory, and I’d like you to accompany me.”

“A new territory?  That’s exciting, Pa!” Adam exclaimed.

“Me, too, Pa?  You want me to go, too?” Hoss pleaded eagerly.

Ben gave the boy’s chunky shoulder a consoling pat.  “Not this time, Hoss.”

“Aw, Pa,” Hoss wheedled.  “I’m as good company as Adam.”

Adam gave his younger brother a hard look, but Hoss didn’t notice.  His imploring eyes were focused on Ben’s face.  The expression he read there was kinder than  Adam’s, but just as firm.  “I said no, Hoss,” Ben stated.  “It’s going to be a long, hard ride, with little time to spare.”  He reached out to ruffle the boy’s sandy hair.  “Besides, I need you to watch out for Mama and Little Joe while we’re gone.”

Hoss’s lower lip thrust out.  He knew perfectly well Pa didn’t really trust him to take care of his mother and baby brother.  That was just the kind of excuse grownups gave kids to make them feel better about something there was nothing to feel good about.

The look didn’t escape Ben’s notice.  “No pouting,” he ordered gruffly.  “Finish picking the vegetables and bring them up to the house.”  He threw an arm around Adam’s slender shoulders.  “You come on with me.  We’ll need to get our gear ready this evening ‘cause we’re leaving before dawn.”

Leaving Hoss to take out his irritation by snapping beans off their vine with far more energy than the task required, Ben and Adam walked toward the house.  “Why’d you want me along, Pa?” the ever curious Adam asked.  “You don’t really need me.”

Ben smiled.  “Because we don’t have much time left to be together before you head off for school.  It won’t be much of a trip, I’m afraid.  The mass meeting is scheduled for August 8th, so we’ve got five days to get there and back.”

“We’ll be pushin’ it,” Adam murmured.  “It’s a good ways to HoneyLake, isn’t it?”

“A good ways,” Ben agreed.  “That’s why I couldn’t take Hoss along.  He’d slow us down.”

“That’s a fact,” Adam grinned.  Hoss was comfortable on a horse now, but he still preferred a walk to a gallop.  “I guess we’ll be in too much of a hurry to stop by PyramidLake, too.”

Ben laughed.  “No, no time for a visit with our Paiute neighbors this time.  Why do you care, though?   I thought the only Paiute you were interested in these days was staying in Genoa.”  Adam’s face flushed crimson as Ben pulled him close in a light-hearted, one-armed embrace.

The sun was still asleep when Ben and Adam left the next morning, as was the rest of the household except Hop Sing.  Although Ben hadn’t expected it, the inexhaustible Cantonese had prepared their breakfast and had a substantial lunch packed, as well.

The two Cartwrights headed north, riding hard all day, too hard to enjoy much conversation.  But when night fell, they made camp and cooked the beans and bacon they’d packed for the trail.  As they sat next to each other, spooning beans from their tin plates, Ben finally had a chance for the talk he’d been looking forward to all day.  “You getting excited about leaving, son?”

“Yeah, Pa,” Adam answered.  “Not much longer now.”

“Not much longer,” Ben agreed, but his voice revealed a faint tinge of regret.  “Any qualms, boy?”

Adam looked offended.  “I’m not scared, if that’s what you mean.”

Ben chuckled.  “Not exactly, but there is a difference between courage and cockiness, Adam.”

The offense melted from Adam’s visage.  “I know that, Pa,” he said quietly, “and I think I know the difference.”

“Good,” Ben said.  “It’s natural enough for you to see only the good in going away to school, but there’ll be some rough times, too, son.  After all, you’ve never lived away from your family before, and that can be hard the first time.  I remember how lonely I felt when I went to sea after my parents died.  I think you’ll miss us a bit, as we will you.”

Adam grinned.  “I will, Pa; I know that.  Especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas and my birthday, but I’ve already thought it through and decided it’s worth it.”

“I think so, too,” Ben smiled, “and likely you’ll make new friends who will keep you from pining away from loneliness.  I want you to be sure to keep in touch with us, however.  We can trust Snowshoe Thompson to get mail to us twice a month, even if the mail stage can’t get through, so I’ll expect a letter with every post, young man.”

“You’ll get it, Pa,” Adam promised, “and I’ll be expecting letters from you, too.”

“You’ll get them,” Ben promised in return, “but I don’t want you to write just to me, Adam.”

Adam’s brow furrowed.  “You mean Marie?  You want me to write to her separately?”

Ben shook his head, laughing.  “Only if you like.  I meant your younger brother, Adam.”

“Which one?” Adam teased.

Ben slapped his son’s leg playfully.  “I had in mind the one who can read.”

A mischievous glint flashed in Adam’s black eyes.  “Like I said, which one?”

Ben frowned.  “Don’t mock your brother, Adam.  He’s doing better and will improve even more quickly if he can look forward to reading mail of his own.”

“I’ll write Hoss, too, Pa,” Adam pledged with a grin.

Ben smiled then.  “You’ll need to keep it simple——and print, not write——but I think you’ll find it’s worth the effort.  You boys have always been close, and writing to one another will help keep you that way, as it always has you and Jamie Edwards back in St. Joseph.”

Adam nodded thoughtfully, then mused, “No way to keep close to Little Joe, I guess.  You think he’ll even remember me by next spring?”

Ben shook his head.  “No, you’ll have to start over with him, I’m afraid.”

“It’s funny,” Adam yawned, his body responding to the long day’s ride, “but I never thought I’d want another brother.  Now I think I’m gonna miss watching him grow.  He’ll do a lot of that this year.”

“Yeah, you’ll miss a lot,” Ben said, but what he was really thinking was how much he’d miss his oldest son.  He took Adam’s plate.  “Turn in, son,” he suggested.  “We’ve another hard day ahead.”

Through the months he’d spend away Adam would cherish that trip with his father, the days of steady riding side by side and the nights of talking around the campfire.  It had been a long time since Adam had spent so many hours alone with his father.  They left him with much to mull over on lonely days in Sacramento——his father’s hopes and dreams for him, as well as much advice on handling himself in the new situations he was likely to encounter.  Adam sopped up his father’s wisdom as thirstily as he had his first lessons in the little primer he’d loaned the Paiute girl and found it even more useful once that guiding voice was distant.

The Cartwrights reached HoneyLake and delivered invitations to all interested in forming a new territory to convene at Genoa on August 8th.  Though technically the HoneyLake settlers lived in California, their location on the eastern side of the Sierras gave them more in common with the residents of western Utah, so they expressed great interest in joining them to petition Congress for the new territory.  Though they had almost no time to prepare, several men quickly gathered their gear and hit the trail behind Ben and Adam.  No more opportunity for private talks then, but Adam listened with interest to the political discussions that flared around the campfire on the way home.  The men’s reasoning made sense to him.  Now, if only Congress could be made to see clearly how men like his father needed to be set free of Salt Lake City’s government in name only and how men like Isaac Roop and Peter Lassen needed a government closer than Sacramento, from which HoneyValley was separated for months out of the year by snow-blocked passes.

Ben had only one night at home before the mass meeting began in Genoa.  Expecting to be gone overnight, since the meeting wasn’t scheduled to begin until 1 p.m., he packed a carpetbag and secured lodging at Lucky Bill’s Hotel.  When the delegates gathered, Ben was gratified to see representatives from EagleValley, CarsonValley, WillowTown, Ragtown, the 26-Mile Desert, Humboldt RiverValley and LakeValley near Lake Tahoe, as well as the ones he’d escorted from HoneyLake. Ben felt proud to be numbered among such prominent settlers as William Ormsby, Richard Sides, Elijah Knott and James McMarlin, the clerk who had taken over Spafford Hall’s Station and renamed it after himself.  A good selection of men, not numerous enough, Ben feared, to make an impression on Congress, but men who understood the problems well and could articulate them effectively.

Articulate they did, hour upon hour, grievance upon grievance.  No one disagreed about the problems; the discussions all concerned the best way to present them to Congress.  Even a visiting Californian, renowned journalist James M. Crane, who was in their area to collect material for a series of geologic lectures, was asked to address the meeting.  He spoke for over an hour to rousing applause, for his extensive political experience made him an excellent orator.

Finally, the debate culminated with the drafting of a memorial listing their reasons for requesting separation from the Territory of Utah.  The memorial, written down by Richard Sides, declared that no law existed in western Utah except theocratic rule by the Mormon Church and complained vigorously about the recent rescencion of CarsonCounty, along with its courts.  With western Utah reduced to little more than an election precinct, no one cared to vote because their vote carried no weight in far-off Salt Lake City, now the county seat.  The factor of distance was a major grievance for both the HoneyLake residents and those of the former CarsonCounty.  Cut off by snow for four months of the year from California and from Salt Lake City by hundreds of miles, the settlers felt the only solution was a government of their own, one that could actually be in touch with them.  In conclusion, the memorial requested the formation of a new territory to be called Columbus with Genoa as its capitol.  Its boundaries were to be the Sierra Mountains on the west and the Goose Creek Mountains to the east, with the Colorado River forming the southern boundary and, of course, the border of Oregon Territory on the north.

A vote was taken to determine who would carry the memorial to Congress.  Ben was pleasantly surprised to find his name suggested, but he politely declined.  He didn’t feel he could leave his wife and young sons alone that long, not when the territory abounded with unattached men equally qualified.  In the end James M. Crane, who had demonstrated his ability to present their case, was selected.  After that a committee of twenty-eight was appointed “to manage and superintend all matters necessary and proper in the premises,” and this time Ben couldn’t talk his way out of serving, though he suspected the position would carry no real authority unless and until Congress approved their petition.

* * * * *

Hoss grinned happily as he walked through the woods beside his brother Adam.  Since Adam was leaving for school in just one week, Ben had made both boys a gift of that time.  “Make some memories,” their father had said and had released them from all but the most urgent of their regular chores.  For Hoss it was enough that he’d been set free from the interminable book learning of the summer.  Not until school actually started would he have to do more lessons, his father having finally decided he’d earned a vacation, however short.

Adam had suggested that they set some rabbit snares.  “I’m in a mood for rabbit stew,” he’d said, feeling sure no one in Sacramento could prepare one as savory as Hop Sing’s.

“Yeah, me, too,” Hoss had said agreeably and had begged Hop Sing to prepare them an extra large lunch to take along.  Hop Sing, as always, had exceeded even Hoss’s hopes, for the Chinese cook liked to see his family well fed.

Adam stopped to set the first snare.  “You watch me close,” he urged Hoss, “so you can do this yourself once I’m gone.”

Hoss, licking his lips in anticipation of the tasty rabbits he’d be bringing home, studied Adam’s actions carefully.  “I can do that easy,” he said.

Adam stood.  “Okay, I’ll let you try setting the next one.”  About ten yards away he stooped to point out a good spot for Hoss.  “Let’s see you do it, boy.”

Hoss squatted beside his brother and made the attempt.  Adam shook his head.  “Close, but he’ll slip that noose easy as a snake slithers through sand,” he said and showed Hoss how to make his trap cinch tighter.  Hoss tried again at the next location and won his brother’s smile of approval.  “Now you can snare all the rabbits you want all winter long,” Adam announced.

“Let’s eat,” Hoss suggested.

Adam laughed.  “It’s early yet, greedy belly.  Let’s set a few more snares.”

“How much rabbit stew you plan on eatin’?” Hoss scoffed.

Adam laid an instructive hand on his brother’s shoulder.  “You can’t count on taking one in every snare, little brother.  If we catch more than we need, the men in the bunkhouse will like having stew, too, and you can always use the pelts.”

Hoss’s face brightened.  “Can I have the skin, if we get a rabbit?”

“I don’t have any use for it,” Adam chuckled.  “What do you want one for?”

“To make me a pouch like yours,” Hoss explained quickly.  Adam had made a rabbit skin pouch in which to store his marbles, and Hoss had eyed it longingly ever since its creation.  “You’d show me how, wouldn’t you?”

“Sure,” Adam agreed.  “The pelt should be good enough for that, but the best ones for trading can’t be had ‘til later, when the rabbits put on thicker fur for winter.”

“Tradin’?” Hoss pondered.  “What could I trade ‘em for, Adam?”

“Pocket knife, maybe,” Adam suggested, “if Pa’ll let you have one.”

Hoss shook his head.  “Ain’t likely.”

Adam had a different opinion; he figured Hoss wouldn’t have to bring home many rabbits before Pa decided to teach the boy to skin them himself and agreed to his having the tool to do it.  He’d let Pa and Hoss work that out on their own, however.  In the meantime he offered an alternative.  “Maybe you’d rather keep them anyway.  If you get enough, you could take them to Aunt Nelly.  I bet she could turn them into a nice Christmas present for Marie or Little Joe.”

Hoss’s toothy grin flashed.  “That’d be the best!  Somethin’ to keep ‘em good and warm this winter.  That’s a good idea, Adam.”

Adam tousled the youngster’s hair.  “You’re welcome to it.”

Hoss’s countenance drooped just a bit.  “I’m gonna miss you, Adam,” he muttered gruffly.

“You’ve got another brother to take my place,” Adam laughed.

“He can’t do anything,” Hoss moaned.

Adam chucked the other boy’s pudgy chin.  “Don’t tell me you’re ready to call him ‘Wet and Wail’ now!”

“No!” Hoss sputtered loyally.  “He’s still my Punkin, but I sure wish he’d take to trottin’.”

Adam shook his head, grinning.  “It’ll happen soon enough, take my word, and then you’ll wish you had a rope to tie him down.  I remember how it was with you.  Underfoot and into everything.”

Hoss shrugged.  He didn’t want to call his older brother a liar, but he found it hard to believe Little Joe would ever afford the kind of companionship he enjoyed with Adam.  “We have good times together, you and me,” Hoss said, trying to explain what he was feeling.

Adam understood.  “Yeah, I’ll miss you, too, but I’m gonna be writing to you and I want you to do the same.”

“Really to me?  Just me?” Hoss asked, blue eyes shining.

“Yeah, sometimes just to you,” Adam promised, genuinely glad his father had made the suggestion when he saw the pleasure it gave his younger brother.  “You ready for lunch now?”

Hoss was always ready to eat, so he bobbed his head happily and helped Adam search for the perfect place to spread out the riches of the basket Hop Sing had packed to overflowing.

CHAPTER FOUR

Farewell to Adam

When the rap sounded on the door, Marie, for once, had no desire to race Hop Sing to answer it.  She had her hands full——both literally and figuratively——with her baby son.  Nothing seemed to please Little Joe today.

Hop Sing bustled to the door and opened it, a warm glow in his almond eyes.  “Missy Laula,” he bubbled.  “Missy Cahtlight be velly happy see you.”  He’d been with the Cartwrights long enough to know their favorite visitors on sight.

Marie came at once to greet her friend, giving her a soft kiss on the cheek.  “Missy Cahtlight is indeed happy to see you,” she said, “or anyone else who is not crying.”

Laura Ellis laughed, reaching for Little Joe.  “What’s wrong, little one?” she cooed, holding him to her shoulder and patting the small, vibrating back.

“Oh, he has been fussy all day,” Marie sighed.  “Hoss and Adam are spending extra time together this last week, and I think Little Joe misses his playmates.”

“Acts more like colic to me,” Laura mused, rubbing Little Joe’s tiny tummy, “but we can try your theory.”  She looked down at the dark-eyed three-year-old standing beside her.  “You want to play with the baby, Jimmy?” she asked sweetly.

Jimmy pulled his finger from his mouth long enough to mutter “Unh-uh.”

Marie laughed at the embarrassed look on Laura’s face, then bent over to bring herself to Jimmy’s level.  “That’s a good, honest boy,” she said.  “How about some of Hop Sing’s cookies, instead, Jimmy?”

The little boy beamed his response, so Marie took his hand, led him to the kitchen and delivered him to Hop Sing’s care.  Hop Sing wasn’t overly fond of little boys in the kitchen and assumed the best way to keep them out of his way was to give them plenty to eat, so Jimmy soon found himself faced with a pile of cookies guaranteed to spoil any boy’s dinner.

By the time Marie returned to the front room, Laura seemed to have soothed Little Joe’s present discomfort.  Marie fought down a pang of insecure jealousy.  There were times she felt that every other woman had better mothering skills than she, but today she was too grateful for a quiet baby to worry much about whether he was more responsive to someone else’s touch than to her own.

“I think he’s got a little gas on his tummy,” Laura said, “but he’s just about cried himself out now.”

Marie nodded and seated herself beside her friend.  “It is so good to see you,” she said.

“I brought those clothes I’ve been making for Adam,” Laura replied softly to avoid disturbing the baby, whose eyes were beginning to blink drowsily.

“You did not need to make a special trip, or were you in the neighborhood?” Marie giggled.

Laura chuckled.  The Ponderosa wasn’t in anyone’s neighborhood, unless you counted the Mormon ranchers in WashoeValley.  You had to want to visit the Ponderosa to travel that far into the hills.  “Sort of,” she said, lips twitching.  “I delivered some laundry and some news to the Grosch brothers at American Flats.”

Marie looked momentarily puzzled. “The news was important?” she asked, since her friend didn’t normally deliver the laundry she did for many of the local miners.  They were always glad to come to her.

Laura nodded gravely as she stood to lay the sleeping baby in his cradle by the fire.  “I had to tell them of the death of a friend,” she said quietly.

“Oh, I am sorry,” Marie said quickly.  “Was it anyone I know?”

“I don’t think so,” Laura answered.  “George Brown.  He runs——well, ran——the trading post and mail station at Gravelly Ford on the Humboldt.”

Marie shook her head; neither the man’s name nor the geographical description had any meaning for her.  “Was he a good friend?  Are the brothers much grieved?”

Laura gave an almost bitter laugh.  “Well, a friend who believes in you when no one else will is as good a friend as most of us need,” she said cryptically, “but I’m afraid the Grosch boys were grieving more for the $600 Brown promised them than for the man himself.  Whoever killed Brown robbed him, too.”

“They need money?” Marie queried.  “Perhaps Ben could——”

“No need,” Laura said with a secret smile.  “I’m going to sell some of my land in California, and they’ll make me a partner for the use of it.”

Marie pressed her slender fingers against her lips to stifle her amused smile, but it just wouldn’t stifle.  “You are to be a mine owner?  Ah, soon you will no longer be willing to make clothes for my boys, so rich you will be.”

“Hmph!” Laura snorted with mock offense.  “I might have more chance of that than you think.  The Grosches think they’ve found——oh, never mind.”

“You are keeping secrets now?” Marie chided.  “Am I not a friend to be trusted?”

“You are,” Laura smiled, “but I gave my word to keep this particular secret.”

“Ah, you must, then,” Marie smiled back.  “So I need not worry about the brothers?  You have solved all their problems?”

Laura sobered quickly.  “No, not all, and I’m kind of worried, Marie.  Seems Hosea hit his own foot with a pick while he was out mining.  He was soaking it in a tub on the porch when I went by, and I didn’t like the look of it.  Looked mighty red to me.  I told them they ought to call Dr. Martin, but they didn’t want to waste money.  Ethan was boiling up a poultice when I left.  Hope it does Hosea some good.”

“But you said you would give them money——” Marie began.

“Ah, my friend, that will be for mining,” Laura intoned mystically, “and you don’t know the Grosch brothers if you think they’d touch that.”  She stood up.  “I’d hoped Adam would be home, so I could check the fit of his trousers, but it’ll be past dark by the time I get home now.  I spent more time at the Grosches than I’d planned.”

Marie laid a restraining hand on her friend’s arm.  “You must not think of leaving now,” she scolded.  “Stay the night, Laura dear.  Hoss will be happy to sleep with Adam, so you and Jimmy may use his bed, and I would like your opinion on the things I am packing for Adam.”

Laura nodded, easily convinced.  “Truth to tell, I’d rather wait ‘til morning to drive home.”

* * * * *

The day had finally come——the day toward which Adam had aimed all his yearning hopes, the day his father had dreaded with equal intensity—the day of Adam’s departure for Sacramento.  Ben was going with him this first time, of course, to see the boy well situated and settled in, so he’d still enjoy his son’s company a few more days, but there was a clenching around Ben’s heart already.  He and Adam had known few separations, the only lengthy one being Ben’s trip to New Orleans just over a year ago.  They’d been apart months then, both during and after the trip, for Adam had felt betrayed when his father returned home from his errand of mercy with a new wife and had remained distant until he’d finally come to love Marie, too.  Ben laughed lightly.  Just so he doesn’t come home with a wife to surprise me! he thought, amused by the foolishness of the notion.

From her seat next to him on the buckboard, Marie turned quizzical eyes to his suddenly merry face, but Ben didn’t feel required to explain his abrupt change of mood.  Adam, who perched, beaming, on his trunk full of belongs in the back of the wagon, likely wouldn’t appreciate the humor of his father’s thoughts.  No, Ben wouldn’t spoil the radiance of that countenance with a careless joke.

Hoss’s normally sunny face, however, looked dismal today.  The week he’d spent making memories with Adam had done them both good, but it seemed to intensify Hoss’s misery now that he was losing his constant companion of the week before.  He was disgruntled, too, that his hard-hearted father wouldn’t take him along to Sacramento.  “Don’t be ridiculous, Hoss,” Ben had scoffed in answer to the boy’s passionate pleas.  “You know school begins next week for you, as well as Adam, and you can’t afford to start late.”  Hoss had moped in soundless eloquence at that rejoinder.  As if it weren’t bad enough to be losing his brother and the chance to explore the wonders of Sacramento’s candy stores once again, Pa had to bring up school!  Hoss saw nothing but gray skies on his horizon, and his countenance reflected the gloom.

The buckboard pulled to a halt along Main Street in Genoa near Ormsby’s store.  All five Cartwrights trooped inside, for even Little Joe was along to see Adam safely off.  Ben moved directly to the appropriate counter to purchase the tickets, while Adam meandered over to the one manned by Sarah Winnemucca, as she now called herself in the white man’s fashion, Winnemucca being the name by which most white men knew her father Poito.  Hoss pressed his nose against the jar of licorice at that same counter, while Marie examined the yard goods at a table across the store.

“See anything you like?” Ben asked, coming up behind his wife.

Marie smiled and shook her head.  Ormsby carried only the most practical of calicos, and nothing on that table appealed to Marie’s fine sense of fabric.  “Did you get your tickets?”

Ben nodded and, slipping an arm around her slender waist, drew her out to the porch.  “I wish you were coming,” he whispered in her ear.  “You could fill your arms with silks and satins in Sacramento.”

“I have clothes enough,” Marie replied, “and you know I cannot come with you.  I must see Hoss to school.”

Ben chuckled.  “Yeah, he wouldn’t be likely to go without a shove in the right direction.”  He touched his wife’s smooth cheek with a tender hand.  “You’ll be all right,” he assured her.  “Enos will handle the men, and you can count on him for whatever you need at the house.  And there’s always Clyde Thomas.  He’d do anything for you.”

“And you must not forget Hop Sing,” Marie teased.  “He will let no harm come to his Pondelosa.”

Ben pinched her small nose.  Hop Sing’s possessive pretensions weren’t really a cause for banter; the little Chinese cook took them too seriously himself for others to discount.  But Marie was probably right.  Let anyone so much as threaten a hair on one of their heads, and he’d have to contend with a meat-cleaver-wielding Chinaman, a daunting prospect for most felons——or innocent bystanders, for that matter.

Hoss wandered outside, glum as ever.  Seeing the downcast face, Ben stooped and put his arms around his second son.  “Perk up now,” Ben soothed.  “Pa’ll be back before you know it, and we’ll plan a trip of our own, soon as I can spare the time.”

“Just you and me, honest?” Hoss queried, excitement edging his voice.  Adam had taken such trips with their father before, but Hoss had always been the tag-along third when he got to go at all.  If Pa took him by himself, it had to mean Pa thought he was growing up.

“Just you and me,” Ben agreed.  “Think about where you’d like to go, son, but nowhere too far.  It’ll have to be on a weekend, so you won’t miss school.”

Hoss’s chin bobbed up and down quickly, his mind already running through possible destinations.

Adam joined them, having said his good-byes to his Paiute friend, just as the stage rolled to a stop at Ormsby’s door.  With the help of the stage agent, his trunk and his father’s carpetbag were soon loaded.  Nothing left then but to say good-bye to those who were staying behind.  Adam took Little Joe and held him close for a minute.  “Gonna miss you, little fellow,” he whispered, then looked up at Marie.  “You, too, ma’am.”

“And I, you,” Marie said softly, placing a kiss on his cheek as she took Little Joe back.  “I hope the French we learned will be of use to you.”

“It already is,” Adam said.  He meant that the lessons had been useful in drawing him closer to his stepmother, and though he didn’t say that clearly, he had a feeling she understood.  Then Adam turned to Hoss, who wrapped him in a tight bearhug, holding on as if he meant to keep his brother there by sheer force.

Adam laughed.  “Don’t squeeze me in half, little brother.”  But Hoss didn’t turn loose until his father spoke his name firmly.  His real name, too——Eric.  No point in either arguing or resisting when Pa went that far.  Hoss released his older brother.

As soon as he did, Adam wrapped him in a return embrace, not as hearty as Hoss’s, of course, because the older boy was no match for the younger in bodily strength, but Adam’s hug was just as full of affection.  “The first letter’ll be to you,” Adam promised and felt rewarded by the toothy grin he got in response.

“Best get aboard,” Ben said after giving Marie a good-bye kiss and planting another on Little Joe’s wispy curls.

“Right,” Adam said brightly and dashed for the buckboard to get his guitar.  Not trusting it with the rest of the baggage, he planned to carry it all the way to Sacramento.

As the stage pulled out, Hoss turned to his mother.  “Want me to drive home?”

Marie smiled.  “Yes, please, but not just yet.  First, there is the matter of your pay.”

Hoss cocked his head, not understanding.  He needed no pay for driving the team.  The responsibility was its own reward.

Oui,” Marie replied in answer to his unspoken question, “but I am afraid a penny’s worth of licorice is all I can afford.  Will that be enough, monsieur driver?”

Hoss gave a happy crow.  “Plenty, ma’am.  Just the right price for a ticket on my stage!”

* * * * *

Molly Maguire pushed the door open with a stout arm, freckled to the elbow beneath her rolled up sleeve.  “I’m still sprucin’ up the rooms,” she said, “but this one’s ready and a fine one for your boy, I’m thinkin’.”

Ben entered, with Adam following, and looked with satisfaction at the immaculate quarters.  Far from being Spartan, snowy curtains framed the window that looked out on the yard behind and thick comforters graced the two narrow beds on either side of it.  Next to each bed stood a simple pine chest of drawers and mirrored washstand and on the wall nearest the door a sturdily crafted desk for each of the room’s would-be occupants.  “This looks fine,” Ben said, “real homey, even.”

“I try to keep it that way,” Mrs. Maguire said with a warm smile beneath her freckled nose.  “You’re the first one in, school not startin’ for a few days yet, but you’ll soon have company enough, me boy.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Adam replied politely.  He’d liked Mrs. Maguire on sight; it had been impossible not to, for she exuded a kind of motherly warmth that made her the ideal proprietress of a rooming house designed for schoolboys far from home.

“You’re welcome to use the other bed if you’re stayin’ over a few days,” Molly said to Ben.  “No extra charge, unless you take your meals here.”

“More than fair,” Ben smiled, “and I will be staying a couple of days, at least.  We may be dining out most of the time, however, a last treat for the boy, you know.”

Molly Maguire laughed as she flipped her dark auburn hair across her shoulder.  “Most of the boys think my cookin’s a treat, but your lad will have plenty of time to sample that.  If you’ve no more questions, I’ll be gettin’ back to me work.  I’ll bring fresh towels soon.”

“No hurry,” Ben assured her.  “We’ll be out most of the afternoon.”

As she left, Adam walked across to the window and looked down into the yard.  It was a small one, but there was a wide swing under a trellis covered with climbing roses.  “Marie’d like that,” Adam murmured.

Ben gazed over his shoulder.  “Yeah, it’s real pretty,” he agreed.  “I’m glad you have a room at the back of the house.  Should make it quieter for studying.”

“Yeah, they were right at the school,” Adam said.  “This’ll be a good place to stay.”

“The best available, they said, and that’s what I want for my boy.”  After enrolling Adam that morning, Ben had inquired about lodging for his son and been referred to Molly Maguire, who had opened the rooming house to earn her living after her husband was killed in a mining dispute two years before.

Adam turned around.  “Thanks, Pa,” he said softly.

“For the room?” Ben laughed.  “What did you think I’d do, pitch a tent for you in the schoolyard?”

Adam grinned, picturing the tent in his mind.  “That could get cold, even in California.  What did you mean when you said we’d be out all afternoon?”

“Well, we have to move our things from the hotel, of course,” Ben said.  “Then there’s a few errands to be done.”

Adam gave his father an inquiring look, but Ben just laughed in a way that told Adam he’d get no answer.  Pa was a man who liked to spring surprises, usually good ones, so Adam decided to bide his time and let the day unfold.

They checked out of the hotel they’d stayed in the night before, brought their things to the boardinghouse, then went in search of lunch, both ordering vegetable soup and rhubarb pie.  “Where to next, Pa?” Adam asked as his father laid a token tip on the table, the service having been only average.

“Boot store,” Ben said.  “I brought a pattern of Hoss’s foot, remember?  And I figure you could use a new pair to start school with, too.”

Adam gave his father a contented grin.  He knew he’d been right to keep his mouth shut and just trust the kind of surprises Pa had planned, and the first one confirmed his decision.  After ordering boots for the boys, Ben turned to Adam on the street.  “Don’t even ask where we’re headed next; you’ll see soon enough.”

Adam grinned and fell into step beside his father as they walked down J Street, turning in at No. 87, Beal’s Daguerrean Studio.  “Me or you?” Adam asked.

“You, of course,” Ben said.  “This is where Marie and Hoss had their pictures made last year, and I’ve wanted one of you ever since.”

“I’d like having one of you, too, Pa,” Adam said quietly.

Ben gazed tenderly down at the boy.  “Gonna miss your old pa, are you?  With all those wonderful new books to read?”  They hadn’t purchased any of Adam’s required texts yet, but just reading the list had made the boy drool with anticipation.

“A picture’d help,” Adam pressed, knowing that he had a good chance of getting his way.

The photographer approached them.  “Mr. Beal?” Ben asked and when the man responded in the affirmative, continued, “A picture of each of us, please, to remember each other by.”

“I’d never forget you, Pa,” Adam whispered as the photographer set up the materials needed, “but I’ll treasure the picture.”

“My pleasure,” Ben smiled, “and I have a few more tricks up my sleeve, young man.”

Adam knew better than to ask.  Take your pleasures one at a time; that was the way to keep them coming when it was Pa they were coming from.  Pa’s tricks that afternoon including a fitting for a new suit and the purchase of several small items of clothing.  The final stop, however, was the biggest surprise of all.

When Ben first announced that they were going to the bank, Adam assumed his father needed to draw out some money for expenses after spending so much on his son, but as they walked toward the establishment Ben favored, he explained a different purpose.  “I’ve tried to provide you with everything you’ll need while you’re here, Adam, but there may be things I haven’t thought of or some emergency may arise.  If you’re ill, for instance, I don’t want you to hesitate to call a doctor.  I’m going to open an account in your name in the amount of two hundred dollars.”

Ben smiled as Adam’s mouth gaped in astonishment.  “That should be far in excess of what you’ll actually need, and I only expect you to use it for necessities.”

Adam nodded soberly.  “I understand, Pa; I won’t touch it unless I have to.”

Ben rubbed the boy’s neck affectionately.  “I know I can trust you, Adam, but you should understand that I also consider necessities some things you might not ordinarily place in that category.”

“Now I don’t understand,” Adam said.

Ben chuckled.  “Oh, a night at the theater, perhaps.  As long as you choose wisely, I consider that part of your education and, therefore, necessary.”

“Shakespeare,” Adam chirped happily.

“You can’t go wrong with him,” Ben agreed, “but I don’t mind your sampling some other playwrights.  Just don’t overdo it.  About once a month, I’d say, give or take a play.  You’re welcome to dinner out with your friends once in a while, too.”

“But don’t overdo it,” Adam grinned.  “I won’t have to if Miss Molly’s cooking is as good as she claims.”

“I’ll be buying you a ledger,” Ben went on, “and I’ll expect a strict accounting of every penny you spend.”

“It’ll be an honest one,” Adam promised as they reached the bank.

“Adam,” Ben chided gently, “I wouldn’t expect anything else from you.  Don’t you think I know my own boy?”  Adam flushed with pleasure at the compliment.

Their banking business completed, the two Cartwrights again found themselves on the sidewalk.  “That should about finish our business for the day,” Ben said, “unless you can think of something I’ve forgotten.”

“My textbooks?” Adam suggested.

“Oh, no!” Ben hooted.  “You’ll get those before I leave, but I will not have your nose in those books while I’m here.  I plan to enjoy you, young man.”

“Dinner, then?” Adam proposed, instead.  “I’m getting kind of hungry.”

“Yeah, me, too,” Ben admitted.  “Let’s go by a couple of theaters first, though, and see what’s playing.  You won’t miss those books if you’ve a play to watch, I’ll wager.”

“No sir!” Adam declared, beaming happily.

They headed first for the Forrest Theater at 2nd and J streets.  Adam, always alert for reading material, found himself glancing in the windows of every store they passed, reading posted notices of sales and events in the community.  Suddenly, he jerked to a stop.  “Pa, look!” he cried, staring at a poster that announced the opening of the California State Agricultural Fair in large block letters.  “Wouldn’t that be a fine thing to see!”

Ben paused to glance at the notice attracting his son’s attention.  “Not today,” he laughed.  “October 10 through 17, it says.”

“Could——could you call that a necessity?” Adam asked, a note of wheedling in his tone.

Ben’s eyes brightened.  “I’d say so, and maybe not just for you.  What would you think if we met you here that week and went together?”

“Fine,” Adam agreed eagerly, “but who’d you have in mind?”

“Why, all of us, of course,” Ben said.  “Hoss would have to miss a little school, but I think the experience would be worth it.”

“But Marie?” Adam queried, his nose crinkling.  “She wouldn’t like it much, I’m guessing.”

“Oh, I’ll be able to tempt her easily enough,” Ben chuckled.  “She’s been wanting to get some more things for the house.  And Little Joe’s no problem; Nelly Thomas would gladly look after him while we’re away.”

“Unh-uh,” Adam declared, head shaking in vigorous denial.  “You don’t know your own wife if you think she’d leave her precious baby boy with anyone.”

Ben arched an eyebrow, not liking to admit his son was a sharper judge of character than he.  In this instance, however, he had a feeling Adam was right.  Pulling the boy away from the window, Ben made light of the suggested problem, though.  “We’ll just bring him with us then.”  The more he mulled the idea, the more he liked it.  Yes, it would be a fine opportunity to let his friends in California meet his bright-eyed youngest boy, and Marie would relish showing him off as much as Ben himself.

Seeing his father lost in thought, Adam grinned, sure he could guess the gist of the thoughts.  He was pretty sure, too, that Pa’d have a harder time convincing Marie than he had any notion as he walked along J Street toward the theater.

CHAPTER FIVE

Mormon Exodus

“Pa!” Hoss cried happily as his father rode up to the Ponderosa ranch house.  Ben swung down from his bay gelding to accept his second son’s heartfelt welcome home.

The Ponderosa’s foreman, Enos Montgomery, who had taken the bay to meet the stage on the evening of Ben’s anticipated return, grinned and gathered up the gelding’s reins.  “I’ll stable your mount, Mr. Cartwright,” he offered.  “You’ll be wanting to see the missus right away.”

Ben smiled his thanks.  “That I will,” he said.

Marie, alerted by the ever vigilant Hop Sing of her husband’s arrival, glided out the front door as quickly as she could with a baby in her arms.  “Oh, Ben!” she cried.  “I am so glad you are home again.  We have missed you.”

Ben kissed her and took the baby.  “And what about you, sweet boy?” he asked, cuddling the child against his shoulder.  “Did you miss Pa?”

Little Joe responded with a vigorous burp.

Marie giggled.  “I just fed him,” she explained.

Ben scowled playfully at his youngest.  “Some welcome you give!” he snorted, then laughed and held the baby high overhead.  “I’m glad to see you, just the same.”  Little Joe laughed and kicked his bare feet energetically.

“Oh, Ben, be careful,” Marie cautioned.

“Marie, my love, you worry too much,” Ben chided, but he brought the baby down obediently.  He needed to stay on Marie’s good side if he hoped to persuade her to follow his plans for the second week in October.  “How’s school?” he asked Hoss as the four Cartwrights headed inside.

Hoss’s face screwed up piteously.  “Plumb awful!” he reported.  “Except for recess.  I like that fine.”

“Oh, fine!” Ben guffawed.

Hoss frowned.  Pa didn’t seem to understand how important it was that things were going well at recess.  Last year even that brief break had given him no respite from the misery of school.  The taunting of his Mormon schoolmates had been torture for the boy who, to that time, had considered everyone his friend——well, everyone except Jewel Larrimore, who remained a safe distance away in San Francisco.  But Hoss had gotten off to a better start this year, even if Pa was unlikely to see it that way.  The two youngsters who had repeated last year’s jeer of “fat, stupid gentile” the first day had been made to pay for their mockery with a blow from Hoss’s solid fist and quickly decided to mend their ways.  There wasn’t as much to mock, anyway, for Hoss’s summer-long schooling had paid off.  He still wasn’t a good student, but he was, at least, keeping up.

Hoss trotted to catch his parents and scooted next to his father on the sofa as soon as Ben sat down.  “Pa, I been thinkin’, like you said,” he began.

“Huh?” Ben responded absently, bending his face to blow kisses at the baby perched, with support, on his knee.

“I been thinkin’,” Hoss repeated with strained patience.  “About our trip.”

Ben’s large head jerked up.  “Oh, yeah, well I’ve had an idea of my own, Hoss, if you don’t mind Mama and Little Joe coming along, too.”

Hoss’s face fell.  “You promised!” he squealed.  “Just you and me.  You promised, Pa!”

Ben looked genuinely shocked, having never dreamed that good-natured Hoss would object to a change in plans.  “But, son, I think you’d enjoy what I have planned much more than the little trip I promised you.”

Hoss clearly looked dubious.  Marie, certain Ben’s plans were wonderful before she even heard them, asked the question Hoss wouldn’t.  “What have you planned, Benjamin?”

Ben flashed her a grateful——and hopeful——smile.  “A trip to the California State Agricultural Fair at Sacramento next month,” he announced triumphantly.

Hoss’s face cleared at once, and his blue eyes brightened.  “Sacramento?” he whispered in awe.  “Honest, Pa?”

“Oh, but no, Ben,” Marie murmured almost as quickly.  “That is not possible, not for me.  I do not even think it wise for Hoss.”

“Mama,” Hoss whined.

Ben patted his middle boy’s stocky thigh with a silencing hand and turned his most persuasive smile on his wife.  “Why, dearest, there’s no reason in the world you can’t go.”

“There is this one,” Marie said, brushing Little Joe’s soft curls.

“No, no,” Ben cooed soothingly.  “He won’t be a bit a trouble, though you could leave him with Nelly Thomas if you’d rather.”

“No!” Marie cried sharply.  “He stays with me——always.”

“Fine,” Ben said with a grand attempt at nonchalance.  “We’ll take him with us.”

Marie frowned exquisitely, feeling she had been tricked and not liking the feeling.  “I have not said I would go,” she declared hotly, “and you may cease practicing your wiles on me, monsieur.”

Ben shifted Little Joe to his other knee and took her hand with his now freed one.  “Marie, I would very much like you to come to California with me,” he said directly.  “You’ve been wanting to furnish one of the guest rooms.  This would be a good opportunity for that, and I’d really like to show off our beautiful new son to my friends in California.”

“But, Ben, it is such a long journey for a baby,” Marie protested.

“Not by stage,” Ben argued.  “You could ride in comfort, my love, and cover the distance much more quickly than we have before.  Only eighteen hours to Placerville.”

“B—but Little Joe may not be a good traveler,” she argued, “and you know how loudly he can make his displeasure known.  Would you want to be trapped in the stage with a screaming baby for eighteen hours?”

It was the one problem Ben hadn’t foreseen, but he quickly countered her objection.  “We won’t know ‘til we try,” he said, “and if the boy doesn’t do well, you can stay in Placerville with Ludmilla Zuebner while I take Hoss on to the fair.”

For the first time Marie looked as though she were giving the proposed expedition some thought.  “Well, perhaps,” she conceded.  “Still, Ben, there is Hoss’s schooling to consider.  He has barely begun, and I would hate to see him fall behind again.”

Hoss groaned inwardly.  School——the one fly in the pudding.  Pa’d never let him miss school for anything as interesting as a trip to Sacramento.  His plunging spirits rose to new heights, however, as he listened to his father explain the educational benefits of a trip to the state fair.  “Besides,” Ben continued, “we can take along his books and he can study in the hotel of an evening.”

“But what about the weather?” Marie queried.  “Is not October late to be making a trip to California?”

“It could be a problem,” Ben admitted.  “It does occasionally snow that early in the Sierras, but the roads aren’t usually impassible until later.  We’ll keep an eye on the weather, and if there’s the least hint of danger, we won’t go.  I wouldn’t put you or our boys at risk.”

“Well——” she murmured thoughtfully.

Sure of victory now, Ben beamed expansively.  “Let me tell you what I thought we could do,” he began.  “First, of course, we’ll stay overnight at Placerville.  Ludmilla and the girls will need time to dote on our new baby.  Then, on to Sacramento.  We’ll take in a night at the theater in addition to the fair, and I thought we might have Little Joe’s portrait taken at Beal’s.  That way we’d have one of all the boys, since I’ve already had Adam’s taken.”

Marie suddenly smiled, clasping her hands like a happy child.  “Oh, yes,” she said softly.  “I would like that.”  Then another thought struck her and she reached eagerly to touch Ben’s cheek.  “Mais oui!” she cried.  “We will all be together.  Why not a family portrait?”

“Why not, indeed!” Ben enthused.  “Then, if the weather seems to be holding, I thought we might go on down near Monterey and let my dear friends the Paynes meet my beautiful bride and her beautiful baby boy.”

“They them folks that gave me the birthday party that time?” Hoss asked.

Ben pulled him close.  “That’s right, son.  You’d like to see them again, wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, sure,” Hoss agreed readily, “especially if they got more ice cream.”

Ben and Marie both laughed.  “Oh, Hoss,” Ben chided.  “Think of something besides your stomach once in a while.”

Hoss gave them a sheepish look.  “They’re nice,” he said.  “I’d like to see ‘em even without the ice cream.”

* * * * *

Just two days after Ben arrived home, breakfast was interrupted by someone knocking on the door.  Setting the platter of scrambled eggs on the table, Hop Sing frowned.  Unexpected guests were not welcome at the breakfast table.  Not by Hop Sing, at least, as he informed the guest in vociferous, and thoroughly unintelligible, Chinese when he answered the door.

Ben rose quickly to rescue the unknown caller.  “Ethan, come in,” he called when he saw the tow-headed young man dressed in the traditional red flannel shirt and denim britches of a miner.  “Just in time for breakfast.”

“Uh, no, thanks,” Ethan Grosch muttered, twisting his slouch hat between his hands.  “Uh, Mr. Cartwright, I’m looking for work, if you need an extra hand.”

Ben had all the hands he needed, but something in the young man’s face prevented his making a quick reply.  “Mining not going so well, son?” he asked softly.

Ethan flushed crimson.  “Enough to eat on,” he said, “but I’m in need of extra cash, Mr. Cartwright, enough to pay back what I borrowed to bury my brother in a decent set of clothes.”

Marie suppressed a shocked outcry, stood and came quickly toward the two men.  “Oh, Monsieur Grosch, I am most sorry to hear of your loss.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” Ethan said quietly, raising clouded blue eyes to her compassionate face.  “Hosea’s beyond the pain of this world, and I can’t begrudge him the leaving, suffering as he was.  I’d like to get my debt paid quickly, though, Mr. Cartwright.  I—I have business in California that won’t keep, but I can’t leave owing any man.”

Ben nodded, appreciating the young man’s dedication.  “I won’t need anyone until we start roundup in about a week,” Ben confessed.  “Be glad to use you then, son, but ranch work doesn’t pay much.  Mind if I ask what you need?”

“Sixty dollars,” Grosch replied.

“I could loan you that,” Ben offered.

Grosch smiled crookedly.  “Wouldn’t that just be trading one debt for another, sir?”

Ben shrugged and nodded.  “Guess so.  Some of the other ranchers in the valley might need help now.”

Ethan shook his head.  “I’ve been asking, but it seems no one’s looking to hire right now.  I’ll keep looking, and if I don’t find anything else, I’ll come back in about a week, if I may.”

“Glad to have you,” Ben said.  “Now, how about that breakfast?  I know bachelor cooking, and I’ll wager you had nothing but biscuits and bacon before you left this morning.”

“Just the biscuits,” Ethan admitted with a wistful glance at the bountiful breakfast spread for the Cartwrights.  “If—if there’s plenty—”

Marie reached to take his hand.  “There is plenty; come,” she urged and gently pulled him toward the table.

After eating, Grosch left to continue his search for work.  “I was sorry to have to put him off,” Ben said to Marie when the bereaved brother was gone, “but he’d have quickly realized I didn’t have any real need of him.”

“Of course, he would,” Marie assured him, then shook her head, frowning.  “I do not understand this need for money, though, Ben.  Surely, he need not work here for money, for Laura Ellis has promised him some.”

“Just another debt to be paid, my love,” Ben pointed out with only half a smile.

“No, you do not understand,” Marie insisted.  “The brothers are making Laura a partner in their claim.  I do not know how much she was to give, but, surely, Ethan is free to use it as his own.”

Ben disagreed.  “He’d see that money as an investment, Marie, and, therefore, off limits to his personal use.  At least, that’s how I’d see it, and I’ve always felt the Grosch brothers were honorable men.”

“Honor is a fine quality, mon mari,” Marie said, “but I have seen it cost men their lives.”

Ben took her hand and held it to his lips.  “This isn’t New Orleans, my love,” he whispered.  “The Code Duello does not reign here.”

Marie nodded, saying nothing, but she continued to feel uneasy about Ethan Grosch and the price he might yet pay for honor.

* * * * *

The news arrived in Genoa September 5th, but the Cartwrights didn’t hear it until the next day when they took Sunday dinner with the Thomases.  Clyde was so gleeful he could hardly contain himself until his guests were seated in the parlor.  “Welcome to the celebration, folks,” he burbled.  “Ain’t got no fatted pig, but my woman’s done killed two fat hens in honor of the occasion.”

“What occasion?” Ben asked.

Before Clyde could answer, Nelly interrupted.  “Lands, I ain’t celebratin’ nothin’ except that them two hens done quit layin’ and I don’t see no use in feedin’ ‘em if they won’t give eggs.”

“Well, they done quit layin’ at a proper time for celebratin’, anyhow,” Clyde cackled.

“Celebrating what?” Ben demanded.

“Why, gettin’ shed of another nest of Mormons,” Clyde announced, handing his friend the previous day’s copy of the Scorpion.  “The whole hive, if we’re lucky.”

“Marie, come help me set the chicken to fryin’,” Nelly suggested, “and leave these men to their foolishness.”  Marie stood readily, taking Nelly’s rare request for help in the kitchen to mean that she wanted to share the news in her own way.

Ben had no difficulty finding the article that had Clyde so excited, for in large letters the headline read “A CALL TO ALL SAINTS.”  Ben scanned the words quickly, growing more sober with each sentence he read.  Alarmed by rumors that President Buchanan was sending soldiers to Utah to enforce the rights of the federal government against the Mormon theocracy, Brigham Young had ordered the return to Salt Lake City of all Mormons in the CarsonValley, with the further charge of bringing as much ammunition as possible with them.  The Saints, evicted from the settled regions of the east, would not give up their sacred city so meekly this time.  “If it is war President Buchanan wants, then war he will get,” declared the Scorpion’s publisher Stephen Kinsey in an accompanying editorial.

Ben tossed the paper down.  “You think this is a cause for celebration?” he asked tersely.  “If the Mormons answer this call, it’ll depopulate the valley, man!”

“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” Clyde snapped.  “Or maybe you like takin’ orders from Brigham Young.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed.  “You know better.  The man’s a law unto himself, considers himself governor of the territory by divine appointment and——”

“And every one of them so-called “saints” follows him around like a feeble-minded sheep,” Clyde groused.

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Not quite all, but I agree most of his flock considers his word a law that supercedes the law of the land.”

“Right!” Clyde exclaimed, firing his index finger at Ben’s nose.  “And we’re better off rid of such puling lambs.”

Ben pushed the finger away.  “You’re not thinking, Clyde,” he argued.  “I find their religion and their idolatry of Brigham Young repulsive, but the Mormons built this territory, and we won’t be stronger if they leave.”

“We’ll form our own territory,” Clyde insisted.  “Already in the works, ain’t it?”

Ben shook his head in disbelief at the other man’s naiveté.  “You can kiss the Territory of Columbus good-bye, my friend.  With even less residents than when we petitioned Congress, we’ll be lucky if they so much as read our memorial.”

That remark effectively dampened Clyde’s elation, and for the first time he found himself considering that, perhaps, after all, Mormon neighbors were better than none at all.

Nelly called everyone to dinner, but though the chicken was crisp and savory, Ben had no appetite for it.  He couldn’t help wondering how many settlers would return to Salt Lake City to defend their faith and pondering what that would mean for those left behind in Carson Valley.

* * * * *

Over the next three weeks it became clear that, as Ben had feared, the settlements on the eastern side of the Sierras were going to experience a dramatic drop in population.  Some of the Mormons, taking Brigham Young’s order as an urgent call to arms, headed out almost immediately, abandoning their ranches and taking time only to load a wagon with their families, a few personal possessions and all the ammunition they had available.  Most, however, made more prudent preparation for the long journey and took more provident care of their possessions.  With more sellers than buyers in the territory, the market was glutted with property for sale, and the prices dropped far below the previously perceived value of the land.  Even so, few of those remaining in CarsonValley were disposed to buy from the departing Mormons when they could take the land for nothing within a matter of weeks.

Ben couldn’t resist casting a hungry eye on the ranches in Washoe Valley, for the later immigrants from Salt Lake City had carved their homes from land he had once hoped to call his own.  Much of it adjoined the Ponderosa and would make a profitable addition to his holdings.  One evening after the boys were in bed, Ben broached the subject to his wife.  “I’d rather not lose our neighbors,” he explained after discussing the possibilities with her, “but if they’re set on leaving, this could be the opportunity of a lifetime for us.  It would mean some sacrifice, though, and I hate to ask it of you.”

Marie looked pensive.  “I do not understand, Ben.  What sacrifice?”

“No genuine hardship, I promise,” Ben said firmly.  “I won’t stretch our finances that thin, but it could mean foregoing some of the finer things.”

“Like our trip to California?”

Ben smiled.  “No, we’ll still manage that.  Adam and Hoss are both looking forward to the fair, but you might have to be more circumspect in your purchases.”

“Oh, if that is all,” Marie laughed, “it is no great hardship.  I did not marry you for your money, Benjamin.”

Ben cast a rebuking glance at her teasing face.  Though he’d considered himself prosperous when he met her in New Orleans, he knew she could have had her pick of far wealthier men.  “Will you be serious?” he chided.

Marie sobered instantly, fearing she had given offense.  “I don’t quite understand, Ben,” she said quietly.  “If they are abandoning the land, what need will you have of money?”

Ben took her hand, the gesture a plea for understanding.  “I can’t just take it, Marie.  Call me foolish if you like——I’m sure I’ll hear it from others——but I can’t take a man’s property, hewn out of a hard land, and give him nothing in return.  I can’t afford to pay the real value of the land——at least, what it was before this crisis——but the little that’s being asked now I will pay, even if I have to pay it out over time.  I couldn’t call the land my own if I didn’t.”

“I understand,” Marie said, pressing his hand to assure him of her support.  “With you, it is a matter of honor.”

Ben grimaced, recalling her recent remarks about Ethan Grosch’s sense of honor.  “Marie, my love,” he vowed, “you need never fear that I would place my honor above either you or our sons.”

Marie snuggled close to him.  “I have feared nothing since that morning in New Orleans when you risked your life to vindicate my good name, my honor.  You ask me now to sacrifice a little comfort for yours, and I tell you, Ben, it is no sacrifice.  Buy the land, and we will work together to build it and preserve it for our sons.”  Ben wrapped strong arms around her and kissed her with the same passionate fervor he’d felt that morning in New Orleans when she agreed to be his bride.

The word spread quickly.  Once the Mormon ranchers learned someone was willing to pay actual cash for their property, Ben found himself besieged with more offers than he could possibly afford.  True to his word to Marie, he used his available funds cautiously, refusing to consider any properties that did not border the Ponderosa.  Several hopeful sellers left disappointed, but unable to argue with Ben’s reasons for declining their offers.

Late one afternoon Ben caught his breath in anticipation when Hop Sing ushered the Cartwrights’ closest neighbor into the front room.  If there was a piece of property Ben coveted above all others, it was the one belonging to Alex Cowan.  “Alex, good to see you,” Ben greeted him heartily——a shade too heartily, he scolded himself the minute the words were out.

“And you, Cartwright,” Cowan responded.

Ben spread a welcoming hand toward the fireplace.  “Have a seat, please.  Getting chilly out these evenings.”

“Aye, it is that,” Cowan replied, taking the seat nearest the fire.

Ben settled onto the sofa, close to the other man.  “You didn’t bring Eilley with you?”

“No,” the Mormon answered tersely, almost biting the word off half-said.  “I’ll come straight to the point, Cartwright.  I’ve heard you’re in the market for land in WashoeValley and paying as fair a price as can be expected these days.”

“I’m trying to,” Ben said, working saliva into his suddenly dry mouth.  “Are you planning to leave the valley, then?”

“I am,” Cowan said, his face grim.  “No true Saint would refuse our leader’s call.”

“You’ve been a good neighbor,” Ben said quietly, “the kind I’ll hate to lose, but I’ll be honest with you.  There’s not a piece of property I’d be more interested in buying than yours.”

“It’s not for sale,” the Mormon muttered.

Ben’s brow furrowed.  What on earth had brought the man here if he didn’t want to sell his property?

“What I was wondering,” Cowan explained quickly, seeing Ben’s bewilderment, “is whether you’d like to lease my land.”

“Lease?” Ben queried.  “You’re planning to return, then?”  Ben had heard that some of the Mormons were offering to rent their land in the hope that, once the immediate crisis ended, they could come west again.  Foolish hope for most since, if they returned at all, they’d probably find their property already occupied.

Cowan, however, shook his head.  “Not likely,” he said, his face taut with stubborn pride, “but my wife refuses to return to Salt Lake City with me.  Obviously, her devotion to the faith and to me is less than her devotion to the land, so we’ll be separating.”

Ben pressed his mouth shut, not daring to make a comment on the Cowans’ marital discord.  “She’ll be staying on at the ranch, then,?”

Cowan nodded.  “I can’t, of course, sell the property out from under her.  She’ll need the cabin to live in, but she won’t be farming or running cattle, so the pastures are available if you need extra grazing land.  I’d like Eilley to have a little outside income she can count on.”

“I see.”  Ben fought to keep the disappointment from his face.  He’d have gladly purchased the property outright, but with all the cash he’d expended lately, it would be some time before he could afford to fully stock the pastures he already owned.  He had no reason to lease more, but he hated the thought of anyone else’s using that particular plot of land, so close to the Ponderosa.  And, perhaps, if Cowan later decided to sell, he’d be in a better position to bargain for the land if he held it on lease.

Ben made a quick decision.  “I’m interested, Alex,” he said, “but I’ve bought so much this last week or so that I couldn’t afford to pay much to lease property I may not need for some time to come.”

“I won’t ask much,” Cowan stated bluntly.  “You know as well as I there aren’t likely to be other offers.”

“No,” Ben replied honestly, “but I have no desire to hold your feet to the fire just because I know that.”

“I’m sure we can come to terms, then,” Cowan said, and after brief negotiation Ben found himself in possession of a lease on his favorite property with an option to buy should Cowan or his wife later decide to put it on the market.

* * * * *

A haze of purple splashed the sky when Ben rode into Genoa early on the morning of September 26th——not actually into town, of course, for the Mormon wagon camp was just outside.  Ben expelled a long breath as he saw the wagons beginning to line up.  He was in time, then, to see the party, many of them friends and neighbors, off on their journey.

He rode to the head of the line and paused at the wagon of each person he knew to give them his best wishes for a safe trip.  He offered his prayers, too, though he wasn’t sure these “saints” would value the prayers of a mere “gentile.”  No matter.  God, Ben was sure, would.

Whatever they may have thought of his prayers, however, the Mormons seemed to appreciate his gesture in seeing them off.  Few of those remaining in the valley had thought it worth their time to venture out this morning, though Ben could see John Reese and his nephew Stephen Kinsey standing opposite him.  Kinsey had a notepad in hand and was jotting down something.  Ben smiled.  Notes for an article in the Scorpion, of course.  After all, this was about the most newsworthy event the territory had seen in quite some time.

Seeing Kinsey apparently counting the wagons as they rolled past, Ben began to keep his own tally as he said farewell to others down the line.  When he reached the last one, he turned and rode back toward Reese and Kinsey.  “I count one hundred twenty-three,” he offered.

“Matches my count,” Kinsey said with a smile.  “Glad of the confirmation, Cartwright.”

“Welcome,” Ben said.  “Any tally on the number of people?”

“Not as precise,” Kinsey admitted, “but around four hundred fifty.”

Ben whistled.  “Big loss to the valley.”

“Huge,” Reese grunted.  “Only about two hundred of us left now, thanks to Brigham Young’s infernal interference, and I suppose you know what that means, Cartwright.”

“No Territory of Columbus,” Ben muttered in defeat.  “No hope of a working government.”

“We still have our Committee of Twenty-eight,” Reese insisted.

Ben shook his head.  Reese had to know, as he did himself, that the Committee couldn’t function effectively without real governmental authority behind it, but neither man wanted to voice the grim reality.  Ben tipped his hat in farewell and rode northeast.  He’d managed to sneak out of the house before Hop Sing caught him that morning, so he’d had no breakfast.  Hungry now, he knew he could count on Nelly Thomas to offer him a plate of her best, so he aimed his bay toward the Thomas cabin on the shores of the Carson River.

He found, as always, a hearty welcome from Nelly and a snickering one from Clyde.  “Out early beggin’, ain’t ya?” Clyde teased.  “Don’t that yeller fix breakfast these days?”

Ben scowled at his friend, who, of course, knew better than to question Hop Sing’s breakfasts, having eaten that meal at the Ponderosa himself.  “I’ve been seeing off our Mormon friends,” he admitted and waited for the sparks sure to fly.

“Your friends, maybe,” Clyde snorted.  “I never called ‘em that.”

“Snakes is what he calls ‘em,” Billy chuckled, slopping a sizable pool of sausage gravy over his biscuits.

“Mind your tongue, boy,” his mother cautioned as she spread plum jam on little Inger’s biscuit.  “I never heard your pa speak such language, even of Mormons.”

“Pa speaks all kinds of language you never hear, Ma,” Billy snickered and ducked the exasperated cuff she aimed toward his ear.  A good thing, too, for Nelly had forgotten the jam-smeared knife was still in her hand.  She missed his ear, but Billy’s tangled red tresses sported dollops of sticky purple.

Ben smiled wryly.  Clyde watched his words around Nelly, true enough, but, like Billy, he’d heard Clyde blast the air with cuss words when there were only men around.  Not often, though, in all fairness.  It took a lot to rile his old friend to profanity.  Ben tried hard not to push that far.

“Marie busy gettin’ packed up for your trip?” Nelly asked, grabbing up a napkin to repair the damage to Billy’s hair.

Ben leaped at the welcome change of subject.  “Yeah, she’s started, although we don’t leave for two weeks.  I didn’t realize what a major expedition I was suggesting when I mentioned taking Little Joe along.  A whole carpetbag just for diapers!”

Nelly laughed.  “You know you can leave him here, if you’re a mind.”

“You know I can’t,” he replied with a significant arch of his eyebrow, and they all laughed at the intended joke at Marie’s expense.

“Tell Marta I’ll be over her way a couple of days after you pass through,” Billy grinned.  “We got to pick up supplies for the winter.”

“Marta?” Ben chuckled, tossing a wink at Billy’s father.  “I thought it was Sally Martin you were sparking.”

Billy shrugged.  “Yeah, when I’m here, but there’s other daisies in other fields.”

Ben roared with laughter.  “Billy, my boy, we’d send you to sea, except you’d leave a broken heart in every port.”

Billy figured he knew just how to get back at Ben.  “I reckon Adam’s sniffin’ a few daisies in Sacramento, too,” he declared, grinning triumphantly at the horrified look on Ben Cartwright’s face.

CHAPTER SIX

Darkening Clouds

The sun shone brightly as Ben turned his team toward the Thomas cabin by the Carson River.  “Thought we was goin’ to Genoa,” Hoss commented.  “You didn’t say nothin’ about seein’ Uncle Clyde and Aunt Nelly.”

“I thought we might beg a meal,” Ben chuckled.  “Should be close to noon by the time we get the lumber loaded.  I’m just stopping to see if it’ll be all right to eat with the Thomases afterwards.”

“It will be,” Hoss said.  He’d never seen Aunt Nelly turn down a request for food.

“I’m sure it will be,” Ben smiled, “but it’s only fair to give the cook some warning.”

“Yeah, maybe she’ll bake a pie,” Hoss bubbled.

“Oh, Hoss,” Ben laughed.  “That’s not what I meant.”

Clyde Thomas exited from his trading post and gave Ben a wave.  “Didn’t expect to see you here of a weekday.  What’s up?”

“Just going in to the sawmill for a load of lumber,” Ben replied as he climbed off the buckboard.  “Gonna build a birthing barn.”

“Should have got it the other day, when you was seein’ them Mormons off, saved yourself a trip,” Clyde teased.

“Didn’t want to be slowed down by a wagon that day and you know it,” Ben muttered back.  “I just stopped by to ask Nelly if we could take lunch with you.”

“You don’t have to ask that,” Clyde scolded.  “You and your folks are welcome anytime.”

“We was hopin’ Aunt Nelly’d bake a pie, if we gave her warnin’,” Hoss declared.

“Hoss!” Ben exclaimed.

Clyde guffawed.  “Now the truth comes out.  You run in the house and tell her that, Hoss.  Tell her we’d all like pie.”

“Yes, sir!” Hoss cried and ran for the cabin.

“I did not ask for pie,” Ben protested.

“Good.  More for me and Hoss,” Clyde cackled.  “You want some help loading that lumber?”

“Reese’ll help load it,” Ben said, “and I wouldn’t want to take you away from your trade.”

Clyde scowled.  “What trade?  Ain’t had anyone stop by all week.  Not that I’d’ve had much to sell if they had.”

“Provisions getting low, huh?”

“Yeah, always do this time of year.”

Ben chuckled.  “That’s why I buy mine in bulk when they’re plentiful.”

Clyde clapped his friend on the shoulder.  “Yup, we learned that lesson early on, didn’t we, Ben boy?”

“Sure did,” Ben agreed.

Although Hoss had been looking forward to the trip to Genoa, he decided to stay and supervise the baking of the dried peach pie Aunt Nelly had promised him.  Clyde took his place on the buckboard seat beside Ben for the short drive into town.

They turned off Main Street, down the side road to the Reese mill, where Ben ordered the lumber he needed and, with Clyde’s help, loaded it.  Then, their tummies yearning for fresh pie, they started to leave.  When the wagon pulled back onto Main Street, however, Ben noticed a large crowd gathered in front of Ormsby’s store.

Ormsby was standing on the wood slat porch, trying to address the crowd, but Ben couldn’t hear what the merchant was saying for the noise of those milling the street.

“Looks like trouble,” Clyde commented.  “Reckon we ought to check it out?”

“I think we’d better,” Ben replied as he reined the team to a halt.  He and Clyde both climbed down and headed across the street.  “What’s happened?” Ben asked a man on the outskirts of the crowd.

“Couple of dead bodies found out in the mountains,” the man said.

Ben’s countenance grew grave.  “Have they been identified?  Any idea how it happened?”

“Yeah, it’s them traders from east of here, John McMarlin and James Williams,” the man replied, “and it was injuns done it; them bodies was full of arrows.”

Pained, Ben closed his eyes.  “Paiute or Washo?”

The man shrugged.  “Nobody knows.  Ormsby’s tryin’ to line up volunteers to go after the bodies, but I ain’t about to head into them hills if there’s injuns on the warpath.”

“I ain’t scared of injuns,” Clyde declared.  “I reckon Ormsby can count on me.  Have to go back to my place for my horse, though.”

“Think I could borrow Billy’s?” Ben asked.

“What about that load of lumber?”

“Hoss can drive it back to the Ponderosa,” Ben replied.  “If we’ve got Indian problems, I want to know it sooner, rather than later.”

“Yeah, let’s see Ormsby,” Clyde said.

“Glad to have you,” Ormsby responded to their offer of help.  “Some of these folks are ready to fly off the handle and charge into Winnemucca’s camp.  Maybe you can help calm them down.”

Ben said nothing, but he doubted he could have much effect on the crowd.  He’d had too many people yell “Indian lover” at him to feel he had enough influence to counter fear fueled by accusations of Indian attack.

The force of that fear was indicated by the number of men in the party, thirty in all.  For safety’s sake, Ormsby had refused to leave until the group reached that size.  They came upon the bodies, just before darkness descended, beside a steep, switch-backed trail.  Evidently, McMarlin and Williams had made their first overnight camp here, and the rescuers did the same, eager to make an early start back to Genoa the next morning.  As reported the bodies were riddled with arrows, making it hard to refute the charge of an Indian attack.  Neither body, however was scalped or mutilated, and the only property missing was the money with which the two traders had planned to buy supplies in California.

“Injuns wouldn’t have no use for money,” Clyde grunted and Ben nodded his agreement.  This looked to him like the work of white men masquerading as Indians.  It was some consolation to Ben that his best friend accepted that assessment, but no one else seemed to.  To them, the arrows were the most convincing evidence and the Paiutes the most likely source for those feathered messengers of death.  To resounding applause, William Ormsby announced he would send a courier to Winnemucca, summoning the chief to Genoa to answer the accusations.  “If he refuses, it establishes his guilt,” Ormsby declared.

The summons itself was an insult and, if improperly framed, might only exacerbate the conflict.  Feeling that he, of them all, was the most likely to approach the Paiute leader with respect and persuade him to come to Genoa in peace, Ben volunteered to ride to Winnemucca’s camp to deliver the message.  Ormsby accepted gratefully, but as Ben saddled his mount to leave the next morning, Clyde told him he was being “a consarned fool.”

“Someone’s got to do it,” Ben muttered.  “Do you know any man better suited to the job?”

Clyde looked away and, without a word, mounted his own horse.  He didn’t relish the job Ben had given him of telling Marie, but figured it was the least he could do.  If Ben can face a whole injun camp, Clyde thought, I ought to be able to handle one hysterical female.  Then he scowled, wondering if, after all, Ben hadn’t taken the easy job.

As Ben rode into the Paiute camp at PyramidLake, he observed carefully the demeanor of the Indians.  The Indians were busy, not with preparations for war, but for the approaching winter.  Men were building their karnees thicker than usual, while women busily sewed rabbit skins into robes to keep out the icy wind and children ran here and there, either playing games or getting underfoot as they tried to help their parents.  Some of the older ones, recognizing Ben, ran to welcome him to the camp.  Hardly the behavior of Indians on the warpath, Ben thought wryly.

As he approached the central karnee, Winnemucca walked out and stood tall in the doorway.  “You are welcome, Ben Cartwright,” the Paiute chief stated with dignity.

“It’s good to see you again, Poito,” Ben replied, using the name by which he had first known the Paiute.  He wanted to emphasize their long-standing friendship as a preparation for the unpleasant words he would have to speak later.  “Have you been in good health, my friend?”

Poito grunted, nodding toward the karnee.  Ben nodded in acceptance and entered the Indian’s home, sitting with crossed legs on the ground.  “I hope also to visit with Captain Truckee before I leave,” Ben began.  “Is he also in good health?”

“He grows weak with the years of his journey,” the Paiute replied, “but he has strength to travel a few moons more.  He will be glad you come.”

“Yes, Captain Truckee was always a good friend,” Ben commented, “and I have counted that friendship a privilege.”  Unlike his father-in-law, Poito had less trust of the white man, though Ben was an exception, having years before saved the life of the chief’s son.

“I see your people are preparing for winter,” Ben continued.  Though the words seemed like idle conversation when he’d come on so grave an errand, he knew it was important that he follow all the courtesies of a visit between friends.

Poito nodded.  “It will be a hard time, with so many white men taking the wild game.”

Ben took the thinly veiled hint.  “I can spare a few head of cattle to help my friends through the hard time,” he offered.  He thought the beef a small price to pay for continued friendship with these potentially violent neighbors.

When Poito dipped his chin in acknowledgement of the gift, Ben took a deep breath, readying himself for the difficult words he must say next.  “I have come to you as a friend, Poito, but what I have come to say is most serious.  Would it not be well if we smoked together before we have words, so that we may look into each other’s faces and read each other’s hearts?”

Poito grunted his acceptance, then waited for Ben to offer a gift of tobacco, as he usually did.  It was a breach of courtesy Ben regretted, but he hadn’t taken tobacco with him to Genoa that day and hadn’t taken time to stop by the Ponderosa before coming to PyramidLake.  Poito’s brow wrinkled, as if he read in Ben’s silence a signal of the seriousness of the matter he had come to discuss, and he rose to prepare the pipe.

After sharing the pipe, Ben came straight to the point.  “Poito, two men have been found dead in the mountains.”

“Many fools cross mountains,” Poito grunted.

“Yes,” Ben agreed, “but it was not the mountains that killed these men.  Many arrows pierced their bodies.”

Poito immediately understood the unspoken accusation.  “Not Paiute arrows,” he alleged.

“I believe my friend,” Ben said quickly, “but there are those whose fear clouds their reason.”

“Would I make war while my daughters live in the white man’s camp?” Poito asked, the curl of his lip emphasizing the four-inch bone worn through his nose, which made him look ferocious, although Ben knew him to be peace-loving unless provoked.

“No, you would not,” Ben agreed.  “I bring a message from the man with whom they live.  William Ormsby asks that you come to Genoa to help him learn who is behind these murders.”  It wasn’t quite the message Ormsby had dictated, but Ben planned on leaving PyramidLake with his hair intact.

Poito drew himself up, holding his spine rigid.  “No, I do not go to the white man’s camp.”

Ben leaned forward, ready to plead for the chief’s cooperation, but Poito held up a silencing hand.  “Natchez and Numaga go with you.  They will know who made these arrows.”

“Good,” Ben said, breathing more easily.  It was a good compromise: it avoided the possibility of insult to the chief, but provided able representatives in his son and the warrior the whites called the Young Winnemucca.

* * * * *

Hearing hoofbeats thunder into the yard, Marie rushed out the front door.  As she had hoped, Ben was vaulting off Billy’s roan, quickly encircling her in his arms.  She hadn’t, however, expected the entourage he brought with him and could barely conceal her alarm.  “Ben, what——”

Ben held a finger to her lips.

“Pa!”  Hoss yelled, running out of the barn.  Then he stopped abruptly and, like his mother, stared anxiously at the dark-skinned visitors.  Hoss was old enough to have picked up the tension when his father and Uncle Clyde came back from town, and though he’d never been fearful of Paiutes before, he regarded them warily now.

Ben smiled persuasively at his wife.  “I’ve brought some guests for dinner.”

“Some!” she whispered anxiously.  “Ben, there must be a hundred of them!”

“I hadn’t counted,” Ben said wryly.  Evidently intending to make an impression on the white population, Winnemucca had sent a hundred warriors with his official envoys.  “Natchez and Numaga will be dining with us in the house, and we’ll need to provide food for the others outside.”

“Do you wish to tell Hop Sing this?” Marie hissed in his ear.

“You’re in charge of the kitchen,” Ben replied slyly.  “You tell him.”

“Coward,” Marie accused and, ordering Hoss to come with her, hurried inside.

By the time the guests entered, Marie had managed to compose both herself and, by some miracle, the Chinese cook.  Natchez and Numaga perched uncomfortably on the sofa as Ben loaded his pipe with fresh tobacco and offered it to each man in turn.

“We will have café soon,” Marie said graciously, though she carefully placed herself between the Indians and her children. At her orders, Hoss had already posted himself protectively in front of the cradle, where Little Joe lay sleeping.

“Thank you, my love,” Ben said.  When the coffee arrived, the Indians cautiously sipped the unfamiliar brew, then began to drink with noisy, appreciative slurps.

Hop Sing’s eyes flicked this way and that, like a watchful snake, as he placed the food on the table.  At Marie’s instruction, he served Hoss in the kitchen, and though he would normally have hovered around the table to make sure everyone was giving proper attention to the meal, Hop Sing seemed content to stay in the kitchen tonight.  He absolutely refused to carry the platters of sliced beef outside to the other Indians, so Ben delegated the task to Hoss, an action which earned him a barrage of abuse once Marie had him alone in their bedroom.

After being placated with kisses, Marie huddled close to Ben’s side beneath the covers.  “I fear for you, Ben,” she whispered.  “If all does not go well, it is you who will be blamed——by both sides.”

“Then you’d better pray that everything goes well,” Ben said lightly, brushing her golden hair with another kiss.

“I am serious, Ben,” she rebuked.

“I know,” he murmured, “and it is a serious matter, but there’s no sense in borrowing trouble.  I do think you should keep the children close to the house until everything’s settled, though.”

Mais oui.  There was no need to tell me that, mon amour!  When you bring Indians to sleep at our doorstep, you may be certain that I will keep our children safe inside.”  Though Ben had offered Natchez and Numaga a bed in the house, the Indian leaders had chosen to stay outside with the other warriors.

“Yeah, but I meant even after I’m gone,” Ben continued, “until we know which way the wind is blowing.”

Emerald eyes glistening, Marie nodded, then laid her head on his shoulder.  She remained in his arms throughout the night, listening to the steady rhythm of his breathing.  Ears stretched for the faintest sound of movement that might be a moccasin creeping up the stairs, she herself could not sleep.  Like Hop Sing, she eagerly anticipated the unexpected guests’ departure from the Ponderosa, but she dreaded it, as well, for Ben would be riding with them, into dangers her active imagination painted in lurid colors.

* * * * *

Since the Paiutes had made it clear that they preferred to enter town without an escort, Ben rode into Genoa alone, straight to the Ormsby house.  “Winnemucca wouldn’t come himself,” he reported, “but he’s sent his son, as well as Numaga, in his place.  They should be here within the hour.”

“Young Winnemucca, the war chief?” Ormsby asked, black brows meeting.  “That doesn’t bode well.”

“It needn’t bode ill,” Ben said stiffly, “but I’d advise you to treat them with respect.”

“I don’t need your advice on handling Indians, Cartwright,” Ormsby declared.  “I know the Paiutes as well as you.  I have two living in my house, remember?”

Ben thought there was considerable difference between two young Paiute maidens and one hundred stalwart warriors, but he shrugged, unwilling to dispute the point.  “They’re not coming alone,” he warned.

“War party?”

Ben shook his head.  “A display of strength, perhaps, but they come in peace.”

“Well and good, then,” Ormsby announced.  “We’ll get to the bottom of these killings quickly.”

Knowing Clyde would be interested in what the Indians had to say and calculating that he had time, Ben rode the single mile to the Thomases, feeling a little disconcerted by Ormsby’s demeanor.  Not that he’d expected a lavish display of appreciation, but a word of thanks would have been welcome.  He didn’t find one waiting in the Thomas parlor, either.  In fact, when Nelly learned that one hundred Indians had camped outside the Ponderosa ranch house the previous night, she stated flatly that it was a wonder any of the Cartwrights still had their scalps.

“They’re honorable people!” Ben snapped.

“To a point,” Clyde admitted.

“Well, my parlor is past that point,” Nelly muttered.  “Don’t you be expectin’ me to invite ‘em in here for a cup of coffee, Ben Cartwright.  I’ll just bet Marie was fit to be tied when you paraded them redskins into her front room!”

“Fit to tie me would be more like it,” Ben chuckled.  “I won’t invite the Paiutes in for coffee, Nelly, but you’ll offer me a cup, at least, won’t you?”

“Lands, yes!” Nelly exclaimed.  “Should have done that first thing.”  She poured him a cup, then asked, “Did you have your breakfast ‘fore you left?”

“Yeah, a hurried one,” Ben said.  “Don’t really have time to eat now, though.”

“Well, you stop back by here when it’s all over,” Nelly urged.

“Got no more time for jawin’, woman,” Clyde said edgily.  “I want to be in town when them injuns ride in.”

The two men reached town shortly before the Paiutes made their entrance.  With Natchez and Numaga in the lead, the Indians rode in from the northeast and proceeded down Main Street, past hotels and boardinghouses, saloons and stores.  The procession was impressive, as the Indians had clearly meant it to be.  All along their route stood the town’s residents, watching as the Paiutes’ long, dark hair swished back and forth across their erect backs, covered in traditional rabbit skin robes.

Numaga swung gracefully from his paint pony to stand before William Ormsby.  Behind the merchant, Sarah and Elma Winnemucca flanked Mrs. Ormsby, the two girls obviously interested in the discussion about to take place.  Without any inquiry about the health or welfare of the older Winnemucca or Captain Truckee, without even the courtesy of smoking together, Ormsby displayed an arrow taken from the body of one of the white men and demanded that Numaga identify its origin.

Ben gasped at the abruptness of Ormsby’s behavior and chided himself for not being more specific in his request for respectful treatment of the Paiutes.  He’d assumed, with the two Winnemucca girls in his household, Ormsby would know the proper ritual to follow, but the man was obviously either ignorant or unconcerned.

Though Numaga certainly saw Ormsby’s manner as discourteous, he maintained his dignity.  “Arrow is not Paiute,” he stated.  “Is Washo.”

“I accept your word, Numaga,” Ormsby said, “but to demonstrate to all that the Paiutes bear no guilt in this matter, I ask you to go to the Washo chief and instruct him to turn those responsible over to us for judgement.  You may assure the chief the men will be treated fairly, as any white man.”

Ben saw Numaga’s six-foot frame stiffen, his face grow hard, and Ben felt his own muscles tighten.  Though Ormsby had claimed to know the Paiutes, this one request revealed how shallow was that knowledge.  The Paiute and the Washo were traditional enemies, only at peace now because the harshness of the environment made the war for survival take precedence over tribal rivalry.  To ask a Paiute to deliver such a message to a Washo was the grossest insult Ben could imagine, but the damage was done.  The words could not be unsaid.

Ben expected Numaga to refuse haughtily, but the Paiute war chief, obviously anxious to preserve peace with the white men, agreed to send five warriors to Captain Jim of the Washo tribe.  The rest of the Paiutes would remain in town until the matter was settled Numaga, eagle-like nose raised regally, informed the white merchant.

“Don’t much cotton to havin’ them savages camp out in town,” Clyde muttered as he and Ben rode back toward Clyde’s cabin.  “Sure will make my Nelly skittish, havin’ ‘em so close.”

“Yeah,” Ben said.  “So long as we don’t make them skittish,” he added, meaning the Paiutes.

“You’re aimin’ to head back to the Ponderosa I reckon,” Clyde said tentatively.

It was clear to Ben that Clyde was hoping he’d say no, and while Ben’s dearest wish was to return to his home and family, he felt he needed to stay.  With both Indians and settlers edgy in each other’s company, any spark could ignite an inferno.  Maybe Ben could help prevent that, and even if he couldn’t, he’d at least be there to defend his friends.  “I think I’d better stay, if you’ll loan me the use of a bedroll,” he said quietly.  “I warned Marie I might not get back tonight.”

Clyde looked relieved.  “You can take Billy’s bed,” he said, then reached over to lay a hand on his friend’s arm.  “You got to promise me, Ben, you won’t let them injuns touch my two girls.”

“Oh, Clyde,” Ben groaned.

“I mean it.  I’d rather see ‘em dead than squaw to some red devil.”

“You know I’d do all I could to keep them from harm,” Ben assured him, “but I’m hoping it won’t come to that.”  If Clyde was asking him to take the lives of Nelly and Inger to prevent their disgrace, that was a promise Ben wasn’t sure he could carry out, but he’d do his best to see Clyde’s wife and daughter were not taken captive.

The Paiutes scattered throughout town, picketing their horses and unpacking supplies on any vacant spot they found.  They dug fire pits and sat huddled around them throughout a frosty afternoon.  As darkness fell, the fires were visible, even a mile away as a jittery Nelly called her family and Ben to supper.  She, however, merely pushed her food around her plate with a fork.  “Don’t reckon I’ll sleep a wink tonight,” she muttered, laying the fork aside.

“Me, neither,” Inger whimpered.

“Aw, there ain’t nothin’ to be scared of, Ma,” Billy soothed, shoveling in boiled carrots as though not getting enough were the greatest danger facing him.  “You got three men here to protect you.”

“Don’t give yourself airs, boy,” Clyde snorted.  “You ain’t more than half-growed yet.”

Billy jerked his chair back and stood abruptly.  “Doggone it, Pa, I’m fifteen.  I carry my own weight around the place, and I reckon if it did come to fightin’ injuns, I could shoot as straight as you.”  The boy tossed his napkin to the table and stalked out.

“I swear,” Clyde grumbled, shaking his head, “I don’t know what gets into that boy.”

“He’s not a boy, Clyde,” Ben said softly, “or, at least, won’t be much longer.  He’s at the age when boys get an itch for a man’s respect.”

“You bein’ an expert, I reckon,” Clyde snuffled.

“No,” Ben chuckled.  “I’ve seen the same symptoms in Adam, that’s all, and he’s a year younger.  And I suspect, old friend, if you and I could remember our own feelings at that age, they’d be no different.”

Clyde grinned then.  “Reckon you’re right.  I oughtn’t to twit the boy.  He does do a man’s work, and if trouble comes, I’ll be mighty glad to have him close at hand.”

Billy, who rarely stayed angry for long, burst back in.  “Hey, there’s somethin’ goin’ on in town,” he reported.

“Injuns?” his father asked, getting up.  Nelly’s hand flew to her throat and Inger leaned close to her mother.

“Yeah,” Billy replied.  “Looks like they’re building a big fire.  Figured you and Uncle Ben might want a look-see.”

“Now, Billy, you come back here and finish your dinner,” his mother ordered.

“I ain’t hungry,” Billy said, turning away.

“Billy, you mind what I say!” Nelly protested, voice quavering.

Clyde placed a supportive hand on his son’s shoulder.  “I reckon the boy’s old enough to know when his own belly’s full, woman.  Leave him be.”  Billy tossed his father a grateful look and headed outside, Clyde and Ben right behind him.  Since they didn’t have three horses available and the distance was short, they just walked. Nelly didn’t want to stay alone, so she took Inger’s hand and followed them.

They all headed to the center of town, where residents of Genoa flanked the triangular plaza, watching a huge bonfire splash the sky with an auburn glow.  Ben saw people he knew and counted friends on the other side of the fire, but he didn’t cross to greet them.  It didn’t seem like a night for socializing, especially when the Paiutes began to shuffle ceremonially around the fire.  The warriors raised their knees high, bringing them down again with repeated thuds.  Their heads moved up and down, back and forth in rhythm with their stomping feet, and they chanted loudly, “Hey yah, hey yah, hey yah.”

Nelly, holding tight to Inger’s hand, slipped to Clyde’s side.  “Sends shivers up my spine,” she whispered.  “You reckon it’s a war dance?”

“Maybe,” Clyde said, pulling her close to his side, “but you got nothin’ to fear, Nelly gal.  Like our boy said, you got three men to protect you.”

Billy looked back over his shoulder and grinned.  It was the first time he’d ever heard his pa call him a man and it felt good.

The white spectators watched the dance in almost total silence.  Then, as the thudding footsteps ended, the wailing of coyotes accented the eeriness of the night.  William Ormsby stepped into the fire’s dwindling light, and said, as a host might at the conclusion of a dress ball, “We will sing the Star-Spangled Banner.”

Ben gave a short laugh, for it seemed a strange way to conclude an Indian ceremony.  As the citizens began to sing, however, he realized Ormsby had made a wise suggestion.  The patriotic music seemed to remind the men and women of Genoa that they were part of a great nation, and the deep breaths they took trying to reach the high notes provided an automatic relaxation.  Everyone went back to their houses feeling a little lighter in spirit.

* * * * *

As Ben stepped out of the cabin early the next morning, the crisp air made his cheeks tingle.  Each morning seemed colder than the last, but so far there’d been no bad weather.  Ben didn’t want to be caught away from home with a storm on the way, so he was glad to see the clear, almost cloudless, sky.

No one else was awake yet.  He, Clyde and Billy had taken turns keeping watch through the night, Ben standing guard during the early morning hours.  There’d been no real need for the precaution, as Ben had predicted, but he knew his friends felt safer knowing someone was keeping an eye out for Paiutes.  Ben had a feeling similar watches were being kept in the households of Genoa, and there were probably wakeful Paiutes sitting around their fire pits, too.  There was wariness on both sides.

When Ben reentered the house, Nelly was in the parlor.  “Everything’s quiet,” he assured her.

Nelly nodded.  “Clyde and Billy’s still sleepin’, but I can fix you some breakfast.”

Ben shook his head.  “Don’t go to extra trouble; I can wait for them.”

Though she normally would have insisted on serving her guest, Nelly sat on the sofa, seeming satisfied to cook only once.  “When you reckon them other injuns’ll get back?”

Ben shrugged.  “Hard to say.  Depends on how much argument the Washos put up.  Should be today, though.”

“Can’t be soon enough for me,” Nelly murmured.

Ben understood her eagerness to have the Indians out of town and was glad she didn’t have long to wait.  Before noon the Paiutes rode in, followed by eight or nine Washos on foot.  Their chief, Captain Jim, was even taller than Numaga, standing over six feet, but with none of the Young Winnemucca’s noble bearing.  Most of Captain Jim’s height was in his upper body, which was slumped as he walked into town.  Though his short, heavy legs were bare, his wide feet were clad in light-colored buckskin decorated with beadwork and porcupine quills in a flying-geese pattern.  The rest of his apparel drew attention to his better features.  A rabbit skin robe was draped across his broad shoulders, and his round face, which made his head seem even larger than it was, was framed by five or six strands of bone necklace, constructed to resemble the rib cage of some animal Ben couldn’t identify.  Obviously, Captain Jim, like the Paiutes, had dressed to impress, but the wary way he carried himself detracted from that impression.

Ben, Clyde and Billy moved to the front of the crowd gathered before Ormsby’s store.  Again without preliminaries, Ormsby held out the arrows found in the bodies of McMarlin and Williams.  “Do you know who makes such arrows?” he demanded, his manner that of one who already knew the answer.

Captain Jim spoke slowly, as if measuring every word.  “You ask me if these are my people’s arrows.  I say yes.”  Murmurs began to ripple through the crowd behind Ben.  Clearly, they felt the response constituted an admission of guilt.

“You must bring the men responsible——and all the money——and they will not be hurt and all will be right,” Ormsby announced.

“I know my people have not killed the men,” Captain Jim protested, “because none of my men have been away.  We are all at PinenutValley, and I do not know what to think of the sad thing that has happened.”

Numaga stepped forward, regarding Captain Jim with unwavering black eyes.  “You must bring the men within ten days or the Paiute will fight at the side of our white friends.”  The statement amazed Ben.  Was Numaga so fearful of arousing the white population that he had become their advocate?  From the expressions he saw on their faces, he was sure Natchez and the other Paiutes were also stunned.

In previous battles the Paiute had subjugated the Washo, even denying them the privilege of riding horses, so Ben was not surprised to see Captain Jim give in to the threat.  With eyes downcast, the Washo leader agreed to bring in the guilty parties within the time specified.

“Looks like we’re gonna see justice done after all,” Clyde commented as they returned to his home for the noon meal.

Ben didn’t respond.  He couldn’t get away from the look on Captain Jim’s face when he first denied knowledge of the killings.  He’d looked completely believable.  Perhaps, however, the chief didn’t really know the whereabouts of all his braves.  Ben certainly couldn’t account for the moment-by-moment movements of his hired hands, and they were far fewer in number than the Washos.  Perhaps further investigation would produce the guilty men.  For the time being, there was nothing Ben could do, so he returned to the Ponderosa to calm the fears of his wife.

* * * * *

On the seventh morning after Ben’s departure, a slight figure slipped out of his house and headed toward the Ponderosa under an ebony sky.  The boy rode hard, harder than was wise in the dim light of the waning moon, but the luck of youth rode with him, and he arrived without incident.

Billy flung himself from his roan and ran to the front door, pounding it loudly.  When there was no response, he ran to the south side of the house.  Grabbing a pine cone, he tossed it at the window he knew was Ben and Marie’s.  “With my luck, the only one who’ll wake up is that baby,” Billy muttered, his breath condensing in white puffs.  Then he grinned.  Waking Little Joe was probably the surest way to get the others out of bed anyway.  Should have aimed at his window in the first place, Billy chuckled to himself.

Just as he was about to choose that course of action, the window opened and Ben stared out.  “Hey, let me in!” Billy yelled up.  “It’s cold out here!”

“What on earth!” Ben ejaculated.

Marie stirred in the bed behind him.  “Ben?” she queried.  “What is it?”

Ben shut the window and started to put on his robe and slippers.  “Billy Thomas,” he said, “though what on earth brings him here this early, I can’t imagine.”

Marie sat up.  “More trouble, you think?”

Ben shrugged.  “With Billy, who can say?  Maybe he just got lonesome for Hop Sing’s cooking.  Stay in bed, my love; I’ll see what he wants.”

Shaking her head, Marie waited until Ben had left, then rose and slipped into her warm flannel wrapper, thinking how infuriating even the best of men could be.  As if she could rest when something was obviously wrong!  With all the tension in the territory, that something just might be an Indian attack.  Perhaps Billy was the sole survivor from Genoa!  Shivering, and not just from the cold, Marie hastened downstairs.

Ben gave her a reproachful look, but explained quickly.  “Captain Jim brought in three men last night to answer the charges.  They locked them up for the night, but evidently Ormsby intends to question them this morning.  Billy knew I’d want to be there, so he came to fetch me.”

“Pa’ll have my hide,” Billy shrugged.  “He said not to bother you, but Ma’ll feel better.”

Mais oui,” Marie replied.  She glided over the floor to rest her petite palms on Ben’s chest.  You will be careful, mon mari?”

Ben took both slender hands and tenderly kissed her delicate fingertips.  “I will be careful.  You watch out for our boys; keep them close to the house today.”

Marie smiled.  There had been no need for that instruction, as Ben well knew.  Citing the cold weather and Hoss’s need for extra time with his books, she had kept the boys inside almost constantly since the first threat of Indian trouble.  She started for the kitchen.  “I will prepare your breakfast.”

Ben stopped her with a hand on her elbow.  “No time for that, Marie.  We’ll eat in Genoa.”  Marie nodded, anxious eyes following him as he exited the house with Billy.

Billy’s mount was tired, so he stabled it at the Ponderosa and borrowed Adam’s sorrel for the return trip.  The sun was rising by then, so the two riders were able to run their horses in the better light.  They rode straight to Genoa, assuming Clyde Thomas was already there.  As they entered town, they passed the encampment of the Washos.  Though the air was frosty the Washo women seemed oblivious to the cold as they rocked back and forth on their knees, keening and wailing rhythmically.  Praying, probably, Ben thought and wondered if they’d been at it all night.

While Billy led the two horses to the livery stable, Ben headed directly for the Ormsby house.  “I understand you have three Washo prisoners,” Ben began as he encountered Ormsby.

“That’s right,” Ormsby replied.  “Captain Jim brought in the guilty trio last night.”

“We don’t know they’re guilty,” Ben pointed out.

“That’s what trials are for, Cartwright,” Ormsby said stiffly.

Ben’s brow knitted.  “You’re going to put them on trial?”

Ormsby drew himself erect.  “I will question the men to see if there’s sufficient evidence to hold them.  If there is, I intend to send them to California for trial.  That should satisfy you, Cartwright.”

“It does,” Ben said at once.  He couldn’t have been more pleased to hear that the matter would be heard before a more appropriate legal authority than a vigilance committee.  With Indians involved, it seemed paramount to Ben that the highest standard of justice be administered.  If the Paiutes and the Washos saw the proceedings as fair, surely an uprising could be avoided.  Ben suspected that hope was what had motivated Ormsby.

“If you’re looking for volunteers to escort the prisoners to California, I’m available,” he offered, knowing the duty might interfere with his family’s plans to visit the agricultural fair.  Marie wouldn’t like taking the stage alone with the boys, might even refuse to go, but if they had to sacrifice their pleasure outing to maintain peace in the territory, the price seemed a small one to pay.

Ormsby nodded.  “Appreciate it, Cartwright.  That will bring our party up to thirty.  Should be enough to prevent any attempt to rescue the prisoners.”

“Yeah,” Ben muttered, hoping there’d be no such attempt.  Following Ormsby out, he noted the whipped attitude of the Washo men as they were led from the small house in which they’d been held for the night.  Their hang-dog expressions made them look guilty, but as he passed some of the Paiutes, Ben heard them debating among themselves whether these were, indeed, the killers of McMartin and Williams.  Ben hoped Ormsby’s interrogation would be rigorous enough to remove all doubt that they had the right men.

Almost every resident of Genoa pressed close to hear the questions Ormsby put to the three Washo men, using Numaga as his interpreter, and the mood of many was ugly as they hurled degrading epithets at the Indians.  Young boys aped their elders, hooting and jeering at the Indians, repeating the same vile catcalls they heard the men shouting:  “Consarned Diggers!  Bug eaters!  Filthy bastards!  Killing sons—of—bitches!”

Ormsby tried in vain to quiet the crowd so the interrogation could proceed in an orderly manner.  Hours passed as he asked questions and strained to hear the answers over the ranting of the crowd that met the Indians’ every protestation of innocence.  Ben’s stomach started to rumble, for he’d had no breakfast nor lunch, and it was now the middle of the afternoon.  The mob showed no signs of dispersing, though, so he couldn’t afford to give attention to his belly.

The cries of the crowd grew more heated.  No longer content with name-calling, they began to yell threats, “Hang the red devils right off!” becoming the prevalent theme of their bellows.

“This is pointless,” Ormsby finally muttered and gave orders for the thirty men who would march the Washos to California to assemble at his hotel.  As they started down Main Street toward the Indians, Clyde Thomas fell in beside Ben, bringing the number of armed men to thirty-one, more than enough to ensure the safe removal of the accused.  “Billy can tell Nelly and Marie what we’re doing,” he said.

When the Washo women saw the marchers, however, they misunderstood their intent.  “Oh, they have come to kill them!” one cried, and the others joined in her wailing.  Ben’s knowledge of the Washo language was only rudimentary, but he managed to pick up a word here and there and piece together the gist of what the women were screaming.  Protesting the innocence of their men, the Washo women accused Captain Jim of picking them only because they had no fathers to speak up for them or maybe because they had no children in need of a father and, thus, could be spared.  Ben wasn’t sure which.  “Something’s not right here,” he told Clyde.  Clyde just looked back at Ben, clearly confused, not knowing what to believe.

Ben spotted Sarah Winnemucca standing to one side and made his way toward her.  As a Washo woman threw herself at Numaga’s feet, clutching at his buckskin-clad legs, Ben asked Sarah, “What’s she saying?”

Sarah leaned close so Ben could hear her interpretation.  “She says, ‘Oh, you are going to have my poor husband killed.  We were married this winter, and I have been with him constantly since we were married.  Oh, Good Spirit, come!  Come into the hearts of this people.  Oh, whisper in their hearts that they may not kill my poor husband.  Oh, good chief, talk for him.  Our cruel chief has given my husband to you because he is afraid all of us will be killed by you.’”

The woman spun to face Captain Jim, her face contorted with the fear and outrage swirling in her heart.  Again Sarah interpreted her words for Ben: “You have given my innocent blood to save your people.”

“Dear God, no!” Ben moaned.  “That can’t mean what I think it does, can it?”

The other white guards had now reached the prisoners, and the screams of the women grew louder.  Natchez moved toward them, obviously trying to reassure them that the white men were only taking the men to jail, not to kill them, but the women refused to be consoled.

