HERITAGE OF HONOR

 

Book Two

A Dreamís First Bud

 

 

by

Sharon Kay Bottoms

CHAPTER ONE

 

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

††††††††††††††† Ben turned and looked at the cabin behind him, smiling in remembrance. A year ago to the dayóóNovember 1, 1850óóhad been a special day, too, though Ben hadnít known that then. That was the day he and Clyde Thomas had started felling logs to build this cabin. They planned it to be only a temporary home, a place to survive the winter until they could continue on to their true destination in California. Ben laughed softly. No one could have told him that November morning a year ago that heíd already reached his true destination, that western Utah would become his home. But Ben had fallen in love with this land, the pine-forested hills to the west even more than the fertile bottomland here along the Carson River.

††††††††††††††† When Ben made his decision to settle east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, he assumed he would continue to live in the cabin he and Clyde had built. But when he offered to buy out Clydeís share, Ben discovered that the Thomases also wished to remain. Ben was never sure whether Clyde and Nelly had reached that decision independently or whether they simply hadnít wanted to leave him behind. Regardless, Ben was glad they were staying, though he wasnít about to consider spending another winter under the same roof. Too much closeness strained the best of friendships, even as warm a one as he shared with these companions of the Overland Trail or the one his older son Adam enjoyed with young Billy Thomas.

††††††††††††††† Clyde and Nelly hadnít argued with Benís desire for a place of his own, and thereíd been only brief discussion about what to do. The Thomases would keep this cabin along the Carson River, while Clyde would help Ben build another wherever he chose. Once their joint trading post had closed for the season, theyíd worked on the Cartwrightsí new home. Now it was ready. Today Ben and his boys would move, and tonight Ben would sleep under his own roof for the first time in a year and a half.

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed again. It was longer than that! That roof in St. Joseph hadnít belonged to him anymore than the myriad of boardinghouse roofs beneath which he and Adam had slept while making their way west. Ben had, in fact, never slept beneath a roof of his own. He and Adamís mother Elizabeth, daughter of a New England sea captain, had rented their cottage in New Bedford. And, except for the year they had spent in Missouri, Ben and his second wife Inger had slept primarily under a tent beside their covered wagon.

††††††††††††††† Benís brown eyes clouded as he looked northeast. He couldnít, of course, see beyond the piŮon-dappled mountains to the lonely grave by the Humboldt River where Inger lay buried, but she still felt close to him, perhaps because she, like Elizabeth, had left a son to carry on her memory. Hoss didnít look a great deal like his mother, but her Swedish heritage was evident in his blue eyes and straight, wheat-colored hair. And, more importantly, his open face showed he had inherited her loving nature. Even at fifteen months, Hoss was a big-hearted boy. Big in every other way, too. Inger had named their son Eric, after her father, but the boyís size demanded a name as big as the mountains. The one Ingerís brother Gunnar had suggested (and Adam had insisted on) had eventually been adopted by everyone, even Inger herself.

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

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

††††††††††††††† Clyde Thomas, having never forgotten or forgiven the way Mormons gouged him (his opinion) for ferry passage over rivers on their overland journey, grunted whenever their neighbors were mentioned. Ben, however, liked Reese. He seemed an honest man, even if his prices were higher than Ben considered justifiable. Still, his and Clydeís werenít that much lower, for the cost of freighting goods over the Sierras had to be taken into consideration. No, despite Clydeís opinion, Reese was a good man, a hard-working man, a man who looked to the future. Unlike Mormon Stationís previous owner, Reese evidently intended to stay.

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

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

††††††††††††††† Sandy Bowers was another who had come as a teamster with Reeseís party and stayed to prospect for gold. Bowers was as unlearned as Finney, but Ben couldnít help liking the big eighteen-year-old with the booming laugh. Everyone, even Clyde Thomas, liked Sandy. Like Finney, like the other miners, Sandy rarely found more than enough gold to buy his daily ration of beans and bacon, but he was perpetually optimistic about the bonanza he was sure to uncover with the next swing of his pickax.

††††††††††††††† Ben hadnít gotten well acquainted with the other miners in the area, but that didnít seem to matter now. Most of them had gone over the mountains the previous month before snow blocked the passes. By the time Ben returned from his final trip to Sacramento for winter supplies, Carson Valleyís population had dropped to a fraction of its summertime peak. Ben had hoped to persuade his brother John to winter here with him and his sons, but on reaching Placerville, he learned that John had heard of the discovery of gold in New South Wales and joined the transoceanic rush to the new field. Ben shook his head, wondering if it was really the lust for gold that drove John or his craving for salt spray in his face. Unlike Ben, John had never shaken loose the wanderlust of his youth. Ben couldnít understand how a man with a wife and boy he hadnít seen in close to three years could set sail for a distant land, but he and John had always been different.

††††††††††††††† "Pa! Pa!"

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

††††††††††††††† Ben scooped Adam up in his muscular arms. "Well, youíre up early," he said, giving the boyís blue suspenders a teasing yank.

††††††††††††††† "You, too, Pa," Adam said. "I guess weíre both pretty excited about our new place, huh?"

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

††††††††††††††† "Just Miss Nelly," Adam reported. "I think sheís fixing some food to take with us."

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Morniní, Ben," Nelly said softly. "Up early, ainít you?"

††††††††††††††† "You, too," Ben chuckled.

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

††††††††††††††† "Appreciate it," Ben said, "but I do wish youíd quit worrying, Nelly."

††††††††††††††† Nelly sighed. How could she help worrying? Ben could take care of himself and Adam, she supposed. But a baby? Thereíd been no persuading Ben to leave Hoss here with her, though. "Now, Iíve written out a bunch of my best receipts," Nelly told Ben, "and Iíve done my best to make them clear enough for even a man to make out. You follow them, Ben, and youíll do all right. I donít want to hear of you feediní these younguns nothiní but bacon and biscuits like you was on the trail."

††††††††††††††† Ben responded by giving her a smart salute. "Yes, maíam!" he promised. "Turnips and taters at every meal."

††††††††††††††† Nelly wagged a finger beneath his broad nose. "Hush your sass," she warned. "Youíll be teachiní these boys your ornery ways."

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

††††††††††††††† From the bed in the front room came a long, lazy yawn. "You talkiní about me?" Billy drawled.

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

††††††††††††††† Billy sat up and frowned, his freckled cheeks bulging out. "Whyís everybody always jumpiní on me?" he demanded.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, nobodyís jumpiní on you," his mother scolded. "Get on up and get the cow milked, boy."

††††††††††††††† "You see to ours, Adam," Ben ordered.

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

††††††††††††††† "No fair!" Billy hollered, swinging his legs over the edge of the bed and grabbing for his trousers. "Youíre already dressed."

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

††††††††††††††† Yawning and scratching his tangled auburn hair, Clyde came around the canvas curtain that separated his and Nellyís sleeping quarters from the rest of the cabin. "Youíre sure noisy critters this morniní," he muttered. Nelly stopped stirring the pumpkin she was stewing long enough to give her husband a good morning kiss.

††††††††††††††† Clyde clapped Ben on the back. "Well, the big dayís finally here, is it?"

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "The day you get shed of me, you mean?"

††††††††††††††† Clyde frowned, his blue eyes narrowing. "Ainít what I meant and you know it."

††††††††††††††† "I know," Ben said, "and nowís as good a time as any to tell you both how much Iíve appreciated your hospitality this last year."

††††††††††††††† "Now, Ben, this was your cabin, same as ours," Nelly chided, arms akimbo.

††††††††††††††† "Sure," Ben agreed, "but it wouldnít have been a home without the touches you added. Iíll always have good memories of this place."

††††††††††††††† "You sound like you was leaviní forever," Clyde snorted. "Last I heard, you was gonna be back in a couple of days."

††††††††††††††† Ben guffawed. "Thatís right! I canít bear being away from Nellyís cooking longer than that." The three friends enjoyed the private joke. While the Cartwrights were leaving today to establish their own home, everyone knew Ben and Clyde would be working together on a number of projects, so theyíd all see each other frequently. And Nelly had insisted on a standing invitation for Ben and his boys to share Sunday dinner each week. "Canít abide not seeiní my Sunshine at least once a week!" Nelly had declared.

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

††††††††††††††† After a heartier than usual breakfast, Clyde helped Ben load his share of the supplies in the wagon, while Adam and Billy brought the Cartwrightsí personal possessions from the cabin. There werenít many, so it was soon time to leave.

††††††††††††††† Nelly gave Hoss a parting hug and handed him to his father. Hoss crowed merrily when Ben bounced him on his arm, but his blue eyes clouded as his father carried him away, and one plump hand stretched over Benís shoulder back toward Nelly Thomas. Hoss wasnít really old enough to understand what was happening. Though Adam had tried to explain it for the last two days, Hoss only understood that changes were taking place. Sensing the sudden quietness of the child, Ben held him more tightly and pressed a kiss against his chubby cheek. "Itís all right, son," he whispered. "Weíll see them again soon." The promise seemed to satisfy Hoss, who squirmed around to see where they were going instead of where theyíd been.

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

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

††††††††††††††† Adam frowned up into his fatherís face. "I miss Billy," he said.

††††††††††††††† Ben tousled the boyís black hair. "Here, now; none of that," he teased. "Youíll have us all turning around if you keep that up. Besides, you and Billy will be seeing each other again in just a couple of days."

††††††††††††††† "Tomorrowís Sunday," Adam pointed out. "Miss Nelly said we could come to dinner every Sunday."

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

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir," Adam mumbled.

††††††††††††††† "Weíll be there early Monday to help lay the floor," Ben reminded Adam, "and if I know Miss Nelly, sheíll save some of her special Sunday pie for us."

††††††††††††††† "Pie!" Hoss chirped happily. It was one of his favorite words.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, you and your pie," Ben teased, tickling the babyís ribs. Hoss squealed with delight.

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

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

††††††††††††††† Ben suppressed the urge to laugh. Showing Hoss around the small cabin should take all of five minutes, maybe less. "Sure, Adam," he said, lips twitching. "Give him a good tour. Iíll be through soon and weíll unload the wagon."

††††††††††††††† Adam took Hossís plump hand in his slender one. "Come on, Hoss," he said. "Wanna see your new bed?"

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

††††††††††††††† Adam lifted Hoss over the threshold and gave the puncheon floor a solid stomp with his brown shoe. "See, Hoss, weíve got a good, strong floor," he pointed out. "Thatís something the old place didnít have." Adam knew he wouldnít be able to claim that distinction for long, though. Flooring the Thomasesí cabin was first on the list of projects his father and Mr. Thomas would be working on together.

††††††††††††††† Hoss flopped on his rear and began to pat the smooth wood. Adam frowned and hauled the child to his feet. "No, Hoss," he commanded. "You canít sit right in the doorway. Besides, thereís more to see."

††††††††††††††† As Adam led the way into the main room, Hoss toddled contentedly after him. "Thereís the fireplace," Adam said, pointing to the recess in the west wall, near which sat a rocking chair. "You remember to stay away from fire, donít you, Hoss?"

††††††††††††††† Hossís fat chin bobbed up and down. Heíd learned that lesson well. Fire was hot; so was Miss Nellyís new cook stove, though Hoss didnít know the word for the new piece of furniture that had been installed only a few weeks before.

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

††††††††††††††† With both palms flat, Hoss patted one of the benches. "Eat," he said.

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

††††††††††††††† Hoss didnít respond. Curtains, wallsóóit was all the same to him. He toddled toward the bed with a rush of steps and grinned as he rubbed his face against the patchwork coverlet.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "You stay put when I put you somewhere!" Adam scolded. "What if I hadnít pulled out this mattress? Youídíve cracked your noggin!"

††††††††††††††† Hossís grin faded. He didnít understand what Adam meant, but the reproachful tone was unmistakeable. His lower lip started to tremble.

††††††††††††††† "Donít cry," Adam soothed, sitting down next to the baby. "Iím not mad, Hoss. I just donít want you to get hurt. You have to mind brother, remember?"

††††††††††††††† Hoss wrapped pudgy arms around Adamís middle. "Bubba," he chortled. Adam grinned and gave the little lad a tickle. Hoss responded, as usual, with a giggle.

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

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, he does, Pa," Adam reported.

††††††††††††††† "And how about my big boy?"

††††††††††††††† "Big boy!" Hoss chirped.

††††††††††††††† "No, not you," Ben said, bending over to pinch the toddlerís plump belly. "I meant Adam."

††††††††††††††† "I like it, too, Pa," Adam said, "but itíll be lighter once we get the windows in. I donít see why we have to do all that work over at the Thomases first."

††††††††††††††† "Because Miss Nelly is a lady, son," Ben explained. "Getting a house just right is important to a lady. It wonít take long to get them fixed up, though; then Mr. Thomas will help us put in our windows."

††††††††††††††† Hoss pulled on Benís pantsí leg. "Eat!" he demanded.

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

††††††††††††††† "I wanted to get my things put away," Adam pouted.

††††††††††††††† "It wonít take that long," Ben scoffed, "and heíll get less underfoot with food in his hand."

††††††††††††††† Adam laughed. "Thatís for sure!"

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

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† From the wagon Adam grabbed a knobby flour sack and hurried back to the blanket. "Want your toys, Hoss?" he grinned as he emptied the sack onto the blanket. Wooden blocks rained down, along with a carved squirrel, bird and deer. Hoss crowed happily and snatched up the bird, his favorite. He started to put its wing in his mouth, but Adam pushed the fat hand down. "No, no; donít eat," he cautioned. Then, using one end of the flour sack, he wiped Hossís face and hands clean of the butter. "Thatíll have to do until I fetch some water," Adam said. "Now, can you play here with your toys while brother unpacks?"

††††††††††††††† Hoss didnít respond verbally; he was too busy making his bird fly through the air. Satisfied, Adam went back to the wagon, intending this time to move his spare clothing indoors.

††††††††††††††† "Youíre doing a good job of watching our boy, Adam," Ben said proudly as he lifted another sack of cornmeal from the wagon.

††††††††††††††† Adam squared his shoulders. "Iím trying, Pa," he said. "Hoss minds me pretty good, but Iím not always sure he understands."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Heís still a baby, Adam. Believe me, itís wiser to assume he doesnít. Just keep watching him like youíre doing. Iím going to need your help more than ever, son, now that we have our own place."

††††††††††††††† "Iíll do my best, Pa," Adam promised.

††††††††††††††† Walking toward the shed, Ben smiled. He knew Adamís word could be relied on, and it was one of the qualities he most admired in his young son. There were grown men who didnít have half his eight-year-oldís measure of responsibility and integrity.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Good," Ben said, interpreting that one word as an affirmative response, "Ďcause Miss Nelly fixed us a fine dinner here, Hossóófried squirrel, stewed pumpkin and plenty of fresh bread on the side. Iíll fry some potatoes to go along with that."

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

††††††††††††††† When Adam returned with the water, Ben saw to it that everyone was washed and ready by the time dinner was hot. They said grace and dug in, each knowing that supper wasnít likely to be as tasty or as filling. Ben was a fair cook, but he had a long way to go before he could feed his boys as well as Nelly Thomas had for the past year. Ben sighed and resolved to study the recipes Nelly had sent after the boys went to bed. He wasnít confident the results would compare favorably with hers, even if he followed her instructions to the letter, but he was determined to keep his boys well nourished. He owed that to their mothers.

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

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded. "Sure, son, but youíll need to go outdoors. Itís too dark in here with no windows."

††††††††††††††† "Canít I light a lamp, Pa?" Adam wheedled.

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "No, son; Pa tried to buy plenty of lantern oil, but itís not a good idea to squander it this early. Weíll need it more this winter when we canít sit outside."

††††††††††††††† A soft whimper drifted through the bedroom door. "Bubba," Hoss called. Adam frowned. Heíd been watching Hoss all morning and felt he deserved some time to himself.

††††††††††††††† Reading the boyís thoughts in his expression, Ben gave Adamís shoulder a consoling pat. "Heíd probably quiet down quicker if youíd lie down next to him awhile," he suggested. "Iíd do it myself, but I need to work on getting a supply of firewood laid in."

††††††††††††††† "Okay," Adam sighed, "but heíd better get to sleep fast or Iíll read him a page out of the New England Primer."

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir!" Adam replied enthusiastically. "More about King Henry, please, Pa."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Yeah, well, I guess it makes sense to read Part II after Part I, son. Henry the Fourth it is, then." Ben opened the big book and laid it on the table by the coal-oil lantern. Adam sat down in the rocker and pulled Hoss into his lap. As he listened to his fatherís cello-toned voice reading the words of the immortal bard, Adam rocked his baby brother. Hoss didnít understand a word of the play, of course, but he found his fatherís voice soothing and his brotherís lap as good a place as any to snooze.

CHAPTER TWO

 

 

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

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

††††††††††††††† Adam charged up to his friend and both headed inside.

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

††††††††††††††† "Yes maíam," Adam replied. "Pa fixed pancakes and bacon."

††††††††††††††† "Didnít burn Ďem too bad, did he?" Clyde cackled.

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

††††††††††††††† "All that proves is that they were hungry," Nelly teased, reaching for the baby in Benís arms. "Hello, Sunshine. You gettiní enough to eat at País house?"

††††††††††††††† "Eat!" Hoss cried, falling into Nellyís arms.

††††††††††††††† Nelly laughed. "Weíll eat later, Sunshine. Aunt Nellyís planniní a big dinner come noontime."

††††††††††††††† Ben raised a thick, dark eyebrow. "Aunt Nelly now, is it?"

††††††††††††††† Nelly blushed. "Well, I guess I was takiní liberties. You folks sure seem close as kin, though, so maybe I can be excused."

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled warmly. "Nelly, I never had a sister of my own, but Iíd be proud to call you thatóówhich would, of course, entitle you to be my boysí aunt."

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

††††††††††††††† Clyde chuckled. "I reckon, but just by marriage, it seems."

††††††††††††††† "Clyde!" Nelly scolded, turning apologetically to Ben. "Trust my man to take funniní one step too far."

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

††††††††††††††† Nellyís face flamed redder than her sonís hair. "High time the both of you quit flappiní your tongues and went to work," she chided, "if you plan on finishiní this floor today."

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled and nodded his acceptance of the admonishment. He moved toward Clyde. "Looks like youíve made a good start," he said, his hand sweeping toward the doorway Clyde had cut in the cabinís north wall, against which Benís and the boysí beds had stood when they all lived together.

††††††††††††††† "Come on through and see what Iíve done," Clyde said.

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

††††††††††††††† "Still plenty to do, Ben boy," Clyde chuckled. "Or should I say ĎBrother Bení?"

††††††††††††††† Ben grinned. "Iíll answer to either, and even quicker to the dinner bell."

††††††††††††††† "Ha!" Clyde snorted. "Missiní your sisterís cookiní already, ainít ya?"

††††††††††††††† "Oh, yeah," Ben said. "Tell me where you stowed my ax, and Iíll get to work splitting logs."

††††††††††††††† "In the smithy," Clyde replied.

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

††††††††††††††† "Well, now, IóI got to make sure you and the boys eat proper once a week, donít I?" Nelly stammered.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "You wonít hear me complain. Someday, though, Iím going to have to invite you to my place, so you can see weíre not really dying of malnutrition over there."

††††††††††††††† "Lands, I didnít meanóó" Nelly began, then stopped when she saw Ben smile at her. He was teasing. "Would you say the blessing, Ben?" she asked instead of completing her apology.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "All right, greedy belly," Ben said, chucking the little fellow under his chubby chin. "Goodness knows, Iíll get no chance at dinner Ďtil youíve had yours!" Feeling not an iotaís guilt, Hoss just grinned.

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

††††††††††††††† "Weíre gonna need to move everything out of here before we can go much further," Clyde said. "Hope that stove donít take all day to cool down."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, it wonít," Nelly said. "I cooked everything at the fireplace except the pies, and they were done early."

††††††††††††††† "Good thinking, Nelly," Ben said.

††††††††††††††† Nelly laughed. "You donít know how I been longiní for a real floor, Ben. Iíve had everything planned out in my mind for days."

††††††††††††††† Clyde forked another pickle onto his plate. "What she means is sheís all set to boss the job."

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

††††††††††††††† As soon as dinner ended, Nelly put the boys to work clearing the table. "Take all the dishes outside," she ordered, "well away from the cabin. Iíll wash Ďem up once the men get started."

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

††††††††††††††† "Might as well," Ben agreed.

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

††††††††††††††† Theyíd been working for about an hour when Nelly poked her head through the cabin door. "Rider cominí," she announced. "Looks like John Reese."

††††††††††††††† Clyde stood and limped to the door. The leg that had taken a poisoned arrowóólike the one that had killed Benís wife Ingeróóhad never been as strong after that. Clyde had gotten used to the limp, though, and those around him barely noticed it any more. Stepping outside, Clyde shaded his blue eyes with a bronzed hand. "Yup, itís Reese," he said. "Wonder what he wants."

††††††††††††††† Ben followed Clyde out and stood waiting until John Reese reined in a chestnut gelding. Reese tipped his felt hat to Mrs. Thomas, but didnít dismount. "Howdy, maíam," he said.

††††††††††††††† "Howdy to you, Mr. Reese," Nelly responded. "Sorry I canít offer you a cup of coffee, but Iím not set up to cook just now."

††††††††††††††† Reese nodded. "I canít stay anyway, maíam. I just wanted a word with your husband." He turned toward Clyde. "Mr. Thomas, a few men from this area will be meeting at my place next Wednesday, and Iíd like you to join us." He looked at Ben, standing behind Clyde. "You, too, Cartwright. I was going to ride over to your place as soon as I talked to Mr. Thomas here. As two of the oldest settlers in this region, you should have a voice in our discussions."

††††††††††††††† "Whatís this here meetiní about?" Clyde inquired.

††††††††††††††† "With so many folks settling in this part of the territory," Reese explained, "weíre going to need some government established."

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

††††††††††††††† Reese shook his head. "Thatís the problem. Salt Lakeís too far away to give us any real help, and the leaders there seem in no hurry to set up anything local. Some of us at Mormon Station feel itís time we undertook the job ourselves."

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

††††††††††††††† Reese chuckled. "I may be Mormon, Cartwright, but that doesnít mean I see eye-to-eye with Brigham Young about everything. I think we need a government more closely tied to our needs here."

††††††††††††††† "I agree," Ben said.

††††††††††††††† "Yup, me, too," Clyde added. "Weíll be at your meetiní, Reese."

††††††††††††††† "Ten that morning sound about right?" Reese asked.

††††††††††††††† "We could be there earlier," Ben said, "but tenís fine."

††††††††††††††† "Iím going to ask a few men from the new settlement at Eagle Station, too," Reese explained. "Thatís where Iím headed now. They have further to come, so I thought it better to start later."

††††††††††††††† "Sure you wouldnít rather light down and help lay a floor?" Clyde suggested dryly.

††††††††††††††† Clyde hadnít sounded like he was joking. Reese saw through the straight face, though, and grinned back at the sweaty builder. "Believe Iíll pass," he said. Tipping his hat once more to Mrs. Thomas, he rode north.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Lands, heís earned it!" Nelly cried. "I planned on him and the boys stayiní to supper."

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

††††††††††††††† Along with the others, Nelly laughed. "Yes, Sunshine, thereís pie left, and Aunt Nelly will make sure you get some."

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

††††††††††††††† "Nobodyíll be bragginí on this like it was Sunday dinner," Nelly said apologetically. "Iíve really had to throw this meal together."

††††††††††††††† "It tastes real fine, maíam," Adam said.

††††††††††††††† "Well, thank you, son," the cook replied with an appeased smile.

††††††††††††††† "Itís easy to see my younger boy agrees," Ben laughed. Hossís face was smeared with his exuberant enjoyment of the meal.

††††††††††††††† Only one face at the table wore a frown. "Whatís your chin dragginí the dust for, boy?" Clyde demanded of his son.

††††††††††††††† "I thought you was gonna finish that floor today," Billy whined.

††††††††††††††† "Why, son, your pa and Mr. Cartwright have done their best, I reckon," Nelly remonstrated. "Theyíll finish up tomorrow."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, but itís my bedroom they didnít get to," Billy wailed. "Where am I supposed to sleep?"

††††††††††††††† "Oh, lands, what a ruckus over nothiní," his mother scolded. "Weíll spread your mattress on what floor we got." Billy didnít look the least bit mollified.

††††††††††††††† Suddenly, Adamís face lit up. "Hey, why donít Billy come home with us?" he cried. "He can sleep in my bed!"

††††††††††††††† Billy looked up, a grin starting at the corners of his mouth. "Thatís a good idea!" he said and turned pleading eyes on his mother.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Itís all right with me," he assured Billyís parents, secretly wondering why Billy thought Adamís trundle was that much improvement over a mattress on the floor.

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

* * * * *

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

††††††††††††††† Clyde shook his head. "Naw, just ainít anxious to go amongst a nest of Mormons."

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "Oh, Clyde, donít start that today!"

††††††††††††††† "I donít hold with their religion, and no man can make me say I do!" Clyde snapped.

††††††††††††††† "Neither do I, but that doesnít mean they arenít good neighbors," Ben reasoned.

††††††††††††††† Clyde lifted his hat and raked callused fingers through his coppery hair. "So far, I reckon, but I donít cotton to old Brigham Young or his kind takiní rule over my life and land. Any man that goes cavortiní around with twenty or more so-called Ďwivesí ainít fit to make laws for decent folks."

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled. "I thought thatís what this meeting was about, Clyde," he pointed out softly. "Reese doesnít like the idea either."

††††††††††††††† Clyde nodded. "Yeah, but I donít know if the same holds true for the rest of the men here at Mormon Station. Weíre gonna be outnumbered, Ben."

††††††††††††††† Ben threw an arm around the shorter manís shoulder. "Since when arenít you and I a match for anything thrown at us?"

††††††††††††††† Clyde grinned. "More than a match," he said with a quick jerk of his chin, "provided they donít throw their womenfolk agin us, too."

††††††††††††††† "What womenfolk?" Ben demanded as he and Clyde started walking once more toward the designated meeting place. "There isnít one besides Nelly this side of Salt Lake City!"

††††††††††††††† Clyde gave a loud hoot. "Ainít it the truth! Must make it hard for these Mormons to practice their religion, huh?"

††††††††††††††† "Will you stop?" Ben hissed. "Weíre almost there, and so help me, Clyde, if you bring up polygamyó"

††††††††††††††† "Wouldnít dream of it," Clyde replied with a maddening grin.

††††††††††††††† Ben rolled his brown eyes heavenward. He couldnít figure out whether Clyde was as prejudiced against Mormons as he sounded or if the man just liked to get a rise out of his long-suffering friend. At times like this, Ben suspected Billy came by his penchant for mischief honestly.

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

††††††††††††††† Ben extended a hand. "Of course. How are you, Byrnes?"

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

††††††††††††††† "And the rest of Carson Valley," Clyde added testily.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, of course," Byrnes agreed hastily. "The entire valley."

††††††††††††††† "Bill, Iím not sure our neighbors here know all the others," Reese said. "Would you introduce them around?"

††††††††††††††† "Glad to," Byrnes said.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Here, here!" Byrnes sang out in agreement.

††††††††††††††† "We must face facts, gentlemen," Reese continued. "Without legal title to our lands, all of us here are nothing more than squatters. Yet Salt Lake City seems reluctant to send officials here to deal with that most basic of legal needs. And while weíve been fortunate in attracting mainly god-fearing, law-abiding citizens, we canít afford to assume that such will always be the case. We need a plan to deal with criminal activity."

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† Clyde whistled. "Bold critter, ainít he?" he whispered to Ben.

††††††††††††††† Ben gestured to get Reeseís attention. "If we expect Washington to honor such a request, weíll have to show them weíre ready to govern ourselves."

††††††††††††††† "Absolutely right, Cartwright," Reese said. With a long finger he swept the room. "Thatís why weíre here, to set in motion a government Washington will have to respect."

††††††††††††††† "Thereís others ought to have a say in this," Frank Hall protested. "Ainít more than twenty men here, and the Federal government ainít gonna smile on no territorial convention that small."

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

††††††††††††††† "Thereís more than just Mormons in this valley," an even rougher-looking man growled.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Kind of gettiní the cart before the horse, ainít you?" Clyde snickered. "We ainít gonna have no proper government Ďtil Congress recognizes us. And Ďtil then we donít need no fancy legislature."

††††††††††††††† A loud debate ensued with men vociferously voicing opposing viewpoints. Finally, Ben Cartwright stood, raising both arms to get the menís attention. "Perhaps the idea of an official legislature is a bit premature," he said, " so why donít we simply nominate a committee today to begin thinking about the laws we need most and report to the body at large."

††††††††††††††† "Good idea," Jameson, a resident of Mormon Station, shouted.

††††††††††††††† "Iíll settle for that," Barnard agreed.

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

††††††††††††††† "Thatís a good suggestion, Bill," Reese said smoothly, "but what we need first, as Cartwright suggests, is a committee to examine such ideas."

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Got to have something besides consarned Mormons on this committee," Clyde whispered.

††††††††††††††† "Arenít enough of us gentiles, as they call us, to elect anybody," Ben muttered under his breath. To his surprise, however, he was elected to the committee, as was Joseph Barnard of Eagle Station. Then followed the election of the governing committee. William Byrnes, John Reese and Jameson were elected to this committee, as well as the one on which Ben would serve, and four others were selected to round out the committee of seven. The meeting dismissed, and those elected to consider laws and resolutions adjourned to the home of William Byrnes to continue deliberations that afternoon.

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

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Sure," Adam said readily.

††††††††††††††† "And Hoss?"

††††††††††††††† "Pretty good," Adam said, his brow furrowing thoughtfully. "He sure gets underfoot a lot, Pa. Me and Billyís hardly had a momentís peace."

††††††††††††††† Adam looked so serious Ben couldnít keep a straight face. He laughed as he set Adam down. "Seems like I remember another little lad who got underfoot a lot."

††††††††††††††† Adam frowned. He knew Pa was referring to him when he was younger, but he didnít think the comparison a fair one. He couldnít possibly have been as annoying as Hoss!

††††††††††††††† Clyde came around the corner of the cabin with a load of firewood. "Trust Ben Cartwright to show up when the workís all done," he cackled.

††††††††††††††† Ben made a growling face at his friend. "Youíve got some right talking after the job you dumped in my lap."

††††††††††††††† Clyde guffawed even louder. "Face it, Lieutenant Cartwright," he said, using the honorary title awarded Ben by the people with whom theyíd traveled west, "you were meant for greatness. Howíd the meetiní go?"

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

††††††††††††††† "Anything I ought to worry over?"

††††††††††††††† Ben grinned. "I ought to let you stew over that for a week, but, no, nothing you canít live with."

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Pie!" Hoss chortled, a wide grin splitting his face.

††††††††††††††† Nelly shook her head. "Climbed up in a chair when I wasnít lookiní and helped himself. Iím afraid one of the pies I fixed for supper donít look real invitiní any more."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Sorry, Nelly."

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

††††††††††††††† "Oh, no harm done," Nelly laughed. "If it was any other youngun, Iíd fear spoiliní his appetite, butó"

††††††††††††††† Ben hooted. "Nothing spoils your appetite, does it, Hoss?" He lifted the boyís wool shirt and blew on his stomach to Hossís giggling delight.

††††††††††††††† "Well, come on in and set a spell," Nelly said.

††††††††††††††† "No, we canít," Ben said. "Iíll be cooking a late supper as it is."

††††††††††††††† "Ben Cartwright, you are eatiní supper here!" Nelly declared.

††††††††††††††† "Now, Nellyó"

††††††††††††††† "Itís all planned," she said. "Lands, the foodís cookiní now, and I made enough for everyone. You donít want it goiní to waste, do you?"

††††††††††††††† "No fear of that," Ben chuckled, patting his younger sonís ample stomach. "Iíve sired the perfect solution to leftovers."

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

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

††††††††††††††† Adamís black eyes slowly opened. "Morning, Pa," he yawned expansively.

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

††††††††††††††† Adam propped himself up on sharp elbows. "How come so early?"

††††††††††††††† "I want to get the stew on, so thereíll be nothing to do but heat it for the Thomases," Ben explained. "You know Miss Nelly. If thereís anything left to do when she gets here, sheíll take right over. And this is my party."

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

††††††††††††††† Ben arched an eyebrow, not sure heíd ever get used to the new appellation. "Yeah, well, by whatever name, sheís my guest today. I aim to prove I can take care of my own boys. You with me?"

††††††††††††††† Adam gave a decided nod. "Iím with you." He grabbed his blue pants from a peg on the wall and stepped into them. "I donít know why Aunt Nellyís cominí today anyway. You donít need her to set in the windows." He drew a suspender over each shoulder.

††††††††††††††† "Sheís coming to watch Hoss and to hang the curtains," Ben replied, walking through the doorway.

††††††††††††††† Following his father into the main room, Adam scowled. "Curtains! Why we need curtains? Ainít nobody around to spy in, anyway."

††††††††††††††† Ben rumpled Adamís black hair. "I, for one, appreciate the touches a woman adds to a home. You know if your mother or Hossís were still alive, weíd have curtains, and I donít plan to raise a couple of heathens."

††††††††††††††† Adamís face had grown pensive at the mention of his mothersóóhe always felt heíd had twoóóbut he couldnít figure what curtains had to do with making him either heathen or god-fearing. From the look on País face, though, now wasnít the time to ask. Now was the time to fetch water. Adam trotted outside, grabbed up a pail and headed for the creek.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Well, it would if we had any chickens," Adam admitted. "That is one thing I miss from Aunt Nellyís place."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "I appreciate honesty, Adam, but todayís not the best time to tell me you preferred living with the Thomases."

††††††††††††††† "I didnít say that!" Adam protested indignantly. "I like having our own place."

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

††††††††††††††† "Me, Pa," Adam announced. "Iíd be responsible and Hoss could help."

††††††††††††††† Benís laughter rocked the rafters. "I wouldnít count on it, son," he cackled.

††††††††††††††† From the next room came a demanding "Pa!"

††††††††††††††† "Uh-oh," Ben said. "I didnít mean to wake him up yet. See to your brother, would you, boy?"

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† Suddenly the smile on the babyís face seemed taunting to his older brother. "You donít have to look so all-fired happy about it," Adam scolded. "High time you learned to trot to the outhouse on your own." The suggestion made no impression on Hoss, however, so Adam set to work making his brother presentable for company.

††††††††††††††† Hoss had on a fresh diaper, but nothing else, when Ben stuck his head through the doorway to call his boys to breakfast. "Hoss ainít dressed yet, Pa," Adam reported.

††††††††††††††† "Isnít," Ben corrected. "Donít bother Ďtil heís eaten. Heíll be warm enough like he is."

††††††††††††††† "And that way we wonít have to change his shirt afterwards, huh, Pa?" Adam grinned.

††††††††††††††† Ben laid an affectionate hand on the boyís slender neck. "Adam, my boy, youíre quite a mind-reader," he smiled.

††††††††††††††† The boys were fed, the dishes washed and the cabin shipshape when the guests arrived. Billy Thomas burst through the door without bothering to knock. "Weíre here," he announced.

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

††††††††††††††† "Fur as I could," Billy tittered.

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

††††††††††††††† "Easier than totiní this much on my back, thatís why!" Clyde snorted.

††††††††††††††† Ben looked into the ox-drawn cart. Clydeís tools were there, of course, as well as a brown-paper-wrapped package Ben took to be the curtains. In addition, the cart held four pies. "Good gracious, Nelly," he ejaculated. "We donít plan to work up that huge an appetite."

††††††††††††††† "Speak for yourself," Clyde hooted, giving Benís arm a solid punch.

††††††††††††††† "I only planned two for dinner," Nelly explained. "The others Iíll leave here since you said you werenít cominí for Sunday dinner this week."

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

††††††††††††††† "Pie!" Hoss crowed in happy greeting when his father walked in.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Almost!" Ben sputtered. "You wait Ďtil you taste it before you go criticizing, Nelly Thomas."

††††††††††††††† "I wasnít criticiziní," Nelly contradicted. She approached the mantel over the fireplace and looked at the two daguerreotypes Ben had set there, one on each side. One face she recognized. "I never knew you had a picture took of Inger, Ben," she said softly.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Yes, thatís Elizabeth, Adamís mother," Ben said of the handsome, dark-haired woman in the other gilt frame.

††††††††††††††† "Two fine-lookiní women you found for yourself," Clyde said from the doorway.

††††††††††††††† "Fine-looking and fine-hearted," Ben said.

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

††††††††††††††† Ben paled. "Never," he said tautly.

††††††††††††††† Secretly, Nelly didnít think Clyde should have brought the subject up this soon after Benís loss; but since he had, she thought she might as well express her opinion, too. A year might seem a short time to grieve, but Benís boys needed a mother and Ben a wife to share this home he was building. "Thereís other fine-hearted women, Ben," she said softly.

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

††††††††††††††† Clyde chuckled. "Or even that kind. With their men takiní two or three apiece, there canít be many left over."

††††††††††††††† Nelly clucked her tongue reproachfully. "You men had best clear out and start to work. I wonít have such matters spoke of before these innocent boys."

††††††††††††††† "Innocent? Him?" Ben teased, pointing at Nellyís red-haired son, then skipping out before Nelly could toss a pie at him for his sass.

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

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "I know you think itís an extravagance, but we want lots of light in our front room. Weíre a family of readers, you know."

††††††††††††††† "Hoss, too, I suppose," Clyde sniggered.

††††††††††††††† Ben shrugged. "Time will tell, but heís gonna have the right example set before him."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, all right," Clyde said, eager to change the subject. He wasnít setting his own boy much of an example in the education department, and sometimes that made him uncomfortable around Ben Cartwright, who set such store by learning. "Youíre planniní to read in bed, too, I reckon," he added, referring to Benís previously stated intention of putting a window in the bedroom, as well as one on each side of the cabinís front door.

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

††††††††††††††† Clyde turned to spit a stream of tobacco juice away from the cabin. "I donít need the sun to wake me up. My own innards act like a regular clock when itís time to start choriní."

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

††††††††††††††† Clyde slapped his knee. "Okay. You slickered me that time. Whoíd you have in mind? Old Virginny, maybe?"

††††††††††††††† Ben scowled at the reference to James Finney, who took his nickname from his home state. "No one in particular, but Finney doesnít strike me as a beaver for work, now you mention it."

††††††††††††††† "You men better start workiní like beavers yourselves," Nelly warned from the doorway, "or Iíll take a lesson from Ingerís book and make you sing the praises of James Finney before you get your dinner." Both men smiled, remembering the times on the trail when Inger, who couldnít tolerate criticism of anyone, had made them earn their dinner in just the fashion Nelly mentioned.

††††††††††††††† Ben made her an elegant bow. "Yes, maíam!" he said. "Weíll soon have you a window to dress with those frills you brought."

††††††††††††††† Hoss tugged at Nellyís skirt. "Pie, Auní Nenee?"

††††††††††††††† Nelly scooped the toddler up and carried him outside. "Not yet, Sunshine. Letís take us a walk in the trees Ďtil the menfolk get the window holes cut."

††††††††††††††† "Good idee," Clyde snorted. "Thatíll get the both of you out from underfoot."

††††††††††††††† "Idea, Clyde," Ben groaned. Heíd tried all last winter to break his friend of his folksy pronunciations and sometimes felt ready to toss it up to a lost cause.

††††††††††††††† "Idea," Clyde corrected himself amiably. "I remember more than I forget nowadays, Ben."

††††††††††††††† "Glad to see you making some progress," Ben said, though he looked dubious.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, well, Iíd like to see you make some progress," Clyde sniggered. "At this rate we wonít have the first winderóóuh, windowóóset ítil long past dinner."

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

††††††††††††††† The glass for both front windows was in place by the time the sun stood overhead. "Now you folks sit and rest while I heat up the stew," Ben ordered. "Dinner wonít be as fancy as the ones I enjoy at your place, but itíll be tasty."

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Dinner, first," Ben said sternly, tying a napkin around the boyís neck.

††††††††††††††† Hossís lower lip shot out, but he didnít say anything. Once Ben filled his plate with savory venison stew, thoughts of pie fled his mind. Hoss may have preferred pie, but almost any food met with his affectionate embrace. After the first bite the boy banged the tabletop again. "Good!" he announced.

††††††††††††††† "It surely is," Nelly laughed. "You followed my receipts right well, Ben."

††††††††††††††† "Theyíve been a big help," Ben admitted.

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

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Blue was her favorite color," Ben added, fingering a ruffle. "Almost everything she made for our little home in St. Joseph was blue. Iím glad you thought to use this for the curtains; weíll think of her whenever we see it."

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

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

††††††††††††††† "See you Wednesday," Clyde called.

††††††††††††††† "Whatís Wednesday, Pa?" Adam asked once their company was out of sight.

††††††††††††††† "You remember, son," Ben said. "That second meeting about forming a new government."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, yeah," Adam said. "Me and Hoss is gonna stay with the Thomases while youíre gone."

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

††††††††††††††† Ben looked down at Adam. "Weíll be spending the night with them, too, since Reese expects the meeting to go a second day. Thatís why I didnít want to impose for Sunday, too."

††††††††††††††† "Weíll make out, Pa," Adam declared. "After all, we got pie."

††††††††††††††† Hoss squirmed in Benís arms. "Pie!"

††††††††††††††† Ben frowned at his older son. "Now look what you started," he scolded.

††††††††††††††† Adam shrugged and gave his father a sheepish grin.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† The hills to the west were splashed with sunset shades when Ben Cartwright finally approached the Thomas cabin on the evening of November 19. On days like this, Ben really felt the need for a mount. Though Mormon Station wasnít far from Clyde and Nellyís home, Ben was tired and would have much preferred to ride rather than walk. The meeting had lasted so long, too, that Ben feared he was holding up dinner. He quickened his pace. A delayed meal was the one thing most calculated to make his younger son hard to handle. And Ben figured the normally sunny little lad was probably just about at that point now.

††††††††††††††† Nelly, however, had foreseen the problem. "I fed Hoss early and put him down on Billyís bed." she explained when Ben walked in and didnít see his toddler. "Thatís where weíll put you tonight, too, Ben; these young ones can handle a pallet for one night."

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

††††††††††††††† "Ainít it the truth?" Clyde snorted. "Maybe we ought to bed Ďem out in the barn, just as a reminder of where they come from."

††††††††††††††† "No, sir!" Billy yelped. "Me and Adamís real content with a pallet by the fire, ainít we, Adam?"

††††††††††††††† Adamís chin bobbed up and down quickly. "Real content," he assured his father.

††††††††††††††† "Good," Ben said firmly. He hadnít seen Adam react negatively to Nellyís edict in the first place but wanted to be certain his boy understood that such behavior was unacceptable. In their own home Ben permitted Adam to speak his mind, but he was glad to see his son had his company manners on tonight.

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

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Since when ainít my conversation decent?" Clyde demanded.

††††††††††††††† Nelly reached over to pat his callused hand. "Now, you know what I mean. Women like to talk about babies and sewiní and the like. All I ever hear is talk of crops and trade and government meetinís."

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

††††††††††††††† "Itís all right, Ben," she laughed. "I want to hear the news, but maybe we could hold it Ďtil after the meal."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, maíam," Ben replied meekly. Then mischief sparked in his eyes. "My, Clyde, thatís a fetching new outfit youíre wearing tonight."

††††††††††††††† Clyde looked down at his red wool shirt and gray pants. They werenít new. All at once, Clyde grinned, seeing what Ben was up to. "Yeah, pleased you like it. And, Ben, that hat of yourn would look right smart with a peacock plume stuck in the band."

††††††††††††††† Billy snickered at his motherís reddening face, while Adam bit his lip to keep from joining in. He really was on his company manners for the night, even though Pa evidently wasnít.

††††††††††††††† Nelly looked askance at both men, then flapped her hand at them across the table. "All right, you two nuisances, thatíll be enough."

††††††††††††††† It wasnít enough for Billy, though. He bounced up from his chair and began to prance around. "Now, my duds ainít new," he announced, "but ainít I a purty sight?"

††††††††††††††† "Your bottomíll be a pretty sight if you keep that up," his mother warned. "Sit down and finish your dinner."

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

††††††††††††††† "Thereís pie, sugar," Nelly offered.

††††††††††††††† "Can I save mine for tomorrow?" Billy asked. "Iím full, Ma, and I want to go outside. That government talk bores me, too."

††††††††††††††† "Itís dark now," Nelly said. "I donít want you wanderiní off."

††††††††††††††† "Just to the seesaw?" Billy wheedled.

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

††††††††††††††† "Iíd like to save it for tomorrow, please," Adam replied. Heíd seen the warning frown on Billyís face and knew that was the safest answer. Besides, like Billy, heíd rather play than listen to the grownups talk.

††††††††††††††† "Youíre excused then, Adam," Ben said. "Go no further than the seesaw."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir," Adam said, sliding from his chair and following Billy outside.

††††††††††††††† "Now, if you two tell me you want your pie saved Ďtil tomorrow, IíllóIíll give it all to Hoss," Nelly threatened. "He, at least, appreciates my cookiní."

††††††††††††††† "As do I, maíam," Ben said quickly. "A nice thick slice, if you please."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís better," Nelly giggled. "Iíll cut us each a slice and get you some more coffee. Then I reckon weíll be ready to hear about the meeting, Ben."

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

††††††††††††††† "I like that," Clyde said. "We ainít interested in riffraff settliní here. Folks that make improvements is more likely to stay."

††††††††††††††† "I think so, and five dollars is a small enough amount that anyone should be able to handle it," Ben agreed. "All of this, of course, is contingent on Congressís allowing us to separate from Utah Territory. If they donít, none of our titles would hold up in court."

††††††††††††††† "We gonna set up courts of our own?" Clyde asked.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Ben replied. "As a matter of fact, thatís on the agenda for tomorrow, as well as elections for justice of the peace, sheriff and a jury."

††††††††††††††† "What office you runniní for, Ben?" Clyde inquired with a wicked wink at his wife.

††††††††††††††† "Donít you think committee member is job enough?" Ben demanded.

††††††††††††††† "Naw, justice of the peace sounds good to me," Clyde snickered.

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

††††††††††††††† Clyde guffawed. "Sticks in your craw, donít it?"

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

††††††††††††††† Benís prediction proved true. In the elections the next day, as well as those for several years to come, the Mormon majority controlled the results. Winning a place on the jury, Ben was among the few gentiles selected to serve. But he thought everyone elected this time, whether gentile or Mormon, would do a good job, assuming, of course, that Congress didnít disallow all the work the squatter government had begun.

††††††††††††††† Ben picked up his boys Thursday afternoon. Nelly was a little put out with him because he wouldnít stay to supper and refused her invitation to Sunday dinner, too. "Havenít you seen enough of us the last week or so?" Ben teased.

††††††††††††††† "Youíre always welcome here, and you know it, Ben Cartwright!" Nelly sputtered.

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

††††††††††††††† "Well, you are coming for Thanksgiving, arenít you?" Nelly demanded, clearly perturbed at not getting her way.

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Wouldnít miss it! If the weather holds, that is. We had our first snow the day after Thanksgiving last year, remember?"

††††††††††††††† Nelly nodded. "I do, but there hasnít even been snow on the mountains yet, Ben. Funny, ainít it? If the snows had held off last year like theyíve done this, weíd all be liviní in California."

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

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

CHAPTER FOUR

 

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† Ben saw the yearning look in his boyís dark eyes, so he didnít need to ask, but he did anyway. "Which would you prefer?"

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

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Why do you think Iím sitting here whittling these things, boy? If we were sharing a tree, weíd have no need for more than we made last year."

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned. "I guess thatís right." He frowned, then. "Uh-Pa?"

††††††††††††††† "Yeah?" Ben asked, smoothing the back of the deer he was carving.

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

††††††††††††††† Benís head jerked up. "Mine arenít good enough for you, boy?"

††††††††††††††† Adamís mouth twisted askew. "Theyíre all right, Pa, butó"

††††††††††††††† "But not as lifelike as Mr. Thomasís, eh?" Ben said.

††††††††††††††† Adam gulped. "Nóno, sir, and I think we should make our tree the finest there isóófor Hoss, I mean."

††††††††††††††† "For Hoss, is it?" Ben laughed. "I doubt itís Hossís interests youíre concerned about. Tell the truth, Adam."

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned sheepishly. "For me, then, Pa."

††††††††††††††† "Mr. Thomas has enough chores without decorating our tree," Ben said soberly. "Besides, I think by the time weíre finished, youíll be pleased with the result. I brought some special things back from Sacramento."

††††††††††††††† "What things, Pa?" Adam demanded.

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

††††††††††††††† Adam was smiling broadly now. "I sure do. Thatíll make our tree real colorful, not plain like last year."

††††††††††††††† "Itíll be almost like the one we put up in St. Joe," Ben said. "I bought some small candles, too, and popcorn to string for a garland."

††††††††††††††† "And to eat!" Adam chirped.

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

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

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† One afternoon Adam, with the tip of his brush, gave his yellow bird a blue eyespot and sat back, satisfied. "Theyíre all painted, Pa," he reported.

††††††††††††††† Ben looked up from the chair he was working on. "Thatís good, Adam. Iíve been watching your work, and youíve done a real fine job."

††††††††††††††† "Were you gonna carve some more?" Adam asked. "The tree will seem kind of bare if this is all, donít you think?"

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Maybe, but I donít think we have time to make more this year."

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Yeah!" Adam cried enthusiastically. "Iíll get some cones right away."

††††††††††††††† "Not now, son," Ben said with a shake of his head.

††††††††††††††† "But, Pa, Iíve already got the paint out and everything," Adam argued.

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

††††††††††††††† "Aw, Pa, heís no help," Adam complained.

††††††††††††††† "Then teach him to be a help," Ben said firmly. "You might keep your eye out for the tree you want while youíre at it."

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

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "All right. Day after tomorrow weíll chop it down and set it up. Now put your supplies away, son."

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

††††††††††††††† Ben caught the note of uneasiness in Adamís voice. "Real pretty, isnít it, when it drifts down slow like that," he commented tentatively, standing up and stretching the kinks out of his back.

††††††††††††††† Adam turned worried eyes to his fatherís face. "You think thereíll be too much? For us to get to the Thomases, I mean."

††††††††††††††† Ben moved to the window beside Adam. "I donít think so, son. Unless there comes a real storm, weíll make it. Iím looking forward to that goose Mrs. Thomas promised, too."

††††††††††††††† "And the presents," Adam grinned.

††††††††††††††† Ben tousled Adamís dark hair. "Time I started supper. Fried ham and potatoes sound good to you?"

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, especially if you throw in some applesauce on the side," Adam giggled.

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

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

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† "No, Hoss!" Adam ordered, swatting the little boyís hand. Hoss immediately sent up a bellow of angry frustration.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Oh, donít be ridiculous," Ben snapped. "Thereís plenty of popcorn, and if you need more, Iíll pop it." He laid down the butcher knife and sat on the bench next to Hoss. Putting his arm around the youngster, he soothed him until he quieted, then turned displeased eyes on his older son. "If thereís any spatting to be done, Adam, Iíll do it," he said gruffly. "Last time I looked, I was still the father."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir," Adam said, his chin drooping. He picked up a kernel of popcorn and held it out to his brother. "Iím sorry, Hoss. Here, you can have a piece."

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

††††††††††††††† "See what I mean!" Adam fumed.

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

††††††††††††††† "That wonít hold him long," Adam warned.

††††††††††††††† Ben arched an eyebrow, but decided the statement was probably valid. He squatted down to meet Hoss at eye level. "If you want more, Pa will get you some, Hoss. Donít reach in the bowl."

††††††††††††††† "Moí," Hoss said.

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Eat what you have first." He stood up. "Youíve got a ways to go, Adam," he observed.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir," Adam said. "I was hoping to be done by suppertime, but I donít think Iíll make it, thanks to you-know-who. What are you fixing for supper, anyway?"

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

††††††††††††††† "Gavvy," Hoss squealed on hearing one of his favorite foods mentioned.

††††††††††††††† "Gravy, Hoss," Adam corrected.

††††††††††††††† Hossís face puckered with effort. "Gwavy," he tried again.

††††††††††††††† Adam shook his head. "No, Hoss, itísó"

††††††††††††††† "No lessons today, Adam," Ben chuckled. "Itís Christmas Eve."

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned. "Okay, Pa, no lessons. Just lots of gavvy."

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

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

††††††††††††††† "No, Hoss," Adam scolded. "Me and Pa will fix the tree."

††††††††††††††† "Adam," Ben chided softly, "itís his tree, too. Let him put some on where he can reach."

††††††††††††††† "It wonít look as nice," Adam grumbled.

††††††††††††††† Ben lifted the boyís chin with one broad finger. "It will to me," he said. "This is supposed to be a night of ĎPeace, goodwill to men,í Adam. It had better start between you two."

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

††††††††††††††† Hoss grinned, took the bird and fumbled to drape its yarn loop over the tallest branch he could reach. Getting into the spirit of the occasion, Adam helped guide the fat fingers, then patted the toddlerís head. "Thatís a good job, Hoss."

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

††††††††††††††† "A present?" Adam murmured in awe.

††††††††††††††† "Not yet," Ben laughed. "This is for the tree."

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned sheepishly and removed the tissue paper, drawing out a shiny metal star. "Ooh, itís gold," Adam cooed.

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

††††††††††††††† "Billyís tree wonít have anything to match this," Adam said as he pulled the bench close enough to stand on and reach the top of the tree. He affixed the spiral wire at the starís base to the tree and turned to look at his father. "Like that, Pa?"

††††††††††††††† "Just like that," Ben said. "Now, if youíll watch Hoss for a few minutes, so I can light the candles, Iíll have one more surprise for my boys."

††††††††††††††† "Something else for the tree?" Adam asked, jumping down from the bench.

††††††††††††††† "No, and no more questions, you inquisitive rascal," Ben ordered.

††††††††††††††† "Come on, Hoss," Adam said, taking the babyís hand. "Letís go sit in the rocker."

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

††††††††††††††† "Great, whatís the surprise?" Adam demanded.

††††††††††††††† Benís laughter rocked the rafters. "I shouldnít tell you anything a minute ahead of time, should I, boy?" he teased.

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† Adamís face beamed just as brightly as before. He loved to hear his father read. "Iíll get the popcorn," he offered, plopping Hoss into the rocker.

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

††††††††††††††† Adamís brow wrinkled. "No, sir. What does Ďintenseí mean, Pa?"

††††††††††††††† "Well, in this case, Ďscary,í" Ben replied.

††††††††††††††† "Scary! A Christmas story?" Adam scoffed.

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

††††††††††††††† Adamís black eyes widened with excitement. A Christmas ghost story! That was something different, indeed! His arm instinctively slipped around Hossís ample mid-section. "Donít be scared," he whispered. It would be just his luck for the baby to take fright at the most interesting part of the story. Hoss reached for another handful of popcorn.

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

††††††††††††††† Finally, Ben came to the last line. "ĎAnd so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless us every one!í" he read and slowly closed the book.

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

††††††††††††††† Looking up, Ben chuckled at the scene before him. Hoss hadnít quite made it through the story. He lay with his head in Adamís lap, still clutching two kernels of popcorn in his chubby fist. "Looks like someoneís ready for bed," Ben said softly, gathering the baby into his strong arms. "Probably time you were asleep, too, Adam."

††††††††††††††† Adam gave a little yawn. It was late, the story having been a long one, but he wasnít sure he could sleep with all those images of Christmas ghosts to float through his dreams. Anxious to be up early the next morning, however, he dutifully went to bed and was soon snoozing cozily next to his little brother.

* * * * *

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

††††††††††††††† Adam shook Hossís small shoulder. "Wake up, Hoss," he said. "Itís Christmas!"

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

††††††††††††††† "Time to get up," Adam urged, "and open presents."

††††††††††††††† Hoss showed no inclination to leave his warm bed.

††††††††††††††† "Donít you want to see what Santa brought you?" Adam demanded.

††††††††††††††† "Sanna?" Hoss asked, his eyes showing no recognition of the name.

††††††††††††††† Adam gave his little brother a shake. "Santa Claus, Hoss," he repeated impatiently. "Iíve told you a dozen times. He brings presents."

††††††††††††††† Hossís face showed no greater understanding, so Adam sighed and rolled out of the bed. Reaching back, he pulled Hoss up. "Come on," he ordered.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Go ahead," Ben laughed. "Maybe Hoss will get more in the mood once he sees whatís in one of those packages. Yours are on the left."

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned and eagerly tore brown paper from a square box. He read the title on the box aloud. "Round the World. Whatís that, Pa?"

††††††††††††††† "Itís a board game," Ben explained. "You can learn more about geography while you play."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, that sounds like fun!" Adam said.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, well, the only problem is you need someone to play with," Ben explained. "Maybe youíd like to take it with you to the Thomases this afternoon."

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

††††††††††††††† "I know," Ben chuckled.

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

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† When both feet were shod, Hoss happily banged them together, then pointed to the tree. "Moí!" he demanded.

††††††††††††††† "You and Hoss have one present just alike," Ben told Adam. "Letís open it next."

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

††††††††††††††† "Top!" Hoss screamed in response. His toy was blue, while Adamís was red.

††††††††††††††† "Show him how itís done," Ben suggested.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Let Hoss," Adam offered.

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled broadly. "Thatís my good, unselfish boy." He set Hoss beside the largest gift under the tree. The baby needed no instruction now. He grabbed the paper and ripped it off.

††††††††††††††† "Look, Hoss; itís a Noahís Ark," Adam said, then grinned up at his father. "I bet I know who made this."

††††††††††††††† "Youíd be half right," Ben smiled. "I made the ship, but Mr. Thomas did carve several of the animals."

††††††††††††††† "I can tell which ones," Adam teased.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "I hope you enjoy them," Ben said.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, I know I will!" Adam cried. "Can I read one now?"

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Donít you want your stocking first?"

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Itís been the best Christmas ever, Pa!" Adam said. "I never had so many presents before."

††††††††††††††† "Santaís been a little more prosperous this year," Ben said, giving Adam a wink.

††††††††††††††† Adam winked back. He knew what Pa meant and understood why heíd said it the way he did. Hoss wasnít in on the secret about Santa Claus yet, so theyíd have to talk circles around him. Suddenly, Adam felt very grown up and knowledgeable, and that was the best Christmas gift of all.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† "Get your sled from the barn, son," Ben ordered, "while I get Hoss bundled up. Then weíll be ready to leave."

††††††††††††††† "Thereís not enough snow to go sledding, Pa," Adam argued.

††††††††††††††† Ben tousled the boyís dark hair. "No, but thereís just enough on the ground that I can pull you boys, if youíre willing to hold the gifts for our friends."

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned. "Iím willing. What did you get Billy?"

††††††††††††††† Ben swatted the youngsterís backside with a light hand. "No questions. Get the sled." Adam took off.

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

††††††††††††††† "Ainít it about time he did that kind of thing for himself?" Adam grumbled. "Heís big enough."

††††††††††††††† "Isnít," Ben corrected, "and no. It isnít his size thatís in question, Adam; itís his age. You hang on."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir," Adam mumbled, "but it wonít be easy with all these presents, too."

††††††††††††††† "Youíll manage," Ben said bluntly, picking up the rope heíd attached to the sled.

††††††††††††††† Despite his doubts, Adam did manage to keep both bundles and brother in place on the sled. He had to admit the trip went quicker this way. The sled skimmed easily over the snow, much faster than Adamís short legs ordinarily covered the distance between the two cabins. Pa looked kind of out of breath when they arrived, but Adam wasnít a bit tired, and Hoss was giggling merrily from the brisk slide over the wintry carpet.

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

††††††††††††††† "Thatís great!" Adam said. "Can we take turns with it?"

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

††††††††††††††† "Pa wouldnít tell me," Adam replied, disgruntled. Honestly, youíd think Pa would know he was big enough to keep a secret!

††††††††††††††† Ben gave Billyís ribs a good tickle. "Who says any of them are for you, you scamp!"

††††††††††††††† Billy just grinned. He knew Mr. Cartwright better than to think heíd be left out in the gift-giving. "Want me to tote Ďem inside?" he offered.

††††††††††††††† "I do not," Ben chuckled, "but since youíre so fond of toting, Iíll let you tote this." He plunked Hoss in Billyís arms.

††††††††††††††† "The presentsíd weigh less," Billy muttered, but he hefted the baby to his shoulder and lugged him inside.

††††††††††††††† "Need any help?" Clyde called from the door.

††††††††††††††† "Nope!" Ben said, then winked at the other man. "Youíre as bad as your boy; you just want to pinch at the presents."

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

††††††††††††††† Adam leaned the empty sled against the cabin wall and went inside, carrying his new board game. Billy pulled him into his bedroom. "Ainít you got no idea what your pa got me?" he whispered.

††††††††††††††† "I got one idea," Adam whispered. "One of them feels like something I got, but I ainít telling."

††††††††††††††† "Gimme a hint," Billy demanded.

††††††††††††††† Adam plopped onto Billyís bed. "Okay, if you tell me what you got for Christmas."

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

††††††††††††††† "Me, too," Adam said, his brow furrowing. Sometimes he wondered if Pa and Mr. Thomas didnít work in cahoots on ideas for presents. He hadnít gotten a pocket knife, though, and heíd surely have treasured one.

††††††††††††††† Billy gave Adamís arm a hard punch. "So, whatís my hint?"

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned. "Well, mine was red, and Hoss got one, tooóóa blue one."

††††††††††††††† Billy frowned. "A babyís toy?"

††††††††††††††† "Youíll like it," Adam promised.

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

††††††††††††††† "Not Ďtil after lunch," his mother scolded. "Iím too busy cookiní now to be bothered with presents." She was wearing a crisply starched white apron over her best blue dress, the one that had belonged to Inger and that Ben had given her for Christmas the previous year when thereíd been no chance to shop for holiday gifts.

††††††††††††††† "Wouldnít be no bother for me," Billy grumbled under his breath, then turned and called back to Adam, "You want to seesaw Ďtil dinner?"

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

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

††††††††††††††† Nelly lifted the baby in her arms. "Too cold for you outside, Sunshine. How Ďbout one of Aunt Nellyís sugar cookies?"

††††††††††††††† "Tookie!" Hoss crowed, all thoughts of his brother banished by brighter prospects.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís right," Nelly laughed. "A cookie and a nice glass of milk. I donít think itíll spoil his dinner, do you, Ben?"

††††††††††††††† "Nothing ever does," Ben said wryly. He lifted chocolate eyes to Nellyís face. "You still have milk? Iíve already let my cow go dry for the winter."

††††††††††††††† "I wanted the milk for the holiday bakiní," Nelly explained. "Weíll let her go dry after today. Chickens has quit layiní, too, but I stored back enough eggs for the pies and cakes."

††††††††††††††† "Pies and cakes," Ben said. "Plural?"

††††††††††††††† Nellyís brown eyes narrowed. Sometimes Ben Cartwright could be right rilesome about throwiní around high-falutiní words.

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

††††††††††††††† "Well, lands, yes, thereís more than one!" Nelly exclaimed. "Thereís dried peach, pumpkin and custard pies, fruit cake and pound cake and plum pudding, too."

