Heritage of Honor, Book 4 – A Dream’s Darkest Hour (by Puchi Ann)

Summary:  Ben Cartwright begins to see his boldest dreams take root and blossom, but dark clouds loom on the horizon.  The long-dreaded storm of the Civil War breaks, and the death of Marie plunges the Cartwrights into the darkest hour of their lives.

Rating: T   Word Count:  196,262

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

Time of Renewal

            As Ben Cartwright headed the buckboard north from Genoa, he was smiling.  Every day for almost a week now, either he or his oldest son Adam had made the long drive to the former Mormon Station in search of supplies, and today, for the first time, the quest had ended successfully.  Ordinarily, Ben bought his supplies in Carson City, which was closer to his sprawling ranch, the Ponderosa, but rations had been so short in western Utah lately that Ben deemed it prudent to meet any incoming freight wagons as soon as they made it over the Sierras.  The competition for goods was fierce, and it paid to put in one’s bid early.

The prices today had been incredibly high, however: fifteen dollars for a hundred-pound bag of flour!  Ben had decided to buy just one, to meet the immediate needs of his family and ranch hands, and hope for better prices later.  Potatoes weren’t quite so bad, at fourteen cents a pound, although that was a lofty sum to lay out for simple spuds.  Still, people had to eat, so Ben placed what he considered an exorbitant amount of cash in the shopkeeper’s palm, loaded the buckboard and left before he was tempted to part with more.

Ben hated to think what a pouch of tobacco would have brought, had there been any available, but he hadn’t really expected to find a luxury item like that, anyway.   Still, unreasonable as it was, he felt disappointed.  He was completely out of pipe tobacco and missed his nightly smoke after supper.  Ben laughed as he remembered how his youngest son had tried to solve that problem for him the night before.  When no one was looking, three-year-old Joseph had filled his father’s pipe with ashes from the fireplace and presented it triumphantly, glowing with pride in his helpfulness.  Ben had had a hard time explaining to the bright-eyed boy that, however similar the substance might look, it just wouldn’t smoke the same.

Ben crossed the bridge over the Carson River, noting again with satisfaction that it was sinking back to normal level after the spring thaw had sent it surging over its banks.  That wasn’t unusual, of course; the Carson tended to fill to capacity each spring and had overflowed many times in the ten years since Ben had first settled in this area.  The amount of snow, both in the Sierras and in western Utah, had been heavier than usual this year, however, and Ben was grateful that his old friends, the Thomases, had moved into Carson City a couple of years earlier.  The old cabin in which the Cartwright and Thomas families had spent that first winter had washed away in the torrent that poured down the Carson recently.

Once across the bridge, Ben’s visage grew grim, as it always did when he rode through this wasteland of dead cattle with buzzards circling and swooping to the feast a harsh winter had provided.  Neither nature nor man had been kind to western Utah during the first half of 1860.  The winter had been the worst that Ben and his family had yet experienced here, and spring had brought no respite with its unseasonable snowstorms.  The valleys were clear now, but less than two weeks before this warm June day, just one day short of the summer solstice, snow had again fallen on the mountains near Genoa.

Man, too, had brought death to the territory recently, and while the Pyramid Lake Indian War was supposedly over, the country wasn’t really at peace yet.  An atmosphere of fear still hovered over the settlements of Carson, Eagle and Washoe valleys, as well as the booming town of Virginia City.  That fear was the reason Ben and Adam had been alternating their trips to Genoa.  Ben wanted one of them close to home at all times, just in case some renegade Indians decided the war wasn’t really over.

Ben stopped the team for a moment and rotated his right shoulder to work out some of the stiffness.  Dr. Martin would probably skin him if he knew that Ben had removed the sling supporting his wounded shoulder, but it was just too hard to manage a team with one arm bound up like that.  Two weeks now since he’d taken that Paiute bullet, and the wound was healing nicely.  It was only when he used the arm too freely that the soreness set in again.

As Ben flicked the reins and moved the team out once more, he reflected that he, along with all his friends and family, had a lot to be thankful for.  They were all alive and no one had even sustained a serious injury.  Seventeen-year-old Adam, who had fought at his father’s side, had lost his horse in the fray, but escaped uninjured himself, as had his friend Billy Thomas.  Billy’s father Clyde had taken a knife wound in the shoulder in the first battle and their friend Mark Wentworth a bullet in the leg in the second, but they were both recovering nicely under Dr. Martin’s expert care.  In Mark’s case, that care also included the attentive nursing of his fiancé, the doctor’s daughter Sally, for the young soldier was recuperating in the Martins’ Carson City home.

When Ben finally moved onto his own land, his smile returned.  No signs of winter’s carnage remained here.  They’d lost some cattle to winter kill, of course.  That was unavoidable in a winter as severe as this past one had been.  Ben had given the animals diligent care whenever he could, though, and his herd had fared better than most in the valley.  The cattle he’d lost had long since been disposed of, so no vultures swirled over the Ponderosa.

Ben pulled into the yard before the ranch house, and by the time he’d jumped down from the seat and tied the horses’ reins to the hitching rail, the front door flew open.  Predictably, Little Joe was the first one through it, bare feet pattering through the mud and splashing it onto the hem of his dress.  Ben’s golden-haired wife Marie was right behind him, scooping the toddler up and scolding him soundly.  “How many times must Mamá tell you not to come outside in the mud?”  She gave the child the lightest of swats on the backside and smiled up at Ben.  “It is the third time today.”

“Just three?” Ben chuckled.  “You’ve been a better boy than usual, have you, Little Joe?”

Grinning, Little Joe fell into his father’s outstretched arms and hugged his neck tightly, just as nine-year-old Hoss burst out the door and charged straight for the wagon.  “Hurray!” Hoss whooped at sight of the supplies.  “Real bread tonight!”

Hop Sing, the Cartwright’s cook, had also exited, through the side door from the kitchen, and was examining the supplies in the back of the buckboard.  “Light blead no have time lize tonight, but Hop Sing make plenty hot biscuit, okay?”

“Okay,” Hoss, easily contented, replied, “but a real loaf tomorrow, huh?”

“Dat light.  Much blead ‘mollow.”  Hop Sing beamed, happier even than Hoss to see the large bag of flour.  He’d felt a sense of personal failure in not being able to provide proper meals for his family the last couple of weeks.  There’d been plenty of beef, of course, since the Ponderosa raised cattle, but the pantry had grown steadily barer of almost everything else, and the only bread Hop Sing had been able to provide had been batches of biscuits, deliberately kept small due to the scarcity of flour.

Adam, who’d ambled out from the barn, peered into the back of the buckboard with a frown.  “Just one bag of flour?” he asked.  “That all they had?”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “All I cared to pay for at fifteen dollars each,” he stated bluntly.

Adam whistled.  “That’s steep.  Well, less for us to tote in, huh, Hoss?”

As Hoss took the hint and reached for a sack of potatoes, Ben handed Little Joe back to his mother.  The youngster immediately screeched his displeasure and squirmed to get down.  “No, you naughty boy,” Marie laughed.  “You have to go inside and get your feet washed—again!”

Ben smiled as she headed toward the house with an armful of uncooperative toddler and then reached into the wagon for a crate.

“We’ll take care of that,” Adam said quickly.  “You ought not be lifting much with that shoulder, Pa.  You know what Doc Martin would say.”

“Then I don’t need to hear it from you, too, do I, young man?” Ben said, the corner of his mouth quirking upward.

Adam grinned back.  “There aren’t many supplies, and you’ve got two strong sons to tote them, so why don’t you just take it easy and tell us the news of the day?”

“Yeah,” Hoss said, easing the potatoes back down.  “Anything goin’ on over to Genoa, Pa?”

Ben leaned against the wagon.  “Any news?  Well, let’s see.  The big talk in Genoa is that Carson Valley is about to be annexed to California.”

Adam hooted.  “That’s crazy!  How would anybody know, since there hasn’t been any mail since the Indian trouble started?”

“But Billy’s ridin’ for the Pony Express again, ain’t he?” Hoss argued.  “Maybe he’s back and brung the news.”

“He hasn’t had time yet, Hoss,” Ben said.  Billy Thomas had ridden east with twenty others to protect the incoming mail, but hadn’t been gone long enough for a round trip.  “No, son, the talk of our joining California is just that—talk.”

“Guess when folks don’t have any real news to talk about, they just make some up,” Adam commented.  “Come on, Hoss, we’d better get this flour in to Hop Sing or we won’t even get biscuits for supper.”

That appalling suggestion was enough to spur Hoss into action, and together the two brothers soon had the wagon unloaded, the horses unhitched and were ready to join their family inside, where Ben sat cuddling a once-more-clean Little Joe.

Only a few days later four westbound expresses passed through Carson Valley, then finally an eastbound one, bringing news that had come from the east coast, across the Isthmus of Panama, by steamer up to California and then over the Sierras by stagecoach.  Finally, western Utah had real news to discuss, but almost everyone was disappointed by the Republicans’ nomination of Abraham Lincoln for president, since William Seward had been the westerners’ first choice.  That nomination had occurred on May 17th, while the men of Washoe were marching into battle against the Paiutes.  The Democratic Party, divided over the issue of slavery, hadn’t come up with a candidate yet, so Ben wasn’t sure who would be opposing the Republican nominee.  He feared, however, that if Lincoln, a known opponent of slavery, were elected, it might launch an even deadlier conflict than the Pyramid Lake Indian War had been.

CHAPTER TWO

Time of Celebration

            “Grass sure is growing lush, isn’t it, Pa?” Adam commented as he rode to the left of the buckboard in which the rest of his family was traveling.  Since his own horse had been killed in the Indian war, Marie had loaned him the use of her black gelding until another mount could be found.  Adam, of course, considered himself too grown up to ride in the back of the wagon with the other youngsters.

Ben chuckled.  “Well, it should, considering the amount of rain we’ve had lately.”  The valleys of western Utah had been visited with one thunderstorm after another during the latter part of June, and Ben was just grateful that he wasn’t driving to Carson City through a sea of mud.

“You don’t think it’ll rain today, do you, Pa?” Hoss asked with alarm.

Ben laughed.  “On the Fourth of July?  Why, it wouldn’t dare, Hoss!”

“Yeah, it would be downright unpatriotic.”  Adam grinned at his brother.

“Huh?”  Little Joe frowned at the unfamiliar word.

Hoss leaned over to whisper in his baby brother’s ear.  “It means they’ll have that pie-eatin’ contest, for sure.”

Little Joe immediately bounced up and gave a happy jump.  “Pie for me!” he cried.

Marie jerked around on the seat of the buckboard, but before she could rebuke her youngest for his characteristic recklessness, Hoss grabbed the boy and pulled him down between his legs.  “Not for you,” he scoffed.  “You couldn’t even eat enough to come in last.”

Sensing that Little Joe was about to wail, Marie quickly said, “Mais oui, there will be pie for you, mon petit, but you are too small to enter the contest.”  She smiled at Hoss.  “And as for you, mon chéri, I do not know that you will have much chance, either.  There will be many hungry men wanting those pies.”

Adam hooted.  “I’d lay odds Hoss holds his own!”

Ben cast a stern gaze on his eldest.  “Throwing away your money on blind chance is the surest way to lose it, young man.”

Adam just grinned back.  “No chance involved when it comes to Hoss and food, Pa.  Besides, I didn’t say he’d win, just that he’d hold his own.”

“I don’t care if I win,” Hoss declared with a throaty laugh, “just so I get all the pie I can eat.”

“Me, too,” Little Joe chirped.  “All the pie me can eat.”

“That’ll be about half a slice,” Adam chuckled, bending over to tousle his youngest brother’s soft, golden brown curls.

When the buckboard pulled up before the Thomas house in Carson City, Billy trotted down the steps on lanky legs.

“Hey!” Adam called as he swung down from the gelding.  “Wasn’t sure you’d make it in for the festivities.”

“Yeah, I made it,” Billy laughed.  “Got to be back to Buckland’s by tomorrow night, though, in case the Pony runs early.”

“You boys have got all day to jaw at each other,” Ben chided.  “I could use your help unloading this wagon, Adam.”

“Sure, Pa,” Adam agreed readily, chuckling at the irony of his father’s changed attitude.  Easy to tell Pa’s arm wasn’t bothering him anymore.  When he’d really needed help, pride had made him argue against it; now that he was feeling pert again, he was quite prepared to pass the chores off to younger men.  Adam winked at Billy, certain his friend would share the amusement he was silently communicating.

Billy grinned back and reached into the wagon for a crate of food.  With Ben, Adam, Hoss and Billy each toting a load, one trip was all that was needed to empty the wagon.  Nelly met them at the door, with a hug for Marie and a kiss for both Hoss and Little Joe.

“Food’s all in the kitchen, Ma,” Billy announced, needlessly, since everyone had seen it go by.  “Me and Adam’s goin’ outside.”

“Glad to get shed of you,” Nelly said, waving the two older boys out.  Then, turning to Marie, she added, “Come show me what needs reheatin’, gal.”  She and Marie disappeared into the kitchen, followed by the Thomases’ eight-year-old daughter Inger and Hoss with Little Joe, as usual, dogging his heels.

Adam and Billy sauntered out onto the porch, each leaning against a post on opposite sides of the steps.  “So, how’s the Pony goin’?” Adam asked.

Billy shrugged.  “We’re gettin’ it in shape again, but it takes time, you know, to build back up.”

“Yeah, I know,” Adam said.  Now that the main fight was over, the Indians seemed to have marked the riders of the Pony Express, as well as stage and mail way stations, as the most vulnerable targets.  Stations had been burned, agents killed, livestock driven off, and the Pony Express wouldn’t be able to run efficiently until the damage was repaired and the mounts replaced.

Adam felt a more personal concern for his friend, however.  He’d known Billy Thomas, just one year his senior, ever since they’d come west together, and the bond between them was tight.  “You ever see any Indians yourself?” he asked quietly.

Billy glanced quickly toward the house and stepped closer to Adam.  “Yeah,” he admitted in an undertone.  “Even had to outrun a couple on my last trip east.  Don’t tell Ma, though, okay?  She frets somethin’ fierce as it is.”

Adam nodded.  “I’ll keep quiet if you promise to keep your head low and ride fast.”

Billy slapped his friend on the back.  “First thing you learn when you ride for the Pony, buddy, and I got a strong attachment to my hair.”  He gave the fiery thatch atop his head an affectionate tug.

The front door flew open, and Hoss came barreling down the steps.  “Grab hold of Little Joe, will you?” he hollered over his shoulder.  “Ma said I could go to Jimmy’s, and I don’t need him taggin’ me.”

Sure enough, Little Joe came trailing out almost immediately, obviously determined to follow wherever big brother Hoss led.  Adam snatched him as he trotted by and swung him up into his arms.  “Down, down!”  Little Joe demanded, legs kicking.  “Wanna catch Hoss.”

“Looks like you’re the one got caught,” Billy laughed.

“Why don’t you catch him awhile?” Adam suggested.  Tired of wrestling an armful of wriggling arms and flailing legs, he tossed his little brother into Billy’s outstretched arms.  Billy tossed the toddler right back, and the two older boys played catch with the youngster until Little Joe forgot about Hoss’s deserting him for the older Jimmy Ellis and began to chortle with excitement in the new game.

Finally, Adam set him down on the porch and patted his back softly.  “Go back in and pester Pa awhile,” he ordered.

Little Joe was ready for a change, so he did as he was told, ambling into the parlor where his father and Clyde Thomas sat, each enjoying Clyde’s recent acquisition of tobacco in his own favored fashion.  Ben had long made it a practice to keep an old pipe and a small supply of tobacco at the Thomas house, just as Clyde normally kept a little chewing tobacco at the Ponderosa for his frequent visits.  Recent shortages had bankrupted both places, however, so the two men had not enjoyed a good smoke and chew together since before the Indian war.

Little Joe promptly climbed into Pa’s lap, his favorite perch and one never denied him, no matter how tired Ben was after a day’s work on the ranch.  Ben kissed the top of the boy’s curly head and turned his attention back to the discussion he and Clyde had been having about the dropping cost of supplies.

“Like I was sayin’,” Clyde continued, “I got a load in yesterday and set aside what I figured you might be needin’.”

“Well, if the price has come down as much as you say, I’m ready to buy,” Ben remarked.  He pushed away the small hand reaching for his pipe.

“Might come down even more before long,” Clyde commented.  “Roads is improvin’ all the time, and the way folks keep pourin’ into the territory, it’ll pay freighters to keep the supplies comin’ in steady.”

“Yeah, but I’m running low again,” Ben said.  He grabbed Little Joe’s hand, which was again headed for the fascinating pipe.  “Little Joe, I said no,” he stated sharply.

“Unh-uh,” Little Joe replied, head cocked innocently to one side.  “Not say nothin’, Pa.”

Clyde chuckled.  “Youngun’s got a point.  You didn’t say a word about that pipe.”

Ben frowned across at his friend.  “I have on other occasions.”  He eyed the toddler with a stern stare.  “And you know you’re not allowed to touch it, don’t you, Little Joe?”

Uncomfortable under his father’s disapproving gaze, Little Joe slid out of Ben’s lap and moved over to Clyde, instead.

“Joseph, answer my question,” Ben demanded.

“No touch pipe,” Little Joe admitted without looking at his father.  Leaning on the arm of the padded chair in which Clyde was sitting, he stared as the man he had learned to call uncle took another plug of chewing tobacco and placed it inside his cheek.  “How that taste?” the child asked.

“You ain’t likely to find out for a good while to come, tadpole,” Clyde chuckled.

“If I have anything to say about it, he won’t ever find out,” Ben snorted.  “Joseph, you go back into the kitchen and see if Mamá needs you.”

Little Joe just continued to watch Clyde’s jaw as it worked on the chaw of tobacco.

“Joseph!  Now!”

There was no missing the ominous tone of those loud words, and Little Joe, who already had a good acquaintance with the feel of his father’s palm on his backside, took off for the safety of the kitchen.

“Marie may have a few words to say to you about foistin’ Squiggle-wiggle off on her,” Clyde chuckled.

“I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it,” Ben said with a smile.  He decided a change of subject was in order.  “What you were saying before about new people coming in, it’s really true, and it’s brought one good change, at least.  Mail delivery three times a week from Placerville now!  Who would have ever dreamed there’d be a need for that this side of the Sierras?”

“Yeah, I reckon it’s a sign of progress,” Clyde conceded.  “They sure charge a pretty penny for it, though.  Twenty-five cents a letter, plus the express charge the sender already paid!  It’s highway robbery, Ben.”

Ben laughed.  “Well, you won’t hear me complaining, and I get more mail than you, my friend.”

“Usually,” Clyde agreed, “but I’ve had a whole flock of letters come flyin’ in since this Indian trouble.  Never knew so many folks cared what happened to me and mine.”

“Yeah, I heard from everyone on the old Larrimore train, too,” Ben said with a nostalgic smile, “as well as from Josiah Edwards back in St. Joseph and my brother John in Denver.  It was well worth the price to me.”

“Me, too, I guess,” Clyde admitted.

Nelly came across the hall into the parlor.  “‘Bout time we loaded up and got over to the plaza, men, if we want to find good seats at the tables.  Gonna be a crowd today, I hear.”

“We’ll be right there, Nelly gal,” Clyde said.  He stood and aimed a stream of tobacco at the fire, which sizzled as the moist substance hit.  “Come on, Ben.  Time to earn our vittles,” he said.

“I’m gonna call those lazy sons of ours in to help,” Ben said and headed for the front door.

Soon everyone was busy transporting food from the kitchen to the wagon for the short drive to the central plaza where the town gathering would be held—everyone, that is, but one tiny boy, who had been waiting for a chance to satisfy his curiosity when no one was looking.  With everyone’s attention elsewhere, Little Joe found it easy to slip into the empty parlor, climb into the padded chair Clyde had vacated and help himself to the tin of chewing tobacco on the occasional table beside it.

Stuffing a sizable wad in his mouth, Little Joe began to chew.  Almost immediately, his little face screwed up in distaste.  “Eew, nasty!” he sputtered and clambered down to spit the terrible-tasting tobacco into the fire as he’d often seen Uncle Clyde do.  His technique, of course, was not as polished as Clyde’s, and his aim not nearly as accurate.  The brown spittle plopped front and center on the bodice of his blue dress.

“Little Joe,” he heard his mother call.  “Where are you, mon petit?”

Knowing he’d be in trouble the minute anyone saw him, Little Joe ducked behind the chair to hide.

Marie peered into the parlor, but seeing nothing, she headed back to the kitchen.  No baby there, either.  Typically, she panicked.  “Ben,” she cried, hurrying out to the porch, “I can’t find Little Joe.”

Standing by the wagon, Adam laughed.  “I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard that!”

“It is not funny!” Marie snapped.  “Help me find him!” she ordered with a stamp of her foot and then turned to go back inside and search the second story of the house.

“I think he likes playing hide and seek,” Adam told Billy as they both headed back inside to join the search.

“Hey, so do I,” Billy joked as the two young men entered the parlor.  “Play it with them Paiutes ‘most every day.”

“Thought you didn’t want your mother to know,” Adam scolded in a stage whisper.  “Keep cracking that kind of joke and she’ll”—he held a finger to his lips and pointed at the wisp of blue fabric the chair had not quite hidden.

Walking almost on tiptoe, Adam moved into position, reached around the chair and made a quick grab.  “Got you!” he announced with glee and lifted Little Joe over his head.

Little Joe squealed and squirmed, desperate to get away.  Adam, he had learned, was what Hoss called a tattletale, always ready to run to Mama or to Pa and talk about whatever innocent misstep Little Joe had made.

“Uh-oh,” Billy cackled.  “Looks like he’s been into it again.”

Adam held the toddler before his face and sniffed the stained dress.  “Ugh!  Chewing tobacco,” he announced.  “You are in for it this time, baby boy.”

“No, no!” Little Joe screeched.  “Let go!  Let go!”

Ben, who’d been conducting a diligent search of the kitchen, heard the noise and walked across the hall, stopping to call up the stairs, “Marie, the lost has been found!”  As he entered the parlor, he stood still, shaking his head.  “What’s he gotten into this time?”

“Pa’s chewing tobacco,” Billy reported, his lip quirking up with amusement.

“In that case, I’ll ask you boys to step outside,” Ben said.  “This child and I are going to have a very necessary little talk.”

Marie hurried in, appalled to see the condition of her baby’s clothing.  “Oh, Little Joe, how could you?” she wailed.  “Mamá wanted you to look nice for the town dinner.”

“Well, tie a white napkin around his neck, and he’ll be appropriately attired in red, white and blue by the time I finish with him,” Ben announced as he laid the toddler across his lap.

“Oh, Ben, must you?” Marie pleaded.  “We will be late.”

“Yes, we will,” Ben said firmly, “and, yes, I must.  It’s a case of flagrant disobedience, Marie.”  He pulled Little Joe up long enough to ask, “You knew better, didn’t you, Little Joe?”

“Not touch pipe,” Little Joe protested, hoping to get off on a technicality.  He instinctively understood the concept, although he did not have the vocabulary to express it.

Ben’s face grew darker.  “You knew better, didn’t you, Little Joe?” he repeated, louder this time.

Little Joe started to quiver and his chin ducked.  “Uh-huh,” he whispered.

Ben looked to Marie for permission to continue and she nodded.  “Please hurry,” she murmured.  “I’ll have to clean him up as best I can.”

“Oh, this won’t take long,” Ben promised and once Marie had left, he again placed the toddler across his knee and planted five firm smacks across the boy’s backside.  Then he crossed the hall and delivered the sobbing child to his mother’s care.

“Please go ahead and see that the food is properly placed,” Marie requested.  “I will be along as soon as I can.”

“I will,” Ben said.  Then he cupped Little Joe’s chin in his palm.  “Joseph, don’t give Mama any more trouble, or you and I will have another conversation like the one we just had.  You understand, naughty boy?”

Rubbing his fists in his eyes, Little Joe nodded.

Marie carried the toddler to the table and, setting him on it, began to unbutton the blue frock.  “What is Mamá going to do with you?” she scolded gently.

“Oh, my, my,” Nelly Thomas chuckled from the kitchen doorway.  She walked to Marie’s side.  “The little sugarfoot’s been into mischief again, I see.”

“What am I going to do?” Marie asked mournfully.

Nelly took the dress that Marie had pulled off Little Joe.  “Oh, this’ll wash out,” she said, “and be good as new by the time the celebration’s over.”

“But I have nothing else to put on him!” Marie wailed.

Nelly laughed.  “I thought you’d learned long ago to bring extra duds when you travel with this magnet for mud puddles.”

Marie sat in the kitchen chair, shaking her head.  “I do know better, and I laid out a change of clothes for him this morning.  We must have overlooked that bundle in the rush of loading.”

“Me go this way, Mama,” Little Joe offered, swinging his bare legs off the table edge.  “Hot outside.”

Nelly tweaked his nose.  “I think we can do better than sending you out in your underwear, you scamp.”  She gave Marie’s arm a consoling pat.  “I’ll see what I can find upstairs.  I still have some of Bobby’s things.”

Marie gasped.  “Oh, are you sure, Nelly?”  As a mother who had lost a child herself, she knew how the other woman must treasure her few keepsakes of the child who had died along the trail.

“I’m sure,” Nelly said and left before she had to say more.  Though little Bobby had died years ago, his memory still tugged at her heart.  Soon she returned with a small brown and yellow plaid shirt.  “It’s not fancy,” she said, holding it out for Marie’s approval, “but it’s clean.”

Marie turned from the sink, where she was scrubbing the stain from Little Joe’s own dress.  “Fancy doesn’t matter at this point,” she sighed, giving up her dream of showing off her beautiful baby boy to the assembled citizens of Carson City.  “Could you dress him, Nelly?”

“Glad to,” the older woman said.  More than glad, she might have added, for a moment feeling as though she were once again dressing the little boy who had first worn this shirt.  She fastened the final button and lifted Little Joe so he was standing on the table.  “There now, that’s not bad at all,” she commented as she rolled up the sleeves.

Marie smiled at the little boy dressed in a shirt that almost reached his ankles.  Bobby had been four when he died and obviously a bigger child than her boy, but the ill-fitting, makeshift garment only made Little Joe look like an adorable ragamuffin.

Little Joe surveyed his new apparel with delighted approval.  A shirt—a real shirt—just like Pa and Adam and Hoss wore!  It only lacked one thing to make it perfect.  “Britches, Aunt Nelly?” he asked eagerly.

Nelly just laughed.  “Younguns your size don’t wear britches,” she teased.

“Uh-huh,” Little Joe insisted.  “Got big boy shirt; need big boy britches.”

“Now, Sugarfoot,” Nelly soothed, “all baby boys wear dresses ‘til their breechin’, and that’s a year or two away for you.”

“Not a baby!” Little Joe screamed with a stamp of his small foot, a gesture he had obviously copied from his mother.

“Little Joe, that will be quite enough,” Marie said firmly.  “You have caused much trouble already, and you would be wise to think carefully before causing more, or Papá may again decide to put something besides britches on your little bottom.”

Little Joe instantly adopted the expression of a cherub, and his complexion faded from fiery red to rosy pink.  “Good boy, Mama,” he promised earnestly.

Marie giggled at the swift transformation and gave him a kiss.  “Well, do try, mon petit, for at least a few minutes.”

By the time the trio arrived at the town square, Little Joe was all sunny smiles again.  “Lookee, Pa,” he announced, tugging on his borrowed garment as he and his mother approached Ben.  “Me got real shirt; need real britches, doncha think?”

Ben laughed and reached for his baby boy.  “Oh, you are a real sight, all right.”

“Is he not?” Marie asked, trying to sound perturbed and failing completely.

Ben turned so that Little Joe was facing the man standing at his side.  “Now, you apologize to Uncle Clyde for stealing his tobacco.”

Little Joe frowned.  “Not steal; just borrow, Pa, like you.”

Clyde cackled.  “Like father, like son, huh?  Well, I don’t want any used tobacco back from either of you.”

Ben scowled at his longtime friend.  “How am I supposed to teach him right from wrong with that kind of support?”

Clyde Thomas reached around Ben to wag Little Joe’s loose shirttail.  “Oh, I reckon he learned his lesson pretty well this time.  You ain’t gonna borrow Uncle Clyde’s chewing tobacco any more, are you, mischief?”

Little Joe shook his head vigorously.  “Nasty,” he declared.  “Don’t want no more never!”

“Well, that’s some solace, I suppose,” Ben muttered.

Marie had been glancing around the plaza and had spotted Adam and Billy across the green, talking to Sally Martin and Mark Wentworth, but not the other boy her eyes were seeking.  “Where is Hoss?  He was to meet us here.”

“Oh, he’s still over with the Ellises, I suppose,” Ben replied.  “Laura’s baking all the pies for the contest again, I hear, so I imagine Hoss is quite content to stay within sniffing range of those.”

“Oh, there they are now,” Marie said.  The smile that touched her lips tilted sideways in puzzlement.  “But who is that holding Laura’s arm?” she asked.

Nelly Thomas looked at the group leaving the bakery where Laura Ellis regularly worked.  “Oh, that’s George Dettenrieder,” she said.  “Lives south of here, over to Gold Canyon.  I’ve seen him hanging around the bakery a lot lately,” she confided with a significant nod.

Even without the gesture, Marie’s feminine curiosity was immediately aroused.  “Why is that, I wonder?” she probed.

“Probably got a fondness for good, hot bread,” Clyde joshed.

“Perhaps,” Marie smiled, determined not to take the bait.  She brushed her dark merino skirt smooth.  “Well, it is time Hoss remembered to join his own family.  I shall just have to go speak to him.”

“Oh, yes,” Ben snickered.  “Hoss always needs help finding his way to the table.”

“Today it would seem he does,” Marie retorted briskly and swished away.

The façade was well in place as Marie sauntered up to her friend.  “Bonjour, Laura,” she said.  “Hoss seems to have forgotten that I told him to return before the food was served, so I have come for him.  I trust he has not been too much trouble.”

“Not a bit,” Laura assured her friend warmly.  Seeing Marie’s curious glance at her companion, she made quick introductions.

“It is a pleasure to meet you, Monsieur Dettenrieder,” Marie said, offering him her hand, which he gave a hearty shake.  “If you will excuse me, however, it is time that Hoss and I found our places at the table.”

“Time for all of us,” George Dettenrieder suggested.

“I wanna eat with Jimmy, okay?” Hoss inserted.

Seeing the swift exchange of looks that passed between Laura and George, Marie instinctively knew the last thing they wanted was another little boy to look after.  “No, Hoss, your father is expecting us, but if Jimmy would like to join us, he would be most welcome.”

“Can I, Ma?  Please?” six-year-old Jimmy begged.

Flashing her friend a grateful smile, Laura readily agreed and went off on the arm of what was obviously her beau as Marie herded both boys back to where most of the Cartwright and Thomas families were gathering.  Adam and Billy weren’t there, having evidently decided to eat with the Martins and Mark Wentworth, instead.

“How come you’re dressed like that?” Hoss asked as soon as he saw Little Joe.

“Shh,” Little Joe whispered, holding a finger to his lips.  “Me make a little mess.”

“Huh! Like always,” Hoss snuffled.

Ben set Little Joe between Hoss and Jimmy at the table and admonished them to watch him.  “Hold our places, boys.  We won’t be long.”

“I’ll watch them, Uncle Ben,” Inger assured him in her most womanly manner.

Ben smiled.  “You do that, Inger.  Make them behave—especially this one.”  He rubbed Little Joe’s neck.  Then he took Marie’s arm and followed Clyde and Nelly to the line that was forming at the food tables.

“‘Won’t be long,’ my foot,” Hoss grumbled to Jimmy.  “Just look at that line!”

“Yeah, how come kids always gotta go last?” Jimmy complained.

“Beats me,” Hoss returned.  “Kids are still growin’, so we oughta get first crack at the vittles, but we always gotta take the leavin’s at a shindig like this.”

“Ain’t it the truth?” Inger added, joining forces with her own age group now that the adults were gone.

“Yeah, but at least you’ll get plenty of pie,” Jimmy grinned at Hoss, “bein’ in the contest.”

“That’s one good thing,” Hoss crowed happily.

As they fell into line, Ben leaned close to Marie’s ear.  “So, is romance in the air again?”

“Again?” Marie asked with a smile.

Ben nodded up the line at a black-haired man with a T-shaped mustache and the tousle-headed girl at his side, who looked almost like an Indian, although she was not.  “Thee and Margaret still count as newlyweds, don’t they?”

“I suppose,” Marie laughed.  The Winters, neighbors whose Rancho del Sierra was situated just north of Washoe Lake, had only been married four months.

“A disgrace, that’s what it is,” Nelly Thomas turned to comment, voicing an opinion they’d heard before.  “A girl of fifteen married to that old man.”

“Old man!” Ben hooted.  “Thee’s two years younger than I am!”

“Yes, and you’re too old to be married to some slip of a girl,” Nelly insisted.

Ben circled Marie’s waist and gave her a squeeze.  “Oh, I don’t know.  This slip of a girl doesn’t seem to mind an old man like me.”  Marie smiled back warmly.

“Marie’s years older than Margaret, and you know it,” Nelly snorted.  “How Thee expects that child to stepmother his boy when she ain’t but three years older than him is beyond me.”

“It can be difficult,” Marie said, recalling her early struggles to win the acceptance of her stepson Adam, who was only six years younger than she.

“But worth the effort, I hope?” Ben asked.

Marie briefly touched her golden head to his broad shoulder.  “Mais oui.  Worth every effort,” she said softly.

The four friends reached the head of the line, filled their plates and returned to the table.  Hoss, Jimmy and Inger immediately jumped up and aimed for the end of the line, and Little Joe was just swinging his short leg over the bench to give chase when Marie swooped him into her lap.  “Me eat, too, Mama,” Little Joe protested, squirming.  “Kids’ turn now!”

Mamá has food for you, mon petit,” Marie said.

Little Joe frowned as he realized his mother intended to feed him off her own plate.  Just like a baby, he grumbled internally, wondering when his parents would ever realize that he was past that stage.  As his stomach grew more content, however, he found himself realizing there were some advantages to being little.  He was already getting full, while the trio of older children still hadn’t started eating.

A couple of large-boned men sat down across from the Thomases.  “Ben, you met these fellers yet?” Clyde asked.

“No, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure,” Ben said with a welcoming smile.

“New settlers,” Clyde said.  “Got some property around that spring in the southeast corner of Washoe Valley.”

“That’s good land,” Ben commented.  “I’m afraid Clyde doesn’t make formal introductions, gentlemen.  I’m Ben Cartwright,” he added with a chuckle.

“I am Mathias Fege,” one man said with a thick German accent.

“And I am Jacob Schroeder,” the other added, his accent similar.

“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Ben said.  “You’re partners, then?  Do you intend to farm the land or run cattle?”

“Oh, we will farm,” Fege declared.

“Yah, the miners will be glad to get fresh vegetables, we think,” Shroeder amplified.

Ben nodded.  “They will, indeed.  I wish you well, neighbors.”

“You got land near here, Mr. Cartwright?” Matthias Fege inquired.  “You farm, too, maybe?”

Ben laughed.  “No, you’ll get no competition from me.  I’m a rancher, and all I grow is hay for my stock and a truck garden for my family’s use.”

“Well, maybe you won’t want to do even that once you see our produce,” Shroeder suggested with a wide grin.  “We have just begun planting our orchards, so you will have to wait to taste our fruit, but before long, we will have green vegetables to sell.”

“I’ll look forward to seeing them,” Ben said, mostly to be polite.  So far, the Ponderosa had always been able to produce enough to meet the needs of everyone who lived on it.

As he ate, Ben let his gaze wander down the tables, seeing faces both new and familiar.  So many people, like these German farmers, Peter Marquette and his family and the widow O’Neill and her youngsters, had come to western Utah since the Mormon exodus, but Ben noticed the faces of long-time residents mingled among them.   Some, like James Sturtevant and Dick Sides, he had come to respect, in spite of past disagreements.  Others, Dick’s volatile brother William among them, he steered clear of, wanting to avoid trouble.  Then there were those whose sight he could barely tolerate.  Rough Elliott headed that list, for Ben found it hard to forgive the man for his role in the hanging of Lucky Bill Thorrington and the beating he’d ordered given to Ben when he tried to resist that piece of vigilante justice.

Hoss, Jimmy and Inger had just arrived back at the table, when a distinguished-looking man rose to speak.  “Are you enjoying the good food, folks?” Abraham Curry, founder of Carson City, began.  After a chorus of affirmative responses, he continued, “Well, you go right on enjoying it, then.  I want to say just a few words in honor of the occasion.”

“Few,” Clyde scoffed.  “Abe Curry don’t know the meaning of the word.”  His wife swatted his hand in rebuke, but Curry soon proved the point by droning on until a number of people just got up and headed back to the food tables for second helpings.

Curry took the hint.  “That’s right, folks,” he said.  “We don’t want any of this fine food to go to waste, so help yourselves to more as long as you’ve got room to hold it.  We’ll be starting the contests in about half an hour, shooters at the south end of the plaza and pie-eaters over by the Pioneer Hotel, whose bakery has supplied all the pastries for the contest.  The two contests will be going on simultaneously, so decide which you’d like to see and head on over.”

“Well, I wasn’t expecting that,” Ben commented with a hint of irritation.  “I’d planned to watch both my boys compete, but they’re making it difficult.”

A small hand tugged at his sleeve.  “Pa, Pa,” Little Joe demanded insistently.

“Yes, son?” Ben asked, rescuing his shirt from the clutching fingers.  “Don’t tell me you want Pa to watch you, too, ‘cause I’ve already got a problem on my hands.”

“Me fix, Pa,” Little Joe declared earnestly.  “Me watch Hoss.”

Ben guffawed.  “As my substitute?  Well, it’s a solution of sorts, I guess.”  He turned to his middle boy.  “How about it, Hoss?  Will you settle for Little Joe watching you?  I’d really like to see that shooting contest.”

“I don’t care who watches me,” Hoss said, tucking in a final bite of mashed potatoes.  “I’m gonna be too busy to pay that any mind.”

“I will watch you, Hoss,” Marie laughed gently, “and keep your little brother out of your pie.”

“Yeah, you might better do that,” Hoss snickered.  “He can get into things at the worst times.”

“Unh-uh,” Little Joe denied.  “Me not get in things.”

His mother tweaked the borrowed shirt he was wearing.  “No?  Then, why are you in this?” she giggled.  She set him on the ground and took his hand as she led him, Hoss, and Jimmy toward the Pioneer Hotel.  Ben, Clyde, Nelly, Inger and Sally all headed the opposite direction for the shooting contest, in which Adam, Mark and Billy had all signed up to compete.

Laura Ellis gave her friend a warm kiss on the cheek as they met in front of a table loaded with pies.  “I have to stay close,” Laura explained, “to get a fresh pie to each contestant whenever he finishes one.”

“I will help you,” Marie said.

“Thanks.  You never know; they might all be yelling for more at the same time!” Laura laughed.  Looking down at her son, she gave instruction.  “Jimmy, take Little Joe down where he can watch Hoss, and hold tight to his hand.”

“Yeah, I will, Ma,” Jimmy promised.  “Come on, Little Joe.”  Happy to be trusted out of his mother’s grasp, Little Joe willingly toddled along with the older boy.

The contest started, each man cramming in pie as fast as he could.  Hoss, the only youngster in the contest, didn’t rush.  Not expecting to win, he planned to savor every bite.

Little Joe, on the other hand, would have none of that.  Jumping up and down, he yelled, “Eat fast, Hoss!  They beatin’ you.”  Mostly to please his little brother, Hoss speeded up his jaw action.

Standing back, waiting for fresh pies to be needed, Marie leaned toward her friend.  “I see your Monsieur Dettenrieder is in the contest.  Is it you or your pie he favors most?”

“Now, what kind of question is that?” Laura chided playfully.

“Ben was asking me if romance was in the air,” Marie commented, then asked softly, “Is it?”

“Maybe,” Laura replied with a demure smile.  “George is a fine man, a widower, and he has been attentive of late, but he hasn’t spoken of matrimony yet.”  Seeing two of the men finish off their respective pies, both Marie and Laura hurried to replace the empty pans with fresh ones.

“And if he did speak of matrimony, would you accept?” Marie asked as they waited for the next man in need of a pie.

“I’m not sure,” Laura said.  “After James died, I didn’t expect to marry again, but I guess enough time’s gone by that I’m willing to consider it.”

Marie smiled.  “I happen to think second marriages are the best,” she said.

Laura gave her hand a squeeze.  “Yes, but your first wasn’t as happy as mine, dear girl.  That makes a difference.  Still, it would make life easier, and Jimmy needs a father.”

“You would not marry for that reason,” Marie said.  “I know you too well.”

“No, no more than Ben married you to provide a mother for Hoss and Adam,” Laura agreed.  “Oh, speaking of mothers, had you heard that Eilley Bowers is one now?”

“I knew her time must be close,” Marie returned, “but, no, I had not heard.  Boy or girl?”

“A little boy, John Jasper, but so puny I fear he may not thrive.”  Laura cast an eye down the tables.  “Ah, more men in need of pies, I see.”  Again, she and Marie joined forces to rush pies to the table of hungry contestants.

“Mama, Mama!” a small voice called insistently as Little Joe, having broken away from his keeper, ran up to his mother.  “Hoss need mo’ pie!”

Mais oui, mon petit, I will get him one,” Marie laughed, “and you take Jimmy’s hand again, as you were told.”

Jimmy Ellis made a grab for the small hand and yanked Little Joe back into place.  “Be good for a change,” he dictated.  Ignoring Jimmy, Little Joe began once more to jump and cheer for Hoss.

Meanwhile, across the plaza, the contestants had taken their places for the shooting contest.  “Might as well have saved yourselves the entry fee,” Billy boasted to his two friends.  “Prize is as good as mine.”

Adam snorted.  “Oh, you think so, do you?  You’re as big a braggart as ever, Billy Thomas.”

Billy smoothed an affectionate hand down the barrel of his rifle.  “Stands to reason, old buddy.  You’ve had your nose in the books so long you’re bound to be out of practice, and Mark here is new to soldiering, so I figure he ain’t even up to your standard.”

Adam grinned back.  “You’re about to see how out of practice I am, buddy boy, but I’m glad to hear you think we’re your only competition, ‘cause I know I can beat you.”

Rubbing his jaw, Billy surveyed the rest of the field.  “I’m not too worried about the old men, but that Marquette kid might make a contest of it, all right.”

“Kid?”  Adam laughed.  “He’s our age, isn’t he?”

“Closer to yours than mine, kid,” Billy replied with a mischievous wink.  Knowing that Billy was almost exactly one year older than Adam, both Adam and Mark Wentworth laughed.

“The important question is whether he can shoot,” Mark pointed out.

Billy gave a grim nod.  “Yeah, I’m afraid he can.  He fought with the Carson Rifles alongside me and seemed like a fair shot—as best I could judge between dodging Paiute bullets.”

Mark shook his head in dismay.  “I’m beginning to wonder why I signed up for this.”

“Oh, we know, don’t we, Adam?”  Billy cackled with mischievous glee.  “Showin’ off for something blue-eyed and beautiful, that’s what!”

“That’s right,” Adam quickly agreed, smiling at his friend in uniform.

Mark laughed.  “All right.  I admit it, but I’ve got a feeling I won’t make much of a showing, with the likes of you two and that other fellow to shoot against.  Been spending more time helping to patch up bullet holes than I have shooting, of late.”  His evaluation proving true, Mark was eliminated after the first round, but his lack of prowess did not seem to diminish him one iota in Sally Martin’s adoring eyes.  When she slipped her arm through his and stood beside him to watch the remaining shooters, Mark felt that he’d won first prize, after all.

As the contestants lined up for the third and final round, Adam found himself standing next to the Marquette boy, who was as good a shot as Billy had feared.  “You’re doing some pretty straight shooting, Marquette,” he said.

The Marquette boy flushed to the tips of his ears, which stuck out from beneath an unruly thatch of muddy-brown hair.  “Uh, thanks.  You, too—Cartwright, isn’t it?”

“Adam.”  He thrust out his right hand.

The other boy awkwardly switched his rifle into his left hand and closed his fingers around Adam’s outstretched palm.  “Ross.  Ross Marquette.”  He flushed again.  “Oh, you knew that, already.”

Adam chuckled.  “Just half of it, and I can’t go on calling such a fine marksman ‘that Marquette kid.’”

“Kid?”  Ross Marquette frowned.

Adam laughed aloud at the look on the other fellow’s face.  “Not my description, you understand.  You’ve met my loud-mouthed friend, Billy Thomas, I presume, the one shooting now?  To him, we’re both kids, he being so much older, you see.”

Ross laughed, too, then.  “Guess we’ll have to show that old man what two kids can do, then!”

A loud voice interrupted the laughter.  “Ross!  Get your mind back on your business, boy!  You’re up next.”

Ross Marquette flinched.  “That’s my pa.  Look, it’s nice talkin’ to you, Cartwright, but like he says, I got to concentrate now.”

“Sure,” Adam said, a furrow forming in his brow.  Peter Marquette was staring at his son with narrowed and almost severe gaze as Ross went to the line and took aim.  It had to be making the boy nervous, Adam figured, so he wasn’t surprised when Ross’s shot went wide of the target and he was eliminated.  “Tough luck,” Adam said as the downcast boy moved back from the line.

“Uh, yeah,” Ross muttered, sweeping a hank of hair out of his eyes.  “Well, hope your luck’s better, Cartwright.”

“Adam,” he insisted.

“Ross!  Quit your jawin’ and git over here,” Peter Marquette demanded.

“Uh, gotta go,” Ross said quickly, keeping his voice low.  He loped toward his father, and Adam was shocked to see the man swing a none-too-gentle swipe at his new friend’s backside.  What was the matter with Peter Marquette?  It was only a contest, meant for fun, and Ross had done very well, right up until his father had butted in and made him nervous.

“Next up, Adam Cartwright,” called the announcer, and Adam approached the line to the cheers of his father and friends.

Within an hour both pie and shooting contests were finished, and the Cartwrights met back at their buckboard to begin the journey home.  “How’d you do, Adam?” Hoss asked eagerly as his father and older brother walked up.

“Your brother took first prize,” Ben announced proudly, clapping his eldest son on the back.

“Hurray!” Hoss hollered.

“H’ray!” shouted his younger echo.

“Thanks,” Adam said, “but I was lucky to win.  That Billy’s a crack shot.  Mine was just a hair closer to the center of the target in the final round.  They even had to measure to be sure.”

“Well, you was best, anyway,” Hoss declared loyally.

“And how about you?” Adam asked Hoss, lifting his youngest brother into the back of the buckboard as Ben assisted Marie to the seat and walked around to mount the other side.  “How’d you make out with the pies?”

“Hoss best, too, Adam!” Little Joe declared.

“You’re kidding!” Adam exclaimed.

“He don’t know what he’s sayin’,” Hoss replied, crawling in the back end.  “I did better than I figured I would, though.  Came in third.”

“See?  Hoss best!”  Little Joe insisted.

“Third place against grown men?”  Adam whistled.  “I’m with you, Little Joe.  When it comes to eating, Hoss is the best.”

“Told you,” Little Joe smirked at his middle brother.

Ben looked over his shoulder from the seat of the buckboard.  “Well, get in, Adam, if you want a ride over to the Thomases.”  Adam had left his horse in his friend’s barn and walked the short distance to the plaza, as the rest of the family would have had there been no food to transport.

“No, I’m not leaving yet,” Adam said, but after seeing his father’s frown, he quickly added, “if that’s all right with you.”

“What are your plans?” Ben asked.

Adam shrugged.  “No plans.  Just gonna hang around town awhile, talk to my friends a little more.”

“Will you be home for supper, Adam?” Marie inquired quickly, trying to forestall any conflict between father and son.

“Kind of doubt it,” Adam replied.  “I’ll probably eat at either the Thomases or Martins.”

“Don’t stay out too late,” Ben admonished as he picked up the reins.

“I won’t,” Adam called to the departing buckboard.

Before leaving town, Ben swung by his friends’ home to drop off their dishes, since all the food had been carried to the plaza in one buckboard.  He and Hoss helped carry Nelly’s kitchenware inside while Marie struggled to separate a disappointed Little Joe from Bobby’s shirt and redress him in his own frock, now clean and dry.  “Rest a spell before you head out,” Nelly suggested when the Cartwrights prepared to leave.

“No, better not,” Ben said, almost automatically.  “It’s a long drive, and we should get started.”

Not having expected to be taken up on her invitation, Nelly nodded easy acceptance of the explanation.  She followed the Cartwrights out to their wagon and, with a hesitant look at Marie, added a final comment.  “You think about what I said, Ben.  You don’t want to be raisin’ a pack of heathens.”

Marie cocked her head quizzically at her husband, but Ben made no response other than standard words of farewell.  When they were outside town, Marie asked, “What did she mean about raising a pack of heathens?  Was she upset about Little Joe’s behavior?”

“No, of course not,” Ben scoffed.  “Having raised Billy, she’s had plenty of experience with mischievous little boys.”

“Then what?” Marie pressed.

Ben took a deep breath.  “While we were watching the shooting, we heard that there were going to be revival services here in Carson on the fifteenth.  Nelly was very excited about it and suggested it was time our boys had some religious training.”

Marie sat up stiffly.  “Some Protestant religious training.  That is what she meant, is it not?”

“Now, Marie, don’t take it that way,” Ben urged.

“I have always thought we were doing a fine job of teaching our sons the right way of life,” Marie said haughtily.  “They are not heathen!”

“There are times I wonder,” Ben laughed, trying to lighten the discussion.  When he saw that his wife continued to glower, he tried a different approach.  “My love, you are a good and godly woman, and you are doing a fine job with our boys.  No one doubts that.”

“For a Catholic, you mean?” Marie demanded.

“Marie, don’t be like this,” Ben pleaded.  “Have I ever given you reason to think I felt anything but respect for your beliefs?”

Marie quieted at once.  “No, mon mari, you have not, but others do not think as you do.”

“I don’t care what the rest of the world thinks, so long as you and I are at peace over this issue,” Ben said.

Marie nodded.  “We will be at peace, however hard we must work for that peace.”  She was silent for a few moments and then asked, “These services?  You would like to go?”

“We have so few opportunities to attend church,” Ben stated before answering more directly.  “Yes, I would like to go, and I would like to take my family with me—my whole family, if you’re willing.”

Marie sighed, feeling hesitant, but not wanting to deprive her husband of something he so obviously wanted.  “Oui,” she agreed at length.  “I will try your style of worship, mon amour, but you must not expect my own preference to change.”

Ben leaned over to kiss her cheek.  “I promise I won’t,” he said tenderly.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Notes

The following people are historical settlers of western Utah, as Nevada was known in 1860:  Theodore Winters and his new wife Margaret, Matthias Fege, Jacob Shroeder, the O’Neill family, James Sturtevant, W. T. C. (Rough) Elliott and Richard and William Sides, as well as Abraham Curry, the founder of Carson City.

Laura and Jimmy Ellis are also historical figures, as is George Dettenrieder, her beau in this chapter.  While I had indicated in a previous volume of Heritage of Honor that Laura was near Marie’s age, subsequent research in the 1880 census has revealed that she would actually have been more than twenty years older.  The real Laura Ellis was forty-five in 1860.

Ross Marquette is a character from the Bonanza episode, “The Dark Gate” by Al C. Ward.  All other members of his family are inventions of the author.

CHAPTER THREE

An Opportunity to Stretch Out Stakes

            Dressed in a well-fitting gray suit, Adam leaned through the doorway to Hoss’s bedroom.  “You better get a move on,” he cautioned the younger boy.  “Pa’s ready to leave, and Marie will be as soon as she finishes dressing Little Joe.”

“That’ll take awhile,” Hoss muttered, “fancy as she’s primpin’ him up.”  Then, as Adam moved back into the hall, the younger boy called, “Hey, help me with this fool tie, okay?”

Adam turned around and walked over to his brother.  “Sure.”  He took the two ends of the brown string tie and looped them expertly into a loose bow.  “There you go.”

“Thanks,” Hoss said.  “Don’t see why we gotta dress up for this revival thing.”

Adam shrugged.  “Folks dress for church.  It’s tradition or something, I guess.”

“You been before?”

“Some,” Adam replied, sitting on Hoss’s bed and tucking one leg under the other.  “We used to go with your ma—the one who gave birth to you, I mean—when we lived in St. Joe.  This may be different, though, because she was Lutheran and this preacher’s Methodist-Episcopal, Pa says.”

Hoss shook his head, confused.  “And which of them is heathens?” he asked.

Adam laughed.  “Neither one.  They’re both Christian churches.”

Annoyed by his brother’s obvious amusement, Hoss scowled.  “What is heathens, then?”

Adam smiled mischievously.  “You and Little Joe come to mind as prime examples,” he suggested with a soft laugh.

Hoss doubled his fist.  “Quit makin’ fun of me,” he demanded.

Adam held both hands protectively before his face.  “Okay, okay,” he chuckled.  “Peace, little brother.  Where’d you hear that word, anyway?”

Hoss unclenched his fist and leaned toward Adam.  “That’s what Aunt Nelly’s afeerd we’re gonna be if we don’t come to this revival meetin’,” he whispered.

“That’s silly,” Adam muttered.  He patted the bed beside him and Hoss sat down.  “A heathen is—well”—he searched for some way to express the meaning simple enough that Hoss might understand—”well, someone who doesn’t believe in God and, of course, we do.”

“Sure we do,” Hoss declared.  “Everybody knows there’s a God.”

“Not everybody,” Adam stated, “but most folks around here are believers, so don’t you go calling anyone a heathen, you hear?”

“I don’t call folks names,” Hoss protested.  Having been called some unpleasant names himself, he felt incensed by the suggestion that he could do something so hurtful.

“No, I know you don’t, buddy,” Adam said, giving the chunky lad beside him a quick hug.  “But sometimes when you throw around words you don’t understand, you can hurt people without meaning to.  That’s what I meant.”

Hoss smiled up at the big brother he had admired as long as he could remember.  Then his brow puckered in thought as he recalled other words he’d recently heard without understanding.  “Adam, what’s a prostant?”

“Huh?” Adam asked.

“A prostant,” Hoss repeated.  “You know all kinds of words, so I figured you’d know.  I—I think Pa is one—and Ma ain’t.  She’s something like a cat lick.”

Adam doubled over, cackling, and Hoss clenched his fist once more, this time pounding his brother’s back.  “Okay, okay, hold up,” Adam begged, trying to bring his laughter under control.  “It’s not cat lick, Hoss.  Marie is a Catholic, and Pa’s Protestant.  That must be the other word you meant.”

“Okay, so what they mean?” Hoss demanded.  “Which one’s a heathen?”

Adam ruffled his fingers through Hoss’s sandy hair.  “Neither one, buddy.  They’re just different ways of worshipping God.”

Hoss shook his head, still obviously confused.  “Sure must be a bunch of different ways,” he sighed.

“Yeah, buddy, there are.”  Adam patted his brother’s knee.  “Time you got a look at one, I guess.  We’d better get downstairs.”

* * * * *

Fingers shaking inside delicate lace gloves, Marie retied her hat ribbons as the buckboard pulled up before the large tent that had been erected for the revival services in Carson City.  Looking around at the other worshippers entering the makeshift place of worship, she knew instantly that the hat had been a mistake.  Though she’d worn it regularly when she attended church in New Orleans, the wide brim and elaborate ornamental feather looked out of place among the homemade poke bonnets.  She could feel the eyes of every woman on her as Ben helped her down.

Marie shook the wrinkles from her maroon dress, the bodice and sleeves of which were covered in lace one shade lighter.  Though she’d only wanted to look her best, to combat a little of her nervousness, she decided with a sigh that she’d obviously tried too hard.  While the dress was tailored along simple lines, the fabric and accessories made it stand out even among the dark poplins and silks worn by the better-dressed women, much less the faded calicos of those less well off.

Ben lifted Little Joe down from the wagon, and Marie smiled as she took his small hand.  Her child, at least, looked exactly as he should, although he obviously didn’t share her appreciation for the cream-colored dress with six tiny tucks on each side of the row of pearl buttons down the front.  Ben took her opposite arm, and they walked into the tent together, with Adam and Hoss following.

Moving down the narrow aisle, flanked on both sides by long, wooden plank benches, the Cartwrights saw Nelly Thomas stand to wave them forward.  To Marie’s dismay, the Thomases were sitting just three rows from the front, but she gave her friend a strained smile as she guided Little Joe down the row toward the older woman.

Nelly caught the little boy up and gave him a hug and a kiss, which Little Joe promptly returned.  “My, you’ve sure got our little sugarfoot decked out fine this morning,” Nelly observed.

“I think I picked well—for him, at least,” Marie said quietly.  Looking down at her own frock, she added, “I fear I have overdressed for the occasion.”

Sensing the younger woman’s need for reassurance, Nelly squeezed her hand warmly.  “Not at all, not at all.  You look right fine, honey lamb, and so does your little one.”  Nelly had learned long ago that there was no quicker way to bring a smile to Marie’s face than to compliment her beautiful baby.

As the two ladies sat side by side on the rough bench, Clyde leaned around his wife.  “You did bring little mischief a spare this time, didn’t you?” he chuckled.  Young Inger, seated beyond her father, giggled, and Marie returned the laughter.

Mais oui,” she said, the familiar teasing easing her tension a little.  “I have learned to check that most closely.”

Little Joe squirmed out of Nelly’s lap and started to squeeze past his mother’s knees and then his father’s.  As Ben lifted the little boy into his lap, the youngest Cartwright let loose a squeal of outrage.  “Wanna sit wif my bubbas!” he announced loudly.  Heads turned at the sound, but most simply turned back again once they’d traced its source.

“Shh,” Ben ordered.  “You sit still and be quiet, Joseph.  You’re in church.”

The word had no meaning for Little Joe and gave him no motivation to surrender.  “I wanna sit”—he began firmly, but before he could finish the restatement of his desire, Ben smacked his bare calf, an action his youngest son rewarded with outthrust lip and quivering chin.

“I can hold him, Pa,” Adam offered from the end of the row.

Nelly Thomas beamed her approval as Ben passed the boy over to Adam.  All to the good, she thought.  Now his mother can concentrate on the preachin’.  She patted Marie’s hand.  “I reckon this is all kind of new to you,” she said kindly, “so if there’s anything you don’t understand, you just ask.”

Marie nodded, out of politeness, although she had no intention of accepting that offer.  If ever a situation warranted following the Apostle Paul’s admonition to women to keep silent in the church and wait until they were home alone to ask questions of their husbands, she decided, this must surely be it.  Smiling demurely at Ben, she recalled how, as a young girl, she’d rebelled against the idea of submitting to a man—a rebellion, among others, the Ursuline nuns of New Orleans, in whose orphanage she had been raised, had endeavored long and futilely to quell.

“And if you decide you want to sit on the mourners’ bench,” Nelly was chattering on, “I’ll be happy to go along with you.”

Bewilderment filled Marie’s emerald eyes.  “Mourners’ bench?  But I am not in mourning.  Jean has been dead many years now.”

Nelly drew a sharp breath.  “Oh, honey lamb, that’s not what I meant!”  She could do no more than shake her head at her friend’s appalling ignorance of spiritual matters, however, for the minister was approaching the crudely built pulpit.

After introducing himself and welcoming everyone to the service, the Reverend Jesse L. Bennett led the congregation in several rousing hymns, all of which were new to Marie.  Ben and Adam sang exuberantly along with the others.  Hoss, at first, was too shy to add his voice, but as each song was sung several times, he began to recognize the words and was soon able to repeat them.  Hearing Hoss’s voice break into song was all the motivation Little Joe needed to chime in with discordant syllables that had little resemblance to what the other worshippers were singing.

Adam bent his lips to the little boy’s ear to shush him, but the admonition was only effective until the beginning of the next song.  “Hush or I’ll have to take you out,” Adam warned.

“Okay,” Little Joe piped cheerfully.  He had quickly tired of sitting still and was quite willing to explore the world outside the tent.

Adam grinned, reading his little brother’s thoughts.  “Pa won’t like it,” he advised in a whisper.  “Better be good.”

Little Joe frowned.  It made no sense to him that he alone had to sit quietly and listen when everyone else was making noise.  One glance at his father’s face, however, was enough to confirm that Pa was, indeed, displeased with his behavior, so Little Joe snuggled back into Adam’s protective embrace and popped his thumb into his mouth for extra solace.  Adam rewarded him with a light kiss brushed against his soft curls.

Ben had no cause for complaint about any of his sons’ behavior during the sermon.  Adam was listening intently, and Hoss’s face was screwed up attentively as he tried to understand what was being said.  Little Joe, on the other hand, was simply fascinated by the way the preacher paced back and forth across the front of the tent and even came down the aisle once or twice to make more direct contact with his listeners.  The second time, when the man stopped close to the row on which the Cartwrights and Thomases were seated, the toddler flashed his sweet smile.

The Reverend Jesse L. Bennett proved no more resistant than most people.  Returning the smile, he gestured toward the child as he closed his sermon.  “Friends, this is a picture of the innocence of heart the Savior purchased for you on Calvary.  Come now, like a child; be washed of your sins and receive this innocence into your own heart, I urge you!”

It was all Adam could do to keep a straight face, but feeling certain that no plea of manhood would save him from dire consequences if he laughed out loud during the altar call, he managed to avoid giving vocal expression to his amusement.  He had less success, however, in stopping the twitching of his lips as he mused that had the minister been blessed with a better acquaintance with Little Joe, he’d have chosen a different illustration of innocence.  His baby brother might look like a cherub, but everyone who’d spent more than an hour in his company knew there was definite impishness behind that sweet, little grin.

A number of people, however, seemed to want their hearts to feel as clean and innocent as that child’s, for one by one they made their way to the mourners’ bench to signal their sorrow over their sins and invite the prayers of the godly.  To Nelly’s evident disappointment, Marie was not among them.

At the conclusion of the service, Ben put Adam in charge of his younger brothers and took his wife’s arm.  “I want to thank Reverend Bennett for his message,” he explained as he led her forward.

Mais oui,” Marie agreed quietly.

There had been around seventy people crowded into the tent that morning, so they had to wait a few minutes before Ben had his chance to introduce himself and his wife and express his appreciation to the minister.  “I’m glad you could come, Brother Cartwright,” Reverend Bennett said warmly, then turned toward Marie.  “And you, too, Sister Cartwright.”

Marie’s brow furrowed for a moment, not being accustomed to hearing anyone but nuns addressed by that title.  Another question to ask Ben later, she thought as she gave the minister a mannerly nod.

They made their way outside, Clyde meeting them as soon as they exited.  “Nelly’s gone on to the house to start dinner, but she says to stay and visit with folks as long as you’ve a mind,” he reported faithfully.  “I know I aim to.”

“Oh, but I should help,” Marie said.

“Don’t go yet,” Ben urged.  “I see someone else I’d like you to meet.”

“All right, Ben, but then I should go,” Marie insisted.  “It is not right to leave all the work to Nelly.”

“I agree.”  He took her arm again and steered her toward a thin man in uniform.  “Captain Stewart, how good to see you again,” Ben said warmly as he extended his hand.  “I’d like to introduce my wife, Marie.  Marie, this is Captain Stewart, under whose command I had the privilege to serve during the recent hostilities.”

The captain doffed his slouch hat, revealing a receding hairline above jet-black hair, and bowed slightly.  “My pleasure, ma’am.  Did you enjoy the services?” he asked.

“Well, it was different,” Marie began hesitantly, not quite knowing how to express her feelings, “more—more vigorous than I am accustomed to.”

“My wife is Catholic,” Ben explained, “and this was her first experience with a Protestant revival.”

Marie saw the heads of several women nearby turn when Ben mentioned her religion and watched the Army officer closely to see if his reaction was equally negative.  Captain Stewart, however, merely said, “Ah, I can see why things seemed different to you, then.  You’re probably used to a more ordered service.”

Mais oui,” Marie smiled.  “I do miss that, but there is no Catholic church here.”

“But there is,” Captain Stewart corrected.  “Several men at the post have requested passes to attend Catholic services in or near Virginia City.  I could ask them the exact location if you’d be interested, Mrs. Cartwright.”

“I know where it is,” Ben said quietly.

Marie lifted shocked eyes to her husband’s face.  “You knew, and said nothing?” she demanded, feeling her temper rise.

Ben took her hand and gave it a gentle caress.  “They hold the services inside a mine tunnel, my love.  I didn’t consider that an appropriate place for a lady, so I didn’t mention it.”

“It’s my understanding, Mr. Cartwright, that a small chapel is being planned,” the Army captain offered.

“Indeed?  I’d certainly feel more at ease about my wife’s worshipping above ground.”

Marie gazed longingly into her husband’s eyes.  “Oh, Ben, may we?” she asked eagerly.

Ben nodded.  “We’ll talk more about it later.”

Marie suddenly remembered her desire to help Nelly with the noon meal.  “Oui.  Please excuse me, Captain Stewart,” she said, “but I am expected at a friend’s home.  Thank you so much for telling me of the new church.”

“You’re welcome, ma’am,” Captain Stewart said, bowing again.  Facing Ben, he added, “I had hoped to speak with you about another matter, Mr. Cartwright, if you can spare a few more moments.”

“Certainly,” a curious Ben replied.  “You go ahead, Marie, and I’ll be along directly.”

“I’ll take the boys,” she told him and after looking around for a moment, headed toward Adam, who was talking with Sally Martin.  As she passed a group of ladies, she heard one tell the others in a stage whisper too loud to ignore, “She’s a Papist.”

“Should have guessed,” another commented, “decked out in Popish finery like that!”

Marie lifted her chin and walked past the ladies without a word.  “Where are your brothers?” she asked Adam sharply when she reached him.

Adam looked surprised at the tone.  “They went with Nelly,” he said.

“You were asked to look after them,” Marie snapped.  “It is not right to burden Nelly with their care when she is busy cooking.”  She turned on her heel and stormed off toward the Thomas residence.

Adam whistled.  “What brought that on?” he observed.

Sally shrugged.  “Couldn’t say, but I’d make peace if I were you, Adam.”

“It’d be easier if I knew what I’d done wrong,” Adam laughed.  “Well, I’d better be going.  I have a feeling today is not the day to be late to dinner.”

“Father’s out on a call, so it doesn’t matter when I cook ours,” Sally responded merrily.

“Hey, come on and take dinner with us,” Adam suggested.  “You know Nelly won’t mind, and I could use a buffer.”

Sally shook her head and grinned.  “I think I’ll stay clear of there today.”

Adam gave her a friendly kiss on the cheek and left in the same direction as his stepmother, taking care to keep well behind her, however.

Ben was oblivious to the storm brewing across the plaza, for he found the news Captain Stewart was sharing of vital interest.  “The Army will be staying on, then?” Ben asked.  “In light of the recent problems with the Indians, that will make many people rest easier, sir.”

“Precisely why my troops have been restationed here, Mr. Cartwright,” the captain shared, “and to that end, I’ve been commissioned to supervise the building of a new fort, a project with which I could use your help, sir.”

“My help?” Ben queried.  “I’ll do whatever I can, of course, but I don’t know what I have to offer to such a project, Captain.”

“First, I thought you might supply timber for the buildings, Mr. Cartwright,” the captain returned with a smile.  “I understand you have quite a stand of it on your Ponderosa.”

“Trees I have in abundance,” Ben laughed, “but I’ve always considered myself a rancher, not a timber man.”

“An area you might want to consider, Mr. Cartwright,” Stewart suggested.

“Call me Ben,” Ben requested.

“I’d be pleased to, and you may call me Jasper—except in front of my men, of course.”

“Of course,” Ben readily agreed, “but I thought your given name was Joseph, sir.”

Stewart laughed.  “It is, but I’m Jasper to my friends, and I would like to consider you one.”  Returning to his original subject, he continued, “With the mines going deeper all the time, there’ll be an enormous market for timber, Ben, and a wise man learns to diversify his assets.”

Ben slowly nodded his head.  “Yes, you could be right.  Something to think about.”

“We plan to construct most of the buildings of adobe,” the captain continued, “so not a large amount of timber will be needed.  However, that makes it an ideal project for someone just starting out in the business, and I would prefer to assign it to someone I trust.  I found you to be such a man during the action against the Paiutes.”

The warm praise brought a glow to Ben’s countenance.  “Sir—Jasper—I’d be honored to take on this assignment, and I thank you for thinking of me.”  He extended his hand, and the two men sealed the bargain with a handshake.

“There is one other area in which I’d appreciate your help, although there will be no profit to you in it,” Jasper continued.

“Name it,” Ben said readily.

“Samuel Buckland has recommended a site for the new fort,” the captain explained.  “However, since it is on his own land, I would like an outside opinion.  You’ve been in this area as long as or longer than anyone else I might consult, so I would appreciate your riding out to the site with me and giving me an honest evaluation.”

“I’d be glad to,” Ben said.  “My only concern would be leaving my family for that length of time.  I’ve heard that the Paiutes have been returning to Pyramid Lake.  Do you know if there’s any truth to that rumor?”

“It’s true,” Captain Stewart replied soberly, “and many of them would still like to massacre the white settlers.  Thankfully, we’ve had the assistance of two peace-loving chiefs, who have thus far been able to dissuade their people from further violence—except against the Pony riders and stage stations, of course.”

“Numaga?” Ben asked.

“Yes, and Oderkeo,” Jasper replied.  “I appreciate your concern for your family, Ben, but I doubt they’re in any danger.  If the Paiutes do decide to attack, they’d most likely head in the direction we’ll be going, so you’d have advance warning, as well as a complement of soldiers between the savages and your loved ones.”

“That’s true,” Ben admitted, relaxing.  “In fact, on that basis, perhaps I’ll bring my son along, if you have no objection.  He has quite an interest in structures and might provide some valuable insight.”

“Adam?  A fine lad,” the captain commented, remembering how stalwartly the young man had conducted himself on the journey from California and during the Battle of Pinnacle Mount.  “By all means, bring him with you.”

After a brief discussion the two men decided that the following Friday would be the best time for both of them to examine the proposed site for the new fort and agreed to meet around noon that day at the Big Bend of the Carson River.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Notes

In 1860 the Reverend Jesse L. Bennett preached the first sermon heard in Virginia City.  He had, however, come to western Utah as early as 1859, probably returning to California during the interim.

Captain Joseph (Jasper) Stewart is a historical figure, the first officer in charge of Ft.Churchill.

CHAPTER FOUR

Branching Out

            In order to shorten their ride to the scheduled meeting with Captain Stewart, Ben and Adam spent the night in Carson City with the Thomases and rose early on Friday, July 20th.  Riding south, they reached the Carson River and stopped to water their horses.

Adam stooped down to splash water on his face.  “Gonna be a scorcher,” he commented as he stood.

Ben lowered the just-filled canteen from his lips.  “Days don’t come any other way this time of year, son.  Besides, we need the heat to cure the hay.”

Adam groaned.  “Don’t remind me.  If there’s one job I hate . . .”

Ben clapped his son on the back.  “You and me both, but it has to be done—and right away.  We’re late getting started this year as it is.”

“Well, that couldn’t be helped, Pa,” Adam pointed out.  “All that foul weather this spring meant the grass got a late start.”

Ben chuckled.  “I know, Adam.  I was tromping through that snow right along with you, remember?  And we’ve been playing catch-up with the ranch work we let slide while we were with the army.”

“Now here we are again, giving the army more of our time.”  Adam grinned.

Ben plucked Adam’s black hat brim down over his eyes.  “We’d best get a move on, boy, or the army will be waiting on us.”

Adam pushed his hat back.  “We’ll make it with time to spare,” he said as he gathered the reins of the black gelding and vaulted into the saddle.

Father and son rode east along the river, grateful for the wide shade of the dark-leaved cottonwoods.  As Adam had predicted, they arrived at Buckland’s Station before the appointed time, but Captain Stewart was already there, waiting for them in the tavern.  “Gentlemen, may I offer you some liquid refreshment after your long ride?” the Army officer suggested.

“I’d be pleased to accept,” Ben replied.  “A day as hot as this does give a man a thirst.”

“Adam?” Captain Stewart asked.

Remembering that his father had once requested he not drink until he was eighteen, Adam started to decline.  Before he could answer, however, Ben smiled and said, “You can have a beer if you like—but just one.”

“One’ll be enough,” Adam said, pleased to receive a man’s privilege in the presence of the Army officer.  “Thank you, Captain Stewart.”

“Three beers, Mr. Buckland,” Captain Stewart called to the raw-boned tavern owner, who was standing behind the bar.

“Right away, Cap’n,” Samuel Buckland yelled back, ignoring his one other customer to hastily draw three beers and hustle them to the men who would decide on the sale of his property.  “On the house,” he said as he set the beers on the round, wooden table.  “Wish they was colder, but reckon they’ll wash the dust out’n your throats, anyhow.”

Captain Stewart nodded in acknowledgement, his moderate manner intended to convey that his approval of the sale could not be influenced by a free drink.  Buckland got the message and backed off to let the men finish their beers in private.  When all three mugs were drained, Captain Stewart suggested they head immediately for the proposed site of the new fort.  He left the tavern first, followed by Adam.

Just as Ben was about to exit, he felt a thin arm circle his shoulders.  Turning, he found himself looking into deep-set eyes with a ravenous look about them.  He raised a quizzical eyebrow.

“Now, Ben, you and me’s old pals, ain’t we?” Sam Buckland queried.  “You’re gonna give a good report on my land, ain’t ya?”

Ben gave the younger man a crooked smile.  He’d never considered Sam a “pal,” but he was an old acquaintance, and Ben decided not to take umbrage at the bald-faced attempt to influence his evaluation.  “I’m gonna give it an honest report, Sam,” he said.  “You can be sure of that—and I doubt you’ll be disappointed.”  Ben was familiar enough with the territory that he could almost give his approval, sight unseen, but considered it wise to examine the exact location before he spoke.

The last phrase gave Sam the reassurance he was looking for.  “Uh—yeah—an honest report, that’s all I was askin’, Ben.”

“I’m sure it was,” Ben said, clapping the man’s bony back, and went out quickly to join the others, who were already mounted.  Having seen the byplay at the door, Adam gave him a grin and a wink.  Ben just shook his head, chuckling, and mounted quickly.

The land Sam Buckland hoped to sell the Army was only a mile west of the tavern, so Captain Stewart was soon pointing out the boundaries of the proposed site.  “Well, what do you think, Ben?  Would this be a good place for the fort?”

“Excellent, in my view, Jasper,” Ben said.  “Good water supply, close to a major road, good view of the trail in both directions.  Buckland’s toll bridge means easy access to the opposite side of the Carson River, as well.  The only drawback I see is the proximity of that tavern.  Might encourage drunkenness among the men.”

“Soldiers don’t need much encouragement in that department,” Stewart said with a smile.  “Frankly, if I must haul tipsy soldiers back to the fort, I’d prefer to travel only one mile, as opposed to twenty-five to the saloons of Virginia City.”

Ben laughed heartily.  “That’s a point.”  Suddenly, he realized his son had wandered away from them.  “Adam?” he called.

Adam waved and walked down the slope he’d just climbed.  “I’d build up there, on the elevated ground,” he said as he came up to the other two men.  “Being this close to the river, you’ll want some protection against flooding.”

“Good suggestion, young man,” Captain Stewart said with a smile.  “Your father tells me you have an architectural interest, so while we’re here, I’d appreciate your advice on the layout of the buildings.  Why don’t we sit under the shade of one of those trees by the river, so I can tell you what we plan to build and we can discuss precise locations and the amount of lumber we’ll need you to supply.”

“Sounds good,” Ben said.

The three men sat beneath the circular shade of a large cottonwood and discussed the buildings needed, the best location for each and the timber to be provided by the Cartwrights.  When all was decided, a contract was signed.  “Now, I must get back to Buckland’s Station and finalize the sale of this property,” Stewart said.  “Of course, you understand that your timber contract is contingent upon successful purchase of the land, but I don’t anticipate any problems.”

“I’d be very surprised if Sam gave you problems,” Ben said.  “Having soldiers nearby should significantly enhance his profits, as well as providing additional security.”

Stewart smiled.  “As I said, I anticipate no problems, for those very reasons.  If you’d like to return with me, you could verify the validity of your contract this afternoon, and I’ll gladly buy you each another beer.”

“Thank you, but we’d best be going,” Ben replied.  “I’d like to make another stop on the way home.”

Adam cocked his head curiously, but didn’t inquire into his father’s plans until they were alone.  “I didn’t know we were going anywhere else today, Pa,” he said.

“I didn’t mention it because I wasn’t sure we’d get away in time,” Ben explained.  “I thought I’d ride up through Gold Hill into Virginia City to see if I could learn anything more about that Catholic chapel Captain Stewart mentioned on Sunday.  You needn’t come unless you want to.”

“I’ll ride along with you,” Adam replied.  “Maybe you’ll even treat me to a second beer.”

Ben chuckled.  “I wouldn’t count on it.  Maybe I’ll buy you a nice, cool sarsaparilla.”

“Oh, Pa,” Adam grunted.  He knew he was being teased, but as he considered that beverage more appropriate for a kid Hoss’s age than a man like himself, he didn’t find the offer amusing.

Ben grinned even wider.  “Well, we’ll see,” he said appeasingly.

Adam grinned back, and they rode in companionable silence for several miles.  “We’re sure taking on a load of work,” Adam commented at length.  “Will we be hiring some extra hands?”

“If we can find any,” Ben said.  “With the haying to do and the timber contract to fill, we could use extra help, but it’s still hard for us to compete with those miners’ dreams of making a fortune.  We’ll have to push to get it all done before you leave for school, so you might as well plan on some long days ‘til then, young man.”

Adam licked his lips.  His father had just touched on a topic he’d known for some time that they needed to discuss, but it was still hard to bring it up.  “Pa,” he said quietly after a few minutes’ silence, “I’ve been thinking that maybe I shouldn’t go back to school this year.”

Ben jolted his horse to a stop.  “That’s ridiculous, Adam.  No need for that at all, son.”

“But with all the extra work—”

“We’ll manage,” Ben assured him.

“And what about the Indians?” Adam pressed.  “I’d feel terrible if I left and things got stirred up again.”

Ben scowled.  “The fate of western Utah does not depend upon you, young man, and I don’t need you to patrol the borders of the Ponderosa.  For mercy’s sake, we’re going to have a whole fort full of soldiers to protect us from renegade Indians.”

“But, Pa—”

“Don’t ‘but, Pa,’ me, boy!  You only have one year left at the academy, and it’s ridiculous for you not to finish.”

Adam winced at the term “boy.”  “I was only talking about delaying it, until you could hire more men and until you were certain the territory was secure.  I’d go back and finish my work, of course.”

Ben reached over to squeeze Adam’s shoulder.  “You’d lose your place and have to be put on their waiting list again.  That could mean being out an entire year, Adam.  You made that mistake once; let’s not repeat it.”

Adam turned away, pained by the memory of that previous delay, the one that had occurred when his father brought a new bride home from New Orleans and Adam had overreacted so badly.  “All right, Pa; I’ll go,” he said.

Ben was surprised to hear the sad tone, as Adam had always enjoyed school and been eager to return each fall.  Well, anyone can get tired of a routine, I suppose, he mused.  He patted his son’s back and started riding forward again.  “Cheer up,” he said brightly.  “It’s only one year.  Then you can stay on the ranch forever and help out all you want.”

Dumbfounded, Adam glanced over at his father.  Although he had never specifically mentioned continuing his education beyond the academy, he had assumed that his father understood he wanted to attend college, as well.  After all, what was the point of a preparatory school if you didn’t go on to what it prepared you for?  Now didn’t seem like the right time to bring it up, however.  Maybe Pa felt he’d spent enough money on his oldest son’s education.  Or maybe he needed Adam at home more than he was willing to admit.  Thoughts to ponder, Adam decided, but determined not to speak them aloud until he’d clarified everything in his own mind first.

CHAPTER FIVE

Landslide!

            For the next week everyone on the Ponderosa worked from sunup to sundown.  Ben put his foreman, Enos Montgomery, in charge of the haying crew and took the responsibility for starting up the new timber operation himself.  Although he’d never worked with timber before, he had definite ideas about how to manage tree cutting.  Having seen back east the result of indiscriminate cutting of entire hillsides, Ben had no intention of having the slopes of the Ponderosa similarly denuded.  Therefore, he personally selected the trees to be cut, and while some of the men snickered at the new-fangled notion behind his back, his orders were followed.

To give Adam a break from the hated haying and to acquaint him with a business Ben expected to be a continuing part of ranch life, Ben permitted his oldest son to alternate between the two work forces.  Hoss alone seemed to consider the special treatment unfair, for while he didn’t mind doing his share of work under the hot sun, he had a genuine love for the woods and would have preferred to work beside his father and brother at the timber camp.  Overhearing his grumbling one day, Ben had only laughed and tousled his middle boy’s sandy hair.  “Training one son at a time at a job that’s new to me, too, is about all I can handle, boy,” he’d said.  “Your time’ll come.”

Hoss seemed to accept his father’s explanation, but that concluding sentence failed to work the same magic when addressed to the youngest Cartwright.  Each night at supper Little Joe demanded to go with his father and brothers the next day, and each night he was told that he was too young to do that kind of work.  “Me big now,” Little Joe had protested one evening.  “This many,” he’d added, holding up three fingers.

Marie had mollified his hurt feelings that night by pointing out that three was the perfect age to help her and Hop Sing replant the vegetable garden.  Hop Sing, who’d been serving dessert at the time, had frowned eloquently at the thought of those restless feet tromping down his rows of green beans and peas, but he knew that there was little point in arguing with Missy Cartwright where her baby boy was concerned.  She was as unswerving in her decisions about her child as Ben was in his conservationist attitude toward tree cutting.

By the final Sunday in July, everyone was ready for a break.  Hoss wouldn’t officially turn ten until the next day, but Sunday was a more convenient time for the kind of get-together that had become the traditional celebration for the boy’s birthday.  Feeling more confident this year in his ability to stay afloat, Hoss had requested that the picnic be held at Washoe Lake.  “It’s better for swimmin’,” he’d explained.

“Not as cold, you mean,” Adam had hooted.  Seeing his younger brother’s outthrust lower lip, he’d quickly said, “I think Washoe Lake’s better for swimming, too, Hoss, and more convenient for the other guests.  That’s a great idea you had.”

The invitations had gone out, and all Hoss’s special friends were in attendance, with the sole exception of Billy Thomas, whose duties with the Pony Express wouldn’t permit his coming.  The rest of his family was there, though, along with the Martins, Ellises, Montgomerys and even Mark Wentworth, on a one-day pass from the Army.

While the younger children, under supervision of the men, were swimming and the women were setting out the food, Sally Martin was walking, elbows locked with both Mark and Adam, toward the north end of the lake.  “I want to show Mark the buttercups,” she told Adam.  “He’s never seen them before.”

“They’re worth seeing,” Adam agreed.  Leaning around Sally, he gave Mark a piece of information he was sure the young soldier would find more fascinating than flowers.  “Pa and I plan to make our first delivery to the construction site tomorrow.”

“That’s good news,” Mark responded.  “I’ll sure be glad to have a solid roof over my head again.”

“Yeah, I can imagine,” Adam observed, “and I imagine you’re pretty glad that your unit is going to be assigned here in western Utah for awhile.”  He winked, and Sally gave his arm a reproachful shake.

“Whether Mark is or not, I certainly am,” she declared.  “Now, if I could just change his silly mind about postponing our wedding until his term of enlistment is over, I’d be overwhelmed with happiness.”

“You know my feelings on that,” Mark chided, embarrassed that his fiancé had brought up a matter he considered private, even to as close a friend as Adam.  “I will not try to support a wife on a private’s pay.  Eleven dollars a month is barely enough to keep me alive!”

“Oh, I know,” Sally murmured, laying her head briefly against his shoulder.  “I’m just disappointed.  Five years is an eternity to wait.”  She bobbed up happily again a few moments later.  “Oh, there they are!  Aren’t they beautiful, Mark?” she cried, pointing toward the lake.

“Wow, they sure are!” Mark exclaimed as he caught sight of a thousand golden buttercups hidden among the shimmering shoots of green tule grass that rose ten to twelve feet above the surface of the lake.  “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

The three young people sat down side by side, watching the grass wave in the wind and the yellow flowers peek through the blades like little suns moving in and out of obscuring clouds.  Adam broke off a piece of tule, stripped away its outer stem and began to nibble on the white inner flesh, as his Paiute friend, Sarah Winnemucca, had taught him long ago.  “So, what are your plans after the Army, Mark, besides getting married?” he asked.  “I know Pa’d take you back on as a hand, if ranch work suits you.  We don’t pay miners’ wages, of course, but it sure beats Army pay.”

“Everything does,” Mark laughed.  “I enjoyed working on the Ponderosa last summer, Adam, but I’ve got my sights on something different.”

Sally’s eyes were shining with pride as she said, “Mark’s going to be a doctor, Adam.”

“Well, that’s one way to get in good standing with the girl’s father, I guess,” Adam chuckled.

“Oh, Adam, don’t tease,” Sally scolded.  “Mark’s really interested in medicine—and not just because of me.”

“Matter of the fact, I have your baby brother to thank for sparking my interest,” Mark commented saucily.

“Little Joe?” Adam queried, totally perplexed.  “What could he have to do with your career choice?”

“You remember that spill he took down the stairs last summer?” Mark asked.

“How could I forget!” Adam chortled, tossing away the rest of his piece of tule and leaning back on his elbows.  “Marie about took my head off for letting her precious baby boy take a tumble.”

“Yeah, well, after you rode off, she sent me for the doctor,” Mark continued, “and there was just something about the way he handled the little fellow that made me start thinking about what I wanted to do with my life.”

“And that’s why Mark took a job as an orderly in the hospital at San Francisco,” Sally added.  “He wanted to see if he really did have an interest in medicine.”

“Kind of a baptism of fire,” Mark laughed.  “Boy, the things I saw—not to mention the things I cleaned up!”

“And you still want to be a doctor?” Adam asked.

“Yeah,” Mark said, smiling wistfully.  “I know the work can be grueling, but there’s a lot of satisfaction in helping people.”

“Hey, that’s great!” Adam said enthusiastically.  “I’ll bet Dr. Martin’s pleased as punch.”

“Yeah, he is,” Mark agreed with a grin.  “He’s even loaned me some books, so I can start reading.  I talked with the captain about being assigned to work under the military surgeon, and it looks like that may go through.  Of course, I’d rather have Dr. Martin for my preceptor, but I wanted to make a start as soon as I could, and he says the Army trains good surgeons.  Then, when I’ve finished there, I’ll work under Dr. Martin until he thinks I’m ready for formal training back east.”

Suddenly, a vociferous “No!” cascaded down the lake.  Adam laughed.  “There’s your little inspiration, bellowing about being forced to leave the water before he’s ready.  Have you read enough medicine to know how to treat this particular ailment, Dr. Mark?”

Mark stroked his chin, as if in serious thought.  “I believe a slice of Hoss’s birthday cake will affect a timely cure,” he pontificated.

Adam grinned as he leaped to his feet and reached out to pull his friend up.  “I’d have prescribed a firm swat on the seat of the pants, but you’re the doctor.”  Each boy took one of Sally’s hands and helped her up, the three young people having correctly interpreted that the children’s forced exit from the water meant that it was time to dig into the food.

The ladies had, as usual, prepared an abundance, so even appetites whetted by exercise were completely satisfied by the time Hoss’s birthday cake was consumed.  “I brung stakes and horseshoes,” Clyde suggested when everyone appeared to be finished eating, “and I’m ready to take on all comers.”

“You’re on,” Ben declared forcefully.  “Let’s play in teams.  I’ll take Paul, and you can have George or Enos, Clyde.”

“Not me,” Enos said quickly.  “I promised Katerina we’d walk over and see the buttercups after lunch.”

“Reckon I’ll take George, then,” Clyde returned genially.

“You’re getting the short end of the stick, Ben,” Paul laughed, nodding toward the man who had escorted Laura Ellis and her son to the picnic.  “Mr. Dettenrieder looks like he has a stronger arm than I can boast.”

“Oh, I’ll risk it,” Ben chuckled.

“How about it, Mark?” Adam asked.  “You want to take on the winners?”

“Sure, partner, I’ll give it a try,” Mark returned.

“Hey!  Me and Jimmy wants to play, too,” Hoss protested.  “It’s my birthday.”

“All right, all right,” Ben laughed.  “You and Jimmy test your arms against Mark and Adam before your elders play a round; then the winner of each pair will vie for the championship.  How’s that?”

“Great!” Hoss exclaimed and pulled Jimmy aside to plan their strategy.

Little Joe bounded up and ran over to his middle brother, pushing Jimmy aside.  “Me, me!” he cried.  “Play wif me, Hoss!”

“Aw, you can’t throw a horseshoe, punkin,” Hoss cackled.  “They weigh ‘most as much as you!”

Little Joe’s face turned bright red.  “Can, too!” he screamed.  “Wanna play!”

“Joseph,” Ben said, his tone sharp enough to silence the impending tantrum.

“Ma, can I take Little Joe wadin’,” Inger Thomas asked quickly, “seein’ as how we’re both left out of the game?”

“If it’s all right with Marie, you can,” Nelly said.  “Just don’t go in above the youngun’s knees.”

“That will be fine,” Marie agreed quickly, certain another chance to get in the water would provide just the right distraction for her child’s frustration.

“How ‘bout it, Little Joe?  Wanna wade in the water?” Inger asked.  She leaned over to whisper in the baby’s ear, “We can pick some buttercups, too, for our mamas.”

Little Joe smiled brightly.  “Like flowers, Mama?” he called loudly.

Mais oui, mon petit,” Marie replied with a tinkling laugh as Inger shook her head in disgust at the ruined surprise.

“Come on, blabbermouth,” the little girl sputtered, taking Little Joe’s hand and leading him toward the north end of the lake.

“Well, now that that’s settled,” Ben said, “why don’t you young fellows go first with the horseshoes?”

“Yeah, us old folks could use a rest,” Clyde snickered.  None of the menfolk really rested, though, for those who weren’t playing provided an active and vocal audience for those who were.

“As usual, we women get left with the work,” Laura Ellis laughed as she began to put away the leftover food that she had brought.

“Ain’t it the truth?” Nelly said, with a shake of her head.  She glanced at Marie, who was shaking crumbs from napkins just to her left.  “It’s a shame the Reverend Bennett had to go back to California so soon after the revival,” she commented, “and you only got to hear him that one time.”

Marie smiled back brightly.  “Has Ben not told you the news?  A new Catholic chapel is being built on Sun Mountain.  It should be finished by next month, and we will all be able to attend services there.”

Nelly frowned soberly.  “All of you?  But Ben and the boys ain’t Pap—Catholics.”

Marie’s smile dimmed as she caught the note of disapproval in her friend’s voice.  “Ben has said we will all attend the first time.  Then we will talk afterwards.”

“I see,” Nelly muttered, resolving to have a few private words with Ben about the foolishness of bringing up his sons as Papists.

“Now, ladies, let’s get this food put away quickly,” Laura urged, sensing the charge in the atmosphere and hoping to deflect it.  “I’d like a chance to see how my George can handle a horseshoe.”

“Oh, your George now, is he?” Marie teased, quite willing to lay aside a discussion of religious differences in favor of one about romantic possibilities.  Nelly, too, was eager to hear how the relationship of the courting couple was coming along, and soon all three ladies were whispering over the remains of the picnic.

Adam and Mark, with Sally as an appreciative audience, easily defeated Hoss and Jimmy in the first horseshoe contest, for while Hoss could hold his own in a competition with grown men, Jimmy had only the strength of an average six-year-old.  The second match was more hotly contested, but the team of Thomas and Dettenrieder finally bested that of Cartwright and Martin.

Ben clapped his oldest son on the back.  “Looks like it’s up to you to uphold the Cartwright honor, young man.”

Adam tossed his hat aside and flexed his right arm.  “I’ll do my best, Pa,” he vowed with a grin.

The championship game had barely begun when a low rumble to the northwest made everyone glance across the valley toward the sound.  The rumble grew to a roar, and a cloud of dust billowed into the air.  “Landslide!” Ben shouted.

“Big one,” Clyde agreed.  Because of the excessive snows that winter, the spring thaw had rendered many elevated areas of the region unstable.  While there had been smaller landslides earlier, this one appeared to be of mammoth size.  “Looks like it’s right by the old emigrant trail,” Clyde added.

“Been a lot of traffic on that trail this summer, I hear,” George Dettenrieder observed, looking concerned.  “Might be some folks caught up in it.”

“I’d better go,” Paul Martin announced.  “If there are people injured, prompt medical attention might make the difference.”

“We’ll take my buckboard,” Ben offered.  “It’ll hold all who want to go.”  Paul nodded and ran to his buggy for the doctor’s bag he made a practice of carrying with him.

Ben and Adam quickly hitched the team to their buckboard.  Hoss moved tentatively to his father’s side.  “Pa, can I go, too?” he asked earnestly.

“This isn’t a time for idle gawking, boy,” Ben replied sharply.  “There may be people in need of help.”

“That’s why I wanna go, Pa,” Hoss pleaded.  “I can work ‘most hard as any man, and I wanna help them folks, too.”

Ben turned to look into the boy’s earnest face and felt shame for his hasty remark.  Of course, tender-hearted Hoss would be concerned about possible victims, and he had proven over the last two summers that he was, indeed, almost as strong and hard a worker as any grown man.  “All right, son,” Ben said, laying a loving hand against Hoss’s full cheek.  “I guess I can’t turn down the birthday boy, can I?”

With a beaming face, Hoss ran to the back of the buckboard and climbed in before his father had a chance to give the decision a second thought.

Marie had walked up in time to hear her husband’s last words.  “Ben, I do not think that is wise,” she said.  “He is only a boy.  He may have a man’s body, but his heart is that of a child.”

Ben took her aside and spoke quietly.  “It’s his heart I’m thinking of, Marie.  He has a big, giving heart, just like his mother’s, and it’ll ache unbearably if he’s not allowed to help.”  He pressed her cheeks between his palms.  “Don’t fret, mother hen,” he teased lightly.  “I won’t let anything happen to your rather sizable little chick.”

Marie smiled at the humorous remark, but shook her head as she walked away, wondering why men so rarely realized that the greatest perils weren’t physical, but those that touched the heart, and that those were the hardest to ward away from a child.

Every male but the two youngest piled into the buckboard, Ben and Paul sharing the seat of the wagon.  The others, sprawled in the back, suffered a very bumpy ride, for Ben drove fast, wanting to reach possible victims as quickly as possible.  He turned the wagon onto the emigrant trail and drove west until the landslide itself blocked the trail.

The men climbed out, several whistling at the amount of debris burying the trail that had led many to California.  The granite face of the mountain above the trail had been laid bare, as almost two miles of earth had cascaded down to cover the road.

Hoss hurried to his father’s side.  “We better drive on to the house, don’t you think, Pa?” he queried urgently.  “We’re gonna need shovels to dig anybody out of that!”

“Shovels!” Adam hooted.  “Blasting powder is more like it!”

“You’ll kill ‘em that way!” Hoss screeched.  “We gotta dig ‘em out, Adam.  Can’t you see that?”

“Hoss, that’s crazy,” Adam protested.  “Half the mountain came down.  You’d be digging for days to reach bottom.”

Hoss’s lower lip started to tremble.  “But we gotta try,” he insisted.  “Like that preacher said, we gotta do to others like we’d want ‘em to do by us.  I sure wouldn’t want nobody leavin’ me under a ton of rock, would you?”  He was almost screaming by the time he finished his mini-sermon.

“Will you use your head?” Adam hollered back.

“Adam, that’s enough,” Ben snapped.

“But, Pa—”

“I said that’s enough!” Ben shouted.  Seeing the tears begin to trickle down Hoss’s face, he knelt to fold the shaken boy in his arms.

“Pa, we gotta help folks,” Hoss repeated, “like the preacher said.”

Ben smiled tenderly at his middle son.  “I’m glad you were listening and took it to heart, Hoss, because the preacher was right:  we should help folks whenever we can.”

“Pa,” Adam interrupted impatiently.  “There’s no hope.  Anyone under there is dead.”

“I know that, Adam,” Ben said tersely, “but that’s no reason to belittle your brother’s concern.”  He pushed Hoss back so he could look into his face.  “As I was saying, son, we should help folks whenever we can, but we don’t know that anyone was on the trail when this happened.  Even if they were, there’s just nothing we can do.  No one could have survived that.”  He turned Hoss around so he could see the mass of debris blocking the trail.  “No one, son,” he said quietly and again wrapped the sobbing boy in a tender embrace.

Ashamed of the thoughtlessness of his previous remarks, Adam squatted down beside his brother and patted the boy’s heaving back.  “I’m sorry, buddy,” he said softly.  “I didn’t think before I spoke.”

Hoss reared up and glared at his older brother.  “Yeah, well, you shouldn’t oughta shoot off your mouth ‘til you know what it’s loaded with!”

Ben started to rebuke the rash retort, but Adam motioned for his father to let him handle it.  “Yeah, buddy, that’s right,” he said, keeping his voice gentle.  “I’ll work on that.”  Seeing the younger boy fall into his older brother’s arms, Ben smiled and nodded approvingly at his oldest son.

That night, after tucking both younger boys into one bed so that Little Joe could provide his bigger brother the comfort he so obviously needed, Marie moved quietly down the hall to her own room.  Ben was seated on the side of the bed, head held wearily in his hands.  Sensing his anguish, Marie stepped swiftly to him and, kneeling at his feet, raised his face and pressed a gentle kiss to his cheek.

“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t say ‘I told you so,’” Ben murmured.

“Oh, mon mari, I would not,” she said with feeling.

“I should have listened to you,” Ben chastised himself.

“Oh, I don’t know, Ben,” she sighed.  “We cannot protect our children from all the pain of life, much as we might wish.  Perhaps it would have hurt Hoss as much to be kept away.  I don’t know.  I just hope there were no travelers caught in that landslide.  If he were to learn that—”

“Dick Sides came by awhile ago,” Ben told her.

“I saw him from the window,” Marie replied, “but I was busy with the boys.”

“There were some people known to be on the trail earlier today,” Ben sighed.  “Maybe they made it through safely, but I’m not sure the bodies will ever be found if they didn’t.  Sides said some of the neighbors will be gathering tomorrow to try to clear the road itself, but we won’t try to move any of the debris that isn’t blocking the way.”

“You will be joining them?”

Ben nodded.  “Yeah, I feel it’s a civic responsibility.  I’ll take Adam and as many men as I can spare.  We’ll have to put off our trip to the fort another day, but since there was no set time for this first delivery, it shouldn’t be a problem.”

“You will not take Hoss this time?” Marie asked.

“No,” Ben replied quickly.  “I don’t expect to find any bodies, but I wouldn’t want him there if we did.  Plenty of chores to keep him busy here.”

“Not chores, Ben,” Marie said with a smile.  “I think I can find a better way than that for Hoss to spend his actual birthday.”

Ben laughed lightly and tweaked her nose.  “Well, if you can’t, I’m sure Little Joe can.”

* * * * *

“Put your back into it, you scrawny stick in the wind!”

Adam slammed his pickax into the pile of debris and, nostrils flaring, glared down the line of workers at the man who’d bellowed the derisive order.  It was the third time that morning that Adam had heard Peter Marquette lambasting his son for shirking, and as near as Adam could tell by snatched glances here and there, Ross was doing his share, same as any of them.  No need to shame him before the men of the community working to clear the emigrant road.

It wasn’t ten minutes, though, before Adam heard the same voice, yelling again, and turned to see the Marquette boy, sprawled in the dust.  “I just slipped, Pa,” Ross tried to explain.

“Slipped.”  Peter Marquette spit in disgust.  “A boy’s excuse.  If you can’t keep on your feet, hand that pick to the O’Neill boy and take his place haulin’ rock.”

A red-faced Ross Marquette heaved himself to his feet and meekly handed the tool to nineteen-year-old Washington O’Neill, who tipped his hat and willingly took Ross’s place at the rock face.  Without a word, Ross began lifting rocks into a wheelbarrow alongside a couple of younger teenagers.

Adam exchanged his pickax for a shovel and headed toward Ross.  He rammed the shovel beneath some of the loose debris and hefted it into the wheelbarrow.

“You don’t have to do that,” Ross said, eyes fixed on the ground.  “You got the tools and the muscle to do a man’s work over there.”  He jerked his head back toward the face of the landslide.

“So did you,” Adam said, dumping another load into the wheelbarrow.  “Man’s work, boy’s work, it’s all got to be done.”

Ross said no more, and Adam, too, worked in silence until the wheelbarrow was full.  Ross took the handles and began rolling the debris toward an area, back from the road, to dump it.  He looked up, surprised, when Adam fell into step beside him.  “You really don’t have to do this,” he said.  “It’s a one-man job.”  His face convulsed.  “Sorry, should’ve said a ‘one-boy job,’ I guess,” he muttered.

Adam bit his lip, unsure of whether he should say anything, but the other young man’s taut grimace brought the words out.  “Hey, don’t let him get to you.  You were doing as good a job as any man here.  Anybody can lose his footing.”

After dumping the load of debris, Ross looked up, and a ghost of a smile touched his lips.  “Nice of you to say so, but—”

“Ross!  Quit standin’ around jawin’ with that boy and get back to work, you lazy lout!”  Peter Marquette’s voice, again, was loud and strident and drew the attention of everyone on the work crew.

“Comin’, Pa,” Ross called, snatching up the handles of the wheelbarrow and hurrying back.  Adam had to trot to keep up.

“I meant what I said,” Adam affirmed after they’d filled and dumped another load.  “Everybody can see you’ve done your fair share.”

Ross shook his head.  “Naw, Pa’s right.  I don’t carry my weight here, anymore than at home, like he’s always sayin’.”

“Sure you do,” Adam insisted.  Then he grinned, to lighten the atmosphere.  “You just don’t have as much weight to carry, that’s all.  Me, either.  We’re both slim and trim young gents, but what weight we’ve got, we’ve put into this job—the both of us.”

Ross laughed.  “Slim and trim, huh?  You, maybe, but I’m skinny as a stick, and that’s the plain truth.”

It was, of course, and Adam knew any denial was pointless, so he purposely cracked a joke, instead.  “Well, then, Skinny, maybe I’ll just have to take on the job of fattening you up, strictly as a matter of self-preservation, you understand.  That way I can ease back and leave most of the work to you!”

Ross laughed again, a sound Adam was coming to like, but the laughter was cut short when Peter Marquette stormed over to grab Ross’s thin arm and jerk him away from Adam..  “I told you to quit jawin’, boy!  Now, if I see you standin’ idle one more time, I’ll take off my belt and tan your lazy hide here in the middle of the road.  And if it shames you to get a whuppin’ in front of your friends, it’s no more than you deserve for shamin’ me before all these men.”

Adam stepped forward quickly.  “Mr. Marquette, please don’t blame Ross.  It’s all my fault; I was the one jawin’ at him.  I—uh—I was just thinkin’ of asking him to share lunch with us, figuring we’d be taking a break soon.”

Ross looked up, brown eyes wide with surprise, but he had no time to respond, even if he’d dared while in the grip of his father’s strong hand.  Instead, Mr. Marquette snorted.  “Seems to me it’d do the both of you lazy lunks good to work through the noon break.  Ain’t either of you earned your feed, to my way of thinkin’.”