Suddenly, as if driven to desperation by the uproar around them, the three accused men panicked and bolted across an open meadow toward the Carson River.  But they never reached the shelter of the cottonwoods along the river.  Almost by instinct, their white pursuers took aim and fired.  Two of the Indians fell immediately, the third dropped to his knees, raising his arms in surrender.

The women rushed to the meadow to cradle their dying husbands, rocking the limp bodies and keening over them as hot blood sprayed their bare arms and soaked through their dresses.  Still in shock, Ben watched the grisly scene.  He hadn’t fired a shot, would have prevented the killings if he could, but he still felt responsible, cursing himself for not seeing soon enough the terror that spurred the Washos’ flight.

Sarah Winnemucca had raced to the meadow at Ben’s heels.  Now, as she stood with an arm around her sobbing younger sister Elma, Ben heard her say, “It is enough to make the mountains weep.”

“Save your sympathies, girl, for those more deserving,” Ormsby’s wife muttered, taking tight grip on Sarah’s arm and pulling her back toward town.

“But I am sure the men were innocent,” Sarah murmured.

“How came the Washo arrows there?” Elizabeth Ormsby countered.  “The chief himself has brought them to us, and my husband knows what he is doing.”  Looking up, she saw Ben staring at her and, lifting her head in defensive pride, marched the two Winnemucca girls back to the store.

Captain Jim looked down in sorrow at the grieving widows.  “It is true what the women say,” he said, so softly only a few heard him.  “It is I who have killed them; their blood is on my hands.  I know their spirits will haunt me and bring me bad luck while I live.”

Ben turned away, no longer hungry.  Had there been food in his stomach at that moment, he would have vomited it up.  Little Elma Winnemucca did become ill over the events of that afternoon, and her brother Natchez, no longer willing to leave his sisters among the whites, decided to remain in Genoa until she was able to travel.  No one objected; no one felt threatened.  The white settlers, so rabid with rage before, now passed the Indians with averted eyes.

Ben was glad the trouble had ended in time for his family to make their anticipated visit to California, and not just for the boys’ sake.  He wanted to put some distance between himself and CarsonValley, to give his heart time to heal itself of the pain and guilt he carried.  He scrawled a quick note to Adam, telling him they’d be a couple of days later than planned, and left it with the postmaster, then rode home at a gallop, as if trying to outrun the stench of Genoa justice.

CHAPTER SEVEN

California Expedition

As the stagecoach hit another rough spot, Ben glanced apologetically at Marie.  “Not much longer now,” he promised, “and they use a better quality coach between Placerville and Folsom.

Marie smiled feebly.  “At least, Little Joe does not seem to mind the bumps.”

“Mind!” Ben hooted.  “He’s positively in his element.”

Little Joe, whose traveling capacity had been the greatest concern to his parents, had embraced the new experience eagerly.  Before they’d traveled ten miles, Ben knew his real concern would be to keep the curious little lad inside the coach, for Little Joe insistently stretched toward the open window, fascinated by the scenery rushing past.  When he grew tired of sight-seeing, the rocking motion of the stagecoach seemed to lull him to sleep, so the only real problem arose when he needed a diaper change, no small feat in the fast-moving vehicle, and no welcome occurrence to any of the other, thankfully tolerant, passengers.

Hoss soon tired of looking out the window, but he never seemed to weary of reading the letter Adam had sent just to him.  Of course, Adam had written about boring things like what subjects he was taking at the academy this term: geometry, American history and Greek, in addition to the reading, writing and elocution he was required to study each term.  Hoss sympathized, though, with Adam’s disappointment in being refused a place in the French class and shared his hope that he might be accepted next term if he made a good start with his Greek.

Hoss had been most interested in reading about Adam’s roommate Harold Lissome, a boy just one year older than Adam.  He sounded nice, and the nicest thing of all had been Harold’s offer to bunk in with someone else so Hoss could sleep in his brother’s room.  Adam had made it sound like they should do it to give their parents time alone, but Hoss didn’t think that made sense.  How could they be alone with Little Joe sleeping in the same room?  No, Hoss understood his brother really wanted to be with him, and he had begged to be allowed to stay at the rooming house.  Eyes twinkling at each other, Ben and Marie had quickly agreed.

The stage pulled to a stop before the depot in Placerville and all the passengers climbed gratefully down.  “Now can I hold my brother?” Hoss demanded petulantly.  He’d asked earlier and discovered his parents didn’t trust him to keep a good grip on feisty Little Joe in the moving coach.

“Mercy, yes,” Ben teased, plunking the boy into Hoss’s outstretched arms.  “I’ll gladly carry the baggage that doesn’t wiggle.”  He collected their assortment of carpetbags and led the way to the Empire Hotel, where he usually stayed when he had a layover in Placerville.  There was an adequate restaurant just off the lobby, but the Cartwrights would, of course, eat at Mama Zuebner’s Cafe a block or two down the street on the other side.

Though they were hungry, they took their time getting situated.  Marie wanted Ludmilla Zuebner and her daughters Katerina and Marta to see Little Joe at his best, so she fed and changed him into clean clothes, as well as a fresh diaper.  Then she quickly brushed her gold tweed traveling dress free of the dust it had collected on the road.  Ben and Hoss freshened up their own apparel and washed their faces and hands, and everyone was ready for the evening meal.

Entering the cafe, Hoss licked his lips in anticipation.  Hop Sing cooked really well, and Mama even better, when the Chinese cook let her in the kitchen, but Mama Zuebner still reigned supreme in Hoss’s estimation.  She didn’t cook fancy things like Mama sometimes did, but Hoss, who had cut his teeth on Nelly Thomas’s homespun meals, preferred plain fare anyway.

Both Ben and Hoss, however, began to wonder if they’d get to eat at all.  Ludmilla, normally so busy she could spare little time to visit with her old friend Ben, evidently had all the time in the world when there was a new baby to ogle.  Her two flaxen-haired daughters were just as absorbed in examining his tiny fingers, only laughing when they took tight hold on one of Katerina’s braids.  Little Joe, Ben noted somewhat ruefully, was responding like a lone rooster in a henhouse.  Being the center of attention suited him just fine.

Ludmilla finally took her eyes off the baby long enough to notice the hungry-eyed boy standing by.  “You look like you need plate of stew right away,” the buxom German said with a deep, rolling laugh.

“Yes, ma’am!” Hoss crowed.  “Oxtail stew, if you got it.”

“I got,” Ludmilla chuckled.

“And—and will you have Hangtown Fry for breakfast?” Hoss queried quickly.  Pa fixed the combination of scrambled eggs and oysters for breakfast every New Year’s Day, but here, where the dish had originated, Hoss hoped it might appear on the menu more regularly.

“Hoss,” Ben chided softly, but Ludmilla just gave the boy’s sandy hair a light rumple.  “For you, I have,” she whispered conspiratorially.  Hoss grinned, content that his needs would be met, however much distraction Little Joe created.

Marta, evidently, intended he should create little, at least during the meal.  “I’ll hold the baby while you eat,” she offered and took him from Marie’s reluctant arms.  “Come on, Little Joe.  You want to see the kitchen where we cook all the good food?”

Little Joe seemed content, but Marie fluttered into an instant panic.  Ben could read it in her face and quickly put his arms around her.  “You’ve got to quit clinging to him, my love,” he chided gently as he seated her at the table.

“Yes, Ben,” she murmured, “but you know why.”

Ben nodded.  He knew exactly why Marie could barely tolerate having the baby out of her sight.  Her first child, the one fathered by Jean D’Marigny, had been taken from her at birth by Jean’s autocratic mother and had died within weeks of yellow fever.  Marie’s intense attachment to Little Joe had as much to do with that remembered horror as it did love for the boy himself.  “You know I wouldn’t let anyone take our baby,” Ben whispered very softly to keep Hoss from hearing.

Marie gave him a weak smile, reassured, but still uneasy.  She knew her fears were irrational; that did not, however, make them less real or less difficult to discount.

“You have to admit it’s easier to eat without a baby in your arms,” Ben smiled as the food was served.

Marie laughed lightly.  That much, at least, was true.  She relaxed a little, then fully when Marta returned to sit with them at the table and her precious baby boy was once more under her protective gaze.

After Ludmilla closed the restaurant for the night, they adjourned to her house for a lengthy visit, sharing news of mutual friends.  “Oh, Marta,” Ben said suddenly.  “I’m supposed to tell you that Billy Thomas will be through in a few days.”

“As if I cared,” Marta declared, tossing one long braid over her shoulder, but the sparkle in her blue eyes told Ben she did care and would be looking forward to seeing her old friend from the Overland Trail.  Ben found himself hoping friendship was all the German girl wanted from flighty Billy Thomas, with his impish urge to sniff the daisies in every field he wandered through.

Back at the hotel Marie carefully padded a dresser drawer for Little Joe’s bed, but the baby would have none of it, making his displeasure known, as usual, at the top of his lungs.  In his nightshirt Ben walked the floor with the wailing baby, patting the small back consolingly.  “Now, what do you want to carry on like this for?” Ben asked softly, then lowered his voice still more so Marie couldn’t hear.  “Pa won’t take you on any more trips if you keep this up, and you know how you’d miss that nice swinging stagecoach.”  Probably what I need now, Ben told himself.  Probably put you right to sleep.  Since there was no stagecoach available, however, Ben kept pacing and patting.

“He can sleep in my bed,” Hoss offered.

“No!” Marie cried sharply.

“He’s too young for that, Hoss,” Ben explained.  “You wouldn’t want to roll over on him and smother him, would you?”

“I wouldn’t!” Hoss protested.  “You don’t trust me with nothin’.”

“Of course, we do, son,” Ben soothed, “but you need to trust my judgement in this.  It can happen so quickly you don’t realize it when a baby’s this small.  He’ll settle down soon and sleep in his own bed.”  Ben hoped he was telling the truth and was gratified to see that Little Joe did, indeed, settle down and, once fully asleep, made no further protest over his unfamiliar bed.

After hearty helpings of Hangtown Fry Monday morning, the Cartwrights boarded the stage for Folsom.  Marie moaned softly.  “Ride in comfort on the stage, you said,” she complained, but she smiled gently as she spoke the rebuking words.

“Only twenty miles,” Ben laughed, “then we’ll switch to the train, and that, you must admit, will be a comfortable ride.

“I can hardly wait,” Marie sighed.  “It seems I am the poor traveler in the family.”

“And here’s the best one,” Ben replied, dandling Little Joe on his knee.  “You happy now, baby?  Ready for a nice, bouncy ride?”

Marie groaned.  Ben was cruel to remind her again, but this stagecoach, its body swinging on leather thoroughbraces, rode like a hammock slung between two trees.  Nonetheless, Marie was grateful to leave the stage and board the infinitely smoother train for the final twenty-two miles into Sacramento.

“Want to hold your brother?” Ben asked when they’d taken their places.

“Can I?” Hoss asked eagerly.

“Sure; the train won’t bounce around like the stage, so I think you can handle him,” Ben replied, handing the baby over the wooden seat in front of him where Hoss was sitting.

Hoss immediately held his little brother up to the tiny window beside him.  “See, you got a nice view from here,” he told Little Joe.  “You’re gonna like trains even better than stagecoaches.”

Little Joe reached out to pat the glass with his palm and cocked his head curiously.  There’d been nothing between him and the open air on the stagecoach and he couldn’t figure out the meaning of this transparent barrier.  Then the train started to roll and a look of near ecstasy sparked in the miniature emerald eyes.  No doubt about it: Little Joe liked movement.

Adam was there to meet them when the train pulled into the station in Sacramento.  Hoss, who had surrendered Little Joe to his mother as soon as he caught sight of his other brother, waved wildly to get Adam’s attention.  “Adam!  I get to stay with you at your place, like you wrote I could,” he yelled as he ran over to him.

Adam gave his younger brother a stout clap on the back.  “That’s good, Hoss.  It’s on the way to the hotel, so we’ll drop your gear off there.”

“And eat!” Hoss cried.  “You said the food there was good.”

“It’s good,” Adam said, “but Pa may have other plans.”

Hoss turned to his father, who had just walked up, baggage in hand.  “How about it, Pa?  Lunch at Adam’s place?”

Ben laughed.  “Mrs. Maguire’s not expecting us, son.  There may not be enough for extra guests.”

“There’s always plenty,” Adam assured him, “and she is expecting you ‘cause she knew the train would be getting here before noon.”

“I would like to see the cuisine Adam is served,” Marie said, her motherly instinct aroused.

“Dinner at the rooming house it is, then,” Ben said brightly.  “We’ll need to hire a carriage.”

“I hired a surrey and team,” Adam said.  “I took some money from the bank for it.”

Ben smiled his appreciation of his son’s forethought.  “I’ll reimburse you,” he promised.  “Now, would you care to explain what you’re doing out of school at this hour, young man?”

“I got permission,” Adam assured his father, “but I have to go back after lunch.  I have the whole day off tomorrow, though.”

They loaded the surrey with their carpetbags and Adam, looking and feeling very manly, drove them to the rooming house.  Mrs. Maguire came from the kitchen to greet them as they entered.  “Oh, what a darling boy!” she cried, reaching for Little Joe as soon as she saw him.  Marie released him, always proud to see her handsome boy fawned over.

Molly Maguire fingered the baby’s soft, dark golden-brown curls.  “Oh, you little beauty, you,” she cooed.  “We’ll get along just fine, won’t we?”  She smiled at Marie.  “Now, you mustn’t worry about a thing.  When Adam told me you’d be bringing a baby along, I told him I’d gladly keep the little one for you whenever you like.”

Marie’s panicky hands stretched toward her baby.  “Oh, we could not think of imposing,” she said quickly, taking Little Joe into her arms again.  “Adam was presumptuous to suggest it.”

“I didn’t,” Adam inserted defensively.  “She offered.”

“Indeed, I did,” Molly laughed.  “It’ll be a pure joy to me to coddle a baby again.  I had none of my own, my husband dyin’ young as he did, but I helped raise seven younger brothers back in the old country.”

“Oh, is that why you opened a boardinghouse for young boys?” Ben chuckled.  “I wondered what had caused you to take such leave of your senses.”

Mrs. Maguire’s blue eyes twinkled.  “Aye, boys are what I know best, but I haven’t had one as young as your babe in a long while.  It’ll pleasure me to watch him for you, and no more talk of imposing, me girl.”

“You are a godsend, Mrs. Maguire,” Ben said enthusiastically before Marie could counter with another reason for keeping her baby glued to her breast.  “Now, Marie,” he added quickly as she turned a baleful glance his direction, “I want to take you to the theater tonight, and you know you can’t take a baby there.”

“Of course not,” Molly Maguire urged.  “Leave him with me.  I—I promise you can trust me.”  She had evidently noted Marie’s anxious concern.

Marie took a deep breath.  “Yes, yes, I’m sure I can.  I’ll keep him with me ‘til tonight, though.  I’ll need to nurse him through the day.”

Molly smiled.  “Aye, he’ll keep happier if his tummy’s full.”  She could not, of course, know the reasons behind Marie’s near fanatic attachment to her child, but she was too secure herself to take offense at it.  The little mother just needed reassurance, that’s all, and she was glad to provide it.  “Well, now, it’s about half an hour ‘til dinner is served, so perhaps you’d like to see Adam’s room.”

“Oh, yes,” Marie murmured.

“I’ll show you,” Adam said.

Hoss hefted his carpetbag under his arm.  “I’m stayin’ with my brother tonight,” he announced.

“Aye, I know,” Mrs. Maguire chuckled, smoothing his wind-tousled hair, “and it’s welcome you’ll be, child.”

Hoss grinned happily, obviously feeling very grown up to be spending a night away from his parents.  When Adam ushered his family into his room, Hoss immediately demanded, “Which bed is mine?”

“Neither one,” Adam replied, a wry smile lifting one corner of his mouth, “but you can borrow Harold’s.”  He pointed to the bed furthest from the door.

Hoss plopped his carpetbag in the middle of his borrowed bed and looked out the window.  “Ooh, a swing!” he hollered.  “Can I swing in it, can I?”

“I guess so,” Adam said, “if you can catch it free.  The older boys like to sit there with their girls at night.”

“It’s free now,” Hoss pointed out.

“Go ahead,” Ben laughed.  “We’ll call you for lunch.”

“Can I take Little Joe?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Marie worried aloud.

“Sure, he’ll like it fine,” Ben decided.  “Just hold on to him.”

“‘Course, I will,” Hoss declared, hugging the baby tightly as he hurried out the door.

“What do you think?” Adam asked Marie.

“I think, perhaps, your father is a little careless with his youngest son,” she said, perturbed.

“I meant my room,” Adam added quickly.  The other boarders would be hurrying in for the noon meal soon, and he didn’t want them to hear his parents quarreling.

“I think it is a nice room,” she replied, distracted momentarily from her motherly concern, “and you are keeping it very tidy.”

“Yeah, well, Harold’s that kind of fellow,” Adam responded.  “Makes it easier when you think alike.”

“Two of a kind, are you?” Ben smiled.

Adam shrugged.  “In lots of ways.  He’s not as good a student as I am, but he tries hard.  I’ve been helping him, and he says he’s doing better this term because of it.”

“That’s good,” Ben said.  “Made any other friends?”

“Oh, sure,” Adam replied as if the answer should have been obvious.  “I especially like Martin Gallagher.  His father’s a state senator, and he lives at home, so we only see each other at school.  We’ve had some great times talking about assignments and books we’ve read, though.”

“It is good you make friends,” Marie commented.  Responding to a loud whoop from below, she hurried to the window.  “Oh, Hoss, not so high!” she cried in terror for her baby.  Little Joe, of course, with his established love for motion of any kind, was gurgling happily without a trace of fear.

Peering over her shoulder, Ben added authoritatively, “It’s not that kind of swing, son——slow and easy.”

Reluctantly, Hoss settled the swing into a gentle rock.  “Sorry, Punkin, but Mama’s fussin’,” he whispered.  “It was fun while it lasted, huh?”  Little Joe babbled a response Hoss was sure was an affirmative one.

“I should probably build that boy a swing,” Ben chuckled, “one he can swing high as the trees in.”

“Without his baby brother,” Marie said firmly.

“Of course, my love,” Ben soothed.  “I agree that Little Joe’s a bit small to fly so high.  See, I’m not as careless as you thought.”

“Or quite as careful as you ought,” Marie smiled.  Ben chuckled and nodded acceptance of her rebuke.

“I guess it’s time we went down to lunch,” Adam suggested.  “The other fellows will be coming in soon.  You can meet Harold then.”

“I’d like that,” Ben said, “but before we go down, lay out your suit.  We’ll take it to the hotel with us when we check in, and you can meet us there after school.”

“My suit?” Adam queried.  “Oh, for the theater tonight, but you’ll have to come by here, anyway, to drop off Little Joe.”

“Yeah, but you’ll need to be dressed earlier,” Ben said.  “Marie’s had a marvelous idea.  We want to go by Beal’s and have a family portrait made; then we’ll have dinner and a night at the theater.”

“That’s a grand idea!” Adam bubbled.  “Could I have an extra copy, to keep here?”

Mais oui,” Marie assured him.  “Now, please show us the way to the dining hall.”

“Okay,” Adam agreed.  “Then I’ll go out and fetch Hoss.  He won’t want to miss dinner.”

“Oh, no!” Ben guffawed.  “Or any other meal!”

After a satisfying lunch, at which the Cartwrights met a number of Adam’s rooming mates, they checked into the Orleans Hotel.  Since Adam would be in school several more hours, the others elected to spend the afternoon shopping.  “I really don’t think we ought, Ben,” Marie argued as he directed her into a furniture shop.  “We have little money to spare, and with Adam away, his bed is available for guests.”

“Provided they show up during the most inclement season for travel,” Ben commented wryly.  “You know we need another bed.  Otherwise, we have to shift the boys around whenever anyone comes.”

“But the expense, Ben,” she protested anew.

“We’ll keep to something simple, inexpensive,” Ben agreed, “but I don’t want you worrying about money, Marie.  That is my concern.”

Oui, mon mari,” she whispered meekly.

Both of them were oblivious to the itching ears listening in or the worried pucker on their middle son’s brow.  Hoss made up his mind not to ask for any candy, but couldn’t help smiling when they bought him a sackful without being asked.  Back at the hotel, while they waited for Adam, he rubbed a piece of peppermint across Little Joe’s tongue, careful not to actually put the candy in the baby’s mouth.

When Adam arrived at the hotel, everyone freshened up and changed into their fanciest clothes.  Even Little Joe wore a long, lacy dress with lace-edged bonnet and new linen booties purchased that very day.  It was the sight of that beautifully decked out baby, though, that caused Mr. Beal the most concern when they stated their desire for a family portrait.  “I don’t know,” he fretted, stroking his whiskerless chin.  “Hard for children of any age to sit still long enough, and a baby——”

“Oh, we’ll keep him still,” Ben assured him with his usual foundationless confidence.

Mr. Beal agreed to try, and by the time the daguerreotype had been taken, everyone felt themselves wrung out.  Little Joe saw no reason to sit still in a room full of unfamiliar and interesting sights, and Ben finally had to clamp the infant’s arms to his side and forcibly hold him motionless, or as close to motionless as they were likely to achieve.  Ben considered himself immensely fortunate that Little Joe withheld his scream of protest until their image had been taken.

“The picture may be somewhat blurred,” Beal warned, “but if you’re determined to have the entire family in the picture, I doubt we can do better.”

“We’re determined,” Ben said firmly, “and if the portrait is less than perfect, we’ll understand, Mr. Beal.  Thank you for your patience.”

He gathered his family around him on the street outside the Daguerrean Gallery.  “That took longer than I expected, thanks to wiggle-worm here, so we’ll need to eat soon to make the curtain at the theater.”

“Marty says the Alexandria Cafe is the best in town,” Adam reported.

“The senator’s boy?” Ben asked.  “Well, he ought to know, I guess.  Can you show us the way, Adam?”

“Yes, sir,” the oldest Cartwright boy replied, “and we go right past the rooming house, so we could leave wiggle-worm with Mrs. Maguire.”

“I need to feed and change him first,” Marie said quickly, “and get the things he’ll need for the evening.”

“Hotel first, then,” Ben said brightly.  “We’ll get our youngest squared away, then have a night on the town.”

Adam and Hoss beamed their pleased responses, but Marie just looked resignedly into the eyes of the baby she felt she was abandoning and snuggled him close.  Her gloom lasted until she read the menu at the Alexandria Cafe.  “Oh, Ben!” she squealed with delight.  “They have escargot!”

“Huh?” Hoss asked.

“Snails, mon chéri,” his mother translated.  “Would you like some?”

“Ugh, no!” Hoss sputtered.

Ben worked hard to suppress the smile twittering on his lips.  “I understand it’s considered a delicacy, but I believe I’ll stick to the lamb.”

“Yeah, me, too,” Adam said.

Hoss decided he might as well go along with his father and brother.  He didn’t read well enough to scan all the choices quickly before they needed to turn in their order, and lamb, at least, sounded safe.  Safe and good, he concluded as he spooned another dollop of mint sauce over his meat.  Mama could keep her nasty old snails.  “What play we gonna see?” he asked as he cut another bite.  “That old Shakespeare feller again or something good like Pocahontas?”

“Neither one,” Adam reported.  “I looked at all the playbills yesterday and asked around school.  Harold says we should see “The Lady of Lyons” at the Sacramento Theater.  He says it’s kind of sentimental, so we figure Marie will really like it.”

Marie’s fork paused as she was prying another snail from its shell.  “Oh, but you must not choose just to please me.”

“And why not?” Ben demanded with a wink.  “You put up with our choices the last time we were here.  It’s your turn, my love.”

“Well, what do you know about this play, Adam?” Marie inquired, sipping her white wine.

“Only that it’s a love story and that this actor, James Stark, is supposed to be the best there is,” the boy replied.

“Let’s give it a try, then,” Ben decided.

Hoss frowned.  “A love story?  That don’t sound no good at all.”

“May I remind you, young fellow, that Pocahontas was a kind of love story, too?” Ben said, his eyebrow arching in a way that told Hoss he’d better watch his tongue.

“Yes, sir,” Hoss mumbled and secretly gave up all hope of enjoying the evening’s entertainment.  As “The Lady of Lyons” began, he was sure his despair was warranted, for he found the plight of the gardener’s son in love with the beautiful Pauline, daughter of his employer, both ignorant and boring.  Adam, on the other hand, found himself identifying with the man in his earnest quest to make himself worthy of his lady love by learning to paint and write poetry.  Obviously, the humble gardener had poetry in his soul, too, for what could be more poetical than his declaration that “art became the shadow of the starlight in those haunting eyes”?

Hoss thought that kind of language just plain sappy, but his tender heart became incensed when Pauline rejected letter after letter from her ardent admirer.  “She’s mean,” the country boy whispered to his slightly more sophisticated brother.

“Shh,” Adam hissed.

The plot became more entangled as the proud Pauline spurned the advances of twenty others who sought her love.  Finally, two rejected suitors decided to wreak revenge on their cruel-hearted mistress.  The agent for their sinister plan was Claude Melnotte, played by the excellent-as-reported James Stark.  The angry suitors pooled their funds to disguise Claude as a royal prince, who would woo and wed Pauline, then leave her to languish in a miserable hovel.

When the wedding night took place, even Hoss began to feel sorry for Pauline.  Then, just when things looked their bleakest, Claude repented of his evil intent, confessed his true identity and offered to divorce Pauline.  Hoss gave a vigorous nod of approval, but he couldn’t understand why Pauline now refused to leave Melnotte, still considering him the prince of her heart.  How stupid could a girl get!

Claude rushed off to war, a move Hoss heartily approved, and became a general, returning home only to find his wife on the auction block, being sold to pay her father’s debts.  But Claude had prospered in his new career and offered three times the amount owed to buy back the woman he had once tricked into marrying him.  The curtain fell as the reunited lovers grasped each other in heartfelt embrace.  Hoss stood and cheered ‘til his embarrassed older brother jerked him back into his seat.

Laying her head on Ben’s shoulder, Marie sighed in contentment.  Ben looked into the shimmering emerald pools of her eyes and smiled.  “Enjoy it?”

Mais oui,” she murmured.  “Claude is so much like you, mon mari.”

Secretly considering Claude cloyingly sentimental, Ben laughed.  “I hope not!  But you are a jewel worth any price, my love.”

“Did you not do as much for me as he for Pauline?” Marie asked.  “You know of what I speak.”

“I don’t,” Hoss piped up.  “Did Pa have to buy you, Mama?”

“No!” Ben scoffed.  “And now’s not the time for that story.  There’ll be a brief intermission before the afterpiece, so if you boys want to stretch your legs, do it now.”

“Yeah, come on, Hoss,” Adam said.

Hoss willingly followed Adam into the lobby.  “What’s an afterpiece?”

“A piece that comes after the first one, of course,” Adam answered airily.

“Oh,” Hoss said.  “I hope it ain’t got as much kissin’ and squeezin’ as that last one.”

Adam laughed.  “I don’t think so.  It’s supposed to be a comedy.”

“Huh?”

“A funny play.”

“Oh, yeah, that’ll be better.”

The boys returned to the theater to watch “The Irish Tutor.”  Hoss didn’t understand many of the jokes, but the general merriment of the audience was contagious, and he found himself laughing even when he didn’t know why.

* * * * *

A shaft of glimmering white from the almost full moon shone through the window between the boys’ beds.  Adam had dutifully tucked Hoss in as soon as their parents dropped them off at the rooming house and picked up the peacefully slumbering Little Joe.  Both boys, however, were still too keyed up from the evening’s entertainment to go directly to sleep.  They lay on their sides, facing each other, whispering in the dark.  After talking about his new classes and teachers, Adam inquired how Hoss was doing in school this year.

“Couldn’t be better,” Hoss giggled.  “Ain’t no more school!”

Adam propped himself on his right elbow.  “What do you mean, ‘no more school’?”

“Just what I said,” Hoss bubbled.  “Mormons done took off and ain’t no kids left in Franktown.  Lucky Bill even dragged the log building off to CarsonValley to use for a stable, so no more school.”

“That’s too bad,” Adam muttered, easing down to his pillow again.  “I got Pa’s letter about Brigham Young calling the Mormons back to Salt Lake, but he wasn’t sure how many would actually go.”

“Plenty,” Hoss reported.  “Pa went to see ‘em off, and he counted a hundred twenty-three wagons.  The paper said four hundred fifty people.”

Adam whistled softly.  “Can’t be many left.  What about Genoa?  Are they holding school?”

“Don’t think so,” Hoss yawned.  “Mama’s gonna start givin’ me lessons when we get home.”

Adam frowned.  Marie could do all right, he supposed, with reading, writing and simple arithmetic, but Hoss wasn’t likely to learn much else with her as a teacher.  Well, he didn’t take to book learning like his big brother.  Maybe the three R’s were all he could handle.

“Adam,” Hoss asked tentatively, “will that fair cost much money?”

“What do you care?” Adam snickered.  “You’re not paying.”

“I—I was just wonderin’,” Hoss stammered.  “The fair sounds like fun, but we done spent a bunch on dinner and the play and——”

Adam’s brow furrowed.  “Since when are you so all fired worried about money?” he demanded.

“Well, now that we’re poor——” Hoss muttered.

Adam sat up abruptly.  “What do you mean, ‘we’re poor’?”

Suddenly feeling he’d spoken out of turn, Hoss pulled the covers over his head and said nothing.  Adam got out of bed and shook his brother’s shoulder roughly.  “I asked you a question, Hoss, and you’d better answer.”  He jerked the covers to reveal his younger brother’s anxious eyes.

“I—I think maybe Pa don’t want you to know,” Hoss whimpered.

“Well, I want me to know,” Adam hissed.  “You speak up right now.  Who says we’re poor?”

“Well, nobody, exactly,” Hoss replied, lips trembling.  “They mostly quit talking when I’m around, but Pa bought up a lot of that Mormon land, and Mama acts like we gotta be real careful.  She—she didn’t buy the bedroom stuff she really wanted.  Said it was too expensive.  Don’t tell Pa I told, please, Adam.”

Adam tucked his brother under the covers once more.  “Don’t worry,” he said.  “You won’t be in trouble, but I have to ask Pa, Hoss.  If things are rough, I have to know.  Else how can I do my part?”

“Don’t let Pa be mad, please,” Hoss pleaded.

“He won’t be,” Adam assured him.  “Now go to sleep.”

Hoss wasn’t completely reassured, but Adam had protected him on other occasions, so Hoss felt he could trust his brother.  Besides, after the long journey, a day full of activity and an unusually late evening, he was too tired not to do as he was told.  Soon he was snoring noisily.

It wasn’t exactly music to Adam’s ears, but he had little choice but to listen to his brother’s nasal orchestration.  He couldn’t sleep, not with Hoss’s unwittingly planted seeds of concern sprouting in his brain.  It would be like Pa to spare his boys worry over money, but Adam wasn’t a little boy anymore.  Pa didn’t need to spare him the way he did Hoss, and Adam intended to demand an explanation first thing in the morning.

As the boys ate breakfast at the boardinghouse the next morning, Hoss, having slept away his fears, thoroughly enjoyed the ham and eggs.  Adam, however, toyed with the small helping he’d taken.  Pa could be stubborn, especially if he thought his sons were out of line, and while Adam wasn’t really afraid to ask the needed questions, he was nervous.  Wanting to talk to their father alone, Adam sent Hoss to play on the swing in the backyard.  “I’ll call you when they get here,” he promised.

Expecting to pick up the boys and go, Ben had left Marie in the carriage with Little Joe.  Adam met him in the foyer and asked him into the parlor.  “I need to talk to you,” he said soberly.

Ben’s near-black eyebrows knitted together, but he waited until he and Adam were alone.  “What is it, son?” he asked anxiously.  “Where’s Hoss?”

“Outside swinging,” Adam said.  “It’s not about him.  Pa, are——are we hard up for money?”

“What gave you that idea?” Ben asked gently.

“Hoss said you’d bought a lot of land lately, and——well, he thinks we’re poor now.”

Ben laughed.  “Not in land, at least.”  He sat down on the parlor sofa and patted the spot next to him.  When Adam joined him, Ben answered his son’s concerns.  “Look, Adam, there’s no need for either of you to worry.”

“I’m not a little boy, Pa,” Adam insisted.  “If you need to take me out of school, I’ll understand.”

Ben grabbed the boy’s hand and pressed hard.  “Absolutely not.”  He stood abruptly and paced across the room.  Then, turning, he eyed Adam with pain.  “Why is it no one in my family trusts me to take proper care of them?”

“I do, Pa,” Adam said quickly, “but, well, you didn’t tell me, and Hoss said it was because you didn’t want me to worry.”

Ben frowned.  “Hoss has an overactive imagination,” he said severely.  “The only reason I haven’t told you is that it happened right before that trouble with the Washos I mentioned at dinner last night, and I was too occupied with that to write.  Then, we’ve been busy since we arrived, and I just haven’t thought to tell you.”

“Then tell me now,” Adam insisted.  He could be as stubborn as his father when he thought himself in the right.

Ben returned to the sofa.  “Sure, son; there’s no secret.  I bought some land that adjoins the Ponderosa.  It’s good land, a good investment, but cash is going to be a bit shorter than it’s been the last year or two.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t enough for our needs——like your schooling.  Besides, silly son, that’s already paid for.”

“But you could get a refund if you needed it,” Adam choked out.

Ben drew the boy close, knowing what a sacrifice Adam was offering and feeling proud of his willingness to make it.  “I don’t need it,” he assured his son.  “Despite Hoss’s report, we are not poor.  I’ll be needing to put extra cash into building up our herd, so we’ll have to watch ourselves.  But we’ve got plenty to live on, plenty to school you with, and plenty to spend on a day at the fair.  Now, you relax and enjoy yourself, ‘cause if you don’t, I may have to blister your britches.”

The teasing words brought a smile to Adam’s face.  “You’re not just making light of it because of my age, are you?” he asked for extra reassurance.

Ben took his son’s cheeks between his palms.  “I wouldn’t do that, Adam.  As you said, you’re not a little boy; you’re a young man.  Sounds like I do have a little boy who could use some setting straight, though.”

“Yeah, he’s worried,” Adam acknowledged.

“Well, maybe I’ll just have to buy him something special at the fair,” Ben laughed.

“That ought to do it,” Adam grinned.  “I’ll go get him.”

“Yeah, and hurry,” Ben advised, “or Marie will whip us all for keeping her waiting out in that warm sun.”  Adam nodded brusquely and ran to get his brother.

Ben shook his head in consternation.  A father did what he thought was best, tried to spare his boys needless worry, and somehow they found their way to it like iron filings to a magnet.  Maybe it didn’t pay to spare them; maybe he ought to just lay out the facts, even with a boy as young as Hoss.  A wry smile twisted Ben’s mouth.  For now, at least, he could avoid explaining his every move to Little Joe.  That was some consolation——some, but precious small.

Soon the Cartwrights were loaded into the surrey and on the way to the California State Agricultural Fair.  As they drove, Ben tried to reassure Hoss that they were not paupers and he could feel free to enjoy himself.  Hoss welcomed the release, for everywhere he looked inside the fairgrounds, he saw things to crave.  He dutifully followed his parents as they viewed the exhibits of apples, pears, grapes, peaches, nectarines, figs and almonds and gladly tasted each.

“We’ll buy some to take home before we leave,” Ben said, “so decide what you’d like best.  We can only carry so much on the stage.”

Next they visited some of the exhibits for fruits and vegetables of unusual size.  They all gaped open-mouthed at the 93-lb. beet that had taken first prize, but the winning pumpkin was even more impressive, weighing in at a whopping two hundred and sixty-four pounds.  “That’s what I want!” Hoss yelled.  “Think of the pies it would make!”

Ben laughed.  “I don’t think that one’s for sale, son.  Besides, we grow all the pumpkins we need at home.  We’ll save our money for something a little rarer, I think.”

“Nectarines, then?” Hoss begged.  “They were good, and we can’t get them at home.”

“All right, nectarines,” Ben agreed.  “Now, are you boys ready to try your luck at some of the games?”

The youngsters’ eager shouts said they were, and soon both Hoss and Adam were testing the strength of their arms and the accuracy of their aim throwing hard balls at targets.  Hoss had the strength, but his aim was wild, and while Adam’s balls hit dead center, he couldn’t seem to throw hard enough to knock the soft-bodied targets from the ledge.  Finally, with a grimace of determination, Adam flung his last ball and whooped with triumph when the target flew off backwards.

“Hurray!  You get a prize!” Hoss hollered.

“No, you do,” Adam grinned.  “Pick what you want, Hoss.”

Sheer rapture lighted Hoss’s pale eyes as he scanned the choices pointed out to him by the man who ran the game.  “That one,” he cried, stretching his stubby finger toward a fuzzy monkey on a stick.  The man nodded and brought the toy down to Hoss’s eager hands.  Another hand reached for the monkey almost immediately, and Hoss held it near so Little Joe could touch the monkey’s fur.  The baby gurgled with delight.

“Anybody hungry?” Ben asked.  They all were.  The booths lining both sides of their path wafted enough tantalizing aromas to stimulate hunger in a well-fed man, and none of them had eaten since breakfast.  Each wanted something different, and Ben indulgently let them have whatever they wanted and as much as they wanted.  A sausage for Hoss, along with a popcorn ball and some salt water taffy, roast chicken skewered on a stick for Adam and Marie, and a meat pasty and fried peach pie for Ben.

Everyone except Marie came away stuffed to overflowing.  “They have ruined their dinners,” she chided Ben softly.

Ben simply laughed as he pulled her close.  “It’s an occasion, my love, and it won’t hurt them this once.

Marie smiled.  “I suppose not, but if we are to stay much longer, I must find a place to feed our smallest son.”

“No, I think we’re ready to go,” Ben said.

“Fruit, Pa,” Hoss protested.  “You promised.  Nectarines.”

“I hadn’t forgotten,” Ben scolded.  “They’re on our way out.”

With the surrey loaded with a crate of apples and pears, another of almonds and smaller bags of more perishable fruit, the Cartwrights headed back to town.  Seated in the back with Adam, Hoss dangled the little monkey over the front seat just out of reach of Little Joe’s waving fingers.

“Can we leave the foodstuff in your room until we come back from the Paynes?” Ben asked Adam as they pulled up before the rooming house.

“Sure,” Adam replied.  “May I eat some and share some with Harold?”

“Yeah, but don’t try feeding the whole household,” Ben laughed.  “I want some to take home, young man, and, after all, we’re poor now.”

“Pa!” both boys protested.  After a day of being treated to anything they wanted, neither was now concerned about the family finances, but they didn’t think their previous worry was a fit subject for teasing.

Only Ben and his two older sons returned to the fair that afternoon.  While they visited the livestock exhibits, Marie put Little Joe down for his nap and, after he awoke, went shopping.  There were Christmas gifts to be purchased, best done while the boys were absent, and she wanted to find something special for Ben, as well.

* * * * *

“There it is,” Ben said as the Spanish-style ranch house came into view.  “That’s Rancho Hermoso.”

“Oh, it is beautiful, as you said,” Marie murmured and immediately began brushing back the tendrils of golden hair that had blown loose in the wind as they rode in the hired buggy toward the Payne’s home.  She touched her fingers to her tongue and wiped a smudge of dust from Little Joe’s cheek.

Ben laughed.  “Will you quit worrying?  They’ll love you, dust or no dust, and nothing could hide that baby’s handsome features.”

“They’re nice folks, Mama,” Hoss, tightly sandwiched between his parents, assured her.

Marie smiled in weak acknowledgement of their consolation, but it didn’t ease her tension.  When Ben had told her that Rachel Payne was his wife Inger’s dearest friend on the trail west, he had intended Marie to understand that the same friendship would be given her.  Marie couldn’t help remembering, however, those early months when Adam’s loyalty to Inger had made him hostile to his new stepmother.  Maybe Inger, whom Marie had never heard described as less than an angel on earth, had that effect on everyone.  Maybe love for her made people stingy in their acceptance of the one who tried, not to take her place, but to fill her function in the Cartwright home.

As they drove into the yard, a slender, dark-haired woman stood waiting on the porch, flanked by a brown-haired boy on one side and a girl with blonde hair and her mother’s hazel eyes on the other.  The children were the first to meet the buggy.  “Uncle Ben!” Susan squealed.

Ben quickly jumped from the carriage to swoop the little girl skyward.  “Susan, you’re growing prettier all the time.”  He let her down and turned to greet her six-year-old brother, who still hung close to his mother’s skirts.  “What’s the matter, Samuel?” Ben chuckled.  “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten your Uncle Ben?”

“I ‘member him,” Sammy said, sticking a tanned finger at Hoss.

“Yeah, we had fun, huh?” Hoss said.

“You youngsters take Hoss inside and ask Mañuela to give him a glass of lemonade,” Rachel Payne suggested.  Then, smiling, she approached the woman still seated in the buggy.  “You must be Marie,” she said, extending her hand.  “I’m so glad you were able to visit us.  I’ve been dying to meet you since Ben wrote that he’d married again.”

“Thank you most kindly,” Marie said, nerves making her words somewhat stilted.

Rachel didn’t seem to notice her guest’s discomfort.  “Well, you certainly didn’t lie, Ben,” she laughed.  “She’s an absolute beauty, just like you wrote.”

“Oh, Ben, you did not,” Marie demurred, blushing furiously.

“I always speak the truth,” Ben teased.

As he reached to help his wife from the buggy, Rachel stretched her arms toward the baby Marie was holding.  “Let me take him.  Ooh, you little doll,” she cooed, snuggling the sleeping baby close to her breast.  “You’re just about the most beautiful baby I ever saw, yes, you are.”  She smiled down into Marie’s face.  “It’s not hard to see who he takes after.  Why, he’s a perfect picture of you.”

“That he is,” Ben muttered with chagrin.  “Not a trace of his ugly father anywhere.”

“Oh, Ben, you are not ugly,” Marie protested.

“No, I always thought Ben a fine-looking man,” Rachel agreed, “but he is right about one thing.  I don’t see a trace of him in this baby.  He’s you, my dear.”

Marie smiled, pleased, as always, to see her baby admired.  “His hair is a little darker than mine,” she said.  “That, I think, is from his father.”

“Well, maybe that much,” Rachel acknowledged with a light-hearted laugh.  “Now, let’s get in out of this heat, and I’ll show you to your room.  I had Sammy’s old crib put in with you for the baby, so we’ll just put him right in it.  Remind me of his name, will you?”

“Joseph,” Marie whispered lovingly.

“We call him Little Joe, though,” Ben, arms loaded with baggage, added as he followed the two women into the house.

“He surely is, compared to Hoss at this age,” Rachel chuckled.  “Lands, that boy just keeps growing, Ben!”  She showed them into the guest room and laid Little Joe in the crib.  “I’ll have some fresh water drawn for you,” she said, taking the pitcher from the washstand.  “You’ll want to freshen up and change into something more comfortable, I’m sure.”

“Yes, thank you,” Marie said.  When Rachel left, she turned to Ben with a smile.  “You were right.  These are fine people.  I am sure now I will enjoy our visit.”

“Oh, you will,” Ben declared.  “Wait ‘til you get a look at Jonathan’s horses.”

Marie had her first look at the horses an hour later when Samuel and Susan each took a hand and led their pretty new friend down to the pasture.  Horses of every size and color cavorted in the waving grass.  Hoss, who’d brought up the rear, climbed onto the fence and leaned over the top rail to stare at the frolicking animals.  “They’re gooduns,” he commented.  “Can we ride ‘em?”

“Not today, Hoss,” his mother answered.  “It is too close to dinnertime.”

“Oh, yeah,” Hoss said, not disappointed.  He’d rather eat than ride any day.

“We’re having arroz con pollo,” Susan offered.  “Mama said Uncle Ben liked it, and we hope you will, too.”

“I am sure we shall all enjoy the meal very much,” Marie replied.  “Perhaps we should return now, so you children can wash your hands and faces before dinner.”

“Yes, we should,” Susan agreed.  Tidy by nature, she felt inspired to immaculacy by Marie’s ladylike appearance.  Both Hoss and Samuel scowled, but only to each other.  Hoss knew better than to let his mother see his reluctance to clean up, and Sammy knew tattletale Susan would carry the slightest hint of misbehavior straight to their mother.

They arrived with time to spare, a good thing since Little Joe decided to wake shortly after his mother entered the house.  By the time she had nursed him and settled him down in the crib with some of Samuel’s old toys to keep him quiet, dinner was ready and the other three children served and eating in the kitchen with Mañuela.

“Ah, arroz con pollo,” Ben enthused, “my favorite of all Mexican dishes.”

“There’s flan, too,” Jonathan Payne laughed.  “As I recall, that was your favorite of all Mexican dishes.”

“Yeah, well, Mañuela does justice to anything she cooks,” Ben praised, “but I have to admit dessert’s my favorite part of any meal——Yankee, Mexican, French or Chinese.”

“Chinese?” Rachel sputtered.  “You’re not serious!”

“No, he is not,” Marie corrected.  “Our cook is Chinese, but his cuisine is not.”

“Oh, you have a cook now,” Jonathan teased.  “And you thought we were getting high and mighty when you first saw ours!”

“Not high and mighty,” Ben corrected.  “I just saw it as a sign of prosperity.”

“Well, I guess we’ll take it the same way, then,” Rachel tittered.  “Glad you’re doing so well, Ben.”

Ben shook his head.  “We’re doing well enough, but I assure you Hop Sing is not the best indication of that.  What you have in Mañuela is a dependable household assistant.  What we have is a dictatorial tyrant.”  Ben threw up his hands.  “I never even hired him!  He just attached himself to us, unasked.”

“And we are most grateful he did,” Marie rebuked softly.  “You know what a help he is.”

Ben chuckled.  “Yeah, if you don’t mind putting up with the annoyance.”

“He does not annoy me,” Marie smiled.

“True enough,” Ben accused.  “You he treats like a princess.  The rest of us are just dust-laden enemies to his housecleaning.”

“Why didn’t you just say the rest of you were males?” Rachel offered airily and Marie joined her laughter.

They finished the main course, and Mañuela cleared the table before serving the flan.  While she was dishing it up in the kitchen, Ben asked if he might request a favor.  “We purchased some Christmas gifts for Adam while we were in Sacramento,” he explained, “and I was hoping I could leave them here and have you mail them at the right time.”

“We certainly will not!” Rachel declared to Ben’s surprise.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Ben stammered, confused.  “I just couldn’t think of any other way to get them to him.”

“Well, I can,” Rachel contended.  “The idea of letting that boy spend Christmas in a lonely rooming house, Ben!  He’ll come here, of course, and celebrate the holiday with us.”

“Oh, how kind you are!” Marie cried.  “That will be so much happier for Adam.”

“Yes, indeed,” Ben murmured gratefully.  “I don’t know how to thank you.”

Jonathan slapped his friend on the back.  “No need between old trailmates like us.  We don’t forget what a good friend Adam was to our Johnny.”

“Sharing Christmas with him will be almost like having our own boy with us again,” Rachel said, hazel eyes shimmering.  Marie’s hand closed in sympathy over Rachel’s larger one.  She, too, had lost a son, and suddenly the apprehension she’d felt at being compared to Inger faded into mist.  The loss she shared with Rachel forged a bond between them, a friendship that was their own and whole, not the fragmented leavings of a relationship remembered by one and held in awe by the other.

* * * * *

“She’s a fantastic rider, Ben,” Jonathan observed admiringly.  The two men stood outside the corral fence watching Marie trot the chestnut stallion.  Though Ben had been offered a mount of his own, he’d excused himself, preferring to watch his wife’s enjoyment of a spirited mount.  “I get all the riding I care for at home,” he’d joked.

Now he laughed.  “I never told you how I met her, did I?”

Jonathan leaned back against the corral rails, anticipating a good story.  “Only that you met her in New Orleans, when you went to tell her how her husband died saving your life.”

Ben’s eyes grew momentarily sober at the memory of Jean D’Marigny, hearing again his awful screams as the stampeding cattle he’d just turned away from Ben thundered across his body.  Ben shook himself.  “Well, that was how I was supposed to meet her,” he smiled, “but she almost ran me down my first day in New Orleans.  I saw a fiery black stallion charging down on me and just managed to jump clear in time.  Then I saw the rider, the most amazingly beautiful woman I’d ever seen.  I nearly dropped of shock when I learned she was the woman I’d come halfway across the continent to see.”

“Rachel would say you were meant to meet,” Jon chuckled.  “Wait’ll I tell her that story!”

“Just don’t tell her in front of Marie,” Ben cautioned, “or I won’t hear the end of it.  My beloved wife has no memory of the incident and becomes incensed when I bring it up.”

Marie rode up to them.  “May I take him outside the corral, Jonathan?  He wants a good run as much as I.”

“I guess you can handle him,” Jonathan snickered.

Marie cocked her head, wondering why his mouth was twitching so hard, then, as if to show him she was well capable of handling any horse, she rode to the opposite side of the corral and jumped the fence.

Jonathan whistled.  “How do you keep that one home in the kitchen, Ben?”

“Hop Sing rules the kitchen, remember?” Ben grunted.  “It’s our new little son that keeps her in the house, and, of course, our animals don’t have the mettle of that stallion, so there’s less temptation.”

Jonathan smiled.  “Be glad to sell you that one.  Marie likes him, I can tell.”

Ben sighed and shook his head.  “Yeah, but I can’t.”

“Make you a good deal,” Jon offered.

“Don’t tempt me,” Ben said.  “I told you last night about the land I bought recently.  I’m short of cash now, and likely to stay that way ‘til we’ve gotten the herd built up, so I’m afraid my wife will have to content herself with our tame Carson Valley horseflesh for the time being.”

“Too bad,” Jon sympathized.  “A woman who rides like she’s part of the horse ought to have a fine one.”

“Someday,” Ben said.  “She wouldn’t take it now, knowing how things stand with us, but someday I’m going to buy her the best.”

“You know where to find it,” Jonathan chuckled.

“I do, for a fact,” Ben laughed.  “Now, how about showing me that new bull you’re so proud of?”

* * * * *

After three restful days at Rancho Hermoso, the Cartwrights headed home.  Though they would have liked to stay longer, enjoying the company of Marie’s new and Ben’s long-time friends, the calendar read the 18th of October.  The skies looked pleasant, without foreboding clouds on the horizon, but as they all knew, snow sometimes fell in the Sierras as early as October.  California boasted a more congenial climate, but it wasn’t home; Washoe Valley was, so they pointed their faces eastward, glad that they were carrying with them memories to warm them through the winter to come.

They returned to a land still shrouded by clouds of dismay.  More and more residents of Genoa were beginning to believe the Indians they had killed were guilty of nothing but fear.  When later investigation proved that McMarlin and Williams had been murdered by white men over money won in a card game and the arrows placed in their wounds to divert suspicion, the whole territory seemed sick at heart.

After the two actual murderers were found guilty and hanged, Captain Jim pursued Natchez and his sisters, who had left Genoa as the first major snowstorm of the winter was breaking.  Approaching the brush shelters the Paiutes had made in the Pinenut Mountains to wait out the storm, Captain Jim appeared without warning out of the swirling blizzard.  Elma screamed, for to her he looked like the spirit of one of the innocent dead.

Captain Jim walked defiantly to Natchez, told him that the real killers had been found and demanded payment for the two men he had lost.

Insulted, Natchez refused.  It was unseemly for a Washo to make demands on a Paiute, and the chief’s son stood on his hereditary pride.  “It is you who ought to pay the poor mother and sister and wife,” Natchez declared.  “You gave them up yourself; we only did our duty.”  Although Captain Jim remained in camp, arguing with them throughout the night, he could not change the Paiute’s mind and could not himself be appeased, even when Natchez condescended to loan him a pony so they could all ride into Genoa and verify Captain Jim’s report.

Ben, in town to pick up the mail, was there when they rode in and he watched with sorrow as the Indians later departed, heads held high, eyes scornful of the white man’s rush to judgement.  Natchez would not even look at Ben, the man who had once saved his life, when he passed.  That in itself told Ben how deeply the relations between white man and red had been strained by the blood spilled in a meadow outside Genoa.  From that day on he regularly strapped on his Colt’s Navy revolver whenever he left the house.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Holiday Rescue

From long-standing habit Ben, with Clyde Thomas as his buying agent, had laid in his winter supplies early and in abundance.  In the Sierras winter could arrive early and last late, and a wise man left nothing to chance that concerned his family’s survival.  Ben made more preparation than usual this year, however, not for the human residents of the Ponderosa, but for the livestock that had to face the winter in the open.  With extra pastures to stock, he didn’t want to lose any of the new calves to winter kill, so he built a two-stall birthing barn for cows about to calve.  He then placed all the calves seven to ten months old in a special feed lot, where they could receive the best hay during this critical stage of their development.

Marie, also, found herself busier than usual.  Little Joe, of course, needed regular attention, and Hoss’s schooling required close supervision, but the fruits of the harvest had to be saved for the winter months, as well.  Even Hop Sing, tyrannical lord of the kitchen domain, had to admit he needed help in this crucial season, so he and Marie became allies in the quest to stock the larder with the preserved products of the garden.  Carrots, turnips, parsnips and potatoes were stored in the root cellar, while the remaining cucumbers were turned into pickles and the cabbage into sauerkraut, the final two functions with the help of Nelly Thomas, for they were new skills to both Hop Sing and Marie.  Pumpkins, squash and onions went to the dry storeroom, where they’d keep for weeks, along with the fruits and nuts purchased in California.

Hoss, whenever he was freed from the prison of schoolwork, took to the woods to set rabbit snares as Adam had taught him.  Soon the Cartwright table and that of their ranch hands groaned under his success with fried rabbit, rabbit stew, rabbit fricassee, rabbit pot pie and rabbit with dumplings.  Hop Sing began scolding, in clamorous Chinese, whenever another harvest of rabbits appeared, and, to keep the peace, Ben finally had to admonish Hoss about the number he was bringing home.  It was a matter of self-preservation: not only was Ben tired of eating rabbit, but of helping Hoss skin them, as well.  “You don’t have to single-handedly feed the entire ranch, boy,” he scolded, “and you might consider leaving a few for our Indian neighbors.  Rabbit skin blankets are all they have to keep them warm.”

“I ain’t takin’ that many, Pa,” Hoss argued, “and I need the skins, too.”

“Whatever for!” Ben snapped, growing irritated.  “We feed and clothe you quite well, young fellow, and there are plenty of quilts and blankets for your bed.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss gulped.  “They ain’t for me, but it’s a secret, Pa——a Christmas secret.”  He and his father were alone in the barn or he wouldn’t have felt safe sharing even that much.  The rabbit skins weren’t intended for his father, after all, so in a pinch Pa could be told.  Hoss was definitely feeling a pinch.

Ben’s face softened.  “Oh, planning ahead, are you?”

Hoss’s double chin bobbed quickly.  “Yes, sir.  Aunt Nelly’s gonna help me make somethin’ nice and warm for Little Joe——Mama, too, if I get enough skins.”

Ben laughed.  “I wondered what you and Nelly had been consorting about.  I saw you whispering in her ear last Sunday.  All right, Hoss, but let’s take Aunt Nelly what you’ve got so far and see if you need more before you head into the woods again, all right?”

“All right,” Hoss agreed, “but don’t let Mama see.”  Ben promised he wouldn’t.

Though he hadn’t made the point strongly to Hoss, Ben was concerned about how their Indian neighbors might fare during the winter.  Since the coming of the white man, both Paiute and Washo had found it more difficult to follow their traditional lifestyle of hunting and gathering.  Game was still available, but harder to find, and while Ben no longer cut the piñon tree for firewood, many white men did, either in ignorance or apathy, and that staple of the Indian diet was going the way of the wild game.

Ben did what he could, taking a few beef north to the Paiutes of Captain Truckee and Winnemucca and some southwest to the Washo, but he couldn’t supply two nations singlehandedly.  He took Hoss along on these trips, to the boy’s delight.  While Hoss would have been delighted with anything that gave him a day off from his books or time alone with his father, he also gleaned the lessons Ben was trying to teach him, lessons as important as any found in books.  Hoss understood that the Indians were as much his neighbors as the Mormons had been and he came to realize he had a responsibility to them, as well as to people he genuinely loved like the Thomas family and other friends in the valley.  White men had caused part of the Indians’ troubles, Pa said, so white men ought to help solve them when they could.  To Hoss, it made perfect sense.

One of the Washo leaders, however, came up with his own creative method of getting help from the white man in feeding his people.  Tuquah, a Washo who worked irregularly on the Ponderosa, brought the news to Ben, and Ben shared it with his family one evening during the second week of November.  “Mark your calendar, my love,” he ordered.  “We’re invited to a dance this Saturday night.”

“Oh, good!” Marie cried.  “I haven’t danced in so long.”

Ben’s chin twitched.  “You won’t be dancing at this one, either, my love.”

Marie tilted her head and examined Ben closely.  Definitely a twinkle in his brown eyes, a decidedly mischievous twinkle.  “What kind of dance is this, where we do not dance?” she demanded, her lips forming a petulant pout.

Ben laughed, recognizing in her expression the need to stop his teasing.  “It’s a demonstration of Indian dances, Marie.  Captain Jim of the Washo tribe has invited all white men to observe, so long as they bring a sack of flour as the price of admission.”

“A sack of flour?  That is a strange ticket,” Marie smiled.

“A perfectly logical one for hungry people,” Ben said soberly.

“Oh, Ben, are they truly hungry?” Marie murmured sympathetically.

“Shouldn’t be, if this idea works,” Ben commented.  “It’s a wise people who learn to adapt to changing times and make the best of them.  Looks to me like the Washo are doing just that, and I feel we should support them in the effort.”  Though he didn’t say it, he couldn’t help wishing the proud Paiute would be equally adaptable, but they clung to the old ways, fast proving unprofitable.

“Oh, yes, we must!” Marie cried.

“Yeah!” Hoss agreed.  “We got enough flour, Pa?  For all of us to go, even Little Joe?”

Ben guffawed.  “They won’t charge for him, Hoss!  And, yes, we can afford the ticket.  We’ll all go.”

“Hurray!” Hoss yelled, then turned to his little brother.  “How about it, Little Joe?  Want to see Indians dance?”  Little Joe, just beginning to respond to the sound of his own name, turned and babbled something to his brother.  “He wants to go,” Hoss reported.

Ben shook his head.  Was it possible the two boys actually communicated?  Common sense scoffed at the idea, but Hoss was convinced, and it was no secret Little Joe responded as well to his big brother as to either of his parents.  A unique bond united Ben’s two younger sons, so maybe they did understand one another, even without the benefit of language.

The Washo dance was a success.  Not only did it provide the Indians with a supply of flour for the winter, but it offered the white attendees an interesting display of native dances and games, as well as a deerskin when the entertainment ended.  The hide was valued at only a dollar, so it wasn’t a good trade for flour worth eight dollars a sack, unless you counted the gain of a good time into the bargain.  That and the satisfaction of helping his neediest neighbors made Ben feel he’d gotten more than his money’s worth.

A week later Marie and her friend Laura Ellis were still recalling the Indian festivity fondly.  Ben had spoken to Laura at the dance to request that she assist with the annual Thanksgiving feast for his ranch hands, and she was at the Ponderosa the following Saturday afternoon to discuss the arrangements with the lady of the house.  Laura’s help was probably unnecessary, now that Hop Sing was part of the household, but neither Ben nor Marie wanted to deprive her of the extra income she needed and undoubtedly depended on.  However tight their own finances, hers were more so, especially since the Mormon exodus had taken away many of the former customers of her laundry and baking business.

If Laura guessed the hiring of her services was an act of charity, she kept her own counsel.  She needed the money and wasn’t too proud to take it, provided she could give something in return for what she received.  Somewhat like the Washos in that, with their token deerskin in return for the virtually donated flour.  She and Marie had worked well together for two holiday dinners the previous year, so they had no difficulty in determining what to serve this time and how to divide the work between them.

Business satisfactorily completed, Laura and Marie sipped tea and nibbled ginger cookies Hop Sing prepared and served in the front room near the fire.  “Oh, I’ve got some bad news, I’m afraid,” Laura said after they’d laughed together over some of the white men’s attempts at imitating the Indian dances the previous week.  “Ben will want to know that Allen Grosch has left for California.”

“Oh, dear,” Marie sighed.  “Ben tried to tell him it was too late to start over the mountains.”

“As did we all,” Laura sighed.  “You know Allen wouldn’t leave until his debts were paid.  Ben wasn’t the only man who urged him to wait for spring, but Allen wouldn’t listen.  Men and their stubborn pride!”

“Yes,” Marie agreed readily.  “It is a great fault with them.”

Laura nodded in agreement with her friend’s assessment of men.  “At least, the fool had sense enough not to go alone,” she commented.  “R. M. Burke went with him.”

“That only means two fools have gone,” Marie observed, “but they have, perhaps, a better chance to survive together.”

To hear her talk, one would have thought Marie a veteran pioneer instead of a fledgling westerner.  The irony didn’t escape Laura, but she thought too highly of her friend to point it out.  “Grosch is a fool,” she said instead, “and to prove it, you need only look at who he left in charge of his cabin, books and papers.”

“Who is that?” Marie asked, taking another sip of the warm tea.

“Henry Comstock,” Laura sniffed.

“Oh, dear,” Marie sighed.  She didn’t know the miner well, only that he was exactly Ben’s age, but shared nothing of his industry.  Ben, she knew, would consider Old Pancake a poor choice for any responsible position.

Over tea and cookies the two ladies continued clucking over the foolishness of men late into the afternoon.

* * * * *

The Thomas’s table groaned under the abundance spread for the annual Thanksgiving feast they were sharing with the Cartwrights.  Ben felt as if he should groan, too, from the sheer excess of what he’d already stuffed into his stomach.  And dessert yet to come!

Hoss, on the other hand, seemed to have ample room for whatever was put before him.  “More meat, please,” he requested politely, holding out his plate.

“Lands, you’ve got an appetite for stuffed grouse, ain’t you, boy?” Nelly chuckled, forking another piece onto his plate, along with a dollop of sage dressing.

“Or anything else,” Ben muttered, shaking his head in disbelief.  Where did that boy get his appetite?  His mother had been large-boned, but not a heavy eater, and Ben certainly couldn’t pile food in with half Hoss’s relish.  His brother-in-law Gunnar, of course, could.  Maybe Hoss took after him.

“It’s good,” Hoss said, delving in again.  “Not as good as that turkey we had once, but mighty fine, all the same.”

“Yeah, how about that, Billy?” Ben teased.  “Couldn’t bag us a big bird this year, huh?”

Billy grinned, not in the least perturbed.  He knew——and knew the rest did, too——that his early success in shooting a Thanksgiving turkey was likely to go unequaled.  The wild birds just couldn’t be found nearby anymore.  Too many settlers had scared the few there’d been so far into the hills a man would have to be more than lucky to find one.  “Tell you what, Hoss,” he offered.  “I’ll see if I can’t shoot us a nice, fat goose or two for Christmas.”

“Yeah!” Hoss cried, licking his lips.

Ben arched an eyebrow at the impudent redhead.  “Need I remind you, young fellow, that you’re taking Christmas with us?”

Billy wrinkled his nose disdainfully.  “I ain’t forgot.  Dinner and dancin’ at the Ponderosa on Christmas Eve, but I reckon you won’t turn down a goose if it flies into your oven.”

Ben laughed.  “Oh, no.  All contributions gladly accepted.”

A resounding squall came from the parlor, where Little Joe had been napping in Inger’s old cradle near the warm fire.  Marie patted her lips with her blue-checked napkin and slid her chair back.

“Why don’t you let me check on him, honey?” Nelly offered.  “You ain’t finished eatin’, and I can change a diaper handy as you.”

“I’ve had plenty,” Marie smiled.  “Joseph probably wants his Thanksgiving dinner, and how can I refuse when he is what I am most thankful for this year?”

Nelly nodded.  Much as she hated to see a guest leave the table underfed, she knew nothing but his mother’s breast was likely to satisfy a hungry baby.  As Marie went into the other room, Nelly found herself thinking of the other missing member of the family.  “It’s a shame Adam couldn’t get home,” she sighed.  “Sure do miss him here today.  Don’t seem natural him off all alone this time of year.”

“Oh, he’s not alone,” Ben said.  “He’ll be spending Christmas with the Paynes, as I told you before, and we got a letter last week telling how he’d been invited to take Thanksgiving dinner with that senator’s son he’s friends with.  I’m sure he’s enjoying himself, maybe even feasting on that turkey we can’t get here.”

Clyde spooned gravy over his second helping of mashed potatoes.  “Consortin’ with senators, is he?  Ain’t you afraid he’ll get high and mighty on us?”

“What you mean ‘get’?” Billy cackled.  “Adam always was high and mighty!”

“That’s mean!” Inger sputtered.  “And him your best friend!”

Billy calmly reached around Hoss to yank one of his sister’s strawberry blonde braids.

“Ma!  Make him quit!” Inger yelled.

“The both of you mind your manners,” Nelly ordered, taking their altogether too normal wrangling in stride.

“Adam mention anything of that Mormon fracas over to Mountain Meadows?” Clyde asked between mouthfuls of potatoes.

“Yeah,” Ben said quietly.  “Nothing we hadn’t heard already, though.”  He wished Clyde hadn’t brought up the horror of that day last September when the Mormons’ fear of invasion by the federal government had born bitter fruit in the eastern part of the territory.  The news hadn’t reached California until mid-October and had taken longer to filter back over the Sierras.  By this time, however, everyone in CarsonValley had heard the grisly tale of the massacre of the Fancher Party, a group of one hundred and forty immigrants from Arkansas and Missouri.  The Mormons had incited an Indian attack against them and, under the guise of protecting the travelers from the red men, had savagely shot all but the children under seven.

“Happened about the time them Mormons up and left here,” Clyde commented.  “They had to know what was up and how it would set with decent folk.”

“Oh, Clyde, you can’t believe that,” Ben scolded.  “You know how slowly news travels out here.  That Young’s recall to Salt Lake City reached here the same time the massacre was taking place hundreds of miles away is bound to be coincidence.  The Mormons here knew the atmosphere was ripe for trouble, no more than that.”

“Your opinion,” Clyde scoffed.  “I say old Brigham was plottin’ to start a war, even then.”

Ben shook his head.  Sometimes there was just no arguing with Clyde.  The man was set in his opinion about Mormons, and nothing as simple as plain fact was likely to change it.

“Who’s ready for dessert?” Nelly suggested, sensing the tension between the two men she cared for most.

Ben groaned, unable to face the prospect of another bite, but Hoss piped up cheerfully.  “Me!  I want pumpkin pie, a nice big piece——for starters.”  Ben cut him a hard sideways glance.  No, the boy wasn’t joking.  Leaning his head in his palm, Ben watched his middle son pack away bite after bite of pumpkin pie.  Watching from across the table, Clyde cackled, all vision of Mormon desecrations vanished in savoring the by-play between Ben and his boy.

* * * * *

From the first of December on, the weather turned from chilly to outright cold.  Marie, who’d taken to wearing flannel nightgowns at the first hint of frost, shivered day and night.  Hoss greeted the sight of her sufferings with a gleeful twinkle in his eye, for Aunt Nelly had assured him he’d brought in enough rabbit pelts to make something warm for his mother, as well as for Little Joe.  It was too bad, of course, that he couldn’t present his gift right away, when Mama obviously needed it, but Hoss consoled himself that the weather would be even colder around Christmas and his mother would be truly grateful for what he’d worked so hard to provide her.  If only he could think of something equally fine for Pa.  So far, it was a puzzle Hoss couldn’t solve.

Ben and Marie, though many of the gifts they’d give had been purchased in California, were busy making a few homemade ones, too.  Each evening after supper Marie knitted away at a set of winter wraps for Little Joe: sweater, leggings and booties of pale green yarn.  Ben, who had prevailed on Hoss to donate his old blocks to his baby brother, worked each night at sanding and painting them to look like new.  Better than new, actually; the blocks had been plain when Hoss owned them.  Now the letters carved in each side stood out in bold red against a light blue background.

In addition to their preparations for Christmas, the parents were busily engaged in a contest.  Feeling that Little Joe’s babbling vowel sounds were ripe to turn into real words, they vied to see whether his first one would be “mama” or “papa.”  Marie was certain she had the advantage, for she spent more hours each day with the baby than Ben could, but Ben demanded his right to cuddle his youngest at night, whispering the appropriate syllables in his ear.  Behind their backs Hoss took every opportunity to breathe his own name to Little Joe, but so far the youngest Cartwright had refused to repeat any sound he heard.

Christmas Eve arrived with no clear victor, so the competition was willingly laid aside as Ben and Marie gave warm greeting to each arriving friend.  Laura Ellis was there first, of course, because she was again assisting with the refreshments, and Doctor Martin soon arrived with a blooming Sally on his arm.  Billy Thomas, coming in shortly after the doctor and his daughter, made a beeline for the first daisy in sight, thrilled that Adam wasn’t there to vie, as always before, for the pretty girl’s attention.

Billy soon found, however, that he had an even more formidable rival for the attention of everyone there in a skirt.  Sally and Sarah Winnemucca, who had come with the Ormsbys, gathered with the other ladies around a single male figure, whose slightest coo held them enthralled.  Billy drew Hoss aside.  “How early does he bed down?” he hissed in the younger boy’s ear.

“I dunno,” Hoss muttered, pulling away and heading for the refreshment table for another cookie.

Fortunately for Billy, Little Joe soon showed signs of needing sleep, and Hoss was commissioned to put his little brother to bed.  Leaning over the crib, Hoss whispered, “Hoss.  Say ‘Hoss.’”  Little Joe yawned, but made no sound other than a weary whimper.

Downstairs, Ben spotted Clyde Thomas by the punch bowl and ambled over.  “You have something for me?” he queried, a smile lifting one corner of his mouth.

“Done put your present under the tree, greedy britches,” Clyde muttered, licking a drop of punch from his upper lip.

“I meant my mail,” Ben chuckled.  Snowshoe Thompson had been due in that afternoon, and since Ben had known he would be busy all day with preparations for the party, he’d asked his friend to pick up his mail.

“Sorry, Ben,” Clyde said.  “Snowshoe didn’t get in today.”

“You’re kidding!” Ben exclaimed.  “He’s never late.”

“Hardly ever,” Clyde admitted.  “Hope he ain’t got lost in the mountains, what with the snow and all.”

Ben hooted at the idea.  “Not Snowshoe!  He told me once there was no way for him to get lost in a narrow range like the Sierras.”

“Narrow!” Clyde yelped.  “Tell that to the emigrants that got stranded there.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Ben chuckled.  “Well, I’d better mingle with my other guests.  Don’t drown in that punch bowl.”  He clapped Clyde on the back as he turned away.

Meanwhile, Clyde’s son was dividing his time between the two girls nearest his own age.  Lizzie Ormsby, on the other hand, however much she tried to catch his eye, sparked no interest.  Ben, noting the little girl’s pouting face, motioned to Hoss as soon as he came downstairs.  “Ask Lizzie to dance,” he ordered briskly.

Hoss frowned.  He didn’t enjoy dancing in the first place, and Lizzie Ormsby was two years older than he.  “If I gotta dance, I’ll ask Inger,” Hoss grunted.

“They’re both your guests, boy,” Ben admonished sternly.  “Be polite to both.  Lizzie’s older; ask her first.”

Hoss scuffed his shoe against the floor.  He still didn’t want to dance, but he couldn’t think of any argument that would get him out of it.  “Yes, sir,” he muttered glumly and headed toward Lizzie.

Ben cast an eye around the front room, from which the furniture had been cleared for dancing, to make sure all his guests were having a good time and had someone with whom to either dance or converse.  There were more men than women, of course, though the balance was better here than it would be at the annual New Year’s Eve frolic a week later.  That inequality couldn’t be helped, but every lady, at least, had a partner, and the men who didn’t seemed content to wait their turn beside the punch bowl.  One man, in fact, looked as though he’d rather be taking refreshment than dancing with the lady in his arms.  Feeling his duties as host involved rescuing such men in distress, Ben cut in on Dr. Martin.

Eilley Cowan seemed slightly disturbed by the change of partners, but she smiled graciously.  “Isn’t that Dr. Martin a handsome man?” she asked Ben.  “And so educated!”

“Yes, a fine man,” Ben agreed as he twirled Eilley away from his grateful friend.

“Such a pretty daughter he has, too,” Eilley gushed on.  “A shame to let her grow up without a mother, though.  A girl that age needs a woman’s advice.  He really ought to marry again, don’t you think so, Ben?”

Ben worked hard to keep from laughing.  He had a feeling Eilley would be among the first candidates for the job if Paul should ever decide to marry again for his girl’s sake.  Considering Eilley’s two prior marriages, all too lightly set aside, Ben didn’t think her a proper mate for the doctor with his unfading memory of his wife Agatha, who had died tragically in a fire several years before.  “That’s his decision,” Ben said as they glided smoothly to the fiddle’s music.  “I know better than most men that you can’t rush the mending of a broken heart.”

“Oh, of course,” Eilley agreed quickly, “but you also know better than most that it takes a good woman to do the job.”

Ben glanced across the room at Marie, now dancing with the subject of their conversation.  For him it had been true, yes, that a good woman was the balm for his healing.  Ben wasn’t sure the analogy held at all for Paul Martin, and he was certain that even if it did, Paul’s balm was unlikely to be the as-yet undivorced, but husband-hungry Mrs. Cowan.

The hour grew late and the younger guests sleepy, so Ben and Dr. Martin gathered the children close for the annual reading of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.  The adults drew near, as well, remembering, with pleasure, hearing the two men read the story the previous Christmas.  Ben put his heart into the tale, at least all of his heart he had available.  One small corner was reserved for the person to whom he’d first read this story six years ago on the eve of Christmas, 1851.  Tonight of all nights, Ben missed Adam, but the wide-eyed wonder with which Hoss and the children of dear friends heard the story, some for the first time, reminded him of his eldest son, who loved a new story above all things on earth.  Though he knew the Paynes would do everything possible to make Adam’s Christmas a happy one, Ben had a feeling his boy might be thinking wistfully of him tonight, as he was of Adam.

The ghost of Christmas Past was just escorting Ebenezer Scrooge to an isolated schoolroom, where a young student had been left behind for the holidays, when the reading was interrupted by loud thumping at the door.  Ben paused, wondering who could be calling so late on a snowy evening, since all his expected guests had already arrived.  He put his finger in the book while Hop Sing scurried to open the door.

A tall man, wearing only a Mackinaw jacket against the cold, lumbered in.  As he lifted his wide-brimmed hat, his charcoal-covered face swept the room.  Ben smiled broadly and, laying the book on the mantel, came forward to greet the unexpected guest.  “Snowshoe!  Glad you made it in safe.  I don’t know how you heard about our party, but we’re pleased you could come.”

“No, not party,” Snowshoe Thompson muttered.  “I come find doctor.”

Paul Martin came forward.  “I’m the doctor.  Someone needs me?”

“Yah, need bad.  I find trapper——James Sisson——in mountains thirty miles west of Genoa, trying to amputate own feet,” Snowshoe explained.  “I say ‘Wait; I get doctor.’”

“I’ll get my bag,” Paul said at once.

“Were you able to get Mr. Sisson into Genoa?” Ben asked.

Thompson shook his head.  “No.  Too weak.  Twelve days he have no food, no fire.  I chop good pile of wood, leave some biscuits, dried sausage——all I carry on trip——come for help.”

Ben’s expression grew grave.  “Do you need help?”

“Yah,” Thompson admitted.  “I figure six men.”

Clyde stepped to Ben’s side.  “Got two here, I reckon, and the doc makes three.”

“Yeah,” Ben said.  He smiled softly at his young guests.  “Sorry, children, but I’m afraid we won’t be able to finish the story tonight.”  His dark eyes roamed the room.  “Anyone else willing to come with us to help a man in critical need?”

Enos Montgomery stepped forward.  “I’ll go.”  No one else volunteered.

“We can pick up a couple of men in Genoa,” Ben assured Snowshoe.

Marie drew Hop Sing aside and told him to package up sandwiches and cookies for the men to take with them.  Heading bobbing rapidly, Hop Sing scurried to the kitchen to do her bidding.

Hoss scrambled up from his spot by the tree.  “Pa, Pa,” he called, running forward.

Ben absently stroked the boy’s sandy hair.  “What is it, son?”

“Pa, it’s Christmas Eve.  You ain’t going off tonight, are you?”

Ben squatted down and took both of Hoss’s shoulders.  “Son, there’s a man out there, maybe dying.  I have to go, same as I’d want someone to do for me if I were the one in a tight spot.”

“Yeah, but it’s Christmas, Pa,” Hoss whined.

“That’s enough, Hoss,” Ben said gruffly.

Handing Ben his warm jacket, Marie laid a calming hand on his cheek.  “I am sure Hoss wants you to be here when he opens his gifts, Ben.  Perhaps, if you see Santa on the road, you could collect them, so our son will not be tempted until you return.”

“Huh?”  Ben suddenly saw what she was trying to get across.  “Oh, yeah, sure.  Bound to run across the old boy tonight.  I’ll——uh——have him leave our presents in Genoa and bring them back with me.  How’s that sound, boy?”

Hoss wisely kept his mouth shut, for he thought the whole conversation ridiculous.  Meet up with Santa, indeed!  What kind of fool kid did they take him for?  A baby like Little Joe?

Snowshoe Thompson’s face split in a wide grin.  “Yah, I chase him down on my ski-skates,” he added to give the boy extra assurance.  Hoss just shook his head and turned away.

Ben laughed as he plunged his arms into the jacket Marie held for him.  “Wish we all had a pair of those.”

“We make some when we get to Genoa,” Snowshoe suggested.

“Good idea.  We’ll make better time,” Ben said, giving Marie a swift kiss and heading for the door when Hop Sing handed him the package of provisions.

Clyde looked as if he were sorry he’d volunteered for the expedition.  Skimming over the snow on ten-foot long slats of wood was not his idea of a way to save time.  More likely, they’d all crash into the first pine that got in their path and need the doctor’s attention worse than the man they were going to rescue.  He’d already given his word, however, and had too much pride to back down.  Giving Nelly a quick smack on the lips, he followed Ben and Snowshoe, with Dr. Martin and Enos close behind him.

When they left, Sally Martin picked up the volume they’d been reading.  “I can’t make it as exciting as my father and Mr. Cartwright,” she said, “but would you like to hear the rest of the story, children?”

“Yes!” a chorus of young voices responded.

Marie smiled gratefully at the doctor’s daughter.  “Oui, let us continue.”

Along with the other children, Hoss sat cross-legged on the floor.  Sally read the story well, but while he enjoyed it, it wasn’t the same. Christmas wasn’t likely to seem like Christmas without Pa, either.

* * * * *

The first few miles after the rescuers left Genoa made Ben wonder if they’d made a mistake in taking time to construct ski-skates like Thompson’s.  He hadn’t expected to glide as swiftly as the more practiced Norseman, of course, but he hadn’t counted on being awkward as a mule on stilts, either.  Eventually, he and the other novices gained more confidence and made better time.

As the sun began to climb, a light snow that grew slowly heavier dusted down on the six sooty-faced men.  Like Snowshoe, they’d coated their faces with charcoal, to prevent snow blindness.  A good thing; otherwise, they’d soon be the blind hauling the lame, Ben mused.  Not precisely the problem the Good Book warned against, but still one he’d rather not face.

“Not quite the way I planned on spendin’ Christmas mornin’,” Clyde muttered as Ben helped him to his feet after the older man hit a small rock and sprawled sideways into a snowdrift.

“Don’t tell me you’d rather spend Christmas rocking beside your own hearth?” Ben chuckled.

“Doggone right, I would!” Clyde snorted.  “And don’t pretend you feel different!”

Ben shook his head.  No sense denying the truth.  He would rather be home, watching his boys’ wide-eyed pleasure as they emptied their stockings.  Little Joe’s first time.  He’d looked forward to that.  He’d enjoy the celebration more, however, knowing he’d done his best to help a fellow creature whose only Christmas wish was survival.  He and Marie could wait for their Christmas fun.  Little Joe, too, for that matter, since the baby had no notion of what Christmas was supposed to be like.  As he glided further into the mountains, though, Ben found himself worrying about Hoss.  Hard for a boy of seven to put off his pleasures.  Shouldn’t have been so hard on him last night, Ben chided himself and resolved to make it up to his son when he returned.

* * * * *

Not seeing any point in getting up early, Hoss had slept late that morning.  Even Little Joe was awake before him, but the baby had, of course, retired earlier, too.  Hoss wasn’t exactly moping as he dragged down the stairs, but he didn’t look happy, either.

“Good morning, Hoss,” his mother called from the sofa.  “Merry Christmas.”

“No, it ain’t,” Hoss mumbled, scuffing his feet on the bare floor.  “Ain’t nothin’ merry about a Christmas without Pa.”

Oui, I understand,” Marie murmured sympathetically.  “That is why our true Christmas must wait until he returns, but we can make merry, mon chéri.”

“Don’t see how,” Hoss grumbled.

“By choosing to,” his mother said, patting the seat beside her.  “I know it is hard to wait for your gifts, but——”

“It ain’t that,” Hoss protested.  “I ain’t a baby.”

“No,” Marie said firmly.  “Our baby is behaving much better.”

Face flushing, Hoss glared at Little Joe, who was smiling and babbling contentedly in his mother’s lap.  “He don’t understand,” Hoss muttered defensively.

“That is true,” Marie said, “but you are old enough to.”

Hoss nodded.  “Yeah, I know Pa had to help that feller, and I’m proud he did.  It’s just that I had plans.  It was gonna be the most special Christmas ever.”  He’d waited weeks to surprise his mother and putting it off another day seemed unbearable.  “Pa will be home tomorrow, won’t he?”

“I do not think that is possible, mon chéri.  If he is, it will be very late.”  Hearing Hoss’s deep sigh, Marie took his hand.  “Is there nothing I can do to make this day merry for you?”

Hearing the wistful longing in her voice, Hoss looked up quickly.  No wonder folks treated him like a baby.  Here he was squalling, making his mother unhappy when he’d hoped to give her so much delight this morning.  Time he straightened up and remembered that behaving himself was what made his parents happiest of all.  “Yeah,” he said at last.  “Could I have pancakes for breakfast?  They’re my favorite.”

Marie kissed his cheek.  “Mais oui.  My good boy shall have his favorite breakfast for Christmas.  For that, at least, we will not wait.”

* * * * *

James Sisson lifted a feeble hand as his rescuers entered the deserted cabin where he’d taken shelter from the elements.  The fire was flickering low, but still burning.  “You——you made it back,” Sisson murmured.

“Sure, I make it,” Thompson boomed back, “and I bring doctor.”

Paul Martin came forward.  “I’m the doctor.  It’s your feet that are injured?”

“Frostbit,” Sisson grunted.  “Don’t think there’s any savin’ ‘em, doc.”

“Let’s have a look,” Paul said and began gently unwrapping a foot swaddled in strips of gray flannel.

“We should get this fire built up,” Ben suggested, placing the last log on the hearth.

“Yah, I chop more wood,” Snowshoe stated.

“I’ll tote it in,” Enos offered.

Clyde stood warming his hands at the meager flame remaining on the cabin’s hearth.  “Anything I can do?”

“Find something to boil water in, Clyde,” Paul requested.  Clyde nodded and began to search the sparsely furnished cabin.

Ben unwrapped one of the packages he’d brought from the party.  “Brought you a taste of Christmas, Mr. Sisson,” he said, showing him the sugar-dusted cookies.

A smile came to James Sisson’s face, and he stretched scrawny fingers forward.  “Thought I was in heaven when Snowshoe left them biscuits and sausage,” he said, “but this really is a Christmas blessing.”

“Okay to let him have one?” Ben queried the doctor.

“The whole pile,” Paul said.  “Sugar’s the quickest nourishment there is.”  He finished his examination and covered the cookie-munching patient gently.

“Bad, ain’t it?” Sisson mumbled.

Paul nodded.  “I’m sorry, but they’ll both have to be amputated.”

Ben looked away, dreading the man’s despair.  This was no country for cripples.

Sisson, however, faced the prospect with grim acceptance.  “Figured as much.  Was gonna do the job myself, but I’d sure rather have you do it proper, doc.”

Paul walked across the cabin, motioning Ben to follow.  “We’ve got a problem, Ben.”  In answer to Ben’s questioning look, he continued.  “I’m out of chloroform.  I’ve had to do more surgery than I anticipated since the passes were blocked, and I’ve just run out.  If I don’t amputate his feet, Sisson will die, but without anesthetic, the shock may kill him anyway.”

“None to be found this side of Placerville or maybe beyond,” Ben muttered.  “You think maybe Snowshoe?”

Paul looked anxiously back at Sisson.  “It’s a lot to ask, after all the miles the man’s traveled already, but the rest of us are too inexperienced with these ski-skates to make good time.”

“Probably get lost, too,” Clyde added from behind them.  He’d walked up to hear the final part of the conversation.  “We ain’t used to these mountains in winter.”

“I’ll ask him,” Ben said and, pulling his jacket tighter, headed out into the wind.

On hearing the need, Snowshoe Thompson immediately volunteered to ski to Placerville for chloroform.  “You can get Sisson back to Genoa?” he asked.  “Better there, I’m thinking.”

“We’ll get him back,” Ben promised.  “Somehow, we’ll get him back.”

Snowshoe left almost immediately, but the remaining rescuers stayed in the cabin until morning.  Being unused to both the ski-skates and the wintry slopes, none wanted to hazard the trek eastward by night.  Dr. Martin bathed Sisson’s frostbitten feet in warm water and wrapped them in clean bandages.  With nothing to ease his pain, the injured man spent a restless night, even with the doctor’s constant attention.  While the others slept, rolled in blankets on the earthen floor, Sisson’s  moans repeatedly disturbed their slumber.  For all of them, the sun rose too early.

The powder-covered pine boughs were tinted in tones of rose and lavender as the men set out for Genoa the morning after Christmas.  Four of them carried the litter they’d formed of tree limbs and blankets, while Dr. Martin skied beside them, keeping close watch on his patient’s condition.  Their progress was slow, for, loaded down as they were, they couldn’t ski even as fast as their limited abilities would otherwise have permitted.

* * * * *

Ben slipped soundlessly into the silent house, carrying in paper-wrapped bundles previously hidden in the barn and placing them beneath the tree.  Now they’d be ready to celebrate Christmas, but what Ben was most ready for at that moment was his down-filled pillow.  Not wanting to waken his family, he pulled off his boots downstairs and tiptoed up to his room.  He stood for a moment, gazing at the cascade of golden hair shining in the moonlight that caressed his wife’s pillow.

As beautiful as that view was, however, Ben was exhausted.  He slipped into bed beside her.  Marie stirred slightly, then her eyes opened.  “Oh, Ben, you are back,” she cried softly, arms reaching for him.

“Shh, yes,” Ben murmured, stroking her cheek.  “Go back to sleep, my love.”

Monsieur Sisson, you found him?” Marie murmured.

“Yeah, he’s back in Genoa,” Ben replied.  “Not out of danger yet, but I’ve done all I can.  What I want now is a good night’s sleep, sweetheart.”

Mais oui.  You have earned it,” Marie said, kissing his forehead.  She drew his head onto her shoulder and cradled it until he fell asleep.

* * * * *

Hoss eased the door to his parents’ room open and peered through the crack.  A wide grin split his face when he saw two figures mounded beneath the blankets.  Pa was home.  Now they could celebrate their delayed Christmas.  He pattered back down the hall in his bare feet, stopping at his bedroom to pick up a few packages to slip beneath the tree.

Hustling back up the stairs, Hoss opened the hall door to the nursery.  He figured to do his parents the favor of getting Little Joe up and dressed; then they’d be ready to open presents.

“Ben, Ben.”

The tone of the summons was urgent, but Ben snored on.  He’d been awake the better part of three days and nights before retiring and counted each minute precious.  Then he felt himself shaken awake by a slender, but demanding hand.

“Ben, there is someone in the nursery.”

“Bound to be Hoss,” Ben muttered groggily, rolling over and burrowing deeper into his downy pillow.

Marie pulled the covers back and sat up.  Feeling the movement, Ben finally opened his eyes.  “Where are you going?  It’s early yet.”

“But, Ben,” she whispered, “if he wakes this early, Little Joe will be fussy all day.”

Ben moaned.  All too true, and nothing was likely to spoil the day quite so much as a cranky baby.  He dutifully pulled back the covers.  “You stay here and keep warm,” he ordered.  “I can handle it.”

“No, Ben, you are exhausted,” she protested.

“Too cold for you ‘til I get the fire built,” Ben muttered.  “Stay in bed.”  Still yawning, he stumbled into the next room.  Sure enough, there stood Hoss, leaning over his baby brother’s crib, whispering the younger boy’s name.  That tactic having failed, he was just reaching in to do Little Joe the same dubious service Marie had performed for Ben.

“Hoss, what do you think you’re doing, boy?” Ben hissed.  He pulled Hoss’s hand back, but in so doing gave it the final impetus needed to jerk Little Joe from contented slumber into ear-piercing wakefulness.  “Now, look what you’ve done,” Ben grumbled, trying to pat Little Joe back to sleep.

“It’s Christmas,” Hoss said, as if stating the obvious.  “He wants his presents.”

“He doesn’t know what a present is,” Ben grunted, “and you’ll be lucky if Santa doesn’t leave a bundle of switches in your stocking instead of the candy you’re hoping for.”

“Aw, Pa, you wouldn’t, would you?” Hoss whined as his father continued futilely rubbing Little Joe’s heaving chest.

“Huh?” Ben asked absently as he put a probing finger into the baby’s diaper.  Drenched.  Obviously, there’d be no getting Little Joe back to sleep until he’d been made more comfortable.  “Get me a fresh diaper, boy.”

Hoss scurried across the room and brought back the requested garment.  “You wouldn’t, would you, Pa?” he asked more plaintively.

“Wouldn’t what?” Ben asked, laying the diaper on his shoulder while he unfastened the wet one.

“Switch my presents for a bunch of sticks.”

Ben laughed.  “That’s Santa’s decision, not mine, but I’d watch my step if I were you, boy.”  He set aside the soiled diaper and reached for the fresh one.

“Pa, I know about Santa,” Hoss explained patiently.

“What do you——”  Ben’s mouth clamped shut when the stream of urine struck his cheek, and he pressed the clean diaper quickly over the erupting fountain.

Hoss laughed.  “He got you good, Pa!”

“Yeah,” Ben chuckled in response.  He bent his head into the crib and made a face at his youngest.  “Is that a proper Christmas greeting for your weary father, little one?  No, it is not.”  Little Joe hiccuped as his whimpers began to peter out.  Ben looked up and grinned at Hoss.  “Another diaper, if you please.”

Hoss scampered across the room and back again.  This time Ben kept the old diaper over the baby until the new one was in place beneath him, then deftly slid the first away while bringing the second up.  “Should have remembered that trick,” Ben muttered, “saved myself a shower.”

“Huh?” Hoss asked.

Ben looked up and smiled.  He’d forgotten he had an audience for his comments.  “This is my third son,” he explained.  “I’ve been sprayed before.  Haven’t changed this one’s diapers much, though.  You kind of lose the hang of it if you don’t stay in practice.”

“Oh.”  Hoss grinned.

“I would be glad to give you more practice,” Marie giggled from the door to the adjoining room, “but I do not know how to put that in your stocking.”

“Thanks,” Ben said wryly, “but I’d rather have a bundle of sticks.”  He frowned at her eloquently.  “I thought I told you to stay in bed, young lady.”

Marie shook her head, emerald eyes twinkling with mischief.  “And you will nurse our son, as well?  This I must see!”

“Yeah, me, too!” Hoss cackled.

Ben dug iron fingers into his second son’s brawny shoulder and herded him toward the door.  “Now, what’s this you think you know about Santa, boy?” he demanded.

“I knew since last year.  Pa, I been to school,” Hoss said dryly, feeling that should explain everything.

It did, as Ben’s nod indicated.  Nothing a schoolboy wouldn’t tell, if he thought it gave him an inch of exalted authority over another.  “Well, don’t tell Little Joe,” Ben urged.  “Leave me one boy I can play with for a while.”

“I won’t,” Hoss promised, “and you can still play with me.  I know how to pretend.”

Ben chuckled.  Obviously, that was true.  Even in the face of the fantasy he and Snowshoe had concocted about chasing down Santa and having their gifts delivered to Genoa, Hoss had said nothing.  Not one word of what he’d learned the year before until this morning and that under the threat of a stocking full of wooden sticks instead of peppermint ones.  Just as obviously, Ben didn’t know his middle boy as well as he’d thought.

Busily sucking in his breakfast, Little Joe stopped crying, but no amount of rocking could soothe him back to sleep.  Marie finally gave up and brought him, thoroughly awake, downstairs where Hoss was busily pinching and poking each package labeled with his name.  “You should not start without me,” Marie scolded, a pout on her soft lips.

“We wouldn’t,” Ben assured her, “but how do you keep a boy from pinching when his Christmas is delayed this long?”

“Pa pinched, too,” Hoss reported, eager to disperse the guilt.

“That I believe!” Marie laughed.  “Now, then, which of you naughty pinchers shall open the first gift?”

“I want you to open the presents from me first,” Hoss declared, having evidently concluded, without being directly taught, that it was more blessed to give than to receive.

“Presents from you?” Marie asked, pleased.  “There are presents from you, mon chéri?  Oh, yes, let us see them now, s’il te plait.”

“By all means,” Ben agreed heartily, “though I don’t know how you managed to sneak them under the tree.”

Hoss hooted happily.  “Uncle Clyde brought ‘em in right under your nose the other night, with the ones from them!  I had help,” he explained to Marie as he placed a package in her hand.  “I trapped the rabbits, but Aunt Nelly made the stuff.”

“A gift from two hands is doubly blessed,” Marie said gently, untying the twine that held the brown paper around the soft package.  As she drew out the short fur cape, lined with satin, she gave a cry of delight.  “But it is beautiful!  And how warm I shall be with this around my shoulders.  Oh, thank you, mon chéri.”

“You like it?” Hoss asked eagerly.

Mais oui!” his mother declared, pressing a kiss to his cheek to emphasize her pleasure.  She slid the cape over her shoulders and nuzzled the soft fur with her petite nose.

Little Joe reached up from his perch in her lap to pat the cape.  “Ooh,” he cooed approvingly.

“This one’s for Little Joe,” Hoss said, presenting his next gift.  “Guess you’ll have to help him unwrap it.”

“Here, I’ll do it,” Ben said, reaching for the package.  A furry bunting and booties soon emerged, perfectly sized to keep the smallest Cartwright snug on any outdoor outing.

“Oh, this is wonderful, Hoss,” Marie said, rewarding his other cheek with a kiss of its own.  “Little Joe does not know how to say thank you, but he will appreciate the warmth.”

Hoss gave his father a chagrined shrug.  “I thought and thought, but I never could come up with anything for you, Pa,” he said.  “I’m sorry.”

“Come here, Hoss,” Ben said with a smile.  When Hoss came close, he hefted the bulky boy onto his knee.  “Hoss, you give to me every day of your life,” he assured his son.  “You give me your love and your cheerful obedience and more help around the place than I have any right to ask of a seven-year-old boy, even one as strong as you.  No need to fret about putting a present in my hands when you’ve given so much already.  Besides, I had my share of those rabbits, too.”  They all laughed, remembering how much rabbit meat they had consumed over the last few months.

“Adam sent presents, too,” Hoss announced.  “You want them next?”

Ben laughed.  “Well, if you’re going to be that patient about your own gifts, I have an idea.  Let’s give the baby his first; then we can set him down to play while we enjoy opening ours.”

That idea seemed agreeable to all, so Little Joe was presented with his new clothes and blocks and placed on the rug to examine them to his heart’s content.

“Aunt Nelly sent him something, too,” Hoss said, “but I don’t know what it is.”

“It’ll keep,” Ben said.  “Time you opened your own, boy.”

“Okay,” Hoss agreed readily and plunged into the pile he’d set aside earlier.  He was happy to find a bag of marbles of his own, although Adam had never been selfish in letting him play with his.  The treasure box Uncle Clyde had made fascinated Hoss with its numerous compartments for rocks, bird eggs or whatever else a country boy found worth collecting.  The best gifts of all, though, were the hunting knife in its own leather sheath and a smaller knife to carry in his pocket.

“Now, you can skin all the rabbits you like without borrowing my knife,” Ben teased, “and you can whittle with the smaller one, maybe learn to make things as fine as Uncle Clyde.”

“Nobody’s that good,” Hoss declared, “but I aim to work at it.  Thanks, Pa.”