††††††††††††††† Ben gave his stomach a sympathetic pat and addressed it directly. "Do you hear that? Do you hear what Iím supposed to fit into you? The woman has no pity."

††††††††††††††† "I reckon itíll get eaten," Nelly smirked.

††††††††††††††† "I reckon youíre right!" Ben guffawed. "Too many hungry men and boys at the table to let much go to waste."

††††††††††††††† "You gonna talk pie and cake all morning or ainít you got no manís business to discuss?" Clyde asked dryly.

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

††††††††††††††† "Show him what you made me for Christmas," Nelly suggested. "That man of mineís been busy these cold days, too, Ben."

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† "I thought you were from Indiana," Ben said, surprised.

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

††††††††††††††† Clyde cackled. "Maybe you really are kin, then."

††††††††††††††† Ben arched an eyebrow, then smiled.

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

††††††††††††††† "Iíll take a little pudding," Ben said, "but anything else will have to wait. Iím stuffed fuller than that goose."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, I want to wait, too, Ma," Billy said. "Letís open presents."

††††††††††††††† "No presents Ďtil everyoneís done eatiní and the dishes cleared," his mother stated firmly.

††††††††††††††† "Aw, Ma," Billy wheedled. "Adam wants his presents now, and heís company."

††††††††††††††† Clyde guffawed. "We all know how youíre frettiní about Adam gettiní his presents, son!"

††††††††††††††† Billy gave a sheepish shrug. Now would have been the perfect time for Adam to take the hint and speak up, but, of course, he didnít. Adam, unfortunately, was cursed with an overabundance of manners, in Billyís opinion, and sometimes it got in the way of his doing what the saucy redhead thought he ought. So Billy had to hold in his curiosity until everyone had finished, even that everlastingly slow Hoss, who seemed more interested in custard pie than in what was under the tree.

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

††††††††††††††† "Itís just a cuddle critter to take to bed with him," she explained in response to Benís expression of thanks. "I made it from some scraps I had left from my new work dress."

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

††††††††††††††† "I was aiminí to make one for your bedroom, too," Nelly apologized, "but I run out of time. Iíll get around to it someday, though."

††††††††††††††† "Nelly, you spoil us," Ben smiled.

††††††††††††††† "Hope you like that book I picked out for you," Clyde said. "I donít know one from another, but the bookseller over to Sacramento said this were a good un."

††††††††††††††† Ben looked fondly at his new copy of The Count of Monte Cristo. "It looks very interesting, Clyde, and thereís nothing I love more on a winterís night than a warm fire and a good book."

††††††††††††††† "Thought you ought to have something besides that Shakespeare feller," Clyde explained. "Course, ainít no telliní how good a man with a name like dumb ass is with words, but leastways he sounds like a good American Ďstead an old redcoat."

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

††††††††††††††† "Thought you could use something to pull that chunky brother of yours in," Clyde chuckled, "and I reckon youíll find other uses for it, too."

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Glad to get shed of you," Clyde said dryly.

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

††††††††††††††† "You set for a lickiní?" Clyde asked, setting the checkerboard Ben had given him on the kitchen table.

††††††††††††††† "Weíll see who gets the lickiní!" Ben scoffed, seating himself opposite his friend. "Before I leave, though, I want to see how you are at chess." In addition to a store-bought checkerboard and pieces to replace the homemade one heíd given Clyde the previous Christmas, Ben had purchased chessmen.

††††††††††††††† "Never played that before," Clyde said. "Youíll have to teach me the rules."

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded. "There arenít many rules to learn, but itís more challenging than checkers. Youíve got think further ahead."

††††††††††††††† "Sounds like you know this game pretty good," Clyde remarked.

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "No, Iím a beginner. My friend, Josiah Edwards taught me, and we played a number of times that last winter I spent in St. Joseph, but thatís all."

††††††††††††††† "Maybe I wonít be too far behind, then," Clyde chuckled. "Red or black?"

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

††††††††††††††† "Slow-moving game, ainít it?" Clyde said after theyíd been playing an hour.

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

††††††††††††††† "Or you yours," Clyde smirked, moving his queen in direct line with Benís king. "Check," he announced triumphantly.

††††††††††††††† "But not mate," Ben said, deftly moving his knight to capture Clydeís queen.

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

††††††††††††††† "Nelly, I believe Iím ready for a slice of pie now," Ben announced.

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

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

††††††††††††††† Ben padded Adamís new wagon with the multi-colored hooked rug and lifted Hoss to set him inside. When Ben pried Billyís yellow top from the fat fingers, though, Hoss sent up a loud, indignant wail. "Thatís Billyís," Ben said firmly, spatting the little hand. "You have your own."

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

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

††††††††††††††† "I boxed up some of the leavinís to take with you," Nelly said.

††††††††††††††† "Wouldnít put Ďem in the wagon with that youngun if you expect any supper," Clyde drawled dryly.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "A point well taken. Loan me a piece of rope and Iíll tie the food box to Adamís sled."

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

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

CHAPTER FIVE

 

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

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "Itís too cold for Hoss to be out that long, son. Whatís the attraction at Mormon Station, anyway?"

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

††††††††††††††† "Youíll likely see him Sunday," Ben said, "and thatís soon enough for you boys to compare notes."

††††††††††††††† "But, Pa, I want to check on the mail, too. Canít I?" Adam begged.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, Adam, donít be foolish," Ben scolded. "The mail hasnít gotten through since October." A man named Chorpenning had contracted to carry mail from Placerville to Salt Lake City that year, and everyone in the valley had eagerly awaited each monthly delivery. Until November, that is. That month, for the first time, the mail failed to arrive. One hundred miles outside Salt Lake City, Indians had waylaid the mail train and the letters had been lost. As far as Ben knew, he personally hadnít lost any mail, but neither had he received any. Chorpenning simply didnít show up at the expected time in either December or January, and Ben suspected the snow-packed passes of the Sierras had defeated the manís intention to provide regular service.

††††††††††††††† "Canít I check anyway? Please, Pa?" Adam pleaded. "I want to see if my journal to Jamie gets off, and maybe his will be there for me."

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

††††††††††††††† "Thanks, Pa!" Adam cheered.

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

††††††††††††††† "Oh, sheíll be glad to do that," Adam replied confidently.

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

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

††††††††††††††† Ben had given his son a sympathetic hug, but he wasnít too concerned about Adamís birthday. He had a feeling the new pocketknife the boy would receive tomorrow would make up for any disappointment heíd suffered today.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† Billy squeezed in as soon as the door opened a crack. "Brr! It's freezin' out here," he declared.

††††††††††††††† "What are you doing here, Billy?" Ben demanded. "Do your folks know youíre gone?"

††††††††††††††† "Sure, they sent me," Billy announced. "Ainít Adam up yet?"

††††††††††††††† "I am now," Adam yawned from the bedroom doorway. "Whatís going on?"

††††††††††††††† "It's cominí," Billy said, "and Pa said to get out from underfoot, so here I am. Whatís for breakfast?"

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "I havenít had time to decide. What do you mean Ďit's comingí? Whatís coming?"

††††††††††††††† "The baby, of course," Billy explained, wondering why Mr. Cartwright hadnít figured that out for himself. "I like pancakes best, if you're lookiní for suggestions."

††††††††††††††† "And sausage," Adam added. "Thatíd be good, Pa."

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

††††††††††††††† The size of Billyís breakfast met with his approval, as did the heaping plateful of rabbit stew Ben dished up at noon. "This is real good, Mr. Cartwright," the redhead announced appreciatively. "We ainít had no fresh game for a spell on account of Pa stickiní close to home. And Maís cookiní ainít been up to snuff lately, either."

††††††††††††††† "I wonder why," Ben muttered wryly. "Couldnít be she was extra tired these last few weeks, and you didnít do your part in helping out, now could it?"

††††††††††††††† Billy grinned. "Naw, that couldnít be it. I been as saintly as ever."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís what I meant," Ben teased. "You had enough to fill you or you want more, son?"

††††††††††††††† "Moí, Pa!" Hoss shouted, banging his spoon against his tin plate.

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

††††††††††††††† "Itís a challenge," Ben chuckled. He stood and dished Hoss another plateful of stew, then turned to his older son. "Adam, you and Billy get the table cleared and the dishes washed up. And put Hoss down for his nap. Iíll be back soon, and weíll take Billy home."

††††††††††††††† "I ainít forgot the way," Billy snorted.

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

††††††††††††††† "Where you going, Pa?" Adam asked.

††††††††††††††† "Not far," Ben promised. "I thought Iíd try to scare up a little fresh game to take to our friends, so Billy here wonít wither on the vine."

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

††††††††††††††† Ben returned by middle of the afternoon with two sage hens, but Hoss was still asleep. "Guess youíd better stay here, Adam," his father said.

††††††††††††††† "Aw, no, Pa," Adam whimpered. "I wanted to go, too."

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

††††††††††††††† Adam scuffed his shoe across the floor. "Thatís all I do lately, Pa."

††††††††††††††† Ben knelt and gave him a hug. "I know Iím asking a lot of you, Adam, and I wish I didnít have to. Thereís just no one else that Pa can depend on, and Iím real proud of the way you handle the responsibilities I give you."

††††††††††††††† Adam smiled slightly at his fatherís words of praise. "Okay, Pa, Iíll take good care of him."

††††††††††††††† Ben patted the sturdy young shoulder. "Thatís my boy."

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

††††††††††††††† "Iím not in the market," Ben said dryly. "Besides, you know you donít mean a word of it. And what makes you think the babyís a boy?"

††††††††††††††† Billy shrugged. "Just took it for granted. Whoíd want a girl baby?"

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed loud. "Your mother, for one. I imagine sheís about ready for some female company."

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

††††††††††††††† Nelly beamed her pride. "Ainít she pretty, Ben?"

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

††††††††††††††† Nelly nodded. "Iíd like to call her Inger," she said softly, "if itís all right with you, Ben."

††††††††††††††† Benís eyes glistened. "Iíd be very pleased," he said, "and so would my Inger."

CHAPTER SIX

 

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

††††††††††††††† For the time being, of course, home was some fifteen miles southeast of this point. Ben had come this far out of desire to see the lake John Frťmont had called Bonpland in his descriptions of his travels in the west, but the panorama had exceeded Benís imagination. Scenery wasnít his alleged purpose for being here, however. As it was early April, both he and the Thomases had begun to run short of meat, so he was supposed to be hunting, and it was time he got to it. Reluctantly, Ben turned away from the lake and began watching the ground for animal tracks.

††††††††††††††† It felt good to walk alone through the virgin forest. Ben was sorry, of course, that Clyde had been too ill to come on this hunt, but the blacksmith would have wanted to hunt closer to home. Pragmatic by nature, he cared little for scenic views. Adam, however, would have enjoyed the trip. Ben regretted having to leave the boy home, but someone had to look after Hoss. Though their friends hadnít seemed dangerously ill, Ben had thought it safer to keep some distance. With no doctor this side of the Sierras, heíd hate to have two sick boys on his hands. Besides, with a new baby and both Billy and Clyde coughing hard enough to rattle the cabin walls, Nelly didnít need two more boys to look after.

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

††††††††††††††† He hadnít expected to see signs of Indians up here. He hadnít thought the Washosí range extended this far north or the Paiutesí this far south. Foolish of him. Why would people living on the subsistence level of the Diggers ignore a game-rich country like this? Of course, they would come here and one obviously had. Perhaps more than one.

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

††††††††††††††† Just as Ben turned, however, his ears caught a low sound. He held his breath. There it was again, like the whine of a dog with a thorn in its paw, but Ben instinctively knew the sound hadnít come from an animal. Somewhere down the rocky slope below him was an injured person, probably the one whose moccasins had followed the deer.

††††††††††††††† Benís broad brow furrowed as he pondered the dilemma. He felt wrong to leave without offering assistance to someone in obvious pain. But was it safe to help an injured Indian? After all, Ben was no doctor. What if the man was badly hurt? What if his people showed up and misunderstood Benís intention? Ben swallowed hard. What was the use of asking unanswerable questions when someone was lying down there in need of help? Whatever the risk, he couldnít just walk away.

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Here now, none of that. I mean you no harm, boy," Ben said, then chided himself for his stupidity. The boy probably didnít know one word of English.

††††††††††††††† The Indian struggled to sit up, drew his arm back and threw the knife, falling back from the expended effort. Ben side-stepped the flying blade just in time, the knife whizzing past his right leg. His jaw tight, Ben stepped toward the boy, hoping he didnít have a second weapon. He didnít, but with all the energy he had, the youngster fought against Benís hands as they held him to the ground. Exhausted at last, the boy lay still, gazing wide-eyed at the white man.

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

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

††††††††††††††† A groan escaped the youngsterís lips, but nothing more. "Youíre a tough young fellow," Ben admitted as he tied the splints to the straightened leg.

††††††††††††††† Once the procedure was complete, he squatted down beside the Indian. "Now what do I do with you?" he asked, smiling ruefully, knowing heíd receive no answer. What would I do if he were white? Ben asked himself. Take him home to his folks, of course. But Ben wasnít sure the Golden Rule was a good guide for this situation. This boyís folks might decide taking Benís scalp was the best way to reward his well-intentioned intervention.

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

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

††††††††††††††† The boy nodded. "Pah-Ute," he replied.

††††††††††††††† Ben pointed north. "Home?" he asked. "Teepee?"

††††††††††††††† The boy gave no sign of comprehension.

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

††††††††††††††† The boyís eyes sparked with understanding. "Karnee," he said, pointing north.

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

††††††††††††††† "Truckee," the boy replied.

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

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† The Indian wolfed down his food, making Ben wonder how long the boy had lain helpless in that gorge. Then Ben chuckled. Judging by his own appetite, it didnít take all that long to make a man ravenous. He polished off his share of the meat almost as quickly as the Paiute boy had.

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

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

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

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† After announcing his own name, Chief Truckee tapped Benís chest. Ben understood. "Cartwright. Ben Cartwright," he replied.

††††††††††††††† "My nah-tze say you help him," Truckee stated.

††††††††††††††† "Yes," Ben said quickly. "I helped him. I was trying to bring him to his people." He wasnít sure how much English the Indian had picked up in his previous contact with the whites so he kept his words simple.

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

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

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† Truckee motioned for Ben to rise. "You come our camp," he said.

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

††††††††††††††† "Near?" Truckee asked, his eyes scanning around.

††††††††††††††† "No," Ben said quickly, wanting to keep Hoss and Adamís position vague. "Far to the southeast." He pointed toward that direction.

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

††††††††††††††† Feeling he had no choice, Ben nodded.

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† Fortunately, the bowl Ben was handed looked as if it contained nothing more threatening than cornmeal mush. Ben took a tentative taste and smiled at Truckee. "Good," he said, meaning it. Though the dish obviously wasnít cornmeal, having a nuttier flavor, its taste was quite respectable.

††††††††††††††† "Truckee," the Indian responded.

††††††††††††††† Benís brow wrinkled. "Yes, you are Truckee. You told me before."

††††††††††††††† A slight smile touched the Indianís lips. "Truckee mean good, like you say," he explained.

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

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

††††††††††††††† Ben set the bowl down and looked sorrowfully into the chiefís dark eyes. "I, too, have burned the piŮon in my fires," he said. "I will not do so again. I did not know they were Indiansí food."

††††††††††††††† Truckee nodded. "Even white men can learn," he said.

††††††††††††††† "Do you want white men to go from your land?" Ben asked quietly.

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

††††††††††††††† "Poito?" Ben asked.

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

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

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

††††††††††††††† Ben unrolled the scroll and read with amazement a letter addressed on the chiefís behalf by Captain John Frťmont. "A treasure," he said, returning it to the chief. He wasnít sure the Indian understood the word, but Truckee nodded, having gathered Benís meaning from his respectful tone and manner.

††††††††††††††† Truckee stood. "Now time sleep. You come my karnee."

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

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Adam read the arithmetic problem a second time, but it didnít make any more sense than it had the first. He looked toward the cabinís door and sighed. He needed Pa to explain this lesson, but Pa wasnít here. He should have been, too. Heíd been due back from his hunting trip yesterday. It wasnít just perplexity over his schoolwork that furrowed Adamís brow: he was beginning to fear something had happened to his father.

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

††††††††††††††† "As much as I can," Adam sighed and slammed the book shut.

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

††††††††††††††† Adam frowned. It was getting close to lunch time, all right, but the boy was running out of options for meals. Paíd made a big kettle of oxtail stew before he left, but that was gone now. There were plenty of supplies still in the larder, but Adam had no training as a cook. He wasnít sure what he could fix on his own.

††††††††††††††† Hoss patted Adamís leg to get his attention. "Eat, Bubba?" he asked again.

††††††††††††††† "Later," Adam muttered.

††††††††††††††† Hossís lower lip pooched out. "Hungee," he whined.

††††††††††††††† "You always are!" Adam snapped.

††††††††††††††† A tear trickled from the corner of Hossís eye. Adam reached out quickly to brush it away. "Donít cry, baby," he soothed, feeling ashamed of himself for the sharp answer heíd made to Hossís very legitimate request.

††††††††††††††† "Bubba mad," Hoss wailed.

††††††††††††††† Adam put his arms around his little brother and gave him a hug. "No, brotherís not mad. I just donít know what to fix for lunch, Hoss."

††††††††††††††† "Stew!" Hoss shouted.

††††††††††††††† Adam shook his head. "You ate it all. I guess I could make pancakes."

††††††††††††††† Hoss scowled. "No!" he hollered.

††††††††††††††† Adamís nose wrinkled in agreement. Heíd tried his hand at pancakes that morning with less than appetizing result. "Well, you got any better ideas?" he demanded.

††††††††††††††† "Pie?" Hoss suggested.

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

††††††††††††††† Hoss shook his head vigorously. "Aní Nenny," he explained.

††††††††††††††† "No, Hoss," Adam said firmly. "Aunt Nelly has sick folks to look after. We canít bother her unless itís an emergency." The boyís lip started to tremble. If Pa didnít get home today, Adam figured heíd have a genuine emergency on his hands, and theyíd have to head for the Thomases, sickness or no sickness.

††††††††††††††† Hoss couldnít really understand the explanation his brother had given, but he understood enough to know thereíd be no pie for lunch. "Hungee, Bubba," he repeated insistently.

††††††††††††††† "Okay, okay, Iíll think of something," Adam promised. His black eyes brightened. "How about popcorn, Hoss?"

††††††††††††††† Hoss grinned. "Good," he said.

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

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

††††††††††††††† "Yes, Iíll read you a story," Adam said, pulling his volume of Aesopís Fables from beneath his arm. "Itíll have to be one youíve already heard, though. We finished the book yesterday, Hoss."

††††††††††††††† Hoss didnít seem to care what story he heard, so Adam opened the book to the first page and began to read. Hoss soon drifted to sleep, as he usually did once his tummy was full, and Adam closed the book.

††††††††††††††† Ordinarily, Hossís soft snores would have been Adamís cue to find a book of his own and sprawl out on País bed for a comfortable afternoonís read. Today, however, Adam was in no mood for books. He slipped out the front door and stood for a long time looking north, but he didnít see his father. Finally deciding he was wasting his time, Adam took two pails and headed for the nearby creek. Whatever else happened, heíd need more water before morning. As he walked, he tried to decide what he could cook without ruining it. Potatoes, maybe. He could probably chop them up and fry them like heíd seen Pa do. And some bacon. He could slice that off and fry it first so heíd have some grease to fry the potatoes in. Yeah, Hoss would like bacon and potatoesóóso long as his big brother didnít burn them the way he had the pancakes. Adam sighed and hoped Pa would be home before supper.

††††††††††††††† But Ben hadnít returned by the time the sun started to slip behind the western mountains, painting the hillsides with a pinkish-auburn glow. Hoss was up from his nap and, naturally, hungry again, so Adam got the side meat from the shed and started to slice off short, fat pieces. "Get me a couple of potatoes, Hoss," he ordered.

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

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed and scooped his baby into his arms. "País mighty glad to see you, too, little fellow!"

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

††††††††††††††† Ben set the baby down and stooped to enfold the older boy in his arms. "I know, son, and Iím sorry for worrying you, but it couldnít be helped."

††††††††††††††† "Did you have a hard time finding game, Pa?" Adam asked.

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "No, I just found the wrong kind first." Seeing Adamís puzzled look, Ben explained. "I ran into some Paiutes, son."

††††††††††††††† Adam paled. "Paiutes! Oh, Pa!"

††††††††††††††† Ben patted the boyís shoulder and stood up. "There, there now. No harm done."

††††††††††††††† Adam stared, wide-eyed. "But Paiutes, Pa! Arenít they the ones that killedóó"

††††††††††††††† Ben laid his index finger across Adamís lips and tilted his head toward Hoss.

††††††††††††††† Adam got the message. He wasnít to say anything in front of Hoss about the death of the babyís mother at the hands of the Diggers. He nodded to show his father he understood.

††††††††††††††† "Iíll tell you all about it later," Ben said. "Now whatís this I see you fixing for supper?"

††††††††††††††† "Just side meat and potatoes, Pa," Adam said, "but Iím sure open to other ideas."

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

††††††††††††††† "Tonight?" Adam queried. "But itís getting dark, Pa. Wonít it keep Ďtil tomorrow?"

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

††††††††††††††† "Why, Pa?" Adam asked, curiosity sparking in his black eyes.

††††††††††††††† "Because weíre getting up bright and early tomorrow to pay a visit to our neighbors, the Paiutes." Seeing his sonís troubled look, Ben reached out to stroke the boyís cheek. "Itís safe, Adam. I made friends with them, and the chief himself invited me to bring you boys to Pyramid Lake for their spring gathering."

††††††††††††††† Adam could hardly contain his excitement. "Iíll get to bed real early, Pa," he promised, not even caring now that heíd miss the trip to the Thomases. What was that compared to meeting a Paiute chief!

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Getting two small boys to Pyramid Lake was a challenge, of course. Having failed to convince Ben to forego the trip to the savagesí camp altogether, Nelly Thomas had argued vehemently that Hoss, at least, should be left with her. Frankly, Ben himself would have preferred to leave the toddler behind. However, he hadnít been able to persuade Captain Truckee, as the chief liked to be called, that a three-day journey with an infant in diapers represented a hardship. After all, Indian babies traveled regularly with their nomadic parents, and Truckee had insisted on meeting both Benís sons.

††††††††††††††† Diapers were, of course, the main problem, one Indian parents probably didnít have to deal with, Ben grumbled to himself. He could just see Nellyís reaction to letting Hoss traipse through the sagebrush bare-bottomed, though, so he piled every clean didee the baby owned into Adamís wagon, along with bedrolls, a skillet and grub for the journey. He also squeezed in a tin of tobacco and a bag of flour as gifts for his Paiute friend. That left little room for Hoss, so Ben had to carry the squirming armload except for brief respites when the baby fell asleep. There was room enough in the wagon to wedge a sleeping baby, but not an alert, active one.

††††††††††††††† While Hossís presence on the trip was almost more trouble than it was worth, Adamís, on the other hand, more than made up for it. The boy willingly took his turn pulling the wagon (when Hoss wasnít in it, that is), but more than that, Ben just enjoyed his sonís company. As they walked north the first day, Ben shared the exciting tale of his first encounter with the Paiutes. Adam listened, enthralled, as Ben described seeing the moccasin tracks and following them to the injured Indian and shivered when his father told of waking to find his own gun pointed at his chest.

††††††††††††††† As he talked, Ben emphasized to Adam the importance of making friends with these fierce neighbors. "Theyíre not bad people, Adam," he said. "When the first white men came through this land, the Paiutes offered friendship and guidance to them. But with the discovery of gold, more and more came, upsetting the balance of survival in this delicate land. We canít really blame the Indians for shooting at the emigrantsí oxen the way they do. Theyíre hungry, and some of that is the white manís fault."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís why they shot Mama, isnít it?" Adam asked.

††††††††††††††† "I donít think these Indians were part of that tribe," Ben said soberly, "but itís true the ones who did were acting out of hunger; they were shooting at our cow, not Mama."

††††††††††††††† "And Mama said to forgive them, didnít she, Pa?" Adam murmured softly.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, she did," Ben replied, "and I hope youíve been able to, son."

††††††††††††††† "I try, but itís hard, Pa. I miss her so much."

††††††††††††††† Ben laid a gentle hand on Adamís slender shoulder. "Me, too, Adam, but I think I honor her by doing as she asked."

††††††††††††††† Adam looked up into his fatherís face. "I want to honor her, too, Pa."

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled. "Good. I know your mother would be proud of you for extending the hand of friendship to these people, Adam, and Iím proud of the courage youíre showing in making this trip. I want to caution you, though, to avoid giving offense in any way."

††††††††††††††† "I donít know what you mean, Pa," Adam said.

††††††††††††††† "The Indians have different ways from us, son," Ben explained. "That doesnít mean our ways are good and theirs bad. You must keep an open mind and try to understand them, not brag about how much better our customs are."

††††††††††††††† "That would be rude, Pa!" Adam asserted loudly.

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded. "It would be very rudeóóand very dangerous. I know I can trust you, Adam, but I should warn you that they may offer you some strange foods, some you may not want to eat. You will eat whatever youíre given, though, and if you donít like it, keep your opinion to yourself."

††††††††††††††† Adam frowned, remembering his brotherís outspoken rejection of the pancakes the previous morning. "What about Hoss, Pa? He donít have sense enough to keep his opinions to himself."

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "If itís something to eat, Hoss will probably like it. Besides, I think the Paiutes would make allowances for a baby. Youíre a big boy, though, Adam, big enough to mind your manners."

††††††††††††††† "I will, Pa," Adam promised earnestly. "Did you eat any of their food while you were with them?"

††††††††††††††† "Yes, of course," Ben responded, "and what I had tasted fine, so there may not be a problem. I just wanted to prepare you in case there was."

††††††††††††††† When the sun began to sink behind the mountains to their west, Ben selected a campsite and began to unload the supplies theyíd need that night. "Gather up plenty of firewood, Adam," he ordered. "The nights still get real cool outdoors."

††††††††††††††† "Okay," Adam agreed readily.

††††††††††††††† Hoss toddled toward him. "Help bubba," he called.

††††††††††††††† Adam turned to frown at him. "Some help youíll be," he scolded.

††††††††††††††† "Take him with you, Adam," Ben said. "He needs to learn, and big brothers make the best teachers."

††††††††††††††† Adam scowled at the baby, but took his fat hand and led him into the woods. Finding some dry branches that had fallen from the trees, he placed a small bundle in Hossís outstretched arms and gathered an armload for himself. "Walk ahead of me, Hoss," Adam ordered, "so I can keep an eye on you."

††††††††††††††† Hoss headed back for camp with an unerring instinct that surprised his big brother. "Hoss found his way real good, Pa," Adam reported, when he and his brother dumped their loads at the spot their father had cleared for the campfire. "I didnít have to give him one hint."

††††††††††††††† Ben gave his younger son an approving pat on the head. "Youíre going to make a good woodsman, are you, Hoss?"

††††††††††††††† "Good boy!" Hoss beamed.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís right," Ben laughed, then laid a hand on Adamís shoulder. "And hereís another," he said fondly. The smile on Adamís face spread as broad as that on the babyís.

††††††††††††††† While supper was cooking, Ben told the boys about the beautiful alpine lake heíd seen before meeting the Paiutes.

††††††††††††††† "I wish I could see that," Adam sighed.

††††††††††††††† "You can," Ben promised. "Weíll swing by there on our way home."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, boy!" Adam cried. "And can we go swimming?"

††††††††††††††† "Brr! No," Ben shivered. "Not this time of year, son."

††††††††††††††† "Brr!" Hoss chortled, not having the slightest idea what the sound meant, but enjoying the way it buzzed past his lips.

††††††††††††††† Ben and Adam laughed as they cleared away the supper things and made a bed for the three of them to share. Ben arranged it so that Adam lay closest to the fire with Hoss sandwiched between the two of them. The sleeping arrangement was uncomfortable, of course. Ben would have preferred a bedroll to himself, but didnít want to take the chance of having Hoss wake and wander off during the night. Actually, though, it was Adam, with his endless questions, who kept Ben awake long after the stars sprinkled the blackness above. Finally, all three Cartwrights fell asleep, each dreaming of the adventure ahead.

††††††††††††††† Late in the evening of the third day of their journey, a sheet of blue water came into view. "Is this the lake you told me about?" Adam asked excitedly. "Itís beautiful, Pa! But I thought we werenít gonna see it Ďtil we went home."

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Beautiful it is, Adam, but it isnít Lake Bonpland. This, I believe, is Pyramid Lake. See the rock in the middle."

††††††††††††††† "You canít miss it, Pa," Adam scoffed.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís true," Ben laughed. "But notice its shape, Adam. When Frťmont first saw it, it reminded him of the pyramids of Egypt. What do you think?"

††††††††††††††† Drawing on his memory of a picture heíd seen in his geography text, Adam nodded. "Yeah, I can see what he meant, Pa. So thatís why he called it Pyramid Lake, huh?"

††††††††††††††† "Thatís why."

††††††††††††††† Hoss squirmed in his fatherís arms, pointing ahead. "Lookee, Pa."

††††††††††††††† Ben bounced the boy up and down. "What do you see, baby?"

††††††††††††††† "Men," Hoss cried.

††††††††††††††† "I see them now!" Adam announced. "Are they Paiutes, Pa?"

††††††††††††††† "Yep," Ben replied. "Remember all I told you along the road, Adam. Mind your manners."

††††††††††††††† Adam nodded his acquiescence and followed his father toward the Paiute encampment by the lake. "Those are funny teepees," he commented.

††††††††††††††† "Theyíre not teepees, Adam," his father corrected, "and that is just the kind of remark I was warning you about. Donít use words like Ďfunnyí when describing someoneís home, son."

††††††††††††††† "Sorry, Pa. Iíll do better," Adam promised.

††††††††††††††† "Good boy," his father said, giving him a smile. "Now, the Paiutes call their homes karnees, though those look different from the one I stayed in before. They may have a different name." Instead of the mat-covered domes Ben had seen at the winter camp, the structures near Pyramid Lake consisted of nothing more than a grassy roof stretched over four upright poles. Shelter from the sun, but not much else. Maybe, though, thatís all that was needed during spring and summer, Ben thought, chiding himself for judging by white menís standards.

††††††††††††††† As Ben and his two boys entered the encampment, a dozen small brown children in loin cloths encircled them, evidently fascinated by the small covered wagon Adam was pulling. Theyíd seen emigrant wagons before, of course, but the sight of one so small clearly amused them.

††††††††††††††† Hearing a loud voice, the children scattered. Ben smiled and extended his hand as he saw his friend Truckee walking toward him.

††††††††††††††† Truckee took his hand. "Your sons?" he asked, pointing to the two boys.

††††††††††††††† "Yes," Ben said. He put his hand against Adamís back and pushed him forward. "My oldest, Adam."

††††††††††††††† "He is welcome," Truckee said with a nod toward the boy.

††††††††††††††† "And this," Ben said as he juggled the chubby tike he was holding, "is my second son Hoss."

††††††††††††††† Hoss grinned and reached out to touch the Indianís craggy face. Something close to a smile touched Truckeeís lips, but he turned away immediately. "Tuboitonie!" he called sharply.

††††††††††††††† From a nearby shelter a woman approached, a pretty little girl slightly younger than Adam clinging to her apron of sagebrush bark. "My daughter," Truckee said, waving his hand toward the woman, "and this shy one who hides from whites is her daughter Thocmetony."

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled gently. "Thocmetony is a lovely little girl with a lovely name. I hope she will soon learn I am her friend."

††††††††††††††† The little girl stepped out from behind her mother and held out her arms. "I take baby?" she asked in stilted English.

††††††††††††††† "You take," her grandfather answered before Ben had a chance to say anything. "She take good care," the chief assured Ben.

††††††††††††††† Hesitantly, Ben lowered Hoss into the girlís arms, then relaxed as he saw her tender touch with the baby.

††††††††††††††† "Boy stay with women," Truckee said. "We walk together, talk while food is made ready."

††††††††††††††† Adam didnít like that idea. Being left alone with Indians, even if they were just females, felt uncomfortable. Hoss, on the other hand, showed no trepidation at all. Cooing contentedly, he grabbed one of Thocmetonyís shiny black braids.

††††††††††††††† "Ow-oo!" she cried.

††††††††††††††† "Hoss!" Adam rebuked, sharply rapping the babyís fingers. "Thatís no way to act." Hoss puckered up.

††††††††††††††† Thocmetony giggled and gave the baby a quick kiss, turning the impending whimpers into smiles again. "I am not hurt," she said. "He surprised me only."

††††††††††††††† Adamís brow wrinkled. "You talk pretty good English for a Paiute," he offered. "Whereíd you learn it, from your grandfather?"

††††††††††††††† "Grandfather?" Thocmetony asked, as if the word were unfamiliar to her.

††††††††††††††† "Chief Truckee," Adam explained. "He is your grandfather, isnít he?"

††††††††††††††† "He is father of my mother," Thocmetony said. "Is that Ďgrandfatherí?"

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Adam said, wide-eyed at her ignorance.

††††††††††††††† "Grandfather," Thocmetony repeated, savoring the sound. "I like that word. You have grandfather?"

††††††††††††††† Adam shook his head. "Not anymore. País father died when Pa was not much older than me, and my motherís father when I was about two."

††††††††††††††† "Ah," Thocmetony sighed sympathetically. "Too bad. Grandfathers teach much."

††††††††††††††† "So is he the one who taught you English?" Adam asked again.

††††††††††††††† Thocmetony shook her head. "Some from him I learn, more from white people over mountains. I learn fast."

††††††††††††††† "Have you been across the mountains?" Adam asked, stunned.

††††††††††††††† Thocmetony nodded. "I not like. Too many whites."

††††††††††††††† "How come youíre scared of whites?" Adam pressed.

††††††††††††††† "I not want them eat me," the Indian girl said seriously.

††††††††††††††† Adam tittered. "We donít do that!"

††††††††††††††† Thocmetony nodded quickly. "Oh, yes. No Indian do so bad thing, but in mountains whites in wagons do this."

††††††††††††††† Adam shook his head. Where had the girl gotten such a stupid idea? "Well, I never met any who did, and we sure donít," he said firmly, "so you shouldnít be afraid."

††††††††††††††† Thocmetony smiled. "I try. Now I must help mother with food."

††††††††††††††† Adam gulped. He wanted desperately to ask what was for dinner, but he didnít dare. Dinner, when it appeared, turned out to be strange, but basically good. Adam had no idea what the tender, pale green shoots were, but he was so hungry for fresh vegetables he didnít really care. Of course, these would have benefited from a little sideback being mixed in, maybe some salt and pepper, but even without seasoning the novelty of fresh food made the dish a treat. And Adam had been unable to hold back his enthusiasm when he saw the other item offered to the white guests. "Eggs!" he chirped. "I havenít had eggs in forever, Pa! Do they raise chickens here?"

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Theyíre marsh birdsí eggs," he said, then did his best to explain to his Paiute hosts the difference between the birds the white men raised for eggs and the ova the Indians harvested here on the shores of Pyramid Lake.

††††††††††††††† "Some white ways good," Truckee stated.

††††††††††††††† "More bad," Poito said bluntly from across the fire. Ben arched an eyebrow. He hadnít thought Truckeeís son-in-law spoke any English. Evidently, he did, though not nearly so much as Captain Truckee or little Thocmetony.

††††††††††††††† "They have more food," Truckee insisted.

††††††††††††††† "Because we have learned to grow our own," Ben commented. "This is something your people could learn, too, Truckee, to help them eat better through the winter."

††††††††††††††† "I am old to learn new ways," Truckee said, "but it be good Pah-Utes have more food." Poito only grunted. Truckee ignored the other Indianís rudeness and turned back to his guest. "Tomorrow I show you the treasure of the Kuyuidokado."

††††††††††††††† "Kwi-kwi-kado?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† Truckee thumped his chest. "Kuyuidokado," he repeated. "In your tongue, Ďfish people.í"

††††††††††††††† "I thought you were Paiutes," Ben puzzled.

††††††††††††††† Truckee nodded. "All our people Pah-Ute," he replied. "My people, Kuyuidokado."

††††††††††††††† Ben wasnít sure heíd understood correctly, but as best he could make out, Truckee was telling him that his particular branch of the Paiute tribe were known as the fish people. "Are the fish good here?" he asked.

††††††††††††††† "You seeóótomorrow," Truckee promised.

††††††††††††††† The next day Truckee, accompanied by young Natchee, led Ben to the shores of Pyramid Lake to show him the fish the Indians came here each year to harvest. "Fishing feast next moon," Truckee explained, "but for you we spear cui-ui today."

††††††††††††††† "You donít need to change your plans for me," Ben said urgently. "If it will cause bad feelings among your peopleó"

††††††††††††††† "No bad feelings," Truckee replied quickly. "Catch only few today, but before big harvest we pray and dance so Kuyuidokado spear many fish to dry."

††††††††††††††† "Ah," Ben said. "My people wait Ďtil after the harvest to say prayers of thanks, but your way is good, too."

††††††††††††††† While Ben was watching the natives spear the suckerfish from which the tribe derived its name, Adam and Hoss were accompanying Thocmetony as she gathered green shoots from the edge of the marshes. "Is this what we ate last night?" Adam asked.

††††††††††††††† Thocmetony nodded. "Tule," she said. Peeling the green exterior from the shoot, she bit off a piece of the white inner layer and then offered it to Adam.

††††††††††††††† The boy took a tentative bite. "Not bad," he said, "but I like it better cooked."

††††††††††††††† Hoss grabbed the peeled tule shoot and took a bite. His face puckered and he spit it out. "No good!" he declared and toddled over to splash at the waterís edge with small bronze bodies diapered, despite Benís presumption that they went bare, in coverings woven of sagebrush fiber.

††††††††††††††† Adam took a deep breath, fearful the babyís response would cause trouble, but Thocmetony just tittered. "He look like me first time I eat white food," she giggled.

††††††††††††††† "You donít like white food?" Adam said. "IóI think itís real good."

††††††††††††††† "Some like, some not," the Indian girl said as she waded into the water and began pulling tule shoots to fill the basket she had brought.

††††††††††††††† Adam pulled off his shoes and waded in beside her. When he reached for a green shoot, however, Thocmetony pushed his hand aside. "Womanís work," she said. "Men hunt eggs."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, okay," Adam replied. "Iíll look for eggs then." If there was one thing he didnít want to do, it was womanís work! Besides, heíd rather have more eggs for dinner than all the tule in the lake. He waded through the marsh searching for a nest. At last he found one and gathered the eggs into his hat.

††††††††††††††† He hurried back to where he had left the Indian girl. "See what I found, ThockóóThockmaó" He gave her a chagrined look. "Why do Paiutes have to have such hard names?" he demanded, in his frustration forgetting his fatherís injunctions against criticism of Indian ways.

††††††††††††††† "White names hard," Thocmetony said calmly. "CaóCaórye," she sputtered. "See? Hard!"

††††††††††††††† "Cartwright," Adam said. "I guess it is hard to say if youíre not used to it. You can call me Adam if itís easier."

††††††††††††††† "Better," the Paiute girl said. "You call me Sarah."

††††††††††††††† "Sarah?" Adam said. "Thatís a white name."

††††††††††††††† Thocmetony nodded. "White people over mountain call me that. It better for them."

††††††††††††††† "Easier," Adam rephrased. "Yeah, it would be, but I want to learn your Paiute name, too."

††††††††††††††† The girl smiled. "Thocmetony," she said slowly. "It mean Ďshellflower.í"

††††††††††††††† "Shellflower?" Adam asked.

††††††††††††††† "Pink flower of desert," Thocmetony explained.

††††††††††††††† "Oh! Iíve seen that," Adam said. "Itís pretty. Iíll call you Shellflower then."

††††††††††††††† "What Adam mean?" Shellflower asked.

††††††††††††††† "Pa told me once," Adam said, "but Iím not sure I remember. Wait a minute: I think itís something like Ďman of red earth,í because Adam was the first man, and God made him out of the earth, you know."

††††††††††††††† Shellflower tittered. "Call you Red Man then. Good Indian name."

††††††††††††††† Adam laughed, too. "Youíre silly, Shellflower. You just want to turn me into an Indian Ďcause youíre afraid of white people."

††††††††††††††† "At first," Thocmetony replied, growing more serious. "I cry with fear when Grandfather make me go over mountain to them. Then I much sick. White woman come with cool hands. Make feel better. Fear go, but sometimes come back."

††††††††††††††† "Youíre not still afraid of me, are you?" Adam asked.

††††††††††††††† "No," the girl giggled. "You eat eggs, not Pah-Utes. Now, go find more, Red Man."

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† "More fish, Adam?" Ben asked. "Thereís one piece left."

††††††††††††††† "Iím full up, Pa," Adam sighed contentedly.

††††††††††††††† Ben looked at his younger son and laughed. No need to ask if this one wanted more. Though he obviously wanted to finish the piece in his hand, Hoss was yawning drowsily, his eyelids fighting to stay open. "Come here, tired boy," Ben soothed, picking up the toddler. "Let Pa tuck you in." He settled Hoss in the middle of the bed theyíd share and, prying the fish from the childís clutching fingers, gave him a good-night kiss.

††††††††††††††† Ben sat down again and nibbled the final piece of fish. Like Adam, he was "full up," but couldnít let the food go to waste. "Weíve had quite a trip, havenít we, son?" he commented. "Did you enjoy it?"

††††††††††††††† "I really did, Pa," Adam replied. "IóI didnít like to say so, but I was a little scared at first."

††††††††††††††† "Pa wouldnít take you into danger, son," Ben assured him.

††††††††††††††† "I know, but they are Paiutes, Pa."

††††††††††††††† "Are Paiutes so different from us, Adam?" his father pressed.

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned. "I guess not as much as I thought. They were nice, most of them. I like that Shellflower a lot."

††††††††††††††† "A fine little girl," Ben agreed, "and I think Iím making progress with her father, too, even if he doesnít think too highly of white men in general." Part of Poitoís changing attitude was due, Ben felt sure, to the white manís spontaneous gift. He had originally intended both flour and tobacco for Truckee. At the last minute, though, something told Ben to offer the tobacco to Poito. The Indian had seemed pleased and had even begun to converse a little with Ben in his syllabic English before the visit ended.

††††††††††††††† Ben started to say more about the foundation of good relations he hoped they had laid over the last few days, but he saw Adamís mouth stretch wide. "Looks like I have another tired boy," he said, smiling. "You crawl in next to Hoss, son."

††††††††††††††† "I should help you clean up," Adam murmured slowly.

††††††††††††††† "No, no," Ben assured him. "Iíll take care of everything. We have another hard dayís walk up to the lake tomorrow. You want to be wide awake for that."

††††††††††††††† "I sure do," Adam said as he lifted the blanket and lay down next to his younger brother. Tired as he was, though, Adam found it hard to relax with his mind full of the excitement of his visit to the Paiutes and the prospect of seeing the mountain lake the next day. Instead of going to sleep, he watched his father clear away the plates and feed more wood onto the fire.

††††††††††††††† "Paiutes have some funny ideas," Adam said.

††††††††††††††† "I hope you didnít tell them that!" Ben chuckled.

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned. "Of course not, but I did tell Shellflower we donít eat people like she thought. She wouldnít believe me, though. She said white people in the mountains did it. Isnít that stupid?"

††††††††††††††† "Not as stupid as you think, Adam," Ben said soberly. "She was talking about the Donner party."

††††††††††††††† Adam propped his head up on his elbow. "Whoís that?"

††††††††††††††† Ben came to sit next to Adam. "Some emigrants who got trapped in the Sierras the winter of Ď46. When they ran out of food, they did resort to eating the flesh of the people who died."

††††††††††††††† Adam sat up quickly, his face distressed. "Thatís awful, Pa!"

††††††††††††††† Ben put a soothing arm around his son. "Yes, it was a terrible thing. Captain Truckee told me Shellflowerís fear of white men started when she heard those stories. It had the same impact on many of the Indians, Iím afraid. Made them think white men were savage barbarians."

††††††††††††††† "Weíd never do something like that!" Adam said stoutly.

††††††††††††††† Ben kissed the top of the boyís head. "Iím just grateful I never had to make a choice like that, Adam. Weíve been blessed. Now lie down and get some sleep. Think about a clear lake surrounded by pines and snow-capped mountains that scrape the sky."

††††††††††††††† Adam pulled the covers up to his chin and snuggled close to Hoss. As he closed his eyes, a grisly picture of starving people eyeing each other hungrily flitted past his eyelids; but he consciously replaced it with the image his father suggested and fell to sleep and pleasant dreams.

††††††††††††††† The dream became reality the next day when Adam stood beside the lake his father had described to him in glowing terms. As the boy looked at the mountains rimming the vast expanse of water, tears began to trickle down his face.

††††††††††††††† "Why, Adam, whatís wrong?" Ben asked, setting Hoss down and kneeling to take his older son in his arms.

††††††††††††††† "Itís like she saw it," Adam murmured.

††††††††††††††† Benís face softened. "Mama?"

††††††††††††††† Adam nodded. "Like the mountains in Sweden, remember?"

††††††††††††††† Like Ben, Adam had never seen those mountains and couldnít be sure these were similar, but heíd felt the same impression his father had when he first saw the snowcaps surrounding the lake. "I think Mama would have liked this place," he said, stroking Adamís dark, straight hair.

††††††††††††††† "Could we live here?" Adam asked impulsively. "We promised Mama weíd build our house in a place like this, and you said weíd always keep our promises to her."

††††††††††††††† Ben was taken aback. How frequently his young son mirrored his own thinking! "Iíd like that," Ben said, "but I doubt building our home here on the lake would be practical. Closer to the valley floor would be better."

††††††††††††††† "But near here?" Adam pressed, his voice almost pleading.

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled. "Near hereóóa fine, big house just like I promised Mama."

††††††††††††††† "When can we start?" Adam asked, excited.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, not for a long time, Adam," Ben laughed. "Thatís a dream for the future, not for anytime soon. As sparsely settled as this land is, I think itís better to stay close to our friends for now. And have you forgotten that the emigrant season is almost on us again? Iíll be spending most of my time at the trading post."

††††††††††††††† "But after that?" Adam insisted.

††††††††††††††† Ben tickled his ribs. "No, not even after that. Our cabinís good enough for the time being. First things first, Adam. And first comes building up our ranch, stocking it with cattle. Once the ranch is established on a sound footing, we can think about building a better house."

††††††††††††††† "But here? For sure, here?"

††††††††††††††† "Here; for sure, here," Ben said, then, tapping Adamís nose, "Thatís a promise."

††††††††††††††† Hoss clapped his hands as he saw Adam smile. "Pomish," he chortled.

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Dusk was just beginning to fall when Clyde Thomas and Ben Cartwright, each accompanied by a son, arrived in Placerville. "Looks like we made it before the cafe closed," Clyde yelled back to Ben, who was guiding the second wagon into town.

††††††††††††††† Ben guffawed. "As if you hadnít timed the trip just to that end, you old hypocrite!"

††††††††††††††† "You sayiní you had other plans?" Clyde snickered.

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head, still laughing. "Couldnít say it with a straight face," he called. "Letís get the stock tended to and see what Ludmillaís offering tonight."

††††††††††††††† Adam and Billy, as eager as their fathers to sit down to one of Ludmilla Zuebnerís hefty plate dinners, helped get the teams situated in a livery at the edge of town. Then everyone headed down Placervilleís main street with mouths drooling.

††††††††††††††† Ludmilla, as always, wrapped each of her old friends in an exuberant embrace and seated them at their favorite table by the front window.

††††††††††††††† "Whatís the special today, Ludmilla?" Ben inquired.

††††††††††††††† "Do you have strudel?" Adam asked, dark eyes hopeful.

††††††††††††††† "Strudel I have," Ludmilla replied, "and special is sauerbraten."

††††††††††††††† "My favorite!" Adam announced. "Thatís what I want, please."

††††††††††††††† Billy leaned over to whisper in Adamís ear. "What is it?" Billyíd only been to Placerville once before and heíd had oxtail stew that time."

††††††††††††††† "Roast beef," Adam whispered back, "in kind of a spicy gravy. Itís real good, Billy."

††††††††††††††† While Billy mulled that information over, Ben placed his order. "I think Iíll have the Hangtown Fry, Ludmilla," he said.

††††††††††††††† "Hey, yeah!" Billy declared. "Thatís what I want, too!" Heíd heard both his pa and Mr. Cartwright rave over the combination of oysters with scrambled eggs and decided heíd have to try it.

††††††††††††††† "Good, good," Ludmilla said. "And for you papa?"

††††††††††††††† "Oxtail stew canít be beat," Clyde said.

††††††††††††††† Ludmilla bustled into the kitchen to dish up their meals. While she was gone, the door to the cafe opened and a young man of fourteen and a younger girl came in. Ben smiled broadly. "StefŠn! Marta!" he called, raising his arm to wave at the youngsters.

††††††††††††††† "Mr. Cartwright! How good to see you again," StefŠn said, coming forward to clasp first Benís hand and then Clydeís.

††††††††††††††† Marta, meantime, had pranced up to the table, doubled her fist and slammed it into Billyís arm. "Look what the cat drug in!" she cried, a mischievous twinkle in her blue eyes.

††††††††††††††† Billyís freckled hand calmly reached up to yank the long blonde braid dangling over her shoulder.

††††††††††††††† "Here now, that ainít no way to act!" Clyde sputtered. "You been reared better than that, boy."

††††††††††††††† "Aw, Pa, itís just Marta," Billy asserted. "Sheís used to me teasiní."

††††††††††††††† "And didnít miss it a lick," Marta smirked, then favored Billyís friend with a softer smile. "Hi, Adam. Nice to see you, at least."

††††††††††††††† "Hi, Marta," Adam giggled.

††††††††††††††† "You here for dinner, StefŠn?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, we always eat here when the cafe is open," StefŠn explained. "It is easier for Mama than bringing food home."

††††††††††††††† "Adam, you and Billy move to that next table and let StefŠn sit here and talk with us," Ben ordered.

††††††††††††††† Adam immediately stood and moved to the next table. Billy got up, too, although a little more slowly. "Reckon weíll have to put up with you," he told Marta with a playful scowl.

††††††††††††††† She scowled right back as she followed the boys to the next table. "Iíll be the one doiní the puttiní up with," she declared, tossing her head so hard that her braid bounced behind her shoulder.

††††††††††††††† Martaís older sister Katerina exited the kitchen, her arms laden with the dishes ordered by her old friends from the Overland Trail. Deftly she slid each plate in front of the appropriate customer after giving them a warm greeting.

††††††††††††††† "My, Katerina," Ben purred, "youíre getting prettier all the time."

††††††††††††††† Katerina blushed, the rosy tint of her complexion making her look even prettier. "It is so good to see you all again. Is everyone well? Mrs. Thomas? And little Hoss?"

††††††††††††††† "Hoss is getting to be a big boy now," Ben reported. "Healthy as a horse with the appetite to prove it." Katerina smiled.

††††††††††††††† "Nellyís doiní fine, too," Clyde put in, "and soís little Inger, even if you didnít ask."

††††††††††††††† "How could she, Clyde?" Ben chided softly, then smiled at the German girl. "Clyde and Nelly had a new baby girl in March and named her after my wife. Fortunately, Inger takes after her mother." Everyone laughed at the look on Clydeís face when Ben made that final remark.

††††††††††††††† "Such good news!" Katerina said. "I hope someday I will see these babies."

††††††††††††††† "Katerina," her brother interrupted authoritatively, "I, too, would like to eat, as would your sister. We have had a hard dayís digging at the mine."

††††††††††††††† Katerina blushed again, this time from embarrassment. "I am sorry, StefŠn. What can I bring you?"

††††††††††††††† "Sauerbraten," he replied.

††††††††††††††† "Hangtown Fry for me," Marta called. Katerina nodded and headed back toward the kitchen.

††††††††††††††† "Well, StefŠn," Ben said, "howís that brewery idea of yours coming along?"

††††††††††††††† "I am working toward it," StefŠn said, "but so far I make only a little for private use. If you would like to taste, I will be glad to draw you a glass."

††††††††††††††† "Sounds good to me," Clyde cackled. "Oxtail stew gives a man a powerful thirst."

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Just the thought of beer gives you a powerful thirst." Clyde just grinned and shrugged.

††††††††††††††† StefŠn went to the kitchen and returned with three glasses of homemade beer. Ben and Clyde tasted it and pronounced it good. "Matter of fact," Clyde mused, "we could probably sell this at the trading post, if you have some to spare."

††††††††††††††† "I am afraid I do not," StefŠn replied, "but if you are interested, I will make more and save some back for the next time you come."

††††††††††††††† "What you think, Ben?" Clyde asked. "This is sure better than what folks could get over to Mormon Station."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "You can say that again! But I thought you liked Valley Tan."

††††††††††††††† Clyde scowled. "Man makes do with what he has," he protested. He turned to StefŠn. "You save us back some, son, and weíll show these emigrants what good liquor tastes like."

††††††††††††††† "Weíve been cooped up east of the mountains the last few months," Ben began. "Anything going on in the wide world we ought to know about."

††††††††††††††† StefŠn thought for a moment. "All I can think of is the flood at Sacramento last March. It nearly wiped out the town."

††††††††††††††† Ben looked alarmed. "Thatís where we planned to resupply."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, you will have no problem," StefŠn assured him. "They are set up for business again and will be glad for your trade."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís good," Clyde mumbled, his mouth full of oxtail stew.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, Iím particularly glad to hear that," Ben stated, "because Iíd planned to go on the Monterey from there. I might have had to change my plans if weíd had to go to San Francisco for supplies."

††††††††††††††† From the next table Adam caught the word ĎMontereyí and his lips curled in a surly pout. Benís trip to that town had been a source of contention with his older son. Adam, always eager to explore new sights, had begged to go, too, but Ben had refused. Clyde and Billy would need his help getting the second wagonload of supplies back home, Ben had insisted, and nothing Adam could say would change his fatherís mind. Pa could be so stubborn, Adam had grumbled wordlessly all the way across the mountains. It never occurred to him that he was the one souring everyone elseís trip with his stubborn, stony silences.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† As the two wagons entered Sacramento, Ben was pleased to see the place bustling with activity. Though reportedly devastated by flood only two months before, the city had made a rapid recovery: muddied buildings scrubbed clean and necessary repairs made with the same zeal that had rebuilt San Francisco after the previous yearís near-total destruction by fire. Sacramento looked fresher than ever, restocked and ready for business and, if the saloons lining the streets perpendicular to the American River were any indication, for pleasure, as well. "Westerners pitch right in to rectify anything man or nature throws at them," Ben commented. "Makes a man proud to number himself among them."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Clyde agreed, "but it stands to reason, Ben. The cowards never started, and the quitters didnít make it halfway. What you got left is bound to be the cream of the crop."

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled. "Like you, you mean?"

††††††††††††††† "Like the both of us," Clyde said firmly.

††††††††††††††† The two men guided their wagons to the business that had supplied them with trade goods the previous year and found it in operation. After selecting the items they wished to purchase, they left the wagons to be loaded and led the oxen to a livery for the night. Clyde would pick up the loaded wagons the next morning and with the help of the two boys begin the trip east while Ben headed southwest to Monterey.

††††††††††††††† As they walked toward the K Street lodging Clyde had suggested, he pointed out the main reason heíd recommended staying in this part of the city. "There it is, Ben."

††††††††††††††† Reading the sign posted outside the business, Ben nodded. "Alpha Bath House. Yeah, you could use a good scrubbing, Clyde." He pinched his nose between his thumb and index finger. Trailing behind their fathers, Billy and Adam snickered.

††††††††††††††† "Very funny," Clyde snorted. "How long since you had a good washiní, Mr. Snoot-nose?"

††††††††††††††† "Saturday before we left," Ben said with a proud uplift of his chin, "and high time for another, Iíll be the first to admit."

††††††††††††††† Clyde scowled. He should have known Ben Cartwright would be one of them weekly bathers, though he hadnít gone in for it that winter theyíd lived together. Not enough privacy, likely enough. Clyde, personally, considered too many baths unhealthful, but the habit didnít seem to be doing Ben and his boys any harm. Jerking out of his reverie, Clyde pointed to the final words on the sign. "Itís that shower bath Iím after," he said. "Had one last time I was through and found it right refreshiní."

††††††††††††††† "Iím willing to try it," Ben said.

††††††††††††††† "Hey, we ainít got to take no bath, do we?" Billy demanded.

††††††††††††††† "Only if you want one," his father said. And just let Ben Cartwright wrinkle his nose!

††††††††††††††† "Well, we donít!" Billy declared.

††††††††††††††† Ben arched a blue-black eyebrow. "Maybe Adam would like to speak for himself. You want a fresh scrubbing, son?"

††††††††††††††† Adam thought a shower bath sounded interesting, but before he could answer, he saw Billy shaking his head violently. The look in Billyís eye told Adam the impish redhead had mischief brewing. Already outside his fatherís good graces, Adam decided heíd better stay in Billyís. "Naw, I donít want no bath," he replied, deliberately using poor grammar to further irritate his father.

††††††††††††††† Benís eyebrows knit together. Heíd tried to be patient with Adamís sulkiness, but heíd just about had his fill. "Fine," he said sharply. "Weíll find a room, then have some dinner. Afterwards, Clyde, letís deposit these two dirty urchins in bed and treat ourselves to a night on the town."

††††††††††††††† "Sounds mighty fine," Clyde agreed.

††††††††††††††† After a dinner that in no way lived up to the one theyíd eaten in Placerville, the quartet went back to the rooming house on K Street. There Ben and Clyde gave the boys strict instructions on bedtime before heading out for a bath and a beer.

††††††††††††††† No sooner had the men left than Billy began to pull on his lightweight jacket. "Come on, nowís our turn for some fun," he announced.

††††††††††††††† "What you up to?" Adam asked, knowing from experience that some of Billyís ideas were nothing short of hare-brained.

††††††††††††††† "You remember how your pa told us about that saloon here in Sacramento with all the picture paintings of the trail west?"

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Adam said slowly.

††††††††††††††† "Well, donít you want to see Ďem?" Billy demanded.

††††††††††††††† "Sure I do," Adam said, "but my paíd have a fit if I went in a saloon. Yours, too."

††††††††††††††† Billy rolled his blue eyes at the ceiling. "So whoís gonna tell Ďem?"

††††††††††††††† "Nobodyíll have to tell them if they come back and find us gone," Adam reasoned.

††††††††††††††† "We wonít stay out that long," Billy argued.

††††††††††††††† "We try going in a saloon, though, and theyíll kick us right out. Maybe even send for the law," Adam said nervously.

††††††††††††††† "Look, Ďfraidy cat," Billy pressed. "Weíll just peek in at doors Ďtil we find the right place. Then weíll march in and tell the barkeep we come to see his artistic masterpieces. Heíll be so flattered he wonít give us a lick of trouble. Probably give us a tour of the place."

††††††††††††††† Adam bit his lip. He really would like to see the pictures his father had described, and Billy made his plan sound workable. Though he normally thought things through before acting, Adam was just mad enough at Pa to be reckless. "Okay," he said impulsively, "but if we donít find the right place in, say an hour, we got to come back. Agreed?"

††††††††††††††† Billy grabbed his friendís hand and pumped it. "Agreed!"

††††††††††††††† Adam slipped his jacket on, and soon the two conspirators were walking the darkened streets in search of one particular saloon. It was a quest destined to fail, for covering all the opportunities for liquid temptation Sacramento offered would take far longer than the hour allotted to the venture.

††††††††††††††† Billy didnít mind, of course. He wasnít as much interested in art work as he was in seeing the inside of a saloon, anyway. But he intuitively sensed Adam would have said no to that without added enticement. "Hey, this one looks interestiní," he announced as they approached a huge circular tent with big blazing letters declaring it the City Diggins.

††††††††††††††† "I donít know," Adam said. "It looks like a circus tent."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, it ainít no circus," Billy scoffed. "Use your ears, boy. Canít you hear that plunky ole piano and all them miners carousiní around?"

††††††††††††††† "I know itís a saloon!" Adam snapped. "But itís probably decorated like a circus inside, too. It wonít have the pictures weíre after."

††††††††††††††† "Wonít know Ďtil we look," Billy said, nonchalantly pushing Adam inside.

††††††††††††††† "You said we wouldnít go in," Adam hissed.

††††††††††††††† Billy shrugged. "How else we gonna see? Come on, Ďfraidy cat." He began edging his way into the rowdy crowd.

††††††††††††††† "Billy!" Adam wailed, pushing after his friend.

††††††††††††††† A miner turned at the sound of the youthful voice. "What you doiní in here, kid?" he demanded, pushing a brawny palm against Adamís chest.

††††††††††††††† Adam pointed into the crowd. "My friend. I needó"

††††††††††††††† "No place for kids," the man said gruffly. "Whereís this here friend of yourn?"

††††††††††††††† Adam pointed again. "There he is."

††††††††††††††† "The little redhead, huh? Yup, heís too young to be in here, all right." The miner plowed through the bodies between him and Billy and, grabbing the youngster by one ear, pulled him back to Adam. Then he grabbed Adamís ear with his other massive hand and escorted both boys roughly to the entrance to the saloon. "And stay out!" he ordered, dusting his hands after thrusting the two intruders outside.

††††††††††††††† Billy picked himself up. "Werenít the right one," he announced.

††††††††††††††† "What gave you your first clue?" Adam demanded hotly from his seat in the dust. He scrambled to his feet. "Letís get back to the hotel."

††††††††††††††† "Not yet," Billy insisted. "We got to try one or two more." He started off down the street in the opposite direction from their lodgings.

††††††††††††††† Adam rolled his eyes heavenward. He should have known better than to let Billy talk him into this fool idea in the first place. But he couldnít abandon his friend on the dark streets; he had to follow.

††††††††††††††† Billy next approached a drinking establishment called the Round Tent. "They got fiddles playiní in here," he said. "Thatís the kind of high-class place weíre lookiní for."

††††††††††††††† "Maybe," Adam agreed. The music was nice, not as raucous as the out-of-tune piano from the City Diggins.

††††††††††††††† "You can stay here," Billy offered. "Iíll just slip inside the door and see if they got pictures."

††††††††††††††† "Okay, but come right out if they donít," Adam told him.

††††††††††††††† Billy nodded. He didnít particularly relish staying long enough for some miner to grab his ear again.

††††††††††††††† Adam crowded close to the entrance as Billy went inside. Billy didnít come out right away, but neither did he tell Adam to come inside. "Billy!" Adam whispered intently. "You there?"

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Billy drawled, his voice awestruck.

††††††††††††††† "Well, do they have pictures or not?" Adam asked.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, yeah, they got pictures, all right," Billy said. "You gotta see this!"

††††††††††††††† Grinning, Adam walked in. His eyes widened when he saw the paintings on the canvas walls. "Naked ladies!" he sputtered, then dropping his voice to a whisper, "We gotta get out of here, Billy!"

††††††††††††††† "Uh-huh," Billy agreed, but he didnít move. He continued to gape at the erotic paintings as if in a trance. Adam grabbed his arm and pulled him outside.

††††††††††††††† "I ainít never seen the like of that!" Billy exclaimed.