“Now, Marquette, we won’t get much work out of them if we don’t provide some fuel.”  The jovial comment was followed by a friendly slap on the back.  “They’re just boys, trying to get acquainted,” Ben Cartwright continued.  “Maybe the best way for them to do that is over lunch, and then they won’t feel the need to stop and talk so much when they go back to work.  Why don’t both of you join us?  We’ve got plenty.”

“Don’t need charity,” Marquette grunted.

“None involved,” Ben declared quickly.  “Just a chance for all of us to get to know each other a little better, as is fitting with neighbors.  Bring what you’ve got and we’ll pool our resources and both go away better fed than if we ate only what we brought.  What do you say?”

Ben had struck the right chord, so Peter Marquette nodded gruffly, his grip on Ross’s arm instinctively easing.  “Right neighborly of you, Cartwright.  Like you say, we live close enough we ought to know one another better’n we do.  We’ll join you for the meal, but there’s still time to do a mite more before then.  Back to work, boy!”  He swatted Ross’s rear, although not as forcefully as Adam had observed after the boy was eliminated from the shooting competition.

“You, too, Adam,” Ben said, although the secretive wink he gave his son belied the firmness of the command.  “No more distracting Ross from his work.”

Understanding that his father was trying to save Ross from further rebuke, Adam nodded, and the two young men worked in virtual silence for the next half hour, until the older men determined that it was time for a break.

“Thanks for backing up my invitation, Pa,” Adam said late that afternoon as he and his father rode back to the Ponderosa, side by side on the seat of their buckboard.  “I know you didn’t really intend to take lunch with Mr. Marquette.”

Ben shrugged.  “I’d had my fill of hearing him abuse that boy, too.  I’m proud of you, son, for stepping in and trying to defuse the situation.”

Adam leaned forward, elbows resting on his knees and thumbs twirling around each other.  “What makes a man that hard on his own son, Pa?  Ross was doing his best; anyone could see it—except his pa.”

Ben shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Frustration, maybe.  Marquette strikes me as a man trying too hard to prove his worth.  I gather from what he said over the meal that he’s seen some hard times.”

“You’ve seen hard times,” Adam argued, “but you never asked me to be the proof of your worth.”

Ben put an arm around his son’s slim shoulders.  “Didn’t have to ask,” he said.  “Every time I look at you—or Hoss or Little Joe—I see all the proof I need that my life’s been put to good use.”

Adam’s lips curved upward, but the smile was a pensive one.  He still couldn’t understand why Ross’s father didn’t feel the same way about his boy.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Note

Washington O’Neill is a historic settler of WashoeValley.

CHAPTER SIX

Construction and Conflict

            Glancing to his right, Adam noted the disgruntled face of the boy on the wagon seat beside him and deliberately slowed the pace of the horses to open up the distance between his rig and the borrowed Thomas buckboard that his father was driving just ahead.  “What’s got you so down in the mouth?” he asked.  “I thought you were looking forward to seeing the new fort.”

Hoss nodded glumly.  “I was.”  He shrugged.  “Still am, I reckon, but that bad news yesterday is kinda makin’ everything taste sour right now.”

“Bad news?” Adam laughed.  “Hoss, you just don’t know good news when you hear it.”  Without asking, he knew Hoss was referring to what he and his father had learned while helping to clear the blocked trail the previous day, that their new neighbor Joseph Frey had donated one acre of his ranch for a new schoolhouse in the Washoe Valley community of Franktown.

“I don’t like school, Adam,” Hoss muttered.  “I just plain don’t see no use in it.”

Adam resisted the temptation to point out that Hoss’s mutilation of the English language was strong indication of his need for schooling.  Instead, he slipped an arm around his brother’s chunky torso and gave him a brief squeeze.  “Hey, buddy, it won’t be so bad.  There’s always recess,” he chuckled.

Hoss’s face scrunched up in a half-grin that still managed to look like he’d just taken a swig of vinegar.  “Don’t see why I can’t go on studyin’ with Ma, like I been doin’,” he complained.

“Don’t even bother asking,” Adam laughed.  “With Pa supplying the lumber for the new school, you can bet he’s planning on sending you.”

“Pa’s doin’ that?” Hoss queried.

“Yeah, everybody’s pitching in,” Adam informed his brother.  “Pa’s supplying the raw timber, and Reuben Perkins has agreed to saw it into boards for free at his mill.  Now, if we could just talk him into doing that for this Army contract, too, we’d make more profit.”

Adam cocked his head to see if Hoss had appreciated the joke, but the younger boy, oblivious to the intended humor, simply sighed in resignation and said, “Ain’t no hope, then.”

Adam extended the reins toward Hoss.  “Here, you drive awhile,” he said, knowing how Hoss liked to handle the animals.

Hoss grinned, genuinely this time, and took the reins.  As planned, the pleasurable responsibility took his mind off the misery facing him in September, and Hoss made no more complaints during the remainder of the trip.

As both wagons pulled onto the bluff overlooking the Carson River, signs of activity were everywhere: some soldiers digging footings for buildings, others busily making adobe bricks, while in the distance still others were cutting and curing hay to lay up for the winter.  The approach of the wagons had been noted, so Captain Stewart was on hand to greet the Cartwrights as they climbed down from the two buckboards.  “I’m a day later than planned,” Ben said after shaking the officer’s hand.  “I hope it wasn’t an inconvenience.”

“Not at all,” Captain Stewart assured him.  “As you can see, we’re just in the beginning stages of construction, and Private Wentworth informed me of the probable delay, due to the local catastrophe.  Were there any casualties?”

Ben cut a swift glance at Hoss.  “No,” he said abruptly.  “None that we found.”

Detecting a father’s concern for his son, Captain Stewart judged a quick change of subject to be in order.  He strode toward the younger Cartwrights and extended his hand, first to Adam and then to the sandy-haired boy at his side.  “I don’t believe I’ve met this young man,” he said, “although I seem to remember seeing him at the revival meeting.”

“My son Hoss,” Ben said with a proud smile.  “He came along to help unload the lumber—and to get a look at your fort, of course.”

Captain Stewart chuckled.  “Not much to see yet, I fear; however, I’d be glad to show you around, son, and let you see what we have planned.”

Hoss’s blue eyes brightened as he looked to his father for permission.  “Go ahead,” Ben said with a smile.

“Should have known he was only along for the ride,” Adam snickered as Hoss walked off with the Captain’s arm draped around his shoulder.

“For a boy his age, he does more than his share,” Ben said, his mind flashing back momentarily to another boy, one who’d done his share the day before and gotten no credit for it.  “Besides, I doubt we’ll finish this job before he’s back.  The captain’s too busy a man to spend much time entertaining a little boy.”

While Ben and Adam unloaded the lumber, Captain Stewart took Hoss on a quick tour of the camp.  “There’ll be twenty-some-odd buildings when we’re finished,” he explained.  “Here, on the west side of the square, is where the soldiers’ barracks will be built.  We originally planned to house a thousand men, but construction materials are expensive here, so at present we’re only building enough barracks for three hundred soldiers.”

“Like Mark?” Hoss asked.

“Mark?  Oh, you mean Private Wentworth.  Yes, as an enlisted man, that’s where he’ll be quartered,” Stewart replied.  He swept a hand to the right.  “There, on the north, will be the officers’ quarters.  We’ll have six buildings, each one story with a half-story attic above.  The commissary, fort headquarters, hospital and other needed buildings will be located on the east side of the compound.”

“What about the animals?” Hoss asked.  “You gotta build quarters for them, too, you know.”

Captain Stewart’s lips twitched with amusement at the boy’s statement of the obvious.  Not wanting to negate Hoss’s concern, however, he responded as if the comment were serious and worthy of consideration.  “Yes, with your harsh winters, the livestock certainly will need quarters, too.  In fact, we’ll be using some of that precious lumber you and your father are selling us for important buildings like that—there, on the south side of the square.  We’ll provide for the animals before ourselves, young man.”

“That’s good,” Hoss observed.  “Pa always says we should see to the needs of our livestock before lookin’ out for our own.”

“Your father’s a very wise man and is training you well,” the captain replied.  “Well, that’s about all there is to see, my boy, since we’re just getting started.  What do you think?”

“I reckon it’ll be a grand fort when it’s all done,” Hoss said.  He looked across the square to where his father and brother were just starting to unload the second buckboard.  “And I reckon I’d best get back and do my share of the work,” he added and thrust out his hand.  “Thanks for showin’ me ‘round, Captain.”

The Army officer felt strangely compelled to tousle the boy’s straight hair, but forced himself to give the youngster a manly handshake, instead.  “You’d make a good soldier, son, with that sense of duty,” he said.  Pulling his hand back, he gave the young boy a salute and added with a grin, “Dismissed.”  Hoss grinned back and scurried over to help with the work.

Following the completion of the delivery and a discussion of when the next load of lumber might be expected, Ben wrapped one arm around the shoulders of each boy.  “I don’t know about you fellows, but I’ve worked up quite a thirst.  How about stopping by Buckland’s for a little liquid refreshment?”

“Hoss, too?” Adam asked with an arched eyebrow.

“Well, Hoss may have to settle for a tall glass of water,” Ben admitted.  “Way out here, I doubt Sam gets much call for sarsaparilla.”  Seeing his younger boy’s disappointed face, he bent over to drop a kiss atop his head.  “If there’s nothing suitable here, Hoss, we’ll find a treat for you in Carson City when we return the buckboard, okay?”

“Okay, Pa,” Hoss said, a happy grin again splitting his face as he began to consider what kind of treat he could wheedle out of Pa on the way home.

The drive to Buckland’s Station took little time, and Ben and Adam were soon quenching their thirst over lukewarm beer, while Hoss was contenting himself with a glass of milk, fresh from Sam Buckland’s single cow.  Wanting to relax, each Cartwright was sipping slowly, so their mugs were only about half-empty when Frederick Dodge came in.  Ben invited the Indian agent to sit at their table and offered to buy him a beer.

“Much appreciated,” Dodge said.  “I wasn’t expecting to see you today, Ben, but I have some news I know you’ll find of interest.  I’ve just directed Deputy Marshal Warren Wasson to post notice of the boundaries of the Pyramid Lake Indian Reservation and warn all intruders to leave.”

Ben’s face began to glow.  “Wonderful news!  The Paiutes will be allowed to stay on their hereditary lands then?  That was what we hoped for.”

“Hoped for and worked for,” Dodge said pointedly.  “Knowing your concern for the Paiutes, I knew you’d be pleased.”

Ben smiled broadly.  “Indeed, I am.”  He drummed his fingers on the table, and his face sobered.  “I still have concerns, though, about the Paiutes’ welfare.  They were driven from their homes and forced into hiding during their normal fishing and gathering seasons.  There may be a resulting shortage of food in store for the coming winter.”

“Yes, I’m sure our red brothers will need help to get through this winter,” Dodge agreed.  “I hope I can count on settlers such as you to provide that help.”

“I’ll do all I can,” Ben vowed.

“You’ve always done more than your share, Mr. Cartwright,” the Indian agent responded warmly, “and I have no doubt that I can rely on you.  Hopefully, your example will influence other white settlers to render what aid they can, as well.”

“I’ll be working with my neighbors on a community project in the coming days,” Ben said.  “I’ll take that opportunity to speak with them about providing some supplies for the Paiutes.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright,” Dodge said as he rose from his chair, “and thank you for the beer.  Sorry to cut our visit short, but I’ve a long way to go.”

“As do we,” Ben said, standing to shake his friend’s hand in farewell.  “You boys finished?” he asked when Dodge had left.

Adam at once gave an affirmative response, and Hoss gulped down a final swallow of milk and declared that he was ready to go, too.  After a brief stop in Carson City, where Hoss was treated to a bag of horehound candy from the general store, the Cartwrights headed back to the Ponderosa.  By the time they arrived, however, the moon stood high in the sky, as luminous and almost as round as a pearl on a cloth of black velvet.

Nevertheless, the next morning Ben, Adam and Hoss were all up early, for the work seemed never-ending during these busy days of summer.  Since the hay was now in, they could all work in the woods, although not often together, to avoid taking too many trees from one area.  Ben continued to supervise the completion of the Army contract and set Adam and a few others to the task of cutting trees in another part of the pine forest for the new school.

Ross Marquette was one of those others, his labor—”such as it is,” in the words of his father—being donated to the project, and without the overbearing presence of Peter Marquette, Ross was proving what a good worker he was.  Adam regularly stationed himself near the other young man and, bit by bit, drew Ross into amiable conversation as they felled timber for the new school.

When they stopped to eat at noon, Adam invited Ross to share the ample hamper Hop Sing had packed for him and Hoss.  “He always sends twice as much as we need,” Adam assured his new friend.

“Yeah, noticed that the other day,” Ross commented, unwrapping the single cheese sandwich he’d brought from home.  “This is all I’ve got, but you’re welcome to half, if you like.”

Adam reached for the half-sandwich, mostly out of a desire to make Ross comfortable.  “Sure, like Cowper says, ‘Variety’s the very spice of life, that gives it all its flavor.’”

Ross took a bite of his own half of the sandwich.  “Don’t recollect that name.  He new to the territory?”

Adam took a swig of water from his canteen.  “No, Cowper was an English poet of the last century.  I’ve been reading some of his work lately, so that’s why the quote came to mind.”

Ross shyly reached into the Cartwright’s open hamper and selected a thick beef sandwich.  “Oh, yeah.  Heard you was some kind of scholar.  Wish . . .”

“What?” Adam asked.

Ross gave a self-deprecating shrug.  “Wish I had more book learnin’ myself, but I reckon Pa’s right when he says a strong back gets a man further in this world.”

Adam wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and pulled a couple of oatmeal-raisin cookies from the hamper.  “I don’t like to go against anyone’s pa, Ross, but I think he’s wrong about that.”  Not to mention other things!  He handed one of the cookies to Ross.  “I think book learning makes a man’s world wider, helps him see beyond the day-in, day-out drudgery of just making a living and set his sights on better things.”

“Yeah?  Well, that’s worth some thought.”  Ross munched contentedly on the cookie.  “That English fellow say anything else interestin’?”

Adam laughed.  “Yeah, lots.  Here’s one my pa would agree with: ‘God made the country, and man made the town.’”

Reaching for another cookie, Ross grinned.  “That’s one my pa would favor, too.  Sounds like the kind of sermon he preaches regular.”

“Your pa’s a preacher?” Adam asked.

Ross put his head back and laughed hard.  “To a congregation of one!  He takes his religion mighty serious, though; that’s what I meant.”

Adam dusted cookie crumbs from his pants legs.  “He’d like Cowper, then.  He wrote a lot of hymns.  Would you like to borrow the book?”

Eyes glued to his britches, Ross meticulously brushed them free of cookies.  “I—uh—sure, I’d like that, but I—uh—doggone it, I’m kinda slow, Adam.”

“Oh, you are not!”  Adam slammed the lid to the hamper shut.

“I ain’t through yet!” a disgruntled Hoss, who had felt shut out of the entire noontime conversation, snapped.

Adam pushed the hamper toward his brother.  “Take it, then, and leave us in peace for a few minutes, will you, kid?”

“Yeah.  Who wants to stick around you?” Hoss grunted, snatching up the hamper and tromping off.

“Sorry, didn’t mean to make trouble,” Ross whispered.

Adam touched his shoulder.  “You didn’t.  I’ll make my peace with Hoss later.  Shouldn’t’ve lost my temper, but it makes me mad to hear you putting yourself down all the time.  Someone—and I think I know who—has filled you brimful of thoughts about yourself that just aren’t true.  You’re a man, not a boy; you’re a hard worker, not a lazy slacker; and your brain’s as strong as your back, I’ll wager.”

Ross kept rubbing his leg, as if there were still cookie crumbs attached.  “Good of you to say so.”

“It isn’t good of me,” Adam snapped.  “It’s honest of me.  You’re doing it again.  Now, will you cut it out?”  He grabbed hold of his temper.  “Sorry.  I’ve got no cause to yell at you.  I get the feeling you get enough of that at home.”

Ross nodded.  “Yeah, I do.”  He looked up quickly.  “I ain’t blamin’ Pa, you understand.  He’s got his troubles and needs someplace to toss ‘em.  It’s been a rough year, what with the Indians and the winter kill and all, and it don’t help that all the help he’s got is a skinny stick like me.  Oops, guess I did it again.”

Adam chuckled.  “Well, at least you caught yourself that time.  It’s just a bad habit you’ve gotten into, Ross, but I’m gonna keep calling you on it, and maybe by the time we finish felling these trees, I’ll have cured you of it, as well as putting some extra meat on your scrawny bones, Skinny.”

Ross grinned back, wishing with all his heart that the work on the school project could continue forever.

Hoss would have echoed that sentiment, though for different reasons.  Under Adam’s direction, his assignment was to chop the limbs off the felled logs.  Normally, the youngster would have been pleased to be working at his brother’s side in the shady woods and proud to be doing work no other ten-year-old could handle.  It didn’t help, of course, that Adam was spending more time with that Marquette kid than his own brother.  Besides being jealous of his brother’s attention, however, Hoss felt that with every cut of the axe he was helping to build his own prison, and this chain-gang mentality significantly decreased his output.  More than once, Adam had to rebuke his brother for his sluggish efforts, and only the ultimate threat of telling Pa returned Hoss to his accustomed diligence.

When Ben returned from Carson City on Saturday, however, he brought news that made Hoss’s spirits soar once more.  “Can we go, Pa?” Hoss begged when his father read the announcement in the Territorial Enterprise that the Mart Taylor family of entertainers was touring the Washoe.

“Well, not tonight, obviously,” Ben laughed.  “We couldn’t possibly get to Genoa in time for the performance, even if we skipped supper.”

In the dining room, setting the table, Hop Sing frowned eloquently at the mere mention of skipped meals.  “Maybe-so Hop Sing go back China,” he muttered, modulating his voice just loud enough to be heard.

“We’re eating, Hop Sing; we’re eating,” Ben groaned.

“Yeah, I wouldn’t miss one of your meals, even to see Pocahontas again!” Hoss declared loudly, and Hop Sing nodded in approval of what he considered the only appropriate attitude toward mealtime.  “Pa, you reckon maybe these folks’ll put on Pocahontas?” Hoss queried.  “I’d sure favor seein’ it again.”

“I don’t think it’s that kind of show, Hoss,” his father explained.

Adam looked up from the newspaper.  “The article says there will be short skits, poems and songs, Hoss, not a full play, but you’ll like it.”

An imperative hand tugged at the sleeve of the eldest Cartwright son.  “Me, too, Adam.  Me like, too.”

Adam gave his brother’s soft curls an affectionate rumple.  “You won’t be going,” he chuckled.

Little Joe pulled back his hand and slapped Adam’s arm.  “Me go, too!” he hollered.

“Joseph,” Ben said in sharp warning.  “In this family we do not show our displeasure by hitting.”

“Me go, too!” Little Joe screamed, stamping his foot.

Ben jumped to his feet and, reaching his youngest son in three long strides, grabbed the now wailing boy up under one arm and headed for the stairs.  “We don’t show it that way, either!” he snapped.

Marie hurried past the fireplace to intercept her husband at the foot of the stairs.  “And you, mon mari, do you intend to show your displeasure by hitting?”  Little Joe’s cries ceased in hopeful expectation as soon as his mother intervened, but feeling almost certain of what awaited him at Pa’s hand if she failed, he was still kicking and squirming to get away.

Ben’s mouth dropped open as he brought Little Joe up to his chest and tried to hold the flailing legs still with one arm.  “Marie, it’s scarcely the same thing.  I’m only disciplining the boy for his own good.”

“And do you think he will understand that difference?” Marie demanded, reaching out to calm the child’s frantic movements with a gentle hand.  “Should we not try to reason with him first, to explain why he cannot accompany us to the performance?”

Ben nodded quietly, silently marveling at how relaxed his unruly youngest had become under his mother’s touch.  “We’ll try reason first, but if he still responds with a temper tantrum—”

“Then you may spank him with my blessing,” Marie affirmed.  She took her baby from Ben’s arms.  “I will take him upstairs and talk to him.”

“All right,” Ben said, giving both her and the smallest Cartwright a kiss.  “You’d better be down for supper, though, or Hop Sing will do worse than spank the lot of us.”

Marie smiled and carried her puckered-faced toddler upstairs.

“So when are we gonna go, Pa?” Hoss asked as his father sat once more in the mauve chair by the fire.  “Tomorrow?”

“I was thinking we might go next Saturday, son,” Ben replied.  “The paper says the show will have moved on to Carson City by then, so I thought we might enjoy going with some of our friends; then we’ll stay the night and go on to Virginia City the next morning to attend services there.”

“Can Jimmy and Inger come with us?” Hoss asked eagerly.

“That’ll be up to their parents, boy,” Ben laughed, “but we’ll see if we can’t make up a big party, eh?”

“Yeah!” Hoss gurgled happily.

* * * * *

Ben rode into Carson City on Monday, to vote in the special election called by Judge Child for selecting a number of local government officials and, while there, made arrangements for Sally Martin to watch Little Joe during the Taylor family’s performance.  Marie, of course, wanted to take her baby to church with her the next morning, so leaving the youngest with Hop Sing was not a workable option, as Ben had originally thought.  Those necessary obligations fulfilled, he next stopped by the Thomas home and insisted that they be his guests at the entertainment in return for free lodging.  “Otherwise, we’ll have to stay at the Pioneer Hotel or the Penrod House,” he teased, and his friends laughingly agreed.

The Cartwrights arrived in Carson City on Friday, just before noon.  Having been assured that the Thomases would not need their buckboard before the weekend, Ben had driven it back to the Ponderosa on Monday, and both it and his family’s own wagon were now filled to capacity with lumber.  According to Marie, there was scarcely room left to carry everything they would need for three days away from home.  “Why, I’ve got everything I need right here,” Ben joked, fingering his gray flannel shirt, words and action earning him a playful pop on the chin from his wife’s diminutive knuckles.

Depositing the younger members of the family with the Thomases after a quick lunch, Ben and Adam each drove a wagon on to the fort under construction near Buckland’s Station.  Hoss, excited about the opportunity to visit with playmates he rarely saw, had been excused from helping.  After all, there were plenty of soldiers to assist with the unloading, if needed.

After successfully delivering the lumber, Ben and Adam returned to find that Nelly had kept a plate of food for each in the warming oven, although the house’s other occupants had retired for the night.  “See you in the morning,” Nelly said as she left the kitchen.  “Just put those plates in that basin of water over there when you’re finished, and I’ll wash ‘em up in the morning.”

Saturday evening the men, typically, were dressed long before the ladies.  Adam had volunteered to take Little Joe to the Martin home, promising to meet the others at the hotel where the performance would take place.  Clyde had been busy at the blacksmith shop all day, so he and Ben had not had much opportunity to visit, even though Ben had been in town all day.  “So, how’s the fort comin’ along?” Clyde queried.

“Slow going,” Ben admitted.  “I’m beginning to think they’ll still be building this time next year.  They’ve got the blacksmith shop up and running, though.  Thought that might interest you.”

Clyde chuckled.  “Stands to reason, Ben.  You can’t do much work if you don’t keep your tools in good repair.”

“You’re right,” Ben agreed with a grin.  “The stables are going up pretty fast, too—first thing Hoss here asked about this morning.”  He wrapped an affectionate arm around his middle boy, who was sitting on the arm of his chair.

“Yeah, we know what’s important, don’t we, Hoss?” Clyde asked with a wink.

“Sure do,” Hoss said with a determined nod, “and so does that captain at the fort.  He said the animals come first and Pa done right to teach me so.”

“Did he?” Ben asked.  “Captain Stewart’s a good man.  I’ll be sorry to see him go.”

“Army ain’t pullin’ out, is it?” Clyde asked, brow wrinkling.  “Nelly sure has taken comfort from them bein’ out there near where Billy rides his leg of the Pony.”

“No, no, the Army’s staying,” Ben assured his friend, “but Captain Stewart is taking a sixty-day leave of absence, starting today.  A Captain Flint will be in charge while he’s away.  I met him yesterday.  Seems personable enough, and I’m sure we’ll have no problems carrying out our contract under his direction, but I will miss Captain Stewart.  I consider him a friend.”

“That’s good the Army’s stayin’,” Clyde observed.  “There’s been rumors in town about more Indian trouble, up north in the Black Desert.  Any word of that at the fort?”

“Yeah, it’s true.  A colonel named Landers ran into some trouble up there, lost one man,” Ben reported.  “Captain Stewart said the Army hopes to meet with Numaga, maybe some of the other peaceful chiefs, to discuss the matter.”

Clyde’s countenance grew grave.  “You gonna parley with ‘em?”

“Maybe,” Ben said quietly.  “I haven’t mentioned it to Marie yet, so I’d appreciate your keeping it under your hat.”

“Uncle Clyde ain’t wearin’ no hat,” Hoss snickered, jumping off the arm of the chair when his father aimed a playful cuff at his ear.

Clyde cackled.  “Don’t see no reason to pay out good money to watch them Taylors strut on stage when we can watch you Cartwrights for free!”

“Oh, shut up,” Ben ordered with a mock growl.

* * * * *

“And after they sung some songs about miners and stuff, Mr. Taylor spoke this real funny poem,” Hoss was sharing with his younger brother as the buckboard rumbled toward the Divide between Gold Hill and Virginia City.

“Hoss, I do not think it is a proper time to be talking about the program last night,” Marie said sternly.

“Wanna hear ‘bout it,” Little Joe protested with an indignant pout on his face.  He still couldn’t understand why he’d been forbidden to attend the performance with the rest of the family.  Now, not to even hear about it was clearly more than the toddler could tolerate.

“We are on our way to church,” his mother lectured.  “Your thoughts should be on God.”

Seated, for lack of alternative, in the back of the buckboard along with his brothers, Adam ducked his head between his bent knees and chuckled.  The thought of either of his little brothers meditating on God all the way to town was too ridiculous not to bring laughter bubbling to his lips.  Fortunately, Marie did not notice his amused expression, for it would have been certain to earn him the sharp edge of her tongue, as well.  It had been that kind of morning.

“Marie, ease up,” Ben admonished.  “It isn’t our sons you’re upset with.”

Marie flushed deeply.  Ben was right, of course.  Neither Hoss nor Little Joe was the cause of her ill temper this morning, and neither deserved to be the target for the anger she felt toward Nelly Thomas.  Though there had been subtle hints of disapproval about this morning’s visit to the Catholic chapel all weekend, it was Nelly’s reaction to Marie’s refusal to eat breakfast that had been the final straw for both women.  Marie had tried to explain that Church law required people of her faith to fast before taking Holy Communion, and Nelly had muttered something about “a bunch of Popish foolishness” that had started the sparks flying.

Obligatory apologies had been made on both sides before the Cartwrights left that morning, but Marie was still seething inside.  One more thing to confess, she sighed to herself, and with that thought finally admitted that Nelly’s crude remark wasn’t the real cause of her edginess.  It had been years since Marie had made confession, and she knew that in the eyes of the Church she was living in sin, a sin for which she felt no repentance.  Her future in the Church hinged on how strait-laced a priest Father Hugh Gallagher proved to be.

The wagon pulled up before a small, unimpressive wooden building, and Ben helped his wife down while Adam lifted his youngest brother to his shoulder.  “Since you will not be making confession, there is no need for you to come in yet,” Marie said, gloved fingers incessantly toying with the beads at her throat.  Seeing Little Joe in Adam’s arms, she added, “Please watch him carefully.”

“Like a hawk,” Adam promised.

As Marie entered the chapel, Adam took an appraising look at the building itself and shook his head.  “I sure wouldn’t have built here,” he commented to his father.

“At the crossroads of the winds, you mean?” Ben asked, noting how the strong breeze of the relatively calm morning was ruffling the hair of his two younger sons, who wore no hats.

“Right,” Adam said.  “They’ll be lucky if this shack doesn’t topple down in the first good gale that comes along.”

“Don’t call your mother’s church a shack, young man, unless you want the ride home to be equally as pleasant as the trip up here,” Ben warned.

Adam grinned.  “Point taken.”

Inside, Marie had hoped to find other worshippers in line to make confession ahead of her, so that she might have more time to collect her thoughts.  While there were others already in the chapel, however, they were all male, and out of deference to her gender, they stepped aside to allow her to step into the confessional first.  Marie entered the compartmented booth and knelt on a low wooden bench facing a small, curtained window.  Though she had known the prescribed words for beginning one’s confession since she was a child, she knelt in silence, her inner discomfort more intense than the physical pain of knees punctured by the splintered plank beneath her.

“Sure and I know you’re in there,” said a voice from beyond the dark curtain, “for I hear ye breathin’.  Now, if you’ve got sins to confess, man, out with them.  If not, there’s others waitin’.”

“B-bl-bless me, F-father, for I—I have sinned,” Marie stammered.

The voice beyond the curtain softened.  “Speak freely, my daughter, and it’s sorry I am I was short with ye.  I’m more used to dealing with rough miners than gentle ladies, I fear.”

Marie smiled, touched by his kindly tone.  “Oh, Father, you owe me no apology.  It’s my fault, but you—you see, it’s been many years since my last confession, and I’m nervous about it.”

“No need, my child,” the priest soothed.  “‘Tis understandable out here where there’s been no one to confess to.  Now, what are the sins that weigh heavy on your soul?”

Marie mentioned a few things, including the argument she’d had that morning over her insistence on fasting before Communion.

“And how is it you were staying with such people, my child?” the priest asked.

Marie took a deep breath.  “They are friends of my husband,” she murmured softly.

“Who, I take it, is Protestant, as they are,” Father Gallagher observed soberly.

“Yes, Father.”  Marie almost whispered the words.

“You married outside the Church?” the priest probed.

“Yes, Father.”

“Knowing the teaching of the Church, that you would be committing a grave sin by such a marriage?”

Marie’s spine stiffened and her fingers tightened on the separating curtain.  “I knew, Father, but I did not agree.  Nor do I now think I have sinned in marrying this good and God-fearing man.”

There was silence from the other side of the confessional for a moment.  “Do you presume to set yourself up as a judge of the Church’s teachings, my child?” Father Gallagher asked gravely.

Marie swallowed hard.  “No, Father, I do not, but I cannot understand how marrying Ben could be a sin.  My first marriage was within the Church, and it brought me little but grief and pain, while my life with Ben—”

“Daughter, please tell me ye haven’t divorced your Christian husband for this man.”  The priest sighed.

Despite her nervousness, Marie had to smile.  “No, Father, I am not such a sinner as that.  I was a widow when I met Ben.”

“Ah, good,” the priest said, clearly relieved.  “It’s glad I am not to have to deal with that thorny a problem.  Now, as to your present husband, is there any chance he would consider converting?”

Marie’s hands dropped to her knees and moved restlessly across her skirt.  “I don’t know, Father,” she admitted.  “He is here with me, to attend Mass this morning, but he has made no commitment to convert.”

“Ah, well, it’s a start,” the priest responded, his tone brightening.  “Perhaps all may work out in the end, my child.  We must have faith in God.”

“Yes, Father,” Marie replied.  Then she asked quietly, “Will you absolve me so that I may receive Holy Communion?”

The question produced a long pause on the other side of the screen, during which Marie could feel her heart racing.  “Daughter, I can offer you forgiveness for the other sins you have confessed, but you know I cannot absolve so serious a departure from the faith until you’ve rectified this situation,” the priest finally answered with a deep sigh.  “Although you seem unrepentant regarding your marriage, I sense that your heart is pure, and if I could follow my own inclinations, I would gladly serve you the Sacrament, but I cannot set aside the teachings of the Church as you have.  I answer to those above me.”

“I—I understand, Father,” Marie said, her voice breaking.

“Now, as to your penance,” the priest pronounced, “you’ll say five Hail Mary’s for each of the minor sins you confessed before, and I want you to speak to your husband about the possibility of converting to the true faith.  If he does, it will be my great pleasure to offer the Sacrament to the both of you.  That’s as it should be, man and wife together.”

“I—I will speak to him, Father,” Marie whispered.

“Good.  I’ll be praying for you, daughter, and looking forward to hearing your full confession soon.  Now be on your way, and give some of those blacker sinners a chance in here,” the priest chuckled.  As she departed, however, the forced mirth faded into a sigh, for the gentle-hearted man of God had sensed the brokenness that lay hidden behind the curtain of separation.

Forty-five minutes later Father Gallagher was standing at the front of the chapel, saying Mass to a host of miners and a few families, including the Cartwrights.  Though Marie’s emerald eyes glistened with tears of disappointment, her face was radiant as she listened and responded to the form of worship with which she felt most comfortable.  The expressions on the faces of the rest of the family, however, ranged from Adam’s studious concentration to Ben’s and Hoss’s blank befuddlement.  Little Joe fidgeted incessantly, wanting out of this darkened room where a man in strange clothes mouthed words he’d never heard and couldn’t comprehend.

When the other worshippers approached the front of the chapel to receive the host, Marie whispered to Ben that it was time for them to leave.

Ben looked puzzled.  “I thought you wanted to take Communion,” he whispered back.

Blinking back tears, Marie shook her head and stood.

Forehead furrowing, Ben did, as well, and led the family toward the exit, wondering why his wife had changed her mind after her vigorous argument with Nelly over what now seemed a pointless fast.

“Wasn’t it wonderful?” Marie sighed in contentment as the family exited the chapel.  Her gloved fingers dabbed at the moist corners of her eyes.

“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Ben said, taking the tears as a sign of emotional fulfillment.

Hearing the forced politeness in his voice, Marie glanced quickly into her husband’s face.  “Did you?” she asked uneasily.

Ben gave her a crooked smile.  “I didn’t understand a word of it, my love.”

“Oh, the Latin,” Marie murmured, disappointed.  Another problem to be overcome.

“I understood some of it,” Adam said, “but it’s a lot harder to translate the spoken word than the textbooks I’ve been studying.”

“I’m hungry,” Hoss announced, clearly glad to be out in the sunshine once again.  “We’re gonna eat before we leave town, ain’t we?”

“Yes, Hoss, we are,” Ben chuckled, squeezing the boy’s hefty shoulder.  “Shall we just try the first restaurant we come across?”

Oui,” Marie said, judging it pointless to discuss spiritual questions with a man when his stomach was growling.

That night, after the younger boys were tucked in and Adam had gone to his room to read, Marie perched on the arm of Ben’s chair beside the fireplace and pressed a tender kiss to his lips.  “Thank you for taking me to the chapel this morning.”

Ben stroked her soft hair, causing a few golden tendrils to escape the chignon at the back of her neck.  “I was happy to do it for you, my love.”

“Do—do you think we might go again?” Marie asked hesitantly.

Ben stared at her in puzzlement.  “Well, of course.  I didn’t assume you’d be satisfied with one visit.”

Marie smiled, twining a lock of his hair around her index finger.  “Ben, do you think there is any possibility of your converting?” she asked hesitantly.

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “To Catholicism?  No, I’m content with my own faith.  When you attended the revival with me, Marie, you told me not to expect your own preference to change and I honored that.  Now I ask the same courtesy of you.”

Marie sighed.  “I feared you would say that, but I did promise the priest I would speak to you about it.  I—I am sorry I disturbed you.”

She started to get up, but Ben pulled her into his lap.   “Don’t go,” he whispered.  “If this is troubling you, we should talk about it.”

“Would talking change your mind?” Marie asked, a semi-smile on her lips.

Ben laid her head on his shoulder.  “I doubt it,” he admitted.  “There are points on which we’re destined by our different backgrounds to disagree.  That doesn’t mean there can’t be mutual respect and acceptance of each other’s beliefs, does it?”

Marie snuggled against his breast.  “No, not in my heart, but neither your Church nor mine is so tolerant, mon mari, and there is the question of the children.”

“All right, let’s talk about them,” Ben replied.  “Adam, of course, is old enough to make his own choice.”

Oui, and Hoss is your child,” Marie said quietly.  “I have no right to interfere with your wishes for him.”

Ben lifted her chin with two broad fingers.  “None of that, young lady.  Hoss is your son, as much as mine.  I want and expect you to voice your wishes concerning his upbringing—as I expect to express mine concerning our youngest son, whom, I assume, you prefer to see brought up in your religion.”

At the gravity in his voice, Marie’s eyes lowered.  “I would like to see both of our younger sons raised in the true faith, of course,” she said, unable to look at him directly as she spoke words she knew her husband would find unacceptable.

Crimson crept up Ben’s brow.  “Meaning yours or mine, Marie?  Is this what you call mutual respect and acceptance?” he demanded, bringing his thumb alongside her face to grip her quivering chin.

Seeing his rising anger, Marie sighed.  “Are we hopelessly at odds, mon amour?  Is there no solution for us?”

Ben’s fingers loosened and he began to stroke her chin consolingly.  “Yes, there is a solution.  I’m not sure what it is, but we will find it.”  His head dropped to the back of the chair, and he puffed out his frustration in a quick gust of air.  “All I can think of that’s fair to each of us is to expose Hoss and Little Joe to both faiths, so that when they are of age, they can decide which path to follow.”

Marie frowned.  “I have never heard of such a thing, Ben.”

Ben threw his hands in the air.  “Well, neither have I, for that matter, but at the moment I don’t see any other way to go!  You want them to know your faith; I want them to know mine.”

Marie nodded, a trace of sadness flickering in her emerald eyes.  “Oui, I understand.  That is best, I suppose.”

“But—” Ben probed.

Marie gave him a rueful smile.  “It is not a decision I look forward to sharing with my priest.”

“Well, it won’t sit well with my fellow worshippers, either,” Ben said, lifting her chin, “but all that matters to me—all that has ever mattered to me—is that nothing, not even so weighty a matter as this, ever come between us.”

Marie laid her cheek against his.  “Nothing,” she whispered.  “Nothing will ever separate us, mon amour.  Nothing.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Notes

Joseph Frey, who donated land for Franktown School, and Reuben Perkins, superintendent of Franktown’s saw mill, are historic settlers of Washoe Valley.

Though he was only supposed to be away from Ft.Churchill for sixty days, Captain Joseph Stewart never returned.

Father Hugh Gallagher is the first priest to appear in this series, but his brother Father Joseph Gallagher was actually the first Catholic priest in western Utah, offering Mass in private homes in the summer of 1858.  As this is one year prior to the discovery of the Comstock Lode, it can be presumed that he found few adherents of his faith to whom he might minister and, in all probability, returned to California.

Mart Taylor and family performed in Washoe Valley in August of 1860.

CHAPTER SEVEN

In Search of Peace

            A cloak of ebony, unrelieved by a single thread of gold, still shrouded the Ponderosa when the Cartwrights gathered at the breakfast table the following Sunday.  At its head, elbow propped at an oblique angle, Ben leaned a weary head into his palm.  The intervening week had been a long and exhausting one as he had again pushed himself to complete the dual commitments made to the Army and to the educational future of his younger sons.

To his right, his wife smiled tenderly as she noted his drooping eyelids.  What a good man he was, this husband of hers, to extract himself from the sensuous embrace of a soft mattress for her sake alone.  Although there had been no further discussion of their religious differences, the atmosphere had been charged with an almost electrical tension sparking between two such magnetically opposite poles.  Still, when Marie had hesitatingly asked the evening before if he would accompany her to Mass this morning, her enervated husband had agreed without question or complaint.  Marie’s heart filled with love, and her eyes shone with admiration for that bent form at the head of the table.

Of the three Cartwright sons, only Adam seemed alert and eager to greet the dawn as it tiptoed timidly over the windowsill opposite him at his father’s back, and only he seemed interested in an early-morning ride into Virginia City.  A linked chain of yawns kept Hoss’s mouth gaping, and as he awaited the arrival of breakfast, his tousled head fell against the back of the chair around the table corner from Adam.  Little Joe, cherubic curls cradled on slender arms folded on the table, was all but asleep in the tall chair between his parents.

Face beaming as it usually did when everyone was present at mealtime, Hop Sing carried in platters of eggs, bacon, sausage and biscuits, gliding them deftly to the table.  Hoss’s eyes finally sparkled with interest, and his tongue slipped over his lips as he watched his father fill his own plate and hand the first platter to Marie, who was gently rousing Little Joe.  After filling the toddler’s plate with small portions, she placed an egg and two strips of bacon in her own before passing the platter down to Adam.

Fork halfway to his mouth, Ben stared at the food on his wife’s plate.  “You’re eating?” he inquired, brow wrinkling.

Oui, Ben,” Marie replied quietly as she directed a spoonful of egg to her baby’s mouth.

The furrows in Ben’s brow deepened.  “But I thought you had to fast before church.”

“Only if I receive Communion,” Marie said, taking a bite of her own food while her son chewed drowsily.

“Oh, they don’t serve it every week,” Ben concluded, slathering his biscuit with butter.  “What is it, once a month?”

“At every Mass,” Marie said softly, giving her baby another bite.  “I just won’t be receiving the host, Ben.”

Again Ben’s fork paused in mid-air.  “But I thought it meant so much to you—enough to have a big argument with Nelly over it!  I meant to ask you why you changed your mind last week, but it slipped my mind, and now—what’s going on, Marie?”

Marie turned her face aside.  “Nothing, Ben.”

Ben set the fork down, and his face was grim as he said, “A lie is a poor way to prepare yourself for church-going.”

Marie’s head whipped back.  “I cannot receive Communion, Ben,” she snapped.  “That is what is going on!”

Ben touched her hand with solicitous fingers.  “Why can’t you?” he asked gently.

Marie’s gaze dropped to her lap.  “Because I am living in sin,” she whispered.

“Living in sin?” Ben queried, fingers tightening on her slim hand.  “What on earth are you talking about?”

He felt the fingers he held tremble as his wife said almost inaudibly, “Our marriage, Ben.  In the eyes of the Church, it is sin.”

Ben jerked his hand away as if her touch burned like the crackling flames of a fire.  “Sin!” he thundered.  “We are united in the bonds of holy matrimony, Marie.  How dare any man call that sin?”

Little Joe raised a wail of protest at his father’s angry shout.

“Marriage outside the Church is a sin, mon mari,” Marie explained quietly as she lifted the toddler into her lap and began to soothe his distress with gentle strokes.

“And you want me to convert to a faith like that!” Ben bellowed.

“Ben, please,” Marie pleaded, covering Little Joe’s ears.  “Now is not the time.”

“There never will be a time I give in to that kind of tyranny!” Ben snorted.  Abruptly pushing his chair back, he stormed from the house.

Hoss had been cowering in his chair during the exchange, so heated on one side, so grieved on the other.  As the front door slammed with a force he himself was often criticized for using, he looked hesitantly across the table.  “Uh, we goin’ to that church this mornin’ or not?” he asked, silently hoping he could just go back to bed, instead.

Eyes shimmering with unshed tears, Marie looked at him and with effort kept her voice soft as she answered.  “I don’t know, mon chéri.”

“We’ll go,” Adam said quickly.  “I’ll drive you in if Pa won’t.”

Touched by his thoughtfulness, Marie smiled warmly, though her face was still flushed with anger and her lips still quivered with anguish.  “Thank you, mon ami.  Would you ask your father what he intends?  I—I do not trust myself to speak to him just now.”

“Sure, Marie,” Adam said.  “No problem.” He quickly finished his breakfast and went outside.

Seeing Ben hitching the team to the buckboard, Adam hurried around to fasten the harness on the opposite side.  “So you’re still going?” he asked as nonchalantly as he could.  “Marie was wondering.”

“I promised to take her and I will,” Ben grunted, but as he lifted his head to look at his son, his eyes were still glowering.  “I don’t think I’ll be going inside, however, or a certain priest might find himself serving Mass with a bloody nose!”

Adam arched a dark eyebrow.  “You don’t intend to tell her that, do you?  ‘Cause I want to be in the next county when you do.”

His son’s quizzical expression, so like one often seen on his own face, finally brought a chuckle gurgling up Ben’s larynx.  “No, I’ve still got a little sense left,” he muttered wryly.  “Tell them to get a move on or they’ll be late.”

Popping a sassy salute, Adam ran for the house, barely evading the playful swat aimed at his backside.

* * * * *

Despite the sweltering heat of late August, the atmosphere inside the Ponderosa during the next week remained decidedly chilly.  Though man and wife traded polite apologies for their unpleasant verbal sparring on Sunday, there was no further discussion of the slowly widening chasm between them.  By the time the weekend finally arrived, there was no question of whether Ben would accompany his family to church on Sunday, for reasons that had nothing to do with religious differences, however.  The expected call from the Army had arrived, and on Saturday morning Ben made preparations to join Colonel Lander on a mission of peace to the Paiutes.

After kissing his wife and admonishing Hoss to be a good boy while he was gone, Ben picked up his toddler and held him close.  “You be a good boy, too, Little Joe,” he urged.

Little Joe gave his father a plaintive look.  “Me go, too, Pa,” he pleaded.

“No, no,” Ben laughed.  “You can’t go with Pa.”

The toddler pouted eloquently.  “Me never go,” he whined.

Ben snuggled the boy against his shoulder.  “Oh, my poor deprived baby.  Well, maybe Pa will just have to take his little son fishing when he gets home,” he soothed.  “How would that be?”

Little Joe rose up and favored his father with a sunny smile.

“Me, too, Pa?” Hoss asked eagerly.

Ben nodded.  “You, too.”

“Hey, how about me?” Adam protested with a chuckle.  “Don’t I ever get a day off?”

Ben shook his head.  “Probably not.  Walk out with me, son?”

Sensing that his father had things to say to him that the others weren’t to hear, Adam’s expression sobered.  “Sure, Pa.”

Ben wrapped an arm around his eldest son’s shoulders and they exited together.  Throwing his saddlebags over the bay gelding, Ben turned to face Adam.  “I’m sorry about the fishing trip, Adam, but chances are I won’t even be home in time to see you off to school.”

“Pa, I don’t have to go,” Adam offered quickly.

Ben feigned a glower.  “Yes, you do, and that’s an order, young man.”  Smiling warmly, he laid a hand on Adam’s left shoulder.  “I’m only sorry that I won’t have these last few days with you.  So, this may be farewell for us, son, and I wanted a chance to tell you how much I appreciate your coming home early when you heard about the Indian trouble and how proud I am of the way you conducted yourself during the difficulties.  You’ve really pitched in with the extra work around here this summer, too, and I’m going to miss you.”

Blushing, Adam kicked at the dust of the yard.  “You can always hire an extra hand.”

Ben cupped a palm behind his son’s neck and pulled him into an embrace.  “That’s not what I meant and you know it.  As hard as it’ll be to find a worker as willing as you, it’s my son I’ll miss, not just his help around the place.”

“I’ll miss you, too, Pa,” Adam murmured into his father’s broad shoulder.

Ben released him and turned to tighten the cinch on his horse.  “I’d appreciate it if you’d escort your mother into Virginia City tomorrow morning.  It means a lot to her.”

Adam nodded.  “You two are gonna work this thing out, aren’t you?  I hate leaving with it up in the air.”

Spinning around, Ben clapped his son on the shoulder.  “We’ll work it out.  You just keep your mind on your books, young man, and don’t fret about the old folks at home.”  He swung into the saddle and, unable to resist, leaned over to muss his boy’s straight black hair before galloping quickly away.

* * * * *

As his bay gelding drank deeply of the cold waters of the Truckee River, Ben rinsed out his blue paisley bandana and wiped the sweat from his face, wondering if the blistering rays of summer would ever give way to the shivering gusts of autumn.

“Hot one,” commented the man at his side, Frederick Dodge, Indian agent for the territory.

“They’re all hot lately,” Ben complained good-naturedly.

“For the sake of our Indian brothers, I hope they stay that way awhile, Ben,” Dodge observed.  “The Paiutes are ill prepared for winter.”

Ben nodded grimly, remembering what his friend had been sharing along the trail north from Fort Churchill.  Ben had been at the post when the telegraph wire, which had just the month before been stretched east to the as yet unnamed fort, brought the news that Captain Joseph Stewart’s recommendation that the fort be named for Inspector General Sylvester Churchill had been accepted.  He had been pleased for his friend’s sake, though the name had little meaning for him personally, but the news Frederick Dodge had shared as they rode out under the command of Colonel Lander was infinitely less pleasant.  Tragic was a better word.

While many of the Paiutes, hunters and scavengers by tradition, remained near the battleground where they had fought the whites, eking out a bare subsistence in the barren hills, others, less proud, had found new grounds to hunt, new fields to scavenge, in Virginia City itself.  “If you could see them, Ben,” Dodge had sputtered bitterly while they rode toward the appointed meeting with Numaga.  “If you could follow the Paiute women as they slink along the dark streets before the sun comes up, scavenging refuse dumps for bits of wilted carrot, half-rotten fruit and the heads and tails of fish too repulsive for white consumption.  If you could go behind the Overland Stables and watch them sift through the manure piles, washing grains of undigested barley from the horses’ droppings like a miner panning out flakes of gold!  When I think of what they were . . .”

Ben shook his head as he recalled the images the Indian agent had pictured with such vivid horror.  He turned to the man standing beside him at the stream’s edge.  “Has no one in Virginia City offered them help?” he asked.

“A few,” Dodge admitted.  “Occasionally someone will give them a bag of flour, and the slaughterhouses sometimes throw out a bowl of remains not fit even for sausage.  Some of the women have learned to wait at the mine entrances for shift change, so they can beg leftovers from the miners’ lunch pails.”

From the slope above them the two civilians heard the order to mount shouted to their Army escort and responded as if they, too, were under orders.  “Hopefully, we can provide enough help that some of those poor wretches will return to a more dignified style of life,” Dodge opined as he and Ben swung into their saddles.

Ben nodded silently, but he entertained little faith in the Indian agent’s expressed desire.  However undignified their means of livelihood might seem by white standards, the Paiutes of Virginia City were probably eating more and better than they had when they scavenged for piñon nuts and berries, tule shoots and crickets.  No matter what the United States Government provided, there would always be men, white as well as red, willing to take the easy route of begging their daily bread.

* * * * *

As the pipe of peace made its way around the circle of men gathered to discuss a workable solution to the Indians’ problems, Ben could not help noticing the change in his old friend Numaga.  Though still stately in appearance and manner, the tall Paiute had grown visibly lean on the scant mountain fare, and there was a hardness in the set of his jaw.  As he catalogued his people’s grievances with the white man, the glint in his eyes was resolute and unwavering.

“It was not we who first broke the peace,” Numaga asserted.  “We welcomed your people to this land, guided them through the mountains to the golden streams of California, but always the white man wants more.  At the cry of silver, he poured back across the mountains in legions without number.  Still we did not raise our hands against those who stole our land, killed our antelope, stripped the piñons from the hills.  Not until children of our tribe were taken did any of us strike back, and then only a few.  Yet the men of Virginia City marched on us, as we knew they would.”

Colonel Lander nodded gravely.  “I will admit that some of the settlers have behaved despicably, and others have acted out of fear.  That is in the past, Numaga.  I cannot change it, but I have come today to make a new beginning, so that from this day forward no white man and no Paiute need die.”

“Peace is good,” Numaga stated solemnly, “but it is not the work of a single sun or even a moon.”

Ben gestured to the Colonel for permission to speak and it was granted.  “Numaga speaks wisely,” he began slowly.  “Time will, indeed, be needed to forge a treaty that will achieve lasting peace, but, for the sake of both our peoples, peace cannot wait.  It is almost three months since the last blood was shed at Pinnacle Mount.  Let us pledge here today to lay down our guns for, at least, that long again, so that no blood is shed while we talk of peace.”

“A good suggestion,” Colonel Lander stated forcefully.  He faced the Paiute leader.  “Will you agree to keep the peace three more months, Numaga?”

Numaga met the white man’s gaze steadily and answered with fierce pride.  “I will do more than you ask.  I do not speak for all Paiutes, but none of those who follow me will shed the blood of white men for one year from this day.”

Taken aback by the unexpected offer, Colonel Lander recovered quickly and accepted; then he turned the discussion of longer-range solutions to Frederick Dodge.  While the actual treaty would not be signed until later, most of what was discussed during the meetings that began that day would eventually find its way into the finished accord.  Reservations would be set up, but the confinement of a freedom-loving people would be rendered more bearable by assigning them locations that surrounded the Paiutes’ traditional fishing places of Pyramid, Walker and Mud lakes.  The white man would provide assistance, not only by giving food and supplies to meet the Indians’ immediate needs, but, more importantly, by sending teachers to instruct them in farming skills, as they made their transition to a new way of life.

Ben rode back to the Ponderosa with a deep sense of satisfaction—and of expectation.  He knew without doubt that a hefty portion of Numaga’s willingness to treat with the white men came from his long-term trust of the White Winnemucca, a title Ben continued to wear with pride.  The seeds of peace planted in those meetings made hope sprout within Ben, as well.  After seeing differences as vast as those of red men and white find common ground, Ben was encouraged to believe that he and Marie could also chart the path back to their accustomed accord.  Eager to begin peace talks of his own, Ben found the miles between him and the ranch interminable, but his heart soared as each strong stride of his horse brought him nearer home.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Notes

Numaga’s offer to keep the peace for one year is factual.  Ben’s prior suggestion of three months is an invention of the author.

There was a white man, of long acquaintance with the Paiutes, known as the White Winnemucca.  I have taken the liberty of assigning that title to Ben Cartwright.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Off to School

            Adam handed the last of his bags to the man loading the stage in Carson City. “Well, that’s everything,” he said to Marie.

She touched slender fingertips to his elbows.  “I know your father is disappointed that he could not be back in time to bid you farewell, Adam.”

Adam hunched one shoulder in an attitude of dismissal.  “We said our good-byes before he left.”

Marie nodded, a forced smile quivering on her lips.  “And now we must say ours.  I wish it did not have to be so, Adam.  I will miss mon ami.”

Adam slid his arms back to clasp her hands warmly.  “And I will miss mine.”  Breaking into a lighter smile, he reached out to tousle Hoss’s sandy hair.  “Miss you, too, buddy.”

“Sure wish you wouldn’t go, Adam,” Hoss muttered disconsolately.  “We have good times when you’re here.”

“Yeah, we do, buddy,” Adam agreed, “and I’ll miss them, too.  In the meantime”—he reached down to lift Little Joe into his arms for a farewell hug—”you can have fun with this one.”  Adam pulled the toddler close to his chest and nuzzled his neck, wondering why this good-bye seemed hardest of all.  In his heart he knew the answer: he had just begun to know this little brother, to grow strongly attached, and he knew losing some of the closeness they now shared was inevitable with the miles and months he was about to put between them.  “Brother has to go now, little one,” he whispered.  “Try to remember me, okay?”

Little Joe pulled back to gaze quizzically into his oldest brother’s face.  Finally understanding that they weren’t all getting on the stage for a nice trip, the child began to shake his head vigorously.  “No,” he objected adamantly.  “No, no, no!  Me go, too, Adam!”

Adam laughed softly, blinking back the mist forming in his eyes.  “No, baby, you’re too young to go to school.  You’ll get your chance.”  Seeing Marie shiver, he added quickly, “Not soon, though.  You have to stay home and take care of Mama for a while yet.”

Little Joe made a fist and pounded Adam’s shoulder.  “No go!” he dictated, lips puckered and cheeks puffed out in indignation.

“Better watch that hitting,” Adam whispered into his brother’s miniature ear as he stroked the child’s ruffled plumage.  “You know how Pa feels about that, baby boy.”

“All aboard,” the stage driver called impatiently from atop the loaded stagecoach.

Adam tried to hand Little Joe back to his mother, but the little lad clung tenaciously to his brother’s neck.  “Joe, let go,” Adam croaked through a strangled airway.  “I have to leave now.”

Marie firmly detached Little Joe’s clutching fingers from his brother’s throat and hugged him tight.  “Don’t worry about him, Adam; he’ll be fine,” she said, seeing the older boy’s look of concern.  She stood on tiptoe to plant a kiss on each of his cheeks.  “Have a safe journey.”

Adam gently kissed her cheek in return and then brushed his lips against his little brother’s soft curls.  “I’ll be back, baby; I promise,” he whispered and exchanged a quick hug with Hoss before dashing for the stage.  Hanging out the window, he returned the waves of Marie and Hoss, and just before they faded out of sight of the departing stagecoach, he saw a third little hand flutter toward him and felt reassured that his youngest brother was beginning to accept his leaving.  “You don’t know how lucky you are, little fellow,” he thought as he pulled his head back into the coach.  “You’ve got all of them to help you through this, while I’ve got no one to take the sting out of leaving you.”  Then, disdaining the blatant self-pity echoing in his head, Adam set his thoughts toward Sacramento, toward the old friends with whom he’d soon be reuniting and the new knowledge that would blunt, though it could never entirely remove, the homesickness he now felt so sharply.

* * * * *

Marie smiled tenderly at the man sitting, with eyes closed and head tilted back, against the massive trunk of a sugar pine.  Kneeling beside her husband, she dropped a kiss on his temple.

Ben stirred slowly, eyes flickering groggily open.

Marie tittered.  “Oh, Ben, I’m sorry.  I didn’t realize you were actually asleep.”

Ben stifled a yawn.  “Neither did I, my love.  I must have just drifted off for a few minutes.”  He sat up quickly, remembering his promise to keep an eye on his two younger sons while Marie cleared away the remains of their picnic.  “The boys?”

“Are fine,” Marie assured him, her chin tipping toward the creek bank below them.

Catching sight of the two youngsters perched beside the gurgling stream, Ben chuckled as he heard Little Joe’s excited exclamation about some new sight or sound that had caught his attention and Hoss’s scolding admonition to “keep that pole still!”

Leaning back, he took his wife’s hand and pulled her toward him.  “Thank you for giving up your day at church for this.”

“Oh, Ben, I don’t expect to be taken to Virginia City every Sunday,” Marie murmured softly.  “I know it is a long ride, and you were tired from your journey.”  Ben had returned from his peacekeeping mission only the afternoon before, one day after Adam’s departure.

“Too tired for this, too,” Ben admitted, “but I promised the boys.  I wanted Hoss, especially, to have one more day to enjoy before he starts school tomorrow.”

Mischief twinkled in Marie’s eyes as she asked, “Do you imply, monsieur, that school is not to be enjoyed?”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “By Hoss?  I doubt it.  They’re very different, those two older boys of ours, in their attitude toward school.”

“Mmm,” Marie murmured in agreement as she snuggled against his shoulder.  “And what of our youngest?”

Ben laughed.  “That’s a long way off yet, thank goodness.”

“Thank goodness?” Marie queried with a pixyish slant of her head.  “You, too, would miss him then?”

“Actually, I was thinking of his teacher-to-be,” Ben snickered wryly.  “I pity the person who tries to harness that bundle of energy to a school desk!”

“Ooh, you are infuriating,” Marie cried, slapping his chest.

“And you, woman, are enticing,” Ben whispered, taking her golden head in both hands and pulling it down until their lips met and locked in lengthy caress.  Then he moaned in anticipation as Marie unfastened two buttons of his shirt and twined her slender fingers in the hair on his chest.  While it was a promise that, of necessity, could not be fulfilled with two little boys fishing within a hundred feet of them, Ben knew with certainty he would find all a man could yearn for in the arms of his wife that night.

* * * * *

Little Joe locked his arms around Hoss’s knees and held on for dear life.  “No!” he shrieked.  “No go!”

“Well, okay,” Hoss said, looking up hopefully at his father.  “I sure hate to break the poor little punkin’s heart, Pa.”

Ben might have found Hoss’s comment amusing had his youngest not been creating such a grating racket.  “Joseph, stop that wailing,” he ordered sharply.  “Your brother is going to school, whether you like it or not.”

“No!” Joe hollered, continuing to cling to his brother’s lower limbs and, for emphasis, adding a stomp of his foot, which barely missed Hoss’s big toe.

Ben’s nostrils flared as he grabbed the child around the waist and yanked him loose.  “That does it, baby boy; you are going to get a very necessary little talking to this very minute!”

“No, Ben,” Marie objected forcefully, pulling the child from her husband’s arms and placing him against her shoulder.  “That is not necessary.”

“Marie—” Ben interjected.

“No,” Marie said sharply.  “Let me talk to him, Ben.  He is not being naughty; he is confused and hurt.”

The child definitely looked more angry than injured to Ben, but not wanting to strain the bond he was reforging with his wife, he capitulated.  “Do as you think best, then,” he said.  “You’re the one who’ll have to live with him today.”

“That will be my pleasure,” Marie said with a smile.  Bending over, she kissed the top of Hoss’s head.  “Be a good boy, mon chéri, and listen well to your teacher.”

“Yes’m,” Hoss muttered gloomily and, giving his little brother a final pat on the back, left quickly, along with his father, who would also ride to Franktown school to enroll him.

Marie carried the still howling youngest Cartwright upstairs and sat in the rocking chair beside his crib, gently rubbing his back.  The rhythmic movement of the chair and the tender touch began to soothe the distressed child, and soon he was sitting in his mother’s lap, rubbing his eyes.  “Tell Mamá what you are feeling, mon petit,” Marie requested softly.

“Always people leave me,” Little Joe whimpered.  “I hate school!”

“No one is leaving you, mon petit,” his mother soothed.  “I know Hoss is your favorite playmate, and you will miss him, but he will only be gone a few hours.”

Having little concept of time measurements, Little Joe remained unconvinced.  Shaking his head, he again complained, “Always people leave me.”

Marie gently brushed an errant curl from his brow.  “What people, mon petit?”

“Pa,” a red-faced Joe accused.  “Adam.”

“Ah, I thought that was it,” his mother said, giving him a kiss on the forehead.  “I, too, am lonely when Papá goes away, but he always comes back, does he not—and Adam, too?”

“Not for a long, long time,” Joe accused petulantly.  “Too long, Mama!”

Oui, it seems very long to me, too,” Marie admitted, cuddling him closer, “but it will not be so with Hoss.  He will be home for supper, as will your father.”

A hopeful glimmer lighted Little Joe’s eyes.  “Like when Pa works?”

“Exactly like when Pa works,” his mother said, smiling.  “School is Hoss’s work, and he will come home when it is done.”

Little Joe’s face began to glow.  “Adam, too?” he asked eagerly.

“No, Adam’s school is too far for him to come home each night.  You know this, mon petit,” Marie chided gently, “but I promise that Hoss will be home this afternoon, and you will have time to play with him before supper.  Now, since we are in such a good place for it, would you like Mamá to read you a story?”

Characteristic smile transfixing his face, Little Joe nodded eagerly.

Marie took a book from the bureau and began to read.  She knew the story so well she could almost quote it, and the words came readily off her tongue, even though her mind drifted elsewhere.  As she cuddled her healthy little boy in her lap, she couldn’t help thinking of the tragedy that had befallen her neighbor just days before.  As Laura Ellis had foreseen, the Bowers’ child was simply not destined to thrive, and Sandy and Eilley had buried their son just one day shy of two months after his birth.  I am so blessed, Marie thought, and held Little Joe all the closer.

* * * * *

Hoss, who had never shared his younger brother’s propensity for lightning mood changes, found himself growing more doleful with each stride his horse took toward Franktown.  Almost all Hoss’s memories of school were bad ones.  Deep inside he could still feel the embarrassment of being mocked by kids half his size and the pain of being called a “fat, stupid gentile.”  As he rode, he tried to convince himself that since the Mormons had mostly left and the kids who remained were gentiles like him, the name-calling would end.  He was finding himself a hard sell, however.

Ben and Hoss stopped before a small shed to one side of the main school building, but only Hoss led his horse inside and removed the saddle.  Ben, who planned but a brief stay, merely tied his mount at the front of the shed.  Then, together, father and son climbed the steps of the small white wooden building with a narrow bell tower at the front.

Pausing on the porch, Hoss looked eastward with infinite longing.  That’s where I’d like to be, he mused as he gazed at the inviting waters of placid WashoeLake.  Still warm enough to swim, too.

“Hoss,” his father called.  “This way, son.”

Reluctantly, Hoss turned and followed his father through the door on the left, entering a narrow hall.  “Hang your coat and hat here,” Ben instructed.

“Yeah, I know,” Hoss muttered as he placed his lunch pail on the long shelf running the length of the wall that divided the entranceway from the schoolroom proper.  Next he shrugged out of his coat and draped it over one of the hooks beneath the shelf.  He plopped his hat on top of the coat and emitted a loud sigh.  “I’m ready, I guess.”

Ben placed a palm on the boy’s broad shoulder.  “Hoss, it’s a new teacher and new friends you’re about to face, not a firing squad; try to make your countenance reflect that.”

Hoss’s nose crinkled, as if even thinking about facing all that newness was an effort, but he nodded in acquiescence and allowed himself to be led into the next room.  One large, high-ceilinged room with four windows down each side would serve as classroom for all eight grades.  A number of students and some parents were already seated, two to a bench, in the neat rows of flat-topped desks that lined the room on each side of a pot-bellied stove in the center.  Ben directed Hoss onto a bench behind one of the desks and, seeing that there wasn’t room for him to sit, as well, stood in the aisle beside his son.  Hoss heard someone to his right snicker and turned to glare in that direction, instinctively knowing that his bulk had prompted the ugly sound.  His father’s hand came to rest behind his neck and firmly turned the boy’s face toward the front of the room again.

At the far end, on a raised platform, sat a larger desk, evidently the teacher’s, and behind it a slate blackboard bore a single message, “Welcome to FranktownSchool.”  Since the teacher’s desk was empty, Hoss surveyed the room, trying to figure out which of the ladies was his new teacher.  Before he could make that determination, however, a slender young woman who didn’t look much older than Adam mounted the platform and turned to face the assembled parents and students.  “Good morning and welcome to Franktown School,” said the young woman in a clear voice that carried to the back of the room.  “My name,” she continued, as she turned to write on the board, “is Miss Lucinda Appleton.”

Hoss grinned.  That would be an easy name to remember because the teacher’s cheeks were as round and rosy as apples.

“This is a special day because so many parents have graciously chosen to visit us,” Miss Appleton said with a smile, “but beginning tomorrow, all students will wait outside until the bell is rung.  Then the boys will line up and enter by the south door and girls by the north.  The rules of our school will be few and simple, but I will not allow any disruption in the classroom.”  Several parents nodded approval at the firm resolve evident on the young teacher’s face.

“As none of you has ever attended this school before, every student will need to be enrolled,” Miss Appleton explained, “and this will be conducted in an orderly manner, using the alphabet as our guide.  Would each student whose name, like mine, begins with “A” please come to the platform.”

Since “C” was so close to the front of the alphabet, Ben was soon escorting Hoss to the teacher’s desk.  Miss Appleton peered at her new pupil through bespectacled mud-puddle brown eyes that reflected warmth like sunbeams falling on a quiet pond.  “My, but you’re a fine, strapping boy,” she said.  “Your name, please?”

“Hoss, ma’am,” the boy muttered.  “Hoss Cartwright.”

“Hoss?” Miss Appleton rolled her tongue around the unfamiliar sound.  “That’s a most unusual name.  I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it.”

Ben cleared his throat.  “We do call the boy Hoss at home, but his given name is Eric.”

“That’s a good strong name for a strong boy,” Miss Appleton replied pleasantly as she wrote it in her roll book.  “May I call you that in the classroom, Hoss?”

Hoss, who had taken an instant shine to her, even though she wasn’t pretty like Ma, nodded quietly, wanting to please.

“And have you had any schooling before, Eric?” the teacher inquired.

“Yes’m,” Hoss said quietly.  “Not in school like here, but my Ma teached me real good.  I’m in the Second Reader, ma’am.”  His round face glowed with pride as he announced his accomplishment.

“I see,” Miss Appleton said, frowning in thought.  “Well, you have a great deal of ground to make up, Eric, to reach a level appropriate for your age, but—”

“He’s only ten,” Ben inserted.  “Forgive me for interrupting, Miss Appleton, but I fear you’re laboring under a misconception.”

Surprise sprang into the teacher’s eyes.  “Indeed, I am, Mr. Cartwright.  I had assumed—well, he’s such a tall boy”—she gathered herself quickly and gave her new student an encouraging smile.  “That being the case, reaching the Second Reader indicates acceptable progress, Eric.  Your mother has done a good job of instructing you.”

Hoss beamed.  “Yes, ma’am!  She’s the best.”

Miss Appleton’s smile broadened.  A boy who displayed such open admiration for his mother obviously came from a happy home, and by the look of the father, one in which a teacher’s authority might find substantial support.  “Welcome to Franktown School, Eric,” she said.  “Please take a seat in the third row.”

After paying the established fee for Hoss’s first term, Ben walked his son back to his new desk and saw him safely settled before whispering a quick good-bye.  He went outside and, untying the reins of his bay, mounted the animal, confident that his son had made a satisfactory start.  The teacher was barely more than a girl, of course, but that was typical, since it was rare for a married woman to keep school.  Miss Appleton appeared to have both commitment and concern for her students, though, and Ben was pleased to see how well she had related to Hoss.  He knew a good teacher could make a world of difference to a student as reluctant as his middle son.

* * * * *

That morning in the classroom went well for Hoss.  Of course, being the first day, little real study was required.  Miss Appleton spent the morning getting to know her students and exactly where they stood in each subject.  Hoss spent the time he wasn’t reciting himself in watching her interact with his new schoolmates, and he began to think that maybe school wouldn’t be as bad as he’d feared, with someone as nice as Miss Appleton for a teacher.  He was so entranced, in fact, that had it not been for the rumbling of his stomach, he wouldn’t even have noticed that it was time for lunch.

Once Miss Appleton dismissed the class, however, Hoss made a quick grab for his lunch pail and hurried outside, aiming for the nearest shade tree.  “Hey, wait up,” a dark-haired boy called.

Hoss looked back over his shoulder.  “You talkin’ to me?”

“Yeah,” the other boy said, joining Hoss in the circle of shade.  “You’re Ben Cartwright’s kid, right?  We ain’t met proper, but our pas know each other.”

“Yeah, I seen you around,” Hoss replied.  “You’re Thee Winters’ boy, ain’t you?”

The shorter boy grinned as he thrust out his hand.  “Yeah, name’s George, and I know Eric ain’t the name you go by.”

“Naw, just for the teacher,” Hoss agreed quickly.  “I go by Hoss.”

Another boy, passing by, snorted.  “Horse, yeah, that’s what you look like, all right!”  He walked on, snickering in self-appreciation of his wit.

Hoss’s lip curled as he took a step toward his taunter.  A hand came to rest on his elbow.

“Aw, don’t mind him,” George said.  “Cal Hulbert’s got the biggest mouth in the territory, but he’s all talk and nothing to back it up with.”

“Yeah, well, he’d better not do much more of that kind of talkin’ around me,” Hoss boasted with a fast flex of his bicep, “‘cause I got what I need to back up anything I say.”

“You’s awful big,” piped a high-pitched voice, clearly awed.  “You’s ‘most a man.”

Hoss dropped his arm and gave the diminutive girl with bright red braids a grin.  “Well, hi there, little mite.”

A boy with hair as coppery as the girl’s yanked her back by one braid.  “Don’t be botherin’ folks, Mary Emma,” he scolded.

“Ah, she ain’t no bother,” Hoss laughed.  “She ain’t big enough to be no bother.”

“She ain’t big enough to be nothin’ else,” the boy cackled, “but I reckon you’d know about that.  I seen you chasin’ one even smaller at the Fourth of July picnic.”

“Oh, yeah, that one ain’t nothin’ but bother,” Hoss agreed.  “Listen, I’m gettin’ too hungry to just stand around jawin’.  You wanna set and eat?”

“Sure,” the redheaded boy replied, plunking himself down and motioning his sister and slightly younger brother to take a seat on the ground beside him.  “We’re the O’Neills,” he announced once Hoss and George Winters were seated, too.

Hoss opened his dinner pail and pulled out his first sandwich.  “Yeah, I know.  Seen you at the doin’s on the Fourth, too.  You live pretty near me, I think, north of the Bowers’ place a ways.  Don’t know your front names, though—well, exceptin’ for Mary Emma, that is.”  He flashed the little girl a sociable smile.  She reminded him of his friend, Inger Thomas, although she looked a smidge younger.

The other boy shook his wide-eyed stare away from the Hoss’s heavily loaded dinner pail.  “I’m Joseph, and my little brother here is Robert,” he stated.

“Hey!  My little brother’s name is Joseph,” Hoss said between bites.

Robert, redheaded and freckled like his siblings, snickered.  “Unh-uh, it’s Little Joe; heard you hollerin’ it plenty at that picnic.”

“He’s cute,” dimple-cheeked Mary Emma offered.

“Yeah,” Hoss groused good-naturedly.  “He’s cute as a skeeter nippin’ on your arm.”

Robert whacked Mary Emma on the knee.  “That’s a good one—and you’re cute the same way, little skeeter!”

“Ooh, boys are awful!” Mary Emma sputtered and, grabbing up her lunch pail, set off to find more congenial companionship among the girls.

“Aw, doggone, you went and hurt her feelin’s,” Hoss commiserated.  He hated to see anyone hurt.

“She’ll get over it,” Robert said with a nonchalant shrug.  “I heard your pa say you was only ten, Hoss, but I can’t hardly believe it.  That’s the same age as Joe here, but you’re sure bigger.”

“Aw, shut up, Robby,” Joe ordered, seeing Hoss’s countenance darken.  “Ain’t good manners to talk ‘bout how folks look.  Remember how you feel when someone calls you ‘Red’?”

“Sorry, didn’t mean nothin’,” Robby said quickly.

“I know I’m big,” Hoss said, his innate defensiveness on the subject quieted by the quick apology, “but I figure it to be a good thing.  I get paid a man’s wage on the ranch ‘cause I do the work of a man.”

“Wow, that’s great!” Joe cried.  “What kind of work you do?”

Before answering, Hoss dug into the dinner pail for another sandwich.  He lifted the top slice of bread, and his face scrunched in distaste.  “Doggone!” he grunted.  “Cheese!  Hop Sing oughta know by now that I don’t like cheese.  Anybody want this thing?”

Robby all but grabbed the sandwich out of Hoss’s hand.  “I’ll take it.”

Joe glowered at his one-year-younger brother.  “O’Neills don’t take charity.  Ma’ll have your hide if she finds out.”

“Hey, it ain’t charity,” Hoss objected, “just friends sharin’ what they got.”

Joe cocked his head in consideration.  “Okay, so how’d you like one of my ma’s ginger cookies in trade?  She makes gooduns.”

A gap-toothed grin split Hoss’s face.  School was turning out just fine without those name-calling Mormons around.

That impression lasted until the afternoon arithmetic recitation.  Arithmetic had always been difficult for Hoss, and he just couldn’t make the figures work out right when he took his turn at the blackboard.  He heard some snickering from the back of the room, where the older boys sat, and although it was quickly stopped by Miss Appleton, Hoss felt his cheeks grow hot and he wanted to melt through the cracks in the floor.

The day went downhill from that point.  Hoss knew he’d made the same kind of mistakes that had the kids in the old Mormon school laughing at him, and the titters from the back of the Franktown classroom confirmed that it wouldn’t be different here.  Kids were the same, it seemed, no matter whether they were Mormon or gentile, and Hoss felt crushed with the disappointment of that discovery.  His despondency grew with each lesson he attempted that afternoon.  With the remembered taunts of his earlier schooling echoing in his ears, he couldn’t concentrate on the lessons of the present, and with each failure he knew he’d given his new schoolmates more reason to laugh.

Miss Appleton kept the boy in from the afternoon recess, not as punishment, but to give him extra help, which he obviously needed.  “It ain’t no use, Miss Appleton, ma’am,” Hoss sighed.  “I’m just dumb.”

The teacher pressed his plump cheeks between her slender fingers and forced him to look directly into her eyes.  “No, Eric, you are not, and I do not wish to hear that again.  You are quite capable of learning; you’re simply not concentrating.”

“Figures has always been hard for me, ma’am,” Hoss moaned.

“Then that’s an area we need to work on,” the teacher said with a smile, silently adding, Grammar, too.  “Let’s look again at those problems you missed, shall we?”

Hoss nodded glumly, foreseeing little hope of understanding where he’d gone wrong.  Half an hour of Miss Appleton’s patient tutoring, however, brought a smile back to his face.  He might be a little slower than the other scholars, but Miss Appleton was right.  With someone like her taking the time to help him over the rough spots, he could learn, just like any of them.

The remainder of the day went better, although the lost recess left Hoss tired and made concentration even more difficult.  A few more mistakes started the titters again, but once again Miss Appleton silenced them, this time with even firmer rebuke.  The day had been a long one, however, and no one welcomed the announcement of dismissal more than Hoss Cartwright.  He was tired and getting hungry again, too, especially since he’d given away part of his lunch.  The ginger cookie had been tasty, but it hadn’t filled his belly the way another sandwich would have.  Hoss was eager to get home and wheedle a snack out of Hop Sing.

He waved good-bye to George Winters and the O’Neill kids and then saddled his horse in the shed.  As he was leading the animal out, he found his path blocked by the boy who had done most of the snickering at the back of the classroom, the one George had called Cal.

“Well, if it ain’t Horse!” the older boy snorted.

Hoss looked down at the boy whose head didn’t reach the younger one’s shoulder.  “Not Horse,” he snarled.  “My name’s Hoss.”

“Either way, it suits,” Calvin Hulbert sneered, “‘cause you got all the smarts of somethin’ to ride.”

Hoss was tired and hungry, and he had taken all he intended to.  He’d learned back at the Mormon school how to shut smart mouths like this kid’s.  This time he didn’t even need to form a fist.  Planting his broad palm on the smaller boy’s chest, he gave a rough shove that sent Hulbert sprawling in the dust; then without a backward glance, he turned to mountCharcoal.

As Hoss started toward home, Calvin Hulbert scrambled to his feet and hollered, “This don’t end it, Horse, and you’re still dumb as a critter!”

* * * * *

Hoss barely had time to dismount before the door to the Ponderosa ranch house blared open and a pint-sized explosion, strong as any produced by black powder in the mines of Virginia City and twice as noisy, blasted into the yard.  “Hoss!” Little Joe shrieked as he barreled into his long-lost brother’s thigh.

Hoss chortled with delight at the hearty welcome, and conveniently forgetting that this was the child he’d described to his friends as a bothersome skeeter, he scooped the boy up and hugged him tight.  “Miss me, punkin?”

Little Joe’s head bobbed up and down wildly.  “Don’t go ‘gain,” he ordered adamantly.

Hoss favored the youngster with a sour smile as he set him down and tousled his curls.  “Sure like to oblige you there, punkin, but I don’t fancy a trip ‘cross Pa’s lap.”

“Nes’ry talk?” Joe asked plaintively.

“Yeah, and you know what they’re like, don’t ya?” Hoss said, gathering the reins of his horse to lead her into the barn.

“Yeah,” Joe moaned in sympathy.  “Talk bad, school bad.  You gone, ev’thing bad.”

“You got that right,” Hoss grunted.  “Wanna help me put up Charcoal?

“Uh-huh,” Little Joe agreed, face clearing at once.  “Me ride?”

“Okay,” Hoss chuckled, swinging his little brother into the saddle for the brief trip to the barn.

As soon as the gray mare was cared for, Hoss headed for the house with Little Joe riding piggyback.  His dog Klamath came racing around the corner to welcome him home, standing on his hind legs, pressing his front paws against Hoss’s thighs.  When Hoss leaned over to scratch behind his pet’s ears, Little Joe stretched across his big brother’s shoulder to copy the action and immediately toppled forward, headfirst.  Hoss grabbed him just before he landed on the dog and shook his head in wonder as he swung Little Joe to safe ground.  Doggone, but that kid could tumble into trouble quicker than anyone he’d ever seen!  “Come on, let’s see if Hop Sing’s got any cookies, huh?” he suggested, taking the small hand in his ample one and leading the way.

Marie, blissfully unaware of her baby’s latest close call, met both boys with a hug and a kiss.  She had foreseen Hoss’s hunger, and two glasses of milk sat waiting on the dining table with a platter of sugar cookies between them.  “Aw, my favorites,” Hoss murmured.  “Thanks, Ma.”

“Hop Sing baked them, of course,” Marie said as she helped Little Joe into his chair, “but I did suggest which kind he make.”  She sat at the head of the table in Ben’s normal position and rested her chin on laced fingers.  “Did you have a good day at school, mon chéri?”

Hoss scowled.  “Can’t I just take my lessons here with you, like before, Ma?”

Instantly, Marie’s hand rested comfortingly on his.  “Was it so very bad, Hoss?”

Seeing her concern, Hoss hesitated to tell the full truth, and with a moment to think, he realized the end of the day didn’t accurately reflect how everything had gone, anyway.  “Well, it wadn’t all bad,” he admitted. “Miss Appleton’s real nice, but I liked it better when I was here with you and Little Joe all day, Ma.”

“Me, too,” Little Joe mumbled, cookie crumbs spewing from his lips.

“Do not talk with your mouth full, Joseph,” his mother admonished, wiping his lips with a napkin.  She smiled at her other son.  “I am much flattered that you enjoyed our lessons together, Hoss,” she said, “but it is better that you go to school with other children.  They will push you to do your best, and you need the companionship of children your own age.  Did you not make any friends today, my son?”

Harking back to the more pleasant memories of the noon meal, Hoss finally smiled.  “Yeah, I ate lunch with George Winters and the O’Neill kids, and we all got on real good.  The O’Neill boys are right around my age, and George is twelve, but he didn’t talk down to me.”  Not like some I could mention, he thought as Cal Hulbert’s revolting face flashed across his mind.

“Ah, you see, you have made some friends in just one day,” Marie said happily, “and I am sure that in time the other children will also discover what a fine friend you are.”

Hoss wiped away a mustache of milk.  “Sure hope so, Ma.”  He felt certain that there were some kids he’d never call friends, though he spared his mother that opinion.  Finishing his cookies, he carried the empty dishes into the kitchen and had a few words with Hop Sing on the subject of cheese in dinner pails.

* * * * *

Each day two of the older boys were selected to bring drinking water to Franktown School from the Frey ranch, the closest source.  On Wednesday of the first week of school, George Winters raised his hand to ask if he could go for the water that day.  “And can Hoss go with me?” he added quickly when the teacher agreed.

Miss Appleton pursed her lips.  Certainly, there was no denying that Eric Cartwright had the muscle for the job, despite being younger than those she normally sent; however, he was also a boy who could ill afford to miss a moment of class time.  Still, seeing the eagerness that sprang into his young face, the teacher hadn’t the heart to refuse permission.  “Very well,” she decided, “as soon as Eric has read a paragraph for me from his reader, you may both be excused.”

Hoss grinned back at George, pleased both to be chosen and to have the opportunity of escaping the classroom, even to haul water.  After stumbling through his paragraph, Hoss slid his reader onto the shelf beneath his desktop and joined George in the hall, where they scrambled into coats and hats.  Each boy took a bucket and exited through the boy’s door to the schoolhouse.  “Thanks for pickin’ me, George,” Hoss said as soon as they were outside.

“Aw, why wouldn’t I?” George responded with a shrug.  “I can trust you to carry your weight in a chore like this.”

“Shucks, I’ll carry both pails if you like,” Hoss offered.  “I’m strong enough.”

“Naw, I can carry my own weight, too, you know,” George chuckled.  “Don’t want Miss Appleton thinkin’ it’s a one-man job, do we?”

Hoss grinned broadly.  “Nope, sure don’t!  That’d make it just plain work.  Any job’s easier when you got good company.”  Laughing, the two boys walked to the Frey ranch, filled their pails and headed back to school.

As the water carriers drew near the schoolhouse, Calvin Hulbert caught sight of them out the window and smirked.  He’d figured a way to show that big dumb Horse how it felt to be spilled into the dirt, and now was the perfect time to set his plan in action.  He raised his hand and was recognized by the teacher.

“May I be excused to visit the outhouse, Miss Appleton?” Calvin requested politely in his best English.

“Why, it will soon be time for recess,” the teacher observed.  “Can’t you wait ‘til then?”

“Oh, no, ma’am,” Calvin replied with a look of strain.  “I got to go bad!  My ma fed me prunes for breakfast.”

Miss Appleton sighed.  “Very well, then.  Don’t dawdle.”

“Oh, no, ma’am, straight there and back,” Calvin promised.  He hustled from his desk and into his outerwear, then rushed outside and pressed himself flat against the front of the building.  Peering around the corner, he saw the pair of boys lugging water and noted with conniving glee that Hoss was the one closer to him.  Just as Hoss and George started around the corner, Calvin thrust out a leg and caught Hoss’s ankle.

As Hoss crashed forward, the full water pail went flying and emptied its contents on his backside and the bare earth beside him.  Britches dripping, Hoss clawed his way up and backed his tormentor against the wall of the building.  “You dirty, rotten skunk,” he hollered as he balled his fist.

“Miss Appleton!  Miss Appleton, help!” Calvin screamed at the top of his lungs.

Hoss’s fist immediately fell to his side as the teacher rushed through the girls’ door.

“Oh, my goodness,” Miss Appleton cried when she caught sight of the boys.  “What is going on here?”

“I—I’m sorry, teacher,” Calvin whimpered, affecting an intimidated expression.  “I was just hurryin’ to get to the outhouse, and I accidentally bumped into this big galoot, and now he wants to pound me.  Don’t let him, teacher.”

“No one is going to pound anyone,” the teacher declared emphatically.  “You get on to the outhouse, Calvin.  George, carry your pail of water into the classroom, and, Eric, you come with me.”  Wrapping an arm around Hoss’s shoulder, she herded him toward the small shed where the horses were kept during school hours.

Since the outhouses were attached to each side of the stable, Calvin’s path lay in the same direction.  Seeing that the teacher’s attention was fixed on Hoss, he boldly thrust his tongue at his drenched opponent and then disappeared into the boy’s outhouse, where he finally exploded in pent-up laughter.

Hoss felt more like crying.  His soaked britches clung to his legs, and he was shaking from cold, as well as outrage with Calvin Hulbert.  However, he had no intention of letting anyone see tears streak his face, least of all the teacher he admired.  He’d be a man in front of her if both legs froze off.

Miss Appleton, of course, saw only a shivering child and set about remedying that problem as quickly as possible.  Spotting a wool blanket draped over one of the horses, she snatched it off and tossed it to Hoss.  “Get in one of the stalls and take your britches off, Eric.  You can wrap up in that blanket until they’re dry.”

Hoss flushed bright red.  “Aw, I can just stand by the fire, ma’am,” he suggested urgently.  “No need to strip off.”

“Strip off those wet pants this instant!” the teacher ordered.  “I’ll not have a student of mine catching pneumonia over some silly accident.”

“Ma’am, please,” Hoss begged.  No one had to tell him what would happen the minute he entered the classroom wrapped in a blanket with his bare legs poking out.

The teacher folded her arms and frowned eloquently.  “Eric Cartwright, you will do as you are told or I will be paying a visit to your parents this very evening.  I saw that fist you were aiming at Calvin’s nose.  Understanding the provocation, I intended to overlook that, but if you continue to disobey my instructions, I will apprise your parents of both infractions.  Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes’m,” Hoss mumbled, disappearing quickly into the designated horse stall.  He emerged, clad from the waist down in the rust-colored blanket, which reeked of horse musk, and with shuffling steps and eyes hugging the dirt, he followed the teacher back to the schoolhouse.  A wave of titters met his entrance, as it had taken no fortune teller to predict, but Miss Appleton sternly told the other students to keep their eyes on their books.  She pulled a chair next to the wood-burning stove and planted Hoss in it.

Hoss held his cold feet to the warmth and glanced over his shoulder.  Calvin Hulbert was back in his seat, and since the teacher was busy writing the next assignment on the board, he again favored Hoss with the derision of an extended tongue.

Hoss scowled back, but turned around before anyone else, particularly Miss Appleton, could notice the exchange of hostility between the two boys.  You’ll get yours, Calvin Hulbert, he told himself.  You ain’t gettin’ away with this.

Not until Friday afternoon did the proper opportunity present itself for paying back Calvin Hulbert.  The other boy continued his verbal baiting, not missing a chance to mock Hoss’s slightest mistake or clumsy move.  During his tenure in the Mormon school, Hoss had learned that a swift punch in the snoot was the quickest way to silence a loud-mouth like Hulbert, and after a particularly trying afternoon, he concluded that it was time to learn that smart-acre a little respect.  Hauling Hulbert around the back of the stable, Hoss administered two solid punches, figuring that was enough to get his message across.  He hadn’t really tried to hurt the other boy; nonetheless, Calvin Hulbert ran off, wiping a bloody nose.

* * * * *

Leaving the chapel after making confession, Marie giggled as she saw her husband chasing down the dirt street after their youngest son.  Catching the boy by the waist, Ben tossed him up into his arms and marched back toward his wife, who at once took the child and cuddled him close.  “You should keep better watch,” she chided with a lilting laugh that took all bite from the reprimand.

“Hoss was supposed to be watching him,” Ben grunted, fixing a reproachful glare on his middle son.

“I’m always watchin’ him,” Hoss muttered irritably.

Ben’s granite gaze narrowed to one of concern.  Hoss, the most sweet-tempered of his boys, had been disgruntled all week, an attitude Ben had attributed to dislike for school, but the attitude hadn’t improved, even on Saturday.  Ben had to admit, in all fairness, that the boy probably had needed a day to spend on his own pleasure, without books or extra chores to darken his mood, but that hadn’t been possible.  With a trail drive starting tomorrow, Hoss’s help had been badly needed to get the herd ready to travel, and the boy had spent Saturday working without complaint at his father’s side.  Ben’s adamant refusal to allow him to miss school to go along on the cattle drive hadn’t improved Hoss’s outlook, however.

Ben laid a hand on his son’s shoulder.  “Yes, I rely on you a great deal, Hoss, and you’re always good to watch over your brother.  Forgive me if I took advantage of that.  I know you’ve had a tiring week.”

Hoss shrugged and watched his boots scuff the dust.  Pa didn’t know the half of it, of course.  The week had been both tiring and trying, in ways Pa knew nothing about, and although Hoss had finally taken action against his tormentor, he wasn’t feeling the satisfaction he’d expected.  He didn’t see any other way to handle Calvin Hulbert and his kind, but knowing that neither Pa nor Ma would approve of his fighting at school, he couldn’t go to them for help.  Keeping secrets from his parents, Hoss was discovering, carried a torment all its own.

“We need to go in now,” Marie suggested quietly.

“Yes, I know,” Ben said.  “About an hour?”

As Marie nodded, Hoss looked from one parent’s face to the other.  “Ain’t you comin’ in, Pa?” he asked, forehead wrinkling.

“No, son.  I’ll pick you up here when the service is over,” Ben said.

Hoss planted his feet a shoulder’s breadth apart and balled his fists on his hips.  “I ain’t goin’, either,” he declared.

“Hoss,” Ben remonstrated, giving him a pat, “be a good boy and go along with your mother.”

Hoss pushed out his lower lip.  “No!  I don’t like it no better’n you do, and if you don’t gotta go, then I ain’t gotta go!”

Eyes grieved, Marie shook her head from side to side.  “You see, Ben?  This is what comes of disunity in spiritual matters.”

Glowering, Ben pointed his index finger at her chin.  “Don’t start, Marie.  I have made my decision, and I will not be swayed by the rebellion of a ten-year-old or the sanctimonious pronouncements of my wife.”

“Ben, you are making a scene,” Marie hissed.  “A public street is not the place for this discussion.”

Ben lowered his hand.  “That much, at least, we agree on.  We’ll continue this discussion at home.”

Mais oui,” Marie replied curtly and held out her hand toward the boy whose stance and expression hadn’t changed.  “Come, Hoss.”

“No,” Hoss insisted, thrusting out his lip.  He’d spent an entire week in a place he didn’t want to be and had decided that was enough misery for one seven-day stretch.

Ben squatted down before his son and took the balled fists in his hands.  “Son, please do as your mother asks, and I promise we’ll get this worked out.”

Hoss shook his head forcefully.  “Not unless you go, too, Pa.”

Ben stared in shock at his normally tractable middle son.  Rebellion from Hoss was almost unheard of, and Ben found himself unprepared to deal with it.

“Ben?” Marie, green eyes glinting, demanded when Ben remained silent.

Hearing the strident tone in her voice, Ben hardened himself.  “No, Marie.”  He stood and draped his arm across Hoss’s shoulder.  “You go ahead and worship; I’ll keep the boy with me today.”

Fire flared in Marie’s eyes.  “Is this what you mean by exposing the boys to both faiths and letting them make their own decision, Ben?” she asked crisply.

“Now who’s making a scene?” Ben snapped.

With a flounce, Marie wheeled around and headed toward the entrance to the chapel.  A shriek of protest pierced her ear as the child in her arms reached across her shoulder toward those remaining behind.  “Bubba!” Little Joe screamed.

“Shh, be quiet, mon petit,” Marie soothed, but the child continued to cry.  Suddenly, she wheeled around and thrust the toddler at her husband.  “Here!  Since you are so anxious to have the company of our sons this morning, you may as well have both of them!  I can scarcely be expected to worship with him screeching in my ear.”

“Marie!” Ben protested as his wife stalked away in a huff.

“Mama!” Little Joe wailed, slender arms now stretched toward her departing figure.

“Oh, be quiet,” Ben growled as he struggled to keep the squirming boy from falling.  “You don’t know what you want.”  He looked ruefully at Hoss.  “We’re both in for it when we get home, you know that, don’t you, boy?”

Hoss pinched his lower lip between his right thumb and index finger.  “I’m sorry, Pa,” he mumbled.  “I didn’t mean to make trouble ‘tween you and Ma.”

Ben caressed the boy’s bulky neck.  “That’s not your fault, Hoss.  Just something your mother and I have to work out.”  And we’re doing a sorry job of it, he added to himself.  He had a more immediate concern, however.  Something was obviously troubling his second son, and he had to find a way to get the boy to open up, a task now complicated by the presence of his youngest.  First things first, Ben concluded, and began rubbing Little Joe’s back.  “Shh, you’re all right,” he soothed.

“Pa mad, Mama mad, Hoss mad,” Little Joe wailed.

“Nobody’s mad at you, precious,” Ben crooned.  “Hush now; everything’s all right—or will be.”

“You sure, Pa?” Hoss asked, hiccupping with nervousness.

Ben gave him an encouraging smile.  “I’m sure, son.  Let’s find a place where we can sit and talk.”  One hand holding Little Joe, who had stopped struggling, and the other on the back of his middle son’s neck, Ben guided Hoss down the street.  Turning into Dutch Nick’s saloon, Ben pointed to a table, handed Little Joe to his brother and stepped to the bar to order a beer and a sarsaparilla.

Back at the table, Ben immediately pushed away the tiny hand reaching for his beer.  “Oh, no, you don’t.  You take one sip of that, and I will never hear the last of it from your mother.  Hoss, let him have a bit of yours, please.”

“Sure, Pa,” Hoss said agreeably, holding the glass while his brother drank.

“Excuse me, sir,” a voice crackled at Ben’s left.  Ben glanced up to see a grizzled miner, standing beside him, hat in hand.  “Excuse me, sir,” the miner said again, “but could I touch the child?”

Ben felt tempted to joke that the man could have “the child” for the price of a beer, but decided against it.  Although there was little likelihood that the remark would reach Marie’s ears, the consequences if it did were too ghastly to contemplate.  Instead, he simply smiled and nodded.

The man reached out a scrawny hand and ruffled Little Joe’s curly hair, face cracking into a wide grin when the baby favored him with a sunny smile.  “Thank’e, sir,” he said, putting his hat back on his head and taking his leave.

“What’d he do that for, Pa?” Hoss asked.

Ben chuckled.  “Some of these miners haven’t seen a woman—much less a child—in so many months that they yearn for one look, one touch.”  I’m blessed, Ben thought suddenly.  I see every day what most men in these parts would give their eyeteeth for.  Best I remember that and give some attention to preserving it.

“Well, shucks, he coulda messed my hair, too, if I’d known,” Hoss said with a shrug of his shoulder.      “Thanks for the sarsaparilla, Pa,” he added after slaking his thirst.  “Sure tastes good.”

Ben nodded.  “You’re welcome, son.”  He began stroking the boy’s arm.  “Want to tell me about it, Hoss?”

“About what?” Hoss asked, looking away.

Ben pulled the boy’s chin back toward him.  “About what’s bothering you, son, and don’t tell me nothing is.  Lying never solved anything.”

“I don’t like her kind of church, Pa,” Hoss whined.  “I don’t understand none of it.”

Ben nodded.  “I realize the language is a problem, but you’d come to understand it in time, Hoss.”

“I don’t think so, Pa,” Hoss said with a discouraged shake of his head.  One of his worst subjects in school was grammar, and the thought of learning still another language, when he couldn’t even speak his native tongue properly, overwhelmed the boy.  He took another sip of sarsaparilla and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.  “I liked that revival meetin’ we went to,” he observed as he again held the mug so his brother could take a drink.  “I could join in the singin’, and what the preacher said made sense to me.  Ain’t there never gonna be no more meetin’s like that?”

“Yes, the way the territory’s growing, I’m sure there will soon be other churches to choose from, Hoss,” Ben said, “but I think you’re still too young to decide which is best for you.  That’s why your mother and I agreed that you boys would attend both Catholic and Protestant services until you were of an age to make up your own minds.”

“Aw, Pa,” Hoss groaned.

“Hoss, I won’t force you,” Ben promised.  “I’d feel like a hypocrite if I insisted on your doing something I’m unwilling to do myself, but I am asking you to give your mother’s faith a fair trial.”  He leaned forward, touching his head against Hoss’s in a conspiratorial pose.  “I’ll make you a bargain, son.  You see, the Thomases have been hinting that they’d like to start sharing Sunday dinners with us again, something we’ve neglected since this whole religious issue came up.  I’m going to suggest we do that every other week and come to town for church the other two Sundays.  Now, if you’ll go to chapel with your mother on just one of those Sundays, I’ll let you stay with me for the other one, until there’s a church with my style of worship, and then we’ll go together.  Think you could handle that, son?”

“Just once a month?” Hoss asked and at Ben’s nod, concluded, “I guess I could, Pa, if you think Ma’ll buy the idea.”  The youngster considered sitting in a saloon with Pa, sipping sarsaparilla, better than any service in any church, but had sense enough to keep that thought to himself.

Ben gave the boy’s sturdy back a solid slap.  “I’ll sell it to her, son, and I do thank you for your cooperation.”  He lifted his mug of beer and, leaning back, sipped it leisurely, hoping his confidence was justified.  Then he caught a glimpse of his youngest, head lying drowsily on his brother’s broad shoulder, and sighed.  Now, just how was he going to explain to his already overwrought wife that he had taken her baby into a saloon, let him drink sarsaparilla and allowed a dirty miner to run his fingers through those precious curls?  The man wise enough to solve that dilemma should probably be put in charge of settling the differences between the states back east, he decided.  No, he concluded, his mouth twisting awry, that man has the easier task, and I’d gladly trade with him!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Notes

The description of FranktownSchool comes from Pioneers of the Ponderosa: How Washoe Valley Rescued the Comstock by Myra Sauer Ratay, the granddaughter of one of WashoeValley’s original pioneers.  Hoss’s teacher, Lucinda Appleton, is fictional.  His friends, George Winters and Joseph, Robert and Mary Emma O’Neill were actual residents of WashoeValley.  Their physical descriptions are the invention of the author, although George’s is based on that of his father.  Calvin Hulbert is entirely fictional.

CHAPTER NINE

Keeping Secrets

            Ben toweled himself off, relishing the stimulation of the vigorous rubbing that turned his skin a glowing red.  Nothing like a hot bath after a long, dusty trail drive, he mused as he slipped into his robe and headed down the hall to his hotel room.  This year’s roundup had seemed longer and tougher than usual, partly because of the pressure of time.  Always before the fall trail drive had been timed to coincide with Adam’s return to school, but everything was running late this year.  Ben felt like he’d been playing catch-up ever since spring when weather and warfare had conspired to put the Ponderosa behind schedule.

Unlocking the door, Ben entered his room and all but fell onto the bed.  The hour was late, and he was exhausted—and, to tell the truth, disappointed.  He’d hoped to reach Sacramento in time to take Adam to supper, but he hadn’t met that self-imposed deadline.  He’d counted on the new Kingsbury Grade, which shortened the road to Sacramento by fifteen miles, to bring him in before nightfall, but that was before a few recalcitrant cows decided to explore a trailside canyon for greener grass.  Getting them back had taken the better part of the afternoon, pushing his arrival long past Adam’s accustomed dinner hour.  Oh, well, tomorrow would have to do.  Might even be better, since they’d have time to take in a performance at the theater, in addition to a meal together.

Still wound too tight to sleep, Ben plumped up the pillow and leaned back against it as he contemplated seeing his oldest son the next day.  Mercy, how he missed the boy!  His thoughts naturally drifted to the two boys he’d left at home, whose company he also missed.  Smiling, Ben shook his head as he remembered how Hoss had pleaded to come on this cattle drive.  Short-handed as usual, he could have used the boy’s help, but both Ben and Marie had agreed that Hoss’s first responsibility was to school, despite his obvious distaste for learning.  Hoss was only a boy of ten, after all, too young to decide that he’d had all the learning he needed to make a top hand, as he’d tried to convince his father.  Ben chuckled as he recalled the even younger trail hand who’d offered his services on this year’s drive.  That Little Joe, always reaching for the next rung of the ladder.  No, Ben laughed, not the next one—the rung two or three levels above his head, whichever his big brother happened to be occupying at the time.

Yawning widely, Ben turned back the covers and after pulling a fresh nightshirt over his head, crawled beneath them.  He’d have to search out some treats for those two younger boys of his, something to sweeten their disappointment in being left behind.  Plenty of time for that tomorrow, since he’d have hours to kill before Adam was free from school.  He wanted something special for Marie, too, but he didn’t expect to find that in Sacramento.  No, there was only one place for what he wanted to give his lady, and that would be the next stop on his journey.

* * * * *

Lanky Jonathan Payne draped an arm around the shoulders of his slightly shorter friend, Ben Cartwright, as they walked toward the corral of Payne’s Rancho Hermoso near Monterey.  “So you’ve finally decided to present that wild wife of yours with a more spirited mount, have you?  I had a fine working horse picked out for Adam, since that’s what your letter indicated you planned to buy, but after seeing Marie take that fence when she was here before, I imagine you’ll want a animal whose mettle matches her own.”

“Sorry, last-minute change of plans,” Ben apologized.  “Actually, it was Adam’s idea.  Shortly before he left for school, I told him I’d buy him a new horse, to replace the one he lost during the fighting, even offered to let him pick it out himself when he visits here over the holidays.”

Jonathan’s laugh reflected incredulity.  “And he turned you down?”

“Not exactly,” Ben laughed back.  “More like negotiated a trade.  The boy’s been riding Marie’s black this summer, and I guess he developed more of a fondness for the horse than I realized.  Anyway, he said he’d be content with the gelding and suggested getting a new horse for his stepmother, instead.”

“Turning into a right thoughtful boy, that one,” Jonathan commented as they reached the corral.  “You wait here, and I’ll bring out a horse I think will be challenging enough, even for Marie.”

Ben nodded.  Folding his arms over the top rail of the sawed-lumber corral, he leaned his head back to let the warm sunshine, so much milder here than at home, play on his face and the gentle breeze ruffle his dark hair, as Jonathan’s parting remark wisped through his mind.  Thoughtful, he mused, yes, that’s a good word for Adam, in more ways than Jon intended.  Always thinking, that boy, often deeper thoughts than his father had any hope of fathoming.

There was something more behind Adam’s surrender of a new horse than kindness to his stepmother, something Ben couldn’t quite put his finger on.  Though the boy had sounded cheery enough when he made the offer, Ben had sensed that the words weren’t completely heartfelt.  That’s why he’d felt a need to confirm the decision with Adam during their time together in Sacramento.  Adam had hesitated just long enough to let Ben know his son was holding something back, but had still insisted that the black gelding would do just fine for him and then withdrawn behind that impenetrable mask he could don without warning.