“You’re welcome.  Now, where are these gifts from Adam, and how did they get here?  Nothing came in the mail,” Ben commented.

“I brung ‘em back in my carpetbag,” Hoss grinned, “when I stayed at Adam’s place.”  He fished the packages from beneath the tree.

“And kept them secret all this time?  I’m impressed, son!”

“I put ‘em under the tree this morning before I went to wake——”  Hoss prudently stopped.

“Don’t remind me!”  Ben yawned expansively.  “It’s not too late to hunt up a bundle of sticks for your stocking, boy.”

“Ben, do not tease,” Marie chided.

“Yeah, well, here’s yours, Pa,” Hoss said hastily.  “It’s a book, I reckon.”

Ben laughed as he took the hard, rectangular package.  “Yeah, I’d say so, knowing Adam.  That’s what you’re getting from your brother, too, you know.”

“I didn’t know!” Hoss declared.  “How’d that get here?”

“In my carpetbag.  How else?” Ben stated.  Adam had thought of everything, even the small, soft flannel shirt in which Marie had dressed Little Joe that morning.  “Ah, Whitejacket,” Ben read from the cover of the book.  “I’ll enjoy that these long winter nights.”

“You know the story?” Marie asked.

“I haven’t read it,” Ben admitted, “but I’ve read Moby Dick, which is another sea-faring tale by the same author.  Adam probably picked this in memory of my sailing days.”

Oui, I am sure,” Marie replied.  “Adam would think of that.  Did you see what he sent me?” she asked, holding up two lace-edged handkerchiefs.

“Very pretty, my lady,” Ben smiled.  “Your book’s under the tree, Hoss.”

Unlike his older brother, Hoss placed no great value in books, but a present was a present, so he dutifully unwrapped the volume.  “Hey!” he yelled, holding up the thin volume with paper cover.  “It’s about Kit Carson!  Remember him, Pa?”

“Not likely to forget him,” Ben stated emphatically, taking the book and flipping through the pages.  “You’d better take what you read with a grain of salt, though, boy.  Most of this is probably made up out of whole cloth.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss replied dutifully, but secretly he couldn’t wait to read the adventures of the hero he’d met as a young boy.  Except for Adam’s copy of Aesop’s Fables, it was the only book he’d ever thought worth the trouble of reading, which still came hard to Hoss.

Ben and Marie exchanged gifts next, each chiding the other for spending too much in this year of economizing, but privately pleased nonetheless.  Finally, only one gift remained.  Hoss sat on the rug beside Little Joe, tugged the twine aside and lifted away the paper.  “Look what Aunt Nelly made you, Little Joe,” Hoss said, plopping the calico rabbit into his brother’s lap.

“Ooh,” Little Joe murmured, his fingers closing around the tail made of real rabbit fur.

“Just what we need, another rabbit!” Ben guffawed.

“But why did she use real fur?” Marie moaned.  “It will go straight into his mouth.”  Not only the tail, but the ears, as well, were made from scraps of Hoss’s rabbit skins.

Little Joe clutched his new rabbit by one furry ear, while he picked up a red and blue block and tossed it at his brother’s nose.

“Here now,” Ben scolded.  “I did not give you those to throw at Hoss.”

“HaHa!” Little Joe cried.

“Oh, you think that’s funny, do you?” Ben chuckled, wrinkling his nose at the baby.  “Well, Hoss doesn’t.”

“HaHa,” Little Joe said again.

Marie laughed and picked up her baby.  “Is that all you can say, mon petit?  I had hoped for a gift from you this Christmas, a gift for Mama.  Mama,” she repeated suggestively.

Ben took the boy from her arms.  “None of that,” he chided.  “If this boy has a Christmas gift in his pocket, I’m sure he wants it to go to Pa.”  Little Joe gave him a bright grin.  “That’s right——Pa.  You want to say ‘Pa,’ don’t you, baby?”

“HaHa,” Little Joe said.

Marie sniggered.  “You see what he thinks of that idea!”

“Well, it’s close,” Ben said, smiling.

Little Joe leaned away from Ben, stretching toward the boy still seated on the rug.  “HaHa,” he urged.

Marie covered her lips with her fingers.  “Oh, no!” she cried and burst into uncontrollable giggles.

“What?” Ben asked.

“His first word,” Marie babbled incoherently.

“Pa,” Ben grinned maddeningly.  “His first word will be Pa.”

“No, Ben,” Marie tittered, her head wagging from side to side.  “He has already said his first word, and it is not Pa——nor Mama, either.  It is Hoss!”

“HaHa,” Little Joe declared in confirmation, small arms reaching for his brother.

Hoss grinned and scurried to his father’s side.  “Want to come to HaHa, baby?” he asked, arms outstretched.

Little Joe came readily and snuggled up against his brother’s neck.  “HaHa,” he cooed contentedly while his flabbergasted parents looked on.

* * * * *

The front page of January’s first issue of the Scorpion was devoted to an account of James Sisson’s rescue and successful amputation.  While all the volunteers were commended for their willingness to spend a holiday in assisting a fellow creature in need, Snowshoe Thompson was credited with saving the trapper’s life.  Unable to find chloroform in Placerville, he had gone all the way to Sacramento and back.  In all, Thompson had skied four hundred miles in ten days, a feat of heroic proportions, as editor Stephen Kinsey declared.  “He must be made of iron.  Besides, he never thinks of himself, but he’d give his last breath for anyone else——even a total stranger.”

CHAPTER NINE

Population Shift Northward

Throughout a frosty January Marie enjoyed the warmth of her fur cape, and while Little Joe couldn’t express his feelings, he seemed happy every time he was bundled into his rabbit skin bunting and carried into the fresh air.  In fact, he seemed to prefer a chilly excursion to a warm spot by the fire.  Not so the rest of the family, although Ben counted himself blessed by the remarkable mildness of that winter.  Only three quickly disappearing snows had fallen, and while the mornings were chilly, by noon the weather was usually quite pleasant.

Firewood was still a constant need, however, and while Ben had men available to chop down the trees, he didn’t feel right about letting them do all the work while he sat idly by the fire.  He saw to it that even Hoss did his fair share in providing wood for the kitchen.  Splitting kindling was a job for a youngster, after all, not a full-grown ranch hand, and Hoss did it well.  Ben secretly thought his middle son would have preferred any chore to the task of learning his letters.

The sun set early these short, winter days, and Ben was glad.  He disliked the cold, but the early darkness meant work had to end sooner than in the lingering daylight of spring and summer and gave him more time to spend with his family.  Little Joe, just beginning to pull up and ease his way around the furniture, held everyone’s attention until he grew drowsy and was carried off to bed each evening.  Afterwards, the rest of the family settled into his or her chosen spot: Ben, in his mauve armchair, lost himself in Melville’s Whitejacket, while Hoss sprawled on the sofa to explore the wilderness with Kit Carson.  Marie chose the blue chair opposite Ben to catch up on her mending or stitch a new dress from the green silk she’d been given for Christmas.

All other activities were set aside, however, when Snowshoe Thompson arrived with letters from Adam, as well as one from Ben’s old friend, Josiah Edwards.  Ben, who had ridden into Genoa expressly to meet the mail carrier, delivered Hoss’s letter, then opened the one addressed to him and Marie and read it aloud.  Adam first expressed appreciation for the Christmas gifts he’d found waiting at Rancho Hermoso when he arrived there to spend the holidays.  He hadn’t expected anything, but was thrilled with the surprise and with each gift his parents had selected.  He didn’t list them in the letter to them, of course, but Hoss got a full report in his, as well as a description of the horses Adam had been able to ride while he visited the Paynes.  He waxed particularly eloquent about the glossy black stallion that had been his favorite mount.

To his parents, Adam confided his pleasure in being able to promptly post his journal, faithfully kept, to his friend Jamie back in Saint Joseph and expressed the hope that he might receive the one Jamie recorded for him much earlier this year.  Then he reported the marks he’d received for his first term’s work.  “Top of his class in virtually every subject,” Ben said, beaming with pride.

“He is such a good student,” Marie agreed.

Hoss grimaced.  No one had made any comparison between him and his scholarly brother, of course, but he couldn’t help feeling they were thinking what they were too kind to say to his face.

Ben turned next to the letter from Josiah.  His friend had read about President Buchanan’s request for troops to deal with the Mormon conflict in the printed text of his annual message to Congress on December 8th and was, of course, concerned that his friend might be endangered.  “Josiah doesn’t seem to realize how far we are from Salt Lake City,” Ben chuckled.  “I’ll have to write and assure him that the troops are not breathing down our throats out here.”

“But he is a teacher,” Marie objected.  “Surely so learned a man—”

“Is not always aware of simple practicalities,” Ben smiled.  “The same distance would seem much closer to an easterner, my love.”

Oui, that is true,” Marie conceded with a smile, remembering her own concept of distance when she lived in New Orleans.  “Do you think there will be fighting, Ben?” she asked thoughtfully.

Ben shook his head.  “Hard to believe it’ll come to that——Americans fighting other Americans.  May we never see that day, Marie.”

Oui, may we never see that,” she agreed.

Ben waited until the boys were both in bed before he delivered the other news he’d picked up in town.  “Snowshoe Thompson brought word of a friend of ours, Marie,” he began quietly.

“Oh, who is that?” she inquired.

“Allen Grosch.”

“Oh, Monsieur Thompson has seen him?” Marie said, her face lighting.  “He did make it to California, then.”

“No, Marie,” Ben whispered hoarsely.  “That is to say, he did, but not out of the mountains, not alive.”

Marie blanched.  “He—he is dead?”

Ben nodded.  “I warned him he was leaving too late, and as I’d feared, he and his friend Bucke were caught in a snowstorm, must’ve wandered for days——the last five without food or fire, Thompson said.  Toes froze, then their feet.  By the time they stumbled into the camp of a Mexican miner, their legs were frozen to the knees.”

“Ah,” Marie moaned.  “This is terrible, but they were safe then, oui?”

“Yeah,” Ben said, “but in terrible condition, dearest.  Bucke let them amputate one leg and the other foot, so he survived, but Allen refused to let them do what was needed.  Gangrene set in and he died——about a week before Christmas.”

Marie brushed a tear from her cheek.  “From gangrene, like his brother.  And he could have been saved, if only he had done as Monsieur Bucke and Monsieur Sisson did.  Oh, Ben!”

Ben crossed the room to put his arm around her.  “It’s a hard land, my love, for those who don’t respect it.”

“As you always shall,” Marie murmured, slender fingers reaching for his face.  It was more plea than statement.

“As I always shall,” Ben vowed, kissing the fingers so close to his lips.

* * * * *

On a rare wintertime visit a week later, Laura Ellis fumed at length over Henry Comstock’s usurpation of the Grosch cabin.  “Not only does Old Pancake act like the place is his own now,” she ranted, “but the Grosch’s claim papers have mysteriously disappeared!  All their books and other papers, too.  It’s obvious to me that Comstock intends to jump the claim and search for their monster vein.”

“Monster vein?” Marie asked.  “What is that?”

Laura took a deep breath.  “It’s what I couldn’t tell you before, dear, because I’d been sworn to secrecy.  Allen and Hosea were convinced they’d found a huge vein of silver.”

“Silver!” Marie cried.  “But I thought they were gold miners.”

“I know.  That’s what everyone else is looking for, but the Grosches seemed to think the real riches of this territory would be in silver,” Laura elaborated, then sighed.  “We’ll never know now, I guess.  I don’t mind losing my investment half as much as I do seeing that disreputable old codger claim the place for his own.  This soon after a man’s death, it’s indecent!”

Henry Comstock was, in truth, no older than Ben, but his unkempt appearance did seem to warrant calling him an “old codger,” so Marie didn’t correct her friend.  “Could you not fight him——legally, I mean——to recover your investment?  Ben would help you, I am sure.”

Laura shook her head.  “The only paper I have entitles me to a claim neighboring that of the Grosch brothers, and without their claim papers, who can say where that is?  Trusting one another as we did, we never thought to make it more specific.  I wouldn’t have a leg to stand on in a court of law, Marie, assuming I thought it worthwhile to take the matter to Salt Lake City.”

“It is a long distance,” Marie agreed.

“And what would I do with a silver claim if I had it?” Laura chuckled.  “I know nothing of how to operate one.  No, I’ll have to settle for making my living with the work of my hands.”

Marie took her friend’s hands in her own and pressed them warmly.  “Let us be thankful they are strong ones,” she smiled.

“I am thankful,” Laura said, smiling back.  “It just makes me furious to think of the foolish waste of those boys’ lives.  It’s a tragedy, Marie, to see young men cut off in the flower of their days.”

January was a month for tragic news, it seemed, for the mail Snowshoe Thompson brought toward its end included a grievous report that struck even closer to home for the Cartwrights than the death of a one-time neighbor.  Ben returned from Genoa that afternoon with such a long face Marie was immediately concerned.  “You look disappointed, Ben,” she said.  “Was there no letter from Adam?”

“Yes, one for us and one for Hoss, as always,” Ben replied absently.  He drew them from inside his vest and handed them to her, wandering aimlessly toward the warmth of the fireplace.

“Hurray!” Hoss cried.  “Can I read mine to Little Joe?  He ain’t likely to be asleep yet.”  Marie had just taken the baby upstairs for a nap.

Oui, that is fine,” she said, handing the letter to Hoss.  Surprised she’d made no objection to disturbing the baby, Hoss took it and ran up the stairs, while Marie came to place soothing hands on her husband’s back.  “What is wrong, Ben?  Did Adam send bad news?”

Ben turned around and took his wife in his arms.  “No, not him.  There was a letter from John, as well.”

“But that is good,” Marie remonstrated.  There had been one short letter from John earlier, to let them know he’d arrived home safely, but no news since, and Marie knew how earnestly Ben had been yearning for word from his brother.

“Martha’s gone, Marie,” he said quietly.

Marie paled.  “John’s wife?  Oh, no, Ben.  How sad for him!”

Nodding, Ben closed his eyes.  “She was a good woman——a little rigid, maybe, but she had a kind heart.  She treated Adam like her own when we stayed with them.”

Marie reached up to stroke his cheek gently.  “It is sad for you, as well, mon mari.”

“Yeah,” Ben sighed, “but mostly for John’s sake.  You’ll see when you read the letter.  My brother’s grief-stricken, can’t quit blaming himself for all the years they spent apart.  Says over and over he should have listened to me, gone home when I first urged it to him.”

Oui,” Marie agreed, “but he must go on, Ben.  He has a son still to raise.”

“Practically raised now,” Ben muttered.  “Will’s older than Adam, my love, by about a year.  Anyway, that’s another grief for John.  The boy’s taken offense at the years his mother had to struggle alone to keep that farm going, feels it weakened her and contributed to her death.  He’s full of anger, blames his father.”

“Will they come west now, do you think?” Marie asked.

Ben’s head lifted.  “I don’t know, but I definitely intend to urge John to come here.  Family should be together in time of sorrow, and the Mormons left plenty of good land.”

“You must write him, too, to be patient with young Will,” Marie counseled.  “It is grief for his mother’s death he feels, more than anger at his father, I am sure.”

“Yeah, I’ll do that,” Ben said, guiding her toward the sofa.  “Now, shall we read Adam’s letter.  Pleasanter news, I trust.”

“You did not read it in town?”

“No.  Wish I had, but I was so anxious for news of John, I opened it first, then didn’t have the heart to read anything else,” Ben sighed.

Marie opened the envelope.  “It is just as well.  You have more need for cheery news now.”  And as they read together the latest news of their son, the smile returned to Ben’s face.

* * * * *

Answering the door on the final Saturday of the month, Hop Sing beamed a warm welcome to one of the Cartwright’s most cherished friends.  “Ah, Doctah Mahtin, Missy Sally, come in, please.  Mistah Ben away now, but I tell Missy Cahtlight you here.”

Marie came downstairs, carrying Little Joe, who was immediately confiscated by a doting Sally Martin.  “It is good to see you, Doctor Martin,” Marie said brightly.  “You will stay for dinner, oui?”

“Yes, ma’am, our intention exactly,” Paul Martin smiled.  “I’d hoped for a game of chess, but Hop Sing tells me Ben is away.”

Marie laughed.  “No, not far.  He and Hoss are at the birthing barn, helping one of the mother cows.”

“Sounds like a job for you, Papa,” Sally giggled.

“Mind your sassy tongue, girl,” her father said, crinkling his eyes merrily.  However he sounded, it was obvious he doted on the girl, who resembled her mother more every year.  “If Marie will point the way, I think I will see if Ben needs a hand.  I have so few human patients lately, I might as well concentrate on the animal kind.”

Marie went into the yard with Dr. Martin and pointed him in the right direction, then returned to the house, a puzzled look in her eyes.  “What did your father mean when he spoke of few patients, Sally?  He seems too busy to visit here often.”

Sally giggled.  “Oh, you know Papa, always teasing.  He probably meant that a lot of the miners have moved further north, near Devil’s Gate, but they’ll send for him if they’re really sick.”

“Put Little Joe down,” Marie suggested proudly, “and see how he gets around now.  The miners think to do better near this Devil’s Gate?”

Sally set the baby on the floor and watched, fascinated, as he began to crawl.  “From what Billy Thomas tells me, they’re making about ten dollars a day there, twice what they were bringing in closer to us.”

Marie sniggered.  “And what does Billy know of mining?”

Sally grinned.  “You know Billy, nose into everything.  He’d make a good reporter, if his grammar were fit to read.  He says Mr. Comstock went prospecting a couple of days ago with John Bishop and Old Virginny and they made a strike just below the divide.  Yesterday prospectors from Johntown and Chinatown headed there, too, so Billy says.”

“Yesterday?  You’ve seen him since then?”

“He came by this morning,” Sally replied.

“You see him often?” Marie asked, womanly curiosity aroused.

“Pretty regularly,” Sally replied and the two women sat close, exchanging purely feminine chatter about the relations between male and female.

Paul Martin, meanwhile, had made his way to the birthing barn and greeted his friend Ben.  “I’m afraid our little mother here’s having a hard time,” Ben said, worry in his voice.  Hoss, seated beside the cow, was stroking her side consolingly.

“Let me have a look,” Paul offered and Ben readily accepted.  After a cursory examination, the doctor gave a short laugh.  “Must be something in the air here on the Ponderosa.”

Ben arched a quizzical eyebrow.

“It’s a breech, Ben,” the doctor explained.

“Like Little Joe, Doc?” Hoss asked, biting his lip.

“That’s right, Hoss, like Little Joe,” Dr. Martin replied.

“But that’s bad, ain’t it?”

“Well, we’ll see,” the doctor said gently, mindful of Hoss’s love for living things.  “We may be able to convince the little fellow to turn around the right way.  There was no persuading your little brother to do the same; he seemed determined to do things the hard way, but maybe the calf won’t be as stubborn.”

The calf did prove more tractable than Ben’s third son.  With Dr. Martin’s assistance, he entered the world face forward, with a healthy bawl and a hearty appetite for his mother’s milk.  “Don’t know how we’d’ve managed without you,” Ben said as they walked back to the house.  “You’ve earned your supper tonight, doctor.”

Paul laughed.  “Seems like I always have to pay for my supper, one way or another, when I come here.”

Ben slapped his back.  “Well, at least I can promise you a hefty fee.  Hop Sing tends to outdo himself when company comes.”

Over dinner they discussed the new mining field and how it might affect businesses further south.  “Miners still have to eat,” Paul said wryly.  “They’ll come where the food is, but an enterprising man might do well to bring it closer to them.”

“And what about you?” Ben suggested.  “Ever think of moving to Franktown?  Seems a shame the Mormons had to leave so suddenly, just when the little town was showing such promise.  They’d even begun replacing their log cabins with frame houses, and there’s a start of lovely Lombardy poplars along the streets.  Plenty of vacant houses in Franktown, my friend, and we’d love having you closer.”

Paul laughed.  “Plenty of vacant houses,” he agreed, “but not an occupied one to be found.  I have to leave Sally alone so much, I’d rather live where she has neighbors to call on if there’s need.”

“Yeah, I’d probably feel that way if I had a pretty girl to watch out for,” Ben said, smiling at the doctor’s daughter.

Sally blushed.

“Of course, there’s something to be said for moving her away from some people,” Ben teased, “like a certain mischievous redhead.”

“Who buzzes around my bright blossom altogether too often,” Paul laughed, while Sally’s blush deepened.

“Ignore them,” Marie suggested.  “They should not talk about Billy when they are behaving like mischiefs themselves.”

“I’m used to it,” Sally said with a toss of her brown hair.  “I’ve told Papa time and again that Billy and I are just friends, but he insists on making more of it.”

“Just so Billy doesn’t!” Ben chortled.

“Ooh!  Go play chess,” Marie ordered spicily, “and leave us to more sensible company.”

“She means Little Joe,” Ben confided naughtily to the doctor, who grinned, but knew better than to rush in where angels feared to tread.  That, as any acquaintance of the Cartwrights could have affirmed, was exactly the territory on which a man was trespassing when he made less than worshipful comments about Marie’s precious baby boy.  It was a wonder even Ben could get away with it.

* * * * *

Pleasant weather continued through February, so the Cartwrights and the Thomases were able to meet for Sunday dinner each week.  It was the Thomases’ turn to play host on the twenty-first, one day following Billy’s birthday, and the fare was unusually festive.  Although Billy had cut his cake the day before, there was still enough left to provide everyone a slice for dessert.

“Bet Adam ain’t havin’ as fine a birthday as me,” Billy bragged.

“Billy, you hush that sass,” his mother scolded.  “Lands, where are your manners?”

“Just teasin’,” Billy grinned.  “Ain’t like the old days when we could share a cake, though, is it?”  Though Billy was a year older, his birthday fell just two days before Adam’s on the calendar, and the two had sometimes shared a celebration on the day between.

“Well, it’s nothing to tease about,” Nelly rebuked, “with Adam’s folks missin’ him like they’re bound to be.”

“Sorry, Uncle Ben,” Billy said, but his blue eyes were still twinkling.

“I can see how much,” Ben chuckled tartly.  “We miss Adam, of course, but I can assure you he’ll be having a fine birthday tomorrow.  I wrote instructing him to treat himself and a couple of friends to dinner and a night at the theater or whatever other celebration they agreed on.”

Billy’s face fell.  “Hey, how come I never get a party like that?”

“Where would you go?” Clyde scoffed.

“And who’d want to go with you?” Inger added, pointing her pink tongue at her scowling brother.

“It would be a fine thing, Billy, if there were theaters and fine restaurants this side of the mountains, oui?” Marie inserted, hoping to make peace.

“Yeah!” Hoss agreed between bites of fried chicken.

“Well, now, maybe that day ain’t so far away as you think,” Clyde said, leaning back and hooking his thumbs in his waistband.

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “You look like a man bursting with a secret,” he accused.

“That’s just what he is,” Nelly laughed.  “Been fit to bust with it for days.  Go ahead and spit it out, Clyde.”

“Reckon you ain’t heard we’re gettin’ us a new town ‘twixt here and your place,” Clyde began.

Ben’s brow arched even higher.  “A whole new town?” he quizzed skeptically.  “Nothing in the Scorpion about it.”

Clyde scowled.  “That’s ‘cause this here’s gonna be a decent town, not another hive of Mormons.”

“Clyde!” Nelly cried.  “Now don’t start that.”

Clyde waved her concern aside.  “Ben knows my feelin’s.  But that’s all beside the point anyway.  You heard of Abe Curry, Ben?”

“No, don’t recognize the name,” Ben admitted.

“Well, he’s new hereabouts.  Been tryin’ to buy some property in Genoa, thought he could get a good deal since them fool Mormons left so much behind,” Clyde elaborated.

“I would have thought so, too,” Ben commented.

Clyde shook his head.  “Naw, them what’s left is seein’ to it prices stay high, askin’ a thousand dollars for a hundred-foot frontage in town.”

Ben whistled.  “That’s steep.”

“Too steep for Curry,” Clyde confided, “so he set his sights elsewhere, bought up most of Eagle Valley Ranch, tradin’ post included.”

“Oh, yeah?  Better be careful, my friend, or he’ll be taking the lion’s share of your business,” Ben chuckled.  “With the mining interests moving north, EagleValley will be closer to the customers.”

“Our thinkin’ exactly,” Clyde grinned.  “Me and Curry, that is.”

Ben cocked his head and gave Clyde a close scrutiny.  “What are you up to?” he asked suspiciously.

“Movin’ closer to our friends, that’s what!” Nelly piped in gleefully.  “Curry made Clyde a good offer, so he’ll be doin’ his blacksmithin’ alongside the post and helpin’ out there, too, in the busy season.”

Marie clapped her hands.  “Oh, that is good news!”

Nelly glowed.  “Ain’t it?  Give me a hand with the dishes, honey lamb, and we can talk it over our own way.  You gents are welcome to the parlor.”

“Call me if Little Joe wakes,” Marie said as Ben followed Clyde into the next room.

“He does that quite well for himself,” Ben teased and scampered through the doorway as Marie fired a wadded napkin at his back.

“Race you to the seesaw,” Inger challenged, swatting Hoss’s arm.  Hoss took his time about following.  The seesaw wasn’t going anywhere, and Inger couldn’t play on it ‘til he got there anyway.  Considering himself a man at the exalted age of sixteen, Billy followed the men into the parlor, prepared to make himself take interest in adult topics.

As she retrieved her linen weapon, Marie frowned thoughtfully.  “I am glad you will be moving closer, Nelly, but one trading post does not make a town, as Clyde said.”

“No,” Nelly agreed, carrying a stack of plates to the sideboard where her dishpan was set up, “but Curry’s got big plans.  There’s two or three cabins near the post now, but Curry aims to lay out a regular town site, figurin’ the place’ll grow.  Says he’s gonna hire a regular surveyor to lay it out proper, with wide streets and a big plaza.”

Marie brought another stack of dishes to set atop the plates.  “I did not know we had any surveyors here.”

Nelly laughed.  “Honey, every miner was somethin’ else back in the States.  I ain’t sure we got a surveyor in the territory, either, but if there’s one to be found, Curry’ll see to it Carson City gets a proper layin’ out.”

Marie smiled.  “Carson City?  Monsieur Curry has already named the town?”

“Lands, yes!” Nelly said, lifting a pail of water to fill the dishpan.  “He’s got big dreams, Marie.  Like our menfolk, he’s hopin’ to split from Utah and form a separate territory.  If that happens, we’ll need a capital city, and Curry figures he’ll have the jump on any other town around.”

Marie laughed.  “There is only one other of any size, and Genoa has been here longer.”

“True,” Nelly said, lathering up a pan of suds, “but as mad as Curry is over the high-handed treatment he got there, he’ll do his dead-level best to drain off all their trade.”

“Your Carson City would be more convenient for us, to be sure,” Marie agreed.  “Will you move soon?”

“I reckon,” Nelly sighed.  “Those cabins they got there now ain’t near so roomy as what we got here, and I’ll sure miss havin’ my parlor.  Don’t know what we’ll do with the furnishin’s ‘til we get somethin’ better built.”

Marie took a dishtowel and began drying the dishes as Nelly drew them from the water.  “You will store them with us, of course,” she said practically.  “I still have more rooms than furniture.”

Nelly laughed.  “Honey, I was hopin’ you’d offer.  Now tell me how that little sugarfoot of yours is growin’.  Talkin’ up a storm yet?”

Marie smiled, happy, as always, to talk about her favorite subject.  “Only three words so far——HaHa, Mama and Pa, which he learned in that order, to Ben’s dismay——but I expect more at any time.  Oh, and he crawls so fast now!”

The ladies chattered on over the dishes, sharing the excitement of Little Joe’s development and comparing it to that of the youngsters Nelly had raised, her own three and young Hoss Cartwright.

* * * * *

After a mild winter, March turned suddenly stormy, with rarely a day when snow didn’t fall.  Fortunately, on a Saturday just past the middle of the month, the very day the prospective residents of the new Carson City planned to move, the sky cleared.  Ben Cartwright pulled his team to a stop in front of the Thomas cabin near Carson River.  Clyde and Billy finished loading the kitchen table into their own wagon, then climbed down to welcome Ben.  “Thought we’d get the jump on you,” Billy grinned, “but you’re up early.”

“Thank Little Joe for that,” Ben chuckled.  “He decided to make a short night of it, so we figured we might as well come on.  I dropped Marie and the boys off at your new place.”

“We got things planned out pretty good, I think,” Clyde said.  “Figured to load most of what we’ll take with us in our big wagon and use yours for the furniture we’ll be storin’ at your place.”

“Sure better than loading it twice,” Ben smiled.  “Let’s load those things first, then I’ll go on over and pick up the Martins’ things and Mrs. Ellis’s while you finish here.”

Abraham V. Z. Curry, feeling that any respectable town should boast a physician, had offered the use of one of the cabins standing near the trading post in Eagle Valley to Dr. Martin, and he’d accepted.  Sally was a good enough cook and housekeeper that she chafed at life in a boardinghouse, and with the Thomases practically next door, Paul knew she’d have someone to turn to if problems arose while he was on a call.

When she heard about the new town, Laura Ellis had approached Curry and won his approval for transferring her laundry and bakery to the budding Carson City, as well.  Such businesses, Curry felt, could only speed the development of his dream capital, so he willingly donated the final cabin to Mrs. Ellis.  Although he had originally planned to stay there himself until his sturdy stone house was completed, he moved his bed to a small room at the trading post.  It wouldn’t be for long; his new house was practically finished.

Working together, the two Thomases and Ben quickly had the Cartwright buckboard loaded with the parlor furniture, then Ben helped move the few items that were so bulky or heavy that three men could lift them more easily than two.  Leaving Clyde and Billy to complete the transfer of goods to the wagon normally used to freight in supplies, Ben drove to the boardinghouse inhabited by the Martins.  “Look, Mr. Cartwright,” Sally bubbled.  “Mrs. Cosser made us up a basket for lunch.  I’m not sure there’s enough for everyone, but wasn’t that a kind thought?”

“A very kind thought,” Ben agreed, “and don’t worry; if we don’t fill up at noon, we’ll make up for it at supper.  Hop Sing packed a basket of food, too.”

“With his usual tendency to overstuff it, I presume,” the doctor smiled.

“Wouldn’t be Hop Sing if he hadn’t,” Ben laughed.  “You have everything packed or has your mind been too much on your stomach?”

“Very funny,” Paul scowled.  “Certainly, we’re ready.  Didn’t have that much to pack, after all.  Mostly clothes.  I do have that table I rigged up for examining patients, though; it’s mine to take.”

“Well, let’s load it in,” Ben said brightly.  “Clothes can fit most anyplace.”

“I suppose,” Paul chuckled, “but you be careful loading my instruments and medicines, young fellow.”

Ben laughed.  Thirty-seven years old and the man referred to him as a young fellow!  “Oh, I will, grandpa,” he assured the doctor, who Ben figured to be no more than five years his senior, about the age of his brother John.

Loading the Martins’ goods didn’t take long, and the distance to the Ellis cabin was short.  Young Jimmy, playing in the yard, was the first to see the wagon drive up.  “They’re here, Mama,” he yelled, running inside.

Laura came out swiftly.  “Didn’t expect you quite this soon,” she said, wiping her hands on her apron.  “I’ve been making sandwiches for the noon meal.  We won’t make it there by then, will we?”

“Doubt it,” Ben said.  “My load’s not too heavy, but yours and the Thomases is.  We’ll probably stop long enough to eat.”

Ben and Paul hefted the heavy cookstove into Laura’s buckboard first, then beds, tables and chairs.  Though she didn’t have as much furniture as the Thomases, it was too much for one buckboard.  Fortunately, Ben still had a little room left in his, and they managed to cram everything in one wagon or the other.  Ben led the way, with Jimmy and Sally riding beside him, while Laura rode on her own wagon, with Paul driving.

The little caravan easily overtook the Thomases’ plodding ox-drawn freight wagon, but Ben was surprised to see only Clyde there.  “Where’s your family?” he asked as he drew up alongside.

“Took the buckboard on ahead,” Clyde explained.  “Nelly got to frettin’ that Marie was tryin’ to clean up them cabins all by herself and knew she could make better time than me.  Ain’t much but kitchen gear in the buckboard.”

“Yeah,” Ben said.  “Billy’s driving, I suppose.”

“Yeah.”

“Well, let’s get this train underway then, folks,” Ben called cheerily.  “You lead the way, Clyde, so we don’t leave you behind.”

Clyde nodded and chirruped to his team to get them moving.  “Kind of reminds you of the old days, don’t it?” he called back to Ben.

Ben acknowledged the comment with a wave of his hand.  Yes, it did remind him of their trek west.  Without the hardships, though, he realized, chuckling to himself.  No cooking over a fire of buffalo chips, no dry marches across arid deserts, no churning rivers to ford and no Diggers shooting poisoned arrows.  By comparison, this was a tame journey.  To pass the time, Ben found himself reminiscing to young Jimmy and Sally about the earlier one, glossing over the hardships and concentrating on the landmarks they’d passed or the excitement of his first buffalo hunt.  Jimmy, especially, listened with fascination until the sun rose high and stomachs began to rumble.

The caravan rested briefly after the noon meal, mostly for the sake of the animals.  “When we were on the trail, we’d rest two hours at noon,” Ben explained to Jimmy, “but we’re only going a short distance today, and the animals can rest all day tomorrow.”

“Mama says Sunday is the day of rest,” Jimmy confided.  “She don’t do no work, then, except for fixin’ dinner.”

“That’s work enough,” Ben agreed.  “Your mama works hard all week and deserves a day of rest.”

“Yes, sir,” Jimmy agreed, “but I’m gettin’ big enough to help some now.”

“That’s the spirit, son,” Ben said, giving the boy an approving pat.  “Now, let’s lie back and stretch out a few minutes before we hit the trail again.”  Ben eased into a reclining position, laying his hat over his face.  Jimmy flopped down beside him and stuck his hat over his nose, too, wanting to be as much like Mr. Cartwright as possible.

Finally, the three wagons pulled into Carson City.  Ben had to smile at such an illustrious name for a collection of five buildings, one under construction.  Still, it was a good beginning for a town, and he couldn’t help hoping Carson City would prosper.  Closer to supplies, closer to friends——Ben had every reason to wish the little town well.

Nelly and Marie were sitting side by side on a quilt spread on the grass behind the Thomases’ cabin, with Little Joe napping between them, when the wagons pulled in.  Nelly rose and hurried to the front.  “You made good time,” she called.  “Howdy Laura, Sally.”

“Hello, Nelly,” Laura called as Dr. Martin helped her down from her wagon.

“See you waited for us to unload that wagon,” Clyde grumbled.  “Billy too busy to help his Ma, I reckon.”

“Don’t be criticizin’ the boy,” Nelly chided.  “He’d’ve helped if I’d asked, but there weren’t much point in just settin’ stuff on the ground.  Ain’t nothin’ inside to put it on, Clyde.”

Clyde lifted his hat and wiped sweat from his brow.  “Reckon not.  Where’s that scamp got off to now, though?”

“He took the younguns off for a romp,” Nelly said.  “Ought to be back soon; I told ‘em not to stay gone long.”

Marie, who’d taken her time to avoid waking Little Joe by a sudden movement, came around the corner of the house, carrying him.  “Have you had anything to eat?” she asked.  “Hop Sing sent plenty.”

Ben placed a light kiss on her cheek and brushed the baby’s downy curls.  “We’ve eaten, thanks to Mrs. Cosser and Laura.  We’d better get right to work if we expect to unload three households by sundown.”

Marie nodded and stepped out of the way.  There was nothing she could do to help until things were unloaded, and nothing then if Hoss didn’t return to watch the baby while she worked.

The three men first unloaded the Ellis wagon.  Since she owned less than the Thomases, the job wouldn’t take long, and the ladies could begin arranging things there while the men moved the other families’ belongings to their respective cabins.  They’d just set Laura’s last crate off the wagon when Billy came striding up with Hoss and Inger in tow.

“‘Bout time you showed up,” Clyde grunted.

“Hey, I came soon as I saw your dust,” Billy blurted out defensively.  “You got in earlier than we expected.”  Seeing Sally, he tempered his tone quickly, doffed his hat and said hello.

“Hello, Billy,” Sally smiled.  “There’s still plenty of work to be done.”

“Plenty for us ladies, too,” Nelly said.  “Show us where you want things set, Laura, and we’ll have your place lookin’ homey right quick.”

“Hoss, take Little Joe behind the cabins and watch him,” Marie said, placing the baby in his big brother’s arms.

“Okay, but I’m hungry, Mama,” Hoss said.  “Ain’t we got somethin’ to eat?”

“We had some sandwiches left,” Laura said.  “Jimmy can get the basket for you.  Keep him out from underfoot, too, will you, Hoss?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hoss said.  As the oldest of the four youngsters, he was, of course, expected to be the responsible one, but Hoss didn’t mind.  Little Joe was still asleep, and neither Inger nor Jimmy was the kind to run off and get into mischief.

Many hands make light work, as the old proverb states, and sooner than seemed possible, three cabins were in reasonable order and the weary workers gladly ate every scrap left from three originally bulging picnic hampers.  They’d made a fire, just to make coffee and keep warm, and while the sleepy youngsters stretched out on a blanket and Billy and Sally took a stroll in the moonlight, the adults enjoyed a brief time for conversation as they sipped a cup of hot brew.

“I think we’ve got the beginnings of a fine town here,” Paul Martin commented.

“I know I’ll feel safer with good neighbors close,” Nelly observed.  “Whatever Clyde thinks of Mormons, there was more law and order in the valley with them here.”

“Yes, I’ve heard there’s been a real rash of crime lately,” Dr. Martin said.

“And your consarned committee of twenty-eight doin’ nothin’ about it,” Clyde grumbled with a significant nod at Ben.

Ben shook his head.  “What can we do?  We have no authority to back us up.”

“Well, got some now, I reckon,” Clyde said.  “You part of that mass meetin’ they had a few days back?”

“You know me better than that!” Ben scoffed.  “I was invited, but when I saw they were set on forming a vigilance committee, I had no desire to be part of it.  I don’t believe in vigilante justice.”

“Better than none, I say,” Clyde argued.  “Ask San Francisco.”

“Yeah, I know,” Ben muttered, pouring himself a second cup of coffee.  “I know all the arguments for taking the law into your own hands, but I think there has to be a better way.”

“Like lettin’ rustlers drive off that herd you’re so proud of, I reckon,” Clyde sniffed.

“You know better,” Ben said again.  “Sure, a man has to protect his home and property, if it comes to that; but holding trials and hanging offenders, that’s a job for legally constituted authority.”

“Of which we have none, Ben,” Paul pointed out quietly.

“I know,” Ben agreed, “which is why I don’t condemn those who support the vigilance committee, but it’s not a road I choose to follow.  Too close to mob rule for my taste, and mobs are hard to control.”

“Ben, should we not start for home?” Marie suggested.  “We still have far to go.”

“I’d invite you to stay the night, but we’re a mite crowded just now,” Nelly laughed.

Marie smiled.  “Thank you, but it is I who will make an invitation.  Please, you must all come to dinner at the Ponderosa tomorrow.  We have worked so hard today that tomorrow should be a true day of rest.”

“Except for Hop Sing, I take it,” Laura giggled, “but I accept, gladly.”

The others quickly did also and the Cartwrights took their leave, arriving late that night and tumbling wearily into bed, determined to sleep late.  All except Little Joe.  Having had his full complement of naptime the day before, he was ready to rise early and begin a new day.

CHAPTER TEN

Springtime Reunion

April began not much differently than March ended, although the precipitation that fell was more often rain, rather than snow, at least in the valleys.  In the Sierras snow still prevailed; in fact, the mountains were covered with a thicker blanket than at any time during the previous winter.

The first of April dawned gray and cloud-covered, and before noon the showers came——a slow, drenching rain.  For once Hoss didn’t spend his lesson time with his eyes yearningly gazing out the window.  He finished early and was rewarded with permission to play with his little brother until time for evening chores.  Little Joe was delighted with Hoss’s imitation of a puppy nipping at his heels as he crawled around the front room.  Tiring of that game, Hoss was inspired to prepare a surprise for their father.

Ben came in early that afternoon, deciding it was futile to work in a downpour, however softly the droplets fell.  He slapped water from his hat, then removed his slicker, left it just outside the front door and walked in.  “Pa!” Little Joe cried happily.

Ben beamed at the boy.  Nothing ever sounded as sweet to him as that one syllable, no matter which of his sons voiced it, but it was still new to Little Joe’s lips and, therefore, all the more precious.  “How’s Pa’s sweet baby boy?” Ben cooed.

“He wants to show you somethin’,” Hoss announced, taking both the baby’s hands.  “Up, Punkin,” he ordered.  “Stand up.”

Little Joe pushed up to stand beside his brother.  Nothing new in that, of course; the boy had been able to pull up for some time now.  But Ben caught his breath when Hoss held just one of Little Joe’s hands as the child took one, two, three little steps before he flopped onto his backside.  Swooping the baby up to the ceiling, Ben crowed with delight.  “Ooh, you bright boy!  When did you take this up?”

“Today, mostly,” Hoss reported.  “I been workin’ with him.”

“And a job well done it was,” Ben said, giving his middle boy a proud smile, “but unless my eyes deceived me when I put up my horse, you have some chores that need doing in the barn, too.”

“Just gettin’ to ‘em,” Hoss said.  “Can I take Little Joe?  He ought to learn how to milk the cow, you know.”

Ben laughed.  “I think he’s still a mite small to take over your chores, young fellow.”

“That ain’t what I meant!” Hoss protested.  “I just meant he could watch.”

“Not today,” Ben chuckled.  “He doesn’t need to go out in the rain.”  He brought his face close to the baby’s and clucked, “You need to take another step or two for Pa, don’t you, sweet boy?”  Little Joe grinned and willingly performed again for his father as Hoss hurried into his jacket and ran through the raindrops for the barn.

Spring finally tiptoed in, like a guest unsure of her welcome——sunny days interspersed with snowfalls or thunderstorms until finally the warmth came to stay.  With it came the busiest time of year on the Ponderosa and elsewhere throughout the valley.  Clyde Thomas had new fields to break to the plow, but Ben found himself so occupied with his own work, he rarely found time to help his old friend.  Fortunately, Billy had grown into a stalwart young man, able to do his share of the plowing and planting.

Hoss found it harder than ever to keep his mind on his books when the bright sunshine beckoned so invitingly.  As if warm weather were not enough distraction, the increasingly mobile Little Joe provided still more.  How could anyone expect a boy to study his lessons when a small hand patted his book, demanding attention?  Marie would gently lift the baby away, setting him at the opposite end of the low table from Hoss.  For a few minutes Little Joe would play with his blocks or nibble his bunny’s ear, then he’d remember that what he really wanted was brother Hoss, pull himself up and make his way, hand over hand along the table, back to the object of his devotion.  “You are incorrigible,” Marie would scold fondly as she removed him once more, but the kiss with which she ended her rebuke was unlikely to prevent repetition of the behavior.

Once the weather cleared, Hoss took that to mean his little brother could now accompany him wherever he went, so whenever it was time to milk the cow or gather the eggs, Little Joe could be seen clinging to his brother’s hand as they ambled toward the barn.  Once they got there, Hoss expected Little Joe to sit quietly and watch him do the chores.  Sometimes the baby cooperated, but frequently Little Joe wandered off to explore on his own, and the more steps he was able to take without Hoss’s guiding hand, the further he wandered, until Hoss began to think the company wasn’t worth the nuisance.  It was hard to milk a cow while keeping one eye peeled on Little Joe to make sure the toddler didn’t stroll into an occupied stall.

Another member of the family definitely considered Little Joe’s new-found ambulatory skill a nuisance, to judge from the stream of Chinese that erupted whenever Hop Sing heard the clatter of pans pulled from a cupboard and looked down to find the young culprit smiling benignly up at him.  “I’m sorry, Hop Sing,” Marie would say each time she ran to rescue her baby.  “He is gone before I know it.”  She would take Little Joe’s hand and lead him back through the dining area into the front room, cautioning him against bothering Hop Sing, but the next day found the baby toddling back into the kitchen without qualm or conscience.  Of course, since Hop Sing was as likely to reward him with a cookie as a scolding, Little Joe was slow to learn that he wasn’t wanted in the kitchen.  In fact, it was obvious from his demeanor that the youngster couldn’t conceive that he would be unwelcome anywhere.  “Spoiled rotten, that’s what you are,” Ben regularly told his youngest, most fervently while in the midst of spoiling the baby himself.

In previous years Adam had taken charge of the family garden, but he was still in Sacramento when planting time arrived, so Hoss took on the responsibility.  Late in April he set out onions and potatoes, with the dubious help of his younger brother.  Bare toes squishing in the moist dirt, Little Joe paddled through the plowed furrows alongside Hoss.  When Hoss dropped a piece of potato into the ground and patted the soil over it, Little Joe at once flopped down to thump the ground with the flat of his hand, too.

“That’s right,” Hoss said.  “Pat it down firm, Little Joe, so it’ll make lots of potatoes.  You like potatoes, don’t you?”

“No,” Little Joe said.

“You don’t?  Aw, I don’t believe that,” Hoss argued.  “Taters taste good, little brother.  Onions, too.  Like onions, Little Joe?”

“No,” Little Joe smiled.

Hoss grinned.  “You don’t know what you’re sayin’, do you?”

“No,” Little Joe assured him.

“Oh, quit sayin’ that,” Hoss said, wriggling his finger into the baby’s side.  “You quit sayin’ that.”

“No, no,” Little Joe chortled, squirming away from the tickling finger.

Hoss shook his head, still grinning.  “I better teach you some more words.  I know.  You got another brother, Little Joe.  He’ll be comin’ home real soon now, and it’d surprise the punch out of him if you could say his name.  Say ‘Adam’ for me, Punkin.”

“No,” Little Joe giggled, trotting down the furrow while Hoss clambered up to give chase.

* * * * *

With Little Joe riding on his arm, Ben paced the boardwalk in front of Ormsby’s store in Genoa.  Marie, just as eager to meet Adam’s stage as her husband, stood quietly behind him, amused by his agitation.  One would think Ben was expecting the governor of California instead of his own son!  Hoss had chosen to pass the time by examining the jars of candy inside.

Little Joe wriggled, reaching and stretching, obviously wanting down.  “Oh, all right,” Ben said when he caught sight of Hoss coming out of the store.  “Go to Hoss.”  He set the toddler down and watched him trot quickly toward his older brother.  “Hang onto him, Hoss,” Ben cautioned.  Lately, Little Joe had shown a propensity for vanishing at any and every opportunity, and it would be just like him to decide to explore the street the exact moment twenty-four galloping legs stormed into town in front of the stagecoach.

Little Joe obviously didn’t appreciate being held back in his adventures, even by one hand, but he was willing to tolerate it as long as Hoss kept on the move.  Up and down the walkway the two brothers paraded until Hoss heard a rumble coming toward them and knew the stage would soon arrive.  He snatched up Little Joe and ran back to the front of the store.

Adam jumped from the door in the side of the coach, the first passenger to disembark.  “Pa!” he shouted, flinging his arms around his father.

Ben returned the embrace with an almost crushing bear hug.  “Look at this, will you?  I do believe the boy’s missed us, Marie.”

Marie came forward and pressed a gentle kiss to Adam’s cheek.  “As we have him.  Welcome home, Adam.”

Merci, Marie,” he said, using the French term in honor of their lessons together.  “It’s good to be home.”

“Hey, Adam!” Hoss yelled.  “You bring me anything?”

“Yeah, greedy belly, I did,” Adam laughed.  “You got something there for me?”  He reached to take the baby from Hoss.  “Missed you, too——yes, I did,” he told his youngest brother.

Little Joe took one look at the unfamiliar face and started to whimper and squirm.  “HaHa,” he pleaded.

“He wants me,” Hoss announced proudly.  “Reckon he don’t ‘member you, Adam.”

“Reckon not,” Adam said, handing the baby to Hoss with a touch of disappointment.  “We’ll have to work on that.”

Hoss brightened.  “Hey, yeah!  We been workin’ most a month on somethin’, ain’t we, Little Joe?  Know who this is?” he asked, pointing at the other boy.  “Your brother Adam.  Say it now.”

Little Joe cocked his head back at the stranger.  “Ah-um,” he repeated dutifully, although, for him, the word had no meaning, just a sound Hoss liked to hear.

Adam laughed.  “Well, aren’t you the smart one!”  He ruffled the baby’s soft curls.  “Funny, too.  Won’t let me hold you, but you know my name, huh, monkey?”  Little Joe grinned, beginning to warm to the stranger.

“Yeah, and look what else he can do,” Hoss declared, setting the toddler down.  Little Joe immediately demonstrated his skill by trotting off down the boardwalk.

“Hoss, I told you to hang onto him,” Ben chided.

“I’ll get him,” Adam laughed.  “He moves fast!”

It was no problem, of course, for Adam’s longer legs to catch Little Joe’s short ones, so he didn’t bother running.  Little Joe halted, anyway, when he ran into a ruffled skirt.  Clutching it, he looked up and queried, “Mama?”

Bronze hands reached down to lift the youngster.  “No, not Mama, little Running Deer,” she laughed.

Adam stood grinning at the pretty Paiute girl.  “Hello, Sarah.  Nice to see you.”

Sarah smiled, her almond eyes lighting.  “It is good to see you, Adam.”

“I heard you’d gone back to your people,” Adam said, “after”——he broke off awkwardly, not sure whether to mention last year’s misunderstanding over the deaths of McMartin and Williams.

“Things better now; I come back,” Sarah replied.  She, too, seemed reluctant to speak of the painful incident.

Caught between two virtual strangers, Little Joe wriggled uncomfortably.  Adam took him from Sarah and set him down.  Pointing, he ordered, “Go back to Hoss.”

“HaHa,” Little Joe called, running back the way he’d come.

“Little brave run good,” Sarah said, smiling.  Then she frowned.  “No, that not right.  Him run——well?”

“He runs well,” Adam corrected.

Sarah shook her head.  “English not easy.  Too many rules.”

Adam laughed.  “I wouldn’t worry, if I were you.  Plenty of the fellows at my school have trouble with the rules, and they’ve had years more practice than you.  You’re doing fine.”

Sarah smiled again.  “I study hard, learn much.”

Adam gave her a puzzled look.  “But I thought the school here closed when the Mormons left.”

“Mrs. Ormsby teach me,” Sarah explained.

“Adam,” Ben called, “we need to be leaving, son.”

Adam waved to show his father he’d heard, then turned quickly back to Sarah.  “I’ll be seeing you,” he said, brushing a light kiss on her cheek.  Beneath the deep bronze of her face, a rosy gold flush appeared, but Adam didn’t see it.  He’d already turned his back to walk toward his waiting family.

“What’s the hurry?” Adam said as he climbed into the back of the buckboard, where Ben had already stowed his luggage and guitar.  “Sarah and I haven’t had a chance to talk in nine months.”

“Talking isn’t all you were doing, young man,” Ben muttered, flicking the reins.  “You watch your step with that girl, Adam.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Adam said.

Ben frowned over his shoulder.  “I saw you kiss her, young man.  You need to remember that she’s Paiute.”

“So what?” Adam asked sharply.  “People are people, you always taught us.”

“True enough,” Ben replied, “but cultures are different.  What you intend as innocent flirting, she might take as something more serious.”

Adam hooted.  “Pa, we’re friends, just friends.  I’m too young to think about getting serious——with Sarah or any other girl.”

“She, on the other hand, is exactly the right age!” Ben snapped.

“Girls mature earlier than boys, mon ami,” Marie said, reaching back to touch Adam’s hand.  “Your father means only that you should be careful Sarah does not misunderstand your friendship.”

“Precisely,” Ben agreed sharply.  “If there’s anyone we don’t need a misunderstanding with, it’s the Paiutes.”

“All right, Pa, I’ll watch myself,” Adam promised.  “Is that why you hustled me out of town, to avoid riling the Paiutes?”

Ben chuckled.  “No.  We’re expected for lunch at Carson City, and it’s a fifteen-mile drive, son.  We’ll be late, as it is.”

“Hey, great!  I’ve been wanting to see the new town——and Billy.”

Ben smiled.  If seeing Billy Thomas was Adam’s first goal, he couldn’t be as girl-crazed as Ben had at first feared.  Even if he were, Carson City would offer a pretty substitute for the Paiute girl.  Sally Martin, Ben thought with satisfaction, was a safer object on whom Adam could practice his youthful flirtation.  If her dealings with Billy Thomas were any indication, Sally could handle any boy’s nonsense without entertaining ideas none of the youngsters were as yet old enough to consider seriously.

It was past noon when the Cartwrights arrived in Carson City, but Nelly had planned lunch in expectation of a late arrival.  “You’re a mite earlier than I expected,” she said, coming out to greet them.

“May I help?” Marie asked at once.

“Oh, I’ve had plenty of help,” Nelly laughed, nodding back toward the open doorway, through which Sally Martin had just exited.  “Laura’s bakin’ the bread at her place.  Figured we might as well have a big celebration, invite the whole town——well, practically.”

Sally moved slowly to where Adam was talking animatedly with Billy Thomas.  “Nice to have you home, Adam,” she said softly.

Adam turned to grin at her and his mouth dropped.  “Sally, you’re even prettier than I remember,” he said in open admiration.

“Don’t they have any pretty girls in Sacramento?” she teased.

“A few,” Adam admitted, “but I’ve been busy with my books, you know.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet!” Billy scoffed.  “I’d like to see the day even you’d pick a book over a pretty girl!”

“Not today, for sure,” Adam said, giving Sally a swift peck on the cheek, probably more to irritate Billy or his father than to impress the girl.

Sally didn’t even blush, just smiled and took Adam’s arm.  “Let’s show Adam around town, Billy,” she called over her shoulder.

Billy’s eyes glinted and at first he planned to stay behind and sulk.  When Adam gave a glance back, though, he shuffled forward, feeling he had as much right to his friend’s company as any fickle girl.

“Billy looks jealous,” Adam laughed to Sally while the other boy was still out of earshot.

“Serves him right,” Sally snickered.  “The way he’s been flirting with that German girl over at Placerville.”

“Marta?  Who told you that?” Adam asked.

“His father,” she whispered as Billy strode up.

“Well, what do you think of our town?” Billy demanded.  “Looks puny to you after Sacramento, I reckon.”

“Anything but San Francisco would,” Adam chuckled.  “I like Curry’s plans for this place, though.  Pa wrote that he’s bringing in a surveyor to lay the town out, but not on the Mormon plan like Genoa.”

“Carson’s gonna be a better place every way than that hive of Mormons,” Billy boasted.

“Oh, not you, too,” Sally protested.  “You sound just like your father.”

Billy grinned impishly.  “Naw, I ain’t that bad.  Just proud of our own town, that’s all, and you should be, too, Miss Prissy.”

“I am,” Sally declared with a flounce of her head, “so don’t get uppity with me, Billy Thomas.  Just look how we’re growing!”

“Yeah, I can see,” Adam said.  “Two more houses going up than what Pa wrote about.”

“The one to the left is Mr. Ormsby’s,” Sally reported, “and what’s that other fellow’s name, Billy?”

“Stebbins, Martin Stebbins,” Billy answered.

“Mr. Ormsby from Genoa?” Adam asked.  “I saw Sarah Winnemucca there when I came in, but she didn’t say a word about moving.  Of course, we didn’t get much chance to talk,” he muttered, still perturbed at being rushed out of town by his father.

“She and her sister will be coming here with the Ormsbys when the house is finished,” Sally said, “and I’ll surely be glad to have other girls close to my age in town.”

“Yeah, havin’ other girls around sounds right good to me, too,” Billy declared, hoping to get a rise out of Sally.

The Martin girl only laughed, easily seeing through Billy.  “Never knew you were that fond of Lizzie,” she teased, “but she’s a little too grown up for you, isn’t she?”

Billy’s face flamed and he scowled at both her and Adam, having seen the winks they exchanged.  “Better be gettin’ back.  I see ‘em settin’ out the food, and I reckon neither one of you is so grown up you care to be last at the table.”

“Not with Hoss around,” Adam grinned.  “We’d better hurry.”

Earlier that May morning Clyde, Billy and Paul Martin had carried out both the Thomas’s table and Laura Ellis’s and placed them together so there’d be room for everyone.  The women congregated near one end and the men at the other with the youngsters in between.  That insured that each gender could converse on the topics they preferred, the children——who’d rather eat than talk——forming a buffer.

The men, of course, chose politics.  “Hey, Adam,” Clyde called toward the center of the group, “any news from Sacramento?”

“I brought the latest issue of the Bee,” Adam said, buttering one of Mrs. Ellis’s fluffy yeast rolls.  “You’re welcome to read it, sir, but it’s mostly the same old thing——Kansas.  They’re gonna put the state constitution to a vote.”

“‘Bout time they let the folks that live there have a say in their own government,” Clyde grunted.

“I’m sure Stephen Douglas would agree,” Ben commented.  They were all aware of the continuing battle over statehood for the Territory of Kansas.  Even in isolated western Utah, they’d heard how President Buchanan, in early February, had asked Congress to admit Kansas as a slave state despite the rejection of its pro-slavery constitution and how Stephen Douglas had accused the president of violating the concept of popular sovereignty.  The men gathered at the table were in basic agreement with Douglas.  Ben and Paul were both Yankee born and bred, while Clyde’s mid-western upbringing still disposed him to an anti-slavery position.

The conflict over Kansas had gone on so long that Ben was amazed the free staters there had energy remaining for the battle.  But would he give up, in their place, and accept the unacceptable?  No, Ben decided, when it came to an issue of clear right and wrong, a man had to fight with whatever strength he had and trust God to renew it, should it flag in the midst of the struggle.  But Ben’s real prayer was that the conflict would never extend beyond the borders of Kansas, certainly never reach far enough to affect their lives in the distant west.

* * * * *

“Ah, Mistah Adam, good you be home,” Hop Sing bubbled, beaming and bowing in eloquent respect to Mr. Cartwright’s number one son.

“Thanks, Hop Sing.  Good to see you,” Adam replied, setting his carpetbag down just inside the entrance.

“When do I get what you brung me?” Hoss demanded.

“What he brought you, Hoss,” Marie corrected as she removed her shawl.

“Yeah, but when?” Hoss persisted, grammar being much less important to him than an answer to his question.

From the lofty plain of adolescence, Adam laughed at Hoss’s childish impatience.  “If you’ll carry my bag upstairs, I’ll get it for you now.”

Hoss frowned.  “I ain’t carryin’ them heavy books.”

“Those heavy books, Hoss,” Ben reminded him, setting Little Joe down.  “You’re not carrying those heavy books.”

“That’s right, I ain’t,” Hoss declared emphatically.

Ben groaned.  The boy was hopeless, grammatically hopeless.

“I’ll carry the books,” Adam said.  “Wouldn’t trust you with them, anyway.  You carry the bag.”

“Okay,” Hoss agreed, picking up the carpetbag and heading up the stairs.

Adam followed.  So, also, did the youngest Cartwright, at least until he reached the stairs.  Unable to climb, Little Joe whimpered in protest, little palms beating on the bottom step.  “HaHa,” he cried, arms stretched imploringly upward.

“Not this time, little one,” Ben laughed, catching the baby up in his arms.  “Your brothers deserve some time alone.”

“And this one needs a nap,” Marie said.

“Good luck,” Ben chuckled.  “He doesn’t appear to be in the mood.”

Leaving their parents to deal with that problem, the two older boys hurried into Adam’s room.  “Wait’ll you see this,” Adam enthused, pulling out a rolled-up sheet of paper from his bag.

Hoss spread it open on Adam’s bed.  “A picture of a boat?” he muttered, disappointed.  “I was hopin’ you’d bring me some candy.”

“I did, greedy belly,” Adam said, “but this is even better, and it’s for both of us.”

Hoss shook his head, not understanding.

“Look,” Adam explained, pointing to the drawing, “it’s a plan for a boat we’re gonna build this summer.”

Hoss’s face brightened.  “You mean a real one?  One we could sail in?”

“That’s right,” Adam said.  “Good idea, huh?”

“Yeah, if——”

“What?”

“If you really know how.  You ain’t never built a boat, Adam.”

Adam set his lips stubbornly.  “Well, I know I can.  I’ve been talking to every steamer captain who’d take the time, and I learned a lot.  Besides, Pa knows boats, and he’ll help, I bet.”

“Pa’s awful busy,” Hoss reported.

“Roundup?” Adam asked.

“Yeah.  They start brandin’ tomorrow.”

Adam nodded.  “I’ll need to help with that, but I still think we could get a boat built by the Fourth of July.  Think of the fishing we could do from the middle of Lake Tahoe, Hoss!”

“Yeah!” Hoss cried, catching his brother’s enthusiasm.  “Let’s ask Pa right now if he’ll let us do it.”

“Okay, but first things first,” Adam chuckled, digging into his carpetbag for the package of assorted candy he’d bought before leaving Sacramento.  “Better put this in your room ‘til after supper.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Justice Disputed, Friendship Disrupted

Ben pulled the buckboard to a stop before Lucky Bill’s store in Genoa shortly before noon on Wednesday, June 16th.  While he didn’t need many supplies, any excuse was as good as another on mail day.  He didn’t frequent Thorrington’s place often.  The new enterprise in Carson City was closer to home, although it still carried little beyond basics.  When Ben had needs beyond those, he usually gave his business to Ormsby, but one of the items on his list today was chicken feed, and Lucky Bill generally gave him a better deal on it.

He walked inside and presented Thorrington with his list, smiling at the youngster standing with his father behind the counter.  He liked to see a father and son working together.  “Oh, and I need some paint, if you have it,” Ben added.  “Preferably red.”  The paint was for the boat the boys were busily building, and the request for red had come from Hoss.

Lucky Bill laughed.  “Nope.  I’ve got whitewash, but that’s it.”

“No, I’m afraid that won’t do,” Ben said.  “I’d better see if Ormsby has any.”

“Might,” Bill conceded.  “He carries more fancy goods than me.  Got something else you ought to have a look at, though, Cartwright.  You won’t find the like of it at Ormsby’s.”

Ben arched a questioning eyebrow.

“Out back,” Thorrington said, gesturing with his head.  “Just take a minute.  Jerome here will load your supplies.”

Ben shrugged and followed the tall merchant outside.  He had time to spare since the mail stage was running late, and his curiosity was aroused.  When he saw the sleek chestnut thoroughbred in the corral, he gasped.  “What a beautiful animal, Bill!  Where’d you find a racehorse out here?”

“Friend of mine brought him in from Honey Lake Valley,” Thorrington grinned.  “Nothing in the territory can touch him, Ben, and the price Edwards is asking is well below his value.”

“Ooh, don’t tempt me,” Ben chuckled.

“Knowing livestock like you do, you can see what quality he is,” Bill urged, “and I’ve heard that wife of yours sits a fine saddle, too.  Of course, this animal might be too strong for a lady.”

“Not my lady,” Ben boasted.  “She could ride anything, and I’d love to give her a mount like this.”  He sighed.  “Can’t do it, though.  I bought too much land this year to spare anything for riding stock.  I have to concentrate on building my herd.”

“Too bad,” Bill said.  “Edwards is in a hurry to sell, and at the price he’s asking, this beauty won’t last.”

Ben shook his head.  “Sorry, but I can’t.  Thanks for showing him to me, though.  It’s a privilege just to look at an animal this fine.”  His head came up as he heard the sound of galloping hooves.  “Must be the mail.  Look, Bill, I’ll be back for those supplies and pay you then.  I’m hoping for a letter.”

“Who ain’t?” Bill laughed.  “Bring back mine, if I get any?”

“Sure, glad to.”

Ben hurried to the post office, but it was already crowded.  Even with the exodus of the Mormons, on mail day the room was always packed, and it didn’t pay to be last in line.  Ben managed to fall in only three feet from the window.  Looking up the line, he grinned.  Trust Billy Thomas to elbow his way to the front.  As the young man passed him, eyes glued to the envelope he’d just received, Ben edged a toe across his path.  Billy walked right into it and stumbled, but Ben caught him, laughing.  “You seem mighty interested in that piece of mail, son.  Didn’t know your pa was expecting such an important letter.”

Billy grinned, pushing his shock of red hair back from his forehead.  “NotPa,” he bragged.  “This is all mine.”  He waved the envelope under Ben’s nose.

“Mighty fragrant,” Ben said, taking a deep whiff.  “Who’s sending you that kind of mail, young fellow?”

Billy turned the envelope so Ben could read the return address.

“Marta?” Ben asked, incredulous.  “I thought she had better sense.”

“Hey!  A girl could do a lot worse,” Billy retorted.

“Don’t see how,” Ben muttered dryly, then grinned at the boy.

“You expectin’ mail,” Billy asked sociably, “or just hopin?”

“Hoping, mostly,” Ben admitted, “though if I don’t get something from that brother of mine soon, I may disown him.”

“Well, here’s your chance,” Billy cackled.  “You’re next.”

Ben stepped to the window and his face brightened as he was handed a letter with John Cartwright’s name on it.  “Anything for Lucky Bill?” he asked.  There wasn’t, so Ben turned away, shaking his head as he saw Billy scanning the lines of his letter from Marta.

He was tempted to read his own letter then and there, too, but preferred to wait until he had a little more privacy.  He peeked over Billy’s shoulder, not really reading, just teasing the boy.  Billy hastily folded the letter and stuffed it in his vest pocket.

“Might burn a hole in there,” Ben warned with twitching lips.

Billy shook his head, grinning.  “It ain’t that fiery,” he said.  “How’s Adam comin’ with that boat?”

“Oh, fine,” Ben replied.  “In fact, I’m going over to Ormsby’s now to see if I can find some paint for it.”

“I’ll walk along with you,” Billy offered.

Ben nodded, then smiled wickedly.  “Good thing you hid that letter from Marta if you’re up to what I think you are.”

Billy laughed.  “You know me.”

“Yeah, always sniffing the daisy that’s closest,” Ben sneered.  “I’m gonna tell you what I told Adam, young man.  You curb your flirting ways with Miss Sarah, or you’ll have Winnemucca and her whole tribe down your throat.”

“Yes, sir,” Billy grinned.  “One little sniff or two won’t hurt, though.”

Ben groaned and walked into Ormsby’s, shaking his head.  Boys the age of Billy or Adam just didn’t understand how much trouble one little sniff could cause.

Billy took his sniff and Ben bought his paint, yellow instead of the requested red, but Ben didn’t figure Hoss would be overly disappointed.  As the two emerged from the store, they became aware of loud voices just down the street.  “What’s going on?” Billy wondered.

Ben shook his head and, as curious as Billy, moved toward the sound of the disturbance.  Suddenly, he thrust the can of paint into the young man’s hands.  “Here, hold this,” he ordered and began to run toward the scuffle in the street in front of Lucky Bill’s store.  Screaming in protest, Bill struggled against the men holding him, arms pinioned behind him.  In front of the store, young Jerome was yelling for the men to let his pa go.

Ben shoved men aside, trying to reach the merchant.  “What’s this about?” he demanded.

“Vigilante business,” a man snapped, shoving Ben back.  “No concern of yours, Cartwright.”

“Wait a minute!” Ben shouted.  “What business do the vigilantes have with Lucky Bill?”

“That horse, Cartwright,” Bill panted.  “They think I stole it, but I swear I didn’t.”

“Horse stealing ain’t the half of it,” one of the men holding Bill snorted.  “You’re wanted for murder, Thorrington.”

“Murder!” Lucky Bill hollered.  “I never killed a man in my life!  This is crazy.”

Ben thought so, too.  He knew Lucky Bill had a reputation as a sharp gambler, perhaps a less than honest one, but he’d never heard anything worse of the man.  Even that vice was tempered by Bill’s tendency to give away almost as much as he gained to anyone with a sad story to tell, sometimes even to the very man from whom he’d won the money.

Billy Thomas pushed in close to Ben.  “Get out of here, boy,” Ben grunted.  While he was still concerned about Thorrington, he felt a more immediate responsibility for his friend’s impetuous young son.

“What you men gonna do to him?” Billy demanded, ignoring Ben’s restraining hand.”

“Shut up, boy,” one of the mob yelled.  “Vigilantes ain’t answerable to no milk-faced pup!”

“That’s not so,” an authoritative voice rang out.  “We vigilantes welcome scrutiny.  Every judgment we make must be open and above board.  Answer the boy!”

Ben turned to see William Ormsby pushing his way through the crowd.  “Now, what’s the charge against this man?”  Ormsby demanded.

Ben blew out a relieved puff of air.  He didn’t approve of vigilante justice, but Ormsby, at least, was a fair man or had been in all Ben’s dealings with him.

“Murder!” came the accusation, and the crowd rumbled in agreement.

“Who’s he supposed to have killed?” Ben demanded.

“Well, not him, exactly,” one of the accusers admitted.  “The murderer is William Edwards from California, but this man’s been hidin’ him out at his ranch, tryin’ to sell the horse Edwards stole!”

Ben glanced sharply at Thorrington.  He knew Lucky Bill had been participating in the sale of the horse, but no one as yet had given him reason to believe the horse stolen or, if he were, that Bill had known about it.  “You got a bill of sale for that racehorse, Bill?” he asked quietly.

Ormsby lifted a hand.  “Wait a minute, Cartwright.  No evidence will be taken here on the street.  Charges being duly brought, we’ll hold this man for trial tomorrow afternoon, with John Cary as judge.  Bring him to my store and we’ll lock him in the storage room.”

Still resisting, Lucky Bill was dragged down the street.  “Where’s Edwards, Thorrington?” his two main accusers demanded as they trailed him down the street.  “Where you got him hid?”

“I don’t know,” Bill yelled.  “I’m not hiding him.”

Most of the crowd followed the procession to Ormsby’s store, but a group of five closed in, instead, on Thorrington’s young son, Jerome.  “You know where that killer is, boy, you’d best speak up,” they snarled.  “Your pa’s sure to hang if you don’t, and maybe you alongside him.”

The youngster blanched and turned anxious eyes toward Ben.

“Don’t threaten the boy!” Ben snapped.

“No threat,” one of the men growled.  “Just tellin’ the youngun what’s bound to happen if Edwards ain’t found.”

“And——and they’ll let my pa go if they got Edwards instead?” Jerome stammered.

“Sure, son, no reason to hold an innocent man, is there?”

Jerome bit his lip.  “He’s camped out in a canyon back of our place.  Said he didn’t want to make extra work for Ma.”

“Come on, boys, let’s get him!” the ringleader shouted and the five took off east toward Thorrington’s Clear Creek Ranch.

Chin trembling, Jerome looked up.  “I did right, didn’t I, Mr. Cartwright?”

Billy Thomas answered instead.  “Sure, you did.  You had to speak up to save your pa.”

Ben rubbed the youngster’s shivering shoulders.  “Go home to your mother, boy; she’ll need you.”  Jerome nodded and, wiping the tears from his eyes, went to close up the store.

Billy Thomas turned to Ben.  “I better get home,” he said.  “Pa’ll want to know about this!”

“Yeah,” Ben muttered absently, wondering if he should see the Thorrington youngster home.  No, the boy was upset, but too old to appreciate a nursemaid.  Better to let him take the news to his mother by himself.  Ben’s attention jerked suddenly back to Billy.  “Where’s that paint I gave you, boy?  You just drop it in the street when you came running, looking for trouble?”

“No, of course not,” Billy growled.  “I ain’t a fool kid, even if that is how you’re treatin’ me.  I seen your wagon there in front of Lucky Bill’s and put the paint in back.”

“Oh,” Ben said, regretting his sharp words.  After all, Billy hadn’t volunteered to take charge of his goods.  Would’ve served me right if he did toss that paint in the dirt, Ben thought with chagrin, though “Thanks, Billy,” was all he said.

“Sure,” Billy shrugged, easily appeased.  “You gonna be comin’ in for that trial, Uncle Ben?”

“Yeah,” Ben muttered.  “Yeah, I’ll be here.  You tell your pa.”

Ben walked back to his wagon, jaw clenching when he saw the supplies loaded inside.  He hadn’t had a chance to pay Lucky Bill for them and didn’t want to delay Jerome with business now.  Thorrington would just have to trust him, though the man probably had more important matters on his mind——like the preservation of his life and the future of his wife and child if the charges held up.

Ben drove home slowly, pondering what would become of the territory if they couldn’t find an effective means of law enforcement.  So far, the vigilantes had only tried and sentenced a few minor offenders, but a charge of murder carried a heavier penalty.  Would they really sentence a man to hang?  And if they did, what made their so-called justice different from any other mob lynching?

When the wagon pulled into the yard at the Ponderosa, both Adam and Hoss came running to meet their father.  “Did you get the paint?” Adam asked eagerly.  “We’re almost ready for it.”

“Yeah, did they have red?” Hoss queried, trotting up at Adam’s heels.

“Huh?” Ben asked.  “Oh, yeah, the paint.  No, I had to buy yellow, Hoss.”

“That’s all right,” Adam said.  Seeing Hoss’s disappointment, he put an arm around the younger boy’s shoulder.  “Yellow’s a good color, Hoss; it’ll look like sunshine on the lake.”

Hoss looked up at his big brother and smiled.  “Yeah!  Like sunshine.  That’s good.”

Ben handed the reins of the horses to Adam.  “Unload the supplies and unhitch the team, will you, boys?”

“Sure, Pa,” Adam said, brow furrowing.  “Something wrong?”

“Yeah,” Ben said.  Without explaining, he walked toward the house.

The furrows in Adam’s forehead deepened.  Something really was bothering Pa.  Adam wanted to help and decided the best way to do that was to complete the chores his father had given him.  Show himself a man and maybe Pa would confide in him like one.  “You start unloading, Hoss,” he directed, “while I unhitch the horses.”

Inside, Ben pulled off his hat, hanging it on one of the pegs to the left of the front door.  Marie came to greet him with a kiss, but the one he returned carried little of his usual passion.  The young Creole immediately sensed that something was wrong.  “No mail?  No letter from John?” she asked, stroking his rough cheek.

“What?” Ben asked, pulling himself out of the cloud in which he’d moved ever since leaving town.  “Oh, yeah, there was a letter from John.  I’d forgotten.”

Marie’s emerald eyes clouded.  “What could make you forget that?” she pressed.

“Trouble in town,” Ben muttered.  “Tell you later.  Let’s see what that brother of mine has to say.”

“Yes, let’s,” Marie urged, hoping the news would brighten his countenance.

It didn’t.  Ben had waited for months for his brother’s reply to his suggestion to come west with young Will, and when it finally came, the answer was not the one he’d hoped for.  According to John’s letter, Will was infuriated by the suggestion that they abandon the place his mother had slaved to preserve.  His father, he felt, owed it to her memory to spend as much time there as he’d spent gallivanting around the west and the Pacific Ocean.  John felt he couldn’t refuse.  He’d delayed answering Ben’s letter in hopes Will would change his mind, but it was clear the boy’s anger ran deep.  Maybe in time Will would forgive him and be willing to move on, but John wouldn’t risk losing the boy by insisting he do so now.

“John is wise,” Marie said.  “I know the decision saddens you, mon mari, but I am sure it is the right one.”

Ben nodded soberly.  “It is, of course.  That boy’s broken-hearted; he’s got to be given time to heal.”  Ben sighed deeply.  “Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea asking them here, anyway.  Maybe they’re better off in settled territory where——”

“What is it, Ben?”

Ben took a deep breath and exhaled slowly.  Then he began with Lucky Bill’s offering to sell him that beautiful thoroughbred and ended with his being dragged off to Ormsby’s storeroom.  “Mob justice,” Ben muttered.  “What kind of place is that to raise a family?”

“You think Lucky Bill will be found guilty?” Marie asked.

Ben stood abruptly and began to poke at the fire.  “I don’t know; I couldn’t tell if they had any evidence or not.  Maybe that’ll come out at the trial.”

“You will attend?”

“Yeah,” he said sharply.  “For all the good it’ll do.  They won’t put me on the jury, not after how outspoken I’ve been against the vigilance committee, but maybe having people like me there to scrutinize their so-called justice will make them give Thorrington at least the semblance of due process.”

* * * * *

It was still well before noon when Ben crossed the Carson River, ironically over the toll bridge in which Lucky Bill was a partner.  White puffs of cottonwood seed floated in the air, drifting with Ben as he rode into Genoa.  He wasn’t sure where the trial would be held, but he could see a crowd forming on the triangular green at the center of town.  Riding to the Main Street side of the triangle, he dismounted, tied his bay to a nearby shrub and walked onto the green.  “Trial being held outdoors?” he asked the first man he met, a young lawyer named Richard Allen.

“Yeah, lots of folks interested in this one,” Allen said.  “I, for one, can’t believe Lucky Billy’s involved.”

“Me, either,” Ben said.

“Well, it should be starting soon.”

Ben nodded and moved back to his horse.  He wasn’t all that hungry yet, but now was probably the best time to eat the sandwiches Hop Sing had packed.  Chances were he’d have even less appetite later.  As he pulled a sandwich from his saddlebag, a young voice called out, “Hey, got any more?”

Looking over his shoulder, Ben saw Clyde give Billy a half-hearted clout on the ear.  “You’ll have Ben thinkin’ your ma don’t feed you,” Clyde scolded.

The corner of Ben’s mouth quirked upward.  “I know Nelly better than that!  Probably stuffed you to the gills before she’d let you out the door.”

“I admit it,” Billy joked, “but us growin’ boys need lots of grub.”

Ben gave a short laugh and handed his sandwich to Billy, taking another from the bag for himself.  “I’ve got one more if you’re still growing, too,” he told Clyde dryly.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Clyde said.  “Bound to be hungry before this is over.”

“You think it’ll be a long trial?” Ben asked.

Clyde shrugged.  “Could be, with two men to try.”

Ben glanced sharply at him.  “They found Edwards?”

“Yup, brought him in last night and locked him up with Lucky Bill.”

“Right where Jerome said he’d be,” Billy added.

“Well, I hope it is a long trial,” Ben said soberly as he unwrapped his sandwich.  “As serious as the charges are, I hope the jury takes its time.”

“Depends on how strong the evidence is, I reckon,” Clyde remarked.  “Way I heard it, the men that caught him came all the way from Honey Lake, pretendin’ to be horse buyers to smoke out who had that thoroughbred.”

Ben shook his head.  “Sounds bad, I admit, but it’ll take more than that to convince me Bill’s guilty.  You’ve got more confidence in this kind of justice than I do.  Maybe you’ll get a seat on the jury, get a chance to make it a fair trial.”

“Naw,” Clyde muttered.  “I ain’t that high thought of.  It’ll be committee members does the judgin’, and I ain’t joined.”

That surprised Ben slightly, having heard Clyde express approval for the committee on a number of occasions.  On the other hand, Clyde had always been more bark than bite, never one to push himself to the front.

The trio had just finished their sandwiches when William Ormsby, curly black hair blowing in the wind, exited his store.  Behind him, under guard of acting sheriff W. T. C. Elliott, one of the men who had trailed Edwards from Honey Lake, walked the two defendants, faces drooping, steps dragging.  Ben, Clyde and Billy moved closer.  So did the other spectators.

John L. Cary called the proceeding to order; the eighteen-member jury was selected, all known vigilance committee members; and the first trial, that of William Edwards, began.  Men from Honey Lake Valley gave testimony of the shooting of rancher Henri Gordier and the theft of his herd of cattle and a thoroughbred racehorse.  The men, each a neighbor of Gordier, had examined the horse in Lucky Bill’s corral and identified it as Gordier’s property.

The crowd listened in hushed attention as the witnesses admitted that a man named Snow had, at first, been accused of the murder, but after Snow’s hanging, the truth began to leak out and the Honey Lake Valley citizens realized they’d hung the wrong man.  Later evidence all pointed to William Edwards, whose sudden flight added to the suggestion of his guilt.

When Edwards took the stand in his own defense, he denied any knowledge of Gordier’s murder, but his inability to produce a bill of sale for the horse Bill Thorrington had tried to sell on his behalf weighed heavily against him.  Finally, under the pressure of bombarding questions, Edwards broke down, weeping, and admitted he had killed the Frenchman, rustled his herd and stolen the horse.  Seeing suspicion mounting against him, he had ridden into Utah  Territory, taking only the horse, and sought refuge with his old friend Bill Thorrington.  “But Bill never knew what I’d done,” Edwards insisted.  “I lied to him, same as to everyone else.”

The jury deliberated only a short time before returning a verdict of guilty and sentencing Edwards to be returned to HoneyLakeValley and hanged at the scene of his crime.  “Can’t say that weren’t a fair trial,” Clyde declared, his steely eyes daring Ben to say otherwise.

Ben shook his head.  Hard to argue with the verdict when the man confessed.  Hard even to feel sympathy for someone who had knowingly allowed an innocent man to hang in his place.  “His testimony seems to vindicate Thorrington, though,” he told Clyde.

“If he’s tellin’ the truth,” Clyde said, “and it ain’t just a case of old friends hangin’ together.”

“Which they’re likely to do if they find Lucky Bill guilty,” Billy joked.

Ben groaned, and Clyde turned snapping eyes on his son.  “Ain’t no call for that kind of nonsense,” he sputtered.  “You shame me like that once more, boy, and you’ll be too saddle-sore to mount that roan of yours.”

Billy took the hint and wiped the saucy grin off his face.  “Yes, sir, I’ll straighten up,” he vowed.

“See that you do,” Clyde grunted, turning apologetically to Ben.  “Shouldn’t’ve brought the boy, I reckon, but I figured he’d handle himself better than this.”

“He’s young,” Ben muttered tersely.  “Living’s still a game to him.”

Billy flushed and stalked away.  He was willing to admit he’d gotten out of line, but he didn’t see why they’d come down on him so hard, why they kept treating him like a kid, when he knew himself to be a man.  Hadn’t he done a man’s work this spring, plowing and planting those fields?  Sure, sixteen was young, but it made him a young man, not a fool kid.  He decided he’d view the second trial from the opposite side of the green.

William Thorrington was not charged with the murder originally cried against him but with being an accessory after the fact to the crime.  The way the crowd was rumbling as testimony was taken, however, made Ben fear the penalty would be the same, although the evidence was shaky, at best.  The worst that could be said against Lucky Bill was that he’d given Edwards shelter.  If he knew of Edwards’ crime, that would make him an accessory to murder, Ben agreed.  But Edwards himself had said that Bill did not know.  In Ben’s mind, that raised enough doubt that he would have voted against conviction, had he been on the jury.  But he wasn’t.  Bill Thorrington’s fate was in the hands of eighteen men who had taken it upon themselves to determine justice.  Ben could only hope that the man’s renowned luck in gambling would deal him a winning hand today.

That reputation as a gambler, though, seemed to be weighing against the defendant, at least according to the crowd milling about as they waited for the jury’s deliberation.  Ben, of course, had known of Bill’s skill at the game of thimble-rig, and knew enough to stay away, as he did from most gambling opportunities.  Life itself was a big enough gamble in Ben’s eyes, and other than a sociable hand of poker with well-known friends, he never participated in gaming.  Thorrington was known as a sharper, however, by too many people to be dismissed, but the man wasn’t on trial for gambling; he was being tried for murder, and it didn’t matter what else he was guilty of, so long as he was innocent of that charge.  Ben was sure he was.

“Jury’s taking a long time,” Ben commented to Clyde as they waited.

“Reckon that pleases you,” Clyde muttered.  “I didn’t plan on bein’ gone this long.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Free to leave anytime you like, I suppose.”

Clyde uttered a harsh laugh.  “Reckon I’ll see it through.  Don’t understand what’s takin’ so long, though.  Seemed cut and dried to me.”

“Yeah,” Ben agreed.  “Just not enough evidence to convict.”

Clyde’s blue eyes narrowed.  “I heard plenty!  He’d’ve been danglin’ by now if I’d been on that jury like you was wantin’.”

Ben’s mouth gaped.  “You’re kidding!  On what evidence?”

Clyde spat a stream of brown tobacco to his right and turned back to Ben.  “Don’t it strike you suspicious that Edwards was holed up in that canyon behind the ranch?  When we got guests, we keep ‘em in the house.”

“Yeah,” Ben admitted.  It was the one thing that had raised suspicion in his mind.  “Does kind of make it look like Bill knew Edwards needed a hiding place, but who can say what story the man told?”

Billy ambled up, hands stuffed in his pocket.  “You don’t got anymore of them sandwiches, do you, Uncle Ben?” he asked.

Ben shook his head.  “Sorry, son.”

“Where’d you take off to, boy?” Clyde demanded.

Billy waved his arm behind him.  “Over there, across the green.”

“Huh!  View better over there, I reckon,” his father muttered.

Billy shrugged.  “Naw, but they’re sure makin’ interestin’ talk.  I never knew Lucky Bill was a Mormon, Pa.”  Billy knew his father’s ears would perk up at that and his irritation be deflected to a new target.

“He’s not,” Ben growled, seeing through Billy’s stratagem and not liking it.  “Thorrington’s a gentile, same as we are.”

“I don’t know, Uncle Ben,” Billy argued.  “Folks been sayin’ he’s got a second wife hid out.”

“Yeah, I’d heard that,” Clyde grunted.  “It had passed my mind, but I remember now.  That Thorrington’s had a passel of practice at hidin’ things, seems to me.”

“Oh, Clyde,” Ben protested.  “For the love of mercy!  The minute anyone mentions the word ‘Mormon,’ you lose all sense of objectivity.”

Face flaming, Clyde pulled himself upright and glared at his old friend.  “Who made you judge and jury over everything under the sun, Ben Cartwright?” he snorted.  “Thorrington’s innocent just ‘cause you say so, ain’t that the way of it?”

“No, but because the facts don’t prove him guilty,” Ben insisted.  “Look, Clyde, I have no quarrel with you.  I think you’re wrong, and I think you’re letting your feelings color your judgment, but you’re entitled to your opinion.”

“And you to yours,” Clyde grunted, “wrong as it is.”  Ben chose to keep his mouth shut.

The ensuing silence made Billy uncomfortable.  Secretly, he leaned to Ben Cartwright’s opinion, but he didn’t dare say that in front of his father.  He had to go home with Clyde and didn’t relish meeting the wrong end of a birch branch when he got there.  Finally, he noticed the jury filing back into place and felt he’d found a safe comment to make.  “Guess we’ll find out what them men thinks real soon.”

“Hush up, boy.  I want to hear them, not you,” his father growled.

Billy pressed his back against a nearby pine, breath held.  He’d caught a glimpse of Jerome, standing near his father, and all of a sudden the trial wasn’t just a way to pass time anymore.  Real folks, one of them a boy younger than himself, were about to be raised to the peak of joy or tossed into a gully of despair.  Billy felt his stomach knot up like it was his own pa on trial.  Up to that moment he hadn’t really cared which way the verdict went, but when it was read, an involuntary groan welled up in his throat.

No one heard it, not even the two men standing closest, for at the same instant the crowd roared its approval and a woman’s shriek pierced the shouting.  The sound died down briefly as the judge delivered the sentence.  Like Edwards, Thorrington was sentenced to hang at the scene of his crime——in this case, the ranch where he had hidden the murderer. As the sheriff came forward to take Thorrington into custody to await the appointed day of his death, Mrs. Thorrington clutched her husband possessively, and Ben started forward.  Clyde threw an arm across Ben’s chest.  Irritated, Ben shoved the arm aside and walked boldly toward the weeping woman.  Clyde started after him, then stopped, satisfied that Ben wasn’t putting himself in danger when he saw him move toward the woman instead of those guarding the man.

A few others had moved toward the distraught woman, as well, trying vainly to comfort her.  “Mrs. Thorrington,” Ben began, scarcely knowing what to say, “if there’s anything I can do for you”——he stopped, uncomfortable under the fixed stare of her glazed eye.

“Do?  You want to do something?” she screamed.  “Stop them!  Stop them!”  The woman collapsed, crumpling to the grass, her boy’s arms swiftly encircling her neck.  Another woman leaned over the pair, whispering something into Mrs. Thorrington’s ear.  Feeling useless, Ben walked away.

He couldn’t get away, however, from the challenge Mrs. Thorrington had shrieked at him.  Her voice haunted him as he rode home, haunted his dreams throughout a restless night.  Stop them, she had pleaded, but how could he?  One man against an angry mob.  Ben wrestled with his conscience all night long.

He woke to a soft hand stroking his whiskered cheek.  “Mon mari, what is wrong?” Marie asked tenderly.  “You moan so in your sleep.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, kissing her fingertips.  “I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“Ben, you treat me as a child,” Marie pouted.  “I am your wife, meant to share your troubles, not to be protected from them.”

Ben pulled her down to his breast and sighed, running his fingers through her golden hair.  “Dearest, there’s nothing you can do.”

“About Monsieur Thorrington?  No, and nothing you can do, mon mari.”

Ben gently pushed her away and sat up.  “Maybe not, but I have to try, Marie.”

“Ben, no!” she whispered, her voice urgent, but soft, aware of Little Joe’s presence in the next room.  “You cannot fight the vigilantes.”

“I’m not talking about fighting,” Ben assured her, taking both cheeks in his weathered palms.  “Bill’s not scheduled to hang until tomorrow.  That gives me time to talk to some of the vigilante leaders, try to make them see reason.”

“But, Ben, he was tried and convicted,” Marie argued.  “What can you say that will change that?”

“It wasn’t a legal trial, Marie,” Ben insisted.

“But you told me you once served on such a jury.”

Ben nodded.  “And argued——successfully, I might add——against invoking the death penalty.  Only the authorized government should take on that responsibility I contended then and still do.”

“You think they will listen again, as they did before?” Marie queried.

Ben took her hands, pleading for understanding.  “I don’t know, my love, but I have to try.  You see that, don’t you?”

Marie smiled weakly.  “Oui, my love, I understand, but be careful.  Oh, Ben, be careful!”

Ben kissed her.  “I will, sweetheart.”

Marie spent the day moving aimlessly from one room to another, telling herself repeatedly there was no reason for worry, yet worry stalked her footsteps.  Only the occasional needs of her baby could distract her thoughts for long from her husband’s quest for justice.  Where was Ben?  What response was he receiving?  And if it were the one she feared, would Ben be content to stand by and watch William Thorrington hang at dawn on Saturday?  Or would he take foolish action to try to stop the execution?

Her nervous fidgeting at the noon meal told the boys something was wrong.  Adam, who tended to feel himself responsible for the ranch in his father’s absence, demanded an explanation.  Marie told him briefly what his father was trying to accomplish.

“They’ll listen,” Adam assured her.  “Folks around here respect Pa.”

“But they seem so sure Monsieur Thorrington is guilty, Adam,” Marie murmured.  “There are others who feel as your father, I am sure, but there cannot be many.”

“Don’t worry,” Adam soothed with a boy’s implicit trust in the wisdom and infallibility of his father.  “You through yet, Hoss?”

“Almost,” Hoss muttered.  “Don’t rush me.”

Adam laughed.  “As if I could, slow poke.  I’ll see you outside.”  He smiled at Marie.  “We should have the boat painted in an hour or so.  Why don’t you come out and take a look?”

Marie nodded.  “I will.”

By the time an hour passed, Little Joe was awake from his nap and toddled happily at his mother’s side to see the new boat.  “Ooh,” he cooed and reached for the sunny yellow shape.

Adam pulled his hand back.  “Unh-uh.  Don’t touch.”

Little Joe whimpered piteously and stretched once more for the object of his desire.

“It’s still wet, Punkin,” Hoss explained, futilely.  Little Joe began to wail stormily.

Marie lifted him and spoke sternly or, at least, as sternly as she ever spoke to her precious baby boy.  “If you are going to start that, Joseph, I will have to take you back inside.”

Little Joe understood only one word, but ‘inside’ was sufficient threat to make his sobbing subside to a mere whimper.  Marie smiled and patted his back soothingly.  “It is a beautiful boat, boys, and I am sure you will enjoy it.”

“Yeah,” Adam agreed with satisfaction.  “I wish it was our turn to have the Thomases here.  I’d sure like Billy to see it this Sunday.”

“A week will make no difference,” Marie laughed.

Adam grinned.  “No, I guess not.  It needs another coat anyway, but there’s plenty of time.  We wanted it ready for the Fourth, you know.”

Oui, I know,” Marie said, gazing down the beaten road to the house.  No sign of Ben yet, but she hadn’t expected an early return.  She knew Ben wouldn’t rest until he’d talked to everyone who had the power to overturn the vigilantes’ decision.

He hadn’t arrived by the time Hop Sing set supper on the table.  “Where Mistah Ben?” the irascible cook demanded.  “Dinnah leady now!”

“I will wait for Mr. Cartwright,” Marie said firmly, “but you may prepare a plate for the boys if they are hungry.”

“Not for me,” Adam said, black eyes glinting.  “Perhaps the children should eat,” he added loftily, daring anyone to relegate him to the classification of a youngster.

“I should probably feed Little Joe,” Marie said, “and put him to bed.  He’s getting sleepy.  Would you like to eat now, mon chéri, or wait for Pa?”

Recognizing her characteristic name for him, Hoss jumped up.  “I’ll eat now,” he said.  What was the point of putting off a good meal just ‘cause Pa was late?  Pa’d want him to eat, Hoss figured, following Hop Sing into the kitchen.

The Chinese cook snuffled, his ire only slightly ameliorated by having one member of the family ready to eat his food while it was at its best.  To Hoss, however, he smiled benevolently and dished up a heaping plate of roast beef with roasted potatoes, carrots and green beans seasoned with bits of bacon.

When he finished, Hoss offered to take Little Joe to bed.  The baby looked too sleepy to keep him company for long, but anything, even turning in early himself, was better than sitting around downstairs, where everyone was either angry, worried or too busy playing grownup to be any fun.

The night was dark, the wind chilly, when Ben rode in and wearily wrapped the reins of his bay around the hitching rail before the house.  “I’ll see to your horse, Mr. Cartwright,” the ranch foreman offered, coming out of the bunkhouse when he heard the horse neigh.

“Thanks, Enos,” Ben said and walked into the house.

He was met practically inside the front door by a barrage of Chinese, interspersed with rebukes in English.  “Why you late?” Hop Sing demanded.  “Dinnah all cold, velly bad, you unnahstand?”

“Yes, yes, I understand,” Ben muttered, “but I’m not hungry, Hop Sing.

Hop Sing stomped his slippered foot.  “Nobody eat, velly bad!”

“That is enough, Hop Sing,” Marie said, coming between them to pull Ben toward the sofa.  “You can see that Mr. Cartwright is too tired to eat now, and he is also too tired to listen to your chattering.”

Hop Sing’s cheeks puffed out.  “Maybe so, Hop Sing go back China.”

“Feel free,” Ben growled.  He’d had his fill of hopeless argument for the day.

Hop Sing caught his breath, turned and stalked into the kitchen.  He had, of course, no intention of returning to China.  He owed too great a debt to Mr. Cartwright to ever leave him.  But an uneaten meal revealed a disturbed mind, in Hop Sing’s opinion, so he made the threat to balance the concern he felt.  Mr. Ben had troubles, and Hop Sing knew no better way to counter them than to offer a warm, filling meal.  If Mr. Ben wouldn’t let him do that, there was nothing left but to feign great displeasure and stomp off, in hopes that Mr. Ben would remember the next time and submit rather than endure another such scene.  The tactic worked more often than not, but it was unavailing that night.

Once Ben was seated, Marie sat beside him, running her fingers through the hair at his temple.  “You have had a long day,” she whispered, “and I think it did not go as you hoped.”

Ben shook his head and laid it against her shoulder.

“They’re still gonna hang Lucky Bill, Pa?” Adam, perched on the table before the sofa, quizzed.  “I was sure you could talk them out of it.”

Ben sighed.  “Sorry to disappoint you, but your father’s not quite as convincing as you thought.”

“It is sad, Ben,” Marie murmured, “but you have tried your best.  You must take comfort in that.”

Ben looked at her sharply.  “I don’t find that thought very comforting, Marie, not when it means an innocent man’s death.”

Wisely, she said nothing, merely nodded and stroked his forehead with a soothing hand.  Ben smiled——a weak, weary smile that conveyed no joy.  Then, the words having taken this long to register, he remembered Hop Sing’s querulous complaint.  “Haven’t any of you eaten?” Ben queried.

“Hoss did,” Adam reported, “and Little Joe, of course.  We decided to wait for you.”

“And I’m still holding you up.  I’m sorry,” Ben muttered.  “I have no appetite, but you two should eat.  This is my worry.”

Marie closed her small hand over his.  “Your worries are mine, Ben.”

“Mine, too,” Adam declared.

Ben uttered a short, humorless laugh.  “Oh, Adam; you’re just a boy.”