††††††††††††††† "You ainít supposed to see the like of that!" Adam shouted. "Nor me, either. Why didnít you tell me what kind of pictures they had?"

††††††††††††††† Billy shrugged. "Too busy lookiní, I guess."

††††††††††††††† Adamís eyes narrowed. "Billy Thomas, you wanted to gawk at those ladies!"

††††††††††††††† "You did plenty of gawkiní yourself!" Billy yelled.

††††††††††††††† Adam doubled his fist and plowed it into Billyís nose.

††††††††††††††† "Yeow!" Billy shouted and landed a flying fist on Adamís left jawbone.

††††††††††††††† Adam fell to the ground and Billy hurled himself on his friendís prone body. The fist fight turned into a wrestling match with neither boy landing another telling blow, but each tearing the otherís shirt as they clawed and kicked on the ground.

††††††††††††††† "Fight! Fight!" yelled voices all around them. Pouring from the nearby saloons, men crowded around, amused to see two youngsters scuffling in the street. "Hit him, Red!" called one.

††††††††††††††† "Two bits on the little one!" another called, and his bet was accepted by Billyís supporter. Neither man collected the prize, however, for the fight ended abruptly when strong hands pulled the battling boys apart.

††††††††††††††† "Adam!" shouted the man collaring the dark-haired boy.

††††††††††††††† "You scoundrel!" the man holding a squirming Billy hollered.

††††††††††††††† Both boys looked up into the eyes of their irate fathers, and all the fight washed out of them as they were peppered with questions. What were they fighting about? Where had they been? Why werenít they in the room where theyíd been told to stay? Adam and Billy both tried to answer at the same time, each pointing accusingly at the other.

††††††††††††††† A roar of laughter rose from the surrounding throng. Secretly sorry to see the fisticuffs end, the audience still found the aftermath amusing. Two naughty boys berated by two crimson-faced fathers was a sight not often seen in a society dominated by grown men.

††††††††††††††† Suddenly noticing the crowd of onlookers, however, Ben decided it was time the spectacle ended. "Come on!" he growled, gripping Adamís elbow with an iron hand and steering him through the congregation of miners. Clyde, dragging Billy in the same manner, followed in his friendís wake.

††††††††††††††† The quartet moved awkwardly toward their lodgings. When they arrived, Ben exchanged a significant look with Clyde. "Youíre welcome to the use of the room for awhile," he muttered. "Adam and I will be taking a short walk before we turn in." Adam and Billy exchanged a significant look of their own. Each had a good idea what awaited him at the end of his journey.

††††††††††††††† Clyde nodded, giving Billy a swat that was a foretaste of things to come, and pulled him inside while Ben continued to steer Adam down K Street toward the docks. "Pa, youíre hurting me," Adam whined.

††††††††††††††† It was the one thing Adam could have said to dilute his fatherís anger. "Iím sorry, Adam," Ben said, loosening his grip, but continuing to clasp the elbow firmly enough to steer the boy where he wanted him to go. They turned onto Front Street, walking past the ships tied up along the shore. The riverfront wasnít entirely silent, for even at night some steamboats were unloading cargo. The street was quiet, the only sound the footfall of their steps on the planked walkway. But to Adam, the stillness was the calm that portended a storm. "IóI guess weíre gonna have a very necessary little talk, huh, Pa?" he asked nervously. He knew that was his fatherís favorite euphemism for a spanking.

††††††††††††††† "We are," Ben said firmly. "Youíve disobeyed and youíve got that coming, but first weíre going to have an even more necessary little talk." Adam wasnít sure what that could mean, but it sounded ominous.

††††††††††††††† Ben stopped near a pile of crates that had been unloaded from a now vacant steamboat and motioned for the boy to sit on one of them. "Iíve been very disappointed in you, Adam," Ben said, facing his son, arms akimbo.

††††††††††††††† "It was Billyís idea, Pa," Adam accused.

††††††††††††††† Benís right hand fired forward, his index finger almost striking Adamís nose. "Thatís enough!" he shouted. "I donít care whose idea it was, and I donít care why you were fighting! When I say Iím disappointed, Adam, Iím talking about more than just tonight. Iím talking about your behavior this entire trip."

††††††††††††††† "Oh," Adam said, his face draining. Ben didnít need to elaborate. Adam knew heíd behaved badlyóóhad, in fact, done so intentionally to irk his father the way his father had irked him. But Adam knew heíd crossed over the line tonight and it was all going to catch up with him. "Iím sorry, Pa," he said quickly.

††††††††††††††† "Are you?" Ben asked dubiously. "Adam, I suspect all youíre sorry about is being called to account." He lifted the boy to his shoulder and pointed at the boat tied to the wharf. "What controls that ship, Adam?"

††††††††††††††† "The wheel, I guess," Adam replied.

††††††††††††††† "Which turns?" Ben probed.

††††††††††††††† "The rudder," Adam responded, remembering tales of his fatherís life at sea.

††††††††††††††† "Who turns your rudder, Adam?" Ben asked softly.

††††††††††††††† Adamís lips curled. "I do, Pa."

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "No, thatís what you want, not what is. Tonight, by your own report, Billy Thomas turned your rudder, son."

††††††††††††††† "No, Pa," Adam insisted. "IóI could have said no."

††††††††††††††† "You could have, yes," Ben agreed. "You could have kept your own hands on the wheel, but you didnít. You turned command over to someone else."

††††††††††††††† Adam frowned. He didnít like the picture his father was painting. "IóI was mad at you," he offered as explanation.

††††††††††††††† "I know that," Ben said. "Youíve made that clear every day since I told you you couldnít come to Monterey with me. So what youíre telling me now is that your anger is your rudder."

††††††††††††††† "No," Adam protested.

††††††††††††††† "Yes," his father insisted. "You let it control you, didnít you?"

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir," Adam admitted, his head hanging. He looked up and said, "Iím sorry, Pa," meaning it this time.

††††††††††††††† "You are forgiven," Ben said, giving the boy a squeeze, "but thereís one thing more you need to understand, Adam."

††††††††††††††† "Whatís that, Pa?"

††††††††††††††† "You need to understand, son," Ben said, "that you do not command your own vessel. At nine years of age, you havenít the wisdom to pilot your own life. That is the task of your father."

††††††††††††††† "Youíre my captain?" Adam asked. "Is that what you mean?"

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Thatís one way of putting it. And when you disobey, Adam, youíre committing an act of mutiny."

††††††††††††††† Adam gulped. He knew no crime aboard ship merited harsher punishment. "IóI donít want to do that," he said earnestly.

††††††††††††††† "Then youíll do as I say and return home without giving Mr. Thomas any trouble?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir," Adam promised.

††††††††††††††† "And without subjecting him to anymore of your sullen behavior?"

††††††††††††††† Adam flushed, ashamed now of how heíd acted the last several days. "No, sir. Iíll behave, Pa."

††††††††††††††† "Good," Ben said, setting him down. "And now, Adam, Iím afraid itís time for that Ďvery necessary little talkí I promised you." Adam nodded solemnly and dropped his trousers.

CHAPTER NINE

 

Just ahead Ben could see a small adobe house with a red clay tile roof. He hoped the directions heíd been given were accurate and that he would soon see his old friends, Jonathan and Rachel Payne. His journey had already taken three days longer than planned, for the Paynes hadnít been in Monterey. Ben had, however, learned from a hide merchant that they lived on a small ranchero some fifty miles east of there, and this place fit that description. Though he felt awkward about arriving so near suppertime, Ben walked to the house and rapped on the door.

††††††††††††††† A dark-haired woman in her late twenties opened the door. "Yes?" she asked, peering into the sunlight from the darker room.

††††††††††††††† "Rachel?" Ben smiled.

††††††††††††††† Rachel squealed. "Ben Cartwright!" She grabbed his hand and pulled him through the door. "Oh, Jonathan, look whoís come!"

††††††††††††††† Long, lanky, light-haired Jonathan Payne got up from the gold Spanish-style sofa and extended his hand. "Ben, what a surprise!"

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "A pleasant one, I hope."

††††††††††††††† Rachel squeezed him. "How could you think anything else? Where are the boys?" Her face sobered suddenly. "Theyóthey are all right?" Rachel, as well as anyone, knew the dangers of the overland journey. Like Nelly Thomas, she had lost a son to cholera.

††††††††††††††† "The boys are both fine," Ben assured her quickly. "And how is little Susan? I heard she took quite ill during your ordeal in the mountains."

††††††††††††††† "She did," Rachel said, "but sheís fine now. Shows no ill effects of the hardship of her first year. The children had an early dinner, so sheís sleeping in the other room now with her brother."

††††††††††††††† "Her brother?" Ben asked, his countenance lifting.

††††††††††††††† "Born in January," Jonathan said proudly. "We call him Samuel. Sit down, Ben, and weíll share all our news."

††††††††††††††† "And hear all yours, too," Rachel added as she seated herself in the rocker near the sofa where Ben took his seat.

††††††††††††††† "I should see to your horse," Jonathan said, starting for the door.

††††††††††††††† "Donít bother," Ben chuckled. "There isnít one. That, as a matter of fact, is why Iím here. You told me once that if Iíd see you a year after you reached California, I could pick out the best of your string. Iím a little late getting here, of course."

††††††††††††††† "Just as well," Jonathan laughed as he sat next to Ben. "It took me longer than I expected to get established here. I lost my colt and my mare in the blizzard that hit us in the Sierras."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, Iím sorry," Ben sympathized. "I remember how much she meant to you. And the little colt Inger helped into the world, too." Ben shook his head sadly.

††††††††††††††† "Well, Iíve managed to catch and tame a few mustangs," Jonathan said, "soó"

††††††††††††††† "Oh, hush that now," Rachel protested. "Business talk can wait. I want to hear all the gossip about our old friends. You said your boys were fine. Did Clyde and Nelly survive the winter in Carson Valley, too?"

††††††††††††††† "They did, indeed," Ben said. "In fact, weíve survived two winters there. Once spring came, we found we liked the place so well we decided to settle there."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, my" Rachel giggled. "Imagine that! So youíre all still living together?"

††††††††††††††† "Heaven forbid!" Ben guffawed. "No, Adam and Hoss and I have our own cabin now, just under four miles from the original one where the Thomases still live."

††††††††††††††† "And is that Billy as sassy as ever?" Jonathan asked.

††††††††††††††† "Sassier," Ben said wryly and related the trouble the two boys had gotten into in Sacramento.

††††††††††††††† After the three friends had a good laugh at Billyís expense, Rachel said, "Nellyís got her hands full with that one."

††††††††††††††† "Her hands are doubly full since March," Ben smiled. "Thatís when her baby was born."

††††††††††††††† Rachel clapped her hands, delighted. "Oh, Iím so glad. Of course, the new ones never take the place of the ones we lost, but it is a comfort to have someone to cuddle again. Boy or girl?"

††††††††††††††† "A little girl; they call her Inger," Ben said softly. Rachel reached out to squeeze his hand. She had been one of the original Ingerís closest friends.

††††††††††††††† A Mexican lady in a red gathered skirt and a white peasant blouse embroidered with red flowers around its scooped neckline entered from the next room. "La comida estŠ servado, seŮora," she said softly.

††††††††††††††† "Gracias, MaŮuela," Rachel replied. "We have a visitor, so please set an extra place."

††††††††††††††† "It is already done, seŮora," MaŮuela said shyly, dark eyes fixed to the floor.

††††††††††††††† "Bueno," Rachel said, smiling brightly. "Letís go in to dinner, then, gentlemen."

††††††††††††††† "You donít have to ask me twice," Ben said, rising at once.

††††††††††††††† "Iím afraid you may be in for a surprise," Jonathan chuckled, taking his guestís arm. "MaŮuela cooks like a dreamóóif you dream of Mexican food, that is."

††††††††††††††† "Iíve tasted it before," Ben said, "and liked it quite well."

††††††††††††††† "Weíre having arroz con pollo," Rachel announced, sitting at one end of the table. "Have you had that before?"

††††††††††††††† "I donít think so," Ben said. "At least, I donít recognize the name."

††††††††††††††† "Chicken with rice," Jonathan interpreted as he indicated the chair at the middle of the table to Ben and seated himself at the end opposite Rachel.

††††††††††††††† Ben unfolded his napkin and laid it in his lap. "Sounds wonderful. You must be doing very well, Jonathan, to afford household help."

††††††††††††††† Jonathan laughed. "Not as well as it looks, Ben. MaŮuela is married to one of my vaqueros, so weíre almost getting two for the price of one."

††††††††††††††† "I see," Ben said. "Well, if this tastes as good as it looks, youíre definitely getting a bargain, my friend."

††††††††††††††† "Believe me, we are," Rachel said enthusiastically. "With two babes under two, I donít know what Iíd do without MaŮuela. Sheís wonderful with the children. Ben, youíll do us the honor of saying grace, wonít you?"

††††††††††††††† "Of course," Ben agreed readily and bowed his head.

††††††††††††††† As they ate, Rachel reluctantly let the men discuss business. "I know just the horse for you, Ben," Jonathan said. "Heís a bay gelding, well-broken to the saddle and easy to handle. And thereís a gray colt about the right size for Adam, if youíre interested."

††††††††††††††† "I hadnít thought about a mount for Adam," Ben mused, "but perhaps he is old enough."

††††††††††††††† "Certainly, he is!" Jonathan said enthusiastically. "Heíll be a better horseman for starting early, Ben, and thatís important in this part of the country."

††††††††††††††† "Iím sure youíre right," Ben said, "so if we can come to terms on the price, Iíd like the colt, too. Iíd also hoped to purchase some cattle while I was here. I hadnít, of course, expected you to be in that business, but since the hide merchant in Monterey knew you, I assume you must be."

††††††††††††††† "I am, but not in a big way," Jonathan laughed. "At least, compared to some of my neighbors, my herd is quite small. I could let you have about twenty-five head, Ben, but surely youíll want to make a bigger start than that. With the influx of miners into California, cattle arenít just raised for their hides anymore. Thereís good money in selling the beef now."

††††††††††††††† "I suppose so," Ben said. "Truthfully, Jonathan, Iím not sure how many I can handle."

††††††††††††††† "Iíd recommend a hundred, to start," Jonathan advised. "That is, if your funds will stretch that far." Jonathan told him the price he could expect to pay for prime Spanish cattle.

††††††††††††††† "I think I can swing that," Ben said. "Iíll be spending a little more than Iíd planned, but I do have the funds available. Our trading post did quite well last year. But wonít it be difficult for me to herd that many back over the mountains?"

††††††††††††††† "Youíll need help, of course," Jonathan stated. "I can loan you one of my vaqueros for the trip, and you can probably pick up any others you need in the area. Iíll ask around when we visit some of the neighboring ranchos tomorrow."

††††††††††††††† Ben raised an eyebrow, and Jonathan laughed. "Itís the only way to find the cattle you need, Ben. Donít worry; Iíll see to it youíre treated fairly."

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled. "I knew I could count on you for that, Jon, and I appreciate your taking time to show me around."

††††††††††††††† "Well, if you gentlemen are through discussing livestock," Rachel tittered, "Iíll have MaŮuela serve the flan."

††††††††††††††† "Iíd halt any discussion for that!" Jonathan exclaimed. And when Ben spooned the first creamy taste of cool, caramel-sauced custard into his mouth, he added a hearty amen.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Disgruntled, Billy Thomas took a whack at the weed crowding close to a bushy green turnip top with his hoe, killing both it and the turnip at the same time. "Dadbern it!" he growled.

††††††††††††††† "You watch where youíre slinginí that hoe, boy!" his father snapped.

††††††††††††††† "And watch your language while youíre at it," Nelly put in.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir; yes, maíam," Billy responded perfunctorily. He looked over at Adam, hoeing in the row next to him and sighed. No use looking for sympathy from that direction. Adam actually liked working in the garden. Besides, ever since that night in Sacramento when theyíd both taken lickings from their fathers, Adam had been practicing up for sainthood. Even the two babies were more fun these days.

††††††††††††††† Billy glanced at the edge of the garden where his sister lay on a blanket spread on the ground with Hoss sprawled beside her, tickling her tummy. Raising his eyes to the distant horizon, Billy saw a rider on a yellowish horse, leading a gray one behind him.

††††††††††††††† "Billy, quit that wool gatheriní and get back to work!" Clyde snapped.

††††††††††††††† "Rider cominí, Pa," Billy reported.

††††††††††††††† Adam looked up from his diligent pursuit of weeds, shading his eyes against the bright sun.

††††††††††††††† "You need glasses or somethiní?" Billy demanded. "Itís your pa, stupid!"

††††††††††††††† "Why, it is!" Nelly cried, overlooking Billyís disrespectful namecalling.

††††††††††††††† Adam threw down his hoe and ran from the garden, heedless of the tender plants he trampled on the way. "Pa!" he shouted.

††††††††††††††† Hoss clambered up from the blanket and trotted after Adam. "Pa!" he yelled.

††††††††††††††† Ben all but leapt from his horse and swept the two boys into his arms. "Oh, am I glad to see you!" He smothered them both with kisses.

††††††††††††††† "Iím glad to see you, too," Billy said, sauntering up to them, "but donít try any of that slobbery stuff on me."

††††††††††††††† "Wouldnít dream of it," Ben snorted, reaching out to ruffle the unruly shock of fiery hair.

††††††††††††††† Clyde was already examining Benís bay gelding. "Mighty fine lookiní animal," he appraised.

††††††††††††††† Ben stroked the animalís black mane. "Yeah, Jonathan sure picked out the best for me."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, you found them!" Nelly cried, giving little Inger a squeeze to express her pleasure.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, maíam," Ben laughed, "and Iím full of gossip, as Rachel calls it."

††††††††††††††† "I canít wait!" Nelly said.

††††††††††††††† Perched in Benís arms, Hoss reached out to pat the horse, too, in imitation of his father.

††††††††††††††† Adam couldnít take his eyes off the gray colt beside the bay. It couldnít be for him, could it? Adam shook his head sadly. No, not after the way heíd behaved. The horse must be for Mr. Thomas, though it looked small for a man.

††††††††††††††† Ben couldnít imagine why his older son suddenly seemed so somber. Picking up the reins of the grayís bridle, he smiled and held it out to Adam.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís not for me," Adam murmured, then his voice quavering hopefully, "is it?"

††††††††††††††† "Well, if he donít want it, Iíll take it!" Billy hollered. Everyone but Adam laughed.

††††††††††††††† "Itís yours, son," Ben said, puzzled by Adamís behavior.

††††††††††††††† A slow smile brightened Adamís face. "Honest, Pa?"

††††††††††††††† "Of course," Ben said. "Climb up and give her a try." He showed Adam how to mount the horse and let him walk her around the yard.

††††††††††††††† "Can I try?" Billy begged.

††††††††††††††† "Billy, you let Adam enjoy his own horse awhile," his mother scolded. "You got weeds to hoe."

††††††††††††††† "Aw, Ma," Billy whined. "Who wants to hoe weeds when he canó"

††††††††††††††† A heavy swat landed on Billyís backside. "Do like your ma says. Git now!" his father ordered.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, here now," Ben soothed. "I didnít mean to make trouble. Iím sure Adam wonít mind giving his friend a turn on his horse."

††††††††††††††† "Well, I mind backtalk," Clyde said emphatically, "so Billyíll just have to wait a spell for his turn."

††††††††††††††† Ben didnít argue the point. A father had the right to discipline his own son. He reached up to lift Adam down. "You have some hoeing to do, as well, I expect."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir," Adam said at once and dutifully followed Billy to the garden.

††††††††††††††† Hoss lifted his arms toward Ben. "Up!"

††††††††††††††† Ben obligingly picked the youngster up again, but Hoss leaned out toward the gray filly. "Oh, no," Ben chuckled. "Youíre too small for that."

††††††††††††††† Hoss started to whimper, but a tight hug from his father brought back his characteristic toothy grin.

††††††††††††††† "Well, come on inside and tell me all that gossip," Nelly suggested. "Iíll make a fresh pot of coffee, and there might even be a doughnut or two left from breakfast."

††††††††††††††† "Provided, of course, that feed bag youíre totiní ainít snuck in and helped hisself," Clyde snickered.

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "You mean bag of feed, donít you? Heís heavy enough." He set the boy down on the ground as they approached the cabin door.

††††††††††††††† Inside, Ben reached for the baby in Nellyís arms. "Now, hereís a load I can handle. Come to Uncle Ben, darling." Heíd been amused when Nelly adopted the title of aunt to his boys, but now that he had a "niece" of his own, Ben decided there was no better word to describe the closeness he felt for this child not of his blood. Of course, that would make Billy his "nephew," too. Ben chuckled, not at all disturbed by the addition of the irrepressible redhead to his family. At least, life would never be boring.

††††††††††††††† Little Inger made no protest at leaving her motherís arms. "What a sweet little lady," Ben cooed as he sat in the rocker by the empty fireplace and stroked the babyís wispy, strawberry blonde hair. On a warm spring day like today, no fire was needed; even the heat from the cookstove provided more than the small room required.

††††††††††††††† "Did you know that Uncle Benís been looking out for you while he was away?" Ben teased, more for the ears of Ingerís parents than for the babyís. "Yes, Uncle Benís found just the right boy for you. His name is Samuel, and heís just two months older than you and as handsome as you are pretty. Brown hair like his mother, but he has his fatherís blue eyes."

††††††††††††††† Nelly spun from the stove where she had just set the coffee to boil. "Rachel has a new boy!" she exclaimed.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís right," Ben laughed. "Youíre a good guesser, Nelly."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, thatís good news," Nelly said.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Clyde snorted, "but Ben hereís already tryiní to marry off our little girl. That ainít good news to me."

††††††††††††††† "Now, you know Benís teasing," Nelly scolded.

††††††††††††††† Hoss had pressed close to his fatherís knee as soon as Ben sat down. At first Ben thought the boy was jealous of Ingerís place in his fatherís arms, but Hoss evidently was as interested in being close to the baby as to Ben. Ben gave the boyís head an approving pat, receiving another of Hossís sunny smiles in response.

††††††††††††††† "Thought you was gonna bring back some cattle, too," Clyde was saying.

††††††††††††††† "Hmn?" Ben said, his attention jerking back to the conversation. "Oh, yeah, I did. Theyíre back at my place. I got in yesterday, but it was so late, I figured I should wait Ďtil this morning to pick up the boys. I hope they werenít too much trouble."

††††††††††††††† "Just keepiní the feed bag full," Clyde cackled as he swooped Hoss up and gave him a good-natured tickling.

††††††††††††††† "And Adam?" Ben asked more seriously. "He give you any problems on the way home?"

††††††††††††††† "Naw, not really," Clyde said. "Heís been extra quiet, as a matter of fact. That boyís a brooder, Ben."

††††††††††††††† Ben frowned. "Still sulking?"

††††††††††††††† "No," Nelly put in quickly. "More like heís mulliní things over. No trouble, honestly."

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded, satisfied.

††††††††††††††† "So, how many head you buy?" Clyde asked.

††††††††††††††† "A hundred," Ben replied. "Thatís what Jonathan advised. He says prime beef brings a high price now with all the miners to be fed. I can believe it, too, when I see what Jonís been able to accomplish with his place. You should see the house, Nelly."

††††††††††††††† "I want to hear all about it," Nelly said, pouring each of them a cup of coffee. There were only three doughnuts left, so she handed one each to Clyde, Ben and Hoss.

††††††††††††††† Clyde tried to turn the conversation back to the price of cattle, but Ben laughed. "Ladies first," he jibed. "The Paynesí house is larger than either of ours, really shows mine up for the hovel it is," he began.

††††††††††††††† "Hey! I thought we done right well on your place," Clyde snorted. "Hovel, he says."

††††††††††††††† "I stand corrected," Ben chuckled, "but the Payne place does show mine up for a cramped, crudely furnished cabin. Their house is made of adobe in the Spanish style you see so much in southern California, and Iíd just as soon have logs like we do. But they have a parlor and dining room and a kitchen out back to keep from heating the house. The climate thereís dry and hot, you know."

††††††††††††††† "A separate room just for eating?" Nelly said. "Imagine that. And they got enough furniture for all that?"

††††††††††††††† "The furnishings are a little sparse," Ben admitted, "but what they have is good quality." He described the parlor for Nelly. "I didnít see the bedroom," he said. "Thereís just one large room, where they all sleep. Not liking to intrude in there, I slept with the vaqueros."

††††††††††††††† "They got hired hands, too?" Clyde asked. To him, that was a greater sign of prosperity than store-bought furniture.

††††††††††††††† "They even have a cook!" Ben reported, amused by the surprised looks on both his friendsí faces. "Jonathanís place is small, though, compared to some of his neighborís haciendas."

††††††††††††††† "You wishiní youíd gone on to Californy after all, are you?" Clyde demanded.

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "Not at all. I doubt theyíre much, if any, ahead of us financially, Clyde. And I surely wouldnít trade the life I have here for all the gold in California."

††††††††††††††† "Nor all the store-bought furniture, either," Nelly said firmly. Then, she sighed. "A parlor does sound nice, though."

††††††††††††††† "Someday, darliní," Clyde promised. "If this here emigrant season goes good for us, I just might bring you back a sofa come fall."

††††††††††††††† "Youíd have to add a room to put it in," Nelly giggled. "No, I expect a parlor can wait Ďtil thereís more folks around to entertain in one."

††††††††††††††† Ben leaned back in the rocker, patting Inger to sleep. Nellyís remark about adding another room had been made in jest, but Ben found himself wondering if another room wasnít just what his own cabin needed. A separate room for the boys with a bed for each, so Adam didnít wake up next to a soaked diaper every morning. There was no time for that now, of course, with the emigrant season almost upon them, but when the weather cooledó

††††††††††††††† "Iíd better be getting home," Ben said softly to avoid waking the baby.

††††††††††††††† "Canít you stay to dinner?" Nelly asked.

††††††††††††††† "Not today," Ben said, "but weíll see you Sunday."

††††††††††††††† "All right, then," Nelly said, mollified.

††††††††††††††† Ben handed her the baby and reached for his own boy. "Time to go home, Hoss," he said.

††††††††††††††† Hoss stretched his arms toward Inger. "Baby," he said urgently.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís right," Ben said, patting the boyís sturdy back. "Ingerís a baby."

††††††††††††††† "Mine!" Hoss said, reaching for her again.

††††††††††††††† "No," Ben laughed. "Sheís not your baby."

††††††††††††††† Nelly giggled. "Iím afraid heís got real attached while you were gone."

††††††††††††††† "You canít have my baby, you little cradle robber," Clyde snickered, poking Hossís well-padded ribs. "Tell pa heíll have to git hisself hitched so he can give you a baby brother or sister of your own."

††††††††††††††† Hossís head bobbed up and down vigorously. "Bubba!" he cried.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís not funny, Clyde," Ben sputtered. "Donít go putting something in the boyís head that he can never have."

††††††††††††††† "Well, you never know," Clyde teased. "Just might be a widder woman on one of these emigrant trains whoíd take a shine to you."

††††††††††††††† "Hush now, Clyde," Nelly hissed. Knowing how sensitive Ben was about the idea of marrying again, she thought her husband had gone far enough.

††††††††††††††† Hoss wailed at leaving his new playmate behind, but once Ben lifted him into the saddle of the yellow bay and climbed up behind him, Inger was forgotten in the excitement of the new experience. Adam mounted his gray colt and waved good-bye to the Thomases.

††††††††††††††† "I wanna ride that horse tomorrow!" Billy called.

††††††††††††††† "You can," Ben promised. "Adam, at least, will be here to help in the garden tomorrow, probably the rest of us, too."

††††††††††††††† Hoss babbled happily as they rode along, but Adam was virtually silent. From time to time Ben glanced over at him. "You seem unusually quiet, son," Ben finally commented. "Something wrong?"

††††††††††††††† Adam shook his head. "No, Pa. I just, that is, Ió"

††††††††††††††† "What is it, son?" Ben asked gently. "Since when canít you talk to Pa about whatever troubles you?"

††††††††††††††† "Since I acted up so bad on our trip to California, I guess," Adam admitted. "I really am sorry, Pa."

††††††††††††††† "I know that, Adam," Ben replied. "Thatís all in the past, son; no need for you to keep brooding over it."

††††††††††††††† "But I donít understand you bringing me a present when I donít deserve it one bit," Adam quavered.

††††††††††††††† "Adam, Adam," Ben said gently. "You donít understand forgiveness, do you, son?"

††††††††††††††† "I guess not, Pa."

††††††††††††††† "Listen, son," Ben said earnestly. "You told me you were sorry back there in Sacramento, and I forgave you. When I say itís all in the past, I mean I wonít hold it against you in the future. So if I choose to make you a present, what you did before is no hindrance to me. You understand?"

††††††††††††††† Adam smiled. "I think so. Thanks for the horse, Pa. Sheís the best present you ever gave me."

††††††††††††††† "Youíre very welcome," Ben said. "These animals will certainly make it easier to get around."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Adam agreed. "I can go see Billy any time Iíve a mind to, andó"

††††††††††††††† "Not quite," Ben said, his eyebrow arching.

††††††††††††††† "When you say I can, I mean," Adam added hastily.

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Thatís better." He gave Hoss a squeeze. "Now, is my other boy about ready for his present?"

††††††††††††††† "Hoss gets a horse, too?" Adam cried.

††††††††††††††† "No!" Ben shook his head, chuckling. "What Hoss gets is a puppy. One of the dogs at Rancho Hermosa gave birth a couple of months ago, so Mr. Payne said I could take one of the pups home to my boys. Since you have a new horse, I figure the dog should be Hossís."

††††††††††††††† "I guess thatís fair," Adam admitted, "but Iíd like a pup, too, Pa."

††††††††††††††† "I imagine Hoss will share," Ben said, "especially the chore of feeding and cleaning up after him."

††††††††††††††† Adam scowled, secretly planning to teach Hoss to do his own chores. They rode in silence for awhile, then Adam asked, "Whatís Rancho Hermosa, Pa?"

††††††††††††††† "Thatís the name of the Payne place," Ben explained. "It means Ďbeautiful ranch.í"

††††††††††††††† "Ooh, I like that!" Adam bubbled. "We should have a name like that for our place."

††††††††††††††† "Well, Iíll put you in charge of thinking one up," Ben said, reaching over to tousle Adamís dark hair.

††††††††††††††† "Tree!" Hoss shouted.

††††††††††††††† "Huh?" Ben asked, looking down at the baby seated in front of him. "What about a tree, son?"

††††††††††††††† Adam giggled. "I think he wants to call our ranch Tree!" Hossís fat chin bounced up and down.

††††††††††††††† "Surely, we can do better than that!" Ben laughed. "Something to do with trees might be appropriate, though."

††††††††††††††† "Iíll work on it," Adam promised.

CHAPTER TEN

 

Having a name for his ranch made Ben Cartwright feel more like a solid fixture in the community of Carson Valley, though neither he nor Adam was satisfied with the designation of Pine Tree Station. Somehow, the name didnít suit the lofty dreams Ben described for his son, but theyíd been unable to come up with a name grand enough to match their aspirations. For Hoss, of course, even Pine Tree Station was too much of a mouthful. To him, home remained simply "Tree." The toddlerís refusal to use the full title frustrated Adam, for it pointed out the nameís inadequacy.

††††††††††††††† "Donít worry about it, Adam," Ben laughed. "After all, this cabin is just temporary. Surely, by the time we build our big house, weíll have thought of something more appropriate. And by that time Hoss will be better able to pronounce whatever name we choose." Adam couldnít take much comfort in Benís words, however, for from the way his father talked, the big house was years in the future, so far removed that it seemed as substantial as a castle in the clouds.

††††††††††††††† Name aside, the ranch itself was flourishing, the cattle thriving on the rich meadow grasses. Near the trading post the garden, larger this year than last, was sprouting bountifully in expectation of a profitable emigrant season. Though Adam, with Billyís reluctant help, was kept busy chopping the weeds attacking their produce, this was his favorite season of the year. He liked the feel of the warm sun on his back, the touch of the breeze rippling his sweat-soaked shirt. Best of all, he liked pausing now and then to look at the wild peach trees flaming with pink blossoms. Though most Americans thought of the Great Basin as arid and barren, the Carson Valley, at least, dazzled the eye with vibrant, colorful life every spring.

††††††††††††††† Adam threw down his hoe one tranquil afternoon and walked to the bucket of water sitting in the shade of a willow. Tossing a dipperful down his throat, Adam looked up to see Billy reaching for the dipper. "Funny how you always get thirsty same time as me," Adam teased.

††††††††††††††† Instead of answering, Billy dipped up some water and threw it in Adamís face. "You need cooliní off," Billy snickered.

††††††††††††††† "You, too," Adam giggled, splashing a handful of water drops at Billy.

††††††††††††††† The incipient water fight halted abruptly when the boys saw a rider galloping recklessly toward them. The man bounded off the horse and threw its reins to Adam. "Whereís your pa, boy?" he demanded urgently.

††††††††††††††† "In the trading post," Adam said. "He and Mr. Thomas are stocking the shelves foró" Before Adam could finish his explanation the man turned and raced toward the trading post.

††††††††††††††† Billy slapped his friendís arm. "Come on; letís see whatís up."

††††††††††††††† Adam didnít budge. "Maybe we better not."

††††††††††††††† "Well, Iím going!" Billy declared. "Stay or go, itís all the same to me."

††††††††††††††† Overcome by curiosity, Adam followed Billy, his steps, like his friendís, growing stealthy as they approached the post. Billy plastered himself against the outside wall near the door and Adam crowded close to him. The first words they heard explained the riderís agitation.

††††††††††††††† "Is he dead?" Ben was asking.

††††††††††††††† "Not yet," the man said breathlessly, "but I donít see how he can last. Haskill shot him full of holes."

††††††††††††††† Adamís eyes flew wide. Haskill was an important man at Mormon Station, a member of the governing committee. And heíd shot a man!

††††††††††††††† "How can you be sure itís Haskill that did the shooting, Jameson?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "Well, he sure isnít denying it!" Jameson shouted. "Reese has got him locked up in a storeroom at his trading post and aims to hold the trial tomorrow morning. Asked me to see that all the jury members got the word."

††††††††††††††† "Weíll be holding court at Reeseís place?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah. Can you make it?"

††††††††††††††† "Iíll be there," Ben promised.

††††††††††††††† "Good," Jameson said. "Iíve got to get over to Eagle Station to see another juror."

††††††††††††††† "Joe Barnard," Ben said. Like Ben, Joseph Barnard had been selected for the jury the previous November, but until now thereíd been no cases for them to try. Ben followed Jameson outside, suddenly seeing the two boys beside the door. "What are you doing here, Adam?" he asked sharply.

††††††††††††††† Adam bit his tongue. "Listening, Pa," he admitted.

††††††††††††††† "And how much did you hear?" Ben probed.

††††††††††††††† "He said Mr. Haskill shot someone," Adam replied, "but I didnít hear who."

††††††††††††††† "William Byrnes," Ben said softly, laying his hand on Adamís neck.

††††††††††††††† "Isóis he gonna die, Pa?"

††††††††††††††† "Sounds that way, son," Ben answered, "but weíll sure pray otherwise. Now you and Billy get back to the garden."

††††††††††††††† Adam nodded and headed back to his chores at once, Billy following. "I hope they shoot that Haskill full of holes," Billy sputtered.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís not nice," Adam said bluntly.

††††††††††††††† "I donít care; I liked Mr. Byrnes. Besides, itís Bible," Billy insisted. "An eye for an eye."

††††††††††††††† Adam picked up Billyís hoe and tossed it to him. "Oh, hush and get to work."

††††††††††††††† Billy rolled his eyes heavenward. Murder and carnage going on in the valley and all Adam could think of was killing a few stinkiní weeds!

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Benís heart was heavy as he entered Reeseís trading post the next morning. Only a few months ago a hundred men, their hopes high, had met here to establish a basis for law and order in the valley. Now two of those in whom theyíd placed the highest confidence had blighted those budding hopes, blasting them as full of holes as Byrnesí bullet-ridden body. Ben greeted the other members of the jury quietly, their expressions and wordless nods telling him that they, too, were shocked to silence by the sudden intrusion of violence into their peaceful community.

††††††††††††††† Reese called the jury to order. "This is a sad day, men. When we constituted this jury, I assumed weíd be dealing with civil matters, not criminal cases. Now the decision before us is not a matter of property rights, but ofó"

††††††††††††††† "Murder!" Jameson shouted. "Murder, pure and simple."

††††††††††††††† "Attempted murder," Reese corrected the vituperative juror.

††††††††††††††† "Byrnes is still alive?" Ben whispered to Joseph Barnard, seated next to him.

††††††††††††††† Barnard nodded. "Just barely," he whispered back.

††††††††††††††† "Itís murder," Jameson insisted. "Everybody knows Byrnes canít last much longer."

††††††††††††††† "We canít try a man for murder without a dead body," John Reese protested.

††††††††††††††† "Well, we canít keep Haskill locked up in a storeroom Ďtil Byrnes kicks off," Jameson snarled. "His partner already tried to break him out last night."

††††††††††††††† Benís heart sank further. Washington Loomis, Haskillís partner, had served with Ben on the committee for laws and resolutions. Now he, too, was caught up in this morass of contention, aligning himself against the laws of civilized men.

††††††††††††††† "I understand," Reese said. "We arenít equipped to confine criminals on any long-term basis, so weíll have to deal speedily with the charges. But we have to act lawfully. Unless Byrnes dies during our deliberations, the charge must remain attempted murder. Is that agreed?" Murmurs of assent rumbled reluctantly across the room.

††††††††††††††† "Were there any witnesses to the shooting?" Joe Barnard asked.

††††††††††††††† "Just Byrnes himself," Reese replied. "I thought we should adjourn to his place and hear his testimony if heís able to talk."

††††††††††††††† "I know what happened," Jameson snapped. "No need to be bothering Byrnes."

††††††††††††††† "You think you know what happened, but you werenít there," Reese pointed out patiently. "Letís take Byrnesí statement, if possible."

††††††††††††††† Reeseís suggestion seemed the best policy, so the others trooped down the street behind him until they reached the small cabin where William Byrnes layóóweak, wan, breathing hard.

††††††††††††††† "Weíre sorry to disturb you, Bill," Reese said, "but the jury needs to hear what happened to you."

††††††††††††††† "Went to serve Haskill," Byrnes gasped. "Court notice."

††††††††††††††† "We understand," Reese said. Turning to the jury, he added, "For those who donít know, there was a dispute between Haskill and Jameson concerning water rights to an irrigation ditch. Byrnes was acting in his capacity as sheriff to inform Haskill that heíd have to come before our court to settle the issue." He turned back to Byrnes. "Tell the jury what happened when you went to see Haskill, Bill."

††††††††††††††† Byrnes took a slow, shallow breath. "Said no one had rightóójudge himóógrabbed rifleóófiredóóagain, again, againó" Byrnesí voice tapered off and his eyes closed.

††††††††††††††† "I donít think we should tax him further," Reese said.

††††††††††††††† "Weíve heard all we need," Joe Barnard stated grimly.

††††††††††††††† Just before they left, Ben reached out to take Byrnesí hand. The manís eyes fluttered open, and he smiled slightly when he saw Ben.

††††††††††††††† "Youíll be in our prayers, my friend," Ben said softly.

††††††††††††††† "Thanks, Cartwrió" The eyes closed again. Ben tucked Byrnesí hand beneath the covers and walked softly out.

††††††††††††††† Back at Reeseís trading post, Reese was trying to quiet the other jurors, some of whom were ready to pronounce Haskill guilty without further discussion.

††††††††††††††† "Anyone doubt Haskillís the one shot poor Bill?" Jameson demanded.

††††††††††††††† No one did, but Ben raised a point. "Was there any ill feeling between Byrnes and Haskill?" he asked. "Anything that would make him accuse the man falsely?" Each of the others shook his head.

††††††††††††††† "To the best of our knowledge," Reese said, "Bill was doing the job to which we elected him and was gunned down for no other reason."

††††††††††††††† The evidence seemed clear, and the jury quickly rendered a verdict of guilty. A somber cloud hung over the room, and the next words cracked like lightning through the blackness of the mood. "Haskill deserves to hang," Jameson announced.

††††††††††††††† Murmurs of agreement were heard from some, others just as loudly denouncing Jamesonís statement.

††††††††††††††† "Not for attempted murder," one voice shouted. "Thatís going too far."

††††††††††††††† "Hangingís too good for the likes of Haskill!" another hollered.

††††††††††††††† "Wait a minute!" Ben shouted. "What Haskill deserves isnít the point. What authority do we have to condemn a man to death? When allís said and done, what we have is a squatterís government. Something as serious as the death penalty should only be given by real governmental authority."

††††††††††††††† "Where are we supposed to find that?" Jameson snarled. "Weíre the only effective government there is!"

††††††††††††††† "Thatís right," Joe Barnard agreed. "Like it or not, the decision is ours. San Francisco found itself in the same predicament last year. They had to take matters into their own hands and form a vigilance committee."

††††††††††††††† "Letís not resort to that!" Ben cried.

††††††††††††††† "Why not?" Barnard demanded. "It worked well in California. Cleared out the Sydney Ducks, who were causing all the trouble."

††††††††††††††† "I know," Ben said, "but I still say we have no right to take a manís life without appeal to recognized legal authority."

††††††††††††††† "You mean Salt Lake?" Jameson demanded. "Taking Haskill that far is not practical, Cartwright; you know it isnít."

††††††††††††††† Ben made no response. He knew Jamesonís point was valid, but could not consent to hanging Haskill. Still, he had no other solution to offer.

††††††††††††††† "Look, men," Reese reasoned. "I agree that Haskill probably deserves to hang, but Ben is right. If we take the law into our own hands, we may undo all weíve tried to accomplish so far. If Congress were to hear that lynch mobs ruled in this territory, that might push them to reject our appeal to separate from Utah. Now, none of us wants that, do we?"

††††††††††††††† Reeseís words silenced even Jameson. The last thing any of them wanted was to remain under control of the territorial government in Salt Lake City.

††††††††††††††† "All right," Barnard growled. "But maybe we can learn a lesson from the vigilantes, after all. While they did hang several ringleaders, they just banished most of the riffraff."

††††††††††††††† "Itís a mild penalty," Jameson complained, "especially if Byrnes dies."

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded sadly, but in the end the jury decided banishment was the only penalty they could risk enforcing. Haskill, along with his partner Washington Loomis, was escorted over the hills into California and warned never to return.

††††††††††††††† William Byrnes hovered near death for nearly a week, then began, miraculously, to make a slow recovery. But to Ben, it seemed the barrage of bullets had wounded the manís soul more deeply than his body. Instead of open interest in the world around him, Byrnesí eyes held a haunted look, as though he were constantly expecting bullets to fly from some dark corner.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Nelly tied her green-sprigged sunbonnet snugly and, smoothing Ingerís matching smock, lifted the baby in her arms and walked out the cabinís door. Seeing them, Hoss immediately abandoned his pup and ran over, stretching his arms up. "Go," he cried.

††††††††††††††† Nelly patted his head. "No, Sunshine, not this time. You stay with Pa and the boys."

††††††††††††††† Hossís lower lip thrust out. "Go," he whimpered.

††††††††††††††† Coming up behind him, Billy gave his ribs a tickle. "What you want with an old hen party anyway?" he teased. "Me and Adamís got plans, and youíre a part of Ďem."

††††††††††††††† "What kind of plans?" his ever suspicious mother demanded.

††††††††††††††† Billy turned the most innocent set of blue eyes sheíd ever seen to her face. "We was just planniní to help Pa and Uncle Ben all we could," he said angelically.

††††††††††††††† Nellyís eyes narrowed. Helping out was rarely at the top of Billyís list of activities for the day. "Best help you could be is to keep Hoss occupied and happy."

††††††††††††††† "Just what I aim to do, Ma," Billy assured her. "Just keep him out from underfoot."

††††††††††††††† "All right, then," Nelly said, still dubious. Blowing Hoss a kiss, she walked past the corral where the men were inspecting the oxen. "Iím headed out," she called. "Thereís a pot of beans simmering that should be ready come dinnertime."

††††††††††††††† "Have a good gabfest, darliní," Clyde called. He grinned at Ben. "Seems like I hardly see my good wife since them Motts moved in."

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Hardly surprising when you consider how starved for female company Nellyís been."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, well, sheís sure makiní up for lost time with that Eliza Ann," Clyde snorted. "Beans again!"

††††††††††††††† Ben had to laugh. He was a little tired of beans himself, that being one of the staples on his menu at home. But he didnít resent Nellyís helping the Motts make their cabin more livable. The place, thrown together from boards Israel Mott had scavenged from abandoned wagon beds along the Humboldt, needed all the help it could get. And with a new baby, Eliza Ann found it hard by herself to add the little touches that spelled home to a woman. With helpfulness being practically Nellyís middle name and after almost two years surrounded by nothing but men, Ben could hardly blame her for seeking every opportunity to visit another woman. And their baby girls, born just three months apart were good company for each other, freeing the mothers to stitch curtains or hook rugs while they shared recipes and compared notes on child-rearing.

††††††††††††††† "All right, what are these Ďplansí you and I have?" Adam demanded as soon as Billyís mother was out of earshot. "I donít remember making any plans."

††††††††††††††† Billy grinned. "No, but Maíd have been even more suspicious if she knew the idea was all mine."

††††††††††††††† Adamís brow wrinkled. "If youíre plottiní more mischief, Billy Thomas, so help meó"

††††††††††††††† "No mischief," Billy said hastily. "Just helpiní out, like I said."

††††††††††††††† The furrows in Adamís brow deepened. Like Nelly, he had no reason to trust Billyís idea of what constituted help. "Since when do you volunteer for extra chores?" he demanded.

††††††††††††††† Billy scowled. "Not chores, but I got an idea to drum us up more business. Thatís helpiní, ainít it?"

††††††††††††††† "I guess so," Adam agreed. "So whatís the idea?"

††††††††††††††† "I figure we ride out to meet some of them emigrants headiní our way and sort of advertise how our postís the best in the territory," Billy explained. "You know, best prices, best produce."

††††††††††††††† A smile lifted a corner of Adamís mouth. Advertising sounded like a good idea, but he foresaw a problem. "Weíre supposed to be watchiní Hoss," he sighed.

††††††††††††††† "We take him with us," Billy said. "Heís the best advertisiní we got."

††††††††††††††† "Huh?"

††††††††††††††† "Youíll see," Billy cackled. "Just go ask your pa if we can go ridiní."

††††††††††††††† Adam shrugged. That was easy enough. "Okay."

††††††††††††††† "I donít mind your taking a ride," Ben said as soon as Adam asked, "but one of you needs to stay here to mind Hoss."

††††††††††††††† "We were gonna take him with us," Adam said.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Well, I guess your horse will hold all three, but you hang tight to your brother."

††††††††††††††† "ĎCourse I will," Adam assured his father. He understood that keeping watch over his baby brother was always his first and most important responsibility, and he handled it the way he handled all responsibilities, with a maturity far beyond his years.

††††††††††††††† Adam raced back to the cabin. "Billy! We can go," he called.

††††††††††††††† Billy poked his head out the door. "Come clean up your brother!" he hollered.

††††††††††††††† Adam frowned. "I thought you were watching him!" He went inside to find his brotherís face smeared with plum jam.

††††††††††††††† "I figured we might be out past lunch time, so I was fixiní some sandwiches," Billy explained. "ĎCourse, the bottomless pit here had to have one."

††††††††††††††† "Okay, Iíll wash him up," Adam said, taking Hossís sticky hand and leading him outside to the bucket of water set there for just such purposes.

††††††††††††††† "Where you boys headed?" Clyde called when the three were mounted.

††††††††††††††† "Just down the river a ways," Billy yelled from his perch behind Adam. "I fixed us a picnic, so you can have the beans to yourself."

††††††††††††††† "Thanks a lot!" Ben guffawed.

††††††††††††††† Billy grinned and leaned forward. "Letís go before they ask anything else," he whispered in Adamís ear. Adam tapped the gray coltís flanks with his heels and the animal trotted forward.

††††††††††††††† The three boys rode for two hours before they spotted ten wagons circled near the Carson River for their noon break. "Howdy, folks," Billy called as they rode in. He slid quickly to the ground, leaving Adam to help Hoss down and manage the horse.

††††††††††††††† "Howdy, son," a rail-thin, brown-bearded man replied. "Where you younguns come from? I thought we were the first train to make it this far."

††††††††††††††† "You are, mister; you are," Billy assured him. "We live here in the valley."

††††††††††††††† "Must be from that Mormon Station we heard about," the manís equally skinny wife, her drab, dust-covered calico hanging tattered around her ankles, put in. "Folks back along the trail told us there was a trading post at the base of the mountains. Sure hope itís close, Ďcause weíre powerful low on supplies."

††††††††††††††† "Folks always is this late in their journey," Billy commented sociably, "but you donít look like Mormons."

††††††††††††††† "We ainít," the man snorted, "but I reckon theyíll sell to us, Mormon or not."

††††††††††††††† "Sure, they will," Billy agreed quickly, "but that ainít the best place for you, mister."

††††††††††††††† "Didnít know there was any other," the woman said.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, yeah!" Billy said. "Our folks run a post a mile this side of Mormon Station, and since you ainít part of their church, youíd be a heap better off tradiní with us."

††††††††††††††† "That so?" the man chuckled, folding his arms and regarding Billy with bemused gray eyes.

††††††††††††††† "I reckon I donít have to tell you how high Mormons price things," Billy chattered on. "If they did you the way they done us on our trip out in 1850, you had to pay through the nose every time you come to a ferry or trading post along the road."

††††††††††††††† "Ainít it the truth!" the woman cried.††††††††††††††

††††††††††††††† "Billy!" Adam hissed under his breath. He had a feeling his pa wouldnít take kindly to their drumming up business by running down the competition.

††††††††††††††† Billy ignored Adam. "Well, mister, itís the same at Mormon Station. Now, we run an honest American trading post. You get fair value for your dollar when you trade with us."

††††††††††††††† "If you got what we need," the man probed.

††††††††††††††† "Well, sir," Billy said warmly, "we got prime oxen, recruited from last yearís emigration, to replace these tired beasts of yourn. ĎCourse we got the usual flour and cornmeal to restock your wagons and fresh produce, too."

††††††††††††††† "Good quality?" the emigrantís wife queried.

††††††††††††††† Billy jerked up Hossís smock and patted the ample belly. "Why, hereís proof of that!" he asserted. "This youngun was just a scrawny thing when we come here. You can see how heís thriviní on what we grow. We eat good at home, donít we, Hoss?"

††††††††††††††† "Eat good!" Hoss chortled as Adam jerked his clothing down and gave Billy a stern, reproving look while the emigrant family laughed at the way Hossís countenance beamed when food was mentioned.

††††††††††††††† "What kind of truck you got?" the woman asked.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, green beans, turnips, taters and the sweetest watermelons you ever did eat!" Billy said, licking his lips as if the juice were running down his chin.

††††††††††††††† "Watermelon!" a tow-headed youngster cried. "Oh, Ma! Can we have some watermelon? Please!"

††††††††††††††† "Weíll see, son," his mother said. "Depends on the price."

††††††††††††††† "Dirt cheap," Billy declared.

††††††††††††††† "Billy!" Adam protested, giving his friend a sharp poke in the ribs.

††††††††††††††† "Hush!" Billy hissed.

††††††††††††††† "You let your brother talk, boy," the man said. "He ainít hardly said a word."

††††††††††††††† "He ainít my brother," Billy said. "Heís just, well, my cousin, you could say." Adam rolled his eyes.

††††††††††††††† "All right, then, letís hear what your cousin has to say."

††††††††††††††† Billy gave Adam a look that told him heíd better go along with Billyís advertising spiel, but Adam felt uncomfortable with any dishonesty. "Our prices arenít dirt cheap," he said, his dark eyes serious. "Prices are high in California where we buy our supplies, and we have to charge for freighting them over the mountains, too."

††††††††††††††† "I understand freighting costs," the emigrant said, scrutinizing Adamís face carefully, "but is it a fair markup?"

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir," Adam replied confidently. "Youíll likely find our prices higher than you want, but theyíre below what they charge at Mormon Station and thatís the truth."

††††††††††††††† The man patted Adamís shoulder. "Son, I believe you; you got an honest way about you." He turned to grin at Billy. "You could take a lesson from your cousin in that, sonny, but I like your spunk. I reckon you can tell your folks weíll be stoppiní at their post."

††††††††††††††† "Iíll do that," Billy grinned, "and if you tell me how many oxen you might be neediní, we could go ahead and pick out the best."

††††††††††††††† "Whatís the goiní rate of exchange?" the man asked.

††††††††††††††† Billy shrugged. "Two for one, same as anywhere," he admitted, figuring a dose of Adamís plain, unvarnished honesty was what was called for.

††††††††††††††† The man took a quick poll of the other wagon owners in the train. "Tell Ďem weíll take eight," the man said, "provided theyíre in good condition."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir!" Billy shouted, proud of the success of his venture. "Weíll have Ďem waitiní for you. Just stick to the north side of the river and itíll take you straight to our place." He grabbed Hoss to lift him into the saddle, but the toddler let loose a squeal of protest.

††††††††††††††† "Eat!" Hoss demanded, wriggling out of Billyís grasp and heading for the emigrantís cookfire. "Eat!"

††††††††††††††† "No, Hoss, we got our own food," Adam said, shame-faced.

††††††††††††††† "Now, now, I reckon we can share a mite, long as weíre close to fresh supplies," the woman laughed. "You boys set down and weíll give you each a helping of salt pork and corn pone."

††††††††††††††† Adam wasnít sure what Pa would think of their practically inviting themselves to dinner with total strangers, but it seemed impolite to refuse. The warm food tasted good, too. To repay the emigrantsí hospitality, Adam and Billy donated their jam sandwiches to the children in the party. Hoss, of course, saw no need to share his with anyone.

††††††††††††††† The emigrant train that pulled up to the Cartwright-Thomas Trading Post that afternoon was the first of a huge, hungry hoard to pass through Carson Valley that summer. And thanks to the boysí advertising, business was booming. Clyde and Ben had a good laugh with many of the emigrants over the antics of the two "cousins."

††††††††††††††† Billy had been so pleased with the results of their first effort that he used the same tactics again and again, knowing he could count on Adam to insist on spitting out the truth at just the right moment. Billy was a sharp enough salesman to see that the contrast between his blustering braggadocio and Adamís painfully precise pronouncements attracted business. Everyone liked to think heíd caught the freckle-faced redhead stretching the truth, but rarely did anyone feel put off by it. If anything, they admired the boyís loyalty to his país place and enjoyed a good laugh at his expense. Billy didnít mind, so long as the emigrants arrived at the trading post in good humor, ready to buy or trade.

††††††††††††††† Having succeeded in luring a significant portion of the emigrant traffic to the trading post, Billy next suggested to Adam that they ride north to persuade some of the miners in the area to pass up the small posts closer to them and bring their business to the one Billy called "the best in the West."

††††††††††††††† "All right," Adam agreed, "but you got to quit showiní off my brotherís belly."

††††††††††††††† "Aw, come on, Adam," Billy protested. "Heís our best selliní point."

††††††††††††††† "It ainít decent," Adam snapped.

††††††††††††††† "Heís just a baby," Billy snorted. "He donít mind his belly showiní or his bare bottom, even, if the truth be told."

††††††††††††††† "He stays home or I do!" Adam insisted.

††††††††††††††† "Okay, okay. I reckon weíll make do without him." Billy shook his head. That book-crazed Adam just didnít know a good sales technique when he saw one.

††††††††††††††† Neither of the boys, of course, felt it necessary to inform their parents of their intention. When they rode out, the adults assumed they were going to intercept another train and sing the praises of the business. "Push the turnips," Clyde hollered. "We got plenty." Billy gave him a wave to acknowledge the instruction.

††††††††††††††† Adam steered the gray colt along the river, as usual, for the minerís camp, theyíd been told, lay not far from the emigrant road. Passing one train on the way, the boys stopped long enough to urge the men there to stop at the trading post, then continued downriver to the point where it turned abruptly to the northeast. Near there, at the mouth of a ravine coming down the south side of a hill, the boys found the minersí camp and dismounted.

††††††††††††††† "Howdy, men!" Billy called, trudging up the ravine to where two grizzle-bearded miners were panning. "You findiní any color?"

††††††††††††††† "Hey! Younguns!" the older man shouted. A child was a rare sight in mining country and almost as welcome a one as a female.

††††††††††††††† "You findiní any color?" Billy asked again, squatting down to chat.

††††††††††††††† "Some, sonny, some," the man answered.

††††††††††††††† "You done much panniní, boy?" the other man asked.

††††††††††††††† "Not a lick," Billy admitted. "My friend there, heís done some."

††††††††††††††† "Not much," Adam said, smiling shyly, "but I know how."

††††††††††††††† "Well, here, boys," the first miner said, generously offering them his pan and his partnerís. "You pan awhile and you can keep half of what you find."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, boy!" Billy shouted, completely forgetting to advertise the trading post in his excitement. He grabbed the pan and sloshed it so hard the water sprayed out, soaking the miner whoíd loaned it to him. "Sorry, mister," Billy grinned. "Guess I ainít got the hang of it yet."

††††††††††††††† "Reckon not!" the man said, wiping his face. "Here, let me show you. Swish it around easy like Ďtil the gravel washes away. Now, whatís this?" He lifted a glistening flake from the bottom of the pan.

††††††††††††††† "Gold!" Billy yelled. "Thatís what!"

††††††††††††††† Adam laughed, looking up from his own pan. "I got some, too," he said.

††††††††††††††† The two boys panned for about half an hour before turning the pans back to their owners. "Thatís hard work," Billy admitted, "if you was to keep at it all day."

††††††††††††††† "And you got to if youíre gonna make enough to buy beans," the miner chuckled. "You got something to tie up your dust in, boys?"

††††††††††††††† Billy frowned. As usual, heíd ignored his motherís frequent admonitions to carry a handkerchief. Adam had one, though, and offered his friend the use of a corner. "Thanks a heap, mister," Billy said, bouncing the gold-laden handkerchief in his hand. "Now itís time for us to do you a favor."

††††††††††††††† "Whatís that, boy?"

††††††††††††††† "Well, sir, youíre gonna be able to buy a sight more beans at the Cartwright-Thomas Trading Post than anywhere else in the territory," Billy boasted. "Thatís what we rode all this way to tell you."

††††††††††††††† The miners hooted. "Could have saved yourself the trip, boy," the older one cackled. "We was by your place last week and stocked up. Didnít see you younguns, though."

††††††††††††††† Billy shrugged. "Mustíve been out drumminí up business," he grinned. "We just figure everyone ought to know about our place, so you spread the word to the other miners, okay?"

††††††††††††††† "Be glad to, son," the other man said. "Liked the prices and the way we was dealt with."

††††††††††††††† "Thank you, sir," Adam said. "Iíll tell my pa you said so."

††††††††††††††† "Which oneís your pa, boy?"

††††††††††††††† "Ben Cartwright."

††††††††††††††† "Well, you can also tell your pa you boys are welcome to pan over here anytime you like," the man offered.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, the other miner agreed. "I figure you youngunsíll act like a good luck charm."

††††††††††††††† Adam and Billy waved good-bye and mounted the gray colt. "Made out better than we figured," Billy commented.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Adam said, "but I donít know what País gonna say about me mining."

††††††††††††††† When Ben found out, he was mildly annoyed. "I donít want you traipsing all over the countryside, Adam. I assumed you went out to talk to the emigrants."

††††††††††††††† "We did that, too, Pa," Adam said hurriedly. "We just went a little further than usual."

††††††††††††††† "Quite a bit further," Ben said bluntly, then reached out to rumple Adamís black hair. "No harm done, I suppose, but in the future I want to know exactly where youíre going, son."

††††††††††††††† "Okay, Pa. Is it all right to do some more mining?"

††††††††††††††† "Once in a while," Ben agreed, "but Iíd rather you stuck closer to home most days."

††††††††††††††† The boys spent about one day a week that summer at the minersí camp, and by the end of the season each had stashed away a few ounces of gold dust. There wasnít much except food to spend it on this side of the mountains, of course, and while Ben and Clyde teasingly talked of charging the boys room and board, neither youngster took the threat seriously. Both Adam and Billy planned at the earliest opportunity to hit the stores in Sacramento feeling like millionaires.

††††††††††††††† Most of their time was spent in the garden. Just after the summer solstice it was time to replant, Nelly wanting to keep fresh vegetables on the table as long as possible. So Billy and Adam did less advertising and mining and more hoeing, as they had in the spring. One day when they were out riding, though, they saw a cloud of dust too large to be an emigrant train. Riding closer, they grew excited and raced back to the trading post. They both tried to leap out of the saddle at the same time and ended up sprawled on the ground in a tangle of legs.

††††††††††††††† "Pa!" Adam shouted, scrambling to his feet.

††††††††††††††† "What is it, Adam? Whatís wrong?" his father cried.

††††††††††††††† "Nothing, Pa," Adam panted. "Itís sheepóóthousands and thousands of them."

††††††††††††††† "Sheep? You sure, boy?" Clyde asked. "C. D. Jones is running a few in the valley, but nowhere near that many."

††††††††††††††† "Thousands," Billy affirmed, "and headed this way, Pa."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís a sight Iíd like to see," Clyde said.

††††††††††††††† "Take my horse," Ben offered. "Iíll hold down the fort."

††††††††††††††† Clyde grinned, saddled Benís bay and took off with Billy, on Adamís horse, to lead the way. "Whatíd you find out?" Ben asked when his partner returned.

††††††††††††††† "The boys was right," Clyde said. "Man named Dick Wootton is bringing some nine thousand head to Sacramento. Says he bought Ďem for a dollar a head in New Mexico, and figures he can get five or ten in California."

††††††††††††††† "I wouldnít be surprised."

††††††††††††††† "Told him Iíd take ten head off his hands," Clyde reported. "Nellyíll be glad of the wool, and I figure you and me can trade some beef for mutton."

††††††††††††††† "All right by me," Ben laughed. "I like a little variety in my diet. But you keep your woolies away from my cattle. I hear the two donít mix."

††††††††††††††† "Donít know," Clyde said. "Donít know much about sheep, but if thereís that kind of profit in it, might be worth driviní a herd over the hills."

††††††††††††††† "Not this season," Ben chuckled. "Weíve got our hands full, thanks to our enterprising sons."

††††††††††††††† "Ainít it the truth?" Clyde cackled.

††††††††††††††† The "enterprising sons" so enhanced their fathersí business, in fact, that an extra trip had to be made over the Sierras for supplies. Ben did the traveling, as usual during their busy season, for Clydeís skill as a blacksmith made it more profitable for him to stay in the valley. Billy, eager to spend his gold dust, raised such a ruckus about being left behind that Ben finally agreed to take him, too, and for once Billy was on his good behavior.

††††††††††††††† "I want to get my ma somethiní special," he announced. "You got any ideas, Uncle Ben."

††††††††††††††† "No, but Iíll help you look," Ben promised. "Is this a Christmas present or just Ďcause youíre feeling rich and generous?"

††††††††††††††† "Iíd sure like to save it back for Christmas," Billy said, "but I ainít got no place to hide stuff where Ma wonít look."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "You can stash it at my place, boy. Adam, what do you plan to spend your wealth on?"