The barn door opened and Jonathan led a tall strawberry roan into the paddock on a long lead rope.  Ben’s eyes followed the gelding as he trotted around the corral, head tossing, steps prancing.  “What do you think?” Jonathan called.

Envisioning his wife in the saddle, both her emerald eyes and the luminous ones of the horse shining with the joy of unfettered freedom, Ben called out, “Perfect!  I’ll take him.”

* * * * *

With uncharacteristic petulance Adam flopped, belly first, onto the bed in his room after seeing his father off that morning, the worst part of his mood coming from the knowledge that his disgruntlement was all of his own making.  My own cowardice, I ought to say, he chided himself, wondering how he’d ever work up the courage to tell Pa what he obviously didn’t want to hear.

Those last few weeks at home, after Pa had first commented about his coming back to the Ponderosa to stay at the end of this year’s school term, Adam had tried to think of a way to tell his father of his educational aspirations.  Somehow, the right opportunity had just never seemed to arise—or, to be honest, it had, and Adam had let it slip past.  The perfect opportunity had presented itself when his father offered him the choice of any horse at Rancho Hermoso.  Instead of speaking out, however, he’d bitten back his excitement because it just didn’t make sense to buy a new mount if he were only going to be on the Ponderosa two or three months before heading back east to school.  Why couldn’t I just tell Pa the real reason? Adam groaned internally.  Why did I have to pretend it was because I liked Marie’s horse so muchThat wasn’t what I meant when I said the black would do for me, but that’s how Pa took it, and I didn’t have the heart—or the grit, I guess—to tell him different.

Adam sighed and flipped onto his back, folding his arms behind his neck and staring contemplatively at the ceiling.  He’d had another chance to speak up the night he and Pa had shared a meal before attending a performance of Macbeth.  Pa’d carried on so, though, about how much he missed his son, how he could have used his help on the trail and how much he was looking forward to having him home for good that once again Adam simply couldn’t speak what was in his heart.  Still holding out hope that he’d find the right words and that Pa would agree to his attending college, Adam had again declared that he preferred the new horse be given to Marie and the black gelding be assigned to his personal use.

A simple matter of logic, he’d told himself, but when Pa stopped by on his way home to show off the beautiful strawberry roan, Adam had barely been able to conceal his envy.  Probably not the mount he’d have chosen for himself, but if he really did end up staying on the Ponderosa, he knew he’d regret losing the chance to pick one equally fine.

With a sigh, he sat up, stretching long arms over his head before moving to his desk.  He sat down and took out a sheet of plain white stationery and scrawled, “Dear Pa” at the top.  That was as far as he got, however, for writing words he couldn’t speak to his father’s face struck him as further evidence of cowardice, and he couldn’t bring himself to do it.  Slipping the paper back into the desk drawer to use later on some innocuous missive, Adam pulled his Latin text from its place in the neat row of books on his desk and opened it.  No point in dreaming about college unless he was fully prepared to pass the entrance exam, so he bowed his head to the task at hand, knowing as he did that he was only avoiding an unpleasant duty by fulfilling an easier one.

* * * * *

Along with George Winters and Joe and Robby O’Neill, Hoss sat in the shade of the cottonwood, which the four friends appropriated each noontime.  They had fallen into the habit of spreading the contents of their dinner pails on the grassy circle between them and each one helping himself to whatever appealed to his appetite.  “We got boiled eggs, two apiece; that means we could each take one,” Joe O’Neill offered.

“Yeah, four folks into four eggs goes one time.  That’s the kind of arithmetic I favor,” George snickered as he reached for an egg.

Hoss threw back his head and laughed loudly.  “Yeah, me, too.  Figures you can eat is the best kind.”  He, too, picked up an egg and began to peel it.

As soon as the rest of the food was divvied up, the boys started gobbling it down amidst a discussion of the best fishing spots in the area.

Robby’s head jerked up suddenly.  “That sounds like Mary Emma,” he cried.  He jumped to his feet and took off running toward the place his little sister normally shared lunch with her female friends.

Joe stretched an ear toward the sound of a little girl crying.  “Yeah, that’s Mary Emma, all right,” he declared as he tossed the remainder of his beef sandwich to the grass, scrambled to his feet and took off.

“Sounds like somethin’s wrong,” Hoss said to his sole remaining friend.  “Let’s see what’s up.”

“I’m with you,” George agreed readily.  Unlike the others, George was an only child, though it hadn’t always been so.  He’d had a little sister once, but two-year-old Helen had died in the steamboat accident that almost took his own life seven years earlier.  Mary Emma’s cries now reminded him of the way Helen had screamed before the water closed over her head, and he responded the way he wished he’d been able to then.  Trotting up on Hoss’s heels, George stared at the sight of two boys tossing a rag doll back and forth over the head of the shrieking child.

Seeing her older brother, Mary Emma ran over, with tears streaming down her cheeks.  “Make ‘em stop, Joey,” she pleaded, pointing at the two bullies.  “They’re killing Martha May!”

Joe O’Neill squeezed his little sister’s shoulder.  “I’ll get her, sis,” he promised.  Fists doubled, he stalked forward.  “Cal Hulbert, you turn loose of that doll,” he commanded authoritatively.

Calvin Hulbert tossed the doll to his tow-headed cohort.  “Make me,” he snorted.

Joe marched toward the other boy, but before he could reach him, the doll sailed over his head back to Calvin.

George, face dark with rage, had taken all he could.  With Mary Emma’s heart-rending cries in his ears, he lowered his head and charged ahead, ramming Calvin Hulbert in the stomach.  Raggedy Martha May went flying, landing in the dirt near Hoss’s feet as a free-for-all broke out.  Hoss picked up the doll and handed it to the little girl, who hugged it to her heart.  “Scuse me, skeeter,” Hoss said with a grin, “but there’s a doll-napper needs poundin’.”

Both O’Neill boys were rolling on the ground with the tow-headed tormentor, and though the other boy was bulkier than they, Joe and Robby appeared in control.  George, on the other hand, was clearly in trouble as he battled the even bigger Calvin Hulbert by himself, so Hoss plunged toward them.  Together, he and George forced Hulbert to the ground, and Hoss had just pulled back his fist to administer the promised punishment when another voice cried out, “Eric, no!  Don’t!”

Tiny Miss Appleton waded into the fray, firm fingers closing on Hoss’s upraised arm.  Hoss was big enough to resist her, had he wished, but he’d been thoroughly schooled by his parents in respect for his elders, and, besides, he genuinely liked his teacher and wanted her to like him.  With a final glare at Cal Hulbert, Hoss backed off.

With the teacher forming a protective barrier between them, Cal sneered at Hoss, but the expression was quickly wiped from his face, for George Winters, face still livid, continued to pummel his prone opponent.  “George, stop at once!” the teacher commanded.  When George still failed to respond, Hoss came up behind him and grabbed his arms.  “George, it’s over,” he hissed in his friend’s ear.  “You gotta stop or you’ll be in trouble.”  After a moment’s struggle in Hoss’s brawny grasp, George hung limp and panting.

Arms akimbo, the teacher surveyed the scene.  The other three boys had stopped fighting and lay sprawled on the ground.  “You are all in trouble,” Miss Appleton announced, having heard Hoss’s quiet caution to George.  She pointed toward the school.  “Get inside this instant, the lot of you!”  She stormed toward the schoolhouse and held the door open as the six culprits trailed through, followed by one tiny, red-haired girl.  Miss Appleton stooped and gently stroked the child’s tear-streaked cheeks.  “No, Mary Emma, you needn’t come in yet,” she explained.  “You weren’t fighting, sweetie.”

Mary Emma blinked back more tears.  “But—but I’m what they was fightin’ about—me and Martha May.”  She held the doll toward the teacher.

Miss Appleton stood.  “I see.  If that’s the case, maybe you’d better come in, dear, and tell me all about it.”  With a smile she took the child’s hand and walked in.

The six boys were standing at the front of the classroom when Miss Appleton walked down the aisle, leading Mary Emma by the hand.  Giving each of them a stern look, the teacher said, “You may all take your seats.  I want to talk to each of you individually, beginning with Mary Emma.”

“She didn’t do nothin’,” Robby protested.

“I know that, Robert,” the teacher replied patiently, appreciating a boy’s desire to defend his little sister.  “Mary Emma just has a few things she needs to share with me; then she’ll be free to go back outside.  Now take your seat, please, or I will have to add insubordination to your list of offenses.”  None of the boys had the slightest notion what “insubordination” meant, but it sounded sufficiently awesome to cow each of them into a hasty retreat to his desk.

After a brief interview with Mary Emma, Miss Appleton felt she had an excellent understanding of the incident in the schoolyard, but, to be completely fair, she questioned each of the boys about his participation in the fracas.  She dispensed with the O’Neill brothers rather quickly, for she discerned that they were only defending their sister, an action she admired and felt justified.  Miss Appleton devoted more time to George Winters, for his reaction, more incensed than that of the child’s actual brothers, mystified her.  Blinking back tears, George stammered out what had happened to his baby sister.  “I’m sorry, Miss Appleton,” he said, “but I just couldn’t stand hearing that little girl cry.  Nobody ever oughta make a little girl cry.”

“I understand, George,” Miss Appleton said gently, “but fighting is not the solution.  You should have come for me.”  George apologized quickly and was just as quickly excused to the schoolyard.

Only Hoss and the two bullies remained in the classroom.  Hoss was visibly shaking as he approached the teacher’s desk, and Cal Hulbert leaned over to his friend to whisper a derisive remark.  Although Miss Appleton could not hear the words, she knew the character of the boy saying them and immediately snapped her fingers.  Cal pulled back and slumped in his seat.

With grave eyes Miss Appleton observed Hoss Cartwright, who was licking his lips nervously and scuffing one foot back and forth.  “Please stand still, Eric,” she stated.

“Yes’m,” Hoss replied, pulling his wayward foot up against the other.

A smile flickered at the teacher’s lips, but she bit it back.  “You needn’t stand at attention, Eric, but I must say I am most disappointed in your behavior.  I had not pegged you as a schoolyard brawler.”

“N—no, ma’am,” Hoss stammered.  “I—I ain’t.”

Miss Appleton eyed him sternly.  “Then why were you brawling?  Mary Emma is not your sister, and I don’t believe you made the kind of emotional connection to the situation that George did.”

Hoss nibbled his lower lip.  “No, ma’am.  I don’t like seein’ little kids hurt, but—”

“Eric, do you not understand that, compared to you, Calvin Hulbert and Peter Hanson are ‘little kids,’ too?” the teacher demanded.  “And four against two!  Do you consider those fair odds in a fight?”

Hoss hung his head.  “No, ma’am.”  His head rose.  “But—but they was my friends,” he protested in his own defense.

“I understand loyalty to friends,” Miss Appleton said, “but it should not include joining them in wrong behavior.  What would your father and mother say about your actions today, Eric?”

“They wouldn’t like me fightin’,” Hoss admitted reluctantly.

Miss Appleton’s chin dipped primly.  “No, I am sure they would not.  I have always believed you to be well brought up, Eric, and that is why your behavior today is such a disappointment to me.  I hope I will never see a repetition of it.”

“Yes’m—I—I mean—no, ma’am.”

“Very well, you’re excused,” the teacher concluded, “although I would suggest you discuss what happened today with your parents.”

Hoss stared, horrified at the thought of telling his parents and grateful that Pa, at least, was still in California.

“Eric, you may go outside now,” Miss Appleton repeated.  Head bobbing, Hoss backed toward the door and escaped, giving a huge sigh of relief once he reached the porch.

Hoss joined his friends, who had congregated beneath the cottonwood, and they all compared notes on the lectures they had received.  Lunchtime stretched longer than usual, and everyone was curious about what was taking place inside the classroom.  Finally, Mary Emma, the least likely to get in trouble if caught, tiptoed to the window and peered in.  Scampering back, she delivered her report.  “She’s chewin’ ‘em up one side and down the other,” the little girl declared with satisfaction.  “Serves ‘em right!” she added with an emphatic nod.

“You bet it does, sis,” Robby said.  The others voiced agreement, and when Miss Appleton required the bullies to make a formal apology to Mary Emma before beginning afternoon lessons, nods of approval passed between her four champions.  Cal and Pete both saw them and vowed revenge, but it would have to wait.  While the defenders got off with a stern reprimand, the boys Miss Appleton considered the real troublemakers were detained after school and required to write “I will not disturb other children on the school grounds” five hundred times.

* * * * *

The small brown dog trotted up to the porch and dropped a piece of kindling at the feet of his tiny playmate.  Little Joe, legs dangling off the edge of the porch, reached over and tossed the kindling as far as he could throw it, and Klamath obligingly padded off to fetch it back once more.  The clip-clop of hooves entering the yard caught the toddler’s attention, and he was up and running, straight toward his brother’s horse.

Charcoal shied away from the flying figure, and Hoss dismounted quickly to grab his baby brother by the shoulders.  “How many times I got to tell you not to run at a horse like that?” he scolded, giving the boy a shake.

Unperturbed, Little Joe just put his arms around Hoss’s legs.  Hoss grinned, the child’s loving nature, as usual, dissipating any irritation he might feel.  “You gotta be more careful, punkin,” he said, tousling the soft, golden brown curls.

“Okay,” Little Joe promised cheerfully, a promise Hoss knew he would forget as readily as he made it.  “School go good?”

Klamath, who had dropped the wood and trotted happily toward his real master at Little Joe’s heels, yapped for attention, so Hoss leaned over to scratch the dog behind the ears as he answered the question with which his little brother met him each afternoon.  “Naw, rotten, like always.”

Little Joe shook his small head in sympathy, his conviction that school was a bad thing growing each time Hoss gave this standard answer.  To Joe’s mind, school was a thing that took brothers away and made them unhappy.  Except Adam, maybe.  He acted like he liked school.  Maybe he was just pretending, though; maybe he really felt just as unhappy as Hoss.  Little Joe liked to think so; it bothered him to think that Adam liked school better than home.  With a more vigorous shake of his head, he pushed the unwelcome thoughts from his mind.

As Hoss stood, Little Joe lifted his arms in another after-school ritual.  With a grin Hoss plunked his little brother into the saddle and picked up the reins to lead the gray mare into the barn.  “Always remember to take care of your horse first thing when you ride in, Little Joe,” Hoss instructed.

“I ‘member,” Joe agreed, leaning over the horse’s neck to stroke the silvery mane.  “I get horse soon, Hoss?”

Inside the barn Hoss grasped the reluctant-to-leave-the-saddle rider under the arms and pulled him off.  “Naw, not soon, punkin pie.  You ain’t big enough.”

Joe’s small lips puckered piteously.  “Am, too!”

“What kind of horse you want?” Hoss asked to defuse his brother’s smoldering anger.  He’d learned that it was easier to distract Little Joe than to calm him down once he got worked up.

The little boy smiled brightly.  “Like Charcoal.  Like you, Hoss.”

“Yeah?”  Hoss chuckled, flattered by his baby brother’s desire to emulate him in every way.  He patted the small mare’s flank.  “She’s a good one, all right.  Maybe I’ll just pass her down to you someday.  I reckon I might be needin’ a bigger horse by the time you’re ready to saddle up one of your own.”

Little Joe’s smile grew from bright to brilliant.  “Me help?” he offered eagerly as Hoss uncinched the saddle and lifted it from the horse’s back.

Hoss set the saddle on its saddle stand.  “You can get me the curry brush,” he suggested, and Little Joe ran as eagerly to fetch it as Klamath had after the oft-thrown stick.  Hoss brushed his horse carefully, letting Little Joe take a few strokes, just so he could feel like he was helping.  Once the animal was cared for, the two brothers walked side by side to the house, where Marie, as she did every afternoon, greeted each with a hug and kiss.

“Hoss need cookies, Mama,” Little Joe informed her solemnly. “School rotten, like always.”

“Hoss, I wish you would not say such things to your little brother,” Marie scolded.

“Well, he asked,” Hoss mumbled defensively.

“But you are giving him a bad impression of school when you speak so negatively,” Marie argued.  “I want him to hear positive words.  Do you understand?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hoss said, bobbing his head miserably.  “You want me to lie.”

“No!” Marie said sharply.  “I want”—a sharp tug on her brown twill skirt distracted her.  “What is it, mon petit?” she asked gently, smoothing a wayward curl from her baby’s forehead.

“Cookies, Mama?” Little Joe pleaded.  “Hoss home, cookies now,” he insisted.

Marie laughed.  “Oh, how can I expect either of you to listen to a word I say when there is nothing but cookies on your minds?  Oui, mon petit, the cookies and milk are on the table, as always.  Come.”  Taking his hand, she led him to the table.

Hoss eagerly followed and was soon happily munching lemon-flavored circles.  He didn’t give a thought to following his teacher’s suggestion of discussing the school-ground fight with his mother.  He decided, conveniently, that nothing he could say about the incident would fall under the umbrella of “positive words” and, therefore, the whole thing was best kept secret.

Toward the end of the week, Hoss had added another item to the list of school day secrets he was hiding.  On Thursday a boy as old as Adam joined the class at Franktown School.  Despite his advanced age, Walter Grogan was behind in his schooling and was, therefore, placed in the same class as Cal Hulbert and Pete Hanson.  The older boy, who was husky to boot, seemed to take up with those two right off, and Hoss feared he might turn out to be a troublemaker, just like them.  It was a fear he kept to himself, however, for to admit it would be tantamount to confessing the earlier problems.  Since such a confession would likely result in one of Pa’s famous “very necessary little talks,” Hoss concluded that silence was the safest policy.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Notes

Pete Hanson, Calvin Hulbert’s cohort in this chapter, and the new boy Walter Grogan are both fictional characters.

On January 3, 1853, George Winters, his mother and two-year-old sister Helen were returning from a visit to Illinois when both mother and daughter were killed in a steamboat accident.  George, too, was tossed in the water, but was rescued and went to live with his grandmother until his father settled in western Utah in 1856, sending for George shortly thereafter.

CHAPTER TEN

Secrets Revealed

            The Sierra was splashed with the vivid colors of the season as Ben Cartwright rode homeward.  Brilliant red and gold aspens stood highlighted against the dark green of the pines, but even their grandeur was not as beautiful to him as the plain brown logs of the Ponderosa ranch house, smoke curling invitingly from its chimney.  Ben had only to see it wafting above the trees to spur him onward, that and the anticipation of his wife’s surprise when he presented his unexpected gift.  Touching his heels to his horse’s flanks, he quickened his pace, and the strong-limbed roan on the lead rope responded as if grateful for a chance to stretch his limbs.

As he rode into the yard, Ben smiled at the toddler galloping back and forth in front of the house on a stick horse with a frayed mane of yellow yarn.  The little horseman saw him, too, and immediately dropped the wooden pony to charge toward the real one.  Little Joe ran straight for the strawberry roan.  “Pa, Pa, horse for me!” he squealed with delight.

“Joseph, no!” Ben shouted, almost flying from his mount.  The strawberry gelding reared, front legs pawing the air as the toddler raced directly beneath them.  Ben grabbed his son and pulled him out of danger, then held him at arms’ length.  “Never, never do that again, Little Joe!” he bellowed.  Seeing tears form in the tiny boy’s expressive eyes, Ben hugged him close.  “Baby, baby, you could have been killed,” he whispered, caressing the golden curls with his cheek.

Panic on her face, Marie came running from the kitchen door.  “Oh, mon petit,” she cried, reaching for her baby.  Taking him from Ben, she administered a second scolding.  “When will you learn to do as you are told, naughty boy?  Has not Hoss told you day after day not to run at his horse?”

“Not his horse,” Little Joe argued.  “Mine!  See, Mama; Pa got me horse.”

Marie laughed away the last of her fear, lovingly stroking the toddler’s soft curls.  “I scarcely think so.  This is Adam’s new horse, non?”

“No,” Ben repeated with a mischievous smile.

Little Joe bounced in his mother’s arms.  “Mine!  Mine!”

“No!” both parents shouted, then looked into each other’s eyes and laughed at the synchronization of their responses.

“It is not your horse, Joseph,” Ben said firmly.  “You are much too small.”

“Especially for this horse,” Marie said, appraising the gelding with an appreciative eye.  “Oh, what a beauty he is, Ben!  Adam will love him.”

Ben shook his head in playful rebuke.  “You don’t listen any better than our young son here,” he chuckled.  “I already said this was not Adam’s horse.  Adam says he’d rather have your black.”

Marie gasped.  “But, then, this . . .”

“Is your new mount, my lady,” Ben said, presenting her the reins with a flourish.

“Oh, Ben!” Marie cried, nuzzling her golden head against that of the roan horse.  “I never thought to ride such a fine animal again.”

Ben clucked his tongue.  “My, my, is that all the faith you have in your husband, woman?”

She stepped close and stood on tiptoe to press a kiss to his cheek.  “I have never lacked faith in you, Ben, but this is a dream come true—though why that should surprise me, I cannot say.  From the day we met, you have been a dream come true.”

The love shining in her eyes awakened a yearning inside him that suddenly seemed unquenchable.  “Isn’t it about time to put this young scalawag down for a nap?” he suggested with a significant wink.

Mais oui,” Marie whispered.  “I, too, feel strangely in need of a nap this afternoon.”

Ben arched his eyebrow conspiratorially.  “I think I’ll join you.”

“Soon,” Marie urged.  She carried Little Joe toward the house, turning a deaf ear to his loud protests of “Don’t need nap!”

Ben led both horses into the barn, forcing himself to give them both a thorough rubdown as he calculated how much time he and his wife could have after getting their youngest son to sleep before Hoss returned from school to interrupt their privacy.

* * * * *

Hoss pulled his shirt from Franktown Creek and gave it a good squint.  Nope, the red stain still showed.  Back into the cold water he thrust the garment, scrubbing it hard between his hands, then rinsing and checking once again.  The shirt looked clean this time, so he laid it out on the grass to dry while he skimmed pebbles across the water to pass the time.

Though he would have preferred to forget the events of the previous week, the recollections surged up no matter how he tried to distract himself.  Going to school had been pure hell this week.  Hoss winced as the bad word ran through his mind.  Pa’d probably paddle him hard for using that kind of language, even in his thoughts.  Well, not if I keep my mouth shut, the boy concluded; then he sighed.  Keeping his mouth shut was proving harder and harder, and if things went on the way they had today, it might be downright impossible.  Thank goodness Pa wasn’t back from California yet.  It was the only thing keeping Hoss from outright panic.

Cal Hulbert and Pete Hanson never missed a chance to pester him and had even set some of the younger kids to laughing at Hoss’s frequent mistakes in the classroom.  Every day, during the lunch break, Hoss gave those two what they had coming, but before today their scuffles had only amounted to shoving matches, over and done with before the teacher noticed.  There’d been no way to hide that afternoon’s all-out brawl, however.

It had taken Walter Grogan a week to decide where his loyalties lay, but this afternoon he’d taken a stand with Calvin and Pete.  With one of the smaller hooligans flanking him on each side, Walter had strolled over to Hoss.  “Hey, fat boy,” he sneered.  “Must be nothing but fat between your ears, ‘cause you’re dumb as an ox.”

Hoss’s face had reddened.  “I don’t reckon I’d be talkin’ if I was so dumb I still had to be goin’ to school at your age,” he retorted.

Walter had answered with a blow to the face, and Hoss had responded in kind.  Cal and Pete plowed in at once, and soon the four boys were rolling in the dust, legs flailing, fists flying.  Walter was the biggest boy in school, and fighting just him would have been a challenge for Hoss, even without those other two pesky gnats stinging him with their fists.  George Winters had been out sick all week, but Joe and Robby O’Neill quickly flew to the defense of their friend.  Everyone not involved in the fight made a circle around the battling boys, yelling out encouragement to whichever side they favored.

Miss Appleton had waded through the circle and stood with arms folded across her chest.  “Stop it at once!” she ordered, and when no one responded, she grabbed Robby O’Neill, the closest and smallest and hauled him out by the arm.  Dumping him unceremoniously behind her, Miss Appleton pointed her finger and shouted, “Stay there!”

One by one the teacher had extracted boys from the fight until only Hoss and Walter remained grappling on the ground.  Both of them were too big for the petite lady to handle, but finally even they responded to her repeated screams to stop. While Walter glared defiantly, Hoss wiped the blood from his nose and looked up sheepishly at his teacher.  Miss Appleton’s irate gaze swept the scene.  “I’m ashamed of all of you,” she announced.  “Clean yourselves up and get inside at once.”  She stopped Hoss as he passed her and pulled a clean handkerchief from her pocket.  “Wet that in the water bucket and hold it to your nose ‘til the bleeding stops,” she instructed, not allowing her anger to make her overlook the child’s welfare.

The six hastily scrubbed culprits filed into the classroom, although for a moment Hoss thought Walter Grogan was going to flout the teacher’s order.  At the last minute he had shrugged and followed the others inside, where the teacher delivered a scathing lecture on their behavior that had everyone but Walter cowering.  “If I see one more example of this disruptive behavior on the school grounds,” she concluded hotly, “I will call a joint conference with all your parents.  Now, who started this fracas today?”

Hoss had reluctantly raised his hand, and Calvin and Pete were quick to point accusing fingers at Walter.

“All right, the rest of you are excused,” the teacher announced and Calvin, Pete, Joe and Robby quickly escaped.  Miss Appleton had paced before the remaining two.  “Which of you started it?” she demanded.

“He did,” both boys at once declared, and each began to argue vociferously in behalf of his own innocence and the other’s guilt.

“Enough!” Miss Appleton shouted.  “I should have known better than to ask.  I will be writing a note to each of your parents tonight, informing them of your misbehavior, and I want both of you to promise that you will take it home.”

“Yeah, sure,” Walter had muttered carelessly.

Hoss had bit his lip, considering the consequences, but deciding that he had no alternative but to obey his teacher, he had nodded glumly.

Now, as he idled at the creek, waiting for his shirt to dry, he began to debate the consequences once again.  Ma might go easy on him.  She wouldn’t like to hear he’d been fighting at school, but she’d understand how he felt and maybe even comfort him with some extra cookies.  Trouble was, sooner or later she’d tell Pa, and Hoss had no faith whatsoever that his father would let him off with cookies.

He pulled on his still-damp shirt and buttoned it up, as he tried to figure what to do.  He’d told his teacher he’d bring the note home, and he hated to go against his word.  Pa really took a dim view of that.  Add lying to fighting at school and Hoss was pretty sure he wouldn’t sit easy for a month if Pa found out.  Of course, he’d probably get a whipping just for the fight, anyway.  There had to be some way to avoid it altogether, if he just thought hard enough.

Finally, it came to Hoss that he’d only promised to take the note home; he’d never said he would show it to his parents. Rough as the fight had been, nothing showed that couldn’t be explained away as a fall during one of the games at recess.  And he could claim the reason he was late was that the teacher had kept him after to explain the arithmetic lesson, always a source of pure puzzlement to Hoss, as his parents well knew.  Sure, that was a lie, too, but only dangerous if he got into more trouble at school; then it would all come out and his goose would be cooked.  Deciding he’d have the whole weekend to figure some way to keep that from happening, Hoss swung quickly into the saddle and headed toward the Ponderosa.  Just over the ranch’s boundary line, he concluded he was now “home” and delivered the note under a convenient rock.

* * * * *

After saying grace Ben spread his napkin in his lap and gazed with sublime satisfaction at the well-loaded table.  “Ah, you’ve outdone yourself, Hop Sing,” he said with a smile at the Oriental cook, standing just to his right.  “Nothing like eating beans on the trail for a few days to give a man an appreciation for truly great cooking.”

Hop Sing beamed at the compliment.  From the moment he had seen Mr. Ben ride in, he had been at work in the kitchen, preparing all the favorite dishes of the head of the house.  “You eatee big,” Hop Sing dictated, “make up fo’ beans on trail.”

“That I will, Hop Sing,” Ben chuckled.  “That I will.”

Just before disappearing into the kitchen, Hop Sing cast an imperial eye at the youngest member of the family.  “You eatee big, too,” he demanded.  Accustomed to the admonition he heard almost daily, Little Joe just grinned back, planning, as always, to eat exactly what he pleased.

“I came through Carson on the way home,” Ben told his wife, who was filling Little Joe’s plate, “and I banked the proceeds of our cattle sale—what I didn’t spend on that remarkable horse of yours, that is.”

“My horse,” Little Joe interjected.

Ben reached over to tousle his toddler’s hair.  “No, not your horse.  Mama’s horse.”

Little Joe’s mouth puckered and he beat his spoon petulantly against his plate.  Seeing a chastising look come across her husband’s face, Marie quickly silenced the banging and pulled her baby’s face toward her.  “It is Mamá’s horse,” she said firmly, “but perhaps Mamá will take you for a ride on him, if you are a good boy.  Would you like that, mon petit?”

Mais oui,” Little Joe said at once, eyes sparkling.

Mais non,” Ben said with a stern look at his wife.  “I don’t think that would be wise, my love.  That horse is a handful and so, to say the least, is our youngest son.  I don’t think you should try to manage both at the same time.”

Marie waved his concern aside.  “Oh, don’t be ridiculous, Ben.  I am an excellent equestrienne.  Besides, do you think I would take the slightest risk with this one in the saddle with me?”  She brushed Little Joe’s curls with an affectionate hand.

“I hope you don’t plan to be taking any risks, with or without him in the saddle,” Ben observed with a sober arch of his eyebrow.

“No, Ben, of course not,” she assured him.  “Now, tell me.  What news did you hear in Carson City?”

Ben scowled.  “Oh, the talk of the town is how the case against William Sides has been dropped.”

“Oh?” Marie asked with surprise.  “But I thought the evidence against him was strong.”

“Back in June of last year, eight members of the jury voted to convict, despite his connection with the vigilance committee,” Ben said, “but now the prosecuting attorney himself has asked for the dismissal.”

“Then he must feel that Monsieur Sides is innocent,” Marie commented.  She wiped Little Joe’s hand, which had taken a trip through the mashed potatoes, and glanced across the table at Hoss, noticing that he was swirling gravy through his potatoes, but eating nothing.

Oblivious to anything except his disgust with the state of affairs in the territory, Ben continued his political commentary.  “I’m afraid justice in this part of the country still depends more on whom a man knows than on the right or wrong of his case.”

“And I am afraid that a murder case is not a proper topic for table discussion when young boys are present,” Marie said, nodding toward Hoss.

Following her eyes, Ben noticed for the first time that his son was not displaying his customary appetite.  “Was I upsetting you, Hoss?” he asked.

“Huh?”  Hoss looked up at the mention of his name and gazed blearily at his father.  Lost in his own thoughts, he hadn’t heard the question.

“Are you ill, boy, or did my mentioning the murder case take away your appetite?” Ben probed.

“Oh, no, sir, neither one,” Hoss said quickly.  It was the first mention he’d heard of the murder case.  “I guess my mind was just wandering.”  He scooped up a bite of potatoes and planted it abruptly in his mouth, though his stomach churned with inner turmoil.

“And where was it wandering?” Ben chuckled.  “Not to your chores, I’ll wager.”

Hoss gave the expected grin.  “Uh, no.  I was just thinkin’ about, uh,” he stammered, searching for an answer that wouldn’t raise more questions, “about whether you’d let me go fishin’ tomorrow.”

“Well, that depends,” Ben said with a smile, “on how you’ve done in school while I’ve been away.”

“I—I done the best I could, Pa.”  Hoss squirmed, uncomfortable with the half-truth.  While he had done his best in terms of schoolwork, in other ways he’d been a complete failure at school, but he didn’t dare tell his father.  He’d likely never see a fishing pole again if he did.

“Son, you know that’s all I ever ask,” Ben said, giving his husky boy a pat on the arm.  “Yes, you may go fishing tomorrow, as soon as your chores are done.”

“Me, too!” Little Joe cried, the phrase more an announcement than a question.

“If your brother is willing to put up with you,” Ben laughed.

“Yeah, I guess so,” Hoss conceded.  He didn’t much feel in a mood for having Little Joe tag after him, but couldn’t think of a single reason to say no without again arousing his parents’ concern.

The Cartwrights ate in silence for a few moments; then Little Joe stretched across the table to pat his father’s arm.  “Pa, when I get horse?” he asked insistently.

Ben laughed.  “Well, not until your legs can reach the stirrups, at the very least.”

Marie kept her eyes carefully on her plate, but Ben could see mischief twinkling in them as she innocuously commented.  “Stirrups can be shortened, mon mari.”

Ben wagged an admonishing finger at his wife.  “That, woman, really is a topic that should not be raised at dinner in front of an impressionable youngster.”  Then he began to laugh, and Marie, and even Hoss, joined in as Little Joe leaned down to make a careful inspection of the length of his legs.

* * * * *

For once Hoss was glad to be sitting in chapel alongside his mother and younger brother.  Though he’d tried to think through his problem the day before, while he was fishing, keeping an eye on Little Joe had proved to be such an all-consuming responsibility that he’d had no time for his own thoughts.  Here, in the dimly lit building with the priest droning words he couldn’t understand anyway, Hoss finally found the peace and quiet he needed, and by the time the service ended, he was sure he’d come up with the perfect plan to make that trio of bullies leave him alone.  Now, if he could just get them to agree to it, Pa need never know about the fights on the school ground, and he could relax and concentrate on his lessons without fear of mocking laughter.

Hoss couldn’t wait for recess the next day.  The morning lessons had gone well, so there was nothing new for his persecutors to twit him about, and for the first time Hoss sought out Cal, Pete and Walter.  “I got a piece to say to you fellows,” he began.

“Think you got the brains to speak a whole piece?” Cal sneered.

“You better listen to me for a change,” Hoss growled, “‘cause I have purely had enough of listenin’ to you.”

“Oh, yeah?  Who’d want to listen to a dummy like you?” Pete scoffed.

Hoss felt his nostrils flare wide, but he bridled his temper.  “You better—unless you’re yellow-belly scared.”

“Nobody’s scared of you, fat boy,” Walter said, lip curling in derision.

Hoss folded his arms across his chest and stared the three of them down.  “All right, then, I say we settle this thing, once and for all.  I’ll meet you after school, on the other side of Franktown Creek.  That’s off school property, so we can have it out without nobody botherin’ us.”

“You and who else?” Cal demanded.

Hoss punched his own chest with his thumb.  “Just me, that’s all, and if I beat the three of you single-handed, one on one, you gotta leave me be the rest of the school year.  No more makin’ fun, no matter what mistakes I make.”

“And what if you can’t?” Cal pressed.  “What do we get?”

“Yeah,” Pete echoed.  “What’s in it for us if we whip you, huh?”

Having given no consideration to losing, Hoss had no answer ready.  “You won’t beat me,” he declared with determination.

Walter pushed his two smaller cohorts aside to stand nose to nose with Hoss.  “Yeah, but if we do, we each get to slug you in the belly once every day for the rest of the year, and you got to just stand there and take it.  And no yelpin’ to the teacher, either.”

Hoss swallowed hard.  It would be a heavy penalty to pay, but he figured he had nothing to lose.  If he didn’t stop these three from taunting him the way they’d been doing, he was going to end up in a fight ‘most every day anyway, and Pa’d be sure to hear about it and then—”No yelpin’,” he promised.  “I’ll just stand and take it—but it ain’t gonna pan out that way.”

Calvin gave his bigger partner a wink, then snickered back at Hoss, “Yeah, well, we’ll just see about that after school.”

Throughout the rest of the morning, Hoss was so distracted over the upcoming confrontation that he made more mistakes than usual, and his three tormentors laughed louder, harder and longer than ever, only stopping when the teacher threatened to keep them after school.  Hoss gritted his teeth and put up with the abuse, telling himself that it would be the last time.  It would all be different after this afternoon.  Sure, Walter was bigger than he was, but Hoss figured he had right on his side and that would make the difference.  Once the biggest foe was out of the way, Cal and Pete would be easy to take.

By lunchtime Hoss’s friends had figured out that something was in the wind, but Hoss wouldn’t say what.  This was his fight, and he didn’t want George, Joe and Robbie caught up in it.  In a way he’d be fighting for all of them because the bullies wouldn’t dare tackle Hoss’s friends once he’d whipped the pants off them.  At least, that’s what Hoss told himself, and the notion made the battle seem all the more noble, since it wasn’t just for himself anymore.

When school finally ended, Hoss saddled Charcoal and rode the gray mare to the appointed rendezvous on the opposite side of Franktown Creek.  Tethering her to the drooping branch of a willow, he waited just beyond the trees for the other three to show up.  They arrived only minutes after him and tied their mounts to the same tree.

“You ready to take your lickin’?” Walter taunted.

Hoss thrust a stubborn jaw toward the bigger boy.  “Ready to give you yours,” he snorted, having decided that he needed to face his hardest opponent while he was fresh.  He doubled his fists, sporting a belligerent stance.  “Come on,” he hollered.

“Walter’s gonna make short work of you, blubber boy,” Cal sneered.

“Naw, gonna take my time,” Walter boasted, “give him a good taste of what he’s gonna get every day from now on.”

“Taste this, big mouth!” Hoss yelled, plowing a fist into Walter’s jaw.

Caught off guard, Walter staggered back, but recovered quickly and answered with a right fist to Hoss’s jaw and a solid left punch to the stomach.

Amid shouts of triumph from Calvin and Pete, Hoss doubled over, but instead of trying to stand upright again, he charged forward, ramming Walter in the stomach with his head.  Both boys went down, Hoss on top.  Then their positions quickly reversed and Walter landed several telling blows on Hoss’s face before Hoss kneed him hard and rolled free.

Separated by a few feet, both boys took advantage of the brief break to get to their feet again and began circling, eyes wary and fists ready.  Hoss had felt his shirt rip when he pulled away from his opponent, and the salty taste of blood dribbling steadily from his nose into his mouth told him that there’d be no disguising the damage as a playground accident this time.  With dismay he realized that Pa was bound to know he’d been fighting, and there’d be a price to pay for that.  All the more reason to make the fight count; only total victory would make it worth what it would cost him.

Hoss had no time to worry about that now, however, for Walter suddenly lunged at him, raining fast blows that made Hoss fear for the first time that he might lose this battle.  Fear only pumped additional adrenalin into his muscles, however, and Hoss fought back with strikes that came less frequently than Walter’s, but with greater force.  He had to win!  The consequences of failure were too grim to permit him the luxury of giving in, so even though his face and stomach ached from the blows he’d taken, Hoss just kept coming.

Finally, Walter began backing away, but Hoss forged forward, striking the other boy again and again.  Fear fell across Walter’s features as he stumbled backward, losing his balance and hitting the ground so hard it knocked him breathless.  Hoss flipped the other boy over and twisted his arm behind him.  “Say ‘uncle,’” he demanded.  “Say it or I’ll break it!”

Walter resisted, but after another wrench of his arm he cried out, “Uncle!”

Hoss let him go and spun to face the other two boys, who were staring in shock at their fallen hero.  As Hoss advanced toward them, Cal and Pete exchanged a terrified glance and a conspiratorial nod, and both of them rushed Hoss at the same time.  “I said ‘one on one,’” Hoss sputtered when he went down, spitting fresh blood into the grass.

“Since when do you make all the rules?” Cal retorted, slamming his fist into Hoss’s ribs.

Fury flared in Hoss’s eyes, and his face grew crimson with outrage.  So they wanted to fight dirty, did they?  Well, he’d show them!  Even at odds of two against one, he counted himself more than a match for the two smaller boys.  Eyes narrowed, he scrambled to his feet and threw blows at first one and then the other.  Cal went down first, and before he could recover, Hoss grabbed Pete by the shirtfront and, drawing back his fist, thrust it forward with all the strength he possessed.

Pete’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he collapsed to the ground and didn’t move.  Hoss turned to see Calvin Hulbert scooting away on his backside.

Cal pointed a shaking finger toward Hoss.  “Y—you keep away from me, you b—big brute,” he sputtered.

“Say ‘uncle,’” Hoss dictated, standing over his fallen foe with clenched fists..

“Okay, ‘uncle,’” Calvin said, still sliding on his backside away from Hoss.  “You win.”

Hoss spun around to face Pete.  “You, too,” he yelled.  “You all three gotta say I win before I’ll quit.”

Pete lay sprawled on the ground, silent, unmoving.  Still keeping his distance from Hoss, Calvin crawled across to his cohort and shook his shoulder.  When Pete failed to respond, Cal screamed up at Hoss, “You killed him, you big ox!  You killed him!”

Nursing his twisted arm, Walter got to his feet.  “Man, we gotta get out of here!” he hollered at Cal.  “There’ll be hell to pay when our folks find out.”

Cal took only moments to weigh the advice; then he, too, ran for his horse, jerking the reins free and mounting quickly.

Hoss, face pasty pale, stared at Pete’s still form, then called to the other boys.  “Wait!  We can’t just leave him here.”  But he was shouting to the wind, for the other boys were galloping hard, away from the creek, leaving Hoss alone to deal with the consequences of the fight.

Kneeling beside the smaller boy, Hoss breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Pete’s chest slowly expand and contract.  No matter how frequently he slapped the boy’s cheeks or how loudly he called his name, however, he couldn’t get a response.  Scared as he’d ever been in his life, Hoss looked around in panic, waging a harder battle than the one he’d fought with his fists.  Realizing that he was in big trouble now, with Pa and maybe even the law, he wanted to ride off, just as those other boys had done, but he couldn’t do it.  A boy was hurt, hurt bad by the looks of him, and Hoss knew he was the only one around to do anything about it.  No matter what happened to him afterwards, he had to get Pete some help.

But where?  Hoss stared up at the sky, his mind forming no words, but his heart instinctively sending a cry for guidance heavenward.  As he gazed down again at the prostrate boy, his first instinct was to get Doc Martin.  That’s who could help best.  Sure, he’d take Pete to Doc.  Hoss shook his head.  No, that wouldn’t work.  From time to time he’d seen hands on the ranch get hurt, and Pa had always been real careful not to move them much until the doc could get there.

Well, if he couldn’t take Pete to the doctor, then he’d just have to bring the doctor to Pete.  Hoss started toward his horse, then stopped abruptly as he realized that the ride to Carson City and back would take more than two hours.  He couldn’t leave Pete lying here alone that long.   He began to breathe hard and fast.  Fighting off his rising panic, Hoss scrunched his face in thought.  How could he get help for Pete without leaving him?

I could ride home, Hoss mused.  Pa’ll be out workin’, but Ma’ll know what to do—better than Pa, maybe, and she won’t yell like him.   The smile that touched his lips when he thought of this solution soon faded.  The Ponderosa was closer than Carson City, but Pete would still be lying here alone an awful long time.  Hoss started to tremble as the fear came surging back.  There just had to be someplace closer he could go for help.

Franktown was closer—real close, in fact, but Hoss didn’t know the grownups there very well.  Suddenly, his face lit up with the conviction of certainty.  Miss Appleton!  The teacher had a habit of staying late at the school, grading papers or getting things ready for the next day.  She’d likely still be there.  Even if she’d already left, Hoss knew where she boarded, and he could get to either place pretty quickly.  “I’ll be back, Pete,” he vowed, though he knew the boy couldn’t hear him.  Running to the tree where Charcoal was tethered, he mounted and raced back across the creek to the nearby schoolhouse.

Almost falling from the horse in his haste to get inside, Hoss tromped up the steps, stumbling once, and flung the door wide.  Seated at her desk, Miss Appleton looked up, startled.  “Why, Eric, what’s wrong?” she asked as the boy raced toward her.

“You gotta come, Miss Appleton,” he cried.  “Pete’s hurt bad.  He—he won’t wake up.”

Miss Appleton leaped to her feet and was around the desk in mere seconds, holding the shoulders of the panting boy.  “Eric, what has happened?” she asked urgently.

“It’s my fault,” Hoss choked out, and the tears he’d been holding back since he first realized how badly Pete was hurt began trickling down his cheeks.  “We was fightin’ and—and I hit Pete too hard, and he went down and he ain’t moved since.  I—I’m scared, Miss Appleton.  I—I . . .”

“There now, child,” the teacher soothed, slipping a supporting arm around his brawny frame.  “Perhaps it isn’t as serious as you fear.  Where is Pete?”

“Just across the creek,” Hoss said.  “You gotta come, teacher!”

“I will, Eric,” she said, taking his hand.  Though her heart was racing, she kept her tread steady.  For the sake of her two students, the one injured in body and the one torn in spirit, she had to maintain a calm exterior.  She couldn’t let her own youth and inexperience affect her confidence, at least not to the extent that the child might sense it.  Mounting the gray mare behind Hoss, she urged him to hurry “so Pete won’t have to wait so long.”

Hoss ordinarily rode at a leisurely pace, but Charcoal’s hooves sprayed huge splashes of water behind them as he galloped through Franktown Creek with Miss Appleton hanging tight to his waist.  He rode directly to the spot where Pete lay.  As far as Hoss could tell, the other boy hadn’t moved so much as an inch since he’d left.

Miss Appleton slid off her horse to kneel at Pete’s side.  Using every device Hoss had already tried, she attempted to rouse the youngster, without response.  “Eric, this is serious,” she said, looking up at the trembling boy.  “This child needs a doctor.”

“Yes’m, I—I thought so,” Hoss stammered.  “Doc Martin, he’s the best and cl-close as any, but he’s a-all the way to Carson City, and I didn’t like to leave Pete that long.”

Miss Appleton reached for his hand and gave it a comforting squeeze.  “You did exactly right, Hoss,” she said, using his nickname to put him more at ease.  “Now I need you to do just as I say.  Do you understand?”

“I will, ma’am,” Hoss cried earnestly.

“Good boy.  First, I need you to stay calm,” she said with a kind smile.  “Then I want you to ride to the Frey ranch—where we get our water, remember?”

“Yes’m, sure,” Hoss said, wondering why he hadn’t thought of Mr. Frey himself.  Mr. Frey was French, like Mama, and had always acted friendly when kids came on his property to fetch water, even though he had no children of his own.  “He’ll help; I know he will.”

“That’s right,” the teacher said in a tone intended to instill confidence in the child, although her own heart was quaking with the awesome responsibility that, as a first-year teacher, she’d never held in her hands before.  “Ask him to bring a wagon and tell him where to find us.  Then I want you to ride for the doctor, straight from the ranch, and ask him to come to the Hanson place.  Do you understand, Hoss?”

Hoss’s head bobbed up and down rapidly.  Seeing Miss Appleton turn her attention back to Pete, he jumped on his mare and charged back across the creek to carry out the most important assignment the teacher had ever given him.

* * * * *

Marie gently laid her sleeping baby in his crib, still wary lest the slightest movement might reawaken him and renew his sobs of distress.  But Little Joe had finally cried himself to exhaustion, and, thumb tucked securely in his mouth, he continued to sleep as she drew a light quilt over him and brushed a trailing curl from his cheek.  “Papá is right,” she whispered.  “We shall soon have to cut your hair, but how I shall hate to see these beautiful tresses shorn!”  Before drawing the curtains she stood for a moment at the window, gazing into the deepening shadows, wondering where her other son could be.  Though the night was young, stars had begun to twinkle in the darkening sky, and Hoss had still not returned from school.

Almost tiptoeing from the room, she closed the door softly and headed down the stairs.  As she reached the lower landing, she heard the front door creak and paused to see which of the missing family members had returned.  “Oh, Hoss!” she cried when the boy slipped through the slimmest opening that would accommodate his hefty frame.  “Where have you been, mon chéri?” she demanded heatedly, running down the stairs.  “Your little brother has cried himself to sleep for fear you are lost, and your father is even now looking for you, and I—oh, Hoss, your face!”

“It ain’t nothin’, Ma,” Hoss muttered, trying to pull his face away from her searching hands.  “Doc fixed me up and sent me home.”

“Dr. Martin?” Marie queried, perplexed.  “You have been to see Dr. Martin?”

“Yeah, but not for me,” Hoss assured her quickly.  “I went ‘cause of Pete, but Doc wouldn’t go help him ‘til he checked me out good.  I’m fine, Ma; don’t fret.”

Marie put her arm around his shoulder.  “Come sit down,” she urged, “and tell me what has happened.”

Hoss let her direct him toward the settee.  Then, with her arm around him as they sat side by side, he cried, “Oh, Mama, it was awful!”  And, choking through the tears, he spilled out every frightening detail of his afternoon.  “Oh, Mama, I’m scared I killed him,” he sobbed in conclusion, his face now buried in the folds of her skirt.  “I never meant to hit him that hard, but he—he just didn’t move.”

Marie pulled his face up between her palms.  “But what does Dr. Martin say, Hoss?” she asked.

Hoss shook his head.  “I don’t know.  He said for me to come straight home, that you’d be worried.”

“And so we were,” Marie said.  “We had no idea where you were, Hoss, but I see now that you were doing as you were told by your teacher and the good doctor, and that is as it should be.  You have done no wrong, mon fil.”

“Except to Pete,” Hoss moaned.  “I done him a heap of wrong, maybe even—”

“No,” Marie interrupted firmly.  “We will not believe the worst until such news comes, Hoss.  You and I, we will pray, right now, that Dr. Martin will be able to make Pete completely well again, oui?”

“Yeah,” Hoss whispered.  Mother and son slipped to their knees in front of the settee and lifted their hearts in joint petition for the boy that the youngster had counted an enemy and the woman had never even seen.  Hoss couldn’t understand much of what his mother was saying.  Some of it was in Latin or maybe French, some just spoken so softly he couldn’t hear, but he didn’t care.  All that mattered was the strength of her arm around him, and whether he knew what was said or not, he drew comfort just from knowing that his mother was talking to God on his behalf—and Pete’s.

They were still on their knees when the front door again creaked open.  Marie rose up to peer over the back of the sofa.  She smiled at her husband and told him that Hoss had returned home safely.

“I know,” Ben said as he removed his hat and coat and unbuckled his gun belt.  “I saw his horse tied to the hitching rail outside.”  Coming around the settee, he saw Hoss, still on his knees, body quaking and eyes wide with apprehension.  Ben opened his arms.  “Come here, son,” he beckoned tenderly.

Hoss pulled to his feet and stumbled toward his father.  “I’m sorry I’m late, Pa,” he said hesitantly, “but there was a reason.”

Ben wrapped supportive arms around his son’s shoulders.  “Yes, I know.  I know all about it.  I rode to the schoolhouse first, and when I didn’t find anyone there, I started toward Miss Appleton’s residence.  I ran into Joseph Frey first, though, and he told me the Hanson boy had been hurt and that you had ridden for the doctor.”

Hoss swallowed hard.  “Is—is that all he told you?”

Ben nodded solemnly.  “Yes, but that isn’t all there is to tell, is it, boy?”

Hoss again felt tears welling up in his eyes.  Looking down, shamefaced, he shook his head.  “No, Pa.  I—I’m the one that hurt Pete.  We was fightin’.”

“Yes, I know,” Ben repeated, giving the trembling shoulder a pat.  “I went on to the Hanson ranch and heard the rest of the story from Miss Appleton while Dr. Martin was examining Pete.”

“Oh, Ben, how is the boy?” Marie asked.  “Hoss has been so concerned.”

“He’ll be fine,” Ben assured her, smiling as he saw Hoss draw a long, relieved breath.  “Paul says he has a concussion, and he’ll have one whale of a headache for a few days, but he thinks the boy will recover completely.”

“That is good news!” Marie said, bending to place a kiss behind Hoss’s ear.

“I’m sure glad,” Hoss murmured.  Then he looked anxiously up at his father.  “I—I guess I’m gonna get the hardest tannin’ of my life, huh, Pa?  I got it comin’, I know—fightin’ and lyin’ and worryin’ you and—”

“We’ll discuss all that later, son,” Ben said.  “There’s an important matter to be attended to first.”  He smiled at Hoss’s quizzical expression.  “What have I taught you about the needs of your horse, son?”

Hoss gulped, remembering that he had been so fearful of his parents’ reaction that he had come inside the minute he reached home, without giving Charcoal the proper care.  “Th-that it comes before my needs, Pa.  I forgot.  I’m sorry.”

“Well, I have a mount to see to, as well,” Ben said, “so let’s go out to the barn together.”

Hoss nodded grimly, figuring that seeing to the horses was not the only thing that was going to happen out in that barn.  He thought about asking Pa to give him his whipping first, so he could get it over with, but realized that wasn’t fair to Charcoal.  The little mare had already been left standing out in the cool night air too long, and making her wait while he took his tanning would just be putting his own needs before hers again.  No, if he asked a thing like that, Pa’d probably be even angrier than he already was.  And I’d deserve it, too, Hoss concluded.

Father and son walked outside, each taking the reins of his horse, and headed silently toward the barn.  Neither spoke as they unsaddled the horses and stored each piece of tackle in its appropriate place.  Only when Ben saw that Hoss had relaxed into the rhythm of currying his animal did he voice a quiet suggestion.  “Why don’t you tell me about this trouble you’ve been having at school, son?”

Brush frozen against Charcoal’s gray flank, Hoss swallowed hard.  “They—they been pickin’ on me, Pa,” he muttered quietly as he began drawing the curry brush down the mare’s side again.  “Laughin’ and callin’ me names, ‘most every day, makin’ me feel like a big, dumb critter.”

Ben folded his arms on his bay’s back and looked across at his son.  “And the fighting?”

“I guess that’s mostly my doin’—today, anyway,” Hoss admitted reluctantly.  “I just wanted to make ‘em leave me alone, Pa; I wanted to shut their mouths.”

Ben frowned.  “With your fists?”

Hoss shrugged and kept his eyes studiously on the task before him.  “Seemed like the only way.”

“No,” Ben said firmly.  “Fists are never the appropriate response to mere words, however hurtful they may be.  I want you to remember that, son.”

“I ain’t smart enough to fight back with words, Pa,” Hoss protested, his forehead wrinkling as he looked up.  “It ain’t like I was Adam.”

“Fighting back with words isn’t the solution, either, son,” Ben chuckled.  “In fact, your older brother probably gets into more trouble with his words than you do with your fists—at least with me.”

A half-grin curled Hoss’s lips as he remembered the times he’d seen Adam talk back to Pa and the inevitable consequences that had followed.  Maybe Adam wasn’t so much smarter than him, after all.

“Come here, Hoss,” Ben said.

The slight grin faded as Hoss moved around Charcoal to meet his fate.  To his surprise, his father didn’t take off his belt; instead, he sat down on a feedbox and patted a spot beside him to indicate that Hoss should sit down, too.  Hoss did and drew a sigh of relief as his father’s arm came around his shoulders.

“Son, you’ve got to learn to live with who you are,” Ben said.  “You’re a big, strong boy with a tender, caring heart, and when you use those gifts as God intended, you can accomplish great good.  But every gift carries with it the possibility of being used the wrong way, for selfish purposes, and that’s what you did today.  You used your strength against a smaller boy to make him behave the way you wanted him to, and you hurt him badly.”

“I know,” Hoss whispered weakly.  “I never meant to, Pa, honest.  I’d take the punch back if I could.”

“I know that,” Ben said, pulling the youngster close to his side.  “That’s your tender heart, being used the right way, to care for others.  But a tender heart is also one that can be easily wounded, Hoss, as yours has been by the words of these other boys.  Because you’re so big and strong, son, you don’t have the luxury of striking back when you’re wounded.  You’ve got to let your strong heart control that physical strength, to make yourself think of the other person and how they will be affected by what you do.”

Hoss gave a firm nod.  “I ain’t never gonna fight nobody ever again.”

Ben pulled the boy’s face toward him and smiled compassionately.  “I wish I could say that would work, Hoss, but there will be times when you have to fight.  I don’t expect you to just stand still and take a beating if you’re attacked, and I’d be ashamed if you stood by and watched another child abused when you could stop it.  What I do not want to see again is you using your fists to stop someone’s words.  Walk away, go to your teacher for help or just let them laugh if you must, but do not answer mere words with physical violence.  Do I make myself clear, Hoss?”

“Yes, Pa.  I’ll—I’ll try.”

“See that you do.”  Ben’s face grew stern.  “There’s one more thing, son.  I understand your teacher gave you a note to bring home last Friday, but I don’t recall your presenting it to either me or your mother.”

Hoss bit his lower lip nervously.  “I—I hid it, Pa.  I didn’t want to get in trouble.”

“I know why you did it,” Ben muttered gruffly, “but that is scarcely an excuse, boy.  What happened today might have been avoided had I been aware of the problems you were having.”

“Yes, sir.”  Hoss sighed, bracing himself for what he was sure was coming next.

Reading his son’s mind, Ben smiled.  “No, Hoss, I’m not going to punish you this time”—he hardened his countenance—“but if you ever deceive me in this manner again, the punishment will be doubled.  That’s a fair warning, and I would advise you to heed it.”

“Oh, yeah, Pa,” Hoss murmured.  “I don’t never want to hide nothin’ from you ever again.”  He threw his arms around his father.  Ben’s arms encircled his son, and he held him close until the boy’s heaving back grew still.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

Learning the Ways of Peace

            Feeling it essential to be on his best behavior, Hoss was up and dressed early the next morning.  After giving careful attention to his morning chores, he slid into his chair at the breakfast table.  “Little Joe not up yet?” he asked, glancing across at the vacant place between his father and mother.

“No, he was very tired last night,” Marie replied, “and I thought it best to let him sleep.”

“Yeah, I guess,” Hoss said, guilt stabbing him as he reached for the platter of bacon.  “I was just thinkin’ maybe it’d be better if I saw him before I went to school or he might think I was lost for sure and set off cryin’ again.”

“You’ll have plenty of time,” Ben said, lifting his coffee cup.  “You’re not going to school this morning.”

Both Marie and Hoss turned startled eyes toward the head of the table.

Ben took a sip of coffee and lowered the cup.  “Don’t look pleased with yourself, boy; what you will be doing is far less pleasant than a morning in the classroom.”

Hoss smiled sheepishly.  While he didn’t think he’d been looking pleased with himself, he had to admit the thought of skipping school, even one day, had a definite appeal.  Not, however, if Pa had something worse planned.  “Uh, you gonna tell me what I’ll be doing,” he queried hesitantly, “or have I got to wait?”

Seeing his wife’s head also tilted with curiosity, Ben chuckled.  “No, neither of you has to wait.  You and I are going to ride over to the Hanson ranch this morning, Hoss, and you are going to apologize to young Pete for starting the fight and for injuring him.”

Hoss’s face fell, but almost instantly he realized that he really was sorry about what had happened and that he’d feel better once he’d said that to Pete.  “Thanks, Pa,” he whispered.  “It’ll make it easier with you bein’ there.”

Ben gave his son a smile warm with pride.  “I’m happy to help, son.  Now, I have a few duties to tend to before we can leave, so I would like you to make good use of the time by starting to clean up the tack room.  You won’t be able to finish by the time I return, but you can complete the job after school.  Miss Appleton will be expecting you directly after lunch.”

Figuring he was getting off lightly with a single extra chore, Hoss at once agreed, finished his breakfast without delay and headed immediately for the tack room.  He had been working diligently for about an hour when a shadow fell across the open door.  Noticing the change in light, Hoss turned and saw his mother, holding his tearful little brother by the hand.

“There, you see,” Marie cooed soothingly.  “Hoss is home safe.”

Little Joe pulled free and ran across the room, screaming his brother’s name.  Hoss grabbed him up and held him close.  “It’s okay, little punkin,” he said.  “Don’t cry, baby.”

Little Joe wiped the back of his hand across his eyes.  “I thought you was losted,” he rebuked, lower lip puckered.

“Yeah, I know; I’m sorry I worried you,” Hoss said, giving the little boy another squeeze.

“Little Joe, you have seen your brother, and now you must leave him to his work,” Marie admonished with a beckoning stretch of her arm.

“Me help,” Little Joe declared.

“No, you have not had your breakfast,” his mother insisted.  “Come, mon petit.”

Mon petit” stamped his petite foot.  “No want bweakfast.  Want help Hoss.”

Color rose in Marie’s face and then vanished just as quickly.  “Oh, I suppose it will do no harm,” she conceded.  “Hoss will be leaving soon, so you may spend a little time with him and eat afterwards.  Is that acceptable with you, mon chéri?”

“Sure, Ma,” Hoss agreed.  When she left, he set Little Joe down.  “Okay, punkin, why don’t you bring me that bridle over there, so I can hang it up?”

Little Joe scurried over to get the bridle and bring it back to Hoss.  “See, me help,” he declared.

Hoss laughed.  “Yeah, you’re a big help.”

Little Joe grinned; then the smile faded.  “Where was you, Hoss?”

As he hung up the bridle, Hoss began to explain the trouble he’d been having at school to his little brother, telling in detail what had happened the day before.

“Bad boys,” Little Joe sputtered when he heard how the trio of bullies had been making fun of Hoss.  Doubling his tiny fists, he declared vehemently, “Me punch ‘em good, Hoss.”

Hoss threw back his head and guffawed.  The idea of those little knuckles flying to his defense seemed so ludicrous he couldn’t hold back the laughter.  Seeing that Little Joe looked hurt, however, he stopped, and gathering the little boy into his arms, he leaned against a saddle stand.  “That’s real sweet of you, punkin pie, to want to help brother, but it ain’t the right way.  Pa talked to me last night about tryin’ to stop mean words with my fists, and it just ain’t right.  And if it’s wrong for me, it’s wrong for you, too, understand?”

Little Joe’s face was totally devoid of understanding, but he nodded and said, “Okay,” just to please Hoss.

“Okay,” Hoss said.  “Now, let’s see how much we can get done before Pa gets here.  I wanna stay on his good side today.”

Staying on Pa’s good side was a concept completely comprehensible to the youngest Cartwright, so he hurried to bring his brother whatever piece of equipment Hoss pointed out.  As they worked, Hoss found his heart feeling lighter and realized it was the laughter he had shared with his younger brother that had brought the relaxation of his tension.  Laughter didn’t have to be hurtful, Hoss realized.  Maybe it could even be a way of turning things around.

How would it be, he asked himself, if I just laughed right along with the other kids when they laugh at me?  Maybe if I act like it ain’t botherin’ me none, it’ll plumb take the fun out of it for them.  Most of ‘em ain’t mean-spirited—not really; they’re just goin’ along with what them three troublemakers start without givin’ it much thought, I bet.

Before Hoss could give his new theory much consideration, however, his father returned and told him it was time to saddle his horse.  Little Joe puckered up in protest of Hoss’s imminent departure, but a quick hug and a promise that he could help Hoss again after school sent him scurrying into the house in search of his postponed breakfast.

* * * * *

Fighting back an urge to wheel his horse around and run, Hoss trailed into the Hanson ranch yard slightly behind his father.

Ben seemed to understand his son’s reluctance.  “It’ll be over soon, boy,” he said, “and you’ll feel better for it.”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss returned quietly.  He dismounted and tethered his mare to the hitching rail beside his father’s bay.

“Howdy!”

Father and son spun to see a lanky, wheat-haired man emerging from the barn.  From the resemblance to the boy with whom he’d recently done battle, Hoss knew that the man could be no one but Pete’s pa, and he wondered, as he often had before, why some boys looked so much like their fathers, while he looked so little like his.

Ben walked across the yard to extend his hand, and Hanson took firm hold of it.  “How is your boy this morning?” Ben asked after exchanging pleasantries with the other man.

Hanson scratched the back of his neck.  “‘Bout like the doc said he’d be, I reckon.  Got a powerful headache, but seems pert enough beyond that.”

“Hopefully, time will take care of that,” Ben observed.  He pulled Hoss forward.  “This is my son.  He feels badly about the injury done to your boy and would like a chance to apologize for his actions, if you think Pete is feeling up to a visitor.”

Hanson hitched a drooping suspender back over his left shoulder.  “Don’t see why not.  Come on up to the house.”  He led the way to the dingy brown frame house, the Cartwrights following him up the three steps to the porch.

Before they could enter, the door opened and a woman with straggly straw-colored hair stormed onto the porch.  “That the one done it?” she demanded fiercely, poking at Hoss’s chest with a flour-dusted finger.  “You the over-sized ox that half-killed my boy?”

“Hush, woman,” Hanson said sharply.  “I won’t have guests in our house spoke to like that.  Like as not, the boy got no more than he asked for, and all this youngun is askin’ is the chance to say he’s sorry.”  Holding the door open, he turned to Hoss.  “You go right on in, boy, and say your piece.  Me and your pa is gonna set in the kitchen a spell and have a cup of coffee.”

“I’d be obliged,” Ben said.  “A cup of hot coffee will hit the spot perfectly on a chilly morning like this.”

Mrs. Hanson scowled, but preceded the men into the kitchen to brew a fresh pot of coffee.  Ben paused only long enough to give his son an encouraging smile before following her.

By instinct, Hoss made his way down the short hall to Pete’s room.  Swallowing hard, he stepped inside the open doorway.  “Hey, Pete,” he said shyly.  “How you doin’?”

Pete propped himself up on his elbows.  “You’re ‘bout the last person I expected to see,” he muttered.

“Yeah, I—uh—yeah, I guess I’m ‘bout the last person you want to see,” Hoss said, scuffing his right foot back and forth over the plank floor.

Pete cocked his head and gave the other boy an appraising squint.  “Maybe, maybe not.”

As he lay back against the pillow with a hand held to his head, Hoss hurried forward.  “Let me fix that for you,” he offered.  “You wanna sit up or lie down.”

“Better lie down, I guess,” Pete said.  “Hurts less that way.”

Hoss gulped as he frantically fluffed the pillow.  “Hey, Pete, I’m real sorry ‘bout hittin’ you that hard,” he said as he eased the other boy’s head onto the pillow.  “I sure never meant to knock you out.”

Pete shrugged off the apology.  “Wasn’t all your doin’.  Doc thinks maybe I hit something when I went down—rock or tree root or maybe just hard ground.  Pa says you’re the one that got me home and brought the doc out here to tend me.”

“Miss Appleton and Mr. Frey did most of the ‘gettin’ you home,’” Hoss insisted, “but I brung the doc.  Least I could do after causin’ the hurt.”  He felt a little better, now that he knew it wasn’t his punch alone that had hurt Pete so badly, but he couldn’t totally set aside his responsibility, either.  Without his punch, no rock or tree root would have had opportunity to slam into the boy’s head.

“Well, I’m obliged,” Pete said, “especially seein’ as how my so-called friends just run off and left me.  Some friends, huh?”

“They was scared,” Hoss said, sensing how that abandonment had hurt Pete and wanting to ease the pain.

“Yeah, but real friends would’ve stuck, scared or not,” Pete insisted.

“Yeah,” Hoss conceded, perching companionably on Pete’s bed.  “Seems like they would.”

Pete rubbed the thin coverlet between his fingers.  “Seems like you was more a friend to me than them two.”

Hoss flushed, feeling himself unworthy of any praise.  “Aw, shucks,” he muttered.  “Least I could do.”

Pete grinned.  “You said that once already.  You’ll have me thinkin’ you ain’t just dumb, but crazy to boot, if you start sayin’ everything twice over.”

Hoss grinned back.  “Well, I sure don’t want that!” he snickered and was rewarded with a good-natured laugh from Pete.  Hoss made note of the response.  Every time he’d been called ‘dumb’ before, he’d gotten angry, and the taunts had just kept coming; this time he’d laughed along, and now he and Pete both felt better.  “Look, Pete,” he said when they’d both quieted down again.  “I know we ain’t been friends before this, but is that any reason we can’t be now?”

“Boy, no wonder you have trouble in school, if you don’t listen to Miss Appleton any better than you listen to me,” Pete chuckled.  “I already said we was friends, didn’t I?’

Hoss tilted his head in thoughtful consideration; then a wide grin split his face.  “Yeah, I reckon you did.”

* * * * *

Hoss mounted the steps to the schoolhouse with only slight apprehension.  His visit to Pete had turned out better than he’d hoped, and the talk he’d had with Pa over sandwiches and fried pie down by the creek had also had a calming effect.  Miss Appleton knew where he’d been, so he wasn’t worried about having to explain his absence in front of the other kids.  However, he knew by experience that there were few secrets among the population of a small school, and he couldn’t help feeling a little concerned about how the other children would react to him.  Would they be mad at him for hurting Pete or, worse, maybe scared he’d do it to them?

He opened the door and closed it quietly behind him.  Though he would have liked to simply slip into his seat unnoticed, Miss Appleton spoiled that by calling his name as soon as she saw him.  “Eric, I’m glad you could join us this afternoon.  Please take your seat and open your arithmetic book to page twelve.  Do all the exercises on that page and be ready to recite with the others after I finish helping the younger students.”

Grateful that she’d stuck to school business, Hoss murmured a quick “Yes, ma’am,” and took his seat, immediately burying his nose in his Ray’s Arithmetic.  He worked the first row of sums diligently and then sneaked a peek toward the back of the classroom.  Walter Grogan’s desk was empty, but Calvin Hulbert, sporting a black ring around his left eye, was in his regular seat.  When he looked up and caught Hoss looking at him, he promptly averted his eyes.  Everyone else seemed intent on his or her lessons, and Hoss turned his attention back to his own.  Today of all days, he didn’t want to fail at his schoolwork.  In fact, he wanted to do absolutely nothing to call attention to himself.

Never a superior scholar, however, Hoss found it harder than usual to concentrate that afternoon.  Occasionally he would notice one of his classmates glancing his way.  In some of their eyes, he could read questions; in others, he saw anxiety or even outright fear.  Desperately wanting a chance to answer those questions, he found his attention wandering from the ones on the page before him, and when Miss Appleton called his class to recite, he was still three problems shy of completing the assignment.

“I-I’m sorry, ma’am,” he apologized.  “I ain’t got ‘em all done yet.”

“Slow as molasses,” came a low rumble from the back of the schoolroom, and though the tones had been too soft to be identifiable, Hoss knew the words could have come from no one but Cal Hulbert.  A few others tittered softly, but nervously.

As good a time as any to try using humor as a defense, Hoss concluded.  He turned to give the class a sheepish grin.  “Slow as molasses,” he admitted, “but who’d want to chase molasses ‘round his plate?”  The titters were louder this time and more relaxed.  Not sure what to make of Hoss’s apparently unbothered response, Calvin merely stared back.

“You’re sweet as ‘lasses, too,” Mary Emma O’Neill called out loyally.

“Now, that’s enough,” Miss Appleton said, but she didn’t sound angry.  “Slowness resulting from deliberation is not necessarily a poor quality.  However, Eric, I believe your failure to complete the assignment has less to do with deliberation than with distraction.”

His face void of understanding, Hoss blinked.  “Huh?”

Miss Appleton merely smiled.  “Distraction, not paying attention where you ought because other things are filling your mind,” she explained.  The warmth of the smile she directed toward Hoss told him she understood what those “other things” were and why they were filling his mind more than his lessons today.  “Since you’re evidently a bit distracted this afternoon, Eric,” she continued calmly, “I believe you should return to your seat and finish your work, instead of reciting with the rest of the class.  You may show it to me before going out to recess.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Hoss said gratefully.  “I’ll do my best.”

Miss Appleton laid her slender hand on his well-built shoulder, and her eyes swept the watching students as she spoke.  “Yes, Eric, I believe you always do.”

Hoss returned to his seat, noticing that smiles and friendly nods had replaced most of the nervous looks sent his direction earlier.  Feeling his own tension ease, Hoss settled into his seat and made himself focus intently on the remaining arithmetic problems.

* * * * *

For Hoss, the first week following the fight that was supposed to end all his problems was one of ups and downs.  Monday and Tuesday had gone fairly well.  Although Calvin Hulbert aimed an occasional barb at him, Hoss was able, at least most of the time, to deflect the jibes.  He tried to think of clever comebacks for the other boy’s stinging words, but not being a natural-born wit, sometimes he couldn’t think of anything to say.  Then he’d just shrug his shoulders and grin and pretend he wasn’t hurt, but the words still cut and sometimes, despite his best efforts to disguise it, the pain showed on his open face.  It always eased, though, when he talked his troubles out with Pa, who questioned him each night about how things were going, offering comfort and counsel, along with words of encouragement and praise for Hoss’s honest efforts to keep the peace.

Wednesday brought a new challenge with the return of Walter Grogan to the classroom.  Hoss decided to simply ignore Walter and hope Walter ignored him in return, but Cal Hulbert seemed determined to enlist the older boy’s help in once more taunting their favorite prey.  Walter finally brushed him off like a bothersome fly.  “Look, maybe you don’t keep your bargains,” he grunted, “but I do.”

Having overheard the exchange, Hoss took courage and walked up to Walter.  “Hey, Walter,” he said, holding out his hand.  “No hard feelin’s?”

Walter scowled back.  “You beat me fair and square,” he said, “so I’ll keep to what I promised, but that don’t make us buddies, Cartwright.  Just keep your distance, and I’ll keep mine.”

Crestfallen, Hoss watched him turn his back and walk away.  He’d hoped that he might make amends with Walter, the way he had with Pete, but the prospects didn’t look promising.  Still, if Walter kept his bargain, that left only Cal to deal with, and Hoss figured he could handle one loudmouth.

Hulbert tried to bait Hoss several times over the next two days, and Hoss almost yielded to the temptation to stuff the ugly words back in his mouth with a well-placed fist.  Thoughts of Pete lying unconscious beside the creek were always enough, though, to quiet the angry thoughts—that and a desire to keep his father’s approval.

On Friday Hoss came home wearing a wide grin.  With his father’s permission he had been visiting the Hanson ranch every day after school to take Pete his lessons, and the two boys had been working together, building a bond that Hoss hoped would continue.  Pete wasn’t a top student, but he did catch on to things more quickly than Hoss, who found it even easier to ask Pete questions than Miss Appleton.

Doc Martin had stopped by that afternoon and had declared Pete fit enough to go back to school on Monday.  Pete had given the obligatory groan at the thought of schoolwork, and Hoss had commiserated, as any decent friend would.  Both boys really considered it good news, though—Pete because even school was better than staying home in bed and Hoss because he now knew that Pete was going to be all right.

He couldn’t wait to tell Pa, who’d left to deliver another load of lumber to Fort Churchill the morning before and was due back tonight.  His impatience for his father’s return, however, was nothing compared to that of their Chinese cook.  Hop Sing ranted rebukes in Cantonese that everyone in the family understood, even though they couldn’t translate the words.  Finally, Marie had enough and began shouting back in French, while Hoss and Little Joe looked on speechless at the battle of foreign tongues.

“Well, isn’t this a pretty scene!” Ben chuckled as he walked through the front door to the music of unintelligible shouting.

“Oh, mon mari,” Marie cried, her quarrel with Hop Sing forgotten in joy over her husband’s return.

Hop Sing was less forgiving.  “You late,” he scolded.  “Loast beef all dly up!”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Ben cajoled.

“No,” Hop Sing insisted petulantly.  “Cook too long.  All dly up.”

“Just serve it up and we’ll eat it, dry or . . . otherwise,” Ben replied, unable to think of the culinary opposite of dry.

As the little cook stomped out to the kitchen to dish up the evening meal, Ben took his wife in his arms and kissed her tenderly.  “Miss me?” he asked.

Marie nuzzled against his broad chest.  “Umm, you know I did.  I hate it when you are away, even a single night.”

“We’ll make up for lost time tonight,” Ben promised in her ear.

A little hand was slapping his leg, demanding attention.  “Pa!  Hold me,” Little Joe ordered.

In a military frame of mind after his trip to the fort, Ben saluted his youngest son smartly.  “Yes, sir,” he declared.  Then he laughed as he swooped the little boy into his arms.  “I missed you, too, little nuisance, yes I did!”  He walked to the sofa and sat down.  “Have you been a good boy, Little Joe?”

“Always good,” Little Joe announced with a sturdy bob of his diminutive head.

Ben rolled his eyes.  “Oh, that good, eh?  Good as always isn’t such a high recommendation in your case, Joseph.”

“I been good,” Joe affirmed, nodding and smiling.

Ben laughed again and cradled the curly head on his shoulder.  Turning toward Hoss, he asked the question with which he’d greeted his son every evening that week except the one he’d been away.  “How did things go at school today, Hoss?”

Hoss snuggled close to his father’s side.  “Real good, Pa,” he said and, his voice rising with excitement, told the news he’d longed to share.

“That is good news,” Ben agreed.  “You think Pete will continue to be your friend after he comes back or will the Hulbert boy be too strong an influence on him?”

“I think we’ll stay friends,” Hoss replied.  “Me and Pete talked about that before I left today, and he says I treat him nicer than Cal ever did, so I think he’ll stick with me.”

“I’m glad to hear that, son,” Ben said, easing Little Joe down to his knee, “and I’m proud of how you’ve been handling yourself this week.  As a matter of fact, I think you’ve earned a little reward.”

A disgruntled Hop Sing shuffled to the edge of the dining room just then.  “Suppah leady; you eat—now,” he commanded, arms folded across his chest.

Ben’s brows came together in a straight line, and he almost gave voice to the opinion that he would not be ordered about in his own home.  Then, considering the likely consequences, he simply stood up and made his way submissively to the table, carrying Little Joe to his chair.

After saying grace over a roast beef that looked tender and succulent, rather than dry, Ben smiled at his middle son.  “Now, about that reward I mentioned . . .”

Hoss grinned and took a guess.  “Candy, I bet.  You stopped in Carson City and bought me some candy, didn’t you?”

“Me, too!” Little Joe shouted.

“Yes, yes, candy for both of you,” Ben chuckled, “but that isn’t the reward.  This is something you will really enjoy, Hoss, and so will your mother.”

“Oh, have I, too, earned a reward?” Marie tittered.

“You will—later,” Ben said with a naughty grin.

Marie blushed and shook her head in gentle rebuke.  Little Joe was too young to understand the thinly veiled allusion, but Hoss was a different matter.  She would have to speak to Ben about making suggestive comments in front of their sons, however welcome to her ears.  “What is this reward we shall both enjoy?” she asked, pointedly directing Ben’s attention elsewhere than the bedroom.

“You and Hoss and I are going to attend the opening of Virginia City’s very first theater!” Ben announced, eyes darting from one surprised face to the other.  “I heard about it at the fort and decided we shouldn’t miss a historic event like that.”

“Truly, Ben?  A theater here?” Marie squealed.  “Que magnifique!”

“Yeah,” Hoss agreed, face beaming.  He’d heard that phrase enough to know what it meant, even if it was in French.  “When, Pa?”

“Tomorrow night,” Ben answered.

“Me, too!” Little Joe screamed.  He had noticed the omission of his name, and he never liked feeling left out.

“Shh, hush now,” Ben soothed, stroking the child’s soft cheek with the back of his fingers.  “Pa has other plans for you, baby.”  Seeing the concern in Marie’s eyes, he hurriedly explained.  “We’ll be staying over at a hotel, so I’ve arranged for Little Joe to spend the night with Katerina.  That’s why I was late getting home.”

“Wanna go wif you,” Little Joe sobbed, twisting tiny knuckles into his eye sockets.

“There, there, mon petit,” his mother urged, gathering him into her lap.  “You will like it better at Katerina’s than in a dark theater, I am sure.  She will probably make you some of her special cookies.”

Little Joe peeked out through his fingers.  “All for me?”

Marie laughed.  “Oui, all for you.  I suppose it would be late to drive back after the play,” she mused as the toddler began to settle down.  “You are right, Ben; it would be best to spend the night in town.”

“And you can go to church the next morning,” Ben offered, “and we’ll have dinner in town—make a grand day of it!”

Marie pressed slender fingers to her lips.  “Oh, Ben, we cannot,” she murmured.  “We were to take dinner with Clyde and Nelly this Sunday.  They are expecting us.”

“Not anymore, they’re not,” Ben assured her.  “That’s another reason I’m late.  I stopped by their place, too, and though Nelly was disappointed at the delay, I assured her we’d dine with them next Sunday without fail.”

“For the next two Sundays,” Marie announced exuberantly.  “They will dine here the next week.”

“They’ll like that,” Ben said, smiling.  Though Marie had been less than enthusiastic when he first proposed the compromise of alternating weeks at church with weeks with their friends, she had agreed, and seeing her attempt to be scrupulously fair, he began to think maybe the contrived solution might work out.

* * * * *

Ben halted the buckboard before the building on the southeast corner of B and Sutton streets.  Vaulting down, he quickly tied the reins to a hitching rail and held Marie’s hand as she stepped down from the wagon.  “I’ll get us registered,” Ben announced.  “Then you and Hoss can get freshened up while I drive the wagon to the livery and purchase the tickets for this evening’s performance.”

Marie nodded as she brushed dust from her forest green merino skirt.  “Oui, you should do that promptly.  As it is the first night in Virginia City’s first theater, tickets may sell out early.”

Seeing Hoss’s anxious eyes, Ben laughed.  “We can’t have that, can we, son?”

“No, sir, sure can’t.”  Hoss shook his head vehemently.  “Better get them tickets first thing, Pa!”

Ben clucked his tongue as he took Hoss’s chunky chin in his hand.  “Say ‘those tickets’ and I will.”

Hoss grinned, his nose scrunching up sheepishly.  “‘Those tickets,’” he repeated dutifully.  Ben tousled the boy’s windblown hair and, wrapping an arm around his broad shoulders, directed him up the steps to the Virginia Hotel, the leading hostelry in the city.

Since his father had left as soon as the register was signed, Hoss carried both carpetbags upstairs to the room the Cartwrights had rented for the night.  He set the plumper one at the foot of one double bed and his own beside the other.

“Take your suit out right away, Hoss,” his mother directed as she opened her own bag.  “The wrinkles need a chance to smooth out before we dress for supper.”

“Do I got to wear that suit?” Hoss complained.  “It pinches my shoulders.”

Oui, I know,” Marie sighed.  “You grow so fast, mon chéri.  I am sure the other patrons of the theater will be well-dressed, though, and we do not wish to bring shame upon your father.”

“No, ma’am,” Hoss sighed.  With obvious reluctance he pulled his suit from the carpetbag and laid it out on the bed while, with equally obvious anticipation, Marie did the same for her own and Ben’s evening clothes.  Then she set about scrubbing the road dust from Hoss’s face before attending to her own toilette.

Both Marie and Hoss were clean and dressed in their evening attire when Ben returned, somewhat later than expected.  Hoss jumped up from the bed on which he’d been sitting.  “You get there in time to get the tickets, Pa?” he asked eagerly.

Ben blew out an exasperated gust of air.  “In time, yes, but I didn’t get any tickets, son.”

Hoss’s face plummeted.  “Why, Pa?”

“Were they expensive, Ben?” Marie queried, resting a consoling hand on Hoss’s shoulder.

Ben tossed his hat onto the bureau.  “Not more than I expected.  They ranged from two bits to a dollar, depending on the location of the seats.”

Marie looked puzzled.  “Then, what happened, Ben?”

Ben raked his right hand through the graying hair at his temple.  “While I was requesting the tickets, I mentioned that I needed three, one for myself, my wife and my son, and I was politely, but firmly, told that ladies were not to be admitted to the theater.”

“Ma ain’t welcome?” Hoss asked, lips pressing into a thin line.

“That’s right, son,” Ben explained.  “I talked to the manager, tried to find out the reason, but nothing he said made much sense.  I couldn’t seem to convince him that there were any real ladies in Virginia City, just the ‘other kind.’”

Hoss cocked his head.  “What other kind?”

“Never mind,” Marie inserted quickly.  “Well, I am disappointed, of course, but perhaps you and Hoss will enjoy an evening with only men.”

Ben drew both eyebrows up haughtily.  “Do you honestly think I would leave you here in a lonely hotel room while I pranced off to take pleasure elsewhere?”

Marie moved to his side, kissing his cheek tenderly.  “Mais non, not for your own pleasure, but this was to be a reward for Hoss, non?  And does he not still deserve it?”

Ben took a step away.  “Yes, of course, but I’ll have to find some other way to reward his good behavior.”

The hopeful light that had flickered in Hoss’s alpine eyes at his mother’s words faded again when he heard his father’s.

“No,” Marie insisted, her emerald eyes flashing.  “There is no need to find another when this is what he wants.”

“I will not leave you alone!” Ben declared stoutly, folding his arms across his chest.

Mais oui, you will,” Marie replied, her firmness matching his own.  Smiling, she stroked his stubbly cheek.  “There is no danger, Ben.  The door has a sturdy lock, and I will not perish of loneliness in the few hours you will be away.  You are sacrificing your wishes to mine tomorrow; let me be equally generous tonight, mon amour.”

Seeing that Ben was at a loss for words, she moved authoritatively to the bureau and handed him his hat.  “Now you must go at once and get two tickets before they are sold out, and then you must visit a barber and get a fresh shave.  I expect you to look your best and to take me to the finest restaurant in town for supper.  That, monsieur, is my fee for letting you leave my sight for an evening.”

“Your fee?  You know what kind of woman charges a fee,” Ben chuckled, chocolate eyes twinkling.

“Ben!” Marie protested with a quick, protective glance toward Hoss.

“Must be the angelic kind,” Ben laughed, giving her a quick kiss of repentance.  “Wouldn’t you agree, Hoss?”

Hoss beamed with cherubic rapture befitting the offspring of a member of the heavenly host.  “That Ma’s an angel?  Oh, yeah, Pa.  I always knew that!”

Her laughter light as a tinkling silver bell, Marie bent to kiss him.  Rising, she looked at her husband.  “Hurry, please, Ben.  There is no time for delay—and buy the best tickets available for this best of sons.”

Ben bowed elegantly.  “Oui, madame; your wish is my command.”

* * * * *

As she leaned back against propped pillows, Marie curled her bare toes beneath the hem of her dressing gown.  Though the day had been relatively warm, now that the sun had set, the temperature had dropped abruptly.  She shifted slightly, searching for a more comfortable position.  Though the Virginia House was the best Virginia City had to offer, there was little of which to boast in its accommodations.  The choice of seating in the room consisted of one straight-backed chair, so she had chosen to recline on the bed, instead.  Unfortunately, the lumpy mattress bore scarcely more resemblance to a comfortable lounge than the wooden chair, and Marie had spent a restless evening and predicted a restless night ahead.

She turned the final page of the Territorial Enterprise, which Ben had picked up on the way back to the hotel after buying the tickets for himself and Hoss.  “I had to settle for gallery seats,” he had apologized to his son, “and lucky to get those.”  Hoss, however, had seemed completely unperturbed by having to watch the stage from the cheapest seats in the house.  Just being there was clearly enough for him.

Marie smiled as she remembered the eager anticipation that had Hoss picking distractedly at his supper in a manner more reminiscent of his baby brother’s mealtime behavior than his own.  Sometimes she worried about his appetite, so much larger than that of other boys his age, but at just over one hundred pounds, Hoss loomed larger than any other ten-year-old in the territory in every other way, as well.  Dr. Martin called his appetite normal and healthy and told her not to worry, but it was hard advice for a mother to follow.  Tonight, though, she’d found it easy to be unconcerned about his leaving half his meal on the plate; she viewed it as a good tonic for his stomach to have a lighter load to digest once in awhile.

She, on the other hand, had eaten her own meal with relish.  The Café de Paris had served surprisingly good French cuisine, and she had stuffed herself to capacity on salad and escargot, leaving not so much as a leaf of lettuce or a crumb of delicious baguette.  Walking back to the Virginia Hotel on Ben’s arm under a clear, star-studded sky had provided the perfect end to the evening for Marie.  Certainly, she was disappointed not to be with her family, but she knew that one look at Hoss’s bright face when he returned would content her as much as hearing every line of the drama at the Howard Street Theater.  Besides, she thought with an amused smile, I am quite sure to hear every line six or seven times before we reach the Ponderosa tomorrow afternoon.

It hadn’t been a bad evening, even though she was alone and less than perfectly comfortable.  She’d taken a long, luxurious soak in the tub down the hall and had read her Bible for a while before turning to the newspaper.  Now, having finished that, there was really nothing more to do to pass the time, but she didn’t want to go to sleep until Ben and Hoss returned.  Hoss—and probably Ben, too, who could be astonishingly childlike at times—would be too excited to sleep until they’d described every scene to her.

Despite Marie’s best intentions, however, her eyelids were drooping with heaviness when the grating of the key in the lock made her sit up and rub the sleepiness from her eyes.  As the door opened, she spread her arms in welcome.  “Ah, there are my boys,” she said brightly, “and I can see by the look on your faces that you have had a wonderful time.  Come tell me all about The Toodles.  That is the play you saw, oui?”

Hoss bounced down on the bed next to her, wrapping long arms around her waist.  “Oh, Ma!  It was the best ever—except for Pocahontas.”

Ben and Marie exchanged an amused glance above the boy’s head.  For Hoss, nothing would ever surpass the memory of the first play he’d ever seen—at least, not until he grew beyond boyhood into the more earthy interests of adolescence.

“It had everything, Ma,” Hoss gushed on.

“Oh, yes,” Ben chuckled.  “Double-crossing, lies, a hanging—”

Marie stiffened.  “Oh, Ben, I didn’t think.  Perhaps the theater was closed to women because of the subject matter of this play.  We should have inquired before permitting Hoss to view it.”

“Aw, I could tell it was fake,” Hoss assured her, “like the fightin’ in Pocahontas.  Wasn’t nothin’ to it, Ma.”

Ben’s face was a canvas on which concern for his wife’s parental sensitivities warred with offense that his own had been called into question.  “No, of course not.  I’d have taken him straight out if I’d seen anything inappropriate,” he demurred defensively, hurrying on to say, “Tell her about Mrs. Toodles, son.”

Hoss guffawed.  “She was somethin’, Ma!  If you was like her, Pa’d have to sell the Ponderosa to pay the bill for this here hotel.”

The lines in Marie’s face relaxed.  “She spent money a bit too freely, I take it?”

Ben chuckled.  “A bit?  Oh, you are severely understating the case, my love.  Hoss has Mrs. Toodles pegged precisely right; the woman could not pass up an auction sale to save her life—or her husband’s pocketbook.”

Marie tilted her head and gave him a teasing smile.  “I trust I have given you no cause for such complaint.”

“How could you,” Ben teased back, “when I keep you at least twenty miles from the nearest auction sale?”  He sat down on the bed beside her and kissed her cheek gently.  “No, my love, you give me no cause whatsoever to complain, in that or any other area.”

“Tell about that souse she had for a husband,” Hoss said, leaning around his mother to speak to his father on her opposite side.

Ben laughed and his eyes twinkled as he repeated his wife’s earlier comment.  “I trust I have given you no cause for such complaint.”

Marie giggled and shook her head, but Hoss frowned severely at his father.  “Aw, quit foolin’ around, Pa.  Ma wants to hear about the Toodles.”

“Indeed, I do,” Marie declared, her slender fingers gently massaging the boy’s back, “and I think you are the best one to tell me.  There is too much foolishment, as Hop Sing would say, in this other child.”

Hoss beamed and launched into a recital of the woes of the Toodles family, including the virtuous daughter Mary, who suffered most by her parents’ lack of self-control.  Ben interrupted a few times to add a detail or comment on the caliber of the performance.  When Hoss finally finished, Marie smiled.  “I can almost see the stage myself, you describe it so well, mon chéri, but it is now very late, and it is time you were in bed.”

“But I ain’t told about the afterpiece yet,” Hoss protested, trying to blink the sand from his eyes.

The Swiss Swains can wait ‘til morning.  Do as your mother says, boy,” Ben stated firmly.  “Into your nightshirt and under the covers, quick as a wink.”  He ended with an exaggerated wink that made Hoss grin.

“It wasn’t exactly Shakespeare or grand opera, but you would have enjoyed the play,” Ben told his wife while Hoss changed into his nightclothes. “Philip Westwood and the others are all seasoned actors, even his daughter Mercy, who played the part of Mary.  I’ve seen better, of course, and you’ve seen much better in New Orleans, but not bad at all for a troupe out of Salt Lake City.  An orchestra opened the performance, and I thought they were quite good, especially by local standards.”

Marie giggled.  “Local standards being so high, of course!”  She reached for the copy of the Territorial Enterprise.  “Still, Virginia City is gathering all the accoutrements of a major city: its first theater and now this.”

Ben took the paper and scanned the article she pointed out.  “Well, I’d consider it better news if having the newspaper move here to Virginia City didn’t mean that Carson City would be losing it.  Made it kind of convenient, having it so close to home.”

Marie fell back against the pillows, laughing.  “Close to home?  Oh, Ben, Carson City is not ‘close to home,’ either.  Nothing is!”

Ben reached over and tweaked her nose.  “And that’s the way I like it, madame, far distant from the enticing temptation of all auction sales!”

“Ah! and the, no doubt, more enticing temptation of purveyors of John Barleycorn,” Marie tittered in response.

Hoss grinned and snuggled into his pillow, soon drifting to sleep to the lullaby of his parents’ soft laughter in the bed next to his.

* * * * *

To the accompaniment of Hoss’s rendition of The Swiss Swains, the Cartwrights ate breakfast at Barnum’s Restaurant the next morning.  Marie smiled at her son as he finished recounting the story of Dame Glib’s attempt to marry off her daughter Rosalie to a no-account named Swig and Rosalie’s timely rescue by the unexpected return of her true love from war. “A most romantic afterpiece, and again you have made it come alive for me, mon chéri, but now you must finish your breakfast.  It will soon be time for chapel.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed for a moment as he wondered whether Marie would hold to their agreement that Hoss would not have to attend the service more than once a month.  “Yes, son, finish your meal at once,” he said, carefully watching his wife’s reaction, “and after we escort your mother to the chapel, we’ll explore the changing sights of Virginia City, shall we?”

Hoss’s cheeks turned slightly rosy.  “Uh, Pa, I was—uh—thinkin’ maybe I’d—uh—go along with Ma this mornin’, if you don’t mind.”

It was Marie’s turn to check out Ben’s reaction.  She said nothing, but waited quietly for his response.

Caught off guard, Ben simply stared in silence for a moment and then murmured, “Why, of course, son, whatever you prefer.”

Hoss’s flush deepened.  “Well, it’s just that I got some thank you’s to say—’bout Pete, I mean—and I kinda thought that’d be a good place to say ‘em.”  Keeping his eyes on his plate, he twiddled his fork through his scrambled eggs.

Ben’s hand closed gently over his son’s restless one.  “You don’t need a special reason, Hoss.  Anytime you want to accompany your mother to church, you feel free.”

Head rising slowly, Hoss sent a shy smile toward his father and then his mother.  He saw the light in his mother’s eyes and knew she hoped his choice would be a permanent one, but Hoss felt in his own heart that it would not be.  It was just as he’d said: he wanted to say thanks to God for saving him from the horror of killing another boy.  And though that was his only reason for wanting to attend church when he left the Ponderosa, Hoss also felt another motivation as he polished off the rest of his ham and eggs.  He knew his mother had done him a good turn by letting him and Pa go to that theater where she wasn’t welcome and he wanted to make it up to her.  Right now, sitting next to her at church seemed like the best way.

After leaving the restaurant, Ben watched as Hoss proudly took his mother’s arm and guided her toward the chapel on the divide between Gold Hill and Virginia City.  He felt a slight sense of abandonment as he turned to walk down C Street.  Probably the way she felt that day we all walked off and left her, he mused.  That boy has a good heart, though, and he’ll make the choice that’s right for him, probably better than if we made it for himAs for Joseph—Ben shook his head—no, he didn’t want to deal with that, or any other, problem this morning.

He walked along the street, noticing all the new businesses springing up.  The Territorial Enterprise had good reason for its upcoming move to Virginia City, he decided, as the town on the hillside was rapidly becoming the population center of western Utah.  By the time he’d concluded his tour of the town, Ben had counted more than one hundred and fifty businesses, including the new theater and a music hall and four butcher shops—probably ought to look into selling some of our beef to them.  Eight lawyers had hung out their shingles—hope I never need to consult one of those—and six doctors were vying to provide medical care for the miners—shouldn’t need them; already got the best doctor in the territory a lot closer to home.

Turning back toward the chapel as the time to meet his wife and son drew near, Ben’s steps took on a new buoyancy.  It was happening, just as he’d envisioned it long before.  He’d come west with dreams of building a new community, and although he hadn’t expected a silver strike to be the means to that end, that community was being built.  He’d wanted to build a ranch, a solid heritage to pass on to his sons, and the Ponderosa was developing beyond his expectations.  Most of all, he’d wanted to build a home and Ben knew he could ask for no better than the one he now enjoyed.  Three healthy, energetic, sound-hearted sons any man would be proud of and, finally, in Marie, a woman to share his dreams through all the years to come.  While the journey toward his dreams had been long and costly, particularly in the loss of the women he’d loved, Ben could see nothing on his horizon but clear skies and fluffy clouds.  Beneath them, in his mind’s eye, he walked arm in arm with his beautiful wife through verdant pastures into a future that glowed still brighter than this brilliant noonday in Virginia City.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Notes

On September 29, 1860, Virginia City’s first theater, the Howard, opened.  The plays described in this chapter were the ones presented that first night.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Rumblings of a Coming Storm

            Ladle in hand, Hop Sing paused beside Marie’s seat at the table one evening in early October and looked with frustration in the direction of the front door.  As another knock sounded sharply, his brow wrinkled yet more.  Clearly torn between two self-imposed duties, that of serving the soup and of greeting all callers, he muttered irritably, “Why anyone come when family eat?”  Though it went against his opinion of proper serving etiquette, he started to set the bowl down on the table so he could respond to the summons at the door.

Marie touched his arm gently.  “No, you are busy, Hop Sing.”  She looked across the table.  “Hoss, would you please answer the door?”

Hoss took the napkin from his lap and laid it on the table.  “Sure thing, Ma.”  He walked to the front door and opened it.  “Howdy,” he said to the broad-shouldered man dressed in a matching gray frock coat, vest and trousers with a charcoal bowler perched over a fringe of straight black hair.

The man smiled broadly, “Howdy, young fellow.  Would your father be Ben Cartwright?”

Hoss grinned.  “Sure would.  You wanna see him, mister?”

“I surely do, if it’s convenient.”

“Ask the gentleman in, Hoss,” Ben said as he rose from his chair.  Moving behind his youngest son and his wife, he walked toward the unexpected caller.

“Come on in,” Hoss repeated dutifully and closed the door behind the man when he stepped into the great room; then, eager to get on with the meal, Hoss headed back to his place at the table.

Ben extended his hand.  “Welcome to the Ponderosa, Mr. . . .”

“Maynard, James Maynard,” the man replied.  “I apologize for arriving so late in the day, sir, but”—his eyes, following Hoss, suddenly took in the table and those gathered around it.  “Oh, dear, I am intruding, aren’t I?”

“Not at all, not at all,” Ben assured him courteously.  “How may I help you, sir?”

Mr. Maynard removed his hat.  “I had hoped to speak to you of a business opportunity, Mr. Cartwright, but I have no wish to disturb your meal.”

Marie stepped quietly to her husband’s side.  “Have you eaten, Monsieur Maynard?”

“Well, no, ma’am, I haven’t,” the man replied, the words leaking out awkwardly one by one.  He hastened to add, “I certainly didn’t come seeking a meal, ma’am.  I—”

“But you’ll join us, won’t you?” Ben urged, clapping the man’s arm.  “I assure you there’s plenty.”

Mais oui, please dine with us, monsieur,” Marie added with a gracious smile.  “I will not allow you to refuse.”

Maynard laughed lightly.  “Ma’am, refusing is the furthest thing from my mind.  Thank you very much.”

Marie breezed back to the table.  “Hop Sing, please bring another plate and silverware.  Hoss, if you would please move to my place, Monsieur Maynard will be better able to converse with your father.”

“Okay,” Hoss agreed readily and moved quickly to the chair beside his baby brother, while Marie sat at the foot of the table, opposite her husband.

Hop Sing, on the other hand, didn’t move.  “Humph,” he declared with open disdain.  “Why Missy Cahtlight not tell Hop Sing man come fo’ suppah?   How many mo’ come?”

Marie stood and glared at the cook, arms akimbo.  “Monsieur Maynard is our guest,” she declared, face reddening and eyes snapping, “and will be treated with respect.  Now, do as I asked!”

“Allight, allight,” Hop Sing sputtered, clearly aware that he’d crossed the line in the eyes of the mistress of the house.  “I bling.”

“I apologize Mr. Maynard,” Ben said as he gestured toward the seat his guest was to take.  “Sometimes Hop Sing gets a little confused about who owns the Ponderosa.”

Maynard laughed huskily.  “I have a few workers like that myself, men who act like they own the Ophir, when it’s—but, again, I apologize for the untimeliness of my visit.  I assure you I did not plan to arrive in the midst of your meal.  I simply hadn’t realized how long the ride would be from Virginia City to your ranch or how caught up I would become in examining your fine stand of timber.”

Hop Sing returned with a full place setting, which he meekly laid before Marie.  She smiled and asked him to continue serving.  Then she turned to the gentleman on her right.  “You mentioned the Ophir, monsieur.  Are you the owner of that mine?”

“No, ma’am, not the owner,” James Maynard responded quickly, “but I am the president of that enterprise, and it is in that capacity that I’ve come to speak with your husband.”

Ben spread his napkin in his lap.  “About timber?”

Hop Sing ladled the guest’s bowl to the brim with the rich gumbo Marie had early taught him to prepare.  After appraising the unfamiliar dish with a wary eye, Maynard plunged his spoon in with determination.  “Precisely, Mr. Cartwright.  I wish to speak with you about the purchase of timber as shoring for the mine.”  He drew the spicy broth into his mouth and, eyes alight, immediately dipped into the bowl for a second spoonful.

“I’ll be very pleased to discuss that with you, sir, but why don’t we enjoy the meal first and discuss business later, perhaps over dessert?”

“An excellent idea,” the Ophir president said at once, as he set about draining every drop of gumbo from the bowl.

When everyone had finished the soup course, Hop Sing removed the bowls and returned with a platter barely big enough to hold the large beef round, into which incisions had been cut and stuffed with a dressing of onions, butter and bread crumbs.  “What a beautiful piece of meat!” Mr. Maynard exclaimed.  “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.  My compliments, ma’am.”

“It is Hop Sing who deserves the praise,” Marie said, nodding toward the cook as he turned to bring in the side dishes.  “He does all the cooking here, although, in this case, he is using my receipt for beef a la mode.”

“Beef a la mode,” the man repeated.  “Well, if sight and smell are any indication, I’m going to enjoy every bite.”

As Ben carved the roast and served a slice to each person at the table, Hop Sing bustled back and forth, bringing baked beets, potato pudding and creamed peas to round out the meal.  In respect to Ben’s wishes, the Ophir president did not again mention the business that had brought him to the Ponderosa.  Instead, he discussed the growth of Virginia City, including several new businesses he had heard would be opening there soon.

After cleaning his plate, Mr. Maynard leaned back with a contented sigh.  “I couldn’t eat another bite.”

Marie laughed lightly.  “But you must.  We are having Peach Charlotte for dessert.”

“And that, I assure you, is not to be missed,” Ben added with a significant nod.

Maynard groaned.  “I’m sure you’re right, but I can’t; I just can’t.”

Marie smiled.  “Perhaps a short wait would restore your appetite.  Ben, why do you and Monsieur Maynard not adjourn to your office and discuss your business?  Then, afterwards, you may feel ready for dessert.”

“That’s an excellent suggestion, my dear.”  Ben stood and pushed his chair beneath the table.  “Shall we, Mr. Maynard?”

“To be sure, to be sure.”  James Maynard, too, rose from his chair and followed Ben to the alcove where he handled the business affairs of the Ponderosa.  Marie remained at the table to share dessert with the two boys before taking them upstairs to prepare for bed.

Ben pulled a mate’s chair around to the side of his desk, offering it to the mine president just before sitting in his own padded green leather one.  “Now, you said you were interested in buying timber, I believe?”