It was the worst comment he could have made.  “Pa!” Adam protested.  “I’m going on sixteen.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “And still have a ways to go to get there.  For mercy’s sake, Adam, be a boy while you can——and go eat your dinner.”

Adam resented his father’s attitude, but his stomach told him he really was hungry.  Deciding that ignoring it in no way enhanced his status as an adult, he went into the kitchen and requested a plate of food from Hop Sing.

“Humph!  ‘Bout time somebody make good sense,” the little Cantonese announced, reaching for a clean plate.

“Shows good sense, Hop Sing,” Adam corrected.

“Ah, so?  Show good sense,” Hop Sing repeated.  He had early learned that Adam was his best resource for learning English.  “Mistah Ben, Missy Cahtlight show good sense pletty quick now?”

Adam shrugged.  “Maybe Marie.  Pa’s showing no sense at all tonight.”  Though Hop Sing didn’t catch Adam’s real meaning, he shook his head in vigorous agreement with the boy’s disapproval.

Ben lay as still as possible in his bed that night.  He couldn’t sleep, but he knew if he tossed the way he had the previous night that Marie’s sleep would again be disturbed.  So he lay staring at the ceiling, trying to convince himself he’d done his best, that there was nothing more he could do, but over and over his tired brain hammered a single theme——“Stop them, stop them”——the words Mrs. Thorrington had screamed at him.

In the gray light of the half moon, he slipped quietly from his bed and began to dress as noiselessly as possible.  In her sleep Marie’s hand touched the empty pillow beside her, and her eyes opened as she sensed something wrong.  Sitting up quickly, she saw Ben pulling on his boots.  “Where are you going?” she whispered.

Ben came to sit beside her.  “I’m going to stop that hanging, Marie.”

Marie suppressed a cry of alarm.  “Ben, you cannot,” she pleaded.  “They will kill you!”

“No, no, I’ll be all right,” he assured her, though he’d spent the night wondering whether he’d ever see another.  “I’m sorry, dearest, but this is something I have to do.”  He kissed her swiftly, stood and headed for the door.

Marie sprang out of bed.  “No, Ben!” she shrieked, forgetting the sleeping children in her panic for him.  She ran across the room and threw her arms around him.  “I won’t let you go!”

Ben pried her hands away.  “Marie, don’t do this,” he begged.  “I have to go.”  He walked into the dark hall.

Without stopping to throw a peignoir over her gauzy nightgown, Marie ran after him, bare feet oblivious to the cold, hardwood floor.  “Ben!”

Two more doors opened.  Adam ran into the hall, instantly alert, while Hoss stared, bleary-eyed, from his doorway.  “What’s going on?” Adam asked.

“Help me stop him, Adam!” Marie begged.  “He is going to get himself killed!”

Hoss jerked awake, terrified.  “Who’s gonna kill Pa?” he cried.

“Marie, please,” Ben begged.  He looked from one son to the other.  “There’s nothing here to concern you boys.  Get back to bed,” he ordered firmly.

“What are you doing, Pa?” Adam demanded.

“Who’s gonna kill my pa?” Hoss yelled.

“Answer them!” Marie ordered hotly.  “Tell your sons what a fool they have for a father!”

“That’s enough,” Ben shouted.  “I cannot stand by and watch an innocent man hang, and nothing you say can make me!”

Marie clutched at him, sliding to the floor, her cheek pressed to the top of his brown boots.  “No, Ben, no,” she sobbed, clinging to his ankles.

“Marie, let go of me!” Ben commanded brusquely, grasping her arms and flinging her off.  He moved swiftly for the stairs.

Another shriek reverberated down the hall, not Marie this time.  The angry voices had awakened the youngest Cartwright and he was declaring his indignation to the heavens.  “Take care of our boy,” Ben said softly from the head of the stairs.  “Take care of all my boys.”  His voice choked and he ran downstairs, stopping only to take his Colt’s Navy 41 from the cabinet beside the door.  Though Ben had rarely carried a firearm until the misunderstanding in Genoa had strained relations with the Indians, he was competent in its use, and he knew he’d need it this morning.  Mere words had already failed.

Weeping, Marie stood and headed toward the nursery, Hoss’s bare feet padding down the hall after her.  Adam, face set with determination, went back into his room to hustle into his clothes.  Grabbing his breech-loading .45 Sharps and ammunition, he moved silently through the house and trotted across the yard into the barn.

Ben had just finished saddling his bay when Adam came in and reached for a saddle blanket.  “Just what do you think you’re doing?” Ben demanded.

“I’m going with you,” Adam declared.  “Two have a better chance than one.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, boy,” Ben snapped.  “This is not some adventure out of a storybook.”

“I know that,” Adam sputtered, “but I know you’re likely to get yourself killed if you try doing this alone.”  He threw the blanket on the back of his sorrel mare.

Ben snatched it off.  “You’re not going,” he said bluntly, “and that’s an order.”

“Oh, yes, I am,” Adam insisted stubbornly, arms akimbo.  “You can’t stop me anymore than Marie could stop you.  Quit treating me like a kid, Pa!”

Ben drew his arm back and slapped the boy, hard, across the face.

Adam’s hand flew to his stinging cheek.  He couldn’t ever remember his father’s striking him, not that way.  Hot tears swam in his eyes.  “Pa, let me go,” he pleaded.  “If you can’t stand by and watch Lucky Bill hang, how do you expect me to stand by and let you be killed?”

Ben grasped him by both arms, his fingers digging painfully into the boy’s flesh.  “I’m ordering you to stay here, Adam,” he said firmly; then his voice became tender.  “Look after Marie and your brothers.  I’m counting on you.”  Ben led his bay out of the barn, mounted and galloped toward the valley.

Running outside, Adam watched his father ride away.  Tears coursed unashamedly down his cheeks.  He knew what his father meant.  There was a good chance he wouldn’t be coming back, and he had to know that Marie and the little boys would have someone to care for them and provide for them.  Adam realized his father had paid him a great compliment in giving him that responsibility, a man’s responsibility, but he didn’t want it.  Pa had told him last night to be a boy while he could, and suddenly Adam found himself wishing his boyhood could go on forever, because that would mean he still had a father to take care of him.

Ben rode his bay harder than he ever had before, and the animal, sensing his urgency, galloped past the dark skeletons of the pines on each side of the mountain trail.  Occasionally, Ben slowed where the footing was uneven or to give the gelding a chance to catch his breath, then urged him on again.  The hanging was scheduled for dawn, and Ben couldn’t afford to be a minute late.  Even seconds might make the difference.

Though it was still too dark to see the scenery flashing past, the land made its presence known through Ben’s other senses.  The crisp, pine-scented air sent waves of nostalgia rippling through him, and, drown it out though he tried, Ben couldn’t silence the fear that he’d never again breathe the air of these hills he loved so much.  As he entered the valley, it was the pungent fragrance of sage that pierced his nostrils and whispered to him of home.  The feel of the cool breeze against his unshaven face, the yelp of a distant coyote——every sight, sound and smell a siren’s voice calling him to stop, to turn his horse and gallop back to the comfort and peace of home.  But another voice blared louder, the voice of his conscience, sounding surprisingly like that of Thorrington’s wife.  Fool’s message though it shouted, Ben had to respond.  He couldn’t live with himself if he didn’t.

The sun was rising, but a purple haze still hung in the air when Ben rode onto Bill Thorrington’s Clear Creek Ranch.  Standing in black silhouette against the lavender sky was a single tree, a wagon pulled beneath it, and around the wagon hangman and spectators stood, waiting for the designated hour.  There was no sign yet of Lucky Bill.  Probably inside, being given a few last moments with his family.

Ben charged into the group, and men scattered in all directions to avoid the bay’s flying hooves.  He wheeled and, drawing his Navy revolver, swept it in an arc before him.  “There’ll be no hanging here today,” he announced loudly.

“Ben!” a familiar voice shouted.

Ben’s head jerked to the right, and his eyes flew wide with shock as he recognized Clyde Thomas.  He hadn’t counted on having to fight his old friend.

“Cartwright, you’re overstepping yourself!” Elliott, the vigilantes’ sheriff yelled.

Ben faced front again.  “Yeah, I am, but you men are overstepping the law itself.  Now, bring Bill Thorrington out here, and put him on a horse.  I’m taking him to California for a legal trial.”

“Ben, don’t do this,” Clyde pleaded.  His eyes flicked nervously from Ben to the men closing in on him, and he almost instinctively shouted a warning, clamping his mouth shut at the last second.  Ben had to be stopped, no two ways about it, but Clyde didn’t want to see his old friend hurt.

Elliott stepped forward, showing no fear of Ben’s drawn pistol.  “You’re well respected in this community, Cartwright; don’t jeopardize that position by one foolish action.  I call upon you to step aside and let us carry out the decision of our duly appointed judge and jury.”

“Step aside and let you hang an innocent man, you mean!” Ben snapped, eyes flashing.  “Never!  Get Bill out here and on a horse.  Now!”

“All right, Cartwright, all right,” Elliott said, making a calming gesture with his hands.  He moved toward the house, as if to obey Ben’s instructions.  Watching Elliott closely, Ben saw the sheriff nod but realized too late the nod was a signal to men who’d moved in behind him.  Ben felt himself dragged from his horse, his pistol twisted from his hand.  Suddenly, men were grabbing him on all sides.  He threw punches left and right, finding targets, but doing little damage.

“Ben!  Ben, stop it!” Clyde yelled in his ear.  Glancing to his left, Ben saw Clyde hanging onto his arm, keeping him from defending himself.  “Let me go!” Ben demanded, wrenching his arm loose.  “What are you doing here?”

“His civic duty, that’s what, Cartwright!” shouted a man who punctuated his declaration with a blow that opened a cut on Ben’s lip.

Clyde made another grab for him, and Ben rounded with a jab to Clyde’s jaw that decked his old friend.  Clyde jumped up quickly and sprang at Ben, Clyde and five or six others.  Ben felt himself knocked to the ground, at least one man holding each of his limbs.

“String him up next to Lucky Bill!” yelled the man clutching one of Ben’s flailing legs.

“No!” Clyde hollered as he wrestled with Ben’s left arm.  “Ben’s an interferin’ fool, but that ain’t a hangin’ crime.”

“Thomas is right!” Elliott, standing over them, announced.  “Tie him up ‘til our business is finished.   He’ll give no trouble after that——or suffer the consequences.”

Clyde grabbed a rope and began to wrap Ben’s wrists.  “Clyde, stop!” Ben cried, struggling to get free.  “For the love of mercy, don’t take part in this!  Help me stop it!”

“Shut up, Ben,” Clyde hissed.  “You tryin’ to get yourself killed?”

Ben brought his wrapped wrists up with a sudden movement and struck Clyde under the chin.  The other men holding him quickly subdued him. One avenged the attack on Thomas by battering his face while the others held him down.  Blood spurted from his nostrils, dribbling down into his mouth.

Clyde yanked back the arm of the man inflicting the punishing blows.  “That’s enough!  Just tie him up, Elliott said.”

The men holding Ben sat him up and Clyde, after tightening the bonds on Ben’s wrists, began to wrap the rope about his arms and torso.  “We don’t see eye to eye on this one, Ben,” Clyde said.  “I know it’s hard, but this is for your own good.”

The others tied Ben’s feet.  “Bring him up to the wagon,” Elliott ordered.  “Let him get a good look at Carson justice.  Maybe he won’t be so quick to go against it the next time.”

A shout of approval met this suggestion, and Ben was hauled to his feet, trussed so tightly he couldn’t stand, much less walk, and dragged close to the tree and wagon that would serve as Thorrington’s gallows.  Clyde stepped aside, leaving Ben to the rough handling of the outraged vigilantes, but he hovered close——either as protector or guard, depending on whether one viewed his action through Clyde’s eyes or Ben’s.

The door to Thorrington’s house opened and Bill walked calmly out, his wife and son remaining inside, probably at his instruction.  Ben licked his lips and tasted the salt of his own blood.   His left eye had started to close, but he followed each step the condemned man took.  To Ben’s amazement, Bill seemed almost cheerful as he moved toward the wagon and, as if to control his own destiny, slipped the noose around his own neck, drawing it tight.  Ben tensed, the tightness of his own bindings making him sense the constriction of Bill’s throat more vividly than any other man there.

The mob grew quiet in the face of Thorrington’s courage, and everyone could hear him clearly as he began to sing “The Last Rose of Summer” at the top of his lungs.  Evidently, Bill, his legendary luck run out at last, intended to enter eternity with a song on his lips.

Ben started to shiver, feeling the gooseflesh crawl up his arms, as he saw two men approach the team hitched to the wagon.  One on each side slapped the horses’ rumps and the animals leaped forward, pulling the wagon out from under Bill’s feet.  In the midst of a line, Bill’s song ended.  His six-foot frame jerked at the end of the rope, his dark eyes rolled back and his tongue flopped out the corner of his mouth.  Then he hung still, swaying in the breeze that rustled through the leaves of the cottonwood.

The men holding Ben dragged him directly beneath Thorrington’s body.  “Dump him like the worthless trash he is,” one ordered, and when Ben fell heavily to the ground, rammed the toe of his boot into his ribs to get his attention.  “Take a good look, Cartwright,” he snorted, grabbing Ben by the hair and jerking his head upward, “and see what you’ll get if you interfere in vigilante business a second time.”  The man walked off, followed by the others, who slapped his back in approval of the way he’d handled the headstrong meddler in their affairs.

Ben closed his eyes, not wanting to see the body suspended above him.  He heard horses walking away and waited until everything grew silent before he opened his eyes.  He expected to find himself abandoned, but when he looked up, he saw Clyde Thomas standing above him.

“If you’re ready to ride home peaceable, I’ll let you loose,” Clyde offered, “but not if you aim to ride after them men and make more trouble for yourself.”

“Well, I sure couldn’t count on you to help me, could I?” Ben accused hotly.

Clyde shook his head.  “I’m helpin’ you right now, way I see it.  You ride after them men, you’re gonna get yourself strung up to the nearest tree.  Maybe I ought to leave you hog-tied; by the time you work yourself free,  I reckon you won’t be so anxious to go lookin’ for trouble.”

“Untie me!” Ben demanded.

“Not ‘til I get your promise,” Clyde said, folding his arms and staring Ben down.  “A man as almighty upright as you won’t lie, even to get free.”

Ben’s jaw hardened.  “I won’t go after them,” he said tersely.  “What’s the point now?”

Clyde nodded and began to loosen Ben’s bonds.  Ben rubbed his sore wrists, flexing his hands; then, when Clyde reached to help him up, he knotted his right hand into a fist and flattened the older man with a fierce uppercut.

Clyde scrambled up.  “What’s the idea?” he demanded.

“How could you?” Ben ranted, clambering painfully to his feet.  “How could you hold me back, tie me up, make me watch that mockery of justice?”

“Me?” Clyde stormed.  “What about you, Ben Cartwright?  How could you come crashin’ in here, riskin’ your life on a fool stunt like that?  How could I do what I did?  I didn’t see no other way to keep your ignorant head attached to your stubborn neck, that’s how!”

“Get out,” Ben snarled.

“You’re hurt; let me help you,” Clyde offered, reaching a hand forward.

Ben slapped it away.  “I don’t need help from the likes of you,” he sputtered.  “Follow your friends into town and celebrate this man’s murder.”

“I’ll be goin’ home,” Clyde muttered.

“Go where you like,” Ben thundered, “just get off the property of this grieving family!”

Clyde turned away, then spun around again to face Ben.  “Man needs buryin’,” he said quietly.  “Be glad to help.”

“I’ll tend to it,” Ben growled.  “Get away from here!  I doubt Mrs. Thorrington would appreciate the help of a man who helped to kill her husband.”

Clyde bit his lip and limped toward his horse.  Ben didn’t see him ride away; his eyes were fixed on the dead man.

* * * * *

Hoss tried again to build a tower of blocks for Little Joe, but once again the baby knocked it over with a petulant hand.  This time Little Joe’s small fist closed around a block and he tossed it at his older brother, hitting Hoss on the forehead.  “Doggone you!” Hoss yelled.  “I oughta paddle your bottom.”

“You will do no such thing,” Marie snapped, looking up from her embroidery, on which she’d made precisely ten stitches in the last half hour.

“He’s actin’ awful,” Hoss complained.

“You’re not much better,” Adam accused, slamming the book he’d been trying without success to read.

“That is enough,” Marie said, sighing as she stood and picked up the baby without any hope of soothing him.  Little Joe had been peevish all morning, and who could blame him?  Awakened too early by angry voices in the hall, he hadn’t been able to get back to sleep, and he seemed to absorb the tension of whoever touched him this morning.  Everyone was nervous and irritable: Hop Sing, cranky because still another meal had gone untouched; Marie, frantically worried about Ben; Adam, overwhelmed by the responsibility he was already trying to assume; and Hoss, terrified that evil men really might kill his father.  The boys had done a few chores, the ones that had to be done, but after that they’d all gathered in the front room, not feeling like working or playing or even talking.  Just waiting, each in his own way, and each minute that passed without the sound of hooves in the yard added to the edginess everyone felt.

Adam raised his head, listening intently.  “I heard something,” he said and jumped up from his father’s armchair.

“I didn’t,” Hoss grumbled.  “You’re hearin’ things.”

Adam scowled at his brother and ran for the door.  He flung it open and gave a shocked cry when he saw his father’s battered face.  “Pa!”

Ben staggered in, exhausted by the frantic early morning ride, the beating he’d taken and the labor of burying Bill Thorrington.  Marie set Little Joe down and ran to Ben.  “Oh, Ben, your face,” she murmured.

“I’m all right,” Ben said, taking her in his arms.  “It’s all over.”

“Come in and lie down,” Marie urged.  “You are hurt.”

“It’s nothing,” Ben muttered, but he let himself be led toward the sofa.

Little Joe pulled up and toddled into his father’s leg.  “Pa,” he whimpered.

Ben instinctively reached to lift the boy.

“Oh, don’t bother with him now,” Marie said.  “He’s been impossible all morning.”

Ben shook his head, feeling soothed by the little one’s nearness.  But Little Joe, on getting a close look at his father’s bloodied face, began to wail in terror.  With a sorrowful, almost apologetic look, Ben gave the boy to his mother.  “I didn’t mean to frighten him.”

Marie held her baby, patting the heaving back, while Adam guided Ben to the sofa.  “Take care of Little Joe,” Adam instructed, taking charge.  “I’ll see to Pa.”

Ben smiled and nodded at his wife.

Marie didn’t want to leave him, but the screaming baby did nothing but strain everyone’s nerves.  “Come with me, Hoss,” she said, heading for the stairs.  “Perhaps, we can soothe him to sleep.”

“Didn’t work before,” Hoss mumbled, but he followed obediently.  He could tell Pa was hurting, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that.  The only thing that mattered to him, anyway, was that Pa was alive; anything else could be fixed.

As soon as Adam had Ben settled on the sofa, he hurried into the kitchen to demand a basin of warm water from Hop Sing  “Mistah Ben hurt bad?” the Chinese cook asked anxiously.

“I don’t think so,” Adam said, “but I can tell more after I get him cleaned up.  Just get that water in fast as you can.”

The little cook nodded and moved swiftly to the pump.

Adam went back into the front room and sat on the table beside his father.  “I guess they hanged Lucky Bill,” he said softly.

Head cushioned on the arm of the sofa, Ben looked sorrowfully at his son.  “Yeah,” he muttered.  “I couldn’t stop them.”

“But you had to try,” Adam said.

Ben smiled gratefully.  This boy was the only person who seemed to understand.  Not surprising, though.  Adam always had been closest to his father, in both looks and feelings.

Hop Sing arrived with the water, and Adam began to sponge away the dirt and caked blood from his father’s face.  Marie came downstairs just as he was finishing.  Ben stretched out a hand, and she moved quickly to his side.  “Little Joe settled down now?” he asked.

Marie shook her head.  “A little.  Hoss is rocking him.  The motion seems to soothe him.”

“Always did,” Ben smiled, then winced.

“You are in pain,” Marie murmured, touching him gently.

“No, not real pain,” Ben contradicted.  “My face is sore, my body aches, but it’s nothing serious.”

“Want me to ride for the doc?” Adam asked.

“No, no,” Ben chuckled bitterly.  “He couldn’t do more for me than you have, and another scolding is not the medicine I need.”

Marie’s mouth tightened.  Another scolding was just what she thought was in order, but she resolved to withhold it, at least until Ben was in better shape to listen.  “You must rest.  No work for you today,” she said,instead.

Ben smiled.  “Or anyone else, unless my eyes deceive me.”  He looked at Adam.  “Not working on the boat today?”

Adam shrugged.  “Not in the mood, I guess.  Anything you need me to handle?”

Ben touched his son’s shoulder in gratitude.  “Nothing, son; just see to the cow, the chickens.”

“We did that,” Adam assured him.

“Then take the day off, do something with Hoss.  I’m gonna sleep awhile.”  As Ben closed his eyes, Marie motioned for Adam to come away.

* * * * *

As usual, the family slept late on Sunday——at least as late as Little Joe would permit.  After a leisurely breakfast, they would normally have loaded everyone into the buckboard and driven to the Thomases for dinner.  This morning, however, Ben dawdled over his morning coffee; the others, though they’d finished eating, remained at the table.  Finally, Marie suggested it was time to leave.

“I’m not going,” Ben said, taking another sip of coffee.

Adam and Hoss exchanged an anxious look.  “You feelin’ bad, Pa?” Hoss asked.

“I’m all right, son,” Ben replied.  Little Joe banged happily on the table with his cereal spoon.  Ben smiled at him, grateful that one person, at least, was oblivious to the unease affecting everyone else.

“But you don’t feel like riding to the Thomases today, is that it?” Adam asked.

“Not today, not any other day,” Ben muttered.  “I will not sit to table with a murderer.”

“Huh?” Hoss asked, his face scrunching up as he tried to make sense of his father’s comment.  While Marie and Adam had heard a full description of what took place at Lucky Bill’s and understood what Ben meant, Hoss was completely in the dark.

“He is hardly that,” Marie sputtered.  “I know you are angry, Ben, but——”

“You have no idea how angry,” Ben snapped.  “My own wife defending the man who hog-tied me like a calf for branding!”

Marie stood and came behind Ben’s chair, laying cool hands against his cheeks.  “I am glad he did, Ben; if he had not, I think you would be dead.”

Ben lurched out of the chair and into the front room.  At the fireplace he turned, eyes sparking hotter than the wood on the hearth.  “I can’t believe you said that, my hot-blooded Creole wife, raised under a code of honor.  I thought you, at least, would understand me.”

Marie moved toward him.  Little Joe whimpered a protest at being left behind, and Hoss scooted close to pat him consolingly.  “I understand, Ben,” Marie said, trying to curb her temper, though the spots of color in her cheeks betrayed her.  “I think you were right in believing Monsieur Thorrington innocent, but wrong in interfering.  It was foolish.”

“Fine, criticize all you like,” Ben grunted, folding his arms against his chest and facing the fire.  “I don’t need your approval.”

“I think a man with small sons should not risk leaving them orphans!” she fumed at his rigid spine.

Ben spun to face her, arms still stiffly folded.  “And I think a man with small sons should set them an example by doing what is right!” he retorted.

Hoss laid his head down and started to cry.  Adam stretched a hand across the table and ruffled the younger boy’s sandy hair.  “You keep that up and I guarantee one small son’ll start bellowing up a storm,” he barked at his parents.  As if he’d taken the hint, Little Joe began to cry.

Both Ben and Marie caught their breath, suddenly realizing the sons they were discussing were hearing every angry word.  Marie laid her head against the rigidity of Ben’s armored stance.  “I don’t want to quarrel with you, Ben,” she murmured softly.

Slowly, Ben’s arms opened to enfold her.  “Or I with you, so maybe we’d better not discuss Clyde Thomas.”

Marie nodded.  “We do not have to go today.”

“Oh, you can go if you like,” Ben said.  “I have no objection to you or the boys going, but good as Nelly’s cooking is, it’d stick in my craw today.”

“No, no, I would rather stay with you,” Marie whispered.

Hoss bounced up from his chair.  “We ain’t goin’ to Aunt Nelly’s?” he wailed.

“No, son, we’re not,” Ben said.

“But——but we always go, ‘less they come here,” Hoss moaned.

“Hoss, I’m sorry,” Ben said.  “I know you’re too young to understand, but”——Ben started to say Uncle Clyde and choked on the familiar title——“Mr. Thomas and I had some trouble yesterday, and I doubt we’ll be welcome there.”

“If you been fightin’, you oughta go make up,” Hoss declared.  “You always made me and Adam, when we was fussin’.”

Ben shook his head.  “This is a little more serious than a children’s quarrel, Hoss.  Now, it’s settled; don’t argue with me any more.”

“Wait a minute,” Adam remonstrated.  “We can’t just not show up.  They’ll think something’s really wrong.”

“There is something really wrong!” Ben bellowed.

“Ben,” Marie cautioned, “you are shouting again.”

Ben took a deep breath.  “All right; all right.  What do you suggest, Adam?”

“Well, I’ll go,” Adam offered reluctantly, “and tell them why you won’t be there.”

“You don’t have to do that, Adam,” Ben murmured.  “It’s not your responsibility, son.”

Adam shrugged.  He agreed that the responsibility was really his father’s, but his father had made it plain he didn’t want to see Clyde Thomas.  “Somebody’s got to tell them,” he insisted.  “It’s ill-mannered not to.”

“He’s right, Ben,” Marie said softly.

“Yeah, fine.  You——you go ahead, son,” Ben said.

Adam took his hat from the peg beside the front door.  “You want to come, Hoss?” he asked.

Hoss looked from his brother to his father, not sure what he ought to do.  “Naw, I guess not,” he muttered, “but tell Aunt Nelly I ain’t mad at nobody.”

Adam gave his little brother a sympathetic smile.  “I’ll tell her,” he promised, “and Uncle Clyde, too.”

* * * * *

Billy met Adam in the yard when he rode up.  “Where’s your folks?” Billy asked.

“Not coming,” Adam mumbled.  “I need to talk to your pa, Billy.”

Billy caught the somber tone in his friend’s voice.  “Sure, he’s in the house.  Come on in.”

Adam wrapped his sorrel’s reins around the hitching post and followed Billy inside.

Nelly looked up from the stove.  “Lands, you’re early today,” she said.  Seeing Adam nervously twirling his hat in his hands, she came closer.  “What’s wrong, boy?  Where’s the rest of the family?”

“They’re not coming, Aunt Nelly,” Adam replied uneasily, “and you can send me packing, too, if you want, but I figured someone ought to tell you that the rest won’t be coming for dinner.”

“Your pa wasn’t hurt that bad, was he?” Clyde asked, concerned.

“I told you you should’ve sent the doc out to tend him,” Nelly chided.

“No, Pa’s all right,” Adam assured them, “except——except he’s—— well——”

“Out with it, boy,” Clyde ordered.

“He’s mad,” Adam said bluntly.  “I don’t want to repeat what he said, but what it comes down to is he’s mad, and he doesn’t want to take dinner here today.”

“Sorry he feels that way,” Clyde said, leaning back in his chair.  “That all you came to do, boy, deliver a message?”

Adam shook his head.  “No, sir.  I’ve got some questions I’d appreciate your answering about what happened yesterday.”

“You’ll stay to dinner, won’t you, Adam?” Nelly asked, her voice almost pleading.

Adam smiled and nodded.  “If you’ll have me, ma’am.”

“Why, you’re more than welcome,” she beamed, “and goodness knows there’s enough food.”

“Can I ask Sally to dinner, seein’ as how’s there’s extra?” Billy requested.

“Ask anyone you like,” his mother said, brushing at her eyes as she turned back to the stove.

When Billy had left, Adam moved closer to Clyde.  “I had some questions.”

“So you said,” Clyde muttered.  “Ask away, boy; I got nothing to hide.”

“You and my pa have been friends a long time,” Adam began, “so it’s hard for me to understand how you could watch him get beaten up like that and not try to help.”

Clyde sighed.  “That was hard for me, too, boy.  To be honest, some of what your pa got, he asked for.  You can’t expect a man to get punched without hittin’ back, and your pa was strikin’ out at anything he could reach, arms and legs flyin’ ever which way.  He even knocked me down a couple of times, though I never struck him.”

Adam gave Clyde a lopsided grin.  “Pa didn’t tell us that part, sir.”

“Don’t surprise me none,” Clyde grunted.  “Ben’s got a way of seein’ just one side of things.”

“The way he looked, well, it just didn’t look like a fair fight to me,” Adam stated.

Clyde nodded.  “Wasn’t.  Like I said, some of them blows Ben asked for; the rest was from men takin’ out their spite.  I didn’t like seein’ Ben hurt, but there’s two reasons I didn’t step in.”

“I’d like to hear them.”

Clyde gestured to the right and Adam sat down in the chair next to him.  “First, there was things I couldn’t have stopped.  They happened too fast, over and done with before I could’ve done anything.  No sense fightin’ something that’s already finished.  Some I could have tried to stop, probably wouldn’t have done any good, but I could’ve tried.”

“Why didn’t you?”

Clyde laid his callused hand on Adam’s knee.  “Ben interferin’ the way he did riled some of them men hotter than——”

“Clyde, you watch your language!” Nelly ordered, spinning around quickly.

Clyde nodded contritely, figuring he had enough people mad at him without adding Nelly to the list.  “Well, the point is when men are heated up, like they was agin your pa, that fire’s got to go somewhere or it can build up like steam in a boiler.  Better to open a valve and let some escape before it explodes in ways you can’t control.  You get my meaning, boy?”

“I think so,” Adam said thoughtfully.

“Maybe it wasn’t the right decision,” Clyde conceded, “but I figured it was better to let your pa take a few punches than have something worse happen.  There was men talkin’ about stringin’ him up alongside Lucky Bill.  I’d’ve fought ‘em if they’d tried that, but I don’t think I could’ve stopped ‘em.”

Adam bit his lip.  “Pa never told us that part, either.”

“Likely he didn’t want to worry you,” Clyde said.

Nelly walked over to rest a hand on Adam’s shoulder.  “How’s the rest of the family feelin’?” she asked.

“Not like Pa,” Adam assured her.  “In fact, I promised Hoss I’d tell you he isn’t mad at anyone.”

“Bless his sweet heart,” Nelly murmured, shaking her head.  “This must be hard on him.  Thank goodness, Little Joe’s too young to understand.”

“Trouble is, what he doesn’t understand, he screeches about,” Adam grinned, “and he’s been doing plenty of that the last couple of days.  Makes me glad I’m eating here!”

Nelly gave him a hug.  “We’re mighty glad, too, Adam.”

CHAPTER TWELVE

Workers of Wonders

Leaning back against the nearest pine, Paul Martin patted his protruding belly.  “Fine feed, ladies, but if I eat any more, we’ll have to declare a medical emergency.”

“Wasn’t as good as usual,” Hoss complained.

“Hoss,” his father muttered in testy warning.

Hoss shrugged.  He knew enough to keep his mouth shut, but he held to his opinion.  The Fourth of July picnic hadn’t been as tasty as usual.  How could it be without Aunt Nelly’s pie to finish off the meal?  And as much as he liked Dr. Martin and his daughter, he missed the people who’d always spent the holiday with them——even Billy, teasing pest that he was.

Billy, of course, was the one member of the Thomas family any of the Cartwrights except Adam had seen since that fatal Saturday that ended their long-time friendship.  He’d come by the house once, to see Adam’s boat, and had planned to be here today, when they first tested it on Lake Tahoe, but he hadn’t shown up.  Maybe his pa wouldn’t let him.  No way to know, since Billy’s pa and Hoss’s pa weren’t on speakin’ terms.

Hoss thought the whole thing was stupid, worse than any kids’ quarrel he’d ever seen.  Pa wouldn’t take Sunday dinner at the Thomases the day after the hanging; then Uncle Clyde got his feelings hurt over that and wouldn’t come to the Ponderosa the next Sunday.  Now another week had gone by without seeing them, and Hoss began to wonder if the feuding would ever end.  Not if Pa had anything to say about it, he suspected.  Why, Pa wouldn’t even buy supplies in Carson City anymore, just ‘cause he didn’t want to deal with Uncle Clyde!  He drove all those extra miles into Genoa, instead.  Stupid, just plain stupid, Hoss told himself, though he didn’t dare tell Pa.

“You through eating, Hoss?” Adam asked, the question snapping the younger boy out of his reverie.  “Ready to go for a sail?”

“Yeah,” Hoss said, face brightening.  He and Adam had worked hard to make this moment happen, and he didn’t intend to let anything spoil it.

Adam’s next words came close to doing just that, however.  “You’ll go with us, won’t you, Sally?”

Sally looked longingly at the sapphire lake.  “Oh, I’d like to, but I should help put the food away first.”

“No, no,” Marie said.  “I have nothing else to do.  Please go, Sally.  I know Adam will enjoy the sail more with you beside him.”

Hoss frowned. It was supposed to be Billy in the boat with them, not a girl!  He didn’t consider it a fair trade.  Adam, on the other hand, looked pleased as punch as he took Sally’s hand and ran toward the shore where they’d left the boat after hauling it up in the wagon that morning.  Not wanting to be left behind, Hoss trotted after them.  Seeing his brothers headed for the lake, Little Joe pulled up and toddled off, too.

“Uh-oh,” Ben said, getting up and giving chase.

Little Joe was close to the shore by the time Ben caught him.  “No, you can’t go, baby,” he laughed, swinging Little Joe up into his arms.

“Go,” Little Joe insisted, squirming.

Ben held him against his chest.  “No, Little Joe, you can’t go in the boat.”

“You’re too little, Punkin,” Hoss called as he climbed in.  Adam was busy helping Sally to her seat.

“Bo’,” Little Joe whined.  “Go bo’.”  His hand stretched pleadingly toward the little yellow bark.

Ben looked at Adam.  “You’d better get under way or you’ll have a stowaway on your hands.”

“You hang onto him!” Adam shouted.  “That’s one crew member we don’t need!”

As the boat pulled away, Little Joe wailed piteously.  Ben rubbed his back soothingly.  “Oh, it’s hard, I know.  Big boys run off and leave you behind, but you’ll get your turn.”

Little Joe showed no sign of being comforted by his father’s promise.  As a possible distraction occurred to Ben, he sat down and began to remove the baby’s clothes.  Shedding his own shirt, shoes and stockings, Ben lifted the baby.  “I’m gonna take him in for a while,” he called back to his wife and friend.  “You want a dip, Paul?”

Paul waved and shook his head.  “No, thanks.  I’ll keep Marie company.”

Marie looked up from the leftovers she was gathering.  “You do not have to.”

Paul scooted closer to her.  “I want to.  It’s too soon after eating to swim.”  Marie glanced toward her husband so anxiously he laughed.  “Ben’s safe enough.  He won’t take the baby in deep, and he can’t cramp in water that shallow.”

Marie smiled as she packed the pound cake into a basket.  “I worry too much, I know.”

“Umm,” Paul acknowledged without rebuke.  “Ben’s been giving you more to worry about lately, too, hasn’t he?”

Marie nodded.  “He is being foolish.  He thinks it is his quarrel and no one else is hurt, but how can we not be affected?”

Despite his earlier remarks about overeating, Paul reached for one of the cookies his daughter had brought as their contribution to the meal.  “It’s just as bad on the other side of the quarrel,” he commented.  “Nelly wanted me to be sure to give you her love.”

“And I send mine,” Marie said, then sighed.  “I do not know when I shall see her again——or Laura.  I had our foreman invite her here today, as he did you, but she sent word she had to work.”

“Curry planned a big celebration for the town,” Paul explained.  “Laura agreed to bake the pies for the pie-eating contest.”

Marie laughed.  “Hoss would have liked to enter that.”  A cloud covered her face again.  “We were so glad when Carson City was built, so happy our friends would be close.  Now look at us!”

Paul closed his hand over hers.  “They’ll work it out, Marie.”

Her troubled emerald eyes peered into his calm gray ones.  “Will they?”

He gave her hand a squeeze and released it.  “They will.  They’re both stubborn as mules, so it may take time, but I’d bet on it.  They’ve shared too much to forget.”

“Look at Ben now,” Marie said, smiling at the sight of her husband and baby splashing happily in the water.  “I have not seen him so at peace in two weeks.”

“Anger’s an exhausting emotion,” Paul said.  “Take it from an expert, and I’m speaking from personal experience, not as a doctor.  I was an angry man when I first came here.  Ben told me then I needed to forgive the men who’d killed my wife before I could have peace.  Maybe I ought to administer a dose of the same sermon.”

“I have already preached it——too often, according to Ben,” Marie smiled.

“Maybe it just needs time to soak in,” Paul observed.  “Took me a long time to respond.”

Marie flicked his nose with a red-checked napkin.  “Ah, but you were not so stubborn a mule as Ben or Clyde.”

Paul nibbled his cookie.  “True, all too true,” he grinned.

* * * * *

Sunday after Sunday went past with the two families going their separate ways.  Adam took Hoss up to the lake each week to sail and fish from their boat, and that seemed to somewhat alleviate the younger boy’s misery.  Once Billy went with them, but he confided that he found it hard to go against his father.  Not that Clyde had made any objection to his visit, he quickly assured Adam, but he’d spoken so sharply when he gave his permission that Billy had felt guilty, even though he knew he was doing nothing wrong.  “It’s the same here,” Adam disclosed.  “Pa doesn’t say anything, but he’s easier to get along with if we don’t mention your folks.”  Consequently, even the youngsters didn’t see each other often.

Marie had been to Carson City once, ostensibly to visit Laura Ellis, but while she was in town, she’d slipped over to commiserate with Nelly about the foolishness of their husbands.  They’d wept on each other’s shoulders until Nelly pointed out that they were wasting precious time.  Instead, they chatted companionably, coddled Little Joe and dreamed of the day when they could all be friends again.

Hoss enjoyed that visit.  He had a chance to play with Jimmy Ellis and Inger Thomas and eat a thick slice of Aunt Nelly’s chocolate cake, but he didn’t get to see Uncle Clyde, who was working at the trading post.  Not until they’d left, though, did he share his disappointment with Marie.

“Oh, Hoss, you could have gone to see him,” Marie said.

“I was scared Pa would be mad,” Hoss mumbled.

“No,” Marie said firmly.  “Your father will say nothing; I will see to that.  Next time you must speak to whomever you wish.”

Hoss nodded, pleased, but he found himself wondering when “next time” might be.  He had a feeling visits would be few and far between, and that thought brought a fresh worry.  His birthday was coming up at the end of July, and he’d never celebrated one without Uncle Clyde and Aunt Nelly.  “You think Pa and Uncle Clyde might make up soon?” he asked Marie.  “By my birthday?”

“Oh, Hoss, I don’t know,” she sighed.  “I cannot promise, mon chéri, but we will make your birthday a happy one.  That I can promise.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hoss said dutifully, but he continued to worry.  He missed Aunt Nelly, especially, and not just for her cooking.  Lying in bed at night, Hoss came to understand that Nelly Thomas was a lot more special to him than he’d realized before.  She was more than a friend of his father’s; she was more than an adopted aunt; she was almost like another mother to him.  Though his mother-starved heart had enthusiastically welcomed Marie when she entered his life two years before, most of his early mothering had come from Nelly Thomas, and her absence left a void in him he couldn’t explain, one he was sure he couldn’t endure much longer.

Deciding that his birthday couldn’t possibly be a happy one unless all his favorite people were there, Hoss determined to have things his own way.  He thought everything out carefully and began his campaign at supper on the Monday before his birthday.  “I been wonderin’,” he said tentatively as Hop Sing set a bowl of oxtail stew at each place.

“What have you been wondering?” Ben asked, buttering a corn muffin.

“About my birthday,” Hoss said.

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Oh, do you have a birthday coming up?”

Lifting a spoonful of stew, Marie clucked her tongue.  “Do not tease, Ben.  What do you wish to say about your birthday, Hoss?”

“It’s a mite late to be hinting for presents,” Ben warned him.

Hoss shook his head.  Why did they have to keep interrupting and making this harder for him?  “Not presents; I don’t care about presents.”

“Glad to hear it,” Ben said, amused.

“Ben,” Marie chided.

“What I want is a party,” Hoss blurted out, “a picnic party, like we always have——only at WashoeLake this time.”  He’d decided that WashoeLake was neutral territory and a good meeting place for the people he wanted to attend.

“I thought you liked Tahoe better,” Adam commented.

Hoss glared at Adam.  He hadn’t let his brother in on his plans, but he sure hadn’t figured on having to argue with him.  “No,” he declared firmly.  “I—I do like Lake Tahoe best, but we been there so much this summer, I’d like to go someplace different.”

“Fine with me,” Ben said.  “It’s an easier drive, anyway.”

“Saturday, that’d be the best day, don’t you think?” Hoss pressed.  He assumed that Uncle Clyde could get away from work more easily at the end of the week.

“Boy, you’ve got this all planned out, don’t you?” Adam teased.

“Somethin’ wrong with that?” Hoss demanded.

Adam just shrugged.  He was beginning to suspect his little brother was up to something.  Then he dismissed the idea.  Hoss was too open to be secretive about anything.  It just wasn’t in his nature.

“A picnic Saturday at WashoeLake sounds most pleasant, mon chéri,” Marie said quickly.  “Oui, Ben?”

“Sure, fine,” he said, attention fixed on his bowl of stew.

“And——and can I ask Jimmy Ellis to come?” Hoss suggested.  “Maybe Doc, too?”

Ben chuckled, amused by the difference in age of the people on Hoss’s guest list.  “They’ll be welcome.”

“And can I ask them myself?” Hoss begged.

Ben cocked his head and scrutinized his middle son carefully.  “I guess you’re old enough to ride to Carson City by yourself, if that’s important to you.”

“It is,” Hoss said happily.  Satisfied with the preliminary success of his plan, he began to spoon in stew like the hungry boy he was.

Ben felt a momentary suspicion that there was more to Hoss’s request than met the eye, but, like Adam, he quickly dismissed it.  There wasn’t a surreptitious bone in Hoss’s honest body.  Obviously, he just wanted to demonstrate that he was growing up, and extending his own invitations undoubtedly represented growth to the boy.

* * * * *

Hoss kept his gray mare at an easy canter.  He was excited enough to gallop, but he’d learned early to be kind to his mount.  Besides, there was no real need to hurry.  Carson City wasn’t going anywhere, and he needed time to plan his strategy.  He figured he’d ask the Ellises first, then the Martins.  Once the easy invitations had been extended, he could turn his full attention to the harder ones.  He’d go to Aunt Nelly first and get her on his side before approaching Uncle Clyde.  If he was acting like Pa——and Billy said he was——Hoss would have to do some fancy talking to get him to the party.  The boy was determined, though.  Uncle Clyde had to be there.

As he’d expected, Laura Ellis quickly agreed to bring Jimmy to the picnic and even promised to bake Hoss’s favorite cake, chocolate with white boiled icing.  Doctor Martin was out taking care of a patient, but Sally accepted for them both and told Hoss she’d be looking forward to his party.

Well content with the way things were going, Hoss headed for the Thomas cabin.  Nelly beamed when she saw him.  “Sunshine!  What a nice surprise!”  She looked past him into the yard.  “You alone?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hoss said, his voice barely above a whisper.  “I came to see you special.”

“Well, isn’t that nice?” she said, giving him a big hug.  “I’ve missed seein’ you, boy.”

“Me, too,” Hoss murmured.  “I don’t like this fussin’ one bit.”

“Me, neither,” Nelly declared.  “Come on in and tell me what you’d like for lunch.”

“Anything you fix is good,” Hoss said, “but I didn’t exactly come to eat.”

“Why, it’s nigh on to noon now,” Nelly argued.  “Of course, you’re gonna eat.  I won’t take no for an answer.”

Her words triggered an idea in Hoss’s brain.  “Okay, and I won’t take no for an answer, either.”

“To what?” Nelly laughed.

“I’m having a birthday picnic Saturday at WashoeLake, and I want you and Uncle Clyde there.  Billy and Inger, too, of course,” Hoss hurried to say.

Nelly sat down and pulled him close.  “Sunshine, there’s nothin’ I’d like better, but I just don’t know——about Uncle Clyde, I mean.  He’s got his feelin’s hurt real bad.”

“I know.  Pa, too,” Hoss said, “but it’s time they got over it.”

“Truer words was never spoken,” Nelly agreed, “but how do we convince them?”

“You got to come,” Hoss pleaded.  “I ain’t never had a birthday without you.”

“It’ll be up to Clyde,” she said without a hint of hope.

“I better go ask him then,” Hoss said.

“You do that,” Nelly said.  “Go right over to the trading post and put it to him.  And you can bring him back to dinner.”

Hoss hustled across the street to Curry’s trading post, where Clyde was working alone.  He caught Hoss in a bear hug as soon as he saw him.  “Hey, boy, good to see you,” he said.  “Uh, your folks in town?”

“No,” Hoss said.  “I’m here on business of my own.”

Clyde chuckled.  “Probably should’ve taken it to Genoa.  We don’t stock gumdrops, son.”

“I ain’t lookin’ for gumdrops.”

“What are you lookin’ for, then?” Clyde queried, tousling the boy’s light hair.

“You,” Hoss said, pointing his stubby finger at Clyde’s belt buckle.  “I’m lookin’ for you to come to my birthday picnic this Saturday at Washoe Lake.”

Clyde’s face hardened.  “Your pa know you’re here?”

Hoss shuffled his feet.  “Sort of.”

“Sort of,” Clyde repeated.  “That answer bears explainin’, boy.”

Hoss bit his lip.  “Pa knows I’m in town, and he knows I’m invitin’ folks to the party; he just don’t know you’re one of ‘em.”

“Well, that’s a pretty important thing to leave out,” Clyde sputtered, “your pa feelin’ the way he does.”

Hoss put both hands on his hips.  “What about you?  What are you feelin’?”

“Well, I——uh——I don’t see as how that matters,” Clyde stammered.

“It matters to me and Adam and Marie and Little Joe, too,” Hoss declared.

A corner of Clyde’s mouth twitched up.  “Little Joe, too, huh?  He express that good and clear, did he?”

“He sure did,” Hoss announced, totally missing the irony of Clyde’s question.  “And what I want to know is, are you still mad at my pa?”

“Me?” Clyde protested.  “Ben’s the one with the head full of steam.”

“You ain’t mad?” Hoss pressed.

“Well, I ain’t mad, exactly,” Clyde replied.  “I think your pa’s been playin’ the fool, but——”

“I think you both been playin’ the fool,” Hoss interrupted.

“Now, wait a minute, youngun——”

“You’re friends, ain’t you, you and Pa?”

“We were,” Clyde said hesitantly.

“Real friends don’t give up on each other,” Hoss insisted.  “Me and Jimmy fuss all the time, but we don’t stay mad, ‘cause we’re friends.  I think it’s high time you and Pa quit bickerin’ worse than a couple of kids and made it up with each other.”

“You got yourself a wagon load of opinions today, don’t you, youngun?” Clyde grunted.

“I want you and Aunt Nelly at my party,” Hoss said bluntly.  “That’s my opinion.”

“Yours, not your pa’s,” Clyde pointed out.  “He don’t know nothin’ about this shenanigan you’re pullin’, and you expect me to just drive up actin’ like nothin’ passed between us?  That’s askin’ a lot, boy.”        “It’s all the present I want for my birthday, you and Pa friends again,” Hoss pleaded.  “Say you’ll come.”

“I’ll give it some thought,” Clyde said.  “I ain’t promisin’ nothin’, but I’ll give it some thought.”

Hoss beamed, confident that his peacemaking mission had succeeded.  “Aunt Nelly says to bring you home to lunch now,” he stated.

Clyde laid a hand on Hoss’s sturdy shoulder.  “Let’s go, then.  Sure will be nice to see you at our table again, son.”

* * * * *

The sun glinted off the surface of flat, placid Washoe Lake.  Here, on the valley floor, few trees grew, but some cast refreshing shade at the southern edge of the lake.  Marie had spread the picnic cloth beneath a towering cottonwood, the shadow of whose dark leaves cast a circle wide enough for all the picnickers to enjoy its coolness as they ate.  The expected guests had already arrived——the guests Ben, Marie and Adam expected, that is.  Hoss kept nervously looking to the south, straining to see another buckboard headed their way.  No one had promised, but his hopes had been soaring high ever since his trip to Carson City four days before.

“What’s bothering that boy?” Ben mumbled under his breath.  Hoss had been so bubbly yesterday.  That was actually his birthday, and the family had shared a cake and let Hoss open his presents.  Ben had remarked, tongue in cheek, that someone was certainly showing an interest in the gifts he had declared he didn’t care about, but he couldn’t help noticing that Hoss seemed happier than he had in——well, over a month.

Now, at the picnic he’d planned for himself, with all the people he’d wanted surrounding him and wishing him a happy birthday, Hoss seemed distracted.  Ben cast his eyes south, as he’d seen Hoss do a hundred times, and he was the first to see the wagon rolling toward them.  “What on earth are they doing here?” he muttered.

Though his voice had been low, Hoss heard and bounced up from his seat on the grass beside Jimmy Ellis to run to his father’s side.  Ben looked down at his son’s glowing face and became instantly suspicious.  “You have any idea why the Thomases chose this particular day to visit Washoe Lake, Hoss?” he demanded.

Hoss took a deep breath and turned his face up to his father’s.  “I asked ‘em,” he declared firmly.

Ben’s eyes hardened.  “Sounds like we may need to have a very necessary little talk, boy.”

Hoss knew that was his father’s favorite way of announcing a spanking, but he was so sure what he’d done was right that he didn’t feel intimidated.  In fact, he felt bold as a mountain lion.  “Yeah, a little talk’s real necessary,” he said flatly, “but not with me——with Uncle Clyde.”

Ben’s lips quirked upward.  Nothing he’d like better than to have a “necessary little talk” with Clyde Thomas, but he had a feeling Clyde wouldn’t hold still for a spanking.

Adam had always displayed a remarkable ability to read his father’s mind.  Now, for a change, it was Hoss who instinctively knew what Ben was thinking.  “Not that kind,” he frowned.  “A real talk.”

“You are out of line, boy,” Ben said, stiffening as he saw the buckboard pull up close to the cottonwood where the picnic was spread.

Marie had risen as soon as she saw the Thomases and gone to envelop the unexpected guests in warm, welcoming embraces.  Adam and Sally had hurried to greet Billy, while Inger was looking everywhere for Hoss.  She spotted him, but her mother held her back, sensing Hoss had something tougher to deal with than an excited playmate.

Clyde was the only one who hung back as the others gathered in the shade of the cottonwood.  He stood by his buckboard, not daring to look at Ben, who stood apart from the others, too.  Looking from one to the other, Hoss tugged at his father’s hand.  “Come on and say howdy,” he ordered.

“You go say howdy,” Ben said, swatting the boy’s backside.  “They’re your guests.”

Hoss frowned.  This was not going quite the way he’d planned, but he wasn’t ready to give up.  Deciding Uncle Clyde might be more reasonable than Pa, he ran to the buckboard and grabbed Clyde’s hand.  “Come on,” he commanded, pulling with all his might.

“This ain’t gonna work, boy,” Clyde muttered, stumbling to maintain his balance.  He’d seen Ben’s reaction when he drove up.

“Yes, it is,” Hoss insisted.  “Come on.”

Reluctantly, Clyde let himself be dragged over to where Ben stood, arms folded tight against his chest.  Clyde swallowed a huge lump of pride and thrust his hand at his former friend.  “Howdy, Ben.”

Ben’s arms remained glued to his chest as he returned Clyde’s greeting with an icy stare and icy silence.

Hoss was furious.  Uncle Clyde had done his part, come more than halfway to meet Pa, but Pa was being just plain rude.  In his anger, he did something Adam could never have done, but Hoss was strong enough to pull it off.  He grabbed his father’s right arm, jerked it down and brought it out to meet Clyde’s extended hand.  “Now, shake hands and make up,” he demanded.  “You been scrappin’ like wolf pups long enough.”

Ben’s face flamed with embarrassment, but Clyde grabbed his hand and gave it a quick shake.  “He’s right, you know,” Clyde said softly.  “We have been scrappin’ long enough——and all over nothin’.”

“Nothing!” Ben snapped.  “You call what you did to me nothing?”

“No, I call what I did savin’ your life!” Clyde shouted back.

Hoss gave a satisfied nod and backed away.  They were talking now.  That was good.  They might do some yelling for a while, like friends sometimes did, but now that they were talking, he was sure they’d work out their differences.  Neither man noticed him slip away.

“You sure got a strange way of going about it!” Ben hollered back at Clyde.

“Well, you didn’t leave me many options,” Clyde growled.  Then he took a deep breath.  “Whether I went about it the best way or not, you got to know, in your deepest heart, that I was thinkin’ of you.”

Ben’s angry retort died in his throat.  He did know that, in his deepest heart; even while it was happening, he’d understood Clyde’s intentions.  He’d just been so frustrated by his own helplessness that he’d turned his anger against his friend and nursed it every day since, until the anger was all he could see.  After a long silence, Ben said, “I——uh——didn’t give you many options, did I?”

Clyde gave him a sour smile.  “Not that I could see.”

“What were you doing there in the first place?” Ben demanded.  It was the question he’d pondered through wakeful nights for the past six weeks.

Clyde shrugged sheepishly.  “I don’t know.  Curious, maybe.  I’d never seen a hangin’ before.”

“Well, you got a good eyeful that day,” Ben snorted.

Clyde nodded.  “The last one I care to get, I can tell you that.  It’s an awful thing to watch.  It wasn’t all curiosity, though.  Partly fear, I reckon.”

That response took Ben off guard.  “Fear?  Of what?”

Clyde twisted the toe of his boot in the grass.  “The way folks was splittin’ up over the whole thing, I guess, feelin’s runnin’ hot.  Mormons mostly favorin’ Lucky Bill and gentiles mostly goin’ agin him.  Reckon I just felt safer if folks knew which side I was on.”

“You had nothing to be afraid of,” Ben said.  “I wouldn’t have let anyone hurt you.”

“Even if you had to hog-tie me to save me?” Clyde asked, chin twitching.

Ben laughed and suddenly realized how long it had been since he had.  “Yeah, I guess I might have done that, if I couldn’t think of any other way.”  He wrapped his arms around Clyde in a hearty embrace.  “Oh, how I’ve missed you!”

A round of applause from beneath the shade of the cottonwood made both men break apart, laughing.  “Reckon we’re puttin’ on quite a show,” Clyde grinned.

Ben threw an arm around his shoulders and herded him back toward the others.  “Yeah, let’s get back to the party.  We haven’t eaten yet, so you’re just in time.  Afterwards, maybe you’d like to help me give Hoss his birthday spanking.  I’m gonna take special pleasure in making it a sound one this year.”

“Just to grow on, of course,” Clyde snickered.

“Oh, of course,” Ben chuckled.  “That conniving, little——I didn’t think he had it in him.”

They returned to the hugs of their families and friends, and Ben became aware of how deeply affected everyone had been by his quarrel with the man who’d been like a brother to him since they’d come west together in 1850.  Everyone was wiping their eyes, though it was hard to tell whether the tears came from relief or laughter.  Hoss received innumerable pats on the back (and the backside from Clyde and Ben), while Laura Ellis expressed what everyone was feeling about him when she whispered to Marie, “A little child shall lead them.”

There was more food than anyone could eat, since each of the ladies had brought a well-packed hamper.  While the women put the leftovers away for later, the men lounged and the children romped.  After about an hour Dr. Martin announced enough time had passed for it to be safe to swim.  The suggestion brought shouts of approval from the children, and the men, of course, felt duty bound to supervise.  They moved a short distance away and began shedding their outer clothing behind a bush.

“Supervise the younguns, my foot,” Nelly complained good-naturedly to the other ladies.  “What they want is a chance to cool off themselves.”

“Why don’t you go in with them?” Laura teased.

“Lands, no!” Nelly squawked.  “I ain’t showin’ myself before them overgrown boys.  Ain’t fittin’ when they get the age of Billy and Adam.  Go in yourself, if you’re so anxious to swim with the menfolk.”

“I’d rather have a nice nap,” Laura yawned.  “I always get sleepy after a big meal.”

“A nap is just what this one needs,” Marie said, pulling Little Joe into her lap.  Since it was so hot, she took off everything but his diaper and laid him on a quilt beside her.  She handed him the calico bunny he carried everywhere.  “You and bun-bun go to sleep now.”

Little Joe gurgled contentedly and hugged the bunny to his bare chest, sucking on one bedraggled fur ear.  Marie smiled.  Little Joe wasn’t always cooperative about naptime, and she was glad he wasn’t putting up a fuss today.  She was tired.  “I think I will rest, too,” she said and lay down next to her baby.

Laura lay beside Marie and Nelly beside Laura.  Sally, who’d chosen to stay with the ladies instead of swimming with the boys, lay at the end.  For a while they rested with their eyes shut, catching up on the gossip they hadn’t had a chance to share because of the ongoing feud, but slowly all the ladies drifted to sleep.

Billy and Adam struck out for the center of the lake as soon as they hit the water, while the three younger children, all non-swimmers, stayed close to the shore.  “I wanna learn to swim, Pa,” Inger pleaded.

“Okay, girl; hang onto me and we’ll go out a mite deeper,” Clyde said.

“Me, too,” Jimmy insisted.  “I wanna go deep.”

“All right, son, you come with me,” Paul offered.

Hoss continued to wade among tule shoots and buttercups in ankle-deep water.  “Come on, son,” Ben urged, embarrassed that his boy, oldest of them all, was the only shore-hugging craven in the bunch.  “You don’t want those youngsters showing you up, do you?”

“Don’t bother me none,” Hoss said, stomping his feet to make the water splash high.

“Hoss, you have to learn to swim,” Ben said severely, “and today’s the day, I think.”

“It’s my birthday, Pa,” Hoss whined.

“Wrong,” Ben said severely.  “Yesterday was your birthday.  Today’s a plain, ordinary Saturday, except for one thing.”

“What’s that?” Hoss asked suspiciously.

“It’s the day you’re gonna learn to swim,” Ben declared.  “Now, get out here!”

Fearful, but more afraid of making his father angry, Hoss moved cautiously into waist-deep water.  Ben, frowning, waded back to drag him deeper.

At first, Little Joe played contentedly with his bunny, then, hearing the other children splashing and shouting in the lake, he rolled over and watched for a minute or two.  Smiling, the baby stood up and pattered off, so quietly that none of the ladies dozing beside him heard him leave.  Billy and Adam were too far out and each of the men too busy teaching one of the younger children to swim to notice Little Joe, either, as he tugged at his diaper and finally managed to wriggle out of it.

Chortling happily, Little Joe toddled straight for the lake and plunged in.  The water closed over his head, and he came up sputtering, but undaunted.  He flapped his tiny arms and legs, but his movements were so uncoordinated he made little progress in the water.  Once again his head dipped below the surface.  This time he came up hollering.

His cry was distant, but Ben heard and jerked around to find its source.  Seeing the baby floundering in the water, Ben shouted out his name and started toward him.  Hoss, now in water over his head, immediately sank, gurgling and gulping in water.  “Pa!” he screamed in terror.

Ben reached back to pull him up and began to move toward Little Joe, towing Hoss along with him.  The added load slowed him down, and Ben felt panic surge in his throat.  He had to reach Little Joe quickly, but if he turned loose of Hoss, the older boy was sure to drown.

Marie was screaming, running into the water, shoes and all.  The other ladies stayed on shore, shouting at her to come back, to let the men handle the situation.

Suddenly, Clyde was at Ben’s side.  “Get the baby,” he yelled.  “I’ll see to Hoss.”

Ben released his middle son and began swimming with powerful strokes toward his youngest, whose head, surprisingly, still stayed on the surface more than it dipped below.  Reaching the boy, Ben pulled him into his arms.  “It’s all right, baby; Pa’s got you,” he soothed.

But Little Joe needed no soothing.  “Wa wa,” he begged, left hand splashing at the water.

Ben laughed, relieved.  “You little fish.  You like the water, don’t you?  Not scared like your big brother?  No, not a bit.”  Seeing Marie standing in water to her knees, Ben held the baby high.  “He’s all right.  I’ll keep him with me for a while.”  As Marie climbed out of the water, wringing her skirts, Ben smiled at Little Joe.  “So you want to learn to swim, do you?  Let’s show that cowardly brother of yours how to do it, shall we?”

Little Joe grinned as Ben lowered him into the water and moved back toward Hoss.  “You can go sit on the shore and watch,” he told the older boy.  “I have a little lad here who’s not afraid of the water.  I think I’d like to teach a willing pupil for a change.”

Hoss glowered at Little Joe.  How dare that little thing show him up and bring Pa’s displeasure down on him?  For Inger or Jimmy to outshine him was one thing, but Little Joe!  Hoss fumed with indignity as his father towed him into shallow water and swatted him toward shore.

Ben carried Little Joe back into deeper water.

“That boy ain’t got a scared bone in his body!” Clyde cackled.

Ben chuckled.  “Nor many cautious ones, either.”  He looked over at Clyde.  “Thanks, old friend.  I don’t know what I’d’ve done if you hadn’t taken Hoss off my hands.”

“No problem,” Clyde assured him.  “Inger’s got floatin’ down pat, so I knew I could leave her for a minute.”

Ben nodded thoughtfully and laid the baby on his back.  “Let’s see if you can float, Little Joe,” he suggested and slowly moved his hands away.

Little Joe didn’t float, but only because he wouldn’t lie still.  Almost immediately he rolled over and began to flap his limbs in rather inaccurate imitation of the swimmers.  Ben put one hand under the boy’s stomach.  “All right, all right,” he murmured.  “Kick your legs, Little Joe.”  He used his free hand to slap the water with first one little foot, then the other.  It took awhile, but Little Joe began to get the idea.  Soon he could kick his legs while Ben held his hands out in front of him.  Little Joe crowed with pleasure.

Watching from shore, Hoss began to burn with shame.  Little Joe was swimming!  Really swimming——well, almost.  And Pa was beaming with pride in his little boy.  It was unbearable.  Hoss waded out waist-deep and called, “Pa, I wanna learn to swim.  It’s my turn now.”

Ben looked at him in amazement.  Hoss had always screamed when he was forced into the water.  Now he wanted to learn?  Jealous, Ben quickly realized, but he didn’t care what motivated the boy, so long as he learned.  “Like to, Hoss,” he called, “but I’ve got my hands full now.  I don’t think your little brother’s ready to come out.”

“Ben,” Paul called, “what don’t I see what I can teach Hoss?  Jimmy here’s doing well enough that Clyde can watch him and Inger.”

“Sure,” Clyde agreed.

“Sounds good,” Ben accepted gratefully.

Paul guided Hoss into deeper water.  “You won’t let me drown, will you?” Hoss pleaded, clinging to his friend.

“I won’t let you drown,” Paul promised gently.  “There’s nothing to be afraid of, Hoss.  Your body’ll float right on top of the water if you relax and quit fighting it.  It’s a scientific fact.  Shall we try that first?”

“O—okay,” Hoss said through shivering lips.  He figured Paul, being a doctor, had his science straight and that gave the boy a measure more confidence than his father’s repeated assurances.

From time to time Ben glanced over at the doctor working with his second son.  Paul seemed to be having more success with Hoss than his own father ever had.  Ben felt a moment’s envy, but brushed it aside.  Whatever works, he chuckled.  Finally, Little Joe seemed to grow tired, so Ben carried him back to his mother.

Marie had removed her soaked shoes and stockings and was sitting on the quilt, bare feet tucked beneath her.  “Come here, naughty boy,” she laughed gently as Ben handed her the baby.

“Now, don’t scold him,” Ben chided.  “He’s worked wonders this afternoon.  Not only has he made strides in learning to swim himself, but he’s convinced that milksop brother of his to try again, too.”

“Don’t you be sayin’ a harsh word about Hoss,” Nelly chided.  “That boy’s worked a wonder himself today.”

Ben smiled, knowing she meant the reconciliation between him and Clyde.  “Yeah, he has.  Just call me Father of Wonders.”

Marie picked up her button shoe and tossed it at him.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Summer Adventures

August was a month as bright in outlook as it was in the sunniness of its days.  Of course, the reconciliation of the two families was the greatest source of sunshine in their hearts.  Once again Sundays were times to share friendship around a table of happy faces.

The corn had been hilled and laid by until harvest, and the second planting of the garden completed.  Since their major responsibility was well in hand, and since Adam had only one month until he returned to Sacramento for his second year at the academy, he and Hoss were given extra free time to spend as they chose.  Adam, feeling he’d soon have all he wanted of being closed indoors, chose to spend the time in the open air.  Often he and Billy, with Hoss struggling to keep in sight, raced their mounts through Washoe Valley, just to feel the breeze whistle in their ears.

More often, though, the boys skimmed the surface of Lake Tahoe in the sunny yellow sailboat.  Hoss liked those times best because, usually, he and Adam were alone.  Sometimes Billy broke free from his chores for a long enough visit to go up to the lake, but Hoss pretty much had his brother to himself there.

And the memories they stored up against the coming separation!  The small ship traversed Lake Tahoe from east to west and north to south.  Every inch of its sapphire surface seemed their personal property: every rock, every cove, every tree.  “Let’s name stuff,” Hoss suggested, “like you did Zephyr Cove.”

“All right,” Adam laughed.  To name his own world appealed to his literary nature, but he supposed, to be fair, he’d have to give Hoss some voice in what the landmarks were called.  “How about that?” he asked, pointing to a large, volcanic rock about four miles north of Zephyr Cove.

“That’s easy,” Hoss declared.  “That’s Cave Rock.”

Adam frowned at the simple name, but saw what his brother meant.  A tunnel appeared to go through the rock and probably did form a cave.  “I guess it’ll do until we come up with something better,” he conceded.

They continued sailing north past the promontory.  When they’d passed it, Adam turned to look at Cave Rock from the opposite side.  “Look, Hoss,” he cried, pointing.  “Doesn’t that look like a lady’s face?  See her little, upturned nose.”

“Yeah!” Hoss yelled.  “It is a lady, Adam!”

“Why don’t we call it the Lady of the Lake,” Adam suggested.  “That’s from a famous poem.”

Hoss’s nose screwed with distaste.  “A poem!  Aw, no, Adam.  Cave Rock suits me fine.”

“But it’s so plain, Hoss,” Adam argued.

“I like it plain,” Hoss insisted.  “You’re the one all the time wantin’ stuff fancy.”

Adam took a deep breath and decided, as the older brother, he’d have to be the mature one.  “Okay, we’ll compromise,” he offered.  “We’ll call it Cave Rock, and say the Lady of the Lake lives on this side of it.”

“Well,” Hoss drawled, then smiled.  “Yeah, she is a lady, and she does live at the lake.  The Lady of the Lake who lives at Cave Rock.”

“That’s right,” Adam laughed.

The wind changed and began to blow from the north.  “Let’s see if we can sail all the way to the south shore,” Adam said, bringing the boat around.

“Yeah!” Hoss agreed.  “Bet we’ll find more stuff to name down there.”

Adam grinned.  He was confident they would.  Sure enough, an unusual rock formation greeted them on the southern shore of Lake Tahoe.  Adam instantly came up with the perfect name, and he was determined not to give in so easily this time.  “We’ll call this Shakespeare Rock,” he dictated.

“Shakespeare!  That’s plumb awful!” Hoss hollered.

“But, look, Hoss,” Adam pleaded.  “You can see his features real plain.”

Hoss pouted.  “I can see it looks like a man, all right.”

“It looks like Shakespeare,” Adam insisted.

“You never seen him,” Hoss accused.

“I’ve seen pictures, and this looks just like them,” Adam contended.  “There’s one in Pa’s book at home.  I’ll show you.”

Hoss squirmed.  “Couldn’t we just call it the Man of the Lake.  It’d go with the Lady.”

“No, Hoss,” Adam persisted.  “This is Shakespeare Rock.  You can name the next place we find.”

“Oh, all right,” Hoss conceded.  “Where to next, Adam?”

Adam laughed.  “Home, silly.  It’s getting late, and you don’t want to miss supper, do you?”

Hoss grinned and shook his head.  “Nope.  Hop Sing’s fixin’ leg of lamb.”

Adam took the oars and began pulling against the wind.  “You’re right; I wouldn’t want to miss that.”  Since the Cartwrights didn’t raise sheep themselves, mutton didn’t show up on the table frequently.  Tonight’s supper would be a treat, and tomorrow’s, too, since the left-over meat was likely to turn up in shepherd pie.

On their next excursion the boys, accompanied by Billy this time, sailed from Zephyr Cove to the large bay directly across the lake.  “Look at that!” Billy whooped as they came through the four-hundred-foot wide mouth that quickly opened into the broader bay beyond.  “This here’s the purtiest spot on the Ponderosa.”

“We’re not on the Ponderosa,” Adam grinned.  “We’re in California now, buddy.”

Billy grinned.  “Close enough.  Besides, ain’t nobody else around to claim it.”

“Or name it,” Hoss added firmly.

“What you wanna call it——Hoss Water?” Billy jibed.

“No,” Hoss scoffed.  “You’re worse than Adam, Billy, when it comes to names.”

“I told him he could name the next place,” Adam explained, “so we’re stuck with whatever he comes up with.”  His black eyes glinted as he stared Hoss down.  “It had better be something good, though.”

“It will be,” Hoss promised.  “Just give me some time.”

Billy groaned.  “This could take all day.  Let’s explore that island over there while slowpoke makes up his mind.”

“Yeah, that’d be a good place for our picnic,” Adam decided.  Hop Sing, working on the theory that growing boys came equipped with hollow legs, had packed a bulging hamper.

Hoss was always ready to eat, so the three were in agreement.  They sailed as close to the small island as the wind would permit, then rowed to its north shore, tied up the boat and hiked to the topmost point.

“It’s a baby island,” Hoss commented as Adam spread the checked tablecloth on the ground, “just the right size for a picnic.”

“We’re not calling it Baby Island!” Adam ordered.

“Wait a minute,” Billy put in.  “Is he namin’ the bay or the island?”

“The bay,” Hoss inserted, quickly claiming what he felt to be the greater honor.

“You can name the island, Billy,” Adam offered generously, then frowned, “so long as it’s not something stupid.”  He took sandwiches from the hamper and gave one to each of the other boys.  As they munched, broad-winged bald eagles, snowy white heads gleaming in the sunlight, glided overhead and slightly smaller brown and white osprey swooped down to plunge feet first into the bay and snatch fish from the emerald waters.

“We ain’t the only ones havin’ lunch,” Billy cackled.

“Yeah.  Wish I could catch fish that easy,” Hoss chortled.

“Well, try catching this,” Adam snickered, tossing a cookie at his brother.  Hoss caught it and bit into the sugar-sprinkled circle with a grin.  “Yup, better than fish,” he concluded.

After lunch the boys stretched out beneath the nearest shade and watched the huge birds fly overhead.  “Sure are a bunch of ‘em,” Billy commented.

Hoss sat up quickly.  “That’s it!” he cried.  “Eagle Bay.”

Adam closed his eyes and considered the name.  “Not bad, Hoss,” he concluded.  “Yeah, Eagle Bay suits this place.”

Billy pointed to an osprey perched in a tree above their boat.  “I’m gonna call the island Fish Hawk Roost.”

Adam’s nose wrinkled.  He didn’t like the way that sounded, but couldn’t deny the logic of Billy’s choice.

“Yup, the way them hawks is catchin’ fish, I bet we could bring home a mess for supper easy,” Hoss suggested.

“We will,” Adam said, “but I think we’ll do better fishing from the boat.”

“Let’s get at ‘er then,” Billy urged.  “My pa’s powerful fond of them cutthroat trout you catch here.”

“Just ‘cause they’re big,” Adam laughed.  “Come on, boys, let’s pack up and go to fishing!”

The three hurriedly stuffed whatever was left back into the picnic hamper.  Ben had taught his boys to leave the wild places the way they found them, so they made sure nothing remained but a few crusts of bread Hoss crumbled for the birds.  Then they raced down to the boat and rowed deeper into the bay to fish away the afternoon, coming home with enough cutthroat and silver trout to satisfy the supper tables of both families.  Between them, Adam and Hoss caught more than the Cartwrights needed, so Hoss suggested sending some to Dr. Martin.

“Sure, be glad to drop ‘em by,” Billy offered with a quick wink at Adam.

Adam scowled, knowing Billy planned to impress Sally with the catch.  “Just make sure you tell her who caught those fish,” he warned.

“Sure,” Billy said easily.  “They’ll taste twice as good if she knows they came from Hoss.”

Adam shook his head, grinning.  He’d lay odds Hoss never got the credit for those fish.

* * * * *

The last Saturday in August the Cartwrights and their friends gathered for one last picnic at Lake Tahoe, a farewell party for Adam, who would leave for Sacramento the following Monday.  Marie, Hoss and Little Joe would be traveling by stagecoach, while Ben, Adam, Enos Montgomery and two other hands drove the cattle Ben thought were ready for market.  Marie’s party would arrive in Placerville days before Ben, of course, but she would spend them visiting the Zuebner family.  The family would reunite in Placerville, where Ben planned to sell what cattle he could before driving the rest on to Sacramento.  Marie and the younger boys would, of course, take the stage and train into California’s capital.  She would arrive first and be settled in the Orleans Hotel by the time Ben finished his business.  Once Adam was again established in Molly Maguire’s rooming house, the rest of the family would go on together to San Francisco and later to Rancho Hermoso.

Nelly sighed as the plans were discussed over a lunch of fried chicken, potato salad, pickled beets, sauerkraut and peach pie.  “Lands, what a trip that’ll be!  You know, I ain’t never even seen California.”  She had planned to go to the neighboring state once with Clyde, to pick out her parlor furniture, but little Inger had taken sick and Clyde had been forced to do the choosing himself.

“Ain’t missed much,” Clyde grunted.

“It’s our old friends I miss,” Nelly elaborated, slapping her husband’s rough hand.  “I ain’t seen none of them folks we come west with since we settled here.”

“They’d love to see you,” Ben said.

“Huh!” Clyde snorted.  “That Camilla’s turned plumb snooty, from what I hear.  Reckon she wouldn’t be pleasured to see plain folk like us.”

“Maybe not,” Nelly admitted, looking at her worn calico.  She hadn’t worn her best dress to a picnic, of course, and the everyday dress looked faded and worn, especially next to Marie’s.  The younger woman had dressed in one of her simplest frocks for the outing, but Marie managed to look elegant in whatever she wore.  Probably look like a princess even in this old rag of mine, Nelly thought and sighed again.

An idea flickered across Marie’s countenance.  “But why not come with us, Nelly?” she suggested eagerly.  “I would love to have a traveling companion.”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Nelly protested, but her brown eyes grew warm considering the idea.

“Oh, Ma, can I go, too?” Inger begged.

“I couldn’t,” Nelly said again, her voice weaker this time.

“Why, of course, you could,” Ben said.  “In fact, it would be a blessing.”

“Yes,” Marie agreed eagerly.  “With Ben busy with the cattle, I could use help with the boys.”

“You don’t need help with me,” Hoss protested, “and I’ll help with Little Joe.  I always do.”

“Hush, Hoss,” his mother whispered urgently.  She knew how little it would take to sway Nelly into saying no.

“How about it, Clyde?” Ben asked.  “I know you’re too tied up with the trading post, but you wouldn’t mind Nelly’s having a grand fling in California, would you?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Clyde mused.  “Ain’t never thought of her goin’ off visitin’ on her own.”

“She wouldn’t be alone,” Ben pointed out.

“I want to go, Pa,” Inger whined.

“Two women travelin’ with three younguns ain’t much better,” Clyde snorted, glaring at his girl’s interruption.  “There’s some rough characters in Californy.”

“I’ll protect ‘em, Uncle Clyde,” Hoss assured him soberly.  He couldn’t understand the sudden laughter that circled the picnic cloth.

“There now, that ought to ease your mind,” Paul Martin chuckled, giving Ben a wink.

“Oh, yeah, I’m relieved, all right,” Clyde said, eyes rolling.  “You reckon you can handle a Californy bad man, Hoss?”

“If he tried to hurt Aunt Nelly or Mama or Little Joe, I sure would,” Hoss declared stoutly.

“Hey, what about me?” Inger demanded, knotting her fist and pounding Hoss’s arm.

“You, too,” Hoss said quickly.  “I know I ain’t a man, but I’m strong and I can fight.”

Ben’s lips were twitching almost uncontrollably.  “You have to admit he’s strong,” he told Clyde and quickly buried his mouth in a napkin.

Clyde shook his head, not convinced, but too amused to argue further.  “It’s up to Nelly,” he said finally.

Marie caught her hand.  “Oh, say you will come, Nelly.  Think how glad Ludmilla and Camilla and Rachel will be to see you after all these years.”

“And the children,” Nelly murmured.  “How I’d love to see how they’ve grown.”  Then she shook her head.  “No, I couldn’t; I just couldn’t leave my menfolk with no one to see after them——not for that long.”

“I’ll see after them,” Sally offered impulsively from her place between Billy and Adam.  “I’m a good cook, Mrs. Thomas, and I can do the washing and mending, whatever they need ‘til you return.”

“Hey!” Billy cried.  “That’s an idea.”  He tossed Sally a conspiratorial smile.

Seeing it, Adam’s jaw hardened.  He could read Billy’s mind.  That leering Billy was picturing himself cozying up to the doctor’s daughter night after night, while his rival stewed two hundred miles to the west.  The two young men took their rivalry pretty lightly, at least to this point.  Adam wasn’t sure what his true feelings for Sally were, and Billy seemed to share pretty much the same feelings for every girl he came near.  Eating at Sally’s table, however, might give the mischievous redhead an advantage it would be hard to combat from a distance, improved postal service notwithstanding.

“Why, what a sweet offer,” Nelly said, smiling at Sally.

“Say yes, Ma; I want to see San Francisco,” Inger pleaded.

“Well”——Nelly drew the word out to give herself time to think——“Well, yes, I believe I will.”

Sally clapped her hands.  “Oh, wonderful!”  The girl stood quickly.  “Now, Adam, I’m ready for that sail you promised me.”  She wanted to get away quickly before Nelly had a chance to reconsider.  She was a good-hearted girl and wanted the kindly older woman to have the pleasure of the trip, but even more she found herself looking forward to the opportunity to show off her domestic skills for a larger audience than just her father.

Billy jumped up.  “Hey, I’m goin’, too.”

“All right,” Sally laughed.  “I guess we can put up with you, hmm, Adam?”

Adam nodded, then smiled triumphantly at Billy when the girl hooked her arm through his for the walk to the sailboat.  Billy stuck his hands in his pockets and strolled nonchalantly after them.  Let Adam have this afternoon’s victory.  Billy would have plenty of time to make up for taking second place today.

“I wanted to sail today,” Inger pouted.  “I never have.”

“I’ll take you out later,” Ben promised.  “In fact, we’ll all go sailing today, turn and turn about.  We’ll be hauling the boat back home this afternoon, so this is our last chance.”

Hoss leaned over to whisper in his baby brother’s ear.  “Hear that; we’re all goin’ on the boat today.”

“Bo’!” Little Joe shouted with glee.

Ben groaned.  “I didn’t mean him, Hoss.”

Paul smiled.  “You did say everyone, Ben.”

“Yeah, and after all,” Clyde cackled, “if Hoss is strong enough to fight off desperados, he ought to be strong enough to hang onto one squirmin’ youngun.”

Ben grunted his displeasure under his breath, then turned a stern eye on Hoss.  “You’d better take a firm grip on that boy and don’t let go for nothin’, you hear me, Hoss?”

Wide-eyed and awed by the responsibility, Hoss bobbed his head quickly.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Subtle Hints

 

The Cartwrights had purchased their tickets and were waiting on the street in Genoa when Billy drove up and helped his mother and little sister from the buckboard.  “Hey, Aunt Nelly!” Hoss called, waving with all his might.

“I don’t think she could miss you,” Ben commented dryly.

“Howdy, Sunshine,” Nelly smiled, walking down the boardwalk to meet her friends.  She stooped to give the boy a hug.  Close behind, Inger bounced up and down, eager to be off on her first real journey.

Billy dropped his mother’s carpetbag at her feet.  “I’ll get your ticket, Ma.”

“Thanks, son,” she said, then stared at the pile of luggage near Ben.  “That all yours?”

Ben laughed.  “A lot of it belongs to Adam.  Easier to send his things this way than haul them on a cattle drive.”

Nelly laughed.  “Makes sense.  I was afeared Marie was bringin’ her whole wardrobe.”

“Not quite,” Ben observed, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Marie slapped his upper arm.  “He thinks I pack too much, but he forgets how long we will be gone.  Besides, much of what he calls my luggage is filled with this one’s diapers.”  She patted Little Joe’s bottom affectionately.

Nelly leaned over to kiss the baby’s curly, dark gold locks.  “You got more courage than me, takin’ one this small, but I know how you cherish keepin’ the little sugarfoot close.”

“Sugarfoot!” Hoss giggled.  “Is that gonna be your name for him, like mine is Sunshine?”

“Maybe, just maybe, Sunshine,” Nelly smiled.

Billy sauntered out of the store.  “Here’s your ticket, Ma.”

“Thanks, Billy,” she said.  “Ain’t no need you stayin’ to see us off.  Ben here will see we get boarded safe.”

“Reckon I’ll head out then,” Billy said.  “Gotta consult with Sally about dinner, you know.”

“I doubt she needs your help,” Ben mumbled.

Hearing him, Billy just shrugged and gave his mother a kiss.  “Give my love to Marta,” he dictated.

Nelly laid an affectionate swat on his britches.  “I’ll warn her to keep clear of the likes of you, you scamp.”

Billy grinned.  “Have yourself a right fine trip, Ma, and don’t be frettin’ ‘bout me and Pa.  We’ll make out.”  He gave Inger’s strawberry-blonde braid a swift yank as he loped past her.

“Hey!” Inger yelled.

“Behave yourself, little sis,” Billy called.  “Don’t run off with no Sacramento charmer.”

“Ooh, he makes me so mad!” Inger confided to Hoss.  “Aren’t big brothers just the biggest pains in the——”

“Inger!” her mother snapped.

“Neck, Ma,” Inger finished quickly.  She grinned at Hoss, who shook his head.  Not that he disagreed entirely.  Big brothers could be a pain in the neck, no arguing about that, but that academy was about to swallow Hoss’s big brother again for endless months.  Inger, who’d seen her big brother practically every day of her life, couldn’t understand that sometimes big brothers could be missed.

The stage rumbled into town and pulled to a halt.  Ben helped the driver load all the luggage, then assisted Nelly as she stepped into the coach, followed by Hoss and Inger.  He took Little Joe in his arms for a moment.  “Pa’s gonna miss you,” he cooed in the baby’s ear as he held him close.  “Be a good boy now, and don’t give Mama any trouble.”

He lifted the baby inside to Nelly’s reaching arms.  “Pa?” Little Joe called.  He couldn’t understand why his father wasn’t getting in, too.  Or his mother.  “Mama!” he cried, squirming to get off Nelly’s lap.

“I’d better go to him,” Marie said.

“Um-hmm,” Ben acknowledged, but he held her a moment longer.  “Have a good trip,” he said, giving her a lingering kiss.  “I’ll see you in Placerville.”

“Mama!” Little Joe screamed.  Marie gave Ben’s cheek a parting stroke and hurriedly climbed into the stagecoach.

Ben waved until the vehicle was out of sight, then mounted and rode quickly to join the trail drive already making its way south to Carson Pass.

Little Joe was still crying as the stage took off.  “Sorry I couldn’t settle him,” Nelly apologized.

“I think he feared I wasn’t coming,” Marie murmured, then smiled at her friend.  “Don’t worry; he will soon quiet down.”

“Little Joe likes stagecoaches,” Hoss explained and Marie nodded.

“Me, too,” Inger said, giving a happy bounce that brought a disapproving frown from the portly gentleman who, with Hoss, was making a sandwich of the little girl on the seat opposite the two mothers.

“Inger, sit still,” Nelly cautioned.

“But I’ve never been on a stagecoach before, Ma,” Inger whined.

“Well, me neither,” her mother laughed, “but I ain’t bouncin’ all over the coach.”

“You wanna sit by the window, Inger?” Hoss offered.  “You can see better.”

“Yes!” the girl cried, immediately standing.

“That’s a sweet thought, Sunshine,” Nelly complimented as the children switched places.

“Aw, I been on a stagecoach lots of times,” Hoss said, discounting his chivalrous action.  He could count on one hand, with fingers left over, the number of trips he’d made by stagecoach, but Hoss felt himself a seasoned traveler compared to Inger, who’d never been west of the Sierras.  Since the ladies were keeping Little Joe occupied, Hoss passed the time by pointing out the sights to Inger.

As the coach jolted over the rough roads, Marie moaned, then smiled at Nelly.  “It is miserable, I know, but we must take comfort from all those days we will have in Placerville to rest.  And the stage beyond there is smoother.”

Nelly just laughed.  “Lands, girl, this isn’t rough, not compared to walking from Indiana.  And so fast!  It’s a luxury, Marie.”

Marie giggled a little.  “I first came here by wagon, too, remember?”

“Buckboard,” Nelly scoffed.  “Ridin’ all the way.  It ain’t the same, honey lamb.”

“No, I am sure,” Marie agreed congenially.  “I would like to hear of your trip west, Nelly.  Ben has told me so little.  I think he fears to speak too much of——”

“Inger?” Nelly asked softly.

“What, Ma?” Inger asked, turning from the window.

“Not you, darlin’,” Nelly laughed, “the one you’re named for.”

“My mother?” Hoss queried.

“That’s right, Sunshine.  Your mama was askin’ about how we all come west together.”

“I wanna hear, too,” Hoss said.

“Me, too,” Inger pleaded.  “There’s nothin’ much to see out this window.  Just more sand and sage.  Tell the story, Ma.”

“We certainly have time,” Marie pointed out.

“Well, if this gent don’t mind listenin’, I reckon I will,” Nelly said.  She smiled across at the man whose corpulent face was made broader still by his mutton chop whiskers.  “It’ll help keep the younguns quiet.”

The man nodded, clearly pleased with any suggestion that would guarantee a peaceful ride.

Nelly wasn’t the storyteller Ben Cartwright was, but her remembrance of the journey west included the kind of homey details Marie found fascinating, with enough excitement thrown in to interest the children and their seatmate, as well.  An hour into the story, the children decided they were hungry, so Marie and Nelly opened the lunch baskets.  Since they’d each brought one, there was more than enough to share, and their fellow traveler became positively chummy as he munched sandwiches and listened to more of the Larrimore train’s travels along the California Trail.

Once the stage began to ascend the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Inger’s interest in the scenery perked up again, and Hoss impressed her with his ability to name virtually every plant they saw from the window.  “You’re smart,” Inger said, thus winning Hoss’s undying gratitude.  No one else had ever described him that way!

Night fell and the weary passengers slumbered as the stage rumbled on.  None slept well, however, with the possible exception of Little Joe, who seemed to respond to the moving stage as if it were a rocking cradle.  Hoss and Inger woke early and irritable, and the gentleman sharing their seat began to wish he’d gotten off at one of the miserable way stations they’d passed in the night.  Nelly dug out the remaining sandwiches from her hamper and passed them around.  The rumbling of their tummies stilled, the children settled down once more.

The mountain country was beautiful.  Dark evergreens lined the roadway, while here and there stands of aspen were just beginning to turn vibrant gold or flaming red.  Such views could be seen from the valleys east of the Sierras, of course, and even more frequently in the hills surrounding the Ponderosa, but here trees abounded, lacing the air with the pungent aroma of pine, mingled with the less discernible scents of other trees.

The red clay canyon on whose sides Placerville sprawled glowed in the deeper crimson of the setting sun as the stagecoach pulled in and deposited its passengers.  “It’s been a pleasure, ladies,” their gentleman companion said, doffing his gray felt hat, then proved his congeniality by calmly hoisting several of their carpetbags beneath his hefty arms.

With his help and that of a man Marie hired to assist them, the party transported all the baggage to the El Dorado Hotel and checked into adjoining rooms.  “We’re goin’ over to Mama Zuebner’s for supper, ain’t we?” Hoss asked eagerly.  “I’m half starved.”

“Oh, Hoss, I think we should eat here tonight,” Marie said.

“But why?  Mama Zuebner’s is the best in town,” Hoss argued.

“I know,” his mother said, “and we will have breakfast there, mon chéri, but we are all tired and dusty.  We will feel more like visiting tomorrow.”

“Aw, shucks!” Hoss pouted, plopping down on the nearest chair.

“Lands, I hate to disappoint the youngun,” Nelly sympathized, “but I’d sure favor lookin’ a sight less draggled when I see Ludmilla again.”

Mais oui,” Marie said firmly.  “Hoss must be patient and think of others besides himself.”

“Yes, Mama,” Hoss said, but his face still hung with disappointment.

“I’m hungry, too, Ma,” Inger grumbled.  “Can’t we eat now, wherever we do it?”

“Sure, sugar,” her mother soothed.  “Here, you said, Marie?  They got a restaurant?”

Oui,” Marie said.  “Ben has eaten here before.  He says it is acceptable.”

“Let’s try it, then,” Nelly advised.  “We ought to get these cranky younguns fed and bathed and into bed as soon as possible.”

“This one is not so cranky,” Marie smiled as she shifted Little Joe from one arm to the other.  “My good little traveler.”

“He certainly is,” Nelly said, giving the baby an approving pat.  Hoss and Inger exchanged a look of joint discomfort.  Neither of them appreciated having a baby make them look bad.  No word passed between them, but both of the older children decided to work extra hard at behaving well at the supper table.

Nelly took one look at the menu and shook her head.  “A dollar for plain old sauerkraut!” she hissed to Marie.

“I know,” Marie commiserated.  “Prices are terrible, but one must eat, oui?”

“I reckon,” Nelly muttered.  “Ludmilla must be makin’ a fortune if her prices come close to these.  Me and Clyde just may be in the wrong business, in the wrong place.”

“Do not tease,” Marie chided.  “How would we survive without you?”

Nelly smiled.  “I wasn’t serious, honey lamb.  I like our part of the country.”  She looked down at Inger.  “You know what you want?”

“I can’t read all these words, Ma,” Inger muttered in frustration.

Nelly sighed.  “I wish the girl could have a real teacher.  I try, but I fear she ain’t learnin’ like she should.”

“My mama’s been teachin’ me real good,” Hoss bragged.  “I can read this whole menu.”

“That’s good, Sunshine,” Nelly said at the same moment that Marie rebuked Hoss for bragging.

Hoss quickly glued his eyes to the menu and looked up to announce his selection.  “I want the hash.”

“Which one, Hoss?” Marie queried.  “Low grade or eighteen carat?”

Hoss shrugged.  “What’s the difference?”

“About a quarter, the way I read it,” Nelly giggled.  “Reckon the eighteen carat is supposed to be better.”

Marie nodded.  “And for a quarter’s difference, I think you should choose the better, Hoss.”

Hoss nodded in agreement.  “Eighteen carat, then, for me.  How ‘bout you, Inger?”

“Does that say ‘rabbit?’” the little girl asked, pointing to a familiar word.

“Yeah,” Hoss replied.  “Jackass rabbit, whole, one dollar,” he read to demonstrate his skill.

“That’s what I want,” Inger decided.

“Oh, Inger, you won’t eat a whole rabbit,” her mother objected.

“But it’s what I want,” Inger insisted, her face forming a pout.  Hoss gave her a swift kick under the table.  Inger got the message.  “Please,” she said, amending her attitude with dizzying alacrity.

“Well, I reckon we could share it,” Nelly mused.  “I ain’t so all fired hungry myself, and it would cut down on the bill.”

“You can order extra vegetables, I am sure,” Marie suggested.  “I think I will have hash, like Hoss.”

“We can’t share,” Hoss said quickly.  Inger returned the kick he’d given her earlier.  Hoss frowned at her.  “Well, I’m hungry.”

“I meant to share mine with Little Joe,” Marie said, her eyes reproachful, “not you.  I am familiar with your appetite, Hoss.”

Hoss gulped.  “Yes, ma’am,” he said in quick contrition.  “Little Joe’ll leave you plenty; he don’t eat much.”

The others laughed.  “No, he does not,” Marie tittered.

“Not near as much as you, anyway,” Inger said pointedly.

Hoss glared at her.  “Nor you, either.  Oink, oink.”

“Children, please,” Marie admonished.  Their voices had been both sharp and loud.

“See how sweet Little Joe’s behavin’,” Nelly added.

Little Joe, who’d been happily patting the linen tablecloth with the flat of his hand, looked up and smiled angelically at the mention of his name.

Hoss and Inger looked at each other and sighed.  They’d let it happen again.  As they returned to their rooms after supper, Inger took Hoss’s arm and whispered in his ear, “We got to do somethin’ about that baby.”

Hoss shook his head.  He wasn’t any happier with Little Joe at the moment than she was, but, after all, a brother was a brother, while a friend was just a friend.

* * * * *

Hoss rapped on the door to Nelly and Inger’s room.  The little girl answered.  “You ready yet?” Hoss queried.  “Mama’s just about got Little Joe dressed, and I’m hungry.”

“You’re always hungry,” Inger tittered as she opened the door wide to let Hoss in.

“Almost ready, Sunshine,” Nelly reported.  She was sitting before the mirror above the dressing table, retying her best silk bonnet.  Her fumbling fingers just couldn’t seem to get the bow right this morning.

“You look mighty fine,” Hoss said, “and Inger, too.”

Inger gave the wide flounce of her pink gingham skirt an impatient twitch.  “Ain’t it awful, dressin’ up this fancy just to go to breakfast.”

“I want you lookin’ nice for my old friends,” Nelly said, nervously smoothing her daughter’s strawberry strands and perching a bonnet on her head.

“I don’t want to wear a hat,” Inger complained.

“Hush now,” Nelly scolded as she tied the pink ribbons under Inger’s chin.  “You don’t see Hoss fussin’.”

“I don’t see him wearin’ no bonnet, neither,” Inger sputtered.  “He ain’t even dressed fancy.”

“Wait’ll we get to them Larrimores,” Hoss sighed.  “I’ll be decked out fancy enough to make a dude miserable.”

Nelly bit her lip.  Exactly what she’d feared.  Looking down at her best dress, years out of fashion, she sighed.  She herded the two youngsters before her to the Cartwrights’ room.

“Ah, good.  You are ready,” Marie said, reaching for her green muslin bonnet and tying its black grosgrain ribbons.  It matched her merino skirt, which was topped by a tucked chemise of white linen with puffed sleeves and cuffs of tiny tucks edged with lace.  “How beautiful you look, Nelly!”

Nelly smiled.  For once, she didn’t feel tacky standing next to Marie.  That was only because Marie had chosen such a simple outfit this morning, though.  As they walked toward Mama Zuebner’s Cafe, Nelly mentioned what Hoss had said about the Larrimores.  “I been frettin’ that nothin’ I got’s fancy enough for them,” she said.  “Clyde said I could pick me out some dress goods this trip.  You reckon, maybe, Ludmilla would let us use her scissors and needles to stitch up a dress?”

“I am sure she would,” Marie assented, “but you will find a better selection of fabric in Sacramento, Nelly, and we will have time there as well.”

“But no place to work,” Nelly argued.

“Mrs. Maguire’d let you use her place, I bet,” Hoss piped up.

Mais oui,” Marie agreed quickly.  “We must see Adam’s things safely to the rooming house, so we will ask her then.  She is most friendly and helpful.”

“Yes, I remember you tellin’ how she watched Little Joe for you last trip,” Nelly said.

Arriving at the cafe, Nelly’s fingers fluttered at her throat.  “Lands, I won’t know those girls,” she murmured.

Marie smiled, understanding her friend’s nervousness.  “Of course, you will, and they will know you.  You will see.”

They entered and a pretty, blonde girl of eighteen turned to assist them in finding a table in the room crowded with hungry miners.  “Mrs. Cartwright!” she squealed, hurrying to the party of women and children.  “And your beautiful baby——and Hoss.”  She stooped to give the chunky boy a hug.

Standing upright again, she cocked her head to examine Marie’s companion, then, giving a cry of delight, wrapped Nelly in a warm embrace.  “Oh, Mrs. Thomas, it’s been so long!” the girl exclaimed.  “We see Mr. Thomas and Billy several times a year, but you”——her eyes fell on the child at Nelly’s side——“and this must be your little girl!”

“This is Inger,” Nelly said, smiling with pride.  Inger fidgeted uncomfortably under the German girl’s gaze.

“Mama will be so excited to see you after all these years,” Katerina said.  “Let me find you a table, and I will tell her you have come.”