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned sheepishly. "Books, mostly. Maybe some candy for Hoss, too."

††††††††††††††† Ben gave the boyís shoulder a proud squeeze. "I think thatíd be real thoughtful."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, I want a bunch of candy, too," Billy declared.

††††††††††††††† Ben lifted an eyebrow. "For your mother?" He exploded with laughter at the look on Billyís face.

††††††††††††††† Their purchases successfully made, the trio returned home and settled back into the summerís routine of equipping emigrant trains for the final trek across the Sierras. September found them busier than anyone wanted to be. Emigrants continued to pour up the Carson River, and in between servicing them, there was corn to pick, as well as the last of the green vegetables. Clyde and Ben had spent odd hours digging a root cellar to store carrots, potatoes, onions and other root vegetables where they wouldnít freeze during the winter. Later, theyíd dig another at Benís place, but for now all the spare vegetables went into this one.

††††††††††††††† Though snow rarely fell in the mountains until November, the settlers commonly made their final trip west for winter supplies during October. "Let the Mormons handle the stragglers," Clyde announced. "I aim to do me some special shoppiní this trip."

††††††††††††††† Ben, too, wanted to make some extra purchases for Christmas, so he and Clyde went all the way to San Francisco this time, leaving the two boys home to harvest and store the pumpkins. Everywhere they went there was talk of the upcoming presidential election. Franklin Pierce was running on the Democratic ticket against Winfield Scott, Vice-president Millard Fillmore having been refused the nomination of his party because of his support for the Fugitive Slave Act.

††††††††††††††† "Thatíll split the Whigs down the middle," Ben commented. "Pierce is sure to win."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, especially with that snappy campaign slogan heís got," Clyde cackled.

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. The slogan, "We Polked you in 1844; weíll Pierce you in 1852" did have a certain flair, though that was no reason to vote for a man. Actually, whoever won the election, national politics were likely to have little effect on their lives in Carson Valley, but politics was a topic the men liked to discuss as much as Nelly enjoyed her home-and-hearth talks with Eliza Mott.

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

As soon as the emigrant season ended, Ben went to work on his planned improvements. With Clydeís help, he first dug a root cellar and moved his share of the produce to his own place. Then he added another room to the cabin, extending it back from the northeast corner and cutting a door from his own bedroom by which to enter it.

††††††††††††††† Adam was profuse in his praise of the new arrangement. "I didnít want to say anything," he commented, "but I was getting awfully old to sleep in a trundle."

††††††††††††††† "Were you?" Ben chuckled. "Yeah, well, I guess so. You sure act more grown up than that. Pa should have noticed sooner, huh?"

††††††††††††††† Adam gave his father a quick hug. "Oh, no, Pa. I understand. The ranch comes first."

††††††††††††††† Ben stooped down to wrap the boy in his arms. "No, Adam. Never. You and Hoss come first. The ranch means nothing unless itís for my boys. Itís just that Pa canít give you everything he dreams of at once."

††††††††††††††† Adam rubbed his smooth cheek against his fatherís stubbled one. "Dreams take time, huh, Pa?"

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed as he stood up. "Thatís right; thatís my mature young man." He swooped Hoss up in his arms. "And how does my little boy like his new bed?"

††††††††††††††† Two-year-old Hoss looked perplexed, not understanding the changes taking place. That night, when Ben tucked him in his new bed, Hoss wailed. "Now, whatís wrong?" Ben cooed, sitting on the edge of the bed to cuddle his younger son.

††††††††††††††† Hoss stretched his arms toward Adam, who was just crawling beneath the covers of the bed on the opposite wall.

††††††††††††††† "No, you have your own bed now," Ben explained, "like a big boy." Hoss frowned eloquently as Ben laid him down again and tucked the covers snugly up to his chin. Ben gave each of the boys a kiss and went into the front room to read a little before turning in.

††††††††††††††† Hoss threw the covers back and slipped to the floor. Toddling over to the other bed, he slapped Adamís blanketed shoulder. "Bubba!" he whispered.

††††††††††††††† Adam rotated his shoulder, irritated. "Go back to your own bed, Hoss!" he ordered.

††††††††††††††† "Sleep Bubba," Hoss insisted.

††††††††††††††† Adam rolled over and sat up. "No, you canít sleep with brother. Youíre too big to act like such a baby, Hoss. I like having a bed to myself, and youíre just gonna have to accept it."

††††††††††††††† A big tear ran down Hossís cheek. Adam groaned. Not that, anything but that. "Look, Hoss," he pleaded, "be a big boy and brother will take you down to the creek tomorrow and you can go wading."

††††††††††††††† "Pomish?" Hoss begged, his eyes brightening.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, I promise. Now, back into bed before Pa catches you."

††††††††††††††† Hoss wasnít sure what would happen if his father caught him out of bed. Adam made it sound ominous, however, so Hoss scooted back under the covers, clinging to the stuffed dog Nelly had made him for Christmas until he fell asleep. He wasnít entirely happy with the new arrangement, missing the comfort of Adamís warm body pressed close to his own. Adam, on the other hand, was only too happy to relinquish the sensation of a damp diaper plastered up against him. Hoss had finally made his acquaintance with the outhouse, but only during daytime hours. At night he slept right through the dampness, so diapering him still seemed the wisest choice.

††††††††††††††† Ben was not the only one in the community making improvements in his property. Israel Mott and John Reese had secured a franchise from the squatter government to construct a toll bridge over the Carson River. Clyde grumbled loudly about Mormons setting up their own government, then assigning themselves the privilege of collecting tolls. "Itís the Overland Trail all over again," he groused.

††††††††††††††† Ben just laughed. "You have to admit these Mormons are an enterprising lot," he said. "At least, the government has set a limit to the tolls they can charge; besides, the contract also calls for them to improve the road up the mountains. That, my friend, is worth paying for!"

††††††††††††††† Clyde knew Ben had a point, but he wouldnít admit it. In his opinion, give a Mormon an inch and he was bound to take the whole territory; so concession was out of the question, regardless of the facts.

††††††††††††††† As the Cartwrights and Thomases met to share a Thanksgiving meal, even Clyde was forced to concede that they had much for which to be thankful. It had been a profitable year, and not just financially. The community was growing, and most of the settlers were the kind they were proud to call neighbors, even though they did increase the Mormon majority. Looking back over the previous year, both Ben and Clyde found much to be grateful for and much to look forward to, as well.

††††††††††††††† The boys, of course, looked no further forward than Christmas. Even Hoss seemed to anticipate the holiday this year. When Adam told him tales about Santa Claus, his blue eyes sparkled with remembrance and he ran to pat his Noahís Ark sitting in the corner nearest his bed. "Santa!" he chortled.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís right," Adam said. "Thatís what Santa brought you last year, and this year thereíll be new presents beneath the tree." Adam paused and looked soberly at Hoss. "If youíve been a good boy, that is."

††††††††††††††† Hossís fat chin bobbed repeatedly up and down. "Good boy!" he announced.

††††††††††††††† "Pretty good, I guess," Adam grinned. "Santaíll probably bring you something nice."

††††††††††††††† Early on Christmas Eve Ben dragged in the tree and set it in place beside the front door. Squealing, Hoss ran to bury his face in the branches, caressing the fragrant boughs with his chubby cheeks.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "My, you do love trees, donít you, Hoss?"

††††††††††††††† Hoss looked up at his father. Pulling one of the spiny branches, he chirped, "Birdies, Pa! ĎTars!"

††††††††††††††† Ben tossed the boy to his shoulder. "You remember, do you? Yes, weíll put birds and stars in the branches again."

††††††††††††††† "Pwitty," Hoss declared.

††††††††††††††† "Prettier than ever," Adam announced as he brought the popcorn garland heíd strung to drape across the branches. He and his father had been busy the last couple of weeks carving and painting more birds, bells and stars to hang on the tree. This year there were enough to satisfy even Adam, but he hung a few pinecones, too, just for traditionís sake.

††††††††††††††† Soon all the ornaments decked the tree except the tin star for the top. "Let Hoss put it up," Adam offered. "I got to last year."

††††††††††††††† "Heíll probably need help," Ben said, smiling approval at his older sonís unselfish suggestion, "so you stand in a chair on the other side while I lift him up."

††††††††††††††† Adam dragged his chair into position and mounted it. "Ready, Pa," he announced.

††††††††††††††† Ben closed Hossís fingers around the star and lifted the chunky toddler to his shoulder. "On the very top, Hoss," he instructed.

††††††††††††††† Hoss seemed to remember where the gold-painted star went. Leaning over, he could reach the upright stem, but as Ben had predicted, his fingers lacked the dexterity to pull the spiral wire down over it. Adam reached out to guide Hossís fingers, but it was obvious from the way Hoss clapped afterwards that he felt heíd done it all by himself.

††††††††††††††† As soon as his feet touched the floor, Hoss dropped to his knees and began crawling under the tree. "Hoss, you get out from there!" Adam ordered.

††††††††††††††† Hoss peered out from beneath a drooping pine branch. "Santa!" he explained.

††††††††††††††† Ben dragged the reluctant toddler from his quest. "Santaís not under there, son," he chuckled, then dropping his voice to a whisper, "Santa wonít come Ďtil youíre sound asleep."

††††††††††††††† Hoss grabbed Adamís hand and started to pull him toward their shared room. "Bed," he demanded.

††††††††††††††† Adam pulled his hand free. "Too early," Adam snorted.

††††††††††††††† "You havenít had your supper yet," Ben said persuasively. "You want to eat, donít you, Hoss?"

††††††††††††††† For a moment Hoss looked confused. He was eager for Santa to come, but heíd never turned down a meal in his life. "Eat!" he decided. "Eat now!"

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Eat soon, yes. Then, a story; then, bedtime."

††††††††††††††† After supper Ben brought out the small volume of Dickensí Christmas tale and began to read. This year even Hoss stayed awake through the visit of all three Christmas spirits, although he seemed more interested in the bowl of popcorn he and Adam shared than in the fate of Tiny Tim.

††††††††††††††† Hoss needed no urging to scramble out of bed the next morning. Just the mention of Santa brought all his eager expectations flooding back and he charged through the door into his fatherís bedroom, trotting past a still slumbering Ben.

††††††††††††††† Adam pulled him back before he could reach the next doorway. "No, Hoss; wait for Pa."

††††††††††††††† Hoss ran back to swat his fatherís leg. "Iím awake," Ben yawned. "Just give me a moment to get conscious." Smiling then, he said, "Merry Christmas, boys."

††††††††††††††† "Merry Christmas, Pa," Adam grinned. "Hoss is in a hurry this morning."

††††††††††††††† "So I see," Ben chuckled, grabbing his toddler and tossing him on the bed. "You let Pa get his britches on; then weíll see what Santaís brought my boys."

††††††††††††††† "Good boy," Hoss chirped.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, yes," Ben agreed, slipping his legs through the brown trousers Adam tossed him. "Both of you are very good boys and País real proud." Ben took the tan shirt from its peg on the wall and motioned toward the door. "Lead the way; Iíll follow," he said, sticking one arm in its sleeve.

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned and took Hossís hand. "Letís see what Santa brought," he whispered.

††††††††††††††† "Santa!" Hoss crowed and ran to the tree, snatching the first knobby bundle he saw.

††††††††††††††† "Not that!" Ben shouted. "Thatís brotherís." He picked up a brown paper-wrapped package from the opposite side of the tree. "This oneís yours." Hoss eagerly tore into the package.

††††††††††††††† Soon that package and all its companions were opened and the contents of the two stockings hanging from the mantel dumped on the dining table. Hoss clearly liked the candy in his stocking best of all, but he laughed happily as Ben helped him work the jointed wooden bear so it would climb a rope, and he was ecstatic as he galloped around the room on the stick pony his father had made.

††††††††††††††† Adam examined his gifts more quietly. "Not disappointed, I hope," his father queried.

††††††††††††††† Adam looked up and smiled. "Oh, no, Pa." He lifted the harmonica. "Thisíll be fun to play, except Iím not sure how."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, I was hoping to find an instruction book, but no such luck," Ben sympathized. "All I know is that you make sounds by blowing into the instrument and others by sucking air out."

††††††††††††††† Adam blew into the instrument, producing a couple of wavering notes. "Iíll figure it out," he grinned, "and then Iíll play you a real tune."

††††††††††††††† "Iíll be looking forward to it," Ben said. "I know the books may be a little grown up for you, too, boy, but itís the best I could do. San Francisco stores donít stock many books at all, much less ones that are aimed at children."

††††††††††††††† "Iím not a child, Pa," Adam protested, "and I read real well."

††††††††††††††† "That you do," Ben said proudly, "but if Sir Walter Scott proves a little hard, you just ask and Iíll help."

††††††††††††††† After breakfast the Cartwrights prepared to go to the Thomases for Christmas dinner. Because they had gifts to carry there (and presumably back) Ben put Adamís small prairie schooner to work again. Piling the gifts inside, he set Hoss, bundled in the blue-hooded flannel wrapper that Nelly Thomas had made him, in the middle with strict instructions not to open any of them. Then he tied a rope to the wagon and held the other end as he mounted his bay gelding. "You ride behind so you can keep an eye on Hoss," Ben said, turning to Adam, seated on his gray.

††††††††††††††† "Okay, Pa," Adam promised.

††††††††††††††† Pulling the wagon slowed their trip, of course, but they still arrived in time to exchange gifts before dinner. Adam and Hoss each received a small wooden chest, on the ends of which were carved pine trees with each boyís name surrounded by pine cones on the front.

††††††††††††††† "Seeiní as how we got such rich younguns," Clyde drawled, "I figured they could use a trunk to keep their gear in."

††††††††††††††† "Aw, Pa, we ainít got that much stuff," Billy sniffed.

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Iíd liked to have had half the toys you youngsters have when I was young!"

††††††††††††††† "You can say that again," Clyde snorted. "Only question is whether I made the chest too small to hold all your things, boy."

††††††††††††††† "I got one, too," Billy confided to Adam, "but mineís got a cabin on the ends and the river with willows bending over it on the front with my name."

††††††††††††††† "I want to see," Adam demanded.

††††††††††††††† "Now, you best look inside them chests first," Clyde snickered.

††††††††††††††† "Thereís more?" Adam said, kneeling down to open his chest. The "more" proved to be only a new set of clothes fashioned by Nellyís needle and the usual knitted cap and mittens, but Adam said thank you politely. He didnít get new clothes often enough to take them for granted, even if they didnít excite him quite as much as books and toys. Hossís chest held clothes, too, as well as a small plain bowl.

††††††††††††††† "To feed your pup," Clyde explained and Hoss grinned. "Iíd carve his name on it, if youíd ever think one up."

††††††††††††††† "Pup," Hoss insisted, for that was all he ever called the dog.

††††††††††††††† "Face it, Clyde," Ben laughed. "Thatís the dogís name."

††††††††††††††† "I reckon," Clyde cackled. "Okay, Pup it is; Iíll carve Ďer for you after dinner."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, Clyde, itís Christmas," Ben protested. "You donít have toó"

††††††††††††††† "Wonít take long," Clyde said, as if that settled the question.

††††††††††††††† "Hey, Uncle Ben!" Billy called as he started to go into his room to show Adam his chest. "Did you bring my present for Ma?"

††††††††††††††† "My present?" Nelly asked, her brown eyes widening.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, maíam," Billy declared proudly, prancing back to take the small package Ben was holding out. He gave it to his mother. "I bought it with my own gold dust, Ma, and Uncle Benís been hidiní it for me."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, my!" Nelly said, overcome with joy at her boyís remembrance. Her eyes sparkled even brighter as she unwrapped the package and drew out a lacy white scarf. "Oh, my!" she said again, this time overwhelmed by the exquisite craftsmanship.

††††††††††††††† "Itís a mantilla," Ben explained, "like the Spanish ladies in California wear."

††††††††††††††† "Ainít it purty, Ma?" Billy pressed. "Like you," he added, planting a shy kiss on her cheek.

††††††††††††††† Nelly blushed furiously. "Lands, boy, this fineryís a heap prettier than me. Much too pretty to wear over my tousled head."

††††††††††††††† "Ma, you gotta!" Billy protested. "I got it so youíd look extra fancy when you go sashayiní over to Miz Mottís."

††††††††††††††† "And so I shall, boy," Nelly replied, giving her boy a squeeze. "This is too light to wear for winter, but come spring Iíll sashay like a fine lady and make Eliza Ann pea-green with envy."

††††††††††††††† Billy grinned and, giving a satisfied nod, left to show Adam his Christmas riches.

††††††††††††††† Ben Cartwright, too, felt rich as he and the boys returned home that evening after a sumptuous dinner of roast goose and other favorite foods. It wasnít just the contents of his stomach or of the little red, blue and white wagon that made him feel that way, either, though both were bulging. Ben felt himself rich in the love of his sons and the warmth of friendship, treasures too vast to fit in any wagon, even one of the huge Conestogas after which Adamís small replica had been fashioned. These were riches, too, that would not be depleted, no matter what the upcoming year might bring.

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

The first three months of 1853 were a peaceful interlude between busier times. While Adam watched Hoss each day, trying to fit in a little study time between his brotherís demands, Ben tended to needed chores, including the building of a corner cabinet for their dishware, and rode out to check on his herd. It was doing well. Though the wind could be sharp and the air cold, winter was generally mild on the valley floor; and adult animals, while they didnít exactly flourish, held their own with the available grasses. The only cattle at risk were newborn calves, but Ben lost just two to winter kill that year.

††††††††††††††† The only noteworthy event of the season occurred in February just before Adamís tenth birthday. Their request for status as a separate territory having been rejected, forty-three residents of Carson Valley, Ben among them, petitioned the California legislature to annex the valley for judicial purposes. Like the previous request, this one, too, was destined to be declined. Feeling the state of California was too large already, Congress refused to increase its boundaries.

††††††††††††††† Beyond that, the only events were family ones: Sunday dinners with the Thomases, a joint birthday party for Billy and Adam, and a small celebration to commemorate little Ingerís first year of life. Simple events, unnoted by the world, unrecorded in history, but the kind that make up the fabric of life. To Ben, however, that fabric was not the plain homespun it might have seemed to outsiders; to him, it was tapestry so beautiful it might have graced the palace of a king.

††††††††††††††† The trading season began with a boom. In earlier years Ben and Clyde had enjoyed the luxury of slow preparation for the supply-depleted emigrant trains that arrived each summer, eager to purchase whatever provisions were available. Thereíd been time to plant crops, travel over the mountains to lay in supplies, even harvest some of the produce, before the first customers darkened the door to the trading post.

††††††††††††††† This year, however, Ben and Clyde had customers to service almost as soon as they brought their first load of supplies across the Sierra Nevadas. Thereíd always been a few prospectors, of course, who traveled eastward with the first thaw, hoping to find in Utah the El Dorado that had evaded them in California. This spring, Ben estimated, almost two hundred men were searching nearby ravines for traces of color; and while the miners had brought supplies with them, they soon needed more. Most patronized the trading post at Eagle Station or Spafford Hallís place at the mouth of the ravine where they were prospecting, but a significant number made the longer trip to give their business to Ben and Clyde. As Billy had pointed out on his advertising ventures, the minersí gold dust bought more beans and bacon at their trading post than in the others.

††††††††††††††† Billy and Adam didnít need to advertise to keep their fathers busy this year; and that was just as well, for with the men occupied in almost full-time merchandising, to the boys fell the responsibility of the garden. Adam accepted it proudly, enjoying the feeling that he was contributing to the family income. Billy, on the other hand, mourned for the carefree freedom of the previous summer. "Pa finally gets me a horse," he grumbled, "and I got too much hoeiní to take time to ride!"

††††††††††††††† The hoeing paid off, though, when the boys harvested the first green beans and turnip greens. Not only did they enjoy the fresh vegetables after a long winter of mostly meat and potatoes, but they had enough to sell. Once the word spread, miners flocked to the Cartwright-Thomas trading post, as well as to Mormon Station, for the other traders didnít bother growing produce.

††††††††††††††† One afternoon a pair of blond-haired, blue-eyed youths walked in. "We heard you had fresh garden greens," the taller of the two said.

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled at the ruddy-cheeked Grosch brothers. "Hosea, Ethan," he said. "I hadnít heard you were back in the territory." The Grosch brothers had done some prospecting the spring of 1851, but hadnít returned the following year.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, weíre back," Ethan Allan replied.

††††††††††††††† "Haviní any luck?" Clyde asked amiably.

††††††††††††††† "Enough to buy fresh beans, if you have them," Hosea Ballou chuckled.

††††††††††††††† "Well, youíre in luck," Clyde said, nodding as Adam and Billy carried a basket of green pods through the door. "Just got in a fresh shipment." He slapped his knee, more tickled by his own joke than anyone else was.

††††††††††††††† "A couple of sturdy young freighters you have here," Ethan grinned.

††††††††††††††† "Hi, Mr. Grosch," Adam smiled back. He remembered the personable brothers from two summers back. Theyíd always spoken kindly to him, and he liked them.

††††††††††††††† "The beans look wonderful," Hosea put in. "Weíll take three pounds, please."

††††††††††††††† "Forget the beans," a thick voice slurred from the corner. "Take my advice and have some of this top notch beer. Valley Tan donít hold a candle to it."

††††††††††††††† Ben frowned. He hadnít counted on attracting customers like James Finney when heíd brought back two kegs of StefŠn Zuebnerís home-brewed beer, but Finney seemed to have a built-in magnet for liquor. The beer was good, and Ben didnít mind stocking some for the miners in the community, but he had no intention of running a saloon for the likes of James Finney. Fortunately, the man was rarely a successful enough miner to afford the price of a drink.

††††††††††††††† "The beer is good quality," Ben said quietly, "if you boys would care to try a glass. A friend of ours over in Placerville brews it."

††††††††††††††† "Thank you, but no," Ethan Allan refused graciously. "Our father, being a minister, didnít allow us to touch spirits, and weíve never acquired the taste."

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded, respecting the Grosches even more than before. He couldnít help wishing Finney had had a father like theirs.

††††††††††††††† Clyde handed the older Grosch brother the beans heíd weighed out. "Anything else, fellers?" he asked.

††††††††††††††† "We are a little low on cornmeal and bacon," Hosea said.

††††††††††††††† "How Ďbout eggs? We got half a dozen we could spare," Clyde offered.

††††††††††††††† "Ah, yes, that would be a treat," Ethan said. "Weíll take them, too."

††††††††††††††† Finney stumbled across the room to slap Ethan on the back. "You fellers must be makiní out good to buy such fancy grub," he sputtered.

††††††††††††††† "We just came well prepared," Hosea said calmly. "We intend to prospect in a scientific manner, and that takes time."

††††††††††††††† "Hosea!" his brother interrupted sharply. "There is no need to bore these gentlemen with our plans."

††††††††††††††† Adamís ears had pricked up at the word Ďscientific.í "Could I come see you sometime?" he asked eagerly.

††††††††††††††† "Adam," Ben chided softly.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís all right, Mr. Cartwright," Ethan said quickly. "Of course, Adam, you will be welcome any time."

††††††††††††††† "Donít you boys have more beans to pick?" Clyde asked pointedly.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir," Billy moaned, "and corn to hoe." Shuffling outside, Billy grabbed Adamís elbow. "What you aim to do at the Grosches?" he demanded.

††††††††††††††† "I just want to find out what they meant by scientific mining," Adam explained.

††††††††††††††† Billy groaned. "I mightíve known. Always playiní the smarty britches."

††††††††††††††† "Well, Iíd rather have smart britches than be a dumb donkey," Adam snapped.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, go grab a hoe," Billy grumbled. "I ainít fixiní to fuss today and chance missiní that peach cobbler Maís makiní for supper."

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned, in total agreement with Billy on that point, if on no other.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† "And they have all this equipment to test the ore with," Adam mumbled. Having been given time off from his chores, he had been to visit the Grosch brothers that Saturday afternoon and could hardly contain his enthusiasm for the information about mining heíd gleaned.

††††††††††††††† "Donít talk with your mouth full," Ben chided gently.

††††††††††††††† Adam chewed his current mouthful carefully and swallowed before speaking again. "They tested some while I was there, too, Pa."

††††††††††††††† "Well, was it high quality ore?" Ben asked, amused, but proud of his sonís perpetual quest for new knowledge.

††††††††††††††† Adam shook his head knowingly. "It showed some color," he stated, "but not enough to rate it a bonanza."

††††††††††††††† "Bonanza?" Ben queried.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís what Old Frank said," Adam explained. Old Frank Antonio was a Mexican who, some said, knew more about mining than all the other prospectors thrown together. "He said a bonanza is what they call a really fine strike, the kind thatíll make men rich."

††††††††††††††† "I see," Ben said, reaching over the wipe Hossís messy face. "You through, baby?"

††††††††††††††† "Moí peas, Pa," Hoss demanded. "Taters, too." Now that he was almost three, Hossís vocabulary was growing rapidly, especially in words that designated foods.

††††††††††††††† "Pa, you speak Spanish, donít you?" Adam asked as his father dished the requested items into Hossís plate.

††††††††††††††† "Some," Ben replied, then chuckled. "I didnít know Ďbonanza,í and thatís Spanish, isnít it?"

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned. "Yeah. I was just wondering Ďcause Old Frank said something else I didnít understand, but Mr. Ethan wouldnít let him explain. You know what Ďmucha plataí means?"

††††††††††††††† Benís brow wrinkled in thought; then he shook his head. "Sorry, Adam, but I donít. I think Ďmuchaí means Ďmuch,í but I donít recognize the other word."

††††††††††††††† "Gold, maybe?" Adam suggested.

††††††††††††††† "Ben laughed. "Mercy, no! The word for gold is Ďoro;í that much I know."

††††††††††††††† Adam shrugged. "I just couldnít figure out why Mr. Ethan didnít want me to know, unless it had to do with gold theyíd found."

††††††††††††††† Ben tweaked Adamís classic Roman nose. "Maybe he thought a certain little boy was sticking this too far into his business."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, Pa," Adam snorted. "Thatís not it. He showed me all his mining books and everything. They got a whole shelf full, Pa!"

††††††††††††††† "All on mining?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Adam said, his eyes wide with wonder at the memory of the rough plank sagging beneath the weight of all those books. "I asked if I could borrow one, butó"

††††††††††††††† "Adam," Ben scolded. "I thought Iíd taught you better manners than that."

††††††††††††††† Adam gulped. "I guess I got a little excited, Pa, but it doesnít matter. Mr. Hosea said the books would be too technióówell, hardóófor me, anyway. I looked at one, and he was right."

††††††††††††††† "You help me get these dishes cleaned up and Iíll read you some Shakespeare," Ben offered. "I dare say, youíll enjoy that more than any dry mining text, my boy."

††††††††††††††† Adam stood at once and began to clear the table. The night before his father had left off reading Macbeth at an exciting part, and he was eager to see how the play ended.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† The population of western Utah increased in early June with the arrival of several settlers from Salt Lake City. "Brigham Youngís scared spitless us gentiles is gonna have some say in our own government," Clyde groused. "So scared heís got to send in fresh recruits."

††††††††††††††† Ben turned from the shelf where he was busily arranging tins of oysters and salmon. Heíd brought back a few on his last trip west to test the market among the miners, who seemed to relish such things as an occasional treat. "He didnít send enough to make much difference, my friend," Ben said, his lips twitching

††††††††††††††† But there was no appeasing Clyde Thomas. "Thereíll be more," he prophesied morosely and went back to studying Benís last move on the chessboard they kept set up in the trading post. He and Ben had been taking turns handling the supplies and moving their chess pieces; but so far Ben, with his annoying habit of quickly countering Clydeís long-pondered moves, was doing more of the actual work of the trading post.

††††††††††††††† "Maybe," Ben mused, turning back to his task, "but from what the Ellises said, the governor didnít want to send too many, lest they be corrupted by the lust for gold."

††††††††††††††† "Ainít workiní too well with them, is it?" Clyde taunted.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. Laura and James Ellis had taken up land less than two miles from the canyon where most of the mining activity was taking place. Like Clyde, Ben suspected the temptation to neglect the needs of their farm to go prospecting might prove too strong. The Ellises seemed like sound folk, however, as witnessed by the sturdy log cabin they were buildingóóa far cry from the huts of canvas and sagebrush the miners generally erected. Maybe, if they did succumb to gold fever, theyíd get over it quickly and settle down to become good neighbors.

††††††††††††††† Absorbed in their own thoughts, neither Ben nor Clyde noticed the entrance of a third man until his long shadow fell across the chessboard. Clyde looked up to see Paul Martin, one of the valleyís newer residents, staring at the game pieces. "Got a customer, Ben," Clyde drawled dourly and bent over once more to study the board.

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled as he recognized the smooth-featured man, whose weary, shuffling walk made him seem so much older than Ben knew he could be. Though probably only a few years older than Ben, the minerís dark brown hair was already touched with silver at the temples. "What can I help you with, Mr. Martin?" he asked.

††††††††††††††† "Coffee," Martin replied laconically. His words, like his soundless step, always seemed calculated to draw the least possible attention to himself.

††††††††††††††† "How much?" Ben queried.

††††††††††††††† Martin seemed lost in his appraisal of the chessboard. "Huh?" he said, his attention jerking back to Ben.

††††††††††††††† "How much coffee did you want?" Ben repeated patiently.

††††††††††††††† "Ohóuhóabout three pounds, I guess," Martin mumbled, frowning as he saw Clyde move his rook with a satisfied grin and stand up. Martin shook his head in evident disapproval of Clydeís decision.

††††††††††††††† Ben caught the gesture at once. It was the first time heíd seen the tall miner show interest in anything. Usually, Martinís gray eyes seemed sad, almost haunted, but a spark of life had flickered in them while he watched the board. Scooping out three pounds of coffee beans, Ben asked. "Do you play chess, Mr. Martin?"

††††††††††††††† Martin shrugged as he took the small paper cone of coffee beans. "Used to."

††††††††††††††† "Like to play you sometime," Ben suggested.

††††††††††††††† "I ainít giviní you enough competition, am I?" Clyde snorted.

††††††††††††††† "Not with moves like that one," Ben laughed as he walked from the behind the counter, moved one piece and announced, "Checkmate, my friend." A trace of a smile touched Martinís lips and he gave Ben an almost imperceptible nod of approval.

††††††††††††††† "Doggone!" Clyde sputtered. "Now, why didnít I see that cominí?"

††††††††††††††† "Martin did," Ben replied with a maddening grin. He softened his expression as he addressed the miner. "Boardís available, if youíd like a match," he offered.

††††††††††††††† "Uhónoóuhógot to be going," Martin stammered. "Work to do."

††††††††††††††† Benís smile faded. Of all the men whoíd come east this spring, Paul Martin seemed the least likely to succeed as a miner. The newly-formed blisters on his hands revealed that he wasnít used to handling a pick and pan, and he never spoke about making a big strike the way most miners did. Martin seemed satisfied to pan just enough to keep himself fed, though from the way his clothes hung on him, not as well as heíd been accustomed to. Ben knew the fumbled statement of having work to do was simply an excuse to avoid human contact.

††††††††††††††† "Why not come by my place this Saturday evening then?" Ben suggested quietly. "Have a bite to eat and a good game? A man deserves a little entertainment after a hard weekís work."

††††††††††††††† Martin started to shake his head, but Ben continued before he had a chance to decline the invitation. "Youíd be doing me a favor," Ben said. "Iíd relish a good, challenging game for a change."

††††††††††††††† "Humph!" Clyde snorted. "Guess I know when I ainít appreciated."

††††††††††††††† Ben frowned, but ignored the comment. Heíd deal with Clydeís ruffled feathers later. "How about it?" he pressed the miner.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, okay," Martin muttered, clutching his package of coffee with tense fingers and exiting quickly.

††††††††††††††† "Reckon I ought to be grateful to you for puttiní up with my poor play long as you did," Clyde grumbled when the miner had left.

††††††††††††††† Ben laid a firm hand on his friendís shoulder. "Itís got nothing to do with the way you play, Clyde," he said. "For a beginner you do real well, but that manís in need of company. A minerís lot is a lonely one, but he carries it to extremes."

††††††††††††††† Clyde grinned. "Them two boys ainít handful enough, huh? You got to play mother hen to every lost soul comes along?"

††††††††††††††† Ben shrugged. "Someone has to. Now, seeing as how the sunís directly overhead, I suggest we see what your good wife has prepared for us."

††††††††††††††† "I already know," Clyde groaned. "Sheís over to Eliza Annís this morning. Beans, bah!"

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† "Put your books away and set the table, Adam," Ben dictated Saturday evening just as the sun was setting.

††††††††††††††† "Iím almost done, Pa," Adam murmured, not looking up from his arithmetic book.

††††††††††††††† "Adam, put it away," Ben ordered more sharply.

††††††††††††††† There was no missing what that tone meant, so Adam promptly closed the book and slid it back onto the lowest bookshelf. Taking four tin plates from the cupboard, he set them on two sides of the table. "Sure smells good, Pa," he said approvingly. "You must really want to impress Mr. Martin."

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Mostly, Adam, I just want to give him a good meal. I fancy he doesnít pan enough gold to buy more than beans and bacon. In fact, I know he doesnít unless heís been buying them from someone else."

††††††††††††††† Hoss tugged on his fatherís pants leg. "Eat soon?" he queried. Like Adam, he found the aroma of roasting sage grouse so appealing he couldnít wait to sink his teeth into it.

††††††††††††††† Ben had gotten precise instructions from Nelly Thomas on how to make the dressing, and sheíd even measured out the spices heíd need and wrapped them in a bit of cloth. That made the preparation even easier, and Ben felt confident the result would taste better than anything Paul Martin had eaten in months.

††††††††††††††† Hoss yanked harder on his fatherís trousers. "Eat soon?" he repeated more urgently.

††††††††††††††† "As soon as our company comes," Ben said, giving the boyís tawny hair a kindly ruffle. Almost immediately a rap sounded on the cabinís door. "Get that, would you, Adam?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "Sure," Adam said. He trotted to the door and opened it. "Come in, Mr. Martin," he said politely.

††††††††††††††† Paul Martin doffed his black felt hat and stepped inside, nodding a wordless greeting at the boy.

††††††††††††††† "Welcome, Martin," Ben said heartily. "Excuse my not meeting you at the door, but this gravy needed a good stirring."

††††††††††††††† "Weíre having a great meal," Adam said sociably. "Roast grouse with dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans and turnips. Aunt Nelly even sent a chocolate cake for dessert."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, and Iím afraid my bachelor cooking will be hard put to live up to that," Ben laughed.

††††††††††††††† A smile flitted across the minerís lips. "From the smell, itís better than mine," Martin said appreciatively.

††††††††††††††† Hoss toddled over to the stranger and held his pudgy arms up. Ben caught his breath, unsure how his reclusive guest would respond, but Hossís sunny smile proved irresistible. Martin instinctively bent over and lifted the boy up in his arms. "Eat soon," Hoss promised cheerily.

††††††††††††††† "And if youíre an example, the eatingís pretty good around here," Martin teased, giving Hossís plump body a squeeze. Hoss immediately wrapped his arms around the minerís neck, and Martin laid his stubbled cheek tenderly against the youngsterís soft, smooth one. "Quite a hefty lad you have here, Cartwright," he said.

††††††††††††††† "Heís a real armload all right," Ben said. "Hard to believe he wonít be three Ďtil the end of next month, and heís close to his older brotherís weight already. Worries me a little, his growing so fast."

††††††††††††††† "No need," Martin said with a knowledgeable air. "Heís large for his age, butó" As if suddenly wary of revealing more than he intended, Martin broke off.

††††††††††††††† "You sound like a man with some experience of children," Ben probed gently.

††††††††††††††† "Some," Martin said, but offered no explanation.

††††††††††††††† Ben thought it better not to push. "Well, take a chair," he suggested. "Dinneríll be on the table right away." He had intended the two boys to sit on one side of the table, so Adam could help Hoss while the two men enjoyed undisturbed conversation; however, Martin intuitively placed Hoss in the longer-legged chair that helped him reach the table, then sat next to him, seeming to want to remain close to the little one. Not so surprising, Ben realized. Most of the miners cherished the rare glimpse of a small child, and Hossís openness could be absolutely disarming.

††††††††††††††† "You might want to reconsider where youíre sitting," Ben suggested softly. "Heís a pretty messy eater."

††††††††††††††† Martin gave the childís hand a little pat. "Weíll get along, wonít weó"

††††††††††††††† "Hoss," Ben inserted, realizing Martin had faltered, not knowing the childís name.

††††††††††††††† Martin laughed for the first time that Ben had ever heard him. "Fits him like a glove."

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled. "Yeah. His real nameís Eric, but his brother Adam here insisted we call him Hoss, and itís sort of stuck."

††††††††††††††† "It was Uncle Gunnarís idea," Adam corrected.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, I know, son," Ben said, setting the grouse on the table. "My wifeís brother," he explained for Martinís benefit.

††††††††††††††† Soon the other foods filled the table and after saying a brief grace, Ben told his guest to help himself. Adam politely let company go first, but Hoss hungrily reached toward the dish of roast fowl. Martin smiled and forked a small piece into the boyís plate. "Does he need that cut?" he asked Ben.

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "Heíll just use his fingers anyway, Iím afraid. Hoss handles a spoon well enough, but forks seem beyond him."

††††††††††††††† "Perfectly natural," Martin said, that informed tone in his voice once more.

††††††††††††††† "What did you do in the States?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "Minded my own business," Martin said gruffly, then blushed at the rudeness he heard in his own voice.

††††††††††††††† Ben had been shocked by the response, for his question was one of the most common ways to open a conversation with a new acquaintance. All the miners had followed some other vocation before coming west, and most waxed nostalgic at the mention of their former lives. Only men with shady pasts tended to be evasive in the free and easy mining country, but Paul Martin didnít look like the kind of man who should have had something to hide. "Sorry, didnít mean to pry," Ben said quickly. "I just thought, with your understanding of youngsters, you might have been a schoolteacher." Then Ben laughed. "Though I guess that wouldnít give you much experience with lads Hossís age, after all."

††††††††††††††† Martin smiled slightly. "No, heís not quite school age."

††††††††††††††† "I am," Adam announced, "but thereís no teacher, so I have to study by myself. I wish you were a teacher, Mr. Martin; Iíd sure have questions to ask if you were."

††††††††††††††† "Adam, I invited Mr. Martin here as my guest, not your instructor," Ben chided softly, then chuckled. "My boy here has an insatiable appetite for learning and no hesitance about asking anyone he meets to satisfy it. Heís even been pestering the Grosch brothers to read their technical books on mining."

††††††††††††††† "And chemistry. You know anything about chemistry, Mr. Martin?" Adam added, completely ignoring his fatherís admonition about pumping their guest for new knowledge.

††††††††††††††† "Some," Martin said, "but mostly the organic variety."

††††††††††††††† "Huh?"

††††††††††††††† Martin smiled. "The kind that has to do with living things, son. Inorganic chemistry deals with minerals, like the books you were looking at."

††††††††††††††† "Oh," Adam said. "I didnít know there were two kinds. Iíll remember that."

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "He will, too," then with a pointed look at his son, "just as Iím sure heíll remember his manners, if he tries hard enough."

††††††††††††††† Adam gulped and turned his attention to his plate.

††††††††††††††† "Mighty fine meal," Martin said. "Best Iíve had in some time."

††††††††††††††† "Pa said it would be," Adam offered.

††††††††††††††† Ben groaned and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling, but Paul Martin just laughed. "You never know what theyíll say at that age, do you?" he said, clearly bemused by Benís embarrassed expression. "Ióuhófigured it was something like that. You neednít feel sorry for me, though, Cartwright."

††††††††††††††† Ben coughed once to cover his discomposure. "Iím just afraid youíll end up feeling sorry for me at the end of our chess match. I havenít had a challenging opponent since I left St. Joseph; Iím probably rusty as nails left in the rain."

††††††††††††††† "Iím looking forward to it," Martin said, helping Hoss to a second helping of potatoes and gravy after wiping most of the boyís first off his face.

††††††††††††††† "Well, Iím ready," Ben announced, "so weíll leave Adam to clear the table while I set up the board."

††††††††††††††† Adam frowned. Washing dishes was not his idea of the best way to spend an evening, but he knew better than to argue. "Hurry up and finish," he hissed to Hoss as he gathered the other plates from the table.

††††††††††††††† "Shouldnít rush him," Martin mumbled. "Bad for digestion."

††††††††††††††† Adam sighed and sat down to watch Hossís slow mastication of his food. Mr. Martin was probably right, but he didnít know how poky Hoss could be.

††††††††††††††† The chess match had barely begun before Ben found himself as badly outclassed as Clyde Thomas was when he played with Ben. Ben lost the first game quickly, but managed to hold his own longer before succumbing to Martinís superior gamesmanship in the second. "Well, thatís enough for tonight," Ben said. "Youíre a better player than the man who taught me, Martin."

††††††††††††††† Martin smiled, both in satisfaction at the compliment and in encouragement to Ben. "He taught you well, whoever he was. Ióuhóenjoyed the evening, Cartwright."

††††††††††††††† "Enough to come back, I hope," Ben urged. "You owe me a rematch, my friend. Next Saturday?"

††††††††††††††† Martin hesitated for only a moment. "All right," he said quietly. "Next Saturday."

††††††††††††††† As he lay in bed that night, arms folded under his neck, Ben congratulated himself on the success of the evening, but he found himself more puzzled than ever about his new friend. The man had opened up a little tonight, but then heíd closed shut again, as though a curtain had dropped on a play moments after its beginning. Behind that curtain loomed some secret Martin seemed determined to hide, but Ben didnít think it was a sinister one. What, then, could make this urbane, well-spoken, intelligent man build such a wall of silence and solitude? His love of chess had opened a crack in his defenses, and Ben had managed to wedge a toe in that crack. Hopefully, weekly visits in his home would widen it.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

"Whoopee!" Billy yelled, tossing his hoe out of the garden. As Adam finished hilling the final stalk of corn on his row, he grinned at his friend. He, too, was glad the time had come to let the corn lay by Ďtil harvest. Both Ben and Clyde had promised their boys the day off as soon as they finished, and Billy had sweet-talked his mother into packing them a picnic lunch.

††††††††††††††† Billy was already charging up to the cabin to claim the sandwiches, so Adam dutifully picked up the hoe the impulsive redhead had abandoned and took it to the blacksmith shop where all tools were stored. "Done, are you?" Clyde asked when Adam entered. "And that ornery scamp of mine left you to put things up, did he?"

††††††††††††††† Adam shrugged, not wanting to get Billy in trouble. "Heís fetching our picnic lunch," he offered as explanation.

††††††††††††††† "All right," Clyde said. "Best let your Pa know before you take off."

††††††††††††††† "I will," Adam said and walked over to the trading post. "Me and Billyís headiní out, Pa," he called from the doorway.

††††††††††††††† Ben looked up from the table where he was trying to calculate a fair price for the latest supplies theyíd brought in from California. "Where you headed?"

††††††††††††††† "Just downriver, I reckon," Adam said. "We donít have any real plan, Pa."

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled. "Well, sometimes itís more relaxing when you donít plan too hard. Think you might do some fishing?"

††††††††††††††† "Maybe," Adam said.

††††††††††††††† "Nothing doing!" Billy snickered from behind Adam. "Sounds too much like work."

††††††††††††††† Ben guffawed. "Fishing? Oh, come on now, Billy."

††††††††††††††† "I like to fish," Adam argued.

††††††††††††††† "I donít want to sit still and concentrate on bringiní home supper," Billy declared. "I want to ride like the wind and put that fool garden miles behind me." He punched Adamís arm and leaned over to whisper in his ear. "Come on; letís get out of here before the pest wakes up and bawls to go along."

††††††††††††††† Adam nodded. He didnít want Hoss along any more than Billy did. Watching the baby was far more likely to turn the afternoonís fun into work than fishing! He turned and trotted after Billy.

††††††††††††††† "You boys ride careful," Ben called. Both boys waved back an assurance that they would.

††††††††††††††† Had Ben seen the races the two boys ran up and down and across the river, he probably would not have considered their horsemanship careful. Each, however, had too much respect and affection for his horse to run reckless risks. With the exuberance of youth, Billy and Adam galloped in spirited competitions, with the victories split almost half and half, and by the time they stopped for lunch, Billyís wildly tousled hair testified that he had stirred up as much wind as even he could desire. Adamís didnít look much better, but neither boy cared. They dropped, exhausted, by the banks of the Carson, letting the horses crop the lush meadow grass while their owners grazed through a succession of roast beef and cheese sandwiches, topping the meal off with a fried peach pie apiece.

††††††††††††††† "You wanna race some more?" Billy asked, licking the last traces of pastry from his lips.

††††††††††††††† Adam sprawled flat on his stomach. "Nope."

††††††††††††††† Billy poked a freckled finger in Adamís ribs. "You gotta give me a chance to catch up, boy." Adam was one race ahead.

††††††††††††††† Adam lifted his head to grin triumphantly at his friend. "I like the score the way it is," he snickered. "Besides, Iím tired of riding."

††††††††††††††† "How can you be," Billy whined, "when we ainít had a day off Ďtil now to do none?"

††††††††††††††† "I ride every day," Adam yawned.

††††††††††††††† Billy frowned. "Just to our place," he argued. "Thatís not much of a ride."

††††††††††††††† "I satisfy easy," Adam yawned again and rolled over onto his back. "And what would satisfy me best right now is a nap."

††††††††††††††† "Nap!" Billy hollered. "You gotta be kidding! I knew I shouldíve brought Hoss instead."

††††††††††††††† "Welcome to ride back and get him," Adam offered, pulling his brown felt hat over his eyes. He knew an empty threat when he heard one.

††††††††††††††† "Hey! Whatís that?" Billy yelled.

††††††††††††††† Adam lifted the hat from his face and looked in the direction of Billyís pointing finger. "Dust," he said, lowering the hat.

††††††††††††††† Billy grabbed the hat and tossed it aside. "Kind of a lot of dust, wouldnít you say?"

††††††††††††††† Adam sat up. "Yeah, I guess so."

††††††††††††††† "You donít reckon the first emigrant train has got here this early, do you?" Billy puzzled.

††††††††††††††† "Itís not even July yet," Adam scoffed. "Might be more of them Mormon colonists, though. They donít have so far to come."

††††††††††††††† "If thatís Mormons, itís a passel of Ďem," Billy declared. Suddenly, his face lighted. "Hey! I know what it is!"

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, what?" Adam asked dubiously.

††††††††††††††† Billy stood over his friend, arms akimbo. "Whenís the last time you seen dust clouds that big?" he demanded.

††††††††††††††† Adam frowned and shook his head.

††††††††††††††† "When that Wootton feller brought that herd of sheep through last spring!" Billy announced exultantly. "Iíll bet heís back!"

††††††††††††††† Adam sat up, looking more intently at the clouds of dust swirling in the distance across the river. "Might be," he said. "Yeah, that just might be a flock of woollies."

††††††††††††††† "Letís go see," Billy ordered. "Our folksíll want to know about something that size, whatever it is."

††††††††††††††† "Okay," Adam agreed, his curiosity now burning almost as intensely as the other boyís.

††††††††††††††† They mounted quickly and walked their horses across the river before breaking into a gallop. Billy evidently intended to make a race of it, and having a head start, he reached the destination before Adam. "Howdy, mister," he called out to the stranger riding at the head of the herd of sheep.

††††††††††††††† The man doffed his hat, revealing a head of hair that was thinning on top, but fuller below, reaching almost to his broad shoulders. "Howdy, son," he yelled back. "Where you from?"

††††††††††††††† Billy pointed in a vaguely westward direction. "You workiní for Wootton?" he asked sociably.

††††††††††††††† "Uncle Dick Wootton?" the man asked. "You know him, boy?"

††††††††††††††† Billy pulled his horse alongside the manís just as Adam rode up. "Sure, we know Uncle Dick," Billy said. "Guess you do, too."

††††††††††††††† The man laughed. "Yeah, real well, from the time he was a young whippersnapper back at Bentís Fort. Me and Uncle Dick was huntiní partners for a time. So, how is it you younguns know him?"

††††††††††††††† "We met him last spring when he brought a flock of sheep through here," Adam explained.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, I knew about that," the man said. "Fact is, it was Uncle Dick convinced me to bring a herd over myself. Well, boys, seeiní as how youíre friends of a friend, so to speak, I reckon we ought to make our introductions."

††††††††††††††† "Iím Billy Thomas," Billy announced, "and heís Adam Cartwright."

††††††††††††††† "Pleased to make your acquaintance," the stranger said, a twinkle in his clear blue eyes. "Nameís Christopher Carson."

††††††††††††††† Adamís black eyes all but popped out of his head. "Not KóKit Carson?" he stammered, awestruck.

††††††††††††††† "Guilty as charged," Carson chuckled, "though I hope Iíve not been charged with anything too serious."

††††††††††††††† "No, sir!" Adam exclaimed.

††††††††††††††† "Not the one they named this whole blamed valley after," Billy babbled. "Not that Kit Carson."

††††††††††††††† "Iím afraid so, son," Carson said, "and itís right honored I am to have my name fixed to so fine a place."

††††††††††††††† "Well, you were one of the first to see it, along with Captain Frťmont," Adam declared. "Itís only right and proper."

††††††††††††††† Carson gazed nostalgically toward the Sierras looming over the valley floor. "Those were fine days, when I was with Frťmont," he said. "Wish I had time to tell you boys about them, but Iíve got a herd to tend."

††††††††††††††† "Come to supper to our place," Billy said impulsively, "and tell us all about it."

††††††††††††††† Carson laughed loud. "Now, donít tempt me, boy. Iíve been eating trail grub so long, Iím an easy mark for the offer of a home-cooked meal."

††††††††††††††† "You wouldnít turn it down if youíd ever tasted my maís dried apple pie," Billy grinned.

††††††††††††††† "Dried apple pie," Carson mused, licking his lips. "Anybody ever tell you you got natural talent as a tempter, boy? Sure your folks wonít mind?"

††††††††††††††† "No, sir." It was Adam who answered this time. He figured all the meals heíd shared at the Thomas table made him an expert on Nelly Thomasís hospitality.

††††††††††††††† "Well, Iíll take you up on it," Carson smiled, "if youíll give me directions."

††††††††††††††† Billy quickly told the famous explorer where to find the cabin; then he and Adam rode home to give Nelly warning that sheíd have extra guests for dinner. "Us, too," Adam told Billy. "Sheíll ask, and Pa wonít turn down a chance to meet Kit Carson!"

††††††††††††††† "Reckon not!" Billy agreed. "Come on; first one back gets to spread the news." Kicking his roan coltís flanks, he charged ahead. Adam grinned and gave chase.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† "Just help yourself, Mr. Carson," Nelly babbled, clearly flustered by serving such a famous guest. "I know the foodís not fancy, but thereís plenty of it."

††††††††††††††† Kit Carson flashed the frazzled woman a friendly grin as he filled his blue crockery plate, Nelly having set out her Sunday dishes in his honor. "Maíam, I believe youíve gone to entirely too much trouble, but I surely plan to enjoy every bite. I canít even remember when I last had chicken and dumplings."

††††††††††††††† Nelly blushed. "Well, itís easy to make on short notice."

††††††††††††††† "But itís the best, Ma," Billy declared loyally.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, shush now," his mother ordered, her face flaming redder.

††††††††††††††† "Truth should be spoken, maíam," Carson said. "This is every bit as good as my ma used to make, and nobody cooks like a boyís ma, you know."

††††††††††††††† "You promised to tell us about your expedition with Captain Frťmont," Adam said, helping himself to chicken and dumplings.

††††††††††††††† "Now, Adam, let Mr. Carson enjoy his dinner," Ben chided.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, I can eat and talk, too," Carson laughed, "and Iíve got to earn a dinner this good. Well, first off, son, he wasnít Captain Frťmont when I first met him. He was a lieutenant with the United States Topographical Corps in those days and a man with a big dream."

††††††††††††††† "Like you, Pa," Adam declared.

††††††††††††††† "Hush, Adam," Ben said, as eager as the boys to hear the explorerís reminiscences. "Please go on, Mr. Carson."

††††††††††††††† Carson winked at Adam. "I went on three expeditions with Lieutenant Frťmont," he said, "and I donít reckon thereís time to tell all that tonight. I figure you folks would be most interested in the time we spent here in your part of the country."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah!" Billy said.

††††††††††††††† "That was our second expedition," Carson continued, "the first being a short trip with orders to map South Pass."

††††††††††††††† "We know where that is!" Billy announced proudly.

††††††††††††††† "ĎCourse you do, son; all the emigrant trains pass through there," Carson agreed amiably. "Easiest way across the Rockies. We were hoping to find a shorter, quicker route, but didnít have enough time to do a proper job of it and follow orders, too. Thatís one reason Frťmont was so determined to go back."

††††††††††††††† "That was the summer of 1843, I believe," Ben commented.

††††††††††††††† Carson looked impressed. "That it was, Mr. Cartwright. Lieutenant Frťmont had hired me and Broken Hand Fitzpatrick as guides. Now, both of us were experienced mountain men, but neither of us knew a short way across the Rockies. It was all new territory to us. The lieutenant sent Broken Hand north over the emigrant route you folks must have traveled coming west; then he and I, with twelve others, turned west, looking for a pass."

††††††††††††††† "Did you find it?" Adam asked eagerly.

††††††††††††††† "We traveled five days through some of the finest country God ever created," Carson said. "Tall mountains dark with pine, but full of sheer drops that made it an impractical route for wagons. We had a hard time ourselves, but finally came out to find a grassy river bottom covered with wildflowers. Prettiest sight I ever saw, saving my lovely wifeís face."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, youíre married," Nelly said, her brown eyes sparking with interest.

††††††††††††††† "Now, Nelly, youíre interruptiní," Clyde rebuked. He didnít want Carson distracted from his story to answer any of Nellyís typically female questions.

††††††††††††††† Carson smiled. "Tell you about her later, maíam. These boys look to be on the edge of their chairs."

††††††††††††††† "We sure are," Billy said, "and we donít want to hear about no wives."

††††††††††††††† "Mind your manners, boy," Clyde said sharply. It was one thing to feel the way he did, another to blurt it out before company. Billy slunk down in his seat, determined not to say another word. Tonight was no time to get banished from the table.

††††††††††††††† "We met up with Fitzpatrickís party," Carson continued, "and went on west. Just two days after Christmas we came to a point of decision. We had reached the southern border of Oregon, which fulfilled all our orders, so we could have just turned around and gone home."

††††††††††††††† "But you didnít," Adam said triumphantly, "else how would you have discoveredó"

††††††††††††††† "Adam," Ben said, more sharply than before. "Quit interrupting."

††††††††††††††† Hoss, seated to Benís left, reached up to tap his fatherís arm. "Shh!" he demanded. "Wanna hear story." Everyone laughed, Carson loudest of all.

††††††††††††††† "All right, sonny," he said. "Come perch on my knee, and Iíll tell it just for you."

††††††††††††††† With a wide grin Hoss scooted out of his chair and claimed his perch on the former mountain manís buckskin-clad lap.

††††††††††††††† "Now, as young Adam here said, we didnít turn back," Carson said. "Weíd been away from home for nine months; we were tired and hungry, and weíd faced more than our share of hard times. But Lieutenant Frťmont had a hunger to map new territory, to find the legendary Buenaventura River that was supposed to flow west through the mountains. So we headed south into the most God-forsaken desert country Iíd ever seen. For two weeks we struggled through that powdery, alkaline soil, wondering if weíd ever see a green leaf again."

††††††††††††††† "My brother traveled that part of the country when he came west," Ben commented.

††††††††††††††† "Pa!" "Uncle Ben!" Both boys had been rebuked so many times for interrupting themselves that they were outraged when one of the adults did it.

††††††††††††††† "Now, now," Carson appeased, "letís just say whoever feels a need to say something can. It pleasures me to hear other voices besides my own."

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "All right, then. Interruptions being welcomed, Iíll go first. My brother wrote back to St. Joe and advised me not to take that route."

††††††††††††††† "Good advice," Carson laughed, "and Iím sure you took it. There wasnít anyone to advise us, though, so we just trusted our lives to the care of Almighty God and He didnít fail us. Just when we thought we were doomed to starve to death in that desert, we came upon a huge lake and gorged ourselves on salmon trout."

††††††††††††††† "I bet that was Pyramid Lake," Adam inserted.

††††††††††††††† "It was, son," Carson smiled. "You seen it?"

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, we went up to visit Captain Truckee there," Adam replied eagerly.

††††††††††††††† "We try to visit him each spring," Ben put in quickly, fearing Adam was about to launch into a full rendition of their own adventures. "Iíve been taking the Paiutes a few beef ever since I started my herd."

††††††††††††††† "Kind of you, sir," Carson said. "The chief did us a good turn, and Iíd like to return the favor. If you have time to make the trip up to Pyramid, Iíd be glad to leave a few of my sheep as a gift to my old friend."

††††††††††††††† "Iíd be glad to," Ben agreed. "Truckee speaks with great warmth of Captain Frťmont and is especially proud of the letter he gave him."

††††††††††††††† Hoss pulled on Carsonís chin. "Story!" he demanded.

††††††††††††††† Carson nodded solemnly. "Yes, sir!" he said. "Okay if Miss Nelly dishes me up a piece of pie first?"

††††††††††††††† "Okay," Hoss grinned. "Me, too!"

††††††††††††††† Carson paused in his story long enough to take a bite of the dried apple pie. "Your boy surely spoke the truth about this pie, maíam," he said enthusiastically. "Itís real good."

††††††††††††††† "Real good," Hoss echoed, his face already sticky with sweet syrup from his portion.

††††††††††††††† Carson patted the boyís protruding belly. "Yeah, itís easy to see youíve had your fair share of Miss Nellyís fine cooking."

††††††††††††††† "Boy, has he!" Billy declared.

††††††††††††††† "Well, back to my story," Carson said quickly. "We continued south, finally reaching the river you folks settled by."

††††††††††††††† "The Carson," Adam said.

††††††††††††††† Carson laughed. "Well, it didnít have a name then, but, yes, the Carson. We were low on food again and feeling pretty low down. Having come this far south, we knew for sure the Buenaventura was nothing but a river folks wished for, one that didnít exist outside menís dreams. We knew now we couldnít float into California like weíd planned, but Frťmont was still set on getting there. Camped there by the river he told us he planned to cross the Sierras Nevadas on foot. It wasnít good news."

††††††††††††††† "Why not?" Billy demanded.

††††††††††††††† "Remember what time of year it was, son," Carson said patiently. "It was just past the middle of January, and no one had ever tried crossing the Sierras in winter."

††††††††††††††† "Oh," Billy said. "Everybody knows thatís crazy."

††††††††††††††† Carson laughed. "Thatís how most of us felt, but I trusted Frťmont, so Iídíve gone anywhere he ordered. West we went, climbing over the first low mountains, coming into Antelope Valley. From there we could see the main range, snow-packed and sharp with ice. We made our way up for two days, leaving more and more of our personal gear behind. But we still had that infernal cannon."

††††††††††††††† "What cannon?" Billy asked, his blue eyes widening with renewed interest.

††††††††††††††† "A twelve-pound howitzer weíd dragged all across the country," Carson said. "You see, Frťmont and his father-in-law, Senator Benton, had a feeling weíd be at war with Mexico by the time we reached California and thought the cannon might come in handy."

††††††††††††††† "And did it? In the war, I mean?" Billy asked eagerly.

††††††††††††††† Carson shook his head, chuckling. "No, son, after all our troubles, we finally had to leave it behind in the mountains. Still there, far as I know."

††††††††††††††† "Whereabouts?" Billy probed.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís enough, boy," his father said bluntly. "We canít leave Frťmontís whole party to freeze in the mountains while you talk artillery. Tell how you got out alive, Mr. Carson."

††††††††††††††† "Well, two days into the mountains, our last Indian guide quit on us. ĎRock upon rock, snow upon snow,í he said and warned us weíd never get out of those mountains. Frťmont realized the Indianís words would prove true unless he found a trail, so he left everyone behind except me and Broken Hand. It was hard going, but we made it through. We came to a large snowless valley, and beyond it I could see a low range of mountains I knew were the ones bordering the coast of California. Though it had been fifteen years since Iíd been there, I recognized Mount Diablo. We went back for the other men, taking about twenty days to get them up to that peak again. Hard days they were, too, with men going snow-blind and getting so hungry they finally broke down and ate their pet dog, Klamath."

††††††††††††††† "No!" Hoss wailed, burying his face into Carsonís shirt.

††††††††††††††† The explorerís countenance dropped. "Guess I shouldíve left that part out," he said apologetically. "Forgot what big ears little pitchers can have."

††††††††††††††† "He has a pup of his own," Ben said by way of explanation.

††††††††††††††† Carson patted the boyís heaving back. "Yeah, I understand," he said. "The men with us were grown, but they cried, too, when theyóóyou know. Starving though they were, theyíd been saving scraps out of their own plates to keep that little dog alive, and it broke their hearts when they finally had to face the hard truth that it was him or them. Anyway, we finally made it to Sutterís Fort a month after we left the river here. We looked more like walking skeletons than living men, but weíd proved the mountains could be crossed, even in winter. Only loss to the party, a twelve-pound cannon."

††††††††††††††† Hoss peered up with red eyes. "And a pup," he added mournfully.

††††††††††††††† Carson gave him a squeeze. "Yeah, son, and a pup. A fine pup who gave his life so his masters could live. Klamath was the real hero of the expedition, you could say."

††††††††††††††† Hoss nodded solemnly. Ben wasnít sure the boy really understood the concept of sacrifice at just under three years of age, but at that moment he appeared to.

††††††††††††††† "Tell about the war in California now," Billy demanded.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, that came much later, and Iím afraid I havenít time to start that story tonight," Carson said, setting Hoss down and standing. "Maíam, much as Iíd like to stay, Iíd better get back to those Mexican herders of mine and see that the flockís secure for the night."

††††††††††††††† "A pleasure haviní you, Mr. Carson," Nelly said.

††††††††††††††† "You come back anytime," Clyde added as he escorted their guest to the door.

††††††††††††††† "Mr. Carson," Adam said, running up to him, "did you say your herders were Mexican?"

††††††††††††††† "Thatís right, son," Carson replied.

††††††††††††††† "So, do you speak Spanish?"

††††††††††††††† "Enough to get by," Carson laughed.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, I know where this is headed," Ben chuckled. "An old Mexican hereabouts said something about Ďplata,í and Adamís been about to die of curiosity because the man wouldnít explain what he meant."

††††††††††††††† Carsonís lips puckered in thought. "Well, letís see. I think Ďplataí means Ďsilver,í son."

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned broadly. "I knew it was something important! You reckon thereís silver in the hills around here, Mr. Carson?"

††††††††††††††† "Oh, I doubt that," Carson said. "If youíre after mineral wealth, son, youíd better head over the Sierras." He chucked Adam under the chin. "Just donít do it in winter," he added with a saucy wink and, tipping his hat to Nelly, departed.

††††††††††††††† Nelly sighed. With all the interest the others had shown in his adventures, Carson had never gotten around to talking about his wife. Typical man.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† "You want another slice of pound cake, Ben?" Nelly asked.