Maynard leaned forward, his calloused hands gripping his knees.  “Very interested.  I hope you don’t mind, but I did some scouting before I came tonight, and I was most impressed with what I saw.  I like what I’ve heard about your business dealings, and the Ophir can use all the timber you can supply, Mr. Cartwright.”

Ben stroked his chin thoughtfully.  “May I ask what you’ve heard—and from whom?”

The mining president laughed.  “Why, Mr. Cartwright, I believe you’re fishing for compliments!  Nothing mysterious about it, though.  I heard about your supplying timber for Ft. Churchill, and I figure what’s good enough for the United States Army is good enough for Ophir Mining.  I made a few inquiries and heard nothing but descriptions of a man who could be trusted to be fair and honest and to fulfill any agreement he’d ever made.”

Ben could feel warmth creeping up his neck at the glowing words.  “Well, that’s gratifying to hear,” he murmured, “but surely you realize, Mr. Maynard, that my timber contract with the Army was the first I’ve ever transacted.  I am hoping to expand in that area, but this is still a very small operation, of only a few months’ experience.  You also need to understand that I believe in a very judicious cutting program, one that preserves the beauty and utility of the woodlands as a heritage for future generations.”

“A lofty ideal,” Mr. Maynard observed, “but if you can give me free access to your timber, I can offer you tremendous profit as a heritage for the next generation of Cartwrights.”

Ben pulled upright in his chair.  “I have a different kind of heritage planned for the next generation of Cartwrights, Mr. Maynard, one that is measured in values of far greater worth than monetary profit.”

“But you possess such vast resources, Mr. Cartwright,” the Ophir president argued.  “Why, you could sell me all I want and never notice what was taken!”

Ben smiled.  “Exactly my intention, sir, to use my resources in such a way that no one ever notices the slightest difference in the Ponderosa, and that is precisely why I cannot promise to provide everything any buyer might want.”

Maynard laughed.  “Well, I see you cling to your ideals, Mr. Cartwright.  I think you’ll regret it in time to come, but while I’m disappointed not to get all the timber I want from you, I would still like to have your Ponderosa supply whatever timber you are willing to sell.  Shall we discuss the price, sir?”

After some spirited negotiation, the two businessmen came to an agreement and sealed it with a handshake.  “I’ll have everything put into writing and ready to sign by tomorrow afternoon,” Maynard stated.

“I’ll meet you in your office at—say, three o’clock?” Ben suggested.

“Three is fine.”

Ben stood, laying a comradely hand on his guest’s shoulder.  “Now, how about sealing our bargain over Peach Charlotte and coffee?”

Though he still felt full to the seams, Maynard didn’t feel he could courteously refuse.  Marie had just carried a well-scrubbed and nightshirt-clad Little Joe downstairs, and the toddler demanded his usual after-dinner perch in Pa’s lap.  Hoss had also donned his nightshirt and come back downstairs to beg a second helping of dessert.

Ben shook his head in mock dismay.  “Mr. Maynard, I may yet have to sell you that extra timber you want, just to afford enough food to fill this boy’s hollow leg!”

“Aw, Pa,” Hoss protested.  “I don’t eat that much.”

“Well, no,” Ben admitted, “except by comparison, maybe.”  He tweaked his youngest son’s diminutive nose.  “I don’t suppose you could be persuaded to eat a second helping of Peach Charlotte, now could you?”  Little Joe just smiled and shook his head.

“There is no need to urge him when he ate such a good supper,” Marie said lightly as she brought into the great room a tray with two cups of coffee and three dessert plates of sponge cake, topped with peach halves and sweetened cream.  One look was sufficient to assure James Maynard that his courtesy was about to be rewarded beyond measure.

* * * * *

Her golden curls fanned out across Ben’s bare chest, Marie blew gently across his abdomen, but the familiar enticement did not bring forth the familiar response.  Rolling back onto her own pillow, she stroked slender fingers along his breastbone.  “Where are your thoughts tonight, mon mari?” she chided gently.

“Hmm?”  For a moment Ben looked at her blankly; then he smiled and caressed her cheek with his thumb.  “Sorry, my love, just thinking about the future—and how ill-prepared I am to meet it.”

Marie rose up, concern reflected in her iridescent emerald eyes.  “Surely nothing is wrong, Ben?”

Ben took her face between his palms.  “No, no, of course not, my love.  Everything is right.”  He again pulled her down to his chest and began the brush his fingers through her unbound hair.  “Maybe a little too right,” he murmured.  Feeling her head move against his flesh, he brushed a quick kiss on her forehead.  “It’s just that I can see a lot of possibilities opening up before me and a lot of work I need to do so I can walk through those open doors.”

“You mean your business with Monsieur Maynard, don’t you?” Marie asked, moving back to her pillow so she could see his face.

Ben nodded.  “I can’t keep hauling timber in our buckboard, not if the business is going to expand.  I need a proper freight wagon, so I won’t have to make so many trips back and forth to Virginia City.  I think I can find what I need in Placerville; might even get lucky enough to locate one of the wagons John Studebaker used to make before he went back east again.  I also want to hire some lumbermen, and the hill country might be the best place to look for them.”

Marie rose up on one elbow.  “When will you leave?  Soon, I presume.”

“Yes, right away,” Ben agreed.  “I have to sign that contract tomorrow afternoon, but I’d like to leave the next morning, if you think that’s feasible.”

Marie smiled.  “I’ll pack your bag while you’re in town tomorrow.”

Ben pressed her shoulder tenderly.  “I’m sorry you can’t come along.  We wouldn’t have time to go beyond Placerville, but I know you’d like to see the Zuebners again.”

Marie sighed as she sank into the pillow.  “I understand, Ben.  You need to travel quickly and be free to move about, but I don’t think it would be wise for me to go, anyway.  The weather is so unpredictable this time of year that I would worry about taking Joseph up into the mountains, and I hesitate to leave Hoss here alone, in case there is more trouble at school.”

“Now, don’t fret,” Ben urged, comforting her with gentle strokes of his fingers.  “Everything’s been going well in that department, and there’s no need to borrow trouble.”

“No, I will not,” she conceded, “and you must not borrow trouble, either, worrying about the future and whether you are ready to meet it.”  She twined her fingers through the salt-and-pepper hair curling on his chest and smiled provocatively.  “There are better things to think of, non?”

“There are better things to think of, yes,” Ben whispered and pulled her into his arms.

* * * * *

Ben returned to the Ponderosa nine days later with mixed feelings about his trip to California.  He’d been successful in the business that took him there, having purchased the used Studebaker wagon he was now driving home and ordered a second freight wagon of a different make, something he would need if his new enterprise thrived as he hoped it would.  He wouldn’t pick that one up until spring, when he should be able to pay for it with his profits from the Ophir deal, and he thought there was a good chance that word-of-mouth might have brought in business from other mines by then, as well.  He’d hired a number of experienced loggers, who would be arriving within the week, and had spent his evening hours catching up with his old friends in Placerville.  In all those ways, the trip had been both profitable and pleasurable.

There had also been disturbing developments, however, and uneasy feelings had begun to wrestle in his breast even before he left Virginia City.  He’d heard talk on the street and in the saloon about the upcoming national election, and almost every word had been divisive.  Southern supporters had been adamant that the election of Abraham Lincoln would mean immediate secession, while northerners just as hotly declared that no state had the right to leave the Union.  Ben had kept his opinions to himself, knowing that his more moderate view that the conflict back east did not concern the citizens of western Utah would only be interpreted as riding the fence.

In California, whose citizens, unlike those of a mere territory, actually had a vote in the election, the streets had only rung more loudly with angry words shouted back and forth.  Ben was concerned that the situation might be even more volatile in the state capitol of Sacramento, and he wished he could have found the time to go there for a talk with Adam, to warn him to stay out of such discussions.  It was just the kind of debate that bull-headed boy might recklessly join without thought of the consequences.

Ben hadn’t forgotten what his friend Josiah Edwards, back in St. Joseph, had told him about the dangers there of not being “sound on the goose.”  Most Californians might take the opposite view, but from the talk Ben had heard, he judged that the state of California and the territory of Utah were split about 60-40, in favor of the Union.  Such nearly equal odds, Ben feared, might lead to real violence in the streets, come November, no matter how the election turned out.

“Sixty-two miles—a third of it by train, at that,” he chided himself as he made the final approach toward the ranch, “and I couldn’t find the time!”  He shook his head.  What was the point of reproaching himself?  He honestly hadn’t had a day to spare.  He had a contract to fulfill and a new lumber camp to set up as quickly as possible, so he’d done the only thing he thought he could by writing Adam a strongly worded letter and posting it from Placerville.

Dusk was just beginning to fall when Ben drove into the Ponderosa ranch yard.  Sitting on the wagon seat, he inhaled deeply.  “Beef stew, unless my nose deceives me,” he observed with mild disappointment.  Obviously, neither Marie nor Hop Sing had expected him today or there would have been something more lavish on the table.  Well, it didn’t matter:  Hop Sing made terrific stew, and anything warm and filling would beat his own trail cooking.

A curly head peeked around the barn door, and immediately afterward short legs came hurtling through the opening, accompanied by a wild scream of “Pa!”  Alarmed, Ben jumped from the wagon, for Little Joe was headed straight for the horses, as he always did whenever a new one entered the yard.  A brawny arm caught the toddler before he’d gone five steps, however, and Ben grinned with gratitude at his middle son.

Hoss gladly relinquished Little Joe to his father’s arms and went over to examine the new draft horses.  “They sure look strong, Pa,” he said, patting the broad side of the nearest animal.

“Have to be,” Ben said, hoisting his baby on one arm so he would have a hand free to tousle Hoss’s straight, sandy hair.  “That’s a heavy wagon they’re pulling.”

Hoss ran admiring eyes down the length of the wagon.  “Yeah, we sure ain’t never had nothin’ that size ‘round here, Pa.”

Ben clapped the boy’s sturdy shoulder.  “Nope, never have.  Get a good look at it, son; then stable the horses for me, all right?”

“Sure, Pa, glad to.”

“Me, too,” Little Joe insisted, stretching toward the wagon seat.  “Me look, too.”

“All right, all right,” Ben laughed as he lifted the child into the bed of the wagon.  “Keep an eye on him,” he told Hoss.  Seeing his wife exit from the house, Ben left the boys and hurried toward her.  “I suppose you want to climb all over the new wagon, too,” he teased.

Marie stood on tiptoe to press her smooth cheek against his sand-papery one.  “I would rather climb all over you,” she whispered naughtily.

Ben chuckled and, putting his arm around her waist, headed into the house.  Inside, Marie took his hat and helped him off with his coat, and the couple exchanged a long, lingering kiss.  “I’ve missed you,” Ben said as they came up for air.

Marie laid her head on his shoulder.  “And I, you.”  Taking his hand, she led him toward the seating area near the fire.  “I see you found the wagon you wanted.  Did everything else go as you hoped?”

“Everything and more,” Ben said as he fell wearily into the mauve armchair by the fire.  As Marie perched on the arm of the chair, he told her about ordering the second wagon and added, “I figure by spring we may need to have two crews working, and Adam can take charge of the second.”

“But he’s still so young, Ben,” Marie mused.  “Will the men listen to a boy of seventeen?”

“That’s no ordinary boy of seventeen, and besides, he’ll be eighteen by then,” Ben proudly pointed out. “That’s still mighty young to run a timber operation, of course, but I’ll make it clear to the men that he’s working under my authority, and I’ll make it clear to young Adam that he is to give good heed to what those experienced lumbermen advise, as well.”

“Hmm, perhaps,” Marie murmured, though doubt still tinged her voice.  “I think you should give more thought to this before you decide, Ben.”

“It’s already decided,” Ben grunted with displeasure.  “In fact, I’ve already written Adam about it, so it’s settled, Marie.”

Sparks flared in his wife’s eyes.  “At times like this, Ben, you don’t make me feel much like Adam’s mother, as you have always said I am!”  She flew to her feet and stormed up the stairs.

“Well, you handled that real well,” Ben muttered to himself with chagrin as he reached for his pipe.  “So much for the sweet dreams you had of the perfect homecoming!”  Marie would forgive him eventually; of that he had no doubt, but no man could be expected to predict when.  That fiery Creole temper of hers could blaze up out of nowhere and fade away just as quickly or, contrariwise, its embers might smolder for days after he’d committed some marital offense.  Having yearned for the warmth of her body all those nights on the trail, Ben fervently hoped the fire would fizzle out quickly tonight.

* * * * *

Adam spread the two letters side by side on his desk, glowering at the one on the left.  He’d been tempted to wad it into a ball and toss it into the rubbish bin, but there had been some interesting news from home in it, along with all the sage advice on keeping himself out of political quarrels.  As if he’d needed that instruction!  What did Pa think he was, some kid the age of Hoss or Little Joe?  Didn’t Pa credit him with a lick of common sense?  Well, obviously he did or he wouldn’t have written about my taking charge of one of the timber crews next spring, Adam conceded.  And as long as I’m being honest, I might as well admit that’s what really rankles me, Pa just assuming he can plan my life without giving a thought to what I want.  Jamie, at least, understands I need to make my own decision.

He picked up the second letter.  Odd that the two had arrived the same day, each of them with a different plan for Adam’s future.  Jamie Edwards had written excitedly about going to college next year.  “I know we’ve talked about several schools,” he’d said, “but I’ve decided Yale is the right choice for me, and I do so hope you will see your way clear to join me there, Adam.”  Jamie had gone on to explain that he felt called to the ministry and believed that Yale, with its ties to the Congregational Church, would be the best place to train for that vocation.  “It is a forward-thinking institution, Adam, often ready to advance new ideas where other schools hesitate,” Jamie had added persuasively.  “I feel certain you could achieve your goals there as well as anywhere, and you know how I would treasure being with you again.  I will understand, though, if you feel you must make another choice.”

Attending college with his old friend had long been a cherished dream for the eldest Cartwright son, icing on the academic cake, so to speak.   He had only to glance at his father’s letter, however, to be reminded that his dream for himself was totally different from the future his father conceived for him.  Pa saw him throwing himself into building the finest ranch in western Utah, and there was nothing wrong with that future.  In fact, it was the future Adam eventually envisioned for himself, but he wanted to broaden himself first, to learn more about the world and all it had to offer before he shut himself up in the confines of even so large a ranch as the Ponderosa was becoming.

Pa ought to know, he chafed.  He ought to know his own son well enough not to just take it for granted that I want what he wants.  He ought to ask.  Adam’s innate sense of fairness added another thought, though: I ought to tell him, and I would if we could just sit down face to face.  Doggone it, why couldn’t he have taken one more day to come down here?

Feeling the anger surge inside again, Adam consciously focused his mind on the other letter.  Yale.  He had no objection to that school, but only Jamie’s company there to recommend it.  He really didn’t know too much about the school, except that it was located in New Haven, Connecticut, and considered one of the top two or three colleges in the country.  Maybe some of my professors went there or can, at least, give me their opinion, he mused.  I’ll ask tomorrow.  He deliberately placed Jamie’s letter on top of the one from his father.  First things first: make the decision; then get Pa to agree to it.

* * * * *

Fortunately, Marie’s passion for a night of love proved as strong as Ben’s, and her anger quickly cooled with his first overtures in bed that night.  Afterwards, they lay entwined in each other’s arms, flesh against bare flesh, in mellow mood.  Ben tenderly kissed her responsive lips.  “Thank you,” he whispered.

“Mmm, my pleasure,” she murmured.  She rolled her head back on his arm and smiled with just a hint of mischief.  “Are you in a good mood now, mon mari?”

Ben stroked the line of her chin with his thumb.  “The best you could imagine, young lady, so if you have misdeeds to confess, now would be the time.”

Marie’s laugh tinkled softly in his ear.  “Not misdeeds, exactly, but I have committed you to something, and I hope I have not overstepped your wishes.”

Ben feigned a look of horror.  “Oh, my, that does sound dangerous!”

Marie slapped his chest with a flat palm.  “Be still and listen, you infuriating man.”

“Yes, ma’am, whatever you say, ma’am,” Ben replied with a maddening grin.  Then he chuckled.  “All right, out with it, what have you committed me to, my love?”

“Nothing so terrible as all that,” she chided, sounding a trifle peeved.  “Monsieur Maynard came to call again two nights ago, and he has invited us to a ball being held in Virginia City on Saturday night.  He was most insistent, and I thought it proper to accept, as he is a new business associate, whose good will you no doubt wish to cultivate.”

Ben smiled, again stroking her soft face.  “I’d have been glad of a chance to escort you to a ball, my love, with or without business interests at stake.”

“Good,” Marie said, snuggling into the curve of his arm.  “I think Hoss is old enough to watch over his little brother, with Hop Sing here in case of problems, don’t you?”

“Umm hmm,” Ben agreed, his hand sliding down her neck, and as it continued its descent, he bent over to trace with his lips the trail blazed by his fingers.

* * * * *

Ben pulled the buckboard to a stop in front of the frame building at the northeast corner of B and Union streets and looked askance at his wife.  “Are you absolutely certain you want to stay here?”

Marie dipped her chin demurely.  “Oui.  If the proprietor of the International Hotel is to be our host tonight, we should reward him with our business, non?”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “I’m sure that was his intent, but I don’t feel obligated to stay in an inferior hotel, just because someone holds a dance there.  Look at the place, Marie—nothing but whipsawed lumber!  You know you’d be more comfortable at the Virginia.”

Marie gave him a smile of concession.  “Oui, we both would, but if the owner is trying to expand his business, should we not encourage that?  After all, mon amour, he would then need to add more rooms, and that would mean a purchase of lumber and . . .”

Ben threw his head back and laughed.  “Is that what you’re doing, drumming up more business for me?  You schemer, you!”  Despite his teasing, he was secretly pleased with her interest in promoting his business affairs.  He jumped down from the wagon and came around the other side to help her down.  “Far be it from me to discourage a fellow entrepreneur, but let me warn you, my love, that the International Hotel is not likely to live up to its lofty name anytime soon.”

He took her arm and, together, they strolled between the wooden posts supporting the cover of the porch and through the narrow door into the lobby of the single-story hotel.  A bar stood on one side of the room, but Ben steered his wife to the opposite wall, where the clerk behind the counter presented him with the register to sign.

Taking their bag, Ben led the way down the hall.  Although he’d seen advertisements in the Territorial Enterprise boasting that the International could accommodate one hundred and fifty guests, he counted only twelve rooms.  He unlocked number seven, and his eyes swept the room as he entered.  It was smaller than the one in which they’d stayed at the VirginiaHotel, but otherwise the furnishings were comparable.  “Well, it shouldn’t be too bad for one night,” he conceded.

“Of course not,” Marie replied.  “Ben, I think we should eat a light supper as soon as possible, then come back here to change for the ball.  There is likely to be a midnight supper, but we will be famished by then.”

Ben took her hand and kissed it in continental fashion.  “Whatever you want, my love.  I’ll tend to the horses and we can leave as soon as I return.”

* * * * *

Marie looked into the small mirror above the washstand in room seven, holding a necklace of magnificent rubies in ornate gold settings around her neck.  “Ben, could you fasten this for me?” she called.

Ben finished buttoning his burgundy brocade waistcoat and stepped behind her, taking the two ends of the necklace in his hands.  “Someday I hope to give you jewels as rich as these,” he murmured as he hooked the clasp.

Marie turned and kissed his lips lightly.  “You have given me much more than these baubles from a man who wanted only to use me to entice men for his own profit.  They carry bad memories, but they do set off the gown well.”

“You set off the gown,” Ben said, his eyes scanning with approval how well she filled out the off-the-shoulder, rose-coral satin.  “This is my favorite, and you wear it so rarely.”

Marie smiled as she touched the bare flesh above the gold filigree braid edging the plunging neckline.  “There is little call for such attire here, but if it pleases you, I am glad I chose it tonight.”

“It pleases me,” Ben whispered, brushing his lips against her soft shoulder.  “I’ll be the envy of every man downstairs tonight.”

Marie laughed, her cheeks rosy at the compliment.  “Then put on your frock coat, Monsieur Cartwright, so we may give you that pleasure.”

As they left, another couple came out of room six.  “Bon jour,” Marie said pleasantly as she and Ben waited for the other couple to precede them. The other woman, dressed in a gray silk frock with leg-of-mutton sleeves and wide cuffs of white lace, nodded coolly and turned her back with almost abrupt haste.

“Well, evidently you’ll be the envy of every woman tonight, as well,” Ben whispered in his wife’s ear.

Marie glowered at him, breaking into tinkling laughter at the persistent twinkle in his eyes.  “You are très gauche,” she chided.  “I knew I should have made you study that dance manual more diligently.”

“Heaven forbid!” Ben cringed in mock horror.  Though he had skipped most of the sections on etiquette, the book which his wife had brought from New Orleans had been quite helpful in brushing up on some of the popular ballroom dance steps, as had her practice session with him, to the accompaniment of Hoss’s off-key humming, last night.  Not since his days of courting Elizabeth had he attended any gathering even approaching the formality of tonight’s affair.  With Inger, there had been nothing grander than a trailside square dance when they passed in proximity to another wagon train, and even the dances he and Marie had attended here in western Utah had been simple community affairs.

They went down the stairs to the basement, which housed the hotel kitchen and dining room.  The tables had been moved to one side, to make room for dancing, and Ben noted that they were covered with white tablecloths.  “Evidently, they’ve read the book,” Ben muttered, although he doubted that the International Hotel would be serving the tongue sandwiches or other fancy fare the dance manual had recommended for a late supper at a ball.

Ben was suddenly aware that most of the conversation in the room had died to a hush as they entered.  The men were openly staring at his wife.  Nothing surprising about that, of course.  Marie turned heads wherever she went, and she looked exquisite tonight, a vision of elegance the miners and businessmen of Virginia City had likely never seen before.  He was completely unaware of the approving glances the few women there sent his direction, but Marie saw them and smiled with pride.

“Marie!”  A rustle of taffeta rushed toward them, followed by a man rubbing the inside of his stiffly starched high collar.

“Oh, Eilley, how good to see you,” Marie cried as she touched cheeks with the plumpish Scotswoman.  “I haven’t seen you since those dreadful days at Ft.O’Riley.”

“I’ll thank you not to be reminding me of that horrid old stone hotel,” Eilley laughed.  “If I’d had to stay in that dark place one more day, I’d’ve been marching off after those Paiutes myself.  We have a nice two-story house in Gold Hill now—nearer to the mine, you know.”

Ben was shaking her husband Sandy’s hand.  “I understand that mine of yours is doing very well,” he commented.

“Yah, sure is,” Bowers returned jovially.  “Ten thousand dollars a month it’s bringin’ in.”

Eilley rapped the back of his hand with her fan; then she opened it to shield her face as she whispered conspiratorially to Marie, “Men!  No sense of appropriate conversation whatsoever.”

Marie clucked her tongue playfully in Ben’s direction.  “You are so correct.  I tried to interest Ben in the etiquette section of my dance manual, but—”

“Oh, do you have one?”  Eilley almost shrieked her excitement.  “I would so like to read it.”

“You may borrow it any time,” Marie said, ignoring the men, who were both rolling their eyes toward the ceiling.

As a trio of violins began to play a lively tune, Ben extended his hand to his wife.  “It would be a quadrille,” he moaned, “but I’d best stake my claim for a dance before the rest of the men come out of that stupor you’ve cast them in and start a new rush.”

“You’ll do fine,” Marie assured him as they joined a set of dancers for the lively series of steps she’d coached him on the night before.

True to Ben’s prediction, the men overcame their temporary shyness after the first dance, and only rarely did Ben partner with his own wife the rest of the evening.  In fact, most of the time, he found himself without a partner, for there were only twelve women present, and he felt foolish dancing with another man in a dress suit, although that was standard practice in a territory perennially short of female partners.  “The dance manual definitely wouldn’t approve,” he excused himself.

He spent the dances he sat out in polite conversation with other similarly deprived gentlemen, including James Maynard and Isaac Bateman, one of the proprietors of the International Hotel, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to avoid discussions on the one subject he wished above all others to avoid.  With the national election less than a month away, the thoughts of many were centered on political divisions.  When asked his opinion, Ben merely stated that he was more interested in the establishment of effective local government for western Utah.  That being a popular topic, as well, in most cases he successfully steered the conversation to safer ground.

“Take your places for the Virginia reel!”  The loud announcement made Ben spin quickly to see if his wife were close enough to snare for the traditional dance, one with which he felt immeasurably more confident than the quadrille.  Spotting her at the opposite side of the room, he immediately abandoned hope, but Eilley Bowers was just a few steps away, so Ben appropriated her from her heavily panting husband, who seemed grateful for a chance to sit out the set.  With Eilley on his arm, Ben moved to the end of the line of dancers.

Suddenly, another voice rang out.  “We don’t wanna dance no reel from the slave-holdin’ state of Virginny that’s threatenin’ to leave the Union when our man Lincoln is elected!” came the belligerent cry.  Southern sympathizers bellowed back in irate response, and northerners, with equal fervor and increasing volume, supported the sentiments of the man standing in front of the musicians.  The two factions began moving toward each other.

Ben rushed forward, waving his hands for their attention.  “Gentlemen, gentlemen,” he reproved.  “We’re here to dance, not to debate eastern issues that don’t affect us out here.”

“Who says they don’t?” demanded a man with a strong southern accent.

“Ain’t a Union man here will dance to that secesh Virginny reel,” cried the man to Ben’s left, who had started it all.  Loud shouts and pumping arms expressed the agreement of half the men in the room.

“Then let’s dance the Virginia City reel!” Ben shouted enthusiastically at the top of his lungs, thrusting both arms toward the ceiling for emphasis.

“That’s right,” yelled Eilley Orrum Bowers, who had followed her partner to the front of the room.  “We’ll just jump the claim of that eastern state and make the dance our own, and any man who refuses to dance the Virginia City reel won’t get another turn around the floor with me—or any other woman here.  Are you with me, ladies?”

“We’re with you!” shouted a local laundress with the brawn to make good any pronouncement she made.  The other ladies were too refined to make a verbal response, but all ten of them applauded their support of Eilley and the laundress.

The man who had originally opposed the dance caved quickly.  “All right, then, I’ll dance the Virginia City reel,” he announced, extending a hand toward Mrs. Bowers, “if this lady will do me the honor.”

Eilley shot an apologetic glance at Ben, and when he nodded, she smiled back at the other man and took his hand.  “My pleasure, sir.”  With a gaping grin, the man led her to the head of the line.

Marie, who had been slowly making her way to the front during the heated exchange, reached for Ben’s hand.  “Will you share this dance with me, monsieur?” she requested with a demure curtsey.

Ben took her hand, but as he escorted her into the second position in the line, he whispered in her ear, “The manual would not approve of a lady asking a gentleman to dance, you know.”

Marie giggled.  “No, nor does the dance manual give instructions on how to avoid a ballroom brawl.  You were inspired, mon mari.”

“By your grace and beauty, my love.”  He smiled suavely and bowed as the violins struck the first chords of the newly christened Virginia City reel.  As first one couple and then another sashayed through the steps of the reel, Ben congratulated himself on the quick thinking that had avoided a seemingly unavoidable altercation.

When the couple at the foot of the line made their final slide under the arched arms of the other dancers to conclude the dance, the southerner partnered with Eilley Bowers returned her to Ben and bowed to Marie.  “Would you do me the favor, ma’am?” he asked.  “Ain’t had a chance to dance with you all night.”

Mais oui,” Marie replied pleasantly, taking the hand he extended.

The man positively glowed.  “Yes, ma’am, we sure may.”

Marie laughed softly, but did not correct the man’s misinterpretation of what she’d actually said.

Ben smiled at Eilley.  “Well, it appears I’ll get to dance with my charming—and crafty—neighbor after all.”

Eilley beamed with pleasure at the compliment, but shook her head.  “I’m winded, Ben.  Could we take a cup of punch, instead?”

Ben hooked her arm through his elbow.  “As it happens, madam, I’m feeling winded myself.  By all means, let’s have a cup of punch.”

As Ben and Eilley headed for the refreshment table, the violins struck up the slower music of a waltz, giving the dancers more opportunity for conversation.  “You sure got a musical way of talkin’,” Marie’s partner commented after they had exchanged a few pleasantries.

“Ah, you mean my French accent,” Marie said with a smile.

“That where you’re from, ma’am, Paree, France?” the man asked.

“Oh, no,” Marie explained.  “I am of French ancestry, but born in New Orleans.”

The man dropped her hand as if her flesh had scorched his palm.  “New Orleans, Louisiana?” he snorted.  “That slave-holdin’ abomination!  No wonder your man was so quick to defend that secesh dance.  Got hisself a secesh wife!”

Monsieur, please,” Marie hissed.  “There is no need to bring politics into a social occasion.”

The man’s nostrils flared, and Marie almost visualized smoke pouring from them.  “And no need for me to stay in the company of a secesh hussy, neither,” he bellowed.

A man who had been on the verge of cutting in grasped the man’s shoulder.  “You dare insult a flower of Southern womanhood, sir?  Not while there is a Southern gentleman at hand to defend her honor!”  Marie’s self-appointed defender drew back his fist and slammed it into the nose of the man who had insulted her.  Couples dancing nearby broke apart as the men surrounded the brawlers, and several, overhearing the shouted accusations being exchanged, determined the fight was drawn along sectional lines and added their own voices and fists to the controversy.

Marie stepped back, horrified.  “Gentlemen, please,” she begged, but no one heeded her pleas.  Suddenly, Ben was at her side, pulling her away from the fray.  “Oh, Ben, stop them,” she implored.  “I cannot be the cause of this.”

“You aren’t,” Ben protested, but one look at her distraught face was enough to send him plunging into the mêlée.  At first he tried to pull the combatants apart, but soon found himself the target for a hail of fists from all directions, as the fighters lost track of which side each was on.  Men who had no idea what had started the fracas joined in for the sheer excitement of battle, and what had been a sectional conflict degenerated into an all-out brawl.

The women gravitated toward each other and stood in huddled horror, the bolder ones shouting at the men to stop.  Their voices went unheard above the general hubbub, as did that of the hotel’s two proprietors, pleading that the quarrel be taken outside to spare the china and crystal in process of being set out for the midnight supper.  Nothing stopped the men wrestling on the floor until the explosion of a pistol made everyone freeze in place.

“Are you fools?” demanded the man in the doorway.  “Didn’t you hear the disaster bell?”

Spotting Jim Maynard, the grim-faced miner bolted toward him.  “It’s a cave-in, Mr. Maynard—in the Ophir—seventeen men trapped.”

Differences forgotten, every man in the room rushed out behind the president of the Ophir Mining Company.  Whether they worked in that mine themselves or whether they even knew someone who did, they felt a communal interest in saving the lives of the trapped men.  The only men left in the room were the proprietors of the International Hotel, one of them holding the pieces of a broken platter in his hands.  “A disaster, a total disaster,” Andrew Paul moaned, and he wasn’t referring to the cave-in at the mine.

“Indeed!” declared the woman in gray silk as she shot a disdainful look at Marie.  “Do you take pleasure in inciting men to fight over you, ma’am?  Is it as exciting as enticing men for profit?”

Marie gasped, suddenly understanding the scorn she’d seen in the woman’s eyes when they met in the hall.  Obviously, her private conversation with Ben had carried through the paper-thin walls separating their rooms.  “No, you have misunderstood,” she began.

“Oh, I think not!” the woman asserted with an arrogant lift of her chin.  “Your attire reveals your intent quite clearly.”  She slowly lowered her gaze to Marie’s deep décolletage.

Marie’s cheeks flamed with embarrassment and outrage.  She started to protest her innocence, but seeing the haughty expressions of every woman except Eilley Bowers, she knew the titillating gossip had already been spread—and believed.  Furious, she drew back her hand and slapped the other woman across the cheek.  “How dare you?” she demanded hotly.

Hands flew to the faces of the other women, and this time even Eilley looked shocked by the breach of conduct.  Andrew Paul flew between Marie and the woman in gray.  “Ladies, please—the china,” he pleaded.

“Oh, bother your precious china!” Eilley snorted.  “Nothing’s going to happen to it.  Now, I suggest we use our energy to better purpose than quarreling, ladies.  Those men digging out the trapped miners are going to be exhausted and starving by the time the job is done, and there will be wives and mothers at the mine entrance, waiting for word of their loved ones.  Let’s package up this fine supper our hosts have prepared, if they agree, and take it down to the Ophir!”

“Yes, yes, anything that will help,” Paul babbled and his partner concurred.  Though inwardly bemoaning the waste of refreshments intended to demonstrate the quality of fare at their hotel, they viewed Eilley’s plan as the best way to prevent further destruction of their property.  Besides, both recognized the woman making it as the wife of a wealthy mine owner, just the type of clientele to which they wished to cater, and for the sake of future business, would have acquiesced to any suggestion she made.

“An excellent proposal,” the woman in gray announced, “just what one would expect from a refined lady, such as yourself.”  As the other women moved toward the kitchen to lend their aid to the project, she turned a haughty gaze on Marie.  “We won’t require your help; the men aren’t in need of your particular services tonight.”

Marie felt a sudden urge to jerk the woman’s teeth from her mouth, but for the sake of the other women and the work they had to do, she controlled herself and, still seething, drew herself to her full, though petite, height and strode briskly from the room.  Climbing the stairs, she headed first for her room.  Then, remembering that Ben had their key, she went to the desk clerk and demanded he unlock the door for her.  Taking only her cloak from the room, she immediately left the hotel and walked toward the mine.  Though her help was evidently not welcome, she also had a man in that mine tonight, and she would not allow any woman’s scorn or any amount of gossip to keep her from being at the mouth of that mine when Ben emerged.

The hours passed slowly and anxiously for every woman with a man below ground, and as the ebony of night gave way to the gray haze of pre-dawn, Marie grew increasingly concerned.  She was shivering from cold and aching from hunger, for pride had kept her from eating any of the food brought by the women who had disdained her help in preparing it.  She had offered what words of comfort she could to the other women with loved ones in the mine, but even to her ears the words sounded hollow, without force of conviction.

The crowd of onlookers gradually drifted away, leaving only those with personal concern for those below ground.  The hours gave Marie ample opportunity to think about everything that had happened that night, and her sense of shame grew with the passing minutes.  What that insufferable woman in room six believed about her was untrue, at least in the sense it had been meant.  Marie could not, however, help looking back on her past through the eyes of those women of Virginia City.  Was the truth so much more virtuous than the lie?

She had been young and foolish when she allowed her cousin Edward to use her beauty to attract men to his gambling salon, where they were encouraged to risk beyond their means, but she had known it was happening and never once questioned the morality of her participation.  Now she feared the foolishness of her youth would destroy her reputation, and while she cared little for her own sake, having endured such scorn before, she dreaded it for that of her husband and their sons.  “And I had hoped to be such a help to him,” she moaned, hiding her face in her hands.  She had seen herself using her charm to attract new business for her husband, but was that so different from what she had done for Edward?  She closed her eyes and her mind to the disturbing question.

Still the minutes dragged past, and it was a short journey from regretting how her past might affect Ben’s future to dreading a future without him.  How would she raise his sons?  How could she fulfill his vision for the Ponderosa?  Impossible without him, impossible even to imagine life without him.  Shame gave way to anger at the man who had needlessly risked their future by recklessly racing into the bowels of the earth.  That, at least, was a gamble she had played no part in encouraging!

When the hoisting bell rang, the women rushed forward, each desiring to see one particular face.  Glad cries greeted each man who surfaced, and those with wives or mothers were immediately engulfed in embraces almost strong enough to choke them.  As face after face appeared, without revealing the one she most longed to see, Marie bit down on the knuckles of her right hand.

Two final faces eventually emerged, black with grime, sweat paving paths down their cheeks, but Marie recognized the features she loved beneath the dirt and ran to throw her arms around her man.  The mine owner, who had come out last with Ben at his side, moved quickly toward two women still waiting, and as he did, the hope died in their eyes.

Marie pulled back from the embrace and pounded Ben’s chest with her fists.  “How could you?” she demanded, unleashing her pent-up emotions.  “You could have been killed!”

Momentarily taken aback, Ben stared at her fierce countenance.  “Marie, I had to,” he protested.  “There were lives at stake.”

“Your life,” she fumed.  “Your life was at stake.  I am so angry with you!”  Bursting into tears, she fell against his chest.  “Oh, Ben!”

Ben’s arms tightened around her.  “My love,” he whispered.  “It’s all over now, and I’m fine, Marie.”  He felt her head move up and down against his chest, and as she sobbed out her fear and frustration, he simply held her.  “It’s all right, my love,” he whispered over and over, stroking her straggling hair with his blackened hands.

Growing quiet, Marie pulled back and looked inquiringly into Ben’s face, although she was certain she already knew the answer to her unspoken question.

Ben took her face in his hand.  “We saved all but two,” he croaked hoarsely, dust clogging his throat.  “That’s considered a light loss in a situation like this, I understand.”

“But scarcely light to those who suffer it,” Marie murmured with a sympathetic glance at the stricken women.  Only moments before she had feared what they now faced, and the memory intensified her empathy.

“No.”  Ben took her face in his hands and gazed at her reproachfully.  “Have you been out here in this cold air all night?”

“Where else would I be?” she asked softly.

Ben tenderly kissed her forehead, leaving behind a soiled imprint of his lips.  “You make me so proud.”

“Oh, Ben,” she sighed, fearing his opinion would change when she told him all that had transpired after he left the ballroom.  Now was not the time, however.  Ben was exhausted and probably hungry, and none of the food brought from the party remained.  “You must be starving,” she whispered.  “Shall we get some breakfast?”

Ben chuckled.  “Let’s clean up a bit first, shall we?”

Marie smiled softly as she looked down at the stains his embrace had left on her gown.  “Oui, I think we both need a bit of cleaning.”  Slipping her arm into his, she turned toward the International Hotel.

An hour or so later, the freshly scrubbed Mr. and Mrs. Cartwright were seated, at Marie’s suggestion, at a table in Barnum’s Restaurant.  Though she had not yet shared anything with Ben, she had no desire to encounter in the hotel dining room any of the women who had witnessed her disgrace the night before.

Halfway through a tasty meal of antelope steak and eggs, the president of Ophir Mining came in.  Spotting Ben, he made his way to their table.  “I’m glad I ran into you, Cartwright.  I wanted to say again how much I appreciated your help last night.”

Ben stood to shake his hand.  “Not necessary, I assure you.  Won’t you join us?”

“Why, thank you, I will,” Maynard said.  Eyeing Ben’s platter with interest, he ordered the same thing.

Marie, who had almost finished her smaller plate of ham and eggs, laid her fork down and leaned toward the man at her left.  “Do accidents such as the one last night happen often, Monsieur Maynard?”

“Far too often, ma’am,” the mine president admitted sadly.  “As your husband had a chance to see last night, we have a unique engineering problem in the mines here on the Comstock, unlike any encountered before.  You see, the deeper we go, the wider the silver veins become, and the harder it is to provide adequate shoring for the roof of the tunnels.”

“Surely, there must be a solution,” Marie observed.

Maynard nodded firmly.  “There must be, and I’m going to see to it that solution is found as soon as possible.  One of the partners in the Ophir has been talking to an engineer in California named Deidesheimer, and I intend to send a wire this morning asking that he be sent here right away.”

“And you think this man can find the solution?” Ben queried, cutting another slice of his antelope steak.

Maynard shrugged.  “He studied at the Freiburg School of Mines in Germany, the finest in the world.  If there is a solution, he seems like the best candidate for finding it.”

“Let us pray that he shall,” Marie whispered earnestly, remembering the drawn faces of the women with whom she had shared so many anxious hours the night before.

“Amen to that, ma’am,” Maynard agreed firmly.  “Amen to that.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Notes

While there was an Ophir mine on the Comstock, its president in this chapter, James Maynard, is a fictional character.

The description of this first of three incarnations of the International Hotel and the names of the proprietors come from Elegance on C Street by Richard C. Datin.  A dance, with twelve ladies in attendance and music by violins, was held there in October, 1860.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Darkening Clouds

            Seeing Mt.Davidson looming ahead, Ben reached for the reins of the draft team.  “Better let me take them now, son.”

Hoss, whose wide grin had seemed to cover half his face as he handled the lines, looked suddenly crestfallen.  “Why, Pa?  Ain’t I doin’ a good job?”  Today was the first time Pa had let him handle the new team, and he was relishing the grown-up feeling it gave him.

Ben clapped the boy heartily on the back.  “You’re doing a wonderful job, Hoss, but the grade gets pretty steep up ahead, and you don’t have the experience to handle a load this heavy on that kind of ground.”

“Oh, okay.”  With only slight reluctance, Hoss turned the reins over to his father.  Proud as he’d been to drive that wagon full of timber across WashoeValley, he knew his father was right.  Going up and down hills was a whole heap different from guiding a team over flat ground.  “Someday I’ll be good enough, though, right, Pa?”

“Right,” Ben said, beaming a proud smile toward his boy.  “You still have some growing to do before you’re strong enough to control a team if it tries to run on you, but you’ll get there sooner than most.”

Hoss laughed.  “‘Cause I’m so big, you mean!”

Ben shook his head.  “No, you’re a strong, sturdy boy, but size isn’t enough.  It takes skill with animals, too, and that’s a trait I think you were born with, Hoss.  Probably get it from your mother.  She was always good with the stock.  Why, I remember when Jonathan Payne’s new colt was born on the trail, he wouldn’t let anyone but your mother near his special mare.”

“What made her special, Pa?” Hoss asked with interest, and Ben launched into the tale, sharing with his son another cherished memory of the boy’s mother.

It was often the way they passed the miles on trips to Virginia City, at least when it was just the two of them, as it had been with every delivery of timber Ben had made to the Ophir mine.  Three weeks had passed since the night he and Marie had attended the ball, and only once had she been willing to go into town with him.  After early mass the next morning, they had left at once, Marie insisting that she preferred a late lunch at home to another meal in town.  Not until they reached the valley that he and Hoss were now leaving had she told him why she was so anxious to put Virginia City behind her.

Ben had been furious, not at her, but at those who had cast aspersions on her character.  Yet, though he had assured her that she had no cause for shame or embarrassment and shouldn’t let the foolishness of a few gossips influence her, she refused to return, other than once, driving in early last Sunday to attend church and leaving immediately afterwards.  Ben had spent that morning wondering why God would bless him with a wife as stubborn and sensitive as Marie without also granting him the wisdom to deal with her.

He hadn’t really had much time to think about her problems, however, for the last three weeks had been unusually busy ones.  He’d had to set up a new lumber camp, acquaint the new men with his conservative timber policies, fire one man who wouldn’t follow orders and another who’d gotten drunk on the job, all in addition to preparing the herd and his home for the winter months just ahead.  Many a night he’d come in late, eating a warmed-over dinner to a cacophony of cantankerous Cantonese blasting in his weary ears.

“Pa, you ever gonna let Little Joe come along?”

Hoss’s question interrupted Ben’s reverie and made him laugh.  “Not unless your mother comes, too, son,” he chuckled.  “I am not going to try to manage that feisty bundle of untamed energy and a freight wagon at the same time!”

“Aw, I could handle him, Pa,” Hoss argued.

Ben put his head back and let loose a throaty chortle.  “You can’t miss your brother that much!  I would think you’d welcome a day without him tagging after you.”

Hoss shrugged.  “Yeah, I do, but I sure hate to hear him cry.”

Ben also remembered his youngest son’s tear-streaked face when, once again, Little Joe had been denied permission to ride to town on the fascinating freight wagon.  As his hands were occupied with the reins, Ben leaned over to touch his dark head to Hoss’s light-haired one.  “You have a tender heart, son; that’s like your mother, too.”

Pulling into Virginia City, Ben turned the wagon downhill toward the Ophir Mine.  He left the wagon at the appointed place, where employees of the mine would unload it, a provision of the contract Ben had felt necessary, in view of his almost constant shortage of available workers.  As he and Hoss entered the Ophir office to receive a receipt for delivery of the shipment, James Maynard rose from behind his desk to greet Ben.  “There’s someone I want you to meet,” the mine president said.

One hand resting on Hoss’s shoulder, Ben followed the man back to his desk.  Another man, sporting a short, slightly pointed beard, stood as introductions were made.  “Ben, I’d like you to meet Philip Deidesheimer, the German engineer I mentioned a few weeks back,” Maynard said.  “Philip, this is Ben Cartwright, owner of the finest stand of timber this side of the Sierras.”

“Ah, the man who is going solve your shoring problems,” Ben said, grasping the engineer’s hand warmly.

“Ah, and you hope that solution will enable you to sell more timber,” Deidesheimer returned, a twinkle in his eye.

Ben smiled, but answered seriously.  “I hope your solution will save lives, Herr Deidesheimer, regardless of profit.”

While Deidesheimer looked surprised and flattered by the use of the proper German title, his eyes shone with respect as he commented, “I, too, am more interested in lives than in profit.”  Ben felt an instant liking for the man.

“Your arrival is quite timely,” Maynard told Ben.  “We were just about to walk up to the Sazerac.  You’ll join us?”

“My pleasure, sir,” Ben agreed at once.

The three men, with Hoss tagging in their wake the way his little brother usually tagged in his, walked up the hill to the C Street saloon.  Just as they were about to enter, a body came hurtling through the swinging doors.  “Trouble, Tom?” Maynard asked the strapping man who had just tossed the other into the street.

“Just a fool with no more sense than to insult Abe Lincoln to my face—and in my own place, too!” the saloon owner said, dusting his hands.  He held the door wide.  “Come on in, Mr. Maynard.  I know you wouldn’t bring any secesh riffraff with you.”

“Staunch Union man,” Maynard whispered aside to Ben.

“So I see,” Ben observed with an arched eyebrow.  He took an anxious look at Hoss, not wanting him to be caught up in a political “discussion” of the type becoming more and more prevalent in Virginia City.  Not that he could avoid that by staying outside, Ben sighed inwardly.  The political friction in town seemed hotter every time he came.  The election had taken place four days ago, but no one out here knew the results, as yet, so the quarrels just kept escalating.

Maynard led them to a round green table, ordering three whiskeys “and a sarsaparilla for the boy,” but Ben said he would prefer a cold beer.  The drinks were brought to their table by the saloon owner, a tall, powerfully built man several years younger than Ben.  “Good man, Tom Peasley,” Maynard told the others.  “Doesn’t hold with watering down the whiskey.”

Ben laughed.  “I’ve heard that in Virginia City it’s more a case of whiskeying down the water!”

Maynard guffawed loudly.  “The water’s bad here, all right,” he explained to Deidesheimer.  “You just about have to dilute it with whiskey to make it tolerable.  Just another problem to be solved.”

“And what of the problem that brought you here, Herr Deidesheimer?”  Ben inquired.  “Have you come to any conclusions as yet?”

“I only arrived yesterday and had my first look at the mine this morning,” Deidesheimer replied.  “No, I am afraid I am not such a genius that I have fathomed the solution so quickly.”

“Pa, could I look at the store next door?” Hoss asked when he finished his drink.

“Yes, but only there,” Ben said, realizing that the conversation must be boring to his young son.  Too bad that other son of mine isn’t here, he thought.  Adam would thrive on conversation with a man like Deidesheimer.  And how I’d thrive on a glimpse of his face!

“Gentlemen, as much as I’m enjoying the company and the conversation,” Ben said after a lengthy discussion of mining and other problems facing Virginia City, “it’s a long drive home.  I’ll have to push to get there in time for supper, as it is.”

“Wouldn’t want to deprive you of that!” Maynard exclaimed exuberantly.  “I tell you, Deidesheimer, a meal at the Ponderosa is not to be missed.”

“I hope you’ll favor us with a visit and see for yourself,” Ben said graciously as he shook the German engineer’s hand.

“It would be my pleasure, Mr. Cartwright,” the man replied suavely.

Ben walked into the adjoining mercantile, where he found Hoss studiously examining the jars of candy.  “What’s it to be this week, son?” he asked, laying a hand on the boy’s shoulder.

Hoss grinned up at his father.  “I’d favor some of them lemon sours this time, Pa, but could we get a few gumdrops for Little Joe?  He likes soft candy better than hard.”

“Sure,” Ben agreed readily and told the clerk how much he wanted of each variety.  “A dime’s worth of peppermints, as well,” he added.

“For you or Ma?” Hoss snickered, knowing both his parents liked that type.

“We’ll share,” Ben chuckled.  After selecting a few more items that Marie had requested, he headed down the street toward the new offices of the Territorial Enterprise.  “I want to get a paper,” he explained to Hoss.

“Always do,” Hoss said, popping a lemon sour into his mouth.

Reaching the newspaper office involved another climb, this time up two streets to the corner of A and Sutton.  Entering the rickety, one-story frame headquarters, Ben greeted the editor in residence by name.  “Any idea when election results will come in, Mr. Williams?” he inquired as he took a paper from a stack near the door.

Jonathan Williams, one of the two men whose names appeared on the masthead of the Enterprise, shook his head.  “Can’t tell you how many times I’ve answered that today,” he moaned.  “Pony Express is making an extra effort for the election run, but no news expected ‘til the twelfth, and the whole town’s on edge, wanting to know if it’s war or peace.”

“The whole territory,” Ben corrected soberly.  He decided right then that he would be in Virginia City on the twelfth, even though that was only two days away and he would scarcely have any real need of returning that soon.  No need except learning the fate of the nation, he told himself.  If that’s not a reason for putting off chores, I don’t know what is!

* * * * *

Ben dabbed a wet cloth to his puffy lip and winced, both at the pain and at his swollen reflection in the mirror in his room at the Virginia Hotel.  He realized with chagrin that the fight that had blackened his eye and bloodied his lip could have been avoided entirely had he stayed at the International, instead.  Yet, living in the country as he did, how could he have been expected to know that, among residents of Virginia City, the Virginia Hotel was known as a hotbed of secessionist activity?  He had no more than mentioned where he was staying to a man in a bar where he’d gone for an after-supper drink before the man shouted out accusations that Ben was “secesh through and through” and expressed his opposite viewpoint by plowing a fist into Ben’s nose.

Ben had assured Marie that he would not allow himself to be caught up in any of the sectional turmoil raging in the streets, but he had just effectively proven that the only way to do that was to stay off the street.  However prudent that policy might have been, the main street of Virginia City drew him like a magnet, for, like every other man in town, he was desperate to hear the election results the minute the pony rider came in.  Besides, it just plain went against his grain to hide in a hotel room.  After cleaning his cuts Ben walked down to C Street again, steering clear of the saloons, where whiskey and political differences made a belligerent combination.  Along with hundreds of other men, he simply milled the streets until long past midnight, when exhaustion drove him back to the hotel.

Assuming the pony rider might be late, he had warned Marie not to expect him that night.  In fact, he had told her that it might be a couple of days before he came home, depending on how long it took the news to arrive.  Marie clearly hadn’t been happy about his extended absence, but she hadn’t lodged any real objection, either.  Probably as anxious to know as I am, Ben realized.  Finally, the noise on the streets died down and Ben drifted into an uneasy sleep.

Surprised at how brightly the sun was shining, Ben pulled the covers back the next morning and stumbled toward the window.  Though the street below was fairly quiet, it was an ominous quiet, like the lull before a storm.  Ben shaved and dressed and, disdaining to eat in the hotel dining room, walked to Barnum’s Restaurant for breakfast.  He’d had his fill at dinner the night before of listening to men advocate states’ rights and secession.

The talk at Barnum’s was all about the election, too, but at least there both sides were represented.  One side argued that the election of Abraham Lincoln would lead to immediate war; the other advocated, just as strongly, that to elect the Democratic candidate, Breckinridge, would mean slaves on Sun Mountain and the notorious Judge David Terry of California as governor of Washoe.  Two other men were running for president, as well, but since no one thought either Douglas or Bell had a chance, there wasn’t much talk about them.  Ben shook his head ruefully.  Probably be better off in a place that did take just one side, but then they’d insist I declare my allegiance, one way or the other.

After an uneventful and solitary breakfast Ben went back to roaming the streets, chiding himself for the foolishness of that behavior.  Work piling up at home and here I am, wasting precious hours.  With a wry grin he conceded that he was only wasting his time with thoughts like that, as well, for he felt an absolute compulsion to stay right where he was, and judging by the number of people on the street, that made him pretty normal.

All day Ben waited, and still the pony rider did not come.  He perused every business in the burgeoning town thrice over and even wandered down to the Ophir to watch the mine’s operation, just to pass the hours.  But fascinating as that exploration was, he couldn’t for long stay away from C Street.  He had to be there to hear the first clatter of hooves that heralded the announcement of the news every ear strained to hear.

Night fell, and still the pony rider did not come.  Ben grew weary, but felt too tense to sleep, and, evidently, his insomnia was shared by the hundreds thronging the streets, even at midnight.  Another hour slipped past and then another, and still Ben could not persuade himself to give up and go to the hotel.  There was a sense of expectancy on the street; everyone felt sure that the news would come before morning, and everyone wanted to hear it as soon as it did.

It was 2:30 on the morning of November 14th when hooves finally thundered down C Street.  They didn’t belong to the official Pony Express rider.  That man had continued on the regular route, but another man had been stationed at Ft. Churchill to bring the news to Virginia City the minute the Pony rider came in.  As he charged into town, the rider flapped his hat, yelling the same words he’d heard Pony Bob scream as he entered Ft. Churchill: “Lincoln’s elected!”

Guns were fired, and both shouts of victory and explosive curses filled the air.  Ben participated in neither.  Leaving C Street as quickly as he could, considering the press of bodies, he climbed up to B and Sutton and mounted the stairs to his room, sad at heart.  Though he had tried to remain neutral, he had to admit that he considered Abraham Lincoln the best man running for the office, but he could scarcely count the man’s election a victory when he knew, to almost certainty, that it meant war.

* * * * *

Having not fallen asleep until past three o’clock, Ben was late to rise the next morning.  Anxious as he was to get back to the Ponderosa and his family, he dallied over his grooming.  Not much up to a day’s work today, anyway, he justified.  As he didn’t want Marie to worry, however, he planned to eat an early lunch, in lieu of having breakfast at all, and head for home.

He went out briefly, for a copy of the extra put out by the Territorial Enterprise, and read the full report of the election returns.  Lincoln’s one hundred and eighty electoral votes had easily outstripped the seventy-two gained by Breckinridge, and he had led in the popular vote, as well, by almost five hundred thousand votes.  As expected, Bell with thirty-nine electoral votes and Douglas with only twelve hadn’t figured into the picture at all.

Ben was still perusing the editorial comments on the election when a knock came at the door.  Responding to it, he accepted the folded note the messenger extended and opened it at once.

 

Mr. Benjamin Cartwright, Esq.

Dear Sir:

I am in hopes that this message will reach you prior to your departure this morning.  Please come by the offices of Ophir Mining Company at your earliest convenience.  New developments require renegotiation of your contract.

James Maynard,

President

 

Ben frowned, wondering what could possibly have affected his contract so soon after its signing.  Someone offering timber at a lower price?  No, it couldn’t be that.  Ben knew he’d offered a fair price and thought it unlikely anyone would charge less.  Better not be trying to get out of our deal, not after all the money I’ve laid out for new equipment and hands.  After all, a contract is a contract!  With a sigh he put on his hat and gathered his belongings to check out of the hotel, not relishing the delay in getting home that the business conference was likely to entail.  I’m going home tonight, he decided, if I have to ride out of here at midnight!

Carrying his bag down the hill to the Ophir did nothing to improve Ben’s mood, and by the time he reached the mine office, lack of sleep, political tension and financial anxiety had combined to put his temper on short fuse.  “What’s this about, Maynard?” he demanded, dropping the carpetbag on the floor with a loud clunk.  “I thought we had a solid contract.”

Maynard froze, his extended hand hanging in mid-air.  “Why, we do, of course, Mr. Cartwright.  I—I believe you’ve misunderstood my message, sir.”

“‘New developments require renegotiation of your contract,’ your message read, sir,” Ben asserted, still ignoring the outstretched hand.

Philip Deidesheimer rose from behind the mine president’s desk.  “But Mr. Cartwright, this is good news!” he cried.  “I have found the answer.”

Ben gave him a blank look.  “The answer?”  His sleep-deprived wits slowly caught up with what the man meant.  “Oh, the shoring problem, you mean.  I’m pleased to hear that, of course, but why would that affect my contract?”

“In my excitement I’ve handled this poorly,” James Maynard said.  “Please, Mr. Cartwright—Ben—have a seat and let me explain myself better.”

Already embarrassed by his display of ill temper toward a man who had shown him only generosity and good will thus far in their relationship, Ben took the chair toward which the businessman gestured.

“Perhaps I should begin?” Deidesheimer suggested.

“Yes, do that,” the flustered Maynard agreed readily.  “Once Ben hears what you propose, I’m sure he’ll understand why I need more of his timber.”

“More?” Ben babbled.  “You’re not trying to cancel the contract?”

“Heavens, no!” Maynard exclaimed.  “Is that what you thought?  I assure you, my dear friend, this new proposal of Philip’s will take every board-foot you’re willing to sell this mine!”

Feeling more relaxed, Ben turned with interest toward the German engineer.  “I take it your solution involves additional shoring in the tunnels?”

Philip Deidesheimer smiled.  “Not just more shoring, Mr. Cartwright—an entirely new concept.  It came to me as I was resting outside the mine entrance.  A bee flew past my nose and, like that”—he struck his forehead with his palm—”I knew.”

Ben stared at the enthusiastic engineer, unable to decide whether the man were simply drunk or positively pixilated.  “A bee showed you how to shore up the mine?”

His face earnest, Deidesheimer leaned forward.  “Precisely!  As if the creature were a messenger from God.”

Maynard laughed heartily.  “Ben, you look exactly the way I must have when Philip shared this idea with me this morning.  Show him the drawings, you crazed engineer, or he’ll never see what you mean.”

Philip Deidesheimer quickly apologized and indicated a set of drawings spread on the mine president’s desk.  “You see, it is a new system of shoring, based on the honeycomb principle—a series of interlocking square sets to equalize pressure from all sides.”

“I see,” Ben said, and the drawings were so clear that he really did understand the principle almost at once.  “It does look like a honeycomb.”

“Yes,” Deidesheimer declared, his hand sweeping with a flourish over the drawings, “and like a honeycomb, new cells can be added in any direction as the need arises.”

“As you can see, though, Ben, this new system of shoring uses far more timber than our old method,” Maynard put in, “and that’s where you come in.  You’ve just got to agree to sell me more timber.”

“I don’t see how I can,” Ben protested.

“But think of the savings in lives, Mr. Cartwright!” Deidesheimer cried.  “How can you refuse?”

Ben spread his hands helplessly.  “You don’t understand.  Certainly, I favor anything that would save lives, but I don’t have the men and equipment to take on a larger contract.  I’m barely able to keep up with the delivery schedule as it is.”

“I’m willing to advance the monies needed for more men and equipment,” Maynard insisted.

Ben considered the offer, but then he shook his head.  “You know my views on careful cutting, Mr. Maynard.”

Maynard brushed the concern aside.  “All the more reason to take the lead in this venture, Ben.  If I—and other mine owners, too, once they learn of this new system—can’t get the timber we need from you, we’ll turn to your neighbors, anyone with a patch of forestland to sell in the Sierras.  Do you think they’ll follow your conservative policies?  And if they don’t, how would that affect your own property?”

Ben’s face grew grim.  The answer to Maynard’s questions was all too obvious.  Men interested only in profit would denude the eastern slopes of the range, destroying the watershed in thoughtless pursuit of wealth and power.  To preserve the Ponderosa, he genuinely needed to expand his infant timber enterprise, but to do so meant overextending himself, and the financial risks of that were daunting.  “I see the validity of your point, but I can’t give you an immediate answer,” he said quietly.  “I need to go home, discuss the matter with my wife and see if it is even possible for me to obtain the men and equipment I would need.  If I find I’m able to accede to your wishes, I’ll return within the week to negotiate a new contract.”

James Maynard beamed.  “Capital!  I’ll expect to hear from you within the week with a favorable response.”  He extended his hand, and this time Ben shook it warmly.

* * * * *

As Marie edged her strawberry roan out of the shelter of the pines lining the foothills and moved into the valley, she finally admitted to herself the real reason she was taking this late afternoon ride.  She’d told herself it was just for relaxation, but she knew better now.  Mere relaxation wouldn’t have brought her all the way to WashoeValley, not at this time of day.  Normally, about now, she would have been awaiting the return of her son Hoss from school, seeing to it that cookies and milk were waiting for him on the table.  Well, Hop Sing could tend to Hoss’s appetite as easily as she; worry over another wayward “boy” filled all her attention today.  Three days Ben had been gone now, and not a word!  While she understood his concern about the election and even shared it, she felt a more personal apprehension for his safety, especially after all his talk of the volatile political situation in Virginia City.

“Mama, go fast!” a small voice begged.

Marie leaned forward to kiss her baby’s golden-brown curls.  Lying to herself about her real intent had left her no reason to refuse his puckered-lip pleas to go with her, but now giving in to that demand meant she would be unable to ride into Virginia City after her husband.  It would be much too long a trip for a three-year-old.  Not that I’m dressed for town, anyway, she admitted with a glance down at the divided skirt her friend Laura Ellis had constructed for her after seeing the spirited new horse.  “Can’t have you riding that one side-saddle,” Laura had laughed, and Marie had smiled her gratitude at the freedom of movement the garment gave her when she tried it on.

“Mama, please,” Little Joe whined, that pathetic pucker once again forming on his lips.  “Go fast!”

Marie tittered.  “Oui, mon petit Napoleon.  What a dictator you have become!  Mamá will have to break you of that—someday.”  As she let the horse have his head, however, she wondered if that “someday” would ever come.  It was easy, far too easy, for her to give in to the slightest frown of this adored child.  I spoil him, as Ben says, she admitted; then she laughed as the wind whipped her loose hair about her shoulders in unfettered freedom.  Ah, but how can I say no to him when he only asks what I want for myself!  She looked down into his small face, as he sat perched before her in the saddle, and her glowing smile reflected the rapture she saw in his eyes.

Little Joe chortled with glee as the big roan galloped across the rolling valley.  Like his mother, he loved to feel the wind rushing over his face and blowing the hair off his forehead.  “Faster, Mama, faster!” he screamed.

“No, mon petit,” his mother laughed.  “This is fast enough for one your size, I think, but what a horseman you will be!”

Recognizing the rider coming down the road toward her, Marie slowed the roan to a trot and continued toward him.  Ben scowled at her as they met and each pulled to a stop.  “No need to act so innocent, young lady,” he scolded.  “I saw that wild gallop you were doing.”

“Pa!” Little Joe cried before his mother had opportunity to answer.  He stretched his arms toward his father, and Ben couldn’t resist taking the child into his arms.  “Pa, we ride fast!” the toddler announced happily.

“Yes, I know,” Ben said as he settled the boy into the saddle before him.  “Honestly, Marie, how could you?” he chided.

“How could you?” Marie retorted, feeling a forceful offense was her best defense.  “Three days I have waited and worried about you.”

“You knew where I was,” Ben argued, “and you knew why I was there.”

“Three days, Ben!” she charged angrily.

Ben lifted his left hand in a calming gesture, while the right circled around the waist of his youngest son.  “All right.  I admit I’m later than I expected to be, but there’s a reason for that, and it’s something we need to talk over.”

Marie moved her horse to the side of Ben’s, and they started toward home at a leisurely pace.  “Who is the president?” she asked casually, although her interest was keen.

“It’s Lincoln,” Ben said gravely.

Her eyes shimmered with concern.  “Is it war, then?”

“I pray not,” Ben whispered.  “I pray not.”

“Go fast, Pa,” Little Joe demanded.

“Not on your life!” Ben chuckled.  “Someone has to teach you safe horsemanship, and it is obviously not going to be your mother.”

“I was not riding that fast,” Marie insisted.

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “You were.”

“I am a good rider; I know how to handle myself.”

“Yes, but”—he broke off, not wanting to argue when there were more important matters to discuss.  “We need to talk, Marie,” he said bluntly.

Anxiety flew into her eyes.  “Trouble?” she asked.

“No, no,” he quickly assured her, and as he began to explain about the business challenge that had been presented to him that forenoon, both his horse and Marie’s slowed to a walk.

After one final, fruitless plea for Pa to ride fast, Little Joe sulked in silence the rest of the way home, resolving that when he got big, he would ride just like Mama, no matter what Pa said.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Notes

As is often the case, historical sources differ on the exact date of Philip Deidesheimer’s development of square sets.  Some cite November 14, 1860, the date used here, while others place the event two weeks later.  Most, if not all, historians, however, agree that the new method changed the shoring of mines worldwide.

Tom Peasley, owner of the Sazerac Saloon, is a historical character, a staunch supporter of Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 election.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Turkey Trail

            “You sure been to town a lot lately, huh, Pa?” Hoss asked with a grin as he perched beside his father on the freight wagon the next Saturday.

Tousling the boy’s straight, sandy hair, Ben laughed.  “Hoss, I sure have—and not home much of the time I wasn’t in town!”

“Yeah, I been missin’ you, Pa.”

Ben’s hand slid down to rest for a moment on his son’s broad neck.  “I’ve missed you, too, son, and I’m mighty glad to have you with me today.”  Although he made excuses to Marie that he needed Hoss’s help with the team, in his own heart Ben knew that simple desire for time alone with his boy was the real reason he tried to make his timber deliveries on Saturdays.  He had a feeling Marie knew that, too, though she never indicated her suspicions by word or facial expression.

“Can I drive the team again, Pa?” Hoss queried, his blue eyes alight with longing.

“When we get to the valley,” Ben promised.

Satisfied, Hoss settled back, watching his father’s driving technique carefully as they wound their way down out of the hill country.  Someday, Pa had promised, he could drive the team in the mountains, as well as the flatlands, and Hoss wanted to be ready for that day.

As soon as he reached the flatlands, Ben kept his promise and handed the reins to Hoss.  Then he eased back and let his mind drift, smiling as he relished a luxury he hadn’t had much time for the last half week.  Only three days had elapsed since his previous visit to Virginia City, but each had been packed.  The first evening had been spent in earnest discussion with Marie as the two of them tried to determine what risks they were willing to take.  At first, Marie had insisted that the decision was his alone, but he had just as adamantly affirmed that he considered her his partner in business, as well as in life, and valued her opinions above all others.  “It’s a lesson I learned a long time ago—with Elizabeth, and Inger, as well,” he had told her.  “Women often see things men overlook, and the man who doesn’t listen to the cautions or suggestions of his wife is a fool.”

It had been Marie’s idea, indeed, that had shown Ben how he could expand the timber operation with the least risk possible, to both the land and his financial resources. Her proposal that he lease the timber rights of his neighbors for a portion of the profit had been, in Ben’s view, inspired, and he had spent the next two days in negotiations with his closest neighbors, those whose watersheds most significantly impacted the preservation of the Ponderosa.  Three of them had accepted his offer and sealed the agreement with a handshake, and a fourth wanted more time to think it over, but appeared to be leaning toward granting the lease.

Ben smiled as he glanced at the small packet of letters lying on the seat beside him, among them one to Adam, detailing the recent developments.  Ben could almost envision the excitement in his son’s eyes as he read the news.  He’d included a rough sketch of Deidesheimer’s new square sets, and he could see Adam poring over them with avid scientific interest.  He’d described in detail the part the Ponderosa would play in meeting the mines’ increased need for timber and had praised Marie profusely for her helpful suggestion about the leases.  “I’ll be needing your help more than ever, too, son.  I’ll harvest as much timber as I can before winter sets in, but the real work begins this spring, just about the time you get home.  I know you’re looking forward to being part of the growth of our territory as much as I look forward to having you at my side again on a daily basis,” the letter had concluded.  Ben smiled with satisfaction as he drove into WashoeValley and handed the reins to Hoss.  Yes, Adam would surely be thrilled to see how the ranch was expanding and branching out in new directions.  No doubt the boy would be chomping at the bit to set aside his books and sink his teeth into new challenges.

“Pa!  Look at that!” Hoss screeched, pointing to the southeast.

“Hoss, for mercy’s sake, boy,” Ben scolded, making a dive for the reins his excited son had dropped.

“Oh, sorry, Pa.”  For a moment Hoss looked abashed, but the animation almost at once reignited in his dancing eyes.  “But look at that!  What are they, Pa?”

Ben stared in disbelief at the long line of birds marching toward them.  “Turkeys,” he replied in a daze.  “Hundreds and hundreds of turkeys.”

Hoss almost bounced with enthusiasm.  “Like Billy shot that time?  That was good eatin’, Pa!”

Ben smiled in fond remembrance.  “Yeah, it was.”  He snapped his fingers.  “That’s it, Hoss!  Someone’s had the bright idea to drive a herd of turkeys here from California to sell for Thanksgiving—and a handy profit they’ll make, too!”

“Can we get one, Pa?  Can we?”  Hoss’s tongue slid unconsciously over his lips.  “For Thanksgiving?”

“Hoss, we’re not having Thanksgiving at home,” Ben reminded him.  “We’ll be sharing the meal with the Thomases, and they’ll be providing the meat.  They may already have their plans made.”

“Yeah, but I bet they’d be glad if we was to bring ‘em a turkey,” Hoss argued.  “Pa, please.”

Hoss rarely whined for what he wanted, so the fact that he was doing so now indicated the strength of his desire.  Ben hadn’t the heart to say no, but he didn’t want to offend his friends, either.  “Tell you what, Hoss,” he suggested diplomatically, “we’ll pick up one of those turkeys and take it home with us.  Then I’ll talk to Uncle Clyde and see whether we eat it for Thanksgiving or fatten it up for our Christmas dinner.”

“Sure hope he says now,” Hoss declared.  Then he looked shyly at his father.  “Can I drive again now, Pa?  I won’t drop the reins again.”

Ben started to hand the team back over to Hoss, but suddenly realizing how that line of turkeys would clog the narrow road up to Virginia City, he kept the reins and urged the horses forward at a sprightly pace.  “Another time, son,” he cried.  “We’ve got to beat those birds to market!”

* * * * *

Marie grabbed the small hand turning the front door handle and clasped it firmly in her own.

“I hear horse, Mama!” Little Joe protested, struggling to pull away.

“So do I,” his mother laughed.  “That is why your hand stays in mine, mon petit.  I cannot trust you not to run to the horse, can I?”

The toddler thrust out his lower lip as he continued to tug on her arm.  “Wanna go!  It be Pa maybe!”

“Let’s see if it is,” his mother suggested, opening the door a bit awkwardly with her left hand while her right continued to firmly grip her child.

“Pa!  Pa!” Little Joe hollered, dragging his mother across the yard.

Ben quickly tied the horses’ reins to the hitching post and scooped the baby up to give him a kiss.  Little Joe grinned down in triumph at his mother until a loud squawking drew his attention to the back of the wagon.  “What that?” he asked, eyes wide.

“What have you there?” Marie asked at almost the same moment, gazing with interest at the big bird.

“Don’t tell me you’ve never seen a turkey, either, woman,” Ben chuckled.

Marie tilted her head and favored him with a coy smile.  “Mais oui, I have,” she giggled, “plucked and hanging in the butcher’s shop.”

Ben clucked his tongue in apparent dismay.  “Your education has been as neglected as these boys’, I see.”

Marie wagged a finger beneath his nose.  “Ah, but that is your responsibility, to teach such things, mon mari, and you have been most negligent in your duty, it appears.”

“So it appears,” Ben conceded with a smile.

“Hop Sing has already started supper,” she teased. “If you want him to cook this, instead, you will be the one to tell him.”

Hoss peered around the back of the wagon.  “It’s not for tonight, Ma,” he explained quickly.  “It’s for Thanksgiving.”

“Or Christmas,” his father reminded him.  Seeing Hoss tugging on the rudely constructed crate they’d thrown together from scrap lumber in town, Ben said sharply, “Leave it be, Hoss.  That’s too big a load for you to handle alone.”  He handed the toddler back to Marie.  “See if Hop Sing can hold dinner half an hour, would you?  We need to fix up at least a temporary place in the barn for this monstrous bird.”

“I wanna help,” Little Joe protested as he was carried back inside.

Marie laughed and kissed his curly head.  “Do not be ridiculous, mon petit.  The turkey is bigger than you are!”

Together, Ben and Hoss lifted the crate out of the wagon and carried it into the barn.  With his chin Ben indicated the far back stall.  “We’ll put this noisy creature in there.  Set him down gently, son.”

“Sure, Pa, I’m always gentle with animals.”

Ben smiled at the boy’s earnestness as he stretched the kinks from his back.  “I know that, Hoss, but everybody can use a reminder now and then.”

Hoss shrugged.  “I reckon.  You think the horses’ll like havin’ a turkey gobblin’ at ‘em, Pa.”

“I doubt it,” Ben muttered wryly.  Patting Hoss’s shoulder, he said, “This is only temporary, remember?  If it turns out we have to keep this bird ‘til Christmas, we’ll build it a coop like the chickens have.”

“Only lots bigger.”  Hoss laughed at his own joke; then that earnest look came across his face again.  “If it does turn out we keep the bird ‘til Christmas, can I take care of it, Pa?”  He broke into a broad smile.  “After all, I am the best around at fattenin’ things up.  Just look at me!”

Ben pulled the chunky boy into a one-armed embrace.  “You’re not fat, son, just built on a large scale.  Sure, you can have charge of the bird as long as it’s here, and that being the case, I guess it’s up to you to talk to Aunt Nelly about whether she wants to serve him up next week.  You can ride over to Carson City tomorrow morning while I take your mother into town for church.”

Hoss’s face screwed up in doubt.  “Uh, it was my week to go to church with her, Pa.  Not that I mind skippin’ it, but—”

“Someone’s got to contact them,” Ben said firmly.  “Good as you are with horses, I don’t want you driving up to Virginia City without me, and I’m too busy to take a trip to Carson later this week.”  He patted the boy’s shoulder.  “Don’t worry, son; I’ll settle things with your mother.  You can make up your absence the next time.  Now, let’s fix up this stall so we don’t lose the main course of our Thanksgiving—or Christmas—meal.”

“We better hurry,” Hoss urged, “or Hop Sing’ll be threatenin’ to go back to China.”

“Point taken,” Ben said.  Seeing the horses shy at the strident gobble of the turkey, he dug his fingers into Hoss’s shoulder.  “Tell Aunt Nelly just how much you want turkey for Thanksgiving, all right, son?  Lay it on real thick.”

* * * * *

“Here, Pa.”  The sound of the sweet, high-pitched voice made Ben turn his head just as he sent the hammer toward the head of a nail.  With an angelic smile Little Joe held another nail toward his father, but the smile fled at the sound of his father’s yelp of pain.  “You gots a hurt, Pa?” the toddler asked, head tilted, expressive eyes full of sympathy.

Ben pulled his injured thumb from his mouth.  “Yes, Joseph, I ‘gots a hurt,’” he grunted.

“Oh,” Little Joe murmured with obvious compassion; then the bright smile returned as he again held out the nail.  “You need nuther nail, Pa?”

Ben took a deep breath and counted to ten as he took the gift his youngest offered.  “Yes, baby,” he said with measured softness, “Pa needs another nail.  Now go help Hoss for a while.”

“I don’t need none of that kind of help,” Hoss snickered.

“Oh, yes, you do,” Ben growled.  Since he and Hoss were occupied with building the turkey coop and Little Joe had been settled down for a nap, Marie had decided to take a ride on her roan gelding after they returned from church.  Naturally, the toddler had awakened early and been booted outside almost immediately by Hop Sing.  Ever since, Little Joe had been skittering around, underfoot and into everything in sight.

Hoss took the hint.  “Here, punkin,” he called.  “You can hand brother some nails.”

Little Joe ran eagerly to the other side of the turkey coop under construction, stopping only long enough to dig his hand into the keg of nails.

“That’s right,” Hoss said.  “Bring a whole fistful so you don’t gotta be runnin’ around so much.”

“I like runnin’ ‘round,” Little Joe declared, cherubic countenance beaming beatifically.

“Truer words were never spoken,” Ben muttered.  Shaking his aching thumb, he positioned the nail, double-checked for distractions and hit it, squarely this time.  Declaring himself ten times a fool, Ben placed another handful of nails in his mouth, pulling them out one by one, as needed.  Should have known Clyde wouldn’t need the bird, he grumbled inwardly.  I couldn’t get that lucky.  Never even crossed my mind that those turkey drivers might have made a stop in Carson first, though, fool that I am.  Now here I am, bigger fool, putting out good money for a coop I’ll never need again and extra feed, not to mention extra work I can’t spare the time for.  All in all, the most expensive, troublesome Christmas dinner ever to grace our table.

Still, the happy expressions on the faces of his two sons, Ben had to admit, were priceless treasures, worth all the expense and effort.  Joseph, of course, had never eaten turkey, but at supper the night before Hoss had begun a campaign to convince his little brother that there was no meat to compare with that of this particular fowl.  As usual, especially where food was concerned, Little Joe took every word that spilled from his big brother’s mouth as absolute gospel and had followed with fascination the preparations for the new home of the all-important turkey.

As for Hoss himself, his excitement had virtually doubled when he learned that there would be turkey for Thanksgiving and Christmas, too.  He had stood tall, shoulders squared with pride, when he promised his father that he’d personally see to it the turkey they put on the table come Christmas was the fattest, tastiest ever seen in western Utah.  Ben chuckled as he pounded in another nail to hold the wire mesh to the frame of the coop.  Not that there was much competition, the population of turkeys in the territory being limited to the five hundred brought in yesterday, most of which would be roasted and eaten within a week.  Good experience for the boy, though, he conceded.  Teach him responsibility and show him the pride a man takes in providing for his family.  All things considered, not such an expensive bird, after all.

Ben flinched at the sound of hooves coming up the road.  Little Joe, whose ears always seemed tuned to the sound of horse hooves, jumped up.  “Hoss, grab him!” Ben yelled.

The admonishment was unnecessary.  Hoss, more accustomed than his father to the toddler’s habitual response to an incoming horse, already had tight grip on the little lad.

The strawberry roan pranced into the yard, and Marie quickly dismounted to take her baby in her arms.  Ben dropped the hammer and stormed around the corner of the coop to confront his wife.  “Marie, when are you going to learn not to gallop in like that?”

A spark ignited in her emerald eyes.  “I was not galloping,” she retorted crisply.  “I slowed the horse down as I approached the house.”

“Oh, that was slower?” Ben snapped.  “I’d hate to see the pace you set when you think you’re riding fast!”

“Mama ride fast,” Little Joe added, smiling in admiration.

“Yes, I know,” Ben grunted.  He ran his hand over the gelding’s flank and held it, palm up, to show his wife the sweat.

Marie tossed her head, flipping her golden tresses back from her neck.  “I was in perfect control; I am always in perfect control.  This horse could run all day, and I, of course, did not expect to find this child outside.  I left him napping.”

“It’s not just his safety or the horse’s I’m concerned about,” Ben sputtered through taut lips, “but while we’re on that subject, I might as well tell you that I didn’t much approve of your speed with him in the saddle when we met in the valley last week.”

“So you said then!” Marie declared hotly. “I am neither deaf, nor do I have problems with my memory, but since you are so convinced that you can give our son better care than I, I shall leave him to you!”  She thrust Little Joe into his father’s arms, snatched up the reins of her roan and headed for the barn to cool down both the horse and herself.

Ben started after her, but the repeated pats of a small hand on his cheek stopped him in mid-stride.

“Pa, you need nuther nail?” the child in his arms asked eagerly.

Ben rolled his eyes.  Got to learn to time my battles better than this.  “Yes, precious,” he said with strained gentleness.  “Pa needs another nail.”  And a hammer to hit himself on the head!

* * * * *

When Nelly Thomas opened the oven door to baste the turkey, she saw, as usual, two necks craning past her to peek inside.  “You younguns better keep back,” she said, repeating a warning the two boys had already heard several times that morning.

“Yeah, don’t be crowdin’ so close, Little Joe,” Hoss ordered as he pulled his brother back.

“You had best follow your own advice, young man,” Marie observed, looking up from the bowl of potatoes she was peeling.

“Lands, yes,” Nelly laughed.  “It’s that tawny head of hair I see pokin’ in first every time I open this door.”

Hoss grinned, knowing from experience that the woman he considered a second mother wasn’t really upset with him.  “Aw, Aunt Nelly, I just wanna see how crisp he’s gettin’.”  He turned to his younger brother and commented, as if imparting the wisdom of the ages, “The skin is practically the tastiest part of the turkey, Little Joe.”

Freckled-faced Inger Thomas snickered.  “You’re just sayin’ that so he won’t eat the parts you favor.”

“No such thing!” Hoss protested.  “I wouldn’t take food out of my baby brother’s belly, and I really do like crispy skin.”

“And breast and thigh and wing—and just about every other piece there is,” Nelly teased, squeezing his shoulder affectionately.

All the women in the kitchen, which included Dr. Martin’s daughter Sally, laughed at the joke, and Hoss joined in good-naturedly.  “Well, I ain’t overly fond of giblets,” he said, crinkling his nose sheepishly.

“Except in gravy!” Inger hooted.

“Well, yeah,” Hoss admitted, setting off another round of merry laughter among the cooks.

Hearing a loud thump, Hoss raced to the front door, for he had been detailed to answer all such summons.  Little Joe, naturally, charged right after him, and gave a squeal of delight when he saw who was at the door.  “Aunt Kat!” he cried, raising his arms.

The flaxen-haired beauty immediately lifted the little boy and held him close.  “Hello, sweet baby,” she cooed.

Little Joe wrapped his arms around her neck.  “You bring me cookies?” he whispered in fond remembrance of the ones she had baked for him when he stayed with her.

“No, but something just as good,” she assured him.  “You will like my gingerbread, little one.”

“Okay,” Little Joe, easily appeased when it came to food, agreed.

“Hey, now, don’t I get a hug?” Katerina’s lanky husband chuckled.  “Come here, youngun.”

Little Joe willingly went to the arms of the ranch foreman and gave him an obliging squeeze, but then he started wriggling to get down.

“Okay, off you go,” Enos said, planting a light swat on the toddler’s soft behind.

“Well, come on in,” Hoss said.  “Ladies in the kitchen and gents in the parlor.”

“As it should be,” Enos observed with a wink at his wife.  “Women belong in the kitchen, don’t you agree, Hoss?”

Hoss grinned.  “Sure do, ‘cause good things come out when they go in.”

Enos gave the boy a solid clap on the shoulder and, depositing the pan of gingerbread in Hoss’s welcoming hands, took off for the parlor to join the other “gents.”

“Aunt Kat here,” Little Joe announced as he scooted into the kitchen.

“Oh, good,” Nelly said, looking up from the stove to smile at the latest arrival.  “That’s everyone except Billy, and he said he’d be pushing to get here by dinnertime.”  Since her son was rarely home, due to his duties with the Pony Express, Nelly had insisted that the Cartwrights spend the previous night with them, the two boys taking Billy’s bed, while Ben and Marie slept in the guest room.

Marie had welcomed the invitation as it spared them the chore of rousing the family sleepyhead at an early hour and enabled her to help with dinner preparations.  Ever since the religious friction had developed between them, Nelly and Marie had been cordial, but not really friendly.  Working together in the kitchen, however, had seemed to restore some of the old warmth, and both ladies were glad of it.

The front door opened about forty-five minutes later, but no one in either kitchen or parlor noticed because there had been no knock.  Their first warning came when a red head poked in through the kitchen doorway and called, “You got room for one more, Ma?”

Nelly wiped her hands on her apron and advanced on her tall son, arms wide.  “Land sakes, boy, you know you’re expected.”

Billy cackled.  “Yeah, but you got room for one more besides me?”

Holding his cheeks between her hands, Nelly laughed.  “Why, you know there is!  Did you bring a friend from the Pony?”

“Naw, just some homeless wretch I picked up at Ft.Churchill.”  Billy grinned broadly as he winked at Sally.  “Couldn’t leave the poor fellow to Army fare for Thanksgiving, could I?  Wouldn’t’ve been the Christian thing to do, now would it?”

“Oh, get out of the way!” Sally laughed, pushing past him into the hall, where Mark Wentworth had remained until Billy had his joke.  Sally threw her arms around her fiancé and kissed him soundly.

“Hey, what about me!” Billy chortled.  “Don’t I get some reward for bringing him?”

“Oh, get in here and help me get the food on the table,” his mother scolded.  “After the measly meals that Pony Express feeds you, the feast you’re about to sit down to ought to be reward enough!  You’re getting plumb skinny, boy.”

Billy grabbed his mother around the waist.  “Well, if that Sally won’t kiss me, I bet my best girl will,” he said as he smacked his lips against his mother’s cheek.  Blushing, Nelly herded him toward the stove, where the meal was being kept warm for his arrival.

Billy and Mark joined forces with the ladies, and soon the main table almost sagged with tempting dishes.  The turkey graced one end of the table, while baked ham reigned at its opposite end, and in between marched a line of Boston baked beans with Boston brown bread, sweet potatoes and mashed potatoes, boiled turnips and colorful baked beets, green beans and stewed carrots.  The sideboard held a vast array of sweets with which to end the meal:  Katerina’s gingerbread, Sally’s rice pudding, Nelly’s mince and pumpkin pies and golden pound cake, along with two apple pies, which Hop Sing had insisted on contributing.

Clyde had put together a makeshift second table “for the young folks,” and after a few light-hearted complaints about “eating with the kids,” Billy took his seat, along with Mark and Sally, who didn’t care where they sat, as long as they were together.  Once grace was said, the rowdy redhead decided the second table was the best place to be, after all, for he and the others were permitted to take whatever they wanted from the main table before the food was passed around.

Soon everyone’s plate was full, and the tables rang with laughter and lively chatter as the food was consumed.  While Marie and Sally served each person at her particular table with his or her requested dessert, Ben called across the room, “Any news from the east, Billy?”

“Just the usual,” Billy called back as Sally handed him a plate with a slice each of pumpkin and mince pie.

“Secession?” Dr. Martin asked, recalling the main topic of discussion in the parlor before dinner.

“Plenty of talk about it,” Billy agreed, “but nobody bolting yet.”

“Pray God nobody does,” Sally murmured with an anxious look at Mark, who gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.

“Yes,” Ben agreed solemnly.  “That we are all still one people, united under one flag, is the greatest blessing for which I give thanks this year.”

Mark stood and raised his glass.  “To the Union,” he proposed, and everyone except the children returned the words, “To the Union,” and drank the toast to peace.

Brushing a tear from her eye, Sally turned to Ben.  “And what do you hear from Adam, Mr. Cartwright.  He hasn’t written to me as often as usual this year.”

Ben coughed.  “Nor to me, my dear, and the letters I do get are uncommonly short.”

Sally smiled.  “I suppose his final year at the academy must be very full.”

“I suppose,” Ben conceded.  “I’m expecting a nice long letter next time, though.”  He began to share with those who didn’t already know the new developments at the Ponderosa and how excited he knew Adam would be when he read the latest letter from home.  Yes, he assured himself, Adam’s next letter will be a long one, probably packed full of ideas about how we can meet the challenges ahead of us next spring.

* * * * *

Adam stared at the blank sheet of stationery, as if willing the words to write themselves.  Never in his life had he found it so difficult to communicate with his father as in the last few months, but he’d already put off answering the last letters from home for too many days.  The letter to Hoss had been easy to write, but every time he reread his father’s words, he grew so angry that he couldn’t trust himself not to spew venom all over the page.  Now it was Sunday night and the unpleasant task could be put off no longer.  The letter had to be posted tomorrow or Pa would know for certain that something was wrong.

Maybe that’s the way to handle it, Adam thought sourly, just keep quiet ‘til he gets so worried he comes charging over the Sierras to see what’s wrong with his little boy.  At least, then we could have it out, face to face.  He scowled as he jerked the chair back and began to pace the floor.  “Of all the craven notions,” he muttered, “that takes the prize.”  He stalked to the window and threw up the sash.  Leaning out, he let the chilly wind sting his cheeks, hoping that reminder of reality would restore his power to reason.  Even in Sacramento it was cold that last Sunday in November, but Adam knew that up in the mountains snow already covered the ground.  That his father would risk his life to come to him if he thought something was wrong, Adam had no doubt, but only a child would put a parent in that position, whatever the provocation.  Child, nothing, Adam chided himself.  Only a baby like Little Joe would pull such a stunt!

He forced himself back to the desk and lifted the pen once more.  Slowly the page filled with words, none of them the ones he wanted most to say, just drivel about his daily life: how he was doing in school, how he’d spent the holiday.  And just to let his father know he’d actually received the letter from home, a few words expressing appreciation for the drawings of Philip Deidesheimer’s square sets.  That, at least, he could be honest about, for he had truly found the engineering principles fascinating.  Everything else in his father’s letter had been a source of pure frustration, but he couldn’t bring himself to write that, so he just wrote . . . drivel.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Note

In November of 1860, five hundred turkeys were driven from California to Virginia City, to be sold for the Thanksgiving market.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

For Love of Fred

            “Little Joe, you get down from there!” Hoss scolded from inside the turkey coop.

Skirt flapping in the breeze, Little Joe curled his fingers through the tight wire mesh as he sought a firmer foothold.  “Why?”

Hoss came to the fence to glare at his little brother.  “‘Cause Fred would just as soon nibble your fingers as this chicken feed, that’s why!”  Hoss pried the tiny fingers loose and Little Joe dropped to the ground like a sack of potatoes.

“Who Fred?” Joe demanded.

“The turkey.”  Hoss looked anxiously at the boy sprawled on the ground.  “You ain’t hurt, are you, punkin?”

“Fred funny name,” Little Joe giggled.

The infectious sound reassured Hoss that the toddler hadn’t injured himself in his plummet from the fence and he grinned.  “Yeah, I guess it is, but he looks like a Fred to me.  Don’t know why.”  His nose crinkled as he saw the dirt on his baby brother’s clothes.  “Now, look what you gone and done.  Ma’s gonna have a fit when she sees that dress.”

Little Joe brushed his skirt, dusty hands leaving still more smudges on the light blue fabric.  “Don’t like dress,” he grumbled.  “Need britches.”

“Yeah, I’m of a mind to think you do,” Hoss agreed.  “Maybe ole Santa Claus’ll bring you some if you’re real good ‘til Christmas.”

Little Joe favored his beloved big brother with his cherub’s smile.  “Always good.”

“Uh-huh, yeah,” Hoss chuckled.  “You run on in the house now.  I got to finish feedin’ Fred.”

“Me—I wanna feed Fred,” Little Joe insisted.

“No sirree,” Hoss snorted.  “He’ll think you’re a piece of corn and gobble you up.  Now, scat!”

Red-faced, Little Joe turned and ran for the house, charging straight into his father’s leg just outside the front door.  “Pa, Hoss bein’ mean,” he whined.

Ben picked the child up and snuggled him close.  “Which means that he wouldn’t let you do precisely as you pleased, I presume?”

Little Joe looked blankly into his father’s face and Ben laughed.  “Time you went in to Mama, baby.  You can tell her all about your troubles.  Hoss and I have to get to town.”

“I wanna go town!” Little Joe pleaded.  “Hoss go all the time, never me.”

“I know, I know,” Ben soothed, “but that’s because it’s a working trip.”  He kissed the child’s soft cheek.  “Be a good boy and Pa will bring you back something sweet from town.  How’s that?”

Little Joe shook his head, clearly not happy, but when Ben set him down with a soft pat on the bottom, he trotted inside as he’d been told.  That went better than usual, Ben congratulated himself.

He ambled over to the turkey coop, where Hoss was still scattering corn for his turkey.  “Haven’t you finished feeding that bird yet?” Ben grumbled.

“Almost done,” Hoss said quickly.  “He eats a lot, Pa, and Little Joe’s pesterin’ slowed me down.

“That I can believe,” Ben chuckled, “especially the first part.  That bird eats more than all the chickens on the place put together.”

Hoss came through the gate, shutting it carefully behind him.  “Aw, he don’t neither, Pa.”

Ben ruffled the boy’s soft, sandy hair.  “Just teasing, son.  You’re doing a fine job of fattening that bird up for Christmas dinner.”

“Yes, sir, I’m tryin’,” Hoss said, with a proud look at his turkey.

“Time we got started, boy.  Climb up and I’ll let you drive ‘til the road gets steep.”

Excitement brightening his eyes like sunlight does a summer sky, Hoss climbed quickly aboard the loaded freight wagon and reached for the reins.

* * * * *

Wide grin splitting his face, Hoss trotted up the steep hill toward C Street with the unexpected short-bit bonus burning in his pocket.  Ten whole cents to spend any way he chose, although Pa had added one condition when he put the coin in Hoss’s palm.  “If you’re going to spend it on candy, boy, not more than one piece before dinner,” Pa had said with an amused quirk of his lips.  Hoss figured that would be an easy rule to keep.  Since Pa had promised they could eat at Barnum’s Restaurant, Hoss’s personal favorite, he didn’t want to spoil his appetite for the big bowl of chicken and dumplings and slice of apple pie that he planned to order.

He had one errand to tend to for Pa first, an easy one.  All he had to do was hand the list of supplies to Mr. Cass at the store, and he’d be free to ogle the candy as long as he wanted before making the all-important choice.  Gotta pick just right, Hoss told himself, this bein’ our last trip to town for a while.  The load of lumber they’d brought in to the Ophir would be the last one ‘til spring, and with winter coming on, chances to go to town wouldn’t come as often.  Can’t dawdle too long makin’ up my mind, though, Hoss reminded himself.  Won’t take Pa all that long to wind up his business with the mining folks, and he’ll be expectin’ me down to Barnum’s by the time he’s through.

Winded by the pace with which he’d climbed the hill, Hoss paused to catch his breath as he reached the main business street of Virginia City.  Cass’s store was directly across from him, but he quickly realized there was no way to reach his destination.  As far as he could see, a parade of Paiutes was filling the road, and there was no way to get across, short of plowing through their midst, a course of action Hoss was certain his father would consider rude, if not dangerous.  So he waited, blowing warm breath on his reddened knuckles.  No longer warmed by exercise, he started to feel the chill in the air typical of the first week in December, and he hoped the Paiutes would hurry on about their business, whatever it was.

Citizens of Virginia City also lined the sides of the road, staring at the Indians.  Not since the Pyramid Lake War had any of them seen so many red-skinned visitors to their town.  A few had drifted back to scavenge for a meager subsistence wherever they could find it, but never before in such numbers.  But for the fact that not a single native carried a weapon and that they all walked down the main street in absolute silence, looking neither left nor right, the white men would have feared an invasion.  In a sense that’s what it was, an invasion of gaunt-faced, hungry men, women and children, returning to the mountain they had once called their own in hopes of avoiding starvation in the lean winter months ahead.

Hoss took a step into the street as he finally caught sight of the end of the line. Cocking his head to one side, he stared, like everyone else, at the figure bringing up the rear.  Though dressed in a calico skirt made from cornmeal bags, the Indian was too tall and walked with too wide a stride to be a squaw.  A calico bandana hid the face, but the red blouse couldn’t hide the fact that it covered a chest too flat to be that of a woman.  “It’s a man!” a teenage boy across the street yelled.  “Whatcha doin’ in them skirts, huh, injun?”

The Paiute lifted his head, revealing a thin visage and a solemn expression, but he made no response before lowering his gaze again to the dust beneath his feet.

“Hey, injun!  I’m talkin’ to you,” the boy shouted, but this time the Indian did not even raise his head.  The boy scooped up a handful of pebbles from the street and threw them at the man in women’s clothes.  The Paiute grunted as the stones struck, but he kept moving forward, eyes on the ground.

Emboldened by the actions of the first heckler, other children on the street began to run up behind the Paiute, peppering him with pebbles and hooting in derision.  When a larger rock hit the Indian on the side of the head and blood began to trickle down the copper cheek, Hoss could hold himself back no longer.  Running forward, he pushed the closest attackers aside.  “Leave him be!” he yelled.  “He ain’t doin’ you no harm.”

The teenage boy who had started the trouble ran toward him.  “Mind your own business,” he ordered, punctuating the command with an index finger driven into Hoss’s sternum, “or I’ll give you cause to wish you had.”

“You ain’t got no right to rock him,” Hoss declared, planting his hands on his hips.  “He ain’t no different than you or me.”

“You’re gonna eat that lie, injun lover!” the other boy hollered and plowed a fist into Hoss’s jaw.

Unprepared for the blow, Hoss went down, hitting the ground hard, but he scrambled up quickly and rammed his attacker in the stomach.

“Fight, fight!” the cry rang out, and men and children made a circle to watch the battle, most shouting encouragement to the older boy, while the few women on the street turned away in disgust at the display of violence.  The Paiutes stopped in the middle of the street, most looking concerned about the possible consequences if they were perceived as the cause behind this brawl.  The one in skirts looked from one boy to the other, shaking his head.

Blow after blow was exchanged, with Hoss getting somewhat the worst of it, for while he was strong and well-built, even large for a boy of his age, his opponent was quick and wiry and his fists surprisingly solid, considering they were smaller than Hoss’s.  Fueled by his anger at the injustice of the other boy’s attack on a defenseless foe, however, Hoss fought hard and saw his adversary begin to fade under his telling jabs.

As quickly as it had begun, though, the fight was over.  Hoss felt himself pulled back, his arms pinioned.  “Hoss, stop it; stop it!” Ben Cartwright yelled, struggling to hold the thrashing arms, as across the way another man did the same to Hoss’s antagonist in the fight.

Recognizing his father’s voice, Hoss slumped forward, as shame surged through him.  After all Pa’s talk about holding his temper, not letting others taunt him into a fight, he’d let it happen again.  “I-I’m sorry, Pa,” he sputtered, feeling himself an utter failure and a disgrace to his father’s teaching.  Then indignation erupted once again.  “But he shouldn’t’ve been hurtin’ that man.  It weren’t right.”

Ben turned Hoss around and, kneeling, engulfed him in an embrace.  “No, son.  He shouldn’t have.  Remember what I said to you that day in the barn, that there would be times when you had to fight?”

Hoss looked up, his eyes lighting with tentative hope that he hadn’t lost his father’s respect.  “You think, maybe, this was one of those times?”

“You were defending a man under attack for no reason, a man who for some reason felt unable to defend himself,” Ben said.  “I may question your wisdom in flinging yourself into this fracas, Hoss, but your motive was beyond reproach.  Now, let’s get you cleaned up and get down to the restaurant for that meal I promised you.”

As Ben stood, he found himself looking into the eyes of the Paiute Hoss had defended, solemn eyes which warmed with respect as the Indian’s gaze dropped to the face of his young champion.  Ben shook his head, puzzled by the Indian’s apparel and his apparent willingness to accept abuse.  Spotting a Paiute he knew slightly, Ben moved forward to greet him and then asked about what had just transpired in the street.  “Why is that man dressed like a squaw?” he inquired.  “And why do the rest of your people turn their backs on him when he is attacked by white men?”

The Paiute’s nostrils flared with disdain as he inclined his head toward the man in woman’s clothing. “Him’s Charley.  Charley heap scared battle down Pyramid Lake.  Charley no want fight—got no gun, he say, throw um away.  Charley all time run, run; all time cry, cry—all same papoose.  Charley squaw now.  Paiutes call um Squaw Charley.”

Ben glanced at Squaw Charley and nodded in sober comprehension.  No matter to what society a man belonged, cowardice lowered him in the eyes of his peers.  White men, too, had ways of ostracizing those who failed to live up to the standards set by the majority.  The Paiutes were just more graphic in their handling of craven behavior.  A man too weak to stand with his brothers in battle was, in their eyes, a woman, and to compel him to dress the part he had played seemed to them a punishment that fit the crime.  While Ben felt sorry for Squaw Charley, he couldn’t deny the raw justice of the sentence imposed by his people.  However cowardly, though, no man deserved to be subjected to harassment and unprovoked attack, and Ben felt proud of his stalwart young son’s defense of the man shunned by his own people.

Face washed and cuts cleaned, Hoss frowned as he waited for his bowl of chicken and dumplings to arrive.  Seeing the expression, Ben queried, “Something wrong, son?”

Hoss lifted his head from the elbow on which he’d had it propped.  “I was just wonderin’, Pa.”

Ben smiled encouragingly.  “About what?”

Hoss shifted in his chair.  “You been sayin’ there was a right and a wrong time to fight.”

“Yes?”

“Well, I been hearin’ all this talk ‘bout war maybe comin’, and I was wonderin’ if war was a right or wrong reason to fight,” Hoss explained, nose crinkled in thought.

Ben sighed.  “That’s a hard question, son.  There are defenseless people involved, even more in need of protection than Squaw Charley, and some feel they must fight to give those people the right to live free.  Others, both north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line, talk of war for more selfish reasons.”

The wrinkles deepened in Hoss’s forehead.  “So how do you know when it’s a right fight or a wrong one, Pa?”

Ben reached across the table to smooth his son’s puckered lips.  “You look in your heart, Hoss.  You ask yourself why you’re doing it, and if you find good reasons there, then you stand and fight.  If it’s just to ease your pride or bend someone to your will, it’s not reason enough.  You think you understand the difference?”

Hoss nodded soberly.  “I think so, Pa.”  He paused a moment, then asked quietly, “You think there is gonna be a war?”

Shaking his head sadly, Ben shrugged.  “I don’t know, son.  It’s looking more and more that way, but I’m going to keep holding onto hope as long as I can.”

“Me, too,” Hoss declared.  The waitress arrived with their food, and, for Hoss, at least, thoughts of war were quickly forgotten in enjoyment of a good, hot meal.  Ben, however, couldn’t set aside his concerns so lightly.  Less than three weeks ‘til Christmas, he mused, and peace on earth seems like a distant dream, but, dear God, keep me dreaming.  Keep us all dreaming—and working—to make it happen.

* * * * *

As snowflakes dusted his hat, Ben pulled the collar of his coat close to his ears and moved briskly toward the front door, barely making it through before Marie was at his side.  “I have been concerned, mon mari; you are so late,” she said.

“Sorry, my love,” Ben murmured, punctuating his apology with a kiss to her temple.  “The weather hit sooner than I expected, and the roads are slick.”

Oui, I thought that was it,” Marie said, “but it is almost suppertime, Ben, and you know how Hop Sing gets when—”

She was cut off abruptly by a volatile demonstration of exactly how Hop Sing could get when any member of the family was late to a meal.  Ranting in his native Cantonese, the diminutive cook loudly castigated the head of the house.  “Believe it or not, Hop Sing,” Ben exploded, “I do not control the weather.  That lies solely within the province of Almighty God!”

“Whom you resemble not at all at this moment,” Marie suggested sharply.

Ben turned crimson at the pointed reminder that a fit of temper scarcely reflected divine patience.  “All right,” he said tersely, self-control returning slowly.  “My apologies for being late, Hop Sing.”

“You wash up chop-chop,” Hop Sing dictated with a firm bob of his head for emphasis.  “Dinnah on table plenty quick, now you fin’ly come home.”

Ben exhaled gustily as the cook returned to the kitchen.  “That man would try the patience of the Almighty Himself,” he declared.

“As do we all, mon amour,” Marie laughed lightly.

Ben returned the laughter.  “Yes, I suppose we do.”  He took his wife’s hand.  “However, much as you might profit from a good sermon tomorrow, my sweet little sinner, I’m afraid the snow is likely to be too deep for me to drive you to chapel.  I’m sorry.”

Marie nodded.  “I had thought it would be.”  She added, with a mischievous smile, “Perhaps I should pray that God will only let it snow on the Sundays when your plans will be spoiled.”

Ben tweaked her petite nose.  “See, just as I said, a sinner in need of repentance.”

“But you will find yourself the one doing penance if you do not wash up for supper at once,” Marie warned with a significant tilt of her head toward the kitchen.