“Thank you, Katerina,” Marie said.

Katerina managed to find them a table by the window.  As they took their seats, she asked, “Are your husbands with you?  Will you need more room?”

“No, but Ben will meet us here in a few days,” Marie explained.  “He is driving some cattle to market.”

“Oh, Mama will be glad to hear that,” Katerina remarked.  “Our customers have been asking when we might have some of that good Ponderosa beef again.”

“Ben will be glad to hear that,” Marie smiled.  Ben took pride in the fine cattle he raised and would welcome the news of the Ponderosa’s growing reputation for prime beef.

Katerina started to head for the kitchen, then turned back to the table.  “Would——would Enos be with the cattle drive this time?” she asked shyly.

Monsieur Montgomery?  Oui, he will be here.”

Katerina blushed and hurried away to the kitchen.  Nelly leaned close to Marie.  “You don’t reckon?” she whispered.

“Mmn?” Marie hummed.

“Katerina and your foreman,” Nelly whispered even more softly.

Marie’s eyes lighted.  “Oh!  Wouldn’t that be romantic?”

“I don’t think so,” Hoss sputtered.  “I like Enos; I don’t want him runnin’ off to Placerville after no girl.”

“Hush, Hoss,” his mother ordered abruptly.

Hoss sighed.  Breakfast was starting off the same way dinner had ended, and no blame to Little Joe this time.

Ludmilla bustled out from the kitchen with seventeen-year-old Marta at her heels.  “Ah, Nelly Thomas, so good you come at last!”

Nelly stood and fell into Ludmilla’s ample arms.  “Oh, it’s been so long, Ludmilla.”  She looked at the tall girl standing behind her mother and gasped.  “This can’t be Marta, that little tomboy that always wanted to play with the boys!”

Marta blushed prettily.  She’d dropped her hoydenish ways in the last year or so and, following her sister’s example, was developing into an attractive young lady.  “It’s me, of course, Mrs. Thomas.  How’s that ornery Billy?”

“Ornerier than ever,” Inger declared.  She hadn’t forgotten Billy’s farewell yank on her pigtail.

Marta laughed.  “You must be the little sister he’s always bragging about.”

“Braggin’!” Inger squealed.  “Not Billy!  He don’t even like me.”

“He does,” Marta assured her, “but he’d never let you know.  Like I said, he’s ornery.”

“He sure is,” Inger grinned, seeming pleased that her big brother had complimented her, even if it was behind her back and never to her face.

Katerina took everyone’s order, and the ladies enjoyed a good gossip over scrambled eggs and ham.  All the awkwardness Nelly’d felt dropped away by the end of the meal.  That afternoon, between the noon and evening feeding frenzies of the miners, the ladies gathered in Ludmilla’s kitchen to master the intricacies of apple strudel, which Marie had never prepared quite to Adam’s satisfaction, and to exchange old memories and recent anecdotes.  Marta, still less interested in domestic pursuits than her mother or sister, took charge of the three children, conducting them on a tour of her brother Stefán’s new brewery and down to the creek to wade in the cool, rippling waters.

Over the next few days the women spent many happy hours in the cafe kitchen, and the menu of Mama Zuebner’s Cafe expanded as a result.  Nelly’s fried chicken made a hit with the miners, but there was even greater demand for Marie’s dessert crepes.  And when the miners heard that Ponderosa beef would be available by next week, the dining room resounded with their shouts of approval.

Ben arrived in time for supper Saturday evening, treating Enos Montgomery and the other trail hands to the best Mama Zuebner had to offer.  Marie and Nelly exchanged knowing looks as Katerina neglected regular customers to hover attentively over the table where the Ponderosa’s foreman sat, obviously more interested in the pretty waitress than the food she served.

In bed that night, Marie questioned Ben about Enos’s intentions.

“He hasn’t mentioned any intentions to me,” Ben chuckled, pulling his wife close, “but I have a few of my own.  I’ve missed you.”

“And I you,” Marie murmured, “but do not change the subject.  I think they are in love, Ben.”

“That’s nice,” Ben said, nuzzling her lilac-scented neck.  “Sure glad Little Joe’s old enough to sleep with his brothers this trip,” he whispered suggestively.

Marie pulled demurely away.  “You do not want to lose a good foreman, do you?”

That got Ben’s attention.  “No need for that,” he said sharply, raising himself on one elbow.  “Katerina would make a lovely addition to the Ponderosa, good company for you.”

Oui,” Marie said quickly, her fingers stroking his arm, “if they had a place to live.  You might hint to Enos that we could fix up your old cabin to please a new bride.”

“Marie!” Ben protested.  “I can’t play cupid for those young people.”

“Just a hint,” Marie suggested with her most inviting smile.  “Perhaps all Enos is waiting for is to know he can provide his bride a good home.  I am sure you can be subtle.”  Before Ben could protest, she bent over his bare chest and slipped her cambric nightgown from her shoulders.  Nothing subtle about the offer she was making.  Enos would just have to look out for himself, Ben decided as he buried his face between her fragrant breasts.

* * * * *

The sun was climbing as Ben rode to join the cattle drive Monday afternoon.  Since the butchers weren’t open on Sunday, they’d had to lay over in Placerville one day before selling any beef, then Ben had remained behind to see the ladies and children safely aboard the stage.  It had been a poignant leave-taking: Ben could still hear the heart-rending sobs of his youngest son, who’d clung tenaciously to his neck, not wanting Pa to disappear the way he had the last time the boy boarded a stage.  Too young to understand Ben’s assurances that he’d meet them in Sacramento, Little Joe had wailed piteously.

Ben’s heart lightened as he rode up alongside his eldest son.  “Everything going well?” he asked sociably.

“Sure,” Adam said.  “You get them all on the stage?”

“Yeah,” his father replied.  “Little Joe wasn’t very happy about my riding off, though.”

Adam laughed.  “He’ll get over it.”

Ben chuckled.  “I suppose.  Probably the minute the stage starts rolling.”

Father and son rode side by side throughout the afternoon, and Ben found himself wishing this ride to Sacramento would go on indefinitely.  He’d enjoyed having his son home this summer and hated the thought of parting again for nine long months.  People talked about a mother’s needing to cut her apron strings, but Ben, who’d been both father and mother to Adam for many years, thought no mother could have found it harder to turn loose than he did.  Like Little Joe, though, he’d just have to get over it, Ben decided.  Adam was a fine young man and becoming a better one for the broadening of his experiences.

They made camp in the lowlands near the American River that would lead them to Sacramento.  It was hard to face beans and bacon again after the succulent sauerbraten and strudel they’d wolfed down at Mama Zuebner’s, but no one complained.  The men knew they would have a few days in California’s capital while Ben and his family went on to San Francisco, and there were restaurants and saloons in abundance in that thriving city.

Enos Montgomery poured himself a second cup of coffee after supper and squatted near Ben.  Ben took a deep breath and poured himself another cup, too.  If he were going to keep his promise to Marie, he’d need whatever courage the hot brew could instill.  He began by mentioning the date he expected to meet Enos and the men at Rancho Hermoso.  “Think you’ll have any trouble getting them there?” Ben asked.

Enos grinned, stirring two heaping spoonsful of sugar into his coffee.  “No, sir.  They’ll have spent their pay by then and be ready to earn some more.”

Ben nodded.  That had been his thinking when he’d decided to pay the men half their salary in Sacramento and the remainder when they returned to the Ponderosa.  “What about you, Enos?  Planning to spend all your pay in the big city?”

“No, sir,” Enos replied amiably.  “I’m saving mine.”

“Yeah, I knew that,” Ben admitted with a smile.  “You’re a fine, frugal young man, Enos, the kind that plans for his future.  But what is it you’re planning for, exactly?”

Enos took a sip of coffee.  “Don’t take your meaning, sir.”

Ben cleared his throat.  No more hemming around the subject.  It was time to plunge straight in.  “I was wondering if you’d ever thought about settling down, Enos, raising a family.”

Enos sat down, folding his legs Indian style.  “Yes, sir, I’ve thought some about it.”

“Have to find the right girl, I suppose,” Ben said, dangling bait.

Hooked, Enos’s dark head came up abruptly.  “Oh, no, sir, I’ve found——”  He shrugged.  “If she’d have me, that is.”

Ben smiled.  Marie was right!  “Katerina?” he asked softly.

Enos flushed.  “That obvious?”

Ben shook his head.  “Not to me, but there were ladies along this trip.”

“Oh, yeah,” Enos mumbled.  He took deep interest in the contents of his tin mug.

“Have you talked to the girl?”

“Unh-uh,” Enos grunted, then looked tentatively at his employer.  “She’s mighty young, Mr. Cartwright.  Likely not interested in an old fellow like me.”

Coffee spewed from Ben’s mouth.  “Old!” he sputtered.  “You’re not thirty yet, boy.”

“Yes, sir, I am,” Enos corrected, “a month ago.”

“Oh.”  Ben leaned forward.  “Twelve years between you then.  What’s that?”

“You don’t think it’s too much?” Enos probed hopefully.

“I should hope not!” Ben laughed.  “I’m some over fifteen years older than my wife.”

Enos chuckled.  “That much?  I guess it can work then.  You think her mother might approve——and her brother?  I guess he’s the one to ask for her hand.”

Ben smiled.  Stefán must be all of twenty now.  Hard to think of a boy that young being the one to decide whom his sister could marry, but the Zuebner lad had been forced to grow up early when his father died along the trail.

“I doubt there’s anyone they’d be more likely to welcome into the family,” Ben assured the earnest suitor.  He was sure Ludmilla and Stefán would prefer an old and trusted acquaintance to any of the miners or merchants Katerina was likely to meet in Placerville.  And life on a ranch would suit the German girl.  After all, the Zuebners were farm-bred.  “You should ask her on the way home,” Ben suggested.

Enos shook his head.  “Got nothing to offer her yet.  Been saving up, like I said.  Hope to have my own place someday, but——”

“No need to wait,” Ben said quickly.  “That old cabin of mine is standing empty.  Needs some repair, of course, some fancying up for a lady, but you’re welcome to it, and when the time comes, I’d sell you some land around it.  Keep you on as foreman, of course, so you could have cash coming in while you build up your spread.”

Enos’s dark eyes began to glow.  “You’d do that?  I—I could ask her right away then.”

“Ask her,” Ben urged, slapping Enos’s shoulder as he stood up.  “I’ll be looking forward to having you as neighbors.”  He poured the rest of his coffee on the fire and headed for his bedroll.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Country Folks and High Society

“They’re not here,” Adam announced after a quick survey of the suite the hotel clerk at the Orleans Hotel had indicated was occupied by Mrs. Cartwright and sons.

“Probably out shopping,” Ben commented.  He hadn’t expected to find his wife at the hotel in the middle of the day, but he was disappointed nonetheless.

“Probably,” Adam grinned.  Ladies seemed to have an aptitude for that activity beyond that even of a country boy who rarely saw the big city.  Of course, Mrs. Thomas and Inger had never seen Sacramento at all, so it was doubly reasonable to assume they were scouring the stores for some utterly worthless female gewgaw.  “Let’s eat,” Adam suggested.

“Yeah, I’m hungry, too,” Ben admitted.  “We’d better clean up first, though.”

Adam brushed at the trail dust coating his trousers.  “Guess so,” he admitted and willed his rumbling stomach to quiet down while they washed and changed.  A full bath was probably in order, but both father and son were too hungry for more than cursory attention to their grooming.  They decided to eat lunch in an unostentatious cafe, where no one would expect, or even appreciate, sartorial splendor.

“Could we stop by the rooming house to see if my things are there?” Adam asked as they waited for their food to arrive.

“I’m sure your stepmother got them there safely,” Ben said bluntly.

Adam shrugged.  “Yeah, probably, but I’d kind of like to see Mrs. Maguire, let her know I made it in, and put in my bid for my old room.”

“Oh, I guess we can,” Ben said.  His face brightened as a thought occurred to him.  “You know, that’s a good idea, Adam.  If the ladies are out shopping, they may have left Little Joe with Mrs. Maguire.  I’d like to see my little boy, at least.”

Adam frowned.  Little Joe in no way fit in with his plans for the afternoon.  “We can’t take him to the bookstore,” he complained.

“Why not?” Ben chuckled.  “I’d hold him.”

“Easier said than done,” Adam muttered.  “Remember how he was in Placerville.”

Ben said nothing, for Adam had a point.  Little Joe, as everyone had been quick to tell him, had made himself quite at home along the boardwalks of Placerville, cheerfully trotting off to explore any new sight that caught his eye.  The miners, who saw few young children, had been delighted to watch the game of chase the little lad led with the bigger boy and girl charging frustratedly after.  Little Joe’s mother, however, tended to view with alarm his propensity for running into a street crowded with horses and wagons.

After lunch Ben and Adam walked to the rooming house and knocked at the door.  Mrs. Maguire answered.  “Oh, you’ve come, have you?” she said.  “It’s good to have you back, Adam.”

“Thank you, ma’am,” the boy replied politely.

Ben doffed his hat.  “I was wondering if my wife might have left our baby here while she shopped this afternoon.”

“Come in,” Mrs. Maguire laughed.  “They’re all here.  Youngsters in the swing out back, ladies in the dining room.”

Ben smiled broadly and followed her to the dining room.  Across the table pieces of burgundy silk lay strewn in apparent confusion, but each lady seemed to know what piece she needed when it came time to fit another to the section of dress she was sewing.  “My, you look busy,” Ben chuckled.

“Ben!” Marie cried and rose to engulf him in an ardent embrace.  “You have made good time.  And have you sold all our cattle?”

“Every one,” Ben reported, “and for a good profit.  Just in time, it appears, if I’m to keep you in finery.”

“The dress is mine,” Nelly laughed, “something fancy enough to take dinner with the Larrimores.”

“They’d have taken you any way you came,” Ben chided.

“But Nelly will feel more comfortable in this,” Marie insisted, holding up the silk skirt to which she’d been sewing a wide ruffle.

“No doubt,” Ben smiled.  “I thought you’d be out on the town, bankrupting me.  I only hoped you’d left Little Joe here for me to play with.”

“He is here, of course,” Marie laughed, “and will be glad to play with you, but you insult me, monsieur.  Bankrupt you, indeed!”

Ben gave her a saucy wink.

“Did you get me enrolled?” Adam asked.

Mais oui,” Marie replied, sitting and taking up her needle once more.

“What classes?” the boy demanded.

“Reading, writing and elocution, of course,” Marie said.

“I knew that,” Adam muttered impatiently.  Those course were standard for each term.

“Greek again and French, as you had hoped,” Marie continued, “and world history and algebra, whatever that is.”

“Mathematics,” Adam explained.  “I’d like to get a head start on that.”  He looked longingly at his father.

“Adam’s wanting to buy his books this afternoon,” Ben explained.

“I have already bought them,” Marie said, snipping the thread at the end of her seam, “from a list the school supplied.  They are in your room, Adam.”

“I’m going up to look them over,” Adam said, then remembered his manners, “if that’s all right.”

“It’s all right,” his father said.  “After all your work on the drive, you’ve earned an afternoon to spend as you like.”

“Same room, Mrs. Maguire?” Adam asked.  At her nod, he raced for the stairs.

“That boy and his books,” Nelly chuckled, looking up to rest her eyes.  “We won’t see hide nor hair of him ‘til suppertime.”

“Yeah, which leaves me at loose ends,” Ben complained good-naturedly.  “If you ladies are sewing and Adam’s reading, what am I to do ‘til time for dinner?”

“Play with your youngest, you said you wanted,” Marie smiled.

Ben brightened.  “Yeah, good idea.”  He exited through the back door.

“Pa!” Hoss yelled, charging off the swing.

“Pa!” Little Joe screamed, sliding off in a heap, but pulling up at once and running for his father.

Ben released Hoss to swoop the baby skyward, laughing in the sheer joy of being with his sons again.

* * * * *

The party remained in Sacramento another full day, giving the ladies time to finish Nelly’s new gown, which she inaugurated that night at the Forrest Theater.  Over her protests Ben insisted on treating her and Inger to dinner and the dramatic adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  It was the first time either mother or daughter had seen a play and both wept profusely at the poignant death of little Eva and the mistreatment of Uncle Tom by Simon Legree.

Traveling by steamboat the next day was a new experience for Inger, though Nelly remembered taking one such trip back east when she was no older than her daughter.  Hoss, once again acting as guide for his friend, stood at the rail beside her, pointing out sights he considered interesting.

A mammoth dinner was served at noon.  Nothing compared to the fare available on steamers on the Mississippi, Marie and Ben informed the others, but far from scanty.  Had their stomachs been willing, they could have sat for hours eating everything from fresh fish and oysters to roast venison and fine vegetables.  Hoss scanned with delight the table with a wide variety of rich desserts that graced one side of the dining area until his mother told him he could have only one kind.  He chose a thick slice of chocolate cake with cherry jam between each layer and an extravagant slathering of whipped cream as icing.

They arrived in San Francisco late in the afternoon and checked into the Parker House.  As they had in Sacramento, the Cartwrights stayed in a suite with two bedrooms and a parlor, while Nelly and Inger shared a single room nearby.  Conscious of the price of meals and lodging in California, as well as the costlier-than-usual purchases she’d made in Sacramento and intended to make in San Francisco, Nelly wanted to keep expenses down as much as possible.  Besides, the Thomases didn’t need a parlor of their own when they were spending most of their time in the Cartwrights’, anyway.

The entire party——except Little Joe, who was napping in the boys’ room——gathered there after freshening up from their journey.  Ben was sitting at a small writing table when Nelly and Inger arrived.  “I’m just sending word to the Larrimores of our arrival and asking if we might call tomorrow afternoon,” he explained.

“Lands, I hope it’ll be all right,” Nelly fretted, taking a seat by Marie on the sofa.  “Don’t know when I’ll be likely to get this way again.”

“It’ll be fine,” Ben assured her.  “Camilla just values these touches of societal manners.”

“High-falutin’, Clyde calls her,” Nelly giggled, “but I reckon she was always a mite that way.”

Ben chuckled.  “More than a mite now, but Lawrence has stayed pretty down to earth.  As for the children——”

“Ben,” Marie said, wagging a finger at him.  “Little pitchers.”

“Yeah, guess so,” Ben shrugged, turning back to his writing table.

Across the room Hoss dug an elbow into Inger’s ribs.  “They mean us,” he hissed, “but, shucks, I already know what a pain that Jewel Larrimore is.  You won’t like her much.”

Inger nodded in complete acceptance of her friend’s evaluation.  She and Hoss usually saw eye to eye on folks.

“You writin’ the Wentworths, too?” Nelly asked.  “I’d sure favor seein’ them again.  The reverend was a good man——turned out to be, at least.”

Ben smiled, remembering the rigid religion Ebenezer Wentworth had espoused when first they met and how the experiences of the trail had mellowed him into a man more compassionate of his neighbors.  “Yeah, I’ll send them a note, too, but there’s really no need.  Ebenezer’s family doesn’t stand on ceremony.  A stranger off the street would be welcome in their home unannounced, much less a dear friend like you.  I thought we’d see them in the morning, possibly take them to lunch, and visit the Larrimores afterwards.”

“Sounds good,” Nelly agreed.

“And do dress simply, Nelly,” Marie urged.  “Dear Mary has so little to spend on herself, and we do not wish to make her ill at ease.”

“Lands, no!” Nelly said, then frowned.  “But we have to dress fancy for Camilla, don’t we?”

“We’ll change after lunch,” Marie decided, “but only into our second best dresses.  The Larrimores are likely to invite us to supper, either tomorrow night or the one following, perhaps to the opera, as well.  You will want to save your silk for that.”

“She’s right,” Ben sighed.  “I’d better get my suit freshened up for the occasion, too.”

Hoss groaned at the thought of squeezing himself into a frilled shirt and fancy suit.  “Dinner at the Larrimores is plumb awful,” he informed Inger, “but the food’s pretty good.  And they got these Chinaboys that serve it to you.”

“Like Hop Sing,” Inger said.

Hoss shook his head.  “Naw, fancy Chinaboys in silk shirts and pants.  And they only bring out one kind of food at a time, so don’t worry if there ain’t nothing but soup to start with.”

“What are you younguns whisperin’ about?” Nelly asked, looking suspicious.

“I can guess,” Ben laughed.  “The joys of dining in high society, eh, boy?”

Hoss shrugged and turned crimson.  Sometimes Pa was altogether too good a guesser.

* * * * *

“Boat!”  Little Joe squealed, pointing ahead.

“That’s right,” Ben laughed, bouncing the baby on his arm.  “The Wentworths live on a boat.”

“Boat!” Little Joe demanded, struggling against his father’s confining embrace.

“That’s where we’re going,” Ben chided softly.  “Hold still, you little squirmer.”

But Little Joe refused to oblige, wriggling so persistently that Ben set him down as soon as they were on the deck.  “Fine, tell them we’re coming,” he said dryly, swatting the boy’s bottom.

Needing no urging, Little Joe trotted off immediately.

“Ben!” Marie scolded, hurrying after her baby.

“He’s headed straight for the door,” Ben muttered defensively.

The door to the boat that served both as the Reverend Wentworth’s church and his home was always open to anyone in need of help, so Little Joe wandered right in.  A silvery laugh greeted him.  “We don’t get many your size here,” the pale-cheeked girl said, stooping to catch the little boy.  Looking up, she saw the flustered mother.  “Oh, Mrs. Cartwright!” Mary cried.  “Is this your baby?”

“Mine, yes, and a naughty boy he is,” Marie rebuked lovingly.

“Oh, no, he’s precious,” Mary murmured, nuzzling the baby’s neck.  “Such a beautiful boy, so like you.”

By now the others had entered.  Mary recognized Ben and Hoss right away and hurried to welcome them.  It took a moment longer for her to realize that the woman standing beside Ben was someone from the party with which she’d traveled west.  She didn’t, however, recall Nelly’s name, since she’d been only five at the time.  Ben introduced them.  “Let me call father,” Mary offered.  “He’ll be so glad to see all of you.”

While the adults visited in the parlor, Mary took Inger, Hoss and Little Joe to her room.  “The boys aren’t here?” Ben asked, taking a seat in the armchair Ebenezer offered him.  The chair’s fabric was threadbare, the padding lumpy, but Ben was glad to see the room more comfortably furnished than on his last visit, even if the furniture was obviously second-hand.  He hoped his regular contributions to the Reverend Wentworth’s work were making life better, especially for fragile Mary.

“They’re at work,” Ebenezer said.

“Don’t neither of ‘em feel called to the Lord’s work?” Nelly asked.

Ebenezer laughed sharply.  “Scarcely.”  A shadow fell across his face.

Seeing it, Ben immediately asked, “The boys are well?  And Mary?  She looked pale to me.”

“Mary’s always delicate, of course,” Ebenezer sighed, “but she’s not ill at present.  The boys are in good health, of course.”

There was more to be told, Ben was sure, but he didn’t consider this the proper moment to ask.  “I’d hoped to take you all to lunch today,” he said.  “You and Mary will come, of course.”

“Well——”

“I won’t take no for an answer,” Ben urged, “and you don’t want to deny Mary a treat.”

Ebenezer smiled.  “No, I never would.  The dear girl has so few opportunities.”

“Since we’ll have the baby with us,” Ben explained, “Delmonico’s is not appropriate.  The Irving, perhaps?”

“Where you took us before?  Yes, Mary enjoyed that very much,” Ebenezer replied.

Little Joe insisted on walking hand in hand with his new friend Mary, so the procession to the restaurant was perceptibly slowed.  The ladies liked the pace, for it afforded them the opportunity of scrutinizing shop windows as they passed.  Ben and Ebenezer found themselves repeatedly pausing to let the ladies and children catch up, and during one of these intervals alone, Ebenezer told Ben he had a request to make.

“Anything, old friend, you know that,” Ben replied.

“Do you remember once, a few years ago, you offered to let Mary visit your home?  You thought the climate might be better for her,” Ebenezer began.

“Yes,” Ben chuckled, “and I remember you pointed out that it wasn’t appropriate for an unmarried man to entertain a young girl in his home.”

“You’re not unmarried now,” Ebenezer smiled, nodding back at Marie.  “Do you think your wife would mind having a guest for a while?”

Ben took his hand.  “We’d both love to have Mary with us——for as long as she likes.  However, I’m not sure this is the right time of year, Ebenezer.  Our winters can get very cold, and I doubt that would do Mary much good.  Perhaps in the spring?”

Ebenezer sighed.  “Spring, yes.  I confess I’d hoped to send her sooner, but, as you say, your winters are probably harsher than ours.  It——it wasn’t only Mary I’d hoped you might welcome, though, Ben.”

Ben studied his friend’s face.  “The boys?  I thought I read some concern there earlier.”

“Mark,” Ebenezer said quietly.  “Matthew, of course, hates city life and would welcome a stay in the country, but he has a good job here and is too responsible to forsake it.  Mark, on the other hand, worries me.”

“I know he’s fretted about——well, the frugality of your lives——but I thought that was mostly for Mary’s sake,” Ben said.

“That’s how it started,” Ebenezer sighed, “but lately Mark seems bent on tasting all the forbidden pleasures he thinks he’s been denied as the son of a poor preacher.  He’s taken to nightly excursions to the Barbary Coast, haunting the melodeons and cheap groggeries, and because he drinks more than he ought, he’s lost more than one decent job.”

“I’m so sorry,” Ben sympathized.  “Of course, Mark is welcome to come to us if you think a change of scene would help him.  It might simply build his resentment, Ebenezer, if he thinks you’re sending him away to be corrected.”

“That’s why I thought to combine it with Mary’s trip,” Ebenezer whispered, for the ladies were drawing near.  “Mark would do anything for her, and if he thinks the visit is for her sake——”

“He’d come willingly,” Ben said.  “Do send them this spring, then, Ebenezer, and we’ll see if we can’t bolster Mary’s health while reminding Mark of his better instincts.”

“What are you speaking of?” Marie asked, for she had heard the last few words.

Ben nodded back at Mary, bringing up the rear with Little Joe still clinging to her hand and Hoss and Inger trailing behind.  “Ebenezer’s gonna let Mary come to see us next spring.  Mark will escort her and stay also.”

“If that’s acceptable with you, Mrs. Cartwright,” Ebenezer said quickly.

Mais oui,” Marie cried with delight.  “It will be a joy.”

“Lands, it’s about time you put that big house to use,” Nelly laughed.

“Yeah,” Ben muttered.  He cast exasperated eyes at his youngest son.  “Any chance you could talk your son into letting me carry him?” he groused to his wife.  “I’m getting hungry.”

Your son,” Marie said, tossing responsibility back at her husband, “cares little for the growling of your stomach, and if you wish him to move faster, you may speak to him, not I.”

Ben looked at the little boy toddling happily beside Mary and shook his head.  Better to leave well enough alone.  This way, when they finally did reach the restaurant, at least they might hope for a peaceful meal.

* * * * *

Ushered in by a Chinese houseboy in yellow silk, the Cartwrights and Thomases entered the Larrimore parlor.  Camilla’s taffeta skirt rustled as she rose from a rose brocade settee to greet her female guests with a continental peck on each cheek.  Lawrence gave Ben a quick wink as they exchanged an old-fashioned American handshake.

“So good of you to call,” Camilla intoned graciously.  “Won’t you sit down, sill vuse plate?”  Her attempt at French was, as usual, awkward and affected, but Marie responded with a polite, “Merci, Madame,” as she took a seat, giving careful attention to settling her skirts until she could control the mirthful trembling of her lips.

Once everyone was seated, Camilla nodded at the houseboy, who disappeared at once.  “I’ve arranged to have tea served here in the parlor, so we may have a nice chat.  You must tell me all the news from the wilderness.”

“Wilderness?” Nelly asked, puzzled.

“She means Carson Valley, Nelly,” Ben interpreted, amused.

“Oh, lands!” Nelly laughed.  “It’s not a wilderness, Camilla.  Why, Carson City’s growin’ to be quite a little town.”

“Yes, I’m sure,” Camilla replied with a patronizing smile.  She felt certain that “little” was the precisely correct description for Nelly’s hometown.  “My, what a pretty child you have, Mrs. Thomas.”

Nelly’s eyes clouded for a moment.  Mrs. Thomas, indeed!  After all they’d shared together on the Overland Trail!  Of course, she and the Larrimores hadn’t seen one another in years.  Perhaps it was only natural that Camilla should feel a little distant.  Nelly appreciated the compliment to her daughter, however.  “Thank you very much,” she said.  “Inger’s a sweet child, a joy to my heart.”

Camilla smiled at her own daughter, a miniature copy of her mother in a dress which alternated violet taffeta with ruffles of violet and green tartan.  “You remember Jewel, of course.”

“My, yes,” Nelly said.  “Wouldn’t have recognized her, though.”  How could she possibly recognize the little girl from the trail in this cloyingly sophisticated adolescent?

“Jewel, precious, why don’t you take Inger to your room and show her your doll collection?” Camilla suggested.

A petulant pout appeared on Jewel’s painted lips, but she rose at once.  “Of course, Mother.”  She extended a hand toward Inger.  “Come with me, little girl.”

Inger looked at her mother, and Nelly nodded her permission.  As Jewel herded the younger girl toward the hall, she leaned close to whisper, “We’ll stop by the necessary so you can wash your hands.  I don’t want you dirtying up my dolls’ silk dresses.”  Inger looked at her perfectly clean hands, then frowned at the older girl.  Hoss had been right; she didn’t like Jewel Larrimore one bit.

“Sorry Sterling couldn’t be here today,” Nelly commented after they’d chatted for a while.  “Sure would like to have seen how he’s grown.  How old is the boy now?”

“Nineteen,” Camilla answered proudly.  “He’s at the PhilbergAcademy today, of course, but you’ll see him tomorrow night.  You will be staying long enough to take dinner with us and attend the opera, won’t you?”

“We’d be pleased, Camilla,” Ben replied for all of them.  “Is Sterling enjoying his studies?  I know Adam is.”

Lawrence laughed, a laugh without mirth.  “Sterling hates every minute he spends with a book, but his cruel father forces him.”

“Really, Lawrence,” Camilla chided, then smiled at Ben.  “The Philberg Academy is the most elite in San Francisco.  You should consider transferring Adam, Ben.  Of course, he won’t have the pleasure of Sterling’s company after this term, but think of the benefit to him socially, the contacts he might make to further himself in life.”

Ben cleared his throat to give himself time to weigh his words.  Of all his goals for Adam, making the right social contacts was last on the list, and Sterling Larrimore was probably the last boy in the world Adam would choose for a companion.  “Adam’s happy where he is,” he said finally, “and we’re satisfied that he’s getting an excellent education.  As for social contacts, he’s met some fine young men, one of them the son of a state senator.”

Camilla looked impressed.  “Oh, my!  Well, that’s good, then.”

Little Joe squirmed uncomfortably in his mother’s lap.  “Down,” he whimpered.

Marie took one look at the delicate teacups and dessert plates with which the Chinese houseboy was serving each guest and gripped her child tighter.  Little Joe just struggled harder.  “Down!” he demanded loudly.

“It’s all right, Marie,” Lawrence assured her.  “He won’t hurt anything.”

Marie looked dubious, but set the boy on the floor.  Little Joe toddled off to explore the new world around him.  “Watch him,” Marie mouthed silently to Ben and he nodded.

“A beautiful child,” Camilla enthused, “the image of you, Mrs. Cartwright.”

“Ain’t he, though?” Nelly laughed.  “We tease Ben that he’ll have to keep a shotgun handy, once this one’s of age, to scare off the girls.”

Lawrence gave a hearty laugh, but Camilla’s sounded merely obligatory.  “Yes, indeed, an attractive child,” she said.  Little Joe toddled up to clutch her taffeta skirt between inquisitive fingers.  “Ooh,” he cooed, liking the sound the material made when he rubbed it against itself.  He pulled it toward his mouth for a taste.  Camilla gently pried her skirt from his fingers.

Little Joe, never still for long, set off in search of new sights and sounds.  There weren’t, however, enough interesting ones to keep him occupied long.  Soon he was back patting his father’s knee.  “Boat,” he said solemnly.

Hoss grinned.  He and Little Joe were of the same opinion.  He, too, would have preferred to be on the Wentworths’ boat to sitting in the Larrimores’ stuffy parlor.

“Shh,” Ben whispered, pulling the baby into his lap.

“Boat, Pa,” Little Joe insisted.

Ben crammed a cookie into the youngster’s mouth.  Though Little Joe didn’t crave sweets the way Hoss always had, he nonetheless munched away at the cookie.  Ben smiled at Marie.

She shook her head.  A cookie wasn’t likely to distract Little Joe for long.  Obviously, they would need to make an abbreviated visit.

Two chimes declared the hour.  Hearing them, Nelly looked up at the tall grandfather’s clock and smiled.  “Now, there’s the voice of an old friend,” she said.

“Yeah,” Ben chuckled in agreement.  “Kind of miss the old fellow.”

“You are talking mysteries,” Marie chided.

“You remember me tellin’ how Ben and the boys stayed in a cabin with us that first year, don’t you, honey lamb?” Nelly asked.

Mais oui.”

“Well, Camilla’d left her clock behind when they went on over the mountains,” Nelly began.

“And I hated to see such a fine timepiece ruined,” Ben added.

“So he up and brung it home one day,” Nelly finished.  “Lands, what a racket that clock made in our little cabin.”

“But we got used to it,” Ben reminded her.  “Like I said, I kind of miss hearing those musical chimes through the night.”

“We still appreciate your bringing it to us,” Lawrence said.

“And my mother’s china,” Camilla added.  “What a surprise you gave me, Ben, the day you and your brother carried it in!”

“You hear much from John now that he’s gone back east?” Lawrence inquired.

Ben laughed.  “More than when he was at sea, but that’s about all I can say.”  He had just started to relate the news from John’s last letter when a small hand slapped at his cheek.  “Boat, Pa,” Little Joe pleaded.  “Go boat.”

Ben offered the boy another cookie, but Little Joe pushed it away.  “Go boat, Pa,” he whined.

“Shh,” Ben murmured, lifting the boy to his shoulder.  “You need bed, not boat,” he whispered to Little Joe, then gave his wife a resigned look.  “I’m afraid we have a tired boy, here.  We’d better take him back to the hotel for a nap.”

Hoss bounced up, eager to leave.

Lawrence stood and shook Ben’s hand in farewell.  “I’ll have our driver take you back to the hotel,” he offered and Ben thanked him.

Camilla rose, too.  “And remember, ladies, I’ll meet you at the Parker House at ten and show you all the best shops.”  Nelly had mentioned earlier that she, Marie and Mary Wentworth intended to spend most of the next day shopping, and Camilla had invited herself along.

Marie sighed with resignation.  “Oui, Madame, we will expect you at ten.”

* * * * *

“Reckon Camilla will get offended if we shop somewhere ‘sides her place?” Nelly asked as she and Marie waited in the Cartwrights’ parlor at the Parker House for Mrs. Larrimore to arrive.

“You go where you want, Nelly,” Ben said sharply.  “You don’t get enough opportunities in the big city to let Camilla dictate your plans.”

“Ben is right,” Marie said.  “The Larrimore Emporium is one of the best, though, and we will probably find more——”

“Careful,” Ben cautioned with a smile, for he was fairly certain Marie’s next word would be ‘toys’.  “Those little pitchers are just in the next room.”

“Now, are you sure you want to be saddled with all three younguns?” Nelly queried, a worried frown on her face.  “Inger could come with us.”

“No, no,” Ben assured her.  “She’ll be happier with us, and I’m sure there are certain items you’d rather buy when she’s not around.”

Nelly smiled.  She was looking forward to doing the Christmas shopping this year, for a fact.  Clyde had always done well by the children, but she was certain she could make better choices for their girl child, at least.

A messenger arrived at the door, announcing that the Larrimore carriage had arrived, and the ladies rose quickly.  Ben kissed Marie’s cheek lightly as she passed him.  “You are sure you’ll be all right?” she asked anxiously.  “Little Joe——”

“Will be fine,” Ben finished.  “He’ll love the beach.”

Marie nodded and hurriedly followed Nelly out the door.  Ben went into the boys’ room.  “Who’s ready to test the waves?”

“Me!” Inger said, bouncing up from the bed where she’d been playing with Little Joe’s bare toes.

“Me!” Little Joe chortled, not having the slightest idea what he was agreeing to.

Hoss said nothing.  Although he’d learned to swim, he still didn’t feel confident in the water, and an ocean represented a powerful lot of it to him.

Ben herded his charges downstairs and hired a carriage to take them to the waterfront.

Little Joe squealed the minute he saw the waves.  “Wa-wer!  Wa-wer, Pa!”

Ben laughed.  “That’s right.  You like water, don’t you?”

Little Joe’s head bobbed and he squirmed to get out of his father’s arms.  “Oh, no,” Ben scowled playfully.  “You stay right with Pa, baby boy.”  He turned to the other children.  “Don’t bother undressing.  Just take your shoes and stockings off, and you roll up your pant legs, Hoss.  I don’t want either of you children going in deep.  Ocean currents can be strong, and neither of you swims all that well yet.”

A bright smile lighted Hoss’s chubby countenance.  “It’s all right to wade?”

Ben rolled his eyes.  “Yes, Hoss, for once it’s all right to wade.”

“This is gonna be fun!” Hoss declared to Inger as he flopped onto the sand to remove his shoes.  Sitting beside him, the little girl nodded.

Ben sat down to remove his footwear and everything except Little Joe’s diaper.  He took the toddler’s hand and moved toward the waves lapping the sandy shore.  Little Joe crowed with delight and pattered through the sand to splash contentedly in the waves.  Ben glanced at the other youngsters from time to time, of course, but they were both good children, not likely to disobey.  In fact, Hoss could probably be counted on to yelp in terror if either of them ventured more than knee-deep.

Hoss and Inger chased each other, then let the incoming waves chase them for a while.  Noticing the shells scattered along the shore, however, Hoss decided they’d be the perfect things to store in the treasure box Uncle Clyde had made for him and began to gather them up.  Inger thought collecting shells was a good idea, too, but she was more discerning in her choices, selecting only the prettiest and only one of each kind.  Hoss picked up everything that wasn’t badly broken.

The children were having so much fun Ben had a hard time convincing them it was time to leave.  “Little Joe can’t take this much sun,” he explained.

“He don’t want to go either,” Hoss argued.

“He doesn’t want a good many things that are good for him,” Ben chuckled.

“But we wanted to build a sand house, like them other kids is doin’, Uncle Ben,” Inger pleaded.

“Yeah!” Hoss chimed in, although the thought of playing in the sand hadn’t entered his head until Inger mentioned it.

“Oh, all right,” Ben gave in, “for a little while.  Just don’t try to construct the pyramids of Egypt.”  Both Inger and Hoss promised faithfully that they would not build a pyramid, an easy promise to keep since neither child had the slightest notion of what one was.  Little Joe, of course, whimpered to play with the others, which practically guaranteed the house built of sand would have no resemblance to anything ever built in stronger material.  No one cared, however.  They were there to have fun, and even the baby’s fumbling fingers couldn’t spoil that.

Afterwards, with Little Joe freshly diapered and the others redressed as neatly as possible, Ben took them to a high overlook.  “Know what those are, children?” he asked, pointing to the sleek brown animals sunning themselves on the rocks below.

Listening to the animals calling to one another, Little Joe supplied the answer.  “Doggy!” he cried.

Inger and Hoss laughed.  They didn’t recognize the animal, either, but knew it wasn’t a dog.  “Does bark like one,” Hoss admitted with a grin at his baby brother, “but that ain’t a doggy, Punkin.  You know what doggies look like——like Klamath.”

As the animals continued barking, Little Joe shook his head.  “Doggy,” he insisted.

“Seal,” his father corrected.

“Doggy,” Little Joe repeated stubbornly, frowning at his father.

“Fine.  Watch the doggies,” Ben said dryly.

The “doggies” put on a lively performance for the three children, slipping in and out of the water, shaking themselves dry and raising their whiskered noses to the sky.  When Ben announced it was time to leave, the response was the same he’d received at the beach.  “It’s past noon now,” Ben said.  “Aren’t you hungry yet?”

“Hey, yeah,” Hoss agreed quickly.  “I sure am.”

“You always are,” Inger giggled, giving him a teasing grin.  “Me, too, though.”

“Me, too,” Little Joe added.

“You, too, what?” Ben chuckled.

Little Joe pointed downward.  “Want doggy.”

“Oh, no,” Ben laughed.  “Doggy stays here.  We have enough animals on the Ponderosa.”

“Doggy,” Little Joe pleaded piteously.  “HaHa doggy.”

“Huh?”  Sometimes Ben found it difficult to interpret his youngest son’s broken speech.  Suddenly, the meaning became clear, however.  “No, I know Hoss has a dog, but you cannot take home a seal.”

The baby began to cry.  “Oh, don’t start that,” Ben chided softly, holding his little one close to comfort him.  “That doggy has to live in water, son.”  Then Ben shook his head.  What had possessed him to try to explain to a child under two?

But Little Joe understood more than Ben had thought he could.  “Tahoe,” the little boy suggested.

Ben laughed, surprised the baby even knew the name of the alpine lake near the Ponderosa.  “No.  Lots of water, salt water.”

Not understanding the difference, Little Joe continued to whimper.  “Let’s go,” Ben said quietly to the other children.  They found a seaside cafe, where no one objected to sand-coated customers, and once absorbed in a tasty meal, even Little Joe forgot why he was crying.

* * * * *

Having collected Mary at the Wentworths’ boathouse, the ladies arrived shortly afterward at the Larrimore Emporium.  “Oh, my!” Nelly cried when she saw the stately brick building.  “You folks have done right well for yourselves.”

Camilla beamed proudly.  “Yes.  Lawrence was always good at business, of course, but opportunity was lacking in St. Joseph.  I’m so glad I persuaded him to come west.”

Nelly choked, for no one who had come west on the Larrimore train could have swallowed Camilla’s statement without choking.  They all knew her for the most reluctant pioneer in the group, the one who wanted to turn back at every river crossing.

Marie smiled.  Though she only knew what she’d been told about that trip, she could guess what Nelly was thinking and stored up Camilla’s remark to repeat later for Ben’s amusement.  She turned to Mary Wentworth.  “Would you prefer a ready-made dress, mon chérie, or the yardage to make your own?”

“Oh, ready-made, of course,” Jewel answered for her friend.  “They’re so much more stylish.”

Mary laughed lightly.  “I am not a stylish girl, Jewel; you know that.  I would like to make my own, please, Mrs. Cartwright.”

Marie smoothed the girl’s fine curls.  “I thought that would please you best, but be sure to choose everything you need to finish your outfit——ribbons and laces, buttons and thread, to match.  We’ll buy you some new shoes, too.”

“You are so kind!” Mary cried.

“Oh, no, we’re are just having fun, like little girls dressing a new dolly,” Marie laughed.  “You must let us have our way or we will cry and kick our heels against the floor.”

“We can’t have that!” Mary tittered.  “Oh, this will be fun!”

“Well, let’s look at the yard goods, then,” Jewel sighed, crooking her arm through Mary’s elbow.  “At least, we have some fancy ones here.”

Marie and Nelly made their way around the store with Camilla hovering at their elbows to point out the best buys.  Usually their taste tended toward simpler things, but Marie sighed with longing when Camilla pointed out a pair of gray linen walking boots with delicate tassels at their fronts.  “They’ll look lovely on your dainty feet, my dear,” Camilla enthused.

Marie nodded.  She thought so, too, but she still felt reluctant to buy things for herself when she was sure Ben needed every spare penny to purchase ranch stock.  “Not today,” she said, but seeing her yearning eyes, Nelly made a note to mention those boots to Ben.  They’d make a nice Christmas gift, and he’d appreciate the suggestion.

The ladies made their selections and brought them to the register for Lawrence to tally and, in Marie’s case, credit to the account Ben would pay when he came to shop the following day.  “You’ll want all these delivered to the Parker House?” Lawrence asked.

“Well, I am not sure what to do with the things for Adam,” Marie said.  “I think the Paynes will probably invite him there for Christmas as they did last year, and——”

“Oh, no,” Camilla interrupted.  “You must send the boy to us this year.”

Completely taken off guard, Marie could say nothing.  She was certain Adam would prefer another trip to Rancho Hermoso to a stay with the Larrimores, but as yet the Paynes had made no invitation.  They hadn’t had a chance.

“We’ll show the boy a wonderful time, won’t we, Lawrence?” Camilla rushed on, sensing Marie’s hesitation.  “Plenty of parties and nights at the opera to entertain him.  You know Adam would enjoy that.”

Oui, he would,” Marie admitted.  “I will have to speak to Ben, of course.”

“Yes, of course,” Lawrence said quickly, “but you tell Ben we’d love to see Adam again.  Been quite a while now.  Shall I just keep his gifts here and send the rest on to the hotel?”

Oui, I suppose that will be best,” Marie replied.  After all, Ben could collect them tomorrow if he chose to refuse the Larrimores’ invitation.  She looked back up at Lawrence.  “There is one more thing I hoped to purchase, but I have seen none here.  Perhaps you could direct me to a shop that sells clocks such as yours.”

“We have some lovely mantel clocks, my dear,” Camilla suggested.

“I think she means a grandfather’s clock, Camilla,” Lawrence said.

Oui,” Marie inserted quickly.  “It would make a fine gift for Benjamin since he misses yours so.”  Frugal with her own desires, she didn’t mind spending money on Ben or the boys.

“It would,” Lawrence agreed, “but I doubt you’ll find one in San Francisco, Marie.  We could order you one, of course, but it wouldn’t arrive in time to ship it over the mountains——if you were thinking of Christmas, I mean.”

Marie sighed.  It was so hard to get used to the difficulties of shopping in the far west.  In New Orleans one could find practically anything.  Here, though San Francisco was growing more metropolitan all the time, luxury items were still a rarity.

“Why don’t you order a clock for this spring?” Nelly suggested.  “For your anniversary.  Ben’ll like it just as well then.”

Mais oui!” Marie cried.  “That will be perfect.”

Lawrence beamed with pleasure.  “Shall I just choose one I think Ben will like?  I’ve got a pretty good idea of his taste.”

Oui, s’il vous plait,” Marie said, certain she could trust Lawrence’s judgement, if not his wife’s.

While Lawrence was totaling Nelly’s purchases, Mary approached, carrying a bolt of lilac calico.  “I tried to talk her into the brocade,” Jewel pouted, “but, as usual, she just won’t listen.”

“Papa will like this better,” Mary said, her blue eyes shining.

“Is it what you like best?” Marie probed.  Mary nodded with a smile.  “Six yards, I think,” Marie decided, quickly assessing Mary’s figure.  “That should leave enough for a matching bonnet.”

Then, while Lawrence measured the length of fabric, she took Mary around the store, selecting trim for the dress and ribbons for the girl’s hair in every color available.  Even black would look striking against Mary’s light tresses.  “We’ll buy your shoes elsewhere,” Marie whispered to her young charge, sensing that Mary would prefer something simpler and more serviceable than the stylish boots at the Emporium.  Mary smiled gratefully.

Leaving the Larrimore Emporium, the shoppers made a concerted attack on the shops of San Francisco.  They did more looking than purchasing, however.  Clyde had promised to build a new home from sawed lumber for his family, so Nelly was particularly interested in getting ideas for furnishing her new home.  The house the Thomases were planning wasn’t nearly as large as the Ponderosa ranch house, but it would contain a guest room.  Nelly did purchase one bed and washstand for that room, even though she’d have to store it at the Ponderosa until her house was completed.  Anything else could wait until spring.

Marie stopped in a tobacco store run by a man named Adolph Sutro to buy a new pipe and imported tobacco for Ben’s Christmas present.  Not as costly as the grandfather’s clock, of course, but Ben would be pleased.  Brown, buttoned boots for Mary and a bag of Ghirardelli’s chocolates for Hoss completed their purchases.

“Now, for a delightful luncheon,” Camilla suggested.  “Delmonico’s serves the finest food, of course, but we’ll be eating there before the opera tonight.”

“Something lighter would be better for luncheon, don’t you think?” Marie suggested.

“Yes,” Camilla agreed, “and I know just the place, Winn’s Fountain Head.  It’s near here, too, at the corner of Washington and Montgomery.”

“Hope it ain’t too fancy,” Nelly murmured to Marie as Camilla led the procession down Montgomery Street.

Winn’s Fountain Head, however, turned out to be the perfect luncheon spot for a group of ladies weary from a morning’s shopping.  After dining on delicate tea sandwiches, Marie offered to treat everyone to a dish of ice cream.  “Could I have the strawberries and cream, instead, Mrs. Cartwright?” Mary Wentworth asked.  “I haven’t had fresh strawberries since we found them along the trail.”

“Lands, girl, that’s years ago,” Nelly sympathized.

“You must order exactly what you want,” Marie added.  “Ice cream is a treat for us because we cannot get it at home as we can strawberries.

Except for Mary, all the ladies enjoyed a dish of cold ice cream, then each returned to her home or her hotel room to rest in anticipation of the evening’s activities.

* * * * *

Nelly took one look at the warm adobe hacienda at Rancho Hermoso and immediately knew she’d feel more welcome there than she had in the Larrimores’ San Francisco mansion.  The Paynes’ home had a quiet grace and beauty that was inviting.  And the fervor of Rachel’s welcoming embrace confirmed Nelly’s expectations.  Within moments the years faded away, and the companionship they’d felt along the trail returned.

The Payne children immediately seized their new playmates for rowdy games in the dirt yard, while Rachel ushered the ladies into the parlor for lemonade and gossip.  Jonathan remained outside with Ben to help carry in the voluminous luggage.  “Which of these do you want us to store for Adam’s Christmas?” Jonathan asked, laughing at the size of the pile.

Ben shook his head.  “I left those in San Francisco.  The Larrimores invited the boy to take Christmas with them.”

“Oh, too bad,” Jonathan said.  “We were counting on having him here again.  I think he really enjoyed himself last Christmas.”

“I know he did,” Ben assured his friend, “and I’m sure he’d rather visit  you again.  Lawrence and Camilla were awfully insistent, though, and I wasn’t sure of your plans, so I accepted their invitation.”

Jonathan laughed as he hoisted carpetbags and bundles.  “Well, we’ll put in our bid for next year right now.  That way you’ll have no excuse.”

Ben laughed and gathered up an armload to carry inside.

“Isn’t it wonderful news about Enos?” Rachel was bubbling as the men came in.

“Oh, did he tell you he intends to ask Katerina to marry him?” Ben asked.

Rachel laughed.  “Not just intends——already has!”

“But how is that possible?” Marie queried.  “We have not been back through Placerville yet.”

“Maybe you haven’t,” Rachel tittered, “but once Ben put the spark under him, Enos couldn’t wait.  Rode back to Placerville just to ask her before he came here.”

Chuckling, Ben followed Jonathan down the hall to the guest room.  That foreman of his always had been a quick worker.

“Land sakes!” Nelly cackled.  “And she said yes?  I know she did!”

“She did,” Rachel reported, smiling broadly.

“Oh, we must hurry home, so we can get their cabin ready,” Marie said, panic flickering in her emerald eyes.  “I did not think he would move so quickly.”

“Relax,” Rachel said.  “They won’t be marrying ‘til next spring.  That disappointed Enos, I think.”

“Just like a man,” Nelly clucked, “always wantin’ their cake before it has time to bake.”

“Katerina needs time to prepare her trousseau, oui?” Marie asked.

“That’s part of it,” Rachel replied.  “And Stefán asked them to wait, to test their feelings.”

“That youngun always did have a good head on his shoulders,” Nelly said approvingly.

“And always was protective of his little sisters, too,” Rachel added.

“I have always thought spring the best time for a wedding,” Marie sighed contentedly.

The other ladies laughed.  “Just ‘cause that’s when you married Ben,” Nelly teased, and Marie’s demurrals only made the others laugh harder.

They had plenty of time to discuss plans for making Katerina’s wedding a joyous celebration, for the women and children stayed on at Rancho Hermoso after Ben and his hired hands started driving the newly purchased young cattle back east over the Sierras.  Finally, the day came for them to return home if they were to arrive by the time Ben did.  Little Joe wept furiously at being parted from his new friend Sammy Payne, and the ladies wiped tears from their own eyes, as well as the baby’s.  They were bonding tears, though, tears expressing the pleasure they’d found in each other’s company.  And while Nelly and Marie had enjoyed visiting all their California friends, they could scarcely wait to return home and begin renovating the old cabin for its spring bride.  With that responsibility, in addition to the building of Nelly’s new home, the next few months would be busy ones.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Autumn, A Season for Growth and Change

Although Clyde and Nelly hoped to be settled in their new home by Thanksgiving, construction could not begin until early October.  Just as well, Clyde declared, for it was not until September that Abraham Curry was able to hire a surveyor, Jerry Long, to lay out the streets and the ten-acre plaza that would form the new town’s center.  By waiting, Clyde felt he could have a better feel for where the best lots would be.  The weeks during which Long was working were among the busiest of the year for farmers, anyway, as gardens yielded their final harvests and food was preserved and stored against the winter to come.  Finally free from regular responsibilities, Clyde chose a lot on a side street, set the date for the house-raising for the second Saturday in October and invited his neighbors in to help.

Ben arrived early with all the ranch hands he could spare from their regular work.  “Marie’s coming,” he assured Nelly and Laura, who were already at work preparing food for the noon meal.  “She just needed some extra time to get Little Joe’s things together.”

Nelly nodded.  “I figured as much.  Clyde and the doc are over at the house site.”

“Yeah, I’d better get over there, too,” Ben said.  “I figure Clyde’s anxious to get started.”

“No more than me,” Nelly laughed.  “I’m lookin’ forward to havin’ a parlor again.”

“And a bedroom separate from your children,” Laura teased.

Nelly blushed and flapped a flour-coated hand at Laura.

Ben ambled across the plaza to the lot Clyde had purchased for his new home.  Digging the foundation, Clyde flicked a shovelful of earth over his shoulder and paused long enough to greet his friend.  “‘Bout time you showed up,” he jibed, “or was you plannin’ on waitin’ ‘til the work was all done?”

“Just so I’m here in time for dinner,” Ben joked back.  “Got another shovel?”

“Go on and take the doc’s for now,” Clyde suggested.  “He ain’t much of a hand at diggin’.”

“Or hammering, either,” Doctor Martin acknowledged, giving the shovel to Ben and leaning his hands on his knees to take a deep breath.  “But when my time comes to build I’ll really need help, so I’d best earn it now by doing what I can.”

Ben laughed.  “That’s the way it works, my friend.  I didn’t know you were planning to build, too.”

“Not soon,” Paul said.  “I’m going to set up my office in the Thomas’s old place, once they move.  That’ll give us more room at home, but I’d like Sally to have something better than a cabin someday.  Maybe next year.”

“Why don’t you make yourself useful, Doc, and bring some more shovels from the tradin’ post?” Clyde asked.  “I reckon Ben’s men know how to wrestle one.”

“Better than me,” Paul admitted.  “Sure, I’ll gladly fetch and carry whatever you need.  Don’t want my unskilled hands ruining your hard work.”

“Them hands is skilled enough in other ways,” Clyde said, giving the doctor an encouraging grin.  It wasn’t often he felt himself the equal of educated men like Ben and the doc, but when it came to working with his hands, Clyde knew he was the acknowledged expert and could afford to be generous, the way they were with him at other times.

“Howdy, Uncle Ben,” Billy, digging the foundation for the opposite wall, called.  “Next time you write ole Adam, you tell him I’m building this place sound as I can without his help.”

“I’ll do it,” Ben promised, chuckling.  Architecturally-inclined Adam, as Billy knew, had been particularly perturbed at missing this house-raising, and the freckled-faced mischief couldn’t resist teasing, even if he had to do it indirectly and by mail.

“Hear anything from the youngun lately?” Clyde asked as Ben planted the shovel in the ground and pushed with his foot.

“Just the one letter,” Ben said.  “No real news to tell, except that everyone in California’s looking forward to that Butterfield Stage Line coming in.”

“Should be soon, huh?”

“Middle of this month, if reports are right,” Ben replied.  “Think of it, Clyde——St. Louis to San Francisco in under a month.”

“And that’s goin’ the long way ‘round,” Clyde added.

“Yeah,” Ben muttered, pitching dirt over his shoulder.  The route chosen for the new Overland Stage, down through El Paso and Tucson to Los Angeles and up the coast to San Francisco, was a source of frustration.  A central route would have been shorter and would have brought the stage conveniently close to Carson City, but opponents argued that winter snows in the Rockies and Sierras could disrupt service.  Ben suspected the pressure to choose the longer route, so circuitous it was called the “oxbow,” had come from southern politicians.  A shame sectional contentions had to affect ordinary people’s lives that way, but since Ben had no expectation of traveling east again, he couldn’t complain too much about the stage’s bypassing western Utah.  Adam, of course, might choose to continue his education back east someday, and it was good to know transportation was improving enough to make that possible.

When the foundation was dug, the workers began raising the wooden supports for the house.  By the time noon came, the framework was in place, and the men gathered around the table, proud of the work accomplished and ready for an hour’s rest.  The women and children would eat later.

“Thank you, ma’am,” Enos Montgomery said when Nelly offered him his choice of light or dark chicken meat.

“Take another piece, son,” she urged.  “You need some meat on your skinny bones.”

“So that little gal of yourn’ll have somethin’ soft to hold onto,” Clyde cackled.

Enos blushed furiously and the other men laughed good-naturedly at his discomposure.

“Ignore them, Enos,” Marie soothed, pausing as she circled the table pouring coffee for each worker.

“They’re just jealous,” Nelly added stoutly, “wishin’ they had a bride pretty as Katerina.”

“That’s right,” Ben laughed.  “All except me, of course.  I’m content with my own beautiful bride.”  Marie smiled at him.

“Hey, who says I ain’t?” Clyde protested.  “You tryin’ to get me in trouble with my woman, Ben?”

“As if you needed help!” Nelly chortled, pulling her husband’s auburn beard.

“What you think of them Californy cattlemen bringin’ their herds to winter here, Ben?” Clyde asked, feeling a change of subject would be prudent, if only to spare his chin whiskers.

Ben ladled gravy over his mashed potatoes.  “Can’t figure it out.  Plenty of good grazing in California, but I suppose we have enough range to share.”

“Not any of ‘em up our way, at least,” Enos commented.  “The herds I’ve seen were in Carson and Eagle valleys.”

“Any thoughts on the coming elections?” Paul asked, taking a roasting ear from the platter as it passed.

“Consarned Mormons still tryin’ to run the show,” Clyde grumbled, slathering butter on an ear of his own.  “Reckon that’ll please Ben here, though, him bein’ of the Mormon party.”

“Now don’t start that!” Nelly chided.  “If there’s anything I’ve had an earful of the last month!”

“I don’t understand why the political parties here are divided along religious lines,” Paul commented, “especially after so many Mormons leaving the region.”

“Nothing religious about it,” Ben muttered.  “It all goes back to that incident with Lucky Bill.  Because the man had two wives, everyone who thinks he was hanged wrongly is lumped in with the Mormon party, even if they’re gentiles.  Everyone who thinks the hanging was justified belongs to the anti-Mormons.”

“Mr. Thomas here never did cotton to Mormons,” Enos commented, “so I figure he’s with the anti-Mormons.  You takin’ the opposite side, Mr. Cartwright?”

“I vote the man, not the party,” Ben replied irritably, “and Mr. Thomas ought to know that.”

“Reckon I do, Ben,” Clyde said, “but you always seemed to favor them Mormon candidates.”

“Never had much else to choose from,” Ben pointed out.  “Still that way, though to a lesser extent.”

“Yeah, well, I’ll be voting for every anti-Mormon I can find on the ballot,” Clyde grinned, “and hopin’ my good neighbors’ll do the same.”

Ben didn’t want to give Clyde the satisfaction, but he planned to give the few anti-Mormon candidates his vote, as well.  They seemed like solid men, especially his Washoe Valley neighbor Richard Sides, who was nominated for selectman, and Abernethy, who was running for sheriff.  Of course, Ben would have been likely to vote for anyone running against  W. T. C. Elliott.  The very name brought bad memories to mind.

After lunch the men went back to work and by the time they quit that evening the house was framed in and roofed.  There was more work to be done, but now that the house was safe from the weather, Clyde could take his time about finishing the interior.

Ben had just loaded his family into the buckboard for the trip home when he heard someone shout his name.  Looking across the Carson City plaza, he saw William Ormsby waving at him.  “Be back in a minute,” he told Marie and headed toward the hotel owner and merchant.

As soon as he came within reach, Ormsby clapped him on the shoulder.  “Here’s the man for you, Dodge.  No one in these parts is a better friend to the Paiutes than Ben Cartwright——excepting myself, that is.”

Ben turned a quizzical gaze on the dark-headed young man standing beside Ormsby.  “I haven’t had the pleasure, sir.”

“Frederick Dodge,” Ormsby said in introduction.  “Newly appointed Federal Indian Agent.”

“Oh!  A pleasure, indeed, sir,” Ben said enthusiastically.  He’d read about the appointment of the Indian agent for western Utah, but had not as yet met the young man.  “With so many white men encroaching their lands, the Indians need a voice in their support.”

“My intention, precisely,” Dodge declared enthusiastically.  “However, before I can be an effective voice I must know the people I represent.  I wish to rendezvous with the Indians and ascertain their needs, but I’m in need of a guide, Mr. Cartwright.”

“He asked me first, of course,” Ormsby inserted, “because of my relationship with Winnemucca, but business prevents my leaving here.  Then I saw you, Cartwright, and knew you’d be the perfect solution to our new agent’s problem.”

“You are a friend to the Paiutes, I’ve been told,” Dodge added.

Ben had to smile.  That had been said of him more often as a criticism than as a quality to admire.  “I count a number of Paiutes, as well as Washos, among my friends,” he replied, “and I’d be privileged to introduce you to them.”

“Fine,” Dodge beamed.  “When can we leave?”

“Tomorrow morning?” Ben suggested.  “If you like, you can return to the Ponderosa with us, spend the night and get an early start.”

“Wouldn’t pass up that opportunity!” Ormsby enthused.  “You wouldn’t believe the meals their Chinese cook dishes up.”

“I’ll get my things and be down in a few minutes,” Dodge said.

* * * * *

For the next two weeks Ben showed the new Federal Indian Agent around the territory, introducing him to leaders of both the Washo and Paiute tribes.  “I’m surprised to find the Indians in such good condition,” Dodge declared as they rode toward HoneyLakeValley.  “They are experiencing some changes in their lifestyle, but seem to be adapting well to white ways.”

“Some more than others,” Ben replied.  “The Washos have always seemed more adaptable to me, but even the Paiutes are beginning to find work on the ranches.”

“It’s encouraging,” Dodge enthused.  “Of course, they will require governmental help, but not nearly as much as I’d feared.”

“What they really need,” Ben suggested, “is land set aside for their restricted use.  Good land, I mean, like around PyramidLake.”

“A reservation?”

Ben frowned.  “Not exactly what I had in mind.  That word implies keeping the Indians in; I had in mind keeping white men out.”

Dodge laughed.  “Hard to accomplish, but I understand your point.  It’s a valid one.  It’s time these Mormons had some restrictions.  The Indians have suffered enough at their hands.”

Dodge reminded Ben so much of Clyde Thomas that he chuckled.  “Not just Mormons.  The gentiles are just as bad.”

“Yes, but it’s the Mormons who’ve been in charge, Mr. Cartwright,” Dodge argued.  “You think there’s any chance of their being turned out in the upcoming election?”

Ben smiled.  “About a snowball’s chance.  I intend to do what I can, however.  That’s why I’ll be leaving you at HoneyLake.  I have an obligation to a friend, as well as a civic one, so I have to be in Carson the last of the month.”

“I understand,” Dodge replied.  “This man you mentioned, he knows the Indians as well as you?”

“Pretty much,” Ben said.  “In fact, I believe Warren Wasson speaks Paiute more fluently than I do.  Poito’s people——well, you’d know him as Winnemucca——have been spending most of their time along Smoke Creek, so Wasson sees them more than I do nowadays.”

“I hope you’ll be able to attend the rendezvous,” Dodge said.

“Try my best,” Ben promised.

* * * * *

Since Nelly was anxious to move into her new home, Clyde worked diligently, and by election day on the thirtieth of October, everything was ready.

Bringing a buckboard loaded with furniture the Thomases had stored at the Ponderosa, Ben cast his ballot in Carson City early that morning, then remained in town to help his friends transfer their belongings from the cabin to the two-story frame house.  Afterwards, Paul enlisted him to help carry his examining table and medical supplies to the old Thomas cabin, thus separating his work place from his home.

When the election results were announced later that evening, Clyde sneered as the usual majority of Mormons candidates were declared victors.  L. Abernethy was the new sheriff, and Richard Sides, another anti-Mormon, was named one of several selectmen.  Practically everyone else came from what Clyde Thomas referred to as “the wrong party.”

After the election, as Ben had hoped, he was able to attend the rendezvous with the Paiutes arranged by Frederick Dodge.  The Indians had an opportunity to air their grievances and seemed pleased by the hickory shirts, overalls and tobacco the Indian agent offered in token of future help.  The earnest young man was making a good beginning in his relationship with the natives; if he could be as successful in dealing with the white authorities in Salt Lake City, Ben foresaw many years of peaceful relations with the original inhabitants of western Utah.

* * * * *

“Well, it’s not as bad as I was afeared it might be,” Nelly commented after she and Marie had made an inspection of the old Cartwright cabin.

“It is bad enough,” Marie moaned.  “You can see through those cracks between the logs.”

Nelly laughed.  “Just needs new chinking, honey lamb.  The menfolk can take care of that in a day.  Since Ben boarded up the windows, they’re in good shape.  Place needs a good cleanin’, of course.”

“Our job,” Marie said.  She fingered the curtains at the front window.  “These should be replaced.”

“My, yes!” Nelly agreed.  “Those were old when you moved in.  We’ve got plenty of time to make new curtains, though, and the bed ticks should be freshened.”

“They will not need two bedrooms,” Marie said.  “Perhaps Katerina would wish to use the front one as a parlor.”

“Sounds good to me,” Nelly remarked, “but we’d best ask Enos about that before we go plannin’ their house for them.”

Marie laughed.  “Oui, you are right.  It is such fun, like the day we took Mary shopping, but we must remember this is Katerina’s home, not our dollhouse.”

“Enos won’t mind a few suggestions,” Nelly said, “and a parlor’s a good one.”

“We must also tell him to buy a cookstove,” Marie insisted.  “We took ours with us, and Enos may not realize how important a proper stove will be to his wife.”

Nelly laughed.  “You’re just rememberin’ how it was when you first came here and found out Ben expected you to cook over an open fire.”

“It was horrible,” Marie declared, “and I do not want Katerina to find such a welcome.”

Nelly put an arm around the younger woman.  “Don’t you fret, honey lamb.  By the time Enos brings Katerina here, this cabin’ll be everything a new bride could hope for.”

Marie smiled.  With all of them working together, she was sure the Montgomery’s new home would be perfect.

* * * * *

November broke brisk, wind swooping down the slopes of the Ponderosa hills.  Then an unexpected snowfall gave warning of an early and severe winter, the temperature dropping so sharply Ben knew he had to lay in a large supply of firewood, the sooner the better.  His plans to caulk the Montgomery cabin changed quickly as he and his men hurried into the woods with whipsaws and crosscuts.  The cabin could wait, after all; it was months until the wedding.

After that first snowfall, however, the weather, although cold, turned pleasant again.  Hoss buckled down to his schoolwork in earnest, but he missed no opportunity to volunteer for other activities.  Refusing the boy permission to join the woodcutters, Ben relented when Hoss volunteered to ride into Carson City after the mail the day it was due.  Ben remembered how much he himself had looked forward to a day away from his books and hadn’t the heart to deprive his son of a morning’s freedom now and then.

Snowshoe Thompson still only carried the mail as far as Genoa, but Abe Curry, as a service to residents of his new town and those who lived on nearby ranches, provided a man to pick up everyone’s mail and bring it to Carson.  The day the carrier was expected, Hoss rode happily toward town, the only cloud graying his mood the piteous sobs of his little brother on being left behind.  Little Joe’d forget all that by the time Hoss returned, however.  Even if he hadn’t, Aunt Nelly probably would have cookies baked, and Hoss could appease his younger brother with a sweet peace offering.

Hoss arrived in town before the mail did, so he visited with Jimmy Ellis for a while, then invited himself to dinner at the Thomases.  They were at the table when the noise outside told them the mail carrier had come.  Since nothing was more important than news from the outside world, Hoss and Inger were excused from the table to collect their families’ mail.

Clyde ambled along after them for a chance to garner any news that might have come by word of mouth.  As they walked back home, he reported what he’d learned.  “Less than ten miles to go on that telegraph linking Placerville to Genoa.  Ought to be finished in four, five days.  You be sure and tell your pa, Hoss; he’ll be wantin’ to know.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss said.  “Reckon he’d let me telegraph Adam?”

Clyde laughed.  “Telegraph’s for emergencies, boy.  Reckon you’ll have to make do with regular mail.”

Though he couldn’t have gotten away with it at home, Hoss read his letter from Adam right at the table between bites of beef and barley soup.  As he read, his frown deepened.

Noting the boy’s expression, Billy chuckled.  “What’s the matter?  Don’t he have nothin’ to talk about but what books he’s readin’?”

“Worse than that,” Hoss moaned.  “It’s all about some girl he met.”

“Hand it over,” Billy demanded.

“Billy!” his mother scolded.  “You mind your manners.”

Hoss, however, saw nothing wrong in Billy’s request and immediately surrendered the offensive letter.  Billy scanned the lines quickly and returned the letter.  “He don’t tell enough to get excited over,” the older boy remarked.

“What girl’s he talkin’ about?” Nelly asked, unable to control her feminine curiosity.

“Aw, it’s the sister of that senator’s son he knows, that Martin Gallagher,” Billy muttered.  “Name’s Philippa.”

“Peculiar name for a gal,” Clyde commented.  “That all he says, just her name?”

“He says she’s pretty,” Hoss reported, disgusted.

“Might tell more in the letter he wrote your folks,” Billy suggested.  “We could——”

“We could not!” his mother snapped, easily reading the mind of her nosy son.  She looked over at Hoss.  “Hate to hurry you, Sunshine, but you’d best get your dinner eaten and get that mail to your folks.  Your pa’ll really be tickled to get a letter from his brother.”

Hoss shrugged.  “Pa won’t be back ‘til dark, anyway.  Just so I’m home in time to milk and feed the chickens before supper.”

“Well, take your time then,” Nelly smiled, “and I’ll bag up some of them gingersnaps to take with you.”

“Little Joe’ll want some, too,” Hoss said, turning his attention away from Adam’s adolescent mooning over Philippa Gallagher and back to the pleasanter prospect of his soup.

Billy grinned.  He could read Hoss as easily as his mother read him.  Hoss probably would persuade his Aunt Nelly to send extra cookies for Little Joe, but if that baby saw more than one of them, Billy’d be mighty surprised.

* * * * *

Hearing the front door open, Little Joe immediately abandoned his blocks by the fireplace and ran, arms outstretched, calling, “HaHa!”

Hoss swooped the little boy up.  “Hi, Punkin.  You miss me?”

“Very much he did,” Marie replied, sounding perturbed, “and you have kept him waiting a long time.”

“Pa said I could have the day off,” Hoss muttered defensively.

“So long as you did your chores,” Marie reminded him.  “You have barely left time for that before supper.”

“Yes, ma’am.  I’ll get right at ‘em,” Hoss promised.  He grinned at his baby brother.  “Wanna help brother milk the cow, Punkin?”

“Moo moo?” Little Joe inquired.

“Yeah, milk the moo moo,” Hoss giggled, and Little Joe laughed in response.

“It is too cold, Hoss,” their mother argued.

“Aw, no, I’ll bundle him up,” Hoss assured her.

“Well, all right,” Marie conceded.

Not wanting her to have time to reconsider, Hoss immediately found Little Joe’s wraps and started dressing the little boy for his brief trip across the yard to the barn.  “Aren’t you forgetting something, Hoss?” his mother smiled as he prepared to leave.

“Don’t think so,” Hoss said.  “He’s practically wearin’ everything he owns.”

Marie laughed.  “And what of your other brother?  Did he send no letter this time?”

“Oh, yeah!” Hoss chortled.  “Him and Uncle John both.  Here they are.”  He handed over the letters and headed for the barn.

Marie opened the letter from Adam first.  As Billy had suspected, the letter written to adults did contain a more detailed description of pretty Philippa Gallagher than the simpler one addressed to Hoss.  Marie’s romantic heart fluttered with interest, reading more between the lines than Adam himself had intended when he wrote them.  Just as she was trying to decide whether to read John’s letter now or wait and share it with Ben, her husband walked in.

Ben hung his hat and jacket on the pegs by the door.  “I see Hoss managed to dawdle the day away in Carson City,” he commented, having just delivered his horse to the barn.

“You told him he could have the day off from his lessons,” Marie pointed out.

Ben laughed.  “And he took me literally, I see.  He says there’s a letter from John, as well as Adam.”

“Yes, I have just read Adam’s,” Marie said.  “It is most interesting.”
“Not John’s?” Ben smiled.  “Well, if you haven’t read that one yet, let’s do it together.”  He sat down in the mauve armchair near the fireplace.

Perching on the arm of the chair, Marie smiled and handed him the unsealed envelope.  Ben opened it and read his brother’s news aloud, then tossed the letter down in disgust.  “I thought he’d gotten that nonsense out of his system!”  John had written that he, along with his son Will, had joined the latest gold rush to Cherry Creek in Colorado.

“You wanted so much for him to come here,” Marie sympathized.

“Yeah, and he said the only thing holding him back was Will’s unwillingness to leave that farm.  Well, he’s left it now,” Ben fumed, “but only to stand hours a day, waist deep in icy mountain streams, swishing mud in a pan.  What kind of life is that?”

“John’s kind,” Marie said quietly.  “You said he never wanted to be a farmer.  Perhaps Will wants to try his father’s way for a time.”

“If he does, the boy’s as big a fool as his father!” Ben ranted, jumping up to poke at the logs on the grate.  “We could have had a wonderful life here together.”

Marie stood and ran soothing fingers across Ben’s shoulders.  “For you, it would have been wonderful, but I am not sure that is how John would see it.  He is a Cartwright, Ben.”

Ben spun around.  “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Marie reached up to touch his cheek, stubbled by this time of day although he shaved closely every morning.  “Nelly always says there is nothing so stubborn——”

“As a mule or a Cartwright,” Ben muttered.  “I’ve heard it before.”

“And I have heard before that when you wanted to come west, John called you a fool,” Marie said softly.  “Then it was he who wanted you to share his life, but you wanted to build your own.  I think that is what John feels now.  He does not wish to live in the shadow of his little brother, and that is how it would be here where you are so well established and he just beginning.”

Ben stared at her.  “We really have switched places, haven’t we?”

Marie nodded, smiling.

“All right, I can understand that,” Ben admitted, “but another gold rush!  Of all the”——he shook his head in disbelief.

“John says he has heard good reports,” Marie pointed out.

“But he hasn’t seen anything yet,” Ben countered.  “The letter says he left Missouri around the middle of September.  He’d just about have had time to reach Colorado by now.”

“And he promised to write when he did,” Marie said.  “By the next mail, perhaps, he will have wonderful news to give you.”

“Not that soon,” Ben reminded her.  “The letter has to go to California first, then back over the mountains to us, remember?”

Oui,” she agreed, “but by Christmas you should hear.  A special gift.”

“If he’s come to his senses and decided to head this way, it would be,” Ben muttered.  He looked up hopefully.  “Maybe Will won’t take to mining and be anxious to start up a good farm or ranch.”

“Maybe,” Marie said, holding him close.  She had never met Will, of course, but all she had heard made him sound like a typical Cartwright, probably too stubborn to give up easily.  She doubted that Christmastime letter would bring the news her husband craved.

* * * * *

The Cartwrights arrived in Carson City around ten o’clock on the last Saturday in November.  Abe Curry had decided to host a town-wide Thanksgiving celebration, with all rural residents of the outlying region invited, as well.  The feast was set for noon, so Ben and his family, by prior arrangement, met at the Thomases to wait until the appointed hour.  The Ponderosa ranch hands would be coming along later, probably just in time to sit down to eat.

Marie immediately went to the kitchen to reheat her contributions to the meal and help Nelly with final preparations on hers.  Ben and Clyde settled comfortably in the parlor across the narrow hall from the ladies, while Inger escorted Hoss and Little Joe upstairs to her room.  Billy was over at the Martins, making himself useful (so he said) to Sally.

The children climbed the stairs and went to the back bedroom, next to Billy’s and across the hall from the one Clyde and Nelly occupied.

“What do you think of my new room?” Inger asked eagerly.

“I seen it before,” Hoss said.

“Not since Ma put up the new curtains,” Inger insisted.

“Yeah, they’re nice,” Hoss said, just to be polite, for he had little interest in the pink calico frills at the window.

“Let’s play house,” Inger suggested, moving toward the toy stove in the corner.  “You can be the pa, and I’ll be the ma, and Little Joe can be our baby.”

Hoss grimaced.  At eight years old, he considered himself beyond such girlish games.  “Can’t we do better than that?”

“Aw, come on, Hoss,” the little girl pleaded.  “I’ll make us a good meal,” she added in her most persuasive voice.

Hoss grinned.  “Rather have that big un Mr. Curry’s got planned.”

“It’s gonna be good, all right,” Inger conceded.  “Mr. Curry brought in two big turkeys from California, and with folks bringin’ stuff from all over, it oughta be the biggest spread you ever saw.  Better than the Fourth of July, even.”

Hoss nodded.  He hadn’t been able to attend that celebration, due to the conflict between his family and Inger’s, but from all he’d heard it had been a grand one, and today’s feast sounded like it would have more to choose from than even Hoss’s legendary appetite could handle.

Little Joe, who had followed Inger over to the toy stove, reached for the tiny cast iron skillet sitting on the imitation burner.  Inger pulled his hand back.  “No, baby, hot,” she scolded.

“It ain’t neither,” Hoss scoffed.  “You’re just pretendin’.”

“‘Course, I am,” Inger snorted, “but he shouldn’t touch anyway.  It’ll teach him bad habits, Pa, and we don’t want him gettin’ burnt on a real one, do we?”

Hoss snickered.  “Reckon you’re right, Ma.  Don’t touch, Punkin.  Stoves are hot.”

“Hot?” Little Joe queried with a quizzical tilt of his curly head.

Hoss touched the little stove and drew his hand back quickly, yelping and blowing on his fingers.  “Hot!” he declared.

“Ooh,” Little Joe said, immediately stretching to touch the stove.

Hoss pulled him back.  “No, don’t touch.”  He frowned as Little Joe started to wail.  “Do you want Pa to give you a very necessary little talk?” he asked, sounding serious.

Little Joe shook his head and buried his face against his brother’s thigh.  Inger picked the little boy up and sat down to rock him in the small chair her father had made.  “Guess he ain’t much hand at playin’ house,” she commented.

Hoss sat Indian-style on the hooked rug near Inger’s feet.  “Naw, guess not.  You writ Santa what you want for Christmas yet, Inger?”

“I’m too old for that, Hoss,” Inger chided.

Hoss laid a finger to his lips and pointed at Little Joe.  “He ain’t.”

“Oh, yeah,” the little girl replied.  “Well, I’m hopin’ Santa will build me some more kitchen stuff, like he did the stove.”

Hoss grinned, knowing she meant Uncle Clyde.  “What kind of stuff?”

“A dining table, maybe, or a sink for washin’ dishes, one that could hold real water.”

“That don’t sound like much fun,” Hoss muttered.  “Sounds like chores to me.”

“So, what you want Santa to bring you?” Inger asked.

Hoss shrugged.  “Ain’t sure.  A rifle’d be nice, but I reckon I ain’t got a prayer.”

“I guarantee you ain’t!” Inger snorted.  “Your Santa’s got better sense.”  She looked at the toddler in her lap.  “How ‘bout you, baby?  What you want Santa to bring you?”

Little Joe just looked puzzled.  “Sanna?”

“He don’t ‘member,” Hoss said.

“Well, now’s as good a time as any to teach him,” Inger declared.  “You start, Pa.”

Hoss narrowed his eyes.  It sounded to him as if they were back to playing house, but he launched into an explanation of Christmas for Little Joe that the nineteen-month-old seemed to find fascinating.

“Inger!” her mother called up the stairs.  “Time to go, younguns.”

Hoss hefted Little Joe to his shoulder and headed downstairs.  “Come on, Ma,” he teased.  “You don’t want to be late for that turkey.”

Inger clattered down the stairs after him, and soon the entire party was headed for the town plaza, where Laura Ellis was supervising the placement of food on the tables provided by the town’s founder.

Ben took his youngest son and sat him on the plank bench beside him, with Marie taking her seat on the baby’s other side.  Typically, Little Joe stood up at once and began to crane his neck in all directions.  “Now, what are you looking for?” Ben asked as he sat the boy down again.

“Sanna!” Little Joe announced.

“Santa!”  Ben guffawed.  “You’ve got the wrong holiday, little one.”

“We was teachin’ him about Santa Claus upstairs,” Hoss explained.

Still chuckling, Ben shook his head.  “Don’t you think you’d have done better to teach him about the Pilgrims and how they shared their first bountiful harvest with the Indians who’d helped them through the winter?  Or don’t you remember that much of your history lessons, young fellow?”

Hoss pouted eloquently.  “Sure I do.  Didn’t think of it, that’s all.  This is like that first Thanksgiving, though, ain’t it, Pa?  We got Indians and everything.”

“Indians?  Where?” Inger, sitting beside her chubby friend, demanded as she peered down the table in both directions.

“Right down there,” Hoss responded, pointing.

Inger laughed.  “That’s just Sarah and Elma.”

“They’re Indians,” Hoss insisted.  “Paiutes.”

“I guess so,” Inger admitted.  “They just seem like other folks to me.  They’re my friends.”

“As it should be, Inger,” Ben smiled.  “Indians are ‘just folks.’”

“Don’t you go fillin’ my girl’s head with your injun-lovin’ ways, Ben Cartwright,” Clyde sputtered.

“Aw, Clyde,” Ben growled. “What have you got against those girls?”

“Nothin’!” the older man snapped.  “They’re all right, learnin’ the white man’s ways and tamin’ down right nice, but I won’t have my little girl thinkin’ she can walk up to just any injun and expect the same.  There’s plenty more wild ones out in the sagebrush that ain’t to be trusted.”

“Yeah, it’s still an untamed land, with plenty of wild men, red and white,” Ben admitted, “but I think Inger’s got sense enough to know a friend from a stranger, whatever his race.”

“Reckon so,” Clyde conceded, irritation dissipating at Ben’s praise of his girl.  “We done tried to bring her up right.”

“You men shush your nonsense,” Nelly ordered.  “Curry’s about to make a speech.”

“Hope he keeps it short,” Clyde muttered.  “I like my turkey and stuffing hot.”

Ben chuckled.  He shared Clyde’s opinion, but had already pegged Abraham Curry for the long-winded type.  While Curry waxed eloquent in his praise to Almighty God for the development of his new town, Ben glanced across the table at Clyde and Nelly.  Ben numbered those two friends at the top of his list of blessings of the previous year.  How nearly that friendship had ended, all because of his own foolish pride!  As Curry concluded his speech with a prayer over the meal, Ben bowed his head.  It was not for Carson City that he thanked God, however, but for the restoration of a treasured relationship, one to be cherished and guarded against whatever unknown conflicts might imperil it in days to come.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Holiday Delight, Holiday Distress

From his stool beside the milk cow, Hoss looked across his left shoulder to grin at his giggling baby brother.  Little Joe, hay sticking out from his tousled golden brown hair, lay in an empty stall with Klamath poised over him, obligingly washing the toddler’s face with his rough tongue.  “Come here, you silly thing,” Hoss said.  “Klamath, let him up, boy.  Off, Klamath!”

The small brown dog gave Little Joe’s face a final, affectionate lick and padded toward Hoss.  Little Joe followed.  “Come here,” Hoss repeated, reaching for the youngster and setting him between his legs.  “High time you learned to milk a cow.”

“Moo moo?” Little Joe asked, tiny fingers stretching to touch the cow’s soft flank.

“Yeah, moo moo.  You milk her,” Hoss directed, closing his brother’s fingers around the cow’s udder.  “Now squeeze.”

Little Joe gave the udder a quick yank.  The cow’s hind leg kicked back in irritation, but nothing came out.

“Guess you still ain’t strong enough,” Hoss sighed, beginning to think he’d never get any help with his chores.  Wrapping his hefty hand over his brother’s miniature one, he squeezed the udder.

Little Joe crowed with delight, certain he had produced the frothy milk rattling the sides of the pail.  Hoss continued the charade for a few more squirts, but finally decided he’d never finish his morning chores at that rate.  Setting the baby behind him, he ordered, “Play with Klamath some more,” a command Little Joe willingly obeyed.

He wasn’t as quick to obey when Hoss told him it was time to go inside.  In fact, he answered his brother with an emphatic “No!”

“Little Joe, you better mind,” Hoss warned.  “It ain’t good to backtalk your elders.”  He’d learned early that his father didn’t approve of little boys who did that and figured when it came to Little Joe, he counted as an elder.

Little Joe just laughed and continued rolling in the hay, arms around the longsuffering Klamath.

Hoss tried another tactic.  “Here, Klamath; here, boy,” he called.  More readily obedient to his master’s voice than Little Joe was to his brother’s, Klamath immediately frisked to Hoss’s side.  Little Joe sat up, looking mad.

Pretty sure a rain of tears was about to follow, Hoss forestalled it by offering his brother a piggyback ride.  Little Joe grinned and stood at once.  “HaHa,” he cried, arms raised.

“That’s right, Hoss’ll give you a ride,” the older boy said, lifting the toddler to his back.  “Hold on tight.”  He picked up the pail of milk with one hand while the other closed over the small hands circling his neck.

“Giddiup,” Little Joe commanded.

Hoss laughed.  “You think I’m your horse, do you?”

“HaHa,” Little Joe responded.  “Giddiup, HaHa.”

“Horse, not Hoss,” the older boy corrected, though he knew the effort for a futile one.  Little Joe used the same sound for both words.  Small chance I got of him sortin’ it out, Hoss thought, when folks bigger than him makes the same mistake.  Hoss acted his part to perfection, neighing loudly as he carried the youngster and the milk into the kitchen.

“Bleakfast pletty soon now,” Hop Sing informed imperiously.  “Need eggs light away.”

“Yeah, that’s where we’re headed,” Hoss replied, prepared for the admonition he heard every morning.  Freed of the need to keep the milk in the pail, Little Joe’s horse trotted more vigorously to the chicken coop.  Hoss took a handful of feed and trickled it into his brother’s outstretched palm.  “All right, now, feed the chickens, but don’t drop it all in one place like yesterday.  Scatter it, see?”

Little Joe’s small chin bobbed up and down, and he made an honest effort to scatter the feed as Hoss had directed.  Most of it still landed in one spot, but Hoss was encouraged by the toddler’s improvement.  Maybe the boy would make a hand someday, after all.  He gave Little Joe some more feed to reward him.  Little Joe understood the gesture as approval of his work and, smiling happily, tossed the feed into the air, much of it landing in his hair.

Hoss laughed.  “Mama’ll have a fit when she sees you,” he said, brushing feed and hay from his brother’s hair.  “I’m gonna gather the eggs now.  Wait right here.”

“Me,” Little Joe pleaded.

“No, I ain’t trustin’ you with eggs,” Hoss chuckled.

A pout formed on Little Joe’s lips.  “No,” Hoss said more firmly.  “You’re not big enough.”  Tears started to form in the little boy’s eyes.  “It won’t work,” Hoss informed him.  “Hop Sing’ll have my head if I show up with broken eggs, so you might just as well shut it up.”

One tear slowly trickled down Little Joe’s cheek, but when Hoss merely turned his back and began to take eggs from the hen’s deserted nests, the toddler transferred his attention to the chickens.

“Don’t chase ‘em,” Hoss scolded.  “You’ll scare ‘em out of layin’.  You like eggs, don’t you?”  Little Joe’s head bobbed.  “Then, leave them chickens alone!”

Somehow, even with Little Joe’s help, Hoss finished his chores in time for breakfast, a hearty one of scrambled eggs and bacon with fried potatoes, biscuits and gravy.  Afterwards, Hoss took his place at the low table before the fireplace to begin a chore he hated far more than milking the cow or tending chickens.  Even on a frosty December morning like this one, he’d much rather be outdoors than hovering over his books near a warm fire.

As she did every morning, Marie first moved to the right side of the fireplace to take Little Joe’s toys from the box Clyde Thomas had made him to match the ones his older brothers had upstairs.  She established a warm play area for the toddler where she could keep an eye on him while she instructed Hoss.  Then the lessons she dreaded almost as much as Hoss began.

As usual, Little Joe played contentedly with his blocks and his bunny for a short while, then squirmed his way into Hoss’s lap to assist with the older boy’s lessons.  Hoss grinned, for he knew the youngster would soon tire of sitting still and begin creating enough distraction that their mother would be forced to declare a recess.  Sometimes, Marie found herself wondering if the two brothers plotted the disruption of schoolwork together.  A foolish thought, she chided herself, or would be if Hoss hadn’t seemed to share an ability to communicate with barely verbal Little Joe that surpassed that of anyone else.

* * * * *

Ben loaded the last of the supplies he’d purchased at the general store in Genoa.  Ordinarily he would have taken his business to the closer trading post in Carson City, but Snowshoe Thompson was due in sometime today.  Ben could have waited, of course, and picked up the mail in Carson City, but when Thompson ran late, sometimes the mail Curry’s carrier brought wasn’t available until the next day.  Since today was Saturday, a late arrival could mean a delay over the weekend, and Ben wasn’t prepared to wait that long.  Adam’s boyish news would probably keep, but Ben was also expecting a letter from his brother, a letter he hoped would bring news of John’s imminent arrival.

Snowshoe Thompson hadn’t arrived by the time Ben finished his necessary business, but he wasn’t about to leave town until he had his mail in hand.  He had to find a better place to wait than the street, however, for the temperature this eighteenth day of December was bitterly cold.  A foot of snow covered the ground, and there’d been ice coating the Carson River when he’d crossed the toll bridge earlier.

Ben pulled the collar of his flannel-lined jacket up over his neck, but the icy wind still managed to snake down his back.  Chilled to the bone, Ben headed for the Stockade Bar down the street.  Though not a heavy drinker, usually restricting himself to a single beer, Ben ordered a whiskey.  Sipping it slowly, he relished the liquor as it burned his throat, then spread its warmth throughout his body.

Like everyone else in the bar, Ben automatically turned when he heard a new customer walk in.  “Hey, Roop,” he called.  “You’re a long way from home.  How are things up at Susanville?”

Isaac Roop came to the bar and shook Ben’s hand.  “Cold, same as here,” the California resident of the eastern slope replied.  “How’s the Ponderosa?”

“Doing fine,” Ben said.  “Let me buy you a drink.”

Roop responded the way any westerner was expected to.  “Sure.  Let me get some food in my belly first, though.  Haven’t had a bite since breakfast, and I can’t take liquor on an empty stomach.”

“Now you mention it, I’m getting hungry, too,” Ben said.  Both men ordered a sandwich and beer, then sat down at one of the bar’s few tables to enjoy their lunch and talk over the latest news of the territory.

Again footsteps sounded at the entrance.  Again every head turned.  Although Ben recognized the two men stomping snow from their boots, he didn’t know them well.  They were better acquainted with Isaac Roop, obviously, for they came directly to the table to greet him.

“Ben, you know W. L. Jernegan and Alfred James, don’t you?” Roop asked politely.

Ben shook the men’s hands.  “We’ve met.  Haven’t had much chance to get acquainted, though.”

“Well, you’ll be getting acquainted with us soon enough,” James declared, beaming proudly.  “Everyone will.  Take a look at this!”  He handed the paper first to Isaac Roop, who held it so Ben could read it, too.

Territorial Enterprise,” Roop read.  “What’s this mean, boys?”

“First issue of our newspaper,” Jernegan replied.

Ben noticed the date line on the front page.  “Carson Valley, Utah Territory–Published every Saturday morning at the Office on Mill St., Genoa, Carson Valley,” he read.  “You aim to keep this up regular, then, make a weekly of it.”

“About time this territory had a paper with a non-Mormon outlook,” James stated.

Ben laughed.  “I have a friend who’d agree with you.  For that matter, I do, too.  You have extra copies for sale?”

“So happens we do,” Jernegan grinned, “or will as soon as we get back to the office and run them off.  This one was hot off the press.”

“I’ll take two,” Ben said, “one for me and one for that friend I mentioned.  If your paper prospers, the first issue ought to be a real keepsake.”

Jernegan and James both laughed.  “Like your attitude, Cartwright.  Mind if we quote you in the next issue?”

It was Ben’s turn to laugh.  “If you consider my remarks newsworthy, gentlemen, be my guest.”

A man stuck his head in the door of the Stockade Bar.  “Hey, Thompson’s in!” he yelled, and the saloon’s population emptied into the snowy street.

Ben joined the general stampede for the post office.  Soon he found an uncrowded spot and tore into John’s letter.  The letter was longer than usual, for John not only sent news of himself and Will, but described the development of the new town they considered their home.  Temporary home, Ben devoutly hoped, but the letter gave no indication of that.  If anything, John sounded proud, the way Ben did when he wrote about the development of Carson City.

“Though our town is less than a month old, it’s growing fast,” John reported, telling how one hundred and eighty men living on the west side of Cherry Creek had held a meeting on October 30th to found the town of Auraria, territory of Kansas.  He and Will, however, had located on the east side of the creek in the even newer town first called St. Charles and finally Denver in honor of the territorial governor.

“Quite a rivalry between the two towns,” John wrote.  “Auraria’s bigger, but you’d like Denver better, Ben.  Quieter, more businesslike.  Why, we’ve even had our first sermon preached here!  Methodist preacher, too, the kind my Martha favored.  So you can quit worryin’ about your big brother.  Denver’s rough, but we’ve already got more religion here than in your God-forsaken western Utah.  (Mormons don’t count, little brother!)”

Ben had to laugh at that remark.  He’d be sure to share it with Clyde Thomas, too, who would appreciate it even more than Ben.  He read on: “Will seems to be taking to the miner’s life.  Our claim is showing some good color, so maybe I’ve finally found my El Dorado after all these years.  Good to have my boy here to share it when it comes.  For now, though, we’ve got to leave off mining to build ourselves a solid cabin before winter sets in.  Too bad we can’t move that old one of yours here and save ourselves the trouble!”  Ben smiled.  Obviously, he’d neglected to tell his brother that cabin was already spoken for.  He read on, “I’d better close for now.  Will has the axes sharpened, and it’s time to chop down some more cottonwoods.  Write soon, little brother, and try not to scold.”

Ben winced uncomfortably.  John knew him too well, knew how much he’d like to scold his big brother for his endless pursuit of gold.  At least, the town of Denver sounded like it had a promising future, or would if the gold held out.  Time would tell.  Maybe, like Marie’d said, John could build himself a future there alongside Cherry Creek.  Maybe, someday, he’d be the one urging Ben to come share his good fortune, and Ben would be the one disappointing John.

Ben folded the letter, taking out the one from Adam, instead, and his son’s news brought the smile back to his face.  Adam, who had at first bewailed spending the Christmas holidays in San Francisco, seemed to have had a change of heart.  At least, he said he was looking forward to a good time.  Evidently, Lawrence Larrimore had written the boy, promising to take him to any theater presentation he chose, as well as arranging a party for Adam and his own youngsters.

The mention of a party reminded Ben of why he was in town.  To buy ranch supplies, of course, but those were the least important items on his list.  Hop Sing and, to a lesser extent, Marie had been growing frantic about finding everything they needed to make the Ponderosa’s annual Christmas Eve party memorable.  Ben had hoped to do a little duck hunting near the river on the way back, but Snowshoe hadn’t gotten in as early as he’d expected.  High time he headed for home, if he didn’t want to listen to a diatribe before the Chinese cook would condescend to serve supper.