††††††††††††††† Ben groaned as he flopped back on the blanket spread out for their picnic. "Not another bite or Iíll never get up from here."

††††††††††††††† "You, Clyde?"

††††††††††††††† "Full to the brim," Clyde assured his wife.

††††††††††††††† "Iíll just pack things away then," Nelly said, "soon as I feed Inger."

††††††††††††††† Ben looked up at her and smiled. "Donít you ever rest? Itís the Fourth of July, Nelly, and youíve worked hard to set out a fine lunch like this."

††††††††††††††† Nelly laughed as she lifted her baby girl. "A womanís work is never done, they say, but itís so restful here by the lake, it feels like a holiday. Listen to them younguns enjoyiní themselves."

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled and closed his eyes, relishing the sound of his children at play. Adam and Billy had met a couple of Washo lads at the alpine lake Frťmont had called Bonpland and the Indians Tahoe, and they were playing a noisy game of tag among the pines with the Indian lads. Nearby, Hoss was frolicking with his pup. Ben could hear him calling again and again, "Fetch, Klam; get the stick. Here, Klam; here, boy."

††††††††††††††† From his spot on the blanket near Ben, Clyde chuckled. "Whatever possessed that youngun to call his dog Clam?" he asked.

††††††††††††††† Ben opened one eye. "Not Clam," he explained dryly. "Klamath, after a certain heroic dog we heard about last week. Hoss just canít get anything but the first syllable out."

††††††††††††††† Clyde cackled louder than before. "Oh my lands! That story sure made an impression on the boy, didnít it?"

††††††††††††††† "Sure did," Ben yawned, "and not just on Hoss. Or hadnít you noticed what game our older boys have been playing the last few days?"

††††††††††††††† "I have," Nelly tittered. She had moved out of their view to nurse Inger, but she was still close enough to join in the conversation. "One day Billy plays Frťmont to Adamís Kit Carson, and the next the other way around. They been acting out the Sierra crossing for days now. Fact is, theyíre the ones started calling Hossís pup Klamath. Hoss sure squalled when they pretended to eat him, though."

††††††††††††††† "I didnít know that," Ben said. "Iíll have a word with Adam on that subject!"

††††††††††††††† "That Carson sure had some tales to tell, didnít he?" Clyde commented.

††††††††††††††† "He sure did," Ben said fondly. "Never thought Iíd have the privilege of meeting a legend of the west like him. Such a kindly man, too, to put up with our boysí endless questions."

††††††††††††††† "A real gent," Clyde agreed, "and with a fine head for business, too. You know heís takiní thirteen thousand head of sheep to Sacramento?"

††††††††††††††† "I was there when he told you," Ben pointed out.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, I know," Clyde said impatiently, "but have you figured how much profit he stands to make?"

††††††††††††††† "Didnít figure it was my business," Ben drawled.

††††††††††††††† "Could be, if we was to bring over a flock of our own," Clyde suggested.

††††††††††††††† Ben rolled onto his left side and propped his head up on one elbow. "I had a feeling thatís where we were headed," he grinned. "So, how much would we make, my friend?"

††††††††††††††† Clyde pulled himself closer to Benís head. "Carson said sheep cost a dollar a head in New Mexico and sell in California for anywhere from five to twelve. Even at the lowest price, heíd clear four dollars a head. Calculate for yourself how much that would be, Ben!"

††††††††††††††† Ben thought for a moment, then sat up. "Fifty-two thousand," he whistled.

††††††††††††††† "At the lowest price," Clyde pointed out.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís a tidy profit," Ben agreed. "You really want to do this?"

††††††††††††††† "I think itís a chance we shouldnít pass up," Clyde said firmly, "and one that wonít last forever. If rumors is right, the emigrant traffic is gonna be slower next year."

††††††††††††††† "And likely to thin down after that," Ben admitted. "I figured on building up my cattle herd and relying on ranching once trade petered out."

††††††††††††††† "You could build it faster with more funds," Clyde said.

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Building up my ranch is not the reason you want to herd sheep, now, is it, Clyde?"

††††††††††††††† Clyde shrugged, grinning. "Got my own reasons," he said. "I was tryiní to appeal to yours, Ben boy."

††††††††††††††† Ben didnít need to ask Clydeís reasons. After the years theyíd spent together, he could almost read his friendís mind sometimes. Clydeís ambition had never included becoming a farmer or rancher; he was a blacksmith and preferred to make his living by that vocation. But once the emigrant traffic stopped, the valleyís need for a blacksmith would decline sharply. As surely as he knew his own heart, Ben knew Clyde wanted to build himself a nest egg against the leaner times he feared were coming.

††††††††††††††† Ben sat up. "Iíd like to go in with you on this venture, Clyde," he said, "but Iíve already got a sizable herd to tend. What am I supposed to do with my cattle while we travel to New Mexico and back?"

††††††††††††††† "You got two men working for you," Clyde offered wryly.

††††††††††††††† From the corner of his eye, Ben threw his friend an irritated glance. "Youíre not serious," he said bluntly. "Diegoís good with cattle, but he prefers mining; he only works for me long enough to set back a grub stake. Then heís off to the diggings."

††††††††††††††† "Always comes back," Clyde grinned.

††††††††††††††† "When his poke runs empty," Ben replied gruffly, "and as for Tuquahó"

††††††††††††††† "Now, Iíve heard you brag on his work," Clyde snickered.

††††††††††††††† "He does real well most of the time," Ben said, "but you know how it is with his people. The Washos are hunters and gatherers. Hard for them to understand the kind of life that ties a man to one place."

††††††††††††††† "So Tuquah takes off anytime he gets itchy feet, is that it?" Clyde cackled.

††††††††††††††† Ben raised an eyebrow. "Something like that. When itís time for the piŮon harvest or spring fishing oróówell, you get the picture. Not a man I could leave in charge for weeks at a time."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Clyde admitted. "I see your problem, but if you could find such a manó"

††††††††††††††† "Then Iíd join you in bringing back a huge herd of woollies," Ben grinned, "though I donít think we could afford as many as Carson."

††††††††††††††† Clyde lay back on the blanket, satisfied. "I figure we ought to leave late January, so weíd be back in time to trail the sheep over with the first thaw."

††††††††††††††† Ben stared at the suddenly drowsy man lying beside him, then looked quizzically up at Nelly, who had just laid Inger down to sleep and was packing the leftovers into a basket. She laughed and shook her head. Better than Ben, she knew how rock-headed Clyde could be once he got his mind set on a thing, and in his mind the trip to New Mexico was obviously set as solid as if Ben had given him a definite yes.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

The sun beat down with a merciless heat the first Saturday in August. Billy and Adam eagerly stripped off their clothing and splashed into the cool waters of the Carson River not far from the Thomas cabin. "Oh, yeah," Billy sighed contentedly. "Thatís what I been neediní."

††††††††††††††† "Me, too," Adam said, stretching full length on the waterís surface.

††††††††††††††† "Bubba! Bubba!" called an eager voice from the shore. "Me swim, too, Bubba."

††††††††††††††† Adam groaned. He might have known Hoss would follow them. "Go back to Aunt Nelly," he ordered.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah!" Billy yelled. "We ainít got the time or the energy to put up with you."

††††††††††††††† "Aunt Nelwy busy," the three-year-old stated as he plopped down on the riverbank and began pulling his clothes off.

††††††††††††††† Adam gave Billy a sour look. As they both knew, Nelly Thomas was devoting the afternoon to baking bread, and with Inger fretful from teething, she really was too busy to tend Hoss, too. "Guess weíre stuck," Adam moaned softly.

††††††††††††††† "Guess so," Billy admitted. "Can he swim?"

††††††††††††††† "Doubt it," Adam replied glumly, "but Iíll be hanged if Iím gonna hold his hand while he wades in the shallow water."

††††††††††††††† "Doggone right!" Billy asserted. "Itís a get-your-whole-body-wet kind of day."

††††††††††††††† Stripped naked, Hoss stuck a tentative toe in the water, then stretched his arm toward Adam. "Bubba," he called. "Help, Bubba."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, bother!" Adam snapped, stomping toward his little brother. He grabbed Hossís hand and pulled him in. "Come on, Hoss," he ordered as he dragged the boy behind him. "If youíre gonna swim with us, you gotta go in the deep water."

††††††††††††††† Hoss was beaming happily until his chin dipped below the surface. Then he screamed, wrapping pudgy arms around Adamís waist. "Deep, Bubba!" he hollered. "Go back; go back."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, donít be such a fraidy baby," Billy snorted. "Look at me, Hoss." He dived under the water and came up grinning. "Now you try it."

††††††††††††††† "No!" Hoss yelled, clambering up Adamís neck.

††††††††††††††† "Turn loose!" Adam croaked. "Youíre choking me, Hoss."

††††††††††††††† But Hoss clung tight, terrified of the water splashing his buttocks. "Go back," he insisted.

††††††††††††††† "All right," Adam said, "but you gotta go all the way back." He sloshed to the riverís edge and pushed Hoss out of the water. "Now get your clothes and go back to the house," he ordered sternly.

††††††††††††††† "Wanna swim, Bubba," Hoss wailed.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, no, you donít," Adam sputtered. "What you want to do is wade and I donít. Now get back to the house!" To add emphasis to his command, Adam landed a stinging swat on Hossís bare bottom.

††††††††††††††† Hoss bellowed his protest, but grabbed up his clothes from the grassy bank and stalked toward the cabin. Adam felt a pang of guilt as the tear-tracked face turned away from him, but he pushed it aside and splashed back into the center of the river.

††††††††††††††† Hoss stumbled toward the cabin with full intentions of tattling on his hard-hearted brother, but when a ground squirrel scurried across his path, he forgot his sore bottom. "Swirlwy," he cried happily, dropping his clothes and trotting after the furry rodent. "Come back, swirlwy."

††††††††††††††† Adam and Billy enjoyed a carefree afternoon of swimming and sunning themselves on the riverbank. Fully dry, they scrambled into their clothes and raced toward the seesaw, Billy arriving first.

††††††††††††††† Nelly, hearing his exultant shout of victory, came to the door. "ĎBout time you younguns came up for air," she scolded, "before you burn to a crisp out in that water. Hoss ainít used to that much sun." Her brown eyes scanned the dirt yard. "Where is Hoss?" she demanded. "Lands, you scamps didnít leave that baby alone down by the river!"

††††††††††††††† "We sent him back to you, Aunt Nelly," Adam said, his face blanching.

††††††††††††††† "Hours ago," Billy added earnestly.

††††††††††††††† "Good lands! Last I seen him he was following you boys to the river," Nelly cried. She began to run toward the trading post a few hundred yards downstream from the cabin. "Ben!" she shouted as she ran, Adam and Billy charging after her. "Ben!"

††††††††††††††† Ben finished loading a hundred-pound sack of flour into an emigrantís wagon and turned. "What is it, Nelly?" he asked anxiously, reading her alarm in her expression.

††††††††††††††† "Hoss!" she cried breathlessly. "I donít know where he is, Ben. I thought he was swimming with the boys, but they say they sent him back to the house hours ago. He didnít get there, Ben!"

††††††††††††††† Ben grabbed Adam by the shoulders. "Where did you see him last?" he demanded.

††††††††††††††† "By the river, Pa," Adam stammered. "He was headed for the house, though, honest, Pa."

††††††††††††††† "Show me where you were swimming," Ben ordered, taking Adamís hand.

††††††††††††††† Adam led the way toward the river. Suddenly, Ben stopped and bent to pick up a small shirt and trousers from the tall grass. "Hoss!" he cried. "Hoss!" There was no answer.

††††††††††††††† Adamís chin started to tremble. His little brother was lost and it was his fault. "IóIím sorry, Pa," he stuttered.

††††††††††††††† Ben turned sober eyes on his older sonís face. "Iíll deal with you later," he said sternly. "Right now the important thing is to find your brother."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir. Iíll help look, Pa," Adam offered quickly.

††††††††††††††† "You and Billy fan out that way," Ben said, pointing away from the river. "Look everywhere and look close. Hoss may have gotten tired and lain down in the grass somewhere."

††††††††††††††† Adam and Billy trotted away and spread out, each keeping the other in view. Ben walked close to the river, dreading the thought that he might find his babyís body submerged in the water, but not wanting Adam to be the one to come on such a grisly sight. Half an hour later Clyde Thomas came running up to Ben. "No sign of the boy yet?" he asked anxiously.

††††††††††††††† Unable to speak, Ben shook his head.

††††††††††††††† Clyde clapped his friendís shoulder encouragingly. "Weíll find him," he said. "I got that emigrant train taken care of, and I can help look now."

††††††††††††††† "Thanks," Ben said. Then his eyes scanned the horizon. "Big country," he murmured.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, but weíll find him," Clyde repeated. "Donít you fret, Ben." Clyde scratched his head. "You reckon that pup of his could track him?"

††††††††††††††† Benís head jerked up. "I donít know," he cried, "but itís worth a try." His eyes searched northward until he spotted his older son. "Adam!" he called and waved the boy toward him.

††††††††††††††† Adam ran up, smiling. "Did you find him?" he called excitedly.

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "No, son, but weíve had an idea. Find Klamath and bring him here."

††††††††††††††† "Okay," Adam replied, "but itíll take awhile, Pa."

††††††††††††††† "Just do it!" Ben snapped.

††††††††††††††† Adam flushed, turned and ran to do as he was told.

††††††††††††††† Ben felt immediate chagrin. "I shouldnít have yelled at him like that," he muttered.

††††††††††††††† "Worryíll do that to a man," Clyde said. "Donít fret over Adam now; time enough to make amends once we find the youngun."

††††††††††††††† "I suppose," Ben mumbled.

††††††††††††††† When Adam finally returned with Hossís dog, Ben held the boyís small garments under Klamathís nose. "Can you find him, boy?" Ben asked urgently. "Find Hoss, Klam."

††††††††††††††† The little dog seemed to recognize his masterís scent and barked sharply. At first Ben thought the dog wasnít up to the task, for he ran away from the quartet of searchers. But when he stopped, Ben realized the dog was not far from where heíd first picked up the little boyís clothing. "Thatís right, Klam!" Ben called, trotting behind the pup. "Find Hoss, boy."

††††††††††††††† Klamath began moving slowly westward, toward the foothills of the Sierras. For two hours the searchers followed the dog without sighting the boy. "Reckon there ainít much bloodhound to old Klamath, after all," Clyde conceded.

††††††††††††††† "You donít reckon injuns took him, do you?" Billy offered.

††††††††††††††† "No, I donít!" Ben snapped. "This isnít some wild adventure weíre playing out, boy!"

††††††††††††††† Billy kicked at the grass with his bare toes. "Sorry," he muttered.

††††††††††††††† Ben looked at him quickly. "No, Iím sorry, Billy. Iím on edge, thatís all. But I donít think blaming the Indians is a particularly helpful notion. The Washos are peaceable enough."

††††††††††††††† "They steal, Pa says," Billy asserted.

††††††††††††††† "Food, boy," Clyde grunted. "Foodstuff and stock, sometimes. Never heard of Ďem takiní a youngun."

††††††††††††††† Billy shrugged. "I was just tryiní to help."

††††††††††††††† "Look, itís getting late," Ben said. "You boys head back to the cabin and have your supper."

††††††††††††††† "I want to look for Hoss," Adam whimpered. "Itís my fault heís lost."

††††††††††††††† Ben knelt and took the trembling boy in his arms. "Weíll talk about that later, Adam, but thereís no need for you to stay out here looking. Go back to the house like Pa says."

††††††††††††††† "Let me stay, Pa," Adam pleaded.

††††††††††††††† "Iíd let him, Ben," Clyde said. "Doiní somethinís easier than sittiní and frettiní."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, all right," Ben agreed, standing up.

††††††††††††††† "Iím stickiní, too," Billy declared loyally, feeling that his friendís problem was his, as well.

††††††††††††††† "Good enough," Clyde said, "but stay in sight, boys."

††††††††††††††† "We will, Pa," Billy promised.

††††††††††††††† Klamath gave a sharp bark, as if to regain the huntersí attention, and trotted toward the sun that was just dipping behind the mountains. Dark soon, Ben realized. Harder then to find a small boy. Oh, dear God, let us find him soon.

††††††††††††††† When Klamath reached the forested foothills and moved into the trees, Benís heart dropped. Not in there. How in mercy would they find Hoss among the pines? On they went, moving deeper into the shadows of the trees. Dark as night here, even if the sun was still peeking over the summit of the Sierras. The temperature was dropping, too. Getting chilly, and none of them had brought jackets along. Benís fingers tightened around Hossís clothing. The naked boy must be shivering by now.

††††††††††††††† Suddenly, Ben stopped, holding up his hand. "Wait," he whispered. "I think I heard something."

††††††††††††††† "Wind in the pines," Clyde said.

††††††††††††††† "No, listen," Ben said urgently. A whimper wafted toward them on the wind, but they couldnít discern its direction. "Hoss!" Ben cried. "Where are you, son?"

††††††††††††††† There was no answer from the boy, but his little dog gave a happy bark and charged ahead. "Atta, boy, Klam!" Billy yelled. "Come on," he hollered back at Adam.

††††††††††††††† The men couldnít keep up with the little dog, but the boys did. Running into a small clearing, they saw the pup jump into his little masterís lap. "Klam!" Hoss cried, his arms closing around the dog, who licked the tears from his face.

††††††††††††††† "Hoss!" Adam shouted, pouncing on the boy with as much enthusiasm as the little dog.

††††††††††††††† Billy grinned and trotted back the way heíd come. "Hey! We found him," he called. "Over here."

††††††††††††††† The words pumped new vigor into Benís legs and he ran up the incline to the clearing. "Hoss, baby!" he cried, scooping the boy into his arms. "Oh, my sweet baby boy."

††††††††††††††† "Pa!" Hoss whimpered. "Cold, Pa."

††††††††††††††† Ben let loose a laugh of relief. The moonlight revealed the goosebumps on Hossís bare flesh. "Yeah, I bet you are," Ben said. "País got your clothes, baby; letís get you dressed." He sat down and began pulling Hossís arms through the sleeves of the small shirt.

††††††††††††††† "Naked as a jay bird," Billy scolded. "That ainít no way to traipse the woods, boy."

††††††††††††††† Hoss shook his head sadly. "Swirlwy too fast," he whimpered.

††††††††††††††† "Swirlwy!" Adam exclaimed. "He ran off after a squirrel, Pa!"

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Ben chuckled. "Looks like both my boys need a little talking to."

††††††††††††††† Adam gulped. Of course, Pa hadnít said the fatal words, "very necessary little talk," so maybe he didnít mean a spanking, but Adam figured he had one coming. When they finally reached home late that night, however, all Ben did was give a stern lecture to each boy. Hoss was made aware that he was never to leave home unaccompanied, and Adam given explicit instructions on which came first, his own pleasure or his brotherís safety.

††††††††††††††† Adam didnít need the lecture, though: during the anxious hours of searching for Hoss, heíd made a solemn vow that never again would he shirk his responsibilities as an older brother. Hoss had acquired a watchdog more vigilant than Klamath, who, as the hero of the search party, basked in the extra attention and food scraps he received over the next few days.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† The next afternoon the three boys were again cooling their bare, sun-browned bodies in the Carson River. This time, however, Adam patiently waded the shallows with his little brother, leaving Billy to splash alone a few yards downstream. Ben and Clyde were back at the cabin waging war at the checkerboard. Though they kept a running game of chess at the trading post during the week, Sunday afternoons were reserved for checkers. Clydeís skill at the more familiar game was second to none, so the matches were hotly contested. With Inger bedded down for her nap, Nelly was using a drop spindle to make thread from wool recently shorn from their small flock of sheep.

††††††††††††††† It was a quiet afternoon, the only sounds the gliding of wooden pieces across the game board and the intermittent creak of Nellyís rocker on the puncheon floor. Then the stillness was broken as a horse clattered into the yard.

††††††††††††††† Clyde, whose chair faced the open doorway, glanced up from the game. "Howdy, Mulligan," he said, a slight frown on his lips as he recognized one of the miners who frequented their business. "Trading post ainít open Sundays, you know."

††††††††††††††† Ben swiveled in his seat, his brow furrowing as he saw the miner slouched against the doorjamb. "Unless you have an urgent need," Ben added, noting the pallor of the manís face. After all, he and Clyde willingly opened their storeroom for emigrants who happened to pass on a Sunday, and Ben saw little point in treating a needy neighbor with less respect.

††††††††††††††† Mulligan stumbled into the room. "I got an urgent need, all right," he murmured, "but it ainít for supplies."

††††††††††††††† Seeing the blood caked on the manís shirtfront, Nelly dropped her spindle and started toward him. Being closer, Ben reached him first and guided the injured miner to a chair.

††††††††††††††† "Who done this, Mulligan?" Clyde demanded, jumping up.

††††††††††††††† The miner gave a weak grin. "Got no one to blame but myself, Thomas. Reached for a loaded gun muzzle-end first and the thing went off." His dark eyes looked pleadingly at the others in the room. "Got no right to ask, I know, but you always seemed like kind-hearted folks, so I thought maybe you could see your way to get this here bullet out of me."

††††††††††††††† "Lands, Mr. Mulligan, we ainít doctors," Nelly protested.

††††††††††††††† The man shook his head grimly. "I already been to the doctor, for all the good it did me. Sent me packiní the minute I asked for his services."

††††††††††††††† "What are you talking about, man?" Ben queried. "Thereís no doctor this side of the Sierrasóónone I ever heard about, at any rate."

††††††††††††††† "Shucks, you know him," Mulligan said weakly. "Bunch of us miners knew Doc Martin in California, but he sure ainít the man he was there."

††††††††††††††† "Paul Martin?" Ben asked, amazed. "He practiced medicine in California?"

††††††††††††††† The miner nodded.

††††††††††††††† Clyde looked thoughtful. "Lots of them what calls theirselves doctors in Californy ainít had no real schooliní in it."

††††††††††††††† "Martin did," Mulligan muttered through gritted teeth. "Real medical doctor, degree on the wall and everything, but I wouldnít give two cents for all that now. Iím in sore need of help, folks, if you couldó"

††††††††††††††† "Lands, yes," Nelly said. "Here you two are jawiní at the man when you ought to be figuriní what to do."

††††††††††††††† Ben looked beyond Mulligan to Clyde. "You ever removed a bullet?"

††††††††††††††† Clyde shook his head. "Nope, and I ainít about to start. You got steadier hands than me, Ben."

††††††††††††††† "Heís right," Nelly put in. "You men help Mr. Mulligan up on the table, and Iíll put some water on to boil. Then Ben can go to work."

††††††††††††††† Ben swallowed hard, then helped Mulligan lie down on the table. Leaning over his patient, he said, "You understand Iíve never done this; I canít promise how itíll turn out."

††††††††††††††† "Justóóget the bullet outóóso it donít fester in me," Mulligan stammered feebly. "I ainít gonna complain if you carve me sloppyóójust soís you get it out."

††††††††††††††† "All right, Iíll try my best," Ben promised. He selected the sharpest knife Nelly had and dropped it in the pan of water to boil. "I guess weíll need to cauterize the wound once I get the bullet out," he told Clyde. "Thatís your job."

††††††††††††††† Clyde frowned and, nodding grimly, laid a poker on the stove to heat.

††††††††††††††† "Youóuhówouldnít have a little whiskey you could spare, would you?" Mulligan asked.

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "We donít stock it; just a little beer."

††††††††††††††† The miner gave him a crooked grin. "Willing to try it," he said.

††††††††††††††† "Iíll get it," Clyde offered, heading for the trading post.

††††††††††††††† With his patient duly anesthetized, Ben bit his lip and, sending a quick prayer heavenward, bent over the miner. He placed the knife at the ragged entrance wound and slit downward to give himself more room to probe for the bullet. Beads of sweat stood out on his forehead as he heard the minerís moans. "Sorry," he muttered.

††††††††††††††† "I can take it," Mulligan groaned. "Do what you gotta, Cartwright."

††††††††††††††† The next few minutes seemed like an eternity to Ben. His eyes and fingers stayed intent on the task at hand, but his mind swirled from the shocking revelation about his friend. Heíd known, of course, that Paul Martin was shielding his background for some unknown reason, but heíd been encouraged by the way Martin had seemed to be opening up. Now he realized how shallow had been his penetration of his friendís wall of reticence.

††††††††††††††† Ben couldnít imagine why the man would turn his back on a noble profession and, worse yet, on a man in need of his help. The gentle man who so patiently explained principles of chemistry to inquisitive Adam, the man who calmly wiped potatoes and gravy from Hossís messy face, couldnít be the same man who refused to use his medical skills to aid an injured neighbor. The two images didnít coincide, but Ben couldnít find the answer to that paradox.

††††††††††††††† Fortunately, he had greater success probing for the bullet. Once Ben had removed it, Clyde steeled himself and laid the hot poker to Mulliganís chest. The man screamed and passed out. The stench of charred flesh sickened Ben, but he knew no better way to combat infection. Martin might have, Ben thought angrily, vowing in that moment to confront his friend at his next opportunity.

††††††††††††††† That opportunity didnít come until Saturday evening, and the weekís wait gave Ben time to cool down. He still couldnít bring himself to make cheery conversation at the dinner table, but if Martin noticed his hostís unwonted taciturnity, he didnít comment on it. Once dinner was over, Ben told Adam to put Hoss to bed. "You can read in your room afterwards," he said. "Iíll see to the dishes."

††††††††††††††† Adam looked puzzled. He was happy to leave the dish washing to his father, of course, but he liked watching the two men play chess. And between moves Mr. Martin let him ask questions about the chemistry text the miner had loaned him. The look on País face invited no argument, though, so Adam took Hossís hand as soon as the baby had kissed his father good night. Hoss pulled away and moved across the room to Paul Martin. "Night-night," he said, lifting his chubby arms.

††††††††††††††† "Good night, Hoss," Paul Martin said, bending over to give the little lad a warm hug. Again Ben was hit by the contrast between the man he knew, or thought he knew, and the one heíd heard about the previous Sunday. But still he said nothing.

††††††††††††††† Not until Martin had made a particularly skillful move did Ben broach the subject that had been burning in his brain for nearly a week. "Pretty slick move," he said, adding, "Doctor."

††††††††††††††† Martinís head snapped up, and he saw Ben appraising him with cool eyes. His shoulders slumped. "Who told you?"

††††††††††††††† Ben leaned forward. "Itís true, then? Youíre a medical doctor?"

††††††††††††††† "Past tense," Martin said curtly. "Was. I was a doctor. Not now."

††††††††††††††† "But why?" Ben demanded.

††††††††††††††† "None of your business!" Martin snapped.

††††††††††††††† "It is when I have to treat a patient that came to you for help!" Ben retorted.

††††††††††††††† Martinís cheek muscles tightened. "Mulligan?"

††††††††††††††† "Have you refused anyone else treatment?" Ben asked hotly. "I donít understand, Paul. How could you leave the man to my inexperienced hands when you knew what to do?"

††††††††††††††† "You didnít have to stick your long New England nose into it," Paul muttered. "If you think Mulligan will thank you for itó"

††††††††††††††† "He already did," Ben said, "but thatís scarcely the point. Iím not a doctor."

††††††††††††††† "Neither am I," Paul said quickly.

††††††††††††††† "You were trained as one," Ben sputtered. "Whatever your reasons for leaving the profession, you had no rightó"

††††††††††††††† "No right!" Martin shouted, flying out of his chair and sweeping the chessmen off the board. "How dare you judge me, Cartwright! You have no idea what motivated my decision."

††††††††††††††† Ben took a deep breath. "Then tell me," he said quietly. "For the love of mercy, man, Iím your friend; you can tell me anything. Didódid you lose a patient?"

††††††††††††††† Martin laughed harshly. "All doctors lose patients, Ben."

††††††††††††††† Benís face softened. "And Iím sure thatís hard to handle for a sensitive man like you, but, surely, no harder than watching them suffer and perhaps die because you refused to try."

††††††††††††††† The doctor moved toward the door. "Look, I came to play chess, not to have you pry into my private affairs. Since the game is obviously over, Iíll just go home and try to forget this whole conversation."

††††††††††††††† "Donít," Ben said.

††††††††††††††† "Donít forget it?" Martin sneered. "If I donít, youíll never see me again, Ben."

††††††††††††††† "Donít leave," Ben said. "You know perfectly well you can reconstruct this game, play by play, so we might as well finish it out."

††††††††††††††† "No more questions?"

††††††††††††††† "No questions, Paul," Ben said sadly. As he watched the other man set up the chessmen, each in the position it had occupied when he knocked them over, Ben felt a deep sense of defeat. He knew intuitively that some intense torment burned in the doctorís soul, and he wanted to soothe that pain with the balm of his friendship. How could he, though, when Martin resisted his offer of a listening ear? All Ben could hope was that by remaining friends, on whatever limited basis Paul would accept, he could eventually instill in the doctor the confidence to unburden himself without fear of judgment.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

September arrived, bringing with it the first crisp breezes of autumn and a bumper crop of emigrants to greet Benís thirty-third birthday. Though the emigrant traffic was not as heavy as in previous years and despite the competition of new merchants in the area, business was good. The trading post was busy enough to keep Ben and Clyde occupied there most days, and Ben fell into the habit of having Adam ride out each afternoon to check on the cattle herd. Rarely was there a problem to report, but Adamís chest swelled almost visibly with new feelings of importance. Usually he chose to make his cattle inspection as soon as Hoss was bedded down for his afternoon nap, for the older boy still considered caring for his baby brother his chief duty, much to Billyís disgruntled displeasure.

††††††††††††††† Sundays were, as always, a welcome haven of peace and rest from the labors of the week. The second one that month was typical. In the cabin Clyde was, as usual, winning the checkers competition, Nelly was knitting, and Inger napping. Outside, the only sound heard was Hossís merry chortle as he and Adam, on one end of the seesaw, swung up and down with Billy on the other end.

††††††††††††††† "Real nip in the air," Nelly was saying during a lull in the competition in which each man poured himself a cup of coffee. "Makes me wonder if weíll have an early winter."

††††††††††††††† "A possibility," Ben admitted as he sugared his coffee. "Might be a good idea to get our supplies laid in a little earlier than usual. What you think, Clyde?"

††††††††††††††† "Maybe," the older man agreed. "Might give it some thought."

††††††††††††††† Billy came charging into the cabin with his usual gusto. "Hey, Pa!" he hollered. "Thereís folks cominí."

††††††††††††††† "Emigrant train?" his father asked.

††††††††††††††† "Naw, just one wagon," Billy said and dashed to the door to eye the visitors again. "Theyíre strangers, though."

††††††††††††††† Ben and Clyde followed Billy out. Ben smiled as he saw Adam helping Hoss get his fat legs over the edge of the seesaw. But prideful thoughts could wait. Like Clyde, he peered curiously toward the approaching wagon.

††††††††††††††† "Man and woman," Clyde said, "but I donít recognize Ďem."

††††††††††††††† "That, my friend, is our latest competitor," Ben chuckled. "Nameís Walter Cosser. Just started a mercantile over at Gold Canyon, and that must be his wife."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, good!" Nelly said, having joined them after whisking a few things into place. "I canít remember when weíve had a Sunday caller." Seeing Benís arched eyebrow, she laughed. "You donít count, Ben. Youíre family."

††††††††††††††† Nelly welcomed the visitors into the cabin and offered them each a slice of pie, but though Mr. And Mrs. Cosser accepted it graciously, the others soon learned that this was not a social call.

††††††††††††††† "Iíve come to ask your advice, Mrs. Thomas," Mrs. Cosser said, her thick accent marking her Scottish heritage.

††††††††††††††† "Why, certainly," Nelly said, flattered. "Anything I can do to help."

††††††††††††††† "Short of telling all our trade secrets," Clyde snickered.

††††††††††††††† Nelly frowned at what she considered rudeness, but Walter Cosser found Clydeís remark amusing. "My wifeís got us in quite a pickle, Iím afraid," he said, smiling. "We were told you folks were just about the oldest settlers around and so here we are, hat in hand, but not to beg for trade secrets. Got my own, you know."

††††††††††††††† "Hush your foolishness," Mrs. Cosser sputtered. "This is no laughing matter. Do any of you know a man named Benjamin Cole?"

††††††††††††††† "Only Benjamin I know is this one," Clyde said, pushing his thumb at Benís chest.

††††††††††††††† "I think he came in the trading post once," Ben, whose memory for names and faces was better than Clydeís, replied, "but heís new in the territory. I really donít know anything about him."

††††††††††††††† "And the Powell family?" Mrs. Cosser asked.

††††††††††††††† Not even Ben recognized that name, so he shook his head along with the others.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, dear," Mrs. Cosser sighed. "Well, I may be interfering when I shouldnít, but it just doesnít seem proper to me, andó"

††††††††††††††† "Start at the beginning, my dear," her husband suggested. "These people have no idea what youíre talking about."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, of course," Mrs. Cosser said hurriedly. "Well, Mr. Powell came here to mine this summer, bringing his two children with him. At first, they lived in a tent, like so many of the boys. But with winter coming on, I thought a good boardinghouse would be a profitable investment, so we built one."

††††††††††††††† "Been doing well, too," her husband added proudly. "Keeps the customers close, so to speak."

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Now whoís giving away trade secrets."

††††††††††††††† "Youíre both interrupting," Mrs. Cosser scolded, "and this is a serious matter. As I was saying, Powell left his children at the boardinghouse."

††††††††††††††† "Alone?" Nelly asked.

††††††††††††††† "Well, he had little choice," Mrs. Cosser admitted. "The mother died recently and he thought the youngsters would be better off with a roof over their heads than camping out at the diggings."

††††††††††††††† "Not likely to think so now," her husband grunted.

††††††††††††††† Mrs. Cosser waved her hand to silence her husband, then sighed again. "Iím afraid heís right. Well, you know how it is out west, Mrs. Thomasóóa hundred men to every woman."

††††††††††††††† "Weíre definitely outnumbered," Nelly smiled encouragingly.

††††††††††††††† "Well, the little Powell girl worked just like pollen on bees to the men around here. No sooner had they heard there was an unattached female staying with us than we were besieged with men begging for rooms. You wouldnít believe the price I was offered for just a cot in a stone basement."

††††††††††††††† "I would," Clyde cackled. "A femaleís worth Ďmost any price out here."

††††††††††††††† "So youíre haviní trouble keepiní the men away?" Nelly asked, giving Clydeís leg a tap with her shoe beneath the table.

††††††††††††††† "More than I knew," Mrs. Cosser said. "This Benjamin Cole I mentionedóóheís gone and married the girl. And her a child of fourteen!"

††††††††††††††† "Oh, dear!" Nelly cried. "Without her fatherís consent?"

††††††††††††††† "Absolutely without his consent," Mrs. Cosser said. "He doesnít know a thing about it. Now, I know girls sometimes marry that young, but it just doesnít seem right to me. I was hoping you could give me your opinion and tell me whether this Cole is the right sort of man or if heís only taking advantage of the child."

††††††††††††††† "Iíll give you my opinion!" Clyde said, his fist striking the table. "No man better think of marryiní my little girl without my say-so. Iíd skin him alive."

††††††††††††††† "Cole left Mary with us," Mr. Cosser explained, "while he went to build a cabin for them, but my wife thinks maybe we should encourage the girl to wait until her father returns before she goes off with the man."

††††††††††††††† "Have you spoken to Miss Mary about this?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "Not plainly," Mrs. Cosser replied, "but sheís talked to me a little, and I think the girlís having second thoughts. You know how young girls are, Mrs. Thomasóófull of romantic notions. Iím sure she was flattered by all the attention."

††††††††††††††† "And in love with the idea of being in love," Nelly added, "more than with the man."

††††††††††††††† "Exactly my feeling," the other woman said.

††††††††††††††† "Then she isnít ready for marriage," Nelly concluded. "I think youíre right to encourage her to talk with her father first."

††††††††††††††† "Thing is," Mr. Cosser inserted, "the situationís already causing a lot of talk. Some of the minersóófriends of Cole, I guessóóthink he had a right to marry the girl, so long as she agreed. Others, especially those with children of their own, are taking the fatherís side just as strongly."

††††††††††††††† "You think there could be trouble?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† Cosser nodded grimly. "If it comes to it, Iíd like to know we had the support of prominent settlers like yourselves."

††††††††††††††† "You got mine," Clyde stated sturdily, "and I reckon I can speak for Ben."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Ben said quietly. He didnít feel as strongly as Clydeóómaybe because he had sons, not a daughteróóbut, still, it wasnít right, going behind the fatherís back. He remembered the support Captain Stoddard had given him and Elizabeth when they married. Thatís the way marriage was meant to be, not some sneaky, back-handed contract rushed into without thought. "Yeah," he said more firmly. "Iíll stand with you if troubles comes. Letís just hope it doesnít." And as the autumn leaves began to change colors and drop to earth without any sign of conflict, Ben felt certain his hope had been justified.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† October added the annual pumpkin harvest to Adamís list of chores, and Billyís, as well. The boys claimed the two biggest ones to save for jack-o-lanterns at monthís end and, after stocking the trading post with all that were likely to sell, divided the rest equally between the two families. All but a few straggling wagon parties had passed by mid-month, and Ben and Clyde made plans for their final trip across the Sierras for winter supplies. The weather had continued colder than usual, and they wanted to make an early trip.

††††††††††††††† Two days before their scheduled departure Ben entertained Paul Martin in his home for what he presumed would be their last chess match. Proud to have won it, Ben poured a cup of hot coffee for his friend. "Iím going to miss these Saturday evenings with you, Paul," he said.

††††††††††††††† Still trying to analyze Benís winning strategy, Paul looked up quickly. "You saying Iím not welcome here anymore?"

††††††††††††††† "Of course, youíre welcome here," Ben laughed. "But I told you Iíd be leaving Monday, and I naturally assumed youíd be gone by the time I returned. Hardly any of the miners spend the winter here."

††††††††††††††† "Well, hereís one that plans to," Martin replied, a hard edge in his voice. "Iíve seen all of California I care to."

††††††††††††††† "Have you got enough supplies stockpiled?" Ben asked as he poured a cup of coffee for himself.

††††††††††††††† Paul shrugged nonchalantly. "I figured I could get what I needed at the trading post."

††††††††††††††† A half-smile lifted one corner of Benís mouth. "That was a dangerous assumption, my friend. Most of us shut down for the winter."

††††††††††††††† "You, too?" Paul inquired, looking more serious.

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded as he moved to the opposite side of the table. "Of course, Reese stays open, and maybe Cosser will; but Reese, at least, only stocks the basics this time of year."

††††††††††††††† "And maybe not enough to go around?" Paul asked.

††††††††††††††† Ben shrugged. "I donít know. I bring in my own, of course, so I donít often have to trade there." He pulled out his chair and sat down.

††††††††††††††† Paul bit his lip. "Wouldówould you have enough room in your wagon to bring back supplies for me?" he asked, clearly reluctant to request the favor.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Oh, I imagine I could squeeze in a little extra beans and bacon. But are you sure thatís what you want? Winters here get pretty cold. We havenít had a real severe one since we settled here, but Tuquah tells me they can get bad some years. The way the weatherís been shaping up, this one just might get that way."

††††††††††††††† "Well, Iím sure I donít want to go back to California," Paul grunted. "That doesnít leave me many options."

††††††††††††††† Ben sipped his coffee slowly. "What happened in California?" he asked quietly.

††††††††††††††† Paul clunked his tin cup down. "Stickiní your long New England nose in where it doesnít belong again, arenít you?"

††††††††††††††† Ben arched an eyebrow. "Maybe I think itís a friendís prerogative. Thatís the reason you quit medicine, isnít it? Something that happened in California?"

††††††††††††††† Paul took another sip of coffee. "Keep stickiní your nose out like that, Ben, and it just might get punched back where it belongs."

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head, not worried that his friend would suddenly and uncharacteristically resort to violence, but heíd gotten the message, obviously Martinís intent. "Letís discuss what supplies youíll need for the winter," Ben said, and once launched into that safe topic, found Paul once more easy to converse with.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† As the Cartwrightsí wagon pulled up before the Thomas cabin early Monday morning, Adam jumped from the end and reached back to help down his sleepy little brother. "You about ready?" Ben called to Clyde.

††††††††††††††† Clyde made a final check on his oxenís harness. "Ready," he announced.

††††††††††††††† Ben bent over to give Hoss a farewell kiss. "Be a good boy and mind Aunt Nelly," he instructed.

††††††††††††††† "Good boy, Pa," Hoss assured him with an emphatic bob of his pudgy chin.

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed and rumpled the boyís sleep-tousled tawny hair. Then he laid a hand on Adamís shoulder. "And you be a good boy, too," he chuckled.

††††††††††††††† "I always am, Pa," Adam said, a trifle grumpily. Ben wasnít sure whether the boy was still sleepy like his brother, disgruntled because heíd been refused permission to go on the trip or whether he felt genuinely offended by what he considered an unnecessary admonition. The last problem, at least, Ben could remedy. "Iím sure youíll be as good as always," he said. "Look after Hoss for me."

††††††††††††††† Adam smiled. "I will, Pa."

††††††††††††††† Clyde was squinting into the rising sun. "Didnít know Cosser was planniní to bring two wagons."

††††††††††††††† Ben looked over his shoulder. Sure enough, two wagons were lumbering toward them. "Nor did I. Of course, with that boardinghouse to provide for, maybe they need extra supplies."

††††††††††††††† "Two wagons full?" Clyde scoffed.

††††††††††††††† Ben shrugged. The only way to answer that question was to wait and ask Walter Cosser.

††††††††††††††† Cosser raised a hand in greeting as his wagon pulled into the yard. "Hope you men donít mind, but I invited Mr. Powell to travel with us. Heís headed for California, and like we discussed before, thereís safety in numbers."

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled. "As I told you before, I donít think thereís much danger, but youíre both welcome to travel with usóóat least to Placerville. Iím not sure our plans coincide after that."

††††††††††††††† "That should be far enough," Powell said.

††††††††††††††† Benís brow wrinkled, and the furrows deepened as he saw two young children peeking through the opening in the wagon cover. "You expecting trouble?" he asked quietly.

††††††††††††††† "Maybe," Powell replied cautiously. "Cosser here said youíd be willing to help, even ifó"

††††††††††††††† "We are," Clyde inserted hurriedly. "Just like to know what weíre up against."

††††††††††††††† "Fair enough," Powell agreed. "My girlís too young to be married, so Iím gonna resettle in California. Mining chances here donít seem any better than there, anyway, so itís all one to me. This Cole fellow donít know yet that weíve left, but might be heíd follow. Mary seems to think heís real attached to her."

††††††††††††††† "You bring your sidearm, Ben?" Clyde asked.

††††††††††††††† "Itís in the wagon," Ben replied gravely. Though he rarely carried a handgun at home, reports of robberies on California roads had made him deem it prudent to buy one for his trips there. So far, heíd never had to use it, but it was cleaned and ready.

††††††††††††††† "Hey, Pa!" called a drowsy voice from the cabinís doorway. "Maybe I better come along after all. Be an extra gun hand, you know."

††††††††††††††† Ben had to laugh. Standing there barefoot in his nightshirt did nothing to make Billy look like a gun hand.

††††††††††††††† Clyde, however, didnít find the offer even slightly amusing. "Iíd better not see you handliní my gun, boy!"

††††††††††††††† Nelly jerked on Billyís elbow. "Get back in here!" she ordered. "Whatís the matter with you, showiní yourself to that girl without proper clothes on!" Billy disappeared an instant later.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís all weíd need," Clyde grumbled, "to have trouble followiní and take it along with us, too!"

††††††††††††††† "Pa," Adam said, his face concerned. "Pa, you be careful."

††††††††††††††† Ben knelt down and gave his sonís arms a squeeze. "I will be, Adam. No need for you to worry, boy. Probably wonít be any trouble."

††††††††††††††† "Adam!" Hoss called from the doorway. "Aunt Nelwy fixiní pancakes!"

††††††††††††††† Ben stood and gave Adamís bottom a playful swat. "Better get them while the gettingís good," he cautioned. "Your brotherís mighty fond of pancakes." Adam grinned and trotted into the house.

††††††††††††††† The wagons pulled out. Though they made good time, a group of men on horses easily overtook the ox-drawn wagons when they stopped for a light lunch. "Bound to be Cole," Powell declared, pulling his rifle from his wagon.

††††††††††††††† "No, Pa!" Mary Powell pleaded. "Donít shoot him! He loves me, Pa."

††††††††††††††† "Love!" Powell shouted. "You donít know the meaning of the word, girl."

††††††††††††††† "Put the gun down, Powell!" Ben shouted in a commanding voice. "Maybe all the man wants to do is talk."

††††††††††††††† "He donít need that many men with him to talk," Powell protested.

††††††††††††††† "Nonetheless," Ben said, taking the rifle, "if gunplay starts, itís these youngsters who are likely to get hurt."

††††††††††††††† Nodding grimly, Powell released the gun. "All right," he said, "weíll talk, but that man ainít takiní my little girl."

††††††††††††††† The first rider, followed closely by three others, reached the encamped wagons and vaulted from his saddle. Sweeping a hank of blonde hair out of snapping brown eyes, the young man stepped swiftly to the side of Mary Powell. The girlís father stepped just as quickly between them. "Is this the one, Mary?" Powell demanded. "Is this the fiend who preys on little girls?"

††††††††††††††† "Oh, Pa," Mary cried. "It wasnít like that."

††††††††††††††† "Iíll be the judge of that, girl!" her father sputtered.

††††††††††††††† Benjamin Cole stuck a long finger beneath Powellís hooked nose. "You watch how you talk to my wife!" he yelled.

††††††††††††††† Clyde walked up to stand beside Powell, and Walter Cosser flanked the fatherís other side. "Fourteenís too young to be anybodyís wife," Clyde said.

††††††††††††††† Cole turned to face him. "Look, I donít know you, mister, and I donít know what business you think this is of yours, butó"

††††††††††††††† "Iím a father," Clyde snapped, "a father who can understand what another father feels, thatís all. You had no business goiní behind Mr. Powellís back to marry up with his girl."

††††††††††††††† "Look at her," Cosser pleaded. "A mere child. Find yourself a woman, Cole."

††††††††††††††† "Sheís a woman in every way that counts," Cole alleged.

††††††††††††††† "Except in judgment, perhaps," Ben said from the place heíd taken behind the others.

††††††††††††††† Cole squinted at the latest man to enter the debate. "I know you, donít I? Cartwright, isnít it?"

††††††††††††††† "Thatís right," Ben said. "I donít know you well enough to judge your intentions toward this girl, Cole, butó"

††††††††††††††† "Honorable," Cole protested. "If theyíd been otherwise, I wouldnít have bothered with a wedding."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís a point in his favor, Powell," Ben said. "Mary would have had no defense against a man determined to force her favors."

††††††††††††††† "So maybe he ainít as bad as he might be," Powell argued, "but I donít call goiní behind my back honorable, either. He deliberately waited Ďtil Mary had no one to protect her from a smooth talkiní fancy man."

††††††††††††††† Mary pressed her palms to her burning cheeks. "You all talk like I wasnít here at all," she cried.

††††††††††††††† Ben glanced at the girl with sudden sympathy. "Sheís right. I havenít heard anyone ask Mary what she wants."

††††††††††††††† "Sheís too young to decide," Powell stammered.

††††††††††††††† "Perhaps," Ben agreed, "but if this were my daughter or my beloved, Iíd want to hear her feelings. Surely, what we all want is whatís best for Mary." His brown eyes fixed on Coleís face. "Surely, Mr. Cole, as an honorable man, you wouldnít demand that Mary return with you against her will."

††††††††††††††† "Well, no," Cole admitted. "Not if Maryís set against our marriage."

††††††††††††††† "Then youíre willing to abide by her decision?" Ben pressed.

††††††††††††††† Cole flashed a self-assured smile at the pretty young girl. "Yeah, whatever Mary wants."

††††††††††††††† "And you, Powell?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† Powell frowned. "IóI donít know."

††††††††††††††† Cole rubbed the handle of his holstered revolver. "Make up your mind," he mumbled in a low, threatening tone. "Is it Maryís choice or not?"

††††††††††††††† Powell looked at his daughter, and in that look Ben read the agony of heart he was sure he himself would feel in a similar situation. "I think thereís only one fitting choice for a girl her age, but Iíll let her be the one to make it," he said.

††††††††††††††† "Come on, Mary," Cole said, stretching a hand toward the flustered girl. "Letís go home."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, I donít know!" Mary sobbed. "I donít know what to do. Canít you give me some time?"

††††††††††††††† "Thatís reasonable," Ben said. "Let the child have an hour to make her decision. Her whole future depends on it."

††††††††††††††† "An hour," Powell agreed, then took his daughterís hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. "Can you decide in an hourís time, honey?"

††††††††††††††† Mary gazed into his gray eyes. "I reckon Iíll have to, Pa." She excused herself and wandered off toward the riverbank near which theyíd stopped for the noon break. The others left her alone for almost the full hour. Then Ben ambled over to the river to fill his canteens. "I donít mean to disturb you, Mary," he said as he squatted down and let the canteens sink into the water, "but weíll be pulling out soon and I need fresh water."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís all right, Mr. Cartwright," Mary said quietly, twirling a broken reed between her fingers. "IóI want to thank you for stepping in like you did. Youíre the only one who cared about me."

††††††††††††††† Ben sat on a nearby rock. "Mary, I think they both care about you, maybe so much they arenít thinking straight."

††††††††††††††† Maryís lips formed a soft smile. "Iím not sure I am, either, Mr. Cartwright. I still donít know what to do. What do you think, Mr. Cartwright?"

††††††††††††††† Ben capped his canteens and stood up. "Has your relationship with your father been a good one, Mary?"

††††††††††††††† "Oh, yes," she said immediately. "Heís been a real good father, sir."

††††††††††††††† "Then, shouldnít you be asking advice from him rather than a complete stranger?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "The stranger didnít take sides," Mary explained. "Iíd rather hear what he thought."

††††††††††††††† Ben brushed a wisp of dark brown hair from Maryís cheek. "Do you think youíre ready for marriage, Mary?" he asked gently.

††††††††††††††† Mary tossed the reed aside. "Iím not sure. I like the idea, and Benjaminóómy Benjamin, I meanóóheís so handsome and he says such sweet things."

††††††††††††††† "But do you love him?" Ben asked softly.

††††††††††††††† Mary kicked at the grass. "Maybe itís like Pa saysóóI donít really know what love is."

††††††††††††††† "Donít you think you should find out before you tie yourself to one man for the rest of your life?" Ben smiled. "Shouldnít you know first what you want in a manóóas a husband and as a father to your children?"

††††††††††††††† "Children!" Mary cried. "Lands, Mr. Cartwright, I know Iím not ready to be a mother!"

††††††††††††††† Ben reached out and took her hand. "One usually follows pretty much on the heels of the other, child," he said.

††††††††††††††† Mary paled. "Oh, dear, I suppose youíre right," she sighed. "Iím really not ready yet, am I?"

††††††††††††††† "Doesnít sound like it," Ben replied. "Want me to tell them your decision?"

††††††††††††††† Mary squared her shoulders. "Noóóthank you, but no. Iím woman enough to do that myself."

††††††††††††††† Ben took her arm. "Then, at least, let me escort you back, young lady." Mary smiled up into his warm brown eyes.

††††††††††††††† Together, they walked back to the train. Mary went directly to Benjamin Cole, who smiled triumphantly as she approached. She took his hand and stroked it kindly. "Much as I like you, Benjamin," she said, "Iím not ready to be a wife. I still have a lot of growing up to do, and I think the best place to do it is in my fatherís house. I want to go on to California."

††††††††††††††† Cole blushed furiously. Heíd been so sure she would choose him and now felt embarrassed in front of his friends. "I think youíre makiní a mistake, girl," he muttered, "but I wonít go back on my word."

††††††††††††††† Mary glanced quickly at Ben Cartwright. "Iím not a girl," she said, tossing dark curls over her slim shoulder. "Iím a young ladyóósomething you and my pa both forgotóóand I reckon Iíll stand by my choice."

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

†††††††††††††††

†††††††††††††††

Ben stopped his wagon in front of the canvas and scrap wood shelter which Paul Martin called home. "Hello the house," he called.

††††††††††††††† Bare-chested, with his suspenders hanging from the waist, Martin stepped outside into the fading sunlight. "Back, are you?" he asked. "Good trip?"

††††††††††††††† "Fine trip," Ben replied. "A little trouble at the start, but it turned out all right. Saw several old friends and found enough trinkets to brighten my boysí Christmas. Thought I might as well deliver your supplies directly, rather than unloading them at the store first."

††††††††††††††† "Thanks," Paul said. "Guess weíd better get the job done, huh?"

††††††††††††††† "Soon as possible," Ben agreed. "I want to get back to the Thomases and collect the boys before dark."

††††††††††††††† "Should have brought them with you," Paul said.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Well, that didnít suit my purpose. I have a favor to ask."

††††††††††††††† Paul looked skeptical. Not once in his acquaintance with Ben Cartwright had the other man let him play the benefactor. Always the other way around. "What do you need?" he asked, hoping it was something he could provide.

††††††††††††††† "Just a place to hide the afore-mentioned Christmas presents," Ben laughed. "There arenít enough hidey-holes in my cabin to fool certain prying little eyes, and that Billy Thomas is getting snoopier by the day. I donít think my usual device of hiding them at his place is going to work this year."

††††††††††††††† Paul smiled. "My place is even smaller, but youíre welcome to its use, provided you havenít spoiled those boys with a pile of toys taller than the mountains."

††††††††††††††† Ben ignored the taunt. "I appreciate it," he said as he began to unload Martinís supplies.

††††††††††††††† Paul hefted a sack of cornmeal to his shoulder and followed Ben into the cabin. "Just pile it in the back corner," he said in answer to Benís query.

††††††††††††††† Ben dropped the bag of flour in the designated spot and headed outside to get another load. As he was exiting, however, he noticed the black bag sitting in the corner nearest the door. There was no mistaking the distinctive shape. Ben picked it up and held it out toward his friend. "I thought youíd given up the practice of medicine, doctor," he said bluntly, "so why keep this?"

††††††††††††††† Paul snatched the bag from Benís hands. "It was a giftóófrom someone who meant a lot to me. Thatís why I keep it. And you dare accuse Billy Thomas of snoopiness!"

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled wryly. "I assure you he didnít learn it from me, present evidence to the contrary."

††††††††††††††† "I thought you wanted these supplies unloaded fast," Martin muttered as he set the bag down.

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded. Working in virtual silence, the men quickly finished their task. "Something else Iíd like to talk to you about," Ben began when the work was done.

††††††††††††††† "If you plan on sticking that nose of yours in my business again," Paul retorted sharply, "you canó"

††††††††††††††† "Hey!" Ben snapped. "What I want to discuss is a job offer, but maybe you consider that sticking my long New England nose in, too."

††††††††††††††† "A job?" Paul looked suspicious. "What kind of job?"

††††††††††††††† "Well, you know Clyde Thomas and I have been talking about driving a flock of sheep up from New Mexico," Ben began again.

††††††††††††††† "Youíve mentioned it," Paul said, feeling calmer.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, and I was wonderingóósince youíre planning to winter hereóóif youíd mind looking after my place and seeing to the stock while Iím away."

††††††††††††††† Paul laughed. "Do I strike you as a cattleman?"

††††††††††††††† Ben arched an eyebrow. "More so than a miner. Cattle, at least, are living things, more in your line than panning for gold, Doctor Martin." At the risk of offending his abrasive friend, Ben deliberately emphasized the title."

††††††††††††††† Martin blanched. "Benó"

††††††††††††††† Ben raised an interjecting hand. "Yeah, I know. Keep my nose where it belongs. Letís look at it strictly as a business proposition then. Now, I have two men working for meóópart time, at least. They can handle the day-to-day management of the cattle, but Iíd prefer to leave someone more trustworthy in charge. You may not have experience with cattle, but your medical skills will be useful when they calve."

††††††††††††††† "I never was a vet," Paul chuckled, "but I imagine I could play mid-wife to a cow, if needed."

††††††††††††††† "Exactly what I thought," Ben said. "Iíd pay you for your help, of course, and youíre welcome to stay at my place while weíre away." He looked around the ramshackle cabin. "Certainly, youíll be warmer there than here."

††††††††††††††† "What about the boys?" Paul said. "You want me to look after them, too?"

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "No, theyíll stay with Nelly Thomas, though Iíd appreciate it if you looked in on them from time to time, just to see that everythingís going well. A woman alone might need someone she could call on, maybe someone to chop a little wood once in awhile. It looks to be a cold winter."

††††††††††††††† "I guess I could handle that," Paul said. "Sure, Iíll watch the place while youíre gone, Ben, but Iíll miss our Saturday chess matches."

††††††††††††††† A twinkle sparkled in Benís brown eyes. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder, they say. Maybe youíll learn to appreciate a certain long New England nose when it isnít around to poke into your business."

††††††††††††††† Paul chuckled and shook his head. Snoopiness notwithstanding, he was glad it would be three months before he had to give up those weekly visits with the one man he called friend.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† November slipped past unnoticed, except for the annual gathering around a table crammed with proof of a bountiful harvest and a prosperous year. That holiday was no sooner celebrated than the Cartwright boys began to feel excited anticipation of Christmas. "How long now, Bubba?" Hoss demanded each December morning. "ĎMorrow?"

††††††††††††††† "No, not tomorrow," Adam said, exasperated. He squatted next to the fireplace where his father was frying bacon for breakfast. "Pa, what are we gonna do with him?" he grumbled.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Serves you right for talking about Santa this early in the month."

††††††††††††††† Hoss slapped his hand repeatedly against Adamís back. "How long, Bubba?" he persisted.

††††††††††††††† "Well, not tomorrow!" Adam snapped, jumping to his feet. "Not for lots of tomorrows."

††††††††††††††† "Adam," Ben rebuked gently, seeing Hossís lower lip pooch out. "He canít help it. Three-year-olds donít have much concept of time."

††††††††††††††† "Well, he needs one," Adam declared adamantly. "Itís time he learned what a week is, anyway."

††††††††††††††† Ben tweaked Adamís nose. "All right, little schoolmaster, you teach him."

††††††††††††††† Adam smiled, liking the idea. "I bet I could." He gave Hossís tawny head a pat. "Want to learn the days of the week, Hoss?"

††††††††††††††† Hossís chin bobbed up and down.

††††††††††††††† "Okay, letís get started," Adam said.

††††††††††††††† "Breakfast first," Ben said firmly. "Then chores."

††††††††††††††† Adam groaned, hating to put off a project once he had it in mind, but thereíd be no convincing Pa that teaching Hoss was more important than mucking out the cowís stall. The lessons would have to wait.

††††††††††††††† With necessary duties out of the way, Adam seated his little pupil at the table. "Can I use the calendar, Pa?"

††††††††††††††† His lips twitching, Ben got the desired "textbook" for his son. Adam spread it open at the proper month. "Okay, Hoss, this shows all the days in December, but weíll just learn a few at first." Adam pointed to December 10th. "This is today. We call it Saturday."

††††††††††††††† "Sat-day," Hoss repeated earnestly.

††††††††††††††† "Good boy," Adam said. "Now, do you know what happens every Saturday?" Hossís head wagged from side to side.

††††††††††††††† "Saturdayís the day Mr. Martin comes to teach me chemistry," Adam lectured.

††††††††††††††† Ben looked up from the harness he was mending. "Oh, is that why he comes?" he chuckled. "I always thought he came to play with me."

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned sheepishly. "Yeah, I guess so," he admitted, "but I like the other part best." He turned back to the calendar, pointing out two more dates to Hoss. "See, Hossóóone, two more Saturdays and it will be Christmas Eve."

††††††††††††††† "Santa come!" Hoss chirped, then cocked his head. "Pau-Pau Santa?"

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed as he recognized Hossís garbled pronunciation of their weekly visitorís name. "Now youíve done it!" he snickered at Adam. "Now he thinks Paul Martin is Santa Claus!" Of course, Hoss wasnít far wrong this particular year, Ben thought with amusement.

††††††††††††††† "No, no, Hoss," Adam corrected. "Mr. Martin is not Santa. He just usually comes the same day tható" Adam raised quizzical eyes to his father. "Is he coming that Saturday, Pa? Christmas Eve, I mean."

††††††††††††††† Ben sat down across from Adam. "You know, I hadnít realized Ďtil now that Christmas Eve fell on a Saturday. It might be a neighborly thing to have him here, though. People get lonely at Christmas time when they have no family of their own."

††††††††††††††† "But you wouldnít just play chess, would you?" Adam asked urgently. "Youíd still read the Christmas ghost story and fix up the tree like always?"

††††††††††††††† Ben reached across the table to squeeze the boyís hand. "Of course, Adam. Thatís our special tradition; weíll always do that. But it doesnít hurt to share our special times with others, does it?"

††††††††††††††† Adam smiled. "No, Pa. Sharing makes them better."

††††††††††††††† "Good. Iíll ask Mr. Martin to join us then."

††††††††††††††† Adam turned his attention back to Hossís instruction and by the time he put away the calendar was convinced his little brother understood just when the gifts would appear under the Christmas tree. He was convinced, that is, until the next morning when Hoss greeted him with "How long now, Bubba? ĎMorrow?"

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Standing on a chair, Hoss pressed his nose flat against the cold windowpane in the front room, then turned to look at Adam. "Santa Pau-Pau come?" he asked urgently.

††††††††††††††† "Santa will come," Adam promised, "but I donít know about Pau-Pau."

††††††††††††††† Ben gave the stewed turnips a final stir and looked anxiously out the window. The rain was still coming down and, if the temperature continued to drop, was likely to turn to snow by morning, perhaps earlier. Like Hoss, Ben was concerned that the weather might keep Paul from coming, and though Adam didnít realize it, in that event Santa Claus wasnít likely to arrive either. Paul had been reluctant to intrude on a family holiday, but had finally given in to Benís insistence and promised to bring the boysí presents with him when he came. No Paul, no presents, and Ben was disappointed on both counts.

††††††††††††††† The skies had been gray all day, but they grew darker as night fell. No sense holding supper, Ben thought as he set out three tin plates. Before he could get all the food on the table, however, several loud thumps struck the door. His face lighting, Ben ran to open it.

††††††††††††††† In the doorway stood a totally drenched Paul Martin. "Pau-Pau!" Hoss cried, bustling over to greet their guest.

††††††††††††††† "Mercy, man, get in here and dry off," Ben ordered.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir!" Paul said, giving Ben a smart salute. He gave Hoss a gentle pat. "Iíll hug you later, son. Iím wet to the bone."

††††††††††††††† Oblivious to the dampness, Hoss hugged Paulís pants leg. Ben pulled the boy away. "Later, son," he laughed. "Let Mr. Martin over by the fire." He smiled at Paul. "I was afraid you might not make it, the weather being what it is."

††††††††††††††† Paul winked. "Santaís sleigh runs through any storm, you know."

††††††††††††††† Hoss plucked Adamís shirt sleeve. "See. Pau-Pau Santa." Adam rolled his eyes, but it was his ears that pricked up at his fatherís next words.