“Yes, ma’am,” Ben chuckled.  “I repent.  No priest could exact severer penance than that irascible cook of ours.”  Giving her another swift kiss, he trotted up the stairs at a lively pace in search of a washbasin and a bar of soap.  After a fast, but thorough, scrub at his hands and face, he headed back down the hall.  About halfway to the stairs, however, he found his forward progress impeded as one pair of arms engulfed him about the hips and another set latched onto his knees.  “Here now, unhand me, you varlets,” Ben roared with mock ferocity, “or I’ll have you tossed overboard.”  He snatched the smaller boy under the arms and gave him a gentle toss toward the ceiling.

Little Joe squealed in exhilaration.  “Do it ‘gain, Pa,” he cried.

“Shh, shh, you’ll get me in trouble with Mama,” Ben warned as he brought the child into his chest.

Little Joe’s emerald eyes sparkled saucily.  “I gonna tell,” he declared with a naughty grin.

“Oh, threatening your father, are you?” Ben chuckled.  “That’s supposed to be Papa’s prerogative, baby boy.”

Ignoring the vocabulary beyond his comprehension, Little Joe just grinned bigger and repeated the threat.  “Do it ‘gain or I gonna tell.  Hoss, too.”

Hoss pulled his little brother’s earlobe.  “Unh-uh, not me.  I know enough to steer clear of trouble, not go makin’ more.”

“A wise adage to live by, my boy,” Ben said, dropping his right hand to squeeze Hoss’s shoulder.  “And dinnertime is definitely not the time to be making trouble.”

“That’s for sure!” Hoss guffawed as he clomped down the stairs ahead of his father.

Marie stood waiting at the foot to take her baby from Ben.  “Pa been throwin’ me,” Little Joe informed her gleefully.

“Tattletale,” Hoss scolded.

Oui, I know,” Marie tittered, giving the child’s tiny nose the same treatment Ben had earlier accorded her own.  “Papá is being naughty, but so are you, mon petit.  As Hoss says, it is not nice to tell tales.”

The light-hearted rebuke washing over him with no visible effect, Little Joe donned his most angelic expression and presented his mother with a hug and kiss.  The tender scene was interrupted by a strident pronouncement:  “You come table now or I thlow ev’lyt’ing ‘way!” the dictator of the domestic domain pronounced with a stamp of his foot.

Hoss looked genuinely worried.  “No, don’t do that, Hop Sing.  I’m starvin’!”  With an impatient gesture for the rest of his family to follow suit, he hustled to the table.

The blessing said, platters and serving bowls began to be passed from person to person, and soon everyone, even the smallest Cartwright, was eating with enough relish to appease the Chinese cook.  Hop Sing nodded with satisfaction and returned to the kitchen to cut slices of raisin pie for those whose clean plates might merit dessert.

“Were you able to find all the things I requested?” Marie asked after filling Little Joe’s plate and ascertaining that he was eating.  Though it was still ten days ‘til Christmas, Marie had been concerned that some of the special ingredients she considered essential to her holiday cooking might sell out and had added them to the list of supplies Ben had ridden into Carson City to buy that afternoon.

“Almonds and rosewater, brandy and essence of lemon,” Ben reported, adding with a wink, “and all those items of lesser importance, like flour, soda and salt.”

“Did you see Aunt Nelly and Uncle Clyde?” Hoss mumbled through a mouthful of mashed potatoes.  “They gonna make it to the party? And Doc and Sally and—”

Marie interrupted with a quick correction of Hoss’s manners, after which Ben said, “Sure did, and they’ll all be here, weather permitting.”  With a smile at his wife, he added, “I stopped by the Pioneer Bakery, too, and extended an invitation to Laura, along with her son and her beau.”

“Ah, good,” Marie murmured.  “I am glad you did.  I have seen so little of Laura these last several weeks.  It seems whenever I am in Carson City, she is away somewhere with Monsieur Dettenrieder.  Did she accept or does she already have plans with him?”

“Nothing definite,” Ben said.  “Apparently, there’s going to be a ball in Virginia City the same night, and George had mentioned taking Laura.  I think she’s going to try to persuade him to come here, instead.”

“Sure hope she can,” Hoss offered.  “I know Jimmy’d like comin’ here better than any fancy ball up the mountain.”

Ben chuckled.  “Yes, I got the impression Jimmy was going to make it a personal quest, and if he’s as persuasive as the knee-grabbers around here, I doubt that Mr. George Dettenrieder has a chance of reaching Virginia City on Christmas Eve.”

“That when Fred come dinner?” Little Joe piped up.

Ben turned to his youngest with a blank stare.  “Fred?  I don’t think we have a friend named Fred, precious.”

Hoss glared at Little Joe across the table, but the baby simply smiled sweetly and informed his father, “Fred my friend.  He come dinner?”

Ben’s lips twitched merrily.  “Oh, you have a friend named Fred, do you?  And just where might your friend Fred live, if I may ask?”

“Outside,” Little Joe replied with guileless forthrightness.

Marie touched her fingers to her lips in a vain attempt to hide her amusement, while Hoss slid down in his chair in an equally vain attempt to disappear.  Neither behavior escaped Ben’s notice.  “And do either of you have the slightest idea what this child is talking about?” he demanded with an arch of his eyebrow.

Marie struggled to control herself.  “I know of no person named Fred among our neighbors,” she demurred, keeping her eyes on her plate.

Ben’s brows came together in a straight, suspicious line, and he turned his gaze upon his middle son.  “Hoss,” he uttered firmly.  “Do you know a person named Fred hereabouts?”

“A person?” Hoss babbled.  “Uh, no, Pa; I don’t know no person named Fred.”

The emphasis on the word was a dead giveaway.  “And what, may I ask, is Fred, if not a person?” Ben demanded in a tone that brooked no further evasion.

Hoss jumped a little and then grinned sheepishly.  “A turkey,” he muttered with a feeble laugh.

Ben’s jaw dropped.  “A turkey?  Our turkey?  Oh, for the love of mercy, boy, please tell me you haven’t gone and named that bird!”

“Fred,” Little Joe inserted helpfully.  “His name Fred.”

Ben rolled his eyes; then he jerked back toward his crimson-faced other son.  “Well?” he demanded.

“Uh, yeah, Pa,” Hoss quavered.  “I guess I did go and name him Fred, now you mention it.  He—he just looked like a Fred to me.”

“Me, too,” Little Joe announced.

Ben snapped his fingers toward the baby’s startled face.  “You stay out of this,” he ordered.

“Yeah,” Hoss grunted, with a condemning glare at the source of his current dilemma.  Little Joe, confused, cowered back in his chair.

Ben’s finger jabbed in Hoss’s direction.  “And you fix your eyes on me, boy,” he thundered.  “Didn’t you have better sense than to make a pet out of fowl meant for the table?”

Hoss bit his lip.  “Y-yes, sir.  I know we planned to eat Fred, but—”

“Eat Fred!” Little Joe screamed.  “Who gonna eat Fred?”

“We are!” Ben shouted.

“No!” the baby wailed.

“Yes!” Ben hollered back, fist pounding the table so hard the dishes rattled.  “We are going to stuff that bird full of dressing, roast him to a turn and carve him up for Christmas dinner!”

“Ben!” Marie cried, gathering her shrieking child into her arms.  “You will not scream at this little one, do you hear me?  It is not his fault.”

Ben took a deep breath that didn’t calm him nearly as much as he’d hoped it would.  “Of course not,” he sputtered.  “Joseph is as innocent in this affair as—as Fred!  But you, madame,” he added, index finger thrust toward his wife, “knew about this, didn’t you?”

“I guessed,” Marie admitted, stroking the baby’s curls with slow, soothing strokes.

“Knew and said nothing,” Ben accused.

“Guessed,” Marie reaffirmed hotly, “but did not know for certain until tonight.  I remind you of our earlier conversation, monsieur.  You remind me even less of the Almighty now than when you first came home!”

Ben laced his fingers together tightly.  “All right,” he muttered through a tight throat.  “I stand corrected.  However, there is another misconception that needs to be corrected, as well, and I can’t promise I’ll exhibit the longsuffering of God while I do it.  So, if you think it will upset Joseph to hear what I have to say to his brother, please take him upstairs.”

“On that point, at least, we do agree,” Marie retorted.  Standing, she carried Little Joe across the great room, where she paused at the foot of the stairs.  “Remember, Ben,” she said with soft-voiced concern, “Hoss, too, is a child.”

Ben leaned his head against the back of his chair, giving her time to take their youngest out of earshot and himself time to gain some semblance of self-control.  Blowing out a loud gust of air, he sat upright and faced Hoss, who was nervously pulling on his lower lip.  He’s afraid, Ben realized with chagrin, and Marie’s right; he’s a child, tooA child in a man’s body, but a child, nonetheless.  “Hoss, what were you thinking, boy?” he asked, carefully modulating his voice to conceal whatever anger he still felt.  “I remember having a talk with you two or three years back, when you wanted to name one of the newborn calves.  I told you then that we couldn’t afford to get attached to something we planned to eat.”

Hoss rubbed his hand across the tablecloth.  “Yeah, I know, Pa, but this seemed different.”

“How?”

Hoss shrugged.  “I don’t know.  Fred—I mean, the turkey—was mine, and I guess I figured I could handle him like I thought best.”

Ben groaned.  “And you thought it was best to treat him like a pet, to let your baby brother make a friend of him?”

Hoss scrunched up his nose.  “I didn’t figure on that happenin’, honest, Pa!  That kid gets the funniest ideas.”

Ben scowled.  “He’s not the only one, boy!  You do understand that bird’s going on the table Tuesday after next, don’t you?”

Hoss shifted uncomfortably.  “I—I been meanin’ to talk to you ‘bout that, Pa.  I’m thinkin’, maybe, we ought to wait ‘til New Year’s, so’s he can get real good and plump.”  Eyes wide with hope, he grinned broadly and bobbed his head a couple of times.

“Good gracious, boy,” Ben exploded, “that bird practically outweighs everything else on the ranch now!”

“Aw, Pa, he don’t, neither,” Hoss argued.

“Well, if it’s an exaggeration, son, it’s a mighty small one,” Ben insisted curtly.  “Now, I have invested a goodly sum in feed for that turkey, and he is going on the table Christmas Day.  Do I make myself clear?”

“But, Pa—”

“Don’t you ‘but, Pa,’ me, boy!” Ben growled.  “Nothing is going to change my mind on this subject, and if you really know how to steer clear of trouble, as you claimed before, you won’t say another word.”

“Little Joe’s gonna be awful upset,” Hoss whispered, pulling out what he considered his last round of ammunition in the battle to save Fred from the ax.

For a moment Ben almost relented; then his face hardened.  “He might as well learn early that we do not make pets out of meat for the table.”  With that, Ben tossed his napkin down and strode from the room into the cool night air.

When the shouting stopped, Hop Sing peered furtively around the corner from the kitchen and frowned to see only Hoss remaining at the table.  “You like piece laisin pie, maybe-so?” he asked tentatively.

Hoss shook his head and, swiping tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand, ran up the stairs and down the hall to his room.  Shaking his head, Hop Sing walked back into the kitchen.  Sometimes his Cartwrights could be most inscrutable.

* * * * *

Grain trickling from his fingers, Hoss looked up at the sound of footsteps running toward him.  “No climbin’ on the fence,” he warned as Little Joe ran up to the turkey coop.

“Okay,” Little Joe said, squatting just outside the fence and leaning far to the right to catch the eye of the bird pecking at the feed.  “Hi, Fred.  That taste good?”

Hoss frowned as he scattered another handful of feed.  “I don’t think you oughta keep callin’ him Fred, punkin.  You know what Pa said.”

Little Joe’s lower lip pushed out petulantly.  “Don’t like what Pa said.  Don’t wanna eat my friend.”

Hoss nodded grimly.  He shared the sentiment, and he couldn’t shake the feeling that Fred did, too.  As much as he tried to convince himself that it was all his imagination, Hoss couldn’t look into the turkey’s piercing eyes without seeing a mute appeal for salvation.

Ben came out of the barn, leading his saddled horse.  He paused at the turkey coop to say good-bye to his sons before heading out.  “Don’t dawdle half the morning in there,” he grumbled.  “You have other chores waiting, Hoss.”

“Yes, sir.  I’ll get ‘em done, Pa,” Hoss promised.  Diligent by nature, he had tried extra hard to please his father since the night Pa first learned Fred’s identity.

Ben turned away and then spun back, deciding he might as well perform the most unpleasant chore on his list first.  “With all that Hop Sing has to do to get ready for the party day after tomorrow, he wants to get a head start on plucking this bird.  I’ll be taking you boys and your mother into chapel in the morning, to make up for missing last week, and while we’re gone, Hop Sing will, uh”—he cut a quick glance toward Little Joe—”do what needs to be done, understood?”

“Yes, sir,” Hoss muttered glumly.

“Pa?”  The small voice was accompanied by a pull on Ben’s pants just above the knee.

Ben pried the fabric free from the toddler’s fingers.  “Yes, baby?”

“Don’t wanna eat Fred, Pa,” Little Joe pleaded.  “He my friend.”

Ben inhaled slowly, counting to ten, but the words still came out laced with frustration.  “Pa has tried to be patient with you, precious, but you need to understand that Fred is not your friend; he is your dinner.  Now, if I hear any more on the subject, you and I may just have ourselves a very necessary little talk.  Is that clear?”

Little Joe stared at his father through narrowed eyes, but said nothing.

“It had better be,” Ben said firmly and swung into the saddle.  As he rode out of the yard, however, he could still see the accusation in those small emerald orbs, could still feel their fire burning into his back.  He’s got to learn, he told himself as he urged the horse forward.

“Pa mean,” Little Joe declared, curling his fingers through the wire fence.

“Naw, he ain’t mean,” Hoss corrected quickly.  “He’s right.  I know he’s right”—he cast a guilty glance at the turkey—”but it just feels wrong, doggone it!”

Little Joe sidled up to his brother as Hoss shut the gate to the pen.  “Gotta help Fred, Hoss, just gotta.”

Hoss looked back at the turkey, which once again appeared to be gazing upon him in earnest petition.  “Yeah,” he murmured, “but how?”

* * * * *

Hoss tiptoed in stocking feet down the dark upper hall to the stairs.  Clinging to the rail, he felt his way down to the ground floor.  The light from the waxing moon, pouring through the horizontal window behind Pa’s desk, helped him see to cross the great room to the front door.  Pausing only to slip into his heavy coat, he inched the door open and slid through.  One step was all it took to remind Hoss that he should be wearing boots outside.  A light layer of snow covered the ground, and its cold dampness soaked through the thick woolen socks as if they were light as linen.  He’d been too afraid of making noise if he wore his boots upstairs, though, and of dropping them if he tried to carry them downstairs in the dark, so Hoss just ran across the yard, nightshirt slapping against his bare calves in the brisk wind off the mountains.

Quickly unlatching the gate to the turkey coop, Hoss trotted over to the shelter beneath which the big bird spent each night and hissed, “Fred.  Hey, Fred, wake up.”  When he got no response, Hoss moved over to the turkey and shook him.  “Come on, Fred; you gotta get out of here—now!”

The bird awakened with a strangled gobble, and Hoss put a finger to his lips as he peered anxiously back toward the house.  “Shh, be quiet, Fred.  We can’t be wakin’ Pa up, not unless you wanna be stuffed and roasted.  You don’t want that, do you?”

Something that sounded to Hoss like vocalized agreement rattled in the turkey’s throat.  “Okay, then, let’s get moving.”  Taking out a handful of grain, which he had slipped into the pocket of his coat that afternoon, Hoss held his hand toward the bird and took two steps backward.  “Come on, Fred, this way,” he urged, backing up.

Fred craned forward, reaching for the grain, but Hoss carefully kept it just out of range of the greedy beak.  Step by step, Fred following with interest, Hoss made his way to the gate of the coop and walked through.  The turkey, unaccustomed to being outside the fence, balked for just a minute.  “Get a move on, will you, Fred?” Hoss urged through chattering teeth.  “My socks are soaked plumb through.”

Responding to the familiar voice, Fred moved forward and Hoss continued to lead him into the dark pine forest.  “This is as far as I can go, Fred,” the shivering boy said at last.  He pointed up toward the summit as he backed away.  “Head that way, okay, Fred?”

Fred cocked his head and stepped toward the boy.

“No, doggone it!” Hoss yelled.  “You can’t come with me.  Terrible things are gonna happen to you, Fred, if you do.  Now run!”  Tears running down his cheeks, he scooped up a couple of pine cones and pelted the turkey with them, though his heart ached at inflicting even that slight hurt on a helpless creature who trusted him.  “Run, you silly bird, run!” he hollered.

Startled, Fred flapped his wings a couple of times and headed for the hills, while Hoss gasped in relief.  Then the boy raced toward the shelter of his home, anxious to be back in bed by the time the rest of his family awakened.  Retracing his steps, he made his way to his bed, pulled off the clammy socks and, throwing them in a corner, slipped beneath the covers.  Sleep didn’t come quickly, though, not even after he finally warmed up.  Hoss knew in his heart that he’d done the right thing.  Still, he couldn’t help thinking as he lay there waiting for dawn to paint the sky rosy that once “Santa” found out what he’d done, he’d likely get nothing in his stocking but a bundle of sticks, come Christmas morning.  I don’t care, Hoss decided.  At least, Fred’ll have a nice Christmas, instead of the one Pa planned for him!

* * * * *

Beneath their heavy winter wraps and lap robes, the Cartwrights were dressed in their Sunday best.  Marie snuggled close to Ben as the buckboard pulled away from the house.  “Thank you for coming with me this morning,” she whispered.  “It is a special gift to me to have you all in church with me.”

“Well, it just seems right to be in church at this time of year,” Ben said with a smile, “and since there still isn’t one of my persuasion in the area, I might as well visit yours, though I doubt I’ll understand much of what is said.”  He drew in the reins abruptly and stared with displeasure at the swinging gate of the turkey coop.  Jerking his head over his shoulder, he glared at the older boy seated in the back of the buckboard.  “Did you leave that gate open last night?”

Hoss tried to look surprised.  “I—I thought I closed it, Pa, but it sure is open, all right.”

“Hoss,” Ben chided as he jumped down from the wagon.  “You’ve got to be more careful, boy.  If that bird has wandered out . . .”  It was already obvious that the turkey, who was normally out scratching around, hoping for breakfast, by this time in the morning, was not in the enclosed pen.  Ben had told Hoss not to bother feeding the turkey that morning, so no one had noticed that irregularity until now.  One glance inside the empty shed told Ben that his Christmas dinner had taken flight.  Snatching his hat from his head, he slammed it against his thigh as he stalked sullenly back to the wagon.  “I’m sorry, Marie,” he said, “but I can’t take you to church this morning after all; I’m going to have to track down that bird.”

“You want me to drive Ma in to church, Pa?” Hoss offered with a trace too much eagerness.

“No, son.  I appreciate the offer,” Ben replied, “but the grade into Virginia City is still too steep for you, even with this lighter rig.”

Hoss was disappointed, mostly because he thought Virginia City just might be a safe enough distance away if Pa ever did figure out that the open gate to the turkey coop was more than just an act of childish carelessness.

There was, unfortunately for Hoss, no distance whatsoever between father and son when Ben made that discovery.  Hop Sing came storming out the kitchen door, waving a wet, muddy sock in each hand.  “Bad boy, velly bad boy,” he ranted, thrusting the socks beneath Hoss’s nose.  “Alla time makee mo’ work for Hop Sing.  Bad boy!”

Ben grabbed the socks, feeling their moistness and examining the grime on the soles with a critical eye, an eye that narrowed as he looked at Hoss.  “You didn’t leave that gate open accidentally, did you, boy?” he roared.  “You got up sometime during the night and deliberately let that turkey loose, didn’t you?”

“Oh, Ben, he would not,” Marie protested.

Ben threw the socks into her lap.  “The evidence says otherwise.”

One look at Hoss’s guilty face told Marie that Ben was right.  “Oh, Hoss,” she sighed with commiseration, understanding at once the boy’s reason.

“You help Fred?” Little Joe asked, eyes shining with admiration.  He started to throw his arms around Hoss, but Ben plucked him out of the wagon and plunked him into his mother’s lap, instead.

That distraction out of the way, Ben focused his attention on the guilty countenance remaining in the back of the buckboard.  “Now, answer me, boy; you let that turkey out, didn’t you?”

Hoss nodded glumly.  “Yes, sir.  I’m sorry, Pa, but I just had to.  Fred needed my help even more than Squaw Charlie.”

“Don’t throw my own words back at me, boy,” Ben growled.  “It’s scarcely the same thing.”

“It is to Fred,” Hoss insisted through quivering lips.  “It—it’s worse, even; them boys weren’t aimin’ to eat Charley.”

“Get out of that wagon and up to your room!” Ben bellowed.  “Maybe a little firm ‘conversation’ will help you see the difference.”

“Ben, please,” Marie remonstrated.  “He is—”

“A child,” Ben finished.  “Yes, I remember, but he is a child who is about to learn the consequences of disobedience and dishonesty!”  He stalked after Hoss, planting a hard palm against the boy’s posterior to hurry him forward.

“Nes’ry talk?” Little Joe whimpered sympathetically, looking to his mother for confirmation.

Oui, I fear so, mon petit,” she sighed.  Settling him on the wagon seat, she climbed down, then reached back to lift the child down and carry him inside.

* * * * *

Ben leaned his rifle against the broad trunk of a sugar pine and took a long swig of water from his canteen.  Capping the container, he lifted the gun and again started tracking “that fool turkey,” as he had begun calling the object of his search.  He’d been scouring the woods for hours, and although he’d once come across tracks that could only belong to the big bird, he’d lost them again in a part of the forest strewn thickly with pine needles.  Ben was beginning to wonder if he’d ever succeed in what seemed more and more like a hopeless quest; he was also beginning to wonder if he truly wanted to succeed.  He didn’t have an ally left in his entire household.  Though Hoss had freely admitted that he was wrong to turn the turkey loose, he had also boldly declared that he was glad he’d done it, “tannin’ and all.”  And when Ben had come downstairs after changing from his suit into something more appropriate for a hunt, he had met the cold stare of his wife and the tears of his youngest son.  Even Hop Sing, who had been anticipating the challenge of roasting his first turkey, looked more upset with Ben than with the guilty party upstairs who’d robbed him of the opportunity.  Ought to be some special word, Ben growled at himself—glum monger, grumble bear, gripy grinch . . . something coined just for a man who’d steal Christmas from the hearts of his loved ones.

Bad as he was feeling, though, Ben wouldn’t—couldn’t—give up the hunt.  He’d put his foot down so firmly that pride kept him from admitting that where he’d actually put it was square in his mouth.  I can’t afford to back down now, he told himself, or those boys will think they can flout my orders anytime they please, then put on a sad face and count on me to let them off.  Joseph already had a strong leaning in that direction and while Hoss rarely indulged in willfulness, it was better to prevent the first seed of that kind being sown than to weed out a whole crop of it later on.  That, at least, was the reasoning Ben used for refusing to simply let the turkey make good his escape.  Still, I was too hard on the boy, he admitted.  Confining him to his room on bread and water ‘til Christmas Day for what was basically an act of misguided kindness was simply going too far.  It was that edict that had brought the ice to his wife’s eyes and had sent tears streaming down Joseph’s cheeks at the thought of a hungry Hoss.  That much, at least, Ben realized, he was going to have to admit, to all of them, had been a mistake, no matter what battering his pride took in the telling.  After all, he couldn’t expect his sons to grow up honest unless he set the example himself.

Confound that boy’s tender heart, though; I wouldn’t be freezing my boots off out here now if he’d just be a little harder—Ben shook his head.  No, he didn’t really want that.  As cold and frustrated as he felt at the moment, he loved that sweet, sensitive son of his just the way he was.

Suddenly, his head jolted up from his careful examination of the ground.  There was no mistaking that sound!  He’d heard it, day in and day out, for better than a month now.  With a triumphant gleam in his eye, he turned left, listened again and again heard the welcome sound of a turkey’s gobble.  Step by stealthy step, he crept up on the unsuspecting bird until finally he had Christmas dinner in the sights of his rifle.  He cocked the gun, steadied his finger on the trigger and prepared to shoot.

The turkey lifted its head and looked directly at him, making no sound now nor moving one inch.  Ben aimed between the bird’s eyes, and it was as though they held him in a trance.  As unmoving as the bird, Ben stood, waiting . . . for what, he wasn’t sure.  He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to block out the image of the turkey pleading for his life.  When he looked again through the sights of his gun, however, the eyes he aimed between seemed to change color—first icy emerald, then almond brown, then shimmering green and, finally, sad, mournful cornflower.  Addle-pated by sentiment, that’s what you are, Ben Cartwright, the patriarch of the family chided himself.

Then with a smile he lowered the gun.  He hadn’t exactly heard the angels sing, but the message rang through his heart as clearly as the one that had filled the sky centuries before, with only slightly altered words.  “Peace on earth goodwill toward men,” the angels had sung the night of Christ’s birth, but, this Christmas the message was evidently intended to be goodwill toward turkeys.  “Merry Christmas, Fred,” Ben called, “and if you want it to be a happy New Year, you’d best get on over the summit into sunny California.”  As his loud laugh echoed through the trees, he shouldered his gun and walked away.  Now, if I can just find a steer that boy hasn’t named, he chuckled to himself.

It wasn’t precisely the merriest Christmas the Cartwrights ever spent.  Though Ben apologized for the excessive punishment and released Hoss from confinement, the boy still spent Christmas Eve, Christmas itself and several days thereafter in his room—in his bed, in fact, laid up with a nasty cold earned by his ill-clad, nighttime excursion to liberate Fred.  The rest of the family banded together, though, to make his Christmas as merry as it could be, sore throat and hacking cough considered.

The New Year, however, was not to be a happy one.  Ben persuaded Marie to attend the New Year’s Eve ball, but the atmosphere as they drove into Virginia City was far from festive.  Though it would be five days before the ugly headline would be blazoned across the front page of the next edition of the Territorial Enterprise, the entire town was abuzz with the latest news brought by the Pony Express.   What everyone had dreaded since the election of Abraham Lincoln had come to pass: South Carolina had seceded, the nation was divided, and the horrors of civil war loomed on the horizon.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Notes

Viewers of Bonanza may recognize the title character of “The Saga of Squaw Charlie” by Warren Douglas.  It is my belief, although unverified, that the character is loosely based on the historical figure presented in this chapter, spurned by his tribe for alleged cowardice at Pyramid Lake.  The Paiute parade into town happened as described, and the explanation given for Charlie’s humiliation is an exact quote from a historical text.

South Carolina passed a resolution of secession on December 20, 1860, the first of the southern states to leave the Union.  As with many historical events in this story, the date the news arrived in Virginia City is an approximation, based on the average time the Pony Express required to cover the distance.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

Call To Prayer

            “Come on!”  Little Joe tugged at the basket in his brother’s plump hand.  “You too slow, Hoss.”

Hoss just grinned without accelerating his steps even a fraction faster.  “And you’re a heap too feisty, if’n you ask me.  We’ll get there when we get there, Little Joe.”

“Wanna get there now,” the three-year-old insisted, turning loose of the basket and prancing ahead on the path through the woods.

“You get back here,” Hoss scolded.  “You know you ain’t s’posed to go off on your own.”

Little Joe tossed an impish grin over his shoulder.  “Catch me!” he challenged and trotted off.

“You little scamp, you come back here right now!” Hoss yelled, jogging after the flying feet.  Freed by his new Christmas pants from the flapping skirt that had inhibited his speed in the past, Little Joe could scamper away quicker than ever.  Fast as his legs could pump, though, they were still too short to escape a determined pursuit, and Hoss quickly overtook the laughing youngster and grabbed tight hold of his hand.  “You stay by me,” he demanded, “or there ain’t gonna be no picnic for you, you hear?”

“Okay,” Little Joe agreed, swinging Hoss’s hand cheerily as they walked along, side by side.  “Why no picnic for Mama and Pa, Hoss?”

“‘Cause they’s fastin’, that’s why,” Hoss said.

“What’s fastin’?” Joe asked.  “Like me?  I run fast.”  He started to demonstrate his claim, but was restrained by Hoss’s tight grip on his hand.

Hoss guffawed.  “Naw, not like that.  Fastin’ means not eatin’ nothin’.  The President of the whole country done asked everybody to fast and pray today so’s there won’t be no fightin’ back east.  It’s why Ma and Pa want us out of the house today, too, so’s God won’t have to strain His ears over our noise to hear their prayers.”  It was an explanation he had concocted on his own, but however hard he tried, Hoss couldn’t explain, to either himself or his little brother, why not eating was supposed to make folks feel less like fighting.  “Don’t make no sense to me,” the chunky boy observed to the youngster at his side, not because he expected any enlightenment from that source, but simply because he’d fallen into the habit of sharing everything with his most constant companion.  “Always makes me feel more like fightin’ when I’m hungry.”

Little Joe’s brow wrinkled with uncharacteristic worry.  If Hoss got into another fight, Pa would give him another necessary little talk, and the boy hated that happening to Hoss almost more than when he himself was on the receiving end of such a conversation.  He tugged imperatively at his big brother’s hand.  “Hurry, Hoss.  Eat so you not fight,” he urged.

Hoss, knowing that Little Joe had totally misunderstood him, nonetheless laughed and picked up his pace.  “Yeah, you’re right, punkin.  Eatin’ is a heap better than fightin’, so let’s get to it.”

* * * * *

Hop Sing shook his head in disgruntled confusion as he added chopped carrots and potatoes to the stew simmering on the stove.  Like Hoss, he saw no point in anyone’s missing a good meal because people far away were unhappy with each other, and this was the third meal the adults in his family would be missing.  He consoled himself with thinking that the little boys, at least, would welcome a bowl of hot, hearty stew when they came in from their afternoon of picnicking and playing in the cool January air.  Strange time for picnic, Hop Sing mused, but no snow on ground and not too cold for little boys to play outside.  Picnic keep them from foolishment of parents, so good thing, maybe-so.  Though he had packed their picnic hamper full, he knew that it would be empty when the boys returned, and that Hoss, in particular, would be eager for more of Hop Sing’s good cooking as soon as he came through the door.

Now, if only Missy Cartwright and Mr. Ben show good sense like number two son, he reflected.  He shook his head.  It wouldn’t happen.  Missy had been very firm when she told him about the fast, and though he considered the kitchen his personal kingdom, he knew he did not rule there unchallenged.  Mr. Ben he could handle, but Missy had a temper to rival his own, and Hop Sing had clearly seen signs this morning that she would brook no defiance of her edict.  Maybe she couldn’t, if it really came from the boss man of Yin Shan, land of the Silver Mountain.  Still, Hop Sing thought with a sly smile, there was nothing defiant about preparing a particularly aromatic stew.  It would not be his fault if the aroma were so enticing that Mr. Ben and Missy decided to show good sense and ignore the boss man in Washington.

* * * * *

Upstairs, there was unity, rather than confusion.  No longer Catholic and Protestant, nor New England Yankee and woman from the Deep South, Ben and Marie knelt side by side, each earnestly petitioning God, as outgoing President Buchanan had requested, for the gift of peace.  Ben’s stomach growled demandingly, and Marie paused, beads in hand, to smile in sympathy.

“The man’s trying to torture us,” Ben groaned as the scent of savory stew wafted through the open door to their bedroom.

Marie giggled and her rosary fell to her lap.  “Be strong, mon amour,” she said, laying a hand on his arm.

“I’m trying, my love; I really am,” Ben said.

“There is power in hungry prayer,” she affirmed, picking up the beads again after giving his arm a parting pat.

Ben nodded.  “And in united appeal,” he whispered as he again bowed his head.  Dear God, let it be enough, he prayed, all of us, all across this divided land, lifting our hearts in joint supplication for Your mercy.  Let it be enough.

* * * * *

Arms draped loosely over the top rail, Adam stood outside the corral at Rancho Hermoso, his eyes following the horse he’d ridden throughout his holiday stay with the Paynes, old family friends from the trail west.  The sun was just beginning to set, and he was hungry, having eaten nothing all day.  Rachel Payne had offered to have the cook prepare him something, but he hadn’t felt right about taking food when everyone else in the household—except, of course, for little Susan and Samuel—was fasting.  Rachel and her husband Jonathan had done a lot of praying that day, and not just because the President had called the nation to prayer.  The Paynes still had family back east, and they were naturally concerned about their safety if the divided nation actually came to war.

Adam had even done a little praying himself earlier that day, but he didn’t see much point in repeating the same words over and over.  He couldn’t, however, help worrying about how the news of South Carolina’s secession, which had arrived in California just after Christmas, would affect him personally.  He sighed deeply.  It looked as though fate or God or just plain bad luck kept throwing barriers between him and that college education he yearned for.  After long discussions with professors at the academy and letters back and forth to Jamie, he’d made his decision to attend Yale College, but now he wondered whether there would even be a Yale by the time he finished his work at the academy.  Would all the young men who would normally have enrolled in the freshman class next year be signing up with the Army, instead?  That would crush his dreams, naturally, but at least it would save him from ever bringing the subject up with Pa, a prospect he still found himself unable to face.  He’d have to write his friend soon and see what he thought about the situation.  Being closer to the strife, Jamie and his father might have a clearer view of its likely effect on educational opportunities.

On the other hand, Adam mused, maybe Connecticut will be just as much a foreign country to me as to anybody in South Carolina if that judge in Sacramento gets his way.  The local newspaper had that very morning carried an open letter from the judge advocating the formation of a Pacific Republic made up of California, Oregon, New Mexico, Washington and his home territory of Utah.  He found himself wondering what his father, who had tried so hard to stay neutral in the escalating conflict between North and South, would think of that idea.  What would we call ourselves if we weren’t Americans anymore?  Pacificans, maybe?

Lost in thought, he didn’t notice the gelding’s approach until he felt a nuzzle on his arm.  “Hi, fella,” he whispered, stroking the sorrel’s white blaze.  “You gonna miss me when I head back for school tomorrow?  I’ll sure miss you, you beauty.  Someday I’d like to have a horse just like you.”  The young man smiled slightly.  Maybe, if he couldn’t get back east to college, it might even be this very animal.  As well as Pa’s new lumber business had prospered, he might be persuaded to buy the sleek sorrel for his son.  Might have to do some fancy talking to explain why I should have this horse after insisting I wanted the black, but it would be worth it.  The faint smile widened into a grin as a possible solution struck his fancy.  The way Hoss keeps growing, maybe he’ll be ready to move up to the black by spring, and we can let Little Joe have Charcoal.  Adam laughed aloud as he pictured his tiny brother astraddle the gray mare.  The baby of the family would be quite awhile growing into even as small a horse as that one.

The sorrel nudged his arm again.  “Okay,” Adam chuckled.  “One last ride, huh, fella?”  The horse tossed his head, seeming to accept the proposal, and Adam scampered across the yard to the barn to fetch saddle and bridle.

* * * * *

There are times in the life of every believing man or woman, referred to in sacred literature as the dark night of the soul, when the heavens seem made of brass and prayer as pointless as a bell without a clapper.  As the year of 1861 began, the United States of America went through such a dark night of its national soul.  Throughout January the bad news poured in, as one state after another declared its intention to secede.  Only five days after the President’s proclaimed Day of Prayer on January 4th, Mississippi left the Union, followed the next day by Florida and the day following by Alabama.  Other southern states delayed a little longer, but by the end of the month Georgia and Louisiana had departed, as well.

The last state to leave the Union that month brought personal grief to Marie.  Louisiana was the place of her birth, and while not all her memories of life there were pleasant, to think that the haunts of her childhood were no longer part of the United States could not fail to disturb her.  “Your home is here now,” Ben said in an attempt to comfort her as they stood together before the great stone fireplace of the Ponderosa’s ranch house.

Oui, I know,” Marie conceded, her eyes misty, “but how would you feel if it were Massachusetts, Ben?”

“Men of my state fighting men of yours,” Ben muttered with a sad shake of his head.  “I pray it doesn’t come to that, my love.”

“Cousin Edward would be glad of the chance to take sword against your Massachusetts,” Marie sighed.  “I fear for him, Ben.”

“How can you?” Ben exploded.  “After all he did to you—destroying your first marriage, blackening your name, conniving with that—that fiend of a mother-in-law—”

Marie touched a finger to his lips.  “Oui, it is all true, but one cannot hold hate forever, Ben.  He is still my blood.”

Ben’s jaw hardened.  “In his case, I think I could hold hate forever.”

Eyes pleading, she took his face in her hands.  “His offense was against me.  If I choose to lay it down, do not pick it up for me, Benjamin.  How else is all the bitterness to end?”

Ben glanced away, into the flames of the fire.  He understood that she was talking about more than just herself and Edward now.  At some point the nation, too, would have to lay down its offenses and forgive or they would never be one nation again.  The very image of that man who had caused his wife such pain still brought fury to his heart, however, a fire he was, as yet, unwilling to bank.

Nor was the nation yet ready to bank its fires of contention.  January ended with the admission of Kansas as a free state, an action that scarcely brought back balance.  It was in Bloody Kansas that the slavery question had first erupted into violence, and it was hard not to believe that its statehood foreboded only more widespread violence.  Though Ben and all his neighbors had longed for statehood themselves, he found himself feeling almost glad that western Utah had not yet obtained that status and, thus, did not have to choose sides.  With all his heart he hoped their territory could stay out of the conflict, but every time he visited Carson City or its larger neighbor on Mt.Davidson, the talk in the street indicated that remaining neutral might well prove impossible.

February snows ordinarily kept the Cartwrights close to home, but because of the unsettled situation of the country, Ben forced himself to make the long ride into town every Saturday to snare a copy of the latest issue of the Territorial Enterprise.  The national news was increasingly bad, although local news provided a welcome respite, at least in the first half of the month.  A new toll road was being built between Washoe and Eagle valleys, which would significantly improve transportation to Carson City for the Cartwrights.  Of course, they might not even have to go that far for goods and services if the new town of Washoe City, now under construction, prospered as it hoped to.

As February entered its second half, however, it seemed as though the Comstock might be torn apart by a minor-scale civil war all its own, a war between two judges, each claiming jurisdiction over the territory.  It all started as a mining dispute, but because each mine favored the claims of a different judge, no decision acceptable to both sides could be reached.  Two mining companies, represented by two different lawyers, appealing to two different judges—the situation was rife with the potential for violence.  It finally erupted when the miners represented by David Terry took eighty rifles left over from the Pyramid Lake Indian War onto the disputed claim and erected a fort, manned by seventy-five armed men.

Judge Terry was in San Francisco at the time, and the other claimant’s lawyer, Bill Stewart, fast becoming Virginia City’s most able advocate in cases involving mines, met the opposing judge on the street.  Using the influence of his pistols, he forced the man to send a telegram disavowing his claim to jurisdiction.  By the time Terry returned the following day, the takeover was complete, and he could say nothing except that he had learned a good lesson.  “Never go to war unless you have your General in your own camp,” he declared and left that very night to resume both his law practice and his advocacy of southern sentiments in California.

The formation of the Confederate States of America was the worst news Ben brought home that bleak, cold February.  The United States was no longer united, but two separate nations with two separate presidents, one praying to leave quietly, the other declaring that the very act of secession was unconstitutional and would not be permitted.  “All it needs is one spark, one dispute as trivial as that mining claim fracas, and we’ll be at war,” Ben more than once predicted mournfully.

His two younger sons, untouched by the rising national unrest, simply rejoiced that by the end of the month the snows were too deep for Hoss to ride to school each day.  At first, Marie tried to keep him to his lessons, but Little Joe provided typical distraction with repeated pleas for Hoss to play with him until Ben finally told his wife to let the boys play.  “Someone should be happy,” he declared, “and children are the only ones left who can.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Notes

Judge David Terry appeared in “The War Comes to Washoe” by Alvin Sapinsley and was, in actual fact, as committed to the South as that episode indicates.  Terry’s supposed attempt to stampede the 1864 Nevada statehood convention could not have happened, since he had left the West in 1863 to fight for the Confederacy, in whose service he was wounded at Chickamauga.  However, at an earlier time he did plot with other Southern sympathizers to invade California and Nevada and sever their lines of communication with the East.  His reward, had that attempt been successful, was to be the governorship of Nevada.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

Uneasy Calm

            Ben held the team’s reins with one hand and with the other tugged the collar of his jacket tighter in a vain attempt to keep the brisk March breeze from whistling down his neck.  He was thankful, though, that all he’d had to contend with today was a chilly wind.   Throughout the first half of the month, snow had alternated with rain, keeping the roads in a quagmire and the Cartwrights effectively confined to the Ponderosa.  Not that the roads had been really impassible, of course, just uncomfortable enough to make staying home preferable to a trip to town, especially when all that waited there was, most likely, more bad news.

Today was Sunday, though, and what awaited Ben and his family in Carson City was a good meal and a pleasant afternoon with friends.  He smiled at his wife as they drove down Main Street.  “Looks like the bunting is still up from the Inauguration Day festivities.”

“That is a good sign, isn’t it?” Marie suggested from the depths of her rabbit-skin cape.  “Surely, it means there was an inauguration.”

“Yeah, that much, at least.”  There had been rumors of plots against the life of president-elect Lincoln, but the red, white and blue bunting draped from windows and balconies seemed to indicate that the town was still in a spirit of celebration, as it would not have been had such a tragedy occurred.

Ben and his family had elected not to attend the celebrations on March fourth in either Carson City or its more populous neighbor on Mount Davidson.  So far, western Utah only had telegraphic communication with California.  If wires had been strung from the east, so that they could read a copy of the new President’s first speech after being sworn in, Ben would have considered that worth a trip to town, no matter how inclement the weather, but the Pony Express was still the swiftest means of communication from that direction and that meant a delay of ten days.  Ben hoped that trouble with renegade Paiutes hadn’t hindered the latest relay riders and that Saturday’s issue of the Territorial Enterprise would have the full text of Lincoln’s Inaugural Address.

He turned the team onto a side street and drove the short distance to the Thomas’s yellow frame house.  “You and the boys get on inside,” Ben urged his wife.  “Send Clyde out to help stable the horses, if you can roust him out of his cozy chair.”

Marie cocked her head in mild reproof.  “I will ask him,” she said.

Ben smiled, knowing she probably wouldn’t even have to ask.

Hospitable and helpful as always, Clyde was already on his way to help with the team when Marie herded her boys onto the porch.  He held the front door open wide.  “Get on in,” he ordered.  “Wind’s mighty sharp today.”

Oui, it is,” Marie agreed with a shiver.  “Ben would appreciate your help with the team.”

“On my way,” Clyde said, pausing only long enough to give both Hoss and Little Joe a pat on the head.  He limped back toward the barn, where Ben was unharnessing the team from his buckboard.  “Need a hand?”

“Sure do,” Ben agreed.  “The quicker I get inside, the happier my bones will be.”

Clyde sported a grin that proved that Billy had come by his talent for teasing honestly.  “Bones get that way when they’re old.”

“You should know,” Ben drawled dryly.  He looked across the team at his friend.  “Pony rider get in?”

“Nice of you to care about my boy,” Clyde observed, mischievous grin still in residence on his mouth.

Ben glanced back, perturbed.  “Well, I do, of course, but I’m afraid I had a more selfish reason for asking this time.”

Clyde took one of the unhitched horses and headed for the barn.  “Yeah, I know.  It’s news you’re after, and you’re in luck, Ben boy, ‘cause there’s a passel of it.”

“The President’s Inaugural, I hope,” Ben said, following his friend in with the other horse.

“Full text,” Clyde said, leading the horse into a stall, “but that ain’t the big news of the day.”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  Bigger news than what the President of their country had to say concerning the impending crisis?  Hard to imagine, unless actual war had broken out.  No, Clyde was looking pleased as punch, so it had to be good news.  “I give up,” he said.  “What’s bigger news than that?”

Clyde leaned up against the wall of the stall and paused a moment for effect.  “Why, what the outgoing president done for this part of the country, just ‘fore he left office.”

A smile curved Ben’s lips as he guessed the news his friend was doling out, a hint at a time.  “No,” he murmured, excitement edging his voice.

Clyde’s grin spread from ear to ear.  “Yup.  You are now livin’ in the official territory of Nevada, Ben Cartwright.  Buchanan signed the bill March second.  Oh, and by the way, that brother of yours is livin’ in a new territory, too.  Colorado beat us to the punch by a couple of days.  Reckon he’ll be braggin’ on it in that letter waitin’ inside.”

“There’s a letter from John?”  Ben gave his friend a rough clap on the shoulder.  “Well, what are we doing out in the barn, then?”

Clyde rubbed his shoulder.  “Now, if that’s the way you take good news, I’d better not tell you there’s a letter from that Missouri friend of yours, too.  Not sure my old bones could take much more of your style of thanks.”

Ben laughed.  “I’ll try to restrain myself if you’ll help me get these horses tended to quickly, so I can sit in your cozy chair and read all this wonderful news.”

“Guess I better,” Clyde snorted, “just as a matter of self preservation.”

* * * * *

Ben chided himself later for being such a poor guest that afternoon, but he couldn’t resist the temptation to bury his nose in newspaper and letters from back east.  He read first the article dealing with the government of the new territory and learned that a New Yorker named James Warren Nye was to be the first governor of Nevada.  A mere political appointee, of course, with no ties to this part of the country, probably someone to whom Abraham Lincoln owed a debt of gratitude, but Ben would withhold judgment until he met the man.  At least, Nye, as the police commissioner of New York, had some experience with law and order, and that, in Ben’s view, was a major need of the new territory.

He next absorbed every word of Lincoln’s Inaugural Address, and as he read, he prayed that the slave-holding states would hear its clear plea to use Constitutional means for redress of their grievances, rather than ripping the Union apart.  One paragraph, especially, seemed to Ben to put forth such sound reasoning that he wondered how anyone could resist it.  “Physically speaking, we can not separate,” Lincoln had argued.  “We can not remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other, but the different parts of our country can not do this. They can not but remain face to face, and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them. Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory after separation than before? Can aliens make treaties easier than friends can make laws? Can treaties be more faithfully enforced between aliens than laws can among friends? Suppose you go to war, you can not fight always; and when, after much loss on both sides and no gain on either, you cease fighting, the identical old questions, as to terms of intercourse, are again upon you.”

Yet, even as Ben read, he feared that there would be men who failed to see that the inevitable result of secession would be bloodshed on both sides, which would in no way solve the problems dividing their beleaguered nation.  Lincoln had concluded his speech with a poignant promise: “In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The Government will not assail you.  You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors.”  Was it enough, this earnest petition for peace, to draw back those states that had already seceded or would pride keep them from returning and sectional loyalty prompt others to leave the Union, as well?

The letter from Josiah Edwards, which Ben read after setting the Territorial Enterprise aside, hinted that the answer would not be the one Ben hoped for.  Josiah had begun by welcoming Nevada Territory into the United States, but Ben could almost hear the wistful sigh with which his old friend expressed the hope that his own state would still be in the Union by the time this letter arrived.  Missouri was, as Ben recalled from his sojourn there, a slave state, but it was almost surrounded by states holding the opposing view, making its decision regarding secession particularly difficult.  A convention called for the purpose of considering secession had convened just before Josiah wrote, and while a pro-Union slate of delegates had been elected—by coercion, some said—the issue was still unresolved at the time he posted the letter.

John’s letter, at least, gave no hint of political division in his area.  It was filled, instead, with family news and contained, as Clyde had predicted, light-hearted teasing about Colorado’s making it into the Union sooner than his brother’s longer-settled section of the country.  Nothing at all in the letter to cause concern, but Ben sighed nonetheless, for it was becoming more and more obvious that John was solidly establishing himself a long distance from Carson Valley.

As he drove his family home that evening, however, Ben finally admitted that it wasn’t the news in the paper or in either of those letters that had left him feeling so glum that he hadn’t enjoyed his visit with his friends.  What bothered him more than anything he’d read was the fact that he’d had nothing whatsoever to read from his oldest son—again.  Times being what they were, he didn’t appreciate the sudden slackness in communicating that Adam had displayed this year.  From his own trips to Virginia City, Ben knew that heated political exchanges were a daily occurrence, even this far from the source of the conflict, and he assumed the same was true in California.  In fact, with Judge Terry back there, fomenting factionalism, California was a potentially more volatile powder keg than Nevada.  Adam’s silence, of course, did not mean that the boy had gotten caught up in sectional violence.  More than likely he was just absorbed in his schoolwork, but it could be something more serious, and that fear made Ben determine to send his eldest son a tersely worded admonition about writing more often.

* * * * *

Martin Gallagher settled into the padded seat of the family carriage and looked at his sober-faced friend.  “I take it you didn’t enjoy the meeting.”

Adam Cartwright’s head came up.  “No, it was interesting, especially your father’s speech.  I’m not sorry I went.  I guess it’s like my pa says, though: it’s an eastern conflict, not much to do with us out here.”

Martin chuckled.  “Now, that’s refreshing—you and your father agreeing on something!”

Adam responded with a sheepish smile.  “I’m not sure we really agree on this one, either.  Sometimes I think Pa wants to pretend that the Ponderosa is some kind of island, untouchable by anything worse than a winter blizzard.  He even tried to ignore the war with the Paiutes last summer, and you know how close to home that was.”

“But he did fight when it came down to it, when he realized that the external conflict did concern him,” Martin pointed out.  “That’s the main impression I came away with tonight, Adam, that the ‘eastern conflict,’ as you call it, does concern all of us, because the blight of slavery cannot be allowed to continue.  I can’t believe you feel otherwise.”

The carriage had pulled up in front of Adam’s boardinghouse, but he made no move to get out.  “I don’t feel otherwise about slavery,” he said.  “You know that, but is abolishing it worth going to war?  Maybe, if there’s no other way, but I’ve seen one war, remember?  I hope I never see another!”

Martin placed a slender hand on his friend’s broad shoulder.  “I can only imagine how horrible it was for you, Adam, but it was over and done with quickly, with little loss of life.  Everyone seems to think that if the Confederate States do declare war, they’ll be whipped just as easily as those Paiutes.  Isn’t it worth one such battle to bring freedom to an oppressed people?”

Adam shrugged.  “Maybe, but I want no part of it, and I as good as told Pa my feelings after the Battle of Pinnacle Mount.  That’s why his latest letter rankled so much, I guess, with all his warnings about staying out of political debates—again!  Honestly, sometimes he treats me like such a kid!”

Martin gave the shoulder on which his hand was resting a smart slap.  “That’s not what rankled you, my friend; it’s the scolding you got for not writing home as often as you should.  You, Adam Cartwright, are suffering from a guilty conscience.”

Smiling, Adam opened the door of the carriage.  “In that case, I’d better get up to my room and pull out some stationery.  At least, tonight’s meeting gives me something to write about.  Thanks for inviting me.”  He stepped down to the street.

“Sure.  Happy to have you.”  Martin leaned forward as Adam closed the carriage door.  “Give some thought to writing about something more personal than a political meeting, all right, Adam?”

“Now you’ve gone to meddling,” Adam chided.

“Just give it some thought,” his friend admonished once more as he tapped on the roof of the carriage to signal the driver to leave.  “Maybe what you think will be a full-scale war will be just one quick battle, like the others.”

Watching the carriage drive away, Adam shook his head.  One quick battle, huh?  Anyone who thought that had never tussled with Ben Cartwright.  Convincing his hard-headed father to allow him to attend college, when it went counter to all the man’s hopes and dreams, was probably a clash destined to go down in history right alongside the Peloponnesian War.  That one had lasted twenty-seven years, and if his confrontation with Pa was comparable, Adam figured he was likely to become the oldest freshman ever to matriculate at Yale.

* * * * *

On a warm, cloudless Saturday, the final one in March, Little Joe trotted his stick pony in endless circles around the dirt yard before the Ponderosa ranch house.  However hard he tried, however, he couldn’t make his little mount go fast the way he liked, the way Mama rode when he was in the saddle with her and Pa wasn’t around.  As a rider ambled in on a dark brown horse, Little Joe dropped his unsatisfactory pony into the dust and ran toward the visitor.

The man in the black frock coat and trousers stepped quickly down from his horse and greeted the small boy.  “Ah, I remember this angelic little face!  Not quite the picture of perfect innocence now, though, with this smudge marring the image.”  The man licked his thumb and rubbed it across the soft cheek.  “There, that’s better.  Is your father home, child?”

With a grin Little Joe shook his head and pointed to his right.  “Pa down there, in the garden, makin’ it bigger.”

“Well, I guess I’ll pay a visit to the garden then,” the man said pleasantly, standing to his feet.

“I take you,” Little Joe offered.

The man smiled.  “Pleased to have your company, child, but you mustn’t leave your pony lying in the yard like that.”

“Oh, no,” Joe assured him earnestly.  “I ride to garden.”

“I believe I’ll walk,” the man chuckled, gathering up his reins to lead the brown horse.

Little Joe frowned in thought for a moment.  Dragging his stick pony by its leather reins didn’t sound like much fun to him, so he straddled the stick and galloped off as fast as his short legs would carry him.  The man in the broad-brimmed black hat had no trouble keeping up, and a short walk or “ride” brought them both to the garden, where Ben Cartwright and his son Hoss were hard at work.

Hearing his youngest son loudly calling his name, Ben looked up and saw a stranger following the boy charging up on his makeshift mount.  He squinted at the man in the Sunday-go-to-meeting suit.  No, not a stranger, after all.  Ben was certain he’d seen that face before, though he couldn’t put a name to it at first.  Then a broad smile came across his face, and Ben stepped across the clods of upturned earth to welcome his visitor.  “Reverend Bennett!” he cried.  “What a pleasure to see you again.  Are you going to hold another revival service in the area?  I do hope so.”

Hoss had tossed aside his shovel and come running as soon as his father called the visitor’s name.  “Me, too,” he panted as he came to his father’s side.  “I liked them kind of services!”

The Reverend Jesse Bennett took Ben’s extended hand and gave it a hearty shake, as he favored the youngster with a warm smile.  “You do gratify my heart, my boy, but, no, I haven’t come to preach a revival.”

“Aw, shucks,” Hoss said.  “I’d sure rather hear you than that—”

“Hoss,” Ben cautioned sharply.

Hoss bit his lip and scuffed his boot through the furrow at the edge of the garden.

“Now, you didn’t let me finish,” the minister chided gently.  “I’m not here to preach a revival, but to set up a permanent church.”

“That’s wonderful news, isn’t it, Hoss?” Ben said, placing an arm across his middle son’s hefty shoulders.

“Yes, sir, it sure is!”

“I’ve been here a short time, doing some street preaching in Virginia City,” Bennett explained, “but a regular minister has been assigned there now, and I’m pioneering a work in the new town of Washoe City.  Since that would be a shorter distance for your family, I took the liberty of calling to invite you to our special Easter services tomorrow.”

“Hey, can we, Pa?” Hoss asked eagerly.

“Of course, we can, son,” Ben replied earnestly.  “It will be a privilege to hear you preach again, Reverend.”

“I’ll hope to see you regularly then,” Reverend Bennett said as he swung up into the saddle.

“As regularly as we can,” Ben said hesitantly, for he had just spied a flash of green merino fabric.

Marie, who had been running down the path to the garden in search of her wayward youngest son, moderated her gait when she saw the stranger talking to Ben.

Ben stretched an arm toward her.  “Marie, my love, look who’s come to invite us to Easter services tomorrow morning, our own Reverend Bennett.”

“Ah, oui, I remember you now, Monsieur,” Marie said.

“Pleased to see you once more, Sister Cartwright,” the minister said and continued in blithe ignorance of the family’s religious division, “I wish I could stay longer, but I have a number of other settlers to call on this morning, so I’ll leave you to your work and be about mine.  I’ll see you tomorrow.”  After exchanging another handshake with Ben and tipping his hat to Marie, he wheeled the horse and rode back the way he had come.

When the man of God was out of sight, Marie planted both hands on her hips and stared at Ben.  “He will see us tomorrow, will he?  I think he will not see me, mon mari!”

“Aw, shucks, Ma, don’t you like his preachin’?” Hoss asked.  “I sure do!”

“That is fine, Hoss,” his mother said, “and you are welcome to attend church with your father in the morning.  He and I, however, need to have a ‘very necessary little talk,’ I believe!”

Hearing the fire in her voice, Ben patted Hoss on the shoulder.  “Just a little discussion, son, nothing more.  You get back to spading up the garden and—Little Joe, quit galloping that pony through the dirt!”

Marie giggled at the sight of her son, kicking up clods with every trot of his stick horse through the upturned earth.  “I think a bath will be in order for that one before he attends anyone’s church.”  She smiled up at Ben, her anger dissipating as quickly as it had risen.  “Why did you let this man think I would be coming, Ben?  Surely, you do not expect me to attend church with you when you refuse to attend with me.”

“No, no, that wouldn’t be fair,” Ben admitted.  He put an arm around his wife.  “I didn’t mean to lead him astray, Marie.  I just didn’t think to tell him of our unique situation.  Perhaps I’d better set him straight tomorrow.”

Mais oui, I think that would be best.”

“What brought you down here—or can I guess?” Ben asked, with a smile toward the garden.

“I think you can,” Marie laughed.  She pointed to the thin line etched by the stick pony in the path from the house.  “I had only to follow the tracks.  Shall I take him back or do you wish his help this morning?”

“No, thank you,” Ben chuckled.  He called Little Joe and then turned back to his wife.  “You won’t pay me back that way, my love; the punishment exceeds the crime.”

Oui, wrestling him in church tomorrow will be punishment enough,” she teased.

“Sure you wouldn’t rather keep him at home?” Ben suggested.

“Oh, no, no,” Marie tittered, wagging her finger beneath his nose.  “He must be exposed to both faiths, non?”

Ben nodded as the child in question trotted up to his side.  Ben planted a light swat on the boy’s backside.  “Back up to the house, you scamp,” he ordered.  “You know you’re not supposed to be down here.”

Little Joe took off toward home.  Marie started after him, but turned as an idea struck her.  “Ben, perhaps the Thomases would wish to attend the new church, too, especially as they were coming here to dinner tomorrow, anyway.  You should inform them.”

“That’s a good idea,” Ben called back, “and I know just the Pony rider to send with that message.”

“Just so long as it is not the one who rides a stick pony,” Marie giggled.  Gathering her skirts, she took off after her youngest son.

* * * * *

“Lands, you didn’t need to go to the trouble of a full-course meal, just for us,” Nelly said in mild rebuke as Hop Sing served each person at the table a bowl of onion soup with toasted bread and cheese floating on top.

“Ah, but you are special guests, worth a little extra effort,” Marie responded.

Nelly sent her sweetest smile across the table.  “But, honey, if you’d just fixed a simple meal, you’d’ve had time to go into town and hear Reverend Bennett.  You sure missed a fine sermon this morning, didn’t she, Ben?”

“It was meaningful,” Ben agreed, keeping his reply circumspect to avoid giving offense to either of the ladies flanking him at the table, “but the choice is Marie’s.”

“And you all know my choice,” Marie declared firmly.  In a more moderate voice she added, “Let us not quarrel.  Truly, it is no trouble to offer you a good meal, for Hop Sing does most of the work.”

“Well, I reckon that’s so,” Nelly admitted.  “Sure makes my meals look like poor man’s feed, though.”

“That’s as is fittin’ for poor folks like us, Nelly gal,” Clyde cackled beside her.

“Nelly’s cooking is magnifique,” Marie objected.  “It is fare fit for kings.”

“It sure is!” Hoss agreed.

Mais oui,” Marie reiterated.  “You must never feel that your meals compare poorly with Hop Sing’s, Nelly.  We all look forward to the Sundays we dine in your home.”

Nelly blushed, but it was evident that she was pleased by the compliments, especially Hoss’s hearty one.  “Still, if you was to come with Ben, you’d get a chance to see your new town.  It’s shapin’ up to be quite a place.”

“That it is,” Ben agreed quickly, hoping to forestall any more religious argument.  “I was surprised to see so many businesses sprouting up.  I think Washoe City intends to make a bid to be the main distribution center for all goods coming in from California.”  He winked across the table, fully expecting Clyde to take issue with that evaluation.

Clyde took the bait.  “Didn’t look like such a much to me.  ‘Course, if you favor those upstarts’ supplies over what you get in Carson City, I reckon that’s your business.”

Nelly erupted with laughter.  “Oh, don’t get your hackles up, you old rooster.  Can’t you see Ben’s funnin’ with you?”

Clyde cocked an appraising eye at his friend and shook his head at the twitching lips.  “Cartwrights,” he snorted.  “Critters don’t come any ornerier.”

“Well, I can think of one,” Ben chuckled, “though I miss seeing that ornery redheaded critter.”

“So do I,” Nelly added with a wistful smile, “but that Pony Express keeps him mighty busy.”

“He’s doing an important service,” Ben said, “especially in these troubled times.  Did he bring any news of interest this trip?”

“Just what’s in the paper I brung you,” Clyde said.  “Louisiana joined up with the Confederacy, but we was expectin’ that after she seceded, no disrespect to you, Marie.”

“I take none,” she said at once, “though it saddens me to hear such news of my old home.”

“You’re Nevadan now,” Nelly reminded her.

“And that’s neither North nor South,” Ben added firmly.

“That’s right,” Clyde announced.  “No need to argue the slavery question out here, when we got more interestin’ stuff to bicker over.”  When everyone looked questioningly at him, he sported a mischievous grin and asked, “So, which is it to be next Sunday, Catholic chapel or Methodist-Episcopal?”

Nelly slapped his leg in rebuke, but it was Ben who answered.  “Chapel,” he said.  “We take turns, and you know that, you old troublemaker.”

Nelly nodded, feeling both embarrassed by her husband’s capers and disappointed in her friends’ decision.  “You take her to an early Mass, then, Ben, so you’ll have time to drive down to Carson for dinner.  We can hold it a mite, if need be.  Ain’t a bit of sense in you eatin’ in some restaurant when there’s good home cookin’ within reach; leastwise, you said you liked it.”

“And meant it.  We’ll do just that,” Ben said after seeing his wife nod, smiling.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The Storm Breaks

            Though occasional showers still fell in April, spring had come once again to the Ponderosa.  Hillsides and meadows alike were splashed with verdant green and dotted with blossoms in a myriad hues.  After planting onions and potatoes early in the month, Marie finally paid a visit to Washoe City and came home determined to bring the colors of spring into their own front yard.  Window boxes were planted with geraniums, and a wooden tub beside the porch sprouted a climbing rose that she hoped would one day spread its beauty over the roof.  In addition, a small dogwood tree, transplanted from a nearby stream bank, graced the far end of the house, and an assortment of flower seeds were sown along the wall on either side of it.

The other Cartwrights also welcomed the return of pleasant days and balmy breezes.  Hoss and Little Joe were thrilled to spend more time outdoors, and as soon as the older boy returned from school each day, he would hurry through his chores, so he and his little brother could tramp through the woods or seek out a nearby fishing spot.  Though young himself, Hoss was trusted implicitly to keep the inquisitive toddler from harm, and he basked in his parents’ confidence and the whole-hearted admiration of that bright-eyed tagalong.

As Ben rode each day from the scene of one ranch operation to another, he surveyed with satisfaction the blossoming of his dreams.  Everywhere he looked were signs of growth, not always appreciable in the ledger book, but visible to the naked eye.  Cattle fattening, timber operation starting up again, the sheer beauty of this land he called his own breathing fresh life into his winter-worn spirit, as spring seemed always to do.  The Ponderosa was a busy place these days, and Ben looked eagerly toward the day his eldest son would arrive to help him and to enjoy the fruition of what they had envisioned together.

Only Adam failed to rejoice in the coming of spring.  In California, of course, he never experienced the harshness of winter, but he normally looked forward to spring as an indicator that he would soon be going home.  Not this year.  He had lived in dread of the coming confrontation for so long that, as April advanced, he almost found himself wishing that the school term this year might never end.

* * * * *

Shadows were beginning to lengthen the final Saturday in April when Ben shouldered his garden tools and headed back toward the house with Hoss at his side.  The two of them had been hard at work all afternoon, planting root vegetables like parsnips, carrots, beets and turnips, and both of them wore the sweat-stained shirts to prove it.

Ben smiled as he walked into the yard and saw his wife, seated behind a wooden table on the covered porch, her dress as stained as his shirt.  He knew the dirt hadn’t come from the work she’d done.  Marie had been planting window boxes with tomato and cabbage seed, to be transferred to the garden when the young plants had taken root, and that wasn’t ordinarily a grimy job.  Ben suspected the dirt had come from cuddling the rather grubby boy now chasing Klamath around the yard.  “You need a bath,” he whispered as he stepped close and kissed her cheek.

Mais oui, and you also,” she laughed, “but I think our baby son should go first.”

“No, thanks,” Ben snorted as he scooped up the toddler, who had just run up to him while the little brown dog ran over to greet Hoss.  “I don’t relish second chance on bath water after this much dirt comes off.”  He swatted Little Joe’s dusty britches.

“Nor I, but if I precede him, I shall surely need to bathe twice, and that I do not wish,” Marie laughed.  “I will bathe Joseph first and then myself, mon mari.”

“That’s fine,” Ben assured her.  “Hoss and I will just sit out here and relax, won’t we, son?”

“No!” Little Joe yelped as his father placed him in his mother’s arms.  “Hoss wanna play wif me.”

“Someone’s comin’,” Hoss announced, and when the others stopped to listen, they, too, could hear the clop of horses’ hooves and the rumble of wagon wheels coming down the road.

“Oh, look at us,” Marie fretted, brushing her dress with the hand not holding Little Joe.  “What will these visitors think?”

“That we’re people who work for a living,” Ben grunted.  “There’s no shame in honest sweat, Marie.”

“I know that, Ben,” she started testily, “but—oh, it is Clyde and Nelly!”

Smiling, Ben walked to the side of the wagon as it pulled into the yard.  “Well, now, to what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?”

“Don’t reckon you’ll think it a pleasure when you hear why we come,” Clyde muttered as he climbed down from the rig and reached back to help his wife down.

“It is always a pleasure to see you,” Marie insisted, “though we did not expect you ‘til tomorrow.”

Little Joe leaned forward, arms stretched toward Nelly, who gathered him up and hugged him tight.

“Oh, Nelly, he will soil your dress,” Marie fretted.

“No harm done,” Nelly assured her, though her face did not reflect the older woman’s customary ease of manner.

Ben moved to the back of the wagon to lift little Inger from the buckboard and cocked a glance at the carpetbags he saw behind the wagon seat.

“Took the liberty of bringin’ our duds, so’s we could spend the night, since we was plannin’ to go to church with you in the mornin’,” Clyde said, following Ben’s line of sight.  “Figured you’d want to hear the news soon as possible.”

Ben folded his arms and arched an eyebrow.  “You comin’ out to weasel a free meal isn’t anything new, so what news might that be?”

“Oh, Ben, it’s war!” Nelly cried, eyes moist.

Ben gasped and Marie grew pale.  “Oh, no,” she murmured.

“It’s finally happened, then, actual fighting?” Ben queried, his face grim.

Clyde nodded soberly.  “Yeah, them dad-blamed rebels opened fire on Ft. Sumter on April 12th.  Took it two days later.  Lincoln’s called for seventy-five thousand volunteers to serve for three months.  He just calls it an ‘insurrection,’ but I reckon my Nelly’s got the right of it—it’s war, plain and simple.  Brung you the Enterprise so’s you can read all about it; it’s packed away in the bag there.”

“I’ll read it later,” Ben said.  He shook his head.  “So it’s come to that, open warfare.  God help this country; God help us all.”

Marie hung her head, almost as if she felt responsible for the actions of those other Southerners.

Nelly touched her arm gently.  “Hope we ain’t puttin’ you out, invitin’ ourselves to spend the night.”

Marie looked up and forced a smile to her lips.  “Oh, no.  As you can see, we are all much in need of a bath, so if you will just make yourselves at home, we will make ourselves more presentable for guests.”

Nelly tweaked Little Joe’s nose, making him giggle.  “You go right ahead and don’t pay us no mind.  ‘Spect you’d better start with this little mess of a boy.”

Marie laughed weakly, as though she feared mirth of any kind inappropriate after hearing such sober news.  “Oui.  That is just what Ben and I were discussing when you drove up.”

* * * * *

The swing in the backyard at Molly Maguire’s boardinghouse for boys was large enough for two, but that Saturday afternoon only one forlorn figure sat sideways on the wooden planks, knees drawn up and arms wrapped around them.  Adam knew that he’d soon have to vacate his private thinking place, for one of his rooming mates was sure to want that swing to entertain a girl.  If he hadn’t been feeling so miserable, Adam might have confiscated that swing for a date of his own, but he didn’t think it right to subject any girl to a mood as black as his.

Adam felt decidedly alone in his reaction to the news about Ft. Sumter, although logic told him that there had to be some people who saw the situation as he did.  He hadn’t seen any, however.  Ever since the Pony rider had raced into town, waving his hat and crying, “War!” the streets of Sacramento had rung with sounds of celebration.  Everywhere Adam went, he saw balconies draped with bunting of red, white and blue and heard the rhetoric of fast and certain victory.  Didn’t they realize, these fools dancing in the streets, that war meant blood spilled in the sand, not parades and bands playing?  No, he wanted to shout at them, war means death, and not one-sided death, either.

Adam knew he wasn’t being entirely honest with himself, though.  It wasn’t really the thought of bloodshed back east that troubled him; it was the black clouds looming on his personal horizon that kept him huddled in a despondent ball on the swing, swaying aimlessly back and forth.  Facing Pa with a request to go back east had seemed comparable to fighting that Peloponnesian fracas before, but now Adam figured the confrontation might last as long as the Hundred Years War he’d read about in European history.  What hope was there that his father would consent to his heading right into a battle zone?  New Haven, Connecticut, was a long way from Ft.Sumter, of course, so it seemed unlikely that actual fighting would reach that far north, but Adam wasn’t sure Pa would see the logic of that.  Maybe I’ll get lucky and all these prophets will be right, Adam mused.  Maybe it will take just one or two quick battles to finish this war, and it’ll all be over by the time I need to leave.  Sooner or later I have to talk to Pa, but not now, not while everything’s so unsettled.  Watch and wait, I guess.  Watching and waiting was hard, though, especially when all he could see were storm clouds glowering over his head without a single shaft of light to pierce the blackness descending on his soul.

* * * * *

Though Ben, Marie, Clyde and Nelly had stayed up long after the children went to bed that night, talking about the implications of the national situation, they were all up early and dressed for church the next morning.  To Ben’s surprise, that even included his wife.

Marie offered no explanation.  She merely said that she would like to worship with them “this once,” lest anyone think her sudden change of attitude reflected a permanent one.  She understood now what Ben had meant at Christmastime when he suggested that there were certain times a person wanted to be in church, even one not of his or her personal persuasion.   When a nation goes to war, she thought instinctively, was such a time, a time for citizens to band together, to seek the counsel of godly men and offer prayers together, regardless of creed, just as she and Ben had done earlier that year.  Odd, Marie reflected as they returned to the Ponderosa after an inspiring sermon and a season of prayer had brought a sense of peace to all their burdened souls.  This war is tearing our nation apart, but it seems to bring Ben and me closer together, to remind us of all we hold in common.

“Let’s go see that garden now,” Inger demanded as soon as the youngsters had scrambled from the back of the Cartwright’s wagon.

“You just hold on, young lady,” her mother declared.  “You’re not goin’ anywhere ‘til you change out of your good dress.”

“Aw, Ma, I done waited forever now,” Inger protested.  “You said it was too late when we got here last night and there wasn’t time this morning.”

“I reckon that garden’ll still be there ten minutes from now,” Clyde snorted.  “You do like your ma says.”

Inger frowned, but murmured, “Yes, Pa.”

Ben gave the little girl’s strawberry bangs a light-handed brush.  “There’s not much to see, child, just a few leaves sprouting so far.”

Inger’s lips thrust out in a petulant pout.  “I know what gardens look like this time of year, but I don’t care.  I wanna do something.”

Nelly put both hands on her daughter’s shoulders and pointed her toward the house.  “Changing your dress is something.  Now, git!”  She smiled toward Marie.  “Never seen a youngun yet that took to sittin’ still all mornin’.”

“This one, especially,” Marie agreed, pointing her chin at the boy struggling to get down from her arms.  “No, Little Joe,” she said as she moved toward the house.  “Like Inger, you must change clothes before you go to the garden.”

“Aw, Ma, have we got to take him?” Hoss moaned, trailing them inside.

Oui, you do.  None of us wants to listen to him wail when he is left behind.”

Hoss threw a pleading glance at his father, who merely shook his head.  Hoss sighed and began to drag himself upstairs to change.

The two larger youngsters were back downstairs almost before the adults had time to take off their coats and hats, and both perched impatiently on the fireside table, waiting for Little Joe.  Finally, he was ready, too, and all three children charged outside, bounding down the path to the garden.  “It’s like Pa said,” Hoss told his friend, “not much growin’ yet.”

“Aw, I don’t care.  I just want to see if it’s big as you said,” Inger giggled.  “That and I don’t want to hear no more talk about that war, and that’s all we’ll hear if stay around the grown folks.”

“War’s a bad thing,” Hoss said.  “Nothin’ but folks fightin’ who ought to get along.”

“You just think that ‘cause you get a lickin’ when you do it!” Inger tittered and, grabbing Little Joe’s hand, she took off down the path.

“Might just have to give you one if you keep up the sass!” a grinning Hoss hollered after her.

Inger had stopped at the edge of the garden.  “It’s a right good size,” she admitted when Hoss caught up, “and a lot bigger than ours, but we got all we need for the three of us—and Billy, too, when he makes it in for a meal.  Ma even figures we might have some produce to sell to the tradin’ post.  That what your folks are aimin’ to do with the extra?”

Hoss laughed.  “What extra?  You’re forgettin’ that we got ranch hands and lumberjacks to feed, too.”

“Not to mention you!” Inger giggled.  “Hey, race you up to the ridge.”  She took off around the end of the garden, aiming toward the rise just south of the Ponderosa.

Little Joe started after her, but Hoss easily overtook the short-limbed toddler and grabbed him.  “We ain’t racin’, punkin,” he said firmly.  “Pa said not to stay gone long, and I don’t aim to, ‘cause I don’t want Hop Sing mad at me.  Dinner’ll be ‘most any minute.”

Little Joe pulled on Hoss’s hand as he pointed toward the ridge.  “Ingy gone,” he insisted.  “Gotta get her or Hop Sing be mad.”

Hoss scowled.  “Reckon you’re right, at that, punkin.  Doggone that girl, sometimes she’s ‘most as much trouble as you!”  Letting his younger brother take the lead, Hoss trudged up the rise after his little friend, whom he could still see ahead.  About halfway up the slope he heard a high-pitched squeal and, looking up, he saw Inger squat down below the horizon.  Sensing something wrong, he hurried forward, although Inger was frantically waving him back.

“What matter wif Ingy?” Little Joe asked.

“Don’t know.  Somethin’s up, though.  Hold tight to my hand, Little Joe.”  Growing concerned, Hoss plunged ahead.  He could tell that Inger was trying to hide, so he approached her stealthily and whispered when he spoke.  “What’s wrong?”

“Injuns,” Inger hissed back.

Little Joe’s eyes grew wide as he spotted the painted warriors riding along the top of the ridge.  “Inj—”

Hoss clapped a rough hand over the small mouth and pulled his younger brother between his legs.  “Be quiet,” he whispered in the boy’s ear.  “Quiet and still as a mouse, punkin.”

Not liking the hand over his mouth, Little Joe squirmed, trying to get free.

“Keep still or I’ll spank!” Hoss hissed.

The threat, idle one though it was, proved effective.  Little Joe sat still, and all three children watched the Indians file past.  Surprisingly, considering the noise the children had made, none of the bronze-skinned men looked their direction.  Either the Indians hadn’t heard them, which didn’t seem likely, or they had, but were unconcerned about a handful of children.

As the end of the line moved past them, Hoss leaned toward Inger.  “We got to get back to the house,” he whispered.  “You go first and move quiet.  We’ll follow.”

Inger nodded, gathered up her skirt so it wouldn’t swish in the grass and moved slowly down the hill, taking frequent furtive glances over her shoulder.  When she’d gotten well away without attracting notice, Hoss hugged Little Joe to his chest, stood up and followed, moving slowly at first and then picking up speed as he got further from the ridge.  By the time he reached the garden he had overtaken Inger and both of them took off at a run.  They were all screaming as they ran into the yard.

The side door into the kitchen opened first, and Hop Sing stomped through.  “Why you all-a time gotta yell?  Dinnah waiting and—”

“Injuns!” Inger shrieked.

Hop Sing’s almond eyes darted in all directions.  “Where?”

The front door opened and Ben came through.  “What’s all the ruckus?”  He eyed his older son with disapproval.  “I thought I told you not to stay long.”

“Injuns, Pa,” Hoss panted, “up on the ridge.”

“So?  Probably some Washos heading up to the lake to fish,” Ben said.

Hoss shook his head vigorously.  “No, Pa.  Not Washos.  Paiutes, I think, and some others that looked different—and they’s all wearin’ war paint!”

Clyde Thomas had joined his friend on the porch to investigate the commotion, and the two women were just coming up behind them when Hoss made his announcement.  “You see ‘em, too, girl?” Clyde asked.

“Yes, Pa!” Inger exclaimed.  “It’s just like Hoss said.  Some were Paiutes, and some were dressed different than I’ve seen before, but they was all painted.”

Clyde turned to the man at his side.  “What you make of it, Ben?  Would’ve thought them Paiutes got their fill of fightin’ last spring.  You don’t reckon they aim to attack again, maybe thinkin’ the white men is wrapped up with a war of their own and won’t have the strength to fight two at once?”

“I doubt they’ve heard about Ft.Sumter,” Ben muttered.  “We barely have ourselves!  Numaga promised to keep the peace for a year, and I believe him to be an honorable man.  It doesn’t sound good, though.”

“Reckon we oughta check it out?”

Ben nodded soberly.  “Yeah.  You can borrow Adam’s black.”

Hop Sing scurried forward as Ben and Clyde headed toward the barn.  “You eat first, Mr. Ben!  Dinnah all leady.”

“We’ll eat later,” Ben called over his shoulder.  “The rest of you go ahead.”

Hop Sing considered threatening to go back to China, but seeing the determined set of Mr. Cartwright’s shoulder, he quickly changed his mind.  Mister Ben was doing the honorable thing in putting his family’s safety before his empty belly, so for once the little Oriental would not chide him.  Those who remained behind, however, were convenient and acceptable targets for his bullying.  “Please to come to table now, Missy,” he dictated, “or I thlow food out.”

“In one moment, Hop Sing,” Marie stated firmly.  “I wish a word with my husband.”

“And me with mine,” Nelly added quickly.

Hop Sing planted his hands on his hips and gave both ladies a ferocious glare.  Little Inger jumped back, clearly cowed, but Hoss just took the cook by the elbow.  “I’m about to faint away, Hop Sing.  You reckon us three younguns could come in and fill our plates?”

“Humph!” Hop Sing snorted, loud enough for those in the barn to hear.  “Young ones only ones with sense today, I think.  Yes, velly good; you come table now.”

Ben and Clyde, each with his wife at his side, led a horse from the barn.  “Be careful, Ben,” Marie whispered as she rose on her toes to kiss him.

“I will,” Ben promised as he kissed her back.  Beyond them, Clyde and Nelly were exchanging similar endearments.

The men mounted and walked their horses out of the yard.  They retraced the path the children had described and rode up to the ridge.  Clyde pointed to the tracks, plainly visible in ground still soft from spring rains.  “Unshod horses, all right.”

“Yeah, Indian ponies, most likely,” Ben admitted.  “We’ll follow a ways, but try to keep far enough back so we don’t spook them.”

“Right,” Clyde agreed, dropping his voice warily, though he had no reason to think the Indians were close enough to hear them.  He let Ben take the lead, bringing Adam’s black horse in behind the bay gelding.  Since they were moving slowly, it took the men almost an hour to come close enough to the Indians to spot them.  By that time the painted warriors had left the ridge, still moving in a straight line toward the south.

Ben and Clyde remained on the ridge, looking down from the cover of the pines.  “Don’t look like they’re headed toward any of the settlements,” Clyde remarked, “but they are painted up, like the younguns said.  What you make of it, Ben?”

Eyes fixed on the valley below, Ben shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Those others—I’ve seen men dressed like that in the Paiute camp before.  I think they’re Bannock, and, worse yet, that’s Wahe riding at their head.”

“Wahe?” Clyde’s brow wrinkled.  “Don’t recall that name, Ben.”

“You fought him.  Winnemucca’s half-Bannock brother,” Ben reminded his friend.  “Winnemucca has no great love for white men, but he’s a reasonable man.  Wahe—totally different—cunning, cruel.  Numaga’s promise would mean nothing to him.  With Wahe around, I have to think that means trouble is brewing, though not come to full boil yet, it appears.”

“Maybe I ought to take my folks home and ride on to Fort Churchill, let the army know,” Clyde suggested.

“You couldn’t get to the fort before dark, and night’s no time to be out alone if those are renegades, looking for trouble,” Ben pointed out.  “I was due to go into Virginia City tomorrow, anyway, to discuss a new timber contract with another mine.  I’ll gather my gear and ride in tonight.  Maybe I can arrange my business for late this evening—or reschedule it, if not—and leave for the fort first thing in the morning.”

“Want me to take Marie and the boys back with me?” Clyde offered.

Ben smiled.  “What, and deprive Hoss of a day of school?  Well, maybe the boy deserves a vacation.  I doubt there’s any danger yet, but, yeah, I’d feel better if they were with you.”

* * * * *

The streets of Virginia City were agitated when Ben rode in late that Sunday afternoon, though not with concern for another Indian uprising.  War talk, north versus south, that’s what filled the air as he rode down C Street to the International Hotel.  Though the accommodations weren’t quite as good as at the Virginia, Ben wasn’t about to make the mistake of staying there again.  He wanted no part of the conflict back east, but he favored seeing the Union preserved, and that put him in direct opposition to most of the people who stayed at that hotel.

After signing the guest register, Ben went to his room to change into a suit.  Since most mines and mills shut down on Sunday, he wasn’t sure he would find anyone at the offices of Gould and Curry, but he wanted to look his best, in case the business meeting did come off that night.  First impressions could be important, he remembered from his years of wandering from town to town in search of work, and he did want this contract.  It would make a nice surprise for Adam, due to arrive home about a month from now.  This contract makes it definite that I’ll be putting the boy in complete charge of the new operation.  Yeah, he’ll be pleased as punch to get that responsibility as his graduation gift.  Make him feel himself a man..

Walking down to F Street, he found the superintendent of the mine in his office, working on the books, and when the man learned why Ben Cartwright wished to move the date of their meeting, he was completely agreeable.  After some preliminary discussion they agreed on basic terms, and the superintendent suggested that he have a contract drawn up and ready for Mr. Cartwright’s final approval upon his return from Fort Churchill.  A handshake sealed the bargain, and Ben went back to the International in search of supper.

* * * * *

Ben knocked sharply on the door to the Indian Agency and was startled when it was answered by a young Paiute man.  “I need to see Warren Wasson,” he said a bit brusquely, the nature of his business making him somewhat uneasy in the presence of an unknown Indian.

“Ask him to come in,” came the instruction from within, and the bronzed man silently opened the door to admit the visitor.

Warren Wasson, acting Indian agent while Frederick Dodge was away in Washington, D. C., scooted his chair back from his desk and stood as soon as he recognized his caller.  “Ben Cartwright!  What brings you this far from the Ponderosa?”  He walked forward to greet his old acquaintance.

Ben shook the hand of the man, whom he had long respected for his concern for the Indians.  “Trouble, possibly.”  He glanced furtively at the young Paiute, who had gone back to his work of straightening up the office.  “I saw some suspicious movement on the Ponderosa, and when I reported it to Colonel Lander at FortChurchill, he asked me to bring the report directly to you.”

Wasson motioned toward a chair beside his desk and sat down in the one he had just vacated.  “This suspicious movement involved Indians, I take it.”

Ben’s head bent questioningly toward the Paiute in the room.

“He’s all right.  You may speak freely,” Wasson assured him.

Ben still seemed hesitant, but he began, “Well, it was a combined group of Bannocks and Paiutes I saw, headed south.”

“Toward Walker River,” Wasson supplied.

Ben’s eyebrow arched up.  “Then you’re aware of it already.”

“To some extent,” the Indian agent said.  “They’ve been congregating near the mouth of the river, presumably to fish, though the number is larger than expected, somewhere near fifteen hundred.  Nor, for that matter, did I anticipate Bannock participation, although that isn’t necessarily suspicious.  There are ties between the two tribes, as you know.”

“In some cases, family ties,” Ben returned soberly, “as with the man leading those I saw—Wahe.”  He’d kept his eye on Wasson’s Paiute servant as he mentioned the name and was not surprised to see the young man flinch and glance toward him nervously.

Wasson’s brow furrowed.  “Wahe,” he muttered.  “That doesn’t bode well, not the way he feels about white men.”

“The men I saw were wearing paint,” Ben added softly.  “That doesn’t bode well, either.”

The concern in Wasson’s eyes deepened as he turned toward the Paiute man.  “Ossowam, what do you know about this?”

The Paiute glanced up with veiled eyes.  “You speak me, Missa Wasson?”

“You know I did,” Wasson said bluntly, “and you know what I said, too.  Don’t play games with me, boy.”

Ossowam shook his head vigorously.  “No, no.  No play game, but must not speak against spirit chief.”

Wasson spat on the bare floor.  “Spirit chief!  Is that what Wahe calls himself now?”

The Paiute swallowed hard and his chin trembled.  “Wahe big spirit chief; he say white man bullet no hurt him; all who fight him, white or Indian, will die.”

Ben folded his arms and stared at the young man.  “If Wahe is big spirit chief, could he not hide his plans from the whites?  But you see he cannot.  The Great Spirit has revealed him.”

Doubt flickered in the dark eyes of the Indian.  “Great Spirit think Wahe wrong?”

Warren Wasson was quick to pick up on what Ben had suggested.  “As the White Winnemucca has said, the Great Spirit is displeased with plans for more bloodshed between white men and red.  That is why He reveals these evil plans.”

Doubt ignited into fear in the dark eyes, and the Paiute boy stumbled back a few steps.  Wasson jumped to his feet, moved swiftly across the small apartment and towered over the youth.  “Tell what you know, Ossowam, or perhaps the Great Spirit will show His displeasure with you!”

Ossowam cowered back.  “No, me know nothing.  Spirit chief bring cruel death if me tell.”

The two remarks were so obviously contradictory that the white men knew the young Paiute knew more than he was willing to tell.  Ben Cartwright strode briskly to the side of the Indian Agent.  “Who is greater, Ossowam, the spirit chief or the Great Spirit?”

“The Great Spirit,” the youth said at once.  “He is above all men and all things.”

“Then, can the spirit chief, for all his power, do anything against a man who does the will of the Great Spirit?” Ben posed persuasively.  “He cannot!  He is powerless as a rabbit before the wrath of the Great Spirit.  Wahe cannot harm you, Ossowam, for telling what the Great Spirit has shown He wishes to be known.”

“That’s right,” Wasson declared.  “Do not oppose the will of the Great Spirit, Ossowam!”

The Paiute nodded slowly, although it was evident when he spoke that he still felt reluctant.  “It—it is as you say.  Many Paiutes gather; many Bannock, too, to make war on the white man—on you, Missa Wasson.”

Warren Wasson lifted his chin and stared at his servant and sometime interpreter.  “I’ve been threatened directly?”

“Yes,” Ossowam admitted, eyes lowered in shame, for he had great personal respect for this white man whom he served and only fear of Wahe had kept him from warning Wasson before this.  “Wahe say kill white agent, take guns, then go fort in small bands—eight, ten at time—act friendly, wait for signal, then kill all soldiers.”

“Dear God,” Wasson murmured.  “It could have worked.  There are only forty soldiers at Fort Churchill now, Ben.”

“We must warn Colonel Lander,” Ben declared.  His heart contracted hard as he thought of his old friend’s son, Mark, a private at Fort Churchill.

“Yes, and we will,” Wasson agreed, “but perhaps we can put a stop to this nonsense, by taking the bull by the horns, so to speak.  Are you with me, Ben?”

Ben’s dark eyebrows came together in a thoughtful line.  “With you where?” he asked, fearing he knew the answer.

“Will you ride with me to Walker River and confront Wahe?” Warren Wasson asked plainly.

Ben swallowed hard.  “I have no particular influence on Wahe,” he demurred.

“Who does?” Wasson tossed back with a wry smile.

Ben released a short, sputtering laugh.  Two men, riding into a war counsel of fifteen hundred men—it was madness, but it was just the kind of madness that might work.  “I’ll ride with you, if only to lend you my support.”  It’s the least I owe Ebenezer Went­worth.

“Saddle two horses, Ossowam,” the Indian agent dictated.  “We’ll need you to act as interpreter.”

The Paiute looked grim, but evidently deciding that he would be safe with these white men, who seemed in closer contact with the Great Spirit than Wahe, he gave a curt nod and left the small office.

* * * * *

The air was still as Ben Cartwright and Warren Wasson rode toward Walker River.  Not a leaf quivered in the breeze; not a blade of grass rustled, almost as if Nature were holding her breath, and the hush seemed to presage peril, at least to Ben’s heightened imagination.  The camp looked peaceful as the two men arrived at the head of the river.  Had Ben not known better, he would have thought the Indians were simply holding their annual fishing rites, on a somewhat larger scale than usual.  That peaceful appearance, though, had been part of the plan, so the chattering voices of the children as they splashed in the water and the happy cries when fish were captured only made him shiver, for the joy seemed hollow and the peace a pretense.

Just before entering the camp, Wasson leaned toward Ben.  “Do you think they’ll respond to a show of strength?”

Ben arched an eyebrow.  Odd time to be asking, he thought, now that we’re here.  “I can’t guarantee it,” he said, “but it’s our only hope.”

“Whatever you do, don’t show fear,” Wasson warned.

“No,” Ben chuckled wryly.  “They definitely would respond to that—and not in the way we’d hope!”

The two men rode forward.  The Indians stood motionless at first, just watching the white men.  Then, slowly, they began to move toward Ben and Wasson, gathering in a semi-circle before the two horses.  “I don’t see Wahe,” Wasson said, keeping his voice low enough that only Ben could hear.

Ben, too, responded in a whisper.  “Can’t afford to be seen if he plans to catch the soldiers unaware.

“He’s here, though,” Wasson said.  “I can almost smell him.”  He lifted a hand in casual greeting.  “Is the fishing good?” he said through his interpreter, Ossowam.

The query met with silence, but Wasson simply waited, and finally one brave stepped forward and said, “The fishing is good.”

“It must be to bring the Bannock so far from their homes,” Wasson said, his gaze seeking out unfamiliar faces.  His eyes narrowed.  “Have the streams of Oregon gone dry—or have the ravings of Wahe taken root in foolish hearts?”

Though it was hard, with his stomach leaping into his throat, Ben schooled his face to remain immobile.  Wasson had thrown out the gauntlet, and the next few moments would tell whether the challenge would be met with words or weapons.  Two men against fifteen hundred; they wouldn’t stand a chance.

Dark eyes sought other dark eyes, but before any Indian could speak, Wasson’s voice rang out once more.  “Look not to the right or to the left!” he proclaimed.  “It is not any of these who have revealed the plans of Wahe.  It is the Great Spirit Himself!”

Ben listened with amazement as the Indian Agent forcefully presented the same proposition that he himself had used to sway Ossowam, that the revelation of Wahe’s plot showed the Great Spirit’s displeasure with what the Paiutes and Bannocks were planning.

“Do not listen to the words of this empty bag of wind called Wahe,” Wasson warned, “for if you follow him, I promise before the Great Spirit that more blood will be spilled than was lost at Pinnacle Mount.”

Ben sensed the shiver that ran through the crowd of Indians at the mention of that defeat, its memory so recent and so bitter to the red men.  None spoke, however.  Perhaps none had the authority.  Or, perhaps, they simply didn’t know what to say.

“Tell Wahe, who cowers in his wigwam like a frightened child, what I have said,” Wasson ordered.  “We leave now to tell the soldiers at Fort Churchill what the Great Spirit has revealed.  Think well on my words and be wise.  All are welcome to enjoy the fishing, but let none think to take the white soldiers by surprise.”

He wheeled his horse and began to walk away at an unhurried pace.  Ben turned with him, and the two white men rode side by side in silence for several minutes.  Then Wasson released a rush of air.  “Well, I think we’re out of bowshot range by now.”

Ben laughed out his relief.  “Yeah, we’re probably safe now, unless we start hearing hoof beats heading this way.  That was some speech, Wasson.”

“The germ of it was yours,” the Indian Agent said, finally daring to turn toward his companion.  “Thank you for the support, Ben.”

Ben nodded.  “And now I’m going to ask for yours.”  Grinning at the quizzical cock of Wasson’s head, he added, “Next time you come to dinner at the Ponderosa, Warren, don’t mention this little escapade to my wife.”

“She won’t hear it from me,” Warren Wasson promised, adding with a chuckle, “but I doubt you’ll be able to keep ‘this little escapade’ a secret, my friend.  I have a feeling it might be the talk of the territory by morning!”

Ben groaned, certain his friend was correct and certain also that his confrontation with Marie, when she heard, would make facing fifteen hundred Paiutes seem like a waltz at a barn dance.  He was right about that, and it was days before Marie quit giving him the benefit of her opinion.  A few tense weeks passed, while the white citizens of the new territory of Nevada waited to see what their bronze brothers would do, but in the end that show of strength had turned the tide.  Wahe and his Bannock followers returned to Oregon, and Ben fervently prayed they would stay there.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Notes

The conspiracy planned by Wahe was a historical event in April and May of 1861.  The plot was revealed by a young Paiute, who served as servant and interpreter for Indian Agent Warren Wasson, but the name Ossowam, while an authentic Paiute word, is an invention of the author.  As related in the story, the plot was thwarted when Wasson boldly entered the Indian camp and persuaded the Indians against their attack.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

Celebrations

            Peaceful days, as mild as the May weather, settled over the Ponderosa.  The Indian uprising appeared to have been averted, and there was even a lull in the alarming news from back east.  Ben viewed it much as he viewed the lulls between thunderstorms so typical of this time of year.  Sooner or later there would be another storm, but the days between were balmy and reasons to rejoice, and May held a number of special occasions for the Cartwrights.  By the end of the month, Adam would be home, and Ben always felt happier when his family was intact, all sleeping beneath the roof of the sprawling ranch house his oldest son had helped to design.

That was joy yet to come, however.  There was one celebration, earlier in the month, which simply could not be ignored.  Not that Ben would have wanted to; the birthday of a son always made his heart sing with reminders of the happiness he’d felt at that child’s birth.  Though Ben secretly thought that Joseph was a bit young for a real party, Laura Ellis had insisted that she be given the privilege of baking a cake for the little lad’s birthday.  “I’ve been cheated out of it for two years now,” she’d laughed, “and I won’t wait another year.  With a war going on, goodness knows what could happen by the time that boy turns five.”

True enough, Ben had to admit.  Two years ago, they’d all traveled to Placerville around the time of Joseph’s special day, and last year the war with the Paiutes had been going on in May.  The boy was due a celebration, though Ben still felt a private family party was more appropriate for a child just turning four.  Laura’s special cake, however, seemed almost to demand more people to share it, at least in Marie’s opinion, and she joined forces with her friend to plan a guest list almost as large as that for one of their Christmas Eve gatherings at the Ponderosa.

Leaving party preparations to the ladies, Ben, although somewhat reluctantly, accepted the responsibility of obtaining an appropriate gift for his youngest son.  “I will not get him a horse, though,” he asserted firmly, referring to the child’s oft-repeated whining for a mount of his own.

Mais non,” Marie agreed quickly.  “He is much too small.”  She’d smiled encouragingly at her husband.  “I’m sure the perfect idea will come to you, mon mari.”

Though he’d struggled in thought for days, Ben was confident that the perfect idea had finally come to him.  By Joseph’s birthday, however, he still had not worked up the courage to tell Marie what he’d arranged.  “Wait and see,” was all he would say, for he was afraid she wouldn’t welcome the gift as much as Joseph would.  He’d commissioned Clyde Thomas to make the gift and deliver it at the party, figuring that Marie wouldn’t dare dress him down in front of their guests.  Ben winced.  Putting that off ‘til they went to bed probably wasn’t the wisest way to bedroom bliss, but maybe she’d have time to simmer down by then.

The twelfth of May fell on a Sunday in 1861, and it was Ben’s turn to worship in Washoe City.  Marie had suggested that he take the boys to church, as usual, and let Little Joe’s birthday party be a surprise for the boy.  Joseph, of course, had no acquaintance with the calendar, so they simply hadn’t mentioned that he had a birthday coming.  As he rode off, seated in front of his father on the big bay, Joe assumed that it was a plain, ordinary Sunday, although he had been told that the Thomases would be at the ranch when they returned from church.

As soon as the other three Cartwrights had ridden off, Marie flew into action, decorating the house with flowers and ribbons in colors as bright as the blossoms.  Some of the hands from the bunkhouse, with whom Little Joe was a special pet, helped set up tables in the yard and Hop Sing set a side of beef on a spit over an open fire.  One of the hands assigned himself the task of turning the spit to insure that the meat was evenly roasted, while Hop Sing returned to the kitchen to prepare the rest of the meal.

Laura Ellis arrived early.  Setting the cake in the kitchen, from which it would make a glorious entrance after the main meal, she drew Marie out of the kitchen and over to the settee.  “If I know you, you haven’t rested a moment since your menfolk left.”

“Oh, but there is still so much to do,” Marie argued.

“And it’ll get done,” Laura assured her, “but I’ve got news to share, and you’d just better sit down and listen to it, Marie Cartwright, or I’ll take that cake straight home.”

Marie laughed, but she sat down, as ordered.  “Oh, you would blackmail me, ma amie?  For shame!”

Laura smiled brightly.  “You’ll be glad I did.”  Her eyes shone with excitement.  “Oh, Marie, I can scarcely believe—oh, it’s just the most wonderful news!”

“Then I must hear it at once,” Marie declared.  “There are stars in your eyes, Laura.”  She took her friend’s face between her hands and smiled with feminine intuition.  “I think it is the light of love I see.”

“Love come to full bloom,” Laura admitted with happy fervor.  “George has asked me to marry him, Marie, and I’ve accepted.”

“Oh!” Marie cried, enveloping the older woman in a warm embrace.  “It may be Little Joe’s birthday, but I feel as if I were the one receiving a gift.  How happy I am for you both!  He is a fine man, oui?”

“Oh, he is, Marie,” Laura said as she pulled back.  “Both being widowed, we took our time and tested our feelings, but we’re sure now and ready to tie the knot, as they say.”

“When?” Marie demanded.  “Soon?”

Laura blushed.  “Quite soon.  We’ve set the date for May twenty-fifth.”

Marie squealed.  “But that is less than a fortnight from now!  How can you be ready?”

“Not much to be done,” Laura said with a shrug.  “We’ll just speak our vows before the justice of the peace.”

Marie bounced up and faced her friend, arms akimbo and face resolute.  “You most certainly will not.  You will speak them here, in this very room, in the presence of your friends.”

“Oh, I couldn’t,” Laura demurred.  “Why, you’ll be busy getting ready for Adam’s return and—”

Marie brushed the concern aside.  “I insist.  Do not think to deprive a Frenchwoman of this romantic moment, ma amie.  I will not have it!”  She gave a small stamp of her foot for emphasis.

Chuckling, Laura shook her head.  “Well, if you’re going to throw a tantrum, I guess I’ll have to give in gracefully or we’ll never get this birthday party put on.  Now, what’s left to do?”

* * * * *

Little Joe looked puzzled when his father lifted him into the saddle in front of Hoss after the church service.  “Wanna ride wif you, Pa,” he said with a pout.  Since Hoss let him ride Charcoal into the barn every day after his return from school, Joe didn’t consider riding her anything special.  Besides, even though Pa didn’t ride as fast as Mama, he almost always kept his bay at a faster pace than poky old Charcoal.

“No, you need to ride with your brother today,” Ben insisted.  “Pa has to hurry home to help Uncle Clyde with something.”

Joe grinned.  “Hurry wif me, Pa; I like ridin’ fast.”

Ben guffawed.  “Don’t I just know it!  Well, you’re gonna ride at a nice, slow, safe pace today, baby boy.”  Moving out of the line of vision of his youngest son, Ben looked up at his grinning middle son and mouthed, “See to it.”

Hoss, who was in on the surprise, knew what his father meant.  Pa wasn’t worried about him riding fast with his baby brother, ‘cause he never did.  Ma was the only one who pulled that shenanigan.  No, Pa wanted him to keep Little Joe away from the house ‘til all the folks who were coming to the party had a chance to get there.  He figured a lot were there already, but the ones just getting out of church would need time to drive to the Ponderosa.  “Come on, punkin.  We’ll cut through the woods and see if we can’t spot some critters.”

“Okay,” Little Joe agreed, smile bursting out at the prospect of adventure.

“Keep clean,” Ben warned as he swung into the saddle.

“Yes, sir, we will,” Hoss promised.  He headed in the general direction of home, but took a long, roundabout route, mostly walking Charcoal.

“Go fast, Hoss,” Little Joe urged.

“Can’t go fast when you’re lookin’ for critters, punkin,” Hoss reminded the child.  “You’ll scare ‘em off.”

Little Joe pouted, but acquiesced quickly.  He’d been on enough trips through the woods with his older brother to realize that the noise of flying hooves would scare animals away, so although he squirmed impatiently in the saddle, he didn’t complain again.  The boys saw a few ground squirrels and spotted one jackrabbit, leaping across a meadow into a patch of trumpet-shaped scarlet gilia, but the real reward of the expedition was the sighting of a big blue grouse, spreading his gray tail in a wide fan and inflating his purple neck sacs as he paraded through the grass.  “He’s tryin’ to get himself a wife,” Hoss explained in a soft whisper.  “See how he’s struttin’ around?”

“Uh-huh,” Little Joe responded.

“That’s just his way of gettin’ the gal’s attention, showin’ what big stuff he is.”

Little Joe nodded, filing the information away and gazing with renewed admiration at his big brother.  Hoss knew everything about critters and he always had the time and the patience to answer all Joe’s questions.  Joe was having a good time in the woods, as he always did with his big brother, but his tummy was starting to rumble.  “I’m hungry, Hoss,” he whimpered softly.

“Okay, punkin,” Hoss said, heading Charcoal on a more direct path toward home.  “I reckon it is about time for dinner.”

* * * * *

As he rode into the yard, Ben recognized the Thomas buckboard and saw the large shape in the back, covered with canvas.  “Marie’s tried to peek a couple o’ times,” Clyde tattled, “but I shooed ‘er off.”

“It is a very large gift for such a small boy,” Marie hinted as she came up to greet Ben.  “I cannot guess what it could be.”

Ben took a look around the yard and waved at the friends who had already arrived for the party.  “I guess there’s enough people here to protect me,” he chuckled.  “Go ahead and show her, Clyde.”

A tall, lanky redhead trotted across the yard.  “Let me give you a hand.”

“Billy!” Ben said, pumping the young man’s hand.  “It’s been much too long, boy.”

“I had a couple days off,” Billy explained, “and figured I’d come help the little fellow celebrate bein’ all of four years old.”

“Figured he’d help hisself to some of the little fellow’s birthday cake is what he means,” Clyde snorted.

Marie shook her clasped hands.  “Oh, stop your teasing and let me see this gift—at once!”