* * * * *

For the next week, as Hop Sing and Marie combined efforts to prepare refreshments for the upcoming Christmas Eve party, tempting aromas wafted almost constantly from the kitchen, tempting the two youngest Cartwrights into forbidden territory.  Both boys received the same high-pitched rebuke from the irate Cantonese cook, but while Little Joe’s excursions were viewed with tolerance by his indulgent mother, Hoss’s were soundly scolded.  “You are old enough to know better, Hoss,” Marie reproved, dusting floury hands on her apron, “and to keep your little brother away, as well.  Return to your lessons at once.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hoss sighed.  Taking Little Joe’s hand, he returned to the front room, willing Friday to come quickly so the hated schoolbooks could be tossed aside for a few days.  “Here, play with bun-bun,” he directed, giving the toddler his toy rabbit.  “Brother has to study.”

Little Joe frowned, but sat babbling to bun-bun for a few minutes before ambling off toward the inviting kitchen once more.  He was in the dining room before Hoss realized he’d disappeared.  “Little Joe,” he hissed softly, not wanting the two bakers to hear him.  When the toddler ignored him, Hoss got up and tiptoed after his brother.

By the time he caught up, however, Little Joe was already in the kitchen, pulling on his mother’s skirt.  “Tookie?” he requested.

Marie turned just in time to see Hoss enter the kitchen.  “I told you to keep an eye on him,” she reprimanded.

“I tried,” Hoss protested, “but it’s hard to watch him and the primer, too.  Maybe I should quit studying for a while, huh?”

Marie laughed.  “That is most generous of you, Hoss, but perhaps you are right.  We will never get all these gingercakes baked if this one keeps pestering for a cookie.”  She patted Little Joe’s curly head.

“Maybe if you gave him one,” Hoss suggested, tongue flicking involuntarily over his lower lip.

Marie giggled, hiding her lips behind delicate fingers.  “I do not think it is Little Joe you are thinking of, mon chéri.  Nevertheless”——she took two gingercakes from the cooling rack and presented one to each boy——“Now keep him out of here!”

Hoss grinned.  “Come on, Punkin,” he said.  “Let’s eat our cookies in the other room.”  Little Joe smiled and followed obediently, now that he had what he wanted.

* * * * *

To Hoss’s delight, Friday finally arrived and, with it, the official suspension of all lessons until after the holidays.  Early that morning he went with his father to select a tall evergreen, and they spent the afternoon, while Little Joe napped, decorating the tree with their handmade ornaments and small calico bundles of candy for the younger guests who would attend the party that evening.  Laura Ellis arrived about three o’clock to help Marie deck the mantel and staircase with pine boughs and cones and supervise the moving of furniture and the arrangement of the refreshment table.

When Little Joe woke, Hoss was delegated the responsibility of keeping the baby away from the tree.  First, he sat Indian-style beneath the branches and, gathering his brother into his lap, explained the purpose of the tree and how tomorrow morning they would find many presents waiting under it.  “So you mustn’t touch,” Hoss finished.  “Santa won’t like it if you do.”

Little Joe nodded soberly as he reached for the wooden bird gracing the limb nearest him.  Hoss sighed and pulled the youngster’s hand back.  “Didn’t you hear what I said?”

His father, bringing in an armload of firewood to place in the woodbox beside the massive stone fireplace, laughed.  “You’d be wiser to take him out of temptation’s reach, Hoss.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Hoss admitted with a shrug.  “Let’s go play with my Noah’s Ark, Punkin.”  Little Joe was fond of the boat full of animal pairs, so Hoss successfully kept him occupied until time to dress for the party.

Since Ben finished dressing first, he took Little Joe downstairs so his mother and Laura could complete their toilettes without distraction.  Setting the baby on his knee, he asked, “Now, has Hoss told you all about what happens tomorrow?”

“Sanna,” Little Joe replied, smiling in a way that told Ben his youngest was looking forward to a visit from St. Nick.

“That’s right, and is there something special my little boy would like Santa to bring him?”

“Doggie,” Little Joe responded immediately.

Ben laughed.  “I’m afraid you’re too young to be responsible for a pet, baby.  You’ll have to share Klamath with Hoss for now.”

Little Joe shook his head vigorously.  “No, no, no, no,” he insisted.  “Wa-wer doggie.”

“Water doggie?” Ben asked, puzzled, then the light, woefully, dawned as Ben realized the gift his son wanted was one he couldn’t possibly put beneath the tree.  “I thought you’d have forgotten the water doggies by now!”

Little Joe patted his father’s chest with a pleading palm.  “Wa-wer doggie,” he repeated poignantly.

“Little Joe, Santa cannot bring you a seal for Christmas,” Ben said, with little hope of the toddler’s understanding.  “Seals——uh, water doggies——don’t like snow.”

Little Joe’s face looked so pitiful Ben cuddled him close.  “There, now, you’re gonna have a nice Christmas.”

“What’s wrong?” Hoss, coming down the stairs decked out in his best suit, asked on seeing his little brother’s dejected face.

“He wants a water doggie——a harbor seal——for Christmas,” Ben lamented.

“Yeah, that’s what he said when me and Inger talked to him about Santa on Thanksgiving,” Hoss said.  “I tried to explain.”

“You failed,” Ben reported glumly.

“Aw, he’ll forget when he sees his presents,” Hoss assured his father.

“I hope so,” Ben muttered ruefully, “and, speaking of presents, you will not see yours until suppertime if you dare wake this baby early, like you did last year.  Furthermore, you will stay home to tend your cranky little brother instead of watching me win us a fat bird at the turkey shoot tomorrow afternoon.”

“Aw, Pa!” Hoss protested.

“I mean it,” Ben said firmly.  “Let your brother sleep.”  Not to mention your weary parents, he added silently.

Guests, many more than the previous year, began arriving shortly before sundown.  Though the Cartwrights didn’t feel prosperous enough to invite the entire population of western Utah, they did expand the guest list to include a number of prominent families in the area.  Abe Curry was a natural addition, along with a few others from Carson City.  Theodore Winters and his family from Pleasant Valley, just north of Washoe, came for the first time, as did James Sturtevant, a newcomer to the territory after the Mormon exodus.  The new federal Indian agent, Frederick Dodge, now making his headquarters in Genoa, came, as well as older acquaintances like John Reese and Stephen Kinsey.  Since several lived south of Genoa, however, those with young children, like the Motts, would leave early.  Ben had given a special invitation to Lucky Bill’s widow and her son Jerome, but neither came, evidently still not up to socializing among people, like Winters, associated with her husband’s hanging.

The children, as usual, enjoyed Ben Cartwright and Doctor Martin’s joint reading of A Christmas Carol, and the calico-wrapped candy put an even brighter sparkle in their eyes.  Dancing, as always, lasted into the wee hours, making Ben doubly glad he’d spoken to Hoss about waking them early.

* * * * *

Toward evening on the twenty-fourth of December, Adam leaned over the rail of the steamboat Eclipse, headed for San Francisco.  Despite the brave letter he’d written home, he felt more forlorn, more homesick this holiday season that at any time since he’d started school in Sacramento.  Not that the outlook was totally bleak.  After all, Mr. Larrimore had promised to show him a good time, and Adam was looking forward to a night or two at the theater and maybe a Christmas party at the Larrimore home.  He had a full week to spend in San Francisco, however, and he wasn’t sure he could endure the company of Sterling Larrimore that long.  He’d never liked the boy, who was four years his senior.  Of course, they were both older, both young men now.  That might make a difference.

Only Lawrence Larrimore met Adam when the steamer pulled into San Francisco.  “Big party tonight,” Lawrence explained.  “The ladies are adding those last minute touches.”

“Ladies?” Adam asked.  Obviously, Mr. Larrimore meant his wife, but that was only one lady.

“Camilla and Jewel, son,” Lawrence elaborated, giving the boy a conspiratorial wink.  “They’re both quite fashionable tonight, I can assure you.”

Adam’s dark eyebrows met in a straight line.  Jewel a lady?  Why, she was nothing but a little girl.  Older now than the six-year-old he remembered from the trail, of course.  How old would she be?  Suddenly, Adam laughed.  She was fourteen, just a year younger than he was, and he considered himself a young man.  Maybe Jewel did qualify as a young lady.  In fact, Adam realized, she was exactly the age of the enchanting Philippa Gallagher.

Somehow, when he met Jewel later that evening, however, she managed to look much younger than his friend Martin’s sister, maybe because Jewel tried too hard to look grown up, while Philippa kept to simple styles that flattered her youthful face and figure.  Jewel, of course, didn’t have a figure to flatter in the first place; to Adam, she looked like a flour sack tied with string in the middle.  Her looks wouldn’t have mattered, though, if her manners had been better.  She openly snubbed Adam for a country rustic until her mother insisted she dance with their guest.  Not even the harmonious tones of the string quartet, so much more to Adam’s refined taste than the fiddle music he’d have danced to back home, could make it an enjoyable experience.

Every other young lady at the party, however, found him a desirable partner.  Adam had learned to dance from his father, who always glided smoothly to the music, and had polished his style with the help of his roominghouse mates.  Thanks to them, he knew the latest steps and could perform them gracefully.  That, added to his handsome face and congenial conversational ability, sharpened by evenings in the home of Senator Gallagher, made many a girl eager to spin around the room in his arms and reluctant to relinquish him to the next eyelash-batting competitor.

It didn’t take Jewel long to realize that her house guest was the sensation of the evening among her friends, and she began to look at Adam through new eyes.  He wasn’t the kind of boy her mother had described as eligible, certainly not well-to-do, but he was good-looking, especially those dark, magnetic eyes.  Finding herself drawn into their depths, Jewel took action.  She looped her arm through Adam’s and emitted a nervous giggle.  “For shame, Melanie Jane!” she said with a simpering pout.  “You silly girls can’t monopolize all his time, you know.  Adam’s my guest, after all, and I’ve only had one itty bitty dance with him.”

Melanie Jane looked irritated, but since the song had ended, she curtsied graciously.  “I enjoyed our dance so much, Mr. Cartwright,” she said suavely.  “Perhaps I could find room on my card for you later this evening.”

“Please do,” Adam replied and meant it.  Melanie Jane was slim and graceful, in addition to being quite pretty.  Too well-mannered to turn Jewel down, he danced with her next, although he would have preferred the company of almost anyone else.  She did dance well, for her mother had paid exorbitant sums to the city’s finest instructor to ensure the girl’s social graces, but evidently those skills had been honed at the expense of educational ones.  Adam finally gave up trying to converse with his young partner, for there was no substantive subject on which she could make a literate statement.

Despite Jewel’s fawning presence and Sterling’s languid tolerance of the son of his father’s backwoods friend, Adam enjoyed the evening.  The party lasted until nearly 3 a.m., however, so he was glad when it finally ended and he could retire to the richly appointed guest room provided for him.  Needing to unwind, he lay awake on his bed, trying to imagine what gifts would be waiting for him beneath the tree the next morning.  He was pretty sure they would seem simple and sparse to Sterling and Jewel, but he didn’t care.  They’d be treasures to him because they came from people who loved him, and he intended to hold his head high.  As simple, rustic and frugal as his family might seem to society’s elite, he’d rather be the son of Ben Cartwright than be sired by the richest nabob in San Francisco.

* * * * *

Hoss dutifully, if impatiently, waited until his little brother awoke on his own, and the entire family was rewarded with a more agreeable attitude from the youngest.  Little Joe still needed help unwrapping his gifts, but he seemed delighted with each revelation, from the rubber ball he rolled across the floor to the carved wooden squirrel on wheels that Hoss passed down to him.  Marie was delighted with her gray linen walking boots, even though she wouldn’t be able to wear them until she again visited a town with boardwalks to protect them from the dust and mud.  Ben, of course, professed complete satisfaction with the fine imported tobacco and new pipe he received, and Hoss seemed equally thrilled with his new treasures.

Finally, only one gift remained beneath the tree, one so small it had been overlooked earlier.  “It’s for Little Joe,” Hoss said after retrieving it from the dark corner beside the staircase.

“Oh, from the Thomases, I suppose,” Ben said.  “He doesn’t have one from them yet.”

“Yep, that’s what it says,” Hoss grinned.  “Here, Punkin, another present for you.”

Little Joe dropped the rubber ball, which bounced toward the stairs, and tore a corner of the paper hiding his new gift.

“It’s soft,” Hoss reported.  “I bet it’s another animal, like bun-bun.”

“Probably,” Ben chuckled.  “Nelly’s handy with a needle.”

Just how handy became evident when Hoss helped tear away the paper.  “Doggie!” Little Joe cried ecstatically and hugged the leather seal to his heart.  “Wa-wer doggie!”

“How on earth!” Ben ejaculated.  “How could she possibly have known he wanted that?”

“Inger, I bet,” Hoss suggested.  “She knew.”

“Yeah, that makes sense,” his father admitted.

Hop Sing padded in from the kitchen.  “Bleakfast almost leady,” he announced.  “Velly special Chlistmas bleakfast.”

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Marie said.  “We will be there in a moment.”

Looking satisfied, Hop Sing shuffled back into the kitchen to put the final touches on an especially abundant holiday brunch.  The other Cartwrights, as well as one already-stuffed guest, gathered around the table.  Little Joe had continued to cling to his favorite present, and no one had the heart to tell him that water doggies didn’t belong at the table.

Immediately after eating, Ben and Hoss loaded the buckboard with generous packages of the leftovers from the party the night before and a carpetbag of night clothes.  They’d be spending the night with the Thomases in Carson City and sharing Sunday dinner with them the next day.  Then, bundled in thick winter outerwear, they piled into the wagon for the long, chilly ride into Genoa.  Actually, the shooting match would be held just outside town, on their side of the Carson River and would be attended by virtually every man in the vicinity who thought he had a chance to win one of the prize turkeys brought in from California for the contest.

The Thomases were already there when the Cartwrights arrived, as were Dr. Martin and Sally.  “Don’t tell me you’re entering the contest, too!” Ben exclaimed, pumping the doctor’s hand.

The doctor laughed.  “No, I’m just here for the show.  I doubt I could even win one of the chickens, much less a turkey.”  In addition to three turkeys, to go to the three best shots, the organizers of the shooting contest were providing chickens and sage hens as lesser prizes.  Almost every man who entered was likely to go home with something, but each one hoped for something rarer than the sage hen that appeared on most tables fairly regularly anyway.

“Don’t you be frettin’,” Billy Thomas offered.  “I’ll see to it Ma invites you to dinner when she cooks the fat bird I bring home.”

“I’ll be the one bringin’ home the turkey for dinner tomorrow,” Clyde declared, “but the doc and Sally is welcome to share it all the same.  Ben’s folks is already comin’.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “I intend to earn the turkey for tomorrow’s feast, gentlemen, so if you want the honor, I’d advise you to shoot straight.”

“If you wish me to help cook it, I suggest you help me down from this wagon,” Marie said pertly.

“Yes, my love,” Ben said, turning, red-faced, back to his neglected duty, “although in a pinch I could probably bring Hop Sing down to Carson to roast the turkey.”  He gave his wife a saucy wink.

“Not in my kitchen!” Nelly declared.  “I don’t need that yeller’s help when it comes to roastin’ turkey.”

“You sure don’t!” Hoss shouted in agreement.  “I ‘member how good you done that other time we had turkey.”             As he clambered over the side of the wagon, Nelly reached up to lift Little Joe down.  “Why, what’s this, Sugarfoot?” she cooed, touching the toy clasped tightly in his hand.  “Did Santa bring you a new playpurty?”

“Wawer doggie,” Little Joe crowed, holding it out for her to inspect.

“And do you like the water doggie?” Nelly plied.

“Does he ever!” Hoss cackled.  “He won’t turn loose for one minute.  We had an awful time gettin’ his leggin’s and coat on.”

“Well, I bet Santa’s proud to see him enjoyin’ it so,” Nelly smiled.

“She should be,” Marie said softly.  Chuckling together, she and Nelly walked to the thick pallet Nelly had spread on a cold, but snowfree, patch of ground and settled down to gossip and watch Little Joe make his seal splash into the patchwork sea until time for the shooting to start.

Each entrant paid a modest entry fee, then one by one each man stepped up to fire the weapon of his choice at the designated target.  After the first round of shooting, half the contestants were eliminated.  They would be the recipients of sage hens, only one for those who shot widest of the target, up to three for the top men in the group.  Clyde Thomas was disgruntled, not only because both Ben and Billy had aimed truer than he, but because he’d missed advancing to the next level of competition in the most frustrating manner possible.  He’d been top shooter among those eliminated.

“Tough luck, Clyde,” Ben said, clapping him on the back.  “I remember all the times you outshot me along the trail.”

“Out of practice, I reckon,” Clyde mumbled.  “Been buyin’ my meat already butchered too long.”

“Don’t worry, Pa,” Billy announced, chest expanding.  “I’ll uphold the honor of the Thomas men.”

Clyde groaned and shook his head.  “Part of me wishes he’d get the shellackin’ a mouth like that ought to earn him, if the Good Book speaks true about pride goin’ before a fall.”

“And the bigger part of you wants that Thomas honor upheld,” Ben snorted.

Clyde grinned and with a sheepish shrug stood back to watch the rest of the contest.

The target was moved back and once again each man aimed and fired.  Ben felt his muscles tense up when his turn came, then willed himself to relax, aim carefully and squeeze the trigger.  Only five men would advance beyond this round, and he wanted to be one of them.  His bullet struck close to center, but far enough away that Ben was certain five others would be closer.  Yet when every man had taken his shot and the names of those who would advance were called, Ben grinned happily as he heard his own.

“Yea, Pa!” Hoss cried, jumping up and down with excitement.  “We’re gonna get us a turkey!”

Those who were eliminated from the second round were each awarded a single fryer for their efforts.  Ben took advantage of the brief break between rounds, while the cackling prizes were being passed out, to accept his son’s hearty hug.  “Nothing certain yet, boy, but I’ll try my best,” he promised.  Only three men who shot in this final round would win turkeys, the others taking home two plump fryers apiece.  Chances were looking good that they’d dine on turkey for dinner tomorrow, however; Billy Thomas was still in the running, too, and if he kept shooting as well as he had been, there was little likelihood of his taking the fall Ben felt certain the little braggart deserved.

The order of shooters was announced:  Richard Sides, Samuel Buckland, Ben Cartwright, James Sturtevant and, finally, Billy Thomas.  Sturtevant took his place in line beside Ben and leaned on his rifle as he watched Dick Sides aim at the target, which had been set back further than before.  “Leastways, Washoe Valley is well represented, eh, Cartwright?”

Ben chuckled.  Sturtevant had a point, since three of the final five contestants resided there.  “Something to be said for putting your own meat on the table, I guess.”  It wasn’t really a valid explanation; like most of his neighbors, Ben raised or bought the majority of his meat.  Hunting was fast becoming something men did for sport, not to feed their families, but Ben figured he and his nearest neighbors probably hunted more than men who lived in town.

Sides fired and the crowd gasped in awe, for the bullet struck just below the black bull’s-eye.  Sam Buckland  whistled.  “Thought I had a chance, but ain’t nobody gonna beat a shot like that!”

“Speak for yourself,” Billy Thomas announced.  “I aim to try.”

“We all aim to try, boy,” Sturtevant muttered, “but tryin’ and doin’ is two different things.”

Shaking his head, clearly overawed by Sides’ performance, Buckland stepped up to take his shot.  It struck well left of center.  “Dad blamed target’s too far back,” he muttered as he walked back to join the spectators.

Ben chuckled to himself.  It was precisely that distance that was intended to separate the good shooter from the true marksman, and he figured it was about to weed him out, as well.  Except for the indignity of losing to smart-mouthed Billy Thomas, he wouldn’t have minded too much.  He’d had an enjoyable afternoon, even if the only reward he took home was two chickens.

“Come on, Pa!  You can do it,” Hoss hollered.  “You can win us a turkey!”

“Turkey!” Little Joe whooped in imitation of his big brother.

Ben laughed and waved at his sons.  With inspiration like that, he’d have to try his best.  After all, such fine boys deserved a father to look up to.  He took his time, aimed for the bull’s-eye and fired.  The crowd roared its approval, for the bullet seemed to have struck just right of center.  From this distance it was impossible to tell whether Sides’ bullet or Cartwright’s had come closer.  That decision would be left to the official judges.

“Mighty fine shot, Uncle Ben,” Billy congratulated him.

“But you aim to do better, right, boy?” Sturtevant snickered.

Billy shrugged.  “I aim to try, don’t you?”

Sturtevant bared his teeth in a loud cackle.  “Yeah, boy, I do.”

“Well, just remember,” Billy teased.  “Tryin’ and doin’ is two different things.”  Ben took advantage of his quasi-familial relationship to aim at Billy’s ear the cuff he thought that remark merited.  Billy just grinned and ducked.

Sturtevant took his shot.  It hit just below Sides’ mark, so he stood clearly in third place, with only one shooter remaining.  As Billy advanced to the shooting line, he held his rifle overhead, pumping his arms to incite the crowd’s applause, and the bystanders responded with encouraging shouts and hand-clapping.  Though he would need a near perfect shot to win the desired turkey, Billy seemed totally undaunted, his face reflecting such confidence that Ben couldn’t help laughing.  How can you stay irritated with a youngster as irrepressible as that? he thought.

Whistling cockily, Billy raised his rifle with a relaxed arm, sighted carefully and let the bullet fly.  And fly it did——straight to the bull’s-eye!  There was no question in anyone’s mind as to who had won the fattest turkey of the three.  Billy’s bullet had hit dead center.  Ben clapped him on the back, then got out of the way, for the onlookers were rushing forward to shake the young man’s hand and add their congratulations.  With his game leg, Clyde had a hard time pushing through the crowd, but he finally reached his son, and it was clear from the expression on Billy’s face that it was his father’s approval that meant the most.

Hoss hurried over to Ben.  “Did we win one, Pa?” he asked eagerly.  “Did we get a turkey?”

Ben rumpled the youngster’s sandy hair.  “Yeah, boy, we got a turkey.  Not sure where I placed, though.”

“Who cares?” Hoss yelled.  “We got a turkey, Pa!”

Ben bent over to hug the exuberant boy.  Who cared, indeed?  When the judges announced that Dick Sides had come in second and Ben Cartwright third, Ben just gazed into Hoss’s glowing face and knew that was reward enough for him.

* * * * *

Adam knotted his new cravat, then adjusted the silk top hat at a jaunty tilt and smiled with satisfaction at his reflection in the mirror.  The hat would have looked out of place back home, but it suited San Francisco.  He felt highly fashionable, thanks to the gifts he’d received this Christmas.  Among other things, his parents had provided material for a new suit, and Mrs. Larrimore had escorted him to the best tailor in town for a fitting.  The suit had been delivered just this morning, so tonight’s New Year’s Eve ball would be the first opportunity the boy had had to wear it.  The hat and cravat, gifts from the Larrimores, set the outfit off to perfection.  Adam was grateful, for his old suit had grown a pinch tight in the shoulders.  Tonight, though, he’d be able to dance in comfort, as well as style.

Thoughts of the ball reminded him of his family once more, for, like him, they were probably getting dressed about now for the traditional dance back home.  He’d thought of them many times during the past week.  It was hard not to notice the contrasts between the Larrimores’ lifestyle and the simpler one Adam was accustomed to on the Ponderosa. Adam wasn’t sure which he preferred.  Having the theater and opera available whenever you wanted was a luxury not found in western Utah, but neither did San Francisco have the Ponderosa’s fragrant pine forests or the clear waters of an alpine lake at its backdoor.  Too bad a fellow couldn’t have both.

Then Adam grinned at his own foolishness.  A fellow could have both, obviously; he was proof of that.  He just couldn’t have them at the same time, anymore than a boy could eat peach pie and chocolate cake in the same mouthful.  He might as well enjoy the sophisticated pleasures of San Francisco while he could, knowing that the simpler joys of home were waiting for him when he returned.

He joined Sterling and Mr. Larrimore in the parlor to wait, as usual, for Mrs. Larrimore to finish dressing.  She shouldn’t be as late as usual tonight, however, for she wouldn’t have Jewel’s toilette to supervise.  The girl had insisted, against her mother’s admonition, on stuffing herself with pastries at Delmonico’s after the opera, which ran especially late last night, and had paid the penalty in a distressed digestive system.  Adam was sorry Jewel was ill, of course, but he couldn’t help feeling relieved that she wouldn’t be attending the Young People’s Ball with him and Sterling.  Her attentions had become altogether too leech-like over the past few days, and Adam welcomed the respite.

Mrs. Larrimore breezed in.  “Well, now, are we all ready?”

“We are now,” her long-suffering husband muttered sardonically.

Camilla disdained his comment with a flap of her hand that reminded Adam of Nelly Thomas’s characteristic gesture.  “Are you boys sure you wouldn’t rather attend the Civic Ball with us?”

“With all those boring political types?” Sterling scoffed.  “Don’t be ridiculous, mother.”

He hadn’t given Adam a chance to respond for himself, but the young Cartwright would have agreed anyway.  Not that he considered mingling with the mayor and other governmental officials boring.  Since Sterling had confided that all the prettiest young ladies would elect to attend the Young People’s Ball hosted by a prominent San Francisco family, however, Adam wouldn’t have hesitated for a moment in making the same choice.

Once they’d left in a hired carriage, Adam learned that Sterling had other plans.  “You don’t really want to go to another stuffy dance, do you?” the older boy inquired.

“I like dances,” Adam replied.

“Oh, I know, but, really, they do get so dreary when you have them night after night,” Sterling drawled.  “Let’s have some fun, instead.”

Adam, who didn’t have the opportunity to attend dances “night after night” didn’t consider them dreary, but, as Sterling’s guest, he felt he should accede to the other boy’s wishes.  “What kind of fun?” he asked.

“You like shows, don’t you?” Sterling queried.

“Sure,” Adam agreed readily, “if that’s what you’d rather do.  Opera or theater?”

Sterling gave a disdainful laugh.  “You are such a child, Adam!  I meant a real eye-stopping show.  I don’t suppose you’ve ever even been to a melodeon?”

“No,” Adam admitted.  “What is it?”

“A musical show, sort of,” Sterling replied with a quizzical smile.

“I like music,” Adam said.

“Good,” the older boy replied.  “We’ll have a night on the town, then, just us fellows.  Good thing Jewel took sick, huh?  She’s such a tattletale, we’d have to have gone to the ball.”

When they entered the melodeon, the first thing Adam noticed as they took their seats at a round table was the bar along one side of the room.  “This is a saloon!” he hissed at Sterling.

“Let me guess: you’ve never been in a big, bad saloon before,” Sterling mocked.

Adam flushed crimson.  “Sure, I have,” he declared hotly.  He didn’t feel required to explain that he’d been ushered out within moments of his entry or that both he and Billy Thomas had had their bottoms blistered as payment for the escapade.

“Why make a fuss then?” Sterling yawned.

“You said we were gonna see a  musical show,” Adam objected.

“We are,” Sterling said.  “This isn’t a saloon, Adam.  They serve drinks, sure, but it’s a melodeon, like I said.  You don’t have to drink unless you want to.”

When the first act came on stage, Adam settled back to enjoy the scantily-clad singer’s song.  The lyrics, however, were so suggestive that he found himself blushing with embarrassment.  Seeing his companion’s heightened color, Sterling laughed.  “I can see you’re going to get a real education tonight, school boy,” he snickered.

Adam didn’t say anything.  “Is that all?” he asked when the songstress left the stage.

“Naw, they just take a break between acts to sell drinks,” Sterling explained.  “Want one?”

“No, thanks,” Adam said tersely.

“Suit yourself,” Sterling replied, raising a finger to attract the attention of a pretty waiter girl.

The girl who responded couldn’t have been much older than Adam, but the heavy layer of paint on her face masked her youth.  Her low-cut neckline and the skirt ruffling barely below her hips masked almost nothing, however, and Adam felt his neck growing warm as she leaned over to display her charms when she brought Sterling’s shot of whiskey.

“Quite a looker, huh?” Sterling queried, watching Adam closely.

“Yeah,” Adam muttered.  “When’s the next act?”  He hoped it would be soon and of better quality than the previous song.

A humorous skit soon began on stage.  At first Adam laughed, for some of the lines were hilarious, but as the skit proceeded, its humor became more raunchy, its actions bawdier.  Adam felt disgusted, and his discomfort accelerated when, during the break between acts, a waiter girl in beribboned bloomers and hip-high boots perched on his lap and stroked his cheek.  “How ‘bout comin’ up to my room?” she suggested.  “I’m real gentle with the young ones.”

“Uh, no——thanks,” Adam replied, polite despite his growing distaste for this establishment and its regular residents.  His pa had taught him to treat all women with respect, and the habit persisted even though this particular woman didn’t seem to merit respect.

The waiter girl plastered an eloquent pout on her lips.  “Let me bring you a drink, then,” she offered.  When Adam shook his head, the pout deepened.  “How’s a girl supposed to make a living, sonny?” she simpered.

“Have a drink,” Sterling muttered, clearly perturbed.  “I’ll pay.”

Adam wasn’t sure afterwards why he gave in.  Maybe just to get the girl off his lap.  Maybe because he didn’t relish looking like a little boy in front of her and Sterling Larrimore to boot.  Maybe because he’d always had a curiosity about the taste of liquor and the atmosphere of the melodeon already had his senses reeling enough to make the suggestion enticing.  Whatever the reason, Adam ordered a beer.

Sterling laughed.  “Not up to whiskey yet, eh?”

“Beer suits me fine,” Adam muttered, dark eyebrows meeting in a line over his glowering black eyes.

“Bring the kid a beer,” Sterling told the waiter girl.

She laughed, too, giving Sterling a knowledgeable wink.  “Sure thing, sonny.  One beer, coming up.”

Adam sipped his beer tentatively, not sure he’d like the taste.  He did, though, once he’d gotten past the froth, and when Sterling offered, he accepted a second drink.  The acts on stage were no more musical than before, but Adam began to laugh at jokes that would have seemed pointless earlier.  His head was spinning when they left the melodeon following his third beer.

“Let’s go by the Cobweb Palace next,” Sterling suggested.

“I don’t feel so good,” Adam muttered.  “Maybe we ought to go back to your place.”

Sterling laughed.  “Not yet.  You’ve got to work it off, boy.  My father will lambast me if I bring you home in this condition.”

“What condition?” Adam demanded as he missed the step into the carriage.  He would have fallen onto the ground had Sterling not been behind him.

“You’re funnier than Mark Wentworth, the first time I took him around town,” Sterling sniggered.  “Never mind.  Just stick close to me.  You haven’t seen anything yet!”  At his instruction the carriage took them to the north end of Meiggs Wharf, where they entered an ill-lit drinking establishment festooned in all corners with cobwebs.

“Quite a place, huh?” Sterling commented.  “Abe Warner likes spiders, so no one’s allowed to bother them.”

The proprietor’s love for spiders was all too obvious.  The light was dim because cobwebs hung from the chandeliers.  They also covered the bottles of liquor behind the bar, effectively removing whatever appetite for liquid refreshment Adam had left.  Even the nude paintings on the wall were scarcely visible through the gossamer webs draping them.  Evidently, the owner had an appreciation for other forms of wildlife, too, for beneath the cobwebs a row of cages held monkeys, parrots and other exotic animals.

“I’ll have a stone fence,” Sterling told the waiter, then grinned at Adam.  “That’s whiskey watered down with apple juice, for your information, country boy.  Time to slow down if we plan to arrive home sober.  You’d better lay off altogether, though.  You lied before, Adam; this was your first time.”

“To drink,” Adam admitted.

“Better not have more, then,” Sterling advised.  “Besides, I got something better than liquor to show you after this.”

“Yeah, what?”

“Wait and see,” Sterling sneered.  “Why don’t you ask Warner to show you his walrus tusks and whale teeth?  He’s got quite a collection.”

The collection was, indeed, interesting, for into each tusk or tooth was carved a patriotic scene.  Adam complimented Warner on the craftsmanship.  “I’d like to give something like this to my father,” he said, pointing to a tusk with a square-rigger carved in its side.  “He was an officer on a ship like this before we came west.”

“Might be arranged, for a price,” Warner said, flattered enough to ignore the fact that the young man wasn’t drinking.  He and Adam quibbled over price a few minutes before coming to terms.  Adam tried to negotiate for a whale’s tooth to give Hoss, but he hadn’t brought much money with him that night and couldn’t offer enough to satisfy the whiskered art dealer.

“Nice piece,” Sterling commented when Adam returned to the table and showed him the tusk.  “Souvenir of a special night, huh?”

“It’s for my pa,” Adam explained, then suddenly paled.  He had a feeling Pa wouldn’t approve of where he’d gotten the present, and it was highly unlikely Pa would consider this a “special night” to be remembered.  The thought of having to tell his father what he’d done that night sickened Adam, but the idea of concealing it tied his stomach in even tighter knots.  “We should leave,” he told Sterling.  “You said you needed to stop drinking.”

“I said ‘slow down,’” Sterling slurred, “but I guess it’s time, all right.  Got another stop, remember?”

“Not another saloon,” Adam said firmly.

“Naw, something better.”  Sterling lurched out of his chair and stumbled toward the door with Adam in his wake.  “Chinatown,” he told the driver as he groped for the carriage door.  The driver headed for Dupont Street.

As they walked down the narrow alleys of Chinatown after getting out of the carriage, Adam couldn’t imagine what Sterling found to attract him in the row of two-room, wooden shacks.  Finally, they stopped beside one.  “Now, to start the New Year right,” Sterling announced gleefully.  “I’ll buy you a lookee, first, so you can decide.  I figure that’s about all you can handle, but I’ll be going in.”

Adam’s head had begun to clear, but evidently his judgement was still impaired by the alcohol he’d consumed earlier.  When Sterling ushered him to a window and told him to take a good look, he did.  He jumped back, appalled.  “It’s a girl, and she’s——she’s——”

“Naked?” Sterling suggested, leering.

“More than that,” Adam stammered.  “She’s——there’s a man in there, too.”

“Well, watch the show!” Sterling cackled, clapping Adam on the back.  “I paid two bits for your entertainment.  You don’t want to waste it, do you?”

“I sure do!” Adam sputtered angrily.

Sterling shrugged.  “Suit yourself, but you’re not looking while I’m in there.”

“You’re not!” Adam protested.  “What would your folks say?”

Sterling collared the younger boy roughly.  “Not a thing, because you’re not telling, are you, country boy?”

Adam twisted free.  “I wouldn’t dirty my mouth talking about this!” he yelled and stalked back to the carriage.  He flopped down on the cushioned seat, wishing he could erase the image of the fragile-boned girl with almond-skin and short, sleek hair.  She was just a little girl, not even as old as the one back at the melodeon, and she’d stared back at Adam with vacant, coal-black eyes.  He’d never seen a creature more wretched.

Ten minutes later Sterling returned, stuffing his shirttail back in his trousers.  “Don’t look so shocked,” he ordered Adam loftily.  “Yellers are cheap trash.  I aim to graduate to the Upper Tenderloin after I come into Father’s money.  They’ve got class whores up there on Mason and Larkin streets, if you’re ever interested.”

“I’m not,” Adam snarled.

Sterling just laughed.  “Probably couldn’t pay the ticket, anyway, country boy.”

Adam folded his arms and pressed his back against the coach seat.  He wanted to get as far away from Sterling Larrimore as possible.  He was grateful he’d be heading back to Sacramento the next morning.  The first thing he’d do once he got there was take a long, hot soak at the Alpha Bath House to scour off every trace of San Francisco.  Then he’d have an unpleasant letter to write to his father.  He dreaded that, but he knew he’d have to do it before he’d ever feel clean again.  There’d be at least one benefit to the confession: Adam was pretty sure he’d never have to spend another holiday with the Larrimores.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

News From Near And Far

The weather throughout January of 1859 was uniformly frosty.  Snow drifts piled against the Ponderosa ranch house, locking its inhabitants indoors, never a pleasing prospect with two lively boys in the house.  Toward the end of the month, however, a sudden break in the weather brought sunny skies, and Marie gladly sent her youngsters outdoors to play for an hour or two each day.  Ben welcomed the warm weather as an opportunity to give closer attention to his cattle.

The first of February arrived with a clear sky, but the air seemed cooler, a harbinger of returning cold.  Though no storm clouds loomed on the horizon, and though the Ponderosa’s huge stone fireplace kept the front room warm, Marie shivered, dreading the blizzard she felt sure would arrive within days.

What actually arrived late that morning was something that brought more warmth to her heart than the fireplace possibly could.  Hoss, taking a break from his schoolwork to romp outside with a ponderously bundled Little Joe, flung open the door.  “Mama!” he cried from the doorway.  “We got company!”

Marie dropped the mending she was doing in the mauve chair by the fire and began to pat her hair into place as she stood.  “Oh, who is it, Hoss?  The Thomases?”  The two families had not been able to meet for several weeks.  Even though the weather had been warm on Sunday, the roads had still been packed with snow.

“Naw, it’s Mrs. Ellis and Jimmy,” Hoss reported.  “I know recess is ‘bout over, but we can stay outside and play, can’t we?”

“No, Hoss, it is time to come in,” his mother said as she hurried to the door.

“Aw, Mama,” Hoss whimpered.

“Bring your brother in at once,” Marie said firmly, “and take off his wraps.”  She hastened across the yard to welcome her friend.  “Oh, Laura, it is so good to see you!” she cried.

“The way the sky looked, I thought I’d better take a chance while I could,” Laura laughed.  “Of course, if it snows quicker than I think, you may have two houseguests for a long time to come.”

“They would be most welcome,” Marie smiled, gently touching Jimmy’s cheek.  “My, you are cold, child!  Come in by the fire at once.”  She took the boy’s hand and led her visitors inside.

Hoss stood sulking in the middle of the room, his warm jacket still on.  “I reckon it’s long enough for Little Joe to be out, but me and Jimmy can play outside, can’t we, Mama?” he pleaded.

“I think not, Hoss,” his mother replied.  “Jimmy has had a long, cold ride and should warm himself.”

“Yes, he must,” Laura added.  “You youngsters have plenty of toys to play with inside, I know.”

“But no lessons, right, Mama?”  The pathetic expression on Hoss’s face made both mothers laugh.

“No, no lessons,” Marie tittered.  “You have a guest, Hoss.  Please stable Mrs. Ellis’s horse, then you and Jimmy may play upstairs, if you like.”

Little Joe tugged on Marie’s skirt.  “Doggie, Mama?”

“Look in the box by the fireplace, Jimmy, and get him his seal, s’il te plait.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the Ellis youngster replied, immediately digging into Little Joe’s toy box while Hoss headed for the barn.

“Come here, you pretty thing,” Laura cooed, scooping Little Joe into her arms.

“You may find him a squirming thing,” Marie laughed.  “He doesn’t sit still for long.”

“Probably a good thing,” Laura chuckled as she sat on the maroon-striped sofa with alternating stripes of cream strewn with blue flowers.  “As cold as the weather’s been, he likely stays warmer that way.”

“It is terrible, no?” Marie said.  “I wish this warm weather could last, but I know better.”

“You and half the miners in the territory,” Laura smiled.  “I doubt you’ve heard of the new strike.”

“I have heard nothing,” Marie moaned.  “So far Ben has managed to ride in for the mail when it comes, and, of course, he brings a paper then, too, but I have not left the house since New Year’s Eve.”

“Doggie,” Little Joe whimpered.

“Jimmy, haven’t you found that toy yet?” Laura asked sharply.

“Yeah.  I was just lookin’ at the other things,” Jimmy said, nose in the carved box.  “It’s all baby stuff.”

Mais oui,” Marie laughed.  “That is Little Joe’s box, Jimmy.  Hoss’s is upstairs.  The seal, s’il te plait?”

Jimmy handed the stuffed toy to Little Joe.  “Can I go up to Hoss’s room?” he asked.

“When Hoss returns,” his mother said sternly, “though if you continue to whine like a baby, Jimmy, perhaps Little Joe’s toys would make more appropriate playthings for you.”

“No, ma’am!  I’ll be good,” the four-year-old declared.

“You mentioned a gold strike?” Marie probed, bending to pick up the toy seal when Little Joe made it dive off Laura’s arm into an ocean of air.

“Yes, and this is real news,” Laura announced.  “Hasn’t even appeared in the Territorial Enterprise yet.”

Marie clapped her hands.  “Good!  I will have news to share with Ben for a change.”

“Well, you may not know that several of the miners had planned to winter in Franktown,” Laura began, “squatting in some of the houses the Mormon settlers left behind.”

“No, but it is good to put the houses to use,” Marie mused.  “That is where Madame Cowan is living, too, I think.”

“Not anymore,” Laura giggled, “but that’s getting ahead of my story.”

The door flew open and Hoss rushed in.  “Let’s go upstairs, Hoss,” Jimmy cried.  “Ain’t no good toys down here.”

“That’s for sure,” Hoss agreed.  “Okay, Mama.”

Oui, and you may take Little Joe, as well,” Marie said.

“Okay,” Hoss muttered.  He was always glad to play with his little brother when no one else was around, but Jimmy was closer to his age, and Hoss would have preferred not being saddled with the baby while he had company.

Laura gave the top of the toddler’s curly head a kiss and relinquished him to his brother.  “Play nicely, Jimmy,” she cautioned.  “Remember, Little Joe is smaller than you.”

“Let’s bring your water doggie,” Hoss suggested to Little Joe, whispering conspiratorially to Jimmy as they mounted the stairs, “He’ll stay out of our way better if he has his favorite toy.”

“Yeah,” Jimmy whispered back, quick to align himself with the bigger boy he admired.  “Good idea.”

“Now we can visit undisturbed,” Marie said.  “Shall I have Hop Sing prepare tea?”

“Or coffee.  Whichever’s easier,” Laura replied.  “I could use a hot drink.”

“I should have thought of it earlier,” Marie apologized, “after your long drive.”

“Had my arms full before now,” Laura laughed.

When Marie returned from her consultation with Hop Sing, Laura continued her tale of the new mining strike.  “The weather looked so nice last Friday that several of the miners decided they might as well go back to work,” she began again.  “Let’s see: there was Pancake Comstock, Old Virginny, Big French John Bishop, Aleck Henderson and Jack Yount.  Probably some others, too, but those are the ones who found the gold.  You know any of them?”

“I have met Messieurs Comstock and Finney,” Marie replied, “and I think Monsieur Bishop was at the New Year’s Ball.  The others I don’t know.”

“Customers, of course,” Laura commented.  “That’s how I know them.  Haven’t seen much of any of them while they’ve been at Franktown, though.  Eilley’s been running a boardinghouse for the boys, and with the weather being so cold, none of them have wanted to drive to Carson City for what they could find a few doors down.”

“It would be worth the ride,” Marie declared loyally.

“True, she doesn’t serve much besides salt pork and beans, but her batter biscuits are real good, according to the miners I’ve talked to.  Anyway, like I was saying, the warm weather convinced these miners to head for GoldCanyon.  The melting snow gave them plenty of water to swish in their pans.”

“And they found gold?” Marie asked.

“On Saturday——a nice-sized pocket of it,” Laura said, “enough to make everyone down the canyon scramble up to Gold Hill.”

“Gold Hill?”  Not recognizing the name, Marie tilted her golden head inquiringly.

“That’s what they’re calling the new strike,” Laura explained.  “It’s just a mile or so up the canyon from where the miners left off working when winter hit.”

Hop Sing entered, bringing a tray with a china teapot, sugar and creamer, as well as two cups and saucers.  “Velly good see you again, Missy Laula,” he said smoothly.

“Thank you, Hop Sing,” Laura replied, smiling.  “You make the best tea in the territory.”

Hop Sing beamed.  “You got good sense, like Missy Cahtlight.  Hop Sing like cook for ladies got good sense.  You stay lunch?”

“Of course, she will,” Marie answered.  “Please prepare something special, Hop Sing.”

“Velly special,” Hop Sing promised and shuffled quickly back to the kitchen.

“The miners are making Gold Hill their headquarters now,” Laura said, as she added sugar and cream to her tea, “so you’ll have to add that name to your list of prominent places in western Utah.”

Mais oui,” Marie laughed, stirring her own cup, “but how sad for Madame Cowan that all her boarders have moved to a new town, despite the fame of her batter biscuits.”

“Don’t waste your sympathy on Eilley Orrum!” Laura hooted, using Mrs. Cowan’s maiden name, by which most people knew her since her separation from her Mormon husband.  “That one can take care of herself.  I’ll have you know she’s moved to Gold Hill, too, boardinghouse and all!”

“But how is that possible?” Marie queried.

“Oh, she had help,” Laura laughed.  “Some of her boarders——Sandy Bowers, for one——loaded everything from pots and pans to the boards from her house on pack mules and carted it to Gold Hill.  She’s sharing a wall with a bar run by a fellow called Old Nick.  Between the two of them, they manage to see most of the new town’s residents every night.”

“So, Madame Cowan has made a wise business move?” Marie asked.  “One which will hurt you?”

Laura shrugged and took another sip of tea.  “I’m not worried.  I get enough business in Carson City to get by.  Besides, if you ask me, it’s gold Eilley’s chasing, not customers.  She always did have a touch of gold fever, used to pester the Grosch boys to distraction about their claim.”

Marie smiled.  “I think, perhaps, it is not gold fever, but husband fever, that afflicts Madame Cowan.  Surely you noticed how she eyed with favor every unattached man at our Christmas Eve party——especially poor Dr. Martin.”

“She won’t snare him,” Laura giggled.  “Some of these newer folks may not be as quick to spot danger as he, however.”

Marie shook her head.  “So many new people in the territory, and I know so few.”

“You know Sandy Bowers,” Laura said.  “You couldn’t miss that big Scot.  That’s why I mentioned him before.”

Oui, him I know,” Marie smiled, “but he is not new to the territory.  I have seen him at several New Year’s Eve balls.  He dances most enthusiastically.”

“He surely does, but I’ll take him over Old Pancake or James Finney any day!” Laura declared.

“Ah, perhaps so will Madame Cowan,” Marie teased.

“I have a feeling she’d take anything in pants!” Laura snickered.

“What gossips we have become this morning,” Marie smiled.

“Comes from lack of opportunity,” Laura admitted, “but you’re right.  We should mind our tongues a bit better, or we’ll be teaching our boys bad ways.  Besides, I like Eilley, even if she is man-hungry.”  Determined to turn the conversation to safer ground, she asked if Marie had heard from Adam lately.

Mais oui, he is always faithful to write,” Marie replied, “and the mail has not once failed this winter, as you know.”

“So, what’s Adam up to?”

Marie sighed.  “I am afraid his last letter brought most distressing news.”  She proceeded to relate the unpleasant tale of Adam’s sortie into the darker side of San Francisco society.  “Adam, of course, took all the blame to himself,” she finished hotly, “but Sterling Larrimore is four years older than our boy!  He knew he was taking Adam where no young boy should go.”

Laura nodded soberly.  “And Adam’s at just the age when sampling so-called grown-up entertainment can be most enticing.”

Oui, but we depended on Monsieur Larrimore to provide only appropriate entertainment for our son,” Marie fumed on, “and Ben is so provoking!  I have told him he should write to his friend at once and tell him what his boy has done to ours, but Ben refuses.”

“Why?” Laura probed.

“Oh, he says it is not a message to be delivered by mail,” Marie sputtered, “that he must talk face to face with Lawrence, so there will be no misunderstanding.”

“Well, I can see Ben’s point,” Laura said softly.  “God forbid I should ever receive such news about Jimmy, but I know it would come easier if an old friend spoke with me directly.”

“But when can that be?” Marie cried, throwing up her hands in frustration.  “We will not see the Larrimores before spring.  Probably not even then, for I do not think they will travel to Placerville for Katerina’s wedding.”

“Is the date set for the wedding?” Laura asked, deftly changing the subject to one less inflammatory.

The subterfuge worked, for Marie was easy prey to anything romantic.  “Oh, yes,” she replied, her smile returning.  “Letters have been flying between here and Placerville.  Enos tells us they will exchange their vows the fifteenth of May, just after Little Joe’s birthday.”

Laura laughed.  “You’ll celebrate that on the road, then.  No birthday cake this year, I take it, but you must promise to let me bake one for the little sweetheart’s third birthday.”

Mais oui,” Marie agreed readily.  “He will be old enough then for a small party.”  She clapped her palm to her lips.  “Oh, I forgot to mention that the Reverend Wentworth will come to Placerville for the ceremony.  Ben is paying his way.”

“How nice!” Laura said, sharing her friend’s enthusiasm.  “It’ll mean a lot to Enos and his bride to have the minister who traveled west with them witness their vows.”

Oui, and with the Paynes planning to come, as well, it will be almost a reunion of the Larrimore train,” Marie bubbled on.

“Except for the Larrimores, I take it?”

“No, there is one other family everyone has lost track of,” Marie replied.  “I do not recall their name, but Ben sometimes wonders about them.”

“It’s a wonder the rest of you have kept in touch,” Laura commented.  “Most folks just went their separate ways.  Ben must have come west with a good group.”

Oui, from all I have heard,” Marie said.  She stood and picked up the tea tray.  “You will meet some of them this spring.  Reverend Wentworths’ two younger children will be visiting us until fall.”

“You told me.  I’ll be looking forward to meeting them,” Laura replied.  “May I help you with those?”

“No, no, I will be back in a moment,” Marie said, “then we can”——she paused, hearing a horse trot into the yard.  “Oh, that will be Ben, coming home for lunch.  Do not tell him what gossips we have been this morning.”

“I’m no tattletale,” Laura laughed, “especially not when I’m as guilty as you!”

* * * * *

Adam scurried up the stairs to his room, for Mrs. Maguire had told him he had mail waiting.  “Sure, and it’s just the usual letters from your family,” she laughed.  “It’s homesick you are, Adam Cartwright.”

Homesickness was not the malady that made the boy tear up the stairs, however.  Malaise of the heart came closer to the truth, for Adam had lived in sick dread of his father’s reaction to his escapade through the back streets of San Francisco.

Flinging open the door to his room, he saw two letters propped against the books on his desk.  He reached for the one from his father first.  Whatever Hoss had to share could wait.

Harold Lissome, coming in right after Adam, halted when he saw the envelope in his roommate’s hand.  “Is it from your father?”  Adam had shared everything with Harold, and the older boy knew how anxiously Adam had been awaiting his father’s response.

When Adam nodded solemnly, Harold laid a compassionate hand on the other boy’s shoulder.  “You’ll want to read it alone,” he said, “so I’ll clear out for a while.”

“Thanks,” Adam said.  “I won’t be long.  I know you’ve got a test to study for.”

“Take all the time you need,” Harold replied softly.  “I’ll be downstairs in the parlor.”

Adam unsealed the letter, took a deep breath and began to read:

 

“My dearest Adam,

 

How grieved I was to learn of your difficulties in San Francisco.  I must first beg your forgiveness for putting you in the path of such temptation.  I naturally assumed I could entrust you to Mr. And Mrs. Larrimore, but never thought of their leaving you unsupervised.  I am most disheartened to learn that my trust was misplaced.

 

As to your own behavior, I was, of course, disappointed that you yielded to the temptation to drink.  I know that without the influence of an older boy you would not have done so, and I am grateful that even under the influence of liquor, you could not be persuaded to do worse.  Perhaps I am at fault for not making my feelings on the consumption of alcohol plain to you, but I did not anticipate the need at your early age.  Again, I ask your forgiveness for my laxity in parenting.

 

Let me express to you my sincere hope that you will not again taste liquor until you are at least eighteen.  Even then, I trust you will be moderate in your consumption, as I have always tried to be.  Excess lowers resistance to other unsavory behavior, as I think you observed in Sterling Larrimore.  I know I can trust you to respect my wishes in this matter.

 

Thank you for the carved walrus tusk.  The scene does indeed remind me of my days on a similar ship with your grandfather.  I will keep it on my desk beside your picture, two special reminders of the young man I miss so much.

 

Study hard, but please stop confining yourself to your quarters.  As you have been doing so since the first of January, I consider that discipline enough.  I order you to spend a night at the theater with your friends, young man!  (Legitimate theater, however——no more melodeons.)

 

Your loving father,

Benjamin Cartwright”

 

As Adam folded the letter, he felt his eyes begin to water.  He’d been so afraid that he had lost his father’s respect, but Pa sounded like he was blaming himself more than Adam.  Adam never wanted his father to feel that way again, so he determined to evaluate every decision he made in light of what his father would want him to do.  If I do that, I can’t go far wrong, Adam concluded.  He was ready to read Hoss’s letter now, but in fairness to Harold, he went downstairs first.  “Everything’s all right,” he said when his friend looked up inquiringly.

“I told you it would be,” Harold grinned.  “You’ve got a good father.”

“The best in the world,” Adam boasted warmly.  “He ordered me to go to the theater.  How about Friday evening?”

“Sounds good,” Harold replied, slamming his book shut.  “Now, upstairs and finish your homework, my boy, so you can quiz me for my history test.”

Adam grinned and the two boys returned to their room, each wrapping an arm around the other’s shoulder.  The first thing Adam did on reaching the room was to read Hoss’s short letter:

 

“Hey, Adam,

 

What’s up?  Pa wouldn’t read me your letter to him, so I know something’s the matter.  You in trouble?  Not me, I am doing good.  Little Joe, too, except he makes his water doggie bark too much.

 

We got good and stuffed on them turkeys Pa and Billy shot at the contest.  Billy came in first and Pa third.  We ate Billy’s bird right off, but saved ours to butcher for New Year’s.  Had Hangtown Fry for breakfast then, too.  Bet you ain’t had nothing that good at that boardinghouse.

 

Guess what.  There is gonna be a horse race in Carson City, the first ever, on February 2.  Pa says him and me will go, if it don’t snow too deep for the horses to run.  You ever seen one?

 

I like that walrus tooth you give Pa.  I want one, too.  Okay?  Don’t study too hard.  You know I won’t!

 

Your brother,

Hoss”

 

Adam laughed.

Glancing up, Harold grinned.  “Back to your books, boy.”

Adam tipped his desk chair back on two legs and folded his arms behind his neck.  “I don’t know.  My little brother seems to think I study too much as it is.”

Harold reached over to push Adam’s chair to the floor.  “Yeah, he’s probably right, but you can’t help me ‘til you finish your own work, and I need help!”

Adam popped his roommate a sharp salute.  “Aye, aye, sir.  Back to my books, sir.”

Harold gave a satisfied nod as Adam opened his algebra text and, propping his forehead with his hand, returned to his study of the Medes and Persians.

* * * * *

The very night Laura Ellis and Jimmy headed back to Carson City, the weather turned horrid again, so Hoss wasn’t able to go into town for the anticipated horserace.  A hard wind blew from the southwest, bringing three inches of snow by morning.  Within ten days a foot covered the valleys and even more fell in the Sierras.  The new telegraph to Placerville was knocked out, but that didn’t matter to Hoss.  Adam couldn’t afford to send an expensive wire, anyway.  What mattered to Hoss was that on the twentieth of the month, for the first time that winter, the mail didn’t arrive.  First it had come by stage, then as the weather worsened, by sled and later by mule.  Now the snows in the mountains were too deep even for Snowshoe Thompson, a tragedy unknown before.  Hoss, who had begged permission to ride in for the mail, had nothing but that bad news to deliver when he returned to the Ponderosa.

Though Hoss pleaded every morning, it was six whole days before his hard-hearted father would let him brave the cold roads once again, and there still wasn’t any mail.  “Can I check again tomorrow?” Hoss pleaded at supper that evening.  “I just know the mail will get through tomorrow.”

“You can’t go traipsing off every day, boy,” Ben snorted.  “You have chores and lessons to be done.  Do your work well and you can do whatever you like come Saturday again.”

“Saturday!  Another whole week?” Hoss moaned.

“There is no need, however, to go even then,” Marie interjected.  “We plan to take dinner with the Thomases the next day, so you can get your mail then, Hoss.”

“Pa said Saturday,” Hoss squealed.

Ben lifted a silencing hand.  “If you’re so impatient you can’t wait one more day, you may go to Carson on Saturday, Hoss——provided I don’t hear another word about it until then!”

From the tone of his voice, Pa meant business, so Hoss quickly agreed to the terms and kept his impatience carefully checked until the designated day.  He rode into Carson City that morning with a heart full of hope, for while snow still remained on the valley floor, it was beginning to melt and the last two days had been warm, without a cloud in the sky.

Hoss tied his horse to the rail in front of Ormsby’s mercantile and hotel and went in to see if the mail had arrived.  “Sure did, son,” Mrs. Ormsby told him.  “Got in on Thursday.”

Hoss groaned.  Adam’s letter had been sitting here two whole days without his getting a chance to read it!

“Reckon your pa will be wanting a copy of the paper, too,” the storekeeper suggested.

“Yes’m,” Hoss said.  He tucked the latest copy of the Territorial Enterprise under his arm, stuffed Pa’s two letters in his jacket pocket and tore open his personal letter from Adam.  Getting his own mail was fun, and Adam never let him down.

The letter read:

 

“Dear Hoss,

 

You guessed right.  I did get in some trouble in San Francisco.  Sterling Larrimore took me to some places I shouldn’t have gone.  One of them was the saloon where I bought Pa’s walrus tusk.  I had a couple of beers.  That was two too many, little brother, so don’t get any ideas!  I doubt I can get you a walrus tusk, since I don’t ever intend to go back to that saloon or even to San Francisco anytime soon.  MaybePa will buy you one sometime.  It came from the CobwebPalace.  You’d like the place because it had cages of monkeys and parrots——carved whale’s teeth, too.  Maybe you’d like one of those better.  It would fit in your treasure box easier than a big tusk.

 

I will try not to study too hard if you promise to study harder.  Judging by your last letter, your grammar could use some work.  Don’t let that water doggie bite you!  I’m guessing his bark’s worse than his bite, though.  Ha!

 

Yours,

Adam”

 

Hoss scowled when he began the last paragraph.  Just like Adam to bring up his grammar, always a sore point with Pa.  Hoss never could figure out what the fuss was all about.  He managed to make himself understood——better than Little Joe, at least.  The baby couldn’t put together even one whole sentence, but nobody complained about his grammar.  Then he grinned at Adam’s nonsense about the water doggie.  He’d be sure to read that part to Little Joe.

Tucking away his letter, Hoss ambled over to the Thomases to beg a meal and a bag of cookies, if he was lucky.  Since he’d been cautioned about dawdling today, Hoss left right after lunch, putting the family’s mail and a dozen sugar cookies carefully in the saddlebags he’d gotten for Christmas.

Later that evening Hoss waited impatiently for his father to peruse Adam’s letter.  “Can I read this one,” he asked as soon as his father finished, “or is Adam in more trouble?”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “What do you know about that?”

Hoss gulped.  Maybe Adam was supposed to have kept things secret from his little brother, and here Hoss had gone and spilled the beans.

“I asked you a question, Hoss,” Ben said sternly.

“Y—yes, sir,” Hoss stammered.  “J—just what Adam wrote me.  He said he went some places he shouldn’t——like saloons——and drank beer.”

“Is that all?” Ben probed.

“Yeah.  It’s okay he told me, ain’t it?”

“If he wanted to,” Ben said, relieved that Adam had omitted the more sordid visit to Chinatown in his letter to his eight-year-old brother.  “There’s nothing like that this time, if you were hoping for more juicy details.”

“Oh, no,” Hoss assured his father.  “I was wantin’ to find out what he got for his birthday.  He didn’t say in my letter.”

“Oh, Hoss,” Ben chuckled.  “His birthday was less than two weeks ago.  This letter was posted before that.  Unless he peeked, he couldn’t have known what was in those packages I left with Mrs. Maguire.”

“He wouldn’t peek,” Hoss sighed.  Straight-laced Adam never did step over the line.  Of course, he had drunk those beers.  Maybe he was easin’ up some, after all.  Then again, maybe not.  He had gone and confessed the whole thing, a really stupid move in Hoss’s eyes.  Why court trouble when you could avoid it just by keeping your mouth shut?  “So, can I read the letter or you just wanna tell me what’s in it?”

“You can’t read it,” Ben said.  “It’s in cursive, Hoss.”

“I would like to hear Adam’s news,” Marie smiled from her chair by the fire.

Ben laughed.  “I guess I should have read it out loud to begin with.”  He’d been reluctant to do that, though, after having to stop suddenly in the midst of Adam’s last epistle to avoid Hoss’s hearing what it contained.  “Adam just thanked me for forgiving him, and he promises he’ll never abuse our trust again.”

“It was not our trust in him that was abused,” Marie muttered.

“Don’t start,” Ben warned.  To distract her, he hurried on with the other details of Adam’s letter.  “He also said his studies were more difficult this term, but he’s still doing well and finds his lessons interesting.”

“That is good news,” Marie smiled.

Ben sobered.  “Yeah, but there was bad news, too, my love.  You remember young Jamie Edwards?”

Mais oui.  Such a sweet boy.”

“Adam had a letter from him.  You know the boy was always frail.  Well, he was sick so much in November and December that he couldn’t complete the first term, and Josiah is making him take the rest of the year off to recuperate.”

“What a shame,” Marie sympathized.  “He loved learning as much as Adam, I think.”

“Don’t sound bad to me,” Hoss grunted.  “I wouldn’t mind takin’ some time off from school.”

Ben guffawed.  “You’re out of luck, you healthy boy!”

“I am sure Adam is more sympathetic with his friend than Hoss is,” Marie smiled.

“Indeed,” Ben agreed, “although he seems to relish that he and Jamie will be back on the same level again next year.  Jamie started his academy work a year earlier than Adam, you know.”

“I remember,” Marie said quietly, bending over her sewing.  Though she said nothing else, Ben knew she was thinking about those troubled early days of their marriage when Adam had been so confused and hostile.  The reason Adam had started school a year later than planned was his father’s unexpected trip to New Orleans, and Ben’s bringing home a new bride had only made the boy more miserable at delaying his education in Sacramento.

“Shall I read the letter from John now?” Ben asked softly.

Oui, s’il te plait.”

Ben cleared his throat and began:

 

“Dear Ben, Marie and boys:

 

Will and I are in good health and hoping this finds you in the same.  We are getting along better now.  Will’s really caught up in the excitement of our booming town of Denver.  He was particularly pleased with the holster and handgun I gave him for Christmas and is growing proficient in handling it.  I can almost hear you criticizing, little brother, but I beg you to withhold judgement.  You don’t know what it’s like in a rough mining town.  Even a boy needs to be able to protect himself.”

 

“But, Ben,” Marie interjected.  “Will is only a little older than Adam, is he not?”

“About six months,” Ben muttered.  “Of all the fool notions!  Giving a handgun to boy of sixteen.”

“That what you got Adam for his birthday, Pa?” Hoss queried excitedly.

“No!” Ben shouted.

Little Joe, playing on the rug by the fire, started to cry.  “There, there, sweet boy,” Marie soothed, gathering him into her lap.  “Papa does not mean to frighten you.”

“Yeah, I’m sorry, little fellow,” Ben murmured, “and I’m sorry I yelled at you, Hoss.  Your question was ridiculous, however.  Both your brother and your cousin are too young to be toting weapons.  That just invites trouble.”

“Uncle John says Will needs protectin’,” Hoss argued.  “You wouldn’t want him to get hurt, would you?”

“No, of course not,” Ben replied with strained patience, “but I believe that Uncle John should avoid putting his boy in a position where he needs protection.”

“Like you puttin’ Adam in with that stinkin’ Sterling?” Hoss asked.  “That’s what got him in trouble, ain’t it?”

Marie giggled at the sudden discomfort on Ben’s countenance.  “Oui, mon chéri, but I believe your father has learned his lesson.”

“If not, I have ample folk to remind me,” Ben said dryly and returned to his brother’s letter:

 

“We have found no big strike yet, but continue to pan enough to get by.  Neither Will nor I feel ready to give up, although I appreciate your offer to help us relocate.  I never was cut out for a farmer, and Will seems to have had his fill of it, too.”

 

Ben groaned.  The words reminded him of ones once spoken by his second wife’s brother, Gunnar Borgstrom.  Not thinking himself cut out for a shopkeeper, Gunnar had headed for the gold fields across the Isthmus of Panama and had never been heard from again.

“Is that all?” Marie queried.

“Umm?” Ben muttered, attention slowly returning.  “Oh, yeah.  Just sends his love, requests I write soon, that sort of thing.  No more news.”

“Ben, I think you must give up this dream of John’s coming here,” Marie said softly.

“I guess so,” Ben sighed, “though if it’s the thrill of seeking gold he craves, he might as well do it at Gold Hill.  Sure seems to be growing since Old Virginny staked out the first claim.”

“We gonna move to Gold Hill, Pa?” Hoss asked anxiously.

Ben closed his eyes and shook his head.  Sometimes he despaired of his middle boy’s ever following a conversation closely enough to understand what had actually been said.  “No, son,” he replied with as much patience as he could muster.  “No, we’re gonna stay right here on the Ponderosa.”

“Stay here,” Little Joe babbled from his mother’s lap.  Ben laughed.  Hoss might miss the point of any conversation, but not that youngest son of his.  Little Joe didn’t miss a thing.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Bridled Justice

Arms akimbo, Nelly Thomas stood in the kitchen doorway, looking into the parlor.  “Ain’t that Billy back yet?” she demanded.  “Dinner’s nigh on to ready.”

Clyde looked up from the game of checkers he was playing with Ben Cartwright.  “You serve it up when it’s done,” he ordered brusquely.  “No call for that boy holdin’ up the rest of us.  He knows when dinner’s served.  Had no business traipsin’ off this mornin’, anyhow.”

Ben chuckled.  “Just where did he traipse off to?  Down the street to the Martins?”

“Doc’s got better sense than to let that scamp chase after his daughter that early of a Sunday morning,” Clyde muttered.  “Naw, he took off for Genoa right after breakfast.”

Ben looked puzzled.  “What’s the attraction at Genoa?  Somebody plant a new daisy there?”

Clyde guffawed.  “I’d understand him chasin’ a skirt; he’s of an age for that, but it ain’t nothin’ that sensible.  Says he’s just plain sick of the sight of Carson.”

“Oh, itchy feet.”  Ben smiled as he jumped one of Clyde’s red markers.  “He’s of an age for that, too, Clyde, although I wouldn’t think Genoa rated much as a cure.”

“Fur as he could get and not miss dinner, I reckon,” Clyde cackled, then frowned in concentration over his next move.

Billy’s devotion to his stomach proved the inspiration for his return, just as his mother and Marie finished setting out the food.  “High time you got home,” his father complained.

“I said I’d be back for dinner, and here I am,” Billy grinned.

“Well, make yourself useful, son,” Nelly said.  “Tell the younguns it’s time to eat.”

“Sure, Ma,” Billy said.  He sauntered into the narrow hall and hollered up the stairway, “Hey, come and get it!”

“Oh, you scamp!” Nelly scolded.  “You know that ain’t what I had in mind.”

Billy shrugged.  “It’ll work.  That Hoss has got mighty sharp ears where food’s concerned.”  The clatter of feet rushing down the stairs proved his words.

Everyone gathered around the table and folded their hands while Ben said grace over the meal.  Then, as Clyde carved the roast teal, Ben asked, “What’s the big news over to Genoa, Billy?”

Billy laughed.  “Aw, Uncle Ben, you know there ain’t never much goin’ on there, any more than here.  Was kind of an interesting poker game at the Stockade, though.”

“The Stockade Bar?” his mother squealed.  “You been drinkin’ and gamblin’ on the Lord’s Day?”

“No, Ma,” Billy sputtered, “though I don’t see as it’d be such a sin.  John Herring’s a year younger than me, and he was playin’.”

“Age has nothin’ to do with it,” Nelly scolded.  “It’s a sacrilege, that’s what it is.”

“No better than I’d expect from a Mormon,” Clyde snorted.  “What you doin’ runnin’ with such trash?”

“Bein’ Mormon don’t make him trash,” Billy snapped.

“You been listenin’ to your Uncle Ben too much, boy,” Clyde grunted.

“That Herring boy’s got a pretty rough reputation, Billy,” Ben said, ignoring Clyde’s thinly veiled criticism.  “Why, I’ve heard he’s been threatening to shoot people all over the valley.”

Billy shrugged.  “Yeah, I heard him do that once, but I figured it for just talk.  Anyway, he was peaceable enough this morning, even when he lost his bridle to Elzy Knott.  You know, the one that runs the sawmill.”

“And the grist mill,” Clyde added.  “Knott’s a decent fellow.”

“Not if he’s gamblin’ on the Sabbath,” Nelly insisted.

“Aw, you’re too strait-laced, Ma,” Billy muttered as he piled his plate with mashed potatoes and ladled duck gravy over them.  “Ain’t much else to do in a town the size of Genoa.”

“Well, at least, that Herring boy’ll think twice about doin’ it again,” Nelly stated.  “Losing his bridle should be a good lesson to him on the dangers of gambling.”

Billy hooted.  “Some lesson!  His uncle waltzed in and said the bet was no good, ‘cause it was his bridle and John didn’t have permission to gamble it.”

“You mean his stepfather, don’t you?” Ben asked, a twinkle in his eye.  Like everyone else at the table, except the children, he knew that Herring had married his brother’s widow, giving him a dual relationship to the boy.

“I hope there was no trouble, no gunplay,” Marie observed after a brief titter circled the table at Ben’s remark.

“Naw, Elzy just gave up the bridle,” Billy said.  “Told me afterwards he figured Mr. Herring must have needed it.”

“That Knott boy’s a considerate young fellow,” Ben commented.  “He’s always impressed me as a hard worker and a fair dealer.”

“Boy!” Billy protested.  “Why, he must be twenty-five, twenty-six years old, Uncle Ben!  Just how old does a fellow have to be before you quit callin’ him a boy?”

“Older than you, boy,” Clyde grinned.  “Older than you.”

* * * * *

Two days later, after the sun had dipped behind the mountains edging the Ponderosa, Billy Thomas rode into the yard, tied his horse’s reins to the hitching rail and pounded on the front door.

“You’re late,” Ben commented dryly when Hop Sing had admitted the young man.  “We just finished dinner.”

“Do not be rude, Ben,” Marie chided, then smiled at Billy.  “I am sure Hop Sing can prepare you a plate if you have not eaten.”

“I haven’t, but I’m not hungry, ma’am,” Billy said twirling his hat between his hands.

Ben arched an eyebrow.  Lack of appetite in Billy Thomas was a sure sign of trouble, just as it would have been in his own boys.  “What’s wrong?” he demanded.

Billy dropped his hat, then leaned over to snatch it up from the floor and started twirling it again.  Marie gently took it from his fingers and laid it on the cabinet to the left of the front door, then stroked his arm soothingly.  “Have you come to visit or to bring news, Billy?” she asked.

Billy bit his lip.  “I come——uh——I come to invite you to a funeral.”

As Marie uttered a sharp cry, Billy grabbed her arms quickly.  “Oh, no, ma’am,” he assured her at once.  “Not any of my folks.  Not anyone you know.”

“Who is it?” Ben demanded through tense jaws.  “Quit stammering around and speak plain, boy.”

Billy jerked a nod at Ben.  “Elzy, Elzy Knott, Uncle Ben.  You’ve done business with him, but I didn’t figure Marie knew him.”

“The young man who so kindly returned the bridle he’d won in the poker game?” Marie asked.  “You told us about him Sunday.”

“Yes, ma’am, the same one,” Billy replied.

“Not more trouble over that bridle?” Ben queried.

“Yeah,” Billy grunted.  “Don’t it beat all, Uncle Ben?”

“Sit down and tell us what you know, boy,” Ben said, pointing toward the sofa.

Billy seemed glad to sit.  “Hey, Hoss, how you doin’?” he asked of the youngster seated by the hearth building blocks with his little brother.

“I’m doin’ good, Billy.  How ‘bout you?” Hoss replied.

“It’s scarcely a time for small talk, Billy,” Ben stated firmly.

“And it is scarcely talk for small ears,” Marie added.  “Hoss, please take Little Joe to your room to play.”

“Aw, Ma,” Hoss protested.  “I wanna hear.”  He’d deliberately kept quiet until he was spoken to in hopes his parents wouldn’t notice he was eavesdropping.

“Do as you’re told,” Ben ordered in a voice that told Hoss no argument or disobedience would be tolerated.

Once the boys had left Ben turned to Billy.  “All right, son.  What started the trouble up again?  Knott have second thoughts about that bridle?”

“You might say that,” Billy said.  “I can only tell what I heard, Uncle Ben.  I reckon the whole story’ll come out at the trial.”

“Billy,” Ben said with strained patience.

“Yes, sir,” Billy said.  “Well, what I heard was that after giving the bridle back, Elzy saw Herring——the uncle——well, stepfather——”

“Go on,” Ben ordered tersely.

“Okay, okay.  I’m sorry, but this thing’s got me shook to pieces,” Billy stammered.  “I ain’t never had to testify at a trial before.”

“You?  Were you there when it happened, Billy?” Marie asked.

“No, ma’am.  It’s what happened Sunday I got to give witness to,” Billy explained.

“All you need do is tell the truth,” Ben said.  “No need to be so nervous about that, boy.”

“Yeah, but I counted ‘em both friends, Uncle Ben,” Billy moaned.  “Now one’s dead and the other likely to hang for shooting him.  I don’t want no part of puttin’ that noose around his neck.”

“Unless you know more than you’ve said so far, your testimony couldn’t possibly do that,” Ben assured him.

Billy uttered an edgy laugh.  “I guess I don’t know enough to do much harm or good, do I?  All I saw was that poker game and the return of the bridle.”

“Please continue, Billy,” Marie urged.  “You said Monsieur Knott saw Monsieur Herring.”

“Yeah, and he——the uncle——step——”

“Let’s just use uncle, son,” Ben chuckled, “or we’ll never get to the end of this tale.”

Billy returned a lop-sided grin.  “Yeah, the uncle, he was gamblin’ that bridle hisself, and when Elzy saw that, he took it away.  Said if the bridle was gonna be gambled off, he’d already won it!”

“Well, he had a point,” Ben admitted, “but I’m not sure it was wise to contest it.  So Herring shot Elzy over it?”

“Not the way I heard it,” Billy said.  “I guess he thought Elzy was right and let him take the bridle.  That was Sunday or Monday.  I ain’t got it straight which.  It was today Elzy got shot and it was the kid, John Herring, that did it.”

Ben was tempted to throw his hands in the air.  If it was this hard for Billy to state a few simple facts, maybe he was right to be nervous about testifying in a trial.  “What caused the quarrel today?” Ben pressed.

“The bridle, like I said,” Billy declared.  “Meanin’ no disrespect, Uncle Ben, but if you’d quit interruptin’, I might could get this told.”

“I’ll try,” Ben muttered.  “Go on.”

“Okay, what I heard was that this morning John saw a young fellow that works for Elzy puttin’ the bridle on a horse and took it away from him.  Then Elzy went after John, barged right in his house to get the bridle back and John shot him.”

“They have young Herring in custody?” Ben asked.

“Yeah, he took off for the hills, but he’s been caught.”

“When is the funeral, Billy?” Marie asked.  “If Ben knew this family, we should pay our respects, oui?”

“Yeah, that’s why I came,” Billy said, “so you could.  Pa says most everybody in the valley’ll be there.  The funeral’s tomorrow afternoon, at the Knott place.  His pa’s mighty wrought up, said he wouldn’t have his boy buried in the Mormon Cemetery, since it was a Mormon shot him, so he’s gonna start his own.”

“We’ll be there,” Ben said.

“You will sleep here tonight and go with us, oui?” Marie asked.

“Yes, ma’am,” Billy said, looking relieved that his errand was accomplished.  “I brung a change of clothes so I could do just that, and, if you don’t mind, I reckon I’ll take that plate of food now.”

* * * * *

Ben sat beside Clyde in the front row of benches in the courtroom.  The room was starting to fill up, now that the time for the trial was near, but it had been almost empty when they arrived.  Clyde had wanted a good seat to see his boy testify, and since the Cartwrights had spent the night in Carson City after the funeral, it had been possible to get to Genoa early. “Almost as big a crowd as yesterday,” Ben commented.

“Yeah, Knott was well-liked.  Folks are interested in seein’ justice done,” Clyde said.

“You think it will be?” Billy, sitting on the other side of his father, asked.

“If they don’t load the jury with Mormons,” Clyde grunted.

“Or vigilantes,” Ben added wryly.  “Mighty hard to get a fair trial in these parts, with so many opposing factions.”

“The Knotts don’t hold with vigilantes,” Billy said, “and I never heard of John’s bein’ part of it.”

“His uncle’s connected to ‘em,” Clyde mumbled.  “Now, that’s the last I want to hear of such talk, at least in public.”

“Yes, sir, Pa,” Billy said quickly.  He knew his father was warning him that it wasn’t safe to voice your opinions too strongly, when the man sitting next to you might take the opposite side and be all too willing to shoot you for disagreeing with him.  Billy figured he had enough to be nervous about, just being a witness in this trial, without riling his father or, worse, some vigilante in the process.

Billy was one of the first witnesses to testify, and the look of relief as he left the stand was evident to all.  Ben clasped the boy’s hand as he moved past him to take his place beside his father again.  Clyde nudged his son’s leg with his knee and gave him a nod of approval.  Ben couldn’t help thinking, however, that it was a good thing the prosecutor had kept the questions short and simple or they might have been listening to Billy’s rambling testimony ‘til past noon.  Even with expert questioning, the trial hadn’t covered much ground by the time it adjourned for the midday meal.

“You want to eat at Singleton’s?” Ben asked as they exited the courtroom.  “My treat.”

“Good as any,” Clyde said, “though with provisions as short as they’ve been, we’ll be lucky to get more than bread and beans.”  Not many freight wagons had made it over the Sierras yet, and everyone’s supplies were running low.

“At least, that colored cook of his does a good job with ‘em,” Billy said with a grin, “and I’m half-starved.”

“The usual result of skipping your breakfast, young fellow,” Ben teased.  Nervous about his testimony, Billy hadn’t wanted to chance filling his belly with fatback and biscuits.

The dining room of Singleton’s Hotel was crowded, so the trio had to wait for a table.  By the time the food arrived, Billy was not the only one ready to wolf it down.  As predicted, the best the menu had to offer was brown beans and cornbread, but the beans were seasoned flavorfully and the cornbread was moist and tender.

“You plan to stay for the afternoon session, Ben?” Clyde asked as he crumbled cornbread into his beans.

Ben chuckled before answering.  Ostensibly, his reason for being there this morning was to lend moral support to his young “nephew.”  That reason no longer applied, since Billy’s testimony had ended, but Ben had to admit he had a certain curiosity to see how the trial ended.  “Oh, I might as well,” he said casually.  “By the time I collected my family and got back to the Ponderosa, the best part of the working day would be over.  How about you?”

“Well, Billy here wants to stay,” Clyde said, “seein’ as how he was friends to that Herring boy.”

Ben’s lips twitched.  Clyde wasn’t fooling him: he wasn’t staying just for Billy’s sake; Clyde was curious himself.

“Elzy was my friend, too,” Billy insisted.

“Kind of old for you, wasn’t he?” Ben twitted.  “A man of twenty-six?”

“Well, we weren’t close——and I ain’t tight with John, either, for that matter——but you know how it is, Uncle Ben.  You see someone day in, day out and you feel like they’re part of you.  Then, suddenly, they’re gone, and even if you weren’t close——”

“I understand, Billy,” Ben smiled.  “I think we’d all be better off if we felt that kind of kinship with our fellow man.”

They finished the meal and hurried back to the courtroom, just as the trial reconvened.  Though they weren’t back in time to get a good seat, they had no trouble following the testimony, for the room was small.  The prosecutor was slow to elicit the facts, however, and court adjourned that afternoon with nothing more established than that Herring had taken the bridle back from Knott’s employee.

“Might as well stay over and see how it ends,” Clyde suggested as they arrived back at Carson City.  “Be dark by the time you got to the Ponderosa.”

“I should get back,” Ben said.  “We need to get our garden in.”

“Ah, it’ll keep,” Clyde urged.  “Ain’t hardly warm enough yet to think of plantin’.”

“You tempter,” Ben laughed.  “Are you sure you’re not just using me for an excuse to get out of work yourself?”

Clyde grinned.  “Never claimed otherwise.  How ‘bout it?”

“I’ll leave it up to Marie,” Ben said.

“You’ll be stayin’ then,” Billy predicted.  “She don’t get that many chances to pay long visits.”

Ben guffawed.  “Well, we wouldn’t want to deprive the ladies of their chance to socialize, would we, Billy?”

“Be downright unchivalrous,” Billy declared with a twinkle in his blue eyes.

Marie was more than willing to extend her visit to Carson City, while the boys were positively delighted.  “I don’t never get enough time to play with Jimmy,” Hoss declared.

Leaving the others to their chosen amusements, Ben, Clyde and Billy returned to Genoa the next morning.  Again the prosecutor built his case slowly, questioning first the youngster employed by the Knotts as to what he had told young Knott about Herring’s actions and the attitude with which Elzy Knott had received the news.

The most painful testimony of the morning was given by Thomas Knott, Elzy’s father.  “The reason me and my younger son went to Herring’s house with Elzy was to see the boys settled their differences peaceably,” Knott stated, “but that hot-headed Mormon just up and shot my boy!”  The grief-stricken father broke down, weeping, and a recess was called to give him time to recover his equilibrium.

Back on the stand, Knott described entering the Herring household and asking to speak with John.  “The boy’s mother told us he was in the back room, armed, threatening to shoot anyone who opened the door,” Knott testified.  “I told Elzy to let it go, but he said he’d have that bridle or lose his life.  And that’s just what he did——over a bridle!”  Again, the elderly Knott broke down.  Again, a brief recess was called.

“Against my advice, Elzy opened that door,” Knott said when the trial resumed, “and just like he’d threatened, Herring shot first and asked questions later.  Why, it could have been his own mother opening that door, but Herring didn’t care!  The bullet tore through my boy’s cheek and he fell down, bleeding out on the floor.  My boy died there, before my eyes, before his younger brother, who’d just got in from back east.  Hadn’t had a week together when——when——”

It was obvious to all that Knott had taken all he could, so the judge suggested dismissing early for lunch and conducting the cross-examination afterwards.  “They ain’t gonna finish today even, at this rate,” Clyde grumbled as they again headed for Singleton’s to eat.

“Yeah, we haven’t even heard from Herring’s family yet,” Ben sighed.  “I don’t think I can give another day to this.  If I hadn’t promised Marie and the boys they could have today to visit, I’d head home this afternoon.”

“Can’t last much longer,” Billy said.  “Not much happened after Elzy was shot.”

Ben laughed gruffly.  “Boy, you have no idea how a pair of lawyers can stretch out ‘not much.’”

The lawyers ably proved Ben’s point that afternoon.  Little new information was elicited, although several other witnesses were examined, including Elzy Knott’s wife, although she hadn’t seen the shooting at all.  Mrs. Knott had been summoned to the Herring house immediately after the shooting and had thrown herself on her young husband’s body, severely lacerating her hand on the bone fragments pushing out through his cheek.  Though it had little bearing on Herring’s guilt or innocence, her testimony was the kind that stirred the emotions of the courtroom and made Ben wonder if young Herring might be found guilty, in spite of the jury box packed with vigilante-friendly members.

The case finished that afternoon, but as the hour was late, the jury’s deliberations were held over for the next morning.  Ben decided he’d give them until noon to reach a decision.  “We’re leaving after lunch,” he told his family, “verdict or no verdict.  I’ve neglected the Ponderosa long enough.”

Compared to the trial itself, however, the jury’s deliberations were strikingly brief.  In little over an hour, fleet-footed young men, Billy among them, were racing through the streets of Genoa yelling that the jury was in.  Everyone interested, and that was almost everyone in town, ran to the courtroom.  Not everyone managed to squeeze in, but Ben and the two Thomases did.

The foreman of the jury delivered the verdict and the judge read it: not guilty.  The crowd milling Main Street afterwards seemed divided in its opinion of whether justice had been done.  While Elzy Knott had not appeared to intend violence against Herring, he had entered the Herring house uninvited, and many felt that he had incurred the predictable penalty for invading the privacy of another’s home.  Others declared this was just another case of vigilantes protecting their own, regardless of what was right.

Not long afterwards a copy of the Valley Tan, a Salt Lake City newspaper independent of Mormon interest, reached Genoa, and one of its prominent articles increased the feeling that justice in Utah  Territory would always be bridled by special interests.  In it, Judge John Cradlebaugh, after a futile attempt to indict those he held responsible for the Mountain Meadows Massacre, charged that it was impossible to mete out justice to the criminal in Utah and accused the Legislature of enacting laws for the express purpose of protecting the guilty.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Legacy of Mercy

As the days warmed, the grass aimed its blades at the nourishing sun, and Ben Cartwright decided to move his herd to better pasture.  The cattle had come through the winter well, and with a few weeks’ fattening, some should be ready to market.  As he rode through the herd, Ben evaluated the stock according to their readiness for sale.  Though he didn’t plan to take many over the Sierras this spring, he would, at least, drive a few to Placerville when his family headed there to attend Enos and Katerina’s wedding and to escort Mark and Mary Wentworth back to the Ponderosa for a visit.

Ben felt he was keeping faith with his second wife in welcoming the Wentworths to his home, and the thought warmed his heart.  Even before their arrival, however, the Ponderosa was to serve as the refuge Inger Borgstrom Cartwright had envisioned.  Ironically, the threat was the same one that had sparked her dream back in St. Joseph.

The Cartwrights first became aware of the trouble in Carson City when Billy Thomas drove up late one evening in April in a buckboard with his sister Inger.  “Howdy, folks.  Am I in time for dinner?” the irrepressible redhead asked, sweeping off his slouch hat when Hop Sing ushered the two youngsters into the dining room.

Ben and Marie both stood from their places at the table, and Marie greeted the little girl with a hug and a kiss.  “Mais oui.  Hop Sing was just ready to serve dessert, but we can have him fill plates for you both.”

“Sounds good,” Billy grinned.

“Like Ma didn’t feed us before we left!” his little sister muttered irritably.

Billy shrugged.  “I can always eat.”

“Me, too,” Hoss agreed cheerily.

Ben chuckled, then turned to the Chinese cook.  “Prepare a plate for young Mr. Thomas, please, Hop Sing.”

“Little girl, too?” Hop Sing asked.

Inger shook her head.  “I ain’t hungry.”

“You gotta have dessert, anyway,” Hoss declared.  “We’re havin’ poppy seed cake.”

“Cake good,” Little Joe added, having had a piece at noon.

Inger shook her head, but pulled out a chair and sat down next to her brother.

“It is good to see you children,” Marie said tentatively, “but it is late for you to come alone.  Is something wrong at home?”

“Sort of,” Billy mumbled, reaching for a yeast roll although he as yet had no plate to put it on.

“Yes!” Inger snapped indignantly.

“What is it, Billy?” Ben demanded.  “And no more beating around the bush.  You know if your folks need help——”

“They don’t,” Billy said quickly, taking a plate of roast beef, potatoes and carrots from the Chinese cook.  “That is, except for a favor they sent me to ask.”

Mais oui,” Marie said at once.  “We will be most glad to do whatever they ask.”

Billy snickered.  “Don’t be so quick to speak up, ma’am.  What Ma wants is for you to take care of this nuisance for a few days.”  He hooked a stubby thumb toward Inger as he shoveled potatoes in with the other hand.

“I’m not a nuisance!” Inger snapped, then started to cry.

“Of course you are not,” Marie soothed as she knelt beside the distraught child.  “You are a most welcome guest.”

“Billy, I said no beating around the bush,” Ben said bluntly.

“Yes, sir,” Billy said, suddenly serious.  “Ain’t no real problem yet, at least not for us, but when Ma heard there was cholera in town, she got to frettin’.”

“Cholera!” Marie cried.  “Oh, no!”

“Are you sure?” Ben asked hoarsely.

“Yeah, Sally told me,” Billy replied, slicing off a piece of beef.  “Just a few cases, her pa says, but you know how Ma is where cholera’s concerned.”

Ben nodded.  Having lost one child to the disease, it was no wonder Nelly wanted to send her precious daughter as far from danger as possible.  “You and your folks are welcome to stay here, too, ‘til the threat’s past,” Ben suggested.

Billy sopped his meat in the gravy on his plate.  “Naw, Pa’s busy at the trading post, and Ma says she ain’t afraid for herself.  We figure, her and me, that we ain’t likely to get it since we had it before.”

“But, Billy, you might as well stay here,” Ben countered.

“And have somebody jump my claim?” Billy hooted.  “No thanks.”

“Don’t tell me you finally talked your folks into lettin’ you go minin’,” Hoss cackled.

“Yup, and my claim’s showin’ some good color, so I reckon I’ll stick close to it,” Billy reported, polishing off the last bite on his plate.  “Now, how ‘bout that poppy seed cake?”

* * * * *

Ben nuzzled his wife’s cheek as they lay side by side in their rosewood four-poster, but Marie did not respond with her usual ready passion.  She allowed Ben to hold her and stroke her, but instead of returning his kisses, she merely lay in his arms and trembled.  “What is it, dearest?” Ben whispered.

Marie turned an anxious face to him.  “B—Ben, you do not think Inger is ill, do you, that——that she already has the cholera?”

“No, I don’t,” Ben said, perplexed.  “Nelly wouldn’t have sent her here if she’d shown any signs of the disease.”

“She did not act like herself tonight,” Marie murmured.

“Oh, that,” Ben replied lightly.  “She’s upset about being sent away from home, I suppose——maybe worried about her folks.”

“I hope that is all it is,” Marie whispered, still trembling.

“Surely, you don’t want to turn the little girl away,” Ben said, disturbed.

“No, no, we cannot do that,” Marie replied.  “I—I just do not want any harm to come to—to——”

Ben smiled, at last understanding.  “To your baby,” he said.

“To both our sons,” Marie corrected, “but Little Joe is so small, Ben, that I worry.”

“You shouldn’t,” Ben soothed, holding her closer.  “He’s small, but sturdy.  Marie, my love, you have got to get over this constant concern for that child.  It’s needless.”

“Do not mock my fears, Ben,” Marie begged, keeping her voice low to avoid waking the baby in the next room.  “You have never lost a child.”

The words stabbed Ben’s heart.  As if he hadn’t known abundant loss in his own life!  The deaths of his parents, then Elizabeth and Inger.  Still, the thought of losing one of his boys was agonizing.  He took Marie’s slender hand.  “This isn’t yellow fever, dearest.”

“Oh, and cholera does not kill?” Marie asked hotly.

Ben laid his hand across her lips to remind her to lower her voice.  “Yes, of course, it does, but just because you lost one child to yellow fever does not mean you will lose another to cholera.  That’s superstition, Marie, and you really must not give in to it.”

“I told you once that death follows me,” Marie wept, burying her head against his chest.

With his fingertips Ben raised her chin and gazed consolingly into her shimmering eyes.  “And then I told you that was in the past, that there was life ahead for us, remember?  Have I been wrong?”

Marie smiled weakly.  “Oh, no, Ben.  With you I have known only life.”

“Then, relax,” he urged.  “I’m sure there’s nothing worse than homesickness afflicting our little guest, but if Inger’s in any danger, it’ll show up in the next day or two and we’ll isolate her.  I really think you’re worrying over nothing, though.  Try to sleep, my love.”  He pulled her head onto his shoulder and stroked the golden head until her breathing grew more regular.

* * * * *

“How come I gotta do lessons when I got company?” Hoss whined.

“If you wish to have your summer free, you must do your work now,” Marie explained patiently.  “You know we leave for Placerville next month, so we cannot afford to miss a day.  Besides, Inger can study with you.”

Inger frowned.  If anything, she was less successful with books than Hoss, for Nelly wasn’t as diligent about regular lesson time as Marie.  She tended to give more attention to her daughter’s domestic education, feeling that was what a girl child needed most.  “I’m not too good at this,” the little girl muttered as she knelt next to Hoss at the low table before the fire.

“Me help,” Little Joe offered, squeezing in between the other two children and patting the open book they would share.

Marie pulled him away quickly.  “No,” she said, with more sharpness than usual.  “You play over here.”  She placed the toddler a good distance away from the others.  Little Joe started to protest.  “Oh, don’t cry, mon petit,” Marie murmured.  “Here is bun-bun and your seal, your blocks and your ball.  Now play quietly while Hoss and Inger study.”

“Me play HaHa, Inggy,” Little Joe whimpered.

“No, you play here, with your toys,” Marie said firmly and walked away to begin teaching her small class.

Little Joe wasn’t used to being denied what he wanted, however, so he promptly pushed up and headed for the table.  This time he sat beside Inger and smiled beatifically up at his mother.  Inger giggled.

“It is not funny,” Marie said, picking up the child once more.

Hoss and Inger exchanged an amused glance and bit their lips to keep their laughter contained.  Anything that interfered with the hated lessons was funny to them.

That morning Little Joe demonstrated that he had either inherited or absorbed the characteristic Cartwright stubbornness, for nothing, not even receiving his first-ever spanking from his doting mother, discouraged his efforts to join the class.  Marie finally burst into tears and sent the two older children outside to play, while she held the wailing youngest, who couldn’t understand why he couldn’t go with the others.

The other children couldn’t understand, either.  “What’s wrong with your ma?” Inger quizzed as soon as she and Hoss were alone.

“I dunno,” Hoss muttered, brow creasing.  “She always lets Little Joe come out with me, and I ain’t never seen her swat him.”

Inside, Marie laid her tear-streaked cheek against the baby’s equally damp one, and rocked her indignant child back and forth on her lap.  “Don’t you understand I am trying to keep you safe?” she moaned, then shook her head.  How could Little Joe possibly understand?  He knew nothing of the dangers of disease, nothing of how fragile life could be.

Finally, Marie wiped her cheeks dry and kissed her still-whimpering child.  “There now, mon petit, Mama is sorry to make you sad.  Your papa was right to scold me last night.  I am being superstitious and making everyone miserable.”  She carried Little Joe outside and handed him to Hoss.  “Play,” she said.

Little Joe gave a cry of delight and flung his arms around Hoss’s neck.

“Okay, Mama,” Hoss said, face screwing up in thought.  “You okay, Mama?”

Marie took a deep breath and lied.  “Oui, I am fine.  You may play outside another half hour, then we will try again with your lessons.  If you study hard, I will ask Hop Sing to let us use the kitchen to bake gingercakes this afternoon.”

“Ooh, that’ll be fun!” Inger cried with the brightest grin she’d shown since her arrival the night before.

Marie smiled and gently touched the girl’s soft cheek.  This child had more cause to worry than she, and Marie resolved from that moment to forget her own concerns by alleviating those of the little girl separated from her family.  I wish I could be more like your namesake, she thought.  To that Inger, all this would come naturally, I know.  Though she didn’t realize it, however, Marie’s heart, wounded by a tortured past, was beginning to open, and as she matured, she was becoming more like that sacred memory of Hoss’s mother than she could have imagined.

Though several residents of Carson City died of cholera that spring, the Thomases were spared.  Little Inger remained at the Ponderosa for three weeks, until her mother was certain no one in town was showing signs of cholera.  When she left, she threw her arms around Marie.  “I want to come back sometime,” she declared earnestly.  “You bake fancier stuff than Ma, and it’s fun!”

Marie kissed her cheek warmly.  “You will be welcome anytime.  Perhaps you can stay a week while Mary is here, and we will have an all-girls’ party.”

“Hey, how ‘bout me?” Hoss protested.  “I like makin’ cookies, too.”

“You can be our taster,” Inger giggled.  “That’s the part of bakin’ you like, Hoss.”  Unable to deny the obvious, Hoss grinned, satisfied that he’d partake of the best part of the fun this summer.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

Threatened Peace

With the beginning of May, Marie marshaled her troops to finish planting the garden.  Next to the onions, potatoes and other vegetables planted late in April, she, Hop Sing and Hoss (with Little Joe’s dubious help) sowed cucumbers, melons, pumpkins and beans, as well as herbs such as sage, thyme, mint and mustard.  Everything had to be done by the end of the first week, in preparation for the family’s departure the next Tuesday.

On Sunday, the eighth of May, the Cartwrights and Thomases dined in their own homes, rather than sharing a meal.  They would, after all, being seeing plenty of each other over the next week or so.  Marie and Nelly planned to meet the next day at the Montgomery cabin to give it a final sprucing, then the following day they would all leave for Placerville.

Although the Cartwrights were not expecting company that afternoon, a knock sounded at the door of the Ponderosa ranch house, and Hop Sing scurried to answer it.  Ben rose from his armchair at once and strode to welcome Frederick Dodge with a warm handshake.  “Haven’t seen you since Christmas Eve, my boy,” he said.  “That’s much too long.”

“Indeed,” the Federal Indian agent replied, “and I wish this visit could be as pleasant as that evening.”

Ben caught the sober tone in Dodge’s voice and at once offered him a seat on the sofa.  “Is there a problem?  Anything I can help with?”