††††††††††††††† "Did youóuhóbring anything with you?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† Paul laughed. "In the barn," he whispered, but Adam heard him.

††††††††††††††† "Maybe I should put up Mr. Martinís horse, Pa," Adam offered, keeping his face innocent.

††††††††††††††† Ben and Paul both hooted, seeing at once through Adamís stratagem. "Oh, no, you donít!" Ben said, ruffling the boyís dark hair.

††††††††††††††† "I tended my horse before I came to the house, son," Paul added. "You just didnít hear me because of the storm."

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned, not minding at all that heíd been caught. "Weíre just glad youíre here," he said, "and even more now tható"

††††††††††††††† "Careful, Adam," Ben cautioned. "Little pitchers have big ears."

††††††††††††††† Adam tittered, remembering all the times grownups had used that phrase around him. He hadnít liked the feeling of being left in the dark, but now, of course, Pa meant Hoss, and Adam enjoyed being in on the joke.

††††††††††††††† Ben loaned Paul some dry clothes, and while his friend was changing, finishing setting out the food. Hoss banged on the door to his fatherís room. "Hurwy, Pau-Pau," he called. "Time eat."

††††††††††††††† "Hoss, get away from that door," Ben scolded.

††††††††††††††† The door opened immediately and Paul swooped Hoss up in his arms. "Now for that hug I promised you, little man." Hoss giggled as Paul gave him a squeeze and swung him to his shoulder. "Now, whereís this food you promised me, Hoss?" Hoss pointed to the table and Paul swung him down into his special, long-legged chair.

††††††††††††††† The others gathered around the table and Ben asked their guest to offer thanks. Paul did, then sniffed the air appreciatively. "Oxtail stew, isnít it?"

††††††††††††††† "You have a trained sniffer," Ben smiled as he ladled his friendís plate full of the savory broth in which swam large chunks of meat, carrots and potatoes. "Not a traditional meal, I suppose, but stewís my best dish."

††††††††††††††† "Always a favorite with me," Paul said.

††††††††††††††† Evidently, the stew was a favorite with everyone, for all four ate large helpings. In fact, by the time they were finished, nothing remained on the table. Ben and Adam hurriedly cleared the table and washed the dishes while Paul amused Hoss playing catís cradle with a bit of string heíd brought in his pocket.

††††††††††††††† Then they worked together to wind a popcorn garland around the tree and hang the usual ornaments from the branches. "Now we eat popcorn while Pa reads a story," Adam informed their guest.

††††††††††††††† "You may eat popcorn," Paul laughed, "but I am full up to here." He held his hand just below his chin."

††††††††††††††† "Storwy, Pa," Hoss chirped.

††††††††††††††† "Soon as I pop the corn," Ben promised. "Adam, you get the book down."

††††††††††††††† Paul reached for the volume as soon as Adam had taken it from the shelf. "Ah! A Christmas Carolóóa favorite of mine, too." He glanced over to the fireplace where Ben was preparing the snack. "Mind if I help with the reading, Ben?"

††††††††††††††† "Sure, thatíd be a treat for me," Ben said.

††††††††††††††† Out of politeness Adam didnít say anything, though he secretly wanted his father to do all the reading. Pa always made the story seem so real. As the reading began, however, Adam learned that Paul Martin also had a gift for making words come alive. He and Ben divided up the charactersóóBen providing the voice for some and Paul, others. It was almost like seeing the story acted out, Adam decided, and hoped Mr. Martin could be there for all their Christmas Eves.

††††††††††††††† When the story ended, the boys said their good-nights and headed for bed. "Look, Pa," Adam said as he glanced out the window. "Itís snowing!" He frowned worriedly. "You think weíll be able to get to Billyís place for Christmas tomorrow?"

††††††††††††††† Ben laid the chessboard on the table. "Oh, I imagine we can get through, though it looks like Santa will have to use his sleigh and reindeer tonight."

††††††††††††††† Adam giggled. "Yeah, thatís right. Come on, Hoss, letís get tucked in so Santa can come."

††††††††††††††† "Wanna see waindeer," Hoss insisted, stretching for the doorknob.

††††††††††††††† "If you do, Santa wonít leave any presents," Ben warned with a twitch of his lips.

††††††††††††††† "Night-night," Hoss called as he hustled into the bedroom with Adam close behind.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled and started to set the chess pieces in place. Watching the snowflakes fall, Paul frowned. "Maybe weíd better forego the chess game tonight, Ben," he said. "I think I should head home before this gets any heavier."

††††††††††††††† "Youíre not going anywhere," Ben said firmly. "Youíre staying the night here."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, Ben, I canít do that," Paul protested.

††††††††††††††† "Can and will," Ben stated. "I wonít hear any argument, sir."

††††††††††††††† "Christmas is for family," Paul insisted.

††††††††††††††† Ben laid a hand on his friendís shoulder. "So, weíll adopt you for a night. Common sense ought to tell you itís not safe out. Youíd probably catch your death of pneumonia, and as we all know, thereís no doctor in the territory."

††††††††††††††† Paul bristled at the veiled rebuke in Benís last words, then a crafty smile touched his lips. "All right, Iíll stayóóon two conditions."

††††††††††††††† Ben arched an eyebrow. "Which are?"

††††††††††††††† Paul shook a finger under Benís nose. "First, no more snide jokes about my former profession."

††††††††††††††† "Agreed," Ben said with a smile. "And second?"

††††††††††††††† "I get to make the first move."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. He could almost guarantee the results if he gave Paul that kind of advantage, but he readily acceded to his guestís demand. And as heíd predicted, Paul won the first game.

††††††††††††††† By the end of the second, which Ben won, both men were yawning. "Weíd better turn in," Ben said. "Those boys will be up early tomorrow."

††††††††††††††† "Maybe we should bring in the presents tonight?" Paul suggested.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, good idea," Ben replied. "If you can see to that, Iíll move Hoss to the trundle and you can have his bed."

††††††††††††††† "Fair enough."

††††††††††††††† With the presents placed under the tree, Ben and Paul said good night, and the house lay still beneath the softly falling snow. Hoss and Adam smiled sweetly in their sleep, evidently with the legendary visions of sugarplums dancing in their heads. Ben, too, rested calmly, but Paul Martin tossed uneasily from side to side, moaning as he slept.

††††††††††††††† The sky was still black when Ben was awakened by loud, repeated cries from the next room. "Aggie! Aggie!" the tormented voice groaned again and again.

††††††††††††††† Ben sprang to his feet and hurried through the door. "Paul," he said, shaking the manís shoulder. "Paul, wake up."

††††††††††††††† Paulís gray eyes opened. "What is it, Ben?" he asked. "Something wrong?"

††††††††††††††† "Thatís what I want to know," Ben said. "I think you wereó"

††††††††††††††† "Pa," called a voice from the other bed in the room. "Pa, is it time to open presents?"

††††††††††††††† Ben moved quickly across the room and tucked the covers more tightly under Adamís chin. "No, son; itís the middle of the night. Go back to sleep." He pressed a kiss to the boyís forehead.

††††††††††††††† "Okay," Adam yawned and turned his face to the wall.

††††††††††††††† Paul was sitting on the side of the bed when Ben returned to his side. "Sorry," Paul said. "I didnít mean to wake the boy."

††††††††††††††† "Were you having a nightmare?" Ben asked, sitting beside him.

††††††††††††††† "Ghost of Christmas past, I guess," Paul said.

††††††††††††††† "Long past?" Ben asked with a smile, taking his text from the story he and Paul had read together earlier that evening.

††††††††††††††† Paul stood and headed for the door. "Not long enough," he mumbled.

††††††††††††††† His brow furrowed in consideration of Paulís cryptic response, Ben followed his friend to the fireplace in the front room.

††††††††††††††† "Mind if I make some coffee?" Paul asked.

††††††††††††††† Ben frowned. "I donít mind, of course, but thatís not likely to help you sleep."

††††††††††††††† "Nothing does," Paul sighed.

††††††††††††††† Catching the weary tone in Paulís voice, Ben quietly lighted the coal oil lantern and began to fill the coffee pot with water. "You have these nightmares often?" he asked gently.

††††††††††††††† Paul laughed gruffly. "Not so much lately. At firstó" He stopped.

††††††††††††††† "Want to talk about it?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† Paul shook his head.

††††††††††††††† "Might help," Ben urged. "Iíve known for months you had something bottled up inside. Maybe if you get it out, it wonít disturb your sleep." Paul said nothing, but he looked as though he were weighing the idea.

††††††††††††††† "Whoís Aggie?" Ben probed, hoping the question might help his friend get started.

††††††††††††††† Paul paled. "Who told you about her?"

††††††††††††††† Of course! Aggie would be a womanís name. Ben was surprised he hadnít realized that immediately. "You called her name in your sleepóóover and over," he explained.

††††††††††††††† "Did I?" Paul murmured softly. "Dear Aggie. I suppose it is thoughts of Christmas that bring her to mind tonight. She loved Christmas so, with the kind of starry-eyed wonder you usually see only in children."

††††††††††††††† "Someone close to you?" Ben pressed.

††††††††††††††† Paul looked steadily into Benís face for a moment. "Very close," he said after taking a deep breath. "Her given name was Agatha, but I called her Aggie. My wife, Ben."

††††††††††††††† Ben set the coffee pot down abruptly. "Youíre married?" he asked. Now, why had he assumed Paul Martin was a bachelor? Lots of the miners had wives back home.

††††††††††††††† Paul took the daguerreotype of Inger from the mantel. "The same way you are," he said and set the picture down again.

††††††††††††††† Benís eyes grew misty. "Sheís goneóólike Inger?"

††††††††††††††† "No, not like Inger," Paul sputtered bitterly. "You had something you could bury."

††††††††††††††† "What happened, Paul?" Ben asked sympathetically.

††††††††††††††† Paul shook his head. "Oh, Ben, itís a long, ugly storyóónot the kind to tell on this holy night."

††††††††††††††† Ben laid a hand on his friendís shoulder. "Exactly the kind to tell on this holy night," he said. "I can think of no better way to celebrate the night angels sang of peace on earth than to bring peace to your heart. Donít keep the pain pent up any longer, Paul; let it out and let peace come."

††††††††††††††† A single tear slipped down Paulís cheek. "Maybe," he said. "Maybe that is possible."

††††††††††††††† "Tonight of all nights," Ben said, pulling a chair close and motioning Paul to take the rocker.

††††††††††††††† "Quite the idealist, arenít you, Ben?" Paul commented bitterly, then softened. "So was I once. An idealistic young fool. I didnít come west for any of the usual reasonsóónot for gold, not even for the money to be made off the miners. I came because I knew thereíd be a tremendous need for doctors in a newly settled area, and I guess I saw myself as some knight on a white horse, riding from cabin to cabin dispensing medical wisdom to the grateful masses."

††††††††††††††† "You think there was something wrong with that?" Ben asked. "I can see you on that white horse, my friend, and you look more natural there than swinging a pick against a rock ledge."

††††††††††††††† Paul shook his head. "Stupid, romantic dream," he muttered, "but I left a decent practice in New York and sailed all the way around the Horn to follow it. The real tragedy, of course, is that I didnít come alone."

††††††††††††††† "Did your wife die on the trip?" Ben asked. "I know many did." He made a quick conjecture that the reason Paul hadnít been able to bury his wife was that sheíd been lost at sea.

††††††††††††††† "No," Paul said. "Not then. Even that would have been easier to take." He paused, not sure he could go on.

††††††††††††††† "Itís cold," Ben said. "Stir up the fire and Iíll put that coffee on."

††††††††††††††† Paul nodded, seeming glad to have something to do with his hands. When he had the fire burning bright, he sat down in the rocker again, staring at the flames as if they held a secret meaning.

††††††††††††††† Ben set the coffee pot on the grate above the fire and sat down. "How long were you in California before your wifeís death?" he asked to open the subject again.

††††††††††††††† "A little over a year," Paul replied, "and Aggie never complained, despite the rugged living conditions of the camps. She was a wonderful woman, Ben."

††††††††††††††† "Iím sure she was," Ben murmured.

††††††††††††††† Paul placed his elbow on the arm of the rocker and leaned his forehead on his palm. "There was another so-called doctor practicing in the same region where we settled. And I do mean Ďpracticingíóóor maybe Ďexperimentingí is the more precise term. Like so many in California, he just appropriated the title without earning it. The man knew nothing about medicine, and we had several clashes over patients. I was probably a little arrogant in the way I flaunted my medical knowledge against his folksy treatments, so maybe I should have expected retaliation, but I didnít."

††††††††††††††† "This retaliation," Ben said when Paul paused. "Was it against your wife?"

††††††††††††††† Paul sighed deeply. "Not directly. A miner came to me with a leg badly smashed in a fall. Bones crushed, no way to save it. But when I recommended amputation, the patient refused. Gangrene set in and he died."

††††††††††††††† "A needless tragedy," Ben commented.

††††††††††††††† Paul nodded. "Yes, and it led to a greater one. The other Ďdoctorí stirred up the minerís friends, claiming he could have cured the man and that his death was the result of my malpractice." Tears began to stream down Paulís face.

††††††††††††††† "Go on," Ben urged, sensing theyíd reached the heart of his friendís agony.

††††††††††††††† Paul took a slow, deep breath. "Iíd been out late that night with another patient. So tired when I came in that I didnít even bother grooming my horse, just tossed him some hay and headed for the house. Even left my doctorís bag in the buggy, which Iíd never done before." He paused and gave Ben a significant look. "A good thing, as it turned out. I told you once it was a gift from someone close to me."

††††††††††††††† "Aggie?" Ben asked, his face tender.

††††††††††††††† Paul nodded. "All I have left to remember her by. I fell into bed and slept like the dead. Even when the yelling finally woke me, I was still groggy, not thinking straight. I started to stumble outside, but Aggie stopped me. She could hear the angry shouts and was afraid the men would harm me. She was right, of course, but I shouldnít have listened. I should have faced them."

††††††††††††††† "What did they do?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† Paul swallowed hard. "They set fire to our cabin, to force me out" he said, choking on the words. "If they knew there was anyone else living there, I guess anger fogged their memory."

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded silently, realizing that most miners so revered women that theyíd be unlikely to inflict intentional harm on one. Undoubtedly, Paul alone had been their target.

††††††††††††††† "Anyway," Paul went on, "by the time we realized what theyíd done, the situation was critical. Aggie begged me to save our little girl. Said she could get out on her own. I threw a blanket around Sally and carried her out through the smoke that was filling the cabin, but when I turned back to help Aggie, the flames were too high to force my way through."

††††††††††††††† Benís chin quivered and his eyes swam with sympathetic tears. "She burned to death?"

††††††††††††††† Paul nodded silently. "And I could do nothing but listen to her scream. Thatís what I dream about night after nightóóthose screams, those awful, gut-wrenching screams." He buried his face in his hands and wept.

††††††††††††††† Feeling the tears would be cleansing, Ben let him cry. In the meantime he poured each of them a cup of coffee. Paul finally settled down. "Iíve wanted to tell you for weeks now, Ben, so youíd understand, but I just couldnít get it out. You see now why I can never practice medicine again."

††††††††††††††† Benís brow wrinkled. "No, I canít see that," he said as he handed Paul a cup of coffee. "Why deprive innocent people of your help because of the actions of a few vindictive men?"

††††††††††††††† "Because theyíre representative," Paul muttered bitterly. "I decided if what people in this part of the country wanted was sham doctors, Iíd leave them to the mercy of the quacks."

††††††††††††††† "You canít live with hate," Ben began.

††††††††††††††† "Donít," Paul said bluntly. "Donít talk about what you know nothing of."

††††††††††††††† "What makes you think I donít?" Ben asked abruptly. "Do you think I felt differently about the Indians who shot Inger? I hated them at first, but whenever the hate rose in my heart, Iíd hear Inger begging me with her dying breath to forgive them. Eventually, I had to, to make my peace with her. I know itís hard, Paul, but you canít get on with your life until you get past the hate."

††††††††††††††† Paul stared into the flames as he sipped his coffee. "I canít, Ben; I just canít. If I hadnít played the hero on the white horse, Aggie would be alive today. I canít be that man again."

††††††††††††††† "You feel responsible," Ben said.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, and donít tell me you know how that feels!" Paul sputtered.

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled sadly. "Donít I? I brought Inger west, took her into dangerous country, just as you did Aggie." He looked up at the other picture on the mantel. "And before her, Adamís mother died in childbirth. I felt responsible for that, too. After all, I was the one who planted the seed inside her."

††††††††††††††† Paul looked up quickly. "And how long did it take you to come to terms with it, Ben?"

††††††††††††††† "Quite awhile," Ben admitted.

††††††††††††††† "Then give me time," Paul said.

††††††††††††††† "All right," Ben agreed slowly. "My Christmas present to youóótime to heal without anyoneís long New England nose sticking into your business."

††††††††††††††† For the first time since the conversation started, Paul smiled.

††††††††††††††† Ben poured himself a second cup of coffee. "You mentioned a daughter."

††††††††††††††† "Sally," Paul said. "Sheís about Adamís age."

††††††††††††††† "Where is she?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† Paul looked uncomfortable again. "In Hawaii. I sent her to a boarding school there shortly after her motherís death."

††††††††††††††† Ben stared at the other man, his eyes betraying his shock. The one thing that had helped him through the grief over his wivesí deaths had been the closeness of their sons. He couldnít imagine a father and child separated at the time they needed one another most. "Oh, Paul, she belongs with you," he murmured.

††††††††††††††† Paul shook his head. "No, not as I am now. Iím not fit for civilized society. Thatís why I came here instead of going back east. At least, in Hawaii Sallyís getting a good education, and the missionaries probably give her better parenting than I could now."

††††††††††††††† "Iím sure sheíd trade all that in a minute for the comfort of her fatherís arms," Ben argued. "At a time like this, especially, she needs you."

††††††††††††††† "Indian giver," Paul accused.

††††††††††††††† "Huh?"

††††††††††††††† "That long New England nose is pushing in again," Paul said dryly. "You didnít give me much time to heal."

††††††††††††††† Ben flushed. "That may be a hard promise to keep if I continue to unearth new secrets, but Iíll try. And speaking of trying, maybe we should try to get a little sleep before the boys wake up. We have a busy day ahead. Dinner at the Thomases, and youíre coming with us."

††††††††††††††† "No," Paul said firmly.

††††††††††††††† "Yes," Ben said with equal firmness. Standing, he slapped his friendís shoulder. "Thatís your Christmas present to me, and Iíll accept no other. High time you reacquainted yourself with civilized society."

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† A fiddleís frolicsome tune drifted down to Ben as he and Adam turned their horses into the corral at Spafford Hallís Station on New Yearís Eve. "Weíre late, Pa," Adam grumbled. "I knew Hoss would make us late, dawdling over dinner like he did."

††††††††††††††† Ben lifted his three-year-old and smiled down at his older son. "No harm done, son. Weíre no more than fashionably late, as they say."

††††††††††††††† Adam couldnít understand that concept. All he understood was that the first real party in western Utah was starting without them. And it was a big party, too; folks were coming from as far as fifty miles away, Adam had heard. Not that he cared about the dancing, of course. Dances could be fun, as he had discovered at the trailside one heíd attended on their journey west, but trotting around the room with something sweet and frilly wasnít the main attraction for the boy. At this time of year more than enough time was spent indoors, and anything that broke up the routine of daily chores was welcomed, even if it involved prancing around the upper room at Spafford Hallís with a bunch of girls.

††††††††††††††† Had Ben been able to read Adamís mind, he would have laughed, for when they entered the rustic ballroom after climbing the stairs, no more than nine fair damsels graced the dance flooróóa small number to constitute a bunchóóand that included ladies as young as twenty-month-old Inger Thomas. Still, nine was a good representation, Ben thought, when you considered that there werenít more than a dozen females of any age living in this part of the territory.

††††††††††††††† Adam spotted Billy Thomas cavorting his way around the room with Inger as a partner. "Is she the best you could find?" Adam hooted as he tapped his friend on the shoulder. "Why donít you put her down?"

††††††††††††††† "Sheís too slow that way!" Billy chortled as he swung his little sister around, then finally let her feet touch the floor.

††††††††††††††† "Here, Inger," Ben said, putting her little hand in Hossís. "Hereís a partner more your size." Hoss knew nothing about dancing, but he got the general idea from the others stepping to the music and started to hop around, holding both of Ingerís hands.

††††††††††††††† Billy ruffled the youngsterís sandy hair. "Donít you tromp on her toes, Hoss boy," he cautioned, "or Iíll have to punch your snoot. Matter of honor, you know," he explained to Hossís father.

††††††††††††††† Ben snickered. "Since when do you know the meaning of that word? Whereíre your folks, Billy?"

††††††††††††††† "Well, Maís bound to be dancing," Billy said. "Thereís so many extra men here, País haviní to share, but I donít know where he is."

††††††††††††††† Ben searched the dance floor and found Nelly Thomas. He tapped her dance partner, Sandy Bowers, on the arm. "May I cut in?" he requested. Sandy relinquished his prize with a good-natured grin, then spotting a whiskered miner with a bandanna tied about his arm to designate him as a "lady" for the evening, moved to claim his next partner.

††††††††††††††† "Thanks for rescuing me, Ben," Nelly laughed. "That Bowers flaps his arms too hard for my taste. Wore me plumb down."

††††††††††††††† "You want to sit this one out?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "Not when I finally got a partner who can dance," Nelly tittered.

††††††††††††††† "Whereís Clyde?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† Nelly glanced around, then nodded toward the punch bowl. "Just about where youíd expect," she snickered. "Your friend Martinís been dancing pretty steady, though," she said, nodding the other direction.

††††††††††††††† Ben wheeled around to see Paul Martin dancing with a girl who would have made an appropriate partner for Adam. "Oh, Iím glad he came," Ben said. "I wasnít sure Iíd talked him into it."

††††††††††††††† "He was here at the beginning, like us," Nelly said. "Funny thing, though, he ainít asked any of the grown women to dance, just the young ones."

††††††††††††††† "Not surprising to me," Ben said. "He hasnít spent much time socializing the last several months, and the young ones probably remind him of his own little girl."

††††††††††††††† "Martin has a daughter?" Nelly asked, her feminine curiosity instantly aroused.

††††††††††††††† "Um-hmn," Ben murmured, spinning Nelly around so sheíd quit staring at his friend. "Nameís Sally, and sheís about the age of the girl heís dancing with."

††††††††††††††† "You donít say!" Nelly said. "Back east with her mother, I reckon."

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "Her motherís dead. Iíll tell you about it sometime, but not tonight, Miss Gossip. Tonight is given over to festive frolic." As the fiddle cranked out a livelier tune, Ben trotted Nelly around the room until she begged for a reprieve. Laughing, Ben took her hand and led her to the punch bowl, where they found Clyde downing another cup.

††††††††††††††† "You save a dance back for me?" Clyde snorted. "Iím gettiní mighty tired of them fuzzy-faced ladies I been partneriní."

††††††††††††††† "Youíre next, you fuzzy-faced old thing," Nelly promised, giving her husbandís auburn beard an affectionate pull.

††††††††††††††† Ben uttered a loud laugh. "Adam just cut in on Dr. Martin," he said in answer to the Thomasesí questioning looks

††††††††††††††† "He lets you call him that now, does he?" Clyde grunted.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Not to his face, but Iím trusting the day will come when he answers to it again."

††††††††††††††† "Sure glad you asked him to Christmas dinner last Sunday," Nelly said. "He seems such a lonely sort of man."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Ben said. "Thatís why I pressed him to come tonight. Even promised Iíd wear the bandanna and dance the ladyís part for him, and, thanks to my young son, it looks like Iím gonna have to keep my word." Ben took the bandanna from his neck and, tying it around his left arm, moved across to offer his services to the now partnerless Paul Martin.

††††††††††††††† Music and laughter echoed around the room. Lost in their enjoyment of the evening, the settlers were unaware of softer, stealthier sounds outdoors. Not until the families with young children made preparations to leave did anyone realize they had had visitors uninterested in music and whose laughter was that of victory over the unvigilant dancers.

††††††††††††††† Israel Mott, the first to head downstairs, rushed up again, banging open the door to the second floor. "Hey!" he shouted. "The horses is gone!" Immediately he found himself the center of a circle of men, all questioning him at once. Then the circle made a stampede for the door, clattered down the stairs and rushed to the empty corral.

††††††††††††††† "Fresh moccasin tracks; we can follow them easy," Spafford Hall declared. "Letís get our stock back, men!"

††††††††††††††† General agreement met his words. Not even a sliver of moonlight touched the earth, so the men knew they wouldnít make much progress before dawn, but no one wanted to stand around waiting for the morning light. Quickly the men designated three of their number to remain behind to guard the women and children and gathered up all the firearms they could locate. Adam raced up to Ben. "Pa, I want to go with you!" he pleaded.

††††††††††††††† Ben squatted down to look his son eye-to-eye. "No, Adam. I need you to stay here with Hoss."

††††††††††††††† "Aunt Nelly can take care of him," Adam argued. "I want to take care of you!"

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled. "I can take care of myself. You see to Hoss." He stood and shouted "Ready!" in answer to Spafford Hallís call.

††††††††††††††† With a troubled frown Adam watched his fatherís figure fade into the darkness. Pa was brave and Pa was strong, but sometimes he took chances, like waltzing into a Paiute camp. Sometimes Pa acted like heíd forgotten Indians could be dangerous, but Adam couldnít forget. He had only to remember what theyíd done to his stepmother to make the prickles start up his neck. If it happened to Paóó

††††††††††††††† "Adam!" Nelly Thomas yelled from the open door to Hallís Station. "Get in here, boy!" Reluctantly, Adam turned and scuffed his feet toward the door.

††††††††††††††† Most of the settlers with children had come in wagons and had thrown in blankets so their children could sleep snug on the early-morning journey home. Paul Martin, who had remained with the women, gathered up all he could find, and Nelly supervised the making of pallets. Hoss and Inger were soon tucked in for the night, but the older boys stood, noses pressed to the frosty window that looked down into the yard.

††††††††††††††† "Now, you donít plan on spending the night stariní into the dark, do you?" Nelly scolded, giving her boy a light swat on the seat of his pants. "You get into bed now."

††††††††††††††† "Aw, Ma, canít I wait up for Pa?" Billy whined. "Adamís gonna."

††††††††††††††† "No, he isnít," Nelly said.

††††††††††††††† Adam turned around, a glint of stubborn determination in his black eyes. "Yes, I am," he announced, his expression defying contradiction.

††††††††††††††† But Nelly was used to dealing with defiant boys. "Your pa left me in charge," she said firmly, "same as heíll do when he goes to New Mexico, and you will mind me or suffer the consequences. Billy can tell you they wonít be pleasant." Billyís nose wrinkled up in distaste and he nodded at Adam.

††††††††††††††† "Now get to bed," Nelly ordered. Once the boys had complied, she leaned over to kiss them both good-night. "Donít you fret, either of you," she said. "Everythingís gonna turn out fine."

††††††††††††††† Adam nodded dutifully, but he rolled over so she wouldnít see his eyes fill with frightened tears. He wiped them away quickly, and though none followed the first trickle, the fear grew with the passing hours. Adam was sure he wouldnít sleep all night, but eventually the stillness of the darkened room combined with his weariness to pull him into the misty realm of troubled dreams.

††††††††††††††† The sun was barely up when Adam awoke. Clambering over Billyís snoring figure, he crept to the window and peered down into the yard. Empty.

††††††††††††††† "Up early, arenít you, Adam?" Paul Martin asked, laying a hand on the boyís shoulder.

††††††††††††††† "Theyíre not back yet," Adam said.

††††††††††††††† Martin pulled him close. "How could they be, son? Thereís just now enough light to make a decent search."

††††††††††††††† Adam nodded and wandered away from the window. As Adam passed the pallet Hoss had shared with Inger and Mrs. Thomas, the little boy sat up, rubbing his eyes. "Pa back?" he asked.

††††††††††††††† "Not yet," Adam whispered. "Go back to sleep."

††††††††††††††† "Hungy, Bubba," Hoss whimpered.

††††††††††††††† "Here, here," Nelly said, reaching across Ingerís sleeping body to soothe Hoss. "Aunt Nelly will fix you some breakfast, Sunshine."

††††††††††††††† "Cake," Hoss suggested. It had been his favorite refreshment the night before.

††††††††††††††† Nelly laughed lightly. "If thereís some left," she said. "Then weíll see what else we can scare up."

††††††††††††††† Nelly and the other ladies made a raid on the supplies of the trading post to prepare breakfast for everyone at the station. Unlike Hoss, Adam didnít feel very hungry, but he ate a couple of biscuits and a slice of bacon. Without waiting for permission, he trotted down the stairs and into the dirt yard, Billy on his heels.

††††††††††††††† "Sure wish theyíd let us go with Ďem," Billy said as he climbed the corral to sit on its top rail.

††††††††††††††† Adam stood on the bottom rail next to him. "Yeah," he said simply. Neither boy felt inclined to confess his real worry, but their actions that day revealed it clearly to anyone with eyes to see. Some of the other children played tag or hide-and-go-seek, but neither Billy nor Adam felt interested in anything except watching the trail.

††††††††††††††† Lunch time arrived, and the women once again joined forces to feed the occupants of the station. "Weíre gonna have to take up a collection to repay Hall for his provisions," Eliza Mott said later that afternoon. "Weíve used so much already, and it looks like weíll have to cook dinner here, too."

††††††††††††††† Nelly nodded distractedly. How far had the men gone after the horses? Or was the news worse than just a long journey? Had they caught up with the Indians and made a fight of it? Were any of them coming home? She and the other ladies were once again meeting in the storeroom to plan a menu for supper when a cloud of dust appeared on the horizon.

††††††††††††††† Billy spotted it first. "Hey!" he shouted from his lookout post on the corral fence. "Hey, I think theyíre back!"

††††††††††††††† Adam, whoíd been trying to keep Hoss amused, spun around and a wide smile split his face. "And theyíve got the horses!" he yelled.

††††††††††††††† Billy ran into the trading post. "Theyíre back!" he hollered at the top of his lungs. "Theyíre back!"

††††††††††††††† The women rushed outside. "Thereís Clyde!" Nelly shouted, pointing out one of the lead riders.

††††††††††††††† "And Israel!" Eliza screamed. "Pray God theyíre all safe."

††††††††††††††† Adam strained his eyes to see through the dust. He saw Uncle Clyde and Israel Mott. Behind them he spied Sandy Bowers and a couple of other miners he knew. But where was Pa? Adamís heart jumped into his throat. He couldnít see Pa!

††††††††††††††† Finally, at the back of the herd of horses, came a trio of men, one slumped over his horse. Adam looked closer and smiled in relief. It wasnít Pa; it was Spafford Hall, the man who owned the trading station. Pa was riding beside him on his bay horse, and he looked fine. Adam started breathing easier.

††††††††††††††† "Pa!" yelled Hoss, trotting toward his father.

††††††††††††††† "Hoss, no!" Adam cried and pulled the toddler back out of the path of the oncoming horses. He jerked his now blubbering baby brother away from the corral and held him tight.

††††††††††††††† "Want Pa!" Hoss wailed, squirming to get away.

††††††††††††††† "You have to wait!" Adam said. "Be good or Iíll spank!"

††††††††††††††† Hoss dropped into the dust and twisted his knuckles into his eyes. "Bubba mean!" he whimpered. Then strong arms were lifting him and the tears stopped. "Pa!" Hoss cried.

††††††††††††††† "País here now, baby; donít cry," Ben soothed, patting the heaving back.

††††††††††††††† "He was in the way of those horses, Pa," Adam accused. "I had to get firm with him."

††††††††††††††† "I saw," Ben said, "and you did just right, Adam." He saw Billy across the yard, jabbering to his father, probably asking a hundred questions a minute. "Billy, come here," he called. "I need help."

††††††††††††††† Billy didnít respond right away, but a sharp word from Clyde made him hustle over to Ben. "Yes, sir, what you need?" he asked irritably.

††††††††††††††† "Take Hoss inside for me, son," Ben requested. "I need to talk to Adam."

††††††††††††††† Adam had run to the corral, searching diligently for his gray filly. He hadnít spotted her when he heard his father say he needed to talk to him, but she must be there. Among all those horses, she must be there.

††††††††††††††† "Adam, come here," Ben said solemnly. "Iíve got some bad news."

††††††††††††††† Adam walked slowly to his father. Bad news? But Pa was safe, and theyíd gotten the horses back. What elseóó

††††††††††††††† "Itís about your horse, son," Ben said quietly.

††††††††††††††† Adam grew solemn. "They got away with mine, didnít they?"

††††††††††††††† "Not exactly," Ben said, putting his arm around the boy, "but she wonít be coming back, son."

††††††††††††††† "Why not?" Adam demanded.

††††††††††††††† "Because by the time we reached the Washo camp," Ben explained gently rubbing Adamís shoulders, "they had had a feastóóa feast of roast horse, son."

††††††††††††††† Adamís chin trembled. "My horse?" he asked, his voice quavering.

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded sadly. "Yours and one more. The others they just turned loose. Rounding them up is what took so long."

††††††††††††††† Adam buried his face in his fatherís tan vest, and Ben stroked Adamís dark hair with a soothing hand. "I know how you loved her, son," he said, "and Iím sorry, but to the Indians she was just meat on the spit."

††††††††††††††† Adam pulled back and swallowed hard. "And Iím supposed to understand that they were hungry, arenít I?" he asked bitterly. "I know I shouldnít be mad, Pa, but I am."

††††††††††††††† Ben drew Adam to his chest and held him tight. "Of course, you should be mad, Adam," he said. "You should be mad and you should feel hurt. Donít deny the feelings, but donít hold on to them; just let them work themselves out."

††††††††††††††† The tears came at last. "Iíll miss her, Pa," Adam whimpered.

††††††††††††††† "I know," Ben said, "but Iíll get you another horse, son."

††††††††††††††† "I donít want another horse!" Adam wailed.

††††††††††††††† Ben patted the heaving back. "You will," he whispered, "once the pain washes through. Thereís a settler east of here who has some horses we could look at, or if youíd rather, we could wait until I get back from New Mexico and get one from the Paynes."

††††††††††††††† Adam blinked back the tears. "Could I go to Monterey to pick her out?"

††††††††††††††† Despite the seriousness of the moment, Ben had to smile. He might have known Adam couldnít resist the temptation to see a new place! "I think that might be arranged, son," he said. "Now letís get Hoss and get on home. Itís almost suppertime, and I havenít had a bite all day."

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

Nelly sat in her favorite rocker near the low-burning fire. Her hands held one of Billyís stockings, which, as usual, needed darning. But her stitches were few and far between. Nelly was tired and, to tell the truth, feeling a bit low down and lonesome, as she phrased it. Her husband had been gone for close to two months and she missed him. The four youngsters kept her busy, of course, and they were good company, but she missed the comfort of Clydeís bony knees poking her in the back at night. She even missed the music of his snoring.

††††††††††††††† The boys had really been feeling their oats the last few days. Spring fever, Nelly supposed. She couldnít blame them. The weather had been colder than usual this winter, and theyíd had to stay indoors more. Now that the days had begun to warm, sheíd put them to work plowing the fields. Hard work for young ones, but it needed doing, and Clyde and Ben werenít here to do it.

††††††††††††††† Nelly took another stitch or two at the holey sock, then laid it aside. Much as she hated to leave the task to another day, she couldnít see wearing herself out. After all, tomorrow was Sunday, and she always tried to fix an extra nice dinner for Sunday. If it had been just her and the youngsters, she probably wouldnít have bothered. Hoss would eat anything, Inger wasnít hard to please, and neither Billy nor Adam had earned anything special after the way theyíd snapped at each other all day. But Paul Martin had been stopping by every Sunday to see if she needed anything, and she welcomed adult company too much to let him leave without taking dinner with them. Besides, Ben had shared Martinís tragic loss of his wife, and she just naturally wanted to ease the poor manís loneliness. He seemed to be responding, tooóónot at all the morose, scanty-worded man sheíd taken him for at first.

††††††††††††††† At least, seeing Martin would sweeten Adamís temper. The man must have the patience of Job the way he put up with that boy plying him with questions the rest of them werenít smart enough to ask, not to mention teaching the youngster to play chess. Adam wanted to learn as a surprise for his pa, and Martin seemed glad to oblige. Only Billy disapproved. He might quarrel with Adam all week long, but he could get downright green-eyed with envy when someone else took a few hours of his playmateís time.

††††††††††††††† Laying aside the mending for another day, Nelly turned down the lamp wick and tiptoed to the room Billy and Adam were sharing. As she peered down at the two peaceful slumberers, she chuckled. The little scamps. Looking at them now, youíd never guess what a ruckus they could stir up. Nelly kissed both angelic faces and slipped out to check on the other two children sleeping in her bedroom.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Ben sat easy in the saddle as he rode on the left flank of the flock of sheep. It had been an uneventful trip: no major problems, few animals lost, and a sameness to each day that almost lulled a man to sleep. On the other hand, maybe he was just tired. Ben chuckled to himself. He was tired, all rightóótired of listening to sheep. Heíd always found the lowing of cattle soothing to his ear, but the bleat of sheep grated on him like a babyís bawling. Just let Clyde Thomas try to talk him into another trip like this! Benís lips twitched. No chance of that. Clyde was as irritated by the incessant baa-baaing as Ben, and heíd be just as glad when they reached the Carson Valley and could get away from it for awhile. It had been a long trip, and they were both eager to get home again. No more than two daysí drive now.

††††††††††††††† Ben drifted back and wheeled his bay alongside the chestnut ridden by Jean DíMarigny. The Frenchman touched his gray felt hat in greeting. "Monsieur Cartwright," he said. "All is well with the sheep."

††††††††††††††† "I know," Ben smiled. "Itís been a good trip."

††††††††††††††† "Oui, un bon voyage," DíMarigny replied, lapsing into his native tongue. "And California, is it much further now?"

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded. "California is, yes, but weíre getting close to my land. Weíll be stopping there two or three weeks before continuing on, and I, for one, am looking forward to the rest."

††††††††††††††† The Frenchman flashed him a bright smile. "Ah, oui, that will be good, but I had not realized we were not going straight through."

††††††††††††††† Ben reached down to stroke the neck of his bay. "We canít. The snows will still be blocking the passes."

††††††††††††††† DíMarigny looked thoughtful. "I should like to have seen snow. I have heard it is most picturesque."

††††††††††††††† Ben turned surprised eyes on his hired sheepherder. "But surely youíve seen snow in New Mexico. Have you not been in the mountains there?"

††††††††††††††† DíMarigny laughed. "No, monsieur. I was only passing through when I met you, and it did not snow then. It is a rare winter indeed that would bring snow to New Orleans."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Is that where youíre from, New Orleans?"

††††††††††††††† "Oui, monsieur. All my life I have lived in that beautiful city."

††††††††††††††† "Beautiful, it is," Ben agreed. "I made port there a number of times while I was sailing. But surely you didnít learn to be a sheepherder there."

††††††††††††††† DíMarigny laughed again. "A sheepherder, monsieur? All I know of that profession I have learned from youóóand the other men you hired."

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Mostly from them, Iíd say. Iíve never been around sheep before. You, either?" When the Frenchman shook his head, Ben commented, "Well, you certainly have an aptitude for livestock. Of all the men we hired for this trip, Iíve been most impressed with your work."

††††††††††††††† The other man doffed his hat and gave as elegant a bow as he could on horseback, the movement serving to emphasize DíMarignyís grace as a rider. "Thank you, monsieur. It pleases me to please you."

††††††††††††††† "You please me very much," Ben said, "so much that Iíve been wanting to talk with you about staying on with me."

††††††††††††††† It was DíMarignyís turn to look puzzled. "But, monsieur, I thought you intended to sell all the sheep."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís right," Ben said. "Mr. Thomas will keep a few for personal use, but the rest will be sold in California. Iíll be buying cattle there, though, to add to my herd, and the increase will mean Iíll need more help than Iíve had before. I plan to ask a couple of the other men to stay on, but Iíll need a foreman. Iíve watched the way you handle yourself, the way you relate to the other men, so Iíd like you to fill that position."

††††††††††††††† "I am honored, monsieur," DíMarigny said, his white teeth flashing once again. "It was my intent to stay in California, but perhaps your Utah Territory will be far enough from New Orleans."

††††††††††††††† Ben arched an eyebrow. "Any reason you need to get far from New Orleans, DíMarigny?"

††††††††††††††† Drooping lips replaced the brilliant smile. "Unpleasant memories only, monsieur; no trouble with the law, if that is what you feared."

††††††††††††††† "Good," Ben said. "Then, youíve got yourself a job." He rode forward again, shaking his head, wondering where heíd developed such a talent for picking up unhappy strays. Surely, Jean DíMarigny wasnít another Paul Martin, running from a miserable past. Not that there wasnít enough tragedy abroad in the world to touch untold numbers of men, and many men did come west as an escape. Heíd never have guessed the affable DíMarigny to be one of them, however. Unlike the laconic doctor, DíMarigny seemed gracious, even gregarious. A cover, perhaps? His protection, just as Martinís sullen silence had been his?

††††††††††††††† Benís grip tightened on the reins, as though that would help him take grip on his thoughts. It was none of his business. Paul Martin was his friend, and he had work enough ahead helping the doctor come to terms with his haunted past. DíMarigny, on the other hand, was merely an employee. Whatever memories lurked back there in New Orleans surely couldnít be as gruesome as Paulís. Even if they were, Ben had no intention of opening himself up anew to the charge of sticking his long New England nose into someone elseís affairs.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Hoss and Inger were busily patting mud pies in front of the cabin while inside Nelly was peeling potatoes for supper. When he heard a horseís hooves galloping toward him, Hoss looked up and with a cry of joy dropped his pastry into the puddle between his legs and trotted toward the rider. "Pa!" he yelled, loud enough to alert Nelly and even Billy and Adam, working at the far end of the garden beyond the house.

††††††††††††††† Ben leaped from the back of his tall bay and scooped his son up in his arms, oblivious to the mud smeared on his vest and shirt collar. "Howís my boy?" Ben cried, hugging the youngster close. "My, how País missed you!"

††††††††††††††† Nelly came running from the house, wind flapping at her brown gingham skirt. "Ben, youíre back," she cried. "And Clyde? Whereís he?"

††††††††††††††† "Back a ways," Ben said. "We flipped a coin to see who had to stay with the flock, and he lost. Heíll be here soon, though, with an appetite that would put this boy of mine to shame."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, lands, I better see what I can do to stretch dinner," Nelly said, hurrying back toward the cabin. "I only planned enough for me and the younguns."

††††††††††††††† Following her, Ben laughed. "Well, looks like these two young ones have dessert under control."

††††††††††††††† "Will you look at them?" Nelly sniffed, spinning back around. "And me with not an extra minute to wash Ďem up."

††††††††††††††† "Iíll wash them," Ben said. Nelly nodded her appreciation and headed inside.

††††††††††††††† Adam and Billy came running up, Adam straight into his fatherís arms. "Oh, Pa, I thought youíd never get back," he scolded.

††††††††††††††† "My goodness," Ben teased, "and I thought Iíd made such good time!"

††††††††††††††† "Seemed like forever," Billy cackled, "as grumpy as Adamís been. Whereís my pa?"

††††††††††††††† Ben jerked his head over his shoulder. "That way, son." Billy took off for the barn. "Hey, wait!" Ben called. "I need your help getting your sister cleaned up."

††††††††††††††† "Iím riding out to meet Pa," Billy yelled back.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Looks like you and I are stuck with the job, boy."

††††††††††††††† "Billyís always sticking me with his jobs," Adam complained, rankled by Billyís earlier accusation.

††††††††††††††† Ben clucked his tongue. "Sounds like you and Billy have seen a little too much of each other lately."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís for sure," Adam said bluntly. "Iím gonna be glad to get shed of him."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, and just as glad to see him again in a day or two. Take hold of Inger and follow me." Ben picked up the bucket of water beside the cabin door and led the way toward the grassy area to the east. Setting the bucket down, he plopped Hoss next to it. "Okay, Adam. Which of these two muddy urchins do you want to wash up?"

††††††††††††††† "Inger, of course," Adam replied. "That other one squirms too much."

††††††††††††††† Hoss shook his head in vigorous denial. "Good boy, Pa," he declared.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, youíve been a good boy, have you?" Ben teased as he stripped off the youngsterís mud-speckled shirt. "Well, I guess Pa will just have to bring you back something special from California then, wonít he?"

††††††††††††††† Hossís double chin bobbed up and down. "Candy," he suggested with a strong voice.

††††††††††††††† "Me, too?" Adam asked, pausing for a moment in his washing of the only slightly less dirty little girl. "IíveóIíve been pretty good."

††††††††††††††† "Didnít sound like it awhile back," Ben snorted. "Besides, Iím buying you a new horse. Donít tell me you want more."

††††††††††††††† Adam shrugged. "Guess not."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Your face says different. Well, weíll see. We just might find some other little gewgaw to bring back your smile." And the faint glimmer that touched Adamís lips then made up Benís mind for him. Adam, too, would have something special by which to remember this trip across the mountains that gave every promise of being prosperous.

††††††††††††††† By the time Clyde arrived, the cabin was permeated with tantalizing aromas. Ben cut a bite of thickly sliced ham and held it beneath his nostrils. "Itís almost enough just to smell good food again."

††††††††††††††† "Not for me," Clyde said, forking a huge piece into his mouth.

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed and followed Clydeís example. "Yeah, youíre right," he chuckled. "Eating is definitely better than just smelling." He speared three slices of carrot onto his fork. "Any news of the territory to report, boys?" he asked.

††††††††††††††† "Iíll say!" Billy announced. "We ainít in Utah Territory anymore!"

††††††††††††††† Ben looked up quickly. "You donít say! Did California annex us?"

††††††††††††††† "No such luck," Nelly replied with a shake of her head.

††††††††††††††† "Billyís wrong, Pa," Adam inserted loftily. "We are still in Utah Territory, but now we live in Carson County."

††††††††††††††† "Guess Utahís so scared of losiní us they decided to make us into a separate county. Near as I can figure, all we got out of it is a new name," Nelly said. "You can read all about it in the newspaper."

††††††††††††††† "Newspaper? What newspaper?" Clyde demanded.

††††††††††††††† "Moí taters, please," Hoss requested, holding out his plate.

††††††††††††††† "Why, sure, Sunshine," Nelly said, spooning another helping into his plate.

††††††††††††††† "What newspaper, woman?" Clyde asked again, more loudly this time.

††††††††††††††† "Why, the Scorpion, of course," Nelly said with a naughty twinkle in her eye. "Oh, thereíve been several improvements in our little community while you were away, gentlemen."

††††††††††††††† "A newspaper," Ben commented, satisfaction in his voice. "Why, we really are becoming a community if we have enough news to rate a newspaper. Whoís publishing it?"

††††††††††††††† "Stephen Kinsey," Nelly answered. "Itís just one page, hand-written on foolscap, but I saved back a copy of the first issue for you. I knew youíd be interested. No reading at the table, though, mind you."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, maíam," Ben laughed. "Weíll mind our manners."

††††††††††††††† "The paper tells about the new mill, too, Pa," Adam announced, savoring reporting news his father hadnít heard.

††††††††††††††† "At the head of Carson Valley," Nelly explained. "Thomas Knottís building a sawmill for John Cary."

††††††††††††††† "Now, that is an improvement," Clyde said enthusiastically. "Sawed lumber will help the town build faster."

††††††††††††††† "I donít know," Ben mused. "I think Iíd still prefer the solidity of log walls when I build again."

††††††††††††††† "You aiminí to build yourself a new place?" Nelly asked, her brown eyes lighting with womanly interest in a new nest.

††††††††††††††† "What for?" Clyde snuffled. "Your place is plenty big for you and the boys. Or did one of them dark-eyed seŮoritas down in New Mexico put ideas in your head?"

††††††††††††††† "Clyde!" Ben sputtered. "No, of course not. Itís just that Adam and I have talked about moving further north eventually."

††††††††††††††† "Is it time, Pa?" Adam asked eagerly.

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "No, I donít think so. I still want to concentrate on building up my cattle herd first, son. And as Mr. Thomas points out, we donít really need more space yet."

††††††††††††††† "I guess we donít either," Nelly sighed, "though itíd be nice to have the kitchen separateóóin summer, at least."

††††††††††††††† "Well, Iíll think about it, darliní," Clyde promised. "If we do as well as I expect to with this sheep drive, I reckon we could afford to add you a fancy sittiní room."

††††††††††††††† "To this place? Lands, it looks thrown together now, and that would probably make things worse," Nelly sighed.

††††††††††††††† "Well, weíll think on it," Clyde said. "Now, you got any other improvements to report, woman?"

††††††††††††††† Nelly brightened. "Why, yes! The Ellises are haviní a baby, due any time now."

††††††††††††††† Clyde choked. "You call that an improvement? Another squall-bawliní baby to put up with?"

††††††††††††††† "Well, I agree with Nelly," Ben said. "Children are the best improvement to any community."

††††††††††††††† "That only goes to prove what listeniní to a bunch of sheep night and day will do to addle a manís brains," Clyde cackled, then stuffed a forkful of carrots into his mouth.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Two weeks had passed since Benís and Clydeís return. The rest and the abundant meadow grasses were putting weight on the sheep, weight that would translate into extra profit when the thawing snow finally permitted driving them across the Sierras. About another week, the men figured.

††††††††††††††† Their sons couldnít wait. Adam, of course, was excited about buying a horse from their old friends the Paynes, but Billy was even more elated. Since several of the sheepherders had deserted to the mines of the region, Billy had prevailed on his father to let him make the trip and had been promised wages for his help with the sheep. Adam, having no horse, didnít qualify as a hired hand, and Billy lost no opportunity of pointing out that his friend would be a mere passenger with the caravan, while he would arrive in California with coins jingling in his pockets. "Play your cards right, sonny," he teased, "and maybe Iíll buy you a peppermint stick."

††††††††††††††† Normally, spending nights apart was enough to smooth over any friction Billy and Adam felt during the day, but Adam found Billyís lofty attitude hard to take, especially when his tormentor wasnít even doing his share of the garden work. As usual, Billy didnít miss a chance to slack off, making three trips to the water bucket for each of Adamís.

††††††††††††††† There he goes again, Adam fumed to himself. Deciding heíd had enough, he stomped toward the water bucket where Billy was once again taking slow sips from the dipper. "Itís a wonder you donít slosh when you walk," Adam taunted.

††††††††††††††† "Itís a wonder you donít dry up and blow away," Billy snorted back. "Here, you need this." He threw the remaining contents of the dipper into Adamís face.

††††††††††††††† Adam pursed his lips to restrain his temper. He was getting more than a little tired of Billyís favorite way of greeting him at the water bucket. "Cut it out and get back to work," he ordered. "Youíre not doing your share."

††††††††††††††† Billy gave a whoop. "Injun no like work," he said, prancing around Adam in his version of an Indian dance. "Injun like go Tahoe for fishing festival."

††††††††††††††† Adam giggled. Tuquah had just taken off again for the annual gathering of his people at Lake Tahoe, and that was, of course, what sparked Billyís comment. "You make a silly looking Washo with that red hair," Adam snickered.

††††††††††††††† Warming to the appreciation of his audience, Billy danced more wildly. "Them fighting words, white man," he called as he danced over to the chopping block and grabbed up the hatchet heíd left there after splitting kindling for his mother that morning. Billy rarely put a tool away without at least one reminder.

††††††††††††††† Adam grew sober. "Put that down, Billy!" he yelled. "Thatís not a toy!."

††††††††††††††† But Billy just raised his "tomahawk" aloft and charged toward Adam, patting his palm against his open mouth to produce the traditional replica of an Indian war cry. Adam prudently turned and ran.

††††††††††††††† A sharp cry make him spin around to see Billy lying on the ground, screaming and clutching his leg. Adam ran back. "Are you hurt?" he cried.

††††††††††††††† "My leg!" Billy wailed. "I tripped over that blame hoe and cut my leg bad."

††††††††††††††† Adam blanched at the blood soaking his friendís trousers. Not only had Billy cut the back of his leg on the hoe, but heíd dropped the hatchet, slicing a deep cut in the front of his thigh, as well. "Iíll get your ma," Adam said, taking off at a run.

††††††††††††††† "Aunt Nelly!" he screamed as he rounded the corner of the cabin. Nelly stepped outside and, noting the panic-stricken face, immediately asked what was wrong. "Billy cut himself. Heís bleeding bad," Adam reported breathlessly.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, lands!" Nelly cried. "Down by the garden?" When Adam nodded, she turned back to the house long enough to snatch up a couple of rags to stanch the blood, then ran to the garden. Adam was already gone when she came out, having headed for the barn. Quickly saddling Billyís horse, Adam tore off for the pasture where he knew his father and Billyís were watching over the sheep.

††††††††††††††† The three raced back to the scene of the accident. Clyde flung himself off his horse and squatted beside his son. "How bad is it?" he asked anxiously.

††††††††††††††† "It hurts, Pa," Billy whimpered. "It hurts bad."

††††††††††††††† "Itís bleediní somethiní fierce," Nelly said. "Iím haviní a hard time gettiní it stopped." Looking up, she saw Adam staring at the oozing cut in Billyís thigh. "Adam, boy, run back to the house and check on the younguns," she said. "Iíve been too busy to give Ďem much thought, and goodness only knows what theyíre up to."

††††††††††††††† "Okay," Adam replied readily. "Take good care of Billy."

††††††††††††††† "We will, son," Ben said, rubbing his sonís shoulder. "Run along and see to Hoss and Inger."

††††††††††††††† Adam walked Billyís horse back to the cabin, tied it to a post and went inside. "Hey, Hoss!" he hollered. "Where you at?"

††††††††††††††† "Here, Bubba," Hoss called from the back bedroom.

††††††††††††††† Adam moved to the doorway and grinned as he saw his baby brother seated on the hooked rug, cradling Inger in his arms. As the little girl wept, the small boy patted her back, trying to console her. "Thatís a good boy, Hoss, to take care of the baby," Adam said as he bent over them, palms flat on his knees.

††††††††††††††† Ingerís head lifted and her blue eyes widened. "Mama?" she inquired.

††††††††††††††† "Mamaís outside with Billy," Adam explained, lifting the diminutive girl and carrying her into the front room. "Billy hurt his leg and your mamaís fixing him up." Adam sat in the rocking chair by the fire, holding Inger in his lap. Hoss followed them in and leaned on the arm of the swaying rocker. "Bilwy sick?" he asked.

††††††††††††††† "Not sick. Hurt," Adam said.

††††††††††††††† "Oh," Hoss said. "Too bad." He sympathetically stroked Ingerís strawberry-blonde curls.

††††††††††††††† Hearing footsteps, Adam looked up and saw Ben and Clyde carrying Billy to his bedroom. "You got him all fixed up?" he asked Nelly as she followed them in.

††††††††††††††† Giving a happy cry, Inger stretched her arms toward her mother. Nelly stepped across the room to take her baby. "I finally got the bleediní stopped," she told Adam, "at least, for now."

††††††††††††††† "Heíll be all right," Adam declared optimistically. "Billyís tough as nails."

††††††††††††††† Nelly smiled. "He is that. Well, Iím gonna finish cleaniní up his leg and get it bandaged tight. Can you watch the younguns Ďtil Iím through?"

††††††††††††††† "Sure," Adam said, reaching for Inger. The baby whimpered her protest, but the kiss Nelly placed on her forehead seemed to soothe her.

††††††††††††††† Clyde bumped into his wife as she headed for Billyís room. "Iím gonna see if I can talk that doctor feller into takiní a look at our boy," he announced.

††††††††††††††† Nelly laid a hand on his arm. "Oh, Clyde, if only he would! I think the boy needs stitches." She saw Ben standing in the doorway to Billyís room. "Do you think heíll come, Ben?"

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "I donít know, Nelly. Canít hurt to ask, but he can be pretty stubborn on that subject." He glanced sharply at Clyde. "Want me to come with you?"

††††††††††††††† "Naw, I can handle it," Clyde said. "You got your own boys to see to and itís gettiní late."

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded. "Good luck, then."

††††††††††††††† Nelly moved past Ben into the bedroom. "Iíd ask you to stay to dinner, Ben," she said, "but I donít figure thereíll be much to set out. I want to stay near Billy."

††††††††††††††† "You do that," Ben said, his countenance brightening. "Iíll fix dinner for you for a change."

††††††††††††††† "Lands, Ben, we canít come to your place tonight," Nelly protested.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "I meant here, Nelly. I think I still know my way around well enough to throw a little grub together. Nothing to compare with yours, but itíll be warm and filling."

††††††††††††††† Nelly smiled. "Iím gonna take you up on that offer, Ben, then you and the boys will stay the night. Itíll be too late to ride home."

††††††††††††††† Ben tweaked her nose. "All right. Iíll take you up on that. We donít mind a pallet, eh, Adam?"

††††††††††††††† "No, sir," Adam declared stoutly.

††††††††††††††† "No, you and the boys can take our bed, Ben," Nelly said. "I figure me and Clydeíll sit up with Billy, at least Ďtil we see heís restiní good, so you might as well take the bed."

††††††††††††††† "All right," Ben agreed, seeing thereíd be no point in arguing.

††††††††††††††† As Nelly went to Billyís side, Ben began to scrounge through the corner cupboard. He frowned. The Thomasesí larder looked about as lean as his own after a winterís mealsóóleaner, in fact, since the boys had spent most of the winter eating at Nellyís table. Supper wouldnít even be up to his usual standard, much less hers, but it wouldnít matter. So long as it was warm, it would likely get eaten. Ben sliced off pieces of bacon and set them sizzling in a skillet while he chopped onions and potatoes to fry on the side. A hot pan of cornbread would round out the meal.

††††††††††††††† "Can I go in and see Billy, Pa?" Adam asked from the rocker. "Ingerís asleep."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, if you can put her down without waking her," Ben said, "and you leave when his mother says heís had enough."

††††††††††††††† Adam had only a short visit, for Billy seemed very tired. "Can I help, Pa?" he asked when he came out.

††††††††††††††† "Yup, sure can," Ben said cheerily, feeling useful work the best cure for Adamís worries. "Fix a pot of coffee, then set the table. Weíll be eating soon."

††††††††††††††† The food was ready before Clyde returned. First Nelly prepared a plate for Billy. "He says heís hungry. Thatís a good sign, donít you think, Ben?"

††††††††††††††† "A very good sign," Ben agreed heartily.

††††††††††††††† "I wonít fill his plate too full, though," Nelly said. "He can always ask for seconds." A horseís hooves clattered into the yard. "Oh, I bet thatís Clyde now with the doctor," she said brightly.

††††††††††††††† Her optimism struck no responsive chord within Ben. Heíd heard only one set of hooves.

††††††††††††††† "Whereís the doc?" Nelly asked when Clyde entered and shut the door.

††††††††††††††† "Ainít cominí," Clyde grunted.

††††††††††††††† Nelly paled. "He turned you down?"

††††††††††††††† "Almost quickerín I could ask," Clyde muttered.

††††††††††††††† Nelly shook her head. "I thought he was cominí around. What makes a man want to hole up inside hisself, Ben, when thereís folks that need him?"

††††††††††††††† Benís face was rigid with anger. "I donít know, Nelly. Iíve known grief myself, butó" He couldnít put into words what he was feeling.

††††††††††††††† Nelly patted his arm. "Now, donít fret, Ben. Billyíll likely do fineóójust an ugly scar or two to impress the girls with later on."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed uneasily. He hoped thatís all the accident would amount to.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Three days passed, and with each sunset Billyís condition grew graver. The appetite that had seemed so healthy that first night faded as his temperature rose. With each change of bandages a sickly sweet odor arose from the greenish-yellow pus seeping from the ragged edges of the wound. Finally, the boy lay listless, too weak to raise his head, and his tormented parents feared for his life.

††††††††††††††† Ben stopped by that evening, as he did at the end of each dayís work, to inquire about the youngster. "Oh, Ben," Nelly wept in a croaking whisper, "IóI think heís got gangrene. I reckon the only chance heís got is to take his leg, but I donít see how I can do it. Iíd be as like to kill him tryiní."

††††††††††††††† "Itís my job to do, woman," Clyde groaned, "if it needs doiní."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, if onlyó" Nelly cried, swiping at her moist eyes.

††††††††††††††† She didnít finish the sentence, but she didnít have to. Ben could read the desire of her heart. For her son to lose a leg was bad enough, but it would comfort her to know the job had been done properly, to believe that Billy had, at least, a chance of survival. Ben bit his lips and slammed his hat back on his head. "Donít do anything Ďtil I get back," he said tersely.

††††††††††††††† "What you aiminí to do?" Clyde demanded.

††††††††††††††† "What I should have done in the first place," Ben growled. "Grab a certain doctor by the nape of the neck and drag him here."

††††††††††††††† "Wonít do no good," Clyde snorted. "Man ainít got a heart."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, he does," Ben muttered, "somewhere deep down inside, he still does. And if I canít bring it to the surface, at the very least Iím gonna make him look your boy in the face and tell him why he has to die for what some idiots in California did."

††††††††††††††† Spurred even more by anger than the need for speed, Ben galloped hard toward Paul Martinís ramshackle cabin. He couldnít ever remember feeling such fury. He considered himself a reasonable man, but he had no intention of reasoning with the recalcitrant doctor tonight. Thereíd been talk enough, pleading enough. And it had all failed. Now he couldnít afford to fail. A young boyís life hung in the balance; and though he abhorred violence, he was prepared to beat Paul Martin to a pulp and drag him every step of the way back to Billy, if thatís what it took.

††††††††††††††† He flung himself off his bay gelding as soon as he reached his destination. Without bothering to knock, he burst into the cabin. Paul Martin, seated at his makeshift dining table, looked up. He lifted a smoke-colored whiskey bottle in his right hand. "Hello, Ben," he drawled. "Come to share a nightcap with me?"

††††††††††††††† Ben stopped, stunned, for heíd never known Martin to take a drink, much less drink himself into a stupor. "Whatís this all about?" Ben demanded. "Canít you live with yourself sober?"

††††††††††††††† "None your business," Martin slurred, lifting the bottle to his lips.

††††††††††††††† Ben knocked it away with a backhand swipe. The bottle crashed to the floor and shattered, whiskey puddling the dirt floor. "Iím right, arenít I?" he yelled. "You canít live with what youíve done. You turned your back on a child who needed you, the son of people whoíve been nothing but kind to you. And you think you can drown that in a bottle? Oh, no, my friend, itís not that easy."

††††††††††††††† "Go away, Ben," Paul stammered. "Iím all you sayóóand one thing more."

††††††††††††††† Ben faced his friend, arms akimbo. "And whatís that?"

††††††††††††††† "A coward," Paul moaned, dropping his head into his open palms.

††††††††††††††† Benís jaw hardened. He rounded the table and jerked Martin to his feet by his shirt front. "Youíre coming with me," he ordered.

††††††††††††††† Martin flinched away. "Ben, pleaseó"

††††††††††††††† "No!" Ben shouted. "Itís settled. That boyís eaten up with gangrene, and if heís got to lose his leg, the least you can do is make sure itís done properly. You canít leave that to his parents!"

††††††††††††††† Paulís face went gray. "They wouldnít," he whispered.