“Yes, ma’am,” Clyde said with a grin and a tip of his hat.  He and Billy began unfastening the ropes tied over the tarp on one side of the buckboard, while Ben and Enos Montgomery, who had come over to help when he saw the others tugging at the knots, worked on the other side.

The guests gathered around, curious to see what was hidden beneath that tarp.  Katerina Montgomery, Laura and Nelly already knew, but they crowded close, too, wanting to see the expression on Marie’s face when she saw what they’d been up to.

“Oh, my,” Marie gasped when she saw the varnished pine frame with its four scrolled spindle posts, each topped by a delicately carved pinecone.  “Oh, oh, my.”  She looked sideways at her husband and shook her head.  “Oh, I don’t know, Ben.  I’m not sure he’s ready.”

“He’s ready,” Ben said quickly.  “I’m sure Joseph will be thrilled to get shed of that crib and have his own room.”

Joseph’s having his own room was, of course, the sticking point with Marie.  Obviously, the larger bed would not fit in the tiny nursery.  That had been obvious at first glance.  Therefore, the child would have to be moved to one of the other bedrooms, away from his mother, whose ear, even in sleep, seemed stretched for his slightest cry.  Marie’s heart wrenched at the thought of not being able to hear Little Joe if he called to her, but she smiled bravely, admitting in a sudden burst of honesty, “You are right: he is ready; it is I who am not.”

The assembled friends laughed, some visibly relieved that the doting mother had taken the upcoming separation so well.  Ben squeezed his wife to his side and whispered in her ear, “You’ll see; it will have its advantages.”

“Ben, we have guests,” she hissed in rebuke, and those close enough to overhear laughed again.

“Want us to set the bed up before the kid gets here, Uncle Ben?” Billy suggested.

“Yeah, that was my plan,” Ben said, “but we’d better hurry.  I told Hoss to dawdle, but they could show up any time now.”

“We’ll get it done fast as the Pony delivers the mail,” young Thomas promised.  “Lend a hand, Enos?”

“You bet,” said the ranch foreman.

As the four men started to lift the bed from the back of the wagon, one of the guests, Henry Van Sickle, who had come from south of Genoa, hurried forward.  “Better let me take that, Ben,” he suggested.  “You lead the way and show us which room to put this bed in.”

“Thanks, Henry,” Ben said, readily giving up his place.  “I was thinking we’d put Joseph next to Hoss and across from Adam,” he told his wife as they moved toward the house.

Oui,” she sighed.  “If he cannot be close to us, I would like him to be close to his brothers.”

“Marie, he’ll be fine,” he whispered.  They entered the house and led the way up the stairs to the first bedroom on the right side of the hall, nearest the stairs.  Marie almost reconsidered.  She could just picture Little Joe sailing down that banister with no one to stop his reckless plunge.  The other unoccupied bedrooms, however, were at the end of the hall from the room she and Ben shared, and it was better that he be near his brothers than down there alone, she concluded.

The men set up the bed and then the ladies went into action, for once Nelly knew that Clyde was making a bed for the youngest Cartwright, she had organized a quilting party to make a coverlet to fit.  Katerina had volunteered to make matching curtains, while Laura had sewn and stuffed a mattress.  “I didn’t have time to hook him a rug,” Nelly apologized, “but I’ll try to finish one by the time the weather turns cold again.”

“I can’t believe what you have accomplished already!” Marie cried with delight.  “Joseph will be so surprised—and so happy.”

“Marie!” Ben hollered from downstairs.  “The boys just rode in.”

“You go on down,” Laura urged.  “We’ll get everything set up and then you can bring Little Joe up to see his new room.  Oh, I can’t wait to see his face!”

Little Joe’s face at that moment was already bright with excitement.  He was, of course, surprised to see so many people in the yard.  Some of them he knew well, like Enos, Clyde, Billy, Dr. Martin and Jimmy Ellis.  Others he’d met only recently, for they were families that attended the church in Washoe City.  The Reverend Bennett was there, and Joe liked him, of course, but he was most excited about the children.  The Perkins family was there.  Little Joe didn’t know the names of all five children yet, but he squealed with delight when he saw the two youngest, for Winchester and William were barely older than Joe himself.  There was another boy about their size, too, although Joe couldn’t at first remember his name.  It had been almost a year since he’d seen John Van Sickle, but he remembered playing chase with him at the Fourth of July celebration in Carson City.  Soon all four boys were chasing each other, darting around the long legs of the older guests.

Hoss was having a good time, too, for some of the families also had youngsters his age, like the oldest Perkins kid, Charles, who was about a year older.  Marie had also invited the O’Neill family and George Winters, especially for Hoss, so both Cartwright boys were surrounded by playmates.  The adults, too, were enjoying the rare opportunity to get together during this busy time of year and were looking forward to savoring that tasty side of beef, whose tantalizing aroma permeated the air.

When the ladies returned from their labors in the house, Ben snatched his youngest son up in his arms.  “I’m playin’, Pa,” Little Joe protested.

“I know, I know, and you can play more soon,” Ben assuaged as he carried the boy back to the center of the yard.

Sensing that a presentation was about to be made, all the guests circled around the Cartwrights.  Ben turned Joe so he could see them.  “Do you know why all these fine people are here today, Joseph?”

Joe’s mouth puckered in thought and then his infectious giggle rent the air.  “Eat dinner and play chase.”  Everyone around joined in the child’s laughter.

“Yeah, I expect some of them are here precisely for that,” Ben agreed with a chuckle, “but most of these friends came to wish you a happy birthday, Little Joe.”

Little Joe cocked his head and gazed into his father’s face.  “Birt’day?”

Mary Emma O’Neill tittered into her hand.  “He don’t even know it’s his birthday,” she snickered to Hoss.

“Yeah, I know,” Hoss whispered back with a grin.  “Sure made it easier to keep the surprise.”

“That’s right, Little Joe,” Ben was saying.  “Today is your birthday.  Can you tell our friends how old you are?”

Little Joe automatically held up three fingers, as he’d been doing for a year now.

“No, baby, add one more,” Ben said, pulling up a fourth finger.  “You’re four years old today!”

“I’s big now!” Little Joe crowed to the amusement of those around him.

“Oh, yeah, a regular whopper.”  George Winters jabbed Hoss with an elbow.

“He’s tellin’ one, you mean,” Hoss teased back.

“So, are you ready to see your birthday presents?” Ben asked his youngest son, who answered with a wild bobbing of his head that set the visitors off on another round of laughter.

Enos Montgomery brought a chair to the center of the yard, and with a grateful smile Ben sat down, holding Little Joe in his lap.  One by one, his little guests brought small remembrances of the day: a bag of candy, a wooden whistle, a small pair of knitted stockings and an assortment of similar items.  Joe was so thrilled with each one that he immediately wanted to eat it or play with it or put it on, but in each case Marie would remind him to thank the giver and hand him another package to open.  Finally, all the gifts had been received, and Ben stood up with Joe on his arm.  “Tell everyone thank you,” he told the boy.

“Thank you!” Joe cried.  “I like ev’wything!”

“Now let’s see if you like your present from Pa and Mama, shall we?” Ben suggested.  He looked around at the guests.  “You’re all welcome to follow us up and see, but it may get a bit crowded in there.”

“No shovin’,” Billy Thomas hollered in jest, pushing his way to the front.

Sally Martin, who had been helping to arrange the bedroom, met him at the front door.  “Follow your own advice, you awful boy,” she said, snaring his elbow and holding him back.

“Hey, me and Shortshanks are special friends,” Billy alleged.  “He’d want me up there to see his fancy new fixin’s.”

“Go on with you, then.”  She gave him a shove toward the stairs and hurried after him, for she, too, wanted to see what Little Joe thought of his new room.  Evidently, almost everyone at the Ponderosa that afternoon was curious about that gift and the little boy’s reaction to it, for almost everyone came in and the line stretched down the hallway after all who could had crowded into the bedroom.

They made way, of course, for the birthday boy and his parents, and Little Joe’s face, when he saw the newly decorated room and understood that it was to be his, reflected all the amazement and joy anyone could have anticipated.  “A big boy bed!” the youngster crowed, wriggling out of his father’s arms, trotting over and immediately jumping smack in the middle of the plump mattress.

“Oh, Little Joe, not with your shoes on,” his mother chided.

“I can tell you right now how much good it’ll do to make that a rule,” Nelly Thomas cackled.

“And I can confirm it,” Laura chimed in, the sentiment echoed by Jane Perkins, Mary Van Sickle and every other mother of a boy.

“You gonna like sleepin’ next door to me, Little Joe?” Hoss asked.  “I told Pa it was the best place to put you.”

“The best!” his little brother chirped happily, jumping up to give his brother a hug, setting a sentimental scene that made almost everyone murmur, “Aah.”

“Friends, I believe it’s time we sliced that beef and filled our plates with the other fine dishes Hop Sing has prepared,” Ben suggested, “so why don’t we head back outdoors and dig in?”

The suggestion met with a whoop of approval, led by Billy Thomas, but joined by every male in the room.  The ladies stayed behind a few minutes, wanting to examine the furnishings of the new room.  The quilt was a log cabin pattern  in shades of green, beige and brown, while the curtains were made of a calico print with blue flowers and green leaves on a background of beige.  The rocking chair, brought in from the nursery, didn’t match, but Marie was already planning a trip to Washoe City, Carson or Genoa for fabric to make new cushions in colors that would blend more smoothly with the rest of the room’s décor.  She would have Ben and Hoss move her baby’s chest of drawers from the nursery later, but perhaps it was time Little Joe had an armoire of his own, she mused.  That would, of course, mean a trip to California.  Well, perhaps they were due for one, but plans of that magnitude would have to wait for later.  Today there were guests to attend and even the ladies were finally ready to leave that freshly decorated room and find something to fill their plates—if the men had left them anything.

The afternoon was spent in play for the children and conversation for the adults.  Then, after the food had had a chance to digest, a fiddler began playing and the yard was filled with couples dancing.  Toward sundown everyone said their goodbyes and loaded into their wagons and buggies for the trip home.  Some had far to go and all had a full day’s work facing them tomorrow.  Ben and Marie thanked everyone for coming, and without exception the guests responded that they had had a wonderful time.  “Never thought a baby’s birthday party could be such fun,” Reuben Perkins said, echoing the sentiments of one and all.

* * * * *

It took quite awhile to get Little Joe settled in his new room after all the guests had left.  Marie brought his nightclothes from the nursery and sat in the rocking chair to help him change.  Getting into his tiny nightshirt took longer than usual, for now that he was a big boy, Little Joe wanted to do it all by himself, even the buttons down the front.  In fact, by the time he was dressed for bed, Ben and Hoss had successfully moved his chest of drawers down the hall and into place.  Marie lifted the child into his new bed and tucked the covers securely around him.  Though the bed was smaller than adult-size, Little Joe looked lost in its vast width.  Suddenly, he started to whimper.  “Oh, dear,” his mother sighed.  “It is as I feared: he isn’t ready to sleep away from us, Ben.”

Hoss snapped his fingers.  “That’s it!  I know what’s wrong.”  Without explaining, he ran down the hall, snatched up the two stuffed animals from the crib and returned at a trot.  “There you go, punkin,” he said as he popped the animals under the covers.  “Now you won’t be alone in that big ole bed.”

Little Joe grinned and snuggled up to Bun-bun and Barker, as he had named his “water doggie.”

“See, no fears, just needed a friend.  You’re a big boy, aren’t you, precious?” Ben said, bending over the bed to give the little boy a kiss on his curly head.

“Um-hmm,” Little Joe murmured, yawning.  He turned on his side and his eyes soon shut, for having missed his afternoon nap, the little boy was tired.

“Come on,” Ben whispered.

Marie whispered, “In a few minutes.”

It hadn’t seemed like a few to Ben, as he’d waited somewhat impatiently, wondering if he should ask to borrow Bun-bun or Barker, just so he’d have a companion in bed that night.  Marie had finally decided that her baby was sleeping soundly, however, and slipped into bed beside her husband  “Now to show you those advantages to an empty nursery that I mentioned earlier,” Ben said with a lascivious grin.

“Oh, I know already,” she said with studied solemnity. “You want to fill it again with another child!”  She giggled at the look on his face and bent to cover his protesting lips with her own.

Perhaps half an hour later Marie’s golden head rose from its resting place.  “I thought I heard a cry,” she murmured as Ben pulled her back down to his bare chest.

“You’re imagining things,” Ben whispered.  “The boy’s fine, and he knows where to find us if he needs us.”

Oui, I suppose,” Marie sighed, nestling back into her husband’s embrace, but her ear remained cocked toward the open doorway to the hall.  Alert as she was, however, she did not hear the patter of little feet later that night as the youngest Cartwright padded into the room next door, dragging Bun-bun by one ear, and cuddled up next to Hoss.

The next few nights followed the same pattern, but gradually Little Joe became more comfortable in his own room and began spending entire nights in his new bed, to Hoss’s heartfelt relief.

* * * * *

Marie was almost frantic for the next two weeks.  “There is so much to do and so little time,” she moaned to Ben.  He just shrugged, a movement that, at least briefly, infuriated his wife.  Then, sighing, she shook her head and chalked it up to the general ignorance of men regarding social affairs.  The first order of business was the guest list.  Its preparation involved a trip to Carson City to consult with Laura, and even then the list wasn’t complete, for the bride-to-be needed to ask the prospective groom which of his friends should be invited.  Though the ladies would have liked to send properly engraved invitations, both the expense and the limited time caused them to quickly set aside that romantic notion.  Marie purchased some gilt-edged stationery, for which she had to travel to Genoa, and set to work hand-writing invitations to those whose names she had.  She couldn’t afford to wait until she had the complete list if the invitations were to go out a week before the wedding, as was customary.  It didn’t seem likely that George would add many friends to the guest list, but Marie hoped that she would receive the rest of the names in time to properly invite them.  Of course, since George’s friends were primarily miners, even one day’s notice would satisfy them.

Besides the invitations, arrangements had to be made for the wedding ceremony itself and the levee afterwards.  Laura and George still insisted on a civil ceremony, so the justice of the peace had to be contacted.  That responsibility was assigned to Ben, and he got in touch with Thomas Knott promptly, fearing the marital consequences he might reap if he delayed.  Refreshments had to be planned for the levee, and while common sense indicated that the menu should be kept simple, Marie wanted the occasion to be memorable for her friend and planned a feast to rival any ever seen in the new territory of Nevada.  Feeling it inappropriate for Laura to bake her own wedding cake, Marie detailed that duty to Hop Sing and then had to spend a day escorting him to Laura’s bakery in the Pioneer Hotel so that he could be acquainted with the proper baking of a tiered cake.  There would be dancing afterwards, but Marie had talked to the fiddlers the day of Little Joe’s birthday party, so that detail was more quickly settled than any other.

A telegram had been dispatched to Adam in Sacramento with a description of the type of gift Marie wanted to give the new couple.  Several nail-biting days passed before the package arrived, but Marie was completely pleased with the fine taste Adam had shown.  A letter inside the package indicated that the boy had wisely enlisted the aid of his female friend, Philippa Gallagher, in the selection of the damask tablecloth and napkins and the silver napkin rings.

On Friday before the wedding, Marie kept Hoss home from school and had him accompany her to pick up supplies for the party.  Hop Sing was already busily mixing the batter for the wedding cake when they left, and by the time they returned, the tiers were baked, frosted and stored away in the pantry.  The supplies in the wagon were brought in and placed wherever Hop Sing directed, depending on whether he would need them tonight, tomorrow or, in the case of more general foodstuffs, at a later time.

Saturday, the twenty-fifth of May, seemed the busiest day of all.  Early that morning Marie sent Hoss and Little Joe out to harvest vines, ferns and wildflowers.  While they were gone, the Montgomerys arrived, and Ben and Enos began moving furniture under the direction of their wives.  Although Katerina had only known Laura Ellis for two years and hadn’t seen her often in that time, she well remembered that the older woman had been one of those who helped to make her own bridal cabin so warm and inviting a first home, and she wanted to return the favor.

The little boys, grubby as only boys could get, traipsed in, toting baskets of greenery and blossoms.  Ben volunteered to take charge of getting them bathed and dressed, so that his wife would be free to decorate the great room of the Ponderosa.  Katerina trailed vines down the banisters of the staircase, while Marie followed, artistically placing flowers among the green leaves.  The mantel over the fireplace received similar treatment, and vines were laid down the center of the serving table with a basket of blue lupine, red Indian paintbrush and mahogany-colored wild peonies in the very middle.

They had barely finished these preparations when they heard hooves trotting into the yard.  Opening the door, Marie smiled as she recognized the buggy and the three people riding in it.  “One bride, delivered as ordered,” Paul Martin chuckled as he stepped down and then reached back to assist first Laura Ellis and then his daughter Sally.  As the four ladies exchanged kisses on the cheeks, Paul went to the back of the buggy and unfastened the straps holding two dress boxes in place.  Giggling, the girls took the boxes and went inside to change into their finery.

Ben and the boys passed them on the stairs as they went up.  “Paul is here,” Marie told him.  “Please help him with his horse, Ben.”

“Yes, of course,” Ben muttered, slightly disgruntled that she’d felt the need to dictate something so basic to good hospitality.

Marie turned at the head of the stairs.  “And keep them clean,” she called.

“Paul and his horse?” he asked with an amused arch of his eyebrow.

“The boys,” she sputtered.  “I will have none of your teasing today, Ben Cartwright.  It is a solemn and sacred occasion.”

“Yes, ma’am!” he declared, bringing his hand to his brow in a snappy salute.

“Ooh, men!” Marie fumed as she led the way to her bedroom, where Laura would prepare for the wedding.  Sally and Katerina, by prior arrangement, slipped into Adam’s room to change.

Ben ambled into the front yard with two spanking clean boys trailing behind and saw that Dr. Martin had unhitched his horse.  “Let me stable him, Paul,” he said, taking hold of the halter.

“I’ll do it, Pa,” Hoss offered.  With a wide grin he added, “Hi, Doc.  Hey, where’s Jimmy?”

“Hi, Doc,” Little Joe gurgled in imitation.

“Hi to both of you,” Paul Martin chuckled.  “Jimmy will be coming later with the Thomases, Hoss.”

“Oh, okay.”  Hoss stretched his hand toward the horse’s halter.

“No, I’ll do this,” Ben said.  “You just keep an eye on your baby brother and make sure that fancy suit stays clean.”

“Aw, Pa, that’s a heap worse chore than stablin’ a horse,” Hoss whined.

“He knows that,” Paul teased, cupping the back of Hoss’s neck and winking at Ben.  “He wants the easy job for himself.  Saddles you with the hard chores a lot, doesn’t he, son?”

“This one he does!” Hoss declared with an emphatic jut of his chin in his younger brother’s direction.

Paul Martin rested his other hand on the smaller boy’s golden-brown curls.  “Guess I’d better give you a hand with it, then.  You need help more than your pa.”

“Yeah,” Hoss cackled.  “I sure do!”

“How’s that new bed treating you, Little Joe?” Paul asked as he herded the youngsters toward the house.

Shaking his head at the twitting he’d endured at the hands of friend and family, Ben led the horse to the barn.  He had time after he finished to sit and talk awhile with his good friend before other guests began to arrive and he was kept busy, finding places for horses and rigs to be stowed for the afternoon.

The wedding ceremony was to begin at 2 p.m.  Just prior to that hour Ben made his way upstairs, for Laura had asked him to give her away.  Little Inger Thomas, in a brand new dress of pale pink, led the way down the stairs, scattering peony petals on each step.  Then Marie, designated as matron of honor, followed.  Most of the ladies present had made new gowns for the occasion, but with all her other responsibilities Marie had not had time to sew a new dress.  While the green gown was one she had brought from New Orleans, however, she looked lovely to Ben as, with Laura on his arm, he descended the staircase behind her.

Laura was dressed in a simple gown of cream-colored silk, and though she wasn’t as handsome a woman as her matron of honor, her eyes shone with the beauty of contentment as they fell upon the face of her groom.  They’ll make a good couple, Ben thought as he placed her hand in that of George Dettenrieder.  Like him and Marie, this man and woman had each been married before.  They had known the joy of young love and the grief of later loss; they both knew the hardships of single parenthood and the loneliness of a single bed.  Now they would discover anew the comfort of companionship and the everyday struggle to nurture their first blush of love into deep, abiding devotion.   Instinctively glancing toward his wife, Ben felt a swell of emotion rise within him.  He and Marie had reached that point in their relationship.  Their love had grown deep and strong, like two trees growing side by side, their roots intertwining until it was nearly impossible to tell which root came from which tree.  Trees so inseparable could withstand any gale, Ben mused, and he found himself almost looking forward to the storms he and this flesh of his flesh would weather together through the long years to come.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Notes

Several of the guests attending Little Joe’s birthday party are historical characters, such as the Van Sickle and Perkins families.

While I have not yet learned the date of marriage between the historical Laura Ellis and George Dettenrieder, property records indicate that he was married to someone else in October of 1858 and to Laura by May 29, 1861.  I have set the marriage date just four days before that simply for the convenience of the plot.

CHAPTER TWENTY

Homecoming

            Slapping the side of his thigh repeatedly, Ben stared down the length of Carson Street and then drew his watch from his vest pocket.  Nine-thirty-five.  Five minutes overdue.  A silvery laugh at his side made him turn toward his wife.

“How long since the last time you checked?” she asked with a soft smile.

Chuckling at an anxious father’s foolishness, Ben shook his head.  “Ten whole minutes.  Wouldn’t think time could move so slowly, would you?”

“A watched pot never boils, they say,” Nelly Thomas, standing beyond Marie, teased.  “I guess that goes for stagecoaches, too.  Maybe you ought to take a run around the plaza, like our younguns, and see if the time don’t move faster.”

Ben glanced across the street to the green square where his two youngest sons were romping with Inger Thomas, Jimmy Ellis and a couple of other children he didn’t recognize.  “Town sure is growing,” he commented.  “More new faces every time I come.”

“But only one you long to see,” Marie said, stilling the incessant slapping by laying her hand over her husband’s.  “The stage is only a little late, Ben.  I am sure Adam will be here soon.”

“Of course, he will,” Ben agreed, squeezing her hand.  “I’m just anxious to see him after all these months.”

“Oh, look who is here,” Marie said, her eyes lighting.

Ben glanced down the boardwalk and saw a tall man in the blue uniform of a Federal trooper, walking toward the group awaiting the arrival of the Pioneer Stage from Placerville.  Stepping toward him, Ben thrust out his hand.  “Mark, my boy, I haven’t seen you in months.  Don’t tell me you’re using one of your precious days’ off to welcome my son home.”

Mark grinned.  “Well, we are friends, after all.  Since I was in town, I thought I’d like to meet his stage.”

Ben smiled at the blue-eyed brunette standing beside Mark.  “I appreciate that, although somehow I think this little lady is the real attraction in Carson City this morning.  Hello, Sally.”

Sally Martin smiled in greeting and moved down the boardwalk to exchange kisses on the cheek with Nelly and Marie.

“Pa, it’s coming!” Hoss hollered as he charged across the street toward the hotel, in front of which the stage would stop.

“Hoss, your brother!” Marie screamed.

Hoss trotted back to snatch up his baby brother, who was running straight for the street with his usual lack of concern for horses or wagons in the road.  Hoss still made it to the boardwalk in time to thrust Little Joe at his mother before the stagecoach rumbled up to the hotel.

The stage had barely stopped before the door was flung open and Adam Cartwright leaped out into the sea of welcoming faces.  Everyone was shouting at once, reaching out to pump the boy’s hand or clap him on the back.  Hoss, Jimmy and Inger were jumping up and down to get Adam’s attention, while Little Joe was adding his voice to the general hubbub, but hung back in his mother’s arms.  Knowing how Adam hated any public display, Ben tried to restrain himself, but finally yielded to the urge to at least wrap an arm around his son’s shoulders.  “It’s good to have you home, boy,” he murmured softly.  “I’ve missed you.”

“Did you bring me somethin’?” Hoss demanded.

Tousling the stocky boy’s sandy hair, Adam chuckled.  “As a matter of fact, I did, greedy belly.  In fact, I brought something for everyone.”

“Candy?” Hoss queried eagerly.  “Them chocolates from San Francisco, maybe?”

Adam gave his brother’s backside a soft swat.  “I came from Sacramento, remember?  So happens I did bring something from San Francisco, though, and it’s sweeter than Ghirardelli’s chocolates.”

Sally Martin laughed knowingly.  “And it’s high time you unpacked that sweet surprise, don’t you think?”

“Before it unpacks itself,” Adam joked back, giving a wink to Mark Wentworth, who, like Sally, knew exactly what the “sweet surprise” was.

Adam reached back into the stagecoach, and a slender hand was placed in his solid grip.  A black, buttoned boot, brushed by a skirt of lavender calico, stepped down.  Soon a smiling face was seen beneath a matching bonnet.

“Lands sakes, it’s little Mary!” Nelly Thomas cried.

“The real reason I’m meeting the stage on a Monday morning,” Mark told Ben with a mischievous smile.

Marie set Little Joe down and enfolded the girl in an embrace.  “Oh, Mary, what a wonderful surprise.  I thought you had decided not to accept our invitation to visit this summer.”

“I hope you don’t mind being surprised,” Mary said.  “The boys insisted it would be more fun this way, but if you’re not prepared for a guest, I could stay with Sally.  She and I have been corresponding, and I do plan to spend the night there.”

Ben wagged a chiding finger at the doctor’s daughter.  “Oh, so you’re in on this, too, are you, young lady?”

“Of course, I am,” Sally said, linking arms with her fiancé.  “Mark and I have no secrets.”

Little Joe tugged at the lavender skirt.  “Mary, I need hug you,” he insisted.

“Oh, you sweet thing, do you remember me?” the girl cried, happily giving the little boy the desired hug.

“You he remembers; his big brother he forgets,” Adam snorted.

“Do not,” Little Joe contradicted with outthrust tongue.

“Then where’s my welcome home?”  Adam opened his arms, and his little brother ran into them.  “That’s better,” Adam said, tossing the boy up to his shoulder.

“Which of these go to the Ponderosa and which stays with you tonight, little sister?” Mark called.  The others turned to see him surrounded by a formidable pile of carpetbags, boxes and bundles.

“Well, most of them are mine, and they go to the Ponderosa,” Adam chuckled, “although if Mary wants to borrow something . . .”

“This is all I need for tonight,” Mary inserted with a smile of mild rebuke, pointing to one worn carpetbag.  “Oh, and that package is for you, Mark.  It’s cookies.”

“Thanks, sis!” the soldier cried, smacking his lips in anticipation, for nothing that came out of the commissary at Fort Churchill could match the taste of home cooking.

“Hoss, you help load the wagon,” Ben directed.  “It appears your brother has his hands full.”

“Sure thing, Pa.”  Hoss grabbed up two bags and carried them to the buckboard.  “Gimme a hand, Jimmy.”

Ben, Mark, Hoss and Jimmy loaded all the luggage, while Adam listened to Little Joe’s chatter about his new bedroom “just ‘cross from you.”  Ben helped Marie to the seat, but when he tried to place Little Joe beside his mother, the child would have none of it.  “I wanna sit back there, too,” he squealed.

“Joseph,” Ben said in a warning tone.

“I’ll watch him,” Adam offered.  “We’ve got some ground to make up, don’t we, little brother?”

Little Joe had no idea what that phrase meant, but he bobbed his head and stretched his thin arms toward his oldest brother.

“Oh, all right,” Ben conceded.  “All of you boys climb in.  It’s a long way home and time we got started if we plan to be there by dinner.  I assume you remember how Hop Sing feels about people who show up late to meals, Adam?”

Adam grinned as he set Little Joe in the back of the buckboard and climbed up after him.  Hoss and Jimmy Ellis clambered in, too, and settled down close to Adam, who held Little Joe between his legs.

Marie smiled at those still standing on the boardwalk.  “Now, you are coming to us tomorrow, oui, Mary?”

“Yes,” Sally Martin answered for her friend.  “My father will bring her.”

“You must come, as well, and take dinner with us,” Marie insisted.  “That is, unless Mark will still be with you.”

“No, I have to be back to the fort by noon tomorrow,” the young soldier said.

“You got a place to stay the night, boy?” Nelly Thomas asked.  “Not much room over to Doc’s, I know.”

Mark grinned.  “I was hoping to borrow Billy’s bed, ma’am.”

“Now, that shows sense!” Nelly declared.  “Sally, you tell your pa that all of you are taking supper with us tonight.  My, won’t Clyde be surprised when he comes in from work!”

“I think that pretty much situates everyone for the night,” Ben said, “so say your goodbyes, folks, and let’s head for home.”

A chorus of farewells followed, and as Ben clucked to the team to start, waves were exchanged; then everyone went their separate ways.

“Just how did you talk Pa into letting you skip school today, Hoss?” Adam queried as the wagon rumbled down Carson Street toward the edge of town.

Ben looked back over his shoulder and answered for his middle son.  “It’s not every day a long-lost brother returns, you know.  Besides, not much gets done the last week of school.”

Adam laughed.  “I wouldn’t say that!  I got quite a bit done my last week of school.”

“Do you think you did well with your final exams, Adam?” Marie queried.

“The report will be sent later,” Adam answered, “but I think they went very well.”

“Top of your class, most likely,” Ben said proudly and though Adam shrugged, he didn’t deny it.

“Bet you can’t guess why Jimmy’s going home with us,” Hoss challenged his older brother.

“Bet I can,” Adam tossed back.  “So happens I saw his mother—and his new stepfather—when they stopped in Placerville.  There’s an hour between stages, you know, and some little bird told them Mama Zuebner’s was the best place to eat.”

“A whole flock of little birds,” Ben chuckled.

“Still don’t see why I couldn’t go on the wedding trip,” Jimmy grumped.  “I’d like me a taste of that strudel and stew Hoss told me about.”  Ben, Marie and Adam laughed, while Hoss, as ignorant as Jimmy of what went on between newlyweds on their wedding trip, just shrugged.  Little Joe yawned and laid his head against his oldest brother’s knee.

* * * * *

The buckboard pulled to a stop in the Ponderosa yard, and two little boys spilled out the back almost before the wheels stopped turning.  With Little Joe in his arms, Adam moved more slowly, laughing when he saw Hoss and Jimmy head for the back of the house at a dead run.  “Looks like I carry my own baggage in,” he said, handing Little Joe to Marie.  She promptly set him down, and, though groggy, he, too, stumbled toward the back of the house.

In the privacy of their own yard, Ben threw an arm around his son’s shoulders and drew him close.  “No, no, those two scalawags can do it after they get back from the outhouse.  You’ve had a long trip, so you just come inside and take it easy ‘til dinner.”

“That sounds good, Pa,” Adam said with a smile as, arms wrapped around each other, they moved toward the front door.  Stepping inside, he sniffed the air.  “And something smells good, too!  Yankee pot roast?”

“That’s what my nose tells me,” Ben confirmed.

Marie slipped to Adam’s side and brushed his cheek with a tender touch.  “Hop Sing asked your favorite meal.  I hope I remembered correctly.”

“I couldn’t ask for better,” Adam acknowledged.

“Ah, velly good.”

Adam turned to see the little Oriental cook bowing in welcome.  “Hop Sing!” he cried.  “You have no idea how much I’m looking forward to your good cooking again.”

“They not feed you in Saclamento?” Hop Sing queried, tilting his head to scrutinize the slim figure of Mr. Cartwright’s number one son.  He shook his head and then smiled.  “You too skinny, but no wolly.  Hop Sing fix chop-chop.”

“How long until dinner, Hop Sing?” Marie asked.

“You washee up now, please,” the Chinaman directed.  “Maybe-so food be on table then.”

The front door blared open and the three youngsters charged through.

Ben fired a finger toward the open doorway.  “Back outside, both of you older ones, and get that luggage brought in.”

“All of it?” Hoss whined.

“Yes, of course, all of it!” Ben barked.  “Do you think your brother wants only part of his things?”

“I think I’d prefer to bring in my guitar myself,” Adam chuckled as the youngsters ran back outside.

“Probably a good idea,” Ben admitted with a wry smile.  “Make yourself at home, son.  I’m gonna stable the team.”

Adam walked out behind him and rescued his guitar from the hands of Jimmy Ellis.  Depositing it in the corner by the fireplace, he went back outside and started to help his father unhitch the team.  “You told me to make myself at home, Pa,” Adam quickly said when he saw his father’s mouth open to protest.  “Don’t see how I can unless I’m out here doing chores like the rest of you.”

Ben laughed.  “Oh, well, if it takes chores to make you feel at home, boy, I can sure come up with them.”  He took one horse toward the barn, while Adam followed with the second.  “Matter of fact, son, it’s time I told you about the assignment I’ve got lined out for you,” Ben said as he started tending the draft animal.  “Didn’t want you to get so excited you couldn’t concentrate on your exams or I’d’ve written about it before.”

Adam arched an eyebrow, wondering how his father could possibly think that the prospect of chores would take his mind off his studies.  “I’ve always done my share, haven’t I?  I expected to do that this summer, too, of course.”  Though only ‘til about the middle of August, hopefully.

Ben let the curry brush rest against the horse’s side.  “I know that, son,” he said softly.  “Matter of fact, that fine sense of responsibility is what convinces me you can handle this job.”  He stroked down the horse’s flank and paused to grin at Adam.  “You remember that new mine contract I wrote you about?”

“Sure, Pa.”

“Well, I want you to boss the job, start to finish,” Ben announced and waited to see the excited expression he was sure would meet his words.

It was shock, rather than excitement, that registered on Adam’s face, however.  “Boss the job?  You want me to be the boss?”

“Just of the timber crew,” Ben said quickly, sensing that his son was overwhelmed.  “I think straw boss is the term the men use.  You’d work under my ultimate authority, of course, but you’d be in charge of day-to-day operations.”  He moved toward Adam and rested a hand on his shoulder.  “I know you’re young, son, and this has taken you by surprise, but I have every confidence in you.”

“Pa, I—I don’t know what to say,” Adam stammered.  There was much he wanted to say, much he needed to say, but Adam felt that this was the wrong time.  He couldn’t bring himself to broach the subject of college his first day home; he wanted to enjoy his homecoming and settle in a few days before the fireworks began.  By tomorrow, however, Mary Wentworth would arrive.  He didn’t want to risk an explosion with that fragile flower in the house, so he had already concluded that his confrontation with his father would have to wait for a month until Mary went home.  While frustrating, that much delay wouldn’t hinder his being ready to leave in August.

Still, his father’s announcement made it all the more clear that Ben Cartwright envisioned his son stepping straight into leadership of the Ponderosa.  That prospect certainly appealed to the young man’s pride and was what he ultimately envisioned for himself, as well.  There was another dream to pursue first, though, one he still found difficult to share with his father.

“Well, I didn’t mean to knock you off your feet within an hour of coming home,” Ben said, giving the boy a hearty clap on the back.  “Your new responsibilities don’t start ‘til tomorrow, so don’t give them a thought ‘til then.  Your mother and Hop Sing have a fine feed planned to welcome you home, and we’d best finish up here in the barn and get in there while it’s hot or they’ll both have our hides.”

Adam nodded quietly and went to work.

Ben cocked his head and studied his son for a brief moment and then went back to his work.  Adam hadn’t taken the news quite the way Ben had expected.  Probably just overwhelmed the boy, he told himself.  Probably has some doubts about making the transition from schoolboy to supervisor.  It’s a big step, a big change, and change always comes hard.  Just need to stand by, I guess, let him find his own way if he can and be on hand to offer advice if he needs it.

Chores finished and luggage unloaded, the Cartwrights sat down to a feast of Adam’s favorite foods.  Ben offered a prayer of gratitude for his son’s safe return and set to work carving the roast and passing plates.

Slumped in his high chair between his parents, Little Joe rubbed at his eyes with one hand while the other pushed his plate away.   “Too much,” he whined.

“Oh, it is not,” Ben scolded.

“Just eat what you want, mon petit,” his mother said, gently stroking the child’s curls.  He is tired, she mouthed at her husband and Ben nodded.  Marie turned toward the other end of the table.  “We had thought to have a large gathering to welcome you home, mon ami, but after the birthday party and the wedding, it seemed too much to ask of our friends.”

“Busy time of year—for ranchers, especially,” Ben added apologetically, “and two parties in two weeks . . . well, most folks just couldn’t afford to take time off for a third this soon.”

“Sure, I understand,” Adam said, scrutinizing the knife cutting through his beef with extraordinary attention.  “No need to make a fuss over me, anyway.”

“Nonsense!  I wanted to make a fuss,” Ben insisted enthusiastically.  “Not every day a boy completes his education with such shining success.”

Adam’s head jolted up.  It was the perfect opening for him to say that he didn’t consider his education complete, but it was far from the perfect time.  He said nothing and lowered his gaze to his plate again.

“I am so sorry, Adam,” Marie said, reading the young man’s unaccustomed quietness as disappointment.  “I feel it is my fault, but I did not know about the wedding until the day of Little Joe’s party, and I offered our home to Laura before I thought to speak to Ben or of how it might affect you.  It is a weakness with me, acting by impulse, instead of careful thought.”

Adam looked up and smiled at her to relieve the anxiety etched on her porcelain countenance.  “You did exactly right, Marie.  A marriage happens once in a lifetime, so it certainly merits more attention than just the end of a school term.”

“You are kind, as always,” Marie said, the lines in her forehead relaxing, “but to us your homecoming is an occasion, mon ami, and we did want to celebrate it.”

“Just wasn’t practical,” Ben explained, cutting his meat.  “Only a month ‘til the Fourth of July, too, and there’ll be a big celebration in Carson City for that.  Still, we might tempt a few of your young friends over for a little dinner party, if you’d like.”

“Please, Pa, don’t bother,” Adam urged, face flushing.  “Sure, there’s people I want to see, but they don’t all have to sit down at a table together to make me happy.”

“Don’t I get to have my party, Pa?” Hoss asked, looking worried.  “Little Joe got one, so I don’t see why I can’t, too, especially if Adam ain’t gonna . . .”  Embarrassed, he trailed off weakly.

“What kind of party would you like, Hoss?” Marie asked as she coaxed a bite of potato into Little Joe’s gaping mouth.  “A large gathering like your younger brother’s or a picnic, as we’ve had before?”

“Picnic’d be fine,” Hoss said, smiling broadly.  “I don’t care about all that dancing and stuff, but I got more friends now, Ma, and it’d be nice if they could come, too.”

“I am sure that can be arranged,” Marie said.  “A picnic is simple to plan, Hoss, and I’m certain friends of your age will be able to come, if not their parents.”

“Me!”  Jimmy Ellis hollered.  “Invite me, Hoss.  I’ll even ask Ma to bake a cake, big as the one she made for Little Joe.”

“Me!” Little Joe echoed.

Oui, mon petit, both of Hoss’s brothers must be there, and, of course, you are invited, Jimmy,” Marie said quickly.  “However, there is no need to bring a cake.”

“Yes, there is!” Hoss declared urgently.

Everyone at the table, except the youngsters, laughed.

“All right now, that’s enough talk of parties and picnics,” Ben said, patting his lips with his napkin and standing.  “This is Adam’s day, Hoss, not yours.”  He walked to the alcove, took a package from his desk and returned to the table, stopping beside Adam’s chair.  He handed it to his son.  “As you know, I planned to buy you a fine horse as a graduation gift, but since you prefer to take Blackie for your mount, I thought you might appreciate this, instead, as a token of my pride in your accomplishment.”

“Ben, you are interrupting Adam’s meal,” Marie chided in soft rebuke.

“Only for a minute,” Ben argued.  “I suppose I should have waited, son, but I’ve been sitting on this surprise for quite some time now, so indulge me.”

Adam’s smile was wide and genuine.  “I wasn’t expecting anything, Pa.  Thanks!”  Eager as a child on Christmas morning, he slipped the twine off the end of the package and tore away the brown paper.  The box was narrow and just over a foot long.  Adam lifted the lid and gasped when he saw the sleek eight-inch barrel of blue-black steel and the polished walnut handgrip of the Colt Army revolver.

“Eighteen-sixty model, just like the United States Cavalry carries,” his father said, proud of the gun’s newness.  “Mark located it for me.  I hope you never have cause to use a sidearm, son, but I know I can trust you to handle it responsibly.”

“Always,” Adam promised in a hushed tone.

“I’ve got an old holster you can use for now,” Ben added as he moved back to his chair at the head of the table, “but I want you to have one made to fit as part of the gift.  Next time we’re in town, we’ll see to it.”

“That’s great, Pa.  Thanks again.”

“And now, please, finish your dinner before it gets cold,” Marie admonished.

“And before we start hearing wrathful ranting in Cantonese,” Adam chuckled, dutifully setting the box aside.  When he’d finished eating, he scooted his chair back.  “Guess I’d better get changed into work clothes and start earning my keep.”

“All right, then,” Ben said, fighting to keep a straight face.  “You can earn your keep by taking care of  your younger brother this afternoon.”

Adam’s eyes immediately turned toward Little Joe.  Noting the child’s heavy eyelids, he smiled softly.  “I don’t think he’ll last long enough for a story, Pa, but I’ll be glad to put him to bed.”

“Not that brother,” Ben stated.  “The other one.”

“I don’t need no tendin’,” Hoss protested.  “I’m half grown, Pa!”

“I think Pa means he’s giving us the afternoon off, Hoss, to do whatever we want,” Adam said, catching sight of the grin twitching at his father’s lips.

“Honest, Pa?” Hoss bubbled in disbelief.  “That’d be great!  Right, Adam?”

“You bet, buddy; that sounds great,” Adam agreed.  He looked across the table at his father.  “If you’re sure you don’t need . . .”

Ben chuckled at the distressed look that crossed Hoss’s open face.  “I’m sure, boy; go get reacquainted.”

“Me, too; me, too,” Little Joe cried, rubbing his eyes with both small fists.

“No, mon petit,” his mother said firmly.  “You must have a nap.”  She looked across at Jimmy Ellis.  “I think you, too, should rest this afternoon, Jimmy.  I know you are a big boy, but we woke you very early this morning.”

Yawning, Jimmy nodded.  He would have liked to go with Adam and Hoss, of course, but he sensed that the brothers really preferred to be alone.  Besides, he was very tired, and even if naps were for babies like Little Joe, one sounded pretty good at the moment.

Pointing out that he had to go upstairs, anyway, to change clothes, Adam again offered to put Little Joe down for his nap.  As predicted, the child fell asleep after only five minutes of Adam’s crooning a lullaby as he rocked back and forth.  Having tucked Little Joe snugly beneath the covers, Adam changed into a pair of dark trousers he’d worn the previous summer and noted that they were a good inch too short, although the red shirt he wore with it still fit reasonably well.  Seems a shame to waste good money on work clothes, when I’ll need something altogether different for Yale, he thought, sighing, but it can’t be helped.  Can’t expect men to look up to a boss who looks like a kid shooting out of his clothes.  Hope Pa’s willing to give me an advance on my first wages or that’s just what they’ll see, though.

Hurrying downstairs, Adam opened the front door and grinned when he saw that Hoss had already saddled both Blackie and Charcoal.  “Looks like you’re ready and rarin’, little brother,” he called.

“Yeah!” Hoss yelled back.  “Where you want to go, Adam?”

“Let’s head up to the lake,” Adam suggested.

Hoss grinned.  “That’s what I figured you’d pick.  Bet you’ve missed it, huh, Adam?”

Adam tousled his brother’s sandy hair.  “I’ve missed everything—and everybody—on the Ponderosa, buddy.”  As he and Hoss slowly moved through the forest west of the house, Adam took deep draughts of the pungent fragrance of the pines and soaked in the pristine beauty of the wildflower-dotted clearings.  Nothing like this in Sacramento.  Adam admitted, as he had not let himself do until this moment, how homesick he had been for this land the Cartwrights called home.  Probably won’t be anything like it back east, either, he conceded.  Maybe I am a fool to give up all this for a little more book learning.  Pa was likely to see it that way, Adam was sure, but even the thought seemed a betrayal of a dream as cherished to him as the Ponderosa had been to his father.  Except that the Ponderosa was his dream, too, not just his father’s.  A better Ponderosa, though, Adam told himself, a Ponderosa that’s bigger and better because of what I’ll bring to it with that “little more book learning.”

“Adam, I ain’t a baby now, you know,” Hoss complained.

Adam glanced down at his brother.  “Huh?”

Hoss squirmed in his saddle.  “I ride good now.  We don’t gotta go at a walk.”

“You ride well,” Adam corrected, “and I know we don’t have to walk; it’s just more pleasant to go slow when you haven’t seen a place for a long while.”

Hoss grinned.  “That’s okay, then.  I’m glad it’s just the two of us, Adam.  Little Joe and Jimmy are just too little to be taggin’ along.”

Knowing the younger boys’ size wasn’t the real reason, Adam smiled in understanding.  “I’m glad we can have some time alone, too, Hoss.  I really have missed my best buddy.”

Hoss blushed, but his face was beaming.  “You gonna miss stuff in Sacramento, too, Adam, like school—and that girl?”  He grimaced as he said the final word.

Adam laughed.  “‘That girl’ is just a friend.  Sure, I’ll miss my friends, but there’s nothing more that school can do for me.”  His thoughts drifted eastward for a moment, to the school he hoped would do much for him; then he turned in the saddle to face his younger brother.  “How about you, buddy?  School’s been better for you this year, hasn’t it?”

Hoss’s candid face wrinkled.  “Mostly.”

“Those bullies you wrote me about haven’t been giving you any more trouble, have they?”

Hoss looked down, uncomfortable for a moment, for he had been keeping secrets again.  “You won’t tattle to Pa if I tell you, will you?”

“Not unless it would hurt you more to keep it from him,” Adam replied, his face registering concern.  “You haven’t been fighting again, have you?”

Hoss nodded glumly.  “Just the last couple weeks.  After Little Joe’s party, some folks that didn’t know before figured out Ma was from New Orleans and started sayin’ awful things about her, especially that Cal Hulbert.”

Adam reined Blackie to a stop.  “You mean because she’s from the South?”

“He called her ‘secesh’—and worse.”  The exact phrase Calvin Hulbert had used was “secesh whore,” but Hoss couldn’t bring himself to say the ugly word, even to Adam.  Thrusting out his chin, he declared, “He wouldn’t take it back, so I pounded him good.  I know Pa don’t want me fightin’, but I couldn’t let him talk like that about Ma, Adam.  I just couldn’t!”

Adam had heard enough boyish taunts in his day to guess what the Hulbert bully had called Marie. “Of course, you couldn’t,” his assured Hoss at once.  “A gallant knight always defends the honor of his lady, and a fellow’s mother deserves the highest honor of all.”

“That’s how I saw it,” Hoss said, gusting out his relief, “but I ain’t sure Pa would.  You won’t tell?”

“You think you’ve got the situation under control?”

Hoss doubled his fist and showed Adam his solid knuckles.  “I can close Cal Hulbert’s mouth anytime he opens it.”

“Only if you have to,” Adam admonished, “but I won’t tell Pa.”

“Or Ma?” Hoss pressed.

Adam gave a short laugh.  “That’s the same as telling Pa, little brother, so it goes without saying that I won’t tell either one.”

Hoss took his still-doubled fist and gave his older brother’s arm an affectionate punch.  “You’re the best, Adam!  Sure glad you’re home—to stay this time.”

A shadow crossed Adam’s face.  Seeing it, Hoss wondered if he’d said something wrong, but the look was swept away almost immediately.  The sapphire waters of Lake Tahoe came into view, and both boys were lost in gazing at its majestic expanse.

* * * * *

Soft shadows of twilight were just beginning to stretch across the yard when Adam and Hoss returned to the Ponderosa.  Up from their naps, Little Joe and Jimmy Ellis were chasing each other back and forth, with Hoss’s dog Klamath nipping at their heels and yapping in canine contentment.

Little Joe stopped as soon as he heard the sound of horse hooves, spun around and ran to meet his brothers, heedless, as usual, of their mounts.

“Little Joe, no!” Jimmy Ellis yelled.

Adam set Blackie’s feet dancing away from the toddler, vaulted off the tall horse and snatched his baby brother up in his arms.  Planting a stinging swat on the child’s backside, he shouted, “Don’t you ever do that again!  Do you hear me, Little Joe?”  Whimpering, Little Joe laid his head on Adam’s shoulder, and the older boy instinctively started to give the small back a comforting rub.

“Sorry.  I tried to stop him,” Jimmy Ellis apologized.

“Not your job,” Adam grunted.  He turned severe eyes on his other brother.  “Haven’t you broken him of this habit yet?  Obviously not.”

Hoss glared at the small cause of the commotion.  “Well, I try, Adam, and Ma and Pa do, too, but he don’t listen so good.”

As if to prove how little attention he paid to any admonition regarding horses, Little Joe looked up and gave his oldest brother a captivating smile.  “I can ride Blackie?”

“Over my dead body,” Adam sputtered.  “Or, more likely, yours.”

Little Joe cocked his head and favored Adam with a pleading pout.  “Just to the barn?  Hoss lets me.”

“On Charcoal,” Hoss explained quickly, “nothing bigger.”

“And you’re not even getting that today,” Adam told his baby brother.  “You’ve been naughty, Little Joe, and don’t deserve a reward.”

Little Joe sent up a wail, which ended abruptly when another solid swat landed on his bottom.  “That does it,” Adam said.  “You are going inside right now.”  He looked at Hoss and Jimmy.  “Can you two get the horses stabled?  I’d appreciate it.”

“Sure, Adam,” Hoss said at once.  “For a city kid, Jimmy does a right smart job of currying horses.”

Adam chuckled as he toted a protesting Little Joe back to the house.  The idea of calling any boy from practically rural Carson City a “city kid” was hilarious to the young man just back from Sacramento.  The sense of mirth faded as he walked through the door into the great room.

Marie, sewing in the mauve chair nearest the fireplace, looked up when she heard the sobbing of her child.  “Is he hurt?” she asked at once.

Adam shook his head.  “This one is in need of a very necessary little talk.”

Marie frowned tautly as she dropped her mending and stood up.  “That is not for you to decide, Adam.”

Adam took a slow breath.  “No, it’s not,” he agreed quickly, though his voice was strained, “but if he keeps running at any horse that gallops into the yard, he’s gonna get hurt, Marie.”

Marie paled briefly, and then her color heightened as she took Little Joe and stared severely at him.  “Have you done that again, mon petit, after all that has been said to you?”

“Adam hit me,” Little Joe whimpered.

“A swat on the bottom,” Adam retorted gruffly, “not hard enough to raise dust from your britches.”

“And you have my permission to do so whenever you see such behavior,” Marie declared firmly.  She raised her child’s chin and looked into the misty emerald eyes.  “Do you hear me, Little Joe?  And if Adam is forced to spank you again, Mamá will spank, too—and when Papá comes home, he will have a very necessary little talk with you, as well.”

“No!” Little Joe wailed piteously.

Oui, it will be so,” she insisted.  Her voice softened.  “You must learn not to run at the horses, mon petit; you are very precious to me, and I wish only to keep you safe.”

“I wanna horse, all my own,” the baby whimpered.

Marie and Adam both laughed at the thought of such a tiny child straddling a saddle by himself.  “Not for many days, mon petit,” his mother said, setting him down.  “Now go to your room and stay there until your father comes to speak to you.”

Fear flashed in the emerald eyes.  “Nes’ry talk?”

“That is up to your father.”  She pointed her finger at the stairs.  “Go.  Now.”

Sending an arrow of anger in Adam’s direction, Little Joe stomped up the stairs and headed for his room.  As the door slammed, Marie giggled.  “Such a temper!  He had better get that in check before Papá comes up there, or there will, indeed, be a necessary talk of the most painful kind.”  She sat down and picked up the brown pants she had been hemming when the two brothers came in.

“Are those mine?” Adam asked, assuming by the size that they must be.

Marie smiled.  “We cannot have you meeting your timber crew in what you wore today, mon ami; those are most disreputable.  I let these out as much as I could, and I think the length will be close to correct.”

“Thanks,” Adam said, taking the blue chair across from her.  “I have to admit I was worrying about that.  I guess I’ve grown some this year.  I mean, I knew I had, because Mrs. Maguire let down my school pants a couple of months back, but I hadn’t thought about my work clothes needing the same.”

“Then it is good you have a”—she paused, having almost said “mother,” but quickly corrected herself—“a friend to think for you.”

“Yes, it’s good,” Adam said softly, his mind drifting back to the time when he and Marie had been anything but friends.  It was, indeed, good that now they were.  It made home a place to yearn for when away and savor now that he was back.

It was not the peace and tranquility of a happy homecoming, however, that Adam experienced that night after the house grew quiet and the only sound was the wind whispering gently through the pines outside his open window.  Turning from side to side to escape unwelcome thoughts, Adam only found new concerns facing him with each turn.  He set aside his apprehension about the inevitable confrontation with his father, having determined that the best way to prepare Pa for the idea of college was to demonstrate that he was a young man of sound thinking and ample ability to meet any challenge.  The challenge he would face on the morrow, however, was a formidable one, formidable enough to keep him restless on his bed throughout a very long night.

Chapter Twenty-One

The New Boss

            Those already at the breakfast table looked up as Adam clattered down the stairs the next morning.  “Mornin’, sleepyhead,” Hoss snickered as his older brother moved toward the dining room.

“Mornin’ to you,” Adam tossed back with a grin.

Leaning to the side, Marie scrutinized the dark pants brushing the top of Adam’s black boots.  “I think they will do,” she concluded, sitting up.

“They’ll do fine—at least ‘til I can spare the time for a trip to town,” Adam assured her as he took the seat at the foot of the table.  Though that would have customarily been the place for the lady of the house, Marie had long ago made it clear that she preferred to sit at Ben’s right hand, with Little Joe between them.  The high chair where the toddler normally sat was empty now.  “I looked in on the little fellow on the way down.  He’s still sound asleep.”

Marie smiled.  “That is what I like to hear.  He is more easily handled when he rests well.”

Adam laughed as he opened his napkin and placed it in his lap.  “I would have thought a good night’s sleep would just give him extra energy for mischief.”

“It does.”  Ben winked down the table at his oldest son.  “Is that what you were trying to do, Adam, build up extra energy for mischief?”

Adam flushed, taking mild offense at the teasing.  “I know I’m up late,” he said, “and I apologize.  City habits laid siege to me, I guess.”

Ben chuckled.  “We’ll break you of those soon enough.  Better dig in and eat now, though, son, or we will be running late.  Showing up late to work won’t make much of an impression on the men you’ll be supervising.”

If there was a remark calculated to take Adam’s appetite away, that reminder of what he was to face that morning was surely it.  Eyes studiously on his plate, he ate with determination and prayed that his nervousness wouldn’t show—either to Pa now or to the lumberjacks later.

Hoss, on the other hand, was dawdling over his breakfast, his plate still half full despite an earlier start at the meal.  “You’d better dig in, too, boy,” Ben observed.  “It won’t do for you to be late to school, especially when you have a guest to introduce to your teacher.”

Jimmy Ellis, sitting beside Hoss, lowered his glass of milk and grinned beneath a mustache of creamy white.  Ordinarily, he was a class of one, with his mother as teacher, so he was looking forward to visiting Hoss’s school and being around the other kids at noon and recess.

Hoss, caught in the grips of spring fever, stabbed at his fried egg.  “Don’t see why I gotta go, anyhow,” he grumbled.  “Ain’t but four days left.  Can’t learn much in that time.”

“You’d better learn, boy,” Ben said sharply, “or I’ll set you some new lessons to study that you’ll enjoy far less.”

Suspecting that this was just another way of threatening a “necessary little talk,” Hoss scowled and poked a bite of egg into his mouth.

“Oh, for mercy’s sake,” Ben scolded, noting the boy’s sour expression.  “You never heard your older brother put up a fuss about going to school, did you?”

Adam looked up quickly and grasped the opportunity staring him in the face.  “No, certainly not.  One should never pass up the opportunity for more learning, right, Pa?”  In a flash of insight, he concluded that the best way to handle his own problem, at least for now, might be to plant seeds of this nature whenever he could and hope that they sprouted by the time he had to tell Pa of his own desire for further education.

Ben fell straight into the trap.  “That’s right, son.  You listen to your brother, Hoss.”

Hoss, instead, favored his older brother with the look of one betrayed.  “I ain’t going to no academy,” he asserted strongly, his glinting blue eyes daring anyone, especially his learning-crazed older brother, to contradict him.

Ben cleared his throat.  “No one’s asking you to, but you will go to Franktown School ‘til the end of the term without further complaint—or you will spend the next four days in your room, lying on your belly.”

Nothing veiled about that hint.  Hoss promptly polished off the rest of his breakfast and jumped up from his seat.  “Let’s get goin’, Jimmy,” he ordered.

“Kiss your mother,” Ben said softly, “and be off with you.”

“Wouldn’t forget that!” Hoss chirped, habitual grin back on his face.  As soon as Marie had kissed his cheek, he took off for the kitchen, Jimmy at his heels, to pick up his lunch pail from Hop Sing and charge out the kitchen door.

Adam set his knife and fork across his empty plate and pushed back from the table.  “I’ll be ready as soon as I saddle my horse, Pa.”  He stood still for a moment and then gave in to the impulse that had struck him when he saw Hoss’s parting ritual.  Leaning over, he pressed a light kiss to Marie’s cheek.  “Thanks again for fixing my pants.”

A warm glow shimmered in Marie’s emerald eyes.  “It was nothing, mon ami—and yet I have received such gracious payment.”

Slightly embarrassed by the attention he’d drawn to himself, Adam blushed and left without response, but a contented smile touched his lips as he went through the front door.

It was reflected on the lips of his father.  He’s growing up, more ways than one.  Ben glanced over at Marie and saw that she, too, was remembering how Adam had rejected her when she first arrived.  It had been a hard time, the hardest they had known together, but they’d all somehow survived it.  The seeds of love she had so patiently planted had born fruit, and though she and Adam still referred to one another simply as friends, Ben knew, if they did not, that a stronger relationship was slowly being knit between them, one that might be more accurately termed mother and son, and he rejoiced to see it.  His farewell kiss to his wife was especially fervent that morning, but in a hurry to get to the timber camp, he didn’t express what he was feeling.  He didn’t have to; she knew.

* * * * *

Adam coughed back the acid surging up his throat.  Nerves, sheer nerves, he castigated himself, willing the food to stay in his jumpy stomach.  That’s all I need.  Pa may think showing up late will make a bad first impression, but it wins, hands down, over upchucking my breakfast in front of the crew I’m supposed to take charge of!  He took a deep breath and the acid receded, leaving a bacon-laced aftertaste in his mouth.  The woods were fragrant, their deep brown beauty dappled with patches of sunlight, and riding through them would ordinarily have brought a tranquil hush to Adam’s soul.  Not today.  Today, the woods seemed dark and foreboding, although he knew the ominous atmosphere came from within, not from the pungent pines through which he had ridden the day before in perfect peace and certainly not from the twittering calls of songbirds flitting among the branches.

The forest opened into a clearing, where the timber camp had been set up.  “You men gather ‘round,” Ben Cartwright called as he and his son rode to the center of the camp.  He dismounted and gestured for Adam to do the same.  Ashamed of his hesitation, Adam did so hastily, his foot catching in the stirrup.  He caught himself before he tumbled to the ground, but he heard someone snicker and knew that he hadn’t covered the misstep quite as successfully as he’d hoped.  Nothing like making a good first impression!

Ben clapped a broad hand on the young man’s shoulder.  “Men, I know a few of you will recognize this young man, but for those who don’t, Adam Cartwright, my son—just back from California—and the man who will be heading up this outfit.”

Adam could feel the eyes riveting on him, a few who knew him in warm welcome, some in cautious appraisal and others in cold disdain.  At least, Pa didn’t say just back from school, he thought, although he suspected that most of the workers knew that.  They didn’t, however, need a reminder that strong of just how young their new boss was.  He felt his father tap his shoulder twice and knew that he needed to say something, to give these men some sense that he was up to the job that had been thrust upon him.  Anticipating this moment, he had wrestled with the right words half the night and hoped he’d found them.  “I’m happy to be home,” he said, squaring his shoulders, “and looking forward to the opportunity of working with you men.  While I’ve worked with timber before, I’m well aware that many of you have years more experience in this business than I have, and I trust you’ll let me tap into that expertise.  If you have suggestions for making the work more productive or efficient or ideas on how to make this camp a better place to work, you’ll find me ready to listen, and my decisions will be based on what is best for the workers and the job—in that order.”  Watching carefully the eyes watching him, Adam was relieved to see some of the cautious ones warm up.

“We gonna keep the same crews your pa set up?” one stocky man in plaid flannel called out.

Adam glanced over at his father.

“I divided them into two crews and set their starting tasks,” Ben said, “just so you’d have a base to begin with this morning.”

Adam nodded and raised his voice.  “We’ll keep those crews for now,” he said.  “I’ll reevaluate the divisions and what each of you is doing after I’ve had a chance to get to know you men better.  As I said, I’m open to new ideas, so don’t be afraid to let your preferences be known.  Now, I suggest you all get to the work that’s been assigned to you.  Daylight’s burning.”

The men nodded, most in apparent approval, although Adam could still see scorn for his youth in the eyes of some.  Again he felt his father’s hand on his shoulder.  “Like you said, ‘Daylight’s burning,’ and I’ve got a crew of my own to supervise.  Unless there’s something else you need, son, I’ll be on my way.”

Adam forced a confident smile to his lips.  “Sure, Pa.  See you at the house.”

“For dinner,” Ben said.  “You remember that we’re having guests.”

“I remember,” Adam said in an undertone, wanting to welcome the guests, but dreading what kind of impression it would make on the men for their new boss to take a long noon break his first day on the job.

* * * * *

Adam smiled as he rode in at noon and saw the doctor’s buggy standing in the yard.  Assuming Dr. Martin had himself driven the girls here, it meant that he’d be able to greet one more familiar face that he hadn’t seen since sometime last August, and after a morning of new faces watching his every move, simple acceptance from someone he knew and respected wouldn’t be unappreciated.  It hadn’t been a bad morning; so far, the men were just sizing him up with no sign of outright rebellion.  He had a feeling, though, that some of them had already concluded that the youthful boss didn’t quite measure up.  He’d have to keep his eye on them and try to catch trouble before it started, and though he still thought taking off for dinner on the first day was a bad move, he had to admit the rest from all that watchfulness—both his and the men’s—was welcome.

His smile broadened as he opened the door and saw the tranquil tableau: his father and Dr. Martin bent in concentration over a checkerboard, since they didn’t have time for a chess match; Little Joe cuddled up in Mary Wentworth’s lap, with Sally Martin cooing over his curls; and Marie, beaming beatifically as they made over her precious baby boy.

“Ah, there you are,” Ben said, looking up after sliding a red checker diagonally.  “I was beginning to wonder if you’d forgotten what I said.”

Adam stole a glance at the grandfather’s clock to his right.  “It’s barely past noon.  I’m not late.”

“Of course, you aren’t,” Sally called, her blue eyes bright with welcome.  “Compared to some I could mention, who are habitually late to supper, you are promptness personified.”

Paul Martin threw a mock scowl in his daughter’s direction.  “You talk my patients into getting sick on schedule, and I’ll be glad to show up for meals, regular as clockwork.”  He stood up and walked over to lay his hands on Adam’s shoulders.  “Good to see you again, boy; you’ve been missed.”

“Thank you, sir,” Adam said simply.  “It’s good to be home.”

“You come to play wif me?” Little Joe piped up.

Along with the others in the room, Adam laughed.  “No, I came home to eat dinner with you, but I have to go back to work this afternoon, baby.”

Little Joe’s face reddened abruptly as he fold his thin arms across his chest.  “I am not a baby!”

Adam picked up his little brother and hugged the child to his chest.  “No, what you are is a tyrant, pure and simple.”

“Lording it over the ladies, to be sure,” Dr. Martin chuckled.

“Don’t tease him,” Mary urged gently.  “It isn’t fair to talk over his head so.”

“I suppose not,” Adam conceded, “but it’s hard not to, given how short that head is.”

Mary smiled at him then, in appreciation of the humor.

“Come table now, please,” Hop Sing dictated roughly from his stance beside the well-loaded table and none dared delay a moment longer.

Ben rubbed his hand along Adam’s shoulder blade in passing.  “How’s it going, son?  Any problems?”

“So far, so good, Pa,” Adam replied lightly as he took his seat, doing his best to disguise any apprehensions he felt.

Ben arched an eyebrow at the short response, but shrugged off his fleeting concern.  After all, Adam had always been laconic, and at the moment he was probably more interested in food than anything else.

* * * * *

“I’m a feller, not a trimmer!”  Nostrils flaring and veins throbbing in his forehead, the burly lumberman glared at Adam.  Muscles bulged beneath the flannel sleeves folded stubbornly across his barrel chest, warning Adam that this man had the strength to back up any position he took.  That it was a belligerent one was something the young straw boss had been expecting almost from the first moment they’d met.  Wilbur Watson had eyed him with disdain the first day, scowled in derision the second, mumbled with disrespect the third and now, on the fourth day of Adam’s tenure, Watson was challenging him at a volume no one within a hundred yards could ignore.

Adam licked his lips, determined to keep his own temper in check and give this antagonist every chance to adopt a more cooperative spirit.  “You do a fine job of felling trees, Watson, but that’s not what I need you to do today.  I want a load, dressed and mine-ready, to haul to Virginia City tomorrow.  We’re behind on the finishing stages, so I’m asking you and these other three men to step in and take up the slack.”

Watson’s laughter was rough and harsh.  “You’re askin’, huh?  Well, let me give you my answer, sonny—no—pure and simple.”

Adam hissed in a sharp breath.  “Maybe I should make myself more plain.  I’m not asking; I’m giving you a direct order.”

Watson aimed a stream of spittle at Adam’s boots and came close to hitting the right one.  “I don’t take up the slack for any man, sonny boy.  If we’re caught up with our work, that just means we’ve earned ourselves a day off, to my way of thinking.”  The leering trio behind him echoed the sentiment.

Adam squared his shoulders.  “Take the day off, gentlemen, and you don’t need to bother reporting back to work.”

Watson’s arms unfolded, and his hands clenched into fists.  “Why, you milk-soppin’ little whelp!”  He lunged forward, right fist suddenly connecting with Adam’s outthrust chin.  Taken by surprise, Adam fell back, hitting the ground hard.  “You talk like you’re bull of the woods, boy.  Let’s see you prove it.”  Elbows bent, fists raised, he danced around the clearing.  Like dogs on the scent of blood, men wielding axes and saws hurried out from the trees and across the clearing to form a circle around the combatants, large enough to give them room to maneuver, but close enough to feel like participants in the fracas.

Adam wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and stood up slowly.  He figured the audience would insure that the lumberman didn’t attack until he was on his feet, hitting a man while he was down being frowned upon in any group where a fair fight was esteemed.  He doubled his fists and began moving around the perimeter of the circle, eyes fixed on his opponent.  He didn’t intend to be caught off guard again.

Watson struck first, and Adam’s head rocked backward from the force of the blow.  He kept his feet this time, however, and struck back as hard as he could.  Watson danced away, laughing as the blow flicked off his left cheek.  He charged in again, driving a hard right into Adam’s midriff and following it quickly with an explosive left jab to the jaw and another hard right, this time hitting the side of Adam’s face, barely missing his eye.

Adam staggered back, caught his balance and moved forward again, stumbling slightly.  Quick to spot an opportunity, Watson plowed a powerful fist into Adam’s abdomen.  Adam folded over at the waist, and Watson’s fists repeatedly stabbed into his stomach and ribs.  Breaking free, a winded Adam struck out and hit his opponent somewhere—he really couldn’t tell where because a cut over his eye was bleeding enough to obscure his vision.  Obviously, he hadn’t done much damage, for Watson was on top of him with scarcely time to draw a breath, concentrating on Adam’s abdomen now, first one fist and then the other pummeling him to the proverbial pulp.  As Adam fell to one knee, Watson lashed out with his hard-toed boot and drove it into the young man’s side.  Adam cried out in pain and crumpled.  With a grin of malevolent satisfaction, Watson again lifted his foot.

“That’s enough,” Adam heard someone say, though he didn’t know the timber crew well enough yet to recognize the voice.  He took advantage of his opponent’s momentary distraction to pull up to his knees.

“Stay out of this, Webber,” Watson snarled.  Catching Adam’s movement from the corner of his eye, the burly lumberman grasped the young straw boss by his shirt collar, hauled him to his feet and drew back his fist.

Webber grabbed Watson’s arm and jerked him around, breaking the troublemaker’s grip on Adam’s collar.  Adam fell and for a moment could do nothing but lie there.  He recognized the man who had come to his aid, one of the few who had seemed to accept him from the first.  Shorter than most in the camp, Jake Webber, about ten years Adam’s senior, was built square and stocky, with hard muscles rippling beneath his shirt.

“I said, ‘That’s enough,’” Webber growled.  “Beatin’ a bare-faced boy don’t make you bull of the woods, Watson.”

“Maybe,” Watson snapped, “but it sure as anything proves the bare-faced boy ain’t the bull, and I ain’t about to take orders from some lily-livered pup what can’t hold his own in a fair fight.”

Webber thrust the man away from him.  “Then I reckon you ain’t workin’ for Ponderosa.  Pup or not, big boss man says he’s the straw boss.  You can’t live with that, you pack your gear and leave—or I’ll make you wish you had.  And I reckon you can see I ain’t no bare-faced boy, Watson.”

Watson ran an appraising eye over Webber’s beefy build and noted the complete confidence reflected in his square face.  Deciding that Webber could probably take him if he pushed a fight, Watson brushed dust from his pants.  “Ain’t worth it,” he grunted.  “There’s other outfits.”  He pushed his way outside the circle of spectators.

Webber snorted.  “Go find one,” he called.  He raised his voice.  “And any of you that can’t follow the boss’s orders can trail along after that fool.”  Only two men turned to follow Watson.

“The rest of you men get back to the work you’ve been assigned,” Webber ordered, and one by one the others moved away until Adam and his defender were alone.

Though Adam had managed to pull to his hands and knees, he welcomed the calloused hand that helped him to his feet.  “Thanks,” he said, having no breath to say more.

“My pleasure,” Webber chortled.  “That one just needed to learn the difference between bein’ bull of the woods and a plain, ordinary bully.  Anything that sticks in my craw, it’s a bully.”

Adam massaged his neck and smiled.  “Sort of sticks in my craw, too.  Thanks, Mr. Webber.”

“Jake,” the other man said.  “Just Jake’ll do, Mr. Cartwright.”  He rubbed his hands awkwardly down his britches legs.  “Reckon I owe you an apology for takin’ it on myself to fire Watson.  I know it ain’t my place; it’s yours, boy, if you’re gonna boss this outfit, but it needed doin’ and he’d only have laughed if you said it.  You ain’t got the muscle to back it up.”

Adam flushed, recognizing the truth of the assessment, but suffering adolescent embarrassment nonetheless.  He’d known the minute Watson challenged him that he didn’t stand a chance.  While Adam could hold his own with anyone his own size or slightly larger, Watson was a head taller, fifty pounds heavier and about a dozen years more experienced as a fighter.  “You only anticipated my action—if I could’ve made it stick.”  He tossed a sour grin at Jake Webber.

Webber laughed, liking the boy all the more for his ability to laugh at himself.

Adam rubbed his aching jaw.  “Will the other men follow me, you think, or do I have this to look forward to every day?”

Jake shrugged.  “You ain’t got much experience at handling rough lumberjacks—couldn’t have at your age, so that’s nothing against you—yeah, you might have some more trouble.  I could give you a few pointers on holding your own in a tough fight.  You—uh—can’t treat it like a gentleman’s boxing match, boy; you got to learn to fight a little dirty.”

Adam scowled in chagrin.  “I think I could use a few pointers, Jake, but I would like to find a way to earn the men’s respect.”

Jake looked awkward then, scuffing his thick-soled boots through the pine needles covering the ground.  “Meanin’ no disrespect, Mr. Cartwright, but your pa’s wrong to put you in charge, in my opinion.  Just bein’ the boss’s kid ain’t enough; you gotta prove yourself a man.  In a lumber camp that can mean beatin’ down all challengers, but maybe you can find another way.  You’re a sharp kid—fair one, too.  I could tell right off, and the men’ll see that in time.  Give ‘em time, boy, and I reckon you’ll find the respect you’re after.”

“It’s good advice,” Adam said, thrusting out his hand.  “I’ll take it.”

Jake grasped the extended hand and shook it firmly.  “Then take a little more.  Clean up, son; ride over t’other camp and tell your pa what’s happened; talk to him about what replacements we’ll be needin’.  I’ll keep the men workin’ ‘til you get back—and you make sure you get back today, whether you’re hurtin’ or not, you hear?  It’ll say something to the men.”

Adam grimaced in sheer distaste for facing Pa.   He would have preferred to keep his troubles to himself and only confess them once he had the situation under complete control.  The marks on his face would confess for him, though, so there was no point in putting off the inevitable.  “I’ll be back,” he promised as he walked stiffly over to his horse.  “Might take awhile, but I’ll be back—and I’m making you acting straw boss ‘til then.”

Jake Webber grinned broadly.  “Sure thing, boss—and thanks!”

Adam nodded and mounted the big black, ignoring the pain in his side.

* * * * *

Adam reined Blackie to a walk as he entered the yard of the Ponderosa Ranch.  Though his father would have normally been at the other lumber camp at this time of day, Adam knew that he was at home today, working on the books and watching over Little Joe while Marie and Mary did some shopping in Washoe City.  He told himself that it was the likely presence of his little brother in the yard that made him slow down, but honesty compelled him to admit that was primarily an excuse.  Mainly, he wasn’t looking forward to showing his face inside the house, considering what was likely to happen the minute he did.

The yard was empty, so Adam walked his horse past the barn and tied the reins to the top rail of the corral beside it.  Then, muscles still aching, he walked gingerly to the water trough between there and the house, pumped some fresh water and made an attempt at cleaning up before he went inside.  Between splashes of cold water, he looked up to see a small face, cocked to the side, carefully examining his cuts and bruises.  “Where’d you come from?” Adam queried.

“The barn,” Little Joe replied.  “You been fightin’, Adam!  You gonna be in trouble; Pa don’t like fightin’.”

“Were you in that barn alone?” Adam demanded, meeting attack with counterattack.  “Pa won’t like that, either, baby boy.”

Little Joe pouted eloquently.  “I was just lookin’ at the horses; didn’t bother ‘em.  Gotta go somewheres.  Pa don’t want me in the house; he workin’.”

Despite his irritation with the way the morning had gone and his dread of what he was about to face, Adam had to grin.  “Booted you out, did he?  Can’t imagine why!  You weren’t making noise or anything like that, were you?”

Little Joe grinned.  “Maybe little bit.  Pa kinda cranky.  Don’t know why.”

Adam dried his face with his bandanna.  “Bookwork,” he told his little brother.  “It has that effect on him.”

“Huh?”

“Books make Pa cranky,” Adam simplified.

“Hoss, too,” Little Joe shared conspiratorially.

Adam laughed.  “Different kind of books.  Anyway, baby brother, you stay out of that barn.  I can guarantee Pa will be cranky enough to tan your little bottom if he catches you.”

“You gonna make Pa cranky?” Little Joe inquired, small face scrunching with concern.

“More than likely,” Adam muttered, straightening up and staring at the front door.

Little Joe’s head bobbed in sober conclusion.  “Think I stay outside.”

“Smart thinking,” Adam said, and after giving his brother’s gold-brown curls a soft pat, he headed for the house, like a man prepared to meet his doom.

Adam slipped four fingers behind the door handle and slowly depressed the lever above it with his thumb.  As he eased the door open, however, a noisy creak announced his entrance.  Hinge needs oiling, he noted with irritation.  Not that the extra second or two a noiseless hinge would provide would have helped him much.

“Joseph, is that you?” a voice reminiscent of Moses on Mt.Sinai called from the alcove.  “I told you to play outside!”

Adam closed the door, took a deep breath and stepped past the grandfather’s clock.

“Joseph!” Ben shouted.

“Wrong son,” Adam muttered as he rounded the corner.

Ben’s mouth gaped in surprise.  “Adam?  I—I wasn’t expecting—good lands, boy, what happened to your face?”  He sprang to his feet, surged past the desk and touched anxious fingers to the cut on Adam’s brow.

Adam bristled away.  “I’m all right.”  Seeing his father’s frown, he added in a less strident tone, “It’s not as bad as it looks, Pa.”

“You’ve been in a fight,” Ben said.

Adam made a feeble attempt at a cocky grin.  “And you’re given to understatement.”

“Adam!”  Curbing his irritation at the boy’s manner, Ben steered him toward the settee.  “Sit down, boy, and tell me who did this.”

Adam resisted, but finally gave in to the pressure of two strong hands on his shoulders.  “That doesn’t matter.”  He shook his head.  “Well, I guess it does, since you need to take the man’s name off the payroll—Wilbur Watson—and Todd Jacobs and Jim Swenson went with him.”

“Those three did this to you?” Ben demanded, eyes sparking with fury.  “They beat you like this?”

Adam waved his right hand in negation.  “No, no.  Just Watson—and it wasn’t a beating, Pa; it was a fair fight.  I just got the worst of it.”

Ben’s mouth set in a grim line.  Not surprising, considering the relative sizes of Watson and his young son, but he couldn’t take it as lightly as Adam appeared to be doing.  He sat down on the fireside table, facing his son.  “What happened?” he asked simply.

Adam had barely started his explanation when a wild neigh shot through the open window in the alcove.  Both his head and Ben’s snapped up simultaneously, but while his father paused, momentarily puzzled by the sound, Adam bolted off the settee and raced toward the door in sudden and certain knowledge of what was upsetting his horse.  He flung open the heavy oak door and dashed through it, ready to snatch his baby brother away from Blackie’s prancing hooves.

What met his eyes, however, was a scene far worse than he had imagined.  Little Joe wasn’t standing beside the horse, trying to pet it.  He had evidently climbed the rails of the corral to which the horse was tethered, had grasped the saddle horn and was swinging one small leg over the saddle as Adam charged toward him, screaming his name.

Blackie reacted by throwing up his hind legs, and Little Joe, eyes wide with surprise, bounced skyward, his hands slipping off the saddle horn.

“Dear God!” Ben cried as he ran forward, knowing he couldn’t possibly reach the child in time.

Adam, thankfully, was closer, and, fortunately, Joe came flying his direction.  Though he said nothing aloud, Adam was praying, too—hard.  And hard is just how Little Joe hit him, careening into his chest and knocking him off his feet.  As he lay there, aching ribs inflamed afresh, he caught a glimpse of Joe’s exhilarated little grin, and the sight pushed him over the edge.  Sitting up, he plunked his brother across his lap.  “Don’t you ever dare touch my horse!” he shouted, accentuating each staccato syllable with a hard swat on the upturned buttocks.

“Adam, Adam,” Ben chided softly, reaching for his youngest son.

As Ben lifted Joe from his arms, Adam leaned back, panting, on his elbows, and the fury and fear slowly began to ebb out of him.

Little Joe, however, was red-faced with resentment and evidently figured one attack deserved another.  “Adam been fightin’, Pa,” he accused.

“Why, you tattle-telling little brat!” Adam hollered.

Ben’s response silenced both boys.  Laying Little Joe over his shoulder, he gave the boy’s bottom a stinging wallop.  Ignoring the child’s wails, he set him down and slapped his bottom one more time.  “Up to your room—now!” he bellowed.  “I’ll have more to say to you later!”  As Joe ran for the house, Ben rolled his head back and exhaled long and gustily; then he looked down at his oldest son.

Adam gave him a rueful smile.  “Sorry, Pa.  I should have left that to you to begin with.”

Ben nodded.  “You should have, but given the provocation, I doubt you could have.”  He chuckled and extended his hand.

Adam grasped it and let his father help him up.

“Now, let’s go back inside and discuss that other little provocation you dealt with this morning,” Ben suggested, “and then I’ll deal with the greater one upstairs.”

* * * * *

“And he didn’t even have the good sense to be afraid!” Ben exclaimed as he ended his rendition of Little Joe’s encounter with Blackie, told to the Thomases over Sunday dinner in Carson City.

“‘Spect you put the fear into him afterwards,” Nelly chuckled, offering a second helping of greens to Ben.

Ben smiled ruefully as he took the bowl from her hands.  “I tried; I’m not sure I succeeded.”

Clyde hooted across the table at his friend.  “Might as well face facts, Ben boy; you’re gonna have to get that youngun a horse.”

Little Joe looked up in bright anticipation.

“No,” his father said, staring directly at his youngest son.  “Not at four years old, I don’t have to get him a horse!  He’s too young and too small.”

Mais oui,” Marie agreed with a shiver.  “When I think what might have happened.”

“Oh, I know,” Mary Wentworth added, her arm coming protectively around the youngest Cartwright.  “I’m so glad God had His angels looking out for this precious child.”

“That ‘precious child’ does his best to keep heaven employed and on its toes, I’ll admit,” Clyde snickered, “but I still say you’re gonna have to get the youngun a pony before you’re ready.  He’s too dadburned determined not to find a way to get what he wants.”

Ben’s gaze narrowed in a display of his own determination.  “He is gonna learn who’s in charge if I have to wear out the seat of a dozen pairs of britches!”

Clyde grinned.  “I ‘spect that’s just what you’ll have to do.”

“All right, now,” Nelly scolded as she went to the sideboard to get the dessert “You’ve teased enough, you ornery old coot.”  She set the peach pie on the table and began slicing it.  “I was surely disappointed that Adam didn’t come with you,” she remarked to Ben.  “You tell him he’s expected next time, and his Aunt Nelly won’t take no for an answer.”

“I will,” Ben promised.  “He surprised me when he said he wanted to visit the Marquette place today.  I hadn’t realized he and that boy had spent enough time together last summer to form much of a relationship.”

“They’ve been writing, Adam said,” Marie pointed out.

Hoss, who hadn’t taken his eyes off the pie since its arrival at the table, spoke up quickly.  “Long as Adam ain’t here, could I have his share of the pie?”

“Oh, Hoss,” Marie chided gently.

Nelly, however, just laughed.  “I reckon you can, Sunshine.”

Clyde reached over to chuck Hoss under the chin.  “Stakin’ your claim early, huh, boy?  Better watch out; I just might jump it!”

“First one through the first gets seconds,” Hoss announced and set to work to earn the prize.

* * * * *

Ross Marquette hooked a foot-long rainbow trout to the end of his string and slipped it back into the rippling water of Franktown Creek.  “That puts me two up on you,” he taunted with a wide-mouthed grin.

“Luck, boy—pure luck,” Adam Cartwright drawled.

“You’re just jealous,” Ross said, dropping down at Adam’s side and digging a worm from the can between them.  Rebaiting his hook, he tossed the line into the water and eased back next to his friend.  “Must have scared you spitless,”  he observed, picking up the conversation that had been interrupted by a sudden pull on his line.  Throughout their afternoon together, Adam had shared the experiences of his week and had just told Ross about catching Little Joe when he flew off Blackie.

“Yeah,” Adam conceded, shaking his head and chuckling.  “So much that I lost my head for a minute and started whaling away at the kid’s bottom, right in front of Pa.  Good thing Marie wasn’t there!”

“I’ll say!” Ross agreed.  Though he had yet to meet the lady of the Ponderosa, Adam had told him how Marie doted on Little Joe.  “You’re just lucky she didn’t tan you!”

Adam laughed.  “No, she was more in the mood to pin medals to my chest when she heard.”

“And so she should,” Ross declared loyally.  “You saved the kid’s life, after all.”

Adam glanced away, for a moment back in the yard, seeing that little body speeding toward him.  He felt a hand on his upper arm.

“Adam, you okay?” asked his friend.

Adam nodded and, licking his lower lip, turned back toward Ross.  “Yeah, I’m okay, but it’s like you said, it scared me spitless.  You can’t imagine.”

“Yeah, I can,” Ross muttered, pulling a blade of grass and starting to chew on one end.  “My little sister fell in the creek one day, back home in Tennessee, and like to have drowned.  I could feel my heart scrunch up inside when I saw her little blond head go under.”

“But you got her out, right?” Adam asked.  “I mean, you did mean Margie, didn’t you?”  He’d been introduced to Ross’s younger sister when he’d ridden over that morning to ask if Ross could join him for some fishing.

A fond smile touched Ross’s broad lips.  “Yeah, I just got the one sister, Adam, but it wasn’t me pulled her out.  That was my big brother, the one wearing all the medals in our family.”

Adam sat up and hugged his knees to his chest.  “Didn’t know you had a brother.  You’ve never—”

“I don’t,” Ross said sharply, a shadow crossing his face.  He swallowed down the lump in his throat.  “He died of snakebite comin’ west.”  He turned toward his friend, grief still haunting his brown eyes.  “Like to killed Pa when he passed on.  Pete—he was Pa’s namesake—and he was, well, everything I’m not in Pa’s eyes.”

“You’re doing it again,” Adam reminded his friend.  “You promised me you’d work at not listening to that garbage.”

“I do work at it,” Ross insisted, “but it’s hard to turn a deaf ear day in, day out.  I just gotta face the fact that I am a pure disappointment to my pa.”  He worked his shoulders like a mule trying to shed a pack.  “What I don’t understand, Adam, is why you was so scared to tell your pa about the trouble up to the lumber camp.  He don’t strike me as the type to—well, to be over-hard on a fellow who’s tryin’ his best.”

“He’s not,” Adam said at once, “and I wasn’t scared of him—at least, not the way you mean.  It was more embarrassment than fear, I guess.  I knew the minute I walked in  he’d be firing questions, wanting to know who hurt his little boy, wanting to step in and deal with Watson for me, when I’m past the age for running to Pa with every little problem.  In a way, it’s like the opposite side to the coin of what you feel with your pa.  Pa thinks so highly of me that it can be hard to live up to, and my biggest fear, I guess, is letting him down after all he’s been to me and done for me all the years of my life.”

There was a pull on Ross’s line again, but he ignored it.  “That why you ain’t told him about wantin’ to go back east to school, ‘cause you’re scared of lettin’ him down?”

“Partly,” Adam admitted, jumping up and trotting to the creek bank to help haul in Ross’s fish, another rainbow trout.  “Mostly, maybe,” he admitted as Ross ran up beside him.  “Pa’s got a head full of plans for me, for how I’m gonna fit into running this ranch, and I know he’s going to be disappointed to hear that my plans don’t match his.  I guess maybe that’s what bothered me so much about what happened on Friday.  I’d figured that if I fit in with Pa’s plans this summer, showed him that I valued them, did a good job of bringing them off while I was here, then maybe he’d be more likely to value mine when the time came.  I sure messed that up!”

Ross reached into the water and drew up a string of fish.  “I don’t think so, Adam.  So you got your nose bloodied a little.  Bet that’s happened to him a time or two, when he was a young sailor boy, like you wrote in your letters.  And you still got time to show him you can handle the job.”

“Yeah, sure—hey!”—Adam caught his friend’s hand as he started to hook the fish to the string.  “That’s my string you pulled up, not yours.”

“I know that,” Ross chuckled.  “You’re behind, remember?  And we wouldn’t want your pa thinkin’ you can’t even bring in a mess of fish!  Might go real unfavorable with you when you finally work up the nerve to tell him your big goal in life is to stay a schoolboy forever.”

Pleased, as always, to see his overly sober friend in a good mood, Adam grinned.  As he rode back to the Ponderosa that evening, in time to deliver the fish to Hop Sing for supper, he pondered why it seemed so easy to share his heart with Ross when he struggled for words with anyone else.  He’d known Billy Thomas years longer, for instance, and counted him just as close a friend, but he’d never once considered telling Billy his ambitions for furthering his education.  Billy would have twitted him mercilessly and probably blurted the secret out in front of Pa in some incautious moment.  Ross was closed-mouthed, of course, but it was more than just the knowledge that he could keep a secret that made Adam feel free to unburden himself to his newer friend.

Maybe it was because Ross was more like him than anyone Adam had known in years—not since Jamie Edwards.  Ross hadn’t had much chance for education, but he had the spark for learning, a spark that had only needed a little encouragement to flicker into flame.  Oh, he’d never be a scholar, never share Adam’s dream of going to college, but in the letters they’d exchanged since last summer, he’d shown an interest in Adam’s studies, often asking questions that sent Adam back to his books to dig out the answer.  And he’d taken a positive fancy to the poetry of William Cowper after Adam loaned him the book.

Maybe, Adam conceded as he arrived at the ranch, it was like what he’d told Ross that afternoon about them being opposite sides of a coin.  Funny, in a way, but because Ross had problems at home that he found hard—no, impossible was the better word—to discuss with his father, that seemed to make it easier for Adam to admit that he was having trouble talking to Pa.  Much as he was looking forward to seeing Billy Thomas at the earliest opportunity, he knew he wouldn’t be admitting that problem to his lighthearted friend, who was never at a loss for words—with Clyde or anyone else.  Just thinking about Billy, though, made Adam grin.  Everybody needs a Billy in his life, he decided, to bring some joy and laughter, but I need Ross, too, to lean into the load with me.  Throw Jamie into the mix, to share my dreams, and I guess I’ve got about all a fellow could ask for in a circle of friends.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Note

The character of Jake Webber is taken from the Bonanza episode “The Quest” by John Joseph and Thomas Thompson

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Ribbons and a Rescue

            Wednesday morning, the fifth of June, Ben climbed aboard the freight wagon loaded with squared timber beams, destined for the Gould and Curry mine.  “Time to go, boys!” he called.  Hoss and Jimmy Ellis gave Klamath a final pat on the head and came running, clambering up to sit beside Ben on the broad seat.

Adam smiled at Marie as she straightened his string tie one last time and then started toward the hitching rail, stopping short when Little Joe put up his accustomed wail at being left behind.  Coming back, he stroked the small, heaving back a couple of times.  “I’ll bring you something, little fellow,” he offered.  The promise elicited no response from the sobbing child, so Adam left Little Joe to the comfort of Mary Wentworth’s arms and hurried to mount his black horse, which he would ride because there was no room on the wagon.

Smiling her gratitude to both young people, Marie walked quickly to the wagon.  “Oh, Ben, there is one thing I’d forgotten.  Please see if you can find some light yellow hair ribbon—one yard, please.”

Ben grimaced as if in physical pain.  “Hair ribbon?  Can’t it wait ‘til you—”

Marie faced him, arms akimbo and jaw set with determination.  “No, monsieur, it cannot wait.  You know how rarely I get to Virginia City, and Mary hopes to wear her new dress to church this Sunday.  She has no ribbons to match, and there were only red and blue ones in Washoe City.”

Ben’s face at that moment resembled that of his youngest son.  “But, Marie,” he protested in a voice that was almost a whimper,  “I don’t know how to pick hair ribbon.  I’ll probably get it too wide or too narrow or too yellow or not yellow enough or—”

Marie interrupted his forlorn pleading with her distinctive laugh and reached into her pocket for a square of yellow calico.  “Just ask Mrs. Cass at the mercantile to match this, Ben.”  She handed the scrap of fabric to Jimmy, who passed it on to Hoss, who then dropped it into his father’s hand as quickly as if it were hot coals.  Marie turned to Mary, shaking her head and laughing again.  “Men—they can make the simplest task incomprehensibly difficult.”

“Maybe because it is,” Ben growled.  He flicked the harness lines sharply.  “Get up, boys!”  He drove off, mumbling to himself.  “Not enough I deal with mule-stubborn lumberjacks all week; not enough I negotiate with hard-headed mine owners; not enough I haul a wagonload of supplies back for Hop Sing.  No, I have to match hair ribbon to yellow calico, too!”

Adam prudently kept Blackie behind the wagon until his father’s ranting subsided.  About half an hour after leaving the house, he deemed it safe to ride up alongside his father.  “Thanks for driving this load in, Pa.  I know you need to be at your own lumber camp, but I do appreciate your taking time to go into town and introduce me to the mine’s superintendent.  You won’t have to be bothered next time.”

Ben looked up at Adam.  “I wanted to come in with you, son.  It’s only right that I make the proper introductions and see you well started in your own relationship with the superintendent.  That’s no bother to me.  It’s just—well—hair ribbon I’m peeved over.  Matter of fact, son, if you’d like to show how much you appreciate my help, paying a little visit to Cass’s Mercantile for me would be a fine way.”

Adam chuckled.  “You’d have to do a lot more than make introductions before I let you rope me into that!  Like saving me from a stampeding steer, for instance.”

Ben scowled, thinking that a stampeding steer might be easier to face than his wife, if he came home without that yellow ribbon.  “The youth of America are losing all respect for their elders,” he muttered.

“I ain’t,” Hoss said.

“You volunteering to buy that hair ribbon, Hoss?” Adam teased, leaning forward to see around his father.

Hoss gulped.  “No, sir!  I ain’t gettin’ roped into that, either.”

“My ma’d do it, if she was back,” Jimmy mumbled.  “Don’t seem like she’s ever comin’, though.”

“She and your new pa will be by to pick you up Sunday, son,” Ben told his young house guest.

“He ain’t my pa,” Jimmy protested.  “He’s just ma’s husband.”

“That makes him your pa,” Hoss insisted.

“Does not!” Jimmy retorted.  “My pa’s dead.”

“Yeah, I know,” Hoss argued, “but God done give you another one in his place, just like he gave Ma to me after my mother died.  It’s a good thing, Jimmy.”

“If you let it be,” Adam added.  “Take some advice from a fellow who once fought against having a new mother, Jimmy.  Whether you let Mr. Dettenrieder become your pa or not is up to you, but you’ll be happier—and so will your mother—if you let him be a true father to you, in place of the one you never knew.”

“Maybe,” Jimmy conceded, looking as if he were thinking it over.

Ben kept his eyes on the horses, lest they betray the pride he felt in both his sons.  Hoss’s response wasn’t surprising, of course, but to hear Adam actually speak of his own feelings for Marie and how they’d changed was—both surprising and satisfying.  Suddenly, buying a bit of hair ribbon seemed a small price for having elicited those words from his eldest son.

* * * * *

The delivery to the Gould and Curry mine had been made, and Adam had met the superintendent, coming away with the distinct impression that the man was only dealing with him with the understanding that Ben Cartwright himself was taking ultimate responsibility for the job.  It irked the young man’s pride, of course, but he understood that he would have to earn the respect of men like this and figured it was an easier challenge than earning respect from the lumberjacks he worked with every day.  That quest was going reasonably well, with the help of Jake Webber—as were his lessons in down-and-dirty fisticuffs—and Adam felt sure he could earn the businessman’s respect, too, given time.  He just wasn’t sure he’d have that kind of time before he left for back east.

He had expected that they would head up to C Street after the transaction was completed, but his father turned the wagon toward the Ophir Mining Company offices on F, instead.  “I thought you did your business on Saturday,” Adam said, “or are you just introducing me here, too?  I didn’t think I’d be dealing with the Ophir.”

“You won’t be,” Ben replied, “but I thought I might wangle you a tour of those square sets I wrote you about, if you’re interested.”  He smiled, knowing that he’d assumed correctly.

Adam almost bubbled with excitement.  “That would be great, Pa!  The drawings you sent were fascinating, but I’d really like to see them in person.”  His enthusiasm soared even higher when they walked into the Ophir office and found the designer of the square sets himself inside.

Philip Deidesheimer welcomed the eager young man with a warm handshake and, as he had free time, offered to personally show Adam through the section of the mine that had been timbered with the new shoring system.  “Of course, you and the other boys are invited also, Mr. Cartwright.”

“Fascinating as your square sets are, Herr Deidesheimer, I’ve seen them,” Ben laughed.  “I’m willing, if the youngsters are interested, of course.”

“I don’t much like goin’ underground,” Hoss said with a shiver.

“Me, neither,” Jimmy announced loyally.

“In that case, we’ll forego the kind offer and go along to Cass’s Mercantile,” Ben decided.  “Meet me at Winn’s Restaurant—on B St., between Union and Sutton—when you’re done here, Adam, and we’ll have dinner before heading back to the Ponderosa.  You’re welcome to join us, Herr Deidesheimer.”

“Thank you, Mr. Cartwright, but I have another appointment,” the engineer replied.

Ben, with the two youngsters seated beside him, drove up the steep hillside from F Street to C, turned right and moved down the main business street of Virginia City.  Pulling up in front of Cass’s Mercantile, Ben shook his head in wonder.  No matter how often he came to Virginia City, he felt as if he were visiting a new town almost every trip, although he had to admit, laughing to himself, that the town hadn’t changed much since Saturday.  Put a full week between trips, though, he thought, and I’ll spot something new every time, I’ll bet!  Virginia City, at two years of age, boasted a hundred solid homes, eight hotels, nine restaurants, ten livery stables and twenty-five saloons.  Twenty-five saloons, but no bank, Ben noted with irony.  Just about what you’d expect in a mining community!  Wells, Fargo and Company was filling that economic vacancy, though, and Ben had no complaint with their service.

Shaking loose from his reverie and walking inside, Ben handed his list of supplies to Will Cass and with some temerity drew the scrap of yellow calico from his pocket to show the merchant’s wife.  Viola Cass laughed lightly and assured Ben that she knew exactly what Marie wanted and that they had it in stock.

“The wagon’s outside, but we’ll be in town another hour or so,” Ben told Will.  “I came by here first to give you a chance to get things together, in case you were busy.”

“Appreciate it,” Will said, “but as you can see I’m not swamped with customers at the moment.  Tends to get this way close to noon every day.  Can’t imagine why!”  He winked at Ben.

“I can!” Jimmy Ellis volunteered.  “Folks is hungry!”

Ben laughed.  “I think I know a couple of other folks who are hungry, too, right, Hoss?”  Turning, he saw that his middle son had his nose pressed to a glass case, behind which stood jars of rainbow-colored confections.  “Hoss,” he chided.  “You are not having any of that truck ‘til you’ve eaten a proper dinner.  Your mother would skewer me with her epee.”

“Can we have some after?” Hoss begged.  “Jimmy’d like some, I bet.”

“Yeah!” Jimmy agreed exuberantly.

Ben grabbed each boy by the nape of the neck and gave them both a light shake.  “All right, you beggars, tell Mrs. Cass what you’d like.”  He glanced up at the proprietress behind the counter.  “A nickel’s worth each and the same each of peppermints and lemon sours for the sweet teeth at home.”

“Haven’t seen much of your missus lately,” Will Cass observed, looking up from reading Ben’s list.  “Not scared to come to town, is she?”  He flushed under the hard look Ben gave him.  “I mean her bein’ secesh and all,” he stammered.  “Could be a mite dangerous.”

“She isn’t secesh,” Ben grunted.  “She’s from the South, yes, but as grieved about what’s happening there as any of us.”

“Glad to hear it,” Cass hastened to say.  “Didn’t mean no offense.  Folks talk, is all, and I’d heard—well—”

“Folks have no business gossiping about what goes on in my family,” Ben countered gruffly.

“Sorry, Ben.  Like I said, no offense.”  Cass wiped his suddenly sweaty palms on his white apron.  “Your order will be ready by the time you finish dinner.”

Wanting to show that he harbored no ill will, Ben thrust his hand forward.  “Appreciate it, Will.  It’s a long drive back to the Ponderosa.”

Leaving the mercantile, Ben and the boys climbed up nearby Sutton Avenue.  As they reached the intersection with B Street, however, the sound of loud voices rolled down the hill from the street above them.  “What’s going on?” Hoss asked.

“Not sure,” Ben muttered, instinctively starting toward the uproar.  Hearing footsteps behind him, however, he turned and remembered that he had two young boys with him and should be careful about leading them into unknown situations.  “Hoss, you take Jimmy on down to Winn’s and have a look at the menu.  It’s just half a block that way,” he said, pointing to the left.

“Aw, Pa,” Hoss whined.  “I wanna see what the commotion’s about, too.”

Ben snapped his fingers and again pointed in the direction of the restaurant.  “Git!”

Knowing better than to argue when his father sounded that adamant, Hoss took off at a trot, with Jimmy at his heels.  Ben felt a chuckle tickling his throat, but another loud shout from A Street killed any hint of humor the boys’ hasty retreat had inspired.  Determined to learn the cause for the angry yelling, he began to climb.

By the time Ben reached the next level, he was breathing hard, for the hill was steep.  Pausing to catch his breath, he took in the situation: hundreds of men milling around the old stone saloon owned by John Newman, shouting and pointing toward the roof.  As Ben’s gaze followed the pointing fingers, he gasped in shock, for waving in flagrant defiance atop the building was a Confederate flag.  Perhaps shock was what made him move forward through the shouting throng, although common sense dictated staying out of politically divided crowds.  “What’s going on here?” he demanded, but his voice went unheard among the dozens of others roaring out similar questions and angry answers.

Men were surging forward, intent on tearing the rebel flag down, while others thrust them back forcefully.  Ben, deliberately refusing to take either side, found himself elbowed this way and that, until he was next to the boardwalk, where the saloon’s owner strutted back and forth, rifle in hand, daring anyone to take down that flag.  “Over my dead body—or yours!” he bellowed.

Suddenly, a sharp cry rang out above the boisterous horde.  “Look!  Up on the roof!”  Since the crier was pointing at the opposite end of the building from where the Confederate flag flew, the crowd backed up to see what had drawn such excited notice.  As interested as the rest, Ben moved into the street, looked up and saw a Union flag unfurling in the blustery wind.  Beside it perched a man waving a pistol, defying anyone to take it down.  “Hey, Newman, it’s your partner!” a southern sympathizer called.

John Newman stormed into the street.  “Tear it down, Waterhouse!” he demanded.

“Never!” R. M. Waterhouse screamed down to his business associate.

Newman lifted his rifle, but it was wrenched from his hands by a northern supporter, and suddenly what had been basically a shoving match became an all-out brawl.  Trying to separate belligerent opponents, Ben ducked fists right and left, but a few found his face.

“Pa!”

Ben turned toward the sound, although how he had known that he was the pa the speaker intended he could not have explained, for he hadn’t actually recognized his son’s voice.  A father’s instinct, he told himself later.  As he turned, he saw Adam on the outskirts of the melee, trying to push toward him.  “Stay there, boy!” he cried, urgently thrusting aside the men in his way as he moved toward his son.  “Stay out of this!”

He had almost escaped when he felt his arm roughly grabbed.  “Be you secesh or Union?” the bearded man demanded, fist ready to inflict punishment for the wrong answer.

“Nevadan!” Ben roared, shaking the hand off as he might a pesky fly.

“Nevadan!” cried a man nearby.  “That’s it; we’re Nevadans!”  But few others joined that cry, most yelling out affiliations with either north or south.

Ben got to Adam and dragged him to the opposite side of the street.  “What are you doing here?” he shouted.

Fire flamed in Adam’s cheeks and in his eyes.  “What am I doing here?  What are you doing here?” he demanded.  “I show up at the restaurant and Hoss tells me you’re headed for trouble.  What did you expect me to do, sit down and order pork chops?”

For the second time within half an hour, Ben was speechless with shock.  Then he said, “That is no way for a young man to talk to his father.”

“And this is no place for a young man’s father to be,” Adam countered, chin jutted stubbornly forward.

Ben stared, wordless, at his oldest son, and then a rueful smile brushed his lips.  “No, I suppose it’s not.  And, frankly, I don’t think Virginia City is any place for this family to be this afternoon.  Let’s collect the little boys and head for home.  We can get some cheese and crackers at Cass’s and eat on the way.”

“Sounds fine to me,” Adam said as his father wrapped an arm around his shoulder, “but Hoss won’t be happy, not with cheese.”

“Oh, we can find plenty at Cass’s to pad it out—as if that boy needed any extra padding,” Ben chuckled as he and Adam reached B Street and turned toward Winn’s Restaurant to collect the younger boys.