“Yes, to both questions,” Dodge said softly.  “Perhaps, the children——”

Marie caught the hint.  “Hoss, it is time for Little Joe’s nap.  Would you take him upstairs and read him a nice, long story?”

“Yeah, okay,” Hoss muttered.  I may not be the brightest kid in the world, he sighed, but I know when someone’s tryin’ to get shed of me.”

Once the two boys had disappeared, Dodge leaned forward.  “There’s been a murder, Cartwright——or a massacre, depending on whom you talk to.”

“Massacre!” Marie cried, growing pale.

“Who’s been killed?” Ben asked.

“I think you know at least one of the victims,” Dodge replied.  “Peter Lassen.”

“Of course,” Ben said, his face grave.  Though he wasn’t well acquainted with the old Danish settler, everyone had heard of the Lassen Cutoff through the Black Rock Desert.  Many, Ben’s brother among them, cursed the day they’d decided to take it.  Not only did the so-called short-cut add so many miles to the journey that it was commonly referred to as Lassen’s Horn Route, it also led through some of the most dry, desolate country the emigrants had ever encountered.  Lassen, however, had proven himself a friend to the Paiutes, and Ben respected him for that.

“Lassen, Lemericus Wyatt and a young fellow called Edward Clapper set out from Susanville to take supplies to William Weatherlow’s party,” Dodge related.

“I know Captain Weatherlow,” Ben said.  “He’s not——”

“I don’t know,” Dodge said, anticipating Ben’s question.  “A relief party was sent out, but hadn’t returned by the time the message was sent to me.  All I know is that Lassen and Clapper are dead.”

“Wyatt escaped?”

Dodge nodded.  “Yes, in bad shape from what I hear.  Not injured.  Just the rigors of the ride.  A man of his age——he’s past sixty, I’m told——finds it pretty rough running for his life on an unsaddled horse with nothing but a picket rope to hang onto.”

Ben grunted his agreement.  Though little more than half Wyatt’s reported age, he knew he’d find such a ride a rugged experience.

“You mentioned a massacre,” Marie quavered.  “Did this Monsieur Wyatt accuse the Indians?”

“I don’t what he said, ma’am,” Dodge answered, “or whether he was in any condition to say anything.  There are people accusing the Paiutes, though, so I need to investigate.”

Ben shook his head.  “That doesn’t make sense.  The Paiutes and Lassen got along well.  Winnemucca’s nephew Numaga even helped him and the Honey Lake settlers fight off an invasion by the Pit River Indians.”

“I agree,” Dodge said sharply.  “I personally suspect the Mormons.”

“No proof of that, either,” Ben argued.  “As you say, you need to get the facts.”

Dodge leaned forward, hands on his knees.  “That’s why I’m here.  I need to talk to Wyatt and the relief party and, of course, Numaga.  That’s where you come in, Cartwright.  I may need an interpreter.”

“Walter Wasson?” Ben suggested.  “He lives up that way.”

“True, but he may not be available,” Dodge said, “and, frankly, as hot as the town is, I’d welcome two sane voices I could count on.”

“Of course,” Ben agreed at once.

“But, Ben,” Marie protested, laying a trembling hand on his arm.  “We are to leave for Placerville day after tomorrow.  You cannot possibly return from Honey Lake by then.”

Ben put his arm around her.  “No, you’ll have to go on without me.”

“Oh, Ben, no,” she objected.

“I’m sorry if I’m causing a problem,” Dodge said quietly, “but if the Indians are to blame, or even if they’re only believed to be, this whole territory could erupt.  I consider the situation grave, Mrs. Cartwright.”

“So do I,” Ben said solemnly.  “Marie, I will do my best to be in Placerville by the fifteenth, but this must take precedence.  I can scarcely bring Ebenezer’s children here for the summer if we’re going to be in the midst of an Indian war.”

The suggestion of warfare made Marie tremble all the more, as she suddenly began to fear for her own children.  “Yes, I will take the boys to Placerville, as planned,” she whispered.  “They will be safe there, and, Ben——you will be careful?”

Ben took her face between his hands.  “I will be careful.  Don’t fret, my love.  Hopefully, we’ll settle this quickly, and I’ll be standing at your side when Enos and Katerina exchange their vows.”

Marie nodded, giving him a weak smile.  “I will pack your things at once.”

“My suit, too,” Ben suggested.  “I won’t have time to stop by home.”

* * * * *

When he heard horses outside, Little Joe charged out of what would soon become the Montgomery cabin.  “Aunt Nelwy!” he cried happily.  “Inggy!”

Marie came storming after him.  “Little Joe, come back here,” she demanded, then whirled on Hoss, who had followed her outside.  “I told you to watch him!”

“I am watching him,” Hoss insisted, “but he’s fast, Mama.”

Nelly scooped the toddler up and planted kisses on both cheeks.  “Now, Marie, he’s just bein’ friendly.”

“Mama’s in a bad mood,” Hoss whispered to Inger when she jumped off the wagon.

Marie’s cheeks flamed.  “I heard that, Hoss,” she informed him, palms planted on her hips, “and if you do not wish to see what a truly bad mood I am in, you will watch your little brother while we work.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hoss muttered.  “Come on, Inger.”

“I’m helping in the house,” Inger announced loftily.  “You play with the baby.”

Nelly laughed at Hoss’s clouded countenance as she handed Little Joe to him.  “Here you go, Sunshine, though you’re not livin’ up to that name today.”

Hoss broke into a grin then and, hefting Little Joe over his shoulder, headed toward the creek.

“Hoss, don’t go in the water,” Marie chided.  “It’s chilly for this time of year, and I don’t want you or Little Joe catching cold.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hoss sighed, wondering what in the world he was supposed to do to entertain his little brother until the ladies’ work was done.

“Lands, honey lamb, you are in a mood,” Nelly commented.  “No need to fret yourself so; we’ll get the cabin ready in time.”

Marie clenched her fists until the knuckles turned white.  “I am not worried about that.  It is Ben that worries me.”

“Men are a bother, all right,” Nelly chuckled while she unloaded the buckboard.  “What’s Ben up to this time?”

“Riding into an Indian war!” Marie sputtered.

Nelly dropped the package of curtains and spun around.  “What are you sayin’, girl?  We ain’t had no trouble with injuns.”

Marie quickly described Frederick Dodge’s visit the previous day.  “Ben left with him at once, and he expects me to just go on to Placerville without him!”

“You won’t be alone,” Nelly soothed.  “You’ll be with us.”

“But not Ben!” Marie ranted, then choked.  “He——he may be in danger, Nelly.”

Nelly stroked the younger woman’s arm.  “Ben can take care of himself.  Besides, we don’t know it was Paiutes murdered them folks.”

Marie took a deep breath.  “Monsieur Dodge thinks it was Mormons.”

Nelly laughed.  “Well, my Clyde would be quick to agree with that!  Come on, honey lamb, we got plenty of work to occupy our minds today.  Don’t the Bible say to think on things that are good and pleasant.”

Marie smiled.  Having been reared in a convent, she could have quoted the verse more accurately, but she didn’t wish to embarrass the less learned woman.  “Oui, something like that,” she said.

“Let’s do it, then,” Nelly advised.  “Think about how Katerina’s gonna love her new home.  Now, let’s get to sprucin’!”

Marie laughed then.  “I’ve started sweeping.  Only the front room remains.”

“Inger can do that,” Nelly said, “while we hang the curtains.  She’s a good hand at sweepin’, aren’t you, sugar pie?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Inger replied, proud of the compliment.

Just then Little Joe rounded the corner of the cabin to clutch at Inger’s skirt.  Hoss came puffing after him.  “I’m tryin’, honest I am,” he panted defensively.

“Well, try harder,” Inger scolded.  “We got work to do.”

“Wanna play house, Inggy?” Little Joe suggested.  He pointed to the cabin.  “See?  Big house.”

Marie laughed.  “He became most fond of that game while Inger stayed with us.”  She removed Inger’s skirt from the toddler’s clutching fingers.  “We are not playing house today, mon petit; we are making a real house.”

“Me help,” Little Joe offered with a bright smile.

“Hoss,” Marie pleaded.

“Yes, ma’am, I’ll try,” Hoss said, taking Little Joe by the hand.  “Come on, Punkin.  Let’s see if we can find some squirrels.”

“Swirwy?  Okay,” Little Joe conceded and began to pull Hoss toward the woods.

“Good thing they distract easy at that age,” Nelly chuckled.  “Let’s get to work.”

“While we have a chance,” Inger giggled.

When the two boys entered the woods, Little Joe broke free and trotted ahead.  “Swirwy!  Here, swirwy!” he called to the trees.

Hoss grabbed his hand again.  “You stay with me,” he scolded, “and quit that yellin’.  You’ll scare off every squirrel in twenty miles.”

Little Joe nodded and walked quietly by his brother for a few minutes.  Then he stooped to scoop a handful of acorns from the ground.  “Lookee, HaHa——nuts!”

Hoss laughed.  “Them ain’t nuts, they’re acorns.  Squirrels eat ‘em, though; Indians, too.”

“Swirwy nuts!” Little Joe insisted.

“Yeah, guess so,” Hoss conceded.  “Let’s sit down awhile.”  Little Joe seemed agreeable so the two brothers flopped side by side beneath a towering oak.  “Maybe a squirrel will come by if we’re real quiet,” Hoss suggested.

Little Joe was rarely quiet for long, but his voice was not the first the break the silence.  Above them a sharp trill sounded.  Looking up, Hoss pointed at the bird perched in a nearby pine.  “You remember what kind of bird that is, Little Joe?  I told you last week.”

“Blue jay,” Little Joe chirped readily.

Hoss ruffled the younger boy’s golden brown hair.  “That’s right.  You’re a smart little whippersnapper, ain’t you?”

Little Joe was about to agree when Hoss clamped a hand over his mouth.  “Look, it’s a squirrel,” he whispered.  “Maybe, if we’re real quiet, I can coax him over.”

Hoss held out a handful of acorns and whistled softly.  The squirrel eyed the acorns with desire, his dark eyes furtively flickering this way and that.  He crept a step closer, then another, and finally drew near enough for Hoss to pick him up.  At first the wild animal reacted with fear, but gradually his trembling body quieted under the gentle boy’s touch.

Little Joe reached out to stroke the squirrel’s soft gray back.  “Go easy,” Hoss cautioned.

“Me hold,” Little Joe pleaded.

“Okay, but be real easy.”  He handed the squirrel to his little brother.

Little Joe’s arms closed tightly around the squirrel.  The animal reacted with a sharp cry and slashing claws.  Little Joe turned the animal loose and began to bawl.

“Aw, you ain’t hurt, are you?” Hoss asked, carefully examining his brother’s arm.  “It’s just a scratch, nothing to cry about.  What’d you squeeze him so tight for?”

“Love swirwy,” Little Joe sobbed.  “Hug.”

Hoss laughed.  “How’d you like me to hug you that tight, huh?”

“Like!” Little Joe claimed, his lower lip protruding.

“Oh, yeah?  Well, let’s see,” Hoss snickered, engulfing the little boy in a bear hug.  “You like that, do you?”

Little Joe began to cackle with glee.  “More, more!”

Hoss guffawed.  “I’ll break you in half if I hug more, you silly thing.”  He looked at the sun peeking through the trees.  “Hey, it’s gettin’ on toward noon, Little Joe.  We better head back and see if they’re ready to spread out the food yet.”

“Hungwy,” Little Joe agreed.  “Eat, HaHa.”

“Hoss,” the older boy corrected as he helped the younger to his feet.  “You’re talkin’ good enough now to say it right.”

Little Joe shook his head vigorously.  “HaHa,” he insisted.

Hoss rolled his eyes.  “You learn what you want to learn, don’t you, Punkin?  Well, we’ll work on it.”

The sun stood directly overhead when the boys reached the cabin.  “Hey, Mama, ain’t it about time to eat?” Hoss asked as they entered.

“Eat, Mama,” Little Joe smiled, certain she wouldn’t refuse him.

“Now, you younguns can wait a bit,” Nelly chided.  “We’ve just about got things set to rights.”

“You sure do,” Hoss said.  “The old cabin never looked so fancy!”

Marie laughed, remembering her first disheartening look at this cabin when, as newlyweds, she and Ben had returned from New Orleans.  Though the cabin’s furnishings were still simple, they were, indeed, “fancy” by comparison.  Yellow calico curtains graced the spotless kitchen windows and elegant, white lace ones the simple parlor, Ben and Marie’s old bedroom.  So far, the parlor held only a rocking chair and round occasional table, both crafted by Clyde Thomas, but Enos had sent Katerina the money to purchase any sofa she wanted.  She’d written back that Lawrence Larrimore had refused her money, insisting the sofa be his gift to them.  That and a large package addressed to Mrs. Cartwright were waiting in Placerville.  Marie couldn’t wait to see the expression on Ben’s face when he uncrated it.

“Hoss, please bring the bedding from our buckboard,” Marie requested, “then you may spread the picnic.  We will join you shortly.”

Hoss cheerfully carried the bedding into the back bedroom, then with an even brighter countenance ran outside to unpack the picnic basket.  Little Joe tagged behind him like a faithful puppy.

The two women, assisted by Inger, made the bed with crisp, new muslin sheets and down-filled pillows in snowy cases, then covered it with a colorful patchwork quilt.  While Marie had sewn the bedding and made the pillows, the quilt was a gift from the larger community.  Though she had never met Katerina Zuebner, Laura Ellis had insisted they hold a quilting bee in her home and had invited every woman in Carson City.  Young girls like Sally Martin and the Winnemucca girls had come, as well, and even little Inger had taken a few stitches.

“Curtains turned out real pretty,” Nelly said as they stood back to admire the room.  “Making them match the blue band of the quilt pulls everything together, and that lace you tatted on the edges sure sets ‘em off, Marie.”

Oui,” Marie smiled.  “The good sisters taught me well.”

Nelly flinched momentarily.  Having been raised to believe that all Catholics had one foot in hell, she didn’t like being reminded that Marie was a Papist.  Out here, of course, where there were no churches anyway, there weren’t any idols to bow down to, and Marie seemed a god-fearing sort, even if she had been reared in a false faith.  She was right about one thing, anyway:  whatever else those nuns might have been, they were good teachers.

Nelly hooked an arm through the younger woman’s elbow.  “We’ve done all we can here.  Let’s get on outside.  If Little Joe’s helpin’ spread that picnic, like I figure, we may have to scrape my apple pie off the tablecloth.

“Don’t worry about that,” Inger giggled.  “Hoss ain’t likely to let that baby near the apple pie!”

The ladies laughed and went out to find a neatly spread lunch waiting for them.  After a relaxed meal, they separated, each having a number of last-minute preparations to make for their trip on the morrow.  The work and the fun had effectively taken Marie’s mind off the difficulties into which Ben might be riding.  As she lay alone in bed that night, however, her fingers tightened on the corner of his pillow slip, and it was late before she fell asleep.

* * * * *

The streets of Susanville roiled with heated accusations when Ben and the Indian agent rode into town.  “What you gonna do about them murdering savages?” a grizzle-bearded rancher demanded of Dodge moments after they dismounted.

“We’ll all be slaughtered in our beds!” a hysterical woman cried.

Dodge raised both hands to gain the attention of the crowd.  “Mr. Cartwright and I have just come from the Paiute encampment on Smoke River.  Numaga, whom you know as Young Winnemucca, denies having anything to do with the deaths of Lassen and Clapper.”

“What’d you expect him to say?” another rancher shouted.  “That he killed ‘em in cold blood?”

“Gentlemen, please,” Dodge pleaded.  “We’re here to ascertain the facts.  I need to speak to anyone who has direct knowledge of the incident.  Is Mr. Wyatt here?  Has the relief party returned?”

A man of imposing stature stepped forward.  “I am William Weatherlow, sir.  With the relief party that came to my assistance, I investigated the site of the murders and will be pleased to offer what testimony I can.”

Dodge nodded.  “Thank you, Mr. Weatherlow.  If you could assemble any others with pertinent information, I would like to meet you as soon as possible.”

“We’re all here,” another man said, “and the saloon’s open.”

Dodge, Cartwright, Weatherlow and five others entered the saloon, taking seats at adjoining tables.  The streetmongers drifted in after them, settling into chairs around the room.  One aspiring author took out paper and pencil, intending to send a report to the Territorial Enterprise.

“The men have asked me to act as their spokesman,” Weatherlow said, “but you’re free to question any of the others if you need confirmation.”

“I’m sure they’ll speak up if they have anything to add,” Ben commented, and murmurs of agreement circled the group.

“As I said outside,” Weatherlow began after introducing the others, “when the relief party told us what had taken place, we proceeded to Lassen’s campsite.  We found his body and that of Edward Clapper and buried them immediately.”

“Them bodies was ripe,” another man muttered.

“Yup, weren’t no stayin’ in camp ‘til they was planted,” another offered.

Dodge nodded.  “Did you examine the scene after the burials?”

“We did,” Weatherlow replied, “but found no clues to identify the killers.  Footprints and hoofprints of all kinds——boots and moccasins,  horses shod and unshod, but some of the tracks looked quite old.  The supplies were still there, untouched.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Indians on a raid wouldn’t leave food or any other useful gear behind.”

Weatherlow’s eyes narrowed as he glanced at Ben.  “Not their usual way,” he admitted, almost reluctantly.  Ben cocked his head to examine Weatherlow, trying to figure why so reasonable a man seemed to want to blame the Indians.

Dodge nodded.  “It certainly seems unlike the behavior of Indians who, basically, live by scavenging.  Mr. Wyatt, you were the only actual witness to this attack.  Were the attackers Indians or not?”

Wyatt shook his head.  “Can’t say.  Everything happened so fast.  I woke up to the sound of shots and a heap of hootin’ and hollerin’.  Couldn’t see clear ‘cause a frosty haze was hanging low, and I didn’t aim to make myself a target.  I ran for the horses fast as my old legs would carry me, grabbed the picket rope and jumped on back.  Hung on like that for a hundred and forty miles.  I never was much of a horseman, and without a saddle——well, I burned my hands, hanging tight to that rope, but I didn’t stop for nothin’ ‘til I got here to Susanville.”

“You saw no Indians?” Dodge pressed.

“Some Paiutes came into camp the night before,” Wyatt recalled, “but they seemed friendly enough.  Lassen was good friends with the Paiutes, you know.”

“That’s what Numaga said,” Ben commented.  “The Paiutes are grieved by Lassen’s death.”

“I can’t believe the Paiutes had anything to do with this affair,” Weatherlow concluded.  “None of the local Indians seem to know anything about it, and, after all, we have a treaty with them.  They fought side by side with us against the Pit River Indians, who, I believe, are the ones behind this massacre.”

“They wouldn’t have left the supplies either,” Ben argued.  “Did Lassen or Clapper have any enemies?”

“Look, Cartwright, my men and I were the only ones out that way,” Weatherlow snapped.  “If you’re accusing me, say so straight out.”

“I’m accusing no one,” Ben said firmly, “least of all you, Weatherlow.  I know you for an honorable man.”

“Sorry,” Weatherlow muttered, “but there’s been talk.”  He cast a reproachful look at the silent observers of the meeting.

“To answer your question, though,” Wyatt inserted, “Lassen had a passel of enemies.  Plenty of folks blamed him for what happened to them along that cutoff of his.”

“Unless other evidence develops,” Dodge concluded, “I find that the most logical explanation.  Lassen and Clapper were the victims of a revenge killing, most likely having been trailed for that purpose.”

Rumbles of dissent were heard, some still accusing the Paiutes, others finding their old foes, the Pit River Indians, likelier suspects.  Only a few nodded approval of Dodge’s decision, but since the settlers couldn’t determine which Indians were to blame, neither Ben nor the Federal agent thought they would seek reprisals against the Paiutes.  Satisfied that the territory was not about to explode into open warfare, Ben pushed his mount over the Sierras and south toward Placerville.  Thankfully, he was a better horseman than Lemericus Wyatt, for he had a hard ride ahead.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Wedding in Placerville

A party of four stood waiting when the Sacramento stage pulled into Placerville late Friday evening.  “Hey, Adam!” Hoss hollered as soon as his brother descended from the coach.

“Hey, yourself,” Adam grinned.  He chucked Little Joe under the chin.  “And hey and happy birthday to you, little fellow.”

“Howdy, stwanger,” Little Joe gurgled, pleasantly parroting the greeting he’d been taught.

Adam arched an eyebrow at Hoss.  “That your doing?”

Hoss shook his head in adamant denial.  “Not me, no, sir!  I don’t teach him nonsense.”

“Here’s your culprit,” Marta laughed, swatting a smirking Billy Thomas on the arm.  “If there’s devilment bein’ done, you should know where to look for its source, Adam.”

Adam chuckled.  “I sure should by now.  Hello, Marta, good to see you.”

“Hey, how ‘bout me?” Billy demanded.

Adam cocked his head.  “Don’t believe we’ve met, stranger.”

Billy scowled and clapped his friend on the back.  “Well, bein’ new in town, you likely ain’t heard that the best place to eat is Mama Zuebner’s Cafe.”

“Figured to ask the hefty fellow,” Adam drawled, laying a hand on Hoss’s shoulder.  “He looks like he knows all the best places.”  They all laughed, Little Joe loudest of all, although he had no idea what the joke was.

“We better hurry,” Hoss said.

“Mama is closing early tonight,” Marta explained, “but she won’t ‘til we’ve eaten.”

“I’m with Hoss,” Billy said.  “Since your ma ain’t gonna open at all tomorrow, I don’t want to miss my last chance for a good meal.  All them bags yours?”

“Afraid so,” Adam laughed.  “Give me a hand, will you?”

“Yeah, sure,” Billy said.  “Hey, Hoss.  Give that boy to Marta.  You’re big enough to tote a bag or two.”

“You bet I am,” Hoss bragged, dumping Little Joe into Marta’s outstretched arms.  “We’re stayin’ at the El Dorado, Adam,” he said as he hefted a carpetbag under each arm.

“Always do,” Adam chuckled.  “Where’s Pa?  I thought he and Marie would be here to meet me.”

“Oh, Adam, he’s not here,” Marta murmured sympathetically.

Adam stopped dead still.  “What do you mean he’s not here?  He wouldn’t miss your sister’s wedding.”

“May have to,” Billy muttered, “if we got injun trouble.”

“We don’t know that,” Marta said sharply.  “Don’t go worryin’ Adam over nothing.”

“An injun war ain’t nothin’, missy,” Billy bit back.

“Would you two quit sniping at each other and tell me what’s going on?” Adam demanded.

“Yeah, sorry,” Billy muttered.  “Your Pa rode off to Honey Lake——”

“With that agent feller,” Hoss added.

“Mr. Dodge?” Adam queried.  Though he had never met the Federal Indian agent, he knew the name from his father’s letters.  Hoss nodded.

“Old Peter Lassen got hisself killed,” Billy continued as they walked toward the hotel, “and some folks think it was injuns done it.”

“Pa don’t think so,” Hoss inserted.

“Yeah, but he went with Dodge to check it out,” Billy concluded.

“He’s comin’ here after,” Hoss said.

“Marie here?” Adam asked, nodding at the hotel entrance.

“No, she’s with Mama,” Marta answered.  She opened the door, holding it for the others.  “Don’t worry about your pa, Adam.  I’m sure he’s fine.”

“Yeah, sure,” Adam said, though his voice was edged with concern.  “Enos here yet?”

“Oh, yeah, he’s over at the cafe, mooning over Katerina,” Marta laughed.  “Billy, help Adam get his things upstairs.  I know two little boys who are getting hungry, if you aren’t.”

Billy scowled playfully at the girl.  “Just like a woman——orderin’ around the first man she spots.”

“Who spotted one?” Marta giggled.  “I don’t see nothin’ but little boys here.”

“Oh, you two,” Adam muttered with a patronizing shake of his head.  “To listen to you, no one would guess you liked each other at all.”

“Oh, we don’t,” Billy assured him.

“Not a bit,” Marta affirmed with a mischievous grin.

* * * * *

Throughout the day Saturday the wedding guests arrived, first the Paynes, then just past noon the Wentworths.  The female members of each party immediately disappeared into the kitchen of Mama Zuebner’s Cafe to help prepare refreshments for the wedding reception the next day.  That evening the former members of the Larrimore train commandeered several tables in the dining room of the El Dorado Hotel.  While the food didn’t compare to what they’d feast on tomorrow, everyone enjoyed talking over old times and reminding one another of amusing incidents along the trail.  No one mentioned the sadder memories of that journey, for this was a time for celebration.

Marie tried to join in the festive mood, even though the memories they shared were not hers.  Her attention repeatedly drifted away from reminiscences of the Overland Trail, however, to imagined dangers of one nearer home, the trail to HoneyLake.  She toyed with her food, unable to escape her fears for Ben.

Since the friends spent so much time talking, they were only half-through their dinners when Ben walked in to complete the circle.  Eight (almost nine)-year-old Susan Payne was the first to see him.  “Uncle Ben!” she cried.  “Pa!” soon followed, then “Oh, Ben!” as friends and family rose to welcome the man for whom they’d all felt concern.

Ben embraced his wife, then each of his sons.  “Ben?” Marie asked, and he understood the question she hesitated to put into words.  “Everything’s all right,” he said.  “I’ll give you the details later.”  He began moving around the room, greeting friends he hadn’t seen in months.

“Your injun-lovin’ ways is gonna get you killed yet,” Clyde scolded.  “Why didn’t you tell me what you was up to?”

“Didn’t have time,” Ben replied, giving his old friend a hearty clap.

“Ridin’ smack into a Paiute camp,” Clyde ranted on.

“Do it all the time,” Ben chuckled and continued greeting his other friends.

Finally, he came to the table the Zuebners were sharing with the man soon to be a member of their family.  “Oh, Mr. Cartwright,” Katerina murmured, circling his neck with her slender arms, “I am so glad you have come.  I wanted so much for you to be at my wedding.”

Ben tenderly kissed her cheek.  “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything, Katerina.”

“Sir?” Enos queried.

“No problems,” Ben assured him.  “You can feel at ease about bringing your new bride home.”  Enos smiled broadly, clearly relieved.

* * * * *

The sun shone bright Sunday, as if heaven itself were smiling on the lovers’ nuptials.  The ceremony was held beneath the towering pines with almost half the town of Placerville in attendance.  Not all had been specifically invited, but the miners who ate regularly at the cafe felt as if Katerina were one of their own and they had every right to add their good wishes to the occasion.  The Zuebners, being simple folk themselves, were flattered, rather than offended.  In fact, the huge baking the day before had been done in anticipation of a crowd.

Stefán stood tall as he escorted his sister to the place where her groom waited beside the Reverend Wentworth.  Ben found it hard not to picture Frederich Zuebner as the young man walked past.  Stefán had stepped into his father’s shoes at an early age, and year by year he looked more like the stalwart farmer they had all been indebted to in the early days of their journey west.

Katerina had grown taller, but she still looked the same to Ben, making it hard for him to believe she was actually old enough to marry.  He smiled when he realized the little girl he remembered from the trail was only three years younger than his own wife.  No wonder Marie was so excited about having Katerina come to live near them!

The biggest change, to Ben’s eyes, was in Katerina’s sister.  The tomboy of the trail, though spunky as ever, was blossoming into a young lady as lovely and graceful as Katerina.  And since Marta was only a year younger, no doubt they’d soon be celebrating another wedding.  The thought jolted Ben for a moment as he wondered how far his own boy, now sixteen, might be from standing, red-faced, waiting for his bride as Enos now waited for Katerina.

When the two sweethearts stood together, the Reverend Wentworth smiled and addressed them directly.  “Enos, Katerina, it is a pleasure to witness the love that blooms between you.  Its seed was planted in fertile soil, the soil of shared struggles and triumphs.  You have each known both sorrow and happiness in your lives, and you will find your life together no different.  That is why your vows will be for better and for worse, in sickness and in health.  Knowing the fires in which your love was forged, however, I have no doubt that you will keep your vows and in the keeping find a love still greater than that which you feel today, when your hearts seem so full.”

The minister led the couple in a simple reciting of their vows, and after the glowing pair exchanged a shy kiss, Katerina enveloped her mother in a warm embrace, then turned to kiss her brother on the cheek.  The miners, growing misty-eyed at the memory of their own wives and daughters back east, demanded their right to kiss the blushing bride; then everyone adjourned to the cafe for all the strudel, crepes (Marie’s contribution), wedding cake and punch they could possibly hold. Hoss was heard to comment that he wished someone would get married every day.

The next morning the Cartwrights, Thomases, and the two younger Wentworth children boarded the stage, while  the newly married Montgomerys headed over the Sierras in a buckboard with two large crates and several smaller boxes.  As Ludmilla stood on the boardwalk, tears streaking her normally cheery cheeks, Marta stepped close to place a bolstering arm around her mother, as if to remind her that she still had a daughter at home.  When the stage pulled away, Billy Thomas leaned out the window to flap his hat in farewell.  Marta laughed and wagged a flaxen braid at the redheaded mischief she liked more than she cared to admit.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Settling In

Ben looped his horse’s reins around the hitching rail in front of Ormsby’s Carson City store and waited for the stage to pull in.  He helped the ladies descend, then, with the help of Clyde, Adam, Billy and Mark, unloaded the baggage.

“You all come up to my place and rest yourselves before headin’ on to the Ponderosa,” Nelly invited.

“Oh, yes, thank you,” Marie sighed.  “That stagecoach always leaves me exhausted.”

“On one condition,” Ben inserted quickly.

“What’s that?” Nelly queried suspiciously.

“That you come with us when we go,” Ben said.

“Oh, yes, you are much too tired to cook tonight,” Marie urged.

“Well, now, I don’t know about that,” Nelly demurred.  “It’s a long ride.”

“Easiest way to get your buckboard back,” Ben smiled.  Since the newlyweds were using the Cartwright’s wagon, he had planned to borrow Clyde and Nelly’s to return home.

Clyde cackled.  “He’s got a point, Nelly girl.”

“Well, if we come back tonight,” Nelly conceded.  “I been lookin’ forward to sleepin’ in my own bed.”

The men hefted all the bags and the entire party walked down the street to the Thomases’ sunny yellow frame house.  Mary caught her breath when she saw it.  “Oh, is this your home, Mrs. Thomas?  It’s charming.”

Adam chuckled.  “Wait’ll you see the Ponderosa!”

Billy gave him a shove.  “Aw, quit braggin’ up your own place.”  He gave Mark a wink.  “Adam here thinks the Ponderosa’s got the best house in the world, just ‘cause he helped plan it.”  Tossing a smirk at Adam, he added, “After all, smarty britches, my Pa planned and built this place, and without the help of no fancy San Francisco architect, neither.”

“Oh, you two quit scrappin’ at each other,” Nelly scolded.  “Come on in, folks, and we’ll show you around our mansion.”  She was teasing, of course, but to the Wentworth youngsters, whose home was the renovated hulk of a beached sailing vessel, even the modest rooms looked stately.  Mary cooed with delight over Inger’s cozy bedroom, especially the corner where Clyde had constructed a play kitchen for his little girl.

Watching her, a grim look came into Mark’s hazel eyes.  His little sister had never had the opportunity to play at being a housewife.  Practically from childhood, the motherless girl had been forced into being the real thing, and Mark, who adored her, couldn’t help taking up the offense she refused to carry.

As they started downstairs, Nelly told Inger to run to Mrs. Ellis’s for a loaf of bread.  “And tell her Billy’ll be ‘round shortly to fetch our cow——and say thanks for her keepin’ it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Inger responded, leaving at once.

“Now, what are you up to, Nelly?” Ben chided.  “You don’t have to feed this mob.  We’ll eat at the Ponderosa.”

“You know these younguns can’t wait that long,” Nelly argued.  “I’m just gonna slice some bread and cheese to tide ‘em over.”

“Yeah, Pa, I’m hungry,” Hoss added.

“Tell me something I don’t know!” Ben scoffed.  “You stay hungry from sunup to sundown.”

“Probably dreams about cookies all night, too,” Adam snickered.

“Naw, his taste runs more to pie,” Billy cackled.

Hoss scowled.  “How come you’re always funnin’ me ‘bout eatin’ good?  Don’t nobody fuss if Little Joe says he’s hungry.”

“How often does he say it?” Billy hooted.  The youngest Cartwright’s appetite was, by reputation, as small as Hoss’s was large.

Now, however, Little Joe patted imperiously at his father’s leg.  “Hungwy, Pa,” he whimpered.

Chuckling, Ben tousled the boy’s curly hair.  “Yeah, I guess we all are.  Give me a knife and I’ll slice that cheese, Nelly.”

Laughing, everyone entered the kitchen, sitting or standing around the table while Ben cut slice after slice of cheese.  Inger soon returned with two loaves of bread.  “Mrs. Ellis says you don’t owe her nothin’ for the bread,” the girl declared, “on account of she’s been usin’ our milk while we been gone.”

“Fair enough,” Clyde agreed.

Ben snatched the first sandwich.  “I’ll take this with me,” he said.  “I’d better get out to the Ponderosa and warn Hop Sing he has guests for dinner.”  He kissed Marie as he passed.  “Stay and rest as long as you like, my love.”

“But not too long,” Hoss added fretfully.  “Hop Sing don’t like folks bein’ late.”

“Who’s Hop Sing?” Mark asked Adam in an undertone.

“Our cook,” the oldest Cartwright boy replied, nonchalantly taking a sandwich, quartering it and handing one portion to his baby brother.

“I didn’t know you had servants,” Mark muttered.

Adam laughed.  “Servant!  Tyrant is more like it.”

“Let me know when you plan to tell him that,” Billy commented dryly.  “I want to be across the Sierras when the storm breaks out.”

Amid the laughter Marie explained.  “Hop Sing is more a part of our family than a servant, Mark.”

“Yeah, after Pa saved his life, he just moved in,” Adam snickered, “and we haven’t been able to budge him out of the kitchen since.”

“Who wants to?” Hoss demanded seriously.  “He cooks good!”  Even Mark laughed then.

* * * * *

If the Thomas house looked like a mansion to the Wentworth children, the Ponderosa ranch house seemed almost a castle, albeit a rustic one.  “Oh!” Mary gasped with delight.  “It’s so——so——”

“Big,” her brother suggested bleakly.

“Well, that, too,” Mary smiled, patting his arm to soothe the resentment she could see building, “but I was thinking beautiful.”  Mark took her arm tenderly and escorted her into the house with the others.

Inside, the guests and returning members of the family were greeted by a beaming Hop Sing.  “Welcome to Pondelosa,” the Chinaman announced, like a king admitting subjects into his realm.  “Dinnah leady one hour, maybe less.  You sit down, lest flom tlavel,” he ordered so imperiously no one thought of disobeying——with one exception.  Little Joe, instead of heading for the designated seating area, wrapped small arms around Hop Sing’s leg and rubbed his cheek against the cook’s blue pantaloons to say how much he’d missed him.

“No, no, go with mother,” Hop Sing dictated, lightly patting the toddler on the head.  “Hop Sing cook now.”  Marie came quickly to dislodge her child, but it was obvious the little Cantonese was pleased by the display of affection.

Watching the scene, Mark had to admit that Adam had told the truth.  Hop Sing was, indeed, more part of the family than a servant.  Never had the Wentworth boy seen any of the Larrimore servants hugged by a child or treated with the deference the Cartwrights showed Hop Sing.  So far, however, he didn’t see any signs of the tyrannical behavior their oldest son had credited to the cook.

“Well, let’s show our guests to their rooms,” Ben said.  “You boys each grab a bag and follow me.”

The procession headed upstairs, stopping at the first open door.  “This will be your room, Mark,” Ben said.

Mark’s brow knitted quizzically.  “I thought I’d be bunking with Adam.”

“Can if you like,” Adam offered, “unless you snore.”

“This is fine,” Mark replied, secretly thrilled to have a room to himself for the first time in his life.  Setting his carpetbag just inside the door, he followed the others down the hall.  He wanted to see where his sister would be sleeping.

“This is my room,” Hoss told him as they passed the next door, “and that one across the hall is Adam’s.”

“Giving him the full tour, are you, Hoss?” Ben chuckled.  As they came to the end of the hall, which branched both directions, he pointed to the left.  “Our room is down there, with the nursery beside it.”  He turned to the right.  “And Mary’s room with be at the end of the hall.  It’s the sunniest in the house.”

Mark smiled when he saw windows on two walls of his sister’s room.  The only window in her bedroom at home was a porthole.  This looked much brighter, the kind of place he wished their father would provide for the fragile flower of their family.

“You’ll all want to freshen up before dinner,” Marie suggested, then smiled at the youngster clinging to her hand.  “I will be in the nursery cleaning this one if you need anything.”

“Oh, may I help you?” Mary asked eagerly.

Marie smiled.  “You may bathe him after dinner, if you like.  I’m only going to wash his face and hands now.”

Mary smiled and nodded.  “I can’t wait,” she murmured.  “I love babies——especially you, sweetie pie.”  She blew a kiss to Little Joe.

When dinner was served, Hop Sing effectively demonstrated how he had earned the title of tyrant, for he loudly castigated anyone he felt did insufficient justice to the food on his plate.  Little Joe, chief culprit, as always, just smiled and ignored the rebuke, but Mary seemed fearful of giving offense.  “I’m sorry, Hop Sing,” she murmured.  “You’ve worked hard to prepare a special feast, but I’m not used to seeing so much wonderful food at one setting.”

Hop Sing’s head tilted quizzically.  He’d been specifically ordered by Mr. Cartwright to keep the meal simple and had reluctantly complied, but the young lady seemed impressed nonetheless.  “Is nothing,” he alleged.  “Hop Sing fix ploper meal for you ‘morrow.  You see.”

“I hope you’ll let me help you in the kitchen,” Mary suggested softly, and the countenances of both her brother and the Chinese cook darkened.  Bathing a baby was one thing, but Mark bristled at the thought of his sister working as a servant in this home, while Hop Sing responded with characteristic defensive of his domain.

“Hop Sing not need help,” he sputtered.

“Oh, no, it’s I who need help,” Mary said, smiling sweetly.  “I do all the cooking at home, but Mama died before she could teach me much.  I know I could learn a great deal from you.”

Hop Sing, as addicted to praise as a bear to honey, melted at once.  “You come kitchen anytime, missy,” he said.  “You got good sense.”

Marie giggled into her napkin until the cook had returned to the kitchen.  “It is a high compliment, Mary,” she said.  “Hop Sing rarely lets even me in his kitchen, and there are few people he admits have good sense.”

“But I meant it,” Mary protested.  “I really don’t cook this well.”

“You do fine with what you have to work with,” Mark muttered.  “Can’t make crown roast out of tripe.”

“Mark, please,” Mary whispered.

“Better dig in and clean your plates,” Ben suggested.  “Peach pie for dessert.”

“Yes, sir!”  Hoss obeyed his father’s command with relish.  Peach pie was among his favorite foods.

* * * * *

Mary had risen early to help Hop Sing in the kitchen, and by breakfast’s end, everyone knew the sweet-tempered child had found a home there.  “Missy Maly make velly nice biscuit,” Hop Sing reported.  “Almost good as Hop Sing.”

“Almost,” Ben agreed tactfully, knowing Hop Sing to have a touchier ego than Mary.  He winked at the girl, however, to make certain she didn’t think he found her biscuits in any way lacking.   Then Ben looked at her brother, seated beside Mary.  “How well do you sit a horse, Mark?”

The young man flushed.  “Not too well, I suppose.  I haven’t touched an animal of any kind since we came to San Francisco.”

“You’d better take Hoss’s mare then,” Ben suggested.  “She’s gentle.  I thought we’d ride out and take a look at the herd.”

Mark sat rigid in his straight-backed chair.  “That your way of telling me I have to work for our keep?”

Everyone at the table fell silent.

“Oh, Mark,” Mary moaned miserably.  Mark bit his lip, suddenly aware of how rude he had sounded.

“No, son,” Ben said after a moment’s thought.  “You and Mary are our guests, and you certainly don’t have to do anything to earn that.  I thought you might enjoy riding out with us men, but if you prefer to stay around the house with the women and children, that’s fine.”

“Children!” Hoss protested.  “I ain’t a kid, Pa.”

Ben frowned at his middle son.  “I meant Little Joe, Hoss.”

“But you said children, Pa, not just child,” Hoss argued.  “That ain’t good grammar, Pa.”

Adam laughed and, smirking at Hoss, mimicked, “‘I ain’t a kid, Pa.  That ain’t good grammar, Pa.’  Since when do you give a hoot about grammar?”   Hoss winced.

“Since it gives him a chance to rebuke his father,” Ben remarked dourly.  “It’s rather ridiculous, Hoss, to correct someone else’s grammar while making worse mistakes yourself; furthermore, if you intend to debate your maturity, interrupting your elders is not a good way to start.”

“Sorry, Pa,” Hoss muttered and gave quick attention to his final flapjack.

The Wentworth youngsters had both looked nervous during the exchange between father and son, but they soon saw that neither Ben nor Hoss was disturbed.  It gave Mark hope that his own misbehavior might be similarly excused.  He took a deep breath.  “I’m afraid there was nothing mature about my surliness, either, sir.  I—I’m sorry, too.  I—I would rather ride with the men, if you’ll still have me.”

Ben smiled.  “You’re more than welcome, Mark.  Perhaps I should have explained myself better to begin with.  While you’re here, it’s my intention to treat you as I would one of my own boys.  They have chores to do, of course, but I pay them a salary, and I would expect to do the same for you, if you choose to work with us.  I assumed you would find that more satisfying than a summer of idleness.”

Mark smiled slightly.  “That sounds fine, sir.”

“Pa, Pa,” Little Joe piped up demandingly.  “Pay me, too, Pa.”

Ben guffawed.  “For what?  What chores do you do?”

“Feed chickens, Pa,” Little Joe insisted seriously.

Ben arched an eyebrow at Hoss.  “I thought that was your chore.”

Hoss scowled at Little Joe.  “It is and I do it.  He just scatters a handful or two.”

“Oh, ho ho,” Ben scoffed.  “If you’re gonna contract out your chores, boy, you’ll have to pay your hired help yourself.”

“I don’t get much to start with, Pa,” Hoss complained, “and he don’t help enough to earn a cent.”

“Then pay him in kind,” Ben chuckled.  “One bedtime story should be about right.”

“Yeah,” Adam grinned.  “You can read him one of Aesop’s fables, like I used to do you.”

Hoss shrugged.  He’d pay up, since he had to, but he still thought he was being overcharged.

Mary quickly and Mark slowly began to settle into life at the Ponderosa.  Mary’s serene spirit seemed to have a calming effect on Hop Sing, and she spent many hours in his kitchen.  Though Mark was less skilled at the chores Ben assigned him than his sister in her domestic ones, he began to be more comfortable on horseback and graduated from Hoss’s gray mare to animals with a bit more spirit.  He seemed to grow more at ease around the Cartwrights, too, though Ben sometimes caught an unhappy look on the boy’s face that made him think Mark was comparing his own home to the one he and Mary were sharing this summer.  Ben hoped that the change, while obviously good for both Wentworth youngsters, would not simply increase Mark’s resentment of the austerity to which he would ultimately return.

When Paul Martin and his daughter Sally came to dinner the first Saturday after his arrival, Mark Wentworth clearly found the Ponderosa an even more appealing place.  He almost gasped when he saw the doctor’s beautiful daughter, and for the first time he earned a scolding from Hop Sing for neglecting his dinner.

“Just what we need,” Ben chuckled to Paul later as they sat down to a game of chess, “another fish to snap at that bait you keep dangling.”

“I’m not dangling it,” Dr. Martin grunted, “and that boy’s too old for Sally.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  Sally was only sixteen to Mark’s twenty-one, but having just attended the wedding of a couple separated by more than that made five years seem a narrow gulf to cross.  Ben could understand his friend’s attitude, though; Adam was the same age as Sally, and Ben certainly wasn’t ready to see his boy tie the knot with anyone.  Girls tended to marry younger than boys, however, and Dr. Martin might just have to face up to it.

Everyone was surprised when they heard a knock at the door.  Hop Sing set down the dishes he was clearing from the dining table and scurried over to answer it.  “Is too late fo’ visitor come,” he ranted.  “Dinnah over.”

“I doubt anyone came to eat at this hour,” Ben scolded.  “It’s probably one of the men.”

The figure in the doorway was, indeed, one of Ben’s employees, but the last one he’d expected to see.  “Enos!” Ben cried.  “Come in, boy.”

Enos doffed his hat and entered.

“Now, where’s that pretty wife of yours?” Dr. Martin asked.  “I’ve been looking forward to seeing her again.”

“Me, too,” Sally said.  “There aren’t nearly enough young women in this territory.”

Enos grinned.  “My wife is at the cabin, and she loves the way you and Mrs. Thomas fixed it up, Mrs. Cartwright.  She’s unpacking our things, but I wanted to make that special delivery for you.”

“Oh, Enos, you could have waited until morning,” Marie rebuked gently.

“What special delivery?” Ben demanded.

Marie laughed lightly.  “Well, it is a little early, but I suppose you will not object to receiving your anniversary gift tonight.”

“Reckon not,” Enos chuckled, “but I need help bringin’ it in.”

“I’ll help,” Adam offered at once.  “Mark?”

“Sure,” Mark agreed.

Mary clapped her hands.  “Oh, how romantic!  I love presents!”  Obviously, the generous-hearted girl didn’t need to receive a gift herself to take pleasure in the giving.

Dr. Martin joined the three younger men outside and helped to carry in the long, rectangular crate.

“What on earth could that be?” Ben muttered to himself.

“One way to find out,” Dr. Martin chuckled.

Amid everyone’s laughter, Ben removed the lid from the crate.  Almost at once his youngest son stood on tiptoe to peer over the edge.  “Ooh,” he cooed, grabbing a handful of straw.

“It’s not for you,” Adam scolded, lifting the toddler out of the way.

Ben, meanwhile, was hastily pulling aside the packing material.  When he saw the rich mahogany case, he stood silent in surprise.  “It’s a clock,” he whispered at last.

“No, you don’t say,” Paul scoffed saucily.

“But——but how did you know I’d like——” Ben sputtered to his wife.  “When did you——”

“You ask too many questions,” Marie smiled.  “Do you like your gift or not?”

In answer, Ben enwrapped her slender frame with his strong arms.

“Enough of that, you two,” Paul scolded.  “There are innocent children here.”

“Aw, we see that all the time,” Hoss grinned.

“Tut, tut, shameless display,” Paul twitted.  “Decide where you want this monstrosity while we get it out of the crate.”

“That’s easy,” Ben chuckled.  “Right by the front door.”

“To the left.  Yes, that is perfect,” Marie agreed.

The four who had carried the grandfather’s clock inside hefted it from the box and set it in the designated location.  Paul positioned the hands and set the long pendulum swinging.

“It is not quite like the one you enjoyed your first winter here,” Marie said, her voice tremulous.

Ben squeezed her hand.  “It’s better.  It’s ours.”

“They’re gonna start again,” Hoss informed the doctor soberly.

“One kiss to say thanks,” Dr. Martin instructed.  “Then let’s get on with our chess game.”

“Yes, let’s,” Ben agreed quickly.  “With inspiration like this, I’m bound to emerge victorious.”  He gave his wife a lingering kiss.

“We’ll see about that!” the doctor hooted.

Hop Sing shuffled in to hand a package of hurriedly constructed sandwiches to Enos.  “You take you missy,” he ordered.

“Huh?” Enos replied.  He didn’t have much experience in deciphering Hop Sing’s unique phrases.

“He wants you to take them to Katerina,” Marie interpreted.

“Missy not want cook after long tlavel,” Hop Sing explained.

“Oh, well, thanks, Hop Sing,” Enos said.  “Reckon I best be gettin’ back.  Katerina’s a little edgy about stayin’ alone in this wild country of ours.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d think Katerina had been listening to Mrs. Larrimore,” Ben chuckled from his seat across a chessboard from Paul Martin.  “Give her our love.”  Promising that he would, Enos departed.

Marie’s gift must, indeed, have inspired Ben to great heights, for he easily defeated the more expert Dr. Martin in two games of chess that night.  And he found even greater cause for glee in the look on Dr. Martin’s face when Mark hooked his arm through Sally’s elbow to escort her to the buggy at evening’s end.

In the days after that visit, Mark could be heard humming as he went about even the most mundane chores.  Ben was glad to see his young guest happy, for he had been asked to attend another mass political meeting and had delayed accepting the invitation, not wanting to leave Marie to cope with a difficult guest.

The meeting was scheduled for Monday, June 6th.  Though the Cartwrights normally honored the Sabbath, they and their guests had worked the day before so that Ben might feel secure in leaving the ranch for the meeting.  To reward the boys for their extra effort, Ben gave surprise orders that morning.  “I fancy having fish for supper, boys,” he smiled, “so I’ll expect you to spend the day dangling a pole in some nearby creek.”

Adam grinned, understanding that his father was giving them the day off.  “Thanks, Pa.”

“Yeah, thanks!” Hoss bubbled.

Mark looked puzzled for a moment, not quite able to comprehend the gift of a day’s pleasure, especially on a weekday.  His own father’s strong work ethic rarely permitted any rest except on Sunday, if you could call spending all day in church restful.  When he realized Ben was serious, he began to smile.

“Would you have time to stop by the Thomas place and see if Billy could come, Pa?” Adam asked.

“I’ll ask,” Ben promised, “but he’ll probably be out at his claim by the time I come by.”

Little Joe plucked at his father’s sleeve.  “Me fish, too, Pa.”

Ben laughed.  “I don’t think so, Little Joe.”

Adam tweaked the toddler’s nose.  “Couldn’t risk it, wiggleworm.  The fish might think you were bait.”

As Little Joe’s face started to pucker, his mother lifted him onto her lap to console him.  “Hoss and Adam will bring back a special fish, just for you, won’t you, boys?”

“Sure thing,” Hoss promised.  “One just your size.”

“Fish that size are too small to keep,” Mark grinned, getting into the spirit of the banter.

Ben smiled.  It was good to see all the boys content——well, with one pint-sized exception.  Little Joe still looked none too pleased at being left behind.

The toddler, however, was the first to welcome Ben home, and he did so with a hug and his characteristically bright smile.  “Hop Sing fwying my fish for supper, Pa,” he declared.

“Is that so?” Ben chuckled.  “Will you share with me?”  Little Joe’s head bobbed happily.

“Dinnah leady now,” Hop Sing declared petulantly.  “You almost miss.”

“But we’re so glad you came while the fish is hot,” Mary added, giving Hop Sing’s arm a soft pat.

“Dat light, velly glad,” Hop Sing agreed, suddenly all smiles.  “Sit table now, please.”  Ben tossed Mary a grateful wink.

The family and their summer visitors filed into the dining room.  Still holding his youngest, Ben pulled out a chair and sat down.  Marie reached for the boy to lift him into his high chair, but Little Joe protested vociferously.  “No, stay Pa!”

“Leave him,” Ben conceded.  “I rather like the feel of his arms around my neck.”

“They’re not likely to stay there,” Adam teased.  “I didn’t call him wiggleworm for nothing.”

“I know that,” Ben chuckled, “but let me enjoy my baby while I can, before he grows into a great lout like his big brothers.”

Hop Sing entered with a platter piled high with fish, rolled in cornmeal and fried crisp.  “Mine, Pa.  Eat my fish,” Little Joe insisted.

“And just which fish is yours, little one?” Ben asked, lips twitching.

Little Joe couldn’t seem to decide, for the fried fish looked different from the one Hoss had brought in on the end of a string and donated to his little brother.  Mary pointed to the largest piece visible.  “It must be that one, Little Joe,” she suggested.  “It’s just right for sharing.”

Little Joe beamed.  “Mine!” he chortled.

“And the tastiest of the lot, I’m sure,” Ben chuckled.  Eating with a fidgety toddler in his lap was awkward, but he managed to fork in a bite here and there between seeing to his son’s needs.

Marie shook her head at her husband’s foolish fondness, conveniently overlooking how often she gave in to their youngest’s whims.  As she cut off a bite of fish, she asked how the meeting had gone.

“I was very encouraged,” Ben replied.  “There’ll be an election the fourteenth of next month to select fifty delegates to a constitutional convention, as well as one to send to Washington with the document we create.”

“We, Pa?” Adam grinned.  “You sound like you plan to be one of those delegates.”

“I’d sure like to,” Ben admitted, fingering through a piece of fish to remove the bones for Little Joe.  “I always dreamed of being part of the building of a state.  Of course, we’re a long way from that.”

“Is it important to you, sir, being part of a state?” Mark asked.  “Seems to me you folks are doing well just like you are.”

“We have a good life,” Ben admitted, “but I do want the advantages of state government for my family, Mark.  There’s no real authority here to deal with lawbreakers, just vigilante justice.  In fact, I heard there’s been another murder, at Gold Hill this time, and still no appropriate way to deal with such cases.”

“Anyone we know, Pa?” Adam asked.

“We don’t know no miners except Billy,” Hoss declared, then looked worried.  “It ain’t Billy, Pa?”

“No, son,” Ben assured him, then turned to answer Adam’s original question.  “The victim was a newcomer, fellow named John Jessup, but you might know the accused, William Sides.  I don’t know him as well as I do his brother Richard, but we’ve met.”

Adam whistled.  “If Dick’s brother is like him, he’d have the temper to do murder.”

“That’s not evidence, Adam,” Ben stated sternly.

“Yes, sir,” Adam agreed quickly.  “Is there going to be a trial?”

“If you can call it that,” Ben muttered.  “Since Sides is a vigilante member, the verdict will undoubtedly be not guilty.”  He looked back at Mark.  “That’s why we need a proper state government, to give some semblance of justice.  And there are other reasons.  Now we have no public education, none of any kind really.  Even civil matters have to be taken to Salt Lake City, and that’s just too far to be practical.”

“California was a state when we got there,” Mark argued, “and I can’t see that it helps that much.  Father would tell you we have a very wicked city in San Francisco.”

Ben chose to ignore the note of cynicism in Mark’s voice.  “He’d be right, most likely——about parts of it, at least.  You’ve seen the Barbary Coast.  Think how much worse it would be if there were no control on the vices there.”

Mark flushed.  He wasn’t sure, but he suspected that his father had told Mr. Cartwright about his adventures on the Barbary Coast, adventures Mark wasn’t proud of anymore.  He’d gone there the first time to defy his father’s rigid concept of righteousness, and every other trip had been after some major argument with the minister, as well.  Mark cleared his throat.  “Well, I hope you achieve your dream, sir,” he said, hoping to divert Ben’s attention from allusions to the Barbary Coast.

Ben sighed.  “I’m afraid we’re destined to failure, as usual.  It’s hard to believe Congress would ever grant territorial status to such an unpopulated area, but, at least, we’re doing what we can.  Work, hope and prayer——sometimes they can make dreams come true.”

Ben may have thought western Utah’s small population would place any hope of a separate territory beyond reach.  Looming on the horizon that warm June night, however, were events that would bring an influx of new residents and give a value to the sparsely-settled land Congress could not afford to ignore.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

The Back Side of the Wilderness

The following Saturday evening, as a buggy was heard rolling into the yard, Mary Wentworth jumped up from her seat on the sofa beside Marie and clapped her hands.  “Oh, that must be Sally and her father!”  Mark, warming himself by the fire, kept his feelings masked as he turned around.  Yet he was, if anything, more delighted than his sister that Sally Martin would be spending a week at the Ponderosa, his first look at the doctor’s pretty daughter having only whetted his appetite for further viewing.  Both youngsters were surprised, however, when Hop Sing admitted Billy Thomas, instead of Dr. Martin, with the girl they had expected.  Everyone stood and moved toward the door to welcome the two young people.

“What’s for supper, Hop Sing?” Billy demanded as soon as he passed through the doorway.

“You stay eat?” Hop Sing demanded.  “Who invite you?”

“I did,” Billy grinned.  “You got plenty, ‘cause her pa ain’t gonna make it.”  As Hop Sing stomped back to the kitchen, ranting in Chinese, Billy lifted Little Joe under the arms and tossed him in the air.  “Hey, there, short shanks.  How’s life treatin’ you?”

Although Little Joe crowed with exhilarated rapture, Marie gave a cry of terror and snatched her child away.

“Oh, Billy, you’re just awful,” Sally scolded.  “My father says no baby should be tossed around like that.  They’re too delicate.”

Mai oui,” Marie sputtered, wrapping protective arms around her precious boy.

Billy just shrugged.  He couldn’t see that the flight had done the baby any harm.

Ben cleared his throat.  “Speaking of the good doctor, where is he?  He was supposed to bring Sally here tonight, not you, you rapscallion.”

“Oh, that was Billy’s doing, all right,” Sally tittered.

“Figured as much,” Adam said drolly.  He winked at the Wentworth youngsters.  “If there’s mischief marching, you can pretty much expect Billy to be leading the parade.”

“Hey!” Billy protested.  “Ain’t my fault that miner decided to do a belly roll down the side of a hill and break his leg.  I just fetched the doc, is all.  Seemed only neighborly to bring Sally on, since her pa was occupied.”  Everyone snickered, knowing it didn’t take neighborliness to inspire Billy to take a pretty girl for a drive, especially when a good meal waited at the end of the excursion.

Ben clapped the boy on the shoulder.  “Didn’t anyone ever tell you that no good deed goes unpunished, Billy?” he laughed.

“I believe it!” Billy scowled, glaring at both Sally and Adam, who merely laughed in return.

“Oh, no, Mr. Cartwright, you mustn’t say so,” Mary inserted seriously.  “Father would say you should never discourage good deeds, for, indeed, they are rewarded.”

Ben chuckled.  “I stand corrected.  You’re right, of course.  We shouldn’t discourage good deeds, especially in Billy’s case.  They’re so few and far between.”  The remark brought another round of laughter.

“Keep it up, and I won’t tell you the latest news from Gold Hill,” Billy threatened.

Ben tweaked the boy’s ear.  “Oh, well, if you come bearing news, I guess we’ll have to feed you.”

“Humph!” Hop Sing fumed from the dining room.  “You not haf feed.  Hop Sing haf feed.  Dinnah leady now!”  He plunked a bowl of mashed potatoes onto the table and shuffled back to the kitchen, muttering to himself.

No one hesitated, knowing how volatile Hop Sing could become if they didn’t respond promptly.  Billy nonchalantly hooked an elbow through Sally’s arm, and she, just as nonchalantly pulled free to link arms with Adam, who grinned saucily and pulled out a chair for the young lady.  Billy was so put out he didn’t see Mark sidle up to take a seat on Sally’s other side.

Ben gave Billy’s freckled neck a consoling rub.  “Looks like you’ve been outflanked, my boy.”

“You can sit by me,” Hoss offered.

“Thanks all to pieces,” Billy scowled, but he took the offered chair.

Ben took two smoked pork chops and passed the platter to Mark on his left.  “Now, what’s this hot news from Gold Hill?” he demanded of Billy.

“Yeah, you hit it big, did you, buddy?” Adam grinned, taking the platter from Sally and forking a chop into his own plate.

Having made the mistake of sitting where Hoss would get first crack at the food as it passed, Billy eyed the diminishing meat platter with concern.  “Not me, not yet,” he muttered, “but there’s those that have.”

“Billy, Billy,” Ben chuckled.  “When are you gonna give up this wild goose chase?”

“Not such a wild goose chase now, from what I hear,” Sally smiled.

“O’Riley and McLaughlin sure don’t think so,” Billy declared, forking the final pork chop, thankful Hoss had left him at least one.  “You know them, Uncle Ben?”

Ben shook his head.  “Don’t think so.  I don’t get a chance to meet many miners since I quit running the trading post with your father.”

“Yeah, that’s so,” Billy said.  “Well, they took out close to three hundred dollars yesterday.”

“Three hundred!” Ben exclaimed.

“Aw, he’s joshing,” Adam snorted.

“I ain’t neither,” Billy snapped back.  “If it weren’t so, would Old Pancake be hornin’ in on the claim?”

“Comstock?” Ben asked, ladling gravy over his meat and potatoes before passing the bowl.  “I know him, of course.  I thought he’d taken over the Grosch brothers’ old claim.”

Billy sawed his pork chop into bite-sized pieces and laid them on a slice of bread in anticipation of drowning them in the gravy when it reached him.  “You know Comstock——always layin’ claim to everything in sight.  Now he says the land them other two found the gold on belongs to him, claims old man Caldwell sold him the spring they was usin’ and a hundred sixty acres for a ranch.”

“Ranch,” Ben scoffed.  “Old Pancake never saw the day he’d work a ranch.”

“Yeah, that’s what I think,” Billy agreed.  “Wish I could’ve been at that meeting this afternoon.  Bunch of miners near Gold Hill is gonna organize a new district, laws and all, and I hear there’s some got words to say about what Comstock done.”

“Well, you missed it in a good cause,” Sally smiled.  “Someone had to get help for that injured miner, and as Mary says, I’m sure your good deed will be rewarded.”

“In heaven, maybe,” Billy grunted, looking as though he’d rather receive his reward on earth.

“Heaven!” Adam hooted.  “Since when do they let the likes of you in heaven?”

“Oh, I’m sure Billy will be in heaven,” Mary declared, ever the minister’s daughter, “and I know his good deed will be rewarded there.”

“Better be,” Billy muttered.  “Sure ain’t much reward bein’ passed out around here.”

“What do you want, Billy?” Sally teased.

“Kiss comes to mind,” Billy suggested, but his cocky grin faded when Sally merely blew one across the table.

“We got chocolate pie for dessert,” Hoss reported.  “That oughta be reward enough for anyone.”

“Reckon so,” Billy cackled, giving the youngster’s sandy hair a tousle.

“You will stay the night, oui, Billy?” Marie asked as Hop Sing cleared the dinner dishes in preparation for serving dessert.

“Figured I would,” Billy concurred.  “You know how Ma is about me minin’ on Sunday, so ain’t much point in goin’ home.”  He moaned slightly.  “And all the best claims’ll be took by Monday, I just know they will.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Ben said dryly.  “Those two miners probably found the only pocket of gold in all of western Utah.”

Billy shrugged.  “Yeah, maybe so.”

“You want to bunk downstairs or with me or Mark?” Adam asked.

“Or me,” Hoss offered.

Little Joe banged his spoon on the table.  “Me, me!” he cried, not really sure what he was volunteering for, but anything involving the big boys was always enticing.  They shut him out so often.

“Anything but that!” Billy hooted.  “I’ll take Adam, I reckon.  Hey, Adam, how ‘bout haulin’ the old boat up to Tahoe and doin’ some fishin’ tomorrow?”

“Nope,” Ben answered for his son.

“Aw, Uncle Ben,” Billy wheedled.  “Them Washos ain’t gonna miss one mess of fish.”

“Pa doesn’t let us go up to Lake Tahoe before July,” Adam explained to Mark and Mary.  The others already knew of Ben Cartwright’s restriction.

“It’s only fair to give the Indians first rights during their fishing season,” Ben stated firmly.  “By July, they’ll start gathering, instead.  Then you can fish.”

“How kind of you to care about the Indians, Mr. Cartwright,” Mary commented, blue eyes sparkling.  “Father says what has happened to the California Indians since the white man came is a sin black as midnight.”

“A tragedy,” Ben agreed.  “Entire nations wiped out.  I pray that never happens here, which is why Tahoe is off limits until July.  Understood?”

“Sure, Pa,” Hoss and Adam agreed readily.

“Yeah, sure,” Billy mumbled.

Finishing his pie, Ben patted his lips with a red-checked napkin.  “Well, Billy, since you’re taking the doctor’s place tonight, I guess that means you’ll be my chess partner.”

“Unh-uh!” Billy snorted.  “I don’t play nothin’ harder than checkers.”

“Why don’t you play, Mark?” Sally suggested.  “My, but you’ve been quiet this evening!”

Mark flushed, hoping no one guessed that the reason for his almost total silence had been his absorption in watching the pretty girl.  “I——uh——I’ve never played chess before, Miss Sally.”

“Oh, I’m sure you’ll be good at it,” Sally said, “and I’ll be glad to help you.”

“I have to take on two of you, do I?” Ben chuckled.

“I was going to play you the song I’ve been learning,” Adam complained to Sally.

The girl laughed lightly.  “Play away, Adam.  I’ll hear it.”  As she started to rise, Mark quickly stood and pulled out her chair.  Sally rewarded his gentlemanly manners with a gracious smile.

Hoss tapped Billy’s arm.  “I’ll play checkers with you, Billy.  I ain’t much good at it, but you’ll like that better than chess with Pa or listenin’ to old Adam strum that guitar of his.”

“Me, me play,” Little Joe demanded.

“You play what?” Ben chuckled.  “Chess, checkers or guitar.”

“Bath,” Marie tittered.  “He plays bath time.”

Mary reached for the toddler.  “Let’s have a nice, warm bath, Little Joe,” she suggested.  “Then I’ll read you a story.  Okay?”

“Okay,” Little Joe agreed.

The evening ended quietly as everyone settled into his or her chosen activity: Marie and Mary upstairs bathing Little Joe; Ben and Mark (with Sally perched beside him) concentrating over the chessboard on the cleared dining table; Hoss and Billy matching wits at checkers at the table before the fire; and Adam, seated in his father’s mauve armchair, strumming a soft ballad as background to the idyllic scene.

* * * * *

Having begged his father for a day off to check out the mining excitement, Adam hurried through his breakfast, for Billy was anxious to get an early start.  Clucking indulgently, Ben turned to Mark.  “You off with them, my boy?”

Mark felt torn in two directions.  The day the boys had planned sounded interesting, but Sally’s presence at the Ponderosa made staying home with the ladies a much more inviting proposal than before.  Mark was certain he’d be in for hours of ribbing, though, if he made that choice.  “Yeah, I’ll come along,” he decided, “if the boys don’t mind.”

“No problem,” Billy said.  “Maybe you’ll ‘divine’ the best spot for my claim.”

Ben groaned and Mark scowled, Ben because he didn’t care for puns and Mark because he didn’t like being connected with his father’s ministry.  “The three of you get out of here,” Ben grunted, “and don’t show your faces until suppertime.”

“But don’t be late,” Sally urged.  “Katerina’s coming over and we’re all going to spend the day baking marvelous things.”

Mark smiled.  If there was going to be that big a hen party here, he’d obviously made the right choice, but he couldn’t resist the opportunity to advance his standing with Sally Martin.  “That sounds wonderful, Miss Sally,” he said in a transparent attempt to flatter.  “I’m sure anything you bake will be marvelous.”

Marie exchanged a knowing glance with Ben.  He nodded, accepting her analysis, for Marie was usually sharp in reading people’s hearts, especially when romance was in the air.  Mark was evidently attracted to Sally, and the warmth with which she responded to him indicated the attraction might be mutual.

The exchange of glances, both between Ben and Marie and between Mark and Sally, didn’t escape Billy’s notice.  As he and the other two boys prepared to leave, he caught Sally in a light embrace and gave her a peck on the cheek.  “Still my best girl, ain’t you?” he asked, loud enough for Mark to hear.  “‘Course, you are.”  He pecked her again.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Adam teased.  “You know Sally prefers me.”  He kissed the girl on the opposite cheek.

Sally just shook her head, eyes dancing.  Like most girls, she relished being the object of contention by multiple suitors.  She stole a glance at Mark, secretly hoping he’d say something flattering and follow it with a kiss, but the Wentworth lad stood silent, red-faced and flustered, and his farewell kiss was given to his sister.  Sally smiled softly at him, seeing something touching in his hesitance and in his tenderness with Mary.  No doubt, he’d be the same way with his future wife.

“Can’t you ride any faster?” Billy complained as the three young men left the Ponderosa slopes and moved into the openness of the valley floor.

“Nope,” Adam responded placidly, taking a long, satisfying whiff of the sage-scented air.  “Mark doesn’t sit a horse well enough to race.”

Mark’s lower lip thrust out.  “Sorry to hold you back,” he muttered tautly.

“No problem,” Adam assured him, turning quickly in his saddle.  “You’re getting to be a pretty good horseman, and, besides, Billy doesn’t need to be in such an all-fired hurry.”

“Ought to leave the both of you behind, that’s what I ought to do,” Billy grunted, but made no move to quicken his roan’s pace.

“Suit yourself,” Adam grinned.  “Mark and I are in no hurry, and the company’s not that congenial.”

“Toss around any more of them big words,” Billy threatened, “and I’ll take off for sure.”

Adam just snickered, knowing an idle threat when he heard one.            “I never know when to take the two of you seriously,” Mark said.

“Hardly ever,” Adam said with a wink, “and Billy, next door to never.”

The three exchanged similar banter periodically throughout the lengthy ride to Gold Hill.  They made their way through Devil’s Gate, where walls of gray rock towered on both sides of the narrow path of a sinuous stream.  As they approached the bustling camp, Billy gave a loud groan.  “I knew it; I just knew it.”

“Look at the people!” Adam exclaimed.  Tents dotted the barren hillsides in every direction, and two-legged drones milled in service of a golden queen.

“I told Ma the best claims would be took if I waited ‘til Monday.”  Billy growled.

“Hey, there’s Old Pancake,” Adam said and ambled his sorrel mare forward.  “Howdy, Mr. Comstock,” he called when he drew close.

“How do, my boy.”  The lanky man benevolently scratched his chin whiskers.  “Welcome to the Comstock Lode.”  Riding up behind Adam, Mark grimaced, for Comstock’s dark clothing and sanctimonious air reminded him of a minister, making him uneasy with reminders of home.

“The Comstock Lode?” Adam queried with a grin.  “That what they’re calling Gold Hill now?”

Comstock squared his shoulders.  “If they ain’t, they soon will be.  Reckon you heard about the strike on my claim.”

“What I heard is that the claim belonged to a couple other fellers and you just horned in on it,” Billy asserted boldly as he reined in next to Adam and Mark.

Adam winced.  Sometimes Billy had just about the sense God gave a goose.  Other times, like today, he didn’t act that well endowed.

“Callin’ me a claim-jumper, are you, boy?” Comstock drawled.  “It’s a good thing for you I’m an easy-goin’ sort.  You’d find yourself starin’ down a shotgun barrel if you said that to most men.”

“I figure I’m safe,” Billy snorted, “with a man too lazy to cook more than flapjacks.”

“Billy,” Adam hissed in warning.  “You better watch your tongue, boy.”

“Watch your own,” Billy advised.  “Thought there was a meetin’ Saturday to settle who owned that claim, Pancake.”

“Like I said, the claim’s mine,” Comstock reported with a smile.  “Of course, O’Riley and McLaughlin have their shares——Old Virginny and Manny Penrod and some others, too.  We’re all partners.”

“Just who ain’t got a share in this claim?” Billy snickered.

Comstock rubbed his hairless upper lip as if in deep thought.  “Well, I’ll tell you, sonny, who ain’t got a share.  You ain’t, that’s who.”

Billy gave a short laugh, appreciating a joke, even when he was the butt of it.  “Yeah, and if I stay here jawin’ with you, I ain’t likely to stake one of my own.”  He headed his roan up the canyon.  “You boys comin’?” he asked, looking back over his shoulder.

“Go ahead,” Adam said.  “I’m gonna look around awhile and catch up with you later.”  He glanced over at Mark.  “Go with whichever of us you like.”

“I’ll stick with you,” Mark replied.  He welcomed the chance to be alone with Adam.  He needed to get some things straight and figured the Cartwright boy was the best source for the information he wanted.

It was awhile before the Wentworth lad had a chance to talk, however, for Adam seemed intent on investigating the length and breadth of the “Comstock Lode,” stopping to chat amiably with practically every miner whose path they crossed about the worth and extent of his claim.  None seemed to have struck color approaching the value of the original strike, but each felt confident the next shovelful of earth would reveal shining nuggets of astounding size.

When the sun stood overhead, Adam’s stomach finally reminded him that his body needed feeding as much as his brain.  “Eilley Orrum’s place is here somewhere,” he told Mark.  “Nothing like Hop Sing fixes, but we can, at least, get beans and biscuits there.  The biscuits are supposed to be first-rate.”

“Back that way,” Mark said, pointing.  “About half a mile.”  Unlike Adam, he hadn’t been so absorbed in conversing with miners that he’d lost sight of more basic attractions.

The two young men rode back to the building Mrs. Cowan shared with Old Nick’s Bar and grabbed one of the few tables.  The proprietress greeted Adam warmly.  “What brings you hill boys up to the diggings?” she asked jovially.  “Decided to leave ranching for better-paying work?”

“Never,” Adam replied decisively.  “We just heard about the excitement and rode over with a friend of ours to see how the place was booming.”

“Booming it is!” Eilley cackled gleefully.  “More customers than I can serve comfortably, but there’s beans and bacon left, boys——coffee, too.”

“No biscuits?” Mark asked.  “I hear they’re good.”

Eilley leaned over to give his cheek a soft pinch.  “You hear right, sonny, and you’re in luck.  I just set a batch to bake.  Be ready soon.”

“Eilley,” a tall, light-haired fellow called.  “You save me some of those biscuits, you hear?”

“I hear you, Sandy.”  The Scottish lady, who had broken ranks with the edicts of the Mormon Church to remain near the diggings, gave the miner an encouraging wink.  “Wouldn’t let one of my regular boarders go hungry, now would I?”  She went after the coffeepot and two tin cups for her newest customers, stopping to refill Sandy Bowers’ cup first.

Adam leaned close to Mark’s ear.  “Looks like Mrs. Cowan’s casting bait.”

“Widow?” Mark whispered back.

Adam grinned and shook his head.  “Divorced, I think——twice over, and man-hungry again.  Dangles bait for Doc Martin every chance she gets.  He pays her no mind, but maybe Sandy will take the bait.”

“Kind of looks like it appeals to him,” Mark smiled.

The two boys fell silent as Eilley approached their table, coffeepot in hand.  When she left to dish up their beans and bacon, Mark traced the rim of his coffee cup with his index finger.  “Speaking of Dr. Martin,” he began.

“Didn’t know we were,” Adam mumbled into his coffee cup.

“You mentioned him,” Mark said sharply.  “Anyway, there’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you——about his daughter.”

“Sure, I’ve known her for years,” Adam replied.  “Know about all there is to know.”

Mark looked uneasy and began to stammer out his query.  “Well——uh—I was just wondering if——well——”

“Spit it out,” Adam laughed.  “It can’t be that bad.”  He took a long sip of coffee.

“Well——all this talk Billy does about her being his girl,”  Mark said quickly.  “Is——is it just talk or are they really——”

“Billy talks that way about any girl within ten yards,” Adam snickered.  “He sparks Sarah Winnemucca when Sally’s not around, even Marta, Katerina’s sister, over to Placerville, when he passes through.”

“Then he’s not serious about Miss Sally?” Mark asked, sounding relieved.

“Billy’s never serious about anything,” Adam grinned.  “You should know that by now.”

“What about you?” Mark pressed.  “You said this morning that she preferred you.  Were you just teasing Billy or did you mean it?”

“Aiming to rile Billy, mostly,” Adam chuckled.  “Why?”

“Oh, no reason,” Mark mumbled.

Adam looked up quickly, for something in Mark’s tone told him exactly why the other young man was so interested in Sally Martin’s possible attachments.  “I used to be kind of sweet on Sally,” he said more seriously.  “She was the first girl I ever took interest in, but there’ve been others since I went to school in Sacramento.  Not sure how I feel about her now.  Maybe just friends, maybe more.  Don’t mind competition, though, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Mark flushed.  “Am I that obvious?”

“Oh, yeah!” Adam laughed as Mrs. Cowan brought their plates.

“Now, what’s all the fun?” she demanded playfully.

“Just killing time ‘til the biscuits came,” Adam rejoined, smiling impishly, and Eilley wagged a remonstrative finger under his nose.

* * * * *

Adam and Mark returned to the Ponderosa late that afternoon.  As he swung off his sorrel, Adam waved to his father, who had just exited from the barn.  Wrapping the reins around the hitching rail, Adam hustled across the yard.  “Pa, you won’t believe the folks crawling all over that mountain!” he exclaimed.

“Wouldn’t I?” Ben snorted.  “I can even tell you where some of them came from!”

“Here?” Adam queried, quick as ever to read his father’s meaning.

“Yup.  Enos was by earlier to report how many men took off for the gold fields over the weekend,” Ben muttered.  “We’re mighty short-handed, boy.”

“Aw, the excitement’ll wear off and they’ll be back,” an unconcerned Adam prophesied.  “In the meantime, you can count on us, right, Mark?”

“Yeah, right,” Mark muttered.  He lingered outside, twisting the strands of his horse’s reins through his fingers, as Adam headed for the house.

Ben gave his guest a long, thoughtful appraisal.  “Something on your mind, son?”

“Yeah, sort of,” Mark admitted.  “I was just thinking.  My father sends me out here for you to straighten out, and it turns out you really need me.  Kind of ironic, huh?”

Ben’s brown eyes narrowed.  “What makes you think that’s why you’re here, Mark?”

Mark laughed harshly.  “I know my father.  He favors steady work too much to smile on a summer off unless he thought being out here on the backside of the wilderness would keep me from worse temptations.  Didn’t he tell you I’m the black sheep of his flock?”

“Not quite the way he put it,” Ben said quietly, “but, yes, he told me you’d had some problems holding a job——and some in the wise use of what you did earn.”

“And he thought you could turn me around,” Mark muttered bitterly.

“Any turning around that’s done will be done by you,” Ben said firmly.  “I’ve got three boys of my own to raise, and you have a father, one who loves you dearly and is only concerned for your welfare.”

“What he’s concerned about is the embarrassment to his ministry,” Mark sputtered.  “Quite a joke, don’t you think, if the minister’s son turns into the town drunk?”

Ben’s visage turned to granite.  “I don’t find that amusing, young man,” he said sternly.  “Is that really the goal of your life, Mark, embarrassing your father, hurting him the way he’s hurt you?”

Feeling that the older man had seen straight through to his tortured heart, Mark flushed darkly.  “I——I’m not trying to hurt anyone,” he stammered defensively.

Ben’s salt-and-pepper eyebrows met in a straight line.  “Aren’t you?”

Mark’s flush deepened.  “Yeah, all right, maybe.”

Ben touched the boy’s shoulder.  “What is it you’re holding against your father, Mark?  His poverty?  Surely, you know he does the best he can for you and Matthew——and Mary.”

At the mention of his sister’s name, Mark’s hazel eyes shimmered.  “It’s killing her,” he murmured.  “That awful ship.”

“Yeah, I know,” Ben said softly.  “She deserves——even needs——a tightly-framed house.”

“Try convincing our father of that,” Mark muttered, bitter again.

“Oh, I think he knows,” Ben said swiftly.  “When I think back on all the years I dragged Adam around from place to place with nothing but a succession of boardinghouses to call home——well, there’s no greater frustration for a father than to want more for his child than he can provide.  I think that’s what your father feels, Mark.”

“He cares more about the derelicts on the Barbary Coast than he does about Mary,” Mark accused, jaw tight.

Ben folded his arms and leaned his hips against the hitching rail.  “Evidently, so do you.”

“What?” Mark demanded, his fists knotting.

Ben jabbed a broad finger at Mark’s chest.  “You’re a grown man, Mark, able to bring home a man’s wage.  Between you and Matthew, there ought to be plenty to provide for your sister, even without help from your father.  But, no, you squander your pay in the cesspools of the Barbary Coast, and not even with the lofty goal that takes your father’s funds.  He, at least, is trying to help the poor wretches trapped there.  You’re trying to become one of them!  How does that help Mary?”

Mark backed away, his mouth moving, but no sound emerging.  Suddenly, he stopped and his chin began to tremble.  “You’re right,” he murmured sadly.  “I haven’t been any help at all.  All I’ve done is worry Mary, make her miserable.  I meant to hurt my father, but it’s her I’ve hurt.”

“Both of them,” Ben said softly.  “Matthew, too, I imagine.”

Mark nodded, willing now to see good in everyone except himself.  “What do I do, Mr. Cartwright?  How do I turn it around?”

Ben stepped forward to encircle the young man’s shaking shoulders.  “Wanting to is half the battle, son.  As to the rest, you’ve got a chance to start fresh here.”  Ben laughed abruptly.  “You said earlier that your father had sent you to the backside of the wilderness.”

“I meant no offense——against you, anyway,” Mark said quickly.  “The Ponderosa’s a grand place.”

“I wasn’t offended,” Ben smiled.  “I was just remembering a sermon your father preached on the trail, about God sending Moses to the backside of the wilderness to grow him into the leader he needed to be.”

A half-smile lifted one corner of Mark’s mouth.  “Guess that’s where I picked it up.”

“Probably,” Ben chuckled.  “Well, Mark, why don’t you put your time in the wilderness to good use, like Moses did?  Of course, he had forty years, while you have only one summer, but I just bet you could do a lot of growing up in that time——if you choose to.”

Mark’s head lifted at last.  “I choose to,” he said.

Ben gave him a hearty clap on the back.  “Good!  Now, let’s get inside and sample those goodies the ladies have been baking this afternoon.”

“You can’t fool me,” Mark laughed.  “You’ve already had your samples.”

“Guilty as charged,” Ben chuckled, “but if you want yours, you’d better hustle.  Hoss was wheedling for more when I left.”  Laughing, they walked arm in arm to the house.

No one remarked on how long Mark had remained outside after Adam came in, but, looking up to welcome him, Sally noted a certain somberness in his face that hadn’t been there before.  To coax back his smile, she paid him extra attention that night, even agreeing to a walk in the moonlight, the first of several during her stay at the Ponderosa.

On her final night, Mark surprised himself by telling Sally everything: his fears for Mary, his anger with his father, his days of idleness and nights of drunken rambling through the dark alleys of the Barbary Coast, and, finally, his confrontation with Mr. Cartwright.  He wasn’t sure what made him unburden himself that way, except that he was beginning to care for the girl and wanted no secrets cropping up later to shock and disillusion her.  Better to know from the start that there was no hope than to build dreams only to see them shatter when the truth was revealed.

When he’d talked himself empty, Sally took both his hands in hers, smiling radiantly.  “I’m honored that you trusted me with your problems, Mark, and so glad you’ve made the decision to change.”

He looked earnestly into her sapphire eyes.  “You really think I can, then?”

She squeezed his fingers encouragingly.  “Oh, I know you can!  I’ve seen it happen, and here’s the best place, too.  It did wonders for my father.”

“Your father?”

Sally nodded.  “He’s a changed man since he met Uncle Ben.”  She described for Mark the terror-filled night when irate miners, convinced of Dr. Martin’s malpractice, had set fire to the Martin cabin, not realizing a woman and child lived there, too.  “After Mother’s death, Father fell to pieces,” Sally explained to a sympathetic listener.  “He sent me away almost immediately——to school in Hawaii.  I thought then that he blamed me for Mother’s death——because he’d saved me first and couldn’t get back to her in time——but I know now that he was afraid to keep me near him, afraid those miners would harm me to get back at him.”

“Must’ve been rough on you,” Mark murmured.  “I know what it is to lose a mother, but, at least, I had the rest of my family.”

“Yes, it was hard,” Sally recalled, glancing up as if seeing those sad memories enacted on the face of the moon.  “Father came here——to the backside of the wilderness, as you called it——to lose himself.  Instead, he found a friend and a new life.”

“That’s what I’m looking for,” Mark said earnestly, “a new life.”

“You’ll find it,” Sally replied.  “And——and you’ve already found a friend.”  She leaned forward to tenderly kiss his cheek.

Mark took her in his arms.  He didn’t kiss her that night.  He only gazed deeply into her eyes and found in them the inspiration he needed to become the man Sally envisioned him to be as they stood together under the stars.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Short-handed Summer

Ben lifted his gray felt hat and wiped his brow.  The longest, hottest day of the year, and he had to spend it doing one of the chores he liked least.  Bringing in a crop of hay was vital to his cattle’s survival during the winter, but it had to be done at the time of year the sun made a man’s skin glisten with sweat.  Chuckling, he shook his head.  Having Adam home must be rubbing off on him, if he’d taken to that kind of poetical descriptions.  His brown shirt was drenched, and the skin beneath it didn’t glisten; more likely, it trickled his back in muddy tracks from neck to waist.

Ben wrinkled his nose.  He reeked, too, but the work had to be done, especially in view of the decimation inflicted by grasshoppers on Washoe Valley’s crops of both wheat and hay earlier that month.  And there was no delegating it to the hands this year; there weren’t many, and he couldn’t risk offending the ones he had by taking them away from the cattle for this kind of work.  He’d enlisted, instead, the kind of helpers who put the needs of the ranch above their personal pride.  Adam and Mark were spread out to his right, while Enos and Hoss flanked him on the left.

Seeing the youngster put his back into the work, Ben smiled.  Just short of nine now, Hoss was almost man-size, and he was doing the work of a man this summer, in place of men who’d deserted their positions.  Ben felt proud, and he intended to see that the boy was rewarded with a man’s wage for his efforts.  Goodness only knew what he’d spend it on, though.  After he’d bought up all the candy in the territory——there wasn’t much to be had——he’d likely still have money left.

Ben crammed his hat back on his head, but as he did, he caught sight of a rider heading his way.  Glad of an excuse to postpone the hated haying, he moved toward the rider, his brow wrinkling as he recognized his neighbor, Augustus Harrison.  By all rights, a confirmed rancher like Harrison should have been in his own hay fields, bringing in his own crop.  As Ben raised a hand in greeting, he wondered what had brought Harrison to the Ponderosa this sultry first day of summer.

Harrison swung down from a chestnut gelding.  “Howdy, Cartwright.  See you’re busy bringing in your hay.”

“Yup, that time of year,” Ben offered amiably.  “Surprised you’re not doing the same.”

Harrison grunted.  “Been to the diggings, tryin’ to hire hands for the job.”

“Find any?” Ben asked.

Harrison shook his head.  “Not a one.  All crazy for gold and not a one interested in an honest day’s work.”

“Yeah, most of my hands took off, too,” Ben commiserated.  “Don’t know what I’d do without my boys here.”  The younger men had quit working to walk up behind Ben.

Harrison smiled at them.  “Looks like you’ve got a fine crew here, Cartwright.  I rode by hopin’ I might hire ‘em off you for a few days.”

Ben laughed.  “Can’t spare them.  Like I said, I’m short-handed myself.”

Harrison chuckled.  “Yeah, I figured it was a fool’s errand, but I’m gettin’ desperate enough to try anything.”  He pulled a rock from his pocket.  “Had another reason for stoppin’ by.  I picked this up in Gold Hill this morning.  Thought you might know what it is, you bein’ an educated man.”

Ben laughed heartily as he turned the blue-black clay over in his hand.  “When it comes to minerals, I’m as ignorant as they come.”

Adam stepped to his side and took the ore sample.  “This looks like the blue stuff the miners claim is gumming up their sluices,” he commented.  “Practically every miner I talked to the other day complained about it.”

Harrison nodded.  “Yeah, but I’m wonderin’ if it doesn’t have some value of its own.”

Ben cocked his head.  “Don’t tell me you’re giving up ranching for a pick and pan.”

“Might have to if I can’t hire any workers,” Harrison jibed.  “Naw, I’m just the curious sort.  Figured I might send this sample to NevadaCity for assay, see what that ‘blue stuff’ is.”

“I’d sure like to see the report,” the ever inquisitive Adam said.

“You going to Nevada City during haying season?” Ben asked.

Harrison shook his head.  “Naw, J. F. Stone’s headed there for supplies.  You know him, don’t you, Cartwright?  Runs the Stone and Gate trading post on the Truckee River.”

“I’ve met him,” Ben replied, “but I’ve never traded with him.  I do my business in Carson and Genoa.”

“Fair man,” Harrison commented, “and an obliging one.  He’ll be glad to take the sample for me.”

“I’d sure like to see the report,” Adam said again.

Harrison grinned.  “Heard you the first time, son.  Sure, I’ll be glad to let you see it——especially if you’ll think over bringin’ in my hay.”

“None of that!” Ben snorted.  “The audacity of the man——trying to hire away my best crew right under my nose.”

Hoss moved close to his father’s side.  “I won’t leave you, Pa, whatever them others do.”

Smiling, Harrison swung onto his chestnut.  “Loyal hand you got there, Ben.  Reckon I’m wasting my time tryin’ to tempt him away.”

Ben laughed and circled Hoss’s shoulders with an affectionate arm.  “Maybe you’ve got something in common with those miners after all, Augustus——wasting time, I mean.”

Harrison tipped his hat.  “Won’t waste anymore of yours, at any rate.  I’ll let you get back to your hayin’.”

As Harrison rode away, Ben gave a low moan of displeasure.  “Back to work, boys,” he grunted, his own steps dragging as he turned back in begrudging duty.

* * * * *

As Mary struggled to squeeze shoes onto Little Joe’s reluctant feet, Marie tied her bonnet ribbons in a pert bow to the left of her chin.  The boys were outside saddling their mounts, but Ben had remained behind for a final cup of coffee and a farewell kiss for his lady.  “Have a good time,” he said as he bestowed it, “and bring home lots of tasty treats.”

“Oh, but there will be none today,” Marie advised him.

“I thought that’s what this hen party was about,” Ben declared, looking puzzled.  “Isn’t Katerina teaching you all to make some of her German specialties.”

“Just one,” Marie replied.  “Lebkuchen, but it is not for now; it is for Christmas.”

“Christmas!” Ben exclaimed.

Marie started to respond, but before she could, Hop Sing bustled into the front room.  “This what you want, Missy Cahtlight?” he queried.

Marie took the two clay jars he was holding.  “Oui, those look perfect, Hop Sing.  Thank you.”

“Those had better be full of cookies when you return,” Ben admonished playfully.

“Do not be perverse, Ben,” Marie scolded.  “They will be full of dough, not cookies.”

“Dough?” Ben sputtered.  “I thought you were doing the baking at Laura’s, in that big oven of hers.  Isn’t that why you had to wait ‘til Saturday, so she’d have her regular baking done?”

Marie looked at Mary and sighed.  “Men——they simply do not listen.”

“Even small ones,” Mary agreed, tweaking Little Joe’s toes.  “Please be still, baby,” she pleaded, “and let me put on this last shoe.”

“Don’t want shoes,” Little Joe whimpered, kicking his foot against her knee.  Keeping shoes on his feet, never an easy task, had become an unending battle with the arrival of warm weather.

Ben had allowed Adam to run barefoot as a toddler, sometimes of necessity when he didn’t have the price of a pair of shoes, but that had been back east.  Here, where rattlesnakes could crawl across a baby’s path with little warning, Ben insisted the boys wear shoes.  Besides, it was a point of pride with him that he could now afford to keep his children well-clothed and solidly shod, year round.  “Sit still,” he ordered, and seeing the look on his father’s face, Little Joe frowned, but quit wiggling.

The minor rebellion curbed, Ben turned to reason with his wife.  “Now, dearest,” he said slowly, “I know you’re a good enough cook to——”

Marie’s cheeks flamed.  “I am an excellent cook, as you should know.  I did not ask you to bring another into this house!”

Ben grimaced, hoping Hop Sing hadn’t heard her tirade.  In contests between his virulent Chinese cook and his fiery Creole wife, Ben felt there was no safe ground.  He laid a soothing hand on Marie’s slender neck.  “Your cuisine is beyond compare, dearest,” he murmured, treading softly, “so surely you realize that you can’t keep cookie dough fresh for six months.  It’ll draw maggots.”  Or worse, he added silently.

Mary giggled.  “That’s what I said, too, but Katerina says not.”

“It is a special process,” Marie declared, dipping her chin sharply, “and that is what we must learn today.”

“Well, it’s a new one on me,” Ben chuckled.  “I’ll be mighty interested in tasting the results——come Christmas.”

Marie smiled and gave his cheek a forgiving kiss.  Slipping an arm around her waist, Ben escorted her to the buckboard.  Mary followed, with Little Joe, both feet snugly laced into sturdy brown shoes, toddling beside her.  After helping both ladies mount the wagon, Ben lifted Little Joe up to Mary and handed the reins to Marie.  “Be sure to find out what time the celebration starts on the Fourth,” he said.  “We don’t want to be late.”  Abraham Curry was again planning festivities in Carson City for Independence Day, and the Cartwrights were planning to attend.

“I’ll remember,” Marie promised.

When she returned that afternoon, Ben, who had spent that day doing needed chores close to home, met the buckboard in the yard and helped both Marie and Mary down.  Mary immediately carried the sleeping baby up to his room, but Marie stayed outside to fulfill a commission given her by Nelly Thomas.  “Nelly hopes we will host a private celebration at Lake Tahoe instead of attending the one in town,” she told Ben.  “She says Billy is much too absorbed in this latest mining nonsense and wants to get him as far away from talk of gold as possible.”  Marie smiled persuasively into her husband’s face.  “I told her I was sure you would agree.  After all, our guests have not yet seen the lake.”

“Fine with me,” Ben chuckled, “if Billy will go along with it.”

“And why should he not?”

“He’s getting to be a pretty big boy to be ordered around by his mother,” Ben said.

“Ah, but will you say the same about your boys when they come to his age?” Marie teased.

Ben wagged a remonstrative finger beneath her nose.  “Only one close to his age is Adam, and I already give him a fair measure of freedom.”

“Well, but Adam is mature for his age,” Marie demurred.

“Don’t expect any argument from me when you’re praising my son!” Ben laughed and kissed her lips firmly.  “Now, I suppose you want those crocks of dough carried inside.”

S’il te plait, mon amour,” she said with a gracious smile.

* * * * *

Brilliant sunlight glinted off the surface of the azure lake the Fourth of July as a small vessel, painted a yellow almost as vivid as the sun, skimmed north toward Cave Rock.  In the bow Mark Wentworth, eyes closed against the glare, lay sprawled, basking in the warm rays splashing his face, sucking in the pungent pine as if it were the breath of life.  For Mary, he was sure it was.  His sister was with the other ladies, combing the hills for succulent strawberries.  Mrs. Cartwright had promised that if they found enough, she and Mary would make strawberry jam tomorrow and that Mary could take a share home to San Francisco.  Mary had babbled happily to her brother about what a wonderful Christmas they would have with both that jam and the lebkuchen.  How like Mary to be planning ahead for other people’s pleasure!

A chubby hand shook his shoulder.  “Hey, Mark, wake up!” Hoss insisted.  “You gotta see the Lady of the Lake.”

“I’m not asleep,” Mark said, obediently sitting up and shading his eyes to examine the landmark Hoss was so eager to show.  Mark wasn’t really interested, but he didn’t want to disappoint his young tour guide.  He smiled.  Maybe some of Mary’s kind ways were finally rubbing off on him.  He bet Sally would be proud, if she could see him now.

In the stern of the sailboat an animated conversation was being conducted, although debate or even quarrel might have been a more apt description.  “Why don’t you mind your own business?” Billy demanded hotly.

“My best friend is my business,” Adam snapped back, “especially when he’s making a fool of himself.”

“If I’m a fool, I got plenty of company,” Billy snorted.  “Lately, there’s more of us miners than you ranchers around here.”

That remark hurt, and Adam glowered with indignation.  He, along with Hoss and Mark, had been carrying a much heavier load than usual since the strike at Gold Hill, and he was just plain tired.  Too tired, he decided suddenly, to waste his one free day arguing with a hardhead like Billy.  “I just don’t want to see you turning out like my Uncle John and Cousin Will,” he said in a less irritated tone.

“Who says they’re doin’ bad?” Billy countered.

“Aw, you know how it was, Uncle John traipsing all over the world, leaving his wife and son to get by as best they could.”

“I ain’t got a wife,” Billy pointed out.  “If I did, sure, I might have to settle for a regular job, but I’m footloose and fancy free and aim to enjoy it while I can.”

Adam laughed.  “Billy, you’re incorrigible!”

Billy gave his friend a hard push that sent Adam to his back on the boat’s floor.  “Lay off the big words, smarty britches.”

Adam sat up, waving his hands to make peace.  “Okay, okay.  I’m just saying you’d probably make better wages coming to work with us, and we could sure use the help.  How much color are you finding on that claim of yours, anyway?”

“Some,” Billy muttered defensively.  “All right, I admit it ain’t much, but, at least, I don’t have tons of that blue stuff gumming up my sluices, like some of them others.”

Had the citizens of Nevada City, across the Sierras, been able to hear Billy’s boast, they would have laughed him to scorn.  Only three days before, the results of Augustus Harrison’s assay had been printed in the Nevada Journal.  The “blue stuff” the miners bemoaned turned out to be almost pure silver.  With the trace of gold contained in the sample Harrison had sent in, the assay estimated the ore’s value at $3,876 a ton.