††††††††††††††† "What choice do they have?" Ben sputtered.

††††††††††††††† "Theyíll kill him," Paul murmured, his hand raking his rumpled hair.

††††††††††††††† "No, they wonít," Ben said, "because youíre gonna do the job."

††††††††††††††† Paul lurched to the other end of the cabin. "Think what youíre asking," he protested. "Itís a leg wound, for mercyís sake, Ben! If it had been anything else, maybe I could have faced it. And amputation! Recommending that is what got Aggie killed."

††††††††††††††† The anger drained from Benís countenance. He hadnít stopped to think that the nature of the injury itself had brought Paulís buried pain boiling to the surface. "Look, Paul," he said. "Iíve helped bury one of Clyde and Nellyís boys; Iím not gonna stand by and see them lose another. I understand it may be the hardest thing youíve ever faced; but if you donít face it, youíll never be able to hold your head up." He nudged the broken whiskey bottle with his boot toe. "And there wonít be enough of this in any saloon to drown the guilt."

††††††††††††††† Paul backed up against the wall. "Ben, IóIím not in condition to perform surgery."

††††††††††††††† Ben grabbed the doctorís bag sitting in the cabinís front corner and tossed it at his friend. "Weíll sober you up," he said. "Come on!"

††††††††††††††† Paul Martin was sobered, if not sober, by the time he and Ben entered the Thomas cabin. "Nelly," Ben said, "could you make the doctor a pot of coffee before he examines your son?"

††††††††††††††† "Of course!" Nelly said. "Thereís some on the stove now, and Iíll fix as much as he needs. Oh, Dr. Martin, thanks so much for coming." She looked at him with almost worshipful awe, then hustled to the stove.

††††††††††††††† Paul groaned inwardly. Heíd forgotten that look, that all-trusting look patients and their families often gave physicians. Once heíd felt proud when people looked at him that way. Now he felt nothing but shame, knowing how little heíd done recently to merit anyoneís respect. "May I see Billy now?" he asked quietly.

††††††††††††††† "This way," Clyde said, ushering the doctor into the boyís bedroom.

††††††††††††††† Dr. Martin sat in the chair beside the bed and took the youngsterís feverish hand. "Hello, Billy," he said softly.

††††††††††††††† Billy pulled his hand away. "You go away," he murmured. "I heard Ďem talkiní. Youíre gonna whack off my leg." His head wagged weakly from side to side as he moaned, "No, no."

††††††††††††††† "All Iím gonna do right now is look at it," Paul said soothingly. "Then your folks and I will talk about what treatment you need."

††††††††††††††† The look on Billyís face wasnít nearly as trusting as his motherís had been, but he made no more objection as the doctor unwound the bandages and examined the wound. He groaned when Dr. Martin touched his thigh, but bit his lips to hold back further sound. Paul left the wound unbandaged and pulled the covers back over the boy.

††††††††††††††† Returning to the front room, the doctor accepted the cup of coffee Nelly poured for him. He took a seat at the table and motioned for the others to be seated, as well.

††††††††††††††† "Heís got to lose it, donít he?" Nelly wept. "I knew it; I just knew it."

††††††††††††††† Paul reached across the table to take her hand. "It may come to that," he said, "but Iíd like to try to save the leg. A young boy like that. How old is he?"

††††††††††††††† "Twelve," Nelly sniffled. "Just twelve, doctor."

††††††††††††††† "A young one like that needs both his limbs," Paul said. "Obviously, the leg is badly infected."

††††††††††††††† "And you know why!" Clyde snapped.

††††††††††††††† Paul met the accusative gaze directly. "Yes, I do," he replied meekly. "I take full responsibility for whatever happens to your boy, Mr. Thomas. Iíve done you a grave injury, and all I can do now is ask your forgiveness and do all I can to help Billy."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís all we ever asked," Clyde said gruffly. "You sayiní he donít have to lose his leg?"

††††††††††††††† "Iím saying thereís a chance to save it," Paul said. "Not a guarantee, mind you. I may yet have to recommend amputation, but Iíd like to drain out the wound and close it properly, then see what happens."††††††††††††

††††††††††††††† "I wonít risk his life," Nelly said. "Iíve lost one boy."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, Ben told me," Dr. Martin said sympathetically. "Iíll do my best to see you keep this one, Miss Nelly. There is one problem, though."

††††††††††††††† "Whatís that?" Clyde demanded.

††††††††††††††† "The pain," Paul said plainly. "Iíll need to cut into the boyís leg. Ordinarily, Iíd give him ether, but since I havenít practiced in some time, I only have a small amount in my bag. And Iíd prefer to save that in case I do need to amputate later. Heíd need it more then."

††††††††††††††† Nelly buried her face in her hands, hating the thought of her childís suffering.

††††††††††††††† For the first time Ben entered the conversation. "Billyís as Ďtough as nails,í as Adam says. Heíll handle the pain."

††††††††††††††† Paul smiled. "Iíd say Adamís a good judge of character. Thatís just how I read Billy, too. Now, Mrs. Thomas, if youíll heat some water and brew some more coffee, weíll see what can be done for that tough little fellow of yours." He looked across the table at Ben. "You as good at sticking your hands in other peopleís business as you are that long nose?"

††††††††††††††† Benís brow furrowed. "I donít follow your meaning."

††††††††††††††† "I could use an assistant," Paul said, "someone to hold Billy down, and Iíd rather it werenít his parents."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, Iíll help," Ben replied at once.

††††††††††††††† "Good. Wash your hands and use plenty of soap," Dr. Martin ordered briskly.

††††††††††††††† Benís eyebrow arched, and Paul laughed. "Donít look offended, Ben. I dare say theyíre clean enough for normal purposes. Letís just say Iím extra careful."

††††††††††††††† "Never heard of no doctor beiní fussy about clean hands," Clyde commented.

††††††††††††††† Paul shrugged. "Most arenít, but Iíve read some studies by doctors in Europe who think itís a factor in preventing infection."

††††††††††††††† Nelly turned from the stove. "Oh, no, doctor! Youíre not sayiní I made Billy worse Ďcause I didnít wash my hands!"

††††††††††††††† "No, I wouldnít say that," Paul replied quickly. "We really donít know what causes infection, any more than we know what causes diphtheria or whooping cough or cholera. But this Dr. Semmelweis from Austria noticed that far fewer of his maternity patients died of childbed fever when he and his students washed their hands between touching each one. I was skeptical at first, but it was a simple enough thing to do, so I tried it."

††††††††††††††† "And it works?" Ben said from the wash basin where he was scrubbing at the grime under his fingernails.

††††††††††††††† "I think I get better results," Paul said, "though I couldnít prove it scientifically."

††††††††††††††† "Well, as you say," Ben commented, drying his hands, "itís simple enough thatís itís worth the effort if it helps even a little."

††††††††††††††† Paul took his turn at the wash basin, then finished by pouring alcohol over both his hands and Benís. "I donít expect you to actually touch the wound," he told Ben. "This is just in case of incidental contact."

††††††††††††††† Paul took his instruments in hand and went to Billyís bedside. "Billy," he said, "I donít believe in lying to my patients, not even young ones like you. This is going to hurt, son, and I need you to lie still, so Mr. Cartwright here is going to hold you steady."

††††††††††††††† Ben gave Billy a nod and an encouraging smile as he laid his hands on the boyís shoulders.

††††††††††††††† Dr. Martin pulled back the blankets to expose the wound and began to wash the area gently with warm water. Billy winced. The doctor noticed, but gave no indication that he had. "Billy, did Mr. Cartwright ever tell you about the time he played doctor to an Indian boy?" he asked instead.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Billy muttered through gritted teeth.

††††††††††††††† "Mighty painful, having a broken leg set," Paul commented, "and the way I heard it told that brave lad didnít let out a whimper. You think you can be as brave as an Indian, son?"

††††††††††††††† "Bróbraver," Billy stammered, then gasped as the doctorís scalpel sliced his leg. But he didnít scream. No Indian was going to show him up!

††††††††††††††† "You must have some other stories you havenít told our young patient, Ben," Paul suggested.

††††††††††††††† Ben took the hint. "Yeah. How about my trip to Zanzibar, Billy? I ever tell you about that?"

††††††††††††††† "Unh-uh," Billy grunted.

††††††††††††††† Ben immediately launched into a recitation of his adventures in that exotic island that successfully kept Billyís attention riveted on him instead of the pain.

††††††††††††††† Paul cleaned the wound thoroughly, then rebandaged it. Finally, he gave Billyís arm a pat. "You did real well, Billy."

††††††††††††††† "Isóis it gonna get better?" Billy whispered.

††††††††††††††† "I think so," Dr. Martin said. "Now, you do your part by lying still and getting plenty of rest." He motioned for Ben to follow him out.

††††††††††††††† Nelly, whoíd been sitting in her rocker, knitting to keep her fingers busy, stood immediately. "Is he gonna be all right, doctor?"

††††††††††††††† "Like I said before," Paul answered carefully, "I canít promise, but it looks hopeful. I think itíd be a good idea if you got some clean sheets on that bed and made him comfortable for the night. And, if you donít mind, Iíll stay the night here."

††††††††††††††† "Speaking of night, Iíd better start for home," Ben said. "Adam will be wondering whatís kept me this long."

††††††††††††††† "Iíll walk you out," Paul said. "I need some fresh air."

††††††††††††††† Clyde met him at the door. "Thanks, Doc," he said, but there was a world of emotion in those two simple words.

††††††††††††††† Paul nodded and followed Ben outside. "Youíre the one they should thank," he said quietly.

††††††††††††††† "They donít need to," Ben replied.

††††††††††††††† "But I do," Paul insisted. "Iíd forgotten, Ben. Once I took an oath. Among other things, I promised to do no harm, but Iíd forgotten that sometimes we can do harm just by doing nothing."

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded as he looked up at the stars. "True for all of us, Paul, though I guess itís more obvious when you deal with life and death like you do."

††††††††††††††† Paul placed both hands on Benís upper arms. "Thank you for reminding me. You were right: Iíd never have forgiven myself if Iíd let that boy die without trying to help." Ben pulled his friend close and gave him an unashamed embrace with only the stars as witness.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

Billy Thomas lay back against the pillows propped behind him, a frown on his face. "It ainít fair," he whined. "Iím feeliní real good now, and that blame doc still wonít let me out of bed."

††††††††††††††† Adam, grinning broadly, perched on the foot of Billyís bed. "Youíre just jealous Ďcause now Iíll be the one with the jingling pockets."

††††††††††††††† "Doggone right Iím jealous!" Billy exclaimed, sitting forward. "It was my idea to hire on as a sheepherder. Iím the one talked Pa into it and now you get the job."

††††††††††††††† "Aw, Billy, you know you canít do it," Adam argued patiently, feeling his friendís disappointment. "Your legís not full healed yet, and you canít risk breakiní those stitches open on the trail."

††††††††††††††† Still weak, Billy flopped back into the pillows again. "Yeah, I reckon. It ainít you Iím mad at. You know that, donít you?"

††††††††††††††† "Sure, I know that," Adam assured his friend, "and thanks for loaning me your horse, so I could take the job."

††††††††††††††† "You take good care of her," Billy ordered, "and you better bring me back a peppermint stick like Iídíve done for you."

††††††††††††††† A wicked twinkle flared in Adamís black eyes. "Iíll bring you two," he said with an elaborate expression of generosity.

††††††††††††††† Billy pulled a pillow from behind his back and tossed it at Adam. "Aw, get on out of here!" he demanded grumpily.

††††††††††††††† Adam fired the pillow back, then stood up. "Yeah, I better," he said. The trail drive was beginning that morning, and Adamís first responsibility had been dropping his little brother at the Thomases. "Time I got that filly saddled and headed out on the trail to meet Pa," he added, then ran as the pillow once more flew after him.

††††††††††††††† In the front room Adam stopped at the table to give his little brother a farewell hug. "You be a good boy, Hoss; take care of Billy for me."

††††††††††††††† "Okay," Hoss mumbled, his mouth full of egg. "Bwing me pepímint, too, Bubba."

††††††††††††††† Adam scowled at the little boy. "You been eavesdropping, Hoss? Thatís not good manners."

††††††††††††††† "Loud as the two of you were yappiní, a body donít have to eavesdrop," Nelly laughed. She handed Adam a paper-wrapped package. "Just some biscuits and bacon to nibble on the trail," she explained, seeing Adamís puzzled look.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, thanks," Adam said. "We had an awful hurried breakfast this morning."

††††††††††††††† "Figured as much," Nelly said. "Get on with you now before your pa figures youíre a stray little lamb needs roundiní up." Adam laughed and headed for the barn to saddle Billyís horse.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† "More coffee, SeŮor Cartwright?" a vaquero holding a tin pot asked.

††††††††††††††† "Gracias, Diego," Ben replied, holding out his near empty cup. As he sipped the hot brew, he leaned back against the trunk of a tall pine at the edge of the meadow where the sheep were bedded down for the night. Next to him, the campfire glowing on an intent face, Adam sat strumming the guitar he had borrowed from one of the men hired in New Mexico. Remarkable, Ben thought, how the boy had picked up the right fingering for the chords from the few lessons Lupe had given him at camps along the trail. Of course, any boy who could coax tuneful music from the cheap harmonica Ben had bought him a Christmas or two ago was bound to have a good ear for music.

††††††††††††††† "Bon soir, monsieurs," Jean DíMarigny said as he approached father and son.

††††††††††††††† "Good evening, Jean," Ben responded to the tall, dark-haired Frenchman. "The sheep sound contented."

††††††††††††††† Jean squatted beside his employer and held his hands to the warm fire. "Oui, they are most fond of the rich grass in thisóówhat was the name?"

††††††††††††††† "Hope Valley," Ben replied. "Hope was what this place represented to the first emigrants after the long struggle up Carson Canyon."

††††††††††††††† "Oui, that was a hard trail," Jean agreed. "It is good to let the sheep rest a day here."

††††††††††††††† "Iím going fishing tomorrow," Adam announced, laying aside the guitar. "Trout are real good in that stream over there."

††††††††††††††† "Iíll expect a nice mess for breakfast," Ben drawled, tousling Adamís black hair.

††††††††††††††† "I just might," Adam giggled. "Trout for breakfast sounds good to me, too. You like trout, Mister DíMarigny?"

††††††††††††††† "You may call me Jean, Monsieur Adam," the foreman said.

††††††††††††††† "Well, Iím just Adam," the boy stated. "Would you like trout for breakfast, Jean?"

††††††††††††††† "Oui, that sounds good," Jean said. "I have never eaten trout, but I always liked seafood."

††††††††††††††† "Trout isnító"

††††††††††††††† "He knows that, Adam," Ben smiled. "My son, the instructor," he added apologetically to DíMarigny.

††††††††††††††† Jean flashed the boy his typically bright smile. "He is a good learner, too, monsieur. He is becoming a better herder of sheep each day."

††††††††††††††† Adam scowled. "I like cows better."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed loudly. "Me, too, son. No more sheep for us, eh?"

††††††††††††††† "No, sir!" Adam agreed emphatically.

††††††††††††††† "I hope they are not too different," Jean said. "I am just getting used to sheep, and now I must learn all over again with cattle."

††††††††††††††† "If anything, cattle handle more easily," Ben assured him. "My opinion, of course, but I have no doubt youíll make the transition successfully."

††††††††††††††† "You sure ride good," Adam complimented.

††††††††††††††† "Well, Adam," Ben corrected.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir," Adam replied hastily. "I meant Ďwell.í Jean rides really well."

††††††††††††††† "Very well, indeed," Ben agreed. He took another sip of coffee. "Were you raised around horses, Jean?"

††††††††††††††† "The stables on our plantation were among the best around New Orleans," the Frenchman replied. "From a child, I had my choice of mounts and I rode often. A Creole gentleman must be an excellent equestrian, you know."

††††††††††††††† Adamís forehead wrinkled. "Creole?" he asked. "Equestrian?"

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Now youíve done it, Jean. Donít use new words around this boy if you donít want to become a schoolmaster in addition to your other duties."

††††††††††††††† Jean smiled. "That would be my pleasure, monsieur. A Creole, Adam, is a descendant of the French who first settled Louisiana."

††††††††††††††† "I think it can refer to those of Spanish descent, too," Ben commented.

††††††††††††††† Jean shrugged. "You are right, of course, but my family is so proud of their aristocratic French heritage that they act as if none other existed. They do accept the Spanish nobles, grudgingly, but Americans are still considered interlopers and barely tolerated."

††††††††††††††† Surprise flickered in Benís brown eyes. "You were a member of the aristocracy, Jean? And wealthy, I take it?"

††††††††††††††† Jean shrugged. "Oui, monsieur. Few in New Orleans lived more elegantly than the DíMarignys."

††††††††††††††† "Iím surprised youíd leave all that to come west as a common laborer," Ben commented.

††††††††††††††† Jean colored slightly, but his smile remained warm. "I am content with my life here, monsieur," he said, "though there are things I left behind with only the greatest reluctance." A dreamy look came into the manís dark eyes and the smile faded slightly. "I, too, unfortunately, have my share of the family pride."

††††††††††††††† "You didnít tell what Ďequestrianí meant," Adam said, giving his father a reproachful look for interrupting the train of his lessons.

††††††††††††††† Jeanís smile flashed bright again. "A horseman, Adam, such as you are becoming."

††††††††††††††† Adamís chin lifted proudly, the compliment and the new word with which to describe himself adding to the grownup feeling surging through his breast. He wasnít just a boy learning to ride anymore: he suddenly saw himself as an accomplished horseman, an equestrian, and it felt good. "I better get to sleep if Iím gonna get up and catch those trout for breakfast," he said, standing and squaring his shoulders.

††††††††††††††† "He is a fine boy," Jean said as Adam walked away. "You have much reason for pride."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, Iím proud of him," Ben admitted, "unashamedly so. Pride is a good thing when it draws us closer to those we love." He threw a significant glance at Jean. "Not so good when it pulls people apart."

††††††††††††††† Jean stood abruptly. "I am sure you are right, monsieur," he said hastily, "just as it is a good thing to sit by a warm fire, but not so good when it is my turn to watch the sheep. I must relieve Lupe, monsieur."

††††††††††††††† Benís eyebrows met in a line above his nose as he nodded. "All right, Jean. You be sure and join us for breakfast. Youíll like the trout."

††††††††††††††† "Oui, I will see you then," Jean called as he faded into the darkness beyond the flickering campfire.

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. There he went again, sticking his long New England nose where it didnít belong. Or maybe it did. Didnít the Good Book say something about being your brotherís keeper? All at once, Benís thoughts turned to his own brother, whom he hadnít seen for three years now. How heíd relish sticking his long New England nose into Johnís business! Heíd love to tell his older brother a thing or two about leaving his family to dig his way around the world in search of golden dreams. Probably he should just be grateful for the miles between them, though. John wouldnít hesitate to give him the punch in the snoot Paul Martin had once threatened to throw.

††††††††††††††† Ben finished his coffee and headed toward his bedroll. He wasnít likely to influence either John or the man who shared the French equivalent of his name anytime soon. For now he had enough responsibilities getting this flock of bleating sheep to market, finding just the right horse for Adam and driving a herd of new cattle home to Carson County. Then there was the upcoming emigrant season to prepare for. Yes, someone else would have to play brotherís keeper to those two wanderers from home. Ben was just too busy.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Ben and Clyde moved away from the tellerís window of the Sacramento bank and stood to one side of the busy room. "Satisfied with the profits, my friend?" Ben asked, his smile indicating just how rhetorical the question was.

††††††††††††††† "Never thought weíd do this good," Clyde admitted. "I know I talked big, but ten dollars a head is more than I dreamed of! We done good, Ben boy; we done good. And I could never have done it alone. Didnít have the spare cash to bring through a herd this size."

††††††††††††††† "I think those extra weeks pasturing at home fattened them up. Thatís what raised their value," Ben said. "But donít get any ideas; I am through with the sheep business."

††††††††††††††† "Me, too," Clyde laughed, "soon as we pay off the men." He grinned down at Adam, who had hugged his fatherís side all through the banking process. "Reckon we might as well start with this one," he said.

††††††††††††††† "Yup, always start with my right-hand man," Ben agreed, counting out Adamís wages.

††††††††††††††† "IóI want to send half home to Billy," Adam said.

††††††††††††††† "Thatís a kind thought, son," Clyde said, "but there ainít no need. You earned your pay."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, there is," Adam argued stubbornly. "His horse did half the work, so he should be paid for her hire."

††††††††††††††† "Take it, Clyde," Ben said, his hand resting proudly on Adamís shoulder. "I agree with my son. Take it and buy Billy a fine get-well present from all of us."

††††††††††††††† "All right," Clyde agreed. "Guess Iíd better pay off the men and head down to Stanford Brothers for a load of provisions."

††††††††††††††† "Diegoís still planning to take the second wagon back for you, isnít he?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "Far as I know."

††††††††††††††† "Iíll pay Jean and Lupe," Ben said, "since theyíll be staying with me to bring back my cattle. You can pay the others."

††††††††††††††† They all moved outside, where the hired men were waiting for their wages. Ben motioned Jean and Lupe to one side. "Hereís your pay, men," he said, counting it out in gold and silver coins. "Try not to spend it all in one place."

††††††††††††††† Lupe grinned. "No, seŮor. There are many cantinas here, sŪ?"

††††††††††††††† "SŪ," Ben agreed, but he was frowning. "Now, remember, Lupe, weíre leaving in the morning. I want you sober."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, sŪ, seŮor," Lupe assured him, grinning as he moved away.

††††††††††††††† "Wait, Lupe," Ben called. "When youíre through seeing the town, thereíll be a room for you at the Empire Hotel. You, too, Jean."

††††††††††††††† "Oui, monsieur, the Empire," Jean said. "I will remember."

††††††††††††††† "Planning to visit the cantinas, Jean?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† Jean shrugged. "I may have a drink or two, monsieur, but I think I would prefer a bath, a shave and a quiet dinner, then early to bed."

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded approvingly. "I can recommend the Alpha Bath House. Itís near our lodgings."

††††††††††††††† "Merci, monsieur. I will see you in the morning, then." Pocketing his wages, Jean headed down the street.

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled at Adam. "Now, where shall we set our heading, matey? The nearest bookstore?"

††††††††††††††† Adam shook his head. "I hope I have enough money left over for a book or two, Pa," he said, "but thereís something I want more."

††††††††††††††† "It had better not be a visit to a cantina," Ben chuckled.

††††††††††††††† Adam flushed. "No, Pa, no more saloons for me. I didnít relish what I got after visiting the last one."

††††††††††††††† "What do you relish?" Ben asked. "Lunch, I hope."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, that first," Adam admitted. "Iím hungry."

††††††††††††††† "Letís see what we can find, then," Ben said, rubbing the boyís neck affectionately as they walked along J Street. Entering a modest diner, Ben asked for a window table. The waitress seated him and Adam at the requested table and handed them printed menus. They perused them quickly and placed their orders.

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned. He liked to watch the people passing by, and heíd have a good vantage from this table. As his fatherís hand covered his own, Adam looked up.

††††††††††††††† "Iím real proud of you, Adam," his father said, his expression speaking the message even more clearly. "Youíre getting to be quite a little hand. You did good work on the drive, and sharing your pay with Billy was a kind, unselfish thing to do."

††††††††††††††† "I was just being fair, Pa," Adam insisted.

††††††††††††††† "All right, but Paíd like to reward you for that fairness," Ben said. "Letís make a special night of it, shall we?"

††††††††††††††† Adam beamed. "Sure, Pa. What you got planned?"

††††††††††††††† "Well, weíll spend the afternoon shopping," Ben said. "Then, letís have dinner in the best restaurant we can find. After that, I thought we might go to the theater."

††††††††††††††† "The theater? Oh, Pa!" Adam cried. He could imagine nothing more wonderful.

††††††††††††††† "I saw a playbill posted in one of the store windows we passed," Ben said. "Theyíre playing King Lear at the American. You like to see a little Shakespeare?"

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir!" Adam exclaimed, then his face took on a puzzled expression. "We havenít read that one, have we, Pa?"

††††††††††††††† "No, Iíve always thought you a bit young for the tragedies," Ben admitted, "but as grown up as youíve been acting, I think youíre ready, unless youíd prefer something else. There are other theaters in town."

††††††††††††††† "No, I want King Lear," Adam said. "Shakespeareís my favorite."

††††††††††††††† "All right. Now, I have several stores I want to visit. You have anyplace particular in mind?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "Not a particular place," Adam said. "I was hoping I could buy a guitar, like Lupeís. You think they have a store like that in Sacramento, Pa?"

††††††††††††††† "I seem to remember passing a music store last time I was through," Ben mused.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, good," Adam said. "Youóyou think I have enough for a guitar."

††††††††††††††† "Youíll have enough," Ben promised. "One way or another, youíll have enough, son." Their food arrived and both Cartwrights dug in heartily.

††††††††††††††† After lunch, feeling more than normally generous after the prosperous sale of the sheep, Ben led Adam on a shopping tour of Sacramento. They stopped first at Charles Crockerís dry goods store, where each came away with a new suitóófor Adam, his first. "I know you donít have much cause to wear one back home," Ben said, "but we are going to a fancy restaurant and the theater tonight, and País in a mood to splurge."

††††††††††††††† Adam admired himself in the mirror. "I like it, Pa. Wait Ďtil Billy sees me duded up like this!"

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "You think heíll be jealous? I, for one, canít picture Billy Thomas in a suit."

††††††††††††††† "Me, either," Adam snickered, "but I gotta wear it some at home, to be worth the price."

††††††††††††††† "Itís worth the price to me, even for one night," Ben said indulgently, "but Iím not totally impractical. I bought it with room to grow. And thereíll be other trips to town, my boy."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah. Where to next, Pa?" Adam asked eagerly. "The music store?"

††††††††††††††† "Not yet," Ben laughed. "Weíre headed for Kaerth and Smithís Philadelphia Boot Store. If youíre going to be a real hand, you need proper footwear for the job, donít you?"

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir!" Adam agreed enthusiastically.

††††††††††††††† "Then I guess weíd better locate some candy and trinkets for your little brother."

††††††††††††††† "And two peppermint sticks for Billy," Adam grinned. "I promised."

††††††††††††††† "All right," Ben chuckled. "Candy for Hoss and Billy, then the music store."

††††††††††††††† The required sweets, along with two new toys for Hoss, were purchased at Hardy Brothers and Hall on J Street, conveniently located next door to Dale and Companyís music store. Adam found his desired guitar, and Ben purchased some simple sheet music. "I can show you how to read the notes," he told Adam. "I learned when I was not much older than you."

††††††††††††††† "You still remember?" Adam asked.

††††††††††††††† Ben swatted his sonís britches. "It hasnít been that long, boy!" he guffawed. "Now, what say we take all these packages back to the hotel and head for the Alpha Bath House before we dude up for our night on the town?"

††††††††††††††† "Sounds good, Pa," Adam said. "Iíve been wanting to try out that shower bath."

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Rachel Payne answered the rap on her front door, and her hands flew to her cheeks when she saw the two Cartwrights, flanked by Jean DíMarigny and Lupe Rodriguez. "Oh, youíre here!" she cried. "Weíve been expecting you Ďmost a week now. I didnít know you were bringing Adam, though. What an unexpected delight!" She stooped down and gave Adam a hug. "My goodness! how youíve grown, boy."

††††††††††††††† Adam cocked his head at his father. "Howíd she know we were coming?"

††††††††††††††† "Why, from your país letter, of course," Rachel replied, standing up to exchange an embrace with Ben. "We were real sorry to hear about your horse, Adam, but Jonathanís got one picked out for you that Iím sure youíll like."

††††††††††††††† "But thereís no wintertime mail from Carson County," Adam puzzled.

††††††††††††††† "I didnít mail it from there," Ben explained. "They do keep a southern route open, Adam, and I made connections with that when we went after the sheep."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, sure," Adam said. "I just didnít know. I was hoping to pick my own horse, though."

††††††††††††††† Rachel smoothed his dark hair. "Youíre welcome to anything weíve got, sweetie, but I bet youíll choose this one in the long run. Sheís the sweetest little sorrel mare."

††††††††††††††† "Full grown mare?" Ben asked, his brow wrinkling.

††††††††††††††† Rachel smiled. "Full grown, but small, Ben. Sheíll fit Adam fine. Now, you both come in and Iíll fix some lemonade. Iíll bet you could use some after your long, hot drive."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, maíam!" Adam agreed.

††††††††††††††† "That sounds good," Ben said, "but I need to see to my men here first. You have a place where these two could bunk tonight?"

††††††††††††††† "Sure, we built a new bunkhouse since you were here last. They can stay with our men." She pointed south. "You see that building there?"

††††††††††††††† "SŪ, seŮora," Lupe replied, doffing his sombrero.

††††††††††††††† "Well, take your gear down there," Rachel said, "and Iíll send MaŮuela down with some refreshment for you, too. The other men should be back in about two hours for dinner. Plenty of frijoles and tortillas for everyone."

††††††††††††††† Lupe bowed, smiling happily. "Gracias, seŮora."

††††††††††††††† "Frijoles and tortillas," Ben moaned. "With Diego cooking for the trail drive, Iíve had my fill of beans and tortillas, I assure you. I do hope thereís something else on the menu at the main house."

††††††††††††††† "There is," Rachel smiled, "even at the bunkhouse. But you know most of our hands are Mexican, so they expect frijoles and tortillas at every meal. Whatever else shows up on the table is immaterial. I think itís enchiladas tonight. For us, too, probably."

††††††††††††††† "Whatís enchiladas?" Adam asked.

††††††††††††††† "Cheese and onions wrapped in a tortilla and covered with chili and more cheese," Rachel said. "Iíll ask MaŮuela to fix some albondigas soup, too. Thatís meatballs. Youíll like it, Ben."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Iím sure I will. Now, how about that lemonade?"

††††††††††††††† "Mercy, yes," Rachel laughed. "Come in out of this hot sun and weíll get that right away."

††††††††††††††† As soon as they entered, a pretty little blonde of about Hossís age popped into the room from the bedroom beyond. "Mama," she called. "Sammyís awake."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, he would, the minute I sit down with company," Rachel laughed.

††††††††††††††† "Can I get him up for you?" Adam asked, feeling heíd rather spend time with the two youngsters than listen to adult conversation. "Iím used to babies."

††††††††††††††† "Why, Adam, that would be so nice," Rachel said.

††††††††††††††† "Hi, Susan," Adam said to the little girl. "Want to show me where your little brother is?"

††††††††††††††† "How you know my name?" Susan lisped softly.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, sweetie, Adam was on the wagon train when you were born," Rachel explained.

††††††††††††††† "Oh!" Susan cried in awe. "Sammyís in here," she said, pointing to the bedroom.

††††††††††††††† Adam followed her in and grinned at the drowsy two-year-old boy. "Hi, there, Sammy," he said. "If I know babies, I bet you need your diaper changed."

††††††††††††††† "Unh-uh. No diaper," Susan said.

††††††††††††††† "Big boy," Samuel chortled.

††††††††††††††† "And boy am I glad!" Adam announced, lifting the little boy and swinging him around. "Babies are a lot more fun when they keep themselves dry."

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Ben tiptoed into the spare bedroom the Paynes had added to their hacienda since his last visit. Adam had turned in not long after dinner, while Ben and the Paynes had recounted old times and shared news of their separate lives. Ben sat down on the bed, eager to pull off his new boots. He hadnít broken them in yet and they were tight.

††††††††††††††† "Pa," Adam said.

††††††††††††††† Ben twisted around to look at his son. "You still awake? Canít you sleep, Adam?"

††††††††††††††† "Just thinking, Pa," he replied.

††††††††††††††† "About getting your new horse tomorrow?" Ben asked, plunking his boots in the floor and stretching out beside Adam.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, thatóóand other things."

††††††††††††††† "What other things?" Ben asked, noting Adamís sober tone.

††††††††††††††† "About Hoss, Pa," Adam said. "Susanís just his age, isnít she?"

††††††††††††††† "About six weeks older, as I recall," Ben answered.

††††††††††††††† "She sure talks better than him," Adam said.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, yeah, I noticed that," Ben said. "Of course, sheís a girl, son, and I sometimes think girls are born talking."

††††††††††††††† "Youóyou donít think thereís anything wrong with Hoss, do you?" Adam asked anxiously. "Little Sammy sure seems quicker about things than I remember Hoss being."

††††††††††††††† "Now, donít you worry about your little brother," Ben said, giving Adam a comforting pat. "He picks up things slower than I remember your doing, for a fact, but he seems to get there eventually."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, I guess thatís what matters," Adam yawned. "Iím getting sleepy, Pa."

††††††††††††††† "Roll over and start snoring, then," Ben chuckled, planting a kiss on the boyís cheek.

††††††††††††††† "Night, Pa," Adam smiled and obediently rolled over.

††††††††††††††† Benís smile faded. Was Hossís slowness that obvious? Obvious enough to worry Adam? Ben had noticed himself, of course, but heíd just figured that Adam, being extra quick and bright, made his more stolid brother look slow. But both the Paynesí children seemed sharper than Benís roly-poly son. Was it possible there was really something wrong with Hoss? Ben couldnít have asked for a healthier boy or a sweeter one, but he wanted Hoss to be sound in mind, as well. Obviously, he wasnít equipped to judge that, but maybe Paul Martin could tell him. Might be a good idea to have him check the boy out once they got home. Laying aside the concern, Ben quickly finished undressing and climbed under the covers next to Adam.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Riding his new sorrel mare and leading Billyís roan by the reins, Adam rode up to the garden beside the Thomas cabin and raised a hand in greeting. "Hey!" he called.

††††††††††††††† "Back, are you?" Clyde responded. "Whereís your pa?"

††††††††††††††† "Settling the cattle in at our place," Adam replied. "He sent me to fetch Hoss. Howís Billy doing?"

††††††††††††††† "See for yourself," Clyde said. "Heís up to the house watching the younguns."

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned. He could just imagine how Billy relished that chore. He walked the horses up to the cabin and slid off, slipping his hand into the saddlebag and pulling out two slender striped sticks. With them hidden behind his back, he walked into Billyís room unannounced. Billy wasnít there. "Hey, where you at?" Adam called.

††††††††††††††† "In here," Billy hollered from his parentsí bedroom.

††††††††††††††† Adam ambled back through the front room and into the one where Billy lay sprawled on the bed, watching Hoss pile blocks one atop the other, only to send them crashing down again the next time his inept fingers tried to add a block to his tower.

††††††††††††††† "Bubba!" Hoss cried, scrambling up and running to wrap his older brother in a bear hug.

††††††††††††††† "Keep it quiet, will you?" Billy demanded. "Ingerís still asleep."

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned at the baby in her crib, then laid a finger to his lips. "Shh, quiet, Hoss." He ran an appraising eye over Billyís prone figure. "You doing better, ole buddy?"

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, doiní good," Billy said.

††††††††††††††† Adam pulled his hand from behind his back and held out the peppermint sticks. "Hereís that candy I promised you," he snickered. "Two. Count Ďem."

††††††††††††††† "Candy!" Hoss cried, stretching for the red and white sticks.

††††††††††††††† "No, Hoss!" Adam said sharply. "These are for Billy."

††††††††††††††† "Aw, he can have one," Billy said. "Pa brought home some candy, so my sweet tooth ainít achiní too bad right now."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, and Iíll bet Hoss has already had his share," Adam giggled. Then he frowned at Hoss. "I have some for you in my saddlebag, Hoss. You can have it on the way home." Hossís lips curled at having to wait, but he let Adam give both candy sticks to Billy without further whining.

††††††††††††††† Billy took a lick of his candy. "Thanks," he said, "and thanks for shariní that money with me, too, pardner."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís okay," Adam said. "I spent my share on a new guitar. Iím learning to play pretty good now."

††††††††††††††† "Wanna see what Pa spent mine on?" Billy asked.

††††††††††††††† "Aw, I was hoping heíd let you spend it yourself," Adam groaned. "Guess I shouldíve given it to you direct."

††††††††††††††† "Naw, thatís okay," Billy assured him. "I like what Pa picked just fine. Fact is, he put some extra with it to bring me somethiní special. Waitíll you see!" Billy swung his legs over the edge of the bed and stood up.

††††††††††††††† "Hey, are you allowed out of bed?" Adam sputtered.

††††††††††††††† "Sure," Billy said. "Legís still kinda sore, so I donít do much walkiní yet, but Doc Martin says a little exercise is good for me. Come on; itís in my room."

††††††††††††††† Adam followed Billy, with Hoss tagging along. Billy reached up to the pegs over his doorway and pulled down a shiny twenty-two. "A rifle!" Adam shouted. "You got a rifle!"

††††††††††††††† "Ainít she a beauty?" Billy drooled. "ĎCourse, itíll be awhile before I can take her out, but I canít wait to bring home some real game."

††††††††††††††† Adam nodded. Now, why hadnít he thought to buy a rifle? Then he shook his head. Because Pa wouldnít have let him, thatís why. "Maybe I can get one next year," he said.

††††††††††††††† Billy understood immediately what Adam meant. "Yeah, weíll have us a real good hunt then," he said sympathetically.

††††††††††††††† "Can you go outside?" Adam asked. "I wanted to show you my horse."

††††††††††††††† "Sure," Billy said. "Letís go."

††††††††††††††† They went outside and Billy made the appropriate oohs and ahs over the sorrel mare. Hoss just pointed to the saddlebag. "Candy!" he cried. "My candy now!"

††††††††††††††† Adam laughed. "Okay, okay." He took another peppermint stick from the saddlebag and gave it to Hoss, then stroked the sorrelís white mane. "What do you think?" he asked Billy.

††††††††††††††† "Sheís something," Billy said. "That white mane and tail really make her an eyeful."

††††††††††††††† "Mr. Payne picked her out for me," Adam said. "I couldíve had any I wanted, but I liked this one best."

††††††††††††††† "Sure makes my filly look plain," Billy said, "but sheís a good horse."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, she is," Adam agreed, "and Iíd better get her stabled and head for home." He looked disapprovingly at Hoss. "Come on, sticky face. You can finish off that candy while I tend to Billyís horse. Then Iíll clean you up and weíll go see Pa."

††††††††††††††† "Pa!" Hoss chortled happily. Not even a second peppermint stick sounded better than that.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Ben eagerly opened the door in answer to Paul Martinís rap. It was the first Saturday after his return from California and the first opportunity theyíd had to play chess since the middle of January. Though Ben had arrived back in the territory in early April, heíd been too involved with the sheep then to take time for their weekly game. He was looking forward to an enjoyable evening.

††††††††††††††† Benís lips twitched with amusement as he saw the bag in Paulís hand. "You aiming to do some doctoring while youíre here?" he chuckled.

††††††††††††††† "Back to my old habits," Paul smiled. "Never know when I might need it. As a matter of fact, Iíve just been called upon to give my professional opinion of Adamís new horse."

††††††††††††††† Ben guffawed. "The boyís insufferably proud of that animal, but she is a little beauty."

††††††††††††††† "And certified sound," Martin said in his most doctorly tone.

††††††††††††††† Ben arched an eyebrow. "And what will the bill be for your services, doctor?"

††††††††††††††† Paul sniffed the air. "Two plates of oxtail stew should cover it."

††††††††††††††† "Itís Adamís bill," Ben laughed. "He should pay it, not me."

††††††††††††††† "All right, then," Paul snickered. "Since heís grooming my horse, weíll call it square."

††††††††††††††† "Hoss with him?"

††††††††††††††† "Sure. Planning to help, I think."

††††††††††††††† Ben scowled. "Adam wonít appreciate that." He started to set the table. "All joking aside, I would appreciate your medical opinion on something."

††††††††††††††† "Of course, Ben," Paul said, sobering. "Are you not feeling well?"

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head as he placed a spoon by each plate. "No, Iím fine. Itís Hoss Iím concerned about."

††††††††††††††† Paul laughed. "I thought you were serious."

††††††††††††††† "I am," Ben said gravely.

††††††††††††††† "That boyís as healthy as a horse," Paul said.

††††††††††††††† "I know, butó" Ben took a deep breath and told Paul his concerns about Hossís development, how much slower he seemed than Adam had been or even the two Payne babies.

††††††††††††††† When Ben finished, Paul laid a warm hand on his friendís shoulder. "Do you demand perfection from your sons, Ben?"

††††††††††††††† "No, of course not," Ben said. "Nothing could change the way I feel about the boy; but if there is a problem, I want to be aware of it."

††††††††††††††† Paul smiled. "Whatís the matter, Ben? Now that youíve gotten me straightened out, arenít there enough problems in the world without imagining them in your own boy?"

††††††††††††††† Ben looked intently into the doctorís gray eyes. "Is that what Iím doing? Imagining problems where there are none? I pray I am!"

††††††††††††††† "You want the plain truth?" Paul asked.

††††††††††††††† "Certainly, I want the truth!" Ben sputtered. "Quit tiptoeing around the question and give it to me straight."

††††††††††††††† "All right," Paul agreed. "Sit down." When Ben complied, Paul sat down, folding his hands. "Unless youíre demanding a perfect child, there is no problem, Ben. Thatís why I asked. In all honesty, Hoss isnít as bright a boy as Adam."

††††††††††††††† "Well, who is?" Ben muttered. "I know I didnít have that boyís head for learning when I was his age."

††††††††††††††† "Precisely," Paul said. "Adam is exceptionally sharp-witted, and he loves learning. Hoss, on the other hand, is a little slow, I think. Not feeble-minded, not dim-witted. But while Adam to seems to catch on to new ideas immediately, Hoss will probably be one of those boys who really has to study hard to learn his letters. But he does learn, Ben, and I doubt heís much behind other boys his age."

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled, relieved. "Heís a precious, loving boy; I hated the thought of his not being able to make his way in the world."

††††††††††††††† "He can make his way," Paul assured him, "but his way wonít be Adamís way, nor yoursóóthough not so different, at that. The way the child loves animals, Iíd say heís a born rancher. And he doesnít need to understand Shakespeare or chemistry to be a good one."

††††††††††††††† Ben stood to give the stew another stir. "Thanks, Paul," he said. Turning, he asked, "How does it feel to be doctoring again?"

††††††††††††††† Paul grinned broadly. "It feels wonderful, Ben. Iíve even had my second patient already."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "You referring to Adamís horse or his little brother?"

††††††††††††††† "Neither," Paul chuckled. "I meant a real patient."

††††††††††††††† "Oh?" Ben said. "Whoís sick? Anyone I know?"

††††††††††††††† "No oneís sick," Paul laughed more heartily, "and you havenít met this particular patient yet. His name is James Brimmel Ellis, and he was just born May first. And Iíll tell you another thing, my nosy friend: saving a life, bringing a new one into this worldóóIíd forgotten how good that could feel. I donít know yet whether I can make a living at medicine here, but no more mining for me. Iím a doctor."

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled. "Wordís bound to spread quickly, but if the pickings get a little lean, thereís always a plate of stew for you here."

††††††††††††††† "Two plates," Paul reminded him. "Thatís my bill for medical advice concerning your younger son. And you canít argue your way out of paying it this time."

††††††††††††††† Ben ladled the doctorís plate brimful of steamy stew. "Hereís your first installment, then, doctor. Eat hearty, and if you want a second helping, eat fast. Where food is concerned, thereís nothing slow about Hoss!"

CHAPTER TWENTY

 

The latter half of 1854 brought a number of changes to the residents of Carson Countyóófor the most part, developmental changes, the kind any growing community desired. A few were less pleasant.

††††††††††††††† The emigrant season was much as it had always been. Though the traffic didnít approach the numbers of the gold rush years, more than two hundred wagons had passed through Carson Valley by the first of July. But while the number was smaller, Ben felt busier than ever. He had put a large portion of his profits from the sheep drive into cattle, and they required more and more of his time. The business of the trading post, which had once been his livelihood, now seemed an intrusion on time he preferred to spend developing his ranch.

††††††††††††††† So far, Clyde hadnít complained about Benís frequent absences, but Ben felt stretched by the pull of two opposing responsibilities. He knew at some point heíd have to snap one direction or the other. He began to ponder the idea of dropping his partnership in the trading post. The sale of his cattle would be sufficient to support him and the boys, and Clyde no longer really needed his capital to purchase trade goods. The profits made from their trip to New Mexico would enable Clyde to continue the venture without Ben, if thatís what he wanted, or to give him the needed cushion if he decided to switch completely to blacksmithing. Ben didnít feel the need to make an immediate decision; the end of the year would be soon enough. In the meantime, he had plenty of work to occupy his days. More than occupy; overload was a more accurate term.

††††††††††††††† Thomas Knott finished building the sawmill for John Cary and began another, as well as a grist mill, for John Reese. Ben would have preferred to give his business to the pioneer heíd known and respected for years, but when Caryís mill opened July 26th, Ben was among its first customers. His new hired hands hadnít complained about being housed in tents, but Ben wanted to provide them with a regular bunkhouse. Heíd have to, anyway, before winter came, and the sooner the better. Heíd found some good hands, and he wanted to keep them. The best way to do that, Ben felt, was to treat them the way heíd want to be treated in their place. And that meant a solid roof over their heads.

††††††††††††††† Hoss turned four only a couple of days after Ben started the bunkhouse and seemed to celebrate the event by shooting upward in height, measuring almost a foot for each year of his life. The growth, of course, had been gradual, but Ben suddenly became aware of just how tall his baby boy was. He was tempted to ask his physician friend whether that was normal, but checked his concerns before he spoke. He figured heíd just get laughed at again and told that he was once more imagining problems where none existed. And this time Ben was pretty sure he was. Boys, like communities, were meant to grow, and if Hoss was doing it more quickly than most, well, so did some cities.

††††††††††††††† The August 5th issue of the weekly Scorpion brought news of a change that was either desirable or horrifying, depending on oneís outlook. Adam greeted with exultant joy the news of a school to be opened September 4th, but Billy moped openly, mourning the good old days of running barefoot and ignorant through the grass. According to the Scorpion, Israel Mott, having built a new home for his family, was donating his former cabin for use as a school, and his wife Eliza would act as teacher.

††††††††††††††† While the benefits of a new school might be open to debate, everyone in Carson County regretted the news printed the final Saturday in August. Editor Stephen Kinsey couldnít remain unbiased as he reported the disaster which had befallen his uncle, John Reese. E. L. Barnard, one of Reeseís partners in Reese and Company, had absconded with the total profits of a large cattle drive in which most of the companyís assets had been invested. For Reese, personally, the financial failure couldnít have come at a worse time, for he was unable to pay for his recently completed sawmill and grist mill, thus adding debt and disgrace to his disappointment in what had been a trusted friend.

††††††††††††††† The next weekís issue of the Scorpion reported the sale the previous day of all the holdings of Reese and Company to William Thorrington, known as "Lucky Bill" to his friends. Included in the sale were all ranch and farm property, livestock, tools, household furniture and cooking utensils and all the dry goods, groceries and hardware at the Mormon Station trading post, as well as the claim to Eagle Valley Ranch and half-ownership in the toll bridge over the Carson River.

††††††††††††††† "Wiped out," Ben murmured as he read the paper the next afternoon at Clyde and Nellyís.

††††††††††††††† "Sure makes you want to count your blessings," Clyde said.

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded gravely, then smiled at his old friend. "Yeah," he said, "and chief among them I count a partner who can be trusted."

††††††††††††††† "Exactly what I meant," Clyde replied, giving Ben a hearty slap on the arm.

†††††††††††††††

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† "Which books should I take, Pa?" Adam queried seriously.

††††††††††††††† Ben looked up from stirring the pot of oatmeal. "Oh, I think just your speller and reader today, Adam."

††††††††††††††† "But arithmetic, Pa," Adam pressed. "Iím sure hoping weíll study arithmetic."

††††††††††††††† "All right; take that, too," Ben laughed. "Then you can tell Mrs. Mott what other texts you have and ask which you should bring."

††††††††††††††† Adam added his gray copy of Joseph Rayís Arithmetic to the pile on the table containing McGuffeyís Third Eclectic Reader and Noah Websterís blue-backed speller.

††††††††††††††† Hoss leaned over from his chair to pat the book. "Read story!" he demanded.

††††††††††††††† Adam impatiently pushed the little hand away. "No, Hoss. Itís not a storybook; these are my schoolbooks, and you donít touch."

††††††††††††††† Hossís lower lip pooched out. "Story!" he yelled.

††††††††††††††† Ben plunked a bowl of oatmeal in front of his younger son. "No story," he said firmly. "Time for breakfast."

††††††††††††††† Hoss grabbed his spoon and dug in, smearing his cheeks with clumps of cereal as he ate.

††††††††††††††† "What a pig," Adam muttered under his breath.

††††††††††††††† "Adam," Ben said sharply.

††††††††††††††† "Well, look at him, Pa," Adam insisted. "Heís getting it everywhere but in his mouth."

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled as he wiped Hossís face with a red-checked napkin. "True, true, but you must not call your brother namesóóhowever well deserved. You just concentrate on your own breakfast. You donít want to be late your first day."

††††††††††††††† "No, sir!" Adam declared, lifting a spoonful to his mouth. "Iíve been looking forward to this for weeks."

††††††††††††††† "No," Ben drawled playfully. "You donít say!"

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned at the teasing tone in his fatherís voice. No need to tell Pa how much he wanted to go to school again, he had to admit, not when heíd talked about little else since hearing the news. Adam lost no time finishing his oatmeal and bundling into his jacket and cap.

††††††††††††††† Hurrying outside, he saw his father lead his sorrel mare, already saddled, from the barn. Adam tied the leather strap holding his books around the saddle horn.

††††††††††††††† Seeing his brother prepared to ride out, Hoss trotted to the barn for his stick pony, mounted and galloped to Adamís side. "Me go, too!" he announced.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, no, you donít!" Adam giggled as he swung into the saddle.

††††††††††††††† "Mind your manners and be attentive to your teacher," Ben admonished. "Donít let that Billy lead you astray."

††††††††††††††† "Pa, I wouldnít!" Adam protested, offended. "Not at school."

††††††††††††††† "Look to your horse when you get there," Ben reminded him. Adam nodded as he touched his heels to his mountís flanks and moved away.

††††††††††††††† Hoss started after him.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, no," Ben laughed, swooping the hefty boy, pony and all, into his arms. "Pa canít spare you today."

††††††††††††††† Hoss wriggled, both arms flailing wildly. "I wanna go Bubba!" he whimpered.

††††††††††††††† Ben spit the stick ponyís yarn mane from his mouth. "You stay Pa," he said firmly, setting Hoss down. "Youíre too young for school, Hoss." Hoss looked like he was about the let loose a loud squall, so Ben quickly took his hand. "Come help Pa in the barn, son," he said. With one longing look at the dust from Adamís trail, Hoss trotted to the barn beside his father.

††††††††††††††† "Put your horsey up," Ben chuckled. "No riding in the barn." He and Adam had laughed heartily at the way Hoss treated his toy horse with the same attention they showed their mounts. When they groomed their horses, the stick pony got a rub down, as well; when Ben and Adam pitched hay for their animals to eat, Hoss took a handful to feed his wooden horse. Amused at first, Ben had decided that caring for his toy was a good way for Hoss to learn how to treat live animals, so heíd designated one corner of the barn as Hossís stall, and there the boy stabled his wooden pony.

††††††††††††††† As Ben started to feed his bay and the milk cow, Hoss crawled between his legs to get a handful of straw. Ben tripped over him and landed bottom first on the dirt floor. Grabbing Hoss and pulling him out of reach of the cowís hind legs, Ben scowled. "Now, how am I supposed to work with you underfoot?" he demanded roughly.

††††††††††††††† His face reddened. Just yesterday Nelly Thomas had posed that very point to him and offered to keep Hoss while Adam was in school. But Ben had proudly asserted that he could take care of his own son and still tend to his chores. After all, Hoss was a big boy now. Lips set with determination, Ben picked himself up, then guided Hoss across the barn and plunked him down. Heíd prove he could take care of his boy if it were the last thing he did.

††††††††††††††† The barn chores took extra time that morning, due to a small distraction that wouldnít stay put in his corner of the stable. For the last week Ben had looked forward to getting Adam out of the house. The boyís interminable chatter about the delights of returning to school had been grating on his fatherís nerves.

††††††††††††††† Now Ben thought putting up with the racket a small price to pay for having Adamís help around the place. Until this morning Ben hadnít realized how much help Adam gave him. Not only did the boy do his share of chores, but he kept his younger brother occupied, a greater blessing than Ben had recognized before. He sighed as he set the pitchfork down, suddenly feeling very appreciative of his older son. A boy who loved learning as much as Adam deserved his chance at an education, though. Ben planned to see his boy got that chance if it were the last thingóó

††††††††††††††† Ben grinned. That phrase had trickled through his mind too many times this morning. Maybe some fresh air would clear his thinking. "Come on, Hoss," he chuckled. "Letís work outside awhile."

††††††††††††††† Ben led his younger son into the yard. "País gonna chop a little kindling. You want to ride your horsey or get some of your toys from the house?"

††††††††††††††† Hoss shook his head. "Eat, Pa," he said, pointing to the house.

††††††††††††††† "You canít be hungry already!" Ben argued, arms akimbo.

††††††††††††††† Hoss bobbed his head hurriedly. "Hungry, Pa. Eat!" he demanded, tugging on his fatherís hand.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, all right," Ben conceded grudgingly. He could just imagine the look on Nellyís face if she saw this scene, but heíd show her. Heíd prove he could handle whatever arose without the help of any woman. "Iíll give you some jam and bread," he said, taking Hossís hand, "but thatís gonna have to hold you Ďtil dinner. Pa has work to do, baby."

††††††††††††††† "Jam!" sweet-toothed Hoss chortled, licking his lips. The snack contented him for awhile, but before Ben could get much kindling split, a small hand tugged on his pantsí leg.

††††††††††††††† "Itís too soon for dinner, Hoss," Ben said firmly.

††††††††††††††† "No, Pa; gotta go," Hoss tried to explain with his limited vocabulary.

††††††††††††††† Seeing the boy point toward the outhouse, Ben comprehended the message and slammed the hatchet into the chopping block. While Hoss was old enough to visit the outhouse on his own, he didnít like going into the dark shed alone to do his biological business. Didnít, for that matter, even relish sleeping in a room without a candle burning. Ben sighed. Another chore heíd always relegated to Adam. Well, no help for it. The boy needed assistance, and there was no one else to give it. Ben escorted his son to the outhouse.

††††††††††††††† By the time Ben managed to get a good supply of kindling chopped, the sun was directly overhead. Time to cook dinner and it had better be a good one, he decided, for he planned to head into the nearby hills afterwards to fell some trees for firewood. He figured if he filled Hoss full enough, the boy could sleep on a pallet out of harmís way, and Ben just might get a full afternoonís work accomplished.

††††††††††††††† After eating, Ben draped a couple of blankets over one of his oxen and set Hoss atop. Hoss seemed to enjoy the smooth-gaited ride up the hill, but protested when his father spread out the blankets and told him to lie down and go to sleep. "Story," he whined.

††††††††††††††† Ben sighed. Hoss was used to his brother reading to him before his nap each day, but Ben had brought no book. "Paíll just have to tell you a story, I guess," he said as he sat beside the boy on the blanket.

††††††††††††††† Hoss snuggled close, laying his head in Benís lap. Ben smoothed the boyís wheat-colored hair with a tender hand and began, "I was just thirteen when I first went to sea." As Ben reminisced nostalgically, Hoss slowly began to yawn, finally closing his eyes and snoring softly.

††††††††††††††† Smiling, Ben slid the small head off his thigh and walked downhill to the tree heíd selected. Grabbing an ax, he swung blow after blow into its bark. As he worked, Ben whistled happily. Despite the delays of caring for a small child, the day was going well. Heíd soon have this tree down and chained to the oxís yoke for transport back to the cabin. By the time they arrived, Adam should be home and he could tend his brother for awhile.

††††††††††††††† Ben finished the undercut and started to chop on the opposite side of the tree. When the tall pine began to sway, he ran to the side and stood watching the massive trunk topple. Suddenly, from beyond the tree came a happy cry, "Pa!"

††††††††††††††† Benís attention snapped at the sound and he saw Hoss running toward him, arms outstretched. "No, Hoss! Stop!" Ben yelled, his face contorted with alarm, for the huge pine was falling directly across the boyís path.

††††††††††††††† Hoss gamboled on, heedless of danger. Ben ran toward the child, wishing his legs could race as rapidly as his heart. Moments before the trunk crashed to ground, he flung himself at Hoss, knocking the boy aside and rolling with him down the hill. Ben slammed to a stop against another pine and Hoss almost immediately piled into his chest.

††††††††††††††† Hoss wailed, and Ben instinctively gathered the boy into his arms. "There, there now," he cooed soothingly. "Itís all right, son; youíre safe now."

††††††††††††††† Hoss continued to cry and Ben soon realized the tears came from pain and not just fear. "Oh, baby, youíre hurt," Ben cried, tenderly touching the cut on the little head.

††††††††††††††† Gently, he lifted his son and carried him back to the blanket, where heíd also left a canteen of water. Ben took the bandanna from around his neck, wet it and wiped the blood away as best he could. "Ooh, youíre gonna have a goose egg, too," he purred sympathetically.

††††††††††††††† Hoss had gradually quieted. "Tree," he whimpered.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, the tree fell," Ben said. "I didnít expect you to wake up so soon. Pa should have kept better watch."

††††††††††††††† "No," Hoss whimpered, frustrated that his father didnít understand. "Wanna go Tree, Pa."

††††††††††††††† Realizing Hoss was referring to his name for their ranch, Ben squeezed the child to his chest. "Yeah, weíll go home, son," he said. "Just let Pa get things together and weíll go home. Stay right here, Hoss."

††††††††††††††† As he chained the downed tree to the ox and gathered up his tools and the blankets, Ben chided himself harshly. What a fool heíd been! What a proud, ignorant fool to think he could adequately care for his child and still do the needed work of the ranch. Nelly had been right, and Ben wouldnít let pride stand in the way of accepting her offered help anymore. That mule-headed pride had almost cost him one of his most cherished treasures, and what a poor trade that would have been! It wasnít a mistake heíd make again. No matter how much crow he had to eat, no matter how many times Nelly said "I told you so," heíd trust his precious boy into her hands and rest in the assurance that Hoss was safe.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Adam clattered into the yard and led his mare to the barn. "Pa?" he said, peering inside.

††††††††††††††† "Over here," Ben called from the cabinís front door.

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned and trotted across the yard. "Hi, Pa!"

††††††††††††††† "Hi, yourself," Ben chuckled. "How was your day?"

††††††††††††††† Before Adam could answer, he felt his legs wrapped in a circle of small, fleshy arms. "Bubba!" Hoss crowed happily.

††††††††††††††† Leaning over to give his little brother a hug, Adam noticed the white bandage around the little fellowís head. "Ooh, what happened to you?" he asked.

††††††††††††††† "He took a tumble," Ben said soberly.

††††††††††††††† Adam gave the little boyís head a gentle pat. "Thatís too bad, Hoss. Does it hurt bad?"

††††††††††††††† Hossís head bobbed. "Hurt bad," he reported.

††††††††††††††† Ben lifted the child and gave him a squeeze. "Now, son, it doesnít still hurt, does it?"

††††††††††††††† Hoss touched his head and nodded solemnly.

††††††††††††††† Ben sighed. "Well, I donít know what I can do that would help, child."

††††††††††††††† A wide grin split Hossís face. "Jam!" he cried.

††††††††††††††† Ben and Adam both laughed. "Iím kind of hungry, too, Pa," Adam giggled.

††††††††††††††† "Come on in, then, soon as youíve stabled your horse," Ben said. "I guess we donít need Dr. Martin to administer that kind of painkiller."

††††††††††††††† Ben handed Adam a slice of bread spread with peach jam when the boy ran in after completing his chores. He again asked Adam how his day had gone.

††††††††††††††† "Pretty well," Adam said. "Mrs. Mott isnít nearly as interesting a teacher as Mr. Edwards was, though."

††††††††††††††† "I didnít think she would be," Ben admitted. "Do you feel youíre wasting your time, Adam?"

††††††††††††††† Adam shook his head. "Oh, no. Thereís plenty she can teach me; itís just that she sort of makes it work."

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled. "And Mr. Edwards made it fun?"

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Adam said fondly. He took a bite of the bread, then jerked up. "Oh, I forgot, Pa. Mrs. Mott wants to see you at your earliest conóconvenience. Yeah, thatís the way she put it."

††††††††††††††† Ben arched an eyebrow. "Donít tell me youíre in trouble already."

††††††††††††††† Adam frowned. "No, Pa! Of course not. I think it has something to do with geography."

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Geography?"

††††††††††††††† Adam swallowed his mouthful of jam and bread. "Yeah. I showed her my books, like you said, and told her what others I had. Then Billy piped up and said he liked geography best of all Ďcause you made it so exciting with all your stories about the places youíd been. Thatís when Mrs. Mott said she wanted to see you, so I think it has something to do with geography."

††††††††††††††† "Well, Iíll ride in with you tomorrow and see," Ben said. "Weíll need to leave early though; Iíve got to stop by the Thomases first to eat some humble pie."

††††††††††††††† Hoss looked up expectantly. "Pie?" he queried, his blue eyes brightening hopefully.

††††††††††††††† Ben collapsed with laughter.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† When the door opened, Eliza Mott looked up from the rough plank desk at the front of her classroom, which had at one time been the kitchen of her cabin. "Why, Mr. Cartwright," she said, rising quickly. "I didnít dream youíd respond so quickly to my message."

††††††††††††††† "I was in the area," Ben said simply, "and, of course, Iím very concerned about anything that relates to Adamís education."

††††††††††††††† Eliza smiled at the boy who had entered behind Ben. "Yes, I can understand that. Heís a very bright boy, and I can tell heíll be one of my best students." Adam blushed furiously, but it was obvious he was pleased by his teacherís praise.

††††††††††††††† "Actually, what I wanted to talk with you about, Mr. Cartwrightó" Eliza began.

††††††††††††††† "Please call me Ben," Ben interrupted.

††††††††††††††† "Of course, Ben," Eliza smiled. "As I was saying, it wasnít really for Adamís sake that I asked to see you. Iím sure heís already had the benefit I hope youíll afford the other students."

††††††††††††††† Ben cocked his head quizzically and Eliza rushed on. "Itís geography, Ben. The only traveling Iíve ever done was the trip here from Missouri, so Iím afraid what little I know comes strictly from books. And when Billy Thomas mentioned your teaching him the subject, I just knew that if that little scamp actually enjoyed the lessons, the other children would surely profit by listening to you lecture."

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "Iím afraid I also tried teaching the little scamp some basic grammar, and I couldnít tell he profited much from that!"

††††††††††††††† Eliza smiled. "Well, I can deal with grammar. I truly would appreciate your help with the geography lessons, however."

††††††††††††††† "Youíd like me to come by sometime and talk to the children?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "Not just sometime," Eliza explained. "I thought it over last night, and it seems to me the best thing to do is have you come in once a week, say on Saturdays, and teach the children then. It would be something for them to look forward to and I trust not unduly take up your time."