Hoss was disappointed when his father told him that they wouldn’t be eating in town after all, but he was easily appeased with the promise that he could eat anything he could find in the store.  He and Jimmy treated it like a treasure hunt, and while they browsed the store, trying to decide what to have for lunch, Ben and Adam helped Will Cass load the rest of the supplies.  Then Ben paid the bill while Adam picked something for both of them to eat, as well as a miniature wooden pony for Little Joe.

Another customer came in, just as the Cartwrights were leaving.  “Heard what’s going on up to Newman’s Saloon?” the man asked the proprietor.

“Ben here was just telling me,” Cass said.  “Union flag still waving?”

“Both of ‘em, fur as I know,” the man said, “and there’s help comin’.  Old John Collins is ridin’ for Fort Churchill.  We’ll see what the boys in blue have to say about that secesh flag!”

Ben herded his covey of boys outside and onto the wagon.  Personally, he felt an urge to stay in town and find out what the soldiers did about this minor uprising, but he didn’t feel he had that luxury with three young boys in his charge.  Seeing Adam mount his black horse to ride beside them, he smiled as he recalled how his son had rushed up the hill to his rescue and stood up to him and made him realize that he wasn’t exhibiting the sense God gave a goose.  Make that two young boys, he corrected himself mentally, two boys and one brave and sensible young man.  His heart brim full with pride, just as it had been on the way into town, Ben droved down C Street and left Virginia City.

* * * * *

Not until Sunday, when the Thomases came to dinner, did Ben learn the aftermath of the fracas outside Newman’s Saloon.  Billy, who had made a special point of arranging his schedule so that he could see Adam, brought the latest news from Fort Churchill.  “Seems like some folks figured what happened was a feeler, to test how much secesh sympathy there is ‘round these parts,” Billy reported as the men sat on the porch, awaiting the call to dinner.  “Newman claimed it was just a joke.”

“Joke,” Ben snorted.  “No one but an addle-pated fool aims a rifle as a joke.”

“Army didn’t take it for one, for sure,” Billy continued, long legs sprawled out before him as he leaned against a porch post.  “I talked to Mark about it, and he said that more than a third of the arms issued in that Paiute War ain’t been accounted for, and the army was fearful they might fall into secesh hands.”

“That’s why they been searchin’ house to house, in Virginia City and Carson both,” Clyde Thomas added.  “Got eighty muskets from Sheriff Blackburn in Carson—the ones Judge Terry had when he was hopin’ to make hisself governor of Washoe, I reckon—and twenty-one more from Silver City before they went on to tear that confounded flag down.”

Adam stood leaning against the other rough pillar supporting the roof of the porch.  “There’s a rumor that those muskets will be issued to a volunteer unit being recruited soon.”

Ben looked up, surprised.  “Where did you hear that?”

“Lumber camp,” Adam said.  “A couple of men brought the rumor back from town and told me they were thinking about quitting so they could join up—to protect the country, they said.”

“It’s not just rumor,” Billy affirmed.  “Mark told me the recruiting is set to start today in Virginia City.”

“Just see to it you don’t get any such foolish notions, boy,” Ben grunted.  He turned an iron gaze on Adam, as well.  “Or you, either, young man.”

“As if I would!” Billy snorted.  “Got my fill of the army last summer.”

Irritated that he was once more being cautioned about involvement in the sectional conflict, Adam bolted upright at his father’s admonition.  Reminding himself, however, that he needed to keep confrontations with Pa to a minimum in preparation for the major one to come a month from now, he swallowed his offense and said quietly, “I have no intention of joining the army—now or ever, Pa.  You really don’t need to keep saying it.”

Ben had noticed both Adam’s first reaction and his curbing of his temper.  “Guess I don’t, at that.  Just need to remember that my son has a good head on his shoulders.”

Adam smiled and nodded.

Clyde stood up to rumple Billy’s shaggy red locks.  “This one ain’t, though, so keep it up where he’s concerned, Ben.”

“Aw, Pa.”  Billy gave an exaggerated groan and looked to his friend for sympathy.  “They don’t never change, do they?  Still gonna see us as kids when we’re old and gray.”

“If you live that long, boys,” Ben chuckled.  “If you live that long.”

The call to dinner superseded any response the boys might have made.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Note

The incident at Newman’s Saloon occurred on June 4th or 5th, 1861.  Though considered a joke by the owner of the building, the flying of the Confederate flag was viewed by others as a feeler to test Southern sympathies in Virginia City.  Subsequently, two companies of militia, comprising four hundred men, were organized to protect the Union and suppress any rebellion.

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

Season of Celebration

            As summer drew on, the new territory of Nevada entered a season of celebration, although the event that ushered it in was one less joyous than those scheduled to come soon after.  Yet in a sense it seemed appropriate to bid farewell to an icon of the early days before welcoming the era of new beginnings.  The latter part of June found the Cartwrights and many of the other first settlers of Nevada gathered in a cemetery in Dayton to mark the passing of one who had, for better or worse, been a founding father of the territory.

James Fennimore, otherwise known as Old Virginny, died as he had frequently lived, lost in an alcoholic daze.  At least, that was the report that had come to Ben.  Old Virginny, he’d heard, had tried to mount a horse while intoxicated, caught his foot in the stirrup and been dragged to death.  Fennimore was not a man Ben had ever held in high regard, but he had felt drawn to Dayton to pay his last respects nonetheless.  He wasn’t too surprised when Marie decided to accompany him; after all, it gave her an excuse to pay a visit to Laura Dettenrieder’s new home.  Presumably, that was part of the attraction for Nelly Thomas, too, or so Clyde claimed with a mischievous grin.  Mary Wentworth had volunteered to watch Little Joe while they were away, and Adam, who felt too busy to attend, had taken Hoss on as the youngest member of his timber crew.

While the ladies visited with Laura after the funeral, sharing the news about the Bowers’ new baby girl, Ben and Clyde passed the time in the saloon run by George Dettenrieder in Gold Canyon.  “Seems like the right way to see Old Virginny off,” Clyde commented, raising his drink.  “He sure could down more tarantula juice than any man I knew!”

“Not much of a legacy to leave behind,” Ben observed, although he dutifully clinked his mug of beer against Clyde’s shot glass of whiskey.

“True,” Clyde admitted, “but he does have another one—and it’s growin’ into a right good-sized legacy, Ben.”

Ben laughed.  “Virginia City.  Yeah, you’re right; his name will live on—long past yours and mine, most likely.”

“I figure my name’ll live on in my younguns—and their younguns,” Clyde said, motioning toward George for a refill.  “It’ll be the same with you, Ben, and I reckon that’s legacy enough.”

“More than enough,” Ben agreed, lifting his glass for a more heartfelt toast this time.

* * * * *

“Adam, get some blankets to pile in the back,” Ben suggested.

Distributing hay evenly in the back of the freight wagon normally used to haul timber to the mines, Adam laughed aloud.  “Blankets!  Pa, it’s the Fourth of July, not the fourth of January!”

Ben arched a far-from-ferocious eyebrow.  “Don’t get smart with me, boy.  It’ll be after dark by the time we get home.  July or not, the nights still get cool.  The ladies and little ones will appreciate the cover, coming back.”

“You’re right,” Adam agreed, jumping down from the wagon.  As he headed toward the house, he passed Hop Sing, who was loading the buckboard with baskets and crates, from which wafted tempting aromas.  “You need some help, Hop Sing?” he asked.  “I can send Hoss out.”

The Cantonese cook snorted in disdain.  “Hop Sing not need that kind help—not if you want food get to Vi’ginia City.”

“Point taken,” Adam chuckled.  Putting Hoss in charge of packing the food wagon was definitely akin to setting a fox to watch over the henhouse.

Nevada’s first Fourth of July as a new territory was a time of rejoicing for all but the most die-hard supporters of southern secession.  Carson City, of course, was staging its own festivities, as were several of the smaller communities, but by far the grandest celebration was being planned in Virginia City.  Posters had been tacked up all over town for the last couple of weeks, listing activities and contests, and both Hoss and Adam had fallen victim to their lure.  Then an invitation from James Maynard settled the question, and when Ben let his friends know that the Cartwrights would be celebrating in Virginia City, three other families—the Thomases, Montgomerys and the newly married Dettenrieders—all decided that they, too, would hail the Glorious Fourth in the larger town.

Because so many were being transported from the Ponderosa, Adam had suggested a hay ride, and Ben agreed that his son had come up with a most practical idea.  Since they’d soon have a new crop of hay to harvest, he and Adam piled the old hay deep in both freight wagons, to soften the ride of family, friends, ranch hands and timber crew.  Ben and Marie sat on the high seat at the front, while Adam, Mary, Hoss and Little Joe climbed in the back of one wagon and settled on the soft hay.  At least, the older three settled; Little Joe immediately burrowed head first into the hay, determined to discover if there was anything interesting underneath.

Adam pulled him out and held him upside down as he brushed hay off the squealing youngster, giving special attention to the seat of Joe’s pants.

“Oh, Adam, don’t,” Mary pleaded.

“All right, angel heart, for you I’ll resist,” Adam said amiably, turning Joe right side up and setting the child between his legs with an admonishment to stay there.

“Leaving now, Mr. Cartwright,” called the driver of the second freight wagon.  A number of the ranch hands were sitting on hay in the back, and more workers would be picked up at the lumber camp, for everyone had the day off and most wanted to spend the day in Virginia City.  In fact, the employees’ wagon was likely to be crowded.

“All right, Carlton,” Ben acknowledged with a raised hand.  “You know where to meet us.”

“Corner of D and Taylor,” Carlton called back as he lifted the reins.  “No fear of me forgetting that once I got a whiff of the vittles in that buckboard!”

Ben laughed.  “You lead off, then.  We’ll follow and, Hop Sing, you bring up the rear.”

The wagons set off in the order prescribed, but soon separated, one headed to the lumber camp, one making a swing to the northeast to pick up another passenger and the buckboard continuing down the road to Virginia City.  The passenger was waiting at the end of the road that led to a neighboring ranch, a wicker basket hanging from one rail-thin arm.  “I told you there’d be plenty to eat,” Adam chided as he took the basket and stretched a hand to help Ross Marquette into the wagon.

“You know how Pa is about a man carrying his own weight,” Ross said with a shrug.  “Even goes for picnic food, I reckon.  Ma’s a good cook, too, so it’ll get eaten, I reckon, even if there is plenty besides.”

“You’re doing a lot of reckoning today,” Adam teased.

Seeing Ross flush a deep crimson, Marie gave him an encouraging smile.  “I am sure we will all enjoy your mother’s cooking, Ross, and I am pleased to meet you at last.”  She cocked her head, casting a mildly reproachful glance at Adam.

Adam got the message.  “Sorry.  I should’ve made introductions straight off.  You know Pa and Hoss, of course.  The lovely lady reminding me of my manners is my stepmother Marie, and you’ve probably guessed that this scamp between my legs is my youngest brother, Little Joe.  That leaves only the sweetest little lady ever to grace the territory of Nevada, our houseguest for the summer, Miss Mary Wentworth.”

Ross gazed awestruck and open-mouthed at Mary’s fair beauty.

“Pleased to meet you is the appropriate response,” Adam suggested with a wry smile.

“Oh, oh, yeah,” Ross stammered.  “Pleased to meet you, Miss Wentworth—and, uh, you, too, Mrs. Cartwright—and Mr. Cartwright—well, I already met you, uh, so—”

Adam grinned naughtily.  “Best quit while you’re behind, Skinny.”

“As should you,” Marie scolded.

At the same time Mary touched a light, restraining hand to Adam’s arm.  “He’s teasing everyone today, Mr.”—she frowned, for Adam had failed to mention the name of his friend.

“Marquette, Ross Marquette,” Adam supplied.

“Mr. Marquette,” the girl continued.  “May I call you Ross?  You mustn’t be embarrassed by Adam’s teasing.  I’m pleased to meet you, too, and you must call me Mary, for we are all like family here.”

“What’s in the basket?” Hoss asked before Ross could mumble out a response.

“Don’t be so nosy, greedy belly,” Adam said.

“I’m curious, too,” Mary said with a smile at Ross.  “May we peek?”

Ross had to swallow, but finally found his tongue.  “Sure, Miss Mary; you—you look all you want.”

Hoss quickly scooted over, so he could see inside the basket as soon as Mary lifted the lid.  “Ooh, fried chicken—my favorite,” he announced.

“What isn’t?” Adam snorted.

Mary gave his hand a playful swat.  “None for you ‘til you learn to curb your tongue.”  When Adam puckered up into a petulant pout worthy of his baby brother, Mary laughed, and as he joined in, Ross began to relax and feel, as Mary had described it, like family.

Adam had brought his guitar, and soon everyone was singing.  The music made the miles seem shorter than they were, and soon Ben was parking the wagon next to the vacant lot at the corner of D and Taylor.  “This is where they’re planning to build the new Methodist-Episcopal church, Reverend Bennett said,” Ben informed everyone.

“We gonna start comin’ here?” Hoss asked, standing up and leaning on the back of his parents’ seat.  “I like goin’ to Washoe City.”

“And we still will, every other week,” Ben assured him.  “The weeks we drive your mother in to chapel, you and I will probably come here, though.  Well, just one of those weeks for you, that is.”  He gave his wife an apologetic smile, which she acknowledged with a gentle nod.  Jumping off the wagon, he moved swiftly to the other side to help her down.

Marie shook her head as she surveyed the barren plot, with little more than odd patches of grass scattered across bare dirt.  “I have seen better picnic spots,” she observed with a slight crinkle of her nose.

“Nothing to compare with the Ponderosa,” Ben admitted, drawing her close to his side, “but it’s the best I could come up with here in town, and we did agree to attend that dinner at the Ophir.”

Marie patted his arm.  “It will be fine, Ben.  It is our friends we came to see, and as you say, we never lack for scenery in our own backyard.”

“And speaking of those friends, I think most of them are here already.”  Ben took her arm.  “Shall we join them, my lady?”

Oui,” she laughed.

Arm in arm, they walked over to the shady spot selected by whoever had arrived first, probably Laura Dettenrieder, for she seemed to be directing the placement of the food her husband George, Clyde Thomas and Enos Montgomery were unloading from the Cartwrights’ buckboard.  “Where’s Hop Sing?” Ben called as they drew closer.  “I figured he’d be here, making sure  you gave his contributions center stage.”

“Promised we would and run him off,” Nelly tossed back with a grin.

“Oh, it wasn’t like that,” Laura chuckled, coming forward to kiss Marie on both cheeks.  “He was eager to get to Chinatown—to be with his own folks, I guess—so when we told him we could manage, he took off.”  Right behind her Katerina Montgomery gave Marie the same greeting.

“Well, that’s one less to feed,” Ben said, laying his hand on Hoss’s hefty shoulder.  “More for you and me, right, boy?”

“Right,” Hoss declared, “and everything looks great!”

“Wait’ll you see the cake my ma baked!” Jimmy Ellis announced.  Showing no disposition to wait ‘til later for that enticing sight, Hoss grabbed Little Joe’s hand and took off after Jimmy.

Not many of those gathered in the vacant lot had met Ross, so Adam introduced him.  Ross found himself feeling awkward and shy again, especially when yet another pretty girl was presented to him.

“Get your eyes back in your head,” Adam teased as red-eared Ross shook hands with Sally Martin.  “She’s taken.”

Ross dropped Sally’s hand as if he’d touched fire.  “By you?” he gulped.  “You never said.”

Adam laughed.  “No such luck!  She lost her heart to a boy in blue.”  He laid his hand on his chest and sighed melodramatically.

Sally gave the hand a sharp slap.  “He wasn’t wearing blue when I lost my heart,” she scolded.  “He did that for me, like a true Sir Galahad.”

Adam gave her a peck on the cheek.  “Yeah, I know.  Mark’s on duty today, I suppose?”  When Sally, looking wistful, nodded, he scanned the group and asked, “Hey, where’s Billy?  I thought he was scheduled to be off today.”

Nelly sighed.  “He was, but he had to ride for another boy that took sick real sudden.”

“That where your father is?” Adam asked Sally.

She shook her head.  “With patients, yes, but not that one.  Some boys in Carson City were careless with firecrackers and burned themselves.  He might be here later; at least, I hope so.  It’s sad, having to come without either of my men today.”

Adam hooked his arm through hers.  “We’ll just have to stand in for them, then, won’t we, Ross?”

Ross doffed his tan felt hat.  “Yes, ma’am, if—if you’ll have us,” he stammered.

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Sally laughed; then, seeing that Ross had taken her teasing seriously, she quickly slipped her other arm through his.  “That was meant for Adam, not you, of course.  I’m sure I’ll enjoy your company completely, Mr. Marquette.”

“Ross,” he said, taking courage from the wink Adam sent toward him.

“Now, don’t you be rushin’ off ‘til I’ve delivered your mail,” Clyde declared, planting a restraining palm on Adam’s shoulder.  “Billy sent orders to tell you that he was sorry he couldn’t make it today, but he should be off Saturday, instead, and he wants you to meet him at our place about five in the afternoon.  Won’t say what he has planned, just to spruce up and be there.”

Adam saluted snappily.  “Yes, sir!  Orders received.  We’ll be there.”  He looked pointedly at Ross.  “We, as in you and me.”

Ross gave an awkward shrug of one shoulder.  “I don’t want to horn in on you and your friend.”

“Don’t be insubordinate, trooper,” Adam said, feigning the ferocity of a general commanding a buck private.  “I’ve got my orders, and I’m giving you yours.  High time my two best friends got acquainted.”

Sally gave Ross’s arm a comforting pat.  “Billy won’t mind.  I’ve known him for years, and I can assure you, ‘the more, the merrier’ is his motto.”

As the three young people started to move away from the adults, Laura asked, “Now, where are you children taking off to so soon?”

“Children!” Adam and Sally both protested at once, Sally adding, “I’m practically married!”

“Adam, we do need to know where you’ll be,” Marie admonished.

“Oh, I think I can guess,” Ben said.  “Up the hill for the flag raising?”

Adam nodded.  “Yes, sir.”

“Headin’ there myself,” Clyde put in.  “You, Ben?”

“Me, too,” Ben admitted, and all of the other men chimed in their intention to be part of the ceremony, as well.  “Sure you don’t want to watch this spectacle?” he asked Marie after kissing her forehead.  “Supposed to be quite a do.”

Oui, quite certain,” Marie said with a smile.  “A climb to the top of Mt.Davidson does not seem pleasurable to me.”

“Nor to any of us,” Laura added, speaking for herself and the other ladies, who nodded their complete agreement.

“Head up to C Street when you hear the music, then,” Ben advised.  “We’ll meet you there for the parade.  Surely, you ladies want to see that.”

“Don’t know as I do,” Nelly laughed.  “Bunch of miners cavortin’ down the street ain’t that rare a sight, and someone needs to stay by the food, else them thievin’ Paiutes is likely to help themselves.”

Remembering what Frederick Dodge had shared with him about the Indians’ scavenging for food here in town, Ben’s visage grew sober.  “Let them, then.  We have more than enough.”

“I wanna go, Ma,” Nelly’s daughter Inger whined.

“Me, too,” Little Joe declared, his face set with determination.

When he saw his mother cock her head inquiringly, Hoss sighed.  “Yes, ma’am.  I’ll look after ‘em both.”

“And I’ll help,” Jimmy added.

“I don’t need lookin’ after,” Inger announced huffily.  “It’s boys who need watchin’.  I know how to behave.”  A swift swat on the plumpest part of her petticoat, though probably unfelt, produced a remarkably rapid change of attitude.

With waves and kisses, those braving the steep climb departed.  Adam and Ross, with Sally between them, led the way and soon left the others behind.  Ben, Clyde, George and Enos followed, and a quartet made up of Inger, Jimmy, Hoss and Little Joe brought up the far rear.

“Why we goin’ up there, Ingy?” Little Joe asked as he trotted to keep up with the others.

“Oh, poor baby, it’s hard on your little legs, isn’t it?” Inger asked, stopping.  “Hoss, you’d better carry him,” she ordered.

Hoss tromped back down from the head of the line and scooped Little Joe up under one arm.  “Doggone you, I knew you’d be nothin’ but trouble.”

“Why we goin’ up there, Hoss?” Little Joe demanded, clinging to his brother’s belt as he rode sideways up the hill.  “Ingy won’t tell me!”

“Yes, I will,” the little girl said, coming up beside Hoss.  “We’re gonna watch ‘em raise the biggest flagpole ever,” she explained.

“Oh!”  Little Joe looked suitably impressed.  “What’s a flagpole?”

“How big is it?” Jimmy asked before anyone could answer the smaller boy’s question.

“Twenty feet tall,” Hoss, who had seen the posters, told him.  “Gonna take a heap of men to plant a pole that big, and Pa’s gonna be one of ‘em.”

“My pa, too,” Jimmy boasted.

Hoss grinned, glad to see that his friend had decided to take his advice—and Adam’s, too—to lay claim to his mother’s new husband as his pa.

As the children finally puffed up to the top of the hill, Jimmy spotted a man handing out barrel staves.  “What’s them for?” he asked.

Hoss wanted to know, too, so he set Little Joe down and led his small flock over to the man.

“Howdy, sonny,” said the scruffy-bearded man, looking pleased to see the four youngsters, for children were still a rare sight on the streets of Virginia City.  “Want to leave your mark on the mountain?”

“How you mean?” Hoss asked, taking the barrel stave being held out to him.

“If’n you got a pocketknife, you kin carve your name on this,” the miner explained.  “We’re gonna drop ‘em all down that old rock chimney there.”

“I want to,” Inger insisted.

The miner laughed.  “You got a knife, little gal?”

Inger shook her head.  “Ma says it ain’t ladylike.”

The man gave one of her strawberry blonde braids a gentle tug.  “Your ma’s right, little darlin’.  You let your friend do the carvin’.  I reckon that stave’s big enough for four names.”

“Yeah, I want mine on the same board as Hoss,” Jimmy insisted.

“I guess that’s what we should do, since we’re here together,” Inger admitted, “but you better spell my name right, Hoss Cartwright.”

Hoss stuck his tongue in her face.  “I spell better’n you, Miss Smarty Britches.”

Inger said no more, for fear the taunt might be true.  Hoss had been to real school, while she’d only had her mother for a teacher.

After watching his brother carve letters for a few minutes, Little Joe reached for the knife.  “I do my own,” he demanded.

Hoss held the knife out of Joe’s reach.  “No!  Don’t you touch this knife, you hear me?  You’ll cut yourself.”

Joe’s lips puckered into a pout.  “Will not.”

When he again reached for the knife, Inger grabbed his hand and pulled it back, giving it a smart slap.  “No, no, baby.”

“Don’t be hittin’ him,” Hoss ordered.

“Just to learn him,” Inger argued, tossing her braids over her shoulder.

Hoss pulled his younger brother toward him.  “I’ll learn him all he needs.”  He set Joe down, facing him, and adopted a stern expression.  “You better be good, punkin, ‘cause there’s lots of fun happenin’ today.  You don’t wanna miss it, do you?”

Little Joe threw his head from side to side.  “Wanna see it all.”

“Then don’t grab at the knife again,” Hoss said.  “You was just bein’ silly, anyhow, ‘cause you don’t know how to write your name, much less carve it.  You want it to look good, don’t you?”

“Uh-huh,” Little Joe said, “but do mine now, okay, Hoss?”

“Okay,” Hoss agreed, tousling his brother’s curls.

“Then me,” Jimmy dictated.

Inger rolled her eyes.  “That makes me the cow’s tail, like always.”

“Just where girls oughta be,” Hoss teased.

Inger folded her arms across her chest, thrust out her lower lip and glared in indignation.  “Ooh!  Boys!”  As if to prove how maddening they could be, the boys all laughed.

Hoss finished carving their four names and at Jimmy’s suggestion added the date.  Then he led the other children up to the old chimney protruding from the some miner’s abandoned coyote hole dug into the mountain; he handed the stave to Little Joe and, hefting him up, told him to toss it down.

Little Joe seemed reluctant to let go of the board with his name until Hoss promised to carve him one all his own when they got home.  Then he grinned and turned loose, practically tumbling down the chimney after it in his attempt to watch the stave plummet downward into the darkness.

“Hey, they’re gettin’ ready to raise the flag!” Jimmy cried.  “Let’s get over there and find our pas.”

“Look at all the men!” Inger cried, trailing behind the longer-legged boys.  “They all gonna grab that pole?”

“Don’t see how they could, but I sure hope our folks get a hand on it,” Hoss replied.  “There’s Pa and Uncle Clyde.”  Though it was difficult to spot anyone in particular in the crowd of five thousand surrounding the tall flagstaff, George and Enos had taken positions relatively close to the other men, so the children quickly found them, as well, but couldn’t spot Adam, Sally or Ross.  When the pole was raised and wedged into the peak of the mountain, a small howitzer recently discovered in the mountains, supposedly the one brought west by John Frémont, was fired.  Everyone clapped, waved their hats and shouted in exultation, and the band began to play.

Each child ran to his or her father.  Ben lifted Little Joe and put an arm around Hoss, and together they watched Old Glory fly in the brisk breeze at the top of the mountain.  Even though he had publicly espoused that Nevada was neither North nor South, Ben felt a rush of pride and patriotism at the sight of that symbol of American unity.  A Union of sovereign states—that was what young men back east were fighting and dying to preserve, what others, just as valiantly, were fighting and dying to dissolve.  Ben didn’t really know who was right about the sovereignty of individual states, but as he gazed up at the flag, he knew what his heart told him.  The states were meant to be united under this one banner, not to stand separately under the two that had flown from the roof of Newman’s Saloon, and he hoped that, somehow, the opposing states would yet find a way back together with minimal bloodshed on either side.

“Pa, ain’t it time to be goin’ down for the parade?” Hoss asked anxiously.

Shaken from his reverie, Ben smiled down at the boy.  “Yeah, I guess it is,” he admitted, having caught a glimpse out of the corner of his eye of the crowd of men making their way toward C Street.

Little Joe tugged at his father’s sleeve.  “Pa, where’s Adam?  He lost?”

Ben bounced the boy on his arm as he moved down the hill.  “No, son, your big brother isn’t lost.  He’s somewhere in this crowd, and the easiest way to find him is to head toward the parade.  Adam knows where we planned to watch it, and your mother should be there, too.”

“And Mary,” Little Joe crowed happily.

“Yes, your favorite girl, too,” Ben chuckled, “though, goodness knows, she’s much too good for a rascal like you.”  He tickled the child’s ribs ‘til the resulting squirming made him fear he might drop his son.

Ben and his boys joined the other men in their party at the corner of C and Taylor.  Little Joe immediately stretched his arms toward Adam, and when Adam took him, grabbed tight hold of the older boy’s neck.  “He thought you was lost,” Hoss explained with a grin.

Adam cocked his head at his youngest brother.  “Oh?  You weren’t worried were you, baby?”

“I’m not a baby,” Little Joe insisted.  “You s’posed to be smart, Adam.  How come you can’t ‘member that?”

Adam laughed.  “Haven’t studied the subject enough, I guess.”

“The textbook hasn’t been written,” Ben grunted, and Clyde, by his side, slapped his knee and cackled.

“What you makin’ like a rooster over?” his wife asked as she and the other ladies arrived, several of them panting from the steep, one-block climb.

Clyde eyed her with narrowed gaze.  “Never mind that.  Thought you was gonna stay down and guard the food.  Ben may favor feedin’ every thievin’ injun in sight, but I ain’t so sociable.”

“Maybe I am,” Nelly retorted.  “Don’t like to see no one go hungry.”

“‘Ceptin’ your husband,” Clyde snorted.

She laughed then.  “Quit your worryin’, Clyde.  Couple of Ben’s men showed up and said they’d keep watch over the vittles.”

“From the timber camp?” Adam asked, adding with a whimsical arch of his eyebrow, “The food would probably be safer with the Paiutes.  I’ve never seen men pack it away like those lumberjacks!”

“Not even your little brother?” Ben asked, his eyebrow a carbon copy of his eldest son’s.

Adam patted Little Joe’s flat tummy.  “Oh, he’s not such a big eater.”

“Aw, he meant me,” Hoss muttered with a self-conscious crinkle of his nose.

“Couldn’t have,” Adam tossed back with a grin.  “He said my little brother; you’re not little, Hoss.”

Hoss grinned back.  “No, I sure ain’t; he must’ve meant Joe, all right.”  A frown almost immediately replaced the merrier expression.  “Sure hope them lumberjacks don’t eat up all of Aunt Nelly’s blackberry pie, though.  I been cravin’ it.”

“And I’ll see you get as much as you want, Sunshine,” Nelly assured him.

“What with six families putting their efforts together, there’s so much food I don’t see how even lumberjacks could eat it all,” Laura contributed.

“Six?” Katerina queried, momentarily puzzled.

“Counting Ross and Sally, who each brought a basket,” Laura explained.

“Oh, yes, of course,” Katerina said, smiling at the two young people.

“Hey, here comes the band!” Jimmy yelled.

Adam lifted Little Joe onto his shoulders, so the child would be able to see above the heads of the adults lining the street.  “Oh, Adam, be careful,” Marie urged, her hand instinctively fluttering toward her son.

The smile on Adam’s face faded.  “I always am,” he said sharply.  Then, seeing her duck her head, he added softly, “I always will be.”

Marie looked up apologetically.  “Oui, I know—and I do trust him with you always, Adam.”  The smile she exchanged with Adam was warm with love and mutual, though hard-earned, respect.

The band passed by, followed by the benevolent societies of Virginia City and representatives of virtually every organization in town, including the First Virginia Engine Company, Number One, with its new fire engine, said to be one of the largest on the west coast.   Atop the fire engine, brass fire-trumpet in her hand, sat the newly elected mascot of the company.

“Miss Julie!” Little Joe squealed, bouncing on his brother’s shoulders in excited recognition of the woman who had helped entertain him during the long, dreary days at Fort O’Riley during the Pyramid Lake Indian War.

“Hey!  Watch the kicking, kid, or you’ll lose that nice lofty perch,” Adam advised.

“Sorry, Adam,” Little Joe giggled and went right back to waving, kicking and shouting out the name of his friend.

Julia Bulette heard the sweet tones of a child’s voice, looked in the direction of the sound and waved at the little charmer who had eased her interment in the old stone hotel as much as she had his.

Marie lifted her hand and blew a kiss toward her friend.

“Oh, Marie, you shouldn’t,” Laura chided.

Pourquoi?”  Marie asked, and then realizing that she’d lapsed into her native French, translated, “Why?  She is my friend.”

“Shouldn’t be,” Nelly scolded.  “You got to think about your family, girl, and their place in this new territory we’re buildin’ and leave ‘friends’ like that hussy behind.”

“I will never leave a friend behind,” Marie spewed hotly.  “How can you even—”

“Ladies, please,” Ben said.  “We’re here to celebrate the birth of our country.”

“And a hen fight ain’t the way to do it,” Clyde snorted.  “Mind your tongue, Nelly.”

“I was just thinkin’ of her—and Ben and the boys,” Nelly muttered, turning her gaze pointedly away from both the woman on the fire engine and the woman standing beside her.

“Is she a bad woman?” Mary whispered to Katerina.

The young German woman leaned close to the younger girl’s ear.  “She’s a harlot.”

“Poor thing,” Mary murmured, following Julia with her eyes as the fire engine rolled past.  “There must be a great emptiness inside her.  I wish I could show her how to fill it with a purer love.”

Katerina wrapped her arms around the slender girl.  “Oh, Mary, a love as pure as yours would be wasted on that—”

“Will you stop?” Marie demanded sharply with a stamp of her foot.  “She is my friend.”  She stepped into the street and called loudly, “Il est bon de vous revoir, ma amie!

“Marie,” Ben hissed, pulling her back to his side.

“What, you, too?” she snapped, emerald eyes flashing.

“We’ll talk about it later,” Ben said tersely.  “Let’s enjoy the rest of the parade, if that’s possible, madame.”

Marie nodded curtly.  There was not much parade left, however.  The Chinese, organized in groups distinguishable only to themselves, marched under banners no one else could read, and at the end of the column came a group of Indians, Paiutes first, with a few Washos bringing up the rear.

“Well, I guess that’s it, folks,” Ben said.

“Time to eat now, right, Pa?” Hoss asked, tongue sliding over his lower lip in expectation.

“You bet, little brother,” Adam answered, in place of his father, “and if we don’t get down there soon, I may have to nibble on whatever’s close to hand.”  Little Joe squealed as Adam took a playful nibble at the calf of his leg, eliciting laughter from everyone.

“I will thank you not to gobble up my baby boy,” Ben said with feigned glare.  Then he smiled.  “Why don’t you lead the way, son?”

Adam lifted his right hand to his eyebrow in salute and then called to his troops, “All right, everyone line up behind me and let’s parade to the picnic!”  Girls giggling and little boys snickering, all the youngsters lined up behind Adam, with Little Joe still riding on his shoulders, and started down to D Street.

“I feel badly not to be sharing the picnic with you,” Marie murmured to the other ladies as they prepared to follow Adam’s parade, “and, worse, to leave you to deal with my children.”

“There’s enough of us to watch over those two little angels, I reckon,” Nelly laughed, “even the one with the lopsided halo.”

“Don’t worry for a minute,” Laura urged.  “Just have yourself a fine time among all the fancy folk.”

Marie touched a slender hand to her friend’s forearm.  “I would rather be among ‘folk’ I love, but Ben wishes it.”

Ben frowned, but said nothing until they were alone.  “You should have told me,” he chided.  “We didn’t have to accept Mr. Maynard’s invitation.”

“I know,” Marie said as she slipped her arm through his, “but it will be good for your business, oui?”

Ben directed her down C Street toward the International, where the dinner sponsored by the Ophir Mining Company was being held.  “Probably, but I was coming out of a sense of appreciation for his past business, rather than buttering him up for more.  Even with Adam’s help, we’re stretched about as thin as we can manage.  Still”—he paused, for a moment debating the wisdom of what he wanted to say—”if you really want to help my business image . . .”

“But, of course, I do, Ben,” Marie interrupted his trailing thought.

Ben took a deep breath and plunged on.  “It really isn’t helpful to that—or to our acceptance among better society in this new territory we’re building—to flaunt your relationship with . . . that woman.”

Marie stopped abruptly and Ben braced himself for her stinging retort.  The retort, if such it could be called, however, was spoken softly, in tones barely above a whisper.  “I am shocked, mon mari, that you would so harshly judge a woman for the circumstances in which she finds herself.”

“A person should be judged for his—or her—choices in life, Marie,” he asserted.  “You see yourself in her, I know, but you made better choices, even when you were under your cousin Edward’s diabolical influence.”

“Perhaps,” Marie conceded with a sigh.  “I agree that Julie has not made good choices, and I fear for what that may one day cost her, but I meant what I told the ladies, Ben.  I will not turn my back on a friend.  Would you?”

Ben circled his arm around her waist.  “I suppose not, not so long as there was hope of influencing him—or her—toward a better choice.  There is, however, a difference between help discretely offered and a demonstration on a public street, my love.”

Oui, I lost my temper,” Marie admitted.  “I had no right to embarrass you before our friends or others whose influence is important to your future.”

“And that of our sons,” Ben added, escorting her through the front door of the hotel.

“And of our sons,” she agreed.  “It is for them we do all, non?”

Ben nodded.  He saw James Maynard moving toward them as they entered the dining room and lifted a hand in greeting.

* * * * *

Ben laughed heartily as he and Marie returned to the picnic site later that afternoon.  “Looks like the little angel with the lopsided halo is leading them quite a chase!”

Marie’s voice tinkled with laughter, too, as she saw several of her friends running after Little Joe, who squealed in protest when Laura caught him.  She hurried over and took the child into her arms.  “What mischief have you caused, mon petit, to make all these ladies look so exhausted?”

“What mischief hasn’t he caused?” Adam observed coolly, coming up behind the ladies.  “Chasing the lighted firecrackers one of the men gave the boys was just his latest escapade.”

“Oh, Joseph, how could you?” Marie chided.  “You know fire is not a toy.”

“Hoss play with it,” a red-faced Little Joe insisted.

“Then I shall have to speak to him, too,” Marie said.  “After what Sally told us about those boys in Carson City, I do not think any of my sons need to play with firecrackers.”

“Hoss was careful,” Adam assured her.  “I was watching him and Jimmy.”  He gave her a rueful smile.  “Sorry, but I didn’t see what Little Joe was up to ‘til he was out of reach.”

Ben clapped his eldest son on the shoulder.  “No one knows better than we how quickly that can happen!”  He glanced inquiringly toward the blanket where the picnic feast had been spread.  “Anything left?”

Clyde, sprawled on the edge of that blanket, raised up on one elbow and grinned.  “Didn’t put on much of a feed at that fancy restaurant, huh?”

Oui, the food was excellent,” Marie assured everyone.  “I cannot believe Ben wants more!”

Ben probed his stomach here and there with his fingertips.  “Ah, there it is,” he said, touching a spot on his lower left, “room enough for one piece of Nelly’s pie—or perhaps a slice of Laura’s cake.”

“Pie’s gone,” Nelly called with a laugh.  “Hoss saw to that.”

“I do have some cake, though,” Laura said, “and there are some cookies left, too.”

Ben dropped onto the blanket next to Clyde.  “I’ll take a slice and then we’d best be heading for home.”

“But, Pa, we can’t,” Hoss protested as he and Jimmy charged up to claim the last of the cookies.  “There’s gonna be fireworks tonight, Pa, and I wanna see ‘em.  Please, Pa.  I ain’t never seen fireworks.”

Ben reached up and pulled Hoss down beside him.  “You’ll see them, boy,” he promised, letting his hand ruffle through the straight, sandy hair.  “They’ll light up the sky for miles.  We should still be in Washoe Valley when they’re fired off and able to see them quite well.”

After Ben polished off his slice of cake, there were goodbyes, hugs and kisses all around, and then the Cartwright contingent piled into the freight wagon for the long ride home.  Since a very sleepy Little Joe was clinging to his mother, Marie decided to lie down beside him on the hay.  Adam offered to drive the team, so Ben climbed in the back and settled into the hay next to his wife, while Ross elected to sit beside Adam and Mary and Hoss found soft spots in the hay to cushion their ride.

As Ben had predicted, darkness fell while the wagon was still crossing Washoe Valley.  When Hoss, who had kept his eyes peeled toward town, squealed at the sight of the first burst of colored fire over Virginia City, Adam pulled to a halt.  Everyone watched, oohing and aahing as the valley echoed with the distant boom of rockets and the sky erupted with colorful arcs that soared upward and sprayed down over Mt.Davidson.  While the boys and Mary were distracted by the sparkling display, Ben stole a kiss from his beautiful wife, and she took it back.  Life is so good, he thought as the fireworks ended and he lay down in the hay with his wife in his arms.

Glancing over his shoulder, Adam saw Little Joe put his head in his mother’s lap and smiled as her tender hand came to rest on his tousled curls.  He turned the reins over to Ross and picked up his guitar, strumming and singing softly, and as the music drifted over the quiet valley, it lulled Little Joe and everyone else in the back of the wagon into peaceful sleep.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

Sinister Celebration

            Ross Marquette dragged his right leg over the saddle and set it on the ground with discernible deliberation.  “Still don’t feel right, hornin’ in on this—well, whatever it is,” he muttered.

Adam Cartwright was already in front of his horse, tying the reins to the hitching rail outside the Thomas house in Carson City.  “You sure take some convincing, don’t you, Skinny?”

The front door flew open, and a flaming head of hair, attached to a body perennially in motion, bounded down the porch steps.  “Hey, Adam.  Been keepin’ an eye out for you.”  He glanced at the man tying his horse beside Adam’s black and extended his hand.  “Marquette, ain’t it?”

Ross gave his lips a nervous lick.  “Yeah.  Ross Marquette.”

“It ain’t dirty,” Billy said dryly.

“Huh?”  Ross caught sight of Billy’s empty hand, still stretched toward him, and made an awkward grab for it.  “Oh, sorry.  I wasn’t worried about that—just . . .”

“Slow,” Adam supplied with a wry grin.

Billy gave Ross’s hand a vigorous pumping.  “Hope you ain’t that slow on the draw—if’n you ever need to draw, that is.”

“Your folks would have your hide for even suggesting it,” Adam advised loftily.

“Don’t aim to, in front of them,” Billy observed with his characteristic carefree grin.

“Ross here’s feeling a little awkward about coming with me, uninvited,” Adam explained.

“Hey, no need,” Billy said at once, as Adam had known he would.  “There’s fun enough for three in what I got planned.”

“And just what might that be?” Adam queried, his staccato delivery indicating a certain suspiciousness.  Billy had, after all, been known to come up with some near-lunatic stunts during their long relationship.

Billy slapped his best friend on the back.  “Just a little celebration.”

Adam chuckled.  “And just what is it we’re celebrating, old buddy, the end of your career as a Pony rider?”

“That ain’t funny,” Billy said with a rare display of ill temper.  Though telegraph service had existed to California for a long time, the Fourth of July had seen the planting of the first poles for a transcontinental telegraph at Ft. Churchill and Julesburg, Colorado.  The Pony Express would only run until the two lines, being built from opposite directions, met, and then Billy would be out of a job.

“Sorry,” Adam said quickly.  “I know you’ll be sorry to see it end, Billy, even though a telegraph across the country does represent progress.  You gonna blacksmith with your pa afterwards?”

Billy shuddered.  “Not if I can help it.”  His characteristic grin flashed back into place.  “Not sure what I’ll do when the time comes, but something’ll turn up—always does.  Anyway, I ain’t worryin’, so don’t you, neither.  Like I said, we’re havin’ us a celebration tonight.”

Adam laughed.  “I’ll ask again then: just what is it we’re celebrating, or will any excuse work for you?”

“The end of your schooldays, boy,” Billy cackled.   “Long-time-comin’.  Thought the day would never come, in fact, but you finally made it through, slow as you are.”

Adam caught his friend by his freckled neck and shook him.  “In my opinion, learning never ends, you ignorant rube, and, anyway, celebrations should be for beginnings, not endings.”

Ross held his breath, waiting for some sign that Billy had caught the hidden meaning behind those words.  When it didn’t come, he knew in a flash of insight that Adam hadn’t shared his college ambitions with Billy, despite their long-time friendship, and a sudden surge of pride dispelled the awkwardness that had been gnawing at Ross ever since Adam started pushing him to come today.  He sensed that, in Adam’s eyes, he was as good a friend as Billy, and maybe, in some ways, a closer one.

Oblivious to subtle hints, Billy just laughed.  “You’ve had enough book-learning, schoolboy.  There’s fun to be had out here in the real world, and it’s high time you had yourself a fling at it.”

Adam turned loose of Billy’s neck, laughed and said he agreed.  “You still haven’t told us what kind of celebration you have in mind.  Considering the uneducated and undisciplined—not to mention devious—mind it’s coming from, you can understand my concern.”

Billy pressed his palm to his chest.  “I am crushed, old buddy.  How could you think I’d plan anything but a good time in your honor?”  He draped an arm around Adam’s broad shoulder.  “I thought we’d start with a beer or two at the Magnolia Saloon, best place in Carson, just to loosen you up.  How’s that sound?”

“That sounds fine.  And after I’m ‘loosened up’?”

Billy gave him a clap on the shoulder and released him.  “Then dinner at Van Sickle’s.”

“Now, why would I want to ride all the way to Van Sickle’s when I could dine with one of the best cooks on the Washoe?”  Adam swept his hand toward the house.

Billy waved the idea aside.  “Ma’s the best, I got to admit, but I eat her cooking all the time.”

“I don’t!” Adam laughed.

“And I never have,” Ross dared to insert, wanting to side with Adam if choices were to be made.  “A hot meal, I mean.  What she brung to the picnic the other day was prime, though, and I’d favor sampling some more.”

“Aw, come on,” Billy wheedled.  “We got to go near that far, anyway—for the dance.”

Both Adam’s and Ross’s faces perked up.  “Dance, what dance?” Adam demanded.

“Tonight, in Genoa.”  Billy grinned broadly at the effect of his surprise on the other two boys.  “You didn’t think I’d tell you to spruce up just for dinner with Ma, now did you?”

“I usually do,” Adam teased, referring to the fact that he generally ate Nelly’s cooking after going to church.

“And since the dance don’t start ‘til eight, we got time to kill.  Food’s good at Van Sickle’s, so I favor goin’ there over hangin’ around dead-dull ole Carson.”

“And Genoa’s an improvement?”  Adam hooted at the idea.

Billy tugged the loops of his string tie tighter.  “They got some fair-lookin’ girls over to Genoa,” he drawled persuasively.

“The dance sounds good,” Ross put in, making a quick change in allegiance, “and Van Sickle’s ain’t far past Genoa,  like Billy says. . .”

Adam chuckled in easy acceptance.  “Well, if you’re both going to gang up on me, I guess I might as well give in.”  He draped an arm across the shoulders of each of his friends and began to steer them toward the plaza.

Once they’d crossed the central square of Carson City, the three young men mounted the steps in front of the Magnolia Saloon.  Just before passing through the swinging doors, Adam turned to give Billy a light-hearted reminder that he was buying.  Walking backwards, he didn’t see the pair of men leaving the saloon at the same time and bumped into a man of burly build.  “Sorry, mister,” he said promptly as he spun around.

The tawny-headed man with side whiskers tied under his chin grabbed Adam by the lapels of his black broadcloth vest.  “Who you shovin’, sonny?” he demanded, voice booming with belligerence.  Breathing heavily, he thrust his florid face close to Adam’s.

Adam leaned back, trying to get away from the liquor-laced spray from the man’s mouth.  “I’m sorry,” he said again, eyes fixed on the large revolver holstered on the man’s leg and the huge Bowie knife slung to his belt.  “I wasn’t watching where I was going.”

The man cast a glance at Adam’s two friends and grinned at the slight build of all three young men.  “Maybe I just oughta teach you to watch where you go then, sonny boy.”  He turned back to Adam and bared yellowed teeth in a sinister leer.

The man’s companion caught his arm, just as he drew it back, fist doubled.  “He’s too small a fish, Sam,” the second man urged.  “Throw him back.”

“But it’s my birthday,” the red-haired man slurred in reply.  “Got to have me a man for supper on my birthday, Al.”

Al slowly pulled Sam’s arm down.  “Yeah, but you want a man, not a boy, don’t you, Sam?  Put these three together and you still wouldn’t have a good-sized meal.”

Sam threw his head back and roared raucously, side whiskers bouncing on his Adam’s apple as he laughed.  “Yeah, need me a man-sized meal for my birthday, I sure ‘nough do.”

“Come on, then,” Al urged as he herded his friend down to the street, Sam’s long, Spanish spurs clanking on each step.

“Whew!  That was close.”  Billy wiped his forehead and leaned against the front wall of the saloon.  “You know who that is?”

Adam tried to shrug nonchalantly, not quite bringing it off.  “Just some drunk,” he said.

“Some drunk,” Billy scoffed.  “That’s when he’s dangerous, all right.  Boy, you been out of the territory too long if you don’t know who that was.”

Looking sick to his stomach, Ross nodded.  “Sam Brown, wasn’t it?  Pa pointed him out to me once.  Told me to steer clear of him.”

“Good advice,” Billy said as they moved through the swinging doors into the saloon.  He stepped to the bar and ordered three beers while Adam and Ross found a table and collapsed in chairs beside it.

“Sam Brown,” Adam muttered.  “I’ve heard of him, all right.  Bad reputation.”

“The worst,” Ross agreed solemnly, bony elbows propped on the table.  “Pa said he had fifteen notches on his gun before he got to the Comstock, and there’s more now.”

Billy thumped a mug of beer in front of each of the others.  “Looked like he was aimin’ to add an extra notch for the schoolboy here.”

“Who was that with him?” Adam asked, raising the beer to his mouth.

“Alex Henderson,” Billy supplied.  “Kind of walks in old Sam’s shoes.  Wants to be a tough like him, but ain’t got the sand for it.”

“I’ll take him over the sandy one any day,” Adam quipped, the left side of his mouth quirking up in a twisted grin.  His friends laughed, uneasily at first, and then more freely as they began to relax and relate how each had felt during the encounter.  After a couple of beers, the three young men left, watching carefully as they moved through the swinging doors.  They walked briskly back to Billy’s house, collected their horses and mounted for the ride to Van Sickle’s for dinner, Adam still protesting that it was a waste of money when Nelly’s cooking could be had for free.

“What you bellyachin’ about?” Billy snorted.  “I’m payin’, ain’t I?”

“Not for me,” Ross insisted.  “You wasn’t figurin’ on me.”

“I don’t mind,” Billy said easily.  “Pony pays pretty good, and I ain’t got much to spend it on, anyhow.”

“Well, thanks then,” Ross said, genuinely grateful, for his father paid him considerably less than the twenty-five dollars a week he’d heard that Pony Express riders made.

They rode companionably for several miles until Ross reined up sharply.  “Oh, man, look who we’ve been trailin’!”

Following his friend’s line of sight, Adam groaned as he recognized the two men arguing with the owner of Webster’s Hotel.

“Wanna stop and see if Sam gets his birthday man?” Billy teased, pushing his hat back from his forehead.

“No, I don’t,” Adam retorted with a scowl at the impish grin on Billy’s face.  “I don’t believe in tempting fate twice in one afternoon.”

Adam’s characteristic soberness made Billy laugh out loud.  “What’s the matter, Adam?  You ain’t scared, are you?” he taunted.  “You got nothin’ to worry about.  You’re too small a fish, remember?”

Adam blew out an exasperated gust of air.  “Yeah, but he might figure you’d make a good mouthful—before he bit into you and found out you were all air.”

Billy just wrinkled his nose and said, “Very funny.”

Adam lifted the reins and touched his heels to the black gelding’s sides.  “Come on, old buddy.  Supper’s waiting.”  Looking over his shoulder a few paces later, he noticed that Ross was still rooted in place, continuing to stare in fascination at the argument going on at Webster’s Hotel.  “You coming, Skinny?” Adam called.

Ross jerked, gave a curt nod and followed the other two young men.  They arrived at the two-story stone hotel, set in a grove of locust, elm and cottonwood against the pine-crested Sierra foothills.  Dismounting, the three friends joined a collection of other would-be diners lounging around the yard as they waited for the dinner bell.

Billy wrapped his long, thin arm around Adam’s shoulders.  “Guess I’d better fill you in on some of the pickin’s around here, schoolboy.”

“Food’s good, I hear,” Ross offered.

Billy chortled.  “Not that kind of pickin’s!  I meant girls.  Knowin’ what a slave driver Uncle Ben can be, I figured Adam here hadn’t had a chance to meet many since he’s been back, but now I’m beginning to worry about you, too, boy, if you can’t tell the difference between girls and food.”

Ross laughed.  “I admit I ain’t had much chance to mix with girls, either, my pa bein’ a harder slave driver than Mr. Cartwright, but I do know one when I sight one.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Billy said, swiping his forehead as though pushing worries from his mind.  “Now, of course, I aim to claim the prettiest and spriteliest for myself, but I’ll try to point some of the others your direction, boys.”

A slightly superior smile played at Adam’s lips.  “I don’t need your help, boy.  I can charm the ladies three times quicker than you.”

“Yeah?  We’ll see about that.”  Billy laughed his acceptance of the challenge.

Ross kept his mouth shut.  Thanks to the tight rein his father kept him on, he had virtually no experience with girls and had a feeling he’d come in third in any contest with the suave Adam Cartwright and the supremely confident Billy Thomas.

Just as the dinner bell rang, two more horses clattered into the yard.  “Look who’s here,” Ross whispered to Adam.

Though his tone was soft, Billy was close enough to catch it.  He spun around and caught sight of Sam Brown and Alexander Henderson.  “Just can’t seem to get shed of them today, can we?”

Adam’s brow wrinkled with concern.  “Come on.  Let’s get inside.  We’re not here for trouble, just a meal.”

Billy slewed an impish smile in Adam’s direction.  “Why, Adam, that’s all old Sam’s here for—a man for supper, remember?”

“Will you shut up?” Adam hissed.  “The way you run your mouth, he just might end up having you for his birthday supper.”  He spun on Ross when he heard the other boy laugh.  “I wasn’t joking!  Don’t you play the fool, too, Skinny.”

“Aw, simmer down,” Billy drawled with a disdainful shrug.  “Like you said, let’s get inside and tie the feedbag on.”

Having dawdled slightly, the young men were lucky to find a place at one of the long tables and, in fact, Billy had to elbow one man out of the way so that they could all sit together.  Just as the food was being served, however, Van Sickle himself came running through the dining room, yelling for everyone to get down.  Sam Brown burst in behind him, waving his pistol and firing random shots in no particular direction, one splintering the leg of a table, the next plowing through a bowl of mashed potatoes on another.  No one was sure where the following bullets struck, for everyone in the hotel’s dining room dived for cover under the nearest piece of furniture.  As Van Sickle hightailed it through an inner door, he bellowed back, “You wait ‘til I get my gun, Brown!”

Wide-eyed, Ross Marquette crawled forward for a better view, oblivious to his friend’s yanking on his pants’ leg.  There was no action to see, however, for Brown, taking note of the packed dining room, simply turned on his heel and left.  Cautiously, men crawled out from their makeshift shelters and stood up all around the room.

In a noisy gust Adam blew out the breath he hadn’t realized until then that he was holding.  “Another close call.”

Billy slapped him on the back.  “Now, Adam, if you’re gonna live back in the Territory, you got to get used to sights like that.”

Adam favored his friend with a smirk.  “Seems to me I had your company under that table, Billy.”

Billy grinned.  “Best place to see that kind of sight, old buddy.  Nothing to worry about, though.  From what I hear, Brown’s pretty much a coward unless he catches a man alone and unarmed.”

Ross started to say something, but just then Van Sickle came running back through the dining room, this time carrying a fowling gun.  “He’s going after him!” the Marquette boy cried, pushing past the table.

“Ross!” Adam called.  “What do you think you’re doing, boy?”

Ross stopped, momentarily called to his senses, but when Billy, too, made for the door, he fell in behind the redhead.

“Ross!  Billy!” Adam yelled in protest, but neither of his friends responded.  Gritting his teeth, Adam gave chase.  Might’ve known Billy’d head toward trouble, first chance he got.  Been dragging me into messes ever since we met on that wagon train.  Thought Ross had more sense, though.  What’s got into him?

He caught up with his friends outside, where both were tightening the cinches on their horses.  “You’re not serious,” he scolded.  “You not chasing after those maniacs, are you?”

“I wanna see how it ends,” Billy said.

“Me, too,” Ross insisted.

Adam threw his hands toward the sky.  “It’s gonna end with one of them getting shot, you fools!  And the same thing could happen to anyone who gets between them.”

“Aw, come on, Adam,” Ross wheedled.  “We’re just gonna watch.  We’ll be careful, won’t we, Billy?”

“Sure,” Billy replied cheerily.  He threw his arm around Ross, as if the two were taking sides against their more sober friend.  “Come on.  Let’s show the squeamish schoolboy here how real Nevada men face down a bully.”

Van Sickle, now mounted, blared out of his barn and charged down the road still covered with the dust of Sam Brown’s flight.  Ross and Billy split apart, each jumping into his saddle.  For a moment Adam refused to mount, shouting at them to use their heads, but when it became obvious that neither was listening, he quickly tightened his own cinch and galloped after them.  Just like the time Billy had wandered off from the trail when they were kids, Adam knew that tagging along was wrong, but he felt a responsibility toward his friends; he couldn’t leave them, no matter how much they deserved to be abandoned to their own foolishness.

A mile down the road Van Sickle overtook Brown and his companion.  Billy and Ross were close enough to hear him shout at Henderson to get out of the way, but Adam only arrived in time to hear the blast as Van Sickle fired both barrels of his shotgun.  Henderson had dashed out of the line of fire, as ordered.  Deciding that friendship with Sam Brown was not good for his health, he kept going, back toward Genoa.

The percussion knocked Brown from his horse, but he wasn’t hurt badly.  The notorious tough of Virginia City remounted and fired two shots, one of which whizzed past Adam’s ear, missing him by no more than an inch.

Adam instinctively ducked, although the bullet had already passed him by the time he reacted.  “Have you had enough yet?” he demanded of his friends.

Sam Brown kicked his horse and tore off down the road once more with Van Sickle still dogging his heels.

“The fool, he’s used up all his ammunition,” Billy hollered as he galloped after the belligerents.

“He’s a fool?” Adam shouted after him.  He turned sparking eyes on Ross.  “And you’re no better.  You want to see blood run!”

Ross looked abashed at the rebuke, as if finally coming to his senses.  “We can’t leave him, can we?”

Adam shook his head, knowing Ross was right.  Responsibility once again was calling his name, but that didn’t stop him from feeling like a fool as, with Ross at his side, he raised dust to catch up with Billy.  Riding south, they came to Mottsville, the next community south.  Van Sickle had evidently reloaded, for he again fired both barrels at Brown and must have missed, for the shots had no visible effect.  Brown fired back three times, missing Van Sickle, as well, and then rode directly to the Mott residence.

For Adam the escapade took on intensified significance when Brown disappeared inside.  Eliza Mott had been his first teacher here in the West, and he couldn’t bear the thought of her being terrorized in her own home, though he saw or heard nothing to indicate that anyone other than Sam Brown was in the darkened house.  He dismounted and sidled over to Van Sickle, who was keeping watch from behind a water trough as the shadows of twilight deepened.

A long time went by, with no one saying anything, and no sound coming from the house.  Van Sickle finally broke the deadly quiet that had descended over the homestead.  “You reckon he’s still in there?” he asked the Cartwright boy.

“I don’t know,” Adam whispered.  “It’s so quiet, maybe no one’s inside.”

“Or might be he’s still in there, and the Motts too scared to make a sound,” Billy suggested, crouched behind the other two.

Ross leaned in close.  “Maybe they ain’t there,” he whispered.  “Maybe the Motts went to the dance.”

“Hope so,” Van Sickle said.  “Don’t want any innocent folk gettin’ hurt.  Thought I saw some movement earlier, but might just have been Sam.”

“Maybe if we all just went home,” Adam suggested, “Brown would leave, too.”

“And have that killer come after me in my bed?”  Van Sickle snorted.  “You can take off any time you please, young fellow.  None of your business, anyway, but I’m ending this here and now.”

Adam frowned, but was forced to concede that Van Sickle was probably right.  Sam Brown might be a coward in a fair fight, but judging by his reputation, he also was the kind to hold a grudge and seek a stealthy opportunity to take his vengeance.

Van Sickle turned toward the more sympathetic-looking Billy Thomas.  “He’s got nothing against you, boy.  Why don’t you go in and see if he’s still there?”

Billy blanched for a moment before his customary bravado took over.  “Yeah, okay, I’ll check it out.”

“Are you crazy?” Adam hissed.

Billy emitted a sick-sounding chuckle.  “Like as not, but somebody’s got to do it.”  He ducked low, in case anyone inside got trigger happy, and began inching stealthily toward the house.  Exhaling in exasperation, Adam fell in behind him, and after a moment’s hesitation Ross flanked Billy on the other side.

As they neared the frame building, Adam, bent almost double, sprinted to the right side of the door, motioning to Ross to take the left.  He pulled his gun from his holster and when he saw that Ross had done the same, he nodded once and kicked the front door open, ducking inside.  A woman screamed as Billy dashed through, and both Adam and Ross leaned around his respective door jamb, guns at the ready, Adam being forced to expose more of his body since he wasn’t left-handed.

“Mrs. Mott?” he called.  “It’s Adam Cartwright.  Are you all right?”

“Adam?” a timorous voice warbled.  “Lands, boy, I never dreamed—”

“Are you all right?” Adam asked insistently.  “Is Sam Brown in here with you?”

“No, no, he’s gone, ran out the back,” Eliza Mott rushed to say.  Striking a match, she lit a lantern on a small round table in the center of the room.  “He said that someone was gunning for him and asked for protection.  I never dreamed that you . . .”

“No, not me,” Adam assured her.  “It’s Van Sickle out there, and he’s determined to find Brown tonight.”

Reminded of the reason they entered the house, Billy ran out the front door and called to Van Sickle.  “No sign of him here.”

Van Sickle stood from behind the meager cover and ran for his horse.

“He’s taking off again,” Billy called, dashing out the door.

Ross automatically ran after him.  Adam groaned.  “It’s been like that all evening,” he told his former teacher.  “If you’re sure you’re all right, Mrs. Mott, I’d better see if I can keep those two from getting their fool heads blown off.”

“Yes, you go on,” Mrs. Mott urged him.  “I’m shaken a bit, but fine otherwise, and Israel should be home soon.”

Adam leaped into the saddle and galloped hard, trying to catch up with his friends, still not willing to admit that he was just as anxious as either Ross or Billy to see the denouement of this afternoon’s adventure.  He rode into the yard of Luther Olds’ hotel just as Van Sickle and the two young men following him were coming out.  “Not in there,” Billy announced with a shrug.  “Not sure where he could be.”

A jangle of spurs made everyone’s head turn in the direction of the barn.  Van Sickle took off toward the sound, the others at his heels.  Spotting a burly man beside a horse, Van Sickle bellowed out, “Sam, I have got you now!” and let loose with both barrels of his shotgun.

With a cry of pain, Sam Brown crumpled to the ground and didn’t move.  Van Sickle and the others approached cautiously and stood in a semi-circle around the motionless body.  Billy nudged Brown’s leg with the toe of his boot, and when there was still no response, Adam squatted down and pressed two fingers to Brown’s neck.  “He’s dead,” he said, standing up.

“Self defense,” Van Sickle claimed.  “You’re all witnesses.”

Adam’s head came up with a jolt.  Self defense?  Maybe, in the sense that Brown would have killed Van Sickle if Van Sickle hadn’t shot him first, but it was Van Sickle who had insisted on pursuit, who had forced Brown into a showdown and who had, ultimately, gunned him down before the notorious tough could draw his gun.  Did that constitute self defense, even here in the virtually lawless West?  It was a question for the law to decide, and a wave of nausea swept over Adam as he realized that he’d have to give testimony at that inquest and at trial, if there were one—which meant there was no keeping tonight’s antics from Pa, and Adam knew of no defense that would stand up before that tribunal.  Van Sickle might get off; he was doomed.

* * * * *

“Adam, get a move on!” Ben called up the stairs.  He stalked back to the breakfast table and sat down to his half-finished plate of sausage and eggs.

“He came in so late last night, mon amour,” Marie said gently as she coaxed another mouthful of scrambled egg into Little Joe’s mouth.  “Perhaps he is tired and doesn’t wish to attend the festivities with us.”

“Not want to meet the new Territorial Governor?”  Ben eyed askance at the idea.  “A boy with Adam’s curiosity and interest in current affairs?  Of course, he wants to go!”  He stormed back over to the stairs.  “Adam!”

Adam finally made his reluctant appearance.  He hadn’t overslept, in fact hadn’t slept much at all after his return from points south, but he was putting off the coming confrontation as long as possible.  It wasn’t going to be a pretty sight, and there were three impressionable youngsters at the table.  With a rueful grimace at the lameness of that excuse for his procrastination, Adam rounded the corner and started slowly down the stairs.

“About time,” Ben fumed.  “You know Governor Nye’s due in to Carson today, and you know we plan to be there to greet him.”

“I know, Pa; I’m sorry,” Adam murmured, sliding into his seat at the foot of the table.  He forked a single sausage patty and spooned a few bites of egg, all he’d likely get a chance to eat, onto his plate.

“Are you well, mon ami?” Marie inquired solicitously, her eyes on the meager breakfast, more appropriate in its size to Little Joe than to his eldest brother.  Mary Wentworth, too, cast a concerned glance in his direction.

“I’m fine,” Adam said, concentrating on his plate.

“No need to starve yourself,” Ben muttered gruffly.  “We’re not that pressed for time.”

Adam swallowed what was in his mouth and set the fork aside.  “You’re not pressed for time at all,” he said after taking a deep breath, “at least not on my account.  I’m not going.”

As heads rose all around the table, Ben stared holes in the face across from him.  “What?” he asked, incredulous.

“But it’s the governor, Adam,” Hoss protested loudly.  “Don’t you wanna—”  Mary patted his arm soothingly and tried to shush him.

“Of course, I wanna!” Adam snapped.  In reaction to the stares that met his sharp tone, he dropped his voice almost to a whisper.  “I just can’t, that’s all.”

“What’s wrong, son?” Ben asked, concerned by Adam’s despondent manner.  “I thought you were looking forward to this.”

“Pa, I was; I am.  I mean, I would be if something hadn’t come up,” Adam sputtered, running his index finger up and down the handle of his fork.

Ben arched an eyebrow.  “Since yesterday afternoon?”

Adam nodded.

Growing exasperated with the process of dragging out, bit by bit, whatever was bothering his son, Ben took tight grip on the edge of the table.  “Well?”

“I ran into a little trouble last night,” Adam began.  He stole a look at his father and saw the alarm reflected in those dark chocolate eyes.  “No, I don’t mean I’m in any trouble,” he hastened to say.  “I just—well, I witnessed a shooting, and I have to give testimony at the inquest today, that’s all.”

“Oh, no,” Mary murmured.  “How terrible for you, Adam.”

“Who got shot?” Hoss queried.  “Is it anybody we know?  It ain’t Billy, is it?”

Little Joe’s head snapped up, and he looked ready to burst into tears.  “Billy shot?”

“No!” Adam shouted.  Then, at the chiding look from Marie, he lowered his voice again.  “No, of course not, little brothers.  Billy is just fine.”  He dropped his voice still more and muttered to himself, “Despite his best efforts not to be.”

“What’s that?” Ben demanded.

“Ben, perhaps our younger sons should not be present for this discussion,” Marie suggested, for she had caught a few words of Adam’s last statement, enough to sense that there was a difficult story to be told.

“No, they shouldn’t,” Adam agreed at once.  His little brothers didn’t need to hear about last night’s reckless pursuit of danger, and they especially didn’t need to hear what Pa was likely to say about it.

“All right, fine.  Take Little Joe upstairs and change him into his good clothes, and since Hoss is already dressed, he can check the harness on the team.”

Oui, that sounds best,” Marie said quickly.  “Would you help me dress him, please, Mary?  Little Joe is such a handful.”

Mary knew, of course, that she was being gracefully asked to leave Ben and his son alone, but sensing the need, the compliant girl quickly assented.

As Mary carried Little Joe upstairs, Marie whispered assurances that his friend Billy was quite all right.  Hoss scowled at Adam and headed for the front door, moving slowly in hopes that he’d hear something before being banished outdoors.

Ben waited until he heard the front door close.  “Well?” he asked again.  “What mischief have you been into, boy?”

“I haven’t been into mischief!” Adam retorted.

“Don’t lie to me,” Ben advised tersely.  “I know a guilty countenance when I see one.”

Adam took a deep, hopefully calming breath.  “I haven’t been into mischief,” he repeated slowly, “but between Billy and Ross, I did get myself tangled up in some tomfool idiocy.”  He began with the first encounter with Sam Brown on the porch outside the Magnolia Saloon and told the whole sad story, leaving out nothing.

Predictably, Ben exploded.  “Tomfool idiocy—that’s sure the right name for your behavior, boy!  Here you are, almost a man, one I thought could be trusted with responsibility, and you go chasing off after excitement with as little regard for the consequences as a boy Hoss’s age—or maybe Little Joe’s might make a more accurate comparison!”

“Now, that’s not fair!” Adam shouted, his own temper triggered by the deprecating remark.  “I wasn’t chasing excitement.  I was chasing two friends in hopes of keeping them alive.”  Even as he said the words, though, Adam knew they didn’t reflect an accurate assessment of what had happened.  He had gotten caught up in the drama last night, almost as if he’d been watching a play on the stage.  Not as quickly as Billy or Ross, but he’d been primarily a gaping spectator, just like them.  His presence throughout the evening hadn’t insured their safety at all, nor helped to resolve the situation in any way; all it had done was give Sam Brown one more potential target.  Feeling unable to defend himself, he fell silent.

Seeing his son wilt under the verbal chastisement, Ben relented.  “Well, what’s done is done.  I regret missing the governor’s arrival, of course, especially for the ladies’ sake, but I’ll take you to the inquest.”

This time Adam really exploded.  “Take me!  I’m not a kid, Pa; I don’t need you to take me!”

“Don’t raise your voice to me,” Ben warned.

Heedless, Adam continued to rant at a high pitch.  “Take me—like a dog on a leash, to make sure I don’t run from my duty.”

“Don’t raise your voice,” Ben demanded, raising his own.  “Of course, you’ll do your duty.  I don’t doubt that from a son of mine, but you will do it with me at your side.  No argument, boy.  Finish your breakfast and meet me outside.”  He bolted to his feet and strode briskly to the stairway, trotting up it to explain to his wife why she wouldn’t be meeting Governor Nye today.

Adam leaned his head into his hand and began to massage his throbbing temple.  “Boy.”  There could be no surer sign of where he now stood in his father’s esteem than that one word.  Not man, not even young man—all the way down to boy in one swift plunge, and it was likely to be a long, hard climb back.  Suddenly, even the meager amount of food on his plate was more than he wanted, and Adam pushed it away.

* * * * *

Adam stood in a huddle with his two friends outside the sheriff’s office in Carson City, where the inquest would be held.  Several yards away, the three fathers held conference, probably commiserating the woes of parenthood, Adam thought grimly.  “I can’t believe he’s missing the governor’s arrival, just to play watchdog to his little boy,” he groused to his friends.

“It ain’t such a bad idea, havin’ your pa along for a thing like this,” Billy advised.  He talked for a few minutes about testifying at the Elzy Knott trial and how glad he’d been that both his father and Uncle Ben had been there to stand by him.  “A fellow can use all the support he can get for a thing like this,” he insisted.

Sitting in the witness chair shortly afterwards, Adam discovered how true that was.  He’d told himself that as long as he stuck to the truth, testifying would be easy, but he could feel butterflies fluttering in his stomach.  The cannon that went off as he was describing the wait outside the Mott house only made him tense up more, with its reminder that he was causing his entire family to miss the long-awaited arrival of Governor Nye.  And the distant music of a band welcoming the official kept the acid churning in his stomach.  My fault, all my fault, he berated himself.  If only I’d done what my head said was right and stayed out of the whole mess.  But his heart, not his head, had ruled last night, and it still insisted that he couldn’t have done otherwise.  He couldn’t leave a friend behind, anymore than Marie had been able to turn her back on Julia Bulette three days before.  Suddenly, he wished she were with him, instead of Pa; she would understand.

Adam was subdued as he rode home beside his silent and glowering father.  It was obvious his youthful transgression hadn’t been pardoned yet.  Billy had gotten off scot-free, his father, though irritated, viewing him as a man responsible for his own actions.  Ross hadn’t fared so well with martinet Peter Marquette, who had administered a tanning guaranteed to keep Ross uncomfortable in the witness chair, but at least it was all over for him.  Even Van Sickle was a free man, having been discharged from any culpability in the killing of Sam Brown.  No, I’m the only one stilling paying for this tomfool idiocy, Adam told himself mournfully.

He’d planned to sit down with Pa sometime Monday, after putting Mary on the stage back to San Francisco, with a trusted neighbor headed that way as escort.  He had intended to tell him all about his ambition to attend Yale University that fall and plead his case so persuasively that Pa would find it impossible to object.  Adam grimaced, almost hearing his father’s bellowing rejection of that request now.  “You can’t stay out of trouble in Carson City, and you expect me to trust you three thousand miles from home!”

One look at his father’s granite-edged silhouette told Adam that he had a lot of ground to make up before he dared broach that subject.  He’d bided his time and worked hard all these weeks to prove his trustworthiness and reliability, his maturity and ability to handle himself—and he’d lost all he’d gained in one night of reckless running with the crowd.  How long would it take, he wondered, to build back his character in his father’s eyes?  Weeks, at least, and he didn’t have many left.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Note

Sam Brown, first and worst of the Nevada bad men, died on his birthday, July 6, 1861, at the hands of Henry Van Sickle, in the manner described.  The inquest took place the next day, the same day the new Territorial Governor arrived in Carson City, as stated in this chapter.

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

Final Celebration

            Ben Cartwright stopped directly in front of a raised wooden platform and within view of an arch erected over C Street by the ladies of Virginia City.  “I think this will be the best place,” he said, turning to his wife, who was walking behind him.

“Best place,” Little Joe chirped from his father’s arms, eliciting a laugh from the entire family—with one glaring exception.  Adam was in town under protest today, and his face reflected his displeasure with being ordered here by his father.  The past week had been a miserable one for the young man.  In the wake of the Sam Brown incident, he had begun his campaign to rebuild his father’s good opinion of him, rising early and working late at the lumber camp, scarcely taking time for meals.  He had, of course, taken off the Sabbath, to accompany his family to church, and he had argued forcefully that he couldn’t take the next day off, as well, and fulfill his responsibilities to the job.

Ben Cartwright, however, had just as stubbornly insisted that his family was not going to miss this second opportunity to welcome Governor Nye to the territory.  “And I do mean the entire family, boy,” he’d declared sternly, in tones that brooked no argument.

“Boy” again, Adam had noticed, wondering if he could possibly rise to “young man” by early August, as late as he could possibly put off speaking to his father about attending the fall term at Yale.  Two weeks, maybe two and a half if he cut the margin close, and considering how the past week had gone, he was likely to need every minute of it, even to have a slim chance of getting his way.  The quarrel the previous night hadn’t helped his cause.

When the strains of the brass band filtered over the Divide from Gold Hill, however, even Adam felt the rising excitement.  He had, after all, been looking forward to laying eyes on Nevada’s first Territorial Governor, up until his fall from grace, and something of the old exhilaration fluttered in his chest and brought a hesitant smile to his lips.  He glanced to his right, hoping to share the moment with his father, but Ben’s attention was on the arch, through which the uniformed members of the Virginia Union Guards were now marching behind the band.

As the band began to play “Hail to the Chief,” the Guards presented arms and a shout went up from the crowd lining both sides of the street.  The Governor’s carriage appeared, and a salvo of guns were fired to welcome him to Virginia City.  The carriage stopped and Governor Nye stepped down.  As he mounted the platform, another cheer greeted the friendly face beaming from beneath a crown of long, white hair.

“What a striking man he is,” Marie murmured.

“That the governor?” Hoss whispered, blue eyes wide with awe.

Ben laid his left hand on his middle son’s shoulder.  “That’s right, son.  Be quiet now; he’s going to speak.”

Hoss nodded and grinned up at his brother Adam.  Adam smiled back and ruffled his slim fingers through his younger brother’s unruly thatch of sandy hair.

“I was told that I was coming into a wild and dangerous country,” Governor Nye began in ringing tones, “but, on the contrary, I find here the most hospitable people I ever met.”  Virginia City declared her hospitality with more cheers and several more rounds of gunfire.

“Looks like some of our citizens are determined to give Governor Nye a Wild West welcome,” Ben muttered in disapproval, catching sight of several men who appeared to have imbibed rather freely in the nearby saloons and were waving and shooting their pistols without regard to the direction they were pointed.

Marie gathered Little Joe into her arms and turned sideways, so that her body was a shield between him and the street.  “Perhaps we were not wise to come today, Ben.”

“We were invited,” Ben pointed out tersely, “and you don’t turn down dinner with the Governor, my love, not if you hope to prosper in this new territory.”

“The children are not invited to dinner,” Marie reminded him.  “Perhaps they should have remained home.”

“But I wanna see the Governor,” Hoss whined.

“So look across the street,” Adam suggested dryly.  “That’s him.”

Hoss gave his brother a sheepish look.  “Oh, yeah.”

“I can’t see!” Little Joe protested, and his mother reluctantly brought him slightly forward.  With an understanding smile at his wife, Ben moved closer to her, so that his youngest son was now sheltered behind him, but still able to peek over his shoulder at the festivities.

“I have come to this distant country with the hope of adding one more bright and glorious star—Nevada,” the new governor continued.

The mention of statehood brought louder shouts, for there was scarcely a man, woman or child on the street who didn’t cherish that dream.  There was more gunfire, too, and suddenly Ben’s attention was drawn to a man who seemed more reckless than most with his explosive salutes to the governor.  One of the wild shots struck the rail of the platform behind which Governor Nye was standing, and a man wearing a badge swiftly pulled the governor down to protect him.  Concerned as he was for the new governor, Ben’s more immediate concern was for his own family.  “Get down,” he ordered sharply, making certain that Marie and their baby did before crouching in front of them, gun drawn.  Simultaneously with his father’s warning, Adam had pushed Hoss to the ground, moved in front of him and drawn his own gun.

“Arrest that man, Williams!” the law officer yelled from the platform, and one of his deputies moved toward the man still waving his pistol and shooting it off whenever the urge hit him.

“Put it down, Butler,” Deputy John Williams shouted.  “Put it down or I’ll shoot.”

“I can’t see,” Little Joe whined.

“Shut up,” Ben hissed, and the whine turned into a whimper.

“Be quiet, mon petit,” Marie urged.

As if in defiance of the order, Butler fired a shot over the deputy’s head.  Williams returned fire, hitting the man in the knee.  “Put it down, Butler,” Williams warned again.

With a bellow of pain, Butler refused, turning his back and limping down the street, toward the Cartwrights, still firing aimlessly.  Williams sighted his weapon, aimed carefully and hit the man in the shoulder, obviously still intending to wound, rather than kill.

Face red with fury, Butler turned around, dragging his bad leg, and aimed directly at the deputy this time.  “Drop it!” Williams ordered and when Butler declined, he aimed at the man’s face and fired.

A gasp went up from the crowd as the bullet grazed Butler’s cheek.  Adam held his breath, awed by the deputy’s accurate aim, if, indeed, he had intended once again merely to wound.  Butler dropped his gun and put one hand to his bleeding face while he raised the other in surrender.  As the Cartwrights stood to their feet, they were shocked to hear the crowd booing in disgust.  “Aw, what’d you give up for?” one drunken fool shouted.  “You wadn’t hurt that bad.”

Between the lawman and his diligent deputy, order was restored, and the governor continued his speech as though nothing had happened.  Ben had to admire the man’s courage and calm demeanor in the face of danger.  Maybe James Warren Nye came from the East, but he was evidently a man with sand enough to govern this wild territory, and he would have Ben’s support from this moment forward.

The speech continued, and afterwards the new governor shook hands warmly with any who wished to greet him.  Ben brought his family forward and introduced each member.  “Cartwright—yes, I’ve heard that name,” Governor Nye said.  He smiled at Marie.  “I trust I will have the company of this lovely lady at dinner today?”

“Yes, sir, they’ll be joining us,” a broad-shouldered man announced, his red-gold hair gleaming in the bright sunlight.  Ben recognized him as William Stewart, the prominent mining lawyer.  At six foot-two, Stewart stood head and shoulders above most men, but Ben, at a single inch shorter, could look him eye to eye.

“Excellent, excellent,” the governor said.  He turned his benevolent gaze on the three Cartwright sons, reaching out to touch Little Joe’s soft curls.  “And shall we also have the company of these fine specimens of young Nevada manhood?”

Seeing Stewart give his long and luxurious beard a nervous stroke, Ben spoke up quickly.  “No, the boys will be returning home.  I did want them to have the honor of meeting you, sir, before they left, and I thank you for your time.”

“Not at all, the honor is mine,” Nye insisted, shaking Adam’s hand and then Hoss’s.  With a final pat of Joe’s head, he extended his hand to Ben.  “I will see you and your dear lady soon, sir, and I hope she will do me the honor to sit at my side.”

Head bowed to hide her blushing cheeks, Marie curtseyed and assured the governor that the pleasure would be hers.  Then the Cartwrights moved on to permit others to greet the governor.

“Wow, Ma!  You’re gonna sit right next to the governor,” Hoss said, bouncing with excitement.  “Ain’t that something?”

“If he does not find a more congenial companion by then,” Marie answered demurely.

“How could he?” Adam asked suavely.

“How, indeed?” Ben added.  “There is no more gracious dinner companion in the entire Territory of Nevada.”

“Nor two more gracious flatterers,” Marie laughed.  “I suspect some lady who stands higher in society—one who maintains less questionable friendships, perhaps—will find herself sitting beside the governor at dinner today.”

“Well, we’ll see,” Ben muttered, wondering why his wife had to bring that up, today of all days.  Reaching into his pocket, he took out a gold half eagle and handed it to Adam.  “That should cover dinner for you and your brothers.  The governor’s party is at the Virginia Hotel, so choose anywhere but there, have yourselves a good meal and head on back to the Ponderosa.”  Ben’s hand rested on Little Joe’s head for a moment.  “I suspect this one will be ready for a nap by the time you reach home.”

“If not in the saddle,” Adam chuckled.

Marie touched her fingers to her youngest son’s cheek.  “Ben, perhaps I should return, as well.  After that incident in the street, I mean.  Joseph may be disturbed.”

Ben, Adam and Hoss all hooted.  “All that child is disturbed about is that he didn’t get a better look at the ruckus,” Ben snorted.  He drew Marie to his side.  “Don’t worry about him for a minute, my love.  He’s fine, and in any event, Adam can take care of him.”

“Certainly, I can,” Adam said, a happy bubble inflating in his heart.  Pa was beginning to trust him again, a sign that his campaign to restore his good standing had hope of success.  Feeling better than he had in a week, Adam was suddenly glad that his father had insisted he come today.  “After all, we can’t deprive the governor of the most gracious lady in the territory,” he added with a conspiring wink at his father.

“Indeed, not,” Ben agreed enthusiastically, returning the wink.

“Oh, you are flatterers all,” Marie scolded, her voice tinkling with laughter, “but I see I must yield.”  She leaned over to kiss Little Joe.  “Be good for brother, mon petit.”  Kissing Hoss, she added, “I know I need not say that to you, my good boy.”

Hoss blushed with pride.  “Aw, Ma.  Yeah, sure, I’ll be good.”

“And what about me?” Adam teased as she turned to take Ben’s arm.  He tapped his cheek.

Marie laughed in delight at his hint for a kiss and gladly bestowed one.  “Oh, Ben,” she said as they walked toward the Virginia Hotel.  “I think Adam has truly accepted me.”

“Of course, he has,” Ben said.  “Didn’t I tell you long ago that he would?”

Marie squeezed his arm.  “It was a little slower coming than you promised at first, mon amour, but I think, truly, we are finally there.  Our oldest boy is all I could ask in a son, and now I know that they are all truly mine.”

“Ours,” Ben corrected as they mounted the steps to the hotel.

Oui, ours,” she agreed.

Ben shook his head as they entered the dining hall.  “Even if this is considered the best hotel in Virginia City, it seems odd to me to choose such a known hotbed of southern secession to welcome the governor.”

“Can we not forget the war for even one afternoon?” Marie implored.

“Of course, my love,” Ben murmured, adding with an impish gleam in his eye, “if you can forget worrying about your precious baby boy for one afternoon.”

Marie shook her finger under his nose and then laughed.  “Oui, I will try.  I know Little Joe is safe with his brothers.”

Bill Stewart approached the Cartwrights as they moved inside.  “Please come with me, friends.  The governor has specifically requested that Mrs. Cartwright sit on his left.  My wife will be on his right, so you and I will have an opportunity for close conversation, Ben.”

Ben’s eyebrow arched at the use of his first name.  While he knew the lawyer, of course—who on the Comstock did not?—they were scarcely intimates.  Evidently, the governor’s interest in Marie had opened a door, not only with him, but also with those who wished to curry his favor.  Ben had no objection, however, to making closer acquaintance with Stewart.  He had, after all, the look of a man who might go far, and it never hurt to know such men personally, especially if one had political ambitions of his own.  Ben caught a glimpse of himself in the governor’s chair, perhaps when Nevada became a state, and his beautiful wife gracing his table as first lady of the land.  He brushed the image quickly aside; even if the vision were true, its fulfillment was some distance in the future.  Today, it was enough to relish meeting the present governor and having the opportunity to share his aspirations for the territory.

As the first course, a corn chowder, was served, Stewart bent his head toward Ben.  “The Governor and I have been discussing the selection of a capital for our territory, once it’s organized, Ben.  I hope you will agree with me that Carson City would provide the best site—better water, for one thing, and a more congenial setting to legislators with families.”

So that was it.  Ben smiled.  Stewart had hopes of being a legislator, and he preferred to raise his family in Carson City, rather than in a noisy, mining community of predominantly men, such as Virginia City certainly was.  You couldn’t fault a man for wanting the best for his family, but since Ben didn’t enjoy being made the ploy for another man’s ambition, he suggested first that Genoa would make an even more congenial setting.  “However, for purely selfish reasons, I would like to see Carson City made the capital,” he stated directly after that, to let Bill Stewart off the hook.  “Carson City is closer to me, and to locate the capital there might enable me to have some influence in the shaping of our new territory—and its ultimate statehood.”

Governor Nye smiled in appreciation of Ben’s openness, so refreshing to a man accustomed to dealing with politicians.  “From what I’ve heard, Mr. Cartwright, I would certainly expect that you might exercise that influence to the betterment of our future state.”

“A central location—an excellent point in Carson City’s favor,” Stewart inserted.

The governor waved the comment aside.  “Yes, yes, Mr. Stewart, I’m well aware of your views and will consider them, I assure you.  I would like to seek Mr. Cartwright’s opinion now on another matter.  I’m told, Mr. Cartwright, that you have some understanding of Indian affairs in this territory.”

“Some, yes,” Ben demurred.

“My husband is too modest,” Marie said, leaning close to the governor’s ear.  “He is a personal friend of Chief Winnemucca and Numaga and has been, I believe, instrumental in maintaining peaceful relations with the Paiutes, in particular.”

“So I had heard,” Governor Nye replied.  “Please, Mr. Cartwright—may I call you Ben?—please give me your assessment of the current situation of our Indian residents.  I consider this a matter of the highest priority.”

Bill Stewart, whose only experience with Indians had come during the brief war with the Paiutes, was forced to sit in silence as Ben Cartwright waxed eloquent on a subject dear to his heart.  “Perhaps you should consider a political career, Ben,” Stewart said at the close of the dinner.  “You certainly appear to have a gift for communication.  Did you perhaps study law at one time?”

Ben laughed.  “I’m afraid I have little more than a grammar-school education, Bill, though I thank you for the compliment.  Most of my learning, such as it is, came from reading everything I could get my hands on, during my years at sea.”

Bill Stewart laughed.  “Maybe I should have gone that route, instead of putting in my time at Yale.  Didn’t stay long enough to graduate, anyway.  Came west in ‘48, looking for gold, and decided about four years later that the study of law held more promise for me.”

“From what I’ve heard, sir, you made a good decision,”  Ben said cordially.  “I trust you’ll use equal wisdom as you offer direction to our new territory.”

“I’ll return the compliment, sir, and express the wish that I may have your assistance in offering direction to Nevada,” Stewart returned smoothly.

“My dear,” his wife interrupted in her soft southern drawl, “we really must return home if we’re to be properly attired for this evening’s ball.  I’m sure Mrs. Cartwright will be changing, as well.  Do you have rooms here, ma’am?  If not, may I offer our home for your use?”

“Most gracious of you,” Ben said, “but we engaged rooms at the International House for the purpose, although we do intend to return to the Ponderosa tonight.”

“All the more reason we should be on our way,” Marie stated gently.  “I have enjoyed your company at dinner, Mrs. Stewart.  Perhaps you will be able to attend the next gathering in our home.”

“I’d be delighted, I’m sure,” Annie Stewart replied.

Marie stifled a giggle until she was alone on the street with Ben.  “Did you see how relieved she looked when you said we had rooms elsewhere?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Ben returned with a shrug.  “I thought she might be drawn to you, as you’re both obviously from the south.”  Probably have her to thank for the choice of the Virginia Hotel!

“Mississippi, in her case,” Marie amplified with a simpering drawl, “and you must not be taken in by all that southern charm, mon mari.  There is craft behind that charm.”

“I know,” Ben acknowledged, “taking her cue from her husband.  I suspect he hopes to trade political favors with me.”

Mais oui,” Marie agreed at once.  “He sees the favorable impression you made on Governor Nye and wishes to warm himself in its reflection.”

Ben took her hand in his and kissed it.  “I have you to thank for that, my lady.”

Her head cocked at a coquettish angle, Marie gazed back at him.  “Perhaps, then, all my training from Cousin Edward has not been wasted.”

“You needed no help from him,” Ben chided a bit gruffly.  He pulled her close and, with a lecherous lift of his eyebrow, whispered in her ear.  “And if you persist in looking at me like that, madame, we shall miss the entire dance, while I ravish you like the wanton woman he meant you to be.”

An idle threat, considering the paper-thin walls of rooms at the International House.  Though tempted to call him on that bluff, Marie merely smiled in sweet, and alluring, submission and went through the door.

* * * * *

The moon was at its half phase as Ben and Marie drove home late that night, but the stars sparkled, and to Marie, the dim light only gave the night more romantic appeal.  “Oh, Ben, can’t we stop awhile?” she asked when Washoe Lake came into view, its rippling waters lightly kissed by pale moonlight.

“Are you tired?” Ben asked solicitously, pulling off the road.  “I know it’s been a long day—and night.”

“Not so very tired,” she said, her fingers gliding across his broad back as she lifted her welcoming lips.

Savoring a pleasure denied him throughout the day spent in public view, Ben pressed his mouth against hers.  “Did you enjoy the dance?” he asked after an extended kiss.

“Umm, so much,” she murmured, touching her head to his shoulder, “but it ended too soon.”

“Too soon?”  Ben laughed.  “It’s two in the morning, my love.  We really should have stayed the night, I think.”

“No, I wanted to come home,” she said, adding with an enticing smile, “but not just yet.  You owe me, monsieur, one more dance.”

“And I shall be pleased to pay the debt, my love,” he whispered.  Jumping down from the seat of the buckboard, he came around the wagon and lifted Marie down, his broad hands almost encircling her narrow waist.  Then he twirled her in his arms toward the shimmering lake, her toes barely brushing the grass, as he hummed the music to a waltz they’d heard earlier that evening.

“Oh, Ben,” she sighed in content as they came to a stop at the moonlit water’s edge and he lowered her feet to the ground.  “I did help you today, didn’t I?”

“You help me every day, Marie,” he said earnestly, kissing her forehead.  “Just the sight of your beautiful face, lying beside me, is all the inspiration a man needs to work his heart out and send his dreams soaring to the heavens.”  As he pressed his lips to hers once more, he felt her fingers slide between his buttons and laughed.  “You are a wanton woman!” he exclaimed.  “Here, under the stars?”

“Here, there, anywhere, everywhere,” she whispered seductively.  “Ravish me, mon amour.”  She unfastened the top button of his shirt and put her lips to his chest as her fingers sought the next hindrance to her full enjoyment.  Slowly, button by button, kiss by kiss, she opened the shirt, and then slid her arms around his waist as Ben quickly drew off his shirt and went to work on her restricting buttons.

“Are you sure you aren’t too tired?” he asked and got the answer he wanted when she toppled him to the grass.

“Ravish me,” she commanded.  “Now.”

And there, with only the glimmering stars as witness, he obeyed her command, and they expressed their love as passionately as if this were to be the last time ever—neither dreaming that, in fact, it was.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Note

Virginia City officially welcomed Governor James W. Nye on July 15, 1861.  His speech to the crowd in this chapter is an exact quote of his words on that day.  The gunfight between Deputy John Williams and a citizen named Butler happened during the ceremonies, as described.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

The Darkness Descends

            Ben Cartwright frowned at the face of the grandfather’s clock beside the front door of the ranch house.  “Where can she be?” he muttered.

Adam, sitting in his favorite blue chair, looked up from his book.  “Pa, you know where she is—at a quilting bee at Katerina’s.”

Ben swept his hand toward the clock.  “At this hour?  She knows what time supper is served, young man!”

A light sparkled in Adam’s dark eyes.  “Young man”—even if the words were said in anger, they were sweet to his ears, for it was the first time in nearly three weeks that his father had called him anything but boy.  Besides, the anger wasn’t directed against him this time.  “You know what hen parties are like,” Adam offered conciliatorily.  “She’s just lost track of the time.  I’m sure she’ll be home in time for supper, Pa.”

As if on cue, Hop Sing appeared in the dining room.  “Where Missy Cahtlight?” he demanded.  “Hop Sing no like keep food warm too long.  All dly up, not good—you unnastand?”

“Yes, I understand!” Ben snapped.  He threw open the door and stormed outside, casting a concerned glance at the deepening shadows of twilight.  Thrusting his hands in his pockets, he paced toward the porch.  Adam was right, of course: get a gaggle of women together and it was hard to break them apart.  Laura and Nelly would have long rides home, too, but, being older, had probably exercised more sense than Marie and left earlier.  No doubt she was helping Katerina clear up, maybe even helping to get supper started.  Then, knowing his wife, she’d ride that fidgety roan too fast to make up for lost time when it dawned on her how late it was.

* * * * *

Ben’s assessment of the situation was all too accurate.  Marie had stayed behind, not only to help clear up, but to console Katerina, who had that morning been presented yet again with evidence that she was not with child, a disappointment she’d faced every month of her married life and one which was becoming increasingly distressful to the young woman.  Then, when Marie had finally started toward the Ponderosa, she’d been lost in her own thoughts, wondering whether it wasn’t time to consider having another child of her own.  Dr. Martin, of course, thought she shouldn’t, after the difficult time she’d had with Little Joe’s birth, and Ben, not wanting to take chances with the love of his life, had adamantly insisted that they limit their intimate encounters to safe times of the month.  But Little Joe was no longer a baby, and Marie’s arms had begun to long for the feel of an infant.  She wanted to fill the Ponderosa with strong sons and daughters for Ben—and for herself, she admitted with a laugh.  She felt healthy, and even if carrying a another child was a risk, it was one she was prepared to take, for the joy of once again cradling a baby.  Now, if only she could persuade Ben.

Marie suddenly became aware of the sinking sun and the lateness of the hour.  Ben would be worrying, and that was no frame of mind for him to be in when she approached him about having another child.  She needed to hurry.  Touching her heels to the roan’s flanks, she urged him into a gallop.  She’d have to slow down once she reached the foothills, of course, but here on the flat of Washoe Valley, she could make up some lost time.

Throwing her head back, Marie felt the wind on her face and let it whip at her uncovered head.  As a couple of hairpins came loose, golden tendrils trailed down her neck, and when she slowed to ascend the foothills toward home, she reached up to pull the other pins out and let her hair cascade over her shoulders in unfettered freedom.  With a shake of her luxurious mane, Marie laughed.  Ben liked her with her hair down, and perhaps giving him a vision of what might await him in bed tonight was the best way to begin her campaign to have another child—as well as to soothe his irritation over her late arrival.

The road straightened out on the final approach, and Marie grabbed that last opportunity to hasten her arrival by signaling a faster gait to the gelding.  A full-out gallop wasn’t safe here, as Ben had often told her, but the horse was flying almost that fast as the eager woman entered the yard, thinking only of how soon she would be in her husband’s arms, promising him a night of love to rival the one beneath the stars at Washoe Lake five nights before.

Ben was at the far end of the porch, still pacing, when he heard the thunder of hooves, and thunder glowered on his brow as he turned to rebuke his wife for her heedless speed.  The vixen—she’d never ride that fast if she thought her precious baby boy might still be outside, but at this hour she knows he’s safe indoors and thinks she can do as she pleases!  As Ben strode angrily down the porch, though, his heart halted in mid-beat as the horse stumbled, neighing wildly, and his wife’s delicate frame soared skyward and came crashing to earth.  “Marie!” he screamed, running toward her motionless body.

He gathered her into his arms, calling her name frantically, and caught his breath in relief as her emerald eyes fluttered open.

“Ben?” she whispered.  Her eyelids closed, and her head fell to one side.

“Marie?”  Ben tapped her cheek several times.  There was no response.  “Marie!”

Inside, Adam’s gaze jerked up from his book.  Though absorbed in the story, he’d been vaguely aware of the sound of hooves coming into the yard, but hadn’t paid much attention until a sharper sound struck his ear.  Was it a scream?  He listened for a minute, and then heard it again, recognizing his father’s voice this time, loud and frantic.  Adam slammed the book shut, tossed it onto the table before him and ran to the door.  He opened it and froze, unable to move and unable to speak, able only to stare at the shocking tableau before him.  Marie lay in his father’s arms, not only motionless, but with her head held at such an awkward angle that Adam knew instantly that her neck was broken.

As Ben clasped her lifeless body to his breast, stroking her cheek, whispering her name, Adam started forward, but stopped when he heard his little brothers clattering down the stairs.  Not wanting them to see what lay beyond the door, he closed it quickly and turned around.

“Was that Mama’s horse I heard?” Hoss asked, jumping the final two steps to the landing.  “We gonna eat now?”

Adam rushed to the stairs and blocked the way.  “Yes, that was her horse,” he said, “but it’ll be awhile ‘til we eat.  Go back upstairs and wait ‘til you’re called.”

“But I’m half starved, Adam,” Hoss complained.  “How come we gotta wait if Mama’s home?”

Little Joe pushed past Hoss and tried to squeeze by Adam.  “I wanna see Mama,” he declared dictatorially when Adam caught him and held him back.

“Later, baby,” Adam said.  Swallowing the lump that had risen in his throat, he added, “Pa and—and Mama need some time alone.”  Mama, his heart cried.  Why, oh why, didn’t I call you that while you were alive to hear it?  How could I let you go without once hearing the word you wanted most from me?

This was no time for self-reproach, however.  These two little innocents had to be kept back ‘til Pa had time to gather himself together and tell them what had happened.  “Hoss, take Little Joe upstairs and play quietly ‘til you’re called.”

“I want my Mama!” a fiery-faced Little Joe demanded, trying once more to push past Adam.

“Do as you’re told,” Adam said sharply, turning the child around and pushing him toward Hoss.  He hated himself immediately for the harsh tone, but he didn’t know what else to say.  The truth couldn’t be told, not yet, and that left him with nothing stronger to fall back on than a big brother’s authority.

Hoss was staring at him, clearly sensing that something was wrong and that he was being kept in the dark deliberately.

Seeing the apprehension in the boy’s blue eyes, usually so calm and peaceful, Adam made himself speak softly.  “Look, Hoss, I’ll explain later, but it’s important that you both stay upstairs for now.”  He tilted his head toward Little Joe, while his eyes remained locked with those of his middle brother.  “I need your help, boy.  Take care of the little one, okay?”

Chin quivering, Hoss nodded and took Little Joe’s hand.  “Come on, punkin.  Supper ain’t ready yet.”

“Don’t want supper,” Little Joe whined, pulling his hand away.  “I want Mama, Hoss.  She’s been gone all day!”  He turned back to his oldest brother and planted both hands on his small hips.  “She wants to see me, too, Adam; she does, and you’re mean!”

Though his heart ached for the child, Adam forced firmness into his voice.  “Do you know what happens to little boys that don’t mind?” he asked with his hands on the narrow shoulders.

Little Joe’s eyes grew wide.  “They get nes’ry little talks,” he mumbled.

“That’s right,” Adam said solemnly, resisting the urge to pull the boy into his arms and squeeze him tight.  For now, it was best that Little Joe continue to see him as the mean big brother, so mean that he must be obeyed.  “They get necessary little talks, right on the seat of their pants, so if you don’t want a little talk like that, you’d better go with Hoss and not give me any more backtalk.”  Oh, God, don’t let him call me on this; I couldn’t do it right now; I just couldn’t, but he’s got to mind.

Having twice this summer been on the receiving end of a paddling from Adam, Little Joe puckered up in a pout, but he flounced around and grabbed Hoss’s hand and let himself be led upstairs.

Adam exhaled slowly, but the sense of relief didn’t last long.  His father needed him.  Squaring his shoulders, he walked to the door, lifted the latch and swung the door back.  Slipping through, he closed it carefully and stepped into the yard.  To his right, he saw a few of the hands standing outside the bunkhouse, just looking—staring, really—paralyzed by shock as Adam had been when he first opened the door.

He walked tentatively toward his father, who was still rocking back and forth with Marie cradled next to his heart.  “Pa?” Adam asked softly.  There was no response.  “Pa?” he whispered again.  “Maybe we should take her inside.”

“Yes,” Ben murmured, but he didn’t move, just kept rocking and stroking her long golden hair, loose on her shoulders.

Hop Sing appeared in the open doorway to the kitchen.  Seeing Adam, he scurried over, and Adam rose to meet him.  “Hop Sing see something wrong, set food off fire,” the cook told him in hushed tones.  “Missy hurt bad, you think, Mr. Adam?”

Tears stung Adam’s eyes, but he blinked them back.  “She’s dead, Hop Sing.”

Hop Sing nodded, as if the words only confirmed what he had suspected.  He buried his face in his stained apron and began to keen in Cantonese, his body swaying in rhythm with the words.

Adam looked from the cook to his father, both of them so lost in grief that they apparently would be of no help whatsoever in doing what needed to be done.  He glanced toward the bunkhouse.  “I could use some help here,” he called, his voice raspy.

Hank Carlton, the man who had driven the freight wagon to Virginia City on the Fourth of July, came forward to lay a supporting hand on the young man’s shoulder.  “Just tell us what needs doing, son.”  The other men moved up behind him, also ready to do whatever was asked of them.

“We need to move her inside—the downstairs bedroom would be best, I think,” Adam said.  He stepped quickly to his father’s side and squatted down beside him.  “Pa,” he said gently.  “We’re going to take her inside now, okay?”

“Yes,” Ben murmured, staring off into the darkness.

Carlton moved in front of his employer and slid his arms under Marie.  “Let me take her, sir,” he requested respectfully.

“Yes,” Ben said, but his arms still held her against his body.

“Pa, please,” Adam implored.  “You have to let go.  Please, Pa.”

Ben turned toward the sound of his son’s voice, but his eyes were as vacant as before.  “What?  Oh.  Oh . . . yes; yes, son.”  His arms relaxed, and Carlton, with the help of two other men, was able to take Marie from him.  Adam helped his father to his feet and led him into the front room.  Settling him in the chair closest to the fireplace, the young man hurried across the room to open the bedroom door and show the men where to place the body of his stepmother.

“We’re real sorry about this, son,” Carlton said.

“Real sorry,” another hand choked out.  The other man didn’t say anything at all, but all three faces were etched with grief.  Marie had been well loved and respected by the men, and all of them knew what a blow her passing was to the Cartwright family.  They walked out silently, none speaking to Ben, each sensing that their employer was too overcome to even hear them.

As the last of them filed out of the room, Hop Sing, having recovered enough to realize his assistance was needed, entered with a basin of water.  “You go to father,” he told Adam.  “I see to Missy.”

Unable to speak, Adam nodded, his hand resting briefly in silent gratitude on the shoulder of the young Chinese cook before moving past him.  As he entered the great room, he saw his father, slumped over, his face buried in his hands, and Adam’s mind flashed back to that afternoon on the trail when he’d last seen his father this broken.  Why? his heart screamed.  Why do we have to go through this again?  Twice wasn’t enough?  Couldn’t just one of us have an unbroken childhood?  The thought brought his younger brothers back to mind, and he glanced toward the stairs before moving toward his father.

“Pa, I’m so sorry,” he whispered as he sat down on one end of the fireside table, facing his father.  “I don’t know what to say.”

Ben didn’t move, didn’t speak, and Adam again found his mind rushing back to the trail, to the dreadful, silent days following Inger’s death, when it seemed almost as if his father, too, were no longer alive.  “Pa,” he said softly, “what shall we do about Hoss and Little Joe?  They heard the horse ride up.  I—I kept them back, but they won’t keep much longer.”