A new wave of miners was already headed for western Utah.  As journalist J. Ross Browne would later report, the roads were jammed with a serpentine line of people of every description:  “Irishmen wheeling their worldly goods on wheelbarrows; Americans, Frenchmen, and Germans on foot leading horses heavily packed; Mexicans driving long trains of pack mules; dapper-looking gentlemen riding fancy horses; women dressed in men’s clothes mounted on mules or burros; organ grinders; drovers; cripples and humpbacks; and even sick men got up from their beds all stark mad for silver.”

Through the first two weeks of July the ranchers of Washoe remained in blissful ignorance of the flash flood roaring toward them.  As election day approached, Ben grew antsy.  He wanted to be named a delegate to the constitutional convention more than he cared to admit.  He’d been tied so close to home by the shortage of workers, however, that he hadn’t had much chance to let his feelings be known to any but close friends.  He was sure he could count on Clyde’s vote and Dr. Martin’s, but didn’t know how many others he might secure——or how many might actually get counted.  At last year’s election, the votes from four out of six precincts had been thrown out, due to alleged irregularities.

Ben arrived early in Carson City to cast his ballot, then spent the remainder of the day either sitting in the Thomas’s parlor, downing gallons of coffee, or roaming the streets, greeting friends and acquaintances as they arrived to vote.  “Fool notion,” he muttered back in the parlor as the time drew near when the polls would close.  “I’m no politician.”

“Point in your favor, I’d say,” Clyde chuckled.  “Quit frettin’, Ben.  Folks in these parts know a good man when they see one.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “They generally define ‘a good man’ as one who thinks like them, and I, my friend, have taken some pretty unpopular stands.”

Clyde folded his hands behind his neck and leaned against the sofa back.  “Don’t remind me,” he grinned.  “Might have to change my vote if you keep bringin’ up what a fool you been.”

Ben knew he was being teased, but he scowled anyway.  However lightly Clyde Thomas might take the election, it was serious to him.  When the polls officially closed, Ben, along with other hopeful candidates, paced the street outside Curry’s trading post, where the ballots were being tallied.  Finally, the door opened and Abraham Curry himself stepped out to announce the results.

A shout of approval met the name of the man chosen as the representative who would be sent to Washington, D. C., with the memorial to be drafted by the convention.  James Crane, formerly a journalist from California, was a popular choice.  Ben had voted for him and had been virtually certain Crane would be elected.  If only I felt that sure about myself, he moaned inwardly.

Involuntarily, he held his breath as the delegates’ names were read.  They were listed in alphabetical order, so Ben had a mercifully short wait.  As he heard his name read, his mouth dropped in amazement, but he quickly closed it, sensing the expression an inappropriate way to respond to such an honor.  Clyde clapped him on the back, and numerous others came to shake his hand.

When all the names had been announced, Curry shouted to get the crowd’s attention.  “Gentlemen——congratulations to all the fine men elected to represent us at the constitutional convention.  All delegates are directed to convene in Genoa on the eighteenth of this month.  Come prepared to stay several days.”

Ben’s stomach jumped into his throat.  The eighteenth!  Only four days away, and a million things to tend to, especially if he were to be gone several days.  He pressed his bay back toward the Ponderosa to share his good news and elicit the support he’d need to make his dream of serving the community a reality.

* * * * *

Though Ben rose in darkness, the entire family, except Little Joe, was assembled in the front room when he brought his carpetbag downstairs.  He had given the sleeping toddler’s forehead a kiss before descending and now gave Marie and both his older sons a farewell embrace.

“You are not leaving yet,” Marie laughed gently.  “You will not neglect your breakfast and leave me to deal with Hop Sing, monsieur.”

Ben chuckled.  “No, I couldn’t do anything that cruel.  Goodness knows, I feel bad enough about leaving at all, things being the way they are.”  In the four days since the election, the first wave of newcomers had poured over the Sierras in search of silver, and most of the hands who hadn’t deserted before were now staking claims on the Comstock Lode.

“Don’t give it a thought, Pa,” Adam urged.  “We’ll manage just fine, and what you’re doing is important.”

Mais oui,” Marie agreed, her face radiant with pride.

“We’ll take good care of them cattle, Pa,” Hoss promised.

“That’s right,” Mark added.  “You can trust us, sir.”

Ben gazed gratefully at each reassuring face.  “I know I can, and I thank you all for making this possible for me.”

“Bleakfast leady,” Hop Sing called insistently from the dining room.  “You eat now!”

“Yes, sir!” Ben replied, spinning on his heels and popping a snappy salute at the cook.

Many times during the days that followed, Ben found himself remembering that final morning at home and drawing sustenance from the support so freely given.  There were moments during the convention when he doubted that he was making any contribution worth leaving the burden of his ranch to such young men.  Adam and Hoss still seemed little more than children playing at man’s work, and while Mark was, of course, older, he was far less experienced with livestock.  Enos Montgomery had promised to send word if problems arose, but to Ben, who’d first known him as a young fellow along the trail, even the foreman seemed barely more than a boy, despite his being past thirty.

The opening days of the convention were frustrating.  At first, the delegates could not even agree on why they were there.  Most felt their purpose was to frame a constitution for a provisional government, but a vocal minority believed they were only there to provide a foundation for a later constitutional convention.

Ben was amused to find himself siding with the majority after so often being the lone voice in opposition to some widely held position.  He favored appealing to Congress for separation from the Territory of Utah on the basis of need, asking the legislators to overlook the small population of their area.  Others pointed out that their population was booming, with more people pouring in from California every day in response to the new silver strike.  Ben, personally, didn’t consider that a stable population base, but hoped Congress would think otherwise.

As the discussion turned to grievances against the present territorial government, Ben began to think Clyde Thomas should have been a delegate in his place.  He, at least, would have enjoyed the virulent attacks upon the Mormons.  Ben thought a number of the charges unfair and said so.  While he agreed that the Mormons themselves adhered too slavishly to the views of Brigham Young, to say that they exercised absolute spiritual despotism over the western parts of Utah was, Ben felt, going too far.

“Furthermore,” he declared, “I find no basis for accusing the Mormons of inciting the Indians to attack gentiles.  We’ve had no Indian trouble here, and while the Mountain Meadows Massacre was a tragedy that can be laid at the Mormons’ doorstep, it was a single, unrepeated incident.”

“What about Lassen’s murder?” a delegate from Susanville demanded.

Ben shook his head.  “The official investigation concluded that was a revenge killing, and there’s no proof otherwise.  We cannot base our memorial to Congress on supposition, gentlemen.  It must stand solidly on truth.”  He took a breath and continued.  “I believe, as you do, that this region must separate from the Territory of Utah——not because of unproven allegations, but because geographic distance produces governmental failure.  To provide genuine justice for the eastern Sierra, we must have our own territory.”  A shout of approval met his last sentence.

* * * * *

Hearing Hop Sing’s irate ranting amid the clatter and clash of pans, Mary Wentworth rose at once from her seat at the breakfast table.  Marie lifted a restraining hand as she stood herself.  “No, Mary, please finish your breakfast.  I will tend to Hop Sing.”

Marie whisked toward the kitchen, her own temper surging to the surface.  Whatever problems the Chinese cook thought he was having, he had no more right than any of the rest of them to take it out on innocent pots and pans, and the lady of the house was determined to make that point crystal clear.

In the week since Ben had left for Genoa, everyone’s temper was set on short fuse.  The boys’ edginess was understandable.  In order to make up for the shortage of workers, they’d been starting their work day at the first crack of dawn and ending it only when they could no longer see what they were doing.  Mary had wanted to rise even earlier, to help Hop Sing prepare breakfast before the sun rose, but Marie had firmly insisted the girl remain in bed as long as the rest of them.  Mary’s health seemed renewed by the dry climate and crisp air, and Marie thought it unwise to jeopardize the progress the girl had made by overextending herself.  Mark agreed, and Mary submitted meekly.  Though she wanted to help, she couldn’t argue against them both.

Upstairs, Little Joe awoke to a black sky.  Of them all, he was having the most trouble dealing with Ben’s absence.  For him, it wasn’t just Ben who’d left in the dark of night, never to return, but Adam, Hoss and Mark, as well.  Since the older boys left before he woke and didn’t arrive home until after he went to bed, Little Joe had seen nothing of them for a week, either.  Mama and Mary paid him extra attention, but even they were growing weary of repeating explanations the toddler simply couldn’t comprehend and thoroughly exasperated with his insistent question of when Pa was coming home.

Connecting the darkness with the disappearances, Little Joe felt certain he could discover where everyone had gone, if he went looking before the sun came up.  So, although he was usually content to stay in his crib and cry until someone answered his summons, on that Monday morning he flung his short leg over the wooden rail and clambered down.

He pattered into his parents’ adjoining bedroom, ready to spring onto the bed and nab Pa before he had a chance to get away, but Pa wasn’t there.  Little Joe frowned with frustration, then his emerald eyes flew wide with fear.  Mama wasn’t there, either!  What if she, too, had disappeared into the night and left him all alone?  Little Joe charged pell-mell down the hall.

Heedless by nature, and more so in his panic, the toddler  plunged——literally——down the stairs.  His bare foot slipped on the well-polished first step, and he tumbled, head over heels, to the landing several feet below.

Marie was still in the kitchen, castigating an equally vociferous Hop Sing, but everyone remaining in the dining room jumped up at the sound of the little body bumping against each step in its descent.  Nimble Adam reached the stairs first, just as Little Joe hit bottom with a loud thud.  He leaped the four steps to the landing and snatched the baby up.  “You okay?” Adam asked anxiously.

Little Joe said nothing, didn’t, in fact, even seemed to be breathing.  His little legs kicked furiously, but no sound escaped.  Just as Adam began to be really frightened, the toddler finally caught his breath and began to wail.

Laughing in relief, Adam pulled him to his chest.  “There, there, you’re okay,” he soothed.

Though Marie hadn’t heard the tumble down the stairs, she was, as always, alert to the sound of her child’s cry.  Rushing into the front room, she snatched Little Joe from Adam.  “What have you done to him?” she demanded hotly, still smarting from her unfinished quarrel with Hop Sing.

“What have I done to him?” Adam sputtered.  “Picked him up off the floor, that’s what I’ve done to him!”  He stalked to the front door, jerked it open and turned back toward Marie.  “You’ve sure got a long memory, lady!”  He stormed out, slamming the door so hard the grandfather clock beside it gave an extra chime.

“Little Joe fell down the stairs, Mrs. Cartwright,” Mary explained, her gentle eyes pained by the exchange of harsh words.  “Truly, Adam did nothing but try to help.”

Marie blanched.  My temper, my horrible temper, she thought.  When shall I ever master it?  She tried to soothe her wailing baby, but Little Joe screamed on, whether from fear, pain or just the absorbed tension of those around him, no one could have said.  Deciding she couldn’t let Adam leave with such ugliness between them, Marie hastily deposited her baby with Mary, whose soft lullaby eventually quieted the child.

“Adam,” Marie called as she entered the barn.  “Adam, I must speak with you.”

“More accusations?” Adam snapped, flinging a striped saddle blanket onto his sorrel mare.

Marie flushed, but, reminding herself that she was the one in the wrong, she spoke softly.  “No, Adam, an apology.  I should have known you would do nothing to harm your little brother.”

“Ought to by now,” Adam muttered, still offended.  “Even at my worst, I wouldn’t have done that.  I know you used to think I would, but it was never true.”

“Because you disliked me so much.”  Marie closed her eyes to shut out the painful memories.  “That is what you meant by my long memory.  Oh, Adam, I thought we were past those terrible days.”

“I thought so, too,” Adam mumbled.

Her fingertips touched his arm.  “Can we not lay aside ill feelings and begin again, mon ami?  Truly, I know what a fine young man you are; I would trust you with my life.”

“But not with your baby,” Adam accused.  The wound, though less sharp, still smarted.

Marie sighed.  “It is a great fault with me, I know.  You cannot imagine what he means to me, after so many hard things in my life.”

Adam didn’t know everything about Marie’s background; in fact, he was sure there were things so awful Pa had deliberately kept them from him and Hoss.  He remembered enough, suddenly, to wash away his anger in compassion.  He’d faced hard circumstances in his life, too, and, after all, Marie’s clinging to Little Joe was no different than his clinging to his memory of Inger when another woman appeared to take her place.  “You——uh——should get back to the little fellow,” Adam said softly.  “He probably needs you.”

“Please come back and finish your breakfast,” Marie pleaded.

“No, I’ve had plenty,” Adam assured her.  “Honest, I’m not mad; I’m just full.  Tell Mark and Hoss I’ll meet them in the north pasture.”  To seal their renewed friendship, he brushed her cheek with a light kiss, then led his horse into the yard.

Smiling, Marie returned to the house.  Mark and Hoss were back at the table, polishing off the last of the flapjacks.  “Where is Little Joe——and Mary?” Marie asked.

“She was afraid he’d take a chill in just that little nightshirt,” Mark explained.  “She took him upstairs to dress him.”

“Without finishing her own meal,” Marie scolded.  “I will send her down at once.  I can dress my own baby.”

Before she reached the stairway, however, a piercing scream echoed down the hall.  Marie ran up the stairs and into the nursery.  “Mon petit,” she cried, gathering the weeping boy into her arms.  “What is wrong?”

“I don’t know,” Mary replied, looking worried.  “I had him settled down nicely, but when I tried to put on his dress, he screamed.  I think I hurt him.”

Whispering words of endearment, Marie took the tiny dress and guided Little Joe’s arm toward the sleeve.  Again, the child screamed.       “That’s just what happened with me,” Mary said.  “What can be hurting him?”

“Is your brother still here?” Marie asked quickly.

“I’ll see,” Mary replied at once and immediately hurried out of the nursery.  “Mark,” she called from the stair landing, “Mrs. Cartwright wants you.”

Mark wiped his lips with the checked napkin and came toward his sister with long strides.  He followed her down the hall, with Hoss at his heels.  Although he hadn’t been summoned, the younger boy wasn’t about to be left behind.

“Oh, Mark, I’m glad you have not left yet,” Marie said.  “I think Little Joe has hurt himself in his fall.  Would you ride to Carson City and ask Dr. Martin to come, s’il vous plait?”

“Sure, ma’am, be glad to,” Mark said.

“Yeah, I’ll go, too,” Hoss offered.

“No, mon chéri, you must go to your brother,” Marie directed.  “If no one meets him, he will worry and come looking.”

Hoss didn’t see that as much of a problem.  So what if Adam took a day off.  He was probably ready for one.  Hoss sure was!  And nobody was getting one, except Mark.  It didn’t seem fair, but Hoss had a feeling he’d get nowhere arguing about it.  He did as he was told.

Mark was glad of the opportunity for a trip to Carson City, especially one that took him in close proximity to Miss Sally Martin.  He was sorry Little Joe was hurt, of course, but it was hard not to enjoy the prospect before him.  Though he had intended to buzz around the doctor’s fragrant flower for a while after delivering his message, Mark found himself riding back to the Ponderosa at the doctor’s side.  Something about Dr. Martin’s quick response, maybe, triggered the boy’s concern, or perhaps his curiosity.  He wanted to see Sally’s father at work.

When the doctor arrived, Marie was sitting in the rocker in the nursery holding her child.  Little Joe had cried for an hour, first because he was hurt and, then, because his cruel-hearted mother wouldn’t let him down to play.  He’d finally cried himself to sleep, but he woke when Dr. Martin lifted him from his mother’s arms and back into his crib.

Marie and Mary stood back, while Mark peeked through the door, as the doctor tenderly examined the baby.  When his right arm was moved, Little Joe yelped, though not so loudly as before.  “I’m sorry, baby,” Dr. Martin murmured, “but I have to see where you’re hurt.”  He probed gently around the toddler’s neck, then raised up, giving Little Joe’s head a soft pat.  “It’s his collarbone,” he told Marie.

Marie’s hand flew to her mouth to stifle a shriek.  “He’s broken his neck?” she whispered.

Dr. Martin’s rested consoling hands on her shoulders.  “No, no,” he soothed.  “It’s not that serious.  It’s what we call a green twig break, Marie.  The bones of a child this young are still flexible.  They bend, rather than break.  It’ll hurt for a few days, but, I assure you, it’s not serious.”

Marie sighed with relief.  “Will you give him something for the pain, doctor?” she asked.

Dr. Martin shook his head.  “I don’t think he needs it.  It’s movement that brings the pain, so what we’ll do is immobilize the arm.  A large napkin should do the trick.”

“I’ll get one,” Mary offered.

When she returned, the doctor folded Little Joe’s tiny arm close to his chest and pinned the red-checked napkin around his neck.  Then he lifted the little boy and sat in the rocker with him.  In words the toddler could understand, he explained the purpose of the sling.  “Don’t try to take your arm out, Little Joe,” he concluded.  “It will hurt if you do.  Okay?”

“Okay,” Little Joe promised solemnly.

Dr. Martin smiled.  “That’s probably good for the rest of the day,” he told Marie, “but you’d better watch him.  I predict by tomorrow he’ll have forgotten both the pain and my instructions.”

From the doorway, Mark looked on, fascinated.  Dr. Martin had a real way with kids.  He couldn’t help admiring the man, even wishing he could do something as useful with his own life.

Over the next couple of days, the family seemed to recover their good spirits as they rallied to support Little Joe.  Since they’d managed to get all the cattle moved to the upper pastures, where the grass wasn’t over-grazed as it was beginning to be in the valley, the boys shortened their working hours.  They all wanted to be home early enough to see how Little Joe was getting along.

Hoss stayed with his little brother both Tuesday and Wednesday.  Marie declared that job as essential as herding cattle, for, as Dr. Martin had predicted, Little Joe soon wearied of having his arm in a sling and repeatedly tried to remove it.  Having Hoss to play with helped keep him content, and Hoss felt content, too, to take a rest from man’s work and be a boy again.

Near suppertime on Wednesday, July twenty-seventh, Ben finally arrived home after nine days of labor he considered harder than ranch chores.  He was glad he’d accepted the responsibility and proud of the memorial the convention had drafted petitioning Congress for redress of their governmental woes.  He’d had his fill of politics, though, at least for the time being.  What he wanted most was to embrace his family and have a quiet, relaxing smoke on his pipe.

Adam and Mark weren’t home when he arrived, but Hoss immediately engulfed his father in a bear hug, while Marie rose from her mending to welcome her husband home.  With one arm, Little Joe pushed himself up from the rug in front of the fire and toddled happily toward Ben.  “Pa!” he cried, his face rapturous.

Ben started to kiss his wife, but turned to smile at the baby first.  Seeing the checkered napkin confining his son’s arm, he lifted the boy gingerly.  “What happened to you, precious?”

“He fell down the stairs,” Hoss reported, “but he’s okay.”

Ben looked reproachfully at his wife.  “Why didn’t you send for me?”

“There was no need,” Marie said.  “Dr. Martin says he only needs to keep his arm still a few days.  We did not want to take you from your important work.”

“Where you been, Pa?” Little Joe demanded.

“Genoa, baby,” Ben said, sitting in his mauve armchair with the boy in his lap.  “Did you miss Pa?”

“Yes, and those bad stairs hurt me!”

“I know,” Ben sympathized.  “I guess Pa will have to give those stairs a very necessary little talk.”

Little Joe’s head bobbed emphatically.  “‘Pank ‘em good, Pa!”

Ben threw his head back and laughed, then cuddled his baby.  “Well, they sure deserve a good ‘panking, hurting Pa’s precious like they did.”

“How was the convention?” Marie asked as she settled in the blue armchair across from him.  “Did all go as you wished?”

Ben shrugged.  “There’s some statements in the memorial I don’t agree with, but it makes a strong case for our own territory.  That’s what matters.  We did our best; the rest is up to Congress.”

Marie smiled proudly, certain Ben’s best would be more than ample to move the stoniest heart among the nation’s legislators.

* * * * *

Hoss’s birthday fell on the final Saturday of July and was celebrated almost exactly as it had been the previous year.  The same group of friends, with the addition of the Wentworths and newly married Montgomerys, met at Washoe Lake for another afternoon of picnicking and swimming.  This year Hoss didn’t have to be coaxed into the water.  He splashed and cavorted with the rest of the youngsters, not quite as if he’d been born to it, but with far more confidence than before.  Even Little Joe, at last released from his confining sling, dog-paddled happily with the older children, Mary hovering over him like a clucking hen with her chick.

Leaving the younger men to watch over the children, Ben lay sprawled on a blanket near the shore, perusing with avid interest the latest Territorial Enterprise, which Clyde had brought to the picnic.  The entire issue had been devoted to the convention at Genoa, and Ben was pleasantly surprised to find himself lauded as an oratorically gifted moderate in favor of separation from Utah.

“Look at him soppin’ up the sugar sauce about hisself,” Clyde cackled from a nearby blanket, where he, too, was resting after the huge meal.

Ben flushed crimson, knowing the charge was true.  He was enjoying the flattering words of the paper’s editor.  But, then, who wouldn’t?

“You’re just jealous.”  Dr. Martin, lying next to Ben, yawned and turned to sun his other side.

“No such thing,” Clyde contradicted.  “Me, I got no taste for politics, but Ben here has got his appetite whetted for it.  Next thing you know, he’ll be runnin’ for governor of the territory.”

“Not ‘til they move the capital from Salt Lake City,” Ben chuckled.  He turned his back on Clyde, fearing his thoughts might be as easily read as the newsprint of the Territorial Enterprise.  Governor Cartwright.  It had a nice ring to it.  Ben had little expectation of rising that high in government, but now that he’d had a few days to recuperate from his first plunge into politics, he was looking back on the experience as one he wouldn’t mind repeating.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

A Wedding, a Proposal and a Promise

            The slow, sultry days of August weren’t so slow this year.  Normally, August was a time to relax from the rigorous work of the summer.  Crops laid by, little to do but let the cattle graze and grow fat, maybe escort a calf or two into the world.  This year, due to the shortage of hands and Ben’s prolonged political absence, the ranch was running behind schedule, so August was a time to catch up on work that couldn’t be done before.

Ben had assumed the latest mining craze would subside by now and some of his hands drift back to more regular employment.  It wasn’t happening, however.  Instead, Californians continued to pour over the Sierras into the new camp, now called Ophir.  A four-stamp mill had even been set up on the Carson River to process the ore with equipment hauled by oxen from Sacramento, a sure sign the strike was expected to last.  The lure of silver was keeping the mining excitement alive, though few were making much money.  Old Pancake Comstock seemed to have done the best so far, having just sold his share in the claim he had finagled from McLaughlin and O’Riley for $11,000.  Billy Thomas might arguably be considered to have fared the worst, his miniscule pocket of gold having so little “blue stuff” mixed in that its value was virtually nil.

As in most new mining camps, it was the business people who made the greatest profits.  Eilley Orrum, for instance, was making enormous profits, serving meals and washing laundry for the miners, but she had also become a mine owner herself.  Espousing great faith in the Comstock Lode, she gladly accepted abandoned claims as payment for unpaid bills.  One of those claims adjoined that of Sandy Bowers, a dowry neither seemed able to resist.

Knowing of the geographic motivation, Ben scoffed the day he received the hand-written invitation to Sandy and Eilley’s wedding.  “Of all the stupid reasons to tie the knot,” he muttered, “merging claims has got to take the cake.”

“But, Ben, perhaps they are truly in love,” Marie argued.

Ben shook his head, laughing.  “My love, only a romantic like you would believe that.  Eilley wanted a man, any man.  The fact that they can combine their claims and have twenty feet of mining property only adds to Bowers’ allure.”

“I disagree,” Marie said, lifting her chin to proclaim her feminine superiority in affairs of the heart.  “Monsieur Bowers has many fine qualities.  He is, perhaps, a bit shy for Madame Cowan——”

“Not to mention a bit young,” Ben inserted slyly.  Sandy Bowers was fourteen years younger than Eilley Orrum.

Marie tilted her head coyly.  “For you to bring up a difference of age is trés drôle, mon mari.”

Ben had the good grace to blush and acknowledge himself outflanked.  “Can’t imagine why they invited us, anyway,” he grunted.  “We’re neighbors, of course, but not that close.”

“Ah, but you are a man of importance now,” Marie smiled.  “Certainement, they would want an esteemed delegate to the constitutional convention to attend their nuptials.”  As she breezed into the kitchen to check on how soon supper would be served, Ben sat puffing his pipe and trying to decide if she had been serious or teasing.

A close perusal of the other guests crowding Old Nick’s Bar the day of the wedding shed no light on the reason for their invitation.  Ben spotted a few other delegates from the convention, which seemed to suggest a desire to associate with the leaders of the community, certainly not all neighbors like the Cartwrights.  Maybe they were friends of Sandy’s, though, Ben conceded.  The hearty young man who had first come west as a teamster for John Reese was universally, usually instantaneously, liked.  It was conceivable he counted among his friends people Eilley——or Ben himself for that matter—–didn’t even know.

After the brief ceremony the party adjourned to the adjoining boardinghouse for refreshments, which consisted primarily of Eilley’s famous batter biscuits and beans.  So much for social pretensions, Ben chuckled to himself, but with so many to feed, the simple fare was probably the most practical, especially since flour was now selling in Genoa for only twenty cents a pound, a sure indication their community was no longer considered a frontier settlement.  The miners, some invited, some not, squeezed in for the free meal, then carried their tin plates outside to perch on nearby rocks or squat on the ground when all available seating was taken.  As a fiddler grated out melodies on an ancient violin, those who had finished eating began to dance.

Darkness had already fallen when Ben gathered his family for the ride home.  “Do we have to go now?” Adam complained.  “There’s gonna be a shivaree, Pa.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Do you consider that a proper way to fete newlyweds, young man?”

Adam grinned.  “Sure do.  Mark does, too.”

Ben’s eyebrow arched higher, but his chin quivered with unreleased laughter.  “Let Mark speak for himself, Adam.”

“I’d like to stay,” Mark admitted.  “I’ve never been to a shivaree.”

“Me, either,” Adam pressed.

“No doubt an essential element of a gentleman’s education,” Ben commented dryly, then laughed.  “All right, you can stay.  Just remember we have a full day’s work ahead tomorrow, so try to get some sleep tonight.”

Adam nodded.  “We will.”  He fixed his eyes on a pebble near the toe of his boot.  “I——uh——don’t suppose you’d let me borrow your pistol.”  Though Ben hadn’t worn his sidearm to the wedding, it was in the wagon in case of trouble along the road, a precaution Ben considered reasonable with so many strangers in the territory.

“You suppose correctly,” Ben stated, eyes growing stern.

“Just for noise-making,” Adam argued.  “I don’t plan to shoot anyone, Pa.”

“Fine.  This way there won’t be any unplanned shootings, either,” Ben said sharply.  “You need a pistol about as much as you needed that tour of the Barbary Coast with Sterling Larrimore.”

Adam’s face, flushing furiously, jerked up.  “Pa, it’s not fair to bring that up when you said it was over and done.”

Ben’s countenance softened.  “Yeah, you’re right.  I apologize, and I promise I won’t hold it over your head again.”  Then he grinned.  “But you’re still not getting the pistol.”

Adam sighed and gave the pebble at his foot an irritated kick.  “How are we supposed to make noise for the shivaree?”

Ben gave his son’s backside a playful swat.  “You’re young; making noise comes natural.”  He tossed Mark a wink and turned to help Marie and Mary into the buckboard.  “Have fun,” he called over his shoulder as he drove away.

“Honestly, you’d think I was a little kid,” Adam grumbled.  “My cousin Will’s only a year older than I am, and he carries a handgun all the time.  Haven’t I been pulling a man’s share around the ranch?”

“Sure have,” Mark conceded, “but your pa’s right about the gun.  You don’t need it, Adam.”

“You’re a fine one to be giving advice about listening to fathers,” Adam snuffled, then winced.  “Sorry, that was a lousy thing to say.”

“Yeah, it was,” Mark muttered, “even if it is true.  What was that about a tour of the Barbary Coast?  Never figured you for the type to get in that kind of trouble.”

Adam scowled.  “I had help.  Listen, I don’t mind telling you, but now’s not the time.  We got to figure some way to raise a racket.”

Mark snatched up a tin plate some miner had left on the ground while he danced.  “I’m gonna find another plate to hit against this one.”

Adam frowned.  Banging two plates together was the kind of noise Little Joe might relish, but Adam wasn’t a baby.  Compared to the crack of a pistol, he didn’t think it would be loud enough to satisfy him.  By the time the miners descended on the recently bedded bride and groom, however, he hadn’t come up with anything else, so he and Mark stood side by side, clanging plates and yelling at the top of their lungs.  Miners added to the cacophony with the clamor of drills striking pans and firearms exploding skyward.  The newlyweds took it all in good grace and were finally allowed to enjoy their marriage night alone.

As they rode back to the Ponderosa, Mark again brought up the subject of Adam’s excursion to the Barbary Coast.  When Adam had freely confessed what happened, Mark shook his head in disgust.  “That Sterling!  That’s who talked me into my first trip to the Barbary Coast, too, but I didn’t think even he would take a kid like you to Chinatown.”

Adam didn’t appreciate being called a kid, but chose to overlook it in his curiosity about another point.  “He ever take you there?”

Mark flushed.  “Yeah, just once; about the same thing happened as with you.  I went out drinking with him a lot, but I couldn’t stomach the other.”

“Then, you didn’t——”

Mark shook his head.  “No, heard too many of my father’s sermons, I guess, or seen too many sailors scraping themselves raw after visiting those girls.  Sterling used to laugh and call me ‘preacher boy,’ just to rile me, but I’m glad now I didn’t give in.  I could never hope to win a decent girl like Sally if I’d done what he pushed me to.”

Adam nodded.  He felt the same way.  “You’re serious about Sally, aren’t you?”

Mark smiled dreamily.  “Yeah, and I think she likes me, too.”

“I guarantee it!” Adam laughed.  “She moons over you.”

“You don’t mind?  You said once you weren’t sure how you felt about her.”

Adam looked thoughtful for a moment.  “I couldn’t have very deep feelings for Sally ‘cause it doesn’t bother me at all to see you with her.  No, you’ve got a clear road where I’m concerned.”

“Hope I’ve got one with her father, too,” Mark murmured.  “I’m gonna ask for her hand before I head back to California.”

“Good luck,” Adam laughed.  “She’s the apple of his eye.”

Mark moaned softly, suddenly wishing he were on better terms with the Almighty.  He had a feeling approaching Sally’s father was a subject for heart-felt, long-winded prayer.

* * * * *

At breakfast a few days after the Bowers’ wedding, Ben was apportioning out the day’s assignments when Marie interrupted.  “You must spare Adam today,” she said.  “Laura is coming to measure him for his new clothes.”

“I don’t need new clothes,” Adam said quickly.

Mais oui, you do,” Marie insisted.  “You have grown much this last year, Adam, and there is little time left before you return to school.”

Adam laid his fork aside and placed both hands, palms down, on the table.  “I’m not going to school,” he stated, dark eyes determined.

“Yes, you are,” Ben, who was sure he knew the reason behind Adam’s decision, said quietly.

“Pa, you know I can’t,” Adam argued.  “Mark and Mary will be going home soon, and if I leave, too, what help will you have?”

“Me,” Hoss asserted loudly.  “I’m a good hand, ain’t I, Pa?”

“One of my best,” Ben smiled with pride.

“My point, exactly,” Adam said bluntly.  “If Hoss is the best you’ve got——”

“Hey!” Hoss hollered.

“Nothing against you, Hoss,” Adam explained quickly, “but you’re just”——he started to say “a kid,” then finished, instead——“one person.  Pa needs more help than just you.”

“And I’ll have more,” Ben said.  “Tuquah will be coming back to work soon.”

Adam hooted.  “Yeah, and stick with you ‘til piñon harvest.”

“True,” Ben admitted, “but I’ll manage, Adam.  You are not curtailing your education, young man, even if the whole world goes raving mad for silver.”

“Pa,” Adam protested.

“No argument,” Ben said firmly as he rose from his chair.  “You will stay home today for your fitting, and you will begin packing for Sacramento as soon as your things are ready.  That’s an order, Adam.”

Mark followed Ben outside.  “I’m sorry to leave you short-handed, Mr. Cartwright,” he said.  “I’d be glad to stay on longer, but I have to take Mary back before the first storms.”

“Of course, you do,” Ben replied at once.  “She mustn’t risk being caught here for the winter.  I think it best you return with Adam, as we originally planned.  I don’t want your father to be concerned.”

“Nor do I,” Mark said, surprised that he cared about the man he’d felt only bitterness toward when they parted last spring.  “You’re sure you’ll be all right.”

Ben wasn’t sure at all.  He could probably get by with the help of Tuquah and a few other Washos, and if the mining fever died down, there’d be others to choose from, but neither was a reliable source of help.  Ben decided to lie.  “I’m sure,” he said.

* * * * *

While the younger men worked with the cattle, Ben had assigned himself the task of inspecting the grass of Washoe Valley.  Ordinarily, he waited until September to move his herd back to the lower pastures.  By then the grass had had two months to grow back after the haying season and was ready to support cattle again.  He’d hoped the grass might be tall enough to move them earlier this year so Mark and Adam could help with the roundup.  The grass wasn’t ready, though, so the cattle would have to wait, and Ben would have to find someone else to drive them down from the hills.

Though the forage was inadequate, Ben could see a few cattle grazing close to the lake.  Coming toward him from that direction was a young man on a chestnut gelding.  “Hey, Mr. Cartwright!” the fellow called when he drew near.  “Mr. Fowler recognized your bay.  He’d like you to ride over to the lake.  Got a problem he needs your help with.”

“Sure,” Ben said, turning his horse to the east.  “Anything serious?”

“Yeah, dead serious,” Fowler’s wrangler muttered.  “Think we may have some rustlers cornered.”

Ben’s brow furrowed.  Rustling was a serious crime to cattlemen like himself and Fowler, the kind that couldn’t be ignored.  As he galloped toward Washoe Lake, however, Ben found himself hoping Fowler was mistaken or, if not, that the evidence against the men was irrefutable.  Law and order still resided in the hands of vigilantes in Carson County, and if the men were found guilty, they were likely to pay a painful penalty.  Ben didn’t relish the thought of another futile fight to protect the rights of men he believed innocent.  It would just be Lucky Bill all over again.

Ben reined in close to the neighboring rancher.  “You think you’ve caught some rustlers, Fowler?” he asked.

“Yeah, I get suspicious when anybody offers me a yoke of oxen for what these fellows were asking,” Fowler grunted, and when he quoted the price, Ben gasped.  No genuine cattleman would price his stock at the ridiculously low figure Fowler named.  The two buckskin-clad men tied to a tree beside the lake didn’t look naive enough to be greenhorns from the east, and once ignorance was ruled out, the logical conclusion was that the oxen were indeed stolen and the thieves wanted to convert them to cash quickly.

“You have any proof?” Ben queried.

Fowler shook his head.  “Just suspicious, like I said.  Wondered if you’d lost any cattle.”

“No,” Ben replied quickly.  “I don’t keep oxen anymore, just beef cattle, and we’re not missing any.”

“Well, I sent riders out to most of the ranchers in the county,” Fowler went on.  “I think we ought to hold these men ‘til we hear if anyone’s missing a span of oxen.”

Ben nodded soberly.  “Let’s get solid proof, though, before we do anything more.”

“Never intended otherwise,” Fowler muttered.  “Don’t aim to take part in no lynching, even if they’re guilty, like I think.  There’s better ways.”

Ben didn’t know whether to feel relieved or not.  He was glad to have at least one man’s support against a hanging, but Fowler’s dark countenance made Ben wonder what “better ways” the rancher had in mind.

One by one other ranchers drifted in.  Some had simply sent word by Fowler’s messengers that they had no cattle missing, but most were concerned enough about the threat of rustlers in the territory to come themselves to evaluate the situation.  Ben began to breathe easier as each man reported no losses from his ranch.

Finally, a rancher from McMarlin’s Station rode in.  “They’re my oxen,” the man declared, black eyes snapping.

“You sure, Campbell?” Fowler asked.

“I’m sure,” Campbell snarled.  “Look at the way the ears are notched.  Any of my neighbors can tell you that’s my mark.”

“That’s right,” another rancher from near McMarlin’s Station vouched when he had examined the notches.  “Seen Campbell’s mark many times.  These oxen are his, beyond any doubt.”

Ben’s stomach knotted.  With the legal authority in Salt Lake City four hundred miles away, none of the ranchers would consider delaying justice.  There wasn’t even a place in the county where suspected criminals could be held while awaiting trial.  The trial would take place immediately, under the scant shade of the big pine on the west side of WashoeLake.  And from the evidence already presented informally, Ben was certain the verdict would be guilty.

Sick at heart, he walked away, hating himself for his reluctance to intervene.  He refused to take part in vigilante justice, but couldn’t bring himself to oppose it, either.  Not this time.  Not for guilty men.  But while he wouldn’t be a participant, he couldn’t leave without knowing the men’s fate, however impotent he might be to change it.

The jury was chosen quickly, the evidence presented and the decision rendered with even greater dispatch.  Determining the sentence took longer.  Some ranchers favored stringing the two defendants, Ruspas and Reise, to the big pine.  Others seemed reluctant to countenance another hanging, dreading the kind of division that had split the territory after the hanging of Lucky Bill.  One man suggested flogging the two culprits, another branding their cheeks with the letter T to designate them thieves to all they came in contact with.  Then an even more severe penalty was suggested by the Washoe rancher whose suspicions had been originally aroused.  “Where I come from, the standard punishment for rustling is removal of the left ear,” Fowler decreed.  “Gives a man reason to think twice before he steals again.”

A wave of nausea swept over Ben.  “That’s barbaric!” he shouted, striding forward.

“You haven’t shown any interest in my problem before, Cartwright,” Campbell snapped.  “Why mix in now?”

“Better keep out, Cartwright, unless you want more of what happened the last time,” a rancher who had been present at the hanging of Lucky Bill threatened.

Ben took a deep breath.  “Look, I know I’m only one man.  I can’t prevent your doing whatever you decide, and I won’t be foolish enough to try.  But I’m begging you not to do something that may bring reproach on our territory for decades to come.  Campbell has his oxen back, so why not just banish these men?”

“Yeah, into the desert without a canteen,” another rancher, Jim Sturtevant, suggested.

“That’s a death sentence, and a more cruel one than hanging,” Fowler interrupted sharply.  “I say we banish this scum from our territory, sure, but give ‘em something to remember us by, something to remind them that CarsonCounty don’t tolerate rustling.  Taking an ear’s a lot less barbaric, to use Cartwright’s word, than taking a life.  Gives a man a chance to mend his ways if he’s so inclined.”

From the murmurs of agreement, Ben knew the decision had been made, so he wasn’t surprised when the jury, after briefly conferring, ordered the removal of the left ear of each convicted rustler.  He started to stalk away, to distance himself from the gruesome business.  Then he halted.  Undoubtedly, the men would require medical assistance once the sentence was carried out.  If he couldn’t prevent the mutilation, perhaps he should, at least, remain long enough to see that the rustlers’ wounds were properly tended.

Sturtevant, the chosen executioner, seemed almost gleeful as he sharpened the straight, double-edged blade of his “Arkansas toothpick” on a rock.  Looking visibly pale, the older rustler was led forward.  Sturtevant pulled back the brown hair that barely covered Reise’s left ear and with a quick downward slice, severed it from his head.  Reise groaned and clutched the bleeding surface.

Kneeling beside the older rustler, trying to stanch the flow of blood, Ben couldn’t understand the grin on Ruspas’s face as he was led forward for removal of his ear.  When Sturtevant jerked back the greasy, shoulder-length, black hair, however, Ben and everyone else could see that Ruspas had no left ear to remove.  Obviously, this was not his first unsuccessful attempt as a cattle thief, and the rustler was hardened enough to laugh at frustrating the jury’s decree.

The humor of the situation struck the jury, too, and everyone, even Ben, laughed when they realized there was no way to carry out the sentence.  The jury quickly reconvened, though, and changed the penalty to removal of the right ear, a decision which effectively wiped the smug smile from Ruspas’s face.

Sturtevant again stepped forward, grasping the walnut handle of his sharply pointed blade, and swiftly severed the right ear of the now sober Ruspas.  Tossing the ear to the jury, Sturtevant laughed.  “Now, you’ve got both rights and lefts, and the ears are properly mated.”

“So we have,” Fowler chuckled, then his face darkened as he turned to the two bleeding men.  “You men are ordered to depart this territory at once.  Get to your feet and head for the Sierras, boys, and don’t let CarsonCounty see your faces again.”

“Wait a minute,” Ben protested.

“Mixin’ in again, Cartwright?” Campbell snarled.

“Only to ask one concession,” Ben said quickly.  “You’re sending injured men into rugged mountains.  If you truly don’t intend this to be a death sentence, let Dr. Martin tend their wounds first.  I promise I’ll see them out of the territory myself once the doctor says they’re fit to travel.”

There were murmurs both of approval and dissent.  Then Fowler raised a weathered hand.  “All right.  I’ll suggest a compromise: just to prove we’re not barbarians, Cartwright, we’ll let your doctor friend bind up their wounds, if you’ll see these men out of our county by sundown tomorrow.  Is that agreed?”

Seeing the nods of the other ranchers, Ben knew he could achieve no further leniency.  “Yeah, that’s agreed,” he said.  “I’d appreciate it if one of you men heading south would stop by Carson City and ask Dr. Martin to come by my place.  I’ll take these men there.”

“I’m willing,” Campbell said.

As the other ranchers rode away, Ben helped Ruspas and Reise to their saddles.  Moving west, toward the Ponderosa, Ben thought ironically that these two bloody men were not the kind of guests he had originally expected when he built all those extra rooms in his home.  The rooms were the fulfillment of a promise to his second wife, who yearned to open their home to souls in need.  It was not Inger to whom he’d be bringing these unsavory guests, however, and at first Ben wasn’t sure how Marie would react.

Then he rebuked himself for the unworthy thought.  Marie might not share Inger’s all-encompassing compassion for humanity, but she would not tolerate any man’s suffering alone when she could ease his pain.  No, Marie’s only concern would be for her children.

The children!  Hoss was working away from the house with the older boys, but Ben suddenly saw a vivid picture of the effect seeing these mutilated men would have on impressionable Little Joe and tender-hearted Mary.  He’d have to get them both safely out of the way before letting Ruspas and Reise enter the Cartwright home.

Though Ben was arriving home earlier than usual, the hour was late enough that he knew both Mary and Little Joe would be inside.  He told the two rustlers to wait on the porch.  “I need to get my children out of the way,” he explained.  The older man, Reise, nodded, seeming to understand, but Ruspas merely sneered, shrugging off Ben’s concern.  Not wanting to lose a free night’s lodging and the promised medical attention, however, he did as he was told without audible comment.

The minute Ben edged in the door, Little Joe scampered to meet him, lifting his arms, as he did each evening when his father returned from work.  Ben picked the child up and gave him the expected hug.  “Mary, take Little Joe up to your room,” he suggested softly, “close the door and stay there until I call you.”

Mary looked puzzled, but, obedient by nature, immediately stood.

“Ben?” Marie, coming in from the kitchen where she and Hop Sing were consulting about dinner, queried.

“Go on, children,” Ben said, handing Little Joe to Mary.  The toddler whimpered and stretched his thin arms back toward his father.  “Later, baby,” Ben promised.  “Go with Mary now.”

As the youngsters mounted the stairs, Marie glided to her husband’s side.  “What is it, Ben?”

“We’ve got guests,” Ben muttered, “not the kind I relish having the children see.”

Marie frowned.  “Why have you invited such people to our home?” she demanded.  As Ben explained briefly, her face softened.  “But, Ben, you should not leave injured men outside so long.  Bring them in at once.  We will put them in the downstairs bedroom.”

Ben nodded, relieved.  He brought the men into the bedroom, where Marie was turning down the covers.  “Please help them undress and get into bed, Ben,” she said.  “I will have Hop Sing heat some water so we may dress their wounds.”

“Dr. Martin’s coming,” Ben said.

Marie frowned at him.  “And he would prefer to work on clean patients, I am sure.”

Reise doffed his hat quickly.  “Thank you, ma’am.  We’re much obliged.”  Ruspas flopped on the bed and started to pull off his boots, revealing a grimy big toe poking through his left sock.

Ben grimaced.  The sheets would surely need a good boiling after these two left.  If his beautiful young wife noticed the filth of her two guests, however, nothing in her expression revealed her feelings.  She sat first on one side, then the other, of the bed, gently washing away the caked blood, seemingly undisturbed by the gaping, jagged edges of skin or the sight of earless men.  “I have seen men injured before,” she later explained to Ben.  “Scarcely a night passed in New Orleans without the flash of dagger or epee.”

When Dr. Martin arrived, Marie went upstairs to explain to Mary what was taking place and why Ben had asked her to leave the room.  Ben left the doctor to his ministrations and wandered outside.  Leaning on the hitching rail, he took a deep breath of the pine-scented air.  Clean, crisp, pure——how Ben wished he felt as unsullied as the air!  He thought back over everything he’d done that afternoon and kicked the dust in disgust.

Was there ever a right way to deal with these situations?  He’d tried to do the right thing in the affair with Lucky Bill, but his effort had been futile.  Today he hadn’t really tried, at least not like he had then.  Had he held back because he knew the effort would again be futile or simply from fear of a beating?  How could a man look deep enough inside himself to know why he did the things he did?  But how could he afford not to when he had sons looking to him for example?

When Dr. Martin came out, he saw Ben still leaning over the rail and ambled to his side.  Ben turned to look at his friend.  “Will they be all right?”

Martin nodded.  “No giving them back what they’ve lost, of course, but they’ll live.”

“Can they travel?  I gave my word I’d see them out of the county by sundown tomorrow.”

The doctor frowned.  “Well, it wouldn’t be my first recommendation, but if they have to, they can travel.”  He looked closely at Ben.  “You all right?”

“Yeah, sure,” Ben muttered.  “I didn’t give anyone an excuse to punch me this time.”

“And that bothers you?” the doctor chuckled.

Ben turned abruptly, stuffing his hands in his pants’ pockets and scuffing at the dirt.  “Yeah, it bothers me.  Who am I, Paul?”

“A knight on a white horse?” Paul suggested.

Ben spun around to find the doctor smiling at him.  “That was your dream, as I recall,” Ben said.  Paul had once described his reasons for coming west with that idealistic phrase.

Paul nodded, then laid a hand on Ben’s taller shoulder.  “It’s every man’s dream, one time or another, and most of us fall short of it.  You, my friend, attain it far more than any man I know.  Don’t torture yourself over the times you can’t.”

Ben looked up and smiled.  “Good advice, doctor.  Any extra charge?”

Paul chuckled.  “As a matter of fact, yes.  A good meal, to which Marie has already invited me, and a rousing game of chess.”

“You’re on,” Ben replied as they headed back inside.

* * * * *

Between work and preparations for the coming departure, the final days of August skittered by.  Mark, Mary and Adam would board the Pioneer Stage on Friday, the second of September, but before they did, Mark had one last call to make, one he had both dreaded and anticipated for weeks.  Unable to put it off longer, he rode nervously into Carson City Thursday morning and knocked at Dr. Martin’s office.

When he answered the door, Dr. Martin smiled.  “Did Little Joe take another tumble down the stairs or has Ben brought home more rustlers that need my attention?”  Mark shook his head, but Dr. Martin, noticing the young man’s edginess, grew grave.  “Anyone else ill or injured?”

Mark again shook his head.  “No, sir.  I came to see you, to ask a question.”

“Ah, well, come in, then,” Dr. Martin said, relieved.  “Have a seat,” he offered, indicating one of the two he kept for arriving patients in the small area curtained off from his examining room to the back of the cabin.

Mark perched on the edge of the chair, fingers tapping his knees like the keyboard of a piano.  Dr. Martin pulled a chair so he could face the young man and sat down.  “Now, what’s this question you had?  Something regarding your sister’s health?”

“No,” Mark said.  “She’s feeling much stronger than when we came.”

“Yes, our dry climate’s proved invigorating for her,” Dr. Martin commented.  “I’m glad.”  He waited silently.

Mark took a deep breath.  “I’ve come to ask, sir, for your daughter’s hand in marriage.”

Dr. Martin’s face sobered.  “I see.  I thought you might; but when you delayed so long, I decided the threat was past.”

Mark gulped.  “Threat, sir?”

“Hard for me to see it otherwise,” Dr. Martin responded.  “Surely, you realize how I treasure my daughter.”

“As do I, sir,” Mark countered.

The doctor sat back, eyeing the young man cautiously.  “Perhaps.  You must also understand that I want nothing but the best for her.”

“As do I,” Mark repeated.

The doctor’s mouth quirked slightly.  “And do you consider yourself ‘the best’?”

Mark bit his lip.  “I don’t know what you mean.”

Dr. Martin folded his arms.  “I’m referring to your history of carousing, young man.  I will not see my daughter married to a drunkard.”

Mark flushed deeply.  “I don’t know how much Mr. Cartwright has told you, sir, but——”

“Mr. Cartwright has told me nothing,” Dr. Martin interrupted.  “It was Sally herself who told me.  Evidently, you felt no shame in telling her.”

“I was——and am——ashamed, sir,” Mark said earnestly.  “Sally must have told you how deeply I regret my former behavior and how determined I am to change.”

Dr. Martin nodded perfunctorily.  “How determined you are remains to be seen.  You’ve been sheltered from temptation out at the Ponderosa.  You may find it harder to resist once you’re back in San Francisco, and until you convince me you have changed, you will not gain my permission to wed my daughter.”

“If you mean I need to prove myself,” Mark said slowly, “I’m willing to do that.  It’s my intention to return home tomorrow, find a steady job and, with my brother’s help, provide a proper home for my sister.  Then I’ll begin to save money for my future with Sally.  I plan to be gone almost a year, sir.  Is that not time enough to prove the seriousness of my intentions?”

Dr. Martin only delayed his answer a couple of minutes, but to Mark the time dragged past like as many hours.  Finally, the doctor said, “A year——yes.  If you return home and put yourself under your father’s authority for that time, and if there are no further indiscretions, I will reconsider my answer.  Before you ask for Sally’s hand again, however, I want a letter from your father assuring me that your conduct has been above reproach.”

Though his relationship with his father had broken down, Mark knew the Reverend Wentworth for a fair man.  His father would not withhold that letter of approval if Mark earned it.  Neither, of course, would he hesitate to report unfavorable incidents, but with a prize like Sally to reach for, Mark was certain he’d find the fortitude to meet even his father’s high standards.  He stood and reached for the doctor’s hand to seal the bargain.  “I’ll see you next spring, sir, shortly after my father’s written that letter.  May I write Sally?”

“Provided there is no discussion of love or marriage, you may write,” Dr. Martin agreed.  “We’ll both be interested in what you’re doing and the progress you’re making.”

The way he said it told Mark that Sally would not be the only one reading those letters.  He’d be sure to keep them circumspect.

* * * * *

Ben hated farewells on principle, but the ones exchanged as the Pioneer Stage prepared for boarding in Carson City were unusually difficult.  Having not understood until the last moment that his playmate of the summer was leaving, Little Joe was clinging to Mary Wentworth and weeping inconsolably, and the baby’s grief seemed to set the mood of everyone else’s good-byes.  Hoss, with his new aspirations of manliness, was handling himself better, but it was obvious he, too, hated to see Mary go.  In fact, he expressed the fervor of his feelings by informing Mary that he intended to marry her when he grew up, so she could stay at the Ponderosa forever.  Between gently dealing with his boyish love and wiping Little Joe’s tears, Mary had her hands full.

With the stage depot in full view from Dr. Martin’s office, Mark didn’t dare hold Sally’s hand, much less speak of marriage, nor did she use the forbidden word.  Their eyes, however, communicated clear messages of love.  Mark’s dark eyes were warm with promise, while Sally’s blue ones shone with confidence the pledge would be kept.

Even Adam, usually dreamy with anticipation of a new school term, seemed reluctant to board the stage this time.  He still felt that he was abandoning the Ponderosa in its hour of greatest need.  When he’d expressed that a few days earlier, however, his father had opened the Bible and pointed out a verse that advised against thinking of himself more highly than he ought.  Adam got the point and said nothing further.

When the time came to board the stage, Little Joe still refused to release his precious Mary, so Nelly Thomas, who with Inger and Billy was there to see everyone off, took the baby from her.  “Come on, Sugarfoot.  Let’s see if we can’t find some cookies in Aunt Nelly’s kitchen.”  Marie smiled, hopeful a tasty distraction would take her child’s attention off his loss.  Hoss hadn’t been specifically invited, but cookies sounded like the perfect solace to him, too, so he trotted after Nelly and his brother.

Ben helped Mary into the stage.  The girl paused in the doorway to take a clay crock of lebkuchen dough from Marie.  “Oh, I’m leaving so much richer than I came,” she enthused.  Packed in her carpetbags, one more than when she arrived, were containers of strawberry jam and a number of new dresses she and Marie had made.  “Thank you for a wonderful summer.”

“It’s been a pleasure to have you,” Ben said warmly.  He turned to shake Mark’s hand.  “And you,” he added.

Mark nodded.  He knew he’d been anything but a pleasure when he first came, but hoped he’d made up for that by his faithful work later.  “I can’t express what this summer has meant to me,” he said.

“Oh, I think I know,” Ben smiled.  “Give your father my best.”  Contained in that greeting was the certainty that a wonderful reunion awaited father and son in San Francisco.

For Ben and his boy, however, it was months of separation that loomed before them.  Seeing that Adam had finished his farewells to Billy and Sally, Ben gave his son a final embrace.  “Write all about your studies,” he dictated.  “I’ll be real interested in that course on surveying you’re hoping to take.”

“Yes, sir,” Adam replied soberly, “and you write all about the ranch.”

“Everything you need to know,” Ben smiled.

The answer didn’t please Adam, who felt his father meant to hide any worries from him, but he saw no point in protesting.  “Tell those ornery little brothers of mine good-bye,” he laughed, instead.  “They really know how to make a fellow feel important, running after cookies instead of staying to see me off.”

“They’ll miss you,” Ben chuckled, “despite appearances to the contrary.”

When he’d given Marie a swift peck on the cheek, Adam mounted the stage, wondering whether his father’s parting remark was true.  Hoss, he was sure, would miss him, but he’d find consolation in the letters that came with every mail.  On the other hand, Adam had been too busy working to see much of Little Joe this summer.  The little fellow would probably just forget him again.  However, Adam didn’t waste time regretting what he couldn’t change.  As the stage pulled out, the oldest Cartwright boy found his thoughts turning toward Sacramento and the nuggets of knowledge waiting to be mined there.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Civil Matters

            Ben entered, blowing on his fingers, and headed straight for the Ponderosa’s massive stone fireplace.  “Brr!  Cold out, boy,” he told Hoss, the only member of the family in sight.  Ben looked with irritation toward the stairs.  “Go see what’s keeping your mother, will you, son?”

Hoss shrugged.  “I know what’s keeping her——my little brother.  He fights bein’ bundled up tooth and toenail, Pa.”

Ben chuckled.  “If he could get a feel of that wind, he wouldn’t.”

“It couldn’t be much colder than it is in here,” Marie complained as she escorted her puckered-lipped toddler down the stairs.  “I do hope it will be warmer in Carson City.”

“Maybe a little,” Ben conceded, “but I wouldn’t count on it.  I just hope the cold doesn’t affect the turnout for the election.”

Marie came to him, lifting her face for a kiss.  “I hate to see you worry about such things on your birthday, mon amour.  It should be a time for celebration.”

“Yeah, for picnics and swimmin’ parties,” Hoss grinned, recalling his own birthday with fond remembrance.

Ben tousled the boy’s sandy hair.  “In July, maybe!  Please spare my aged bones any picnics or swimming today.”  Ben’s bones were feeling every minute of his thirty-eight years this frosty morning.

Little Joe patted his father’s leg to get his attention.  “Swim, Pa?  I wanna swim.”

Ben guffawed as he tossed the little boy up to his shoulder.  “You would!”  The tiny toddler seemed to relish cold weather.  A dip in an icy lake would probably suit Little Joe to a T, even if the teeth of everyone else in the family were chattering loud enough to make music for Adam’s ears in Sacramento.

“It was nice of ‘em to put the election on your birthday, Pa,” Hoss commented as they started toward the door.

Ben gave his middle boy a hearty slap on the back.  “Don’t think that was their reason, Hoss, but the only present I want for this birthday is to see that constitution adopted.”

As they exited the house and moved toward the buckboard, Marie shivered under her rabbit skin cape.  “I am glad now that Mary left when she did.  This cold would be terrible for her.”  Since the weather normally didn’t turn chilly until October, there’d been some discussion of the Wentworths’ staying through September.  Feeling homesick for her father, however, Mary had decided they, too, should leave when Adam returned to school.

“Mary?” Little Joe asked, head lifting from his father’s shoulder.  “Where Mary?”  It hadn’t been a week since the Wentworths and Adam had boarded the stage, and Little Joe was just beginning to get over his sense of loss.

“Did you have to mention her name?” Ben chided.

Marie smiled contritely.  “You are going to play with Inger and Jimmy today, Little Joe,” she offered as a quick alternative.

“Oh, good,” the toddler crowed, happy again.

The Cartwrights loaded into the buckboard, the boys in the back, and drove through a gray mist that shrouded them in damp cold.  Hoss gratefully huddled beneath wool blankets, but Little Joe, seemingly oblivious to the wind and wet, stood behind the wagon seat, chattering to his longsuffering parents.

On arriving in Carson City, Ben went immediately to the polling place, while the rest of the family sought the warmth of the Thomases’ parlor.  After casting his ballot, Ben ambled over to the trading post to converse with Clyde and encourage any prospective voters who wandered in to support the constitution.  Most agreed that they would, but the main topic of conversation around the pot-bellied stove was the sudden turn in the weather.  None of the long-time settlers could remember such an early cold snap, and several fretted that they might be in for a harsh winter.  Newer residents, especially those accustomed to the milder weather of California, scoffed.

“I, for one, am going to lay in my winter supplies early——and in quantity,” Ben commented to Clyde, but loudly enough for everyone else to hear.

“Good idea,” Clyde announced to the room, though most tossed off his advice as salesmanship.  “Just have time to take down your order before we head to my place for dinner.”

“All right, but I’ll need to check with Marie before we finish,” Ben replied.

“Make more sense to talk to Hop Sing, wouldn’t it?” Clyde cackled.  “He still rules the roost at your place, don’t he?”  The comment drew laughter from everyone in the room who’d ever been a guest at the Ponderosa.

“He’s right, Ben,” Augustus Harrison jibed.  “Doesn’t pay to rile the cook.”

“Cooks,” Ben chuckled.  “I’ve got two of them to keep appeased, and neither one shy about expressing his or her opinion.”

Supply list tentatively completed, Clyde herded Ben toward his place, where a surprise awaited the birthday celebrant.  The dinner of New England pot roast and Boston-baked beans didn’t surprise Ben; he’d suspected Nelly meant to treat him to his favorite foods when she extended the invitation.  He hadn’t, however, expected to find a party of people waiting to share the meal, as well as the huge sponge cake Laura Ellis had baked.

“Surprise, Pa!” Hoss shouted needlessly when Ben entered the house to see Dr. Martin and Sally, in addition to the Thomases and Ellises.

“’Prise, Pa!” Little Joe chortled, jumping and down as he clapped his hands.

Ben scooped him up and shared the laughter.  “It sure is!” he declared.  “Now, who planned this?”

“We all had a part,” Nelly chuckled.  “Just sort of fell together without much plannin’.”

“And if you thought you were going to spend this birthday canvassing for votes, you are much mistaken, my friend,” Paul Martin observed.  “Barring the intrusion of patients, you and I will be spending the afternoon over a chessboard.”

“Sounds good,” Ben smiled.  “I could use something to take my mind off the election.”

Marie nodded her satisfaction.  Just as she’d thought when she’d made the suggestion to Dr. Martin.

By the time two strongly contested chess games had been completed, the polls were closed.  Although the final results wouldn’t be known until news of other precincts came in, Ben wanted to stay long enough to get a feel for how the constitution was being received.  As would be proven later, the election in Carson City was a fair gauge for how the rest of the proposed territory was voting.  The constitution was adopted and Isaac Roop elected provisional governor.  Although Ben had received a substantial number of votes for that office in the Carson City balloting, outlying precincts all went for Roop.  Ben received an unexpected birthday present a few days later, however, when he learned he’d been elected to the territorial legislature to convene in December.

* * * * *

The temperature continued to drop throughout September.  Feeling the frosty air that greeted him each morning, Ben thought it prudent to bring the cattle down from the upper pastures to the warmer valley where grass would survive longer.  Hoss was excused from lessons to assist in the roundup, but only escape from the hated schoolwork made up for the icy wind that swept over the Sierras and crept down the neck of his jacket.  Snow flurries drifted through the air almost every afternoon, although there was no accumulation, and the snow melted almost as soon as it hit the ground.

Once the cattle had been moved, Ben made a concerted effort to lay in a huge stockpile of firewood.  Even if his own intuition had not been sufficient impetus, the warnings of Tuquah and the other Washo herdsmen would have alerted Ben to the severity of the winter to come.  He intended to be prepared and hoped his neighbors would take similar precautions.  Clyde, he knew, would, but Ben felt concerned about the miners who had poured across the Sierras that summer.  He had assumed they would return to California for the winter, as local miners usually had, but as the weeks passed, it seemed evident most intended to stay.  Few of them, Ben was sure, had the least idea of the hardships they would face before spring.

* * * * *

Carson County suffered a temporary setback in its quest for self-rule toward the end of September when James Crane, who was to carry the proposed constitution to Congress, died of a sudden heart attack.  After the funeral in Carson City, several friends suggested Ben run as his replacement in the special election set for November 12th, but Ben declined, feeling he couldn’t afford to travel to Washington and remain as long as it might take to see the proper legislation through Congress.  The Ponderosa and his family came first, so Ben willingly laid aside his political aspirations.

In an attempt to reestablish the authority of Utah’s territorial government, Judge John S. Child, an appointee of non-Mormon governor Alfred Cummings, had convened a session of the probate court on September 12th and set separate elections for October 8th.  The court had closed for lack of business, and only three of the ten precincts bothered to open for the election.

Ben abstained from voting for the first time in his civic life, for it seemed to him that Salt Lake City was about as responsive to the needs of western Utah as the British had been to their American colony’s cry against taxation without representation.  The situations were similar in Ben’s mind, and while he didn’t advocate revolution, he no longer felt obliged to support the territorial government.  Child and Cummings issued commissions to those elected in October, but not one candidate wanted to take the oath of office under such uncertain conditions.  Those who cared at all chose to await Congress’s action on their bid for a separate territory.

Most of western Utah’s residents were too caught up in the almost daily changes on the Comstock to be concerned with who governed them.  Small settlements were springing up all through the mining region: American Flat, Silver City, Gold Hill, Flowery Ridge and more.  According to Billy Thomas, faithful reporter of all activity on the Comstock Lode, the mining district originally called Ophir or Ophir Diggings had earned a more auspicious name.  In a typical drunken stupor, James Finney, known as Old Virginny to long-time residents of the area, had stumbled and broken a bottle of whiskey.  Not wanting to waste it, Billy said, Finney had used the remaining liquor to baptize the ground as Virginia Town in honor of his home state.  Ben and Clyde had a hearty laugh at the foolishness of calling the small congregation of miners a town, but the miners, gambling on a bright future, soon raised the ante by dubbing their town Virginia City.

As the area continued to boom, Ben, too, began to catch the excitement of new developments.  Not only was Virginia City being laid out in lots, but on one of them Wells Fargo soon established the first bank in the region.  The growth was also affecting Carson City, supply station for the mines.  A telegraph, called the grapevine (either affectionately or from maddening frustration with its frequent breakdowns), was strung from tree to tree, linking Carson City with Placerville.  Then, in response to the northward population shift, the Territorial Enterprise announced it would print its last issue from Genoa on October 29th, thereafter relocating to Carson City.  Finally, when John Musser, who had presided over the constitutional convention, was selected as the new representative to Washington, Ben was sure the region was well on its way to becoming a territory.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Snowed-In Christmas

            Collar turned up against the howling wind, Ben glued his chin to his chest and plowed through the whirling snow to the side of the house where firewood was stacked and covered in an attempt to keep it dry.  Gathering an armload, he headed back toward the front door.  Entering through the kitchen would have been closer, but Ben preferred to endure the cold a few moments longer rather than listen to the castigation of his Chinese cook.  Besides, Marie was in the kitchen now, too, and suffered even more than Hop Sing from the icy gusts that blew white powder across the floor whenever any door was opened.

The first snow had fallen on the twenty-second of November, the second four days later, blanketing the ground to a depth of five to six feet.  Since then, scarcely a day had passed without more inches being added to the drifts piled against house and fence post, bunkhouse and barn.  Even when the sun condescended to come out, never for longer than three days at a time, its frail beams dispensed no warmth.  As November gave way to December, the temperature dropped to freezing on good days and below zero on others.

Little Joe was still giving vent to his displeasure at being left indoors when Ben came in and dumped a load of logs in the wood box by the fireplace.  Hoss, usually adept at handling his little brother, was scolding the toddler soundly for the racket he was creating.  “Hoss,” Ben chided softly, “you’re not helping the situation.”

“Well, how’s a feller supposed to study with him carryin’ on?” Hoss demanded.

A smile flickered at Ben’s lips.  Ordinarily, Hoss would have preferred any chore to sitting at his books, but he didn’t share his younger brother’s delight in winter weather.  Even arithmetic seemed more enticing than waltzing through snowdrifts, though Ben’s chunky middle son dutifully did that morning and evening to see to the needs of the animals in the barn.  Unlike Little Joe, he was willing to stay in the house between those necessary trips outside, but even good-natured Hoss was showing the effects of too much time indoors.  Cabin fever was the only explanation for his impatience with his adored little brother.

Ben lifted the baby and sat down by the fire, gently stroking the heaving back as he whispered soothing syllables. “You have those sums worked yet?” he asked Hoss when Little Joe began to quiet down.

“Yeah, no thanks to squall-bawl there,” Hoss grunted.

“Shh; let me see your slate.”

Frowning, Hoss presented his work, sure he’d done it incorrectly, as usual.

There were mistakes, but Ben corrected them with as gentle a tone as he’d used with the baby.  Both boys were irritable, and while Ben normally didn’t tolerate poor attitudes, he understood the tension underlying his sons’ crankiness and made allowances.  He wrote out new sums for Hoss to total and suggested the youngster try again.  “Supper should be ready by the time you finish,” Ben said encouragingly, then went back to letting Little Joe ride his knee like a bucking bronc.  “Ride a little horsey; go to town; buy my baby——”

A loud thumping sounded at the door.  Ben waited a moment for Hop Sing to respond, but the Chinese cook was far less defensive about his prerogative to greet all callers now that exercising it meant a blast of cold air in his face.  Chuckling to himself, Ben set Little Joe down and went to answer the door, the toddler pattering after him.

Ben had expected the caller to be one of the men from the bunkhouse.  Not that he’d known any reason even they would need to see him.  He just couldn’t imagine anyone living further away braving the freezing cold.  To his surprise, the elderly man who stood outside his door was no one Ben knew, though he recognized the distinctive clothing of the Washo tribe.

Ben held the door wide in invitation to the old Indian, who entered and extended a piece of paper to Ben.  Ben scanned the letter quickly, frowning as he read:

 

This Indian is a damned old thief.  He will steal anything he can lay his hands on.  If he comes about your camp, break his head.  A Friend.

 

Ben looked sorrowfully at the gaunt old man.  The Indian seemed to think Ben had not understood the letter, so he brought his fingers to his mouth repeatedly to simulate eating.  Ben nodded.  He’d have guessed the Indian’s purpose even without the gesture.  A man with skin stretched that tight over his bones had to be hungry.  “Yes, I have food for you,” he said, motioning the Washo toward the fire.  Little Joe, still at his father’s heels, reached out to stroke the Indian’s frayed rabbit skin blanket.  Ben pulled the child back and pushed him toward Hoss, who sat on the hearth with Little Joe between his knees

“You savvy English?” Ben asked as the old man spread his hands eagerly toward the flames.

The Indian shrugged.  “English?  Maybe so, some.”

Ben held out the letter.  “This letter bad.  Say bad things of you.  Make white men not help you.  You savvy?”

When the Indian nodded grimly, Ben wadded the letter up and tossed it toward the fire.  The missile fell short, but Hoss scooped up the offending paper and sent it to its destination.  “Thank you, son,” Ben said.  “Ask your mother to put together a generous packet of food for our friend.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss said and, taking Little Joe by the hand, shuffled into the kitchen to deliver the message.

While they waited for his return, Ben offered the Washo a draw on his pipe, and the gap-toothed Indian grinned his pleasure in the smoke.  Hoss came back, lugging a feed bag heavily loaded with supplies.  Marie followed, looking apprehensive until she saw the age and condition of the Indian Ben had invited in.  After he left, she moved into Ben’s embrace.  “Oh, Ben,” she sighed.  “Are they all as hungry as that?”

“Could be,” Ben replied.  “Those miners over at Sun Mountain are fools.  They cut down the piñon tree for their fires and deplete the wild game for their own stew pots.”

“They are hungry, too, Ben,” Marie murmured.

“I know,” Ben said, “but if they destroy the food supply of the Indians, they just might end up paying for it with their lives.  Desperate people sometimes take desperate action.”  He led his wife to the sofa and sat on the table before it, facing her.  He took her hands between his.  “Marie, I know you won’t like this, but I told Poito last spring that I would bring some beef up to his people when the weather turned bad.”

“Ben, it is not safe!” Marie protested.  “You have told me there is ill feeling now.”  Misunderstanding had piled on misunderstanding, from the killings of McMarlin and Williams back in 1857, to the murders of Lassen and Clapper in the Black Rock Desert that spring of 1859.  White men held red ones in suspicion, and the misgivings were mutual.

“All the more reason to assuage it,” Ben pointed out.  “I don’t believe I’ll be in any danger, my love, and I may do a great deal of good.  I’ve been waiting for the weather to improve, but if the Paiutes are suffering like that old Washo, I don’t think I dare delay any longer.  Then, too, there’s that meeting of the legislature coming up the fifteenth.  If I’m to be back in time for that, I probably should leave in the morning.”

“You were right to say I would not like this,” Marie sputtered, cheeks growing crimson.

“I’m sorry, but I have to do what I think is right,” Ben said bluntly.

Marie flounced up from the sofa.  “No matter what I say?” she demanded hotly.

Ben stood and tried to pull her into an embrace.  She resisted him with rigid body, flinging his arms away.  “Is this really the way you want to part, Marie?” he asked, grasping her by both wrists.

“I do not wish to part at all!” she snapped.  “That is your choice, monsieur.”  She struggled, but could not escape his iron hold.

“Marie, you’re behaving like a child,” Ben shouted.

Little Joe, always sensitive to loud noises, bellowed, and Marie broke free to soothe her distressed baby.  “Do not cry, mon petit,” she said, looking reproachfully at Ben.  “Your father cares nothing for your tears——or mine.”

“Marie!”

“Go to your Indians,” Marie sputtered as she carried Little Joe toward the kitchen.  “I will care for our children, as I shall have to do when the Indians take the life of their father!”

As she stormed out, Ben threw his hands in the air.

“Maybe you shouldn’t go, Pa,” Hoss muttered, shifting uneasily from foot to foot.

Ben sat down by the fire and pulled Hoss to his knee.  “I have to go, son.  I gave Poito my word.”

“Yeah, promises are important,” Hoss conceded, “but I hate it when you fight.”

“Not overly fond of it myself,” Ben said wryly.  “Your mother’s worried, and I understand that, but I need understanding, too.”

“I understand you, Pa,” Hoss said loyally, “and if you want me to come with you, I’ll sure do ‘er.”

Ben smiled and gave the boy a hug.  “I appreciate the offer, son, but your mother would have my hide if I took you to the Paiute camp.  Besides, I need you to look after her and your little brother while I’m away.”

“In case you don’t come back,” Hoss stated, brow creasing.

Ben gave him a tighter squeeze.  “I’m coming back, Hoss.  Don’t worry, and help them not to, if you can.”

“I’ll try, Pa,” Hoss promised, taking his vow as seriously as his father did the promise to the Paiute leader.

Ben told himself that once Marie’d had time to cool down, he could make her understand.  She, however, refused to speak to him throughout an unpleasant dinner.  Not wanting to upset the children, Ben waited until they were asleep to reason with his wife.  Nothing he said, however, changed Marie’s opinion that he was risking his life needlessly, and for one of the few times in their marriage, they went to sleep with their backs to each other.

* * * * *

Ben had never before driven cattle through such appalling weather.  Fortunately, the snowfall was light, but even so his progress was slow as he herded several beeves toward Pyramid Lake, where the Paiutes were camped for the winter.  He’d chosen animals that were in top physical condition to ensure their surviving the drive, and though the cattle were suffering, they’d make it.  Pyramid Lake lay just ahead.

The atmosphere of the Paiute camp seemed different as he rode in.  Usually, young children ran to greet him, but today they hung back, or perhaps were held back by vigilant mothers.  Ben and the cattle reached the middle of the encampment before anyone approached him.  Ben recognized Sarah Winnemucca hurrying toward him, a wool blanket——no doubt a gift from the Ormsbys, with whom she’d lived until the increased tensions had driven her home——protecting her dark braids from the drifting snowflakes.  “Mr. Cartwright,” she cried.  “You have brought us beef!”

“As I promised your father,” Ben said, raising his voice to be heard above the wind.  “Is he here?”

“Not in camp,” Sarah replied, “but my grandfather will wish to thank you.”

“And I wish to see him,” Ben said.  “I brought him some tobacco.”

“He will be pleased,” Sarah said.  She motioned for some older boys to take charge of the cattle, then led the way to Captain Truckee’s karnee.  Ben found the old man looking frail, but in reasonably good health, considering the cold, and they enjoyed a pleasant conversation, though each expressed sorrow for the strained relations between white man and red.  Captain Truckee had always looked upon white men as brothers and had frequently argued against his own people when they blamed the white men for such calamities as decimating disease or this year’s unusually harsh winter.

Ben rode away from Pyramid Lake, satisfied with the success of his expedition.  If he could have spoken with Poito or Numaga, a better understanding might have been reached, but the gift of cattle would express his good intentions and, hopefully, make the Paiutes think more favorably of their white neighbors.  Even if no good came of this trip, Ben was glad he’d made it.  He couldn’t feed two tribes single-handed, of course, but what he could spare, he would, if only to make amends for what other white men had taken.  As Marie had said, they probably had hungry white neighbors, as well, but Ben’s sympathies lay with the Indians, whose food supply those white neighbors had usurped.

The thought of Marie reminded Ben that he had another peace conference awaiting him.  Marie had said little the morning he left, evidently feeling words were futile.  She’d let him kiss her on the cheek in parting, but had said nothing other than a whispered admonition to be careful.

It was a different woman who greeted him when he rode in.  Marie, oblivious of the snowflakes splattering her bare head, rushed outside to fall into his arms.  “Oh, Ben, I am so sorry,” she cried.

“Dearest, you’re freezing,” Ben scolded.  “Go back inside.  I’ll be in as soon as I stable my mount.”

Marie shook her head.  “Kiss me,” she demanded.

Laughing, Ben wrapped sturdy arms around her shivering ones and forcefully pressed her lips.  She returned the kiss with passion that warmed him better than the hottest fire, and that night in bed she more than made up for the rigid back she’d turned the last night they’d spent together.

* * * * *

An article in the next issue of the Territorial Enterprise made Ben feel even more gratified that he’d done what he could to assist the neighboring tribes.  Isaac Roop, newly elected governor of their unrecognized territory, had made his way from Susanville to Carson City, no doubt in anticipation of the following week’s convening of the territorial legislature.  On the way Roop had passed through Truckee Meadows and through the paper reported on the condition of the Washos camped there.  “The Indians in Truckee Meadows are freezing and starving to death by scores,” Roop reported in the newspaper’s columns, telling how he had found three children dead and dying in one cabin. “The whites are doing all they can to alleviate the miseries of the poor Washos,” the article continued.  “They have sent out and built fires for them, and offered them bread and other provisions.  But in many instances the starving Indians refuse to eat, fearing that the food is poisoned.  They attribute the severity of the winter to the whites.”

“White folks don’t like the cold no better than Indians,” Hoss protested when his father had finished reading the article aloud.  “Besides, we don’t tell it when to snow.  God does that.”

“I know, son,” Ben explained, “but when things happen that people don’t understand, they often look for someone to blame.”

“I’m glad you took them beeves up to the Paiutes,” Hoss declared.  “At least, they won’t be blamin’ us if they’re hungry.”

“They will blame whom they please,” Marie said curtly, then dipped her chin in apology.  “Still, I, too, am glad you took the cattle, mon mari.”

“How about you?” Ben chuckled, bouncing Little Joe from his lap to his shoulder.  Little Joe chortled with delight.  “That’s a consensus, then,” Ben laughed, “and may all we legislators come to one as easily next week.”

When the provisional legislature met the following Thursday in the home of J. B. Blake of Genoa, however, Ben discovered that his prayer should have been for a quorum, not a consensus, for only four legislators showed up.  Governor Roop delivered a message, a few resolutions were passed and a committee was appointed to draw up a memorial to Congress.  Then the legislature adjourned to the first Monday in July, when, hopefully, the weather would favor a higher attendance.

Ben spent that night in Genoa and the following one in Carson City.  Marie wasn’t expecting him home for several days anyway, so Ben decided to lay over for a visit with Clyde and Nelly, an infrequent luxury due to the increasingly bitter weather.  As soon as the Territorial Enterprise was available that Saturday, however, Ben tucked a copy in his saddle bag and headed for home.  He pushed his mount, for another storm seemed to be brewing.

Marie was surprised to see her husband home so early, for he had expected the legislature to be in session about a week.  As she pulled off his boots so he could warm his feet at the fire, Ben explained about the poor attendance.  “Well, it is terribly cold,” Marie empathized.  “Perhaps it was to be expected.”

“Roop made it all the way from Susanville,” Ben said gruffly.  “If anyone had reason to stay home by the fire, he did.”

Marie smiled.  “But he is the governor, Ben.  How could he not come?”

“Would look bad, wouldn’t it?” Ben chuckled.  He unfolded the newspaper and began to read while Marie massaged his bare soles.  “One year today,” he murmured.  “Hardly seems possible.”

“What?” Marie asked, looking up.

“The Enterprise,” he replied.  “Been in publication a year now.  And what a year it’s been!  Never dreamed the little paper would have so much news to report.”

After placing slippers on his feet, Marie perched on his knee to view the paper with him, her attention drawn more to the advertisements than to the news.  “So many new businesses,” she said.

“Mostly hotels,” Ben smiled.  “We don’t have much use for them, unless we go to Genoa.”

“No, but I am interested in this one in Carson City,” Marie giggled, pointing to the ad for the Pioneer Hotel.

“Ah, yes, the one with the bakery attached,” Ben chuckled.  “Good move for Laura to join her business with the hotel.  Should bring in more customers.”

“And help her keep the business separate from her home,” Marie added.  “That is her real reason.”

“Now, here’s a notice that might interest Dr. Martin,” Ben said.  “Looks like he’ll have some competition.”

“What you mean, Pa?” Hoss, doing his lessons at the table before the fire, asked.  Uninterested in the conversation around him, Little Joe just continued to build fragile towers with his blocks.

“Captain Anton Tjader, late of U. S. Marine Hospital, Chelsea, Massachusetts, offers professional services,” Ben read.  “Gunshot wounds a specialty.”

“But we’ll stick with Doc, won’t we?” Hoss asked.  “He’s the best.”

“In my book, he is,” Ben smiled.  “Yeah, Hoss, we’ll stick with him.”

Hoss scrambled up and came to lean on the arm of his father’s chair.  “Anything else interestin’ in that paper?” he asked.

Ben chucked the boy’s chin.  “Any excuse to shirk your lessons, eh?”

“Aw, Pa,” Hoss scowled.  “I ain’t so all-fired lazy as you make out.”

“No, you’re a good worker——in all ways but that,” Ben admitted.  “Well, here’s something you might find interesting.  Seems a Mr. F. Horn is offering a twenty-five dollar reward for the return of three boxes of assaying equipment lost in the recent snowstorm somewhere on the King’s Canyon Grade.”

“I know where that is!” Hoss said.  “Could I go look for it, Pa?”

“Absolutely not,” Ben answered firmly.

“I could sure use that money,” Hoss grumbled.

Ben guffawed.  “Hoss, use your head!  Or better yet, stick it outdoors and take a look at the weather.  The last place you need to be is further up the mountains.  For that matter, you’d have a hard time getting to town to collect that reward.”

“Don’t know what I’m gonna do for Christmas presents,” Hoss mumbled as he went back to his lessons.  “I got a good sum of money saved, thanks to you payin’ me so good this summer, but I ain’t been to town for weeks.”

Marie reached across Ben to stroke the youngster’s pudgy cheek.  “You do not need to buy presents, mon chéri.  That is Santa’s job, and he is well prepared.”

“Sanna?” Little Joe piped up, finally hearing a subject that interested him.  “Sanna come back?”

Ben chuckled.  “Oh, you remember Santa, do you, my bright little boy?”

Little Joe, dragging his bunny by one ear, toddled over and squiggled beneath the paper into his father’s lap.  “Hey, it’s getting kind of crowded in this chair,” Ben protested, but his velvet eyes were twinkling.

“Pa, we’re gonna have that party, like we do every Christmas, ain’t we?” Hoss asked, face puckered with sudden worry.

Ben shook his head.  “I’m sorry, Hoss, but no one’s gonna want to come up here with the kind of weather we’ve been having.”

“Aw, doggone it!” Hoss muttered, pulling away.  “No Thanksgiving and now no Christmas.”

Ben and Marie exchanged a commiserating look.  They, too, had been disappointed when they couldn’t celebrate their traditional Thanksgiving meal with the Thomases.  Marie had done her best to prepare a special meal, and the hired hands, at least, had seemed appreciative.  Hoss had obviously missed seeing his friends and had looked forward to the annual Christmas Eve party as a chance to make up for the omission.

“We will have a fine Christmas,” Marie promised, “even if we must celebrate it alone.”

“A real old-fashioned one,” Ben added brightly, “like we used to have when it was just you and me and Adam.  Won’t that be fun?”

“Stinkin’ snow,” Hoss muttered and flopped down at the table to return to his studies.

Little Joe squirmed out of his father’s lap and into Hoss’s.  He patted his brother’s face to get his attention.  “Snow not stink, HaHa,” he soothed.  “Snow pwitty.”

“Yeah, well, if you don’t quit callin’ me HaHa, I’m gonna toss you out in that pretty snow,” Hoss grumbled.

Little Joe clapped his tiny hands.  “Fun!” he cried.  “Go play!”  The others moaned.  Even Ben and Marie had lost their appreciation for the beauty of snow.  There’d been just too much of it lately.

And still the snow descended.  Day by day the drifts piled higher, and three days before Christmas a ferocious blizzard blew in.  Ben dug a path from the kitchen door to the barn, so he and Hoss could get to the animals stabled there.  Through chattering teeth Hop Sing loudly protested when Ben burst back in, wind howling after him.  “Hop Sing, for the umpteenth time, it’s our house!” Ben shouted, “and you’d better make up your mind that it’s our kitchen, too, because we’re all gonna be in here today.”

Leaving Hop Sing to grumble to himself, Ben hurried through the chilly front room and up the stairs.  “Get the baby dressed and bring him to the kitchen,” he ordered Marie, sticking his head into their bedroom.  Marie, shivering beneath the covers, sensed something wrong.  “What is it, Ben?”

“Snow and more snow,” he grunted.  “Looks like a real siege of it, so I think we’d better conserve our wood supply, just heat the one room.”

Oui, that sounds wise.  I will wrap Little Joe in his blankets and dress him by the fire,” Marie said, getting up.  She gave a cry of dismay as her bare feet touched the icy floor and hurried into her clothes.

Ben hustled down the hall to wake Hoss, and together father and son plunged through the wintry blast to the barn.  When they returned to the kitchen, Marie was sitting by the fire in a straight-backed chair, rocking a still drowsy Little Joe back and forth on her lap.  “I’ll bring down the rocker,” Ben offered and Marie nodded her appreciation.

He carried the rocking chair from the nursery to the kitchen, as well as some extra blankets to tuck around his wife and over her knees.  “Thank you, Ben,” she whispered, folding a blanket around the now sleeping baby.  “The cold is so bitter this morning.  Do you think it will last long?”

“Could,” Ben said.  He sat in one of the chairs Hoss had dragged in from the dining room and held his hands to the fire.

“Will we lose many cattle, do you think?”

Ben nodded soberly.  “Quite a few, I imagine.  There’s no getting to them ‘til the blizzard dies down.”

“Too many people in this kitchen,” Hop Sing grumbled.  “Hop Sing cannot do his work.”

“Just fix some breakfast, would you?” Ben snapped.

“Gentlemen,” Marie pleaded, “if you quarrel, this kitchen will seem even smaller and more crowded.”

“Yeah, I know,” Ben conceded.  “You do the best you can, Hop Sing, and we’ll try to stay out from underfoot.”

“Humph!” Hop Sing snorted, but he dutifully began to fry flapjacks and sausage.

Little Joe woke just as Hoss was polishing off the final flapjack and began to whimper.

“No, no cly,” the cook pleaded.  “Hop Sing make mo’ light away.”

“Okay,” Little Joe lisped, flashing his ready smile.  The toddler slid from his mother’s lap and, trotting to the door, stretched for the handle.  Unable to reach it, he patted the door with his open palm.

Ben came behind the baby to scoop him up and hold him to the window.  “It’s too cold, Little Joe.  See all that nasty snow.”

Little Joe nodded happily.  “I like snow.”

“It’s over your head, silly son,” Ben chuckled.  “Come back to the table and have your breakfast.”

Breakfast proved a satisfactory distraction from the enticing snow.  Pulling a chair up to Hop Sing’s work table, Ben held the boy in his lap and cut his pancake.  Little Joe was still awkward with a fork, but he insisted on feeding himself.  After the youngster had eaten half of what Hop Sing had cooked for him, Marie washed the effects of his independence from his cheeks with water heated on the stove.

To Ben, that day seemed like one of the longest of his life.  Being cooped up in a kitchen with two restless children and one crotchety Chinaman was not his idea of a pleasant way to idle away several hours.  Marie and Hop Sing were keeping themselves occupied with cooking and washing the dirty dishes, so Ben delegated himself the responsibility of entertaining the children.  Lessons took up the morning hours for Hoss, and having nothing else to do with the younger boy, Ben made Little Joe part of the class, the brighter part if the truth be told.  When the lessons ended just before lunch, Little Joe proudly recited the numbers from one to ten for his mother and identified several letters of the alphabet when his father pointed to them.

No one had worked up much of an appetite, but Marie and Hop Sing, during a morning in which they’d had nothing to do but cook, had prepared a meal fit for field hands.  Even sharing it with the three men in bunkhouse didn’t make the huge roast disappear, though most of the vegetables were gone.  “For mercy’s sake, keep it light tonight,” Ben pleaded, “or we’ll all have nightmares.”

Oui, a soup, perhaps,” Marie mused.  “We could add potatoes and carrots to the beef, Hop Sing.”

“Hop Sing not need Missy tell him how cook,” Hop Sing grunted.

“Hey, I know something better,” Hoss inserted eagerly, “something we ain’t had in a long time.”

“What’s that, Hoss?” Ben asked, pleased with any idea that might add interest to this interminable day, especially for the youngsters.

“Remember how you used to put leftover beef in gravy and pour it over biscuits?” Hoss asked, face glowing with nostalgia.

“Oh, Hoss,” Ben laughed.  “That was because Pa didn’t know how to cook well enough to do better by you.”

“I liked it!” Hoss declared, his face forming a pout.

That was so rare an expression for even-tempered Hoss that Ben knew the boy really needed a silver lining in this cloudy day.  “All right,” he soothed, “that’s what we’ll have for supper.  Beef in gravy over biscuits, Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing frowned.  “Not sound like velly good suppah, Mistah Cahtlight.”

“It is, too, good,” Hoss shouted, “and Pa said I could have it!”

“Allight, allight,” Hop Sing muttered.  He, too, could read the signs in Hoss’s unaccustomed crankiness and judged it wise to give in to him.  The way the snow was coming down, everyone would be camping in his kitchen again tomorrow, and the one thing that would make that worse was crying children.  Since he had plenty of time, though, Hop Sing decided to make the beef and vegetable soup, too.  Missy, at least, would show sense and choose the better meal——maybe Mistah Cahtlight, too.

As the snow fell in ever larger clumps, the afternoon dragged on.  Ben played patty cake with Little Joe, then turned him over to his brother while he went to look for a book the boys and Marie might enjoy.  When he returned, Hoss was on all fours with Little Joe riding his back.  The toddler was squealing with joy, though the squeals that poured from the diminutive cook when horse and rider passed between his feet were less jubilant.

“Ride over here, boys,” Ben suggested.  “Stable your mount, Little Joe, and come listen to the nice story Pa’s picked out to read.”

Hoss crawled to his father’s feet, where his younger brother dismounted and began to rub his sides.  “Hey!  What are you doin’?” Hoss demanded.

“Stable HaHa,” Little Joe replied smoothly.  “Always give HaHa rubdown after ride, huh, Pa?”

Ben chuckled.  “Yeah, that’s right, but a boy who’s bright enough to learn his letters and numbers shouldn’t cling to baby talk, Little Joe.  Say your brother’s name properly or no story.”

“Hoss,” Little Joe said obligingly.  “Gotta give Hoss rubdown.”

Hoss clambered up from the floor.  “I’m rubbed enough.  What’s the story, Pa?”

Ben showed him the book he’d chosen, Ivanhoe.  “It’s about knights in armor and damsels in distress.”

Marie looked up with interest at the final phrase, though it made Hoss scowl.  “Can’t we skip that damsel in distress part,” he suggested.

“No,” Ben laughed.  “If we do, there’s no one for the brave knight to rescue.”

Hoss cackled.  “Yeah, I guess that’s right.  Okay, Pa, we’re ready.”  He sat on a folded blanket near Ben’s chair and put Little Joe between his legs.

Ben began to read to an enrapt Hoss.  Little Joe had more trouble following the story and soon became bored.  Seeing his wide yawns, Marie made him a pallet to nap on, then sat down by Ben, listening with sentimental ecstasy to the story of Winfred of Ivanhoe and the two women who loved him.  Even Hop Sing drew ever closer to the family circle and eventually gave up all pretense of work as he leaned on the table, mouth open, eyes excited.  When the time came to cook dinner, he and Marie worked together, grateful to be preparing simple dishes so they could keep most of their attention on the words Ben read.

Seeing that dinner was ready, Ben stopped reading at a particularly exciting point in story.  “Aw, Pa, what happens next?” Hoss pleaded.

“Dinnertime, boy,” Ben chuckled, “and if you’re not hungry, I am.”

“I’m hungry,” Hoss admitted, “but will you finish the story after we eat?”

Ben shook his head.  “The light’s fading, son, but looks like we’ll be spending tomorrow in this kitchen, too.  I’ll read some more tomorrow afternoon.”

Hoss looked disappointed at having to wait that long, but he was easily appeased by a heaping platter of beef gravy over biscuits.  Little Joe woke up, rubbing his eyes, in time to join the family at supper and while he couldn’t consume nearly as much as his big brother, his smile declared his satisfaction with the simple fare, especially the chocolate cake that followed the meal.

“What we gonna do now?” Hoss asked once dinner was over.

“Why don’t we tell stories?” Marie suggested.  “I will begin so your father may rest his voice.”

“What kind of stories?” Hoss asked suspiciously, feeling certain ladies were inclined to sappy love stories.

“Ah, I think I shall tell you of the duel your father fought for my honor,” Marie said with a sly look at Ben.  “Truly, he was as gallant as Sir Ivanhoe.”

“Well, I think that’s stretching it a bit,” Ben sputtered.

“But I, monsieur, do not,” Marie said, head lifting proudly.  “We will let our sons decide if you did not, indeed, play the part of a noble knight that morning.”

Hoss pulled his chair close, so as not to miss a word.  When Marie had finished the tale, he stood to pat his father on the head.  “SirPa,” he declared, “a noble knight.”

“Pa night?” Little Joe queried, looking through the window at the dark sky.

“Not that kind,” Hoss scoffed, “a knight in armor——well, except he didn’t have none.”

“Give it up, Hoss,” Ben chuckled.  “It’s all the same to him.”

“It’s still too early for bed,” Hoss pointed out.  “You tell a story now, Pa.”

“All right,” Ben agreed and launched into a yarn from one of his sailing trips.

When the story ended, Hoss begged for another, but Marie objected.  “Little Joe is getting very sleepy.  I think I should take him to bed before any more stories are told.”

“No more stories tonight,” Ben said.  “Let me build a fire in our room; then I think we’d all better hit the hay.  It’s been a long day.”

“The fire will not keep the nursery warm,” Marie worried.

“He can sleep with us tonight,” Ben replied.

“What about me, Pa?” Hoss asked.  “You gonna build a fire in my room?”

“No, I’d rather save the wood, son,” Ben explained.  “You can either sleep here in the kitchen or up in our room.”

“With you,” Hoss decided, “but it’s gonna get awful crowded in that bed.”

Ben laughed.  “Get a spare mattress from the bunkhouse, boy.  We’ll bed you down right by the fire.”

“Okay,” Hoss grinned.  “I’ll get it now.”  He passed through the hands’ dining room that adjoined the kitchen and into the bunkhouse to retrieve his bed.

Ben returned shortly and carried his drowsy youngest upstairs, putting him in the middle of the large rosewood bed.  Hoss lugged in the narrow bunk mattress and stretched it before the fire.  Marie brought Hoss’s nightshirt from his room, and Hoss hustled into it and under the covers in record time.  Ben and Marie both knelt to kiss him good-night.  “Keep toasty,” Ben smiled.

“You, too,” Hoss grinned.  “Night-night, Little Joe.”

“Night-night,” Little Joe yawned and burrowed into his mother’s pillow.

The parents crawled in, one on each side of the little boy and reached across him to stroke each other’s cheek, the closest good-night embrace they could manage under the circumstances.

Friday’s activities followed much the same pattern as the day before: lessons in the morning, Ivanhoe after lunch and stories after supper.  Little Joe was awake more that afternoon and, uninterested in the book Ben was reading, set about exploring the kitchen cupboards, much to Hop Sing’s vocalized ire.  “I don’t know how we’re gonna keep these boys occupied tomorrow,” Ben whispered to his wife after they’d gone to bed.  “They need to move around more.”

Oui,” Marie agreed.  “I will think of something, mon amour.  You have done so much already.”  She lay awake, trying to imagine some activity the boys might enjoy which could be done in a kitchen.  If only they were having their usual Christmas Eve party.  There’d be almost more to do than they had time for.  Slowly, a smile touched her lips as she made a decision.

She shared it with Ben and the boys after breakfast the next morning.  “I have decided we will have our Christmas party this evening after all.”

“Hurray!”  Hoss shouted.  “Who’s coming?”

“No one,” Ben muttered, casting a reproachful look at his wife.  “You know no one can get here.  It’s still coming down as if the heavens were a factory for snow.”

“The people who are coming will not have to come through the snow,” Marie said.  “They are not our usual guests, but we have three men in the bunkhouse who would enjoy a party, I am sure.  We have been thinking only of ourselves, Ben, and that is not the true spirit of Christmas.”

“Indeed not!” Ben smiled.  “Yes, we must have a party, for our boys and for our men.”

“You think we have enough wood to heat the front room?”

“We do,” Ben assured her.  “I was just taking extra precautions in case the storm lasted several days, as it still may, but we can spare enough for one evening, even if we spend another week in this kitchen.”

“And can we put up a big tree, like before?” Hoss asked enthusiastically.

Ben rolled his eyes, but declined to comment when he saw his son’s dejected face.  Ben had never had a Christmas tree when he was a boy, but to his sons it was an important symbol of the season.  He didn’t think he could provide one this year, but, at least, he wouldn’t mock the boys’ desire for it.

“Now, I think you must excuse Hoss from his lessons this morning,” Marie began, “for there is much to be done.”

“Double hurray!” Hoss sang with glee.

“Yes,” Marie smiled, “I want to make the lebkuchen and gingercakes, as well, so I will need my two boys to help.”

“Not good idea, Missy,” Hop Sing objected.  “Little boys not good help in kitchen.”

“I want their help,” Marie said firmly.  Ben nodded, understanding that she meant the boys needed to be kept busy and playing with scraps of cookie dough was as good an option as she’d been ab