††††††††††††††† Ben shrugged. "Iím not overly busy at this time of year, of course, but once Spring comesó"

††††††††††††††† "Oh, I understand," Eliza said hurriedly. "And while I canít pay you for your help, I would write off Adamís tuition in return."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís more than fair," Ben said. "Iíll be glad to help out."

††††††††††††††† Eliza extended her hand. "Iíll see you Saturday morning, then."

††††††††††††††† Ben clasped her hand warmly and the bargain was sealed.

††††††††††††††† As Mrs. Mott had predicted, all the children looked forward to Saturdays. Each Saturday morning brought another of Ben Cartwrightís intriguing stories about life and customs in foreign lands. After the geography lesson the children competed in a spell down. Since there were only six scholars in the Mormon Station school, the contest never lasted long. To reward the youngsters for good work and good behavior during the week, Mrs. Mott dismissed class as soon as someone, frequently Adam, emerged victorious. The prospect of a free afternoon provided sufficient motivation to keep the children attentive the rest of the week, and Mrs. Mott had few discipline problems.

††††††††††††††† For Ben, as well as the young scholars, Saturdays were a pleasant break in the regular routine. While giving his weekly geography lectures, Ben couldnít miss the look of pride in Adamís eyes, and Ben found it difficult to keep a similar expression out of his own as he watched Adamís regular triumphs in the spelling bees. Then, too, teaching the children gave Ben a sense of contribution to his community, made him feel a part of its growth.

††††††††††††††† While the changes taking place in Carson County were primarily good ones, the news outside the valley was increasingly bad. The country had been in turmoil ever since Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act annulling the provisions of the Missouri Compromise. Giving each territory the right to choose whether to permit slavery within its borders had only exacerbated the controversy dividing North from South.

††††††††††††††† As proponents of both viewpoints flocked to Kansas, trying to insure a majority for their cause, open hostility raged within that afflicted territory. Each monthís mail from back east brought word of more fighting and killing, and even the Scorpion, normally devoted to news of local interest, began to carry stories of what was all too appropriately labeled Bleeding Kansas.

††††††††††††††† Ben felt thankful for the safe haven of the West. California was already within the fold of free states, and slavery was unlikely to find a foothold in Mormon Utah, even if it ever achieved a population large enough to merit statehood. Carson County was certainly doing nothing to enhance Utahís chances of that, Ben had to admit ruefully. But obscurity and isolation had their blessings, and the chance to grow and develop slowly seemed greatest among them whenever Ben heard news of the turmoil outside his peaceful valley.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

After receiving Eliza Mottís thanks for his help with the geography class, Ben walked outside to meet Adam one Saturday. Resting a hand on the boyís shoulder, Ben said, "Weíre branding the new calves this afternoon. You want to come along?"

††††††††††††††† Adam bit his lip and glanced at Billy, with whom heíd been in earnest conversation just moments before. "Well, Iíd like that," Adam admitted, "but me and Billyó"

††††††††††††††† "Billy and I," Ben corrected with a smile.

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir. Billy and I," Adam said hurriedly. "We were talking about making kites. The windís good for flying this afternoon."

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "Yeah, itís brisk. So whereís this kite-building taking place? Our place or Billyís?"

††††††††††††††† "Ours," Adam grinned. "Iíve got the makings all set aside."

††††††††††††††† "You know youíll have to watch Hoss, too," Ben pointed out.

††††††††††††††† "Aw, you could leave him at our place," Billy argued.

††††††††††††††† "No, I couldnít," Ben said firmly. "Thatís not fair to your mother; furthermore, I have no intention of going all the way back there from my cattle range just to give you rapscallions the pleasure of an afternoon alone."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís all right," Adam quickly assured his father. "We can pick Hoss up first."

††††††††††††††† Billy groaned, but saw little point in arguing further. Ben Cartwright was even less vulnerable to that kind of manipulation than his own folks. "Letís go," he urged, elbowing Adam. "You can take dinner at our place." He threw Ben a significant glare. "Ma wonít mind," he insisted.

††††††††††††††† "I know she wonít," Ben grinned. "Fine with me if my boys have a hot meal. Thereís not much ready to eat at our place."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís for sure!" Adam exclaimed. "Iím hungry, too. Letís go, Billy."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah," Billy agreed, "before that chunky brother of yours picks the table clean."

††††††††††††††† Adam and Billy mounted their horses and raced for the Thomas cabin, four miles to the north. Billy won and, leaping off his horse, rushed into the cabin. "Ma, me and Adamís gonna build kites at his house this afternoon. Thatís all right, ainít it?" he asked, rushing his words.

††††††††††††††† "If itís all right with Ben, I got no objection," Nelly replied, pushing a damp tendril of light hair off her forehead.

††††††††††††††† "He done said yes," Billy announced. "Whatís for dinner? Adamís eatiní with us."

††††††††††††††† "Should have told Ben to come along, too," Nelly chided.

††††††††††††††† "Heís anxious to get to the calf branding, maíam," Adam said from the doorway. "Diegoíll have something for the men to eat there."

††††††††††††††† "Humph!" Nelly sniffed. "Some meal thatís likely to be. Well, at least, you younguns will have good food."

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, good food!" Hoss chirped, clambering into a chair at the table.

††††††††††††††† "Not yet," Nelly laughed. "You run along and play with Inger awhile longer. Dinneríll be ready in about half an hour."

††††††††††††††† "Long?" Hoss asked Adam as he climbed down.

††††††††††††††† "Short," Adam said, knowing those two words comprised Hossís entire concept of time. Hoss grinned and trotted back into the bedroom where heíd been playing with Inger.

††††††††††††††† After a filling lunch the boys mounted, Hoss behind Adam on the sorrel mare, and rode to Pine Tree Station. Adam helped Hoss down, then faced the four-year-old, arms akimbo. "All right now, Hoss, you want to feed your pony while Billy and I take care of our horses?"

††††††††††††††† Hoss shook his head. "Pony all fed," he said. His pup came racing from the barn to greet him with leaps and licks.

††††††††††††††† "Go find some toys to play with then," Adam ordered. "Billy and Iíll be real busy making our kites, and we donít want you underfoot."

††††††††††††††† "Me help," Hoss offered amiably, turning his face aside to avoid Klamathís wet tongue.

††††††††††††††† "Oh, no, you wonít!" Adam sputtered. "You keep your hands off. Now, in the house and find some toys."

††††††††††††††† Hoss thrust out his lower lip, then drew it back in when he thought of something heíd like better than toys. He jogged toward the cabin, Klamath trotting at his heels. "No, Klam, stay," Hoss ordered. He patted the little dogís head, went inside and pulled from the corner cupboard half a loaf of bread and a crock of plum jam, successfully carrying both to the table.

††††††††††††††† Feeling like a big boy, able to fix his own snack, Hoss climbed in a chair, stuck his fingers in the crock of jam and slathered it lavishly on one end of the loaf of bread. Pa, of course, would have sliced off just one piece, but Hoss instinctively knew heíd be in trouble if he touched one of País sharp knives. Besides, jam and bread tasted sweet no matter how you put them together, and Hoss was prepared to finish off all the bread anyway. Highly satisfied with his creation, he sunk his teeth in.

††††††††††††††† When Adam and Billy walked in, Hoss was sloppily applying more jam to the nibbled end of the loaf. "Want some?" he offered generously, favoring Adam with one of his sunniest smiles.

††††††††††††††† Adamís lips tightened, his brows met in a straight line, and his face reddenedóóa perfect copy of his father, when angry. "What have you done?" he demanded. "Look at the mess youíve made, Hoss!"

††††††††††††††† "Sorwy, Bubba," Hoss whimpered, lapsing into baby talk at the sight of Adamís angry countenance.

††††††††††††††† "Donít Ďsorry,í me, Hoss Cartwright!" Adam snapped.

††††††††††††††† "That youngunís a mess waitiní to happen," Billy charged.

††††††††††††††† "You can say that again," Adam moaned. "Now weíll have to clean him up before we can start the kite."

††††††††††††††† "Not to mention the table," Billy commiserated. "Heís swiped jam everywhere."

††††††††††††††† Disgruntled, Adam grabbed Hoss roughly by one arm and herded him outdoors. When Klamath stood and growled, Adam let go of Hossís arm and snatched up the bucket resting by the front door. "Stay right there and donít touch anything," Adam ordered, heading for the creek.

††††††††††††††† Hoss flopped down on the ground and, with Klamathís tongue busily assisting him, began to lick plum jam from his fingers. When Adam returned, he held his pudgy palms out to demonstrate that he was already clean.

††††††††††††††† "Not good enough," Adam snapped, thrusting first one, then the other, sticky hand into the water and scrubbing hard. Hoss whined, for the water was icy. Klamath began nipping at Adamís heels. Adam kicked at him, and though the dog wasnít hurt, he slunk back, adding his whimpers to Hossís.

††††††††††††††† "Itís your own fault," Adam said harshly, "so you can just quit the bellering." Not sure whether Adam meant him or his dog, Hoss wiped his dripping nose with his just-washed hand while Adam scrubbed the other. Adam dried both his brotherís hands. "Now sit here Ďtil we get the table washed off," he ordered.

††††††††††††††† "Cold," Hoss whimpered.

††††††††††††††† "Then go in the house," Adam retorted, "but stay in your room."

††††††††††††††† Adam, with Billyís help, was vigorously scouring the table when Hoss ambled in from the bedroom he shared with Adam. Crumpled in his hand was a large sheet of paper. "Here, Bubba," he said, obviously hoping to appease his irritated sibling. "Make kite."

††††††††††††††† Adam yelped and jerked the paper from Hossís hand. "Doggone you! Youíve gone and scrunched it full of wrinkles."

††††††††††††††† "Tore it, too," Billy added, conveniently overlooking the fact that it was Adamís precipitous action that had torn the paper.

††††††††††††††† "Sósorwy," Hoss sputtered.

††††††††††††††† "Donít start that again!" Adam snapped. "Sorry doesnít cut it, Hoss. Billyís right. Youíre a ca-catastrophe waiting to happen." He chose to replace Billyís simpler term with one from the previous weekís spelling list.

††††††††††††††† "We wonít get nothiní done with him around," Billy complained.

††††††††††††††† "So Iím just gonna see to it heís not around," Adam said firmly. He grabbed Hoss by one elbow. "Give me a hand," he ordered Billy.

††††††††††††††† Billy took the other elbow. "Where we headed?"

††††††††††††††† "The tool shed," Adam replied. "He canít open it from the inside."

††††††††††††††† "Good idea," Billy said. Between them, the two boys dragged the kicking, squirming youngster. Behind them, Klamath barked in loud protest.

††††††††††††††† Adam opened the door to the shed and shoved Hoss inside. "You, too," Adam ordered as he pushed Klamath in with his young master and slammed the door.

††††††††††††††† "No, Bubba!" Hoss screamed. "Dark!"

††††††††††††††† For a moment Adam felt a twinge of guilt. He knew Hoss hated dark places. Thatís why heíd never go to the outhouse alone or slept without a lighted candle. "Time he got over it," Adam mumbled under his breath. Aloud he said, "Quit that blubbering, Hoss. I just want you out of our hair for awhile. Iíll let you out soon as we finish the kites." And Iíll do that a lot sooner with you in there, Adam told himself, justifying his actions.

††††††††††††††† "Letís get to it," Billy urged, "before your Pa gets home."

††††††††††††††† Adam flinched. Pa. That was the fly in the ointment, all right. Paíd have his hide for treating Hoss this way. Maybe it wasnít such a good idea, after all.

††††††††††††††† "Come on," Billy, who had already reached the cabin, called.

††††††††††††††† Adam squared his shoulders. He couldnít back down nowóónot in front of Billy. "Iím coming," he shouted over Hossís vociferous pleas for help.

††††††††††††††† Without Hossís interference, the older boys quickly constructed two wind-worthy kites. "Bet mineíll fly the highest," Billy bragged.

††††††††††††††† Adam tossed the challenge back in his friendís face. "No, sir; mineís the best."

††††††††††††††† "Prove it," Billy dared, racing outside. He ran as fast as he could and soon the kite was soaring skyward. Adam charged after him, grinning as he saw his kite sail higher than Billyís, higher than the emerald pines fringing the foothills west of the cabin. Back and forth the boys raced, each flaunting the merit of his own creation whenever it chanced to rise above its competitor.

††††††††††††††† Evening shadows lengthened unheeded. Suddenly, a voice rang through the trees. "Adam!" Ben Cartwright called. Jubilant with triumph, his cheeks chafed ruddy by the wind, Adam ran to greet his father.

††††††††††††††† Benís face, however, was glowering with a different kind of warmth. "I thought I told you not to leave Hoss at the Thomases," he said tersely.

††††††††††††††† "I didnít," Adam said, then clapped his hand over his mouth. Hoss! Heíd meant to let his little brother out of the tool shed as soon as heíd finished his kite, but in the excitement of his contest with Billy, heíd completely forgotten. Adam hurriedly explained what heíd done.

††††††††††††††† "You did what!" Ben shouted with undisguised fury.

††††††††††††††† "Well, heóhe was being an awful pest," Adam sputtered, "and we wanted to make the kites andó"

††††††††††††††† "I get the picture," Ben growled, "and itís not a pretty one."

††††††††††††††† Adam gulped. "No, sir, itís not. Iím sorry, Pa." Suddenly, his face drained. He hadnít accepted Hossís apologies. Why should he expect any better response from Pa?

††††††††††††††† "I think itís time you went home, Billy," Ben said firmly as he turned his back on the boys and headed for the tool shed.

††††††††††††††† "High time," Billy muttered. "Boy, are you gonna get it!" He gave Adam a sympathetic look. "I hope he ainít too hard on you. It was part my fault. Tell him that if you think itíll help."

††††††††††††††† Adam shook his head. Pa was smart enough to figure out Billyís part without being told, but whatever his friend had done wouldnít excuse Adamís behavior. That was the attitude Pa would take, so there was no use trying to squirm out of whatever punishment Pa laid down. And seeing Hossís tear-streaked face when he was released from the confining shed convinced Adam more than any amount of scolding that he deserved the worst Pa could think up.

††††††††††††††† Adamís footsteps dragged the dust as he approached the bench beside the cabin door where Ben sat comforting his younger son. A growl rumbled in the throat of the dog sitting at their feet and Adam took a step back. "Iím sorry, Pa," he said again, not hoping to lessen his penalty by the words, just feeling the need to say them.

††††††††††††††† Anger was still glinting in Ben Cartwrightís eyes. Hoss, too, looked up at Adam with a look the older boy had never seen before. Nothing akin to the hero worship with which Hoss ordinarily ogled him. "Iím sorry, baby," Adam murmured. "Brother forgot."

††††††††††††††† "Forgetting wasnít the problem, Adam!" Ben grunted.

††††††††††††††† "No, sir, I know that," Adam said. "It wasnít right in the first place, but I never meant to leave him that long."

††††††††††††††† "How long is Ďthat long?í" Ben demanded.

††††††††††††††† Adam shrugged. "A couple of hours, I guess."

††††††††††††††† "Two hours," Ben sputtered. "How do you think it feels to be shut up in the dark for two hours, Adam?"

††††††††††††††† "Not good, I guess," Adam admitted.

††††††††††††††† "Well, youíre about to find out," Ben stated bluntly. "Thatíll be your punishment. Iíll lock you in that shed for exactly two hours. Then weíll have a little talk about how it feels!"

††††††††††††††† Adam nodded silently and headed for the tool shed. He pulled the door shut behind him and immediately felt the darkness close in. A few minutes later he heard the door latched from the outside and knew he was as hopelessly trapped as Hoss had been. Adam started to cry, but not for himself. For Hoss and the fear heíd endured at his big brotherís hands. Adam sat down on the cold earth and let the shame wash over him.

††††††††††††††† The minutes straggled past, dragging as slowly as his footsteps had earlier, until Adam was sure that Paíd forgotten him the way heíd forgotten Hoss. Finally, the door creaked open. "You can come out now," Ben said.

††††††††††††††† Adam almost didnít respond, the dark shed seeming preferable to the sight of his fatherís wrathful eyes. Two hours had done little to wipe the fury and disappointment from Benís visage. Adam silently followed his father into the cabin.

††††††††††††††† Ben pointed to a slice of dry bread and a cup of milk on the table. "Thatís your supper," he said. "Eat it."

††††††††††††††† "Iím not much hungry, Pa," Adam whispered.

††††††††††††††† "Eat it," Ben said, but his voice was gentler this time.

††††††††††††††† Adam sat down and tried to comply, but the dry bread stuck in his throat. Ben sat across from him. "Well, how was it, son?" he asked.

††††††††††††††† Adam choked down the bread in his mouth. "Bad, Pa," he said. "Worse than I thought."

††††††††††††††† "And worse yet for Hoss," Ben said grimly. "Heís only four, Adam. He was terrified."

††††††††††††††† "I know, Pa," Adam murmured, staring at the tabletop. "IóI guess he hates me, huh?"

††††††††††††††† "He was very angry, very hurt," Ben said, "but I talked with him about it. I think heíll forgive you, Adam, but you canít play this kind of game with his feelings. Baby or not, Hoss is a person, same as you; he deserves to be treated with kindness and respectóóno matter how much he gets in the way of what youíd rather do."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir, I know."

††††††††††††††† "Then behave as if you knew," Ben said firmly. "Iíve entrusted you with a great responsibility, Adam, and most of the time Iíve been proud of how you handle it. But I donít feel proud today."

††††††††††††††† Something shriveled inside Adam. Heíd basked in his fatherís approval for so long. Now it was gone, and Adam would rather Pa had blistered his bottom than to lose that respect. "Willówill you forgive me, Pa?" he asked hesitantly.

††††††††††††††† "You are forgiven, son," Ben said without hesitation, "but not excused. When youíve finished your dinner, go straight to bed. And for the next week, youíll pick up Hoss after school and come directly homeóóno dawdling at Billyís afterwards."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, sir," Adam said. He finished his milk quickly and went to his room without saying anything else. Quietly, he undressed and pulled his nightshirt over his head.

††††††††††††††† "Bubba," a timid voice called.

††††††††††††††† Adam knelt beside the bed where Hoss lay on his stomach. "Yeah, Hoss?"

††††††††††††††† "You still mad, Bubba?"

††††††††††††††† Adam threw his arm across the chunky little boyís back. "No, Iím not mad. You still mad, Hoss?"

††††††††††††††† "Unh-uh," Hoss muttered. "Scóscared."

††††††††††††††† Adam patted the youngsterís shoulder. "Want me to sleep with you?" he offered.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah!" Hoss cried, scrunching over to let Adam in.

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned and crawled beneath the covers. "Iím sorry I scared you, Hoss," he whispered as he lay his dark head beside the sandy one on the pillow.

††††††††††††††† Hoss cuddled close, nestling his head against Adamís chest. "Kite fly good?" he asked.

††††††††††††††† "Real good," Adam said. "Iíll show you tomorrow, maybe even let you fly it."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, boy!" Hoss shouted.

††††††††††††††† "Time for bed, boys," Ben ordered from the doorway. His voice sounded firm, but he was smiling, glad to see the brothers at peace again.

††††††††††††††† The next morning Adam got the kite soaring high, then handed the string to Hoss. "Hold tight," he said.

††††††††††††††† "Looky, Bubba," Hoss cried. "See it fly!" Hoss clapped his hands in delight and the kite string slipped from his hands.

††††††††††††††† Adam lunged forward and caught it, tumbling to the ground. Hoss clapped his hands again and laughed. Lying on the ground, Adam laughed, too, suddenly realizing that Hoss could be as much fun as Billy. You had to get down on his level, of course, but that was a small price to pay for the toothy grin you got in return. Over the next week, deprived of Billyís society, Adam had a chance to work on his relationship with Hoss, and he rediscovered just how much he liked his little brother.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Shortly after Adamís reprieve from confinement at home, Ben had a chance to practice the patience heíd preached to his older son. Though he regularly sent Hoss to stay with Nelly Thomas while Adam was in school, one crisp September morning Ben decided to keep the boy home with him. Hoss had a slight case of the sniffles, and since Ben planned to spend the day doing chores in the barn and tack room, he saw no reason to send the child on a long, cold ride. Better to keep him indoors and ward off a bad cold. Even with a doctor in the county, Ben preferred healthy boys to fretful, sick ones.

††††††††††††††† Hoss wasnít, however, sick enough that he appreciated staying inside. "Wanna help, Pa," he insisted as Ben prepared to go out. "Hoss big boy."

††††††††††††††† Benís mouth twitched. Hoss was indeed a big boy, a fact confirmed every time Ben tried to lift him. "Hoss is a big boy," he agreed, "and a good one to want to help Pa. But I think youíd better stay out of the wind today, son. Paíll be in the barn if you need anything."

††††††††††††††† "Wanna help, Pa," Hoss repeated, his face drooping.

††††††††††††††† Ben gave the youngster a hug. "The best help is to do as youíre told, Hoss. Now go back to your room and play with your Noahís Ark." Ben opened the door, then turned, remembering Adamís description of what had first irritated him the day heíd locked Hoss in the tool shed. "And stay out of the jam," Ben ordered firmly. "This place is messy enough without your making it worse."

††††††††††††††† Hossís chin bobbed up and down. He hadnít forgotten the aftermath of the last time heíd helped himself to a snack. As his father disappeared, he looked at the table covered with the dirty dishes from breakfast. Ben, who hated washing dishes just about worse than anything, had decided to let them sit until lunch time and do them all at once, but Hoss didnít know that. He thought his father had just forgotten. "Place messy," Hoss muttered, repeating Benís evaluation.

††††††††††††††† A wide grin split the youngsterís face as he spotted the bucket of water set just inside the door. Adam had brought it from the creek earlier that morning so he could wash up for school and had left it for the dishes. "Hoss help Pa," the boy cried, pulling the tin dishpan down from the counter and setting it in the floor by the fire. Hoss dragged the water bucket over to the pan and tipped it so the water spilled into the pan. Most of it, at least. Some was on the floor, but not enough to bother Hoss.

††††††††††††††† The four-year-old grabbed a bar of lye soap and lathered up a pile of suds. Then he took the fortunately unbreakable tin plates from the table and dropped them with a splash into the dishpan. Hoss frowned as he saw more water slosh onto the floor. Heíd have to remember to ease the next ones in. Sitting on the hooked rug, he hummed off key as he scoured the plates with vigor. Holding the first one up, he grinned at his dull image reflected from the metal surface. Nice and clean. He gave the others similar treatment and, drying them with the towel ordinarily used for hands, stacked them back on the table.

††††††††††††††† All that remained was the three-legged spider in which Ben had fried the bacon that morning. Hoss grabbed the long handle and pulled. The skillet hit the floor with a loud bang. The boy ran to the window and peered anxiously out. It wouldnít do to have Pa come investigating suspicious noises and discover Hossís surprise before it was completely done. Satisfied the clatter hadnít reached the barn, Hoss scooted back to finish the job. He slipped in the bacon grease that now filmed the floor and sat down hard. Hoss shook his head. He was going to have to do something about that floor. First, though, he gave the skillet an energetic rub, dried it and set it back on the table.

††††††††††††††† All done now except emptying the dishpan. Hoss had started to drag it to the front door when an idea struck him, an idea that would solve the problem of the greasy floor, as well. Instead of pulling the dishpan of water out the door, he just tipped it over and let the water flood the puncheon floor. Now to find something to scrub with. He ran into the bedroom he shared with Adam and snatched his brotherís nightshirt from the peg on the wall. Adam wouldnít need that until nightfall. It would do nicely.

††††††††††††††† Hoss had worked halfway across the front room when the door opened. "Oh, you peeked," he cried in disappointment. "Not done, Pa."

††††††††††††††† "Not done with what?" Ben demanded, staring at the wet floor. "What have you done, Hoss?"

††††††††††††††† "Place messy," Hoss explained, sure his father would understand and be as proud of him as he always seemed to be of Adam. "Me help."

††††††††††††††† "Help! Is that what you call it?" Ben croaked, then stopped as he caught sight of his little boyís sudden change of demeanor.

††††††††††††††† Hossís lower lip was trembling. "Try help," he whimpered.

††††††††††††††† Ignoring the water soaking through his trousers, Ben knelt and gathered the youngster into his arms. "Yeah, it was a good thought, Hoss," Ben said comfortingly. "Pa knows you meant well, but youíve made quite a mess, son."

††††††††††††††† Hoss shook his head in denial. "Mop," he said, "like Aunt Nelly."

††††††††††††††† Ben guffawed. "Is this what she uses, Hoss?" he laughed, pulling Adamís nightshirt from the pudgy fingers. Hoss gave his father a sheepish grin. Now that Pa mentioned it, he could remember that Aunt Nelly didnít use clothes; she used a scrub brush.

††††††††††††††† "Well, I hate to admit it," Ben said, looking around the room distastefully, "but this place could use a thorough cleaning. Not what I planned for this afternoon, but I guess Iíd better make a change, starting with this floor."

††††††††††††††† "Me help," Hoss offered.

††††††††††††††† "No thank you," Ben laughed. "Iílló" He stopped abruptly, seeing Hossís wet clothes. And this was the child he was keeping out of the cold so his sniffles wouldnít worsen! "In the other room right now!" Ben said. "You need dry clothes, boy!" Hoss shrugged and followed his fatherís pointing finger.

††††††††††††††† Ben soon had the child redressed. "Now into bed, son."

††††††††††††††† Hoss shook his head. "No, no. Help Pa."

††††††††††††††† "Youíve done your share," Ben grinned. "Get under the covers and warm up while I finish the floor. Then Paíll fix us something to eat. Sound good?"

††††††††††††††† "Good!" Hoss agreed. "Toy?"

††††††††††††††† Ben poked through the chest at the foot of Hossís bed and handed him the calico dog Nelly had made him. "This do?" Hoss grinned and reached for the soft, cuddly dog. Klamath would have made a better companion, of course, but Pa wouldnít let a real dog in the house. Hoss never could understand why.

††††††††††††††† Ben went back into the front room and located the rarely used scrub brush. His knees hit the floor, a position Ben was sure the Almighty had only intended man to use in prayer. "Housework. Blah!" he grumbled with masculine disdain as he vigorously scoured the puncheon floor.

†††††††††††††††

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† "Come in out of the cold, you tardy wretch," Ben laughed, opening the door for Paul Martin.

††††††††††††††† "Sorry, had to see a patient," Paul said quietly.

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded understandingly. "I figured it might be that, and Iím afraid Iíve got another one for you."

††††††††††††††† Paul looked up, alarmed. "Not Hoss?" he asked. Adam was reading in the rocker by the fire, but the younger boy was nowhere to be seen. "Why didnít you send for me?"

††††††††††††††† "I donít think itís serious," Ben explained, "but Iíd like you to take a look as long as youíre here."

††††††††††††††† "Sure, right away," Paul said, going at once to the boysí room. "Well, little man," he said, sitting on the edge of Hossís bed. "Whatís your trouble?"

††††††††††††††† Hoss coughed hoarsely. "Sick," he mumbled.

††††††††††††††† "Just a cold, I think," Ben said. "Heís been sniffling around for two or three days, and yesterday he said his throat hurt. He started coughing today."

††††††††††††††† Dr. Martin laid his hand across the boyís forehead. "Not much fever," he said. "Open your mouth, Hoss, and let Pau-Pau see your throat." Hoss obliged and the doctor smiled up at Ben after giving the throat a quick examination. "A little red, but I agree with your diagnosis, Dr. Cartwrightóójust a common cold. Keep him warm and see he gets plenty of rest."

††††††††††††††† "Iíve been feeding him salt pork and onions," Ben said. "His mother said it was an old Swedish remedy, and it always seemed to help Adam when his throat was sore."

††††††††††††††† Paul chuckled lightly. "I imagine itís the salt that helped, Ben. I sometimes recommend gargling with salt water for a sore throat, but Hoss will probably prefer his motherís medicine."

††††††††††††††† "Itís food," Ben said, as if that explained everything.

††††††††††††††† The doctor gave Hoss a parting pat and stood with a sigh.

††††††††††††††† "Something wrong?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† Paul shook his head. "Just not feeling worth much as a doctor these days. Iíve seen three patients this week and couldnít help one of them."

††††††††††††††† "But Hoss isnít seriously ill, is he?" Ben asked, puzzled.

††††††††††††††† Paul rested an assuring hand on his friendís shoulder. "No, heíll be fine in a few days, and so will the patient I saw earlier this evening. Not because of any help I gave, of course, but that doesnít matter when the situation isnít serious."

††††††††††††††† "You mentioned three patients," Ben probed as he followed the doctor into the front room. "Was the other situation serious?"

††††††††††††††† "Fatal," Dr. Martin murmured softly. "The first patient Iíve lost since settling here."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, Iím sorry," Ben said sympathetically.

††††††††††††††† Paul took a chair. "Yeah, and it makes it harder when the patient is a neighbor, someone you know and care about." Seeing the question in Benís eyes, he answered without being asked. "James Ellis," he said. "Shot himself cleaning his rifle. I did all I could, but a gutshot from short rangeó"

††††††††††††††† "Oh," Ben moaned. "Yeah, thereíd be no way to treat that."

††††††††††††††† "I closed the wound," Paul said, "but heíd lost too much blood by the time I got there. He died about an hour afterwards."

††††††††††††††† "Howís his wife taking it?" Ben asked.

††††††††††††††† "Pretty well," Paul said. "Thanked me for trying to save her husband and started counting her blessings, like having that new baby to carry on his fatherís name."

††††††††††††††† "Brave woman," Ben said admiringly. "Doe she have folks back east she can go to?"

††††††††††††††† "Doesnít plan to," Paul said. "Says this is her home, and sheís not leaving. Plans to take in sewing and washing, maybe do some baking for the miners."

††††††††††††††† "You know, my boys could use some new clothes," Ben mused. "Nelly Thomas usually makes them, but she has enough to do taking care of her own. I think Iíll bring some cloth back from California and see if Mrs. Ellis wonít take on the job."

††††††††††††††† "A kind thought, Ben," Paul smiled. He saw through Benís transparent reasoning at once. Ben Cartwright was just the kind whoíd want to help a young widow and do it in a way that didnít hurt her pride. "Speaking of California, though, are you heading that direction soon?"

††††††††††††††† "In about a week," Ben replied. "You want to send a list of supplies with me?"

††††††††††††††† "I do," Paul said, "including a list of medicines Iíd like you to pick up, if thatís all right."

††††††††††††††† "Itís all right, provided you print it out legibly," Ben smiled. "Iíve seen your writing, my friend, and I have no intention of deciphering your scrawl for some poor apothecary."

††††††††††††††† "Iíll print it in big block letters," Dr. Martin laughed. "Now, whatís for dinner?"

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Ben looked thoughtfully at the signboard announcing Ghirardelliís Fine Chocolates above the store across the street. Might make a nice gift to take Camilla Larrimore, Ben mused. Not that his friend from the overland journey couldnít buy all the candy she wanted now, especially here in San Francisco, where she lived. But her husband Lawrence always insisted Ben stay with them when he was in town, and Camilla would appreciate the gesture of courtesy to her as his hostess.

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled. Camilla had started taking on airs ever since Lawrence had built her the grand mansion sheíd always dreamed of back in St. Joseph. Then he chuckled. Be honest, Ben, he scolded himself; Camilla took on airs back then, too. She just didnít have the money to flaunt them in those days. Now she did, and her ambition seemed to be the best of everythingóófor herself, her husband, and especially for her two children. Ben quickly crossed the street and entered the chocolate confectionery.

††††††††††††††† Inside, the florid face and extravagant hand gestures marked the man behind the counter as an Italian. Since the man was busy with another customer, Ben eyed the candy behind the glass counter. So many kinds. At least, they looked different in size and shape, though all were obvious made of chocolate. Ben shook his head in wonderment. Wouldnít Hoss crow with joy if he could see this lavish display? The boyíd never actually eaten chocolates, but Ben knew theyíd meet with Hossís immediate approval. All candy did.

††††††††††††††† The Italian concluded his business with the previous customer and came at once toward Ben, his smile broad, either by natural tendency or business courtesy. The former, Ben decided. "Signor, how may Ghirardelli help you?" the man asked.

††††††††††††††† "Youíre Ghirardelli, the owner?" Ben said. "Pleased to meet you, sir."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, sŪ, signor," the Italian beamed. "Domingo Ghirardelli. You have not been to my shop before?"

††††††††††††††† "No," Ben said. "I live out of the state and havenít had the pleasure. Iím visiting friends and thought I might take a box of chocolates to the lady of the house."

††††††††††††††† "Ah, sŪ, and what kind would you like?"

††††††††††††††† Ben raised his hands in perplexity. "I have no idea what Iím looking at, Signor Ghirardelli, and no idea what the lady would like."

††††††††††††††† "An assortment, then," Ghirardelli suggested. "If you permit, I will make up a box of my especial favorites."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, please," Ben agreed readily. "About a pound, I think."

††††††††††††††† "SŪ, signor," the proprietor said, reaching immediately for a triangular piece of candy. "Since this is your first visit to my establishment, perhaps you would like a sample?"

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded and accepted the chocolate, biting into its creamy, orange-flavored center. "Delicious," he said. "Iím sure my friend will love these, and I may return tomorrow to buy some to take back to Utah with me. They keep well?"

††††††††††††††† "Like any chocolate, they will melt in the heat, signor," Ghirardelli said, "but the weather is cool now. They should travel well. Shall I make up another box for you to pick up tomorrow?"

††††††††††††††† "Yes, like this one, please," Ben said. "Itíll go to an even more special lady." Ghirardelli beamed, his romantic soul clearly putting the wrong cast on Benís words. Ben didnít bother to correct the obvious misconjecture. Nelly Thomas might not be the woman of his heart, but she was the most special lady he knew. She deserved a fine Christmas present like those chocolatesóóand would appreciate them more than Camilla Larrimore, who could have all she wanted any day of the week.

††††††††††††††† Ben enjoyed his stroll through the streets of San Francisco. The town had grown, even since his last visit, but Ben had paid scant attention to the stores before. Now, with all the money heíd made this year from the sheep drive, the trading post and, most recently, the sale of some cattle, Ben felt rich. More than richóóextravagant. For the first time in his life, he could rain gifts on his boys, and he was tempted to buy out the town. He resisted the temptation, though. He had only to look at Lawrence Larrimoreís two children to see what too much too easily obtained did to children, and he had no desire to spoil his own youngsters.

††††††††††††††† Hoss and Adam, however, were good boys, and Santa was going to be good to them this year, unusually good. Ben would, as always, get some of the gifts at Larrimoreís Emporium, in honor of his friendship with the proprietors, but this year he wanted to find the best San Francisco had to offer for his boys. So he was scouting out possibilities today, even though he couldnít make the purchases until he left the Larrimores tomorrow. Better not to let Camilla know he gave his business to anyone else.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Ben grinned happily as he leaned on the railing of the stern-wheeler Eclipse that would carry him northeast to Sacramento. It felt good to be afloat again. A steamer, of course, couldnít compare with the square-rigged ships Ben had sailed on long ocean voyages, but it was, at least, a reminder of those happy times. What Ben would really like to sail was one of those fast clipper ships heíd read about in newspapers from back east. Why, only three years ago the Flying Cloud had made the trip from New York to San Francisco in just eighty-nine days. Imagine that! But the speedy little clippers wouldnít be too useful for travel on western rivers. No, Ben would have to content himself with steamers, probably for the rest of his days.

††††††††††††††† For now, though, this uneventful boat trip was luxury enough for Ben, a far more pleasurable way to travel than following an ox teamóófor an old sea dog, anyway. Ben felt prosperous enough now to afford the fare; heíd even splurged on one of the thirty-dollar cabins. Probably should have saved himself the extra price, though, Ben admitted, since heíd spent the majority of the voyage leaning over the rail, enjoying the scenery floating by and the feel of a deck beneath his feet.

††††††††††††††† The cabin made a good place to leave the overwhelming number of bundles and boxes heíd brought back with him, though. In addition to his sonsí Christmas gifts, thereíd been presents for the Thomases and for his hired hands. The cabin also held Dr. Martinís requested medicines, Ben having felt they would be more readily obtainable in San Francisco than in the smaller towns closer to home. Thankfully, he didnít have to manage the box containing that huge doll Paul had instructed him to purchase for young Sally Martin. Ben had posted it on the steamer to Hawaii, along with a thick letter from her father. Ben knew the letter would brighten Sallyís heart, for Paul had shared its contents, a promise to meet Sally in San Francisco in May and bring her home to live once more with her father.

††††††††††††††† Ben hired a young fellow passenger to help him get his baggage from the steamboat landing on Front Street in Sacramento to the stage depot. Travel in a crowded stage was about as uncomfortable a means of conveyance as Ben had ever experienced, but he had no other way to get to Placerville. Clyde Thomas, who had elected to bypass the annual trip to San Francisco, had agreed to shepherd, with Lupeís help, both his own and Benís wagonload of supplies back to Carson County.

††††††††††††††† In Placerville Ben somehow juggled the packages to the nearby El Dorado Hotel. He decided to try the hotelís dining room rather than walking down the street to Ludmilla Zuebnerís place. If she found out Ben was in town, sheíd insist on boarding him at her house, and Ben hated to be eternally imposing on his friends. Not when he could afford the price of a room. Heíd see Ludmilla tomorrow, for breakfast, at least. Hopefully, the buckboard heíd contracted from local wheelwright John Studebaker would be ready and he could leave for home soon after that.

††††††††††††††† Ben opted for the three-dollar full meal that included rice pudding for dessert. The pudding was excellent, but the rest of the meal made him wish heíd gone to Ludmillaís after all. The food wasnít bad, not bad at all, but it didnít compare to the fare at the Zuebner Cafe.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Ben took his time on the journey home, partly to give the new team heíd purchased at the livery in Placerville time to get used to him and partly to baby them over the rough Sierra roads. The steady emigrant traffic over the years had gradually improved them, but the sharp rocks could still be hard on a horseís tender feet. Ben took his time and skirted every rough spot he could avoid. The snows were holding off, so he was in no hurry.

††††††††††††††† His first stop, once he reached Carson County, was the little community growing up at the mouth of Gold Canyon. He dropped off the fabric heíd purchased for the boysí new clothing with Laura Ellis, who thanked him gratefully for the work. Then heíd made his way to Cosserís boardinghouse, where Paul Martin now made his home.

††††††††††††††† Paul helped him carry the boxes of medical supplies into his room. "I suppose the rest of this is supposed to fit in my quarters, too," Paul snickered, looking at the wagon filled with boxes and barrels.

††††††††††††††† "Not quite all," Ben chuckled. "I at least want to leave Adamís new rifle here, though. He could tell in an instant what that was, just by the shape."

††††††††††††††† "Well, maybe I can disguise it by Christmas," Paul mused.

††††††††††††††† "By his birthday," Ben said. "Heís not getting that rifle until he turns twelve."

††††††††††††††† "You shop early," Paul said.

††††††††††††††† "Have to when you live this far from the stores," Ben pointed out. Despite the encouraging growth of the area, anything beyond basic supplies was still hard to find during the winter months. And the county offered nothing too fancy, even in warm weather. Someday Ben hoped it would be different, that he wouldnít have to plan so far ahead. But that seemed less likely than ever this year. The gold fields in the region were petering out, most miners making no more than five dollars a day at the diggings. With prospects of wealth as slim as that, Ben suspected that few of them would return next spring.

††††††††††††††† Paul somehow made room for all Benís Christmas bundles inside his room, leaving only the three kegs in the buckboard. "Youíll have to make other arrangements next year," Paul advised. "With Sally here with meó"

††††††††††††††† "Here?" Ben asked with an arch of his dark eyebrow. "I think youíre the one who may have to make other arrangements, my friend. You donít want some Benjamin Cole-type snapping her up for a wife, do you?"

††††††††††††††† "Just let them try!" Dr. Martin snorted.

††††††††††††††† Ben grinned and mounted the seat of his wagon. "Well, maybe Adam will take her off your hands before the miners get a good gawk."

††††††††††††††† This time it was Paul Martinís eyebrow that arched disdainfully. "Canít have a rifle until heís twelve," he taunted, "but youíve no scruple against marrying him off early, huh?"

††††††††††††††† Ben laughed. "So far, I donít think any female could attract him as readily as a new book."

††††††††††††††† "Waitíll he gets a Ďgood gawkí at Sally," Paul warned. "He might grow up a lot quicker than you think."

††††††††††††††† Shaking his head, Ben drove away chuckling. He made his way back to the Thomas cabin to unload the three kegs of Zuebner Beer Clyde had requested and to pick up Hoss and Adam.

††††††††††††††† "Sure not much in that new wagon," Adam commented as he helped his father hitch the oxen to the larger one that held their winter supplies. "Thought you went to San Francisco to buy some things."

††††††††††††††† "And you know what kind of things," Ben teased, "so quit prying."

††††††††††††††† "Well, where are they?" Adam inquired.

††††††††††††††† "At the north pole," Ben replied slyly.

††††††††††††††† Adam hid his mouth behind his hand and tittered softly. He couldnít ask, of course, but from what he remembered of last yearís Christmas, he figured the north pole was a lot closer to Gold Canyon than heíd ever thought before.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

As the Cartwrights and the Thomases gathered around the table for their annual Thanksgiving feast, another guest took the place of honor. Clyde and Nelly felt that the preservation of Billyís ornery hide (Clydeís description) was their greatest blessing of the previous year and, among human benefactors, Dr. Paul Martin most merited their thanks.

††††††††††††††† To see Billy that day, however, no one would have believed his well-earned reputation as an ornery nuisance. Having provided the turkey for the meal with his own rifle, Billy beamed with pride and seemed determined to act with grown-up dignity, though Adam, green with envy, called it swelled-headed swaggering. Loud and lavish were the praises heaped on Billyís fiery head as the blue crockery plates were filled and filled again with succulent turkey and savory sage dressing.

††††††††††††††† "Our most traditional Thanksgiving yet," Ben said as he raised his glass of water, "and I propose a toast of gratitude to the fine young hunter who provided it."

††††††††††††††† Paul Martin lifted his glass. "Hurray for Billy!" he announced.

††††††††††††††† Adam lifted his glass grudgingly. "Yeah, hurray," he muttered.

††††††††††††††† "ĎRay, Billy!" Hoss shouted fittingly, for only the three men had consumed more of the bird than he.

††††††††††††††† "Hush," Adam hissed in his brotherís ear, then turned guiltily away from the puzzled frown on Hossís face. Whyíd Billy have to be a year older, anyway? If Adam had had a rifle of his own, he could have been the one reaping in the acclaim. Adam knew what he was feeling wasnít right, though, so he kept his thoughts to himself.

††††††††††††††† "Too bad them men of yourn canít have a feed like this," Clyde taunted.

††††††††††††††† Ben chuckled. "They may not be having turkey, my friend, but I imagine Mrs. Ellis is doing well by them." To express his appreciation for the work his hired men had done, Ben had asked Laura Ellis to prepare a Thanksgiving meal for them. Needing the money, she had gladly accepted, and because Ben was paying for the food, had promised to leave the leftovers, if any. Since Nelly would undoubtedly send food home with him, too, Ben figured he and his sons would eat well for days to come without his doing much cooking on his own.

††††††††††††††† "In fact," Ben continued, smirking at Clyde, "maybe Iíll just have Mrs. Ellis prepare a big meal and have you all at my place for Christmas."

††††††††††††††† "Ben Cartwright! Youíll do nothing of the sort," Nelly scolded hotly. "The day you have to hire a Christmas dinner for me!"

††††††††††††††† "Sorry, Nelly," Ben apologized quickly. "It wasnít your goat I was trying to get."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, well, if itís Clyde youíre aiminí to rile, I reckon I wonít object," Nelly laughed, "so long as you promise to take Christmas dinner here like always."

††††††††††††††† Ben lifted his right hand, palm out. "I promise," he pledged, "though I wish I could return some of the hospitality Iíve enjoyed here so many times."

††††††††††††††† "I know what you mean," Paul said, "but itís hard for a couple of bachelors like us, Ben. Perhaps when my Sally gets here, we can put a meal together with her help."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, are you bringing your girl here?" Nelly asked eagerly. "Iíve been prayiní you would."

††††††††††††††† Paul nodded and told the Thomases what Ben already knew, that Sally would arrive from Hawaii in May. "I got a letter back from her by the last carrier, and sheís thrilled about coming here to live."

††††††††††††††† "Well, of course, she is," Ben said enthusiastically. "Sheís missed her pa."

††††††††††††††† "Yes, thatís what she wrote," Paul agreed. "I donít deserve her love, after the way Iíve treated her, and the fact that I still have it is what Iím most thankful for this year."

††††††††††††††† Ben patted Hossís stomach. "And what are you most thankful for, my boy, as if I didnít know?"

††††††††††††††† Hoss cast an affectionate glance at the sideboard. "Pie!" he shouted and everyone laughed at the totally predictable answer.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† Winter winds blasted Carson County, and though they brought no snow, the weather was bone-biting cold. Nightly songfests, however, warmed the Cartwright cabin or, at least, the hearts of those within it. Benís baritone rang in spirited accompaniment to Adamís guitar, while Hossís lusty, if tuneless, singing demonstrated clearly that he had none of his brotherís gift for music. Nor even his fatherís, Ben admitted ruefully.

††††††††††††††† As December began, Adam started to learn Christmas carols, practicing faithfully whenever he had time to spare from lessons and chores. Heíd been asked to sing and play for the schoolís Christmas program later that month and wanted to do his best. When Ben informed him one night, however, that he couldnít listen to "Joy to the World" one more time, Adam decided to take a break and tackle a second project he had in mind.

††††††††††††††† Heíd tried with limited success to teach Hoss the days of the week a year before. Now Hoss began repeating those same tiresome questions about Santaís arrival, so Adam took down the calendar and made a determined effort to give his little brother some concept of time. Hossís tongue didnít fight the syllables the way it had last year, so within a few days he could rattle off the days of the week and did so incessantly. "Iíd rather hear ĎJoy to the Worldí again," Ben grumbled one night after Hoss had recited Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday for the twelfth time. Adam grinned and obligingly picked up the guitar.

††††††††††††††† When Adam finished playing his four favorite carols, Hoss clapped exuberantly. "Good, Bubba! Play Ďem again."

††††††††††††††† Adam frowned. "Quit calling me Bubba, Hoss," he scolded. "Youíre not a baby any more, and itís time you called me by my name. Now say Adam."

††††††††††††††† "Bubba!" Hoss insisted stubbornly.

††††††††††††††† "NoóóAdam!" the older boy demanded. "Say it!"

††††††††††††††† Hoss wagged his head from side to side.

††††††††††††††† "Doggone it!" Adam shouted. "If you can say a big word like Wednesday, you can say Adam. You mind me!"

††††††††††††††† "Adam," Ben chided softly. "Youíll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar."

††††††††††††††† "Huh?"

††††††††††††††† "Heís not going to respond to your yelling," Ben explained, "and if you keep it up, Iíll give you a response you wonít care for."

††††††††††††††† "Well, what else can I do?" Adam sputtered.

††††††††††††††† "Try giving him a reward," Ben suggested.

††††††††††††††† "We ate the last of the cookies after dinner," Adam moaned, "and foodís all he cares about."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, Adam," Ben laughed, "surely thereís something else he likes."

††††††††††††††† A light sparkled in Adamís dark eyes. "How about a story, Hoss? Would you like that?"

††††††††††††††† Hossís fat chin bounced up and down.

††††††††††††††† "Okay, then, Iíll read you one if you say my name right," Adam offered.

††††††††††††††† Hoss frowned for a moment. He had a feeling he was being tricked, but he couldnít figure out how. Still, a story would be nice. "Read me a story," he said and after a slight hesitation added, "Adam."

††††††††††††††† Adam grinned. "Thatís good boy."

††††††††††††††† "Story now!" Hoss shouted.

††††††††††††††† "Okay, okay, letís go in the bedroom and pick one out," Adam said. Soon the two brothers were seated side by side on Adamís bed as the older boy, by the aid of a coal oil lantern on a shelf between the two beds, read Hossís favorite fables by Aesop. And while Hoss frequently lapsed into the use of "Bubba" during the following days, Adam continued to tempt the little boy with a story or a song or a romp in the woods, and soon Hossís use of his brotherís proper name became habitual.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† "I canít decide which songs to sing," Adam moaned as his father looped the brown string tie around his neck.

††††††††††††††† "Joy to the World!" Hoss cried.

††††††††††††††† Adam shook his head. "No, Hoss; País tired of that."

††††††††††††††† "No, Iím not," Ben laughed, standing back to admire Adam in his brown suit. "Besides, itís the one you practiced most, and it really does sound best, Adam. I think you should definitely treat the folks to that one."

††††††††††††††† "Okay," Adam said, smiling with relief. He really had wanted to sing his favorite. "But what else? Mrs. Mott asked for two, one to open the program and one to end it."

††††††††††††††† "My, my," Ben clucked, "my boy sure is the highlight of this program."

††††††††††††††† Adam beamed; he thought so, too, and he liked feeling important. "Which other song do I sing really well, Pa?" he asked.

††††††††††††††† "Hark Angels," Hoss suggested.

††††††††††††††† "You already picked one," Adam scolded gently. "Let Pa choose now."

††††††††††††††† "Well, you do Hark the Herald Angels real well," Ben mused, "but I think I prefer The First Noel. Why donít you sing that one, Adam?"

††††††††††††††† "Okay, Iíll do that one first," Adam decided, "and save Joy to the World for the end."

††††††††††††††† "Sounds like a good plan," Ben said. "Now, letís get bundled up and on our way. We donít want to be late for such a special night."

††††††††††††††† Every proud parent in Mormon Station and from the homesteads round about crammed into the Mottís old cabin that now served as the community schoolhouse. Adam opened the program with a sweet rendition of The First Noel that won applause from all in the audience.

††††††††††††††† "My, I had no idea Adam was that good," Nelly whispered to Ben, seated just beyond Hoss to her left. She had dressed in her best blue dress edged with ivory lace and, despite the cool weather, had draped the light mantilla Billy had given her across her shoulders.

††††††††††††††† "Wait Ďtil you hear his other song," Ben whispered back. "Itís even better."

††††††††††††††† "Shh!" Inger, on her motherís lap, urged, her finger to her lips. "Billy gonna talk."

††††††††††††††† Ben nodded solemn acceptance of the little girlís mild reproof and focused his attention on Billyís recitation of a holiday reading about a naughty boy who found nothing but lumps of coal in his stocking Christmas morning. Everyone who knew the impulsive redhead considered the choice most appropriate. As the reading concluded, Clyde leaned around Nelly. "You got any coal lumps I can borrow for a certain stocking?" he asked Ben. Nelly thrust a sharp elbow in his side.

††††††††††††††† Each child presented a poem, story or verse of Scripture. The younger ones, of course, spoke very brief pieces, but the older students amazed their parents with the lengthy recitations they had memorized. Ben was perhaps most surprised when Adam flawlessly quoted A Visit from St. Nicolas by Clement Moore, for the boy had deliberately kept his choice secret.

††††††††††††††† Thunderous applause of appreciation greeted Eliza Mott as she stood before the assembled parents and friends of her students. Wearing her best black satin dress, unadorned except for a little white frill at the neck, she smiled. "Weíre not finished yet," she said, "but we will have a short intermission while the children get into costume for their version of the Christmas story. Theyíve dramatized this all by themselves, and Iím sure youíll find it quite unlike any Christmas pageant youíve ever seen."

††††††††††††††† "Iím sure of that," Ben chuckled, turning to Nelly. "What part is Billy playing?"

††††††††††††††† "Lands, I donít know," Nelly tittered. "The boyís turned shy on me. Wonít say a word about what heís doiní."

††††††††††††††† Ben arched an eyebrow. The idea of Billyís turning shy was too ludicrous to contemplate. No one else would have believed it either after the youngsterís boisterous portrayal of the innkeeper. Even Adam, acting the part of Joseph, was caught off guard when the innkeeper knocked him to the ground in answer to his request for shelter. They hadnít rehearsed that part! With a warning glint in his eye, Adam stood and went on with his lines as though nothing unexpected had happened. The innkeeperóóafter an ad-lib monologue, in which he paced and pondered what to do with these unwanted guestsóófinally relented and allowed young Joseph to escort his visibly pregnant wife to the stable.

††††††††††††††† And there, with a couple of cutely costumed lambs bleating in the background, the Child Jesus somehow appeared in the manger. As the little Mary held a blanket-swaddled doll up for the audience to see, Adam, still costumed as Joseph, drew his guitar from behind a bale of hay and sang an exuberant conclusion to the schoolís first Christmas program. Everyone joined in on the choruses, as if they, too wished to express the joy that come into their hearts while they watched this retelling of the story that never grows old.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† The next week found Ben Cartwright busily trying to sandwich in preparations for Christmas between the necessary work of the ranch. Heíd spoken to Laura Ellis after the school program about once again providing a holiday dinner for his workers. She had agreed, provided the meal could be served other than on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. Those, she explained, she wanted to observe at home with her baby.

††††††††††††††† Ben had readily accepted her conditions and decided on Saturday, the twenty-third, as the best date. Then, determined to provide something other than beef for the party, Ben had gone hunting. Unlike Billy, he didnít flush a turkey, for they were rare in the region, but he did manage to shoot enough sage grouse to feed everyone in the bunkhouse.

††††††††††††††† Ben decided to invite Paul Martin to dinner that night, too, so he and Adam set up two rough plank tables, one for the hired hands and the second for the family and their other guests, Adam having begged permission to have Billy come. The tables, of course, had to be outside since there wasnít room for that many people in the cabin, but Ben planned a big bonfire. That would keep everyone warm enough unless it snowed. If it did, theyíd all just have to crowd into the house and probably eat in two shifts. Not a pleasant prospect, so Ben hoped the weather continued as fair as it had been thus far.

††††††††††††††† Stars shone in a cloudless sky Saturday night as the guests gathered for the celebration. Everyone took their places, Ben shaking hands with each man as he arrived and giving him an envelope containing his weekís pay, along with a silk neckerchief as a token of appreciation. The wide smiles which greeted the gifts assured Ben that no one, with the possible exception of Jean DíMarigny, had ever owned a bandanna quite so elegant.

††††††††††††††† Hoss had been perched in his chair ready to eat from the moment the first dish was set on the table. Finally, everyone expected had arrived and the others joined him, Paul giving the youngster an affectionate pat on the head as he seated himself to Hossís left. "I know I can trust you to show me whatís good," Paul chuckled.

††††††††††††††† "All good," Hoss assured him. The only experience heíd had with Laura Ellisís cooking had been the leftovers from the Thanksgiving meal, but theyíd been tasty and this looked even betteróóespecially the pumpkin and custard pies.

††††††††††††††† Paul tickled the boyís well-padded ribs. "Tell me, Hoss, is there any food you donít think is good?"

††††††††††††††† Hossís face screwed up as he spat out "Liver!"

††††††††††††††† "Well, it is good for you, of course," Paul said, catching Benís nod of approval out of the corner of his eye. Then he leaned close to Hossís ear. "But I donít like it either," he whispered. Hoss grinned.

††††††††††††††† "ĎCourse this ainít as good as turkey," Billy announced from across the table, "but sage grouse makes mighty fine eatiní, and these look prime, Ďmost as good as my ma would make."

††††††††††††††† "A left-handed compliment if ever I heard one," Ben commented dryly.

††††††††††††††† From the foot of the table opposite Ben, Mrs. Ellis laughed. "Every boy thinks his own motherís cooking is the best there is." She smiled gently at Billy. "I know thatís just the way I hope my boy will feel."

††††††††††††††† "Heíd have reason," Billy said, having taken his first bite of the bird. "This is as good as it looked."

††††††††††††††† "Sure is, maíam," Adam said.

††††††††††††††† Hossís face held an unusually thoughtful expression. "My ma cook good?" he asked Adam.

††††††††††††††† "The best," Adam replied emphatically.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, she did good," Billy acknowledged. "A lot like my ma."

††††††††††††††† "Better," Adam insisted. "All you ever ate was her trail cooking, but when we were at home, Inger made the best meals you ever tasted."

††††††††††††††† "Adam," Ben chided softly. "Itís not polite to brag."

††††††††††††††† Adam shrugged. He couldnít understand why it was wrong to brag up his mother (Hossís, really) when Billy had sung Aunt Nellyís praises to the sky without anyoneís scolding him for the loud-mouthed braggart he was. Adam decided to try a safer approach. "Remember that Swedish Christmas dinner she fixed, Pa? Wasnít that special?"

††††††††††††††† Ben smiled in fond remembrance. "Yeah, real special." He looked down the table at Laura Ellis. "Our last Christmas together my wife prepared traditional holiday foods from her country. Very unusual."

††††††††††††††† "I donít know anything about Swedish cooking," Laura said. "Do you remember what she fixed?"

††††††††††††††† "Well, there was a corned pork roast," Ben said. "It took ten days to prepare and it was unforgettable. Then there was sauerkraut cooked with onions, apples and brown sugar."

††††††††††††††† "And pork, Pa," Adam added. "There was pork in it, too."

††††††††††††††† "Thatís right," Ben nodded, remembering. "And split peas with bacon and caramelized potatoes and some kind of fish."

††††††††††††††† "Lutfisk, Pa," Adam inserted. "Donít you remember?"

††††††††††††††† "Not as well as you, evidently," Ben laughed.

††††††††††††††† "It was swimming in cream sauce," Adam continued.

††††††††††††††† "That donít sound good at all," Billy declared.

††††††††††††††† "Well, it was!" Adam snapped.

††††††††††††††† "Boys, boys," Ben said, "neither of your mothers would approve of this behavior." Adam and Billy looked at each other quickly and nodded in agreement. It was too close to Christmas to get caught acting up.

††††††††††††††† "I can see why you remember that meal," Laura said brightly to dispel the sudden silence. "Iíve never heard of such dishes. IóI donít suppose your wife left the receipts, Mr. Cartwright."

††††††††††††††† Ben shook his head. "I donít think she ever wrote them downóójust carried them in her memory."

††††††††††††††† "And the cookies!" Adam cried. "Oh, she made good cookies."

††††††††††††††† Ben started to caution Adam about starting up the controversy again, but before he could speak, Hoss looked wistfully at his brother. "Ma made cookies?" he asked. "Like Aunt Nelly?"

††††††††††††††† Ben quickly reached out to brush his fingers through the boyís fair hair. "Yeah, good ones," he said softly, regretting the boyíd never had a chance to taste them. Adam might remember Inger, but this boy had no memories of his mother, and that seemed to Ben an incomparable loss.

††††††††††††††† "IóI wish she was here," Hoss murmured.

††††††††††††††† "Yeah, so do I, Hoss," Ben said, his voice barely audible. Like Laura before him, he smiled suddenly to keep the party from being bogged down with sentiment. "Better eat up," he cautioned Hoss, "if you plan on having pie."

††††††††††††††† That night, though, after the guests had gone home and the boys were in bed, Ben sat in the rocking chair by the fire, staring at his second wifeís picture. This was supposed to be a season of joy, and heíd make it one for the boys, of course; but tonight all he felt was loneliness. He missed Inger, and if he let his thoughts wander further back, heíd be missing Elizabeth, too.

††††††††††††††† Tonight, however, Hossís plaintive words echoed in Benís heart and made him think of Inger. Deep words theyíd been for such a little lad. Oh, it was probably cookies Hoss was really wishing for, but maybe it did go deeper than that. Maybe it was mothering the boy craved and cookies just symbolized that for him. Maybe Iím wrong to deprive him of a mother because I canít bear the thought of marrying again, Ben mused.

††††††††††††††† For a moment he thought of Laura Ellis, left to make her way in the world without a mate, her baby boy left without a father. It was a match that made sense, but you couldnít form a union based on mutual need, could you? Well, maybe. Ben had heard of successful marriages starting just that way, but such a coupling wasnít for him. Having been blessed twice with deeply loving relationships, he wasnít willing to settle for one of convenience. And as fine as woman as Laura Ellis was, he simply wasnít in love with her. Nor she with him, more than likely.

††††††††††††††† Ben stood and set Ingerís picture back on the mantel. He touched his index finger to his lips, then to her portrait, then kissed Elizabeth in the same way. "Merry Christmas, my loves," he whispered and headed for bed, more convinced than ever that he would never again know a womanís closeness.

* * * * *

††††††††††††††† "Canít you hurry him up?" Adam complained, frowning at Hoss, who was taking far more time eating his oatmeal than Adam considered needful. "I want to see Billy."

††††††††††††††† "Oh, my, yes," Ben scoffed. "Itís been almost twenty-four hours since he left here, so I can well understand the urgency, Adam." Billy had spent the night after the Christmas party and hadnít left until mid-morning of the next day.

††††††††††††††† "But, Pa, itís Christmas," Adam moaned. "I want to hear what he got."

††††††††††††††† "And brag about your own gifts. I know," Ben laughed, "but weíre not leaving until your brother finishes his breakfast."

††††††††††††††† "Come on, Hoss," Adam wheedled. "Thereíll be more presents at the Thomases. Want more toys, Hoss boy?"

††††††††††††††† Hossís spoon paused in mid-air. "More toys," he agreed cheerfully just before popping the spoon in his mouth. "Breakfast first, Adam," he mumbled. "Then more toys."

††††††††††††††† Ben roared with laughter as he reached over to run affectionate fingers through his younger sonís wheat-colored hair. "Sounds like you know whatís really important, boy; your brother here seems to have forgotten."

††††††††††††††† Adam rolled his eyes. "Itís Christmas," he repeated as if that one fact made his impatience logical.

††††††††††††††† "Take your time, Hoss," Ben chuckled. "Give your food plenty of time to digest. Greedy britches here can just wait for Ďmore toys.í"

††††††††††††††† Adam frowned. Toys, indeed! As if thatís what he really wanted. Of course, the chemical cabinet heíd found beneath the tree this morning with its pint-sized powders and potions was obviously meant for children, not real scientists, but Adam considered it more a learning tool than a toy. And his new books couldnít be considered toys either; Moby Dick and Ivanhoe were both bound to have plenty of hard words. So Pa was seeing him as somewhat grown up. Obviously not enough, though, or Adam would have received what heíd so earnestly wished for. Sighing, he propped his elbows on the table and watched his poky brother lick every grain of cereal from his spoon.

††††††††††††††† Hoss eventually finished his breakfast, and while Ben quickly cleaned up the dishes, Adam saddled their horses. The boy raced his sorrel mare ahead with Hoss holding on for dear life, while Ben, gifts tied behind his saddle, trotted at a more leisurely pace. Galloping up to the cabin, Adam helped Hoss slide down, then vaulted from the saddle.

††††††††††††††† Billy rushed outdoors to greet them. "Did you get it?" he whispered.

††††††††††††††† Adam shook his head grimly.

††††††††††††††† "Aw, shucks!" Billy commiserated. "I was aiminí on askiní my pa to take us huntiní tomorrow."

††††††††††††††† "Well, my pa spoiled that," Adam muttered. He planned to straighten up his face by the time Ben arrived, however. No matter how disappointed he was at not finding a shiny rifle beneath the tree, Adam wouldnít have dreamed of revealing his shattered hopes. Paíd been too good to him for that.

††††††††††††††† "Well, come on in and see my loot," Billy suggested. "It was my biggest Christmas ever."