Ben didn’t move, didn’t speak, and in his frustration Adam grabbed him by both shoulders and shook him.  “Pa!  They have to be told.”

Ben looked up, face blank, eyes lifeless.  “All right.  Tell them.”

Alarm flashed in Adam’s ebony eyes.  “Me?  Pa, I can’t!  You’re their father, not me.  They need to hear it from you.”

Ben stared at him.  “I . . . can’t.  Not . . . yet.”

Adam’s mouth set in a grim line.  “We don’t have the luxury of time here, Pa. Hoss already senses that something’s wrong.  Little Joe knows his mother’s come home, and he wants her, and . . .”

“I want her, too,” Ben moaned, burying his face in his hands again, shoulders shaking.

“Pa, please,” Adam pleaded.  “Don’t leave this to me.”  He leaned forward, putting his hand behind his father’s neck with a tender touch.  “Wouldn’t it be easier, coming from you?” he asked gently.

“Nothing makes it easier,” Ben groaned, and his face fell to his knees this time.

Adam stood up.  Eyes fixed on his father’s folded body, he backed, step by step, toward the stairs, as if praying for a reprieve.  When he felt the square newel post against his spine, he bit his lower lip and turned to climb up, every few steps casting a mute plea over his shoulder at the still form of his father.

Reaching the second floor, Adam moved toward his own room first, longing to escape inside, at least long enough to get his own emotions under control and figure out what to say to those little boys across the hall.  Ought to just hide out in there, he fumed inwardly, ‘til Pa has no choice but to do the job himself.  He should; it’s his job, not mine!  Adam reached for the doorknob and started to turn it.  Then, slowly, he drew his hand back.  It wouldn’t work.  You couldn’t force a man past his grief on your schedule; he had to follow his own.

A man.  That’s how he’d wanted Pa to see him, and he’d never get a better chance to prove himself than in this awful moment.  Adam closed his eyes as another painful realization washed over him.  It didn’t matter now whether Pa saw him as a man or a little boy.  Yale was lost to him, lost to the greater needs of those he loved, but what was the loss of a dream, compared to what those two little ones had just lost, what they’d all lost?  Oh, Marie . . . mon ami . . . Mama!  He leaned his head against the door to his room.  His hand again reached for the doorknob.  Five minutes.  I deserve that much time for my own grief.

Then he shook his head, knowing he couldn’t risk having either of his brothers come out of Hoss’s room, slip past him and come upon Pa the way he was now.  So, instead of retreating to the sanctity and solitude of his room, Adam stood in the hallway, back against the wall, staring at the door he must soon enter, searching for words that just wouldn’t come.  Oh, God, help me, he implored.  Give me the words.  Show me how to help them.

Adam stood there until he felt a measure of calmness descend, and he moved across the hall, trusting that when he needed the words, they’d come to him.  He knocked softly on Hoss’s door, turned the knob and walked in.  His heart leaped into his throat as he caught sight of Little Joe, riding astraddle Hoss as the bigger boy “galloped” around the room, the bittersweet scene recalling all too vividly that the child’s mother had just fallen from a horse.

“I’m a Pony rider, Adam,” Little Joe chirped.

“Are you?” Adam asked.  “Give me my mail then.”  He lifted the boy from Hoss’s back and sat down on the bed, holding Little Joe in his lap.  As the young Pony Express rider handed his oldest brother a pretend letter to read, Hoss sat on the rug to catch his breath.

“Time to eat now, Adam?” Little Joe asked.  “I’m a little hungry now.”

“Soon, baby,” Adam murmured, stroking the gold-brown curls, only slighter darker than those of his mother.

“I’m not a baby!” Little Joe declared indignantly.

“That’s right.  Brother keeps forgetting, doesn’t he?”  Adam licked his lips.  “You’re getting to be a big boy now, aren’t you, Little Joe?  Big enough to understand some hard things, maybe?”

Little Joe cocked his head and gazed up at his brother’s face, wondering why Adam looked so serious.  “Hard things?  Like school, you mean?”  His face brightened.  “I wanna go to school like Hoss and you, I do, Adam.  He don’t like it, but you do and so maybe I will.  You think I will?”

“I hope so,” Adam said gently, “but that’s not what I meant.  I meant like—like what you hear in church sometimes.  Do you know about heaven, Little Joe?”

“Uh-huh.  Mama told me.”  Little Joe squirmed a bit, ready to get down, but Adam wouldn’t let go.

“What did she tell you?” Adam probed.

“Ain’t we never gonna eat?” Hoss asked grumpily, getting to his feet.

Eyes filled with compassion, Adam looked up at him.  “Soon, Hoss, but this is important.”  He looked down again at the child in his lap.  “What did Mama tell you about heaven, Little Joe?”

“It’s a beautiful place,” the child recited, “but just for good people.  I gotta be very good if I wanna live there someday, but I think I like the Ponderosa better, anyway, and I don’t gotta be good all the time to live here.”

At any other time Adam would have smiled at the childish logic and agreed that the Ponderosa was a little bit of heaven, but his mind, just now, was weighed down with the daunting task before him.  “Your mama’s a very good person,” he pressed on.  “You know that, don’t you?”

“Uh-huh.”

Adam sent a pleading glance toward the open doorway, willing his father to walk through it, but the doorway remained empty.  “So you know she’ll go to heaven, right?”

Little Joe’s nose wrinkled in puzzlement.  “Someday.”

“Yeah, someday,” Hoss put in quickly, a tremble in his voice.

Adam looked directly into the alpine eyes and saw that Hoss had begun to suspect where this was leading and wanted to forestall the news he feared.  “Not just someday,” Adam said softly, eyes fixed on Hoss.  “Today.”

Hoss started backing toward the far corner, hands pressed tight to his ears, but Little Joe just laughed.  “No, Adam, Mama go see Aunt Kat today.  Aunt Kat not live in heaven; she live in our old cabin.”

Adam wrapped both arms around the baby, wondering how he could possibly make a child this young understand.  “Yes, she went to see Katerina—but then she had to go to heaven.”

“No!” Hoss screamed as he collapsed in the corner, his head dropping between his knees.

Torn between the needs of his two brothers, Adam didn’t know what to do.  He instinctively reached toward Hoss, and Little Joe took advantage of his older brother’s distraction to slip off his lap.  Scurrying over to the corner, he began to pat Hoss’s head.  “What’s-a matter, Hoss?  Your head hurt?”

Hoss stared at his little brother.  “Don’t you know nothin’, you stupid baby?”  Then, with an anguished cry, he grabbed Little Joe and pulled him into his lap, hugging him tight.

Adam followed his brothers into the corner and, squatting down, began to rub his hand across Hoss’s heaving shoulders.

“What’s-a matter, Adam?” Little Joe asked, looking worried.  “What’s-a matter wif Hoss?”

Still stroking Hoss with one hand, Adam drew his youngest brother close with the other.  “Little Joe, I know it’s hard for you to understand, but when your mama came home today, she had an accident and fell off her horse.  She was hurt very badly, baby, and God thought He could take better care of her in heaven.”

Little Joe frowned, forehead creasing.  “Better than Doc Martin?”

“Yes, much better.”

“Then she be back, when God gets her all fixed up, huh, Adam?”  The little head bobbed up and down hopefully, although the child was beginning to look worried.

Adam shook his head, choking down a sob before he answered.  “No, baby.  When people go to heaven, they have to stay and live there.”

“No!” Little Joe shrieked, and before Adam could catch him, he broke free and ran for the doorway.

“Joe, come back!” Adam called, scrambling to his feet.  He paused long enough to check on Hoss, who hugged his bent knees close to his chest and laid his head down on them.  Adam wanted to gather the sobbing boy into his arms, but there wasn’t time, not now.   Time only for a single, soothing touch, and then Adam, his heart divided, ran after Little Joe.

The child trotted down the stairs and had reached the landing before Adam left Hoss’s room.  Seeing his father, still slumped in the fireside chair, Little Joe ran straight to him.  “Pa!”

From the landing Adam gasped, wondering how his father would respond.  Maybe it was what he needed, to be forced to think of someone besides himself.  Adam held back, watching, praying that the child could accomplish what he, with all his supposedly mature logic, had failed to achieve.

Ben instinctively lifted the little boy and set him on his lap, but he held Joe woodenly, without the accustomed warmth the child had known all his life.

“Pa, make God send Mama back,” Little Joe demanded.

With a tortured groan, Ben fell back in the chair, holding his youngest son at arms’ length, unable even to look into the indignant little face.  “Take him,” he begged as he spotted Adam, slowly descending the last few stairs.  “I—I can’t.  Take him—please.”

Disappointed, for he’d hoped the child’s need might draw Ben out of his near-stupor, Adam nodded.  Stepping quickly across the room, he lifted a protesting Joe from their father’s lap and into his own arms.

“No!” Little Joe screamed, tiny feet kicking Adam’s ribs, tiny fists pounding his chest.  “Put me back.”

“Hush, baby,” Adam urged, but Little Joe continued to wrestle him as he carried the child outside.  He walked into the yard, noticing with gratitude that one of the hands had taken care of the horse.  The air was still and warm as he moved toward the corral, feeling each kick of those little boots against his side.  “It’s all right, baby,” he soothed.  “Everything will be all right.”

“You’re mean, Adam,” Little Joe whimpered.  “You wouldn’t let me go to Mama; you won’t let me stay wif Pa.”

Adam nestled the curly head against his shoulder.  “You can’t go to Mama; it’s too far.  And you can’t stay with Pa right now; he’s too . . . sad.  But brother’s here, baby, and brother will always be here.  I’ll take care of you, just like Mama would.  I promise, baby; it’ll be all right.  In time”—Adam stopped himself.  The child was four, barely capable of comprehending the loss.  How could he hope to understand that time would heal it—or at any rate ease its pain?  “Brother’s here,” he whispered again, cooing the words tenderly into the miniature ear.

Slowly, Little Joe pulled back to stare at his older brother with such soulful eyes that Adam didn’t know how to read what thoughts lay behind them.  Concerned about leaving Hoss alone, he walked back to the house, noticing that Ben was no longer in the room.  Had he gone in to Marie—or just shut himself away in his room, to lick his wounds with less risk of intrusion?  It was too much to hope that he had gone to Hoss.

As Adam moved toward the stairs, Hop Sing came out from the downstairs bedroom and called the young man’s name softly.  Mindful of his words in the presence of the youngest Cartwright, he said, “Need talk to you, Mr. Adam, ‘bout what to do.  Hop Sing ask Mr. Ben; he not say, just leave.”

Well, that answered one question.  Pa wasn’t with Marie.  “Yeah, in a minute, Hop Sing,” Adam replied, inclining his head toward the child in his arms.  “Let me take Little Joe upstairs.  Then we’ll talk.”

“All light, Mr. Adam, I wait,” the cook said, bowing slightly.

Adam took the stairs as fast as he dared with a child in his arms.  The door to Hoss’s room remained open, so he went straight in, saddened to see that his younger brother was still in a disconsolate heap in the corner.  “Hey, buddy,” he called.  “How you doin’?”

Hoss looked up, his eyes red, his normally placid face etched with pain.  “I ain’t doin’ so good, Adam.”

“That’s okay, Hoss,” Adam assured him as he sat on the edge of the bed.  “It’s okay to be any way you have to be right now.”  Which goes for Pa, too, I guess, he conceded with a sigh.  He patted the bed beside him.  “Come here, buddy.”

Wiping his nose with the back of his hand, Hoss got up and moved to the bed, perching next to his brother and leaning his aching head against Adam’s strong shoulder.

“Hoss, I hate to keep leaving you when I know you need me, but I have to take care of some things downstairs,” Adam explained as his arm circled the younger boy.  “Could you watch Little Joe for me awhile, just ‘til I get back?”

“Where’s Pa?” Hoss asked.

“I’m not sure,” Adam replied.  “In his room, maybe, but don’t bother him unless you have to.  He’s not doin’ so good, either.  Come get me first if you have any problems.  Just get Little Joe dressed for bed and . . . help him the best you can.”

His tender heart touched by the baby’s troubled, confused gaze, Hoss overcame his own emotions and reached for Little Joe, who came willingly into that warm place of refuge.

Adam stood, giving Hoss a pat of approval.  “I’ll be back soon as I can,” he promised.  He went downstairs, where Hop Sing still stood, awaiting his return.  Motioning for the cook to sit on the settee, Adam took his familiar seat in the blue chair.

Feeling awkward at taking a place reserved for the family, Hop Sing sat on the outermost edge of the settee.  “I clean Missy up best I know, Mr. Adam,” he began, “but me man.  Not know how fixee ‘Melican way.  Think, need woman—Missy Nelly, maybe-so?”

Adam rubbed his hands on the arms of the chair.  “Yeah, she’d know what to do, and they should be told, in any case.  I’ll send one of the hands tomorrow morning.  It’s too late to send anyone that far tonight.”

“What ‘bout dinnah, Mr. Adam?” the cook inquired, his deferential manner indicating that he considered Adam the man in charge of the household now.  “Food all leady, but Mr. Ben gonna eat?  You, little boys?”

Adam ran his fingers through his hair.  “Oh, I don’t know,” he sighed, his own stomach churning so wretchedly that he didn’t think he could possibly put anything in it.  “I’m not sure anybody will be hungry,” he said when he saw that the cook was waiting patiently for an answer.  No stronger sign that the world’s spun off its axis than that Hop Sing isn’t ranting about a missed meal, he mused.  “Fix up a plate for Pa, and I’ll take it to him in his room.  I think he wants to be alone.  Then I’ll ask the boys if they’re hungry.  They were before, and they ought to eat something, I suppose.”

“Be good if they can, maybe-so make tloubles lighter,” Hop Sing agreed, standing quickly to his feet and hurrying to the kitchen, where he felt more at ease, especially now that he had some way to minister to his grieving family.  He returned shortly with a plate of food and handed it to Adam.  “I put just little,” he said.  “Hope Mr. Ben eat that much.”

“We’ll see,” Adam said.  “Thanks, Hop Sing.”  He climbed the stairs, plate in hand, and carried it down the hall to his father’s room.  His room, he thought, not theirs anymore, just his, and he ached with the simple change of term.  Rapping on the door, he waited for a moment, and then entered when there was no answer.  “Hop Sing fixed you up a plate, Pa,” he said.  “I know you’re probably not hungry, but it might help to eat.”

Sprawled on his bed, Ben shook his head.  “I don’t want it.”

“I’ll just leave it, in case you change your mind,” Adam said.  He started to leave, but stopped when he heard his father ask if his brothers were all right.

“They’re hurting,” Adam said.  “They need you, Pa.”

Ben nodded in acknowledgement.  “I haven’t anything to give them right now,” he murmured, voice breaking.  “Take care of them for me, will you, Adam?”

“The best I can,” Adam replied reluctantly.  He felt himself a poor second to his father, but decided not to push.  “Have you—uh—given any thought to funeral arrangements?” he asked hesitantly.  When Ben stared at him blankly, he hurried on.  “I thought I’d send one of the men into Carson tomorrow morning, to tell the Thomases.  I thought Nelly could help, if that’s all right with you.”

“That’s good,” Ben said after a moment’s pause.  “Just leave it to Nelly; she’ll know what to do.  Whatever she plans is fine with me.”

“Okay,” Adam said, concerned at his father’s apathy.  He left and went down the hall to Hoss’s room again.  Opening the door, he smiled at the sight of Little Joe, dressed in a pale green nightshirt, sitting Indian-style in the middle of Hoss’s bed, clutching the old calico dog that Nelly Thomas had made for Hoss years before.  Hoss was beside him, with his arm protectively around the little boy.

“See?  He came back,” Hoss told Little Joe, patting him on the back.

“Of course, I did.  I promised, didn’t I?” Adam asked as he sat down.  Reaching over, he pulled the thumb from his youngest brother’s mouth.  “We’ve got better food than that downstairs,” he teased.  He looked beyond Joe to his other brother.  “How about it, Hoss?  You ready for supper now?”

“I ain’t hungry,” Hoss muttered, words Adam could never remember hearing from his middle brother.

“You were before,” the oldest brother pointed out.  “I’m sorry to keep you waiting, but—”

“I wouldn’t-a been then if you’d told the truth!” Hoss snapped, jumping up from the bed.

Adam’s long arm snaked out to grab his elbow.  “Hoss,” he pleaded.

Hoss turned around and stared back at Adam.  His gaze dropped to the floor, and he mumbled, “Sorry.”

“It’s okay, buddy,” Adam assured him, drawing the chunky boy into an embrace.  With his other arm he pulled Little Joe close and took the consoling thumb from his mouth again.  “I really think you two should get something into your stomachs before you go to bed.”

“Food don’t even sound good,” Hoss said sadly, and Little Joe, never as concerned about meals as his bigger brother, anyway, nodded in agreement.

“I could use a good example here,” Adam said, but when he caught sight of his middle brother’s shame-filled expression, he gently smoothed the tousled sandy hair.  “Never mind.  That wasn’t fair.  You don’t have to be anybody’s example, Hoss.”

“I tried to help,” Hoss muttered defensively.  “I gave him my dog, and I’m lettin’ him sleep with me tonight.”

Little Joe held the calico toy up for Adam to see.  “Mine now,” he announced.

“That was very kind of Hoss,” Adam said, smiling proudly and making sure that Hoss saw it, “and you have been a big help already, buddy.”  He thought for a moment of how hard the evening had been and how much harder the next day was likely to be.  He’d need help then, too, but it really wasn’t right to demand more of Hoss than the boy felt able to give.  Marie was his mother, too—the only one he’d ever really known—and Adam knew just how it felt to lose someone that special and to have the care of someone younger forced on you before you were ready.  He wouldn’t do it to Hoss; he’d give him his time to grieve and somehow find comfort enough inside himself for both his little brothers—and Pa, too, if he’d let anyone comfort him.

“Look, if you’re not hungry, why don’t I ask Hop Sing to make us all some hot cocoa?” Adam asked, standing up.  “We can have it right here in the room.”

Hot cocoa brought warm memories of nights by the fire, and Hoss nodded with a wistful smile.  “That sounds good.”

Little Joe didn’t say anything, but Adam thought he’d drink the cocoa if it were placed before him.  “Okay, I’ll get it,” he said.  “Why don’t you both get under the covers, and I’ll bring it right up?”

As soon as Adam left the room, Hoss turned back the covers.  “In you go, punkin,” he ordered, “like Adam said.”

Little Joe crawled toward the head of the bed, dragging the calico dog by one ear, and tucked his bare feet beneath the sheet and blanket.  Hoss had just snuggled in next to him when Little Joe whimpered, “Want Bun-bun and Barker.”

“Aw, no, you don’t,” Hoss argued, for he didn’t want to get up again so soon.  “You got my dog.”

“My dog,” Little Joe corrected, frown on his lips.

“Yeah, yeah, your dog,” Hoss agreed quickly, “but he’s all you need.  There ain’t room for all three critters in bed.”

Little Joe shook his head wildly.  “Bun-bun and Barker, Hoss.  They be scared to sleep alone.”

Hoss tossed the covers back and jumped, barefoot, to the floor.  “Doggone you.  I should-a known you’d be nothin’ but a nuisance if I let you sleep over.”  Suddenly remembering why he’d made the offer, Hoss was ashamed of himself for complaining.  Maybe Little Joe was right; maybe having the bed packed full tonight would make both of them feel less lonely for Mama.  Choking down a sob, Hoss scurried into the next room and took the stuffed bunny and harbor seal from Little Joe’s bed.  He hurried back to tuck the animals where Joe said they should sleep and then hopped back into bed himself.

It wasn’t long before Adam returned, carrying a tray with three steaming cups of hot cocoa and a plate of cookies.  The little boys sat up, each stretching out both hands, and Adam placed a cup of cocoa between each set of palms.

“He’s like to spill his,” Hoss grumbled, casting a baleful eye at Little Joe after taking the first sip, “and it’s bad enough havin’ him and them three critters in the bed without wet sheets, too.”

Adam scooted over next to his youngest brother to help balance the cup.  “Feel safer now?” he asked, giving Hoss a half-smile, the most he could manage.

“Some,” Hoss admitted, reaching for a sugar cookie.

Little Joe nibbled only half a cookie, Adam and Hoss polishing off the rest of the plate between them.  The child drank all his cocoa, however, and Adam thought that would probably be enough for tonight.  Tomorrow was soon enough to worry about proper nutrition.  Tonight, he just wanted to soothe these little boys to slumber and finally find those few minutes he’d craved to deal with his own torn heart.

As he tucked the youngsters in, side by side, Adam hesitated a moment, pondering whether he should give them the kiss they were accustomed to receiving each night.  Would it be too sharp a reminder that their mother was gone or would the loss be easier to bear if her simple gesture of love were perpetuated by another?  The promise he had made to Little Joe in the yard earlier that night came back to him and answered the question.  He’d promised to take care of his baby brother “just like Mama would,” and a kiss was probably the easiest part of keeping that vow.  Bending over the bed, Adam placed a kiss, first on the broad forehead nearest him and then on the tiny one on the next pillow.  “Sleep tight, little brothers,” he whispered.  Lowering the wick of the lard oil lamp, he started to leave.

“Adam,” Hoss called, voice trembling slightly.

“Yeah, Hoss?”

“Could you leave the door open—and your door, too?”

Fear.  Adam couldn’t remember when he’d last heard fear in his stalwart younger brother’s voice, but if Hoss needed reassurance that someone was near, Adam wanted him to have it.  “Sure, buddy—and you just sing out if you need anything.”

“Okay.  Thanks.”

Relief replaced the fear, the transformation readily discernible to Adam’s ear as he slipped out of the room.  Crossing the hall, he left the door ajar and wandered over to the window.  He raised the sash and leaned out to catch the faint breeze, though he hadn’t noticed ‘til now that he was hot.  And tired.  More than tired, he now realized—wrung out, with nothing left to give.  And tomorrow would be worse.  Unless Pa climbed out of that hole in which he’d buried himself, there’d be those two little brothers to see to again in the morning, and there’d be decisions to be made and a troop of well-meaning friends to deal with, when all Adam really wanted was to be alone, to let the grief over Marie and the disappointment over what her death meant to his dreams of college just come leaking out, with no one to see and have their own pain made worse by his.

Staring down into the yard, where all their dreams had come crashing down, Adam could still envision his stepmother’s lifeless body, neck dangling to one side, golden hair cascading over his father’s almost inert arms.  With a shudder he turned away from the window and threw himself down, crosswise, on the bed, too exhausted to even remove his boots.  He tried to cry, but the tears, held back too long, wouldn’t come on command.  They’d catch up with him sometime, he was sure, and as he drifted into uneasy sleep, he prayed that it wouldn’t happen at some inopportune time, like tomorrow with all those friends, and especially his little brothers, looking to him for direction.

* * * * *

The house was quiet, quiet as a tomb, Ben reflected mournfully as he moved down the dark hall.  He paused briefly and looked through the open door to Adam’s room, seeing the boy sprawled across the bed, boots hanging off the side.  He can’t possibly be comfortable like that, Ben mused, but he made no move to enter the room.  At least, the boy was sleeping and that was more than his father could do.  Noticing that Hoss’s bedroom door was also open, Ben peeked inside, smiling softly at the two figures, sleeping locked in each other’s arms.  Then his eyes fell on the golden curls of his youngest son—so like hers—and with a strangled cry he turned away.  He padded down the hall and went slowly down the stairs to the great room below.  Crossing it in the faint light from the window above his desk in the alcove, he walked to the bedroom, opened the door and went inside.

There she lay, the love of his life, beautiful as always, looking as she had so many nights when he’d come in late, tired from work or from some trip that took him away from the Ponderosa.  She’d always wake at his touch and open her arms to welcome him home—and what welcomes they had been!  Indulging himself in the fantasy for a moment, Ben touched her hand with his fingers and drew them back abruptly from the cold, rigid flesh.  Oh, God, she was gone!  Gone!  As surely—and as permanently—as Elizabeth and Inger before her, the third woman to share his dreams was gone.

Ben fell into the chair beside the bed and dropped his head once more into his palms, where it had rested most of the evening.  Why, God, why? he demanded, tears springing from both anger and grief dropping down onto the thin sheet that covered her cherished flesh.  Why a third time do You deprive me of love?  What is my sin, that I must be punished again and again?  The dream itself?  Is that where I went astray, just in daring to dream at all?  Or was the dream a selfish one, for myself alone, without regard for the needs of these precious hearts?  Why?  You tell me why!

There was no answer, only the same questions, again and again reverberating in his hollow heart until Ben feared he would go mad if they did not stop.  Jumping up, he thrust the chair back and fled.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Historical Note

The manner of Marie’s death is drawn from Ben’s description in “Marie, My Love” by Anthony Lawrence.

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

Darkest Day, Darkest Night

            Trying to work the kinks out of his back, Adam staggered groggily across the room to his washstand.  He lifted the porcelain pitcher, pouring and yawning at the same time.  Splashing cold water in his face helped.  He ran a hand over his stubbly chin, but decided a shave could wait.  So could a change of clothes.  His stomach was rumbling, and however little he felt like eating, it would be wise to stoke in some fuel.  Who knew what he’d have to deal with later in the day, so now, while everything was quiet, before anything had a chance to go wrong, he’d get some breakfast—hot coffee, at least.  That would help him wake up and clear his aching head.

Vowing that he’d never sleep sideways in his bed again, he left his room and stepped across the hall.  He hadn’t heard a sound so far, so peeking into Hoss’s room was just a precaution.  No, the boys were both still asleep, and Adam thought it best to leave them that way as long as possible.  He spared a glance down the hall toward his father’s room.  Probably best to let him sleep, too.  Odds were Pa wasn’t any better prepared to face up to things this morning than he had been last night.

Adam made his way downstairs and into the kitchen, pleased to see that the Chinese cook was up and about, the same as always.  There was something comforting in seeing that some things hadn’t changed.

Hop Sing turned from the stove when he heard footsteps behind him.  “Oh, Mr. Adam,” he said.  “I not know you up yet.  So solly.  I fixee bleakfast light away.”

“Take your time,” Adam said.  He pointed his chin toward the back burner of the stove.  “If the coffee’s ready, I’ll take a cup.”

Proud that he had anticipated what was needed, Hop Sing beamed and reached for the metal coffee pot with a padded holder.  Taking a tin cup from a peg above the open fireplace to his left, he poured in the hot brew.  “Much people come later, I think,” he explained, “so Hop Sing save good china for visitors, yes?”

Adam smiled in appreciation of the cook’s thoughtfulness.  “Yes.  Thanks for thinking ahead, Hop Sing.  You don’t know how much it helps.”

“Hop Sing know,” the diminutive Cantonese said softly.  He’d seen death many times in China, from natural disaster, starvation and domestic revolts, but this was no time to speak of the hardships that had brought him to America.  The young man sipping his coffee had hardship enough of his own this sad day, and Hop Sing wanted only to ease the load.  “Mr. Ben up yet?” he asked as he laid strips of bacon in the cast-iron skillet.

“I don’t think so; I don’t know when he will be.”  Or if, Adam might have added.  After Inger died, his father had barely been able to put one foot in front of the other, only doing so because they had to keep pace with the other wagons or be left alone in that savage desert country.

“Little boys?” Hop Sing asked.

“They’re still asleep, and I plan to let them sleep as late as they can,” Adam said, setting down the empty cup and waving his hand to refuse the second cup the cook offered to pour.

“That be good,” Hop Sing agreed, turning back to the stove.  “I fixee food for them when they leady.”

“Thanks, Hop Sing.”  Adam opened the kitchen door and stepped into the yard.  A shudder went through him as his eyes fell on the spot where his stepmother had fallen, and he shut his eyes to block out the grim vision.  Intending to get a start on the morning chores while his breakfast was cooking, he walked over to the barn and was surprised to see two of the hands already at work.  “It’s all taken care of, sir,” Carlton said when he saw the young man.  “You just see to the family today.”

“Thanks, Hank,” Adam said.  He wandered back outside and was halfway across the yard when he realized that he really didn’t know what Hank had meant.  The barn chores, obviously, were being taken care of, but what about the other work of the ranch?  Adam sighed.  No, Hank wouldn’t have taken that responsibility upon himself.  He was a good man, one Adam was coming to respect more by the day, but he was relatively new to the Ponderosa and had no real authority.

The man who did rode into the yard as Adam stood there in thought.  “Hey, Adam,” Enos Montgomery called as he dismounted and led his horse to the hitching rail.  “You’re up and out early, boy.  Your pa inside?”

Adam tucked his hands in his back pockets.  “Yeah, but he’s still asleep.”

The ranch foreman, still lean and lanky as when he’d traveled west with the Larrimore train, laughed.  “Asleep?  At this hour?  Don’t think I’ve ever seen Ben Cartwright lay abed this late.  You’re pullin’ my leg, aren’t you, boy?”

Adam shook his head.  “Something happened here last night, Enos,” he said, eyes fixed on the ground.  “Something bad.”

The young man’s solemn demeanor troubled the foreman.  “What is it, son?”

Adam took a deep breath.  “There was an accident.”

Concern flickered across Enos’s angular face.  “Your pa ain’t hurt, is he?  That why he’s in bed?”

Adam shook his head and forced himself to look up.  “Not him.  Marie.  She . . . fell from her horse when she came in last night . . . riding too fast, like always.”

Strong fingers gripped the young man’s shoulder.  “Is she bad hurt?”

Adam looked toward the house, mostly because he didn’t want to see pity spring into the foreman’s blue eyes.  “She’s . . . dead.”

The grip tightened, and Enos’s voice was choked as he said, “No.  Don’t seem possible.  She was at my place just last night, teasing me about taking Katerina out in the moonlight.  I—I’m sorry, Adam, sorrier than I know how to say, boy.”

“Thank you,” Adam murmured perfunctorily, wondering how many times today he’d be saying those words.  He looked up at the foreman.  “I—there’s things that need to be done, and, well, you’re the foreman.  I guess you’re here to talk to Pa about his plans for the ranch today, but I don’t think he can.  I—”

Seeing that the young man was close to breaking down, Enos steered him toward the front door.  “Let’s go inside, son, and you and me will talk about what needs doing.  Between us, we can figure it out, I reckon.  No need to bother your pa.”

“Yes, yes.  Thank you,” Adam said again, beginning to hate the babbling sound of those repeated words.

Hop Sing came to the kitchen door.  “Bleakfast leady, Mr. Adam,” he called.  “You come eat now, please.  Mr. Enos, you want something, too, maybe-so?”

“No, thanks, Hop Sing,” the young foreman said as they turned toward the kitchen.  “The wife fed me before I left, but if you got a cup of hot coffee, I’ll take that.  Me and the young boss here got some talkin’ to do.”

Adam’s head jolted up.  Young boss, huh?  Was that what he was now?  There was a time when hearing that title from one of the men, not to mention the ranch foreman, would have thrilled him.  Now he would gladly have foregone the privilege, just to have his father filling his rightful place as boss of the Ponderosa.

He went through the door and, seeing the filled plate on the work table in the kitchen, picked it up and carried it into the dining room.  Hop Sing poured two cups of coffee and handed them to Enos Montgomery.  The foreman followed Adam into the dining room, where Adam was sitting in his accustomed place at the foot of the table.  Enos sat down at Adam’s left and took one sip of his coffee before speaking.  “I’ve got a good feel for where the ranch stands and what to do to keep it going ‘til things settle down a bit,” he said, “so you leave that to me, son.  You got anyone you can count on up at the lumber camps?  You could put in a thimble what I know about that business.”

Adam broke a piece of bacon in half.  “I can count on Jake Webber at my camp,” he said.  “I just need to get word to him.”

“We got hands we can send on errands like that,” Enos suggested.  “How about the camp your pa usually runs?”

Swallowing a bite of bacon, Adam shook his head.  “I don’t really know many of the men there.  Pa handled that operation strictly by himself, never even talked about it, except in general ways.”

Enos nodded grimly.  “I’ll ride up there then,” he offered.  “Like I said, I know nothin’ about lumber, but I can usually size a man up pretty well.  If you’re willing, I’ll scout out a man I think can manage things a day or two and leave him in charge.”

“That sounds like a plan,” Adam agreed gratefully.  “It helps, just to talk things out like this, Enos.”

“Sure.  Glad to.”  Enos leaned forward, his face earnest.  “Want to help all I can, son.  Your pa—your whole family—you all mean the world to me.”  He took another sip of coffee.  “That should take care of the ranch.  I reckon there’s folks you’ll want to let know what happened.  Just tell me who, and I’ll find some men to send wherever they need to go.”

“The Thomases first.  Pa and I agreed that Nelly was the best to help with . . . with the arrangements.”  Adam stirred his scrambled egg thoughtfully.  “I guess Mrs. Dettenrieder will want to be at the funeral, but I don’t know when that’ll be yet, and Dayton’s a long ride.”

“That’ll keep, then,” Enos said, “but I’d best have the man who rides to Carson City let the doc know, too—and Sheriff Blackburn.  He’s the closest law, I guess.”

Adam looked up, and his eyebrows came together as his forehead furrowed.  “The law?  Why do we need the law?  It was an accident!”

“And it’s best to get that set down official,” Enos said patiently, reaching over to touch the young man’s forearm.  “That way there won’t be no questions later.  The doc can examine the body, and you—or your pa—can tell the sheriff what happened.”

“Oh, God!”  His appetite suddenly gone, Adam pushed the plate away.  Was there no end to what he had to take over for his father?  “Will they take my word?  I didn’t really see what happened . . . just heard the horse ride up and a scream . . . and when I ran out, I saw her . . . lying there . . . dead.”

“And your pa?”

“He was outside.  He saw,” Adam said with a shake of his head, “but he’s—I don’t know if he can.”

“I reckon the sheriff will want to talk to him, then, if he’s the one saw it,” Enos said.  “Knowin’ your pa’s high standin’ hereabouts, I reckon they’ll take his word, though.  Don’t fret so, boy.  Your pa’s a strong man.”

“Is he?” Adam asked absently.

“He is.”  Enos pushed Adam’s plate back toward him.  He waited until he saw the young man take a bite and then asked, “You want me to send someone to the preacher?”

“Preacher?”  Adam stared blankly at him.

“Reverend Bennett, over to Washoe City,” Enos amplified.  “That’s where you folks worship, ain’t it?”

Adam shook his head.  “Not Marie; she was Catholic.”

Enos shrugged.  “It’s the livin’ that need comfort, and none of you are Catholic, are you?”

Adam wasn’t sure what he was, but he said, “No, guess not.  Guess maybe we should tell the Reverend Bennett, whether he performs the service or not.  Maybe he could help Pa.”  He rubbed his temple with both hands.  “I don’t even know if her priest would come, anyway, feeling the way he did about her marriage to Pa.”

“Someone ought to ask, I guess,” Enos said, “but that’s not a job for ranch hands, son.  Ought to be family that talks to the priest.”

Meaning me, Adam realized with a groan.

Enos hung his head.  “Sorry, boy.  Wish I could—”

Adam looked up quickly.  “No, don’t feel bad, Enos.  You’ve helped so much, but you can’t do everything.”

The foreman again reached over with a supportive hand.  “Neither can you, boy.  Just you remember that.  Wait ‘til Mrs. Thomas gets here and ask her advice about the church question.”  He stood up.  “I’ll get men posted to Carson and Washoe City and head on up to the lumber camp.  Anybody else you want told?”

Adam started to say no.  Then a face flashed before his eyes.  “Ross,” he murmured.  “I’d like Ross Marquette to know—and to come if he can break free.”

Enos nodded, understanding the young man’s need of a friend to lean on.  “He’ll come,” he said confidently.

“Adam.”

Adam turned at the sound of the plaintive voice behind him and saw Hoss standing on the stair landing, bare legs protruding from beneath his blue-striped nightshirt.  “Hey, buddy,” he called.  “Sleep okay?”

Hoss rubbed at his eyes.  “I reckon.  Is it okay to come down?  I’m kinda hungry.”

Adam smiled sympathetically.  “I’ll bet you are.  Come on down, and we’ll get you fixed up.”

Enos stood up.  “I’ll see myself out, Adam, and I’ll tell Hop Sing the youngun needs some breakfast on the way out.”

“Thanks again, Enos.”  The words came easily this time, for the foreman’s help had been sincerely appreciated.

Hoss padded hesitantly across the room and took the chair that Enos had vacated.

“Little Joe still asleep?” Adam asked, taking another bite of his own breakfast.

“Yeah.”  Hoss twisted the hem of his nightshirt as one foot twined around the chair leg.  “I kinda thought it was all a bad dream ‘til I saw him sleepin’ in my bed and it all came back.”

Adam stared out the window across from him, behind the chair where his father normally sat.  “I had a moment like that myself this morning, when it didn’t seem real.”

“Yeah?”  Hoss looked surprised.  Adam had seemed so calm the night before, like nothing, however bad, could set him off-balance—just like he seemed now, poking in eggs, one bite after another, as if nothing had changed.  “Don’t seem right, somehow, to feed my face when . . . when . . .”

Having eaten enough to satisfy his hunger, Adam pushed his plate away and leaned forward to touch Hoss’s arm.  “I know how hard it is, buddy,” he began, but stopped when Hoss jerked away.

“You don’t know nothin’!” Hoss snapped.  “She wasn’t your ma; you didn’t even want her!”

“Hoss!” Adam cried, shocked.  “How can you say that?”

“I remember,” Hoss sputtered.  “I ‘member you pullin’ down my ma’s picture from the mantel—the one up in heaven—the other one up in heaven, I mean—and you said—”

“I know what I said,” Adam returned sharply.  Then he fought down his indignation at the accusation—all too deserved in those difficult early days, though it hadn’t come then—and forced himself to speak gently.  “I really hurt you back then, didn’t I, Hoss?  And I never said I was sorry, but you must know I was.  It took me a lot longer than you, but I loved her, too.  I”—Adam turned away, not wanting Hoss to see the tears filling his eyes.

He looked up when he felt a light touch on his elbow and glanced back to see Hoss standing beside him.  “I’m sorry,” the younger boy said.  “It did hurt, back then, when you was so mean to her, but I know you changed.  I just never heard you say you loved her, Adam, so I didn’t figure you was hurtin’ much as me and Joe.”

Eyes shimmering, Adam turned around and caught his solidly built little brother around the torso.  “Oh, Hoss,” he croaked and let the tears unashamedly roll down his cheeks.  She never heard it, either.  Oh, Mama!

The two brothers clung to each other, heart speaking to heart, until Hop Sing came in and placed a plate of hot bacon, eggs and biscuits before Hoss, as well as sliding a biscuit onto Adam’s plate.

Though he had thought his appetite assuaged, Adam couldn’t resist the appeal of that hot bread.  Taking his knife, he split the biscuit and slid a slice of butter into the fluffy center.  “Hoss, I hope you won’t ever say anything again about the way I treated Marie when she first came,” he said as he waited for the butter to melt.  “I had changed by the time Little Joe came along, and I don’t want him ever to know that I felt that way about his mother.  He wouldn’t understand, and it would hurt him badly, worse than it did you then.”

“I won’t tell,” Hoss promised.

“Thanks.”  Adam took a bite of biscuit, chewed and swallowed.  “I really appreciated your help with him last night, Hoss, and I’m gonna need to lean on you for awhile.  It’s gonna be up to you and me to help Little Joe—and each other—because Pa’s so upset himself he just can’t.  You know how much he loved Marie . . . Mama.”

Mouth full, Hoss just nodded.  He swallowed the bite of egg.  “You want I should go up and sit with Little Joe ‘til he wakes up, so’s he won’t be alone?”

Adam smiled in appreciation, but he shook his head.  “No, you just finish your breakfast, and then you can go upstairs and get washed up and dressed.  If Joe’s not awake by then, I’ll come up and stay with him awhile.  You need to take care of Klamath and see if any of your other chores need doing.”

“Guess they all do,” Hoss chuckled.  “I ain’t done a one yet.”

“Hank said he’d take care of things out there,” Adam explained, “but he might have missed some of the little chores, like gathering eggs, for instance.  Just check and see.”

“Okay.”  Hoss washed his meal down with a tall glass of milk and trotted upstairs to change.

Adam took advantage of the brief break between responsibilities to get out of the clothes he’d slept in all night and to have a quick shave, a little too quick, he decided when he cut a place beneath his right ear.  Wearing only his brown slacks, he held a towel to his jaw, to stop the bleeding.

Hoss peeked in through the open doorway. “Little Joe’s stirrin’ around some, but still sleepin’,” he reported.

“Okay, I’ll see to him,” Adam said.

“You okay?”

“Little nick, that’s all.”  Adam dabbed at the cut, glad to see the towel come away clean this time.  “It’s nothing, Hoss, not even bleeding now.”

“Okay.  I’m gonna find Klamath,” Hoss said.

Adam nodded and tossed the towel down beside his washbasin.  He drew on a clean tan shirt and took a pair of dark socks from the top drawer.  Staring at them, he shook his head.  No, not yet.  He couldn’t bear the thought of putting anything on his feet yet, not after sleeping in boots and socks all night.  Grabbing up his boots, he took them and the socks into the opposite bedroom and set them in the floor beside the bed.

He smiled down at his little brother, lying sprawled on his tummy with one of what Nelly Thomas called “cuddle critters” tucked under his right arm and one resting above his head on the pillow.  Who’s missing? Adam asked himself.  Oh, Bun-bun.  Now, where could that little rabbit be hiding?  He lifted the sheet, the only cover remaining over Little Joe, and pulled the missing member of Joe’s menagerie from beneath his brother’s small foot.

He tucked the animal under Little Joe’s arm, holding his breath as his little brother squirmed a little, but then settled back into sleep.  Arms reaching toward the wall behind him, Adam yawned widely.  Maybe it wouldn’t hurt to lie down a few minutes, just ‘til Joe wakes up.  Might even do me some good.  Stretching out on top of the covers, Adam laid his head on Hoss’s pillow and closed his eyes.  His long lashes lifted for a moment when he felt Little Joe cuddle up against him, but seeing that the child was still asleep, he lowered them again and drifted off himself, one hand resting on his brother’s soft curls.

To Adam, it felt like only moments before a hand was shaking his shoulder.  Alarmed by the unfamiliar touch, he jolted awake and bolted upright.

Disconcerted by the reaction, Hop Sing took a step back.  “So solly, Mr. Adam,” he murmured, eyes lowered, “but thought you want know Mr. Ross come.”

Adam quickly swung his legs over the side of the bed.  “Oh, thanks, Hop Sing.  I’m glad you woke me.”  He bent over to snatch his socks from the floor, unfolded them and began to slip one over his right foot.  “Tell him”—he stopped, looking anxiously back at Little Joe.

“You want Hop Sing stay with little boy?” asked the cook, discerning the young man’s concern.

“Would you?” Adam requested.  “He probably won’t sleep much longer, but I don’t want him to wake up alone, not this first day.”  The hardest day.

“Hop Sing stay.”  The Chinaman pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down.

“Thanks.”  Adam hastily pulled on his boots and hurried downstairs.  He saw Ross sitting on the settee.

“Hey, Adam,” Ross called softly.

“Hey, Ross,” Adam returned.  He walked over and sat down next to his friend, and for several long minutes neither spoke.  Finally, Adam said, “I hope it didn’t put you out, asking you to come.”

“Naw, not a bit.  Didn’t have a thing to do but chores.”  Ross grinned a little.  Then, remembering the soberness of the occasion, his smile faded.  “Sorry.  Didn’t mean to make light.”

“That’s what you’re here for,” Adam returned gently.  “Just having you here makes the load a little lighter, Ross.”

“Glad I can be, then,” Ross said, relaxing.  “Ma wanted me to wait ‘til she had a chance to cook up some grub to send, but I wanted to come straight off, and—wonder of wonders—Pa sided with me.  Said I’d been sent for, and it wasn’t right to dawdle at a time such as . . .”  His voice tapered off, as he hesitated to bring up any reminder of the tragedy that had brought him here.  Suddenly, he leaned forward, folded hands dropping between his legs.  “Doggone it, Adam.  I ain’t much help for such as this, but I’d sure like to be.”  He turned to face his friend.  “Just tell me what I can do.”

Adam leaned his head against the back of the settee.  “Just stay . . . close,” he whispered.  “It’s hard right now”—he licked his lips—”and I think it’s gonna get worse before it gets better.”

“Yeah,” Ross murmured, thinking of the difficult days after his own brother’s death.  “Yeah, you got that right.”

Hop Sing appeared at the top of the stairs, holding Little Joe, nightshirt-clad and barefoot.  “Little boy want brother,” he said, deliberately failing to mention that Adam had been the third name the child asked for.

Adam got up at once and, meeting them at the foot of the stairs, took Little Joe in his arms.  “Morning, baby,” he said, pressing a light kiss to his brother’s cheek.  “You had a nice long sleep, didn’t you?”

Little Joe said nothing, just laid his head on his big brother’s shoulder and popped his thumb in his mouth.

As he had the night before, Adam calmly removed it.  “That’s not something”—he broke off abruptly, for he had been about to finish by saying “something Mama would like to see.”  Starting over, he said gently, “That’s not something big boys do, Little Joe.”

With a trace of typical defiance, Little Joe put the thumb right back, sucking noisily.

“Oh, all right,” Adam sighed, moving toward the settee.  Evidently, the baby was finding some comfort in that thumb, and he didn’t want to make a battle over its removal.  He had battles enough to fight already.  Shrugging at Ross, he sat down beside his friend.

“Hey, there, little fella,” Ross said, brushing the tangled gold-brown tresses.

Momentarily distracted, Little Joe looked up.  “Hey, Ross.  Why you here?”

Ross cut a quick glance at Adam.  “I just come for a visit.”

“Oh.”  Little Joe looked around the room.  “Where’s Hoss?” he demanded.

“Outside,” Adam answered.

Little Joe peered intently into his older brother’s eyes.  “He not go heaven?” he asked, his voice tiny and trembling.

Adam clutched the child to his chest.  “No, baby, no.  Hoss is just outside with Klamath.”

“Wanna see,” Joe insisted.

“Okay.”  Adam stood up and walked to the front door, whispering soothing words in the baby’s ear.

When the two brothers had passed outside, Ross looked up at Hop Sing.  “Boy, this is gonna be one tough day.”

Hop Sing nodded and moved toward the kitchen, the swish of his soft slippers the only sound in the room.

Feeling uncomfortable alone in the great empty room, Ross stood up and after pacing a bit, followed his friend outside.  On the porch to the left he spotted the three brothers, Little Joe clinging desperately to Hoss’s neck and Adam standing over them like the guardian angel in a picture Ross had seen in his mother’s Bible.  Ross moved to the porch and rested a hand on Adam’s shoulder.  Adam looked across at him, eyes full of gratitude for the silent support.

Both young men turned at the sound of hooves and wheels behind them.  Adam immediately moved toward the buckboard driven by Katerina Montgomery, and Ross, sensing that his friend might want to speak to the lady alone, asked, “Hey, Hoss, you taught that pup any tricks?”

“Aw, Klam ain’t much for tricks, Ross,” Hoss admitted with a shrug, but he glanced up with a proud little smile as he added, “He can  fetch right smart, though.”

“Sure like to see it,” Ross said.  “Let’s go find us a good throwin’ stick, what you say?”  He scooped up Little Joe and headed off toward the trees behind the house, Hoss trotting alongside.

Katerina threw her arms around Adam as soon as he helped her down from the wagon.  “Oh, Adam, it’s a terrible thing!  I’m so sorry.”

Adam instinctively closed his arms around the young woman, but his movements were awkward, stiff.

Sensing his discomfort, Katerina moved out of his embrace and cupped his elbows in her slender palms.  “How are you holding up, Adam?  How’s your pa?”

Adam ignored the first question and answered the second.  “He’s not doing well.  It’s like—like the way he was on the trail after Inger . . .”

And that makes it harder on you, my young friend, Katerina surmised, but not wanting to embarrass Adam, who was so obviously trying to hold his own emotions in check, she kept the thought to herself.  “I remember,” she whispered simply, blue eyes filling with compassion.

“He hasn’t even left his room this morning, hasn’t eaten.  Maybe I should try to get him . . .”

“No,” Katerina advised.  “You have enough on your shoulders, Adam, from what Enos told me.  There’s others your pa might listen to quicker.  Let them help.”

Adam nodded in appreciation of the advice.  Smiling slightly, he said, “Let me help you, then, if that food’s intended to go in the house.”

“It is.”  Katerina took the lightweight basket herself, letting Adam lift the small crate.  “It’s not much, just what I could put together on short notice, mostly leftovers from . . .”  She tapered off, not wanting to mention the quilting bee yesterday for fear it would bring back to mind the tragic end to that gathering.

“We don’t need food, really,” Adam said as he walked toward the kitchen door.

Katerina forced a light laugh.  “Oh, Adam, you need it more than you know!  The way Ben Cartwright is thought of in the territory, there’s bound to be people in and out over the next few days, and you can’t send them home hungry, distances being what they are.”

Adam smiled ruefully.  “You’re right; I wasn’t thinking.”

“And good as Hop Sing is, he won’t be able to keep up alone.”  She touched his arm with her free hand.  “Don’t worry.  I’m here to help, whatever you need, and there’ll be others, too, I know.”

Adam nodded as Katerina opened the door and held it for him.  There would be others, ready and more than willing to lend a hand: Enos and Katerina, Clyde and Nelly, Billy if they could get word to him, Ross, Doc Martin, the preacher and the Ponderosa hands.  Though his heart was still heavy, Adam took comfort in the long list of friends he could call on.

Hop Sing looked up from the stove as the two young people walked in.  “Oh, Missy Kat’lina, velly good you come.”

Katerina set the basket on the work table and turned to smile at him.  “Why don’t you just call me Kat, like Enos does, Hop Sing?  It’s easier.”

Hop Sing cocked his head, looking to Adam for confirmation.  “Dat all light?”

“It’s respectful, since she asks,” Adam assured him, recognizing the real concern behind the Chinaman’s query.

Hop Sing smiled in relief.  “All light.  Missy Kat, den; dat be easier.”

Katerina stepped to the stove.  “And I’m here to make things easier any way I can.  What are you cooking here, Hop Sing?”

“Little Joe bleakfast,” the cook replied, pouring batter into the hot skillet.  “Where little boy, Mr. Adam?  Food ‘most leady.”

Adam moved toward the kitchen door.  “I left him on the porch with Ross and Hoss.”  The sound of a giggle stopped him in his tracks.

Katerina was trying to stifle the merry sound behind her fingers.  “Ross and Hoss,” she choked out when the others continued to stare at her.  “I’m sorry, Adam, but it struck me funny, the way it rhymes.”

Adam grinned, drawing fresh strength as the lighter moment blew away some of the heavy shroud of gloom that had hovered over the house since the evening before.  He opened the door, intending to call to his brothers, but frowned when he saw the empty porch.  “Now, where could they have gone?” he muttered.

Katerina spun around.  “Oh, didn’t you see?  They went around the side of the house, Adam.”

“Thanks.”  Adam stepped outside, shutting the door and headed across the yard.  As he rounded the corner into the side yard, he could hear his middle brother calling out encouragement to Klamath, and following his ears, he found the trio of boys with the dog at the back of the house.  He snatched Little Joe from behind and lifted him onto his shoulders for a piggyback ride.  “Time to come in and eat,” he replied to the child’s squeal of protest.

Not having eaten the night before, breakfast sounded good to Little Joe, and he went willingly, especially since his playmates trailed along behind.

Adam ducked as he went through the doorway into the kitchen.  As he lifted the child over his head, he noticed the dirty bare feet and the dusty hem of Little Joe’s nightshirt and shook his head.  Marie never let her baby play outside barefoot, and she prided herself on keeping him neat and clean.  “You are a mess,” Adam said as he set Little Joe down in a chair next to the worktable.  “I can see brother will need to give you a bath first thing.”

“Oh, let me do that, Adam,” Katerina offered.  “I’d love to, really.”

Realizing that the doctor and sheriff might arrive before he could finish the task, Adam started to agree, but he was caught up short by the response of his youngest brother.

“No, thank you, Aunt Kat,” Little Joe said politely.  “I wait for Mama.  Mama always give me my bath.”

Everyone in the kitchen stared at the child, and Katerina’s fingers flew to her lips.  “Oh, Adam,” she murmured.  “I thought you’d told him.”

“I did,” Adam said.  He squatted beside his youngest brother’s chair.  “We talked about this last night, remember, Little Joe?  You remember that Mama went to heaven, don’t you?”

Hop Sing quietly slid a plate with two hotcakes in front of the child and poured syrup over them.

Little Joe at first ignored his brother, but when Adam posed the question again, he looked up.  “I ‘member, but she be back soon.”

Adam caught his brother’s left hand, the one holding the fork.  “Little Joe . . .” he began.

Hop Sing interrupted with a hand on the young man’s shoulder.  “Let little boy eat,” he stated firmly.  “Den talk mo’.”

Recognizing the wisdom of that suggestion, Adam stood, nodding his agreement to the cook.

“How come Little Joe gets flapjacks and all I got was eggs and bacon?” Hoss demanded, a petulant frown on his face.

Arms akimbo, Hop Sing stared at the large child.  “Boy want mo’ food, all he have do is ask.”

“I want flapjacks,” Hoss muttered grumpily.

“Sit down,” Hop Sing said, pointing at the second chair by the table.  “I fix.”

Ross tossed an impish grin at the Chinese cook.  “Does that offer go for bigger boys, too?”

“Hop Sing never be through wi’ bleakfast this rate,” the little Oriental muttered, feigning disgruntlement, although he was actually pleased to see his cooking appreciated.  “I fixee mo’ flapjack fo’ you, Mr. Ross, but no mo’ chairs here.  Go dining loom, please.  Missy Kat want, too?”

“No, thank you, Hop Sing,” the young German woman replied with a smile.  “It’s only boys who have hollow legs.”

“Velly hollow, all-a-time empty.”  Hop Sing turned back to the stove, smiling as he emitted a string of Cantonese phrases that sounded fierce, but were really words of supreme satisfaction.

Ross headed for the dining room at once, and Katerina herded Adam that direction, too.  “I want to ask you something about the boys,” she whispered.  When the three young people were seated at the dining table, she leaned close to Adam.  “Have Hoss and Little Joe seen her yet?”

“The body?”  Adam shook his head.  “No.  I—I haven’t even done that myself . . . since she was out in the yard, I mean.  I don’t know if . . .”

“It might help,” the girl suggested.  “I remember when Papa died along the trail, it just wasn’t real to me ‘til I saw him, lying there so still.  I was older than Little Joe, of course—closer to Hoss’s age now—but it might help, Adam.  It’s obvious the poor baby doesn’t understand.  He thinks she’s just on a trip.”

“Believin’ what he wants to believe,” Ross put in.  “Kinda went through that myself when my brother was took.”

Adam closed his eyes, wondering where he’d find the strength to get through this day that just seemed to get harder and harder with each passing minute.

“I could do it,” Katerina offered hesitantly.

Adam shook his head.  “No, it needs to be”—Pa, he thought, glancing toward the staircase; it needs to be Pa—“me,” he finished, knowing with certainty that no help would descend those stairs.

“I think that’s best,” the girl admitted.  “Do it as soon as they’ve eaten, Adam, and then I’ll take Little Joe up for his bath.”

“Little boys almost done.”  Hop Sing slid a plate of hotcakes in front of Ross.  “I fixee bath light away, Missy Kat.”  Not waiting for thanks, he shuffled soundlessly back to the kitchen.

A couple of minutes later Hoss walked in, holding Little Joe by the hand.  “Hop Sing said you wanted to see us, Adam.”

Adam reached out and Hoss moved into the circle of his arm.  “Would you like to see Mama?” he asked.

“Mama back?” Little Joe asked, eyes lighting up.

Adam gently touched the child’s tousled curls.  “No, Little Joe.  That’s not what brother meant.”  He looked back at Hoss and saw the boy’s Adam’s apple move up and down as he swallowed hard and then nodded.  “Come on, then.”  He took one brother in each hand and moved toward the bedroom, which opened into the dining area.  He turned loose of Hoss’s hand to open the door and let his middle brother go in first.

There was no holding Little Joe back, though, when he saw his mother’s face on the pillow.  Jerking free, he ran to the side of the bed and patted her arm.  “Wake up, Mama,” he cried happily.  “I need bath.”

Hoss stopped at the foot of the bed, biting his lip anxiously and looking to Adam for guidance.

“Give me a minute,” Adam told the older boy and squatted down to put an arm around the four-year-old.

“Make Mama wake up, Adam,” Little Joe begged.

Adam smoothed the child’s rumpled hair.  “I can’t, baby.  Mama isn’t just sleeping; she’s gone away—to heaven.”

“No, Adam,” the little boy protested, patting her cheek.  “Mama here.”  He frowned at the coldness of her flesh.  “Mama cold, Adam; need blanket.”

Adam sat down on the rug beside the bed and pulled Little Joe into his lap.  “A blanket won’t help, baby.  Mama isn’t really here anymore.”  He lifted Marie’s hand.  “This is just the house that Mama used to live in, but she doesn’t live in it now.”  He let the hand fall to the mattress to illustrate the lifelessness of the empty shell.  “Mama has a new house to live in, up in heaven, a brand new body that won’t ever get sick or hurt again.”

Hoss crept close and sat down next to Adam.  “I understand what you mean, Adam, but I don’t think he does, do you, punkin?”

Little Joe wagged his head back and forth.  He pointed to his mother.  “That not house.  This house.”  His hand swept around the walls and toward the ceiling.

“Naw, that ain’t what Adam means.”  The youngster fought for words the baby would understand.  “It’s like this, punkin: we got two parts, an outside and an inside.”  He lifted Little Joe’s arm and ran his index finger up and down it.  “This here’s your outside part, the part we see, and it changes all the time—like when you grow or get scratched up or dirty—and it can get hurt and sick.”  He placed his hand over his younger brother’s heart.  “But you got a part inside, too, punkin, that don’t change like that.  It’s the real you, the part that thinks and feels and loves and . . . just  . . . is.”  He looked up at the bed.  “That’s Mama’s outside part there, but her inside part went on to heaven, so she don’t need this outside part no more and just left it behind.”

“Mama’s inside part come back?”  Little Joe, chin quivering, looked to Adam.  “Please?”

Blinking back tears, Adam shook his head.  “She can’t, baby.  She would if she could ‘cause she loves you so much, but once the inside part leaves, it can’t get back in the outside part.  It’s like a door that’s locked, and only God has the key.”  Too symbolic, he chided himself.  Keep it simple, like Hoss did.  Not really knowing what else to say, though, Adam pulled the child close to his chest and, feeling the slight form start to tremble, he murmured, “Go ahead and cry, baby.  Let it out.  Don’t keep the hurt inside.  Let it all out and don’t take any of it back in.  You’ll feel better.”

Slowly, Adam could feel his youngest brother begin to shake with noiseless sobs, and finally the tears came, dampening his shirt front.  Adam rocked back and forth on the floor, encouraging the child to cry, not realizing until this moment that Joe hadn’t done so before.  The child had reacted the night before with anger and demands, but no healing tears.  Katerina was right, Adam realized; it wasn’t real to him ‘til now, maybe not fully yet, but it’s coming.

As the sobbing slowed down, Adam pulled his little brother back and peered into the reddened eyes.  Wiping away the last trickling tears, he asked, “Now, how about that bath?”

“Aunt Kat?” Little Joe asked, and when Adam nodded, he did, too.

Adam stood up and lifted the child into his arms.  He looked down at his other brother, still sitting quietly in the floor, gazing at the face on the pillow.  “Hoss, you okay?”

Hoss turned to look at his older brother.  “Can I stay awhile longer, Adam?”

“You can stay as long as you want.  Let me give Little Joe to Katerina, and I’ll come back and stay with you.”

“Can’t I be alone with her, just a little while?” Hoss demanded.

Shocked by the anger coming from gentle Hoss, Adam laid a comforting hand on the sandy head.  “Sure, buddy, if that’s what you want.”  He carried his baby brother through the door, closing it behind him, and handed the boy to Katerina.  Then he went upstairs to exchange his damp shirt for a dry one.

As soon as the door closed, Hoss moved closer to the bed and got up on his knees to prop his elbows next to his mother.  “Ma?” he whispered.  “I know you ain’t in there no more, but I figure you ain’t gone far yet, so I’m just gonna talk to you like you was still here, okay?  I just wanted to tell you one more time that I love you, and I always will.  You wasn’t always my mama, but I ‘member the day you came, and it was the happiest day ever.  Guess this is ‘bout the saddest.  I miss you somethin’ awful, Ma.”

He lowered his head to the covers and cried for a while; then he lifted his head and gazed lovingly at her face once more.  “I’m gonna grow up good, just like you’d want, Ma,” he promised, “and I’m gonna do my best to help Little Joe grow up good, too.  I won’t never let nothin’ hurt him, leastways if I can help it.  He’s hurtin’ now, Ma, and I don’t know ‘xactly how to make it stop ‘cause I’m still hurtin’, too, but I’ll try.  I promise you, I’ll try, and Adam’ll help, too.  He did love you, Ma, even if he never said it.  I thought you oughta know.”

Hoss sat back on his heels and wiped away the tears, satisfied that he’d said what needed to be said and that his mother had heard him.

* * * * *

A soft smile touched Adam’s lips as he breathed in the sweet smell of his freshly bathed baby brother.  Dressed in clean clothes, Little Joe was nestled in his lap, damp curls resting on his chest, while Hoss was huddled up against his side on the settee.  Ross was sitting quietly in the mauve armchair to their left, not wanting to intrude on the peace of that scene or the comfort the brothers obviously were drawing from each other.  Katerina and Hop Sing were at work in the kitchen, baking pies against an onslaught of well-wishers, and upstairs the Reverend Bennett was trying to bring some consolation to the distraught head of the family.

Ross sprang to his feet when three solid knocks sounded on the front door.  “I’ll get it.”  He moved across the room with long strides and opened the door.  “It’s Doc Martin,” he called over his shoulder.  As he caught sight of the square-built man with a badge pinned to his chest, who stood behind the doctor, he added softly, “and a lawman, but it ain’t Sheriff Blackburn.”

Closing his eyes, Adam took a deep breath and stood up, still holding Little Joe, and moved toward the door.

Hoss scrambled up from the settee and rushed toward the man who had always been more friend than doctor to him.  “Pau-pau,” he sobbed, falling back on the name he’d used in childhood as he threw his arms around Paul Martin.

Paul knelt at once and took the boy in his arms, looking up at Adam and the child he was holding with silent compassion.

“Which of you is the Cartwright boy?” the unknown law officer asked, eyes moving from Ross to Adam.

“I am,” Adam replied.  “Please come in, sir.  Would you care for some coffee?”

“Coffee would go well after that dusty ride, son,” the deputy replied.  He chuckled.  “I’ve always felt a certain kinship to a drink named after me.”

“Sir?” Adam queried.

“Coffee,” the lawman explained with a wry grin.  “That’s my name—Roy Coffee.  Just signed on as deputy to Sheriff Blackburn, who’s indisposed this afternoon, you might say.”

Paul Martin snorted, but said nothing, not deeming this the right time to discuss the foibles of the local sheriff.  Indisposed, indeed!  Once the most respected lawman in the region, John Blackburn had taken to heavy drinking, and the doctor had patched up more than one prominent citizen in Carson City who had aroused the sheriff’s unruly temper.  He’d even heard that Blackburn had shot a prisoner, arrested on some minor offense, for failing to quit singing when ordered.  The last thing the Cartwrights needed to deal with in their grief was a man of Blackburn’s erratic temperament, and Dr. Martin had been pleased to learn that the new deputy sheriff would be handling the investigation.  Though he’d had no contact with the deputy prior to their riding out here together, that brief acquaintance indicated Coffee to be a decent, fair-minded man.

“I’ll tell Hop Sing,” Ross offered.  He reached for Little Joe.  “How ‘bout I take the younguns outside for a spell?”

Paul Martin stood up.  “That would be best, I think, all things considered,” he said, his hand still resting on Hoss’s sandy head.  “Go help Ross with Little Joe now, son,” he urged, “and we’ll visit more later.”

“Okay, Doc,” Hoss said, wiping his shirt sleeve across his eyes.  He followed Ross, who was carrying his younger brother, into the kitchen, Ross delivering the request for coffee as they passed through.

Following Adam’s gesture, Deputy Coffee moved around the settee and took the seat Ross had recently vacated.  “First, let me say I’m sorry to be bothering you at such a time as this, son.  I’ll keep it as short as possible, but there are a few questions that need to be asked.”

Adam sucked in his chapped lips and made a conscious effort to relax as he worked them out again.  “I understand.”

Roy Coffee absently scratched his chin.  “I’ve asked the doctor here to act as coroner, so if you’ll tell us where the body is, he can get right to his examination.”

Adam inclined his head toward the room behind him.  “In there.”

Dr. Martin rested a supporting hand on the young man’s broad shoulder for a moment and then made his way into the downstairs bedroom.

Katerina brought in a tray with three cups of coffee, leaving as soon as she’d set it on the table before the fireplace.

True to his word, Deputy Coffee kept his questioning brief and to the point.  “I’ll talk to the ranch hands you say were around at the time, just to confirm your story,” he said, “although I have no doubt you’ve spoken the truth, son.  I really need to speak to your pa, too, if that’s possible, him bein’ the only one present when the lady was injured.”

“The Reverend Bennett is with him now,” Adam explained.  “If you could wait ‘til . . .”

“Certainly,” the deputy agreed at once, his attention focusing on the doctor as Paul Martin exited the bedroom where Marie lay.  “Were you able to determine the cause of death, doctor?”

Paul nodded grimly.  “Her neck was broken, consistent with a fall from a horse.”

“There’s other ways it could’ve gotten broke, though,” Coffee suggested.

Paul’s nostrils flared.  “Not in this family!”

The lawman raised his hands to ward off the anger.  “That fits with all I’ve ever heard,” he admitted. “Ain’t never heard a bad word spoken about Cartwright in the brief time I’ve been in the territory—to the contrary, in fact—but I try to be impartial when I’m investigating a violent death, doctor.”

“Yes, of course,” Paul Martin sighed as he took a cup of coffee from the tray and sat down beside Adam.  “Certainly, there are other ways a neck can be broken, but the contusion on her right temple, while not conclusive, also confirms a fall.”

“The horse was standing right there; all the men saw it,” Adam sputtered through gritted teeth.

“Exactly why I want to talk to them,” the deputy said.

Heavy steps came down the stairs, and the Reverend Bennett’s head was bowed as if it were as heavy as his tread.  As he came to the ground floor, he lifted sorrowful eyes to Adam’s face.  “I tried,” he said, ‘but he’s a broken man, beyond comfort.”

“I know,” Adam murmured.  “Thank you, sir.”  In response to the minister’s quizzical gaze at the others in the room, he introduced the doctor and the deputy.

“Any reason Mr. Cartwright can’t be questioned now?” Coffee asked, standing to his feet.

The minister shook his head.  “No, but, please, be gentle.”

“Don’t intend anything else,” the deputy said as he moved toward the stairs.

“I’d like to come up with you,” Dr. Martin said, rising from his seat.

“Sure.  Coroner’s got a right.  Might even be helpful,” Coffee replied, and the two men mounted the stairs, one behind the other.

Reverend Bennett moved toward the settee.  “I told your father I’d perform the service, if he wanted,” he said, “and he seemed content with that.  If you prefer another minister, of course . . .”

“No, personally I don’t,” Adam said, “but you know she wasn’t Protestant.  I haven’t had a chance to speak with her priest yet, and, frankly, I don’t know if he’ll agree to come.”

“I realize it’s a complicated situation,” the minister said, laying a gentle hand on the young man’s knee.  “Just let me know what you decide.”  He stood.  “Please let me know when the service will be, at any rate; I will wish to attend.”

“Thank you,” Adam said, standing and moving toward the door to see the minister out.

* * * * *

Paul Martin sat on the side of the bed, strong supportive arm around his friend.  Deputy Sheriff Coffee had asked his questions, few and precise, and left.  Ben, still in his robe though it was almost noon, had barely been able to answer even those simple questions, however, his words mumbled and barely coherent.  Now, with the need to hold up in front of the lawman past, Ben had broken down entirely.

“Why?” he asked through choking sobs.  “Why?  She was everything to me.”

“I know, Ben; I know.”  Paul gently stroked the dark head buried in his chest, like the deputy keeping his words few, knowing Ben probably wouldn’t hear even the ones he spoke, so lost was he in his grief.  Paul remembered back to his first Christmas in what was then Utah Territory, remembered how his friend had reached down into the depths of his own pain over a similar loss, and he wished that he could provide the same sort of comfort Ben had given him then.  Ben had forced him to look that pain square in the eye and come to grips with it, but it wasn’t time for that yet.  This loss was too fresh, too raw, for mere words to soothe, and confrontation was not the answer.  Ben didn’t need talk; he needed a shoulder to cry on.  That Paul could offer, as a friend, but as a doctor he could give more.

He stood and moved to the washstand.  Tearing open a packet of sleeping powder, he emptied it into a glass, poured water from the pitcher into it and stirred.  He came back to the bed and handed the glass to his friend.  “Drink this, Ben,” he said.  “Then lie down and get some rest.”

“Rest?” a blank-eyed Ben babbled, as though the concept were foreign to him.  He glanced at the empty pillow beside his own barely used one.  “Without her?  How can I . . . ever again?”

“Drink this, Ben,” the doctor urged.  “It will help, I promise.”

Obedient as a child, Ben drank.

* * * * *

Ross, who’d been occupying the younger boys with an energetic game of chase, snatched up Little Joe when a buggy pulled into the yard.  Adam had told him more than once about the youngster’s propensity for rushing toward any horse within view, and he didn’t want his friend to have to deal with another nasty accident.

“Hey, it’s Aunt Nelly,” Hoss cried, moving with his usual caution toward the vehicle.

Nelly reined the horse up sharply and opened her arms to the boy who still seemed like a son to her, even though she had relinquished that role to another.  “Sunshine!” she cried as she pulled him into an embrace.  “Oh, my poor Sunshine.”

Tears flushed Hoss’s eyes, but he blinked them back.  “It’s awful hard, Aunt Nelly, but I gotta be brave—for Little Joe.”

Nelly squeezed him tighter, her brown eyes warm with compassion as they fell on the little boy in Ross’s arms.  “The little lamb,” she murmured tenderly.  Accepting Hoss’s help, she stepped down from the buggy and reached up to pat Little Joe’s cheek.  While her feeling for the youngest Cartwright was not quite the same as for the boy she had, in part, helped to raise in his earliest years, her heart went out to Little Joe, so young to bear such a loss.  Just the age of my Bobby when he was took, she remembered.  As she imagined how her little four-year-old might have felt had she been the one taken, instead of him, that connection knit her soul still closer to the little boy in Ross’s arms.

“I didn’t know you had a buggy, Aunt Nelly,” Hoss said.

Nelly smiled down at him.  “I don’t, Sunshine.  I rented this from the livery, just for the day.  Uncle Clyde will be bringing the buckboard when he and Inger come.  He’s ridden out to see if Billy can get free and let some other friends know, and my girl’s cookin’ up a passel of food.”

“Katerina and Hop Sing are in the kitchen, cookin’ up a storm, too,” Hoss informed her.

Nelly gave him another squeeze.  “And I’ll be in there helpin’ ‘em, soon as I’ve had a word with Ben.”

Ross switched Little Joe to his other arm, the left one having grown tired from holding the squirming youngster.  “Adam’s been waitin’ to talk to you, Miss Nelly.”

“Adam?” she asked with a puzzled expression.

“Yes’m.  He’s kind of taken charge,” Ross explained.  “Fact is, I ain’t even seen Mr. Cartwright since I been here; he’s that torn up about”—he cut a quick glance at Little Joe and bit his lip.  “Anyway, Adam wants to talk to you about the arrangements.”

“I’ll go right in,” Nelly said.  “Could you boys see to the horse for me?”

“Sure, ma’am.  Proud to.”

“And, Sunshine, if you could bring my carpetbag in after a while, I’d be appreciative.”  She glanced up at the older boy, for some reason feeling a need to explain.  “I come prepared to stay, figurin’ I might be needed.”

“Yes’m, you sure are,” Ross replied with a smile and a nod.  He plunked Little Joe into the seat of the buggy and moved to the horse’s head to lead him toward the barn.

“Go for ride?” Little Joe begged, leaning forward in an attempt to reach the reins.

“Why don’t you?” Nelly suggested to Ross.  “I ‘spect you’ve had your hands full, keepin’ that one occupied.”

Ross chuckled.  “You know him pretty good, don’t you?  Yeah, we’ll take a short turn around the meadow if you don’t mind.  Don’t want to overtire the horse after his comin’ all the way from Carson.”

Nelly gave his arm a couple of encouraging pats.  “You’re a good, thoughtful boy, and I can see you’re bein’ a big help to your friend.”  She could almost have sworn that Ross Marquette’s shoulders set a little squarer as she moved past him toward the door.  When Adam answered her knock, she wanted to throw her arms around him, as she’d done with Hoss, but even as a little boy, Adam hadn’t seemed to welcome hugs like his younger brothers did.  And now he looked like the weight of the world was bearing down on him.  Tryin’ hard to be a man, bless his heart, Nelly concluded and determined to treat him with the deference due that status.

Walking in, she saw Dr. Martin sitting in the mauve armchair.  “Doc, you lookin’ after Ben?” she asked.  “How’s he holdin’ up?”

“Not too well, Nelly, as I was just telling Adam,” the doctor said sadly.  “I sedated him, so he’d get some rest, but he has yet to touch food since  . . . last night.”  Like everyone else, he found it hard to put the tragic event into words.

“I’ve been wanting to talk to you, Nelly,” Adam said as he directed her toward the settee.

“So Ross said,” Nelly responded, holding her blue calico skirt as she sat down at the right end of the settee.

Licking his lips, Adam sat in the blue chair near her.  “Yes.”  He took a deep breath.  “I talked to Pa last night, and we decided to ask you to advise us about the arrangements.  We both felt you’d be most likely to know how to do things right.”

Dr. Martin’s eyes narrowed in concern for the young man.  Having seen how disoriented Ben was, he had a good idea who had done most of the “deciding” in the conversation last night.

“I’ve had some experience with these things, right enough,” Nelly agreed, “and I’ll be glad to help all I can.  I even took the liberty of packin’ a bag so I could stay over.”

“That’s no liberty,” Adam said smoothly.  “You’re family, always welcome here.”

She smiled and reached over to pat his arm, as much touch as she thought he’d be comfortable with.  “That’s just how I feel toward all of you, too.  Now, I assumed you’d be havin’ the buryin’ tomorrow afternoon; that’s what I’m havin’ Clyde tell all the folks he sees.”

“It shouldn’t wait longer, unless you intend to put the body on ice,” Dr. Martin inserted.

Seeing Adam’s face go gray, Nelly glared at the doctor.  “No need to speak so blunt, there bein’ no real reason to wait longer.  Ben’s brother is too far away to come, at any rate, and tomorrow is just right for friends in the territory to make their way here.  That’s why I went ahead and told Clyde what I did—just usin’ common sense.”

Adam smiled, a trifle weakly.  “See?  We knew you’d handle things just right.”

“About two o’clock seem good to you, son?” Nelly asked deferentially.  “Give folks time to get here and time to make it home ‘fore it gets late, in most cases, and it bein’ Sunday, the minister will be tied up ‘til noon, anyway.”

Adam nodded.  “Two is fine.”

“Next thing is to get hold of the minister then, I reckon,” she went on.

Adam sat forward, dropping his hands between his knees and twirling his thumbs around each other.  “That’s one thing I wanted to ask you about—which minister to ask.”

“Why, the Reverend Bennett, of course,” Nelly said matter-of-factly.

“But Marie was Catholic,” Adam pointed out.  “Shouldn’t I at least ask her priest?  I don’t know if he’ll come, disapproving of the marriage the way he did, but I know that’s who she would want.”

Nelly’s lips set in a hard line.  “You know I don’t hold with Papists, Adam, so to my mind there’s only one man fit to ask, but I understand you wantin’ to show respect to your ma’s wishes.  Most folks hereabouts won’t fancy listenin’ to that Latin drivel, though, and you know it.”

Sighing, Adam raked his fingers through his dark hair.  “Yeah, I know, but I won’t feel right if I don’t ask.”

Nelly’s mouth softened.  “Then do it, boy.  You gotta do what you think is right, and if folks fuss, they fuss.  Those who love you will stand by you, either way.”

Adam nodded his appreciation of her understanding.  “Guess I’d better ride in to Virginia City right away then.  You’ll see to the boys while I’m gone?”

“Now, you didn’t need to ask that,” Nelly scolded gently.

Adam stood.  “I’ll head on out then.  Be back soon as I can.”

“You’ll do no such thing!”

Everyone in the great room turned to see Katerina, standing just outside the entrance to the kitchen with her hands on her hips.  “You will not stir a step ‘til you’ve had your dinner, young man.  Hop Sing and I have a tasty stew bubbling, and it’ll be ready by the time I get this table set.”  Her gaze rested on the woman on the settee.  “Hello, Nelly.  I didn’t realize you’d come yet, but there’s plenty—enough for you, too, Doc.”

“Never crossed my mind to turn you down,” Paul said with a smile, “and she’s right, Adam.  You should eat before you leave.  It’s a long ride, son.”

“Never crossed my mind to turn it down,” Adam responded, smiling in response to the kindness of all these good friends.

* * * * *

The setting was serene: emerald pines thrusting toward the cloudless sky and white-tipped waves, stirred by the gentle breeze, washing the lake shore.  Standing before the open grave, Adam could hear the voice of Reverend Bennett, and somewhere in the back of his mind the words registered.  Like thunder rumbling softly in the distance, though.  Segmented as an earthworm, his thoughts crawled from one concern to another, and he couldn’t follow what was being said, except to acknowledge that the words were gracious.

Riding into Virginia City the day before had been a waste of time, time better spent comforting his little brothers, instead of leaving them in the hands of caring friends, but he’d had to try.  Father Gallagher had been compassionate and kind, but firm in his position that he could not bless the burial of a woman out of communion with the Holy Church.  Adam had understood, had even expected that response, but he ached over it, nonetheless.  He had so wanted to do this one last thing for Marie, to express the love he’d never voiced, but it had been denied him.  Father Gallagher, laying aside his clerical robes, had come as a friend and fellow mourner, which Adam appreciated, but it wasn’t quite the same.  The Methodist-Episcopal minister was doing a fine job, lauding Marie as a god-fearing woman, despite the difference in her beliefs, but Adam still felt that he had somehow failed his mother.

That sense of failure made him all the more determined to fulfill his other responsibilities, and they were legion.  Already today he’d pressed his father to decide on the burial site, had organized some of the hands to dig the grave and had selected six friends to serve as pallbearers: Clyde Thomas, George Dettenrieder, Enos Montgomery, Ross Marquette, Billy Thomas and Mark Wentworth, on a special pass from Ft.Churchill.  He’d welcomed mourners to the Ponderosa, greeting them in place of his father, who had remained in his room until Nelly Thomas finally took the bull by the horns and insisted that he come down to greet the friends who had arrived to pay their respects.

He’d seen to it that his younger brothers were properly dressed in their best suits, although Nelly, who’d spent the night, and Katerina, who’d been back by breakfast time, had managed the actual washing and dressing.  He’d supervised the spread laid on the table at noon for the roomful of people and had made sure that everyone took nourishment, including his father.  He’d also tried, with limited success, to steer his younger brothers away from the ladies who wanted to weep over the poor motherless little things.  Ross and Billy had been godsends in that department, somehow managing to keep Hoss and Little Joe occupied and clean, even when they took the youngsters outside to escape the maudlin cooing of the more melodramatic mourners.  They were both still watching over the younger boys, Billy standing directly behind Hoss and half-hugging him, while Ross stood just to the right, too shy to touch anyone, but close at hand, if needed.

Adam was grateful for their help with his brothers, as he was grateful to Paul Martin, who was standing at Ben’s left hand to offer both moral and physical support.  Adam, at his father’s right, was supporting him, too, his left arm circling the slumped man’s waist, while his right hand rested on Hoss’s shoulder.  I need a third arm, Adam sighed to himself as he glanced down at Little Joe.  Hoss, bless him, was acting as that third arm, though, his chubby arms wrapped around Little Joe’s small frame, holding him steady as the service went on.

Little Joe.  More than to anyone else, Adam’s heart went out to the baby, who was peering from face to face as if searching for someone to help him understand what was happening.  But how could anyone explain the incomprehensible to a four-year-old child?  All the adults around him were still so lost in shock themselves that they had little to offer, and that was true of no one more than Pa.

Adam remembered with anguish the moment when Pa had finally come downstairs.  Little Joe, who had been wandering from person to person, accepting their pats on the head and hugs, had seen his father descending the stairs and had scrambled up to the landing with an ecstatic cry.  Pa, however, had only given him an absent-minded pat on the head, briefer by far than the ones mere friends were doling out, and the little boy’s face had crumpled.  As he gathered the stricken baby into his arms, Adam had glared at his father, but the anger died when he looked into those vacant velvet eyes.  Pa wasn’t ignoring Little Joe; he wasn’t even seeing him.

The words ended, shaking Adam from his reverie, and one by one friends dropped a handful of earth onto the wooden coffin resting in the rectangular hole.  Little Joe looked puzzled, as if he couldn’t understand why people were throwing dirt at his mama.  When it came time for the family to say their farewell, Adam stooped down beside his youngest brother and trickled a little dirt into the tiny palm.  “To say goodbye,” he whispered.  “We’ll come back another time and plant some flowers in the dirt.”

“Mama likes flowers,” Little Joe whispered back.  “Yellow and blue ones best.”

Adam nodded and held the child’s hand over the open grave, uncurling his fingers so the earth would spill out.  He noted with gratitude that Ross and Billy were flanking Hoss as he performed the same rite.  Lifting Little Joe, he placed him in Billy’s arms and turned back to his father, who was standing, much as Little Joe had, just staring at the dirt-dusted coffin.  “Time to say goodbye, Pa,” he said, feeling almost as if he were dealing with a child of Joe’s age.

He didn’t, at least, have to put the dirt in his father’s hand.  Ben nodded half-heartedly and bent to gather a handful for himself.  Dribbling the dirt down into the grave, he stood staring into its depths until Dr. Martin led him away.

* * * * *

The house was finally quiet, but Adam still couldn’t sleep, despite feeling completely exhausted by the events of the day.  Being surrounded by people ‘til dark had left him no time for contemplation, and now that they were gone and he had time, he couldn’t silence his thoughts, no matter how much he needed sleep.  So many people.  Somehow, he hadn’t expected such a large turnout for Marie’s funeral, hadn’t realized until then just how respected his father was in the larger community.

They’d come from every stratum of society: the high and the low, everyone from newly arrived Territorial Governor James Nye, with politically ambitious attorney Bill Stewart hugging his side; to their neighbors, Eilley and Sandy Bowers, who had risen from humble beginnings to become some of the Comstock’s first millionaires; to Touqua, the lean-fleshed Washo Indian who worked the Ponderosa whenever he got hungry enough.  There had been a large representation of Ponderosa employees, many of whom had known, admired and even loved his stepmother, but a number of the newer workers at the lumber camps had come, as well, some of whom had probably never even met Marie.  They’d come for Pa, though, and while Pa had barely acknowledged them, their support must surely have bolstered him.

It had been a largely male gathering, partly because the Territory itself was still largely male, but other than close friends and neighbors, the female population of Nevada had stayed away in droves.  Marie had stirred ill-will among that segment of the community: some from simple envy of her beauty, some because of her Southern origin during this time of war, a few because she was Creole and in their view racially inferior, a few more due to religious differences and others because of her championship of social outcasts like Julia Bulette, who had, thankfully, had the good sense to stay away today, if she even knew.  Adam’s thoughts went back to the Fourth of July, to Marie’s fiery insistence that she would never leave a friend behind.  That’s the kind of woman you spurned, he fumed at those hoity-toity ladies of Virginia City and Washoe Valley, who hadn’t wanted to sully their reputations by associating with Marie, even in death.  You weren’t fit to kiss her feet.  And what about yourself, Adam Cartwright? he scolded.  You didn’t deserve her, either.  You were the first to spurn her.  He threw his arm across his forehead.  I tried to make it right, Mama.  I didn’t say it as clearly as I probably should have—didn’t really know how and still don’t—but you knew, didn’t you?  Oh, God, I hope you knew!

Adam bolted upright in bed as a sharp cry cut through the silence.  His bare feet hit the floor, and he instinctively hurried across the hall into his baby brother’s room.  Little Joe was thrashing with the covers, most of which were tangled around his lower legs, and he was crying aloud for his mama, alternating that plea with screams of “No, don’t!”

“Baby, baby,” Adam whispered, picking the child up and holding him against his chest.  “Shh, it’s all right, baby,” he soothed as he gently patted his brother’s back.

Little Joe pulled back, blinking his eyes and looking into his brother’s face.  “Adam?”

Adam moved to the rocking chair near the open window and sat down.  “It’s all right, baby,” he said again.  “I think you were having a nightmare.”

“Nightmare?”  Little Joe cocked his head in puzzlement over the unfamiliar term.

“A bad dream,” Adam explained.  “Did something scare you in your sleep?”

Little Joe’s head bobbed up and down.  “Dark, Adam.  Cold.  Mama don’t like it in the box in the ground.  Too dark, too cold.”

Adam stroked his brother’s tousled curls.  “Mama’s not in the box, remember?  Only her outside part.  Mama’s in heaven, remember?”

“Not in the box?”  The question was a plea for reassurance, and Adam quickly gave it.  “Mama like heaven, Adam?”

“I’m sure she does,” the older brother replied.

“She miss me?”

“I’m sure she does,” Adam said again, “but she has God to comfort her, just like you have me and Hoss and”—he stopped before mentioning Pa, recalling that their father hadn’t been of much comfort to anyone so far.

Little Joe didn’t seem to notice the omission as he snuggled closer to his brother, slipping his thumb in his mouth.

“Ready to go back to bed now?” Adam asked.

Little Joe shook his head violently from side to side.

Adam didn’t want to rush the little boy, but he hesitated to stay in the rocking chair for fear that he would fall asleep and lose his grip on the child.  “Want to come to my bed?” he asked.

The thumb came out, and Little Joe smiled as he nodded.

“Okay.”  Adam stood up and carried his youngest brother into his own room, pausing only a moment to glance down the hall.  You’d think Pa would have heard his baby screaming.  Marie would have, Adam was sure.  But maybe only a mother’s ear stayed cocked for sounds of her baby’s distress.  To be sure, Hoss was still snoring away, and his room was right next door.  Maybe Pa just hadn’t heard.  It was far better to assume that than to think that his father might have heard and just not come.

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

Bittersweet Birthday

            As the copper sun started to sink below the evergreen-fringed ridge to the west, Adam rode toward home at a walk, slumped over his saddle horn, so bone-tired that just sitting upright seemed tantamount to scaling some sheer rock face reaching straight up to the sky.  Marie had been buried a week now, and it had been the hardest week of  his life.  Oh, he’d thought life was hard right after Inger’s death, but this was worse.  The sense of loss had been more devastating back then because he’d opened his heart wide to the gentle Swede, and she’d filled it with all the love he’d ever dreamed of in a mother.  He hadn’t been as open with Marie, maybe out of some sense of not needing a mother at his age or maybe, if he looked deep enough, out of fear of losing her, too, if he cared too much.  And now, as if to fulfill that foolish fear, he had.  Maybe the fear hadn’t been so foolish, then; maybe love did lead inevitably to loss.  It seemed to in this family.  In all families eventually, of course, but it shouldn’t come so soon.  Love should last a decade or two, at the very least, shouldn’t it?  But it hadn’t.  Not for him, not for Pa, nor for Hoss or Little Joe.  They’d had Marie the longest, but even she had left them after five brief, mostly blissful years.  For all of them, the time with the ones they loved had been short—much, much too short.

It wasn’t the grief, though, that made this death harder to deal with; that was no greater than before.  It was, rather, the crushing burden of responsibility that had been thrust upon him overnight.  He’d been a child when Inger died, and while he’d tried to bear some of the load, especially in caring for Hoss, that had been child’s play compared to shouldering the entire responsibility of running a ranch as diverse as the Ponderosa had become.  Up before sunrise and home after sunset had become the pattern of his days, as Adam struggled to keep the far-flung ranch operations afloat.  Jake Webber had virtually taken over for him at one lumber camp, but Adam still hadn’t found anyone he could rely on that completely at what had been his father’s camp.  So he was spending a lot of time there, fielding questions, making work assignments, solving problems and confronting troublemakers.  Thankfully, there hadn’t been too many of them—so far, at least.  Adam thought he saw signs of trouble brewing, of men who didn’t appreciate working for a boy when they’d signed on under a man, but he couldn’t afford to borrow tomorrow’s troubles.  He had enough to deal with today.

Enos was handling the cattle operation efficiently, but it was still necessary to meet with him every day or so, to discuss any changes needed in the regular routine, and while he trusted the foreman implicitly, the men working under him needed to see the boss from time to time, to keep up morale, if nothing else.  The young boss, Adam corrected himself with a wry smile, employing the title Enos had used the morning after Marie’s death.  Scant chance they’ve got of seeing the real boss anytime soon.

Every time Adam tried to arouse his father’s interest in the ranch, he ran head-on into a blank wall of indifference.  “Whatever you think best, son,” was becoming a standard answer to any question.  Adam was tempted to scream back, “I don’t know what’s best, Pa!”  But he never did.  It would be like slamming his fist into the midriff of the scarecrow staked in Hop Sing’s garden, for Pa seemed almost as lifeless as a man made of straw.  He staggered around the house in a haggard daze, rarely bothering to change out of his dressing robe, forgetting to wash and shave unless reminded, and he never remembered to eat unless someone set a plate in front of him and urged him to take nourishment.

Hop Sing and Hoss had been dividing that chore between them, and Adam felt terrible about it, as if he were foisting off on others responsibilities that should have been his, but he had no one else to turn to.  As Enos had so wisely told him that first day, he couldn’t do everything, and Adam was forced to admit the truth of that every morning when he reviewed all he needed to accomplish that day.  Like it or not, he had to rely on the resources available to him.  For watching over Pa and Little Joe during the day, Hop Sing and Hoss were the only resources he had, but sometimes Adam felt as if he’d dumped the dirtiest chores of all on those willing shoulders.

Hop Sing had always felt free to scold any member of the family not doing justice to meals, but even he spoke tentatively to Pa now, urging rather than demanding, as if fearful of breaking an egg already cracked.  And often—far too often, to Adam’s way of thinking—Hoss was acting as caretaker to his father, instead of the other way around.  The youngster was almost full-time caretaker for his younger brother, too, although Hop Sing was beginning to loosen up his rigid sense of respectful relationship between employer and employee enough to provide some personal care for the youngest Cartwright and let Hoss have a little time off.

Hoss had made it plain that he wanted to work alongside Adam, that he enjoyed being up at the lumber camp and didn’t like hanging around the house and yard all the time.  He’d been looking forward to working the ranch all through his school term, and he didn’t appreciate being deprived of a reward he felt he’d earned.  He’d understood, of course—or said he did—when Adam told him that he was doing the most important job of all in taking care of Little Joe.  Much as he loved his baby brother, though, Hoss didn’t relish tending him all the time and hadn’t been shy about expressing his frustration to his older brother.

Adam didn’t blame him.  He could remember all too well how he’d felt as a boy of seven, washing out dirty diapers in the shallow waters of the Humboldt River as their wagon skirted its meandering shore.  Seven—or even ten, as Hoss was—was simply too young to take on the full responsibility for a younger child.

Suddenly, Adam jolted upright in the saddle.  Ten, had he said?  Hoss would be eleven any day now, and no one, Pa least of all, had given the slightest thought to planning a celebration.  Not that any of them felt like celebrating, but Hoss deserved something to make his day special, something to lift the sadness for one day, at least.

Adam shook his head.  Planning a celebration meant trying to talk to Pa, and he had a feeling Pa’s answer would be that same standard “Whatever you think best, son.”  He urged the black gelding to a quicker pace, not admitting ‘til this moment that the slow gait had been a result of his reluctance to go home.  For if the days were hard, the nights were worse.  After supper they’d all gather in the great room, as before, but the evenings weren’t as they’d been before, warm times of sharing the experiences of the day or just relaxing in one another’s company.  Adam tried to make the hour after the meal a pleasant one for his brothers, playing checkers with Hoss or reading a story to Little Joe, but it seemed harder each day because each day he felt more exhausted.  All he really wanted to do after the evening meal was drop down in his blue armchair and let every muscle go slack.  Most nights, he was too tired even to read.

It wasn’t the unrelenting weariness that sullied evenings at home, though.  It was the silence.  Pa just sat in his chair, staring into the fire, saying virtually nothing, and Hoss spoke only in hushed, hesitant tones when their father was around.  With Little Joe, it was worse.  The first few days he’d been unnaturally quiet, drawn into himself in a way that seemed totally alien to the active four-year-old.  Then a couple of nights ago the baby had evidently decided to take matters into his own hands and try to force things back to the way they’d been before.

Sitting in his father’s lap had been a nightly ritual as long as the child could remember, but not once since his mother’s death had he been snuggled and cuddled at the end of the day.  That night Little Joe had climbed into Pa’s lap to claim the attention he craved, and for the briefest moment Pa had permitted it.  Then, staring into those iridescent emerald eyes, so like Marie’s, tears had started to fall down Pa’s cheeks, and he’d gingerly set the child in the floor and rushed up the stairs to his room.  Adam had cradled his heartbroken baby brother in his strong arms until Little Joe cried himself to sleep.

There’d been another nightmare that night, and Adam had taken his youngest brother into his bed for the third time in a week.  The next morning the damp sheets told Adam that sucking his thumb wasn’t the only childish behavior to which Little Joe had reverted.  He’d talked it over with Dr. Martin, who’d stopped by early that morning after an all-night vigil at a neighbor’s home, and learned that backtracking like that wasn’t uncommon when little children were upset.  “Don’t be surprised if his language development takes a step back, too.  Be patient with him,” the doctor had urged, “and he’ll get over it as he becomes accustomed to the new situation.”

Adam sighed as he made the final approach to the house.  Last night there had been an even more traumatic confrontation between Ben Cartwright and his youngest son.  Little Joe was nothing, if not determined, and he had once more attempted to take his accustomed place in his father’s lap.  Ben reacted at once this time, setting Joe down.  “Not tonight, baby,” he’d whispered hoarsely.  “Pa’s tired.”  And he’d turned back to gazing into the fire.

Fire in his eyes, Little Joe had slapped his father on the knee, and Adam had held his breath, wondering how Pa would react.  Taken by surprise, Pa had stared at the impudent little face and then turned slowly away.

Little Joe’s jaw dropped, and his eyes widened in disbelief that the act of disrespect was being ignored.  Then, in what was clearly an attempt to make Pa jealous, he’d climbed up onto the settee and into Hoss’s lap.  Ben didn’t even turn around.

Hoss had looked to Adam for guidance and at his older brother’s encouraging nod, he pulled Little Joe into an embrace and spent the rest of the evening cuddling the little boy.  Joe had soaked up the petting like a thirsty sponge, but every few minutes Adam would catch him looking toward that lonely figure in the chair and a little more light would fade from those expressive eyes.

As Adam rode into the yard and dismounted, the door to the bunkhouse opened, and one of the hands walked out.  “Stable your horse for you, Mr. Adam?” the wiry young fellow asked.

“Yeah, Lou, I’d appreciate it,” Adam said, handing the young man the reins.

“You sure been keeping late hours, boss,” Lou offered.

“Yeah,” Adam said.  And even that wouldn’t be so bad if I could sleep soundly at night.  Little Joe had ended up in his bed again last night, and Adam had been awakened when he rolled over to discover that his nightshirt was sopping wet on the side next to his baby brother.  Not wanting to change the sheets in the middle of the night, he’d tossed off both his own garment and Little Joe’s, picked the baby up and carried him across the hall.  He’d wrapped the sleeping baby in a blanket and crawled into Joe’s pint-sized bed with him, but that had been a mistake.  Joe didn’t take much room, but even without his baby brother, Adam’s long frame would have been cramped in that small space.  Little Joe had giggled—a rare and precious sound these days—when he woke up and realized that both he and his big brother had been sleeping naked.  Adam, on the other hand, had awakened with a groan, stiff in his limbs and with an aching crick in his neck.  Nothing like a miserable night to set a man up for a frustrating day, he’d moaned to himself, and whether the prophecy was self-fulfilling or not, “frustrating” had turned out to be a perfect description of how today had gone.

Adam opened the front door and came inside, plunking his hat on one of the pegs to the left and unbuckling his gun belt.  He hadn’t unfastened the first notch, however, when an odd sound caught his ear, and he glanced over to see Little Joe standing upright in the middle of the wooden table before the fireplace, stomping his little feet, eyes glued to his father’s face.  It was another obvious bid for attention, but Adam couldn’t afford to just stand back and watch to see what developed, not when the child might fall and injure himself at any moment.  He dashed around the settee and snatched Little Joe up in mid-stomp.  Not, however, before that small foot sent the bowl of apples on the table crashing to the floor.

“Uh-oh,” Little Joe said, darting a peek in his father’s direction.  “Gonna be nes’ry talk now, I guess.”

You little imp! Adam thought.  That’s exactly what you want.  The anger rising within him, however, wasn’t directed at the baby, for he understood the desperation that made his little brother willing to take a spanking just to have some kind of contact with Pa.  And Pa was just sitting there, staring at the boy, seemingly without a clue that what he was really seeing was a cry for help.

Suddenly, the pent-up frustration and anger came surging out.  “Were you just gonna let him?” Adam demanded as he clutched the child to his chest.  “Or don’t you care if he gets hurt?”  He regretted those words a moment afterwards.  Not for his father’s sake.  Pa deserved them, but Little Joe shouldn’t have heard any suggestion that his father didn’t care about him.  There was no calling the words back, however, so Adam just stood his ground, glaring at his father.

Ben looked up, through a haze of confusion.  “No, I—I”—he broke off, his thoughts too fragmented to complete the sentence.  “I’m sorry, son.”  He slumped forward, dropping his face into his hands.

Hop Sing, who had heard a crash, scuttled in from the kitchen and, seeing the apples scattered across the floor, grabbed the bowl and started to pick up the fruit.  “What happen here?” he scolded.  “Hop Sing no have time fo’ foolishment.”

“Little Joe kicked it over,” Adam explained.  “Where’s Hoss, Hop Sing?”

“He not here?” the little cook asked, eyes darting around the room.  “He here befo’, Mr. Adam.”  He set the bowl of apples back on the table and wagged a finger at Little Joe.  “No mo’ foolishment, little boy.  Velly bad boy.”  Muttering in Cantonese, he scurried back to the kitchen.

“Bad boy,” Little Joe echoed, nodding his head soberly, as he looked intently at his father.  Seeing Pa’s face still buried in his hands, the little boy then glanced anxiously up at Adam.  “Nes’ry talk?” he whispered, his expression fearful this time.  He clearly didn’t want a spanking if it were to be his big brother administering it.

Adam kissed the soft cheek.  “Maybe,” he said, “but not with you, sweet baby.”  To comfort Joe, he put the boy over his shoulder and rubbed up and down his back.  Then  Adam looked toward his father and raised his voice.  “Pa?”  When there was no response, he spoke still more sharply.  “Pa?  Where’s Hoss?”

Ben looked up.  “I . . . I don’t know.  I should know, shouldn’t I?  A father should know where his sons are . . . but I . . . don’t.”  His eyes were troubled as he glanced around the room, as if searching for his middle son.

The front door opened, and the missing family member walked into a whirlpool of concern.  “Where were you?” Adam demanded.  “You’re supposed to be watching this baby.”

“I been watchin’ him,” Hoss protested.  “All day I been watchin’ him.  Ain’t I even got the right to traipse to the outhouse when I need to?”

Adam winced in chagrin.  “Sure you do, Hoss.  Sorry I snapped.”

“Aw, that’s okay, Adam.”  Quick to forgive, Hoss came close to his brother.  Planting both hands on his hips, he frowned at Little Joe.  “Okay, punkin, what mischief did you get into that’s got Adam so riled?”

“Climb on table, kick off bowl, bad boy,” Little Joe explained, hanging his head in what Adam was sure was false shame this time.

“You’re a mess, all right,” Hoss said.  “Can’t turn my back a minute, can I?”  He looked up at his older brother.  “I’m sorry, Adam, honest.”

Adam tousled his brother’s sandy hair.  “No harm done, Hoss.  I hate to impose again, but could you take Little Joe upstairs and get him cleaned up for supper?”

“Yeah, sure,” Hoss said, reaching for his younger brother.  He gave the little boy a bounce as he headed toward the stairs.

“And Hoss?” Adam called as his brothers started up.  “Keep him up there ‘til I call you to supper.”

“Huh?  Oh . . . okay.”  Hoss wasn’t sure why Adam wanted them out of sight for a while, but he responded with trust.  Hopefully, it wasn’t anything as bad as the last time Adam had told him to keep Little Joe upstairs.  No, it couldn’t be.  Nothing could be as bad as losing Ma, like they had that night.

Adam tucked his hands in his back pockets and licked his lips as he surveyed his father, who was again staring into the flickering fire.  No time like the present, I guess, he told himself as he moved around the table and sat on the end closest to his father’s chair.  “Pa?  We need to talk.”

“What?”  Stirred from his melancholic musings, Ben turned slowly toward him, moisture glistening in his eyes.  “I haven’t done too well by you boys, have I?”

No, you haven’t, Adam accused silently, but he only said, “You aren’t doing too well by yourself, either, Pa.”  He took a deep breath and plunged in.  “Look at yourself, Pa.  Here it is time for supper and you’re still puttering around in your robe and slippers, and you didn’t shave today, either, judging by the length of that stubble.”

Ben rubbed his spiny jaw.  “I . . . I forgot, I guess.”

Concern etched deeply in his features, Adam leaned forward.  “Don’t you think you’d feel better, think clearer, if you did make an effort to clean up—and to get out some?  Fresh air would do you a world of good, Pa.”

Ben smiled weakly.  “Fresh air.  It does sound inviting.”

Adam’s ebony eyes sparkled with hope.  “A world of good, Pa,” he repeated.  “Why don’t you get dressed in the morning and have one of the men saddle a horse for you after breakfast?  Ride up toward the lake, smell the pines.”

Ben nodded.  “Yes.  I—I might do that.  But not—not the lake—not near there.”

Not near her grave, he means, Adam realized.  “Anywhere you like, Pa,” he urged.  “Just get out and about.”

“Yeah.  Yeah, maybe.”

Seeing his father’s attention start to drift away again, Adam spoke quickly.  “Pa, that isn’t what I needed to talk to you about.”

Ben blinked, as if trying to focus on his son’s words.  “I—uh—I know I’ve been leaving a lot in your hands these last few days.  Are—are you having problems with the ranch, son?”

Yes!  Adam wanted to scream the word, but he had a more important concern to deal with tonight.  “Nothing urgent,” he said, “but I just realized this evening that there’s a special day coming up next week.”  He waited, hoping his father would make the connection on his own.  When Ben didn’t, Adam said softly, “Hoss’s birthday.”

Ben looked startled.  “Oh.  I—I hadn’t realized, either.”

Adam edged forward.  “Don’t you think we should make some plans?”

“Plans?”  Bewildered, Ben shook his head.

“To mark the day,” Adam explained.  He couldn’t bring himself to use the word “celebrate.”

“There is a gift.  She—she saw to that, and I’m sure she had something in the works for the boy, but”—Ben sucked in a s